Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Dots Are Starting to Connect

I lamented in a previous blog post about how I have spent a lot of time racking my brain, trying to figure out what the purpose of my time in London last year was.  I referenced Steve Jobs who said, "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.  So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future.  You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever."   Consequently, when I went back to London last month for a couple of weeks, I decided to not overanalyze and over plan, and just do what I was drawn to do each day.  One of those days, I took pictures of the Tower of London and then walked across Tower Bridge to get to Borough Market.

As I walked through the heart of the gritty Bermondsey neighborhood, I wandered down one small, curving street after another -- hopeful that I was still basically headed in the direction of Borough Market.  I ran into a little pub on a corner and started taking some photos of it.  As I was moving around, getting different angles of the pub -- I spotted a van parked on the street and saw that inside the van were shelves full of books.

I walked over to the van, and it turns out it was a mobile library run by Quakers.  I started talking to Simon, one of the men who ran the mobile library, and he told me that they made a couple of runs each week.  That morning they were serving the Manna Centre, a nonprofit that provides food and resources for homeless people.  While I was talking to Simon, I noticed a man observing our conversation.

After I ended the conversation with Simon, the other man introduced himself -- David -- and asked if I wanted to walk with him for a couple of minutes to go see a nearby urban garden that had a little shared, "honor" library in it.  He told me the name of the garden, but I couldn't quite understand him.  Now, I know many of you may be thinking -- stranger danger! -- but here's the thing, I am confident in my gut feelings about whether I can trust people or not.  And I felt sure about my gut feeling to trust David, and I felt drawn to go see this urban garden with him.

As David and I walked to the garden, I asked him about his life.  I don't feel comfortable retelling it here -- as it's his private story -- but needless to say, he has had a great many disadvantages in his life.  And yet now, he is firmly back on his feet.  I found myself asking him, "But how did you get back up on your feet?  People who have gone through much lesser challenges can't get back up on their feet?"  He responded quietly, kindly, "The thing is, when most people say, 'I can't,' what they mean is is, 'I won't.'"

As we got closer to the garden, David told me more about it -- that it had been a dilapidated cut-through in a less than desirable area, but that a group of people and organizations, including well known architects and gardeners, had transformed it into a shared garden space.  I asked him to repeat the name of it -- and he said it was called, "Gibbons Rent."  The name sounded familiar but I couldn't quite place it.

When we came to the garden, David walked me through it and pointed to the parts that he had contributed and the pieces he had built himself.  As we were leaving the garden, I realized that when I was in London last year -- I had attended a panel discussion at the British Library about gardens in the Georgian era.  One of the speakers on the panel was a world renowned landscape gardener named Sarah Eberle, and she talked about how she had used gardens as a tool to revitalize urban areas.  One of her projects had been Gibbons Rent. I watched David walk back to the Manna Centre, and I smiled to myself.  Because I knew the dots were starting to connect.

Friday, September 26, 2014

London Through Her Eyes

Last month, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in London, and whenever I'm there, it's hard for me to not think about my mom. I wandered around the Bloomsbury neighborhood.  In and out of little, locally owned shops.  A gourmet deli.  A home goods shop.  A small bookstore.  I know if my mom had been with me, she would have gone on and on about E.M Forster and Virginia Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, and as I thumbed through the small bookstore, I longed to hear what she thought about the authors represented there -- Ruth Adam, Katherine Mansfield, Winifred Peck and more.

She would have loved having tea at The Goring.  She would have admonished me to sit up straighter.  But she also would have delighted in the waiter's Scottish accent and his description of the crayfish salad as "the Queen Mother's favorite."

She would have made sure that we allotted an entire afternoon to shop at the Liberty London department store.  She would have gone straight to the haberdashery department and would have smiled with child-like glee at all the fabrics and buttons and ribbons.

She would have grown quiet in St. Paul's Cathedral as she looked at the Honour Roll -- a book that honors Americans who were killed on their way to or were stationed in Great Britain during World War II.  Each day a member of St. Paul's clergy turns the page so that a new set of names can be displayed.  I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my mom cry, but I know she would have teared up after viewing the book.  But she's not here to see the book or the tea or the fabrics.  So instead, in one of the Cathedral's private chapels, I light a candle for her.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Guest Editor

Essay for Cooking II, Johnson County Community College, 11/06/06
by Lyn Foister

Kitchen staffs invariably work in small quarters against hot stoves and ovens.  They are under constant pressure to prepare meals quickly, while ensuring quality is maintained and safety and sanitation guidelines are observed.  -- U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2006

Don't be a fuddy-duddy with your hollandaise; be bold, dunk your pretzels in it!  -- Miss Piggy

By training, and by natural inclination, I am an editor.  I have edited everything from stories about county sewer board meetings to profiles of the spouses of potential presidential candidates.  I've worked with writers and reporters who struggled to put two facts together in a comprehensible sentence to those who could (and later did) win awards for their work.

Although an editor finds true joy in working with accomplished writers, the joy is no less when working with writers who can barely find their way to the next split infinitive.  For an editor, tightening the story, refining and putting the words and facts in a logical and concise order toward a product that brings "the reader into the story screaming" is an almost tactile experience.

Cooking, whether described by Julia Child or by the 18-year-old standing next to you in cooking class, has the same feel.

Cooking is the most tactile of professions.  You wash, you chop, you dice.  You combine all those preparations in a way that brings forth enticing smells and golden colors and flavors you could only have imagined.  Even as you learn fundamentals, you learn to refine, to tweak, to master that special technique that at first seemed beyond your reach.  Oh, the joy when you find that caramelizing onions is almost second nature, or when you can form a mental picture of mise en place simply by scanning a recipe.

In the kitchen, you can see the raw materials form a whole.  You can see the parts of the puzzle fit together.  You can go from an onion, a little asparagus, some rice and cheese to a meltingly delicious risotto.  Unlike the puzzle, though, there is room to move, there is room to take a chance.  Would some tiny mushrooms make a nice companion to those thin stalks of spring asparagus?  What about another kind of cheese?  With practice you learn what the answers might be.

It is true that most of this creation takes place over hot stoves in crowded real estate.  It's hot, it's noisy, you can't sit down, there's not enough time, who moved my eggs, is a bit of yolk in the whites...did the recipe say oregano, or was it mint?  Gosh.  Where could you have more fun?

Don't get me wrong.  The cooking principles, and the students who study them, are serious.  But I believe it is the wow factor that keeps most of us in the kitchen.  Wow, I did it.  Wow, that looks good. Wow, that tastes good.  Wow, they liked it!

It is like a good story.  At first, you can only write a simple sentence, subject and verb.  Then you can add an adjective or two, then a little phrase that describes the scene, then some dialogue that gives your reader a clue about an unusual character.  And, finally, if you're lucky and you work hard, you have Hemingway's true sentence.  Or to translate to culinary terms, good food, well prepared.

And like a good story, a cook sees a definite flow.  There's the beginning -- how could these spices and this meat and this cooking method go together to make a good dish?  It has a middle -- perhaps it needs a bit more salt or cooked a little longer.  And, of course, an end -- once again, good food, well prepared.

Take Miss Piggy's hollandaise.  It's just a few egg yolks and butter, after all, with a few special touches here and there.

Of course, if you described to any sane person how hollandaise is made -- whip the egg yolks over water till they're thick (how thick? how long did you say this takes?) add lemon juice (lemon juice? oh yes, stops the eggs from cooking), did you really say to drizzle in melted, clarified butter and stir and hold the bowl (stainless steel, please) over a pan, all at the same time (what? I need a towel, too?), how's that again? drizzle and stir and hold the bowl? -- they would wonder why all the bother.

Julia Child once described it this way: "Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet."

So step back and take a look at the hollandaise.  A sauce the color of fresh butter.  Frothy and light.  Then take a taste.  Who could ask for anything better?  And who would want to be anything but the cook who could prepare such a hollandaise?  Good food, well prepared.

Good enough to dunk your pretzel in it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

I Could Have Been an Axe Murderer

One time during my time in London, I went out to the English countryside and visited the Queen’s personal residence at Sandringham.  After I finished the tour, I hopped on an afternoon train back to London and as the doors were closing, I heard a voice call out, “Is this train going to London?”  I turned around, nodded reassuringly and said yes.  The two women, Darlene and Susan, were around my mother’s age, looked relieved and sat down across the aisle from me.

I started up a conversation with them – because let’s be honest, I’ll talk to a wall.  But also because, even in an English speaking nation, it was nice to talk to someone from America.  They told me that they were visiting Darlene’s daughter who was studying abroad in London and making a girl’s trip out of it.  They asked me what I was doing in London, and I said quite frankly, that I didn’t know.  We started talking about our families, and it became clear my parents were no longer living and then I said, “I’m in London because I just needed some time and some space.” 

As we got off the train, Darlene invited me to dinner with them that evening – to meet her daughter who was studying abroad and the other woman with whom they were traveling, Mary Alice.

I went to dinner with them that evening and met Mary Alice and a couple of days later, visited Windsor Castle with them.  As we parted ways, we talked about me visiting them in Philadelphia after I got back from London.  Darlene offered for me to stay in her house.  I have to admit, it is not in my personality to take someone up on that kind of offer if I don’t know them incredibly well.  But something in me said to just do it. 

A couple months later in January, I visited them in Philadelphia.  Susan and Darlene picked me up at the airport.  They had made dinner for me when we got back to Darlene’s house – a rustic and delicious cauliflower soup. The next day, Mary Alice and Susan came over to Darlene’s house and we set off exploring museums and historic houses during the day.  That evening we had a charming dinner at a restaurant on Rittenhouse Square.

On the way back from dinner, we all joked about how I didn’t know Darlene terribly well before this trip and yet I was staying at her house and for all she knew I could have been an axe murderer.   Darlene laughed and said, “I knew it would be fine.”

When Darlene and I got back to her house, we sat at her kitchen table and started looking at pictures from her family’s travels over the years.  I came across some photos of when Darlene looked to be about my age.  In the picture, she was in Greece sitting next to her now husband.  I asked Darlene about the trip and she began to tell me how she had a somewhat similar situation as me when she was my age – with parents being sick and needing to get away.  And so she too took a trip around the world.

A few months after that, I received an email from Darlene that she was coming to Kansas City for a work conference and could we get together.  Of course I said yes and we had a wonderful dinner catching up at Westside Local.

I still marvel at Darlene’s invitation on the train.   That generosity of spirit.  Of knowing me for only a couple of hours and saying come meet us for dinner tonight.  Come meet my daughter.  Come to a West End show with us tomorrow night.  Come to Windsor Castle with us the next day.  Well, it’s a generosity of spirit I hope to carry with me forever.

*Check out Darlene, Susan and Mary Alice’s Etsy shop: Eva, Elsie and Ella