Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shrimp for the Land-locked

Before bad financial times, I traveled spring and fall to the Gulf Coast. St. George Island. Cape San Blas. Cedar Key. Fairhope. Fort Morgan. I bought my shrimp at Billy's Seafood and from the Dall's truck and at Robinson's Seafood. This shrimp, except for Royal Reds, was straight off the boat and never frozen. The best one can buy. And superb eating. Between trips, I never bought shrimp.

Yet life changes, and the shrimp lover who cannot travel south will have to compromise. I began buying bagged frozen shrimp this past fall.I prefer it to the previously frozen, now thawed shrimp on ice. I have tried both frozen wild caught from the Gulf, and farmed shrimp from Asia. I bought my seafood at one of the better grocery chains in Nashville. And it pains me to write, because it is so counterintuitive, that the farmed shrimp was better. It came de-veined and passed the sniff test. It was sweet and juicy.

When I opened the bag of wild shrimp I smelled lost time. I washed them, then sauteed them in butter, clam juice, and cream. They still had a whiff to them. They were rubbery and tasteless. So I tried another bag. These were worse. They smelled rotten after I thawed them. But my porch possum did not turn up his nose at them.

I do not like food sauced with guilt, and so much of our food comes covered with it.
That includes farmed shrimp, which are accused of harboring antibiotics and chemicals and of ruining mangrove swamps. Yet look what has happened in our American Mediterranean- the Gulf of Mexico. Are our wild caught shrimp pristine? What has oil sludge done to them? And what will happen when radioactive waste rains down on sea and land, as it is already doing?

I am an agnostic, but I do believe that this is a fallen world. Look at the past year. Horrific flooding in this city-. of homes where homes should never have been. The Gulf oil spill. The contamination of Japan.

Weighty, forlorn thoughts , brought on by a bag of shrimp.

The Judge Cooks a Squirrel

The Junior League of Baton Rouge has a chapter in its "River Road Recipes II" called "How Men Cook". Its expert on squirrels is a Judge Fred A Blanche,Jr.

"I prefer young, tender gray squirrels over all other game", writes the Judge, and he includes a recipe for a brown gravy that he serves with it.

Perhaps the Judge's family liked squirrel as well, but I imagine that when the judge cooked it, it was in the company of other men deep in those woman-free havens of the fish camp and the hunting lodge. Men need a place away from women. That is why there are Moose Halls.

"Cut the squirrels into serving sized pieces", writes the Judge. I will have to take him on faith, since I am having trouble seeing how many pieces one squirrel could end up in. I doubt that tail or those ears have much meat on them. And would not the legs be tough from all that skittering and jumping? But perhaps the Judge and his companions find that his Milk Punch (half a gallon of ice cream, 1 quart of milk, a fifth of bourbon) makes any meal taste better.

I picture the Judge and his friends lakeside at Reelfoot Lake. I ,in fact, know of one male hideout there on Blue Basin Road. Someone who knows told me that this house is a club for rich city men who need to get away. I can see attorneys and doctors, and judges standing on its porch drinking how ever much they want and smelling squirrel or catfish sizzling in a 12 inch cast iron skillet. And maybe after dinner the men will play cards and dream out loud about well-trained retrievers and duck season.

Meanwhile, back at home, Mrs.Judge is enjoying her husband less time. Now she can go out with a friend to see a movie their husbands would hate. Or go to dinner by herself. Freedom for him is freedom for her.

I feel sorry for the sexes these days. We are too much in one another's company. I cringe when I hear a man telling people that "We" are pregnant. I squirm thinking of husbands in the delivery room. I wager most of them would rather be somewhere-anywhere-else. So I begrudge no man his lodge, his privacy, his fishing buddies, and his fried squirrel cut into serving size pieces and served forth on good old paper plates.

Monday, March 21, 2011

First Day of Spring

Gardeners define weeds as "plants out of place", and the purple robe spread over this field is one of our worst weeds- the Henbit. Obnoxious and ineradicable in lawn and garden, but a different plant entirely in an open field under a warm March sun. It is annual. It will soon yellow and mildew and die, and leave behind seeds by the millions. It is always in full bloom on the first day of spring.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Visit to Nashville's West End

Let this city's rich have their ostentatious and empty-looking houses in Belle Meade and Forest Hills. Sensible and smart people will prefer the smaller, more human neighborhoods of the West End with its historic homes and its beckoning sidewalks.

I took these photos on Whitland this past Friday. A friend and I drove down to an estate sale on that street, and it was a joy to be in a real neighborhood. The sale was in one of the larger, two story houses. We entered through the back, walking by Lenten Roses and Bergenia in bloom.

Only half the house was open. Next Friday the rest of it will be, and since that includes the kitchen, I will be returning. The estate belonged to a woman who had owned an art gallery. Her taste was relentlessly contemporary. I prefer the antique, and though the paintings and pottery and baskets did not appeal to me, I was stunned by the excellence of her library. For this woman and her husband were Readers. Books to the ceilings, covering the walls, inside the cabinets. Books on Judaism, on Tennessee history, novels by Bellow, Pym, Mailer,Cheever,Roth, Malamud. A study of the American character by Max Lerner. Biography, politics, coffee table books about Nantucket and country inns and Currier and Ives. And the art books- a small fortune's worth of books about Spanish Art,the Prado, Vermeer, the Impressionists, and five hundred years of Mexican art. And the estate sale people assure me there are hundreds of books in the other half of the house.

Many of the books came from the now closed Davis-Kidd Booksellers. And ironically, only a few days ago Borders, down by Vanderbilt, announced it was closing. The Borders in Brentwood is staying open, but the only stores left in the city are Books-a-Million in West Nashville and McKay's on Charlotte. And I must here confess I never went inside Borders, and I abandoned Davis-Kidd when it relocated to the Green Hills Mall. I avoided that mall's gridlock by clicking on Amazon.

And perhaps the day is coming when there will be no more bookshelves and no more book marks. We will read on a screen and perhaps be happy that we have less dusting to do. And what sad places our homes will become. For the soul of this house on Whitland was in its books, and in the humane and literate couple who lived there.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Estate Sale Cookbooks

I do not expect to find Julia Child or Richard Olney at Nashville estate sales, for either the heirs made away with them or the departed never owned them. I do expect diabetic cookbooks and weight loss cookbooks, but I am not interested in them. I want the Ladies' Auxillary ring binder cookbooks. Recipe collections from the United Methodist Church in Belle Meade. Anything the Junior League feels fit to print. He, or she, who comes upon "Charleston Receipts", "Nashville Seasons", or "The Cotton Country collection" has found a cookbook worth taking home. You shall never want for casseroles, and they will be the best that ever weighted down a sideboard-

Consider the two books pictured here.

"Doin' the Charleston", from 1982, is a tribute to that city's restaurants. If that was all this book was, it would be dated. How many restaurants live for thirty years? But this book has line drawings, and bits of history. And even better- a recipe for "Casserole of Drunken Fishes". French fish drink white wine, but in the South when fish drink, they pour themselves a bourbon. Happy swimming for the lobster, flounder, clams, snapper, and 8 shrimp in this recipe. This little book by Molly Heady Sillers was a bargain for two dollars.

"Tastes of Lace" is a book of recipes from the Ladies' Association for Christian Education in Atlanta. Its previous owner baptized it with butter and cheese bits - all over the appetizer section and the cheese ball and wieners in plum jelly recipes. It was a well loved book. Again, Two dollars. Yet what I like best are the first two lines of the homespun poem on the first page. Doggerel is no stranger to community cookbooks. Someone has always shoe-horned in a verse. But this is different:

"They talk about a woman's sphere

As though it had a limit".

Yeats could not have said it better.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Quote and a Poetic Fragment

" I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds".- Robert J Oppenheimer, who worked on the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Not forever on earth: only a little while here.

Although it be jade, it will be broken.

Although it be gold, it is crushed.

Although it be quetzel feather, it is torn asunder.

Not forever on earth; only a little while here.

The poem above was by the Aztec poet-king Nezahualcoyotl, quoted by Robert H Gore in his book "The Gulf of Mexico".

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Estate Sale Diaries-

Although I had worked all night, I went to an estate sale last Friday morning. It was a modest sale, though there were dealers there for the furniture, which must have been valuable. I rarely look at furniture. My apartment is small, and even if I wanted something new I would not be able to carry it away. I look at kitchen wares, linens, prints and paintings, glassware, and garden ornaments. And the cookbooks. Always the cookbooks.

I always hope that the late owner was a traveler. A person who might pick up small local landscapes while on holiday in France or Mexico. Or even at craft fairs closer to home,for I am partial to the earnest work of amateurs.

And I also love old napkins and tea towels and tablecloths. Few buy them, since no one wants to iron, but what cachet they will add to a table-

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dodging the Raindrops- March 9

The blue flower carpet is Veronica persica, a spring annual that emigrated to the US from Eurasia. I found it today at Percy Warner Park. The common name for it is Bird's Eye Speedwell.

The woods are on the western edge of Percy Warner Park's Steeplechase course. I explored them some years back and found trenches and depressions running parallel to the slope. Who dug them? See the hills in the distance- The Battle of Nashville was fought on this side of them. Not more than 2 miles from where I was standing. Remember that the Union Army was in the city, and the Confederates under General John Bell Hood were trying to win it back. I would wager the Rebels dug these trenches.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Two Otters on the Harpeth River

The dogs and I went over to Edwin Warner Park today to see if we could find some Spring Peepers in the damp places in the fields along the Little Harpeth River. We took the paved footpath behind the Ensworth School, and walked along the Little Harpeth towards the Harpeth River. The two rivers join just east of the green trestle bridge that carries Highway 100 over the Harpeth. It was a quiet walk. No spring peepers and only one red-winged blackbird calling. We had just crossed over a metal footbridge when we startled an otter who had some business on the field side of the road. He ran for the river bank, and was gone. We had not gone another 25 feet before another otter ran from the field edge. I have never seen an otter along this river, and I have walked along it for 30 years. I have seen them at Radnor Lake. They sprawl on the logs at the water's edge along Otter Creek Road. I have also seen them in West Tennessee in the sloughs along the levees that line the Mississippi. I watched one play for ten minutes once. Then he saw me.

The closest I have ever been to one was at Cape San Blas in Florida. My rental had a private pier out into St Joseph Bay, and the otter and I were competing for blue crabs. Every day my two traps were empty. And then one morning I surprised him as he lay on the lower step of the dock. He was crunching a crab that I had trapped for him. I left the traps in a few more days, but he always beat me, for he had the home field advantage.

These Harpeth otters were not in a remote place. The Ensworth playing fields come down to the path, and on the other side of the river live people in the big fat brick houses that Williamson County specializes in. This path is so crowded on weekends that I won't go there. Runners run four abreast and ten behind, and as far as they are concerned everyone else has to walk in the weeds. But today was a quiet day. Rain was on the way, and I saw only one man on a bike. I guess the otters thought that they at last had the place to themselves.

Evening in the Tee-Tiny Kitchen.

Two walks yesterday, and my gentleman companions are tired. We walked at Edwin Warner Park looking for wildflowers, then around the apartments last evening to see if we could hear the Spring Peeper frogs singing from the damp places. The flowers we found. The peepers, if there were any, were drowned out by the humming of heat pumps on a chill evening. And by the traffic on Highway 100 and the Lifeflight helicopters overhead. How far must we go in this world to get away from the sounds of our machines?

Earliest Buttercups and Spring Beauties.

This earliest of buttercups carpets the grass around the picnic tables at Nashville's Edwin Warner Park. It is one of our first spring flowers, but I have never seen it anywhere other than the floodplain of the little Harpeth River. Its rosette of leaves hugs the ground and the flowers rise no more than 4 inches above them. I have looked in Jack Carman's indispensable "Wildflowers of Tennessee" and found that this plant may be the Swamp Buttercup-Ranunculus septentrionalis- a plant of the damp bottom lands. I was so overjoyed to see it yesterday for when it blooms winter is on its deathbed. The Spring Beauties were also blooming yesterday, and they are just as welcome. They are the white, starlike flowers in the first photos.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Estate Sale Diaries- continued.

My late benefactress, Mrs H. , who died a year ago, bequeathed me this silk scarf. I bought it for a few dollars at Mrs H's estate sale last fall. She bought it at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, for its label says it was made specially for them. Mrs H. was a wealthy woman who owned a string of stores in Nashville. She never threw away a shoe or a skirt, and her wardrobe- all of it for sale- covered the years when she expanded from a size 8 to a 14, a trajectory I followed myself. Her clothes were good. But not too good, though it may be that her Chanel, if she had any, never made it to the sale. Leave it to heirs to always skim off the cream.

I am grateful to this women for her size 12 and 14 skirts with their elastic waistbands and forgiving contours. What freedom for a woman- to make peace with her hair, her face, and her dress size. It is a victory hard won, and I wonder if it is ever won before fifty-

Mrs. H was also a shoe woman. There were hundreds of pairs, and I doubt some had felt her feet. I bought a pair of boots from Macy's- a $300.00 pair- that still rested in their box. Did I mention that this woman had size 7 1/2 medium feet? Just as I do. Ah, but that sale was a day of good luck.

The boots were five bucks. Their career with me is much the same as it was with Mrs. H. They still live in their box waiting for the day someone invites me somewhere where I must only walk short distances.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Beet, Olive, and Moro Orange Salad in the Sicilian style

I made this salad for lunch today, and arranged it in one of my vintage olive dishes. I composed it with 2 thinly sliced Moro blood oranges( with rind cut away), 3 small beets- peeled, diced, coated with olive oil and a little sea salt and roasted for 45 minutes at 375 degrees or until tender. The beets should be roasted under foil to keep them moist. I halved five or six Sicilian style pitted green olives, and arranged them on top. As a dressing I simply mixed an emulsion of two tablespoons of olive oil, a teaspooon of Balsamic vinegar, and a teaspoon of honey. Then I dusted the salad with a pinch of cumin.

I am seeing Moro oranges in the stores for the first time this year, They are an old Sicilian variety. Their color is gem-like- the color of rubies or garnets. I can picture this salad at the great feast given by Don Fabrizio in Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel of Sicily- "The Leopard".

Click on the picture to enlarge and better appreciate the colors.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Annals of Nursing- Part Six.Junior Year- Pediatrics

Last year I began a memoir of my nursing school years in the late sixties and early seventies. I continue now with my junior year.

My first year in nursing school was rich in incidents and in the drama of being indoctrinated into nursing. My second year was my introduction to the specialties. Pediatrics. Obstetrics. The Operating Room. And yet I find my second year to be a series of impressions rather than a narrative. I cannot remember some of my instructors from that year, but I do remember that they were younger women than our rigid, conservative first year teachers. And I do remember that every one of them told me that I was a natural for the O.R, or Labor and Deliver, or for Peds. They were wrong.

I will talk first about Pediatrics, which attracted some of the most passionate nurses I have ever known. These nurses loved children, yet their love was not returned, for the only person a sick child wants is his mother. Families could not stay with their children in those days. Even Miss L., one of the world's kindest and best nurses, could not stop the crying.

I admired Miss L. I looked up to her because of her competence and her courage. I was one of the few students who felt this way. Other students pitied her or made fun of her. They saw her as a lonely old maid who had nothing but her profession. And saddest of all, she had a terrible deformity- she had no neck and could not turn her head . She was not allowed to drive because of this. She walked to work each afternoon. We saw her in downtown Hanover, wearing her white nurse's cap and a blue nursing cape. Pitiable to some, but I remember how she loved "her" children and how kind she was to me and the other students.

My pediatrics instructor was cut from the same cloth as Miss L. Her name was Kay. She was a tall redhaired lesbian who lived with one of the head nurses. She reprimanded me and two other students for shining a flashlight through the back of the neck of a hydrocephalic baby. We wanted to see if the baby's head lit up like a pumpkin. We were amused, but Kay was not. Yet there was so much ugliness and deformity in Pediatrics in those days. So many birth defects and congenital diseases. Black humor was everywhere, though not where Kay could hear it.

And one child is an indelible memory. Born to a ten year old ,who was pregnant by her father. I can still see it lying in a bassinet in the dirty equipment room. It was next to the bedpan flusher. It had a baby girl's body, and the shrunken green head of a frog. It was an anencephalic. A baby born with just a brain stem. It died within the hour. We heard that the girl's mother had been screaming about "God's punishment".

There is nothing easy about nursing. There never has been. We were learning this every day, and most of us were not even 21. Miss L. wanted me to work in Pediatrics. So did Kay. But I promised nothing. Sick and hurt children were not for me. Perhaps I would find Labor and Delivery more enticing. But I doubted it. It was my next specialty in that cold, dark New Hampshire winter.

To be continued-

Beet Greens and Beans soup

I bought two bunches of beets for roasting ,for what are better than roasted cold beets in a salad with olives and Moro oranges? But the beets came with greens, which I cannot waste. And so I invented a simple soup of greens and cannellini beans.I cooked it in under a half hour. I remembered what an affinity beet greens have for butter and red vinegar, and I based my soup on this. And I added garlic as well, for to me garlic is a reflex, and not just another ingredient.

Greens and Beans Soup

2 garlic cloves, minced or crushed in a garlic press

15 oz can of good chicken broth

15 oz can of cannellini beans

Greens from two bunches of beets (3 beets to a bunch).I tear the greens off the fibrous red parts of the stems, and I admit discarding the bigger stems.

1-2 tbs. butter

1 tbs red vinegar

1/2 teas. sea salt, or more or less to your taste.

Put everyhing in a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until the greens are cooked through. This should feed 2 or 3 people. French bread goes well with this.

My Phalaenopsis

I once believed that the greatest compliment a houseplant could give its owner was to flower. Yet my three year old phalaenopsis has honored me much more by going forth and multiplying.I water it sparingly. I have never re-potted it. I have never fed it. I do leave it on my shady porch for the summer, and this is why I think the plant approves of me, for what is more tropical than a Tennessee summer?

Books advise cutting the orchid's stem after flowering. I ignore this advice. This plant has never been out of flower, even when producing its two pups. Orchids live on warmth, wind, and dappled sun. Their offspring ask only for tree bark to live on. One day this spring I will have the courage to pot the orchid babies, though I may leave them attached to their mother for a while. I admit I am afraid of running out of orchid luck.