the juices of june

IMG_3534My hands are Oregon hands, stained wine-dark with the juices of June. My arms, too, are speckled with red, but that’s my own blood from being stuck, a reminder of the thorns that accompany the best pleasures.  On my t-shirt there’s a mix of berries and blood.  The juices of June.

Within moments of returning home, I was in the garden picking handfuls of raspberries and black raspberries.  I didn’t need a bowl, not where those berries were going.  My right hand man gave me fingers to pluck; my left was bowl and scoop.  As soon as I filled up my primal vessel I did as the cavemen (in Oregon? Sure — poetic license), yes, the cavemen did: stuffed the entire handful in my mouth.

Because I can.

My lust for these berries won’t be sated for another month.  I planted another row last year, and it’s still not even remotely enough.  I’ll u-pick them, buy flats at the market, buy flats at the farm, buy them in restaurants and pick them at friends’ places.

It’s gluttony, I know, and thanks to teaching the Professeur, M. Brillat-Savarin, for so many years now, I know the difference between the gourmand — the delicately attuned lover of food with a capacious palate and appetite for the finest and most appropriate foods for his class — and me, the glutton.  It doesn’t matter where and how when it comes to raspberries, I just want to stuff my face with them.  Even when I lived in California, I’d buy those horrible cellpaks of ‘Willamettes,’ which are harder and larger than some of the other Oregon varieties of raspberries so we trade them to our neighbor to the south for their inedible monster “strawberries.”  But unlike the strawberries, I’d buy those horrible cellpaks with their nasty kleenex pad and eat raspberries all in one sitting, just so I could take some edge off the craving.

Here in Oregon, I can eat the soft ones and the sweet ones, the acidic ones and the monstrous ones, the golden ones, the dark ones and the pink ones and the warm ones bright in the sun.  We have a month of fresh raspberries ahead.  I like raspberries far more than strawberries, which are delicious but always seemed a little obvious to me, kind of like a sweet plump girl who means no harm and doesn’t quite get the jokes.  They have a dumb-looking bonnet and they get turned into cartoons.  Raspberries, on the other hand, lent their name to that gross gesture of blowing spitty air out of your mouth.  Raspberries have a bit of punk in them.

And if raspberries have an edge, black raspberries are rude boys.  Raspberries I always knew, but I remember very well the first time I spotted black raspberries under the stairs leading down to my grandfather’s dock in northern Michigan.  I’m not sure how old I was, but I must have been close to the ground, even though those steps were steep.  Anyway, they were feral and growing through the stairs to scratch the legs of little girls.  I had to eat them.  I knew I’d get pricked and didn’t know if they were poison or not, but they were glossy and becoming and beckoning.

My parents weren’t in sight, and my grandfather was busy gutting fish down the dock.  He held a chinook aloft and showed me the egg sac.

“You see this? Rich people pay good money for these fish eggs,” and with a snort he dumped it all with the guts in the bucket.

Rich people, thought I, would pay me good money for these shiny berry eggs.  So I’m going to taste them.  And when I did and their wild dark tart sweet seedy little bits entered my mouth for the first time, I realized some things were too precious to be sold to rich people.  My black raspberry empire thus ended where it began, in Manistee, Michigan.

Now I grow them and I still don’t have enough, but I know I’m the luckiest girl in the world for just one second in June when I collect them by the handful and take that very first mouthful, unadorned.  I close my eyes and am grateful, hardly possibly, for another year.

the long way home

IMG_3318I’m in Ashland on an almost sunny morning, on my way to Michigan via San Francisco for my grandmother’s funeral. I had been planning to take a road trip south to have time away from the administrative onslaught, time to think, but life seems to be relegated lately to one of those car chase video games where the ills of modern civilization — flaming tires, the bodies of fallen comrades, police cars —  keep being flung in one’s path.   All we can do is swerve.

I have to write a eulogy, and it will probably involve food, for my grandmother was without question the earliest food influence in my life (well, besides my mother and breast-feeding, I suppose).  She was the only one in my family who really wanted to talk to me about cooking.  What are you making, she’d ask, and always listen eagerly as if I were a cooking show.  She bought me a wok for my wedding.  I don’t even think she knew what a wok was.  Our last conversation involved an oven and baking, my neighbor baking.  What’s baking, she asked.  And then I knew she was gone.

I think: I’m kind of too sad to write right now, though.  Then I think: if you can afford to be too sad right now to write, you should count your blessings and get to work, missy.  Chop chop.  Do you have to raise five kids?  Do you have to get up at the crack of dawn and go work at some shitty factory job?  Do you live in Detroit?  There are people who are too sad and there are people who just get it done. Something about the devil and idle hands, right?  Idol hands.  Chop chop.

I remember Polish rye bread and real butter.  Frozen strawberries.  Coconuts.  I begged for coconuts.  And, starved for carbs, we ate Liv-a-Snaps meant for the dog.  They were in the drawer with the paddle, the menacing paddle with pictures of naughty children on it.  I don’t think it was ever used, it was just a Foucauldian symbol, and an ineffective one if we saw it and still ate the dog biscuits.  Whole milk. Radish flowers. And always kielbasa, yards and yards of it.  My intestines are made of kielbasa.  Funny that I don’t remember many casual meals with her.  I think we ate lots of soup: either chicken or vegetable beef.  She accidentally burned me with a soup pot when I was very young and underfoot.  My first kitchen lesson, my initiation scar.  Oh yes, and fried bologna sandwiches and hard salami.  I still love hard salami.  And the cookies she spirited away from the Polish bakery.  Almondy sugar cookies in vague shapes and pointless powdery chrusciki, angel wings.

So here’s what I’ve got so far:

Leokadya “Lillian” Ann Kuznicki Mendrek, 1924-2013. A formidable presence, caretaker, cook, comedian, beloved mother of five, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of five. She’d take care of any baby anywhere, playing a major role raising me and my siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. She sang in the kitchen and gave us butter and made lists for Grampa and mobilized the forces. And she never let rules stand in her way, hiding a few kids to convince the anti-Catholic real estate agent the family would fit perfectly into the new suburban development in Inkster; inventing plastic-wrapped diapers to minimize leaks (she had twins, no time for nonsense); baptizing my nephews in the bathtub herself so they wouldn’t linger in purgatory; pretending at reunions that she had attended high school and not worked in the factory across the street from St. Francis in Detroit. God only punished her when she smuggled the baked chicken from Sweden House in her purse for Uncle Dennis. A long life filled with love. We’ll miss you, Nanny.

rattails and screams

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

There are few things that disgust and terrify me as much as a rat.  Anyone who has lived in a city knows the sight: that revolting tail, dragging in the filth, disappearing just seconds after that fat, wriggling body behind a garbage can or scrubby clump of weeds.  They signify suspicion, paranoia, spoilage, disease, sneakiness, thievery and uncleanliness.  (Sure, your pet rat doesn’t — shudder — but I’m talking wild Norway rats here.)

So I was thinking, for my Halloween post, what could be truly, personally scarier, what could be more American Gothic, than a recipe featuring rats?

When I lived in SoCal, we had (still have?) a rat epidemic, which was treated in that cheery, dismissive way so many social issues are in Orange County.  I once threatened the housing office in my graduate ghetto apartment with notifying the Health Department and the Regents of the University of California if they didn’t do more than just put a notice in the weekly flyer with a cute drawing of a squirrel asking residents not to leave birdfood out “or critters might be attracted to it.”  When I lived in Baltimore, one of the last straws in our decision to leave the city was seeing a dead rat in the street a block away from our house. When I was in Vietnam, I remember sitting blearily at a café one morning for a tour of Halong Bay, and looking up behind me, and seeing a rat clinging to the picture frame next to a railing, slipping, falling…


I blame this almost irrational loathing on a book my mother would read to me when I was little, a book I loved.  It was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning’s poem, which is quoted above and can be found in its entirety at a site through Indiana University.  (The cover image you see here is also from this site.)  If you’re unfamiliar with the tale, it’s about a German town called Hamelin in the Middle Ages that is overrun by rats (boo!), then a mysterious Piper comes and seduces them all away with his music into the ocean, where they drown (yay!), but then the greedy town council won’t pay him (boo!) and so he lures away the town’s children in a similar fashion (um, boo?).  The graphic description, done in iambic tetrameter singsong, of rats infesting the kitchen was one horrific image that I’d study over and over, thinking about how awful it would be.

So as you might imagine, me being of the perverse persuasion and all, I was thrilled to find a recipe prepared in the German town of Hameln called “Rattails,” a pork fricassee with vegetables and a sweet and sour sauce.  It seems to be a preparation for tourists, mainly, and it features a very complicated sauce of apple brandy, two kinds of wine, “brown gravy,” dribs and drabs of mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and other things. The whole thing is flambéed (and you know how I feel about that), and served over rice.  It tastes like a fancy, more subtle, ten thousand times more complicated version of sweet-n-sour pork.

But here’s the gross part:  the pork loin is prepared in strips, so it looks like rat tails, and cut up chunks of baby corn and red peppers resemble spinal column chunks and sinews, and button mushrooms look like joints, and the green olives with pimientos are nothing more than rat eyeballs.

Quite frankly, the sauce is too complicated for weekly meals.  And even with the flambé, the writhing, dismembered-body-parts-in-brown-sauce look of the final dish is not, um, fancy enough for guests.  But if you want to try it, check out the recipe in the extraordinary Culinaria Germany cookbook, or by clicking this link.

I’ll be cowering in the corner with my cell phone, trying to 911 the Pied Piper.

Happy Halloween to all!