First, you’ll want a community. This recipe makes a lot of apple butter. If you don’t have a community, there are a few easy steps for building one:
1) Kick out the people who make it unsafe for others, whether they’re white supremacists, homophobic, transphobic, whatever. There’s a word for people who make safe spaces for Nazis. It’s Nazi.
2) model how to ask for and receive help with grace, publicly.
3) Demonstrate boundaries and how to set them.
Now that you have a community, you’ll need some apples. But it’s ok. Someone in your community will have them. Or have access to them. Someone’s kid will have a fundraiser that involves selling flats of apples. Or you’ll go down to survival camp in the mountains and there will be an accidental orchard and you’ll have a bad case of “my nuts!” syndrome* and end up with a surprise bushel of apples. Something.
For every ~6 lbs/3 kg of apples (I know that’s not equivalent, it’s an ish measurement) you’ll want a cup of white and a cup of brown sugar. A cup is around 200g. This is rough. OK? Borrow some sugar if you don’t have enough. If you don’t have anyone you can borrow sugar from, go back to the build community step of this recipe. You’ll want it soon.
You’ll want a big spoon each of cinnamon and vanilla, per this six pounds of apples. A tablespoon if you’re measuring carefully, whatever’s a big spoon in your cupboard if not. A half teaspoon (or a scant palm) of nutmeg. Half THAT much of cloves and salt, each. Per six pounds.
If you have a bushel, all bets are off. But add less than you think, this is gonna cook down.
Cook the apples. I don’t have a better instruction for you than that. Get the peels off and the cores out and COOK them. For a long time. Until they turn brown. Until they caramelize. If you have a slow cooker, this is in the neighborhood of 10-20 hours. Yes, I know that’s a big range. Just cook them until all coherence is gone. Watch the news. Or don’t; it’s painful. Watch a movie that gives you hope. Every time there’s a good one-liner, stir your apples.
By this point, the sugar in the apples should have caramelized. Your apple butter will be nice and dark brown. And your house will smell amazing.
This makes so much apple butter. Remember that community? They’re gonna help you get rid of your apple butter. Can it. Or jar it and refrigerate it. How much community do you have? Try to have enough to get rid of most of this apple butter. If you don’t have enough community, make more.
*My Nuts syndrome is activated when you realize that a food you are gathering is free, and you must therefore gather at least as much as you can carry, regardless of whether you know how or where to store and use it all. Like a squirrel. With nuts.
Implausibly, we’ve found ourselves in autumn.
A friend calls the long month between now and the beginning of the year Mayprillary, or maybe it was Junetember. But however it happened, the season of wildfires came, somehow, amid the flurry of hurricanes, early snow, and drought. And it’s not over, not by a long shot, but.
It’s Mabon, the Mid-Autumn festival is in a week (and I need to make mooncakes), I’ve L’Shana Tova’d the appropriate members of my family and community (and delivered challah, a recipe new to me and tasty although I’ll adjust it with more eggs next time). On my little tree, the figs are ripe and heavy and multitudinous for the first year since I brought it home as an impulse buy, a Charlie Brown stick of a tree that has borne precisely one fig a year since, until yesterday, when I picked two pounds of honey-sticky fruits and brought them in to the kitchen, thinking about how many were left on the tree and wondering if I had enough canning jars.
And the rains have begun.
I’ve spent so many years trying to explain why that phrase holds no bitterness for me, only relief.
This year, more people understand. More people from the lush valley I relocated to – really the moss here is obscene – are watching the rain, noting the way it defines and edges the wildfires that evacuated one in ten people in the state, hoping it’s fierce enough to soak the forests and stop the spread, but not so enthusiastic as to liquidate unstable soils, add mudslides to the scorched hillsides.
This year, I’m watching the season turn in Animal Crossing instead of being on the trail like I meant to. My gear waits in the closet; the Pacific Crest waits like a spiderweb strung from mountain to mountain. Resupply is too tricky this year; closures too frequent, the country too unstable to stop watching it for a day, let alone a week, two weeks, longer. I push A, repeatedly; shove trees; pick up the pixelated acorns and pinecones and don’t think about waterproofing my boots.
And the rains have begun.
They’ll soak into the clay soil, relaxing it until the green shoots of second-spring emerge through the mat of dry grass I last mowed in May. They’ll share the labor of watering the garden beds, making sure the rescued pepper plants flourish and the lettuce stays firm and crisp. And they’ll soften the exposed snarl of blackberry cane waiting to be trimmed back to a manageable shape before the systolic thump of spring growth pushes it skyward again and over the neighbor’s fence.
I turn my face up to the rain, and for a moment stop counting days, weeks, months. For a moment, there is only autumn, all around me, and the smell of earth waiting to grow again.
There’s a junco in the butterfly bush, and I have a sudden, irrational, urge to apologize to it.
I came out to water my garden, although the garden is strange this year. The crookneck squash gets to be a handspan long, then matures and drops. The eggplant hasn’t set fruit yet despite a long and glorious flowering season. And the volunteer broccoli settled for eclipsing the peppers – two per plant – and is largely ornamental at this point.
I cover the sun with my thumb. It’s easy to locate and easy to cover, a hot-pink blot in the smoky sky. For a while this morning we had winds up the Gorge bringing high-desert air on which I imagined I could smell the tang of sage, buckbrush, volcanic earth. The sky was briefly and incongruously blue. Now it’s not.
The junco stares at me. I know it’s a junco because of the shape of its beak; there’s not much else to distinguish it in the late-evening darkness of three o’clock. Time is strange not only because of the smoke darkening the sky, but because I was up all night monitoring fire lines, trying to figure out if my parents or friends are behind them. I slept in fits and starts, texting my dad you’re ok for now and it’s moved south.
I don’t remember when I learned the shape of a junco’s beak. Probably around the time I learned the few words of Spanish I retain. These are things you are supposed to know on the West Coast: three types of trees; enough Spanish to order food or apologize; the shape of a junco’s beak.
The butterfly bush is an invasive species, and I feel vaguely guilty for having planted it, even though it wasn’t designated invasive when I did. It has no urge to spread, sitting tidily between the volunteer quince and the Oregon grape. Hummingbirds fight in the quince: Anna’s, and Ruby-Throated. I saw a red-shouldered hawk the other day. It’s not native to the area either.
The junco stares at me: it doesn’t speak human. If it speaks human it speaks Cowlitz, Clackamas, Calapuya, a handful of other languages that I don’t. I didn’t even learn Spanish; I speak French, Russian, Polish, languages from colder places, formed in mouths wrapped around food that isn’t salmon, pine nut, salmonberry and huckleberry.
The junco takes off, but there’s nowhere else it can go. The sun is entirely gone. I go inside and adjust the air filter.
Three things are true about my neighbor Bill: He’s partially deaf, he’s house-proud, and he loves my dachshund, whose name is also Bill.
If it weren’t for the third thing, I might not know as much about the first two. We’ve been fence-neighbors for decades, but until I inherited the dachshund we hadn’t had occasion to pass more than a couple words. But I did inherit the dachshund, and he did bark literally all night for two solid weeks, so when Bill came up and put his gaunt, tanned hands on the chain-link fence that separates our yards I knew what he wanted to talk to me about.
The thing was, though, the dachshund chose that moment to lunge at the front fence, barking hysterically, and I yelled BILL, KNOCK IT OFF, YOU WEIGH TEN POUNDS, NOBODY CARES.
When I looked back at the other Bill, he was cackling, his yellowing hair shaking with the force of it.
“So that’s his name, huh?”
“Yeah.” I grinned sheepishly.
“He barks. A lot.”
“Yeah.” I tried to figure out what the correct facial expression was. “He was my granddad’s. Granddad just died, and he’s trying to figure out a new house. I’m so sorry. We’re working on it. I don’t know what to do.”
Bill (human Bill) rearranged his own features. “Well. Poor lil guy. He’s got a great name.”
I picked the dachshund up and carried him to the fence, they hugged it out, and from then on Bill never complained about Bill. He did, however, come over to the fence to talk every time I was in the yard. He met my other dogs, even if his versions of their names were somewhat affected by his hearing or expectations (he thinks the Weimaraner is Chloe. It’s a cute name, but it’s not her name).
Which is how, last week, I ended up with two pints of cherry tomatoes in a WinCo sack. I’m allergic to tomatoes. Actually, so is Bill: he has to take steroids every time he touches his plants. Between us, there’s no reason for anyone to have two pints of tomatoes, let alone two pints every couple weeks, but he’s seen me working in my garden and I think he might be taking pity on me: the lettuce bolted, the cabbage has no idea what it’s doing, the banana peppers have two (just two) fruits, and the biquinhos aren’t supposed to be big but he doesn’t know that.
Bill (not the dog) broke his back and ribs a few years ago. There was an ambulance. Twice, because the first time he was drunk enough not to feel it and he sent them away, only to fall in the middle of the night and puncture a lung. Bill (the dog) and I comforted his girlfriend as she smoked in the yard for weeks afterward. “I’ve never had a yard, and he loves this house so much, how do I do this,” she wailed.
Bill’s yard used to look like the cover of Better Mobile Homes and Gardens: flat, with a border of nondescript but well-cared-for flowers, and a few hummingbird feeders. He still has the hummingbird feeders, but he can’t mow so well these days, and the guy who used to take care of his front strip (and mine, since it bothered Bill) doesn’t come around anymore with the quarantine on, so the yard has dandelions and there’s nightshade creeping over our shared fence. We pull that from both sides, he and I, like neighbors do.
The last thing he has left to tend is his tomato plants, which apparently live inside by the giant window I accidentally saw his girlfriend doing a striptease through once. At least, I’ve never seen them in the yard. All the energy and care he used to lavish on keeping the area around his house flat, green, and at a #2 mow, he spends on those tomatoes.
So when your neighbor comes to the fence and says “you sure liked that last batch of tomatoes, do you want some more” what do you say? Do you tell him you slipped them to your best friend under cover of darkness, like so much Tomato Claus?
You say yes. And you make tomato sauce. For someone else.
“This is the last time you’ll see me,” he said, and I protested because that’s what you’re supposed to do, even though we both knew better.
Granddad swept me up in a hug, the way you can’t hug someone now, and I could feel the hollowness inside him that was eating him alive. His ribs were a taiko when I patted his back; his heart echoed against my cheek. He had been a giant when I was young, and he never seemed to get shorter, long legs outstretched in a series of recliners, always with a dachshund stretched along his thighs. He was the only man I’ve ever seen sit like that, consistently, knees pressed together.
Seventy-some years before, on August 14th, he’d had orders for the Pacific. Had paused, balanced on a boarding plank, one foot on sovereign soil and the other nowhere, waiting for the news. Never boarded. For his whole life, a boy in a man’s clothes was still suspended in time, on a plank over the hungry ocean, his pockets full of French perfume for the woman he’d married, his head full of other thoughts.
“Remember me like this, I want you to remember me like this,” he said, where my mother couldn’t hear him. So I didn’t go, when we had the option to see him diminished, when we could look at the hollowness without the man who had been stretched thin around it. When the mind that had cupped the Southwest in paint-stained, loving hands was gone.
And I do remember him like that, but I also remember him as the first person to use a racial slur in front of me, and it was one that describes people I also consider family. It’s complicated, until it’s not.
Coincidence flows through my veins and links me to racists, to people who take without a second thought, to people who do not and can not believe that separate people exist with separate thoughts and feelings and ideas beyond what they can imagine. But there’s other coincidence in life: the accident of meeting someone online, of re-meeting a friend you would never have counted on for support and finding them where you need them, of the family members brought in by marriage and kept longer than the legal ties bind them. “She’s your only sister” is an absolutely true statement; but there’s only one of any person, and not all coincidences are serendipitous. “They’re your only [name]” is just as true, and just as coincidental. Coincidence is not value.
Remember me like this: coincidence is its own kind of truth.
Remember me like this: not all truth is meaningful.
Remember me like this: I knew what I valued.
First, you’ll want some yeast. Well. Maybe you won’t. Yeast is hard to come by these days. Everyone’s stressed, everyone’s baking, the stores are low on bread.
Right, let’s back up.
First you’ll want some stress. A pandemic will do. If you can’t find a handy pandemic, settle for a tight deadline, a kid in trouble, a call from a distant love where you can’t do anything but listen. The idea is to feel so completely helpless that only making something with your hands will fix you.
Maybe there’s no yeast in the house. Maybe you’re afraid to go to the store, or your store is out, or you’re supporting striking workers. That’s ok. Go to the cabinet and get out the bread book you found at the thrift, the one that matches your mom’s (the edition is important: the new one doesn’t have the Finnish braid).
Collect the dry ingredients: 4 cups of flour, a teaspoon of salt. A tablespoon of baking powder and a teaspoon of baking soda. This, plus the egg, will be leavening. Put the dry ingredients in a bowl. Try not to think about how many cups of flour four is. Try not to calculate how many are left.
You can add a quarter-cup of sugar, an eighth-teaspoon cardamom or coriander. I’ve been making this recipe for thirty years and I never have. But you might. If you have that.
Add 1/4 cup of butter or margarine. Cut it in with a pastry blender or forks or knives. Or, fuck it, just melt it and stir it in. The bread won’t care. It’s 4 tablespoons if you’re using a big tub or if you already made ghee in an attempt to make all your butter shelf-stable.
Now beat an egg and 1 3/4 cups of buttermilk together. You won’t have buttermilk. It’s a specialty ingredient. But that’s ok: use the milk that went bad a week ago, that you haven’t thrown out because you’re ashamed. You’re ashamed of having bought something you can’t use when money is about to be beyond tight, or of not having used something up when you asked for it. It’s okay. You’re doing the best you can. Use your sour milk here. This recipe was meant for that. It’s a poverty recipe, elevated by Sunset Magazine into something hippie-proud, but you know the truth now. If your milk is still good, good for you! Throw a splash of vinegar in there, it’ll go sour and start to curdle.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until they form a biscuitish dough. Biscuitish, by the way, is a Tolkien word, used to describe cram, the waybread of the Lakemen. You’re making a sort of cram now, in fact. But it’s not hard, it’s not inedible.
Find your pie pans. They might be at the bottom of the drawer. A 9″ cast iron works too. Or the lid to a Pyrex set. Something nine inchesish. Inchesish is not a Tolkien word.
Divide the dough in half, and form each half into a ball by tucking the top under and under and under until the top is smooth and the bottom is puckered and pinchy. Grease the pans or the whatever-you-found. Pat the dough out into the form of the pan. It’s going to be a couple inches thick.
If you’re especially stressed you can skip the ball. Form the dough into ropes. Braid them. Figure out how to get the braid into the pan. You can start with a sort of pound-sign thing. You can start with a round braid. You can descend into a spiral along with your dough. But don’t. Just get the dough in the pan. You’re going to be all right. For today, at least. You’ll be fed.
Bake in a moderately hot oven (375/190) for 35 to 40 minutes.
It’s okay if you cut one loaf in wedges and the other in slices. It’s okay to eat them with butter. It’s okay to toast them or not. It’s okay to take the whole loaf to bed with you if that’s what you need.
You deserve nourishment. Food isn’t a value judgment.
But I found a two-pound bag of yeast on Amazon the other day, if you need it, when the strike is over.
dad feels, depression, gardening, i still have a brown thumb, i still need a hedge tho, some of these tags have been used more than once, the definition of insanity is repeating the same action but expecting a different result, why do i do this
It’s spring, which means my seasonal depression is in full force. Whee. And like most springs, I went out and bought a bunch of plants, because nothing says “this will cure my depression” like watching fucking plants die.
I just want to open this post by saying that I love hotdish. It’s not a part of my heritage, really, being a tiny bit lapsed Catholic via some sperm and a whole lot lapsed who-knows-what Protestant by way of an egg, but I honestly adore it. Hotdish, or casserole to those of you not from the Midwest, is basically some sort of carb bound by some sort of dairy with an additional brothlike liquid and probably some meat in. Lasagna is a hotdish, if you get down to it. Hotdish is what you take to potlucks and picnics, funerals and football games. Continue reading