Rainy day soup

This is a strange, rainy month here in Northern California—usually the rain stops mid-March except for a shower or two, and doesn’t start up again until October or November. But this year, it’s as if the Monsoon keeps drifting across the Pacific. It just isn’t stopping.

Because it was so cold and wet, I decided to make soup, looked at what was around and came up with a really yummy roasted garlic and cauliflower soup.

1 small cauliflower, washed and sliced
1 head garlic
oil or coconut ghee
1 leek
1 small onion
6 or 7 crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 very small potato, peeled and sliced thin
handful of fresh peas, shelled
juice of half a lemon
good splash of sherry
½ teaspoon of fresh ginger
chopped chervil and chives (about a tablespoon)
salt, pepper
stock and/or water

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Put the cauliflower slices in a bowl and coat with oil or melted ghee. Spread the cauliflower on a baking sheet on a Silpat or tin foil. Oil a head of garlic and put it on there, too. Set them in the oven to brown (about 20-30 minutes).

While they are roasting, slice the leek, the onion, the mushrooms and sauté them in a heavy saucepan over medium heat in just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan.  Add some salt, grate in the ginger. Stir as they brown, and when they are lightly browned (about 5-10 minutes, depending on your heat), add the sherry to deglaze the pan.  Once the alcohol has boiled off, add the lemon juice. Take about half the vegetables out and reserve them. Add the potato and about 4 cups of stock (I used a handful of chicken stock ice cubes and about 2 cups of water, but you can use plain water or vegetable stock). Simmer while the cauliflower and garlic roast in the oven.

Once the cauliflower is lightly browned (the small pieces may brown first, if so, take them out and add them to the soup), add all the cauliflower to the soup and continue to simmer while the garlic cools.  Squeeze out the garlic from the peels into a blender. Add about ¼ of the soup. Blend till smooth.  Add the rest of the soup (you may need to do this in two batches; it just about fit in my blender). Once everything is blended and smooth, return the soup to the pot. If the soup is too thick, add some more stock or water—it should be creamy but not too thick.  Add the reserved onion/leek/mushroom mix, and the shelled peas.  Add the herbs.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Simmer another few minutes.

A wonderful cure for spring chill.  I served with slices of whole wheat walnut levain and a salad.  The sherry was Larry’s idea, and a really good one. When I asked him to taste the soup to see if it needed anything, he said, “It needs to be in a bowl.”  I agree!

Economics and balls

From Larry, via an old fraternity brother.
The sport of choice in the inner city is BASKETBALL.
The sport of choice for blue-collar workers is FOOTBALL.
The sport of choice for white collar workers is BASEBALL.
The sport of choice for middle management is TENNIS.
The sport of choice for corporate executives and officers is GOLF.

Which leads to this conclusion: The higher you go in the power structure, the smaller your balls become.
There must be a ton of people in Washington playing marbles.


Poems by heart

One year at the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, Bob Hass gave a craft talk in which he said he had memorized his own poetry by driving around with a cassette of his poems. I’d been memorizing poems for a long time used this technique to memorize several dozen poems more (not my own, though). As a result, not only do I have a treasury of poems to get me through long lines and bad traffic, snippets of poems come to me just in the course of an ordinary day.

Walking down the street in spring, when the new leaves have just unfurled, I sometimes think of Tony Hoagland’s poem, A Color of the Sky, in which he calls the color of these leaves “the very tint of inexperience.”

As I come out of the tunnel on Highway 24 and see San Francisco gleaming white over the bay, I might think of Wordsworth’s lines:

“The city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning, silent, bare.
Ships, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open to the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

And when my granddaughter complains of boredom, I think of Berryman’s wonderful dream song that begins:

“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover, my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly), “Ever to confess you’re bored
means  you have no

Inner Resources.”

I refrain from quoting it to her, but it makes me smile.

Having an internal library of poems I love enriches my day, and will be a comfort if they every put me (like Christopher Smart) in solitary confinement. Here’s a poem about this:

Poems by Heart

The first I memorized was for Miss Underhill
in seventh grade: Frost’s woods.
Then Márgaret’s melodious grief,
like nothing I’d heard before,
like the anthem of my tribe.

I grabbed onto poetry as if
it were the round, white circle
of canvas-covered cork
thrown from the lifeguard’s chair
when they hauled me out,
and stood me on my feet,
still flailing.

The poems meant that somewhere
there had to be others like me.
They had left me a trail of words,
little candy lifesavers in rainbow colors,
and I ate them, one by one,
as I made my way
across the acres of suburban
athletic fields and sidewalks
to find them.

What’s in a name?

A reader asked why I chose the blog name Dactyls & Drakes. When I was thinking about a name, I wanted something that would encompass both poetry and the mini-ecosystem I’m creating—garden, animals, weird inventions. I first thought poetry and poultry, but that was too clunky.  Larry suggested dactyls and ducks, but that sounded, well, sort of web-footed.  I liked the dactyls part, though, the poetic foot of one long, two short stresses—the common foot for nursery rhymes: hickory, dickory, dock (actually, it would have to be dockery for them all to be dactyls). And here’s a mallard drake, common, but elegant.

Not that I have ducks yet, but they’re in the plan.  Hence dactyls & drakes.  Turns out you can’t have an ampersand in a URL, though. I thought the name obscure enough to signal that I am doing this purely for my own pleasure, and hope it becomes a way to connect with whomever my interests align.

Poets Out Loud!

Want to hear F. Scott Fitzgerald reading Keats? or H.D.’s cultured accent reading her long poem, Helen in Egypt? or William Carlos Williams folksy tones as he reads his seminal A Red Wheelbarrow poem? or Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky not to mention many contemporary poets?  Here’s the list of authors in PennSounds’ audio library for you: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/authors.php

Of course, there are many other audio libraries, but this one is new to me and intriguingly eclectic.

Hungary, World War II, the genius of Julie Orringer

Last night we went down to Stanford to hear Julie Orringer read from her novel The Invisible Bridge. http://julieorringer.com/ is her website.  I loved her book of stories, how to breathe underwater, when it appeared several years ago, and bought The Invisible Bridge as soon as it came out. It’s a marvelous novel, rich, compelling, painful. It’s the story of a Hungarian Jewish family starting in the 1930s and moving through World War II.

The genius of the book is that you become invested in the lives of the characters before the war, during “normal” life. When Hitler and Hungary’s fate make terrible choices necessary for the characters, it brings those events to life—so much so that you want to change history, to stop its crushing, implacable march. It makes you feel the impact of the war in a visceral way.

Here in the US, we don’t hear much about Hungary, a tiny country that tried to fight with the Germans against the Russians without buying into Hitler’s crusade against the Jews. It didn’t work, of course. But there was nobility in the struggle—a sort of old world dignity. I also recommend Sándor Márai’s Memoir of Hungary 1944-1948, a moving non-fiction account of the same period. I wrote this poem after reading his memoir:

Sándor Márai in Exile

Deprived of your native language,
of paprikash cooked in cramped kitchens,
of the scent of elder flowers in early June,
you don’t meet people you know on the street, or stop
in familiar shops that sell just what you need.
You don’t sit with friends
at the café with a newspaper filled
with gossip about people you know.

After your home was destroyed,
you said language was your true home.
But so few speak the Magyar tongue.
Even your name sounds unfamiliar here.
Who will read your forty-six books?
your scrupulous observations of
the German soldiers who set up radios
in your parlor? the Russians
who used it for their motorpool?
You saved your hatred for
your countrymen, newly minted
Soviets, returned from Moscow.
Their lethal mix of terror
and preferment snuffed
what little there was left of Hungary
and drove you out.

It’s lonely in the sun
of San Diego. Your bones crave cold light,
need winter in Krisztinaváros
before the siege,
the irreplaceable stones of Castle Hill.
Your mouth is parched
for the barbed sweetness of accented vowels,
the braided bread of consonants,
the bullets
of your spoken tongue.

Meryl Natchez

To give or not to give, that is the question

Does it annoy you when the cashier at Whole Foods asks if you want to donate or receive bag credit? Are you equally uncomfortable giving to panhandlers or not giving? It seems like we’re barraged by requests for donations at all levels—radio stations, mail, email, walking down the street, in random stores.

I decided to do what the big guys do, come up with a coherent policy that made sense to me against which I could weigh all these requests.  Larry sez: People do what they are paid to do. So for what it’s worth, here’s my policy. It gives me a path through those myriad requests for money:
I don’t give to panhandlers. I give to anyone playing a musical instrument or other attempt at entertainment, and the people who sell the street newspaper.  The only exception I’ve made was a singer in the NY subway who I passed on a regular basis and wanted to encourage to QUIT! The other day, I passed a very pregnant woman with a sign “Traveling, broke, hungry.” I gave her an orange. I guess that counts as an exception, too. When I don’t give, I make eye contact, nod, and say, “Not today.”

I set aside what seems to me a reasonable amount of money each year, and make two or three major donations to the organizations I most want to support. I take a smaller amount and make small gifts to support a broader set of organizations. This includes public radio and TV stations, but I never support them during pledge drives. I think they should find a better way. (People do what they are paid to do.)

The biggest shift was a decision to use Goodsearch for my standard searches. To make it easier, I bookmarked the site in my Bookmarks Bar. I like the idea of a few tenths or even hundredths of cent going to my designated non-profit, and even have gotten a few non-profits to sign up with them. After I got used to it, it seemed every bit as good as Google, and a better model.

And finally, I got involved in some activities in my community. I’m on the board of my local Farmer’s Market, and have volunteered a few times at the elementary school. I’m thinking of putting together an introduction to poetry—a 45-minute class I could give as a starter unit with short, lively poems like these:

Spit straight up.
Learn something.

Robert Hass

“Why is it,” he said, “that no matter what you say,
a woman always takes it personally?”

“I never do,” she said

Lew Welch

In any case, it feels good to have come up with a plan, so that I can comfortably claim my bag credit at Whole Foods; I prefer to choose my own causes! Of course, my policy is always subject to revision. Any suggestions?

Chickens, Driving at Night

It seems to me that chickens are the perfect eco-accessory. Here they are, a few days old, when they were still in the laundry room.

They grow quickly, provide eggs and meat, and are omnivores. I ground up the remains of the fish stock and they gobbled it—no more smelly mess in the garbage. They eat weeds, bugs, snails and slugs. I’m planning to make a “chicken tractor” to move them around to various parts of the garden. I wonder if I’d still like them as much without the knowledge of future eggs? There is really no comparison between the eggs from a backyard chicken that gets to roam and eat grass and bugs to those sold commercially. Larry says the yolks are the color of a Van Gogh sun. Of course, here in the suburbs, no roosters, which is too bad. I understand that others may not be charmed by the rooster alarm clock. They do crow incessantly, starting before dawn. When I was in Puerto Rico, surrounded by households with roosters I wondered: is a rooster’s crow the sound of poverty or of affluence? In any case, a small, well-tended flock of chickens is pretty delightful. I saw this poem about chickens years ago and saved it.

Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty 

Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—

and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting

in their faces.  Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.

She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back

of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she’s being taken along.
She craned her neck.

She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.

That is the chicken I want to be.

Jane Mead,  The Lord and the General Din of the World

I don’t know anything about Jane Mead, but the following poem, also about a bird seen driving at night, was written by a woman who died fairly young from a chronic and degenerative disease.  It’s a level darker and deeper:

Night Owl

            You are nearing the land that is life,
            You will recognize it by its seriousness.

Diving my bad news the back way home
I know I’m in the land that is life
when I reach my favorite stretch of road—fields
flat and wide where corn appears soon after
planting the soil tilled, night-soaked
and crumbled into fists.
Ferguson’s barn is somewhere
at the end of this long arm of tar
and as I near it, something grazes the back
passenger-side door, luffs parallel to my car—
a huge owl on headlight spray floating,
holding night over the hood to see
if this moving thing is real, alive,
something to kill—then gliding in
close as if to taste glass.
The road levitates, buffeted on a surf
of light, the fog-eaten farm disappearing
as I ride into starlessness, cells conspiring
so I am bright-flecked and uplifted—is this
what it feels like to be chosen—to be taken
under the wing of something vast
that knows its way blindly?

M. Wyrebek, Be Properly Scared

Pear Tart and Poetry

I’ve written a lot about food and cooking, and wrote this poem after
making a Julia Child tart.

Loaves and Fishes

This weekend, while I poach the perfect pears
in wine and sugar and ginger,
while I bake paté brisée, whip
crème anglaise with its spice-imbued milk,
carefully slice crescents of cooled, softened pear,
and layer them in geometric circles,
armies of hungry children roam the streets
for trash to eat
somewhere far from here.

I know they’re out there.
My whole generation had to finish
what was on our plates
because children were starving
in India, as if we had to eat
for everyone.

If I could, I would take
this perfect tart and transform it
into loaves and fishes. I don’t pretend
to understand why it’s fallen to me,
this cornucopia of succulent fruit,
of scapes and green garlic, tender baby
lettuces spread on folding tables
at outdoor markets four days a week,
while others probe gutters for crusts.

I think if I were out there, scrabbling
for enough to eat, I would be cunning
and merciless. I would be one
who survives.

Meryl Natchez

Cheap Eats

It occurs to me that along with a ruinous national debt, we’re leaving our children untold reams of blather that they’ll have to pick through to find any useful advice. So I’m going to post at least some practical information here. For example, how to eat very well and very cheaply, assuming you cook at all. The key is good stock. Stock is simple, it’s made from the cheapest meat and vegetable matter you can buy, and you can freeze it and add it to beans, rice, sauces, or make tasty soup or stew quickly.

I’ve read a lot of recipes for stock, but you don’t need a recipe. You can make it from almost anything. Chicken stock is my favorite because it’s light and versatile—and Jewish penicillin, of course. If you don’t have a place where you can buy chicken feet or necks or other bony pieces, you can start with the bones of cooked chicken you’ve eaten (even from KFC) and maybe some wings or thighs. Take a couple of pounds of bones and meat and add enough water to cover them along with a tablespoon or two of vinegar. Bring to a simmer, and then lower to just below boiling. Cook for awhile—at least an hour, but more if you like. Then add vegetables. These can be trimmings—the skins and roots and stalks and greens of onions, carrots, celery—the parts you would throw away. You can (one of my favorite methods) just keep your pot on the back of the stove, and throw in the leavings from whatever vegetables you’re using, and bring it to the almost boil for at least 15 minutes a day over a few days time. Or if you’re in a hurry and want to make good stock fast, cut up and add a whole onion, a couple of carrots, some celery, whatever, leaves, peels, etc.  Cook for at least an hour, but no upward limit really.  You can ladle out some stock and strain it into whatever you’re making. For example, put a ladle full of stock into your rice water to add flavor.  Or you can decide you’re done. Then strain the stock, and let it cook down to concentrate (without actually boiling). If it’s fatty, let it cool in the fridge overnight and peel off the top layer of fat. They heat it slightly, put it in ice cube trays, and freeze it.  You have cubes of instant flavor.

There are now great covered ice cube trays with rubbery bottoms that make it easy to pop out a cube or two or twelve whenever you want to make sauce or stew or add flavor to anything on the stove. You can buy these from Amazon—is it still ok to buy from Amazon? they seem to own the world.

If you like beef stock, do the same thing with beef bones; for fish, use heads and tails. You can make plain vegetable stock the same way, just no bones or vinegar. Corn cobs are a great addition to stock, the hearts of celery or cauliflower, carrot tops, onion skins. I’ve even thrown in avocado skins.

If you like your stock rich and dark, roast whatever you’re starting with in the oven for about 45 minutes at 425 degrees first, so it slightly carmelizes before you start simmering (nice to add at least one whole onion). That’s what I did with the fish in this picture.

The only somewhat gross thing about stock is getting rid of the remains that you’ve strained out. These can get smelly if you don’t get them out of the house, especially if you’re using fish heads and tails. More about this when I show you my amazing compost blaster. But this is enough practicality for one day.

Larry and The Creakers

Larry belongs to an over 65 softball league, called The Creakers. They play every week, have a website, and a lot of fun.  Here’s a typical email exchange:

Fred:   I have a watch that was found in the parking lot adjacent to HF 3/4. Describe it and it is yours.

Larry: It was a gold Rolex with an inscription that said, “I’ll love you madly forever.   Lolita”

Fred: Close.

A long way out of my way

I remember my senior year in high school going into the guidance counselor and saying, “I want to go to a school that’s like a big library, and I can read something that leads me to something else, and talk about it, and study it, and just follow wherever that leads me.” He said, “You applied to the wrong schools.” He was right. Radcliffe in the late 60’s was nothing at all like that, and I wound up on a very long leave of absence in the middle of my junior year. I don’t regret it though, because I met Larry through a poem of mine, published in the Harvard Advocate in 1967, called “Chameleons in Captivity.” He was in graduate school in creative writing as San Francisco State, and someone in his class was a Harvard grad and subscribed to the Advocate and brought in the poem. Larry wrote me my first fan letter, that began “Dear Meryl, if this is your real name,” and ended “I enclose some poems to see if you think a relationship might be fruitful.” The poem and the letter are in some box somewhere. I want to put them here when I find them, but that could be years from now! In any case, 42 years, 4 children, and a lifetime later, I feel that I got everything I could ask for from my college experience except the intellectual experience I described to my guidance counselor.

But the Internet provides that experience. It allows me to wander from one thought to the next, to explore ideas and see where they take me. The only thing missing is the community of the campus. My hope is that this blog will help provide that connectedness. The life I have lead during my extended leave has been one of an outlier. Traveled to Europe, spent a number of years on the Mendocino Coast, and Oregon, moved to the Bay Area in the late 70’s. In the early 80’s I got my first real job, as a technical writer, and after a year went out on my own. With no business background, I managed to start a business, mostly because as a contract writer I was paranoid about having enough work, and said yes to everything, then hired other writers to help.

Last year, I completed a sale of the resulting company, TechProse, to the employees. It was very satisfying—they got the company, and I got enough from the company’s profits over the years to retire. So now I can fully pursue the education I missed, as well as poetry, garden and a small sustainable backyard eco-system with chickens and soon ducks and rabbits, cooking, labyrinths, and some work in my geographic community, which is Kensington, California (north of Berkeley). It’s been a convoluted journey, going as Albee said in Zoo Story “a long way out of my way to come back a short distance correctly.” At this moment, it feels delightful, and this potentially labyrinthine blog should help connect with those of you who share these interests.