September 10, 2015
There are many here among us now
who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that
and this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now,
the hour’s getting late.
-Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”
Back when I first started this blog, I set up Google Alerts so that I would be notified whenever new mentions of my name or the name of this blog appeared in the atmosphere. My goals for the blog are very, very different now than they were then, and I spend very little time fretting over my “internet presence” or tracking my stats like I used to. But the Google Alerts still come through from time to time, which is how I caught notice of a mention of my most recent blog post in the Houston Press’ “This Week in Food Blogs” round-up from last week.
Along with some self-help advice (and a little ranting), Nishta of Blue Jean Gourmet shared this coconut cardamom almond butter recipe that replicates a pre-made version that she can’t find in Houston anywhere. It’s a simple recipe, but note that a food processor is required. Toasted almonds and cardamom give this nut butter a special kick, and it’s another perfect-for-fall option.
It was that little parenthetical phrase that caught my eye—“a little ranting”—and caused me to go back and read my original post. I’ve definitely done my fair share of ranting on this blog, but I was honestly puzzled that anything I had written in the coconut-cardamom-almond butter post would be labeled as such. Even going back and combing through left me stumped. Ranting? Really?
I did some freelance writing for the Press in years past, and it’s generous of them to throw in a mention of me from time to time, even though I am no longer in any meaningful way connected to “the scene.” So I truly don’t mean to sound like I’m—wait for it—ranting about something that, in not even the grand but the small scheme of things, matters not one bit. We could be talking about simple word choice, difference of opinion, or maybe I’m totally tone-deaf when it comes to my own work.
But the reason I feel it bears mentioning at all is that I think it might just reflect something about the standards for what we call “food writing” these days. As my friend Tim at Lottie & Doof has so eloquently stated, most of it is fucking boring. Pale, pasty, and self-referential, vacant of any real meaning or significance (now I am ranting). Sure, there are blogs that specialize in recipe development and stunning photography, and I enjoy frequenting those as much as any other home cook. But the English teacher in me is often baffled by what passes for good writing on the internet—and not just on food blogs. Much of what is heralded as “incredible writing” would get a B- in my Honors Creative Writing course for high school seniors—it is lazy, self-congratulatory, and lacks any real self-consciousness or perspective. It states the obvious. It’s filled with familiar tropes and clichés. It takes zero risks. It is boring.
Look, sometimes you have a recipe to share and all there is to say is “Make this and then eat it!” and I totally respect that. I’ve been there. And it’s not like I’d want every post on this blog to be dissected in an MFA workshop, either; I just think it’s kind of dazzling that to write about anything of substance seems to equal “ranting.”
Yesterday, I got to do some talking that mattered. I was asked by Jen, the amazing theatre director at my school, if I would come do some dramaturgical work with the cast of our fall play, Twelve Angry Jurors. Jen has so astutely chosen to set the play in present-day, in order to intersect and overlap with our present-day, big-picture conversation about the American criminal justice system. I’m no expert, but I’ve been researching and shadowing attorneys and asking questions and doing what I can to learn about this issue for the last ten years, so I was thrilled to have the chance to share some of what I’ve learned. I was also totally scared.
That’s kind of how it works, isn’t it? When the stakes are high, when we speak of things with substance, when we put ourselves out there, it’s terrifying. I’m the graduate of an MFA program and I’ve published a book, but I still get nervous sharing a new piece of writing. I’ve had a weekly phone date with Rebecca, my best friend from college, for years, and I’ll still hesitate momentarily before diving into the “real” stuff once we’ve covered pleasantries and chit-chat. I’ve been teaching for nine years, but when the time comes to get up and speak to students about things that matter to me personally, my heart pounds.
Those feelings, those cues of risk, those are how I know I’m into something good. Where my excitement over taking on something new intersects with my fear of screwing up or being rejected, that’s where true aliveness is. That’s where I am being most me, creating instead of existing on autopilot. And the more that’s at stake, the bigger the potential payoff.
So it was in rehearsal yesterday, my second session with the cast. We covered a lot of ground between last week’s and this week’s session: institutional racism, mass incarceration, the intersection of poverty and crime, mandatory minimum sentences, the “war on drugs,” implicit bias, the overloaded public defense system, punishment v. deterrence v. rehabilitation, solitary confinement, the death penalty, the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, DNA exoneration, issues related to reentry & recidivism, and treatment of juveniles. We looked at statistics. We watched videos. We read articles. We discussed.
After the first session, they had so many (good) questions, which they wrote on note cards and passed in as we wrapped up, all pretty glazed over and exhausted by the material. Hard conversations are hard. They’re confronting. They’re intense. They require us to “be” with things that we don’t want to be with. Often, we are implicated. Often, we resist.
But then something happened yesterday, as we recapped what we had discussed previously, then built on it, me bringing in new material to try to answer their questions, them processing and taking in the picture that was starting to develop for them. They opened themselves up to it, let the material affect them, despite the difficulty. They began to feel, to grow angry, to get fired up. I thought they might want the session to finish early, to take a break from all of the hard stuff we were discussing, but they just kept going, with their super-smart questions and their thoughtful discussion and even a little bit of ranting. They made plans for how they would share this material with other students, to make sure what they had learned informed the context of the production. “I had no idea, Ms. Mehra. And now I want everyone to know.”
Let us not talk falsely now, the hour’s getting late.
FIVE-MINUTE ARTISAN BREAD
Very barely adapted from Zoe Francois & Jeff Hertzberg via The Splendid Table
This is, like, the least trendy food thing I could post about—bread! With gluten in it! Quelle horreur! (It does have “artisan” in the title, though, so maybe I get bonus points?)
Our friend Lisa (or as Shiv calls her, “Seesa”), of Blue Heron Farm fame, mentioned this recipe to me a while back and I pulled it out of my memory file a few weeks ago when I came home from an epic grocery shopping trip only to realize that I had forgotten to buy crusty bread to go with the bone marrow I was planning to roast. I had SWORN that I would make that grocery store run last a whole week, with no dashing out for extra things, but it just seemed wrong to eat bone marrow on Almond Nut Thins. So I texted Seesa and she rescued me with this super-easy, super-gratifying recipe.
Note: you can keep the dough in your fridge for up to two weeks, which we did, baking off three separate mini-loaves over that time period. All of them were tasty, and were consumed quickly, but the last one—which I baked off on Monday night to accompany shakshuka for dinner—was my favorite: tangy like sourdough, with a loose crumb and super-crusty-crust…I think this is going to become a staple in our house.
1 ½ T dry yeast
1 T Kosher salt (if using a finer-grained salt like table salt, you’ll need less)
6 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra
*Note: start the dough at least 5 hours ahead if you want to bake some off the same day.
Pour 3 cups of lukewarm (a bit warmer than body temperature) into a large, plastic container with a lid. Mix in the salt and yeast, then, using a large spoon, mix the flour in gradually, stirring until any patches of flour disappear. Resist the urge to knead! The dough will be wet and loose—partially cover and allow the dough to rise at room temperature (for at least 2 hours or up to 5). At this point, refrigerate the dough (fully covered) for at least 3 hours, or up to 2 weeks.
When you’re ready to bake, you’ll need to complete the following steps, give yourself 1 ½-2 hours lead time to work through the following steps:
-Place a broiler pan on the bottom rack of the oven, and a baking/pizza stone on the middle rack. Preheat oven to 450°, allowing the baking stone & broiler pan to heat up for at least 20 minutes.
-Sprinkle cornmeal liberally (and I mean liberally!) on a pizza peel. Sprinkle the dough and your hands with some flour. Pull out a grapefruit-sized (~1 lb) piece of dough with your hands and work the dough in your hands for about a minute, turning and stretching it, creating a ball-shaped piece. The top should be rounded, with folds and pulls incorporated into the bottom.
-Place the dough on the pizza peel and let it rest, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes. (If you wish, you can shape all of the dough this way and freeze it in 1-lb portions, defrosting it overnight in the fridge the day before you bake.)
-Dust the top of the dough with flour, then, using a serrated knife, slash the top of the dough in three parallel, shallow cuts. Slide the dough off of the pizza peel and onto the baking stone. Pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the broiler pan and close the oven quickly to trap the steam.
-Bake until the crust is brown, crackly, and firm to the touch, ~30-35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before enjoying!