Commonplace Book, 31 (Week 18)

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • She lives! The usual brownies and this Indian stew and my go-to cobbler with my trusty cobbler sous-chef, and this cornbread which will henceforth be considered my standard cornbread recipe. (Not for those who like a nice, sweet cornbread. Also, can we agree that corn kernels in cornbread are repugnant?)

What I’m reading:

  • The Fellowship of the RingI missed the Well-Read Moms book group meeting that discussed it because we’ve had a quick progression of houseguests and all my reading time has gone to visiting — a welcome change from the slow slog of first trimester. This is, I think, my third pass, and I love it more each time. Can I confess, as a woman with a child named Pippin, that I didn’t enjoy it much the first time, reading it in high school to impress J? My love for the brave melancholy that imbues it has grown with age, though. As someone says (Aragorn?) — my notes are pretty bad — “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.” Also, how is this for #homemaking goals?

“Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.”

She’s two tomorrow and they’re becoming friends and it makes my heart so glad

The Birth of a Cook

I come from a baking family. On weekends, my introverted dad would cheerfully stay home and bake a double batch of homemade bread, sending me and my sister to deliver the spare loaf to one or another neighbor. Everyone baked cookies, and brownies, and cake, and pushed the baked goods on each other until the leftovers got sent to my parents’ office, or, later, into the garbage disposal growing bodies of our high school boyfriends.

I wasn’t a cook at all until I got married, and it wasn’t the “Mrs.” title that pushed me into it – it was social pressure in rural Uganda, where people made fun of J for cooking, which is regarded as women’s work there. It helped, too, that I was very bored, and also that if we wanted food from home, we were going to have to make it ourselves.

So I set out to make things, and the limitations of ingredients (ground beef was the only meat I could buy by myself; the only cheese was a nameless frozen waxy wheel) and tools (an incomplete set of measuring cups, a single chef’s knife) made cooking approachable. In fact, when I returned back to the US to an empty fridge, a kitchen full of new registry bounty, and a grocery store that stocked everything all the time, I felt acutely overwhelmed.

In her excellent Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson argues, “Cooking can be a way of actively receiving the gift of food and actively participating in handing that gift on to others.” That was key for me. My parents had modeled baking delicious things and sharing the bounty, but now I learned that pleasure firsthand as I learned to make spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and Parmesan from those Pizza Hut packets sent in care packages. I started to make biscuits for J with canned cream, and saved jarred pesto bought with care in Kampala for a feast.

In Uganda, I’d search online on our slow internet connection for recipes with ingredients I could obtain: baked potato soup, cottage pie, meatballs, banana bread. For our housemate’s birthday, I made chocolate cake with painstakingly hand-whipped peanut butter icing, and chili with one of those spice packets my mother sent. For my birthday, friends smuggled the weird, half-thawed local ice cream into our freezer. Peterson observes, “When we cook we produce things to eat, of course but we produce something else too: acts of care.” When food from home was hard to come by, it became more clearly what it always is: a concrete currency of love.

For better or worse, I recognize my limits as a cook: I have basically no sense of smell, and it pretty seriously limits my ability to cook intuitively. (It’s hard to tell what you don’t have, but through casual experimentation we’ve found that I can’t discern tastes as sensitively as other people.) If it’s a success, I owe it in large part to the recipe; if it’s a flop, I can blame my nose, or the recipe author. But seeing cooking as a humble way to care for someone else frees me from all the things that might otherwise intimidate me about cooking: whether I can make it trendy or locally-sourced or Instagram-worthy. It’s just me, feeding people I care about.

Learning to Love Housekeeping (Snippets), 4

 

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Pippin the Worm Tracker. Spring has sprung! Rejoice to the fullest while you start to tackle the muddy fingers and tracked-in sand.

Things I’ve been fixing lately:

  • Dark Molasses Gingerbread Cake (I love me a cake you can make in a loaf pan; it just seems more manageable and everydayish; you can make this in that size by halfing it and following the directions at the bottom of the page.)
  • Slow Cooker Mashed Potatoes (for the days when you need your stovetop free and your taters ready to serve)
  • Pot pie. I made my first two ever in the last two weeks. I’ve had to cook up chicken both times, but just used whatever roast vegetables I had on hand. This time, my mom made the crust for me because she’s wonderful and pie crust is my Waterloo. I use this recipe as a template, although I deviate pretty widely on fillings.

Things I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • As I start to think about packing to move (ugh), this guide to implementing Konmari with kids is inspiring. (Right after reading it I snuck the books of Pippin’s I hate most into the charity shop bag, so win!)
  • Look! There are other people as obsessed with thank you notes as I am!
  • From Rainbow Valley, which I’m rereading at the moment:

“On the right the lights of Ingleside gleamed through the maple grove with the genial lure and invitation which seems always to glow in the beacons of a home where we know there is love and good-cheer and a welcome for all kin whether of flesh or spirit.”

(#housegoals)

Learning to Love Housekeeping, Pt. 2

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It’s an ongoing thing for me. It helps that I was raised in a family that values housework, in which both parents adopted and enjoyed certain tasks. (Except ironing, which nobody claimed.) It helps that I’m an introvert who also enjoys structuring her own time. But beyond this foundation, I’ve had a lot to learn — I was a pretty useless kid, and until I was about 25, I moved often enough that I never had to clean baseboards or ovens. (Though I really probably should have.)

Still, here are some of my professional (homemaker) interests at the moment:

  • Stepping up my bread game with ciabatta — I’ve been using this recipe, which is a nice baby step away from the bread machine. The first time we had it for dinner, J was completely incredulous when I told him I made it, and I love that it makes two loaves, so I can share one. (When we show restraint, that is.)
  • Compound butter — I don’t think I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I should. I’ve been making compound butter occasionally for the last couple of years, and this year I made it for Christmas. I bought two two-pound logs of Amish butter and softened it, then added sea salt and chopped parsley and a ton of garlic I’d roasted in the slow cooker. I tried to shape it into attractive pucks with a silicone mold (which I do not recommend — stick with little logs or balls), and gave most of it away for Christmas gifts. I froze the rest, and we are on our last couple bits, I think, although I keep fishing more from the depths of the freezer. Anyway, it’s been really nice to have it to break out when we have guests over, or to use in mashed potatoes, or to sauté something special. I loosely based mine on this recipe.
  • Compiling my own cookbook In the past couple of years, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of either a.) printing a recipe and then stuffing it on my cookbook rack or b.) just risking my phone (or laptop) to read the recipe online as I go. The stack has gotten so out of control that I now just print a new copy instead of trying to find the old one. So I’m putting together my own cookbook using Createmycookbook.com, which I don’t love, aesthetically, but it’s very straightforward and affordable.
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This is my first cobbled-together cookbook, which I love, but which is pretty well unnavigable, except by memory.

Also, because I was embarrassed after posting about it last week, I finally straightened up my (side of the) bedroom.

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I should really hang the bat print from my sister (which is framed, at least!) and tuck away cords better and so forth, but since it looks like we’re moving soon (!!!), I don’t really see the point. Still, my bits of the bedroom are no longer a festering wasteland of not-clean-not-unclean-laundry-and-baby-hazards, so that’s something.