This is the time of year when I often find myself asking, What month are we in again? because fall feels like spring, or mid summer maybe. It’s confusing, but in a benign and kinda comforting sorta way. Anyone else have this problem?
But moving on. Right now I am…
Celebrating… the start of sweater weather. I love cold weather, wool socks, toasty fires, and hot chocolate. And speaking of cool weather, I’m gearing up by. . .
Rewatching…Ted Lasso. It’s funnier the second time around, never mind I’m still missing a good 10% of the dialogue. (I’m looking at you, Jamie Tartt.)
Waking up… earlier and earlier, which makes no sense since it’s so dark in the morning and I’m still going to bed at the same time.
Drinking… coffee three times a day instead of two. Because: see above.
Organizing… my life. I just ordered spiral-bound folders for all my random projects and a single notebook in which I intend to keep track of myself, à la a bastardized version of bullet journaling, which a friend recently briefly summarized to me and I realized I could probably benefit from. Any bullet journal fans out there?
Teaching myself… some (very) basic graphic design via Canva, a ton of YouTube tutorials, and loads of messing around. Canva has so many more options than Snappa (which is what I’ve been using for my YouTube thumbnails), plus Canva is much more intuitive and cheaper. I’m actually enjoying myself, which says a lot since I’m not that keen on techy stuff.
Wondering… how long it will be until my toenail falls off? I don’t remember getting injured so I imagine I was probably cleated in Ultimate a few months ago. The nail is almost entirely a mottled purple, and there’s a new one growing in under it. Mostly, I don’t think much about it (keeping it painted helps me forget about it), but last Sunday when I was playing Ultimate, my toe was too tender for cleats, so partway through the afternoon I had to take them off and play in bare feet, which felt much better but was also terrifying, thanks to the way-too close proximity of everyone else’s cleated feet, eek!
Struggling… to get my next batch of clabber going, what the heck? All it involves is setting milk out. How is this not working?!
Eating… not enough vegetables. I’m craving greens and sweet potatoes and big salads. I could solve this problem, I suppose…
Strong-arming… my husband into making me a floating hideaway desk so I can have a two-monitor office in the main part of the house without having a pair of large blank screens staring me down when I’m not working.
Eagerly anticipating… getting the call from our butcher telling us to come pick up our pork. My husband took Fern and Petunia in last week and they will return to us as a variety of ground sausage, bacon (both Canadian and traditional), and a few butt roasts and hams, plus all the lard and bones which I’ll spend hours rendering and processing in the coming weeks. I can’t wait to find out how much each of the pigs weighed.
Waiting… to see how the slow-growing pigs taste in comparison to fast-growing pigs before we decide which kind of pig to get next. Because according to moi, having pigs is mandatory if you have a milk cow.
Bottling … my sour cherry mead, or at least I will be as soon as I can convince my husband to help me. I am so excited to have it in easy-to-access bottles for sipping and sharing.
Wanting… a good memoir to read. Something thought-provoking and well-written and attention-grabbing. The last good one I read was Take This Bread by Sara Miles which hit three things I care about: Nicaragua, food/cooking, and hard theological questions. Plus, the cover always made me pleasantly hungry. Suggestions?
Mid-afternoon on a Saturday a couple months ago, a group of twenty-some people from our church showed up on our doorstep for a farm tour.
We all crowded around the kitchen island while I explained the basics of cheesemaking, showed them my clabber culture, and stirred rennet into a pot of warm milk for a batch of cuajada. My husband explained the milker and then, while the milk set up, took them down to see the milking shed and the cows.
While they were gone, I began making corn tortillas, and when they came back up to the house, my older daughter took over the tortillas while I showed everyone how to hand-squeeze the curds and mill in the salt.
And then I made them do it, too. “I can’t do this myself,” I said. “Come help me.” And then when they hesitated, I got bossy. “Go wash your hands. NOW.”
The cheese made, I showed them how to eat it: place a hot tortilla on a plate (or your hand) followed by a scoop of red beans and a thick wedge of cuajada. Tearing off a piece of tortilla, use it to scoop up some beans and cheese. One of the guys had brought a bunch of shishito peppers from his garden and cooked them up in a cast iron pot with oil, salt, and lime; the perfect pairing to the beans, tortillas, and cuajada.
While they ate, I set out a bunch of other cheeses for them to sample, including a huge wheel of Pepper Jack which was an absolute flop (so much for showing off, ha!), and then I bandage-wrapped a cheddar for another little demo.
And then everyone left and I washed the kitchen floor.
When it comes to cheesemaking, messing up and second-guessing myself is my norm, so talking to people who don’t make cheese but are super interested is a delightfully jarring because suddenly I’m aware of just how far I’ve come. Talk about a nice little ego boost!
And I love the teaching component. Cheese is such an ordinary food and yet most people know very little about how it’s made. It’s not that I expect anyone to begin making their own cheese at home on the regular (though they certainly could!), but simply exposing people to rennet, cultures, cheese presses, and aging caves is something that is not readily accessible for most people — and that’s super fun. The steeper the learning curve, the more gratifying the climb, right?
In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that now I’m toying with the idea of offering cheesemaking workshops. I mean, nerding out about cheese for a few hours with a group of interested folks, and then eating it together, sounds like a pretty darn wonderful way to spend an afternoon…
(And I bet my floors would get cleaned more often, too.)
People have occasionally commented that they wish I’d do a cookbook, an idea which has never really appealed to me because: a) my recipes are always based on someone else’s recipes (I’m not a recipe developer), b) it’d be a lot of work, c) who needs more recipes?, and d) all my favorites are already on the blog.
For the last 15 years, this blog has been a dumping grounds for my cooking experiments, discoveries, and trusted favorites. I’ve published the recipes mostly for my own benefit; it’s my personal record, as well as a handy family resource, and I reference the (ridiculously extensive) recipe index almost daily.
But then both my older daughter and my niece told me (rather aggressively) that I ought to make a hard copy of the recipes because they’re sick of looking up recipes whenever they want to make something.
scribbled recipe notes to eliminate computer scrolling
And the truth is, I’m kinda sick of searching my blog, too. The sheer quantity of recipes is overwhelming. The search bar feature is awkward and clunky. The index is disorganized. It would be awfully nice to have a streamlined binder with all my favorite selections. But would this sort of thing — a PDF of favorites that people could print off for themselves — even appeal to anyone besides me and a few family members?
this week’s menu
Obviously, narrowing down the list to just my top 30-50 recipes would be a struggle. Maybe I’d have to do several docs, like one for breads, another for main dishes, and another for desserts? I don’t know. I’m just brainstorming…
But now I’m curious about two things: 1. How many of you actually cook from this blog? 2. If you do, which top three recipes do you reference most often?
Thing One: A Celebration For our 27th anniversary, I drove to the jobsite with warm chocolate chip cookies and mint iced tea because my husband is always trying to get me to come to work with him. We sat under the tarp for a bit and then I watched them measure things for a bit before growing bored and going back home.
And then a week later, the kids arranged for an all-paid fancy dinner date. When our daughter-in-law: when she texted me about the meal, she said, “So as Anthony Bordaine said, ‘Order the steak rare. Order the oyster. Have a Negroni. Have two!'”
The evening came complete with an uber pick-up and a stack of cards that arrived at the table with our dessert. How sweet is that?
We almost never eat out at a menu restaurant, and I soaked it up: a local cheese board, duck soup, salmon, plus drinks, coffee, and dessert. We ate for two hours!
Thing Two: An Article I enjoyed this NYTimes article in which “the world’s happiest man” shares his three rules for life. I particularly appreciated his perspective on the compassion: “If someone beats you with a stick, you don’t get angry with the stick — you get angry with the person. These people we are talking about are like sticks in the hands of ignorance and hatred.” I struggle with the impartiality of compassion, so thinking of people as sticks is helpful for me.
Thing Three: A Podcast My mom introduced me to Wiser Than Me, a podcast in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus interviews women who are, well, wiser than her.
Julia is a fantastic interviewer (though a bit dramatic and sensational at time), and I love her little personal stories at the start of each interview. The discussions are wonderfully rich and nuanced; I think I’ve listened to them all (I fast forward through the ads). A couple of my top picks are: Fran Lebowitz, Jane Fonda, and Isabel Allende. Check them out.
Thing Four: A Movie A few weeks ago, we watched The Swimmers for a family night movie.
I thought it was going to be mostly about swimming, but it turned out to be an in-depth look at the Syrian refugee crisis through the story of two sisters, professional swimmers, who make the terrifying journey from Syria to Germany. It’s a long movie — we had to watch it in two sittings — and intense, though not scary. The acting is excellent, and the story’s an important one. Highly recommend. (Probably most suitable for ages 17 and up.)
Thing Five: A Quote One night during rehearsals for Tiny Beautiful Things, the director quipped, “Strong and wrong!” about someone’s acting choice, and I busted up laughing.
(painless) Ultimate bruise
Strong and wrong is now my new go-to for everything: When I hurl a frisbee into the top of a pine tree. When I hip-hop to the wrong beat. When I go after Ferdinand and get kicked in the shins. When I stir 15 pounds of honey into a pot of red raspberries and rhubarb for another five-gallon batch of mead. When I pummel the bag with a series of rapid-fire hooks in kickboxing. When I write vulnerable blog posts.
It might not work, and it might even be a disastrous mistake, but strong and wrong is about making a choice and then just going for it, full-steam ahead. Sometime I fail, and many times I don’t.
In fact, I’m frequently surprised at just how often it turns out right.
Look what we found in the field the other evening!
My husband and I were munching potato chips on the deck and enjoying the evening breeze when my daughter came out to grab some chips and, just before she headed back inside, she looked down at the field. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing. “Who put a calf in our field? Is that a calf? THAT’S A CALF.”
So then we all went sprinting down to the field and, sure enough, Emma had her calf!
I’d been home all day and I still somehow managed to miss it, grr. I’d thought she wasn’t due for a few more weeks, and she looked so much smaller than Charlotte (who is due a month after her), so I hadn’t been paying her much attention. Even when my husband said that Emma had some discharge, it didn’t register.
the little family: Mama, sister, and baby brother
We named him Ferdinand. He and Fiona are full siblings.
In case you need a crash course in the state of our small dairy (it’s kinda hard for even me to keep straight), here’s a rundown:
Emma: A2A2 Jersey. Beginning lactation. Fiona: a Devon-Jersey cross, Emma’s second calf. We are planning to sell her this fall as an open (not pregnant) heifer. Ferdinand: a Devon-Jersey cross, several days old. We’ll castrate him and either sell him or raise him for meat (though now that we named him Ferdinand, I sorta feel like we should keep him a bull, ya know?). Butterscotch: a cross of some sort that my daughter bought from a local farmer. Bred to a Devon and due in a few months (and currently living at our friend’s farm where she hung out with the bull). We are planning to sell her this fall as a bred heifer. Charlotte: A2A2 Jersey, due in the next month or so.
Fiona has the most spectacular coloring.
There’s nothing quite like a newborn calf to kick our non-farming butts into high gear. The very next day my husband stayed home to clean out the milking shed . . . and wage full-scale war against the rats that have taken up residence under the floor mats.
They flushed the rats out of the walls where they hid and chased them back and forth between the milking shed and the goat shelter.
Lots of screaming and hollering was involved.
It was quite the entertaining morning, what with all of us circling the shed armed with shovels and logs, and excited dogs (who proved their mettle).
rat carcass headed for the burn pile
I mean, seriously. Who needs a roller coaster when you’ve got scrabbling rats to give you a thrill?
The ladies are porking up quite nicely. They go for slaughter later this month. I have a feeling I’ll be swimming in lard.
Now I’m trying to convince my husband to get two more pigs. I mean, with cheesemaking ramping up, I’m gonna have buckets upon buckets of whey, we might as well put it to good use.
This time, though, I think I want regular pigs, not these slow-growing Guinea hogs. Unless their meat is exceptionally delicious, I don’t really see the point in feeding pigs for 18 months when I can get as much meat from feeding them for half the amount of time.
And here’s a shot of Charlotte.
She’s so big she looks like she swallowed a small car. I’m a little concerned she might be having twins. Her last pregnancy was twins that she miscarried at about six months, and I’ve read that cows that have twins often have multiple twin births. I might have the vet come out next week to check on her.
And finally, with the milk tsunami fast approaching, I knew I had to get my next batch of mead going right away (I use my cheese pot to start fermentation), so I spent the rest of the morning blending up a vat of red raspberries and rhubarb and stirring in the honey like some sort of sweet witch.
As with most of my projects (writing a book, having babies, my YouTube channel, etc), it’s good I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first started. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have dared start because, it turns out, making mead is quite the production: a whole lotta of Doing Nothing mixed with Frantic Research, Last-Minute Sourcing of Various Tools, and then bouts of All-Kitchen-Consuming Mess.
For example, after getting the fruit a-fermenting in my cheese pot, we poured the five gallons of fruity sweet syrup into a carboy and then set it aside for a couple months. Once the violent bubbling ceased, we realized we had to rack it, which meant getting it from that carboy to the second carboy (that I’d borrowed from a friend) without letting in any oxygen.
I sent out a request for empty wine bottles on Facebook and then spend a week soaking the bottles in the buckets in the downstairs tub and then, bit by bit, scraping off the labels. (And then my husband stepped in with his utility knife and a razor scraper and Goo Gone and sped things up considerably.)
I figured I’d have to backsweeten the mead (which is the process of adding a little more honey water or sugar prior to bottling along with some sort of chemical thing that keeps it from fermenting and blowing up once it’s in the bottle) because when I’d tasted the mead a few weeks ago — a process which had required yet another purchase: a pump to withdrawal some of the mead without disturbing the fruit — I thought the mead was dry, dry, dry, which surprised me because: fifteen freaking POUNDS of honey.
tasting the mead at two months
But then I tasted the mead when we were racking it and it tasted much sweeter — perhaps because I was tasting the middle-bottom part and not the very top? In any case, I decided there was no need to backsweeten. So we just went ahead and racked it into the second carboy for now.
And what does the mead taste like, you ask? Bear in mind that I’m no connoisseur, but here’s my best shot: it’s light and mildly fruity, with a hint of almond. It doesn’t taste like sour cherries (though every now and then I do get a whiff of cherry), and it’s more strongly alcoholic than I expected — it sorta has a vodka-esque vibe. It kinda blew my socks off, honestly. I mean, I JUST MADE FIVE GALLONS OF ALCOHOL, isn’t that wild?
Since everyone around me turns up their nose at it (because none of them like wine), I’m eager to have other people try it. Is it horrible? Delicious? I need more opinions. Tasting party, anyone?
Technically, I could rack the mead straight into the bottles — and we did fill two bottles because there was some extra mead (my second carboy was smaller) — but now it’s in the second carboy, we’re just going to let it age a little longer. Sometime in the next few weeks I’ll rack it into the bottles.
The alcohol content is as high as it’s going to get, but the aging process should mellow out the flavors. I can drink the mead at any point, and I have been, but technically it’s not ready for six months to a year.
4-5 pounds sour cherries (I used 4 pounds 13.5 ounces), all of them pitted but for a handful 2 lemons (the rind, seed, and white pith removed) 60 (20 grams) organic raisins 15 pounds raw honey 5 gallons water
Now that the play is over and I’ve had some time to process the last month and a half, I’m ready to say more. Here’s what I haven’t told you: For the duration of the show, I dealt with panic attacks and anxiety.
This was the second time I’ve dealt with this. The first time was a few years ago when I was the lead in another play in which, over the course of the rehearsal period, there were a series of unfortunate events that gradually caused my routine theater jitters to morph into panic attacks. Being in front of people has always made me intensely nervous (just reading scripture at church, I get queasy, short of breath, and shaky), but I’d never dealt with anxiety or panic before until, suddenly, I was completely engulfed by it. By the time I began to get proper medical care, it was already too late: my brain was so flooded that it was impossible for me to trust myself to be present to the role on stage. A few days before the show went up, I made the excruciating decision to step down.
I was shattered. Never before had I lost myself so completely. My mind was . . . gone. I had no perspective, no grounding, no center. I was like a different person entirely. The whole experience was utterly disorienting.
Since then, I’ve been in another play (though not as the lead) so I thought I was over it, or that the experience was just a freak incident or something to do with perimenopause or whatever. But then during the first rehearsal for Tiny Beautiful Things, I had a panic attack. I didn’t let on, but by the time I got home that night, it was full-blown. All my nervous excitement had been replaced with sheer, gut-wrenching terror. I felt trapped. Frozen in place. Like someone was pointing a gun at me and I couldn’t move.
Right away, I knew I had to rethink whether or not I could proceed.
The very next day, I met with the director. “You can do this,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I absolutely believe you can, but I will never ask you to do something that doesn’t feel right to you.”
This play is lowstakes, she said. In fact, she had just three priorities for the play and they were, in order of importance:
1) Healthy actors. 2) A fun and safe rehearsal space. 3) The play.
“What if we get two weeks into rehearsals and I have to back out?” I asked.
“Then someone else will take the part. Actually, I’ll go ahead and privately arrange for you to have an understudy.”
“What if we get to opening night and I can’t do it?”
“Then the play doesn’t happen but so what — it’s just a play.”
“Do you want me to keep trying?”
“Yes. If you want to.”
I wanted to.
I contacted my medical provider who put me on antidepressants and helped me figure out a schedule for the anti-anxiety medication that would keep me stable enough to function. I found a local therapist and began weekly, and sometimes twice-weekly, therapy sessions. (The therapist confirmed I was having panic attacks and that the situation was, what she called, a “trauma echo.”)
The next several weeks were touch and go.
I was riddled with crippling self-doubt. My legs shook. Panic melted my insides and I’d freeze, awash in terror. I moved gingerly, afraid any sudden movement might make me shatter. I didn’t talk to people (except for a couple close friends and my therapist) because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was dealing with. I didn’t do publicity for the play, and the director held off attaching my name and face to the show for as long as possible. I ate like I was sick — toast, tomato sandwiches, granola, and not much of any of it. I stopped running since being short of breath triggered the panic. I stopped working at the bakery because even with the anti-anxiety meds, I couldn’t shake the soundtrack of impending doom, a feeling that was intensified by the repetitive work of sheeting out pastry dough. Even watching TV shows or movies made me queasy, so I mostly quit those, too.
It was a horrible feeling, knowing that the play revolved around my role and I might not be able to do it.
As Sugar, I said the following words daily for over a month:
How you get unstuck is, you reach. Therapy and speaking with friends and support groups will help, don’t hold it inside. Get it out, talk it out, cry it out. But know this, no one else can make this right for you. You have to reach for your desire to heal. True healing is a fierce place . . . and you have to work really hard to get there.
But when was the “reach” too big? Just because something was hard didn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, but just because something could be done didn’t mean it should.
How far was I willing to push myself? When was too much too much?
A friend asked me how I felt about needing prescription medications to do something for fun, something voluntary. It was a good question, and one I asked myself many times over the last few weeks. Because I definitely wasn’t having fun. Unlike the rehearsals for other shows, there was no joy in it, just sheer terror.
Why was I doing this if it made me so miserable?
But here’s the thing. I knew I loved acting (or I did at one time). I knew I wanted to do the role. I was being handed an enormous gift: a compassionate, actor-centered director, a fantastic, meaty role that I cared about, and wonderful castmates and crew. If ever there was a time to work through the pain of that earlier experience and regain trust in myself, now was the time. I had medication and a no-nonsense therapist. I had the time and freedom to hunker down and work through this issue.
And I had my husband.
Typically the one to rail against my harebrained ideas and high-energy vibes, my husband never — not even once — suggested that I quit. Instead, when I’d cry that my head was going to explode and I couldn’t do it, he’d remind me that I have a pretty big head. When I’d bellyflop on the floor and wail that I felt like I was crawling out of my skin, he’d crouch beside me and knead the backs of my thighs. Late at night when I’d whimper, What if I can’t? he’d say, But you can. He’d remind me that I had a different director this time. She thinks you can do it. Listen to her. And as I’d stoically gather my things to head out the door to rehearsal, he’d do his best impression of Shia Labeouf and roar, “JUST DO IT,” and then grin.
Each night after pre-show warmups, our director had us gather around Sugar’s office rug, plant our feet on the floor, put our hands on our chest, close our eyes, and repeat each phrase after her:
I take from the earth (I take from the earth) All that I need (all that I need). I take from the heavens (I take from the heavens) All that I need (all that I need). And when I have it all inside me (and when I have it all inside me), I give it away (I give it away).
And with the last line, we’d open our eyes and extend our hands.
Each day, I’d find myself thinking about that meditation, craving the moment when we’d stand in a circle and repeat those words. This show wasn’t just about me; it was about the people who came to see it as much as it was about the people performing. Theater was about connection. In each show, I was giving myself, in a very real way, to others.
The switch from viewing theater as Performance to Gift was huge. I’d done the best I could and now it was time to let it go.
Producing this play — swallowing huge swaths of text whole and then delivering the words back into the world — reminded me of childbirth. Each day as the evening rehearsal or show approached, I’d feel myself pulling inward, steeling myself for the 90-minute mountain of words and emotion I’d have to scale. Each performance left me exhausted and drained, relieved, sometimes sad and sometimes exhilarated, always proud. I could do this. I was doing this.
How incredibly satisfying to finally be doing The Thing that I honestly didn’t know I could.
Did I mess up? Yes, many times. Did I blank? Yes, but only for a millisecond, and then the words would appear, hanging before me ready to be spoken. Did my brain flood? No. Medicine is amazing. Did I mangle the words? Yes, and then I adlibbed and kept going and it was fine.
There is still so much I don’t know.
Will I forevermore deal with crippling panic and anxiety when it comes to performance? I don’t know.
With this play, did I successfully prove to myself that I can be present on stage even in the midst of self-doubt? I don’t know.
Next time, will I need medication? Will there be a next time? Do I even want to act again?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
celebrating with the cast and crew
I debated sharing this story here. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I don’t want people to worry. I don’t want people to feel awkward watching me in future shows (if there are future shows). It’d be so much easier to just skip this whole topic and move on to more cheery, fun things like making mead (coming soon!).
But! If I allow people to believe that acting is all rainbows and butterflies then I’m lying by omission. If I’m gonna talk about stuff, then I have to actually talk about it. I’m not a superhero. No one is. Hard things are hard, and we owe it to each other to tell the truth.
Keeping this scary part of my acting experience a secret does me a disservice because HOLY HECK LOOK WHAT I JUST ACCOMPLISHED, and it does the people who know me a disservice because it implies that I’m more “together” than I really am or that the things I choose to do are easy for me.
To quote Sugar one more time, “We have to let the people who love us see what made us.”
This play both wrecked and made me.
after the first show: me and the director photo credit: the assistant director
Yesterday, these two, ages 17 and 19, headed off for their second first day of school, this time to Blue Ridge Community College.
Their first first day of school was ten years ago when we were in Guatemala and they attended Colegio San Francisco Javier de la Verapaz.
That time they were (almost) 7 and 9, and their private school classes were conducted in Spanish.
So this time, the day before their college classes started, my husband said, “Oh yeah, we forgot to tell you, they only speak Spanish at Blue Ridge,” which made me bust up laughing because my husband and I are still shaking our heads in amazement at how we threw out kids into not just school, but an all-Spanish one, cold turkey. But the kids didn’t even get the joke, so I guess they weren’t too scarred by the experience…
Anyway, now after a lifetime of non-traditional education, they are finally heading into the classroom where they’re gonna learn to juggle backpacks, note-taking, textbooks, and lectures. I’m so excited for them. I think they’re gonna love it.
And then my daughter-in-law joined the photo shoot because she is also heading back to school — for nursing!