Heritage or Choice?

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In the earlier days of my ahem, career, I spent hours and hours at a computer screen, working through calculations and building models of “Remnant Stress/Strain Across Mineral Surfaces in Basalt”, or simply yet another report for a geotechnical engineering firm that simply has the title “Geotechnical Engineer Report and Recommendations” or whatever other term was legally safe to use at the time of the said report. I spent most of my days as a manager putting out fires and managing the clients expectations of what they expect of us (Everything), what they’re getting (Nothing) and how much will they pay for it (As little as possible). I also worked with dilatant micro fracture deformation analysis, which is a very complicated way of saying, “This rock is strong enough to build a skyscraper on. Yep, sure is.” As a scientist and engineer, my whole brain would be screaming out hard numbers and assessing the actual weight that the foundation would support, while our legal staff would be trying to reduce any and all liability for damage to as yet fictional structure.

You’re already bored, right? I was single for a few years while living in Washington, D.C. and “What do you do?” was probably the first question that I would get asked in an evening, if out on the town looking for members of the opposite sex or at a convention for other engineers. I became quite tired of the identification of as a person through my chosen career. “That sounds so EXCITING!!” said one pretty blonde girl one night at a bar that was so loud that I could not hear myself think. It was that kind of girl at that kind of sports bar, and if you’ve been to one in the NOVA, D.C. Metropolitan Area, then I’m sorry for you. You’ve just visited them all! The girl dancing kind of alone, but with a friend at arms distance, her lips fixed on the straw of a drink she didn’t pay for by a guy who has moved on already. She was dressed in an alarming tight dress and the disconnect between her eyes, her drink and me was unsettling. I knew that what I did wasn’t EXCITING!!!

The truth be told, I didn’t really know what I “expected to be in five years.” It bothered me to even answer that question. Really, how many of us, truth be told, know where they expect to be in five years down a lifetime career path? Not very many of us, I would assume, but not nearly as many of us who are prepared to answer that question. We’ve been groomed for years on what we should say in order to get a promotion, or be taken seriously, by our response to that very question.

So I gave up on using the line, “Engineer” in any part of a personal description of myself. Instead, I substituted dinosaur hunter, Chief of Native American Resources Reallocation, and my personal favorite, A Golf Caddy for (insert name of random golfer here). That always got the best reaction, along with Test Pilot for Ferrari, on leave from Italy to Baltimore to verify company specifications for turn three.

What I really enjoyed was cooking, but nobody had ever suggested that to me as a viable career path. Mostly, because the family I grew up in regarded cooking as a woman’s job in the house, not a real job for a real grown up man. I was self-taught, mostly through burning things and trying out horrible taste combinations on my unsuspecting girlfriend of the time. She actually thought that pushing around another man’s long sticks as he whacked innocent balls with them all day was, in her words, “SO HOT.” This was usually accompanied by a flip of her hair and roll of her eyes, as though blundering around in all sorts of weather carry another man’s junk was somehow more appealing than engineering.

I mostly agreed. There is a terrible miscommunication of monetary expectations in our society. From pipefitters to welders to steel work to masons to engineers to lawyers – ask deeply enough and the reply will be: “This is as much money as I felt I could earn based on my socioeconomic status and race during my early formative years.”

Except for cooks. Cooks choose to be a cook. Not for the money, not for prestige and certainly not for the money. The misconception that cooks make a lot of money, is just that – a misconception. Thanks to years of celebrity chefs with or without giant boobs, most people think that you must make a lot of money – certainly more than you need, otherwise why would you work so long, so many hours, in such a cramped working environment, with people of questionable backgrounds and laundry lists of crimes in their past?

At the end of the day, when everything is packed up, put away, cleaned, dishes thrown more or less in the vicinity of the dishwasher, every cook will admit they just loved it. These are people who ENJOY it – because nobody else will do it! Cooks are so isolated in their world of other cooks that they become the lost souls, the ones that really do the work in the kitchen. They rarely have advanced degrees in anything respectable, but you might be surprised.

I was working with a Dishwasher years ago, a huge, scarred guy with numerous tattoos and a gold earring. He always scared new people a lot, and made most everyone else nervous. He had a way of looking through you instead of at you, as though you were wasting his goddamned time that made everyone nervous. Let’s put it this way: He washed dishes because he WANTED to. He said that he liked to wash dishes, that it was a “job with instant rewards.” He took great pleasure in a giant cast iron pot with burned onion, garlic, various herbs, the remnants of previous pasta sauces and god only knows what else and getting it clean. It would be, too. Shiny and seasoned, as if it had spent its life as a centerpiece beside a great fireplace that was never lit, but instead had logs arranged just so inside of it.

He and I were spraying down the kitchen floor late one night, or early one morning, depending on who you asked. There is a difference in staying up all night and rising early before dawn. Up all night is usually not accompanied by anything that will make you feel better. Getting up early can be one of life’s great experiences, especially in a nice hotel with an outdoor hot tub. Staying up all night can end well in a hot tub, but you still aren’t going to win any nice guy awards the next day.

I don’t remember which of us fell in what category, but it was a time when I could have been in either. He was happily pressure cleaning with the business end of the cleaner and was not quite as cheerfully sweeping and mopping behind him. I didn’t mind being there, and certainly not the work, but I didn’t exactly volunteer for it either. He had. Anything nasty, dirty, demeaning or dreaded by anyone – he would take care of it. In my world, my early world in coal mining at least, these types of people were the leaders, the unspoken and unsung hero who would work under some truly nasty, carcinogen filled environments, the ones who would dive under water looking for an abandoned pump set in a flooded out area of the mine, the men who were there, like some sort of battle scarred angel when the shit had truly hit the fan.

This man was like this. It took me years, decades even, to realize that most people will, if it serves their purpose, gladly throw someone like him under the bus if given half a chance. I’ve made it a point to try to remain that person – the person who can get things done. No matter how jaded or irritated with staff or corporate employees, it always felt better after I took the best shot that an adverse situation could throw at me.

He talked that morning, rambling and rather disjointed, just filling up empty air. I wasn’t really listening to anything other than the tone of his voice as I worked, so when he asked the question I hate so badly, that sent my nerves racing and thoughts scattering, I responded with the truth. “I think,” I hesitated a moment, but only as a remnant piece of pride suddenly jumped as if it had been asleep. “I think I am, and always have been, a coal miner.”

He threw his head back and roared with laughter, fluorescent lights giving him a forgiving look, kind of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or the characters they assumed. I was a bit alarmed – then I realized I was crazier than he was. “Well,” he said, “that explains everything.”

I watched a Daisy Duke wearing redneck girl sling her leg over the back of his Harley a few hours later. He shot me a nod of acknowledgement, which I gave the appropriate amount of time to register his greeting by nodding back, ever so slightly. He gunned his Harley and reverberated down the unmarked, patched, county blacktop, waving at an old guy putting up square bales for winter. I saw his brake lights flash, then he pulled over. The little country girl squirmed sideways on the back of the bike as he dismounted to join the farmer tossing bales of hay into the back of his old ford truck. Well, damn, I thought. I’d probably go help them.

Kitchens and Hope

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There are hundreds, if not thousands or stories of addicts turned sober and living out the rest of their lives with no health problems, mental issues, relationship problems, or any other glitch in their life besides: “When I was in rehab…..” I’ve heard that song so many times and I am utterly grateful that their tale can mostly be constructed with so few words. I am also a bit envious. That is not the rehab that so many of us had.

My release from the final rehab facility was not quite that story. I was released hesitantly, the doctors reluctant to let me go home, my wife reluctant to allow it and I had every reason about the allusion of my health. If you drink, you will die. More doctors than one told me that and a few even a bit further: Even if you don’t drink, it is not likely you will live. Maybe. Time frame? There isn’t one. Take care of yourself, rest, try to take it easy, enjoy time at home.

With those words ringing in my head, my wife agreed to pick me up and take me home. Those first weeks and months were almost a nightmare. I did not get immediately better, as we had honestly thought. My wife was alternately furious with me and happy I as alive, but made sure that I realized that this was my last chance at my life as I knew it. Any more drinking, she was gone. I believed her. She never lies.

So began our rocky future, the first morning of feeding my son, of slowly regaining the strength to move normally and somehow fall back into normal sleeping habits. Everyone said to rest, to stay away from hard work, which until that point had mostly been a point of pride with me. No one ever called me lazy, sober or not. Especially not sober.

My wife was soon frustrated with my not contributing to the family monetarily and I felt as though I didn’t exist, at all. The kitchen saved that. By cooking, starting at mainly the bottom and working as hard as I could, I started to feel like a faded version of myself.

Then came bad news: My liver had not kickstarted as I thought it would. My wife and I fought a lot, over what I don’t really know. I speak of working in a professional kitchen as though I have worked in one my whole life, but that’s not really true. I feel like I experienced a depth of gratitude that I could do something like that, be counted on as me and me alone. I had no resume, nor did I give one. Every day is the first day of my resume.

My former life was gone. My titles, certificates, accolades and diplomas all went into the attic, where they belong. I met new people, swam in a smaller circle and made some amazing friends during my life in the kitchen – the first time that I had committed to something without an escape route. Most engineers spend about 25% of their time updating their resumes, comparing their salary with others, another 50% writing technical papers that are, regardless of what you are told, mostly boilerplate, another 20% or so waiting on something to be reviewed and maybe 5% actual engineering work. The kitchen required all I could give every minute, every second.

I passed out Easter Week and awoke to a new reality. I couldn’t work anymore, not in a kitchen, not as an engineer, definitely not as a truck driver (I hate to drive, so that’s out anyway) and certainly not as a line cook.

That was agonizing. Somewhere along the way I became personally vested in our restaurant. I felt needed and my abilities were improving. Before, when I first started, still hurting from withdrawals and an inability to organize things properly in a timely fashion, I was a train wreck. For the life of me I couldn’t remember from one day to the next what a hotel pan was. By the time I left, I could manage a line for about seventy guests, mostly alone or with the company of the so called dishwasher, who would swoop in to save me from time to time. I self-identified with being a cook, feeling as if I had done it forever, but with sense enough from going in over my head, mostly.

With my health mostly shot, I went from highs to lows, emotionally wrecked. My everyday relationships became hard to maintain, I was argumentative and annoyed. Wasn’t I supposed to be better? I was startled to find that addiction had one last parting shot for me: Hepatic encephalopathy. In short, my body was and will be a grab basket of toxins that the liver normally processes. I finally have an excuse for my forgetfulness! These toxins can storm the brain at once, triggering a whole host of side effects.

Where I was once loathe to take a once a day vitamin, I am now propped on up medication unless my liver begins to rejuvenate. I have no illusions, but a sense of stubborn invulnerability will probably never leave me.

The reality of the after effects of addiction is not a pleasant one, I’m finding. But there is always hope for those whose bodies and minds are wrecked after sobriety, there is today, for example, and most likely, tomorrow. I haven’t given up on a dream of running my own restaurant, although it seems like a daunting task. I had to back out of a cooking class the other day, and it was as if a nightmare had occurred.

As a parting shot to the book “In the Weeds,” I never thought I would write an entire book! My Mom came and stayed with me last weekend to help out with watching Nolan while I recovered from another surgery and the accompanying manifestation of ascites, which is always a fear for those suffering from health problems. I struggled through the pain and haze and feel that I am once again on the mend. For all of you out there determined to get through life after recovery, there will be bad days. But remember the pain of addiction? The constant fear of sobriety and what it might entail? Anything is better than that.

Mom told me today that she witnessed what she has always called the “Matney Genes.” She is talking about our unwillingness to give up. I think that is the first time she’s just said that without it worming its way into the conversation somehow. I think she hoped I have that will to live, but witnessed that I did have it this year.

So, the song of the kitchen, with all its work and toil and obsessions, still rings in my head. Other cooks may scoff, wishing they were on Food Network, but the reality is they love their work. Most of them don’t have resumes either.

Foodies and Reality

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I had an interesting weekend with my Mom. She rarely gets to stay with us, usually reserving her visits when I am staggeringly overmatched by our son, Nolan. I give credit to my mother for teaching me how to cook, how to combine ingredients, usually very cheap ones, in order to get the most calories possible out of them while still bearing some semblance of healthy food. She’s constantly surprised, I think, that the lard and pig fat that she bemoaned using when we were children, along with whole milk containing fat solids for fear of health risks is now showing to be the opposite.

She rarely cooks during these visits, which are usually short, maybe one night and the next morning, choosing instead to bring leftovers such as chicken and dumplings, cheeseburgers, potato chips, canned soups and other delicacies that are always at home in her pantry.

She was famous, as famous as you could be in a coal town in the 1980’s for her sourdough bread. All of us, her children, have tried with varying degrees of failure to replicate it over the past ten years. She kept the starter for nearly forty years, then one afternoon, just like that, she threw him away. We all bemoaned the loss of “Herman” as she had named him, but Mom was unfazed. “I don’t have the room, energy, or time to bake all that bread every week.” She added another sentence which stunned me: “Nobody really likes it. ‘Foodies’ as they call themselves, prefer to see that their bread came from a great stone hearth where hickory blazes.” She pointed at my firepit – kind of like that, she said.

She continued on: “I’ve cooked for over Forty years. Closer to Sixty. When I started cooking, we had too. We weren’t given a choice. I was shown how to make biscuits, once. My stepfather bounced them off the floor the next morning like rocks and I cried. Then I made better biscuits.” With words and expression and memories, she led me through a lifetime of cooking. She did not wax nostalgic. She did not remember the days spent harvesting hogs as being pleasant ones. “It was cold. My hands would run raw under the boiling water and my back would get so sore I could barely stand for days.”  She went on to say that the butchering would go on almost all night sometimes, especially if there were multiple hogs and it had been a good moonshine year. She said that she would finally manage to slip away in the night while everyone was drinking and eating heavily and sleep under the eaves of their house to get out of the smell of boiling hog, hair, moonshine, blood and mud.

She sharply remembers trying to save the partially cooked pigs one year when the festivities had gotten out of hand in the small hours of the morning. She said that men were beginning to stir about in horror as they realized that much of the meat that they had already sold on the hoof was now frozen in the early morning. She talked of helping get their fires restarted and water boiling, an arduous task under any circumstances, made doubly so by the lack of clean water and a roaring fire. They had to break ice in the local stream to get water boiling again, which took them up until nightfall on the second day to finish.

I remember the smell of fresh sourdough bread as I crept down my ladder in the mornings, knowing it would be hot and fresh and there would be sorghum molasses with peach jam made the previous spring. She remembers all these things too, but she also remembers how hard it was to feed seven children in the winter on a coal miners strike rations. I remember the smell of wood smoke with nostalgia and the endless splitting and harvesting of it with fondness. She remembers keeping a fire going at three in the morning while snow raged outside our door.

Once a summer, for two weeks, my mothers entire family would descend on the farm to pick, can, string, dig, pluck, dry, pickle, blanch and put every single bit of food available for us to feed our families. We would have jars and jars of chow-chow, pickled beets, carrots and cucumbers. We would can vast amounts of venison stew, freezer stored until canning where it would be prepared for the advent of another hunting season. My cousins and I hosted games of hide and seek, storytelling and speared fish in the local streams. We would try to gig frogs, another skill set entirely. It was our prerogative to return to shuck corn,  break beans, dig potatoes, pull carrots and other such chores that were safe enough for a dozen curious children to descend on.

We would go home for good after these two weeks, the adults tired of one another, the work and from chasing the kids around. The men would have long abandoned the tasks for more manly work, such as cutting the endless firewood required or checking the price of beef, pork and lamb obsessively.

My mom said she was glad that I had taken so much from my childhood and remembered it well. She is dubious over the term “foodie.” I’ve not liked the term or what it seems to now symbolize food as a hobby: as collecting restaurants, different meats and even chefs in their collective social media sites. I have noticed a growing trend of “Only Pictures of Plates.” As people wealthy enough to do so travel here and there “experiencing” local foods, it seems that something is being lost yet again. The art of cooking is dying, once required of the poor to survive, now enjoyed in upper circles of increasingly snobby so-called chefs.

Is our heart in the right place? I think so. We just need to remember that these things, these cooking methods and food items, are a product of a long lineage of hard work. The next time you take a selfie in a restaurant with your chicken liver, don’t worry if the black guy washing dishes thinks it’s funny. It is.

 

Spices, Hobbits and Such Matters

A long time ago in distant lands a burgeoning and wildly profitable spice trade existed. Spices traveled all over the world, ordered by kings and queens and no doubt by some of the finest chefs in all the lands, which weren’t known as chefs then but “The Guy That Tastes The Food To See If The King Dies” or something like that. Which wouldn’t really be that bad of a gig as long as you were sure of what went into the pot and you weren’t very diligent or exuberant with your thrashings and practical jokes on your subordinates. The old standby, a snake in a garbage pail can get you killed. Literally. It’s not funny when you’re on the receiving end of such things and I believe that, back then, whenever then was, there was an “eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth” law. I know I would encourage killing someone if they put a snake in my garbage pot, or hole, or wherever they placed garbage in these distant lands such as Arabia, Persia, Greece and so forth. I’m also sure that law was applicable in my own heritage, as they were all Cherokee Indians and Scots, who enjoyed the opportunity for some payback any chance they could get. On the other hand, it was probably great fun for Native Americans to find a snake in a pot as they would be thankful for both and just eat the snake. I would probably go with the Scottish tendencies in my gene pool and kill the snake and the  person who put it there.

But that is a another matter entirely. Like Two Dimensional Space Theory and  Ping Pong. As I was saying, a large part of a nations wealth was measured in spice trade. Spice wars raged, navigation became more accurate and thrones were toppled due to the rarity of certain spices. Turmeric, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, ginger and pepper were only a few of the spices that were traded over great distances, and inspired tales of violence, theft, fire breathing dragons, and no doubt hobbits.

The books don’t go into the Hobbit’s love of spice, but they did smoke a lot, and opium was at the top of the heap while trading for spices, so I’m assuming that they smoked a lot of it in their journeys, hence their fascination with rings and all the lies they told of treasure and glowing swords. I don’t think anyone is really for certain they smoked poppy as we don’t know anything about their behavior except in movies where they didn’t smoke very much but they did eat most of the time. They also spent a lot of time with “Wizards” and “Fairies”  and it seems they did a lot of crying while stumbling around in the smoke looking for one another. Given these observations, their fondness for opium was undoubtable, even if it doesn’t come right out and say so in J.R.R.R.R.R.R.R. Tolkien’s books. I think he must have been rather fond of the “spice trade” himself, given the number of languages he made up and all the meaningless poems that his characters chanted. Told you they smoked dope. If they weren’t eating, they were crying and sitting, or crying and walking through fire and smoke, which sounds exactly like sobering up to me. Then they were chanting and jumping around a few minutes later about mountains, gold, dragons and food and shit, so you tell me they weren’t drug addicts!

Anyway, how long has it been since you cleaned out your spice cabinets? After watching “The Hobbit” or trying to, with Nolan, I worried about our stash of spice. Did anyone want them? A quick search of Google revealed that proprietors within the spice trade were often executed in Europe when a new King or Queen took over the throne to conceal their sources for such wealth. I was furthered worried about the three of us when I found out that the most common method of execution for “Trading in Spices without Order of the King” was beheading!

In the interest of simplicity, Nolan and I had one rule: If didn’t smell, dump it. So we did! We quickly found that this leads to a lot of empty bottle and a lot of excess, non-smelly spice. Upon an executive decision, we determined that there was no value in all these spices so we tried to feed them to the cat. The cat wisely disappeared during our search for old spice, so were at a bit of a loss.

We bagged all the spice in a leftover Ziploc:

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As you can see, that’s a lot of non-smelly stuff that we had the potential to lose our heads over! We also found the main culprit, and disposed of him appropriately (by adding him to the bag, not by beheading):

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Now enters the question: What on earth can we use these jars for? Nolan’s first idea was bowling, but his preferred ball was a rotten tomato:

IMG_0824[1]After we cleaned up the mess, we decided on Nolanball (similar to Calvinball, except there were no balls, just empty spice containers and a colander that doubles as a bath toy). The Colander offered little to no head protection against the potential for invading Turks and Hordes of Dark Lords, so that game was quickly banished.

IMG_0829[1]After all this fun, we decided that the empty spice jars would make excellent containers for small cars, leftover olives, screws, bolts, and other such important treasures that boys and their daddies collect in their adventures as non-hobbits. Really, in versatility, they can’t be beat. Just don’t put any rings in them, smoke opium, or collect treasure. Nolan and I have to go get a pizza. All this Hobbit talk has made us hungry.

Peace,

RM

Words of Advice for the Budding Mycologist

Mushrooms in the field.

Mushrooms in the wild. Wily suckers.

 

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Mushroom hunting can become rapidly addictive, even if you don’t find anything but an occasional rabid bat and a possum in a trash can. I can tell you this about foraging for mushrooms: If your natural environment includes possums in a trash can, then you are probably not going to find many mushrooms, at least not the edible, good for you versions. You may find the slightly edible, hallucinogenic cousin of the edible wild mushroom, but don’t let that deter you too much. Tripping on mushrooms is probably (I wouldn’t know, honestly, but I’ve witnessed it) rather enjoyable with few side effects other than not realizing you are cold, wet, or hungry. If you find yourself in a Nazi prison camp, which is very unlikely, unless some of the new trippy scientific theories mean anything whatsoever, (http://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-government-researchers-think-we-may-be-living-in-a-2d-hologram).

Superior race and alternate history theories aside (I never understood the math behind either one of those concepts anyway) mushrooms are good. Excellent, even. After decades of being in the dark, mushrooms are exploding in popularity as never before in the United States. Chef’s will pay extortion level prices for them and not even blink, as they are in turn selling them to their customers and clients for even more outrageous prices.

When I was young, when the concept of a superior race and a flat earth wasn’t really all that new, but still feared in the aftermath of WWII and its associated horrors, foraging for mushrooms was something that the “hill folk” did. More specifically, the act was usually associated with witchcraft, magic, spells, lights of the moon and craziness. Mushroom tea was very popular, as it is now, and believed to cure most anything, much as research is showing now. Mushrooms in supermarkets such as Whole Foods and more discreet specialty shops and Asian markets have become not only popular, but very expensive.

It’s no surprise. Foraging for mushrooms isn’t really all that easy, but it’s not that hard, either. You have to accept before you attempt the endeavor that you may or may not be successful. We are talking about harvesting a very small portion of a giant living organism that never really dies, mates with itself, has the ability to generate alternate states of reality and can kill you on the spot if you make a mistake.

It’s a little overwhelming to sell them, barter with them or give them to anyone you may or may not know. After all, it would be terribly embarrassing to have one of your guy friends hallucinating while sporting the effects of other, ahem, “benefits” of the fabled mushroom.

Some of them are indeed slightly phosphorescent, much like phytoplankton at low tide on unpolluted beaches. Or the sand itself on polluted ones. This probably furthered the myth of witches and ‘shrooms, as it is a little unsettling to find an old lady mumbling to herself on a remote rocky outcrop in the dark of the moon with shiny teeth. Not that I would know, of course. Such a sight would be so rare now that I would have to at least talk to her and probably share her mushrooms. God help me the next thirty hours or so.

My Great Grandmother was famous for her molasses stack cake, her foraging abilities (she grew up in WV, so that was no joke back then), her ability to put up with my Great Grandfather and her uncanny ability to navigate and care for a house after she went completely blind. By all accounts, she was loved by everyone, even though, kidlike, I was a bit afraid of her as a young child watching black and white Tarzan movies on her monstrous T.V. Grandpa White was famous for a whole other set of reasons, one of which is rumored to be the best moonshine in the mountains, often laced with the mushrooms that Grandma would never eat, no matter how blind she was. I can’t imagine what a pint of that kind of ‘shine would go for these days, or what it would do to you. I would no likely live through the experience, but I can’t imagine a better way to skate into death if an asteroid was about to hit earth in an hour or so, or in one of the Nazi Prison camps.

Some hints for foraging:

  1. It’s more fun at night, in the dark of the moon.
  2. A cat, preferably a black Manx cat, is the perfect companion. They can see in the dark and are afraid of witches and hippies.
  3. If you fall in the forest in the dark of the moon, does it make any noise?
  4. Baloo is cool at night. Very scary though.
  5. Tree stumps are fun to sit on and contemplate two-dimensional, black matter inspired, computerized existence.
  6. Keanu Reeves starts to make a little sense, especially with the right mushrooms. Preferably red with white spots.
  7. Mushrooms are more active at night, holding mushroom séances, usually in reverence to the cat.
  8. If you have a sudden urge to go swimming, just close your eyes and hold your breath. The mushrooms will take over.
  9. If you happen to have happy ‘shine, only trust the shrooms the shine recommends.
  10. You will nap very well the next day.

All of this is just for fun, of course. Foraging for any wild plant has the potential to be a deadly experience. It also has the potential to be the most rewarding experience of your life, as you proudly return home bearing the fruits of your wandering about in the woods. It’s great exercise, puts you more in tune with nature and all that most people miss, and being glued to the ground makes you more aware of your surrounds than ever.

There is also the added benefit of trading mushrooms for produce, eggs, pie, and nearly anything else you can think of. Dress strangely during these days, don’t get much sleep and keep dirt under your fingernails. It gives you more credibility.

Happy Foraging!

-RM

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Thanks to Georgia Pellegrini, author of “Food Heroes” and specifically her chapter “Seeing the Forest for the Fungus.”

Nightly Wanderings

Stubbs keeping watch.

Stubbs keeping watch.

Evening Mist

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I turn my headlight out and I’m plunged into darkness. My ears, legally deaf, immediately take on that familiar change. It seems that I can hear everything in the familiar surroundings of the mountainside outside my home. My sense of smell gets sharper, all of which are nothing more than phantoms, memories of my childhood, when I used to slide out of our single-wide/shack of a house and fade into the night to be alone.

My eyes don’t adjust to the night as they once did. I wait impatiently, my sight fixated on the darkest point I can find, which is, at this moment in the dark of the moon, the ground. Out of habit, I count of the seconds in my head. “Nine, ten.” I look around and can still see nothing, just the glow of the campfire, built of habit and nostalgia earlier this evening, when the air took on the familiar chill of the oncoming autumn. I wait. In the darkness, I feel around for my log, which no doubt carries my scent like a beacon to the local wildlife. I hardly need to feel, for I have been here many, many times.

Night blindness fades to a dull gray, then to shades of black and white. The sounds of tree frogs and rustlings of small creatures enjoying their nightly freedom from the sun dulls slightly as my eyesight improves. “Nineteen, twenty.” My eyes are definitely getting a bit worse. Years of welders flash, the reflection of the sun off snow in the mountains of the west, coal mining and too much time in front of the computer and in the confined spaces of various office buildings have taken their toll. I could never hear anything to speak of anyway, and I spent most of my youngest years nearly deaf.

My sense of smell doesn’t betray me though. I can smell the leaf rot, the faintest scents of the hickory fire, now some distance from me, the topsoil, the mushrooms, flowering nightshade and the soft Appalachian mist. I wait.

As he always does, my cat Stubbs materializes into thin air beside me. In some ways he’s better than a dog. He’s more dependable, less distracted by unimportant sounds and smells and most importantly, he is an instant beacon of something amiss. If he suddenly vanishes during these nightly meanderings, something is not quite right.

One night it was our old friend the bear, whom I have started calling Baloo. We didn’t exactly chat, despite our familiarity. He knows more about me than I will ever know of him, and I wonder sometimes what will happen to him. Will he live out his days in the peace and solitude that he enjoys now? Something tells me he will not. He’s too big, the perfect trophy bear for something unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. I avert my eyes and wait until he wanders away. Woofing once as if to say, “I saw you first.”

There is no sign of Baloo tonight, not fresh anyway. Stubbs is giving the “All clear, now can we go?” look that only cats can give. Black as ink, he fades away, staying just within sight, following me, relentlessly curious of these occasional outings. I’m not feeling my best, and it’s unseasonably cold. I’m in search of mushrooms tonight, which have exploded out of the moist soil everywhere in response to the late season rains and cool weather. I have to be careful not to step on them, slightly glowing with phosphorescence in the black night. My goal is the top of the ridge, but it is a loose goal. I’m not out for physical exercise, but mental peace.

Not that I don’t have or am not at peace normally. My time in the mountains this past year have rolled years off my life. My mountain stride has returned and while I am by no means silent to the occupants of the forest, who normally give me a wide berth, but I have no doubt that few humans could follow me in the damp leaves and soft soil. I leave as little trace as I can out of habit. One person who could follow me, always, was my brother James.

He is the king of old school, chaffing at the bridle of work and bills, longing in his deepest soul to be free. Not free from family – he is the most family oriented person I ever met. Free in the sense of our ancestors, who poured their soul into the livelihood once available in these mountains, now as unoccupied in places as they have ever been. I feel the same, more often than not. My son wanders these hills with me in the early morning and afternoons, when our trips are much shorter, and more wondrous than I ever imagined. He and Stubbs are constant companions, never complaining, always seeing what I don’t. At a year and a half, every spot of soil, every insect, every rock, every growing thing is something wonderful to be experienced. He can discover more in a square foot than I can in an acre.

My hope is that these early experiences imprint upon his memory. No matter where we go, travel or live; I want him to feel free in these mountains. Am I greedy? Selfish? Perhaps. But I want him to remember the sounds, the feel, the terrain, if not consciously, then emotionally, on a deep level. The splash of mountain streams, still full of trout if you know where to look. Berries and mushrooms and wild apples and found pear trees are our greatest discoveries, which we then lug home to his Mom, who worriedly praises him for his catch. She, naturally enough, worries that he may eat something that could cause him harm. Or that I may fall and leave him alone. I do carry my phone on these outings, but not at night.

This night I only carried my standby – my old knife. It was given to me, as most of my knives were, by my Dad, who recognizes that there is still something unsuitable to modern life within me. My mother feels it most, I think, as she sometimes watches me gazing into the mountains with pure, unadulterated love.

I locate pounds of mushrooms and leave them be. I talk with Stubbs quietly of the magnitude of the night sky, unrestricted by light or particulates still in this part of the world. Before I know it, we have reached the top. I’m still working into my stride, making too much noise. I’m limping a bit, as older men who have cheated death too many times are wont to do. I tell Stubbs I’m sorry about the noise, but he seems to think it’s ok. He rubs his head on me as I flop down to enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains, the stars and listen to the river run below. He stands aside though, no begging or attempts to be held. He’s confident in his world here. It’s his. He is more at home in the night than I will ever be. 

Sweeping the day aside, my stride returning, I make my way home. I am not as silent as the cat, but I’m not exactly noisy. I leave no tracks that I can see, although I have no doubt that James could.

I sit for a bit on our swing on the outer edge of the clearing, where the tentative yard meets the forest. Our house looks warm and inviting and the fire is still glowing softly.

As my headlight blinks on, I return with a thud to the present and to reality. I turn to look at the mountains once more, and catch the light from Stubbs eyes briefly as he heads back into the forest, his real home.

Our house seems cramped and too warm. I slide up the steps to Nolan’s room and listen to his soft breathing. All is still and I am once again content. The pain of the day is purged and I will be able to sleep, eventually.

I shed my jacket reluctantly, putting it back in the shed so that less smell will carry from it. I hang my shapeless hat beside it and place the knife on the bench. Just like that, I have shed the night and answered my own call of the wild. Until tomorrow.

-RM    

So, You Think You Should Be A Chef?

ramblinron:

Authors Note: Another one of my favorites, written right after I was hospitalized for overwork :)

The most exhausted I've been in a long time. Three doubles, one day off, five doubles, up at daylight making cookies. Whew.

The most exhausted I’ve been in a long time. Three doubles, one day off, five doubles, up at daylight making cookies. Whew.

Originally posted on Ramblin Ron:

Chances are, if you are a reasonably good home cook, in that you own or aspire to own the finest of professional kitchen appliances, any pot or pan that is French, cast iron that is new and a chef’s knife that cost more than $150, you’ve had these words said to you after a successful dinner party: “You should be a Chef!” Your well-intentioned and undoubtedly tipsy dinner guest, after plying him/herself with your food, your liquor and the products of your work, and no doubt feels grateful for what you have done, jealous that their significant other is now attracted to you and irritated that your plates perfectly complimented the presentation of the meal and wine, down to the cocktail glasses.

You had all day, all week even, to prepare this feast and you are feeling pretty good about yourself. As you mingle with your guests, in your Williams…

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