Photography

My wife, Laura, is one of the most esteemed photographers on the east coast of the United States. I have little doubt that one day, in the near to distant future, that she will be exhalted in books that will bear her logo and sing all honest praises of her dedication, work ethic and eye for those moments that most of us don’t see. I know I constantly amazed by her perseverance for new techniques, attraction for backgrounds and attention to her clients wants and needs.

Me? Not so much. I have been spoiled to no end by having her as my photograher for all my blog stories. I was just recently booted as a client – She no longer has time to follow me around while I make up my mind as to what needs to be captured via digital media. We are complimenting souls, in our respective gifts, as small as they may be, but hers pay the bills. So, she gave me her old camera, bought me new batteries, a charger and a digital downloader for pictures. As soon as they are delivered, (on our new and improved driveway!!!) I will begin a new era, in which I will take most of my own pictures. I apologize in advance, but I am excited, and Laura is a bit relieved. Don’t worry – if you see an increase in quality, it is because Laura is a bit more involved than normal. Wish me the best, and I’ll try to get back on top of posting!

Tupperware

Shut the front door!” With an upcoming new child on the way, I’m working very hard on excusing my French, which, after years in coal mining and construction, can be quite unexpectedly explosive and shocking, even to me. I am trying with all my might to get the Tupperware, of all kinds of brands, to please stop sliding out of the darn cabinet. It’s not working. I throw another piece back in, try to close the door, and here it comes again, a veritable mystery of slope stability. How on earth can a pile of plastic, so similar in size, shape and engineering fall so quickly and so fast? A study needs to be performed, but in the dearth of will power and funding to launch a coefficient of stability research project, I form another and deeper question. How on earth did we accumulate so much of this stuff? I’ve never bought it. Not ever. I can’t recall one single time that I walked into a store and thought, “You know what I need? TUPPERWARE!!”  Nope, it’s just always been in my closets and cabinets, just lurking, ready to jump out on me with no matching lid just as I am trying to be more diligent on being green and skip the Ziplocs in order to save something that I will likely never eat. Another thing, what is it with the lids??? Where do they go? With the sock monster? I don’t put the Tupperware in the dryer, so where do the lids go?

While sitting on the kitchen floor, swearing under my breath in determination to find a lid that matches a container that is perfect to hold my chicken meatballs that I have sworn to eat, most likely late at night while watching reruns of “No Reservations” I begin to think about how awesome it is that I have this much of the iconic reusable containers. This pile of plastic doesn’t represent excess. No! It represents countless cookouts, family get-togethers, birthday parties, Sunday dinners, gravy and biscuits, leftover barbecue and the love of family and friends. For you see, each piece of this pile of plastic originated in someone else’s house, picnic or church barbecue. My mother, your mother, someone’s mother thought enough of her family and guest to ply them with leftover wonderful goodness, which may or may not cause some nausea late at night – ever ate leftover deviled eggs that have been sitting at a church picnic for hours? In the sun? In August? Well, I have. There is little doubt that I will again. You pay for it, but, they are sooooo good.

So, I realize, that this pile of non-recyclable sealable containers with no discernible lids in sight is the most recyclable things in the world. Not only do they represent a culture of kindness and sharing here in the South, they are the greatest gift one can give – a piece of love. Sealed in a container, with the best of intentions.  I am at once thankful for my pile of plastic containers, and ashamed. As a Southern cook, I have no business having this much Tupperware. I need to give some away. Filled with love. I’m out, Ya’ll. Come see me sometime, and I’ll send you home with a container full of leftover fried chicken. Most likely sealed with plastic wrap, as I won’t be able to find any lids.

Heaven

I came home today famished. I’ve been working on research as to why Mountain Lake near my town here in Virginia is going dry (their claim to fame is that “Dirty Dancing” was filmed there). I have been plagued for the last few days with a stomach disorder – isn’t it ironic that someone so addicted to food can be so susceptible to the smallest of oddities in food? Not that it has ever stopped me. I once carried a rotten corn dog obtained off a rotating spit in a dirty convenience mart all the way to my brother’s house, just so “He could try it.” You know what? He did. With the same reaction I had. I careful sniff, then a small snarl, as to say, “This is nasty.” Then, a tentative bite, followed by a bit a gag. Then, for some unknown and stupid reason, a full bite. Then a full gag, and a confirmation. “That is nasty.” Why in God’s name are you eating that? I have absolutely no idea.

Laura is good for me. She gives me the little head shake now when she realizes I am about to eat something stupid. Like a fried soft-shelled crab sandwich with mayonnaise on a buffet line 500 miles from the ocean. Or a chicken salad that has been sitting in the sun for two hours. Or the rotating tubes of meat in any convenience store. The aforementioned soft-shelled crab had me stranded in a small town for nearly four hours, out of fear of losing sight of a restroom.

Today, though, is different. My stomach finally relinquished it’s siege on my body and during my work as a geologist (I think I need to put that out there, I’ve been getting funny looks when people ask what I do), I experienced a full on hunger. Starving. Stomach growling. The other researchers could hear it, and offered me snacks, like honey buns and snickers and raw hot dogs. Geologists are remarkably unpicky in their food choices. To all of such offers, I said, “Nay.” For I had a plan. I also had the ingredients.

We have a loaf of fresh, homemade sourdough bread in our kitchen. Along with Homemade pickles that are just two weeks old. Fresh lettuce from our garden and basil from our herb pots. American cheese cheerfully bullies its way around it’s more expensive counterparts in the meat compartment of the fridge. The most important thing: We have heirloom tomatoes that are ripening RIGHT NOW in the garden.

I finish my sampling, throw myself in the truck and drive wildly home, soil samples sloshing everywhere in the back of the truck. I throw open the door, and pick the biggest, reddest, most wonderful tomato that I have ever seen. I carry it inside, carefully, for this is a truly magnificent moment. I wash it under the sink with the tenderness of a mother with her newborn child. I dry it. Oh, yes, this is about to get R rated. I slice it, almost paper-thin, drooling over the juices seeping out of this wonderful fruit. I spoon a slight tablespoon of mayo onto a ready slice of sourdough bread, smother it with the slices of tomato, and season lightly with truffle salt. From Spain. I then top this growing masterpiece with my own Zucchini pickles and onions, layer with American cheese and one more slice of yellow tomato. With a sprinkling of lettuce and a mound of basil, this is orgasmic. I haven’t even eaten it yet. My stomach is growling – but I am a hard, hard man. I put this wonderful mecca of flavor into the toaster oven, and I wait. Five minutes. The bread is perfectly toasted. The cheese is melty, but the tomato, oh, the wonderful tomato, is still decadent and firm. I slice this masterpiece into two pieces, on a diagonal. I take a shivering, delightful, wonderful – bite.

Then I fainted. I think. I woke up and the sandwich was gone. No worries, I have more ingredients, and I can do it again! Next time, I’ll take pictures!

A Foodie Fourth

For our fourth of July this year, Laura and I make the drive to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, near the towns of Trappe and Easton. Her parents have a wonderful new house right on the bay with plenty of crabbing, sailing, kayaking, dock jumping, motorboating, and of course, amazing food. We begin our journey with a stopover at Pho Dyong in Centreville, Va, just east of the D.C. beltway. It is, as usual, speechlessly good. We have photographed the place so much that we’ve stopped, but just drool over this bowl of delectable goodness below. It never ceases to amaze me what a talented cook can conjure up with something so lowly as leftover bones, yet our human family has been doing that for generations. I do it at least once a month, but it never tastes anything like this! Although, I have to admit, Laura has pulled it off at home more than once.

With blessed little turmoil on the beltway, bay bridge and Rt. 50, we arrive in Trappe at our families home in a pretty amazing 7.5 hours. That’s after we stopped for lunch and more or less obeyed the speed limits. After the customary goat cheese and crackers, Momma Sue pulls out all the stops with a wonderful tossed salad with homemade jalapeno dressing, crab cakes, broccoli casserole and baked fingerling potatoes. All the vegetables came from their local Amish Market, which I love and they caught the crab themselves! We pile together on the couch to try to watch the new “Anger Managment” show, but Charlie just isn’t impressing any of us. We soon drift off to our respective bedrooms to get ready for the next day.

Five a.m. finds us casting the lines off Dorothy, Laura’s Dad’s wooden workboat. One of only two left in existence, his is the only one that is still used for it’s original purpose. Normally it takes us a couple of hours to catch a bushel of crabs, but the crab Gods aren’t with us today. We run about a thousand feet of line into the lime green waters of the Bay, with rotten chicken necks threaded through the line every four feet. We cruise back and forth, hoping for some crabs to be dangling as the rope rolls over the roller, but no such luck in this location, despite Laura’s vigilance. We decide to move locations and are almost immediately awarded by five big fat Jimmies. We wrangle about half a bushel in five hours or so, declare it too hot and head for shore. We clean up Dorothy, throw Axl over the side and empty the crab traps. Yeah! Another dozen or so. I beat a hasty retreat from the heat, which is pushing towards one hundred and wander out to Oxford, MD in search of new crab tongs. Axl, in his excitement, has knocked our only set off the dock. He was busily trying to get his nose clawed off when his back foot sent the tongs into space. Oh, well. He thinks he is half a dog, with no recollection that anything exists behind his front paws, unless something itches back there.

We rest in the dead heat of the day, which is pushing towards 100 degrees with a heat index projected at somewhere around 110 degrees. I list about in the sheen of the humidity when it is necessary to go out of doors, as the thoughts of working in this heat are overwhelming. We’re awaiting the arrival of two of  Laura’s uncles from Atlanta, who have informed us that it is over 108 degrees and that they are advising people to not breathe the air. What? I don’t think that I would want to move somewhere where I was advised to not breathe the air. They all arrive without incident and the overwhelming vote is to move our outside eating area inside! There are fourteen of us at this family gathering and Laura and I are briefly are the center of attention, a fact that makes me wildly uncomfortable. The staff of the restaurant are more than happy to oblige, and before we know it, great plates of steamed Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs are arriving at our tables, along with hush puppies, slaw, enough old bay to build a spice bomb, ribs, oysters and shrimp. The family is always amazed at how this mountain boy can keep up with such a gorge of seafood, but I have to remind them, this is hard to get where I come from! I can’t dangle a line off a dock with a chicken neck on the end and drag up a succulent Jimmy! A big-mouth bass, maybe. A blue crab? No.

The next day is just as hot as the former, although we try to make it seem less so by saying over and over that it just seems cooler this morning. None of us are fooling anyone, as the humidity makes the two degree temperature drop seem even worse.

We eat and we laugh and stories are told and lovingly re-told, as they are in families who love one another and care about the nuonces of one anothers lives. They are a close family, and I feel special to be included in the wonderful group of people. We arrive home safely, only to be awakened by one of the most powerful thunderstorms I think I’ve ever heard. I hurry down to check on Axl, who is completley non-plussed by his surrounding and the inclement weather, but he’s nonethess happy to see me. I put ice in his water bowl and we watch the storm together. This is a little different from the storms we have. This means business. Axl seems nonplussed, so after a little bit I just leave him be. He heaves a big sigh of relief as I walk away away and flops into his bed. Apparently, I was the one in need of a bit of comfort, not him.  Dogs are awesome.

I fall back up the winding staircase and down the exposed hall to my room as best I can in the utter darkness, punctuated only be shears of lightening, which seem to be hell-bent on spoiling my adult driven belief that there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark and big houses aren’t spooky. Nonetheless, I’m creeped out a bit when I reach our bedroom and flip on the bathroom light. Laura yells, “Turn that light off!!” So much for that. I slip into bed, a bit chasticized by my fearfulness.

It turns out that my fears are founded. Our stone mason from home called us the following morning to let us know that our drive was blocked and the power was out. We’re relieved to be where we are, on the water and in a house with AC, but I worry for a moment or two about the food in our freezers – but, how bad can it be? (More on that later – just trust me, it was bad!) The fourth of July party was an absolute success. Momma Sue hired a local caterer to help out with not only the food but cleaning and with outside entertainment by Justin Ryan and a belting rendition of “Chicken Fried” by Uncle Bruce, the night was mostly complete. We all pitched in, led by Miss Mary and cleaned as best we could and the house was mostly back to normal by the time we went to bed! Thanks to all the Baldwins for a wonderful time!

Perception is Everything

There is something soothing about canning/preserving food that you have grown yourself. I’m five quarts into pickled zucchini and two of beets – my tomatoes are all blighting, so I’m picking them green and canning them as is. The exterminator just left and was stammering a bit as he explained the bill. I was wondering why he was nervous when I did a self-check on the environment in which he stood. To my left was the interior components of a remote helicopter that Laura bought me which I have crashed repeatedly and am attempting to put back together. My hands are hopelessly stained with beet juice, leaving them a bloody red, reminiscent of an Egyptian princess, if such a person were six feet tall and weighed, well, way too much. And had a beard. I am holding a 10-inch chef’s knife, with a sharpening steel on a dishtowel to my right. My canning pot is clicking merrily behind me and Axl is watching the poor guy intently as Laura pounds away on her keyboard in the background….I guess I’d be nervous too. Our road is completely washed out from the storms and a cement mixer is in a our yard, along with about three tons of stone for an outdoor kitchen that I will someday make. He informs me that they will bill me by mail, and this is the last time that I will see him.

I wave goodbye from our porch, just in time to see Stubbs snag a mouse from the road drain. Maybe we are a bit scary.

NYC, Here I come!

I have a confession to make: I don’t like New York City. That seems like sacrilege to so many people, particularly those in the writing/entertainment/artsy fields, which, due to some weird twist in my life, I now identify with. Instead of talking mining, construction, foundation design or other such manly pursuits, I now find myself in strange, convoluted discussions on writers block, or “Where do you come up with your ideas?” I tell myself daily that I actually used to be manly, but I am afraid that many of the men that I now write about would be horrified by my career choices. Once upon a time, not that long ago, I was more comfortable with an axe than a keyboard, now the prospect of intense manual labor makes my arthritis ache. What was once a strong back is now a canvas for strange knots and pain. Like a man I once knew said long ago, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself when I was younger.”

But that has little to do with NYC. The Big Apple. The destination of choice for so many that are in my line of work, the foodies, wanna-be-writers, restaurant critics, fine diners and tourists. Personally, I would rather be set on fire and forced to eat at 7-11 than go to NYC. Yet, with some strange magnetic pull, I am about to make my seventh (or is it the ninth?) trip to this horrid place.

The one place that I hate more than NYC is Northern Virginia, or NOVA, as you so call yourselves if you happen to have the ultimate misfortune of living there. NOVA is more horrible than any other place on earth, or at least more horrible than any other place that I have been. It is a place utterly lacking in character, ransacked by crazy single females and dreams of a day without traffic. What was once an extension of the Shenandoah Valley and part of the proud heritage of the South and the Valley and Ridge Province no longer bears any resemblance to what it once was. It is now a festered hell of strip malls, townhouses, depreciated condos and software conglomerates. No one in their right mind would call such a region home, yet so many do. In a recent education class, a pitiful (in that I took a brief pity for her plight, until I realized she was proud of it) soul proudly ensconced that she was from NOVA and missed it so much, for there was so much shopping to be done there.

As she ranted and raved about how wonderful NOVA was in comparison to SWVA (Southwestern Virginia, not to be confused with Southern West Virginia, trust me, you’ll just make everyone mad if you make that mistake) I began to feel a bit betrayed. After all, she had chosen to move here for some reason, right? If shopping is a priority, then move back to NOVA. I said as much, but she didn’t stop talking. I’ve noticed that about people from NOVA. They don’t stop talking. Ever. It’s annoying. I suggested once again that she move back to NOVA – and she ignored me once again. I then chose to ignore her back, which worked wonderfully. I no longer had to listen to her. Who needs shopping? I have the internet, when it’s working at my house, and I can log on in quick bursts to order things that I need from Amazon, who delivers in two days. TWO DAYS!!! Who needs a store when I have one-click buying power? Ha! Take that, NOVA!

Back to NYC. I’m not sure which I hate more – the tourists, or the people who live there. On the one hand, you have badly dressed, overweight, mostly white people with “I heart NY” t-shirts and overpriced, underperforming cameras draped over their narrow shoulders vaulting off buses to shamble about snapping digital pictures of things that their friends informed them that “They just HAVE to see” reminiscent of some badly filmed zombie move. On the other hand, you have slim, badly dressed (I feel that designer flip-flops and $200 white t-shirts are a sign of absolute stupidity), smug, I-Phone using natives rushing to some destination that they simply must get to RIGHT NOW as they snap pictures of the overweight tourists with the afore-mentioned phone for self-righteous entertainment later with their like-minded friends in an over-priced 300 square feet apartment. Whom to hate? Both. The presence of either herd of people is a sure sign that you will have to search high and low for good food.

Yet, that is ultimately why I continue to frequent both places. NOVA, that terrible hell of a place, is home to large groups of immigrant people, who have been kind enough to ignore our propensity to food that is mass produced, frozen, thawed and heated in a microwave. Instead, they cook the food that reminds them of home, introducing amazing cuisines in the enclaves of the different ethnic groups of people. The best Vietnamese Pho I’ve had in my life is in Centreville, VA, smack in the middle of everything I hate. Traffic, hordes of people, overpriced housing – yet there it is, in a tiny strip mall, a Mecca of Vietnamese food.

The best Mexican food I’ve ever had is in Bethesda, MD, just outside the Beltway of our nation’s capital. There are six so-called Mexican restaurants within driving distance of my house, and each and every one of them serve the same blasphemous mix of beans and rice with mystery meat and cheese sauce. Are they giving rural Americans what they want or are they making fun of us? All I can say is that every single day, every one of those restaurants is packed. After all, you can get all you can possibly shovel into your skull for $4.99, not including a 60 ounce drink. In contrast, the restaurant in Bethesda serves authentic chicken with mole sauce for about the same price along with a host of other wonderful and delightful dishes.

Despite my hatred for both places, NYC offers some of the best cuisine on earth. Hike off the beaten path, get away from the two groups of people described above and you will find authentic food that will grow your soul. Laura and I watched a tiny little Asian lady make dumplings at nearly the speed of light one morning in Chinatown and it was almost orgasmic. Hell, it was orgasmic. We were nearly salivating over the tiny, doughy morsels of goodness as we gobbled them on the sidewalk, awash in a sea of throngs of people hurrying to their destinations. We ate Peking Chicken, and then flipped the town for homemade pasta in Little Italy. We had the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life, and then endured massive throngs of tourists on our way back uptown.

So, I am preparing to venture once again outside my comfort zone. I will leave my loft office and my SWVA home and endure a flight to NYC. I will be angry and comforted, pleased and confused, lost and satisfied – all at the same time. I will eat amazing cuisine, have a near-confrontation with someone I don’t know, embarrass my wife and learn yet again to appreciate the unfamiliar and the amazing. NYC, brace yourself. Here I come.

Juicelessness.

My grandmother had some very interesting terminology for a lot of things: A refridgerator was a “Frigidare” regardless of brand. Any and all cooking oil, regardless of composition, is “lard.” The term pickles could refer to anything from cucumbers to watermelon rind. Bacon was “fatback” and day old biscuits were “tack.” The woodshed was the smokehouse and the dog run was referred to as the chicken coop. Everyone knows that “lightning” refers to moonshine, but the most confusing thing to me as a kid was the term “juice.” When I was a little kid, she told me watch out for the electrical outlets as there was “juice in that box.” When you are five, juice generally refers to things that are good – not something that will hurt you! Imagine my suprise when I finally got the outlet cover off to discover pretty wires and no juice. My mother was horrified that I could actually remove an electrical outlet cover with a penny. You have to admire a five-year-old’s commitment to juice.

I’ve learned that no juice equals pure misery in this heat. We returned from Maryland to find our power out and an entire freezer of meat ruined. Seven trash bags – gone. I nearly cried while throwing away farm raised rabbit, duck, chicken, pork and beef. I might have been hardest hit by my chicken stock – I had gallons put away. While it’s easy to make, stock does take time. There is something soothing and comforting about homemade chicken stock. It wasn’t easy to pour it all down the drain, but I couldn’t risk poisoning Laura!

Some things I have learned in the heat with no juice:

1. I’m glad we live in the country. The mountain air is wonderful at six a.m. after a listless night of suffocating heat.

2. Standing under 58 degree spring water in 98 degree weater is one of the most delightful things I have ever experienced.

3. Cats hate the heat. Stubbs is mad at everything.

4. Our water usage is off the charts! Our gardens alone are using 40 gallons/day, a fact that I am most aware of since I started carrying it in buckets. Factor in showers, toilets and sink water and we use far more water than I ever thought. It’s a good thing we have a well. In my defense, the gardens use most of our water – but we get food from those, so I can’t complain.

5. Air conditioners rule. Even Laura, who can tolerate and thrive in conditions that would make a camel gasp, agrees.

6. Watching T.V. makes it less hot, somehow. Our generator won’t power the whole house, but it will run a few fans, the fridge and our television.

So, life is better with juice – but it is tolerable without it, particularly under spring water.