Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts on 31 Days of Blogging

So, Blogathon #2 is at an end, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't relieved. It was a slog at times, no doubt. But like last year, I'm glad I chose to participate and delighted I was able to finish. I didn't do a round up post last year, but I'm going to follow the lead of several other blogathon participants and finish the month off this way. Tracy Doerr started it, and others who have followed include Jen Walker at My Morning Chocolate, Barb Freda at Babette Feasts and Kathy Murray at Out and Employed. Blogathon Coordinator Extraordinaire Michelle Rafter will include a link to all of them on her WordCount blog later this week.

So, here are a few things I learned/discovered/realized in these 31 days of blogging:

1.) Externally imposed deadlines work: I knew this about myself before and know it even better now. I work infinitely better with a deadline or some externally imposed structure. Why, otherwise, is it that I barely posted at all in April and then managed to do it every single day in May? Not that I would try to blog every day year round or anything insane like that, but I want to remember that taking up challenges like this works.

2.) It's much more fun when you have company: The camaraderie and feeling of being part of a larger group embarking on the same challenge was very helpful. The #blog2010 hashtag on Twitter helped with this as well as a Google group set up for blogathon participants. I enjoyed visiting new blogs and found some I really enjoyed, and, of course, I enjoyed having blogathon visitors at my blog. (Please come back once this is over!) I'd also like to do more guest posts. (Thanks, Lisa!)'

3.) Carry your camera with you every day: This is something I don't usually do but am planning to continue to do in the months ahead. In India, I always have my camera with me because I'm never sure what I might see. I'd like to have the same attitude here. Even in sleepy Western Mass., there are still surprises. (See the brief appearance of the AMHESRT sign and the sad toppling of a massive tree.) Even more locally, lovely things can happen in my own backyard. Having the camera handy makes documenting things (and blogging about them) much easier.

4.) Planning ahead helps . . . : At the beginning of the blogathon, I mapped out the month. That's not to say that I mapped a month of posts out ahead of time. (I can't imagine being that organized.) But I plotted out the first week of posts (even though I didn't post them all on the exact day planned), and I made a list of ideas in the categories I usually write about (food, gardening, books). As the month progressed, I moved ideas into the calendar and added new ones up top. I didn't write about every idea I had at the beginning, but I wrote about many of them, and having ideas in the queue, as it were, made it more manageable. I also kept some partially written posts on hand, some of which I finished and posted and some of which I didn't.

5.) But still leave room for happenstance: In my normal blogging life, I do this too much. I wait for things to inspire a post rather than planning it out ahead of time. But during this month, I realized that I would never post everyday if I left it to chance (that's where the planning ahead comes in). On the other hand, when things occurred, I wanted to be able to take advantage of them. I hadn't planned to write again on my love for the Delhi Metro. But when the NY Times ran a story on it, the timing was perfect to update and edit an earlier post about it.

6.) Have fallback categories of posts for when you need them: I don't think I would have made it through the blogathon without my various signs of the day, photos of the day, sentence of the day, poem of the day, etc, not to mention the always fun Wordles. On the one hand, these are probably less necessary when there isn't the pressure to post every day. On the other, I was delighted to have a reason to share the Infant Jesus Cement Blocks sign that otherwise is only seen by those standing in front of my refrigerator. And the chance to spread some Elizabeth Bishop love around can never be a bad thing, I don't think.

I think that's it for the moment. It's a sunny afternoon, and the garden awaits. I won't be back tomorrow, I can say with some certainty. But I'm hoping this stint of daily blogging will help me settle on a more regular posting schedule, so please check back in later this week. I promise not to vanish.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Poem of the Day

So, it's the next to last day of the blogathon, and the Sunday of a holiday weekend to boot, all of which seems to mean--I don't have much (anything?) to say. More organized bloggers than myself will have pre-written posts for these last few days, so as not to be in this predicament, but I didn't manage to do that.

So, today's post will have to be a poem, and one not written by me. Instead, I return to my beloved Elizabeth Bishop. This is from the earlier version of her Complete Poems, the one published in 1969. (A second edition of the Complete Poems came out after her death in 1979.) Apologies to any Bishop purists--the blog software isn't letting me space it exactly as she had towards the end.

And because this is one of my favorite pictures of EB, I'm going to use it again:

Under the Window: Ouro Preto

For Lilli Correia de Araujo

The conversations are simple: about food,
or, "When my mother combs my hair it hurts."
"Women." "Women!" Women in red dresses

and plastic sandals, carrying their almost
invisible babies--muffled to the eyes
in all the heat--unwrap them, lower them,

and give them drinks of water lovingly
from dirty hands, here where there used to be
a fountain, here where all the world still stops.

The water used to run out of the mouths
of three green soapstone faces. (One face laughed
and one face cried; the middle one just looked.

Patched up with plaster, they're in the museum.)
It runs now from a single iron pipe,
a strong and ropy stream. "Cold." "Cold as ice,"

all have agreed for several centuries.
Donkeys agree, and dogs, and the neat little
bottle-green swallows dare to dip and taste.

Here comes that old man with the stick and sack,
meandering again. He stops and fumbles.
He finally gets out his enamelled mug.

Here comes some laundry tied up in a sheet,
all on its own, three feet above the ground.
Oh, no--a small black boy is underneath.

Six donkeys come behind their "godmother"
--the one who wears a fringe of orange wool
with wooly balls over her eyes, and bells.

They veer toward the water as a matter
of course, until the drover's mare trots up,
her whiplash-blinded eye on the off side.

A big new truck, Mercedes-Benz, arrives
to overawe them all. The body's painted
with throbbing rosebuds and the bumper says

The driver and assistant driver wash
their faces, necks, and chests. They wash their feet,

their shoes, and put them back together again.
Meanwhile, another, older truck grinds up
in a blue cloud of burning oil. It has

a syphilitic nose. Nevertheless,
its gallant driver tells the passersby

"She's been in labor now two days." "Transistors
cost much too much." "For lunch we took advantage
of the poor duck the dog decapitated."

The seven ages of man are talkative
and soiled and thirsty.
Oil has seeped into
the margins of the ditch of standing water

and flashes or looks upward brokenly,
like bits of mirror--no, more blue than that:
like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sweet Mary's Rhubarb Oatmeal Bars

Earlier this month, during the first group blog day about our favorite blogs, I mentioned that I was rather in a rut when it came to food blogs. Not that my favorite food blogs aren't worth visiting often, but I was beginning to realize that I wasn't straying too far from them, which really is a loss, given the quantity and quality of food blogs around these days.

So, one thing the blogathon has done is broaden my horizons. First, it led me to Jen Walker's My Morning Chocolate, and Jen, in turn, led me to Sweet Mary, who, in turn, led me to these rhubarb oatmeal bars, which I made a few days ago.

Clearly, I enjoy cooking with rhubarb (see 2008's Rhubarb Season, 2009's Rhubarb Redux and this year's Rhubarb Roundup), but again, I was in a bit of a rut, falling back on my favorite rhubarb-ginger-lemon combination. And, to be honest, only the fact that I still had no crystallized ginger in the house kept me from using that combo again in these bars. (That has been remedied since I made these.) I decided, instead, for this first time, just to follow the recipe and (mostly) not fiddle with it. It was instructive--I learned a new tasty rhubarb combination--and also inspiring--even as I was making the recipe, I was thinking of ways to tweak it.

This recipe shares some traits with the blueberry crumble bars we all fell in love with last summer. There is an oatmeal bottom and a fruity filling. This time, however, the topping is not a separate thing but more of the bottom layer sprinkled across the top, simplifying the recipe and the dishwashing both. I couldn't resist a single tweak and added some chopped walnuts to the topping. Mary uses orange juice and orange zest, along with vanilla and some powdered ginger, to flavor the rhubarb, and it's a nice combination. There's a citrus tang, but it's not quite as tart as the lemon/crystallized ginger combo. I have to admit, though, that next time I probably will try them using crystallized ginger and lemon zest, just for the hell of it.

The dough, which you mix with an electric mixer rather than by hand, is rather stiff, and I had to actively press it into the pan. I probably used slightly more than half of the dough for the bottom and the rest on top.

The rhubarb bars were bubbling and crumbly when they came out of the oven. I let them cool in the pan before I tried to cut them.

I have two brief stories about the response to these rhubarb bars. I brought the bulk of them to the office barbecue. When I offered one to a chocolate-loving colleague, she said, "No, I don't care for rhubarb." But later, in the kitchen when we were putting things away, someone else was taking a rhubarb bar home, and my rhubarb-disliking colleague was milling around looking for something to take. I jokingly pointed out that she'd spurned my rhubarb bars, and she said, "Okay fine, I'll take one little taste." She cut off a tiny piece, ate it, and paused. "These are really good," she said. "Do you mind if I take some home?"

Since I had still had some left (this barbecue was very well stocked with food, including the largest cookie platter I've ever seen), I left a few for Alex in his fridge. When I asked how he'd liked them, he said, "I hated them. Don't give me anymore." And then he went on and on about how much he hated them. This is not like Alex, and it seemed that perhaps he was protesting a bit too much, that maybe this was more about his propensity to eat too many rhubarb bars than about the rhubarb bars themselves. That became clear last night when he said, "Those rhubarb bars I hated? Do you have any left?"

Rhubarb Oatmeal Bars
barely adapted from Sweet Mary

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened (1 stick)

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 cups old fashioned oats

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup walnuts (optional)


3 cups chopped rhubarb (1/2 inch pieces)

3/4 to 1 cup sugar (I used 1 cup, but 3/4 is also fine)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp ginger

1 tablespoon orange zest

3 tablespoons orange juice

1/4 cup water

Heat oven to 350. Grease a 13x9-inch baking pan with butter or non-stick spray. (I lined the bottom with parchment paper and lightly sprayed that.)

Make filling first.

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Dissolve sugar and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low. Cook until rhubarb has broken down and mixture has thickened a bit. The mixture should be like syrup (meaning not entirely liquid and not as thick as jam). This will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep in mind that the mixture will thicken as it cools, too. Cool for about 10 minutes.

While the filling cools, make the crust.

Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda together in a medium bowl.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add flour mixture and mix until fully incorporated. Add the oats and 1/4 cup water. Mix until crumbly.

Firmly pat half of this mixture into the greased baking pan.

Then, add the rhubarb mixture. Spread evenly over the crumble mixture.

Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture on top of the rhubarb. I added a half cup of walnuts to the top as well.

Bake at 350 for 25 minutes until it starts to brown. Cool. Cut into bars.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sign of the Day

If I had gotten my act together earlier (read: if I had either figured out how to use the new scanner at work or asked Alex to scan it earlier), I would have submitted this sign to the recent New York Times slide show of strange signs from abroad. Alas, I missed the deadline so will have to share here instead. This was taken in Nepal in 1990, on a trek with my friend Annie along a small part of the Annapurna Circuit. (There was a piece in the NYT not long ago about the road being built around the Annapurna Circuit, which just made me sadder and sadder as I read it.) Apologies that it's a bit dark--it must have been dusk when I took it. Click to see more clearly. Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Big Storm Knocked it Over

This is the second time during this blogathon that I was glad to have my camera with me as I left the Amherst gym. This poor toppled tree went down last night in perhaps the windiest, wildest storm we've had in years. (For reference sake, this is just down the hill from where the "AMHESRT" sign appeared briefly a few weeks ago.)

I went to sleep at about 11:15 p.m. and was woken up by the phone (Alex) at 11:30 p.m. Right when we were hanging up, the wind was picking up, and all of a sudden, the curtains in my bedroom streamed into the room horizontally, and my door slammed shut, startling both me and the cats. Intense thunder and lightning followed, and then, eventually, rain. The power flickered on and off. I closed the windows part way so that the curtains would calm down. The door slammed again. Even though I'd been asleep and wanted to be asleep again, I felt like I needed to stay awake until I was sure a tree didn't fall on my house.

When I woke up, aside from some small branches scattered on the driveway and across the yard, there was no damage. Greenfield, I heard, was under a state of emergency. Schools were closed, main roads were blocked, and people were asked to stay inside until things were clear. I went to work in Amherst as usual, and the trip over was uneventful until I saw the end of the street my office is on blocked off with pylons. Then I noticed that the parking lot was nearly empty and the building open but dark. When I went in, I found only my boss and his assistant, who looked at me, puzzled, and said, "Didn't I call you?" The power lines at the end of the street were down, and the electricity company couldn't say exactly when they'd be back up. Later in the day, I did some errands and saw more road crews, more closed roads and more trees down. That tree at Amherst, though, was the biggest one. The bottom of it was taller than me. I don't even want to think about how old it was. I was impressed that the grounds crew had managed to keep the driveway open:

All day long, everywhere I went, I heard people talking about the storm, what they'd been doing when the wind started blowing and the trees started falling.

If I were more organized, I would end this with a quote from the book that gave this post its title, the late, lamented Laurie Colwin's last (but not best) novel. Instead, I'll end with a quote from what is definitely not A.S. Byatt's last but might be her best novel, Possession, which also ends with a dramatic storm involving toppled trees and downed wires:
In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing Servant

When I saw the novel The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall at the library, I was torn. Obviously, I like mysteries and I like books set in India, but still, the concept made me nervous, partly because I feel slightly protective about books written about India--I want them to be good, and I worry that they might not be. It turns out that I had no reason at all to worry about this one. Hall has written an extremely entertaining novel, and his knowledge of India, and the way that tradition and modernity mingle and contradict each other, is extensive. He's also great with details and dialogue both; he has the rhythms and peculiarities of Indian-English sentences down perfectly.

Hall's detective is Vish Puri, proprietor of the Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Puri--known as Chubby to his family and friends--is a plump, rumpled, middle-aged Punjabi with a penchant for pakoras and a soft spot for safari suits and nicknames. (His assistants are known only as Handbrake, Face Cream and Flush.) Much of his business is taken up with routine matrimonial investigations, but when an honest (and seemingly innocent) Jaipur lawyer is accused of the murder of one of his housemaids, Puri takes the case.

While I enjoyed the mystery part of the story, I almost enjoyed more the details, especially of how Puri runs his business. I can't exactly say how realistic it is, but after reading/listening to many mysteries where the private investigator doesn't engage in anything wilder than a snack-food fueled stake out or the occasional car chase, I loved the complexity of Puri's operations. I love the idea, for example, that in his office (above Bahrisons book shop in Khan Market, where I've bought many books over the years) is a room with 9 phone lines, devoted solely to incoming calls from cases. Tending to the lines is a member of an amateur dramatic society from Greater Kailash who enjoys the job because it gives her time to knit in between answering the phones in different voices and (supposedly) from different locations. In another scene, Puri meets the proprietor of one of Delhi's most comprehensive costume shops. The old man outfits Puri as a Sikh, complete with turban and whiskers, but also supplies costumes for some of his assistants, including a fake mangled hand for one posing as a beggar.

Several reviews I read compared this to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, and it's true that both feature charming detectives in exotic locales. But in Puri, Tarquin Hall has created an endearing detective all his own. If the comparison gets him a wider readership, then I'm all for it, but the book is entertaining enough on its own not to need any coattails.

As with most mysteries, I listened to this one as an audio book, and I thought that Sam Dastor did a fabulous job narrating. Some of his inflections were so spot on that I thought of all of my various Delhi friends who speak exactly like that. The paper copy of the book, however, contains a glossary, which apparently includes definitions of all of the yummy food that Puri eats throughout the novel. (I don't know, however, if it includes all the Hindi swears that are in the book. I was pleased that I recognized at least a few. )

The next book in the series comes out in just a few weeks--The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing--and I'm already looking forward to it. I'll be happy to be back in Vish Puri's Delhi--in which I see enough of my Delhi to make me homesick--anytime.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A few garden updates

I should have more for you, after yesterday's haiku break, but we're experiencing a mini heat wave, and I'm finding it hard to think. I'm having trouble with this whiplash weather in general. A week ago today, I was wearing a sweater and my favorite pair of raisin-colored J.Crew cords, which I had already put away and then taken back out multiple times once it became clear that the path to spring wasn't going to be particularly straightforward this year. Now, I'm in shorts and a tank top, with the fans on full force. I tell myself that at least I'm not wearing a black fur coat like the cats, but it's not much comfort.

But, hot weather or no, things are happening in the garden, some with my help and some on their own. I'd been worried about my asparagus, since not much seemed to be happening. But now, many (though not all) of the crowns are sprouting tiny shoots including these, the world's smallest, grass-sized asparagus spears:

And my paths in the community garden are expanding!

That, I obviously had something to do with. They're not done--I'm maybe 3/4 of the way--but it's getting there. And even though I kind of miss the wild abandon of the garden in years past, it is much easier to navigate without the weed-covered non-paths. (Ask me how it's doing in August, as that will be the real test.) And if you notice that weed-free expanse on the other side of the pea fence (my poor peas, who do not like this weather at all), that is the work of Alex, who spent a chunk of Sunday out there with his mattock, hacking away at the weeds and, especially, the pernicious roots of the comfrey. Comfrey may have many medicinal uses, but it's hell to get out once it gets into the garden. If one tiny bit of root is left, a new plant will emerge, and the new plants are huge. As I recall, Alex hacked up the comfrey last year, and this year, where there had been one or two plants, four showed up (not to mention another four in the compost which I dug out last week). I hope this will the end of them, but I'm not feeling all that hopeful. (We did not put the roots back into the compost, I should add. They went into the dumpster, as I think I would be considered a garden menace if I put comfrey roots in the communal compost.)

Anyway, with all the attention I've been paying to the paths and the asparagus bed at home, I haven't actually planted much yet (minus the greens the neighbor's cat slept on). It's supposed to cool off by the weekend, and I'm looking forward to doing some traditional Memorial Day weekend planting. More on that to come.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Haikus of the Day

Today is the second group blogging day (the first was on May 10, with the subject of favorite blogs), and it's group blog haiku today. I mentioned yesterday how I felt bad about not being able to read through more of the blogathon blogs, but I've decided that this might be my opportunity-- if everyone's blog post for today is only 17 syllables a piece, I might be able to manage that.

Here are my efforts.

First, the shortest possible version of Saturday's false indigo post:

The false indigo
is abloom in the garden:
purple smoke indeed.

As well as a sad garden discovery:

The cat from next door
has napped on my baby greens.
Leaves crushed into soil.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A few blogathon discoveries

On the one hand, I think it's fabulous that 110+ people are participating in the blogathon this year. On the other, it makes it much harder to visit all of the blogs. I've tried, to some extent, but it just got to be a bit too much, so I've decided to go for quality rather than quantity, and I've been reading a (much) smaller number of them almost every day. Here are a few of my favorite new discoveries:

Popcorn Homestead: Joan Lambert Bailey is an American living in Tokyo, and she writes often about her garden and the gardens/vegetables/assorted green things that she sees there. Some lovely photos, and as an added bonus, she's actually growing her own popcorn!

Two Hands and a Roadmap: The blog of Tara Phillips, a writer/mom in Cleveland. Mostly, I like this one because it is often very, very funny. I've probably giggled more at this than at any other blog I've read recently. Besides, how could I not like a blog where one of the categories of frequent posts is "Sometimes I swear too much."

Babette Feasts: I should have known about this one, as Barb Freda, the woman behind Babette, is a fellow member of Freelance Success. But I didn't--my loss. Barb writes about food and kitchen-related things in a no-nonsense and useful way, and she has some really nice looking recipes up to boot. I've already bookmarked this burnt sugar ice cream recipe for this summer's ice cream experiments.

Chez Sven: Wellfleet Today: I haven't spent too much time on Cape Cod, but this blog makes me want to. Written by Alexandra Grabbe, who runs a B and B in Wellfleet with her Swedish husband Sven, the blog has some lovely photos and notes on things of interest in their part of Cape Cod. Since their B and B is green, there's an environmental focus as well.

My Morning Chocolate: A blog by Jen Walker with the subtitle "Writing, Experiments, Culture and Adventures in Food." This is the blogathon blog I've discovered most recently, but already I'm looking forward to exploring it more. And already, there's a link to something called rhubarb-oatmeal bars that I'm planning to make as soon as possible. (I'd make them tonight, in fact, if I hadn't promised Alex and Lizzie that I'd make the blueberry breakfast bars.)

I feel rather lame listing only these few as favorites as there are others I've read and liked and many (many) others I haven't read but might also enjoy. But what's a person to do. One can only do so much while blogging every day, going to work, working on a freelance gig, and dealing with two gardens in the lovely May weather. So be it, and happy Sunday.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

False Indigo, at last

Two years ago, I wrote about how I was trying to grow false indigo in my garden and not having too much luck at it.

The short version of the story is this. The false indigo already at the house when I moved in was in a crowded bed and not flourishing. And I took so long to figure out where to plant the new one I bought that it died. Bad me. I tried again. This time, things seemed promising, and the false indigo came up a second year and seemed to be on track . . . until something ate it.

Finally, 2 years ago, I bought one more plant, a kind of false indigo called "purple smoke" and put it in the main part of the garden. That first year, it was a single spindly stalk.

Last year, it had grown to three:

This year, though, turned out to be the year. If the false indigo tripled in size from year one to year two, it's more than quadrupled from year two to year three. I really am amazed:

I have taken umpteen photos of the false indigo, at varying times of day, trying to catch it in its glory, but I haven't quite managed it yet. I'm planning to keep trying, as long as it's in bloom.

But what this reminds me of is a saying someone told me about the first years in a new garden: "sleep, creep, leap." In the false indigo's case, that's certainly true. The leap was definitely worth the wait, and I'm delighted to be a witness to its ever expanding number of purple blooms. I always feel like I'm tempting fate to call anything a garden triumph, but for the moment, at least, this feels like one.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rhubarb Roundup

When I told Alex that I was planning to make a rhubarb cobbler, or perhaps a rhubarb cake, he gasped. "But what about the jam?" he asked. "Aren't you going to make the jam, a whole pot, just for me?" And it's true that every year for the past four or five years, I've made rhubarb-ginger jam as my first rhubarb treat of the season, and it's also true that he's gotten his own special container of it.

It wasn't that I didn't want to make the rhubarb-ginger jam; it was that I was almost out of crystallized ginger, and it was Sunday afternoon, and I didn't feel like driving to the store that I knew would have some (since the store I was going to anyway definitely didn't). My rhubarb plant and its satellites at the edge of the yard will provide a copious supply, however, so I knew there would be time for the jam. I decided that this meant I had to branch out and try something new.

I love reading through all the rhubarb recipes written up this time of year, and I was tempted by several of them.

There was this rhubarb country cake, first written up in the New York Times and then baked by Luisa at the Wednesday Chef. (There's also its cousin at Epicurious.) Just a few days ago, Deb at Smitten Kitchen wrote about some yummy sounding rhubarb tarts. And the minute I have an event to cook for or a dinner gathering or something where multiple people will be eating it, I'm totally going to make this rhubarb ginger brioche bread pudding. (It was in the most recent issue of Bon Appetit, which I just started getting in lieu of the late, lamented Gourmet.)

But what I ended up with, after much recipe consultation, was this rhubarb cobbler, from Smitten Kitchen in May, 2009. I figured that I could mix the rhubarb with what little crystallized ginger I had left, to give it at least a hint of subtle ginger flavor. It also helped that I already had ginger frozen yogurt (made by this fabulous Boston company, Sweet Scoops), which seemed like it would complement it nicely.

The recipe is fairly straightforward. You chop up the rhubarb and let it sit with the sugar and whatever flavorings you're using. (Deb added a vanilla bean; I used the ginger and some lemon zest.)

Meanwhile, you make a sweet biscuit dough and let it chill. Then you cover the rhubarb mixture with the biscuits. My biscuits (which I cut with the lid of a stainless steel container from India) started out looking very neat and then got messier as the dough got warmer and stickier.

Thankfully, that didn't matter in the end, as everything baked together nicely into a bubbly, brown, ginger-scented pan of rhubarb deliciousness:

A few thoughts: I lightened up the biscuit topping a bit, more out of laziness than out of intention. I didn't have any heavy cream so used half and half instead. I also used 4 tbsp. of butter rather than 6. The biscuits were still delicious. If you want them richer, go with the higher amount of butter and the cream, but know that if you lighten it up a bit, it will still taste fine.

I found the rhubarb very tart. I did use slightly more rhubarb than the recipe called for--probably 2 1/2 pounds rather than 2--but I also added more sugar--probably a generous 3/4 of a cup. Still, it was very tart. I'd probably go up to a full cup next time. This really wasn't a problem, as it just meant adjusting the cobbler-ice cream ratio a bit in favor of the ice cream, and I'm never one to argue with that.

The jam will be next, but in the meantime, I'm glad to have broadened my rhubarb horizons. It's a good thing my plant is so enormous--it's going to be in demand!

Rhubarb Cobbler
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Claudia Fleming via New York Magazine

For dough

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon salt
4-6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

For rhubarb

2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 6 cups)
1/2 - 1 cup sugar, depending on how tart you like it
1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger
zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, egg yolks, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the flour resembles coarse meal. Add 2/3 cup of cream and pulse until the dough comes together. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently pat it together, incorporating any stray crumbs.

Using a small ice cream scoop or a large spoon, form the dough into 2-inch balls, then flatten them slightly into thick rounds. (Alternately, use a cookie cutter or something like it.) Chill for 20 minutes (and up to 2 hours). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the rhubarb in a shallow 21/2- quart casserole dish and toss with sugar, ginger, lemon, and cornstarch. Allow to macerate 15 minutes.

Arrange the biscuit rounds on top, leaving about an inch between them. Brush the biscuits with cream and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake the cobbler until the rhubarb is bubbling and the biscuits are golden brown, about 40 to 45 minutes. Serve with ice cream or crème fraîche.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sentence of the Day

It's been another long day. The rhubarb roundup will have to wait.

But what I'll give you as a sentence. And an introduction to the sentence.

In my senior year of college, I discovered Elizabeth Bishop. And though I didn't read much poetry in general, I developed a crush on Elizabeth Bishop almost immediately upon reading her sestina called "Sestina" (She has a second published sestina called "A Miracle for Breakfast" but I don't like that one quite as much.) I wrote about my infatuation with Bishop in a short essay in the Christian Science Monitor a couple of years ago.

I read her Collected Prose the summer after I graduated, and I read the longest essay in the book--called "Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore"--while visiting my friend Mo's fiance's parents' summer house, a camp, they called it, on top of a mountain and next to a lake in the Connecticut Berkshires. I read the essay lying in a chaise longue beside the lake, and later that day, or the next morning, Mo and I swam across the lake and back. I was almost completely content.

And even though it's been almost 21 years since I first read the essay, and I've forgotten many of the details, there's one sentence I still remember with clarity. It's in a paragraph a few pages from the end, about Marianne Moore's "originality and freshness" of diction and her "polysyllabic virtuosity." And here's what I've remembered over all these years (with the sentence preceding it, so it makes sense).

"A friend has told me of attending a party for writers and artists at which she introduced a painter to Marianne by saying, 'Miss Moore has the most interesting vocabulary of anyone I know.' Marianne showed signs of pleasure at this, and within a minute, offhandedly but accurately used in a sentence a word I no longer remember that means an addiction, in animals, to licking the luminous numbers off the dials of clocks and watches."

After all of these years, I am still amazed that such a word exists. I'm not sure I even need to know what it is. It's enough that Marianne Moore knew what it was and that Elizabeth Bishop thought to tell us about it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sign of the Day

It's been a long day.

There was the extra early wakeup by a naughty little black cat who decided that rather than sleeping peacefully with his brother and me, he'd prefer to be on the shelf on top of my closet. Except he can't get there by himself, so I awoke to plaintive meows and the sight of the little cat standing on his hind legs on the chair where I dump my clothes, his claws firmly planted in the sleeves of my shirts hanging in the closet, as if he could scratch his way up to the shelf. (Since he is more docile and obedient than his willful brother, he was persuaded that he could live without being on the shelf for awhile, though the effort to convince him of this--via some well-aimed squirts of the spray bottle next to my bed--woke me up for good.)

And then there was the long morning meeting and the long late afternoon conversation about something I don't usually have long conversations about (supercomputers), which made me feel rather fuzzy in the head. (It's for a freelance project, not because I've developed a sudden interest.)

And then the gym, which defuzzed my brain and got me pleasantly tired.

And then a dinner consisting of leftovers from the lovely all-spring-all-the-time meal I shared with Alex and Lizzie last night, the highlights of which included the asparagus soup I wrote about on Monday, scallion-cheddar drop biscuits which I've made many times before but which are especially good with new green onions, and rhubarb cobbler with ginger frozen yogurt. The cobbler was going to be my subject for today, but it will have to wait til tomorrow which will hopefully not start quite as early.

So, all that's left is to say thanks again to Lisa being my guest blogger yesterday and to say that the link to my piece up at Like Fire--about Noel Streatfeild, Maud Hart Lovelace and why adults won't buy books they love if the cover is purple with swirly letters on it--is here, if you haven't wandered over there yet.

And here, for your viewing pleasure, is possibly my absolutely favorite sign in all of India, which is saying a lot since I've seen a lot of good signs over the years. (If only I'd taken a photo of "Don't Create Chaos--Stay in Your Own Lane!" all those years ago when I first saw it.) And without further ado, I present to you the photo which, in snapshot form, has lived on my refrigerator without cease since I took it in Goa in December 1999:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Guest Post Day: Lisa Peet of Like Fire

Lisa Peet usually blogs over at Like Fire (and sometimes still at Mappa Mundi). Today, however, I'm delighted to have her here.

Goodbye and Thank You

I wonder if with all the press and airtime it’s been getting, hoarding isn’t becoming the ADD of the 21st century, with everyone running to locate themselves and their friends on the spectrum. The media saturation hits just the right notes of assurance in between No, I couldn’t possibly be as messed up as those people and Gee, that explains a lot. This was a major topic in a group conversation last week: How we relate to our stuff, the behavior and subtexts involved, how much is too much.

I moved to a good-sized house six years ago, after living in apartments my whole adult life, and it’s been luxurious to relax and let crap collect a bit. I have all my son’s stuffed animals and some baby clothes in big black trash bags in the attic, and five boxes of my father’s scratchy classical albums from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. None of these are things I’d miss for a minute if I got rid of them, but the act of taking them downstairs and putting them out on the street would feel like some obscure kind of betrayal. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to worry about them for the time being. They can sit where they are.

But I don’t think of that as pathological, really, just sentimental. I’m truly hoardy in only two areas: books, including literary journals and periodicals, and paper goods—stationery, blank books, fancy paper, postcards, stickers. None of it falls into the realm of weird, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t save newspapers I’ve read, or little scraps of used wrapping paper or pens that have run out of ink. Nothing has taken money out of my pocket that I couldn’t afford to spend; none of it takes up more room than I have to spare. I read a lot of books and I write a lot of letters (though sadly, far fewer than I used to before email). What qualifies it as hoarding, in my opinion, is how much joy I get from the process of acquisition. I’m not much of a shopper otherwise, but the pleasure I get from blowing $10 on weird Japanese stickers on Etsy or finding a beat-up paperback of a book I’ve wanted at a secondhand store is completely separate from the pleasure I’ll get using them. It’s an end in itself. And I definitely own more than I consume.

Which is OK. Nobody puts your kid in foster care because you have a lot of books. But the conversation got me thinking about where, exactly, I could draw some lines in the sand. And my gaze fell squarely and somberly on my bookshelf of cooking magazines.

I learned to cook in my mid-20s. I had been a picky eater as a kid and spoiled, and as a consequence never got much beyond pasta and scrambled eggs. But then I found myself broke and pregnant, and the idea of living on Chinese food, Snickers bars and beer didn’t appeal much anymore. So with fierce determination and no real idea what I was doing, I subscribed to Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and Gourmet, and proceeded to cook my way through every issue for the next 10 years.

It was a good plan. A year in, once the panic subsided and I started to feel a bit more comfortable in the kitchen, I realized that I loved cooking. A bit further down the line and I realized I’d gotten good at it. There was a certain exultation in that learning curve, that feeling of mastering something slowly by sheer perseverance. And in the same way that you always remember your first forays in a new neighborhood, before everything becomes commonplace, I remember each of those hard-won meals:

  • The spinach pasta with salmon cream sauce—how I blanched at the price the fishmonger quoted me until I found out it was for a whole poached salmon, whereas I politely inquired how much for just the half pound the recipe called for, and he politely suggested I buy a salmon fillet and poach it myself.

  • The first meal I ever cooked for company, a crusty lemon-herb veal roast with scalloped potatoes and green beans in a shallot vinaigrette on New Year’s Eve, 1987.

  • My first pie: crimson pie, with blueberries and cranberries and a tangerine. I still use the first pie crust recipe I ever tried, made with equal parts butter and shortening and a little more than a quarter cup of sour cream, and it’s never failed me once.

  • Lasagna from my mom’s crazy two-meat, three-cheese, sauce-from-scratch recipe, which over the years I’ve managed to get down to a couple of hours of prep. The first time took me half a day.

  • The Jamaican seafood stew that was so phenomenally delicious I called my best friend up and made her come over to taste it right that minute.

  • The mango-orange mousse cake I surprised another good friend with on her birthday, how the filling glowed in a way I’d never seen on a dessert except in Wayne Thiebaud paintings, and how it made me understand that food could be unexpectedly as beautiful as a work of art.

And hundreds of others—triumphs, failures, elaborate projects that left me exhausted and the kitchen devastated. All the memories, even the worst of them, tinged with affection some 20-odd years later. But the memories didn’t reside in the magazines, certainly. And there they were, a long low bookcase crammed with years and years’ worth of cooking glossies that honestly, I was never going to use again. The recipes I liked best had been transferred to 5x8 recipe cards in the grease-speckled box sitting by the stove, and most are available online via a quick Google or Epicurious search. These days I go to food blogs and for inspiration, and it should surprise no one that I’ve amassed a healthy collection of cookbooks. With the magazines gone I could shelve my floating books, and even better—the sure sign of a hoardy mind—give in to the pleasures of organizational fussing.

But I wasn’t in the mood to take them all at once and tie them into bundles for Tuesday-morning recycling. The magazines that taught me to cook deserved something a little more epic, a project to honor them. So I began pulling: Every magazine with an April or May date on its spine came out, a foot-high stack. And then I sat down at the kitchen table with the magazines, a stapler, and an exacto knife. I didn’t linger, but ran quickly down the index pages of each, and any recipe that looked appealing I cut out. It wasn’t hard, as I’d put neat check marks in front of everything I thought sounded good at the time—I was so organized back then!—and I could dismiss a lot of them out of hand. I was no longer stuck at home with a toddler and the days stretching out endlessly, needing to be broken up with stroller-laden trips to the farmer’s market, the butcher, the grocer, the cheese shop, all channeled into long, complicated assemblies with the boy on a stepstool at the counter. These days I’m interested in easy weeknight meals, slow cooker recipes, maybe something more involved for the weekend that will last a few days. No more homemade chicken samosas, no 25-ingredient paellas. If I suddenly craved either I could find them online.

It was a fun project, skimming and cutting, like something I would have done as a kid on a rainy weekend afternoon. I ended up with a thick pile of pages, enough to stock a month’s worth of grocery lists easily. Of course . . . this is only May. And the corollary here is that if I keep up with this, I’ll be doing it for a year, freeing up shelf space inch by hard-won inch. I very well may lose patience and toss them all at once. But in the meantime it’s fun revisiting that part of my life, the education that stretched over years. These days cooking is something I can relax into; I may be worn out at the end of the day, but as soon as I take my place at the counter with knife and cutting board I get that small secure rush of knowing what I’m doing, the comfort of muscle memory and proficiency. And while I definitely need those magazines a lot less than the shelf space, it’s nice to take a little time to say goodbye to them, and thank you.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Asparagus Soup, redux

Before I get to today's post, a brief announcement. Tomorrow is guest blogger day for the May Blogathon. Last year, I had the pleasure of swapping with Vera Marie Badertscher at A Traveler's Library. This year, I'm swapping with a blogathon alum--my buddy Lisa Peet over at Like Fire. I told Lisa to surprise me with her post, so I don't know what you'll find here tomorrow, but I, for one, am looking forward to it. And my post will be over there for the day, so please go visit! And now on to today's regularly scheduled post . . .

Today, I bought my first bundle of Hadley asparagus. If you don't live in Western Massachusetts, you might not know that the small town of Hadley (mostly known for the seemingly endless corridor of Route 9 that goes between Northampton and Amherst) is famous both for its soil--Hadley loam--and for the asparagus grown in that soil. Still, Hadley asparagus has gotten a decent amount of press, from articles in Saveur to Yankee Magazine to the Boston Globe. The Saveur article is particularly interesting--apparently, Hadley and the surrounding areas were one of the country's premier asparagus growing regions until the 1970s when a strain of Fusarium, a soil-borne fungus, decimated the crops. (Fusarium is what caused last summer's tomato blight as well.) On a more cheerful note, I also learned that Flayvors of Cook Farm, a local restaurant and ice cream place, makes asparagus ice cream every spring. I had no idea.

I've seen the occasional sign for local asparagus over the past week or two, but it wasn't until today, when I was driving the back way from Amherst that I saw the table outside a farm stand with bundles of asparagus standing in a shallow tray of water. I handed over my $4 and took a bundle home. It's going to be a couple of years (if all goes well) until I have a reliable crop from my own asparagus bed, so I feel lucky that I live so close to the former asparagus capital of the world. (Apparently, signs in Hadley used to say that. I'm not sure if any still exist.)

I didn't have to dither at all about what to make with my first bunch of Hadley asparagus; there was only one choice--the asparagus soup from the Greens cookbook (written by that soup genius, Deborah Madison). For me, this is really spring incarnate. What's especially lovely about the soup is that it has so few ingredients--asparagus, leeks, a potato, a bit of parsley, some lemon zest, a sprinkle of Parmesan if you want it. And that's basically it.

The other nice thing about it is that it uses all parts of the asparagus and the leeks. First, you make a stock out of the tough asparagus ends and the leek greens. Then, you saute the white part of the leeks and the middle section of the asparagus in some butter with a potato, if you'd like. You add the stock and boil until everything is just tender and still bright green. Then you puree it, add the lemon zest and Parmesan, and you're almost done. The final step is cooking the asparagus tips for a minute in boiling water and garnishing the soup with them.

I've made this soup several times already this season, but I feel like it doesn't really count since I used California asparagus. Today's soup was really the inauguration of local spring produce, a harbinger of the day soon to come when I will pick strawberries from my garden, strawberries a fraction of the size of the gargantuan ones from California that have been in the stores lately but that much more satisfying because I barely had to go anywhere to get them. Hadley isn't quite my backyard, but it's close enough.

I wrote about this recipe in the first weeks of this blog, but it's so good, and tis the season, after all, that it seemed worth repeating, and it's definitely worth making, whether or not you have Hadley asparagus at your disposal.

Asparagus Soup

Barely adapted from the Greens cookbook

The Stock

1 lb. thin asparagus, lower ends only

1 cup leek greens, roughly chopped

1 bay leaf

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

4 parsley branches

½ tsp. salt

8 cups cold water

Snap the lower ends off the asparagus where they break easily when bent. Rinse the ends well and roughly chop them into 1-inch pieces. Combine all the ingredients in a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes. Strain.

The Soup

1 lb. thin asparagus (about 12 oz. after the ends are removed)

3 tbs. butter

2-3 leeks, white parts only (about 8 oz.), sliced

½ tsp. salt

1 large potato, peeled and cubed (optional)

1 tbs. parsley, chopped

5-7 cups stock

¼-1/2 cup light or heavy cream (optional)

Freshly ground pepper

½ to 1 tsp. grated lemon peel

Parmesan, grated, for garnish

Cut off the tips of the asparagus and set them aside. Roughly chop the stems into 1-inch pieces. Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the leeks and cook them over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring as needed. Add the asparagus stems, salt, potato (if using) and parsley. Pour in 5 cups of the stock and bring to a boil, then cook at a simmer until the asparagus are just tender, about 6 minutes. Blend the soup well, then work it through the fine screen of a food mill or through a chinoise to remove any fibers.

Return to the stove, stir in the cream, if using, and thin it with more stock, if necessary. Season to taste with salt, freshly ground black pepper and the lemon peel.

In another pot, bring a few cups of water to a boil with a little salt. Cook the asparagus tips, 1-2 minutes until they are done, then pour them into a colander.

Garnish the soup with Parmesan and a few asparagus tips in each bowl

A few notes:

It’s really worth it to make the stock, which give it an extra essence of asparagus.

I usually use the potato to thicken it a bit, but I’ve never added cream—it’s delicious as is and doesn’t really need it.

I usually use the zest of a whole lemon, partly because it’s easier than measuring and partly because it seems like a good amount.

I have strained it occasionally, but you don’t really have to if you’re not serving it at an elegant dinner.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pretzel Rolls!

Although I've been to Germany a number of times (my brother lived there for 8 years), my knowledge of the German language is practically non-existent. My vocabulary basically consists of the words danke, bitte, auf wiedersehn and laugesemmel. That last word? It means pretzel roll. My brother wrote it down for me so that I could go to the bakery and ask for what I wanted without having to point. And every time I went to the bakery, that's what I asked for.

So, I was very pleased when I moved to Northampton and discovered that the Bakery Normand--a German bakery, after all--made pretzel rolls regularly. Round ones and long ones, some with cheese melted on top. Yum. And though I don't go to Normand as often as I used to since the Hungry Ghost came to town (and because the counter people are surly, as a rule), I still stop by occasionally for a pretzel roll. Encountering the surliness is a small price to pay for a good pretzel roll.

Not long ago, I discovered that now the Whole Foods bakery also makes pretzel rolls. I tried one, and it was fine, though not as good as Normand's. I tried another one, just to make sure, and my judgment stood. And then I remembered that a few years back, Deb at Smitten Kitchen had written about making pretzel rolls (called "bretzels"), and I decided the time had finally come to try them myself.

The dough itself is easy to work with. What makes these pretzel rolls rather than just ordinary rolls is that they are boiled for a minute before baking in a water-sugar-baking soda bath.
Basically, you make the dough, (I used my Kitchen Aid mixer rather than the food processor in the original recipe.), let it rest and then divide it into 8 balls. I used my nifty new(ish) scale to make sure that the dough balls were approximately the same size. (They were after I fiddled with them.)

You make an X in each ball and then let them rise again til doubled in size:

Meanwhile, the oven is preheating, and the water is coming to the boil. Here's the action shot:

And then you place them on a baking sheet, ideally one covered with a piece of parchment paper sprinkled with corn meal. At this point, I followed Deb's suggestion and slit the X into the rolls a second time, as the boiling seemed to close it back up. (Next time, I might just wait til the end to do it, or I might do it twice.) You brush them with an egg white wash and sprinkle on coarse salt. When I got to that point, I (mentally) kicked myself; I have kosher salt and Malden salt and regular salt . . . but no coarse salt. I sprinkled with the kosher salt and hoped for the best.

The pretzel rolls were, I have to admit, not as good as Normand's. But I've decided that they've just had a lot more practice, and for the first time around, these were just fine. In the meantime, coarse salt is going on my shopping list, and pretzel rolls are going onto my regular baking agenda.

Pretzel Rolls
Adapted from Bon Appétit | January 1994, via Smitten Kitchen

2 3/4 cups bread flour
1 envelope quick-rising yeast or 2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon celery seeds (I didn't use these as I don't really like celery, though some of the epicurious reviewers recommended them.)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (about) hot water (125°F to 130°F)

8 cups water
1/4 cup baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar

1 egg white, beaten to blend (glaze)
Coarse salt

Combine bread flour, yeast, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar and celery seeds (if using) in food processor or bowl of Kitchen Aid mixer and blend. With machine running, gradually pour hot water through feed tube, adding enough water to form smooth elastic dough. (If you use the mixer, just add the water and then turn it on. I used the lowest speed and the dough hook, and it took several minutes to come together into a ball.) Process 1 minute to knead. Grease medium bowl. Add dough to bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then towel; let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 35 minutes.

Flour baking sheet. Punch dough down and knead on lightly floured surface until smooth. Divide into 8 pieces. Form each dough piece into ball. Place dough balls on prepared sheet, flattening each slightly. Using serrated knife, cut X in top center of each dough ball. Cover with towel and let dough balls rise until almost doubled in volume, about 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle with cornmeal. Bring 8 cups water to boil in large saucepan. Add baking soda and 2 tablespoons sugar (water will foam up). Add 4 rolls and cook 30 seconds per side. Using slotted spoon, transfer rolls to prepared sheet, arranging X side up. Repeat with remaining rolls.

Brush rolls with egg white glaze. Sprinkle rolls generously with coarse salt. Bake rolls until brown, about 25 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Serve rolls warm or room temperature. (Can be prepared 6 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Rewarm in 375°F oven 10 minutes.)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saturday Wordle

In a bit of fortuitous timing, partway through last year's blogathon, I learned about Wordles. You go to the site, put a link in, and you get a word picture instantly. Pretty cool.

Last year, I used one, as my friend Lisa put it, as a "Get Out of Blogathon Jail Free" card, and this year, I'm going to do the same. It's a gorgeous, sunny Saturday, and though the asparagus bed is done for the moment, the rest of the garden isn't.

What I like about the wordles is that they're a snapshot in time, a moment in the life of the blog. In last year's wordles (I did two), my concerns were mainly yogurt, which I was making for the first time, and the sinkhole in the bike path. This year, it's pretty clear what's been in my blog most recently. I'm going to make a note to myself that I should do wordles more often and not just when I want to spend a day in my gardens rather than at my computer. Do click on the image, as it's better when it's big. Happy Saturday!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Delhi Metro Love Revisited

I can't tell you how excited I was to see on the New York Times homepage this story by Lydia Polgreen about the Delhi Metro: In India, Hitching Hopes on a Subway. And not only that, there's a slide show, which includes a shot of the volunteer Metro monitor trying to convince some young men to stand rather than squat by the door. As anyone who read this blog during last year's blogathon knows, I adore the Delhi Metro with a passion not usually expressed for a public transportation system. If you read the article, you will see that clearly I am not the only one.

I was really bummed about not being able to go to India in January because of my stupid Lyme disease, but there's one small saving grace: according to the article, the Delhi Metro is due to be completed on time, this fall, in time for the Commonwealth Games, which will take place in Delhi in October. Which means that when I arrive in the winter, the Metro to south Delhi (not to mention to the airport!) will no longer just be a messy construction zone but a reality. And if I want to ride on it all day, from Green Park or Jor Bagh or the stop across from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (Delhi Branch) where I stayed the first time I was in Delhi in 1989-90, up to Connaught Place, or the New Delhi Railway Station or even Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, I can. After the countless hours I've spent in auto-rickshaws and buses over the years, I can't think of a better way to spend a day of appreciation of the wonder that is the Delhi Metro.

And partly because it's a Friday, but mostly because I feel slightly prescient for having declared my love for the Delhi Metro exactly one year before the New York Times wrote about it, I'm going to re-post an edited version of my post on Delhi Metro Love, originally posted on May 14, 2009.

Delhi Metro Love: One Year Later and Still Unabated

Early on during my first stay in India in 1989-90, my friend Rasil gave me a public safety tip. She pointed to a red line bus roaring down the road and said, "If one of those buses is coming toward you, get out of the way. It won't stop." And sure enough, in the news every week or two was the news of a red line bus that hadn't stopped and had run someone down. It was, as you might imagine, rather terrifying. Eventually, despite that, I started taking the bus anyway; partly, I figured that I'd rather be on the biggest vehicle possible on those roads. And when I came back to live in Delhi on my Fulbright a few years later, I kept taking the bus. Not everywhere or every day, but often enough.

But there is no way you can describe a bus in Delhi as a pleasant experience--they're mostly crowded and dirty and crowded and hot and crowded. If you're lucky enough to have a seat (and there is a small section of seats that are officially "ladies seats"), you will often have other people's parcels and bags and occasionally babies handed to you to hold onto while you are sitting. And if you are a lady, you may also have some overly friendly fellow pressing against you, and sometimes, the the bus will be so crowded that there is not even room to elbow him in the groin as he deserves.

Despite all of that, I do still occasionally take the bus when I'm in Delhi, for old time's sake (or because I don't feel like haggling with a rickshaw-wallah). And basically, over the past 20 years, nothing has changed about them except for the fares have gone up slightly--a ride that might have cost 2 rupees 15 years ago now costs 8 rupees. But the key thing to remember about the buses is that, until the Metro, they were the only public transportation in Delhi at all. Mumbai and Chennai, at least, have viable commuter trains, and even Calcutta has a Metro, but in Delhi the only options were bus, auto-rickshaw or taxi. (There are bicycle rickshaws as well, but they're only allowed in Old Delhi.)

Contrast this with the Metro, the lovely, lovely Delhi Metro, which has been in existence in its partially completed state for just over 6 years. Apparently, the person in charge of the Metro project would only take it on under the condition that it would not be business as usual--meaning, no patronage, no bribery, no baksheesh, no giving of contracts to a second minister's brother's company sort of thing. The result of this was that the first phase was completed within the budget and 3 years ahead of schedule. Imagine that.

The thing about the Metro is that, despite having been operating for more than 6 years, it still looks new. The stations and trains are clean. There is not that seemingly inevitable sense of collapse as there often is in India. It's shiny and easy to use and supremely functional. It's kind of amazing.

I have 2 brief stories to tell from when I was in Delhi in January. I only went on the Metro between a few stations, but I went through the Connaught Place station (where the terminal is called "Rajiv Chowk," after assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi) a number of times. It's the busiest station I saw, and as the train doors opened there, I was prepared for chaos. (On the buses--and other places--people just shove their way in without much consideration for anyone--really out of necessity.) Instead, the people getting on the Metro stood to either side and filed in that way, leaving a wide open space in the middle for people to leave the train. I was amazed. The one time I saw someone attempt to buck this and barge in through the middle, another passenger pulled him back. The next time I was waiting for a train, I happened to look down at the floor and found that, at the place where each car would stop, there were arrows painted on the floor for where entering passengers should stand so as not to get in the way of exiting passengers. And it worked.

The other Metro story also takes place at Rajiv Chowk. It was one of my last days in Delhi, and I had (of course) been shopping. I had multiple bulky bags with me, including a large bag containing more than 3 kgs of Assam tea. I was meeting Sunil and Navtej at a dance performance, and I had planned my itinerary such that I could hop on the Metro in Connaught Place and get off at Mandi House, close to where many of the auditoriums where performances are held are located. I hadn't really thought about rush hour, but it was about 6:30 by then, high rush hour. The line for the Metro trailed up the stairs and nearly into the street. I debated trying to find a rickshaw but thought I'd see how fast the line was moving first. I had only been in line for a minute when the man in front of me looked at me and gestured to me to go ahead. I wasn't sure what he said, and then I heard the magic words: "Ladies Line." And it was true, that everyone in the very, very, very long line was a man. Who was I to reject a ladies line that was offered to me? I walked down the stairs and through the corridor, past several hundred men, and got into the line that had approximately 5 women in front of me. It turned out to be the line for the security check rather than a ticket line. The young female army person checking the bags seemed startled to see me and all of my bundles. (She was even more startled that I could talk to her in Hindi.) I began to open them up so she could see what was inside--some shawls, some clothes, some fabric and multiple gold foil bags of tea. She looked at me quizzically when she saw all the tea. I shrugged. "I like tea," I told her in Hindi, and she laughed. The rest of my trip was quick, and although I wasn't exactly early for the performance, I wasn't late either.

But that very, very long line of men was like every other line I saw in every Metro station--mellow, patient, polite. The Metro, as far as I can tell, demands politeness of its riders, and the riders oblige.

It would be easy to go on about why it took so long for there to be a viable public transportation system in such a huge city, but really, I'm just happy that it's there now. And I will be even happier in September 2010, when the next phase (which goes down to south Delhi) is finished. I never thought I'd be so excited about a train system in a city I don't even live in, but what can I say--all of that time in Delhi has indelibly printed on me the challenges of getting around there, and every Metro ride (which means one bus or rickshaw ride that doesn't have to happen) still feels like a blessing.

And although my Delhi Metro bag has a broken handle, alas, I will immortalize it here one more time:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Bird in my Garden

Occasionally, I have a real bird in my garden, the little ones that come to peck at the ground in hopes of food, and the big ones--such as this wild turkey--who come for a rest or perhaps a dust bath:

But now I have another kind of bird in my garden, a ceramic bird made by my old friend Christy Hengst.

Christy and I were friends and dormmates for a year at Amherst, and though we have lots of friends in common, and I've heard bits and pieces of what she's been up to over the years, we hadn't seen each other since graduation almost 21 (!) years ago. So, I was delighted earlier this spring when I found out that Christy was going to be at Amherst for a few days as a visiting artist and that she was bringing with her her most recent project, a flock of ceramic birds, silk-screened with photos and text. While she was here, she guest taught a class and gave a lecture, and the next day, the birds had a day-long "landing" on top of Memorial Hill.

This is the way that Christy describes her birds:
"They are, in a sense, carrier pigeons, as the forms carry images, text, and other documents, which have been printed with cobalt blue and fired into the surface. The message they bear is an exploration of the beautiful and the horrible side by side. Originating with the shock and dismay I felt as the US government began the war with Iraq, and expanding to consider the phenomenon of war in general, the questions posed by the birds are about the humanness of us all. How we are connected, and also the unthinkable ways in which that bond is disregarded."
You can read her fuller text about the project here.

These birds are well traveled--they've been to various places in the US including Central Park and the Mall in Washington; to Europe--they've landed in Germany, where Christy's husband is from, and in front of the cathedral at Chartres in France; and even the Galapagos, where one went diving. (There's a very cool photo of this on Christy's website.) If you want to read about their visit to Amherst, it's written up here.

I saw Christy at her lecture, and the next day, I went to see her on Memorial Hill. It was the end of the day, and she was packing the birds up--they travel in 4 large heavy suitcases. She mentioned that one had broken in transit and that she was going to throw it out. I was rather bold, and I asked her for it, for my garden. And then, in a very Christy-like moment, she said, "But I don't know if that one is pretty enough for you."

And while it's true that this bird was maybe not one of the prettiest (some of them are quite lovely), I was happy to be able to have a bird for my garden at all. I glued the broken end of the tail back on, and now I'm figuring out where the bird might like to live in the garden. I tested a few different places:

Maybe as more flowers come in, its new home will become more apparent. Meanwhile, it was lovely to see Christy again after so many years, and I love that I have a reminder of her--and of who we both were all those years ago when we knew each other better--in my garden, among the flowers, company, perhaps, for any wild turkey who happens to wander over for a visit.