Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

This website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!

The Lap of Luxury

Late last week, our exile in the shed ended and we took possession of our new house. Heat, insulation, indoor plumbing … the luxuries we’re now enjoying are amazing. 

In fact, looking back over our 28-year marriage, I can confidently say we’ve never had it so good.

Our first joint living adventures were in staff housing at nature centres in Ohio and Michigan. Cold and drafty, those conditions were decidedly rustic (though they came with some excellent wildlife spotting, including sandhill cranes out the bathroom window).

During our Peace Corps service, our one room mud home in Panama had a leaky roof and harboured rats, snakes, lizards, and the most astonishing array of arthropods I’ve ever co-habitated with. It wasn’t so much a house as it was a full ecosystem.

Married student housing at Penn State University had less diverse wildlife—German cockroaches filled all the ecological niches there—and involved periodic flooding from the upstairs neighbour’s bathtub.

The 1960s duplex we moved to next had a bad mould problem, but at least we had fewer six-legged housemates.

In Minnesota, our 150-year-old house needed a new roof, piles and insulation. It was never particularly warm in winter, even after the extra insulation we added.

The 125-year-old cottage we recently moved out of was shocking when we moved in, with a leaking roof and rotting weatherboards. The only insulation was a century of accumulated bird nests in the attic. We fixed it up, but it was always drafty.

In hindsight, the shed we were living in for the past three months wasn’t so different from our previous homes.

I’m thankful, and a bit overwhelmed, to be living in a modern, warm, dry house for the first time in my adult life. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, it will never be as old as many other houses I’ve lived in. I intend to enjoy it.

Coronavirus-free New Zealand

Level One Lemon Cake. A delicious celebration of our Covid-free status.

I was coming out of the grocery store when two women meeting on the street hugged. One said, “Midnight tonight!” and I knew.

New Zealand had eliminated coronavirus.

At midnight we moved to alert level 1. The country’s border remains closed, but on our Covid-free islands, life returns to normal. I baked a Level 1 Lemon Cake to celebrate.

In many ways, New Zealand was lucky. We didn’t have our first case until 28 February, so we were able to observe and learn from other nations. We have a culture that is fundamentally law-abiding, so we were predisposed to obey restrictions. We have a prime minister with exceptional crisis management, communication and leadership skills.

But the people of New Zealand elected that prime minister. The people of New Zealand nurtured that culture. And when push came to shove, the people of New Zealand overwhelmingly agreed to restrict movement, change behaviours, and stay home in order to protect one another. We did this. Working together by staying apart.

And as restrictions have been eased over the past weeks, Kiwis have continued to care for one another. The number of websites promoting local businesses has blossomed as people seek to support a struggling economy. In the week after lockdown was lifted, Kiwis consumed five weeks worth of takeaways—a heroic effort to save our local fish and chips shops. Under alert level 2, the cafes I’ve visited have been hopping. Everyone is doing what they can to help.

That isn’t luck. That’s teamwork. It’s aroha. It’s whānaungatanga. It’s kaitiakitanga. It’s rangatiratanga.

I am once again proud and humbled by this nation. To be sure, all the -isms, violence, and other troubles are alive and well here—we have our fair share of society’s ills. But when the chips are down, New Zealand never seems to forget: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people.

Chocolate Currant Upside Down Cake

Usually I bake a fancy cake for Queen’s Birthday, because any birthday is an excuse for cake. Heck, any day is an excuse for cake. But Her Majesty’s birthday is an excuse for FANCY cake.

This year, however, my cake baking abilities were limited. I made a chocolate blackcurrant upside down cake in the microwave, of course, since we’re still living in the shed. 

It was, perhaps, the ugliest cake I’ve ever made—rivalled only by the red currant upside down cake I made a couple of weeks ago. Something about the currants makes the cake slump in a truly unattractive fashion when flipped.

Good thing Her Majesty was busy this evening and couldn’t make it. We slathered the cake in generous helpings of whipped cream to hide its ugliness.

But there was no hiding the amazing flavour. I’m quite fond of blackcurrant and chocolate together, and the cake featured both flavours perfectly.

Below is the recipe. I’ve made this with frozen red currants as well, and it’s equally good.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup sugar
approx. 1 cup frozen (thawed) black currants

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Make the topping: Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) square microwave-safe baking pan. Sprinkle sugar over the butter and then spread the currants evenly over the butter-sugar mix. Set aside.

Cake: Combine flours, cocoa, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk the sugar, eggs, oil, milk and vanilla in another bowl until well mixed. Pour wet ingredients into the dry and stir until just moistened. Pour batter over the topping in the baking pan and bake in the microwave on high for about 7 minutes (the top should still look quite sticky and wet). Turn the cake out onto a plate immediately and leave the pan over top for a few minutes to let all the sticky goodness drip onto the cake. Serve warm with whipped cream.

Reap What You Sow

I started my pandemic poems—written with a Sharpie on scraps of building wrap and posted on the fence out front—to keep myself sane and connect with the new neighbours I’ve never met while we were in lockdown. Forty-nine days, forty-nine poems.

I wanted all the poems to be positive—a more difficult challenge than I’d hoped. Some days I wrote half a dozen poems, only to reject every one because they were grim and dark reflections of my mood. I would write until I found the light of good thoughts … sometimes I thought the positive poems would never come.

But they did. And by forcing myself to focus on the positive, I began to feel it.

And the neighbours must have felt it too. They stopped and read them silently to themselves. They read them aloud to their children. They laughed. They came by every day specifically to read the next instalment.

And I listened to them from the shed and smiled.

On Saturday I took them all down—symbolically freeing us from lockdown.

On Sunday I found this lovely note pinned to the gate. I’m still smiling.

They say you reap what you sow. Well, I’ve harvested two months of smiles from those silly poems. Almost makes me want to go back into lockdown and do it all again …

Or maybe not …

Pandemic Poetry: Poem of the Day, May 12-13 2020

Again, I was so busy yesterday between work and painting, I didn’t get the poem up. So here are two at once.

The last two.

Tomorrow, we will shift to Level 2, in which most of us will go back to work and school. We’ll be able to meet with friends (in small numbers and with appropriate social distancing), and buy things in shops rather than online. Our classrooms and workplaces will look different, feel different. We will be nervous, excited, relieved, frightened …

But right now I have to say I’m damned proud of this nation and the heroic team effort that has gotten us to this point. There’s a long way to go before the virus is beaten, but the amazing leadership (and followers-ship) we’ve seen in New Zealand has saved lives and jobs–we only have to look abroad to see what we might have experienced without the swift and dramatic response we took.

Ka pai, Aotearoa! Go out there tomorrow and enjoy yourselves. Be safe, keep your distance, and wash your hands! Kia kaha!

Pandemic Poetry: Poem of the Day 9-11 May 2020


I’ve been so busy painting the new house, I haven’t gotten the weekend’s poems posted here, so here are three days’ worth.

Today, we’ll learn whether we’re moving to Level 2, in which most everyone will go back to work and school. It will be a big, and somewhat nerve-wracking move if we do. But it’s been amazing what Kiwis have done the past six weeks–the amount of teamwork, dedication and aroha they’ve shown has been inspiring. Ka pai!