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.

Pandemic Poetry: Poem of the Day, 26 March 2020

I’m starting a project today (day 1 of our national lockdown): writing a poem a day. Light, sometimes silly, sometimes thoughtful, and always with the aim to lift spirits. In the spirit of my own crazy living situation, I’m writing the poems on scraps of building paper the builders have left behind and posting them on the builders’ fence for our many dog-walking neighbours to enjoy. I’ll also be posting them here, on FaceBook and Twitter.

Stay safe everyone. Wash your hands, keep your distance, and be kind to everyone.

Appreciating the Small Things

The cat has settled in and seems to enjoy the stacks of furniture.

So far I have ignored the elephant in the room in my blog posts. I’ve focused on the little joys—canning vegetable soup, baking cakes, making pasta. It has been a struggle to do so, some weeks, and today, hours from New Zealand’s total lockdown, it is impossible.

Today our house sale was finalised. Today we officially moved to our new home. Except our new home sits unfinished in the midst of a muddy, rubbish-strewn construction site. It will likely remain so for some time. We have crammed ourselves and all our possessions into the shed we built on the property last winter (when we foolishly believed we might have a new house by February). 

As you can imagine, it is cramped, a bit smelly, and very cold (last night was down to 4ºC). We had hoped to alleviate our stay in the shed by going out for dinner a lot, traveling a lot, spending time visiting fun places. That won’t be happening now. I had planned on doing my laundry once a week at the laundromat not far from work. That won’t be happening either. Today I hauled the washing machine to the back yard and hooked it up to the garden hose and an extension cord in order to wash a load. Every meal will be cooked on a camp stove outside.

We will spend the entirety of our lockdown essentially camping as we edge towards winter.

Much of the time it will not be fun.

And yet …

Nearly thirty years ago, my husband and I lived in rural Panama with no running water, no electricity. To get to the nearest phone took a half hour of walking and an hour’s bus ride. Our roof leaked, and and the cockroaches and rats living with us in our one-room mud house were legendary in size and number. I washed clothes in a 20-litre bucket, and used the same vessel to carry water to a small palm-leaf-and-stick stall for bathing. We cooked our meals in one pot over a three-rock fire. We dug our own latrine. The weekly shopping run took an entire day. By the end of each week, we were down to eating nothing but rice and whatever vegetables were coming out of the garden. In the evenings, I would write letters to family back home. Sometimes the letters didn’t make it to their destination, sometimes they were delayed by weeks. If I was lucky, the letters took a week to arrive, once I’d managed to post them. A full conversation could take months, and was usually irrelevant by the time the first letter arrived.

All of which makes months living in an unheated shed during a global pandemic seem like glamping, rather than a real hardship. Rather than thinking about what I don’t have, I’m enjoying what I do have—a vermin-free home with a concrete floor and sound roof, electricity (even if it is limited by what we can do with an extension cord), instant communication with loved ones far away, nearby grocery stores for when the rice and vegetables run out, and a mobile bathroom with a real shower and flush toilet.

And that is how I intend to pass every day as I navigate through the chaos of the next 12 months or so—thinking of what I have, counting my blessings, being thankful for those little things.

Make Marcella Hazan Proud

On Sunday my husband and I decided to make lasagne for dinner—and not just a meal’s worth, but enough to freeze for quick mid-week meals. With the garden full of late-summer vegetables, it was a great choice. We divided the work as we usually do—I would make the pasta and my husband would make the sauce.

Then I remembered I’d already packed up the pasta maker and taken it to the new house. How was I going to roll out the pasta?

I heard Marcella Hazan scoff from her grave. She never used a pasta machine. No good Italian would be caught with one of those.

It was time for me to learn to roll out pasta the ‘right’ way—by hand.

Thankfully, Ms. Hazan includes detailed directions in The Classic Italian Cookbook. With the book open on the benchtop, I began kneading and rolling my dough.

“I expected more swearing,” my husband commented ten minutes later. And there might have been, had I not had experience with pasta dough before. But the instructions were comprehensive and my dough compliant.

It still wasn’t easy—to stretch and coax the dough so thin without ripping it or letting it dry out was a challenge. It was also quite a workout—by the time I’d finished I was sweating and my arms were tired.

But it worked! My pasta sheets weren’t quite as thin as those I make with the pasta machine. And they were ragged oblongs instead of the neat rectangles that emerge from the machine. But they did well in lasagne. The thicker sheets had a nice toothsome quality. 

Marcella would be proud.

Still, I’ll be glad to go back to using the pasta machine in the future. 

Summer Soup 2020

No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup. 

This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.

I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock. 

I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.