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.

In Praise of Parsnip

The rangy rosette of a parsnip plant.

A bit like carrots, but sweeter and starchier, parsnips are wonderful winter vegetables.

I’m not certain when I first ate parsnip, but I know I’ve eaten a lot of it. When I was breastfeeding my son, nearly everything I ate gave him colic (It took eight weeks of 24-hour-a-day screaming for me to work this out … longest eight weeks of my life). Parsnips were one of the few safe vegetables, so I ate parsnips. Lots and lots of parsnips. But I never got sick of them. Their comforting, earthy flavour only grew on me the more I ate.

I try to grow parsnips every year, but I’m not always successful. Parsnip seed has a short shelf-life, and germination can be poor, even with seed that isn’t officially past it’s ‘plant by’ date. I buy a new packet of seed every year, whether I’ve used all of the old seeds or not. Even so, I don’t always have luck germinating it, because parsnip doesn’t like to be transplanted, and needs to be seeded directly into the garden beds. In my garden, that means the seeds tend to dry out, in spite of my best efforts. It also leaves tender seedlings at the mercy of birds and slugs, which seem to enjoy parsnip as much as I do.

But this past summer the parsnips did well, like many other crops that appreciated the unusually warm, wet weather. The parsnip I picked for dinner yesterday was 15 cm in diameter at the crown, but still tender and delicious. And there are plenty more out there to harvest.

Parsnips are sweeter after the first frost, so they’re a great autumn and winter food. They store well in the ground, so there’s no need to fill your fridge with them at harvest time. When we lived in Minnesota, I used to use a pickaxe to chip them out of the frozen ground through the winter.

Parsnips make wonderful additions to stews and casseroles. Their flavours meld well with potato, carrot, and celeriac. They compliment beans and pulses. They’re great vehicles for butter and cheese. Back when I was subsisting on little beyond parsnips, we used to mash them (like mashed potatoes), braise them, and roast them, in addition to using them in stew and soup.

It’s no wonder these versatile vegetables have been cultivated since long before Roman times. They’re a great winter staple—a vegetable you can eat again and again and still enjoy.

Billy Stoneface

“Quit making faces or your face will get stuck that way!”

Billy laughed at his mum when she said that. He kept on pulling faces.

***

“Mum, look at that funny rock. It looks just like a face.” Kaleb scrunched his own face up, imitating the stone.

“Careful. Your face will get stuck that way.”

Useful Crafts?

I do a fair bit of crafting—I weave, sew, knit, embroider, etc.—but almost all of what I create is useful. Clothing, rugs, bags, household furnishings … if I need something, I make it.

It’s unusual for me to create something with no utility at all.

Maybe that’s why I had so much fun making this fabric collage wall hanging. There is no purpose for this piece of whimsy, beyond fitting the ocean theme my husband declared for the new family ‘art installation’ in the living room.

I didn’t have to worry about whether the metallic threads would hold up to use, or whether the long embroidery stitches would snag on anything. I didn’t have to finish all the edges of every piece of fabric. It didn’t have to be machine washable, warm, comfortable, or something I’d want to be seen wearing in public. It didn’t have to be biologically accurate or to even make sense in any way. I could make it as silly as I liked. I could do whatever I wanted and call it finished when I got sick of it.

What started as a project I felt obligated to do (because everyone else in the family was contributing to the art installation) turned out to be a joy. I spent twice as long on it as I originally intended and, though I’m not sure it particularly counts as Art with a capital A, it makes me smile when I see it on the wall.

Maybe it was useful after all.

Gluten Culture

“I’m allergic to gluten-free.”

That’s my son’s line when people ask.

In part, it’s true; he’s allergic to buckwheat, which is often used in gluten-free products. But what he’s really saying is that gluten-containing foods are a staple at our house. Our diet and our family culture would break down without gluten.

It’s been a while since I blogged about a bread day, but they still happen. Every two or three weeks my husband fires up the bread oven and bakes two dozen loaves of bread. I follow with a couple of cakes, cookies, or whatever sweets I feel like baking. On the tail-end heat, my husband might throw in some bac-un or seitan—gluten-based meat substitutes.

Between the bi-weekly gluten fests, we make pastries, muffins, scones, crackers, and all manner of other gluten-containing food.

If we took gluten out of our diet, we’d lose a protein source and a suite of family activities.

And, yes, you can bake gluten-free bread, cakes and cookies.

But they’re not the same.

There is something fundamental, something visceral about the feel of gluten—under your hands as you knead bread, in your mouth as you chew it—something that is integral to my family’s enjoyment of food.

Yes, I think we’re all allergic to gluten-free.

Conversation Overheard in the Park

Every time I see these trees, I think they look like old men sitting around talking.

“Remember,
When we were just saplings?
How we thought the wind was so strong?
Thought it was going to blow us right over.”

“Well, it almost did, didn’t it?
Joe was nearly bent in two
In the cyclone in ’17.”

“Aw, he was a youngster.
He came right.”

“Ah, but ‘17 wasn’t half as bad
As that big blow in ’44,
When Carol and I lost nearly half our limbs.
I thought the rot might get us after that, you know?”

“I heard a pair of poplars the other day,
Young things,
Hardly able to grow lichens yet,
Complaining about the wind.
Ha!
What do they know about wind, I thought.”

“They don’t make wind like they used to.”

“Or snow.
I remember snow so heavy it took off branches.”

“Yes, but don’t you think the sun was brighter back then?
When the sun was up it was up,
And you knew it.
Not like this weak sun nowadays,
Hiding behind clouds,
Hardly enough to photosynthesise with.”

“Absolutely. Water tasted better, too.
When we were young.
Cleaner.
Modern water just isn’t the same.”

“Do you remember those kids?
The ones who used to climb right to the top of my branches?”

“Then there was that one,
The boy with red hair,
Who fell.”

“Broke his arm, didn’t he?”

“Do you think that’s why they did it?
Why they cut us down?”

“Don’t be stupid.
That was years ago.
Humans have short memories.”

Geek 1: Fear 0

I was in Christchurch for an all-day workshop on Saturday. The closest all-day parking was in the Art Gallery carpark. I resisted the idea of parking there. I never liked basement carparks, even before the 2010-2011 earthquakes, and I like them even less now.

Stupid, I thought. Time to get over this fear. Thousands of people park in multi-storey and basement carparks every day in this city. I can do it for one day.

I dove into the carpark, leapt out of my car, and practically sprinted to the exit. I was dismayed to find the pedestrian exit was through a couple of doors, down a corridor, and up a flight of stairs.

But just as I was about to climb the stairs, I noticed one of the seismic base isolators the building is equipped with. The geek in me overrode the scaredy cat, and I had to stop to snap a photo.

These isolation units are a cool piece of technology. They essentially decouple the building from the ground, so that when the earth shakes, the building stays still. In a quake, the top and bottom plates of the unit slide contrary to one another—the building’s inertia keeps the top plate relatively still while the lower plate jiggles around.

The isolation units were retrofitted to the art gallery (along with lots of other repairs) after the 2010-2011 earthquakes.

According to the manufacturer’s website, the Triple Pendulum Bearings like those installed in the Art Gallery are designed to dampen the wide range of lateral vibrations from small, medium, and large quakes. They don’t make the building completely quake-proof, but they did make me more comfortable leaving my car there for the day.

You can take me out, but you can’t dress me up

I laced up my shoes to go to town yesterday and thought to myself, “Gosh, these shoes are comfortable.” My next thought was, “Gee these shoes are looking a bit rough for town wear.”

Truth is, I’m a bit rough for town wear. I feel it every time I go for groceries. Other women arrive at the store in high heels and skirts, with flouncy scarves and jewellery. I rock up in my hiking boots, still dusty from my last trip. My clothes are clean, well-made and tailored perfectly for me (because I make the myself), but that’s just it—they’re tailored for me, and not just in the fit. Denim, cotton, lots of pockets, and comfortable enough to walk five kilometres in (because I never know when I’ll have the need or urge to take a brisk walk).

Even my ‘town’ shoes—the ones I wear when I’m trying to look at least somewhat professional—are wide, clunky affairs that are, quite frankly, ugly (but really comfortable).

Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me to be the unfashionable slob in town, but it doesn’t mean I don’t notice my wardrobe is wildly different from others’.

I could theoretically dress up to go to town. Somewhere, deep in the closet is one outfit that could count as marginally dressy. It would pass for normal in the grocery store. I expect it will last the rest of my life, given how seldom it comes out.

You can take me out, but you can’t dress me up.