Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Blameless Mouth Blog Tour: Revision

Most days, I can tell who

I am.

I wasn’t always like this,

sucked so dry I needed to buy slick lotions

to rub into my skin–

I wasn’t always like this.

Oh, the wonders I once held

warm in my cupped hands, then forgot.

I turn the page, waving like a white flag.

I lived once

without my need:

The mouth that yawns wide,

a deep black hole.

The mouth that hates silence. Asks

too many simple questions.

The mouth I always feared

was too big.

The mouth I made too small.

Can we teeter together

on this knife’s edge of having and wanting –

the blameless mouth and

the blameless woman

who wears you

like a crimson rose, opening

on her expansive, snow

silenced fields?

The above is a compilation of lines taken from a variety of poems in poet Jessica Fox-Wilson’s Blameless Mouth manuscript. As a long-time friend, I am hoping she’ll forgive me for fracturing and reconstructing her work as part of my participation in her virtual book tour to give you a taste of her book.

I had many grand plans for this stop on her book tour. I envisioned pairing exciting new recipes with her poems on hunger and satiety. I envisioned relating the themes of Blameless Mouth—consumption both mindful and unmindful, wanting, possessing—with the politics of the way we eat. I considered tying masculine and feminine relationships to hunger and food to a close reading of her remarkable collection.

Ultimately, I have done none of these things.

My own relationship to food lately has been changing. I am nearly four months pregnant (YAY!), and, thanks to some powerful, persistent nausea, I spent a good deal of the past 3 months avoiding the kitchen and dreading food. As I have entered the second trimester, however, food has again begun to look and smell and taste appealing, and I find myself more and more back in the kitchen I love as my energy levels slowly pick up. The food I make now is not just for myself and my husband; it is for the tiny person I am only just beginning to know.

I can’t yet know the ways in which becoming a mother will change me, but I know that many of the aspects of women’s lives portrayed in Blameless Mouth will be part of that transformation: voice, agency, hunger, and satiety. Jessica’s poems examine what women seek, what we are willing to speak, how we silence ourselves and are silenced by others, how voids are created inside ourselves as we grow into women, and what role we and others have in filling such voids.

I am neither a young mother nor an inexperienced person, which means that I will be fortunate enough to approach motherhood from a position of relative strength. I have learned to acknowledge the importance  of satisfying my own hunger even as I care for others and learned to be comfortable speaking what is worth saying in spite of my fear. I have grown to be at peace with my own blameless mouth. That peace is what I most want to teach my child, boy or girl.

Jessica’s collection of poetry runs a wide range, depicting both fear and fearlessness when faced with one’s true self and one’s own desires. For that reason, Blameless Mouth has broad application; so many women can see themselves in the women portrayed in this book. All of us are intimately familiar with what it means to be scared and silenced and ashamed and uncertain at times. All of us also know what it means to be bold and confident and fierce and strong. In being and expressing honestly who we are, in accepting ourselves in the present moment even as we critically examine both self and society, we are all of us blameless.

If you haven’t yet read this book, pick up a copy. It’s honest, clear, compassionate, and compelling. In it, I see myself and the women around me. It’s beautiful, memorable, and utterly remarkable.

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Recipe Hack: Lower-Sugar Christmas Treats!

One of the things I love about Christmas is the excuse to start baking and keep it up beyond what would otherwise be considered the bounds of reason. Although I love to cook family favorites for the holidays, I also love the excuse to be experimental and somewhat “fussy,” making the types of putzy things I never have time for during the rest of the year.

This past week, I experimented with a few new items while looking for some lower-sugar options for diabetic friends and family. I call this a “recipe hack”; cracking the chemistry of cooking to understand what gives a recipe its yum and consistency while also making it work for what you need. In this case, the need was less sugar! Sadly, all this hacking leaves me pressed for time to take and process pictures, but, since I modified existing recipes, please feel free to go admire the pictures on the recipes linked below! This is going to be a quick and dirty explanation, just to give you an idea of how you can play with recipes on your own to work with your guests’ needs and preferences.

First up: Savanna cheesecake bars by Paula Deen.

Yes, Paula is usually more known for decadent yumminess more than healthier options, and no, this isn’t a health food, but it does have several redeeming qualities over many other holiday baked goods. My version packed the cookie crust with pecans and whole grain flour, I used lower-fat Neufchatel cheese instead of cream cheese in the cheesecake part, and I slathered the completed bars with a homemade fresh cranberry glaze spiced with ginger and cinnamon. We love cheesecake, and I have a thing for fresh cranberries; this one was a big hit in the taste testings in our house.

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What would it mean for you to be blameless?

Although thoughts of new Christmas cookies are still dancing in my head, I’m going to take a breather from the kitchen to share some news. As the year begins to wind to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the path I have walked this last year, focusing especially on where I have chosen to allocate my time and where I have not. More and more, as the world in Wisconsin has grown snowy and still, I have been mentally refocusing on my creative priorities. A big part of that has been reflecting on the immense strides that two of my friends have taken this year as artists. Most recently,  Jessica Fox-Wilson done gone and published a manuscript. It’s called Blameless Mouth, and I can’t wait to read it. Her collection of poems is focused around issues I explore over and over again on this blog and off it: hunger, consumption, and satiety. I focus on these themes often—but not always—literally, but Jessica blends the literal with the metaphorical: hunger for food, for possessions, for the intangible; and she highlights what we consume in the quest to satiate that hunger.

A large part of ourselves and the environment we have built can be illuminated if we are bold enough to identify hunger in our lives, critically examine our consumption, and cultivate a sense of satiety that perhaps doesn’t depend on consumption, at least not in the sense of exhausting resources.

For quite a while now, Jessica has used her own blog to make public her journey as an artist. She invited us in as she moved from concept to concept, from one stand-alone piece to another. Over time, she has nurtured a series of poems that have grown like a tangle of flowering vines from a single common root. Last week she posed a challenge to those of us who have been watching her build her narrative one verse at a time.

Tell me, she said, what would it mean for you to be blameless?

This is a question with heft and jagged edges. It’s the kind of question that must be handled gingerly, or it cuts. Often deeply. At the same time, it is a question that yields nothing if not grasped firmly with both hands.

It’s a question I have avoided answering for the past week.

Part of me believes that to be blameless is to be inhuman. We are all of us bruised and corrupt and angry and selfish at times. We are all of us careless and hasty. All of us understand what it is to begrudge another. All of us have been supremely worthy of blame at different points in our lives. What would it mean to be blameless? I collect even the most minor missteps I have made in my life. In my memory are dozens upon dozens of monuments to my fallibility, all of them gleaming dully like trophies. I don’t visit them regularly, but they’re there. Whenever I believe myself to be at fault for yet another infraction, I find myself there, surrounded by the collected errors of a lifetime on display in my mind. I run over and over and over them. I know all their shapes and weights and textures by heart.

I cannot be blameless. Over the years, however, I have come to understand that each and every one of the times that I have found myself to blame has been essential to beauty, to growth. Understanding the consequences of haste, the opportunity that comes with weakness, the wisdom that comes from recognizing the hurt I have caused to another—these are pieces of my life worth treasuring. Not only do they have a great deal to offer, but they also have been bought at a price. This is, perhaps, what it means to be blameless. To walk through life acknowledging when I have done wrong, avoiding similar missteps as best I can, and holding the insights from these moments as precious because of the cost at which they were bought.

To be blameless is also to be fearless, particularly where our voices are concerned. Frankly, our mouths are known to get us into trouble. We hunger for food, people, things, love. Sometimes, our mouths are full of a bitter truth, an unpopular opinion, or a call to action that demands we give up our own comfortable apathy. Too often, especially as women, we are berated or berate ourselves for speaking truth openly or for hungering, for wanting more than what we are generally allowed. Being blameless means accepting hunger as a necessary part of living and fearless speech as necessary part of living well.

Ultimately, to be blameless is not to be free of blame. It is simply to forgive ourselves and to understand that so much of what is good and beautiful in us is there not in spite of our flaws, but because of them.

I love that Jessica’s first widely public manuscript is Blameless Mouth. With each poem, with each day well-lived, with each misstep, Jessica has been growing more fearless. Although she may not know it, I have been growing more fearless alongside her. Today, here she stands in a crowd of loved ones and strangers, her hands weighted with poems.

Her blameless voice is about to be heard.

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Let the Christmas Nom-a-Thon Begin!

Like a good chunk of the Midwest, snow dumped on us pretty badly yesterday. We are officially all dug out, however, and now I get to enjoy a day at home straightening up, slurping delicious cocoa, and starting on holiday sweets. I love giving gifts of treats at Christmas, and I’m feeling adventurous this year. Adventurous enough, in fact, that I am going to blog today’s kitchen sweatshop extravaganza here. Keep checking back for updates on this post!

For anyone who has missed the writing on the wall, I am an experimental cook. So, in all honesty, my Christmas goodie-fest actually started two days ago when I made mint chocolate “fudge.”

I knew full well that messing with fudge was to tempt fate since fudge, like caramels and other types of candy, is a chemistry project first and foremost. For that reason, I attempted to respect the protein, sugar, and fat ratios as much as possible while also trying to replace half the sugar with agave nectar and cutting the overall sweetness of it. I knew full well I wasn’t guaranteed fudge, but I figured I’d wind up with something interesting. And I did: a delicious, soft, creamy concoction that could be scooped and keep its shape. I had, I quickly realized, the perfect center for a minty truffle. So today, that’s where I started. I scooped the filling into balls and popped them into the freezer for about 15 minutes while I melted dark chocolate over a very low heat on the stove. I then smoothed out the minty bits, rolled them around in the dark chocolate until covered, and popped them onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper to harden.

Quoth the Unicyclist: “A smooth and tasty little minty treat.” A flop if you had your heart set on fudge, but a total score as an all-natural, reduced-sugar chocolate truffle.

Since I still have chocolate on the stove, I think I’m going to go right into the predictable-but-delicious world of chocolate-covered pretzels. Then, however, I’m going to get really nutty. Cranberry caramel tarts, rosemary pine nut cookies…who can say? Stay tuned for updates and pictures!

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A Thanksgiving Post That Just Barely Involves Food

Thanksgiving came in a rush at our house this year and disappeared just as quickly. We didn’t host, so we simply took our made-from-scratch green bean casserole to the family shindig and brought back an empty dish and some full stomachs. The family event was, of course, very tasty. Mom’s pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin, a fruit salad tossed with cheese tortellini, roasted yams, creamy corn, a mountain of mashed potatoes with an ocean of gravy, and almost enough sweets for everyone to have their own personal pie. It was a delicious and dizzying affair. It also brought home the fact that although we’ve remained snow-free so far here, the season has turned.

As the leaves grow bare and brace themselves under the freezing temperatures of late fall, I tend to shift into a more introspective mood. I make tea, embrace books, listen to the calls of birds swooping southward.

For those of us who live in northern states, migration is  a concrete fact of the season, woven into our cognitive and emotional conception of autumn. Geese fly in sharp angles overhead, calling out in their harsh voices, over and over. Huge clusters of sparrows swoop over the now-empty grain fields. Gradually, many animals disappear to warmer climes. However, until my uncle Mike, an avid naturalist, took me to Indiana in 2004, migration was just a single thread running through the fall tapestry, much like the rust-colors of the landscape,  the acrid smoke of burning leaves, and the growing chill in the air. Six years ago, he took me to Jasper-Pulaski, Indiana, for the first time, and I caught a glimpse of the phenomenon on a completely new scale. Yesterday, I packed up some gear and brought the Unicyclist with me for a return pilgrimage.

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The Episode in Which I Go Granola…Again

A few weeks ago, the Unicyclist was tapped to bring in food for an evening seminar he’s taking. He said the group has been on something of a hummus kick, so he decided to stick with the theme and whip up a batch of homemade hummus. I chose to balance it with a sweet treat and made a couple pans of granola bars for him to take along.

Apparently, the granola bars were a huge hit, as my husband came home with nary a granola bar and a heaping pile of requests for the recipe. Of course, when he delivered this news to me, the Unicyclist shook his head ruefully. He knows me and recipes…particularly where a staple like granola is concerned. All this meant, however, was that our household wound up with another batch of granola bars this week, as I had to make and measure in order to pass on instructions! So, without further ado, this one goes out to the hungry grad students. May you have long life and abundant supplies of granola. Wo0t!

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A New Way of Looking at Your Salad

Check out this fascinating video–it’s both inspiring and somewhat frightening in its implications. (Remember the Roald Dahl story “The Sound Machine”?) You’ll think about plants in an entirely new way.

And, just for good measure (and because Halloween is coming)…

Something new to digest, as it were.

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The Kitchen Manifesto

It recently occurred to me that some of you are new to Simple Spoonful—or, at least, so claims Google Analytics.That being the case, I thought it might be a good idea to give you a bit of background on the way I write recipes, particularly after that much-annotated recipe for agave-sweetened spiced pumpkin cake I just posted.

As a general rule, the purpose of a recipe is to provide a clear-cut set of instructions that anyone can follow to achieve a specific end product.

My recipes don’t really work that way.

My recipes treat cooking as a process and a finished dish as a snapshot in time of the way I did things at a certain point. That’s why you’ll get notes about what happened when I swapped out some applesauce for oil or some barley malt for agave. My cooking is also largely dependent on what’s in the garden, what the CSA provides any particular week, or what produce is on sale at the grocery store. Not surprisingly, while technique may be sacred to me in a particular recipe, ingredients rarely are. I measure when I bake, but I almost never measure when I cook…unless I am tracking it as I prepare it a given day in order to be able to post it here, so you can enjoy in your own kitchen! It’s true: I do all this for you. *MWAH!* In any case, that’s why one of my recipes will often instruct you to add a particular ingredient to taste or mention that you can substitute X, Y, or Z as desired. The only other time I keep careful track of what I’m doing is when I am experimenting with adapting an existing recipe, particularly anything for baked goods. There’s chemistry involved in baking, folks, and you just can’t pull a fast one on science. Science has rules, and we gotta obey its authoritTAY.

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Agave-Sweetened Spiced Pumpkin Cake

The trees are heavy with apples, the raspberry canes are fading, and the fragrant bushes of basil we enjoyed all summer were sacrificed to the first frosts this past week.

Despite the summery temperatures of the last couple days here in Wisconsin, autumn has arrived. Even though it’s sunny out, the light has a different quality to it. Filtered through leaves of gold and rust, it’s thinner, paler.

It’s the time of year when steaming bowls of soup seem perfect, and the smell of fresh bread and cinnamon warms you far beyond the ability that another sweater possesses. It’s the time of year when the folks in our household start craving baked squashes and the rich texture of pumpkin in casseroles, risotto, muffins, and cakes. As the sunlight grows loses its muscle and the days shorter, the golden and orange colors grow more and more appealing. Our household is no exception. Specifically, I have been given orders from mum to get going on the pumpkin goods and to keep ‘em coming until I hear otherwise. Based on last year, I might hear otherwise sometime in April.

And I might not.

My mom has diabetes, so finding a way to create pumpkin baked goods that actually taste amazing without causing a crazy blood sugar spike has involved some trial and error. At this point, we have a couple keepers: spiced pumpkin cake and mom’s own agave-sweetened pumpkin pie. Both of them use raw agave nectar instead of sugar. I’ll get to the recipe for this pumpkin cake in a moment, but I figure some of you might like some background on agave nectar first.

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Thursday Lessons Learned

I have pumpkin bars in the oven and the magical apple butter recipe has been received, so expect posts on those in the next few days, as promised. In the meantime, however, content yourselves with a post on Just One more Thing I Have Figured Out in the Process of Getting Less Ignorant About a Whole Lotta Things.

My friend 9to5 Poet at Everything Feeds Process recently asked her Twitter followers to complete this sentence:

I am too _________ to be perfect.

Although I didn’t respond, the one word that has jumped up as the one to fit that sentence is “self-aware.” To some extent, I mean that in the sense of how I overanalyze what I do, but in another sense, it’s just the fact that I know better than to use the word “perfect” as an objective descriptor for anything or anyone, particularly myself. Fortunately, life is pretty good at keeping the size of my head under control with daily reminders in the form of “whoops!” moments. Sometimes those happen on a large scale. More often, fortunately, they happen on a small scale.

For example: I made carrot cupcakes this week. I had been wanting to make these particular carrot cupcakes for quite some time, as I got the recipe from the Willy St. Co-op, whose carrot cupcakes are second only to heroin in their addictive properties. I got the recipe legitimately, by contacting customer service and having a little confessional about my carrot cupcake habit. The very gracious Liz Hawley absolved me of my guilt and hooked me up with the recipe for the full sheet cake version, which I had to hack down to a normal batch of cupcakes. Once that was done, I got busy and started baking on Tuesday.

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