Friday, November 18, 2011

Advanced Domesticity: A Flailer's Guide

Photo from here, where you can get this sort of thing if you are more skilled than I.

At the risk of exposing my tendency to be insufferably haughty, I like to utter the phrase "I make my own."
I make my own laundry detergent. I make my own bread. I make my own soup, though I still buy Campbell's Tomato because you just don't mess with that. I never make cake from a box. Why would you? Jeez. (See how I am?) I realize something about myself, though. I choose my DIY projects very carefully. Things that involve too many steps, zoning variances, permits, or touching guts are generally on the 'bridge too far' list.

I pushed my luck with canning.

Until other commitments and a second-shift work schedule intervened, I use to belong to a women's organization. They are a great group of ladies who work hard to contribute to the community by encouraging young women to pursue their dreams. And annually they fund these efforts by flirting with Certain Death. This involves a fundraiser selling fudge (homemade) and bread in a jar. Each member was obligated to make a certain amount in a certain flavor in order to have enough to sell. I was handed an oversized photocopy of a decade-old newspaper article and recipe as a reference.

You may well wonder what bread in a jar is. I quote from the recipe:
"For those of you who haven't seen bread in a jar in gift shops, it is homemade quick bread baked in a canning jar. The jars are sealed and the bread lasts for at least a year...fancy up the jars after baking and cooling, with scraps of gingham or other fabric, and you'll have the hottest seller at the bazaar or bake sale."
So right up front you know you've got yourself a crowd pleaser, for the sweatshirts with cats on them set. The author taunts us further:
"The procedure is simple and just about foolproof; even if you've never done any canning. I've made bread in a jar with all kinds of recipes and never had a failure."
Now, I've never so much as had a canning jar in my hand for any reason other than scooping out someone else's jammy goodness, but to me this declaration smacked of superiority. "I am a nationally syndicated cooking editor and you are a slob who has a measurable layer of cat hair on every surface." Okay, maybe I'm projecting. But it made me look around my suddenly very unsanitary kitchen. I watched as my husband wandered in and ate a slice of ham out of the cold cut drawer with his fingers, blissfully unaware of my panic.

The directions I was given went on to address the sterilizing of things "per manufacturer directions" and suddenly I was feeling very paranoid and outside my DIY comfort zone. Follow manufacturer directions? Okay. I turned the case of jars over to find a set of Canning Commandments that covered the entire back of the box. I figured out that the jars need to be heated, not boiled, and there are strict instructions in block print to NEVER BOIL THE LIDS. I got this set up after I located and scoured my giant pot and inspected it for specks of archeological chili and errant cat fur.

Batter made, I spooned exactly-measured portions into my jars that were greased "generously inside but not on the rims", which was a bit like trying to eat a spoonful of something without getting it on your lips. I baked them "at 325 degrees no matter what" because that is what the recipe says. Dire consequences could result from failure to adhere, and I would not have dire consequences.

Two things happened that didn't bode well. First, all six cakes rose above the top of the jar, which I'd been warned against, and almost immediately, all the cakes got very brown. But I am nothing if not obedient. I baked them for every minute of the designated time and since the recipe directed the use of a 'sterile spoon' to push the overeager cakes back down into the jar, I did this, and successfully got the lids on and sealed. I stood back to admire my handiwork and discovered I had six jars of something that resembled wizened veterinary fecal samples.

What to do? would anyone willingly purchase these? If I deviated from any of the never fail baking commandments, would I unwittingly trigger some kind of terrible strain of cake ebola? And if I did, would it be traced back to me?  It was clearly time to set aside my fears and start over. With trepidation I tweaked time and temperature, anxiously watching and waiting. To my surprise, despite failing the 'never had a failure' assurances of our intrepid food editor, the result was twelve jars of golden splendor that sealed with a satisfying 'poink'.

The bread in a jar weekend is upon us again and I salute the ladies who will once again brave home economics and science to make them happen. I have a special place in my heart for fancying up things with a bit of gingham. But I'll be sticking to safer and less stressful waters.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Precinct 1..Sign in Please

I'm going to take a walk today.
I'm going to put on shoes that fit, that I had money to buy. I'm going to put on a pair of headphones so I can listen to music. I'm going to take a walk today, a clear-sky, sun-filled crisp fall day, through the crackle of leaves and the busy hum of my town. I'm going to listen to music, and walk.

While no place is perfect, and anything can happen, I can be reasonably assured of arriving at my destination safely. And safely returning home.

I'm going to walk into a polling place. It will not be surrounded with sandbags and armed soldiers. I will walk in there because it has been designated for me personally for proximity and convenience. My name is on a list saying I can be there, that I can participate in the process regardless of race, party, gender, orientation, or religious affiliation. People, lots of people, have died to make it so. And I can make choices based on my own convictions and informed desires without fear of violence or intimidation, and be reasonably certain those choices will be counted as equal.

I'm going for a walk because I believe in this process. And I believe that the only antidote for shabby attitude and inexcusable indifference is to participate in all forms of dialogue, of entreaty, available to us. To say "This matters" with one's voice, one's labor, one's aspirations. And at absolutely every opportunity, in large battles and small, one's vote.

Hope I see you on the way.