Culinary adventure

“Cooking is an art, but all art requires knowing something about the techniques and materials.”

—Nathan Myrhvold, former Microsoft CTO and author of Modernist Cuisine

At a restaurant during our recent vacation, my health-conscious husband ordered a black bean burger. I don’t recall him ever eating one before. For the better part of his life, he’s been a hearty meat eater. The man loves food…his reaction upon tasting this vegetarian concoction: “AMAZING! I can’t believe how good it is!”

Then, with a subtle batting of his eyes: “I wish you could make these.”

—Was that a throwing down of the gauntlet, at my very feet?

Call it inspiration, determination, seeking to please, or self-challenge, whatever: I decided on the spot. I would do this.

I’ve never made black bean burgers before.

As a rule, I don’t like veggie burgers. They’re mushy. The whole idea of a burger is, you know, substance.

And so I do my research. I find a recipe entitled “The Best Black Bean Burgers I’ve Ever Had.” Seems a reasonably good starting point (why settle for less than the best?).

It doesn’t seem too complicated, really. While I organize and prep the ingredients, however, doubts seep in…if this tastes awful or falls apart, maybe we’ll go get Mexican

I learn a couple of things in this new undertaking. It’s essential to get as much moisture as possible out of the beans. The drier they are, the better the texture, so the recipe says. Not only do they need to be drained, rinsed, and patted dry, they need to go in the oven on a baking sheet for a few minutes. I discover that cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, and Worcestershire blended with the dried beans create a surprisingly grilled taste.

One big concern: Will the burgers hold together after baking? Sometimes my regular hamburgers don’t. Not enough bread crumbs, maybe? How did my Grannie ever make those phenomenal, flavorful burgers of my childhood? She could have sold them and made a mint. I’ve never been able to duplicate them. The scent of Worcestershire stirs the memory with a wave of intense longing…

Furthermore, I’ve decided not merely to make these black bean burgers, but to recreate the one my husband thought was so amazing. I’ve looked up the restaurant menu for the toppings: avocado, tomato, arugula, red onion, spicy mayonnaise.

— What IS spicy mayonnaise?

More Googling. Mayo mixed with hot sauce, apparently.

“Hey,” I say to my husband, who’s washing his hands after cheerfully helping to shape the patties for baking, “pick the hot sauce you want to go in this ‘spicy mayonnaise.'”

He has a whole collection of hot sauces.

He picks Texas Pete.

All righty then.

And, if nothing else turns out…we do have gorgeous homegrown tomatoes that have been given to us. They are another reason I love summer, these tomatoes. I think, as I slice into their luscious redness: We could just have cheese and tomato sandwiches in case of disaster…

My husband has also chosen Brioche buns: “The bread at the restaurant was really, really soft.”

We take the burgers out of the oven and—wonder of wonders!—they hold together when we lift them off the pan.

I put them on the buns, layer on the toppings. They’re pretty, but the final test awaits…

My husband takes a bite.

He closes his eyes.

“This is the BEST. THING. I. HAVE. EVER. HAD.”

High praise from my former give-me-steak-and-fries guy.

He eats every blessed crumb for the next three meals.

—Mission accomplished.

The black beans combined with finely chopped onion and green pepper create good texture, much like a tender hamburger.

Pretty proud of my culinary work.

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As an educator I could make many analogies between this experience and teaching or writing. We see effective or impactful things that we wish to duplicate. Things we’ve not tried before. It’s daunting. Risk of failure is involved. So is risk of succeeding, if you will. There’s an art and science to writing and teaching, just as with cooking. Myhrvold’s quote on knowledge of techniques and materials at the top of this post struck me as foundational; this is the beginning of process. Knowledge combined with a spirit open to experiment can yield surprising results and discoveries; what you experience and create will not be exactly like your model nor a complete replication what others have done before you. It shouldn’t be. You are making something your own. The work reflects the uniqueness of the artist.

Wishing sustained strength and inspiration to all my fellow teachers preparing to return to school with the residual effects of 2020 still lingering. Here’s to aiming for the best. And to our own learning.

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers and the Slice of Life writing community, ever a safe, nourishing place for creative strivings and growth.

Failure to thrive

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death. As on my mother-in-law’s certificate.

But I wonder: How can living to ninety-one be considered ‘failure to thrive’?

A coal-miner’s daughter who survived the Great Depression, widowed twice with young children each time, who maintained a beautiful home and a bountiful table frequently laden and ready for the arrival of her family. A voracious reader with a passion and ear for music, a grandmother generous with her love, time, and grace, a woman of great faith in God … her decline was slow and in the last days, she called out to deceased siblings and sang the hymns of her childhood.

—It doesn’t seem like failure to thrive to me. If anybody ever thrived, she did.

Oh, I understand it’s medical terminology for geriatric deterioration, encompassing decreased appetite leading to poor nutrition, muscle weakness, dementia; the human body can only take us so far.

But failure to thrive doesn’t happen only to the elderly. Most often it’s applied to babies who don’t gain weight, who don’t grow as they should, due to a host of contributing factors.

Both ends of the spectrum, then, isn’t it, failure to thrive. Its potential can frame the beginning of one’s life, and, even if that life should be long, the end.

Which for me begs the question of all that’s in between.

In how many ways do we fail to thrive? In the course of being alive, what are the “nutrients” each individual needs to live well? Thriving in this sense goes beyond the physical to the psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual… can there be holistic balance if one part is suffering, starving? Because I’m an educator, this line of thinking brings me to “the whole child”: What is impeding growth? What “learning diet” does this individual child need? In the academic realm, nourishment for flourishment can vary widely… but at the core of being human, one non-negotiable need is each other.

Relationships fail to thrive, do they not. Suffering ensues. A point of pain ripples outward, troubling the waters, sometimes over a great expanse… being alive, successfully, involves an array of coping mechanisms, the ability to adapt. The Venus flytrap comes to mind. Stuck in nutrient-poor soil, it compensates by eating meat, the unwary flies which land in its toothy leaf-blades. The businesslike science of staying alive. Gulp.

In terms of the human, the matter of thriving—growing, growing up, growing old—involves willing interdependence. Based on… love? Conscience? Overcoming fear? When my oldest son was in his early teens, he sighed: “I do not want to grow up.” (Of course he did; he’s now a husband, a father, and his daughter is the joy of his days).

But I understood his words and shivered.

Point being that of the baby, the child, the adult, the aged and infirm, which stands most able to impact the thriving of the human ecosystem… for better, for worse… with the power to discern, decide, desire, and do for one and all?

Yeah.

That’s us.

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death…

Photo: Wilted. Fotologic. CC BY

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With thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life invitation to write and to this writing community for unfailing encouragement.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.