Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

On Lost Knowledge

Homemade bread and strawberry-rhubarb jam (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Not long ago, while visiting family down south in the lush, low mountains of Germany, I spotted a cluster of sweet woodruff in the woods. The ground was covered with it, bright green fans of star-shaped leaves bursting with clusters of tiny white flowers. I plucked a leaf and crushed it between my fingers, inhaling its herbal scent, then snapped it up between my teeth, surprised by the tingly punch of cinnamon that pricked my tongue. It was then I remembered something about woodruff’s toxicity – the coumarin that lends it its sweet, grassy fragrance is also moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys. And I couldn’t quite remember if fresh woodruff was one of those things you weren’t supposed to eat. So I spat out the remnants of crushed leaves, still feeling the warm prickle on my tongue. Mother, I promise someday to stop putting unidentified foods from the woods in my mouth.

Processing pine shoots to make honey (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Making "Tannenspitzenhonig" (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Sweet woodruff – or Waldmeister, as it is known in Germany – had been on my mind since sampling a craft-brewed Berliner Weisse topped off with a cap of woodruff syrup the marshy color of a toad’s back.

A sour, cloudy white beer, Berliner Weisse is mainly a summer beverage, and people in Berlin drink it doused with a too-generous shot of garish-colored syrup. Red is for raspberry and green is for Waldmeister, but both taste the same – loud, sugary, and thick. The drink has fallen out of favor, especially with the younger generation. It’s too artificial for our coolly understated tastes. And so I was surprised – but maybe not too surprised – to find a stand at a local craft spirits festival serving the “real” stuff: Brewbaker Berliner Weisse with home-brewed sweet woodruff syrup.

It was nothing like its neon twin – a backwoods relative who scoops the potato salad out by hand at the family picnic. » Continue reading this post…

That’s Joy: Elisenlebkuchen

Elisenlebkuchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I think one of my favorite winter songs is Sufjan Stevens’s “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”. It’s a melancholy piece: Father yells, the gifts are thrown in the wood stove, sister runs away with her books, while the snow just falls and falls and falls. Haunting voices laced with soft banjo twist Silent Night’s chords into a new shade of recognition. But it’s a beautiful song, gently uneasy like walking out into the cold still feeling the flush of too much food and an overly warm fire.

Candied orange and lemon peel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Christmas tree (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I’ve thrown myself into Christmas with a wild whoop. David and I decorated the tree with ornaments and lights. We listened to Frank and Mariah and cheered on all of Kevin’s holiday antics. I’ve outfitted the living room with boughs of evergreen and set out the tiny nativity carved from tough Colombian nuts, the pine-scented candle, the wooden Räuchermänner puffing cedar-scented smoke from their little carved pipes.

It makes me happy, this cozy, festive world I’ve created inside our small top-floor apartment. And yet, with every candy cane comes a strange sadness that catches me unawares, that colors my easy comfort.

Winter-blooming cactus (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Baking lebkuchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Spices and candied fruit (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Spices for Lebkuchen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Back in my ancestral home, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” is a banned song. It’s too sad, my mom says. I’d never felt the same before, but not so long ago when it shuffled into play, it made me realize why this season is making me ache.

My grandmother passed away around this time last year, and in the weeks before she left us, the family gathered around her bedside singing the songs she sang to generations of us when we were young. And because it was Christmas, we sang carols in the darkened room – “O Holy Night” and “Do You Hear What I Hear.”

The Christmas tree (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Lebkuchen dough (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Lebkuchen ready to bake (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

As I stood in the kitchen slicing oranges for mulled wine, smelling the crisp citrus-laced air and listening to the words… “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me… I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams”… I was in two places at once, feeling many things at the same time. » Continue reading this post…

The Road Home to Apple Country: Apple Butter

Homemade apple butter (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I know I swore I’d never can another fruit. And then along came a big bag of apples, plucked straight from the tree, and I couldn’t just let them rot.

I’ve never been much of an apple person. I think they’re a little boring as fruits go – a little too uniformly sweet, too big to nibble on, too much chewing to do. But apples feel like a harbinger of the fall, of cooler, crisper days, of waiting for the school bus and new sweaters, of cinnamon sticks and pie and holidays.

A bowl of just-picked apples (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Just a lonely little apple (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I grew up in apple country. Not far from where we lived, the roads started undulating like a kiddie coaster, curving through fog-stained fields full of gnarled fruit trees and corn. We bought our apples from a stand along the road which sold fresh peaches and blueberries – whatever was in season – along with homemade pickles and preserves. And every fall, there was the Apple Harvest Festival, a sweet-smelling country fair with bluegrass music and whole pigs roasting on spits. Mouths full of apples, of course.

Bowl of bright apples (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Apple butter helper (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Homegrown apples (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I have a very vivid memory of the festival. It must be a composite, because I’m sure we went more than just the once, but in my mind it’s that one long day in the clear, blue fall. I remember an apple fritter pulled from a vat of boiling oil, soft and doughy and covered in powdered sugar. I remember sitting on a hay bale and watching a play whose plot points I can no longer recall though I can still feel the scratchy hay poking through my thin leggings and the straw sticking out from a scarecrow’s shirt beside me.

Weighing apple quarters (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Quartered apples for making apple butter (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I know there were tractors on display and squat ponies walking around and around the corral with children on their backs. » Continue reading this post…

Always

At Epcot (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The hardest things to write are the ones that matter most. For three weeks, I haven’t written anything, not a poem, a post or even a journal entry. And it’s not because there hasn’t been anything to write about, but because the one thing I really wanted to write was impossible for me to process. My grandmother, my namesake, champion, and friend, passed away on December 18th, peacefully and surrounded by family.

But even a good death isn’t easy for the ones you leave behind. What a bizarre contrast, to feel the love and joy of Christmas, and yet mourn an irreplaceable loss. A heavy heart can still smile, but its weight throws you off-kilter, turning a laugh just as quickly into a sob.

She was a woman larger than life, filling a room with her presence, her conversation. Even her clothes were loud – bright purples and blues and reds, preferably accented with sequins or feathers or fur. And for the grandchildren, she was like a magnet. She demanded hugs, kisses, snuggles – and we gave them freely, instinctively.

A ready hug (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

She spoiled all of us. I remember as a child, when she came to town, she’d cook an entire pack of bacon just for me, and she made it just right – soft and wriggly so you could taste all the flavor of fat. And she’d make me an egg-in-toast. I’d stand by the stove, eyes barely high enough to peek over the counter, as she cut a round out of the buttered bread. I loved the sizzle of egg as it hit the hot skillet smack in the center of the hole. To me, it was culinary magic. They were special meals, the only time besides holidays when breakfast was a big deal.

With as much vivid clarity, I remember her singing me to sleep. » Continue reading this post…

Oh Tannenbaum

Räuchermann (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

This morning I woke up and bought a Christmas tree. Berlin, as usual these days, was a mottled, cotton-ball gray and drizzly. But I had plaited my hair for the occasion, and we all know that there’s nothing more festive than a Christmas plait.

The walk to Südkreuz from Schöneberg isn’t a particularly pretty one. It’s not a far walk, but the Sachsendamm is a wide, industrial stretch of road, along which you pass the giant furniture warehouse with its America-sized parking lot, a long, low sports center, and the car-crammed entrance to the highway. But I’m especially good at pretending during Christmastime, and as I walked, I imagined myself in a dark green forest, surrounded by tall pines and lightly falling snow. I saw my future self lugging my little tree up the apartment stairs and decorating it as I sang along to Perry Como and sipped on hot chocolate swizzled with a candy cane.

I love the romance of Christmas – its clichéd images of rosy-cheeked children and sugar cookies, Santa hats and snowball fights, warm and cozy comfort foods. Though truthfully, I can’t remember the last Christmas I had that fit into such a glittering, glistening box. I haven’t had a white Christmas in years, so there’s been no sledding, no snowball fights, no bowls of homemade snow ice cream – the stuff my childhood holidays were made of. Most of my Christmas shopping involves feeding my credit card number to the internet and every time I try to listen to Christmas music I have to navigate a sea of bad Wham.

But I’m changing all that with this Christmas tree. » Continue reading this post…

What I Took From the Woods: Pepper, Fennel and Sausage Breakfast Casserole

Fennel, pepper and sausage breakfast casserole (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Once upon a time, I used to lead backpacking trips. Strange to think about now, after having found my affinity for cities – and big ones at that – that at one time, I gladly trekked through green forests with a pack damping sweat on my back, feet sheathed in sturdy boots, and plastic bags of trail mix stashed inside my pack. We called it gorp, short for “good old raisins and peanuts,” and individuals were severely reprimanded for what was called “strip-mining the gorp” – eating only the colorful M&Ms and leaving behind a pile of nut-dusted raisins.

Round Knob hike (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Each trip lasted about a week and was divided three ways. Three days were spent hiking along the Tennessee-Carolina Appalachian Trail. As we wound our way up steep and rocky paths, we’d stop to pick small wild blueberries studding the bushes or to watch a Monarch rest its wings on a cluster of flowers. The woods were full of squirrels and chattering birds, honeybees, butterflies, and more dangerous animals too – rattlesnakes, bears, and pesky mosquitoes. We made camp near shelters, setting up blue tarps for tents, purifying water from nearby streams to drink, peeling sweaty socks from our tired feet.

There were two separate routes, but both led down to the Appalachian town of Hot Springs, where dirty groups would meet at the Smoky Mountain Diner for giant glasses of tooth-shattering sweet tea, deep-fried sweet corn and okra, cornbread and warm blackberry pie with ice cream.

Butterflies on the AT (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Peppers (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Peppers, onion and fennel (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

One day of the trip was spent doing a service project in the Asheville area. Some days, we’d clear forest trail of overgrown weeds, fallen stumps and stones. Others, we’d plant gardens for schools or sort cans at the food bank.

Two days of the trip were spent on the river, the French Broad, fondly referred to as “The Dirty Broad.” It was a very dirty river. » Continue reading this post…

Going Home

The glass mostly full (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I am strangely at home navigating unfamiliar places. Especially those beneath the earth – the metro in Paris or DC, the London tube, the convoluted network of U-bahn and S-bahn lines that crisscross Berlin like a twisted mesh net. Ever since New York, I’ve learned to love the reliably unreliable rush of trains hurtling to a stop, the stiff speech of the recorded station announcers, the always incomprehensible intercom crackling that the rest of the line is out. Change trains now.

But I digress. Every place has its own rhythm, a tattoo that makes it unique. Yet here and there, in this city and that, patterns repeat, like a subtle three-bar refrain the ear can’t hear but the feet feel. So the unfamiliar, or new, can have an inexplicable echo of what is familiar, or what is old.

Right now, I’m sitting in Tegel, whisking the foam from an overpriced cappuccino as the baristas gossip about their bosses in the repercussion-free feel of the 5 am airport. I’m on my way home for the holidays. » Continue reading this post…

Smells Like Fall: Uncle Richard’s Apple Cider

Apples (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

It is one of my last evenings living in Neukölln, and I’m feeling prematurely nostalgic about the scratch of car wheels roughing up rain outside my ground floor window, the headlights shining in through the curtains, the soft glow of lights in my little room, and the way it’s always cold no matter how much you wear. For that reason, and because hot drinks are so well suited to nostalgia, I’ve warmed myself up a cup of homemade apple cider and am sitting here at my desk researching moving truck prices and trying to figure out what Kbpi/s means.

I made my first batch of  homemade apple cider last week, listening to soft music and letting the warm smell of cinnamon waft through the apartment. A few weeks before that, my uncle had sent around an email with his recipe for apple cider.

My uncle, who lives in West Virginia, is an avid and experimental cook, reconstructing his favorite dishes by taking them apart and building them back up again. I store the recipes in an email folder, saving them for a rainy day or an alignment of the proper stars. I have yet to try the French onion soup, Moroccan-style boneless pork ribs, and Pho broth, but this fall in Berlin has been gracious, and that’s enough stars to spend a day with a pot of cider simmering on the stove. » Continue reading this post…