Dogwood Winter

This spring is a bit out of control, too early, too much, too warm too soon. The last few days we’ve had a cooler spell here in New York, which reminded me of the “winters” Mother taught me about.

Spring in Tennessee normally comes in an orderly, predictable fashion. Usually it starts in February with the forsythia and crocuses blooming. By March spring is well under way, with gradually warmer periods interspersed with cool spells. The redbuds bloom, then the dogwoods. Finally, in April the blackberry bushes flower.

Cool spells tend to come right when these bloom, and apparently this was always so. Mother and my aunts and uncles all referred to “redbud winter,” “dogwood winter,” and “blackberry winter” as if these were known dates on the calendar. I suppose to a farming community they nearly were.

I guess this is dogwood winter we’re having now in New York, if such a thing exists up here. Everything is out of sync this year. The Bradford pears (stinky, showy things) burst into bloom two weeks ago, along with the Japanese magnolias, which were nipped by the cold and have turned brown. Yet the dogwoods have not bloomed. So I hope they were spared the cold and will open soon.

Sometimes I feel very far from the farm. I’m glad to be working with my brain instead of my back, and God help anyone who had to depend on me to raise food! But I miss the patterns of planting, cultivating, and harvesting. There’s no seasonality to working on a computer. But even here spring intrudes, bursting out along the parkways, in yards, in the scattering of woods.  It’s time to think about planting.  It’s time to grow.

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Recipe: Spiced Lentil Soup

Now that we’re back to cooler spring temperatures (although still above normal), I decided to make a pot of this soup today.  This recipe comes from an old Prevention magazine Slow Cooker Meals cookbook.  I have had it for a long time, but had not tried this recipe until this winter.

If you like Indian food, you will love it.  If not, stay away–it is very spicy!  To me, that’s a virtue, especially when my nose is running and my ears are stuffed up from all this early and abundant pollen.  Another great thing about it is it can cook all day on low, so it’s safe to leave in the slow cooker even if you have a lengthy commute.  The recipe says it makes 4 servings, but I think it makes considerably more than that.  I tend to freeze it in 2-cup containers for nights when I don’t feel like cooking or days when I want to take something microwaveable for lunch.

Spiced Lentil Soup

1 cup lentils, rinsed

1 can (28 oz.) stewed tomatoes, undrained

2 medium potatoes, diced

2 medium carrots, sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

1 rib celery, sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 bay leaves

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

3 Tablespoons curry powder

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander (in Asian groceries; if you can’t find, it’s ok without)

4 cups low-fat, low sodium chicken or vegetable broth

Combine all ingredients in slow cooker.  Cover.  Cook on low 8 to 10 hours or on high 4 to 5 hours, or until lentils are tender.  Remove bay leaves before serving.

Makes 4 servings, per serving 260 calories, 14 g protein, 51 g carbs, 15 g fiber, 930 mg so

Somebody’s Princess

While I was getting my nails done today (big, once-a-month treat) a young woman came in with her daughter.  The little girl was wearing a special dress with a velvet sleeveless top and a longish skirt of lace and pink taffeta (“Target,” her mom said when I asked), and her hair was pulled up in a ballerina’s bun on top of her head.  “It’s her birthday today, so she would like her nails polished, please,” her mom said.  The Korean nail ladies made a fuss over her and asked how old she was.  “Six, today,” she said.

For some reason this made me remember being taken to the beauty salon in Clarksville by my sister Juanita.  I don’t remember if I had been before, but I was entranced by the whole experience.  The beautician trimmed my bangs while Juanita was getting a proper ’60s haircut and styling–no blow dryers back then!  Rollers and pin curls and those dryers with big metal bonnets were the norm, and the smells were strong with perfume.

I had been admitted to a world where you were pampered and made beautiful.  And I had no doubt at all that I was beautiful!  The finishing touch was a hairpin with a large fake diamond, which the beautician used to help keep the stray hairs from my ponytail in place.  I was thrilled.

I still feel pampered and treated when I go to the salon now.  I’m no longer convinced I’m beautiful, alas.  The face in the mirror doesn’t look like it did.  But it’s still nice to come out looking better than when you went in, and to feel taken care of for an hour or two.  I hope all little girls get the chance to feel special that way, at some point before the pains of growing up set in.

The Easter Fair in Prague

Czech Easter eggs, from Wikimedia
The last time I took a vacation out of the U.S. was in 2002.  At a fundraising auction for the Y I belong to, I won two round-trip tickets to anywhere British Airways flew.  The hitch was, you had to connect through London.  I considered South Africa, but didn’t really have enough vacation time to make such a long trip worthwhile.  And I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before.  So after much consultation and research, I went to Prague in March 2002 with my friend Dana.

The tourist season had not yet begun.  It was still cold, very grey and rainy.  The castles in the countryside around Prague had not opened for the season, and some of the tourist attractions in the city were closed.  But it was still lovely.  There were free concerts every day in churches and concert halls.  The beer halls were lots of fun–we quickly learned how to order in Czech, and there were any number of Americans there as well.  The streets were dark and medieval, but the people were friendly and spoke a little English.

We shopped for garnet jewelry, which is a specialty of the Czech Republic, and dined in snug, Art Deco restaurants.  We walked the rain-slick streets and went through the remains of the old Jewish quarter.  After the horror of the Holocaust, there are almost no Jews in Prague to this day.

One day we went to the Easter fair, which was set up in small booths in the main square.  Most of the booths were selling plastic garbage made in China or cheap tourist crap, which you could buy anywhere.  But a few of the booths were selling Czech Easter eggs.  Some eggs are decorated by making patterns with wax and then dying the shells.  Others ar dyed and then hand-painted.  Somehow the maker gets the interior of the egg out of the shell without breaking it, I think before dying it.  Then a ribbon is glued to the top or strung through a hole at either end so you can hang the egg on a branch placed in a vase.  The booths also sold woven branches with crepe paper streamers on the end in their traditional spring colors:  pale green, yellow, sky blue, and red.

The eggs were sold in small egg cartons.  I brought six home–and two broke in transit.  I just opened the carton and looked at them, and another one has broken.  Something so delicate was not meant to survive, even wrapped in bubble wrap.  My cat would undoubtedly destroy the remaining ones if I put them out.  So I’ll leave them in their carton, to remind me spring is coming, and that it is a delicate season.

The Long Road to School

Photo from Flickr
When I was a teenager on the farm, we started every day with a “good” breakfast.  It usually involved cereal, almost always corn flakes, and toast, along with milk for me and coffee for Mother and Daddy.  On the weekends Mother was more apt to fry eggs and bacon and bake biscuits, but she certainly didn’t do that every morning.  Daddy and I ate breakfast and then went our separate ways, he to drive to work (or drive a schoolbus, as he did in later years) and me up the long gravel driveway to catch the school bus.

In the winter I remember standing up at the road in the dark, waiting for the yellow school bus to appear shortly after 7 a.m.  I had my lunch in a paper bag, my books under my arm, and a coat wrapped around me.  Bear in mind that girls were not allowed to wear pants to school until I was a senior in high school, so picture me shivering in knee socks and loafers, waiting for the bus.

The farm was 17 miles outside of town and about 20 miles from my junior high school and high school.  But the ride to school took well over an hour.  The bus crawled along winding country roads, stopping frequently where there were clusters of houses, then speeding up a bit in the lonely spaces between farms.  Some of my cousins rode the bus, but most of the other riders were kids I didn’t know well.

The bus had hard, dark green vinyl-cushioned bench seats with a curved metal bar on the top of each seat, so you could hold on when the driver took a curve a little too fast or if you wanted to stand up and talk to someone.  This would invariably cause the driver–generally male and grumpy–to shout, “Y’all sit down right now!”

During the winter the sun would come up in the course of the ride.  If the clouds were thin I could see the sunrise through the scrubby trees and bushes along the side of the road as we roared past.  Red skies at morning, sailors take warning—a pink sunrise was considered a sure sign of rain or sleet to come.

The bus ride to school was usually quiet, since all of the teenagers wished they were still at home in bed.  Some of them slept all the way, while others gossiped or tried to finish homework.  I often sat with my cousin Judy.  During those long rides we didn’t talk much.

I watched the countryside flashing past and daydreamed.  I don’t remember what I dreamed about.  But I was convinced this was just the beginning of the road for me.  I had no idea how long the road would be or where I was going.  Even as I absorbed the stark beauty of a winter sunrise,  I knew I was going somewhere, some day, out of the hills and hollers.