Friday, June 26, 2009

Blueberry Summer

Every summer when we were small, my mother would take my brother, Chip, and me blueberry picking. If you shop for blueberries in August in almost any area of the country, you will find blueberries from Grand Haven, Michigan. (I’ve even bought Grand Haven blueberries at the Fairway market on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.) Reindeer’s farm in Grand Haven. That’s where we picked them. Sometimes we’d go with another family, but often we’d just wake up, discover it was a great day for blueberry picking, and we’d jump in the car, Mom, Chip and me. Rereading Bruce Degen's Jamberry took me right back to those childhood outings.

We’d search the blueberry bushes for the plumpest, juiciest-looking prospects, leaving the smaller ones to ripen for someone else. They took on a rich cornflower blue color when they were ripe, while the smaller ones had more of a purple tint to them. After awhile (and if you sampled one here or there), you got the hang of it. We’d each fill a bucket full of berries. It seemed like we would never run out of them. We washed them all and froze some. We’d have them on cereal, Mom would make blueberry pancakes and blueberry coffee cake. And the frozen ones would keep for a midwinter treat.

Years later, when Chip and I were in our teens, and our Grandma Petie (that’s my dad’s mom) was widowed, she’d come and stay with us summers, and she’d make blueberry pie from scratch. No one could make a pie crust like hers. She grew up in New England, and she’d exclaim over the quality of Michigan blueberries: “I’ve never seen berries so big! They look like huckleberries!” Every summer she’d seem delighted anew. She’d make the dough and let it rise, roll it out and lay it in the pie tin just so, pile on the blueberries with just a bit of sugar (no corn syrup), then overlay the top crust and gently crimp the sides of the pie, to close it up. She’d end with the ever-important fork holes in a neat pattern on the top.

I can’t tell you how many times I watched her do this, and yet I do not have a recipe for my Grandma Petie’s blueberry pie. I have collected recipes from other friends who are masters in the kitchen, and I’ve tried one or two, but none tastes like hers. Maybe this summer I’ll begin a pie-making quest, to try and recreate a crust as close as I can to hers. But in the meantime, I can still enjoy the blueberries, every small burst of flavor in my mouth taking me back to those carefree Michigan summers picking blueberries.

Friday, June 19, 2009

How Far Have We Evolved When It Comes to Gender Roles?

After I read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, I started thinking about gender roles at the turn of the 20th century (when the book takes place) and gender roles today, in the 21st century. How far have we evolved?

In many ways, we can pat ourselves on the back. Today, women balance family and careers, and men are far more involved in parenting than they were even a generation ago. A boy can embrace his talents in the kitchen and grow up to be a respected chef like Emeril or Charlie Trotter, or a restaurateur like Danny Meyer. A girl can grow up to become a doctor or lawyer--in fact, author Jacqueline Kelly is both (that's her with her dog Elvis).

But when I go into schools, I still see remnants of the ole gender role stereotyping—and the students do it themselves. You know who I mean—girls who insist they’re not good at math, or “don’t get” the scientific concepts they’re learning, or boys who don’t want to admit they’d rather draw than play basketball. It’s my belief that this is not always conscious on the part of children; they tamp down the interests that come naturally to them because they somehow believe it’s “not acceptable” in some way. Callie Vee (the heroine of Evolution) finds not one, but two champions (her oldest brother, Harry, and her grandfather) who stand beside her as she goes against society’s norms. How do we encourage a child’s natural interests? And how do we help celebrate their inborn curiosity?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my father’s college roommate, Jim Bennett. When I got to college, he told me, “Study what you love, because that is what you’ll do well in.” I resisted becoming an English major because I didn’t know what I’d do with it after college (Ha!) but studying literature and writing was what I loved. And because of Jim’s advice, that’s the course of study I followed, and I’ve never regretted it.

When we hear children belittle their talents or interests, I think we need to stop whatever we’re doing and simply say, “Why would you say that? You’re a wonderful artist!” or “But you’re great at math!” Ask the child to look you in the eye when you say it. Gently repeat it if you need to: “Did you hear what I said? You’re a wonderful artist!” It’s not the big overarching messages we have to address anymore—thankfully, those have mostly been eradicated by society at large. Rather, it’s the small insidious messages that children receive, from who knows where—the playground, a sitcom, an advertisement. Those are the statements we have to stop short whenever and wherever we witness them being internalized by a child. It’s a slow, repetitive process, but the rewards for the child are beyond measure. Sometimes, all a child needs is one champion.

Friday, June 12, 2009

If You Can Read, You Can Cook

My mother, Judy (short for “Judith”), loved to cook. Her mother, Gert (short for “Gertrude”) did not love to cook, so as soon as Judy was tall enough to stir ingredients in a pot, she began making things that tasted good to her.

Judy had a best friend named Barb (they were close buddies their whole lives, until my mother passed away a few years back). Barb’s father, Bill Knapp, started a restaurant in Battle Creek, Michigan, that grew to become quite a famous chain of family restaurants in the Midwest and in Florida. (My favorites were their scalloped potatoes and, hands down, the Bill Knapp’s chocolate cake, which they provided for free on your birthday if you joined their birthday club.) Judy and Barb loved to cook together, and I (and many others) loved to eat what they made.

As soon as I could stir a wooden spoon in a bowl (sometimes while standing on a chair), my mother had me helping in the kitchen. She would measure all of the ingredients and set them on the counter, and then tell me when it was time for each (a 2-cup measure of flour, a teaspoon of baking soda, etc.). At one point when I was in elementary school, she asked me if I thought I could cook. She told me that my response was, “If you can read, you can cook.”

Now, my husband comes from Italian stock, and he is very good at adding a pinch of this, or a pinch of that to make things taste just right. I, on the other hand, am a true cookbook cook. I tend to use the exact measurements that the recipe specifies. But I love to cook. And I realized that both Dessert First and The Year the Swallows Came Early feature true food-lovers and chefs-in-the-making. Dessert First even gives you the recipe for Double-Decker Chocolate Bars on the back of the book’s dust jacket. (That's author Hallie Durand, at left.)

So why not also talk about reading as a pathway to great dining? I think the first thing I ever cooked on my own were Rice Krispy Treats, with the recipe right on the cereal box (and only marshmallows and butter are needed in addition). The peanut butter cookies in The Joy of Cooking is another easy-peasy recipe, requiring only the basics that you likely have in your kitchen already (and then if you want, you can add chocolate kisses, or chocolate chips, or even peanut butter chips, if you’re a peanut butter fanatic like I am). And of course, Toll-House Cookies, with the recipe right on the chocolate-chip bag.

Often, books inspire us to take action, and if we read a book about good food, why not take our youngsters into the kitchen and get cookin’?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Giving the Past Immediacy

Children love to hear about historic events when they are told with lots of action, and edge-of-your-seat excitement.

Brian Floca does just that with his book Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11. He makes those eight days in July 1969 seem as if they are happening right now, as you turn the pages together. Maybe it’s because, as a boy, Floca was so amazed by that maiden voyage to the Moon. In my interview with him, Floca said that this book was 10 years in the making and that he had to set aside some of the details he found so fascinating in order to keep the text simple.

The author-artist demonstrates his artistic process with a YouTube video on his Web site and also offers downloadable coloring pages so children can make their own images of the space journey, plus he talks about previous Apollo missions—some of which have related YouTube footage available.

If ever you wanted to talk with youngsters about these extraordinary journeys through space, this book provides the perfect launchpad (pun intended) for such discussions.