Making Cornbread

Stand in your kitchen, and think of your ancestors. Remember women who went hungry to feed their children. Remember women who kept chickens when it wasn’t cute and had no qualms wringing their necks. Remember women who would have been equally mystified and fascinated by the life you live.

Put a stick of butter on the stove to melt. You have a special pot just for that, which your great-grandmother would have thought was the strangest thing she’d ever heard.

Put your iron skillet on the other eye, over a low flame. It doesn’t have to be the one that your aunts fought over last time someone in the family died. Recently store-bought is okay. Add some oil. A round cake pan is fine, I guess, but skip this step.

Preheat the oven to 375. Or 350. or 425. Something.

Good cornbread is a luxury invention, you know. You can make it with just cornmeal and water, like hungry people do. Everything else is inessential.

My mother learned to make cornbread from a boilermaker whose name was only initials, but I’ve forgotten them. His recipe called for that late 80s product, butter in a squeeze bottle like chocolate syrup. She said “your grandmother didn’t have squeeze butter.” He said “She would have used it if she did.” Fair enough; our grandmothers were pragmatists.

Find cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, buttermilk, and an egg.

Every woman I grew up with bought cornmeal mix, flour and cornmeal already blended. If I blend them myself, is that more authentic, or less?

Get the speckled ceramic bowl from the top shelf of your cabinet. The one your mama bought for $0.25 at a garage sale when you moved out, and then wished she had kept for herself.

You didn’t brown the butter, did you? Pay attention. If it’s melted, set it aside to cool.

I have never seen a woman make cornbread with a measuring cup. My mother and my grandmother used a jelly jar. Add two parts of cornmeal to one part of flour. Let’s call one part 3/4 of a cup, remembering our jelly jar.

My other grandmother didn’t make cornbread, she made biscuits, and she didn’t measure a damned thing.

Add a teaspoon and a half of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt. Everyone used self-rising flour. I had to find the conversion table. It may be all wrong, but it works out fine in the end.

Add a little more salt, unless you used salted butter.

Mix your dry ingredients. Remember your meditation on authenticity.

Add the egg and the butter. Stir them in the best you can; this will be quite thick.

I called my mother from graduate school and made her give me this recipe over the phone. It was a difficult semester. She forgot to tell me about the egg, until years later. One day I mentioned that my cornbread was too crumbly, and she said, “Are you forgetting the egg?” and I said “what egg?”

Add buttermilk until it looks right. You either know, or you don’t. I’m sorry. Cornmeal is tricky and not every batch absorbs the same. When you put it in the pan it should spread smoothly to the edges without you having to help it. Not enough, and your bread will be dry and crumbly. Too much, and it will stay heavy and doughy.

Your iron skillet will be hot–don’t touch it while you pour the batter in. You want a nice quiet sizzle.

Bake for a while, until it’s done. My mama liked to flip hers out onto a plate, then slide it back into the skillet to brown on the top. Unless you have strong wrists and 100% confidence in your moisture content and the non-stick nature of well-seasoned iron, don’t try it.

Thank your ancestors for your cast iron and your cornmeal, your oven and your wrists.







Mending allows us to have a more nuanced relationship with capitalism.Mending

Our old clothes are a blight upon the earth, to overstate only slightly. Our new clothes are, too.

We can intervene in that cycle of consumption on both sides. We can buy new clothes less often and more thoughtfully. We can also keep our existing clothes in use, instead of in landfills/charity shops/third world countries.

Mending is a tricky conversation, though. First, many “fast fashion” clothes aren’t well-enough made to mend. You can’t always fix garments that become misshapen in the wash. Cheap fabrics disintegrate with their seams and buttons intact. Trendy clothes become desperately out of style.

More fundamentally than that, mending is a skill that we simply don’t have anymore. Fabric used to be valuable, and now it is cheap. Saving it at any cost no longer makes basic economic sense. Imagine yourself being paid the hourly rate for your job, times however long it takes you to mend an item, and you very quickly outpace the cost of the item. Once a skill becomes monetarily illogical, it tends to fall from the cultural Mendingrepertoire quite quickly. No one learns in American public schools how to sew or darn, even though these were basic curriculum for women, and in some cultures men, well into the 1970s.

Of course, many things that are “illogical” when considered merely as a dollar value have, in fact, tremendous real value of other kinds. There has been an intense re-evaluation of many kinds of handiwork, from knitting to farming, in the last 15 years, and our culture and lives are better for it. Still, for every one of those skills, we have needed to take them up one by one and relearn them.

I hope mending’s turn is upon us.


Christmas 2017The day after Christmas, I retreated to the woods.

Further into the woods, that is. I’d already left my wi-fi, my cellphone reception, and anything explicitly resembling Christmas.

It was terrible weather for a vacation: unusually cold, with a heavy gray mist just above the ground. I took one bike ride, but finished six books in six days. That kind of weather.

The park ranger, either from habit or because she hadn’t left the ranger station all day, recommended a hike to the park’s highest point. “It’s the best view in town,” she said. I knew there was no way it could amount to much in the fog, but I needed to think and to stretch my legs, no matter the outcome.

The path was a treacherous mix of wet, slick, granite and loose chunks of limestone. I’d planned a biking vacation, not a hiking trip, so I was left to pick my way carefully in my summer canvas shoes.

Christmas 2017

This was the “spectacular” view that waited for me at the top; the reward for a quite brisk mile uphill.

As I very gently navigated my way back down the hill, I found myself thinking of a phrase Joan Halifax uses: the path is the temple.

I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring the walk and focusing on the view. The view had all-but disappeared, and a moment’s inattention to the ground would have splayed me flat. Instead, I was compelled to be exactly and totally in the present moment, and the present moment was a profound place to be.

Christmas 2017

2018 is beginning in a very uncertain place. Too much is up in the air for me to make plans and draw maps. Instead, I will be focusing on this little place, this bit of the path right before my feet.

The path is the temple.

Distraction from Distractions

In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes that “distraction is distracting us from distraction.” That is, unproductive and perhaps even harmful “distractions” are keeping us from the necessary poetic work of being bored, of having time to look around. Tellingly, the lecture with this quote appears to date from the 1990s, when that most insidious enabler of distractions, the smart phone, had yet to enter every American pocket.

I was reminded of Manoush Zomorodi’s book, and, before that, podcast series, Bored and Brilliant, whose central premise is that our minds need downtime in order to forge connections. Without boredom, brilliance is harder, too. This is why we come up with great ideas in the shower or as we drift off to sleep. The natural breaks in a day that used to allow these gaps are increasingly fillable, and filled, with a never-ending stream of (mostly) inanity. We don’t even wait at red lights without checking our phones.

Arnold Bennett, rather smugly, told his late-Victorian readers to use their commute to meditate on the writings of Marcus Aurelius, rather than giving in to the lure of the newspaper. By 2001, David Allen’s Getting Things Done was suggesting that we use the time to get a head start on our office e-mail.

The difficulty is two-fold. Firstly, in a culture that fetishizes productivity without a clear sense of what that means as a holistic concept, our office jobs are increasingly difficult to corral into office hours. It was suggested by my boss that I link my work e-mail to my personal smart phone, despite the absolute non-urgency of any messages I receive. A high-powered female executive recently told me the story a of getting a call about a difficult accounting problem, while she was in the labor and delivery ward giving birth. Books and blogs now sometimes recommend not trying to answer every e-mail as soon as it comes in, as though this is is a secret and controversial wisdom.

The social is following suit. If having “nothing to do” is something of a sin (see, above, fetishization of productivity), having no place to talk about it, or, heaven forbid, no “likes”, is even worse. Facebook thrives on comments on every birthday and life event, even for casual acquaintances. Text messaging allows asynchronous and amorphous conversations that have neither beginning nor end.

The other expectation is perhaps more pernicious. That is, we expect, and desire, the jolt of connection that comes from social media, or even the illusion of importance that comes from “needing” to answer work e-mail at home. And, especially for social media, software and website developers are quick to exploit that need. Facebook, for an easy example, quite rapidly dispensed with the chronological news feed. You can no longer ever be sure that scrolling just a bit further won’t reveal something “important” that you almost missed. Just when you are, an automatic refresh scrambles everything again.

Being aware of the situation does not offer an apparent solution. Our most meaningful social interactions have been displaced onto electronic entities that want us to want them. It isn’t a healthy human behavior to opt out of meaningful social interaction, but it is increasingly harder to find that in an offline setting. In the sense of being in charge of our own time, of allowing space in our lives to think, instead of allowing a digital environment to curate our thinking on our behalf, a firm “no, thanks” makes the most sense. But part of the reason social media is so pervasive is that it is, truly, a medium that integrates perfectly with our geographically disparate modern condition.

That is, it is a site for both very real meaning and very disruptive non-meaning. What do borders around that look like, and how can we draw them?

Hard Holidays

My mother died in September. She was quite young, and she was a good mother.

UntitledGrief is a strange emotional state. I don’t miss her, in that way that other people seem to. I don’t look at old photos and feel nostalgic. I don’t pick up the phone to call her. I didn’t cry at her funeral. I was confused for a long time, because I wasn’t sad.

Then I realized that I was, more accurately, so sad it had stopped being a recognizable state. Sad is sad, and happy is sad, and breathing is sad. Like every atmosphere, you get used to it. It becomes invisible. Some days seem okay now, and some are like being in the bottom of a well.

My mother adored Christmas. She loved to feed people, and she loved to buy them things. She wrapped beautiful presents. She bought a new artificial tree every year, even though the whole point of an artificial tree is that they last forever.

My husband mystified her. They were, perhaps, the most completely opposite people I’ve ever known. He was the only one who ever flustered her unerring ability to pick out the perfect gift. So, he didn’t get gifts. He got bonbons.

This year, I booked a vacation house with no internet connection and no cell phone reception, and I am going to skip everything.


Clothes, the weather, and slow fashion

2017-12-06 18.35.12

My last fifteen years have involved four radically different climates.

I no longer own the winter clothes that came with me on the last big move. We had a terrible moth problem (insects adore Texas), and rather than mend sweaters that I didn’t have an actual use for, just to let them get re-nibbled, they got discarded. My down parka went to a friend. My rain coat lost its rain-proofness. I unraveled a pair of knitted tights to make a shawl, then I mostly stopped knitting. My “winter shoes” for the last two years have been a pair of canvas Keds. I own one pair of jeans.

None of those things have been problems, mind you. This week, though, just as we have it hanging over our heads that we might have to relocate again, the weather has gone from the 70s to the 40s, and I am really unprepared.

I refuse to panic shop for clothes. I’ll get by; it will be warm again in a few days. But, what if I leave here and go someplace where 40 degrees in December is, you know, a regular thing? Or, heaven forbid, considered to be warm? What would a slow-fashion winter wardrobe look like, when you have to violate the fundamental principle of slow fashion and buy everything, or at least enough things, all at once?

(Photo: Detail of my one remaining handknit sweater, in the most completely-ridiculous-for-this-climate unspun Icelandic wool.)

Some notes on the state of the knitting world, after a substantial absence.

Life changes.

Structures fall.

Bits rearrange.

And here we are.

I thought about archiving the (now ancient) content that already exists here, and I might still. I am definitely in the process of reformatting. Mostly right now I am laughing about how sweet and quaint that last post about politics seems, in the light of current events. (The governor of Texas is still awful.)

My life has been a wild and not-very-nice kind of upheaval for the last two years, but I want to talk about something else:

I took three, or maybe a bit more, years away from almost everything making-related on the internet, and the year or two before that was a taper-down. Coming back to it now is deeply illuminating. One of my frustrations at the time, which I’m just now really able to articulate, is that craft had become a site of conspicuous consumption of its own. I am talking about the days of sock-yarn mania, here. “Independent yarn” at the time meant wacky handpaints and shopping frenzy.

It wasn’t that the trendy yarn was inherently bad, or that the people who bought it were. While much of it wasn’t to my taste, some of it was really quite lovely. But the atmosphere was one of stress. My most-overheard conversations were “I have to have that, and it is constantly selling out, what am I going to do?” and/or “I have so much yarn that I am freaking out about it, but I’m still buying more.” That’s what capitalism programs us to do, and I fully acknowledge that breaking that mold is damned hard.

That kind of shopping culture wasn’t something I wanted to participate in, especially in a handcraft context, and, more importantly, that kind of conversation about crafting wasn’t something I wanted to participate in.

It also isn’t that other conversations weren’t happening. I’m overstating a case that was very real, but not as absolute as I am perhaps making it sound. It is true, though, that there were many fewer options. Once I left New England the kind of yarn I found worthwhile was both difficult to access and nonsensical to use in my climate. (My knitting for the last three years is summed up in three or four large wraps, perfect for keeping the air-conditioning off bare summer shoulders. Even worsted weight sweaters have no use here, and wool moths love handknits that don’t get worn.)

So I am looking around this brave new knitting world with wide-eyed amazement. Karen Templer, who I knew in ye VERY olde days as the proprietor of a book site I hung around on way too much, is running a website that everyone else has already heard about, called Fringe Association, where people are having the exact kind of conversation about knitting that I have always wished people would have. Namely: how do we honor the yarn, and the process, by thinking about the knitting we do and the projects we commit to? How do we make garments that will both physically and fashionably last a lifetime? This is positioning craft back where it belongs, as an opt-out for fast fashion, rather than a different kind of opt-in.

(Three related but random observations: 1) I’m deeply amused that Mason-Dixon Knitting and Brooklyn Tweed seem to have, between the two of them and with some overlap, agglomerated every interesting knitter I remember. 2) People knit a LOT more sweaters now. Gee, whiz, a lot more sweaters. 3) Also, they do not seem to post on Ravelry as much as they did when I left. Most of the Rav groups I used to hang in were completely dead.)

I am slightly less behind on the sewing world, as my attempts there were more recent and stalled out by some dramatic shifts in my personal life rather than choice. Even there, though, the last year or two has been, apparently, amazing.

It’s with a new enthusiasm, then, that I find myself rummaging back through my bins of yarn and needles and patterns.