Kale, red lentil, and kidney bean tacos

Kale, kidney bean and red lentil tacos

Kale, kidney bean and red lentil tacos

Yesterday I read an article comparing John Donne to Robert Burns. I wish I could find it again, but I cannot. To awkwardly paraphrase, the author said that both Donne and Burns, whatever the differences in their language and their intellectual processes, could not help but express themselves with great honesty and humanity. Of course I love this idea! And I started thinking about their poetry, and my wandering mind lit upon The Flea and To a Louse. Two clever and witty poems addressed to insects (or are they bugs?) John Donne’s is saucily seductive, and Burns’ is a sort of beautifully off-kilter philosophical musing on pretensions and social equality. In keeping with my plan of sharing the words of others’ this week at The Ordinary, I present to you:


BY John Donne

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.


On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church

by Robert Burns

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her-
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it-
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

And to round it all off, from Emily Dickinson, another poet who glows with emotional honesty and humanity, despite or because of her eccentricity, we offer


Emily Dickinson

The spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands–
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl–unwinds–

He plies from Nought to Nought–
In unsubstantial Trade–
Supplants our Tapestries with His–
In half the period–

An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light–
Then dangle from the Housewife’s Broom–
His Boundaries–forgot–

Because everybody wants to read about bugs and insects on a food blog, right? We got some lovely kale from the farm, and I made it into tacos, with kidney beans and red lentils. I thought the contrasting textures of the beans would be nice, and it was! These are simply flavored, with sage and lime. We ate them with warm tortillas, basmati rice, grated sharp cheddar and chopped tomatoes. This mixture would be nice simply served over farro or bulgar as well, though, or as a side dish.

Instead of a song, today, we’ll give you Robert Carlyle reading Robert Burns’ To a Louse.
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Broccoli rabe with butterbeans, tomatoes, and mozzarella

Broccoli rabe and butter beans

Broccoli rabe and butter beans

I apologize in advance for this. Earlier in the week I was unkind to poor Jack Kerouac, and now I feel another ungenerous rant come along. I do genuinely want The Ordinary to be full of things I love, not complaints about things I don’t like, but I’ve been talking in my head about this for a few days, so it has to come out. How has this happened? Jonathan Franzen has got me so upset. Last week he wrote a long whingey article in the Guardian (admittedly the place for long whingey articles.) What’s Wrong with the Modern World, though ostensibly about the essays of German satirist Karl Kraus, is really about Franzen himself. In a strange turn of events, the day the story came out, before I’d even seen it, I’d spent the morning talking to Franzen in my head about all of the ways I think he’s bad for American literature. I told him all the things I don’t like about his novels, how I find them insincere and soulless, smugly & coldly well-researched and clever. How he likes to know things about people–he fancies himself an expert–but how I’d turn the tables on him and say that I know him, I know men like him, prowling college student centers all over the country in their blazers, with their sad mix of arrogance and insecurity, trying to pick up women by twisting their words and bewildering them, and then saying, “I know you, baby.” And then along comes this article, and Franzen knows Karl Kraus, he relates to him, and he’ll explain him to us, because we’re probably not smart enough to unravel Kraus’ deliberately difficult prose. He tells us that Kraus said, “Psychoanalysis is that disease of the mind for which it believes itself to be the cure,” and then he goes on to psychoanalyze Kraus, to try to understand why he’s so angry. Franzen was angry himself, once, he tells us, and his anger made him cruel to old, poverty-stricken German women, but in a clever and poetic way that was significant for Franzen himself. And we suspect that this entire article is Franzen’s way of publicly stating, decades on, that when he didn’t have sex with “an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich,” it wasn’t a failure on his part but a decision. This is not anger! This is petulance, this is brattishness. And he tells us his anger subsided when he started to become successful as a writer, just as a spoiled child’s does when he finally gets his way. And now his anger is directed to the noise of the modern world, at people who tweet and leave inane comments on facebook and amazon. At the people who self-publish their novels and then brag about them on Amazon in the hopes that anyone will read them. But Franzen’s lengthy whinge in the Guardian ends thus, “The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen is published by Harper Collins on 1 October. To pre-order it…” He’s privileged, he doesn’t have to stoop to leaving flattering reviews of his own novel on lowly websites, and he can be disdainful of anybody that does, because he has the Guardian UK for his bragging platform. And, in truth, twitter, facebook, Amazon, I don’t love them, I agree that they’re noisy and distracting, but they’re easy to tune out. They’re easy to ignore. Franzen’s novels are more dangerous because they aren’t easy to ignore. I’ve wasted valuable hours of my life reading 1 1/2 of his novels, and I’ll never get that time back, I’ll never unread them. I read them because I had been told that they were good, that they were fine, they were literature, despite the fact that Oprah was suggesting them to housewives, to Franzen’s dismay. Franzen talks about how things are changing so fast that we have no sense of the past or the future any more. “If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. … And so today, 53 years later, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me.” In 1159, few people made it to 53, and few people would have had any knowledge of the past, of the history of the world, or even their part of it. For them time passing was measured from meal to meal, from dark to dark, in the cycle of the seasons. They must have had dreams of the future, but those dreams would have been darkened by the inevitability of hunger and disease and war, by their own personal apocalypse. Franzen’s anger, in this pitch to sell his new book, lacks any real depth or substance or sense, just as his novels do for me. They lack soul, not in a religious sense, but in the sense of something warm and truthful, human and enduring. Franzen’s novels are painstakingly about his present, but they don’t possess a sense of memory, there’s no life inside, no quick, to persist when the dry words have crumbled to dust.

broccoli rabe and butterbeans

broccoli rabe and butterbeans

Bitter? Me? No, no, it’s broccoli rabe that’s bitter. But tender and delicious. Tender is the key word here, I wanted everything to be tender–the greens, the big juicy butterbeans, the little melting chunks of mozzarella, the cherry tomatoes fresh from the farm. The pine nuts add a little contrasting crunch, and that’s that!

Here’s Billie Holiday with Tenderly
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Thin crispy roasted potatoes piled with chipotle black beans, spinach, smoked gouda, jalapenoes, and guacamole

Thin crispy potatoes with black beans and guacamole

Thin crispy potatoes with black beans and guacamole

“Why is it okay to be scruffy when you’re real?” This is a question Isaac had to answer for class, and in solidarity with the lad, I’m going to try to answer it myself, here. I should start by saying that I haven’t read the book, so if it seems like I’m desperately flailing to sound relevant (to anything), that’s because I am. I would posit, however, that this is the nature of all communication after first grade, and thereby acceptable for the matter at hand. So. “Why is it okay to be scruffy when you’re real?” I believe that not only is it “okay” to be scruffy when you’re real, but that scruffiness is an indicator of reality. And not just an indicator of realness as opposed to imaginariness, but also of realness in contrast to fakeness. Real meaning “actual” as well as real meaning “genuine.” Anything that is too perfect or symmetrical seems plastic and artificial. Something may be perfect in your dreams or your imagination, but when you’re awake and viewing the real thing, you notice flaws and oddities. And these are the aspects that make you know that the object is yours, and these are the things that make the object beautiful in your eyes. Any slight imperfection makes an individual more interesting and appealing, makes it stand out from all others, makes it, in fact, individual. It is hard to love something that is exactly like every other such something in the world. It is hard to even recognize that it is yours. If every car in the world was the same, you might identify yours because of a scrape on the fender or a dent in the bumper. This scruffiness helps you to recognize that the car is yours, and the very state of being yours makes it more appealing than every more perfect car in the world. If every child in the world was identical in mind and body, you might feel a vague affection for all of them. But it’s the child you’ve nursed when they were ill, whose snotty nose you’ve wiped, whose strange thoughts you’ve listened to, that you love with a fierce passion. It’s the child whose dirty face and muddy fingernails you love, because it means they’ve had a good day playing in the yard or climbing trees. Because another definition of “real” is alive, animate, as in “a real boy.” And when you’re alive you’re subject to messiness, illness, and aging. But these things, as manifestations of life and liveliness, become poignant and beautiful. Scruffiness is a sign of change. It’s a sign of growing and living, of adventures and mishaps, of stories to tell. These are the things that make a creature interesting and alive. Mint-condition perfection can only be achieved through stasis and isolation, and few things in life are actually better for being static and alone. Scruffiness is okay when you’re real, because it is both symptom and source of a real love, such as can only be experienced by real people in real time. Scruffiness is vulnerability, it is showing yourself to another when your guard is down and your mask is off, and this rawness and openness is the only possible path to intimacy. Scruffiness is banal and day-to-day. It is tedious and unspecial, but when you share this ordinariness with someone, you become more real, your relationship becomes real. You delight in the habits that you share, and you slowly grow and change together, becoming more real and alive and wrinkled and eccentric and lovely with each passing year. By heaven, you’ll think your love more rare and real than any based on false illusions of perfection. And this is why it is more than okay to be scruffy when you’re real.
Thin crispy potatoes with chipotle black beans and guacamole

Thin crispy potatoes with chipotle black beans and guacamole

This was a yummy dinner!! I roasted some thinly sliced potatoes with sage and olive oil. Then I piled them high with roasted mushrooms, black beans, corn and spinach sauteed with chipotle puree, smoked gouda, sharp cheddar, pickled jalapenos and fresh, chunky guacamole made of avocado, tomato, cilantro and lime juice. Smoky, earthy, fresh, satisfying. It was fun to eat this! We ate it like nachos. The boys stuffed the black bean mixture in some soft tortillas.

Here’s Linton Kwesi Johnson with Reality Poem.

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Collards and black eyed peas in spicy smoky broth

Collards and black-eyed peas

Collards and black-eyed peas

I’ve been talking so much, this week, here on The Ordinary’s virtual pages. I feel like I’ve had thoughts spilling out of my head messily all over this little blank box. So today we’ll have a bit of quiet, and we’ll return to a video project I’ve been working at off and on for years. Mostly off, I have to admit, but it’s something I want to get back to, and why not now? Why not here? I’ve mentioned the whole idea before, here at The Ordinary, so I’ll briefly plagiarize myself now. I’m a huge fan of stillness in films, and quiet moments. Whether they last the whole film long, or they form a small pocket in a louder busier film. A few years ago I submitted a series of short videos to an online gallery run by the remarkable Peter Ferko, a New York artist. The series was called Now:Here:This, and it involved art made in a moment (or a few moments) by people all over the world at roughly the same space in time. I started making short, static videos. I gave myself some rules…they had to last about a minute. I couldn’t change the frame. The sound would be whatever naturally occurred for that minute. I focused on leaves, or water, or shadows, even dirty dishes in the sink. The sound generally involved my children yelling for me and trying to get my attention, which was an idea that I liked a lot. It captured my life at the time (and to this day.) I became very taken with making the videos – there was nothing brilliant about them, but I liked the way that shooting them made me think about how long a minute lasts, how hard it is to be quiet and still, how my life sounded, how pretty small things could be. We like to have a story, so any small change in the action or the sound becomes significant. The idea wasn’t inspired by Yasujiro Ozu, it’s something I’d started long before I saw my first Ozu film, but it’s reminiscent of a technique that he uses in his beautiful still “pillow shots” between scenes. They’re shots down hallways, of empty rooms, along an alleyway. They’re not entirely static – the camera is still, but there’s movement of light, or of people walking by, clocks ticking, curtains blowing. You sense that the story is playing itself out somewhere nearby. The shots are so cool, so quiet but not silent. I find them incredibly compelling. And then Ozu went and stole the idea from me! I’d like to stop and look at my house, for moments at a time, from down a corridor, when nothing is happening. Of course it wouldn’t be quiet and clean and cool, like in Ozu’s films. It would be a warm messy muddle.

Yesterday morning, as I’ve already told you, we had a thunderstorm. The weather had been mixed and moody for days, in the way that you feel inside your head. I had a lot to do, but I took a moment to sit on the couch with Clio, and listen to the rain, and think about ichneumon wasps, as I’ve also already told you.

You can hear the rain and the thunder. You can hear the cars go by, which has its own sort of suspenseful build-up of sound. You can catch a glimpse of the cool wet world outside of my curtain. You see the legos and CDs that need putting away. And you can see me breathing, because I was holding the camera on my belly, which is an idea that I like…it’s marking time, and it makes the film feel alive. And that’s all I’m going to say about that, because it’s totally cheating to tell you anything about it, it’s against all the rules.

These smoky spicy sweet collards and black-eyed peas in a very brothy sauce went with the smoky cheesy bread I shared yesterday, much in the same way that this video goes with everything I wrote yesterday. They’re simultaneous. We ate them at the same time! I made the black-eyed peas from dried, which was fun. I cooked the peas and the collards at the same time, so that the cooking water becomes the broth for the dish. The smokiness comes from black cardamom, which is such an odd looking thing, with such a mysteriously delicious flavor. We also have pepper flakes and ginger for zing and pomegranate molasses for sweet tartness, Tamari for the umami, and a bit of brown sugar for molasses-y sweetness. A nice warm meal for a chilly rainy spring day!

Here’s Fats Dominoes completely lovely song It Keeps Rainin’

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Spinach and white beans on toast & Oatmeal, black pepper and nutmeg bread

Spinach and beans on toast

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on hold, today. We’re switching to a cable internet connection. Apparently, this makes everything work much faster, so you have plenty of extra time to remain on hold with the cable company. But did I waste my time? Oh no, I did not! I watched videos of Elizabeth Cotten playing guitar and banjo. My god, she kills me! Here is her story as briefly paraphrased from the brief paraphrasing that is wikipedia. She was born in 1895 in North Carolina to a musical family. She played her brother’s banjo, and when when she was still very little, she took a job as a maid in order to buy herself a guitar. She and her brother would watch the freight trains run by their house on a single track while they chopped wood and drew up water. And they would sing as they worked. Elizabeth started writing songs, including Freight Train, probably her best known song. At thirteen Elizabeth began working full-time as a maid. At fifteen she was married, and shortly thereafter she had a daughter. She gave up the guitar, and didn’t play for twenty-five years. When her daughter was married, Elizabeth divorced her husband. She worked briefly in a department store. While there, she helped a lost child find her mother. That child was Penny Seeger, of the Seeger Seegers, the famous musical family. They took her home as a maid. She played one of their guitars, learned to play again almost from scratch, was recorded by Mike Seeger, and went on to perform with him, and become quite well-known in the circle of the folk song world. Elizabeth Cotten is left-handed, so she plays guitar and banjo upside down, plucking out the melody with her thumb. This is so remarkable to me! When she plays it sometimes sounds as if two guitars are playing at once. But she’s playing with two fingers! She taught herself to play, she turned everything upside down, and she made something sweeter and more beautiful than anything I’ve heard “correctly” played.

I found this video of her playing and talking. I guess it was made in 1978, and it seems as though it was shot on 16 mm, and roughly edited. I love everything about it. I love the darkness, and the silences around her playing, when she just sits and waits. I love the stories she tells. I like to think about her life, which seems so strange and important, and which I can only get a sideways, glancing picture of in my mind.

I made a loaf of bread the other day, with ground toasted oats, honey, black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. I made the dough very soft and wet, so that the bread had a wide open crumb, kind of like a crumpet. I think it turned out very good. The flavor is subtle, you taste the honey, but the pepper and nutmeg are only hinted at. One night when I came home from work, I wanted a quick and comforting meal, so I sauteed some spinach and white beans and spread them on toast made from my oatmeal bread. I melted some cheese on my toast, too. This is sort of inspired by beans on toast and creamed spinach on toast. That’s a thing, right?

Oatmeal bread

Here’s a link to an Elizabeth Cotten album on spotify, I hope.

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