Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm not crazy. At least I'm not certifiable just because I occasionally hear bagpipes.

I hear them every once in a while, droning about my house (them, not me) and it is unsettling. I usually hear bagpipes only at funerals. I suppose they help drive off evil spirits. Heck, they probably drive off mosquitoes.

I was walking to the corner gas station to fill up a can last night when I heard them again, louder this time. I was closer. I spied the perpetrator . . . um, artist: not the ghost of Squealy MacShrill at all, but one very real and decidedly not-Scottish-looking lady. She was marching—or rather, shuffling—down her driveway. You can't really march with bagpipes—you could chip a tooth.

There was another piper behind her, still in the back yard, obscured by the corner of the house. I suppose bagpipes attract each other. God knows they don't attract anything else. Such things can happen. I once tried to learn the saxophone, and all manner of while geese were honking at my window trying to get in.

So I conclude these two were playing the bagpipes on purpose. As far as I could tell, there were no dead people to drone over. I tried to wrap my brain around why someone would choose to play an instrument that only plays in one key, one chord even. Indeed, most of the pipes only play the same note, and amongst themselves then they fight over the pitch. Never mind that your job as bagpiper is to blow air into a goat bladder--this instrument is invented by the Scots, after all, who eat haggis on purpose.

Five generations ago, my Scottish ancestor Jessie Campbell immigrated to the States. I have a copy of his papers, so I know why he came: to be a carpenter's apprentice. And given my feelings about bagpipes, I suspect why he left Scotland.

I suppose I'd love the bagpipes if I tried to play them. It's like Harleys—fun to be on, not so fun to listen to.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Your Mama Has Nice Tomatoes

It is too beautiful outside. I have been doing all kinds of chores, to avoid doing real work. I cleaned up the kitchen, emptied the dishwasher, harvested clumps of Romeo's abandoned cat hair. While taking out the trash I circled around to pull a few weeds and prune my tomatoes. I thought about my Dad.

He was a go-with-the-flow guy most of the time, but was military-precise when it came to putting away his tools, grilling cheeseburgers, and growing tomatoes. So I think of him when I do all three.

"Pinch off the suckers." Suckers are little shoots that sprout in the Y of other tomato branches, sort of like a new toe sprouting between your others. I pinch them off because Dad said so, but I have no idea why. A scientist at heart, I'd let one go and see what happens, but I'm too chicken.

I once worked with a southerner named Sam. He would place his fragile little tomato seedlings in the dirt, then systematically clap his hands harshly onto each one, nearly smashing it. "It teaches 'em that the world is tough," he explained. "They learn, and they'll grow stronger for it."

I don't know whether he tried this philosophy on this children. I got this advice when my daughters were still little, but I didn't adopt it as a parenting tactic, mostly because my girls were both Leos, and Leos respond better to being put on a pedestal.

After hearing Sam's other stories I began doubting his judgement. For instance, he explained that northerners (anyone north of Fort Smith, Arkansas) don't know how to eat bananas. We are supposed to wait until the skin is black, because that's when they are sweetest. He's kind of right about that, but by then the bananas themselves look a little too close to the end of the digestive chain, so I still eat them when they're green, which is to say, yellow.

Sam's tomatoes turned out great. His kids were hit-and-miss.

Is anybody out there a channeler? I'd like to ask Dad how to keep my cilantro from dying off before the tomatoes are ripe, so I can make salsa.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Expensive Tastes

Food tastes better when it is expensive. This theory explains caviar. If caviar were fifty cents a can, it would be sold only by Little Friskies.

I once drank a $100 bottle of wine. The experience was ruined because I didn't know it cost $100. I was at a foofy restaurant looking over wines in the $30 range—which in any other restaurant would have been in the $20 range—when the server approached. "You should try So-and-So," she offered. "Mmmmm! it's my favorite, and we only have one bottle left." She neglected to add, "And it costs three times as much."

I would have enjoyed it more had I known. Actually, I wouldn't have enjoyed it at all had I known, because had I known, I wouldn't have ordered it. Anyway, it would have tasted better because I would have wanted it to, so I wouldn't feel stupid for paying that much.

Many of my friends appreciate fine wine, and when I ask, they swear a $100 wine can definitely be worth it. But I can't stop comparing it with other things of the same value: could a $100 wine ever be as luxurious as ninety minutes with a good masseuse? A $1200 bottle of wine is not unheard of, but I bet one would never bring down a New York Governor like that $1200 you-know-what did.

A few weeks ago I wrote about morel mushrooms. I was eager to try my first one, and this spring we managed to forage a couple of sorry specimens out of the wet dirt of a wooded riverbank. We fried them up with a little flour and egg, and . . . well, they tasted pretty much like I fried up something I found in the dirt. Not bad—I could enjoy shoelaces if you deep-fried 'em. I just didn't get the hype.

Last weekend La showed up with a package of big fat phallic morels from the store. "I couldn't resist," she explained. They were $26 a pound—on sale! Twice the cost of filet mignon, three times the cost of fresh Atlantic salmon, or about the cost of a half-hour with that masseuse. (We'll leave you-know-who out of this comparison.) La sauteed them in oil, then butter, then red wine and garlic and . . . well heck, sauteed with enough butter and wine and garlic, I'd eat my underpants.

But in the end there was something magical about them, something that made you twirl them lovingly before your eye, tease them lingeringly through puckered lips, vocalizing a moan after every bite. The Morel Mystery: now I get it. You just have to know how to cook them, and you have to know how much they cost.

I had the miniscule bit of leftover morels with lunch today. Out of context, the small, humble, withered black nibs, picked out of a plastic baggie, were . . .

. . . fantastic.