Thursday, February 17, 2011

To the Woman in Blue at the Grocery Store in February

To guard your ears from winter's chill,
a furry hat you've chosen.
Your gloves will warm your fingers as
they pick up food that's frozen.
Your boots should keep your ankles safe
from cold and wet and harm.
But your strapless dress is slipping.
What will keep your shoulders warm?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Growing in the Green House

A Magpie Tale, a little bit late

My sister and the green house, 1983

     I grew up in a green house.  My parents selected the five-bedroom, two-story model from the builders' standard floorplans, and chose the mint-chocolate color scheme from the aluminum siding the builders offered.  They could not have known that no one else would choose the same, nor that the builders would decline to dig the full depth of the basement into the slope.  Thus our green house rose head and shoulders above the beige split levels of the neighborhood.  The only rival for its height was the old willow tree in the yard of the farmhouse behind it.  The old man upon whose tomato fields our home was built apologized when he built a fence around his remaining acres.  "It's not because of you," he promised, offering cucumbers.  His farm provided a peaceful view from my window.  When I gave directions to our home, I always finished with, "It's the green house.  You can't miss it."  Our house, set on a hill, could not be hid.

     It fit our family, though.  Somehow we tended to be culturally distinct from our neighbors.  We shared eclectic tastes in music and literature, and a nearly undecipherable sense of humor.  We spent our vacations in places of cultural interest, not among the cheap pleasures of the local beach resort.  We ate foreign recipes, with ingredients grown in our garden and canned in our kitchen.  Our faith, and our devotion to it, set us apart as well.  Not that we were trying to be unusual.  We just did what we liked, what we felt was right.

     I never grew to be tall, but I found myself standing out at school.  I wore clothes that my mother sewed, from patterns and fabric of my choice.  My choice had little to do with prevailing fashions.  I was leery of popular music and television, mostly because of their popularity.  I preferred to form my own opinions, based on my own standards.  When my friends drew their midday sustenance from a candy bar and a diet soda, I kept packing my peanut butter.  I was a good student, because I could be, and I participated in many activities, because they interested me.  Thus I became well-known, if not popular.  My friends were those who respected me the way I was.

     Many things change, of course, but character remains.  The farmhouse and willow have been supplanted by tall houses with tiny yards.  The trees along the street have grown enough to crack the sidewalks, and perhaps enough to obscure the green house, from certain angles.  My parents have moved to a less obtrusive home in the shadow of the everlasting hills.  But it is also green, and it has room for all of us and our shared history.  I live along a busy street, far removed from my childhood home.  When I give directions to my home, people say, "Oh, the yellow house?  I always liked that one."  And beneath its peaked ceilings, I teach my sons to stand tall, and reach higher.

In Fact

Out of the seething, roiling vat,
filled to the brim with boiling oil,
comes little that entices me
my healthy appetite to spoil.

I cannot live on fries alone,
nor greasy meat on fragile bun.
High-fructose carbonated drinks
don't quench; I nearly always shun.

And yet, I want no expert voice
to tell me, when I'm in the mood,
that I should quarantine myself
from sweet or savory rich food.

Satisfying whole grain breads
accent a doughnut's fleeting joy.
Fresh and tasty garden veg
perk up with butter, salt, or soy.

Ice cream is a just dessert
for patient toil, and not a fault.
I am the captain of my fat;
I am the master of my salt.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Secret of the Brick Oven

     "I hate this job," Tyler grumbled as he scrubbed garlic-shallot butter out of the saucepan.  He wrinkled his nose, attacking the scorched bits around the edge. 
     "Whoa, dude."  Nate looked up from the wooden paddle he was dusting off.  "How can you hate Papa Zucca's?  We make the best pizzas in town."
     "For the lowest wages.  For the meanest boss."
     "You gonna quit?"
     "Can't."  Tyler sighed.  "If I quit this job, Haley will dump me."
     "Oh, yeah.  Haley."  Nate hung the peel on the wall.  "Are you going over to her place after work?"
     "Nah.  She'll slam the door in my face if I don't bring her a scampi pizza, and we're all out of shrimp."
     "There's still half a Santa Fe chicken left."
     "She doesn't like guacamole.  You know, sometimes I wonder if she thinks of me as a boyfriend, or just her personal delivery boy."
     Nate touched the tip of his nose with his finger.  "Bingo!"  Seeing Tyler's startled look, he quickly went on.  "Look, dude, since you're at loose ends tonight, why don't you hang with me?"
     "What are you doing?"
     "Mr. Z. told me to lock up tonight."  Nate looked around before whispering, "He's outta here, so I'm going to find the secret."
     "The secret to Papa Zucca's pizza success.  Remember Madge?  She used to work for Papa Z. himself.  Learned all his recipes.  Just before Mr. Z. fired her, she said she was this close to finding the secret."
     "Why did she get fired?"
     "She asked for a raise.  She was worth it, too.  But Mr. Z. would rather pay kids like us, or those Mexican dudes on the lunch shift.  Anyway, she told me that Papa Z. always said, 'The secret is in the oven.'"
     "Sure," said Tyler.  He had read the menu.  "'A brick oven creates a crust with unique flavor and texture.'"
     "No, I think there's something more to it.  Come on."  Nate exchanged his apron for the jacket on the hook.  Tyler followed suit.
     They stepped out into the drizzly night, checking that the doors were securely locked.  Nate looked over his shoulder every few steps, and led Tyler around to the back of the restaurant.  Nate stared intently at the great chimney.
     "Um, what are we looking for?" Tyler asked, looking between the damp bricks and his friend's concentration.
     "I dunno.  Maybe a loose brick with secret recipes stuck behind it?"
     "You're crazy, man."  Tyler squatted down by the wood pile, tucking a few stray pieces back under the tarp.  "Hey, check this out."  One of the bricks had a little pumpkin shape carved into it.  "I thought it was just a hole, but . . ."
     "Definitely a pumpkin, just like on the sign out front.  You got it, dude!  Can you pull it out?"
     Tyler's fingers just slipped off the edges.  Nate could not grab the brick, either.  Frustrated, he stood up, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and kicked the offending part of the chimney.
     "Dude . . ."  With a quiet grinding sound, the bricks opened to reveal darkness.  "What do we--"
     The squealing of brakes at the side of the building decided their plan.  Nate shoved Tyler inside the gap, and climbed in after him.
     "Dude, can you squeeze in some more?"
     "Ow!  I'm up against the wall.  Hey, wait.  We can go this way."  Tyler felt his way around one corner, then another.
     "No way!  Daylight!"  They emerged into dappled sunlight.  A pleasant breeze swayed the tree branches.  A bird's song brightened the silence, only to be drowned out by a rumbling from behind. 
     "Where did those little twerps go?  This is my oven . . . oof!"
     Tyler and Nate looked at each other, then back at the mouth of the cave they'd left behind.  "Mr. Z.!"  Nate whispered.  They hid behind a boulder just before their boss squeezed his belly out of the narrow opening.  He took a deep breath, then trotted down the trail that ran to the left of the cave.  The boys immediately ran off to the right.
     Soon the forest thinned to reveal an idyllic farmland.  Tyler shook his head.  "Where are we?"
    Nate leaned on his knees, panting.  "I don't think we're in Seattle anymore."  He looked around.  "What are those?"  A fence enclosed a flowery pasture occupied by small brown animals.  "Chickens?"
    Tyler walked closer to the fence.  "I've never seen chickens with horns.  And they're dripping."
    The breeze shifted, bringing a tangy scent over the pasture.  "Buffalo chickens!  This must be where the wings come from.  Awesome!"  One bird regarded Nate with a round eye, squawked, and went back to foraging.
     Nate hurried to catch up with Tyler.  "Hold on, dude.  Check out this flower.  It smells good enough to eat!"
     "That's gross, man."
     Nate nibbled a petal.  "Is not.  The petals taste like mozzarella."  He popped the whole blossom into his mouth.  "And the middle tastes like pepperoni!"  He stopped to gather himself a bouquet.  "Pretty spicy, though," Nate said with his mouth full.  Tyler hopped across a brook, but Nate plunged his face in for a drink.  "Root beer.  Sweet!"
     "You've got to be hallucinating."
     "No way.  This is paradise.  Try it, dude!"
     Tyler sniffed the brook suspiciously, but found his friend was telling the truth.  They followed a path next to the brook.  After passing through a basil-scented grove, they found fine sand.  A white-haired man sat on a beach chair, facing the bright blue lake.  He turned around.
     "And who is this?"  He lifted his sunglasses for a better look.  A smile broke out on his pumpkin-shaped face.
     Nate stopped in his tracks.  "Papa Zucca?  Aren't you, like, dead?"
     "Oh, no, I skip the dying and come straight to paradise."
     Tyler tried to explain.  "But Mr. Zuccone said . . ."
     "Zuccone?"  Papa Zucca scoffed.  "So my ungrateful son changed his name, did he?  I suppose it fits.  I like to make the pizzas, to make people happy.  My bully of a son just wants to make money, so I retire.  Only the true pizza-lover can come to this place.  That money-grubbing ragazzo will never find me here."
     Nate looked nervously over his shoulder.  "Actually, I think he followed us."
    "Then there is no time to lose."  Papa Zucca waved to a girl who was approaching with a tray.  "My niece, Ginevra.  She can bake anything, you know."
     "Whoa, dude.  She's totally hotter than Haley," Nate said in a loud whisper.  The girl blushed.  "And I think she digs you!"
     Ginevra placed her tray on the table, and prepared to slice a steaming pie.  Tyler was speechless, but managed to give her a crooked grin.
     "It looks delicious, my dear, but there is something else we need right now."  Papa Zucca whispered in Ginevra's ear, and she hurried away.  Tyler stared after her.
     "Even in paradise, we have our defenses," the old man said, standing.  Come this way."
     By the time they heard the boss's panting and grumbling approach, the boys were concealed in the woods.  Papa Zucca was seated again, this time facing the trail.  When Mr. Zuccone recognized his father, he shook his fist, too out of breath to shout.
     "So, you come to torment me in paradise, do you?" Papa Zucca called.  At his nod, Nate and Tyler let their cream pies fly.  Blinded, Mr. Zuccone tripped and landed heavily on the sand.
     Papa Zucca slowly walked over to his son.  "He wants only profit, no work.  But we will tame the beast.  I think I start him on cleaning the chicken coop.  Things get a little piquant in there."  He poured some lemonade on Mr. Zuccone's face, rinsing off some of the cream, and handed him a napkin.  "We also tame him with pie.  Everyone, come sit down."
     It was the best pie that either Nate or Tyler had ever tasted.  Even Mr. Zuccone acted more conciliatory after eating a few bites.  He stayed quiet while the boys discussed his management of the restaurant with his father. 
     "You have the true love of pizza, Nate," Papa Zucca decided.  "I give the restaurant to you now.  Hire good people, pay them well, make the best pizzas even better."
     "I totally will!  Like, thanks a million!" 
     "And come to visit, anytime, both of you," the old man said with a smile.  "We'll have the pie ready, won't we?"
     "I'll be back," promised Tyler, "if that's okay?"  Ginevra nodded, beaming.
     Nate brushed some cream off Mr. Zuccone's shoulder.  "Wait.  Which kind of pie will be waiting for us?"

Find recipes for the above-mentioned pizzas at Jen's blog.  She can bake anything!

Your Italian lesson for today:
ragazzo = boy
zucca = pumpkin
zuccone = donkey, stubborn person