Monday, February 20, 2012

Missing the Early Spring

A few weeks ago, in a fit of desire to have something fresh and green on my plate, I planted a bunch of lettuce and radishes in our front planters, which receive plenty of full sun. Not so great for the plants in midsummer, but this time of year, it seems like a personal greenhouse.

And our daffodils are already starting to bloom!

Indoors, I also planted different types of chili peppers from some seeds from last year. I don’t have great expectations about them, but what the hey—nothing ventured, nothing gained. But sure enough, they’re starting to come up.

And my parsley seeds are germinating, too. It’s all so . . . optimistic, and springlike.

But I honestly don’t feel like spring. Since Thursday, my mood has ranged from deeply worried, to preoccupied, to grief-stricken, to numb. Mostly I’m just numb, with shock: Earl, one of our cats, died Friday night (or possibly Saturday morning). He died alone in an oxygen chamber at the vet’s. Damn.

It came on suddenly—Thursday morning I found him on the landing, midway between the front doors and the second floor, breathing hard—I could see the sides of his body struggling to bring in air. And he wouldn’t stand up and walk anywhere.

I took him to the vet’s right away, where throughout the day they treated him and tried to run tests on him. (Earl has always hated to be constrained in any way, so naturally he would start to struggle, and they were afraid to get him too worked up. They never got a blood sample from him, though they did get some X-rays.)

Ohhhhh, I don’t want to tell this story; I don’t want to relive all this painful stuff. By Friday afternoon, when we visited him at the vet’s, he was in the oxygen chamber, mouth-breathing, struggling, with a 50 percent chance of making it through the night, if this undiagnosable fluid-in-the-lungs thing could just . . . run its course, the various drugs they’d given him clear his lungs out, and he could get better . . . But he didn’t, and he was gone by the morning.

In retrospect, we realized that he had developed an occasional dry cough (we just figured we needed to dust more often), and in the past few days had seemed quieter than usual (but it had been exceptionally gray and rainy, so we all were feeling pretty quiet). Those were the signs, and we didn’t see them. It was probably heart disease.

Earl had some pretty annoying habits, but he was lively, good-natured, and extraordinarily friendly (even with kids; even with other cats). He was astonishingly intelligent and headstrong. He was nimble and lithe, muscular and quick. We used to joke that one of his grandparents must have been a squirrel, or a weasel, or some other kind of “chittery animal.” It seemed he did most everything abruptly—so I guess his death was pretty much in character.

We have two other cats, and that the four of us are here together is a comfort, I think, to all of us. But the house is so very still without him: When he slept, he slept hard, but when he was awake, he was busy. He always ran downstairs to greet us when we opened the door. He woke us up in the mornings. He visited our guests (and walked on them). He pestered us for all kinds of things and trotted ahead to show us the way, always alert and inquisitive—a very active soul, our precious gray Early.

The other two cats are more, well, catlike: They eat and nap; they walk quietly. This weekend, Sue and I spent our shocked, numbed hours hiking, driving out in the country, walking around downtown, reading, and watching movies together on the Internet. Trying to let this new reality sink in. The flowers may be blooming, but it’s definitely still winter in our house, in our hearts.

This is gonna take some getting used to.


Look, I usually don’t like to share my truly personal matters on the Internet (you’ll notice I’m not posting a picture of Earl, even though he was a strikingly handsome Russian blue), but then my blogging had been sparse, anyway, due to lots of work. And now it’s seeming difficult to write posts for this new reason, that I’m just not feeling very “enthusiastic.” I’m sure you understand.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Prune Bread (Retro Recipe)

Here’s one of the two great recipes for prune bread that appear in my esteemed 1949 Good Housekeeping Cook Book. I share it with you because prunes are opulently opossumable, and this bread is delicious!

It uses the proven combination of orange and prunes. As an example of how well the two flavors go together, I see that at least one company sells prunes (“dried plums”) that come pre-infused with orange essence.

A few notes on the recipe below:

1. This time, I didn’t chop up the prunes very much. But I think the idea is to chop them much more finely, so the fruit is incorporated more evenly throughout the bread (sort of like zucchini bread, or banana bread). But I wanted the chunks to be more visible, so I only cut them coarsely with a knife. (The down side to big chunks? It makes your knife sticky when you slice it!)

2. I suggest using less baking powder/soda/salt. It really doesn’t need that much. I think you can halve all three ingredients and come out fine. But here, I’m presenting the recipe just as it appears in the book.

3. In the same book (same page, even) is another gem: Oatmeal Prune Bread! And if you Google “prune bread” you can find lots more fun chocolaty, banana-y, citrusy, appley, nutty variations!

Hooray for prunes!

Prune Bread

1 cup dried, uncooked prunes
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
4 teasp. baking powder
1/2 teasp. baking soda
1 1/2 teasp. salt
2 tablesp. granulated sugar
1/4 cup shortening
2 tablesp. grated orange rind
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup bottled milk or 1/2 cup evaporated milk and 1/2 cup water

Heat oven to 350˚ F. Rinse prunes, drain, dry. If very dry, boil 5 min. in water to cover; drain. Put pitted prunes through food chopper, using medium blade. Sift flour with next 4 ingredients. Cut in shortening with pastry blender until like coarse corn meal. Stir in prunes and rind. Combine eggs and milk; add to dry ingredients; mix well. Pour into greased 10˝ × 3˝ loaf pan. Bake in moderate oven of 350 F. 1 hr., or until done. Makes 1 loaf.


From The Good Housekeeping Cook Book, with a preface by Katharine Fisher (New York: Rinehart, 1949), p. 446.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


. . . And other dried fruits. Why, oh why, do people in our country disdain them? For centuries, humans have prized them for their deliciousness, versatility, practicality, economy, simplicity, elegance. Not to mention their nutrients, which scientists are still learning about!

They store incredibly well and don’t need refrigeration. They’re right there on the shelf in your pantry, ready for you to need a quick dessert, or something to put in your muffins.

You can cook them or eat them like candy, just as they are. You can put them into sweet dishes, or you can use them in savory recipes such as curries, salads, meat dishes, stuffing, stews.

Go to the California Dried Plums official website, and read about all this stuff. They’ve got recipes and lots more. Good lord, the nutrients! Antioxidants, phytochemicals, potassium, the good kinds of sugars, vitamins, and lots more. And dietary fiber.

Actually, it’s a combination of the fiber and certain phytochemicals that make prunes so “gentle and effective.” Americans have become embarrassingly puerile about prunes, laughing about constipation and the elderly. This idiocy has prompted the California plum growers to change their marketing so that now, they’re selling “dried plums.” But Americans are aging, and constipation isn’t funny when you have it. And what a tasty, natural alternative to synthetic, pharmaceutical laxatives from the drugstore!

Eating any dried fruits, of course you have to be grown-up about it. Edward Brown put it this way in his wonderful introduction to vegetarian food, Tassajara Cooking: “One thing to remember when eating dried fruit is that it’s easy to overdo it. Often people who wouldn’t consider eating ten plums sit down and eat ten prunes, or they eat two, three, or four stewed dried pears when they wouldn’t eat more than one fresh pear. Dried fruit can have a pretty strong effect.”

In other words, don’t blame the food for your overindulgence in it. (Would you drink a whole jar of habanero salsa and then blame the salsa for the aftermath?) Also remember that fiber is the friend of anyone trying to lose weight. Fiber makes you feel full. Slim-Fast is basically a fiber drink!

After the indulgence of the holidays, I’m wanting culinary simplicity. And the prune is a perfect Opulent Opossum subject: humble, pure, overlooked, fabulous. A breakfast with stewed prunes plus low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese is just the ticket these days. And one place to go for prune-recipe inspiration is old cookbooks that predate America’s childish equation of prunes with poo-poo. It’s time to start associating them with health and feeling great!