Saturday, March 8, 2014

Another Birthday for the Op Op!

Can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday, but I started the Opulent Opossum in March 2009—so the Op Op is five years old! Thanks, y’all, for sticking around! I sincerely appreciate you!

I started this blog amid some personal turmoil, but fortunately things have improved a great deal, which is one reason why my posts haven’t been as prolific as before. But I’ve really enjoyed doing this blog, and I’ve learned a lot.

Anyway—to celebrate this anniversary, I’ve prepared a little dessert, made with sweet potatoes. Yum!

Sweet potatoes seem kind of “possum-y,” don’t they. The sweet potato is a humble root vegetable that achieves enough sweetness to be worthy of a pie. Despite its southern twang, the sweet potato is capable of great elegance, when prepared with care. It can become a sweet or savory dish. It’s got a glorious orange color and a rich, complex flavor and is high in nutrients.

And sweet potatoes are possum-y for another reason: One associates sweet potatoes with possums, because they’re a traditional accompaniment to roast opossum . . . for people who eat opossums, anyway. I think it is perfectly all right if you don’t want to eat an opossum!

The recipe for my dessert today is from Manjula’s Kitchen; she calls it Sweet Potato Halwa (Eggless Pudding), and she posted the recipe, including a helpful how-to video, on December 24, 2012.

Yes, she posted it on Christmas Eve that year, and yes, it can be a fantastic addition to the holiday table, a tasty and interesting spin on the traditional pumpkin pie. Done up in a Jell-O mold, it’s also reminiscent of the traditional English plum pudding.

The cardamom in the recipe gives it a distinctly Indian flair, but you can fiddle with the spices to make it more like traditional American pumpkin or sweet potato pie (that is, use pumpkin pie spice, and/or use just cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg).

I’m not going to give the recipe here, since I encourage you to visit Manjula’s page so you can watch her video.

This is a vegetarian and gluten-free dessert, it’s incredibly easy to make, and it doesn’t require many ingredients: Sweet potatoes, butter, milk, sugar, and three ground spices: cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Plus whatever garnishes you choose.

Note: You can cook it longer to make it drier and more solid (as I have done here), or cook it less so that it is softer and creamier. When served soft and warm (highly recommended), it is great with ice cream or with a plain cookie or two. It’s a good cold-weather recipe.

I cooked it longer than usual because I wanted to mold it in one of my little vintage Jell-O molds. (The molds were given to me by Sue’s mom—thanks, Mrs. F!)

I think Julia Child would call something like this an “edifice”!

Manjula uses cashews, but I garnished it with crushed pistachios and some orange zest. As you can tell, I had fun with my little photo shoot!

Thanks, friends, for reading my blog! Here’s to Op Op Year 6!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Leonard Hall

In my previous posts, I talked about natural history books that have an almanac structure: Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year, Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Today, I’m continuing in the same vein, with a book of special interest to Missourians. You probably haven’t heard of this author.

Leonard Hall’s A Journal of the Seasons on an Ozark Farm (1956; reprint, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980), like the other books, is arranged chronologically, with a handful of short essays for each month. Hall wrote a regular column about life on his “Possum Trot Farm” (south of Potosi, Missouri) for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Globe Democrat from 1946 to 1980.

Hall embraces the conservation ethic that Aldo Leopold so eloquently laid out, and his stories of life on a working Ozark cattle farm show a sustainable land ethic in practice. The changing seasons frame the story of a year’s worth of activities and observations, including migrating geese, cattle auctions, hunting and fishing, gardening, hiking, gathering elderberries, pawpaws, and hickory nuts, and butchering hogs.

If you’re not familiar with Leonard Hall, check out his books. I particularly recommend his Stars Upstream: Life Along an Ozark River, about the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers. It’s a classic every Missourian ought to read.

Since I was inspired to write about these books by my late-winter longing for spring, and being on constant watch for signs that springtime is coming, I’ll quote a few sections from Hall’s Journal of the Seasons on an Ozark Farm.

“This is a time of year we could do without. There are gloomy days when I have a profound sympathy for those furbearers which hibernate or for the birds that fly south in autumn. But then comes a snowy morning when the earth might have just been born and the chickadee sings as if it were summer, or a mild evening when the sunset paints the western sky in vivid colors and the young calves chase each other across the pasture with tails high in the air. Then I decide that one way or another, we’ll somehow ‘make it through to grass.’” (“January: The Sun Starts North,” p. 190.)

One of my favorite signs of spring is the sound of spring peepers, tiny peeping frogs that, in full chorus, sound to my ear like thousands of little jingle bells, though they symbolize anything but Christmastime. Here’s Hall’s description:

“When the worst blizzard of winter struck the western states this week, our thermometer at Possum Trot dropped sharply and a hard wind out of the northwest rattled the shutters, sifted in through the storm sash, and set the phone wires to singing. We hurried out in the morning to have a look at the baby calves, but found them galloping about the pasture with tails high in the air as if it were summer. Then on Sunday afternoon the wind dropped to a whisper and the mercury climbed into the fifties again. After supper, when I went to make sure the biddies were safely shut up in the hen house, I heard the first spring peepers singing, down in the pond in the woods.” (“February: Spring Edges Closer,” p. 205.)

And that’s how you always hear the first spring peepers of the season. It will be some supremely welcome warmish day, and you will be walking outside in a light jacket some evening after supper. And suddenly you hear them, jingling away, in some seemingly insignificant little pond in the woods.

Of course, there’s still an excellent chance it may snow and freeze again, but I agree with Hall: “There is something optimistic about the note of the first spring peepers that braces us against the occasional spell of cold weather which may still lie ahead” (p. 206).

Here’s to the birds who are remembering their songs
and the young birds who are tuning up for the first songs of their lives;
the geese honking, winging north on the heels
of warming weather,
and stopping overnight in marshes in gabbling flocks;
and tiny frogs awakening,
slipping out of cold mud,
and perching at the water’s edge
to peep their riot of love songs.

And here’s to the reawakening of the entire green world.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Aldo Leopold

In my previous posts, I talked about natural history books that have an almanac structure: Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year, and Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year. Today, I’m continuing with another classic natural history author.

Today, it’s one of the most famous written celebrations of the annual cycle of nature, by that giant oak of the conservation movement, Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949). It’s not a day-by-day approach; its chronology is monthly. The location is Wisconsin, but the application is global.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can get it for just the cost of shipping; there are over 2 million copies in print; just do it. It is a great classic of natural history writing, full of heart and soul, unflinching truthfulness, a celebration of all that is wild. A bonus thrill is that (in the original edition) the illustrations are by Missouri’s own Charles W. Schwartz.

In keeping with the theme of longing for spring, I’m sharing a sample from this book, also about birds and the coming of springtime, from a section titled “The Geese Return”:

“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.

“A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.” (“March,” p. 18.)

“. . . When it has become warm enough to sit outdoors, we love to listen to the proceedings of the convention in the marsh. There are long periods of silence when one hears only the winnowing of snipe, the hoot of a distant owl, or the nasal clucking of some amorous coot. Then, of a sudden, a strident honk resounds, and in an instant pandemonium echoes. There is a beating of pinions on water, a rushing of dark prows propelled by churning paddles, and a general shouting by the onlookers of a vehement controversy. Finally some deep honker has his last word, and the noise subsides to that half-audible small-talk that seldom ceases among geese.” (Ibid., p. 22.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Hal Borland

In my previous post, I talked about a favorite “essay-a-day” natural history book, Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year. Today, I’m continuing on the topic of almanac-format nature books.

A similar book, in a similar vintage, is Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year (New York: Knopf, 1979).

Borland wrote a weekly natural history or “outdoors” editorial in the Sunday edition of the New York Times for 35 years. This book, which he was finishing when he died, is a collection of those brief editorials—so well written . . . so well written.

I’ve been dipping into this book especially, since he writes so eloquently of our desire in late winter to look for signs of impending spring. Wasps waking and flying groggily about on a prematurely warm day. The courtship of owls and squirrels. The lengthening days. Rising sap. The hope encapsulated in the buds of trees. And the first tentative, brief bird songs.

“There are things to be heard if one is at all attentive. At noontime on a sunny day the dooryard sparrows begin to test a few phrases of remembered song. The chickadees, which will lisp a greeting any winter day, now extend their songs, simple though they are. The nuthatches still say nothing but yank, but they say it more often and with a new intonation. From the woodland the male cardinal whistles as though he really means it.

“. . . Spring is not yet at hand, but there is change, and there are subtle stirrings here and there, if we forget the calendar and listen.” (“Subtle Signs of Spring,” February 15, pp. 46-47.)

He notes a softening of the blue jay’s raucous voice:

“But when February comes and daylight begins to linger, the jays begin to feel, perhaps down in their hollow bones, that life is good and soon will be even better. They whisper this, at first, to themselves. Then they say it aloud, but softly. It is a wholly new note, actually a two-note salute to the season. It is almost musical. It really is the blue jay’s prelude to a love song, a sentimental secret the secretive jay can no longer keep to himself.” (“The Secret,” February 8, p. 41.)

It’s not going to make spring come any sooner, but reading this helps me remember that I’m not alone in looking for “signs,” and that people have always yearned for spring this way.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Edwin Way Teale

It’s still early enough in the year to be thinking of the passage of time, as I do at every new year—jeez, it’s hard to believe it’s the year 2014! I suppose part of my pondering might also have something to do with this year’s lengthy onslaught of snow and bitter cold—I can’t help looking for signs the spring is coming.

And it is. Even if we’re getting yet another dump of ice and snow this weekend!

My evidence? Well, haven’t you been hearing cardinals singing outside your windows in the mornings? I have. And it’s a damn good song they’re singing!

I’ve been dipping into some of my favorite books that celebrate the annual cycle. A recent comment on my blog suggested to me a book by the great natural history writer Donald Culross Peattie, An Almanac for Moderns. (Thanks, Tina, I’m going to check it out!) Peattie’s books describing America’s trees are exquisite blends of science, poetics, and philosophy. Peattie educated his reader while ensouling his subjects.

Of course, the famous quartet of books by Edwin Way Teale is a monument to the changing American seasons, and I’ve written about them before.

But Teale’s more compact, and personal celebration of the changing seasons is A Walk Through the Year (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978). In it, he writes a brief essay for each day of the year, describing some natural event that happened on his farm in Connecticut. He intended it as a companion to A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, which tells about the property he purchased later in life, Trail Wood, which he treasured as a natural area.

A Walk Through the Year is pure Teale. In it, one of his later books, he shares his reflections on his and his wife, Nelly’s observations of nature at Trail Wood. It’s a gentle and pleasant conversation, as if you and the aging Teales were chatting in their living room, sitting around their cozy fireplace on some evening after a blizzard. “Guess what we saw at one of our bird feeders yesterday!” And “I was walking on the lane to the road and saw a red fox—guess what it was doing!”

To show you why I’ve been dipping into this book, and to celebrate the springtime we’re all hungry for, here’s an excerpt from A Walk Through the Year. Because the Teales were nuts about birds, I’ve chosen one about birds—specifically, red-winged blackbirds:

February 28. This is the sound we longed for, dreamed about, looked forward to in the darkest days of winter. Rising and subsiding, becoming a storm of mingled voices, then ebbing away, it comes from the treetops along the brook. It is an excited sound, a festive, holiday sound. Like the torrents of spring, it is a rushing, liquid sound that here antedates the spring. It is the great chorus of the first of the homecoming flocks of the redwings.

“Bare only yesterday, the treetops along the brook today are clothed with blackbirds. A hundred and fifty or more swirled down to alight among the leafless branches before dawn today. All are males. The females will arrive later. We watch the birds, in the richness of their breeding plumage, flying from tree to tree, each alighting with its scarlet epaulets exposed. Their surging energy is contagious. We feel a sense of elation, a wave of optimism. The stolid endurance of the deepest winter drops away.

“We listen to the overlapping chorus of ‘okaleees’ or ‘bob-y-leees’ swell and fade and begin again. The interplay of sounds merges into a rolling, trilling clamor. Standing listening, we catch little dropped notes spilling through the chorus. The ‘okaleeeing’ is replaced by sharp metallic calls as all the birds take off in a cloud of black to sweep in curves, to turn and turn again, and then swirl down once more to the tops of the brookside trees.

“It is usually near the end of this shortest month of the year or in the earliest days of March that the redwings come back to Trail Wood. The intermingled tumult that comes down from the treetops seems compounded of relief at the end of a long journey, of ecstasy in reaching an age-old breeding ground, of health at a peak, and life lived intensely. We are swept along by the excitement pulsing through these hundred and more bodies. This wild musical clamor of the first of the returning redwings reechoes in our minds long after it is left behind. For the birds, the farflung journeys of migration now are a thing of the past. For us, the winter—all but a few short weeks—has run its course.”


And yes: While visiting my parents two weeks ago in Columbia, Sue and I heard our first raucous, cacophonous red-winged blackbird chorus of the spring, and we almost jumped for joy!

Is winter over? Of course not. Look at all this frickin’ ice!

But hey—keep your hopes up! The cardinals are singing, and the redwings have appeared.