Poetry in the Margins

For long stretches, I let the poetry-making, art-eating parts of myself lie fairly dormant. While this particular piece of my life is essential to who I am, I haven’t been disciplined enough or selfish enough or strong enough (depending on how you view these things) for its centrality to hold when waves of other responsibilities sweep around me. There are times I have neglected that identity so completely that I shy away from calling myself a poet at all. I nearly gave myself whiplash from nodding my assent so vigorously when I read Kim Brooks’ amazing recent essay about the challenges of being a mother and a maker. If you care about being a good parent and making art, the struggle is real, and it’s always tipping out of balance one way or another. Then again, it’s not a museum piece, is it? It’s a life!

But oh, joyously, one miraculous day in April I find myself eating pulled pork at Kathranne’s house in Iowa, meeting poets and curators and artists and musicians and talking shop with all of them, gabbing about collaborative art-making and Joseph Beuys and Eileen Myles and Negative Capability, laying hands on the incredible traveling boxes made for Correspondence Publishing, pondering the difficulties of memoir with a new friend who used to be a tiger trainer (now raising three boys with equal aplomb, no small feat), tapping out poetry ideas on my phone in the guest bed, too wired to sleep. And oh, yes! That part of me is still there, the one who has something to say about all that, and wants to hear what you have to say about all of it too. I get to feel like a poet again. And its sticking to my ribs this springtime, not fading.

Another gift of travel is realizing how flexible life is really, more than you remembered — how blinkered our routines become. Just seeing how someone else does it somewhere else, that opens up a huge pool of relief in which to swim back into yourself and let all the “shoulds” float away. How is the real question, how to structure things so there’s time and headspace for doing that which brings you joy. Whatever way you invent to make a life, with people-loving and art-making and social-justice longing and maybe without going bankrupt, you can make something beautiful, a life that’s free in surprising ways, and yours. I do believe that, and this spring, I believe it more than usual. The hard part (and it really does turn out to be a hard part sometimes) is that it’s not going to look like anyone else’s.

Even in recipes I like flexibility, so here’s the one from that evening in Iowa, which you can bend to your will and taste.

BarbeCue pulled pork

IMG_5675My favorite thing to start with here is a 3.5 pound boneless pork butt (yes, let’s get the tittering out of the way), but if that’s a bit pricey, I go with a 5 pound piece of pork shoulder, sometimes called picnic shoulder. With the shoulder piece you’re going to wind up with about 3 pounds of meat and have to trim off a great deal of fat (I was curious how much, so last time I weighed it — 11 ounces of fat and about 1 pound of bone). If you’re me, by the end of all that trimming you might wish you’d sprung for the pork butt. But I leave that up to you. If you’ve got a really big dutch oven you can double this, but as written it already feeds a crowd, and fits in a crock pot if that’s your tool of choice.

I find cooking things for long stretches tends to dull the flavors a bit, and they need a refreshing pick-me-up at the end. This layering gives the depth of flavor you want too — an echo of sorts. I use bottled barbecue sauce for this step (I like Stubb’s or the Trader Joe’s sweet and smoky Kansas City kind), but if you really want to make your own, this recipe looks about right to me.

3 to 4 pounds of pork butt or shoulder (see note above)
2 T brown sugar
1 T paprika
1 T smoked paprika
2 T chili powder
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
3 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne — optional for extra heat
1/2 to 1 cup barbecue sauce

Cut pork into 2 or 3-inch cubes and place in your dutch oven or crock pot. Mix all remaining ingredients (except barbecue sauce) in a small bowl and rub it all over the pork. Your hands are really the best tool for this. (If you’re going to be out all day, you can do this part the night before and stash it in your fridge til morning.) Set your crock pot to low or your oven to 200 and cook for 8 hours. Your pork should shred easily with two forks, and the melted fat will make a happy orange juice in your pot. The amount of this will vary greatly depending on how much fat was in your particular hunk of meat. You can drain most of this fat if you are concerned about it, or stir it all in to your shredded meat. I drain all but about 3 tablespoons — that seems to be enough to make things tasty but not heart-stopping.  Stir in 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce and taste. Does it need more? You can probably just about eyeball it.

Makes about 24 sliders for a party or 8 main dish servings. Freezes gorgeously.

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Oatcakes

Beginnings are slippery things. We hold our just-born babies close to us, sniffing them (I wanted to lick mine, like a mama lion). We gaze deeply into their dark puffy newborn eyes, looking for clues about the person they will become. As I write this, I have no idea how this blog may propel and companion my thinking, but hope is always a good reason to begin.

I have to start with oatcakes for a few reasons: First, my eldest daughter Sophia (she’s 7) and I have made them together so many times, I’m no longer permitted to make them without her assistance. She loves to cook with me, and I’m always looking for recipes where she can have a role. It’s a great bonding time for us, and a huge source of pride for her to eat, and give to others, food that she has made. She never gets tired of it. Oatcakes, she says, are “our specialty.” And they are.

Oatcakes also make me think of Boston, and chemo. We put this recipe into especially heavy rotation when my husband J was making his daily journey to Boston for radiation treatments, and simultaneously taking chemo pills. The schedule for his meds meant there was a very small window in which he could—and definitely needed to—eat before being strapped into the amazing contraption which would shoot protons at his brain, hopefully eradicating any rogue tumor cells that his amazing surgeon had not been able to excise. These nubby, yummy oatcakes fit the bill, completely portable, delicious enough to tempt even a chemo-wobbly stomach, full of healthy sustaining goodness–with plenty of sweet stuff. You know, for luck.

We are happily on the other side of those treatment days, and hope to be for good. Every six months we cross our fingers and receive the “all clear” again from J’s doctors, and let out a breath we didn’t know we were holding, and plunge back into daily life, which now includes another daughter, Stella, born just before J finished his chemo regimen. I’m hoping that another thing you’ll find here is honest coping, celebrating, and meeting the day’s uncertainties in good company.

We’re on equal footing here, my friends. None of us knows what lies ahead, but we do know we need each other on this journey, and we know that no matter what the day brings, we still gotta eat.

IMG_0350Make yourself some of these fantastic oatcakes, and you will always have breakfast in your hand. Freeze them, individually wrapped in plastic, and throw them in your bag on a rushed morning. You can hand them to carseated people, though maybe not while you are also searching for the requested Mister G CD at the morning’s first stoplight. I guarantee this will make you feel like one of those always-lipglossed supermoms. Nevermind the spit-up on your yoga pants! The false glow of perfection can be yours for just one morning! Then bask in a heroic aura when you give these by the dozen to a new mom who needs dense one-handed food (the oats are good for her milk supply!). Although I confess, they are hard to part with, even when you’ve made a double batch.

Sophia loves to mix the dry ingredients (when she was a little younger, she loved to luxuriate in the dry ingredients all the way up to her elbows) while I melt the butter and sugar portion of things together and toast the nuts. We always make a double batch, since they freeze so well and disappear so fast. Use a large ice-cream scoop, the kind you squeeze to make the little sweeping thing cross the scoop—it kicks the sticky dough out into a beautiful round lump. If you run out of room in your muffin tins, you can quite successfully deposit your scoops right on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet; just be extra vigilant so they don’t burn on the bottom.


Oatcakes

adapted from Heidi Swanson, from her book Super Natural Every Day

Makes about 15 oatcakes

I reduce the amount of maple syrup called for, mainly just to economize, but I don’t miss the extra sweetness. These are a bit expensive to make, but you can substitute what you have hanging around (see variations below), and I often buy just the amount of fixins I need from the bulk bins at the co-op.

3 cups rolled oats

2 cups flour (I prefer whole wheat here, Heidi recommends spelt, but even plain old white flour works in a pinch)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/3 cup flax seeds (I like the golden ones)

3/4 cup walnuts, toasted in a dry pan and chopped

1 cup dried cherries, chopped

1/3 cup extra virgin coconut oil

1/3 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup maple syrup (Heidi uses 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat your oven to 350 (325 if you are using baking sheets instead of muffin tins), and spray or butter a muffin tin.

Combine the oats, flour, baking powder, salt, flax seeds, walnuts, and dried cherries in a very large bowl—a great job for small hands.

Meanwhile, melt the coconut oil and butter in a saucepan with the maple syrup and sugar, whisking occasionally, until melted. Pour the hot mess over the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the eggs and mix through—the whole thing will be very sticky and heavy. Pack firmly into ice cream scoops (or olive-oil your hands and make firm balls), and deposit each in a muffin spot. Bake approximately 25 minutes.

Cool in the pan on a rack about 30 minutes, then use a paring knife to help you remove them from the pans (they come out really nicely!) and dig in. Cool leftovers completely and store, individually wrapped in plastic, on the counter for up to a week, or freeze for about six weeks.

VARIATIONS:

Instead of using flax seeds, walnuts, and dried cherries, try:

toasted almonds and coconut chips, and chopped dried apricots, or

toasted pecans and dried cranberries or raisins, or

toasted pepitas, brazil nuts, and coconut

These are flexible enough to accommodate most granola-inspired variations. Just make sure your mixture is sticky, without any dry patches, and they’ll turn out great. If you need to add a drizzle of maple syrup or an extra egg to make it work, go for it.