Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Certified: Chapter Thirteen: Let Them Eat Cake

I felt relieved when I quit school.

Life could go back to where it had been before I started in June.

No one would miss me.

Yep, I was relieved.

Even though I didn't like quitting something mid-stream. I had always said it would be all right to quit if it wasn't working out. Besides, I was more interested in the sustainable food certificate, and that was impossible because one of the required classes was only offered in the winter, and I couldn't take it because I would be in Arizona for the first residency.

My advisor answered me the next day. She said I'd have to fill out a form. She didn't say she was sorry to see me go. Nothing. Just that one line.

I had wanted to go to this particular school because I didn't think I'd just be a cog in a wheel. I thought they would be flexible and change their requirements to meet my needs. I wanted to fashion a certificate around what I was interested in, what would most benefit me.

That wasn't quite what they had in mind. And I understood that from a bureaucracy point of view.

Still, I wanted to do things my way.

A couple hours after I'd received the email from my advisor, the teacher for my Political Ecology of Food and Consumption class wrote to me and said he wanted to figure out a way I could take his food systems class in the winter.


Just like that, things changed.

I wrote back, yes, yes, yes!

Suddenly everything was different. Now I could change to the Sustainable Food and Permaculture certificate. I wouldn't have to take at least two classes that I was dreading. I looked up the requirements for the certificate. I could do an independent studies for part of my electives.

Yes! I loved independent studies. I thrived when I could work at my own pace, which was often faster than the pace of those around me.

I emailed my advisor and told her what had happened and that I was changing to the sustainable food certificate. And I said I wanted to take an independent studies.

She wrote back that the department didn't allow independent studies any more because it was contrary to their goal of helping students to learn to collaborate.

Then why the heck did they advertise it as part of their program?

I was quite annoyed.

I called her and insisted I wanted to take an independent studies. She told me they had something they called special topics. Students did their own projects, but then they came together once a month, on the Monday of the residency weekend, to discuss their projects. I told her it wasn't viable for me to stay in Seattle for two extra days to sit in a room for three hours to talk about my project.

Perhaps I could work it out with the instructor, she suggested.

I asked her what she thought of my plan to change certificates and do one class as an independent study.

She didn't think it was a good idea, but it was my certificate. I could do whatever I wanted.

It wasn't the food certificate she objected to; it was the independent studies.

I told her I'd think about it, and I got off the phone.

I found out the instructor for the special topics was my food teacher. He was already letting me miss the first residency because I was going to be in Arizona in January. I didn't like asking for too many favors.

But I asked. I told him about the independent studies I wanted to do and I said I couldn't be at the Monday meetings. He said we'd work something out.


I did wonder if it was smarter to stick with the ecological planning and design certificate. Would it be easier to find a job with that under my belt? Who was going to hire someone with a sustainable food and permaculture design certificate?

It didn't matter. I was much more interested in the classes I had to take for the sustainable food certificate.

I wanted to write about food. I was interested in sustainable food and I had been since I was a girl.

My husband laughed at the whole process. He thought I was always "working the system." Gaming the system, finagling my way into and out of things. He wasn't being judgmental: He admired it. I said I was just trying to get the most out of the experience. I didn't want to sit through classes that didn't interest me, especially given how much the classes cost.

I filled out the form and changed my certificate to Sustainable Food Systems and Permaculture.

With that decision made, I concentrated on my final project. For our last residency, we needed to make and bring a dish to class that had meaning to us. We also had to make video about the dish and be prepared to talk about our dish during the residency.

I had lots of ideas. Most of them involved soups. I loved making soups. My mom used to make the most amazing soups. My soups were never as good as hers, but I liked soups because they are very forgiving. You can leave ingredients out or add new ones. Plus they're hard to burn. I was notorious for starting to cook something in the kitchen and then leaving and forgetting all about it. (Been doing that all my life, so it's not an age thing!) I have ruined our complete set of Creuset pots (and now they're so expensive we can't afford to replace them). And more besides them.

But I had to get this dish up to Seattle. If the weather got bad, I'd be hauling whatever I made with me on the train. Soups would not be easy to transport.

I decided the easiest thing would be to bake something, like a carrot cake. Carrot cake had meaning to me because Mario and I had a carrot cake as our wedding cake.

It was a sheet cake made by a local baker in Ann Arbor who used whole wheat flour and no sugar. It was our announcement to the world that our life together would be wild and whacky.

Carrot cakes also had meaning to me because my friend Michelle and I had created a recipe for a carrot cake that was gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, and it was delicious. I loved being able to make a cake that I could eat and other people enjoyed, too.

I was so excited about the prospect of making and talking about this carrot cake that I decided I was going to write a book about it: The Carrot Cake. I started doing research on each and every ingredient in the cake. I spent days talking to growers and produce managers and producers. I loathed talking on the phone, but that was what I did. I learned more about carrots than I would have ever imagined. And I wrote it all down.

I was fascinated by all of it.

I intended to finish the book by the last residency, but I soon realized that it would be more fun to have time to breathe! I decided I would finish the book over the next sixth months.

I then made my video about the carrot cake, incorporating a lot of what I had learned doing research for the book. I used my computer as the video camera. I did some test pieces. They were difficult for me to watch. Ever since my nose was broken and distorted by nasal polyps, it's been difficult for me to see myself in the mirror or on camera. I can almost forget about that sorry and sad part of my life, until I see it in the flesh. Until I see me in the flesh. I felt ugly and not like myself when I saw how I looked. How I look.

But we all change, if we are lucky. Life is played out on our faces. My life had not been easy, and it showed. So what?

I did the video.

Now I had to figure out what my final presentation would be. I could talk all about carrots, like I had on the video. I could talk about why carrot cake had meaning to me.

I thought about making another video that they could watch during the residency. Then I could pretty much hide in the background somewhere and not have to talk to anyone much. And when I made the video I could stand far enough from the camera that they wouldn't notice my distorted nose. (Yes, my illogic is funny.) I figured this would be easier on them, too, since they must all see me as loathsome as I saw myself. I wasn't one of them. I was so much older, so much more battered.

Oh man. What kind of tape was playing in my head?

Where had all this insecurity come from? I liked life much better when I was arrogant and sure of myself. Too many years of illness had left me...not full of myself. Because of illness I had had to quit a full-time job. Since then, nothing had seemed exactly right. I had been used to having a place in the community. I had been used to having a "regular" job.

Now I struggled to make a living through my writing and a part-time library job I did from home.

As I was going through these various humiliating thought processes, it occurred to me that I needed to stop trying to be someone I wasn't. I didn't want to be a business executive or even a director of a non-profit. I didn't want the hustle and bustle of a forty-hour a week job where I was in charge of everything. Maybe I had at one time.

I was a storyteller. I forged connection through stories. I foraged in this world and that world and then brought everything together and created a story. Baked a story? Cooked a story?

Still, I told Mario, "They're all really into videos and texting. They seem very comfortable staring at a screen and getting information that way."

"Probably most of them have never heard a story live," Mario said. "With a real person telling it."

OK. That possibility sold it. I was going to tell a story about The Carrot Cake That Saved the World, Or At Least Part of It.

Soon it was time to make the carrot cake. I set aside an entire day. I had all my ingredients, including lots of carrots.

Before I started, I drummed a bit. I sang to the directions and to all the plants that were going into this carrot cake. I had dreamed years ago that a Rumanian woman told me "you must always talk to the spirits in everything," including food. So I do. I asked the Invisibles to make this a healing and nourishing cake for all.

Then I started. I ground cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg into powder from their whole forms. I milled quinoa for the flour. I mixed these dry ingredients together with some baking soda and powdered ginger.

I grated a couple cups of carrots. Then it was time to make the carrot juice. I cut up some carrots and started feeding them into the juicer. Suddenly the juicer started "walking" and then vibrating so fast it looked like it was going to fly across the room. I tried to hold it down, but it was too powerful for me. It started spinning like that girl in the Exorcist, while spewing out orange vomit. I was terrified this thing was going to fly and hurt me. I pulled the plug, then ran from the room.

Eventually the juicer stopped spinning. I had quite a mess to clean up, but nothing was broken and no one was hurt. I called the Champion Juicer company man and asked what had happened. He was pretty sure I needed a new blade. I said, "Whether I need a new blade or not, it doesn't seem like it should do that. I could have been seriously hurt."

He seemed unperturbed by this possibility.

Juicing carrots was out, but I still needed carrot juice. Fortunately Mario was in Vancouver. He stopped at Whole Foods on his way home and found organic carrot juice in a glass jar.

Once I got the juice, I continued to make the carrot cake.

The cake came out fine, as far as I could tell. It didn't look like it had "sprung up" as much as it should, but I was hoping it tasted good. In any case, it was finished.

Carrot cake tragedy averted.

We left for Seattle the next day, Friday afternoon. It was already dark out, but it wasn't raining or snowing, so I was grateful. The ride up was peaceful and uneventful. We drove through downtown Seattle at night. All the buildings were lit up. A huge star hung over Macy's. It was beautiful.

We found a place to park right out front of the hotel. After we checked in, we walked around the neighborhood. Then we went to bed.

Mario fell right to sleep.

I did not.

I tried watching Pride and Prejudice on my computer. That did not put me to sleep. I watched TV for a bit. I tossed and turned.

I got out of bed and read Shambhala Sun.

I went back to bed.

I finally fell to sleep around 4:00 a.m.

I woke up around 7:30 a.m.

Mario made me oatmeal for breakfast. I put together a lunch in case there wasn't anything for me to eat at the Interpretive Feast. Then I went out into the cold morning and drove to our instructor's house.

I got lost once, but it wasn't a big deal. With a little help from Mario on the other end of the phone, I got on the right track again.

My teacher greeted me at the door. He showed me where the kitchen was, and I put away the carrot cakes and my lunch. Most of my classmates were already gathered in the living room. I went and stood near them. When I said I was feeling wobbly from lack of sleep, two of the women offered me their seat. I said no at first, but then I sat with them.

"As long as you're not giving me your seat because I'm"

They laughed.

Soon the house was full, and it was time to begin our presentations. Because I had dessert, I was scheduled to go last. I wasn't happy about that. By late afternoon, I might forget the story I was going to tell. But I decided to just go with it and not worry about it. Funny how sometimes that works: to decide not to worry.

The first presentation was about pancakes. We watched a video, and then my classmate made pancakes on a plug-in griddle in front of the class while she talked about what pancakes meant to her. She did a great job, and soon everyone (except me) was eating pancakes.

Next up a man talked about enchiladas and what they meant to him and his family. After his video played, he made eggs on the griddle while he talked. I scooped up some enchiladas (on the side of the casserole so that I wouldn't get any cheese); then he put an egg on top of it for me.

It was delicious. Spicy and chewy.

And so the day had begun.

I can't remember all of the dishes. Some I could eat, some I couldn't. There was cabbage soup, some pastries, a dip, an Israeli dish with tomatoes and eggs, ravioli, smoked salmon, grits. I ate the tomatoes and eggs, the grits. I even had some hard cider.

I liked the hard cider. Besides a sip of beer a couple years ago and a sip of wine 15 years before that, I hadn't had anything to drink in decades. The hard cider didn't make me sick or dizzy. It didn't make me high. It just tasted good.

I loved the personal stories that came with each dish. I liked that the instructor's seven year old son was a part of the day. I loved that we were talking about these dishes in the context of our lives and our cultures. At one point I looked around at everyone as someone was talking about her dish, and I thought about how lucky I was to be a part of this event. I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world. I was actually a part of it, instead of feeling a part from it and everyone else.

In the middle of the day, I noticed I had a voicemail. I went outside and listened. A Family Member had left a message that one of my sisters was in trouble. The Family Member sounded like she had been crying or like she was stoned. My heart raced as I called her to see what had happened. It seemed like something happened to my family every time I went to one of these residencies. The Family Member was incoherent: It was obvious she had been using drugs. When I told her she was incoherent, she said she was just waking up from a nap. I remembered when my youngest sister was still drinking, she had often used a similar excuse when I asked her if she was drunk: "No, I'm just tired," she'd say.

Oh, so that's why you're slurring your words?

I ascertained that my sister was not in any danger. My sister and the Family Member had just had an argument. So I hung up the phone and went back to the feast.

Fortunately, I was able to forget about my family and enjoy the day. This was new, too. Perhaps I was actually learning some new skills: How to live life and not worry by just not worrying. Why hadn't that ever worked before?

It didn't matter. I was enjoying myself.

At the end of the day, it was my turn. Everyone was ready to go home by now, I was certain.

But I was going to tell them a story anyway.

I sat in a chair at the front of the room and I told them about a woman named Grace who could have lived in a village or a city anywhere in the world three days ago, three weeks ago, thirty years ago, or 300 hundred years ago. Her community was dying. The land was infertile. There were no jobs and the people were sick. Grace didn't know what to do. She went to the Old Woman who lived at the edge of town, in that betwixt and between place, because Old Women always know the answers to everything.

Grace asked the woman how to save her community. The Old Woman said, "That's simple. Make them a cake. It must contain these ingredients: You must find that which holds all life. You must find an edible stone that carries the souls of the ancestors. You must include the god-given Mother grain brought to the people by the dove. You must find the spice that the goddess Chango built her lunar palace from. You must find that which feeds the dead and makes them immortal. You must find the spice that will give you visions or make you mad. Find the plant that is the goddess Mayahuel. Find the oil that anoints the dead and kings alike. Find the tree that originated in heaven and is sacred to all, with its feet in water and head in the fires of heaven. Find the tree which gives all that is necessary for living and that came into existence after it sprouted from the head of the first person to die. Find the ashes of the phoenix because in those ashes are the spices you'll need. And most of all, you must find the honey underground, that food which does not get its sweetness from the heavens, the bees, or the birds."

And so Grace went around the world for three days, or three weeks, or thirty days, or 300 hundred years. She found what she needed: an egg (holds all life), salt (an edible stone), quinoa (god-given mother grain), cinnamon (what the lunar palace is made from), ginger (put in the mouths of the dead to chew), nutmeg (visions or madness), agave (goddess Mayahuel), olive oil (anoints dead and kings), dates (originated in heaven), coconut (provides all that is necessary for living), and allspice (from the ashes of the phoenix).

She brought all these ingredients back to her village. But she couldn't make the cakes because she hadn't figured out what the honey underground was. Then she went out and stood in her overgrown and neglected garden and looked around. She didn't know what she could do now to save her people. Then she heard a whisper, or maybe it was just the wind, but she looked down and saw some frothy greens growing from the ground. She reached down and pulled on these greens and up came this golden orange carrot: what the Celts called the "honey underground."

She thanked her garden for this unexpected gift. Then she made her humble carrot cake. And once she fed it to the villagers, her community and the people in it began to thrive and all was well again.

Grace didn't write down the recipe, though, so people all over the world have been trying to duplicate it. I told the class that I thought I may have finally figured out the recipe, and I made this carrot cake with that recipe. This cake would surely heal and nourish them all.

As I told this story, no one moved. A couple people closed their eyes and listened. They seemed mesmerized. When I was done, someone said, "What a perfect way to end the day."

I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I felt full of myself again, in that glorious way when you know you are yourself again.

I cut up the carrot cake and passed it out.

I noticed a couple people didn't finish their tiny piece of cake. It was a little chewier than normal, a little denser than it usually was. I wasn't sure why, but I tried not to fixate on it. The story was good, and most people ate the cake.

Our teacher talked for a bit, and then it was time to leave.

I felt like I had been a part of and a witness to an extraordinary event.

I followed one of my classmates' car out to the expressway, so I wouldn't get lost. Then I drove back toward the hotel. I was soon mired in a traffic jam.

Ah Seattle.

Eventually I was able to get away from the jam. I parked outside the hotel. Just then I got a call from my sister. She told me about the fight with the Family Member. She decided she needed to go to an al-anon meeting.

Our whole family probably needed that. It was difficult having an addict as a family member. It was difficult to keep from being angry with them for throwing away their lives.

Later I talked to the Family Member on the phone. She still sounded stoned to me, and usually I won't talk to her when she's like that. But I did. She essentially said it was her choice to deal with her life this way. And I agreed it was.

Even though I wanted to shake her and tell her to knock it off.

I wondered if she would end up in the street or dead from an overdose.

It was so terrifying and frustrating.

I had stressed out about it so much over the last year, and that wasn't helping anyone. In the end, it was her choice.

Mario and I went out to eat. Then we came back to the hotel and sat on the bed eating the rest of the carrot cake and talking.

That night after Mario went to sleep, I lay next to him with my hand on his neck. I could feel his pulse under my fingers. I thought about the day, about the food and the stories, about my man curled up beside me.

I felt so grateful for my life and for this day.

I closed my eyes and fell to sleep.

In the morning, we went to Cafe Flora for breakfast. Then we went to Elliot Bay Books, down the road from Cafe Flora. I bought Dale Pendell's Pharmako trilogy. Mario bought lots of books. Then we drove to the Medicinal Herb Garden.

Most of the herbs had been cut down for the winter. Some beds had ground covers growing in them, some had leaves over them. The black cohosh still called to me, even though it had almost melted into the soil. And the hawthorn tree. Tiny red berries hung from the thorny branches. Figs hung from the fig tree, looking like tiny shriveled purses.

Mario told me that when I walked amongst these plants, I looked most like myself.

I was so glad to have him with me this time.

We went back to the car and drove toward home.

We stopped at Chutney's in Vancouver for a quick dinner.

Then we continued toward home, where we arrived safe and sound an hour later.

1 comment:

kerrdelune said...

A remarkable adventure, and I see you with that "Food Certificate" Sister Kim. I loved the story - can you share the recipe? xxx Cate

PS: Starting tonight I am rereading (1) Coyote Cowgirl (2) Church of the Old Mermaids. I love them both.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.