Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tea Gardens

“Tea is nought but this.
First you make the water boil,
Then infuse the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.”
Sen Rikyu

It may be hard to believe, but back in the day, many people in my generation were loud, opinionated, and ready to protest anything that offended our sensibilities. It was exhausting work being so passionate and ideological, particularly about stuff I understood so little. Some of us educated hippies who survived mellowed down as we aged. Many of us came late to discover the appeal of Asian arts and philosophies. Something about Eastern arts are particularly peaceful and refreshing to Western eyes, particularly when it comes to gardens. Pictured first is a portion of the zen garden at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park, San Diego.

Like Chinese scholars striving to master the four art forms we cultivated various oriental arts. Some of us got tattoos of Chinese characters. Some of us took calligraphy classes in adult ed. Some of us took up yoga or tai chi or some more clearly martial arts. Some of us became Buddhists, as sincere and innocent as Lisa Simpson. Some - in denial about their OCD - learned to practice the strictly choreographed formal art of tea, or Cha-no-yu, which literally means hot water for tea in Japanese.

I fell in love with the Japanese Tea Garden, a supreme expression in gardening of a style of spare but not austere rusticity. Japanese tea gardens are subtle with muted lights and colors, never flashy with banks of colorful flowers and foliage. Like the tea and the ceremony, Japanese gardens originated in China, a place known for their own unique gardening style that is both substantially different from and similar to what evolved into the Japanese Tea Garden style. My backyard has become what a polite and charitable observer might call a fusion of Japanese Tea Garden and the kind of small scale Chinese Garden designed to permit many small vignettes for “’in position viewing’ i.e. lingering observation from fixed angles” as Chen Congzhou calls them.

Pictured here is the tsukubai arrangement at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. Close outside the door onto the small sheltered patio (the fourth picture, below) is my attempt to create an authentic tsukubai water basin with a stone lantern. Apart from a struggling carpet of thyme which is the closest I can get to moss, there are three small trees: a black pine that will be another 20 years before it even begins to take the shape I intend, a small clumping bamboo, and struggling weeping cherry that I happen to love it despite it’s inappropriateness for this style and for this climate zone. These three – pine, plum, and bamboo – are known as the three friends of winter, which is a story for another post.

Because my backyard is not conveniently located Japanese mountain stream my water basin filled from a small bamboo pipe flows over into a basin with a pump to re-circulates the water. The basin itself is from a local Chinese importer: a grey granite-colored carved stone basin that has been worn shiny and black over the years.

The stone lantern pictured here is a Japanese s style named after a famous tea master Furuta Oribe. An Oribe doro is distinguished by its cleaner line, its secular lack of carvings religious iconography, and its lack of pedestal stone. This one is in the Japanese Friendship Garden has a tiny slice of new moon that would glow when lit in the long summer twilight. A.L. Sadler says (in Cha-No-You: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (1933)), “Where a stone lantern has a ‘New Moon’ shaped opening in its top this should always be turned toward the west, while a Full Moon shaped one should be turned toward the east, but others consider this of no great importance and prefer to turn the lantern so that the light looks best in the garden.” The one pictured here has been placed with the tiny moon facing west.

The partly obscured lantern pictured here in my tsukubai garden is clearly Japanese, with 8-petaled lotus the Buddhist symbol of purity comprising the heavy pedestal, and the top finial shaped like a lotus bud. Called the Kasuga lantern, this style takes its name from the famous Kasuga shrine in Nara.

Apart from the technicalities, there is another deeper layer of understanding tea gardens that appeals to me. Imitating style is relatively easy to learn. Mastering design is difficult. The reasons for this have something to do with the way experts teach. I’m used to the Western approach where it’s all outlined in books with footnotes and exhausting detail. It was relatively easy for me to compose and execute my tsukubai based on a bit of research, a few really nice local rocks, and some plant substitutions: like drought-tolerant creeping thyme in lieu of dew-drenched moss.

Much of what we consider inscrutably mysterious teachings in Japanese expertise - from designing and building tea gardens, to conducting proper tea ceremonies, to that thing about the white cat statues that wave hello - is simply due to the unfamiliar Eastern way of teaching. Asian teachers teach by silence, instead simply doing. The student learns by watching, over and over again, sometimes for years and years, until the student learns how to see and to understand the subtle language of the art. “For it is a rule of this art that its experts do not explain the reason and cause of the things they do in this matter by words but by deeds only, for they leave everything to the consideration and reasoning of their pupils.” (Jao Rodrigues, Account of Sixteenth-Century Japan, quoted in Marc Peter Keane’s The Japanese Tea Garden).

Rikyu’s entire spoken words on teaching the tea ceremony he is largely credited with formalizing is quoted at the top of this post. Simplicity itself. Thus, a wise man once said, the student becomes the master.

All this is to report that we went to a few genuine Japanese gardens last week, notably the Huntington Garden’s Japanese Garden (pictured immediately above) and the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park in San Diego. The more I learn about tea gardens and Asian gardens in general, the more there is to learn, and the more pleasure I derive from the study. Although I love reading and copying and probably corrupting authentic Asian garden styles, I learn more from the pleasure of seeing the real things.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Nutritional Tomatoes

“Homegrown tomatoes ripened all the way on the vine have about 1/3 more vitamin C than artificially ripened supermarket varieties; and organic tomatoes – those that get their nitrogen fro manure and compost – are higher in antioxidants than conventionally grown tomatoes fed on commercial fertilizers... A study conducted at UC, Davis found that organic tomatoes contained nearly twice as much quercetin and kaempferol – flavonoids with potent antioxidant activity – as their conventionally grown cousins.”
Rebecca, Rupp, How Carrots Won the Trojan War

Our last frost date in So Cal is 3/31, so we have already selected and started our warm season seeds for the Veggie Garden. I happened to be reading Rupp’s book a month ago when we began planning our summer veggie garden.

Rupp’s book goes on to mention that some tomato varieties have been specially bred for high nutrient content. So, I went online searching for nutritious tomatoes, and particularly the P20 Blue tomato and the Health Kick. Solana Seeds in Quebec had the P20 seeds (pricey at $0.30 each), and we got the Health Kick seeds from Burpee.

Since this is the first season we’ve selected tomatoes to plant based on nutritional recommendations, I also made up an informational sign with the part of Rupp's book quoted above that will be posted next to our nutritious tomatoes.

A bit more research on the P20 reveals it’s a challenge to get the tomatoes to stay purple because the color is "light-sensitive" i.e. the more sun, the better. The Oregon State University FAQ was written a few years before the seed became commercially available, but it includes the interesting information that OSU bred this seed from a rare that is one of the few that has not only blue skin but blue meat in the center. I'm not sure if I'm ready for purple tomato sauce.

We have bought a few heirloom starts from local nurseries to get us up and running as soon as the rain stops. But we are trying to start most of our tomato crop from seed this year, something we’ve not done for the last few years. Since last summer’s weather worked against a bountiful tomato crop, we have high hopes for this year. Let’s hope the weather cooperates.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring Cleaning

“Come spring
You can find me rolling in fields
That are exploding in
Holy battles

Of scents, of sounds—everything is
A brilliant colored nova on a stem.”
- Hafiz

Spring cleaning is at least spring something, right? Now I don’t want to say anything bad about hoarders, but… Oops, just did. So I might as well.

It’s not like I’ve been denial about the hoarders I live with. But this seriously surpassed my worst-case scenarios by several orders of magnitude. Ok, there is no reason for a reasonable person to keep empty househould appliance boxes. But empty blisterpaks trump empty blender boxes, my friend. Thankfully, I have a friend with a pickup truck and some strong helpers. She even brought me boxes!

A lifetime of greeting cards filling two big filing boxes. Three generations of photographs filling approx 6 big filing cartons, but spread out into rubber-banded bundles stuffed absolutely everywhere. And a carton of tin film canisters for movie film, plus cameras, splicing supplies and snippets of film. Another carton of obsolete cameras. Some of the kitchen household products like corn starch are suitable to grace an “Antique” (sic) store kitchen filled with obsolete kitchen crap. Several decorative oil lamps in addition to an appalling number of even more appalling ceramic figurines about which the less said the better. (I've said too much).

Tech Support Guy: Some of the cameras are worth a lot.
Weeping Sore: Not to me. The 78 rpm records? The LPs?
TSG: (Crickets)

There was a DAV Auxiliary rulebook from 1934. But the logic of keeping this must have been the update from 1959. Drawer after drawer of junk drawers. Anybody a Firesign Theater fan? Remember the game show where the contestant, handed her prize, complained loudly "Why this is a bag of shit?" The announcer said, "But it's GOOD shit" which the shit in these drawers is not.

New rule: no household may have any more than one single junk drawer, preferably in the kitchen. Corollary: no saving broken crayons, unused yellowing address books, calendars for 1983, broken screw drivers. And for god’s sake – no empty packages for household products that were then stored separately and never used. That’s not three rules by the way, it’s a compound Junk Drawer Rule worthy of this situation.

To date Tech Support Guy has mailed 8 big cartons of primo crap to family members, like a small sample of the lifetime’s worth of mothers day cards and including the photos I’d put into albums years ago until I realized the Stygian nature of this effort. There are five large cartons on the closet shelf of loose photographs in no particular order for TSG to review. Fat chance: medical science has conclusively proven hoarding is an inheritable disorder. I've left several notes among my cartons of my own crap apologizing to my descendants.

But it's not all old stuff. Some stuff is from my lifetime. To date I’ve emptied over a dozen large garbage cans of ordinary crap – dragging the laden cans down the hill and the empty ones back up. We have 5 garbage cans and only three lids, but that’s another story). And it’s been raining. And you don’t want to get on of those red tags stuck to an overloaded can full of water soaked greeting cards so all your neighbors can see you don’t have an experienced gardener to take care of these chores. (Then there’s the recycle bin full of empty wine bottles: yet another story.)

The frickin’ ray of sunshine to brighten my life is having an up-to-date reference if I step on a tetnus-infected needle amid the clutter. Yeah. 1933. That, and knowing that ALL of the drawers are now empty. The boxes are almost all packed up. The pickup comes tomorrow for the rest of the boxes and much of the furniture. And this just in: my marmalade not only gelled, it kicks ass!

So, in case I was in denial about the hoarders before, I have been rolling around in a dusty closet amid overstuffed boxes about to explode, and I have seen the light from brilliant colored novas in packing boxes. Close enough, Hafiz?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

So, I made Meyer Lemon Marmalade

“THERE HAD BEEN earlier drinking than usual in the wine-shop of Monsieur Defarge… This had been the third morning in succession, on which there had been early drinking at the wine-shop of Monsieur Defarge.”
Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It takes three days for Rachel Saunders’ Blue Chair Jam Cookbook recipe entitled Meyer Lemon Marmalade with Mandarins & Lavender. My only prior jam/jelly experience has been decidedly “small batch” compared to this undertaking, and the mystery of how to make the stuff gel has sometimes escaped me. This is a big recipe and I opted not to reduce it in the hopes that my gelling problem would be avoided. I ended up with about 8 cups. The success of this adventure remains a bit of a cliffhanger. I am not supposed to move the filled jars until tomorrow morning when they’re cooled. To move them before they cool overnight is to risk un-gelling.

I encountered problems.

The first problem was mandarins; specifically, there are none. I got fat California tangerines, not tiny Clementines, but orange-sized fruits a lovely golden red orange instead. All fruit, including the 4 ounces of Eureka lemon juice from lemons I picked myself, is organic. The sugar is not, regrettably. Since they are a bit more tart than oranges – one might even say bitter, if one was inclined to dramatic foreshadowing - I increased the sugar. So, I actually attempted to make Meyer Lemon with Tangerines & Lavender Jam. The tangerines are discarded after cooking down to a sticky broth and draining overnight, but their juice is a redder gold than oranges and imparts a deeper color to my final product.

The second problem was finding what Saunders optimistically calls “doneness.” She says that will take boiling the lovely ingredients “at least 30 minutes” but neglects to specify an outside time. She also has a doneness test more complex than learning to fly a B737 that involves taking a “representative half-spoonful” with pre-chilled spoons chilled and returning the sample to the freezer for a somewhat imprecise “three or four minutes”. She instructs you to freeze five spoons for this purpose. Two and a half hours of rapid cooking and about 12 spoons later, the gloop was still dripping off the spoon, albeit more slowly. Perhaps I’m unskilled in selecting a truly representative half spoon consisting of a jury of my peers; which is ironic because some of my best friends are slow drips.

Instead of using a lavender sprig, I put some culinary (French) lavender in a muslin bag and moistened it with about 4 drops of lavender extract. Then I put the bag in instead, as the recipe instructed, when the mix was removed from the heat.

By this time, my blood glucose level was probably in the low thousands from continued tasting of the delicious gloop drips. You don’t expect me to let the stuff drip off the spoon and down the sink do you? It’s delicious. And the payoff for risking a blood sugar spike that might leave me comatose, was that I learned something that, let’s say, justifies the tasting. The volume of my jam was reduced by more than ¼, and as water was lost in steam, the remaining liquid got heavier and sweeter. So while I offset the bitter tangerine taste by adding an extra half-pound of sugar to the 2.5 pounds of sugar specified in the recipe, I’m glad I didn’t add more because the mix gets much sweeter as it evaporates water and thickens.

In addition to the specific challenges enumerated above, and not even counting probably even more I’ve blissfully already forgotten, I overcame a number of general problems.

First of all, for some reason possibly related to all my bad karma coming home to roost, everybody called on the phone today – each call arriving at the perfectly awful time when I had sticky hands. Tech Support Guy was out shopping. He called. The cooking store has my new slow cooker, aka crock pot. They called. The furnace filter guy is going to be late, is that ok? Ok? I didn’t even know he was scheduled. But interruptions derail my train of thought, as well as my jam procedures and I had to wash my hands about 100 times because of interruptions. And this floor isn’t going to get itself sticky, you know.

Then there is the stipulation of the parties that I’m a klutz. I’m what you’d politely call “clumsy,” and working with sticky stuff in spoons being carried back and forth from stove to freezer to sink, was a Challenge that defeated my pathetic attempts at Poise with one hand tied behind it’s back. Turns out however, the floor took on a delicate non-skid sticky quality that actually steadied me. Finally, I used some delightfully shaped jars that hold 4 ounces, and filling them without a proper funnel is an exercise in making a sticky mess. The small sized jars enable me to give samples to friends – assuming I’m not ashamed of the final product tomorrow. Counter tops are also sticky enough that I believe my cat would be stuck like a fly to a flystrip had she attempted to traverse them. My stovetop is a mess worthy of the witches scene in Macbeth.

But there are rewards already, even though the final mission is yet to be accomplished. First, the house smells yummy with lemon and garlic. And no. I was roasting some garlic and onion to add to the fresh asparagus and broccoli and bok choy harvested from the Veggie Garden this morning. I was caramelizing the garlic and onion tossed in garlic olive oil and balsamic vinegar and roasting in the tiny toaster oven. The roasted onion garlic mix is now marinating with the green vegetables and will be returned to the toaster oven for dinner. Surprisingly, lemon and garlic work on an olfactory level.

And here’s the real payoff. Figuring my blood sugar was pretty much toast anyway from all the tasting, I found a way to use the leftover jam that wouldn’t fit in the jars I’d sterilized - about 1/3 of a cup: 3 parts vodka, 2 parts runny lemon lavender marmalade, and a dash of lavender bitters. I’m having the first martooni I’ve had in months. So, like that flyer I got in this afternoon’s mail, I may already be a winner.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Calla Lily “Green Goddess”

"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."
- William Shakespeare, King John Act IV, Scene 2

Calla lillies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) are grown from rhizomes and bloom late in the spring. Callas are native to South Africa, where they thrive in the humidity of places like Madagascar, often blooming throughout winter. Its African origins probably account for one of calla lily’s common names, Varkoor, which means pig’s ear in Afrikaans. Other common names for this magnificent plant are arum lily, trumpet lily and pig lily.

The calla lily is not a true lily at all. Typically, this misnomer was the fault of Carolus Linneaus, who, in the mid 18th century messed up a lot of botanical stuff in his attempt to classify everything that moved. Linnaeus called it Calla aethiopica. It wasn’t until 1826 when it was placed in a genus of its own: Zantedeschia.

Like many ancient flowers, lilies carry a lot of symbolic baggage. The ancient Greek myth held that the lily grew from Hera’s (Roman: Juno) milk, which was spilled when she was nursing Heracles (Roman: Hercules). The Romans associated the calla lily with lust and sexuality because of the phallic flower stalk and the yellow pistil. Strangely, despite its decidedly male shape, the pistil is the female sexual organ of the plant.

Before the Victorians invented the Language of Flowers based mostly on appearance, the symbolic meaning of the lily had been overtaken by the hegemony of Christian iconography. Christian myth has it that lilies used to be yellow. When picked by the Virgin, they became white. It’s also said that the lily grew where Eve’s tears fell when she was expelled from Paradise, but that myth might just be the first recorded instance of seasonal allergies.

In Roman times, lilies were associated with death and symbolized sympathy. Now days despite (or perhaps because of?) its toxicity, calla lily is associated with marriage. It contains calcium oxalic crystals that can be toxic if ingested.

Lilies are associated with the Virgin Mary, often painted in the hand of the Angel Gabriel when he announced that her pregnancy test was positive. Because of its associations with virginal purity and chastity, one of my favorite legends is associated with a test for virginity involving the lily. According to Ruth Binney, Natures’s Ways: lore, legend, fact and fiction:“Following witch lore, parents anxious that a daughter might have lost her virginity would feed her powdered yellow lily. If still a virgin she would at once experience the urge to urinate”.

It’s a mystery to me what the urge to pee has to do with virginity, but I do love the evolution of meanings assigned to flowers. I particularly like the “Green Goddess” variety that grows in the bog end of my pond. The green stains look just like the knees of pants worn by a gardener who should have known better than to wear white pants while gardening. Then again, it might just be that I'm rebelling from the whole virginal purity thing and I prefer this variety in my garden because the Green Goddess is stained.

The botanic illustration at the top of this post is from Fragmenta botanica, figuris coloratis illustrata : ab anno 1800 ad annum 1809 per sex fasciculos edita / opera et sumptibus Nicolai Josephi Jacquin.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

So, I Made a Quilt

“When money’s tight and is hard to get

And your horse has also ran,

When all you have is a heap of debt –


“When stags appear on the mountain high,

with flanks the colour of bran,

when a badger bold can say goodbye,

Flann O’Brien

This first picture is the quilt sandwich being pinned together for final quilting. The solid-colored blocks in olive and red-orange are each embroidered with an art nouveau flower. This picture was about a week ago. My quilt is finally finished.

When I was in high school, our class took a trip to New York City, and we toured the UN. There was a lovely large rug hanging on display somewhere and the guide explained that the traditional weavers of what were then called “Oriental” rugs, always included an error in the intricate patterns because only god was supposed to do perfect. Of course, somebody asked where the error was, which prompted the guide to sigh with exasperation at how widely the high school students had missed the point. Clearly, he/she had no clue where the mistake was. Which is another difference between the UN rug and my quilt because I know where I went wrong.

Operating on that lesson learned long ago at the UN despite the humorless tour guide’s judgment, I intentionally included an error in my quilt. In fact, operating on the tried and true American maxim that if a little is good, more is better, I intentionally included more than one error. Many more in fact, and I hereby state for the record that all errors were intentionally made out of my extreme humility and desire not to be godlike at which I must admit I succeed admirably. I make no admission that drinking while quilting is perhaps an unwise practice, or that a couple of pints of plain while quilting is likely to introduce more errors than a humble sober quilter might make. No badgers said goodbye while I was quilting, although a cat appeared intermittently.

By the time I was done, my sewing machine said I spent over 80 hours of sewing time. I estimate I spent 2-3 times that much time in cutting, piecing, pinning, and ironing, and I’m not even including time spent in ripping out mistakes, drinking beer or saying goodbye to my kitty. The quilt is kitty-approved.