Monday, July 23, 2012

Animal Fables and Claws of Calamity

“The hand of destiny drew down before the eye of my vision also the curtain of carelessness; and clear-sighted reason, and far-seeing prudence kept me behind the dark screen of ignorance and folly, and thus the whole of us were all at once overtaken with the hand of trouble and the claw of calamity.”
-  Anvar-I-Suhali, or The Lights of Canopus, Being the Persian Version of The Fables of Pilpay; or the book “Lalilah And Damnah”, Chapter III, On the Agreement of Friends and the Advantages of Their Mutually Aiding One Another.
What do you think of when you think of animal fables? Do you think about the tortoise and the hare, and the moral that slow and steady once won the race? An animal fable is a story with a moral conveyed by animals that personify various moral characteristics. Perhaps fables were concocted by teachers to provide moral guidance to students who couldn’t read or write. We don’t need fables these depraved days, and not only because we (allegedly) can read. Fables might have been helpful in the days when we didn’t worry only about what was strictly legal, but also considered moral values like integrity, honesty and compassion. You don’t need Aesop today if you have a lawyer who can interpret tax codes, locate offshore shelters, and crawl through sewers of legal loopholes that serve to enrich hares at the expense of tortoises.
Fables are intended to illustrate such moral lessons as: pride goes before a fall; or how if you’re natural prey, you should be careful before befriending a predator; or how you should never order the meatloaf at a place called Mom’s.  Apart from the fact that most of us don’t know much about the moral characteristics of lions and mice, many traditional animal fables have no moral traction these days. Some fables have been worn into smooth clichés while retaining the animal characters in the underlying story: don’t count your chickens before they hatch; don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Most of the simplistic stories attributed to Aesop include only two characters like an ant and a grasshopper. Possibly, the simple cast of characters was intended to explain the lessons at their most fundamental and un-misunderstand-able level. I have always liked animal fables, and I wondered how I could make animal fables more appealing to contemporary students.
Perhaps if I updated the characters and the settings, the fables would have more of an impact. A professor at the place I once worked has done that here.  For example, check out a contemporary interpretation of the fable ant and the grasshopper. The problem is that it’s no longer an animal fable – it’s a college student fable.
Or, perhaps animal fables have fallen out of favor these days because life is more complicated. Suppose we just need more drama and interest in our stories than old-fashioned Aesop preached? What about catchy names and places? For example, at least Ambrose Bierce’s fables included politicians, and intriguing proper place names like the City of Prosperous Obscurity. But here again, we’ve lost the animals.
So what if we kept the animals and just threw in more plot twists and complexity? The ancient Persian Lights of Canopus is a good source of more elaborate fables, for example the one about  the Crow, and the Mouse, and the Pigeon, and the Tortoise, and the Stag. There's another bonus apart from having a bigger cast. These animal fables include some of the most awesome metaphors ever, and like the example above, they mix more than a bartender in the Fox corporate suite at a Republican Party Convention. Here’s an example: “…the vessel of my life has fallen into a whirlpool, such that the mariner of deliberation is unable to set me free; and the cord of my existence is broken in such wise, that the finger-tip of thought is baffled in attempting to unite it.”  That really resonates with me although I confess I've always had a soft spot for fingertips scratching my brain.
So, then I got to thinking how about fables with more contemporary characters? I wonder what kind of moral can I make out of the fable of the Flash Drive, the Smart Card and how despite the boasts implied in their names they are outsmarted by the Spambot.  Or how about one where a woman marries a corporation? Upon consideration, this would risk offending those who consider valid marriage to be only between a man and a woman, (including between a 12-year-old girl and her rapist – a marriage that many men in Afghanistan consider to be completely reasonable). Besides, the moral of such a fable depresses me because we’ve all been screwed by a corporation at one time or another so technically, we’re already married, and we know how that one plays out. Besides, no animals.
So, what if I created my own animal fable, but make it even more spectacular by using animals whose very existence is questionable? How about a fable about involving a Squonk Hunting a Snark? Or maybe the Snark should hunt the Squonk?  According to Wikipedia (which is always 100% true) a Squonk (aka, Lacrimacorpus dissolvens) comes from Latin words meaning "tear", "body", and "dissolve". A Squonk is hard to catch. “Hunters who have attempted to catch Squonks have found that the creature is capable of evading capture by dissolving completely into a pool of tears and bubbles when cornered” - which I totally get. And only Lewis Carroll knows what a Snark is. All I have to do is figure out what moral I want these characters to illustrate. But then how could I ever top this? It’s a “fun with fables” site that is structures like a “choose your own adventure” story where you can select for the type of animal, the character trait or the moral of the story.
So, for now, I think I’m out of the animal fables business. Besides, I have to master the mixed metaphor first.  

Friday, July 06, 2012

What You Don’t Know About Chicken Soup

 “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains… This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”
  - Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, Vol. 77, No. 6. ] 121-1134, Copyright 1999 by the American Psychological Association, Inc., 0022-3514/99/S3.00 Cornell University)

Yeah, so? Look, I’ve been busy, ok?  We finally moved into our newly remodeled bedroom and love it.  This move emptied out our former bedroom thus making way for a sewing room. No more sewing on the dinning room table and trying to keep track of thread, fabrics et. al. by tucking them between wine glasses in the china cabinet. This means I’ve been sewing and it’s like my sewing machine is as happy as I that it has a new permanent home. On it’s own table. On top of a plastic measuring/cutting grid that fits the table exactly. It’s like I know what I’m doing. My kitty (who will definitely NOT kill mealso approves of the move. That's her head peeking out of a fold in the quilt.

But the big news is I made some killer chicken stock. My journey began at the farmers market, when I asked the chicken lady for chicken feet. She’d tipped me off some time back that the feet add the gel that makes the stock nice and syrupy, and she’s right. So last week when I went to get some chicken feet, she asked if I’d also like some heads. She explained how her grown son – the only family member who apparently has no gag reflex – takes all the unwanted chicken heads and feet and cooks them down in a huge vat. She explained that what you do is, you first blanch the heads and feet, then you skin them, or at least slit the skin so, presumably, the insides can leak through into the broth.

I don’t do well with yucky stuff like chicken autopsies. It’s all I can generally manage to blanch and then cook the feet. When they’re done, they’ve plumped up nicely and look like they’re alive. Chicken feet have these creepy nails that look like they just had a professional manicure. So just cook them, she insisted. You won’t regret it. So I did. I got two bags of feet and one bag of heads for $4. I tossed the parts in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes to clean them off, then rinsed them and discarded the dirty water. Then, I put the parts into nice clean water that will become stock. I’ve found that white wine is a truly good accompaniment for chicken, particularly when cooking chicken skulls. In all fairness, I determined later that when the white wine is gone, red goes just as well.

I’m going to label the dozen 8 oz. jars Chicken Skull Stock.  At some point during the day while refilling my wine glass and stirring the chicken parts, I counted four heads, and we formed a special bond. I named them John Doe, Manny, Moe, and Jack Doe. The problem was that I didn’t know if I was cooking their feet or some other Does' feet. I decided to forgo attempts to name the feet because, you know, without a specific provenance or way of recognizing which feet roll to the top of the pot at any given moment it would be crazy to name the feet. And I’m not crazy; although it did occur to me late in the process that I might get some DNA and try to match them up. Fun fact, some of the feet have a dark brown pad in the middle that feels like the paw of a cat. While I didn’t make an exact count, I’d say maybe 2 sets out of 6. I theorize that these belonged to the drone hens that had to walk guard duty at night to protect their sleeping coop-mates. Or maybe they’re roosters?

Now, even if you take it on faith that chicken skulls make good broth, nobody wants to open a jar of chicken stick and find a head, or even a foot.  When I had the stock at a consistency I liked, I poured it into a clean pot and let the parts drain in a sieve lined with cheesecloth. It was at that point, I realized I had not four, but five heads. Being remorseful by then that I’d named the other four as guys, I named the last one Carmen. Her blind white eyes gazed at me reproachfully as she and the boys and their feet drained. You’re supposed to pour it back into the pot, let it cool, skim the fat, re-boil and then can it, but I didn’t do any of that prior to canning. The stock came out clean and gloopy and without foam or much fat to skim.

In order to can the broth - because it’s technically meat – you’ve got to use a pressure canner, not a simple water bath. The Blue Book says give them 20 minutes at 25 lbs psi. The big pressure canner has a pressure gauge that reads out in increments of 5 from 5 to 20 and above that there’s just a red line that says “caution”. A bit daunting: neither the chicken skull quintet nor I were confident of our ability to master this advanced level of technology this late in the day. I had my huge pressure canner all set to go, but fate intervened. It was at that point that I found I’d lost the damn weight thingie that sits on the top and jiggles to let out steam. I had to use my regular pressure cooker and it took me three batches to do all the jars.

I also made pickles. We harvested the first major batch of pickle cucumbers from the Veggie Garden this week. I took 22 of them and made pickles to share with the veggie gardeners.  I got a dozen 8 oz. jars of what I’m calling Garlic Dill Lemongrass Pickles. I adapted a recipe from Preserving Summer’s Bounty (Rodale) for Kosher Dills. I substituted a blade of lemongrass for horseradish root because, well, because I have some semblance of good taste.  The ingredients included a bit of sweet Maui onion also harvested yesterday. In addition, I used my own home grown dill weed and seeds, and used mostly black mustard seeds instead of boring white. The garlic cloves are from a lovely “rose” garlic we also grew.

There really is something good for the soul to spend a day in the kitchen amid yummy smells and among chicken head friends. I expect the wine didn’t hurt either, but then again, that might just be a failure of my metacognitive abilities to realize how yucky chicken skull soup actually is.