Friday, May 18, 2007

My Village

A couple of years before I'd even heard of Hilary Clinton, I read the now famous African proverb that has sometimes been erroneously attributed to her: "It takes a village to raise a child." I imagine different people think of different things when they hear that. For some people, it conjures up visions of a "Nanny State" deciding what is the best way for other people to raise their own children. I hope it never comes to that. When I hear that proverb, I think about the warm and nurturing people that we have surrounded ourselves with since we settled here six years ago.

Six years ago, Dog was a pre-schooler, Bug not yet walking, and Princess, a surprise waiting to happen. We had yet to have had the whole food pyramid come crashing down upon us. We were on an adventure...relocating and discovering what it's like to live in a "Currier and Ives" post card. It took us a while to put down roots into the community that has become our village, but as we've come to know the people in our circle of association, I'm learning to be profoundly grateful for their presence in our lives.

SF, who shares my name and my passion for food issues. She's the one who got me obsessed with gardening, so when I start waxing lyrical over my produce, you'll know who to blame. She's also the one who dropped whatever it was she was doing to take me to the emergency room when I lost the argument with my food processor and entertained my children while I was getting stitched up.

CU, my teaching partner and party planner, who loves my children as much as her own and shows them. One of the benefits to homeschooling is that you know what you've taught, shared, discussed, or explored your children and when they come up with something you haven't covered, you can generally pinpoint where it came from. So when my 6 yo and 4 yo begin discussing the function of the spleen and the "kidney beans," I can tell that kind of thing came from her. So much of what she gives us is mortar for our stones.

AS, the art teacher, who proactively kept me abreast on what projects were in the works, what the art materials consisted of, and warning me when there was corn in the mix, so that we could take steps to protect my children from getting bitten. Unpowdered medical gloves are a wonderful thing.

TC, who kept me posted on the group dynamics in Dog's set, and how well Dog was handling it; who also, without knowing it, told Dog all of the same things I'd already told him while he would rant on the way home in the car.

And so many others who graciously give to us even in ways I'm probably unaware of.

Over the years, our homeschooling co-op has taken on larger proportions of importance in our lives. Every person there brings something precious to our lives. And for Dog, it has been a more significant contribution than for his siblings. Over time, he has discovered this thing called friendship, what it means and what it requires. He's learned that not everyone he likes is good for him and I can also see some loyalty issues looming on the horizon. He's learned how to play in other people's sandboxes and follow other people's rules. It's also been gratifying for me to watch him discover that other families can and do have the same rules we do. He's sheepishly finding out that Tool Guy and I aren't as unreasonable as he thought we were.

This is where having such a village is so valuable. The atmosphere of having the same values reinforced by other people. To know that the correction and redirection that they receive is as caring as what they would receive at home. And even when we bump up against the differences in families, it provokes some very thoughtful discussion on why there are "different rules for different families" and why what will work for one family won't work in ours and the other way around. Most people agree that this was the kind of village the African sage had in mind.

This past year, while being one of the best ever, has been particularly trying in one aspect. For several months, regardless of what precautions and care we took, every week Dog somehow got contaminated. The hugely frustrating part was not knowing where it was coming from. Sleuth as I would, I never did find out the source. SF gently suggested that since Dog is getting older and moving out from under my direct supervision, there are a million points of unbuffered contact with allergens. I started looking at how much scaffolding I was doing with the younger two, like wiping down tables between activities, sending the entire class to wash hands frequently, particularly after eating and handling food. I realized she's probably right. Just as mysteriously, though, Dog's contamination point disappeared. Weeks now and no more infractions. Makes me crazy. I can already tell that this growing up and letting them go thing has so many levels.

As we're wrapping up our co-op year and planning for next year, there's a lot to be satisfied about. I taught my first full year of Sign Language to the middle and high school ages. All of my students enjoyed the class enough that we're scheduling a continuing class in the fall. I look back to three or four years ago when teaching a class felt totally impossible. The thought of it overwhelmed me. I could barely manage to corral my own kids through an afternoon. Now I'm looking forward with enthusiasm to next year and teaching.

When we first started attending this co-op, I was still learning all of this food stuff and struggling to juggle it all. Any time we go out for any length of time, I always have to have food prepared and it needs to be portable food. Once while I was playing around with the food processor, I made shoe string fries. They were pretty good, so I started making them regularly. But it took going to the hospital for stitches for me to find a way to make them superlative.

The backstory is that Princess was a high need baby, who not only always wanted to be held, but always wanted to be nursing. Barring that, she'd agree to be assuaged with a pinkie to suck on. No pacifiers for Her Majesty. So here I was feeling like I was on top of my game with Princess in a sling, sucking on a pinkie, and me one-handing my way around the kitchen. It so happened that I was making some shoestring fries that day. Overconfidently, I grabbed the edges of the slicing disk with my fingertips to lift it out of the bowl, not anticipating that one of those fingertips would slip. You guessed it. Sheer hubris.

Struggling hard not to lose it with an infant in the sling, a toddler and preschooler to deal with, I phoned SF for help. While she was on the way, I looked at those fries that would have turned black by the time we got back from getting stitches. From somewhere in the back of my brain, I dredged up something about rinsing the starch off of potatoes. So I left them to soak in water until I could deal with them later. These turned out to be the best batch I'd ever made. Serendipity. These days, the only way I make fries is to prep them up the day before and leave them to soak in the refrigerator overnight. More serendipity: Just recently, I was informed that soaking and refrigerating potatoes before frying significantly reduces the acrylamide load. Gotta love it.

Everything Free Shoestring Fries

Using the 1 mm blade on the food processor, slice potatoes. After slicing the first time, stack the slices up like cards in a deck and reinsert them on their sides into the processor sleeve. Run through again. After slicing, rinse under running cold water until the water is completely clear. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.

When ready to fry, drain thoroughly. I use a large dutch oven over the blowtorch burner on my stove. Over the years, I've used a few kinds of oil, but the most satisfying has been Spectrum palm shortening or just plain lard. Actually, the lard is the best. Hey, everyone agrees that McDonald's fries haven't been the same since they changed the oil, right? I heat the oil until a raw fry dropped in immediately bubbles to the surface. Then I add fries until just above the oil and leave to fry, stirring about half way through the fry cycle to loosen them. On my stove, it usually takes 15-20 minutes for a batch this size to sufficiently brown. I scoop them out with a basket strainer, drain, and dump them to cool on paper towels. Sweet potatoes will work for this as well, but need more supervision, since they can go from "done" to "burned" very quickly.

In the four years that we've been attending this homeschooling co-op, I've changed the weekly snacks that I make several times....this cookie, that cookie, coconut covered date rolls, apples, fruit leather, what have you. But fries have remained the rock solid, consistent favorite. To even hint at dropping them would incite a mutiny. A recent family crisis centered around scrambling for a new source of lard when our usual source dried up. These fries stay crisp and don't turn limp when cool, making them a terrific portable food. There are everything free foods that I make that I don't expect anyone outside of our family to like, but these fries are something that I can be totally unapologetic for.

I'll always remember that week-long day camp last year. Dog was sitting there and eating his fries that I'd packed for snack time, surrounded by the other kids who were snacking on the camp-provided pretzels and corn syrup juice. One unknown lad looked at his own pretzels and then over at Dog's fries. Truculently, he demanded, "How'd you get fries?" Glancing sidelong at him and without pausing, Dog smoothly replied, "Because I'm lucky."


Anonymous said...

I am a faithful reader of your blog and enjoy it immensely. What a blessing that you have "your village" in play at this stage of the lives of your children.


purple_kangaroo said...

Your village sounds lovely.

I'd sure like to find some safe lard here, that I wouldn't have to render myself. :)

Loztnausten said...

Weeellll....I'm going to have to render the stuff I've found, which is going to be an episode of Cooking Dangerously, I can tell. There'll probably be a book report in there somewhere. ;)

Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

acrylamide...the starch in potatoes?

...found in food that had been heated (fried or baked). Not found in food that were not heated, or foods that had been boiled.

Potatoes being bred to produce less or no acrylamide. (another GMO by Monsatan?)

Created by many things, including cigarette smoke and microwave ovens. Not to mention coffee and browning foods in minor levels.

Oh, the things you uncover!