Wiser

I come from a place in California that has been criticized for having no history.

It’s as if the story began there with the houses, the suburbs, the sprawl. I grew up in the last district of the San Fernando Valley to suburbanize. Porter Ranch sits on the very edge of what, for many Los Angelinos, passes for the wild. New settlements are still being built, gauche gated communities of potted palms and Spanish tile roofs, rows and rows of the same house lining up like so many school children.

Soulless is, I believe, the word. But it never felt that way. I remember how it seemed to me to drive those streets, the orange buzz of the sodium lamps, the quiet breathing of the asphalt, the humming of dreams, even. The streetlights would blink out as I passed, like the world ran on some secret magic only I had access to.

I recently went back for the first time in almost a year. I stayed for a day, not quite long enough to form a detailed impression, not nearly long enough to want to leave. But it was time enough to remind me of something buried: When I lived there I believed that, at any moment, something extraordinary might happen. Now that feeling, that belief, is mostly lost.

I don’t mean to go all dark on you, reader, after more than a month of silence. But there’s something to it, I think – this slow loss of the imaginary space we give to unlikely dreams. If I were older I might say that such dreams are meant only for the very young and the very rich. If I were younger, I’d say something wiser.

Then again, when I was younger I believed that there would be a road somewhere in South Dakota or maybe Montana, and that we’d lie there in the bed of a truck, and that there would be stars. I believed in a remote cabin in New Mexico, and in you in your thin tee shirt and me in my boots and a roaring motorcycle. But then a curtain was drawn over it all. You know the story. The least-cherished visions fade first, and it goes on from there.

Then, one day, for whatever reason, the details come to you. The moon will be shimmying down the lake on a warmish night or you will smell the earthy rot of wet cement or unfold an old letter or taste something and all at once remember. The world has magic in it, possibilities. You don’t want to close your eyes. Something extraordinary might happen.

Butternut Squash Risotto with Pancetta

Ingredients:
- 1 small butternut squash
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1/4 lb pancetta, cubed
- 1 cup arborio rice
- 4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 3 tbsp butter
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut butternut squash in half lengthwise and roast, face-up, for 20-25 minutes, until tender. (I find that dry-roasting the squash gives a deeper, sweeter flavor.) Remove from oven and scoop out seeds. Scoop out the remaining flesh and mash with a fork (or puree) until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

In a large sauce pot, bring chicken stock to a simmer. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the onions with oil until transluscent and a little brown. Add the arborio rice and the white wine. Cook until the white wine is absorbed, then add two ladles of chicken stock and 3/4 cup of the butternut squash puree (you can reserve the rest for a future use) and simmer, stirring constantly, until the stock is absorbed.

Continue adding the stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring until the stock is absorbed into the rice before adding more. This process should take 25 to 30 minutes.

In a small sauce pan, fry cubed pancetta with a touch of olive oil over medium-low heat. When the fat has rendered and the pancetta is crispy, remove to a paper towel and set aside.

After about 30 minutes of cooking, when the risotto has a silky appearance and is tender but still firm, add butter and most of the Parmesan cheese. Simmer three more minutes, adding another ladle of stock if necessary, and serve, topped with crispy pancetta, Parmesan cheese and fresh-ground black pepper.

A note from my neighbor, quoting, I think, Jacques Pepin: “Risotto should always swim.”

It’s true.

**California sunset photo by John Mears.

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6 responses to “Wiser

  1. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer wrote about language as a symbolic system, but he rooted it in religious attitudes, what he calls ‘mythical thinking’: “When … the entire self is given up to a single impression, is ‘possessed’ by it .. then the spark jumps somehow across [the distance between the subject and the outer world] as the subjective excitement becomes objectified, and confronts the mind as a god or a daemon.”

    After the ‘momentary god’ that springs symbol – and thus language – society and civilization force this subjective intensity into an “ever-progressive objectification” that turns this mythical feeling into an object, into a system, into function and logic and all those things that divorce the mind from the world through ordering both.

    “The world has magic,” you say – such a distinctly unprogressive claim. “Something extraordinary might happen,” but how can it in an ordered Science? And so, it seems like you’ve done Cassirer one better. You’ve found through language and experience a route back to the singular impressions, the mystical, and the being-possessed.

    It seems to me like food is simply the perfect analog for this. Thank you for the post.

  2. Simple, honest, and true. I remember the days.

  3. “When I lived there I believed that, at any moment, something extraordinary might happen. Now that feeling, that belief, is mostly lost.”

    I had a feeling very similar to that you describe in my own suburb in Pennsylvania. Once in a while it still graces me, though I believe I am (considerably?) older than you, having a child now in that magic zone. I do think you have touched on a major reason why many of us write — to keep that feeling alive, to share it.

  4. This post is quiet, beautiful, sad. Thank you for it.

  5. The tone and imagery in this post remind me of The Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Is it worth it to channel the muted memories of wide-eyed youth? Is the loss of “imaginary space we give to unlikely dreams” an inevitable consequence of becoming “adult”? When, for whatever reason, the details come to you… the answers are clear. Then you open your eyes and nothing extraordinary has happened. Relishing in the possibility is more important than whether or not it has.

    Before you got all dark on us, I couldn’t help but hear the theme song from the show “Weeds” (“Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds) when reading that first paragraph.

    And of course the risotto looks amazing.

  6. SR – You’re eerily prescient. The essay from which a lot of this language was pulled is called “Little Boxes,” after the song. Unpublished. Thanks for the words.

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