Violets, Boxes, and Stars

violets
By Jessy Rone/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

The sight of demure violets and shaggy dandelions against the deep green of recently mowed grass has always delighted you. Normally you don’t like the combination of yellow and purple or yellow and green, because you hate team sports and those eye-searing pairings are often team colors, spotted on high school basketball jerseys or the itchy polyester cling of cheerleading uniforms. But in the context of spring, you love it, those three colors coming together for a few short weeks, radiant under the still-shocking intensity of midday sunlight. It calls to mind a suburban idyll, those violets and dandelions asserting themselves against an herbicide-drenched carpet of lawn.

But it is night now and you are looking at your phone, even though you’ve vowed to spend less time looking at your phone, and one of the feeds of text on it alerts you that a cookbook writer you admire just made violet syrup. It excites you, the very sound of it. Violet syrup. You imagine the violet syrup in a dainty pressed-glass jar, illuminated like an isolated shard of sacred stained glass in the path of an afternoon sunbeam, high on the shelf of a shabby-chic hutch. It calls to mind tea parties and Anne of Green Gables, harkening back to an age before phones that offer tiny visual enticements of violet syrup in the first place.

In your house there are all sorts of things to do, things that get pushed aside because of your job, which is to arrange little black symbols in lines against glowing white screen. It is called editing. The things you edit are lists about food, and you correct the mistakes in these lists because you’ve had enough jobs cooking food to spot misinformation quickly. You know what food does, even though your editing job consumes enough of your time that you now resort to serving boxes of bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese for dinner more often than you are comfortable with.

You do this editing from home, because that’s where the screen is, and your daughter often sees you scowling intently at it, and the magnetic power it holds over you infuriates her. You try very hard to limit her own exposure to glowing screens, both large and small, and yet there you are all day, tapping away at buttons as she implores you to draw with her or listen to her rambling preschooler stories. You want to give yourself fully to those stories, but the lingering demands of unresolved symbol-arranging pulls you away. Her job is to go to daycare, where she can play with other kids her age and build up her social skills so you can be at peace with your screen and your keys.

Sometimes you need a break from editing, so you switch to a different screen for a bit and click on little boxes and stars under photos of babies and dogs. You didn’t click on the star under the violet syrup on your phone. Is this worth a star? What does one do with violet syrup?

You try to shove the violet syrup to the back of your brain, but the violets do not give up on you. They appear all over, suddenly, in low-lying mobs: in the green strip of medians, along the path in the woods where you walk the dog. They grow in clusters, making pinpricks of color at the base of stop signs and between the cracks in the sidewalk. They soothe and disrupt you, because they are just another thing that you won’t get to. If you don’t pick the violets and make them into syrup, you’ll forget about how the purple and the green of violets make you feel.

You go with your daughter to a park without your phone so you can be somewhere and not really think about stars and boxes, and she runs off and then returns, bearing a fistful of white violets collected indelicately in her small hands. “For you, Mama,” she says. White violets? Was that one of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes?

The white violets do it. After a whole week confronting their quiet menace, you surrender. It’s Friday and you have deadlines. You are alone at home, busy editing inside and it’s glorious outside and you evict yourself from your dining room-cum-office. You close up the screen and grab a mixing bowl and go to your front yard, which, despite its minimal lawn, is infested with violets. You squat down, and you pick.

And you pick. One violet, two violets, three violets. You need a murder of violets build up in the bowl. You think of saffron, collected from the stamens of tiny crocuses, and consider how ill-suited you would be for the life of a saffron harvester, since after five minutes you are ready to quit this violet-picking business. You cannot give up. You do not give up.

The violet syrup recipe on your phone says to gather three handfuls of violets. You succeed, and you take a close-up picture of the bowl of violets with your phone, and you think about sharing this picture so other people—friends, kind-of friends, vaporous friends—can click on a box or star to agree with you about how great your life is, this life of carefree front-yard foraging. But you look at the real violets and then the violets on your phone, and you notice that they look nothing alike. Your phone violets are blue-ish and stiff and cool, and your real violets are a vibrant violet-purple, and the shiny metal bowl is warm from sitting on your lap. You delete the photo.

You retreat inside, to the kitchen, to separate the tender petals from their green bases that hold them together (a part of their anatomy called, adorably, the pip). So many small flowers, so many pips to maneuver around. Hundreds. Steeping the pips with the petals would make the resulting syrup bitter and to skip it would be to negate the already frivolous work you’ve invested so far. This is exactly the sort of thing you’d love to recruit your daughter for, but pulling petals away from pips requires more finesse than her unruly five-year-old fingers can muster. And so you do it by yourself, outsourcing the supervision of your daughter so you can blow off work and pluck itty-bitty flowers apart for making an essentially useless condiment.

It occurs to you that you should probably taste a violet before you go through with this. For all of the wildflower’s loveliness, its fragrance and flavor is that of the most bland lettuce ever, and you don’t imagine exposure to heat doing it any favors, but by now you’ve decided that making violet syrup will fill some hole in your life that needs to be filled. Even if you are just filling it with lettuce-flavored simple syrup.

Building up a critical mass of violet petals feels Sisyphean, absurd, impossible. Many times in your life, you have repeated insignificant tasks. You pumped the handle of the hopper and squirted a blob of Bavarian cream inside the donut. You stripped away the stranger’s slept-on sheets and unfurled a fresh sheet for a new stranger to sleep on. You took the rectangle of plastic from the customer, slid it through the reader, and made small talk as they paid for their pig-shaped corncob holders or glittery pink silicone spatula.

Do you receive our catalog?

Would you like a bag for this?

Enjoy your day!

You took the rectangle of plastic from someone else and slid it through the reader, and then another rectangle from another person, and then another.

A good place to eat around here? What do you like?

That meat grinder’s aluminum, so I don’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher.

Caribbean is my favorite Le Creuset color, too.

Your favorite Le Creuset color is actually Flame. The violets are tedious, still. Twenty minutes in, you have a pint of pip-free petals, not nearly the quart you need for the syrup. Screw it. You instead opt to make violet sugar, which requires only one handful of petals and one cup of granulated sugar.

It’s the big dirty secret of foraging that, with enough refined sugar, all things are possible. Only a few centuries ago, it was an expensive luxury. Crews of African slaves labored around the clock on Caribbean plantations to placate white people’s hunger for the laser-like precision of white sugar sweetness. On those islands that inspired a Le Creuset marketing expert to name a soothing shade of turquoise blue after their waters, there was a constant need for boatloads of new slaves, because they died before they got around to having children. Some fell into the boiling vats of cane juice, and some bled to death after getting their limbs caught in the rollers that pressed the cane, but most were simply worked to the point where they collapsed and never got up again.

Sugar is commonplace now, unavoidable. It infiltrates the snacks your daughter eats at daycare, the Nutri-Grain Bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. Now, the ability to afford eschewing sugar is a sign of membership in the upper class. Your white sugar, though, will not be white. After this, it will be violet.

A few blitzes in the food processor and that’s it. It tastes like regular sugar and looks like wet purple sand. To give it a boost, you add a grating of Meyer lemon zest, but it’s still not punchy enough.

You look at the windowsill over your kitchen sink and spy a vanilla bean pod. Of course you always air-dry the hulls of scraped-out beans after the majority of their flavor has been sucked into custards and compotes. They cost about a hundred dollars a pound and are actually the cured seed pods of a specific orchid, one that’s pollinated by hand a hemisphere away. The producers of these seed pods sometimes use a needle to prick a unique brand on them, just as a cattle rancher would, so the beans can be traced back should a vanilla seed pod rustler come to plunder the crop. Sometimes, before eviscerating them with a paring knife, you examine vanilla beans and you spy the tattoos, looking like leathery runes from another age, and you imagine having to prick thousands of still-green seed pods on orchid vines.

You realize you now have a small stockpile of dried vanilla bean hulls, and you grind them to several tablespoons of fine brown dust in your spice grinder, and you add a fat pinch of this dust to your violet sugar, and it does the trick. They’re kindred spirits, these two esoteric floral essences.

You retrieve your child from daycare, and you both return home to a big bowl of intact violet blossoms, ones that were not massacred into sugar, and you give this bowl to your daughter and send her to the yard and say, “Do you want to play with these?” She sprinkles the violets on the sidewalk and scatters decapitated dandelions and mangled clumps of grass among them, announcing, “I made a store!” and you approve.

The violet sugar is in a jar on the counter. It is subdued in color and soothing to look at, nothing at all like the cartoonish hues of purchased decorating sugar that you sprinkle on cutout cookies, and you just leave it there, even though you have no immediate plans to bake anything. Maybe you will divide it among smaller jars and give it to a few of your friends, the ones who appreciate things like the glancing presence of violets. The violet sugar means you are not entirely a useless and shallow person. You think about it and think about it and then sit and tap on keys and sort those feelings out, and then there it is, Violets, Boxes, and Stars, a few teasing lines on the screen of a phone, and you tap on them, and see this.

•••

SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Ohio.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

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Smelted

tomatosfin
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.etsy.com/shop/ebethfuller

By Sara Bir

It was going to be a treat. I’d bought the fish at the discount grocer’s seafood counter, which usually offers semi-thawed Thai shrimp or filets of tilapia brightly flecked with some snazzy marinade that steadily works on its flesh until, when you get home, the fish cooks up pasty and mealy. But the smelt was wild-caught and, at $2.49 a pound, a steal. They looked so recognizably marine and vital in their plastic pan of chipped ice, the largest of them no more then eight inches from silvery snout to tail. As a part-time vegetarian plotting a quick relapse, I wanted the satisfaction of eating an identifiable animal.

The plan was to pan-fry the smelt and serve them with mashed potatoes and spinach salad, what one of my chef friends calls a three-point landing: protein, starch, and vegetable in their assumed sections on the plate, the protein filling three o’clock to nine o’clock (protein always gets plated closest to the diner) and the starch and veg claiming the remaining two quadrants.

Ever since I stopped eating and cooking meat, the three-point landing had all but vanished from our dinner table. I missed making pan sauces with the fond clinging to the bottom of my favorite skillet after properly sautéing a cutlet. I missed the hiss of chicken stock and vermouth hitting a searing metal pan. I missed artfully arranging components on a plate just so, letting the rusty bones of my expensive culinary school training perform some deeply ingrained but long dormant acrobatics. I liked knowing that I could still pull off classy restaurant-caliber food at home. We never go out to eat, often because I’m disappointed with the food at the upper-mid-range places in town everyone fawns over; we carefully select the locations of the once-a-year splurges and then I realize my $23 trout is served with only three spindly spears of asparagus and a blood orange buerre blanc that’s underseasoned. Better to stick to take-out veggie burritos or cheese pizzas once a month; we know what we’re getting, and no sitter required.

The smelt was an opportunity to please Joe with both my talent and my thrift. How fun it would be to sit with a bottle of $5 rose and lift the spiny string of intact bones from our fish, to crunch through a tiny browned tip of a fin! We couldn’t go to the earthy, broadly smiling locals of some anachronistic European village and bask in their hospitality, eating lusty, rustic foods; we couldn’t go to cozy places in Portland that hoped to offer a simulacra of the same sunny Mediterranean thing right here under our own oppressively grey dome or our damp skies. But we could pull off the coup of having that meal in our own dump of a rental house as our toddler sighed the sighs of early evening sleep in her crib just two rooms away. No sitter, no corkage fee, no showy tattoos of pigs or chef’s knives on the tensed forearms of our posturing servers.

•••

I’d never cooked smelt before. They’d appealed to me at the store in part because of their immediacy, the hint that we could have caught them ourselves on some rejuvenating fishing outing. Joe doesn’t fish. Daniel, my boyfriend many years ago, once took me to his family’s cabin deep in a West Virginia holler where we fished for trout in a clear, frigid stream using canned yellow corn for bait. Our catch was modest but enough to reasonably feed two. We fried them up using the Country Crock margarine from the cabin’s dormitory-sized refrigerator, and Daniel deftly lifted the rear fin of the fish to release the filet on one side, then the other, the perfect chain of bared bones resembling the cartoon skeleton a cartoon cat would dig up from a trash can.

That trip, it must have been Daniel who cleaned the fish. The few times I’d bought farmed trout, their bodies came eviscerated, their guts missing. But, newly examining the smelt I’d so breezily brought home, I find they are not gutted. It’s a decent pile of little fish, a baker’s dozen. After clumsily slitting open a few with my chef’s knife, I open up their cavities and scoop out the slimy brown organs and mushroomy red gills with my finger, just as the Joy of Cooking I’d looked at earlier during Frances’s nap advised me to. It’s tiny, stinky work.

The smelt give off the perfume of algae and barnacles clinging to the filthy blue foam float under a bobbing wooden dock, a smell of simultaneous life and decay. Yes, the disembodied segments of salmon filets I rarely allow into the house have fishy aromas, too, but they entail no liquid eyes or gritty digestive tracts to deal with.  The smelt are wet and cold, and my fingers act up, turning numb and yellow-white.

Mid-gutting, a naked and baby-fresh damp Frances pads to the kitchen, her hands clasped expectantly behind her back. These post-bath visits to the raging inferno of dinner prep are one of the few times she behaves demurely. “Mama, mama!” she calls, reaching out. With my fishy, frigid hands immobilized, I still can’t help but scoop her up using the crooks of my elbows. I kiss her and point her back to her father, who reads books to her in a marathon bedtime session peppered with explosions of shrieks and gigging.

I read to calm her; Joe reads to delight her. I like to time the cooking so that dinner hits the table just as Joe creeps out of her bedroom, but usually I get to the end of my prep and sense that he won’t emerge anytime soon. I’ll tap on the door and say, “Ten minutes and we’re eating.” Sometimes he won’t come out for another twenty; he lingers in there searching for some kind of elusive peace, hoping Frances will fall asleep in his arms and open a portal to her carefree non-adult world and invite him along to stay forever.

Even with the window cracked to the chilly March air and the feeble but noisy vent fan on, the cooked smelt assert their presence throughout the house. Joe makes his way from Frances’s room just as I remove the second batch of fish from the pan, and he scowls. “Whoa! It stinks in here.”

Yes, I agree, it does. It’s the exact duplicate of the cooked fish stench that haunted the stairwell of the sublet apartment where we stayed in Queens the summer of our doomed and ultimately aborted move to New York City. A Greek family lived on the second floor of the three-floor building, and the residue of the seafood they fried hung heavily in the humid city air. Joe constantly complained of that family, of the way the dubiously employed adult kids who still lived there constantly slammed the door. “So those are it? The smelt?” he says, looking skeptically at the tangle of heads and fins I just heaped on his plate. He says “smelt” the way you’d say “chum” or “chub.” He shirks, repulsed. “How are we going to eat those?”

“Like I’d told you, the meat falls right off the bone. You just lift the spine out like a chain. I can do it for you, if you like.”

“Uhhh…I don’t think I can eat this. It’s just…you know.”

The day before, when I’d bought the fish, I’d told him my plan, how we’d be eating these little fish like they do in trendy restaurants. He’d seemed into it then, unless he hadn’t been listening, or hadn’t understood. I guess I talk about cooking food a lot, using terms that don’t have any meaning for a person who doesn’t cook food. I guess it’s easy to tune me out. It’s certainly no effort for me to tune him out.

“These have faces. They look like fish.” He’s trying to excuse himself, to extricate his feelings from my hostility, but it’s only digging him in deeper. People who gladly eat dead animals but don’t like to be reminded that they are eating dead animals are not people I have much patience for.

“Okay, so don’t have the fish. You can have mashed potatoes and salad for dinner.” Mashed potatoes and salad is what a kid who’s not into what Mom made for dinner eats. I feel like I’m Joe’s mom a lot of the time.

“Mashed potatoes and salad?” he says. “That’s not very exciting.”

“So make yourself something else.” He does not. Joe eats a modest serving of unexciting salad and mashed potatoes, and by that point I’d be happier if he’d slapped together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead, because at least he’d be proactive about getting what he wants.

I find I no longer want my smelt, either, but I gamely eat a few ounces. The flesh does fall right off the bone. The caper sauce is excellent. I drink most of the rosé. Before we opened it, I had been thinking maybe we’d have sex later that night, but right then I wasn’t even interested in being in the same house with Joe.

•••

A few days later, I made smelt salad with a dab of the caper sauce and the leftover flakes of smelt—rich and fishy and still with some stray bits of crispy skin, fin, and needle-thin bone. I ate this at work atop long pieces of toasted rye and cornmeal bread I’d made myself, interspliced with nibbles of a kosher pickle I’d pickled myself. It was a splendid lunch, serendipitously Scandinavian. All it needed was some pickled beets. And while it’s no feat to make no-knead bread, or to make kosher pickles (that it’s all a matter of letting cucumbers and garlic cloves sit forgotten in salt water for a few days seems like an April Fool’s joke), I thought to myself, “I am awesome.” I wanted Joe to be saying this, and for the same reasons I was thinking it: that I made things that tasted good, that I figured out how to on my own, that I so shrewdly navigated our little family’s constantly ailing finances through cruel storms into civilized ports of comfort and even occasional refinement.

Daniel—Daniel of the trout and the remote Appalachian cabin—loved my food. It enthralled him, as did nearly everything about me. Only once was he less than thrilled, at a dry and chewy noodle kugel I’d baked using thick Amish egg noodles instead of the lighter supermarket kind, and even then he tactfully said he didn’t think this misguided Amish-Jewish fusion ranked among my culinary triumphs. I broke up with Daniel because I eventually found that I was not capable of being adored so much by one person. He spoke French and rebuilt motorcycles engines and split wood with an ax and won awards for his journalism. He thought everything I did was wonderful, and I left him.

Which I don’t regret. On paper the relationship was ideal, but in practice the responsibility of being idolized smothered me. Now I try to please the man I did marry by being who I am, and it backfires. Even when I set out with lovely intentions, I have to cook on my terms. To love me is to love my food. For him, I do not slice onions but dice them; the limp, stringiness of cooked onions reminds him of worms, the sight of which makes him retch. For him, I eschew spaghetti and fettuccini and linguini for the same reasons. For him, I buy Tofurkey sausages. There are far greater concessions.

When I was a teenager, you could have knocked me over with a feather if you told me I’d someday marry a skateboarder who plays drums and makes art, so elated would I have been. Skateboarding is the thing Joe slips away from the house for on Sundays, leaving me alone with Frances to cope with a pile of smelt and a cold, muddy playground calling her name. Then he goes to band practice. Then, after dinner, he washes the dishes and complains about how difficult it is to clean a sheet pan in our shallow sink, and about the amount of dishes there are to wash, even though I never reach for a utensil or pot without first thinking, “Do I need this? How can I go about this prep in such a way as to minimize cleanup?” because that is what working in professional kitchens and graduating from one of the top cooking schools in the country will pound into you. Then, after the kitchen is acceptably immaculate, Joe gets out his colored tape and works away at his art. The sight is so familiar by now that I don’t even notice him. He shows me a new piece and I can’t come up with convincing enthusiasm if I do like it; if I don’t like it, I just say “hmm” or “ahh,” then retire to the bedroom with a book.

Would that have happened with Daniel or someone else, that after more than ten years together he’d wander in from the garage, black grease under his short-clipped nails and an industrious evening of manly repairing and improving under his belt, and I’d grunt in indifference? Would the oily cling of cooking smelt put him in a grumpy mood once he set foot in a kitchen thrumming with the energy of a meal in unstoppable progress?

A week later, we still have some of the caper sauce. I cook two decent-sized artichokes in the pressure cooker to serve with it. It’s taken me years, but I finally figured out that artichokes taste best when you cook the hell out of them. I put them on a plate, one for me and one for him, and set an empty wooden salad bowl next to it for us to put the leaves in.

The artichokes are rich and meaty, more so as we work towards their gray-green hearts. Cleaning an artichoke is involved, about as much work as gutting a fish, though it’s not nearly as slimy or fishy. Eating an artichoke is work, though tasty and relaxing work. We obliterate our artichokes, dipping them in caper sauce and leaving behind only a thorny pile of spiny scraped-up leaves, and Joe gladly works his way toward his favorite part, the rich and tender area toward the center of the base and stem, and I realize you can’t count on everyone to be satisfied with making a meal of artichokes, or to think of such a thing as a special occasion, and I decide to let the smelt thing slide.

•••

SARA BIR is a writer, chef, and librarian who recently relocated from Portland, Oregon, to southeast Ohio. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a recipient of the Greenbrier Scholarship to the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers. You can read more of her writing at www.sarabir.com