Saturday, April 25, 2009

Breakfast Sausage Party!

I love sausage a lot more than it deserves to be loved. In a purely gustatory way, mind you, not that there's anything wrong with that. Just thinking about its steaming meaty stiffness, the burst of juices in my mouth, the fatty drizzle as I prick it with my fork... well, never mind. With the better stuff, you can at least pretend it's made from identifiable cuts of meat, but as far as I'm concerned, a nice succulent and spicy Italian pork sausage with plenty of mystery gristle is where it's at. (My good wife sensibly disagrees, although the homogenized turkey product she insists we buy instead is hardly a substitute. If I'm planning on a Saturday meal when she's working, then sometimes I'll go out of my way to get my greasy hands on the store-made snouts-and-tails special.)

On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, they know how to breakfast, I'll give them that. A land that laughs in the face of heartburn. When I travel, I try to be sure to pick up biscuits and gravy if I get a chance, although like a number of staples, I've got my own thing going by this point, and tend to be slightly disappointed on the outside. Mine's a healthy beige, instead of paste-white, and gets a little more flavor going than pepper and Jimmy Dean.

Also, there's little excuse not to make your own baking powder biscuits. It's a hell of a lot easier than making real bread, and it's well worth avoiding that tangy evil that comes in a prepared package. (And there is just no logical excuse for the existence of BisquickTM, for that matter: inferior result for the exact same amount of work.) Which isn't to say that there's not still a touch. My wife's biscuits are consistently more attractive than mine, but I can, uh, wield the sausage in an well-practiced but imprecise way that she simply can't match. It makes every biscuits-and-gravy morning like the Gift of the Magi.

A lot of times we'll do this when there are either leftover biscuits or leftover sausage. If you use fresh sausage (I like "breakfast" or Italian, but no doubt you can experiment here), then use the oil evolved from the sausage for the recipe, and go easy on any extra herbs (except the thyme). I'm going to assume that you're using leftovers, or forced, like me, to make turkey taste like something. When I make this basic bechemel sort of sauce, I don't worry about how much oil (it's the flour/water ratio that gets your thickness, and the oil is just to disperse the flour first--a little extra won't kill it), stir the flour in it, and then add liquid until I get to the consistency I want. That way is easier than measuring. (Baking, you do have to measure.)

The recipe for the sausage gravy came originally from a Sheila Lukins cookbook, and the biscuits came from Mom, but of course I've fucked with them both. Buttermilk has a nice flavor in this, and it's great with baking powder breads--a little extra acid to get that nice bit of, um, fluffing everybody likes.

The gravy might get a little skin, but if you don't have a wife, make that first. The biscuits are too good hot out of the oven.

Sausage Gravy
- 1/2 to 1 pound (I am pretty sure I normally go on the low end) of turkey sausage or leftover sausage
(Or you know, use the good shit, and skip the next few ingredients, up till the flour. I try to add my spices to compensate for lesser links.)
- three or four tablespoons of fat (Often I'll use butter, olive oil, and chicken fat skimmed off the frozen stock, in roughly equal parts. But it's all good.)
- about a teaspoon of ground coriander
- about half a teaspoon of fennel seeds (if you like them)
- about a teaspoon of fresh black pepper
- about a quarter teaspoon of ground red pepper
- half an onion
- 1-2 cloves of garlic
- 3 tablespoons flour (or so...I use a little less than the quarter cup that sits in the flour bin)
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup of chicken broth (if you must use a can, add the whole friggin can, and then hardly any milk)
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup of milk or cream (basically, you add it until you have the texture you want when it's hot)
1-2 tsp fresh thyme

Cook the sausage and onions together in a pan, adding as much fat as you need. (If you use fresh good sausage, rinse the pan with water and cook them slowly. You probably won't add any fat.) You should have maybe 3-4 tablespoons of fat when they're done. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the spices.

Add the flour, and stir it until dissolved (and pasty). Turn up the heat and quickly stir in the stock until the liquid is thick and homogeneous, add the thyme. Mix in the milk until you get the consistency you want when it's hot and bubbly. Turn the heat to low, and wait for the biscuits.

Baking Powder Biscuits
- 2 c. flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tablespoons cold butter
- 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
- 1 c. buttermilk.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Sift all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Add the shortening and butter, and cut it in. (In the past, I've advocated doing this with your hands, but my wife uses a pastry cutter, and her version comes out better. So do that. When she's done, it's pretty well cut in, it appears about as granular as road sand (an analogy no good southerner would make, by the way).)

Add the buttermilk, and mix as little as it takes to just blend it. Drop the sticky dough onto a well floured surface (MGW uses waxed paper here, easier to remove and clean up), and press to about 3/4 to 1 inch thick (this is critical! Too thin here, and you get dusty hockey pucks). Cut circles with a cookie cutter or a floured, upside-down glass. (Mom says don't twist. I've never figured out if this is bullshit or not.)

Bake 12-15 minutes. They should be just golden brown. When you open the biscuits, they ought to flakily split down the center (making two skinny pucks), and steam awesomely. Split them, and spread the gravy over the tops. Don't forget to visit your heart surgeon in thirty years.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Urban Gardening Project

There are at least three things that grow exceedingly poorly on my quarter acre: grass, roses and vegetables. And for perspective, it's been long enough now that the grass has finally almost filled in the old vegetable garden, or at least filled in according to that piebald way that passes for a lawn here. The section is still tastefully cornered by a bed of perennials and bordered by a row of sickly roses, which are gradually and mercifully getting subsumed by plants that actually thrive in our sandy verminous soil. We're slowly learning which plants do and don't, see, and surrounding the sorry things, gradually figuring out when to plant grass, and where to just give it up to landscaping, and god help me, I've mentioned it all before. Suffice to say that it looks nice in the spring.

The lofty goal of all my landscaping effort is to achieve a state of minimal maintenance, perfected for independent natural(ized) and vegetable beauty. If the grass don't grow, try a perennial, or a gravel walk. The devotion to chemical lawn care is one of the more horrifying suburban sins I can think of, and paradoxically, I'm willing to expend a good deal of backbreaking labor to get to that point where it all just glides along without my guidance, hand-weeding invasive species so that the (allegedly) locally appropriate population of grass blend can have a shot, and not fretting when it turns naturally arid in the summer. I've put together a list of ground rules for yard projects:

1. use space well (grow stuff only where it grows)
2. be beautiful (and obscure the neighbors)
3. utility is a bonus
4. cost approaching zero (sustainability, baby)
5. maintenance approaching zero
6. there's no goddamn rush (except when there is)

The old vegetable garden failed in the beauty, use of space, and maintenance deparatments--actually it failed in utility too--but I've always felt guilty about abandoning it, especially as I hunger to stuff my craw with garden-fresh goodies every spring. Last year, my mother gave us a cherry tomato seedling, and we just potted it and let it grow up along one of the filigreed black columns that almost hold up the carport. And bingo: it's the same wholesome experience but now interpreted in an urban-compatible way. The mere act of using a pot managed to nail criteria one through five. No more impoverished plants and bales of weeds; just a tasteful salad-enhancing accent to an already pointlessly trellissed corner of the house, watered and harvested occasionally, and otherwise happily ignored. The small herb garden is another floral success. Tastefully surrounded by perennial flowers, the chives, mint and oregano come back every year, and I can plant the other stuff in the spring, and otherwise forget about it except when needed or when I care to enjoy the view and the aroma. Urban gardening just fits the location better than keeping our own private Dust Bowl going.

This year, I'm expanding the project. I've got some more wrought iron corners to support a few more pots of tomatoes, and I've got the idea to plant a halo of shallots (a nuisance to shp for in the benighted 'burbs) to fill in the lower reaches of the plants, and to get more produce out of the same tastefully occupied space. Similarly, I came across the idea for "vertical potatoes" somewhere, where you stack up old tires and add dirt around the plant as it grows over the summer. The tubers grow in each new layer of dirt, yielding, the advertisement goes, a substantial poundage of taters per plant compared to the space-intensive horizontal yard plot. Old tires aren't very pleasing to the eye, of course, and I made up some modular, stackable planters to house the spuds as they grow, and cleverly located them near the tomatoes' nook (it's the second-choice location, but my wife convinced me to try the experiment in better sun first), and painted them to match the house. If it works, then I'll spread out a few more next year.

It's the optimization game that really motivates me here, an ongoing engineering project that is somehow a lot more gratifying than anything I ever attempt at my actual job. I have this fantasy that I'll be mentally prepared to endure the dystopic future when the big machines all sieze up as a statement of God's wrath, and I'm thankful to supplement my diet of overlord-surplus soy gruel to whatever extent I can. Okay, that's exagerrating (and yet it's a disturbing running theme), it's really more the geeky thrill of living an efficient life.

The no-cost criterion is an important one, and usually overlooked for us modest suburbanites. What's worse than spending two hundred bucks on an ugly gardening project that yields a three dollars worth of nasty wizened produce? The potato planters rose from hoarded bits of surplus lumber (that experienced carpenters sanely refer to as "shit"), free and scroungeable from one of the zillion condo construction projects still mysteriously underway. And to be clear, I'm talking utilization here: any urge to store potentially useful crap is counteracted by an extreme resentment of undesired crap taking up my precious living space. No pack rat, me, and the odds and ends are stored in perpetual purgatory. Eliminating clutter, but shunting its imminent ride to hell, is another motivation for actually doing these things. I can't stand to see it sitting there, and I hate to waste it.

This year's vertical potatoes may meet some of my guidelines, but they're doomed from a financial standpoint, because I had to buy twelve bucks worth of dirt in which to plant my dollar's worth of seed potatoes, and it's hard to imagine recouping that cost. An aggravating development to be sure--buying dirt--but it has inspired my most brilliant outdoor project yet. Yup, the new compost bin is cleverly situated behind the woodpile (tree work and an ice storm--it feeds my fire pit) on a lifeless piece of forest floor behind the shed, where only the hated neighbors can really witness it's undesirable nature. It consumed the huge leftover beams from the shed, and I'm gradually tacking the sides up with suitable-only-for-burning (but free!) pallet lumber. It diverts a fraction of my natural waste stream toward consumption, making my household notionally more sustainable, and it makes the lousy microfauna work for me, dammit, rotting something useful instead of my precious roots, to ultimately turn my garbage into dirt I can finally grow vegetables in. I'm a genius!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is such a fundamental piece of Gothic horror (or Romantic literature, depending on your preferred classification here), reinterpreted and refaced in so many awful ways, that getting back to the source is much like knocking off generations of spackle and dirt to get a look at the original design with new eyes. Well, sort of new: I've held on to one passage of Mary Shelley's novel with suffient clarity to imagine it as one of my personally influential literary tidbits, a fact that is made odd by the mental blank I had for the rest of the story. None of the other plot and theme came back to me on a reread, and I must conclude that those five paragraphs where the creature identifies the lovely moon from a storm of unformed sensation is all that I had ever read. (I've also never caught more than a five-minute segment of any Frankenstein movie not made by Mel Brooks. So it all works out.)

As a whole, the novel suffers mildly from the literary sins of the period: it rambles, in terms of pacing, language and location; it's dripping with overwrought emotion of every flavor; and every character is a naturally gifted windbag with a rich command of adjectives and sentence structure, and is possessed of an uncanny skill to accurately recreate someone else's lengthy spoken reminiscences. The characters need this ability, because the novel actually employs multiple framing devices, nested within one another. The whole text is formally contained in an explorer's (Robert Walton's) letters to his sister during a failing arctic expedition. He finds Victor Frankenstein dying on an ice floe, and the record of the scientist's story of hubris and attendant consequences includes the creature's story, reported at length when he meets his creator. It's awkward, and it distracted from the book's more compelling parts.

The scientist, as we all know, fabricates a creature* but then abandons it in an epiphany of horror. Terrible events follow, perhaps invetably so, thanks to the character of man and, well, man. Shelley is subverting some of the conventions of her times here. Frankenstein is meant to evoke pathos. He's painted with such effort as sincere and empathetic (with one big exception), but he is also intentionally something less than noble. His neglected responsibility is not forgiven, and his family is ruined at the hands of it. He's the Prometheus of the subtitle after all, who has damned both himself and his creation by the act of granting knowldedge. His fervor, illness, and later misery are not symptoms of madness, as a hundred shitty knockoffs would have you believe, but workoholism toward a noble goal, that leads to personal tragedy. The introduction** made a reasonable case that this is an early feminist critique of the male-dominated field of science. Obsession is not the fatal flaw in the Greek sense, it's more like a gender problem. It doesn't undo the men (Walton is also on a consuming quest, and so is the creature), it infects their character at all levels. It's unfortunate for readers that Victor is given such an operatic streak, where even his happy emotions are expressed in the superlative. The book succeeds easily in evoking the sense of Frankenstein's self-involvement, but it took a lot of murders to register any empathy for the guy--I had no idea why all of the wonderful people he described ever thought to love him.

[Frankenstein is usually considered the first science fiction novel. Morality plays aren't foreign to the genre, and like her heirs, Shelley gets at her metaphysics by way of physics (or near-physics), taking the conceit that would eventually become the hallmark of nerd fiction: not "merely weaving supernatural tales," but relying on science that "affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions moer comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield."*** Well, and good, but it makes the above reading kind of an amusing chore for SF geeks. A science fiction novel that played to the usual modern sensibilties would have celebrated the devotion to craft a little, wouldn't have neglected the cool details about the project that kept the man going. Shelley hid the half-built creature on the table without description (it was evidently built bottom-up, and something much more interesting than stitched-together body parts), and begged off on describing the reanimation process (no wonder filmmakers would get googly with the lightning bolts). Frankenstein is perhaps better appreciated for the small handful of modern Promethei that eventually followed in the doctor's footsteps, but I don't see the scientist who turns his back on his success as the norm, really. In Frankenstein's case, creating life doesn't necessarily pass my test of soul-crushing horror--it's certainly not enough that he's ugly--and I don't understand the doctor's lack of empathy for the sad being on the table.]

It also took a depressing quantity of murder to make the creature fiendish. From the beginning, he is the most engaging member of the cast, forced to develop his consciousness and his morality unguided. Learning the art of being human from Milton and from surreptitious observation, hungering in obscurity for the familial acceptance that his appearance forbids him. His behavioral development may be called simple--he is motivated from hunger, loneliness, and anger--but his intellectual character is clearly more multifaceted than Victor's, and at least as capable. He's more honestly contemplative of his own nature, and his simpler desires are the more poignant because of it, and more sincerely lamented. His confrontation with the cottagers is the best scene in the book, as the creature lays his hopes of human kindness on a confrontation.

In his lesson from Paradise Lost, it is strange that the creature should reject comparing himself to Adam and put himself in the role of the envious Satan instead. Lucifer occupies a similar mythological space as Prometheus, which is to say, damned for effort. Adam, the being reasons, has the comfort of knowing his place in creation, of acknowledging a benevolent creator. And he's got it exactly wrong. The creature is unique in knowing where he came from (even if it's not fulfilling to know), and it's we poor bastards in Adam's role that must suffer along without a place in the universe, struggling with the ideas of inscrutable mythical beings. Frankenstein fits Prometheus well enough as a flawed shaper of clay, but bringing Paradise Lost into it, it starts to spell out the same implication or the big good Daddy Himself. In truth, both the man and the creature take on multiple matching roles of nobility, genius, and unfortunate capability. She does link their creative monomania, for example. "A frightful selfishness hurried me on," the creature exclaims over the body of dead Frankenstein, "while my heart was poisoned with remorse." It is interchangeable with his maker's lament about his project. There's one part Adam in there, torn up by the misery of his existence, and one part Satan, who acts on it. It's hard to be (hu)man.

* Really the right word here. He is not a monster, but he has been created. We might call him artificial, for similar etymological reasons.
** Walter James Miller, in the "Signet Classics" paperback edition.
*** from the preface.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Defense Budget

So there are new funding and procurement priorities for the DoD budget. They'll almost certainly affect the nature of funding for whatever exactly it is I do. A push toward more practical soldier-level defenses will probably favor the more dinky, nimble research outfits a tiny bit more, even while it rewards less basic research, which basically continues the trend toward ever more applied R&D that Defense has been going on for as long as I've been working.

But by the same token, I don't share the enthusiasm about seeing some of the big boondoggles go. I support budget innovations for taking care of wounded soldiers, addressing family concerns, and improving safety of the people on the ground, but it's hard to deny that they'd be even safer if they weren't fighting. The budget priorities reinforce a national commitment to soldiering, to warfighting as the parlance goes, and removes some of the comforting notions we like to tell ourselves about this big cash monster that is our defense budget. One of the appealing things about the technological military, much like the volunteer military, is that it diverts our attention from the things militaries actually do. I don't mean that just in terms of sanitizing the idea that people are getting killed out there when all you see are clean people in cold white rooms, but heavy investment into developing something that isn't likely to be used in war also keeps up the idea of a (relatively) benign standing army that is reserved for only potential threats, where we just dump that money into big piles of planned obsolescence without killing too many people in the meantime. God knows it keeps communities afloat, but defense contracting is a welfare program for eggheads too, where the big primes can soak up the excess semiconductor guys, and optics guys, and materials guys, and mechanical guys, and give them jobs and a place to use their skills. For the little league, the DoD and related entities are also supportive of anything that can be sold independently of Defense, which is a good thing. It may be wasteful, but in some ways I'd rather keep geeks working out advanced technical gizmos than releasing mindless leagues of shovel crews to the highways.

And this budget, if it's indeed repurposed toward warfighting (which is going to be hard to get past the representatives of boondoggle-rich districts) takes that fantasy away just a little bit more. You sort of wish the public sector would procure solar energy or something instead.