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Posts by Joan Menefee

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.


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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The gamification of cooking

Earning points

By
February 17, 2014

At some point in the last four months, the gathering-cooking-writing balancing act went bust, and I was pretty much just gathering with an occasional spasm of cooking thrown in to make sure the oven stayed dirty. Writing was too hard.

Nonetheless, I kept a list of possible blog topics on the fridge (where else?). It most recently read “Thomas Jefferson’s cookbook? Cheese in Wisconsin. Armenian food. Quince experiments. Interview with a food scientist. Port wine and choc. mousse party. New food drier. Fruit shrubs and related cocktails. Lefse seminar with hardcore Norwegian-Americans.”

Continue reading The gamification of cooking »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

All bergamot considered

Flavor behavior

By
September 4, 2013

One place I have gotten hung up repeatedly when trying to write about food is flavor description. I have been fighting a pitched (yet polite) battle against people who insist that most worthy and meaningful things defy description: the “picture is worth a thousand words” school of thought.

It’s all easy to explain. A word person like me, a word-ist if you will, naturally bridles when people give up on language without straining their resources in a manner I consider appropriate. After all, such work sometimes results in an expansion of resources, or the dreaded big vocabulary.

Continue reading All bergamot considered »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Science-based cooking

The kitchen as laboratory

By
July 22, 2013

One of my favorite stories about Charles Darwin, which I discovered in Janet Browne’s excellent biography, Voyaging, concerns the collision of science and dinner.

Sorely desiring a rhea specimen in Patagonia one evening, Darwin looked down at his almost-empty plate and realized he had just finished eating one for dinner.

Of the discovery, he wrote, “The bird was cooked and eaten before my memory [of rhea sightings in the area] returned. Fortunately, the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers and a large part of the skin, had been preserved.”

Continue reading Science-based cooking »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Blue-skies cooking

The maple-syrup scorecard for 2013

By
June 4, 2013

Innovation, research, and scientific experimentation have been much on my mind lately. Accordingly, I have been seeing examples of these phenomena in unlikely places: In the woods. Around the campfire. And alongside the maple-syrup evaporator.

Early this spring, during a classroom discussion about “analysis” (not easy to teach, I tell you), a student asked me if I had heard of Six Sigma, a process-improvement technique that he had encountered in the military. Six Sigma was originally conceived to reduce product defects in manufactured goods. Think large-scale factories, dozens of moving parts, and teams of managers each responsible for a set of those many parts learning how to collaborate. Also not easy.

Continue reading Blue-skies cooking »

Can you cook a food you dislike?

Squeamishness aside

By
April 4, 2013

This seems like an appropriate time of year to share the fact that I grew up disliking eggs.

I was not born disliking eggs, mind you. I can recall tucking into soft-boiled eggs with an ardor and noisiness that would embarrass me now.

At some point, though, I revolted against the albumen, or what we call “whites,” and decided that the yolk (why don’t we call it “yellow”?) was guilty by association. It was no help to learn sometime in grade school that an egg was an animal that didn’t quite make it onto its legs, the albumen being the food meant to nourish the fetus or yolk.

Continue reading Can you cook a food you dislike? »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Cooking and connecting

Food happenings, real and imagined

By
February 28, 2013

For several years now, my friends have organized a bike race, The Saint Valentine’s Day Hustle, on the lake that forms the center of our town. Though I don’t race myself, over time I have learned that the Hustle is an icy, gorgeous romp.

Riders negotiate a series of cycling challenges in order to get their cards stamped. From one year to the next, riders don’t know if they’re going to get wieners thrown at them or have to tie a maraschino cherry stem with their tongues. At race’s end, they leave the lake with frozen sweat clinging to their eyelashes.

Continue reading Cooking and connecting »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The end of potluck?

Allergies, over-scheduling, and fear, oh my!

By
January 7, 2013

Where I live, the potluck is a robust food-entertainment option, but I have begun to wonder how long it will remain so. Having made teasing comments about potlucks in the past (for no good reason, mind you), I feel the ice thinning beneath me as I venture an opinion about this topic. But here goes.

Over the last decade, I have seen communal foodways shift because of allergies, intolerances, meat politics, and general health concerns. Discussions about this topic can get prickly in a hurry. I know, because I have been one of those opinionated asses who beats her chest about how little such issues motivate my eating.

Continue reading The end of potluck? »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Apple of my eye

The Delicious clan

By
November 20, 2012

As my husband was reading nursery catalogs in search of apples to plant come spring, he informed me that my favorite apple, the Spencer, is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the McIntosh.

I wrinkled my nose pettishly. For my craven hipster soul, this was like learning that Wilco is made up of members of REO Speedwagon and Lawrence Welk’s orchestra: nonsensical and offensive. Unright.

Yet there it was in the lineage notes: Golden Delicious and McIntosh.

My husband, ever quick to salve my wounds, offered that Golden Delicious was not actually related to Red Delicious.

Continue reading Apple of my eye »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Eating north

Or, the pickled pike in my fridge

By
November 2, 2012

Like a homesick numbskull, at times I focus obsessively on how the Upper Midwest differs from the region of my birth, the Pacific Northwest.

I was one of those kids from Portland, Oregon, who found the name of that university in Evanston, Illinois — Northwestern — puzzling. I rested serene and secure in the knowledge that there was only one Northwest, that it was mine, and that it touched the Pacific Ocean.

In North America, it seems, we live on a continent so big that our names cannot quite contain it.

Because differences are always easier to see than similarities, it has taken me a decade and a half to come to terms with what unites the Northwest with the Midwest. “Portlandia” and “Fargo” have more in common than they seem to want to know.

Continue reading Eating north »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Recipe etiquette

What we talk about when we talk about recipes

By
September 28, 2012

When I was in high school, etiquette was supposedly falling out of favor. In my social circle, people made fun of fussybutts who p’d and q’d all over the place. We drank tea out of chipped mugs, unconcerned with serving plans, saucers, or the properly extended pinky. Cotillion this, we taunted the old and nosy.

Many years later, still drinking tea out of chipped mugs but reading a little more Levi-Strauss, I learned that even if you don’t like the word “etiquette,” you probably still follow one. Etiquette transcends even the most doggedly rebellious adolescent’s desire to live free of hypocrisy and status-seeking; it slops into the saucer of everyday life and colors a wide range of social interactions.

Continue reading Recipe etiquette »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

What cooking really means

Intuitive leaps

By
August 24, 2012

When I was 14, 15, and 16, my mom routinely admonished me to lighten up. “You take yourself too seriously,” she said.

Later, though, she changed her tune. In fact, she spoke regretfully of all the times she had told me to be more lighthearted. She felt that writers needed to take themselves seriously because their perceptions of themselves and the world around them were the material of essays and stories.

I have gone back and forth about whether she was more correct in her first impulse or her second. Obviously, some sort of mental balance is in order. Failing that, writers, like everyone else, have to get through life as well as they can: imbalanced, but jogging in some comely direction.

Continue reading What cooking really means »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Timpano time

An aesthetic pleasure

By
June 28, 2012

Concealment is the watchword in calzones, egg rolls, empanadas, samosas, pasties — in fact, in the many dozens of foods that have evolved along the principle of stuffing, venting, and baking.

The practical and the aesthetic tag-team the eater of pocket foods. On one hand, these foods are convenient as hell. The food is protected in a way the sandwich, with its exposed seam, can never be, a fact which also eliminates the need for a plastic transport bag. Pocket foods also protect their contents — keeping them warm and, as a delightful history of the pasty points out, making reheating easy, even if you just have a shovel and a few hot coals. The pocket format also allows for large-scale production and limits the need for utensils, thus reducing clean-up time.

Continue reading Timpano time »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Wabi-sabi cookery

Cooking is a constant history lesson

By
May 7, 2012

In this corner of eternity called the kitchen, I am constantly making space. Too often, I think, we consider our kitchen tasks as beginning the moment our hands touch food or food-making tools. To make dinner is to open that first drawer or door and grasp an object, be it a pot, a spoon, or a box of noodles.

Cookbooks nowadays give readers a time-to-table estimate, as if knowing how long it takes to make a dish is of much consequence. People tell me that this is a planning aid, but I don’t believe that time is the true barrier to home cooking. And in any case, these estimates also limit cooking time to the moment we begin a particular recipe or preparation.

Continue reading Wabi-sabi cookery »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Thoreau and compost cookies

The sacred and the profane

By
March 8, 2012

Honest to Pete, during class the other day, my Environmental Literature students asked me if I thought Henry David Thoreau hunted magic mushrooms in the woods near Walden Pond.

Bless their countercultural little hearts, I say. As good as it is to understand Thoreau as a purveyor of American Romanticism, it is almost equally important to see him in your mind’s eye, hunting for a juicy patch of ‘shrooms. Thoreau for real.

In Walden, as he begins his discourse on eating in a chapter called “Economy,” Thoreau writes,

“Bread I at first made of pure Indian meal and salt, genuine hoe-cakes, which I baked before my fire out of doors on a shingle or the end of a stick of timber sawed off in building my house; but it was wont to get smoked and have a piny flavor. I tried flour also; but have at last found a mixture of rye and Indian meal most convenient and agreeable. In cold weather it was no little amusement to bake several small loaves of this in succession, tending and turning them as carefully as an Egyptian his hatching eggs. They were a real cereal fruit which I ripened, and they had to my senses a fragrance like that of other noble fruits, which I kept in as long as possible by wrapping them in cloths.”

Continue reading Thoreau and compost cookies »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Do-over fever

Revisiting September’s efforts

By
February 1, 2012

At times, I have believed that my greatest asset in life is my ability to live with my mistakes. In cooking, this often results in quick changes of plan or wolfing down the evidence before anyone else even knows I was trying to prepare food.

Phyllo dough dried out? Pop the sheets spritzed with water in the microwave and drape the resultant “noodles” in a baklava-ish pattern. Too much baking powder in the biscuits? Blam: six eaten at the stove.

In search of dramatic unities, television shows depict failed dishes as inedible. But the truth is that cooking failures are a gray area the size of Siberia. It’s not that the calories cannot be wrenched from the steaming tray before us without our retching; it’s that these calories do not represent the ideals we were chasing when we first opened our pretty cookbooks.

Continue reading Do-over fever »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Holiday buzz

Remembering the dance of the bakers

By
December 21, 2011

In the 1980s and 1990s, I spent some raucous and inspired formative years working at Elephants Deli in Portland, Oregon. From Halloween until New Year’s Day, the store braced for holiday throngs.

The best way I can describe the holiday buildup at Elephants is to get you to imagine a faint hum that starts in the floorboards. At first you don’t notice it; you just think you’ve been on your feet too long. Eventually, though, the hum graduates to a buzz, growing stronger and more pervasive with every ring of the phone or opening of a door. The banging of pots and pans competes with a holiday-music loop (David Bowie and Bing Crosby‘s voices winding tight around your brain). Everyone carries at least one clipboard, each one a forest of checklists, crabbed notes, and coffee stains. Boxes get stacked along empty walls, making corridors so narrow that carts can barely pass through them. People yell at each other across the room and then admonish others not to yell. Your skin tingles, like you are a tuning fork that has been knocked against the side of a stainless-steel milk pail.

Continue reading Holiday buzz »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Deer tales

Democracy, hunting, and giving thanks

By
November 30, 2011

Let’s not forget that most of our ancestors once farmed land that belonged to someone else. Though these peasant ancestors knew better than any lord or lady what the land looked like, how it behaved, and what it needed, this knowledge was irrelevant to possession of that land. To be so connected to the land, on one hand, and so disconnected from it, on the other, must have been damn weird.

Our ancestors, tenant farmers that they were, also saw animals differently than we do. Woodland animals belonged to the lords or, in some cases, were unique property of the king. Deer were reminders that the farmers themselves were a form of aristocratic property: They could not pick up and go wherever they pleased, nor could they hunt and eat anything they wanted. Fines for poaching in 18th-century England were steep; sometimes the offender was subject to ritual humiliation. It’s little wonder that Americans have such vexed ties to the land; there was, after all, a time when our ancestors were shackled to it.

Continue reading Deer tales »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Playing with your food

Harvest time

By
November 2, 2011

My romance with the Upper Midwest burns hottest this time of year.

During October, life is full of gold and red. In the daytime, these heraldic colors are set off by robin’s egg blues and slate grays. At dusk, they mute to soft orange and rust in the mist and hush.

As I bike to school, flocks of migratory birds pass overhead, air rushing from between their wings and bodies — whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. On the ground the air is sharp — sometimes with a cold wind drifting south from Canada, sometimes with wood smoke and rotting apples.

Continue reading Playing with your food »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

A gem at the table

Or, fennel and its discontents

By
September 27, 2011

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Charis (horse nut, co-op big wig, low-flyer) and I (fabric nut, co-op big wig, self-professed low-flyer) held our very first writing workshop at her farm in Colfax, Wisconsin, under the auspices of Menomonie Market’s 2011 member-linkage campaign.

Charis and I prepared to serve a light lunch, which included homemade bread, raspberries, pesto, carrots, cucumbers, and molasses cookies. We planned to write for an hour or two, break for lunch and farm walks, and conclude with a long writing spell in the afternoon before we talked as a group about what everyone came up with.

Continue reading A gem at the table »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Refrigeration elation

Baby, it’s cold inside

By
August 25, 2011

I got into a weird mood recently, a mood that led me to page through old magazines manically cutting out pictures of refrigerators. I wielded my orange-handled scissors as if someone’s life depended on it. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, the magazine-fricasseeing mood passed, and I was left with a pile of paper images of stainless and enameled steel doors, only one of which was open.

Refrigerators, for reasons we all more or less understand, are not the most welcoming doorways. Nonetheless, they are portals into the national psyche. And despite several plucky Web interventions, I don’t think they have received the attention they deserve.

Continue reading Refrigeration elation »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

A fruit skeptic converts

Ambivalence to passion

By
July 28, 2011

In sixth grade, I was shocked when my science teacher, Mr. Quinnell, referred to an apple as “a ripened ovary.” Sex organs were exotic and scary. Fruit was humdrum. I always accepted the existence of fruit as a less titillating form of sugar, the type parents press upon their sweet-freak children. I did not love fruit. I was nauseated by the salting of cantaloupe and ate far too many slightly unripe bananas because it was easier to choke them down than to fight with my mother.

So how, my 12-year-old self wondered, could an apple be as stunningly generative and evocative as an ovary?

Continue reading A fruit skeptic converts »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Summer wing interlude

Or, interview with an eater

By
June 21, 2011

There is no surer way to make a man self-conscious than to quiz him about his eating habits while he is eating. My friend Justin, however, is apparently immune to impertinent questions.

Every time I see him eating chicken wings, I marvel at his technique and urge others to drop what they are doing and watch. And every time, he politely fields my endless queries, all while moving his fingers swiftly about the wing, like a watchmaker feeling for the spring that will expose the clockworks neatly on the counter.

Continue reading Summer wing interlude »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Shore lunch

A fantastic division of labor

By
May 17, 2011

There can be no kitchen more active than the kitchen that transcends the house. Ask Andreas Viestad and Tina Nordstrom, the hardy souls who assemble outdoor kitchens before they even get to flex their knives on a cooking show called "New Scandinavian Cooking.”

Viestad has used a blowtorch to make a melted cheese sandwich, mere feet from an angler pulling perch through the ice. The budget for these cooking shows is the best money the Norwegian Tourism Board ever spent, for the very sight of a fjord now makes me drool.

Continue reading Shore lunch »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

In search of an active kitchen

Cooking as liveliness

By
April 22, 2011

We’ve talked about the loss of a cooking culture (or multiple cooking cultures) as a loss of respect for traditional foodways (“Who cares what zurek is?”), as a loss of pro-social food behaviors (“So what if we can’t see our dining-room table for all the piles of bills and books on top of it?”), and as a force that has degraded local and seasonal food networks (“If you put enough salt on that December tomato, it almost tastes like food.”).

Jean-Claude Kaufmann discusses this in The Meaning of Cooking, an excellent study of French attitudes toward food originally published by the French Ministry of Culture in 2005.

Continue reading In search of an active kitchen »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Sustenance in Madison

What do protesters eat?

By
February 25, 2011

First off, I want to say that I did not travel to Madison, Wisconsin, looking for a story about food. I went there to protest a bill that I believe hurts a lot of hard-working, good-hearted people in my state. If you are interested in the particulars of that issue, there are hundreds of newsmagazines that can help you out. I suggest the Journal Sentinel.

Where my brain, mouth, arms, and feet go, however, my stomach must follow. Otherwise, I would have made my stomach stay home and take care of the dog while I marched in Madison.

Continue reading Sustenance in Madison »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

In a jam

Writing ‘The Airport Security Cookbook’

By
January 31, 2011

On any given day in North America, there are thousands of anxious or downright angry people in airport security checkout lines. They are kicking carry-on bags that stand a 50-50 chance of getting gate-checked at the last minute. They are playing with their smart phones or trying not to fight with their children. They know they should feel compassion for the TSA personnel ushering the human glacier (of which they are each just a drop of ice) through the ingenious multitude of devices designed to probe person and baggage, the better to prevent bad things from happening very high in the sky.

Continue reading In a jam »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

A riot of tools

Mining for meaning in the kitchen drawers

By
December 8, 2010

In between panic attacks and chocolate binges — I am a college teacher and it’s almost finals week — I am reading Alain de Botton’s 2009 meditation on the economic and material structures that shape our lives, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

Like Malcolm Gladwell, Henry Petroski, and Michael Pollan, de Botton points at stuff the rest of us are ignoring and asks two kinds of questions: What are these things, and why were we ignoring them?

Throughout The Pleasures, de Botton repeatedly concludes that our actions are easier to understand if we look at the totality of forces that tug us forward or hold us down.

Continue reading A riot of tools »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

A Wisconsin food find

Screen time

By
November 11, 2010

Ah, “Wisconsin Foodie.”

The show is more than two years old, but I saw my first episode only last month. Referring to my innocence (I mean ignorance) of “The Sopranos,” a friend in Houston likened western Wisconsin to a witness-protection program, only with fewer amenities. So it happens that I can be a Wisconsin foodie before I see a two-year-old show with the name.

“Wisconsin Foodie” features chefs and growers side by side, an approach that is both refreshing and visually appealing.

In the first season, the telegenic and articulate Will Allen of Growing Power — an inner-city Milwaukee food-growing nonprofit, aquaculture outfit, and land trust — talks about reconnecting people with their food, a goal that seemed nearly unimaginable almost two decades ago on the north side of Milwaukee.

Continue reading A Wisconsin food find »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

To recipe, or not to recipe

And why I’ve failed more than once at cooking

By
September 10, 2010

By accident, genetics, and sometimes pure perversity, I am my mother’s opposite.

She worked for many years as an accountant and likes nothing more than to enter a string of numbers into a calculator and watch blissfully as these numbers eventually add up to zero. I am a recovering math-phobic who still recalls the night in 1980 when I did ALL of a quarter’s math homework in a single evening (and early morning).

She is tall. I am short.

She likes to talk to people; I prefer to wave at most of them from about a hundred feet.

Continue reading To recipe, or not to recipe »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Metaphysics, sausage, and me

Making venison sausage, part 2

By
August 2, 2010

I have heard that the appreciation of food — particularly its production and preparation — brings with it an enhanced appreciation of the physical senses.

As worthy an observation, I think, is that food appreciation grows when we recognize the physical skills that its production and preparation require, as well as the chemistry that shapes it.

I say this as a person not much blessed with good hand-eye coordination or any command of spatial geometry, and one who was lucky to get Bs in physics and chemistry. I still nearly clip the right passenger-side mirror of the car when I park it in the garage, and I have trouble estimating how large a Pyrex to put the leftover potatoes in. After 40-odd years on my planet, I find myself something of a stranger to the world’s pieces.

Continue reading Metaphysics, sausage, and me »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Duluth is for sausage lovers

Making venison sausage

By
June 24, 2010

A long-time practitioner of the sincerest form of flattery, I have been copying Alice and Martin Provensen’s richly colored landscapes since I was a kindergartener, producing villages on hillsides like this.

Provensenian villages are simultaneously cozy and improbable; they speak of a world in which harmony is a crowded and slightly irregular phenomenon. (The Provensens, by the way, also illustrated cookbooks, a lovely example of which is The Fireside Cook Book, by James Beard).

Because I grew up on a big hill, I liked the idea of houses and businesses connected by serpentine footpaths no civil engineer would dare to propose. Sometimes we descended our hill on a road my mom calls “the cow path.” I would slide from one side of the back seat to the other, each switchback tumbling me toward the less acute angles of the lowlands, my ears popping about halfway down.

Continue reading Duluth is for sausage lovers »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Tim Tams across the water

A story about cookies

By
May 3, 2010

In the million shaggy-dog stories that comprise my life, there is the story of how four boxes of Tim Tams came hurtling around the earth, from Northcote, Victoria, to Menomonie, Wisconsin, through my door, into my hands, and thereby into my belly.

In the manner of an Aristotelian proof — offered by a person who has read precious little Aristotle — I offer this tale.

Continue reading Tim Tams across the water »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Mouse meals

A children’s-literature scholar salivates

By
March 10, 2010

Here’s a dinner-party menu for the ages:

“Hic hic hic,” laughed Tucker Mouse, rubbing his front feet together, “I have: two chunks of liverwurst, one slice ham, three pieces bacon — from a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich — some lettuce and tomato — from said sandwich — whole-wheat, rye, and white crusts, a big gob coleslaw, two squares from a Hershey chocolate bar, the end of an Oh Henry candy bar — with nuts! — and now comes the climax.” Tucker paused. “Iced soft drinks!”

Maybe it is the carnivore in me, but I find this list as entrancing now as I did when I first read it in grade school. George Selden’s 1960 children’s novel, A Cricket in Times Square, tells the story of a cricket named Chester, who finds himself an accidental resident of a newsstand in New York City where he makes friends with Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat.

Continue reading Mouse meals »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Foodstuffs and stuffed foods

My definition of civilization

By
January 12, 2010

Read my Yule-log adventures from last winter and you’ll know that I like to make food that looks inedible. When my neighbors constructed a wooden play kitchen for their toddler this winter, I learned that I also like to make toys that look like food.

As I sewed grapes, a red pepper, a pea pod, two carrots, a pizza, and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and stuffed them with quilt scraps, I enjoyed exploring the curious boundary between the edible and the inedible from another side.

In terms of shape and color, these worlds are wonderfully similar. Bright, plump, and symmetrical, yet not entirely regular, foodstuffs and stuffed “foods” beg to be touched.

Continue reading Foodstuffs and stuffed foods »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

First among bees

In Washington, symbolic honey

By
November 17, 2009

When I was 14 years old, I traveled to a small town called Tanneron, in the Midi region of France, to babysit for an American-Belgian family. It was a summer of firsts: first overseas journey, first time alone with children overnight, first anchovy, first deep-fried acacia. I remember inspecting a soft, ripened cheese — first time I’d ever seen cheese in a wooden box — garnished with walnuts.

All these experiences made the occasional trials of child care worthwhile. I hardly minded the daily spit-up, though I did change my clothes a lot. Neither did I mind sleeping in the same room with the children, or struggling to pin their diapers, or raising a spoonful of pulverized carrots and cauliflower to their firmly closed mouths only to wipe it from the floor a few minutes later.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Freeze, froze, frozen

The principles of preservation

By
October 15, 2009

One of my favorite things about having spent five years writing a doctoral dissertation is that odd stuff floats up when I am doing something repetitious — chopping and cooking carrots for freezing, for example.

I am sure everyone knows how this goes: an image pops into your head and you say to yourself, “Why did I think of that?” Before you know it, you are feeling your way along a silken rope of associations, blessedly far from your humdrum point of origin.

At the beginning of this week, with pounds of freshly harvested produce menacing me, I stacked the basement floor with the contents of my 10-cubic-foot chest freezer in an attempt to understand what exactly was there — a dispiriting task indeed.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Food rich

Dreaming of thriving local food networks

By
September 8, 2009

Yes, I’m still eating local. Locavore, back-to-the-lander, food activist, active foodist: the whole nine yards. I’m it. Except for the coffee and the chocolate. And the ginger, bananas, and nori. I joke that these yearly “Eat Local Challenges” are the equivalent of food-activist Lent. Stick the ash on my forehead and point me toward the farmers’ market.

Kidding aside, I believe the Eat Local Challenge is a terrific educational tool, one that not only alerts consumers to how little local food they eat, but also gives them a sense of how little local food is available. As shoppers ask questions about product origins, merchants respond with local food marketing campaigns and, in some cases, increase their volume of locally produced goods.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Blackberry belts

And my new (old) pie-crust recipe

By
August 14, 2009

People ask me how I could abandon the mild, groovy Pacific Northwest for the harsh interior regions of the country. It’s a question that makes me smile, but it also makes me melancholy. After all, I didn’t mean to settle a thousand miles from family and friends. But that’s what happened.

What is the Midwest? Blowing snow, giant bugs, and mountainlessness; corn, soy, and lutefisk; euchre, UPer scoopers, and engine block heaters. (If you don’t know what these last three are, ask one of the members of the mid-continental diaspora — exiles of rural economic meltdown and the dying steel-and-iron towns of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I bet they get a faraway look in their eyes.)

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The promise of a tiny orchard

Meet the cherries

By
July 14, 2009

As much as possible, I try to live in a fully animate, democratic universe. It’s my way of living out Aldo Leopold’s environmentalist creed, which asks humans to see systems rather than isolated individuals, and processes rather than lone events.

If the problem is that humans tend to see their own problems as central pivots of the world’s motion, then a solution that might improve our species’ odds of persisting on this planet is to reduce one’s self to a nub on a gear or strip of metal on a shaft.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Pizza and the two Gs

Gathering and grilling

By
June 2, 2009

Here’s a purely anecdotal observation, but I believe it has merit: People blog less in the spring.

OK, I blog less in the spring. When I have purged my email (last time since January); when the piles of whatnot have been cleared from what reveal themselves to be a desk, three chairs, and a nifty vintage rolling cart (last visible in January); when I feel unfettered and light-footed, I go outside and look at stuff, leaving my laptop in the gloom of a newly tidy office.

“What survived winter?” I ask myself, stalking the garden apprehensively. This is a serious question. For the first time in a decade of wimpy winters, we had a solid 30-below nighttime low. (And none of that wind-chill-factor baloney — this was a ground temperature.) Suddenly, our global-warming-influenced Zone 4 botanical bets seemed lunatic.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The lonesome palate

Or, a cook’s guide to solitude

By
May 1, 2009

For my co-op’s annual meeting, I put together a slide show of photographs taken by the WPA in the 1930s and quotations from two books: How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher, and The Great Crash, by John Kenneth Galbraith. (From these choices, you can easily see what’s been on my mind for the past six months.)

A point Fisher makes in How to Cook a Wolf has stayed with me: Eating alone makes food less tasty. She writes, “When you are really hungry, a meal eaten by yourself is not so much an event as the automatic carrying out of a function: You must do it to live. But when you share it with another human or two, or even a respected animal, it becomes dignified.”

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Of bread and syrup in the Wisconsin woods

Cooking and personality

By
March 24, 2009

Earlier this month, Devin and I spent a cozy evening together in the sugar bush. He made “his-n-hers” fires: his a scary, snorting inferno inside a repurposed oil drum, mine a little smudge fire not far from the wood pile. His drew gallons of water off nearly 30 gallons of maple sap, while mine cooked chorizo and attempted the baking of bread. Here we were again in syrup season.

There is no end to the poetry of the Wisconsin woods in mid-March, especially when you spend a dozen hours there checking buckets, gathering sap, and watching the boiling down.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

A fish story

Pike picturesque

By
March 2, 2009

There is nothing about my background to suggest I would have spent a cold Sunday in February doing the following things:

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Geographical determinism and food

Or, what’s the deal with Central European cuisine?

By
January 22, 2009

Is the phrase “geographical determinism” an off-putting mouthful? Perhaps. But it’s also useful for people interested in food and history.

The idea of geographical determinism, though distressingly abstract in its expression, is simple: Material conditions (such as soils, weather, and naturally occurring plants and animals, to name a few) influence people’s thoughts, words, and actions. And cooking is certainly an action.

Earlier this month, I marveled at the number of common food items that appear to have a Tatar lineage: tartar sauce, cream of tartar, steak tartare. For a relatively obscure (at least to us geographically challenged modern Americans) people in that transition zone between Europe and Asia, the Tatars have left more of a mark on the United States than, say, the Uyghur or the Starchevo.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Behold: the Yule log

Making and savoring a bûche de Noël

By
December 24, 2008

As childhood fantasies go, baking a bûche de Noël ranks right up there with amassing a large Barbie collection and kissing Shaun Cassidy — girly in the extreme. But this has been my fantasy since I was seven. And I am happy to say it took me only 32 years to fulfill it.

The bûche de Noël — better known in the Anglophone world as a Yule log — is artifice wrapped in symbolism stuffed with buttercream. Originally, these logs were wood, not cake. People burned them for 12 days straight in the dark of winter — a wee sun in the hearth and a bane to evil spirits. Some believe Napoleon‘s proscription on chimney use (a public-health measure) sparked the invention of a sweet replacement for the illegal log. Fuel is fuel, I guess, whether it warms us inside or out.

Continue reading Behold: the Yule log »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Whither generics?

Private labels just aren’t as cool

By
December 1, 2008

At the risk of looking petty, I am going to report a recent conversation.

Me: Look at that funny white label. Doesn’t it remind you of generic beer cans we used to see in the supermarket when we were kids?

Husband: Huh. You’re right. I wonder where those generics went.

Me: I think they became “Our Family” or “Kroger’s.”

Husband: You’re thinking of private labels, not generics.

Me: Aren’t they the same thing?

Husband: (shrug)

I know, I know. I, too, can’t help but marvel at the pure romance of this relationship. You should hear us get going about dog food.

Continue reading Whither generics? »

Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Outdoor eats

Food afield

By
October 22, 2008

I am addicted to coziness: velvet cushions, knitting baskets, hearths, etc. Despite my love of comfort, however, every now and again (OK, actually, quite often), I head outdoors to see what the wind and water have wrought. When I get there, I am surprised to find tidbits I mostly think of as cultivated, polite, and, well, somewhat bland players in the great orchestra of food.

Here are three eatables I saw and tasted anew when I went afield this month.

Cranberries: Canned cranberry jelly may possess a certain industrial chic — that ribbed cylindrical purple body, that perfect slide from the aluminum sheath. But I prefer loose berries, especially since I pick them myself on the bog.

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Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The low-hanging fruit

Or yes, we have no bananas

By
September 23, 2008

Environmentalists have been talking plenty about low-hanging fruit recently. Get the cherries knee-high to a grasshopper. Snag that kiwi as its belly kisses the dandelions. Think user-friendly. Think access.

In an election year eating is one thing, perhaps the only thing, Republicans and Democrats have in common.

“It’s the corn subsidies, stupid,” today’s James Carville-wannabe might say.

At Menomonie Market Food Cooperative, my co-op, they stick labels on everything from apples to ginger to potatoes to beer, showing the item’s state of origin and sometimes its farm or producer, too. These labels have wised me up to my place in the food chain.

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