Our celebrations have become more modest over the years, especially birthdays. I suppose when you observe nine birthdays per year, you learn to pace yourself. Just recently it was my turn, and it fell into the usual pattern: a phone call from my folks, during which I asked my mom if she ever thought she’d have a fifty four year old son; a lunch I requested; a supper I requested; a video I requested; and a homemade birthday cake. (Birthday cards for adults were dropped awhile back, and we’re thinking of doing the same for the rest.)
Lunch was spinach quiche, also called egg pie around here. It is a miniature reminder of both our agrarian successes and our remaining challenges. Made with a pastry crust using home-ground flour from purchased wheat berries, and store-bought butter. The eggs were laid by our chickens, but the cheddar cheese and frozen chopped spinach came from the store. Most of us like to top our slice of egg pie with a thick layer of homemade salsa, made with our own garlic and cilantro and serrano peppers, sometimes with our own diced tomatoes and sometimes with store-bought.
Oddly enough, I think as you make progress towards home-produced food, it gets easier to accept the lingering presence of store-bought ingredients. First, the progress towards homemade eventually becomes undeniable, and so the remaining store-bought ingredients are less an indication of hypocrisy than they are specific challenges that will probably be met in time. Second, the notion of eating well changes from a vague and idealistic goal into a concrete and specific approach to food; as you educate yourself about good and bad in eating, you worry less about conforming to any external standards for How Agrarians Should Eat, and spend your time struggling with particular issues involving your own eating. Some specific challenges: our cream is rich and thick, but so far we’ve been unable to whip it; our butter is too mild, and not nearly uniform and waxy enough to replace store-bought in many recipes; our cheese doesn’t melt well and still has a raw flavor to it. These things don’t worry us; we’ll solve them in time, or learn to deal with what we can make at home. But in the meantime we don’t hold our menu hostage to some purist notion of what ingredients are permitted.
The cake, served at lunch, was quite good. Maggie has been working hard at using freshly ground whole wheat flour effectively, and her efforts are paying off. The last few birthday cakes have used it, and it produces a cake that I think is not just different but better—fresher tasting, heartier texture, much more satisfying. We started with chocolate cakes, but being the least ardent fan of chocolate in the house (aside from Matthew, who can’t eat it), I asked for just a simple lemon layer cake. We decided on a buttercream frosting, together with some homemade wild blackberry jam spread between the layers. The cake itself was just right. As for the frosting, we’re still adjusting to our diminishing taste for sweetness; it was good, but even with a significant reduction in the sugar it was still pretty sweet to our taste.
Supper was a special treat. I’ve always been fond of Thai food, and so some months back when we came across a recipe for Thai chicken soup in an issue of Cooks Illustrated, I searched out the ingredients so we could try it. The preparation was pretty simple, and the results were spectacular (assuming you like Thai chicken soup, which I do very much). We had enough ingredients left for another round, and there is always a good supply of homegrown chicken broth, so I asked for that. Believe me, the results are rich beyond imagining but not at all greasy or oppressive, a brew that can make a grown man swoon. And I highly recommend using the Cooks Illustrated recipe, which makes the process simple without compromising flavor.
The video was also a special treat. We are on the Netflix two-per-month program, and so we try to make choices that are in the dead center of what our family can expect to enjoy, so as not to waste a video. But since it was a birthday choice I went ahead and picked one that I had really wanted to see for awhile now, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. It had a special appeal to me because I went through my own phase of reading superhero comic books, both as a kid in their heyday, and again as adult graphic novels came along to play strange games with the superhero conventions. The premise of The Incredibles is very similar to that of one of my favorite graphic novels, Watchmen, although I assumed it would be far less dark and far more family friendly. My craving to see the movie went up dramatically after falling head over heels for Brad Bird’s Ratatouille. But I was still a bit worried—would anyone but me enjoy a movie built on an ironic treatment of superhero conventions?
There was no need to worry. Everyone loved it. All the cleverness was right on the surface, and it didn’t take much background to understand what was going on. And if I had to pick one word to describe what makes a Brad Bird film a special thing, I guess I would pick warmth. All his characters are lovable, even the bad guys. The affection between characters is subtle but tangible. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Bob and Lucius are sitting in a car, reminiscing as they wait for some juicy opportunity for heroism to come across the police scanner:
Lucius: So now I’m in deep trouble. I mean, one more jolt of this death ray and I’m an epitaph. Somehow I manage to find cover and what does Baron von Ruthless do?
Bob: [laughing] He starts monologuing.
Lucius: He starts monologuing! He starts like, this prepared speech about how *feeble* I am compared to him, how *inevitable* my defeat is, how *the world* *will soon* *be his*, yadda yadda yadda.
Lucius: Yammering! I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won’t shut up!
Now, this is funny already because it skewers one of the silliest (but most beloved) conventions of superhero comics, the villain’s uncanny ability to brag himself into defeat. (And not just superheros, right? Another favorite of ours, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly has the scene where a fellow corners his enemy Tuco in a hotel bathtub, then starts going on about how long he’s waited for this moment—when Tuco shoots him dead with a gun hidden in the bathtub suds. As Tuco comments immediately afterwards, “If you’re going to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!”)
But what I love about the scene between Bob and Lucius is that Bob is completing Lucius’s sentences. These old friends have been through this story many times before; Bob knows it well enough to help with the telling. But still Lucius loves to tell it, and Bob loves to hear it, I’m sure in part because Lucius enjoys the telling so much. This is what I mean by warmth, and it pervades The Incredibles. (And Ratatouille.)