Friday, December 24, 2010

Heavenly Hash: The Sweet Epiphanies of Holiday Feasts

                              Photo courtesy NASA   The Starburst Galaxy

Dear Friends,

            Happy holidays to you all! Here is my Huffington Post by way of a seasonal card. It’s already been picked up by sites as far-flung as USA Today, Dave Letterman's page, S. Korea, India, UK, Thailand,  and Ireland. Bon appétit! And may your New Year be magical and heavenly.
All best, Brenda

BIO The Huffington Post
Brenda Peterson | Posted December 24, 2010 | Religion

My mother always taught us that no one should be alone at Christmas and that we must expect miracles and mysteries. She offered these miracles from her Southern kitchen. The petite Madeleines of her Christmas celebrations were her peanut-butter fruitcake, cherry and pineapple fudges. And who could resist the temptation of Mother's meringue-light Divinity, studded with black walnuts?

In the fervent circles of my childhood, food was love ...

(Read more on The Huffington Post) And here are some photos and recipes from the Internet.

Then there is the sugared inspiration of Heavenly Hash. This holiday concoction is an melange of Cool Whip, cherry pie filling, crushed pineapple, marshmallows, and nuts. In a crystal or glass bowl it looks rather like a suspicious mishmash. But if made right -- especially with buttery French-style marshmallows -- this medley of fruits and nuts sings on the tongue.
 Another favorite was Russian tea, a concoction of citrus Tang, and Lipton's black tea. This spicy brew was always served on our Christmas Eve with Mother's homemade sausage cookies. Battered balls of sharp cheese, sausage, Jiffy Biscuit Mix and milk -- these salty cookies cut the glut of too much sugar.
As one of my Jewish friends, who sampled my mother's Divinity, says, "Isn't food one of the primary reasons to be here on earth? Maybe that's what Eve and the apple were all about -- nothing to do with good and evil, or knowledge, but food, glorious food."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why Wolves Matter: The Green World Theory

USFWS Biologist Joe Fontaine with Gray wolf pup from the first litter born to Yellowstone wolves
credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

My new Huffington Post commentary on wolves and the politics of hunting and conservation is just published at this link:

In the cold, dawn light of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, I watched the Crystal Creek wolf pack at play. It was 1995, and these were the first wolves to return to Yellowstone in 60 years. Fifteen years ago, we had no idea of how successful and popular wolf reintroduction would be. Or how wolves would revitalize this damaged ecosystem -- astonishingly increasing the health of everything from trees to songbird populations.
That morning, the vast, panoramic meadow below was abloom with spring wildflowers as the Crystal Creek alpha male and female loped across the green meadows, followed by their rambunctious pups.
"This is history in the making," said Park ranger and wolf researcher Rick McIntyre, as he let us take turns watching the wolf pack through his spotting telescope. "Our children will thank us for this."
McIntyre, author of The War Against the Wolf: America's Campaign to Exterminate the Wolf, had no way of knowing then that from these few small bands of wolves returned to Yellowstone in 1995, there would now be 1,650 in the Northern Rockies. But this still is far from original pre-hunting numbers; and only five percent of their former range.
"Look!" he pointed excitedly. "Over on the far ridge . . . do you see the grizzly?" (READ MORE at

Here are a few photos to illustrate that article from respected wolf researcher, Cristina Eisenberg, author of the ground-breaking book The Wolf's Tooth and from Rick McIntyre whose book, The War Against the Wolf is a classic. I wrote about wolf reintroduction in Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals and have followed this issue over the last decade. Please get involved in wolf conservation. Visit the Huffington Post and contact your Congressional representatives to ask them to stop any bill to delist wolves from the Endangered Species List. And to stop any renewed wolf hunts in the Northern Rockies.

Wolf pup and ranges in Yellowstone, circa 1995 First wolf reintroduction

Wolf pack, Colorado, photo credit: Cristina Eisenberg, author of The Wolf's Tooth

Wolves howling. photo credit: Cristina Eisenberg


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A La Recherche du Cheese Perdu. Fall FOOD issue of LOST magazine


pimento cheese recipe from the Amateur Gourmet
A La Recherche du Cheese Perdu
Here is my new original piece in the current FOOD issue of LOST magazine
Bon appetit!

Pimento Cheese sandwiches are the petite Madeleines of my childhood. My mother is a splendid
Southern cook who taught herself "from scratch." The first time she made chocolate chip cookies
as a girl, she proudly mixed the sticky batter and then deposited a thick mound of chocolate-studded
dough onto a cookie sheet. She watched through her General Electric oven's glass window and waited
patiently for the little mountain of dough to separate into two dozen perfect cookies.

When my mother married — after an exciting stint as a World War II telegrapher on the Wabash
Cannonball railroad — she followed her brand new Betty Crocker cookbook with some inventions
of her own.

"I was determined to fatten your father up," mother tells the story. "After all, that was my job back
 in those days. That, and having you kids."

She took to her recipe books with the same zeal with which she had aced Morse code — a language
she remembers to this day. By the time I, her firstborn conceived on the honeymoon, was eating
real food, my mother's counter boasted a handy metal file of index cards with recipes begged,
borrowed, never stolen. Her archives were a gold mine coveted by other cooks.

The colorful little tabs were labeled with complimentary dishes:

East Indian Chicken and curried sweet potatoes
Sausage cookies and sweet pickle ChowChow
Barbecued butter beans and hot, wilted lettuce
Peanut-butter fruitcake, cherry and pineapple fudge
Divinity spiked with black walnuts.

These specialty nuts Mother bought from a black market of housewives in Georgia. She would
clandestinely receive a burlap sack of these smoky, almost bitter nuts. Their shells were so hard
she flopped the bag on our driveway and ran over them with the family station wagon to crack
them open.

Since we lived my early years on a U.S. Forest Service station in the High Sierra, surrounded
by more wild animals than possible dinner guests, my mother experimented with the game my
forester father brought home. The lean, sweet meat of the majestic moose was "mooseghetti" 
with a spicy marina; venison was ground into lean burgers; and elk was our weekly pot roast
garnished with dill potatoes.

Growing up on game as my own body flexed its muscles and stretched its bones, left me forever
unable to become a vegetarian. Every time I try to go from carnivore to gentle grazer, I succumb
to the family heritage:  anemia.

That's where cheese comes in. It is my protein of choice. And because of cheese I can survive on
just a few helpings of meat a week. Cheese is my one vice. I have no sweet tooth; and, coming
from generations of tea-totallers, I cannot process alcohol. I had to give up caffeine in 1986
when I became "allergic to my own adrenalin," as the doctor marveled. So, of necessity, I am
moderate in most all things. The only time I ever understand addictions is when it comes to cheese.
Gotta have it!

When I lived in New York City I stood in line for so long awaiting my special dill havarti that I
fainted. But the crush of the crowd held me upright.

"Diabetic?" a kindly shopper asked me. "Need orange juice?"

"No," I managed to revive. "Cheese … smoked gouda, please."

The recent boom in specialty cheese counters at such "foodie" hang-outs as Whole Foods and
even now local farmers' markets, boggle my mind. As I cruise through, I sample tempting cheese
bits with a pleasure that is part connoisseur, part junkie.

Here in the Pacific Northwest where I've lived for over two decades, there are celebrated creameries
whose cheeses draw coven-like converts. I call their hand-crafted cheeses by name like a mantra:
Rogue River Blue, Mt. Townsend "Sea Stack" and Cowgirl Creamery's Devil's Gulch with its spicy,
dried red pepper flake rind.

But one shopping trip I dared to ask a sacrilegious question of our Cheese Master at the urban temple
of our high-end food market.

"Say, do you ever carry Pimento Cheese spread?"

"What?" the Cheese Master snapped. "A spread?" He shook his head as if I had proposed
something obscene. But wasn't peppery cheese a perfectly respectable combination?

"My mother makes it," I said. "It's got a kick … a little spicy and …. "

"Never heard of it!" The Master dismissed me and turned to an elegant shopper in line behind me. 
His world was righted when she ordered a Camembert.

I was familiar with this Master and had always enjoyed his Beardesque generosity in helping me
adventure through the rich territory of my favorite food. I never expected he would be such a
cheese snob.

James Beard, you are not! I wanted to tell the Master; but instead I plucked up a respectably aged
Irish cheddar. Then I skulked around the supermarket like a heretic to find roasted pimentos in a jar.
As I stood before colorful jars of Italian roasted pimentos, I straightened my shoulders and stood tall.
There was nothing wrong with wanting a food that summons up all that was most wonderful about
my childhood. Proust never apologized for dipping those rather pedestrian butter cookies into his
tea and opening a time-traveling portal.

Why not me? And why not with Pimento Cheese? Why had this blessing from my childhood
cuisine disappeared? Why had it not conquered and captured the imagination of the American table?

Right there in the super market, I called my mother on my cell.

"Are there any top-secret ingredients to your Pimento Cheese?" I asked her.

My mother worked for 17 years at the C.I.A. I don't know what she did, except she had a top
security clearance and worked in a vault that locked at night. Every Christmas she still gives us
C.I.A. memorabilia, like travel mugs, t-shifts, and little silver boxes that open into a pen and
calculator set — if one can figure out the puzzle.

"There are a few secrets to pimento cheese," mother said. "And use the very best cheddar you
can find."


"Then find fire-roasted pimentos. I make my own special dressing:  Heat two tablespoons of
flour and two egg yolks in a saucepan until bubbly. Add a little vinegar, salt, red pepper, and
of course, dry mustard — that really gives it some pizzazz! Stir in ¾ cup milk and some butter,
heat on low.

And here's the secret — add two tablespoons of sugar," she laughed. "Remember, your
grandmother always said that everything goes better — even vegetables — with just a bit
of sugar."

I knew this last ingredient would make the Cheese Master wince. But happily I zipped around
the market gathering all I needed. And to add to my mother's recipe I found a fabulous one in
The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. They write:  "There's not a
big tradition of hors d'oeuvre in the South," famous for its "dry" counties. "Drinks before
dinner — and anytime — are considered a scandal … 'pimento cheese' on a cracker or with
celery sticks is a terrific cocktail nibble."

Of course, these experts advise making one's own mayonnaise. Well, that's not in my league
or in this lifetime.

I am culinary-impaired. Always anxious in the kitchen, I stock my oven with organic kibbles
for my two cats, blue corn chips, and peanut butter pretzels to slake my salt tooth. My
microwave doubles as a breadbox. Though my fridge's cheese keeper is full of stiltons, blues,
and brie, the other shelves are scantily stocked:  take-out Thai, cold cuts, organic veggies,
Russian borscht and piroshkies from my friend, Dianochka. She is an inspired chef who cooks
for her family and brings me delicacies every Tuesday night after singing. She has helped me
understand food as more than fuel for a pit stop between computers.

Then there was my first editor, the legendary cuisine guru, Judith Jones, who discovered Julia
Child and James Beard. Judith's own bestselling book The Pleasures of Cooking for One has
an entire chapter devoted to "The Seduction of Cheese." Unlike my Southern style of eating
Pimento Cheese as prelude to any meal, Judith ends her meal with cheese each night when
she dines alone.

Girded by all these culinary guides, I decided to attempt to make my own pimento cheese. Yes
it's like playing chopsticks on the piano. But maybe if I can sing, I can also do two-fingered cooking
In The Gift of Southern Cooking by Miss Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, two of Judith's famed chefs,
I found a Pimento Cheese recipe; it is also posted online at The Amateur Gourmet. Shooing my cats
off the counter, I grated the Irish cheddar, but with some effort. Judith recommends a carpenter's rasp
for grating cheese. Then I folded in the mayonnaise, seasoned with salt, cayenne, and black pepper.
 I reverently spread the Pimento Cheese on artisan bread, a fresh baguette from our world-famous
neighborhood Bakery Nouveau. I garnished it with sweet, chunky Persian cucumbers and pickled
asparagus from our Sunday farmer's market. Then I enjoyed smoked salmon chowder from our
local Pike Place Chowder. Voila!

So as they say in the South — I was lost … but now? The spicy, sharp and creamy aroma of cheddar
harmonizing with the peppery tang of pimentos. A la recheche du temps perdu. Cheese as the
voluptuous communion, the body as soul.

BRENDA PETERSON is the author of 16 books, includingDuck and Cover, a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year." Her new memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, is just out and was selected as an "IndieNext" Top Pick by independent booksellers nationwide. Read more at
Articles in this Issue
Introduction, by the Editors
Monkey Head Soup, by Charles Lindsay
Barbarians at the Hotel Bar, by Edward Chupack
Desert Survival, by Craig Childs
A La Recherché du Cheese Perdu, by Brenda Peterson
Heaven on the Half Shell, by Andrew Beahrs
A Hog Butchering, by Thorpe Moeckel
Lamb Shanks Roasted in Paper, by One Ring Zero
Lemon Meringue Pie, by Alan Huffman
Making Sajur Lodeh, by Julie Lauterbach-Colby
Lost Meals, by Phil Buehler
It's Seaweed Weather!, by Wendy Noritake
The Ingot, by Edward Hardy
My All-American Bacchanal's Deep-Fried Remains, by Nick Kolakowski
The Last Supper, by Susan Buttenwieser
The Spoils Room, by T. D.
A Taste for Tonka, by Ramin Ganeshram
Recipe Cards, by Ted Weinstein

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

We Are Pod: Dolphins as Elders and Teachers

Dolphins Leaping in California surf

My new Huffington Post commentary is out as a featured post on GREEN and on WORLD/Japan. Please send this around to your contacts, post to your FaceBook pages, and comment on the Huff. It lets the Huff Post know that readers care about our oceans and wildlife. And for readers of this blog, I’ve added an excerpt about Hawaiian spinner dolphins I encountered that first appeared in my book, Sister Stories (Viking/Penguin paperback)

OCTOBER 13, 2010

1 of 6
Brenda Peterson, 10.12.2010
Author, "I Want to Be Left Behind"
Instead of changing their environment to fit themselves, dolphins have adapted to a changing ocean.
That's what wise elders teach their young: Cultures change. Oceans change. We must change, as well.

Why Dolphins are another Reason to Be Left Behind

(Excerpted from Sister Stories “Sister as Pod and Pachyderm” (Viking/Penguin)

While on a humpback whale research trip in Hawaii, I had the great good fortune to kayak into a warm-water bay and find myself suddenly surrounded by a pod of sleek spinner dolphins.
            “We’re in the middle of their nursery,” our kayak guide whispered as we paddled slowly through deep, turquoise waters.
            Six dorsal fins swam close behind me, their twoosh, twoosh, a fast, intimate exhalation, like a musical, synchronized sigh.
            Then there were more dolphin inspirations as thirty or so spinners swam close, circling us. At the sight of so many wild dolphins, I leaned over in wonder and capsized. Plunged underwater, I was laughing so much I swallowed salty gulps of ocean. Then I heard them, that familiar, high-pitched click and whir like a cross between a Geiger counter and a small jet engine. I floated, holding my breath and listening and smiling as the nursery pod circled me, spinning through the waves.
            Whenever I encounter wild dolphins, I can feel the communication. First, there is that calming quiet of my nervous system as I leave gravity above and float –- warm water like an intimate second skin perfect and complete embrace of me.
Then there is the dolphin signature whistling and sonar like a much-loved song, lulling and caressing my body from the inside outwards, along each limb until my fingers and toes feel radiant, electric. Ecstasy eases into every ache and hidden hurt in my body and I stretch out as if in a serene, flying dream. Only, this rapture is underwater and accompanied by the clicking, kind scrutiny of an alien intelligence I can only begin to fathom.
            The dolphins always surprise me with their tenderness. I tried to synchronize my breathing with the dolphins and when I lifted my face, I saw several spinners leaping up, somersaulting, then diving back into the sea, their wake splashing over my back. I attempted my human version of a signature whistle, complete with rapid-fire gurgles and bleeps. It seemed to amuse and interest the nursery pod because they all suddenly cruised closer in a dazzling display of acrobatic dolphin dance.
            Imagine dozens of dolphins speeding by in a blur of silver and gray skin, ultrasound, and curve of fin, streaking past in one breath, as if one body. Inside my body their speed and sound registers like a trillion ricochets, tiny vibrations echoing off my ribs, within each lobe of my lungs, and spinning inside my labyrinthine brain like new synapses.
            Then I was alone for a moment. I drifted through the depths so lost in this watery dreamtime that my mind was also adrift. It is always during these meditative underwater moments that the dolphins seem most to cherish their human companions. Suddenly I saw out of the corner of each eye three dolphins flanking me –- and among them were several tiny dorsal fins –- newborns guarded by their nursery pod.
I was accepted inside their pod, surrounded by fast spinners who slowed to accompany my pace. They kept me in their exact center for what seemed an hour, and it was only then that I understood what it feels like to be fully adopted into the deep, welcoming physical communion of dolphins.
            I am pod, I felt, with no sense of my single self. I belong.
            Mystics may call it divine union, this melding of minds, bodies, and souls, this solitude that suddenly opens into the solace of We are one.
            Dolphins are known to be self-aware; they also show us this soul-mingling and connection, which our human species only glimpses in rare spiritual insights. Perhaps this is what dolphins have spent their long evolution achieving:
Instead of changing their environment around them, they have changed themselves; those big brains are attuning themselves to one another and the natural world. Maybe that’s what they’ve been doing these thirty million years longer than humans have been around: seeking to survive together as a whole. Meanwhile, we’ve been battling and selecting who among us will survive, never imagining that we are all humans, all one pod.

(Excerpted from Sister Stories “Sister as Pod and Pachyderm” (Viking/Penguin paperback)