BY JUDITH WALCUTT
October 12, 2016
You probably didn’t notice, but I am nearly a month late with this posting. I was last due on Sept. 12 at which time I was out of body, in another part of my mind. It was my birthday and I was completely absorbed in one and only one activity: completing the edit on my novel. I’d been sliding around it all summer but there was a lot to do to clear the way and then single-mindedly approach the book I wrote—oh, something like 20 years ago—with a fresh take and a clear eye.
It should have been easy, after all that time, to do that: look at it anew, after the passage of time. But it’s not easy. No, it is not. It requires a kind of suspension of disbelief that we generally reserve for strangers and things we’ve never read before. It required me to read this book as though I hadn’t written it, and glean how to make it better.
Glean. I love that word. It means so much: “to extract from various sources,” “to collect gradually, bit by bit,” “to gather (left over grain or other produce) after a harvest.” In the land of language, we glean meaning from words and their innuendos. Face to face, we watch each other: the movement of eyebrows, the set of the mouth, a single movement of the hand—and suddenly we know more about each other than words can ever say. Unless, of course, we’re gleaning meaning from a poker face, in which case, the careful observer may note a certain twitching of eyelids and unconscious fingers twittering in the air without a keyboard. From such gestures, we can learn so much, glean so much, we ought to be able to write volumes about it. I know Henry James, Jane Austin, and a few others have gotten a lot of mileage out of interpreting faces and the unspoken words written across them—as have late night comedians, as they “do” the candidates in this unprecedented election season.
As I sit here writing this, catching up, as it were, on the passage of time, gleaning the changes in our understanding of language and its use in public discourse, I have to wonder at the paradigm shift I have seen in my lifetime! Someone ought to be ashamed. But, no, no one is. SO back to fiction, where I can control my characters and make them pay for their transgressions—or not—and just watch them struggle while trying to learn from their repetitious mistakes, but then, suddenly, intervene, divinely, and help them get to a satisfying end. I love fiction, for that very reason. It is so uplifting, in comparison to most of actual reality. People inevitably make mistakes. It is the human thing to do. But the really great thing is that sometimes people in the fictional story are redeemed in their lives, they get it—suddenly, they glean the bigger picture and they change because of it. They become better: they seek and get or give forgiveness. It is amazing how well fictional people can behave, if you just let them!
As for life off the page, the real reality we are living right now—all I can tell you is: gleaning meaning is a useful practice. Gleaning makes us go deeper into the circumstances, past the thin crust of things material and into the muddy waters beneath, where we can try to make something out of our experience, try to make a meaning bigger than our single selves can see or sense, when we are just tunneling along in our daily lives. Try looking at where the sky meets the water and the water meets the sky—and you will see the bigger picture for both parts.
Like chutney made from found fruit, gleaned from abandoned fields and the sides of the road, there are so many flavors to consider, seeking the one taste of those many flavors. That’s what I did, when the rain stopped this past weekend. I went out looking for some beautiful fruit hanging from bended boughs, fruit that no one noticed or cared about. Apples—mottled red and yellow and pale green—the colors we are coming to now that summer has had her last late chance. I found a tree and picked a few—just a few—because that’s all you need to make something wonderful out of very little.
Here’s how to do it:
Find a tree with unpicked fruit. Apples or pears, or late ripening plums and wild grapes, if you can find them—it doesn’t matter what kind really, just the kind that needs to be seen, used, preserved, and not wasted. Notice its beauty and the bend of the bough. Pick as many as you can carry in your hands and cradled arms.
Take them home and admire them in a bowl on your table. Then gather the ingredients you want to taste—just like writing fiction, you are making this up as you go along. It is o.k. to be creative where chutney is concerned. With its various degrees of sweet, sour, hot, or salty—you almost can’t go wrong. Look to see what you have on hand that needs to be used before going bad or perhaps find that fruit in the freezer you haven’t gotten to all summer and throw it in the pot.
Here’s what I had on hand:
4 big, gleaned apples, peeled and chopped (about four cups worth)
1 large sweet onion chopped (about a cup or so)
Several handfuls of wild, sour white grapes (a gift from a friend who had too many, so I captured them in my freezer.) This time, I used one and a half cups, more or less.
Spices. I have lots and lots of them. I collect them. So for a chutney creation like this, I get them all out and let my nose lead the way.
When the tins they live in are opened, the whole house smells like a foreign country.
Here are some favorites and suggested amounts for one batch of Gleaned Fruit Chutney:
1 tsp. peppercorn
1 tsp. curry
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tbl. fresh ginger grated
1 tsp. garam masala
¼ tsp. each cardamom and cardamom seeds
¼ tsp. Five Spice
1 star anise
A pinch of fennel
8-10 whole cloves (or ¼ tsp. ground)
Make your spice mixture come alive by heating a tablespoon of canola oil, adding spices and stirring. The smells will awaken and fill the kitchen.
Add the onion first and stir around in the spices until it softens.
Add the apple and stir around again, until the spices are blended into the two. Cover and let it cook on low for a bit until the fruit settles down, then add the grapes, or the cherries, or the blueberries—whatever you can glean from around you. I threw in some dried sour cherries which I found fading in my pantry.
After the fruit has softened and begins to give off juices, add—stirring in gradually, with love and prayers for peace on earth and goodwill towards all sentient beings:
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup regular sugar (I use organic, raw sugar because it tastes better and is better)
Stir sugar until it dissolves and turns the fruit shiny and magical looking. (You’ll know it when you see it)
Add 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar. Stir, stir, stir.
Cover the pot and keep on low, but still stirring occasionally to keep the stuff from sticking, burning, or otherwise ruining itself like a badly behaved politician.
Pray or chant and stare hopefully into the heavens as you stir, to imbue the fruit you’ve gleaned from the truth you’ve gleaned, from the world you can’t believe is the one you are living in now.
Imagine that this chutney is medicine for what ails us. Let it cook on low for quite a while. Remove the lid and stir some more. Let the hot, sputtering juices evaporate, bit by bit, so that the fruit thickens, deepens, becomes more and more profound. Practice patience. Again and again, practice patience.
When this chutney created by you alone is done, you will know it. It is thick and smells of the past, the present, and the future. One taste. Many flavors. Enjoy.
And now, back to reality where I will go only as a tourist.
Judith Walcutt is a writer living on Whidbey Island who makes jams, chutneys, and variously invented preserves for the sake of sanity and spiritual uplift. Her old- novel-made-new-again, “Memoirs of a Modern She-Noodle,” will soon see the light of day from NeoPoiesis Press.
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