2021 by the Books

This year I upped my annual Reading Challenge to 45 books. I know that's nuthin' for some people, but it was a lot for me! Let's take a look, shall we? 

I have screen-grabbed my Goodreads list for you in 5 sections. This list runs backward in time, so Alison Bechdel at the top was finished two days ago, and Elizabeth Gilbert at the bottom was finished in early January.


I starred the books that I really LOVED this year, which were:

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner--Michelle Zauner does a great job telling the story of her relationship with her Korean mother, and her grief when her mom died a few years ago. There is a LOT of amazing-sounding food in this book.

Umma's Table by Yeon-Sik Hong--This is a graphic memoir that covers some similar territory. The author and his family are Korean and live in Korea, and the story is an homage to his mother: how she cooked and cared for him and his brother, and what happened as she aged and grew ill. A fascinating glimpse into Korean culture that ALSO features a lot of amazing food.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi--This novel is excellent, a masterpiece of layered, thoughtful, rich storytelling. It is so well written and very contemporary. It's about a PhD student in neuroscience who is studying addiction in mice, and has lost her own brother to opioid addiction. I love what author Roxane Gay wrote about this book on Goodreads: "Not a word or idea out of place. Completely different from Homegoing. THE RANGE. I am quite angry this is so good."

How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill--There is something deeply satisfying to me in piecing historical time periods together. Cahill's book helped me to put together what happened after the fall of Rome (around 450) up until the Viking invasions really crumbled the Irish monasteries about 400 years later. An excellent resource for anybody interested in the dark ages, monks, Irish myth, or just plain Irishness. It's a perfect pair with a fave book from last year, Confessions of a Pagan Nun. It also goes very well with the film "The Secret of Kells"--which seems so exactly about the same thing that I wonder if the film-makers also read this book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke--This novel is fantastic, like literally. The main character lives in a world of hallways and rooms and statues, and keeps very careful notes... but what has he forgotten? How did he get there? How can he piece together things he notices or half remembers or finds in his old journals but can't recall at all? This book is so creative and draws you into its world and its language inexorably. Pretty much perfect.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto--This book contains two novellas, Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow, and was published in the 80s. The two stories were entrancing... something about the odd characters and the rather flat translation had a slow, calming burn. The stories seemed unremarkable upon consumption, like a warm bowl of plain broth, but later I kept thinking back to how I felt while reading these, which was nourished and interested and curious about what some of the strange flavors might be.

You may notice some awkward blue arrows on my booklist. I was trying to show a reading train of thought. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts was a sweeping family saga set in New York City with the parents and the adult children each having various life-changing experiences. I thought it was intricate and pretty well-written. It reminded me of The Corrections and I thought maybe Jonathan Franzen had done it a little better. So then I picked that up and read it--and yes, Franzen is superb. In his sweeping mid-western family saga, Franzen has full command over each character and the full arc of what happens to him or her and its proper place in the whole story. Then, I thought maybe Charles Dickens might be the REAL master of the saga and character, so I decided to re-read Great Expectations. Honestly... the Dickens was dear, but I liked The Corrections best amongst these 3 books. (I KNOW.) I admire how Franzen has utter control over his material AND over the English/American language, and how it really shows.


So... what did you read this year? Did you read anything on my list? What did you LOVE? Tell us in the comments below!

Music on the Hill: Marlboro Open House

Once upon a time I applied to go to a small liberal arts college in the heart of the woods of Southern Vermont. It was called Marlboro College, and I wrote my application essay about how I was obsessed with King Arthur. 

As a high school junior, I visited the campus with my mother one October day to get a feel for the place. To get there, you have to first get yourself to Brattleboro, Vermont, then drive 15 minutes uphill, go through the teensy town of Marlboro (don't blink or you'll miss it), and then down a back road that ends in the picturesque Marlboro campus. I remember a bunch of low white buildings nestled on a hillside. I remember cafeteria food that involved sprouts and lentils. I remember it was fall in Vermont, and the leaves and the autumn sunlight were gorgeous.

Ultimately I decided not to attend Marlboro College. (I did move to Vermont later.) And a few years ago, Marlboro College ceased to exist. The college campus, that was also home to the famous Marlboro Music Festival, was sold off. This left a double question--what would the buyers be doing with the space, and what would happen to the Music Festival? 

Fortunately, Marlboro Music has figured things out in an exciting way--they have now purchased the campus themselves (holding title through a nonprofit subsidiary), and the sale went through last month (September, 2021). And on October 23, Marlboro Music held an open house for the newly built Jerome and Celia Bertin Reich building, which is a gorgeous office and rehearsal space nestled in a corner of the campus and surrounded by woods. It was a luminous fall day and perfect for showing off the elegant simplicity of the new building, all blond wood and windows that framed the trees and brilliant sky.


Inner stairwell window becomes a tree-frame

The building forms a sort of "U" shape with a courtyard framed by two arms of the "U." Here's a photo looking toward the courtyard from the inside.

And here a photo looking back at the building from the courtyard.

There was a sweet little party outside with hot cider, cider donuts, and local apples.  

My favorite part of the new building was the music library. It is one of the arms of the "U" and kind of its own separate little building. Like a chapel. 

This room was so beautiful and amazing and stoked with art and culture that I almost had trouble breathing. It was overwhelmingly LOVELY. 

There is one whole wall of built-in cabinets and files that hold the Music Festival's actual music and scores.

They are all neatly labeled.

Look, this section holds Haydn Quartets, Strings only!!

There are work tables in the center of the room, and low seats that also have drawers (I didn't look in the drawers, but I imagine they contain music, too.)

The books in the library are about music, musicians, and composers. They're well organized and labeled, just like the cabinets.

The sharp ceiling contributes to the chapel-like vibes. I told my companion I felt like going to light a candle in the corner, like you see in European cathedrals.

There are also window seats along the outside of the library, joining the beauty of the room with the beauty of the Vermont landscape.

downstairs rehearsal room

This rehearsal room is the other arm of the "U"--it has similar peaked construction to the library.

upstairs rehearsal room

There's a second floor to the connector part of the U shape, and more rehearsal spaces up there. Above is one of them--a large room in the back/upper corner of the building, with two sides looking out into the woods.

We were so impressed by the gorgeous building showcased by a perfect fall day. We asked if it would be open to the public in the future so we could go check it out again or bring guests. However, we learned that it's private. It will be a working office building and creative space for the festival musicians, so essentially we got a unique chance to peek behind the scenes. How lovely that the festival participants have such a place to work and dream and play.

Let's get fermented

Recently I did some research on fermentation for a couple of writing projects at work. I watched the documentary Fermented, which is a look at fermentation traditions and flavors, hosted by Edward Lee. I perused some library books on fermentation, including The Noma Guide to Fermentation by Rene Redzepi and David Gilber. And essentially I learned (or confirmed for myself) that fermentation is a transformative food processing method that uses the power of microorganisms. Another example of a transformative food processing method is cooking with the power of heat. In fact, fermentation has been called "cold fire" because of its remarkable ability to process/transform/preserve a food a bit like cooking does. As a young family member put it during a discussion about fermentation, "Nature is interesting with all the things it can make through simple processes." Yes!!

At the same time, I've been having a love affair with Korean food, which features a lot of very interesting fermented flavors, including fish sauce and gochujang (fermented sweetened chili paste). I've been making various pickled sides and condiments lately, mostly following recipes from Cook Korean by Robin Ha. And we also like other fermented things, particularly pickles and sauerkraut.

Here's a tour of what's fermented in our fridge right now.

Pa Kimchi (pickled green onions)

Pa Kimchi is a Robin Ha recipe and it is a kimchi (fermented veggie) made with scallions. I used fresh, long scallions from the local farmer's market, mixed them with quite a bit of fish sauce and red pepper flakes, then tied them as best I could into into knotted bunches for easy storage. This keeps in the fridge and I like to have it with some rice, egg, and seaweed (like a simplified bibimbap).

Beginner's Kimchi

Once or twice a year I'll chop up a batch of beginner's kimchi (also a Robin Ha recipe) and stash it in a big Mason jar in the fridge. It's a nice side condiment for various meals, and can also be the basis for kimchi fried rice (Kimchi Bokkumbap) that is easy and delicious.

Tongdakmu (Pickled radish)

This is yet another Robin Ha recipe--it is pickled Daikon radish (my Daikon was purple, so the pickles are this lovely lilac-pink color). She recommends having this with kimchi fried rice and it really does go well. It offers a cool, salty crunch alongside the flaming softness of the rice.

Quick-pickled red onion

This is pickled red onion, and we eat it with burritos or wraps. I make it to copy the tastes of Tito's Taqueria here in Brattleboro. Adding some pickled onion to your wrap will give it another welcome dimension of flavor. I usually slice my onion in thin rings, but for this batch I was using up leftover onion from another recipe so it's pretty chunky.

Grillo's dill pickle slices

On the storebought side, here are some cucumber pickles that we always have on hand--these are Grillo's dill pickle chips. They are made with grape leaves and garlic slices (shown) which I swear gives them a special flavor and preserved crunch. These are great for sandwiches, burgers, or just snacking straight out of the container.

Bubbies kosher dill pickles

Our second storebought essential is Bubbies Kosher dills. These are lacto-fermented (no vinegar) and have that special, pungently sour pong that is something of an acquired taste. Once you've acquired it though, you'll crave Bubbies sliced into spears on the side of any meal, or just crunched straight out of the jar. So good.


This week we didn't have any sauerkraut at home or I would include a photo of that too. We like it on hotdogs or, again, as a sour crunchy side condiment with many kinds of meals.

In my writing for work I came to the highflown conclusion that fermentation and human culture may go hand in hand. Who would we be without our cured meats, without millennia of wine and beer and pulque consumption, without traditional foods like soy sauce, miso, injira, kvass, yogurt, without our chocolate or coffee or tea or sourdough? It is called human culture, right?? Humans need fermentation in order to have interest, flavor, umami, depth, and JOY in life. Humans need to get fermented to get cultured. Yum.

Tell us about your fridge or fermentation fancies! What microbes have you got fizzing away and bringing something special to your world?

Roadside Nips: Photo Essay

I still run on roads 2-3 days a week, and this year I noticed something I hadn't really seen before. I've been seeing a lot of empty "nips" by the side of the road (also known as "airplane bottles," these are the mini plastic bottles that hold a single serving of liquor). I imagine that someone will knock back a tiny bottle as they're driving, then they just roll down the window and throw it out. 

The first several nips that I noticed were all empty bottles of Fireball (which is cinnamon-flavored Canadian whisky). It struck me as an interesting phenomenon. I wondered: Is it one person in this area who loves to drink & drive and has a strong preference for Fireball? Or is it that Fireball's cinnamony punch is perfect for drinking straight out of the bottle, so anyone who enjoys drinking and driving might prefer Fireball for its palatibility? I started photographing the Fireball Nips that I came across. I soon found that people do drink and litter other types of liquor. (I have been seeing beer cans by the side of the road for years, but the liquor thing seems more prevalent lately). 

Here is my photo essay on Roadside Nips. I may add to it later if I come across more.

June 12, 2021


June 17, 2021


June 20, 2021

Dr. McGillicuddy's Mentholmint (1 of a pair)

Dr. McGillicuddy's (both)

September 4, 2021 (right outside a liquor store)

Malibu coconut rum

Jack Daniels whiskey

September 25, 2021


Tito's vodka


Are you seeing more nips than usual these days, or if you see one after reading this, will you come back and leave a comment?

There is a subcategory of running chat called "seen on my run" and people will tell crazy stories of bears or unique human phenomena that happened while they were out running. Personally I like to look at litter or roadside jetsam on my runs. The most amazing #seenonmyrun story takes place in Las Vegas, though what I saw that day is not really family-friendly blog material so you'll have to ask me about it sometime. Sometimes I see clothes strewn along the side of the road for yards and yards, and wonder if somebody got into a passive aggressive fight with someone else and just fed that person's belongings out the car window bit by bit while cursing maniacally. I come up with all kind of theories while I'm running!

Homegrown Roma Tomato Sauce for Spaghetti

Say you're growing some Roma tomatoes. What are you supposed to DO with them? I know that Romas, also known as "paste tomatoes," are good for sauces because they aren't very juicy. They cook down well into concentrated flavor, allegedly. So I decided to try making from-scratch sauce from the Romas we've been growing in our hugels this year. This 5-ingredient recipe was inspired by Youtuber Joshua Weissman, who was in turn inspired by Marcella Hazan.

My first test used an onion and I found the sauce too sweet for my taste. So this recipe uses only garlic. Here's what I came up with!


7-10 Roma tomatoes

extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic

fresh herbs, such as basil, oregano, parsley (optional)

salt and pepper

1/2 pound of spaghetti

Romano cheese or favorite topping



1. First you'll be peeling the fresh tomatoes. Boil a pot of water and set up a bowl of ice water on the side. Cut a cross in the tip of each tomato, then throw in the boiling water for ONE MINUTE ONLY.


2. After one minute, scoop out the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and put in the ice water. 


Then remove each tomato from ice water and peel it. The peel should come off pretty easily. You can also cut out the tough stem area at this point. (Yes, some of my Romas have spots. That seems normal.)

3. Next dice the peeled tomatoes into small pieces.


Also, peel 3 cloves of garlic. Finally, if you have an herb garden or fresh herbs in your fridge, grab some fresh herbs of your choice. I used small sprigs of basil, oregano, and parsley, roughly chopped. 

4. Now it's time to cook! In your saucepan, heat up a generous amount of olive oil--around 2 Tablespoons. Throw in the chopped tomatoes and begin to cook them down. Mine released some moisture and I kept them covered to try to capture all the possible sauce. (Later though, I removed the lid to help concentrate the sauce.) It's a nice idea to squish the tomato pieces a bit with a wooden spoon as you cook. Put in one of the garlic cloves, either chopped or squeezed in a press. Also add the green herbs.

Cook for about 5-10 minutes. 

5. Meanwhile, heat a pot of water to boiling for cooking your spaghetti. I saved the water from the tomato-peeling process and added a bit more water to that and set it to heat up on a separate element.

Around when the pasta water is boiling, put some salt and pepper in your tomato sauce and squeeze in another clove of garlic. Cook your spaghetti according to package instructions (mine had a 10-minute cooking time).

6. Right around the time the spaghetti is done, squeeze the last clove of garlic into the sauce and turn it off. You should have a nice, chunky sauce. It is not naturally thick (it doesn't become tomato paste), but if you've taken the lid off at the right times, it shouldn't be too watery either.

7. To serve, just divide up your cooked spaghetti and spoon the sauce on top in the ratio you enjoy. I like to top with grated romano cheese too. In our home, this recipe served two adults, with a little bit of second helpings.

Happy Fall to you, I hope that you are enjoying some fruits of the season wherever you are!

Garden Update Summer 2021: The Burgeoning

Hello friend! This is an update on our hugelkultur project and how our garden is growing. 

This time of year feels like "the burgeoning" to me... all of the plants are at the top of their game. They're putting things in order and getting to the tippy-top of the rollercoaster ride. Then in August things will start to ripen and over-ripen and grow and over-grow and fall over and twist and generally explode. The roller coaster ride will start its fast, accelerating ride down toward autumn and next thing you know, there's snow on the ground. Jeez! But first let's celebrate the rest of summer.

The peaches are still green but starting to have a hint of color. (They might look peach-colored in the foreground, but they're really a greenish-yellow.)

The tomatoes are setting fruit at a tremendous pace and seem poised to ripen suddenly and all at once. We have already started getting a few ripe cherry tomatoes and pear tomatoes.


The onions are doing mysterious things underground and seem healthy. 

The yellow pear tomato is our biggest plant--it has grown to 6 feet tall (hitting the top of our bamboo structure). I finally started to "top" (cut off) the growing tips so that the plant would instead focus on ripening its fruit. Indeterminate tomatoes are remarkably aggressive at growing and branching and growing and branching. (Good job, tomatoes!)

In addition to the burgeoning, there are also plants that are already producing, and some have even passed their prime.

The summer squash has been very very busy.

Out of our three cucumber plants, only one has survived. I'm not sure if it's an infection from cucumber beetles, or just the incessant rain that we've had during July. But something killed two of our plants. We've since put in a replacement cucumber to see what will happen.

The green beans are near the top of this photo and they are producing delicious, crisp-tender beans that we harvest every few days. Just a modest handful or two at a time, which is a perfect amount. On the right side of this photo is kale that is also producing happily. On the left is lettuce, which heat and age have caused to go to seed. We let a few plants "bolt" to see what they would look like. That 3-foot tall tower on the left is red lettuce that has thoroughly gone to seed.

There are also a few plant-friends around the place that aren't exactly vegetables.

I planted marigolds alongside the tomato plants. They are very vigorous.

I also planted some speedwell in the perennial garden. It has purple spikes of flowers that pollinators love. Look closely and you can see there's a bumblebee hanging on the right side of the flowers. The bees just sit there and sip for minutes at a time.

Our CBD plant seems pretty happy. Or do you call it a hemp plant? A cannabis plant? I'm not sure what this plant is for (it's supposed to have no THC so it's not, like, drugs). Maybe we'll dry it at some point.

I hope that your summer has been going OK. Ours is good, though I am trying to firmly NOT overcommit myself or get TOO BUSY. Overbooking yourself is so pre-COVID, man. Here's to treating ourselves and each other more humanely whenever we possibly can, from now on.

Today is my fourth soberversary by the way! I have really been enjoying an alcohol-free life and would recommend it to anyone who feels like booze is playing too big a role in their coping. Read 20 reasons I like not drinking for details--they still hold true 3 years later.

Cheers to you (with seltzer and a side of delicious cheese and crackers)!