Sunday, May 22, 2011

On The Wings of (Reflected) Glory

A beginning birder started showing up at my Audubon chapter’s field trips last year. She was friendly, smart, and ferociously curious; and despite starting out barely able to tell a penguin and an ostrich apart, a fantastically good sport in a group dominated by experts. She asked tons of (very intelligent) questions, and her eyes lit up at the sight of just about anything with feathers, for every species was new and wondrous to her. Birding with her was a joy – I felt the same vicarious pride in her discoveries that I did in watching my nephews learn to crawl and walk.

One day a few months back, I caught up with her after having missed a few field trips. She recounted her adventures on the last trip with her usual enthusiasm.

“Oh! And after the trip, a bunch of us went to Gilchrist County to look for Burrowing Owls and we found some right by the side of the road!”

Burrowing Owls –there’s no other way to put it – are freakishly adorable. They’re tiny for owls, with improbably long legs, fuzzy egg-shaped bodies, and standard-issue-for-owls enormous yellow eyes. As their name suggests, they live, Hobbit-like, in cozy burrows.

If they didn’t exist in nature, Steven Spielberg and Jim Henson would have probably gotten together, invented them, and put them into a movie as sidekicks to some cute misunderstood kid.

“Wow, that’s great!” I said, genuinely happy for her. “Was that a life sighting for you?”

“Oh yes! I even wrote a poem about them when I got home.”

Oh, that’s nice. I thought. I’m not an expert on poetry, but I met enough well-meaning birders and would-be poets to know that most bird poetry is awful: Why do so many otherwise intelligent people think they’re the first ever to put “fly,” “high,” and “sky” into rhyme? And I had a hard time imagining any poem about Burrowing Owls that wouldn’t be a treacle-drenched train wreck.

Summer came, and we both got busy and stopped running into each other. Then I got my weekly e-mail update from one of the Audubon ringleaders. The subject line of the message: “Local owl hits big time!”

The poem my newbie birder friend had written about the owls was accepted for publication by the New Yorker.

Wow. This was truly amazing and very cool indeed, so I immediately e-mailed her with my congratulations. She e-mailed me back almost immediately.

“Thanks! I’ve actually had several poems published in the New Yorker before, but this is the first in a few years, so it’s kind of exciting.”

This wasn’t the first time I discovered one of my birding pals to be way, way out of my league.

A few years back, when we lived in California, my husband and I started running into the same couple, several years older than us, at all the birding hotspots. He told us that they had just moved to the area for his new job on the faculty of the University of California, Irvine. Like my poet friend, both were friendly and down-to-earth. Unlike her, though, both were expert birders, but they never showed the slightest hint of impatience with our relative cluelessness.

A while later, I Googled him (I had misplaced his e-mail address – and yes, I was being nosy) and found that in his usual humble way, he had radically understated his reason for moving to California. He didn’t just have a teaching post at UCI. He had a freaking endowed chair there.

This shouldn't have surprised me. It was just the latest in a string of several similar revelations I’ve had about friends over the years.

What did astound me, though, was what didn't happen. I realized I didn’t have even the tiniest urge to throttle him. Only few years earlier, such greatness in my midst would have been triggered a week-long pity party. Why can’t I be fabulously talented and famous too?? Why do the fates hate me so much?? The idea of simply taking pride in the company I keep would have been downright insulting.

Something big must have changed between that earlier stage of my life and now – but whatever it was, it happened so gradually I didn’t notice it. And now I can only guess at what it might have been. Maybe this is just a natural developmental stage – midlife is all about navigating the shoals of one’s limitations, and perhaps, just by surviving so far with my dignity more-or-less intact, I’ve successfully maneuvered past that obstacle.

But I like to think this is because of birding. Through birding, I’ve acquired not only interesting and inspirational friends, but perhaps some of the values of the birds I spend way too much time chasing: real winners are those who find the best food and get through the day in one piece, with family and flock mates nearby.


This modest and easy dish is a tribute to several cooks who are way smarter than me. Fresh corn and tomatoes are in season now, and in looking for fun things to do with them, I found numerous simple, summery, yet slightly surprising recipes from chefs and writers I admire: One of Mark Bittman's recipes from his Minimalist column was a salad of corn and tomatoes flavored with soy sauce for yet more umami punch. In the insanely interesting and creative Momofuku cookbook, bad-boy fusion perfectionist David Chang proposes corn flash-sauteed with bacon and scallions. (Like Bittman, he also adds an Asian touch: miso and his custom ramen broth.) A recent rerun of one of Ming Tsai’s cooking shows featured dishes highlighting both cilantro and bacon, two things I love but never thought to combine. Finally, one of my go-to everyday cookbooks – Deborah Madison's  Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone–– features corn and tomatoes as a rustic Mexican-themed pasta topping.

My tribute to these fine cooks (I no longer stew over why I can’t be them, but I still strive to be more LIKE them) is a quick and summery pasta topping with fresh corn and tomatoes, flavored with bacon, cilantro, and a dash of soy.


Kernels from 2 ears of corn

2 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/3-inch dice

3 strips of bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice

3 scallions, cut into fine rounds

½ cup chopped cilantro

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 finely chopped jalapeno or other hot pepper (optional)

1/2 pound spaghetti

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Saute the bacon in a wide skillet until crisp. Remove and drain the bacon, remove the skillet from heat, and reserve it and the bacon fat left behind.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and begin cooking the spaghetti.

3. Return the saute pan with the bacon grease to the stove and bring it to high heat. Add the corn and cook, stirring constantly, until it is lightly seared.

4. Add the soy sauce, tomatoes, scallions, and hot pepper (if using) and cook, stirring, for about a minute, until the scallions have wilted slightly and the tomatoes start to look cooked on the outside (They should still be firm enough to hold their shape).

5. When the pasta is done, drain it and toss with the corn and tomato mixture. Toss in the cilantro and cooked bacon and serve immediately.

Rhodes to Nowhere: A Mortifying Adventure (and a Recipe)

I could have been a contender.

I was SUPPOSED to be a contender. I breezed effortlessly through grade school and high school, earning A’s on almost everything I touched. I boasted an impressive array of extracurricular activities, from multiple honors societies to volunteering at a local hospital to playing electric bass in my high school’s jazz band.

Just as I was supposed to, I got admitted to Stanford (there are advantages to being both a baby-bust kid and a legacy). There, the kindly teachers at my small Catholic high school warned, my golden years as a big fish in a small pond would end. Colleges, they warned, can be cruel and merciless places. You’ll be an anonymous face in a lecture hall of hundreds, graded on a curve against kids just as smart as you – and yes, there are a lot of them out there. No one will be there to pick you up when you fall. Or to warn you against making potentially dangerous mistakes. Danger! Danger!

At Stanford, they were honest enough not to deny this.

“Almost all of you came in here with straight A’s,” the admissions director (a hero to us incoming freshmen) told us during an obligatory orientation assembly, “But almost none of you will leave here that way.”

The class work at Stanford was – just as promised – more difficult and demanding by multitudes than it was in high school. I read more in a typical week than I did in a whole semester back home. Then the day came when I was to get back the first major graded assignment of my college career: a research paper in my Western Cultures class.

“I know most of you are used to getting A’s from high school,” the fatherly British professor leading my discussion section said, “But you’re not in high school anymore. This is Stanford, and you are being held to a higher standard. Do not take my grade to you as a personal affront. Read my comments and learn from them – that’s what you’re here for.”

I took my paper, trying to control the tremble of my hands as I flipped through it, skimming past the underlined passages and handwritten comments in the margins. Finally, I got to the last page, and there it was at the bottom: A -minus.


I got through my first quarter at Stanford with two A’s and one A-minus (in Western Cultures). Most of my subsequent quarters were an honorable mix of A’s, A-minuses, and the occasional B+. Meanwhile, I threw myself into extracurriculars – at some point or another, I ended up editing or writing for most of the major student publication on campus. I was an English major and I qualified for the department’s senior honors program. My CV was looking pretty darn good, if I did say so myself.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. At Stanford, almost all the undergraduate dorms had a live-in faculty member – the resident fellow –who was supposed to help organize the dorm’s cultural and social events and be a positive role model for us. He or she was also supposed to act as an informal academic advisor. The resident fellow in my dorm thought I was just the bees’ knees.

“You should consider this for next year,” he said, handing me a folded flyer one day during my junior year. “With your grades and extracurriculars, you should be a very strong candidate.”

I unfolded the flyer: announcements for that year’s Rhodes and Marshall Scholarship competition.

Wow. I was still pretty clueless then, but even I knew what these were. Dad had told me about the Rhodes Scholarship, way back in grade school: how the foundation chose two exceptional college students from each state every year, and gave each a two-year scholarship to Oxford, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Rhodes Scholars became presidents, senators, and captains of industry. Maybe, Dad said smiling, you will get one of those scholarships someday, if you work hard enough.

That someday was now on the horizon.

When the same flyer (with the dates changed) re-appeared the following year, I made note of it. At the obligatory orientation meeting for potential applicants –there weren’t as many as I had expected – we were told that the process involved several interviews. The first of these was the only one we’d all do: it was with the campus-internal Rhodes selection committee, which would recommend candidates to be sent on to the next round of competition.

Okay, this was do-able. The written application would be a boatload of work but well within my capacities. It involved several essays, and I was good at essays. And most of the other applicants – at least the ones I recognized – didn’t seem any more impressive than I was, at least from what I knew of them.

The day of my interview arrived. Suddenly, I was nervous to the point of catatonia. What were they going to ask? What if I didn’t know the answer? This was my moment of reckoning, and I was so tense and numb I could barely breathe, let alone speak insightfully about my grand plans for Oxford and the rest of my life.

I found myself in a narrow meeting room dominated by a heavy wooden conference table. Around the table were about half a dozen grey-haired figures, each of whom had a copy of my application and a yellow legal pad in front of him. A large glass pitcher of ice water was about to drip beads of sweat onto the table, and so was I.

“Miss Lee, welcome!” one of the grey-haired figures said, standing. He introduced himself as the chair of the committee. “Please let me introduce you to the other members. We’re looking forward chatting with you about your application.”

As he introduced each member – I no longer remember their names, if I even registered them in the first place – the member extended his hand and I reached out to give it an appropriately firm-but-not-too-firm handshake.

“...And this is Professor Smith,” the chair continued.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, reaching across the table towards his outreached hand--

I never reached it. Instead, something hard bumped my elbow and crashed against the table. Professor Smith leapt to his feet, water and crushed ice rolling off his crotch. The water pitcher was on its side.

My life was over.

Trauma victims often report having no memory of the very worse parts of their traumatic experiences. For that, a friend of mine told me, she is grateful: it's as if her subconscious deliberately deleted those terrifying and degrading images so she'd never have to relive them again.

That's probably why I can't remember how the rest of my interview went. But I do remember the sinking realization that my star had fallen – hard. With one stupid strike of my elbow, I had gone from Promising Young Thing to washed-up has-been.

Back at the dorm, I locked myself in my room and dialed the one person who could make this all better—my buddy Jeff. Jeff was one of the campus’ golden boys (I was surprised that he wasn’t in the running for a Rhodes himself), a perpetual optimist, and a strong brotherly shoulder to cry on. He answered on the first ring.

“Hey! How was the big interview?”

“Awful! I was being introduced to the selection committee, I tried to shake hands with one of them and guess what? I knocked a pitcher of water over into his lap!”

I heard him gasp. “”

I waited. He took a loud breath. There was a pregnant – and I assumed, sympathetic – pause on his end of the line.

“...THAT’S SOOO FUNNY!” I heard Jeff’s footsteps pounding away from the phone, then his voice somewhere off in the distance. “HEY GUYS! CHECK THIS OUT, IT’S HILARIOUS! Felicia had her Rhodes interview just now and guess what...?”

He was still laughing when he picked up the receiver again. “Seriously, they HAVE to send you on to the next round now! You know that, don’t you?”

They didn’t. And yet I’m still alive, many, many years later.

Like every other stressful, difficult thing that happened to me at Stanford, this taught me a lesson, even though I didn’t realize it at the time: Laugh and the world laughs with you. But it still won’t give you that free ride to Oxford.


In honor of my Oxford idyll that never was, I present an atypically luscious English dessert: banoffee pie, a toothsome combination of caramel, bananas, and coffee-flavored whipped cream. It was invented by chef Ian Dowding in the 1970s.

Appropriately enough, it was invented in an attempt to replicate a recipe for a toffee-coffee pie that almost always failed. Dowding discovered that the temperamental toffee recipe in the original pie could be replaced, and improved upon, with dulce de leche (though he doesn’t call it that) – caramelized sweetened condensed milk. He added bananas to the mix, and his new invention soon spread all over England. The pie is a flavorful and comforting reminder of the redemptive potential of embarrassing mistakes.

Banoffee pie, like a good melody, is subject to riffing and variation, and numerous versions exist. Some use pastry crust (as does Dowding’s original recipe) while others use crumb crusts. Pace Dowding, I think the relentless mush and creaminess of bananas, caramel, and whipped cream cry out for a dramatic textural contrast, so I’ve used a nubby crumb crust made with whole-wheat digestive biscuits (borrowing an idea from a recipe in Saveur) combined with finely chopped hazelnuts for extra crunch and flavor. Sadly, most banoffee pie variations use plain sweetened whipped cream rather than Dowding’s coffee whipped cream. To me, the coffee flavoring is non-negotiable: it really makes the pie special.

Besides the nuts in the crust, my other twist on the dish involves a trick I learned in cooking school: Whipped cream, if left to sit for more than a few hours, tends to separate and lose its volume and shape. Dissolving a little unflavored gelatin in cream before whipping it helps it keep its texture and shape for several days, so I’ve added a bit of it to the pie topping. The gelatin does not affect the flavor of the cream or make it even remotely bouncy, but makes the pie slice more cleanly. I deliberately kept the sugar level down in the coffee-flavored cream because the caramel and bananas provide sweetness enough.


For the crust:

1 7-ounce package digestive biscuits

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup whole, roasted hazelnuts

For the dulce de leche:

1 ½ cans (21 ounces total) sweetened condensed milk

For the coffee whipped cream:

1 ½ cups whipping cream

1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee

2 teaspoons sugar

½ envelope unflavored gelatin powder

2-3 ripe bananas, sliced

finely powdered instant coffee for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Grind the digestive biscuits into fine crumbs in a food processor, then place them in a medium mixing bowl.

3. Put the hazelnuts in the food processor and pulse them until they are finely chopped but not powdery. Add them to the bowl with the crumbs, along with the melted butter.

4. Combine the melted butter thoroughly with the crumbs and butter, then press the mixture firmly along the sides and bottom of a 9-inch pie pan. Press firmly with your hands or the back of a spoon so the mixture will cohere and form a layer of even thickness.

5. Bake the crust for about 15 minutes, or until nicely browned and fragrant. Remove the crust from the oven and set it aside to cool.

6. Meanwhile, make the dulce de leche: cook the sweetened condensed milk in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the milk has caramelized and turned golden. This will take about an hour and a half.

7. While the dulce de leche cools, make the whipped cream: Heat ½ cup of the cream, along with the instant coffee and sugar, just until it feels hot to the touch. Stir to dissolve the coffee completely.

8. Remove the cream from the heat and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the surface of the cream. When the gelatin has softened, stir it into the cream until it is fully dissolved. Set the cream aside to cool to room temperature.

9. When the coffee-flavored cream has cooled, add it and the remaining cup of cream to a mixer fitted with a balloon whip. Whip the cream at high speed until stiff peaks form.

10. Spread the dulce de leche evenly over the bottom of the baked and cooled pie crust. Top it with an layer of banana slices (they should cover the dulce de leche completely). Then top the bananas with the coffee-flavored whipped cream – use a piping bag and star tip to apply it in decorative rosettes, if desired.

10. Chill the pie for at least an hour before serving. Garnish with the ground instant coffee just before serving.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Eat Like a Bird!

This Northern Parula flew 1,000 miles or more across the Gulf of Mexico – without stopping, eating, or sleeping – before landing in Florida during spring migration. This grueling flight took the tiny bird-- just over 3 1/2 inches long -- somewhere between 18 and 25 hours.

Before setting off on this flight, he spent some serious time fueling up. In the days leading up to his trip, he piled on the calories, ballooning from a lithe 1 ounce or less to a staggeringly obese 2 ounces – virtually doubling in weight. Wired  graphically described this phenomenon of avian gluttony as “the equivalent of having a hamburger for lunch on Monday, and 100 hamburgers for lunch on Friday.”

When Mammy urged Scarlett O’Hara to eat like a bird, this probably wasn’t what she had in mind.

Those of us who enjoy watching birds also pick up strange eating habits during migration. These usually involve consuming large quantities of coffee before sunrise, feeding from ziplock bags filled with trail mix, and toting energy bars bent and flattened from hours in our back packets. Like our avian quarry, birders focus on high-protein, high-energy natural food sources when on the road. Birder snacks of choice usually involve nuts, seeds, whole grains, and/or fruit, often scented with hints of bug spray, sunscreen, and car exhaust. On the other hand, migrating songbirds – even some that typically eat seed – favor the high-calorie goodness of insects and their larvae, food sources most birders tend to avoid.

Still, our eating habits can be frighteningly similar. When shopping for bird seed for my backyard feeders recently, I saw a shiny little bowl filled with freshly shelled Brazil nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds and unusually fat raisins. I was about to help myself to few bites when I realized it was sample of one of the store’s specialty birdseed mixes.

And it looked better by magnitudes than most of the cheap-ass trail mix I’ve lugged around on birding trips. The woodpeckers around here eat better than I do.

My husband and I joke that someday, we’ll have to buy a bag of that super-fancy fruit-and-nut mix, pour some into a pretty bowl, and feed it to our birder buddies. My prediction is that they’ll think it looks familiar, but assume it’s that pricey brand of organic snack mix they never quite felt like splurging on.

And since it’s near the end of another spring migration season and my Audubon chapter is holding its annual end-of-the-birding-year potluck soon, the occasion for our little experiment is now upon us! MWAA HA HA!

Seriously...I’m not going to do it. But I will do something very much like it. As a tribute to those hard-working birds and my friends who love them, I devised a munchable treat with the same base ingredients as that fancy bird mix – peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, and bigger, blingier nuts of some kind. And millet, because almost all birdseed mixes contain copious amounts of it. But being a good citizen, I resisted the urge to take these from a 25-pound bag with NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION printed on it.

Because just plain old nuts and raisins mixed together seem kind of abstemious, particularly for a festive occasion, I spiced them them up and converted them into a sweet-salty-tangy-spicy cocktail nibble. I’ve always been addicted to Indian snack mixes – exhuberently spicy blends of fried grains, nuts, dried fruit, and spices – and I’ve modeled the seasoning in my mix after these. The recipe on which I base my spice mix comes from Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking.


The optional cayenne chile in my souped-up birdseed mix not only makes me happy (since I love hot stuff) but evokes two rituals familiar to birders. Serious backyard birders know that an effective technique for keeping squirrels off suet and other bird feeder food is to spike it with hot pepper, since squirrels can’t tolerate the taste of it. Birds, on the other hand, can’t taste chiles at all. This evolutionary adaptation both allows the birds an additional food source and enables them to propagate chile plants, whose seeds pass undamaged through their digestive systems: a win-win for both the eater and the eaten.

Spicy, salty, snacky food, of course, also goes beautifully with beer. And for some sociological reason I’m still trying to figure out, serious birders are very often passionate hopheads as well. On the last fall migration count I did, two of the guys on my team brought a nice assortment of microbrews to go with their sack lunches. One of my favorite birding blogs occasionally features knowledgeably written reviews of beers that happen to have birds on their labels. The birds, I suspect, are just a happy excuse to enjoy another beer.

And so is my “birdseed.” Enjoy!


Notes: Jaffrey’s recipe – which uses a different assortment of grains and nuts than I chose to use – calls for raw nuts and grains, all to be separately deep-fried and carefully drained. She assures readers the end result will not be greasy and she’s probably right (she usually is where Indian cooking is concerned). But if you don’t need to double in weight for an upcoming trip or don't want to mess up your kitchen, oven-roasting the nuts or using already-roasted ones will work just fine, at least for the choice of nuts and grains I have used.

Spiced Birder Seed

3 whole cloves

a 3/4-inch piece from a cinnamon stick

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

neutrally flavored oil (such as canola) as needed for frying

2/3 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts (or raw peanuts, deep-fried and drained)

2/3 cup roasted, unsalted cashews (or raw cashews, deep-fried and drained)

1/3 cup shelled, roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds (or raw seeds, deep-fried and drained)

1/3 cup shelled, roasted, unsalted pumpkin seeds (or raw seeds, deep-fried and drained)

4 tablespoons raisins, briefly deep-fried until puffy and drained.

3 cups puffed (NOT raw) millet

2 tablespoons canola or other neutrally flavored oil

½ tablespoon whole black mustard seeds

3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon or more ground cayenne, or to taste (optional)

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

2 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons ground amchoor

1. Grind the cloves, cinnamon stick, and peppercorns together in a mortar and pestle until powdery; set aside.

2. Combine the nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, millet, and raisins in a large bowl; set aside.

3. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat and add the 2 tablespoons oil. When hot, add the mustard seeds.

4. When the mustard seeds have stopped sizzling and popping, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the sesame seeds, turmeric, and cayenne.

5. Pour the fried seeds, spices and oil over the millet, nut, and raisin mixture. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until the seasonings are evenly distributed.

6. Cool the mixture, then store it in an airtight container.