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.

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