"Evening Bit of Blue with Clouds and Ocean," pastel memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

“Evening Bit of Blue with Clouds and Ocean,” pastel memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

 

I’ve always liked the word discombobulate. When I say I feel discombobulated, I’m injecting humor into saying I’m not sure what to do next or why, or which is the best next step, or I’m feeling disoriented and tired. It helps me through, and makes me giggle just a little even to say it, because it gives a seemingly sophisticated turn of phrase to a not very sophisticated or smooth state of being.

The etymology, it turns out, shows that as far as anyone can tell, “discombobulation” is indeed a fanciful Latinate term invented in the 19th century as slang for feeling “discomfitted.” I like this variation of that explanation the best of all, which I paraphrase here from a forum that posits  answers to where the word comes from: “In my opinion, it comes from the Italian word ‘scombussolato,’ which has the same definition, and literally means “of someone whose compass is discomposed or has none.’  ‘Bussola’ is the word for compass in Italian. The alteration of the original word to ‘discombobulated’ follows the classic pattern of enunciation alteration that comes with introducing Italian words into the English language.”

The essence of this posited definition, to be “without a compass,” resonated right on the money with me. That’s exactly what I feel like when I’m “discombobulated.”

A few evenings ago I stopped by to pick up some postcard stamps a friend had kindly purchased for me from the post office. She was off to an art opening, and I sympathized with her about us being introverts and having to get a game face on for public gatherings. While she accomplished that, I said I would be looking for the “recombobulation center–wherever that is”–and I laughed at myself as I said it.

Several years ago I hit on the term “recombobulation,” when it showed up in a photograph a friend of mine had taken at a midwestern airport while traveling. She had snapped a sign defining a cordoned off space as the “recombobulation area.” That just made me laugh no end. I am often in need of a recombobulation area, especially when things have been extra stimulating in many different directions and I can’t keep up.

As the dogs and I continued on our walk, I didn’t think we’d end up down on the sand again. But when we got there, the look and feel of the light on the beach was just so inviting that despite being tired and discombobulated, I decided I had one more down and then back up the stairs again if we would just go down and hang out, enough to let Cotton have a few zoomies (since there was no assembly of sea gulls to tempt him). Lately our beach sand has been “terraced” by the tides. The uppermost level stays pretty dry and is softer and hilly and definitely a workout to slog through. Then it drops off to more wet, flat sand closer to the water, onto which the tides seep up in wide loops. But this surface, too, is built into large hillocks, so that the edge of the water slants uphill. This means you can see the waves forming but sometimes you can’t see them breaking. On very calm evenings like this one,  at lower vantage points you can only hear them.

But the tide was going out, so I wasn’t too worried about invisible sneaker waves lapping up unexpectedly. We were just standing around while Cotton zoomed and I handed out treats here and there, when one of my favorite neighbors came walking down the beach with his old dog Candy. This guy likes to talk, and he’s often curious about my plant-based lifestyle, so we started chatting about what he’d seen on his walk.  Then, behind him, I spied another neighbor coming back from the same direction with her dog, Merlin, who absolutely loves with abandon my two Silkens. He’s often so happy to see them he “kisses” them–which they tolerate in their more aloof Silken style, but do not reciprocate. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so we waved at each other enthusiastically, hugged when she caught up to Jay and I, and then joined our little conversational cabal of humans and happy dogs.

As our conversation settled in, I noticed my legs were getting tired. When that happens I have no compunction about just sitting down on the sand. One dog, probably Romeo, had already placed himself in sphinx like position on one side of me. So I sat down, and soon Cotton took up residence on the other side of me, which, as I mentioned in this post from last year, is often how we assemble ourselves when taking a break in public outdoor parks and beaches.

Despite the fact that it was mostly overcast, as it’s been most days this summer while inland temperatures rise, the sand was still warm. It was like sitting on a pillow heated just to perfection, and I relaxed on to it. I looked out over the horizon and saw the lovely break of blue hovering just over it. It was so peaceful to look out on the calm and the contrasts as we chatted that I began to feel quite centered and grounded in the moment.

Then Jay and Annette both noticed how the dogs were just sitting there peacefully beside me. We could tell the beach was beginning to cool off for the night, but their observation, somewhat couched in wonder at something I often take or granted, made me all the more comfortable. And it brought back to me the experience I had last September sitting up above this stretch of beach, which at that time was exposed bedrock, since the ocean had completely taken away the sand. I wrote about that experience in the post Woosh. If you haven’t read it, you might want to go back and take a look. Because as I sat there with the dogs on either side of me again, I suddenly felt the urge to share the story of my accident and near death experience with my neighbors. They loved my story, and each remarked how rare it is these days that someone even knows how to tell one. It made me happy that they thought I was someone who could.

By the time we were done, the blue out on the horizon was fading and it was time to go home and eat dinner. As we walked back up the hill toward our house, it suddenly occurred to me that I had found my “recombobulation area” right there on the sand, seated between my dogs, my friends listening to me tell, and feel open to telling them, about one of the most extraordinary events in my life, one that has guided me ever since it occurred. I had, indeed, stumbled right into the recombobulation area I had joked about wanting to find.

And so, as is my inclination, I drew a sketch of the view from it, in gratitude, and I share it here with you. Finding one’s compass can happen by accident, when I least expect it. I so trust that. And I’m glad I do.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

 

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When I was growing up I had two Italian Aunt Anns. One was my Dad’s little sister; she lived  in upstate New York with her kids and my Uncle Vince, and she sent beautiful presents for my birthday, like a pair of jade earrings I rarely wore but still cherish. She is still alive,  and going strong, approaching her late 80’s. She winters in Florida every year. The other “Aunt” Ann, was out west in Sacramento where we lived. We weren’t blood relatives, but my Uncle Danny’s family had grown up around the block from my Dad’s in Utica, so finding each other in Sacramento was like a family reunion. We always referred to them as Aunt and Uncle and their two girls as our cousins. In fact their oldest was also named Maria. When we were altogether our names suddenly became “Maria Theresa” and “Maria Judith” so that Moms could yell accurately to the right Maria.

So when I was perusing the reads from Weekend Reading a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but click on this piece in Food 52 about YouTube sensation Clara Cannuccuiari. The last years of her life (in her 90s!) her grandson Christopher convinced her to allow him to film her in her own kitchen making her recipes and telling stories of her life during the depression. The pasta with peas recipe here is inspired by the video embedded in the article, although I couldn’t stop there. I pond hopped from video to video in the course of 48 hours or so until I’d watched every single one. But I came back to pasta with peas, which I wanted to see if I could adapt to be salt and oil free.

Right off the bat I’m going to tell you that any Italian Auntie or Grandma would think me insane for leaving these key ingredients in simple Italian cooking out. I wondered myself how I could get the same consistency and comparable flavor without them–and using gluten free pasta to boot–but I decided it was worth a try.

I followed Clara’s instructions, with a few key innovations that wouldn’t have been accessible in her depression era home, like using frozen instead of canned peas. I love to keep them bright green so I added them at the last minute, once the whole thing was off the heat.

Instead of the oil, I sauteed the onion and potato in a little sore boughtsalt free veggie broth, added after tossing the onion around a bit in the warm pot. I used green onions the first time because that was all I had, and I liked it so much that I used them again the next time in combination with a little bit of yellow onion. I halved the recipe in the video, I’d say, by eye-balling–one unpeeled yellow potato that was half the size of the peeled russet she used in the video, and half a package of brown rice pasta. I added fennel and Utica red pepper flakes to the onion and potato and instead of water to cook the pasta in, I used about 3-4 cups of leftover cooking water from boiling yellow and sweet potatoes and broccoli which had been seasoned with cumin and garlic powder. I threw a whole crushed garlic clove in with the pasta.(I was inspired by how Clara had done this in her tomato sauce recipe–her mother’s “secret,” she claimed, was the whole garlic clove. I kept the heat on the burner until the brown rice pasta was cooked, and then I took it off the heat, added the peas, and covered it for a few minutes.

(Side notes: in case you’re wondering how I eye-ball, I’d say it comes with my Italian genes. And in case you’re wondering how in the world I ended up with Utica grind red pepper flakes on the Oregon Coast, when my Dad died several years ago, my Aunt Ann came out to the funeral. Apparently, honoring a long standing Italian tradition of coming to visit bearing food, she had packed several containers of the Utica grind pepper in her suitcase and handed them out to my cousin Roxanne and my sister. I was in attendance long distance thanks to my son’s pioneering use of his iphone at the time, and so was not gifted my jar of this magical stuff until my sister made a long road trip up to share Thanksgiving with us. She’s since supplied us all at Christmas time, and just this Spring I made my first phone order and talked directly to the grand daughter of the founder. You can do the same if you like right here. You might also be able to find it on Amazon, but it’s more fun to call the family business and talk to the grand daughter.)

The result was amazing. I was surprised at how flavorful it was. Like Clara, who thought it needed “a little something”–one of my favorite scenes in the video–which she remedies by adding a little prepared pasta sauce–I had prepared to add a little tomato sauce and some leftover mashed up winter squash to the bowl I dumped my serving of pasta in. This was a nice addition but honestly, it was completely delicious without it–the kind of delicious that made my eyes widen in surprise when I tasted a “plain” spoonful of it out of the pot.

Since Clara recommends romano grated cheese as a topping, I decided to get a little silly and creative with a vegan grated topping of my own. I treated myself to a tiny bit of grated cashew instead, a lovely touch I learned from Straight Up Food. I don’t have a rotary grater, but I do happen to have a nutmeg grater–and I discovered the round shape of the cashew fits snugly over the rounded shape of the nutmeg grater–and so I can grate just one cashew over my serving of pasta which adds a touch of no oil richness.

cashew on nutmeg grater photo by Maria Theresa Maggi

I paired my pasta and peas with some red cabbage and purple tree collards cooked in broth and garlic. It was an ambrosial lunch I’m already looking forward to.

Like Clara, I did not measure. I eyeballed what I thought half of what she made might look like. I also fretted that the brown rice pasta would not behave as the wheat pasta in the video did, but as long as I kept the heat on until it softened, I was absolutely amazed at how it soaked up the broth and did not sit in a soupy mixture, something I was worried would happen. It looked like it may not do that when I took it off the heat, added the peas, and put the lid on the pot for a few minutes, but when I lifted the lid it was all coated with a nice thick liquid.

Clara’s charm and no-nonsense directness brought me back to every Italian Aunt or cousin or grandma I’ve watched and learned from. It was so comforting and delightful to listen to her stories and in them hear the echo of my own relatives, and to laugh with her when she gets stuck on the word “picturesque”–and then again when she makes the pronouncement that Italians don’t bake, they COOK–although, in another video, she proceeds to make these incredibly labor intensive Sicilian fig cookies for the holidays, which I believe may be a prototype for Susan’s fat free and vegan version Skinny Figgy Bars.

If you haven’t already, give Clara’s videos a watch. She left us a wonderful legacy not only of her family, but of all families. As I marveled at how in the world she can dice up an onion without putting it on the cutting board, with hand motions that put me in mind of how my own Italian father, may he rest in peace, sat at the table patiently cutting up fruit into a bowl in the very same manner, I was also profoundly moved to hear her say in another video that the reason she was so good at that (by this time she was answering questions from an adoring audience) is that they did not have things like cutting boards in their kitchen when she was growing up.

My parents, too, now gone, grew up during the depression, though they were a bit younger than Clara. In these uncertain times, it was comforting to watch every bit of footage of her careful and familiar movements around the kitchen along with the familiar Italian American cadence of her voice, spiced with her memories about getting through hard times and living a long, dedicated, and loving life. Besides like being wrapped in a warm blanket away from the crazy news cycle, it reminded me that many many people, both in this country and the world over, have lived through hard times, and made it work. They thrived even. They overcame. And that gives me hope that we will too, with lessons and inspiration from the past. I stand with a long line of people who loved justice and fought for fairness and equal rights. I lengthen that arc. And to keep me going in that direction, I make a bowl of pasta and peas, in honor of Clara’s life, my family’s lives, and the lives of those who struggled to make ends meet and be seen as worthy human beings when they came or were brought to this country, and I know it’s good food for the current lap of that same journey. Thank you, Clara.  You live on in the hearts of so very many. And so do your recipes.

Maria (moonwatcher)

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