Thursday, October 8, 2009

Leaves (and luck) turning...

Ah, it's fall. I think I've mentioned before how I love fall; I like cool days and darker mornings—although I don't think we need quite as much rain as we've been having lately. In any case, the latest reason for me to love fall is sitting in front of my house: our beautiful new Brandywine maple tree that we planted a couple of months ago.

We have not had a history of good luck with trees at our house. One of the benefits of living in an older subdivision is plenty of mature trees, and when we bought our house in summer 1997 we had plenty of them: ashes as tall as the (two-story) house centered in both the front and back yards; a corkscrew willow for some extra shade in the back, and a cherry by the front sidewalk for a little variety.

When we returned from the UK in summer 2002, however, it was at the same time as the emerald ash borer, an exotic beetle that has since killed more than 30 million ash trees in Southeast Michigan. (No kidding, when we saw a documentary that showed the supposed "ground zero" for the ash borer, it was about two miles from our house.) It wasn't long before our beautiful, tall, shade-giving ash trees were naked and riddled with holes. There wasn't much to be done, so we had them both removed. I planted a garden with a juniper and a dogwood in the back—the corkscrew willow still looms over half the yard—and selected a river birch to replace the ash in front. It won't be as large, but I wanted something different than the rest of the neighborhood, to make it less likely to be susceptible to another epidemic of scale or bugs or whatever. River birches are native to the area, anyway, and it's very nice although it doesn't give much in the way of shade. It didn't need to; it wasn't far from the cherry, which sheltered the front room very well.

Then last summer we had a really big storm; the cherry tree fell, and we were lucky it didn't take anything else with it. We now had tons of sun coming in the front window, which wasn't exactly what we wanted in the summer. We couldn't plant something big, because the birch was already there. We decided to take advantage of a township program that reimbursed for homeowner planting in easements ... but what to plant? Going on the same theory of "not what everyone else has," we selected a London plane tree, which has interesting bark and is supposed to be a hardy tree. We planted it last fall, and waited this spring to see it leaf out....

... and waited and waited and waited. Eventually we contacted the nursery, and they gave the verdict: it was more than 50% dead. "We don't see many of these fail," they told us, but ours managed to do it. Luckily we had purchased one-year insurance (a requirement for the reimbursement), and decided to go with something nearly indestructible. Sure, everyone else has maples, but there's a good reason: they're stubborn and they stick around. And ours is prettier than everyone else's, I think. So here's hoping our arboreal luck has turned, along with the leaves. I really don't want to imagine what could go wrong with the corkscrew willow....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Word Nerd Wonders: What am I eating?

It's no secret that I'm a lazy cook. It's not that I don't like to cook, but the fewer steps involved in preparing a meal, the happier I am. This doesn't mean a dish has to cook quickly; I don't mind keeping an eye on the stove while something simmers or visiting the oven regularly to baste chicken, but those are things I can do while multitasking. Chopping and peeling and fileting require time and focus (it's not good to multitask when a knife is involved), plus extra dishes, and thus I do my best to avoid them.

My favorite way to cut down on cooking effort is to get meat that is pre-trimmed and pre-sliced (or cubed). Handling meat is slimy and messy and maybe-bacteria-laden, so I'd rather just take a package of pre-cubed meat and dump it in the pot. I'm not being lazy, I'm just being hygienic! This is especially crucial when I make a favorite recipe I have for pork-and-squash stew. It's really best to use fresh vegetables, so I already spend close to an hour chopping up onions and carrots and peeling and dicing potatoes and butternut squash when I make this. I really don't want to spend extra time trimming and cubing pork as well.

So on the rare occasions I make this tasty-but-time-consuming dish, I look for pre-diced pork. And one day I was at the grocery store and couldn't find it, so I asked guy working the meat department, "do you have any of that lazy-person's, er, diced pork for stew?" And the guy looked at me and said, "You mean Pork City Chicken? I think we have some over there."

I froze. PORK CITY CHICKEN? I forgot that I needed to find it for dinner; why the hell was it called PORK CITY CHICKEN? I asked the guy, and he said "that's just what we call it." (Sigh. I was hoping the butcher was a closet etymologist, but you can't find everything at Kroger.) So I picked it up and added it to my cart. PORK CITY CHICKEN, the package actually said. I took it home and began preparing stew. PORK CITY CHICKEN, the package taunted. It made no sense. It was pork, but if that was the case, why did it appear as a modifier to "City Chicken"? What was the "city" doing there at all? Did it mean something like "chicken-style pork," and if so, why not just say so? Since I didn't have to spend a lot of time with the pork, I soon stopped obsessing, looking at the mound of potatoes and squash I still had to peel.

Still, every time I bought meat for the stew it preyed upon my mind: PORK CITY CHICKEN. I made it just last week, so now, for your edification and mind, I have finally looked into the possible meaning of PORK CITY CHICKEN. While the origin hasn't been confirmed, the term "city chicken" became prominent around the time of the Depression, when chicken was more expensive than lesser cuts of pork or beef. Thrifty cooks would purchase these cheaper cuts and prepare them in a way that imitated chicken: cubed and breaded, or ground and made into the shape of a drumstick. According to the food timeline site I visited, recipes for "city chicken" seemed to be most prevalent in the Midwest, especially Pennsylvania, with appearances in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.

So there's my answer: "city chicken" means cubed mock chicken, so PORK CITY CHICKEN is "city-chicken-style pork," only with fewer letters on the package. Since Kroger is mainly local to the Midwest, someone there decided to use the old term, even though it's been nearly 80 years since the Depression. (Maybe they knew this latest downturn was coming, although chicken is now cheaper than pork, so I'm not sure that makes sense.) In any case, I have solved this "fowl" mystery, am ready to start "bacon," and hope you enjoyed coming a-loin for the ride.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Photo of the Week--10/5/09

Here's the next in my series of "people and places" photos. We took a trip to Italy in January 1999, so it rained a bit, but it was still a pleasant place to visit. We spent some time in the Roman Forum, ruins of the ancient city of Rome. We wandered around and noticed there were quite a few cats who seemed to live there; then we saw a "cat lady," someone who comes to visit and feed the cats. So although these cats are not pets, neither are they feral; they're friendly enough, and this one sat quietly as Boy posed for a picture. (You can tell by his fake smile that even then he hated posing for me ... it's as almost as if he knew they would end up here, heh heh heh.) If there was a cat on our trips, I usually managed to take a photo, so expect more in my "people and places" series, because cats are people too.