Thursday, February 25, 2010

Friendship and Good Cooking

I met Peter Roberge, the new Executive Chef at Skagit Valley Hospital. He is masterminding a culinary revolution at the hospital, and I am more than thrilled to see this happening.

The hospital, until recently, served typical institutional cooking -- instant mashed potatoes, industrial-strength gravy and overcooked frozen vegetables.

They didn't cook. They defrosted. I know. I worked at the hospital these past two years. The salad bar was a little bit decent, I must admit, but a large portion of the staff avoided the cafeteria and brought takeout or food from home.

Comes now Peter Roberge, representing Thomas Cuisine, a company that has been awarded a contract for the hospital kitchen.

Roberge said, "We make everything from scratch." I could not believe my ears, but I went to the cafeteria yesterday to check it out --- fresh string beans! Tasty, al dente. Red cabbage shredded and served in a mound. I like cabbage to be cooked until tender, so Roberge did it just right for me. I figure if you want raw cabbage you can have coleslaw.

Anyway, the meal included pork tenderloins -- not overcooked until they were dry as a bone, but still juicy, served with a lightly-herbed mustard sauce.

I no longer work at the hospital, but I dreamed of this day. You can eat at the cafeteria now -- the food is good.

Local Produce. I met Roberge at the Farm-to-Table conference on Monday -- a meeting of local growers and those who would buy from them -- like the Food Co-op, some of the area restaurants, and people who organize farmers markets.

Roberge was there because he wants to buy the best of the local produce -- and he will find it, from potatoes to leeks to endive to mushrooms.

I challenged him. Isn't it more expensive to buy fresh produce, plus the extra labor in preparing it for the table? He said, "I don't care what it costs."

Roberge was not being glib, but quite practical. In fact, he has raised prices at the hospital cafeteria, but, because the food is so much better, more people are eating there. In other words, the fresh local produce is paying for itself. Isn't that good news? People will pay for quality.

It ties into the great health care debate. Americans spend 10 percent of their money on food, and 17 percent of their money on health care. The proportions are exactly backward. If we spent more money on good food, we would get sick less often and our health care costs would decline.

Friendship: an excerpt from the Frog Hospital book, to be published this summer

Much has been said about the American family -- the family is the strength of our nation, the values of a family are so very important, and we need to keep and cherish those values.

Not to defend or define those values here, but to mention something equally important -- friendship.

Friendship is not unique to America, but we might compare our society to the undeveloped world where the extended family is the norm, in Latin America or Africa where a man counts his relatives in the dozens -- large families that depend on and care for each other. In countries where the government is often rapacious and confiscatory, where social services are nonexistent, the extended family is the sole tool for survival. Care of the elderly falls on the children and grandchildren -- there is no choice in that, and less virtue because there is no choice.

The extended family, this large and warm unit, is also the main source of corruption in poorer countries. If you have a government post, and your cousin needs a job, you will take care of him. If your business prospers, all your relatives will line up with their hands out. It is your duty to care for them above others.

It’s not merit, but relation, that allocates the rewards of society in those countries.

America is different. We send our cousins Christmas cards, but we don’t expect to feed them. Even a brother, applying for a position, would be subject to close scrutiny. “Sure, if he’s qualified,” we would say, but not for a favor.

Blood is thicker than water, and many of us would make a great sacrifice for our close kin, but the sense of fairness, and of equality for all, is so strong here, that the corruption of family ties is at a minimum.

What we have instead is friendship -- smaller, nuclear families and a web of friendship that unites and levels the country. Friendship is freedom. You choose your friends. Friendship is responsibility, because the friends you choose are a reflection on your character. Friendship is voluntary, even a long-standing friendship must be earned from time to time in small or large ways.

We might do a favor for a friend, or even surrender our lives, we might support them in illness, or go their bail, but it is always because we choose to. That’s freedom in America.
The family is good and essential, but it has never been enough.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

send mail to:

Fred Owens
Box 1292
LaConner WA 98257

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's Time for Obama to go Home

It's time for President Obama to go home to that place which gives him the strength and spirit to be our leader. He needs to go back to the South Side of Chicago. He needs to go back to the Trinity Church and join in the choir singing -- being there with Michele, with his two girls by his side.

I wish he was back there now, instead of in the White House, where he gets paler and weaker every day. Washington DC is just sucking the life out of that man. Those people aren't his true friends.

Go home, Mr. President. Go home to the South Side of Chicago.

I've been talking with a woman who comes from the South Side. She's a white woman, from the far, far South Side, but that doesn't matter. I recognize the energy that she has -- a kind of energy that comes from what may be America's largest and most powerful neighborhood.

Mayor Daley, father and son, are from the South Side. It's real.

The most important decision Barack Obama ever made was to choose that neighborhood as his home. He had a rootless childhood and then earned a law degree from Harvard. He could have lived anywhere in the country and made a very handsome living. He could have lived in San Francisco, or Manhattan, or Honolulu -- the world was at his feet.

But he choose Chicago, and he chose the South Side, and that's why he's the President.

He could have had a good and prosperous life in San Francisco or Manhattan, but he would not have become President.

I know, and he knows, it was that neighborhood that got him where he is today. That neighborhood and his remarkable wife Michelle who is rooted on those streets.

And that "reviled" church, that wonderful, soulful, gospel-truth church, where he sat in the pews every Sunday morning for so many years -- appearing diffident, appearing detached. That doesn't matter. He heard the singing and the preaching, and those words gave him the power to become President.

Go back home, Mr. President. Go back to your church and your barber shop and your streets of gold. Yes, they are streets of gold, if you have the eyes to see that.

Big City Values. I support President Obama because he represents big city values. The vast majority of Americans live in the big cities and their suburbs. This is who we really are, and this is where we will solve our problems and make our future.

I think this small town talk is all nonsense. I have lived most of my adult life in a very small town, LaConner, with less than one thousand people. I love it here. It's a great place to live and raise a family.

But to say that a small town is the embodiment of civic virtue -- that's a joke. We are no more honest, no more courageous, no more generous, and no more patriotic than our friends in the big city.

The people of small towns have no more virtue, and no fewer vices, than those who live in the big cities.

LaConner is my home and my source of strength, but our President needs to spend more time in his home and find his strength again, and that's in the South Side of Chicago.

The Frog Hospital T-shirt. The spring subscription drive will be underway soon. And this year we have something new and special -- a Frog Hospital T-shirt. As soon as we get it finished and ready to ship, we can make this offer -- when you a buy a srubscription you will receive a free T-shirt. This is going to really awesome.

The Frog Hospital Book. Sometime after the T-shirt extravaganza, the Frog Hospital book will be published, probably this summer. I got the manuscript back from the editor and I am making revisions. I have read the manuscript numerous times, and I still like it, so I think it will be a pretty good book.

When I'm finished revising, the manuscript will to to a proofreader and then to the book designer, and then to the printers. I'm working with a great group people on this.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger died last week. I always wondered about these people who read Catcher in the Rye and then figured that Salinger owed them an explanation.

Why did anybody pester him? I took him at face value. He wanted to be left alone. Then you don't get to ask why, you just leave him alone.

Or he was supposed to write more books. Didn't Salinger know, better than anyone else, if he had another book to write? Again, take Salinger at face value. He wrote one American classic, Catcher in the Rye, and another very good book, Franny and Zooey, and a few short stories.

That's all he wrote. He gave us something wonderful, so who are these people saying they didn't get enough? Geez!

Catcher in the Rye was wonderful, but the book I really loved was Franny and Zooey. I loved their warm, over-stuffed apartment in Manhattan in the 1950s. It was such a nice family.

The oldest brother had committed suicide, which was a tragedy that can strike anyone's family. And the story in the book, is about how Franny Glass, the youngest child, was having a nervous breakdown.

But she had a home to come to, that large, wonderful, boisterous apartment, and she collapsed on the living room couch and slept all day. Her mother kept bringing her food and tried to get her to talk, but Franny would just turn her face to the wall and cry.

Her older brother Zooey, who still lived at home, was able to help Franny deal with her crisis, and that's the story of the book.

I've heard critics say that the Glass family was dysfunctional. No, they weren't. They were about average. They were more like everybody's else's family. They had crisis and tragedy, but it felt like such a good home when you read the book.

This is my favorite scene. It has one very long sentence, which is triumph of writing in the English language.

Zooey Glass, age 25 or so, is taking a bath in his parents' large, over-furnished old apartment in Manhattan. The Glass family is Jewish-Irish. His mother walks into the bathroom. The year is 1955. The passage begins:

Zooey's voice suddenly and suspiciously spoke up: "MOTHER? What in Christ's name are you doing out there?"

Mrs. Glass undressed the package and now stood reading the fine print on the back of a carton of toothpaste. "Just kindly button that lip of yours," she said, rather absently. She went over to the medicine cabinet. It was stationed above the washbowl, against the wall. She opened it's mirror-faced drawer and surveyed the congested shelves with an eye—or rather the masterly squint—of a dedicated medicine-cabinet gardener. Before her, in overly luxuriant rows, was a host, so to speak, of golden pharmaceuticals, plus a few technically less indigenous whatnots. The shelves bore iodine, Mercurochrome, vitamin capsules, dental floss, aspirin, Anacin, Bufferin, Argyrol, Musterole, Ex-Lax, Milk of Magnesia, Sal Hepatica, Aspergum, two Gilette razors, one Shick injector razor, two tubes of shaving cream, a bent and somewhat torn snapshot of a fat black-and-white cat asleep on a porch railing, three combs, two hairbrushes, a bottle of Wildroot hair ointment, a bottle of Fitch Dandruff Remover, a small, unlabelled box of glycerine suppositories, Vicks Nose Drops, Vicks VapoRub, six bars of Castile soap, the stubs of three tickets to a 1946 musical comedy ("Call Me Mister"), a tube of depilatory cream, a box of Kleenex, two seashells, an assortment of used-looking emery boards, two jars of cleansing cream, three pairs of scissors, a nail file, an unclouded blue marble (known to marble shooters, at least in the twenties, as a "purey"), a cream for contracting enlarged pores, a pair of tweezers, the strapless chassis of a girl's or woman's gold wristwatch, a box of bicarbonate of soda, a girl's boarding-school class ring with a chipped onyx stone, a bottle of Stopette—and inconceivably or no, quite a good deal more.

J.D. Salinger. May he rest in peace.

Man dies in torch fire accident on farm

ELTOPIA, Wash. (AP) -- A man was killed in an accident on a farm near Eltopia.

The Franklin County sheriff's office says 75-year-old Everett D. Monk was cutting scrap metal in a field with a torch Saturday when his clothes caught fire. The Tri-City Herald reports he apparently died of burns.

A friend found the body.

I read this story in a farming newspaper. Eltopia is only a stop on the highway, way out in Eastern Washington in the sagebrush country.
The accident happened last November. Something about this very short news story struck a chord with me, and I began to imagine this man's life. Everett Monk, 75, cutting scrap metal with a torch, working out in a field. Then his clothes caught on fire and the fire killed him.

Age 75, working out in the field his whole life. He was always careful, but you know you can catch it anytime, and he did. I wondered, his family must have wondered, how much he suffered, how long the flames tormented him, how long he laid on the ground before they found him.

Maybe a younger man could have rolled quickly on the ground and put out the flames. But Everett Monk was 75 and he kept working because that's what he knew how to do. He was not being careless, but these things can happen.

He lived his whole life until it ended. That's the feeling I got when I read this very short story, and I admired Everett Monk for the kind of man he was.

Two Deaths. Two deaths in this issue of Frog Hospital. Two men, one famous and one not. It's February now and the light is coming back to the Skagit Valley. People are coming out of their caves and starting to smile again. The weather has been very mild. The daffodils are coming up early.

I like living in 2010 so far. I like that number -- how it sounds and how it looks on the page, so I'm hoping we all have a very good year.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

send mail to:

Fred Owens
Box 1292
LaConner WA 98257