For the 31 days of magic project today from Jason Miller’s strategic sorcery community I’m supposed to use a single herb or flower. As a vegetable alchemist who makes his own plant spagyrics, I fully intended to get out my iron pan, my Weber grill, and cook one of the herbs that I need to reduce to white ash. I have several I’m currently working with — lemon balm, rosemary, elderberry (although there are risks involved in burning off to ashes of such a strongly antibiotic plant, allegedly), and more. I know from prior experience that a burn-off of even a relatively simple herb to white ash can take four to six hours. I wanted to get started before I lost daylight, or I’d be up until all hours of the night — not something I can afford to do, usually.
Alas, it was not to be. I had two errands to do on the way home from work, and by the time I reached home, the snows were falling in combination with rain. The driveway, where I’d set up my Weber grill — I mean, my athanor (it’s hard to maintain the formality of alchemical language sometimes) — was slick with something that wasn’t quite yet ice, but would be. And I had three projects going already that I hadn’t counted on doing tonight — prepping for two big days at work on Wednesday and Thursday, and assembling a workbench in the basement for another project planned for a little later in these 31 days.
As always, though, in this series of posts I’m trying to point out the importance of Maker education in modern student experience. More than thirty years ago, budget cuts and insurance issues closed many of the U.S.’s middle school shop classes and home economics programs. Maybe as a child you hated these classes in cooking and sewing, and basic carpentry and draftsmanship; but in truth it’s where you learned a great many skills that are increasingly forgotten: how to measure in fractions, how to use a ruler, how to account for changes in weight and volume, how to estimate, how to sew (neglect not the robe, fellow magicians!), how to cook, how to manage a kitchen and pantry, how to operate hand tools and some power tools (including a sewing machine), and more.
At roughly the same time, cable television began infiltrating schools, as did testing. Students spent more and more time on abstract concepts, and less and less on real-world applications; and more and more time on video (and eventually video games), and less time reading. Although this is not true everywhere in the U.S., and it’s not even true of every child in every part of the country, more and more students are passive or even resistant recipients of information that they are expected to put into their minds for the sole purpose of passing a test, and not for the purpose of living their own lives — building things, repairing or fixing things, using tools, and feeding and entertaining themselves at home.
And so here I am: no ability to roast an herb to a fine powder as I was planning (I almost blew up my kitchen once with an alchemical experiment; the sound of every glass in the kitchen rattling in its cupboard as the explosive burn-off of alcohol completed was something I don’t intend to forget — do not use your regular oven for alchemical calcination… stay outside). And yet, I’m very much minded of the importance to work with a single herb or flower. And to keep preaching the message that Making Matters — that young students have to Make in order to understand That we must all Make in order to understand: what the hands do, the mind comprehends. Otherwise, the information never really sinks in — for a magician, it’s as though your entire working is contemplation, that never manifests in matter.
And I have no herbs or flowers of any kind that aren’t currently allocated to projects.
But what about working with a plant?
I have an acorn squash. I could work with that. And so I turn to one of my favorite grimoires.
Not the Almadel. Not the Clavicula Solomonis. Nor A True and Certain Relation of the doings one one Doctor, John Dee or whatever it’s called.
No, I turn to Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food. I love this cookbook: The first two hundred pages or so are basic cooking techniques with a few key recipes: how to roast, how to broil, how to boil, how to poach, how to roast over coals, how to make vinaigrette and other essential sauces, how to make soup and pasta and polenta. Rice and soufflés, custards and cakes. It doesn’t cover bread, but for that I go to Tassajara.
Someone who mastered the teachings of this grimoire could teach anyone to cook. Not for a restaurant, not for a glittering array of VIPs and celebrities, but for themselves. For friends, for family. Thanksgiving dinner would never be a chore. You would know what to do, when to do it, and how.
Page 324 covers winter squashes, including acorn squashes: cut in half, scoop out seeds and seed-flesh, turn cut-side-down in a roasting pan with a little grease (butter) or on parchment paper (messy), and bake in the oven at around 350°F. How long? Until they’re soft and tender. How long is that?
I have no idea. It could be forty minutes, it could be an hour. I sit with my acorn squash, I thank it for the sacrifice it’s about to make, and ask it to help feed me. I also ask it to help me understand what services it provides to my body, and the risks and the benefits associated with eating it.
And then I slice it in half. I put them cut sides down in a baking dish and slide them into the oven. I set a timer on my phone for 50 minutes, and head down into the basement. I have work to do, and I’m not going to sit around for 50 minutes staring at the computer. One of the prior tasks of the day was to visit the hardware store and the lumber yard. I have some 96″ 2x4s and some plywood in need of my attention.
The graffiti of previous tenants keeps me company as I cut two boards into four 36″ segments and two 24″ segments. Another two boards become 48″ segments as the power saw blade spins around. As with cooking — do all the cutting first, and then do the assembly. Maybe you missed a piece, and it’s important to pre-fit everything, or to get out a larger baking dish… which means more cleanup and more mess. Be efficient. Some more cutting — I mis-estimated… I need another 2×4. . Tomorrow, after work. Darn!
Put the power saw away, and get out the power screwdriver. Connect the 48″ boards on top of 36″ boards at right angles, one at the top and the other 6″ from the bottom. Do that twice. Attach the 24″ rails to the sides. Square the work. Drop the plywood on top, drill it down. Voila, work table!
The phone beeps. I go upstairs, and I’m hungry. The squash isn’t quite cooked, but it smells delicious. I make myself an omelette of feta cheese while the squash cooks another ten minutes. Scrambling eggs? Easy. Thank you, Alice. Crumbling up feta? Easy. There’s a confidence here which comes from local adaptation to what is available. Having a kitchen stocked with things I know how to make into delicious meals? Mise en place, the cook or the Maker’s or the magician’s best friend.
And I eat. Squash first, because I’m working with a plant spirit here. I scoop out the interior of the skin into a bowl. The Squash Spirit speaks to me, and tells me that I only need to eat half of the squash; this is a meal intended for two… and it reveals to me that my largest baking dish will suffice for a feast for four squash halves; and that grandmother’s serving bowl will display this yellow mush quite nicely. The flesh of the squash is delicious and tender, sweetened from the unsalted butter I used to grease the dish. It’s filling, and fulfilling, and warm in my belly. It’s good for my immune system, it tells me, because shortly after I finish eating it, I feel my heart warm up (right shape for it anyway) and my sinuses clear (prevents mucus build-up, apparently). These are guesses, of course, because as near as I can tell, Acorn Squash is not one of the plants which alchemists have known from of old. Maybe Jonathan Trumbull, the alchemist-governor of the Connecticut Colony, knew of it and worked with it. But for now, it seems, this plant is saying, “I am a very satisfying meal after a hard hour’s work sawing and cutting and building. I am a loving and no-fuss part of a meal for two, or a meal and a lunch for one, and I will make your heart happy and your sinuses clear… and in a few hours, I may open you up down below, and help you get rid of the crud you ate earlier today.”
That’s as good an answer as I’m going to get for now. I save the seeds for the compost bin, which I’ll put out in the spring — because what I give back comes back, sooner or later; the skin too, for similar reasons; everything has its place, and there is no away to send it to.
For the Makers and for the teachers: this is the essence of what we’ve forgotten about. It doesn’t all have to be carpentry and power tools and 3D printing and laser cutters. That’s flashy. But the world needs cooks. This country needs cooks, and it needs more of them soon because of the double challenges ahead — the Mexicans who staffed America’s restaurant kitchens are going home to start up their own restaurants and flee our country’s growing immigrant paranoia; and the culinary schools are too expensive. Teaching a middle schooler how to cook is a skill and a secret superpower (supper power) that can never be taken away. If your school has a kitchen, you can empower children even on a very small budget, as masters of the knife, the stove, the oven and the pantry. All it takes is a grimoire, and a single plant, to begin.
And that’s how you work with a plant on the first cold and wintry night in the weirdest January I can remember.