Tools determine Output

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Here’s a popular dessert in our house. It’s frozen cherries (but sometimes mango or peaches or berries) mixed with a little extract — usually vanilla but sometimes almond or hazelnut — and then blended with a mix of milk and half&half (or heavy cream) until smooth. Ish.

It’s not ice cream but it tastes like ice cream. It’s not sorbet but it tastes like sorbet. It’s sort of an ice milk, I guess? But it isn’t. What it is, is a dessert. We eat it straight out of the blender instead of letting it “set” in the freezer, because we find the setting process makes it disgusting. You eat this fresh or not at all.  You also eat the variants from time to time, too: peach cream where the peaches have been in the freezer too long; or where there’s not enough milk or too much almond extract. The balance is never exact.

But it’s dependent on the tools. Without the blender or the food processor, without the refrigerator, without the whole apparatus to harvest cherries in season and flash freeze them, without milk or cream, this dessert is impossible. It’s not a dish of Ancient Rome; it’s a dish of modern Americans looking to avoid too much processed sugar in their diets.

A makerspace can have a range of tools of all kinds — but without accurate measuring tools, all projects will be sort of sloppy (With accurate measuring tools, projects may still be sloppy, but that’s the choice of the maker). No sandpaper and no files? Projects wind up looking a little rough.  No paint or stain? Things look a little unfinished, more structural, with more emphasis on materials. No drills, no saws? — projects wind up being made of other things than wood.

Tools determine output. If your MakerSpace is producing projects with a lot of bent nails, you might want to take a look at how many hammers you have, and perhaps invest in some saws or drills.  Or maybe a sewing machine…

Or maybe an ice cream maker.

Cooking: Mariner’s Sauce


I’ve been doing some cleanup around the apartment during this Holy Weekend, and among the things I found was my grandfather’s recipe for Mariner’s sauce, or marinara.  My grandfather was a sailor, a chemist, a scientist, a navigator, and a talented cook. His neighbors thought he was a CIA operative, because he was so urbane and sophisticated, and regularly spent time in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or France or California or Texas.  He invented some of the earliest filters and scrubbers for the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants, and the royalties from those patents allegedly paid for his retirement for many years.  He worked for multimillionaire oil barons in the 1940s and 1950s, brewed explosive formulas for the World War bomb factories before that, and identified aspirin as a potential wonder-drug to his daughters in the early 1960s.  More

31 DoM: Cook a Magical Meal


Today’s 31 Days of Magic project, the last for me, is to cook a magical meal.  This project grew up out of Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery community, and I resolved to do all of the activities this month.  And today, I complete that process.

31 DoM: magical meal On the one hand, I can’t claim that spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce is particularly original. This isn’t a fancy meal by any stretch of the imagination. (To be fair, there was also salad, which I forgot to photograph).

But, on the other hand, it has three things going for it.  First of all, I was able to pull together this meal of several ingredients from what I already had in my kitchen, and some hamburger meat that I bought on my way home from the conference.  Which means that I’ve established Mise en place in my kitchen: there are things in my kitchen and pantry that I can turn into food in short order.  Second, thanks to the grimoire of Alice Waters, The Art of Simple FoodI know how to make meatballs in short order without thinking too much about the recipe or even looking it up.  I also know how to doctor this spaghetti sauce so that it reflects my tastes a little more than ‘straight out of the jar’.

And third, I was feeding a guest, a partner in the upcoming adventures of my life.  We reviewed the weekend just passed, and considered the ways that the next few weeks will be transformative in our lives.  And behold, even over a very simple meal, a happy fortune of the future is told.

Sometimes a meal doesn’t have to be any more magical than that.

31 DoM: Use a single herb/flower


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.

31DoM:  The Book of Sacred Law

The Book of the Law

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.

31DoM: squash

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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.

31DoM: squashAnd 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.


Design Thinking: Fimo clay

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Serpent’s eggI sometimes feel like we don’t give Fimo clay enough credit as a design material.  It’s not cheap, admittedly. And it takes a while to get good at working with it.  But from jewelry to simple decorative forms, to the creation of cast-able parts, it’s got a lot of things going for it, like being used to create solid and open forms. It’s almost as versatile as ceramic.  More, unlike ceramic, it can be cooked to hardness at 275° F (135° C).

I’m not very good at working with it, but a colleague of mine is, and she’s good at teaching some of these skills to other students.  I’ve picked up a few things from her, which allowed me to experiment with a few pieces this morning.

Serpent’s eggFirst, why the experiment in the first place? Well, I’m creating one of the key tools of my Druidic work, moving on from the Bardic grade — namely, the Serpent’s Egg.  Frankly, I’m not yet sure what the egg does, aside from be a symbolic representation of the alchemical work I’ve done so far.  A lot of this has involved processing plants in various ways — changing them from raw plant matter to dust through a process called maceration, extracting essential oils from the plant dust, and then recombining the plant material with the essential oils through fiery processes called calcination and cohobation.  It’s all very mysterious.  The Serpent’s Egg eventually contains some bits of all this work. Which means that it has to be a container.  Which means that it has to hold both liquid and solid.  And it’s meant to be worn at times.  So it’s kind of like jewelry, and kind of like an egg, and how should this be made, anyway?

Serpent’s eggI wish I’d taken more photographs of the process of rolling out the clay, and then shaping this tube of colored clay, called a cane, from three layers of different colored green Fimo clay.  I didn’t have an extruder; this was done mostly by hand with a couple of straight edges. So my triangles were not as regular as I imagined they would be.  Still, I’m enough of a D&D player to know that there are D4s (tetrahedrons), D8s (octahedrons) and D20s (icosahedrons) which are made up of triangles, and that any of these shapes could serve as a rough form for the Serpent’s Egg.

So, I cut up my cane into numerous slices, and then began assembling them into containers with lids, each of about the right size to serve as a Serpent’s Egg. And because I’m a designer, and I believe in concurrent sigilization, I made three containers rather than just one to see how it turned out.

Serpent’s eggI’m enough of a magician to want to avoid giving you a complete picture of what the work looks like (I’m also enough of a designer that I know that these first few are not likely to turn out well). So you don’t have a great photo of the containers in the oven, although you can imagine.  The one on the left is shaped (and colored) remarkably like a weird super-hot ghost pepper from the Amazon, for example.

Why not show the work? Well, for one, you might decide to critique it more heavily than I might wish, and that would make me doubt the capacity of my magic — not something I’m interested in.  For another, there’s genuine benefit in focusing on the material rather than on the thing being made, which is what I’m trying to do here.

I think, in the design thinking community, we tend to focus on the product a bit too much at times; we forget that there’s benefit in teaching children (and adults for that matter) about the properties of materials — whether they be wood or glue, paper or fimo clay, plastic or ceramic.

Fimo clay, for example, must go through a chemical change.  I don’t know what that chemical change is, because I’m not a chemist.  But I know enough about chemistry to know that something inanimate like clay does not go from relatively soft and pliable to something relatively hard and rigid without a chemical change (Biology has other processes for that).

There’s another process, though, which Fimo clay teaches that’s important. And that’s the warping of the clay as it cools.  I fully expect that two of my three containers and lids — although they fit before I put them in the oven — probably won’t fit together after they come out of the oven.  This is a tricky substance to work with.  But the principle of warping is an important one for people expecting to work with materials. With wet heat, you can tie a strip of oak into a knot.  With dry heat, you can make pliable Fimo into something hard, or vitrify soft clay into stoneware.  Heat, and its effect on materials, is something that schools don’t teach with hands-on activities.  And yet Fimo clay, with its low-firing temperature and its short heating times (often less than 15 minutes, rarely more than 30 minutes), is a great way of exposing even very young children to the idea that heat is not only a way to cook, but also a way to transform materials from one phase state to another.

That strikes me as something that children somehow may guess at intuitively, but don’t really understand until they see it for themselves. And this means that I have to figure out how to teach this skill, along with many others, to my students next year.

Hymn to Juno, Queen of the Gods


Jason Miller’s students are doing a global rite in honor of Juno, the queen of the gods, over the next few days, as part of his cyclical training of new students.  I’m not aware of any formal feast day for her at this time, other than their honoring of her at this time. But I have a hard time resisting an occasion for a good poem.  Or even a poem of any kind. I already wrote a poem for the Feast of All Heras on another occasion, which can be used as a supplement or a replacement for this one.  Here’s a 3-verse hymn or ode in honor of Juno, written today for the students of Mr. Miller to use as part of their rites if they wish:

Hail to thee, Juno, great mother and queen,
protectress of marriage, garden and hearth!
Your glittering raiment of peacock sheen
gleams fulgent with divinity and worth,
for you keep house with diligence and care,
well-ordering the lives beneath your roof,
and you see to the feasts and health of all.
The garden fence you keep in good repair;
you manage money with good sense and proof
of purchase; and true power is the shawl

upon your shoulders broad, which bear the weight
of mighty deeds and noble chores with ease;
for your will keeps families in happy state,
and your love unlocks, with jingling keys,
stores of cloth, food, and gossamer treasure —
of kind neighbors, good government and schools,
the warp and weft of both kindred and friends.
These you dispense, in judicious measure,
as though unwinding bright ribbon from spools—
for well-wrapped gifts make peace, and make amends,

and make acquaintance — and alliance, too.
Juno, be my friend, and teach me your way
to grow, to thrive, to manage and make do,
with one eye set on what I have today
while the other glances at tomorrow.
Maturity and Wisdom keep your house—
One cooks the meals while the other one cleans;
A cup of this sugar, may I borrow,
and the recipe for your type of grace—
the happy home that lives within its means?

Update: Found this poem useful in some fashion? Consider buying my book of poems celebrating the Behenian Stars, available from Amazon (kindle) or from Etsy (PDF).

AoSF: Hospitality



Solstice Dinner… we ate well. (photo by JKG)

I had eleven people to dinner this past week on Wednesday. In some ways I’m still recovering from it. No matter.  Alice Waters says, in her book The Art of Simple Food, that we should try to avoid eating alone. I eat alone quite a bit, unfortunately, and it’s always challenging to figure out what to cook or what to eat.

But thanks to last weeks’ experiments in cooking, there was incredibly good food to serve them.  Gordon writes about the disgusting food of the ancients when he works magic… but I served up a broad smorgasbord of food designed to be edible, beautiful, green for the season, and designed to appeal to different parts of the tongue.

We had the following

  • salad with homemade vinaigrette
  • spinach spaghetti with pesto sauce
  • cucubmer salad with yogurt sauce
  • sautéed zucchini with herbes de provence
  • broccoli with spicy-ish salsa
  • Tuscan-style bread with sweet butter
  • Roasted lemon chicken (not shown)
  • Strawberries dipped in chocolate for dessert
  • mead that I made myself

It was a feast for the eyes, the heart, the mind. The last guests didn’t leave until after midnight, and the dinner started at a quarter to six.  I feel like it was was one of the best such occasions I’ve pulled together in years, and a lot of it, I think, is owed to the fact that I’ve been practicing my cooking skills.

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