Feb 10

Meal Ticket

I eavesdrop. I listen to people’s restaurant conversations. I strain to hear my coworkers converse. It’s a wretched habit, mostly.

When I was a kid, my dad’s parents would marvel over their nerdy granddaughter like a strange bug. They’d tell my mother how smart I was, like she was too blonde to know. They’d tell my parents I would be so rich, I could support them in their dotage. I hated it, because I felt less a girl, more of a redeemable asset. Just sit on it for 25 years, and you’ll be RICH!

I remember a time when they were arguing about whether I’d be a doctor or a lawyer. For the record, of the two Rich Professions my grandparents selected, I’d probably be a lawyer: I like to argue, and I like to win.

At the time, I wanted to be an astronaut, or an oceanographer. Someone eventually told me there was a lot of maths involved in aeronautics,  and that dream died. Oceanography lost its charm when I narrowly avoided a barracuda (WAY scarier than Sarah Palin, FYI). I almost piped up, but remembered I was eavesdropping. My silence rewarded me with one of my most vivid memories of my mom.

She  sighed. Evidently, she was as tired of these conversations as I was. She said, “I don’t care about any of that bullshit. I hope she grows up to be a humanitarian.”

My grandparents were skeptical. I took it to heart. The next year, I became a Girl Scout.

Nothing I do at my new job will ever be in the history books. I will be promoting the actions of ordinary people engaged in the extraordinary act of bettering their communities, and telling those stories will lead to bigger things. More funding, more visibility, and more recognition for their work. All of this is exciting, but none of it is more humbling than this: my new job revolves around engaging people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to live in service to their neighbors, their communities and the world.

When we were finishing my hugely long second interview, the director (MY NEW BOSS, GUYS!) told me they  hire individuals who not only have the drive to make the world a better place, but idealists with a track record to prove it. He said that it was obvious that I was one of those people. Afterward, I told Matthew that even if I lost out on the job, the experience was worth it for that precious moment.

My life has been far from perfect, but I learn from mistakes.  I have worked to align the Things I Do with the Things I Do For A Living. I know that’s a tricky line to walk; that money changes things, but I’m thrilled to put my Hanuman Heart to its purpose: conscious service.

I wish I could call my mom and let her know she was right. That she was right about everything.

Feb 3

Practice makes Perfectly Imperfect

I’m more “on the wagon” with practice within my disciplines these days (yoga, writing, This Thing We Do), mainly because Some Fairly Serious Stuff is happening in Deirdraland and I need my full toolbox at-the-ready.

One of the most powerful teachings in my life comes from the Pratyabhijna-hrdayam, (if you can find it and are into this sort of thing, hunt down The Splendor of Recognition: An Exploration of the Pratyabhijna-hrdayam, a Text on the Ancient Science of the Soul.) It comes down to the Five Acts of Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer. Everyone hears a lot about the whole creation-life-destruction cycle.  However, the remaining two that constantly kick my ass are called Concealment and Revelation.

Deep within us, there is a place that has no use for the mundane joys, that’s untouched by the crummy fluctuations of our daily lives. It doesn’t give a damn about tomorrow or yesterday. It may say something about me that I can’t separate this concept without thinking of the song “There is a Light and It Never Goes Out.” It is a constant presence, from the spark of consciousness to our last breath; eternal if you’re into that. The universe is made manifest within me, and yea, it never worries about a double decker bus or any of that. It just IS, and it’s the part of us that encourages us to constantly seek to know ourselves, to unfold, to open, to connect. That’s the “secret,” the big reveal. We catch it in snatches: I hear the rustle of its wings when I unfurl in a sweet backbend, when I am moved by the tidal pull of my breath, when I am speaking truth, when I am standing fully in My Power. When my teaching touches a student and their eyes dart to mine, we share that instant of connection, our lights reflected in each other’s eyes. Likewise, when my teachers’ challenge me, when I find deeper access within myself, my heart goes supernova.

But we forget. Supernovae cannot sustain themselves, although even their remnants are luminous and transformative. The Pratyabhijna-hrdayam is ready for this, and intimates that this is part of being human; being Shiva; being Frodo, Parsifal or Skywalker.

We forget our raditude because it’s delightful to remember.

We do not see clearly until we clean our glasses and wonder how on earth we ever saw through fingerprints and grime. A dirty window dulls the color and light. Clouds obscure the brilliance of the sun, stars and moon. A veil shrouds a bride’s radiance, and distances a corpse from the world of the living. We forget how good it feels to take the journey to meet ourselves, and we fall out of practice over and over again. We fall back into laziness, fear or avoidance: the light is too bright, too much to bear.

Eventually, we find our way back to The Work.  We remember the way it feels to move in the world when we consciously take our rightful place in it. When we have our shit together, there is an ease and surety in action. When we take what we’re given and respond with conscious, premeditated action, we shine out like beacons.  It is splendid, this recognition.

ETA: The delightful Cora Wen says all this in her delightful, earnest way. Bonus: she says it in beautiful Ireland.

Imperfect = I’m Perfect

Dec 13

Gingerbread for Gretel

This cake is as wild as wolves, dark as hunters’ eyes, deep as a forbidding wood. Happy Holidays, friends.

(originally published in the Jackson Free Press, December, 2009)

My mother spoiled me with books, and my prized possession was a gilded copy of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” which I pored over with all the twisted earnestness of Wednesday Addams. The details never lost their punch between readings: the revelation of the wolf’s fearsome maw beneath granny’s spectacles, the quiver of schadenfreude at Cinderella’s feathered friends blinding her bullying step sisters, and the unfettered glee when wicked tricksters fall to their ruin.

Most importantly, bad children might be rescued in some versions, but they were always punished. While Disney weather was in full effect in my childhood home in Miami, the treacherous forests of German fairy tales served as cautionary tales to a curious child tempted to stray from her path.

Hansel and Gretel is not my favorite fairy tale, but once upon a time, I was a hungry child lost in a gingerbread forest. My grandparents took me to a Christmas event at Walt Disney World, filled with extravagant Christmas decorations, parades, caroling and gorgeous exhibitions, including a wealth of gingerbread architecture covered in candies and delicately piped icing.

These houses and storybook castles were the epitome of my Grimm-fueled fantasies. Consequences were forgotten, and my hand shot forward and claimed a piece of siding. As my dismayed grandparents turned in horror, I jammed the contraband into my mouth. Bad children are always punished. The disappointment at the flavorless pressboard confection was far worse than my grandfather’s spanking.

Despite my initial letdown, I remained enchanted with gingerbread throughout my childhood. I chomped the heads of ginger men with gusto, leaving hundreds of little ginger widows in my wake. When I was deemed fit to partake in civilized functions again, my grandmother took me to high tea, where I had my first fat square of ginger tea bread. With the first bite, I finally understood why Hansel and Gretel were so sorely tempted. Chewy, dense and chocolate colored, this was closer to the fabled gingerbread of my imagination. As I began to bake for myself, I tried many gingerbread recipes, but none satisfied. No longer afraid of wolves and conniving fairies, I stepped off the path.

Beware, reader: There are always consequences, and this time, they’re delightful. This is no mild-mannered, blond ginger spice cake; this is dangerous, original Grimm’s gingerbread—fragrant, dark and fudgy. This is the sort of inescapable temptation that lures Hansel and his sister into harm’s way, the sort of treacle confection Monsieur Wolf scents as he lopes through a deeply greening wood. Do not be afraid of the half cup of spices involved in this recipe, because all wonderful adventures take a feat of daring.


1 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for the pan
1 cup cane sugar
1 cup robust or blackstrap molasses
2-4 tablespoons crystallized ginger, minced
2 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten with a fork
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 greedy pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup water
1 tablespoon baking soda
Several handfuls of blanched almond slivers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Even if you’re using silicone bakeware, generously oil your favorite bundt mold, muffin tins or brownie tin. This is perilously sticky batter. Sprinkle almonds into the bottom of the pan. You want a goodly amount, but not full coverage. Imagine fallen logs littering the Black Forest’s floor.

Set your water to boil in a small saucepan, so it’s ready to use when you need it.

Combine the oil, sugar, molasses and crystallized ginger. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.

Sift together the flour, spices and salt. Add wet mixture to the dry ingredients slowly until evenly combined.

Remove boiling water from heat and add baking soda. Brace for the foam. Rapidly incorporate this solution to the batter, and pour into pans.

Bake in the center of the oven until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean; a full pan will bake for 30-40 minutes, while muffins will run you anywhere from 15-20 minutes. Almonds will be perfectly toasted inside your batter.

Some people choose to top their gingerbread with whipped cream, ice cream, more candied ginger, lemon curd or even marmalade, but this fairy tale gingerbread requires no embellishment.

Dec 8

Deirdra, Shut Up and Write!

This has been one of the most difficult years of my life.  It’s had tremendous rewards, but it’s also been a huge drain on finances, health and sanity. I’m steadily reincorporating the stuff I need (exercise, quiet time, civic engagement) back into my life after having a 6-month crash course in psuedo-parenting.

My writing habit lies crumpled in the corner.  I need to find my way back to the place where I’m writing for craft, not writing to clean a wound.

There’s a creative non-fiction class beginning January 8th. It’s called Shut Up and Write! Classroom hours miraculously fit into our frenzied schedule, and I’m hoping to be able to make it happen.

Lately, I’ve realized that stuff means far less to me than experience. A writing seminar would rattle my cage and ruffle this bird’s feathers. If you were considering sending me a Holiday card, or any sort of Yuletide gesture, please consider placing a drop in my bucket instead. Folks who donate have the option of giving me a (non-fiction) writing prompt, which I will fulfill, even if I hate it.

How many times do you get to tell a hothead like me to shut up (and write!)?

Jun 8

Why I Volunteer for Chick Ball: Year Four

1 in 4 women will experience abuse in her lifetime.

That’s really where this post could end, but allow me to continue. Every 15 seconds, a woman is beaten. 4.8 million intimate partner-related acts of violence annually, and less than 20% of them receive medical care post-assault. A recent social experiment showed that many people still consider a certain amount of violence as acceptable when dealing with a perceived lower class of people.

From an early age, we’re taught not to stare, not to make a fuss, to mind our own damn business. We want to believe the best of the people we encounter in our day to day lives. We want our friends and relatives to be happy, so we believe them when they say they’re “Fine.”

I’ve been that person, who politely looked away, didn’t notice my friend’s injuries, believed flimsy excuses.  Society makes it easy for us to look away from violence, even when it’s happening under our noses. Much later, she showed me the body-sized hole in her drywall, and it made my stomach turn. I wanted to put my fist through the wall alongside the spot where she’d landed, to go to the hardware store and patch over the place where love and trust had failed her, to do anything except stand mutely in front of the hole.

I was so angry for my friend. I was so deeply ashamed of myself for not recognizing abuse, for being so ill-equipped to help her.

This is my fourth year volunteering with the Chick Ball. I have a lot of reasons why I volunteer, but the most important reason is because I have seen too many wonderful people beaten and emotionally decimated by loved ones. I’ve heard too many excuses from strong, brilliant people about why their parent, sibling or partner is justified in treating them abominably.

Last year, the Chick Ball raised nearly $16,000 to help the CVP found a batterer’s  intervention program (the first of its kind in Jackson) to work with abusers who want to make good on their promises of “never again.” Studies have shown 15 percent of those who completed an abuse intervention program were rearrested for domestic violence, compared with 37 percent of those who dropped out of the program.

2010′s efforts will provide seed money for a Victim’s Legal Fund. Justice may be blind, but toll is steep. When victims leave their abusers, their resources are stretched thin. Victims often don’t have the money necessary to take their abusers to court:  to fight for full custody of their children.

All seriousness aside, the Chick Ball is hugely fun without diminishing the gravity of the issue at hand.  We need volunteers in all aspects of planning and execution of the event (JULY 24), and you meet amazing, motivated, formidable women. If you can’t volunteer, please consider donating artwork or goods for door prizes and silent auction pieces, or even sponsorship ($50 is our base level of sponsorship.) Above all, just come and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Feb 8

Infamous Imbolc Oatcake

I’ve gotten a few requests for the oatcake I made last week. Think of it as the Irish equivalent of cornbread. Think of it as the sacred bread of a goddess-saint. Think of it as breakfast. Think of it as dessert. Think of it on your countertop, steaming defiantly in the face of winter.

Feast for St. Brigidt’s

Makes 12 8 4 servings, if no one goes all reality tv devious while you’ve looked away.

  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup Irish steel-cut oats (McCann’s is straight from County Kildare!)
  • 1/2 cup oat flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon celtic sea salt
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey or golden syrup (I like Lyle’s)
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon Irish whiskey
  • 1 large egg
  • Baker’s Joy

Combine buttermilk and oats; cover and refrigerate 8 hours. GAH!

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Lightly spoon flours into a dry measuring cup; level with a blade.

Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, stirring with a whisk.

Place sugar, honey/syrup and oil in a large bowl; add vanilla, Jameson’s and egg; mix until well blended. Stir in oat mixture; stir until well blended. Add flour mixture, beating just until moist.

Scrape batter into a deep baking pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375° F for 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on a wire rack. Devour with local honey and Irish butter.

Jan 22

Fennel with Pearled Barley Risotto

I posted a photo of my dinner to Twitter last night, and enough people asked about it that I thought I’d post a formula.

My dear husband is a scientist at heart. He does not understand how I can bear to cook without thoroughly documenting results, but I often do. It’s not that I set out to intentionally leave no trace of my exploits, but that I’m so immersed in the experience I don’t want to pull back and analyze the components.

I don’t ever measure anything but the grains and liquid when making risotto, pearled barley or otherwise. I usually use a 1:4 ratio between grain and liquid, because it gives the rice or barley more time to realize its creamiest potential. I use about 1/4 cup of grains per person I’m feeding, and 1/3 cup for folks who don’t eat many vegetables. Everything else is subject to the contents in my pantry, the people who are going to eat it and my mood.

I’m also a risotto heretic: I’m one of those people who will employ a rice cooker if I’m not thrilled by the idea of stirring a pot continuously for 20 minutes or more.  You can even soften onions and garlic in the bottom of a rice cooker,  then steam vegetables or meat on top if you have a steamer insert. Fortune favors the bold.

Use olive oil, butter or your favorite fat to coat the pan’s bottom.

Add a handful of finely chopped aromatics (onions, shallots, leeks, spicy seeds,  garlic) and let them fizzle in the oil until soft. Add barley and stir.

Let the mixture toast for a minute or two, because it imparts a subtle flavor to the dish.

Add your liquid. You can add a little wine to your stock if you like. Some are sticklers and insist you have to be a slave to the pot, adding liquid as it goes. If I want a moving meditation, I do that, but if I’m just damned hungry and want some creamy grains, I just pour all the liquid into the rice cooker and walk away to work on the accompaniments.

I chopped a large fennel bulb into small pleasing shapes and sauteed it with just a scant bit of olive oil. Toward the end, I added fennel seed to toast in the pan. You can do this with any vegetable, though: I love pumpkin or a similar squash, carmelized with sage. Shredded Brussels Sprouts in bacon grease would be an excellent choice as well.

Your grains will be ready for plating when they’re tender and resemble a thick porridge. It’s best not to rely on the rice cooker (because it will try and cook away all the liquid), but if you lose track of time, you can just add a bit more stock and keep an eye on it. If you like your risotto extra creamy, you can stir in a little cream, sour cream, creme fraiche, ricotta  or yogurt at this point.

Finishing elements are important, and transform risotto from a gruel-like deceiver to a elegant dinner party. I commonly stir in nutmeg, cracked pepper and parmesan cheese, though I’ll often use brewer’s yeast as a parm replacement if I have a vegan guest. Lemon zest is a gorgeous topper, as well. If I’m feeling very lazy, I stir in spinach or arugula so I don’t have to fuss with a salad.

I make a bed of vegetables for the risotto, then pile it on.  I’ll often top with toasted nuts, more cheese and nutmeg. Last night, I chopped fennel fronds to feather across the top, providing beauty and an anise bite.

Dec 4

Tony’s Tamales: Red Hots & Blues

This article originally ran in the November 12 issue of the Jackson Free Press.

Tony's Tamales never skimps on the spice.

Tony's Tamales never skimps on the spice.

It’s 6 o’clock on a Wednesday evening, and a steady stream of cars is queued at the drive-up window at Tony’s Tamales. Robert Mosley is leaning over a microphone, running the register and taking customers’ orders in rapid-fire. His wife, Pat, is eavesdropping and already in motion, packing the orders faster than he can call them back.

“I love to run him into the ground,” she tells me in an exaggerated whisper, her face splitting into a mischievous grin. Robert shakes his head as he takes the bag, his eyes twinkling. He barely has time to take the bag before the bell chimes again, signaling another customer’s arrival.

It’s been 28 years since Robert made his first batch of tamales—around 15 dozen—in the Mosley’s home kitchen. The Greenville native was out of work, and turned to his hometown favorite method of pulling in cash: tamales.

“This trade is self-taught,” he says.

While he did turn to life-long friend and Greenville native Arthur Rankin for initial advice, he honed his skills and recipe through trial and error. He made the first tamales by hand in the Mosley home kitchen, plying friends and neighbors with tamales in exchange for feedback. He opened his first tamale stand, hauling tamales to the appropriately named Delta Drive (now Medgar Evers Boulevard). He named the business after his brother Tony because “Robert’s Tamales” didn’t roll off the tongue.

As the business grew, Tony’s expanded by necessity to a location with its own kitchen on Livingston Road: The Mosley home kitchens appliances had worn out, giving their lives in service to hungry Jacksonians. Eventually, Pat left her career in the medical profession to join Robert in the kitchen.

Tony's Hot Tamales on Urbanspoon

Mosley’s recipe changed with the times, but there are some things Robert wasn’t willing to sacrifice. “We started out with beef, but from day one, we always wanted to make a healthy product. A lot more people are health conscious now, and the turkey’s a clean meat, not a lot of fat. What we don’t do is cut back on the spices and seasoning. When you make tamales, you know what’s missing. We’ve never cut back on the spices, never tried to cut corners on ingredients. Once you get to cutting here, cutting there; you lose the original flavor.”

Today, they have two locations in Jackson: 230 West Woodrow Wilson Ave. and 228 E. Capitol St. They get a great many mail orders for tamales—especially around the holidays when folks are homesick—and are hoping to expand into wholesale ventures. On the weeks they roll tamales, they produce 600 to 800 dozen, freezing them until they’re needed. Pat insists the freezing process allows the tamales to stay as fresh as possible while allowing the flavors to mature.

“If you can’t eat them here, buy them frozen and steam them at home: it’s as close to fresh as you’ll get,” she says. When she opens the freezer to show me their stores, the heavenly aroma causes my knees to buckle. For a fleeting moment, I want to curl up inside a working deep-freeze.

I confess I’d never eaten a tamale before moving to Mississippi, and Tony’s are my first love. Tony’s Tamales is a Jackson institution, and some of our favorite tamales, on or off the trail. In addition to their mightily spiced tamales, they also have a beautifully balanced gumbo, excellent dumplings and homemade cakes.

Tony’s began making vegetarian black-bean tamales in 2002, and Robert is investigating making a tamale with soy or other textured vegetable protein. For those of you who eat strictly local/organic meat or hunt for the meat you eat, don’t despair. Robert will gladly make tamales out of your processed meat. He’s made tamales out of duck, black bear, elk and venison meat, and wants the world to know he’s interested in making some wild boar tamales one day.

While Robert is wry and understated, Pat is obviously the public-relations end of the partnership. She is tireless, chatting up customers and dispensing advice at the drive-through window. In between customers, she tells me: “I didn’t know what a tamale was until I met him, he’s the tamale man. But now, I can tell you almost everything there is to know about tamales.”

I tell Pat a little about what I learned about traditional Mexican tamales before this endeavor. When I tell her about the Mexican superstition that says tamales need music or they won’t cook to fluffy perfection, she breaks in with great authority: “Well, I don’t know what kind of music those Mexican grannies play, but here in Mississippi we play the blues for our tamales.”

Sep 24

Benefit for JPD Officer & Capoeirista Ivory “Magia” Harris

Our friend and Capoeira instructor, Officer Ivory Harris, is with the Jackson Police Department, 3rd Precinct.  His apartment caught fire several days ago through a faulty electrical outlet and he lost everything, including his beloved Teacup Chihuahua,  BeeGee.  Officer Harris not only protects the City of Jackson but he donates his time and energy to teach the art of Capoeira to others as well as troubled youth.  We would like to rally some support for this great public servant in the donation of funds.  Officer Harris lost clothes, furniture, and his laptop computer; everything except some important paperwork secured in a corner closet in a fire box.

You are also invited to attend a Capoeira Roda in honor of Ivory Harris on October 3, 2009 at 4035 B North State Street!  Look for the Balloons.  Parking in the rear of the house or about 3 blocks down at the corner of Meadowbrook and State Street.  Event starts at 5:00 p.m. until.  Bring Food, Drinks and your checkbook!

Please send your donation to:

    Officer Ivory Harris Fire Fund
    c/o Renee Dean
    P. O. Box 12833
    Jackson, MS 39236
    601 624-6542
Jun 25

My very first food column!

I haven’t been blogging much, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing.

My first food column ran yesterday in the Jackson Free Press. It’s called Salad Days: Avoiding Lettuce Burnout, and includes recipes for a deconstructed pesto salad and a cookout-friendly Grilled Caesar.

If you’re so inclined, please login and leave feedback!