“And it seemed that, just a little more–and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and hat the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.” -Anton Chekhov (The Lady with the Little Dog)
Back in a college, in a seminar paper that was written during a three-day, coffee-fueled frenzy at the end of a very long semester, I argued that the main dilemma facing Chekhov’s characters was that they were eternally trapped in either the fantasy of past or the promise of the future. Even though the paper had its problems (in hindsight, I can see that the main point, while supported by the text, was somewhat buried), to this day when I find myself reading Chekhov, I can’t help but think that not only was my nineteen-year-old self onto something central to the texts, but also that A.P. Chekhov himself was perhaps the most insightful of men. He understood that the present, representing varying degrees of suffering and uncertainty, held little charm for people and that, rather than improve that present, it was much easier to focus on temporal periods outside of their immediate control. While on a fairly glib level, I find that most Chekhovian characters would have seriously benefited from some yoga (mind you, I say this while winking at a friend who once argued that anti-depressants would have gone a long way in helping Goncharov’s Oblomov to get off the sofa), I also recognize that there’s nothing harder for a human than living fully–whatever “fully” may mean–in any given moment.

Both these thoughts and Chekhov’s wisdom have been on my mind lately because of the impending move. The past few weekends have been spent going through and getting rid of things: old clothes; books that, given the distance they would have to travel, don’t seem worth keeping; shoes whose soles have been worn down to nothing by countless footsteps. One whole Saturday was devoted to clothing alone and, while I understand that clothes are just things, I could trace certain events through these items. There were shirts that, for better or for worse, were bought to entice past crushes, sweaters that had a beachy, Californian vibe to them, as well as blazers bought to make me look “professional” and “grad-school ready” (let it be said that clothing, contrary to popular opinion, does not make the woman, or the scholar; I’ve seen many a fool in very nice tweed.). I even found a sweater that I must not have worn since Japan since, much to my surprise, the tags from my local dry cleaner were still there. A silly statement, but it was a lifetime, my lifetime, in fabric.

I also realized that, though I’ve made my decision regarding the academic path, I’m finding it hard to let go of the Slavic materials that have accumulated over the years. While I don’t think I’ll ever again need them in any professional way, when confronted with folder upon folder of Slavic materials, I ended up sitting on the floor and rereading old papers: essays on Mandelshtam‘s deliberately murky poetry that were more competent than I recalled, the Tatiana/Pushkin essay that was first scorned and later lauded, the Prishvin paper that meant well, but had no direction. In short, successes and failures in equal measures. What had once seemed so dire to me was now funny: the sad face I had drawn next to the comments from a professor accusing me of criminal scholarly behavior for using a lowly edition of Pushkin, the coffee (breakfast?) stains left on one of my essays by a careless reader, the details of a shipment from France written all over the last page of the Prishvin paper. The greatest shock of all was that, in the midst of all of this, I found myself curling up and rereading my dissertation–just because. A part of me wanted to know how distance would color my perception of it, and I found that I liked it more than I had imagined (!); despite the well-documented dissertation trauma on this blog, it was much better than I ever thought it was. Even more strangely, I could pinpoint certain moments involved in writing it: the act of frantically pounding away at the keyboard before an idea could vanish, where I was when composing certain sentences, how preoccupied I was by the more abstract ideas and how I could support them textuallyI won’t lie; I miss that kind of intellectual engagement with my work. But I also don’t miss the academic-corporate mentality, nor do I miss the students who think that the point of a class is to receive an A. 
As obsessed as I suddenly am with where I’ve been, I’m also trying to figure out where I’m going. I have no job lined up, I don’t know if I want to work again in the law or if it’s time to strike out on my own and attempt to carve out the kind of career I want for myself. Although we have no idea where we will live or what opportunities life in Newark will afford us, I have started to think of ways to make friends and stay busy: a pottery class, cookbook club and possibly even volunteer work involved with food and gardening. Needless to say, all of these things haven’t left much time for the present.

Fortunately, some friends recently stepped in and pulled us (maybe mainly me) out of the weird past/future limbo we’ve been living in by inviting us to a picnic up at Claremont Canyon, where we would not only have a nice walk, but sprawling views of the bay as well. Though the day ended up being hopelessly hazy (hello, Bay Area winter/summer!), a good time was still had by all…and a sunburn was most definitely had by me.

I should mention here that these friends are experienced picnic-throwers. They take their picnics seriously (case in point: they’re getting married in mid-July and the wedding will be one big celebratory picnic) and know how to create an inviting spread: bread, cheese, salami, cherries, beer, berries. For me, this was an excuse to step out of all relocation-related thoughts and to get back into the kitchen. I will admit that even most kitchen activities are currently being determined by the move; since early June, I’ve been running a pretty intense “Clean Out the Pantry” campaign and, I must say, it’s going better than expected. The rules are simple: use what we have (flours, grains, canned goods) and no buying any new condiments, etc. Fresh food, of course, is allowed, but no hoarding of goods of any kind, which I personally think might just be my biggest food (and life) crime.

For this specific occasion, I decided to bake a pan of brownies marked by golden puddles of salted caramel (thank you, Anna Jones) and to get creative and tackle the bag of sorghum I bought back in February and had cooked from only once since then. Sorghum, a whole and gluten-free grain, has a long history; it was domesticated in northern Africa thousands of years ago and is unique for being a crop that can thrive in arid areas. What I personally like about sorghum is that it’s a little sweet and nutty; not only does it physically resemble popcorn kernels, but it also can be popped just like popcorn. How’s that for versatility?
Since sorghum can take a long time to cook and retains its bite even after about an hour of slowly simmering it, I recommend soaking the sorghum overnight to maximize its tenderness. One cup of uncooked sorghum yields about 2 1/2 cups; the final product can be used in salads, in a casserole (as a rice substitute), as a side or base for roasted or grilled vegetables. It’s got a lot of potential and lot of health benefits (fiber, protein, iron!). In my current no-frills, use-what’s-on-hand approach to cooking, I decided to make a hearty salad with roasted beets, arugula, basil, goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and, because of the addition of just the green parts of two spring onions for a little depth, just a whisper of onion’s usual strident tone. While I often consider salads too simple to share here, both the Greek and our picnicking companions insisted that this was a “blog-worthy salad.” In part, I think this is because I like salads where opposites seem to collide: creamy and crunchy, piquant and sweet. It’s all about building flavors and layering textures. The interesting thing about this salad, aside from its use of sorghum and the way the beets give everything a fuchsia hue, is the way that the pine nuts, similar in size and appearance to sorghum, blend in so well that you almost don’t know they’re there. Drizzled and tossed with a lemon-sherry-olive oil vinaigrette, the salad is brightened and well-coated, which, according to my personal salad philosophy, all good salads ought to be. This is definitely one for the present and the future alike. 
Sorghum Salad with Arugula, Roasted Beets, Basil and Pine Nuts
Salads are endlessly adaptable and there’s no reason that, should your preference be for walnuts, quinoa, barley or feta (just to name a few grain, cheese and nut alternatives), you couldn’t adjust this salad accordingly. That said, the sweetness of the roasted beets and the sharp, lemony basil pair nicely with the heat of the arugula, so you might want to try it as is and then make your own modifications.
     As mentioned above, to make the sorghum, I recommend soaking it overnight and then cooking it according to the package’s instructions (on a low simmer in a covered pot for 45 minutes to an hour). Once it’s cooled, measure it out and you’re good to go. 
     Similarly, be sure to roast the beets in advance. Preheat the oven to 400 F and, after rinsing and drying the beets, wrap them in aluminum foil. Place in the oven for 45 to an hour; Depending on the size of your beets, some may cook more quickly than others, so start checking them at 45 minutes. You’ll know they’re ready when you insert a knife into them and it goes in without any resistance. Once the beets are out of the oven, remove the foil and, while still hot (I like to dip my fingers in a bowl of cool water while performing this task), peel their skin of. Set aside to cool and then place in a medium-sized container in the fridge to store.  
        The dressing recipe yields a lot, but, given the amount of grains in the salad, I think a little extra is necessary. That said, if you like a more underdressed salad, the dressing keeps nicely in the refrigerator. Just bring it to room temperature before using it.
For the salad: 
 2-3 handfuls arugula
2 cups sorghum (cooked according to the instructions above)
1 small handful of basil, roughly chopped and sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent oxidation
Green parts only of two spring onions, finely chopped
3 beets, thinly sliced and cut in half (cooked according to the instructions above)
4 ounces goat cheese, roughly crumbled
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
pinch of salt and a dusting of pepper
For the dressing: 
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 1/2  tablespoons olive oil 
pinch of salt, pepper and natural cane (or granulated) sugar
-Assemble the salad, layering the ingredients: first the arugula, then the sorghum, followed by the herbs, beets, goat cheese and pine nuts. Gently sprinkle with salt and pepper. 
-Make the dressing, whisking the ingredients together and tasting it as you go (this is crucial as salad dressing is a hugely person matter). If it needs more acid, add an additional dash of vinegar or lemon juice; if it needs more depth, add a little more oil or sugar. You could also save the finely chopped green onion and whisk it into the dressing.
-About 20-30 minutes before serving, pour about half of the prepared dressing over the salad and gently toss with your hands; taste the salad to see if it requires more dressing. Make the adjustment according to your taste.
-Serve and enjoy! 

8 thoughts on “A Sunday Picnic

  1. I love this! And I love you! And I know exactly what you mean. The past, the future, so easy to daydream in one direction or another! I had a very similar experience when cleaning out my grad school stuff to make room for the nursery. I reread papers I had agonized over and thought, “Hey! This is pretty good!” I wish we had all had a confidence vitamin back then, but at least we have our (frenzied!) memories. It is so bittersweet to see one's history in fabric, in papers, in books. I am so happy it's been a good thing to go through and touch it all and remember. You are so very central in all my memories of those days. Thank you for being such a wonderful friend. And thank you for the recipe! That salad looks divine, and I am always up for trying new grains. Best of luck with the pantry cleaning!

  2. I can hardly keep up with you — I've still been meaning to comment on your last Food for Thought AND congratulate you on 5 years of blogging (which I've been enjoying along the way so very much!). I'm impressed with your prolific posts and embarrassed by my own lagging-ness.

    And now this beautiful post, with a salad containing two of my green addictions (arugula and basil), as well as another love (beets), and something I've been meaning to experiment with (sorghum). And I love the idea of this salad that brings it all together with a creamy element — nom! It sounds perfect.

    I'm so happy to see that you had a moment to revisit your dissertation and realize that it is much better than you ever thought. That's my secret hope for all these hard-on-themselves grad students: that someday they will remember their worth and brilliance. It's a brutal season of life: constantly having to prove oneself to the judges along the way, from admissions to essays to exams to the diss. The accomplished path pre-Berkeley is quickly forgotten, as well as all the triumphant feats along the way — all the way to the bitter (writing) end that is usually rushed in one way or another.

    I'm so excited for your new chapter and looking forward to reading about it here!

  3. What a beautiful salad! I love how the beets stained the sorghum pink. Thanks for mentioning lovely grain! I've only known it as referenced in film (“Red Sorghum” — a Chinese classic 🙂 but now I'm curious to cook with it, too!

  4. If only you and I could go into the business of creating “confidence vitamins,” wouldn't the world (or, at the very least, grad school) be a much better place? I suppose that, at the end of the day, the experience of grad school made us stronger, and perhaps it's only thanks to the distance from the madness that we can now see that our work was better than we believed it was…I guess the impostor complex isn't so different from body-dysmorphic disorder–at least in the way it works.

    Disorders and complexes aside, it's good to know that there's so much history in all of these things and, even better, that these experiences brought certain people into my life… 🙂

    The pantry cleaning is hardest of all, but I am mailing you something this week. 🙂 U-r-a for surprises and whole grains (sorghum is awesome; you really should try it in this or in any capacity, although, being a Southerner, it's possible you already have, but just in syrup form?)! Sending love from the north! x

  5. Ha! I don't know where my sudden prolific spell is coming from, but I suspect that it's a need to document these last months here and finally to post the 6-8 things I've had in the works for the past 3-4 months (I always intend to blog and then don't have time, which means that I abandon certain recipes and photos, which I don't want to do about any of the ones that are all but written! Really, this is a race against time)! And I hardly think you're lagging! Your instagram feed tells me that it's a never-ending cycle of creativity and deliciousness over in Albany! I just think the cooking/baking is the easy part; it's the writing that takes forever….

    And thank you for the salad love; the beets, basil and arugula (some of my favorite things, too) combine surprisingly well together; at first I had my doubts, like it was all going to be too much, but as soon as Jordan took a bite and gave his vote of approval, I knew that my instincts had been spot on.

    And I think it's important that, even if grad students can't see their own value and intelligence during their time in grad school, they have supporters like you and Elizabeth to cheer them on and make them realize that there's more to life than the written word (you, in particular, also eed them well; think of how many people you've cheered with a meringue or slice of cake!). I know that this was a big help when I was still walking the halls of Dwinelle and it's definitely a memory that I've carried on; it really does take a village to do anything that's worth doing! 🙂

    And three cheers for blog connections; I will be happy to continue seeing the beauty of Berkeley's offerings on your blog, even when all I'm eating is potatoes and rhubarb (speaking of which, did you know that the Swedish use potatoes in a sweet cake? I discovered this in 'Fika” and thought of how you would appreciate the appearance of such a savory ingredient in a sweet!). 🙂

  6. Thank you, Ann! The beets and their bright colors definitely make for a “festive” dish! And I love the sound of that movie; “Red Sorghum” sounds very Communist or like a fairy tale involving whole grains; in either case, I'm intrigued! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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