Hello! Here’s an unfinished botanical sketch for Betula Neoalaskana, the paper birch, which I am currently working on the cookbook for. I don’t think I’ll quite finish the entire cookbook (or this sketch, for that matter) this month, but I’ll be awfully close. And, fun stuff, I currently have three birch trees tapped and am boiling sap down every day. All good research for the cookbook! There are only three days left in the month. Wish me luck!
Hi friends! I hope everyone is hanging in there. We’re still doing okay up here in Fairbanks, but things are still a little wacky. As I maybe mentioned earlier, Alaska is pretty vulnerable to breakdowns in shipping and supply, so we’re an easy breed to spook when it comes to food supplies. It’s still a bit too cold for gardening (June 1st is our usual put out day) so pretty much all our food is still coming up from the Lower 48.
Food’s been on my mind a lot lately. This month, I’m doing Camp NaNo again, and once more working on the birch syrup cookbook. (It’s nearly there! Ahhh!) My recipe building process is usually something along the lines of:
- Get hungry.
- Think, “Man, you know what sounds good?”
- Jot down ensuing brilliant idea.
- Gather ingredients.
- Find out what degree of wrong I was.
Lots of things have turned out really well. Others are blah. There have been a few where my ever-diplomatic eldest has gagged a little after taste testing for me and then asked gently, “Do you think you’ll put this in your cookbook?” But overall, the system works.
Except when I can’t get ingredients.
It’s gotten better recently, but for a few weeks there, going grocery shopping was spiking my anxiety because of how very little was there. I knew it was because of people panic buying and had nothing to do with supply lines (fresh perishables were still stocked, but all dry and canned goods were cleared out, etc), but it was still a little nerve wracking. I would buy what I could, make note of the things to look for again next week (and the next, and the next), and go home. I’d sit in the car practicing my breathing, and then peel my sweaty mask off my face, take off my gloves, and set them both in the sun. Then I’d put on my smile and go inside to wash my everything and then hug my kiddos who have no idea what’s going on outside of our house.
By the way, can I just say that I love that this is my biggest problem? Not being able to get my hands on a box of dried pasta? That through this nightmare pandemic with tens of thousands dead in my nation, and over a hundred thousand throughout the world, and my big problem is a lack of canned tomatoes?
So to keep myself sane and to keep the kids unafraid, we keep things normalish. Mommy cooks and types on her computer and works on her recipes. She makes the things she can with fresh ingredients, like glazed pears and buddha bowls, and she makes Daddy extra fancy lunches while he works in the back room trying to teach the five percent of his students who still want to learn. Mommy lets the kids do the stirring and the meatball shaping and the bread kneading because when they’re cooking, they can work on their fractions and their science and learn an important life skill. And everything is fine.
I feel like I’m watching my life from the outside. Or that I’m boiling away on the inside, simmering in a morass of worry and survivor’s guilt. I can switch back and forth at the drop of a hat.
But then I take some breaths again. I lie on the floor with one hand on my belly and one on my heart, and my children come lie down with me, and we breath in, and out, and in, and out, and think of the things for which we are grateful. It is such a long list. I am so grateful sometimes that I cry, and I feel bad because I have so much.
I think I am depressed again.
I know I am.
So I cook, even the meals I know I won’t eat. And I clean the house and I quarantine the mail and I wash my hands until my knuckles get cracked and raw. I hate soap. Life has gotten so strange.
Am I really staying sane? Sometimes I don’t think so.
So I lay I on the floor. And I breath. And I think about the things I am grateful for.
I am grateful my husband still has work, even if I do not.
I am grateful my children are with me and we are all healthy.
I am grateful that none of my friends or family have fallen ill.
I am grateful for the coming spring and the blue skies and the waking birch trees and the beauty of this place I call home.
And if I am grateful enough, if I close my eyes and breathe and concentrate hard enough, for just a little bit—just a few moments—I can be sane again.
Okay, I know that I whine about how hard it was basically every session of NaNoWriMo, but for reals, guys, this one was hard. I was really worried I wasn’t going to make it there toward the end. I spent a significant chunk of the month feeling supremely uninspired and had to start counting words that maaaaaybe really shouldn’t count, but they counted enough and I was scared. But this month’s scrappy desperation felt a little different because, for the most part, I was writing nonfiction. I’ve never tried that before. And let me tell you, it was hard.
I went into this maybe a little underinformed. The closest I’ve come to writing nonfiction before was a creative nonfiction short story of which I ended up having to completely rewrite the ending—the ending where the guy is executed for that murder he was found guilty of—because it turns out the guy’s execution was stayed at the last minute and he was released and spent his final days as a barber in upstate New York or something. Truth is stranger than fiction, I guess. The point is, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. And that never ends well for me. (Except for in marriage. Happy anniversary, babe!)
As it turns out, writing nonfiction is a totally different beast than writing fiction. Here are just a few of the differences that made my life difficult last month:
Nonfiction requires citations and stuff. You can’t just claim that the magic crystal pumps out thirty kilosparkles per minute under a full moon. You gotta annotate that junk.
Nonfiction sticks to the facts. Can I prove it? No? Then get that corn outta my face. It doesn’t matter that I like to make things up when I have no idea what’s going on. I have to figure out what’s going on. Even if it takes forever. That said…
Nonfiction is way slower to write. Yeah, that not making things up thing? That means that I have to look up anything I don’t know. Not just look it up, but find it (preferably in two or three places), weigh the merit of the publication, reference it, and add it to my bibliography. Every ten words takes about thirty minutes. It burns us.
Nonfiction requires research. Again related to the above point, but seriously, if I don’t know it, I have to figure it out. And if someone hasn’t already done that research, then I have to. Doing the research takes even more time than compiling the research, which takes even more time than writing about the research. And a thirty-one day writing sprint is definitely not the time to be conducting research. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
And I’m sure there are way more issues out there. This is just what I managed to uncover in a month of dabbling. (Did you know there are people who write nonfiction all the time? For a living? Willingly? It’s true!)
That said, there are advantages to writing nonfiction as well (and probably way more than I’m listing because augh, it hurt so badlyyy).
Fiction is more elaborate than nonfiction. There is something very straightforward and clean about writing nonfiction. Is it a verifiable fact? Then yes, that can go in. If not, save it for the alternate history fanfic. Probably nobody wants to know what the butter’s thinking as it melts in the fry pan anyway. (Probably.)
Nonfiction takes less concentration. For me, at least. When writing fiction, I need absolute silence, stillness, twenty minutes of meditation, and a sacrificial unicorn heart. Since nonfiction only deals with what really exists, though, and I don’t have to go into that zen creative brain space reserved for crafting universes out of what ifs and bat farts.
Nonfiction teaches. You could argue that fiction can do that, too, but mostly fiction is for entertainment. Nonfiction imparts knowledge, and that’s really cool to think about. Rare is the situation in which more facts and truth is a bad thing. Knowledge is power, y’all.
All that said, I’d like to keep dabbling in nonfiction, but I don’t think I’ll try it again during a NaNo month. Most of my difficulty can probably be attributed to trying to rush a project that would have benefitted from more thought. Despite the grind, I still want to finish both of the nonfiction projects I was working on last month. But I’m enjoying the work more now that I’m not tallying every word that I write as I nervously watch the clock winding down. (I really wouldn’t have won at all if I hadn’t paused in my nonfiction to draft out a fictional short story and notes, which ended up being nearly a quarter of my total wordcount for the month. I justified it because I was already working on multiple projects during the month, so what’s one more? Yeah, rules get a little bendy when you’re thirty percent behind schedule and things are looking grim.)
How about you guys? Any of my fine readers work in nonfiction? What are some of the pros and cons I may have missed in my quick splash in the shallow end? Let me know in the comments and, until next week, happy writing!
Ugh, I do not feel like I am winning this camp session so far. I don’t think I’m going to not win (yet) but it’s been a slog and I’m quite a bit behind. This nonfiction writing business is kind of a drag. I mean, it’s interesting and stuff, but I feel like I need to do about twenty or thirty minutes of research for every ten words that I write. I knew I would be writing few words this time around and that it would take more research and fact checking, but sheesh. I could really go for just a quick and stupid blitz through draftyville right now, you know?
That said, it hasn’t all been rainclouds and misery these last couple weeks. One of the two nonfiction projects I’m working on is a cookbook, and that means cooking! Furthermore, it means experimental cooking, which is probably the best kind of cooking that there is.
In the interest of keeping the cookbook accessible to normal humans, I can’t do anything too crazy-go-nuts, and that’s kept me reigned in reasonably well. After all the ingredient I’m showcasing here is a little wacky itself- birch syrup. (Who here has heard of birch syrup? Tried it? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to know what you think about it!)
Birch syrup is like the half-sibling between unrelated maple syrup and molasses. It’s got that maple treeishness, and molasses’ kind of minerally tang to it, but has a flavor profile all its own that varies quite a bit from batch to batch. I’ve been working on a series of recipes that bring out its uniqueness, but within the kinds of comfort foods that people already know and love.
Some of the recipes I’m working on are things like birch vinaigrette, birch baked black beans, and birch-infused profiteroles. There are birch caramel popcorn balls, and boreal bliss ice cream, and birch brined moose jerky. (These are my comfort foods, okay?)
My kids’ favorite so far, though, has to be the birch bacon mac and cheese. Sweet and salty and gooey and hot, that double batch I made didn’t stand a chance.
1/2 pound of bacon
1 lb chopped vegetables of choice (broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, etc)
1 lb dry pasta
1/4 c unsalted butter
1/4 c all-purpose flour
2 c whole milk
1/4 c dark birch syrup
1 1/4 c mozzarella cheese
3/4 c cheddar cheese
1. Boil pasta according to directions, cooking just slightly less than al dente. (I usually find the directions for al dente and then subtract one minute for every five. Bite a piece and if it feel just a bit undercooked, it’s ready.) Drain the pasta and set aside.
2. Cook bacon in a frying pan over high heat until crisp, about eight minutes. While bacon is cooking, steam vegetables. I typically chop vegetables into chunks about the size of my curled forefinger and steam for five minutes, until they are just a tiny bit crunchier than al dente, like the pasta. Set aside vegetables. Drain bacon, and then chop into bite-sized chunks and set aside.
3. Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the butter begins to boil, add flour and whisk until the mixture becomes fragrant and turns a light brown, about three minutes. (It’s better to undercook than overcook at this stage. Overcooking with make for a slightly lumpy cheese sauce while little brown flecks, while undercooking is easy to correct with a little extra cooking later. Either way, it will still taste fine.) Slowly whisk in the milk. It may be a little lumpy at first, but keep whisking as the milk comes up to heat and it will smooth out. Whisk constantly as the sauce thickens, taking care that the bottom does not scorch. Turn off heat, but keep pot over burner, and whisk in the birch syrup. The sauce should be a uniform light caramel color.
4. Add cheese a half cup at a time, allowing it to melt completely and then whisking it in before adding more cheese. Sauce should be thick and gooey; if it is too thick, add two tablespoons of additional milk at a time until desire consistency. (I usually end up adding about an extra half cup of milk at this point, but my family likes a slightly thinner mac.)
5. Pour the noodles, bacon, and vegetables into the cheese sauce, stirring gently until well coated. Cook over low heat until cheese sauce just begins to bubble and all ingredients are heated through, about five minutes. Serve hot.
Looking for a slightly lighter side dish? Omit the bacon and vegetables, instead adding one teaspoon of salt to the cheese sauce.
Note: While any pasta would taste good with this sauce, different pastas hold sauces differently. When choosing a good mac-and-cheese pasta, pick a “short” pasta, rather than a strand or ribbon pasta, that would cup the sauce and transfer little reservoirs of it into your mouth. Medium-to-large sized tubes or shells (such as penne, conchiglie, or rotini) about the same size as your vegetable and bacon chunks would be about right for this recipe. Alternatively, if omitting the bacon and veggies, you can go for a smaller pasta such as macaroni or campanelle.
PS- If you can’t get your hands on birch syrup (like most of the world outside of extreme northern latitudes), don’t sweat it. This recipe will still be tasty if you use maple syrup or molasses instead. Just, while you’re eating it, you are legally required to think of how much nummier it would be if you had the real deal. Legal truth. *nods*
Until next week, happy
Hi, friends! Boy, summer is a busy time around here. I’ve started my full time work for the summer, hot on the heels of wrapping up a crazy school year. Sadly, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for working on my fiction projects, or even for doing submissions. (Less sad about that second part, honestly, because submissions, ugh.) But some exciting new writing opportunities have cropped up to suck up what little time and brain power I have left at the end of the day.
It’s a change of pace, but it’s interesting to be working on different things. I’ve never done work like this before, and golly, it’s downright refreshing to be getting paid for writing. I am not used to that. Here are a few of my shorter term writing projects that will be keeping me busy this summer!
Developing a Game Narrative I stumbled upon this one entirely on accident. A couple I know runs a design company in Washington. One of their clients made a game but wanted some kind of narrative overlay for it before pitching it to game companies or self producing and didn’t feel equipped to do it himself. They thought of me, and next thing I knew, I had a writing gig! This job is perfect for me because I love writing and I love games, and I basically get to do the fun ‘flavor’ stuff while the game designer does all the hard work. I’ve had a lot of fun pitching different narrative ideas and the client has picked his favorite. Now I get to work on fleshing it out into a full game manual. Whee!
Updating and Rewriting a Manual Honestly, this one is… less fun. That said, I believe the information in the manual is important and I like the people I’m working on it for. The manual is for one of the local nonprofits here in Fairbanks and it’s for the volunteers in their program, but the “current” manual is mega outdated. It’s like ten years old, predating like half of what the program currently does and referencing a bunch of things that it doesn’t do anymore. So it’s definitely due for a refresher. I’m going through it with the program head to figure out exactly what he needs done, and then I’ll go at it. Not the most exciting work, but rewarding in other ways.
Writing a Cookbook! Yaaaay! I’ve been wanting to write a cookbook for years and I’m finally working on one! I’ve spent the last few months getting more and more deeply enmeshed in another local nonprofit, this one all about kids’ education and sustainability and citizen science and art and basically all things that I love. I got involved through my husband’s cousin, who got me mixed up in the springtime birch sap cooperative, and I’ve been weaseling my way in further ever since. When I pitched the idea of a cookbook using the birch syrups that the nonprofit makes and sells to help fund their program, the program director loved it and send me off with a couple bottles of syrup. Guys, I am having a blast experimenting with recipes and bothering local producers about food. Putting together the proposal packet isn’t the funnest, but for real- THE FOOD. Why did I not get into this sooner???
In addition to these three big projects, I wrote up a couple little mini articles last week for the sports shop that I work at, but I haven’t heard back on those yet. We’ll see how it goes. Mostly, they’re just fun to write, haha. They’re pretty much about the ways I goof up my adventures and hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes before getting lost in the mountains in winter or going on a sea kayaking trip without a rain jacket. You know, really complicated things anyone could get wrong.
I feel like everything is so seasonal here in Alaska. The summer world and the winter world are so wildly different, and that profound different-ness (which is def a word, yep) seems to seep into every aspect of my life, including writing. But this year definitely takes the cake on seasonal shifting between projects. Who knows what July’s Camp NaNo project will be? I sure don’t!
How about you fine readers? Any exciting new projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!