Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A New Scoop and it's Anything But Vanilla

It was the test that worried me the most.

For the past four months, I’ve been fretting about what, or better yet, how I would do on a test that caps a week-long learning experience on how to make ice cream.

And that result came a few weeks back when I completed my studies at the nation’s oldest classroom instruction devoted to the science behind ice cream making – Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course, offered by the college’s Department of Food Science.

Learning about ice cream properties was part of my personal commitment back in October. Many of you may remember that when I joined the ranks of the unemployed, I promised myself to use this time to explore new opportunities. And that meant going back to school.

I didn’t want to invest many years (and take on a mountain of debt) for an entirely new degree. I wanted to be educated in something that was serious but different – something that would help me in my quest to make outstanding small-batch jams and preserves. After some strong encouragement from my husband-who-hates-farm chores, he essentially said, “don’t live with any regrets.” I signed up that night.

Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course is anything but easy. Its science-based lectures and labs are for those who want and need to make some serious ice cream. I learned fun stuff like the differences between vanilla beans (Tahitian has cherry notes), but there were many hardcore essential classes on pasteurization, refrigeration, regulations and labeling, microbiology, and packaging. My personal nightmare was mix calculations which are, put simply, very important if you want to make a consistent ice cream product. I struggled – and boy did it suck -- but eventually I overcame that section thanks to some very talented, crazy smart teacher assistants.

For me, the course was filled with successes and new ventures that a test cannot measure. Before it began, I promised myself to make the most of this experience and opportunity, and I think I did. I accomplished things I’ve never done before. I ran for class president and lost. I sang karaoke (hey, there's a first for everything) and I participated in a Minute to Win It contest which required me to make an ice cream banana split sundae with one hand (I won a nifty ice scraper for all those frigid California mornings).

At the end of the day, though, something even more extraordinary happened: I tried to be the best student I could be, and that meant I studied. Let me tell you this: the younger Karen-in-her-20s would have done none of the above, especially study.

During its 119-year run, some of the big guns in the world of frozen confections have taken the course: reps from Ben and Jerry's, Baskin and Robbins, Haagen and Dazs – they’ve all graduated from Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course. And now, I, too, am proud to have joined the ranks.

What's next for Mothercluck and my line of artisanal jams, jellies, and preserves? Why ice cream, of course. I cannot think of anything better than small batch, premium, vanilla ice cream with ribbon-infused fruit freshly made from my line of preserves.

A scoop of heaven, I say!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The New Food Activism

If you live in the Los Angeles area and love lazy Saturdays at Vroman's Bookstore, stop by and listen to two book authors who care about food -- Robert Gottlieb and Erik Knutzen. While you're there, make sure to shop for some local artisanal items, including jams and preserves from Mothercluck.

Gottlieb, author of Food Justice, and Knutzen, of The Urban Homestead, will speak on “The New Food Activism” and how it relates to local efforts, such as the current plan to open a community-owned market in the Pasadena/Altadena area. The event is sponsored by the group behind the planned market -- the Arroyo Food Coop.  Items the Coop plans to put on its shelves will for sale at Vroman's.

Mothercluck Jams, Jellies and Preserves is proud to be a participant in this book signing and mini market. Stop by, say hello, and meet other people who care about their food and shopping locally.

The event is set for 1:30 p.m., Saturday, January 22, at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado in Pasadena.

See you there!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Holding Hands 16 Years On

A few weeks ago, I embraced an anniversary. It was 16 years since my mother died of pancreatic cancer. We buried her the day before Christmas eve.

For many years, the holiday season was filled with weeks of sadness and ambivalence. I'd see happy shoppers, but shopping made me anything but happy. All I could think of were those last few days of her life, filled with pain and misery, and how in a matter of months she shifted from a relatively vibrant woman to someone, at the nadir of her dying hours, looked like she was 90 years old.

Of course, time changes one’s perspective. I no longer care to remember those last few hours of her life but rather gestures and conversations that made me feel connected to my mother.

There is no question that the happiest moments of my childhood are the ones I experienced around when I was 5 or 6 years old -- long before the turmoil, boredom, and depression hit my mother.

My son is now 6 -- the time, in my childhood, when my mother would hold my hand to safely cross the street, wrap her coat around me to keep me warm and occasionally buy me a nickel candy bar just because she knew it would make me happy. She would pick a fresh green pepper from her small vegetable garden because she knew how much I adored them. She would bring me a banana or orange cut in quarters, all because she loved me.

I now do all those things that my mother taught me.  As a motherless mother, I really don’t have a clear map to help me navigate motherhood. I have very little history to go by other than my memory, or perhaps the history of my mother told by my siblings. But as the youngest of four children, I experienced my mother differently. She was a very different mother to each of us, and to me particularly.

This past holiday season, I remembered my mother’s loving gestures not only because of her death but because I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with my son. He’s been home from school. I’m not working so our days were filled with just the two of us, playing endless games of indoor basketball, running errands, having lunch and learning about what’s really happening at school.

This short break also allowed me to show him small but meaningful gestures of love: the subtle hand-holding as we crossed the street, wrapping my coat around him because he’s cold, and yes, buying him the occasionally candy bar because I can. And as it was 40-plus years ago, this time spent with my son has been one of the happiest of my life, and certainly a highlight of my role as a mother.

I’m not sure my son will look back and say that these are “the days to remember.” That’s ok. I certainly hope there will be other significant memories. But as I remember my mother’s death, I also am reminded of the hope and wonder a new life can bring. My son will never know his grandmother. But at least he can experience her warmth, intelligence, and brilliance with every loving gesture.