Some days, you just gotta get your funk on! So, of course, you go to your local specialty cheese store. If you are feeling blue, have they got the cheese for you!
I recently explored the highly-select, curdled delicacies of The Cheese Lady. This particular gouda merchant has been in business for over five years within walking distance of where I work. I have never been to such a specialized store since I visited the short-lived “Get Oiled” lubricant emporium at a nearby mall.*That establishment overestimated a beer-drinking town’s appetites for strictly olive-oil based tastes. Fortunately, cheese goes magnificently with beer. So, against the economic odds, The Cheese Lady is thriving.
You wouldn’t think you’d find someone willing to pay $28.00 per pound for a cheese.** But, if you casually drop into the conversation that you are a blogger, apparently they are willing to break out the 15-year-old, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, to dazzle your senses.
I was given several different samples to try–like many addictive substances, the first taste is free. My personal favorite was a strong cheddar with a soft name: Prairie Breeze Cheddar. If you go to their site, you can read the details–or misread them as I did–and learn that this cheese is made by milking the Mennonite Amish in Iowa. I hope it isn’t a painful process, but even if it is, it is certainly worth the price for the pleasure. (I’m sure there is a bondage joke somewhere straining to break free in that sentence.)
Prairie Breeze has the bite of a 10-year aging process and the crystallization that makes each nibble a squeaky pleasure against the back of the teeth and palate. It is also made of vegetarian rennet – in case you are squeamish about abusing animals for your taste buds but not enough to eschew cheese consumption entirely.
I’m a bit of a foodie, I know a hard Italian can be found beyond the covers of a romance novel.***But this place had names for cheese I’ve never heard of. I’m scanning the wall of exotica and I point to one that just screams to be tasted, which is how I ended up the victim of what has to be a practical joke cheese.
If you have a penchant for the pungent, you may want to give it a try. (Or, if you are a wicked prankster and have a cheese-loving victim in mind…) Sample the Red Witch. She’s to die for. Be warned, I had to spit the offending Wiccan out of my mouth because it went past my ‘blue cheese’ tolerance levels into a zone I gaspingly describe as “People Actually Eat This?” It is definitely an acquired taste. It was also created for a specific event so it’s a limited ‘pleasure’ to be had before it’s gone, gone, gone.****
You don’t need a special occasion to stop by. However, it’s a great location to throw together a one-of-a-kind gift. The store sells decorative baskets so you can pull together your sundry delights. There are cheeses galore and more–gourmet items you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. There were some gorgeous, if pricey, clay sculptures, cheese boards and other sundry specialties to round out your gift giving. Crackers, jams, and dried fruit combos abound. It is definitely a store for the upper market, but, even an everyday person like me can drop a few dollars or sample for free the forbidden fruits of years of cheese making tradition. I missed out on the dessert cheeses this time around. I plan next to hit the blueberry stilton and tantalizing-sounding cranberry wensleydale–in honor of my favorite British duo: Wallace and Gromit.
I may even beg a little mango ginger or lemon stilton while I’m at it. I am not above groveling. For cheese is a pleasure one should not deny oneself. It is a gift from the moldy gods! And there’s nothing funky about that!
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Not the real name of the establishment, I’m saving their dignity. I entered “Get Oiled” in wonder a few years ago honestly expecting someone to jump out and yell, “Surprise!” revealing it to be a giant hoax. The next time I visited the mall, it was no longer there. Perhaps it was a Potemkin Olive Oil Village?
**You’d be wrong. *nibbles 1-ounce purchase*
***I’m looking at you, Fabio!
****While eating the Red Witch, I highly recommend you gasp, “I’m melting, I’m melting,” before sinking to the floor in a collapse, just to add authenticity to the experience.
On the heels of my last post “Tempest in a Teapot, ” today follows the story with an introductory Haiku—poorly crafted poetry that tries to sum up a day in seventeen syllables:
As tea steeps, rain weeps
Water fills both bowl and sky
Prepare to drink deep.
I leave the Japanese Tea House buoyed with happiness and a certain sense of rightness with the world. It doesn’t last long.*
I take my complimentary shocking-yellow umbrella from our Meijer Garden’s guide—I almost bow from recently-acquired habit—and pause to pose in front of a font for a photo. (Hit *like* if you love alliteration.)
As I am leaving, the guide casually mentions that a ‘storm’ is headed this way and I should make sure to head in by 2:00.
I scramble around the larger Japanese Garden to admire the lush-to-the-point-of- heaving-bosoms blooming flowers in the rain. I ‘Cecil B. DeMille’ a few of them with dew-laden close-ups. I might have asked a few of them to “Come on, show a little stamen and pistil.”**
I stalk the Bonsai garden—a human sequoia in a land of miniature conifers. I took several snaps of the plump, if bruised, pear growing on its tiny parent. It struck me funny that I was giving produce the paparazzi treatment when I pass it up with barely a blink at our local grocery store. (I am high on centuries of tradition, what can I say? I am a wild woman.)
The rain is steady–not too heavy but definitely a presence. My shadowy, wet companion. At one point, I am juggling the umbrella and trying to photograph the Korean Hornbeam*** when I drop my iPhone. Fortunately, it hits the rocks glass-side up, or I’d be crying in the rain.
I stop in the rock garden on my way out. The nearly invisible poetry etched into the massive boulders is made visible by the downpour.
RAIN FALLING IN SPRING
AND I AM SORRY
NOT TO BE ABLE TO WRITE
I’m eating lunch in the Meijer Gardens’ café, surrounded by raindrop streaked windows and Chihuly glass installment on the ceiling, when I turn my phone back on to check for messages. There is a mildly alarming inquiry about my son from the babysitter, so I call to check on him.
That’s when I get the news…they are in the basement…there is a tornado alert for the area. I should seek shelter.
We exchange a few frantic words before I head to the front desk.
“Uh, are you all aware that there is a tornado alert?” I whisper this as if I’d cause a stampede if overheard.
The huddle of women with grey-to-frosty-white hair helmets look up from an iPad and confirm they’re tracking its progress.
“Don’t worry. We’ll let everyone know if we need to move to the shelters in the basement.”
I shrug, I’ve done my part. But in my head, I’m thinking. “Don’t tornados move pretty fast?” I make my way to the basement to grab a seat before anyone else does. Because…priorities!
Pretty soon, everybody else with an iPhone or other device is making their way down there ahead of an official announcement. If there is ever another mass extinction it will be because someone decided to wait until they were sure disaster was heading in their direction before taking action.
It’s getting crowded and suddenly all of our phones are going off announcing the approach of the storm. The officials finally make it official and start herding people into the area that is the ‘actual’ storm shelter. (Apparently they don’t consider a need for access to plumbing with the same level of urgency I do.) A service door leads to an unfinished concrete cavern filled with twists and turns and lots of unused equipment and staging material. We are urged to move as far back in the space to make room for everybody. I’m surprised by how calmly everyone is taking this. Inside I wonder if we really ought to be more concerned.
I spy a few of the people I ran into while walking the garden. I’m glad they made it back—but I do wonder about the second tea ceremony that was supposed to start at 2:00. There is a really evil part of me that whispers “Aren’t you glad you signed up for the first showing at 11:30!”
I pass members of a wedding party, one of the women is still holding a glass/candle concoction which would be an excellent thing if anyone wanted a light. (I see a future market for wedding planners —decorative flourishes that function as emergency provisions in the event of a disaster.)
I finally choose a spot that circles back to a secondary exit. There is light spilling in from the corridor so it isn’t totally scary if it is a bit cold.
Across from me a family—two grandparents, a family friend, and two children—are trying to get comfortable on the floor. I look around. Nearby there are folded chairs and a huddle of employees who, by their uniforms, work in the kitchens upstairs.
“Would it be okay if we got out the chairs?” I ask one of them. I have to repeat myself because it appears the young man isn’t used to actually talking with the visitors to the Gardens.
Minutes later, our area is much cozier with scattered seating. I quash any guilt I might feel because the woman across says, “Oh, that’s so much better.”
We exchange a few pleasantries before settling into a tense wait-and-see. The children are scared. You can tell by the way they clutch the toys they’ve brought with them. I honestly don’t feel that much fear—probably because I have no clue what kind of damage a storm like this can do. You see…
I am a tornado virgin.
I have never lived through any major storm—beyond the huge snow storm of 78’ when I was a child. And all I remember from that week was the isolation—school was canceled and we were unable to leave because the roads couldn’t be plowed. (One of the joys of living rurally.) I do recall my brothers and I deciding that the four-foot drifts were an invitation to jumping off the roof and sinking over waist deep in snow. We had to swivel back and forth to worm our way out. Oh, I’ve had to hide in a few basements on occasion, but they had always turned out to be false prophecies. So, I had a cocky optimism that this time wouldn’t be any different.
Minutes creep past. The littlest girl across from me is crying with that suppressed sob-hiccup combination that can be so cute even when they are earnest tears. I can’t make out what she is upset about other than it involves someone or something called…Balthazar?
So, I ask. Partly to hopefully distract the child and, well, because I am curious.
“Who is Balthazar?”
The little girl blinks tear drenched lashes and utters a nearly incomprehensible string of words:
“I…I…he’s…I left him…and…he’s in danger. I…I…what will…I do…if…” She trails off with more tears and no doubt a snuffly nose.
Her grandmother brushes a strand of hair away from her flushed pink face and leans toward me.
“It’s her toy…I think it’s called Bulbasaur. Or something like that.”
“It’s Bulbazar, Grandma!” This comes from the second little girl ensconced on the other woman’s lap.
A discuss pops up about the pronunciation, but Grandma shakes her head.
“No, I think it has S.A.U.R. at the end—like a dinosaur.”
“What exactly is a Bulbasaur?” I ask.
If I had known the torrent of information that was about to rain down on me, I might have tried to save myself. But then, again, there was no Wi-Fi signal and there really wasn’t anything else to do. So, I took an unscheduled course in Pokémon 101. The little redhead across from me apparently had a masters if not a doctorate.
At one point, she tells me her name is “Kay”
(Names changed just because.)
I tell her, “My name starts with a ‘K’ too!” She beams at me; we are now friends for life.
She points to her sister, “That’s Dee.”
“I recognize that is Pokémon.” I say, pointing to the yellow pillow-type thing Dee is holding as if someone were threatening to take it from her. Then I point to whatever lump is in Kay’s hands. “But what is that?”
Kay giggles. She holds up a lumpy, terry-clothed thing.
“It’s a towel! ‘Cause I did a ‘Dee’!”
And then she plops the thing against the side of her head.
Of course. This make perfect sense. No doubt my expression says as much.
Her grandmother laughs and explains. “She bumped her head earlier and they got her a cloth with ice in it.”
Kay holds back her bangs to reveal nary a bruise. The ice must have done its job or the strawberry hair is hiding the evidence. Kay is now picking through the washcloth and slips a sliver of ice into her mouth with her grandma none the wiser.
Grandma smooths the bangs again, adding, “Anytime we bump our heads, we say we are doing a Dee because she used to run into all sorts of corners and things when she was little.”
Kay pipes up again and points to her sister. “Yeah she bumped her head a lot! So we say ‘We did a Dee.’”
Everyone is nodded and smiling. Then Kay adds, “And when we fart we say we did a ‘Kathy’. Because Grandma farts a lot!” And she points back at her grandmother, who is now laughing—though a tiny bit mortified by this announcement.
Grandma Kathy murmurs something about maybe sharing too much information but she isn’t really mad and her granddaughters know it because they are both laughing, snuggled safe in loving arms.
Kay pops back up from this to launch into a detailed explanation of Bulbasaur’s relationship to Pokémon.
I learn there is something called the Rocket Team—and they are definitely bad guys. And someone named Ash who spends a lot of time in the gym.
The grandma throws in a comment to clarify a point Kay is trying to make with hand gestures that look like something is exploding.
“The Pokémon can evolve.” She says.
But into what is never clearly explained. I picture something like a Transformer—which is my cultural experience with toys that are more than meets the eye—but rounder and cuter.
I learn that the Pokémon can fight. That Pikachu has a secret weapon—something called a ‘Thunder Shock.’ And here, Kay puffs out her cheeks and demonstrates:
“His cheeks blow out really loud and he says, ‘Pikachuuuuuu!”
Apparently this devastates his enemies.
The girls are laughing and chatting back and forth when all of our phones go off at once.
Some of the alerts are voiced announcements notifying us of a Tornado alert in our area and to seek shelter. There is something really unnerving about the shrill cacophony of notes chiming throughout the cement block room. No one is laughing now.
There is a human instinct to huddle. To crouch low as if to make a smaller target. I find myself looking at the little girls across from me shrinking back and arms that had been holding them loosely now tightened. Reassurances are whispered and Grandpa is a stoic figure who rarely says a word but is a calm presence in the face of the unseen.
I try to comfort them, knowing I am helpless to be there for my own son tucked in the basement with a babysitter who definitely deserves more than I pay her.
“So, the alarms are like the ‘Thunder Shock’ Pikachu makes. It’s just a reminder to be careful.”
Then a little girl in a frilly dress toddles past and loses a bow. The pink ribbon falls near my feet and I seize the opportunity.
“Look she lost her bow. That’s a bow alert!”
Kay is delighted by this idea. When an oblivious little boy in an adorable suit trundles through bumping into nearly everything in his path, she calls out, “Baby Alert.”
Soon Kay is reciting once again the episodes and even an entire theme about her favorite TV characters. She sings some sort of anthem—it went on for about seven verses—and it is too fast and her voice is too high for me to do more than pick out one word in ten.
I’m reminded of the scene in Finding Nemo where Nemo’s dad is listening to the baby sea turtle explain the way to get to the East Australian current. After the pipsqueak voice winds down, Marlin says:
“You know, you’re really cute, but I don’t know what you are saying! Say the first thing again.”
For whatever else I miss, I understand that this language is helping Kay and Dee to deal with a frightening situation. No one can call out. All attempts to text and get replies are blocked by the surrounding concrete cocoon that keeps us safe from tornados as well as causing wireless signal fatigue. So, while we sit and try not to worry about the ominous thumps we occasionally hear overhead—we share our stories to distract each other.
Instead of spending our moments anticipating whooshing air signifying imminent destruction, we find the strength to laugh, to find the humor and our humanity in the darkness.
Eventually, the crowds that had been loitering near raw plywood and collapsed tables usually only seen fully clothed with the ruched skirts to protect the legs’ modesty, start to part. People drift away and cheers go up as we realize the danger is past. With very little fanfare, the crisis is over.
I say goodbye to the girls and soon the crowd separates us. We are all ready to be done with the claustrophobic space.
The wedding party is making its way back to their celebration. I spot a woman who is still clutching her slice of wedding cake. I can’t help but comment on her foresight.
“Well, I didn’t want to miss out if it was gone when we got back!” she says with a smile.
“I am just surprised you didn’t eat it while waiting.”
“I didn’t have time to grab a fork,” she replies.
I laugh, “A little thing like that wouldn’t have stopped me!”
Before we part, we agree, this is a wedding no one is likely to forget!
Outside, there is little evidence that a major storm front has gone through.
“Another much ado about nothing!” I think.
It’s not until I am nearing home that I spot the devastation. Trees that had survived sixty to a hundred years of bad weather were torn and scattered on front yards and crushing cars and houses like giant match sticks dropped by a careless hand. I’m not even a mile away from home and it suddenly strikes me how close it came. How violent the winds had to have been to snap oaks and other hard wood like dry kindling. I later learn this was a weak system–only a category EF-0. I don’t want to ever see what something stronger could do.
My house and family are fine–two city blocks west of the path of destruction. I pay the sitter and she shrugs off the seven-hour ordeal caused by our separate vigils in the dark. Thankfully, my son was totally oblivious of any danger.
I didn’t really face the dragon—but I felt his breath on my neck. I survived his reign of terror and I can imagine how differently things could have turned out.
Thus ends my tale. The only thing left is an appreciation for Japanese culture which creates a tea to feed the soul and a Pokémon to calm the tempest in the pot.
I leave you with a final haiku:
Trees dance and bow low
Thunder applauds with fierce claps
Making dancers fall
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
* It never does
**Floral porn, take one—“Come on, you know you want to bee pollinated!”
***You were expecting a dragon ala Harry Potter, weren’t you?
Saturday, I fulfilled a long-awaited, death-defying pleasure—learning The Way of Tea (Chadō) at the Meijer Gardens’ Japanese Tea House in Grand Rapids, MI. Allow me to take you on the journey…
[Insert wavy time machine effect here.]
The day has a mugginess to it that only people of equatorial descent can appreciate. Occasional breezes cause drops in temperature that turn skin from sweaty to clammy in a soggy instant. The air practically vibrates with thermal shifts.
Ten or so participants mill around a bench at the matchiai—the waiting area outside the tea house. Fellow guests discuss the progress of the formation of the Japanese Garden—opened just last year—as well as the availability of tea houses in the surrounding area.*
The Meijer Gardens’ tea house is surrounded by lush greenery and the walkway leading to the building is paved with irregular stones. Discrete signs warn visitors to watch their step. A guide explains the unevenness of the path is intentional—so that you pay attention to where you walk in a thoughtful manner.** She also warns us to ‘bow low’ as we cross the threshold—both to humble ourselves in preparation and to prevent head injury in the taller guests.
Our hostess appears, a slender woman in a yellow kimono, beckoning us with a soft voice to follow her.
We duck under the low gate between the matchiai and the cha-shitsu—or tea house proper. Near the entrance, a wash basin gurgles. We are told it is intended for guests to purify and refresh themselves before entering—though we are asked to admire it from afar. We remove our shoes before slipping into the small building.
The tea house was built in Japan, disassembled, shipped here, and reassembled on site. It is modeled on Japanese specifications—with some allowances for Western comforts. The floor is not entirely made of tatami—and we are not required to scoot in on our knees as proper guests would expect to do. Once seated on square, silken cushions on benches along the wall, we meet our hostess, Yumiko Narita and her assistants: Tomoyo Koehler, who plays the role of ‘guest’ in the demonstration and Miyuki Muramoto, who afterward helps to serve the visitors.
Anita Savio, the Public Affairs Director from the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit, narrates for us throughout the chanoyu (tea service). She says that, typically, the exchange is presented in silence with rare scripted exchanges between the hostess and her primary guest.
Acceptable questions the guest may ask include the origin of the bowl that is central to the ceremony. The chawan at this service, we learn, comes from the Shiga Prefecture—which in Japan is the sister state to Michigan. The bowls and utensils were commissioned there specifically for this reason. Much admiring of the bowl is required before, during, and after the tea is presented and drunk. Additionally, the guest might comment on the weather…this would have been helpful in the hours to come…had we actually discussed this.
Names and steps for the tea service whip past in swift progression. I do my best to follow each detail, but at one point I decide it is easier—and more in keeping with the spirit—to witness rather than try to capture the experience in my cramped notes.
Anita Savio describes the honors of being a guest—approaching on one’s knees to kneel and offer respect to the scroll which has been chosen particularly for this occasion. Later, Miyuki copies the artistic Japanese swoops into my notes. She explains the sentiment “Ichi-go, Ichi-Ay means “One Time, One Meeting.” This seems like an appropriate statement for the rare pleasure of watching a centuries old art form. Or you could say:
“One only has the present moment—the future is not a promise.”
(How do you like that foreshadowing?)
We learn that the outside world rank does not signify—that all are equal inside the tea house. Thus it is very bad manners to wear jewelry or other signs of wealth. (I surreptitiously sneak my necklace into my bag upon hearing this.) No doubt we are breaking many rules but, as foreigners to the art, we are forgiven our ignorance.
A red silk cloth is used to purify already clean utensils. We learn that the scoop used for pouring the water is called a kagami—the same word the Japanese use for ‘mirror.’ The hostess holds the kagami up and looks into it before using it, as if to measure her soul for readiness for the ordeal ahead. (Although there may be poetic license in this interpretation—everywhere I have since looked online the scoop is called a hishaku—though there are various schools of chanoyu.)
About half-way through the ceremony, rain begins to fall. Each plink of water hitting the tile roof accompanies the delicacy of movement as first the bowl is tempered with hot water and the whisk is similarly primed to make it flexible.
I watch the graceful movements between the hostess and her guest—every bow, shuffle, gesture and placement of utensils marks appreciation for the craft and respect for all in attendance. The bowl for serving tea is rotated clockwise in several stages. It is like a ballet for a beverage. As you watch, you realize this is an act of love; for no other reason fully explains why anyone would devote this much time and effort to perfecting an ancient tradition.
We are given a round, pink sweet that is served before we drink. It is completely unforgivable to add sugar or honey to the tea, but the sweet—or wagashi—serves the function of balancing the bitter. Made of azuki bean paste, it is an unfamiliar taste though not entirely unpleasant and similar in texture to marzipan. It is beautifully shaped to mimic a ‘botan’ or peony flower.
Nature suffuses the tea service. There are special teas held at different times of the year. A garden surrounds the tea house where guests may take their repose before or sometimes during the services at a longer ceremony. It is carried into the space in the art of chabana—the flower arrangement that is crafted to complement this day. It is in the errant wind that blows through open windows.
After the ceremony, we visitors are given our own bowl with a unique design. Of note, the bowl is turned until the ‘best side’ faces the guest. Bows are exchanged and before the guest can taste the tea, the bowl must be admired. In the ceremony, there are multiple stages of sitting the bowl on the tatami and admiring it and asking questions of its heritage before the bowl could be returned—beautiful side facing out. Fortunately, as witnesses, we are not required to be so precise—a simple bow suffices both in receiving and returning the treasured tea bowl.***
As the tea ends we are free to ask questions.
We learn that both the hostess and first guest are wearing the kimono of married women—long sleeves are reserved for maidens for the length is better for flirting. The kimono has no buttons, zippers, or pockets. This raises the question ‘where do you put things?’
Tomoyo Koehler demonstrates the usefulness of sleeve folds where she stashes her fukusa—or silk napkin. For larger items, she shows us a rectangular fabric purse that she turns and slips into the drum-style obi she wears at her back. The greatest decoration can be found on the obi. Some ways of tying the material can be very elaborate in shapes like fans, bows, and butterflies.
The tea we attended is only the smallest portion of a full-length ceremony. A full-blown service might take four hours or longer and involve a first tea—a thicker Matcha tea—and a meal of sumptuous cuisine (Kaiseki-ryori) in bite-sized portions. We are offered the lighter, final tea. In truth, what we were given seems thick enough. I thought it looked a bit like blended wheat grass and tasted like an herbal remedy rather than the clear green tea I am familiar with.
We also learn that the fan that is brought by the guest is strictly ceremonial and is never opened. It represents the weapons that Samurai warriors would leave outside the tea house—eschewing violence in favor of humble accord with all guests. The small fan is presented on the tatami, the guest bows to the scroll and, once seated, the fan is placed behind the guest the entire time.
The chado—the art of tea—stems from a tradition brought back by a monk who visited China. At the time, tea was considered medicinal and served a holy function to help the monks stay awake during meditation. When the expensive habit was adopted by the aristocracy and then later was taken on by the Samurai class, the formality of tea preparation and service ascended to a cultural tradition which lasts to this day. It is an art which takes a lifetime to master.
“One must first study to be a guest before one can learn to serve.” Anita Savio.
There is no way to truly convey the gravity and generosity of these women in inviting us to this experience. Yes, we paid a fee to attend, but the intent when participating in the tea is that one is personally invited to a sacred space. And by the end of the chadoyu, you certainly feel honored.
My first epiphany of the day is—one can either experience or observe—you cannot do both.
My later epiphanies will blow you away. But that will have to wait for the next installment entitled “Tea with Tornados.”