A murmuration of starlings

I’ve discovered that there is an entire subgenre of YouTube videos on starling murmuration. This one that I’m sharing with you is short, has an exciting raptor cameo, and David Tennant, but it was hard to choose among them. I highly recommend getting lost among the starlings today.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in “Starlings in Winter” by (Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays), “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us.”

And murmuration–isn’t that a fantastic word?

A new spice sensation in the Root Simple kitchen

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Last night, while looking for something to spice up some roasted pumpkin seeds, I made a happy discovery:

Korean red pepper flakes + ground sumac (plus lots of salt) = delicious!

These two geographically unrelated spices share shelf space in our cupboard, but I’ve never thought about combining them before, perhaps because they come from different food families, so to speak. So many wasted years! Now they’re going on nuts, seeds, popcorn…maybe as a fish crust. Oh, the things we shall do!

Gochugaru, Korean red pepper powder (also referred to as red chile flakes), is a deep red, coarse powder or flake. Its flavor is spicy, smokey and a little bit sweet. It’s easy to fall in love with this stuff all on it’s own. Gochugaru is the primary spice in kimchi and it’s also the primary flavor in our favorite tofu dish.  You can find it in Asian markets which stock Korean items. Look for it to be taking up a good section of an aisle, and being offered in many sizes–all the way up to big, pillowcase bags of the stuff. No other spice gets this much attention! If you can’t find it, just as for kimchi spice.

Sumac is a a tart, lemony spice you can find in Middle Eastern markets, also a deep red color. It’s great on salads (it’s always on fattoush, for instance) and fish, and both tasty and attractive when sprinkled over hummus and other dip-like things. I often use it to add lemon flavor to food when I have no lemons.  And yes, while I don’t know exactly what kind of sumac is harvested for commercial spice production, it is related to our wild sumacs–it’s from the Rhus genus. So if you want to be all Grizzly Adams about your hummus, you  could forage edible sumac berries and grind them to make your own spice– just be very careful with your identifications.

The combination of the two at about a 50/50 blend makes something warmly spicy with a little lemon kick. It’s snacking gold!

I made shoes!

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As regular Root Simple readers know, I’ve been obsessing on making shoes for some time now, but was not able to wrap my mind around the process without help. Help arrived this weekend in the form of the wonderful–and wonderfully patient– Randy Fritz, who taught me and four other intrepid souls how to make turnshoes over the course of the last 4 days.

Lesson 1: As we have all suspected, shoes are not easy to make. Seriously not easy.

Four full days of work may seem like a lot for a pair of shoes, but it was just barely enough for us all to reach the finish line. I think all of us walked away with a new respect for the craft and complexity of the cordwainer’s art.

Lesson 2: Cordwainer is the proper term for a shoe maker. A cobbler repairs shoes. Who knew?

Randy estimates he could make a pair of turnshoes in about 10 hours, but leading a pack of wayward newbies through the process takes 32 hours. More, really, as we had homework. I’d say 40 hours went into each pair of shoes. After doing this, I will never again balk at the price of a pair of bespoke shoes.

Lesson 3: It is, in fact, worthwhile to make your own shoes.

Turnshoes are very much like gloves for the feet. We crafted custom patterns for our feet, and the resulting shoes were as unique as we five students are in every other way. To see our same-yet-different shoes lined up in a row was to realize that how much we are cheating ourselves when we shove our feet into standardized prefabricated “foot coffins”.

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Casts of our feet on their way to become patterns

Lesson 4: Crafting is more fun in groups.

I know some people are very content as solo crafters, puttering away alone in their work rooms and man caves, but for me, one of the best parts of the last four days was getting to know four other fascinating people; to gossip, bitch and celebrate together as the shoes started to take shape. As I know from outdoor adventuring, nothing facilitates bonding like shared adversity! It really was very much an adventure, and it also felt strangely like a vacation. I know many people would balk at a 4 day class, but believe me, it was no hardship. I would happily just keep on doing it.

Lisa, Lee, Pilar and Ruth, I salute you!

The Shoes Themselves

Turnshoes are soft soled leather foot gloves, very like moccasins.  I like to call them “Euro moccasins” — they are patterned on a shoe style prevalent in Europe, particularly Northern Europe, from about 900 to 1400AD. The shoe is constructed inside out, and only turned right way around in the final stages. Thus, “turnshoe.”. (The act of turning the shoes inside out takes time and considerable finger strength. We called the turning “shoe birthing” — as it required a good deal of grunting and cursing, but resulted in a beautiful newborn shoe.) The result of this technique is that all of the stitching is hidden inside the shoe, even the sole stitching. The only visible stitching is the decorative lashing around the top.

We started the process by making patterns off our feet, both tracing our soles and using duct tape (a common medieval technology) to make casts of our feet. Then we cut open and flattened those 3D casts to form the pattern for the uppers. The uppers were made of buffalo hide, which is strong and buttery soft, and the soles of latigo, a thick leather which is a traditional soling material. We stitched the leather together with strong waxed thread.

The shoes are meant to fit like gloves–and they do. As I said above, each one was a perfect expression of their maker’s foot. Mine have a distinctive duck foot shape. Don’t get me wrong–I like my feet. I think they are quite fetching in profile, actually, but years of flip-flopping and barefooting have spread my toes wide.  As a result, most shoes are uncomfortable for me. It is amazing to have a perfectly fitting pair at last.

The finished shoes were so pretty and soft that three of the five of us decided to reserve them as house shoes, for which they are ideal. I want to tramp around in mine, though, so I opted to paint a layer of protective gunk made out of shredded tires on my pretty red soles. That gunk is drying right now. I’m itching to take them on a hike!

More Shoes?

The key to mastery is repetition, so I should make another pair soon. Right now, with my fingers still sore and tingling from all the scraping and punching and pulling, the idea sounds less than appealing. As a compromise I’m going to find myself a nice sheet of felt and make a pair of house slippers with the same pattern, just to walk through the process again while all that information is still floating around my sieve-like brain. Later, though, I’d really like to make another pair. Perhaps with an ankle extension to make booties.

A Fantastic Teacher

Hats off to the inimitable Randy Fritz for teaching this class with such grace and wisdom. I cannot adequately describe the Zen-like patience he displayed as he shepherded the five us on this journey full of inexplicable and sharp tools for four full days. I think I tried him the most, because I was very good at goofing things up.  (Common Kelly phrases: “Oh, I wasn’t supposed to cut that?” and “Is this supposed to look like this?”) Randy was always there to save my bacon–and my shoes.

If you are now wildly jealous and want to make a pair of turnshoes of your own with Randy, there will be chances to do so in the future. He’s working on his website, so I have no linkage for you, but we’ll keep you informed as things develop, and announce his future classes. We’re hoping to see a sandal class from him next year!  Ooh ah. You could also send him an email to get on his mailing list, or to invite him to teach a class for a group: fritzr(at)cox(dot)net

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We worship the shoe god. I’m second from the right.