In seventh grade, I took algebra with The Warlock.
The Warlock wasn't her given name, just the one used by my brother, who'd had her years earlier. There was nothing mean-spirited in his tone, as he read over my first middle school schedule. No rancor, no malice, just matter-of-factness. "Mr. Hillyer for Shop, Ms. Levine for Health, The Warlock for Algebra, 4th period Lunch..."
Being older, wiser, well into high school, his words had the air of fact about them. Being younger, more stubborn, well accustomed to contradiction, I was duty-bound to disagree.
For the first half of my first middle school year, I maintained there was nothing Warlock-like about her. So what if her fashions were a bit 1962, black cat eye glasses through beehive 'do. Who cared if her A-lines and sweater sets only leveraged the fog-dishwater-ash end of the rainbow. And okay, maybe she was a little troglodyte in aspect. Severe. And serious, and solemn, and stern. And didn't tell jokes. Or laugh. Or smile. Ever.
She knew algebra, understood its pure piercing brilliance. She drove home the difference between constants and co-efficients. Could sniff out every x, y and z in story problems. Could isolate a variable like nobody's business. The woman could solve for anything.
She made clear to me, for the first time ever, the raw gritty beauty of mathematics. Variables equalled mysteries. Equations, answers. Constants, powers, co-efficients, the bridge between the two. Algebra was Agatha Christie, but with far fewer letters, and no surprise endings. Algebra was useful, and predictable, and orderly. I liked orderly. I loved algebra. And so I defended The Warlock with all my might, singing her praises to my brother for months.
For four months, specifically. Until mid-January. When she fell from my grace, fast and hard.
It was early winter, in Seattle, which almost always means forty, precipitating, and green. Except on this one particular mid-January Monday, it was thirty, precipitating, and green. As happens in Seattle, snow had been rumoured, working every last schoolkid into a Sunday night frenzy. As happens in Seattle, Monday broke with no snow, breaking every last frenzied schoolkid's snow-starved heart. And then—as almost never happens in Seattle—the rumours actually came true. Right there, in third period Algebra. Big, fat fluffy flakes. Falling. Thick. Glorious.
We sat there, in our orange melamine desk-chairs, mesmerized by the sight. (With one classroom wall made entirely of windows, the sight was pretty spectacular.) There were murmurs. Turned heads. Hushed exclamations. The odd uncontainable outright squeal.
All, unrelated to the day's lesson plan.
She stared. She glared. She pursed. She commanded. She ordered our attention back toward the board.
We tried. Honestly. But those flakes! They fell faster and fatter and fatter and faster. Like nothing I'd seen, in all my eleven years. We knew these were different, special. She knew no such thing. So she walked over to the West window—and to this day, I can't fathom it—and closed the vinyl blind—SNAP!—all the way down to the sill. [Show's over.]
And then, kept going. All along the wall. Every last blind.
Until the only light left in the room came from the fluorescents, buzzing above our astonished, seventh-grade heads. She returned to her lesson.
We mentally checked out when the blinds went down; physically, two hours later, when school was cancelled for the day. And, it would turn out, for the week. School in Seattle is never cancelled for a week. It was, that week. Math is magic, yes. But so, dear Warlock, is snow.
She's still an anonymous "she" to me, because after that, her given name never stuck. And I'm like a kid to this day when it snows, because I've still not gotten over the stuff.
We got more snow, Saturday. And Monday. And even though I know, at this age, it's not all skipping school and lunchroom-tray sledding, that it's back-breaky shoveling and frigid window scraping and at-best tricky slippery touch-and-go driving, still. I love it. I can't help it. From the first, I considered snow one of Ohio's finer features. And ever since, with levels low to no-show, I've considered snow extra-special, even here.
Needless to say, I suited up.
There was, because of the snow and other circumstances, a lot that didn't happen this break. Outings undone. Walks not taken. Ice cream uneaten, save one precious cone. But because of the same, a different lot did. Games were played. Satsumas eaten. Letters written. Pants lengthened. Puzzles completed, all 750 pieces. Elephants got capes. Dolls, monogrammed sheets. Molly's, first-hand lessons in French seams. Snow bunnies were built. Igloos, also. And snow boots, laced and unlaced a-plenty. And the same salad eaten, several times over.
Squeal for the snow, and for this salad, which I think I served three times, this week alone. Which I've not gone a week without eating since September. Which I know, because in September, I was withering under an arugula mountain. Our fall CSA had begun, and each week brought a box overflowing with produce, every week, a different bounty. Except the arugula. The arugula was every week. (For the bounty, see above. And past the frame, where it continued. I do love snow. But I so miss that bounty.)
Now, I love arugula. At least as much as algebra. But the arugula bags were big. And weekly. And sometimes double, as vacationing friends kindly donated their share. And sometimes triple, as folks quietly abandoned unwanted arugula on my doorstep, like orphans. I didn't mind. Some people take in cats. I take in arugula. I cannot turn a good green down. And this was good arugula, bracing, bold, fantastically plucky, with more spring in its leaf than I knew a leaf could muster. Fresh, I think they call it. Fabulous. Abundant.
By mid-September, I needed an arugula intervention. Scanning my shelves, I knew who to call. Taking first bites, I shook my head, marveling at yet another Hesser home run. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
What went into that bowl, what went into those bites, was a heap of arugula, the salad's one and only green. To this, you add a dice of firm pear, perfectly ripe, preferably chilled, juicy and dripping and almost buttery. Also, a smattering of good blue cheese, whose pungent bite is offset by the pear's sweet. Also, a toss of toasted pine nuts, which I never before thought I much liked. Three pounds of which I've since eaten thus. That's a lot of pine nuts, in quarter-cup allotments. That's a lot of salad, since September.
The whole thing is tossed, ever-so-gently, with oil and vinegar plus a smart pinch of sugar, to gently, invisibly soften rough edges. What you wind up with is, on the one hand, your textbook g(reens) + f(ruit) + n(uts) + c(heese) = s(alad). This formula is lovely, and nothing new, and pretty standard, so far as salads are concerned.
But this particular iteration of the formula, peppery greens against melting sweet pear against toasty waxed nubbins against creamy bite, bound up in a smooth featherweight shawl of a dressing, has me smitten. Seriously smitten. As in, I can't get enough of it smitten. As in, I make an entire bowl of the stuff, and eat every last serving and call it lunch. I'm reminded of my children and bagels and cream cheese, of which they can't ever seem to get enough. I'm exactly the same around this salad, just like a kid, could eat it forever. At least the forever left over after snow.
Arugula, Pear, Pine Nut + Blue Cheese Salad
adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser
I like this salad with more pear than first called for, and have spelled our the arugula and salt quantities I've settled on. Also, although the gorgonzola dolce originally called for has lovely flavor, the sort I can get my hands on is a creamy sticky mess, too much a hassle to crumble for salad. I prefer a balanced, charismatic blue, such as Point Reyes or Maytag. As to pears, I like a basic Bartlett best, here, for their balance of flavor, firm and juice. A good red pear (if you can find it; they can be grainy) is beautiful, and the fragrant Comice, delicious, though their copious juices can sog down a salad. Finally, the boxed "baby" arugula I buy now is a mere shadow of the bright vibrant local leaves of fall. When growing season gets up and running again, I encourage you to try this with the real arugula deal.
4 ounces arugula
2 ripe pears, diced
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 cup good blue cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons sherry, white wine or cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Set all salad ingredients into a wide, shallow bowl. For dressing, pour vinegar, sugar and salt into a lidded jam jar. Shake well to dissolve salt and sugar. Add olive oil, shake again to emulsify, and drizzle 2/3 of dressing over salad. Toss salad gently, well, taste for seasoning, and add more salt, pepper, and/or dressing, to suit. Enjoy.