I suppose I should have retired my Bernina after the run-away train episode.
Episode's not quite right. Phase. Phase is better. Because when my machine chose to take off; to free-associate foot pressure from sewing speed; to accelerate double-, triple-, quintuple-time, even as I removed foot entirely from treadle; it wasn't an event. It was a habit. An on-again, off-again habit. But a habit all the same. And a bad one.
Still, I hung on because this manic side was occasional, erratic. I'd no sooner come thisclose to affixing pointer finger to thumb with hot pink straight stitch, than my machine would come to, perk up and fly right, stitch speed matching pedal pressure, inch-for-ounce. This would reassure me no end, and I'd know! RAHRAH!!, that our troubled times were behind us!!!
Eventually, I learned RAHRAH!! was code for *WOOoo-wooOOOO!*, a.k.a., a runaway (Bernina) train's whistle. But only after nearly crazy-quilting my right hand. I'm slow that way. Or stubborn. Both.
This habit developed not long after the backstitch boycott that landed my lovely in the shop. Twice. Where they told me, stone-cold and straight-up, that machines like mine were only owned by ancient liquour-swilling polyester-panted land-ladies. That no one else could service such a dinosaur. I might as well bring my slingshot to knife shop and ask them to pretty-please sharpen the thing.
And those were only The Big Problems.
When it doesn't bolt like a Greyhound, it ambles. Slow. Soooo sloooow. Whenever I haven't sat down to sew in, say, a day, which is every time I sit down to sew, it balks. Creaks. Barely turns over. A-chugga, a-chugga, a-chhhuuuug-a. Like a car with it's e-brake still fully engaged. Like a two-year-old in search of The Rock.
The backstitch, which eventually did kick back in, several months after the two failed repairs, invariably fails, again. For a week. For a month. Anyone's guess.
And sometimes, hems are just too much. Particularly that place where the cuff's double-fold meets the side seam's same. Where four layers of fabric conspire into something more thick than thin, more mountain than plain. Sometimes, if I get up enough speed, give a running start, and encouraging words, she powers through, Little Engine-style. Often, she just groans.
(It's not like I'm attempting brocade. We're talking quilting cottons here, people.)
The presser foot's rusty. The cord rubber's a bit sticky. The plug-in's wires are all exposed. There are no screens, LEDs, or computerized brains to diagnose its ailments.
I should mention, here, that my mom sent a brand shiny new sewing machine, last fall. She's good that way, the person to whom I can text brief cryptic sewing SOSes, like "Blue silk. Five yards? Curtains!", or "Twenty yards elastic. ASAP!" I feel very lucky to have such a resource. We all need people like this in our lives. People who see that our windows are dressed. Who make sure our PJ's stay put.
She's also a dyed-in-the-wool, ardent, old-school, raving all-metal Bernina fan. But she'd used Miss Runaway Train, last Christmas. She'd met the monster. Seen the wall-writing. So she made provisions. I'm ever so grateful. I'm also leaving the understudy in situ, for now. In the box. In the wings. Until I'm truly in need.
Because, see, my Bernina—and gosh, she really needs a name. Bernice? Clementine? Hildegaard?—has character, and heft, and history, and this I love. According to the manual that came with the machine, it was purchased new by one Mrs. Frank Harbert, back when women still went by "Mrs. (Man's Name)". The delivery date was November 22, 1970, not quite two years earlier than my own. I like this about it. We're almost the same age.
I also like that Mrs. Frank took delivery in Roswell, New Mexico. Perhaps, my Bernina spent its formative years churning out top-secret tents for alien hunters. Or helium-weather balloon mock-ups. Or eerie white masks with two pointy ovoids and one slender black slit, where a mouth might sit. Perhaps. Probably. Prove me wrong.
(I know, I know, the whole thing's been de-bunked. But—get this—the manual includes a sticker for a repair shop in California.
Mars Sewing Center.
(I think not.)
So yes, her color scheme's drab dirty-putty, with accents in faded army-green. And true, the design is deeply post-war, all rounded-off rectangle meets airplane-wing. And indeed, the thing must weigh twenty-five pounds. And only if it's inhaling. Hard. Works for me.
Maybe it's the nostalgia factor. It's the machine, after all, on which I learned to sew, well past when one should learn such things. So I'm sentimental. Or a luddite. Or both. A sentimental stubborn slow luddite. Sounds about right.
Maybe it's that there are no screens, LEDs, or computerized brains to diagnose its ailments. We've had three out of three three-year-old appliances fail in some big way, this year. (I couldn't bear to mention the refrigerator.) I like heavy metal. I love analog. (Also, any manual that instructs me "how not to hold the scissors".)
Maybe, I hope we don't all nick points for old, faded, temperamental, cranky and arthritic. Because maybe, that's me, too.
Or maybe, I just like the idea that if we keep showing up, even after poor last performances, even in the face of uncertain outcomes, good things will (eventually) happen. As I left the repair shop that second, last time, I kept pressing for something, anything I could do to keep my Bernina limping along. "Just, USE it," they said. "Use it??" I blinked. "Use it. Machines need regular use. It keeps them running smoothly."
This was like going to the doctor with foot pain and leaving with orders to "eat more dessert". Sew more, I thought. Now that I can do.
And I have. Not often. Months still go by. But patiently, hopefully, attentively. I've learned its quirks, and work-arounds. I now know she can manage those lumpity hems if I lift the foot slightly, give a wee noodge. I'm pretty sure this is cheating. Verboten. I'm also sure it's what keeps her ticking. I've learned that that little doo-hickey dial that sits within the big doo-hickey dial can fix, sometimes, the backstitch problem. And sometimes, also, the slooow start speed. I have no idea why. But sometimes it does. Sometimes, not. I'll take sometimes.
I'll also take what I can get in the fresh department, right now. These are the dark ages of produce in these parts, when Spring is a solid two months off, when fresh is but a fantasy. As with my machine, I've accumulated a list of tricks and crutches to get us through, one of my most favorite being regular trips to the Asian market. There, in old battered refrigerator cases, under the unflattering glare of bad neon, there is always a stunning array of glossy, cheap, gorgeous fresh herbs and greens. Even in February. Even in March. So when Henry asked, recently, longingly, after "that basil pork that you only make during summer? Please?? It's my favorite food. Ever." I totally obliged.
We've been making this quick happy-bomb for years, ever since I picked up Sara Deseran's gem, Asian Vegetables. It's a fifteen-minute, almost-pantry affair, assuming a pound of ground pork and basil heap. Loads of garlic, a smart splash of fish sauce, soy and sugar smidges, chili to taste, are the long and short of the seasonings, and all that is needed to make the meat swagger. But what sets it apart, what makes it sparkle, is the thrilling fistfuls of Thai basil, added at the end. Purple-stemmed, narrow-leafed thai basil is sweeter, and to my tongue, more licorice-twinged than its Italian cousin. It's a lovely leaf, excellent raw in salads, or aswim in curries, or barely wilted, as here. It's a-buck-a-bag at the Asian market. I buy three. It's a screaming deal.
As is this bowl, below. Because what you wind up with is this powerfully savory, umami-packed, basil-strewn rubble of pork. It's salty and meaty and warming but bright, the rich cut with those brilliant sweet emerald leaves. Indeed, it's the first leaf Henry ever liked, reason alone to love it. (Amen.) Me, I love the little-goes-a-long-way angle, the way a pound makes a feast of one pot of rice, plus golden tofu, edamame, bok this way or that. And though Henry remembers this a summer dish, no doubt owing to the homegrown-basil batch we make each July, it is in fact, now, when I make it most. When the cold carries on. When green is rare; fresh, precious. When (yet) another storm is bearing down. These are the days, these are the dishes, to which I can say: Now, that I can do.
Thai Basil Pork
adapted from Asian Vegetables, by Sara Deseran
Deseran calls for chicken thighs, finely chopped, and 3 tablespoons of oil. We use ground pork, which contains more fat (and flavor), and so cut back on the initial oil. Choose what suits. The original also includes 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh chili, which we omit, for our small not-so-spicy palates. Feel free to amp up the heat, as desired.
Deseran officially calls for one cup of basil, but confesses in the headnote she usually adds double. Two is our default; we often use three. They wilt into nothingness, in the heat, and add immeasurable sweetness and flavor. Thai basil is widely available at Asian grocery stores (assume one cup per package); some well-stocked groceries (hello, Central Markets!); and grows well in any garden that suits traditional Genovese basil.
1 Tbs. peanut or canola oil
2 Tbs. finely chopped garlic
1 pound ground pork or chicken thighs (see note above)
3 Tbs. fish sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp brown sugar
2 dried Thai red chilis
2-3 cups Thai sweet (purple) basil leaves
Measure fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar into a small bowl, and set aside. Strip basil leaves from stems. Have everything else chopped, cleaned, and ready. Start to finish, this is an 8-minute dish.
Heat a wok until smoking over high heat, then add the oil, followed immediatley by the minced garlic. Stir garlic continuously for 15 seconds, then add the pork and chilis, stirring immediately to incorporate the garlic. After the initial stir, let pork sit 2-3 minutes to caramelize slightly. Stir pork to re-distribute, then let sit another 2 minutes, or until no longer pink. Give sauce/sugar bowl a quick stir, then add to the pork, and stir to combine. Cook another 2 minutes, stirring regularly, until sauces concentrate into a sticky slick, and pork is cooked through.
Remove from heat, and add the basil, tossing them through for a minute or so. The residual heat will just wilt the leaves, and retain their bright sweet. When the leaves have all wilted and gone glossy and emerald, 30-60 seconds, tip over rice, and inhale.