In order to make the best blueberry muffins ever, you must first ask yourself, “What’s so special about a blueberry muffin?” Is it the taste? The texture? The stark contrast of bluish-red berry against porous, beige muffin? Surely taste ranks high among the criteria, if not being the sole determinant in question. The taste of a muffin depends on many factors—smell, mouth-feel, the degree to which it is baked—all of which ultimately stem from the ingredients used to make it. You could start then by listing some of the ingredients common to blueberry muffins everywhere. Blueberries of course are an essential part, the very namesake of the treat. Without them the muffin would be plain, bland, monochrome—not very special at all. Butter and sugar are also important, as well as the milk and eggs that keep the muffin spongy and moist. Flour provides structure, baking powder the leavening, and salt rounds out the flavor—but these are mundane steps, taken merely as the means to an end: making your standard blueberry muffin. What, then, makes a particular muffin special, maybe even the best ever? Is it fancy heirloom-grain flour, perhaps, or Devonshire cream, or a delicate topping of sugar and lemon zest? Or does the secret lie in preparation: mixing with a machine, using muffin cups, preheating the oven just so? Certainly these measures can help, but they’re not necessary. In fact, they’re irrelevant. Instead, think about why you had set out to make muffins in the first place. There’s a reason behind this baking idea; and no, it’s not because you’re hungry. You’re doing this with someone special in mind, someone you care about, a person with whom you’d dearly like to share muffins with. The food itself isn’t special, so much as the person you’re making it for is. I have attempted to make the world’s best blueberry muffins—once, about a year ago—and they turned out great.
Recently I decided to make some nettle pesto. It was nothing fancy, as far as pesto goes: just nettles instead of basil, subbing walnuts for pine nuts, because I didn’t have any pine nuts at the time. And I didn’t have basil, either, so that’s where the nettles came in handy. The weedy things were sprouting up everywhere, it seemed, and the thought of poking around outdoors a bit for a meal rather struck my fancy. Plus, I had a bona fide mortar and pestle at my disposal, so the pesto would be legit.
The original idea had cropped up long ago, perhaps prompted by Logan some sultry summer’s morn, while we were bushwhacking through the foliage atop Chuckanut Mountain. By solemn deliberation, we had agreed that a pesto of nettles would taste mighty fine indeed, and would utilize our inchoate foraging skills to boot. We could distinguish nettles from non-nettles, we were certain of it. As the day wore on, hunger gnawed at our insides. Suddenly we were struck by a vision, a shimmering food-mirage: rotini and nettle-walnut pesto! Summer salad with blackberry vinaigrette! Parmesan cheese! And the best part: The nettles and blackberries were abundantly free, almost throwing themselves into our open rucksacks! We would wrest our provender from the earth itself, and with it, turn out the finest of feasts! So we made the pesto, it turned out great, and that’s what led me to try it once more. Now back to the story.
The nettles are literally ubiquitous in Kenmore. It would take fifteen minutes to procure all that I needed. Inspired perhaps by the sheer volume of them growing alongside the trails I ran, threatening to sting my shins and calves at every turn, I grabbed a bag and some gardening gloves and took to the forest near my home. There is a creek running through my backyard, and as I made my way down to its banks I marveled at the verdure surrounding me: budding maple leaves, flowering salmonberry, the curled fiddleheads of ferns tucked deep in their fronds. Three weeks into April and the woods had sprung to life. Reaching the water’s edge, I discovered a sizeable patch of nettles almost immediately. The harvest began in earnest. Holding each plant’s central stalk in one gloved hand, I tore leaves off with the other, focusing on the newer, tenderer growth near the top. It was easy, rewarding work, though I did get stung multiple times—through the gloves!—by the needle-like hairs, called trichomes, which coat the undersides of the leaves and their stems. The trichomes, made of silica, break off in the skin and cause a mild itching/burning sensation, giving the stinging nettle its well-deserved name. Anyway, there I was, gleefully plundering the greenery, when the strangest sensation came over me: I felt as if I were being watched. I stood up with a start, only to see a coyote across the creek from me, bounding away. He was watching me! To think, the first wild coyote I’ve ever seen happens to live in my very backyard.
We arrive in Ashland around six, right as the late afternoon sunshine turns from pale yellow to lustrous bronze. It’s time to refuel with food, gasoline, and fresh air. The four of us have been heading north since seven in the morning, resorting to pit stops only when the need to urinate became almost life-threateningly dire. There is a sort of cabin-fever delirium going around, and in the cramped cabin of our Honda Civic it didn’t have far to go at all to afflict each of us in turn. Bishop already seems a world away, a distant, mirage-like reverie off in the Californian desert. Here, however, at this cheerless shopping center in downtown Ashland, the asphalt beneath our feet is real—as are the aches and stiff joints we quickly discover after a few steps out of the car. We groan, we yawn; we snap, crackle, and pop. To stand and stretch right now is to experience pure bliss.
Entering the neighborhood Quality Food Center (read: Ashland’s QFC), we fan out in search of foodstuffs. Eating our meals at grocery stores has become a theme of this trip, mostly because it’s cheap and convenient. Also, the sheer variety is hard to beat. I buy an apple, a bag of carrots, and some four-bean salad from the deli. Grand total: just over three bucks. Logan gets a mound of fruit; Anni grabs celery, hummus, and potato chips. Alyssa buys one apple. We regroup outside, congratulating each other on our discerning thriftiness. To our left is a boardwalk overlooking a weedy, garbage-choked gulch, and we hunker down here to enjoy our dinner.
Amid the crunching and chewing, there is much talk of adventures we’ve shared, as well as of adventures we plan on sharing in the future. Everyone is tired, serene, and happy. Anni excuses herself to the bathroom while the three of us lounge in a postprandial stupor, warm and smiley in the fading sunlight. That’s when it happens. Lying on her back, Alyssa is munching on her apple, and she bites out a bad spot to throw into the gulch behind me. I’m sitting against the guardrail, which has rows of narrowly-spaced vertical slats between each post. “Peter, I’m gonna throw this chunk through the bars right next to you,” she says, taking aim. “Just don’t move.” I stay put, but I wince a little, and the chunk bounces off a slat to roll near my left hand. “Ah, see? You flinched! You have to trust me next time!” I promised I would, that I would stare unblinkingly as the apple sailed past my face, through the bars into the gulch beyond. “You can be William Tell, and I’ll be your son,” I say, hoping this contemporary interpretation would turn out similarly well.
After a couple minutes, Alyssa decides she’s done with the apple and looks to toss the core. “Okay,” she tells me, lying down still and sizing up her shot, “here it goes.” She cocks back her arm as I stare straight ahead, my face simply radiating calmness. The core leaves her hand, somersaults through the air…and hits me square in the forehead. Hard. And this is no gnawed-to-bits kind of apple core: There is maybe a quarter of the flesh still on there, making for one hefty missile. “Ooohhh,” she groans, just as she lets loose a terrific, whoopee cushion-like fart. I can feel it in the floorboards from where I sit. Logan is speechless. Then I start to laugh. Hard. Logan and Alyssa are laughing too, and he pounds the boardwalk with his fist as each new peal breaks out. Tears of mirth are streaming down my face. We are in stitches for a solid minute and a half, and when Anni returns we begin anew as we tell her what happened. “I can’t believe I missed that,” she says. “Not fair.” For the rest of the night I have a nickel-sized welt above my left eyebrow—a trifling price to pay for such quality entertainment.