The Solar Eclipse, Annie Dillard, and a Slice of Buttermilk Zucchini Bread


As the morning drew closer to noon, our unusually quiet house darkened to dusk while outside my backyard lay beneath an eerie light more akin to a burgeoning wildfire than an astronomical event occurring far beyond Earth. Burnt shadows cast themselves over our vegetable beds and dappled the cedar fence while doves cooed and tittered along the utility wires draped above our back alley and I peered through a makeshift pinhole camera to bear witness to the rare solar eclipse that seared itself across the U.S. on Monday.

A solar eclipse over the Capitol, Aug. 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Some people traveled great distances for optimal viewing along the Path of Totality, the shadowy ribbon the moon’s shadow traces across Earth during a total solar eclipse. During a different season of my life, I would have taken a sick day and hitched to Wyoming to camp beneath the stars and watch the magnificent show unfold. This season I settled for the quiet space of my residential backyard and conjured up Annie Dillard, one of my literary crushes, while I weeded and intermittently checked the eclipse’s progress.

Dillard’s writings about the sacred and the profane have always knocked me to my knees with their earthy incantation of the divine. Years ago she wrote eloquently of her sublime personal experience of a total solar eclipse over Washington, which you can read in full here, but it’s her book For the Time Being that I return to year after year when I need a reminder about finding purpose through presence.

For the Time Being roams widely, but at its heart the book seeks to understand how to make or find meaning in the world around us and within ourselves despite the reality of our physical insignificance. If we are so tiny compared to the vastness of the universe, why does it matter how we spend our days in relation to others? Why does it matter whether any of us are here at all?

If you witnessed the total eclipse of the sun yesterday and felt your body electrified by the experience, you know the answer to these questions. Near the end of For the Time Being, Dillard writes:

Our planet is sown in beings. Our generations overlap like shingles. We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall. Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under. While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass. We open time as a boat’s stem slits the crest of the present.

I have always felt most alive when I allow myself to be present in the world. It’s then that I’m amazed by the very fact that we, humans, that any of this, exists at all. And that amazement makes me grateful for my life and encourages me to do what little I can to make a positive impact while I’m here.

For those who witnessed the solar eclipse today, may your body have thrilled as the air turned cool and the world around you was cast into deep shadow. May the sensation of being present before something so much larger than yourself buoy you through the times when life feels far from transcendent and you’re faced with the painful and difficult parts of being alive.

The partial solar eclipse was not mind-blowing to witness, but it was a special time to slow down and relish the strange and wondrous fact that I live on a rock hurtling through space, a rock with a breathable atmosphere that is miraculously positioned within a biologically viable distance from a blazing hot star. My mind may always boggle at the sheer number of steps that needed to connect between nothingness and the best and worse of human civilization on Earth.

Now that solar eclipse fever has broken, I’ve been focused on the abundance of our semi-arid backyard garden. By this point in the summer, vegetable gardeners with a towering pile of zucchini may begin to question why they thought cultivating more than one summer squash plant would be a good idea. If you’re in this camp and have run out of ideas for cooking and baking with zucchini and other summer squash, today’s zucchini bread recipe may seem uninspired, but I assure you that the secret ingredient for making even the most staid quick bread better is a helping of buttermilk.

I like baking with zucchini because even after squeezing a fair amount of liquid from the shredded vegetable, it still manages to make my cookies, cake, fritters, pancakes, and bread hold a melt-in-your-mouth texture long after they’ve cooled.

If you’re swimming in zucchini as your garden continues to harbor and then surprise with huge summer squash, this Buttermilk Zucchini Bread is the answer to your mindful “What in the tarnation do I do with another zucchini?” prayers.

CCN Buttermilk Zucchini Bread
Image by author.

Buttermilk Zucchini Bread
Makes Two 8 1/2-inch loaves

– 3 cups all-purpose flour
– 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
– 1/2 tsp baking powder
– 1 tsp salt
– 3 tsp ground cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
– 1/4 tsp ground cloves
– 1/2 cup buttermilk
– 2 eggs
– 3/4 cup canola oil
– 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
– 1/3 cup sugar
– 1/2 brown sugar
– 2 cups shredded zucchini (If you have a food processor, use the “grate” blade and save a load of time.)
– 3/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Grease/oil 2 loaf pans with butter, oil, or nonstick cooking spray (my new go-to), and line the bottom of each pan with parchment paper.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk together thoroughly buttermilk, eggs, oil, vanilla, and sugars, and then fold in the zucchini and nuts.

5. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture, and stir until just combined, with no clumps of flour.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared pans, and bake for 45 – 55 minutes, until a toothpick (or, in my case, chopstick) inserted in the middle comes out clean.

7. Once cool (mostly), slice a piece of bread, slather with butter and/or jam, and have yourself a cup of tea. It’s a celebration! You’ve successfully found a new recipe to use zucchini.

CCN Buttermilk Zucchini Bread
Bread, Butter, and Peach Preserves. Image by author.

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