Berlin, Wieder, Immer

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It is in the nature of cities to change.

They tore down the stand where I used to buy currywurst; the sidewalks and streets are busy with bicyclists now. Hipster restaurants line the streets of Neukoeln and they’ve built fancy condos along the East Side Gallery. The graffiti is denser on the walls, but it’s more words than pictures. The buses have two stories; they sell tortillas at the small grocery store near my flat.

It is in the nature of people to change.

My German is ten years decayed, clumsy on my tongue and slow in my mind. I am fat, now, my flesh lush and my mind untroubled by the endless depressing calorie counting of my twenty-year-old self. I have a business and I apparently come across as enough of a professional that people want to listen to me. My home is ludicrously full of plants, my community ludicrously full of love.

I was afraid to come back to Berlin.

I fell in love with this city at 18, moments after my plane touched the tarmac. I had never encountered something like it; my models for cities were Memphis and Dallas and Tulsa, heat and endless driving. I’d seen Chicago, briefly–been dazzled by the skyscrapers and taken dozens of photographs of fire escapes. I’d been to London, even more briefly–at 17 I found it too clean and proper to hold my attention.

But Berlin–it was 9:36 am when I landed, and I hadn’t slept a wink on the plane. Berlin shocked the sleep from my eyes with its visual cacophony–the art, the graffiti, the inexplicable giant pipes, the glorious old architecture standing by the scars of war, the no-nonsense lines of communism.

I had never experienced such freedom of movement; I had never seen a place with so many surprises. It was my first experience walking in a city where the air smelled like flowers. Berlin is an intensely green city–towering shade trees line the sidewalks, and even the waste spaces fill with plants.

It was a place where I liked to be outside.

That had never really happened before. Oklahoma is a hard place to grow up if you don’t like to be hot or cold. I spent most of my summers looking for pools of shade to scuttle between. My neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks. I’d never ridden a bus that wasn’t a school bus.

So my love for Berlin was immediate and intense.

And that was just the city. My friends here seemed so grown-up: multilingual, well-traveled, competent. I had only had my driver’s license for six months; when their girlfriends slept over at their parents’ houses, they shared beds. They navigated these huge, complex systems like fish in a river, utterly at home, and I still didn’t know how do do laundry.

I resolved to split my time between Berlin and the US. I was going to be a commercial pilot; I would fly the trans-Atlantic routes for FedEx and write novels high over the ocean. I’d have lovers in Berlin and Paris and New York, slipping into their beds in the wee hours still smelling of expensive perfume, ozone, and jet fuel*.

That didn’t play out quite like I’d planned, but I came back to Berlin as soon as I could. I spent a semester at the Technische Universitaet, not eating enough but still rattling around the city in a constant state of wonder and delight. I was probably depressed, then–too isolated even from my friends here and spending too much time alone in my cubby of a dorm room–but Berlin drew me out over and over to chase some new surprise.

I was trying on identities then, I think. I had plans of becoming glamorous and cosmopolitan. Berlin sang endless stories of possibility and adventure that I could spin my life around.

And then I went home (it never gets any easier to leave Berlin) and didn’t return for a decade, except for a handful of days that Christmas and another handful in 2010.

I was afraid to come back to Berlin.

I have changed so much in the intervening decade, and so much more in the four years I count as My Adventures in Real Adulthood™. I am happier than I have ever been, for all that this year was a series of storms to weather, but I have long since abandoned plans of being either glamorous or cosmopolitan. I gave up bras, for Christ’s sake, because I can’t stand to be even the slightest bit uncomfortable unless it is absolutely necessary. I put a significant amount of effort into optimizing my closet into a uniform chosen for practical comfort; I’m pretty sure I discarded glamour some time ago.

I doubted that I had grown up to fit in Berlin.

I worried that the intervening years had worn away my friendships–that’d I’d missed too much while struggling to survive in our late capitalist dystopia. I worried they’d find my decayed German irritating, my body too large to exist in their city.

Fortunately, Past Me is always glad to sign me up for things that terrify me, and then my plane was landing and I was once again submerged in the delicious shock of Berlin.

It took me a few days before I concluded I could still swim here and not drown. My first night, as I am standing outside my flat, desperate to pee and completely unable to unlock the door, I had serious doubts. I felt keenly out of place in public–my uniform has rather starkly diverged from the styles of Berlin, and I was self-conscious about the fullness of my skirt and the neckline of my dresses. Last Friday, exhausted and pushing through the crowds of revelers beginning their nights at Warschauerstrasse, I thought maybe the me who moved through Berlin in a cloud of grace and delight didn’t exist anymore. I felt, instead, intensely awkward, perpetually standing in someone’s way and forty-five seconds behind on the correct response in German.

But on Saturday I had lunch with a new friend, someone who came to know me only after I entered Real Adulthood™, and together we threw a rope across the gorge between my diverged lifetimes. Suddenly I was no longer just ghosting through nostalgia, observing the places and people as they’ve moved on without me, but building something new again. My German, assisted by a German language viewing of Captain America: Civil War, began to return a little. The awkward chill of time and distance began to melt off my old relationships and they introduced me to their lives and selves as they are now.

I successfully ordered an ice cream cone even though I couldn’t remember the word for cone.

I needn’t have worried. Berlin changed and I changed and my relationships changed and though we didn’t change together, shaped by each other’s changing, we weren’t rendered irreconcilably different, either. There are new things to bring us delight and wonder together, even if they aren’t what I imagined they would be.

A selfie of the author, taken standing under a weeping willow tree by the river Spree. The sun is shining off the water and in her hair.

It is, after all, in the nature of cities and people to change.

*A pilot should probably not smell like jet fuel. Further, it would be really impolite to slip into someone’s bed while smelling like jet fuel.

Berlin, Wieder, Immer

Calculations I Wish I Could Do

I was not a good student of physics–
my notes from those classes were mostly sketches

superhero personifications of the forces of nature
decapitated heads sliding gooeily down inclined planes
and once, a refrigerator floating in space.

I wanted to know–
when you drop a fork in your kitchen
how much is its fall changed
by the gravitational pull of the fridge?
It’s hard to calculate for your kitchen,
but I tried, for a refrigerator floating in space.

It is easier, if you assume the fridge is empty.

I want to know, now–
how much ice cream to add to my coffee (in grams)
so the coffee stays warm until I’m done drinking
and there’s still two or three bites of floating island ice cream
in the last few gulps.

I know

we’ll have to make assumptions
about the temperature of the ice cream (and its density, and shape)
about the temperature of the coffee (and its volume)

I know

we are always making assumptions

I wish I could calculate
the right amount of doing
to balance our tenuous human connection with

my desire to exist as myself

I have tested
all of the assumptions
and my heart still throws

an exception

Calculations I Wish I Could Do

These City Lights

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Last summer…

… before Zack’s mom got sick
… before spending weeks driving to and from the hospital in the Oklahoma heat
… before my sister moved into our one-bedroom flat with us
… before my grandfather was hospitalized for brain hemorrhaging
… before my mom came down with MRSA again
… before the really terrible extraction of my wisdom teeth
… before, before, before

… I planted some Bright Lights Swiss chard. It struggled in the unusual heat–even in my shaded plot at the community garden, the sun scorched bare spots into its leaves, laying bare the cellulose skeleton beneath the deep green foliage.

I didn’t harvest it. I didn’t harvest it, because I had never cooked with Swiss Chard before, and trying new things requires overcoming inertia. I didn’t harvest it, because everything in our lives tumbled end over end for months as we scrabbled desperately for some kind of equilibrium. I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and then suddenly it was spring again and the sickly chard of last summer was towering gloriously over the red pansies like I had planned it that way.

So last week, I harvested some chard.

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I had planted the chard originally because I’d seen pictures of jars of pickled chard stems, and they were gorgeous. Now, having my own wealth of beautiful chard stems, I decided to try my hand at it. I used a variation of my favorite quick-pickle brine, adapted from the brine used for pickling carrots at Tartine Bakery in the Mission in San Francisco. It’s not acidic enough to be made shelf-stable, but they last for a long time in the fridge.

The pickled chard stems turned out so beautiful that it’s almost a shame to eat them–they’re nearly iridescent.

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Makes 2 half-pints

  • Swiss chard stems
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • Peppercorns, mustard seeds, and red pepper flakes (in amounts you find pleasing)
  • Approximately 1 tablespoon of salt (I use Morton’s Kosher: if you’re using Diamond Kosher, which is fluffier, you’ll probably want more than a tablespoon).
  1. Cut and arrange your clean Swiss Chard stems so they fit comfortably in the half-pint jars. You’ll be pouring brine full of spices on top of the stems, so make sure the stems aren’t crammed in there too tightly–you want the spices to have room to drift past the stems.
  2. Bring the water, white wine vinegar, garlic, and spices to a boil in a small pan.
  3. Stir the salt into the water/vinegar/spice mixture and stir until dissolved.
  4. Carefully pour the brine over the chard stems in the jars.
  5. Seal jars and refrigerate for at least 48 hours before consuming.

But, for some reason Zack insists that pickles don’t count as a meal when consumed on their own, so I made some pasta with the rest of the chard.

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This is less a recipe than a template: toasted breadcrumbs layered over chard sauteed with garlic on top of a long, thin pasta (I used angel hair). Toasted breadcrumbs were a revelation. I used up the ends of two loaves of bread so stale that when I tried to cut it into chunks for the food processor, it shattered, sending shards of bread skittering across the cutting board. But after a few minutes in a skillet with butter, olive oil, and garlic, the extra stale breadcrumbs transformed into something really special. (If you would like more specific breadcrumb instructions, I used Smitten Kitchen’s.) I had a few chard stems leftover from pickling, so I diced those and set them to saute first, adding the leaves only a few minutes before draining the pasta. The only thing I would add next time would be some lemon zest for the bread crumbs and a squeeze of lemon for the chard.

It’s a simple meal, but to me it tasted a little like hope, a little like redemption, a little like the promise of better days.

 

These City Lights

Browned Butter and Blood Orange Layer Cake

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If you looked at the patterns of the food I make, you would conclude that I never make cake. I certainly conclude that, usually around 3 pm in the afternoon or shortly after dinner, when I realize that I want cake and yet there is no cake because there is never any cake. For some reason, Past Me is always making us nutritious things out of vegetables (of all things), but never any cake. It’s almost like her priorities are completely out of order.

Today, though, with my fridge full of leftovers to eat for lunch and dinner, and the sink empty of dishes (thanks Zack!), I saw my opportunity. FUCK IT, I shouted to the internet. I’M MAKING CAKE. And so I scooped up the three blood oranges that have been languishing in the crisper, tossed some butter on the stove to brown, and proceeded to get every food preparation dish in my kitchen dirty in pursuit of cake. As a gift to Future Me, I’m also writing down the recipe, in case we ever want to make it again.

Browned Butter and Blood Orange Layer Cake (adapted from Food52’s Grown-Up Birthday Cake)

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of butter (I used salted, but many people prefer to use unsalted)
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • Vanilla bean, scraped
  • Zest of three blood oranges
  • Juice of three blood oranges (this yielded about 1/2 cup for me)
  • Approximately 1/2 cup of buttermilk
  • 4 T oil (I used olive)
  • 2 1/2 cups AP Flour
  • 2 T cornstarch
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Grease and flour two 9 inch round cake pans. I also lined the bottom with parchment rounds.
  3.  Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Stir frequently, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the butter smells nutty and turns brown. There will be brown particulate matter that separates and drifts to the bottom. That is both okay and also delicious. Once the butter is browned, remove from the heat and transfer to another vessel to cool–you don’t want the carry-over heat from the warm pan to burn your nicely-browned butter.
  4. Beat together the four eggs, seeds from the scraped vanilla bean, blood orange zest, and sugar until thick. I used a stand mixer and beat them together until the whisk attachment was leaving trails in the mixture.
  5. Fill a one-cup measure with the juice from the blood oranges. Add buttermilk until the cup measure is filled. Beat the buttermilk and blood orange juice to the egg and sugar mixture.
  6. Add 4 T of oil to the cooled but still liquid browned butter, and drizzle that into the other wet ingredients while stirring.
  7. Stir together the dry ingredients and slowly incorporate them into the wet ingredients.
  8. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans.
  9. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
  10. Once cool, frost with the frosting of your choice; I’m planning to use Smitten Kitchen’s Fudge Frosting.

Update: This cake was delicious (and I ate it every day for breakfast for a week), though the crumb came out a little rougher/more rustic than I was strictly going for. I’m also not sure that browning the butter was worth the effort: paired with the chocolate, the browned butter flavor gets overwhelmed. I might save the browned butter for a loaf cake that you’re not planning to frost.

Browned Butter and Blood Orange Layer Cake

A Contemplation of Flower Preferences

I have never been particularly enthralled with carnations. They are an imminently practical flower–affordable and almost annoyingly long-lasting in a vase. Through an endless parade of post-performance flowers as a child, I may have come to resent them for their intense practicality. I viewed them, I think, as a cheap substitute for the lush bouquets of long-stemmed roses I coveted. Carnations were pedestrian–practical, grocery-store flowers; roses were decadent and glamorous.

I have always loved roses. As a child, having an intense fascination with the Victorian period that betrayed my complete lack of understanding of the reality of the period, I loved round, cabbage-y roses. I had never seen one in person, of course–Oklahoma is not an ideal environment for roses in general and those kinds of roses in particular. But my bedroom was plastered in textiles and prints of round, softly colored, many-petaled roses.

Rosa centifolia foliacea, a cabbage rose, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Rosa centifolia foliacea, a cabbage rose, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

As a teenager, though, hybrid teas supplanted cabbage roses in my affection. Possibly, this was simply an issue of proximity. Hybrid teas were ubiquitous–the long-stems from florists, the roses in my grandmother’s garden, the roses featured in a thousand romantic comedies and ballet movies. I liked the pointed folds of their petals, the strange geometries revealed as they unfurled their tight urns.

I had no idea what a rose smelled like. The hybrid teas of my adolescence smelled like florist, like a finished performance, clean and wet and fresh but otherwise utterly forgettable. Certainly nothing worth writing poetry about. Roses, in my experience, were for the eyes and the skin–something to be admired and stroked, but nothing special to scent.

When I moved to Portland, the aptly named City of Roses, I learned what a rose could smell like. My friend Jessica and I visited the Rose Garden, and I methodically sniffed every single variety of rose that was in bloom. Roses can smell like rotting meat! Roses can smell like pears! Roses can smell!

I grew the first rose of my very own last year–a gloriously scented peach and orange variety from David Austin called Lady Emma Hamilton. I have never smelled anything so delicious. They do not last long in a vase–a few brief days–but I am more than a little in love with this rose. (I offer as evidence the fact that I took at least 60 pictures of the roses produced by that one bush last season. I will not subject you to all of them.) This year, I’m adding a Jude the Obscure and a Generous Gardener (both David Austin roses), chosen for their scents. And just like that, I’m back at loving best the softly colored, roundly cupped, cabbage-y roses of my childhood bedroom.

 

It is interesting to me, how my taste in flowers has changed. As a child, I really disliked tulips. They were, I thought, no where near as lovely as daffodils, and I resented the space they occupied in gardens. Somewhere in my early twenties, though, I came to appreciate their clean lines, the simplicity of their curves, the powerful impact a monochrome bouquet of tulips can have. Peonies, too, I found unimpressive as a child. The ones in our garden were brief, and frequently covered in ants. As an adult I would love nothing more than to roll in piles of peonies, sinking into their fluffy petals and smelling great forever. It’s not all flowers that I’ve previously disliked that I’ve come to appreciate, though. Gerbera daisies, which I liked intensely for a few years, now irritate me with their uni-dimensional cheeriness.

But what of carnations? They aren’t powerfully scented, it’s true. If there is one flower that captures the scent of a florist, for me it would be the carnation. But even practical, workhorse flowers hold surprises. I picked up a bouquet at Safeway a few days after Valentine’s, when I wanted fresh flowers but was unwilling to pay $20 for a dozen roses. The carnations were an interesting color–yellowy orange with shocking pink edges–and they were $4.49 to the tulip’s $6.99.

A few days after I unceremoniously plunked them in a vase, delicate white stigmas uncurled from the center of a few fluffy blossoms. They looked like dragon tongues, tasting the air, and I find them both comical and a little bit obscene. With so many flowers, the reproductive apparatus are displayed prominently, begging for pollen transfer. But carnations, the silky petals conceal those parts from prying eyes. The little stigma tongues, reaching out from peachy petals, strikes me as sexy and playful. And so, I’m seeing carnations with new eyes and appreciation. I hope you may, too.

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A Contemplation of Flower Preferences

The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror

Sometimes, Zack and I do not understand each other. This makes sense, given the complexity and inexact nature of language; I would go so far as to say it is part of The Human Condition.  But there’s a particular misunderstanding that we have that I have also seen other people have. I call it “The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror.”

It starts innocuously enough. Person A says something, with the expectation that their conversational partner, Person B, will understand and respond in a particular manner. Person B, though, breaks from the expected response–a significant divergence from Person A’s expectations!

To Person A, Person B’s response makes no sense. Clearly, Person B just didn’t understand. Person A repeats what they had said initially, but with more insistence, and perhaps slightly louder.

Person B, unsure why Person A is repeating themselves when Person B had already responded, assumes that Person A just didn’t understand the response. So Person B repeats themselves, more insistently, and slightly louder.

At this point, Person A is getting flustered. Why isn’t Person B getting it? Are they messing with Person A on purpose? Are they being willfully ignorant? What is going on? Person A repeats themselves again, perhaps rephrased, but louder and with indignation.

Person B hears the indignation and the raised volume and can’t figure out why Person A is suddenly shouting at them. Person B has already told them that they asked for! Person B shouts back some version of their original response, perplexed and frustrated.

Usually, that’s where Zack and I break the conversation off; it becomes apparent that we have misunderstood each other and need to re-assess our assumptions about whatever it was we were trying to communicate about.

I have a hypothesis about why this particular pattern shows up. I think it’s an expression of existential terror.

See, we’re all consciousnesses trapped in poorly documented flapping meat sacks. Well, I say that we all are–I can only directly experience my own consciousness. I have to infer the existence of your consciousnesses from our interactions.

The above pattern of misunderstanding occurs, I believe, when we come face to face with the horrifying realization that our inferences could be wrong. We don’t have any concrete evidence that the other flapping meat sacks have consciousnesses inside them. All of our previous communications with the other flapping meat sacks could be statistical anomalies; like a coin coming up heads thousands of times in a row. Improbable, of course, but not impossible!

The panic starts to rise. What if no one ever understands us again? What if we really are the only consciousness? What does that even mean for our lives?

My consciousness can’t even conceive of a way forward if it is the only consciousness among the flapping meat sacks. Just writing about the possibility makes me feel anxious; in the moment, staring down the fact that everything we have always assumed about the beings around us may in fact be wrong, it is difficult to make a rational plan that is not “become a gibbering mess”. Instead, we cling to the tattered foundation of our inferences. If only we say it again, the other flapping meat sack will demonstrate that it is also controlled by a consciousness! Yes, saying it again will definitely work!

Of course, the consciousness controlling the other flapping meat sack in the conversation is having a similar experience. They, too, think, that perhaps if they just say it again, you will provide evidence that validates their belief that they are not the only consciousness.

The volumes rise with the panic, until one consciousness or the other manages to convince themselves that they are just being silly. Of course there are other consciousnesses controlling the flapping meat sacks. Of course. Misunderstandings happen all the time. Surely. The terror of the prospect of being well and truly alone in the universe fades. The comforting familiarity of the shared reality shifts back into focus–no sense in peeking behind the curtains. Both flapping meat sacks take a deep breath or two. It’s going to be okay.

And it is going to be okay. Communication, though tricky, is not an impossibility. Understanding, though hard sometimes, is not out of reach. We’re not alone; you are not the only consciousness piloting a flapping meat sack.

At least, I’m pretty sure you’re not.

 

The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror

Recipe: Slow Cooker Green Chile Pulled Pork

Green chile pulled pork stacked on corn tortillas, topped with green onions and sliced radishes.
Green chile pulled pork–it’s the gift Future You needs.

Since January, I’ve cut our monthly “Food and Household Consumable” budget by 25%. While I’m pleased that I’ve been able to pull it off, it has meant a near-total elimination of paying other people to make food for me, and a significant increase in the amount of work I am doing in the kitchen. Scratch making things is cost-effective (provided certain assumptions about the value of your labor). Unfortunately, the additional work, combined with the uninspiring late winter/early spring vegetable selection (fresh tomatoes seem so far away), has me pretty well exhausted by even the thought of cooking.

Fortunately, it is in situations like these where slow cookers shine. They’re great, not just because you can cook giant quantities of beans in them, but also because you can sneak in cooking before you are too hungry and exhausted by life to exert the effort to feed yourself. Slow cooking–it’s a gift for Future You!

So. This pork. It’s great in tacos, nachos, or burritos. It’s decadent over cheese grits. I’ve eaten it happily in a bowl of ramen. We’ve stuffed regular potatoes with it, we’ve stuffed sweet potatoes with it (definitely try that one). I suspect it would be great in tamales. Put it in your quesadilla! Put it in your breakfast burrito! Add some to your huevos rancheros! Put it on small roll with shredded cabbage and call it a slider! Enchiladas? Sure! Topping for fried polenta squares? Why not! Eaten cold from a bowl straight from the fridge because you can’t even be bothered? Absolutely! It’s dang versatile, and it freezes  beautifully. Make a big batch and freeze some–Future You will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Ingredients

  • 2 to 3 lbs of cheap pork (I usually use bone-in pork shoulder, but it’ll definitely work with boneless shoulder, and probably other cuts, too. Probably not tenderloin, though. You can trim off excess fat and save it for later rendering or sausage.)
  • 1 lb of green chilies, roasted, peeled, and de-seeded. (Frozen is fine. Frozen is great. You will have a delicious meal with frozen green chiles. Don’t make this hard on yourself.)
  • 1 large onion (I usually use white or yellow, but honestly use what you’ve got. You could substitute 3-4 shallots and it’d be great. Hell, you could even use the white part of leeks, or an obscene amount of garlic. Just, like, pick something edible from the allium family.)
  • Approximately 14 oz of salsa verde.
  • Fat with high smoke point, for searing (canola oil, ghee, whatever. Honestly I usually use butter, but then my kitchen smokes up and I have to open the doors and windows, so be ye therefore warned)
  • Salt, to taste

Instructions

  1. Liberally salt the outside of chunk o’ pork. If you’re feeling fancy or have extra time on your hands, let it sit uncovered in the fridge for 8-24 hours to allow the salt to penetrate the pork and dissolve proteins and stuff.
  2. When you’re ready to start cooking, slice the onion into half-rings and arrange them in a layer in the bottom of the slow cooker.
  3. Drop a tablespoon or two of fat with a high smoke point into a skillet, and heat the skillet over medium-high heat. Don’t do this in a non-stick skillet. Use a stainless steel skillet, or a cast iron one.
  4. Consider turning on the fan above your stove, as this step can get a bit smoky. Once the skillet is good and hot, sear each side of the chunk o’ pork. Basically, put a raw side of the chunk o’ pork in contact with the hot skillet, and leave it there for a minute or two until that side gets brown. Rotate the chunk o’ pork until all of the sides have a nice brown crust on them.
  5. Drop the freshly-seared chunk o’ pork on top of the sliced onions in the slow cooker.
  6. Pour the salsa verde over the top of the chunk o’ pork.
  7. Wedge the green chilies in the slow cooker with everything else. Yes, it’s okay if they’re still frozen. They’ll eventually unfreeze.
  8. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Usually, around 5 or 6 hours in, I give things a bit of a stir to break apart any large chunks of green chile. If things are too liquid-y for your tastes or application, prop the lid of the slow cooker on a wooden spoon to allow for additional liquid evaporation for the last hour or so of cooking.
  9. Shred with two forks, remove bones, and stir before serving.

Serves 8-10, depending on serving application.

Recipe: Slow Cooker Green Chile Pulled Pork