Friday, July 31, 2009

FRIDAY FAVORITE

Too busy to write---this will be supper.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

HOMETOWN--MAIN STREET

The Drug Store:

You could buy almost anything in there; the scents of mint and vanilla and pine tar and bitter concoctions, the whiffs of Coty face powder and the standard small-town perfumes, the aromas of Pall Malls and home-rolled and Mr. Little's see-gars greeted you with the swing of that heavy glass door, and the bell-ting let them know you were coming.

You made your way through a maze of shelves, from school supplies to suspenders, stocks of stuff from way before you were born, the brand-new, the coveted racks of comic books and magazines and craft patterns---we'd sneak around behind when Miss Hazel wasn't looking and spend as much time as we could leafing through Superman and Heckle and Jeckle, til she discovered us and huffily chided our bending the pages and disturbing her corners-aligned arrangement of the bright temptations.

Way down in the middle, the left-hand side brightened with a green-countered soda-fountain, four stools-to-match, and all the shining promise of the chrome handles and cups and mysterious flip-lidded holes sunk into the counter, their long thin ladles the bringers of syrups---the deep dark string of Hershey's chocolate for your frosty-bowl sundae, or the strawberry and pineapple for a banana split.

The straw dispenser, a tall skinny dome of gleaming glass like a bell-jar clock, was eternally fascinating to me, with its pop-up magic. You lifted the little chrome deelybob in the center, and the whole thing rose, with the rainbow of straws spreading out like stiff petals; you took one, careful not to touch the others, and let the platform down, with the straws closing their little umbrella spokes til the next customer. That fragile thing had been in use all my life, and I cannot imagine how it survived all the young hands which grabbed hold of it every day.

The only time I ever heard Leon raise his voice was when some of the older teens were blowing bubbles into their drinks at the table. He came around the corner, saying loudly, "You're using my STRAWS for that ice-water? You need to PAY for something to get a straw, and Y'all need to let some customers use that table."
Said ice water was always served in the same little-bottom, big-top Coke glasses as all the other drinks, so I imagine there was less-than-profit on that item.

I wanted to touch the rounded handles of the soda dispenser, like polished, upside-down spinnin'-tops to be grabbed and pulled for the gush of Coke or Orange syrup or a foam of soda-water. The big glass bubbler with the daily-squeezed lemonade sat to the side like a square aquarium, with gutted lemon halves bobbing like fish.

Doc's was a magical place, owned by the forever-there town doctor, and manned by the same longtime staff who had served our parents and who-knows-who-else for decades. Doc was seldom himself there, but the place ran like clockwork, under the watchful eye of Miss Hazel, a small, quiet woman with a mouth of iron and a will to match. She strode her Ladies' Mason oxfords through the store with the ease of a monarch, confident in her longevity and the awe of her customers.

And Leon. Leon the pharmacist. He held the medical fate of the whole town in his hands, even more than Doc, I think, for whatever he compounded or poured or counted out into those little rattly bottles with the typed-and-licked labels stuck on---we accepted the small crackly white paper sacks and downed each dose with perfect confidence-through-the-grimace, knowing Leon knew all, could tend to all, and would not let us down.

He'd read the square prescription slip and impale it neatly on the "spike file" which was a metal base with what looked like a slimmer version of our ice-pick blade; over the course of the year, the stack would grow higher and higher, somehow magically circling itself into the most beautiful overgrown white chrysanthemum with all that paper of the sharp little corners.

Then he'd reach unerringly for the correct bottle or jar, count out clicky little pills or capsules, or pour some viscous liquid neatly into a bottle, step aside to type the label on an old Royal the size of an anvil, lick the back of the label, and plaster it on.

Leon was a lifelong Baptist, a never-married long thin man, with the aura of pill-dust and a whisking crackle of white coat; he dispensed, he rousted the too-long-in-the-booth leather-clad ducktails and sent them off down the street after their allotted time's lounge on the green vinyl, making way for shy, waiting little girls and moony-eyed couples to order ice cream and double-straw milkshakes.

He also had the all-time state record for Sunday School Attendance. Leon had never missed----NEVER MISSED a Sunday in those creaky-floored classrooms with the successive sizes of chairs. He was reputed to have been carried to church by his oldest sister on the first Sunday of his life, while his Mama was still recuperating the required two weeks at home.

Rumor had it that something magical in all those potions and pills must have osmosed through Leon’s skin or have been breathed in from the essence-of-pharmacy in the air in that high room of bottle-laden shelves, where he slid up the bubble-glass window and regarded the next customer with genial inquiry or a countenance-molded-to-match for the illness or pain written on the face below.


He MUST HAVE breathed in enough antibiotic and anti-viral and analgesic dust to keep him so healthy. He did not LOOK robust; he was lanky and spare. He roomed at Mrs. Stover's and took a lot of his meals at the same divided-plate caffay as all the proprietors on Main Street who did not go home for noon dinner with their families.

But not even that floury food, the Chicken-Fried Steak and pools of gravy, with potatoes and butterbeans and corn filling the heavy crockery sections---those did not contribute an ounce to the lifelong sparsity of Leon’s frame, and though he was on the point of cadaverous, Leon’s strength was legendary---out at his Daddy’s place where he was raised, he’d still spend his days off helping out with the farm work.


He could lift a hundred-pound sack of fertilizer onto each shoulder and walk them quite a ways to dump into the hopper, and he could wrestle a shoat or a full-grown boarhog to the ground when need arose. I’d heard of those exploits and my only thought was fear for the pristine whiteness of his coat. I imagined that he took it off, hung it neatly on a fencepost, went about the grimy business of farming, then washed up and put his coat back on to drive home.

And when Leon came home after his surgery, there at the end, the whole Men’s Class from the church knocked on his door Sunday morning at 9:45 a.m., bringing Sunday School to him. He didn’t live too much longer, but after they laid him to rest out there beside Mama and Papa, that next Sunday morning was the first ever in all his seventy-some years that he’d ever been absent from Sunday School.

Or maybe he wasn’t.




Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BOOKS AND COVERS





I've been looking at some baking sites, and the variety and the art and the colors and the sheer talent of the bakers---amazing. Way before I ever took a decorating class, way back in the pre-teen years, I remember thinking that my Aunt Eileen made the most beautiful cakes I'd ever seen anyone make in a home kitchen. But I don't think her baking skills equalled her talent with the decorating bags. My Daddy always said, "They're too pretty to eat, but you wouldn't want  to."

So sometimes I wonder at the finished product---how it will look when cut, laid on the plate, served by white-gloved waiters to all those wedding guests in their party finery. Will the slices be delicately flavored with fragrant vanilla, and will those fillings so artfully dammed up between the layers taste of the fruit? Is the cloaking fondant fresh and creamy and sweet, with a little hint of flavor, or will it be straight-from-the-Play-Doh-tub, to be peeled away like a carapace from the layers?


I've eaten fondant-covered cake but once, and after all the times of admiring pictures of pearly-smooth tiers with their icing lacework shining whiter than the cloak, walking around a corner for a full view of the elegant cake, sleekly shimmery in the spotlight---that was a nice moment. Cake and frosting were lovely, with a delicate almondy taste, but the fondant was a disappointment---sweet, translucent clay was all I could think of, and the carved-away shell upon my own plate was echoed all up and down the tables, with guests scraping the last smear of that wonderful frosting from the inside walls of their discards. I hope to find someday that it CAN be as delicious as it is beautiful.

So there's no accounting for what may be stunningly beautiful, created by practiced hands, and may still be far below plain old home kitchen standards in taste. And vice versa.

I've always been a Chocolate Cake girl---for me, those rich, heavy layers, fragrant of cocoa and vanilla and the dark tones of some strong coffee, with the old-fashioned fudge frosting from the back of the Hershey's box---that's a CAKE, reminiscent of other times of outdoor parties and morning coke parties at a teenage friend's house, the cake made by her own hands the night before. There were crocheted panties on the Coke bottles, and all of us girls dressed for the important occasion.

Just the frosting itself makes a mighty fine drop-candy, with toasted pecans stirred in and dropped quick-as-you can before it sets up and you have to dig it out of the pot.

I learned the Book/Cover lesson from the other standpoint, from a woman whose children went to Sunday School with my children. There were about six of the kids, and once when we went on a trip with the church youth group, we had a bake sale to raise money.

The Mom brought a chocolate cake (if you've ever seen Cross Creek with Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings toting a chocolate cake to a "Pound Party" at the home of the family that actually owned the real "Flag" of The Yearling, you'll know the cake I mean). MKR carried it carefully as she rode to the party (at which she was the only guest, I believe, the "others" having been delayed by the "inclement weather" according to her hostess, who set out the family water bucket, metal dipper clanking, for her part of the refreshments).

The one my friend brought to the church sale was a homely cake, with several toothpicks holding up the waxed-paper cover, and uneven swirls made last-minute, but not quick enough for the hardening fudge frosting. The layers were a bit slanty; it was dark and dumpy and I bought it out of pity, not wanting her earnest effort to be the last one chosen. (As in 'grabbed it up' the way other workers were doing with the offerings of some of the most popular cooks). And I DO like chocolate.

I carried it home at the end of that long in-the-sun day of work, and we set it out after our supper of cold tomato sandwiches and pickles. I'd made a pot of decaf for myself for dessert, but the kids raided the fridge for a half-gallon of milk, and probably drank it all. The cake was that good.

It was rich and the very essence of what Hershey lived for---that deep, sweet darkness hummed over the tongue and sensed in the next exhaled breath. It was perfection on  foil-covered cardboard, black and rich and beyond anything Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart could collectively imagine or conjure.

We four ate EVERY CRUMB in two days, and scraped up the stuck-to the-board shards of frosting.   It's still the bellwether for all cakes, homemade or bought, and I wish I had her recipe.

Til then, there's always the old faithful:


2 c. sugar
1 3/4 c. plain flour
3/4 c. cocoa
2 t. soda
1 t. BP
1 t. salt
2 eggs
1 c. buttermilk
1 c. strong black coffee OR 2 t. instant dissolved in 1 c. boiling water
1/2 c. oil
1 t. vanilla
Directions: 350. Grease and flour two 9-inch rounds or a 13x9.

Sift dry into large bowl. Beat eggs in smaller bowl, then stir in other wets.

Pour wet over dry and beat with mixer, medium speed, 2 minutes (batter will be thin).
Pour into pans. Bake 30 to 35 for rounds, 35 to 40 for 13x9. Cool 10 minutes in pans. Remove and cool completely, rightside up on rack.

Frost with:
Melt a stick of butter in microwave bowl or pan on stove. Stir in 2/3 cup Cocoa over heat for a minute. Pour mixture into mixer bowl.

Beat in 3 c. powdered sugar, a cup at a time, alternating with a little milk up to 1/3 cup, enough to make it spreading consistency. Add 1 t. vanilla and a dash of salt.
Makes enough for above cake---top, sides and between layers.

This makes a fabulous "Black Forest" cake---a can of Lucky Leaf cherry pie filling, half between layers, the rest spread on top after the frosting.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

MISS KATHRYN'S DIAMOND

Memory of a frenzied phone call at work once, years ago, from Miss Kathryn Roseberry (an older married woman with a perfectly good husband, but who was still known as Miss, as were many of the older women of the time). We younger wives and matrons could call them by their first names, but only by appending the “Miss”---never “Mrs.”

She’d been in an absolute fantod for days, having lost the quite large stone from her engagement ring, and had searched high and low, still wearing the ring with its sad empty clutch of prongs standing there like a wistful Disney-Frog-Prince coronet. She'd come into our office several times, and would pry and poke around, to the extent of going into the trash can once, even lifting out the sag of the big grounds-stained coffee filter in her fingertips like an overfilled diaper.


She'd made her way up and down the street, stepping into stores and offices, taking Mr. Slim's big ole square EverReady flashlight out of her purse and looking under desks and into corners to see if her stone might have rolled that far. We'd see her on the street, kicking a rock, looking down down down, her glasses sliding from her sweaty nose to end with a little bungee jerk on the end of their rhinestone chain.

You'd have thought the Kohinoor had been purloined and secreted somewhere in our small town, and SHE was the explorer commissioned to ferret it out.

She called me one day, having been in for her “Standing Appointment” at the Swirl ‘n’ Curl, and having her quite sizeable updo “done” in its weekly intricacies of swoops and hairpins and enough Aqua Net to plaster Paris. She’d also had her manicure, those dark old talons shellacked within an inch of their lives in a deep red, which rendered her every gesture a blur of crimson. You could always tell who had just had her nails done, by the position of their hands on the wheel, or how they sorta scrambled for their keys or wallet with the sides of their thumbs, so as not to disturb the not-quite-dry polish.

I answered the phone, to hear a babble of excited words, uttered in what I quite possibly believe was one breath:

“I FOUND IT!!! I FOUND it!!! I opened the door on the right hand side, and it TWINKLED at me!!! It was just a-shinin’ in that dirty flowboard over there by the gas pedal! I leaned in so quick to get it before I lost sight of it, I knocked three a' four pins outa my hair on the stirrin’ wheel and the gearshift!


I come up with it, though, my hair just a-hangin’ and my fingernail polish done scratched all to Hell, from grabbin’ so hard in that sandy carpet.

I’m just tickled to death! I was afraid I was gonna hafta go clear to Memphis to find another one, or else wear this ole hole on my hand forever, one.

I feel like if I hadn’t-a gone by Cissy Mae’s with those fruit-jars, I never woulda found it, cause when I opened the door in her yard, the sun hit it just right, and it woulda done been eat up by the vacuum cleaner next time Jonah washed my car!

Thank you, JESUS!”

Thank you, indeed. He was even mentioned in the ad she took out to impart her good news to the whole county.

Small miracles.

Monday, July 27, 2009

GRAPEVINES LIKE KUDZU

Several years ago, a tiny grape-sprout came up behind a big hosta at the corner of the garage. I pampered it, watered it, trellised it, thinking of the lovely swag it might make. A little Rose of Sharon also began to grow in the same space, circumscribed into maybe a 3x3 space by the sidewalk corner. In the ensuing years, I marvelled that the dried, snapping twigs could come back from all the below-zero temperatures, to spring back out, and grow longer and lusher each year.

A wine-store tossed a big bunch-of-grapes-shaped metal winerack on their dumpster---we retrieved it and trellised the grapevine at the corner, and it happily climbed and gamboled all up and down those rusting metal grapes. Now the trellis is absolutely obscured, and the entire thing has made for the ground on the other side of a side-door to the garage.



Though the weather has been oddly mild all through June and July, all the plants in our yard and garden have taken a turn for the gigantic, with the garage grapevine threatening to cover the entire three rooftops like frenzied kudzu.



The long seeking arms grown-past-tendrils are making their way out across the phone wires toward the tomato plants, which are tall enough to latch onto when they get in grabbing distance.



The vine is also creeping madly out toward the back garden, and I expect it to reach the arbor shade before Summer’s out.

I love to watch the tentative, inexorable flow of the vines, those tiny green fingers feeling their blind way along toward support; I marvel at the way they touch, seize, circle, with a single-minded purpose: to get somewhere---anywhere. Sometimes I think I can almost see the movement of the seeking tendrils as they reach out into the unseen space for the next huggable thing.
One of its kin so encompassed the big ole rough pooldeck several years ago that I had to do some chopping every Spring to get the lawn chairs up there. And the original appletree which leaned ever closer to earth because of a steadily-hollowing core, was at last supported only by the fierce grip of the grapevines which we hacked away as we eased her down on her last day.

The "tomato hedge" grows ever taller, and the bounty has begun. These are called “Pineapple,” though no resemblance either in taste or shape is to be discerned. They do, however, have what I think of as “Mammaw Tomato” marks---grooved rolls at the top which stand out at the dip where the stem connects, like a fat fall pumpkin chubbing up in folds around the top.


Cherokee purples and other heirlooms have that telltale shape which says this is gonna be a flavorful tomato, dripping with rich juices, and with the authentic tang of a vine-ripe. Our meals have spoken Summer, at least. Despite all this concrete and city streets and miles of interstate and asphalt, we’ve tasted the fresh and the just-from-the field:

A bowl of Silver Queen corn, bought, cut and cooked within an hour of the stalk. The crisp little silks were a fresh pale green as they fell away with the brush. It was a creamy, rich, beautiful thick-soup bowl, with just the right amount of butter and salt. I had just fried the requisite seven chicken wings to accompany (I fry, and while I get the ice in the glasses, he separates drummy from the radius/ulna pocket of tender little muscles with a quick wrench, putting the fat drummy onto my plate, and the second pieces onto his 0wn. And because his sacred recipe for creamed corn requires a tiny bit of the oil and all the lovely brown crispy scrapings from the bottom of the chicken skillet). They are the "secret ingredient" in his Heavenly corn.

Our supper trays held but two bowls, spoons, napkins. The second bowl was of tomato chunks and seasalt.

A spoon into the corn; savor the creamy rich smoothness with little crisp pings of kernel to punctuate the bite. Then spoon into tomato, relish that taste--alternating the deep buttery sweetness with the lusty zest of homegrown tomato, warm from the garden, until both bowls were empty and Summer's finest supper combination had been enjoyed once again.

Then back outside with a last glass of iced tea, to take the cool of the evenin’ and make the day complete.






PRESERVES

The markets and farm-stands and "come pick-'em" fields are ripe with sweet bounty, and the time of preserving has come. Peaches, plums, cherries, all sorts of berries and grapes are coming into their own, their dusky complexions full colored and tempting. Their scents in the bushel waft and temp, they dimple with the pressing of a palm, their flesh is firm and luscious as you bend forward and eat, and the juices run off elbow and chin.

The time is now for getting out the kettles and the pots and the big cannister of sugar and the jars. A flat wooden paddle for stirring against that white enamel cooking pan, the biggest ladle for the filling of the jars, with the big-mouth funnel keeping mess to a minimum. Spills go into a dinnerplate beneath, and the drips are never put back into the jar---just that moment of cooling may have encountered wayward spores or germs or other foreign mayhem which will cause the jars to spoil. Spills are thus scraped into a little bowl for enjoying with supper that night.

It's amazing how good a little spoonful of peach jam is on supper cornbread, or cherry preserves on a fresh hot yeast-roll. Strawberry jam is elegant on ice cream, and pineapple the most gourmet of all, ladled atop a slice of cheesecake and dripping down the sides.

I've made Southern preserves for many years in my home kitchen, and I follow my own Mammaw's recipe for all jellies, jams and preserves. It's a simple one---in her words, "Mix your fruit payound for payound with sugar." Strawberries, blackberries, dewberries, blueberries--all these weep their essence into the sugar in a very short time, and peaches and other stone fruits require only a few hours "setting" to release their juices.

Pears, however, are traditionally cut into little wedges, mixed with the sugar and a sliced lemon or two (add a can of crushed pineapple if you're fancy) and left in an enamel dishpan, overnight at room temperature, covered with a tea towel.

Lifting the towel the next morning reveals a great pile of vastly-shrunken pieces of pear afloat in a clear sea of syrup. Cooking converts the pears into rosy bits of heavenly, almost chewy essence-of-pear worthy of any gold-lettered confectioner's shop in Paris. As the pan bubbles away, the syrup thickens, but not to the point of gelling---that's not the desired result.

What you want on a big ole buttered Martha White biscuit is a spoonful of those deliciously peary pieces and a dripping, syrupy runoff which will require a spoon to scrape up the last Summery sweetness.


As for figs, there's a difference between fig preserves and preserved figs. The preserves require smushing and chopping the figs a bit, as well as cooking them down into an unctuous, golden-brown mass which will heap on a spoon or a waiting biscuit.

(We will not speak here of the Jello-figs craze which hit the South like an avalanche, and took all reason from otherwise-sane cooks for a period of about five years. Countless hours and jars of perfectly good figs were converted into who-knows-what-flavor concoctions, with colors unknown in the food world. What WERE we thinking?)


I do confess a several-Summer affliction of making all kinds of flavors, with finely-chopped pears as a base. Got a gallon of blackberries? Put another gallon of Cuisinart-whirled pear bits into the kettle with the berries, and since the pear trees outnumbered any other on the place, you could do the same with stretching the plums, the peaches (also quite a few trees, but what the heck?) and the cherries, raspberries, even grapes. It made a kind of "honey" of everything, proudly listed on the labels in my best printing, and seemed exotic and expansive to have so many different kinds of jam on the shelves.

Preserved figs, however, are a breed unto themselves: whole figs which have been simmered delicately in a simple syrup for the amount of time it takes to render them gently quivering bubbles which are lifted by the stem (if you're lucky and it doesn't break loose and leave you with a sticky face or shirtfront) and placed in an eager, open mouth, to be tongueburst into a cascade of figgy sweetness. They are amber jewels of great worth, situated just SO in the mason jars, and given front-row prominence in the family's larder of hard-won, heat-seared, homecanned delicacies. Of course, for Preacher-visits, they are served stems-up in the prettiest cut-glass bowl, and no matter how tempting the head-back, eyes-closed one-bite method, everyone must make do with a spoon.

All berries, peaches, plums and pineapple preserves just cook right up into a slightly-thickened fruity concoction which WILL spread on a hot biscuit, but won't promise to stay there when the heat hits it. Thick syrup and the true taste of a fruit that stays close to the color God made it--those are the hallmarks of a good batch of Southern preserves.

Just like my Mammaw's.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

VANILLA!

VANILLLLLLLLAAAAAAH!
I've always been in love with Vanilla. Capital V. I thought it the loveliest of scents, and would sniff and sniff at the bottle cap when I was too young to be trusted with that big glass bottle of Watkins that my Mammaw or Mother was using to doctor up a pie or cake or homemade ice cream. It's a good thing it's not really tasty on its own; I remember sticking an adventurous tonguetip down into the lid and being shockingly disappointed at the bitter, mouthfilling taste. Had it been naturally sweet, I’d probably have gone off on a toot of great proportions, climbing a chair to the shelf for my fix, til they caught me nipping at the bottle.


http://www.bakingabusiness.com/aboutwatkinsvanilla.htm

I was forbidden the "grownup" scents: My Mom's, Mammaw's latest bargain from the Avon Lady, my city Aunts' sophisticated, musky-peppery Chanels and Joys---well, maybe a tee-ninecy nip of one of those, if I could insinuate my sneaky self into the guestroom while they were dressing for the day, and the bottle was right there. They were always ready to gladden my heart with a little spritz.


Otherwise, I would make some reason to detour into the kitchen before leaving the house, in order to dab a drop of the lovely vanilla-essence behind my ears and in the crooks of my elbows. I waltzed through the day, confident in my own enticing aroma, and AFTER I discovered cinnamon and oil of clove as a fragrant addition, I must have gone around town for more than a year, faint tan smears on my skin, my whole aura redolent of cookies and pie. Thank goodness dogs are carnivores; I'd have had whole hordes following me home.

And when I was in college (graduated from eau de Watkins and McCormick to Shalimar on my own), my roommate was a graduate student in Chemistry. She worked long hours in the lab after classes, and would come in very late, after I had gone to bed. One semester she was working on synthesizing Vanillin, and I would wake in the darkness, inhale that heavenly scent from her entrance, and smile. I STILL wish they'd bottle that stuff and sell it at Nordstrom. And once, when I had a special date, I got her to take my favorite angora sweater and hang it up near her work-station all day. When I went out that night, I smelled FABULOUS!!


My vanilla bottle (STILL Watkins; we found our own supplier in the Yellow Pages, but now, the proud gleaming glass has been exchanged for plastic) gets a workout nearly every day...we use it in iced tea, pies, cakes, puddings, party punch, as a richening note in several mixed drinks as well as cut and pureed fruit, in coffee, pie crusts, all sorts of breads and muffins and desserts. And I keep a vanilla bean faithfully tucked down into each sugar cannister. I've been known to dab a bit onto a lightbulb, and YES, behind my ears once in a while for old times' sake. Brings back some nice memories, and sometimes makes Chris waltz me across the kitchen to an oldies tune.

And today, just lookin' around for a picture of the familiar old Watkins bottle, at least one of which occupies its special little spot in the fridge door at ALL TIMES, ready for any need---cosmetic included---I came upon THIS:

http://www.18hrwk.com/watkins-products/vanilla-body-care.html

So what if Vanilla is the quiet, unnoticed kid, the wallflower whose mere presence points up the special attributes of her peers? It adds a lovely undernote, a richness, a depth, an extra level to so many other flavors. Even CHOCOLATE is enhanced by its paler companion, borne up to new heights and enticements. And Vanilla ice cream alone is, if nothing else, quite a good reason for getting up in the morning. So Hooray and Huzzah for whoever found that wonderful plant with its glorious scent and possibilities.

Be still my heart, cause I can't wait to post this and
ORDER SOMETHING!!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

FRUIT OF THE BRINE, III

I think my favorite pickle reference in literature is one from a book called The House at Old Vine, by Norah Lofts. It chronicles the centuries of an old country household from the middle ages to modern England, with all its uses along the way. One of its incarnations was as a boys’ school of the earlier years -- one of the grim, cold, chilblains-and-gruel chapters in England's history, times which strengthened or killed off many a male scholar.

The couple running the school meted out barely-sufficient meals, giving the boys the best they could with their meager income, with great pots of overnight-simmered oatmeal scooped into eager bowls, and a flour-and-water mixture which was mixed with a scant few eggs and scrambled for special days. There's a line something like "the boys called it cowshit but ate it eagerly anyway."

But the great reward, the best-of-the-best, awarded for valor or grades or success on the playing field, was a turn at the pickle-barrel. The brine in that barrel was aged and ageless -- the housewife had tossed in rinds, bits of raw vegetables, green plums and knotty apples, purposely-cultivated cucumbers and squash, with nary a concern for suitability or sanitation. Many a paragraph is devoted to the coveting, the enjoying, the maneuvering of that long fork in the jealously-guarded try at getting the biggest piece onto the tines.

A cucumber was a prize; a bit of gourd or squash, second place, but a fist-sized pickled onion -- Grail. No imagination needed to understand the great hunger for such a tangy, salty bite, or the guarded, greedy relish with which it was devoured. Words aren't required to convey the bright-eyed, lusty joy with which the boys tucked into the dripping prize. The bland, floury food, the grain-stapled diet, the greasy boiled bacon -- what a treat to bite into a juicy, sour, salty pickle. Just the thought gives an under-tongue tingle akin to sniffing the French's jar.


The prevalence of bland food in so many novels also brings to mind an unforgettable passage in one of the James Herriot books, involving boiled bacon---a great fat-laden wet plateful of it--- which he, the guest, was expected to down. With his humble host and hostess looking eagerly on, his only salvation was a big glass of Scotch and a dish of pickled onions.

I know only the Southern standards, the old recipes, though my refrigerator harbors at any time five or six kinds; a quart Tupperware of turmeric-yellowed thin-sliced crisp sweet onions in a mild brine is a yearly gift from a friend. Some little round Kirbys are in a sesame/rice vinegar soak right now, to go with the lovely baby bok choy I'll stir-fry for supper. In a flat fridge-dish, some sliced beets, straight from a can, are bleeding their juices into a handful of sugar, a dash of vinegar, and three cloves.


And, since our move to the city with all its markets and restaurants and shops with their wonderful, exotic offerings, we’ve learned the joys of kimchee, with its sour tang punctuated by the scattered bits of peppery redness; the little dish of quarter-sliced cucumber in its own special brew of rice vinegar, sesame oil, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, which is set down in welcome, along with about a dozen other offerings, even before we order at our favorite Korean restaurant.

We linger at the cipollini tubs in the big supermarket, with their purples and greens and matching aromas; we dip from the tumble of fat juicy jalapenos and olives of every hue in the spectrum; we enjoy tastes and savors and vegetables we learned of only after we moved here.


My own history of pickles is a very narrow slice. But they're the ones I know, the ones I continue to make, the ones that have been passed down through many vine-and-brine-chapped hands, and I'm proud of all of them. But I do love to find a new vegetable, a new brine ingredient, a new combination to add to the long, respectable list used by generations of cooks. However, the biggest crock, an elderly ten-gallon ceramic beauty, has been retired from years of holding eye-stinging brine and bushels of curing vegetables. It now rests in the hosta bed under the huge backyard tree all summer, support for a pretty octagon of marble which holds the biggest parlor fern.

In winters past, the longing for something green consumed many an hour amongst people with no way to preserve any kind of salad ingredient, and no hope save spring for a crisp, fresh taste. The wonderful, rich savors of Southern cooking, the pot of greens enhanced by a few drops from the bottle of pepper sauce; the soft, salt-and-pork seasoned vegetables, the great pots of dried beans with several meaty ham hocks falling from the bone, the crusty pan of steaming cornbread -- all needed just that touch of vinegary, tangy pickle to make the meal complete and satisfying.

In my own home, I can think of no treasure save for pictures of the children and grandchildren, or our enormous walls of books, which could provide the contentment and feeling of wealth and accomplishment as those shelves of homemade pickles.

Friday, July 24, 2009

FRUIT OF THE BRINE, II

And of the dills, Alice’s comment yesterday reminded me of my Daddy’s inclination to go grab a quart of something off the pantry shelf, pour himself a five-o’clock Scotch, and head for the patio with a little cocktail fork in his hand.

We’d sit in adjoining chairs, me with iced tea, and poke around in the jar, finding just the right bite---small cucumbers, a cluster of golden-turned cauliflower with the salty brine shaking from its tips, even a whole clove of garlic, which he’d crunch between his molars like a lifesaver.

Sips and crunches, a trip back into the house for a drink refill and a longer fork, and so we’d sit, discussing everything, or nothing. When we’d had enough of the saline stew and had solved all the world’s problems, he’d dash the leftover juice into the viburnums with a flick of that steel-strong wrist, and we’d go in to see about supper.


Now, okra was a category unto itself, a family thing, either loved or hated, and the squat jars saved from store-bought pickles and jams and olives were filled tight. Okra was chosen exactly for the height of each jar. I’d walk up and down the ranks of shining glass, dealing out the pods by size and length. A little bulb of garlic nestled between those pointy tips, the smallest wasp-tail red pepper, and salty vinegar was our recipe, and these pickles were usually saved for holidays and other special occasions.

Lime pickles were soaked overnight in a brew of dissolved household lime, the same choking stuff that was scattered on the dirt floor of the henhouse. The cucumber slices emerged next morning crisp and friable, most of their own moisture removed. Next came many rinsings, very careful rinsings to keep the slices from breaking apart in their delicate state.

Hours in a clear-water soak, then vinegar and sugar---heavy on the sugar---overnight, with another little clove/allspice bag, then the cook-and-can early the next morning. These were the "easy" pickles. They turned out almost transparent and heavenly crisp, snapping in your mouth like a slice of fresh carrot, but tooth-aching sweet, with a syrup that ran thick as Grandpa's home-squeezed sorghum.

The same treatment went to sliced green tomatoes, with the spices scattered into the jar. Bread-and-butters and squash pickles were prepared alike: slices layered with salt to sit overnight, then rinsed, sugar/vinegar/watered, and cooked off with red bell pepper, sliced onions, and a freckling of mustard seed in the clear, sweetish juice.

On every dinner and supper table sat little bowls of pickles; several small cut-glass dishes were saved for special, and one had three little divisions for different kinds. Beets had a clear glass bowl all their own -- they had been simmered with the peel on, to slip easily off with the press of a hand, then the slices simmered again with a light vinegar/sugar/water syrup, which turned the deep shade you like to see cuddled in an expensive wineglass.

Sliced beets, baby beets -- each had its place in the canning hierarchy. Days were devoted to simmering and peel-slipping and slicing. Every summer, the heavy yellow Playtex gloves I wore for beets slowly darkened from pale lavender to mauvish to deep Welch’s. I wore them so as not to head off to church looking as if I’d butchered a steer early in the morning---that juice would leave a stain on your hands almost as bad as green walnuts.


And the baby ones had to be snuck into the bottom of your picking tub, at least in our acres of garden -- my first grandfather-in-law, who manned the tilling tractor and the watering hoses, kept a keen eye on picking anything before it got to the “worth it” stage. He was a firm believer in getting the most out of every seed and every hour we spent bent over a hoe or squatting between those rows to reap the bounty -- and always, that meant leaving things be until they were big enough to have earned their keep and become worthy of the table.

He taught my children the thrift of the waiting, and as we squatted together amongst the steam-rising rows of green---they picked so long as I told fairy tales and recited poetry---and w
e picked bushel after bushel, to stories and tales, quatrains and couplets; the Odyssey was popular, with all the swashbuckling and mythical creatures. Chaucer was cleaned up as nearly as a Mississippi Mama could make it, with The Miller’s Tale whitewashed into a funny story, with the tamed-down denouement featuring “hitting with a stick.” Still, we practically rolled on the ground amidst the peavines. Six and eight-year old boys find any kind of bottom-swatting hilarious.

The children faithfully chose only the ready-to-pick vegetables, and it's odd that the only one not to keep the faith is the one who helps make our little home garden now -- he'll come in with buckets filled with all sizes; it's for me to sort and use as I choose.

I used to wait and go out later in the evening, after supper, while Walter Cronkite held Papa’s rapt attention, and gather whatever looked best and freshest and tenderest. Tiny spineless cucumbers to be drenched in the dill brine and “make” before the big guys in the half-gallon jugs; the smaller-than-golf balls beets to pickle into tender one-bite treats for “company,” the smallest turnips for slicing and munching raw with a sprinkle of salt. A handful of the tiniest of radishes, small as beans, and the merest wisps of baby green beans stirring in the breeze, to be mixed with rinsed leftover pintos or northerns, shreds of sweet onion, little red diamonds of bell pepper, and a sugar-enhanced vinaigrette for a salad worthy of any church supper.

Pickles have been around since they had to make their own vinegar, standing in a bowl or crock 'til the sourness developed on its own. There's the infamous pickle dish in Ethan Frome, the piccalilli-and-boulders disaster in The Long, Long Trailer, a memorable Mayberry involving a midnight refrigerator raid---"AHHH, Peee-kless", and of course,
The Kerosene Pickles.

And while Aunt Bee whips up another batch, moire non.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

FRUIT OF THE BRINE, I

My friend Molly at Molly's Country Memories has been putting up tomatoes, and just the sight of those deep-red globes in the jars, shining in the light of a Mississippi kitchen afternoon, kindled a longing to get out kettles and Masons and tinkly brass ring-tops and CAN something.

Jars of pickles lined the storeroom, ranks of every-shade-of-green stretching row on row, in all the houses of my youth -- they ranged from tangy dills, with their salty brine and crown of just-cut dill, to fat, clear slices of lime sweets in their thick, sugary syrup. No Southern table was complete without a dish or two of the chosen-just-right-for-the-meal, home-canned goodies. Every jar on those shelves was "put up" at home, and was precious in its own right, having cost the cook Summer mornings of picking in the glaring sun, with the hairy, reaching cucumber vines grabbing at ankles, and the velvety thorns itching hands past bearing.

Washing and preparing, slicing and canning, measuring out those long-used receipts -- those brought into being the great shelves of Summer bounty, gained by the literal sweat of brows bent over stoves in the equally-hot kitchens. The scent of vinegar was a constant---from today's cooking, from yesterday's brining, from the fresh-put-down crock of sauerkraut in its strata of salt, from last week's churn bubbling its foamy overflow past the upended dinner plate and the layers of old sheeting yarn-tied as a fly-guard under the lid, and out into the pan beneath.


There were Grace Church pickles, with their twenty-one days of attention, with a first churn-rest in brine made with "salt to float an egg," according to the yellowed old recipe written in faded brown script like that of no other "hand" in our family. They sat quietly in the brine for a few days, then went into another egg-measured brew -- alum the "size of,” for eyeballing the lump needed. Then, days later, rinsings and fresh-waterings and vinegar and sugar for their final rest before canning in the big old white-speckled blue canner, with cloves and allspice tied in little bags made from squares of old pillowslips.

I always assumed they were named for an actual church, since little faded steeples dotted the hills for miles around the place of my Mammaw's raising. And those same churches sheltered and sustained many a proud cook whose receipts were coveted by every lady in the countryside.


Or they could have been christened for an angelically-named person -- I can see Miss Grace Church, an upright and sedate lady, taking care of her Daddy in his declining years, clinging to her standards, dressing demurely and singing in the choir and bringing her special casserole to Church Suppers, along with a jar of those incomparable pickles. She'd have beaten out Aunt Bee by a mile at the Fair, and whisked the blue ribbon out of Miss Clara's hands, as well.

Grace Churches were brought out for occasions, for the afternoon meetings of the Missionary Society or WMU, placed on that Damask-draped table alongside the crustless Paminna Cheese sandwiches and the quivery round of aspic. I do believe that more ladies than gentlemen must have consumed these, given the import and the rarity of the ceremonious opening of a jar. They were for dainty occasions, somehow---cut glass compotes and divided pickle dishes saved for special were set down laden with the dripping, spicy slices or the tiniest fingerlings saved up for days in the fridge bin to make a pint or two.

I well remember one such pint, the tiniest cucumbers from our garden, one pint that I painstakingly scrubbed each and every tiny spine from the little fellows, and then picked them all out of the final rinsing by hand, from their mingling with all those slices. Mother even cooked them in a separate pan of juice, calling them "my" pickles. I'd look at that pint jar, and even at six, I felt the swell of pride in a job well done, because I had had a hand in the process. And one afternoon while I was at school, the Missionary Society met at our house and my pickles were eaten up, every one, by those ladies in hats. I wish I could have tasted just one.

I also realize Mother's pride in setting down such a lavish dish with all its fiddly preparation and rare cornichon-sized bites.

Those jars were always given the place of honor, polished and gleaming, right in the glare of the single bare light bulb that dangled in every storeroom. Anything that took that much work deserved looking at, and often.

Then there were the close-packed jars of dills, made of the medium-size cucumbers, with their topknot of fresh dill and some sliced garlic in the jar bottom. The recipe started out: “a scant cup of salt,” and the ambiguity did not matter -- everyone’s teacups were a different size.

The same tongue-curling salty brine was also used for baby green tomatoes, baby eggplant, and okra, all of which got the requisite scatter of sliced hot red peppers in the bottom of each jar. The wait for these was not long, but they DID have to have six weeks or so to season and soak up all the salty, vinegary taste of real old-fashioned Southern dills. They're not like deli dills, with the flavor halfway between cuke and pickle; the Southern dill is an all-the-way-through deep green, all of its cucumber self sacrificed to the honor of its calling. Those are pickles with authority, pickles with character, pickles with VERVE.


My tongue's aching just typing about it. I think I'll go raid the pickle shelf of the fridge for a big ole salty dill right now.

And as with the bounty of Summer gardens, there's more to come---tomorrow.



Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MARTY KITTRELL







One of my first look-ins every morning is at a blog that captures the sights and colors and even the scents of HOME.

The scenes are of the small-town South, with bright spires and ivied graveyards and gravel roads to rolling fields; of bridges and flags and where Jesus lives on signboards, right out there unashamed and uncensored for all to see, and the names of towns and families are spelt out in concrete letters on the lawn---those are the things and places of ME.
I'm just sorry I can't make them load into the spaces between the appropriate paragraphs. I'll learn.
The old churches, withering to dust, the saggy old pianos like patient mules waitin' with their snaggle-toothed keyboards and demure veil of musty velvet, and whose dwindling congregation had not the strength to carry them elsewhere when the last song died. The light and the color are real---I’ve stopped and wandered through those mote-filled old places, walking lightly on the creaky planks, stepping respectfully amongst the sunken stones with their worn-away words of grief and farewell.

And the old hotels and town buildings, the one-street downtowns with whispers of old Co-Cola ads on the fading bricks, and the beautiful scenes of growth and harvest and toil. I’ve spent many an hour wandering the edges of the bayous, where time is unknown and the passing of years a mere drop from a dragonfly’s wings.

The strange growths emerging from the water around the tree are called cypress knees. They’re the only tree I know of which sports KNEES as a body part. They’re upgrowths of the root system, and just ARE, like the wind through the swinging-moss and the call of an unknown bird; I’ve seen them polished and used as table-legs, as mantel-charms, and when they’re shined up and varnished, they make a unique lamp base, much in demand for dens and hunting camps and meeting halls of the Masons and Elks.

This particular picture looks for all the world like a congregation of meerkats in eager worship at the feet of the tree.

The photos are by a marvelously-talented young man, and when I asked if I might borrow a picture or two for sharing here, he posted:

Hey, Rachel,
I can’t find an email address for you on your site, but it is OK for you to use the photo you requested. It’s OK with me for you to grab any of my photos for your use whenever you want!

Marty


http://martykittrellphotos.blogspot.com/

Go have a look; be amazed and delighted and lost in another place. See the How and the Why and the WE of me, as Frankie expressed it---this is Home, and this is where I’m FROM.

Thank you, Marty, for bringing me a taste of it every day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

ROADTRIP

Yesterday, y'all were missing---today, it's MEEEE.

I've been invited on an afternoon's excursion down into Kentucky, and who, on this lovely day, could resist? Especially with such charming company.

Now I have my bag all packed with my journal, my good pen, a couple of pretty magazines, a book of "interesting trees" and a few of these:

http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~wgh/crosspuz1.htm

If you're a crossword addict, as I am, these are FABULOUS!!! Lots of hidden meanings and anagrams and puns, and all within the frame of a perfect crossword.

And we always carry a book on CD, for we like a lot of the same authors, and on a long journey, we get wrapped up in other places, other times, and our own time just flies with the miles.

Possibly more this evening, of the day and scenery and people and fun places and a new place for lunch---whatever comes.

Until----ROADTRIP!!

ETA: The link didn't seem to be working, so I linked it again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

GONNNE!!

I'm gonna channel Suellen again, with grimaces and gnashings, as well as a particularly unattractive pouty downturn to my lips, as I screech: "Y'ALL ARE ALL GOANNNE!!" "You done RUNN OFT!!!"

Something I did yesterday has disappeared ever' one a y'all into whatever ole black hole that grabs up stuff you really wanted to keep, and flings it out in bits and bites into that great beyond, to be mourned and grumped over forever.

I go up and down my neat little list-to-the-right every morning, and several times a day, just to see who's posted and what bright things I might go and partake of. And when I see that "2 hours ago" or "nine minutes ago," it's like opening the mailbox to find a sweet-scented letter from an old friend, with good news or an invitation and maybe pictures of the family. And now NOBODY'S here!!

I still have the whole list over on my profile thing, (I hope, I hope) with tempting little snips and pictures of all of your stuff just sitting there, like the crumbs of a yummy cake, saying "nyah, nyah" to my can't-get-there efforts.

It's gonna take some doing, and I have a little girl here to "help" today, so the getting you all back to rights may not happen til the wee hours of quiet tonight. And the only way I know to do it, is how I started---just cut and paste everybody's URL, one at a time, til my board is filled again and my heart not grimped and bereft.

Y'all just talk amongst yourselves, and don't do anything fun til I get there, OK?

Wanna hear a nice lady say a bad word? Didn't think so. Pooo!

PS: Anyone---ANYONE who'd like to add their URL in a comment, or zip me an e-mail, I'd love to have it!!!

PSS Later today. After midnight. I think I've got most of them, but I've been squinting and editing and moving stuff around, afraid I'd lose all I'd just done, etc. PLEASE, if anyone was on my list that I lost (the lost list of the listless), and you're not on the new one yet, I hope you'll chime in and let me get the URL back---that little clicker was often the only way I had to find folks. I've enjoyed my little ventures into lots of blogs and columns and sites, and have bookmarks that roll down the screen like those cartoon Santa lists.

And I'd love to add some new friends, as well.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

FAIR

Friends are coming next month to go to the State Fair---they've mapped out a travel route amongst some several states, with the dates of the State Fairs governing their schedule. They will be here sometime from the 8th to the 23rd, I think---this year is a TWO-week Fair, a first for us, and so they'll have a choice of forward or back as far as their passing through.

We went together last year, when they managed to hit only five or so of the many. It was a blisteringly-hot day, and I was in company with two young ladies---one exactly a year old, all SPF1000'ed and shaded by a big canopy on her pink stroller, as well as like-clockwork bathes of her face and arms and neck from cloths wrung out from the ice water in the tiny cooler in her rumbleseat.

My other companion was the granddaughter of our friends, and she was a a lively, chatty young lady, all eagerness and cheer, ready to ride everything and taste everything and skip ahead and then back to tell me of the wonders in store. It was a glorious day, and I enjoyed it immensely, despite the heat and trying to keep the girls hydrated and together and moving into cool spots as often as possible.

I love the IDEA of the Fair, and especially the "Home Arts" building---what we call the "Quilts and Pickles" exhibits. Chris always heads for the photography exhibit, and I always wander the cool downstairs for hours. Case after display case, rank-on-rank of styrofoam saucers (each with the de rigueur paper doily), holding slices of pie, hunks of cake, great chunks of pumpkin loaf and banana bread and coffeecake; some with daintily-placed hand-dipped candies, pinwheels of chocolate or strawberry or green (mint, I suppose, as I suppress an urge to run away), swirled through crisp cookie circles. Neat squares of homemade fudge and nougat and brownies, made by hands ranging from kitchen pros, great-grandmothers, longtime bakers and cooks, to the newest in the line: 4-H and Girl Scout and Brownie members, setting their rice crispie squares and haystacks and roll-and-slice cookies right out there in contention for ribbons and awards.

There were wedding cakes, towering masterpieces of architecture decorated in every rainbow hue, plus some jewel tones and gold-brushed highlights and pearled drops. A castle towered three tiers, with precise sugar-cube crenellations ranged just SO. Gingerbread houses with their Christmas canes and pretzel woodpiles and ice-cream-cone shrubbery and snowy lawns seemed a season early, (two of the houses sadly sagged, and one completely collapsed---a discreet sign announcing that the houses were in perfect condition when they were judged) sat incongruously beside market baskets filled with marzipan vegetables, fruit, pigs, chickens and ribbons of all colors, honoring the sesquicentennial anniversary of the fair.


The same apologetic little signs cropped up inside several of the glass cases, since this was the final day of a ten-day run of the show. The moisture evaporating from all the cake and pie and cookies, leaving them shriveled, cracking vestiges of their former selves, their colors faded and their crusts crumbling, must have had a dampening effect on all the toffees, the lollipops, the divinity. Little saucers held pools of caramelly brown, with errant nut bits floating lazily in the mire; puddles of red or green held little white sucker-sticks forlornly askew, and others of the dainty doilies clung wearily to clusters of slumpy meringue, testament that the divinity held up as long as it could.

And jar after jar of jewelly jams and shining jellies and ketchups and chowchows, pickles and beans and the even, soldier-alert asparagus, its tips steamed into grayish clumps by the waterbath's long bubbling.


There were beautiful things, and delicious-looking things and outright genius in some of those creations; there were blue-ribbon winners that shone out, true and clean, and others that I guess you just had to be there--to taste and to see on the day they were delivered.

And a few made you wonder what WERE the judges thinking (or drinking) at the time of the award. I look every year into those cases, and I swear that NEXT year, for sure, I'm gonna enter a loaf of my Mom's banana bread, some of our fudge, my green and wonderful lime pickles, their perfectly-matched slices gleaming in the gently-spiced liquid, and my picked-at-their-perfect-moment canned green beans.

But every year, I leave it til too late, and then go and admire the handiwork of others. I read the names from the tags, recognize a few from days gone by or a few cases over, and admire these committed homemakers, these canners and bakers and workers of magic with the bounty of our fields. They are artists, every one.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

LIFE LESSON

We’ve had a wonderful week with Sis---we laughed and talked, we looked at all the old pictures and gave them names, with aid of the big magnifiers in on Chris' antique Photo Stuff shelf and with a lot of is its and could that bes and he really looks like the Buford sides.

We’ve cooked some, not a lot but fun and nice to sit down all together to the familiar table with pulled pork and made-like-Mother-did baked beans and potato salad with a hint of the allspice-and-clove pickles from our childhood pantries.

We ordered in Chinese, we stepped out to the immense “tomato hedge” for the dusky-ripe heaviness of the same tomatoes which Mammaw planted in her lush garden. We had BLT’s for breakfast; we breakfasted on donut holes and pastries brought home warm by Caro, we shared meals with our BabyGirl.

Sis and I strolled around the back to our little neighborhood Chinese buffet one evening that Chris was out of town, and sat for two hours, long after the General's chicken had disappeared and the plates been whisked away, telling each other in detail after twenty-some-years-each, how we met our mates and how they proposed and how we DON'T remember life without them.

This morning we met them all for a long leisurely breakfast of Eggs Benedict and omelets and soups and quesadillas, taking turns with little jaunts out to the deserted patio of the restaurant to help expend some of that two-year-old energy and soak in the still-cool sunshine.

Last night we all went downtown for a delightful dinner at Fogo de Chao, with its walls of winebottles and attentive service and handsome, quick-stepping young men in gaucho pants, proffering endless swordsful of succulent, hissing-hot steaks and chops and sausages. We first composed our plates from the most artistically-arranged salad bar I’ve ever seen---big square platters like pictures hung slantwise of the enormous square table, each framed in a contrasting or complementary border of intricately-cut vegetables or fruit.

I walked slowly around the vast expanse of offerings---identical platters of fat asparagus, fat as trees, and roasted peppers and shiitakes and crisp baby greens and hearts of palm, bocconcini, tiny sweet-pickled red peppers small as olives—and olives big as pullet eggs.

We “walked the circle” after dinner, strolling the few blocks from restaurant to the center of our beautifully-laid-out city, enjoying the sweet breeze of dusk and the tiny twinkle lights in the trees and the fountain’s soothing sound old as tides.

It’s been a sit-around week, somewhat, as Sis wanted to just “SOG” as we used to say of a day of leisure. We sat on the patio and talked. We sat inside and talked; we sat in the arbor and reminisced, and I was so glad to have someone for Chris to discuss politics and the state of the world with.

And on this last day, I think we were all tired---not of each other, but of the constant eagerness to speak and laugh and tell-tell-tell to the other while the time lasted.

So, this morning, as Chris’ phone-alarm rang to wake us for our breakfast date, he got up and stood leaning against the wall on his side of the bed. I sleepily greeted him.

Misunderstanding my exact words, he answered, sending me off into giggles which lasted til I could get in here and tell it.

In a sort of zany echo of our whole week which we spent talking over each other, and chiming in at odd times and interrupting and laughing and all of us mis-hearing the other and thus answering from out of Left Field, plus always trying to speak while in mid-guffaw, the exchange went like this:

Him: Big yawn and stretch, leaning against the quilt hanging on the wall at his side of the bed.

Me, in a sleepily fond voice:
“How you doin’, Darlin’?”

Him, hearing the first word as "WHAT":
“Gettin’ up.”

Me, knowing what I meant, and providing only the word he’d missed:
“HOW?”

Him, with a little gaze of appeal all around the ceiling to assure himself of his life-mate’s approaching senility, but ever the polite gentleman, explained :


“Stannup. Putma pants on.”

And thus the Life Lesson for Today.


Stannup. Putcha pants on, and get out there and take on the day.


Friday, July 17, 2009

BOX SHOPPING

We made a visit to a wonderful new Asian grocery today, and came home laden with boxes and jars and frozen items, as well as quite a few fresh vegetables. The white mushrooms (can't find a pic online, and clerk couldn't name them for me) were a huge tender stem, with just a small blossoming top. We'll be having those as a little side dish, just to try their own flavor before mixing with other items another time.

We watched the busy shoppers bagging up burdock---I've seen it grow down South, but these were yard-long thin shoots, apparently limited only by the dimensions of their shipping box. There were greens aplenty, and several that I wanted to ask if they were for cooking as a dish, or herbs for flavoring another dish. The great stacks of boxes held baby bok choy, broccoli rabe, tiny pickling cucumbers, the shiniest of scallions whose ROOTS were even white and thick and pretty.

There were the fanleaves of all sorts of greens, and I was struck by the jewelly loveliness of the tiny turnips and daikons still attached to the neat sheaves, like dangly earrings on a deb. The slenderest of lavender eggplants, others of a mottled stripey pale green; small melons and limes and bunches of what looked like the daffodil sprouts punctuating our back garden---all were just sitting there, no refrigeration, just being gathered up as a daily fresh-shopping excursion which must occur for more families here than I realized.

We loaded up on a gallon of soy sauce, which I decant into a bottle for storing in the fridge door; big can goes into the cool storeroom. Jars and bottles of oyster sauce, aji mirin, sambal oolek, rice wine vinegar, coconut milk; fresh udon, a couple of packs of VERY firm tofu for the mapo another evening, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, a pack of frozen squid as a surprise for Chris, who LOVES them dusted with cornstarch and sizzled just a few seconds in peanut oil. I've never actually CLEANED any, but I figure it can't be harder than catfish. And these looked so nice, just 2" little fellows, lined up so symmetrically in their little styrofoam bed with their wee grabbers all curled up like pink babytoes.

And the small tentacles reminded me of Lee Ann Roripaugh's poem of striking genius, with words and images arranged so artfully as to give life to a frozen mollusk:

http://www.goodreads.com/story/show/11024._Octopus_in_the_Freezer_

Amazing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

MOVIE SNACKS

Popcorn for breakfast. That's our catch-phrase for "Wanna go see a movie?" We go seldom, and always to the early weekend matinee---we can go WAY up to the back row against the wall, pick the three aisle seats (one each, and one for his hat and any other items).

And I HATE purses. Haven't carried one since about 1986. I just stick a lipstick in my left pocket, money and ID in the right (in a handy little plastic Ziploc), hang my reading glasses in the neck of my shirt, and I'm good to go.

And we almost always get what the kids call "nine-dollar popcorn." But occasionally I'll pocket a baggie of M&M's from home---heavenly sprinkled into the bag, then unearthed warm and melty with a handful of buttery corn. We've even been known to hit the McDonald's drive-through for a double-cheese and try to waft them past the ticket-folks before the scent gives us away.

My best smuggle was a couple of years ago. We had stopped at a fast-food place for a bite of lunch, then headed off to the movie. We always hit the drink dispenser for a little topoff before leaving those places, and so we had two nice medium Dr. Peppers in the cupholder in the car. As we got out of the car to go buy our tickets, I said to heck with it---why buy their pricey sugarwater when these perfectly good drinks will be melted and practically boiling when we come back to this hot car.

So I stood between the car and a van and carefully inserted one drink into each side pocket. The chilly cups alongst my thighsides felt kind of nice on the hot trip to the door, as I walked casually past ticket-stand, ticket ripper and concession.

Then, came a wee problem. How to extract those two flimsy cups from my pants without catching the straws, popping off the tops, or anointing myself embarrassingly from hip to toe in sticky drink. I walked carefully into the ladies' room, past the big wall of mirrors, catching sight of my streetcar-wide hips and thinking that I could have taken my place in Marie Antoinette's entourage with those huge side-panniers I was sporting---all I needed was the birdnest in the big hair.


I closed myself into a stall, reached to the right, painfully extracted one cup with my fingertips. Then, where to set it, cause I needed both hands. The little metal box on the wall had a sloping top, so I had to set it there, sort of back my bottom up to it and hold it in place whilst I tried to get that other cup (now chillingly becoming painful) off my left hip. I reached gingerly into the pocket, and felt the "pop" of the lid as it disengaged from the cup.

Now trying to play a bizarre game of Twister in a stall too small to turn around successfully, I managed to get top and straw out, stick the straw between my teeth, and waiting every moment for that chill flood of Pepper down my leg, I stood in a sidewise Mummenschantz posture, gently held the rim of the cup, and pulled upward with the care of a member of the bomb squad watching that blue-number countdown.

It slid free, I managed to snap lid on cup, rotate myself toward the hip-held drink, retrieve it, and exit the stall. To the fascinated stares of two elderly ladies who were obviously in great wonderment of how I managed to tend to the order of bathroom things whilst holding two full cups.

Or the chilling thought of what might be in them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NAMING NAMES

Sis is here---she’s showering, after a breakfast of brought-in pastries and donut holes, with a little pink smoked porkchop apiece, sizzled in a dry skillet for just long enough to make them warm and soft. Their salty porkiness was perfect with the sweet yeasty pastries.

There’s a slow Summer rain, it’s just us ladies for the day, and our BabyGirl is mesmerized with Elmo’s great agility in counting-to-ten. She’s confident, herself, up to one-two-three-four-five, then falters a little and mouths the rest along with the bright red tutor-of-all-things-toddler.

We’re just cocooning for today, looking through musty old boxes of famiy pictures. Sis did the genealogy several years ago, and thus, by her hard work and dedication (she spent a week in Salt Lake City, in those archives which seem to keep track of every single person ever to be born or come settle on American soil)---I have a lot of names to go with the family tales and memories handed down by the older women of the family, especially our Mammaw.

And we’re determined to write some NAMES on the backs of these pictures. There were so few photographed moments in the lives of all these forebear faces captured in black-and-white, some whispering away in places like dissolving smoke, and quite a few faded into sepia. It makes me sad that looking through the dusty boxes leaves me with puzzlement and a gentle pang of regret that so many faces are now unnameable and forgotten.

Perhaps we can link Second Cousin Thelma’s resemblance to her Mama’s face, and name Aunt Laverne by the eyebrows of “The Murdock Side.” I wish, I wish for the foresight to have done this when those who knew them and loved them and grew up as sisters and cousins with them were still able to pick up a photo, give a little whuff of vapor onto bifocals, wipe the lenses on a skirt-hem, and smile a smile of recognition of a face long lost to time.

But we’ve missed that. The window has closed, as have all the eyes which would have brightened in the remembering. With them went the connection of names and faces, and those of us who know them only by family lore and the spidery scribing in the withered Bible---we look at the women who were young and slim and full of life, and wish we’d known them. And more, we wish we knew them now---who they are, and how we're related to them.

So we’re visiting with a lot of people, both kin and friend, with a scatter of funeral flowers, my mother in her cap and gown, the small square tin likeness, framed in frivolous green vines and bearing the grim visage of Great-Grand Roma---her skimpy skinned-back bun and her downturned mouth reflecting the fashion of the times for old-lady garb and demeanor. And I’ll bet she was WAY on the young side of Fifty.

Sis just jubilantly commented that this is the picture that finally persuaded Mother to let her get her ears pierced, at sixteen. Sis had long wanted to take that next step, as had all her friends, but not until she unearthed the stiff little tintype with the unlikely garnish of little gold hoops flanking the solemn face, and went running to Mother saying “OOOO!! OOOO!! See thissss!” did Mother relent and take her to get the earrings installed.

No history being made today, but a lot remembered and savored, from this far remove in time and recognition. We’ll put names to the ones we can and look regretfully at the rest, and that will have to be enough.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

FIREFLY AND SERENITY

A friend came in the door one day not long ago and presented us with his little treasure trove of DVD's---the entire series, plus the movie, all unexpected and more delicious for the surprise.

He simply said, "You'll LOVE this," and left it at that. We had spoken of "Firefly" a visit or two ago, and I had mentioned that brides on a wedding site had planned whole ceremonies, attire, receptions, honeymoons around the theme, from dustymud costumes to dialogue incorporated into the vows.

And we DID. We loved it. Chris and I spent five mesmerizing evenings aloft in that battlescarred old freighter made of tinkertoys and bolts, when not plummeting to ground in evasive maneuvers and actual crashings. The travels were adventurous, the people fun and mysterious and crabby and poignant and heroic by turns, the clothing and the language of another time far ago in our own world.


We were just carried away into the skies of the THEN and the THERE, friend to these remarkable people, enjoying their banter and their quirks, their dependence on each other and their fierce defense of their own territories and of each other. The battles and flights and odd worlds and villains and heroes were all exciting, but still peripheral to the moments around the communal table, the togetherness, the talk and the nourishment of bodies and souls in that one spot of illumination midst all the dark surrounds. They sat and ate, laughed and teased, toasted and remembered, insulated from all the cold dark in that one warm golden place lit by primitive means, holding all they could call their own.

They were a family, with branches so oddly different and yet so kin, tasting the hard-gained food, gaining strength from each other. The little decorations round the walls, the rough-hewn table, the dim recesses of the room blocked out by the lamplight---that was home for a time, and was warmth and light and kinship.

The acceptance of companions, of the make-do of the food, of the circumstances--those are the origins and the reinforcements of the unity and the loyalty which our NOW-world could stand to emulate. Shelter and food and companions---those have been the Grail sought by countless generations since we huddled over cave-fires. Clothing those blessings in elegance and luxury, in exotic tastes and savors, in boundless travels and abundance--that's available today.


Seeing the same necessities projected far into a future we won't inhabit, one that's still filled with so much seeking for the Good and the Right and the Beautiful---that's a wonderful thing to imagine and a bright legacy to hope for.

Monday, July 13, 2009

PASSAGES

I don't know how many of you follow in the "Comments" section, but one reader is often checking in, adding her sweet Southern voice to the conversations.

Tonja, whom I met when I also chose the name "GATHERINGS" for the name of my blog, lost her Mother yesterday, very suddenly and unexpectedly. My heart goes out to her family, and I send her my deepest sympathy and prayers for all of them in this time of sorrow and of celebration of a wonderful, well-lived life.


The love and respect for her Mother came through in all Tonja's writing, and her words showed the true depths of their loving relationship. I wish her comfort and peace. and know the memories are full and wonderful.

One of her many loving tributes is here:

http://tonjasgatherings.blogspot.com/

Sunday, July 12, 2009

SUNDAY

We've got COMPANY COMIN'!! Little Sis will be here tomorrow. . .


And so began the great long post that I sent sometime around noon. Nothing came up but the title, and I hope this little snip will at least let you know I tried, and will try to make time this week to post during her visit. I hope she'll get me all in gear to post pictures easily and find some other places, and generally get acquainted with all the bells and whistles that this space affords.

I look at all the beautiful blogs, with effortless pictures and three screens and "click here" taking me to magical places, and I just blush with ignorance.

Anyway, I'll try.

Until----moire non,

Saturday, July 11, 2009

SOUND AND FURY

We read. A lot, all of us---we’re constantly immersed in other places and other times and outlandish events and sweeping feats and heroism and silliness. Our bookshelves overflow---I look at the months' accumulation of paperbacks lying sidesaddle atop the neat, upstanding rows and immediately start stripping down the numbers---somehow my avarice for the page is eclipsed by the sheer mass of them. I can’t understand how that tipping of the scale from can’t-get-enough to need-the-clearing-of-spaces-no-matter-what comes to be. One day, we’re just all comfy and surrounded by all our dear things; the next, looking at the skewed and piled and over-running shelves brings on the urge to cull and remove.

The new-boughts go to the swap-it store, the others to Goodwill---only paperbacks, only read ones. I cannot bear to part with any of my beautiful picture books of gardens and kitchens and other folks’ houses in places I’ll never see, of dimensions and décor that I’ll never achieve. But they’re interesting and fun and restful, somehow, for an hour in the arbor with iced tea, or a sunny morning in the little upstairs alcove with its plants and windows and welcoming cuddle of soft chairs. Great towers of them huddle beneath the pillowed bench, a neat stack serves as resting place for a teacup and lamp, and they are as much furniture as words.

There are books that I return to, time after time---Austen and Christie and Doyle and Burke and the childhood favorites. I still have shelves of Stephen King, but haven't opened one in years---there's enough going on in life; there's no need to seek out an intentional "BOO!" to flutter our days.


For years I read Gone with the Wind every other Summer, and Dickens was saved for a Winter read; all that roast goose and chilblains and those high-necked coats with cravats big as life-vests---those NEED a nip in the air to be real.

And I always saved Faulkner’s books for Summertime---it set the stage somehow, calling for heat and the dust rising in little tornado-spirals over the cottonfields. To get the true flavor of his words, you need to sweat some, sleeving off your upper lip with a scrape against your arm before you turn the page. Way before I was of age to delve into the grim happenings of Yoknapatawpha, I would disappear into the backyard, up a tree, or hide out in my favorite spot inside our boxwoods, soaking in the dust and depravations, drinking in the sin.


I never met Mr. William, but I do remember visiting Mr. John, who was unpacking a bunch of his paintings, which had just come back from a show in Paris. They were all nailed into neat boxes made of pale lumber, and the smell of pine as he and my friend pulled out the nails and removed the screws equated to the turpentine that we used as a paint thinner. Somehow in my young mind, I expected the paintings to be dripping still, and perhaps smearable, as the men removed their resiny armor and set them against walls around the room.

And even then, I found the pictures to be rather kindergartenish, much like the fingerpaint stuff turned out by a Vacation Bible School class, with primitive round exaggerations of scarf-covered Mammyheads amongst the brilliant greens and white dobs of the cottonfields. I found them tacky and trite, even at that young age, and wished a better depiction of where I had always lived.

I stood a long time, however, before the one I remember as all black, though it couldn't have been. I finally sat down before it on the hardwood floor, and just became immersed in the representation of an older black man, lying in bed---presumably dead or dying, as his angelself rode a mule up a golden-lighted incline toward a glowing cross on a hill. You could almost hear the swells of Sweet Chariot.


But I haven't read Faulkner in years, though some days during the rush and scramble of everyone in and out and meals to cook and the garden beginning its whimpers for attention and watering and its fix of Miracle Gro, I get the distinct feeling that great manic puppeteers have been assigned to pull the strings to control our days, to yank us along in a Howdy-Doody quick-step, tripping us over air.

And I think mine's Benjy Compson.

Friday, July 10, 2009

R. I. P. POPEYE

Our little Grand who stays with us a lot will be two in a few days, and her Mama has been wanting to retire her pacifier from use. And for some time now, Our Girl has been calling it “Popeye.”

We’ve gone through quite a few in her two years---pink ones and Purdue ones and those emblazoned with the blue “COLTS” shoe; a Santa one and a diamond ring one, and even one with her own pair of Bubba Teeth showing---quite fitting, as her parents are sporting a set in one of their formal wedding photos.

As am I, sorry to say---I just lost all reason. I’d been working on the reception food for 200 for days, had had the kitchen co-opted by the tile crew the week before, THEN I painted the kitchen while all the appliances were out of it (more convenient?---what was I THINKING?). Plus we had houseguests for that week, and I was just plumb slap-dab wore out when I got into that dress and those pantyhose.

They made a lot of pictures beforehand, and I was just sagging, with all the supervising of the kitchen left to do. So, when they called me up for pictures, they stood one on each side of me, DS whipped a pair of the teeth out of his pocket and handed them to me, I popped them in, and for all eternity, we smiled into the lens. I can only plead the insanity of being plumb tuckered out and perhaps had just slap lost my mind.

(My Sis took pictures home with her, and passed them around to her friends as the Bride, the Groom, and their Mother).

Today as BabyGirl went down for her one o’clock nap, I could hear her talking to herself and it, and then a bit of consternation as she lost it. I have rescued countless Popeyes from beneath beds, carseats, and various furniture. I’ve rambled in purses and bags and stroller-seats and the floors of cars, touching who-knows-what detritus and crumbs for the sake of that Popeye (Passy) (Nonny) (Foi-foi). So I went up, retrieved it from beneath the bed, handed it over, and she sagged into sleep.

As she came downstairs from her nap, we set out the potty seat atop the toilet and she took her perch. A moment later, waving the Popeye was her undoing. PLOP! It went, right down the chute into the water. We looked big-eyed at each other, and bemoaned the tragedy. We got her dressed, looked mournfully at Popeye one last time, then I lured her out to watch “Ernie” for a moment while I donned a rubber glove and wadded Popeye to his final resting place into a paper towel, thence into the kitchen garbage.

We went back, peered down into the paper-filled water (anybody ever get a little one to sit there a minute without five handfuls of paper going into the bowl?), flushed, and lamented the passing of an old friend.

Smart salute (woebegone “bye-bye” and forlorn wave) as we flushed Popeye away, with the wavery soprano (me) notes of “Taps” in the background. (Actually, I sport a pretty formidable baritone---weird, huh?---but soprano seemed more apt. And wavery because it’s hard to hit the high notes in such a moment).


We did everything but fold a flag, but after many a farewell and a last wave, we came bravely out to rejoin “Ernie” for a little bit of comfort. She and her Ganner are out blowing bubbles now, and I suppose that’s apropos, as well, that symbol of lifting in flight and winking out from human view.

And so Popeye is gone forever. Seems fitting somehow---Burial at Sea.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

TWO HUNDRED

Two hundred posts---this Sunday will be eight months---since I took the leap into throw-it-out-there blogging, sending my thoughts and words out to who-knows-where, and November now seems eons gone, and yesterday-fresh.

These words and stories have been received by nothing but kindness; each day brings a pageful of bright flags from nations unvisited save through sending out little snippets of the everyday moments which make up our days. And never have the words been greeted with aught save kinship and welcome. The “followers” are few, and I look on those faces every day with gratitude and respect and welcome of my own, thinking of their taking out a moment to look in, to peek into the windows of our lives here, to walk across the mat and settle into the sitting room or lawn chair for tea and a friendly chat.

And I thank them. I say a heart-deep Thank You to each and every one who has stepped into these pages, for a tiny glimpse, for a fleeting moment, for a settle-in with a Saturday-to-spare immersion. That’s a wonderful thing, a compliment whose import I cannot express, wordy though I am.

The boxes and reams and overflowing closet of midnight words and daily tellings have always been written for ME, somehow, with only family and a friend or two privy to the tales; and now, with this newfound medium, there’s a bringing-out of old thoughts and memories, a dipping-back into the well of the old writings, as well. There's also an unaccustomed wideness to it, a vast unknown to the sharing that is gratifying in a deep way, and scary as all get out, as well.

I just cannot tell you how much the interest and the comments and the mere stopping-by mean to me, for it’s akin to being visited every day by friends, old and new. And that’s a wonderfully happy thing, the bright moments of meeting new folks and re-kindling old friendships.

Your welcome and your words, your interest and your loyal following---I cannot imagine a greater compliment, a greater gift. And for the Two Hundredth Time: Thank you. Thank You from my heart.