Monday, March 30, 2009
And of course, I'd like to return to Scotland. I'd dreamt of going all my life, and had wished to breathe the Highland air just once.
And it was exactly as I had hoped and wished for all my life---misted mountains, deep-gray lochs with hidden, mysterious depths, the heather a rusty shadow all across the hillsides, just before the Summer bloom. I took off my shoes as I stepped down for the first time, in reverence for that mystical place.
We heard grim tales and heroic ventures; we tasted haggis and a wee dram at a musical evening of bagpipes and drums; we heard the mournful wail of “Massacre at Glencoe,” played by the composer---one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard, and a master of the accordion. Even still sitting at the dinner table, I had to catch a tear or two in the big red linen napkin. We saw sites of battles, the Stone of Scone, the Royal Sceptre and Crown hidden and found and claimed again, heard tales of victories and wild men and triumphs of old times.
I read a lovely line just before we went, and had my daughter Caro inscribe it for me in the front of the journal she had given me for Christmas, before we even knew that we were going---it was a tan book with a shadowy picture of Stonehenge on the front. The words were the words of someone going to Scotland:
To the land of moorland, lochs and mountains, where the old gods ride the winds.
So I went, and so I loved it, and someday hope to return. I wanted the full experience, trudging the hills with a staff, stout-laced boots, and a pocket sandwich, to look down from the highlands into a loch at sunrise, but we bus people settled for a lot of looking and seeing and hearing of the rich history of the place.
And now, the longing overtakes me now and again, and I'm hoping to go in the soonness of time. I have the boots, but I suppose I'll have to buy the staff when I get there. Perhaps if I plunge it strongly into that hilly, historied earth, it may sprout into a tree that will remember my name.
Chris grabbed a pack of English muffins at Sam's yesterday, asking, "These ARE what you make Eggs Benedict with, aren't they?" hint hint.
So as he slept in this morning, I cooked a pot of thick grits with butter and crumbled Queso Fresca and a few grinds of the peppermill.
I skillet-toasted two split muffins with another similar skillet as a top weight, making them crisp and buttery-brown. These then went top-up into the top skillet to keep warm whilst I gently seared four slices of ham steak, cut to sort of fit the muffins. It went atop the muffins so they could soak up its salty, rich hammy juices.
This is not your usual dainty epicure's Benedict---it's a hearty, thick-hammed, crisp-muffined, runny-yolked marvel, a sort of BUBBA Benedict, and I wish you all could have sat down with us.
I had earlier made a double-recipe of Julia's Hollandaise (the one that she stresses is MUCH easier made by hand than in a blender, with all that pesky blade-cleaning and pouring, etc.). Being the old Southern cook that I am, and having made the sauce "by heart" since I got the book back in the 70's, I took liberties and added in an extra tablespoon of lemon juice, and a bit of that old Delta standby, "Kye-YINN" pepper.
Jumbo eggs went into the ham fat, were carefully turned for just an instant on the second side, then gently slid onto the glistening warm ham slices. We'd been sipping Strawberry/Banana smoothies from frosted goblets, then sat down to the lovely warm eggs and ham and muffins, with a gravy-boat of Julia's delightful sauce, to be ladled on and made even more deliciously golden by yolkrun and ham-nearness.
We chatted and ate and sipped, befitting a cozy weekend morning, as Aaron Neville sang softly in the background. Memorable breakfast.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
We went to our local Golden Corral for a relaxed Saturday-evening dinner, and had quite a nice meal---I was in the mood for some good baked ham, and they haven't had it in quite a while. Tonight they did, so I had a lovely slice, with some marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, some stalks of perfectly-steamed broccoli, and a bowl of papaya and cottage cheese.
We talked long and leisurely, then had dessert: Red velvet cake and a squeeze from the frozen custard dispenser for him; brownie pie in a tiny individual crust for me. Lovely, fudgy, home-cooked taste, like the fudge on the Hershey's box.
We always people-watch, and tonight was no exception---we saw nice little families, enjoying a night out together, couples who talked animatedly, others which could have each been alone at the kitchen table, eating their solitary meal. We also always make sure to speak to the manager, for he's a kind fellow, quite jovial and courteous and just the perfect host, with quite possibly the second-worst haircut in the Northern Hemisphere.
It's always there, and I try not to look---he's quite a large man, tall and imposing, impeccably groomed and really nice-looking, but for that hair. It's always shorn WAY high, with the back neckline up almost to the top of his ears, no sideburns at all, and all the rest mowed into what would be High&Tight, were he a military man.
And tonight, I didn't see him til we were leaving---as we got near the door, I leaned into Chris' side, pretended to have a romantic little moment whispering in his ear, cheek to cheek, and we headed out. What I'd said was, "Tell me he doesn't look like that porcupine boot-scraper we had several years ago."
And he did, bless his heart---his hair was at the brush-stage, still shorn way high, but long enough to sorta bounce when he walked, and he looked for all the world like the little metal porcupine fellow with the BIG round brush for quills which sat at the back door for years.
And as we stepped out the door and round the corner toward the car, not a soul was in the parking lot, just a sea of cars, and about twenty feet in front of us on the pavement, was a pair of mallards, walking away. I called out softly, "Maurice!! Velveeta!! Come on, Come on!"
They turned and walked right up to my feet. It was all I could do not to go back in and grab a hunk of cornbread from the bread trolley. We rode away, looking back at that incongruous little couple, waddling toward the pond through that twilight parking lot.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
THEN, the crowds grew, and we had to go to the used bread store for enough to keep them fed, and they brought their babies in little bobby lines, and our lawn began to take on the look of a lakeside latrine. We tried stopping the feeding sessions. They gathered, muttered to themselves---probably dark and dire things about US, then began a clamor that the neighbors could hear, I’m sure. Radio Free Europe could have heard THAT lot.
So we gave in on the bread, and hosed down the lawn twice a day, for we knew we'd be moving soon. When we moved to the third-floor apartment over by the lake, they STILL gathered under our balcony, and we’d Frisbee bread down, especially when the lake was frozen, so they’d have something to go in their little bellies.
But while we were still on the ground floor, I would go out and sit on the patio with my earliest cup, while the birds gathered. There were probably sixty or seventy by then, all mingled with some white ones which had been there from when the place was built. One morning, as I sat on the concrete, a white one appeared in the crowd, and got fairly near me. I could see a big tangle of fishing line all curled and snarled around one leg, so I coaxed him nearer with some bread. He got right up to my lap, so I stepped on the line and hugged him with both arms.
He went into squawk-and-flap mode, with me struggling to get up off the concrete with my arms full of irate duck. I went in yelling for Chris, who came running to the clamor, stark naked and soaking wet, just out of the shower and thinking marauders had me.
We DID get the duck into the house for the snipping of all that cord, and I’m sure somewhere there’s a Candid Camera crew bewailing the fact that they missed out on the sight of two hefty middle-aged folks, one wet and naked, the other hanging on for dear life and laughing hysterically, cutting 15-pound test off the leg of a frantic, squawky, flappy duck.
She had apparently come down the chimney and provided jump-and-chase amusement for those two for quite some time. I gently picked her up and took her outside, where she slowly waddled over to the field and took off. I went back in, tearing off my itchy clothes, ran into my bathroom and reached for the faucet-handle.
My lovely tub was smeared with duck poop in several places, and right in the middle of the tub, my coveted bottle of REAL Shalimar perfume---the pretty bottle with the elegant glass fan for a stopper---was on its side in several pieces, with that glorious scent filling the room.
I said several particularly nice words, gathered up the glass, scrubbed the tub--I’d have bathed in the perfume, but the glass and poop ruled that out---and as I knelt there in my bra and underpants, flinging the Comet---hot, sweaty, swearing under my breath and wanting my bath, something in my wastebasket caught my eye. I had had a Tab as I dressed for work that morning, and had stuck the can upside down into the wastebasket. And nestled in the hollow aluminum bottom was a little round pinkish egg.
I cannot imagine how that lady duck managed to elude cat and dog long enough to leave me that little tribute, nor how she managed to perch her hiney up there just right to lay that egg. And I don’t think the kids would have believed me if not for that odd little egg, pink and round and with a glow like porcelain.
I blew it out and washed it and kept it for years.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
We raised mallards once. On the lawn. My Dad had ordered a hundred babies from one of those mail-you-poultry places when my children were very young, and as soon as he could tell drake from hen, he brought us two boys and four girls. They were great pets, waddling around all the acreage, wading in the little stream formed by forty years of erosion outside the pumphouse.
They were beautiful creatures, those iridescent green heads gleaming in the sunlight, quite companionable and conversational, gathering at the porch steps several times a day and awaiting a treat. I'd always cook extra pancakes at breakfast, cut them into neat bites, then go out and sit on the steps, holding out bite after bite on a fork, as each one came up and took a dainty selection. They didn't push, they didn't squawk or flap, and except for their naturally-untidy bathroom habits, they seemed to be the perfect pets; even the dozen or so seasoned old bird dogs would just open a lazy eye at the little flock, sigh gently, and go back to sleep.
They nested that first Summer, and came parading around from the outbuildings, leading a line of tiny yellow puffs on stick legs along right up to those big-jawed hounds. They were precious little things, following in their straight line behind Mama, ducking into the grass for a bug, paddling their tiny feet across the stream---they were small enough to swim in it, and I wondered what they thought when the stream got too shallow for their growing legs.
Then those sweet, poufy babies grew up to be big old quacky squawky ducks, eating their weight in cracked corn, stealing the Purina Chow right out of the mouths of the dogs, and leaving their gooey calling cards from pillar to post, right up on the porch. Especially on the porch, if I were eight minutes past daylight getting out there with their breakfast.
And after several years, our flock was reaching mammoth proportions, luring in stragglers from their flight pattern every now and then, and multiplying to more than Daddy's ninety-four. So we decided, since his flock had not fared too well in the wild environs of the lake, falling prey to turtles and foxes and other wildlife, we'd just make the sacrifice and give him all of ours. We loaded them into cages and boxes and a few went into the far back seat of the three-seater station wagon. (Hum a little Chevalier here: "Thank Heavvvven, for vinyl SEEEEATS. . .") Away we went for the twenty-mile journey, our progress heralded by mutters and quacks, and our trek through the towns between was a cause of much pointing and hilarity.
Especially the ducks being chauffeured in style. Two of them were vainly trying to flap-balance atop the back seat, and one hen fell astraddle for a while, her wildly flapping wings and can't-get-a-grip slick duckfeet giving her the look of a ride-em-cowboy rodeo star. Another brown little beauty had made her way into the far back window, and sat cuddled nest-fashion, greeting passersby like one of those little Ken-haired noddy dogs.
They'd been in a couple of our farm ponds, but when they saw that lake, they'd gone to Heaven. They all took off, skimming the fields like dive-bombers, hitting that water with the force of a bellyflop diver. And they were home.
For years after, I'd go out and visit "my" birds carrying a big bag of stale bread loaves---making a detour past the camphouse kitchen for a glass plate and a fork. A step to the end of the dock, a few quick clinks of fork to plate, and a great flurry of waterfowl would come from all bends and curves of the shoreline, making their way to the familiar call. I could always tell which ones had been ours---they'd swim up to my feet, then walk right up onto my lap, accepting their bites from the fork, just like when they were babies.
and moire non . . .
Monday, March 23, 2009
When I was a very young child, all my friends played "doll" or "school" or various run-and-shout games...I organized counters and dishes and pretend cookstoves and skillets, channeling Miss Marthy right and left, sending this one out to gather grass, that one to pick up acorns from which we separated the tops into little bowls and cups, and another for the best, cleanest mud and sand for ingredients. We would mix and stir and bake, then decorate cakes and pies and cookies beyond the imaginations of Duff and the Charm City squad.
My Mammaw sent everybody home the day she caught us sitting with little bowls in our laps, painstakingly shelling the almost-microscopic little "peas" from the slender hanging pods of her precious cleome bed. We sucked honey-suckle blossoms for the nectar, raided plum thickets and blackberry rambles, held buttercups under our chins, and could not be warned away from the hive-filled wall which adjoined the dining room in her tiny house. Bees had moved into that old clapboard wall years before, and you could see the ins and outs of all the workers, entering and leaving by way of several holes in the siding. The room also held my bed for when I visited, and the hum of the hive was as lulling as a waterfall. All that never-ending activity, carried on for ages out of time, just a bead-board away as I nestled down---there was a gentle soothe to it that no music and no magic machines can convey.
I always wanted the adults to "raid" the honeycomb, but we never did, and when I was a teenager, they tore down the house in order to build my grandparents a new one on the site. I was on a trip with my class, and missed the whole thing!!
I could, however, "charm" a bee into letting me take her back outside, away from the siren-call of the lightbulb at the end of its long ceiling-string. My Grandpa would cup his hand upside down near the frantically-buzzing bee pressing her backside to the lethally-hot bulb, slowly slide it up and between her and the light, close his fist softly, and release her out into the night air.
I was determined to learn to do that, so I practiced every time I went to visit, if there were a bee in the room, sometimes precariously standing on a chair to reach the light. He said, "You just have to think hard how much you love that bee." It worked, and I released several of my own over the years. He could also do that with a wasp, but no way on this earth could I ever love a wasp THAT much.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Words are some of the most powerful things on the planet. They have such power to soothe or wound, it’s sometimes difficult for me to wield them in a THIS MOMENT time frame.
In a face-to-face, I’m geared to the pleasant, the mundane, the light-hearted banter, and the attempt to give a person right there the part of me and of my thoughts is as apt to send me groping for Kleenex as to be a memorable moment shared. Trying to speak of my admiration or love or joy in another being is likely to reduce me to blubbery mumbles; part of my heart is much more easily surrendered in the putting on the page—even arm’s length is sometimes too close for the REAL to emerge.
The reams and boxes and files and shelves of my midnight meanderings through thoughts and dreams and hopes and gritty actuals and FEELINGS may stand as Testament to who I am, who I hope to become, and the WE of me which made me so. I try to think of my family, sitting over coffee or cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by boxes filled with the sheaves of my thoughts of them, reading and dropping the square white leaves in a growing carpet, picking up the next---learning much, laughing more, holding in their hands my love for them. I want them to know ME and the things I cannot express save in print, so I give them what I have.
Saying “I love you,” to end a phone conversation is as natural as the next breath; saying whole sentences of worth and meaning and feelings closes my airways and makes me cloggy with coming tears. WHY is it so hard to say the littlest things, the most important things? Especially to the ones who mean most.
But I’m working at it; I tremble, I gasp, I blurt. Even in second-hand emotions, watching the screen-life stories of strangers playing other ever-far-removed strangers, I hide behind my hand or uplifted arm, lest someone see the tear-trickle signal of sympathy or sadness. And isn’t that sad? Isn’t it silly?
As my parents’ lives-before-me were in my mind lived in the sepia tones huddled between stiff album pages, I have an idea that a lot of my family’s memories of me will be in the black-and-white of the written page, poured out ever more freely because there was no hesitation, no pause.
But I’m working hard to do the NOW, without relying on the gate between, the wait-a-minute remove called “SEND.”
Now HE'S written me and said how much they both enjoy the stuff---I'm the cushy Grandma of the group, the Southern Voice, in all its permutations, and I've chattered on about everything from fried chicken to Church Suppers to squirrels to great long descriptions of family gatherings and little moments we've shared. He says they talk at dinner about our little family doings and the old times I remember, and read things to each other.
He e-mailed to ask would it be OK if he put a trip to our city into her Christmas Stocking, with a stay at a B&B, and a couple of days for us to meet and visit. What a wonderful, charming compliment, for someone to think that, merely from words on a page. And she's not looking at me as a Mom, so to speak; she has a perfectly wonderful one of her own, whom she praises and speaks of lovingly and proudly. I do believe I might look on her as another daughter, and think she'll fit right into our comfy clan.
And she seems delighted, so we'll be meeting after Easter. We chose a B&B for them, not too far from our house, mainly for the lovely house and beautiful gardens, which Chris and I just toured this sunny afternoon. We strolled the leafless paths of stone and wood and mulch, and crossed a bridge with a rippling stone watercourse flowing beneath; the pond with its bullfrog fountain tinkled merrily as we passed, and the trees and shrubs held the ripe promise of quick leafing and full bud soon to come.
I know they’ll enjoy their visit there, and hope that they will find our home as warm as the welcome in our hearts for these newfound friends, as we’re known only to each other through the Internet thus far. We have not heard each others’ voices, have not smiled into each others’ eyes, have not hugged in joy at first meeting.
And I don't want her to be disappointed, not in place and time and circumstance, and certainly not in ME. So I've been reading back and back into the things I’ve written, hoping that I've not put anything out there that's too flowery or plumped-up to meet expectations. I'm really looking forward to this, as she's a sweet, kind young woman who shares my love of family and friends, of meals around the family table, of little silly moments with the Grandchildren and memories of my own childhood in the hot, small-ltown South.
I think the visit will bring home the REAL of it, the ME of it, the true aspect of the warts-and-all, the dark, cloudy moments of some days, and the home-is-wonderful/home-is-refuge persona of my self. I'll be telling her a lot more before her visit, of the low times not mentioned, but perhaps I should save those confidings for the afternoons of iced-tea-in-the-arbor, whilst the menfolk are off doing man things to give us ladies some time to visit.
I’d love to be totally out there, totally exposed and naked and pure, with all my moments and days---even the drift from bright quicker than thought, and the return slow and stubborn.
I think the writing of the good times, with too much flower to it, too much lace, flows much easier than the dark, and there is the dark. Not shruggable, not shaking off the droplets from the tips of your hair as you emerge from the pool, not snap-out-of-it---I neither fear nor dread the telling, but I hope I haven't built a house I can't stand in.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Those were the days in which "This is where I came in," was a popular phrase, for there were no official entry or exit times---you tried to be there for the first show on Saturday, but it might not start til thirty or so minutes after the opening of the doors. And you could stay in your seat, with no interruption in the entertainment, til the lights came on and you blinked your way through the carpet's snowfall of popcorn after the final "The End."
First there came the previews, the cartoons (Heckle and Jeckle were my favorites---I loved their picnics, and thought that EVERY picnic should feature a whole roast chicken, a loaf of unsliced bread, a wine bottle, and some fruit spilling out of the basket onto the checkered cloth on the ground). Then there was the serial---where the word "cliff-hanger" was coined---and then Movietone News, perhaps a Believe it or Not, and sometimes little slides for a local business or charity or school meeting. Then the Saturday feature, always a Western. Sometimes a Double Feature, which WAS, as my Mammaw said, "Too much sugar for a dime."
You could come in at any time, leave at any time, stay til dark unless your Mama came and dragged you out; Mamas DID that in those days---daylight and dustmotes would blast through the door and a large form would hesitate, squinting til eyesight adjusted, then go and retrieve her offspring, whether in the exciting part or not. Some, especially younger siblings of the movie crowd, would just stand in the door and bellow to equal Tarzan's own yell, for Martha Jewel or Billy Clyde to get theirselfs out there---Daddy had the truck cranked.
The country folk would sometimes make their way through each and every store on "Main Street"---before we even had street names---and just pass the time of day, or pay on their bill, or put a little on their layaway.
Now everybody zips everywhere every day, but it was the custom to work hard dawn to dusk on weekdays, and the ladies would do their baking or dessert making or whatever their Saturday chores were, wash their hair, and almost every woman in town on Saturday had her head tied up Aunt Jemima-fashion in a pretty scarf or “Head-rag,” as they were called---the one where they loop it on from the back and tie the ends into little wings up front, usually tucking them down into the edges.
Like Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, if I remember aright.
The ones who looked funniest to me, and I wondered at their lack of concern for their tacky appearance, were the ones who left uncovered the rolled-tight little screwed-up curls either with or without bits of white paper, held tight against their scalp by a bobby pin across the little circle like the modern sign for “NO” or “DON’T.” The teenage girl next door did hers that way, in cigarette papers which she bought out of her own babysitting money---she could get two weeks' rollings out of one pack.
From a distance, they looked like bald guys in dresses, with no fluff of hair showing around their heads. But they looked lovely with their shining coifs in church the next morning.
I had three standing chores on most Saturdays of the year: Mow the lawn, wash the car, and polish all the shoes. The first two could be done in full view of the main road in and out of town, and I and they got a good look and sometime some winks and shouts as the pickups full of rowdy country kids passed. Polishing the shoes was the late-afternoon chore, manning that bottle of Sani-White for my baby Sister's high-top learn-to-walks and my own saddles or sandals, depending on the season. The browns and blacks were shined with the familiar scent of the little round Kiwi can and old wool socks for buffing. Only AFTER that was finished did I do my weekly manicure.
We all had little fancy-dance manicure sets, with clippers and buffers and files and an orange-wood stick, which I never DID get the hang of---that thing HURT, and I could do my OWN cuticles much better. I got nine manicure sets for high school graduation gifts---probably a town record.
I also usually made the Sunday dessert on Saturday afternoon, while Mother washed and set her own hair---she'd earned quite a few dollars of her own, "setting" the hair of all the neighbor ladies when she was a teenager. They'd come at their usual time, with their hair washed and turbaned atop their heads in a towel, and she'd roll or marcel their hair on the front porch, wrapping their heads in scarves or big colorful nets, to dry naturally and be slept on for combing out before church next day.
Those were hard-work days, but quieter somehow, of a more gentle tenor and tempo. The whine and roar of lawnmowers starts at daylight on Summer days now, families are out and about to more sports and school and social obligations than used to be claimed by Society matrons, and we can do most anything at any time we choose. The unusual is everyday, and the special of it is gone, somehow.
I think there's a lot to be said for the old set-aside Saturdays, of lazy hammock days, fishing holes and a double feature shoot-'em-up at the the Hollywood Delight.
Friday, March 20, 2009
There's a new fad I've discovered: Six Word Memoirs. Condense the story of your life, or the memories or the tenor of your days into six words---concise, terse, telling.
All contributions welcome. This is one of mine:
I'VE HAD MORE FUN SINCE FORTY.
I'd love to hear everyone's own resume-in-a-nutshell.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
I heard Loretta Lynn say that once, way back in the beginning years of her career. We had somehow managed to get front-row, on-the-side tickets, and she came out, sang a fast, upbeat opening number, then did that twist-the-mike-cord thing with her hands as she perched herself on a tall stool.
“I’m TARD, Y’all!" she said, “I’ve done picked and put up twelve quarts of butterbeans 'fore I come DOWN here.” I knew then that she’d BE somebody, and that I just loved her.
And, digressing from music stars to a plain day’s work---meeee, too, Loretty!
The past two days have been 1 ½ Glorious. Yesterday was perfection, with wonderful sunshine and lovely seventy-ish temperatures and air like warm water on your skin. We spent the most part of it outdoors, my little Grand and me, taking long walks (me) as she rode in state in her little car with the big plastic push-handle, looking at everything and giving a faultless float-wave now and again. We walked hand-in-hand in leaves and on the sidewalk, and I chased as she fled down the sloping driveway.
We walked around the front, back up the neighbor’s drive, and she was instantly in Heaven---and I was there to witness. This was the first time in her very young life that she found that she could RUN. She's been walking for only about four months, and has been inside most of that time. And now she was on a smooth, unlimited surface, the sun was in her face and the wind in her hair, and she RAN. In circles, with great arm-swoops, and in arcs and straight lines from wherever to where else, and in bustly quick Pamper-switching steps with a huge grin on her face the whole time. She galloped and sprinted and sped those little Dr. Denton’s for two hours, barely pausing for breath. I think she’d learned to FLY, and I was a privileged witness to history.
It went on til her Mama came to retrieve her, and for the first time ever, she was protesting with loud wails as they left the driveway.
And today was the same---glorious sunshine, on a day that every house on the street seemed to have some kind of delivery/repair/paint/cable van out front, us included. So we made frequent forays from back yard to front, to be sure the deliverymen were doing our installations just so and bringing them iced tea. And she ran some more, between long jaunts out to the back garden to ring the big bell, which involves my lifting her up so her feet can stand on the support panels, and holding her upright as she chooses her small rock from the array and clangs away, whilst I man a larger rock, punctuating the little “tings” with a bass note now and then. And then back into her car for stately progression around the block, which she also made with her Ganner about noon, as they walked to the store for bread for our quick lunch.
A teensy nap, and whilst she was sleeping, the rain came. She awoke, ready for MORE of that wonderful fun, and we couldn’t go outside. We played teaparty and dancing, and she brought me “Mr. Joe” more than once (our favorite dancing song is Joe Cocker’s “It’s All Right,” which we play about four times a day; she just this week went and got the CD from the shelf herself, patting his grizzly beard chummily as she walked).
And she just COULDN’T UNDERSTAND why we couldn’t go outside for more of that fun stuff. She pounded down the hall with me in mad pursuit about a dozen times, almost to the room where her Aunt Caro was sleeping, so she could go to work at eight. Baby Girl begged and insisted and whined (an absolute first---she's never been a demanding or willful child, so I was surprised at the insistence). And stunned at the discomfort inflicted by flailing rubber-soled baby-shoes.
I placated, I cajoled, I brought out toys, books, games, pots and pans and dress-up stuff and even a REAL Little Debbie heart-shaped cake, leftover from Valentine’s Day, for the teaparty at which heretofore we’d always imagined the food. I’ve had my hair variously combed with a TV remote, a TEENSY flyswatter inscribed, “ILLINOIS. A HIT EVERY TIME,” and with a stick we picked up out in the yard. We put on jackets and went out into the sprinkle, padded the seat of the little car with a triple-folded towel, and trudged off down the street again. We were still out under the back eaves, damp and pointing out birds and cats, when her Daddy arrived to take her home.
As the saying goes, “There’s a REASON the Lord gives these little whirlwinds to YOUNG folks.” And it was among the most enjoyable two days of my life.
Monday, March 16, 2009
BEANNACHTAI LA FAILE PADRAIG DUIT!
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.
Here, it seems to be quite the thing, the progression from one watering hole to the next, entourage encouraging each other in feats of consumption and capacity, into a late-night fog of lost keys and lost modesty and gaps in both memory and judgement. And then will come the morrow.
But sometime between Last Call and headachy regret, there will come a time when FOOD is required, quantities of it, in great greasy gulps, or in small, meager portions of blandness, just to tame the queasy tummy.
I was the Designated Driver in every instance of my participation in youthful/idiotic revelry, due to my dislike of almost everything alcoholic. In addition to the taste part, I have no capacity at all---two sips of Christmas champagne and I can’t find the kitchen.
So, on all the evenings in which my friends and colleagues could let down their hair and have a good time, I was the sober one, even to the extent of carrying my own very strong tea once in a Crown bottle, enclosed in its snug little purple bag, to a BYOB joint which provided only ice, mixers and enough smoke to blanket a city.
I sat, enjoying the music and dancing and shouted conversation, pouring glass after glass of tea over my ice, until a gentleman who had claimed me for several dances remarked that I had an astounding tolerance for booze. He had watched me drink it straight, an entire bottle of it, and their table was probably making book on the time I would slide under the table. I remember the disappointment on his face as I laughed and told him it was plain old Lipton's. He probably had a Twenty down on 11:30, Bless his Heart.
We had a wonderful after-hours little hole in the wall---a "caffay" attached to a little grimy hotel, a 24-hours on Saturday joint, with two fry cooks, a couple of take-no-prisoners waitresses in rustly nylon dresses, and the best coffee and grits in the area. An aura of bacon and coffee and smoke enveloped us as we strolled through the sticker-encrusted door.
Thin men embracing coffecups squinted up through their hazes and flicked us with a glance. Tiny women in Chic jeans and hairdos wider than their skinny hips trailed clouds of Shalimar as their stilettos toddled on a staggering path toward the rest room near the kitchen. We recognized faces, night-wanderers---the price of a cup their ticket to warmth and a seat, the grudging companionship of a lighted place their haven from whatever demons and cold they were escaping for a time.
Those big old brown coffee mugs would thump onto the table as soon as our rears hit the turquoise vinyl---the brew black and scalding and perfect, the healing steam rising. Fat tumblers of ice water followed, with the sticky syrup pitcher, a big bowl of yellow butter, and a quick swipe at the gunky ketchup lid. A forlorn Tabasco bottle and another of A-1 stood beside the big glass sugar dispenser and the obligatory garnish---a tarnished brassy ashtray with the grays of a thousand grindouts branded into the bottom.
We looked at the grimy menu, for politeness' sake. The little flappy insert announcing Thursday's Liver Special might have been from a Thursday decades in the past, and the liver equally ancient. Waitress waited. Snap of gum, quick grab of pencil from behind ear---poised over pad; an almost audible tap of impatient Dr. Scholl's. We ordered: Steak and eggs for the hearty contingent, a Denver for me, a simple bowl of grits for Mary, whose ulcers were profound and burps legendary---she was a size 2, but could bellow forth eructations to blanch the faint of heart.
We'd sit and wind down the evening, breathing shallow breaths of the smoke-laden air, wondering whyever we came back to this dingy place. But the omelet was magnificent, a golden pillow laden with perfectly-cooked peppers and bits of still-crisp sweet onion, little dices of ham and great strings of good hearty cheese. The biscuits were high and brown and fluffy; grits were velvety, and the coffee, as above, perfect.
There are hangover cures and there are munchies and there are midnight forays into the depths of an uncertain fridge.
But what you want is Breakfast.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
We've been looking for a long time---ever since we moved here, our South-spoiled palates expecting that everywhere must know about barbecue, must have been raised on that tender, smoke-kissed wonder that is Pit cooking. We enter shiny, formica-gleaming places with pig faces peeking from the walls; we seek out the plume of smoke from streets, parking lots, four blocks over, following our noses and our hopes like treasure maps.
Screeky doors beckon, as we slide gingerly into grubby booths, our shoes scritching on the sticky floor; we order and we crave and we settle. Several times, we've been rewarded by singular beans or properly-tender meat or the amalgam of near-magic in the sauce, but the expectations outwear the results. I count myself too persnickety, too choosy, longing too much for the tastes of Home which are too much enhanced, elevated to an unattainable plane by time and absence.
The very first Summer we were here, our apartment complex invited all the residents to a gathering with bright promises of a PIG ROAST on a Saturday in May. The group assembled out on the little sports area for the celebration, which consisted of a volleyball game (four participants), a frisbee toss (one frisbee, two tossers), horseshoes, and the pig roast. Signs and letters-under-the-door were put out a couple of weeks in advance for Saturday noon, and quite a few of us accepted.
We were greeted by our "hostess"---the manager of the complex, an overbright, always smiling young woman whose never-failing demeanor was that of a speed-enhanced cruise director. She chirped and enthused and smiled with every tooth and sent us off toward the enticing scents of Smoke.
They had hired a professional for the pig cooking part, a nice young man who wheeled up with his big barrel-shaped grill/roaster and set up shop just where the enticing smells would greet us at 5 a.m. and send trails of hypnotic aromas through the open window for HOURS before party-time. We coulda floated from home to the spot with our feet off the ground, noses trapped in that smoke-trail like Pepe le Pew.
Being from the South, and transported to Indiana, we hadn't had really good pit BBQ in quite some time. At noon, we walked down the block, following our noses to the wonderful aromas and beer-inspired laughter and chatter. For the thirty or so of us gathered, the half pig lying atop the grillbars looked quite adequate. As the party progressed, that pig could have joined the loaves and fishes and fed thousands.
The chefs wrestled the stiff form of the half-pig up onto a big board and started slicing; a line formed. We stood expectantly, inhaling the fumes of rich, smoky porkiness like pilgrims breathing the air of sanctity. We held our plates, watching as the first crusty slices met plate and were carried away to the buffet for the requisite sides of potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans.
Then, after the first dozen or so people had received their servings, there was a whispered conversation between the chefs, as the several guests remaining in line in front of us started to mutter amongst themselves. We craned forward to see, and our eyes met a disappointing, break-the-heart-of-the-hungry sight: the pig was bleeding. Not just pink-rare juice-running, but bleed, seeping out between the knifemarks and flowing out onto the huge cutting board. I don't know if the chef was on his first run, or the fire was not regulated correctly, or the timing not calculated correctly. It was AWFUL---the bleeding armadillo cake in Steel Magnolias leapt to mind.
The chefs managed to carve around and snip off pieces which were tender and edible; they did serve everyone who was in line, but after having our lunch manicured off a practically-raw carcass, we were just out of the mood. We took a couple of bites of the crackly skin---tasty, but the UGH was already implanted.
We said our thank-yous and headed home to make a sandwich. But the finale was the buffet---as we stopped to thank the hostess, I watched as she refilled the three "serving dishes" with potato salad, slaw, and baked beans straight from cold grocery-store deli quarts.
I had to look twice for the actual images to register. The three square yellow containers on the buffet next to the open cellophane packs of buns all had the word "CRISPER" in script on the little silver margin at the top. Familiar, yes. There was one just like them in the bottom of the fridge in every apartment.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
One of the "extras" we chose was a dinner at one restaurant several blocks from our hotel. We were left off by the bus in the still-sunny afternoon, and ushered up a narrow, ancient stairway with creaks to befit a tomb; the finger-polished banister was worn smooth as butter, and the Juliet-window of the dining room upstairs opened over a busy patio below, filled with great quantities of the loud, tattooed, pierced young whose music and voices somehow did not waft up to the second story.
We were alone there, the twenty or so of us, around an “L-ish” table that snaked through the room; the wall décor was evidently hand-applied, with fleurs-de-lis and heads of lions plastered no-two-alike, on each of the four walls. Candlelight and stiff, rustly napery and heavy gleaming silver made the table a picture from any age.
There were glorious cheeses, fresher-than-fresh vegetables, breads so fresh from the big brick oven that you could smell the yeast of the next pans rising. Heavy meats, but wonderful, I remember, and the lamb was a sprouty little topiary of rosemary sprigs. No one ever heard of calories or carbs, as attested by one dish of "Champ" or Champit potatoes, which are a lovely mash with great lashings of sauteed green onions, heavy stand-a-spoon-in cream, all served with a great hole in the middle, into which goes about a cup of butter to melt and run all down through the dish with each subsequent dip of the spoon.
The dessert cart was a marvel, with very dainty offerings, as well as good heavy cakes and more of that marvelous cream on everything. I chose a slice of orange torte, and it was the essence, the distillation, of all great oranges and their sun-heavy juices and zests--orange mousse and orange layers and whipped cream rosettes with candied peel. The server whacked into that beautiful cake like beheading an escaping fish, wedging off a great slice worthy of any king's table.
The quivering chocolate mousse-cake was so tempting, and what the heck, we were only there once, so we shared a slice of that, as well. And the breads were all heavy, moist, buttery-delicious. One loaf was like an immense scone, filled with currants and sultanas and peel, sliced in half like a big shortcake, to be filled with another half-pound of butter and---thick cream.
The room and the dim lighting, with the scent of aged wood and candle-flicker and draperies of another age---the whole aura of the place took us to a former time, of great houses with staffs of hundreds and entertaining on a grand scale a matter of daily life. Our walk through the crowd downstairs had assaulted our ears with the booming music of the patio speakers and the shrieks and laughter and loud talk of a jolly bar-crowd---when one person speaks louder to be heard over the din, and then the next, until the noise grows exponentially from hubbub to clamor, feeding on itself. Clouds of smoke and the scent of beer and ale punctuated the fog of exhaust fumes, and the hum and roar of the busy street flowed around the pavement like a tide.
But our trek up the rickety stairs had taken us into a bubble of quiet, with no jolt of noise through the open windows, not a sound in the tranquil room save for the subdued conversation of a deliciously-laden table, the clink of silver-on-china, the murmurs as the crisp-uniformed waitstaff attended to their guests.
We finished our coffee, lifted our heavy napkins once again to our lips, and made our stunned way down the stairs into the almost-starry evening. We must have gone through another door on our way out, for I don't remember passing through the crowd or the noise. The slow, sated stroll back to our hotel took us past pubs, realty offices, sidewalk cafes with music and loudness, bookstores and boarded-up doors and faded signs with quaint names straight out of Dickens or Trollope.
We’d been Somewhere, but not in and of that bustly street---those creaky stairs had led to another place, and perhaps on our exit, they swiveled or swayed like a Hogwarts’ flight, sliding upward or over to another plane entirely, leaving that lovely evening in the hands of memory.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
But States of Mind, now---that's a complicated subject. Mrs. G. at http://thewomenscolony.com/main/ today reflected on the gentleman-in-a-dress who sought her wardrobe counsel in Goodwill, and she came through as always: Polite and helpful and truthful and Minding Her Own Business. She gave her approval of a couple of classic blouses, nixed the too-too Eighties dress, and both parties smiled and went home content.
It put me in mind of my own first glimpse of a well dressed gentleman, in New Orleans about thirty years ago. Sis and I had “done” a lot of the sights, tramped through Jackson Square and the French Market, and were sitting in a little plaza on a park bench, enjoying ice cream cones and the passing parade of strolling folks.
Far away, we saw her approach---a smaller woman in a ground-sweeping skirt of pale gray, her high-piled white hair glistening in the sun. She walked as if onstage, using a posture more related to a catwalk than a stroll---one hand on a hip, the other extended gracefully forward, as if for a courtier’s kiss. She swayed the forward hand side-to-side with each calculated step, clearing her path and garnering an assemblage of onlookers who parted before her and remained in her wake like the Red Sea, staring at her strange progress down the cobbles.
She was so beautiful, with that shining hair and her pearly costume and the grace of her bearing, and not until she was right in front of us did we realize her gender. On closer look, she was wearing a delicately-lacy white blouse, with a skirt-matching shawl, and she was truly the ideal of every Grandmother Norman Rockwell ever drew---simply stunning in her perfection, but for the almost-imperceptible cheek shadows.
We watched her go her way, and went home ourselves, for we had to get dressed for a Dinner Theater evening. We drove twenty miles out into the suburbs to Sis’ house, and then possibly twenty more in another direction to the theater. We were sitting at our table during cocktails, telling DBIL of our afternoon’s outing, and were just describing the beautiful “lady” we had observed, when I happened to glance two-tables-over, same level, and there she was.
With a very tall, high-chignoned young woman in a pink pants-suit, French manicure, Liza lashes and not quite enough Max Factor to hide the beard shadow. They were with two gentlemen who were enjoying their company immensely, and seemed to have a wonderful evening together.
Just the coincidence of that odd, interesting moment in the Square and seeing the same unmistakable person at such a remove, the same evening---that was a strange thing, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Nor how beautiful she looked in the afternoon sun, swaying her way through the admiring crowd.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
I do, however, draw the line at Paminna Cheese. THAT recipe is sacrosanct, and sharp cheese it will always be.
The place we stop is called The Smokehouse, down I-65 at the Pine Apple exit---you just know something in such a deliciously-named place must be good. We always pick up five pounds or so on the way down, set the whole thing on the dining table with a knife, and everyone who comes by shaves off a bit for snacking.
At any meal, no matter what else I've prepared for the assorted family coming by for a visit, that cheese is still the centerpiece, and whoever has dropped in will just help themselves to a piece. It's like a foreign delicacy, though it's always available within driving distance. The cheese slowly dwindles, and is re-wrapped and bagged until it's just a shadow of its former glory.
By the time we've packed the car, had the last cup of Folger's, said our goodbyes, the cheese is a forlorn little slump, to be melted into a sandwich or onto a dish of pasta for those left behind. Pardon. I should have said "Cheese and Macaroni." That's the proper term.
And we pick up our OWN five pounds for the long drive home. Chris' trusty pocket knife will whittle us off a bit for munching with a Quik-Stop coke, as we talk the miles away, and it's nice to have that big ole hunka cheese in the fridge for days to come. This is one on-line marketer of "hoop cheese" though all the pre-wrapping, bubble-kept effect is not conducive to the real feel of the cheese as it's opened with that whiff of secret alchemies going on within. Nor do you get the generations-old feeling of the timelessness of the motions and scent as it's cut and crinkled toward you in the butcher paper. This one MIGHT do:
And perhaps they DO have one of these:
My own Aunt Lou of the smalltown country store had a butcher block in the meat- market section which must have counted for one felled sequoia---It spanned four feet or so, and was probably two feet thick, with tidy little hanger-slots at the side for all those worn-to-the-bone knives, their blades slendered to kris-curves from years of use and honing on the big round stone.
And the millions of grooves sliced in the wooden top should have been a hive of food-poisoning activity from all the tons of meat cut fresh-to-order on its worn surface, but I never heard of anyone's getting sick from it. Aunt Lou's daily manning of the stiff brush and the pan of boiling Lysol water, then the hosing of the suds down the floor drain, kept the place within whatever clean-code ruled the day.
She was a careful, fastidiously clean woman, of her person and of her work, and I remember her fondly, as she'd heave that huge wheel of golden cheese from its container. She would choose the widest knife, grasp it in her wiry hand, and lean her entire hundred pounds into the effort of the blade. A great wedge would separate, and then the whisk of the paper being unrolled from the big reel and the skritch across the teeth of the cutter, like flipping a sheet off a bed.
The wrapping of the unwieldy wedge, its shape struggling with the folds, is a sound I'll always remember. For a long time, there was string for the tying---a big roll of it wound intricately on itself, hanging from a ceiling hook and run through a line of little loops across the ceiling like line on a cane pole, to keep it snarl-free. Later there was a heavy scroll of tape sitting heavy and placid as a bullfrog---such an innovative new convenience, though the string never left its little pinata-place in the ceiling.
Like wine, cheese memories grow even better with age.
Monday, March 9, 2009
I'm just befuddled that so many people in THE SOUTH don't know about the sauce---we of the pit barbecue and the long-smoked ribs and shoulders and butts. There's a long-held idea in the air that Deep South babies get their first taste of barbecue sauce through an Evenflo, so they won't miss out on such a good thing before they have teeth.
And they DO keep it behind the counter, whether for sanitary reasons or economic bottom-line per-person allowance or just plain to keep it in stock from all of us who'd klep whole handfuls of the teensy tubs. You have to ASK; maybe out of sight means never thought of, and those of us who do know can't imagine that there's someone who DOESN'T, so folks miss out on a GOOD thing.
The little packets aren't like ketchup tubes; they're made on the same die-mold that the packs of Smucker's and Kraft readi-serve jam and jelly come in---small rectangular plastic bowls with a stuck-on bit of prissy plastic to keep them pristine.
And the contents are a nirvanish elixir of browny-pinky-red, with a thought of Southern sweetness and a delicate whiff of the pit-smoke. No other bottled sauce can equal it; it's gentle on the smoke, flavorful and just the perfect topping for that moist, tender hunk-a hunk-a chicken. And the waffle-fries---oh what a combination!!! All those mayo-dippers in Europe would add this to their recipe in a heartbeat, and probably claim it besides.
That's all for now, lest I get even more Stepford on the subject. Take my word. It's the best sauce there is, and I DO wish they'd bottle it. Don't see it happening, but having a fix in the fridge would sure quell the cravings.
Ask for THE SAUCE.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
It began long before Mrs. Spearman's typing class, with the clickety-clacks of a thousand locusts pouring from that door and out into the hall when class was in session. And I went into it with the determination and fury of a woad-smeared warrior. Aside from "getting some secretarial training to fall back on" there was the magic of putting words to paper in orderly lines and margins and paragraphs---Grail, and for ME.
Yes, Ma'am---66 words a minute on an old Royal manual, which felt like an anvil when you had to re-center it on your workspace. That was in high school, and I was quite proud of my speed and accuracy, when the requirement was 40.
When I see one of those heavy old dinosaurs, I always picture a movie with maybe Clark Gable, the rushed, filled-ashtray newspaperman, squinching his right eye against the smoke of a lit one clamped in the corner of his mouth, clacking away on one of those old Royals to beat the deadline, writing about Tammany Hall or Wall Street or maybe Hearst's little booboo on the yacht.
I learned on one like that, and when I went off to college, I carried a darling little turquoise Olivetti, in a matching case like a hatbox Marilyn Monroe might carry as she tripped those stilettos along too fast for her tight skirt. It had the neatest little almost-script typeface, and I did many a term paper and other writing on that little quiet machine.
When I met my first electric, it felt like stepping onto a runaway escalator---that thing could get away from you FAST and throw your feet right up over your head. I felt stifled, somehow, though the medium was so speedy---as if to get it RIGHT, I had to be much more careful, for fear that the "T" would be held down too long and strike four times in "Matttter" and I'd have to start over---no WAY could you erase that much and come out even.
And then my first Rollerball. That was even worse, and at my first job, I was lucky to have a nice regular-type machine that stored two sentences at a time, and you could open the top and proofread before you went on. THEN you could print the whole page all-at-once---what a marvel, and what a convenience.
But a lady across the room didn't get her rollerball clicked back in very well after cleaning it, and that little silver missile flew across the room and made a DENT in the wall. After that, I didn't wanna play any more; that thing was dangerous. Sounded like if a motorcycle's insides all came apart and rattled around in there, and then a big BANG THUMP!!! Coulda really HURT someone.
Now I'm so spoiled to a keyboard, I just fly and hope for the best---my mind just clickety-clacks along too fast to make a coherent idea most of the time, so I just type down what I'm thinking.
But there's SUCH a romance in a PEN, especially one with real ink and maybe a golden cap that you lift off and stick on the other end while you write on beautiful paper. I used to write letters every night of my life, to Mammaw for YEARS---she loved getting mail, and would write right back, though we were on the same phone line and no long distance. And to boyfriends and old college friends. At one time I had a pen pal each in France, Italy, England, Australia, and four missionaries in Tanzania.
I'd sit on my bed before sleeping, propped on the big green "Herman" pillow---one of those backrest things, and I have no idea why we called it that---nobody outside our family seemed to. Little lapboard and a writing-case full of pretty paper and cards, and away I'd go. It WAS a gentler time, wasn't it?
And Libraries---well those go without saying. We were moving to Alabama years ago, and Chris went over and found us a little rental house, everything in it but the towels---the owner had gone into a nursing home and her children rented it with everything intact. He came back with two polaroids of kitchen and front porch, the key, and my new library card. I was all set. And we loved living there---we used to ride through everytime we'd go through Atlanta.
Just the scent of books and the ideas and the endless vistas down those shelves of treasure---Dorothy's Door and Aladdin's Cave and Garden of Delights all-in-one. I DO love books. And whatever it takes to make them, idea to The End.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
The SAUCE, the SAUCE! It comes in a teensy rectangular packet, and you have to ask for it at the counter---they're dicey about putting out containers of condiments. Just say, "Two sauce, please" with grammar-be-darned ease, and snag a little pack of mayo while you're there.
Leave that tempting sandwich in its warm foil sauna and open the sauce, tearing the little lipped lid all the way off. Tear the corner off the mayo, and set both of these important accessories on one of the little folded napkins at your table. THEN, and only then, do you lay the softly steaming packet in front of you.
Gently split the sandwich wrapper, tearing it just so at the bottom, so as to make an irregularly-shaped nice silvery plate. Now you're cooking. Lift the top bun off the chicken and rearrange the pickle, if you choose, and IF you were lucky enough to receive more than two, it's like a double-yolk egg. Finding three slices means GOOD LUCK all day.
Then, pick up that little box of sauce and gently dribble a teensy bit onto the inside of the top bun. Squeeze a bit of the mayo in a pretty little pattern amongst the red bloblets, and put the top back on the sandwich. You can even pick up one of those crispy wafflefries and spread the sauces neatly if you're dainty.
NOW: squeeze the rest of the mayo into the remaining sauce in the little cup. Break a waffle and stir the red and white til it's a lovely browny pink. Crunch down that baptized bit of crisp potato, close your eyes, and give thanks for the six days a week the doors are open.
Eat sandwich. Dip fries at will. Go to counter for more sauce and mayo---you're hooked.
And if you've got the room left, they make the best-bar-none milkshakes in town.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Scalloped tomatoes, crisp latkes the size of thick saucers, their tiny frill-cups of applesauce and sour cream awaiting your choice, a deep pan of the yellowest noodles I'd ever seen, halves of shiny-brown baked chicken and their roasted potato-wedge accompaniments.
And the first and only "green" green beans of my experience, barely poached, then tossed with oil and onion and peppers. They were a far different breed from the low-cooked snap beans of our table, and had a "beany" tang to them that ours never had---perhaps the long cooking in our kitchen removed all trace of their former lives, imbuing them with the salt and hammy, porky goodness of their additions, making our beans merely the conveyor for all the rich tastes of Southern seasonings.
But way down on the end, after the deep-meringued desserts, the tapioca in little cut-glass dishes, the high-standing squares of kugel with its proud golden crust, stood THE LADY. The lady with a moustache to rival my Uncle Fate’s, the avert-my-eyes-so-as-not-to-stare-at lady, who took our measure, our unused-to-the-fare tenor, our redneckness shining through, and asked, in a charmingly lilting accent, "RRRRRRRoll or conbraid?"
I would draw up my shoulders, nodding knowingly and cloaking myself in all the worldly air assumable by my ten-year-old clunky little self, and say, "Rye, please."
She'd smile conspiratorially in approval, reach beneath the counter, and bring forth two slices------inch-thick grayish-tan, soft, pillowy caraway-studded slices, crusted in gold. Onto a tiny plate they went, slid across the silvery counter to my waiting hand.
I LOVED that bread. It was Dorothy's door after a lifetime of black-and-white Wonderbread movies. It was always freshly made, sometimes still warm, with a lovely silky crumb, a stretch-and-chew to the crust, and a little ping of sour-sharp surprise when you crunched one of the seeds.
I remember that little twelve-foot counter as one of the brightest memories of my restaurant past. And now, when we enter the sanctity of the fluorescent brightness of Shapiro's, with its tantalizing scents and tastes and tables to seat two hundred, I still take up that little plate of rye and bear it to my table with the same child's anticipation.
And it never fails to live up to the memory.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Memories kindled, smiles of recognition and astonishment at our links in the long chain---it's been fun to scroll across the names of old friends and acquaintances whose names echo mine in the long past. Something about being from the South, of the near-and-dear relationships, the kinship of place as strong as of family---it's a heart-thing, absorbed through the air and the heat and the long vistas of flat Delta gumbo, from that primal scent of first-plowing to the nip of Fall, with Winter delineated by getting out jackets and gazing on the drab scape of gray fields shorn to stubble.
My own raising, deep in the moist heat of that fertile flatness, was centered around family gatherings---Sunday dinner and birthdays and holidays and reunions and sitting together in the shade, waiting for the ice cream freezer to do its magic to the custard whose recipe was older than anybody present. The old recipes and jotted-downs and clipped-outs and the mainstays---we repeat the gestures, the measures, the tastes.
I cook Southern, but have been known to throw foie gras or caviar onto a table with crawfish, catfish, mallard, mountain oysters, rooster fries, buffalo and wild hog. I cook whatever we feel like at the moment, whatever is freshest from the garden or the Farmers' Market, or whatever was just brought back from a trip South. Food and cooking and the cultivation of both have been a greater part of the Southern perspective for time beyond memory, and the dedication and methods from the old ways have hung on longer in the South, it seems.
I own white gloves, lacy hankies, opera glasses, a well-sharpened hoe, a TALL ladder and a Troy-Bilt. A lifetime of food raising, hoeing, picking, canning, pickling, freezing and preserving has given me a deep appreciation for all methods of hunting and gathering. Deer, duck, crappie, barbecue and gumbo have appeared as often on our table as pasta, hamburgers or Mapo tofu.
The ladylike rosy shade of my own nape was earned honestly, bending over the beanrows, pea-vines, cornstalks and squash hills in that extremely HOT Delta sun. Redneck is as redneck does, I reckon.
But sometimes it would be nice not to have to waste so much time dispelling the notion that the lowest IQ in the room necessarily must belong to the person with the Southern accent.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Flashback to a Saturday night---Italian place in Georgia, people-watching while waiting for our table: Two couples waiting near us; two jeans-and-boots guys, all slicked up for a big evening out. Two ladies, mid-thirties, tight jeans, big hair; waist-length-halter tops which covered their fronts only.
First lady: "Hairl, go get me a beer."
Hairl: "Wait til the table. We'd need a tab, and I don't want two bills."
First Lady: "I don't know why he wants to come here---he don't like spaghetti."
Second Lady: "It TAKES too long to COOK---why do you bother with it? HE (motioning to other guy) likes Chinese....and MINIT RAAAAS is so quick---you just dump it in. I'll be glad when they get spaghetti like that."
(More conversation re: the remarkable marvel of those lasagna noodles you just lay in the pan right out of the box; I probably missed the best part when they were called to their table). I'm a shameless eavesdropper---sometimes I don't even avert my eyes. But I do hide the notepad.
Lest anyone think I'm being too hard on the Georgia contingent here, I'm FROM the South, a Dyed-in-the-Cotton G.R.I.T.S. Girl, so I'm ALLOWED.
After the above Hairl and his three companions departed, we were soon called to our table for eight. We had been separated for a bit, with the grownup kids finding seats in the crowded bar, while Chris and I sat in the knee-knocking-small "lobby" area with the little ones. I had expected their tab to follow us, to be added to our check, as is customary. We had been given one of those little house-arrest beeper things, for goodness' sake.
This place had been open only three weeks, I learned later, after we all had a giggle at the young woman who stood in the middle of the dining room, shouting almost hysterically, "SOMEBODY needs to PAIIIIIY this BAR TAB!!!! Who RUNN OFF and left this BAAAAAARRRR TAAAYABBBB???!!!"
We waved her over and took care of things, to another chorus of: "I come back in there and y'all had done RUNN OFF!!" I kept waiting for her to spell it out like in O, Brother, Where Art Thou?: R-U-N-N O-F-T.
That's us all right---we go on the lam all the time, but we're easy to spot: eight people, a babyseat and a BIIIIIG diaper bag.
Monday, March 2, 2009
When we first moved here, for Chris’ training which would last a couple of months, (our time has stretched to nineteen years, because we LIKE it here) we had a little one-bedroom apartment, and I missed all the menagerie we’d always had. One day in WalMart, I was just strolling and looking, when Chris sidled up and held out what looked like an over-grown animal-crackers box. I peeked into one of the little round windows, straight into the twinkly pink eyes of the most beautiful and enchanting white little girl-rat, whom we named Penelope.
She was a bit small for such a grand name, and of such historic portent, but the first time DD picked her up, she tinkled in her hand. DD exclaimed, “Well Pee-Pee!” and the name stuck, going on down through seven incarnations, though they were not kin, as far as we know.
They were pretty, soft little white girl rats with bright pink eyes and the softest pale pink ears. They lived quite long happy lives ensconced in a nice glass-walled aquarium home, living in aspen shavings, napping in small silver-lined bags redolent of coffee beans, making their little sojourns across the counter to the big wicker stand atop the throne in the guest bath. A handy box of Kleenex served as day-residence at the “Lake House.”
When we traveled, the aquarium went into the back seat; the world in that shavings-lined home was business as usual. Food and treats went in, Peepee went out for a glimpse of the world flashing by. Only once did she escape, during a midnight drive through the West Virginia mountains; a little white phantom appeared in the darkness between Chris’ feet in the front floor, and we put her gently back into her house. Only later did we realize how long she had been at large; she had nibbled almost the entire spine off my much-coveted Martha Stewart Wedding book. Glue---it’s a GOOD thing.
Guinea pigs and mice and especially white rats are lovely traveling companions---an aquarium with some nice shavings, a water bottle, a bite of leftover dinner, and a coupla icy cold coke cans from the cooler nestled in the bottom when you have to get out for a moment, and the car would get hot save for that snuggly place next to the cold cans.
When we stopped for the night, she went into a pretty birdcage, covered by a lovely silk scarf---I swept grandly into hotels which bowed me welcome, and which might have put me unceremoniously on the street had they known my cargo. A bite of muffin, a segment of breakfast orange---those served to nourish her, along with her accustomed rat kibble.
One evening, we stopped for dinner at one of those buffet/salad bar places, and I saved her a scrap or two from my plate. I had just wrapped two green beans in a paper napkin, and was licking the dressing from a cherry tomato, when I looked up into the faces of an elderly couple, staring in horrified fascination at this weird woman stashing pre-licked food in a ratty-bag.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
They know his habits, his quirks, his menus, the name of his vet and all his little phrases and words. They have the battered old tough rawhide barbecue gloves which have transported his wicked talons in and out of the house for about five years, and they have our address, so, as DS said as they left, "They can send us a Christmas picture."
They loaded cages, food, dishes, toys, a big bucket of his favorite kinds of nuts and a baggie of fortune cookies, wrapped him gently in a big fluffy towel for safe transport, and drove away into the West, sunshine all the way. They were smiling with delight as they pulled out of the drive, her pretty red hair gleaming in the sun, and Richie's blue head leaned WAY back, looking up at the sky.
Neighbors waved from doors and porches as they left, and the parade from street to backyard will not be happening again this Summer---all the children stopping in to hang out with Rich as they passed on the sidewalk. Folks will ask about him for some time to come---the Mailfolk and the FedEx man and the UPS guy whose lap Rich filled with his own rattly food as the sweaty, tired guy sat for a moment with a glass of sweet tea while I signed the board. The little ones from the daycare down the street, a colorful link-chain of tiny folk, making us a stop on their daily outings, and the clients who drop off and pick up their machines and stop to pass the time of day.
The little wide-eyed wisp of a girl from across the street, whose grandmother walks her over every now and then, getting her out of that smoky house, and who has uttered only one word in the five years she's been coming here---Richie. And the little creatures whose meals were greatly enhanced by all his discards scattered in the grass---they'll surely wonder where he is. The bird's social calendar was WAY more filled than mine.
It's been a long, wearying day of mixed feelings and odd emotions. And if I didn't have a birthday party to go to, I think I'd go hide under the covers right now.