Saturday, January 30, 2010

TUNA CASSEROLE

The Stuff school cafeterias and Friday dinners and potluck suppers are made of. There’s something about the rich redolence of a Tuna Casserole baking which makes the whole house smell of Home. Somebody has taken Time, and Taken Care, and has put together an old family favorite to bake whilst a fruit salad or a green vegetable is prepared and the family gathers, drawn kitchen-ward by the aromas.

It’s a comfy old Grandma of a dish, not anything like the quick-seared, ruby-centered tuna steaks of today, or the Tunafish Salad/Mold/Canapes of other years, nor even the well-remembered Ironing-Board Sandwiches of our own past. And if you’re lucky, it’s not the scritch-together of a can of tuna with a can of mushroom soup, stir in some noodles and stick it in the oven.

Tuna Casserole, or Tuna Noodle Casserole, as my Dear Daughter-in-Law calls it, is a homey dish, a thick meant-for-a-cold-night concoction which spells warmth and shaking off the snow and laying your damp gloves atop the fridge or the floor grate to dry overnight. It’s the coming in from an icy drive home into a bright house with wonderful kitchen smells and someone glad to see you.

Or it’s an easy-put-together dish for making one night and putting into the oven the next. It can range from a big bubbly casserole set down on the dining table, to a gratin dish for one or two, slid into the oven whilst relaxing, putting on some music, having a glass of wine, unwinding from the day.

An iron-cold Friday night bespoke Tuna Casserole, with its easy b├ęchamel, the familiar old Star-Kist, the tooth-pop of the lightly-cooked peas, the gentle chew of the noodles---a childhood comfort-dish, and perfect for the season.

We had ours on trays with the Friday-night TV lineup, with Five-Cup Salad and a Kidney-bean Salad with tiny-minced sweet onion, bell pepper and celery and a slightly-sweetened mayo---two of the Things In Dishes which happened to be in the fridge. Chris is also very fond of celery and peanut butter, and his tray also happens to include six scallops I found in the freezer when I went to get the peas---I sizzled them in garlic butter, and they seemed a nice accompaniment with a mise-cup of remoulade.

2 cans water-pack Tuna---drain and save liquid
½ stick butter
3 T. flour
3 cups milk
Spoonclop of mayo
Tiny sprinkle of powdered garlic (or throw a split clove into the melting butter, and fish it out after it’s perfumed the skillet, before adding the milk)
Several grinds of the peppermill

About a cup of frozen baby green peas, thawed---just pour them out onto a plate before you start.

About half a pack of linguini

A couple of cups of crushed potato chips

While you’re making the sauce, cook the linguini al dente in salted water---it will bake further in the sauce. Drain and keep warm.

Put milk into a microwave-safe pitcher and heat until steaming; pour in the reserved liquid from tuna.

Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a large non-stick skillet and stir in the flour, preferably with a flat paddle. Stir a couple of minutes to cook flour a bit---do not let it get even pale brown. Whisk in milk, and cook to a good bubble to thicken a bit. Whisk in mayo, pepper and garlic, then stir in the tuna. Taste a spoontip before adding salt to taste---up to a teaspoon.

Stir in the peas, then the noodles, and pour into a buttered 2-quart casserole---the wider and flatter, the more chips you can put on top.

Top with the chips and bake 20 to 30 minutes, til bubbly all around the edges, and you can smell the toasty chips and the rich scent of the sauce all through the house.

Serves four to six, depending on appetites.

And, in the words of the illustrious chef Annelle Dupuy, freezes beautifully---(without the chips, of course)---you can divide it into sandwich-size Tupperwares and snug it in the freezer for cold nights and quick suppers to come.

Friday, January 29, 2010

COTES DE PORC

The Frenched pork ribs I mentioned last week---we had these Monday night, I think; I was so busy getting ready for the party on Sunday and setting-to-rights the aftermath, I lost track of most everything. (Don't you ever wonder how the police on TV expect people to remember where they were between eight and eleven pee emm on January 29, 1994?---I can't usually remember BREAKFAST, unless somebody else cooked it---THAT'S memorable).

These were wonderful ribs---tender and juicy and just in that perfect moment between not yet and Oh, Dear! The bite of them was absolute perfection---a soft tearing, then you could feel the little ragged edges of the meat against your tongue. And the sauce was our favorite right now---Sweet Baby Ray's Brown Sugar. We buy a dozen whenever it's on sale, and keep it in the cool room; it's rich and thick for brushing on, and just the right balance of sweet, with no smoke flavor added---just enough of that comes from the grill.

We always have the same thing when he grills something that gets the sauce put on---whatever he's grilling, and onion sandwiches---they're a perfect salty zing against the sweet sauce. Soft Continental or Wonder bread, bought just for this, and spread with Blue Plate on both slices. Almost transparent slices of cold juicy sweet onion in layers, a good sprinkle of salt, top laid on, and the whole plate covered with a damp paper towel before snugging into the fridge til suppertime.

We also had beans this time, but they were still bubbling in the skillet when he came in with the ribs, and timing is everything---no real resting for ribs, just a quick smooth of the knife between, onto the plate, and sit down.

They were delicious, but the only difference between those hussied-up ones was that it didn't take quite so many napkins to keep our fingers neat. And face it---with ribs like those---neat just ain't the point.

(Quick interruption here from the dryer buzz, and when I returned, my little collaborator on this piece had added her opinion---Five Star restaurants would KILL for a review like this:

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MMMMMMMM Good! The little bits are tiny chips of onion left from the sandwiches/chopped for the beans---I always gather those up for my plate---lightly salted, they're great finger-food. And alongside a burger, I prefer them to fries or chips.

Think this meal might fit in down in Suthun France?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

SLINGSHOT DREAMS



I've been wishing today that I still had my old Wham-O slingshot. I'd been the only girl in a ten-block radius who didn't mind getting into the mud, up trees, into gunfights with our Roy Rogers cap pistols (though I DID hope sometimes to be a WhiteHat instead of the drygulchin' owlhoot).
With the new dog we've acquired came a new dynamic to the house---barking and growling at the cats strolling through the yard. And keeping the wooden door open on these sunny days is one of my "glads" for this new year, for always before, January has been a dark, dismal month downstairs, and having that blast of daylight and sunshine down the stairs has made a great difference in my outlook.

But the Cats---oh, the cats. They've pretty much had free run of the place, the one who has lived in the potting shed and the ones who live in the house next door, but are out roaming through the yards surrounding. And FuzzyPup just will not stand for it. He would tear them limb from limb if ever he could catch one---just let him out there. And so, he growls and barks at the back door, and I can track his route from there clumpclumpclump through the kitchen overhead, into the far corner of the living room to the low windows, where he nudges beneath the curtain and repeats his threats to whichever one is sauntering past.

The big ole black one-eyed Tom we call "Wink"---we've never known his name---seems to be the worst of the lot. He comes onto the back sidewalk, in full view of the door. He sits, leisurely licking a paw, flipping his head disdainfully and taking his sweet time with his bath. He turns that one emerald eye toward our pup, giving him one of those lorgnette looks of appraisal and scorn, and resumes his task.

And Fuzzy goes into a frenzy---his bark is so cute, rather like a growly version of a cat's purr---a little hummygrowl with tiny vocal cords like a bee in a jug. But it gets old, especially when our Girl is having a nap, one room away from the door and the ruckus.

Wink simply meanders off in that way cats have, tail aloft as he sways away, and a clear insult in the flaunt of his hiney---throwing down the gauntlet, sneering out a dare.

And I think somedays, when our Sweetpea is resting so peacefully for a couple of hours (and so am I, if I'm lucky) that I'd get a couple of nice rocks and see if my aim is still the best in the neighborhood---just a gentle smack in those sturdy haunches to send him on his way. I can feel the heft of that old wooden slingshot right now, with my sweaty fingers clasped around, old black slice of inner-tube stretched to its limit, scent of oily rubber and the grubby leather of the pocket around the rock.

I can feel the aim-and-let-fly, the satisfying sound of the projectile connecting clunk with the haybale, a tree-trunk, the side of the storehouse, back on the back side where the charcoal-drawn target had to be re-traced every time it rained. I have never aimed at nor hit a living target, though some of my compadres who did were in grave danger of my forgetting myself and letting them have it with all the ire of my unerring aim.

But some days, when the house is warm and the sunlight streaming in, the little one slumbering and my hands in the sudsy warmth of a leisurely kitchen task, just getting to a good part in my book I'm listening to---when that cat invades and sits down for a spell, and the dog goes crazy with noise, I wish like blazes for just one more moment with my worn, familiar Wham-O in my hands.

Monday, January 25, 2010

PICTURE THE PARTY


The first time I answered the door on Sunday, a lovely young couple presented me with roses. They came in smiling out of the not-cold-enough fifties morning, and soon after, the rest of the guests were coming in both doors.

Chris was just “in his glory” as my Mammaw used to say---greeting and introducing and grinning at all his friends, and everyone gathered upstairs for a while, whilst I came on back down to get the quiche and the potato casserole out of the oven and put in the two big black skillets of biscuits. They wandered the upstairs rooms, stopping at the bar in the kitchen for juice or wine or a quite brisk Bloody Mary, with Worchestershire, Tabasco, celery salt, and a little sprinkle of a new McCormick thing---Worchestershire sprinkle-stuff---on top, with a crispy little flaunt of celery for stirring.

The big old glass-top dresser in the living room had a little array of nibbles: Artichoke heart gratin, with crackers and Scoops; Jalapeno rollups, and crudite and homemade Ranch dip with scallions.

And it was HOT downstairs---I opened the kitchen window and turned on the tiny foot-fan which lives in my kitchen in all seasons---sometimes when I’m in a hurry to put a second load in the DW, I’ll let them heat-dry til they’re really hot, then open the door, slide out both racks, and turn the fan on them for a couple of minutes. They seem to dry in seconds.

And everyone seemed to drift down sooner than expected; they came to get a look at that gorgeous ham, to be given a guided tour of the cockpit of Chris’ new grill, and to seek out the iced tea/water table. I’d told them to just pick a place they wanted to sit, grab that glass, and help themselves, so the tables look a little bare in places.

And the white things are not chargers, though the little hang-tags said so, when I picked up two dozen from the “new” counter at Goodwill several years ago---ten cents each. They’re flannel pads, like you’d put between your good china for storage. And I put them on the glass table because I like to give everyone a warm plate, fresh off the stovetop, and these pads keep the glass safe, plus they keep the tabletop itself from sucking all the heat out of the plate and food before you can finish your dinner.



Our Breakfast Table, with little dishes of pear preserves and butter:


The nice folding table we got not long ago at Sam’s---it’s WAY sturdy, and seats six. The chairless spot at the back is awaiting the Princess Chair---the tiny white highchair which has served for all four of the youngest Grands.



And though we had a coffee-and-teapot area in the kitchen, we can’t have a meal without good ole Iced Tea:


The star of the show---it practically got a round of applause before he started to carve---and everybody kept drifting by for a taste.




Caro and I call those tiny samples of ham a “flick.” So we all passed by Chris, carrying bowls and platters and trays, accepting a little flick of ham as we got the food served. We left the big red Le Creuset of soft pearly Calrose on the back of the stove, as well as a big flowered pot of Shrimp Etouffee for ladling over. I cooked the sauce on Saturday, with its chunks of green pepper and onion and celery all cooked down with the herbs and spices and tomatoes, and chilled it overnight. It went back on the stove about thirty minutes before serving, to come to a good simmer, then three pounds of the limp gray-green little forms went in, to bloom into luscious rosy flowers beneath the lid. The two skillets of biscuits, shiny with their anointment of melted butter, sat on two front eyes, and all the rest of the food was ranged round the counter.

Which is where good descriptive powers would come in handy, because after fourteen people joined us in the kitchen, with Caro and DS and DDIL and me getting the food out, and Chris carving---we got absolutely NO pictures of the food. Ain’t that just the WAY?

But I have it on several good authorities that it was GOOOD---we had Broccoli Quiche and Cracker Barrel Hashbrown Casserole and a cakestand of Caro’s lovely pastries, with a big trifle bowl of pineapple and cantaloupe and blueberries, and a huge tray ringed round and round with the long, super-sweet strawberries which seem to surface every year as a January bonus. And homemade Pear Preserves and Peach Preserves on each table, as well as a lovely vanilla-scented Birthday Cake for dessert, with Blue Bunny Vanilla and little dishes of toasted pecans.

A lovely time was had by ALLLL, I vow, and only the Colts Game drew the folks toward home by three o’clock.
Mammaw always said you knew the food was really good when nobody reached for the salt---the unmarked surface of these is a nice compliment, I think:

And the aftermath---Fourteen people and a nineteen-pound ham, with folks carrying home tomorrow’s lunch in baggies and bowls. This, besides all the goodies in the fridge, was what remained:


And this morning, we sat down to our breakfast, with my coffee and his pot of tea, served in his favorite moustache cup. We didn’t even notice all the work left to be done, or the six chair covers wadded in a chair, or the four folded chairs to be taken to storage, or his favorite vest still hanging there, like a comfortable guest.





Saturday, January 23, 2010

BRUNCH PREP

I'm still in the preparations for tomorrow's brunch, but I took a minute for a big glass of iced tea and a look-in on some of my blogging friends.

Chris went for the last of the groceries this morning, and came home with Little Smokies and Sociables and Nova salmon and a big platter of cheese, none of which were on the list, as well as the produce I'd sent him for at the last possible moment. The broccoli just came out of the steamer, into an ice-bath and a baggie in the fridge with a couple of paper towels; the grapes are washed and bagged, as are the cherry tomatoes, the cucumber, the celery (cut into crispy flaunts for garnishing the Marys tomorrow), the water is coming to a boil for the snow peas I just strung, and the pineapple and cantaloupe await cutting into neat golden cubes, to mingle chill and sweet in the big trifle bowl tomorrow with the grapes and lots of whole strawberries. One of those simply Southern cream-cheese-and-marshmallow cream dips awaits.

All the etouffee ingredients have simmered with their bay leaf and Chachere's and L&P into a lovely fragrance, and will chill overnight before being brought back to a boil before adding the three pounds of shrimp to pinken in the glow beneath the lid.

The quiche batter, save for the broccoli and grape tomato slices, is chilling, the artichoke dip ditto, in a twin Tupper, and the jalapeno rolls are snugged into a long flat one, to be cut into eighths tomorrow and garnished with shiny fat peppers on a green tray.

But what we won't be serving, I suppose, because that's just a meat overload, are ribs. Chris came hopefully home with three small racks of babybacks, all Frenched within an inch of a chef's knife. They look like something done by a Michel or an Henri, for a five-star dinner, rather than by a Hoosier manning the counter at Sam's. We'll try some of the ribs one night next week.

I never. I JUST NEVER. Frenched pork ribs. Don't that just Post your Toasties?

Bonjour, Y'all!!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

CANNED TOMATOES


My Mother’s Father was a smalltown man---he lived inside a twenty-mile radius all his life. He had a smalltown business, in an old building he owned, just around the block from the house that he and Mammaw had occupied since their marriage in 1917.

I know nothing about his military service, or if he served at all, for they never mentioned it, and there are no pictures of him in any kind of uniform. I would think that he’d have been away fighting in WWI instead of at home courting my Mammaw, and then in WWII, he was already fifty, and probably exempt.

He had several odd talents---he could wiggle his ears (a feat inherited by my daughter, and nobody else I know of), he could go from a standing position, flexing his knees, and sit straight down between his knees, then rise right back up without holding onto anything or putting his hands on the floor.

And he could swallow a gallon of water without taking the jug down from his mouth. As odd as that seems for braggin’ material, there it is. He won many a bet from traveling salesmen and passengers getting off the train to stretch their legs for a moment, and a whole gaggle of old men would get into the betting pool when word went out that Mr. Eb was doing his trick.

He would lift the clear jug into the air, sling it over his shoulder with his index finger crooked through the little round glass ring, and drink every drop from the brim-filled container---then lift the empty jug for all to see, to great applause and cheering---not particularly for his exploit, but for the chink of coin which changed hands. The fact that he turned immediately and threw up the entire gallon into the viburnums---well, to the men and boys gathered, that only added to the fun of the event.

And Mammaw could barely show her face in church the next day.

Grandpa liked canned tomatoes, the ones Mammaw raised and canned by the hundreds of quarts every year. She would spend August and September mornings in that hot kitchen with that old blue white-speckled “kittle” simmering away---this after she’d boiled it full of water, poured that over a sinkful of tomatoes, then slip-skinned them down to their smooth, rich meat, ready to be cored and simmered.

A couple of the quarts from the storehouse stood always chilling in the old Philco, replaced each day by a fresh jar, as the supply dwindled over the year. In the middle of the afternoon, Grandpa would catch a lull in business, step round the block, and come in the back door with a cheerful, “Med!!! Got any cold tomatoes?”

She’d set out the box of crackers and a soup-bowl, reach down the cheery red bank-logoed bottle opener from the nail on the wall, and shisssssh open that Mason jar. She’d pour half of the quart into his bowl, set down two glasses of tea, and sit across from him for a little rest while he crumbled six or eight saltines into the deep, ruby-red sauce. He’d sometimes salt and pepper the mix, sometimes not---he had a theory about the heat of the day and black pepper---a complicated barometric/meteorological scale in his brain which was a mystery to the rest of us.

He’d spoon up the tangy cold soup, with its little islands of pink melting cracker bits and speckles of tiny gold seeds, then drain his glass of 40-weight tea, lay down his napkin, say “Thank you for the termaters,” and be out the door and back to work before she could drink half her glass.

I have no idea how many quarts of tomatoes Mammaw canned over the years, for a jar or two were the base of every soup save chicken, and three quarts a week, six afternoons of bowlsworth---well, that added up. I’ve spent many a Summer canning hundreds of quarts of garden stuff myself, in an air-conditioned kitchen, and I have nothing but admiration for my Mammaw, who did what she had to do to keep her family going.

And, except for her prize-winning flowers and the generosity with which she shared them with people and events and weddings and funerals, she’s probably not remembered by many. Grandpa’s doings had more flash and public notice, as it were, and he was most likely mentioned for a long time, but I seldom think of him at all. My heart’s ever with her and our years together. Women who take time with children, investing in their lives, are remembered longer than kings and conquerors.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ICICLES



These were my first glimpse of Indiana---in Autumn of 1990, the year that we moved here. Chris had been here since October, and at Thanksgiving a young woman in our area, whose husband was also here for the five-month training, asked if I’d like to ride with her to Indy to see our guys.

She made it clear that we would be traveling UP in a Miata---the Barbiest of cars, with little room for even my short legs, and absolutely NO room for anything except a small carry-case of necessities. Since Chris and I had discussed having a few of his colleagues over to his tiny apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, I packed my smallest valise with tightly-rolled unders and a couple of t-shirts and slacks, so that I could hope to squeeze two pies into the car in my tiny allotted space.

A pecan pie went into the bottom of the pie-carrier, with a fluffy coconut one on the top shelf, both baked LATE the night before, and we left early on Wednesday morning. I nestled the valise between my feet, and the pie-taker between a globe and a bread-machine in the only available level space in the back seat, and away we went.

As we got on up into Kentucky, the highway ran in the great man-cloven valleys between the hills and mountains, those sheer cliffs of rock looming above the car on either side like a gorge over a river. And the seepage of water from the crevices in the rock had frozen into great cascades and cake-garnishes of lacework and dropwork, along with sections resembling icy-sharp monster-fangs warning away all passers-by.

And every one of the formations made me smile---I was looking my eyes full, sweeping my head back to see as long as I could, then snapping back, ready for the next glimpse of that alien landscape of ice.

So icicles, anywhere, are favorites of mine---from the ones in Mississippi, captured recently in their unseasonal weather by Marty Kittrell:

http://martykittrellphotos.blogspot.com/2010/01/mint-springs_20.html

Or Janie at:

http://southernlagniappe.blogspot.com/2010/01/beauty-of-icicles.html

To an ice-harp on the eaves of our garage:



Fleeting beauty is almost always the fairest of all.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

SUNDAY BRUNCH


We're planning our annual January Brunch for this Sunday, and my lists grow---the Menu, the grocery list, the list of what-dish-will-hold-what, the number of chairs and skirts and tables and glasses and spoons. And the arrangement of two-tables-for-six and one-for-four may require the concision of a graph, in this room which holds so much of our days' needfuls.
It seems so silly to concentrate on such mundane matters in these days of cold and world turmoil, but we go on, living our separate lives, tending to our little chores and making our way through the muddle. I believe our simple samenesses, our regulated timings, our puttings on and takings off---turning down a bed, wiping a counter---help. It's not the UPS which get us through, somehow, but the LEVELS which tend to smooth the hard times.
So, the preparations are underway, or at least the jotting down and firming up FOR the preparations. With all of the activity and a little one here all day for several days, with all the toys and books and little lessons, plus meals and Tea-time at four, the little socks and shoes and pullups and then the jacket and hat for a walk, with the Elmo leash and FuzzyPup on his own red lifeline---those take up the hours, and it's a blessing to run and laugh in the crisp air.
Who can concentrate on bowls and plates when there's such company to be had? Thursday and Friday will be time enough for the vacuum and the Ticklefoot (the long stick with the floofy pink fake "ostrich-feather" plume for ceiling-dusting---that silly name from years ago, when oldest GrandDaughter lived with us) and all the getting out of linens and trays.
Right now, I think this is the plan:


Jalapeno Rollups
Crudite and Ranch Dip
Hot Artichoke Dip/Crackers and Scoops

Chris’ Grilled Ham---a whole one, put onto the grill about 8 a.m., to grow even more tender and luscious, with the smoke permeating and the pink slices falling moist beneath the knife.
Broccoli/Tomato Quiche---a big old poufy one, in the immense swan-boat casserole dish.

Shrimp Creole & Rice---Trinity sauteed, then chunky tomatoes, a bay leaf, a sprinkle of sugar, salt, pepper, with a good dash of Old Bay and a little L&P. That will simmer for thirty minutes or so, then several pounds of peeled shrimp will go in, just to pinken beneath the lid. Good redolent ladles of this over Calrose.
Hashbrown Casserole---this is already made and in the freezer---it's two packs of Ore-Ida Hashbrowns, tossed with three cups of extra-sharp cheese, a big minced onion, salt,pepper, a hint of garlic. It will pack into a big casserole dish to bake gold and bubbly. Perhaps a layer of crumbled crisp bacon on top when it comes out of the oven.
Steamed Baby Carrots---Our Girl's favorite food (besides Birthday Cake, of course)
Biscuits and Preserves

Pastries---Half-size Danish---strawberry, raspberry, pineapple, cheese, and apple butter
Fruit bowl with Cream Cheese/Marshmallow Dip

Brownies with white chocolate chips and pecans Birthday Cake Vanilla Ice Cream

Cranberry/Apple Juice Marys Wine Iced Tea Coffee Pots of Earl Grey


Sounds good in theory; now for the actual achievement.

Monday, January 18, 2010

KARLA KAY

Do we all know someone whose life we wished could live---someone with a family whose life together we envied, or who had a talent we’d like to have, or who even just had THINGS which we longed for and never obtained?

Mine was Karla Kay---she of the always-tanned perfect complexion, eyelashes out to THERE, and even longer slimslim legs which made white short-shorts into what they were meant to be. She lived in a house with hardwood floors and beautiful scatter-rugs in front of couches and a long strip of one down the hall to “the girls’ rooms” and an immense thick one beneath the real dining-room table. Our dining room was the end of the kitchen without cabinets, with a round maroon formica table and six matching vinyl chairs.

Karla Kay had long dark curly hair, washed with CONTI shampoo---the drift of scent from her curls was the fragrance of flowers; ours was Halo and a vinegar rinse and whatever was on the shelf at Fred’s. She always smelled of fresh-ironed cotton and the vaguest whiff of her Daddy’s cigars---he drove her and her sisters to school, and since he had a job with the CITY and could leave his office whenever he wanted, he picked them up and took them home for lunch, then was waiting after school to take them home or to the library, dentist appointments, or the drugstore for a Fountain Coke.

She had records and a big record player in the den, and a smaller one in her room; the big one was for when she “had boys over” and we danced in our socks---the closest I ever came to that was on several Saturday mornings when I’d put Johnson’s wax on all our own hardwoods, and was encouraged to call my friends to come over to polish. We’d all put on a pair of Daddy’s old socks and dance the floors shiny to Elvis and Jerr’ Lee and smooth the boards in long skating strokes to Connie Francis.

Karla Kay’s mother SEWED. She made all of KK’s and Marjorie and Deanna's clothes, even their formals, with peau de soie and peau d’ange and slipper satin and voile. Karla Kay’s two lines and four entrances in the Senior Play warranted four changes of wardrobe, I remember, all sewn by her Mother, who was soundly refused permission to open the curtain before the play, in order to parade KK out onto the stage to make pictures in each dress. Poor KK stood waiting backstage, in the third act’s yellow number with the immense hoopskirt, as her mother and Miss Neal hissed at each other out front and the audience gathered and those dusty maroon velvet curtains stayed firmly closed. (I also LOVED that teacher, as well---she had REAL CLASS).

They went on vacations to Rock City and Destin and Mexico; they had subscriptions to Highlights For Children and National Geographic and later, Seventeen; they had girls over to spend the night, and they slept until ten or noon (once I went to a slumber party, and my Mother woke everybody up when she came to get me at eight to come home and babysit my sister). Her parents belonged to the BOMC and her mother smoked Old Golds with a little short white holder, the smoke drifting lazily up into her premature salt-and-pepper hair. They had a wonderful life.

I ran into Karla Kay and her husband in the ER one night when I had to take my MIL in; she barely spoke, sitting leaning against him, as he whispered, “one of her headaches.” A couple of years later, same circumstance, same ER---his whispered, “We’ve come for her SHOT,” explaining all. I knew then that the coincidence was too far-fetched, and that she must have been there like clockwork; I learned from Marjorie later that they made the rounds of several counties---one hospital here one night, another on another.

She wasted her life, her beautiful family, her own lovely existence, on a haze of nightly oblivion. And they adored her, lost her much too young, mourned her with fierce tears, and still speak of her as a saint who bore her travail with grace and honor. I remember her as a beautiful young friend whose life seemed to outshine mine. But not forever.

Anyone care to remember THEIR Karla Kay?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

AINT RUBY

Aint Ruby was JUBUS of things---she was jubus of anybody in politics; she was jubus of a new preacher til he proved hisself, and she was WAY jubus of the new hymnbooks when her church replaced the sung-out Broadmans, because Rock of Ages was not on page 103 anymore, and she could remember it because 103 was the reddio station where Preacher Agar could be heard at seven every Friday Night and nine on Sunday, when all good folks oughta be home, anyhow.

She and her family would come and visit with my in-laws perhaps once a month, spending a weekend as we counted the minutes til three o’clock on Sunday, when they always departed, so as to “be home by dark.” That the hour of departure remained rigid even in the plentiful sunlight of Summer days was a Seasonal Grace granted to those of us who suffered her visits.

They HAD things---a really big house, a huge Oldsmobile, land and a pond and every appliance and electronic device known to man. She dressed beautifully, even in her ‘duster” for First Cup every morning---it was always accessorized with exactly-matching shoes. She wore Capris often, with a shirt-tail-out blouse, either sleeveless, or with the sleeve cuffs ironed into starched creases like the pages of a book. And she smoked. Nobody had any say in her smoking in the house---her reply was always, “Get used to it,” as she swung the umpteenth big old kitchen match through the air and blew little silvery dragon-snorts from her nostrils.

Everybody in the family was sorta afraid of her---her two older sisters, even her parents, and I, mere wife of a nephew---I stayed home as much as possible, letting them “get their visit out,” and just going over there to lend a hand when dear MIL was in need of help or respite.

We gathered at the in-laws for supper one Winter night---I always cooked several dishes at our house and brought with us when we ate with their company, and that night we were having a good hot hearty pot roast supper. My MIL could make the best biscuits in the history of baking, and a big plate of them sat on the table. I always set the table for MIL’s company, making it pretty, and that night I’d put pickles and preserves and jelly into pretty little dishes, and poured the sorghum (a MUST for FIL, when there were biscuits on the table) into a pretty little pitcher.

As the syrup pitcher reached Aint Ruby, she poured a generous pool over her biscuit, then, noticing an errant drop on the pour-lip of the pitcher, she raised it to her mouth, lapped out her tongue, and licked all the way around the pitcher-lip. She passed it on with a big, hearty laugh, as we all looked on in amazement and disgust. And on and on---apparently nobody else really had a taste for syrup that evening, anyway. (And I made sure the remains got poured down the sink before I washed the pitcher).

And, from all the visits, the two things I remember most about Aint Ruby concerned her cooking---she would “help out” in the kitchen, but only to the extent of preparing a dish or two “the way EYE make them.”

In addition to pickle relish in devilled eggs, she added several tablespoons of sugar into the mix, and every bite went crunch. And a cup of sugar into the Cheese and Macaroni, cause that’s how her husband’s Mama made it, and that’s how HE liked it. Good thing---that made ONE who would eat it.

And all the rest of us were jubus of that macaroni.




Saturday, January 16, 2010

MISS ALLIE

I miss my friend Miss Allie---she and her husband have been our friends for all the years we’ve lived in this house. We were fence-neighbors and garden neighbors and “try this cake” neighbors for about seven years, and since he passed away, she’s been away quite frequently, and now, when I walk past, there are usually no lights on, not even on her neat porch, with its lovely wicker chairs and urns of flowers.

They were a lovely older couple, he courtly and a gentleman in speech and aspect, she a tiny round woman with a winning twinkle and easy laugh. My son passed gardening tips with Mr. Vergil, and they swapped things over the fence---a handful of herbs, a crisp fat cabbage, some pattypans, a few sugar-snaps for munching whilst they talked. And tomatoes---how they both prized their tomatoes!! That was back when we planted ours in the garden circle, before we knew of the hazard of the big walnut tree.

They’d each take a little “flat” or bucket to the fence, and expound the virtues of this heirloom and that beefsteak and the other Earlys and Bigs and Romas. From time to time, you could see one or the other lean WAY forward to take a bite, avoiding the gush of rich juice from the bitten tomato. They'd sample and nod and click out the Barlow and try another--- why, everyone knows that rubbing one cheek of a tomato or apple down your shirtfront renders all germs harmless.

And by the time they’d finished, they each had every one of the other’s tomatoes in his bucket, ready to take them home and try. It was like some kind of McGregor magic---I don’t know quite how they kept up and swapped hands like that.

They attended Son’s wedding, the party to celebrate DDIL’s Master’s, shrimp boils in the backyard, a little sunset tea on the lawn, cookouts, a birthday or two. They grew slower and feebler, and we’d ride round the block and pick them up. We’ve just had the easiest little friendship, like good neighbors should.

And Wednesday, with all still a bit snow-covered save for the sidewalks, the temperatures rose to a comfortable level for a walk. So Our Girl and I set out, I in an unaccustomed jacket and slacks, she in a bright pink hoodie-coat, kneeboots and her “Elmo”---a little Velcro vest with a leash on the back. She’s not QUITE to the “STOP!” stage when I say so, and I know that if she ever got a REAL headstart toward the street, I’d regret it.

We walked around several blocks, going up the front ramp to Miss Allie's house; I hadn't seen her all Winter, and hoped that a nurse would not meet me saying she was sleeping, or that I'd find that she had gone into a nursing home. Loud barks from little Chipper, almost as old as his mistress, with him peeking out between the heavy iron scrollwork in the big security door. She answered the door herself, and she looked marvelous, with a freshly-done hairdo to rival the one Ann Landers sported for so long in the newspaper---that sorta sailboat side-flip that might loft a lesser woman into the next precinct.

I said, "Miss Allie, you must have just come from the beauty parlor," and she allowed as how her son-in-law and two grandsons were in town on business and had asked her out to dinner. She leaned close, whispered conspiratorially, "And I JUST MIGHT go."

They drove up as we walked back down the ramp to continue our blocks of sightseeing.

"You order something really expensive and say I told you to," I departed. I SO hope she did.

Friday, January 15, 2010

ART AFTERNOON


I sat down at lunchtime with a sandwich and glass of tea, randomly turning on an old movie I'd seen---Tea with Mussolini. A little boy is taken under the wings of five ladies living in Florence---one gaudy, flamboyant American, played by Cher, and four staid, polite Englishwomen of differing temperaments and tastes.

On her day to see him to school in the morning, Judi Dench's character, an artistic sort herself in floaty scarves and much dramatic posturing and emoting of poetry, pauses and takes him up to the doorway of a long museum-type room filled with white graceful shapes of statues and urns and columns, all wrought in shining stone. She puts an arm around the boy, and speaks to him in fervent words:

"See, Luca---Florence isn't just shiny cars and ice cream, as little boys think. It's the human form divine. the body beautiful. And you,---yes, you---could be part of that world. To make, to create, to live as those old artists did, Luca, is to share a part in the divine plan."

I hit "pause" to write those ringing words into my journal, as affected and dramatically uttered as they were. They brought a memory I hadn't thought of in some time---a lovely afternoon at our own magnificent museum, in company with some beautifully-wrought statuary and relics of an ancient time.

Christmas two years ago, after all the decorating and room-readying and cooking-ahead and freezer-stashing and the gift-wrapping, on the Sunday before Christmas, Chris asked, "What can we do today, just us, that's FUN?"

I mentioned the BIG Half-Price bookstore at the South end of town, my favorite of the three, but then I said, "Let's do something that we don't just shop for STUFF."

I mentioned that the Roman Art exhibit at the museum would close on Jan 6, and we'll be continually with company after Monday, so we would not get to see it. He responded as he always does, with delight in anything we can go off and see or participate in or enjoy together.

We've often struck out on little whims and found riches unknown---a museum exhibit, a gallery, a little shop of curios, a lovely free concert in the mall or a church or a school, a play with young people saying their lines with the aplomb of seasoned thespians, a fun festival or restaurant or house tour or just a drive to parts unseen, but worthwhile.

Getting tickets to something ahead of time and looking forward, that's one thing. But just happening upon something wonderful which brightens the day and shines a golden light upon the moments, that's a rare and lovely thing, and we try to seize the gift.

So, off we went, to spend the afternoon amongst Claudius and Claudia of the glorious hairdo, friezes and statues (one of Marcus Aurelius, forever commemorated in modern memory by "Simplify, simplify," courtesy of Hannibal Lecter) and golden necklaces and urns and glass vessels resting whole and unbroken, for ten times the age of our country.

It was marvelous---I wanted to touch that cool smooth marble cheek, and lie on my back and look up up at the height of that immense statue with the dozens of leather straps of a Roman skirt carved out of that block of stone. I knelt, instead, on that pale golden hardwood; you could see the STITCHING around the edges of those perfectly-cleft pteruges, with complete and precise perspective to all the others hanging in rows behind. Amazing.

And the folds of togas and robes and veils, the perfection of a graceful hand with smooth-polished skin, the knotted gleam of muscular calf and thigh---just beautiful. What serendipity!! It just came to me to mention that we might go, and there it was, a completely different, wonderful afternoon, handed to us round and complete, like an apple presented on a palm. Lovely.



Carpe diem (or museum).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

MAYDREAMS


At a suggestion just now from a reader who said I could solve my writer's block/bean problem by delving into "all those boxes of pages" I have filled over the years, I decided to just do the old GRAB ONE trick and let the words fall where they may.
So, on this snow-melting, soggy day of sunshine on the slush, this one is from May 24, 2007, before several important events in my life---it's a reply to an e-mail from a faraway friend:

~~~~~~~~~~~~

What a lovely start to this sunny morning!!! I've been out communing with the robins, setting up a top-heavy fern that escaped its moorings last night, and just sitting out in my beautiful little "arbor room" that we carved out of a brushy old trashy section of the FAR back yard. It was overgrown to despair when we bought the house nine years ago, and it's just been sitting there, branching out and over and entertwining its sun-seeking limbs for all that time.

Chris had used a great corner of it for dumping the lawnmower clippings, and we were inclined to pick up sticks and limbs and any natural detritus and give them a quick Frisbee toss into the great nothingness. So, last year, I took a look at that good twenty feet of wasteland all across the back fence. I happened to be standing at the far end, and look upward and across, seeing the drape of the limbs and the natural curve of the roof, imagining what a lovely green-ceilinged room it would make, IF ONLY.

And so, this year, before all the GREEN took over with a vengeance (and it was a long time a-comin' as we had freezes til the end of April) we got out there with the lopping shears and cut and lopped and sweated and cleared it out three pickups full, taken to the nice people who convert all that unwanted yard stuff to beautiful mulch.

So now, we have a long tunnely affair, swaying green and sweet overhead, with a dozen nice hostas in a cleared section at one end---great rocks from all our travels scattered about amongst them, and a fairy or two fetchingly peeping out from between. We'd bought a nice pile of yellow bricks at a yard sale---they had them stacked in the front yard with all sorts of stuff for sale sitting on them, and we said "How Much?" and hauled them home.

They sat out behind the big plantation bell for a good two years, with me planning to pave a nice yellow brick road out the back garden gate, but we also took down the old weathered pool deck and discovered all sorts of nice paving stones abandoned beneath. A dozen of those made the path, now mossily surrounded, and we smoothed and squared off an 8x10 place which we wavily laid with the bricks (Caro and I did the bricklaying, as I creaked my old knees back and forth for two days). It's a lovely place now, with the brick floor, a couple of hanging pots of pink petunias spilling out, with windchimes and breezes. The robins come to the feast at the now-gone compost pile---the wormfeast is incredible, and there's a steady line at our smorgasbird.

I've just come in from the second time out there---the children gave me two incredible handmade wooden Adirondack chairs for Mothers' Day, and I go out with my coffee first thing each day, passing the little vegetable garden, the pots of herbs, the nice benches and the old fading wicker chair which holds a big flat terra-cotta bottom to a flowerpot---I fill it from the hose, and we always seem to have a chairful of birds.

Today's chores will finish up the yard, I hope---houseguests coming for Memorial Day weekend, but not for the RACE---we went once to time trials the first year we moved up here, and just don't have much interest in the gathering. We'll enjoy the cool of the shade, have some nice dinners out in the arbor, visit the new Ocean exhibit at our Zoo---I'm still waiting to go visit Nereus, the baby walrus adopted two years ago when he was found abandoned on an Alaska beach---the documentary on Animal Planet made me fall in love with the little fellow, and I'm sure he's now a husky big teenager with tusks and whiskers.

I SO envy your Umbrian experience---I can feel that warm, grapey air, the hills and the greenth, and the tables laid out in the sunshine. My only Europe trip was two weeks in England/Scotland/Wales a couple of years ago---trip of a lifetime. Scotland has called to me forever---I even took off my shoes when we stepped off the bus. I could go back and walk those heathery hills forever.

I MUST get to last night's dishes---we had roast chicken, a pot of Calrose rice, and a nice gardeny salad with a sweet homemade 1000 dressing, a nice counterpoint to the salt of the chicken drippings. I was so tired after re-stoning the side gate path---five 40-lb bags of marble chips---after supper I just took our TV trays back to the kitchen, grabbed us each two tiny Reese's cups, and we sat down to an NCIS Tivo.

Must get the house in order---I'm still looking at all the upstairs linens, which must get put back on the guest beds today.

~~~~~~~~~
Which, by the way, is the exact order of things at this moment, so I must get to the mundane, as I try to think of something original to write again.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BEAN BAGGY

I've been neglecting my duties here, of late, and can only plead busy or distracted or recuperating from the holidays or chasing after a two-year-old, but those can encompass just so much. There's just not much circulating in my fuzzy brain lately, and it's one of those silly things I've contended with all my life---I rarely have an original thought, I think.

I can read the numerous blogs I enjoy every day, and pick up one little idea and just run on with it til the cows, etc., but it seems so inane to copy a thought or a saying or a circumstance, and prink around with it enough to pass off as my own. So I never want to do that. Still, the ideas and the memories are elusive these busy times, and I suppose it's what you might call a dry spell, for want of a better term.

Years ago, I subscribed to about ten of the smalltown papers around the state, just for the news and the fun and the different reporting styles and society doings. I've spoken of one of them in a post last year: http://lawntea.blogspot.com/2009/01/hometown-news.html and the avid readership of all the local publications was surprising.

Once, one of my favorite papers had a little typo which was just too good to miss. A dear, dedicated older woman of great spiritual strength and impeccable character wrote the column for her little area of the circulation---a little community with hardly a name, let alone a zip code. She always closed her column with a Scripture verse, with a few words of encouragement and enlightenment as she was led.

One week, the verse she chose was Matthew 7:3, concerning overlooking our own faults whilst we speak and think harshly of others' sins. And her writing might have been a bit shaky---so many of the smalltown "reporters" mailed in their copy on notebook paper, jotted down between hanging out the clothes and putting on a pot of greens for supper. Or, perhaps, the typesetter was not quite up to par that day---anyway, the line which appeared in the paper, bold-face type and printed for the world to see, was:

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the bean that is in thine own eye?"

That was just the most charming, endearing, hilarious thing I'd read in a LONG time. I told it to my family, friends, Sunday School class, and would chuckle or smile at the oddest times when I thought of it. The kids and I made a thing of it---if one of us was not feeling well, we had a bean. If we didn't want to do something, we were hampered because of our bean.

It grew into a long-term silly phrase---I'm sorry I can't help you/volunteer/go/sell magazines/ drive the Cub Scouts/hold an office---I have a bean in my eye.

And so, my lallygag of late has no excuse; I'm sure I'll do better in the new year and be more regular in my correspondence, as soon as I divest myself of this pesky bean.

moire non,

rachel

Monday, January 11, 2010

GOOD NEIGHBOR




On what I imagine to be the Southern equivalent of tonight’s weather, I TRIED to be a good neighbor. I’d heard at work that a friend’s Dad had died that day, and of course, my GCL genes kicked in---go home and COOK something.

So I did---a Chocolate Cake. It was a really good cake, moist and rich, with the two round fluffy layers stacked with a cooked fudge frosting between, the swirls on sides and top just so, as befits taking to a home during a sad time. By the time I got it baked and almost-cooled and frosted, it was getting late in the day, with a crisp darkness coming on. My two sons and I wrapped up warm and started out in my wagon, Son #1 driving and me beside him in the passenger seat, holding the cake---I even imagined I could feel a little of the residual warmth coming through the plate.

Just as we made the turn from our long drive onto the blacktop, we heard the unmistakable thwhop-thwhop of a flattening tire. Gloom, Despair, and Misery on me. We got out and the boys got the wheel all jacked up and pulled out the spare. And on this day of all days, in the cold and dark, it was WAY too loose and soggy not to be flat, as well.

SO, we all walked home---before we had cell phones---and I called the owner of the little tire store we used. He agreed to meet us at the store as soon as we could get there. So Son 2 stayed home and we took the boys’ new pickup two-towns-over, where the man was waiting to sell me two new tires. After the usual time-a-day passing and business transacting, we got the two new tires loaded into the truck, and headed home--at least an hour-and-a-half since we had started out. Son #1 got out at the wagon to get a new tire on, while I ran back home to get Son #2.

We all were shivering in the cold, hands numb and noses reddened, while the boys changed the tire and I held the flashlight. They got all the bits and pieces back into the wagon , and we all took our places again, Son 2 in the back seat. And just as we all got buckled in and Son put the car in gear, there was one of those moments which take a fraction of a second, and you view them down a long tunnel, while time moves like syrup.

I watched, just frozen, as the big ole flashlight, which I’d laid up on the dash as I secured my seatbelt and picked up the cake, rolled toward me, going airborne and landing PLOP in the top of the cake. That thing bisected that cake as neatly as an ax---I’ve seen weddin’-cake servers who couldn’t do that good a job.

And we all burst out laughing---from the tension and the cold and the sheer absurdity of it---that one moment of thoughtless misplacement which caused the whole evening to come to naught, and the absolute NOTHING WE COULD DO. We couldn’t go into a house of mourning with a battered offering; the cake was WAY beyond repairing, and there was enough still-soft frosting down the front of my coat to serve two or three sweet-teeth. Plus, we were all about to wet our pants from the cold and from all that laughing.

So we turned around, went home, made a pot of coffee, washed up, and ate cake. And I never DID tell my friend about that silly attempt to be a Good Neighbor. It just never seemed to be the right time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

LIFTINGS

I received a set of new journals as a Christmas gift, and, as every year, I've looked back through the old, finding thoughts and jottings and recipes and little snippets that I wanted to keep. Some of them are so hen-scratched, so uphill and down dale amongst the lines that I have to really read my scribbling carefully---those are usually lines I heard on TV, and I reached quickly in the dim room for the book, scratching down the thought or quote before I lost it entirely.

Some of the ones I found recently as I thumbed through the tattery tomes of yesterdays:


Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success.
~Louisa May Alcott~

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show.
~Andrew Wyeth~

"There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable but then it wouldn't be half so interesting." ~Anne Shirley~


The spider's touch, how exquisitely fine! Feels at each thread, and lives along the line. ~Alexander Pope~

The return to the seasonal and local is lesson number 1: food is remembering. What’s new is old. You may have arrived late, but welcome to the table.
~Jane of Little Compton Mornings~

Morning Song for a baby girl

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue,
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.

All night long your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ears.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
~Sylvia Plath~

~A young woman named Chartreuse, on her armor for RenFaire:~
Plastic armor means I get to clank off, sounding like Tupperware in a dryer.

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
~James Nicoll~

HOOP CHEESE,~ my own words~:

The cheese is made of no natural product known to man---it has the texture of Play-Doh and comes in a box. The box is round and pale, made of thinly-shaved wood, which over the days of its residence atop the butcher case grows greasily stained and takes on the appearance of a harlot's hatbox, roughly handled and none too clean.

~Tabris~, re: The theory that "I'll apologize when SHE apologizes."
It's these little gestures, where closeness could have been fostered and instead distance was formed, that are life's great tragedies because no one mourns them.


My friend ~Marty Kittrell~, of the magical lens and photographic eye:
I am a succinct writer. I just get to the point and move on. But you linger and savor the moments... stirring them like you do a glass of sweet tea, perfectly happy to wait for the sugar at the bottom to swirl around and dissolve.


And a song from years ago, when I took all those years and years of piano lessons. Our teacher, Mrs. Carpenter, was a town institution, and the Spring and Christmas recitals a social occasion. She sat at the piano with her beige lace Mother-of-the-Bride dress straining over her vast prow of bosom, playing as we always closed the Spring recital with the same song.

We were an amalgam of stage fright and absolute joy at the end of the ordeal, the end of school. We were all sopranos, I think, for the one or two boys were still young enough not to rebel against "taking piano." Every year, the program ended with our chirpy little voices floating past the fading, dusty maroon velvet of the stage curtains:


When you come to the end of a perfect day,
And you sit alone with your thought,
While the chimes ring out with a carol gay,
For the joy that the day has brought,

Do you think what the end of a perfect day
Can mean to tired heart,
When the sun goes down with a flaming ray,
And the dear hearts have to part?


Well, this is the end of a perfect day,
Near the end of a journey, too,
But it leaves a thought that is big and strong,
With a wish that is kind and true.


For mem'ry has painted this perfect day
With colors that never fade,
And we find at the end of a perfect day,
The soul of a friend we've made.
~Carrie Jacobs-Bond ~


Here's to all the different Annes in us, and to many, many perfect days in the year to come.

Friday, January 8, 2010

TOURTIERE

My friend Maggie in Illinois is a Canada girl, raised in the Wonderland of snow and sparkling Christmas lights. We exchange little conversations, confidences, recipes, and my heart leaps when I see her name on the mailbox. She is a woman of expert wordsmithery, owner of a bountiful vocabulary and wielder of a verbal arsenal which delights and amazes, with a wit and an exquisite turn of paragraph which linger and haunt.

We discuss our childhoods---not too dissimilar considering our far-apart raisings, though few of our own Winters offered snow, and hers seemed to be lived in a white-sculpted Kingdom of Chill. She mentioned her childhood quest for just the right Christmas cards, chosen lovingly to fit recipient and a child’s budget. She, too, coveted the glitter-sparkled snowflakes and stars and bright ornaments which graced the covers of the "good" cards. We both readjusted our sights to the plainer cards which our small allowances could afford.

She also sent me the recipe for her Tourtiere, a lovely double-crust meat pie, traditionally baked for Christmas Eve, and eaten after Midnight Mass, after the trek home through the snow and the twinkling stars. It’s very much like our family’s Shepherd’s pie, rich and redolent of onion and good gravy, and has a shiny top crust that is brushed with an egg wash to make it gleam. A Tourtiere pan even has a special little stand-on-feet to give it the proper elevation and to hold it in the place of honor on the table.

Our usual meat-pie pan is of a humbler, more Southern sort:



The usual accompaniments to a majestic Tourtiere are baked beans, a spicy relish similar to our family recipe for ChowChow, and pickled beets, which we always have in the fridge.

And so I replied:

What a lovely taste of far-away Canada, especially for a Hot-Christmas Southern child who also spent the days before Christmas in swaying, knee-knock hours in Woolworth's, gazing longingly at the too-expensive glitter-stars of unattainable glory. Closer to our level were the cards with Braillish sprigs of pine, pressed a little higher than the paper, with the bleed of the green not-quite-hitting the marks. Year after year we sighed and settled for the lesser ones for parents, Grands, teacher.

I've always loved the IDEA of the late-night church-going, the Reveillon---the long-drawn "yohhnn" on the end repeated with my mind's fish-lips and nasal inflection of an imaginary tres chic French accent. Just the thought of the return from Mass to a festive table, the candle-lit crunch through the midnight snow---try conjuring any of THAT from a sixty-degree, adamantly-green, WAY-Baptist small town, whose sidewalks were barely extant in the daytime, and whose parental insistence on just-dark bedtime on Christmas Eve precluded anything but the most brief of suppers. Midnight awakenings, perhaps, but only for breath-held listenings and the squinting for that first chink of releasing daylight.

And I love the recipe, the reasons, the history---I've been meaning to make one for months, since I read the article on the how-to and commentary, and have also been murmuring the name from time to time, “Tourtiere, Tourtiere,” tasting the savory syllables on my lips in lieu of the actual WORK of the thing. I have the squatty pan, the recipe, the several alternatives for the pastry.

Plus, any good Southern cook can take a couple of pounds of ground beef/pork/veal/lamb and work miracles, even sans Cream of anything.

Our short Christmas season was reserved for almost every moment, with guests, meals, celebrations, more guests, a whirlwind trip for visits down South. Iron-cold January will be the season to visit the local mercado for lard, to sift the flour, measure the salt, and get my chilly fingers into that malleable mass. I’ve not the “hand for pie-crust,” but still I try.

Pickled beets, I have. Showboat beans will need to suffice, though they fall far from the mark of your deep-crock, long-simmered beans with their hunk of pork and the hours in the oven; ours will be laced with onion, peppers, brown sugar, growing tender and sweet beneath their lattice of bacon in the wide baking pan.

There will be chowchow, as much a staple on our tables coffee and salt, and beet pickles---both relishes put up in the heat of last-Summer’s kitchen. And some snowfly night, Chris will come home to a Maggie-meal, I promise---more to myself than to you, I think. Thank you for the precious gift of a family recipe.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

'SNOW EXCUSE


The snow is piling up, hour by hour, drifting like immense cornflakes past the windows. We watched in fascination, ooh-ing and aah-ing for the longest time; then our enthusiasm for the sameness lulled into the feeling of watching something like static on TV, and we moved on.

It’s COLD and will be colder, with forecasts and dire predictions of chill; this morning’s WeatherChip looked all clear and beautiful, til I realized the outlines of the state and all the surrounding edges of others were just black lines on a SOLID BLUE field---indicator of heavy snow from here to yonder.

The fact that other people, other states, other countries have housetop drifts and covered (as in to the tops from the ground up) cars, and their chimneys are two feet down inside the thick mass, possibly keeping the smoke from emerging at all and clumpy bits clopping down the chimneys to hiss SPAT upon the stoves and sizzle out the fires---all these things we are aware of, and we still do our share of complaining over our own plight. It’s messy and drippy and cold and uncomfortable and wet and yukky at this stage, the stage of almost-dusk and fog and the sheer FACT of it and its ramifications clouding over the beautiful.

And I LOVE snow. Always have. I remember the little bubble of joy that would form just above my waistband, the anticipation of those first few flakes, the outright jubilation when the hundredth flake brought school bells and the go-home whistle in the middle of the day. We'd watch and beg and finally be allowed out into the flurries, in our usual coats and the gloves which immediately absorbed snowmelt and froze our fingers and our oldest school shoes which let in whole flakes, let alone seepage from the damp.
The kids across the street have a Snow Fort---a real, live honest-to-goodness FORT, packed and planed and carved into neat walls and blocks, shining white, as smooth and true as if by plumb bob and trowel. I've never known anyone who HAD a Snow Fort---we hadn't enough to waste trying anything so lofty. Why, by the time we got way close to the house to get enough for a pan of Snow Cream---from a pristine spot so that no cinders had drifted down from the trains or dogs lifted or cats walked, there was only a little skimming left, and that melting fast. But we cared not a bit that every bit of snow we scooped was cluttered with leaf bits and old pecan hulls and acorns and twigs---we scooped and packed, not wasting a minute or a flake, and glad for the filler, dirty though it was. I think every snowman ever built in our neighborhood looked as if it had been sculpted out of gallons of Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards.
I love to watch the falling of it, to see the shadows and the shapes and the forms it takes; there’s a BLUE to it sometimes, like spilling out the whole bottle of sno-cone syrup onto the landscape. I still get a small gasp of admiration and delight at morning’s first glimpse of shapes and drifts formed in the night.

So I always figure that even though I no longer have to do the daily trek out into it, to shovel or to clear away or to drive to work through a blizzard, white-knuckled and my hindside clenching the seat like desperate fingers on a roller-coaster bar, I AM allowed to like it. I don’t think that my hating the stuff would make anyone else’s morning commute or drift-shoveling or walk-salting or car de-icing more pleasant.

Today Sis called from Texas; she’s using her new-for-Christmas pasta maker to make homemade ravioli for watching the game tonight. She’ll take the oil and flour and eggs and stir it into perfect, pliable dough, with a rest and then several trips through the rollers, with the just-so number for each rolling. She’s making a stuffing of cremini, crabmeat and several cheeses, brushing and cutting and laying the little golden pillows out on the lightly-dusted tray, snugged beneath damp towels for resting. She’s serving it with a garlic butter sauce. They’ll sit down with salads and ciabatta and the wonderful wide bowls of ravioli, redolent of herbs and worthy of Mario’s kitchen.

I, on the other hand, took a baggie out of the freezer; it holds about two cups of Chris’ special pasta sauce, made on November 15, according to the writing on the bag. We’ll microwave it and have it over whichever pasta there’s enough of alike in the canisters. And there’s a little green shaker-jar of Kraft Romano on the top shelf.

I plumb SWANNEE, Y'all!! It's SNOWIN’ to BEAT THE BAND!!








Wednesday, January 6, 2010

HOMEWORK






A lot of people used to make a living traveling to “do” for other people. The Knife-sharpener and the pot-mender came around from time to time, as did the glasses mender. They all had a way with their craft, and carried the tools of their trade from town to town, and sometimes house to house.

The Grinder’s wagon would pull up, sometimes with things for sale---skillets and pots and spiders and other usefull utensils all a-clank on the wagon, inside and out. He’d wrestle the heavy round slice of stone to the ground, setting it up in the socket, securing its great weight before he took his seat in the saddle, feet on the treadle. Folks would line up with their knives and scissors and slingblades, passing the time of day as they watched the grinder work, his feet pumping fast for the hoes and shovels, more sedately for a prized knife, and more carefully still for the pairs of sewing scissors or shears or barber-snips. The round wheel spun and the sparks flew as he worked, and many a little boy crept close---closer, dared by his cohorts, as he reached out to “catch a spark” from the lively wheel.

A Pot-mender might have kept company with the Grinder on their rounds, with his own stock of potmetals and cooking pans. He had a way with a pan-sprung-a-leak; somehow those callused old hands could polish the edges of the hole, insert the tiniest silvery pin, snug tight the two teensy black rubber washers, one in and one out, and hand back a pan good for another decade’s worth of beans.


 


The Glasses-Mender was a gentler sort---a waist-coated gentleman with a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles of his own, polished frame-glint and lens-shine to best advertise his skills. He had the most minutely-crafted little screwdrivers and pliers, with tweezers the size of rosemary leaves, and used them all with consummate skill---bending and splicing and replacing and screwing in microscopic screws no regular man could hold between his fingers, let alone fit into that tiny hole for twisting. It took him several days to revive and revamp the year’s worth of broken and armless and nose-rest-missing specs of all the gathered customers, and since he and the other two artisans were all male, they were seldom offered any hospitality past the use of an outhouse or a quick spigot-wash on somebody’s place or in back of a store.

The women who “traveled around,” however, were usually offered the shelter of a home, as well as their board whilst in the home. The most common of the roomer-and-boarders was the town schoolteacher, given what accommodations were possible---a spare room, or a share-room with the daughters of the house, even a shared bed in the more meager of the homes, whose pride in “doing their part” stretched their budgets and space almost past bearing.

Most families “took in the teacher” for a few weeks or perhaps a month of the term; she would move on to live with another family as the year progressed, taking her meals with the family, carrying the same biscuit-and-butter lunch in her own box or wrap as did the children of the house. I would imagine that having an educated young woman to visit for several weeks would have brought out the home-pride best in those housekeepers, with much cleaning and turning out of bedrooms and parlors and a closet, if there happened to be one to spare.

And how did the teachers take to such itinerant living, living out of a suitcase, as it were, all the school year, and learning that “potluck” has many meanings---manners and form dictated that a guest accept and be obliged by the hospitality of the house, so you slept where they put you and ate what was put in front of you.

By the time I was in school, most of the teachers were older women who had their own homes, or others who roomed with a wonderful older woman a few blocks from the school. They lived there, about eight or so of them, quite amicably for years---I try now to imagine the bright chatter and the meals together. In my working years, I could not have fathomed going home, sitting down with the newspaper or a novel or a cup of tea, and then just freshening up to await the gong’s summons to a supper cooked by someone else. Still sounds like a great thing.

There were also traveling Singing Teachers---their stints in other folks’ homes usually limited to a week, all through the school year, and to arbor-gatherings and Singing Schools and campground choruses in pleasant months. They taught shape-notes and tones and carried a little pitch-pipe to set the tune; the usual fare was hymns and the melodious sing-along songs of the day, as well as all the patriotic numbers sung with fervor and enthusiasm.

Deportment Teachers were secured for teaching the daughters of the more affluent---they lived with the family for several weeks, keeping day-to-day and moment-by-moment lessons, from sitting like a lady to walking properly to dress and grooming to speech and table manners. They seldom returned to the same family save for those with daughters of greatly-varying ages, and the younger group grew to their own age of manners-training.

Other women, whether they’d had nurses’ training or not, would do “maternity sitting” or “maternity staying” for new mothers the several weeks it took to “get back on their feet.” They tended child and mother, as they both took lots of naps and rested the clock around.
They might do a little “light cooking” but they did no laundry or housekeeping during their stay.

Laundry women did go house-to-house on “their” day of the week, washing and hanging out and ironing dawn to dusk, using the households’ appliances and detergents and clotheslines, though quite a few others did call for the baskets of clothes, washed them in their own homes, then delivered them back, clean, fresh-smelling and neatly folded.

Seamstresses would go live in other people’s houses for several weeks a season, to get the ladies of the house into their new wardrobes, especially for travels or off to college or a wedding. The scent of fresh-snipped cotton and silk and organza and of chalk and an ever-hot seam-iron would fill the allotted sewing room; the tables and bed and counters will be covered in patterns and lace and fabric and ribbon, and the floor would receive a snowfall of snipped thread and pinked edgings. A good “sempstress” was a prize, much as hairdressers came to be in later decades, to be coveted and claimed and almost-owned by their jealous employers.

But the one traveling worker I remember most lived right out of town; she’d make the rounds of almost the entire county, riding her bike for many years to those who needed her attentions. She had a unique and useful talent: she was a Knot Smoother. She could take your string, your variegated crochet-thread with its un-manageable snarl right there in the purple part, your fishing line that had knitted itself into tangles around a threatening hook, your big snarl of rubber bands---even a bird's nest of ten different colors of embroidery thread from the bottom of the basket, and sit down with them like petting a cat.

She’d smack her gum a little, adjust her glasses on her nose from time to time, and hand you back a neat skein or bundle or length or rolled-on-a-toilet-paper-roll hank of ribbon, as smooth and shining as new. When she'd finished all the untangling, she'd take all the ribbon into the house, remove the shade from a lamp, and "iron" the ribbon across the top of the lightbulb, running it gently back and forth like a shoeshine boy's rag. Way later, when I was in my teens, I and all my girlfriends took up wearing ponytails, and I taught them the lightbulb-iron trick.

And what that woman could do with a jewelry-box full of granny-knotted chains as delicate and stubborn as tangled hair! She just Knew How. And she was one of a kind---I don’t believe I’ve ever met or heard of anyone with that particular talent before or since. That’s too bad; we could use more knot-smoothing these days, I think. Of all kinds.