Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Reading List

Summertime is reading time, that's what mother used to say.

She loved to lie in the sun and read paperback novels while my younger sister and I splashed about in a kiddie pool in the backyard.

Mother was a compulsive reader and every time she finished a book she would proudly proclaim: Now that was the best book I have ever read.  Until she finished another book, then that became the best book she had ever read. So the cycle continued, for an entire summer, reading, splashing, sunburns, and paperback novels flapping in the wind.

Of all the books mother ever read, the one that resides most in my memory is Herman Wouk's The Winds of War.

One tranquil July, sprinklers swishing and lawnmowers humming in the distance, mother put her swimsuit on and went outside to sunbathe and finish reading The Winds of War. Hours passed while my younger siblings and I frolicked about. Until finally, down to the very last page, mother got up for just a moment - as many avid readers do, in order to give reverence and pause before finishing a good book, until she finally, mother returned and found our dog, Deacon, gnawing and slobbering all over her book, and the very last page was missing. 

This was tragic, I remember thinking to myself. Up until that point in time Old Yeller had been the longest book I had ever read and it seemed like a tome. I couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to read something so long as this and not be able to finish the very last page. "Whatever will you do?" I remember consoling my mother. We had no money to buy a new book. The library was closed and lord knew no one else in our nonliterary circle of friends had this atrociously long novel lying about.

But mother was a sly one. Swiftly she threw on a blouse and some flip flops, hurried my younger brother and sister and I into a nineteen-sixties station wagon and nary a word, drove like a mad woman down to the local drugstore where she strutted in, sunburned, bare-legged and resolute, three soggy kids in tow, straight toward a spinning rack of books, picked up The Winds Of War, read the very last page then gently placed it back upon the rack, turned, and strutted out the door again.

Three elderly townsmen stared, jaws agape, at this spectacle they had just witnessed. As our dusty Ford Station Wagon eased from the curb, mother proudly proclaimed, "Now that was the best book I have ever read."

I was impressed with my mother that day and never forgot The Winds of War. And years later, during a late night game of Trivial Pursuit, before my husband's drunken college buddy could slur the words from his mouth, I knew the answer to "Who wrote The Winds of War?"

It was rare moments like these when I cherished my kooky, crafty mother the most. She didn't give me much, but she instilled in me a love of reading and books and for that I will be eternally grateful.

So what's on your summer reading list?

Nothing so long as The Winds Of War, I hope.

I am in need of some ideas.

These are the books I have read thus far and am happy to report that I recommend all three:

If you haven't read Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day then you are in for a treat.

The Optimist's Daughter is a classic that does not disappoint.

And My Cousin Rachel was worth feeling like a zombie the next day after staying up all night to finish.

Anymore suggestions?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Henry and Edith

As a society, we seem to be stuck in the fast lane. 

Busy, these days, seems to be the norm.
Sometimes I feel as if I must convey an illusion of busyness just because one feels inferior if one is not busy. Heaven forbid one has a quiet moment with nothing to do but set beside a pond and think and read a book.

If Thoreau could see us today ... 
That is what I keep telling myself.

But I know better.
Things were probably just as hectic in Thoreau's time as they are now.

Because, if there is one thing I have learned from reading books it is that mankind, over time, has changed very little.

Thoreau escaped to Walden's pond and wrote "Our life is frittered away by detail. ... Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!"

Conversely, in a trance of endless social engagements and mindless activities, Edith Wharton wrote Twilight Sleep, a book about a family trying to escape the boredom and emptiness of life by living in a very busy world.

Now that I think about it, these two writers had a great deal in common.
Thoreau died in 1862. Edith was born in 1862. One began where the other left off. 

And each wrote about, and were keenly aware of, the fact that mankind, throughout time, has struggled with this burden of busyness.

So, I wonder, has mankind always been this busy? Or are we just busy being mankind?

I know Thoreau well.
Not through his books. 
Oh, I tried reading Walden once and all I could think of was Show me the damn pond! So I can throw myself in and spare myself the agony of this book(!).  No, I know Thoreau because I live with him. My husband is Thoreau. He could spend two years setting beside a pond. Come to think of it, when we were dating, I lived beside a pond. And while my future husband was pretending to visit me, I now realize that he was much more interested in fishing at my family pond. Hmm... Should have been a sign.

Perhaps then, there is no coincidence that Thoreau and hubby share the same birthday.

And, coincidentally, Edith Wharton and I share the same birthday.
Each author was keenly aware of the fact that life had become too busy, too fast-paced, and too complicated in these modern times. 

Henry and Edith were definitely ahead of their time.

Hubby and I also share another trait with these two authors, and that is a love of place.
While Thoreau loved Walden's pond and preferred a simple life in the woods, Wharton, on the other hand, appreciated the finer things in life and lived in a mansion and wrote The Decoration Of Houses. So, I guess, it should come as no surprise that hubby prefers the country life, while I prefer the city with beautiful architecture and cultural activities.

Wharton split her time between The Mount and Europe, both with extraordinary gardens and cultural activities. 

Thoreau, on the other hand, spent two years living on an isolated pond in the woods. 

zzzz ... zzzz...

So, here we are, Hubby and I, the modern day equivalent of Henry and Edith. Both sharing the same birthdays as these two authors and, like these two authors, complete opposites, coming together through place and time with absolutely nothing in common but a love of place and an appreciation of books.  

Next month we will be married twenty-nine years. It's a union of mutual respect. I respect the fact that he likes to go fishing and wander about in the woods. He respects the fact that I am a town mouse and prefer cafes and libraries and big old houses on tree-lined streets.

So, I guess the moral of the story is, before marrying, research famous authors born on your future spouses birthday. 

It's a good indicator of personality.
                                                                Edith Wharton 


Henry David Thoreau

I think there's a resemblance!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Cake Knife

Happy belated Mother's Day.

My children have finally begun to leave the proverbial nest and I was feeling a bit sentimental this year, which is unusual for me.

I have been thinking a lot about my own mother whom I haven't seen in a very long time.

She was a kooky gal and they never made Mother's Day cards to fit her.

I could go on telling you about my mother, but there's no use doing that, because you already know my mother.

My mother is the amalgamation of almost every single character that the actress Shirley Maclaine has ever played.


Terms Of Endearment
That opening scene where Aurora climbs into the crib, pinches the baby to make certain it's breathing and then, reassured, walks away. My mother. In fact, every single scene including that final screaming at the nurses, totally my mother.

Postcards From The Edge
My mother was not an alcoholic, but I am certain that Shirley must have been channeling her during the filming of this movie. The resemblance is uncanny. And that pivotal scene where she "twirls" her skirt. So my mother.

Steel Magnolias
Dear cranky, crabby, dog-loving Weezer, the embodiment of my mother. The author who wrote, I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years, most certainly must have known my mother.

Now take all these characters and add in some real life Shirley along with a few UFOs and some ghosts, and you've pretty much got my mother to a tee. With her there was never a dull moment. But the thing that saddens me most is how hard mother tried at being normal, but normalcy, somehow, eluded her. 

I'll never forget the dinner party mother threw back in the seventies.

On a whim, mother invited a co-worker and her co-workers husband over for dinner one evening. Now, to most people, dinner with a couple of friends on a nice summer's eve is no big deal. Tidy up the house, throw some burgers on ... it isn't rocket science. But for my mother, rocket science would have been easier. Small, domestic chores annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life, and somehow this profession had instilled in her zero tolerance and very little patience for mundane, day-to-day activities. Our home was an eternal mess and most weeks grocery shopping and cooking were afterthoughts. Thus leaving my younger brother and sister and I scrounging on raw macaroni and giant gobs of peanut butter straight from the jar as after school snacks.

As a homemaker and decorator, mother always felt woefully inadequate. Yet with this looming dinner party, she became eager to clean up the place and try to impress her new so-called friends. So after much fussing and fretting, we all began the arduous task of readying the house for honored guests. Which meant that, by the time illustrious guests arrived, mother had made our lives and virtually anyone else's who'd dared cross her path, completely and utterly miserable.

Now most people on the day of a dinner party tend to last minute details like cooking, setting the table and tidying up. Not my mother. She had delusions of grandeur and tried to throw an entire years worth of housekeeping and interior decorating into a single day. We shampooed carpets, moved pictures, rearranged furniture, washed windows, ironed curtains, dusted, cleaned, and otherwise hid the junk. We unfortunately had become so caught up in the cleaning process that cooking and dinner itself had become an afterthought. No bother. Mother was intent on having this party and she was going to cook, entertain and be her version of a traditional nineteen-fifties housewife and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture was going to deter her goddammit!

Next came the staging. For reasons I will never fully understand, mother sorely wanted to impress her newfound friends, so the house had to be perfect. Which meant, in her mind, conveying the illusion of a casual mess, of intelligent, domestic artists living in a nineteen-seventies farmhouse with a garden and jars of jam cheerfully awaiting in the cupboard. This was so unlike our house. So after a manic cleaning spree, mother ordered me to drag my plastic portable Singer sewing machine down from the closet and place it conspicuously on the table in the den along with an art book and her Merck Manual. (What that had to do with anything, I'll never know.) Then mother strategically placed potted plants and more books around the house while I scoured the kitchen for a set of matching, un-chipped dinner plates.

By the end of the day we were exhausted. But for a moment all seemed well. The house was shaping up and dinner was coming together. This party just may be a success after all, I thought to myself. But mother was an irascible woman and the longer she prepared for said dinner party and honored guests, the more she began to resent them: "How dare they come to my home and make me do all this work" she muttered while peeling potatoes

It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of pot roast, carrots and potatoes haphazardly cooked in a dented metal cake pan along with an iceberg lettuce salad with Ott's French dressing, canned vegetables, store bought rolls, and the guest was bringing dessert.

Beyond this I recall little about the evening. I left soon after the guests arrived. I could not bear to stay and watch my mother - a person more inclined to conversations on matters of life and death -make small talk. It exhausted her. My role this evening had been strictly service. I had cooked, cleaned, thrown her a lifeboat, now it was up to her to row herself in.

There was one thing I do recall, however, about the evening. Minute in detail, but enormous in scope.

Just as the sun slipped behind the distorted elms and cast it's shadowy tendrils across the lawn, a perfectly coiffed, unwearied guest teetered out a white Ford sedan and presented my mother with a towering vanilla cake. And, along with the cake, she had had the forethought to bring (dum-ta-dum!) a cake knife.

Now a cake knife is a benign thing, a trivial little piece of kitchen arsenal with no inherent value. But in my mother's post-nineteen-fifties world this had become heavy artillery. This was "big time." This lady owned a cake knife. This meant organized, responsible, an outfitted kitchen. We, on the other hand, were just a bunch of hacks. I remember it well: serrated, fake ivory handle, elegant but efficient, even at the tender age of seventeen I coveted this knife(!). To my mother it represented all that she had failed to live up to in her dolefully inadequate life.

My mother's kitchen had been fitted with odds and ends, mismatched utensils, melted Tupperware lids, rusty cheese graters and dented dime store pans. It had never occurred to her to purchase something so extravagant as a cake knife. So when this wide-eyed, gullible, cake knife wielding guest appeared out of her car and stepped up onto my mother's porch one fateful summer's eve,  I looked into my mothers eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen utensil had became a reflection upon which all was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life. I knew instantly that the party was over and there was nothing left to do but carry on with the show. Mother never threw another dinner party and it was a long time before we had cake in our house again.

On a brighter note, Mother loved a good salad. And in the summertime we feasted on fresh vegetables from my grandparents garden.

If I could, I would go back in time and prepare this salad for my mother's dinner party. I found the Romaine, green onions, and even the cherry tomatoes at the farmers market today.

To satisfy the men in my life, I topped it with pan fried chicken strips, homemade croutons, and a local Colby-jack cheese.

This salad dressing is a winner. I like to make it in a Mason jar and store it in the refrigerator.
You may have noticed the spice container in the photo: Target's Simply Organic dried basil.

I know, I've committed a mortal sin. But I went to three different stores today, all of which were out of fresh basil. And I felt this was a vital component to the recipe, so I substituted. And, well, it wasn't bad. So, in a pinch, do what you gotta do.

Icebox Buttermilk Dressing
adapted from Art Smith's Back To The Table
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup mayo
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped rinsed capers
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil (or 1/2 teaspoon dried basil)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt and hot red pepper sauce, to taste
Place all ingredients in a jar and shake well to blend. (Keeps about a week in the fridge.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Chickens Sweeping Down The Plain

Rogers and Hammerstein certainly knew Oklahoma when they wrote those famous lyrics ...the wind comes sweeping down the plain.
It not only sweeps, it howls, gusts, blusters, tornadoes, and sandblasts. But most of all, it just blows, a lot, all the time.

My brother called today.
He's a true Okie through and through.
He lives on the other side of the state.
The converstation went something like this ...

Me: Hello! Little Brother!

Little Brother: How ya doin', sister Michelle?!

(I use exclamation points because we are a loud, goofy family.)

Me: Pretty good! What are you up to?

Little Brother: Oh, I had to take a horse to the vet today and now I'm just settin here, doin' nothin', starin' at the Oklahoma prairie.
Me: Sure is windy!
(At this point I must add that my brother and I live on opposite sides of the state. But if it is windy at my house, it is most certainly windy at his house, too. Like the song says, the wind comes sweeping down the plain. And it sweeps clean cross the state.)
Little Brother: Well at least the chickens aren't blowing yet.
Me confused: Chickens blowing???
Brother: Yeah, one time a storm 'picked up' and it blew so hard that the chickens went tumbling across the yard like tumbleweeds. So now, that's our wind gage. If the chickens aren't blowing, we figure it's not too bad.
Me chuckling: Poor Chickens(!).
Brother: Only in Oklahoma(!).
Me: I think there's a redneck joke somewhere in that.

This is Little Jerry Seinfeld. He has a girlfriend named Elaine.
My brother has lots of chickens.
He and his wife like to give them funny names.
One day my husband came home and I told him, Jerry Seinfeld died.
My husband, clearly confused, was very upset.
Not the actor, I said, The chicken.
My hubby knows only a family as nutty as mine would name their chickens after television personalities.
My brother also has a rather amorous rooster named Bill Clinton.

And two goats - Bert and Ernie.
My seven year old nephew named them.
And people wonder why we call their place the Funny Farm.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Miss Dahl's Kitchen

In a perfect world I world, I would be like the gal in the picture below: a tall glamorous super model living in a cozy English cottage with the most adorable kitchen and a farmhouse sink. 

As it happens, I barely stand five foot three, live in a suburban rental with a dark, inadequate kitchen and a tiny Holly Hobbie sink. Oh, well.

But we can always dream, right?

And that is what I did when I watched these clips from England's latest cooking show The Delicious Miss Dahl. A younger, blonder Nigella, with some nostalgic music thrown in. I found myself glued to these clips on You Tube, just to see the beautifully busy British kitchen. Yes it is a bit cluttered for my taste, but for some reason, I really liked it.

I have a feeling, however, that men aren't tuning in to see the cute, country kitchen. They're looking at the former, gorgeous super model Miss Dahl who just so happens to be the granddaughter of Roald Dahl the famous author.

A lot of people here in the states may not be familiar with Sophie Dahl. She is from England and along with her new show has a cookbook Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights. Her grandfather was the author Roald Dahl, and her grandmother the actress Patricia Neal. Roald Dahl wrote James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and my favorite, The Witches, all of which have been made into movies. My kids loved The Witches. We've read the book twice and watched the movie at least a hundred times.

Anyway, I am bummed because Miss Dahl's new television show, The Delicious Miss Dahl, only airs on BBC 2 and I can't get it here. There's just something about those British cookery shows that draw me in. They make me want to set down in their kitchen with a cup of tea and hang out a while. They seem a little more laid back than our American cooking shows. And best of all, they show us that a women can be smart, and sexy, and cook, all without having to be a size three.

I am hoping Food Network will eventually pick this one up. But in the mean time, I'll keep my eye out for more episodes online.

Anyone else out there watch cooking shows just to see the kitchens like I do?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I Hate Peas

Dad sets at the head of the table and likes to watch The Porter Wagner Show while he eats supper.

I am in the first grade. Home alone with my father, eating supper which includes a giant helping of stinky, mushy, grayish canned peas. Peas repulse me. I am not allowed to get up from the table until I eat the peas. Thus the battle ensues. I squinch my face and try feeding them to the dog. But Dad catches on and throws the dog out.

Slowly, the minutes tick by. I set at the table with my feet dangling. Dad sets in his arm chair like a despot on a throne. He seems taller. I am getting bored with this standoff but the more my father presses, the more repulsive the peas become. By now they are not only mushy and stinky, but cold as well, and there is no way in hell I am going to eat those peas.

Its seems like we've been setting for hours. Dad is cajoling, threatening, even bribing me to eat the damn peas. But I am obstinate and never realized vegetables wielded such power.

Time is strange and I have no recollection of how this ordeal ended. But I think it was with my dad in exasperation because, to this day, I have never eaten a single pea. And dad and I never went to battle over food again.

Occasionally, at family reunions, when he is in a jovial mood, Dad will say, "Michelle, have you eaten any peas?" And I always respond, "No dad, I haven't. I won that battle."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thomas Keller It

One hectic day, my son was late getting out the door, so I offered to make his sandwich.

I sliced the bread, slathered the mayo, layered the turkey and lettuce, taking care to make it just right for my pickiest child.

Suddenly, perturbed and in a rush, my son growled, "Mom, you don't have to Thomas Keller it."

Now we don't exactly set around talking about Thomas Keller all the time, so I was surprised that my son even knew who Thomas Keller was.

And this sandwich I was making was nowhere near the level of a Thomas Keller sandwich. Not even close. But Thomas Keller is an icon for perfection and my grown OCD son can certainly relate to that. So whenever my son takes the time to make something really special, like driving 30 miles to a meat market just to get the perfect steak, he calls it, "Thomas Kellering it."

Or such was my case, putting a little extra effort into a regular run-of-the-mill sandwich.

We both had a little chuckle because we have never eaten at a Thomas Keller restaurant and I am pretty sure we never will, unfortunately. :(

But the term has stuck. And to this day, we get a kick out of "Thomas Kellering it."

I tried this Thomas Keller recipe a while back Ad Hoc's Rice With Roasted Cauliflower.  And my kids loved it.

It was pretty much a meal in itself.