Definitely One For the Books

One sticky August Virginia day, my boyfriend and I sat on an open tailgate, snacking on apples and trying to beat the heat while a legal representative from a nearby bookstore read us a subpoena. What kids get up to these days, right?

This is the story of my mother’s book launch,

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featuring a bunch of literature-loving yogis, an overdose of sugar, and a bookstore that doubles as a law firm. After a couple years of arduous editing and nearly two decades of subjecting her children to her foodie Frankenstein kitchen persona, my mother’s first book (of many), Dear Opl, was published. (Shameless plug: go buy it if you haven’t already. If you have children, they will find it funny. If you don’t, the cover art is pretty. Also, my name is in the dedication. So, it’s worth it.)

Flash back four hours. I sat in the kitchen, next to the carefully packed box of 100 apples that the glorious Whole Foods–health grocery store supreme– had kindly donated to support the fresh fruit cult. Mom waltzed in and asked if I thought 9-13-year-olds, the intended audience of her book, would find her look approachable. I told her to maybe switch out the “eat good food or you will die alone” shirt, and with that, we were off, rocketing along the back roads with a box of books and apples.

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We got to the bookstore, (I won’t name names, so let’s just call it Yarns & Global), unpacked and settled into the throne that had been allocated to the signing. My mother immediately began walling herself inside a fort of brightly colored books while I set up the box of scrumptious apples. Two minutes later, a wild customer service employee appeared, eyeing the apple box skeptically. Apparently, in the kingdom of Darns & Mobile, only packaged food may be served at events. Especially when the event in question centers around replacing packaged food with fresh food. But hey, who doesn’t love a bit of legalistic irony with their grassroots campaign? And my mother, being the resourceful person she is, simply relocated me to right outside the kingdom’s borders, where I was to sit, with a stool and a box of apples, to reward purchasers with a healthy snack.

Inside Narnia & Bobbles:

My mother greeted arriving family members and tried to prevent my grandmother from stuffing half of the gardening section into her purse.

Outside Narnia & Bobbles:

I was just preparing to cart out the apples when curses, foiled again by customer service. Apparently, the kingdom’s borders extend beyond its four walls. I reassured them I would move farther out into the wrath of the burning hot sun with my fifty-pound load of poisoned apples.

Inside Brawns & Foibles:

Half of my mother’s yoga class stood in line for a signed copy of the book. People purchased copies for their grandchildren, nieces and nephews on the other side of the country. Mom signed and signed, making up a different spelling of “Bon Appétit” each time.

Outside Brawns & Foibles:

Another genius idea: relocate to the back of Mom’s car in the parking lot, in plain view of exiting customers. I recruited the loyal boyfriend to keep me company as I sat on the tailgate, handing out free little parcels of arsenic while the sun threatened to knock me out.

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Inside Narnyness & Boblitude:

Small, eager children swarmed around my mother, attracted by the scrumptious chocolate bar on the cover. One child told her about the mermaid novel she was currently engrossed in while another inquired about library availability and stuffed his pockets with some signed bookmarks – prime merch. If she keeps this up, she’ll have the weirdest little fan club of third graders sporting “think global eat local” bumper stickers on their lunchboxes.

Outside Narnyness & Boblitude:

Some poor guy sent by the evil overlord of the kingdom’s legal department stood in front of me, hands shaking, reading me a cease and desist. With heavy hearts, we conceded the victory of World War III to our enemies. May we live to solicit another day.

When the lady could sign no longer, we piled into the car, down a bucket of books, and headed off to a celebration dinner of burgers and milkshakes. Then additional festivities ensued where Grandma provided a massive fondant cake in the shape of the book. And finally we landed in our kitchen, where I test-baked three batches of different cookies. Her campaign slogan may have been “connect with your inner good food dude” but mine (and Grandma’s) was “free the free sugars.”

(BRAG TIME: I MADE PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE STUFFED MOLASSES COOKIES, NUTELLA STUFFED OATMEAL CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES, AND THE BEST %$#*ING BROWN BUTTER OATMEAL WALNUT COOKIES STUFFED WITH PEANUT BUTTER AND CARAMEL. OPEN FOR DISCUSSION – SHOULD I DROP OUT OF COLLEGE AND OPEN A BAKERY?)

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*dons serious face*

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It is a truly marvelous thing to see a community united in support of a well-intentioned project and its pioneer. If I know my mother, I know that she will never stop engaging everyone she meets in good books and good food. I hope to see all of you at her second book launch, which will most likely take place upon an actual launching rocket ship and … there will be cookies.

On an unrelated note, if anyone would like some freshly made applesauce, we have a few tanks to spare.

~Chloe

*ROBIN GOTT’s NEW POST* (click) 

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

Why I Wrote DEAR OPL – Part 2

*Just a heads up to anyone new joining in–this is not my typical blog post. This is part 2 of 3 for a speech I’m preparing and posting here to get valuable feedback from my community. If you’re interested in joining in (and I so hope you are), and you’ve not had a chance to read part 1, you might want to take a minute and get up to speed. I look forward to hearing what all of you have to say. It’s been wonderfully worthy thus far!

 

So let’s talk about the foul new four letter word that’s getting everyone’s knickers in a twist. FOOD.

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  1. Our diets have drastically changed form.

So much of what we used to eat was effortlessly easy to identify by using just one word to define it. For instance: apples, squash, lentils, pecans. Now the western diet needs a box to hold it in and a label to identify it with.

And a chemist to explain it all.

More and more of our food is processed with ingredients that most seventh graders aren’t allowed to handle without plastic gloves, eye goggles, and their science teacher in attendance.

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It happened right beneath our noses. As a kid, I remember the hour and a half of effort I’d spend making brownies—with the flour, the sugar, the butter and eggs, the melting of chocolate and the teaspoons of vanilla and salt and baking powder.

And almost overnight it changed. It’s now a box, an egg, and a splash of water from the faucet. It’s not so much food anymore as it is a magic trick no one really wants to pull back the curtain on and spoil. Not that spoiling is a concern any longer as science has discovered a way to make a fast food hamburger last longer than most marriages.

Reading nutrition labels dredges up memories of your earliest years in grammar school sounding out new words, and also proves to be a test of one’s grasp of the periodic table of elements. Plus, the regulations for what our government is allowing into our food and defining as food live in a murky swamp and are up for interpretation by the manufacturer.

That old line stating That which does not kill us makes us stronger, should be revised to read:

That which does not kill us—because the studies are ongoing and are being run by folks who have a vested interest in their financial outcome—does not kill us …yet.

Our food of today is no longer the food it was fifty years ago. A carrot is no longer a carrot. Chicken is no longer chicken. A hunk of fabulous chocolate cake is still the sugar bomb it was no matter how long ago it was made, but that’s sort of a given and doesn’t serve my argument. And my point is that things have changed in the food growing world.

Our soils are depleted. Our animals are fed unnatural food meant to supersize them toward growth and not health. We’ve introduced pesticides into our diets that have altered our endocrine function. We’ve stripped off minerals and vitamins from processed foods and have replaced them with chemicals meant to give them a shelf life rivaling the length of time it would take you to read off the numerical value of pi.

Some of the ingredients added into our foods today are ones not meant to contribute to our health or the food’s supermarket shelf endurance, but rather the perceived value of the manufacturer’s product.

We’re talking weight.

And just as WEIGHT is the hefty issue we’re struggling with here globally, putting additives into food that give it extra bulk and substance is a widespread technique used across the food industry. Cellulose, an indigestible fiber made from wood pulp, is a common item you’ll find in most processed foods. Supermarket bread, bags of shredded cheese, barbecue sauce and ice cream.

Yep, ice cream too.

Have yourself a Blue Bell country day. (Embrace nature. Hug a tree. Better yet, eat one.)

Carvel Ice Cream. It’s what happy tastes like. (And trees.)

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I could go on snarkily updating ice cream slogans, but the point I’d like to highlight is that cellulose has no nutritional value and our government food regulators have no policies regarding its use in manufacturing. Thus far scientists have determined that eating it in small quantities is what they’ve labeled as GRAS – Generally Regarded As Safe. And even if this remains to be so, it still points to the unhealthy practice of eating food that is deficient of the valuable nutrients we want and need for ourselves and our children.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of other things food makers are slipping into the ingredient lists of their products these days:

Binders and extenders—nonmeat products used to create bulk and texture.

Coloring agents Blue #1 and #2, Yellow #5 and #6, and Red #40—a rainbow of creativity if your goal is to eat the Nickelodeon television channel.

Azodicarbonamide, or ADA—a funky little compound that keeps your bread spongy and your yoga mat squishy.

And don’t forget growth hormones—feedlot operators’ kitschy little answer to America’s question, “Where’s the beef?”

There is a solid handful of folks who are vocal and persuasive when illuminating the presence of these additives in hundreds of food items today. They draw attention from the press and the population occasionally takes note. Sometimes manufacturers stand up and defend their choices and sometimes they pull the worrisome ingredient from their recipe and replace it with something else. Oftentimes food scientists will jump in, provide a little data and the fire dies down—that is until a few more rats die, enough signatures on a petition are accumulated, or an organization’s lobbying funds dry up.

If you look behind the grand kerfuffle made about alarming ingredients, you’ll see the main message is simply that food manufacturers are putting unnecessary chemicals and compounds into our grub and there are alternatives.

Next let’s talk about the research, the studies, and the dry and brittle data. It’s WHAT WE KNOW.

  1. Architects are growing worried that they are building houses with an expensive and worthless room.

Kitchens are full of cobwebs. For many school-aged children, breakfast is skipped or breakfast and lunch are eaten at school. Dinner is handed over through the driver’s side window. And the new dinner plate is a cardboard box or bucket. Millions of kids are looking at a fork and a knife with the same confused look on their face when handed a pen or a pencil.

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Food education used to come from the home. Our grandmothers painstakingly took the time to write down the recipes that were crafted and perfected by the generations before them. Houses had gardens, produce markets were plentiful and dinner was a scheduled event that you showed up for rain or shine.

We learned how to shuck corn, peel potatoes and pinch a pie crust. You watched the bread rise, carved a chicken and got your hands slapped away if you tried to steal a cookie that was still cooling on a half sheet.

Now I’m not suggesting everyone return to churning butter and dig themselves a root cellar, but I find it unsettling that way too many children do not realize that chickens actually have bones.

Food is the most marvelous thing in the way that it’s often attached to the meaningful events in our lives. Birthdays. Holidays. Dates. Parties.  And we count on it for all the meals that are nothing more than something that satisfies an urge or are simply a scheduled time of day activity. An appreciated break from our busy lives. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Growing up, food was incredibly important to my family for many different reasons. I came from a clan of six and although I can’t recall ever going hungry because we didn’t have enough to eat, there were a few times when funds were quite tight and I chose to go hungry because of what was on offer.

To stretch a dollar and a pound of ground beef, my mom would creatively find all sorts of fillers—tofu was one and soy protein was another. She was quite ahead of her time. Powdered milk was cheap and showed up repeatedly—and I don’t care how you disguise it, it had about as much tastebud appeal as liquid cardboard.

As my family ancestry was Polish, my folks oftentimes introduced us to unusual foods that in my opinion would likely have had the offspring of scavenging beasts raise an eyebrow when encouraged to eat it by their parents. Blood seemed to be an ingredient in way too many things for your average nine-year-old’s comfort. I began thinking I should truthfully detail my family’s heritage as part Polish, part vampiric.

Of course, growing up where I did in the Midwest, many folks were hunters, and one evening a platter of what my folks labeled “tiny chicken” showed up on the kitchen table. It did not take me and my siblings long to figure out why my mom was no longer complaining about the unruly squirrel population taking over her summer garden.

And lastly, my mother’s favorite extender of any meal—cream of mushroom soup. Detesting mushrooms was a hobby of mine, and finding these spores in my food became an obsession. After highlighting my childhood foodscape, it’s not so surprising to see how I began to grow incredibly suspicious of all my food. I wanted to know the answer to a very important question:

What’s in it?

~~~~~~~

*I hope you’ll come back next week for part 3. And I hope you may consider offering your thoughts thus far.

Cheers everyone!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate

When hearing the term “spring break” many of us easily conjure up the images of families taking off for that one last round of late winter skiing, or finding a child-friendly cruise, with wallet-friendly options. We see ourselves organizing the garage, and sifting through closets, a cathartic cleanse that gifts us new space. And it’s especially easy to picture a throng of college students making their way en masse toward sandy white beaches far removed from the cramped, windowless lecture halls they’ve occupied through dark winter months.

But this year spring break was anything but the above depictions. For me, that is. And I think for my daughter too.

This year I spent the time uneasy and restless, tense and observant. I spent it hoping to hear the words in someone else’s thoughts. I needed to measure the struggle, my daughter’s level of distress.

Her campus was in crisis mode, all parents on high alert. The same lamentable word refused to be muted, would not release its steadfast grip.

Suicide.

It is a word that strikes through the strength of a family and weakens the backbone of a community. It is an action that brings us to our knees with the senseless loss from an unheard cry.

Chronic stress is a familiar disease most every college student is acquainted with. Its unforgiving malady inflicts academic anxiety, depletes crucial sleep, and unleashes widespread social struggles, challenging our children to fit in somewhere new in someplace foreign.

A known and nerve-wracking fact among parents and educators, the leading cause of death among university students is suicide. The statistics are varied, and we brace ourselves to hear of the wretched news. One is horrifically tragic. A second is a spreading concern.

But five?

Five within one year? And all on one campus.

It left me desperate to talk to my child … and to hear my child talk.

I wanted her home, with me where I could see her. But I forced a stillness within myself, remembering that she was attempting to build herself a new home. To stretch and redefine who she was. To discover where she will next belong.

We’d speak on the phone. I’d offer her words. But words are paltry and may only provide an anemic effect. It’s nearly impossible to feel you are getting an accurate reading in a situation such as this. It is a terrible tug of war. The wanting. The wanting to rush someplace and fix something. But that is not always the answer.

Your answer is not always their answer.

In the last 19 ½ years I have known this child, a few things have bubbled to the surface to claim the top box if she were filling out an application profile, describing who she is. It’s likely she’d say:

A scientist

A musician

An activist

But there is a tiny little baker buried deep inside her that materializes when in desperate need to combat ironfisted stress.

When spring break arrived, I met her at the airport. Encased in a hug that I hoped echoed a million words of warmth, I breathed her in. I’d missed the spice of her hair, the honeyed notes of her perfume.

I took her home—and not to a beach, the garage or the slopes. To no great surprise her personal Pillsbury Doughboy punched in daily on his flour-dusted time clock. Within minutes of arriving, he had transformed my kitchen into a satellite city patisserie.

Dorms consider a communal kitchen to be a closet with a microwave from 1957. College cafeterias are considered fresh and contemporary if they could advertise they’ve been cooking ‘nose to tail’ recipes long before it was considered hip, and were nearly certain there was a fork somewhere in the utensil bin that was dedicated as “peanut free.”

Winters can be bleak and mournful if the closest you can come to home cooking are dorm room banned candles crafted to smell like meatloaf and chocolate chip cookies.

My kitchen became an invisible big-bosomed therapist, warm from the heat of the oven, smelling of Madagascar vanilla, and costing a considerable amount of money which insurance companies would never reimburse under the umbrella of preventative healthcare.

It didn’t matter.

I savored the fact that she was home. And day by day the smudgy, dark circles beneath her eyes—the circles I at first took for a potential dabble into a late teen Goth phase, but knew were the result of a schedule where sleep was rarely granted before 3am—slowly faded. I would not have been surprised to see her drop her bag at the end of her childhood bed, fall prone and not rise until I told her it was time to head back.

But there was that urge to bake. To turn the bitter into sweet.

Every day the pantry was scoured, the fridge was raided, and recipe books were consulted. Every day something fragrant appeared in finished form, its come hither whispers accompanied by an invisible finger, crooked and beckoning.

There were mounds of muffins and breads, cookies and tarts. Chocolate covered confections and lime zested pies. Graham crackers married sticks of butter and served as a crumbly hug for whatever they embraced. Coconuts and pecans toasted themselves beneath the fiery, wiry heat of a broiler set to suntan. Apples, dates, bananas and carrots had every gram of sugar coaxed out of them with the deep calm of an individual lazily spinning through the quiet hours of an unnoticed afternoon.

Day by day, ample perfumes mingled with each other to signify a steadily budding state of grace.

Taste this.

Eat that.

Try those.

Little words, big flavors, potential aid promising relief.

Every day I told myself, Okay, either she’s going to run out of steam, or I’m going to run out of ingredients. The end is near.

The “End” did not arrive until I returned her and her tiny duffle bag to the airport where she was soon whisked back to seven more weeks of muddling through those stressors she’d left; the disquieting uneasiness locked behind a dorm room door and strewn about a grief-stricken campus.

The list of things I have to offer this child may be rapidly diminishing in terms of parental care, but there is still comfort. I will hold what she cannot contain, I will hear what she cannot say, and I will eat what she cannot finish.

She may not have had a traditional respite from school this year, less spring break more spring bake. But I hope it was what she needed.

When I walk into a space that is filled with the heady aroma of caramelizing sugar, I am immediately reminded of my daughter. Transported to a nearly tangible encounter, it is at once comforting and then painful. It is something I wish I could return to those heartbroken parents—the unmistakable scent of their child.

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~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Family Ties That Tug

Palace of Westminster.

Palace of Westminster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will be in London for Thanksgiving this year.

For me, it’s the second worst day of the year to be in London. The first, of course, is the Fourth of July. Sir Sackier made a practice of “accidentally” arranging family summer holidays so we’d be out of the country during America’s annual celebration of freedom from the British. We’d usually find ourselves ensconced within the warren of London’s streets, dazed from playing Follow the Leader where The Leader regularly forgot he had a family of three—jet-lagged and cranky—pulling up the rear.

One can’t expect the British to be all, “U-rah-rah!” over helping traveling Americans celebrate a page in the history books they might want to tear out and use as fire starter. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of picking at a scab. To Sir Sackier, it remains an open, festering wound.

550d - London - Churchill at Big Ben London

550d – London – Churchill at Big Ben London (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

To compensate, three quarters of the family were often found slumping against one another in cavernous museums, led by our own family monarch as he enlightened our weak-muscled minds about the hundreds of years of British invention and innovation. Surprisingly, there are quite a few dark corners in Churchill’s bunker where one can catch a quick kip.

Regardless, there’s an ever-increasing number of American expats living in the land of palaces and prisons. And because many of my countrymen have found it near impossible to be more than fifty feet from the big-boothed safe haven of chain restaurants, and because eateries find catering to the appetite of their diners a no-brainer in helping to pay their electric bills, locating an establishment willing to rustle up some Turkey Day grub is easier than imagined.

Whether they go for a dressed down sort of experience and order a McGobble-Gobble, or they get all gussied up and search out a big bird with all the trimmings, Americans are offered plenty of places willing to pull together the makings for a slice of comfort pie.

But it won’t be the same.

Line art drawing of Pteranodon.

Instead of man-handling a thirty-two pound turkey/pterodactyl into a Kmart kiddie swimming pool for a 24 hour soak in our own version of the Dead Sea, a tradition I’ve always cherished doing with my mom the night before, I will lie awake in bed knowing she’ll probably have chucked a three pound turkey breast into a salt-filled ziplock bag and tossed it to the back of the fridge. Likely she’ll still make a good dent in the fifth of scotch we would use to reward ourselves for slowly moving the bird from the back of the car and onto the back porch without breaking a wing or a leg or a sweat.

Instead of waking in the morning to find my parents in my kitchen, freshly scrubbed, aprons on, knives sharpened, coffee made and ready to discover just how many things I forgot to purchase at the grocery store and will need to send Sir Sackier back out for, I will sit quietly at a table with a cup of English Breakfast and nod consolingly toward the opposite end of the table where my husband grows increasingly shocked at the price of petrol, the loss of traditional values and how the American debt crisis could be solved if one English footballer simply donated three or four week’s pay.

Pie-Making - transferring the dough

Pie-Making – transferring the dough (Photo credit: CaptPiper)

Instead of kneading, rolling and crimping seven pie crusts using seven unique “no fail” recipes with the hope that at least two of them will “no fail,” I will contemplate the possibility that my mother will have decided to forgo pie altogether and simply give everyone their own pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a spoon in place of all the fuss.

Rather than hiding the salt from my mother just before she makes the gravy—who by late afternoon has lost all taste receptors that report salinity on her tongue due to her third jug of scalding coffee (okay, and maybe the cask strength single malt scotch, capable of scraping the tartar off of anyone’s teeth)–I will disembark from the bowels of an underground, blink back at the bright light of day, and scan across hundreds of heads rushing in and out of the Waterloo tube station, wondering which direction Sir Sackier dashed off toward.

Schlitz

Schlitz (Photo credit: fixedgear)

Instead of collapsing into a chair once we’ve finally gotten all the food to the dining room table and nearly allowing my head to slump forward to land in a pool of mashed potatoes larger than a pig trough full of slops, I will sit staring off into space in the back of a black cab wondering if my dad will have opened up a beautiful bottle of Beaujolais to compliment his can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce or simply pulled back the tab on a can of Schlitz.

In place of gathering around the same table hours later after a post poultry nap to play Balderdash while we take turns shooing the dog out from under the table because of the nasally corrosive fumes he’s emitting, I will slip into a bed belonging to a crisply run British hotel and lie beneath covers so sharply starched I would not be surprised to find out they’d simply bleached off the words from last night’s Evening Standard.

Scène de l'Ordre de Bon Temps, Acadie (1606). ...

So although I won’t physically be in America for Thanksgiving this year, I’ll still be there.

But it won’t be the same.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

Slaughter & Mayhem. How I love November.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

During the past couple of weeks, and throughout the next month and a half, I’ll have celebrated four family members’ birthdays. Okay, one family member was celebrated twice, but she really deserved it and wasn’t totally “present” for the first gala I threw for her.  Still, I figure the event counts no matter how you look at it.

In between all these cakes, candles and moments of merriment, I have to fit in a lot of dishwashing.

Oh, and the Festival of the Dead.

I might be a pagan at heart, but not wholly. I pick and choose all the parts of Samhain I deem acceptable to participate in, and blindly wave off the others.

For instance, I will drive my sheep up from the far reaches of the meadow toward the barn to be stabled for the cold winter months ahead, but once there, they will argue like two bloated barristers, insisting that as long as I leave the cover off the grain barrel, they’ll ration themselves and keep an eye on the forecast.

I draw the line at sacrificing horses. They’re meant to represent the fire deity, Bel (or Belenos the sun god), and apparently will win back the world come springtime. But equine sacrifice is such a messy job. Plus, if you’ve ever seen dead horses, they’re really not up to winning back anything for you after you slay them.

English: Wicker man, engraving

Next, I’m happy to extinguish my hearth fire and march through the fields alongside the rest of my townspeople with the intent to kindle a new blaze from some choice sacred oak, and then take my flaming torch back to relight my home fires. The snag is that usually somebody has issued a secret declaration to reinstate the ancient rites of human sacrifice to please a few disgruntled gods, and you won’t know till you get to the big bonfire if it would have been wiser to simply stay at home and grout some tile.

Worse still is when you arrive at the glowing gala get together and find yourself looking up at a massive effigy, The Wicker Man. You hazily recall something about the forcing of not just one unlucky fellow, but a whole slew of folks into giant wood and thatched cages, along with every flavor of farm animal, some bread and honey, and a few jugs of vino. It’s only after everyone and everything is stuffed in there nice and tight that the large light bulb in your head illuminates just as a rosy glow from below sheds some extra light on all of you—in the form of a giant pyre. There’s a lot of protesting at first, but things eventually quiet down.

Martel and van Over have friends for dinner an...

Of course, most of us know that on All Hallows Eve the veil separating the dead from the living is tissue thin—see through for many if you regularly make a habit of chatting up dead relatives. I’m totally fine with that. In the ancient days of Samhain celebrations, spirits were greeted warmly from their regular gloomy, dank haunts. Everyone scooched over a bit on the couch to make room round the hearth, and a few nibbles of barley cake were offered as well as a cup of grog. Most ghosts were grateful. A few remained mulish and curmudgeonly. But who can blame them with the months of back breaking chain clanking and heavy breathing they have to repeatedly practice for the Big Night? I’m sure there are times when The Other Side is no picnic, so one should be somewhat understanding of the occasional gripe.

It's that time of year once again, Halloween u...

On the other hand, I always get a bee in my bonnet with Trick or Treating. I appreciate the historical significance—the several explanations for the favorite activity. In days of yore, one had to deal with not only a few departed relatives, but also fractious fairies and spiteful sprites. Today, our children want to keep that memory alive by participating in the pranks of these wraiths. What’s the harm in frightening the neighbors into parting with a handful of sweets, cakes or coins, right? Your choice: a few tiny terrors or a couple of confections? To me, it’s just fancy begging.

Because of my disagreeable definition, my children hate me with a particular vengeance on Halloween. Or maybe it’s the fact that I refused to take them round the neighborhood beseeching comfits of any kind. One year, after so much bellyaching, I allowed them to dress up and run around the house a few times, ringing the doorbell when they reached the front door while I rummaged through the pantry shelves, determined to find some forgotten Easter candy. It worked for a year or two. Not so much anymore.

Lastly, I welcome anything that sheds light and warmth during the ever increasing dark days of oncoming winter. Stingy Jack, or Jack of the Lantern, proves to be a piece of folklore I’ve always found entertaining.

In this old Irish tale, Jack—a tightfisted farmer—manages to trick the devil twice, resulting in one livid Beelzebub. God, who apparently watches the entire event unfold, is thoroughly annoyed by Jack’s seedy character. In the end, neither wants his company in the afterlife. He’s given the boot by both and told to head back from whence he came.

Jack-o'-lantern

Jack-o’-lantern (Photo credit: wwarby)

Apparently, Jack is a bit of a baby and still carries with him a fear of the dark. Just to prove he’s got a heart of gold, the devil tosses old Jack his version of an Everlasting Gobstopper to light his way —a lump of burning coal from the fires of Hell. Jack hollows out a turnip and wanders the earth to this day, ready to pop out of the shadows of any porch that sports a carved out pumpkin.

Kids love that story.

So as much fun as reliving my last few days has been, I’ve got to run and make another batch of barely cakes. A few of my dead relatives refuse to leave the comfort of my couch.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

The Party; prodigious promise, dismal delivery.

Car Fire

Car Fire (Photo credit: jasonbolonski)

I knew what I was going for last week when I started preparing my mother’s birthday dinner. Something warm, something autumnal, something that screamed, “Thanks for everything and I’m really sorry about setting the family car on fire that one Christmas when I was sixteen.” You know … a complete package message.

I go for the same theme each year, and each year I fall spectacularly short.

It usually starts with the number of attendees. When throwing a birthday dinner, it’s proven to be most readily appreciated if the individual whose birth you are celebrating is present (unless it’s something like Presidents’ Day or Christmas, in which one finds it unreasonable to expect the dead to appear).

This year, the number of invitees dwindled. It was only going to be my mom, my kids and myself: small, intimate, deflating.

I was going to have to cancel the big band swing orchestra and the caterer. I drew the line at calling off the inflatable moon bounce, because that has proven to be the highlight of the evening for my mom the last five years running.

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, from the openi...

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, from the opening credits of Max Fleischer’s Minnie the Moocher, which included a recording of the titular Calloway song. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent the entire previous day making this beautiful Gingery Spiced Cake with Sour Cherries and a Sour Cherry Glaze. And by the entire day, I mean the whole time between 3:30 and 4:45, but I shoved twenty-four hours worth of love into that labor.

The following day, I worked feverishly at creating a Smoked Turkey and Black Lentil Stew, filled with smoked turkey and black lentils.

There were a billion other things in there too, and it was supposed to be recorded and preserved for everyone to see under the Scullery section, but I forgot to take pictures until everything was already in the crockpot. It proved near impossible to separate the teeny tiny black lentils from the onions, Kuri squash and thyme leaves in order to set up individual photo shots of each ingredient–and I did try for a while–but there was a lot left to be done, so I gave up.

Champagne Fountain

Champagne Fountain (Photo credit: whatadqr)

I needed time to set up the champagne fountain and direct the newly arrived Grand Marshall as to the best route for the military parade later that day.

Once I finally unloaded the three vans full of white orchids, set up the fireworks and laser show outside, and emptied a room large enough to fit the shark tank in, I woke to the sound of the ringing telephone. (It turns out all those bits in between making the stew and filling up Shamu’s new digs were part of a lavish afternoon kip on the couch, but it didn’t make it any less real to me.)

The phone call was Chloe, announcing she and her brother were on their way home from his brutal soccer practice and her mind-numbing after-school job. They were hungry. Make food.

By the time they got home everything was ready: the stew, the cake, the set table , the small string quartet I’d settled for (okay, the CD player providing us with a little mood music). The problem was … we had no guest of honor.

I told the kids to have a light snack, which to them usually involves a bagel, a smoothie, a bowl of popcorn, some soup and an entire pantry shelf full of cookies. They were set for the next thirty minutes.

BomB   clip art by G.P. du Berger

BomB clip art by G.P. du Berger (Photo credit: HTML’S MAGIC)

After an hour and a half, I phoned my mother, who always answers her iPhone the same way: like it’s a small explosive device that could detonate at any moment, and therefore, she must handle it like plutonium.

“Hello?” came the tentative, faraway voice on the other end of the line. She usually holds it at arm’s length.

“Mom? What time are you coming for dinner?”

“My last student is late. I’m waiting for him.”

Note: my mother is a violin teacher who would rather be drawn and quartered, watching her intestines being roasted on an open flame in front of her, than miss instructing a small child of three or four how to properly take a bow.

“How late?”

“About an hour and a half, but he hasn’t phoned to cancel, so I’m assuming he’s still coming.”

“Mom. His lesson is a total of fifteen minutes. He’s missed it six times over. He’s not coming. Dinner is ready.”

“You go ahead and start without me. I’m just finishing up.”

I put the phone down and cradled my head. I am again in the situation where I must celebrate a birthday without the birthed celebrant.

“DINNER!” I called.

Stop eating animals

Stop eating animals (Photo credit: xornalcerto)

The dog and cat came running.

Ladling out the stew, the first question I get when handing it to my daughter is, “Is there meat in it?”

I answer yes, but remind her that the turkey was a vegetarian, so it should be okay in the end.

The next question is, “Are there guts in it?”

This is a question everyone asks if they know we’ll be dining with either one or both of my Polish parents.

“Not today, sweets. It’s guts-free gruel.”

We finish dinner, clean up and the kids leave to do homework. My mom’s car pulls up the driveway. She comes in looking exhausted. I place a bowl of stew in front of her, but then have to return half of it to the crockpot, because she insists it’s too much. I convince her to have a glass of wine from a very special bottle, pushing it into her hands. I sit across from her, watching as she nudges my stew around on the plate.

Finally, I call the kids down and we light the cake and bring it in. It looks beautiful. My daughter snaps photos, we pass out the pieces. My son takes a bite and announces in Spanish to his sibling that my chocolate cake tastes like mierda. I retort to my surprised fourteen-year old that firstly, it does not taste like poo and secondly, it is not chocolate and thirdly, I worked for hours on making that cake (75 minutes), and that I do not appreciate either his language or his lack of appreciation.

I turn to my mother. “What do you think? Do you like it?”

She shrugs her shoulders, “Truthfully, I can’t taste a thing. I’ve got a cold. I’m heading to bed.”

Moon bouncing!

Moon bouncing! (Photo credit: Zombies and Dinner)

I look at the dog and cat.

“You guys wanna go for a moon bounce?”

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

The modest virgin, the prudent wife and the careful matron

With the whole Mother’s Day variety show behind us, I find it uncanny that both coincidence and example have blossomed before me almost repeatedly this week. The message is simple: household management is a must.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching the bustling wren nest over the last four weeks. It could be the catastrophic laundry room I’ve walked past a thousand times, but refuse to look into. Or perhaps that seventeen minute nap I took on Mother’s Day finally put us all behind schedule until the Fourth of July. Whatever the reason, I imagine these recurring illustrations are much like when a woman is pregnant; all she sees are the faceless masses of other pregnant women.

I see a mess in need of sorting.

I doubt I can be accused of running the tight and somewhat unforgiving household I did when my children were still of the age where I could easily demand their cooperation, or strike an element of fear in them with nothing more than a narrowing of the eye.

In fact, I’ve done that trick so often my eyes now remain in that fixed position, constantly suspicious, and puffy with lack of sleep. There is little expression left in them now, and having consulted the latest manual on the care and maintenance of women, I am told I should not cling to expectation for any return in the future.

Yes, surgery is an option for some, but it will reveal nothing in me apart from the wary demeanor buried deep within (a plague no scalpel can nip and tuck away, and only grain alcohol can temporarily blur).

Before I stray too far with my customary refusal to stick to the point, I’ll pull us back to management issues, the topic at hand.

Rijkmuseum Library, Amsterdam

Rijkmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Photo credit: leafar.)

I usually bite off far more than I can chew when it comes to my reading list, and because the literary world is analogous to an endless buffet of food (in turns savory, necessary and poisonous), I tend to keep about eight or nine books going at a time.

No, I don’t mix up characters or plots, authors or ideology, mainly because they all differ vastly from one another. Good writing is good writing, and I’ll inhale it whether it smells of curry, sabotage, or cheap wine and cigarettes.

At my bedside table is The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, the last few pages waiting to be read and returned to the library. Within the 350 previous pages were references to old cookbooks that had me scouring Google Books in search of more than the title, author and a passing reference to the odd recipe here and there.

Title Page of "Beeton's Book of Household...

Title Page of “Beeton’s Book of Household Management” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the titles was a book I’d come across in past research but had never had the opportunity to fully appreciate until now. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is part recipe book, part advice column, but most importantly, a strict guideline for how things ought to be done if you wanted them done properly in 1861.

There is no way to paraphrase Isabella Beeton’s words. To fully appreciate her tone and message, I’ve pasted an excerpt of what I feel best sums up the woman, her opinion, and her ‘there are no excuses’ attitude.

As with The Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well being of a family. In this opinion, we are borne out by the author of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” who says: “The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes.

Isabella Beeton (1836-65). Hand-tinted albumen...

Isabella Beeton (1836-65).

Whew. I get the feeling she walks about with a well-oiled whip at her side.

I love that part about her domestics following in her path. My dog and cat are the only domestics that follow me anywhere in our house, and that’s usually just to the bathroom for a change of scenery.

And as far as classifying ‘a knowledge of household duties’ to be topmost on the list of high ranking feminine qualities, I would assume after quizzing my family they would likely replace that with not making eye contact with them when their friends are within a five mile radius. Second might be volunteering to take over their household duties.

Fashion plate from The Englishwoman's Domestic...

Fashion plate from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of an 1869 issue

Yes, I greatly admire Mrs. Beeton, but I think, given the opportunity and permission not to judge herself too harshly afterward, she might have concluded that being a petticoated philosopher, a blustering heroine, or virago queen would have brought a hell of a lot more spice to her cooking and redefined her ‘careful matron’ strive-to-be status.

In the end, I find myself thumbing through her recipes, gauging whether I’d risk making dishes like barley gruel, cold tongue, or calves’ foot broth. At the risk of losing points in the prudent wife department, and possibly having to hand back my ‘Mother of the Year’ award, I’d best not.

But I’d bet the domestics would love it.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!