• Throwing it down

    The following post was written on the
    evening of December 29, 2009.

    This afternoon my mother sent me a quote from the Writer’s Almanac…

    [Paul Rudnick] said: “As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. Having anybody watching that or attempting to share it with me would be grisly.”

    Now I don’t feel so bad about leaving my whole family—the house a mess, stacks of dirty dishes, tired and filthy kids, and with orders to pack for our big trip—under the pretext of needing some writing time and then coming to Panera and instead of writing, I’m sipping coffee, listening to some girls chattering away in French beside me, reading blogs, and staring blankly at the people who walk in and out the heavy, swinging doors. I won’t be here at four, though; Panera closes at nine. Besides, I’m exhausted and I want to go to bed soon. But before I do that, I want to make popcorn when I get home. So I can’t stay here too long.

    And besides, I’m typing now, in case you didn’t catch that one small fact.

    Moving on to other things, this afternoon I did something I have never done before: I THREW A LOAF OF BREAD ON THE FLOOR AND THEN JUMPED ON IT.

    I’m not joking! It was a revolutionary experience—cathartic, hilarious, stress-relieving, and anger-dissipating. I may make it a habit of stomping on a loaf of bread at least once a month. It would probably do wonders for my mental health.

    But let me back up and tell you the whole story; it’s really not all that complicated. It started when I put two loaves of bread in the oven, set the timer for 25 minutes, and then told Mr. Handsome to turn the bread around when the timer went off and then bake it for another 5-10 minutes.

    I said it twice. We made eye contact.

    He does not remember that.

    An hour later when I came downstairs, the bread was cooling on the table. It was pale. “What was I suppose to do when the timer went off?” Mr. Handsome queried anxiously. I told him, again.

    “I knew I should’ve come up and asked you! I wasn’t sure so I just took it out. I’m sorry.”

    It was just flour, salt, water, and wheat germ, but still.

    The offending bread sat on the table for the rest of the afternoon till just before supper when I was cleaning up. I cut one of the loaves in two, and as I expected, the middle was doughy. “Alright, go feed them to the chickens,” I said glumly to the hovering Mr. Handsome.

    “It can’t be that bad,” he said. “It will be good toasted, I bet.”

    So he made toast. I took a bite. “Compost,” I declared with finality.

    “We can’t just throw it away,” he protested. “What’s wrong with it, huh?”

    “Are you crazy? You know what’s wrong with it! What a stupid question.”

    And that’s when I picked up the uncut loaf of bread and threw it on the floor with all my might. And then I jumped into the air and landed on it with both feet. I shrieked wildly, half shocked, half thrilled by my marvelously outrageous behavior. Then I picked up the remaining two halves and slammed them on the ground.

    That settled it. The bread was officially compost.

    About One Year Ago: Worthy nuggets from my therapist friend.

  • The everyday made new

    Sometimes I get in a food rut; the latest rut consisted of potatoes, green beans, and corn. One night I served baked potatoes, green beans, and corn, and the next night I served fried potatoes (the leftover baked ones with a bit of sausage and cheese), green beans, and corn. I forced myself to stop after two nights—I didn’t think it would be wise to push my luck.

    But then in the momentous last issue of Gourmet, I found a recipe for potatoes and green beans stewed in tomatoes. There was no corn, but I could forgive it that (if I wanted to be zealous, I suppose I could add a cup of the yellow kernels; seeing as the three vegetables are the Holy Veggie Trinity around here, it would probably taste divine.)

    (Confessional clarification: I’m more likely to use peas as a side vegetable instead of corn, but corn belongs with potatoes and green beans in a way that peas don’t. Peas belong with brown-buttered carrots, macaroni and cheese, and applesauce—what we had for supper last night.)

    But for lunch yesterday, we had the new, cooked-together combo of green beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. It’s a homey dish—no bells and whistles at all—the vegetables blending and mushing and wilting into a stew-like mass. But I liked it, and Mr. Handsome liked it. He told me so in his typical round-about, critical fashion by sputtering angrily, “It would be good if it wasn’t so hot and I could actually taste it!”

    I served it topped with a fried egg and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese (Gourmet suggests using feta, but I didn’t have any). It can also be a side dish, mounded beside something meaty. In any case, it’s a new, uncomplicated way to serve our good old standbys. And for that, we give thanks.

    Tomatoey Potatoes and Green Beans
    Adapted from the November 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine

    3 small to medium potatoes (about one pound), peeled and cut into one inch chunks
    2 cups green beans (about 1/2 pound), fresh or frozen, cut into two-inch pieces
    2 large cloves of garlic, minced
    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 teaspoon salt
    ½ teaspoon black pepper
    1 pint stewed tomatoes, whirled briefly in the blender

    Put everything but the tomatoes into a saucepan and cook, covered, on medium high heat for about 10 minutes, stirring once in a while, until the vegetables start to stick to the bottom of the pan and have softened a bit. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 20 minutes. (If you want the final product to be more soupy, keep the lid on; if you want a thicker, scoopable side dish, keep the lid off so the liquid can evaporate.) When the potatoes are soft, remove about ½ cup of the chunks, put them on a plate, and mash them with a fork. Stir the mashed potatoes back into the pot and taste to correct the seasonings.

    Serve the vegetables as a side dish, or for a heartier, one-course meal, top with a fried egg and cheese (feta, blue, Parmesan, etc).

    Yield: enough for two to four people, depending on whether or not it’s a main course.

    About One Year Ago: Another homeschool tirade—despite what our culture says, I believe teaching and parenting are the same thing.

  • Mr. Handsome’s ham

    A few days before Christmas I called up my girlfriend Amber just to chat. We talked of snow, cookies, boxwood wreaths, and holiday schedules, and then I asked her what delicacies she was making for Christmas. She didn’t know yet, she said, but she asked her husband what he would like for breakfast and he said fresh fruit so she knew they were having that at least.

    That conversation, the one she had with her husband, stuck with me. It was beautiful—clear, simple, elegant. She asked a question and got an answer and that was that. It was a linear conversation with a beginning and middle and an end. Amazing.

    Me and My One True Love, on the other hand, converse in fits and starts. Simple questions can trigger screaming matches. A quiet observation can send one of us into an apoplectic fit. Like the Incredibles, we are a gifted family … but in the art of emoting.

    However, I decided to give Amber’s classy method a shot. I would ask Mr. Handsome a question, and though I doubted he would be interested enough to even give it two seconds thought (I dunno; make whatever you want), I figured it couldn’t hurt any.

    “I’m planning Christmas dinner,” I said to Mr. Handsome. “What would you like to have?”

    And I was right. He didn’t give it two seconds thought—he gave it NO seconds thought. He shocked me by saying, quick as you please, “A ham.”

    Well. A ham. Now that was something. I hadn’t given the porcine species any Christmas-y thoughts up till that point and now my husband told me he wanted a whole, honkin’ big ham?

    I pressed him (and this is where I differ from Amber—I do realize this), “Like how?” And then I suddenly remembered that I had tried to make a ham at Thanksgiving 2007 and it was dreadful, as in dried out and crusty, so I told him, “I can’t make a ham! Don’t you remember that ham I made?”

    “You made a ham?” he asked. “When? I don’t remember.”

    “It was dried out and crusty,” I said. “I can’t make a ham.”

    And then—POP—my eyes bugged out and I trumpeted gleefully, “I have an idea! How about YOU make the ham!” (Notice: there is no question mark at the end of the sentence. Could this be part of our communication problem?)

    Me make a ham? I don’t know how to make a ham.”

    “Sure you do! Just read a recipe and follow it. It can’t be that hard. Oh, honey,” and here my voiced switched from encouraging to imploring, “please make the ham. It would be so fun to have you working on the Christmas dinner with me. Please?”

    “I guess so,” he mumbled (another conversation pothole, if I do say so myself).

    And that was the end of the conversation … till the next day (or so—I’m fuzzy on the timing of this tale) when I was making up my Christmas grocery list and I called him up at work to ask if I should pick up the ham.

    “Yeah. Pick up a ham,” he said.

    “What kind do you want?”

    “What do you mean, ‘what kind’?”

    “Well, honey, there’s all kinds of ham—spiral, bone-in, precooked, not cooked. And do you need any pineapple or preserves or anything to go with it?”

    “How the heck should I know!” he exploded. “I told you I didn’t know how to cook a ham!”

    “What recipe are you following,” I said sweetly, innocently, irritatingly, knowing full well that he hadn’t given it any thought.

    Which, come to think of it, irritated me because what did he think cooking was, anyway? Just a thrown-together-at-the-last-minute endeavor? Is that what he thought of what I did all day long? I just thoughtlessly produce food because I had nothing better to do with my time?

    Oh dear, this was fast becoming a hot-button issue. Forget the fact that we both love and respect each other like it ain’t nobody’s business. We go low when we fight, and we can drop to subterranean levels faster than you can say “till death do you part.”

    “I don’t have a recipe,” he snapped. “You know that.”

    “Okay, then you’ll just have to stop by the store when you figure out what it is you need.”

    Wednesday night we packed the kids into the car and drove around town admiring the Christmas lights. As we passed the grocery store, I said (because I couldn’t help myself), “Do you need to stop and buy anything for the dinner? I already got everything I needed at the store today so I’ll not be making any more trips.”

    “We could stop, I guess,” he said.

    “Do you know what you need?” I pushed. (Yeah, I know, I know, if I could just keep my mouth shut…)

    “No, I don’t know what I need! I don’t know why I ever agreed to this in the first place. I should’ve just kept my big mouth shut!” (See, we both have the same problem—flapping yaps.)

    “Fine!” I hollered. “I’ll make the ham if you’re not going to; but you need to tell me that I need to. So either you make the ham and stop complaining about it, or tell me you’re backing out and I’ll do it.” (But don’t you DARE do that was fully implied, and Mr. Handsome knew that as well as I did.)

    “Fine! I’ll make it!”

    “Whoa, look at that, kids,” I cried, pointing vigorously. “A row of giant Christmas stars, all having epileptic seizures in unison!”

    That evening after the kids, stuffed with donuts and hot chocolate, were in their beds, I instructed Mr. Handsome in the marvels of epicurious dot com, and then I went about my business, which mainly consisted of secretly staring at his back as he hunched over the computer, scrolling through various recipes and comments. “Do we have Dijon mustard?” he asked.

    Man oh man. Talk about sexy!

    And that was pretty much the end of the tiff. He printed out a recipe (“I don’t need to make the sauce—all the commenters said it was overkill”), bought a jar of orange marmalade, a box of whole cloves, and a jar of Dijon mustard. Oh, and a ham.

    Christmas noon he got busy sharpening his knife (ever the showman), cutting off the hammy fat, scoring the ham, stuffing it full of cloves, and popping it into the oven. A couple hours later I added the sweet potatoes to the oven and put the green beans on to cook. Then Mr. Handsome made the glaze (“It keeps dripping from the spoon and it’s been way longer than six minutes—am I going to burn it?”), dumped it over the ham, and slid the whole kit and caboodle back in the oven for another twenty minutes.

    The final product was awesomely incredible. I ate seconds and thirds, and then I omitted the step where you take the food off the serving platter and put in on your plate before shoving it into your mouth and just ate directly from the serving plate, taking great pains to scoop up bits of the orange-mustardy goo that had puddled on the bottom of the pan. And then, when I could eat no more, I pushed my nose up with my finger and smooshed my cheeks together with the heels of my hands and snuffled Mr. Handsome’s neck till he squealed.

    Marmalade-Glazed Ham
    Adapted from Epicurious, the April 1999 issue of Bon Appétit

    The reason there is such a disparity in the weight of the ham is that the recipe called for a 16-19 pound ham but Mr. Handsome bought a 7 pound ham and still made the same amount of marmalade. In other words, the marmalade is enough to cover a large ham, but if you choose to make a smaller ham, you just get more marmalade for your ham, which is not a bad thing. Of course, if you want to, you could always halve the marmalade recipe…

    Also, don’t scrimp and buy generic mustard (or, for that matter, generic marmalade) because the flavors shine through—any inferior flavors you use will also shine through, though in that case you may wish they wouldn’t.

    1 7-19 pound smoked fully cooked bone-in ham
    20-40 whole cloves
    1 cup orange marmalade
    1/4 cup Dijon mustard
    2 tablespoons water

    Trim excess rind and fat from the upper side of the ham. (Mr. Handsome was confused as to what was the “upper side” of the ham, so he just trimmed for a bit and then called it good.) Leave a 1/4 inch layer of fat, more or less. Score the fat in a diamond pattern and stick one clove in the center of each diamond. Place the ham in a roasting pan and bake at 325 degrees till the meat thermometer registers 120 degrees, about 2-4 hours, depending on the size of the ham.

    Melt the marmalade in a small saucepan and whisk in the mustard and water. Boil till the mixture coats a spoon and no longer drips, more or less. It should take anywhere between 6-12 minutes.

    When the ham is done, remove it from the oven and transfer it from the roasting pan to a platter. Remove the cloves from the ham (if you don’t, they will get stuck in the ham once you glaze it).

    Now, if you want to reserve the juices and drippings for another time (bean soup, maybe?), set the roasting pan on a burner and turn it to medium heat. Whisk in a cup or two of water and stir, scraping the bottom, to deglaze the pan. Simmer the mixture for a bit and then pour the liquid into a jar and refrigerate it (the fat will float to the top; you can skim it off later).

    Turn the oven up to 400 degrees.

    Wipe out the roasting pan and line it with foil. Return the ham to the pan. Spoon the marmalade glaze over the ham, coating all sides. Bake the ham for 10-20 minutes and then take it from the oven and let it stand for another half hour before serving.

  • Windows at dusk-time

    The best time to go for walks is just at dusk right after people have turned on their lights but before they have remembered to close the curtains. My mother taught me this. When we go on walks, we make a habit of casually glancing in the windows of any houses we may pass. We don’t stop and stare (if we did that, then we’d be just like that guy Greg who my dad found lurking around outside our West Virginia cabin back when I was a teenager—when my dad confronted him, Greg said he was out shootin’ groundhogs … uh-huh, and in the dark, too).

    This genteel window peeking reminds me of two of my favorite literary heroes: Sara Crewe and Anne Shirley. In her loneliest time, Sara drew strength from looking in the windows at the rollicking family that lived across the road from Miss Minchin’s school—the children’s antics gave her some much-needed scope for the imagination (and that’s how Anne comes in).

    We live out in the country and not many people walk by and peer in our windows (but some do, and I don’t mind one bit—well, except for some certain neighbors who are no longer neighbors who made a practice of leaning over their porch railing and staring fixedly into our living room—the first day we moved in I got so mad that I went around taping up newsprint over the roadside windows.) Drivers don’t even get a good gander at us because our house sits smack-dab on the road and there’s a curve up a head. People go flying by, their eyes fixed on the road, which is good because if they didn’t watch where they were going, they might end up in our living room, which would be taking gandering to new heights.

    So for all of you who like to peer into windows at dusk, I’m going to do a little word-framing job and craft a few little windows for you to peer into. Don’t worry, you won’t see anything racy; we draw the curtains before we undress…usually. (For the literal-minded among us, the “windows” are purely figurative—they don’t all describe things that can actually be seen.)

    Window #1: Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo just finished listening to Redwall on tape. They talked about the characters constantly, and Miss Beccaboo walked around with her tape player, plugging it in and turning it on every chance she got.

    Here she is, lolling about on the hearth, her body with us but her mind far, far away in an exotic land. (I’ve never read the book myself, but I might need to now.)

    Window #2: We got our Christmas tree a couple weeks ago. It’s the biggest one we’ve ever had.

    I don’t really enjoy decorating the tree (one of those things that’s supposed to be so wonderful but is more a botheration and a headache then anything else), but once it’s up I kind of fall in love with it.

    We placed it right in front of the four bay windows (the ones that gawking drivers would be most likely to smash through), and at night the lights reflect in the glass, doubling and tripling and quadrupling the sparkle charm.

    Mr. Handsome and Miss Beccaboo zonked out by the fire.

    Window #3: Yo-Yo pointed out that the combined ages of the boys and the combined ages of the girls both equal 13. That’s the same as having two teenagers in the house, and thus the reason home life has been a little rough.

    I’m joking, really, about the teenager angst—I can joke all I want now, right? Since I’m not there yet.

    But actually, I’m looking forward to the five months in 2019 when my children will be 13, 15, 17, and 19. We’ll have to plan some big event—a trip to Nicaragua, perhaps?—to mark the occasion.

    Window #4: When Sunday church services were canceled due to the storm, the kids begged to watch a Ray Stevens video in place of church. Their question is not in any way indicative of our church; I just want to be clear about this. (And we said no, and made donuts instead.)

    Window #5: It’s an abomination, but Mr. Handsome, a first-rate carpenter, has never had a shop. That, thanks to a generous, gracious, and unbelievably kind friend of ours who is giving us an interest-free loan, is about to change.

    Mr. Handsome has already started building the new barn…inside the old one. It raises the concept of nesting dolls to a whole new level.

    He’s poured the footers and set the posts and is ready to lay the floor. Once the new barn is far enough along, he’ll tear down the old, outer shell of a barn.

    Window #6: A friend who has a big old snowplow thingamabob plowed out our driveway after the big snow.

    He thoughtfully (or maybe unintentionally, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt) pushed a bunch of the snow into one huge pile.

    The kids had a heyday.

    No, I didn’t realize she was carrying a hatchet till after I took the picture.

    “Aw, shucks, Ma. Playing is such hard work. Do we have to?”

    Sometimes being the youngest just gets to be too much.

    Window #7: For several days this past month, I became obsessed with getting a photograph of myself. Because Mr. Handsome rarely picks up the camera there are almost no pictures of Yours Truly, and sometimes I get to wondering about what I look like (in a photograph—we do have mirrors). It’s hard to take a self-portrait. If I was a contortionist, it might be easier, but I’m not. I gave it my best shot (sorry!) though. (Using a mirror—oh, the ironies!)

    Note to self: Wash the mirror before you start snapping pics, next time. And scrap the flash.

    And then when I got sick of that, I handed the camera to Yo-Yo.

    See that pointer finger resting on my knee in that last photo? And notice how my eyebrows are raised? I had just gotten done chastising one of the kids when Yo-Yo snapped the picture. It just goes to show that there is no such thing as a model parent.

    And then I decided I didn’t really care about a self-portrait after all. My life immediately got simpler.

    About One Year Ago: A recap of Christmas 2008, as well as some yummy photos of donuts.

  • On doing the dishes

    Dear Ruth Reichl,

    Yesterday I brought home the last issue of Gourmet magazine from the library. It’s the November issue, the one with the roast turkey on the front. It had been sitting on the library display shelf for the past two months, never getting relegated to the dark undershelf because, well, there wasn’t a new issue to take its place. Sad, but true.

    I pondered this fact for a couple seconds before scooping the magazine up and carrying it to the reference desk where I asked the young woman if I could please check it out seeing as there were no more issues and it just couldn’t sit on the shelf forever now, could it? She made a call downstairs and then told me I could take it. Oh, happy day!

    Back home, I started reading through the magazine, page by page, front to back, like I always do. And then my eyes lit upon (I learned to talk that way from my mother; she doesn’t simply say “I saw,” she says “my eyes lit upon”) your editorial. I like you, and I like the way you write, but I’m usually not all that impressed by editorials in general—they’re mostly just an overview of the issue, all smiley-happy and I’m-so-glad-you-bought-me type stuff.

    But this editorial was different. It blew my socks off.

    In it you said that you do the dishes when you have company over. You said you like doing the dishes. And you said that you don’t think it’s right to have a stranger do your dirty work. Why? Because it makes you uncomfortable to have someone get to know your family on such intimate terms and yet know almost nothing about theirs. You also said, “The whole point of asking people to dinner is that you’re inviting them into your life. They show up for a true reality show, for a moment when they discover who you really are.”

    This is actually old news, what you’re saying—my mother drilled into me the importance of having people over for home-cooked meals, as well as the value of cleaning my own toilet and growing my own green beans. No, it’s not what you’re preaching that’s surprising, but the platform from which you’re saying it—from a renowned, high-end food magazine, one that’s filled with recipes that (sometimes) call for expensive ingredients and with pictures of impossibly elegant people who look like they’ve never worked up a sweat in their lives, let alone stunk of frying onions or forgotten to grab a hotpad before pulling a casserole out of the oven (OUCH!) or gotten a wicked kink in their necks from painstakingly sorting through a big bowl of dried beans. In other words, the hosts and guests portrayed in the magazine are, at best, totally unrealistic, and at worst, a downright lie that only serves to undermine the cooking process, not enhance it.

    Though the magazine was inspiring, so maybe that’s not altogether true.

    (I’ve always thought Gourmet could’ve done a better job of choosing their models. Maybe you thought so, too? Maybe all the posturing got on your nerves and so for your final rant you seized the opportunity to say what you really think about the everything-must-be-perfect mentality? Your picture with your fly-away hair and laughing smile is not perfect, but it’s beautiful. And that’s classy.)

    There is way too much glitz and glamour in the food world. Food writers compete to outdo each other in their efforts to detail the tastebud fireworks, and food photographers stage their pictures just so, no dirty bowls in the background. But cooking is messy. Plates fall and break (or, as in this morning’s case, my son crashed to the floor along with, and into and under, the contents of his bowl of cereal—neither the bowl nor the boy broke), pan bottoms scorch, kitchen sinks stain brown, and gunk builds up around the burners and down in the crack between the stove and the counter top.

    Yet despite my mother’s training and your encouraging editorial (a professional who not only faces dirty work head-on, but embraces it as well!), I must confess that I get all tied up in knots when it comes to having people over for dinner. It’s not the food that stresses me out so much as it is the cleaning (I hate cleaning) and the struggle to juggle the demands of four children and a meaningful, adult-focused conversation. It’s enough to wipe me out.

    Though it wasn’t a dinner, I think you would be interested to know that I hosted our church council meeting last week. There was really nothing valiant about my offer to host the December meeting; it was actually a rather calculated move on my part: the meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 pm, so I knew it would be dark when the guests arrived—there would be no need to wash the windows, dust, or pick up the toys and junk scattered about the yard—plus, the kids go to bed earlier during the winter months, so it would be late enough that my husband could take them upstairs for a movie and then put them to bed, thus simplifying his stress load.

    On the appointed evening, all the commission chairs and the head pastor scrunched around our wobbly dining room table that I had covered with a faded (it dates back to 1997) red-and-white checked tablecloth and drank tea and feasted on white chocolate-sour cherry scones, ginger-cream scones, triple peppermint bark, and dark chocolate blocks while we did our churchy business. No one turned up their nose at my unevenly cut peppermint bark and my dangerously chipped mugs, or got irked when they had to wait for more water to boil for their tea. On the contrary, they were very appreciative; I basked in the warmth of their graciousness. By the time everyone left, the kids were all asleep and my husband was able to come downstairs to help me wash the mugs and bag up the leftovers, after which we blew out the candles and went up to bed.

    As I write this, my eight-year-old daughter is washing up the lunch dishes, playing with the knives and the spray nozzle, dawdling as is her custom. It is soon time for us to get baths and head to church for our Christmas eve service, and I must soon spread that faded checked cloth over the dining room table and set out the (odd assortment of cracked) dishes for our post-service light supper of fruit, fancy cheeses, crackers, wine, and eggnog. It’ll be my turn to wash the dishes tonight.

    Maybe next year we’ll invite some friends to join us for the meal; if so, I’ll be sure to include them when it comes time to wash the dishes.

    Yours truly,

  • The big snow, power paranoia, and turkey in a wash basket

    The following was written on Saturday, December 19.

    The snow has been coming down for almost twenty-four hours and we still have power. I’m expecting it to go out any minute—our power goes off at the drop of the hat, it seems, and I can’t quite believe that it will stay on during the storm of the century. I’m hoping against hope that it stays on.

    In case you can’t tell, I get really rattled when the power goes off. We are so enmeshed in the grid that I have no idea how to cope once we get booted off.

    Mr. Handsome gets totally irritated at my royally worried uptightness about having power. “When we lived in Nicaragua, the power went off all the time!” he explodes. “Yes,” I say, equally exasperated, “but we were prepared for it then. There’s no back-up system here.” (I can’t believe I have to spell out this elementary stuff to him.)

    Here’s what I lose when the power goes off: the stove (no coffee, baked creations, hot meals), water (dirty toilet, dirty dishes, dirty house, dirty hands, hair, faces, feet, etc), the vacuum, lights (pretty Christmas twinkly atmospheric lights, cozy bedside lamps), the ceiling fan (which circulates the heat from the wood stove throughout the house), the ability to open the refrigerator (there goes milk, butter, eggs, and cheese), my hair straightener (not like I’m going anywhere, but still), the computer, the internet, the phone, ability to recharge the camera or grind coffee beans (which I can’t use anyway because I can’t make coffee), the washing machine, the microwave, the mixer, the yogurt maker, the radio, and so on. My hands feel so tied by all I can’t do that I have to think twice—can I complete this task without electricity?—before I do simple stuff like put the laundry away.

    To say it more plainly, I lose the ability to do the things I love—cook, write, and talk on the phone—plus the ability to take care of my family with my normal high-efficiency standards—clean house and well-fed kids—plus the ability to create ambiance—lights, even-keel warmth, good smells—plus the ability to do fun stuff like watch a movie or make popcorn.

    It all conspires against me and I get very, very, very, veryveryveryveryveryvery grumpy.

    Don’t even try to give me a lecture about counting my blessings and that it’s not so bad because I know you’re right and I really don’t care. It’s my party (i.e. power addiction) and I’ll cry if I want to (cry if I want to, cry if I want to…you’d cry too if it happened to you. Ooo-oo-oo-oo.)

    That’s enough of my little sob story, especially considering that nothing has even happened so I have no reason to be sobbing just yet. It’s actually been quite idyllic: candles, cookies, Christmas music, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, hot chocolate laced with Baileys at 9:30 in the morning, a stuffed turkey in the oven, gooey lemon bars, a blazing fire in the wood stove, scorched cashew brittle, the works.

    The snow started at four o’clock Friday afternoon, exactly when accuweather predicted it would. Mr. Handsome came home with two brand-spanking-new, bright red, 32-gallon trash buckets that he carried down to the basement and then filled with water. He strung some bailing twine between the stair railings and a ceiling hook in anticipation of lots of sopping wet snow clothes. He brought in firewood and turned the van around so it faced the road. I vacuumed the floors, wiped down the stairs, and cooked a pot of red beans. After supper the kids got baths and hair washes and by seven o’clock they were in their pajamas and were doing their evening ritual of bouncing off the walls. (I hate that evening ritual, but it appears they were born with it hardwired into them.)

    I assessed the situation and then did something totally uncharacteristic: I told them to put on their snow clothes, and—this is where I shocked everyone, myself included—I got dressed to go outside too. My plan was to walk the half mile to my brother’s house where my parents and other brother were visiting and pummel their door with snowballs. The kids were game. We went, attacked, sang “Happy Birthday” (to my mother) and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and returned home. Of course it didn’t go as smoothly as I make it sound (bitter cold, sleeting snow, tired and grumpy kids), but it was about as close to perfect (familial togetherness in a silent snowy country wonderland) as we get around here.

    This morning we were all up bright and early (make that “dark and early”), oohing and aahing at the mountains of snow that had magically transformed our world overnight. I told the Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo that the world was theirs to explore, including the roads. They were overjoyed. (I had to backtrack a bit when I saw they were preparing to run down the road by all the neighbors’ houses and it wasn’t even 7 o’clock yet.)

    Now Mr. Handsome was another sort of problem all together. He had it in his head that he was going to butcher chickens today, no matter what, and, strangely enough, eighteen inches of snow were not a deterrent. But I am more powerful than any snow storm because I told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was mad to think he could butcher in a snowstorm and that furthermore, I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—support his wacko behavior. That did the trick; he stopped talking chickens and went out to work in his barn.

    And now the following, written on Tuesday, December 22.

    We had planned to celebrate my mother’s birthday with dinner at my brother’s house. I was in charge of the turkey, stuffing, gravy, and cookies.

    That means that we had to get ourselves and the kids bundled up for the journey, and then carry the turkey, stuffing, gravy, and cookies the snowy (two feet of it, mind you!) half mile to my brother’s house. It was a logistical challenge, but nothing a man in coveralls with a tool belt ‘round the waist couldn’t fix. (Lest you become confused, in the following photo he doesn’t have the tool belt on just yet.)

    We had just finished reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and the whole way there the phrase “bearing ham” kept running through my mind, though it was turkey we were bearing, not ham.

    The Baby Nickel had trouble keeping up. See him back there by the fence posts?

    So my Tiny-Little Brother got him to sit on the shovel scooper thing and gave him a zippy ride down the hill.

    The dinner was delicious, the house was cozy, my mother tooted her horn…

    …and then back into our snow clothes we stuffed our turkey-and-cookie-stuffed selves and out into the starry night. The storm was over.

    And the power never flickered, not even once.

    About One Year Ago: I was cramming to get ready for company, so I wasn’t writing anything. But here is a list of some of my favorite Christmas delicacies (as though you don’t have enough rich foods to make already)—Nana’s Anise Biscotti, Orange-Cranberry Biscotti, Butter Cookies, Cranberry-White Chocolate Cookies, Gingerbread Men, Raisin-Filled Cookies, Lemon Squares, Cashew Brittle, Lemon Cheesecake Tassies, Chocolate Pots de Creme, Caramel Popcorn, Donuts, Ginger Cream Scones, and White Chocolate and Dried Cherry Scones. There, that should keep you busy.

  • No longer deprived

    I’m here! I’m back! Did you miss me?

    Our internet connection was out due to one humdinger of a gorgeous snowstorm. It was rough, I tell you—three-and-a-half days without blogs, email, twitter, grooveshark, and my recipe index.

    I feel I’ve lost touch with the rest of the world when my internet connection falters. I guess that just goes to show how distorted my concept of reality is.

    Oh well, the little antennae thingy that got snowballed up on yonder mountain has been un-snowballed (I threatened [only to Mr. Handsome, not to Zeke, the internet guru] to hike to the top of the mountain and fix the thing myself, that’s how frustrated I’ve been), and here I am. And here YOU are. I missed you, my bloggy friends.

    More on The Storm and Life In General soon.

  • Scholarly stuff

    As I’ve said before, I don’t follow any particular curriculum when it comes to homeschooling. I prefer to choose bits and pieces of stuff from a variety of places, relying heavily on the library. I like the freedom that comes from doing things how I (or my kids) want to do them and when I (or my kids) want to do them.

    This past week I got a letter from our public school system asking if we wanted to sign up for a special homeschool curriculum provided (and paid for) by the public school system. Free materials? It sounded like a nice deal—I could use them if and when I saw fit—but then I read the next line: Your children would be required to take the SOLs at the end of each year.

    Erp-erp-erp-erp! RED ALERT! RED ALERT!

    Um, thanks, but no thanks. I tossed the letter in the trash.

    Seeing as I’m considering doing away with grades all together (I would rather simply state the kids’ ages instead of pigeon-holing them in a particular grade level) because I think I’ll be homeschooling for the long-haul (at least through 8th grade, maybe) and I’m not following grade levels now as it is. But any switch I make would be more in theory than in real life since at church the kids are divided up by grade, and I don’t make a practice of rocking the boat everywhere I go. (I don’t make a practice of going many places, either.)

    Anyway, the reason I’m writing about this stuff is because we just got some new non-standard educational books in the mail and they are really cool and I wanted to show them to you.

    The first one is Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel. The book is a photo-documentary of thirty families from all over the world, divided by continent, one statistically-average family per country, thirty countries in all. Each section starts with a picture of the family posing with all their possessions on the outside of the house.

    Beside the introductory picture is a list of the family members, as well as a list detailing all the objects in the photo. The next several pages of each section are filled with pictures of the family going about their daily lives, as well as a blurb by the photographer in which he shares some anecdotes of the time spent with the family.

    There are also statistics about the country as a whole and another list with the statistics of that particular family. Yo-Yo is fascinated by one statistic in particular: the family’s per capita income. “They earn as much in a year as Papa earns in a day (or week or month)!” They are also fascinated with how many hours each parent works and that the women usually work more hours than the men.

    So many discussions and applicable lessons can come from this one book. Some ideas include: a) having the children make a list of all our possessions; b) selling some of our possessions and donating the money to an aid organization; c) just plain weeding through our material excess and foisting it off on Gift and Thrift; d) including the children in our annual bet; e) inviting guests of other nationalities for dinner and getting them to tell us stories from home; f) better yet, getting them to cook an ethnic dinner for us; g) preparing a dish from the country under scrutiny using Extending the Table cookbook, and so on.

    When it comes to teaching (and gaining) perspective, this book is a gem.

    Speaking of gems, we have started chemistry.

    I read about Theodore Gray in my Home Education Magazine and then promptly ordered two of his books: The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe and Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home—But Probably Shouldn’t. We are reading through the first book, taking an element at a day.

    It’s way above the kids’ heads (and a bit above mine), but they’re getting the gist of the idea—that our physical world in made up of 118 elements that can not be taken apart into something smaller though they can be joined together to make something new, like pencils, blood, and pavement.

    The first few pages of the book outline the periodic table, but the bulk of the book is dedicated to the elements themselves. Each element has two pages: the first is a photograph of it in its raw form (if possible) and the second page lists the details—the atomic weight, density, radius, and crystal structure, as well as interesting tidbits (“sulfur is also one of the three basic ingredients of gunpowder, and thus has the blood of millions on its hands”) and examples of the different forms the element takes on in everyday life.

    This book makes me want to construct models of atoms, so I may need to find a standard chemistry 101 book as well as a kit for the next teaching episode.

    How much do you remember from your highschool chemistry class? Are you up for a pop quiz? Can you identify these elements?

    Element Number One:

    Element Number Two:

    Element Number Three:

    Element Number Four:

    Element Number Five:

    The experiment book is pure fun, but at this point it’s still mostly for me since the kids don’t quite get Gray’s subtle humor or the bizarre dangerousness of some of the experiments (though his opinion on safety goggles comes across nice and loud).

    But that’s okay, we’ll read bits and pieces and over time and they will absorb some of what it means. If nothing else, I hope it gives them an appreciation for chemistry.

    Okay, kids, here’s a cooking project for you. Dig out the fire extinguisher that’s buried behind the box of recycling under the kitchen sink, empty it into a pillow case, and whip yourself up a nice bowl of ice cream. (He doesn’t say it exactly like that.)

    Needing a new pair of pantyhose, anyone?

    And in this maverick fashion, we learn.

    About One Year Ago: Lemon Cheesecake Tassies.

  • Most excellent

    It used to be, in the day before food blogs, or at least in the days before I knew they existed, I would go to Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million, buy a coffee, and then lose myself in the cookbook section. I carried a little notebook and pen with me and whenever I spied a recipe that appealed to me, I wrote it down. Sometimes I would hit the bookstores with a certain type of food in mind, like smoothies or tarts, but more often than not, I just free-wheeled my way around. In this way I discovered some real keepers—the pesto torte for one.

    On one such visit, I fell in love with The All-American Cookie Book. I pointed it out to Mr. Handsome (he must of been along with me which was pretty unusual since he hates hanging out in commercial establishments, including restaurants [woe is me!]) and later on (the same night? a month later?) I discovered the coveted book lying on my pillow when I went upstairs to our bed under the eaves.

    Over the subsequent years, I have made many a cookie from that book, but one of my favorites (of all the cookies I’ve tried, I’ve latched on to two in particular) is the Cranberry-White Chocolate Cookies.

    Oh my stars and heavenly angels, these cookies are dangerous addicting: rich, chewy, tender, tart, sweet, creamy, crunchy.

    Wait. Did you catch that? Let me run those adjectives past you again. Listen up real good.



    That’s a heck of a lot of variety in one little cookie! These babes are over-achievers. They are go-getters. They are Something Else.

    These cookies remind me of the ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery in that they have almost as many add-ins as they do base. There doesn’t seem to possibly be enough dough to hold the giant pile of nuts, chocolate, and fruit together, but never fear, there is. Everything melds together perfectly.

    I munched my way through the mixing (Ooo! there’s a piece of chocolate… Ooo! lemme try a fresh cranberry with ANOTHER piece of chocolate … Ooo! how about a dried cranberry with a fresh cranberry AND a pecan … Ooo! now I need to taste them ALL together … and repeat) and baking (Oops, that cookie cracked in half … Oops, THAT cookie cracked in half …. Oops… and so on and so on) of a double batch and now I feel slightly ill.

    Yet I still have to engage in psychological warfare to keep my butt in this chair and my fingers on the keyboard and away from the rows of cookies.

    Cranberry-White Chocolate Cookies
    Adapted from The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett

    Nancy says that the lemon glaze in optional, but I beg to disagree. It’s true, the cookies are plenty delicious without the icing, but the citrus-y tang in the icing blends perfectly with the cranberries, cinnamon, and chocolate—the two forces working together knock the cookies completely out of this world.

    I use the glaze very sparingly, so one recipe is enough for a double batch of cookies.

    1 cup butter
    1 cup packed brown sugar
    1 large egg
    1 ½ teaspoons orange zest
    2 ½ teaspoons vanilla
    1 2/3 cups white flour
    1 teaspoon cinnamon
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1 ½ cups (6 ounces) chopped pecans
    1 ½ cups (6 ounces) dried cranberries
    1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) white chocolate, chopped
    ½ cup fresh cranberries, chopped
    1 recipe lemon glaze (recipe follows)

    Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg, zest, and vanilla and beat some more.

    In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat together.

    Add the nuts, fresh and dried cranberries, and white chocolate and stir to incorporate.

    Scoop out the cookies, about a tablespoon of the dough per cookie, and place them on a greased baking sheet, leaving about two inches between cookies as they will spread a bit. Bake the cookies at 350 degrees for about ten minutes, or until the edges are lightly brown but the centers are still soft but no longer wet.

    Let the cookies remain on the baking sheets for at least a minute, but no more than two (if left on the tray too long, they will harden and then crumble when you try to lift them off), to firm up a bit. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely.

    To drizzle the glaze over the cookies, place the cookies close together on a cut-open brown paper bag (when done, just chuck the paper in the garbage—makes for easy clean-up) and wave a fork-full of icing back and forth over the cookies to make a pretty pattern. When the icing has hardened, store the cookies in plastic containers between layers of wax paper (so they don’t stick together) and freeze.

    Yield: About 3 dozen cookies

    Lemon Glaze
    1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
    1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
    1/8 teaspoon vanilla
    1-2 teaspoons water

    Mix together, adding more water if necessary in order to make a glaze thin enough to drizzle.

    About One Year Ago: Walnut Balls.

  • A pragmatic man

    You know what Mr. Handsome told me the other night? He said if he had a choice between rubbing my back and taking me off life support, he would choose the latter.

    We were in bed and I was going through my nightly ritual of begging him to rub my back (he has the most marvelous back-rubbing hands—strong and large, dry and rough—it’s the best of both worlds, a massage and a back scratch), and he was going through his nightly ritual of saying no. It’s the stupidest thing, him saying no, because he (almost) always begrudgingly rolls over and “ma-scratchers” my skin.

    He ought to know by now, after all these years of matrimonial bliss, that I need him to massage my back. I fall asleep so much easier after he’s pummeled all the tension out of my shoulder blades. And I maintain that the back rubs make me healthier and happier—his scratchy strong hands invigorate all the sluggy cells in my back, therefore making me more alive, vibrant, and cheerful.

    Taking all that into consideration, you would think he would simply say “Okay, honey,” because he would know that he was making a wise investment. He’d think to himself, If I just help her relax, she’ll sleep super-well and then tomorrow she won’t call my cell phone whenever she gets the least little bit stressed…because she won’t be getting as stressed, thanks to this measly thirty-second back rub I’m giving her right now. It’s such a simple thing, really. I’m so glad I can help her out in this way.

    But no, that’s most certainly not what he does. What he does say is “NO,” every single time, sometimes even as he is starting to squeeze my neck. It’s a neurotic compulsion, this negativity of his. Or maybe it’s a coping device.

    In any case, the other night after the ritualistic request and denial, he did eventually commence to massaging. I purred, “This is wonderful, honey. Thank you, mmmm. You do realize, don’t you, that if I ever fall into a coma, you have to come to my bedside and give me lots of back rubs—mmmm—and foot rubs and hand rubs—mmmm—and leg and arm rubs. Okay? Mmmm?

    And Mr. Handsome said, “You mean I can’t just pull the plug?”

    About One Year Ago: In which Mr. Pragmatic Man performs a surgical procedure with a blowtorch and a needle.