Category Archives: food

The Fisher in Go-Go Boots

This is my maternal grandmother, Winnie Rose.

We visited her less often than my Kentucky relatives because she lived in Florida. In fact, my first airplane flight was a trip to see her. To give you an idea how long ago that was, DisneyWorld was not yet built, though there was a Visitor Center with a 3D model of how it might look someday. (I didn’t make it to DisneyWorld until I was an adult, when I went with some friends. But I digress.)

Grandma Rose loved fishing and handed down her love of it to my mother. In her old age, my mother took to fishing at local ponds with her church friends or at the city’s recreational center’s pond. She brought home her catch and fried it, unless the pond was labeled “catch and release.” These fresh fish meals disturbed my husband who, despite his occasional desire to be a mountain man, hated to eat any animal that he saw caught or killed.

Once when we visited Grandma, we all went deep-sea fishing. I don’t remember catching anything, but Grandma caught a red snapper, which of course we ate, my husband not being on the scene yet. I wasn’t seasick while I was on the boat, but after I got back to land I was definitely woozy and wobbly.

Grandma also fished from a rowboat, and this solved a family argument. When we kids were teens, we desperately wanted go-go boots. (Remember those?) Our parents wouldn’t get them for us, claiming that they didn’t give enough ankle support, which we thought was just a pretext. Then we learned that Grandma had go-go boots for fishing, as they were exactly the right height to keep water from sloshing inside. Needless to say, we got our go-go boots after all.

Once while we were visiting Grandma Rose, I dipped into her library. There I found mystery books – I particularly remember Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie. My fascination with these books turned into a lifelong love of mysteries, from Robert Parker to Aaron Elkins to Sue Grafton to Sara Paretsky and many, many others. If there’s a mystery gene, I got it, though it skipped a generation. I also got the crossword and Scrabble genes from Grandma.

One of Grandma’s other hobbies was knitting. She knit fabulous sweaters for the family, all with a little tag inside that said “Made especially for you by Grandma Rose.” There the gene bred true. My mother took up crochet and I did needlepoint and Bargello, plus those awful hooked rug kits.

And lest you think that she was sedentary, in her youth she rode horses. Her other love was bowling. On bowling days, she ate a hearty breakfast of Rice Krispies over vanilla ice cream. It must have worked, because she had dozens of bowling trophies, patches, and other memorabilia. In fact, she went bowling in her 90s, the week before she died.

As you can see from the picture, Grandma Rose had gorgeous, snow-white hair, which used to be naturally red, until her husband died, killed by a drunk driver. After he died, she no longer kept up the red color that he had loved. If I had been born with red hair, instead of acquiring it later, I would have been named Winnie.

Occasionally, Grandma would visit us in Ohio. There was a spare bedroom that we always referred to as Grandma’s room (though it would have made more sense to use it so my sister and I could sleep in separate rooms, at least when we got old enough to fight).

I wish we had lived closer together so that I could have spent more time with her, sharing our mutual hobbies. But I’m glad this picture survived so that I can remember her as I knew her – an active, creative woman who raised lovely flowers, plus three boys and one girl, my mother.

A Window, Biscuits, a Butter Churn, and a Mule

It was an ordinary farmhouse, located outside Beattyville, Kentucky. But there was a secret inside that we kids loved. The kitchen, of course, was the best room to be in. But getting there was even more fun. The kitchen was obviously an add-on to the house, and the entry points to it included not just a door but a window, leading from one of the bedrooms to the kitchen. Of course, we never used the door like the grownups did.

The house belonged to our Cousins Addie and Jim Mainous. They were old even when we used to visit them during the summers. But every day, Cousin Addie hand-made biscuits and sawmill gravy. (Sawmill gravy is different from redeye gravy. Sawmill gravy uses milk. Redeye gravy uses coffee. But I digress.) The kitchen was painted black, but there was lots of sunshine coming in the windows and the back door. It wasn’t at all gloomy. It was warm and cozy and smelled like the biscuits that were rolled out with a drinking glass and cut to size using the mouth of the same glass.

Addie was a thin woman with a big laugh, who almost never wore her dentures. All I remember ever seeing her wear were dark cotton dresses and white aprons. Cousin Jim always seemed to be sitting at the kitchen table, not talking but drinking coffee and eating biscuits and gravy. We kids used to make butter in the authentic churn, which would now be an expensive antique.

In the living room, we found old paper or cardboard fans that were printed with the names of churches and funeral homes. The beds we slept in were much taller than those we were used to, which made climbing into them a workout. Just beside the house was a kitchen garden, which was endlessly diverting. We pulled up carrots and potatoes (which were usually not full-grown yet).

A little ways from the house was a barn, and it was the site of many adventures. There was a hayloft that contained bales of straw (not hay), but we were too young and timid to jump from it, as kids always do in the movies. There was also a fascinating old iron machine that took the kernels off the cobs of dried corn. We loved using it, though it turned out later that the corn cobs were meant to be left whole. There was also a mule, which I once got to ride bareback. Here’s some advice: Never ride a mule bareback. Their spines are very bony.

Across the road from the farmhouse was a hill that led to an ancient family cemetery. It made a nice walk to swing on the gate across the path and trek up there. I don’t know for sure, but I like to think of Addie and Jim being buried there and not in some huge cemetery far from their home.

Just a ways down the road, there was a drive-in theater, which we could see from the screened-in back porch. It was fun to watch the movies, especially the cartoons, even with no sound. Another nearby attraction was Natural Bridge State Park. There was an impressive lodge that we never stayed in, but where we could buy that sugary white candy that seems mostly made of air and dissolves in your mouth. We took pictures of each other standing under the bridge, though I don’t have them anymore.

If Beattyville had a town center, we never saw it. Down the road from the farm was a small gas station owned by Ollie Dooley, a more distant relative, but you couldn’t really say it was in a populated area. The areas we got to see were in the hill country of Kentucky, which we called “the mountains,” though they were nothing like the mountains they have out west. These were sometimes steep, rolling mountains, grassy and rocky, full of minerals.

Fracking didn’t exist back then, and I am glad. I’m sure the old farmhouse and barn are gone now. They were old when we visited them, and they can’t have survived or been rebuilt. And no one today would want a house with a black kitchen that you could enter through a window from the bedroom.

More Kentucky Folks

Last week I wrote about Kentucky relatives on my father’s side of the family. This week’s reminiscences are of Kentucky folks on my mother’s side.

Our Uncle Sam (yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam, and an Aunt Jemima whom I never met) and Aunt June lived on a farm outside of Campton, Kentucky. We took the Bluegrass Parkway, which was then a toll road, to get there. Every summer, we vacationed there for a week or two, along with visiting other relatives in the area.

We often stayed a night in Campton, where my Aunt Thelma ran a small hotel (Roses’ Hotel) and general store right across from the town diner, which had much to recommend it, including jukebox access at every table, and a pinball machine. (Note: I have no idea whether Uncle Sam, Aunt June, and Aunt Thelma were actually my aunts and uncles. They could well have been second grand-uncles and great-grand-aunts twice removed, for all I know. The only titles we used for any relatives other than Granny (Coburn) and Grandma (Rose) were aunt, uncle, and cousin. But I digress.)

The general store was notable to us kids for having a wide assortment of penny candy where we could get root beer barrels, red hots, and Sugar Daddy pops. There were clothing and tools in the back, but we never made it farther than the candy counter.

Uncle Sam, down the road a ways, was a sharecropper. He owned the land where the house was, on one side of the road, and farmed the other side of the road for some other owner. He had cows and chickens and a horse. When I brought my then-fiance Dan to visit, he and Uncle Sam went off to bring in the cows. Dan, having no experience with cows, wandered along behind them with a stick, while Uncle Sam made polite conversation by pointing at various plants and asking, “Do they have those where you come from, Mr. Reily?”

Sam’s wife, Aunt June, was a round, comfy woman with bright, black eyes, who was at least part Native American. She was famous for her biscuits. Dan won her heart when, just before we left, he stuffed his pockets full of them.

We had, I would say, a strained relationship with the chickens. We would try to gather eggs for breakfast, but were never assertive enough to reach under the squawking and pecking fowl and collect the eggs. An adult had to be summoned for that. I was also mildly traumatized when I saw Aunt June wring a chicken’s neck for that night’s dinner, and I learned what the saying “like a chicken with its head cut off” really meant. I still ate the fried chicken, though.

The horse was another matter. We loved to ride it, but once when I was on its back, one of the farm dogs came yipping at its heels and the horse took off at what seemed to me great speed toward the barn door. The closed barn door. I bailed off sideways into the cornfield and the horse sensibly stopped when it got to the barn door. But for a moment, it was terrifying.

There was lots to do at Uncle Sam and Aunt June’s. There was a fishing pond. The path to the pond was lined with blackberry bushes and if we visited at the right time of year, we picked the berries on our way to the pond. I don’t remember catching any bluegills longer than about three inches, of which we enormously proud, but which were fed to the barn cats.

Another notable feature of the house was the plumbing, or the lack thereof. There was running water in the house for washing or cooking, but there was no inside toilet. Instead, we had to make do with the outhouse or, at night, with the “slop jar” under the bed. The bed was cozy with handmade quilts and it seemed a shame to leave their warmth to grab a flashlight to trudge to the outhouse.

Living along with Sam and June were our cousins, C.B. (Benny) and Betty Sue. C.B. was kind of a hellraiser and too old to be interested in young cousins, but Betty Sue, although among the shyest persons I’ve ever met, liked to hang around with us. Later in life, she became an attendant in a senior care facility.

The farm was a special place, with a traditional porch and rocking chairs. If it wasn’t too hot – and it often wasn’t, this being in the Kentucky hill country – we would sit and rock and drink lemonade from Mason jars.

Perhaps my memories of these idylls are why Dan and I choose to spend weekend getaways at a bed and breakfast called The Farm, where we get a small cabin with a porch and rocking chairs, beds with patchwork quilts, chickens and goats and rabbits that have the run of the barn and the yard, and huge country breakfasts. We’re going again this August, and I can’t wait.

Bacon, Eggs, and Salt

Once upon a time, bacon, eggs, and salt were thought to be bad for a person’s health. Now they’re all the rage in cooking. They come in all sizes and shapes and colors, and they go with everything from hash to steak to pizza.

Bacon, I think we all agree, is bad for us, but we love it anyway, and any way. And there are so many kinds of bacon to love, in addition to the regular kind that Mom used to make for breakfast. There is thick-cut bacon, slab bacon, turkey bacon, and varieties that sound like bacon but aren’t (Canadian bacon, which is really ham, and pork belly, which is bacon on steroids). Then there are the foreign kinds like pancetta and guanciale, which may not technically be bacon as they come from different parts of the pig, but serve much the same purpose in many recipes.

So, what do you do with your bacon? Make a sandwich of it (with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, please, on whole-wheat toast). Put it on a different sandwich such as a hamburger. Put it on pizza. Make it into jam. Candy it (or if you have Canadian bacon, pour maple syrup on it). Put it on a salad. Put it in an omelet. Drape an egg lovingly atop the crispy (not flabby, please) strips. Or go full Elvis and serve your bacon with peanut butter and bananas, on fried white bread.

There’s been some debate about eggs. For a long time, everyone ate as many as they wanted. Then suddenly they were bad for you. Then, no they weren’t. You didn’t have to avoid eggs anymore. What happened? Did the egg change? Did the human body change? No, apparently some dietary health commission somewhere changed.

Now the debate is how to use the egg, and the answer is as a sauce. No, not in a sauce, as the sauce. This is why you now see hamburgers and all manner of other sandwiches served with a fried egg – mostly sunny side up, but occasionally over easy – resting just under the top bun.

But, wait! (I hear you cry.) The minute you bite the sandwich, the egg will explode and run everywhere! Well, yes, that’s the idea. The egg yolk is the new ketchup or mayo for a burger. Voilà! It has become the sauce. Now you can use words like “unctuous” to describe it, if you want to be taken for a foodie.

Perfectly poached eggs (meaning runny) are used in this way too, or to top steaks, hash, stew, shakshuka, etc. Apparently, if they are sufficiently runny, they improve anything they touch. There is some debate on sunny-side-up eggs. Should they be served au naturel? Or cut out with little round cutters so that they fit more attractively on a biscuit (or whatever)? Personally, I don’t have an opinion, as long as the egg is cooked long enough that the white doesn’t look like snot. That’s ick, not unctuous.

“Farm-fresh” eggs are preferred if you want to get culinary. There are also quail eggs, if you want to get dainty, and emu eggs, which are dark teal and look like they’re going to hatch a dinosaur. “Scotch eggs” are soft-boiled eggs with sausage wrapped all around them and deep-fried. There’s some sort of trick to keeping the yolk unctuous and the sausage crisp, but I don’t know what it is.

And salt? I think we all know by now that salt intake is related to high blood pressure, which is a Bad Thing. But the problem with salt generally only comes up when you eat already-prepared foods like potato chips or cans of soup. Those are loaded with salt. Some ingredients, like cheese, also contain salt, but I think we can all agree that every food should come with too much cheese on it. If you avoid processed foods that contain salt, there is really no need to fear. No one adds enough salt to unprocessed food to be dangerous. Or at least we hope not.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, a number of different kinds of salt to experiment with. In addition to good ol’ table salt, there are salt substitutes (which taste metallic because guess what? There’s potassium in it); kosher salt, sea salt, finishing salt, flake salt, THC salt (in CA anyway), and even Himalayan pink salt. (I own a lamp made of a giant pink Himalayan salt nodule with a light inside. No, I don’t lick it. I will, however, lick salted caramel, enthusiastically. But I digress.)

If you watch as much foodie TV as I do, you quickly learn that when someone says, “Needs seasoning,” they mean, “Needs salt.” Seems everyone puts in enough pepper. And they never mean rosemary or chervil or cumin or garlic, which are also seasonings. No, they mean salt.

My husband used to be of the “Never put salt on anything” school of thought. Every night when he cooked dinner and asked how I liked it, I would invariably reply, “Needs salt.” He at last grudgingly admitted that some things, like mashed potatoes, really do need salt to taste the way they should. But usually, he uses Mrs. Dash as he tries to wean me off salt. It doesn’t always work. Some dishes just need seasoning.

A Gift for Mom

I remember what Mother’s Day was like when I was a kid. My sister and I always gave my mother perfume. Well, my dad bought it and my sister and I gave it to her. (We didn’t get much of an allowance back then.) We always got the same kind, a scent called Tigris. I rather think we got that one because it came in a cool bottle with a tiger-striped fuzzy cap. Now I don’t know if she liked it or even if she wore it much.

I wanted to learn about other people’s memories of Mother’s Day, so I asked my friends on Facebook what they gave their mothers. I also asked moms among my friends what were the best gifts they had ever received. I didn’t get many responses, but enough to establish a pattern.

In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book about The Five Languages of Love, five ways that people can share love with one another. The book was originally intended for spouses or those in romantic relationships, but I thought I’d apply it to Mother’s Day.

The five “languages” are

• words of affirmation

• quality time

• physical touch

• acts of service

• gifts

In relationships, problems arise when two people don’t speak the same “language.” For example, one person would like quality time together, but the other thinks giving gifts is the way to express love. Or someone who would like words of affirmation but receives only physical touch.

What surprised me from my unscientific poll is that the persons who gave gifts were mostly children. Usually they had no money, or not enough to buy anything nice, so they relied on arts and crafts. Many a mother has received the venerable gift of a loomed potholder or the neighbor’s flowers. But many of the answers I received showed real thought and imagination.

One guy, for example, said, “I started sewing as a youngster. I once made an apron, though she didn’t wear them as a rule.” One mother particularly remembered – and still has – an acrostic poem that her child wrote and illustrated for her. (For those of you not familiar with it, an acrostic poem is one in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, in this case “MOTHER.”)

Many of the other gifts fell under the heading of quality time or acts of service. For quality time, the clear winner was the mom who remembered, “For me it was my daughter surprising me and showing up at my church plus spending the day with me. We’ve also gone to movies or gotten massages/pedicures together. Mostly just time spent together.”

One response spoke of both affirmation and a gift. This mom remembers, “It was the first Mother’s Day after my son moved to England. Honestly, I don’t remember what the gift was, but the fact that he remembered the day (it is on a different day in England) meant a lot to me.” She added, “Last year, he took the time, from England, to arrange for a delivery of Brock Masterson’s Mother’s Day quiche meal for me. That was above and beyond, I think.”

The categories of food and service overlapped at times. One former child remembers, “I made her breakfast in bed. Usually burnt crap.” I’m sure mom appreciated the thought, at any rate. Another idea was given by a guy who, as a teen, did “some extra chores so she could have a day off.” Another person responded, “We took her out to eat,” which if you think about it, combines quality time, act of service, and gift.

The most comprehensive, and most touching, came from a mom who said that the best Mothers Day gift she received was “All of them because they honored me in so many ways.”

No one mentioned expensive gifts, like jewelry. Gifts of touch were also seldom mentioned, though I suppose the mani/pedi would qualify. And I’m sure a lot of the gifts and remembrances were delivered with hugs and kisses.

This is not to say that moms settle for little, but that the little things are the most fondly remembered.

To Do Or Not To Do

Most of you are likely familiar with the game “Never Have I Ever.” Versions of it have been floating around Facebook, with certain categories highlighted (Score 1 point for everything you haven’t eaten/farm activities you’ve never done/dodgy things you’ve never engaged in, et endless cetera.) Most of them only require that you report your number of points, but many people respond with which things they have/haven’t done, and often why.

I never play those games except mentally, but I am somehow intrigued by them. So, since no one asked, here are my answers to some of these categories and activities, plus a few things I’d like to do but just haven’t yet.

Food. I’ve eaten a lot of “gross” foods in my life, including sushi, snails, octopus, and curried goat, which tasted like curried pot roast. Other things I have eaten but regretted, including liver and onions, olives, and Pop-Tarts.

My mother tried to make me eat liver, but stopped when I literally gagged on it. I think it was a texture thing, not the flavor. Olives make my feet swell, probably because of the salt content. The very smell of Pop-Tarts make me wheeze. I have no idea why, but there you have it.

I have been expanding my dining repertoire. I still don’t really like onions, but I’ve found I can tolerate them if they’re almost invisible – finely diced and in something like spaghetti sauce, where they’re cooked through and not the main ingredient. And onion soup, for some reason (I think it’s the cheese). A slab of onion on a burger, though, makes me cry, even if I didn’t cut it myself.

Some seafoods I’ve been trying to acclimate myself to, through a process called fried, soup, sauce. That’s how I addressed clams, for instance – first fried clam strips, then clam chowder, then clams with bean sauce. I haven’t yet tried the theory out on oysters, but I intend to. I don’t know if I’ll make it all the way to raw oysters, but I’m betting I can make it from fried to oyster stew.

I’ve drunk any number of dubious beverages, the most dubious of which was called Swamp Water – one part green chartreuse and six parts pineapple juice. If you want to know why it’s called Swamp Water, mix yourself up a batch. It you want to know why it’s dubious, drink some green chartreuse straight.

There are also beverages I’ve never tried, but intend to. Not every new variety of candy-ass girlie drinks that bars and restaurants are always inventing. No I want to try a martini (with a twist – see olives and onions, above). And I want to try absinthe, but it’s way expensive, especially if you get the peculiar silver spoon that you’re supposed to use to melt a sugar cube into it. Maybe someone will give me some for my birthday or Christmas.

Activities. Dodgy or dangerous category: Yes, I have skipped school, whenever my father wanted to take a three-day weekend with his relatives in Kentucky. He’d write a note, but it was still counted as an unexcused absence. Yes, I’ve ridden a motorcycle, though only as a passenger. (I wanted a motorcycle of my own, but had a fear that as soon as I got one, I would get pregnant and be unable to ride. But I digress.)

Farm activities category: Yes, I’ve milked a cow and a goat. Surprisingly, the cow is easier. More to hold onto. I also rode a mule. I advise against this, at least bareback, because mules have the boniest spines this side of a stegosaurus. I’ve used an outhouse, despite the fact that I’m terrified of bees. I’ve also peed outdoors while camping or hiking. (I know, TMI.)

Amusement park category: I have a rule about amusement parks: I will not ride anything that turns you upside down or the floor drops out from under you. Yes, I know the physics of why it’s perfectly safe. I’m afraid I might throw up, likely on someone below me. (For years my mother wouldn’t let me ride Ferris Wheels on the theory that I’d get a nosebleed. This despite the fact that every nosebleed I ever had occurred when I was in my bed, at ground level. But I digress. Again.)

My friends got me to ride the Tower of Terror at DisneyWorld by A) telling me that the floor doesn’t actually drop; it’s pulled down by a cable, so no free fall, and B) they instilled in me the mantra “Disney isn’t going to kill me. They want me to spend more money.”

I’m sure that there are lots of other things that I haven’t tried, but should; things I haven’t tried, but won’t; things I’ve done once but will never do again; and, quite possibly, things I’ve never thought about that I will or won’t do. And I’m sure plenty of you have suggestions for those categories, or to do/not to do stories of your own. Feel free to share them here.

What Do You Do With Your Winnings?

You suddenly receive a chunk of money. What will you do with it? That’s a question that I have heard often. Not directed to me. I have no prospects of landing more than pocket change, unless my mystery gets published, hits the bestseller lists, and gets picked up for a television series.

But I watch a fair number of competition shows on TV, primarily on Food Network or The History Channel. I enter giveaways occasionally, when HGTV is offering a fabulous house in Rhode Island as a prize. But I never even buy lottery tickets, to which I have a philosophical objection. (I believe that they are a tool used by the upper classes to make money by fooling people into believing that they can magically join the upper classes. But I digress.)

The prizes offered in the shows I watch are seldom life-changing, usually starting at $10,000, which seems nice, but I have seen them go up to $100,000, which actually could be life-changing, if not a key into the leisure class.

What the contestant would spend the money on if he or she won is a question that invariably gets asked. I have noticed a pattern in the responses. There are a few major categories.

Travel. Contestants’ dreams of travel seem pretty realistic to me. It’s what I would spend my winnings on.

The usual fantasy trips are to take the family on a great vacation, to have a honeymoon that somehow never happened, or to visit a part of the world from which ancestors came. In the food competitions, there is also a tendency to wish for funds to travel the world (or at least part of it) sampling and learning how to cook different kinds of cuisine.

(Since we were on the subject of honeymoons (or at least I was), I also hear contestants who want to spend their prize on an engagement ring or a wedding. I know the price of diamonds and of weddings have not gone down in recent years, but $10,000 or $25,000 seems a bit high for regular folks, the ones who never appear on “Say Yes to the Dress.” An engagement ring for $25,000? I mean, come on!)

Home. I’ve heard a number of contestants say they would like to put a down payment on a new home. This time the figure seems a bit too low. But what do I know? Maybe the couple has already saved toward a house and this would put them over the roof, so to speak.

Other winners say they would renovate their kitchen (on the food shows) or their workshop (on craft- or building-type shows). This I can understand. Remodeling a kitchen or a workshop could easily eat up that kind of money, especially if new appliances or tools are required.

Business. Again, as with houses, the prizes offered don’t really seem magnanimous enough to start a business, but again, most of these lucky winners may have a fair amount put aside already. Or their dreams are more modest – to get a storefront instead of an internet bakery (a concept I’m not altogether clear on), or a food truck (I’m assuming this would also be a down payment, given that a food truck would have to cost more than a car, which you can hardly get for $10,000 anymore anyway) or the ability to turn a part-time hobby into a full-time business, which seems to me like a pipe dream, but I suppose there are people who could make it work.

Charity. Some of the potential winners have loftier goals. I’ve heard chefs say that they would start a variety of cooking programs for troubled youth. I’ve heard winners say that they would give part, or even all, their winnings, to a charity that provides funds for researching a disease or condition that a family member suffers from. Others want to donate to a church or other religious cause. Once I even saw a kid (on “Kids’ Baking Championship”) who wanted to help out a teacher who had fallen on hard times.

Me, I’d be off like a flash to Ireland with my husband. (I’ve been twice, but he’s never been). If there’s some left over, we’ll just have to arm wrestle for it. Maybe Benson, Arizona, where we once enjoyed one of our best vacations ever. Or, more likely, only as far as the IRS office.

 

 

Happy Pandemic Birthday to Me

Today is my birthday, and we are in the middle of a pandemic. How does this affect my celebration? Hardly at all. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with birthdays and am perfectly happy celebrating them with as little fuss as possible. In fact, my idea of a really good present is for my husband to tell the waitstaff not to sing when they bring my birthday cupcake or sundae. I rather imagine that they enjoy the singing as little as I do.

This year, it’s even more minimalist than that. Since we no longer go out to eat, I am expecting to get a surprise bag of Taco Bell takeout, with maybe a candle in the quesadilla, or, if I’m really lucky, Long John Silver’s chicken planks with a candle in the cole slaw.

Of course, my husband still gets me presents. He buys them in July or so and hides them till December, then gives them to me – if he can remember where he hid them. For this Pandemic Birthday, he hasn’t had the advantage of following me around stores to see what I like, then sneaking back later to buy it. He does work in a department store, so I’m pretty sure he’s gotten me something and hidden it in the back of his car.

Since the store he works at also has a day-old baked goods table, I can reliably expect some form of leftover cake or pie, sometimes with whipped cream, but hardly ever with a candle. And when there is a candle, just one is fine, thank you very much. I may also, of course, receive the proverbial bowling ball named Homer.

In my teens, I tried to disown my birthday altogether. In my dysfunctional way, I told people that it was on March 1, rather than in December. This was a stupid coping mechanism, not unlike the time prescription Ibuprofen caused me stomach trouble in college and I sat by the door in my classes, hoping that the burping would be less noticeable there. Don’t ask me why. My birthday didn’t go away (the burping didn’t either), my family still baked me cakes, and I still got presents or cards.

Eventually, I reclaimed my actual birthday. As the years went by, I barely celebrated at all. Then Facebook came along and now I have the opportunity to count the number of people who wish me happy birthday. As excitement goes, it’s not much.

There’s likely to be even less excitement this year. A surprise party would be out of the question, even if I liked them, which I don’t. First of all, I almost never leave the house, so it would be difficult to sneak people in without my noticing. Also, having masked people jump out from behind furniture and yell at me would resemble a home invasion more than a party. Besides, a good many of my friends live out of state and even the ones here in town are social distancing, which is part of why they’re my friends.

I’m content these days just to let my birthday slide by with an emotion that ranges from meh to Bah, Humbug, depending on the year. I have a feeling this is going to be a meh year.

 

 

Thanksgiving Memories

It all started with my sister. Once she and my mother and I were driving around and talking about Thanksgiving. She was waxing rhapsodic about how it would be wonderful to give our cats little bites of turkey.

“Actually,” I said, “we’re having lasagna.”

The gasp from the back seat was audible.

“It’s going to have ground turkey in it. Does that count?”

Apparently, it didn’t.

Since that time, we have avoided turkey every year (except the one time Dan’s work was handing them out), just to piss off my sister, the uber-traditionalist.

Fortunately, we now have our own traditions.

Entertainment

This is really the heart and soul of our Thanksgiving. Every year we watch the “Turkeys Away” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati  (thank goodness for the internet!) and listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” singing – or rather reciting – along. One year we also had a DVD of a cozy fire in a fireplace. It was so realistic that, in the middle of it, someone from offstage came in and put another log on the fire.

Skype

One year Dan and his mother were particularly lonely, as they lived in different states. We taught her how to Skype – no easy task from hundreds of miles away – then set up our feast on a utility table in my study. At least we were able to have conversation and watch each other eat. (I think that was the turkey year, or at least the turkey breast year.) For an approximation of the Skype problem, go here to listen to my friend Tom Smith’s song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5XfjUPqj9M).

Food

The lasagna we had has not been our only departure from traditional holiday fare. One year we had spaghetti; another, salmon poached in orange juice. Our most memorable non-turkey meal, though, was the year we had ratatouille. It has been immortalized on my blog in an older post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z), but here’s the gist of it.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so Thanksgiving luncheon would be only me, my mother, and Dan’s best friend John. Doing a whole turkey for three people seemed excessive, and I wanted to make another nontraditional dish, so I settled on ratatouille, with the addition of some sausage for John, a carnivore.

Imagine our surprise when, after taking just one bite, John choked and couldn’t breathe. The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of Heimlichs, emergency equipment, the emergency room, several doctors, and an x-ray. Turns out John had swallowed the bay leaf, which I had neglected to remove, and it had lodged on top of his vocal cords. The highly technical medical procedure required to remove it was a very hard cough. We then went back to my mother’s house for ice cream.

Read the whole thing, if you have time.

Pandemic Thanksgiving

This year, the year of the pandemic, we didn’t have anyone over for Thanksgiving. Not only did we think it was safer, but both my mother and John have passed on. And not from any encounters with rogue bay leaves. I learned my lesson and now use a bouquet garni.

What we did this year combined the traditional and the nontraditional. We didn’t try to teach Mom Reily to Zoom this year. It would take longer to do that than to roast a full-sized turkey.

No, Dan and I continued our nontraditional tradition and at the same time supported a local small business by patronizing them. This year, we had a jolly feast of take-out sushi and Kirin beer. Arlo and Les Nessman were invited, of course. We have to keep up some traditions.

 

 

Adults Saying No

I read a story a long time ago. A woman received a call from her child’s school’s PTA, telling her that they needed two dozen cupcakes (or something similar) from her for their upcoming fundraiser.

The mother thought for a moment. “How much do you expect to earn through this event?” she asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” came the reply.

“And how many people do you expect will contribute baked goods?”

“About 15.”

The mother promptly sent the PTA a check for $20 and did no baking.

The PTA members seemed quite upset by this. But here was a mother who had learned to say “no,” while still supporting the PTA’s goal in a tangible way – just without adding a baking chore to her job, or indeed whatever else she had to do.

Saying “no” is important. Lately, we’ve been hearing that permitting children to say “no” to an unwelcome hug or kiss, even from a close relative, is an early lesson in bodily autonomy and setting limits. Similarly, children should be able to say “stop” when being tickled and have their boundaries respected. 

Perhaps because many grown women didn’t have a chance to learn how to say “no” – and have it heard and accepted – they still don’t know how to set those boundaries.

It’s especially hard to do when children are involved.

I read another story about a woman eating a bowl of strawberries. Her child had already eaten his bowl of strawberries, but wanted his mother to give him her last berry. She ate it herself instead.

I remember this caused a furor among those who read the article. Most of the people who wrote in to the magazine where it was published were of the opinion that the mother should have surrendered the last strawberry to her child. Mothers were supposed to sacrifice for their children, they said. The mother who ate the last berry in her bowl was being selfish.

A few replied, however, that the mother was right – and within her rights to eat the strawberry herself. Her child had already eaten his share of the berries. By insisting on being given the last berry, he was, they said, learning greed and that all his wants should be gratified, to say nothing about disrespecting his mother, who, in eating the last berry, was saying “no” to him.

Nothing was resolved, of course, but everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.

Parents have to say “no” to their children sometimes, especially in cases involving danger. They also have to teach their children to say “no” – again especially in cases involving danger. And they would do well to teach their children to accept a “no” from someone else.

But when an adult says “no” to another adult, as in the first example, the response is often incredulity. How dare a mother refuse to participate in a school bake sale! The fact that she contributed in her own, deliberately fair, way seemed an affront.

But saying “no” to requests for time, money, energy, and effort is natural and understandable. It’s very difficult, though, especially for women, and especially without adding some excuse – doctor’s appointment, visiting relative, or whatever. Some feel guilty even when the excuse is valid and true.

Because that’s what’s really happening here. Parents feel guilty when they decide to deny their children – or their children’s schools – anything.

And feeling guilty is a hard habit to break.