Monday, May 28, 2007

God Bless America

I have a confession to make. It's nothing I can do anything about, nor does it have anything to do with the patriotism of my family..

I don't know about the Civil War. Family records don't go back that far. I do know my paternal great-great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Germany to escape the draft there. They settled in the Dakotas, which makes the Civil War moot on their side.

So far as I know, no member of my family has ever gone to war or served in the armed services for the United States. Since I know so little of my extended family, there might well be great-uncles or cousins who served. But none of my immediate family did.

Spanish American War? My great grand and grandfathers were busy establishing homesteads in the West. First World War? My father was a boy. Second World War? after Pearl Harbor, my dad went down to sign up with every other able-bodied man in the countrey. But he was 40, and they had plenty of younger volunteers. They told my dad to go back and sell war bonds, which he did very sucessfully..

They did call back when he was 44. By then, he had a two-year-old with lympho sarcoma (cancer) and a new baby (me). They opted to let him mind the home fires, which he did. I think nowadays,regardless, they would have sent him.

My brother died, of course. And I was a female. So no foul, no danger of war. In the late 1960's, I married a man who planned a military career. Bur the Air Force looked at X-rays of a former car accident he had been in and said "uh--uh" So he went into law enforcement instead.

So my family has been in this country maybe 100 years or more and none of us have gone to war.
We have voted, we have participated in community. But not one of us has died for our country.Or fought for it.

On Memorial Day, I remember my parents filling up a bucket with flowers and garden tools and heading for the cemetery. I had a vague understanding it was for the war heroes, but my parents also thought it was a day to remember any loved ones. The cemetery would be full of friends, and some of us kids would climb the mulberry trees and eat the fruit, which wasn't. bad.

I am an American. Whole-hearted. I cannot be the only one with no service in my family history, but it feels almost shameful. But that is my history. This is America. Make of it what you can.

The Added Dimensions of Really Good Food

Hmm. I've been Meme-ed by DragonWatch on the great hunt for great food. Remember the old guidebook back in the 60's and 70's, "Europe on $5 a Day"? Well, some of you do. This will be a bit like that. My budget is small, and I don't get out much these days, except to have some truly excellent food at the homes of friends. Over the years, I've traveled quite a lot and had some truly memorable meals. But not in the last decade. So I'm going to try to talk about some really good things to eat I find at ordinary, everyday places for the most part. Am I breaking the rules to mention chains? I think I must at least once.

I remember many years ago (actually, 47) having a really excellent meal at Antoine's in New Orleans, eating the then "all the rage" pompano in parchment paper, and it was indeed a great meal, great ambience and service. The next day we left New Orleans and headed east. Around noon, we saw a small cafe on the side of the road with a big creek behind it, and stopped and ordered fresh trout caught that morning out of the creek, greens, and the best piece of pecan pie I have ever eaten, and I make a pretty mean one myself. Service was pleasant. No particular ambience. But the trout leaves a stronger impression on my memory than the fancy pompano, and the pompano was really superb. Even then, I think, fresh, fresh, fresh and simple tickled my palate.

I play Yahzee every week with three other women and we have discussed the merits of Velveeta vs. cheddar in homemade pimento cheese. (One reason we play Yahzee rather than canasta or bridge is that it leaves more mind room for conversations about silly stuff like Velveeta vs. cheddar.) The Velveeta makes a smoother spread, the cheddar gives a different texture and just a touch of sharp. I grew up on cheddar. One of the other women grew up no Velveeta. Not surprisingly, both of us prefer the dish the way our mothers made it. In my family, we didn't fry much and we almost never made gravy. White sauce occasionally, yes. Gravy, no. I still like plain mashed potatoes, except when eating chicken fried steak. Then gravy is mandatory, sorta. But it has probably been a year or more since I've had one. For a person unused to fried foods as I am, I am about to recommend several.

Massey's still in operation in Fort Worth on Seventh St., closed for a couple years, then reopened with new owners but the same recipes. Texas Monthly magazine once dubbed it the best chicken fried steak in the state. You can get a humongous one on a platter, for sure, but they still have the lunch special for $5-$6 dollars --small, iceburg lettuce and tomato salad, palm-sized perfectly cooked steak, and two sides with a sliver of pie after (I like the chocolate meringue). I started eating there in the 1960s. One of the beauties of Fort Worth is how some of its best parts go on and on and on.

I am hampered in recommending restaurants to an extent by some successful efforts in the last months to lose weight. I have not gone on any real diet, but rather followed the "little plate" rule--if it fits (without stacking) on a salad plate, I can eat it. Since I actually enjoy stuff like brussel sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, etc., cooked to just tender with Molly McButter or even a little butter and salt, my tastebuds are mostly used to plainer fare these days. And while I've always loved breads, if I eat them now, I don't have room for the real meal so I seldom do. Because, yeah, most restaurant meals now make two or even three meals for me. And that affects where I want to go eat. I don't want to throw away perfectly tasty food, but sometimes I don't want to bring home a bunch of food I'm going to get tired of before it's gone. (Am I losing? yes, two-four pounds a month, effortlessly. Sometimes I miss being able to eat seconds, like yesterday, when Sharon fixed a chicken enchilada casserole full of Hatch chiles and a salad crammed with lettuce, cucumbers, artichokes, cherry tomatoes, avocado and radishes Yum! and I could only eat my little plate's worth. Once upon a time, I wouldn't have been satisfied with a diet that didn't melt at least 3 pounds a week. But this is so easy. And the goal is not to look better. This time it is to get healthier and give my arthritic joints a rest.)

I find absolutely huge helpings on dinner plates that used to be used as serving platters off-putting, so my second restaurant pick is anecdotal on the barbecued ribs. I can, however attest to the brisket. And the chopped brisket is simply their regular prime, lean brisket chopped fine and laced with their excellent sauce. No fatty scraps. Papa's, on Denton Lake Dallas. Sorry--they are clean, clean, clean and moved into a new building about five years ago, so no quaint, aging relics around. The fried catfish look great, but the barbecue always smells so good I've never had them. Mostly takeout, a few tables. Soul food, the real thing. You order fried okra, they actually fry it up right there in a frying pan, not a deep fryer. I've seen the ribs when friends ordered them, but that's more food than I can handle. They look succulent and meaty, and my friends have smacked lips and sucked fingers while eating, but then, you can't eat ribs any other way. I'm stuck on the brisket. They have specials every day, like pot roast and meat loaf, or baked chicken, and pulled pork on Fridays. These meats are accompanied with an offering of two sides, choosing from turnip greens, green beans, pinto beans, pickled beets, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, incredible potato salad they actually make rather than buy and have shipped in, macaroni salad, cole slaw with a piquant dressing (coarse grated, my favorite) And of course, pickle slices, onion slices and jalapenos (we're in Texas). I always have them cut my sandwich in half and get two meals. The sandwich has almost two inches of meat filling it. The potato salad is so popular, they've been out the last two times I stopped by, but the pasta salad is almost as good and I usually just get the slaw. A lady makes coconut and buttermilk pies, and will on order make a fine sweet potato pie. Greatness? no, just ordinary, consistently really good food. A meal is under $8 including soda. Well, that's without a slice of pie. I will admit I can't think of another barbecue place in years I like as well, and it's the only soul food within easy reach..But I don't think they have cornbread.

My one famous pick is Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth. I first started eating there when it was in a smallish ramshackle cafe and you walked over to the cooler and fetched your own bottle of beer. It's a fine, big place now with a huge patio and mariachis, but the food remains simply excellent. In the evenings you have two choices: enchiladas or fajitas, and even my big, tall oldest son usually has to bring home a doggy bag. The corn and flour tortillas are fresh that day, the beans just thick enough, and the rice is really good (most Mexican restaurants do not excel at the rice. I consider that the benchmark.) The margaritas are big, strong and tasty, and by the time you've finished your meal, any incipient tipsiness will have subsided. If you're going to have beer with the meal as well as the margarita, it's a good idea to arrange a designated driver. The salsa is excellent. Once or twice I've had room for their sopapillas with butter and honey. I believe they also have flan. About $10--$15 apiece will cover it, I think.

Another fine Fort Worth tradition is a fish and chips restaurant that has also been around for years. Now called Zeke's, on Curzon St., It's mostly crisp fried fish, fried potatoes, in a cone of newspaper with malt vinegar (or, if you insist, catsup and tartar sauce). Again, under $10. See the trend here?

I have to mention my most favorite meal currently, even if it is at a chain. I love Johnny Carino's Italian Restaurant. I know it's a chain, but the jalapeno garlic talapia is incredibly wonderful, served on lightly sauteed spinach leaves with chopped fresh tomato and a bed of angel hair pasta with lemon-butter sauce. The salads are ordinary but huge, and the meals come with baguettes of crusty bread and red pepper flakes with olive oil for dipping. I also really like the chicken and artichokes with angel hair pasta and the grilled chicken with rosemary new potatoes and grilled vegies. Unusually good service every time at the one I frequent. Oh, and the tiramisu is the best I've had. That's my opinion. I don't drink coffee, so I much prefer a milder coffee-flavored dessert to eating what tastes like chuncks of distilled coffee. $10-$15 apiece Lunch is cheaper. And smaller. But I still get two meals out of it.

There's so much more. Mama's Daughter's has plain country food with lots of veggies and a menu that varies with the day of the week. Their cornbread muffins are incredible. The yeast rolls are great, and on Tuesdays, I can get pot roast and have to choose three sides from spinach, black-eyed peas, carrots, mashed potatoes, cabbage, Italian green beans or green salad. They have five restaurants over two or three counties in the Metroplex. Some patrons prefer Mondays, when they have okra with tomatoes, or Fridays, when they have baked chicken with dressing or catfish fillets and summer squash cooked with onions and a little bacon. Senior plates are a dollar off. Most meals are $7.99- $12, but for $4.50, I can get stew made with leftover pot roast in a spicy tomato broth, with potatoes, carrots, onions and green peppers and the cornbread muffins. The Old West in Denton and Sanger serves nothing but breakfast on weekends from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.I don't even like hash browns, but I like theirs. Or I can sub fruit or sliced tomatoes. Huge mugs of hot tea. What I really want to find is a place that makes, not buys, its soups (and please, something besides twice-baked potato or broccoli-cheese) besides the delicious hot and spicy or eggdrop soups at the Chinese buffet. Another search is for a place that makes hollandaise sauce. Oh, and a place by next winter that sells "a bowl of red." Seems ridiculous, but I don't know a restaurant around here that serves decent plain old Texas chili. I want some chopped onions, thank you, no sour cream and no grated cheese. I am a heretic in that I do prefer pinto beans in my chili. I didn't even touch on good pizza. Matt G says "any pizza from anywhere served within 10 minutes out of the oven." That's true, but he served some mighty fine stuff a while back from someplace near him AFTER 10 minutes.

We all have foods that make us close our eyes a moment in enjoyment from the most ordinary of places. What blisses you may not bliss me and vice versa. But I kind of think if we pay more attention to the foods we really, really like to eat and skip the stuff that just fills us up, we might do better. The occasional Event Meal is a fine thing, however. I vividly remember such a meal some 25 years ago (I do have my food memories) at a very fancy restaurant. It was a one-time treat for me, and I ate a lot of cliches I hadn't had before. Or since......snails grilled in garlic and butter. Beef Wellington. Grand Marnier souffle. Each bite was a delight. It was so fabulous. The other people in the room came there all the time. To them, it was ordinary. And I wonder who enjoyed it most?

Don't know if I read anyone who hasn't already gotten this meme, so I will check and tag later, if any.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Giving and endings

Last night, I celebrated the birthdays of two good friends at a local restaurant. In 10 days, they are moving to Oregon, and I didn't want to give them anything more to pack. We visited and laughed as we always do, and at the end, they took turns taking pictures of me with each of them and sent me copies today. Somehow, no matter how I try, they always give back more than I gave. I will miss them so much. I have e-mail addresses, a home address, and cell phones. And they promise they have a bedroom waiting for me to visit. And I am so happy for them.

I am developing new friendships, but how do you replace 35 years? I think about the wagon trains of years past, when families said goodbye to everyone they knew, every THING they knew, and went on. How did they do it? They did. They did. Wow.

Last week, I had my last mentoring session with my two girls. I worked with families--i.e. kids-- for 13 years, without the wrench very often I felt Thursday.. My fourth grader becomes a fifth grader, so I can continue to work with her. My fifth grader goes on to middle school, so fifth grade is a kind of graduation. I worked weekly with these girls, one hour with one, two hours with the other, and yes, son, they are MY GIRLS. I am invested in them. Funny so little time can make such a difference. The principal says their academic scores in the school overwide are coming up. Some of it is our schoolwork with them, but I am convinced some of it is the fact they know more people are cheering them on to succeed. I gave my fourth grader a silver charm of a turtle to remind her that next year we won't hurry to catch up but work steadily to keep up, because, I said, "I want you to win." She lookd at me and said, "That makes me want to cry, but I won't." And she did love the charm.

One of the dangers of any volunteer work is the guilt we feel at what we get back for volunteering. No matter how much you give, to friends or the community, you always get more back than you gave. I understand that now. But it still is not always comfortable.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Freedom At What Price?

I am still such a credulous smuck. I still hope people do the right thing because it is the right thing instead of the politic or power move. Mostly, I am wrong. But I still hope every now and then.

A couple weeks ago I was listening to an NPR political analyst attack Barack Obama for his stance on the funding of the Iraq war. He voted against going to war, which I admire tremendously. He stood up and let his vote be counted. I, a citizen, albeit voting, in Texas, despaired of writing my opposition to the invasion to anyone. I did nothing. I still think any letters I could have written, would have fallen on deaf ground at the time. But he voted. Up front and personal. He voted against it.

And now, the Congress has asked for a timeline to withdraw. And Bush, of course, has vetoed. And Obama said he believes it is time to compromise with the president because "I do not want to play chicken over the bodies of American soldiers."

The political analyst sneered. What's the matter with him? He's in a strong position. He should take on the administration. He's offering to negotiate before we've even reached the line. He is taking a position of weakness when he is still supposed to be fighting for The Team.

I don't know much about Obama, don't know if I would vote for him, but this touched me. When more Democrats than Republicans were voted into office in November, the Democrats seem to think the voting public wants the same old ball game only with them in the ascendency instead of the Republicans. I rather doubt that. I think we are tired of the football game of Red vs. Blue and would like to get back to a time when it is less acrimonious and the two parties have to work together and compromise and actually get some things done. I was pleased the Democrats had such a slim majority for this very reason.

I recently listened to another analyst who said if the war ended tomorrow, and all the money from that could be plowed into the economy, Congress has porkbellied so egregiously it would not make one whit of difference in the national debt or what we are doing. Discouraging. And then I listened to a man opining that 85% of the French voted because who they chose would really make a difference on how their country was run. In our country, eight US senators who had received massive campaign contributions from drug companies managed to block a vote allowing citizens to get cheaper meds from across the borders. The will of the people is not listened to in Washington unless we get really exercised. What talks is money from the lobbyists. I live in a free country. But it does not feel so free today.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Whistling His Way to the Top

Let's hear it--literally--for Terry Rappold, who won the National Whistling Championship a couple weekends ago in North Carolina. He won both the classical and modern music categories. The sound was incredible.

Liquid, full notes, with some vibrato, each note sliding into the next with a full, rich sound that would make a mockingbird weep with envy. Very similar to the quality of a Stradivarius violin. Yeh, like that. I caught just a few measures on the air, and was left craving more. That's a contest I would have liked to attend.

Lots of people whistle, though, I think, fewer do now then a decade or so back. Men and women used to sing and whistle as they went about their work.( Were they happier? Or just in better health aerobically?) When asked, Terry said he thinks great whistlers are just born, not made. When he was a kid growing up in New Orleans, he could already whistle well enough to perform for change off the tourists. Already had that full, rich sound. His uncle was an extraordinary whistler, too. Of course he has practiced, learned the music for his performances.
Funny. We accept that some people are just born with outstanding voices. But whistling? The sound this man got out was sweet, full, rich. It was not quite like any musical instrument you have ever heard, but similar.

Every so often, I see or hear something humans over this world have made or performances of such beauty that I would never have thought of them. And I think, "Yeah, being human can be pretty wonderful."

I learned to whistle when I was 5 or so. After seeing the movie, "The High and the Mighty", I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a professional whistler. To that end, I spent a fair amount of time out in the barn whistling song after song to the horses. Not a bad thing for a kid to be doing. I figured out pretty soon there wasn't going to be much future in it. I also figured out I didn't have star quality.

Terry Rabbold does. Oh, man. I'd buy a CD of his whistling and keep it right next to my Indian flute music.

Funny thing. The reporter asked if he can do that two-finger whistling thing. He laughed, and said he never could do it, but his wife can. All he can do is make beautiful music, day after day, by pursing his lips and whistling.

What a wonderful gift.

Disclaimer: I'm unsure of the spelling on his last name, as I heard this, didn't read it. To hear this interview go to KRLD radio web page and access Mike Rogers' file, "Other Side of the News."