Monday, August 30, 2010

Recipes before you were born feed you still

Remember the days when you had to shred your own cheese? Really good cooks, like my DIL, still do. I will on occasion; mostly I just try to buy fresh the day before. And in this big, wide metroplex I live in, I can think of only one grocery within 15 miles that has the beautiful, round orbs of quality mozzarella for sale. In fact, down here in the Texas land of cheddar and Monterrey jack cheeses, it wasn't so long ago I quit using ground parmesan in the can--and I have friends that still do.

Today is my oldest granddaughter's birthday, and yesterday was mine. Her mother was out of town till late, so tonight I'm fixing a family meal for the five of us. I have to gear up for that: cooking for my three friends for Yahzee made all of us laugh when we took recipes for four and inevitably had at least two helpings left. But this is Matt G.'s family, with his very active, rapidly growing daughters and busy wife, and I'm hoping my one 9X13-inch pan with bread, salad, ice cream and cake will be enough. I do know this: there will be no leftovers.

I pulled out a 70s pasta recipe I really like because it can be made ahead, even frozen. It's even better if made ahead. Even in the 70s, we were using prepared sauces. Shell macaroni is called for. Although I halved the recipe. I made adjustments for current eating habits. I tripled the pasta. The ground beef, of course, is 93/7, meaning 7% fat, then simmered with mushrooms, onion, a jar of sauce and a one-pound can of tomatoes--which now has been downsized to 14.7 oz. Half the meat mixture layered over the pasta, dabbed with about 1/3 cup sour cream, topped with cheese...and that was the other really big adaption. We are used to much more cheese in the dish than in the 70s. (Then we used plain hamburger, so the fat probably came out about the same.) A second layer of each, topped with the rest of the cheese and leaves from a stem of my fresh basil bush.

I thought about changes in popular foods, snacks, flavors from generation to generation. It's sort of a hobby. I love to get really old church cookbooks and see what they have. I was delighted last spring when a friend had a Maine cookbook with a recipe that came from the back of a can of Carnation evaporated milk in the
50s. It is a really easy chocolate sauce that was yummy on ice cream. I don't know if even Carnation has the recipe now, because it certainly is not on their web site.

When I was a kid, one of the few patent medicines for a cough was Smith Bros. Cough Drops. They came in licorice and cherry. My father loved the licorice and couldn't understand why I made a face. I did like the cherry. My dad also loved horehound, a root beer flavor of candy popular in the early 1900s. Mom was with me--Mars bars and 3 Musketeers all the way.

A major dish in the 1930s was tomato aspic. Punches usually had a tea base with added fruits and juices. During rationing during World War II, an older woman told me how she was able to buy one can of tuna on the black market and made a salad for herself and three friends which they relished. The tuna, you see, was mostly sent overseas to the troops. And Spam was born.

My parents also loved picallili and chow-chow, and a lot of people still do, but at least here in Texas, not a majority. Mostly older people eat it, but overall, probably just as many of us eat pickled okra--and that I like well. Does anyone under 70 drink buttermilk by choice? (I seem to remember a Weight Watcher recipe for buttermilk, fresh fruit and artificial sweetener that was pretty good in diet times.)
Whatever happened to Polski Wyrobi dill pickles?

In the 60s and 70s, cubed bologna and cheddar was sometimes served in bars with a beer. Summer sausage was always there in the summers--I used to make big chef salads with vine-ripened tomatoes, onions, lettuce, pepperoncini peppers, summer sausage and cheddar with oil and vinegar dressing.

For some reason, the main time I see summer sausage now is around Christmas. It's all beef, but I've found a meat plant that packages venison for hunters and makes their own sausages from the trimmings. Venison summer sausage makes beef sort of pale into the far distance. Last winter, I gave packages of the sausage, rat cheese and high quality crackers to several men I care and some friends.

I had never eaten a casserole as a child, though I had eaten many a pan of enchiladas and bowls of pinto beans. Campbell triumphed when they marketed their soups as thickeners for nutritious, easy, cheap family meals, beginning with the news-awarding green bean casserole.

There was a cookie--a scalloped edged shortbread round cookie, with orange icing drizzled with chocolate stripes. They just disappeared one year. Then there was the wave of lemon desserts. Green apple candies. This summer, almost every recipe I've seen from salads--especially spinach--to deserts, to sauces for chicken, includes strawberries.

A cross-generational conversation got me started. My youngest granddaughter asked me, "Gramma, do you like gummi bears?" I admitted I didn't because I didn't like the texture. She asked me, "What were the things you used to eat that we don't have any more?"

And this blog is the partial result of that.

I know how much I enjoyed the conversations with my grandparents, and their part of my rearing. They connected me to history through their own lives. I think ideally, three generations, at least, should rear the children. As I hear about more and more families like mine living next door, in the same homes, on the same propety with each other, I am aware that many Americans, from many, many cultures, do that.

My grandchildren keep me updated on the latest food fads in their generation. Sometimes, I feed them some of mine. We get to know each other better. And I believe fervently that eating together is an important part of family. Through food, there is communion. Add to the word and you get communication.

I'm all for that.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Seasonal Changes

On Monday, the first day of school here, the 107 degree heat tied the record for hottest day set back in 1952. We've had I don't know how many days in a row of 100-plus days, and even we natives were longing for a break. Sometime around the end of August, we usually do get a heat break or good rain AND a heat break.

Yesterday afternoon we got both, a little rain and a little heat break. I was able to sit on the porch last night at a bearable 86 degrees, and this morning promises to be in the low seventies. It hasn't been below 80 in way too long. My active, hearty 8-year-old granddaughter actually was able to ride her scooter in the street a little while. Unlike her mother, I am not the least crafty, and that makes long terms in my house a bit dull. She watches a little television, reads her books, and then is ready to Do SOMEthing. As we spend more days together, we will find those things for both of us.

I wrote last week of my friend with lung cancer. On Friday, her breathing worsened and she was approved for home hospice care. She got home Saturday, and her sons invited everyone over. It was a great party, with 30 or 40 friends and family. We all had personal time to visit. She was so content to be home. On Sunday, she slipped into sleep. Her breathing became lighter and lighter, but not labored. And shortly before 7 in the morning yesterday, she slipped mercifully, peacefully, away, with her family around her. About as good as it gets.

I was so happy yesterday, knowing she wasn't hurting, that she was really with God.
I am saddened as well. She was cremated, and the memorial service is Saturday. Next week, the three of us will play Yahzee again, for the first time at my house. We will visit and talk, as we always do. We will laugh.

We will go on.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Shilling for Sandra Brown

In my summer reading list, I left out a book I meant to mention. It is by a chick writer, indubitably chick, but this is entirely differet from anything else she has written.

I first heard of Sandra Brown on a flight from San Antonio to Dallas about 12-15 years ago. Bad weather had delayed the flight about 3 hours, and it was still raining and windy in Dallas when we landed. My seatmate was a contented woman who had this realllly goooood book she was reading, and we talked a few minutes before I let her get back to it. And I started getting the books.

Her plots are good and she writes some of the best--and longest--sex scenes I've ever read. Her books have a fair amount of glitz in them. She is huge with women.

"Rainwater" is a very different book. In the author's note, she says she wrote it when she had time between two contracted books. Set in a small Oklahoma town in the late '20s or early'30s, it is filled with historically authentic details. It is both sweet and at times a bit grim. Elements of racial tension, very much a real part of Oklahoma at that time, plays a part. There is no mystery I was puzzling out, and the last page surprised me. It has left a lingering sweetness on my mind.

Try it. I hope she will write more like this. It's a short book. I think I finished it in an evening.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Ribbon of Sad in the Mostly Happy

About the time I became a homeowner, one of my Yahzee friends found out why she has been feeling lousy for seven months. Despite repeated vists to a half-dozen specialists and her general practitioner, it was only when her oxygen level was below 90 at the arthritis doctor appointment that she was finally sent to the hospital. She was diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancer.

Because she is already so fragile from a variety of maladies related to her diabetes, surgery was not an option. Chemo and radiation was, to my surprise. Always an optimist, she opted to try to shrink the tumor(s) in an attempt to have more time, better time. The opposite has happened.

Most of the last six weeks she has been in the hospital, now a transitional one. She is very weak. Yesterday, I was in tears when I left. She could hardly speak; she dozed a lot. Over the weeks, we have talked about things we have scarcely touched on in the years I have known her.

She is a strong woman, and an honest one.

"I smoked for 50 years," she told me bluntly. "My mother died of lung cancer. I brought this on myself."

And yes, I am still smoking. It seems more and more stupid. For me, it has been 30 years.

Her friends, her family, have to say goodbye to her, but she has to say goodbye to all of us. That's a lot of goodbyes. A lot of grief. Her two youngest granddaughters are only 2 and 3. She realizes they will not remember her--and she had looked forward so to seeing all her grandchildren grow some more. She has always looked forward to what comes next, part of her charm.

She believes strongly in God. I know I hear a lot of you puzzle out why that would matter, but to those of us who do, it's a source of strength, of not being all alone, because we can feel the spiritual tie. In her way, she's still looking forward.

The thing is, I've written about a lot of happy in the last few months, while this has been going on at the same time. The happy belonged of a piece. So does this. She is still my friend. She has added to the goodness of my life, and I thank her for that, still. Always. The happy goes on.

Any minute now, my youngest granddaughter will be over to spend the day. Oldest is at a sleepover. We went to the library again yesterday, because, as active as they are, these girls love to read. We got a couple of movies, too. There might be a sno cone later, but we also have root beer and ice cream on hand. I will reheat the spaghetti and meatballs I made for lunch yesterday.

Tomorrow I will visit my friend again. She may be weaker still, she may be a bit better. My sadness is a ribbon through the sweetness of everyday.

This is the point: Life is good. Finally, I have learned that. Life is good.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I love my books, which never lose their power

This time, I think, I'm online for good. The great experiment to save me some cash failed to stabilize. So I have bundled through the phone provider I decided I needed after all.

Having not had my computer, and having little love for television--just spent an hour politely but firmly explaining (well, most of that time I was on hold) that I don't like to sit by myself and watch movies so yes, I was certain I had not ordered HBO and Showtime. They took off the charge, and I can blog, and it's a pretty good day.

What I did do was read a bunch.

I'd like to tell you about a few, starting with the one I finished this morning, "The Butcher and the Vegetarian," by Tara Austen Weaver. Yes, she's a West Coast liberal, and grew up vegetarian. Due to health problems in her thirties, she was advised by several doctors to eat meat. Already an established writer on food, she researched a lot about meat, and goes extensively into organic beef, chicken and pork offerings. She visits Prather Ranch in northern California, within sight of Mount Shasta, which I saw last summer from the Oregon side while in Bend. Gives me a good idea where this is. She meets the author of Meathenge, "Biggles", who barbecues a hunk of bacon with the rind on, and she comments, "Bacon is the gateway drug." It's a good read, thoughtful, and it seems to me, balanced. I once interviewed a cultural anthropologist who explained that historically, men did eat the red meat because the heavier fare was sustaining for cutting down trees, cutting firewood, laying down miles of fence, etc., etc., etc. Women and children were relegated more to the chicken and lots more vegetables.
I really think a lot of male folks could get into it. It fills in some corners for me. Not so many venetarians in Texas, although I do know a woman who raises organic beef here. She's a vegetarian.

I hope this isn't made into a movie. I understand "Eat, Pray,Love" is a whiny film, notwithstanding Julia Roberts. The book isn't whiny. A friend who points me in wonderful book directions sent me this, and I confess I didn't finish it. Not, however, because I found it superficial. I think, in books, maybe especialy in non-fiction, the reader and author need to converge on a common path of discovery for awhile before each goes on in individual directions.

A book that would make a good movie is a chick read, "The Christmas Cookie Club," by Ann Pearlman. Pearlman has been nominated for a Pulitzer for a previous book, and the writing is excellent. Twelve women between their early thirties and early sixties bring cookies they have made to share with the group, and to tell their year of passage to the others.

Oh, yeah. Each chapter starts with some excellent cookie recipes (in fact, she has co-authored a cookbook as a spinoff from this.) There are essays on baking ingredents between the narratives. That it is cold and starts to snow as the book progresses made it perfect for me, hibernating in the air-conditioning on a 100-plus degree day to read it. I can see this being a beach book, too.

Another chick read by a favorite author, Anne Quendlin, is "Every Last One." It isn't a fun read, but it engages and invites thought. No one gets out of life without tragic consequences from time to time. Some events just happen. And sometimes--did that misstep in the past weave through, loop around and contribute to this? And now, how do we live with it? How do we go on? And most of us do.
It ends on a hopeful note, and I was satisfied.

There were a bunch of other books too. At the library, I was surprised to find two Robert Parker books I had somehow missed. I read them with both pleasure and sadness. He keeled over on his computer at age 88. Boy, that sounds good. All of it.

Read a new Lee Childs paperback featuring Reacher, the caring guy who can fight so bloodily, and never keeps ties or owns possessions. An impossible anomaly, I think, but a fascinating concept, and I enjoy most of them, even though oldest son tells me disgustedly that Childs doesn't know his firearms.

One movie detour. The grandkids wanted to see "Despicable Me," so we went. It was okay. I was disgruntled to spend $27 for a matinee for three tickets when I can't see 3-D. (Poor kids didn't get any popcorn this time around.) I kinda maybe got a hit or two in "Avatar." But something has changed in the technology. As I say, the cartoon was okay. BUT! I could see almost all the 3-D effects, especially the cute antics during the credits at the end. And I cracked up to see the voice for Gru's mother was Julie Andrews.