What’s Cooking?

“Hey, what’re you making?”  My older son had wandered into the kitchen as I was browning some breaded chicken for dinner.

“Chicken with bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, which I will then cover with cream of chicken soup and bake in the oven.”

He surveyed the sizzling frying pan.  “It would taste better if you added some tarragon.  Do you have any tarragon?”

Tarragon?  What the heck is tarragon?

“Uh, no, I don’t have any tarragon.”

“Too bad.  Pick some up the next time you go to the store.  How about paprika?  You have any of that?”

Paprika? Wait.  That sounds vaguely familiar.  It’s a type of spice, right?

“Sorry, no paprika, either.”

His lips flattened.  “Lemon-pepper?”

Okay, give me a break.  Is that a fruit, a pepper, a spice … what?

“Nope.”

He picked up a bottle of garlic powder and liberally sprinkled it into my pan.  “Well, at least the garlic will make it better.”

Let me explain.  My son has spent the last few years as a cook in several various types of restaurants. As a result, he has become quite the “foodie.”  He has developed a gourmet palate and can wax theatrical on textures, subtle blends and nuances, and other masticatory adjectives describing food.  Me, I describe food in one of two ways—tastes good or doesn’t taste good.

I am a simple person who cooks simple food, and that is mostly out of necessity to keep from starving or going broke eating out.  Breaded chicken baked with cream of chicken soup is about as gourmet as I get.  Beanie/weenies is more my style.  As for spices, I may own three. (Do salt and pepper count as spices?)

It’s sad, really, as my mother was a good cook.  She just didn’t pass that gene onto me. But back then women had to know how to cook, as nuking frozen stuff into the microwave was not an option.  I won’t even discuss my mother-in-law, who not only made everything from scratch and was voted “Columbus, Ohio, Homemaker of the Year” in nineteen-sixty-something, but also ran a business, raised five perfect children, taught Sunday school, and received the Nobel Peace Prize for curing cancer.  (Okay, maybe I exaggerated a little on that last point.)

But the fact is my culinary talents are sorely lacking.  And it’s rather embarrassing that my son is a better cook than I am.  After all, aren’t sons supposed to sing their mother’s cooking prowess when a girlfriend or young wife cooks them something completely inedible?  Somehow, I can’t ever see that happening with my sons.

One would think that having a gourmet chef living in the house would score us some fantastic meals.  Unfortunately, it seems Older Son is always “out” when there is cooking to be done.  So my poor husband and I end up coming home after work and throwing something into the microwave.

Older Son did, however, put together a tasty pork stew a few weeks before Christmas. As we sat around the dinner table enjoying the rarity of having someone else cook dinner, my husband spooned a strange looking object from his bowl.  “What’s this thing?”

“That’s a bay leaf,” Older Son replied,  “don’t eat it.”

“Well what’s it doing in my stew if I’m not supposed to eat it?”

“It’s in there for flavor.”

Thank goodness my husband got the bay leaf instead of me.  I would have just eaten it, assuming it was some epicurean delicacy which was supposed to be good for me.  Don’t eat the bay leaves.  Who knew?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Postman

We were enjoying a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast when my husband spied the mail truck in our driveway.

“There’s the mail truck!” he announced, with excitement.  At that, he sprang up and raced outside to retrieve the anticipated surprises the mail carrier deposited in our box.

I could maybe understand this a little better had it been pre-Christmas.  After all, a lot of goodies come in the mail around the holidays—Christmas cards from friends we only hear from once a year, Christmas gifts, the Discover bill . . . oh, wait, thankfully, that comes in January.  But this was after Christmas, so we weren’t really expecting anything exciting.

“Well?” I said when hubby returned.

“Interval wants us to upgrade our membership,” he replied, tossing the opened letter on the table.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Hhmm.  It seemed to me this piece of junk mail hardly merited the neck-breaking race to the mail box to retrieve before it even had a chance to warm the box for two minutes.  But my husband has always been like this.  He has a mail fetish.  Mail cannot sit in the box if he spies the mail truck.  Sometimes if I see the truck before he does (admittedly a rarity), I will call out, “The mail’s here,” just for the fun of seeing him drop everything and hustle out of the house like Ed Mcmahon is standing at our doorstep to hand us our Publisher’s Clearing House prize.  It’s equivalent to telling the dogs, “Squirrel!”

If somehow he misses the truck, he checks the box multiple times during the day until mail has appeared.  As most of what we receive is junk, I fail to grasp the importance of immediate mail retrieval.  He would probably be appalled, but there have been entire days when I’ve forgotten to check the mail box.

When we were dating, whenever he went TDY, I had instructions to collect his mail every day.  I don’t know why, exactly, as there was nothing he could do about it until he came home; but still, every night when he called, I was quizzed about the mail.  This was a bit of a pain since I had to come home from work, drive across town, get his mail from his box and deposit it on his kitchen counter, then drive back across town, pick up my father for dinner, go home and make dinner, then drive my father home.  Don’t tell him, but there were a few times I skipped the nightly mail ritual and simply collected two days-worth of mail the next night.  He never knew the difference.  And as we have been married for twenty-eight years now, I would hate for him to discover I deliberately deceived him.  He might decide I’m untrustworthy and rethink his decision to marry me.

“You know,” I ventured, “you’re a bit anal about the mail.”

“You’ve discovered another quirk,” he sighed.  “I don’t know why you put up with me.”

“So I’m supposed to divorce you because you’re anal about mail?”

He didn’t answer.

“But I do feel another blog coming on!” I informed him, cheerfully.

“I’m so glad I provide you with blog material,” he said.

I may be wrong, but he didn’t sound all that glad.

 

 

 

 

Speak Up

I found myself doing it the other day.  I had a client in the exam room with her little dog, who did not speak much English—the client, not the dog—so I figured she would understand if I talked louder to her in English.  She wasn’t deaf.  But why did I think for some reason that by speaking louder she would automatically comprehend English?

I’m glad I’m not the only one who does this.  At least I don’t revert to broken English or add an “o” to the end of every English word to convert it into a Spanish one.

When our family lived in Indonesia, my father-in-law came for a visit.  No matter how many times we told him our driver didn’t understand English, he would greet him every day with, “HOW ARE YOU TODAY, MAS TARNO?” Mas Tarno would just smile and nod—which was pretty much what I did when someone spoke to me in Indonesian and I didn’t understand, hoping their statement didn’t involve a response on my part.

Sometimes I felt quite fluent in Indonesian when I asked a question or made an observation to a native speaker, until they replied.  A lot of times people assumed I knew more than I did and were thrilled to converse with me since I could speak Indonesian.  Usually I was lost by the second or third word, and unfortunately did not have Translate Google back then.  Asking them to speak slower usually resulted in their speaking louder. Speaking in a foreign language (unless one grew up bilingual or trilingual) can be mind-draining.  Unfortunately, I learned Indonesian at the age of forty-three.  Talk about teaching old dogs.  Having to mentally translate into English and back into Indonesian was exhausting, gave me a splitting headache, and sometimes didn’t seem worth the effort to try to converse.  But I did try.  I distinctly remember remarking to a couple I met in a park who had a pet monkey on a leash that their monkey was “cucu.”  I meant to say “lucu,” which means “cute.”  “Cucu” means “grandchild.”  Oops.

The worst was having to talk on the phone in Indonesian.  There is a lot a person can communicate simply by using their hands, which was, of course, impossible on the phone.  My language teacher used to thoroughly annoy me by calling and yakking away in Indonesian.  I was always tempted to hang up on her or pretend I couldn’t hear. At least, with her, when I was overwhelmed, I could call a time-out, even if she did scold me.  But we had a student in our language class who was from Korea and spoke no English.  So both of us speaking on the phone in our non-native language was a real challenge.

When my husband and I returned to Indonesia to help with relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami, I found myself having to really stretch my communication skills.  We had volunteer medical groups from the states, and I was often tasked with explaining to people how to take their medications.  Try explaining to someone how to apply hemorrhoid cream, for example.   At one point I had to translate English into Indonesian for a man whose mother only spoke her tribal language of Achenese.  The doctor asked the question, I translated it into Indonesian, the son translated into Achenese, the patient  answered the question in Achenese, which her son translated back to me in Indonesian, which I translated back to the doctor in English.  Taking a medical history became quite an interesting, as well as lengthy challenge.

Anyway, having lived overseas and being in the frustrating position of having to communicate in my non-native tongue, I should have known better than to shout at this poor lady with her little dog.  Thankfully, we were able to get enough information across to each other to take care of her dog’s problem.  But I did feel a little stupid in that the dog understood more Spanish than I did!

 

Cooking Up A Little Something

“I want your recipe for that chicken casserole you brought to the church luncheon,” my friend told me.

“Sorry, I can’t give it to you,” I replied.

She looked offended.  “Why not?  Is it a secret family recipe or something?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s just that I make it using the TLAR method.”

“The what? Is that some kind of new cooking process?”

“No.  TLAR stands for ‘That looks about right.’  I don’t actually measure anything.  I just put ingredients together until everything looks about right.”

“You don’t use a recipe when you cook?” she asked.

I shrugged.  “Rarely. That’s why I can’t really write anything down, because I don’t know how much to tell people to put in of each ingredient.”

“Well, surely you can give me a rough idea of how you make it, can’t you?”

I mentally calculated.  “Okay, boil a big bag of noodles.”

“Sixteen or twenty-four ounce?”

I blinked.  “I don’t really know.  Or you can use macaroni.”

“One or two pound box?”

“I’m not sure.  Enough to fill the baking dish.”

“What size baking dish?”

Hah!  I KNEW this one.  “Nine by thirteen,” I rattled off, proud of myself.  “Spray the bottom with cooking spray.”

She was actually taking notes!  “Okay, then what?”

“Cook some chicken and cut it into small pieces.”

“How much chicken?”

I gave her my standard “I don’t know” look.

“Never mind,” she said.  “What’s next?”

“Mix a can of cream of chicken soup with enough milk to make it ‘soupy.’ ”

“How soupy?”

“Just, you know, soupy.  Then stir in a bunch of grated Parmesan cheese with a dash of salt.”

She stopped taking notes and looked up.  “A dash or a pinch?”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, a dash is more than a pinch.”

I tried to keep my facial expression from revealing my thought of, surely you’re kidding.  “No, a dash.  Definitely a dash.  Unless you have high blood pressure, then maybe just a pinch.”  Thankfully I didn’t have to clarify “a bunch of grated Parmesan cheese.”   I searched my brain.  “Next, stir in about ¾ of a carton of cottage cheese.”

“Small or large carton?”

Hah!  I knew THIS one, too!  “Large.  Mix it all up, add peppers or mushrooms if you want and pour it over the noodles and chicken.   Top with grated cheddar cheese.”  Since I knew what was likely to come out of her mouth at this point, I added, “ Just sprinkle the cheese on until it looks good.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.”

She returned her notes and pen to her purse.  “I’ll give it a try.  But I honestly don’t know how you just eyeball everything and make it turn out right.”

I smiled.  “It’s a gift.”

There.  You have my famous recipe for three cheese chicken casserole.  More or less.  Make it at your own risk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I love all kinds of Christmas music—carols, secular songs, children’s songs—provided it is not played before Thanksgiving.  That being said, there are a number of songs associated with Christmas time that really don’t seem to have anything to do with Christmas.

Take the old standard, “Jingle Bells.”  There is no mention of Christmas in the lyrics.  According to Wikipedia, it was written by James Lord Pierpont, J.P. Morgan’s uncle, in 1850, and was inspired by one-horse open sleigh races between Medford Square and Malden Square in Medford, Massachusetts.  It was originally intended for the Thanksgiving season and was often sung as a drinking song at parties. Personally, I’ve never been in a one-horse open sleigh, so I don’t know if it is fun or not, yet I sing with gusto as if I know it is.

There are several other “winter-themed” songs heard only during the Christmas season, such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Frosty the Snowman,” Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Let it Snow.”  Living in the south and having lived for two years on the equator, it is hard to appreciate the requisite for snow in order to have a real Christmas, but it must be true as all the Christmas movies feature snow.  I sometimes wonder how other people who live where Christmas falls during hot weather feel about this stereotype.  As for me, I am quite happy not having a white Christmas, which is one of the reasons I escaped Ohio.  In fact the song, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” conjures up visions in my mind of shoveling snow, having my car stuck in the snow, and breaking my neck on ice.  More like a nightmare than a dream.  Snow is only beautiful when one is inside a warm house with a roaring fire, sipping a mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows, and gazing out the window at the pristine newly fallen snow before it turns into black slush.

One of the traditional Christmas songs which never fails to amuse me is “Little Drummer Boy.”  Now don’t get me wrong.  I like the tune and the lyrics are sweet.  But I have to consider it from the perspective of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The poor woman had to travel approximately seventy miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the joyful purpose of paying taxes (talk about rubbing salt in the wound), in the condition of being “great with child.”  This couldn’t have been easy.  The Bible doesn’t tell us whether she walked or perhaps rode a donkey or had other mode of transportation. Nevertheless, any journey in her late stage of pregnancy would have been uncomfortable.  Then when she arrives in Bethlehem there is no place to stay, so she ends up having to give birth in a stable (which was probably a cave rather than what we think of as a wooden structure). Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly say, it is assumed there either were animals present, or the area had been used for animals, as baby Jesus was laid in manger, which is a feeding trough for animals.  So in addition to the ordeal of having just given birth, the lack of cleanliness and the barnyard odor most likely added to her discomfort.

Then what happens?  A snot-nosed little brat shows up and bangs on a drum!  He probably woke the baby after she’d just gotten him to sleep!  Somehow I find it difficult to envision any woman who had just gone through what Mary did nodding her head when the drummer boy asked if he could play his drum for baby Jesus, rather than asking Joseph to please get rid of the kid and especially his drum.  Who wants to hear a drum solo when one is stressed and exhausted?  But as the little drummer boy is not scriptural, I suppose I shouldn’t attach too much significance to the scenario.

Enjoy all the wonderful music of the season, don’t worry about analyzing it too deeply, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

 

 

 

 

So Glad To Hear From You

One of our Christmas traditions is sending out a newsletter with our Christmas cards to update family and friends about our year.  And I love getting letters along with cards so I can see what others are up to.  This was especially true before I caved in and got a Facebook account, but even so, there are some people who we only hear from once a year.  This makes the updates even more special.  There are, however, two friends whose letters are always predictable.

The newsletter from the first family, whom I will call Al B. and Ima Braggin, always go something like this:

Greetings from the Braggin family.  This year, our daughter, Jeannie S. completed her PhD in rocket science.  There were two hundred agencies competing with each other to hire her, and it was quite stressful having to decide which job to take.  She finally chose to go with NASA, and although the pay wasn’t quite as high as some of the private corporations, she felt it would be a good first step. And really, she can make do with seven figures. Unfortunately, with the move, she will have to give up her title as Miss New York, and won’t be able to compete in the Miss America contest. Our son, Will B. was just made chief of staff in neurosurgery at Shands.  At twenty-five, he is the youngest chief of staff in the history of the entire U.S.  We were all a little disappointed that his wife, Wanda B., fell two points short of being admitted into Mensa, but are confident she will make it next year.  Al B. continues to stay busy as the CEO and CFO of his company, Megamillions, which opened two new branches in Paris and Rome.  So needless to say, we will be spending a lot of time back and forth between Europe and our New York office.  Thank goodness we bought a new corporate jet last year!  As for me, I’m on the board of every worthwhile foundation in New York, but with all the traveling we’ll be doing, I may need to give up a couple.  Still, I manage to keep busy as I launched my new health food company, Eat as if Your Life Depends on it, last spring.  It has already been featured on the cover of Healthy Living magazine, which catapulted us into national recognition and multiplied our sales to the point of having to hire three hundred additional employees. That’s about all that’s been happening with us. Merry Christmas!

The second family, Jess and Shirley Woeful’s newsletter is like this:

Well it’s been another year full of gloom and doom.  Mama Woeful fell down the steps last winter and broke every bone in her body.  We had no choice but to put her in Dumper-Til- She-Dies nursing home, as the bank foreclosed on our house last spring, leaving us with nowhere to go.  We fell behind on our mortgage payments because Jess was hospitalized twenty-nine times in the past year. And as you all know, I can’t work because of my anxiety and my PTSD from when I dropped the fifty pound bag of dog food on my foot while working at the Piggly Wiggly.  We finally ended up moving in with Jess’ cousin, Kent Work, as he was crippled from back surgery and needed someone to take care of him.  We would have liked to bring Mama with us, but there was just no way Mama’s wheelchair would fit into Kent’s single-wide trailer.  Our daughter, Vera, also moved in with us after her husband left her for the marriage counselor they were seeing.  Then our pickup truck was stolen right from in front of the trailer, so Vera had no transportation to get to her job at the Puppy Mill Pet Store as a pet psychic. All this caused her to stress eat and she gained a hundred pounds.  And the government checks just barely covered the grocery bill and the big-screen plasma TV cable bill as it was.  My doctor says I need surgery on my gallbladder after the holidays.  I may have to give up the botox treatments for my migraines to pay for that, as we can’t afford health insurance. I don’t know how we’ll make it through the next week, let alone the next year. The Woeful family wishes you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

There is simply no way the Fannons can compete with these two, so I’m afraid our newsletter will be somewhat of a disappointment to both of these friends.

 

 

What a Fruitcake!

I was reading a “Dear Abby” column recently about a woman who was worried about how to tell her new boss she did not want to exchange Christmas gifts with him.  Abby advised her not to be presumptuous and bring up the topic of gift exchanges, but to be prepared with a small gift for the boss just in case he happened to gift her.  Then, she suggested, of all things, a fruitcake!

Johnny Carson once said, “The worst Christmas gift is a fruitcake . . . There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other year after year.” Fruitcake is probably the most reviled food in the Christmas tradition. So, seriously, a fruitcake for someone you want to continue working for?  Sure, the boss can always regift it, but only to someone he doesn’t like.  Or he can use it as a doorstop or a paper weight.  But does anyone ever eat it?

Personally, I can’t think of anything less appetizing than the dry, heavy as a rock, pock-marked, bursting with glow-in-the-dark red and green glace’ cherries (are they even real fruit?) fruitcake.  Can fruitcake even be classified as a cake? And who wants to eat something that can be preserved for over two hundred years without going bad? Then again, how would one know if it went bad?  Somehow, this brings to mind the preserved mummies in Egypt,  not a pleasant association.

Of course there are always a few people who defend fruitcakes and tell the rest of us who know better that the fruitcakes which are mass produced and sold during the holidays are not what a real fruitcake is supposed to be.  Said people would try to make us believe there really is such a thing as a “tasty” fruitcake.  To that end, they insist we sample “their” homemade fruitcake, which they assure us is delicious.  Yeah, I’ve been snookered too many times into tasting fruitcakes which are touted to be good.  It’s difficult not to be rude when someone is standing over me, expectantly, waiting for me to declare that, by golly, there is such a thing as a yummy fruitcake and thank you for bringing it to my attention with this dry, nasty, too sweet, weirdly spicy bite of yuck I’m trying to choke down with a smile.  And, in all honesty, why should I care about being converted into a fruitcake lover when there is a veritable cornucopia of delectable Christmas baked goods available this time of year? Too many goodies, too little stomach.  As it is, I must pick and choose among delicious homemade cookies, fudge, candy, and real, honest-to-goodness cakes.  And as long as I’m feeling guilty about consuming excess calories and sugar, I at least want the guilty pleasure of, “but it was so worth it!”

Do you know there is actually a small town in Georgia known as the “fruitcake capital of the world?”  Claxton, Georgia, which shares this dubious honor with Corsicana, Texas, used to offer free tours of their bakery, but had to discontinue because of insurance concerns.  It makes me wonder specifically what those “concerns” were.  I won’t even speculate, as it takes my mind over to the dark side.  But I have to wonder why any town would want to be known as the “fruitcake capital of the world?”  It seems to me they would want to keep this quiet.  Yet, according to Roadside America.com the Claxton Fruit Cake was the only fruit cake exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1964-65.  I imagine the fruit cake is still there, providing the cornerstone in some brick and mortar building.

Now just in case someone is reading this blog who feels the need to prove I am wrong about fruitcake, please keep your “special” fruitcake all for yourself.  I’ll take your word for it if I don’t have to taste it.  Meanwhile, pass the fudge.