(A short tale, with recipes at the end.)
Normally I’d just fly to the conference, but then I talked to Loolie.
“You know,” she said, “if you stopped here on the way home, it would be just about halfway. You could stay overnight on Saturday and we could have breakfast on Sunday. We could get together with TJ ; she’s going to be here for a shower. We could go JUNKING!”
There is a huge second-hand barn in a little wink-and-you’ll-miss-it village near Loolie’s home; it’s always an adventure to explore.
And it’s always an adventure to get together with Loolie, and with TJ, too. So I drove to the conference. It was about eight hours from my house, at a college town in central New York; I made a day’s drive of it to get there–stopping at fun little coffee shops, doing a little bookstore visiting, treating myself to a leisurely lunch. I took, all in all, about twelve hours to make that eight hour trip. The conference was in my hotel; I had a nice night’s sleep and got up raring to confer.
And it was a good conference; I learned a lot, and I was on a panel; we worked really well together and our session drew a nice, receptive crowd. On Saturday, the after-breakfast meeting broke up early–everyone clearly had already mentally headed out,– so I got on the road well before noon.
I was at my hotel in Loolie-town by 4:30; I grabbed a burger at a nearby pub and was back at my room, ready to settle in for the night, by 6:30.
And then my cell phone rang. It was Loolie, of course.
“Where ARE you?” she demanded.
When I told her, she said, “Well, come over!”
I demurred; she was hosting us for breakfast the next morning and I didn’t want to impose, but she insisted. “I’m making my Valentines,” she said. “You can keep me company. And we’ll have cookies and coffee, and you can help me decorate the ones we don’t eat.”
So of course I went.
Loolie was in her kitchen making our breakfast for the next day. “Breakfast bake!” she crooned. A variety of ingredients spread out over her counter. She poured me coffee and assembled as we talked. Into a greased, vintage Pyrex casserole went two hamburger buns and a slice and a heel of bread, ripped into bite-sized chunks. Little dimes of cooked, chopped breakfast sausage joined chunks of ham on top of the bread. Then she took a big glass Corningware measuring cup–the four cup kind–full of grated cheddar and swiss cheese, and she sprinkled it over the other ingredients.
She fluffed and spread–“Everybody should get a taste of sausage!” she said,– and then she poured an egg and milk concoction over the top. (“The secret,” she confided, “is a dash of dry mustard.”) She covered the whole thing tightly with a sheet of foil and put it in the fridge.
“All I’ll have to do in the morning is put it in the oven and pour juice and coffee,” Loolie said, a little smugly.
She let me do up the few dishes while she mixed up some frosting in her Mixmaster, and we moved into the dining room, where two cookie sheets overflowed with heart-shaped cut-out cookies.
“Hokie smokes!” I said. “Got a Valentine or two???”
She laughed. “Kerri’s got a party,” she said. “But trust me, these are so good, she and I could make a serious dent. Let’s frost a while, and then we’ll have coffee and try some.”
She spread the icing; I sprinkled rosy tinted sugar on the freshly frosted cookies. Of course, once frosted, they could not be stacked, so I kept running to the kitchen for more cookie sheets on which to spread the tasty, sticky treats. Even working like a well-oiled machine, it took us most of an hour to frost all of those cookies. When we were done, every flat surface in Loolie’s kitchen held a tray of cookies, the frosting drying. The dining room table was a sticky sugary mess.
I scrubbed while Loolie made coffee and kept up a loud running commentary. Kerri was off with friends, gone to a hockey game in the city and wouldn’t be home till the wee hours. Loolie’s brother Mick was retiring in two months and thinking of moving back to the area, snow or no snow; he really missed it. Loolie herself was looking for a dressmaker’s model or mannequin when we junked; she had a cache of full-length aprons someone had made for her.
They were too nice, she said, to get all covered with frosting and sugar, but she’d love to display them, tied nicely onto a dressmaker’s dummy, in a corner of the kitchen. I could see it; it was just the sort of unique touch Loolie could pull off with aplomb.
While she talked, she bustled, and soon we were ensconced at the table with a plate of cookies and steaming mugs of Italian roast.
I sipped the coffee. Ahhh; robust heaven.
“Try,” said Loolie, and she pushed the cookies my way.
I took one and took a bite. Oh my. Oh my.
“That tastes,” I flung downward from my cloud in seventh heaven, “like—”
“It IS!” she crowed. “Shortbread! Your mother’s recipe.”
They were thin and crisp and melt in my mouth buttery with a little glaze of sweetness on top. We ate the whole plate, between us, in about ten minutes.
“See what I mean?” asked Loolie. “It looks like a lot of cookies, but once you start…”
“Keep them” I said darkly, “away from me! I don’t think I have the willpower—”
Loolie laughed. “No problem!” she said. “Time to make some Valentine’s, anyway.”
She got up—ten minutes is about her resting-state limit–and swiped off the table, then began slapping down card-making materials. She’d chopped up old file folders, cutting off the worn edges and saving a card-sized folding part. She got, she said, two cards from each file, which otherwise was going to get recycled or thrown away. They were from the church office, and they knew her at the church: before they threw anything out, they called Loolie.
She had a stack of envelopes a friend who worked retail had rescued for her. There was a greeting card section in her store. When the cards ‘expired’, they had to return the fronts and dispose of everything else. Brand new envelopes, saved from the landfill! Loolie was practically crowing.
She had magazines from Februaries past; she had scissors, tape and glue. She had tiny magnets printed with random words. She had scrips and scraps of ribbon and construction paper and paper doilies. She had some ends of lace. She had the heart-shaped cookie cutters–cleaned, thank you–that she had used to make the cookies. She had markers and Crayolas.
She spread it all out, raised her hands like a conductor, and surveyed her little plot of creativity. She obviously deemed it good. Lowering her hands, she nodded.
“Let us,” she said, “begin.”
And we did. We dove into the magazines and cut out pictures and then ripped funny sayings and phrases from the ads. We mixed and matched. “You’ll love” went with “…the cook,” and landed on top of a heart-shaped cookie picture with a little, hand-drawn chef’s hat perched perkily atop. “A TOAST to,” read the cover of one card. Opened, it finished, “the nuts!” There were whole walnuts and almonds and peanuts, with markered-in stick arms and legs, clutching construction paper hearts and dancing around the card.
I mentioned that I’d seen deer tracks by her drive; the splayed grooves looked to me like splashy heartprints in the snow. Loolie jumped up and grabbed her phone; she turned on the outdoor lights and ran out to snap some photos. She bustled in, emailed the photos to herself, printed them out. Sure enough, those prints looked like deeply engraved hearts.
Loolie snipped around them with pinking shears, and glued them on the cover of a card. “Here’s my heart,” she wrote. Inside she added, “….you little deer!”
“I LOVE it!” she crowed. “This is genius!”
We spent five hours making cards that night. I haven’t had so much fun since I was in second grade, making Valentines for the class party. As I was getting up to leave–it was almost 1 AM,– I said, “You know the only thing we missed making were folders to hang on the front of our desks.”
Loolie got a surprised, thoughtful look on her face, and I said quickly, “But it’s too late! And we don’t need them!”
Her face fell a little, but she saw the wisdom, and she bustled me out to my car. TJ was meeting us at 9:00 in the morning; we needed our rest before junking.
At 8:59 AM I was back at Loolie’s, reveling in the smell of baking eggs and bread and ham and cheese. The three of us ate the whole casserole–oh, it was good. We were licking the crumbs off our plates when Kerri wheeled in. TJ and I looked at each other in ashamed panic–we left nothing for that poor child!
But Loolie laughed and put her oven mitt on, and pulled a little, personal pan breakfast bake from the oven for her darlin’ daughter. Kerri grinned at us. We sighed and relaxed, and when Loolie asked, “Would you like a cookie or two to top that off?” we answered with one voice: “Yes!”
Urp. We finally waddled off to the secondhand emporium, and if you’ve never junked with a Loolie,–well. You’ve never junked, that’s all. But I’ll save that story–and the pictures of the aproned dressmaker’s dummy–for another day.
It was good to get home, and my guys were happy to see me; they’d had their own adventures, which they shared with me while they devoured a plate of shortbread cutouts, compliments of Loolie. And then, tired and traveled out, I unpacked my bag and soaked in my own tub before…ahhhhh: sleeping between my own sheets in my own sweet bed. Reality was waiting to welcome me back when Monday dawned.
That Wednesday, when I got home from work, I found a large square envelope in the mail; it was addressed to me in Loolie’s scrawl. There was a note inside. “Hang this on your fridge to store your Valentines,” it read.
I unfolded a beautifully decorated construction paper folder–just right for storing any Valentines that straggle in. I hung it on the refrigerator; not much chance of the boys forgetting Valentine’s Day this year, is there?
Thanks, Loolie. That, too, is truly scrumptious!
Grandma Jean’s Shortbread Cookies
5 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 pound butter
Cream butter; add sugar. Blend well. Knead flour into dough a little at a time. (Loolie and I use our Mixmasters for this step.) Roll out on a floured surface. Cut into shapes. Bake at 350 degrees until edges are golden brown. (These are melt-in-your mouth delicious with or without icing!)
Loolie’s Breakfast Bake
4 slices stale bread and/or buns
about 1 pound of meat–breakfast sausage, ham, etc. or any combination thereof
1 cup grated cheese–sharp cheddar, definitely; add whatever else you like. Swiss adds zip; I like a little Asiago grated in, too.
2 cups milk
1 tsp dry mustard
good shake of parsley flakes
salt and pepper to taste
(This can be made ahead and left in fridge overnight. That may actually improve the flavor blends!)
Tear up bread and place in greased 13 x 9 x 2 casserole.
Brown sausage, if uncooked. Chop; sprinkle chopped meat over bread. Sprinkle cheese over top.
Beat together eggs, milk, mustard, parsley, salt, and pepper. Pour over bread, cheese, and meat. Cover. Refrigerate if eating is far off.
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. During the last ten minutes, take the cover off so the bake will brown nicely.
Cool slightly; cut into squares and serve.