Individual Magic: Thinking of Food (and Plenty) at Christmas

These dishes set the tables of our past, and today they connect us to a culture of resourceful cooks who prepared year-round to feed their families. Many of these recipes were considered too mundane to merit writing down. Now they risk being forgotten.

From those traditions, the recipes grow from simple things you might make on a weeknight to more elaborate dishes I serve in our restaurant.

—–Vivian Howard, Deep Run Roots (“Don’t You Dare Skip This Introduction?”)

Almost three on Christmas afternoon, and the magic of the day has settled in, saturating. There is, as a writer of lyrics once said, a marshmallow world outside. Green Christmases are pretty common here, so the fluff of snow,—white, pristine snow that creates a glowing, freshened palette—is a holiday card-kind of treat.

And this morning, during the Gifting, Jim tore open the wrapping on a new appliance—a combination air fryer/convection oven/ toaster oven. We were all taken with it, and with its possibilities, and we halted what we were doing to drag it into the kitchen. Mark and I wrangled it onto the counter where appliances reside, removing two venerable specimens, which will go into the rapidly filling Goodwill box.

But Jim stood, staring out into the side yard through the big window.

“Look,” he whispered, and finally, plugs fussily plugged in, new oven situated just so, we did.

We saw something we’ve never seen here before: a fox hopping and snuffling in the snow. We gathered at the window; Mark and I pulled out our phones to click photos. The fox, surely sensing us there, seemed unconcerned.

It became clear she was wearing down a mole; the new snow now is full of tracks and splot marks where the little canine ran and leapt up and then landed full force in the snow. The mole was cagey; it burrowed and disappeared, and the fox looked up, perplexed.

Then it stuck its trim red snout into the snow; its fat tail wagged, and a tiny black creature surfaced, running, and disappeared again.

The fox leapt, and the chase continued.

It was focused and intense.

I didn’t watch to see the end of the hunt, but Mark says the mole finally, despite its courage and cunning, met its end.

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He posts a fox photo online, and someone comments that sighting a single fox is good luck. We’ll take that little bit of magic, that Christmas visitation, as an omen of good tidings at the end of a most distressing year.

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On the dining room table, where Jim is diligently working on lists—cataloging the new books he got for Christmas, creating pairings of superheroes that he might use in a short story here and there—the Christmas candle, lit first thing this morning (before the coffee started brewing, or the cinnamon buns went into the oven) burns steadfastly. That’s another harbinger, we believe, of good luck: a candle burnt, on Christmas, to its socket.

And wonderful smells emanate from the oven. This year, we are roasting a standing rib roast. I’ve only done this once before, so I have been frantically searching recipes. I could put the roast in the oven at 375 for an hour, I discover, then turn the oven off and let the meat sit in its waning heat for three hours. Then, I would turn the oven back on for another hour’s roasting.

This method sounds intriguing and the recipe-writer says it’s guaranteed to produce a succulently juicy roast…but: there can be no opening of the oven door once the process begins.

I think about side dishes, and I finally settle on the method outlined in my New Cookbook (itself a Christmas gift, once many years ago). I roast the meat low and slow. I boil some golden potatoes. When the meat reaches a certain temperature, I pour the potatoes into the roasting pan with a half cup of water, and I stir until they’re coated with juices. They start turning a beautiful golden brown almost as soon as I shove the roasting dish back into the oven.

Mark and Jim waft into the kitchen now and then like cartoon characters uplifted by aromas. All that remains is to throw salads together and to decide if we want garlic bread.

“Look at those potatoes,” Mark says, peering in the oven during one wafting.

And I think there’s a kind of magic, too, in the foods we eat on holidays.

And, really, there’s magic in the foods we eat in general.

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I’m thinking about this—about the magic and the specificity of food—because last Saturday, I declared it was a Scottish cooking day. I made a loaf of oatmeal bread (it was so good, or it had been so long since we had homemade bread, that we fell upon it with serrated knives when it was fresh from the oven. We ate big slabs with butter melting on them. We ate much of the loaf in fifteen minutes.)

I made a batch of Scottish shortbread for cookies; I rolled out half the dough and cut it into shapes and baked them up.

“Can we use the Christmas sprinkles to decorate them?” Jim asked, and I said sure. But the cookies went the way of the oatmeal bread. When I opened the plastic tub I’d put them in on Sunday night, there were two cookies left—a Santa and a Christmas tree, un-iced but delicious. I put them in a container and took them in my lunch the next day. On Christmas Eve, we rolled out the rest of the dough, and James and I cut out a new batch of cookies. They may or may not live to be frosted.

And, that Scottish cooking day, I made a batch of Chocolate Fudge Delight, my mother’s celebrated recipe. She found it, I think, in a magazine in the late fifties or early sixties (I have a copy of a letter she sent to my brother Dennis’s friend Jim’s mother; in that letter she enclosed a copy of the fudge recipe. That letter is dated 1962; she’d been making the fudge for a bit at that time, but I do remember, as a very young child, the excitement of that new find, that wonderful fudge that would become a staple into the next generation and beyond.)

The fudge recipe is not Scottish, but my mother certainly was, and so creating a batch of that fudge, for me, constitutes Scottish cooking.

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And I’m thinking about the magic and specificity of food because Mark got me copies of Vivian Howard’s two cookbooks, Deep Run Roots and This Will Make It Taste Good, for Christmas. Howard, who is talented, personable, and not afraid to be quirky, has two shows on PBS. Mark and I grew addicted to watching her; we cheered her successes and laughed at her foibles (she laughed at them, too) as if she were a beloved friend or a family member. We looked up her recipes online and tried things—tried combinations and ingredients—we’d never ever thought of using before.

When we exhausted every episode of the show, I felt unexpectedly bereft, as if Howard was one more person we couldn’t see in person because of this damned pandemic.

I was excited to get the books, and I stayed up late last night to finish my library book, which was really good, but which had a disappointing ending. Now, I thought, I can read me some Vivian, and after the morning’s Gifting, that’s exactly what I did.

Deep Run Roots has recipes for sure, but it’s also a story book. In it, Howard explains that she grew up in Deep Run, North Carolina, counting the years, then months, then days, until she could escape. She made good her plan; she went to boarding school as a teen; she took advantage of internships and courses that drew her away from her birthplace. She went away to college, and then she went to New York City to work.

She had no plan to become a chef, and she had no inclination to be a chef in the town where she grew up, but that’s what she did.

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Howard tells us that her New York City odyssey started in advertising and ended in the restaurant business. After burning out in the advertising business, she took a job as a server in a restaurant devoted to authentic southern food; she rose to line cook.

She didn’t think, though, that “southern food” meant HER kind of southern food, which she took for granted and kind of shunned. And then life, as it does, drew her back to her family and to her region. She and her husband started two restaurants; she had the opportunity to do a PBS program; she grew as a cook, and she and the restaurants and her book won awards.

Along the way, she grew to appreciate the foods of her region and the cooks from whom she grew up learning. Now, she uses the ingredients that are available to her in her corner of North Carolina; she studies the methods of the best cooks she knows, including her mother; and she puts her own unique spin on those things in her restaurants.

She rebelled against her culinary roots and then she embraced them, and in doing that, she created her own individual cuisine. That’s something that, it occurs to me, we all do on one level or another.

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It’s funny: I think the kind of cooking I grew up with is the default cuisine; I can, if I choose, explore to choose a fancier or a less elaborate ‘font.’ But I’ve seldom thought about the influences on the food I eat, and ate; I just accept it as the foundation and build on that.

So today I look up Scottish cooking; I find a post on matador.net that claims to showcase the best traditional dishes of Scotland. Mark reads over my shoulder as I scroll through.

We agree that we probably would NOT enjoy haggis, black pudding, or clootie dumplings. We agree that we would probably try kedgeree and porridge. And we both think we’d probably really like Cullen skink, fish supper, and cranachan.

I think I’d like bannocks and Scotch broth and Scotch pies, too.

I think about the foods my mother cooked when I was growing up, and I see the influence. We used a lot of oats; I have a recipe for oatmeal cookies tucked away that I think are probably very similar to oat cakes and that may have come from my grandmother, who died when my mom was only three.

My mother would often make things like boiled dinner, which was maybe Irish in origin, but followed Scottish cooking methods. We grew up loving Scottish shortbread. Our meals were often plain, always substantial, and seldom featured lots of spice or long-simmered sauces.

Of course, much of that came from my father’s preferences. Dad’s background was German and Irish; he did like cabbage and sauerkraut, which a quick look online associates with those two cuisines. But he grew up in an orphanage, and when he was finally allowed to return home—his father had remarried—his stepmother was a very good nurse, and a very bad cook.

“Her idea of fixing dinner,” my mother would tell us, appalled still after thirty and forty years, “was to send one of the kids to the corner store for white bread and cold cuts.”

My father liked things plain. He liked meat and potatoes. His preferences, of course, also shaped the family cuisine.

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As did the times. Depression kids, my parent grew up in a time when the government, an article in The Atlantic tells me, got involved in what people were eating. In 1929, when the impact of the Depression hit, Herbert Hoover was president, and he invoked the famed resilience of the American people, declining to set up support programs.

U.S. citizens, he believed, would figure it out. Using Yankee ingenuity, they’d weather the economic storm.

But then Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide, and then drought and disaster hit the farmlands, drying up food sources. Roosevelt created FERA—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The USDA then had a branch—the Home Economics branch—that was an all-woman department; they were charged with figuring ways for US housewives to feed their families using what foods were available.

FERA had five million pounds of dried beans to distribute, for example. A USDA spokesperson called Aunt Sammy went on the radio to tell Americans just how to cook those beans.

The government began telling people what and how to eat. The thirties were when, for instance, the five food groups became a commonly held concept. The idea of ‘scientific eating’ arose. Eating for pleasure was dismissed; the much less appetizing prospect of eating for health was introduced.

Ethnic food and the spices that made it appealing were on the government’s bad list. (So, I read with horror, was caffeine.)

On the government’s good list, the Atlantic article tells me, were things like prune pudding, canned-meat stew, veggies casseroles with lots of butter and cheese, Jello salads, and dishes made with canned creamed soup and canned tuna.

I see the influence of that on the foods I grew up with.

I see the influence of food trends that countered those methods—Julia Child was a big instigator—beginning in the 1960’s.

I see the influence of convenience embraced by our parents. Howard writes that her mother, who grew up on a farm and had to participate in creating almost all of her childhood food by hand, loved the wonders of buying ready-made foods at the supermarket. And my mother, who remembered her grim aunt decapitating chickens in their city backyard, was a grand advocate of frozen, ready-to-cook chicken.

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We are informed by the ethnicity of the places where we grew up—my hometown boasted many people of Italian descent and many people whose families had Polish roots. Wedding buffets, for instance, might feature both baked ziti and golumbki, and no one would think that odd at all. A little German snuck in with sliced beef sandwiches on kimmelweck rolls. It was a frugal Italian mama who came up with Buffalo-style chicken wings.

We are informed by the places we visit and the new places we live; even just fifty miles of separation can encourage whole new dishes and different styles of eating.

And there are, of course, the preferences we have, and the preferences of the people we eat with.

We, each of us, and each unit we eat with, develop our own cuisines.

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My mother never once fixed a prime rib dinner. Even when she and my father retired and their finances settled down and they became ‘comfortable,’ prime rib was not a dish they’d think to fix at home. It was, by reputation and habit, a cut of meat that was just too expensive.

For a long time, I absorbed and accepted that point of view, and then opportunity and adventure nudged me out of it.

We eat a lot of things now we didn’t grow up eating. But we celebrate a lot of things that were part of our culinary upbringing, too.

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Dinner is delicious. The potatoes roasted in the pan juices almost melt. Jim insists on demonstrating that the meat is fork tender. We eat crisp salads and we crack apart a loaf of cheesy garlic bread.

We have a cookie jar full of the kind of cookies Mark’s grandma always kept on hand for her grandchildren. We have a plastic tub full of Scottish shortbread. There’s a little bit of fudge left, and there are special cookies and savory mixes gifted to us by colleagues and neighbors.

It’s a heady, extravagant mix of new and old and beloved and experimental.

The food of Christmas is a little bit of the holiday magic.

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“This,” says Jim as he wanders by, on his way to the family room, “has been a GREAT Christmas.”

He is right: we are healthy; we are together; we have been blessed with all kinds of plenty even in the midst of a year ravaged by a pandemic. The early dark settles on the fresh snow, and I hope that the part of the magic that remains is a sense of how lucky—how blessed—we are, and the awareness that there are ways to share our blessings.

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https://matadornetwork.com/read/best-traditional-dishes-scotland/

https://www.executivethrillseeker.com/executiveblog/traditional-german-food-to-try-in-germany

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/great-depression-eat/511355/

Food in the Time of Quarantine

“That,” said Mark, “is very definitely the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever had.”

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The idea popped up in an email from somewhere…I think, maybe, from a favorite blogger who writes about wonderful food: Parmesan-crusted grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t note the recipe exactly, but we stole the method and applied it to grilled ham and cheese…for Mark, grilled ham and cheese and tomato.

We heated the olive oil in the skillet, buttered the bread…white for James, rye for Mark and me…and gathered everything we needed to put between the slices.

Then we dipped the buttered side of the bread in grated Parmesan, put it cheese down, sizzling, in the skillet, and built the sandwiches, sliced cheese first, meat and tomatoes cradled in the middle. We took the buttered top slices and patted them in the Parmesan, too.

The scent rose, cheesy and tantalizing, from the hot oil. The sliced cheese melted and oozed. When I flipped the sandwich, the bread was golden brown and wore a crust of almost-orange parm.

We let the bottom sides cook up and flipped them onto plates, and then we sliced them so that steam escaped and American and cheddar flowed, liquid hot, together.

In my family, when the table goes quiet, you know the food is very, very good.

This was a quiet, quiet lunch.

“We’ll do this again,” I said finally, and Jim answered, “OH, yeah.”

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I am finding that food takes on a whole new meaning in a time of quarantine.

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I say things. I make vows. And then life intervenes.

Like, here’s a vow I’ve often made:

I am going to learn to make biscuits from scratch!

We used to go to a restaurant with my friend Kim; she could walk to it from her downtown apartment. James and I and sometimes Mark, if work allowed, would meet her there.

The place was called Build A Biscuit, and it was run by a beautiful, eccentric woman who had traveled all over—she sang, she told us, with a rock band in Budapest. After we’d visited a few times, a former boyfriend from the Czech Republic arrived to help her with the restaurant. They worked together easily, laughing and telling stories…Do you remember, in Paris…?  How about that time in Istanbul????

Sometimes she would call up a favorite song on Alexa, and she would sing along to it, in a rich, deep, dreamy alto. We would put down our forks and just listen.

But not for long. Because, good as the atmosphere, the talk, and the music were, the food was so amazing that we couldn’t ignore it for long. She would bring trays of the most amazing square biscuits out, steaming, from her oven in the back. She would break their golden crusts open, showing soft, snowy centers, and ask us what we’d like on top.

Jim would get a gooey cheeseburger mixture.

Kim always got some kind of healthy, vegetarian concoction; she would eat half and take the rest home for later.

I swore, each time we went, that I would try something new, but then I couldn’t help it. I always got the chicken pot pie topping.

And I always said, as we left the warmth and the rich conversation and the tangible friendship of that place,–I always said this:

“I am going to learn how to make biscuits like these!”

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And then I would try, and I would come up with small hard flour hockey pucks again.

The restaurant closed, eventually; its good people moved on to their next adventure.

Kim left us, the cancer finally getting the upper hand.

Those days morphed into memory, but memory laced with longing: if I could make a biscuit like THAT,–well, some of that richness might come back to us.

And then life would get busy, of course, and I’d think, well, biscuits. Maybe NEXT week.

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But now, it IS next week; now we live under stay-at-home orders. Now there is no excuse.

And this week, remembering everything I have been told about biscuit making, I pulled up a recipe a wonderful cook friend had sent, and I combined those ingredients with very, very cold butter, and Joy of Cooking’s recommended process for mixing biscuits  in a food processor, and I tried one more time.

And damn: didn’t it work, just? Didn’t I get golden brown, high fluffy biscuits?

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We cracked them open for dinner, poured shredded chicken gravy over the top, and talked about what we could do NEXT time.

Instead of making round biscuits, we could cut them into squares like that beautiful singing restaurateur did. We could brush the tops with butter just as they came out of the oven. We could make chicken pot pie filling to ladle onto the tender, steaming insides of these imaginary biscuits.

We could create a time as wonderful, as memorable, as rich and full of meaning, maybe, as those lunches we spent with Kim in that little café.

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There are jokes on the Internet, jokes about a day coming, in the far distant future, when we’ll all, after wearing elastic-waists for the whole of the quarantine, have to try to buckle up our big girl pants.

And that will be hard, because we’ll have been comforting ourselves with food.

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We are trying not to let that happen. We get up in the morning; Mark showers and dresses for the kind of work he does in his home office, connecting to the real office, plugging into meetings and webinars.

I do my hair, and I put make-up on. I do NOT wear yesterday’s clothes. I iron a batch of shirts each week, and I think about what necklace to wear with today’s choice, and whether it’s a day for cologne or perfume.

We wear pants that buckle and snap,–no elastic involved.

We do our morning work, and then we go for a morning walk, trying for a different venue (the fitness trail! The college! Mission Oaks Gardens!) each day.

We are here; we are trying hard to engage mindfully in this temporarily truncated life.

But it is true, for sure: food has become very important.

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Food is important because shopping is an issue. We do not want to go out into that retail miasma any more often than necessary. After our last foray, we swore that we would not shop for another two weeks, at least.

We tried to anticipate every single need, and we figured that if we didn’t anticipate something, we probably don’t really NEED it.

Knowing that we can’t run down to Kroger to scratch a sudden yearning, we make food last. We eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. We make Pasta Rustica using the three slices of bacon we didn’t gobble down and the lonely remaining chicken breast. We use stale crusts to make croutons or bread crumbs, or we crumble them up into a breakfast bake.

We read in today’s paper that stores will now have to limit the number of people inside at any given time, and I wonder how that will work. Will you show up at door and have a guardian say, “Sorry; you’ll have to wait…”? Will we get numbers, or make appointments? Will we circle the parking lot until a person leaves the store, running to be allowed in next?

Only one family member can shop at a time, too, the regulations say.

Shopping will not be a pleasant, exploratory meander. It will be a goal-oriented mission: get the stuff and get OUT of there.

It all seems scarily complicated. So much easier not to shop, to make the food we have last.

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But in a time when staying home is what we do, the food we eat means more than just nourishment.

So my dear friend Debbi, whose husband, Randy, passed far too young from cancer, is home by herself for the duration. Debbie is a phenomenal cook, and she loves to cook for other people. Her house is a warm, wide open place where friends gather and wine flows, and the food is good, good, good.

Normally, Deb says, she doesn’t fuss just for herself, but right now she’s changed that plan.

“So far,” she writes, “I’ve made chicken and broccoli crepes, and lobster risotto [her favorite] and even homemade lemon curd…”

She’s treating herself like company. She’s celebrating her time with herself.

I love that idea.

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“I’ve been bringing out old family recipes—dishes we loved but, in the hustle and bustle, they’ve fallen by the wayside,” writes another amazing cook, Terry. She’s making lighter things, too,—fresh fruit salads, for instance, and choosing recipes that will freeze well, so leftovers can become future meals.

Terry and her husband Paul, who are known for their hospitality, their pies, their love of hosting big family gatherings, are sheltering in place together. Meals are important for them, too.

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I remember stories my parents told, Depression kids both, about foods that were treats for them growing up—my father talked about the exotic wonder of having cold cuts; my mother remembered something called Depression cookies that were made by soaking cubes of cheap white bread in condensed milk, rolling them in coconut, and baking them.

“Do you remember…?” my father would say, and Mom would build on that, enlarging and recalling; they wove a little symphony of meaning from an experience, and an era, and a deprivation, they shared.

And we will do that, too, I think; we’ll talk excitedly about food discoveries we’ve made during this compressed, at home time. We’ll brag about substitutions we made (“It’s better than the original recipe!”)  because we didn’t want to brave the store, or because the store was out of pasta, or peanut butter, or whatever that one ingredient was we needed.

God willing, if we’re all together ten years hence, enjoying the crunch as we cut into parm-crusted grilled cheese, we’ll be saying, “Do you remember when we found this recipe? Remember COVID 19, when we stayed home for six weeks?”

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We’ll remember and we’ll share, because it’s important, isn’t it—the food we eat in quarantine?

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What are you eating these at home days, my friend?

Gifts of Food in a Thankful Season

It is a cold, gray, wet afternoon, and the streets are coated with leaves, sodden and slick.

I talk my self out of the walk I should take and decide to make some soup instead.

I find a baggie of red pepper slices and a package of boneless chicken in the freezer. It occurs to me that we have not had chicken corn chowder in a long, long time. I rummage in the cookbooks and find The Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes (copyright 1999; Mark and Jim got this for me long years ago). I open the book; it flips right to Chicken Corn Chowder. We have made this recipe many, many times, especially during the law school years.

The kitchen becomes a bustling place. I put the solid, frozen poultry block  in a big skillet, pour water in up to its knees, set it to steam on a slow burner. The chicken was a deal Mark picked up when he and Jim were in Westerville; they stopped at Fresh Thyme and snarfed up bargains, including boneless chicken: 1.69 a pound.

While it poaches, I chop veggies: the pepper while it’s still frozen-crisp, potatoes, and onion. And I remember that the potatoes and onion are freebies. Visiting a friend, I went to her local supermarket and discovered an amazing sale. If I bought a plump chuck roast, the store would give me nine other pot-roast-y items free. The onions and potatoes were in the mix. I filled a cooler and brought my goodies home to unpack and ponder.

The roast was so big I cut it into three hefty pieces. We used one chunk that night, making beef fajitas. I froze the rest, with hazy thoughts of soups and stews.

But now I dig into the sack of small potatoes, wash them well, dice them fairly small, put them in a bath of cold water. The chicken sizzles and spits; I add another inch of water, and I flip the fowl, which breaks apart into separate, still pinkish, cutlets. I sprinkle on light seasoning—just a little salt and pepper—and go back to my chopping.

I peel my freebie onion, toss the skins, and dice that too.

This is a pantry-shelf kind of dish. While the chicken completes cooking through, I search my cupboards and shelves. I pull out a can of creamed corn; way back, I find a can of evaporated milk. I measure the half cup of milk I need and pour the rest into a plastic container and slide it into the fridge. In the back of my mind, thoughts about how we can use that extra milk begin to simmer.

I dig out the packet of herbs de Provence I bought at the farm store. This recipe calls for a little cayenne, too.

I chop the chicken, thinking that Jim won’t eat the chowder, and I remember there’s a jar of Alfredo sauce in the pantry. That came from a burgeoning basket we won, and James loves chicken Alfredo.

I fill the big pasta pot, drizzle in some oil, and put it on the simmer burner to warm up to the boiling point.

The chicken is done. I turn off the flame, look at the clock, and head off to pick up Jim from work.

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We need a dessert, I think, and I pull a butter wrapper from the freezer. I shine up the insides of my baking pan. While the chicken cools, I boil together corn syrup and sugar. When they are bubbling hard, I turn off the heat and stir in a cup of peanut butter. It’s a thick, hot, viscous syrup, and I pour it over the crisp rice cereal I’ve dumped into the pasta bowl.

I stir, vigorously, and rice krispies fly everywhere, until they are tamed into obedience by the sweet syrup. They tumble into the pan; I press them down and melt chocolate in the microwave to spread over the top. Buckeye bars, we call them, sweet and chewy and not a shard of gluten in the mix.

I put the pan, warm and heavy now, on top of the toaster to cool.

Jim chortles over something he’s watching in the family room.

The rain begins again, hard and insistent.

I pull chicken from the frying pan, I get the big knife out, and I chop.

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Mark comes running in, glinting rain droplets, a little after five, and exclaims about good smells. There are three pots simmering on the stove. The chowder lifts and bubbles, lofting herb-scent into the warm, steamy kitchen. The Alfredo sauce heaves sullenly, weighted down by its own richness and its bounty of chicken chunks. The pasta water is popping, jittery and anxious.

Jim decides he’d like linguine noodles, and we pull them from their plastic package and satisfy the agitated water shivering in the pasta pot.

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Mark lights the fire in the fireplace to cut the chill, and we gather over steaming plates. And it comes to me, rich and fast, the meaning of thankfulness, the reality of bounty. We have enough and plenty; we have true gifts of food…food we bought with the pay from our labors, food that was gifted to us in surprising, delightful ways.

Mark savors a spoonful of chowder.

“Such good flavors,” he says. “Remember how Cheek used to love this?”

Todd, a young law school classmate, used to pass Mark notes in class when he was in need of a home-cooked meal.

“I like chicken corn chowder,” the note would say.

Soon, we would cook up a batch, and Mark would invite Todd and other friends over.

Tonight, this food has the savor of herbs and the comfort of memory.

The canned Alfredo sauce, Jim says, is really, really good. And when I washed the jar, I discovered it was beautiful and decorative, a stamped mason jar…something we can use, maybe to pack up some kind of savory Christmas goodies.

There’s past, present, and future in this meal.

And a call to remember and be thankful, in this month of Thanksgiving; we have much to give thanks for, and that is not true, we know, for everyone tonight. A call to action; a time to reckon how we can share our gifts.

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I take a long, sharp knife and cut the rice krispie treats into bars. We carry dishes to the dishwasher; we fill the sink with hot soapy water. Jim wipes the table. I lift burners with a potholder and sponge off the dappled, overworked stove top.

Mark is elbow-deep in soapy water, telling a story about a very nice person from his office who went home for lunch and never had time to eat. Outside the last sip of sky-light is gone and the sky gentles into full dark.

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Dishes done, table cleared, I take my book to the reading chair. I munch a Buckeye bar and read about magicians in the Victorian era, and my socked-up feet toast in the warmth of the fire.

Warm and dry and sated, family safe around me, I am struck, physically, by my luckiness, a luck I enjoy, but did not, particularly, earn.

The rain still comes down, relentless, steady.

 

 

 

 

Name That Food! (A Loolie Tale)

Monkey bread from pinterest

Ah, young love: a wonder to see, even when it’s broke, hungry, and gnawing on its own foot.

Kerri and Joe came to visit on the Saturday after New Year’s Day.  They were headed to Cincinnati to visit friends, and they figured out a clever plan to avoid hotel fees.  They’d leave in the middle of the night, get to our house in time for breakfast, and then nap for four hours. Then, fed and refreshed, they’d make the last lap of the journey.

They were coming from Loolie’s house in western New York, and so there was some subtle pressure on Lools to call us and smooth the way.

“Do you mind?” she asked me.  “Kerri will call herself and set things up, but she wanted me to kind of see what you thought and whether you were busy.”

We had no plans that weekend; of course we were delighted to have them. And we were delighted to have the opportunity to meet Joe, of whom Loolie has come to approve.  His obvious respect and devotion for Kerri have overcome any misgivings.

“He’s kind of a knucklehead,” Loolie told me. “He doesn’t have a real filter; what’s in his head comes out his mouth.  But it’s usually pretty intelligent and engaging stuff.  And he thinks Kerri hung the moon, so I know he has good taste.”

******

They arrived at 8 AM Saturday morning, pulling up in Kerri’s van. Before we could even get the back door open, she was off the lift and wheeling her chair through the carport.  Joe (tall, bespectacled, with a round and pleasant face) boosted her over the two steps to the door and then they were in the house, hugging and exclaiming and introducing.  Mark poured coffee and discovered that Joe, too, prefers a nice strong cup of morning tea–they eyed each other approvingly.

I had a little gift for the two of them–a coloring book created from photos of Kerri throughout her life*, ending with a picture of her and Joe on Hallowe’en 2015, in their costumes as a Roman centurion (Kerri) and the horse that pulled her chariot (Joe: back end).  They loved it, and they attacked it with the new crayons I gave them as I put the finishing touches on breakfast.

They asked about the process of converting photos to line drawings, and I told them a computer science student at the College had worked that magic for me via Photoshop.  There were websites that would also provide that service, I said, but Joe, a bit of a techno-geek, was pretty sure he could figure out the process.  They started planning coloring books Joe could use in teaching and Kerri could make for part of her graduate coursework in education.

Then the eggs were scrambled, the steaming coffeecake inverted onto a serving plate, the sausages sizzling and hot.  Jim appeared with an owl-y muddled morning veneer; Mark poured juice.  Kerri and Joe passed plates and silverware and we all tucked in.

There was silence for a moment, that gratified and gratifying silence that betokens enthusiastic young people enjoying their food.  Then, when Joe’s first plateful was empty, and as he reached comfortably around the table, refilling, he began to ruminate out loud.

“You can get to know people from the food they cook, don’t you think?”  he asked the room in general.  We all looked at him, interested, waiting to hear more. “For instance,” he said, “I was a nervous wreck when I met Loolie.  But when I saw the food that she’d prepared, I knew she’d gone out of her way to provide something nice for someone Kerri cares about.  I knew that we’d be okay after that–it told me she was open.”

He went on, talking about some of the wonderful dishes Loolie had served him. He talked about how Kerri’s adventures in cooking–she is experimenting with several different ethnic cooking styles and methods–says a lot about her personality–show she is warm and welcoming, non-judgmental, adventurous.

“Even the NAMES of foods people choose to cook,” Joe expounded, “tell you something about the person, don’t you think? Like Loolie cooking Hoppin’ John on New Year’s–isn’t that perfect?  The name Hoppin’ John just reflects Loolie–all that energy and movement! And how about this coffee cake you made?” he asked me.  “I am guessing this is reflective of your personality! What do you call this?”

There was a tiny silence, during which Kerri turned away and covered her grin with her napkin.

“Well, gee, Joe,” I said.  “We call this Pig-Pickin’ cake.”

Joe’s mouth dropped open.

“Joe,” said Mark, pleasantly, conversationally, “did you just call my wife a PIG?”

“Ack,” said Joe in a tiny little voice.  The table exploded in laughter, during which Jim took the opportunity to make sure he got a portion of the Pig-Pickin’ cake that was left.  And that did it: Joe was part of the family.

We ate all the breakfast, and then we shuffled Joe and Kerri off to beds–they ostentatiously insisted on separate bedrooms–so they could sleep until 2:00 PM.  We woke them up and fed them again, sandwiches, chips, and cookies this time, and then we sent them off on the last leg of their journey–the three hour trip to Cincinnati. Kerri texted on Monday to say they’d had a wonderful time with their friends,and Joe respectfully wondered if I’d be willing to share the recipe for Pig-Pickin’ Cake with him–a recipe, he said, which reflected the warmth and sweetness of my hospitality.

********
I told her I’d be happy to email it to her.  Since it’s written down anyway, I thought you might like to see it, too.

Pig-Picking Cake

Two tubes of refrigerated biscuits
Cinnamon sugar (one quarter cup or so)
One stick butter or margarine
One cup brown sugar
Bundt pan

*******

Cut each biscuit into quarters; put the quarters in a plastic bag with the cinnamon sugar.  Shake until each biscuit morsel is coated. Arrange in the Bundt pan.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; add the sugar and stir until mixture starts to bubble.  Pour over the biscuits in the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes; the top will look dry and browned. Invert onto a LARGE serving plate; the syrup will run, and it’s HOT and sticky, so be sure the plate is big enough, and has a lip to catch all the drips and NOT drip syrup on your hands. Serve while warm; let people pull their portions off with forks.

*****

And…here’s a link to the Hoppin’ John recipe Loolie uses–from the Lee Brothers’ cookbook…

http://www.thetakeaway.org/story/8183-new-years-day-food-traditions-lee-brothers/

******

‘Pig-pickin’cake’ (monkey bread) image from Pinterest.com

*Idea from Jodi at http://lifeinbetween.me/

 

Soup to Nups

He was new to the city, was Devin;
he enjoyed his exciting new work.
But he was lonely: how could he meet folks?
(Went to a bar, but he felt like a jerk.)

“The heck with the hook-up!” he reasoned.
“I’ll work to make positive change.”
A soup kitchen operated quite near his flat.
in the building that once housed the Grange.

They put him to work in the kitchen
with a sassy, glinty-eyed cook.
She waved him in with a wooden spoon.
Well. That was about all it took.

Kiss the Cook
Her name was Annie.
She was making cookies.
And suddenly, Devin’s tongue was tied.
He couldn’t think of a thing to say, so,
“Whaddaya call THAT?”
he tried.

Annie paused in mixing in
chocolate chips.
“He’s an idiot,” her look said.
But she replied quite sweetly.
“What, this dough?
I call it ‘Fred.'”

“Ah, FRED!” Devin acknowledged.
“I used to know him well.
I’m interested to meet ALL the food.
What are their names, do tell?”

The potatoes, whipped to a frenzy-
well, of course she called them ‘Gale.’
The salad–of course, that was Sallie.
“And asparagus–that’s my friend, Al.”

She dubbed the roast beef Trudy.
And, duh. The coffee’s Joe.
The fancy punch was Erik the Red.
What else did he want to know?

He floundered.
“How’s your carbon footprint?” he squeaked.
(Her apron, borrowed,
read “Kiss the Cook,”
and all he could think was
he’d like to.)

She answered him gravely.
She often walked.
But if the trip was a distance,
she’d bike, too.

He sighed in relief;
his bike was out back.
Tomorrow–perhaps they could go
for a pedal?

She gave him a look,
both up him and down,
and agreed to test
his mettle.

They took some rides,
they saw some films,
went to museums
to wander and look.
They drank quarts and quarts
of coffee,
and yes, he kissed
the cook.

Fred and Joe

She called him her Souper-Hero.
She was his Zuke-Annie Squash.
Love bloomed, full-flavored and hearty–
not a thing that a skirmish could quash.

Her wit was a zest;
their passion simmered like sauce;
their love grew like dough
imbued with leaven.
Within a year,
a diamond appeared,
and Annie married Devin.

Friends and family all gathered
at the soup kitchen, of course
And they couldn’t neglect
to include these friends en force:
Sallie, Trudy, and Gale,
Annie’s old friend Al,
dark, bold, Joe,
and Erik the Red,
and of course,
plates and plates
of Fred.

“A Recipe for Happiness’–
the words on
the wedding cake
said.

Soup kitchen door