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.

************

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.

**************

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.

****************

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.

****************

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.

****************

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.

 

 

 

 

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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