Breakfast Sandwich Rampant

Breakfast Sandwich

Mark stands at the counter, carefully prying English muffins apart, loading up the toaster. He peels plastic sleeves from slices of processed cheese, splitting each square into triangles, and stacks them, at peel-able angles, on a plate.

The plate is Fiori ware, cream colored, thick, with raised bunches of grapes circling the rim. It is one of an eight-plate set we bought at Hartstone, and Hartstone, I hear is shuttered.

That makes me sad. When we moved here, it was the last standing pottery still using AJ Wahlco machinery–the last vestige of Mark’s first and well-loved career. (This gives me pause: if AJ’s hadn’t closed, a victim of the waning ceramics industry in the States, of manufacturers outsourcing and moving production to places where the labor work, gratefully, for pennies on our US wages, would we be living here? Would Mark have been content, or would the law school urge still have driven him? Like naggling a cold sore, it’s an unproductive but weirdly enjoyable thinking path; we’ll never know, of course, and all the riches of the last 15 years are still secure.)

I am cracking eggs, admiring the fragile brown shells that almost shatter when I tap them on the thick lip of the ceramic bowl. These eggs, free range, are so different from the ones we used to buy at Quality Markets or Tops, delighting in the sale prices–look: 39 cents a dozen!

Then I read about the beak-chopping, scant-movement conditions of industrial egg farms. Then I shared an office with Senti, whose life journey has taken her many miles further than mine has taken me, from a childhood in the Naga province of India, to marriage to a US Marine from Ohio, to the beautiful little farm where she and her family raise chickens and harvest honey and eat salads still warm from the sun that shines on her garden. In India, Senti majored in English literature, and she met tall, handsome Gary; here, she shared an office with another tall, outspoken, female English faculty, and shared, too, the joys of free range eggs.

I spill these eggs into the bowl; their yolks are deeply colored, Crayola orange. As the toaster pa-chumps its golden brown harvest of muffins, I use the little whisk-y tool my mother-in-law, Pat, gave me.

It was a sale item for her ladies’ church group; a lot of my favorite kitchen utensils–this whisk-er, sturdy little paring knives with blades that never seem to blunt–arrived in my utensil drawers from sales like that.

I whip quickly; the eggs grow into a lemon-y froth, and I pour them into the big no-stick frying pan. They sizzle in a bath of olive oil and butter. In the middle of the pan, the froth immediately gels. I lift that with the spatula and tilt the pan so liquid egg runs below it.

We are making breakfast sandwiches, making what McDonald’s calls Egg McMuffins. These are a family favorite, and as we assemble, working smoothly together, I try to remember when we as a family first decided these were great—and to recreate them at home.

I can’t recall.

I do remember one Father’s Day–it may (in fact, I think it was) have been the Father’s Day we gave Mark this very jumbo-sized frying pan, for this very purpose: sizzling up tasty, filling Sunday breakfasts–looking in my wallet, finding a ten dollar bill, and running to McDonald’s for a sack of English muffins. I got a variety–Canadian bacon, sausage,– and brought them home to the old farmhouse we were renting that year.

The farmhouse had actually been an inn in the 1820’s; it welcomed and sheltered us while we pondered whether to buy and where to perch; that morning, we sat at the table in the big old dining room and devoured the entire sack of sandwiches, Mark, Jim, and I, and wished we had more.

Who knows–it may have been that day, too, that one of us said, “You know, I bet we could make these,” kicking up experiments that led us to a beloved breakfast staple.

The eggs are almost done, still a little bit liquid just on top, and I turn off the heat and let them settle. The last of the muffins pops out of the toaster; Mark grabs it, tosses it, blows on his hand where he touched the sizzling metal, and slaps it onto the counter, quickly spreading butter, which melts into a golden brown glaze.

I line up six torn sheets of aluminum foil and open a muffin onto each. Today’s foil is pristine, new from the box. I save lightly used foil, though,–I’ve always done so– and Mark, when we first married, found that strange and endearing.

He’d call me “Jean”, after my frugal, Scottish mother, when he came into the kitchen and found me gently wiping off a sheet of used foil. I’d let it dry and fold it up for a second life covering a casserole or wrapping around a soaked paper towel to transport a bouquet.

“Save that foil, Jean!” he’d tease.

I would.

I set the ingredients out on the counter; we work together, assembling: triangles of cheese on top and bottom muffin halves; eggs on the bottom; on the top, Canadian bacon.

(Canadian bacon! I can still remember the first time I tasted it, as a very young child, and my surprise at its absolute goodness. And my surprise at what my mother said: “You look like you just heard the angels sing.” It was an unusual remark for her to make, unusual in its depth of noticing; it tickled me. That insured that Canadian bacon went on my childhood list of Wonderful Things to Eat–along with pancakes, corn on the cob, brownies with white icing.)

We flip the muffin halves together, use the foil to wrap them tight, and place them on a sturdy cookie sheet, which I slide into the oven. Mark goes upstairs to see if young James considers home-made Egg McMuffins a good reason to roll out of bed at 9:00 AM on a Sunday.

He does.

I take my coffee outside to the little table in the carport, sit and sip while the sandwiches coalesce in the 350 degree oven.

A memory niggles…one weekend, after the move to Ohio, we went back to New York to visit Mark’s parents, and we slapped together a huge batch of these babies on Sunday morning. The family gathered. I can’t remember the occasion–was it Easter? a birthday?–but I remember the laughter, the pile of silver wrapped sandwiches diminishing, and our nephew Jeremy, a true enjoyer of life, saying, “A little bit nicer than what you get at McDonald’s, eh?”

It doesn’t take long for the cheese to melt, the flavors to blend, the sandwiches to warm enticingly. Mark takes out the old, careworn black oven mitt, and slides the cookie sheet onto the range top. We grab plates, pour juice, and sit down for a Sunday morning breakfast together.

Jim narrates a couple of scenes from TV shows that the morning’s repast brings to his mind…a meal on “How I Met Your Mother,” an incident in the coffee shop on “Friends.” Mark talks about the contractors who will seal the driveway and about the unexpected, unwelcome dry rot damage he just discovered around the big kitchen window. I slide an article across the table about the World War I posters on display at the Ohio Statehouse, and we decide that we will go, that very afternoon.

Even as I savor the sandwich, I think about how quickly this breakfast will become a memory, and about how fixing this breakfast has evoked memories of so many people and places in so many different eras of my life–from very young child to silly young wife; from a cramped galley kitchen in Mayville, New York, to the expansive, old-fashioned kitchen in that old inn, to this well-loved space we inhabit today.

A mundane breakfast sandwich: a trove of vivid memories.

I understand, I think, why archaeologists, anthropologists, get excited over one tiny object, one slender shard. Look at the history entwined around a common, everyday item.

We used to do a self-awareness activity when training peer tutors. What three things would you include on a personal crest, we’d ask? Secretly, I always had trouble identifying symbols for my own imaginary shield.

But now, hey–I think it’s easy. Let’s use the humble Egg McMuffin. Maybe I’ll show it shooting out tenacious suckers that reach every facet of our lives, ensuring that we’re never unconnected to our past, to the people, however far-flung, whom we hold dear.

Yep: let’s put that on my family crest: breakfast sandwich rampant.


The Carrying of Cookbooks

Streusel topped muffins

This cool and foggy May Sunday morning, I’m baking streusel topped muffins to warm us up. The recipe (a coffee cake recipe; I prefer to use a good coffee cake recipe to make my muffins) is from what we call ‘the new cookbook’–a version of the red-checkered Better Homes and Gardens recipe book. My sister-in-law Mary gave me my first copy when I first got married way back in the early eighties; that copy lasted until about 1994, when my husband and sons got me the latest edition for Christmas. Jim, who was four then and very literal, dubbed it the new cookbook because of its recency, not its title. Twenty years later, when we’re discussing where to find a recipe, we might say, “That one’s in the new cookbook,” and the seeker will know to go grab that twenty-year-old book.

I read a fable once about a man who drowned because he refused to let go of a trunk filled with his prized possessions. And I’m on board with that; our things should not own us. Every so often, I go into purge mode and really think: do I need this? Does this add anything to my life? Would anyone be at a loss if I got rid of this? Have I used this within the past year?

And so blouses that I like but will probably never wear again, books that were mind-opening when I was 32, jewelry with broken clasps, scented candles, tape players,–they all land in a box for the thrift store. I have cookbooks on my shelf, however, that I’d be hard-pressed to let out of my grasp, even as the waters swirled around my ankles.

My Betty Crocker cookbook holds together with packing tape; it has a pie chart photo on the front featuring, among other culinary treats, a fondue pot full of pale orange stuff. My brother Sean and I bought that book for my mother in the very early seventies; we bought it with money saved from baby-sitting and paper routes, and when Mom opened it, she blurted, “No! You spent TOO MUCH!”
We were so proud; that was Mom-speak for, “What an incredible thing!” The Betty Crocker Cookbook was Mom’s cooking bible, and her old version came out just past World War II. We knew we had given her a gift she would cherish and use, and when it came to me after her death, the cover was already wobbling apart. I used it enough to seal the separation and the packing tape came out.
I make the recipe for Hungarian Goulash in this volume; it’s a recipe I met under the name ‘Beef Paprika’, and that’s what we still call it. A dear friend, Pam Hall, fixed it for a dinner party when we were running with the same crazy post-college crowd, and my companion then and I fell in love with it. It was a recipe that Pam’s mom, a truly gifted cook, was testing for the Betty Crocker kitchens. It’s re-named Hungarian goulash, in Mom’s cookbook.
Pam is gone now, too, and I never follow that recipe without thinking of her openness and generosity; nor do I ever use the book without memories of meals at my Mom’s. (And…I love the picture of Betty Crocker on the back of the book; she had been revamped for the Women’s Liberation movement of that day, and sports a smooth page boy haircut and an ascot type collar. She looks as if she could be bringing home the bacon before cooking it up in pan…)

From that same era, I have a slim paperback volume, Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook. That was a wedding shower gift from another dear friend, Sharon, a high school friend who stayed close during college. We lost the reins of friendship after that, but I still think of her fondly whenever I gently open this aging book. One section talks to young couple-cooks about stretching a budget; I used those recipes a lot. I still make the ham and bean skillet fairly regularly, and there’s a concoction made from leftover ham, cheddar cheese, and Bisquick–Bisquick’s big in a lot of these 1970’s recipes—and sprinkled with sesame seeds that’s a nice side with a steaming bowl of soup.

Last month, there was a potluck at Mark’s work for a departing colleague; most people signed up to bring a dish, but Mark was tapped by his colleague Debbie to bring what we call ‘Lee Brothers.’ It’s a mac and cheese recipe from a book that my darlin’ niece Meg gave me–The Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook. There they are on the cover–Matt and Ted Lee, their waists about as big around as the circumference of my knee–and I turn the page to find recipes with no regard whatsoever for modern diets and cholesterol concern. The mac and cheese recipe is actually listed under vegetables, with the argument that school cafeterias always considered macaroni and cheese a vegetable side.
The dish calls for whole milk, lots of cheddar and Swiss cheese, butter…it is oozey and fattening and totally wonderful. (How do those Lee boys stay so thin? Do they EAT their own cookin’???) For the potluck, Mark mixed it up the night before and rolled it into the crockpot, letting it cook on low all morning at work. There were no leftovers to worry about when he brought the crock pot home. (This recipe, by the way, is easily available via a quick Web search; I needed it just post-move when cookbooks were still packed away, and opted for the easy route.)
I also favor the Lees’ recipe for Hoppin’ John at New Years’ time.

Meg, like the Lees, is now a South Carolinian, and she gave me, also, Baked by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Lewis and Poliafito opened their first bake shop/cafe in Brooklyn, but they followed it, I believe, with one in Charleston; when I visited Meg, we visited that (no longer run by the founders, but still–quite, quite yummy.) This book yields the closest recipe I can find to Starbuck’s Reese’s cup cookies. I can’t find those cookies in any of the Starbucks in this area of Ohio; I insist on braking for Barnes and Noble stores in New York and PA–not a hard sell with my boys–on the off chance of finding my favorite cookie in their attached cafe’s—and usually my luck holds. Meanwhile, I strive to re-create those cookies in my kitchen; Baked offers a pretty darned good approximation in its peanut butter cookie recipe.

Mark gave me a chicken cookbook, the Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes, when we lived on Orchard Street; its chicken corn chowder recipe was a great thing to cook when in the law school years, with hungry young law students visiting for meals. (Mark’s young classmate, Todd, used to pass him notes in the midst of challenging class sessions. “I’m hungry; I need soup,” the note might say, or, “I like chicken corn chowder.”)

I have a stack of those little fund-raiser compilation books with the plastic spiral bindings; they yield the best recipes for things like no-bake cookies, Buckeye-style Rice Krispy bars (corn syrup and peanut butter instead of marshmallow; a topping of melted chocolate chips; these don’t last long on my counter), and never-fail pie crust. I go to Julia Child for roast chicken (and one of these years, she’s going to show me how to make French bread). My Joy of Cooking helps with everything from how long to cook a roast of beef to a reliable recipe for raspberry bars. And Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Cooking is my go-to for risotto; my homemade broth is forever enriched by her technique of roasting the bones and veggies before immersing them in a deep, long simmer.

I also have notebooks full of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines or printed from the Internet; my son Jim helps me organize these by numbering pages and creating tables of contents. This is where Mark’s parents’ recipe for “Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs” resides and my sister-in-law Mary Ann’s directions for Buffalo Wing Dip, along with a classic cheesecake recipe that can’t be beaten and Louise Pelletter’s directions for a long-simmering red sauce.

I suppose I could add my favorite recipes from each of the cookbooks I’ve mentioned; type them out, save them to a thumb drive, print out a copy and paste them in a notebook. That would be efficient, maybe.

But I am not so interested in efficiency in this process.

Everyone once in a while my Jim, who is a lover and a maestro of lists, will sit down with a cookbook and start listing recipes we should try. So we will experiment, say, with parmesan crusted chicken–very, very delicious-or pepperoni bites, a classic seventies appetizer treat. Our repertoire, getting just a little bit stale, expands.

And my cookbooks give me the sense of continuity, of gifts, not just of the physical book, but of the tastes of the giver, and their care for my well-being. The cookbooks I’ve gifted to myself give me the sense of the passing on of important techniques and processes–a true home-making tradition not limited to an age or a gender, but an essential part of any life. I like to open and savor them; I like to read the intro’s and anecdotes.

I have worked with young people immersed in strong passed-down traditions; I have worked with young people whose lives don’t have the shape and the girding this kind of passing-down provides. I feel for that second group, having been lucky enough to have both, the passing down of lore from family and friends, and the acquiring of new traditions along the way. But I know that, with caring friends and personal curiosity, good stuff can be shared, and traditions can be begun.

That’s why my cookbooks travel with me. I’d let go of their trunk if I had to choose between them and the deluge.

But it wouldn’t be easy.

Musing About Food and Cooking, Again: Apron Memories

Quick—who and what first comes to mind when you think of an apron?

I’m thinking about aprons because Terri Mercer, in her role as executive director at a very special organization called First Step, sponsored an activity, asking folks to write and share their apron stories. Terri challenged us, on Facebook, to think of our own apron memories.

(First Step, by the way, addresses domestic violence, but its practice is unique. It works with men as well as with women and children, looking at the family as a unit. It employs female and male counselors. It was the first program in Ohio to design and build a shelter to meet its clients’ needs, rather than trying to adapt a house. It was one of the first organizations to help males who were victims of domestic violence, too. Ground-breaking, brave, fascinating work–I shouldn’t be at all surprised that this organization has fascinating workshops and activities. I discovered they have a great website, too, if you’d like to take a look:

But. Aprons.

I am a lover of metaphor, and aprons, in my lifetime, have been a metaphor. In my earliest days, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, every woman needed an apron. As I grew into young adulthood, and the movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s rocked and changed our world, aprons began to symbolize ties to an unfair bondage–as in ‘Untie your apron, Sister, and fling it aside! Embrace your independence!’ I picture a woman going in one door wearing an apron, and coming out the other in a pinstriped suit, her rolling pin traded for a briefcase.

And now…at least in my life, at this stage, aprons are back–not a symbol of a return to some kind of domestic drudgery, but as a badge of practical, protective warmth and nurture.

I remember ratcheting into my mother when I was very young, three or so, short enough that my head bounced against her apron. It must have been a Sunday; I clearly remember Mom’s dress, one I loved–navy blue with white dots, long sleeves and white collar and cuffs. It was classy, and it was protected by an apron because she was, no doubt, cooking Sunday’s chicken dinner.

I got a swat for my careening, and a revelation–bouncing off Mom on Sunday was like bouncing off a basketball. The apron hinted at softness, but underneath, all was firm and bouncy at the same time. It was Sunday, so of course Mom had on her panty girdle. It held up her stockings; it held in her stomach.

Mind you, I don’t think my 5’4″ mother ever tipped the scale at more than 125 pounds in her life; she was not (unlike, sadly, her daughter) in need of that kind of restraint. But girdles and aprons were part of a woman’s wardrobe, and that was what she wore.

I think the panty girdle is a much better symbol of a time when women were tightly conscribed than an apron ever was.

My mother made her aprons, mostly, cranking them out on an old Singer treadle machine, a machine outdated already in my childhood. She said she liked it because it could handle heavy duty jobs, like patching the knees of our jeans. I suspect she liked the ease of it and that it was a piece of furniture, always ready. Unlike a portable electric machine, the treadle didn’t have to be dragged out of a closet, set up on the dining room table, taken down again in time for dinner. Projects in ‘mid-sew’ could be left on the treadle and returned to when a hole opened in a busy household schedule.

Mom’s aprons were of the lap variety, tying in the back, covering from waist down to knees. She made the ties of one color, and the rest from bright prints. She added matching or contrasting pockets. Her aprons were colorful and fun.

I, of course, did not like them then; I wanted a full body apron, one you had to stick out both hands to slide over your shoulders. My Aunt Annie wore that kind. My mind’s eye sees her in a blue calico print apron with navy blue trim–whether that’s an apron Aunt Annie ever owned or one embroidered by memory, I’m not sure.

We moved from my comfortable little home town to the grindy little city next door when I was in fourth grade, and for a time, nothing–especially me–seemed to fit. I remember the art teacher in my new public school telling me to bring in an apron for art class. I brought in one of Mom’s half aprons.

“What’s THIS?” the teacher asked, holding it up by its waist tie, and then, seeing my crestfallen look, she backed off. She got me an old shirt and had me put it on backwards. It was soft with age and covered with paint splots; it smelled of talented, oil-based, creation, I thought. I folded up the apron and put it away at school. At the end of the year, I took it home, unused. My mother washed and ironed it, and used it again immediately.

In junior high home economics, we made our own aprons. Mine was clumsily sewn, but I liked the colors and the style.

And then came high school. I walked into high school in a carefully selected skirt and blouse, with panty hose (still, at that time, a fairly recent innovation) squinching my waist, Mary Janes on my feet, and a purse that matched my outfit slung over my shoulder.

I walked out of high school four years later in torn jeans so long my heels walked wear spots in them, wearing a faded army jacket, and carrying a backpack. Why would I need an apron? My classmates predicted jokingly that I’d take over the reins of Cosmopolitan from Helen Gurley Brown.

Stuck in the kitchen? Please. I had, you’ll excuse the expression, bigger fish to fry.

Funny, though, how Life turns around and smacks one in the head–sometimes with a nice, nerf-y bat, and sometimes with something a little bit firmer.

I will not, I proclaimed, teach or type for a living–I will not be stuck in a job reserved for women by a patriarchal society. I will not go willingly into that oppressive female ghetto.

Five years after college graduation, I was happily teaching middle school Language Arts at a wonderful little intercity parochial school. During term breaks I painstakingly typed final exams on my portable Olympia typewriter, index finger stroke by index finger stroke, for other teachers and for extra money.

But I still didn’t have an apron.

Well, I did have one, but I never wore it for cooking. It was a gift from a friend so close to the family she could have been an aunt, Mrs. Mary Muench; she sewed the apron in a tiny flower print in shades of peach and brown. It fell below my knees and tied around my waist, and was so dress-like it covered my butt in the back. It had ruffles around the bodice, and it looked like a GunnySack dress. I loved GunnySack dresses, and I wore Mrs. Muench’s apron like a funky tunic.

In those days of trendy handmade and repurposed clothing, I could wear that beautiful apron over jeans and a deep brown turtleneck and look like I was making a fashion statement. I would not have dreamed of getting food splatters on that beloved garment.

So there I was, in my ‘second wave of feminism’ passion, teaching school and typing; then I married Mark and cooking joined the list of darned-near daily occupations. We had a close galley kitchen in our first house with an enormous old seventies brown earth-tone stove. In that tight space, on that vintage appliance, I cooked family meals and company meals, baked birthday cakes and everyday cookies, experimented with wondrous dishes like eggplant pizza and a haphazard quiche or two for the real men in my household.

I will not be chained to the kitchen, I allowed, and then I enjoyed the artistic and creative challenge of trying to take our budget and stretch it to feed a family with tasty, attractive dishes. Not owning a single item of daily worn clothing that couldn’t be thrown in the washer, no apron was needed.

Matt grew toward teenager-hood; Jim was born. Time flew. We moved, and moved again. We invited family and friends to celebrate milestones, and I did a lot of cooking on those celebration days and washed a lot of dishes. I remembered my brother Denny, always man enough to help, shlepping into my kitchen on Orchard Street and starting the water for a sinkful of suds.

“Got an apron?” he asked, and I didn’t; he wound up tucking a dishtowel around his waist.

Fast forward to today; if Denny were here now (and how I wish he was!) I could offer him a choice of aprons. Now, Crisanne, with whom I work–although she will retire this summer–has a gift of cloth creation, and thanks to Cris, I have an everyday apron and a holiday apron. They are things of beauty, but I don’t hesitate to let them be splattered with food.

I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In fact, when I done with this essay, I am going to try a new recipe in my quest to make a peanut butter cookie as tasty as the ones I can get at Starbuck’s in Erie, PA–a Reese Cup cookie that I really do go far out of my way for–and that the Starbucks in Ohio don’t seem to carry. But today, in 2014, it is trendy to be ‘cook-y’, to think about the food we eat, to craft our meals from fresh ingredients.

Feminism–in its third? fourth? wave– has embraced nurturing…with the stipulation that men can do it, too. It’s okay to cook and bake and play with grandkids, to plan and execute company dinners, to sew, and to decorate tastefully. It’s okay to focus on home.

Of course, all those things always were okay; we may have done them apologetically; we may have gone about them in a clandestine way; but we never once considered not doing them. And the apron is the perfect metaphor for that, so ever present in the fifties and sixties; lost or hidden in a drawer during the social revolutions of the last part of the 20th century; proudly rediscovered in these latter days.

Terri’s simple challenge–tell us your apron stories–delves deep.

I’ll bet you have an apron story, maybe about the early sensory memory of cookies baking and a warm lap; about your first cooking experience; of hefting that turkey out of the oven the very first time you plated a Thanksgiving dinner. Is there, in a drawer somewhere, an apron sewn by hands so dear to you that you just can’t part with it at all?

Oh, here’s to our aprons; to the meals and memories we’ve shared; to the meals and memories yet to come.

Of cookbooks and aprons and cooking from scratch…

It’s funny how things converge.

The Earth Day Fair convened in the common rooms at the College last Saturday. Fascinating people were there with fascinating stuff. Some women displayed repurposed furniture painted with milk and chalk paints; they had a bench made from an old Jenny Lind bed, and vintage chairs and tables, all beautifully appointed with rich colors and contrast.

There was a bike connected to circuits–one could (I didn’t, but it was great fun to watch my colleague JD) pedal and pedal and pedal until one generated enough energy to light an electric bulb.

A woman sat with an awl, engraving intricate designs on dried gourds, and, in this city with deep ceramic roots, an artist slapped a clumsy blob of clay onto a wheel and spun it, magically and methodically, into a graceful pot. He talked, all the while, with some young Earth Day Fair visitors about the clay and the process and the importance of the art.

A watershed conservancy displayed hand-painted water barrels. Jewelers and fabric artists offered vibrant wares. Students in the biological sciences programs sold plants they had started from seeds–watermelons, morning glories, cucumbers.

And Nick of Shanachie Books had tables set up in a horseshoe display, brimming with gently used books, all with themes related to Earth Day. Right on top, waiting for me, was Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Cookbook.

I bought the book and spent the rest of the day marching toward a quiet space of reading time.

I can’t remember when I discovered Gladys Taber’s work; it might have been when I volunteered at the Mayville Library when Jim was an infant. Her writing grabbed me, and I read all of her books that I could find.

There’s a genre, I think, of post-World War II writings–city refugee books by women writers who fled the metropolitan life with their families and, prepared or not, skilled or not, cognizant of just what they might be getting into or not, set up housekeeping in some charm-filled, drafty, many-roomed, historical country house.

Shirley Jackson wrote about that transition in her wonderful, funny memoirs–such a contrast to her scary, scary books. Madeleine L’Engle detailed her family’s move to New England, to the land and house they dubbed Crosswicks, the home of the real life star-gazing rock.

And Gladys Taber wrote about it in her memoirs about Stillmeadow, the farm that, if I remember correctly, she and her husband bought with another couple. One husband died, I think; the other left, and the women and the children stayed on and created a rich country life.

I remember a professor, in undergrad English major days, expounding on how seldom US writers wrote about food. If I had read Gladys Taber that early on, I would have argued with him. In her gentle stories about the children and the house, the land and the visitors, Taber considers food an indispensable part of her narrative. I remember finding a recipe for stew embedded in a story about visitors from the city who came to visit and fell in love with Stillmeadow. I copied that out, longhand, yea those many years ago, and took note, too, of other Taber kitchen tips.

Finding Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Cookbook was a real coup. Originally written in 1947, my pristine copy was reprinted in 1965. Taber’s wonderful introduction tells the story of her cooking development–from newlywed disasters to hard-won competence on the farm. I am savoring my browse through this book–it’s a cookbook-memoir, so it’s good reading–and I have marked out several recipes to try already.

Luxuriating in this lovely, reminiscent, ramble through a cookbook from a simpler (maybe) day, I realize this week presents other echoes of that cooking time. Terri Mercer posts about a wonderful event her organization is having–an event that calls participants to share their stories about aprons. I am plunged into memories of the late fifties and early sixties, when my mother kept her Sunday dress on to fix Sunday dinner, but protected it with an apron.

And an article in our local Times-Recorder about people struggling to eat on severely cut food stamps made me think back to the days of one income, seven healthy eaters, and the never-empty cookie jar. (The article centered on people in a small town that straddles two counties. Because of food distribution regulations, people on fixed incomes can’t cross the county line to take advantage of local food pantries, so a woman who can see a food pantry from her living room window can’t get food from it to supplement her empty larder at the end of the month. Instead, she has to drive ten miles to a pantry that IS in her county. There’s no meanness involved; the big-hearted operators of the food pantry are constrained by the regulations of the food distributors who help them feed hungry people.)

All of this got me pondering about cooking and food and how our attitudes toward those things have changed in my lifetime. I think about my lovely former student who said that her favorite food was mac and cheese. I told her I’d discovered a great recipe, and she jutted her chin toward me, puzzled. Her mac and cheese delight came from a box mix; she had never eaten the made-from-scratch kind.

I think, too, about a young mom who was placed as a worker with a Literacy Volunteers Association I worked with long ago. She was maybe just 20, had two young boys, and her husband was unable to work. She went to a government sponsored food pantry and brought the bag of groceries they gave her to work. She was disgusted; the bag was full of things like flour and sugar, rice and pasta.

“What am I supposed to do with THAT?” she asked. “My kids can’t eat that.” She had never yet, in her young life, baked a cookie from scratch or cooked a meal that didn’t start from a mix.

I am drawn, by Terri’s apron tales, by Gladys Taber’s recipes, by the challenge people have in trying to stretch their food budget–and food stamps, for those that need them, have truly shrunk in amount—to looking back to the days of Sunday dresses covered by aprons and simmering stews and family dinners. Maybe we have thrown the turkey out with the bathwater; maybe, although I have no intention of making bread from scratch, giving up my KitchenAid blender, or doing without my microwave, we can learn something from the days of cooking from scratch.

The Farmers’ Market opens tomorrow morning. What a perfect time to think about how I cook and how we eat.

No Guilt Sunday

Sunday morning, 10:22, and I am having my first outdoor table time of the season.  I’m at our little, round, newly wiped down, outdoor table perched on a similarly prepared metal mesh chair.  Babe the Stone Pig sits stoically behind me, blue baseball hat fastener pulled jauntily over her snout.  Greta the Live Dog stands tensely, loosely chained, to my left, sniffing the air, listening to the birds, gauging whether this outdoor stuff is to her prissy liking.

It is Sunday morning, and I haven’t–sigh–gone to church.  And,–despite a tightly wimpled voice rooted deep in my psyche, a voice that says, “He gave up his LIFE for you, and you can’t give up an HOUR on Sunday morning?”, — I am feeling, truly, no guilt.

Please don’t misunderstand–this is not a diatribe against organized religion.  I really like my organized church, and the organized book club that meets on Sunday mornings before organized services.  I like reading things of spiritual nature in company and wrestling with our individual understandings in a group.  I like the service that follows, and the fellowship of kind and caring congregants.  I appreciate our pastor’s sermons; they are thoughtful and depth-filled, and I take notes on my bulletin and come home and look things up on the internet, or request books he’s mentioned at our library.

My church both gives me perspective and broadens my perspective.

But. Some Sundays…

Mark and I have overlapping weekends. His is Saturday and Sunday.  Mine is Sunday and Monday.  The only non-work morning we have as a family is this one, this Sunday one, and it’s usually fine that I run off to join the book group, Mark meets me for services, and Jim stays home to ask, “How was it?” when we arrive back just before noon so we can lunch together.

This late winter/early spring, however, has been busy.  Busy is good in many ways–busy means involved and somehow vital to someone or -ones, something or -things.

Sometimes, though, I picture little clumps of leisure time rolling tantalizingly on life’s Astroturf.  There I am, further down on the field, fussily doing all my oh-so-essential little things, and thinking of those lovely clumps of time I’ll gather up soon.

Then a clanking roar swells up and an enormous, battered, iron and copper contraption lumbers speedily onto the playing field.  It has a jointed snout and obvious power, and it rushes over to the leisure time clumps and it sucks those babies up, wheels around in its ungainly efficiency, and swiftly disappears.

The time-sucker leaves me whining and bemoaning and sadly in need of a Sunday morning at home.  That brings me to this little table, a soft spring breeze, and a well-fed family.

This morning we did what passes in late, late middle age, for sleeping in–we stayed in bed till after seven, till our helpful bladders reminded us we’re a long, long way from 30–or even 40–and till an inquisitive little dog snout an inch from my face reminded me that–HELLO! — my bladder might not be the only consideration here.  And we got up and wandered drowsily downstairs.

I leashed the dog and we trotted out into the front yard, where the annoyed Deer Bunch huffed, showing us the white sides of their tails as they left our sweet grass and went to explore the neighbor’s, across the street.  The daffodils swayed cheerily, there was a swell of excited birdsong, and the Sunday papers waited, full of promise and crosswords, on the front walk. A big fat bee bumbled harmlessly around me, and a voice in my mind spoke to me sweetly.

“You have,” it reminded me, “all the ingredients for Heath bar coffee cake.”

That voice was louder and much more convincing than the wimpled one. And so this Sunday morning found me–after saying my solitary prayers in the morning stillness–doing the Sunday crossword across the table from my husband, who snorted his way through the op-ed section. His muttered commentary was an accompaniment to the creaking of my fuzzy brain into some kind of life as I searched for a word that floated, like a message in one of those eight-ball prophecy toys, just the other side of awareness.

And I caught up on four weeks’ worth of uncut coupons, and I got on the internet and printed out the Heath Bar Toffee Coffee Cake recipe.

Jim came downstairs around nine o’clock; by then, the coffee cake was almost ready to emerge from the oven.  I heated one of my old cast iron skillets, drizzled in it a little olive oil, and sautéed the week’s remaining ham in the sizzle.  When that was crisp and fragrant, I poured in six eggs, nicely beaten, and, as that scrambled, pulled the coffee cake from the oven.  Its toffee bar topping oozed in a golden brown crust; I grated Asiago onto the scramble and threw some grated cheddar, left over from Thursday’s fajitas, on top of that.

We poured blueberry pomegranate juice into our mismatched glasses, and we tenderly leveraged that oozey chocolate mess onto our plates, sidled cheesy eggs up next to that, and sat down to a Sunday brunch.  And we talked and planned and felt the tight winding of our weekly clocks ease a little.

This morning I beat the time sucker to one of those nice little clumps of leisure time, and I relaxed and listened to my boyos talk.  I wandered through the neighborhood with our neurotic little dog, and I watched the field of daffodils at the old folks’ home on the corner nodding expansively to one another. And I brought my I-Pad out to this little table, and I lost all track of time.

I will emerge from this lovely tunnel; I will do the dishes, make the bed, and put on my outdoor face so we can head to a support group gathering in Columbus this afternoon .  Greased, our wheels will gather speed, and we will ride them into a nicely busy week.

Most Sundays, my time at church undergirds my being and helps me reflect and prepare.  Every once in a while, though–and today was one of those days–a morning at home, a breakfast leisurely prepared and shared with a couple of Zanghi boys, time to walk, and time to appreciate, is a necessary balm.

******** PS–You can find the Heath Bar Toffee Coffee Cake recipe at