Eat Your Way to Good Luck for 2017

 

pickled-herring
Pickled Herring

 

I grew up in Michigan, with German heritage on each side of the family. Both of my grandmothers were good cooks and seemed to enjoy the process. I remember the wonderful aromas of “bread-baking day” at the home of my maternal grandma. My paternal grandmother occasionally offered foods that might not appeal to some children. Oyster stew, beef tongue and pickled herring come to mind. I liked two of those dishes, with the chewy beef tongue (no pun intended) being a definite “no.”

Although I enjoyed the stew with curly-edged oysters, I looked forward to herring the most. I remember a heavy crock so large that it barely fit into the refrigerator, where Grandma pickled her magic on those small, silvery fish. If memory serves me right, the end result was a light, creamy sauce, filled with thin rings of sliced onions and luscious, thick chunks of herring. Although I still have a few of her recipe cards tucked away in their hinged, wooden box, unfortunately, I don’t have that one. We ate it cold, on crackers, small rounds of pumpernickel bread, or on full-sized sandwiches.

My grandmother passed away just before Christmas when I was about ten. Every year after, my parents would buy a container of pickled herring at the market and we’d share it on New Year’s Eve. For years, I thought we just did that in memory of Grandma. Eventually, I learned that many people in Germany, along with other countries, often eat this delicacy at midnight as the year turns over, to help ensure a year of good luck and prosperity.

Writing this reminds me to buy mine soon. I can certainly use some of that providence for 2017!

Another food for the holiday, black-eyed peas are displayed prominently on grocery store shelves these days. Although I’ve lived in North Carolina and now Texas, I had never tried this Southern staple that some people believe brings good fortune when eaten as the first meal of the New Year. The peas can be used in many different dishes, research showed, and I devised a recipe that works for me. The Texan variety is often seasoned with chili powder and hot sauce, but I came up with the following milder version in the form of a hearty soup:

soup-pot

Luck in a Soup Pot

Onion, shallot, scallion, leek, garlic, and celery (in any combination), sliced and sautéed in a deep pan.

Meat eaters, add bacon or ham (brown, or use pre-cooked).

Add approximately 4 cups of water and a bouillon cube (veggie or meat-flavored) to the pan. Adjust water for the amount of vegetables eventually used.

While that heats, chop a selection of greens: collards, mustard or turnip greens are traditionally Southern. I used what I had, which included spinach and large, red leaf lettuce.

Throw in the greens and any other soup vegetables you like. For color, I thinly sliced in a few carrots, and I also added several diced potatoes. I seasoned with ground cumin and fenugreek, for my milder version. Bring it all back to a boil, then turn down to simmer until the veggies are tender.

I cooked my dried black-eyed peas ahead of time and added them into the soup pot near the very end to heat through. These “peas” are actually beans, a legume, and double as a protein and a vegetable, nutritionally. They’re also available fresh, canned and frozen.

If you like eggs, you might want to try a trick I learned a few years back with a similar, clear-brothed spinach soup. Near the end of cooking, turn the heat back up and slide one egg at a time from a cup into the boiling mixture, spacing them out, a bit. They cook in place, much like a poached egg. Lift one out with a slotted spoon to check if they’re done.

Salt to taste. Serve with your favorite bread, although cornbread is most typical in the South. I ate a tasty helping and froze the rest for December 31, hoping I will at least be healthy, if not prosperous, in the upcoming days.

What food traditions does your family observe at the beginning of the new year?

 

 

 

Thankful for…my critique group!

frisco-square-tx

This past year has brought many changes to my life. The culmination is that I now live in a different part of the country. The main advantages I currently enjoy are living closer to my children and grandchildren, along with the MUCH milder wintertime weather! On a more negative note, I left behind familiar people, places, and activities. Luckily, the memories stay with me wherever I go and also offer the occasional writing topic.

In efforts to make the most of my new location and give my writing a boost, I joined the writing critique group offered through my local library. That was one of the best choices I have ever made. This type of in-person work group may not be for everyone, but if you have trouble finding motivation or direction in your writing, you may want to give it a try!

The composition of this particular community of writers varies and flows from one month to the next, but has a basic structure of members usually in attendance, embracing those who write fiction or non-fiction for ages childhood to adult. Members include those who are published through various modes, or are as yet unpublished. We take turns sharing portions of our works, while members offer praise and helpful suggestions. The tone is positive and supportive, even when questions or inconsistencies about the pieces are being discussed. Celebrations of our successes are common. I always leave the meeting feeling energized, motivated and renewed.

I’ve taken part in on-line critiques in the past and have certainly benefitted. The personal aspect of seeing other writers face-to-face appeals to me even more. If you haven’t tried a writing group, I hope you’ll consider joining one. The configuration could vary in membership numbers and writing types involved, but I imagine that most provide the crucial aspect of a positive atmosphere.

Perhaps your geographical area doesn’t yet offer this option. You could start a group yourself, with the library being the logical place to display an announcement. Several sites on the Internet contain ideas for starting and running successful writing groups. In addition, select chapters of Sisters in Crime and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offer opportunities to share writing with other members, and you could also check out those possibilities online.

Have a wonderful holiday season, filled with opportunities to read enjoyable books and stories, and to write about the topics, people, and characters near to your hearts!

The Chartreuse Thumb

nature-chartreuse-pixabay

Gardens have surrounded me for most of my life. The yard of my Michigan childhood was a fairytale hide-and-seek mixture of giant lilac trees and gnarly grape vines, along with bounteous flower and vegetable beds. My parents were avid gardeners, and I learned a great deal from watching them over the years.

As an adult, I struggled to come into my own by fighting bleak, sandy soil to produce healthy annuals, thick day lilies, and mammoth rhubarb. The years that followed sent me in many different directions, to the heat of Texas and North Carolina, then the short and bittersweet growing seasons of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Azalea, camellia, clematis, Rudbeckia, delphinium…lovely names for even lovelier blooms. As my stack of gardening books and catalogs grew, so did my knowledge of all the little tricks. Prevent slugs from hatching in hostas before the tender leaves unfurl? Had it covered. Make sure the clematis actually climb up the arbor? No problem.

Recent winds of change have carried me back toward my children and their families in Texas. Temperate conditions offer beautiful gardens for most months of the year. Only problem is, none of them are mine. For the first time in decades, my garden fix must come from visiting those owned and tended by others. Quite an adjustment.

Indoor gardening has always been a challenge for me, which I’ve met with varying results. Winning this quest has now become even more crucial. My large windows offer profuse light, and the multi-tiered plant stand is full. All of my original selections haven’t flourished, I admit, and some have already taken the slide of shame down the garbage chute.

Fault lies in the choices or the tending, and the blame is all mine. The trick is finding exactly what works in this third-story substitute for a garden, among traditional houseplants and bedding varieties that can be fooled to grow and bloom for a season.

Relieved that the temperatures are now lower, my screens can finally allow the cooler breezes in to ruffle the leaves. On other positive notes, this is the longest I’ve ever managed to keep chives or mint alive, inside, and I’m experiencing the joys of cacti and aloe for the very first time.

Perhaps I can put some of those random bits of knowledge stored in my head to use. Could trial-sized soapettes be wedged into pots to prevent those pesky little flies? Might be easier than bathing the plants in that insecticidal soap every few weeks. Maybe some of you have hints to share, as to what works best in homes with certain conditions of light, temperature, humidity and four-legged friends.

Who knows how long my red-tipped, yellow chrysanthemum will survive. For now, it serves as a beautiful alternative to the multi-colored maple leaves of my youth. Nothing stays the same, which gets me back to the chartreuse thumb. It’s not worse or better than the green… just different.

 

 

A Beginning, or the End?

train tracks vintage

For this child of Michigan, Labor Day formed a bridge from the freedom and contentment of sunlit vacation days to the anticipation and trepidation of a new classroom. The year I stood poised between childhood and adolescence stands out in memory.

A small group of neighborhood friends met outdoors after supper that warm September evening. We wandered the area, dissecting shared summer memories, and exploring our individual hopes for the upcoming weeks. The drama and self-reflection of several older girls in the pack were surely lost on the others my age, as they were on me. Strolling along the well-known back streets, we dared to cross the short train trestle with thumping hearts. Was that an approaching whistle in the distance?

Humid air began to cool, and a chill descended. Everything about that little town, and our protected space within it, offered a sense of safety and familiarity. Yet the impending months loomed ripe with uncertainty. Without voicing the decision, we turned toward home before parents’ voices called into the gathering dusk. An indefinable sadness wrapped around me when we parted ways, so full of certainty that my life would never again be the same.

 

 

Breathing New Life into the Memory of a Recipe

squid

 

Most of us who enjoy cooking have our favorite go-to formulas that are permanently tattooed on our brains. If you’re like me, you also keep in mind those great dishes you haven’t made in a while, knowing where to find the directions with a flick of your magic wand. Until…something goes awry. Your hard drive crashes, and all your bookmarks have vanished. You experience a fit of housecleaning frenzy, or move, unintentionally throwing out important folders. Maybe you lose half of your beloved cookbooks in a divorce settlement. Whatever. It’s a sad state of affairs, when you reach for the recipe for that squid stew you’ve been craving, and it’s totally beyond your grasp.

 
I recently pointed out to my younger daughter that deep-fried calamari, or squid, isn’t the only, or necessarily best, way to enjoy that particular delicacy of the deep. Now, where was that recipe that I’d made and enjoyed in the past? Nowhere to be found in my new Texas dwelling, over a thousand miles from where I had cooked it last. What to do? After fruitlessly leafing through my remaining cookbooks and anemic folder of saved recipes, I made a list of the ingredients that I believed the stew contained. Certain about the potatoes, clam juice, and squid, they found their way into my shopping cart the next time I visited the market. I then turned to the trusty internet with the help of my new computer. Surely I could find something that sounded similar. Not really.

 
None of the stew or soup offerings seemed even close. I did find directions for something called “squid with potatoes” that helped me along. This jogged my memory, reminding me that white wine played a part in the initial version. Along with additional water, I decided to add vegetable bouillon cubes that I already had, for the stock. Garlic and onions from that list of ingredients also made sense. I wasn’t sure about the basil, though. As I sniffed at the container plucked from my spice shelf, it seemed a little too sweet for what I had in mind. The clam juice bottle actually gave me an idea for the seasoning, since it suggested thyme for use in clam chowder. One whiff of that herb told me it was a “go”. Many of the online recipes involving squid also called for tomatoes. Unsure whether I’d used them in the earlier form, and knowing that I’ve pretty much given those up due to the acid, I decided to incorporate a few carrots for extra fiber and color, instead.

 
The end result was a comforting combination of old and new, and I believe that I like it better than the original! My daughter also enjoyed it, and one of my granddaughters even tried several bites, which is certainly a testament to its appeal. No more worries from me, about absent directions for meals from the past. Sometimes the new way of doing things is even better than the old.

Finding Love in Unimaginable Places

Remember that heart-wrenching sensation when a beloved grandparent died, or that excruciating pain, like a vise around the head, after a parent succumbed to a long illness? We’ve all lost someone important. Time moves on. The sharp sting of that separation surprisingly begins to ease. Unfortunately, some of the good memories may disappear along with the pain. Mementos, such as pictures, or favored objects, like books, furniture, and even recipes, may help to hold a dear one’s essence close. I’ve recently discovered another unexpected avenue.

I’m currently working on a revision of my picture book, “Rhus Juice”. The tale is based on a true story my dad shared with me from his own childhood. It tells of a hot Michigan summer and a little boy’s fears that the lemon-flavored drink his father plans to make with sumac might be poisonous! When I began composing this some years back, I looked through pictures from that time, referred to a list of names and dates in an old family Bible, and even listened to a recording of Dad recounting the events.

“Life” got in the way, work and other writing took precedence, and “Rhus Juice” was set aside. I love the story, though, and it recently pulled me back. Now looking at the book with fresh eyes, the lives portrayed seem much clearer than before. Through it, I revisit my hometown of Tawas City, Michigan, and ride my blue Schwinn on bumpy sidewalks once again. Peeking into my dad’s childhood home, Grandpa’s voice booms and Grandma’s sweet smile lights up the room.

How wonderful, to see Dad’s ten-year-old grin and to anticipate his thoughts. The act of writing has done this for me. The love flows from all of them, bringing me closer than I’ve been in years!

*****

Memorial Day through the Lens of a Small Town Girl

trumpet

From childhood, I remember when adults still called it “Decoration Day” and how I loved the festive parade in my hometown, longing to be brave and join in with my own blue bicycle. I recollect feeling delighted with the day off from the classroom, wondering which members of the high school marching band would faint in the heat and sensing a chill when the lone trumpet played taps.

As a teen, I recall that holiday spent at the lake and how I suffered the sharp sting of summer’s first sunburn, worrying with the knowledge that a pal was leaving soon, to be stationed in Vietnam. I remember the shock, hearing a friend of my family later died in that place and believing we were lucky that many showed enough bravery to serve.