Putting the “I” Back into Cook-I-ng

vintage kitchen

I spent years trying to please others through the act of cooking. As a young newlywed, I collected recipes that I wanted to try out on my husband and promptly struck out. If it didn’t look like something that his mother or grandmother often made, then he wouldn’t even taste it. For example, only “fried chicken” was acceptable, he said, and my attempt at that dish was met with disdain. Come to find out, his mother’s secret for “fried chicken” was really “Shake-n-Bake”! I gave up before I even got started. Over the years, I found quick and inexpensive foods that my daughters would eat. End of story (and marriage).

My second husband was a self-taught gourmet cook. No, I’m not just saying this in case he still reads my blog. He really is that accomplished and taught me a lot about cooking methods and ingredients. We took turns cooking, and I have to admit, that as my skills grew, I began to feel a bit competitive. My dishes started to turn out wonderfully and earned well-deserved praise. When my efforts didn’t work out, there were no polite or pretend compliments from him, either.

Cooking never came naturally to me, however, and I almost always relied on cook books and carefully measured ingredients. If a recipe was successful, I made a note of it on the inside of the book for future reference. Sometimes the pressure of producing acceptable meals was a negative force. Things went downhill when I started having digestive problems and had to give up many of our favorite foods and most wine. I won’t pretend these restrictions caused the end of our marriage, but they certainly did alter the daily dynamic of an already strained relationship.

I currently find myself “cooking for one,” a phrase that I’ve never really liked. I don’t even much care for recipes that say, “Cooking for Two,” as if someone is missing and this is all you have left. I occasionally prepare a meal for others, but more often than not, there’s one plate on my faux-Victorian dining table.

I made the early decision NOT to fall into the trap of watching television while eating. Sometimes I listen to my music, or enjoy tunes that emanate from a local activity in the Square, like the one going on as I write this piece. Other times, I read from a novel or non-fiction of recent interest, such as Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. Weak indirect lighting over my table was an issue for reading. To fix that problem, I recently splurged on an attractive, industrial-style table lamp with a high-powered bulb, in an old-fashioned tone of light green.

Another big change is WHAT I make for dinner.  First of all, I’ve cut way back on meat and more often turn to other forms of protein…eggs, tofu, beans, and occasional seafood. Sometimes just a large salad appeals to me, and I jazz it up with some of my favorites, like olives, capers, and fresh veggies lightly cooked. My go-to cheeses are feta and goat, since they seem easier for me to digest. Olive oil ALWAYS for cooking and salads! I rarely buy according to a recipe, now, but purchase ingredients that look good to me and then just decide what to do with them, later.

I’m starting to have fun with this and don’t think I’ll go back to eating by candlelight any time soon. Following is one of my recent culinary creations:

Egg-cellent Baked Mushrooms

portobello-

One or two extra-large portabella/portobello mushrooms, stems removed, cap side up in baking pan

One egg for each, cracked open into the mushroom cap

Your choice of fresh or dried herbs to taste

Light sprinkling of cheese, if desired

Bake at 350˚-400˚ until egg is set to your liking and mushroom is sufficiently tender (about 20 minutes minimum).         

 

Advertisements

It’s My Party, and I’ll Do What I Want To!

 

 

Baby Becky
Baby Becky, with Parents and Big Sister
childhood home
Childhood Home
Three of Us
The Three of Us
Becky
Cleaned Up Nicely

This is my “birthday week,” which is thought-provoking on so many different levels. More than anything, though, this occurrence evokes a multitude of childhood memories. I feel lucky to have grown up within a loving family in Tawas City, Michigan, with both sets of grandparents living nearby. Although it may not be a new concept, I thought it would be fun to tell you more with a different voice, through an interview with a younger version of myself:

What do you like about your hometown?

All the four seasons are really clear, here. We can have lots of fun outside during the winter, in the snow, like ice skating and building snow forts. In the summer, we go swimming at the beach, in Lake Huron. It’s a small town, but has most of what we need. People called tourists come to visit a lot, too, which makes things different all the time.

Tell me about your hobbies and what you like to do for fun.

I like to play with friends, ride my bike, play softball, roller skate, climb trees, collect rocks, play with dolls, and read.

What do you like to read?

At school, it’s mostly stories like “Dick and Jane,” but at home I read about “Trixie Belden” and “Nancy Drew.” They’re so brave! My favorite book so far, though, is “Mystery of the Golden Horn,” by Phyllis Whitney. My sister, Terri, is the one who got me interested in mysteries.

Who are the friends you enjoying spending time with?

Well, that changes a little over time, but my best friends, so far, have been Andrea, she’s my neighbor, and Marilyn and Jean, who go to school with me.

No boys. Are you only friends with girls?

Course not. I just didn’t want to mention them, so it wouldn’t sound like I was saying they’re my boyfriends!

What about school…what do you like best or least?

I like reading and spelling, I guess, ‘cause I’m good at them. I also like seeing my friends there and playing jump rope at recess. Arithmetic is my least favorite, since I’m not as good at that. I don’t like fire drills, either, because we have to go down the dark, scary back stairs to get out of the school.

Tell me about your family.

I have five people in my family, and I’m the middle one of three kids. My sister is five years older than me, and my brother, Mark, is five years younger. I guess you can see why my favorite number’s five! My dad travels for work a lot, so my mom does most things around the house. He still takes care of the big yard, though, and he’s really good at growing stuff.

Do you have any regrets, or things that you feel sorry about?

Well, I wish that I hadn’t gotten my pony tail cut off when I did, ‘cause now I’m stuck with short hair. My friend, Andrea, got hers cut, and I thought it looked like a good idea.  I’m also sorry that my grandparents…my mom’s parents…just moved away to California. Course, I did get to go to Disneyland when we went to visit! One more thing. I’m sorry that I don’t practice the piano more, since my parents pay for me to take lessons. So, I’m not very good at it, but at least I learned how to read music.

What would you like to do when you’re a grown-up?

I want to be a good mother, like my mom is. I think I’d like to be a teacher, too, since I’ve had some teachers I really liked who made school fun. Also, my sister and I have started writing a book, and we’ll see how that goes. Maybe I could try being a writer someday!

Immigration: a personal “what if”

 

ss_albert_ballin-1923
SS Albert Ballin

 

Unless you are a Native American, you or your family members who came before are immigrants to this great country. Recent events have caused me to reflect upon and feel compelled to share my own family’s story of immigration.

My mother was born in Germany between the two World Wars. By the time she was one and her older sister was six, the economic conditions in that country were so severe that her young parents, my grandparents, decided they must leave their homeland for the chance at a better life. They applied to do so and then waited. Finally, the joyous news came that they would be able to leave Germany for the United States. There was one catch. Because of a quota system that was in place, the four could not travel all at the same time.

My grandfather wanted to go ahead on the ship, with his wife and two children traveling later. His older daughter, my aunt, did not want her “papa” to travel all alone, and she convinced her parents that she should go with him. She allowed her “mama” to cut off her beloved braid because they knew my grandfather would not know how to care for my aunt’s long hair on the voyage.

They set out on their trip, with my mother and grandmother leaving at a later date. That second long voyage was especially rocky, and my grandmother became very ill. Years later, I was enthralled hearing her tell of the wonderful, newly-married couple on the ship that helped to care for my mother when Grandma was too sick to do so.

My grandparents settled in Northern Michigan and formed a good life. My grandfather, originally a farmer, learned the plumbing trade and eventually owned his own successful business. Their three daughters, including my mother, were strong citizens and loved this country.

Although my grandparents rarely talked with the rest of us about this time of their lives, when they did, I was struck by the difficult decisions that were made. First of all, to leave Germany at all. Waving goodbye to beloved family members who may not have supported their decision and whose faces they might never again see. Then, separating to make the long ocean voyages alone, with one child, each.

Until recent events in our country unfolded, there was a different ending to my family’s immigration story that I had never in my wildest imagination considered. What if the American government had gone back on its promise after my grandfather and aunt had already arrived on its shores? Just imagine, if my grandmother and her one-year-old, my mother, had then been refused admittance into the United States…

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.