Saturday, December 31, 2011

The evolution of distraction

It’s New Year’s Eve. I’m sitting at home, listening to jazz, eating leftover cassoulet, drinking red wine, and thinking about distraction. I’m having a hard time concentrating on the distraction issue. I keep getting up and walking downstairs to see if my laundry is done. Then I go into the kitchen and check out what’s in the refrigerator. Then I go back to my writing but forget what I was doing. Maybe it’s the wine or maybe it’s human nature. I’m developing an anthropological treatise on how we have become more and more distracted over time and with technological advances.

Oh, and by the way, I’m thinking about painting the guest room—how do you think lavender would work?

Perhaps we mortals can blame our distractible nature on The Fall. In the early days, after the rib extraction, Adam and Eve must have given one another their full attention. They probably walked around the Garden of Eden discussing books and music and the wonders of God until they bit into the accursed apple. They were not distracted until they fell from God’s grace. Then all hell broke loose and we’ve been on a downhill slide ever since.

I don’t think we were so distractible when technology was simpler. For example, before Verizon invented call waiting, we simply talked to someone on the phone until we were finished. Now we get interrupted all the time by people taking polls on our grocery shopping habits. (I think they’re lying—they aren’t taking polls, they just want to see if they can link my toilet cleaner preference with my political affiliation.) One person I will not name, but who happens to have given birth to me, tells me to hold on but she forgets I’m holding on. She’s nearly 86 so she’s excused.

Then there are the people who respond to every ding on their cellphones and text message during soulful conversations about the meaning of life in relation to the age of toilet training. They say, “Go on, go on, I’m listening.” But I know they aren’t, especially when they nod and smile like a psychoanalyst when I say, “I’m into self mutilation and last week I gnawed off my left arm."

According to my theory, what do I expect to be the next wave of distraction? I figure it’s going to be something like this: I’m on my deathbed saying something deep and meaningful to my granddaughter when a hologram image of her friend Imogene appears in the room. Imogene tells my granddaughter that she simply must come to Paris for lunch. At which point, my granddaughter explains that she’ll just be gone for a couple of hours and she teleports herself to Paris.

Then again, maybe I should paint the guest room a deep caramel color.

Happy 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Josefinas

I spent the evening doing Josefina's hair over and over again. Actually, there are two identical Josefinas in my house at the moment and they both have long, thick black hair that goes from sleek to a rat's nest in mere seconds. They are especially prone to getting their hair tangled when they are picked up by their hair and flipped upside down.

The Josephinas are American Girl dolls, the wards of my twin 5-year-old grandaughters, Harper and Lucy. The girls (and the dolls) are visiting from Texas. Today we went to the American Girl store, where we had lunch reservations, and where the dolls got their hair done in the store's salon. The dolls were seated in small pink salon chairs and draped with miniature plastic capes to protect their clothes. The girls picked hair styles for the dolls and the stylists (I wonder if they have to be licensed by the state cosmetology board) redid their hair with twists and braids and tiny ribbons and pony tail holders.

We weren't even back to the house before the dolls' hairdos were destroyed. So tonight, while the parents of these girls went to happy hour at McKeever's Pub, I stayed home as the designated doll hair stylist. I brushed and braided and revised the styles several times. But the final result was fabulous. Harper's Josefina got two traditional braids. Lucy's Josefina got a thick side braid, interlaced with red for Christmas. Lucy said what I did with her Josefina was better than any of the dolls she saw at the store. She suggested that I get a job as a doll hair stylist at American Girl. Brilliant idea, eh? I never would have thought of that before today, but perhaps I finally found my calling.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Elizabeth and His tender mercy

Indeed, the story of Mary, the teenaged unwed mother chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, is amazing and inspirational. Her unquestioning faith is exemplary.

But what about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth? In Scripture Elizabeth is referred to twice as being “advanced in years.” I figured that being “advanced in years” in the year 1 BC was probably something like 30 years old. Girls got married at 13 and it seemed likely that they were considered old by the time they were 30. So I looked it up and found that biblical scholars think Elizabeth was well beyond the usual childbearing age, probably in her 60s. Holy Mother of God—instead of getting an AARP card, she got pregnant! In the year 1 BC it took the Angel Gabriel to facilitate a pregnancy where even IVF clinics would fail today.

Like her cousin Mary, Elizabeth had remarkable faith. And unlike her husband Zechariah, she was not bitter about her childlessness and she didn’t doubt God’s plan. She joyfully, with humility, accepted the news that she was going to give birth to John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.

I become a little weak in the knees when I hear this story because I’m about Elizabeth’s age at the time she gave birth. I probably would have bristled at the news that I was going to have a baby when I’m so “advanced in years,” even though the child was destined to have an important role in the life of Jesus. (I guessing the angel didn’t tell Elizabeth and Zechariah that their son was going to be beheaded—it might have been a deal breaker.) But here’s the part that gives me hope—even though Elizabeth was growing old, God was not yet finished with her. He answered her prayer and used her to accomplish something very important.

In the words of Zechariah (Luke 1:74-78)

. . . that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God.

Even when we’re old—maybe especially when we’re old—we can rely on the tender mercy of our God.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Affirmative action

Don’t laugh—I’m doing cognitive therapy on myself. This means that I’m prodding myself out of my current malaise by using mental affirmation flashcards. (Don’t even ask about the malaise. Suffice it to say it’s a combination of seasonal affective disorder, grief, and general ornery-ness. There’s probably a diagnostic code for it. I have a graduate degree in counseling psychology so I’m entitled to diagnose myself.)

These affirmation flashcards are not tangible things, not like the picture of the zebra with the letter Z that you show your preschooler. But perhaps they should be. I could use photos to accompany the affirmations in order to reinforce the message. Here are the affirmations I’m working on:

(1) “I am who I say I am”—this is to remind me that no one else defines me—no former husband who mistreated me, no boss who devalued me, no Republicans or surly plumbers or cosmetic salesladies. For this one I’ll attach a photo of Michelle Pfeiffer and hope that my powerful positive thinking will make me look like her.

(2) “Cherish yourself”—I’m already having trouble with this one because there seems to be a thin line between self indulgence and self preservation. But what I mean is that no one else is going to take care of me, no one else is going to make sure I eat right or get enough exercise. For this flashcard I’ll attach a photo of Miss Piggy.

(3) “Live today like it’s your last day”—I’m having trouble with this one too. It scares me. It doesn’t make me want to fly to Paris; it makes me think I need to clean my closets and get my affairs in order so my kids won’t curse me when I’m gone tomorrow. They’re going to say, “Why in the hell did she need 146 cookbooks?” That’s it—the cookbooks are going to Goodwill tomorrow along with the 146 pairs of jeans that don’t fit. With this flashcard I’ll attach a photo of Little Edie. (I’m still obsessed with Little Edie.)

(4) “Get off your ass”—this is self explanatory. It’s really card 2, part b. I need serotonin, vitamin D, and liposuction. I need residental addiction treatment—carbohydrates are my version of crack. For this card I’ll attach a photo of myself sitting on the sofa, wearing sweats, eating popcorn and drinking a beer. Nooooo! Quick—flash back to the picture of Michelle Pfeiffer—I am who I say I am, I am who I say I am . . .

Saturday, November 19, 2011


How low does a writer have to go to write an essay on farina? How much of total nerd does it take to even spend time thinking about it? Guess I’m about to find out.

A few days ago I was in the grocery store and overheard a young clerk tell an older clerk that a customer was looking for farina.

“Farina,” the young clerk said, “I have no idea . . . “

“Aisle 6 on the left, about halfway up the aisle,” said the older clerk, “on top, above the oatmeal.”

I chuckled and the old guy just grinned and rolled his eyes.

Wasn’t Farina related to Buckwheat? Who came up with the names of those characters in the Our Gang television series? Farina and Buckwheat were two of the little black kids—but who was Stymie? The show was equal opportunity when it came to stereotypes because it had black kids, a fat white boy, a whiney white girl, and a bully white kid. I’d love to see that show again. I’ll bet it’s not hard to find it online. Anything you want is on YouTube. (I recently watched a clip from the Milt Grant show—but that’s another essay on yet another important topic.)

But seriously, farina is a food grain and we Americans know it as Cream of Wheat. Look at the box and it will say exactly that—Cream of Wheat (subtitle Enriched Farina). It was a staple of my childhood—a warm, comfort-food breakfast. It was never, ever the quick-cook variety in the packet. Hell no! You had to cook it in a saucepan with water (or milk if you were feeling frisky) and a dash of salt. You had to pour the dry Cream of Wheat carefully into the boiling water and stir continually to avoid lumps. You had to cook it in the saucepan because you needed to learn the value of hard work and discipline by scrubbing clean the saucepan encrusted with Cream of Wheat that turns into cement if left to dry. You did this after digging potatoes in the garden, butchering a chicken, and before walking 5 miles to school with no shoes. Or pants. We didn’t wear pants but we wore little lace things on our heads. Or a folded Kleenex held on with bobby pins if we were desperate.

Oh, wait, I forgot I was writing about farina. A little break from our sponsor, that pesky attention deficit thing.

My children grew up loving Cream of Wheat but their favorite part was the lumps, so much so that they would request it cooked with lumps intact. They were creating their own tradition.

I’ve been sick and downtrodden. Life is hard. So I’ve been eating Cream of Wheat, chicken soup, and ginger ale. I will get better, things won’t always be so hard. And now I can say I’ve reached the pinnacle because I’ve written an essay on farina. Anyone want to buy my book?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Living in the basement

For the past couple of weeks I've pretty much banished myself to the basement. Now I've got a cold, which gives me a legitimate reason to withdraw from mankind, but I was withdrawing even before the cold. I haven't been writing or cooking. Though I have been praying sometimes, saying, "Lord, what the blazes am I doing down here on the basement floor all day long?" I ask Him questions. He answers with more questions.

I have a pretty good idea what I'm doing. I'm trying to get lost doing something tangible, just sitting in the basement painting and grieving. I figure if I work really, really hard doing something that takes my mind off the incredibly sad things in my life, maybe the days will pass and I'll have created something. Plus maybe I can make some money to buy that new sofa I need.

Several weeks ago I began painting furniture that I already owned. At a store in Falls Church I found Annie Sloan chalk paint and waxes. My imagination went into overdrive. When I had painted everything feasible in my house I began going to thrift stores, then Craig's List, then to the back sheds at antique stores that have the really grungy stuff. You know--the pieces that are mildewed with spider nests and creaky parts. Those are the pieces I love the most. I've stripped off some horrible upholstery and I've glued and scraped and painted. And painted and painted. Now I need to sell some of this stuff to reclaim my basement. Here are some of the photos of what I've done.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Bone Crusher's Christmas

She was their own Christmas miracle, born on December 23rd, so premature that they said they could see her blood flowing through her little blue veins. The doctor thought she might not last the night. But she continued to breathe through one night and another, until early on Christmas morning the doctor declared her the Christmas miracle.

They named her Maria Josefina Angelita O’Rourke but they just called her Angel. She was a perfectly formed, perfectly beautiful infant—a little rosebud mouth, flawless white skin, black curly hair, shining black eyes, and tiny delicate hands—like a replica of her big sister’s Snow White doll. People stopped breathing for a second when they saw her.

And like the child who was born nearly 2000 years before her, Angel grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. She was a delight to her family. By the time she was one year old, she had caught up with biggest babies her age. By the time she was entering kindergarten, she had surpassed her older sister in both height and weight and she was nearly as big as her diminutive grandmother. By the time she was in sixth grade, she was bigger than most of the high school boys, even bigger than some of the football players. Her grandmother had to disassemble three extra-large school uniforms to have enough fabric to sew one uniform for Angel. Yet she was still stunningly beautiful—like a giant Snow White statue. People stopped breathing for a second when they saw her.

We all know people can be cruel in the presence of an unusual person like Angel O’Rourke. Children pointed and laughed, often played tricks on her. One day in the cafeteria, Joseph Ruppert stuck out his leg and tripped Angel while she was carrying her food-laden tray. She lost her balance, sending the spaghetti, meatballs, Jello, and chocolate milk over half her sixth-grade classmates. And she twirled around as she hit the floor, her fall broken by the scrawny body of Joseph Ruppert. He was face-down on the tile floor, covered with food debris and that mountain of childhood Angel O’Rourke. Joseph Ruppert was soon to learn that his shoulder was dislocated and three ribs were broken. It was a brief moment in time that Angel would never live down. Henceforth she was called the Bone Crusher.

In the weeks before her 13th birthday, Angel’s family suggested they plan a big celebration, inviting all of her friends from her class.

“But, Mama,” she said, “I have no friends in my class. Have I ever been invited to one of their birthday parties? You know I haven’t.”

Her grandmother pleaded with her, “Angelita, you need to be a friend to make a friend. Invite them. We’ll have a nice party and they will see you smile and they will know you. Just do it for me and you will see.”

“I don’t know about this,” said her sister Linda. “This has disaster written all over it.”

Angel paced the floor and broke out in a sweat. She looked down at her grandmother, her hands clasped at her chest as if in prayer, and she agreed to have the party. She immediately regretted it but she couldn’t back down.

On the day of the party, she begged her parents and her grandmother to disappear into the background before the guests arrived. They reluctantly agreed. The house was decorated with Christmas lights and a nativity scene and purple and yellow streamers. A big banner announced “HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANGEL” at the front door.

Angel was wearing a pink sequined top and a red taffeta skirt. Linda was dressed all in black. The other guest, wearing her best yellow party dress, was their 10-year-old cousin Rosie. The three girls sat in the living room, Christmas music blaring on the stereo. For over an hour they kept replaying the same three records over and over. Andy Williams was singing—again—“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” when Angel walked over to the stereo and pulled the plug out of the wall.

“How can he say that?” she cried. “For me it’s the most terrible time of the year. I hate my birthday. I hate Christmas. They all hate me and I hate my life.”

Her sister left, her cousin left, and Angel sat alone in the living room watching the lights blink on the Christmas tree. She noticed the heart-shaped ornament on the tree, an ornament on which her grandmother had lovingly embroidered “Angel 1948” the year she was born. And she wondered how her grandmother had controlled her own enthusiasm over the birthday party. Angel had fully expected her grandmother to sneak in to meet her “friends” but she never appeared.

Angel sang happy birthday to herself, cut a piece of cake, and put the cake on a poinsettia paper plate to bring to her grandmother. The old woman was not in her room. She wasn’t in the basement folding laundry. Angel called out to her, but her grandmother did not answer. She went into the garage and saw her grandmother on the floor under large metal storage shelves that had fallen on her. Angel dropped the cake and, as if she was only lifting a paper bag, lifted the shelves off of her grandmother.

“Angelita,” said her grandmother. “I knew you’d come for me. It’s another miracle!”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


This morning I was walking outside. The sky was bright blue, the changing leaves are in full color, and no trick or treater vandalized my car last night. Life is good. I breathed in, I breathed out, praying that I could learn to focus on life’s joys instead of the sorrows. And I realized that in difficult times my frail human nature causes me to question God’s wisdom. I wonder how He can allow such hardship. What kind of God would let His children suffer and die? How can an all-powerful God be so unfeeling to let there be war and famine and cancer and murder? Did He really intend for life to be so hard? How can I have trust in a God like that?

Yet when things are good I say that I have been blessed, that God is with me. I think He’s good when things are going my way.

Has God changed? Of course not. I am the one who changes. By nature, God is constant. He is good all the time and He is with me all the time, even when I doubt His existence or question His wisdom. I fail. God doesn’t.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fish chowder

It turned nasty cold here, mostly rain with some sloppy snow. It's the kind of weather that demands comfort food. So I tried to come up with something I could cook without going to the grocery store. I baked oatmeal raisin cookies. But one cannot (should not!) live by cookies alone, even home-baked cookies. I looked at a couple of online recipes for fish chowder and adapted. Most recipes don't use sole because sole is such a delicate fish that it falls apart in the chowder. But I had sole in the freezer and it worked but I think this would work even better with a less delicate white fish like cod or halibut.

Fish Chowder

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 new potatoes, sliced thin
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups vegetable stock
1 (8 ounce) can diced tomatoes
¼ cup shredded carrot
1 cup whole milk
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound white fish cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pinch cayenne pepper (about 1/8 teaspoon)

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and cook until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and garlic, and continue cooking until the potatoes have softened slightly, about 10 minutes.

Pour in the vegetable stock, tomatoes, and shredded carrots. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the milk, season to taste with salt and pepper, then stir in the fish. Add cayenne pepper. Continue simmering uncovered until the fish is flaky and no longer translucent in the center, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pumpkin soup

Thanks for reminding me about this recipe, Beth. It's a great one. Actually, I think I'll make it while I'm baking oatmeal raisin cookies. Then I can post a photo too.

Zesty Pumpkin Soup

Makes 6 cups

¼ cup butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic crushed
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper
3 cups chicken broth
1 ¾ cups (16 oz. can) solid pack pumpkin
1 cup half-and-half (can substitute whole milk)
Sour cream and chives (optional)

In large saucepan, melt butter. Sautė onion and garlic until soft.
Add curry powder, salt, coriander, and red pepper. Cook 1 minute.
Add broth. Boil gently uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes.
Stir in pumpkin and half-and-half (or milk). Cook 5 minutes.
Pour into blender and blend until creamy.
Serve warm or reheat to desired temperature.
Garnish with sour cream and chopped chives if desired.

(Note: I also have used toasted pumpkin seeds—pepitas—instead of sour cream as a garnish. And you don't  have to puree it in the blender if you don't care if it's super smooth. One less kitchen gadget to wash.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Going once, going twice

For the past few weeks I’ve pretty much been tethered to my house. I keep my appointments with my trainer and I go to the post office. That’s about it. I go to the post office almost every day because I've been home cleaning out excess stuff and selling it on eBay

I’m new to the eBay selling thing. I’ve sold a few pieces of silver Indian jewelry, things I never wear any longer that are just clogging up the system. eBay is addictive—you sell a thing or two then you start looking around the house for more things to sell. Pretty soon nearly everything is up for grabs.

Today I crossed into new territory. I sold my entire collection of Chuck Taylor All-Star shoes. I’m pacing the floor, wondering if I’m going to miss them now that I’m committed to sell them. I sold nine pairs of various-color Chucks (mostly high-tops) as a lot for over $80. Does it shock you to know that people will pay for someone else’s old sneakers? I sold the pristine John Lennon Peace Chucks, in the original box, for $50.

Chucks were sort of my signature shoes. No one knew I wore them with orthopedic inserts. They fostered my image of an aspiring blues-playing, crazy old lady. I’m still an old lady, getting older by the day. I’ve given up blues guitar for old-time banjo.

No more Chucks. It’s great to have an entire shelf open up in my closet and it’s nice to have the money but I think I’ve lost my image. ‘Tis more the pity.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Comforting beef

It's a glorious fall day here in Virginia. I could be thinking about how pleased I am that the holidays are coming soon, but I'm not. (Bah, humbug.) I could be thinking about building a fire in my fireplace. (I have a gas fireplace so I just push a button.) Or I could be thinking about comfort food. Of course! Just imagine all the comforting possibilities like macaroni and cheese, curries, split pea soup, comforting shredded beef. Comforting shredded beef?

This is a version of a recipe that I got from one of the old Silver Palate cookbooks. My son Nathan particularly loved this when he was growing up, maybe just because of the name. We never just called it beef, or pot roast, or slow-cooked meat. It was always known by its full original title—Comforting Shredded Beef. And so it is.

Comforting Shredded Beef

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
1 bottom round roast (approximately 4 pounds)
Salt and pepper
1 large sweet onion, sliced
½ cup Cognac
2 cups beef or rich vegetable broth
3 cups (approximately) full-bodied red wine (Chianti or Burgundy)

Heat oil and butter in a Dutch oven or slow cooker pot over medium heat. Sauté onion until soft and remove from pot.
Sprinkle roast with salt and pepper and brown on all sides in the oil and butter.
Pour Cognac into pan, warm it to a simmer, then light it with a match. Let it burn until flame dies out.
Pour in broth, ½ cup of the wine, and onion. Then cover and simmer over low heat for about 3 hours, adding additional wine so that there is always about 1 cup of liquid in the pot.
Remove from heat. When meat has reached room temperature, shred into small pieces. Return meat to the liquid in the pot and heat thoroughly.

Makes great hot beef sandwiches, or serve over rice.

Serves 6 to 8.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Primal urge

This morning I read a story in the Washington Post about how archeologists have discovered that ancient people seemed to have had an innate desire to express themselves using paint.* A hundred million years ago people in Africa were painting their faces or painting drawings on the walls of caves. (Maybe it was a hundred thousand years ago—I often get confused with zeros in large numbers. That could explain why I’m so disappointed when I find I have a couple hundred dollars in my bank account instead of a couple million.) Archeologists found clam shells and animal bones that were used for painting tools as well as paint made of ground ochre and charcoal, bone marrow, and minerals.

I wondered what has been compelling me to paint. Last week, while the weather was perfect painting weather, I painted my back gate with ochre and oxblood (redwood color alkyd paint) and patched and painted my deteriorating front door with chalk, petrified cedar roots, and boiled yak eyeballs (white alkyd paint).

But that was purely functional painting, just an effort to make my old wooden gate and my front door last through another winter. What about the urge to create?

I’ve been doing that too, feeling the fever to transform something with paint. My current thing is painting furniture using European chalk paint that I discovered. I got the inspiration, tracked down the supplies, watched some instructional videos, and read a couple of books. A little more than one week into this new obsession, I have finished three pieces—my kitchen table, a small Victorian plant stand that my mother just gave me, and an old pine drop-leaf side table with lovely spool legs. (I've posted the photo of the drop-leaf table, nearly done, still waiting for its final coat of wax.) I’m testing colors and wax techniques and varying how much I distress the pieces. There’s hardly a piece of furniture in my house that’s safe. And as soon as I finish a piece, I start looking at it again, wondering how it would work in another color, another technique.

I haven’t been to the grocery store in about three weeks and have barely left the house except for frequent trips to the paint store. (You should see my cool new wax brushes—I’m psyched.) What a great avocation for me—I can sit on the basement floor in grubby clothes. I can’t answer the phone because I’m covered in paint, wax, and dust. So I understand the primitive people sitting in their caves with their paint and their tools. I get them. It’s just what we feel compelled to do, to pull away from the world and create. Slightly different circumstances, but the same nonetheless. Eccentric hermits, aren't we all?

*See the original story online at

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pie and vodka

I’m not giving up on the pie crust thing, not going to let a little lard and flour conquer me. So I put enough pressure on myself not to fail again. I’m going to a potluck concert tonight and I’m bringing apple pie. This morning I went to the farmers market and found my favorite pie apples, apples that are only available here for a couple of weeks in the fall—Stayman Winesaps. Apple pie is about the only thing I can bring tonight. There is no other food in my house unless I decide to invent something with Cream of Wheat. (Actually, I was considering the options. Do you think Cream of Wheat could adapt to a savory dish? Kind of like a polenta thing? I could make curried Cream of Wheat with almonds and dried cranberries. What if I told them it was an Afghani dish from the tribal regions . . . probably not.)

Recently I became intrigued with a supposedly foolproof pie crust recipe that gave me reason for hope. The secret ingredient? Vodka. Here’s the thing—you have to beware of eating the raw crust dough. You know how there are all those little scraps and things that fly out of the food processor and you know they are unsanitary so you eat them raw to keep the kitchen clean? They have vodka in them. So in the middle of a lovely Saturday afternoon, I’m in the kitchen baking apple pie but I’m like a soused June Cleaver.

A number of foodie bloggers have written about this pie crust, originally from Cooks Illustrated. (Here’s the post from Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite bloggers  I made it in one big flop-over crust à la Martha Stewart and used Martha’s filling recipe for Bottom Crust Apple Pie.

The dough worked beautifully. It just came out of the oven. It smells incredible and it looks pretty darned good. Tonight we'll see how it tastes. Maybe vodka was the secret all along.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Calm in the storm

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28

Today Pastor Mark preached in the Book of Jonah, about how Jonah ran away from God and God came after him. Whoa, that was an eye opener! This God of ours is no wuss. How many times have I run away from God? At this point the count of my run-away episodes is just one less than the count of the times I’ve come back. Thankfully he is a forgiving God.

And how about the strategies I use to avoid God? I say I’m having issues with “organized religion” or that I’m too busy or I’m ignoring God because I’m angry with him. Or I get stuck in that flower child I’m-okay-you’re-okay version of faith, feeling that everyone has a valid point of view when it comes to truths about a higher power. The trouble with the I’m-okay-you’re-okay thing is that it keeps me swirling around in my own self-righteousness without any real convictions or accountability. And when trouble comes into my life—as it certainly does—and I’m only relying on myself, then I’m hanging on to thin air. Thin air doesn’t work well—I’ve tried it. I need God.

Consider what happened to Jonah. Jonah got cocky and ran in the opposite direction from God. Jonah thought he knew better. God had to send a whopper of a storm to get Jonah’s attention. And, as Pastor Mark said, God left no doubt about who is in control. God has sent me some whopper storms too and he finally got my attention. It is through storms and suffering that God reveals himself. If there were no troubles in my life, I would not have turned to him in desperation. If my self-sufficiency had been enough to survive life’s storms then I would not have learned the peace that comes through trust in God. God calms the storm.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


The Chesapeake Bay is a vital part of my family. My father grew up on the Bay, in a community called Neeld Estate and the Xander boys sailed on the Bay and ate what they could pull out of it. And they passed the love of the Bay to the next generation. For years my brother Mark and his family have lived on Kent Island, on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Every year in September, Mark's family hosted a huge Xander family crab feast at their house. But this past April, my brother Mark was murdered by his next-door neighbor in the front yard of that house on Kent Island. For the first time in many years, this year there was no Xander crab feast. So my sister and I spent the day around Annapolis, including eating crabcakes at a quiet little restaurant on the water. We talked about Mark, cried, and honored the strong bond of family. It was bittersweet.

So, in honor of my little brother, here's the crabcake recipe that I've been refining for at least 30 years. I hope he would approve.

Maryland Crab Cakes

1 lb. crabmeat (backfin is best) cleaned gently
¾ cup crushed saltines
1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
2 eggs beaten
½ cup finely chopped herbs (parsley, with a little green onion or chives)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce + dash Tabasco
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Mix all ingredients except crabmeat. Pour mixture over crabmeat and mix gently with wooden spoon.
Refrigerate for an hour before molding into crabcakes. Fry in pan with oil and butter. (Or spray lightly with olive oil and bake in 375 degree oven for 30 minutes, turning after 15 minutes.)

Four servings.

Serve with sauce—mayonnaise, Dijon, lemon juice and capers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Womanhood, piecrust, and Rachel's tomato tart

Last week I had come to the conclusion that I was a total failure as a woman. I was having people over for dinner and, as one final tribute to the waning days of summer, I planned to bake my once venerated lemon meringue pie. Total piecrust fail. Despite my respectful treatment of the unbaked crust, and despite my use of ceramic pie weights, the crust shrunk down like a . . . well, it shrunk down to a mere shadow of its former self. So I sprinkled the warm, shrunken crust with sugar and cinnamon and ate it. I felt obligated to hide the evidence of my failure, which of course was a yet another version of failure.

Then I called in the reserves. My friend Kath came down from Gettysburg and baked a piecrust suitable for the lemon meringue pie. It was a good pie but my feminine ego was crushed by my failure.

When I was in Seattle last month my daughter-in-law, Rachel, made an incredible heirloom tomato tart. Rachel is such a woman that she baked the tart for 3-year-old Theo’s picnic birthday party while carrying newborn Ignatius on her hip. So I got the recipe from Rachel and made the tart. It’s perfect—perfect crust, perfect filling, and simply beautiful. I feel like a woman again. Thanks, Rachel!

Rachel’s Heirloom Tomato Tart

1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flower
½ cup butter, cubed and chilled
1½ cups grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons ice water (or more, as needed)
½ cup grated parmesan cheese

11 ounces chevre
2 tablespoons cream
3 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped
½ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
6 medium heirloom tomatoes, uniform size
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt

Combine sea salt, flour, butter, and parmesan in a food processor and pulse quickly to get a sandy texture with some pea size pieces of butter. With a few more pulses, blend in the ice water. The dough should stick together when you pinch it between two fingers. Roll out dough to even rectangle and place in pan, pressing across the bottom and working towards the sides and up to form a rim. Chill the tart shell for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator and poke a few times with a fork. Cover the tart with parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dry beans. Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Take shell from oven, remove parchment paper and weights, return shell to oven, and bake for another 10 minutes, until deep golden brown. Remove and sprinkle with ½ cup shredded parmesan. Let cool completely.

In a medium bowl, combine the chevre, cream, basil, and black pepper, and place mixture in an even layer in the cooled pastry shell.

Slice the tomatoes and arrange in a nice pattern. Top with a drizzle of the olive oil, sea salt, and garnish with more fresh basil.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cobalt confession

It was the humane thing to do. I had to buy it to rescue it from the indignity of sitting on a shelf in the discount store.

It was dark outside, raining and windy. I should have been at home ironing napkins. But I went out to see if I could find a new bathroom rug like the old bathroom rug that got ruined when I spilled bleach on it. As I was walking through the back of the cluttered discount store I glanced down the cookware aisle. There among the cheese graters and the cheap Teflon frying pans I saw something blue and noble. I walked toward it, thinking it was going to be an inferior imitation, not the real thing. It was indeed the real thing—a Le Creuset cobalt blue buffet casserole, 12-inch diameter.

It was half the retail price, and even at that it was expensive for me, especially since I wasn’t planning the purchase. I paced up and down the aisle. I put it in my cart and walked around the store, thinking, thinking, examining my conscience. I flirted with the front of the store, wondering if I should put it back, when three Armenian men presumed I was in line and stood behind me. Or maybe they were Russian. That did it—I was afraid that the Armenian men would get the blue pan if I put it back on the shelf. I didn’t want them to take it back to Armenia and boil goat meat in it. They simply could not appreciate it.

So I bought it, all the while considering that it was returnable, that perhaps I could foster it for a few days until it was safe to bring it back to the store. I brought it home and washed it. I put it on top of my stove. I introduced it to the other cookware and noted that it looked especially beautiful next to its cousin, my beloved Le Creuset cobalt blue Dutch oven.

I just pulled out the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe for sole meunière and I think I have the perfect pan to cook it in.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Little Edie

This afternoon I was in the check-out line at the grocery store. The woman in front of me was chatting with me about the rag magazines near the check-out lines. She was buying fresh flowers and two huge party platters of fruit. She was beautifully coiffed and she was wearing a pressed white blouse, khaki slacks, and cute little flat shoes with flowers on them. I was buying twenty cans of cat food, cat litter, and a 3-way light bulb. I was wearing sweat pants, black clogs, and a black t-shirt covered with—what else?—cat hair.

My purchases rolled along on the belt and I had a sudden objective view of myself that made me shudder. I saw myself as a disheveled, crazy old cat lady.

Last week I watched an old documentary film, Grey Gardens, about a mother and daughter, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who lived in a run-down, formerly grand house in East Hampton. They lived in squalor with a bunch of free-range cats on their beds and raccoons in the attic. The mother (Edith Bouvier Beale—Big Edie) and the daughter (Edith Bouvier Beale—Little Edie) were beyond weird. Were they totally nuts or just incredibly eccentric? Probably both nuts and eccentric. I felt almost hypnotized watching Little Edie, a former debutante and failed actress, who wrapped her head in turbans that appeared to be made out of drapery panels and old sweaters. She paraded through the film in a variety of costumes, danced, marched, and hammed it up for camera close-ups. And she tore up entire loaves of Wonder Bread to feed to the resident raccoons. There was a mountain of empty cat food cans in the corner of the living room.

Lord help me, I’m turning into Little Edie.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A love incorruptible

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with a love incorruptible.
Ephesians 6:24

Pastor Mark has been preaching on Ephesians for months and months—the theology, the discussion of the roles of parents and children and husbands and wives, and the whole armor of God section. But, to me the final blessing contains the most simple, beautiful words in the entire book of the Bible—“with a love incorruptible.”

For us human beings, love seems painfully corruptible. Though parents usually have good intentions, they love their children imperfectly. Misguided intentions and the weight of worldly obligations can drive a wedge between parent and child. Husbands and wives get side-tracked by selfishness, lust, or boredom and fail to live up to the expectations and promises made on their wedding day. Even the idea of loving one’s neighbor continually falls short. We are human, far from perfect, and we never seem to achieve that incorruptible love. By its nature, life corrupts.

So how do I learn how to love that way? The example of Jesus is how I learn. He lived a perfect, sinless life and he gave his life for my salvation. That is a love incorruptible.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Loss of innocence

“For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
Ecclesiastes 1:18

I really am not fond of that passage from Ecclesiastes. It’s enough to make a person eschew knowledge. (Does it seem like I just got an assignment to use the word eschew in a sentence? I could have said avoid but I’m feeling rather pretentious in a wordy way and I’ve chosen to use the word eschew. That’s the problem with having a blog of my own—there’s no one to stop me. Tis more the pity.)

So I read that passage from Ecclesiastes about knowledge increasing sorrow and I kept thinking of Robert Preston in The Music Man, singing about the sadder-but-wiser girl:

I snarl, I hiss: How can ignorance be compared to bliss?
I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is.
I cheer, I rave for the virtue I'm too late to save
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.
Is ignorance bliss? What happens when we realize that life will never be what we expected it to be? Does it harden us when we truly understand the fallible nature of humankind?  Does it diminish our own spirits when we learn that we can’t trust our fellow human beings?

Ten years ago today, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at work at my office outside of Washington, DC. The airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. A plane flew into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania. We heard a rumor that a bomb had exploded near the White House. And my first thought was, is John okay? I prayed, please, Lord, let him be okay. John was my ex-husband and he worked near the White House. We had an ugly divorce, yet from my heart, my first concern was about him. Fast forward. . . . he was unhurt on September 11, 2001, but died three years later from brain cancer.

I know this sounds like I need serious medication—I’m mixing Ecclesiastes, Robert Preston, 9-11, and my former husband. But it makes sense to me in that swampy mess inside my head. It’s about a loss of innocence. Scripture tells us that with knowledge comes sorrow. This sadder-but-wiser girl wanted to believe that the world was a safe place, that no terrorist plot could ever reach American soil. This sadder-but-wiser girl wanted to believe that guy met girl, they fell in love, they married, had a happy family, and did not part ‘til death. This sadder-but-wiser girl didn’t want to lose her innocence. This sadder-but-wiser girl didn't want to know that there is grief in wisdom.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


“You can't run away from things, Siddalee. You've got to stay in this house where your life is. Don't you think I want to run off and hide in a bookmobile or join the circus? We all do. But we have responsibilities.”

—from Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells

Doggonit, I do want to run away from home. The woes of the world are weighing heavy on me, especially the death of my brother. Funny how sometimes I go through the days, doing the mundane things of life, and it doesn’t sink in that my brother was murdered. And then it hits me again—that in early April he was senselessly shot and killed. He’s gone and I’ll never see him again. Sometimes it’s just too real—like now.

Rationally I know that I can’t run far enough, that I just have to be present, to stand firm and take the blows of grief. I know that life is fragile and sometimes sorrowful. I know that I have a responsibility to my family, to myself, and to God to endure. But I’d love to hide in a bookmobile or join the circus. Just in case, maybe I should learn to walk on a tightrope or swallow fire or something.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Southern style tomato sauce with pasta

My friend Kathy’s brother is in the final days of his life and has been put into hospice care. They asked him what he wanted to eat. His choice—liver and onions and banana cream pie. What? They can give me liver and onions and banana cream pie if I’m dying and I’m totally unconscious. Can’t you just see those hospice people pureeing liver and onions, throwing in a pie, and putting it in my feeding tube? I really don’t want to go to my maker having just eaten liver and onions. It would be my version of hell.

The whole idea of food for terminal illness got me to thinking about what I would really want to eat, presuming I wanted to eat at all on my death bed. If I can request music for my funeral then surely I can request food for before my funeral. (I’ll come back to haunt you if you play any of the following at my funeral: Amazing Grace, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, or Country Roads. Given time to think, I’ll probably add to the list of banned songs.)

So here’s one of my most perfect recipes, what I could eat every day, including my final meal:

Southern Style Tomato Sauce with Pasta

1 32 ounce jar Rao marinara sauce
1 stick unsalted butter (or more to taste)
1 pound imported capellini
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (not the stuff in the green can!)

Warm the marinara sauce over low heat. Meanwhile, cook the capellini in boiling salted water until cooked al dente. Drain the pasta. Add butter to sauce until it just starts to melt. Put cooked capellini onto a platter, pour marinara sauce on top, and add grated Parmesan.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mucous train like a snail

Inspired by the last day of August, a freewriting exercise . . . choose a line from a book, eyes closed, and just write, working up to the line.

The Dog of the South—Charles Portis, p. 124

“The old man left a mucous train behind him like a snail.”

“Maveen! Maveen!” he shouted, “get down here and find me a switch so I can beat your scrawny ass.” Maveen and I were sitting on the roof again, trying to see if we could get a glimpse of the big cargo ships sailing up the channel toward the port in Baltimore. Maveen didn’t have a scrawny ass and soon as her daddy hollered for her to find a switch he’d forget what he was mad about. Everyone called her daddy Young Chester or Big C but he was neither young nor big. He was a runt of a man, old as the hills, and purely mean, but in his old age Big C forgot what made him so mean. Still, out of habit, he yelled and threatened Maveen just so he could blow off steam. Maveen said she wasn’t sure how old her daddy was but he lost his arm fighting in the big war and was a widower twice over when he married Maveen’s mother, Ada, who was only 16 at the time. We figured he had to be at least 50 years older than his teenaged bride. It was a big town scandal when Big C and Ada got married—a shotgun wedding no less. Big C gained the loud disapproval of the town’s women and the unspoken esteem of the town’s men. In a small town like that no one’s sins were kept secret. Maveen had a crush on a merchant marine who called himself Ace. Ace was working a big cargo ship out of Baltimore. Maveen had met him down at the beach early in the summer. She gave Ace a huge shark’s tooth—the pride of her daddy’s collection—just because he admired it so. He told her he would hang it on a chain around his neck, that it would be near his heart to keep remind him of her. Maveen ate up that sweet talk. She was sure she was in love. Ace sent her occasional postcards from ports in Africa and he promised he was going to see her as soon as he got back to Baltimore. He wrote that he would be back sometime in late summer, so around about the first of August she made me sit with her for hours, scanning the bay for the cargo ship that she was certain she would recognize. Just before Labor Day I was sure that all the waiting and pacing and sitting on the roof had finally made her crazy. She swore that one of those big ships—the one with the big orange stripe on the hull—was Ace’s ship. She said he flashed her some sort of signal from the deck. I couldn’t talk any sense into her and I couldn’t convince her to wait until she heard from Ace. She insisted that he was in port and she was going to get to him before she had to wait one minute longer. She grabbed a six-pack of National Bohemians and a bucket of ice and sat them at the feet of her daddy who was sitting on the back porch. He chuckled and said, “You do something wrong, Maveen? You trying to make up to me for something?” She said, “No, Daddy, not at all. I just thought you looked thirsty.” He drained one after the other and his head began to nod just as the sun slipped behind the pine trees. She grabbed the keys off the hook in the kitchen and headed for her daddy’s truck in the side yard. Big C was old and drunk and had just one arm but he caught up with her before she could get the truck into drive. He jumped off the porch and reached through the truck window and grabbed the steering wheel. “Just where you think you’re going, missy?” Big C didn’t know that Maveen was as strong as he was and nearly as mean. She pushed the door open as hard as she could, smashing her daddy in the face and knocking him to the ground. She floored the ignition and flew down the driveway, spewing gravel in her wake. He pulled himself out of the dirt and hobbled after the truck in vain. The old man left a mucous train behind him like a snail.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


My children have made me proud in so many ways. But the best thing they have ever done for me is to give me grandchildren. I have five now and I've spent most of August visiting with them in Telluride and Seattle. Here they are in order of birth.

This is Scarlet. She is five years old, she lives in Seattle, and she just started school today!

This is Lucy. She lives in Austin and she is going to be five years old on September 10th.

This is Harper. She lives in Austin and she's going to be five years old on September 10th also. Isn't that an amazing coincidence?

This is Theo and he lives in Seattle. Theo just turned three a few days ago and we had a birthday picnic for him on Lake Washington.

This is Ignatius, born two months ago, the newest addition to the Seattle contingent of grandbabies. Aren't they fabulous?

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I’m feeling bad for parsnips. Parsnips are America’s least favorite vegetable. I don’t detest parsnips, but truthfully I haven’t paid much attention to them and don’t think they’ve ever been on my shopping list. So now I feel like I’m part of the problem. Parsnips aren’t pretty; they’re not the sexy darlings of trend-setting foodies; they’re just lowly root vegetables.

This information about the popularity of vegetables came out in a poll by Consumer Reports this year. Here’s a summary of the vegetables American like and dislike.

The most popular vegetables were:
§          lettuce
§          tomatoes
§          carrots
§          potatoes (not sweet potatoes)
§          broccoli
§          corn
§          peppers

By contrast, the least popular vegetables were:
§          parsnips
§          Swiss chard
§          bok choy
§          turnips and rutabagas
§          artichokes
§          eggplant
§          okra

Parsnips were the biggest loser—87 percent said they rarely or never ate them. Parsnips lost out to okra? I thought the slime factor would have put okra at the top of the least popular list. I've cooked with everything else on the unpopular list, and lest you think I'm prejudiced against unattractive root vegetables, I must confess that I'm a bit of a rutabaga fanatic. I guess I just don’t understand my fellow countrymen and their vegetable preferences. Frankly, I thought potatoes would be on the top of the popular list. Isn’t this the supersized nation that eats a ton of French fries per capita each year?

I’m trying to do my part to rescue the humble parsnip from the top of the hated vegetable list. So I found a recipe for a parsnip side dish that sounds delish. Please note that I haven’t made this dish yet, but I’m going to look for parsnips at the farmers market and try it. Soon, I promise. (I have not been compensated by the National Parsnip Advisory Board for this product endorsement.)

Sauteed Parsnips and Carrots with Honey and Rosemary
(source Bon Appetit, November 2007)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound carrots (about 4 large), peeled, cut into 3¼ by ¼ inch pieces
1 pound large parsnips, peeled, halved lengthwise, cored, cut into 3¼ by ¼ inch pieces
Coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 ½ tablespoons honey (such as heather, chestnut, or wildflower)
3 ounces sliced pancetta (optional)

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add carrots and parsnips. Sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and pepper. Sauté until vegetables are beginning to brown at edges, about 12 minutes. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.

Add butter, rosemary, and honey to vegetables. Toss over medium heat until heated through and vegetables are glazed, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with more salt and pepper, if desired. 

Optional: To add richness, sauté three ounces sliced pancetta until crisp; crumble over before serving.

NOTE: Carrots can take a bit longer to cook than parsnips, so if the carrots are large and mature, sauté them for a minute or two to soften slightly before adding the parsnips.