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.