Of Soup and Love

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“Of soup and love, the first is better.” — Spanish Proverb

 

It’s been cold for days. It’s the end of the month, which means both groceries and money are short. But there’s a chicken in the freezer and soup seems like a good idea.  My mother made a chicken soup and rice when I was growing up; it was an excellent soup for tea and sympathy.

Years ago, in the unending quest to make chicken soup interesting, I concocted a recipe which has become one of the standards here: whole chicken, well-salted, simmered until tender. Remove the carcass, add chili powder, cumin, sriracha, blend to incorporate schmaltz and broth.  Pick chicken. Set aside the cartilage, skin, and nasty little parts for the dogs. Return the meat to the broth, add corn, diced red pepper, vidalia onion, garlic, beans, cilantro and rice. Serve with diced avocado, shredded manchengo cheese, more chopped fresh cilantro.

It’s a good night for it, and it makes a huge pot of food and sustains our little family for several days.

Given that I was wrestling pigs in mud (well, really, I was handling people being obtuse, but it might as well have been pigs in mud) I asked my beloved if he would mind putting the chicken in the pot to start. He swears he added salt, but I think he must have been distracted. He kept rushing the pot outdoors to the nearly-zero temperature so it would cool quickly. My God, we’ve developed hang-ups about food safety regarding chicken.

The carcass is cooked to the point of disintegration. No big deal, it will be more like a chicken stew. I chop and slice, open cans and bags of vegetables, add the rice and go to read. Occasionally, wandering through the kitchen, I give it a stir, add a bit of something. An unsalted chicken is a tall hurdle to cross.

Along the way I am distracted. When I come back to check, the rice has cooked nearly to porridge, a kind of Chinese jook. Not my preference, but it will be okay. But when I begin to stir, I realize that the rice has scorched to the bottom.

Now the members of my husband’s tribe make a scorched rice soup– it’s called something like “fahn-del” — that may not be right– it always makes me think of a baby’s “fontanelle” when he mentions it. He used to claim to be making scorched rice soup every time he burned the rice in one of my saucepans.  Eventually we bought a rice cooker.

So now there is a slight scorched taste to the soup, but adding more sriracha and cilantro masks it well enough. Elmer doesn’t mind. Later, when I lift the lid to show our son that there was a pot of soup, I see that it is full of something that looked like blackened cornflakes floating on the surface.

“Did you scrape up the scorched rice from the bottom of the pot?” I ask him. He nods vigorously, smiling. “It’s good that way.”

For you, maybe.

He may well be Chinese-American, but he was born and brought up in Los Angeles, and grew up eating hot dogs and fried chicken along with the traditional dishes his mother made. Why on earth would he think that we would want to eat soup with scorched black rice bits floating in it? For a moment I wonder if it was some kind of passive-aggressive nonsense, but another carryover from growing up Chinese is the inability to waste food. (“I’ll just scrape the mold off, it will be fine.”) So he wouldn’t set out to ruin a pot of soup for the rest of us just to be bloody minded.

Julian heats up some frozen taquitos.

There’s a maple yogurt in the fridge, I can add some granola to it.

 

 

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A Second Cup of Tea

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Last year, I decided that I wanted something different for the new year– not resolutions which seemed doomed to failure and designed to inspire self-loathing– but something else, a kind of “to do” list. Not a bucket list, with its solemn life-changing scope, something smaller. What I came up with was a “tea-cup list“.

On the original list, there were 15 items. I achieved 7 of them:  I did renew my passport and I did leave the country. I bought a kitchen torch, I took Ransom to the beach, I spent more time with friends. I threw away my old tired undies, I explored more, I kissed more.

But the living room ceiling is still without gilt, I didn’t get to Kitty Hawk, I haven’t been riding, though I did take a carriage in Central Park.  I didn’t take the train to the Library of Congress, and I didn’t find a place to swim.  The fireplace still needs tile, and I haven’t learned to make a pie crust– though I found a restaurant in West Milton, Ohio that makes the most wonderful pie, so maybe I can cross that off instead. I am not writing five days a week and that does vex me.

I still want to get to all of those things, but they won’t make this year’s list.  Oh, perhaps you will catch a glimpse of one or two here or there.  But it is a new year and I have new things, and new-old things I want to try. And as with last year’s, I post these not because I think you have any particular interest in how I plan to make my year, but in hope that it may inspire you to make plans for some fun of your own.

 

Tea for 2015

1.  Two finished chapters by March 1.

I’ve been spinning my wheels on this long enough. The research is always fun, but the weight of what I need to do has begun to tax me. It’s time to get those chapters written, the outline polished, the pitch made perfect. In March I want to begin to sell the book.  (And while this sounds a bit like a resolution and I am resolved to make it happen, it is finally, a gift to myself to move forward.) 

 

2.  French doors to the study.

There are two sets of vintage French doors in the garage. And a five-foot wide opening into my study through which sail dogs, husband, children and the like. I love my family, truly, but if I can’t close the door, they interrupt, and if they interrupt I don’t get any work done. See item 1. 

 

3.  Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts is safe, thank God. I had planned to go and visit when it was in danger of being raffled off to cure the city’s bankruptcy.  The imminent threat has been abated, but I still want to get to the Motor City to explore restaurants and make photographs of another great American city and poke around the art museum and see my friends Ed and Jerry over there in Windsor. 

 

4.  A few nights at the Elizabeth City Bed & Breakfast

When the Wrights went to the Outer Banks to try their Flyer, the train took them to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They stayed in the Southern Hotel there while waiting for the weekly freight boat to Kitty Hawk. The Southern is long gone, but the quaint and charming Elizabeth City B & B is in an old inn that was the Southern’s contemporary. I think there’s a pillow there with a mint on it for me. 

 

5.  Chincoteague

I want to go and see the ponies. It’s not so far. 

 

6.  Finish early

This one is even more like a resolution, but my relationship with deadlines is a toxic one. It makes me anxious and cranky, and I could just be a lot kinder to myself by not letting it go so long. I will try. 

 

7.  Swim nearly every day.

What a luxury, and one within the realm of possibility. I would not have modified it to “nearly”, and could have planned to swim every day but I know my own life well enough that my best hope is four or five days a week. 

 

8.  Hang every picture in the house. On freshly painted walls.

I have many wonderful paintings and photographs and the like that are stacked in closets and up against walls and packed in boxes. It’s time to hang them so I can enjoy them. Some of the walls need a new coat of paint first. I’ve got the paint, I just need to set aside the time to make it happen.

 

9.  Rookwood Pottery. A single tile. 

Rookwood Pottery is functioning again. I told my husband I’d like a bear for my birthday. Perhaps I’ll get my wish. But really I’d like to go and look at tiles and see them made and perhaps buy just one, and use that one splendid tile for the focus of the surround that the living room fireplace has needed since we moved in. Eight years ago. 

 

10.  Go to the zoo and visit the lions.

I love the lions at the Cincinnati Zoo. There are new cubs. It’s not so far, nor so expensive. I just like to sit quietly and watch, it’s good for the soul.  I’ve never been sorry to spend an afternoon there. 

 

11.  Have a lobster roll.

My most favorite food. I don’t know where I’ll get this lobster roll. It doesn’t seem all that likely I’ll get to the Maritimes two summers running. But maybe. Revere Beach is closer. And if it comes down to brass tacks, I’ll make one for myself. 

 

12.  Resurrect the Suburban.

Poor Suburban, our work truck, gasping for fuel, the front passenger seat torn asunder where the dog lost his mind one afternoon. There’s a spot on the roof with a bit of rust. It’s sat in the driveway so long now that the remote won’t work. But it wouldn’t take so much to put it all to right, and once again have a rig that will carry sheet rock, plywood, garden soil, straw bales, dog crates, storage tubs and furniture. I miss it, I miss sitting a bit higher than the rest of the traffic. I miss its limousine qualities. It’s a worthwhile endeavor to bring it back. 

 

13.  Winnow

Like everybody, I’ve got too much stuff. Some of this stuff I don’t even really like. It’s time to pitch it. Ditto the spices I’ve been carrying around since I was a sophomore in college. The shoes I will never ever wear again. Some of the ways I squander my time. Friends who aren’t friends. Clothes that make me feel self-conscious. Books that I haven’t read and won’t read or those I’ve read once and won’t ever read again. Music I don’t like. VHS tapes.

 

14.   Go to the movies.

I like the movies. There’s a first run cinema here where you can see them for five dollars a pop on Wednesdays. I just need to make a point to go. I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie in a theater. It might have been a decade ago.

 

15.  Keep being grateful.

This autumn I made a point to count my blessings– three a day for a hundred days. I’ve finished that exercise and it was a good one. I’m so very glad I did it, even though I’m –um– grateful that I no longer have to do it such a formal fashion. But it did change me in a profound way. I learned to look for the silver lining, to note the things that made me feel happy or joyous or content instead of just letting those slide.  The glass is more beautiful when it is half full.

 

 

No Thanks.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 1.11.05 AM It’s my least favorite holiday.  I don’t think I really knew that, or even examined the question fully until today, but the verdict is clear. I’d rather just skip Thanksgiving. I believe that the grateful life is a healthy life, and that counting one’s blessings is a worthy use of time. I’ve made it Day 73 (so far) of delineating three different things I’m thankful for each and every day for a hundred days. It’s not that. I am grateful.

But this holiday . . . this holiday gets me down.

I was an only child and we lived 800 miles away from extended family.  In Ohio, my great Aunt Della was famous for her thanksgiving feasts. But I was never a guest there. I remember fish fries in the summer, and sauerbraten and homemade noodles,  and at Christmas the fudge she used to send through the mail. But I never had a chance to bow my head for prayer at her Thanksgiving table.

Nor at my Nana’s house in South Carolina. I’m sure there were Thanksgiving traditions there, but I don’t know what they were. I couldn’t even speculate. I know the fried chicken and the green beans and the macaroni and cheese and the pound cake. But Thanksgiving? I haven’t a clue.

I do remember one childhood Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a family friend:  roast goose,  Asti Spumante, Doberman Pinschers nosing around my lap for whatever I might slip them.

Then, a divorce, and we moved to England, where Thanksgiving is some foreign holiday, and the fourth Thursday in November passes without comment.  Later, in Canada, we again had Thanksgiving, but it’s the second Monday in October, celebrating the harvest and somehow cleaner, without the  bloodied history of European interaction with tribal nations. (Not that Canada doesn’t have it’s own brutal history, it’s just not that history.)

To Boston for college, and a hasty marriage one morning just prior to Christmas.  The month before my mother and stepfather came to visit for Thanksgiving,  but Bob was due for an extended family gathering at his grandmother’s house on the north shore. We delivered him there, met everyone, shook hands all around and left. Later, Bob said,  his sweet grandmother felt terrible for not asking us to join them, she’d been so flustered, there was plenty of food. But we went away and drove along the Massachusetts coast until we found someplace open. A dining room that looked out over the cold gray sea, where I ate tinned chowder and cringed under my stepfather’s harangue at not being asked to stay.

Of course, I was also rebuked for not taking more time off to be with them; but working in retail there were no days off the weekend after Thanksgiving, and we could be sure that those days were going to be utter hell.

Mind you, Thanksgiving itself is big business in Boston. Plimoth Plantation, which was developed around the site of the original colony has been a major tourist draw since 1947. It tries to present a picture of both the immigrant and indigenous cultures and you can still eat “America’s Thanksgiving Dinner” there for $93. Each. (Or $68, if you want to re-enact the 1621 dinner with  “A Sallet, Mussels Seeth’d with Parsley and Beer, a Dish of Turkey, Sauc’d, a Pottage of Cabbage, Leeks & Onions, and a Sweet Pudding of Native Corn.”)

Set off for Montana on my own some years later and I remember weeping when they played “American the Beautiful” on the radio.  Amber waves of grain, purple mountain’s majesty, fruited plains– yes! Finally, a place where Thanksgiving meant a connection to the earth.

Reality was that I married a lovely man with two young daughters. Every holiday was a cause for a fight with his ex-wife over where the girls would land, and Thanksgiving was no different. If we had them for Thanksgiving, we missed Christmas morning. And it wasn’t up to us to decide.

But working at a newspaper there in Montana I helped create the most rewarding Thanksgiving I’d experienced. While doing a human interest story on Meals on Wheels, we discovered that they didn’t deliver on Thanksgiving. Restaurants weren’t open on Thanksgiving. If you had nowhere to go that last Thursday in November, you were out of luck.

So we set about hosting an all-volunteer free Thanksgiving dinner for the community, citing of course, the communal nature of that first Thanksgiving. My friend Sheryl cooked the 90 turkeys on the rotating racks of her enormous bakery oven. The head chef from a nearby resort came to organize the kitchen. Food poured in, money poured in, volunteers came out in droves. No one was asked to prove their need. They only needed to want to be there with all of us. The District Judge gave the opening prayer. We fed 700 people.

The next year, we did it again. My father and his wife were on hand for that one, and again, it went splendidly. The next night, over dinner in Livingston’s best restaurant, my father lit into me for my lack of self-discipline. When I tried to defend myself (“I write 5000 words a week for publication, Dad. That takes some self-discipline”) he roared at me that he wanted some respect. I got up and walked out, happy Thanksgiving.

We did the Community Thanksgiving Dinner until 2001, when the events of 9-11 tapped out everyone’s last dime for charity. There was not enough money, or energy leftover to give locally.

Years later, we came home one winter evening to find three turkeys standing in the driveway. Live turkeys. They looked a bit like wild turkeys, but turned out to be Bourbon Reds that belonged to the neighbors. We were welcome to them, the neighbors said.

Apparently they’d acquired 4 turkey chicks in the spring and named them Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Easter. Apparently “Thanksgiving” had put up such a ruckus at becoming the centerpiece of the holiday meal, the neighbors had lost interest in going through all that again.

Turkeys are funny animals.  These three– two toms and a hen– liked to sit on the ridge line of the  barns, or atop the chimneys like storks.  They slept in the barn at night, bedding down in the straw with the ponies.  They’d greet you in the morning and run to meet the car when we came home in the afternoon. They would cluck and coo and gobble as they made their way around the farm.

One day Edward the dog got loose and caught and savaged the two toms. I wanted to kill him, I really did. I was ready to load him up and head for the veterinarian. My son Julian, then about 8, wept and pleaded and argued Edward’s case until I gave in. I picked up the poor beleaguered carcasses, wrapped them in a sheet and set them in the back of the pick-up. I knew my husband would put them in the green dumpsters; there’s no burying anything in the Montana winter.

The hen mourned. I would watch her sitting alone on the barn roof. She wouldn’t go inside anymore. She turned away from the grain I brought her. With temperatures predicted to plunge to 20 below, I brought her into the mudroom of the house. She threw herself against the door. I let her out. In the morning I found her frozen to death in the snow.

It was a long time before I could face the carcass of a turkey on a platter. The next Thanksgiving we had a rib roast.

Late in August of 2005 my father came to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to recover from laryngeal cancer. In the inexorable march over the next three months he scheduled people to come and visit. We sent an email– offering to travel from Montana to Missouri for Thanksgiving, thinking one last chance to do this right– but our offer was refused. He’d already scheduled his wife’s son Michael and Michael’s family for Thanksgiving instead. Absent was any message of inclusion. He died the day after Christmas.

Two years later we moved to Ohio,  and finally we had a shot at a real Thanksgiving with extended family– my 90-something-year-old grandmother, aunt and uncles. their families gathered at my uncle’s house. One year I brought the sublime macaroni and cheese I’d learned how to make from my southern Nana, and no one touched it.

But for the most part, these were happy gatherings, with pickles and noodles and turkey and ham and salads and a kid’s table and plenty of wine and conversations that went on long into the night. Then my grandmother died, and we met only one more time for the holiday.  This year my Uncle tells me that the main event at his house is a “quarter pound mixed-meat hot dog and curly fries.” He did have cranberry juice for breakfast.  I tell him that we need to be better organized.

We had a quiet thanksgiving here. We weren’t in the mood to cook, and the oven is broken anyway. We thought we’d just get by with burgers today. But the burger place was closed. You can’t buy a burger on Thanksgiving, but you can buy a big screen television. Or an iPad. Or whatever Macy’s and Kohl’s and Target is selling; the hordes out there trampling each other for deals hours after being grateful for what they already have.

Thanksgiving is marked at our house this year with bacon and eggs and hash-browns. Perhaps it’s better to just be thankful every day and never mind the rest of it.

The Tea Cup List

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For years, in the quiet hours before New Year’s festivities, I dutifully crafted a list of resolutions, usually on the flyleaf of a brand new journal.  They ran the gamut from good thinking  (“Be comfortable in your own skin”) to the painful (“Find a good man”) to the absurd (“Publish that book of poems.”) Almost without exception they became instead a list of failures, mocking me each time I opened the journal. Good God, who needs that to start the new year? Or any time. Eventually I gave up making resolutions (and became comfortable in my own skin and found a good man) — for that matter I gave up keeping journals: much time is wasted contemplating one’s own belly button.

When I turned 50, it seemed like the right time to make a bucket list, so I did. It’s a good list and it’s holding up well. But a Bucket List is like a Lifetime Achievement award, a road map for the things you’d like to eventually accomplish. Some of them are less practical for the short term.

Last week while making quiche I thought, “this year I’m going to teach myself to make a pie crust that is both dependable and delicious.” This thought was soon followed by another: what else would I like to accomplish in the coming year? The usual self-castigating cast of characters danced their way across my consciousness. “Lose weight!” they sang. “Write every day!” they crooned. “Get your thank you notes sent promptly!” rang out the chorus.  No, no, no. Those are all worthwhile and virtuous. But I want something else. Something fun.

Like a bucket list, but smaller and more immediate. And thus, dear friends, we have it. The Tea Cup List. (And many thanks to my dear friend, Fran Menley, for supplying the name of my wonderful new list for the New Year.)  I hasten to add here that I’m not posting this because I think that you are all so fascinated with what I’d like to do in the year to come, but because I think some of you might want to borrow this idea to make your own happy plans for the new year.

Larkin’s Tea Cup List for 2014

1. Gild the living room ceiling.

I bought the paint for this nearly two years ago. The previous owners of the house painted every surface of the living room a kind of golden ochre, in flat paint. The color works, but the texture is wrong.

2. Throw away all my old tired undies.

You know the ones. A little hole here or there, a stretched out elastic, that pair that was never comfortable. I can either buy new or go without. 

3.  Spend more time with friends.

Facebook alone is not good enough, especially when you compare it to a great meal together or time spent on a treasure hunt. For Trisch, who wrote to say “Come see me in L.A.” and Pam, who wants to share lobster rolls again on PEI, I’m intending to include you in this. Distances may be long, but the will is there. 

4. Go riding once in awhile.

I miss horses. I don’t want to own one again, but I’d love to be  seeing the world through the ears of a horse. 

5. Buy a kitchen torch and use it.

This is actually related to something on my Official Bucket List, which was to make a Baked Alaska, or just eat one. In any case, having a torch is useful. 

6. Take Ransom to the beach.

My Chesapeake Bay Retriever will be 11 in June. He needs another trip to the beach.  We live in Ohio, so the beach is something to be pondered;  though Lake Erie is not that far. There’s always  his ancestral homeland, the Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps I can combine it with Number 7. 

7.  Go to Kitty Hawk.

I’m writing a book about Orville Wright, and I live in the Omphalos of Aviation history. But I have to go to Kitty Hawk all the same. I wish I could take the train there, as he and Wilbur did, but alas, those days are gone. I can however . . . 

8. Take the train to the Library of Congress

The train goes from Cincinnati to Washington for less money than it costs to drive. I figure if I get a room at a hostel and don’t take a car, I can walk to the Library to do the research and I won’t be so tempted to waste time goofing off.  Which brings me to 9…

9. Write Five Days a Week

I am a writer, goddammit. It is my job to write.  This may seem to be one of the Mean Fairies of Resolution, but sometimes just defining how you’re going to do something is an enormous boon to doing it. Plus which, I get two days off. 

10.  Renew my passport, and go.

It makes me uncomfortable, almost itchy, that my passport has expired. Time to get a new one– let’s see, passport number five. Canada is not that far away. 

11.  Find a place to swim.

The old YMCA downtown has a wonderful pool, done up in 1920s Egyptian-inspired tile. Time to join. I bet my friend Martha will go with me. 

12. Re-tile the fireplace in the living room.

Speaking of tile. Our house was built in 1913, as Dayton was recovering from a godawful flood. (And yes, it’s built in the flood plain; which strikes me as a wonderful faith and foolishness combined). Over the years it’s been both well-tended and utterly neglected. The previous owners bought it for a dollar from the city. They did a lot of wonderful work in terms of restoration, but some things were a miss– like the dusty pink bathroom tile they used on the fireplace surround. It’s designed to have tile, just not that tile. 

13. Kiss more.

This is a philosophical position. I don’t have to be quite so prickly. 

14. Explore more.

There are so many things left to discover ’round these parts that it still feels like we just moved here. It’s been nearly six years.  Long past time to make time to see flea markets, abandoned watercraft, draft horse farms, haunted places, coonhound gatherings, caverns, dives, and museums of the obscure. I want to go to Henry’s and eat pie. 

15 .  Learn to make a pie crust that is dependable and delicious.

How to Make an Egg Sandwich

 

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First of all, you need a gas range. If you don’t have a gas range, please go out and get one. Making an egg sandwich requires the immediacy of “heat there – heat gone” that only the flame can provide. If you have an electric stove, and you insist on using it, well, okay, you can make an egg sandwich on that, but it will not be as good.

I learned to make this sandwich as a child watching my father do it, and in my heart I carried with me that method, both observed and instructed, like a kind of religious ritual. Thirty-five years later my father offered to make me the sandwich, and I was pleased and excited. Once again, I was going to have an egg sandwich made at the hands of the master! Imagine my shock and surprise, my downright dismay, when he didn’t make it right. He mixed up the eggs in the pan on the heat, it was stunning. He even added pickle relish to his own sandwich.

To properly make an egg sandwich you need five items: eggs, salt, white bread, mayonnaise and butter. (No you cannot use margarine, spreads, olive oil or anything else. It has to be butter.) For years I made this sandwich with Miracle Whip, but it contains High Fructose Corn Syrup, so I’ve gone to using mayo, it’s better for you.

No doubt you’ve seen those insidious ads that suggest High Fructose Corn Syrup is “all natural” and “nutritionally the same as table sugar.” They’re like those cigarette ads from the fifties that proclaimed smoking was “Healthy!” “Good for you!” Recommended by Doctors!” High Fructose Corn Syrup is a sweetener in which the caloric content has been used up through processing, it provides no cellular fuel at all. It may be all natural, but it leaves all natural fatty deposits in your liver. No thanks. But I digress. We like Hellman’s for mayonnaise, as it is a bit tangier and more like Miracle Whip in taste.

Clearly, this is not an egg salad sandwich, and technically, it is not a fried egg sandwich. A fried egg sandwich would be something akin to the burger my stepfather used to order at the lunch counter of the Linkletter Hotel . . . three patties of beef, three slices of cheese stacked in a bun, with a sunny-side up egg on top. He ate this sandwich continental style with a knife and fork.

This might be described as a scrambled egg sandwich, but you cook the eggs more like frittata, you don’t scramble them in the pan, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you want to use cheap eggs, that’s your prerogative of course, but the extra expense of organic eggs from grain fed, free range hens pays off in taste. (Not to mention the kharmic boost that you get from not further contributing to the misery of hens being kept on an assembly line and fed diets that include (eek!) bits of other chickens. Cannibal chickens! The stuff of Wes Craven’s nightmares.

So take two or three beautiful eggs (your preference) and crack them into a bowl, glass measuring cup or clean coffee mug. Whisk them briskly with a pair of forks. Heat a small non-stick frying pan, and add a dollop of butter. Turn the heat on high. When the butter is melted and frothy, pour in the eggs. Be careful not to let the butter brown . . . if it does, you have to start all over with new butter.

While the eggs bubble happily in the pan, get out two slices of good white bread. (A note about Wonder Bread. I am not a Wonder Bread snob. I can roll up my slice of Wonder Bread into those neat little doughy balls with the best of them . . . but Wonder Bread won’t work well for this sandwich, it’s too spongy and the whole thing will just be a soggy mess. It needs to be white bread with a little bit of body.) Or you can use nutty multi-grain bread, or the like. Sourdough or rye are likely to crowd the delicate taste of the eggs, so they are not advised.

My husband, who is a wonderful man in nearly every respect, insists on freezing the loaves of bread that cross our threshold. If I’m making this sandwich with bread that’s been frozen, I toast the bread. (Thawed bread is not the same as soft bread, darling, no matter what you say.) In the best of possible worlds, use bread that you just brought home from the grocery store, bread that has never seen refrigeration of any kind.

Take your slices of bread, and spread upon them a reasonable amount of mayo. Don’t glop it on, just a little goes a long way. Some heathen pagan insensitive types have been known to put mustard (mustard!) on this sandwich. I say to them, why don’t you just have a mustard sandwich? Even a tiny bit of good Dijon mustard will make it taste like mustard. I shudder at the thought.

Have you been keeping an eye on the eggs? You need to be keeping an eye on the eggs. They should be getting tall and puffy in the undisturbed pan. Now, depending on the intended recipient of the egg sandwich, you flip it either sooner or later. My son, who is generally a good boy, likes his eggs browned slightly. What’s a mother to do? I can’t stand them this way, but that’s his preference and so I bite my tongue and make his sandwich with the eggs browned.

Sprinkle salt on the eggs like you were dancing to Afro-Cuban music while cooking. (In fact, it’s not a bad idea to listen to Afro-Cuban music while cooking.) Flip them over with a spatula. Cook for another minute or so, then slide the eggs (a golden fluffy patty of eggs) onto the waiting bread.

Place on a small plate and carry with you to your favorite armchair to consume while reading a paperback novel. Put the egg sandwich on a tray with a steaming cup of coffee and a tall glass of orange juice and carry upstairs to your husband who is feeling not quite himself. Wrap in a paper towel and carry for your son who has his arms full with his school bag and cello so he can eat his warm breakfast in the car on a dark and cold winter morning on the way to school.

Make this sandwich when you aren’t in the mood to make dinner. This sandwich is excellent for lunch while working on household projects. It’s great nourishment for your mother recovering from heart surgery. It is, in fact, perfect for mending broken hearts, not to mention a bonafide cure for hangovers and other ailments. An egg sandwich is just the thing to fix for your father when he is dying of cancer, even if it turns out after all these years that he doesn’t make it the same way. He will enjoy it anyway, maybe all the more so because it was something of his that you took and made your own.

 

This a reprise. I wrote this piece in March 2009, and I am sharing it here in loving memory of my Dad, Larry Paul Vonalt, January 10, 1937-December 26, 2005. Thinking about you on Father’s Day, Dad, and all days. (And I would like to add that since this was written Miracle Whip has stopped using high fructose corn syrup in their salad dressing.) 

White Bread

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Let them eat cake.  ~ Marie Antoinette

 

The other night, at Kroger, I looked down at the paper bag in my cart and I felt a little horrified. In the bag were two packages of Oscar Mayer Bologna, two loaves of white bread, a head of iceberg lettuce and a package of hot dog buns.

So it has come to this, I thought, panic creeping in.

Rather than teeter off the edge into full-blown despair, I rationalized. This is the price of my freedom.  Even though my husband is retired and I find work here and there, job-writing, I don’t have to punch a clock anywhere. If I was out there in the rat race, I could buy what I used to buy. But at what cost, I asked myself, just slightly smug.

The justification doesn’t last.

It’s been bologna sandwiches for three days now. And truth be told I have a sort of “slumming it” fondness for such food. Sometimes a bologna sandwich on squishy white bread is just what the doctor ordered. But not often. And certainly not for three days in a row.

It seems worse in the summer somehow. In the winter, you can spin fantastic meals out of the meager pantry. A bit of bacon and some dried fettucine, a little  cream and before long, it’s a plate of fettucine carbonara that you’re tucking into. Potato soup. Clam chowder. Casseroles. My one indulgence is the quart of heavy cream because it does extend everything into the realm of sublime. I know how to cook and for the most part, we eat well.

But I’m not inspired. There are things that I could make, even now in the sultry days and nights of this Ohio summer, that are tasty and sustaining and don’t seem quite so pathetic as bologna sandwich on white bread.  But I don’t. I just open the refrigerator door and reach for the mayonnaise.

I think the problem is my husband.

Tonight he wanted to go see a free jazz concert that the Dayton Philharmonic was playing at a venue just across town. He didn’t go because he didn’t feel we could afford the gas to drive 10 miles. Maybe he’s right. The thing is it doesn’t matter if he’s right or not; that “sky is falling” outlook is persistent and contagious. It’s true that there’s a lot of month left to go with $100 in the bank. But ever the grasshopper, I think there will be some solution around the corner, and there generally is.  But he’s right, too. What if there isn’t?

I don’t want to be so poor that we can’t drive 10 miles.

That level of austerity chips away at my sense of freedom. Even to continue the research for the book, I’d have to drive out to the University. Eight miles. There’s a bus, but that’s too expensive as well.

So I go on eating bologna sandwiches.

Which is, in itself, ridiculous. Friends gave us fresh asparagus last week, it was delicious. The cherry tree in the yard is heavy with ripening fruit. There are still cartons of my favorite yogurt in the fridge. A pork roast in the freezer. Potatoes, always useful in salads. We should have planted a garden- I wonder if we still couldn’t get a few things in the ground.  Eggs, of course, lend themselves to a thousand guises. The white bread is the biggest sin of all since one of our best friends is an artisanal baker, and we could simply ask him. But asking is hard. The concern that I will ask too much never leaves me.

There are 17,908,343 “food insecure” households in the country. That’s not people. That’s households. Using the U.S. Census bureau statistic of 2.55 individuals per average households, this figure represents 45,666,175 hungry people. Or about the population of California– all wondering where there next meal is coming from.

We don’t even really meet the threshold for “food insecurity.” We certainly have too much money and too many assets to ever qualify for Food Stamps. Think about that the next time you’re judging someone using food stamps to buy a birthday cake or soft drinks in the check out line in front of you. Isn’t it bad enough to be hungry much of the time, do they deserve scorn too? The rate of food insecurity changes by household type: more than twenty percent of households with children don’t have enough to eat.

Our household falls into a kind of gray area that the U.S. Government calls “marginal food security.” That means we worry that we’ll run out of food before we have more money. That we consume food faster than we thought we would. (Well, hell, there’s a 19-year-old boy-man here, of course we do.) That our diet is not as varied as it should be because of our very limited food budget.

So. I’ve decided to trade off a little of this bountiful freedom for a bit of precious security. I am going to see if I can’t find very part-time work; 10 hours a week would make a difference. I probably waste that much time noodling around on the internet. And if I can’t find something, I’m going to make Chicken Little look for a bit of work. He’s earned his retirement, certainly, but without work, his world has become quite small.

And tomorrow I’m going out to lunch with a friend.

Hunting and Gathering

The Challenges of Bringing Food to the House.

If the whole diet and exercise thing comes crashing down in flames, it will be because I can’t get a grip on grocery shopping. For awhile I lived in Tuscany, and shopping for food in Italy was a real challenge. There were a few places that were like little grocery stores, but mostly you had to stop at market stalls in the street or at the butchers, the cheese shop, the bakery  to get what you needed. I didn’t have a car, and rarely enough money for grocery and taxi ride both, so I could only buy stuff that I could carry home in my arms, up the hill out of the city.

English isn’t widely spoken in Italy and though I had a little German and a lot of French, I found it very difficult to translate. So each morning, I would figure what was needed for the day and I would make a list. Then I would look up the translations for the foods I needed and write them next to their counterparts on the list. Sometimes I would write out the pronunciation key too. If I really got stuck I could point to the word on the list.  Bringing home the food was a lot of work and it took hours.

In 1972, when we moved from suburban Connecticut (with its bright and modern supermarkets) to a mill village in the north of England, my mother was horrified at the shopping dilemma. The nearest town with any sort of large market was Huddersfield. It was only about ten miles away, but there were innumerable obstacles. The local shops were merely out the door and 100 feet up Peel Street. It was just the everyday chore of having to go out for bread and vegetables and a bit of meat and chocolate– none of which were in the same shop, of course.

We’ve recreated this situation in this country to an extent and made a trendy entertainment of shopping in specialty stores and farmer’s markets. I can hardly stand it. Maybe it’s the echo of my experience in Europe, but more likely it’s the sense of self-consciousness that drapes over me like a cloak. I hate to ask for things. I don’t want to be helped. All the other shoppers seem so weirdly pleased with themselves about being there.  We will go in occasionally to buy bread. Our friend is the baker and the bread is truly worthwhile, but I hate going to get it.

There are ethnic markets of course, but not for routine shopping. There is a small local chain of upscale groceries called “Dorothy Lane Market,” whose ethnicity is rich and white. I went there the other night for a wine and cheese sampling with my friend Rita. It was divine. They offer to help you there, but you can be utterly anonymous too. Just don’t forget your wallet, and I hope it’s fat if you’re shopping there much. There’s a Trader Joe’s too, but it seems kind of flat after DLM.

But the regular routine staples– the milk and oranges and butter and eggs and cereal, that generally comes from a grocery store here. My husband’s parents ran a neighborhood grocery in L.A.and in between stints at railroads, my husband worked at numerous grocery stores. I think he clocked in at about 50 Ralph’s in Southern California. When we still lived in Montana, people would stop him in the store and ask for help years after he’d stopped working there.

He is a great shopper of sales. He fiddles with coupons, but finally doesn’t use them for anything except tormenting me. If I should happen to buy something different or shampoo or something he will invariably  say “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to buy that? I have a coupon for it at home.”  Always. But his style of shopping is entirely different from mine. He’s the man at the checkout with 16 cans of green beans and four cases of soda pop, a tower of canned tuna fish, a big box of ramen and three bags of cat food balanced over the top of the cart. He always walks back to the back of the store just before we leave, to get the milk. If he buys fresh produce it’s one or more of these three things: lettuce, onions or bananas.

Then he wrestles with the self check-out. Those machines, they’ve got it in for Elmer. They’re holding a grudge.

There’s nothing particularly odious about grocery shopping here, it’s just so boring. I try hard to adhere to the advice of diet and money gurus to stay out of the middle of the store and just shop along the edges, as the edges are where they keep the fresh food. If money weren’t a consideration, the shopping would be easier. (Hell, if money weren’t a consideration, I’d have a personal chef and they could do the shopping.) But it is, so I’m on the lookout for less-expensive proteins to build a meal around. Before I was so food conscious, this was a bit easier. Kielbasa and noodles are a tasty and inexpensive supper, but really, you know, not all that healthy. Prowling the aisles, I try to find stuff that will help me continue on the right path, and still provide sustenance for the rest of the family.

On good days the cart is brimming with the potential of great meals ahead: tortillas and tilapia, ginger and Bok choy, cilantro, raw shrimp, peppers, chicken, some lean beef, brown cow yogurt, granola, fruit, spinach, avocado, oranges. But then there’s the check-out ahead and hauling it all out to the car and then carrying all the bags up to the house and finding some place to put everything and chucking out all the things that have wilted and rotted and gotten covered in gray fuzz in the refrigerator. The wastefulness of it all really bothers me. I resolve to do better, and use up the ingredients I’d bought in preparing wonderful meals.

But the days go by. We go out to eat. We have a “fend” night, where everyone is on their own to feed themselves. Things age, they wilt, the bloom goes off. And suddenly there you are with nothing in the house to eat again and it’s time to go grocery shopping.  Planning would help, of course. If we could only stick to the plan. Somehow, there’s got to be a better way.

Target today 70  Steps 611

Yogurt with granola. Slice of birthday cake. Six crackers with Monterey Jack cheese. Small slice of pizza. One chicken nugget.