Sunday, September 30, 2007

Keeping Busy Going Nowhere

What I thought would be another divorcees damn dull weekend turned out to be lovely, busy, and yet lazy. Friday night I took my friend Mary Lu to dinner for her birthday, and we had a good time, though as old ladies do, we talked a lot about health--she will have knee surgery this week. Saturday I ran all over town--groceries (two of them), clothing store (I got bargains plus a Christmas gift), bookstore, cosmetic store, hardware--yes, I was tired when I got home. But I fixed my supper--Dover sole almondine (without the almonds but with the crumb topping) and spinach with olive oil and a bit of anchovy, because I was going to babysit Jacob and knew I couldn't easily cook and watch him. At his house, the kitchen and family room are one open space, and his mom can do both, but it's not that way at my house. He and I had fun that evening. I swear he said, "All done," when he was through eating--ok, a pigeon English version. And he loved tapioca, which I bought specially to see if he liked it. He ate all of his serving again tonight after determinedly throwing his chicken, green beans, and potato on the floor, in spite of repeated stern warnings of, "Jacob, no! We do not throw out food on the floor." That, of course, makes him smile charmingly. But when he was put down out of his high chair, he kept wandering back to me for spoonfuls of tapioca.
This morning I went to church and came home and made a ground bison meatloaf--it was really good, though the thing that kept it moist was a lot of chopped mushrooms (buffalo tends to be dry). Christian thought he was saving fat, until I pointed out that the green beans with bacon more than made up for the cholesterol saving with the bison loaf. I also did oven roasted potatoes, which were delicious. Down home cooking, not too bad for you, and soooo good.
All weekend I've been reading a Catherine Coulter mystery--Double Take. Megan said Brandon told 3-year-old Sawyer he would take him to buy whatever he wanted for his mom for her b'day. Sawyer wanted a digger, so they headed for the toy store. But then Sawyer changed and said he wanted to buy her a book--so they bought a Catherine Coulter mystery that Sawyer liked because it had a boat on the cover. Meg asked if I read Coulter, and I said yes, I enjoyed her. I took this one--the newest--out of the library, and I hate to tell Sawyer this but that's not a boat on the cover. It's Alcatraz. Yes, surrounded by water. But the novel kept me absorbed all weekend, and I didn't do a thing constructive. But, hey, I don't have to. I've met my deadlines, and the things on my desk now are without deadline--better I should have a time to finish them. Tonight I'm watching the mesmerizing PBS Ken Burns special on WWII. I don't remember that war, though I've been told so many stories--my first real "public" memory is FDR's death. My dad fought in WWI and was too old for that one, and yet WWII seems so real to me, because of stories about where we were when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the like. The series is fascinating--and horrifying.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


My friend Andy died two days ago, but I just learned of it today. The world looks a little different to me, because I had thought until this week that he would always be in Santa Fe and we'd have a grand visit next time I could get there. I've thought about him and Tina all day, and more than sadness I feel a deep admiration. When I think about it, I doubt any who knew Andy--family, kids, friends--ever thought his chances for a long life into old age were good. Because he was a realist, Andy must have known that too. But he and Tina acted as though recovery was the next step, around the corner. They lived each day, at least as far as I could see, with that attitude, and it's a great lesson for all of us. Andy leaves me with the feeling that I've been privileged to know someone special.
It's been a day of small disappointments, but, hey, they aren't worth talking about. The weekend looms, and I'm going to fill it with things I enjoy--mostly cooking. Tomorrow night I'm taking a friend to dinner for her b'day; Saturday I'm going to cook myself a really good dinner--I think fish almondine and greens with anchovies--a recipe I just found. It calls for collards, which I hate, but I'll use spinach, and I love anchovy. Sunday night Jordan and Christian are coming for dinner, and I'll make Norwegian hamburgers and Christians' favorite green beans--canned green beans, cooked with a bit of bacon grease and vinegar. But I have a surprise for them about the hamburgers--I'll share it after the event.
I have been working on my cookbook. Tomorrow I'll print out the revised version so I can read, proof and edit over the weekend. And I began tonight to write a column on Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. I'm sure many will be surprised that he's a Texas writer, one who deserves more recognition that he gets. He lived in the little town of Cross Plains, Texas, all his life and wrote over 800 stories, poems, and novels--amazingly prolific in a 12-year career (he committed suicide at the age of 30). It's all hard to put into 800 words, but I'm working on it.
It's still summer hot, and I wish for cool weather every morning. What do you wear to work in late September when it's still in the 90s? Flowery pastel clothes are inappropriate, fall clothes are too heavy. But Melinda brought me a bag of tomatoes and said as long as it stays hot, she'll have tomatoes. Maybe that's a compensation for the continuing hot weather, because the tomatoes sure are good.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Books and an impressive evening

I went to a program at church tonight. That's a bit remarkable in itself, because I've been fighting this urge to be a recluse. But I wanted to hear this, thought I'd get there a bit early, park right near the door, and all would be well. Fantasy--I parked at the far end of the far parking lot. There was a huge crowd.
The program featured the authors of Same Kind of Different As Me--Ron Hall, an international art dealer based in Fort Worth, and Denver Moore, a formerly homeless man. The two are best friends, but how they got there is a long story, dependent mostly on Hall's late wife Deborah. As a speaker, Ron Hall was passionate about his belief in our responsibility for the homeless, his Christian faith, and his devotion to and admiration for his late wife--and he was also one of the wittiest speakers I've ever heard. He described his gut-wrenching fear of the man who now sat quietly at the speaker's table, and he had us all laughing--but the udnerlying message of doing away with stereotypes was not to be missed.
I had gone expecting 35 people or so. Fellowship Hall, a really really large room, was absolutely crowded, and they kept bringing in more rows of chairs. I had heard the same thing happened when the pair spoke at a nearby Presbyterian church. I said to an acquaintance I sat next to that we had invited them to our TCU Press Autograph Extravganza and I hoped they weren't overexposed. "I doubt it," she said. Turns out everyone in the room almost, except me, had already read the book, but they wanted to hear the authors and they bought more books. And I did remember that a friend in Mississippi wrote me about how much she enjoyed reading it. It's number 481 or some such on amazon, which means it's really selling well. All proceeds go to homeless shelters in Fort Worth, and between royalties and collections taken at events, the team has raised over a million dollars to fight homelessness. I came home and ordered the book from amazon--the church had run out of copies to sell (makes me, as a publisher, wonder how many they ordered). All in all, an inspiring evening.
A different kind of book: I just finished The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Turns out it was not my neighbor but Jeannie who left the book for me. It's far different from the one above, but it interested me. Basically, it involves a doctor who is forced by a snowstorm, in the 1960s, to deliver his own twins. One, a girl, is unmistakably a Downs syndrome baby, and he gives her to a nurse to take to an institution, then tells his wife that the child died. The nurse, however, raises the child as her own. The doctor's knowledge and his wife sense of distance essentially ruins the rest of their lives, and the book is the working out of those lives, plus the lives of the daughter and her new family. Some of the characters are so introspective you want to shake them, and some of the plotting so convenient, you can see the author pulling strings, but I think it was of particular interest to me because I'm interested in that inter-relationship between children, biological parents, and non biological parents. Even as old as my children are, the question lingers in the back of my mind: what would I do if one of their biological parents suddenly appeared on the scene. Of course, as the years go by, it seems less and less likely--but the thought is there. Maybe I should write my own book.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What happens when you let trivia get you down

It's been a day of exasperating trivia. It really began last night when I found a dead rat in the backyard. I thought about it--for maybe half a minute--and decided to wimp out as a female and call my neighbor. He, bless him, rushed right over, and I armed him with a plastic bag and a stick. But as he approached the rat, he said, "I hate doing this." Instead of remorse at making him do something he hates, I felt a bit of relief--I mean, if he hates it, how does he think I felt? I asked him what finding it meant, and he said, "Scooby got it." I said, "Well, he's not interested in it any more," and he replied, "It's not a toy anymore." So the dead rat went into my garbage and, thank goodness, out of my mind.
Also yesterday I noticed that the airbag light on my dash was on--I didn't remember that it always did that, but I'm probably not really observant about such things. Today I looked in the owner's manual, and it said that should be checked immediately. So I called to see if something terrible was going to happen if I didn't rush right in--I really need my car tomorrow. They said no, it was just that the airbag wouldn't deploy. OK, I know they're safety devices, but the idea of one bursting in my face has always been slightly terrifying. So I'll drive tomorrow and I have an appointment early Wed. to drop the car off. It may be the result of that woman backing into me in her steamship "old lady's car."
Then I came home this afternoon to a letter telling me my prescription renewal was not being filled because I was not eligible for insurance. What? I've had the same insurance for years. It took an hour of waiting on the phone--I wish I had speaker phone at home as I do at work--to finally learn that the two prescription renewals are being processed, but I'm still not eligible--go figure. After calls to the customer service department and the TCU HR I discovered that "there's a glitch in the system." They're figuring it out, though I will say the TCU person was most helpful and inquired if I needed a prescription or anything immediately.
But all of these minor annoyances fade in the face of news I got this morning. Larry, my former boss, called to tell me that Andy Miracle, a mutual friend, had a catastrophic stroke on Friday and was not expected to live. I've known Andy since at least our kids were in middle school and maybe beyond, and the kids and I share many good memories of him and his wife. Andy had another catastrophic stroke about three years ago but he beat the doctors' odds and survived, albeit in a wheelchair with limited motion on his left side. They moved several times since then, landing back in Fort Worth for a while, and we lunched, shared memories, talked about the future. Then they went back to Santa Fe where, Andy said, his heart lives. They settled in a wondereful retirement comunity--Tina was taking tap dance, going rafting, doing all kinds of things (with severely limited vision) and Andy was in therapy that made him sure he would walk again, ride his bicycle--and, yes, downhill ski (my kids loved skiing with him and spent long days on the slopes). They were so happy, and life seemed on such an upward swing, that you want to say, forgive the language, that sometimes life sucks. I've spent the day thinking of images of Andy--the bookstore we once decided to open in Santa Fe, the way he'd walk through the halls of TCU with his laugh booming so that you knew without a doubt who was out there, the night we all ate sushi in Santa Fe and I was having such fun that my kids were angry because they didn't think I'd ever go home, his determiantion to write again, maybe even a novel. And Tina, herself disabled, who really became the world's best caretaker. I remember clearly one party at my house when Jamie had to take Andy's wheelchair down the steps and Andy kept saying, "Jamie, I'm so sorry." Jamie told him not to be, but Tina was right there with a firm, "That's right, Miracle, feel sorry for yourself." I harbor a secret small hope that Andy will beat the odds again, but then I know the odds are even greater that he would not have the degree of freedom he's had even in his wheelchair with limited motion--and he wouldn't want that. My kids and I are sad tonight for friends we love and of whom we have special memories. Yeah, sometimes life isn't one bit fair.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Church, books and indexes, and long weekends

I went to church this morning, ordinarily not a big occasion but I've been avoiding it lately and then of course, filled with guilt, trying to figure out why. Maybe it's because I dislike going alone--still true. The ranks of the women I used to sit with have dwindled, several due to illness and one to death. Jordan and Christian have no space in their life now for chuch, with Christian working on Sundays, but I'm confident they'll return when Jacob is old enough for Sunday school. Then there's the fact that I had a couple of classic "lost my balance" episodes in the church parking lots--but I can valet park right by the door. And finally there's habit--I've gotten out of the habit of both church and exercise, and I think I'd feel better if I did both.
So the new me set off for church today with a great deal of vigor--and I was so glad I went. I got several hugs, and one woman rushed up to say she was loving my collection of short stories, which she's now reading with her book club (I will speak to them in October), and I found friends to sit with. I was glad to be back in the familiar and comforting ritual, and I enjoyed the sermon though I think I took from it a different message than the minister intended. It was sort of on thinking outside the box to further's God's work (title was "My Scheming Friends"), but when he cited a peacemaking group in Chicago and their efforts to create "safe zones" in a neighborhood by enlisting the help of gang leaders in painting a mural, I heard the line, "Let us be peacemakers." It's so much what I think this country should do. Instead of approaching the world with belligerance and threats, why do we not go out to say "How can we get people to work together and respect each other? How can we help those in poverty, hunger, illness?" We've got Theodore Roosevelt's big stick but insead of walking softly we are brandishing it with vigor. It both scares and angers me.
I'm reading The Memory Keeper's Daughter, one of those much-discussed contemporary books that everyone else reads while I stick to mysteries. But neighbor Sue, in her ceaseless effort to widen my reading, left this on the porch table. After a glance at the dust jacket and reading two pages, I abandoned the P.D.James I was trying to read (James is so slow to my mind) and have had to tear myself away to index my children's book on Audie Murphy. The index turned out to be quite a chore. I've got a draft done, will let it "set" while I nap, and then check it again.
Last weekend I had too much of my own company, so I determined to get out more this weekend--and I did. My regular shopping, plus a bit of clothes shopping which saved me a great deal of money because I didn't find anything. Last night I went out to have wine and cheese with Jordan and Jacob, but he was in his fussy, "I want only Mama" mood--not as much fun as he usually is. They had come for supper the night before, and he was charming. Jordan says he's trying to show her how he wants to change his schedule and she just hasn't gotten the picture yet. But long weekends were supposed to be over for a while--we were going to Austin next weekend, but now that's in doubt; then the next I hoped for a brief visit in Frisco because I need to be in Dallas Thursday night--but after I'd made all those arrangements, I realized I can't spend the weekend in Frisco--I have two book signings, morning and afternoon, on that Saturday. But the following weekend I'll go to Frisco for sure--Jamie has a triathlon, Mel and Maddie have Brownie camp, and I get to hang out with (and babysit for) Edie. I'm looking forward to that.
Meantime, I keep busy. Tonight I'm going to fix myself a chicken/tomato/rice soup I found that sounds light and good--and I'm going to keep reading. Of course I do have the cookbook to keep rewriting, the great chefs book to begin, the Robert E. Howard column to write. More about all of those later.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Back aches and Scotland

Two posts in one day! It's because that Spam one was written a long time ago, and I just got around to emailing it to myself at work so I could post it--maybe I could do that at home, but if so, I haven't figured it out Next experiment.
But back aches and Scotland are on my mind. Sunday I did some weeding--not all that much, not like I worked for two hours or something. Probably ten minutes. But Monday morning my back ached a bit. I decided to work out anyway, which made my back ache more--but I remembered that old training thing about "work through the pain" and I persevered--up to a point. I didn't do as many toe touches--because they really made my back hurt--and I didn't ride the bike for as long. But I was in real pain all morning--getting up from my desk and that first step were really awful. After I got going it wasn't so bad. Much better today, and I have decided two things: "work through the pain" is a bunch of hooey, at least at my age, and I'm going to hire someone to do my weeding. Actually I have a good yard man--he just doesn't know what's a wildflower and a weed, so now I'm on a mission to teach him. But the thing about having a back ache that severe--or any other ailment that makes you think a lot about how you feel--is that you think of yourself as fragile. And that's a mentality to be defeated.
My Scotland explorations continue. Fred Erisman saw me through graduate school and a dissertation as my major professor, and he remains both good friend and mentor. When I told him about my insight into the similarities between the Scottish Highlands and the American Old West, he reminded me that Mark Twain blamed Sir Walter Scott for the American Civil War. Twain thought Scott's romanticization of chivalry and the code of honor and fighting inspired the South, which was, of course, mostly inhabited by people of Celtic descent. Makes sense to me.
Then today a new friend, a successful author of mysteries set in England, wrote me. She travels to England frequently and was once married to a Scotsman. She directed me to a book, some b&bs and the Braes. I finally had to write back, somewhat shamefacedly, and ask what the Braes are. But since I found it on google--a remote and wild area in the north of the Isle of Skye. I told Jeannie we have to go there and suggested instead of two weeks we should be spending three months in Scotland. Earlier that suggestion led Jeannie to offer to fly over with me, leave me, and come back three months later to get me. But I think I'd like to go to Skye and the Braes. There's just so much in Scotland that sounds intriguing!
Susan in my office responded to my tuna post with two recipes, one for creamed tuna on toast. I tried creamed chicken last night--didn't have milk but made a sauce of chicken broth (that good organic kind that comes in a box) and white wine, added green peas and a bit of thyme. Put it on sourdough toast, and it made a tasty dinner. Tonight, because it had thickened, I added some sour cream--still very good.
Got to get to work on revising the cookbook.

SPAM--the meat, not the annoying messages

My plan to sell a cooking column worked—sort of. I placed one column—the one on canned soup—with a statewide magazine I write for occasionally. The editor said they’d edit out the snob aspect, because her rural audience sees nothing wrong with cooking with soup. And I’m wishing I’d told them about Louella’s Rice, but that’s another story.
Here’s the third and final of my prototype columns. I haven’t given up the idea. But then I haven’t given up on my mystery either.
A few days ago on the TODAY show the final segment featured a chef from Food & Wine magazine talking about and demonstrating “American gourmet” recipes—pickles soaked in Kool-Aid (sorry I didn’t catch the drink flavor), Frito pie made in the bag, and Hormel SPAM treated as sushi. It’s a dish from Hawaii where a slice of SPAM is put atop rice and wrapped with seaweed. Popular as a lunch treat, it’s called musubi.
My thought though was that the faux gourmet draws the line at SPAM. For those that might not know, it’s a canned lunch meat made of ham, pork, sugar, salt, water, starch, and sodium nitrite. Since it was introduced in 1937 over six billion cans have been sold worldwide.
I used to eat it as a kid. SPAM sandwiches were made much like a ham sandwich with lettuce and mayo, or you could have used mustard. My frugal mother, who’d lived through the Depression and was living through the second World War in her lifetime, treated a whole can of SPAM like a ham—she criss-crossed knife slashes across the top, sprinkled it with brown sugar, studded it with cloves, and baked it. I remember liking it, but back then my favorite meal was a can of Campbell’s spaghetti and a can of spinach. What did I know? Mom sliced the leftovers and fried them for breakfast meat.
Now every once in a while I think about trying it again, buying one of those small cans and baking it the way Mom did. What stops me is the fat content—2 oz. has 15 grams of fat, and six grams of saturated fat.
Nutrition aside, SPAM has become sort of an inside joke these days. Hormel has a huge SPAM website that you can explore for hours (, but much of it seems tongue-in-cheek. The SPAM Museum is apparently a virtual museum—or is it? Listing visits per year, the site says, “As many as you’d like.” There’s a page devoted to Spammobile, a gift shop that sells T-shirts, coffee cups and mugs, drop earrings with SPAM cans, lapel pins, bumper stickers that say “I love SPAM,” a SPAM fan club (“your membership lasts a lifetime”), and an endless list of things. The Book of SPAM is available online from Today SPAM comes in a dithering array of flavors—original, hickory smoked, with bacon, with garlic, with cheese, lite, turkey SPAM. There’s an annual recipe contest, and the website has recipes—SPAM stroganoff, SPAM meatloaf, SPAM quiche, a speedy dip, croquettes, and a minestrone soup made with SPAM. There are also suggestions for adapting the ubiquitous meat to various cuisines. Prefer French food? You can have your SPAM in ratatouille or something called Ragin’ Cajun SPAM party salad. Asian? How about Speedy Cheesy Stir-fry? SPAM a la orange? Sweet and sour SPAM Cantonese? If Mexican is your preference, you can have SPAM in chili rellenos, ranchero eggs, chimichangas, or breakfast burritos. And finally, of course, there’s Italian—pizza is inevitable, but you can also make Turkey SPAM lasagna, eggplant Italiano, spaghetti sauce, or fettucine primavera. The possibilities are endless, but I won’t be trying any of them soon. I draw the line.
It’s no coincidence that spam has become the term for unwanted junk email. There’s an explanation on the web, but it went over my head.
Ham may be a tad more expensive, but it’s less fattening—and it’s good. Here’s an old standby recipe:
Spinach ‘n Ham Roll-ups
1 10-1/2 oz. can cream of celery soup
1 c. sour cream
2 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard
1 c. quick-cooking rice
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and pressed dry
1 c. small curd cottage cheese
2 eggs
½ cup finely chopped onion ¼ c. unsalted butter
¼ c. flour
18 slices (about 1-1/2 lbs.) boiled hem (get the deli to slice it)
Parsley-buttered bread creams
Preheat oven to 350. Mix soup, sour cream and mustard. In separate bowl, combine ½ cup soup mixture, rice, spinach, cheese, eggs, onion and flour, Put 2 heaping Tbsp. spinach mixture on each ham slice, roll up and put in 11x7 baking pan. Spoon remaining soup mixture over ham rolls. Top with bread crumbs and paprika. Bake 35 minutes or until hot. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Scotland on My Mind

When my kids were little, they listened to Neil Diamond tapes endlessly--those old eight-tracks--on cross-country trips, and to this day they can sing most of his songs, including "Georgia on My Mind." But these days it's not Georgia but Scotland that's on my mind. We've made our reservations, and I've paid for business-class tickets--a hefty investment, but, hey, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Today I went through the photo and application process to renew my out-of-date passport. I'm really going to Scotland!
I've been reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World, a fascinating book that taught me a lot of Scottish history and made me believe that without the Scots we would be primitive intellectually and morally. I really have learned a lot. But last night, reading about Sir Walter Scott, I was struck by a comparison. In graduate school, my dissertation was on the development of the myth of the American West, the ways in which our mythologized and romantic view of the West shaped out whole sense of ourselves as a nation--we still either glory in it or suffer from it, depending on your view of the wannabe cowboy in the presidency.
The Scottish Highlands were for centuries considered rough and uncultured territory. Kilts were "barbaric frummery" and were at one point outlawed. But for an 1815 visit to Scotland by the Prince of Wales, tartan kilts turned up on civic officials who only twenty years earlier would not have been caught dead in them. The difference had been rendered by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, who rescued Highland culture "from the rubbish heap of history" and made it respectable. He gave it a panache that has made us identify Scotland by the Highlands ever since.
Scots who came to America in the 19th century found a similar land in the American West: inaccessible, governed by tribal warriors, about to be displaced by the forces of progress. Until the novelists and the artists got hold of the American West, it was often dismissed as a rough land, uncivilized, needing only to be conquered and civilized. But then novelists like Owen Wister (The Virginian) and artists like Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington saw the imaginative possibilites of the American West. They mythologized it, and it became the symbol of American virtues and strength--courage, fearlessness, strength, determination, a certain willingness to endure hardship, and a large dose of heroics. Those are pretty much the virtues of the Scottish Highlander too--our heroes wear buckskin; Scottish heroes wear kilts. Either is, to most modern minds, outlandish. Wister, Russell and Remington did for the American West what Sir Walter Scott did for the Highlands. And both myths endure to this day.
It might be a bit much to draw parallels between the Highland Clearances in the 19th century, with the potato blight, and the removal of Native Americans to reservations and the disappearance of the buffalo that sustained their way of life--still, the thought lingers.
And where do I most want to go when I go to the United Kingdom? London? Edinborough? Nope, you've got it--the Highlands. I want to go to Inverness, where's there's a MacBain Memorial Park, and to St. Bean's Kirk at Fowlis Wester, north of Inverness, where early MacBains are buried. And I'll find the homestead, no longer in the family but still standing. I haven't read Scott in years, but maybe I should again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Cookbook daze

Today I heard from the publisher of my cookbook, and she suggested that it would be in print in the spring of 2009, possibly the fall of 2008. Of course, I pushed for fall, pointing out that I would market it strongly as a Christmas gift and suggesting a huge autograph party for which I would cook recipes from the book. She was enthusiastic, so I'm on pins and needles to see what will happen. But tonight I'm deep into working on it--the editors suggest it needs to be about 50 pages shorter--believe me, that's a lot of my golden prose to cut out! And it needs a new title: The Faux Gourmet doesn't do it for marketing, they suggested.
So my editor, Carly, asked me to ask blog readers for feedback: if you have title ideas for a book about a single mom cooking for kids, while writing and publishing books, I'd love to hear it. Not a gourmet cook but one who approaches the kitchen with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure, and one whose friends think she's a gourmet cook--they just don't know the definition nor the fact that gourmet cooks don't used canned soup or canned tuna.
The other question to ask your opinion on is regular binding or spiral? My instinct is for spiral, but Carly suggests that if she uses a spiral-bound cookbook much it gets nasty stuff stuck in the binding. Since all my well-used cookbooks are spotted and stained, I don't see that as much of a problem--but it may be. So please let me hear from you.
I know that there are more than two readers of the blog, because the other day a woman I'd never met was in my office to talk about a local history she wants to compile. And she definitely got on my good side when she said, "I love your blog." How to win a writer's heart!
Great day today. Deborah Crombie, author of eleven mysteries set in England and featuring Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and Jemma James, spoke at a Pinkbag luncheon on campus. I got to play hostess and introduce her at the luncheon. I was of course prepared to be intimidated by a successful mystery writer whose books are sold in eight or ten countries, but she was charming, unspoiled, a lot of fun. And her talk was lively and interesting--with some insights into writing. If I ever have time to get back to trying a mystery, I may take her advice about plotting different story lines and seeing how they all go together. But right now I have no time for mysteries.
Tonight my friend Betty and I had a nice, lazy relaxed supper at a local bistro--a shared platter of tapas, a glass of wine each, and sinfully rich chocolate mousse for each of us. Perfect end to a nice day, although the day had its frustrations--I just won't go into that now.

Monday, September 10, 2007


My mystery, Dead Space, was rejected again by an agent, in a two-line email last night. "We've decided to pass." Truthfully I'm amazed at how much I've put that out of my mind. For months, writing and revising that novel occupied me almost every minute I wasn't working. It was sooo important to me. And yet today it was mid-afternoon before I remembered, "Oh, yeah, the mystery was rejected."
The first rejection was by an agent to whom I had a tiny bit of entree--clients of hers recommended I writeh her. Months after I'd written her off, she sent a brief, "No, thanks." The second one was an agent I know, who said, "I liked it, but I didn't love it," and said he'd agonized over telling me that. Fair enough. I thought, and he agreed, that he was looking for hard-edged, and I'd written a cozy. The third agent--the one who rejected it so briefly last night--is local, in Dallas, and someone whose credentials I questoned anyway. From an author who's working with him, I think he's pre-occupied with his own projects, and if you don't have entree, you're dismissed. I can see him sitting resolutely down on a Sunday night, determined to clear off his desk. And there go a bunch of two-line rejections. I'm don't know that's true, but I've done it myself, so I can easily imagine it. I had no entree to him, and he had no reason to take me--or my 30-page proposal--seriously.
All this is by way of saying I don't think the mystery has gotten a fair read. No one has looked at the entire manuscript, althugh maybe the first 30 pages either make or break a mystery. I don't know. But I always remember that Gone With the Wind was rejected 17 times. I think I shouldn't give up with this manuscript, but I'm not sure where to go. Maybe the truth is that it's weak--but if so I want someone I trust to tell me that.
Bottom line: I'm pleasantly surprised that I'm not tearing my hair out. Probably it's because I've gone on to several other projects, have one on my desk still, am planning the Scotland trip. My mind has moved on beyond the mystery. But then again, if I lose my passion about it, my belief in it, I'll never convince anyone else.
Ho, hum! I think I'll go to sleep on that note. Tonight we finally celebrated Christian's birthday--a month and three days after the event. I fixed steak (okay he grilled them), twice baked potatoes, wedge salads with roquefort dressing, and a chocolate cake that had 5 eggs and 2-1/2 sticks of butter. Wow! Jacob loved the filling in the twice-baked potatoes and ate a whole one. We didn't let him try the cake.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A cooking day

I have really been a cook today. I was up early and at Central Market by 8:30, then home to make a tamale pie for friends tonight, a chocolate "tunnel of fudge" cake for Christian's belated b'day dinner tomorrow night (but I'll serve it tonight too), and twice-baked potatoes for tomorrow. Christian has requested steak and potatoes, and I'll make a wedge salad. Would have made the blue cheese dressing today but the recipes call for buttermilk, so I'll have to go to the store first.
The tamale pie was interesting and fun to work on--layers of prepared polenta rolls, with meat filling between and grated cheddar over the top. The recipe called for a mixture of hamburger, chili powder, cumin, spicy salsa, refritos, and chicken broth for the filling. Always a bit of a chicken, I used a medium salsa (Jardine's), and when I taste-tested it, the meat mixture had quite a kick. Of course the polenta and cheese will soften that kick but I was still glad I hadn't used the spicy.
I'm still reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World and finding it slow going but fascinating. I have a better understanding of Ulster Scots now and the troubles in Northern Ireland, and I can sort out David Hume and Adam Smith and their influence on our world today. I've gotten past the Battle of Culloden and into the late 18th century when many Scots came to America. I didn't know, for instance, that Princeton was modeled on the University of Edinburgh, nor how influential Scottish thinking was on the ideas of independence in America. I'm enjoying this learning experience immensely but may have to quit for a light escape to a mystery for a while.
It's thundering and threatening but no rain so far. However, the air is much cooler, and I'm hoping to serve a relaxed dinner on the porch tonight and enjoy good friends.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Babysitting and Baby Love

I babysat with Jacob last night, and he had a hard time going to sleep. He'd fuss, then he'd cry, then he'd be quiet, and I thought I was home free. Then he'd start through that litany of sounds again, and I held my breath. But after 20-25 minutes, all was quiet, and I thought he was asleep. Well, he probably was for about 45 minutes, and then he awoke screaming--I was on the phone with my brother. When I went into his room, poor little Jacob sobbed and held his arms up to be picked up. Well, discipline and good habits be darned, who could resist that? So I picked him up, and he clung to me like I was the last and only port in a terribly scary storm. I sat in the rocker and talked to him, and soon he was asleep--a great snuffly sleep because his nose is still stuffy from whatever attacked him earlier in the week.
Grandmothers have to realize--and it's hard--that we aren't the primary people in our grandchildren's lives. It's not the same as when we had children, and they instinctively turned to us--we were the anchors in their world. Grandchildren turn to their parents in the same way, and since I'm usually around my grandchildren and their parents at the same time--after all, they live far and I love the parents' company too--I'm not alone with the babies. So it's probably been over 30 years, when Jordan was a baby, since I've had a warm little body press itself against me in that kind of desperate hold. I've got to admit I loved it. I rocked him long after he'd gone to sleep, probably at least 30 minutes--and friends will tell you I'm not one to sit in a chair and rock for thirty minutes. But that warm, snuffly little body was snuggled into me. When I did finally put him in his crib, he cried, but I patted his back and he went to sleep.
Of course, he woke up about 1:30--the monitor was still in my bedroom, though Jordan later moved it. So I went to check on him. This morning Christian said he too checked on him. I laughed and said Jacob would figure out that if he cried in the night he'd get a parade of people into his room. But babysitting was a lovely event last night.
Here it is September, and we're not going to Scotland until April, but we're already shopping. I bought some shoes today--Jeannie insists they must have good arch support because we're going to walk a lot--and a hat (Scotland can be cold in April apparently). And I found a fling and a corduroy shirt that I want for the trip--I'm going to blow my budget on clothes beforehand and not have any left for the trip! I've also been exploring the web to find b&bs near Loch Ness. I guess planning is half the fun. Jeannie, on the other hand, worried most about tickets. Being a former flight attendant and the wife of a retired pilot, she flies on miles all the time and knows the ins and outs, mostly, of reservations--I don't give it a thought. But she insisted we figure it out yesterday, and we did. She's flying miles and I'm buying a ticket business class (don't ask!) but as of yesterday we are both ticketed. I'm really getting excited about this. Doing lots of reading about Scottish history and the MacBain clan. I even paid my clan dues, as though it would make me legitimate.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Canned tuna

Well, only one of my two readers reacted to my canned soup column, but on the strength of that, here's my second one--on canned tuna.
My son-in-law, Brandon, is a picky eater, which in his case translates to almost no vegetables—salad and minestrone are okay—plus a few other strong dislikes, one of which is tuna. When I mentioned I might write a column on the uses of canned tuna, he sent a list of uses for it: bait, guest repellent, convenient source of mercury, salad spoiler, etc. Brandon is joined by a few people (not the majority, I don’t think) who hate tuna.
Then there are those of us for whom it is a staple. I could eat tuna five days a week, but now they tell us it’s bad for health because it contains high levels of mercury. The trouble is it’s hard to find a firm opinion about how much tuna is recommended per week. It’s generally agreed that pregnant women and nursing mothers should not eat it, but after that the issue is murky. Fish companies claim that the FDA-approved levels are ten times below the level which causes health problems, probably a position taken as a precaution. But another website claims that a person of my weight (150 lbs.) can safely eat ¾ of a 7.5 oz. can of albacore or white tuna a week, or about 2 ¼ cans of light tuna. Albacore, while considered the delicacy, is generally more toxic because the fish are older and larger and therefore have absorbed more mercury. My trouble is that I really like albacore.
A website on tuna describes the trauma of shopping for a tin. Enough choices confront you to confound even the coolest of minds. Do you want albacore or light (and then there’s bonita, which I seem to remember from childhood is a cheaper fish that tastes sort of the same only more so). Do you want chunk or solid or flaked? Water packed, oil packed, or—for some recipes—packed in olive oil? The writer bemoaned that all cans of tuna look alike, so you’re likely to get home with something you don’t want. I did that once, and came home with flaked light tuna. I fed it to the cat, but it’s much worse for cats than people—it causes kidney dysfunction, which older male cats like mine are especially prone to. That's probably why Brandon wants to feed it to the cat--he doesn't like cats much better than tuna.
Okay, so you’re going to eat tuna, in the small 3.0 oz. can, three times a week—that seems a safe and cautious amount. What do you do with it? Tuna salad is ubiquitous, and when I’m eating out it’s often my choice of sandwich for lunch. I assume everyone makes it pretty much the same way—tuna, some form of chopped onion, lemon, and mayonnaise to bind. Some people add pickle relish. I have a friend who adds chopped sweet pickles, and it’s delicious. Some people add a little mustard, and that’s good. You just have to avoid having too much binding agent and ending up with tuna soup. Sometimes I put a dollop of cottage cheese in it. But what’s above and beyond tuna salad? Here are a couple of my favorites.
Tuna Florentine
2 Tbsp. butter, divided use
1 small onion, minced
2 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach
2 tsp. salt, divided use
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
2 7-oz. cans tuna, packed in oil
3 Tbsp. flour
A pinch of mace
½ tsp. white pepper
Spinach cooking liquid plus enough milk to make 1-1/2 cups
1 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 Tbsp. Parmesan
2 Tbsp. white wine
1-1/2 cups soft bread crumbs
1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
2 Tbsp. melted butter
Melt 1 Tbsp. butter; add onion and sauté until brown. Separately, cook two pkgs. frozen spinach in less water than the directions call for, breaking the frozen spinach up with a wooden spoon. When tender, drain thoroughly, reserving the liquid (spinach should be very dry). Add butter and onion so spinach. Season with 1 tsp. salt and nutmeg. Simmer briefly to blend flavors.
Add milk to spinach liquid to make 1-1/2 cups.
Drain tuna, reserving 2 Tbsp. oil; flake.
Put 2 Tbsp. tuna oil and remaining Tbsp. butter in saucepan and melt butter. Blend in flour, mace, remaining tsp. salt, and pepper. Add spinach liquid/milk mixture and stir over heat until thick and smooth. Remove from heat and add cheeses and wine. Heat until smooth again, and fold in tuna.
Layer spinach in bottom of shallow casserole. Top with tuna mixture. Mix topping ingredients together and spread over tuna layer.
Bake, uncovered, at 350 until bubbly and lightly browned (35-40 minutes). A lot of work but well worth it.

Southwestern tuna
7-1/2 oz. can albacore tuna
juice of one lime (a good juicy one)
2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. capers
¼ c. chopped celery
¼ c. chopped red onion
Pinch of cumin
Mayonnaise to bind
1 can chopped chilies (use your own judgment about canned chilies or a chopped jalapeño—I like the canned)
I use this as a dip, served either with crackers or tortilla chips (the good strong kind).
There are also lots of things to do with tuna for dinner for one. Maybe that’s another column.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Life gets out of control sometimes

My life, it seems, has gotten out of control--partly through no fault of my own, but a large part my own fault, which I attribute to having too much on my mind. Last night I was expecting guests--friends who are also advisors to the press and were coming for "wine on the porch" to talk about the press. I prepared an antipasto tray (more about that in a minute), waited and wondered why they didn't come. I finally looked at the calendar and realized they're coming tonight. Well, tonight, I was supposed to be at my brother's in Tolar, but we had about decided to cancel that even before I discovered my calendar mistake--his daughter had a baby girl yesterday morning, and he and Cindy need to be free to be with Jenn and Baby Emelie. So if I wasn't going to Tolar, I asked Susan if she'd take my speaking gig in Granbury tomorrow, and she, admitting she loves an audience, readily agreed as long as I supplied her with notes on what to say. So, I thought, my life is simplified and all will be well.
Well, sort of. Jacob is still sick--I took Jordan lunch, and poor little Jacob could barely manage to smile at me, though he did. And he does NOT want to let go of his mama. And then when I came home I thought the key acted funny, but I got in. Cleaned the cat box and went to empty the droppings--and I was locked out. Jordan couldn't come rescue me, with a sick baby, so I called Christian--his office is not far, and he said he'd come right away. But when he got here, he said that Jordan had called as he was leaving and said, "You're not going to believe what I did." She locked herself out of her house--fortunately, she had a key hidden. Christian told her he was on his way to my house and said, "What is wrong with the Alter girls today?" Actually, that one wasn't my fault. Socorro, who cleans for me, had pushed those little buttons in the lock, which I'll ask her never never to do again! So now I'm walking on eggshells--I've lost count and can't tell is that's three misfortunes or not, but I hope it's the end of the string.
Back to my antipasto tray--it really is elegant. I cut dolma in half, for bite-size pieces, sliced some smoky Gouda and Manchego, added cornichons, and the piece de resistance--fig halves with blue cheese, warpped in prosciutto and broiled. Of course now those fig halves are cold, because I simply bundled up the whole tray and stuck it in the fridge. I'll let it get to room temperature tonight. When I was putting it together I kept thinking of the phrase amuse bouche which translates to please the mouth of "tickle the tastebuds."
Last night, after discovering my calendar mix-up, I had my own happy hour--with a sandwich of chipotle meatloaf that my neighbor had made (yes, it had a kick to it) and a glass of wine. So sophisticated!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A possible cooking column

Some time ago, I wrote a memoir/cookbook—why I wrote it is too long a story to tell here, but it was fun to do and I was pleased with the results. A local university press that publishes cookbooks reviewed the manuscript and, after many months, sent a detailed six-page critique from a reader. The critique was like a roadmap for a revision, and I was grateful, but at one point it called my recipes “nice faux gourmet recipes.” Referring to my recipe for that standard, King Ranch Chicken, the anonymous writer claimed she never used canned soups but always made her own white sauce.
I revised the manuscript, titled it The Faux Gourmet, and sent it off to another university press, where it found a home. It will be published sometime in 2008 or 2009. But meantime I’ve thought of developing a column called “The Faux Gourmet.” So far, I’ve thought of two columns—one on all the uses of canned tuna and one on what you can do with canned soups without feeling guilty.
Canned soup recipes have probably been around as long as canned soups, and probably controversial just as long. The critic’s comment sounded like snobbery to me, but a lot of people simply prefer not to use canned ingredients. One person on a web forum about canned soups said she objected to tomato soup recipes, because they left an aftertaste. I don’t particularly like beef-based soups, like vegetable beef, and I hate the smell when someone is heating one in the office microwave. What did I really mean by canned soups? Creamed soups, such as chicken, mushroom, and celery. But then there’s that good bacon/spinach dip recipe that calls for cheddar cheese soup (not always easy to find).
Some people object that they’re high in sodium and fat. Yes, but you can buy low sodium. Others simply prefer not to use canned soups and make white sauce, as the lofty critic did, or use one of the recipes for substitutes on the web.
Canned Soup Substitute
2 c. nonfat powdered milk
¾ c. cornstarch
¼ c. or less inst. vegetable bouillon
2 Tbsp dried onion flakes
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. thyme
½ tsp. pepper
Trouble with that is, you’ve used four prepared ingredients, gone to a lot of trouble, and probably (I don’t know this for sure) produced a pretty tasteless or artificial-tasting product. There is of course a difference between canned and prepared soups, like instant vegetable bouillon or dried onion soup mix, from which almost everyone makes that sour cream dip that disappears as soon as you put it out.
Once I gave a “retro” dinner party, and we all brought dishes from the ‘50s. One guest brought that dip, and one of the men looked at his wife and said, “Can you get this recipe?” She smiled and said, “I think I can figure it out.”
Neither Jacques Pepin nor Julia Child ever cooked with prepared or canned soups, but Rachel Ray does. I’m for canned soup in moderation but not to the extent I need to buy 101 Things to Do with Canned Soup or The Biggest Book of Canned Soup Recipes.
Almost everyone knows how to make King Ranch Chicken with soup, but here are a couple of less common recipes that I’m fond of.
Colin’s Queso
1 lb. hamburger
1 lb. sausage (your choice if it’s mild, medium or hot)
1 16 oz. jar Pace picante sauce (again, mild, medium or hot—you choose)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 lb. Velveeta Original
Brown meat in skillet, breaking up the clumps. Put meat in a crock pot, add remaining ingredients, and heat until cheese melts and ingredients are blended. Serve hot with corn chips. I used to put chips in the bottom of soup bowls, top them with this queso, and serve it to my kids as a one-dish meal.
Spinach-bacon Spread
8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 10-oz. pkgs. chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
32 oz. Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeños, shredded
1 11-oz. can cheddar cheese soup, undiluted
1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese
1 tsp. Greek seasoning
½ tsp. onion power
1 tsp. Tabasco
1 2-oz. jar diced pimiento, drained (I don’t much like pimiento and often leave this out).
Combine everything but bacon, pimiento and paprika. Heat until cheese melts. Stir in crumbled bacon, sprinkle with pimiento and paprika if you want. Serve hot with crackers.
Blog readers (all two of you), I’d love feedback on this. Would it make a column in a magazine that has recipes? In a newspaper feature section? Please help!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Top Ten Texas Books

My every-so-often, mostly-monthly column appeared in the Dallas Morning News this morning. It deals with the ten "best" (an undefined term) books on Texas. I queried two men that I consider to be the "grandfathers" of Texas literature these days--an honor I'm not sure they find flattering--about their top ten. Don Graham, J. Frank Dobie Professor of Southwest Literature at UT Austin, had a list that ran heavily to Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, while including Katherine Anne Porter, J. Frank Dobie and a couple I know little to nothing about--James Carlos Blake and Albert Goldbarth. Jim Lee, emeritus chair of the English department at UNT and former acquisitions editor for TCU Press, submited a list that tended toward East Texas with George Sessions Perry, William Owens, and William Humphrey, but he also got in Sallie Reynolds Matthews, A. C. Greene, Elmer Kelton, Porter, and Walter Prescott Webb. (The column should be on the web by mid-week--google Dallas Morning News and search for my name if you want to see the specific titles.) I timidly added my own list: John Graves Goodbye to a River, Stephen Harrigan's The Gates of the Alamo, Love is a Wild Assault by Elithe Hamilton Kirkland (a book review editor said to me once, "But, Judy, we all know it's a very bad book!"), McMurtry's Leaving Cheyenne and In a Narrow Grave, Wanderer Springs by Robert Flynn, The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton, The Captured by Scott Zesch, Where Dreams Die Hard by Carlton Stowers, and Texas on a Plate by Terry Thompson-Anderson (of course I included a cookbook!). My list is not so much the "best" books on Texas but personal favorites. They do tend to be books that I think reflect culture and life in Texas.
I invited responses, and I've already heard from folks both on the Morning News book blog ( and on my personal email. Later I'll collect the responses into another column. But I'd love for readers of this blog to vote too. You can post a comment here or on the books blog or email me. I've already realized one author I left out--Jane Roberts Wood, and I do love Train to Estelline. I'm sure there are other, so remind me of what I overlooked.
Jim Lee "composes" his blogs ( I suspect he rewrites and polishes before he sends them to the office to be posted. On the other hand, I type mine directly into the blogger website as they occur to me, sometimes late at night. I'm sure the difference shows. But not I'm "crafting" a blog that I hope to publish tomorrow or the next day. It will reflect the fact that my attention is turning to food cooking. The women's rights manuscript has been submitted--hooray!