Monday, January 31, 2011

Anticipating arctic temperatures

In North Texas, when they forecast sub-freezing temperatures, everyone acts like a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter. We rush to grocery stores and stock up on things we probably don't need, we make sure outdoor pipes are wrapped, we leave kitchen sink cupboards open and faucets dripping. I went out today and bought supplies so I could do some serious cooking for the freezer tomorrow--will make an ice cream pie which seems a bit ironic in this cold weather and a new bread someone gave me the recipe for. It's supposed to stay below freezing for three days, and I may not stick my nose out the door the whole time. Rain turning to freezing rain and sleet tonight and then maybe snow. I'm not driving anywhere, let along walking down the driveway to my car.
Today it was in the 50s but the anticipation of the arctic blast made me feel both a bit apprehensive and chilled all day. I was surprised when I went out to check the garage apt (and leave the faucet dripping) that it wasn't really cold out. I cleaned the dog's yard, figuring I wouldn't do it again for a couple of days, and fed the birds--well, mostly the blasted squirrels, but the birds really need sustenance in the cold. Jeannie tells me they have to eat enough all day to give them the energy to shiver all night because that's how they stay warm and alive. Sounds like a miserable existence.
It's a bit ironic that we're having this weather with the SuperBowl madness in town. Someone suggested Fort Worth was hosting the Steelers and Packers with the kind of weather they're used to. I get the feeling the ESPN folks who set up in Sundance Square expected balmier weather, but apparently they have electric blankets, heaters, etc. The city has gone wild with this--another reason to stay home. Today, TV programming was interrupted so we could all see four buses carrying the Steelers from the airport to Fort Worth's Omni Hotel--every darn inch of the way. Made for riveting TV--not! I thought it was sort of funny that the local news said the eyes of the world are focused on the Metroplex for this game, when the national news was broadcast from Cairo. Obviously a difference in focus.
A joke on me: I have repeatedly said I'd never go to SuperBowl with 95,000 wild people. But guess what? I was at the stock show Saturday with 150,000 other people. No wonder it seemed crowded.
I have plenty of work on my desk, so the next few days will find me housebound, working and cooking and napping and reading. Doesn't sound too bad. Reports on cabin fever will follow--I may call all my friends just to hear a human voice.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The day after

A mother-daughter picture I treasure: Megan and me at the stock show. Courtesy of Jordan who then tried to turn around a take a picture of herself with us. It didn't work.
The Houston Alters pulled out of the driveway at eight this morning--I barely made it up to say goodbye. Austin contingent was gone by ten, and Jamie and his girls left about eleven, after he helped me clean up the playroom. Jordan and Christian came for lunch, collected Jacob, and were gone. Tonight, the house is quiet, three loads of laundry done, most folded, one bed re-made, dishwasher run, house pretty much back to normal. I am lonely but my dog and cat are grateful to have the house back--the cat particularly hates those intruders and hasn't been eating all weekend.
This morning when I went to fix breakfast I discovered I didn't have as many eggs as I thought. I asked Megan, and she said, "Your son." I wondered why Jamie was hosing down the whole front yard last night--apparently he instigated an egg fight with the grandchildren. I was obliviously sitting on the front porch with a glass of wine, visiting with the adult children (except Jamie, which goes without saying) and Sue, my former neighbor. Talk about oblivious! I told Maddie this morning that the first day after she was born I was holding her on a couch in the hospital room and Jamie was jumping up and down on the couch, calling to her. All I could say was, "Darlin', it's going to be this way the rest of your life." And it is--Jamie and his girls have such a bond and such a good time together. But then, so do all my kids and their children. I am truly blessed with family, and I'm feeling it more than ever tonight. My consolation: they'll all be back in two weeks for a party for their cousin who is deploying to Iraq. Hate the reason, celebrate the getting-together with extended family.
Colin says my blog is obsessed with food, but I pointed out it has three subjects and one is cooking. So here goes: This morning I didn't need the eggs because the dish I made was so filling: soft polenta with corn (I overcooked it and it wasn't as soft as I wished--also I should have made it with chicken broth instead of water, and I forgot in my haste to salt and pepper it). Top individual servings with chorizo (removed from casings, sauteed and then topped with cherry tomatoes until they release their juices--smash a few with a fork and cook it to make a sauce). Then top each serving with a mixture of feta and chopped cilantro. Really good, though the chorizo was a bit spicy for me. This evening I used the feta/cilanto mix to top a hamburger. So good.
So tonight I'm back at it--reading a manuscript for the Guppies critiquing partners program. Under that, a coordinator matches manuscripts and asks the authors if they're interested. I was, so I'm reading one about a designer/single mother in a small town outside Dallas, and I sent the author No Neighborhood for Old Women. I'm really having fun doing this, and I like the mystery.
Arctic temperatures in the teens (is this Omaha?), freezing drizzle, even snow are forecast this week. Ah, North Texas. Yesterday it was close to 80 and we were soooo hot in the sun at the stock show. I plan to get supplies tomorrow so I can spend Tuesday indoors, cooking. I'll be so glad when March comes. Good news is that I hve flowers--my orchid and my Christmas cactus are blooming. Pictures to come.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The stock show, the midway, and--oh, my!

With seven kids in tow (well one old enough to do lots of carrying and towing) we "did" the stock show today, and tonight I am an old and tired and broken woman. Parking is so remote I don't even want to talk about it, and the crowds were unbelievable. We began with the animal exhibits and saw lots of goats, then a few rabbits and roosters (well, I think they were) outside the FFA young animal exhibit, where the kids were entranced with the baby chick and ducks and with one huge sow nursing her piglets.  By then--we'd been there maybe 45 minutes--everyone was hungry, so we went to the Roundup Inn for lunch. In contrast to the years I  remember from when my kids were little, it's now a food court, and I had a pretty good Subway club sandwich. Then off to the petting zoo--except Megan "parked" me on some shady steps and I read emails on m phone. Just finished when she came back to say the kids voted to bypass the petting zoo because of a long line nd were at the midway. So I went and watched them on the various rides, which really was lots of fun. Jacob came down a really steep slide all by hmself. But it also involved a lot of standing, and my back really began to hurt. Then we had to have a junk food break--funnel cakes, cotton candy, candied apples and the like. Then more standing around--we were there from 10:30 to 2:30, and I honestly wasn't sure I could make the longwalk back from the far corner of the fairgrounds to the car at the far opposite corner. Jacob, Ford and Sawyer each won a fish--which meant sweet Christian went to PetSmart for fish-ready water, bowls, gravel, food, etc. The boys are thrilled tonight.
We had never celebrated Jamie's birthday, so he got carte blanche on where we ate supper--and we went to Mama's Pizza on Berry Street, because it's a sentimental favorite of his--he hung out there a lot in high school and college. Beyond that, I don't see much to recommend it, but then I'm not big on pizza. And they don't serve wine--just beer. It was fun to have us all together, and I saw an old friend who had known the children when they were little.
Tonight, well before ten, my house is quiet--everyone is exhausted and in bed. Makes me feel better--it's not just the old lady who got tired out by the stock show. But I am ready for bed.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Let's rodeo!

I sent these serious gun-totin' cowboys off to the rodeo tonight. All my children (except for daughter-in-law Mel who has a class committment) are coming home this weekend--guess how happy that makes me! The Hudgeonses and Burtons wanted to take their boys to the rodeo tonight--so that's Ford on the left, then Jacob, and then Sawyer. Needless to say, they were excited--and of course they associate cowboys with guns. I had to tell Sawyer to put away a plastic machine gun, explaining it was NOT a cowboy gun and did not belong in the picture No need telling them yet that most cowboys couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if they tried.
When my children were little, it was some kind of coming of age mark when they were deemed old enough to go to the rodeo at night. I can remember taking the older two and leaving first Jamie and then Jamie and Jordan behind with babysitters. But finally they all got to go, and it was an annual ritual they loved. I did too back then, but now my sensibilities have become more acute or something--I really don't want to see the bull riding, for fear I'll see a catastrophe. And I don't much like calf roping, bronc riding--anything where man or beast can get hurt. Pretty sad for someone who has made t he American West her field of study. Megan said tonight, "I can tell you're not sad you're not going with us," and I agreed. After they left, I broiled a loin lamb chop, made a small salad, and had a quiet and happy dinner, knowing they'd be back later.
But I'm glad they thought the rodeo was important enough to come to town--first rodeo for all three boys--because it's part of our culture and history, a part of a world that I've embraced. Me, a Yankee? Maybe, some forty-five years ago but now I'm a Texan and I love all parts of the culture (okay not the politics).
Colin and his family will arrive later tonight, and Jamie and his girls will come in the morning. We'll do the exhibits and probably the Midway, though I may give out part way through all that. And then we'll have a family get-together tomorrow night. With the stock show in town--remember when it was called the Fat Stock Show?--and the Superbowl looming, I think going out would be foolish, but I've made no plans for supper. They'll have to decide--carry-out, a last minute trip to Central Market for  fajita meat, whatever. I have spent too much time planning meals my kids didn't eat, and I've learned my lesson.
But it's always a joyous weekend to me when they all come home. Meanwhile, I'll spend tonight reading more of the manuscript I'm critiquing--and waiting in anticipation for my children to come home. I did that for so many years, and now I'm back to it. Couldn't be happier.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

All for the sake of research

Betty and I had one of our culinary adventures today--and one of the best ever. We went to check out Tolbert's Restaurant in Grapevine for my book on chili. For those who don't know, historian and journalist Frank X. Tolbert was the guru of Texas chili and a cofounder of the annual Terlingua International Chili Championship Cookoff. If anybody's chili is authentic, it should be Tolbert's. The restaurant is owned and managed by the late Tolbert's daughter, Kathleen Tolbert Ryan. We met years ago, at a strange dinner party, but I was delighted when I called her that she remembered me and was anxious to work with me on my chili book.
So today, she met us at the restaurant with a fabulous collection of pictures and posters for the book. And we had lunch. Now I'd been a bit worried--Tolbert was a chili purist (no beans, for one thing) and I worried that his chili would be too hot--after all, years ago I was a Yankee and my palate has never adjusted to really spicy food. And then of course I worried about eating too much fattening food. Not at all! Lunch was a delightful experience. We had donkeys' tails.
Puzzled? Well, it's a Tolbert invention--a pure beef hot dog, wrapped in a tortilla and deep fried. I'd seen this when I googled the menu, and of course I pictured sort of a greasy quesadilla with a hot dog in it. Forget that. The tortilla was wrapped tightly around the hot dog--we still haven't figured out how they do that--and not the least bit greasy, just crisp and good, a perfect contrast  to the texture of the hot dog. It's served with a mustard sauce that Kathleen told us is a mix of mustard and their salsa (a combination I'd never thought of but it was great) and a taster's cup of chili. We figured out later maybe you're supposed to pour the mustard and chili over the donkey tail and eat it with a fork. We treated it as finger food, dunking the tail into mustard and eating the chili separately, which I was glad I did so I got a taste of it. It was so good we each asked for one more small cup--and this time they came with spoons. We each ordered a side of cole slaw--it was clearly made on site, fresh and crisp and no preservative taste. Betty and I agreed that we each could have eaten another hot dog (we split one order) but prudence kept us from it.
We watched a bowl of red being delivered to an adjacent table, and I wished I had my camera out. It  looks like a bowl of small chips with a gorgeous, perfect green chile perched on top of it. Eye appeal was great, and by then I was sort of wishing I'd ordered a bowl of chili--except I wouldn't have wanted to miss the donkey tails.
Kathleen toured us around the restaurant, pointing out various pictures, lots of her dad and one wonderful one of her mom at Terlingua. She even took us back in the kitchen and Betty toured the walk-in. Betty and her husband own the Star Cafe in Fort Worth, and those two restaurant gals had a good time comparing war stories.
All in all, it was a great adventure--and I came away with a lot of illustrations and some new knowledge for my book. Plus a friend I can call on when I have questions. Kathleen is still chair or co-chair of the Terlingua Festival. Sometimes the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I guess she's been around chili most of her life.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

White House mysteries

I've been a fan of Julie Hyzy's White House Chef mystery series for all four books. They have everything I like in a book--cozy mystery, cooking and food, and a likeable heroine, albeit with a messed-up love relationship. Ollie Paras starts her career as executive chef of the White House in the first book and holds on to it through a series of murders and mishaps, always sure she's in jeopardy of losing her job. There's enough White House lore for history buffs, and the details of cooking and planning a state dinner will intrigue wannabe chefs like myself. I recommend you read them in order--State of the Onion, Hail to the Chef, Eggsecutive Orders, and the brand new Buffalo West Wing.
The newest book comes perilously close to home--a new president moves his family, including two pre-teen children, into the White House, and Ollie must adjust to working for a new administration, especially a new First Lady--and to having young children in the mansion for the first time in years. The parallels to the Obama administration are clear though Julie agreed that Michelle Obama would be a lot more fun to work with than the fictional Mrs. Hyden, who is made difficult for the sake of conflict to keep the book going. In her first move, an attempt to protect the presidential children, Ollie refuses to serve the children a box of chicken wings that mysteriously appears in the kitchen. If Ollie doesn't know where the food came from, it's not going to the First Family, but that move sets her off on the wrong foot with the new First Lady and it only gets worse from there.
Mrs. Hyden brings in a personal chef to cook the family meals, and the tension is immediately obvious. Virgil thought he was going to be the executive chef and is not pleased that he reports to Ollie. Mrs. Obama also brought in a personal chef, but  current White House chef Cristeta Comerford reports they get along very well. Once again that doesn't make as good a story as unpleasantness and conflict.
The threat to the children is obvious from the beginning of this book--and leads to some hair-raising suspense that kept me reading late into the night. But it also got me to wondering about White House reaction. Not that the Secret Service isn't already always on the alert against kidnapping, but how did they react to this fictional version? So I asked Julie Hyzy about the degree of cooperation, if any, with the White House.
She replied that she has had no cooperaton. She contacted the Bush White House when she was working on the first book and was told to send them a list of questions about the kitchen. She did, but never got a response. She was able to talk with former executive chef Walter Sheib (author of White House Chef), and she has talked to Secret Service agents and former aides.
Julie Hyzy has never stepped foot into the White House kitchen--she hopes to soon, but she has studied pictures, floor plans, and watched every recording filmed there. Her dream? An invitation.
As for the Secret Service being disturbed by her plot, she can't imagine they bother reading her books. She says she may have raised a few red flags when she started writing the first book, but by now they have to know that she writes fiction.
Even if the Secret Service doesn't bother to read Julie's White House Chef books, you should. They're pure delight for mystery lovers, and they do give a good glimpse, well researched, into at least some of the workings of the White House. Warning: you may stay up too late turning pages.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Stay at home and put nose to grindstone

This has been day one of my two-day stay-at-home and really work project. I got off to a slow start--slept really late, then fixed myself a better breakfast than usual, read emails, showered, did my yoga, and started a laundry. But about eleven, I settled down to sort my tax information. I decided with a long day in front of me that was the project I should do--it's one I just have to dig in and get done rather than work at in spurts. Either my accountant or I are psychic--his annual questionnaire arrived in the mail this afternoon. I'm not done, but I'm darn close--and glad to have it done.
I did sort of hate to stay in all day and work, since the sun was warm and cheering today. Temperature about where it should be, mid-fifties, though these days I always feel cold and welcome my flannel snuggie. I kind of wanted to join the cat in that wonderful patch of sun in the back room, which faces south.
Tomorrow will be devoted to a paper I promised to write for the Texas State Historical Association, to be delivered by good friend Fran Vick at the annual meeting in El Paso. I just don't pick up and go to far places like El Paso as easily as Fran does. The paper is on writing historical fiction for young adults, so it won't take much research--I can just write about the books I've done and the research for them.
But my two-day plan was pleasantly interrupted (actually I had seen it as a test of my self-satisfaction or ability to stand my own company or something like that). Melinda emailed about a birthday lunch for our co-worker (even though I'm retired, I'm still considered a part of the office in many ways and I appreciate that). So that's tomorrow. Then a friend called and said, "Can you have dinner tonight?" Both invitations pleased me, and we had a good supper and long overdue and much enjoyed visit over comfort food. We went to the Old Neighborhood Grill, down the streeet from my house, and I saw and chatted with several people I know, to the point I felt like a social butterfly. More encouragement.
When I came home I guess my brain was too tired for figures, but I wrote three and a half pages of the historical paper. Now I'm allowing myself to quit, read, and be lazy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writerly woes

What's a writer to do in this fast-changing world of e-publishing? I read a lot of listservs and blogs and the like. Yes, they take time but I'm afraid I'll miss some valuable piece of information. Trouble is, I get so much information I can't process and sort it all.
Take blogs: surveys have found that blogs do not sell books. But, hey, is that why I blog? I blog because I likie to and because I like to keep in touch. Individual writers protest that blogs get your name known and indirectly sell books. The thing you must avoid is BSP (blatant self-promotion).  Best suggestions I've heard are that hosting other writers on your blog is a good idea, as is being a guest blogger on other sites. Sort of crossing audiences or whatever. Let me ask you, dear reader, would you like to hear from other authors on this site?
Then there's the question of who's reading blogs? Are we blogging for other writers? If so, that's preaching to the choir. Are we blogging for the general reader (which I hope I am)? Then I have to move beyond marketing and such subjects and back to grandmothering and cooking--two topics where I'm comfortable.
And then there are all the lists and groups you can join: Linked In, BacklisteBestsellers, Good Reads, Kindle Nation, KindleBoards, and a host of others. To do all that would take every minute of every day--when would a person write, let alone have a life? I've deided you have to focus on one or two that seem most valuable to what you want and disregard the others.
And of course there's Facebook and Twitter. I do pretty well with Facebook, not that I'm among the most active--but I do respond to other posts, occasionally post something new, and always put this blog up. But Twitter in my mind is a whole different critter. I'm not sure what to post, and I never think I have anything significant unless it's BSP like "Why haven't you bought my book?" Not appropriate at all. I try occasionally. I read once if you post on Twitter once a day you're doing better than 90% of people. Well, probably 70% are doing better than I am! Sometimes I sit and think, "Hmmm. What can I post on Twitter?"
Then there's the matter of publicizing your e-books. If you don't plunge in and take a proactive approach, no one will ever find your books. All of this is a constant learning process, but I've just learned today how to offer free review copies to e-book bloggers. I have a long list of online bloggers but I'll have to research each one to see if they do backlist e-books. A part of me is waiting to make a big push when I have a brand new title--if ever. But I'll get to work on that. I read postings from people who are making a thousand dollars a month from their backlist, and I know I'm doing something wrong--or not doing something right. I might have a credit account with Amazon and Smashwords, combined, of $10-$12
Okay, BSP: My 1988 Spur Award winning novel Mattie and my short story collection are up on Smashwords ( and on Kindle (
And this is retirement? I tell myself it's keeping my brain young and active.
Meantime, back to cooking and grandmothering. Christian, Jacob and I went to church this morning. Jacob was fine in nursery school--after he pitched a wall-eyed fit when I tried to take him last summer. Maybe he's just that much older or maybe his daddy being there made him more comfortable. We both enjoyed the service immensely--the sermon was outstanding. Houston Bowers said when he hears someone say, "I gave my heart to Jesus," or "I gave my life to Jesus," he wants to shout: "That's not the way it works. Jesus takes it!" But best of all for me was that the anthem was "How Great Thou Art," my all time favorite. I told Christian he was to be sure it's played at my memorial service, but he just laughed. I liked being back in church. I just don't like going alone, but now maybe I've broken the ice and also maybe the Burtons will go with me more.
Another dull, chilly day in North Texas--not cold, but it felt that way. The birds swarm to the feeder outside my kitchen window, and I love watching them, though they can be a feisty bunch. I have a pair of cardinals that frequently come. Did you know they mate for life? Then I have pesky squirrels--I bang on the grate of my greenhouse window, and that usually scares them away. I have been known to run outside yelling like a banshee for Scooby to chase them off.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A miscellany, mostly of food

These are my Houston grandkids, Morgan on the top and, below, Kegan, with their breakfast pancakes this morning. Sme time ago I saw something--TV? the Web?--about Guy Fieri (the Dives, Dumps and Drive-Ins Food Network guy who will be in Fort Worth for SuperBowl) doing pancake portraits. He did a self-portrait that was spot on. Colin has long been creating shapes and alphabet letters in pancakes for his kids, and he once carved a pumpkin that was the exact, perfect likeness of his father. So I sent him a link or something, and apparently this is his answer to the challenge. It isn't quite his dad--maybe looks more like Fieri's spiky hairdo, but the kids are obviously thrilled.
Tonight I cooked for Jacob and Christian--I had purchased the ingredients for a cheesy, ziti casserole becaue it was an easy recipe that Jacob could make with me--but then he tired of cooking, and I wanted to use that ricotta before it spoiled. So I made the casserolele this morning--with low fat ricotta and skim milk mozzarella (or maybe the other way around). I still have some salad dressing that Jacob "helped" me make-well, I've added to it a bit since but he took credit since he tossed the salad--oh so gently, as I told him, so as not to bruise the delicate greens (I remember that from a restaurant in Chicago in my youth).
This casserole calls for using a jar of prepared marinara sauce, which I happened to have. I was amazed when I mentioned to both my daughters that I had found a way to spark up prepared sauce, and they each said, "I always doctor it." I added a bit of wine, bay leaf, balsamic vinaigrette, and brown sugar--omitting the suggested red pepper flakes in deference to Jacob and the bit of cream cheese on the theory that there was already way too much cheese in this reipe. Jacob ate it though only after announcing he didn't like pasta. Christian said, "Okay, if you don't like it, tell me what it is." Jacob: "Apple?" He ate enough to get ice cream.
There's a poltergeist in my house--or else senility, early or not, has set in. Yesterday when I came home from shopping my front door was unlocked--the alarm was on and nothing was touched, so I dismissed it as confusion on my part. I really thought I had locked it, but who knows? But this noon I lost the remote to my office TV--I wanted to change the channel from NBC 5 to 452, the Food Network channel. Have you ever contemplated having to push the up channel changer button 447 times? I searched; it was nowhere. So I ate my lunch, answered emails, and resolved to take the desk apart, although I'd pretty much done that.
When I went back into the office, there it sat in plain sight. I know it's easy to overlook the obvious, but this was SO obvious. I'm on the alert. I've often thought of writing a mystery--short story, maybe--about maybe a ghost living in a house or an actual person in the attic. Sometimes I hear things that go bump in the night but I figure it's the dog making a noise, an old house creaking, the wind blowing. I'll be alert now for strange things. Do you believe in poltergeists?
Wywy so enjoys the warm sun in the back room these winter days--he spends hours curled up there, sleeping contentedly--an old man's delight and right. Scooby on the other hand doesn't realize he's an old man. Tonight I was alarmed because he didn't come no matter how much I called when I put his food out--he has something (a possum?) cornered in an old rotting tree stump in the back of the yard. I can see where Scooby has clawed away much of the  wood. Life with animals is pretty intresting.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A spicy day

In my ongoing pursuit of knowledge about chili, Jeannie and I went to Pendery's Chili and Spice, a store that's been in Fort Worth since the late 1880s. Legend has it that DeWitt Pendery stepped off a stagecoach (or maybe a train) wearing a top hat and a cowboy shot a hole in the hat. Pendery calmly picked the hat up, put it back on his head, and proceeded on his way. The hat, with bullet hole, is on display at the store today.
Pendery's has the most amazing display of spices--you smell the aroma the minute you walk in. The variety of chili spices is overwhelming--I'm not sure how one would know to choose. But there are also bags of various flavored salts, peppercorns in all colors, fennel, cardamom--an endless list, along with dried chiles, books that seemed to jump off the shelf and say "Buy me," and cooking accessories I'd never thought of. I was particularly fascinated by the salt table, which is a block of salt on which you can serve appetizers; it seasons them just a bit more. Pendery's is online, with a catalog and a newsletter; check them out.
Jeannie and I went from there to a rather bland but delicious lunch at a local tearoom and then some browsing, but we didn't buy much. Still it was lovely to be out in the sunshine--we've been missing it for so many days.
Some days I feel that I don't get enough social contact--I have lots of work on my desk (including my tax information for 2010 to sort for the accountant) but I need people. I was really sort of blue about that thinking that lunch with Jeannie was my only outside event for the weekend. But my phone suddenly rang off the wall--one for a lunch date next week, another for a panel program participation in August (okay, that's kind of far away) and then I talked to Christian who said he's counting on going to church Sunday and taking Jacob with us. And I'll cook supper for them Saturday night, so the world is once again looking much more social to me.
I truly don't do well with just my own company for long spells of time. I lose my ambition, and, truth to tell, I get bored with my own company. How about you? Do you need contact with people? I know some who are perfectly content with their own company--one friend, totally my opposite, could be content watching paint dry. Not me. I want action!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How full is your plate?

Earlier this week, over supper, I earnestly lectured a newly retired friend, reminding her she is now retired with all that implies and she should stop working so hard to build her free lance career. Spend more time doing what you want, I urged, as though I was the sage of retirement. Spend more time with your husband. She protested she was doing what she liked, and I said just too much of it.
Sometimes--frequently?--our words come back to bite us. Today I was feeling a bit better about the chili book but still struggling. I did make progress and could see it begin to take some shape But when I'm supposedly devoting my writing time to that project, I somehow got involved in not one but two new projects. A librarian friend sent me a piece soliciting articles about teaching women to write about their lives. A snap, I thought, and whisked off a proposal--it was accepted barring review and is due in 60 days. Aftr all I've done that class several times, thrice within the last year. Then someone asked me to present a paper on writing historical fiction for young adults at the annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Society in El Paso in early March--Alamo anniversary weekend. Getting to El Paso is beyond me for a lot of reasons, but since the programmers had a last-minute withdrawal and needed help I offered to write the paper and send it if someone else would read it. I expected "Thanks but no thanks." Instead the answer was "Great. I'll talk to Fran and get back to you." That one too should be a snap, but those things that you think are a snap never turn out to be so once you start on them. I'm not abandoning chili right away but when I get definitve word on these othr projects, I'll do just that. Maybe that will give me perspective.
Very cold in North Texas today--Scooby has been asleep in his bed all afternoon, and I can't get him to go out to eat his dinner. Yet he can't stay in all night without a potty trip outside--I'll work on that in a bit. Had a good lunch with Melinda at Nona Tata today--my favorite braseola with shaved grana cheese and a good vinaigrette and that spoonful of really good vinegar-style potato salad. Tonight was not, I decided, a night to settle for tuna salad and hummus, so I made chicken divan--turns out, since I'm eating small servings, I made two servings. But I simply roasted a half chicken breast, steamed some broccoli, and covered it with a white sauce--the requisite butter and flour paste, chicken broth, a touch of white wine, and a tiny tiny splash of whole cream. Then put Parmesan over it and baked it--delicious! I could have eaten the whole thing but I'm restraining myself.
Hmmm. Back to chili.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Writing my way out of the doldrums

This morning I had the doldrums, maybe a hangover from my bad day yesterday. But my horoscope said if I wanted to accomplish things and live fully or whatever I had to get out of my comfort zone. So I put on my black velvet jogging suit (instead of jeans) with a deep pink turtleneck (always my best color) and a fuzzy pink/red scarf. Then instead of mailing my bank deposit at a drop-in box, I went to the office and put the letters in their secure mailbox--plus had a short visit with everyone. Then off to Central Market where I made sure I had enough food for the coming cold snap (probably only one day, and I could survive a month on what's in my pantry and freezer!).
Part of the reason I was in the doldrums was that I feel stalled on my chili project. I'm putting words on paper, getting the basics down, but so far it simply hasn't come alive. Like fiction, non-fiction should have a spark that makes it leap off the page at the reader. So far, my chili manuscript is, at best, pedestrian. I'm working on the theory that if I just get all the information down, then I can go back, revise rewrite, capture that spark. I usually can do it, but each time I write the first draft of nonfiction I think an idiot wrote it. (Jacob would tell me that's not a nice word, and he's right). I'm plugging away, but it is plugging, and I find myself looking for any distraction. Tonight I went through all my own recipe files for unusual chili recipes--vegetarian, lamb with lentils, white chili. Frank Tolbert is rolling in his grave.
When this book is finally done it will be great. I know it in my bones but I'm surely fighting to get there.
In a big departure from chili, Betty and I went to a new sushi place tonight--very modern, very slick, and we looked at each other and said we'd prefer the old neighborhood place where we usually go. Anyway, it was an adventure--even just finding it was an adventure.
In Fort Worth, eating out is going to be iffy for the next few weeks, and we'll all have to choose our destinations carefully--places that don't get stock show business, plus during Super Bowl week--who can predict where those people will eat? Everywhere!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Things that go bump in the night

Are you frightened by things that go bump in the night? I rarely am, but I can conjure up wild scary thoughts at 3 a.m. if I'm sleepless. Last night was different: I couldn't sleep but was sort of calm and peaceful--meaning I dozed--and finally fell asleep between 3:00 and 4:00. The cat wakened me at 6:00, and I fed him, thinking he'd then let me have another two hours of sleep. But when I crawled back in bed, I had this weird intermittent pain just above my elbow on my left arm. We've all been taught so much these days about being a pro-active patient, listening to our bodies and symptoms, etc., that I of course put left arm pain together with heart attack. Nothing else about me felt off--just this annoying flash of pain about every minute. My first thought was: of course I'm not having a heart attack, because I'm keeping Jacob tonight.
I have the luxury or advantage or whatever of having a brother who's a doctor, and I called him. After asking a few questions, he said the classic, "Take two aspirin and call me back later." Actually what he said was aspirin were good to take if it was a cardiac event, which he didn't think it was, and aspirin was also good for a pain in the elbow. Later, we settled on my original diagnosis of having slept wrong on my shoulder and elbow, and by mid-morning the pain was gone.
But it brought the power of imagination home to me again. I'm not sure if writing fiction and being definitely left-brained (don't ask me to proofread or do math) has anything to do with it, but I've always had vivid dreams and a strong imagination--especially in the dark wee hours of the morning. So this morning of course my imagination ran away with me--who should I call to take me to the ER, would I be in a hospital bed by afternoon, etc. I think probably the possibility of death even occurred to me, though I am quite sure I have a lot of years left to live--but still, in your seventies, such thoughts occur.
Of course once I got up and moving  both the scary thoughts and the symptoms went away. But it's a lesson learned (maybe) in distinguishing between real symptoms and frightful thoughts. Wouldn't I have been embarrassed if I'd called 911 for a numb shoulder?
So today my major thought was: I want a nap!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Some thoughts on mystery heroines

Back to work on my chili book today--still looking for recipes, so do send them along if you have them. But I'm also thinking about mysteries and their heroines--old-fashioned word, but let's use it. As I've said, I write (and hope someday to publish) cozies, not thrillers or suspense, but the more I read the more I'm finding that many heroines of cozies fall into a stereotype. I'm guilty myself in that Kelly O'Connell of Skeleton in a Dead Space can't cook and takes her kids out to eat--now why did I of all people create a heroine who can't cook? I think it's part of a pattern of incompetence for the cozy heroine--they're almost always single, usually devoted to their pets, involved in a love relationship that isn't working for one reason or another, and, worst of all, a bit flaky. They seemed to stumble into trouble and then stumble on the solution, often putting themselves and others in great peril--which, of course, adds the suspense necessary for a plot. And the law enforcement people, of whatever stripe, beg them to stay out of it--but these heroines never can.
The aspect of incompetence troubles me. I know the age of the superwoman is past--maybe she existed during the early peak of the feminist movement, when women set out to prove they could do everything and do it better than men. But often these heroines have one area in life where they are quite competent--it may be catering, journalism, the law, owning and running a business such as craft stores or bakeries or restaurants. But outside that, they are, sometimes--I hate to use the word--ditherheads. I tried to make Kelly a bit more competent by giving her two young daughters that she adores to care for, but she too has her insecure sides. One is how she looks and dresses, never reaching the air of sophistication she sees in even the casual dress of others but always settling for flannel slacks, a blazer and loafers, maybe dressing the outfit up with a silk shirt. And her hair is always unruly--common to cozy heroines. And as I said she can't cook--though I'm trying to teach her. She doesn't eat right either and her office assistant, Keisha, is always bringing her salads when she wants cheeseburgers--Keisha fills the role of sidekick. And Mike, her cop/boyfriend, begs her to stay out of crimes in the neighborhood. But she doesn't.
Don't get me wrong--I've read and thoroughly enjoyed a lot (a whole lot!) of mysteries about these ladies, but I'm puzzled by the flakiness of cozy heroines. Anybody got any thoughts? And now I'm on the lookout for capable cozy heroines. (I think I've blogged about this before, but more thoughts on the subject came my way--if I'm repeating, please forgive me.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Carmelized sauerkraut and other disasters

Cold and dreary again--and Silbey did not go to his new home. A glitch in planning--he'll go tomorrow. But every time I looked at him today, those huge brown eyes seemed to say, "You said you loved me, and nowyou're sending me away."  Meanwhile Scooby is confined to the house, which always leads to "accidents." I'm careful about food, but I'm afraid they'll get into a territorial fight over Scooby's doghouse which Silbey has taken over. 
Jacob arrived in a funk, the kind he gets into if he's rudely awakened from a late afternoon sleep. It takes him about an hour to get his personality back, in which time he skipped dinner and went right to dessert. My own fault: when he was devastated that his parents were leaving, I told him life is uncertain and sometimes a fellow should he dessert first. He took me up on it, but he didn't miss much with supper. I cooked a chicken sausage from Central Market--way dry, though it may be okay with mayo tomorrow for lunch. Canned corn--how can you go wrong with that. Home fries--a few got too burned but they were mostly good. But the great experiment went awry.
Years (and years) ago my brother's first wife used to carmelize sauerkraut. I can still see her standing at the stove, patiently stirring and shaking sugar over it. John and I have talked about  it and agreed it can't be that hard. Tonight, with a sausage and potato dinner I decided to try it--failure! I guess I didn't use enough sugar because it wasn't sweet, and it was sort of stiff, as though it had been fried--not soft like I remember it. Too high a heat? The web was no help--most recipes that came up on search called for sauerkraut with carmelized onions. Maybe it's John's turn to try.
Jacob is now climbing all over my desk, laughing at his own cleverness--a completely recovered child.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The saga of Silbey

Today in the rainy mist the prospect of keeping an untrained large strong dog looked much less appealing. Scooby refused to go outside until he had to, then begged to come in. My great experiment in letting both of them into the back room at one time began with a dog fight--I forced Silbey outside and sent Scooby to my office. He soon wanted to go to his bed and has sulked there all day. I did let him wander the house this morning but Jacob was here and wanted to let Scooby lick him--except Jacob makes Scooby really anxious, and I don't trust that. So there I was separating two dogs and a four-year-old who declared that the new dog was his best friend. "Juju, when you die--and I know you will because you're old--I'm going to take care of the new dog." Oh, and there was also the matter of keeping that blasted squirrel from eating all the bird feed. My day was filled with animals--and a curious child. I took the child home about eleven and got a huge bag of dog  food which, in retrospect, was a mistake.
As I considered Silbey might not be the dog for me, I thought about all the emails from many of you who congratulated me on this humanitarian adventure--how could I let you down when so many were cheering for me? I thank you for your messages and hope, as you read on, you'll see this has come to a happy conclusion--just not the long difficult one of me keeping and training a large hunk of untrained, loveable dog.
This afternoon Jay and Susan arrived back in town and let their dogs out in the courtyard. Silbey was immediately over the five-foot fence and in their yard, where Pecos, their senior dog, tried his alpha dogs technics--another dog fight. They brought Silbey back about five with Jay's considered advice that Silbey was too much dog for him (a strong, healthy man in his 40s--oh, did I mention he's my good-looking neighbor? I keep forgetting to say that). Susan said her fear was that he'd pull me down, trip me, etc. If he's too much dog for a man in his 40s, he's sure too much for a woman in her early 70s with iffy balance. But they went to dinner with friends who have a ranch just outside town and bingo! Silbey has a new home--with acres to roam and run and a stock tank to roll in. These are apparently animal people, raising cutting horses, etc., and were immediatley interested in a yellow lab.
I think I'm breathing a huge sigh of relief. Silbey is absolutely one of the sweetest dogs I ever met. This afternoon, after I got Scoob settled in his bed, I let Silbey into the playroom, and he simply sat by me as I read and petted him. He was perfectly calm and content; when I went to answer the phone, he stayed frozen in spot until I came back. Let me put a collar on him with no fuss. We talked and loved, and he is indeed a wonderful dog. But it's all those little--or are they big?--things: he's afraid of hardwood floors, I have to drag him outside (no small trick since he's 80 lbs. I suspect), and he's so underfed he'll fight over the least scrap of food. I think he's beginning to know about "Stay" and maybe his name, but most commands are beyond him. And housebroken? Who knows, but  I doubt it.
I'm left with the satisfying feeling that I've found a good dog a good home. And now I can get back to my life--if I just make it until late morning tomorrow.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A serendipitously found dog

This morning my neighbors woke to find a friendly, sweet yellow lab in their backyard--in spite of a closed gate. He had been on the neighborhood email  yesterday in somebody else's yard, and today he ended up in mine--he's an escape artist and kept getting out of the yard next door. I've been thinking about a second dog to keep Scooby company, looking at labradoodles which are mucho expensive, and suddenly with this new dog in my yard I remembered what my mom always said: "The Lord works in mysterous ways." Maybe the Lord meant me to have this dog.
He and Scooby did the usual impolite sniffing routine and got along fine. I tried bringing him in the house but he was shaking he was so scared, and it was clear to me he hadn't had any leash training and had no idea about "Come" or "Stay." Tomorrow, when Jacob's not here, I'll try the house experiment again--letting him in to just the back room with the doors closed. Meantime I've named him Silbey, a contraction of Silly Boy. He is as sweet as can be, but he's also skinny. I carefully fed the two dogs apart but when Silbey turned away from the crumbs in his dish and I let Scooby out, a dogfight ensued. But it's the only trouble we've had. I'd guess Silbey might be a year, not much more. He's obviously worn a collar--there's a mark on his neck--but it's gone. My suspicion is someone deliberately dumped him, because in spite of repeated postings, no one has come forward.
Monday the dog trainer I've used before is coming to assess the situation, and after that I'll take Silbey to the vet--he needs to be neutered, have his shots, etc. I'm a great believer in instinct, and my instinct tells me that this dog can adapt to the house and be a wonderful companion, both for Scooby and me. And for Jacob, who already adores him. But we're a long way from that point, and I know it.
Labradoodles cost$1500 or more but they come crate-trained, neutered, shots up to date, and basic house training. By the time I civilize Silbey I may have spent that much, but I could not bear to let him loose to roam the streets or turn him in to animal control. So for now, I'm playing it day by day. It may be a long weekend. I'll go get a collar and some dog food tomorrow, plus maybe a big dog dish.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Another food day--and a bit of philosophy about that

Food seemed to dominate my thoughts and activity today. This morning I fixed my house guests breakfast--an experiment of course. I buttered and toasted pieces of French bread, put one in the bottom of each of three ramekins; topped it with sauteed spinach, crumbled bacon, and an egg, and then drizzled it with just a bit of cream. Lesson learned: you have to make a nest for the egg--they all slid to the side of the dishes and didn't make a pretty presentation. Baked them for 14 minutes at 400. Another lesson learned: they came out hard-cooked, when the whites should have been solidly cooked but the yolks runny to mix with the spinach and bread. I'll try that again.
Jeannie and I were supposed to go to lunch but I felt so full I didn't know if I'd be hungry by noon. Instead of going out, Jeannie came here and we each ate a bit of roulade with sauce and a bit of asparagus. I sent some roulade home to her husband, who is confined to bed with pneumonia, and I stiill have enough to give Jordan the leftovers she wants. It was, I say modestly, perhaps even better today than last night.
Tonight Betty and I went to dinenr--see? I told you it was a food day! We went to a German restaurant where she had a huge entree of beef wrapped in red cabbage and topped with a sauce or gravy and the biggest helping of cottage-fried potatoes I've ever seen. I had potato pancakes, which made up for the fact that I haven't had latkes in several years. Crisply fried and delicious--I didn't even need the applesauce and sour cream.
Jeannie and I were talking about friends and eating out, and I said I can go along for days eating modestly and healthfully but then a couple of days like the last two come along and I eat too much of the wrong things. But I'd rather do that and enjoy friendships and people and going out than sit at home and think about whether what I am eating is good for me or not. Jeannie agreed absolutely that without her small group of good friends she'd be boring and bored. So I guess we'll grow old and fat eating out together.
Needless to say I didn't get much work done today--I did ride my bike and have a good nap. I keep telling myself next week will be better.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Three Ladies of Publishing

Fran Vick is the retired founding director of the University of North Texas Press. Gayla Christiansen is the still-working-overtime sales manager and director of rights and permissioins at Texas A&M University Press. And I am the retired director of TCU Press. We call ourselves the Three Ladies of Publishing, and we periodically hold summit meetings, usually at my house where I am expected to provide a gourmet meal--and joyfully do so. Since today the semi-annual sales meeting for the A&M consortium was held at TCU, we were all in Fort Worth, so tonight we had a summit meeting. Part publishing discussion, a bit of gossip, a lot of catching up on families and friends, and a lot of laughter and sharing.
I think my gourmet meal satisfied. When the ladies hit the door about 4 p.m. and asked for wine, I gave them an amuse bouche of tiny rolls filled with anchovy butter. Then they gathered in the kitchen to watch me cook, and I gave them an appetizer of finger sandwiches--cocktail rye topped with cream cheese and diill, smoked trout, a dab of sour cream, and a couple of capers. Dinner was a roulade, with layers of pork, chicken, and prosciutto interspersed with a sauce of olive oil, basil, anchovies, garlic and parsley, and served with a sauce of cream and chicken broth and bacon. Plus asparagus and a salad of beets and orange slices with vinaigrette and feta. No dessert. We sat around the fire and talked far later than I'm used to, and I'm writing this late at night.
We were wondering tonight when we first started these summit meetings and decided it was quite a few years ago. For my 70th birthday, they gave me a proclamation, now framed in my office, that reads "Leader and Chef of the Front Porch Wine Drinking World Problem Solving Three Ladies in Publishing."
Reminds me of last night's post on the value of friendship, but once again it is so true. It is really a delight for me to cook for these two, and I try to outdo myself each time. I have to uphold my reputation. And it's wonderful to sit around and share publishing news and personal news with a sense that these are two women that really care about me and I care a lot about them. Another blessing in my life.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Sometimes I get wrapped up in what I'm doing at my desk--trying to write mysteries (more about  that another day because I'm feeling optimistic) and now writing a book on chili, tentatively titled Texas Chili, Beans, and Beer (I actually do have a publisher working with me on this). I run the risk of being a recluse, though I know I need the company of others to keep me grounded. Sunday and Monday, with the unpleasant weather, I stayed in and worked--and, yes, it made Judy a dull girl.
But today I ws reminded of the value of friendship, not once but twice. Friends in the sense of people I've known and enjoyed a long time but not those who are part of my close circle of friends that I see frequently. This morning the Book Ladies met at Audi Vanderhoof's house for breakfast--the Book Ladies are a group of aging (we weren't when we started) women whose careers have had to do with books--there are librarians, two writers (including me), an editor and teacher, and booksellers. We didn't start out conscioiusly to be a women's group but that's how it happened and grew--probably over close to twenty years now. We've lost members who've moved, who've dropped out for no reason, and, with regret, several to death, including my dear friend Bobbie.
But we met in high spirits today in Audi's warm and inviting home with its many Pennsylvania Dutch touches, and she served a wonderful breakfast--fruit salad, egg and sausage casserole, crisp bacon, and all kinds of homemade rolls. Laughter dominated the table, and I was reminded that it's worth getting up early to meet this group once a month--I usually don't see any of them between meetings. Yet they have been a part of the fabric of my book life for so long.
Tonight I went to the Old Neighborhood Grill down the street from my house with neighbors Joe and Mary Dulle, again longtime friends I don't see often but like a lot. I saw people from the Berkeley neighborhood I knew and met a couple I didn't--though I was flattered that Karen had my cookbook and had fixed Doris' Casserole. Again, there was lots of laughter, some talk of city politics, some talk of aging--well, that's where we are. It was a nice way to spend an evening. Apparently this group--or whoever shows up--meets every Tuesday night. I'll go again.
That sense of friendship inspired me to come home and email two friends I don't see often enough. I'm a firm believer that you have to work at friendship, but it's so worth the effort that you put into it. So what if I didn't get any desk work done today? I'm retired. What I do, I do because I want to. And sometimes visiting with friends is more important.

Monday, January 10, 2011

You're either a dog person or you're not

My friend Sue lost her dog suddenly Friday, although she says in retrospect he hadn't been acting quite right for some time. Her children, teenager Alex and 6th grader Hunter, were and are devastated. And so is Sue. She came by for a drink tonight and--surprise!--she has already been to the humane society and adopted a new dog. She said simply, "I'm a dog person, and I am not happy living without one." I had been afraid to ask if she was getting another dog, fearing she might think it insensitive. She's a little touchy about replacing Gus so quickly, but I think it's a testimony to the fact that she loved having him in the house. This will be a radical change however--Gus was a small, terrier mix, always scrappy, always willing to take on any other dog but always anxious for affection and love. Sue, with her kids' encouragement, has adopted Jack, a lab mix (the pictures looks to me like he has retriever in him). He's a year old, and she put him through his paces, only to discover that he's sweet, fairly calm, obedient, and obviously came from a loving home. I'm delighted for her though I sense a mix of excitement and anxiety. It will all settle down, and they'll be happy.
I'm like Sue. I'm a dog person. For years in this house I had three dogs--my collie, Colin's Aussie, and Jamie's lab. My collie died (fairly tragic circumstances), then Maynard the lab died of cancer, and Colin took Cisco to Houston. I was without a dog for six months, and I didn't like it. Then Scooby appeared on the humane society list, and I was hooked.
Sue said tonight that she supposed at my age (she's a whole lot younger) I'd had and lost a lot of dogs, and of course that made me think of the dogs I've lost and the dogs I've loved. I could make a long list but I'll keep it brief. I think the most wonderful dog I ever had was a gorgeous mahoghany collie named Shea--my ex and I adopted him (almost stole him but the owners were grateful). He was the perfect gentleman, and we took him everywhere with us. At the same time, my brother had a German shepherd that I suspect was his best dog ever. King followed him to class and could not be kept out--he'd sneak into the building and find John.
I've had a lot of dogs since, from Cairn terriers to Irish wolfhounds, and loved them all. And I've grieved when I lost each one, sometimes to age, sometimes to accident and once to heart defect. I lost a puppy to distemper and another because it was blind from birth and couldn't adjust to the world--or to my children. I have a lot of dog stories. Now I have an aging Aussie (and an aging cat but that's another story). I'm thinking of getting Scooby a companion--I think it would be good for him, and I wouldn't have to hope to find the perfect dog in a few years when I lose him. But I'm watching for the perfect dog. In my mind, I'd like to have a labradoodle that I could train to be a care dog, visiting sick children or nursing home patients, something like that. The idea of taking my wild man Scooby into a nursing home boggles the mind--he'd jump in the patients' laps and lick them to death.
But Sue's big change got me thinking--some of us are dog people and some aren't. I was raised with dogs, though I remember being afraid of them as a young child. But my brother and my parents always had a dog, and I soon became a dog person. My ex and I even showed them for a while--it was obvious we were rank amateurs.
Scooby is a love, and I adore him, will grieve when old age gets him. Right now, he's just slower and a bit absent minded, but he sometimes jumps with joy when I come near him, he's curious as can be, and if he can filch food, he'll have at it. Some folks think he's ugly, with mismatched eyes. I think he's beautiful. Here he is in his bed, his most favorite ever place to be. At night, I find it comforting to hear him whimper in his dreams, and grunt and groan. Sue said her house is too quiet right now.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Cold, rainy, stay-at-home day

Jacob definitely knows how to spend a cold, rainy day. If he watched his new Star Trek DVD once, he watched it six times. When I told him it would snow, he begged to go out with Scooby and play in the snow--I had to expain it wouldn't be enough to play in, and it wasn't. As daughter-in-law Melanie said, it was a non-event. Big pretty flakes that didn't stick to the ground. Scooby has also spent the day in his bed and is getting spoiled, I fear.
A boastful moment: for years I have taken bad pictures. Even my late good friend Bobbie used to say, "You look much better in reality than you do in pictures." But I liked the cooking picture on last night's blog, and it occurred to me that I take a better picture these days because I'm more relaxed and at ease. I loved my twenty-eight years at TCU Press and would have told you I wasn't stressed, but the difference is amazing to me. I do think it's taken me since June but I may finally be settling in to retirement--and loving it. Polly, if you're reading this, please take a new picture of me:-)
Like the entire nation, I am heartsick about the shootings in Tucson. Tonight I saw an interview with the parents of the nine-year-old girl who died. So painful I couldn't bear to watch and listen. Who thinks of sending their child to a grocery store and having them shot? May God be with the victims and their families. The furor that incident is raising nationally is intersting--and maybe healthy and healing. One can only hope.
A young couple knocked on my door tonight, and I was wary even though they looked most friendly and nice. But I had Scooby by the collar, and they said they were new neighbors, as indeed they turned out to be. I know which house they bought. They were calling on neighbors to introduce themselves and deliver gifts of popcorn, which I thought was enterprising of them. Pleasant young people, and I look forward to getting to know them.
I know I've posted the recipe for Norwegian hamburgers before, but this is for Jason, who read last night's post and said he's always interested in new recipes. Tonight he was on Facebook saying he'd fixed vegetable soup with dumplings--obviously he's become a cook since the days I knew him. Happy cooking, Jason!

Norwegian hamburgers

3-4 slices of onion

3 Tbsp. butter (do not use oil)

1½ lbs. extra-lean hamburger (extra-lean is important)

2 eggs

3 Tbsp. cornstarch or potato starch

½ tsp. pepper

Milk as needed

4-5 envelopes instant gravy mix, prepared as directed

2 beef bullion cubes

Sauté onion in butter. Mix hamburger, eggs, cornstarch and pepper. Add milk as needed; start with ¼ c. and add ¼ c. at a time, but DON’T let the meat mixture get soggy. The last time I made a double batch of these, they tended to fall apart while I was browning them. I bet my mom’s trick of throwing a little tapioca into meatloaf would work here, too. Shape into patties and brown in same skillet as onions. Remove.

Make gravy in skillet, according to package directions. Add 2 bouillon cubes. When gravy thickens, return burgers and onions to pan and simmer 45 to 60 minutes.

Serve with white rice, egg noodles, or boiled potatoes. Peas, beets, or green beans are nice with this.

PS: The recipe is in Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Collaborative Cooking

Tonight Elizabeth, Weldon, and I cooked collaboratively--Norwegian hamburgers and mashed potatoes, but both had to be gluten- and dairy-free. Elizabeth had experimented last week and was pleased that tonight our collaborative effort came out pretty much like hers had last week. But you learn things cooking with other people--she learned that adding milk to the meat pattie mixture lightened the texture of it (she uses almond milk but you couldn't taste the almond), and I learned from Weldon, who made the mashed potatoes, that a bit of olive oil lightens the texture of the potatoes. Part of the plan was to have Jacob cook with us. I thought at least he'd help me make salad dressing, which he did last week, but he announced when he walked in that he was "tired of cooking." He did however don his apron for the picture above. We had lots of fun cooking and then lingering at the table--with Star Trek in the background. And while Elizabeth and I were making the meat patties, Weldon and Jacob had a good visit about the latest Star Trek movie. Jacob has, sadly, forgotten all about poor Spiderman.
Elizabeth and I decided our next collaborative project will be venison sausage from the book Ratio. But we're searching out sausage stuffing equipment--I know I used to have it, but I think it's gone, and it's not cheap to buy. She is alsos intrigued by the instructions for homemade mayonnaise, and having made it some in the past I know it's vastly superior to the store-bought product. John and Cindy had homemade mayo at Hot Tubs in their tartar sauce and cole slaw and raved about it. So that goes on my list too.
Rain, sleet, snow, and ice predicted for tonight starting at 6 p.m. Now, at ten, it still hasn't happened, but I imagine it will during the night and tomorrow. I stocked up at the store today so I wouldn't have to go early in the week but forgot a major ingredient for my dinner for Three Women in Publishing on Wednesday, so I'll have to go back, weather permitting. I'm in a cooking phase, but I'm also enjoying editing the sequel to Skeleton in a Dead Space. Retirement is really great fun.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Creating a fictional world

When you write anything, everyone has a bit of advice on the way to do it. And of course no two bits agree. I'm definitely finding this in mysteries. Uber agent and legendary writing coach Donald Maas says every sentence, every paragraph, ever page has to vibrate with tension. Others say description slows down the activity, but then some say description creates the world in which the fictional characters operate. As I rewrite these days I'm most aware of description, because I use quite a bit of it--though, I hope, in small bits. It seems to me that Maas' advice holds true for thrillers and suspense novels--traditionally those where danger is present on every page. Often the victim (or stalkee) knows who the villain is, and it comes to a question of who can outlast who and who can trip the other one up. I recently read Mary Higgins Clark's Pretend You Don't See Her  in which the protagonist, witness to murder, is put in the federal witness protection program. She lets a trivial bit of information slip to her mother in the weekly phone call they're allowed, and the mother, interested in her daughter's welfare, buys a newspaper from the city where she now knows her daughter is, then leaves the newspaper on a chair in a restaurant. You got it--word is quickly sent to the hired assassin after her. So the reader is on pins and needles--will he get her or will she escape? (I truly don't think this much info is a spoiler.) I have always joked that I don't want to read Mary Higgins Clark when I'm home alone--well, I do, but they're scary on every page. That's the kind of tension Maas is talking about.
But I'm writing--or trying to write--cozies, a whole different kind of mystery. Cozies usually feature an amateur sleuth--in my case, a real estate agent who is drawn into solving an old murder because she finds a skeleton in a house she's renovating. Neither the protatgonist nor the reader know who the murderer is nor when someone else will fall victim, so there's your suspense (sometimes I think the author doesn't know either!). But the word cozy implies something different from the nail-biting suspense of the thriller. What draws me into the cozies I read is identifying with the protagonist--she (or he, though it's almost always a she) and the world in which she lives and the people around her become real to me, so that while I read I live in that world. And if it's a really good book, I'm reluctant to leave that world when I finish the book. In the mysteries I'm working on now, the world consists of Kelly O'Connell, her two young daughters, her boyfriend, Policemen Mike Shandy, her assistant Keisha, and the landmarks and houses of Fort Worth's Fairmount district. To make all that real to readers, I have to describe. I'm well aware however of the danger--reader boredom--that lurks in pages and pages of narrative desription. The old writer's saw, "Show, don't tell," is ever true, so it's a trick to work in description yet avoid too much narrative voice. Have I succeeded? Only a good editor will know. My mentor says I have. But it's a constant balancing act.
Readers are as different in their tastes as authors are in their creative leanings. Some prefer noir, exporing the dark underside of life; some prefer taut tension; some prefer the world of cozies--the craft group, the bakery or tea room, the flower shop, and, I hope, the real estate/renovation world. All I can do is keep writing and keep querying. I have a query out now on Skeleton in a Dead Space to Turquoise Morning Press, a small press about which I hear very good things, including that they want mysteries. And I'm working on No Neighborhood for Old Women. But soon my conscience will draw me back to a project with a more sure market: that book on chili.
A marketing note: a man named Joel Kirkpatrick has put together an anthology of first chapters of books on Smashwords or Amazon. He calls it the Bestseller Bound (BSB) anthology, and you can find it at The first chapter of my Mattie is in Volume Two. The anthology is a free download, and if you like the opening of Mattie's story,  you can order it, I think from Amazon or Smashwords. It's hard to publicize digital reprints, so Joel's project seems worthwhile and generous of him.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Twelfth Night

Tonight is Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, the night when Christians recognize that God came to earth as a human being in the form of Jesus Christ. This revelation is particularly tied to the Magi, and I'v always thought of Twelfth Night as the night the Magi brought their gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to the Baby Jesus. When I tried to explain that tonight to Jacob, he fixed me with a long look and said, "I don't know what you're talking about." (We've got to get that child to Sunday school!) But Twelfth Night is also the night when you must take down the last of the Christmas decorations, lest you run into bad luck.

When I was a child, neighbors semi-adopted me, showering me with gifts and attention. I called them Auntie E. (Emma Elizabeth) and Uncle Jack, and she, always the grand lady, had a tradition of each person burning a small branch of the Christmas tree on Twelfth Night and making a secret wish. We've done that in my family ever since. Jacob came into Tree Trimming in early December asking "Are we going to burn a branch tonight?" So tonight he was most excited that we were actually going to do that. From the pictures above, Jacob was obviously the focus of our celebration. It's getting harder and harder to find fresh greens, since everyone has fake trees, but Susan and Jay had a green wreath, and she brought the greens and took part in our burning ceremony--Jay was out of town. It's a nice way to put an end finally to the holiday season. And, fittingly, Christian, Jordan, and I put the decorations back up into the attic for another year.
As I said, I've been revising my second mystery since my mind was already in that world. But last night, to my horror, I disovered I only had nine chapters, maybe half the novel, on my hard drive; then I discovered on a zip drive a file titled No Neighborhood for Old Women revised. Guess what? I'd already revised it once and maybe done a better job. So now I'm starting all over, checking for extra words, outlining by chapter--nice that I have something to keep me busy. I'm actually not too upset--the more I go over it,the better I'll make it. I still feel that I don't have control of the plot, and I can pinpoint things that need to change.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Triva--a bit of Chritmas, a bit about food, my iPhone, and a rant against editing Mark Twain

This is Santa Mac, my newest Christmas decoration--Santa for obvious reasons, Mac for my father, R. N. MacBain, who was always called Mac but never wore a kilt in his life. Jeannie picked this up somewhere and said when she saw it she just knew I had to have it. When I was taking Christmas down, I was hesitant to pack Santa Mac away, so now he's on my bookshelf. It's okay to talk about Christmas one more day since tomorrow is Advent or Twelfth Night. I have also excused the people whose outdoor lights are still up on this basis. More about Twelfth Night tomorrow.
Betty and I went to Hot-tubs last night--she heard me rave about it and wanted to go. I had the sliders again, gave one to her and still only ate one and a half. Those little cups of complimentary beans are filling. When we looked at the menu, we really meant to split white chocolate blueberry bread pudding for dessert, but when it came to it, we just couldn't. Next time I'll remember: Life is uncertain--eat dessert first. The people at the next table had the bread pudding and Betty asked me if we could ask them for a bite but I nixed that idea. We had a nice young waiter who ended telling us he graduated from TCU in '09 and played football with members of the team that won the Rose Bowl. That strapping young man said the victory made him teary. Nice to see young people not afraid to cry, from joy or sadness, and admit it.
I've been in appointment mode--a haircut, the dentist, and today the audiologist. But the absolutely exciting, neat thing about all this is that I can take my new iPhone. In waiting rooms I can read e-mail, check Facebook, and even read the currenet book on my Kindle. I can't tell you how excited I am by that (okay, I know half the world is ahead of me) or by the fact that I'm learning to do all those things and more on the phone. A most appreciated gift.
Heard on the news tonight that there's a move afoot to make Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer politically correct. One "scholar" has rewritten the works, changing the n-word to "slave." Can you not just hear Mr. Twain's reaction? My own is pretty vehement. You don't change classics, for starters. And I always remember my good friend C. L. Sonnichsen, the below-the-salt dean of southwestern historians (honest, that's how he described himself), who claimed if a word or thought or action was true to time and place, it belonged in the work. Elmer Kelton used to say we couldn't blame our great-great-grandparents for plowing up the prairie because they didn't know any better. Well that same generation used the n-word freely, and we should recognize that its use gives us a clearer picture of the culture. Another scholar was quoted tonight as saying the use of the n-word illustrated exactly what Twain wanted us to see in those books--that folks as different from each other as could be were able to form strong and important relationships. Edit Mark Twain? The mind boggles.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Soup Pot

It’s supposed to go down to the low 20s next week in North Texas and stay cold for the rest of January. The weather people haven’t mentioned snow, sleet and ice yet, but we seem all set for “stock show weather.” My mind naturally turns to soup.
This post will be submitted to the Charity Souper Bowl on the blog Branny Boils Over. For every recipe Branny receives, she’ll donate one dollar to the ASPCA, and she doesn’t want to be embarrassed by donating $13. So if you have a soup recipe, send it to her. This post is also dedicated to Scooby, my sweet but silly and aging Australian shepherd who is pacing the study floor now because he wants to go check out the kitchen floor for crumbs dropped.
For years, when my children were young and hungry all the time, I kept a soup pot. Everything went into it—a bit of a casserole, vegetables from corn and potatoes to carrots and green beans and peas, the tag end of gravy, a smidgen of leftover sauce, or the water left behind from boiling or steaming vegetables. Once a week, I fixed what I called “soup of the week.” I took a look at the soup pot and decided what it needed to make a soup for a family of five. Usually the concoction was brown—but, then, I’ve heard Texas is the land of brown food--chili, chicken-fried steak, fried potatoes. Sometimes I added an undrained can of tomatoes or a cup of broth or whatever was needed for texture and taste. You can add herbs, and salt and pepper are often a must. The kids liked it and never complained about the brown color.
You do have to be a bit careful about what you mix—if you put much chili, King Ranch chicken or something else with Mexican seasoning in it, you probably don’t want to add that leftover bit of tuna casserole (does anybody make tuna casserole, that relic of the ’50s?) Think of it as a theme to your soup pot: if it’s Mexican and you need some body to it, add a drained, rinsed can of pinto beans. If it’s more the traditional French or Italian soup pot, with say vegetables, meatballs or chicken, add some pasta or potatoes if you need starch.
For the patient, dedicated cook, here’s a minestrone recipe my daughter, Megan, gave me. It feeds an army. Megan actually makes a double batch if she’s going to dice all those vegetables. She keeps it in the freezer in batches that will feed two adults and two pre-schoolers, and she says the children love it.


1/3 c. olive or salad oil

¼ c. butter

1 large onion, diced

2 large carrots, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 medium potatoes, diced

½ lb. green beans, trimmed and cut in 1” pieces

Sauté the above in a large soup pot until lightly browned. Add,

6 c. water

16 oz. can diced tomatoes

5 oz. fresh spinach, shredded

2 medium zucchini, diced

6 beef bouillon cubes

1 tsp. salt (taste first)

Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 40 minutes.


1 16 oz. can cannellini (white kidney) beans

1 16 oz. can red kidney beans

Cook 15 minutes until slightly thick. Do not overcook.

Sprinkle each serving with grated fresh parmesan or romano.

Serve with crusty French bread or garlic bread. Just slice the bread, spread it with soft butter, sprinkle with pressed garlic, chopped parsley, and parmesan or Romano. Broil until just brown at the edges.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A food blog

I meant to write post today about creating a fictional world--see I'm really trying to be a mystery novelist, and I had some deep thoughts I was going to share with Sisters in Crime people and others (who might find them not so deep). But I got distracted--first by thoughts of chili and then by a cookbook.
I talked with an editor today who is interested in having me turn the chili portion of my Texas foods book into a freestanding book, so I've got chili on my mind. Did you know for instance that Will Rogers loved the chili that Governor Ma Ferguson made? She always made it when he stopped by the Governor's Mansion. And of course there's Lady Bird's Pedernales Chili and the famous chili cookoff in Terlingua and the not-so-famous one in my living room. This manuscript will have recipes but won't be a cookbook. It's more of a chatty, informal approach to everything about chili, from the beans/no beans controversy to the history of Pendery's chili spice and Wolf Brand. I'm looking for chili stories and unusual recipes.I can do most of the usual ones--true Terlingua chili, my own Mild and Tentative Chili (from Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books), gluten- and dairy-free chili, vegetarian, turkey, etc. But if you have a really different twist or a good story about eating or cooking chili, I'd love to hear it. Please send to me at Marcia, does El Paso have a distinctive chili (that's a challenge)? I'm also interested in world-class chili restaurants in Texas--so far I've got the Texas Chili Parlor in Austin and the old Richelieu Cafe, now gone but once on Fort Worth's Main Street..
My brother and sister-in-law gave me a book called Ratio for Christmas--it's about the ratio of ingredients in various things like broth made from bones, doughs and batters, sauces, brining solutions, etc. The chapter that really drew my attention is on making sausage, which should be 3 parts meat : one part fat; the seasoning should be 60 parts meat/fat : 1 part salt. I love sausage (the German side of me occasionally overrides the predominant Scottish) and I'd love to make this. Used to have sausage stuffing equipment--maybe it was used twice. I don't know if I can stil find it, but I'll look. Thing is I need a co-conspirator for this--too big a project to take on alone. But I know some experimental cooks who might be interested (yes, Elizabeth, you're on my mind). There's a great recipe for brining a chicken in this book, along with directions for homemade mayonnaise. If you've ever had homemade, you'll wave goodbye to Kraft and even Hellman's. Various vinaigrettes intrigue me because I've got to get Jordan off that one blue cheese recipe! Jacob helped make the salad dressing the other night and his idea of one little shake of Worcestershire made me add more oil and vinegar to the dressing--I'm sure I didn't get the ratio right. Jordan said indignantly, "We don't even put that in dressing!" Anyway, this book is a treasure, and I'll prowl its pages often. Kudos to author Michael Ruhlman, and thanks to John and Cindy.
While we're on the subject of food, I confess I had one of what Christian thinks of as my odd meals tonight: pickled herring--it's been in the fridge since my Christmas party and it kept calling me; hummus--counteracts the acid of the herring; hearts of palm; and, oh, that leftover teaspoon of ham salad. Not a bad meal at all.
Don't forget to send me those chili stories.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Overwriting--and a reason to sleep

Today was the Festival of Sleep. I'm not sure where I learned this, newspaper or internet, but  I had already put it to good use by sleeping really late. No Jacob to worry about. I fed the cat about 6:30 this morning and threatened him if he bothered me before 8:30--he didn't. And then this afternoon I crawled in bed for a good long nap. I'm sort of a dozer--I get warm and comfy in bed and can stay there a long time, my mind drifting in and out of light sleep, telling stories in my head, figuring out things that worry me, and reliving certain recent happenings.
One of the things I thought about today, while dozing, was the mystery I finished reading today. Once again, I'm learning by seeing what I don't thinks works in books by other authors. I liked a lot about this book--the setting (including a Jewish deli with all that good food), the protagonist who was spunky and determined, and the mystery, though I identified the murderer fairly early on. But I didn't think the author was in control of the characters. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have thought "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds" but I think fictional characters have to be consistent, that is remain true to their character. And the characters here were all over the place--one minute despising someone and the next minute cozying up to them. The action began to seem like  ball of yarn that had become unrolled and tangled. Most fiction authors will tell you to listen to your characters and they'll tell you where the book is going, but you have to ask yourself the question, "Would the character I created really do this?"
Since I finished editing Skeleton in a Dead Space last week and was mentally in the world of Kelly O'Connell I decided to stay there--that would be the Fairmount neighborhood of Fort Worth and the imaginary characters I've peopled it with. So I began editing the rough draft of the sequel, No Neighborhood for Old Women. One thing I'm noticing about my writing is overwriting, and blog readers may notice it too. But as I edit, I delete lots of words--the word "very" is never needed, phrases such as "I semed to think" become "I thought."  That verbal garbage creeps in when you write quickly, trying to get action and thought on the page. First edit is a time to make your words lean and spare and match the action to that, while keeping suspense up (no mean trick).
This time I'm making an outline, chapter by chapter, as I go. For one thing I discovered characters for whom I staged a wedding later in the book were already married by the first chapter. But you know what? I'm having fun!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011 is off to a good start

Is New Year's Day an omen of how the year will go? In so many ways I hope so. The highlight of the day was TCU's close but decisive win of the Rose Bowl. Who thought a school of 8700 could field a team against a school of 42,000 students and win? Jordan and Christian and Susan and Jay and I watched, while Jacob boycotted us and watched the Disney channel in my office. I'm curious to see what changes this big, national win will have on campus--it can either focus attention completely on athletics at the cost of academics or it can help boost all facets of the university. I'm hoping for the latter--and for a strong university press as part of the deal.
The day was also off to a good cooking start--sort of a no-brainer but I heated a spiral-sliced ham, made mashed potatoes, heated canned black-eyed peas (I never can cook them from scratch so they're any good, but, Barbara, if you're reading this I can still do purple hulls as you showed me years ago). I made a Reuben spread for an appetizer, and Jay brought an amazing array of cookies and sweets that he'd baked over the holidays. Jacob helped me cook--he's suddenly crazy about cooking (if he's in the right mood and has his apron). He helped make salad dressing, dumped the peas into a saucepan, watched me unwrap the ham carefully, and at the table took credit for much of the meal. We all praised him. I wanted him to keep his apron on so we could have our pictures taken but a blow-up over whether the TCU game or Rudolph should be on the TV put him in a bad mood--and he was moody off and off all evening. I know, I know, I believe in discipline but it just breaks my heart when he sobs. The typical soft-hearted grandmother.
And the day was a good omen for writing (I hope)--I submitted my mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space, to a small press. The fact that I'm going to try a few small presses and then go to self-publishing is indicative of the changes we've seen in publishing just over the past year. Self-publishing has lost it's tinge of disgrace (though some bad books still see their way to at least electronic print that way), small presses are doing gangbuster things, and some people predict the decline of the chain bookstores and a resurgence of the indie stores. All laudable trends since publishing in New York has been sort of a closed circle that it was hard-to-impossible for a beginner to enter. I don't think this is sour grapes because an agent submitted my mystery to the major big publishers without success--I think it's more a recognition of the changing face of publishing. I'm not going to justify the fact that a major publisher wasn't swept away by my book--I know how many mystery writers there are out there. But with my small press background, I'm cheering the new approach to books and publishing.
Technology is changing so fast too--Jay brought over tonight the book Susan made him for Christmas, a chronological record of the dishes he has cooked for them over the last two or three years. She took the pictures with her iPhone, designed it on her computer, and sent it off to some service of Apple to be bound. Result is a quality book, hard-bound, dust jacket and all--and to my eye good color. (OK, Melinda, your eye would be more discerning). I was much impressed, and Jay was sentimental about it. He is, by the by, a great experimental cook and creates some wonderful dishes!
I would happily accept my day as an omen for the new year except for nagging distress over Jacob's meltdowns--I guess that's all part of being four. I hope each of you found as much pleasure in your day and look forward to a great year.