Thursday, March 31, 2011

Restaurant Impossible

I'm hooked on the Food Network, though I usualy watch and listen with one eye and one ear while doing something else. Last night I put aside everything for another episode of Restaurant Impossible, Robert Irvine's show in which he takes a failing restaurant and turns it around in 48 hours with $10,000. Irvine goes in and assesses food, ambiance, and service. At last night's restaurant, the cook ("I'm not a chef but I'm a good cook") used canned green beans, instant grits and frozen shelfish among other "garbage," as Irvine called it. He tossed it all out, gave cooking lessons, and a cooking test that resulted in a switch where a younger man became head cook and the original one, a line cook. He also demonstrated that where they were spending $10 on a large can of gravy, he could make it from scratch for $1 and it tasted much better.With the help of a design crew, he tore out an old red bar-top and replaced it with a wooden bar, painted over a huge mural, brought in new chairs and chair covers for existing chairs. Then he created a new menu and sent the wait staff home to study it. Next day they were tested on it; if they passed, they got a T-shirt and worked that night; one girl failed and was sent home to study. Questions such as "Describe the fried green tomatoes" needed a fuller answer than "They're fried green tomatoes." They were served with feta on a bed of--I forget what (guess I too need more study). As his last act, Irvine carefully targets a community segment--college students last night--and passes out samples. By the time the restaurant opens--and those last minutes are hectic--there is a long line waiting outside.
At the end of the show, there's an update on how the restaurant is doing: of the few I've watched, at least one closed in six months, but most were doing alright. Last night's restaurant, owned by two young novices, three months later, was on the right track but not doing gangbusters. This must be a humiliating experience for the owner and exsting staff, but it surely works miracles.
I've always had a bit of a restaurant itch, I suppose because I like to feed people. I could see myself serving the tea-room or deli food that I love--chicken and tuna salads, Cobb salad, maybe some things with smoked salmon and anchovies. But I well know the failure rate of restaurants, and I know I have no experience, so I scratched my itch for several years by working at The Star, a cafe on the North Side owned by my good friends Betty and Don Boles. They specialize in steak, chicken-fried steak, and burgers. Best chicken-fried steak I've ever eaten--burgers and steaks are good too. I really did love talking to the customers, but I tired of rolling silverware and eventually decided that restaurant work, like anything else, had its ups and downs. So I'm back to cooking at home.
Right now I'm baking chicken that I found on one of my favorite blogs--Mystery Lovers Kitchen. I seasoned two chicken thighs with cumin, salt, rosemary, and oregano. My house smells divine. After they're cooked I'll roll them in Parmesan, olive oil, salt and garlic salt and pop them back into the oven for a minute. I promise--I'll only eat one and save the other for tomorrow night. I love cold chicken!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Daily Cheap Reads

If you own an e-reader and haven't checked out Daily Cheap Reads ( you really should look into it. Lots of books priced at ninety-nine cents and a little higher. Tonight, my novel based on the life of a pioneer woman physician in Nebraska is the featured read (with appropriately a link where you can buy it). Mattie won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America the year it was published, and I'm still pleased with it. A neighbor told me the other day that while her husband was in the hospital she sat up untilol 4:00 a.m. reading it. No higher praise. I have two other pieces of my western writing on Smashwords and Kindle--Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories, my collection of short stories, and "The Art of Dipping Candles," which is free on Smashwords. My brilliant (?) marketing strategy there was to get people to read a free short story and entice them to buy the collection. I'm not like a lot of writers who I know check their sales figures three times a day. I remember to check every week or so, but I don't think my strategy is working.
Having posted these three pieces of my backlist, or what I have come to think of as "my older works," illustrates a dilemma I face as I plan to market my forthcoming mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space. For my whole writing life, I've been too much of a generalist--if I had any specialty I'd say it was fiction, both adult and young adult, about women in the American West, but I've written literary criticism, done food cooking, written on assignment for school children about everything from ships and surgery to the continents of the world. So now I want to present myself to the reading public as a mystery writer.
The world of mysteries, I've discovered, is a place unto itself. Mystery writers are, for the most part, a close-knit, supportive group, very knowledgeable and very ready to help each other and offer cheers when appropriate, condolences when needed. The best thing I ever did was join Sisters in Crime and the Guppies (Going to Be Published) subgroup. Lots of people stay in Guppies after they're published, so I fit well. I feel like I'm published--but in mystery terms, I'm unpublished.
Mystery readers are real groupies too. I'm not sure but I suspect it's hard to get them to move away from their favorites, although some devour so many books a week they have to branch out. I would read that voraciously if I had the time.Mostly in Sisters-in-Crime and on Twitter it seems to me we're preaching to the choir. So I'm looking for new, subtle ways to market my new book and get away from that pigeon-hole of a young-adult western writer. Then again, I must be grateful--that pigeon-hole has brought me a lot of rewards, just not fame or fortune.
Anyway, the point of all this was check out

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Squirrels are making me squirrely

My dad was an avid gardener and a lover of birds. Especially in his retirement years on a gorgeous piece of property in North Carolina, he put out bird feeders all over, but the main one was by the picture window at the dining table. There was a hummingbird feeder, and we'd sit and watch those feisty little birds chasing each other away. But there was also a seed feeder and too often we'd watch the squirrels pillage the contents. Dad tried every kind of squirrel-safe bird feeder then invented, and the little beasts outwitted him every time.
Now I'm fighting the same battle. I have a cylindrical mesh bird feeder outside my kitchen window, and I love to watch the birds. I'm not as knowledgeable as Dad about the kinds and the other day saw a small black-and-white bird with a bright red spot on the top of his head. Betty is always asking what I want for my birthday, so it was an aha! moment. I've asked her for a small illustrated guide to the birds of North Texas. I do of course recognize a few--a cardinal mama and papa come to the feeder, and Jacob loves to watch for the "red bird." He'll creep quietly into the kitchen and stand and watch (well, he also likes to watch the washing machine through the glass door in the front, so this may not say much about his powers of observation!). Mockingbirds try to get on the feeder, but they're so big they flap around in an ungainly manner.
Alas, the squirrels have discovered how to stretch from the tree to the feeder. They wrap themselves around it and feast away until I happen to the kitchen window and commence to shouting--and, yes--swearing. I bang on the window with a toy gun (I tried shooting it, thinking the clicking noise would alarm them but no such luck). Some of them scurry up the chain, into the trees and away, but some bolder fellows just stare at me with the bright eyes. That makes me so mad I go charging into the back yard, waving a wooden cane, and yelling for Scooby to do his job of squirrel chasing. By then, of course, the critter is gone. I filled the feeder to the top yesterday and it's empty tonight. At a hardship to the birds, I'm going to leave it empty for a couple of days and see if that teaches the squirrels.
The squirrels have already begun to dig in my planter boxes. For Pete's sake, nothing's blooming  yet, and they're disturbing my seeds. I may try mothballs.
But I know what I want for my birthday--children, are you listening?--a caged bird feeder. I saw one in Westcliff Hardware that was neat. The birds land on spring-controlled perches and eat but if a squirrel lands on one, its greater weight closes the trap on the feed. Some caged feeders won't let the medium sized birds, like cardinals, fly through but  this one would let everyone eat--except the critters. However, it was priced beyond what I consider an impulse buy, so I put it on my wish list.
I know we should love all God's creatures, but the squirrels try my patience sorely. Only worse thing was the year roof rats found my bird feeder--and then my attic!

Monday, March 28, 2011

What floor do you live on?

Having been a Christmas/Easter churchgoer for the past couple of years, I've gone back to church. Thanks to Jacob for getting me there. Even though it's all fun and games in the pre-school nursery, I want him to know that church is where you go on Sundy morning. He enjoys it, and I'm glad to be back. This Sunday, the minister quoted a theologian (sorry, can't give you the name) who suggested we think of ourselves as a house. Most of us live on the first floor, but there's the second floor and even the attic--levels we could aspire to if we wanted and tried, and then there's the basement, where we could sink to being less than we should be. The image stuck with me. I remembered someone in my class who didn't think she is living up to her full potential--actually I think she's on the second floor, and I hope to share this image with her. I guess most of us live on the first floor but hope that occasionally we make to the second.
I taught a new memoir group today for Human Resources at TCU today--nice bunch of women who seem enthusiastic and genuinely interested. Out of seven present, one wants to write professionally. The others write for their children and grandchildren, and one writes, I suspect, for herself--nothing wrong with that. I caught one woman staring into space and asked if she had a question. She said no, her mind had just slipped back to something that had happened at the office that day. That's the trouble with a lunch-hour class--it's hard for people to put their work out of their minds for one hour and then leap back into it.
I heard today of a politician, Federal legislature I believe, who went on a hunger strike several years ago and is going on one again to protest legislation which hurts the poor. He said, "We can't fix the economy on the backs of the poor. They didn't get us into this mess, and we should not punish them to get out of it." Hope the Texas legislature was listening: Friday HB1 comes up for a vote. It's a budget that closes schools, raises college tuition, leaves senior citizens homeless, cuts funding for those with disabilities, and elminates pre-K programs. There goes the remnants of LBJ's Head Start and the Great Society. I wonder if Texas is headed for the basement.
I know, I promised no politics, but I am also moved by my friend Representative Lon Burnam's plea to protest HB1 and urge legislators to vote against it. I don't think we want to live in a state that ignores people's basic needs.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chili on my mInd

Spring left North Texas as suddenly as it came, with temperatures in the 30s last night. Jacob decided bed was the best place to be on a cold Sunday morning, especially since Juju had left the vent windows in the kitchen open. (There was a really cute picture of this to go there, even two, because the cat also decided bed was the place to be, but I cannot get them to upload and don't want to spend my evening on it.) Jacob and I made it to church, and after a waffle, a pbj, and a TCU purple cookie, he decided this was a good day. Tonight I have turned on the fireplace--I love not having to build a fire--as much for emotional warmth as physical. But I've been sort of cold all day.
Good day to think about chili, and I'm back to my chili manuscript. I've been emailing with Kathleen Tolbert Ryan all weekend and she's sent some wonderful information. Tonight Jay came over and spent about an hour giving me his impressions of the Tolbert cookoff at Terlingua. He goes every year, has judged in the preliminaries, and is full of information. His parting shot: "Don't go for the chili; go for the camaraderie."
So that's my project for tonight, weaving all those bits of information into the manuscript. Then I have short stories to edit and I have gotten deep into the novel I'm reviewing and I'm really appreciating it--a far cry from my usual escape reading of cozy mysteries. A good cool night to cozy in at my desk--except there's a cat in my face. Maybe food will help her.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Waking up joyful

I have vivid dreams, sometimes getting into bizarre, impossible situations with aa wild variety of peole past and present and sometimes writing a novel in my dreams but of course the next morning I don't remember those details and twists of plot. It interests me that in the midst of a dream, bits of reality intrude and I can say to myself, "No, that's not true." I often find myself cleaning--a messy kitchen, a dirty house, whatever, rarely my own home. I'll have to look into the significance of that, but it generally takes me a bit to transition from my world of sleep and whatever dream world I was in to the real world. A friend calls it "getting my happy on" and says she gets it by the time she has her first cup of coffee. Today, though, I felt like I ought to burst into that song from Oklahoma! "Oh, what a beautiful day!" I felt self-confident, strong, skinny (well that may have been delusional), and like all was right with my world. Wish I could bottle that feeling! Not sure where it came from but probably a variety of things.
I corresponded last night with a MacBain descendant in Alberta that I'd never heard of--I wrote him because a family tree he put on has been most helpful, and he answered immediately. At one point, he said he thought the MacBains, at least his branch, were in Glengarry by the Uprising. I thought he meant Scotland and wondered if I should abandon Inverness, change the itinerary and go to Glengarry, which is near Glasgow and doesn't sound nearly as interesting. Then he wrote back and said he meant Glengarry, Ontario, not to give up on Inverness. We are both apparently stymied by the same man, father of both our great-great-grandfathers (they were brothers!). What fun to find this hidden trail to follow.
This morning I went to Central Market and splurged, really splurged, to fill that lobster longing I wrote about a few days ago. They had lobster tails for $13.95 and I thought I could afford that, but when I asked I was told yes, they had been previously frozen. I have a tentative relationship with shellfish, can't eat shrimp at all, and have found that I can eat fresh lobster and crab but not frozen or canned. The fish lady offered to steam a lobster and take it out of the shell, which she did quite quickly while I waited. (I can do it but I rarely get the claw pieces out in one big piece as she did.) Please do not ask about the cost, but my lobster salad tonight was delicious--a bit of celery and green onon, lemon juice, dry mustard and mayo, all lightly used so it wouldn't hide the lobster taste. And there's enough left for tomorrow night---shhh, dont tell Jordan who will probably show up right at lunchtime, after church, tomorrow. She gets tuna salad.
Jacob and I ate al fresco--a picnic on the porch. I had given him his choice of going out for either spaghetti or tacos and he said he wanted Mexican, but after I got changed he said, "I want to eat here. You can take those clothes off." So he had chicken nuggets and I had my lobster with hearts of palm and hummus. The breeze was just beginning to show signs of the cold front we expect tomorrow and now the air feels much chillier.
Jacob had a big day--a program by Kids Who Care in the morning, errands, a little boy's birthday party in the afternoon--he arrived with green hair and a fish on his cheek, which he announced he was wearing to church in the morning. Unfortunately he smeared his hand down his face and the fish transfered itself, not intact, to his hand. As I helped him clean it, he said, "I am just so angry!"
At 7:30 I was in the family room, reading while he watched TV. Left to come write an e-mail, came back at 7:50 and he was sound asleep, fully clothed. I have two concerns here: I'll have to get him up to pee, and he may wake up at six. Heaven help me!
I guess I'll make full use of my free evening and go to bed early just in case.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Searching for books and ancestors all at once

Writers bookshelves are supposed to be disorganized, aren't they? I don't think this one in my office is particularly bad, but I have searched through it for almost a week for one small book (small is the operative word here). Yes, there are other bookcases throughout the house, books everywhere if you will, but my gut told me the book I wanted was here. Jim Lee and I are presenting a program on Elmer Kelton in early April, and the book I wanted is about Elmer, written in the 1990s but still relevant in many ways. Most embarrassing: I wrote it. Well, tonight I finally found it and now have everything together for the program, I think. The book was tucked between two large books and had slipped to the back of the shelf. Now, on to other things.
In between searching for my book, I've been searching for my Scottish ancestors. I so want to make the link from the Candian family to those in Scotland. My dad believed that his great-great-grandfather was the grandson of Gillies McBean, a Highland hero who died in the Uprising of '46, fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie. But I cannot get beyond William McBean, who was born in Scotland and died in Canada, which would fit with what Dad surmised. William insisted on going to war, and after his father bought him out twice, he let him go. William fought for the Crown in the War of 1812 and was rewarded with a land grant in Canada, presumably near Peterborough, the area where he died. That's how my branch of the family came to Canada. (The fact that Canadian geography is foreign to me except in the great big picture is not helping this at all.) Disconcertingly, I cannot determine for sure if William was born in Scotland or Ireland, but surely it was Scotland.
There are hints on for other branches of the family--my grandmother, notably--and I'll pursue them. But I want to solve this MacBain puzzle first. Does seem however that those Scottish MacBains had a tendency to marry women from Ireland, so maybe I should be more passionate about claiming that side of my heritage.
My mother's family tree, as far as I can tell, is a dead end with my grandparents. She was German, and I never heard her express any interest in her ancestry. She loved German food but never served sauerkraut, because she'd been forced to eat it as a child. I was grown before I tasted it, and now I love it. I like German food a lot and am anxious to try real Scottish food in Scotland. Probably I'll pass on haggis, though I hear it's much better over there than what I tasted here once at a St. Andrew's Day dinner. is addictive, like Facebook and Twitter. My book on chili calls--I've finally straightened out some things that puzzled me--and I have a book on my desk to review. I did watch the program, "Who Do You Think You Are?" tonight, but those seekers always have the help of genealogists and historians. I'm just bumbling along.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ever skin, butcher and cook a squirrel?

This picture is me with my son-in-law, Christian. I'm quite sure he has never shot a squirrel, nor skinned and butchered one, and if I went to all that trouble and served it to him, he'd politely say, "No, thanks." But the contributing authors (some of them anyway) of Grace & Gumption: The Cookbook spoke last night to the Women's Arts League of Colleyville. The meeting just happened to be in the training room at Christian's office, and he was the designated host who stayed to lock up. Such fun to claim him when people saw us talking. He gave me a big hug when I came him, and one woman said, "I guess you two know each other."
The G&G Cookbook is a social history of Fort Worth told through food, and believe it or not there were two women there who had cooked squirrel. Some of the ladies had cooked recipes from the cookbook for the event. Not squirrel, but chili biscuits (a favorite of mine), eggplant caviar, molasses cake, mousse and puddings, and I can't remember what all. I wish I had a picture of the beautiful table. Chili biscuits are a favorite because every hostess in West Fort Worth served them in the '50s and '60s--women would pop them out of the oven like they'd just made them but everyone knew better. They came, frozen, from Roy Pope's Grocery and were made by Lucille Bishop Smith, an African American educator and caterer who was a city institution. And they were delicious. The recipe is in the cookbook but seems a lot of work--the woman who made them admitted it was.
We each talked about our chapters, and as one of the editors, I talked a bit about how the book as a whole came about. It was a sequel to Grace & Gumption: Stories of Fort Worth Women, designed to tell about women's contributions to the development and growth of our city. The story has always, like so many, been told in men's terms. Women's stories are hidden away in attics and correspondence and handed down by word of mouth, but they have rarely,  until recently, been written. We followed that groundbreaking book with a cookbook, which led some to say, "We just got women out of the kitchen! Why are we putting them back in there?" My reply was because cooking is what women do with one hand, while they're building communities and museums and political careers and theatrical careers and also sort of other things with the other hand.
The audience last night certainly seemed to agree with that. They were a most receptive group, listening attentively, laughing a lot, asking good questions. It's such a pleasure to talk to groups like that that I forget the shy girl inside me.
One recipe from my chapter which always boggled my mind is Hollandaise sauce made with mayonnaise, French's mustard, soy sauce, and melted butter. Most of the ladies laughed and agreed with me: it's not the way we make Hollandaise. But afterward two ladies said they'd made it that way and it's just a shortcut: the mayo gives you the creaminess, the mustard the color and a bit of bite, the soy the salt and the butter is the richness. Learn something new every day, but I still think I'd want a bit of lemon.
A delightful evening.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lobster longings

Is there a season for lobster, say like there is for raw oysters--we can eat them  in April but then not again until September. The months inbetween have no "r" in them, and that's the rule. Of course, some people won't eat any raw oysters these days, but I admit to giving into temptation occasionally, always with a bit of trepidation. But I digress. Back to lobster.
I'm reading a novel called Town in a Lobster Stew, a mystery set in a small coastal town in Maine. The author is B. B. Haywood, and I think she knows whereof she talks about lobster stew. The small town has a lobster stew cookoff every spring to start the tourist season, and Candy, the protagonist, is asked to step in at the last minute as a judge. As she described the variatioins on a theme, I got hungrier and hungrier--one made with tomatoes and thyme, another with Dijon and white wine, and one with just a hint of cinnamon. I want to try all of them. I think that's a sign of how much I've walked into the world of the novel. More about B.B.Haywood and her small Maine town another time.
Then a new Bon Appetit arrived and I leafed through it, finding a stunning recipe for lobster rolls. So now I have a craving. Next time I'm in Central Market I'm going to look longingly at fresh lobster meat--I'm past wanting to bring home a live lobster and cook it. Maybe I could afford enough for a meal for just one--me!
Years ago there was a restaurant and fish market in Fort Worth called Zuider Zee. Every year they had a lobster two-for-one special. My then-husband and I used to have "bring your own lobster" parties. We'd borrow a huge kettle from the hospital kitchen, fix a salad, and I suppose serve wine. Gosh, do you suppose way back then we served Mateus? Anyway, I remember those parties, in the tiny concrete block house we lived in, were always great.
Another memory of two-for-one lobster: I worked as a secretary to the hospital pathologist at the time, a nice if somewhat unusual guy. He and his wife were both on the plump side, and one night they ordered the two-for-one lobster. The waitperson brought them each a lobster, and he said, "No,  you don't understand. Two for her, and two for me!"
These days a local restaurant, Lucille's, has "Lobsterama," with whole Maine lobsters for something like $13. Betty and I love to order a lobster and the house salad, a bleu cheese vinaigrette, but each time she looks at me and says, "How do we do this again?" I once had dinner with Megan at Uncle Julio's and we split the Cadillac special--a whole lobster and fajitas (to me, sort of an incongruous combination). I mostly took it apart, but she said, "If I'd known it was this much trouble, I'd have never ordered it." But then, that's the child who, when I splurged on fresh raspberries (they're dear in Texas) said, "If I'd know they have all those seeds, I wouldn't have eaten them."
I'm ready for lobster and raspberries. Hmmm, gourmet delight.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Are We at War?

I've heard the words "We are at war" too many times in my lifetime, and last Friday I heard them in my head when word came that French planes and then ours were over Libya. I was too little to remember Pearl Harbor but I've heard the story many times of how I was playing on the kitchen floor while my mom cooked dinner, and Dad stuck his head in to say, "We are at war."
In 1950 cousins were in town for a family wedding and it had rained heavily. One cousin and I had been plopping around in the mud in the park across the street (at twelve, we were too old to do that, but I remember it distinctly) when Dad came home and said, "We are at war." The Korean War.
I don't remember the start of the Vietnam war as clearly--it seemed to creep up on us as an ever-increasing threat and soon I, newly maried and a mother, was worrying about my husband being drafted. An osteopathic physician, he would not have gone in as a doc at that time but as a private--and he'd have made a lousy soldier (he'll admit that himself).
I remember the start of the Afghan war. I had just gotten in my car after church on a beautiful Sunday morning. Turned on the radio and there it was, and I thought it was so incongruous on the holy day of the week when everything around me was so pretty. And then of course it was that over-televised conquest and premature victory declaration in Iraq. When others were glued to it, I turned off the TV. And we all know it kept getting worse and worse.
I'm of a mixed mind about Libya, fully sympathizing with the people who want reform and recognizing that Khadafi  (however you spell his name) is a cruel dictator; I also recognize that if the UN approves, the US must support allies and go along. I wish it could be our mission to stop pain, suffering and cruelty throughout the world; I don't know that it is or should be our mission to democratize the Middle East where culture and customs are so different. It reminds me of the misdirected efforts of missionaries to convert Native Americans and natives of Hawaii in the 19th century.
When I think on it, there haven't been many long periods in my lifetime when this country wasn't at war somewhere in the world--maybe ten years at the most. This point was driven home tonight when I attended the Annual Friends of the TCU Library Banquet where the TCU Texas Book Award went to Sam Gwynne for Empire of the Summer Moon, fiction about the Comanches in their last years of glory, during and just after the Civil War. The books has gotten excellent reviews, and the author was an entertaining speaker, but the book, like the real life events it depicts, is about war and violence and torture.
I'm not sure I'm completely a pacifist; nor am I sure I sanction intervention. But I know I hate war and violence, and I hope we'll be spared another prolonged conflict in Libya. I'll be relieved if we don't put troops on the ground. How many wars can we fight at once?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What's the best burger you ever ate?

I watch the food channel a lot, sometimes with only half an eye as my attention is focused on the work on my desk, but by late morning I usually have it on (okay, I'm a TODAY show junkie). Today the show, "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" was devoted to burgers, and there were some tempting concoctions there, including a cheeseburger topped by potato chips But I got to thinking the best burger I ever ate was at home: I buy the prepared chopped sirloin patties at Central Market, cut them in half, and freeze half. Shape the other half into a pattie, sprinkle the skillet liberally with salt but no oil, and slap the patty on at high heat. Brown on one side, turn, brown, and remove. It comes out crispy and good on the outside and warm but barely cooked on the inside--just the way I love it. I toast a piece of rye bread, put mayo on it, cut in half, top one half with the burger, a tomato slice, and maybe a bit of red onion. So good! My mom taught me the salt trick years ago.
I was no slouch in the kitchen tonight either. We had Jordan's birthday party and bless her heart, she worked herself into a frenzy over it--we held it on my porch. Her friends used to come to porch parties all the time, and they miss them. In recent years, as little children appeared, it was easier to have patio parties at Jordan and Christian's  where there's an enclosed yard, etc. But we decided on a nostalgic porch party--which meant Jordan transported 40 carloads of stuff--well, it seemed that way. We had chicken nuggets and cheese sticks and juice boxes and bananas for the kids; she brought meatballs and taquitos for the adults, and I made four dips--a bean/cheese one, a spinach/cheese/artichoke, our traditional corn dip, and--best of all to me--a reuben dip, with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, 1000 Island dressing, and just enough cream cheese to hold it all together. Jeannie, if you're reading this, I suggest that for lunch tomorrow.
Jordan worked herself into a second frenzy cleaning the kitchen--I helped when I could, when all the guests left. But she left me in great shape, and I didn't have to do a lot. The party was a lot of work for both of us, but I found it worth it. I've known and loved some of these young people for almost twenty years, and it's been a while since I've seen them. Special delight was that the Frisco Alters came, and I had a good visit with Jamie and Mel and some visits with Maddie and Edie. Maddie mostly spent her time looking after young children, and Edie hung around her parents, but it was so good to see those delightful girls. Jacob was beyond excitement with about ten kids to play with in the front yard. They tossed frisbies, had ice fights, jumped rope and just plain ran.
So tonight I am thankful for family and friends and once again counting my blessings. Tomorrow? A genealogy day!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

An adventure with Jacob

Jacob and I went to Fort Worth's National Historic Stockyards District for supper tonight at the Star Cafe, owned by Betty and Don Boles. Jacob noticed the western look of the buildings and loved the men on horseback who passed us on the streets. We were both amazed at the crowds--spring has brought out not only tourists (we saw some of those) but natives to explore the offerings of the area. He did not want the top down on the car (I don't think he much likes that) but we drove with all the windows down, and it was lovely.
Betty visited with us as she could, between seating guests. When I told Jacob I used to work at the cafe, he looked long and hard at me and then said, "I don't believe that." I forgot to ask Betty to verify it when she came back, but the cafe soon got busy, and we left our table to the next customers.
Jacob wasn't hungry when we got there, but I said I'd order a cheeseburger, and we could split. As we waited he got hungrier and was a bit indignant when I cut the burger in half. I gave him a good portion of the fries, but he grabbed more. Upshot was he ate lots of fries and about three cups of ketchup, didn't touch his half of the burger. They boxed it for us, and, of course, we forgot it. I told him there went lunch tomorrow; he'd have to have pbj. He did however leave with a Star Cafe T-shirt that says on the back, "For the best steak in Dallas, eat at the Star Cafe in Fort Worth." It's true!
As soon as we got home he wanted pbj, which I didn't think was quite right since he refused to eat his burger. He had a banana; then about nine he had the pbj. I think the child is in a growth spurt. He  seems to be hungry all day.
Earlier in the afternoon, he played with three-year-old Abby next door until we decided it was time for everyone to have a nap. Jacob is beyond napping, but he fell sound asleep. Tonight as we drove in the driveway, he said philosophically, "I hope Abby had a good nap."
Fun day, except I worked hard too--laundry, making dips for tomorrow night's b'day party for Jacob's mom, scrubbing off the deeper layer of dirt on the porch--it's almost clean, but  I suspect Jordan will want to sweep it tomorrow. A few stray leaves have blown in since Greg blew it clean the other day. Sweeping is hard on my low back, and I'll let her do it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Searching for your roots

My friend Jeannie and my daughter-in-law Mel have both been tracing their family history on They are, to put it frankly, hooked. Mel suggested a couple of weeks ago I should hurry and do it so I'd have some knowledge before I go to Scotland, but I said I simply don't have time. Today though Jeannie said she could spend a couple of hours helping me search and find out if anyone had done the research before--if so, it would be there. Then tonight, I watched Rosie O'Donnell on "Who Do You Think You Are?" as she traced her roots back to a work house in Ireland during the potato famine. OK, now I want to know too. I have booklets on the MacBains, and I know we're descended from Gillies McBean who fought valiantly--and died--for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. Since I'm sort of between projects--two manuscripts off to publishers with more work to come, I know, but for now a breathing space--I guess I'll make that my project. I already know that the McBeans owned land near Inverness (tales vary but I gather it was a good bit of land) but lost it and were land-less or homeless for nearly two centuries. For a clan to be without land is a great disgrace and bans it from recognition by the Society of Clans. In the mid-twentieth century Hughston McBain of Chicago bought a small piece of the old family land, not nearly as much as he would have liked, but he allowed the clan members to once again hold up their heads. The McBain Memorial Park is on my must-see list in Scotland. And I know the homestead--sorry, no castle--is right there too. But I'm anxious to find out more. Jeannie has found she is descended from Robert the Bruce, and I told her that probably made us cousins but realized I was thinking of Gillies McBean, so I have to do some research. I've asked Jeannie to help me get started, but I'll pull out my dad's old files and see what I can find. I think most of the information I have is about the McBains (we spelled it MacBain) after they came to Canada. I'm intrigued. I remember writing a paper in, oh, maybe sixth grade, on how we are descended from MacBeth, a dubious honor that.
Had lunch with Jeannie today in a charming church converted to a bakery/restaurant. It was small but lovely and sort of soothing to eat in that atmosphere. We asked and found it had been a Christian Scientist church.
Spring is definitely here, though I doubt we'll continue to have today's temperatures in the mid-80s. I was actually a bit hot in the car with the top down. But this evening I spent some time planting two new herbs I bought--lavender for its smell and sage because it's pretty and does flavor dishes nicely--and scrubbing the first layer of winter grime off the porch. I'll go after it again tomorrow, in preparation for a porch party Sunday night for Jordan's birthday. Jordan manages to stretch a birthday out for a week, but she is my St. Patrick's baby without, as far as I know, a drop of Irish in her. The redbud is blooming, and the trees have that lovely light green of new growth, though I am still picking dead fall leaves out of the planter boxes. My fig tree hasn't come back but botanist Greg tells me I'm too impatient and it will come back when we have enough warmer weather. He trimmed some of the overgrown herbs and ivy that had survived the winter in pots on the porch, but I need new fountain grass. And a new spray nozzle--somehow winter always kills them, even with the water cut off.
Enjoy spring, everyone, and pray for a mild summer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A St. Paddy's Day faux Irish Stew

My original title for Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books was The Faux Gourmet. It came from the fact the one highly critical (but very helpful) reader said she (I'm presuming it was a she) would never cook with canned soup. I make King Ranch Chicken with Healthy Heart Campbells' cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soups.The reader insisted she made hers with made-from-scratch white sauce, which sounded like more work and too bland for me. I honestly read recipes on the internet for duplicating the taste of the canned soups but they were tons of trouble and still had some of the ingredients purists would object to. So I remain a happy faux gourmet.
Tonight I had Jacob, and Betty was coming for dinner, since we missed our usual dinner out for the week. I had meant to open a can of my fancy tuna and make a salad with all kinds of veggies and tuna, but then I realized I had that leftover lamb I've been eating all week and even took to Sue's last night. So I did all those things no true gourmet would do--I made two instant packets of brown gravy that were in the cupboard (that's a whole 'nother story about Norwegian hamburgers, for another time). I added a bouillon cube, dumbed in the cubed lamb with a small can of green beans and a healthy bit of frozen corn. I thought I had frozen peas but I didn't, so the green beans were a substitute and they worked well. Added pepper and thyme but not salt since I figure the prepared gravy and bouillon took care of that. Served it over a mixture of penne and rigatoni pasta, and it was delicious, if I do say so. The leftovers will go to Christian who will love them.
I have been accused--who, me?--of letting Jacob manipulate me, so tonight I was quite strict. No, he could not have chicken nuggets--he was eating stew. He must have gotten a piece of gristle, because he thought the meat was too chewy. But he ate all his noodles and some of the stew, so I gave him ice cream, followed by the banana he wanted. When bedtime came (a little late because I was doing dishes), I was firm: TV off, use the potty, brush your teeth and get into bed. I gave him a few minutes to play with his toys, then let him pet Scooby goodnight, and firmly closed the door to his room, telling him I loved him and "Sweet dreams." He said he'd go to sleep better with a little more TV, but  I didn't fall for it. So at after 9:30 I can hear him on the monitor, having conversations with his toy figures--or maybe himself.
We read a book that had a picture of a goldfish.
Me: Jacob, hows your goldfish?
Jacob, very philosophically: Fine. He hasn't died yet.
Earlier in the evening, we stepped next door to see the new baby--they were out in the back yard. The baby slept so peacefully in his mom's arms. We took his big sis, three-year-old Abby, a pink bunny and for new Grayson, a tiny T-shirt that says "It ain't easy being the cutest cowboy around." Jacob wasn't actually as interested in the baby as I thought he'd be, but he was most interested in being the one to present the gifts.
Grandkids, good friends and good neighbors surely make life sweet.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nature vs. Nurture

I've been puzzling over this conondrum lately. Remember that old limerick:

Twixt the optimist and the pessimist
The difference is droll.
The optimist sees the doughnut
While the pessimist sees only the hole.

What makes some of us essentially happy, outgoing, content with our lot and others perpetually dissatisfied. There's a brand new baby boy next door, five days old. I haven't seen him yet but I've seen adorable pictures, and I wonder what genes, what predispositions he brings to this world. He will grow up in a loving, supportive, strong family. But what will he be?
I think of Jacob with his irrepressible happy spirit, sometimes mischievous, occasionally manipulative and pouty but generally one of the world's happy people. He is by all means a most loved child, beloved by his parents, grandparents, and extended family. Sure, without that warm environment he might be someone else, but then again his innate spirit might triumph.
I could cite examples with all of my children and grandchildren but I'd be sure to tromp on someone's toes. Still, there's Edie, who seems to have some sort of second sight or insight--I like the word fey--and as one of her uncles said when she was still an infant, "She looks at us like she has it all figured out and we don't have a clue." That's clearly something that she brought into the world with her.
As most people know, my four children are all adopted, so they clearly brought different genetic make-ups into the world. But they were raised in the same household, same environment. They are all kind, compassionate, happy people, though each different in his or her own way. What accounts for that? Surely I didn't expect them to be carbon copies of each other, and they're not.
We all know people who self-destruct. There was the suicide of a young man in our church this week, a boy who seemingly had all going for him, good family, popularity, etc. What made him so unhappy? On the other hand, we know people in dire circumstances who rise above them--homeless people who put their lives together, get an education, and become contributing citizens. Handicapped people who find some way to continue to be part of the world and to contribute to it. Culture or genes?  Look now at the people of Japan who are so valiantly working to overcome the disasters that have befallen them--sure, a lot of that is culture, but all of it?
I have no scientific evidence, no proof, but I don't believe in Rousseau's blank slate. I think each of us is born with some codes embedded in us that shape our personalities and our future. Yes, environment, family, love, all that makes a difference in shaping us. But it can't always triumph over what we bring into the world with us. The question is, can we change our inherent traits? Can we look at ourselves and say, "I'm never happy, and I don't want that. I'm going to change it."?
What about you? Is your glass half empty or half full?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Things I don't eat

This is a discarded chapter that didn't make it into Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books, but I thought it might make a good blog post. I'm interested in other opinions on food idiosyncracies.
I think I eat almost anything—although others accuse me of being fussy (and sometimes dictatorial about restaurants). But this is sort of an apologia to Lisa, who claims I falsely accuse her of being fussy. As your children marry, they bring into the family people with different eating habits. Brandon and Christian avoid most vegetables; Melanie doesn’t eat egg salad, ham salad, tuna salad, the things I love; Lisa, child of a Scandinavian mother, doesn’t like fish. And once when I took her a loaf of cranberry/apricot bread, she looked astounded and said, “I won’t eat it!” I froze the bread and took it home.
But I admit to a few dislikes myself. I despise bell peppers, especially green. I don’t like the taste nor the things they do to my stomach. Lisa and Brandon once tried to tell me not to put sliced hearts of palm in a marinated salad (a true treat to me) and when I persisted they said they guessed then it was okay to put bell peppers in it. I couldn’t convince them that bell peppers leak their taste onto everything else, while hearts of palm are bland to begin with and don’t flavor everything else in the salad.
In truth, I don’t like any peppers, which makes it hard to order in today’s trendy restaurants, especially in Santa Fe. And I can’t eat spicy food, which rules out most of southeastern Asian dishes for me. It’s not only that I don’t like them, they ruin my stomach for days. Friends know that they should go to Indian, Thai, Vietnamese restaurants and the like when I’m not with them. And I'm cautious about Mexican food--no chile rellenos for me. On the other hand, I really like Japanese food. And after years of thinking I didn’t like Chinese (I can still hear my ex-mother-in-law talking about going to “the Chinks” to eat and it offends me), I have rediscovered it. I credit this rediscovery, surprisingly, to a chain of restaurants—P. F. Chang’s and it’s short-order subsidiary, Pei Wei. Sushi? I love it, though I'm not too experimental. My favorite is salmon sashimi.
I can’t eat shrimp, though it’s not a taste thing. I love them and long for them, but when I began to turn bright red after eating them, I thought it best to back off. The next time could always be a major anaphylactic attack, and I didn’t want to risk it. I think allergies change over the years, and sometimes I sneak just a bite of someone else’s grilled shrimp, but I don’t order the whole thing. Fortunately I can still eat lobster and crab—guess their iodine content isn’t as high.
I’ve never tried brains, heart or sweetbreads, and doubt that I will.
I eat things that other people won’t. I eat liver, though I hated it as a child, and. I grew up on kidneys and bacon. Wanted to try them again recently but the market says you have to order a case. Uh, no thanks. I know I don’t have that many friends who would eat them with me. At the deli, I love a corned tongue sandwich or pickled herring. Christian says I eat weird things.
I can eat escargot, though they’re not my favorite. I’d really just as soon have the French bread and buttery garlic sauce without the actual snails. I’ve never tried mussels, though I’m working my nerve up to it. A local bistro serves them with several different sauces, and a good friend assures me they’re delicious. I may try yet. Calamari? Often too chewy.
As a child, I disliked potatoes, eggs, and pickles—the latter mostly because we never had them at home. Now, I only wish potatoes weren’t fattening most of the good ways to fix them and eggs didn’t raise your cholesterol, because I love them almost any way you can cook them. And pickles? There’s nothing better to me than a crisp kosher dill. But olives? Nope. I really don’t like them, no matter that they’re passion food. I’ve had dishes with black olives cooked into them that I liked—or a salad nicoise with olives ground into the dressing. But thanks, no green olives. A muffaletta is not for me.
How about you? Are there things you can’t or won’t eat? Weird things you really like?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Frittering away the day

Several years ago Texas Coop Power published an essay I wrote "On Learning to Putter." I originally called it "Learning to Putz," but the editors were afraid of the Yiddish implications of that word. Anyway, it's an art I never perfected. Today I think I came close. I really need to finish reading my mystery manuscript for the final time, but I found a thousand other things to do, some of them quite frivolous.
One that wasn't frivolous was taking the dog for his annual checkup. At almost eleven and an old man, he's still a handful in the car and on the leash. When I get there, I call and a technician comes out to get him--I simply don't need a broken hip! But he was pronounced in fine health, and when I reported my 19-year-old cat was also doing well, the lady vet said she thought she'd send her kids to my house--I must be doing things right. I'm always  relieved to have annual vet visits behind me.
Had an egg salad sandwich at Carshon's with a friend where we talked about everything but our books--proud of us--and had a good visit. The rest of the day went in straightening out phone bills--haven't quite gotten the cell phone one fixed yet, checking with the bank, calling Jordan about a menu for her porch party Sunday night, reading that new food magazine that came, paying some of my cousin's bills, reading emails--I'm on way too many lists. A biggie today though has been playing with Twitter. It always confused me, and I tended to post once every two weeks and then ignore it. But I'm following an on-line learning group and amazed at what I find. You can follow me at @JudyAlter. A big hurdle was changing my name from @JudyTexas--Krista Davis, the group leader, convinced me that if I want to be known as an author by my name, that's how I have to appear on Twitter. So far, I've made the change but left behind the hundred or so people who were following @JudyTexas. I've lined up a bunch of people to follow but don't know what to do about the followers--I suppose that's a lesson on down the road. I keep emailing the Twitter learning group and feel I'm probably the dunce of the class. (Special note to Brandon: I'm not following you because I can't understand your tweets and they show up on Facebook anyway--feel free to follow me:-)
Tonight I still want to go through that food magazine one more time, make a shopping list for Jordan's party, work some more on following people on Twitter--I think the truth is I've read that mystery so many times I'm burned out. Don't get me wrong--Skeleton in a Dead Space is a great story and you should all buy it when it launches August 29. It's just that I know it by heart now.
Sorry, I have to go tweet now.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The $8,000 leg of lamb

I fixed a leg of lamb tonight for neighbors Jay and Susan, former neighbor Sue, and good friends Elizabeth and Weldon. I told Jay weeks ago if he found a home for that sweet stray lab, I'd fix him a leg of lamb. He said tongiht, "I saved you from a broken hip," and I told him maybe that's worth $8,000. It's called the $8,000 leg of lamb because I once served it to company and a guest called me the next day and offered $8,000 for the recipe. At the cost of lamb today, that's not too far off. Basically, you make a gratin of sliced potatoes, onions, and tomatoes, interspersed with salt and pepper, chopped garlic and crushed thyme. Then you put a cake rack on top of the 9x13 pan with the gratin and top that with the bone-in leg of lamb, seasoned only with salt and pepper. The idea is to turn the leg every fifteen minutes--I don't remember that from before, and I have to say it was a Herculean task. But what I forgot is that you should pour white wine and olive oil over the veggies before adding the lamb. No wonder there wasn't much juice for basting. But still the veggies cooked in the lamb drippings and were delicious. Jay helped me with timing--I was afraid it wasn't cooking at all, but he finally decided that neither my oven nor my meat thermometer were accurate and pulled it at just the right time. Interior was quite pink, exterior medium rare for those who like their meat brown. It was really really good. I want to do it again, the right way, but with the cost of lamb, I won't be doing it soon. It was the perfect meal for Elizabeth and Weldon on their gluten-free dairy-free diet. We six ate almost all of the veggies but I have quite a bit of lamb left. To me, one of life's delights is a cold lamb sandwich with lettuce and mayo. It will be a good week.
Sue brought her new dog, Jack, a lab mix maybe a year old or a little more. We thought he would play with Scooby in the backyard but Scooby soon tired of nip and tuck--he's an old man without Jack's energy and he told Jack to back off. So Jack promptly jumped the fence and had to come in the house where he was much calmer than Scoob would have been with all that meat and all those people. (Ok, we put the leftover roast in the microwave just to hide it from him.) Jack and the cat encountered each other a couple of times, which didn't faze Jack but angered Wywy. We worked it out, and mostly while we sat and visited, Jack lay at our feet. Sue's got herself a really good dog.
This morning Jacob and I went to church. I think I got more out of it than he did. I went with a heavy heart about the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown and about the problems of a family member, and I talked to the Lord about these things, enjoying the solitude and peace of the music and atmosphere of the sanctuary. Houston's sermon, as always, was right on, and I was comforted when he said he, too, just can't wrap his mind around the devastation in Japan. Jacob on the other hand came out of Sunday school--well, maybe it's just day care--electrically alive and ecstatically talking about a little boy who pooped in his pants. All I could hope was that the other children didn't tease the child unmercifully and embarrass him, but Jacob's behavior gave me little hope. When and how do you teach chldren about compassion? We drove to and from church with the top down on the car, which Jacob loves-it's so much easier to strap him in with the top down. I may end up doing that in the dead of winter.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Deja Vu all over again

Was it Babe Ruth that was famous for saying that? All I know is it was some famous baseball player. But that's how I feel about daylight savings time. It really snuck up on me this year. When did they move it from the end of March to the middle? I only happened to glance at a buried article in this morning's paper about it or I would have missed it. Then Christian told me tonight we get an extra hour of sleep--I wasn't sure and checked on it. NO! We lose an hour. I texted him to that effect, so that we wouldn't all be late for church tomorrow.
Personally I like daylight savings and would love to keep it all year, but  I understand the arguments of those in agriculture and other time-affected fields. But now that I get to sleep a little later I like the morning darkness--my bedroom is on the east side of the house, seems to have been in almost every house I've lived in. My dog and cat judge "get up" time by the darkness, so later daylight will make them sleep later. And I like the long evening, especially in summer when it's light until almost nine. I like to sit on my porch, and I like to go to visit Jordan and her family without feeling I have to rush to get home before dark--I don't particularly like to drive home after dark nor walk down my driveay. So I'm happy about it--I just wish they wouldn't spring it on us unexpectedly. Or maybe I've had my head in a bucket!
I did read in that tiny newspaper article that scientists now suspect that the changes in our body rhythms may not be good for us--circadian rhythms or whatever. But they're always disovering new things that are not good for us, so I can't take that one seriously. I've never had much trouble adjusting.
A subdued Jacob arrived tonight. He'd spent much of the day at the zoo and was tired, tired, tired. His mom said he would go to sleep quickly--I wonder what planet she's from. It's 9:30, which I explained to him is really 10:30, and got the proverbial, "Why?" So I got him in jammies and ready for bed and allowed a little more TV. Just now he came into my study to give me a hug and tell me he loves me. Be still my heart! But of course, I still have to go through the turn-off the TV battle.
When he walked in tonight, he asked, "Are we going to church now?" He has decided he really likes going there a lot. So since we'll lose an hour in the morning, I have church clothes all laid out and everything ready to go. His parents will probably meet us there.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What retirement is not--reflections on several things

Boring. Dull. Stultifying. All those things I feared when I envisioned waking up in the morning and wondering what ever I would do with the day. Doesn't happen--and certainly didn't happen this week. Tonight is a nice quiet evening at home with the dog at my feet and the cat curled up on my bed--first such evening all week. One night my class met here, one night I went to dinner--The Tavern, my new favorite restaurant. So far everything I've had there was wonderful, but I am partial to the club sandwich which has to be split--it's huge. And they serve the best black beans I've ever tasted.
Last night was the Bookish Frogs (translate that as Friends of the TCU Press) annual dinner. David Bush and Jim Parsons, authors/photographers of Hill Country Deco, presented a fascinating program and slide show. They are smart, articulate, and work together like a comedy team. Besides their book is a gorgeous exploration of art deco buildings, mostly in Austin and San Antonio. Lovely evening, but by the time I got home I was too tired to blog.
Today, lunch with those same two authors to discuss their possible future projects. I was delighted to be invited--okay I horned in--because I am particulary interested in one of the topics they are considering. Besides, the ladies of the office (plus Melinda's friend KK of whom I'm very fond) giggled all the way to the North Side to eat at Joe T.'s on the patio. A lovely day for sitting outside, sipping wine or margaritas, and eating that traditional Tex-Mex food. Nice, nice, day.
Now I'm home, trying to do some work, but I am watching TV--uncharacteristic for me. First I was intrigued by "Who Do You Think You Are?"--an episode of the program sponsored by My friend Jeannie and my daughter-in-law Mel are both hooked on finding their roots and now I wish I'd done that a year ago, so that I could have some information before going to Scotland. All I have is a record of the family after they came to Canada, though I do know we are descended from Gillies MacBain, who died a martyr for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. I just don't have time to do it, let alone spend an evening watching TV!
Now though I'm watching a documentary on today's earthquake and tsunami--a tragedy so huge it's hard to comprehend. In 2004 when a devastating tsunami hit Indonesia, I had never heard the word. Now I know of the damage it can do, damage that is beyond the imagination. It is pale to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan, but they are. Help is rushing to them from many countries, yet we still don't know the full story I fear. I heard that Hillary Clinton had arraned to get coolant to the endangered nuclear plant but tonight they are saying that a nuclear disaster is perilously close. Yesterday one of those end-of-the-world sages predicted the worst earthquake in history would occur today--makes you wonder.
My friends vacationing in Hawaii report they are fine, spent the night in their van in a parking lot. This is their second tsunami in two years. I remember they reported both being swept up by a huge wave as they walked the beach but fortunately they made it to safety. I told them they better winter in South Texas after this.
But it is heartbreaking to think of the lives lost, lives forever changed, property damaged beyond recovery. I remember in 2004, a friend of mine who is agnostic, asked, "If there's a kind God, why does he send a tsunami?" I was at a loss, but a minister said, "Shit happens. God doesn't send it. He helps us recover from it."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The House in Madison Park

Last night my memoir class got to talking about the houses they’d grown up in and how you think the house is huge when you’re a child but if you go back as an adult it’s shrunk a great deal. I grew up at 1340 Madison Park in the Kenwood-Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Madison Park really was a park, three blocks long, with one way streets on each side. On our side, in our east end of the park, were mostly single family homes, though with one huge apartment called the Caverswall. I remember it to this day—very elegant inside. Across the park, the south side was lined with apartment buildings and residential hotels.
Our house was built, so I was always told, in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition. It was a duplex, though nobody knew that term back then. We shared a common wall with the house next door. Ours was red brick, with lovely stone work, a bay window, and a wooden front porch that my dad screened in every summer—it became our summer living/dining room. The house adjoining us was remodeled, totally flat in front, and painted stark white with concrete steps—a stark contrast. The house was narrow—16 feet wide if I remember correctly—with living, dining, and kitchen downstairs, three bedrooms and one bath upstairs, and a half third floor that went from student apartment to junk room to a cozy study for Dad. I guess I always knew it wasn’t big, but I didn’t think about it.
Dad bought the vacant lot next door, and it was a beautiful garden—his avocation. He spent weekends in disreputable clothes, on his knees in the dirt, but the results more than justified his efforts. We used to tell him it was embarrassing when students from the osteopathic college where he was president came by and found him dressed like that, but it didn’t bother my usually proper and quite British father.
In the 1960s, Mom and Dad sold the house and built a lovely home on an acre-and-a-half in Tryon, North Carolina, where they had honeymooned. Probably in 1972, we all went back to Chicago (I was then in Texas and John in Colorado) for a big weekend at the osteopathic college, and we drove to Madison Park and parked across the street. Standing there, I said, “Mom, it looks so tiny.” Her reply? “We didn’t know any better.” By then we had lovely, larger homes.
In the 1990s, a friend and I went back to Chicago for a nostalgic visit, and this time I knocked on the door. The wooden porch was gone, and I looked into the once-beautiful yard at a sea of mud, the garden ruined by dogs. Not one blade of grass.
When we explained who we were, the owner welcomed us and gave us a tour. The lovely marble fireplace had been replaced by a Swedish modern wooden mantel, and the flanking bookcases were gone. Upstairs, the banister had been scratched at by cats so much that it had one long raw dish down the middle. I was amazed at how small the rooms were.
The kitchen was still that kitchen that Mom had remodeled in the 1950s—truly her pride and joy. Now it was shabby. The owner, whose wife was out of town, asked if I wanted to see the basement and some alarm went off. I told him I’d seen enough of the basement when I lived there—it used to flood with stinky sewer water when there were storms and Mom scrubbed it with ammonia. Nancy said she was thinking, “Judy’s not going into the basement with that man, and I’m glad.” They tell us to listen to instinct, and I did.
I wish I hadn’t gone. I would love instead to carry my childhood memories of that house—and pretty much I still do. But Thomas Wolfe had it right. We can’t go home again.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Finding yourself through memoir

My memoir class met tonight for the second session of the spring semester. It simply amazes me how those women have bonded and will share the most personal secrets--sometimes blurting them out, which is what I did tonight. Something we were talking about touched a nerve in me, and I told about an incident I had never ever mentioned to anyone--not my bad, but that of someone close to me at the time. It's wonderful to be in a group where there is such trust--what is said there never leaves that room. And, as Jordan always warns me, "Don't blog about this, but . . . ." and then she proceeds to tell me some tidbit. So, no, I can't share. But take my word--it's fascinating. This much I can share:
One class member recounted a story about a strange woman she met periodically over the years, and she said it was only in the writing that she realized the significance of those meetings and the message she was supposed to get from them. Memoir is indeed a way of discovering yourself. Another woman described her parents' descent into old age, and I suggested I wanted to hear more about her, more about how she felt. We have moved into fiction, and one woman read a part of a short story that was gripping, though she had some things to work on.
The whole time I was leading the class, I was babysitting--sort of. Jacob was in the back watching a DVD, but close to the end of the class he called for me and said he was hungry (I had bought a Lunchable for him that he despised) so Linda and I collaborated on fixing a pbj. He came in to greet the ladies as they arrived and charmed them all. After they left he was through with TV and decided to follow me wherever I went--we had some interesting conversations, but it's no wonder I find myself bone-weary tonight.
I did mention to the class that this morning I heard Diane Rhem interview a woman named Stacy Lannert, author of Redemption, a memoir about her father's sexual abuse of her and her sister and her ultimate act of shooting him, for which she spent time in prison. In the interview she came across as a remarkable woman, charming, open, frank, and dedicated to seeing that no children suffer as she had. I recommend the book highly, even though I haven't read it. It sounds like everything a memoir should be--looking back and making sense out of your own life experiences. That's what I hope I can lead these women to do--and maybe do myself. I'm going to write a piece for next time, though I never read my pieces unless we run out of class material.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Oh, the things you can do with Spam

I've frittered away the evening with one of my favorite occupations--looking through recipes. My friends Elizabeth and Weldon are coming for supper next Sunday night. They are on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet and both feel much better for it. I knew what I wanted to cook--a top sirloin beef roast with a recipe from Cooks' Illustrated--but I couldn't find it in my appalling collection. I have two folders: Entrees Tried and Entrees Never Tried. I got mixed up about which one I'd gone through and probably went through both twice, but I finally found it in the Entrees Tried, where it shouldn't have been because I've never tried it. Cook's Illustrated tries several cuts of meats cooked several ways and then reports on which is best. I subscribe to it off and on but really should take it all the time, because it's a reliable guide. In this case, they say for a less expensive roast use top sirloin; second choice is a blade roast; stay away from bottom round roast. Recipe calls for lots of garlic, so it should be good.
Then I switched my attention to Spam--yeah, the canned meat kind not what you get on your email. Beth and Weldon also have a blog, "From Cows to Quinoa," about GF/DF eating. The title is a little misleading because they eat meat with relish, as long as there's no wheat or dairy involved in the prepration. But they do eat a lot of quinoa. Recently Elizabeth challenged readers to report on their experiences with Spam. It just so happened I had a cooking column ready on the subject, though it had never been published. So I'm to be a guest blogger.
Hormel has a huge Web site for Spam, plus lots of recipes, some of them mind-boggling. I culled through them looking for GF/DF recipes and came up with a beans and Spam dish, Spam and eggs (now I love lox and eggs, but Spam--I don't know), a Spam salad, and a State Fair prize-winning grilled Spam with raspberry, soy, honey, mustard sauce.
Don't get me wrong. I ate Spam as a child and loved it, and I would probably eat it today, except the fat content scares me away. I liked it in a sandwich, made with mayo and lettuce. 
A cool, damp, dull day in North Texas today and it was good to stay in and clear my desk of stray things, read papers for my class tomorrow, and so on. Tomorrow I'll get out and about in the world. Meantime, I'm watching one of my favorite TV programs--"Diners, Dumps, and Drive-ins" on Food Network. Guy Fieri rocks.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Searching for Salpicon in El Paso

Salpicon is ubiquitous in El Paso restaurants. It's a salad of shredded beef (or chicken or whatever but usually beef) with peppers and a vinaigrette dressing. Carol had it Thursday at the restaurant friends took us too, but I was afraid of the peppers and had a club sandwich was was, at best, ordinary.
We stayed at the Camino Real which, in the good old days used to be Paseo del Norte, a grand hotel with a magnificent Tiffany dome, now over the bar area. The hotel is to be blunt a bit shabby, though they were quick  to fix a leak in our sink and a lightbulb that wouldn't work (we didn't know to turn on the switch by the door!). But downtown El Paso is a strange mix of decline and update--lots of empty buildings, cheap store fronts, mixed with apparently recently redone plazas, a great museum, library. Many things were under construction, and it got worse Saturday as they blocked off areas to prepare for Mardi Gras. So we were hard put to find restaurants.
Thursday night we had a drink in the hotel bar--pretty watery chardonnay--and then went across the street to The Oasis, which surprised us. Really nice food, wonderful presentation, all with an Oriental touch. I had smoked salmon on whipped cream cheese--ok, not culturally indigenous.
Breakfast was a problem. We had been warned away from the hotel coffee shop which only offered a buffet for $13.99 that wasn't very good. But friends who arrived a day earlier had found a home-cooking style restaurant about four blocks away, so we went there both mornings and were greeted by hordes of others who were attending the Texas State Historical Association meetings. I never did try the Mexican breakfasts, though they looked good. Carol had menchaca one morning and choked on a piece of jalopeno, so I knew it was not for me. But I had grand hash browns, eggs, and, one morning, the rare treat of breakfast links.
Lunch was another problem. Thursday a friend took us to a restaurant out by the University of El Paso, and I got a chance to view the campus. We were four jolly females and had a good time at lunch in spite of my ordinary club sandwich--I should have ordered salpicon.
Friday was an awards luncheon for the convention and a TSHA board member who shall remain nameless snuck us into the luncheon--Carol had a ticket but had left it in the room, and the board member passed me off as an author. Well, it turned out that an author named Alter had won an award but wasn't there to accept it--so I ate his lunch. Except his wife turned up to accept the award. No one evicted me, and I enjoyed a good lunch of chicken with a cherry sauce, on spinach and rice.
The highlight of our El Paso dining came when we explored, on recommendation, and went to a new restaurant, La Jolla Kitchen, way out in a strip mall. It was worth the long trip. The management was still experimenting, so they served us two complimentary amuse bouche--one a hamachi with too much pepper for me, the other a marvelous sea scallop on risotto. For an entree Gayla and I shared a rack of lamb with asparagus and fingerling potatoes, and Caitlin and Carol split a rib-eye steak (grass fed). Absolutely delicious. Lamb is such a treat to me, and this was cooked to perfection--still pink but warm. The waiter convinced us that one rack of lamb wasn't enough for two people, so we ordered crispy quail with hoisin bbq sauce--too hot for all of us but Caitlin, and I noticed they didn't charge us. For dessert, which we wouldn't have ordered, they brought two samples--a cheesecake with agave sauce (superb) and a chocolate cake that was too dry. All in all, it was a wonderful dining experience. I don't expect to be back in El Paso soon but if I am, I'll go back to La Jolla Kitchen.
Saturday lunch was more problematical. The Oasis was closed, the Central Cafe, a block away but fondly remembered by Carol, was closed. Someone recommended a restaurant about four blocks away--hah! More like eight. We walked and walked. Carol walks fast, and I got winded. She'd sit me on a bench and go ahead to explore. When she finally found the restaurant it was closed. So we went back to the hotel, to that much maligned casual restaurant, and had a fair to good meal. I finally had salpicon, although the chicken wasn't shredded. It struck me as nothing more than sliced chicked on greens witha chipotle lime dressing. But it was good.
I've since looked up recipes for salpicon--I thought it was pronounced with a soft "c" but Carol thought it was a hard "c" and turned out to be right. I made it once several years ago. The recipe included poblanos in adobo sauce, and I had no idea how hot adobo sauce is. Even the first night it was too hot for me, and I gave it to a friend who said it kept getting hotter and hotter until they couldn't eat it. Now I'll try again, with a better idea of what it can be and a better control of the flavors.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Seasoned (?) Traveler

Home tonight after two-and-a-half days in El Paso. A seasoned traveler, I'm not. Got the DFW only to discover that my drivers license and debit card were in my blue jeans at home. They settled for a TCU i.d. card, a cedit card, and a health insurance card. Same thing today at the El Paso airport only it was worse--singled out for a mild pat-down because of the metal zipper on my jacket--forgot to take the jacket off and they have the full body scan, which DFW doesn't have yet. Then they announced they'd have to check my luggage--never did find out why, but a polite man rummaged through my small carry-on, passed some kind of cloth-covered wand over all of it, and then said he'd have to re-scan my bag plus two individual items--my metal collapsible walking stick, which I had collapsed and put in the bag and the jar of ceramic bits that are supposed to dry out my hearing aids at night. I had to explain to him what that was. Doesn't anyone else take those things when they travel, of all the hearing challenged people in our world? Finally he asked if I'd like help repacking, and I was tempted to say, "No, you've done a good job of jamming it all back in there," but he was really so polite and so courteous when he wished me a good flight and a good day, that I simply thanked him. And went and had a glass of wine at the airport cafe.
If I'm not a seasoned traveler, I'm not an easy one either. I feel like the little old lady who when taken for her first plane ride and then asked how she liked it said it was fine but she never put her full weight down. I never put my full weight down when I'm away from home. I used to be much more nervous about flying than I am now and I still don't like to fly alone, but I'm pretty much okay on a plane--with some wine. But when the friend in front of me said if the plane crashed, there'd be a whole lot of history teaching jobs in North Texas, I told him it wasn't funny (we had been to the Texas State Historical Society meeting). And in the cafe another history prof managed to tell me that one of the survivors of the Titanic had been inebriated, and he always took that into consideration.
I went to the TSHA meeting to deliver a paper, another thing--not that I'm not good at it (everyone says I am and several people went directly to the exhibits to buy my books where, of course, they weren't available but could be ordered!). But it makes me nervous. Once again though the relaxation of retirement came through, and I really felt better about this paper--very non-scholarly in a highly scholarly atmosphere. At first I said I'd write the paper and someone else could read it  since I wouldn't be in El Paso, but good friend Carol Roark persuaded me to go with her and share a room, and she was a saint about letting me hold on when I lost my balance (which is often in a strange city). I also went because I would see lots of old friends--and I did, including people who said kind words about my work at TCU Press and particularly a historical biographical series that I had helped get started. Mostly though I visited with people near and dear to me, so it ws a good time.
But I'm glad to be home and catching up. I had looked forward to seeing my dog and cat, eating a pimiento sandwich, and settling at my desk, all of which I've done. The animals were ravenous, but I know they were fed this morning.
Tomorrow: adventures in El Paso, because I mostly travel on my stomach, and outside the meetings, our adventures almost all involved food, some good, some not so good.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Scotland the Brave

Today I got two small booklets in the mail from James McBain, the chief of the clan and the McBain of MacBean. In case anyone missed it, my maiden name is MacBain, and I'm going to Scotland this spring. I had written the clan headquarters for directions to the MacBain memorial park outside Inverness, and they referred me to the chief. He sent cordial emails and said he would send me a booklet he'd written on the story of the clan from prehistory until the present. I can't wait to dig into it. He also sent me a booklet by his father, titled An American Scottish Chief. His father, Hughston (being a Texan I misspelled it as Houston) was Chief of the Clan when I was growing up in Chicago, and he used to talk on the phone to my dad about how they were related. I have a file of correspondence between the two after Dad retired to North Carolina. From a brief glimpse at that booklet, I see that the clan was without a chief and without land for about 200 years, not recognized among the clans of the Highlands. I gather Hughston brought it back to life, so I'm most excited to read these two books.
Spent some of the afternoon hyperlinking the short stories in Sue Ellen Learns to Dance back to the Contents page for the Smashwords edition--something they require for their "premium" catalog. It took me a bit to go back and figure out how to do that, although I'd already mastered linking the chapters to the content page. But it makes me proud when I can do it, so I'm gloating a bit tonight. We'll see if they accept it. I spend a lot of time revising my electronic books.  But in some ways Smashwords offers a much better product than Kindle. Just now I got word from Smashwords that the short story I've posted, free, The Art of Candle Dipping, has too many consecutive paragraph returns. Scarlet-like, I'm going to worry about that another day.
Tonight Betty and I had tapas at Sapristi, one of our favorite restaurants, and then I blew it--ordered chocolate mousse which I can rarely resist. Betty just watched me eat it, the wretch. Tapas were good--smoked salmon on toast, a skewer of chicken and mushrooms, Spanish torta (an egg and potato baked thing), dates baked in bacon, and endive filled with blue cheese, diced apple, and walnuts. A really good and healthy dinner if I hadn't had the mousse. But everyone's entitled to a splurge.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Need a doctor? Read this book

I just finished reading and reviewing The Color of Atmosphere by Maggie Kozel, MD. The review will appear sometimes soon online at Story Circle Network.
 Dr. Kozel did her internship and pediatric training in the Navy, then served on board a ship and at a base in Japan. After ten years in the Navy, she and her husband, a neurologist, returned to New Jersey with their two daughters and went into private practices. Kozel draws a sharp contrast between military medicine, which she describes as the most socialized in the world, and private practice, which she says is essentially shaped by insurance policies, pharmaceutical advertising, and fear of malpractice suits. Morally unable to turn away uninsured patients, she found herself struggling to balance her compassion with the need to earn a decent living--no thought of the income that made doctors of previous generations wealthy. She found herself discussing toilet training, eating habits, and sleeping through the night more than doing what she was trained to do: keep children healthy. Patient expectations were a problem: parents wanted something for their money. A cold? Give us antibiotics. A backache? Do an MRI. Obesity? Fix it but don't ask us to change our eating habits. Her counsel of practical, preventive medicine fell on deaf ears.
After twenty years, Maggie Kozel, one of the brighteest and best pediatricians in the country, left medicine to teach high school chemistry. She teaches bright and receptive girls at the private school her daughters attend, she spends more time with her family, and sleeps through the night. But yes, she misses practicing medicine.
In her memoir, laced with patient stories well disguised, and just a bit of her personal life, she boldly addresses such issues as universal health care, a national electronic health database, and Medicare and Medicaid. It's an eye-opening look at today's medical care, and I recommend it to everyone interested in health care reform, from President Obama and Speaker Boehmer to the elderly and uninsured. Something's got to be fixed.
I grew up in a medical family, married a doctor, have a brother who's a retired physician--but these problems were not as acute thirty years ago when I was associated with, indeed enveloped by medicine. I am fortunate to have good insurance and good medical care, but this book, in addition to making me even more aware of the problems of our health care delivery system, has made me determined not to chat with my primary care physician. After all, he only can spare twenty minutes on me--I usually take a lot less.
The Color of Atmosphere makes no attempt to explain the complexities of the health care bill that was passed nor the current fight against it, but it will open your eyes to the problems.