Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Going missing

 I’ve had a major computer crash. Unless there is a miracle I won’t be blogging until at least Sunday or Monday have a good week everyone

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The one-trick pony



I”ve just had a lesson in—what? Humility? Practicality? I’ve learned that I’m like the pony who knows only one trick. Take away that trick, and the pony has nothing. My lesson came when my computer refused to boot yesterday morning. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I had spilled half a late-night glass of wine on my desk—not on the computer, but some seeped under it and apparently shorted it out.

Frantic, I sent messages to son-in-law, Brandon, a software engineer, and son Jamie, who was instantly ready to rush out and buy a new computer. In fact, he was gleeful at the thought. Brandon advised some steps to take, which I followed after a few wrong turns. Am I the only one who disconnects the remote keyboard and then tries to use it? His best advice was to let it sit. It could “come back to itself” as it dried out. Jamie added the advice to put it out in the sun. I would have been leery on a hot summer day, but this was five o’clock on a pleasant evening with a gentle sun. Still, nothing worked.

I had spent a long, useless day, wondering what to do next. You see, take away my computer, and I honestly don’t know what to do with myself. I fretted because I had an audition tape to listen to, an online class coming up to teach, and a Zoom call today with a book festival panel next weekend, although I couldn’t imagine going the whole week without a computer.

There were little things too—trying to log in to various sites on my iPad was impossible because I didn’t have the passwords; on my computer, those sites come up automatically. Jordan wanted to check our planned menus so I could place a Central Market order—couldn’t get to those files. I wanted to call our dog sitter for a grooming reference, but I could only remember her first name. Needed to go into the files to find her business name.

So I spent the day reading a mystery  But even ordering a book was difficult on the iPad. I missed my remote monitor with its nice big screen, my remote keyboard on which my fingers can fly.

About eleven last night I thought I’d give it one more try. Voila! It came on, without any of the externals, but the laptop was working. I went to bed happy, This morning, after a bit of trial, error, and patience, the keyboard and remote mouse began working but not the monitor. Jamie suggested the port was damaged, and I began to wonder if they can replace a port. Then the monitor flashed on; after a bit later it stayed on for a minute or two, but if I lowered the lid to the laptop, it went blank. And then, a miracle—it came on and stayed, just in time to “attend” church.

I’ve learned several lessons—just updated my list of passwords and printed it out to be hidden in a safe place. Cleared a place on the credenza so I could have tea or water or wine handy without risking more spills. The one I didn’t learn—find something else to do with my time. I am not a TV fan, and I can only cook so much, but I can spend the entire day at my computer. And today, I’m thanks for narrow escapes—or miracles.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The early presidential debates


I came across an article today that gave me great pause: the first presidential debates were between Kennedy and Nixon, sixty years ago! What gave me pause was that I clearly remember them.

I did not grow up with television. When all the other kids on my block were getting sets, I was reading books. My dad listened faithfully to the radio news every night—I’m sure either Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. He saw no reason to get one of those new-fangled television things. When I confessed that to a friend tonight, she said, “you missed Howdy Doody and Disney on Sunday Night.” I’m sure I did,  as well as Lassie, Huckleberry Hound, the Mickey Mouse Club, Rin Tin Tin and a host of others. But while other kids were watching Lassie, I was reading Albert Payson Terhune’s books.

All that changed when it was announced that Kennedy and Nixon would debate, and the debates would be carried live on television. Dad went out and bought a cheap television on a cheap metal stand—no grand and glorious wood-encased console for us. The thing sat scrunched in an out-of-the-way corner in the living room, between the small entry and the piano. To watch you either had to sit on the couch or on the bottom stairs—or turn Mom’s wing chair around so it faced the TV.

Dad was an ardent Democrat—we were, after all, in Chicago. Mom, to my memory, was just as ardent in her dislike of Nixon. I’m sure if she’d objected to him during the debates, Dad would have tried to shush her. But in later years, when Nixon finally became president, she would demand that we all look at him and note how shifty his eyes were.

I remember watching those debates. No, alas, I was not a young child. I was probably twenty-one, and I watched with my then-boyfriend. I have no idea of his political leanings, but I know he, the son of a widowed father, liked the family atmosphere at our house. And probably the meals too.

After the debates, Dad watched the evening news regularly, but I do not remember that they got a new and better TV set until 1969 when they retired and built their dream house in North Carolina.

Meantime, I think that childhood without TV shaped me. There have been periods in my life when I watched some programs fairly faithfully—probably “West Wing” was my all-time favorite, but I liked mysteries and some sit-coms in the eighties and nineties.

But as the years went by, I became less and less of a TV fan. Reality shows seemed inane to me, as did game shows like “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” Whereas most of my friends could rattle off names of people made famous by TV, I was ignorant. I knew and occasionally watched Johnny Carson, but my nose was more often in a book.

Today, in the mornings at my desk, I keep the TV on, mostly for the news and to keep one eye on it so that I don’t miss something I need to see, like this morning’s impressive ceremony in the Capitol when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state, welcomed by an all-woman program. A mind-blowing moment for me—so impressive.

I will watch the debates, though I often turn the TV off when trump comes on because his bluster and lies make me so angry. But I realize we are living in a significant moment in history, and I will watch and try to avoid Mom’s tendency to yell at the TV when he speaks. I would not be the first to draw a comparison between Nixon and trump, though trump usually comes off as the worst of the two. (Mom’s yelling was, by the by, so uncharacteristic of the type of woman she was, it always amazed me.)

Tonight, though, the TV is off, and I have a new mystery on my Kindle that I’m itching to get to. So, sweet dreams everyone.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Some cooking lessons learned the hard way


King Ranch Chicken

This seems to have been a week of lessons learned. One had to do not with cooking but with take-out. Ordered a sandwich from a well-respected catering place—it came in one of those cardboard take-out boxes, along with salad, all smushed together in the box. Result was the sandwich, though filled with delicious, thin-smoked turkey, tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, and Swiss cheese, was on soggy bread and hard to handle. And I didn’t dare pour dressing on the salad because I‘d had to leave half the sandwich in the box. Even half was hard to handle, and the whole uncut thing would have been impossible. All this was in a picnic setting—if I’d been in my kitchen, I’d have deconstructed it. But check out how sandwiches are presented when ordering.

Instead of making salmon patties the way my mom taught me and I’ve done for years, I followed a recipe Jordan found. Big plus was the addition of dill to the patties and a dill sauce to serve over them. Also discovered that maybe I was not putting enough egg in. My patties often don’t hold together well. These, with four eggs for a 15 oz. can, were much more workable, easier to scoop and drop in the skillet and did not fall apart at all. BUT, Mom was right, as always. She taught me never to use anything but crackers crumbs—saltines for her, though I often switch to Ritz, which crumble easily and add good richness. This recipe called for flour, and I did not like the texture at all. So lesson learned: next time I’ll use cracker crumbs and maybe three eggs for 15 oz. salmon. I just ordered more salmon from the fishing vessel in Oregon—comes in 7.5 oz. cans, so maybe two eggs per can. Enough for a meal for me!

Then there was a good lesson: Christian followed a recipe I found in the New York Times, spatchcocked a chicken and roasted it with herb butter. (Spatchcock means to split the backbone and butterfly it, spreading the bird flat — cuts cooking time in half for either chicken or turkey.) Wonderful flavor and very moist. I think the special trick with this recipe was that you slather the chicken with the butter and then refrigerate at least two hours or overnight. A couple of days later I boiled the bones and made a really good chicken and egg noodle soup for us.

Final lesson: I thought King Ranch chicken was just that, one way to make it, no variation. Turns out there are many recipes. Several years ago I ordered the dish at a local bistro and was dismayed that it had bell pepper (which I dilike pretty intensely). Then we  got some from a catering service and while it was good, it was way too liquid. Texas Monthly offers a complicated recipe that also includes bell pepper with assorted spices, cream, green chillies, mushrooms (which I think would get lost), two kinds of cheese, and so on. Another recipe calls for mushrooms and green olives (add the latter to my relatively short list of dislikes!). Some recipes call for poblanos or jalapeños. I decided it’s time to share my oh-so-simple, basic recipe. There is no evidence, by the way, that the recipe has anything to do with the King Ranch, which is in South Texas and is the largest ranch in the state, although it is not all under one fence as is the Waggoner in North Texas.

King Ranch Chicken

One rotisserie chicken, original recipe, boned and meat diced

One medium onion

Corn tortillas

Cream of mushroom soup

Cream of chicken soup

½ can Rotel tomatoes or to taste (I like the cilantro/lime flavor)

Sharp cheddar cheese, grated.

Grease a 9x13 pan; in bowl, mix soups and tomatoes.

Tear tortillas into pieces, not too small, and cover bottom of pan; sprinkle with half the onion, then half the chicken; repeat layers of tortillas, onion, and chicken; top with more tortillas pieces and cover generously. Pour sauce evenly over all. Cover generously with grated cheese. Bake in 350o oven until bubbly and cheese is melted and slightly browned. Should serve six—or provide great leftovers.

Full disclosure: that’s not my casserole but an image I got off the web. I’ll make the casserole this week for my family but didn’t have an image on hand.



Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Len Berk and appetizing stores


Whitefish salad

           When I was growing up in Chicago, there was a Jewish deli (is there any other kind?) next to the neighborhood theater, and we walked by the display window a lot. I was always a bit horrified by the dead fish in pans and the shriveled-looking sausages hanging above them. Venture in there to explore? Never!

But then I grew up, married a Jewish man from the Bronx, and found myself eating in the deli a lot—and loving it. When we traveled, the first thing we looked for in a new city was the deli. The marriage didn’t last, but for years I have said I got two really great things out of it: four wonderful children and a love of Jewish food.

So yesterday, I found myself a new hero. His name is Len Berk, and he is the last of the Jewish fish slicers. Twenty-some years ago, at the age of sixty-five, Berk, a retired CPA, went to work slicing fish at Zabar’s, a world-renowned appetizing store in Manhattan. These days, because of Covid-19, he stays home, but he misses his job and friends at Zabar’s. Yesterday he was interviewed on a program sponsored by The Forward (formerly The Jewish Daily Forward), a news media organization for a Jewish-American audience. Interviewed with him was New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark.

They talked about almost everything in Jewish food—belly lox, Nova lox, chubs (baby carp), hot smoked salmon (I was grown before, on a trip to the Pacific Northwest, I finally understood there is a vast difference between hot- and cold-smoked salmon). I had to look up milchig (milky) and I’d never heard of chicken carp (according to Berk, it’s what Jews ate before black cod became common and popular). The mention of whitefish salad sent me searching for a recipe—the one I found was developed by Bobby Flay, which I found sort of surprising. The mention of a bialy set my mouth watering for that taste that is like no other (like a bagel only it is not boiled before baking and instead of the bagel’s hole has a depression that is filled with chopped onion and maybe garlic and bread crumbs—heavenly!). They talked about sharpening knives and making gravlax (cold salmon cured with salt, sugar, and dill), which I’ve always wanted to try. I’m a bit scared of spending a lot for the salmon and not having it come out right—but Clark made it sound so simple.

But there’s a lot more to Len Berk than slicing fish. He writes a column for The Forward and has written about his first job as a teenage soda jerk in the Bronx, his lifelong affair with Chinese cuisine, including food trips to China, the customers he has served, including Seinfeld and Itzak Perlman and the 105-year-old man with whom he developed a slicing ritual that had to be followed every Friday when the gentleman shopped. One column advised novices on the difference between cod and sable, kippered and baked salmon. Berk, a gourmet all his life, is a veritable encyclopedia when it comes to Jewish food.

It’s no accident that he worked at Zabar’s appetizing store. Some say that designation means a store that sells fish and meat; others say it is a store that sells food you eat with bagels; still another suggestion is that it sells meat and dairy, whereas a kosher deli will not mix the two. Other well-known appetizing stores are Russ & Daughters, Sable’s, Sadelle’s, and Frankel’s.

Len Berk and appetizing stores are a whole world away from Texas and brisket and beans, but I was delighted to spend an hour in that world.

Now about the gravlax—or as Berk would have you say, the graved-lox….

Want to see Len Berk in action? Here's a video:

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Soup Day


Look what I got today! A box of books! Always exciting to hold the new book in my hands, and this one is special because I love the cover and because it takes me back to my Chicago childhood. No, I’m not selling books out of the trunk of my car. I’m asking friends to order from Amazon; these carefully counted out copies are for my immediate family, reviewers, and people who helped me get the book from manuscript to print.

Today's weather: It’s not chilly, except when you’ve been having days in the nineties, a high in the low seventies—and low sixties at night—seems chilly. Add to it the slow, steady drizzle that we’re having today, and you know fall is here.

First thing this morning, I put a chicken carcass on to simmer. Then I did what I’ve been itching to do for a couple of weeks—fished all those icebox dishes out of the freezer and let them defrost so I could tell what was what. (Jacob hates for me to call them icebox dishes—he thinks it’s an old-fashioned term and says, “Containers, Juju, containers!) I had a total of eight—returned two to the freezer because they didn’t fit the emerging “theme” of my soup, discarded one because I couldn’t tell what it was, dumped four into the soup just now, and am still waiting to identify one. The soup turned out to be a chicken soup, with the meat I scrounged from the carcass before I put it on to simmer.

When I asked Christian, days ago, if he’d eat “soup of the week” or “freezer soup,” he said he’d have to know what was in it—sometimes I think that boy needs more sense of adventure. At any rate, I promised yesterday I would not consciously put in anything he doesn’t eat. We’ll see how it goes over tonight. With garlic knots (left from our last spaghetti-to-go order) and Caesar salad—we are all now enamored of Samin Nostrad’s Caesar dressing. It has mayonnaise, which is a no-no in traditional Caesar dressings, but it makes generous use of the anchovies which give the dressing its characteristic flavor. So good!

On the writing front, I had one of those panicky moments today that every writer hates. I couldn’t find the 450 words I wrote one day last week. They weren’t brilliant words, not near my best, but they were words I needed in the only remaining “lecture” for my online class. I had five different files with the title I thought should be on those words. And each of them was an abbreviated set of notes, nothing worked out in words. Just as I began to reassemble the notes so I could figure out what I said, I found the copy. So now I’ve added another 400 words. Tomorrow will try to whip it into a cohesive article. Also discovered that for my Dropbox backup I had the same lecture twice, which would have left me one short. Got that straightened out too. Somehow this online class looms big on my mind.

PS: The soup was good. Christian admitted, “Jacob and I were skeptical, but you did a good job.” High praise! Should have taken a picture, but I ended adding egg noodles, corn, and diced tomatoes to my leftovers. So good—and not much leftover.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Milestone birthdays

A warning to parents of young children: those darling tykes who sit on your lap and cuddle grow up to be adults, and they have birthdays—even decade birthdays. It will come as a shock to you.

My Austin daughter, Megan, turned fifty today. What, fifty? Subie and Phil Green came for happy hour, and when I announced Megan’s birthday, Phil said, “You have to be kidding.” Nope, it’s the sad truth. Subie and I toasted to the birthday. Subie thinks I should point out that this picture was taken by Phil, who has almost no eyesight. I think he did a great job.

Megan is handling this better than I am. She is not the first of my children to reach this milestone birthday. Colin turned fifty In April 2019, and we had a huge, three- or four-day blowout in Tomball, complete with barbecue and most of the New York relatives. My large, noisy, and very close family has created a tradition of making huge celebrations out of decade-changing birthdays, and we were distressed that this time Covid-19 kept us all from rushing to Austin to celebrate.

Megan and Brandon celebrated her birthday at dinner last night with four people they are close to and had celebratory dinner plans tonight and tomorrow. Colin called and worried about what we should do and finally sent Tiff’s Treats. Jordan and I spent too long checking out florists in Austin, finding nothing that we thought original enough. Jordan’s inspiration was to call Austin’s Central Market on North Lamar—she got a wonderful salesperson who talked to her on Facetime, walking through the store showing various choices. We settled on a tall and splendid orchid, in a nice chic container that would fit into Megan’s brand new and quite modern house. And then we sent grandson Sawyer, a newly licensed driver, to pick it up. Win, win!

The ringer was Jamie. Last night Jordan got it into her head to track him and find out where he was. On the way to Austin! She immediately thought he had gone to wish his sister happy birthday without telling any of us, and she was indignant that he didn’t take her with him. I felt a bit of that, but I also sort of liked his spontaneity. Well, we were all wrong. He went to pick up a new car (a long story we’ll have to hear another time) and didn’t even see Megan. Now I’m worrying that maybe he forgot her birthday. As you may note, mothers never stop worrying, even when their kids hit fifty.

We hope to have a huge celebration on Thanksgiving, when we are all supposed to be in Austin. But that’s two months away—we’ll see what the virus and quarantine make possible by then.

Meantime, a cooking fail. Anyone ever make that chocolate pudding cake where  you put a batter on the bottom and pour boiling water over it? Somehow in the oven, it magically reverses, and the cake rises to the top and sits on a rich chocolate sauce. I made it this afternoon, in a rush, which is always bad. I don’t think I had the right pan, but worse than that, I think even with Jordan’s help (wearing my readers) we got the proportions wrong. The recipe, torn from some food magazine, was in white ink on a dark background, very small type. It’s been in the oven twice as long as it should be and still is not near done. Maybe I should let it bake overnight? Lesson learned: there are some things  you can cook in a toaster oven. Plus don’t trust recipes with small type. What was I thinking?

Supper tonight is spatchcocked chicken slathered in herbal butter. That too was a problem, but I knew enough to turn it over to Christian who has a big pan and a big oven. He sent a picture of the chicken ready to go in the oven, and we just took an “after” picture. So good. The herbal butter made it wonderful Sorry I can't align the pictures.




Saturday, September 19, 2020

Some Saturday musings


The death of RBG is one of those events—after the news flooded the internet, the airwaves, and print journalism, there’s not much left to say. On the other hand, if you write an (almost) daily blog, as I try to do, you can’t just not mention it or prattle on as though it had never happened. My only original thought is that all today I have not heard any criticism of her, no negative comments. People have either been sincere in their respect and admiration—or they’ve been silent.

Even trump, who she openly disliked, a disaffection that was mutual, apparently  said, “Wow! She was an amazing woman.” Although he requested flags be at half-staff, I have not heard a formal announcement of either respect and honor or loss. Similarly, Mitch McConnell has said nothing about RBG, although he was quick to talk publicly about replacing her, not long after she had drawn her last breath.

There has, of course, been much speculation about what her death means to the country and specifically to the election. That now-empty court seat will surely be an election issue as much as COVID-19. I leave it to wiser heads than mine to predict and prognosticate. Specifically I’d recommend reading Heather Cox Richardson’s column tonight—her column last night was an eloquent tracing of RBG’s life, career, and importance. Perhaps tonight she’ll take on the consequences. Meantime, I of course hope that the eventual outcome will be a balanced court, but I am probably dreaming. McConnell has spent trump’s entire term packing the courts, and there’s little reason to think that this opportunity isn’t the stuff of his dreams.

Interesting to me and that I didn’t know is that after the Depression President Franklin D. Roosevelt packed with Supreme Court with liberals. Much more to my liking, but I recognize that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander or whatever (does that go the other way around?) Eventually, balance was restored, and that will happen again someday. Meanwhile, the question of women’s rights looms large.

We were kind of off our feed—or at least our schedule—last night, which is why I missed Richardson’s column. Christian had planned to grill—steaks for them and a lamb chop for me. But he got home so late that the idea had little appeal and we ordered take-out from Chadra. I have not been really happy with almost any take-out we’ve had, but I have to say last night was great. Chadra’s spaghetti with meat sauce isi a favorite, and I am glad to have leftovers in my fridge.

I may have to give up my daily nap, because I’ve been having bad dreams. Today it was people chasing a dog to kill it—supposedly a vicious dog, but nonetheless a living, terrified creature. I couldn’t bear to stay on the front porch, so I grabbed my dog and went inside. Only I went from the porch of our house in Fort Worth inside to my childhood home. A Freudian psychologist might have a field day with that.

Why bad dreams? I have a friend who almost came undone with the news of RBG’s death and explained that it was just too much on top of the political uproar already whirling around us. I think that’s the tension I’m feeling. Quarantine hasn’t been hard for me, mostly because Jordan has seen to it that I am secure in my bubble, but nothing keeps me from the computer and from political news. I know many people have sworn off Facebook, for instance, because politics is so virulent these days that it upsets them. I think that’s a self-indulgent luxury we can’t allow ourselves. I think we must continue to speak out, to fight for democracy.

And I was going to write an apolitical blog! Apologies to any who do not see things the way I do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Big day in the world of books

When I did my usual first-thing-in-the-morning run through my email and Facebook this morning I thought to myself that the world of books was really alive with news.

Let me begin with the event that caused few ripples in that world but was a major celebration for me: Saving Grace is now available in print and digital from Amazon and in digital form from several other platforms. I know some people labor for years over one book—I can’t quite claim that. Almost two years ago I wrote twenty-thousand words about a young woman who was assistant to a TV chef in Chicago. I put it aside, I suspect because the contract for The Second Battle of the Alamo came through.

Last April, frustrated with quarantine and the temporary closing of my western publisher, which meant I had no projects, I picked up Irene’s story again. (Really it’s Henny’s story.) Whichever, it struck me as not too bad, and thereafter I wrote daily until I found myself at the end of a convoluted mystery, all told by Henny.

Here’s what my longtime friend and mentor, Fred Erisman, said about the novel: “It's beignets versus bagels when Julia Child wannabe Chef Irene and her loyal gofer [JA1] Henrietta ("Henny" to her friends) cross ladles over the contents of a planned cookbook. What follows is a nicely convoluted murder mystery and a glorification of America's diverse cuisines, played out against the attractions of a lovingly drawn Chicago.—Fred Erisman, In Their Own Words: Forgotten Women Pilots of Early Aviation.

And here’s the Amazon order link:

Today I announced the book several places but most thoroughly on the blog known as Killer Crafts and Crafty Killers. You can read about Henny and Irene as they stir a stew of murder, kidnapping, and French gossip—and you get a free recipe for Hamburger Stroganoff. Irene called it peasant food, but Henny and I like it a lot.

Other books also caught my eye this morning: One, featured in a special Shelf Awareness email was Outlawed by Anne North. How can y ou resist a first line like this: “In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.” Yes, it’s a western but so different—a Feminist take on Etta Place and the Hole in the Wall Gang. Set in an alternate-historical setting—the U.S. government has collapsed and in its place are Independent Towns West of the Mississippi-- with a determined and almost fearless heroine, the novel touches on such themes as the politics of infertility and gender identity. Read more about it here:

 In 2002 (I think) Leisure Books published my historical novel about Etta Place, Sundance, Butch, and Me. It was and is nowhere as inventive as North’s version—the wildest assumption I made was a long-term attraction between Etta and Butch. At the time I thought sticking to the facts of her story was bizarre enough, but now I’m anxious to read what Anne North has done with the material.

When I turned to the daily column of Shelf Awareness, an online newsletter 

for booksellers, I found a lengthy piece on an interview with controversial fighter for equality, Reverend Al Sharpton. I have never been sure what I thought about Sharpton—a troublemaker? A publicity-hound? A sincere fighter for racial equality? A devout man of God? I came away from this article with respect for his sincerity. Sharpton’s had a long career and was set to retire just about when trump was elected. He recalled saying to himself, “Wait a minute … I better rethink that. A lot of what we fought for is at stake.” He praised booksellers, saying they are in a unique position to help our country make major changes.

Sharpton’s new book is Rise Up: A Country at the Crossroads. Read about the interview here:

So many books, so little time!


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Ladies night, some good food, and some anxiety

Cheese grits dinner

It was definitely ladies’ night for my girls and me last night. Megan, in Austin, and Jordan, sitting at my elbow and always reaching for the mouse, walked me through  a Zoom call. It took quite a bit of doing since I was sideways on the screen—we finally went to the account granddaughter Maddie had opened for me and figured out how to rotate the camera. Hurray! I am now right side up. This was important because I am to be on a panel for the Boerne Book Festival October 3, and I figured sideways did not lead to productive discussion.

Then later in October, I am looking forward to attending, remotely, the Bouchercon mystery con. I have only been to one Bouchercon but always wanted to go again. Even last year when it was in Dallas, travel was difficult enough for me that I didn’t try it. So this year, I can attend remotely. Looking forward to putting faces to a lot of familiar names.

After the Zoom call, Jordan and I had a ladies night dinner—yes, we left Christian and Jacob to fend for themselves with leftovers while we dined on scallops au gratin (scallops were on sale at Central Market) and an artichoke that we split. I had Reese’s hollandaise in the fridge—I know, I know I should make my own, but I’ve not been really successful at that in recent times. Anyway, it was delicious, though the gratin was a bit liquid. Got to work on that.

Seems to be a food-oriented period for us. Tonight we had a meatless dish (unless you count chicken bouillon)—cheese grits (with lots of butter and extra cheese) topped by spicy black beans, thinly sliced radishes, diced green onion, and avocado slices. Each person got a lime wedge to squeeze over the dinner. I announced I thought it was one of my favorite meals, and Christian replied that it wasn’t a favorite of his. Then he realized he’d caught himself, and repeated several times that it was just fine, we’d had it before, he liked it—but it’s not his favorite meal. I resisted asking if his favorite is steak and baked potatoes, but I’m betting that’s it.

This is sort of a ho-hum week—until tomorrow when Saving Irene launches. But yesterday I spent the day on small stuff—straightening out a bill, fixing an email problem, that kind of busy-ness. Today I wrote 450 words—not a great deal, but they were words hard come by. I was working on a lesson for the online chef class, this about why until recently there were so few female and black chefs in major kitchens. Hard to put succinctly without bias, but I think I managed. Later this week I will tackle the Black half of the post which is even trickier—it really will encompass all persons of color, but Black Americans make up the majority and that’s where I’ll focus. And try to be politically correct.

If any one wants to learn more about chefs, the class is “Writing the Professional or Amateur Chef,” and you can find out more at I learned so much about the culinary world researching for this, and I’m hoping some foodies like me will want to take the class. The irony for me is that I did the research after I finished Saving Irene with its wannabe French chef. I’m not sure if I’d have changed anything in the novel or not.

All during quarantining I’ve practiced a kind of blatant optimism that must have grated on my friends’ nerves. Now I find myself experiencing some of the anxiety that I have read so many others have dealt with all along. I think it’s anxiety about the election. I am so convinced that it must go one way and so terrified of the results if it goes the other. I asked Jordan tonight how she felt about moving to Scotland, which sort of startled her.

Sweet dreams everyone. Put your anxiety in the closet and forbit I to come out until morning.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Just like old times – a dinner party!


The serious golfer on a Sunday morning

Jordan and Christian hosted a dinner party last night, and I was invited! Only two guests, both of whom Jordan knows are following the quarantine rules though one goes to an office. Best of all she knows they are two of her friends I’m most fond of—Amye Cole, who went to high school with her, and David Barnes, her “brother from another mother.” I had seen Amye once when we were at the lake but have not seen David since quarantine began. Missed his wife, Kelly, who was out of town.

We began with drinks on the patio, but the mosquitoes were fierce. Jordan had even done what I frown on and sprayed Yard Guard. Temperature was pleasant, but we soon headed inside. We talked a lot about food and a lot about dogs and skirted politics. One of the guests is Republican, though I suspect not a trumpian Republican. Still we avoided the issue until I got up to leave and Christian said, “I thought we were going to have a hot political discussion.”

Jordan planned with quarantine in mind—she put enough leaves in my old dining table to make it so long that it barely fit inside the dining room. David and Amye sat at the far end, while I was in my familiar place at the end near the kitchen. A nostalgic moment for me, because I’ve sat in that chair and presided over countless company dinners—close enough that I could run to the kitchen if necessary, back when I could run. Jordan calls it my “princess chair.”

Jordan fixed a family favorite. We call it Doris’ casserole, but I have friends who call it American lasagna. It’s a meat and tomato layer topped by noodles, cream cheese, sour cream, and chopped green onions. Then you top the whole thing with grated cheddar and bake. We serve it so often that I knew both Amye and David have had it before. In fact, David asked, “Tell me again how you knew Doris.” But it’s always wonderful—and there are leftovers for tonight. Accompanied by a green salad and  brownies for dessert. I was still full when I woke up this morning.

I am a Zoom failure. I tried to join the after-church Zoom discussion this morning, but I was sideways on the screen and didn’t know how to turn it. I didn’t try the audio because what I thought was  to be a church discussion was several people talking about Santa Fe. It was a bit hard to just jump in. I have to master this, though, because I am to be on a virtual panel at a book festival in early October. That makes two tech failures on my part—I still haven’t been able to untangle my Instagram account and use it.

Thinking and praying today for friends and a family member in California and up the coast. I truly cannot wrap my mind around the extent and size of those fires. Someone posted a picture of a small Oregon town that burned completely down—no more town. Just gone.

Len Leatherwood, a California writer and friend, recently posted a poem, “Curled Up,” in which she expressed a feeling of being curled up, protecting her inner self while watching a world that she distrusts. Waiting for the time that she can uncurl, for a sign that it is safe to come out and live again. She caught my feelings perfectly—these days I feel like I am watching life but not really a part of it, and I’m waiting until I can once again pick up the threads of a life now gone.

This morning, as we recited the Lord’s Prayer in our virtual prayer service, my mind clamped onto the phrase, “Deliver us from evil.” I guess that’ too is how I feel—that so much evil surrounds us. Disease and fire and riots and a scary election. Yes, Lord, please deliver us so that we can uncurl and live lives filled with love, not fear and anger and hate.

Sleeping in the sun

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The importance of September 12


Yesterday was a somber one for all of us. When September 11 rolls around, images shoved to the back of our minds swim to the surface again, bringing with them the horror that is beyond imagining, a horror that made daily life grind to a halt, a horror that most of us couldn’t really wrap out minds around. People posted what they were doing when they heard the news of the attack on the Twin Towers—from traveling abroad to sitting in a classroom. I was, no surprise, at home at my computer.

It reminded me of the reaction for years to the assassination of JFK. People recalled where they were, what they were doing when those shots rang out and the news first broke. I was listening to my car radio on the main street of a small Missouri town and wondered why those news guys couldn’t get anything right. And then they got it right. It’s hard for me to believe that a whole huge segment of our population, including my four children, were not yet born by November 1963. But they will remember September 11, 2001.

I read a post yesterday by someone who said he wanted to go back to September 12, 2001. Not to relive the horror but to recapture the unity of America on that day. Led by George W. Bush, who was not my choice for president, we came together to grieve and mourn but also to declare our faith in the American way, in the survival of democracy. (That I didn’t agree with Bush’s later retaliatory actions is another matter.) We will all remember Bush, with his megaphone, at the site of the destruction.

What we got yesterday in leadership was a president who sat with his arms folded in a belligerent, bored pose during the reading of names of the victims who died at Shanksville; he didn’t seem to know the words to the Pledge of Allegiance when it was recited. In stark contrast to all political candidates since 2004, he did not pull his campaign ads for the day. Joe Biden told reporters they wouldn’t get anything from him yesterday—it was a day to honor the dead and not to campaign. He pulled his ads.

Today’s America, as many bemoaned yesterday, is far different than it was in 2001. We are a nation almost brought to our knees by a pandemic that has killed 200,000 of our family, friends, and neighbors,  economic depression worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s, terrorists who turn peaceful protests in our cities into riots, and wildfires that seem to consume the western third of the nation. I wrote “almost to our knees” deliberately because I think we can still save America from those who lie to us, who put greed above human life, who are power hungry. We are too strong as a nation. It’s scary to be overly optimistic, but I have faith.

We bumped into another hardship of quarantine last night. My friend Jean came for happy hour—a delightful pleasant evening on the patio. Jean had had a down day, as many of us had, and we worked to cheer each other. As she always does, she said, “Just kick me out when you’re ready to cook dinner.” As it was, we didn’t have supper until eight-thirty, but that was another story and not all Jean’s doing. Later Jordan and I talked about it because our natural instinct is to say, “Oh, stay and eat supper with us. There’s plenty.” (There is always plenty!) But quarantine gets in the way. We haven’t invited anyone into the cottage since last March. With cooler weather coming, the patio will lose some of its appeal, and we’ll have to rethink that.

Having mourned once again yesterday, I think today is the time to recapture the spirit of September 12, a spirit of moving forward in strength, not one of defeat or anger or retaliation. I’ve been accused of always walking on the sunny side of the street, and I guess it’s true. Just call me Pollyanna.


Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Back to school and not much else


Jacob, ready for high school. He's had his picture taken the first day every year since kindergarten

This is Jacob, ready for high school, even though it will be remote. He's had his picture taken on the first day every years since kindergarten. This year is a first in several ways.

The first day of school but in such a strange year. My Austin grandsons and my local grandson started remote school today; I am still unsure if the Tomball kids are in the classroom or working form home, but I’m pretty sure their mom, a seventh-grade math teacher, is back in the classroom. Whether it’s remote or not, I don’t know. And the younger of my two Frisco grandgirls started her senior high school  year today. I think about her a lot—your senior year should be one of great adventure, lots of parties, lots of excitement, and I wonder what this year will be for her. I’m not sure if she’s in the classroom or not. Her sister, a senior at Colorado University in Boulder, is taking all remote classes except one lab.

Jacob told me tonight that his remote classes were not a good thing—I forget how he phrased it, but I had read that the Fort Worth ISD had “technical problems,” as did Dallas ISD. Jacob liked the golf team which is new for him this year (I don’t think golf is offered in middle school.) He’s been taking lessons all summer and playing as much as he could. With the high school team, he goes to a golf course some distance from the house for team meetings and practices. Tomorrow is supposed to be his try-out for the team, and he tells me he thinks he’ll do all right but he doubts it will happen. It’s supposed to rain.

I foresee a cutting back on the family dinners we’ve enjoyed ever since we began quarantining. Jacob will have golf though I don’t know how many nights a week, and Christian has begun to have occasional evening meetings for various charitable committees. Perhaps the world is creeping back to some kind of normalcy, even as we still keep our distance. But I will regret losing those family dinners. Tonight I ate alone and had leftovers—a bit of salmon too dry to be eaten alone, so I made it into salmon salad and sided it with cottage cheese.

Tonight in Texas, we are expecting dramatically cooler temperatures—like a high in the eighties tomorrow. Today’s high was ninety-three, and when neighbor Mary and I sat out for happy hour tonight, it was downright pleasant. As I write tonight, at 10:30, we are awaiting rain which was initially supposed to arrive between two and five, then got pushed to eleven. It’s very still tonight and very dark, so I expect the rain is coming. Christian just told me the heaviest rain will be tomorrow. Meantime, we’re seeing pictures of heavy snow in Wyoming, and Denver is under a snow warning. On September 8? Really? The world is really out of whack. But then, we all knew that.

At home the only other news is a couple of small happenings—tonight, Sophie nearly caught her tail on fire. Mary is a magnet for mosquitoes, so Jordan had put a citronella candle right next to her feet. Sophie, being her usual sociable self, came too close and in a minute, we smelled burning hair. I haven’t examined closely, but I suspect there’s some singed hair on that full tail that she wags around.

I have decided I will never master curbside pick-up for groceries. Jordan picked up an order yesterday and came home with four—yes, four bottles of maple syrup. I had been so intent on posting a note to the shopper that I didn’t want the brands online but wanted Central Market’s Organic syrup (from Vermont, I think). We thought the four bottles were a mistake (not a cheap one) and I was prepared to object, when I checked my order and it said four. All I can think of is that I upped the number of lemons to four and somehow got it mixed up. I’m hoping Christian will find lots of maple recipes for grilling salmon.

I’m ready for a change in the pace of life. Maybe the back-to-school feeling in the air gives me the jitters or maybe it’s the increasingly tumultuous political scene, but I have this sense of waiting for something to happen. Something big. Not a completely happy feeling.

Tomorrow is bound to be a better day! Stay safe.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Labor Day Blues

Haymarket Riot

If you are social distancing and masked, as I hope you are, this is a different kind of Labor Day. No community picnics with speeches by politicians, no concerts, maybe some fireworks on television. Annual parades across the country have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Maybe you’re shopping the sales online. However you’re marking this day, please stay safe.

Labor Day began back in the 1880s to honor working people—the first parade was in New York City in 1887, and the day became a Federal holiday in 1894. The last quarter of the 19th century was a time marked by clashes, often violent, between labor and the robber barons who thought they ruled the world during the Gilded Age. It was also the era of the rise of labor unions, designed to protect laborers by stabilizing wages, limiting working hours, guaranteeing days off, and other measures so that men, women, and children had more to their lives than dawn-to-dusk work in sweatshops, factories, and the like. In some ways, those clashes of values are reflected again in our society today—we haven’t come as far as we thought or else we’ve slid backwards.

Perhaps the most notorious labor riot was the Haymarket which occurred in Chicago in 1886 after bombing disrupted a peaceful labor rally at the McCormick Reaper Works in support of the eight-hour day. Police killed one laborer and injured several others as they tried to disperse the demonstrators. Someone threw a bomb, and between that and the resulting gunfire seven police and at least four civilians were killed. Dozens others were injured.

A German immigrant, August Spies, was so angered at the police brutality that he rushed to the offices of an anarchist newspaper, Arbeiter-Zeitung, and issued a call to arms for workingmen. A second rally as held in Haymarket Square. Spies spoke, followed by his colleague Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier turned anarchist. The mayor of Chicago was even on hand to ensure that things remained peaceful—but he decided all was well and went home too early. Police tried to disperse the crowd, another bomb was thrown, and gunfire and chaos followed. Several police and civilians were killed.

The riot set off a nation-wide wave of violence, and police rounded up foreign-born protestors and labor organizers. In Chicago, seven men were sentenced to death—ultimately four were hanged, including Spies and Parsons, one committed suicide, and the remaining three were pardoned. It was not a pretty episode in the country’s history.

My research for the historical novel, The Gilded Cage, led me deep into the conflict surrounding the Haymarket Riot and indeed into the whole labor movement era in Chicago. Spies, Parsons, and their families became minor characters in the book. The Gilded Cage was published in the spring of 2016. At the time I had no idea how relevant that history would be to us in 2020, but today that bit of history speaks to me as an object lesson.

So today, if you’re having a family-only barbecue in the back yard or—as I will be doing, eating leftovers, raise a glad to the working men and women of the late nineteenth century who fought so hard to secure protections for those who work in nine-to-five jobs, often physical hard jobs.

And I hope you find some fireworks on TV because, well, there just ought to be fireworks!


Sunday, September 06, 2020

Another food day


Another lazy day—maybe it’s the three-day weekend, though why in the world would a holiday weekend affect my schedule? At any rate, it was lazy—went to online church in the morning, spent too much time on Facebook but the political stuff is so interesting these days (if you’re careful about what you read). Spent quite a bit of time going through the cooking and food magazines that had accumulated on the left-hand corner of my desk, where papers seem to multiply of their own accord. Actually got some helpful articles for my chef course and some recipes that I put aside for us to try.

I saved a page for Christian because it was about fried rice, which he’s been wanting to try. But when I started to give it to him, I realized it was just one big picture with the simple advice that you should coat every grain of rice with egg yolk. I told him that and threw it out.

It pains me to admit this, but I probably will let my subscriptions lapse to everything but Southern Living—and they are in danger if they don’t stop featuring so many shrimp dishes that I cannot eat. Since I am at heart a print person (due to my age and training), it is hard for me realize that the magazines simply take up space on my desk and challenge me to go through them. I mostly find recipes online. At my advanced age, I am being drawn into the internet—I get my recipes there, and I read my books there. And publish my books. I am part of a revolution I try to resist.

But the big food event of the day was that we ordered dinner from an upscale Mexican catering service that both Christian and I burned to try. I had been to one of their catered brunches and was blown away by the food. One thing I particularly liked, and I found true again tonight, is that they season the food but do not feel called upon to test taste buds with hot spiciness. Their food is flavorful, but not overly spicy.

Dinner for two turned out, as we planned, to be enough to feed six or eight, but it was expensive. And good but not great. Ever since take-out became a thing, I have maintained that food doesn’t travel well. It is better eaten newly cooked in whatever restaurant but not reheated at home—hamburgers particularly suffer from this. Tonight’s dinner was delivered at noon, and we reheated to serve at seven. Reheating never benefits food, just dries it out.

Tonight although there was plenty of food, we each had miniscule portions of tomato soup (very good, with a seasoning neither Christian nor I could identify), Caesar salad, Beef Wellington with mushroom duxelles, chicken breast with sauce, baked salmon with chimichurri, Brussel sprouts (none of us like them), and broccolini with lemon sauce that I couldn’t detect. You can see though why dinner for two feed three adults. There was a dish of mac and cheese which we put aside for Jacob. Shhh! Don’t tell him it has truffle oil. Dessert was an apricot crumble with white chocolate—again, probably better when fresh out of the oven.

I count this evening’s meal as a lesson learned. We were so intrigued by their menu—so now we’ve satisfied that intrigue, and I doubt we’ll do it again. I would still love to go back to that catering service when they have another of their in-house dinners, but meantime I think Jordan, Christian, and I come up with better meals, and we should stick to cooking at home. The best take-out I’ve yet had was Macaluso’s last night.

And slightly food-related: Mary Dulle sent me a posting about Chicago’s Palmer House closing. For my book, The Gilded Cage, I delved into that history, and when my kids and I were in Chicago, a visit to the Palmer House was high on our list. And in my new book, Saving Irene, I set the climactic scene in the Palmer House. Food is part of it too—their menu includes a lot of fish fresh from the Great Lakes and a
“rooftop honey” salad dressing, made with honey from the hives that sit atop many of Chicago’s downtown buildings. A fascinating fact I uncovered in research.

These days it’s a Hilton property, but it has apparently been closed since early in the pandemic. And now there are foreclosure actions against it for something over $300 million indebtedness. I don’t expect them to tear it down tomorrow—these things work their way through the courts slowly—but I hate to see that grand old dame become another victim of  pandemic.


Enough. The world is sometimes a discouraging place, but it will be brighter tomorrow. Happy Labor Day everyone.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

A lazy day and a touch of Scotland.

A lazy, sleepy day. And a food day, the highlight of which was a Zoom cooking class featuring the Scottish National Chef Gary McLean cooking from his own kitchen. The program was sponsored by Central Market, which, not coincidentally, has all the Scottish products available—including salmon from the Hebrides and Scottish ice cream. On the menu today: a salad of smoked salmon (either hot smoked or cold—I much prefer the cold smoked), green peas, green beans, snap peas, and snipped dill, all on a base of pea puree; a fennel salad accompanied by broiled langoustine with Scottish Tain cheddar; Hebridean (I cannot figure out how to pronounce that) salmon filets with a warm potato and asparagus salad; and for dessert, cranachan—a concoction of browned oatmeal with honey, whiskey, heavy cream barely whipped, and  raspberries served over ice cream (Scottish, of course) and topped with shaved chocolate. I have always threatened to move to Scotland. Now I am sure.

The segment was filmed in McLean’s own Scottish kitchen, which was, he told us, designed for demonstrations. It was not a large space, though I’ve always known that the best chefs do not need a large kitchen. Still, he had an impressive four ovens—some with different functions—with refrigeration below them, drawers designed to respond to the touch of a knee, so that he could open without touching while cooking. As he cooked, he kept loading empty dishes and used ingredients off to his right, and I fervently hoped there was an assistant over there making order out of chaos. At the end the camera panned the kitchen, and there was no assistant but a heck of a mess to be cleaned up.

McLean himself, a man in his mid-forties, was charming and unassuming, gesturing a lot with his hands, smiling, and, best of all, explaining techniques as he went. Who knew you could poach eggs twenty-four hours in advance and heat them up? To my surprise, he did not cook on a gas cooktop—I thought all chefs prepared gas. No, he had an electric cooktop which he explained, partway through, was induction technology. That reassured me immensely since I cook on an induction hot plate. He had two burners and another which had a special name—“expander?” (If he can do all that with two burners, surely I can do pretty well with one.) I love a good Scottish brogue, but I admit I had a bit of trouble following him occasionally. I have since heard that Central Market is investigating closed captioning for future lessons.

I learned lots from watching him. The lesson was supposed to be a cook-along, but I had early decided I just wanted to watch and absorb and not distract myself by trying to cook along—although he did occasionally pause and chatter a bit to give home cooks a chance to catch up. My neighbor, Prudence, started to cook along and gave it up but said they would be eating well at her house. McLean has a cookbook which is more, he says, a lesson in techniques rather than a cookbook. I looked it up on Amazon but could not find it. I’ll keep trying. Since Central Market never misses a marketing opportunity, I expect them to carry it soon.

My takeaway: a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday experience and recipes I’ll cook. Jordan was enthusiastic tonight about the entrée salmon (minus the soft-poached egg) and the dessert. I would add the smoked salmon salad, but I could pass on the fennel salad—there was some on-screen discussion of substituting something and I wonder about a Napa cabbage or something. I am not a fan of fennel. Also, as I’m allergic to shrimp but can eat lobster, I’ve always wondered which camp langoustine falls into.The internet says lobster, so I’m gathering my courage to try because they looked delicious. 

Chef Gary McLean

Must add that the day was rounded out with a delightful visit with Carol Roark and Lon Burnam—conversation with them is always fun. We ordered supper from Macaluso’s which deserves a shout-out for hot and delicious food delivered in a timely manner. I had eggplant Parmagiana because I don’t often get a chance to eat eggplant, and I loved it. Carol is one of the people who keeps my writing world in order—feeding me information, correcting me when I’m wrong, and cheering me on. And I always appreciate Lon’s sense of humor and his take on politics. Jordan and I both agreed it was a jolly evening.

And Sophie enjoyed it. For some reason, she took to Lon and lay at his feet much of the evening. There was some debate about whether she was protecting Lon or protecting me from him.

Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone. Please stay safe and wear your masks. I am appalled at pictures of crowds of unmasked people—as at the Trump rally on Lake Travis where at least four boats sank. No further comment needed, except none of the massed spectators had masks.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Fishermen, a little time out, and a good day


These happy fishermen are two of my sons and one son-in-law. As you can tell from the Celtic names, Colin and Jamie (picture 1 and 3) are mine. Brandon (second picture) is married to Megan. They were fishing in Colorado with a guide, somewhere southwest of Denver—they were pretty vague about exactly where they were (I got the feeling they didn’t know) but I gather they were sort of near Fairplay. They were doing catch and release so no fish over the campfire for them—I suspect they fixed steak for themselves. Christian, who rounds out the adult males in the family, is not a fisherman and was happily with us at the lake house that weekend.

I had a sinking spell yesterday. During the night, Wednesday night, I would have told you I was sure it was COVID-19 (you know those three a.m. thoughts which are especially vivid these days). By morning, I decided it was a recurrence of a kidney problem I’ve had occasionally—back pain and I could not bear the thought of food. By afternoon it was clear it was a stomach problem. I did some work in the morning but was back in bed by 11:00 a.m. Spent the rest of the day getting up, puttering for an hour or so, and returning to bed. Jordan came out three times to deliver groceries, and I was asleep each time.

Finally she caught me up at about eight, took my temperature three times, and announced, “We are not dealing with a COVID situation, but we have to document for the doctor.” I assured her I wasn’t going to the doctor and would be fine today. Got up again at ten, because my conscience wouldn’t let me sleep without brushing my teeth and then again near midnight when Sophie wanted to go out. And then slept a heavenly deep sleep, albeit with weird dreams (I dream a lot anyway).

The thing that struck me is that especially in these stressful days a little time out is good for each of us. If it takes a stomach bug to do it, so be it. Because I’m introspective and tend to overthink things, I grilled myself on whether or not I was stressed by the country’s situation with pandemic and riots, the never-ending feeling of quarantine, and the heavier than usual workload on my desk. My answer to all that was, “Yes, but . . . .”: Still this morning I was my usual sunny (?) self but hungry.

My good friend Jean came for happy hour tonight. We try to get together once a week to solve the problems of the world—boy, are we good at it. If the world only listened to us! Tonight, though, I tactfully (I hope) kicked her out early because I wanted to catch a 6:30 Zoom program on Scottish seafood sponsored by Central Market. It turned out to be nothing more than a teaser for the cooking class tomorrow, for which I am already registered. Hearty apologies to Jean.

But tomorrow I’ll learn to make a smoked salmon salad with snap peas and a Hebridean salmon with a sauce and a soft-boiled egg. I think I could sell it to the family if I left off the soft-boiled egg. The dessert is a cranachan, a Scottish dessert with raspberries, heavy cream, oatmeal or porridge, and a touch of whisky. Sounds wonderful, but my family doesn’t eat desserts. I’m a bit hamstrung by what they will and won’t eat.

Labor Day weekend! Be careful, everyone—masks, social distancing, no drinking and driving. I sound like an old mother hen, but I guess that’s what I am.