Saturday, April 17, 2021

A formal farewell on a dreary day


It’s our third consecutive dreary, chilly day in Fort Worth and, frankly, I’m ready for some sunshine. I watched the ceremony for Prince Phillip this morning, and I think, in a great reversal, it was sunnier in England than in Texas.

I viewed the funeral with mixed emotions—the music was gorgeous, and I loved the bagpiper, but then I’m a sucker for the pipes. My Scottish heritage comes out ever time I hear them. But the church (was it a chapel? Cathedral?) was very formal and very dark. It was a blessing that no cameras focused on the few individual mourners—I suppose they were forbidden—but at first, I couldn’t even tell if there were people seated in the pews. And even at a funeral, I expect the clergy to bring some life, some lilt to their presentations. These men—three that I counted—mostly read and mumbled, but then I am not familiar with the Anglican church. My impression is that much of any service follows a prescribed ritual, and there is little room for personal embellishment. The prince had apparently request that there be no eulogy.

Outside, though, the atmosphere was totally different. As the family walked behind the casket to the church, you could see both Prince Charles and Wills struggling to contain their emotions, and as many media sources pointed out, they were no doubt reliving in their minds that grief-laden walk behind Diana’s casket. But when they left the church, they walked with more purpose, and this time Wills and Harry walked together. Of course, there is much speculation about a reconciliation but there has been no word.

My two take-aways from the day: I have now seen that picture of the Queen sitting alone (social distancing), along with many comments about how sad it is, and a couple of ghoulish comments that she would be joining Phillip soon. Don’t count on that, and no, I didn’t find it sad. She is an incredibly strong woman, shaped for years for her position and now having been queen for just shy of sixty-eight years (if my math is any good). She ascended in 1952. She has lived her life for her country, from WWII forward, and while, yes, Phillip was her “stay” as she said, she will carry on with true British grit. And she has family to support her.

A friend of mine just lost her husband, also at the age of ninety-nine, and she wrote a moving essay titled, “He is still here.” By here, she meant the rural farmhouse they have shared for years. I think Phillip is still in the castle.

The other take-away made me smile. One of the clergy (forgive me I can’t sort out which one, but it was a gentleman who apparently knew Phillip well) was later quoted, discussing Phillip’s own plans for his funeral, to the effect that Phillip “liked the broad church, the high church or the low, but best of all, he liked the short church.” And that’s what today’s service was.

Slowly, we are seeing some pictures of the royal couple in casual moments, and they reinforce the idea of a great love and a live well lived together. Today I saw one of the newly crowned queen walking past her husband, she in ceremonial robes and carrying some ceremonial object and he in uniform, and in that solemn and formal moment and setting, they were both grinning, with a twinkle in their eyes. Phillip may have had to walk a pace behind her, but they seem to have been happy equals in the marriage.

At their ages (and mine, although they do have a few years on me) I think what we ask of life is not wonderful new experiences or new loves, but rich and warm memories. I know have them, and I trust so does the queen.

Beyond watching the funeral, it hasn’t been much of a day, though I did write another r profile and almost finished it. Now, it’s nearly seven-thirty, Christian is grilling steak and burgers, and I have done my best to reawaken some very tired asparagus. After supper, I think I’ll read. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Maybe sunshine.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Sometimes the day goes awry—it’s okay.

My baked egg
Tasted better than it looks
Great way to use leftovers

My dreams often reflect what’s on my mind any given day, and that was the case last night. In sleep, I alternated between cooking for a guest I expected tonight and writing a profile for which I’d just found a bonanza of information. It was a busy night, and I woke early, anticipating a busy day. 

The recipe I planned to fix is, once again, one of those my family won’t touch but my guest would, I hoped, enjoy—tuna Florentine. No, not fresh tuna, but that good, canned tuna that I order directly from a small, independent cannery in Oregon. It’s one of my favorite dishes, but I almost never make it for myself because it’s a bit of a process—takes a guest to inspire me. There are three layers—the spinach base, the creamed tuna with Swiss and Parmesan cheeses, and a breadcrumb topping. Plus somehow I had tunnel vision and did not think of an appetizer, side dish, or dessert. I had decided on deviled eggs for an appetizer, a German cucumber salad instead of a salad—who needs a green salad with all that spinach? With all that cooking, I figured writing that profile would just have to wait another day. 

I woke to a wet, rainy, cool day—not the kind that inspires ambition. But I made my tea and settled to check email before I cooked. And then came the email—my guest had suffered allergy troubles all week and now had symptoms of a sinus infection—fever, etc. Luckily, she wrote before I defrosted the frozen spinach, opened the canned tuna—no harm done. So, I re-grouped and spent the morning writing. Got almost a thousand words done, but they were hard-pulled words, as I went back and forth between sources and text. As usual, what I thought I could knock out was not that simple. I have more newspaper articles to check, more writing to do. 

So now, at suppertime, I have spent the day with my only human contact one phone call (straightening out a bank misunderstanding, always fun) and one actual human contact so brief I hardly knew it happened—Jordan came out to get milk out of my fridge, and she was off to a meet-and-greet for a city council candidate not from our district. But Sophie and I have had some long discussions. She let me know she would like more supper, and I let her know she is on a weight control program ever since Colin was here and said she was heavier than he had ever seen her. 

I’m going to make myself a baked egg—with that leftover lemony-herb rice in the fridge, a few frozen peas, a bit of ham, some grated cheese—oh, and not to forget the egg that sort of justifies the whole dish. I’ll top it off with some sour cream to keep the egg from drying, though milk or cream would be better if I had it. It’s one of my favorite “dinner-on-my-own” dishes. 

I admit to a slight sinking spell when I woke up from a nap, maybe from having slept too hard. The rest of the day seemed to stretch out endlessly, but I did my daily Facebook check and also those tiresome exercises the physical therapist insists upon—my conscience prodded me—and pretty soon it was time for the news and a glass of wine, and the world looked brighter. 

 And here is a story to brighten anyone’s day: a young man visited his grandmother in a memory care facility. As he left, he said, “It was good to see you again,” and she replied, “It was good to remember you.” “You remember me?” he asked, surprised. “I don’t remember your name,” she said, “but I remember that I love you.” 

And speaking of love, I’ll watch Prince Phillip’s funeral tomorrow. Will you? Such a marvelous love story, and I am a big fan of the Queen. But then, I’ll also be checking those newspaper sources and working on that profile. Sounds like a good day to me. Hope you have good weekend plans too.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Meeting a local politician


No, it wasn't happy hour as the wall hanging says.
It was morning coffee and politics.

It would be disingenuous of me to say I am not a political person. I have definite ideas about politics, and I am frequently outspoken about them, especially online. But I actually know few politicians personally, except for one longtime family friend who I value. So it came as a surprise that city council candidate Jared Sloane called and asked if we could meet for coffee or sit on my front porch and talk. I said we could sit on the patio.

This led to much dinnertime speculation last night—what did he want? Why me? Turns out his campaign manager suggested he talk to me, which prompted the observation that said campaign manager is a Republican and I am a yellow-dog Democrat—was conversion the goal? See two flaws in this speculation? One is that someone wants something, and you must be on guard; the other is that the world is divided into Republicans and Democrats when in truth we were talking about a nonpartisan position.

So, Mr. Sloane—okay, Jared (he’s ten years younger than my youngest child)—came by this morning, and we had a nice chat. He did want something—my vote and my support. He was open and honest about that and instinct tells me he answered most of my questions honestly. When I asked how much, really, a council member can do to affect the course of affairs in the city, he said, “Not that much.” We talked about mayoral candidates and I was able to tell him about the TCU area people who blame a council member, wrongly I think, for the proliferation of stealth dorms in the area—he didn’t know about the talk against this particular candidate. We talked about a council candidate who dropped out of the race with respect and empathy. We talked about religion and whether or not it should affect appraisal of a candidate.

And we talked about books and his family—his mom owns a bookstore and his stepmom is trying to write a mystery. There’s that small world again. He told me his background--Indiana, where he was active in politics and then a firefighter--and his family, a wife and daughter. And his civic activities here--board chair of the Arts Council, president of his neighborhood association, an alum of Leadership Fort Worth.  But the conversation was casual and comfortable and not at all a hard-sell, “Vote for me.” I liked him as a person, felt he was sincere, had some new ideas, and he would represent new blood in city government—diversifying away from establishment candidates is a big deal for me.

All in all, it was a pleasant forty-five minutes in the sunshine on my patio. And now there’s a Jared Sloane sign in our front yard. I won’t preach, “Vote for Sloane,” but I will urge friends and family who live in District 9 to give him serious consideration.

And you know what? I admit I’m a bit flattered that a political candidate sought me out.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Farewell to elegance


Marshall Field & Company
State Street, downtown Chicago

Lunch at Neiman Marcus has always been a special treat for me. That demitasse of consommé and the popover with strawberry butter. I once tried to make that and ended with globules of butter floating unattractively in strawberry jam. Clearly, I need the restaurant.

I’ve been doing some research lately on Helen Corbitt, the cook—she never called herself a chef—who oversaw Neiman’s food service from 1955 to 1969 and elevated the food to world class. Inevitably I’ve read a lot about Stanley Marcus and the whole history of that specialty store. So, when the corporations that now own Neiman’s announced almost a year ago that they filed for bankruptcy protection, I felt sad for the demise of yet another of the few bastions of elegance I’ve known in my life.

Years ago, I had a Neiman Marcus charge account, had my hair cut in their salon, dined in Fort Worth Zodiac frequently. For several reasons, I’m not so much of a customer anymore, but Neiman’s will always represent elegance to me. And I find the store’s history as a family business fascinating—sort of the ultimate success of a mom-and-pop store. It was founded in the first decade of the twentieth century by salesman Herbert Marcus and his sister, Carrie Marcus Neiman, and stayed in the family under the legendary Stanley Marcus until the 1970s when Mr. Stanley stepped down as chairman of the board. A series of leveraged buyouts saw it change owners frequently, and my unsubstantiated guess is that prices went up while quality went down. No more the philosophy that any sale was only a good sale for Neiman’s if it was a good sale for the customer. The whole atmosphere changed, and to me became less welcoming.

I’m grateful Fort Worth still has Neiman’s—in a new location, yet—and I can go have a demitasse of consommé and a popover with my chicken salad for lunch. But it isn’t the same. Somehow, I feel quality has become crassly commercial.

I don’t think any such heavy thought occurred to me when Chicago’s Marshall Field & Co. was purchased by Macy’s in 2003 and essentially disappeared. I remember, again, a sense of sadness. I last lunched at the original store with a friend in the ‘90s, and we found the famous Walnut Room, the classic upscale restaurant, a bit shabby. Perhaps elegance doesn’t always last.

But that store on State Street was my childhood playground. My dad, a physician, had his office on the seventeenth floor of the Marshall Field Annex, and you could go under the Wabash Avenue from store to annex. I could roam the store at a fairly young age, and as a teenager, I’d ride the “IC” (Illinois Central commuter train) downtown to Field’s by myself. I could lead you blindfolded to every department in the store, though I was especially fond of the teen apparel section and the restaurants. I liked The Verandah better than the Walnut Room. Then again, I knew where in the budget basement they sold hot dogs and something called a chocolate frosty.

When I wrote The Gilded Cage, about Bertha Honoré (Cissie) Palmer and her husband, Potter, I delved a bit more into the origins of Field’s. The store traces back to a dry goods store on Chicago’s Lake Street, opened in 1857. It went through several iterations, a longtime partner, and at least two devastating fires, before it finally became Marshall Field and Co. in 1881 and later moved into its twelve-story, opulent headquarters at State and Randolph just after the turn of the twentieth century. Want to learn more? Read What the Lady Wants, by Renee Rosen.

Obviously, I learned a lot more about the Palmer House from my research for my novel, The Gilded Cage. Potter Palmer arrived in Chicago in the late 1840s. By the time of the Great Fire, he was a successful hotelier and had just built the Palmer House. It was totally destroyed, but the plans had been saved in an underground vault, and Palmer rebuilt, adding more luxurious detail as he went. Like Field’s store, the hotel catered to the wealthy, fulfilling their every wish from fresh flowers throughout daily to the silver dollars embedded in the floor of the world-renowned barbershop. From writing about the hotel in the late nineteenth century, I felt like I knew it well.

Truth is, I don’t remember ever going to the Palmer House all my years in Chicago, but in late 2016 my four children and I went to the city so I could show them where I grew up. Naturally, after The Gilded Cage, the hotel was high on my list of places to visit. We had lunch there one day and took the historical tour—it’s the only hotel I know of with its own museum inside and a historian on staff. We craned our necks at the ceiling murals and exclaimed in awe over everything from the 24-karat gold Tiffany chandeliers to the souvenir ashtrays in the museum. Want to know more about the Palmer House? Read The Gilded Cage. The hotel also figures in my most recent cozy mystery, Saving Irene.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times, for better or for worse, and elegance is being replaced by comfortable casual, but I will always miss these grand old dames of the past. Next on my list is the Drake Hotel, which as a child I considered the epitome of elegance. My four kids and I stayed there on that visit to Chicago, but I will not go back lest I jinx it. It too was fading just a bit.

Monday, April 12, 2021

A fiddle what?


Sometimes my experiments in cooking alarm even me. Last night it was fiddlehead ferns. Central Market sent out an email advising that they are available only briefly in the spring. Get them now while you can! Well, who can resist that kind of salesmanship? Surely not me. So I included the ferns with my order, but knowing that my family would be skeptical, I thought I’d order a small amount. A half pound.

Do you know how many fiddlehead ferns are in a half pound? Or how expensive they are (we won’t even go there). Last night, my family was gone, and I was fixing dinner for Jean and me, so I decided about noon to search directions on the web. Well, I was almost sorry I did that. I rinsed them—and the first water came out muddy, though it was not dirt but moss-like stuff that was attached to the ferns. And not all of it came off. So then I hand washed each fern—that took some bending over the sink which made my back ache. Then I parboiled them for two minutes, prepared an ice bath, plunged them into that, and let them sit for an hour in ice water. Are you seeing how much work this was?

I drained them and realized there was still quite a bit of that moss-like stuff on them, so more hand cleaning. Finally, I decided that they were ready to cook—if that moss was bad for you, Central Market would have taken it off or put a warning label or something (see the faith I have in my favorite grocery store?). I told Jean I would sauté them briefly in butter, salt and pepper and then add a squirt of lemon—which I promptly forgot when I served them.

We had tuna pasties, potato salad, and fiddlehead ferns. Jean liked them better than I did. Despite all that boiling and soaking, they retained a nice crispness, and the taste was somewhere between young asparagus and fresh green beans. They were good but not remarkable. I decided on the path of least resistance, sent them home with Jean, and never mentioned them to my family. I hope she uses them in a salad because I bet they’d be really good.

Otherwise, it was a cooking weekend—Sunday’s real project, before I realized how much time and trouble the ferns would be, was to make tuna pasties. They were good, but I need to work on the proportion of filling to biscuits. But Saturday night—ah, that was a triumph.

I thought Jordan and I were cooking scallops and lemony-herbed rice together, but she kept disappearing. So I did the rice. Now, I’m not much of a rice cooker—we didn’t eat it when I was a kid, and my adult idea was pretty much to follow Uncle Ben’s instructions. But this called for sautéing the raw rice in butter, with green onions, then steaming in chicken broth and finishing with lemon butter, parsley, and the chopped green parts of the onion. Pretty darn good, but by the time I got it ready, I’d run a marathon. I told Jordan she could cook the scallops.

Panic ensued, because she thinks I’m the only one who gets them right—crisp on the outside and soft inside. I talked her through it, with her saying all the time, “I’m in the weeds here.” Because I was being cautious, we didn’t cook them at as high a heat as we should have (induction hot plates necessitate some decisions) and they cooked a bit too long. But they were wonderful. And Jordan said, “That was fun! My first time to cook them!” So the evening and the meal were successes. Christian was out to a men’s only dinner, postponed from its usual pre-Christmas date.

And now I have so many leftovers—ate sausage for lunch, chicken in crescent rolls for supper with the lemony rice. Still have a cheeseburger, some tuna filling for pasties, scallops (just went in the freezer tonight)—and I can’t believe I just marinated some chicken drumettes for tomorrow. We’ll have them with the rest of the potato salad. We do not suffer from a lack of variety around here.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Where is your camel, or lessons from the pandemic


My physical therapist and I were discussing how much we are each willing to break quarantine, now that we, like many others, are fully vaccinated. He, more willing to get out and about than I, had been to in-person church at Easter, while I stuck with virtual. His parting words were, “You got to get out more. God’s got you.” A few days later a friend wrote that she agreed with me and ended her message with what I presume is an old Arabic proverb: “Trust God, but tie your camel to a tree.” To me, that says it all. I’ve spent a lot of time tying my camel to trees.

In truth, I tie that camel (okay, I’ll quit with that image) because I’m confused. We are inundated with news of how wonderfully well President Biden’s vaccine roll-out is going—way ahead of the schedule he predicted for his first hundred days. And I am among the first to clap loudest and longest. But that statistic that now one out of five is fully vaccinated? Try putting the word “Only” in front of it: it means that four out of five people are walking around without full protection. Apparently one-third of our population has had one shot—I wonder how many never get that second one.

And I’m assuming we still can’t hug, unless the huggee is also vaccinated. Which calls into question all those newly vaccinated grandparents who are finally hugging grandchildren after a year (call me guilty—I hugged one because she had covid a month earlier and, as she said to me, was “full of antibodies”). Aside from the rare case where a vaccinated person gets sick, if we hug unvaccinated grands, are we putting them in danger? They are almost all, at least in my family, too young to have been vaccinated. I haven’t heard a definitive answer about the vaccinated as carriers of the virus. And how long is the vaccine good? Six months? A year? So much still to be determined.

We get advice from several sources, and I’m never sure what the CDC is saying. Apparently, it’s all right to gather indoors with a small group of vaccinated people but we should avoid large groups in enclosed spaces. Yet domestic travel is safe—but they just ruled out planes, trains, and cars. And we should avoid bars and restaurants that are open to full capacity (hello, Texas!).

The most sensible restaurant advice I’ve heard came from local journalist Bud Kennedy who recommends eating on a patio or in a well-ventilated indoor restaurant where they only seat every other table, staff is masked, and customers are masked except when eating. Of course, that means you either check it out as you walk in the door or call ahead and ask their mask and social distancing policy. And in Fort Worth, and I imagine other cities, patios are a problem because many of them are enclosed with ugly plastic to ward off the winter chill. The result is no moving air and a space without ambiance. I suppose in summer they’ll be enclosed for coolness. I’m on a search for open-air patios with distanced seating. Suggestions welcome.

This morning our minister talked about how emotional many people felt when they worshipped in the sanctuary once again, the first time in 54 Sundays. And I have read posts from many people who cried in relief when they got their second vaccination. It’s like the vaccination wipes away all the tension and frustration of the past year. But as Dr. Fauci cautions, we must not get complacent too soon. There is hope on the horizon, but we have to hold on.

Here comes that camel again. Now where’s the nearest tree?

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The magic of leftovers


These are the pasties I meant; not the other kind.
Mine, however, never look this pretty.

My neighbor was one of seven children. He grew up eating leftovers, and to this day, he won’t touch them. No matter how good, if it was served before, he’s done with it. I’ve tried to explain that some things get so much better if they sit in the refrigerator overnight, but he is adamant. (I seem to run across a lot of adamant people these days, but that’s a digression.)

Right now, I have a surfeit of leftovers, and I am loving the luxury. Mostly I enjoy cooking, but it’s wonderful sometimes to have plenty to eat without having to cook. So this morning I had bangers and mash for breakfast—people eat sausage and potatoes for breakfast all the time, so why not in this form. In case you didn’t know, bangers is the Celtic term for sausages. I claimed that cooking bangers was a tribute to my Scottish heritage, but the truth is the label on the package clearly says, “Irish bangers.” They were a special at Trader Joe’s for St. Patrick’s Day. The mash, of course, is mashed potatoes. I steamed the sausages in beer, then caramelized some onion and garlic, added thyme, and made a gravy out of Better than Bouillon. (I could digress again here about exploring Scottish food; I have eaten blood pudding and found it unremarkable, but now I want to try mushy peas—I used to think they were just smashed English peas but they are a variety unto themselves. For another time.)

As luck would have it, Jordan had a sudden, overwhelming allergy attack while I was cooking the bangers. She came to tell me she was taking to her bed, and she didn’t think Christian would eat supper which would leave Jacob and me with a huge meal. I was not thrilled to have spent all that time cooking, only to serve it to a teen who would probably be reluctant about eating it and would certainly scorn the onions. Somehow I coerced Christian into joining us (maybe he was afraid of exploring bangers and  mash). At any rate, he joined us. pronounced the dinner good, and we had a lively three-way discussion of everything from the Chauvin trial to local elections for city council.

I was concerned, however, because there was nothing green on our plates. Another digression: once I was having lunch with a man I was dating when I looked at his plate, saw chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes, and exclaimed, “There’s nothing green on your plate.” He rolled his eyes and said, “Once a mother, always a mother.” That incident sticks with me.

My leftovers today include half of my cheeseburger from last night and a whole, untouched cheeseburger plus a lot of potato salad. Christian grills the best ever cheeseburgers, and I made pickle potato salad to go with them. Thanks to daughter-in-law Lisa for the recipe which includes a surprising amount of either chopped dills or dill relish, along with some pickle juice. I used what I had—gherkins—and when I first made it thought it was so “stout” that nobody would eat it. But that was ten in the morning, and by supper the flavors had mellowed and blended. Turned out to be one of the better potato salads I’ve made, which suggests to me I should follow recipes instead of winging it—at least with some things. Next time, though, I won’t be cheap and use salad mustard—Dijon would be better.

And the leftovers will keep coming. Tonight, Jordan and I will be alone and will have seared scallops (hard to get them just right with crisp outside and soft inside but I come darn close) and herbed rice. There may or may not be leftovers. Tomorrow night I am fixing tuna pasties (there I go with British/Celtic food again) for a friend and there will undoubtedly be leftovers, which will freeze nicely and make good lunches. (Another digression: I just had a shock; looked up pasties online, thinking to get a good definition, but the first definition and the Wikipedia entry are about covers for certain parts of the anatomy, male or female—not at all what I had in mind; pasties are tiny meat pies; oh my goodness!)

Megan, my older daughter, often cooks up a storm on weekends so that she has meals for the workweek ahead (she is a lawyer and works long hours). I’m thinking I should try that, not that I work long hours. Still, having those leftovers is calling me.

Excuse me, it’s lunch time, and I have half a hamburger and some potato salad to eat.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

No biggie


Ever have one of those days when little things go amuck—no biggie, but you are left with the lingering feeling that the world is just slightly out of whack. That was my world yesterday. I started the day by filling the teakettle—for some unknown reason I poured all that water into the cup that was waiting for a tea bag. Of course, it promptly overflowed all over the counter while I watched in absolute amazement.

The day didn’t get much better. The PT guy said he would be late because he had to get his brakes worked on. He usually comes at nine, which I find a bit early, so at first I was grateful. But I found it hard to dig in and work on much of anything, not knowing if he’d show up and interrupt any minute. Finally, close to noon I texted that it would work best for me if we cancelled. So we did—and he came and took a chunk out of my morning today. I know, I know—I should be, and am, grateful because I’m getting stronger, able to walk farther without resting, but I itched to be at my computer and not doing endless repetitions of shoulder shrugs and kicks and so on.

And yesterday the case whatever (manager?) was the same—I was waiting to hear from her, but she finally called about noon and said it would be today. So this morning she came and took my blood pressure and measured my oxygen—which the PT had just done an hour earlier. Redundancy.

I closed out yesterday by dropping a couple of mushrooms slices, dripping with the butter they were sauteed in, on the clean shirt I was wearing—and I’d just had compliments on what a cute outfit I had on.

I thought I was through with the day, but no. About two o’clock this morning—does that still count as yesterday? —I woke with the realization that the cottage was really hot and stuffy. I stumbled around, trying to turn either or both of my heating/cooling units to a/c but was unsuccessful. Finally gave up and fell into a fitful sleep. This morning I called the a/c repairman who gave me straightforward directions over the phone and, of course, that worked perfectly. I should never try to do anything mechanical at two in the morning—and only rarely any other time of day! Now I have the French doors open and just enough breeze blowing in that the cottage is comfortable. Who needs a/c?

A good thing about yesterday: late last night I finished a mystery that I was thoroughy enjoying—Three May Keep a Secret, by Susan Van Kirk. The title comes from good old Ben Franklin: Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead. The novel, first in a series of three, is everything a good cozy mystery should be—small-town setting, retired schoolteacher as protagonist, enough history to make it interesting. Fire, as in raging, fatal infernos, fuels this mystery, and Van Kirk writes about it with some authority. Apparently, she knows fires almost as well as she knows small towns. Now I’m moving on to Finding Freedom, a memoir by the owner of the iconic Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine. The restaurant is staffed entirely by women, takes reservations only on postcards, and specializes in using local products. Dinner is $200 per person and from all reports worth every penny, and the waiting list is long. It’s on my bucket list.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow—a day with no obligations. I can sleep until Sophie and I want to get up, I can work undisturbed, we have a simple dinner plan—bangers and mash (the Scot in me is coming out even if they are Irish bangers), and my Canadian daughter is coming for happy hour. Yes, I will do my shoulder shrugs, kicks, and walking—accompanied by Sophie who goes frantic over my exercise for some reason. Wish I could read that little brain.



Monday, April 05, 2021

Writing in my sleep


Texas caviar

“I do not like to write — I like to have written.” That oft-quoted saying has been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain (who I always thought really did say it) to, gulp, Gloria Steinem—really? Well, I have a new twist on it: I do not like to write—but I like thinking about writing.

I can write wonderful things as I lie in bed waiting for sleep or sit at my desk, staring vacantly out at the garden, now just beginning to green up for spring. Plots hold together, characters are clever and interesting, never hackeneyd, their dialog brilliant and original. Things work out so well.

But put me at my computer and tell me it’s work time, and I become Erma Bombeck all over again. I’d rather scrub floors or clean the bathroom than face what for Erma was a blank sheet of paper in her typewriter and what for me is a blank computer screen. All rational thought flees, and I am back to staring out the window wondering how such and such worked so perfectly not two hours ago.

Case in point: I am as some of you may know working on a possible project about Helen Corbitt, doyenne of food service at Neiman Marcus or, as Mr. Stanley Marcus called her, the Balenciaga of food. Her cookbooks are legendary and a compilation published in 2000 gives a brief biography of her. But no one has ever done a real biography, and her archive is readily available though, unfortunately, not in any form that allows me virtual access. Still, I can’t seem to let go of the notion that I should write about her. So she fills a lot of “thinking” and “imagining” hours for me.

I began an introduction which would, I hoped, serve as a road map for a book. But then other projects called me away for almost two weeks, time I spent thinking about two paragraphs that I knew needed to be included. I must have written those paragraphs in my mind a dozen times. So today, I sat down to actually write them. Found I’d put bare hints of them in the text but not done them justice. So now I have to rethink the whole thing. And some people wonder why I go to bed so early!

If you’ve never eaten lunch at a Neiman’s restaurant—I think there is only one now and it’s on the edge of bankruptcy, if not declared—it’s worth a trip to Dallas. No matter what you order, your meal begins with a demitasse of chicken consommé seasoned exactly right with a tiny touch of bite to it and a warm popover with strawberry butter. The one time years ago I tried to make the butter I ended up with little globules of golden butter floating in strawberry jam—not at all like what’s served at Neiman’s. But that custom traces back to Corbitt as does a dish she famously invented when challenged to present a banquet using only Texas produce. She served what we now call Texas caviar: black-eyed peas seasoned with green onions, cilantro, chiles, tomatoes, and garlic and coated with a dressing of olive oil, lime juice, and cumin. Served chilled with corn chips for dipping. Over the years others have added everything from corn to black beans, but Corbitt's purist version had only the peas.

More about Helen another time. I’m fascinated by her cooking and her free-wheeling personality. So I guess I’ll keep writing in my sleep, though this week my project is to do more research on her career in Texas. She was not a native, but neither am I, so I’ll forgive her that.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

A familiar anthem—so welcome!


This morning Sophie got me up early (like 5:30) with one of her snophalophagus attacks. I got up to give her a Benadryl, went to the bathroom, and saw an email from my high school BFF—she quoted these lines to me:

One early Easter morning,

I wakened with the birds,

And all around me lay silence,

Too deep for earthly words.

She didn’t have to say any more. I knew it meant she was thinking of me, and that in our faith, He is Risen, indeed! Long ago—really long ago—she and I were in a youth choir that sang that music on Easter morning, and it has stayed with both of us. So today, I went through the day with that melody playing in my head. One year, for a sunrise service, my church included it in the program—at my request. I was thrilled.

Good intentions gone awry—we were going to attend virtual nine o’clock church this morning but instead had Easter breakfast/brunch about 10:30 and then were ready for the eleven o’clock service (I think it was the same service, played over again). Brunch was a tater tot casserole that Jordan and Christian fiddled with—who really needs six cups of grated cheese? They cut it in half, substituted sausage for bacon, added eggs—and the result was so good.

Tater Tot casserole

Our church, Fort Worth’s University Christian, has really learned some innovative things about presenting virtual services, and this morning was a triumph. Easter services usually conclude with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus—this morning various members of the congregation popped up from unlikely spots spelling out the lyrics to accompany the music. It was good-hearted, good fun, and wonderful. The sermon struck a chord with me too because I hear on Facebook from acquaintances who sing of doom because Biden is president—I can’t believe I am patient with them, but I am for various reasons. The gist of what I took away this morning is to never believe that the moment of gloom is the last word. God always gets the last word, and it is “Life,” though I might suggest that it is “Love.”

The Burtons went off to Denton to celebrate with Christian’s family, and I, after a nap, welcomed Subie and Phil. We had gravlax that I had cured—absolutely delicious, with a perfect sauce of yogurt, mayo, balsamic vinegar, lemon, and dill. I will definitely do that again. Russian salad, also new to me, was great—sort of a version of potato salad, but you dice everything fine, aiming for the size of green peas because it has peas, along with potatoes, carrots, cornichons, ham. Dressing is simply mayo mixed with cornichon brine. I think I was a bit timid about the brine, but I will use it with a freer hand next time. Subie brought egg butter, which she had learned to make in Finland—like deviled eggs but without the devil. The perfect accompaniment for gravlax. And dessert? In the interests of being ecumenical, it was matzoh crack.

Matzoh crack
So rich, so good

I have to say, for all I worried about the gravlax, the matzoh crack was the thing I struggled with the most—trying to avoid burning myself with the hot sugar mixture, juggling pans, quick spreading first toffee and then chocolate before it hardened past the point of spreading. Plus I had to do it in my small toaster oven, instead of a traditional one where I could have done more pieces of matzoh at one time. I made two batches—and I have a whole lot of matzoh left over, so I’ve been singing to Christian about the virtues of matzoh brie—just like the migas he loves. Funny how so many cultures have the same dish by different names.

All in all, it was not the traditional Easter I always long for—I still wish I’d been in church and then had a leg of lamb—but it was a great, non-traditional alternative, and I am counting my blessings tonight.

Two days ago, I looked at a tree that is always so slow to leaf out that each spring I am convinced it is dead—and I thought that after our terrible snowmageddon. But tonight I just happened to look—and it has leafed out in two days.

He is Risen, Indeed!