Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Belated thoughts on the media, a funny dinner

I've noticed that several other blogs have beaten me to the topic I meant to blog about a couple of days ago: the media coverage of Michael Jackson's death. I grieve for him, I really do, for the enormous talent he had, for the impact he had on music around the world, for what seems a wasted life. His personal life became so bizarre, and he seemed to waste his talent, and it's hard to overlook that. There were other celebrity deaths last week--Farah Fawcett, who fought a brave, public, and open battle against cancer; Ed McMahon (spelling?) who remained fairly active into his later years though apparently in financial troubles; Billy Mays who sold everything he could on TV (did you know there are now stores called As Seen on TV and they sell lots of the products Mays pushed? I found that amazing); and a great impersonator, whose name escapes me. But for days, the news was all about Michael Jackson--four solid days on the TODAY show, which I really like, plus often the lead story on NBC nightly news, and every time I opened the newspaper there was the blaring headline, pages devoted to the story. Today I've noticed it slowing down a bit but there will continue to be news about the custody of his children, the legal battle over his destitute estate, and so on. Meantime I wanted to know what was going on in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, all the troubled places of the world; what was happening to the health care reform bill, the energy bill? All those were buried in the back pages of a thin newspaper. It's not original for me to say that Americans have skewed their sense of values, but I feel it nonetheless. We are still losing soldiers in the Middle East, we face terrible threats from North Korea and other countries, our economy is in a mess, an unbelievable number of our citizens are without health care or insurance, and we're reading about Michael Jackson. I give up!
I thought Jordan and Jacob were coming for supper tonight, but luckily I hadn't done much advance preparation for a lovely meal. It turned out Jordan was going to a happy hour and I was feeding Jacob. She did come back a little after 7:30 and eat her dinner, which made Jacob finish a bit more of his. Lesson learned: don't give him blue berries with his dinner. I had been doing that because he loves them and they're good for him, but he eats the blueberries and ignores the broccoli, mashed potatoes, and chopped sirloin.
Two weeks from today is my last day as director of the press. I will still be doing contract work, primarily acquisitions but maybe some editing, but I will no longer be "the director." It's a funny feeling, and yet I'm looking forward to retirement with a great deal of joy.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Recipes, weight gain, and water slides

Tonight I'm editing a portion of a cookbook with many recipes from an African-American woman who really broke color barriers and built a career for herself in the '50s and '60s as a teacher, caterer, and producer of food products. She was Lucille Bishop Smith, and I remember when I first moved to Fort Worth in the mid-sixties people used to serve Lucille's chili biscuits as appetizers. You bought them frozen at Roy Pope's grocery store (a still-existent stand-alone where "fashionable" Fort Worth shops, although they may suffer from Central Market now). Carol, who compiled this chapter found no recipe for chili biscuits, but I am tempted to try to recreate them with refrigerated biscuits and canned chili--Lucille would, I'm sure, squirm in her grave. But the recipes are wonderful--some I remember my mom making, like Seven-Minute Icing and Pumpkin Chiffon Pie. Others sound really weird--Japanese bean pie--yes, mashed pinto beans but mixed with sweet ingredients--and Banana and Pineapple Surprise Salad--the surprise is the addition of peanut butter, which sounds fairly awful to me. And do you know what dovering eggs is? It's beating them with an old-fashioned, hand-cranked egg beater. There are some recipes which completely baffle me--like the pumpkin chiffon pie which calls for serving it with Plymouth Sauce. What's that? My mom never did that for sure. Deviled round steak sounds pretty good. I am having such fun with these recipes.

But recipes get me into trouble. Instead of losing weight last week, I gained over a pound. I thought I'd been pretty good until the weekend, but that must have been enough to get me into trouble. Still, I was astounded when I stepped on the scales this morning. It can't have been the two handfuls of potato chips I ate at the party Saturday night. Maybe it was the salmon croquettes--another of Mom's recipes and a perennial favorite of mine. I gave a bit to Jacob Saturday night, and he said, "It's good, Juju!" And then I had one for lunch in a sandwich--add points for bread and mayo. And last night I fixed us lamb burgers with buns--okay, I really went over on points. So today I was fairly careful.

Last night we had a sort of late b'day dinner for Jacob because my present for him finally arrived. It's a Spiderman (what else?) water slide but of course he wasn't much impressed last night. Jordan just called to say that at 8:30 they hadn't had dinner, hadn't done anything but play with the water slide--and Jacob absolutely was having the best time ever. Nice to score a home run from time to time.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Success as a grandmother, a scary fall, and cooking

In spite of Jacob's screaming fit early in the evening last night, I am feeling like a success as a grandmother. Jacob went peepee in the potty twice last night and twice this morning. Then he insisted on putting on his "big boy" pants--you can't tell from this blurry picture (I had a moving target) but they are Spiderman, of course.

Just after this Jacob slid on the rug in front of him and kicked up a corner; I tripped on it and went flying so hard that I had to sit there a minute. He kept saying, "I want to help you up," and holding out his little hands, which gave me a vision of both of us going down in the other direction. Landed on an elbow and a knee which hurt at the time but now are fine. But I apparently pulled muscles in my back, so that it hurts to stand up, turn a certain way, etc. Most of all it scared me. I predict a long nap coming.

This has been another cooking weekend. I worked much of yesterday morning making mashed potatoes and salmon cakes--I ate a salmon cake and Jacob ate a small portion of one. One will make my favorite sandwich at lunch, and Jordan will take one home tonight for her lunch tomorrow. Jordan and Addie came back from the party after eleven last night, having eaten pizza and not interested in my cooking. We sat on the porch for one last sip of wine, and it was most pleasant. Jacob, bless him, slept until 8:15. Apparently he does better at my house about sleeping late and using the potty. No wonder I'm proud.

Hope I do better with a cooking audience tonight. I spent part of the morning mixing lamb burgers (they have mint in them) and making a French potato salad (vinaigrette, no mayo). Still have last night's broccoli, which Christian won't eat, but he'll eat the spinach/red onion salad that goes on the burgers.

Doing a lot with recipes lately as we're editing Grace & Gumption: The Cookbook. Katie's editing text, and I'm scurrying around helping one contributor get recipes from Mexican American restaurants--she says it's very hard because so few are written down. This morning Carol, who wrote the career women chapter, brought me the recipes (original plus Carol's version) of recipes from an African American woman who made a career for herself as a chef and caterer in the 1950s and '60s. I particularly remember her frozen chili biscuits when I first moved here--you just popped them in the oven and you had an appetizer. Carol never could find the recipe, so I'm going to call some other old-timers and make sure I't not imagining things. I may take a crack at the recipes today--or I may read a novel that someone sent us to reprint.

Later: my lamburgers, mixed with mint and paprika, topped with a salad of spinach and feta, were a success--and delicous if I do say so, so now I'm way over my Weight Watchers points for the day, because we also had potato salad with vinaigrette dressing. But it was good. Jacob was full of himself, mostly because his daddy was here, and he laughed and played and screamed and swept the floor endlessly--we kept having to tell him the floor only, not walls or tables. My potty training of earlier has gone to pot (sorry about that pun) but maybe it will have some longlasting effect. And he gave sweet kisses and hugs as he left.

When I got up from my long and happy nap, I thought my back was better, but soon realized it had stiffened up while I lay there. But now, by the time I've moved around a lot, it really is better. Christian fixed my alarm system for me, and all seems well.

Back to reading and a lazy evening.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

If this is what retirement is like . . . .

I may give it up before I begin. This morning I did sleep late and laze a bit over the paper and coffee, but then I did a grocery, hardware, jewelry shop (battery for a watch) run, unpacked groceries and spent about an hour and a half making salmon cakes and mashed potatoes for dinner. Oh, and I did two loads of laundry. I was really ready for a nap. After I napped, Jordan and Jacob arrived, all ready for the potato chip/beer party next door at Jay and Susan's. I took a small bottle of white wine, so I could sip out of the bottle like all the beer drinkers, but it was soon clear that Jacob was not enjoying the party--too many people he didn't know, too hot outside. So of course I was delegated to take him home and fix supper. I cooked all the salmon cakes (having been assured Jordan and her friend Arden would be back in an hour to eat), heated the mashed potatoes, cooked some broccoli, and added blueberries to Jacob's plate because he loves them. He ate one blueberry, spit it out, and said "It's yucky." Thereafter he proceeded into a screaming fit because he wanted Mommy and Addie--I explained they'd come back soon (good thing he didn't hold me to my word bcause at 10:30 I haven't seen them yet). I let him cry a while, then almost dragged him back to where I was eating dinner (darn it, I was hungry if he wasn't); he went back to the front door for some more screaming/crying (worse I've ever seen him do) and finally came to the back room because he wanted his pacifier (he's way too old for that) and froggie, his can't-live-without stuffed toy. He watched TV, I ate dinner and cleaned the kitchen, and then he came into th kitchen and said "I want my dinner." He ate all the blueberries and some of the salmon cake and said, "It's good." His mood improved considerably and, oh great triumph, he used the potty twice. We actually had a fun and pleasant evening, though he is fanatical about finding bugs on the floor and saying, "Get it, Juju." I will have to teach him about Alber Schweitzer. Also he found a plastic gun in the back of my closet that shoots stryofoam bullets, so I spent a lot of time talking about not pointing it at himself or others. Now he's sleeping (I have taken the gun out of the crib--sounds terribly uncomfortable to me), and I'm about ready to follow him. The girls are going to spend the night in the guest house, and I hope they're quiet about coming in.
Have I done a thing today that makes me feel like an author or intellectual person? Nope, except I'm still reading the mystery set in Norway--got to finish it before I go to sleep. And Lisa, with her mother born in Norway and the Norwegian relatives who visit every year, has got to read it. It's The Body in the Fjord by Katharine Hall Page. Full of Norwegian culture and food--the latter being why I started it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bookstore signing and the new slim me

Tonight I signed books at the Barnes & Noble in University Village near my house--sat right inside the door at a table with a stack of books, a huge poster, etc. And sold four books. How could all those smiling people resist that adorable picture of Jacob on the cover? Cold bookstore signings are often that way, though I know I got one customer because I posted the signing on Facebook. Friends Elizabeth and Weldon came by and though they've already bought two books bought a third for a friend. Biggest surprise--the daughter of an old friend came by and brought a friend--they each bought a book. Sidney's mother was one of the best friends I ever had and is mentioned in the book, even with a picture. She died about eight year ago. Sidney asked me tonight if I still missed her, and I said honestly that I really did. Sidney's youngest son--a lovely young man, bright, outgoing, cheerful--was with her, and I was delighted to see him. He's studying environmental science at Texas Tech. One woman stopped and said, "You're Judy Alter. I"m a fan!" I thanked her, and she stayed to talk--seems we belong to the same church and she talked a lot about that. And she knew about Grace & Gumption: Stories of Fort Worth Women, the TCU Press book in which I have a chapter. But she baffled me when she said she didn't read but she liked to own books. And then after all my chatting she left without buying. Some other old acquaintances came in, spoke to me about the pictures, and left without buying a book. As Jordan would say, rude, rude, rude. So really all four books went to people I already knew.
I bought some new gray pants, thinking they'd replace the worn ones I wear around the house, but they are so neat and make me look so skinny that they'll become daytime wear. For the first time today I could see that I was losing weight, and it felt good.
I have decided I'm going to coast through these last two and a half weeks of work--this morning I got my hair cut at 8:30 (it's finally really taking shape as longer hair, and I love the cut!) and then I went to Central Market because it's between the haircut place and the office. So I didn't get to work until ten o'clock. Had to call Melinda to come help me in with groceries. I can feel myself moving away, detaching from work--and strangely, I can feel myself learning to slow down. And so far I like it a lot. It was a good day--one of those when I woke up feeling good about myself and my world. Such a pleasure, because I haven't always felt that way in recent months. And tomorrow? I can sleep in!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My busy social life

For about five minutes tonight I had the most hectic social life. Jordan called to ask if she could take me up on an invitation to dinner that she had earlier rejected--Christian had a meeting or social function tonight. I said sure, and it turned out she wanted to leave Jacob, go have a drink with a friend and come back for dinner--maybe bringing the friend. I said okay, but thought that would really deplete the chopped sirloin I had on hand for dinner tonight. Not two minutes after she hung up, my good friend Linda called and asked if I had dinner plans--she was one her way from Dallas to spend the night with her mom in Fort Worth. I told her Jacob would be here but she said she always enjoyed his company. Then Jordan called and cancelled, so Linda and I had choppd steak, spinach and snow peas--and a good visit.
My computer acting really weird and I give up. Goodnight.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Technology--or why I'm glad I'm retiring

Technology frustrated me today. Amazon still lists Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books as a children's book available for pre-order. It is NOT a children's book, and it's been available for what? Two months? So I asked A&M to deal with that. Then I wanted to post a link to order the book from A&M on my blog, but it's not live yet on the A&M website. Another call down there, wherein my good friend Gayla assured me their new wonderful do-all-things database, called Firebrand (something I will never understand) should be up and running by next week. She was, she said, having a nervous breakdown over the glitches of transition--I urged her not to do that. Transitions to new systems are always hard, I know that. Melinda and Susan are excited about Firebrand; I am simply puzzled.
I printed out directions today for getting my phone set to receive my emails. It once was, but TCU changed the domain or server or something, and now it doesn't get them. Even Jamie couldn't figure it out this weekend, though he kept saying, "I did it before. I don't know why I can't do it now." So I brought the directions home to work with it, but you know what? I haven't had the courage to try, and by now, it's late at night and I'm just going to read. Christian is coming for supper Sunday night--I finally have Jacob's b'day present, so we'll have a belated b'day party for him--and maybe he can program my phone. He's smart about such things.
With apologies to Melinda, I also haven't gotten to the proofs for her book on Texas wineries, but I'm just not going to try tonight. It's late and I wouldn't be bright about proofing.
Had a nice dinner with Betty at the restaurant where we usually order and split the tapas platter--only tonight it was stuffed peppers (I hate peppers) and clams (never eaten them, not sure about them, though I do love shellfish and seafood). We split trout with cream sauce, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables. I only ate a tiny bit of the potatoes, and the whole meal came in under my Weight Watchers points--okay, I neglected to tell the computer about the cream sauce because I didn't know how to classify it and besides, it wasn't that much! The restaurant where we went, Sapristi, specializes in mussels, which Charles loves. I have promised to take him soon. The first time I took him there for mussels, he was puzzled by the menu--there was green sauce, white sauce, red sauce, and so on. When the waitress asked what he wanted, he said, "I don't know. They didn't come in colors when I was a kid."
Three more weeks, to the day, until I retire. I'm beginning to get excited about it--and my balance has greatly improved. I think retirement really will be a new adventure--and I won't have to keep learning new technology. As I filed some stuff today, I thought "Who's going to take care of these things when I'm out of here?" but I also felt a sense of relief that it wouldn't be me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

If retirement is like this past weekend . . .

If retirement is like this past weekend, I'm in for a lot of fun and hectic times. Forgive me if this is one of those "And then I did this" blogs, but it was too good not to relive. Saturday morning Jeannie and I left for Albany (Texas, of course--someone asked me Saturday night if I'd been to NY for the day. Wrong). We sort of left at 8:15 but by the time we picked up the cell phone I'd left at the office and dropped her son's dog off at his house, it was 8:45 before we got on the road. Albany is about a 2-1/2 hour drive from Fort Worth, and it's a lovely drive. A few miles west of Fort Worth you leave the trees and hills behind and are suddenly in the edges of West Texas--great rolling plains and expanses of land, places where you can look for miles across the empty land, other places where you pass fields of mesquite and then fields of young mesquite where you know someone has plowed and the new pests (as ranchers think of them) have started up. It always makes me realize how much empty land there is in Texas, even though cities seem to reach out their tentacles all the time. We left the interstate at Cisco, home of the first Hilton Hotel--and this time, on the way back, we were able to identify it. Before we'd been looking at the tallest buildings and wondering which one it was but the bookstore owner in Albany described it, two stories, built right on the railway tracks which makes sense. It was not a hotel where one went for days but only for perhaps a few hours on a layover between trains or negotiating oil deals. It's now the Hilton Historical Center.

In Albany we had lunch at a place witha limited menu--either turkey legs or hamburgers. We had the latter, though it's not on my diet, but it was grilled outdoors and was absolutely wonderful. Then we shopped, something Jeannie is better at than I am, and from 1-3 I signed books at the Lynch Line Bookstore. They had a variety of my books, and I sold some of all--19 in total. Surprise: this man walked in who looked really familiar but he was wearing a gimme cap and was certainly out of context. I stared at him and he said, "You don't know who I am, do you?" Just then it dawned on me, and I said, "Yeah, I do, but why are you here?" It was my longtime bank advisor and turns out he grew up in Albany and had brought his grandkids for the annual outdoor pageant called Fandangle. The town was full of tourists there for Fandangle, which is why it was a good time to sign. all in all I sold 19 books, which I consider a good days work. Jeannie and I had been there for a signing and gone to Fandangle and eaten BBQ on the grounds of the courthouse two years ago and still remember it all fondly.

Then whoosh back to Fort Worth for Jacob's third b'day party--about 30 adults and who knows how many kids of all ages. Jord has cheese, crackers, dips, etc. and someone brought taquitos (I later figured out that meal cost me as many Weight Watchers points as the elegant dinner I'd had at Central Market a couple of weeks ago!). About 8:30 Jamie was ready to go, and we went by my house to feed animals and pick up my suitcase. Then off to Frisco, five exhuasted people by the time we got there.

Sunday was Father's Day, and the girls had planned their dad's day--lunch wherever he wanted it, then a movie he wanted to see (Eddie Murphy in Imagine That). They had also made him, on the computer, a booklet of poems and letters about why they loved him. Here he is reading it, if I can get the picture positioned in the right place. His choice of restaurants was the India Palace--now I would tell you I don't eat Indian food. Way too spicy, but Jamie was there to tell me which things were mild, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I loved the movie, though the only time I go to a movie is with them, and they choose movies with a six- and ten-year-old in mind, so they're right up my alley. It was funny and touching, and I enjoyed it. Then to Barnes & Noble to browse--six-year-old Edie got her first chapter books and spent dinner reading one, carefully saying the words out loud to herself as she read and often spelling a word to ask what it meant. Maddie got the first in a series I've heard good things about, The MagicKeepers. She likes the fantasy and semi-fantasy and is an avid read.
Then off to an Irish pub for dinner--I felt like I was having a gastronomic tour. Jame talked me into corned beef, mashed potatoes, and boiled cabbage--then sent his half of the corned beef back because it was dry. I ate mine with horseradish sauce and enjoyed it. Not sure I liked boiled cabbage that much.
We finally met Jordan and Christian at a point between Coppell where they'd been and Frisco, and we all headed home about 8:45. I was exhausted, and so were the Burton crew except Jacob who crowed and screamed until his mother did the ultimate bad--stuck a pacifier in his mouth! Still I got sweet kisses and hugs when I got out of the car abut 9:30. And it took me two hours to settled in and go to bed. No wonder I slept in a bit this morning.
My really good news. I lost another pound plus last week, so now I've lost 7.9 lbs. Do you think I could call it an even 8 lbs?
I'm still tired but still relishing what a wonderful weekend it was.
And today I had lunch with a friend who was once my physician and is now a friend. We hadn't seen each other in a long time but had been emailing, and today we had a lively conversation--about families, medicine, medical economics, the government health plan, etc. Lots of fun, and I'm grateful for a new friend.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Tonight I decided that if I was controlling reitrement, it had to be about spontaneity. Tomorrow is Jacob's third birthday but I will be signing books in Albany, Texas. I'll miss the pool party, which doesn't bother me, and I'll get there in time for the heavy hors d'ouevres supper. I called Jamie to make sure they'd drive me home after supper, and he suggested I come home with them to Frisco and spend Father's Day. I said I'd think about it, and after about two minutes thought, I started packing a bag, arranging pet care, etc. I don't get that many chances to see those girls, and they apparently have something "special" planned for Father's Day, so it should be fun. I will probably have to take the train back Monday morning (unless by chance Jamie drives me to meet Jordan and family in Coppell Sunday night), so I might miss work Monday. But, hey, I'm on the edge of retirement. I'm practicing for a new life.
So all thoughts of work went out of my mind tonight. I did odd jobs, like laundry, writing a short piece for the TCU Press newsletter, ordering books for my Kindle--on the topic I want to explore: the use of food in mysteries. It's so prevalent these days, I'm curious about why it works so well and wondering if I should jump into the overcrowded pool. Earlier this week I queried the company that has had my first mystery for six months with no response and got--no response. So my evening project has been revising the sequel but I have given it up for this evening and probably until Monday evening. Good thing to let it burble in the back of my mind.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Back at work

After an edgy day, I'm back at work on my second mystery novel. Edgy, I think, because this retirement thing is big and scary. I am worried about what I'm going to do all day, though everyone tells me I'll be busier than ever. If I don't get my balance and self-confidence back, though, I won't be able to go many places and that won't be fun. So I'm working at that. Also at the office, I much aware of being a lame duck--today we discussed the Annual Autograph Extravaganza, held in December, and I knew it wasn't right of me to call all the shots. I have some doubts about the program Susan and Melinda want, but I'm going with the flow. I guess I worry about not only myself but the press; however, I well know no one is indispensable and that includes me. Also, some days I'm just not busy. So I guess all this is making me anxious--and for me anxiety has always been a problem. It's worse in mid-day, so I'm wondering if it's low blood surgar (Melinda's diagnosis).
Anxiety aside I decided to devote the evening to the novel. Fred has given me his notes and that gives me new impetus. I'm starting reading at the beginning, and you know what? It's not at all bad. I like the tone, the people (who by now are family). But I'm sure most writers feel that way--when you first write it, you think it's worthless, but as you rework it, it grows on you. I do that even with my occasional columns for the Dallas Morning News.
Last night, I took my courage in my hand and queried the publisher who has had my first novel for six months. Haven't heard, and don't quite know what I'll do if I get a negative reply, though I read on the Sisters in Crime listserv all the time about authors who have "fulls" (as in full manuscripts opposed to partials) out on request and then are rejected. When I wrote about the American West, that never happened, so this is all new territory--but then I had an agent and now I don't. In any case, I'm rereading the second one with an eye to writing out the references to the first one and making it first in the series, just in case. There was an editor interested in the premise of the second one but not the first some time ago, so I might do that.
At any rate, it feels good to be back at my writing and realize it's not drivel.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Sue's nice blog about me on "Replete Life" last night made me think I ought to write about neighbors, because I am so lucky to have good ones. I've lived in this house 15 or 16 years. When I first moved in the house to the west of me was occupied by an eccentric and lonely old man, but the previous owners of my house gave me to undertand that if I reached out to him, he would be mine to raise. So I was never as charitable as my instinct would have me be, but I found it true. Once when he was mugged, I went to the corner to see what happened, saw him standing, talking to the ambulance and police people, and went back home. Next day, he was on my porch, saying he wanted to tell me all about it, it was a long story. "Could you give me the short version?" I stammered. I once asked him to throw my paper on the porch when I was out of town and thereafter he threw it every day, often hitting and demolishing the plants in my pots and planter boxes. When he died, Susan and Jay bought the house--the first time I saw Jay in a stained T-shirt I asked if he was my new neighbor's contractor, and he said, "I am your new neighbor." Oops! They have become such good friends, and both are good about looking after me. Jay does small household chores, like changing lightbulbs I can't reach--once when he came to do that, Jordan said, "Oh, here comes the handyman!"

On the other side, when I moved in, the owners lived there with small children who used to stand in our shared driveways (right by my bedroom) at 6 a.m. on Saturdays and scream, "Daddy, Daddy!" They moved out and rented to a 30-40-ish couple who had two dogs; one, Grant, part wolf, used to howl all the time, and I would rise out of bed saying "Grant, G--dammit!" until my kids laughed and said that was his name. The next tenants were a woman who never ever came out of the house--I suspected she had anxiety problems and wanted to offer to help, but they were so unsociable that I put that thought aside. He had a homemade-looking camper from which he sold golf balls. As one friend said to me, "But, Judy, what's in the golf balls?" And the first time Jamie saw the camper in the driveway, he said, "Oh, Mom, I am so sorry!" The man's worst habit was that he would get a fast-food drink and when he got home just throw the paper cup in the bushes. They also let their recycling bin overflow, so the driveway looked awful. Megan said, "Mom, you don't have to live that way," so I called the landlord and complained. Then came three series of college students--some noisy, some considerate, some very friendly. I did call the police one weeknight when they had a big party in the backyard and started karioke at 11 p.m. I didn't want to get them in trouble--I just wanted them to be quiet. I wasn't the only one who called.

Then my neighbor across the street told me a divorced mother with two young children was moving in. I groaned, thinking of noisy children, but Alex and Hunter are a delight. They were soon in and out of my house, especially when my Frisco granddaughters were here, and were very familiar with my refrigerator. To this day, they call me Juju as my grandchildren do. And Sue, their mother, is a true delight and a good friend--we drink a lot of wine and talk about life, men (she's more interested than I am), books, and food on long summer evenings.

And the four of us--me, Jay, Susan, and Sue--have become like a small social unit, often sharing drinks or dinner, though almost always on my porch. It is so wonderful to have good neighbors and to know that I can count on them in times of trouble. I am blessed.

A problem with Kindle: the last two books I posted abut, The School of Essential Ingredients and Justice at Guantanamo, turned out to be ones I want in m private library. I asked Megan for Kristine's book for my birthday and ordered a used copy of the other "in new condition."

And a problem with Weight Watchers: the last two days, in spite of having done so well last week, I have really cut into my bonus points, though I would tell you I ate lightly. A veggie sandwich at lunch today did me in because it had cheese and avocado, even though I didn't eat the bread; tuna nicoise tonight was also more points than I needed, and when I added a couple of glasses of wine, there I was over my limit. My most low-point meal: smoked salmon, hearts of palm, grape tomatoes, and either raspberries or blueberries. But that can get monotonous. Who would ever thought I'd get tired of smoked salmon?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Guantanamo--and a pleasant day.

That definitely is mixing two disaparate subjects, but who ever would think that I would be so engrossed in a book on Guantanamo. I never would have picked up Justice at Guantanamo except that the author, Kristine Huskey, is Megan's good friend. They went to law school together, Kristine shared in some of our family gatherings (one notable Thanksgiving that still makes us all laugh over outrageous behavior although I'm not saying on whose part), and she lived in Megan and Brandon's guest house while teaching for two years at the University of Texas Law School (okay, Kristine, I didn't mind sleeping on an air mattress at seventy years of age as long as I could eat your salmon!). She's an impressive, wonderfully warm young woman and, I might add, a great cook. She was approached by a major publisher to write the story of her life, so with a co-author she did. As a young woman, she followed a UNICEF boyfriend to Angola, came back to wait tables, bartend, and model in New York. When she decided to make something of her life, she did it with a vengeance, graduating with honors from Columbia and then from UT Law School. Her increasing interest in international human rights led to a career with a prestigious Washington, D.C. law firm, where she traveled to GITMO many, many times representing the families of Kuwait men who were being held without charges. After eight years, she turned to teaching--a fellowship at American University, smaller stints at other law schools, and finally founding her own human rights center at UT.
What Kirstine reveals about Guantanamo makes real the things we've all heard vaguely--the physical mistreatment--aside from torture, prisoners were at first kept in out door cages with extreme high and low temperatures, a slop bucket, and bright lights 24 hours a day. More importantly, they were denied not only internationally agreed up human rights, but the rights guaranteed in the American constitution. The Kuwaiti men were not allowed to contact their families, never saw a religious counselor of their faith, and at first were not allowed the Koran, which was as badly abused as the prisoners. Basically, they were treated like animals, not individual humans. It's an appalling indictment of America, it's leaership--yes, the Bush administration--and the courts, which always seemed to side with the government. The victories for prisoners were hard won, few, and often overturned.
Kristine's voice rivets you to the book, as she interweaves her personal life--backpacking all over the world, including a rigorous trip in Peruvian mountians, marriage and divorce, a new love that didn't seem to be working out, and then a most happy marriage, her victories as a triathlete (I have one in my family so I now how hard that is!). Throughout she comments on how often she is the only woman in the room, on the case, etc., and how this needs to change. And she ends the book on a note of hope that America will recover its moral strength and position int he world.
Kristine is an amazing woman and she tells her story well. Even if you think reading about Guantanamo would be hard, this is worth it. And probaby should be on everyone's reading list.
As to my nice day, my balance was much better, I got a lot done in the office and am beginning to think about clearing our my personal belongings and cleaning out my desk and files--I already sent a batch of "memoir" files to the Southwest Writers Collection at Texas State University-San Marcos which has my papers--no one can understand how important I feel that a literary archive wants my papers. Wow! Me? I had lunch with a good friend, and a productive but low-key afternoon at home, with a good nap and delicious leftovers from last night for dinner.
Then Sue next door emailed me that her son, Hunter, liked what I said about him in my blog last night--after all, he ate squash and meatloaf with chicken livers in it (Jordan emailed this morning to ask, "Why would you put chicken livers in a meatloaf?"). Then Sue said she gave me a "shout out" (that's a term I don't know--Canadian or just a new trendy one?) on her blog tonight. I read it and was overwhelmed with her praise. At the risk of self-promotion, which I seem to do a lot of these days re the cookbook, check out "Replete Life." If you enter that on google, her blog is the first choice to come up.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A French dinner and some trivia

What a lovely evening. Warm but not too hot to eat on the porch. I turned on the fan to control the fly problem but we were quite comfortable. Sue and her son, Hunter, came from one side of my house, and Susan from the other--her husband, Jay, was out of town and I told her as she left to tell him we missed him but had a lovely girls' dinner. I had fixed a rustic country French meatloaf and hesitated telling them what was in it until they ate it--but Sue picked up the recipe and ruined the surprise. I was particularly worried that Hunter, now nine, wouldn't like it that there were chicken livers in it, but Hunter has turned into an adventuresome eater, and when they arrived, Sue said he was very interested in my meatloaf. He ate an entire piece, plus half a huge slice of squash, but no potato salad--he really doesn't like potatoes. When Jamie was little, he really didn't like mushrooms or lamb--and he was such an adventuresome eater that I figured he was entitled to a few dislikes. The potato salad was a French recipe also--no mayonnaise but olive oil, wine vinegar, and Dijon mustard, with green onions and chopped parsley--I loved it. Fortunately I didn't make a whole lot of it--I would have been tempted to seconds. The meatloaf was really good, and all agreed the chicken livers gave it a different, creamy texture. (Wywy, the cat, liked it too--she snuck up on the counter before I thought to put it in the fridge.) The squash was a big round one my sister-in-law grew. She said she just threw it on the grill, so I sliced it, brushed with oil, salt and pepper and it was wonderful. A very satisfying meal, and a pleasant evening. Hunter joined in the conversation until after dinner and then he snuck home, and we had girl talk. Fun!
This morning, while cooking, I watched a squirrel madly trying to get at my bird feeder, which is pretty much squirrel-resistant. But oh, he was persistent. At one point I looked out to see it swinging wildly, something no bird would have caused. Then I saw him, poised on the tree above it, trying to figure it out. He knocked the lid aside but the tube is too small for him, and he'd have no footing. On his next try he firmly replaced the lid and saved me the trouble. I guess he finally gave up. They are such pests--I noticed one frequently on the front porch and finally figured he had found the way to dislodge the lid to the can where I store bird seed. So I locked it.
I looked out in front this morning to see a flag waving on a pole by my driveway--surprise. Last year for my July b'day Jay and Susan gave me a year of flags (the local Rotary does it on national holidays) but somehow the flags never appeared, and I didn't know who to call. So today, almost a year later, I had my first flag--and I had forgotten that it's Flag Day, though I should remember because it is also Jeannie's birthday. Happy birthday to Jeannie who is in Santa Fe.
My friend Jim Lee has just returned from visiting a lady friend in Tennessee and he reports that they have "As seen on TV" stores there. You know all those adds for vegetable choppers, collapsible hangers that will organize your closet, potions that will remove scratches from your car, and the like? You can actually buy them at this store. Sounds like terrific fun to me, because sometimes I'm really intrigued but I would feel like a chump ordering it from the given 800 number. Maybe the stores will expand to Texas. A good idea on someone's part.
And a food hint: ever get sick from potato salad taken on a picnic and left out too long? I read on an email today that an expert at a mayo factory says that mayo has such a high (or low or whatever) ph factor that it won't spoil, bacteria can't flourish in it. It's likely the onions. If you cut into an onion, you shouldn't put it in a baggie and store in the refrigerator--it's already been contaminated. I do that all the time and have never gotten sick, but now I'm rethinking the habit--except somebody's going to have to grow smaller red onions. And if it isn't the onion, it's the potatoes. That's what experts look for in cases of food poisoning. I think it's one of those things I'd be happier not knowing. I'm always very careful of mayo.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Culinary schools, and giving myself permission

Several years ago, maybe ten, I announced to Jeannie that I wanted something different in my life and I was going to enroll in the night and weekend classes of the Fort Worth Culinary School. "Do you know it costs $2,000?" she asked. I did, and I wasn't fazed--but then when I read about buying your own knives and equipment, etc. I began to lose enthusiasm. Besides the hours, added to my full-time work day would have been really long. Well, I've just read a book titled The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, by Kathleen Flinn. It convinced me I made the right decision. And I know now that my feet and back could never take the culinary life.
Kathleen Flinn, a writer in her mid-thirties, enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu (Colin and Lisa took a one-day class there on a European trip, but I'm sure it was very different). Flinn was supported in this decision by a boyfriend who put his own life on hold to move to Paris with her. In this memoir, often in the first person, she recounts her cooking experiences, her growing involvement with Mike (and eventual marriage), and their explorations of Paris. It all adds up to fascinating reading, though the cooking parts were the most interesting to me. The cuisine is classic French of course, complicated, with sauce after sauce, meat stuffed with meat. And the chefs are demanding and relentless in their criticism, often humiliating a student when their creation turns out to be less than perfect. Once in Basic, a chef tells her she's wasting her time. (I know I couldn't handle that part!). There are three levels--Basic, Intermediate, and Superior. And Flinn, now Mrs. Kozar, makes it all the way through Superior, but not without some very bad moments--like the time when as a Superior student she forgot to pre-heat her plate, a basic lesson from Basic. One bonus: students may take home what they cooked that day for dinner, though sometimes she gives her food to homless people. Mike sometimes longs for pizza, especially after three consecutive meals of stuffed veal as she prepares for her Superior final, which she ends up taking while deathly ill. And she and Mike cope with houseguests, some unwanted and rude. But she tells it all easily and with humor.
A recipe ends each short chapter--many are the Cordon Bleu recipes, way too complicated even for my love of cooking, but some are from friends and one, when she has the grippe (French for flu) is for basic chicken soup. Did I learn much useful about cooking from this book? No, but I sure wish I could bone a whole chicken, let a lone a turkey, with the skin intact. But did I enjoy reading it. Yes, a whole lot.
Oh, and the sharper knife--it's not that it hurts less when you cut yourself (some Cordon Bleu students suffer lots of cuts and burns) but that chopping an onion makes you cry less. In the end, it's pretty clear she will go back to journalism, but she has followed her passion for cooking and concludes that "the sharper your knife" also means that you can cut away those things that get in the way of your passion and of living your life the way it's meant to be lived. I think I need a sharper knife.
Tonight I gave myself permission to beg off an evening to which I had basically invited myself. I got an invitation to an exhibit opening at a small museum in Weatherford, called friends who I knew would be going, and they said they'd be delighted to pick me up. But today was an off day--in spite of starting it with a most cheerful Jacob--and I was antsy much of the day. Part of me dreaded going to the opening, thinking about the rough parking lot I'd have to negotiate, the fact that I'd only know two or three people, the fact that truly it was an exercise in putting myself out there when I'd be happier at home. But then of course guilt crept in--if I am not careful, I will become a recluse in retirement. Home is so comfortable. Finally, though, I gave myself permission to do what felt right, stayed home with a cold chopped sirloin sandwich, a glass of wine, and a bowl of raspberries. Oh, that's another thing--the exhibit was on rodeo, which I would have enjoyed, but they were serving barbecue--definitely not on Weight Watchers. I think my trouble is less that I decided not to go but that I agonize so over such decisions. That's where I need the sharper knife.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Storms, a dog and a child, and retirement

We've had fairly ferocious storms in Texas this week--my neighbor says I'm the only one who thought one deluge was a lovely storm; she claims everyone else was terrified. But it was heavy rain, thunder and lightning, but no high winds--they had those in Dallas and eastward. Still I later learned I didn't hear the sirens went they went off, and so didn't take to the closet.
Tonight it was threatening again, though the storm went south of us--we got thunder, lightning, and a wee bit of rain. But I have Jacob tonight, and when I asked him if he liked storms, he said they were scary. And then there's Scooby who is terrified. So in an unprecedented mix, I brought Scooby in. Well, Jacob is also scared of Scooby and whined every time the dog started toward him; Scooby was nervous and anxious because he was confined to the playroom instead of the office where he usually spends his evenings. And the two of them were making me uncomfortable, so I put Scooby in the office. Jacob immediately wanted to go see "Puppy"--I have the hardest time teaching him the dog's name. They got acquainted through the French doors, and I thought I'd never get Jacob away. Now, all is peaceful--the storm has passed, Jacob is in his bed talking, and Scooby is sleeping at my feet in the office.
How could I forget to announce on my blog that I'm retiring July 15. I announced it to my boss probably two months ago, but she asked me to wait until June 1 to turn in my letter and to keep it fairly quiet until then. I guess that's why I forgot that now I can tell the world. I will still have a connection to the press--doing acquisitions and some event planning--but there willl be an interim director and then a permanent one. We'll see if the permanent director wants me involved or not. People ask my plans, and I say I have none. I'll write, I'll play, go to lunch with friends, and visit grandchildren whenever feasible. And I'll not feel that I have to pop out of bed at 6:30. I'll have to watch my budget--my pension just took a rather large hit and I will get a fraction of my usual pay from TCU. But I can be frugal--I've done it most of my life and only in the last three to four years had disposable cash. It was a treat, but now it's over. I'm still looking forward to the freedom. Maybe I'll even clean out my overflowing bookshelves and my stuffed clothes closets.
I've worked at TCU Press 28 years and it's been a great run. I've made wonderful friends, met some famous people, worked on some really wonderful books and truly enjoyed it. But everyone always said I'd know when the time came--and a wake-up call from two of my closest friends told me it was time. Jeannie picked me up at the train station one day when I'd been in Dallas, took one look at me--a mess of anxiety--and sweet Jeannie gave me a stern lecture, telling me that I had to retire. She and Jean were worried about me. Every time I talked about the office, I tensed up. And I immediately took that to heart. So I'm off on another of life's adventures--and I fully expect my balance to get better and my anxiety to decrease, though maybe not right away. Retirement is a huge change in life, and I'll have to adjust.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Eating my way through the day

That's literally what I did--food was the highlight of my day, and yet I'm proud to say I stayed under my allotted 19 points by Weight Watchers (okay, I didn't know how to figure the pecan crust on the halibut).
Jeannie and I had lunch at Nonna Tata, where I had braseola, which I love. It's the beef version of prosciutto and comes dressed in olve oil and lemon with shaved grana cheese--and a good vinegar-based potato salad on the side. Jeannie had spaghetti puttanesca, which I like a lot but is too spicy there for me--I have to make my own. It was a combination thank you for my party and happy birthday luncheon for Jeannie.
Tonight Betty and I went to Ellerbe's, a new restaurant attractively carved out of an old gas station. The patio seating is under the roof of the old drive-through part where gas pumps once were and is beautifully landscaped. Although it looked like it could rain, it didn't, and it was a pleasant patio evening. The restaurant has only been open three days, but they already have repeat customers. We split an entree as we often do--pecan-crusted halibut with greens (maybe collard?) and risotto, and it was wonderful, the fish moist and yet flaky, the crust thin and just enough to be pleasant, the risotto creamy and delicious. I often skip risotto because of the clories but this was a small helping by the time we split and irresisitibly good. Passed on appetizers and dessert. Ellerbe's should do well in our neighborhood which sprouts new and exciting restaurants all the time, but it is pricey. Lunch entrees range around ten dollars; tonight we had the cheapest chardonnay on the menu, Wild Horse at nine dollars a glass. The fish was twenty-six dollars. I really wanted the lamb chops but Betty didn't want to split that, and I didn't want to pay thirty-one dollars for an entree, even though it would feed me for two nights. We won't go back too often, but we'll go back!
So now I'm going to spend my evening reading The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, about a young woman's experience at Le Cordon Bleu.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Storms, luncheons, and books

We had wonderful stormy weather here tonight though to the north of us there was the real threat of tornadoes and to the east, power outages. Although I got out candles and flashlights, we were spared all that. We had lots of fairly heavy rain, thunder and lightning but no high winds. After it was over, I called my neighbor about something and he answered with, "Wasn't that a lovely storm?" I agreed--I love a good storm, a love carried over from my childhood summers in a cabin in Indiana at the foot of Lake Michigan. We would watch storms roll down the length of the lake, and as the lake churned and grew angry, it was awe-inspiring. Scooby has none of my appreciation of storms, so I brought him in early, but I know he won't go out again until morning. I just hope he doesn't get impatient before seven o'clock.
My neighbor Sue called to say she was staying in Dallas at her office until the storm passed. "If you were out in this," she told me, "I'd worry." So she didn't want me to worry about her and has promised to call when she gets home. It's so wonderful to be surrounded by people who care about me and who I care about.
Today I went to the retirees lunch of TCOM (Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, now part of the University of North Texas Health Center System). Charles likes me to go with him, which I appreciate, and since he has quit driving, I picked him up. There are only two or three people I remember from the old days, but I had a good time talking to two ladies next to me who had worked with the Institute for Human Fitness and knew my brother. I regaled them with the story of how the institute was born in meetings in my living room and while the men met and discussed fitness, my friend Anne, who lived with us then, and I cooked the most lavish rich desserts we could imagine. Those fitness experts devoured them. I always remember Anne's husband at a child's birthday party, his plate loaded with cake and ice cream, asking plaintively, "Don't you have any diet Coke?"
The luncheon speakers were a bit long but very interesting and for once I was really tuned into the talks--I often tune them out. The statistics on how TCOM has grown in 40 years are remarkable from 100 students to over 1400 next fall, millions in research grants, etc.--and to think I was there at the very beginning. The main speaker talked about our failing health care system, insisting that money isn't the way to fix it--electronic connections and cooperation are the way to save millions, and so is education, preventive health, etc. Most interesting.
I'm reading another cooking book, this about a young American woman's experience at Cordon Bleu. I'll report soon.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Eating alone

I've been single for so many years I can't count them, and my last chicken flew the nest permanently about six years ago--before that she was in and out but we were like ships that passed in the night. So I am used to eating alone, four to five nights a week. I'm one of those compulsive persons for whom breakfast is shortly after you get up, lunch is at noon, and dinner at six. I eat lunch with friends often five days a week, but it's those dinners. I always plan ahead what I'm going to have, and I cook, anything from grilling a small piece of salmon to a sort of home-invented chicken a la king. So no wonder I was interested in What we eat when we eat alone, by husband-and-wife team Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith Publishing).

To my surprise, they make a huge but believable distinction between what men eat alone and what women do. Men eat the foods they are used to and they will eat the same thing night after night. Women tend to be less predictable. Some will eat one food for dinner--ice cream, cottage cheese, and so on. Surprisingly there was little talk of cold cereal and only a little more of popcorn. Women who are used to cooking for others eat personal favorites--cookie dough, saltines crushed in milk (my mom made that when we were sick--lots of pepper added), Tater Tots. One sophisticated woman ate smoked salmon. Some will fix a soup or stew that they can eat for days, though I get tired of the same thing after about two days..

I found lots of familiar foods here--salmon cakes are mentioned a bit apologetically, while they remain one of my favorite foods, remembered from childhood. One woman eats peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches, which sounds like an odd combination to many but is another childhood favorite of mine. Yet another dish from memory is sauteed mushrooms on toast--I always thought it was a British custom imported by my Candian Anglophile father.

There is a whole chapter on sardines and pasta--I love sardines but don't know what to do with them, and this book reminded me of my Jewish ex-husband's habit of mixing them with lemon and onion as a spread for toast. I'm about to try that again. One woman eats pickled herring, which I love, but puts it with mashed potatoes and sweet onions--sounds dellicious.

The authors make a distinction between those who eat alone as a vacation from routine, those who eat alone temporarily because they're between relationships, and those, like me, who eat alone all the time. There's also a chapter on what young people cook and the importance of making them confident in the kitchen--in their early twenties being able to cook can make them popular with friends. And there is a frankly sensual chapter on cooking for seduction--including pimiento cheese panini. Who would have thought? Other seduction foods ranged from oysters to steak. Foods that can be cooked together were high on the list, and one man cited risotto because it's long and slow and builds anticipation--and stirring it can be a shared chore. Fondue was another suggestion--that makes sense to me. There wasn't as much mention of chocolate as an aphrodisiac as you'd expect.

Recipes in this book tend to be woven into the narrative but then are often repeated at the end of a chapter in traditional recipe form. Here are a few I flagged to try myself: skillet cheese (I used to know a woman who fried cheese and it was delicious but my own attempts were always too greasy; this convinces me I was using the wrong cheese, and I'll try provolone next); ways to use leftover polenta (cover it with Gorgonzola and grated Parmesan, add toasted breadcrumbs and chopped parsley mixed with fresh marjoram--yum!); roasted aspargus with chopped egg, torn bread, and mustard vinaigrette; cooked penne with vegetables, anchovies, olive oil, garlic and pepper; blue cheese sauce; and that pimiento cheese, though I don't intend to seduce anybody with it.

This isn't really a cookbook; it's food writing. But it's going to stay on my cookbook shelf. Of course, some of it may have to wait until I lose those pounds and get off Weight Watchers!

Monday, June 08, 2009

My fragile day

I allowed myself to be fragile today, knowing I'll be back to normal tomorrow. Got up at six o'clock, which is at least a half an hour too early for me, in order to make a 7:30 dental appt. Was in the dentist's chair until ten, with lots of drilling. They tell me after you've been in the chair, tilted back, for so long, it's not unusual to take a bit to get your "land legs" back under you and I did. I also felt exhausted, though I really practiced yoga relaxation techniques in the chair. Still it stayed with me through an otherwise pleasant day.
Lunch with Jean, who leaves this week for an almost three-week trip to England, a nap, and then out to Arlington with Carol Roark for dinner at Kathie Lang's. Carol, who works in Dallas, took the train to FW and then came to get me, was also exhausted, having gotten home from New Mexico and eleven last night and gotten up at her usual five or five-thirty this morning. So we didn't stay long. But Kathie fixed, as usual, a wonderful summer meal--chicken salad, herbed tomatoes, and sauteed asparagus. I tried to ignore the blue cheese in the appetizer tray and eat only the raspberries and pear slices but had to have some of the blue cheese--the tray looked so pretty and was such a tasteful combination. I'm going to remember that one. We three old friends had a good visit that ranged over everything from anticipated babies to aging parents--neither one of which relates to me at the time.
Bummer news of the week: I gained three ounces last week, going the wrong way. I am definitely on a plateau! But I think that's not bad considering the extravagant cooking class dinner I had and last night's pasta supper, before which I nibbled too liberally on the manchego cheese. So I'm off to a better start this week, I hope.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Things that make me cranky

Remember the World War I poem, by Rupert Brooke, I think, or Julie Andrews singing in The Sound of Music about the small things that make them happy? In a sort of negative take on the idea, I got to thinking about things that make me cranky. It started Friday morning when the TODAY show was pre-empted by the French Open on NBC--I hate it when my favorite programs are pre-empted. I especially look forward to Meet the Press on a lazy Sunday morning. And lately KERA has been one of their many eternal fund-raising campaigns, kicking off Simply Ming and Jacques Pepin, whose cooking shows I like. Makes me grateful for the food channel. I support KERA but I'm tired of Suzie Orman and Wayne Dwyer.

I got a bit cranky yesterday when I found the cat on the kitchen counter eating off lunch plates I had left unscraped while I saw Jordan and Jacob to their car--it crossed my mind she might eat the tuna that Jacob left behind but she didn't. She ate the hearts of palm that Jordan left untouched and I was going to save. A cat eating hearts of palm?

I get a little cranky when I think of tomorrow morning's 7:30 dental appointment to have a crown replaced, and during the school year I got a lot cranky and downright rude when some parent parks across my driveway to let the little darlings out or lets them out in the middle of the street just behind me as I start to back out--what are they thinking? At least I don't have to worry about that for a couple of months--school's out!

On the whole, though, I don't think crankiness is my natural state. A lot more things make me happy, like cooking for friends. I've spent part of the morning making salad dressisng (a recipe from the cooking class earlier in the week) and chopping--fruit for fruit salad, mushrooms and scallions for a pasta dish the kids call "Green Noodles." The recipe originated when my brother was dating his first wife and she invited him to dinner, only to find she didn't have any money for groceries. She cooked with what she had in the cupboard and fridge--isn't that how the whores of, where is it? Venice?--invented puttenesca sauce? Anyway, she put butter and lemon in a skillet, added cooked spaghetti, and that was hit. Over the years I've changed it until today I use spinach tagliatelle and add sliced mushrooms, chopped scallions, canned artichoke hearts, an ice cub of pesto from my freezer, and fresh grated grana cheese.

One thing that has brought me great joy this weekend--I've been having an email corresponce with my oldest granddaughter, 10-year-old Maddie. It started when I emailed her about how excited Jacob got when he noticed a picture of Maddie and Edie that has been on my side table for months! He apparently just saw it. Maddie answered, and then wrote me about her new internet research project she and her dad are doing and then she even left a comment on my blog about our common woes with cilantro plants. Such fun.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients

I just finished reading The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. It's a book that will stay with me for a long time. As the title suggests it's about a cooking school or, more precisely, a once-a-week cooking class taught by Lillian at her restaurant. The book opens with Lillian's back story--her father left when she was rather young and her mother retreated into reading obsessively. So Lillian dragged a chair to the stove and taught herself to cook--no cookbook, no recipes, and she still cooks that way. There are, she believes, essential ingredients but cooking goes far beyond that.
The narrative flashes back and forth in time as we meet various members of the cooking class, sit in on the classes, and learn each participant's back story. There's the devoted older couple, Helen and Carl, but we gradually learn, first from his point of view and then hers, that their marriage has not always been smooth; there's Isabelle, the older woman who once comes to class on the wrong night and is invited to dinner by the gentle, kind, and intuitive Lillian, and whose mind wanders in the tangled garden of her memory, sometimes with sharp clarity. And Tom, enveloped in a cloud of sadness over his wife's death, and Chloe, young and trying to find her way in life only to discover it through food. Antonia is from Italy, irresisitibly attractive and earthy in her reaction to the foods, and Ian, who goes about learning to cook in the scientific way a software engineer would, but he finally invites Antonia to a spontaneous dinner that he fixes. Bauermeister takes us inside all their heads, so that they tell their own story, though we never learn much about her story after childhood. Still she owns a successful restaurant, and she shepherds people carefully, believing spices can wake up a memory, heal a heart. You can't help but want to be in her cooking class.
If there are no recipes in this book, it's because food, for Lillian, is not an intellectual or scientific exercise. It's about the senses--taste and texture, smell and sound. At one point she passes around good olive oil for the students to dip their finger in and taste, followed by good, dark aged balsamic vinegar. The class makes fondue, pasta, eats chocolate, drinks wine--all about watching the ingredients flow together and sensing when it is right.
It is also a book of beautiful, sensuous writing. Prosciutto wrapped around melon is "a whisper of salt against the dense sweet fruit," and the wine afterward "crisp, like coming up to the surface of water to breathe." When she is learning to cook, Lillian makes a cream sauce filled with "disconcerting pockets of flour, like bills in your mailbox when you had hoped for a love letter." Metaphor piles on metaphor and yet such figurative, imaginative writing works perfectly in this book.
I am a person who enjoys food unbashedly (which makes Weight Watchers hard for me) but I hope Bauermeister's book will stay with me and change me, for it's about slowing down to enjoy the sense of the moment. Something I've need to do all my life and am hoping retirement will teach me. I want to savor the food I love slowly--but also other things: the company of my children and grandchildren, Jacob this morning as he demanded I come sit next to him on the couch so we could have conversations about nothing, my dog begging to be loved, or my cat lying contentedly by my keyboard, or a hilarious trip to the grocery store this morning with Jordan and Jacob, Jacob sitting in the cart and calling to me across aisles. I sometimes let the good times of life just roll over me. Lillian would never approve.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Quotes, cousins, and a quandry

A quote I like: Rosemary grows in the garden of a strong woman. I want to believe it's true, because I have two huge rosemary bushes in my front flower beds. The neighbors come and help themselves often, though I always tell them to take sprigs from the top just in case a stray dog has been by. My oregano is growing out of hand, and cutting it back may be a project for the weekend. The basil is thriving and growing large, and I still have pesto in the freezer from last year! But my cilantro has done a funny thing--it was a small, not tiny, normal looking cilantro when I got it but now all the cilantro leaves have fallen off and it has sprouted all these tall stems with fernlike leaves and tiny white flowers. Jay keeps telling me not to cut them back because they are seeding themselves. Meanwhile, it looks half pretty, half weird, and I buy cilantro when I want need to use it.

Wednesday a friend gave me flowers cut from her magnolia bush--I didn't know they were anything but trees, but Greg, my great yard man, said he wanted to look at them and see what kind of magnolia they are (I didn't know there were different kinds either). I keep wanting to plant something along the hurricane fence of the dog yard, where it will get plenty of sun. But I know better than to let honeysuckle get a hold.

My cousin in Canada, for whom I am the only living relative and hold power of attorney, was moved today from a private retirement home to a provincial nursing home. She is apparently difficult and had gotten too hard for the retirement folks to handle, plus this will slow the drain on her resources--she is now living off the principal and not the income of her trust, though she doesn't understand this and keeps writing checks, some good sized, to animal welfare groups. I am hoping this will be a move for the better, but I know it will be difficult--she won't understand and will be angry. The people at the new home that I've talked to are lovely and friendly but amazed when they ask when I last saw Jenny and I say I was about 14. Jenny's been bipolar--I don't know the specific diagnosis--since her late teens (she's just that much older than I). She hasn't had a happy life, and it makes me sad. But without me, she would have no one looking after her welfare or finances, and I remember my dad when I was a teenager saying, "You will look after Jenny, won't you?" So I'm fulfilling the promise as best I can long distance. I cannot understand Jenny on the phone, but I will call the nurses' station tonight and ask how the transfer went. And I asked everyone to assure her that I thought this was for the best.

My quandry: a man called me today who had been referred by one of the writers for Fort Worth's Star-Telegram. He has written a book about the rush to produce nuclear weapons during the Cold War and its effect on the people who worked to make them. My understanding was that he wanted me to edit and write a blurb, so I asked if he objected to $20 an hour, which is less than I would normally charge. He said "Just to read it?" But it's 650 pages about a subject on which I have no expertise. I think that will be one of the perils of retirement--people will think I have all that free time and won't mind reading their manuscripts, etc. But careful reading of 650 pages would take a big chunk out of my time. And I do want to free lance, not give away whatever talents I have. But the man sounded so astounded that I am feeling a bit guilty--or greedy.

It's Friday night, which usually means Jacob is here. I can hear him playing in his bed though he's not singing tonight. We had hot dogs for dinner--chicken for him and lowfat Hebrew National for me, but he had a small new potato with nonfat yogurt, which I didn't have, and when he didn't eat it, I found myself taking bites. Surely I don't have to count those on Weight Watchers! I also snatched some blueberries off his plate because he didn't seem interested. The last few days, after the debacle of the cooking class, I have done really well on my Weight Watchers points. Monday will tell if I've lost weight or gained--oh my! You're only supposed to weigh once a week. Sometimes the suspense is too much.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Cooking Class

So here I am, overfed, stuffed, and maybe just a little woozy from too much wine. I've been to a cooking class at Central Market taught by Terry Thompson-Anderson, a chef from the Hill Country who really pushes Texas foods and wine. We had an appetizer of mushrooms and Spanish chorizo in triple sherry cream sauce on toasted baguette slices (absolutely wonderful), a salad of Bibb lettuce and arugula with fresh figs, blue goat cheese (who knew there was such a mixture--it's from Texas, of course) and pecan pieces, with a honey/lemon vinaigrette. The entree was applewood smoked bacon-wrapped quail with ancho chili and honey sauce on a bed of soft polenta with jalopenos. I'm always leery of peppers but these were so gentle they just tingled the taste buds. And dessert? Fredericksburg peach and white chocolate bread pudding with schnapps whiskey sauce and chantilly cream. I was only going to take a bite but I ate the whole serving. Granted, they were all small servings. In Terry's recipes, two quail serve one person--we each got half a quail, though a huge quantity of polenta--which I didn't eat except for a little bit. And the dessert was in small servings. They poured four wines, though I bowed out of the reds and had a great voignier (Brennan Vineyards 2008) and a little bit of muscat with dessert but it was too sweet for me.
I've met and corresponded with Terry--she came to our Autograph Extravaganza once to sign her beautiful book, Texas on a Plate, and then I included her in my small book, Great Texas Chefs. So it was particularly important to me to go to the class tonight, and I enjoyed it thoroughly (wished I'd worn my hearing aids, because I really had to concentrate).
Terry's recipes are really complicated, and I don't know that I'll duplicate them. One from Texas on a Plate that I've always wanted to try is quail with pepper and coffee gravy.
I am not even going to try to enter this evening's meal in Weight Watchers. As one of the servers said to me, "Honey, you've eaten all your points for the week tonight." And I probably did. But it was sure good.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Churches and keeping busy

I read on a blog today about a small New England town where a historic church--the classic clapboard with white steeple--caught fire. Fortunately, it wasn't destroyed, and the church had recently had an endowment for updating, so it will be repaired. But the shock rippled through the town, even touching those who were not members of that church. Well, my church didn't burn, but it's suffered a similar shock. The senior minister resigned this week, under pressure, with dissension within the church. Since he resigned, there's been an enormous outpouring of love and support for him. I haven't been going to church much lately--I hate to go alone, which is a weak excuse--but I liked him, and I particularly liked his "Wednesday Wanderings," an email column he sent to all church members. I am no authority on what goes on in that church, and I know when in his resignation speech at a large congregational meeting he said, "This church has problems it has to face," it was about the only thing he could say. But I think it's true. Our church--long established, with a large gray-headed poulation, is used to doing things one way and resists change. Tim Carson brought some changes that were not easily accepted. It's like a divorce--blame can never be put on one side or another. Tim also made some unwise--untactful?--judgments, but I'm not sure he's been fairly treated at all. And I much admire him for resigning in person in front of the congregation--I'd sure have written a letter. And he appeared at a reception in his honor Sunday night--his wife just couldn't face it--and they will still lead a church trip to England this month. I don't know why churches--and hospitals and universities--do this to themselves, but there is always so much division. It's particularly painful in a Christian Church where we preach love. I grieve tonight for the Carsons and for my church.
If I'm worried about not being occupied in retirement, I should take heart from today. I had lunch with Fred, my mentor, and we had a lively discussion about books and the like, barely got home and Jeannie called, ready to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond, so I got desperately needed new rugs for the bathroom. Then when I came home there was an endless stream of e-mails, bills to pay, stuff to do. Finally got to my nap at 4:30. Now it's 9:30 and I have yet to pick up the book I'm reading--okay, turn on the Kindle. I've checked Facebook and the blogs I follow and written this blog post and talked on the phone--and where does the time go?
I did widen my circle today, walking half a block to work because they'd cordoned off our parking lot to restripe it, then walking across the empty parking lot and across the street with Fred without holding on (except for curbs), going with Jeannie without holding on in the parking lot, and walking down the sidewalk tonight to meet and visit witha neighbor--who wanted to know what I thought about our church turmoil. That's what I have to do--a little bit at a time.
I'm about to ordered a panic device that I can use if I fall--it calls five people, so I'll choose Jordan and Christian, because they're here in town and have keys to the house, my neighbor Susan who is home a lot and has a key, Jeannie (I'll have to give her a key) and 911. I emailed the kids about it and they have had a field day on the email laughing about the senile things I've already done and applying to me the things my mom did after she went downhill. Still, they think it's a good idea. My friend Fran just got one and has been hounding me to do it. Since I fell a couple of times in the backyard, I really do think it's a good idea. And no, it doesn't make me feel old--just reminds me that I live alone.