Monday, December 31, 2018

My way of welcoming in the new year

No, I am not spending the evening in pjs with a book—well, at least not all of it. Tonight, dear friends Teddy and Sue came for an early happy hour—they had plans for a romantic dinner for two with filet mignon and a good wine—ah, the joys of being newly wed. Jordan and Christian came out to join us, and we had a loud and lively discussion. Mostly we all agreed, but we still tried to talk over each other. These are people I love.

After they left—Teddy and Sue to their steaks, and Jordan and Christian to a progressive pot-luck party, I cooked myself dinner. New recipe—scallops with a lemon and caper sauce. One of my few mix-ups with Central Market curbside delivery—first I had too few scallops (two) and then I had too many (five). They turned out okay but not the best I’ve ever eaten. The recipe called for brining them in salt water for ten minutes—I couldn’t see that it did anything for the flavor, but it did make them tend to fall apart. The recipe itself was complicated—olive oil, butter, garlic, white wine, capers, lemon juice, chicken stock (which I left out). In my zeal to get a good browned crust, I overcooked them slightly—maybe due to the brining, maybe I didn’t have a high enough heat. Lesson learned: I’ll go back to browning them in butter and serving with a wedge of lemon. Easier and better.

And then I had Mac’s salad. If you haven’t lived in Fort Worth thirty years, that deserves explanation. Back in the day—‘70s and ‘80s—we had three upscale restaurants in west Fort Worth: the Carriage House, the Swiss House, and Mac’s House, which was on Park Hill between McCart and Forest Park, sort of where Black Rooster is now but much larger. It was a fine steak house but most renowned for the salad—a secret dressing on head lettuce, with Parmesan and sesame seeds. Don’t even try to fancy it up with blue cheese or croutons. In later years, an aging Mac worked the front of the house at Michael’s on 7th Street, and Michael’s still serves the salad—and sells the dressing, so I bought some. All this has a sentimental attachment—my ex- and I ate at Mac’s fairly often, and my oldest, Colin, worked there as a bus boy when he was fifteen. For Colin, it was the start of a long career in hospitality.

After I write this, I’ll nap. Then I’ll read until the Burtons get back—ten or ten-thirty when they and friends get to the house. At that point I’ll go in and welcome in the new year with them. Well, at least watch the ball drop in Times Square which is eleven here.

So my evening combines all the things I like: socializing with friends; cooking; some alone time in my cottage, and then more socializing. What a lucky woman I am.

To all those who read my blog, especially those who read and comment regularly, a deep and heartfelt thank you—you save me from the feeling that I’m talking to myself. I would love to hear more comments and questions from you, especially on the Gourmet on a Hot Plate page.

But to all, may 2019 bring you a blessed year—good health, good times, good food, lots of books to read, more of whatever you need, and peace to our be leagued country. God bless.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

How are your table manners?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been with all my grandkids fairly recently, but table manners are on my mind. We even talked about it in Tomball, and I was pleased that Colin is quick to praise his kids’ manners. Kegan caught me with elbows on the table the first night. In my defense, I had finished eating, but his reprimand started an ongoing thing, and I caught all of them with elbows on the table at one time or another.

I was raised by a father who was a strict disciplinarian when it came to the dinner table. None of this coming home and getting into comfortable clothes for him. He appeared at the table in a white shirt and tie, and my mother usually showered and put on a fresh dress for dinner. We ate on a white linen tablecloth, with linen napkins—and napkins rings so the napkins could be re-used. Napkin rings are now a thing of the past.

Dad was Canadian, and his concept of manners was British. Elbow on the table were a big no, of course, but other things were more difficult. “Do not butter your bread in the air. Put it on your plate to butter it.” Have you tried that? Awkward. The fork was another awkward thing that caused me grief. Most Americans cut food with the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left; then they switch the fork to the right to take a bite (if you’re left-handed none of this applies). Not so Europeans—no switching that fork to the right hand.

My brother, who rebelled against much of our upbringing, really bought the manners thing, and he enforced it with his kids and, at weekly family dinners, with mine. The result is they definitely know what fork to use. And, mostly, they have passed it on to their kids. Still, a couple of things bother me.

One is that excuse, “It’s just family.” Dad preached (he was really a preacher’s kid) that manners were to make other people comfortable dining with you and therefore, you used your best manners with your family, because they are the people that matter most.

Some of the boys in my family want to wear gimme caps to dinner—not at my table. I have a vision of my father writhing in agony at the thought. And cell phones? Dad never had to deal with that, but there’s no doubt what he would have thought.

Grazing is another thing that really bothers me. When I was a kid, we had a snack when we came home from school, but we could not eat after 4:30 because coming to the dinner table and saying, “I’m not hungry—I just ate,” was not tolerated. We dined together as a family—and no TV on.

Today a lot of kids seem to graze constantly, standing before cupboards and refrigerators, surveying the contents, looking for the next thing to eat. I think it’s born out of boredom—makes me want to suggest a good book--and is frankly an unhealthy habit. Even worse is the habit of picking at food out of the pan in the kitchen—my kids know if they’re guilty. When I used to fix Sunday dinner for fifteen to twenty, I always worried about there being enough, and to find people picking away at the food while it was still in the kitchen made me ballistic. Besides, I’m sure it’s not sanitary. Today, we have some who snatch bacon as quickly as it can be fried. Christian often fries the bacon for big family breakfasts, and he considers it a self-defeating task because it gets eaten as fast as he can fry it.

And finally, there’s consideration at the table. We had link sausages for Christmas breakfast and a fuss was made of how much Morgan loves them. But she only took two. When everyone had some, she took one more—but she left several in the bowl in case others wanted seconds. That’s consideration—and it matters most with family.

To me, good table manners are a password to advancement in the world—if you have them and practice them, you can go anywhere; if you don’t practice them, you’re stuck wherever you are. And family is the best place to start.

Okay, rant and lecture over. Thanks for hearing me out. I expect rebuttals from some of my kids. Will keep you posted.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Happy to be home

December 28, 2018

Sophie and I had a wonderful, terrific, marvelous week in Tomball—okay, except for the dogfight which maybe taught her she is not invincible nor is she the biggest kid on the block. But she loved being in the middle of an active household, where she was on constant alert lest she miss something. Tonight, we are happy to be home in the cottage, which is pretty dull and quiet.

Colin, Kegan, Sophie, and I left Tomball just before 10:30 this morning. A glorious day for a drive. There had been heavy rains throughout Central and South Texas Wednesday night—as usual I heard the thunder but not the rain, but in the morning the lake was really high, and the lowest portion of the patio was under water. This morning, with bright skies and blazing sun, we saw water everywhere—stock tanks were overflowing and creeks had burst their banks. At some points on Highway 6, around Marlin, there were sudden new lakes lapping the road on either side. I’ve seen it before on that stretch of highway, but it always surprises me. The road from College Station to Waco is one I traveled so often for sales meetings when I was working that I have all the landmarks memorized. I particularly love going through Calvert, that funky town full of old shops and antiques and falling down buildings.

We met Jordan and Jacob in Waco at a place my kids all rave about but where I had never been before. A tiny hole-in-the-wall with outdoor seating, so we could take Sophie. Called the Health Camp, it’s everything but. What it is, is greasy hamburgers. Through a mix-up we got a BLT for Colin, but I knew he had his taste buds ready for a cheeseburger, and I didn’t, so we traded. It was one of those sandwiches grilled on the outside so that everything about it is greasy, and some of the bacon was undercooked. It is not, however, the kind of place where you call the maître d’ and complain about your food. Kegan got a chili/cheese dog which I would not have known how to attack—he waded in and did a credible job on it. The best thing about the experience was the milkshakes—Jordan and Jacob had chocolate, Colin had strawberry, and Kegan had cookies ‘n cream. Being a novice, I didn’t know to order a milkshake, but I tasted, and they were thick and creamy and good.

An aside: when I was a kid there was an ice cream parlor (those shops we unfortunately don’t have anymore) about eight blocks from our house. They served milkshakes so thick the straw stood straight up in them. My mom would sometimes give my friend Eleanor Lee and me money for shakes for lunch, and we rode our bikes up to 53rd Street—a busy commercial street. Being allowed to do that was a big deal, and the shakes were the best thing we’d ever eat—or so we thought. A win/win deal. Today’s didn’t quite meet that standard, but they were good.

Health Camp is on the roundabout with the old Elite Café, that Waco traditional landmark. I had heard that Chip and Joanna Gaines had bought it, and today, lo and behold! It had a sign boasting, “The Magnolia Table.” Next time through Waco I’m going to lobby for that, but I may be unsuccessful. My family is really sold on the greasy spoon hamburgers.

Jordan, Jacob, Sophie and I got to Fort Worth a little after 3:30, and Jacob had a 4:00 p.m. orthodontist appointment, so Sophie and I got to sit in the car for half an hour. It was okay. She was a bit anxious; I calmly read emails. Jacob got the worst of the deal because something on his braces had broken and had to be repaired.

And then, before 5:00 p.m., we were home. I’ve turned on my Christmas lights and started unpacking, but I’m going to have a late version of my afternoon nap and then worry about dinner. My cupboard is pretty bare.

What wonderful Christmas memories I brought home with me. And now, on to the New Year.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

My tranquil spot


They say everyone should have a safe spot in their mind where they can go, mentally, to find peace, tranquility, respite from daily confusions. For many years, mine was a small outcropping on a dune above Lake Michigan in the Indiana Dunes State Park. My family had a cottage higher up on the dune, and we spent many happy summer days and nights there. I remember going to “my spot” with our dog, a wild collie mix, a female inappropriately named Timmy. She loved to roll her shoulders in the dead fish on the beach, but when I called her to my spot, she would come obediently and sit quietly by my side. From that spot, I could watch the sun set behind the distant skyscrapers of Chicago. On a good night, the sun would be an orange ball, and the skyscrapers but tiny black dots against it.

I won’t pretend that I meditated or thought deep thoughts when I sat there at the age of seven or eight, but I do know as an adult, when troubled, I would close my eyes and imagine myself in that spot, with Timmy, watching the sun set. It was soothing and somehow made me feel better. Sometimes, but not always, it helped me think clearly about whatever was troubling me.

In the last couple of years, that dunes perch has given way in my mind to a new spot: sitting in rocker on the shore of the tiny lake in Tomball where that branch of my family—Colin, Lisa, Morgan, Kegan, and Grace the dog—live. When I visit in the summer, we take glasses of wine down there at sunset and sit to enjoy the encroaching dark, despite mosquitoes and flies and gnats. The water is always calm, though an occasional fish breaks the surface.

There’s no swimming in the lake—snakes and pollution from the stables next door prevent that, so the family swims in a pool. But my grandsons have fished from the bank with more enthusiasm than results, and occasionally some venture out in a canoe.

This Christmas visit I had not been down to the lake in five days—we’ve been too busy, and the evenings have been too chilly. But today, about four, Colin helped me down the stairs and brought a glass of wine. The lake was absolutely still, its surface like glass, and the temperature was neither too warm nor too chilly. I could stare at the lake and see a tiny house on the not-too-distant shore and another house, closer, on the side of Colin’s property. In the far distance I could see—and barely hear—cars on Highway 2920.  I soaked up tranquility. Not sure I’m a better person for it, but I am a happier camper.

Tomorrow I go back to Fort Worth, but I am already looking forward to a summer visit. And until then, I have my safe spot in my mind.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A cold, gray Boxing Day

Sophie worn out by life  in Tomball

No, Boxing Day is not a day to throw away all the boxes your Christmas gifts came in. It’s a traditional British holiday, maybe just meant to extend Christmas one more day. It’s primarily a day to spend relaxing with family and friends—and who doesn’t need that after the climactic and hectic pace of Christmas Day. For some in England, it’s a day for fox hunting, though one would hope that sport is fading out—for the sake of the fox. More bizarre, some hardy souls swim the English Channel—or try to. And there’s football, horse racing, and, to borrow from America, shopping.

In this country, we don’t pay much attention to Boxing Day, but its still a day of recover. In Tomball, it dawned gray and foreboding today—and only got darker as the day went on. When I’m here in the Tomball house, my favorite seat is at one end of the dining table—from here I can look to the left and see the swimming pool and, beyond, a field; straight ahead I can see the tiny lake that the house sits on. I love the view in all weather but maybe most in summer when the kids are in the swimming pool. Today it was a striking vista but not an encouraging one. It was a perfect day to work at my computer.

Colin worked hard on setting up my Apple watch, trying to get it to connect the phone to my hearing aids—it won’t do it yet, but he discovered that the Apple people are researching that. And we haven’t figured out all of the cardia monitoring function, but some. It’s a steep learning curve, but I’m confident I’ll master it. I wore the watch to sleep last night and was grateful, because my phone was dead and I was without the flashlight function. Hadn’t found that on the watch—though I now have—but the watch gave short bursts of light which helped me stumble my way through the dark.

I did odds and ends at my computer—writing a couple of thank-you notes and taking care of a couple of business matters. But mostly I worked on my Alamo manuscript and edited three chapters—feeling quite proud of myself. Lots of cutting and pasting, challenging work.

Of course, on this dark and dull day I got a good nap.

Oops, a dogfight over a plastic toy. Sophie was trying to take it from Grace—trouble is it was Grace’s toy and Grace is at least twice Sophie’s size, a big and solid dog compared to Sophie’s 30 lbs. After much squealing on Sophie’s part and growling from Grace, they are separated. Time for bed.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Day—the good kind of tired

A real privilege today to go with my Tomball Alters to Lisa’s parents’ home. John and Torhild Griesbach always make me feel so welcome on these Alter-off years. Today we were up at six, out the door at seven, and at the Griesbach home in Sugar Land by eight.  Lisa had baked two quiches—one cheese and sausage and one Lorraine. She popped cinnamon rolls into the oven, and her mom heated sausage. We ate at a lovingly set table, bright with a Christmas cloth and colorful square plates (I was impressed by the plates).

Kids 12 and 13 are too old to be excited about Christmas and stockings-not! These two grandkids were anxious to get to the business of the day—and Santa Claus rewarded them amply. They both got Apple watches—and so did I. Colin is working on setting mine up so it will monitor my heart rate and detect falls. For the latter, he said he would have to push me down twice to make sure it worked. Lisa giggled, and I protested. He actually did push Kegan down, so now that boy can say he literally has taken a fall for his grandmother.

 Jamie sent a table top herb/vegetable garden which operates on an app from the phone. Apparently you stick a pod in the soil, and the app monitors temperature and moisture. Tomorrow I will explore the directions more thoroughly, but it came with seed pods for mini tomatoes, cress, lettuce, and other interesting things. Last summer I had a thriving basil plant but couldn’t get down to the ground to harvest it. This will be great.

Christmas dinner was two meals—Norwegian hamburgers (a long story behind those, but it’s explained in Gourmet on a Hot Plate—how’s that for a marketing technique?)—and chicken cutlets, along with green beans, carrots, mashed potatoes, noodles, and rolls. Torhild is an old-fashioned, down-home cook who sets a bountiful table. For dessert, we had apple pie, courtesy of Lisa, and chocolate pie, made by Morgan. Everyone wanted a nap after dinner, but we had dogs back home that had been locked up all day, so everyone packed up the car and we headed back north. After we got home and got the dogs settled and fed, I did sneak a short nap.

Sophie and Grace, a big shepherd mix, got along fine. We carefully separated them this morning to avoid mischief, but clever Sophie figured out a way to get through the barrier and had the run of the house—no problems. She was ecstatic when we returned—dancing and jumping. Grace was more restrained in her enthusiasm. Thanks to Morgan and Colin who have been walking Sophie since there is no fenced yard.

Kegan just walked by with a gentle, “Merry Christmas, Juju” on his way to bed. I’ll follow him soon, tired, full, happy and feeling blessed by family who really takes such sweet care of me. I hope you all are equally happy and content tonight, my friends. As Colin said in the car tonight, only 365 days till Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A blessed Christmas Eve

Today was everything Christmas Eve should be. Baking smells filled the kitchen as Lisa made two quiches, an apple pie, and a chocolate meringue pie. She was ably assisted by Colin and Kegan who cut up apples for the pie. I got to enjoy the Christmas spirit while editing my manuscript. The recording of A Celtic Christmas played all morning—those sweet, clear voices singing not only carols but familiar winter songs. Between the smells and the music, Christmas filled the air.

Made my way through the introduction and two chapters. Editing is always intensive, but this time particularly so because I wrote the framework of the story through and then went back, plugging in bits and pieces as I came across them in boxes and boxes of research material. The result is a lot of duplication, some confusing contradictory versions of events, and

what any good English teacher would call awkward transitions. Plus the inevitable typos, But I’m pleased with what I accomplished today.

Got in my afternoon nap, cozy in Morgan’s bed with what feels like a down comforter. The bed is quite high—a bit of a trick for me to get into it. At home, Sophie jumps up on the bed when she thinks it’s time for me to get up, but I was sure she couldn’t do that here. Call me too trusting. She woke me up at 7:30 this morning by landing on top of me, and when I got out of the bed this afternoon, she quickly got in my spot. She has adjusted well to being here. She’s visited several times before, but this is the first time she has the run of the house. I am afraid Morgan will try to kidnap her when it’s time for me to go home.

This evening, Colin, Lisa, and Kegan went to be helpers at the six o’clock service at their church. Morgan stayed behind, and I half wonder if she wasn’t assigned to babysit me. But I won’t complain about that. She fed Sophie and will take her out shortly, and she poured me a glass of wine—the kitchen is up a step from the family room and bedrooms, which pretty much rules out my being self-sufficient about food and drink.

While they were at the church, I went to the five o’clock children’s service at my church in Fort Worth, thanks to Facebook. Earlier I saw pictures on Facebook of a sheep and a burro “getting ready” for the service, so I was curious to see how their role was handled. Calling it a cameo appearance is generous—they were paraded down the long center aisle and at the chancel, diverted to the side aisle and led right out of the sanctuary—no time to poop. Highlight was hearing all the familiar carols. I seem to remember singing carols in church all during December, but not this year. I heard somewhere that in some traditions carols are reserved to be sung only from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night. So tonight, I got my fill for the first time.

For years I have struggled unsuccessfully to establish a traditional supper for Christmas Eve—sometimes when we’re all together, Brandon cooks his chili. I have tried roast beef, smorgasbord and who knows what else, but nothing sticks. I thought tonight Lisa might start her own tradition with chicken tamale stew. But it turned out they were so long at church, we had tomato basil soup and Mac’s Salad—the original from Mac’s House all those years ago. Colin bussed tables at Mac’s when he was fourteen, and the salad is a special memory for him, so it was part of my Christmas gift. I even brought the good grated Parmesan and sesame seeds to finish it.

Closing the children’s service tonight, Dr. Russ Peterman reminded that the good news of Christmas doesn’t always come when things are going smoothly. It often catches us in the darkest of times and brings us hope. I think that’s where we are as a country tonight, and I pray that those of us who celebrate the Birth of Christ and other who celebrate in their own faith can  our hearts and minds to receive the good news and feel the hope of love.

Blessings, loved ones.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Long Day

IF you look closely, there's a little blackdog
curled up nextto Moran's head
Friday night may have been the longest night, but today was, for me, the longest day. Colin and granddaughter Morgan were at the cottage by ten this morning, having set a speed record from Tomball that I don’t want to think about. They hung around for about an hour, packed up the many bags I had—clothes, food, presents—and we were off to Addison and Jamie’s office where we would pick up a foosball table.

Which somehow took two hours. My sons enjoy each other’s company and kept disappearing into corners of the office, no doubt talking about the toy business and who knows what else. What they weren’t doing was dismantling the foosball table for moving. Morgan and I grew increasingly bored and hungry, and Sophie was anxious in strange surroundings, with a small dog who tormented her with his treat when she didn’t have one.

We left the office close to 2:30 and made a beeline for Wendy’s. Then it was on Highway 45 headed to the Houston area with a whole lot of other folks. As Colin told Lisa, the two of us argued the whole way and it wore me out. I accused Colin of thinking every statement I made called for rebuttal. Morgan and Sophie slept. Time passed.

We stopped at the Buccee’s in Madisonville for gas and a potty break. Horribly crowded, and forgive me, but I do not enjoy being in the teeming midst of humanity. And I’ve talked long and loud about how kind people are when you’re on a walker. Not at Buccee’s. They cut in front of me, scowled at me, and not one person smiled.

Coin decided to take a back way from Madisonville which would have the benefit of missing the awful traffic that is always in The Woodlands. But when he said, “I think I’ve done this once before,” I was not inspired with confidence that we were saving time. The back road landed us in Navasota, and I was in familiar territory.

Colin and Morgan had left home at 7:15 this morning, telling Lisa we’d be home before seven. We made it by 6:50, and Colin said to Morgan that it had been a long twelve hours and they had made a loop around Central Texas. I was with them more of the day than not, and I was tired.

Lisa greeted us with wine and chicken piccata, and we munched on Christmas cookies and did the Advent Calendar. Sophie has settled down in her crate, and I’m about to go to bed. It’s good to be with family.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Snippets of a happy holiday

The calendar is really getting down to the deadline—it’s the 22nd already. Have you done all your Christmas shopping? I have been parceling out packages for days and think I have most distributed, except for my brother who lives an hour away—too close to mail, too fair to drive. We’ll have an extended Christmas after I get back from Tomball.

Tomorrow Colin, my oldest, will come from Tomball to pick me up and then we’ll go to Jamie’s office in North Dallas/Plano/somewhere along I-35 for a foosball table—I am beginning to wonder which is more important to Colin: me or the foosball table. That’s not really fair, because he has told me he likes being the kid who gets responsibility for me on the off years for Alter Christmases. And I’m looking forward to time in Tomball, especially time with the two grandchildren there—Morgan and Kegan. And some writing time—yeah, of course I’m taking my computer.

My days have been a happy mess of Christmas things—a grocery store trip on which I already felt the need to deal with the ham and black-eyed pea menu for New Year’s. Jordan responded that they are having friends in to watch whatever bowl game and she’s serving sausage balls which are a lot cheaper. I thought she missed the point. Then she said, “IF you want a ham, go ahead and get one.” Then I knew she’d really missed the point. Who gets a ham for one person?

Lunch yesterday with a friend I don’t see often enough. We had so much to talk about—the business of writing, whether or not you can write to someone’s textbook plan or just have to let it flow, grandsons. I mean we really chattered, and I loved it.

Then happy hour with an old and dear friend, talking about Christmas plans and gossiping about people we knew in our previous existence—like me, she is the ex-wife of an osteopathic physician and now, both our husbands are dead. But we have a lot of memories in common and a lot of old friends.

Tonight, I went to a cocktail party at the home of my Canadian daughter—her parents, dear friends, were there. Often, I miss them at Christmas because I travel just when they are here, so tonight it was a joy to visit with both of them. Lovely party, delicious food, plentiful wine—but so noisy I couldn’t really have a conversation with anyone, even with my new hearing aids.

Today I’ve been packing and organizing—Sophie will go with me to Tomball tomorrow, and you’d be amazed at what it takes to pack for a dog—food, probiotics, Benedryl, fake cheese slices, chew treats, her very own dog bowl. That done, I packed some things for me and have a really organized list of what needs to be packed tomorrow, plus another list of what needs to come out of the freezer and refrigerator at the last minute. Sometimes I scare myself because I’m so organized.

As we head into the holy season, I feel optimistic. I think our long national ordeal is coming to an end—the death throes may bring increased pain, fear, panic, and financial instability, but I believe as a country we’ll rise above it and restore our democracy. I am well aware that calling this the holy season leaves out Hanukah, Kwanza, and other religions which mark the winter solstice, and I don’t mean to be exclusionary. I simply approach the season—and the nation’s problems—from my own Christian perspective.

So holiday blessings on all of you, no matter what or how you celebrate. It’s the love in our hearts that matters much more than the shape of our faith. Be happy, my friends.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Am I in Chicago?

The wind whistled and whined around the cottage this afternoon, making sad, moaning sounds. Took me back to days in Chicago which comes by its moniker of “the Windy City” honestly. Some days you had to fight to stay upright, particularly in the canyons of downtown Chicago or on the lakefront on a day when Lake Michigan showed its wild and stormy side. Today, with the Texas wind howling off the prairies to our west, I was glad to stay inside.

Perfect day for soup, so I cleaned out the freezer. Turned out I didn’t have as many leftovers as I thought—a small icebox dish of the last batch of leftover soup, another small one of a spaghetti sauce that was only medium but would be fine in soup, and a larger container of something that I could not identify by sight, smell—or poking my finger into it. That went in the trash, but I got some frozen peas out of the freezer, and a small bit of multicolor rotini (so glad to get that box out of my tiny pantry drawer). The thing that made the soup so good, I think, was the can of pintos that I discovered and added. Jacob of course would not eat my soup, so I fixed him buttered noodles—no nutrition and probably too many carbs. He asked for a giant helping. After I fed him, I finished my own meal off with my gingerbread and ginger-brown sugar whipped cream, which is beginning to sag as I knew it would. Still, it tasted delicious.

A milestone today: I finished going through the last of the boxes of research materials on the second battle of the Alamo. Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll plug in my notes from today, and then it’s time to start at the beginning and read through it. Because I kept adding bits and pieces as I found them, I know there will be repetitions and duplicates and probably some bad transitions. I still have lots of work to do.

Rosa came to cut my hair today, and I had my toenails done the other day—obviously I’m gearing up to be out of town. I’ve even made a list of things to take—one list for Sophie, one list from the refrigerator and freezer, a list of outfits (including the super new one I got last night), and a list of incidentals—like a legal pad for notes, honey for my tea (they probably have some but just in case), and shampoo. Looking forward to a few days away.

Christmas anticipation is high. For those who celebrate, I hope your anticipation is focused as much on the gift we all receive from on high as on those packages under the tree. I quoted our minister today when I told one of my children I would rather have his presence than his presents.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas in the cottage

Betty and I had our usual Wednesday night supper tonight, though I said I had to be home early—we always go early so that was no big deal. But even before I got home, Jacob was emailing to ask, “Are you almost home?” You see, since I will be out of town over Christmas, we had our Burton/Alter gift exchange tonight. Jacob was a bit anxious—you’d think the child didn’t know what he was getting, but he did. He picked out his Nike shirt and pants, even knew where they were in the cottage. After I wrapped them, he went to look one night and asked, “Where did you move them?” But after tonight, he is free to wear them.

I think, though, Jacob has gotten to the age where he’s as excited about the gifts to others as he is about what he’s getting. So we exchanged—a tracker for Christian to help him keep track of things like keys, a book that I got him for his birthday and he lost—now he can finish it. For Jordan, Hoka athletic shoes and my cookbook, plus a Penguin server. Anybody remember those? A vintage server all the rage in the fifties or sixties—keeps things hot or cold forever. My mom had one, and I was delighted to find a wide array of them on Etsy.

And for me, a cool navy-and-white pants and sweater outfit, wooden cooking spoons, and a puzzle that Jacob and I can do together.

When I took a picture for posterity, Sophie ran to get up on the couch—sweet thing wanted to be in the picture. Jordan eventually took one of Sophie and the Christmas tree. I am still so delighted with the cozy festive atmosphere in my cottage.

This morning two aspects of my life vied for dominance. I spent the whole time reading through research materials on the Alamo or making a cheeseball. I’m here to tell you it’s not easy to go back and forth between the two. I long ago learned that the only way to make my family cheeseball recipe is to dig in and mix it by hand—a processor makes it too runny, and a mixer just doesn’t do the job. Lots of hand-washing involved. But I got it made and split into two—Jordan will take one to the Burton family Christmas and I will take the other to Tomball and Colin and his family.

This is what the Alter clan calls an “off year”—the children all go to their other families. Bless Lisa, because she’s so sweet and welcoming when Colin wants his mom with him and that’s where I go on these off years. This year, we’ll celebrate at her parents’ house because of her father’s health—easier than having them come from Sugar Land to Tomball. Colin says he likes being the one who “gets” me on off years. He’ll drive up Sunday, pick me up, and we’ll go to Houston by way of Frisco—a roundabout journey.

I’m a creature of habit. Probably my favorite day is one like today when I can get up at my own speed, do morning chores like breakfast and dishes and shampoo by my own schedule, spend the day at my computer and end with dinner with a dear friend. But Christmas is a time to break your routine, crawl out of your schedule—and I’m looking forward to a change in my days, to spending time with Morgan and Kegan, the Tomball grandchildren, to reading some mysteries, to talking with my firstborn about weighty matters like politics and religion—we have great discussions because we sort of agree, sort of don’t.

Does it sound too fifty-ish to say, “Cool Yule”?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


After two years of not being able to drive and another six months of “supervised” driving while the kids made sure I still knew how to do it, it’s a great joy to take off on my own and run errands—and save Jordan some bothersome trips on my behalf. Today I went to the podiatrist—seems like every time I go to the doctor there’s some new wrinkle, something “that is concerning” or “we just have to check it out.” So it was a delight to go to a doctor who said, “You’re doing so much better than so many people I see.” When asked if my shoes were okay, he countered with “Are they comfortable.” I said yes, and he said “Then wear them. All you need is something to cushion the bottom of your feet.” What a lovely man!

Next, I went to the only gas station around that does full service. I’m sure the attendant thought I was a dotty old lady—I couldn’t find full service, and when I did it had a cone in front of it. So I pulled up to the cone, and this nice young man said, “Ma’am, you’re going to have to pull up farther—the hose won’t reach your gas tank.” I said, “But the cone,” and he advised me to pull up next to it. By then I guess I was a bit flustered—he had to patiently ask me to turn off the engine, unlock the gas cap. I didn’t really need gas, but I got it, so I could get my tires checked which someone told me looked soft. The attendant gently said, “Just so you know, ma’am, we have a $20 minimum on full service.” I assured him I’d pay $20 for my $15 worth of gas, tire check, and clean windshield, but he brushed it away. Next time I go back there, I’ll be much smarter about the protocol.

Finally, I went to pick up a sweater at the cleaners. The owner himself brought it out and said, “Hey, Mrs. Alter. Written any new books lately?” So we talked a bit. He went to school with my oldest son.

So my gratitude is for people who are so kind about my wanting curbside service and for living in a neighborhood where people are so friendly. How lucky am I!
Finally baked that gingerbread today and learned a toaster-oven lesson—things with baking soda that rise don’t do well. The gingerbread rose beautifully—and burned the top. But we cut away the burned and doused it with the ginger/brown sugar whipping cream I’d made—delicious. And not too hard. Because I get mixed up on ordering spices by weight, however, I now have a lifetime supply of ground ginger. Anybody?

Neighbor Mary Dulle brought fresh homemade applesauce tonight, and I discovered that it too goes wonderfully with gingerbread—complimentary flavors. And she brought dried morel mushrooms—I will have to research to find out what to do with them.

And should you want to watch an interview with me, here’s a link: .  This was done this fall by the marketing manager at TCU Press—she came to the cottage, and I cleared my desk, as you can see.

Monday, December 17, 2018

A new lunch discovery

Food seems to be the only topic on my mind these days. I blame it on the holidays. But today, friend Carol and I went to lunch. I actually thought long and hard about someplace new to go and came up empty handed, so I suggested a familiar place we both like. “We ate dinner there last night,” she said. Back to the drawing board.

We ended up at the Black Rooster Bakery, which is close to my house. I had heard they added café-style seating, and indeed they had improved on the bar stools against a wall which used to be the only seating. There are now maybe seven or eight tables in a clean, bright atmosphere—and quiet. You can hear yourself and the person you’re with. Bonus: the sandwiches were delicious. We both chose the TCU whatever—a BLT with avocado. I wanted mine on a croissant, but Carol chose five-grain bread.

The only problem was that my croissant had no bottom. It looked lovely, but when I tried to pick it up, there was no bottom layer to the croissant to hold it together—would have made for messy eating. The mistake was cheerfully and quickly corrected. Several other choices on the menu intrigued me, but I will definitely go back.

Black Rooster is now a subsidiary or whatever of the beloved Lunch Box in Ridglea, and I wonder if that doesn’t account for the improved lunch opportunities and seating. They still offer an enticing array of cookies and muffins in the display counter, and a barrel in the middle of the eating space held brown paper bags which, it turned out, were specially baked dog treats. I’m pretty fussy about what I give Sophie—that translates into I don’t introduce anything new, and I never give table scraps except what falls on the floor when I’m cooking. So I passed on the doggie treats. And I have a houseful of Christmas goodies—toffee and bourbon balls from kind friends—so I didn’t need the cookies.

Tonight, I fixed a taco salad—nothing unusual about that, except that we (Jordan collaborated on this effort) used the Chuy’s lime/cilantro dip I’d made earlier for salad dressing. It was a great mix with the taco meat—and yes, I made my own taco seasoning from spices on hand rather than buying the pre-made mix.

And in spite of all this, I got some work done. Tomorrow? That gingerbread I’ve been talking about forever and haven’t made. My conscience will be greatly relieved when I bake it.

And then I tell myself, Christmas is not about what we ought to do but about what our heart wants to do.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

New music and old friends

Phil Green and me in what seem to be
our assigned spots at Burton parties

Such a lovely day today! This morning, Jacob and I went to church, just the two of us. He is the perfect escort—takes care of stashing my walker, holds my purse, generally looks after me. Our church always has glorious music, especially during the holidays, but today was a special event—the debut of a new composition for choir and orchestra, with the composer in the congregation. It was smashing—and I don’t just mean the brass sections. It truly was a magnificent musical experience. And I was one proud grandma to have Jacob in church with me.

Linda Powell and Nancy O'Shea
We go back together a lot of years

Tonight, Christian and Jordan had a few neighbors in, along with two of my longtime
friends—both women who, like me, had been doctors’ wives back in the day. They are special to me, and I loved visiting with them. Our next-door neighbors, a young couple who are both physicians, are also hunters, and they brought duck cooked several ways with fancy tags telling us what was what (I passed on the poppers with jalapeno).
Roast duck breast
Delicious. Christian made his drunken meatballs, and there were salads, a rice dish (mine), a potato dish, a corn pudding, which is something I’ve been wanting to make. Jordan made her wine cake recipe that is always a hit. Nice, casual, easy evening.

My new rug
The drunken meatballs remind me—Jacob was trying to tell me about some drinks that had been partially drunk. He said, “They’d been drinken.” Then he thought that didn’t sound right and he said, “Dranken.” I suggested “Drunk.” And so we invented a new conjugation: drinken, dranken, drunk.

And a highlight of my weekend: a new rug for my living area. Sophie, who is never sick and is perfectly housebroken, had a stomach attack of something beyond her control and delivered the coup de gras to the rug that’s been in the cottage fifteen years or more. It’s cheaper to buy a new rug than to send the old one to the cleaners, a fact that smacks of conspicuous consumption to me.  But the old rug appeared beyond saving, so I ordered a new one—Amazon has everything! The one I chose was a bold change for me—colorful to say the least—so I asked Christian’s opinion, and he was enthusiastic. (Tonight, he took credit for picking it, but I reminded him I picked it; he only approved.) Anyway, so far it has met with approval from everyone I’ve dragged out to look at it.

No work done today. Tomorrow will be a work day—and I have promised the family a taco salad, and I have gingerbread to make. ‘Tis the holidays, and I love it.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Kindness of People

Occasionally I see in a thread on Facebook or somewhere else a lament about how the world at large treats people with handicaps—from indifference to cruelty. Well, I’m here to counter that. Since I’ve been on a walker, I have found most people go out of their way to help me—they hold doors even though I am sometimes painfully slow, they step back in line to let me cut in, they reach out to steady my walker if I have to go down a curb, they smile and greet me when just passing. And it’s not pity—more, I think it’s a recognition that I exist as a person above and beyond my inability to walk without assistance.

Today I wanted to drop something off at the cleaners. Jordan goes that way to take Jacob to and from school, but I wanted my one red sweater clean for the holiday which meant get it in now and get it back early in the week. I parked outside, thinking the phone number was painted on the window. It wasn’t. So I asked a young woman retrieving her cleaning to stick her head back in and ask if they’d give me curbside service. She willingly did so, and another nice young lady came to collect my shirt. She went back in to get me a business card and said they have several customers for whom they do this. “Just honk or call next time,” she said.

Then I went to Curbside Pickup at Central Market. I think I’ve already waxed eloquent about how great this service is, but today I had to exchange an item—they gave me Parmesan in a green shaker, which I despise (it has wood shavings in it to keep it from clumping, or so the cheesemonger told me) and I wanted fresh ground. Exchange made cheerfully, and an extra container of Parmesan included at their expense (I think I have a lifetime supply). Today they had substituted dipper chips for the corn chips I requested—I explained that really wouldn’t work because I was going to use them in a salad. “No problem.” The runner went and searched the shelves until she found a suitable bag of chips. We chatted, and when she learned about the walker, she urged me to use the comments opportunity on the order form to make sure I got exactly what I wanted. We parted on happy terms with a cheery, “Merry Christmas.”

At my doctor’s office, an aide comes out to make sure I neither fall nor get mugged (Jordan’s two big worries); at the podiatrist’s, his wife escorts me in and out. The lovely young woman who cuts my hair makes house calls and when I reminded her I was now driving, she said she’d rather come to the house—I think we both like the visiting time. Daily I increase the stores and other places where willing employees will come out to my car. Their help enables me to run errands without bothering Jordan—we reached sort of a turning point this week when Jordan said, “I need you to run some errands for me.”

I think it’s like anything else in life. Being on a walker or exhibiting some other handicap does make a difference in how people treat you. But the difference depends on how you treat others and how you signal that you expect to be treated. Got a chip on your shoulder? Others will sense it and react accordingly, but as my mom always told me, “Smile, and the world smiles with you.”

And these days when we hear so much about cruel indifference to others—the border patrol letting a young girl die on their watch, a judge trying to rob millions of health care, a congressman who wanted to cut food benefits to a million poverty-stricken agricultural workers to give them an incentive to improve their lives (really, he said that)—it’s wonderful to find that most people do indeed have a heart of gold. Just call me Pollyanna!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Chicken Fried Steak and Lessons in Grocery Shopping

You wouldn’t think after all these years I’d need a lesson in grocery shopping, but what I got today was at least a reminder. Last week I didn’t get to what I call a “regular” grocery store. I did curbside pickup at Central Market, but you don’t buy toilet paper or paper towels or the like there. So I had a long list of “household goods,” including some over-the-counter medications, such as a probiotic—darned expensive. The bill was, to my still-in-the-sixties mind, astronomical.

But Jordan and I had a good time, figuring what we needed for the holidays, planning dishes. Of course, there are a lot of things I want to make but time is running too short and who would eat them. On my list: taco salad, using the Chuy’s lime/cilantro dressing I made as a dip last week (we’ll probably have that for supper Monday night); Mac’s Salad, since we stopped at Michael’s today and bought containers of the dressing (Jordan got in the car and said one word: “Expensive!”). But then today I saw a recipe for sausage/gruyere balls—a twist on the ones I’ve always made with cheddar. Sounds delicious.

It’s amazing how much money and how many things one person living alone has on a grocery list. I tell myself it’s because I cook a lot—it’s a rare recipe that I can resist—and I cook once or twice a week for the family.

Even leaving Tom Thumb and Michael’s, we weren’t through. Went to Local Foods Kitchen for take-out for our lunch. A shrimp salad for Jordan (I am so frustrated that somewhere in life I developed a shrimp allergy, probably because I gorged on them). Tuna and a beet/orange  salad for my lunch, and shepherd’s pie for supper. It’s one place where the shepherd’s pie truly tastes homemade—not of preservatives, not of mass production. And the tuna was good—I’ve been off tuna for a while, but I liked this a lot.

And I still have a curbside pick-up order for Central Market tomorrow. Please tell me it’s the holidays.

I frequently check a Facebook page called Fort Worth Memories and History (please don’t sign up—you have to apply) because I enjoy some of the reminiscences, like do you remember the old Cross Keys Restaurant. Today I even asked if anyone remembers Papa John’s on 28th Street? But someone asked for recommendations for chicken-fried steak, and I wanted to scream, “No, don’t do that again!” This morning when I turned on my computer there were 113 recommendations, and they’ve kept coming all day. And we just did this a couple of months ago. Pay attention people and don’t repeat the queries! I wish the moderator would not sanction such an inquiry again for a year.

I haven’t counted but I’d say West Side Café on Camp Bowie is the winner, but there have been some odd choices—a Cajun café, a bistro, places you’d never go for CFS. I remain firm in my conviction that the Star Café on West Exchange has the best ever. I may be prejudiced—friends of mine own it, and I spent a lot of Saturday nights running the cash register.  But the CFS is great—good tender meat, lots of crisp crust, and delicious gravy. And the atmosphere is great—Cowtown kitsch. I love the place. It’s on my bucket list for after the holidays, and we have several friends who want to go, so we may descend on them with a large party.

Meantime have a happy holiday weekend.  We dodged the high winds and just got a bit of rain, and I think it’s to be fair weather this weekend. Can you believe how fast December is flying by?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Days that start off badly

This morning, refilling the reservoir on my Keurig coffeemaker (so I could make tea), I somehow pushed the wrong button. When I tried to start it, it made a strange noise and quit. I texted Jordan for tea bags. When she came out, she said, “Mom, there’s tea in the cup.” Step number one to a day of mishaps.

I had a lunch date with a treasured friend, but the weather predictions were dire, and I know he’s cautious about bad weather, so I had emailed last night to ask if we should reschedule. Waited all morning but no word from him, which was totally out of character. And I wondered why I got no emails at all during the morning. Turns out I had, at the insistence of TCU, changed my password but neglected to log out of Outlook and log back in with the new password.

Weather predictions said late afternoon, and it was apparently going to be true, because though skies grew cloudier, there was no hint of rain, snow, or the devastating winds we’d been promised. We went to our favorite deli for lunch and had a good catch-up visit. This man saw me through graduate school in the late 1960s, so you can see how far back the friendship goes.

But midway through lunch I looked down and announced, “I have my shirt on backward.” He just laughed and said, “It’s one of those days.” Fortunately, I had a sweater over my shoulders, so my gaffe wasn’t obvious to the whole deli, not that anyone was paying that much attention to me.

When I got home, my lunch partner emailed to say the wind was picking up in his part of town. It was and still is dead quiet around me, eerily so, although the temperature has dropped significantly. But I keep waiting for the wind, advice such as “secure outside objects” echoing in my mind. I’m afraid of waking in the morning and finding every flower pot in smithereens.

Yesterday I had a beef and sauerkraut sandwich for lunch—good, but when the waiter said just a touch of kraut, I said I wanted more than a touch. Still, when it came It was just a touch. One of the friends I was with also ordered that sandwich, and we agreed that we wished for more kraut, less beef (it was shredded and flavorful). I brought half the sandwich home, and tonight I deconstructed it. Got rid of the bread, cooked some more sauerkraut (I have a jar in the fridge) with caramelized onions, a bit of white wine, and a tiny bit of brown sugar. Then I dumped the filling of my half sandwich in, stirred it until the meat heated up and loosened up, and put it on a plate—sort of like a sauerkraut/beef stew. So good, and in truth I was proud of my creativity. Saved enough of my kraut mixture to have tomorrow night with leftovers from the pork tenderloin and potatoes Jordan brought me last night. I guess my German blood is coming out. Maybe stollën is next.

Stay safe, my friends, if that bad weather does hit. David Finfrock, the guru of weather, says snow, etc. will stay west of the Metroplex. I have mixed feelings about that, but I really need a grocery store trip tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Happy anniversary—sort of

How nice that John Mayer joined the anniversary party
For those that don't know, he's a singer and my daughters
are dippy about him. Not at all sure how Christian feels about sharing the anniversary.
This is a shout-out to my Fort Worth kids who celebrated their fourteenth anniversary last night. Since they were hosts for the son of friends, a good buddy of Jacob, they planned a romantic dinner for two at home. They’d feed the boys, and then enjoy steak and champagne by candlelight. It didn’t quite work out that way.

They came out to the cottage, so a couple of neighbors and I could toast their anniversary—and we bored the neighbors, I’m sure, with our detailed recall of that magic night fourteen years ago. But then Jacob appeared to announce that the house guest was sick and throwing up. I never saw a party break up so quickly—Jordan and Christian bolted for the house, and the neighbors made a hasty exit. Jordan came out in a bit to suggested I not count on the pork tenderloin she had promised me (I had scrambled eggs for supper). It seems the guest was still sick.

The way I got the story, Jordan came to the romantic dinner table in her pjs, and her toast was to “Poop and vomit, failed air conditioners and broken timing belts.” Christian raised his glass and said, “I can’t think of a better way to spend our anniversary.” Is that not gallant? I am so proud of their adaptability and open hearts—if that little boy had to get sick away from home, he couldn’t have chosen a better home in which to do it.

A postscript to the story: the house guest went to school, but Jordan had to go get him mid-day and take him to a doctor. There went the thousand errands she had to do today. She does so much for me, I was glad I could step in and run a couple of errands—to the bank, where I am now a failure at the drive-through because I can’t get close enough to reach (my reach does not exceed my grasp) and my feet get tangled trying to get out of the car in front of the machine—no room for maneuvering. I’m sure the teller thought I would sit in that lane all evening.

Then I went to Central Market for curbside delivery, so Jordan can bake cakes tonight that she needs for tomorrow. First time I’ve gotten the wrong thing—I despise parmesan in the green shaker and wanted the fresh grated from the cheesemonger—but I got that blasted green thing. And I had just assured a friend that curbside delivery never disappoints—me and my big mouth.

I’ve enjoyed a couple of celebratory holiday meals with friends this week. Monday night with two (the third was sick) to Michael’s, where I had Mac’s Salad, the real deal. The internet and even the Star-Telegram has offered various recipes over the years, and I’ve tried many of them and found they weren’t right. I even ordered blue cheese powder, which one recipe said was essential. Not so. But this was the real thing and so good. We had a delightful meal in a quiet dining room (I prize the quiet) in front of a fire.

Today I had lunch with three other friends at Ellerbe’s, a wonderful kraut and beef sandwich on marbled rye and a candy cane chocolate cake rich with buttercream and whipped cream for dessert. Just roll me out of the restaurant and point me toward a nap!

Love this season—and, yes, I try to keep my heart and mind open to the reason for the season.