Sunday, December 26, 2010

Soulful Christmas

Traditions are wonderful. But sometimes, so is breaking them. We celebrated our first ever, just-the-four-of-us, at home Christmas. Solid Midwesterners of English and Scandinavian descent, we are about as far from Southern as you can get. But this was our year to do as we pleased. The kids decided on barbecue. So barbecue it was—ribs, corn bread, Bourbon baked beans, mashed potatoes, collards—The Blind Boys of Alabama playing in the background. The only thing missing was the sweet tea and sweet potato pie. No need to be rigid. We drank beer and ate an Anna dessert creation —chocolate crumb crust, chocolate mousse, raspberries, cream—you get the picture.

The kids, just free from term papers and finals, slept until they could sleep no more. With nowhere to drive to, we opened presents leisurely and randomly at one o’clock in the afternoon. We didn’t bother with the dishes and went to a movie instead.

But at this age, joy is rarely pure. This quiet Christmas at home meant not being with my father his first Christmas as a widower. He refuses to travel and I work at a book store. Working retail has its downsides. Holiday work schedules are one.

So it was partly my work schedule that kept us home this year. But it was more than that. I wanted this quiet, fluid, easy holiday. Having it felt essential. By next Christmas, Pat may be living and working in Japan. Mom is gone. We have donated her clothes, gifted her treasures, rearranged the house for my father. Somewhere off in the cosmos, a giant page has turned. The center has shifted. It is the way of the world.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, October 22, 2010

If the Waders Fit...

My husband is an avid fly fisherman. When a much coveted fishing trip to one of his many fishing Shangri-La’s fell victim to the bad economy, I encouraged him to go anyway. He encouraged me to come along. The Shangri-La? Nelson, British Columbia--a small berg in the Kootenay Valley about 3 hours north of Spokane, Washington. Roxanne, a 1987 update of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, was filmed in Nelson. If the story weren’t so delightful and Martin so good in the role, the backdrop of the town might well have upstaged the actors. It is that drop-dead gorgeous. So I agreed to pack my books, laptop and walking shoes. If you can’t enjoy a week in a quaint mountain town on the shores of a pristine lake at the end of summer season with the leaves turning to gold, you’re missing a pulse.

He scheduled three days with a Nelson-based fishing guide, we opened a bottle of wine and watched Roxanne again one night and before I knew it, I’d agreed to fish one day. Fishing has always been his thing and I’ve preferred to keep it that way. I believe in couples having their own space and riffs on life.

I’ve never been particularly patient—especially with myself while trying to learn something new that requires the coordinated use of body parts. My face still burns with the memory of a middle school gym teacher’s fury at my inability to coordinate hands and feet while doing a simple bounce on a trampoline. I have a permanent Ms. Martin planted in my brain when it comes to anything but the simplest sports. I can walk, run, hike, and canoe. That’s it. Fly fishing is the Zen practice of the fishing world—a skill-intensive, passion-required pursuit that takes years of devotion to master.

But I’ve also been feeling a little restless and bored with myself. My kids are off at college, doing well and coming home with less and less frequency. The house seems too big and the effort to maintain it less and less appealing. I feel the clock ticking and I watch my parents and my friends’ parents move gracefully and not so gracefully toward Dickinson’s final “supple Suitor.” I look for the more hardy and happy AARPers around me. What’s their secret? Some of it is luck and good genes, no doubt. But, by in large, they also tend to be resilient folks. They are curious and engaged—open to and in search of new adventures big and small. They are still willing to take risks—to move beyond what is routine and comfortable for the rush of a new experience. The impulse to shake things up a bit lives on.

I have never been a natural or big risk taker. I’ve never travelled alone through Africa or India or China or even Europe for that matter. I don’t climb mountains or scuba dive or spelunk. I don’t like roller coasters or Ferris wheels. The risks I’ve taken in my life have tended to be emotional rather than physical. I quit my graduate program in English and moved to a big city. I asked my now husband out for our first date. I moved and moved again, starting book clubs to find my needed quota of close female friends. I re-entered my disabled sister’s life after decades of family abandonment. I wrote a novel and asked people to read and critique it.

It was a small thing—going fly fishing—hardly registering on the risk-o-meter of life but it made me face some of my small demons—the Ms. Martin in my head. Did I snag my husband in the face with a wild cast? Yes. Did I loose countless fish to the guide’s serenade of “set the hook!” Yup. Did I let the small trout I did catch flip out of my hands before a photo could be snapped? You bet. But I also felt the exhilaration of standing up in the bow of that drift boat as we bounced through the rapids on a crisp, blue-sky day. I watched the dimpled circles of the trout rising as the day’s light danced across the water and faded into the mountains. I felt the slick, cool body of a trout, watched it flex its peached-streaked belly and arc its way back to the water.

And when, having tarried a bit too long, our guide ended the long day navigating the river’s rapids in the dark as the temperature dropped, I suppressed all manner of whine.

So am I now born again in waders? A full-fledge convert to the sport? Not likely but I’ve not set my brand new Orvis chest-highs out by the curb either. A half-day on a Wisconsin trout stream where my husband can keep a safe distance and my book waits on the river bank may be just my kind of Zen.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Garlic Terminator-Style

Let's talk garlic scapes. Our last farm share included a bag of them. Never heard of them? Neither had I. But a scape, according to Webster's New World dictionary is "a leafless flower stalk growing from the crown of the root, as that of the narcissus or dandelion."

My cookbooks were useless. Not a single one had so much as a mention of garlic or any other kind of scape. Google and you get nada.

My farmers recommended pesto. I used the recipe on their website. I served it, like I would any other kind of pesto, as a topping for chicken breast grilled with a tomato slice and Parmesan. The color was wonderful but whooo doggies even with walnuts, lemon, spinach and two cups of Parmesan, this stuff was garlic terminator-style.

Given my no-waste policies, I had to freeze most of it in a mini muffin tray while I figure out non-lethal ways to use it. I mixed a bit of what remained into some lack luster baba ghanouj I made and we've used it cautiously on sandwiches along with our abundance of radishes.

Treated like garlic on steroids--in small doses, mixed with other hearty ingredients--we may make it through the reserves in a year or so.....assuming, of course, next week's share is scape-free.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Chicken Soup

It’s not the usual season for soup but I love homemade chicken soup. When the useless chicken pieces (wings and backs and the bones of boneless breasts) reach critical mass in my freezer and I have an open-ended day and my zodiac signs are all aligned, I make chicken soup.

I feel so virtuous when I make soup. Canned soup is awful and awful for you (ever look at the sodium content?) and the good stuff (Whole Foods) is so pricey, they should offer a lay away option.

Soup making is the epitome of “from-scratch” cooking and in my extended family being a good “from-scratch” cook is a badge of honor. I took to it early and never looked back.

Over the years I’ve cooked in many ways and for a variety of reasons. I’ve cooked elaborately and obsessively, healthfully and frugally, decadently and with financial abandon. And, yes, at times I’ve cooked resentfully. I’ve cooked for family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. I’ve cooked to show off and to nurture, to feel creative and to remain sane. I’ve cooked for charity and, a few times, for pay.

Mostly I’ve cooked to avoid housework. Cooking and child rearing have been my cross–the garlic cloves around my neck warding off the vampire. Housework. Never-ending, soul-sucking, circle of hell. Cook well enough and maybe people won’t notice they’ve worn the last ratty pair of clean underwear, or that giant dust bunnies are now terrorizing the cats. What’s a mountain range of toothpaste in the sink or an afghan worth of cat hair on the couch when the smell of chicken and artichokes with morels and crème fraîche is in the air? Dirty windows? Nasty floors? Nothing a little crème brûlée or double-decker raspberry white chocolate cheesecake won’t make you forget. It has worked for years.

But this year, my kids are MIA even for the summer. Kid duty, sporadic at best for years, is now a wholly unconvincing excuse. Elaborate dinner parties are dying too. College tuition for two and the fact that the compensation for my day job is more like an honorarium than a real salary, means it helps to be frugal in the kitchen. So healthy, frugal cooking is my new housework avoidance strategy.

And that brings me back to chicken soup. Chicken wings used to be dirt cheap but apparently because we Americans so love our deep-fried, sauce-soaked, blue-cheese dipped wings, they’re now more expensive than other more edible chicken parts and often in short supply. Go figure. Whole chicken or cut-up chickens come with two wings, however. You can’t skin a chicken wing so I find them grotesquely fatty and inedible. I cook the real chicken and freeze the wings until a day I have to do some heavy avoidance. I freeze dying bananas for the same reason. Yes, when you thaw them they look like alien slime, but close your eyes and use them anyway. Trust me, nothing makes better banana bread. More on that later.

1) So the chicken wings go in a big pot with chunks of onion, celery, carrots and water to cover. Most chicken soup stinks because people skimp on the chicken so I make sure to add some meaty chicken parts to the wings. Chicken leg quarters are usually very cheap. Then I add seasonings and herbs to taste. Use what you have. I like parsley, salt, peppercorns, whole cloves (3 or so), and thyme–fresh if I have it.

2) I bring the chicken to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 2 hrs. Next, I fish the chicken out of the broth and after it is cool enough to handle, I pull the meat from the bones and set it aside.

3) Keep the “dregs”(the bones, skin etc.) and put it back in the pot and simmer for another 1-2 hrs. I know “serious” cooks will be screaming because I’m pretty sure this makes your stock cloudy rather than clear. I don’t care. I just want intense flavor without having to use canned chicken stock with or instead of the water as many cookbooks recommend. The whole point is to not spend money on canned chicken stock!

I also do not bother straining the stock in any serious way. I just fish out the solids with a slotted spoon and then put the stock in the fridge to let the fat rise to the surface for removal (or not). I will say those wings can produce an amazing amount of fat so while I am sometimes too impatient or pressed for time to let the stock sit in the fridge the requisite number of hours, I really try to do it for health’s sake. It will taste delicious either way and, if we’re honest here, probably even a little better with the extra fat. So skim or don’t skim or miss a little when you’s all good.

4) Once I have skimmed or not skimmed the stock, I re-heat it while I cut up more veggies. The ones you’ve cooked with the stock are now mush and should be discarded. I add cut up celery and carrots to the simmering stock and cook until just tender. I like to add frozen peas at this point for a splash of color. Pre-cook some wide noodles. I use the whole wheat ones because they are a little healthier. Don’t cook them too much or they’ll turn to mush.

5) Now I add the chicken I’ve set aside plus whatever leftover cooked chicken I may have in the fridge or freezer and adjust the seasoning. I often add a little more thyme (my favorite herb and absolutely made for chicken) and a little more salt.

6) Eat this for days or freeze in small containers. Yes, the noodles will mush some upon thawing and reheating but it’s homemade soup for God’s sake.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Little Commitments

Finally joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. Can I live in Madison, call myself a cook and not participate? Pishahhhh! Picked up my first share--a head of butter lettuce, baby mixed greens, spinach, potatoes (from last season), chives, radishes, salad turnips and rhubarb.

My pledge is to cook around my produce and use it all--down to the last green--every time. A no-brainer for many more enlightened Madisonians, I'm sure. Call me slow. I can deal with it. I have a grocery store addiction. I admit it. I love to go, list in hand, and load up my cart. When my children were babes and I left them home with their Dad, I'd cover every inch of the store slowly, luxuriously. Aisle by aisle, humming along to the Muzak, I'd read an entire label uninterrupted. Even before--in graduate school when money was non-existent--the grocery store was my temple. Purchasing a new spice meant celebration. How else do you attempt to make chicken liver (about all I could afford in the meat/poultry department) eatable? Experiment after experiment failed, however. Had I had a cat at the time, it would have been obese.

Anyway, as a CSA newbie, I vow to eat the most perishable produce first and to read and follow instructions meticulously.

Very perishable baby greens? Part of our first CSA supper. Leftovers stored with a dry paper towel in a plastic bag.

Spinach refrigerated as is in original plastic bag.

Butter lettuce bagged in plastic and refrigerated.

Radishes and turnips? Separated from their greens and stored separately. Didn't know radish greens were eatable. Sauteed them with turnip greens in a little olive oil with pine nuts and a splash of red wine vinegar and fresh ground pepper. Not bad.

Never had salad turnips, either. Ate those too with the baby greens with a mustard vinaigrette made with the chives. The chive blossoms went in a vase on the table as suggested.

The potatoes were easy--wedged and roasted with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning. I don't usually store my potatoes in the fridge; however, I will from now on per my farmers' instructions.

Radishes. Not all that fond of radishes but I've been eating a lot of them--in salads, sandwiches, and yes, even stir-fried with other veggies.

The Rhubarb challenge is to use it in a way that doesn't instantly add 2 inches to each thigh and a third cheek to my backside. I'm thinking muffins or chutney.

I live a small, personal life--nothing large or influential about it. I find contentment in little commitments. So for right now it is healthy, tasty, local produce; less food waste; and support for "my" local farmers. Such a sacrifice....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Of Life and Lutefisk

Life is complicated right now so something from the archives...

Pickled herring, meatballs, fruit soup, lefsa, rommegrot, lingonberries, lutefisk. A traditional Scandinavian Christmas Eve seemed like a good idea when my sister, fresh from a trip to Norway, first suggested it. Our parents are closing in on eighty. Dad is beginning to lose words like fish off a line, describing objects so he won’t have to name them. He loves lutefisk.

My sister pulls the package wrapped in white butcher paper from the fridge. It is suspiciously heavy. Dad has doubled the order. I was a child the last time lutefisk and I crossed paths. I roll the four pound slab of fish off the paper and into the pan. My sister and I stare at it. I give it a poke. It looks ordinary enough–like fish. Perhaps my memory has distorted–exaggerated–the lutefisk experience. I’m an adult now with an adventurous, sophisticated palate.

Mom begins mixing the roux for the cream sauce. “The Lutheran Church served so many lutefisk dinners,” she says, “they ran out of cream sauce halfway through. You can serve it with melted butter but it’s just not the same....” My folks scan the newspapers for lutefisk suppers like other people look for garage sales. Come November, they’ve got their lutefisk supper circuit mapped out.

“It’s just fish,” my Illinois-born, non-Scandinavian husband says. “How bad can it be?” My sister and I exchange looks as the house fills with the unmistakable eau-de-fish smell that will linger long after the Christmas tree is back in the attic and my parents have left to winter in Florida. What have we done? The grandkids–25, 23, 20 and 17--are all game and close enough to the age of lutefisk consent. We’ve protected them up to this point.

We open the oven, turn our faces aside, hold our breath. The smell makes our eyes water. We stare at the pan. It’s happened. The ordinary-enough fish we put into the oven has transformed into exactly what I remember–a slimy, viscous pile of gelatinous fish goo.

We sit down at the table. My normally reserved father, nearly bursting into song, has heaped his plate full. “I can’t believe you’ve never had lutefisk,” he says. My mother ladles on the cream sauce.

I look across the table at my daughter, the youngest, who has paled. Eager to prove his grit and his mother’s “wussiness,” my son slaps an ample spoonful on his plate, jams a fork full into his mouth. His eyes widen, he stops chewing, stops breathing. I try to hand him his water glass. He shakes his head–afraid, no doubt, to open his mouth.

The dread in the room is palpable. My husband shifts in his seat. One niece, regressing to a childhood state, pushes her “fish” around her plate with her fork realizing too late that it leaves a slime trail wherever it goes. My daughter, napkin to her mouth, bolts from the table. My sister has managed to swallow her bite and is filling her wine glass to the rim. Dad piles his plate with seconds.

I decide the only way to deal with the tablespoon I’ve put on my plate is in one bite--the swallow-it-whole, no-chew-technique. I close my eyes, push the fork as far back into my mouth as possible and swallow. The cream sauce has congealed by now and is no help at all. My throat constricts, my eyes water. I struggle to swallow.

Is that humming? I look at my dad. Bliss radiates from his face. Somehow this vile goo sliding down my throat has become a great gift. In this moment, the world is a simple place again where memory doesn’t betray and synapses don’t fail. He is young and vibrant–a son at his own parent’s table, a husband with a blue-eyed beauty of a wife and two rosy-cheeked girls. He raises his fork, beams at us all. “Now how can you not like lutefisk?”

For those whose family tree is Scandinavian-free, Lutefisk or Lyefish is, according to, "A traditional Scandinavian dish prepared by soaking air-dried cod in a lye solution for several weeks before skinning, boning, and boiling it, a process that gives the dish its characteristic gelatinous consistency." Gee, if only I'd taken a picture.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Back to the first visit....

After finally arriving at my sister's group home in rural Minnesota after more than a decade's absence:

Joy looks much as I remember her. Brown hair cut short. Pale skin. Square face with prominent jaw and brow. She is sitting in a wheel chair with a large tray table. Her arms and legs are thin and her feet are so tiny you’d think they’d been bound. I avoid her eyes for a while because it is her eyes that hurt. They are deep-set and astonishingly blue–my mother’s eyes and more.

My mother was drop-dead gorgeous as a young woman and for many decades after most women settle in to being merely attractive “for their age,” she was a knock-out. A mother turned runway model for a brief time. She loved being beautiful and prized physical beauty in others. Joy was a beautiful baby. The only one of us born with dark, curly hair. She had flawless skin and she had those eyes.

I try to make eye contact. She seems to look past and through me. What does she see and how much of what she sees does her brain register and process? Impossible to know. One caretaker tells me stories about her mischief–how she likes to pinch and occasionally laughs when she catches the caretaker off-guard.

I honestly don’t remember too much more of that first visit. I remember the La-Z-Boy recliners in the living room, the aquarium of tropical fish, a cat and a gazebo out back. I remember Joy’s bedroom with its white gilded furniture and lavender walls. I remember that Joy startled easily when I touched her shoulder without speaking first. I remember thinking I may as well have been a stranger. Joy was my sister but I knew nothing. I remember speaking softly to her and caressing her hair. It was all I could think to do.

And the staff? They put the coffee on, offered me a cup and gave me my sister’s file to peruse. They were happy I had come and, as far as I could tell, resolutely non-judgmental about my decades of absence. The sad truth is that few people in their care have even yearly visitors. Still, I am horrified to learn that my parents had neglected to send forwarding addresses when they moved. Every contact number in Joy’s file was outdated. Nothing but dead ends. My name or that of my older sister? Nowhere to be found.

This, at least, was something I could do. I could be the one at the other end of the line

Joy Mackey, Age ??


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Aside

I’m cleaning out the kids' bathroom–going through the drawers throwing out the endless half bottles of face scrub, deodorant, hand lotion. Weeding through the mountain of hair clips, scrunchies and lipstick samples. Tossing the long forgotten hair dye and glue. It’s been snowing for several days running. Winter is wearing on my spirits. I picked this job this morning because purging stuff usually feels like an accomplishment and because, with the kids both off at their respective colleges, the room, once clean, will stay clean.

But suddenly, sitting on the bathroom floor surrounded by an ocean of loose throat lozenges, bobby pins, disposable razors and toothpaste tube ends, my chest grows tight. I don’t want to feel it but I do. Loss. Nothing still here made the cut. It’s derelict--irrelevant to my kids' current lives. Soon this bathroom will be generic–a guest bathroom without personality, without their faces in the mirror.

Just yesterday I was discussing Anna’s plans to get a VISTA Summer Reading internship and an apartment with friends in Minneapolis for the summer. A good plan. She was miserable at home last summer. Pat’s apartment lease runs through August. He’ll stay in Minnesota, as well, working and taking classes. It is time and it is all good and yet....

I know what I’m losing but not what is ahead.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who's the One Who's Lost?

I recently finished reading The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins, a Victorian Era sensation novel (similar to a Gothic novel but without the supernatural elements). The novel was first published in serial form by Charles Dickens in his weekly publication called All the Year Round. In her introduction to my copy of the novel, Camille Cauti, says:

Collins sets his sensational plots in what he called the “secret theater of home,”
a breeding ground for “realistic,” behind-the-doors stories he rendered as
thrilling as the extraordinarily weird Gothic domestic sphere.

I’m no Wilkie Collins but my story is certainly a behind-the-door story from the “secret theater of the home.” I like the idea of a story told serially. Here’s my first entry.

It was June 2002. I was 47 years old and I hadn’t seen my sister Joy in over 15 years. The staff at the group home had given
me directions but since then road crews had taken down signs and added detours. Our map was not detailed enough to show small dirt roads miles off the nearest county highway. How would I ever find her? I’d come all this way–350 physical miles and immeasurable emotional miles to get here only to be lost again. My body was tight as a hunting cat’s but my mind was floating–seeing stars and shutting down.

I’d lost her once already on this journey. A month before, I had called the former Cambridge State Hospital ( now Minnes
ota Extended Treatment Options or METO) to ask for the phone number of Joy’s group home. I called the number I was given. Disconnected. I called METO back and while being bounced from person to person, I filled the moments on hold with the drumbeat thoughts of “lost in the system” and “fallen through the cracks.” I had waited too long and now I couldn’t even find her. She was at the mercy of the system....had been at the mercy of the system her entire life. And where had I been?

I may have lost her but the system had not. I was eventually given a working phone number and now, here I was on my way to see her. Somehow through backtracking and the process of elimination, we found our way. The gravel popped as we pulled into the drive and parked next to two other vehicles. Did my husband reach for my hand? I don’t really remember but I can say with assurance that his presence at that moment was one of the truest gifts he has ever given me.

The house was a simple ranch-style home indistinguishable, except for the wheelchair ramp, from the smattering of other houses we’d passed. Still, as innocuous as the house looked, I wanted to do anything but get out of the car and climb those steps. What if it was horrible inside? What if all these years of familial denial and absence had meant neglect and abuse for her? Every alarm system my body had was wailing. I felt light-headed, sick to my stomach, hot and cold. But at this stage in my life there was finally no going back. She was my sister. My relationship with her was my own. I was going to see for myself, judge for myself, speak for myself and let the chips fall where they may.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Confession: I’m looking for a silver bullet. This is it. This blog will solve all....well, maybe three of my problems:

I’m a writer who is not writing. Blah, blah, blah. Enough said.

Cyberwriting terrifies me.
It is much easier to write for an audience of two cats, and three forever writing friends than to send words off into cyberspace not knowing where they will land and whether the territory will be hostile or friendly and especially whether the writing is good or stinky. Writing or not writing (why bother?) and whining about not publishing is much easier than being published instantly and accepting my fate. My cats can type but they have their own language (slf^eXkHek!!snf@mw*ejk). If they’ve mastered the internet, they’re not letting on. I live in a small, tight-knit, highly professional neighborhood. Writing something embarrassingly bad ....At least my children are both off at college.

I have a story to tell.
I’ve been trying to tell this story ever since I could lift my cue-ball head up from my bear-skin rug and think “Oh, My God...” The fifties was a time of frustrated babies--before there were entire sections in bookstores dedicated to teaching babies to sign–but I’m not bitter. Anyway, first the story was an oral history (10 nearly inaudible cassette tapes in a manila envelop). Then it was non-fiction (pages of transcribed random interviews from said tapes), then memoir (no comment), then fiction ( 250 pages in my desk drawer), then memoir again (I said, no comment).

FAIR WARNING: This whole facebook/blog thing seems a little like an upscale cocktail party where the masterful circulate making pithy comments, never spill their drink and always know exactly when to move on. I’m not good at cocktail parties. I tend to find a conversation and hang on for dear life. Perhaps I’ve cornered you at a recent party. In any case, my story, while compelling, is not an easy one. I’ll do my best to be a better party guest and tell it in bits and snatches with time for snacks, another cocktail, and graceful exits.

That’s it. I’m done.