Putting the “I” Back into Cook-I-ng

I spent years trying to please others through the act of cooking. As a young newlywed, I collected recipes that I wanted to try out on my husband and promptly struck out. If it didn’t look like something that his mother or grandmother often made, then he wouldn’t even taste it. For example, only “fried chicken” was acceptable, he said, and my attempt at that dish was met with disdain. Come to find out, his mother’s secret for “fried chicken” was really “Shake-n-Bake”! I gave up before I even got started. Over the years, I found quick and inexpensive foods that my daughters would eat. End of story (and marriage).

My second husband was a self-taught gourmet cook. No, I’m not just saying this in case he still reads my blog. He really is that accomplished and taught me a lot about cooking methods and ingredients. We took turns cooking, and I have to admit, that as my skills grew, I began to feel a bit competitive. My dishes started to turn out wonderfully and earned well-deserved praise. When my efforts didn’t work out, there were no polite or pretend compliments from him, either.

Cooking never came naturally to me, however, and I almost always relied on cook books and carefully measured ingredients. If a recipe was successful, I made a note of it on the inside of the book for future reference. Sometimes the pressure of producing acceptable meals was a negative force. Things went downhill when I started having digestive problems and had to give up many of our favorite foods and most wine. I won’t pretend these restrictions caused the end of our marriage, but they certainly did alter the daily dynamic of an already strained relationship.

I currently find myself “cooking for one,” a phrase that I’ve never really liked. I don’t even much care for recipes that say, “Cooking for Two,” as if someone is missing and this is all you have left. I occasionally prepare a meal for others, but more often than not, there’s one plate on my faux-Victorian dining table.

I made the early decision NOT to fall into the trap of watching television while eating. Sometimes I listen to my music, or enjoy tunes that emanate from a local activity in the Square, like the one going on as I write this piece. Other times, I read from a novel or non-fiction of recent interest, such as Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. Weak indirect lighting over my table was an issue for reading. To fix that problem, I recently splurged on an attractive, industrial-style table lamp with a high-powered bulb, in an old-fashioned tone of light green.

Another big change is WHAT I make for dinner.  First of all, I’ve cut way back on meat and more often turn to other forms of protein…eggs, tofu, beans, and occasional seafood. Sometimes just a large salad appeals to me, and I jazz it up with some of my favorites, like olives, capers, and fresh veggies lightly cooked. My go-to cheeses are feta and goat, since they seem easier for me to digest. Olive oil ALWAYS for cooking and salads! I rarely buy according to a recipe, now, but purchase ingredients that look good to me and then just decide what to do with them, later.

I’m starting to have fun with this and don’t think I’ll go back to eating by candlelight any time soon. Following is one of my recent culinary creations:

Egg-cellent Baked Mushrooms

One or two extra-large portabella/portobello mushrooms, stems removed, cap side up in baking pan

One egg for each, cracked open into the mushroom cap

Your choice of fresh or dried herbs to taste

Light sprinkling of cheese, if desired

Bake at 350˚-400˚ until egg is set to your liking and mushroom is sufficiently tender (about 20 minutes minimum).         

 

A Beginning, or the End?

train tracks vintage

For this child of Michigan, Labor Day formed a bridge from the freedom and contentment of sunlit vacation days to the anticipation and trepidation of a new classroom. The year I stood poised between childhood and adolescence stands out in memory.

A small group of neighborhood friends met outdoors after supper that warm September evening. We wandered the area, dissecting shared summer memories, and exploring our individual hopes for the upcoming weeks. The drama and self-reflection of several older girls in the pack were surely lost on the others my age, as they were on me. Strolling along the well-known back streets, we dared to cross the short train trestle with thumping hearts. Was that an approaching whistle in the distance?

Humid air began to cool, and a chill descended. Everything about that little town, and our protected space within it, offered a sense of safety and familiarity. Yet the impending months loomed ripe with uncertainty. Without voicing the decision, we turned toward home before parents’ voices called into the gathering dusk. An indefinable sadness wrapped around me when we parted ways, so full of certainty that my life would never again be the same.

 

 

Breathing New Life into the Memory of a Recipe

 

Most of us who enjoy cooking have our favorite go-to formulas that are permanently tattooed on our brains. If you’re like me, you also keep in mind those great dishes you haven’t made in a while, knowing where to find the directions with a flick of your magic wand. Until…something goes awry. Your hard drive crashes, and all your bookmarks have vanished. You experience a fit of housecleaning frenzy, or move, unintentionally throwing out important folders. Maybe you lose half of your beloved cookbooks in a divorce settlement. Whatever. It’s a sad state of affairs, when you reach for the recipe for that squid stew you’ve been craving, and it’s totally beyond your grasp.
I recently pointed out to my younger daughter that deep-fried calamari, or squid, isn’t the only, or necessarily best, way to enjoy that particular delicacy of the deep. Now, where was that recipe that I’d made and enjoyed in the past? Nowhere to be found in my new Texas dwelling, over a thousand miles from where I had cooked it last. What to do? After fruitlessly leafing through my remaining cookbooks and anemic folder of saved recipes, I made a list of the ingredients that I believed the stew contained. Certain about the potatoes, clam juice, and squid, they found their way into my shopping cart the next time I visited the market. I then turned to the trusty internet with the help of my new computer. Surely I could find something that sounded similar. Not really.
None of the stew or soup offerings seemed even close. I did find directions for something called “squid with potatoes” that helped me along. This jogged my memory, reminding me that white wine played a part in the initial version. Along with additional water, I decided to add vegetable bouillon cubes that I already had, for the stock. Garlic and onions from that list of ingredients also made sense. I wasn’t sure about the basil, though. As I sniffed at the container plucked from my spice shelf, it seemed a little too sweet for what I had in mind. The clam juice bottle actually gave me an idea for the seasoning, since it suggested thyme for use in clam chowder. One whiff of that herb told me it was a “go”. Many of the online recipes involving squid also called for tomatoes. Unsure whether I’d used them in the earlier form, and knowing that I’ve pretty much given those up due to the acid, I decided to incorporate a few carrots for extra fiber and color, instead.
The end result was a comforting combination of old and new, and I believe that I like it better than the original! My daughter also enjoyed it, and one of my granddaughters even tried several bites, which is certainly a testament to its appeal. No more worries from me, about absent directions for meals from the past. Sometimes the new way of doing things is even better than the old.

Finding Love in Unimaginable Places

Remember that heart-wrenching sensation when a beloved grandparent died, or that excruciating pain, like a vise around the head, after a parent succumbed to a long illness? We’ve all lost someone important. Time moves on. The sharp sting of that separation surprisingly begins to ease. Unfortunately, some of the good memories may disappear along with the pain. Mementos, such as pictures, or favored objects, like books, furniture, and even recipes, may help to hold a dear one’s essence close. I’ve recently discovered another unexpected avenue.

I’m currently working on a revision of my picture book, “Rhus Juice”. The tale is based on a true story my dad shared with me from his own childhood. It tells of a hot Michigan summer and a little boy’s fears that the lemon-flavored drink his father plans to make with sumac might be poisonous! When I began composing this some years back, I looked through pictures from that time, referred to a list of names and dates in an old family Bible, and even listened to a recording of Dad recounting the events.

“Life” got in the way, work and other writing took precedence, and “Rhus Juice” was set aside. I love the story, though, and it recently pulled me back. Now looking at the book with fresh eyes, the lives portrayed seem much clearer than before. Through it, I revisit my hometown of Tawas City, Michigan, and ride my blue Schwinn on bumpy sidewalks once again. Peeking into my dad’s childhood home, Grandpa’s voice booms and Grandma’s sweet smile lights up the room.

How wonderful, to see Dad’s ten-year-old grin and to anticipate his thoughts. The act of writing has done this for me. The love flows from all of them, bringing me closer than I’ve been in years!

*****

Memorial Day through the Lens of a Small Town Girl

 

From childhood, I remember when adults still called it “Decoration Day” and how I loved the festive parade in my hometown, longing to be brave and join in with my own blue bicycle. I recollect feeling delighted with the day off from the classroom, wondering which members of the high school marching band would faint in the heat and sensing a chill when the lone trumpet played taps.

As a teen, I recall that holiday spent at the lake and how I suffered the sharp sting of summer’s first sunburn, worrying with the knowledge that a pal was leaving soon, to be stationed in Vietnam. I remember the shock, hearing a friend of my family later died in that place and believing we were lucky that many showed enough bravery to serve.

 

Winter Gardening for the Soul and Writing Inspiration

flowers and computer

Very few of us are lucky enough to live in a climate sufficiently mild on a consistent basis to grow flowers and tender plants outside year ‘round. Even here in Texas, where I’m visiting my daughters and their families for the holidays, blooms are quite limited. The constantly rising and falling temperatures are certainly a challenge to gardening. I’ve already watched my daughter and son-in-law drag their potted plants into and back out of the garage, where they gained added protection from the frost. Tonight’s plummeting predictions probably point to a repeat performance, as well!

What’s an avid “grow-seeker” to do, to get that gardening fix during the long winter months? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Buy a new and unusual flowering houseplant
  • Invest in grow-light shelves for plants needing more light than your windows offer
  • Force bulbs for spring blossoms all winter long
  • Grow something edible, like sprouts, leaf lettuce, or herbs, in a sunny window or under your grow light
  • Explore the fun of tending a dish garden
  • Check out some gardening books from the library and plan a new garden area for next spring
  • Buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers and meet the challenge of seeing how long you can keep them fresh

I imagine that many fellow writers out there also use growing things, indoors and out, as inspiration in their writing. If the view out your window right now is sadly lacking (I’m lucky to be looking at a blooming rosebush, but the rest is quite bleak), it’s up to you to remedy that situation.

Just the act of writing about this today reminds me that I need to “keep growing”. Besides that, I surprisingly came up with a fun idea for a kids’ book as this piece evolved. I’m keeping that topic a secret for now, but you’ll probably find out more in future posts.

 

Uprooted and Transplanted: ‘Moving’ and ‘Starting Over’ as Themes in Writing

roots by lake superior

I’m moving to a different city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in a few weeks, so that’s uppermost in my mind these days. All the endless details, half-filled boxes, scratched-out lists, and memories of these past years that grab me when least expected, bringing tears to my eyes. I’m sure that most of you have been there in one form or another. At this point, what better topic for my blog post?

I’ve always enjoyed books where the main character moves to a new home in an unfamiliar town. In the new spot, there’s the painting, organizing, exploring, and then… Stories with this theme seem to fit into about three categories, I’ve noticed. First, you have the ones where everything starts out hunky-dory, and then things start to go downhill quickly. Author Ira Levin was a master with this type, as exemplified in both Rosemary’s Baby and Stepford Wives. The protagonists’ new homes were great until they got involved with the suspicious and creepy neighbors. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, could also fit into this group, since the move made by the main characters from New York to Missouri was certainly a catalyst, fracturing an already fragile relationship.

Another plot line related to moving would be where it’s touch and go for a while, but eventually the lives of the characters you love turn out better than anyone could ever expect in their wildest imaginations. Think Safe Haven, by Nicholas Sparks. Girl runs away from abusive husband and hides out in idyllic location near the ocean. She meets handsome new love interest with adorable kids and, of course, things begin to go awry as her past threatens to catch up with her. After a breath-taking couple of twists in the plot, well, I won’t go into detail in case you still wanted to read this one.

The third group seems to be the most realistic, where the main character relocates for an often heart-rending reason and works toward building life anew. The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg fits neatly into this groove, with the main character experiencing the entire gamut of grief, introspection, doubts, small delights, and eventual self-actualization.

As I tape up my last box and throw away the final list, I’ll certainly be hoping that Ira Levin won’t be orchestrating my personal story from the great beyond, since I don’t think that I’d make a very good Satanist or robot. I picture myself more an Elizabeth Berg sort of an individual. Once transplanted in my new home, I’ll have to really get on the stick with my writing if I’m ever going to get a whiff of that self-actualization stuff. Knowing that I can use my new experiences and emotions as an impetus in my work is certainly a draw, and I can hardly wait to get back to it.