Summer School

People are usually surprised when I tell them how much Mom and I argued when I was younger.  But the things you write about her!, they’ll say.  I assumed the two of you were best friends.

I’ve obviously failed to tell you the whole story.

Looking back, I see that we were too much alike in all the wrong ways; headstrong and independent, we each had very specific ideas about how the world should work.  We thought we knew more than the other about practically everything.  Our most fatal shared flaw was the compulsion to have the last word in any disagreement.

Once, as a teenager, I huffed away to my room during an argument.  That didn’t keep us from lobbing verbal grenades from across the house, attempting argumentative checkmate.

I stuck my head out of my bedroom door and yelled something particularly nasty, and then slammed the door as hard as I could.  That’ll show her, I thought.  I mistook the silence that followed as victory.

About ten minutes later, I heard a knock at the door.  It was Dad, with tools in his hand.

I flung my wise-ass self on the bed, covering my eyes with the crook of an elbow while he worked.  When he finished, I peeked out from under my arm and saw that my door had been removed from its hinges and carried away.

When do I get it back?, I asked him.

I don’t know, he replied, with his I-just-work-here tone that was so typical of these situations.  Then he sucked his teeth and shook his head, as if to say, Gurrrrl, you took it one step too far.   You women are driving me crazy.

Mom would grow to love telling that story, framing it as her parenting pièce de résistance.  But the truth is, she was pretty much a pushover.  I talked my way out of countless punishments, and being grounded in that house was almost laughable.  Consistency just wasn’t her thing.

By the time I was fifteen, I had a firmly established and well-communicated you-guys-are-great-but-I’m-outta-here-as-soon-as-I-finish-high-school attitude.  Mom had her doubts, but was supportive in a I-love-your-face-but-I-can’t-wait-to-have-my-sanity-back kind of way.  Dad, for his part, shook his head and sucked his teeth and generally stayed out of it.

My plan, if you could call it that, was to go away to college and see what life was like beyond our small rural town.  I would visit often, but I swore I would never live there again – I wanted to see the world.

You’ll miss it, Mom would tell me.  You’ll grow up and have kids of your own and realize what a great little place this is.

And you know what?  She was right, in a way.  I moved out before my eighteenth birthday, the first in my family to go to college.  I had a heckuva good time getting educated and broadening my horizons.  But now that I’m older, wiser, and – perhaps most importantly – removed from the place, I see the charm and appeal that was lost on the childhood version of me.

 

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It was early summer, mid-morning.  Dad and I were in his pickup truck, running errands around our tiny town.  Dad had his window down, with an elbow propped just so, to let the passing air blow through his shirt and keep him cool.  I preferred slouching way down in the seat and leaning my head just close enough to my window to allow the right amount of wind in my hair.

Some days we told stories and jokes.  On this particular day, we were quiet.

He took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated, away from town but not in the direction of our house.  I slowly turned my head his direction, silently asking, What’s up?

Let’s make another stop, he said aloud.

He drove about a mile out of town to Mr. Fief’s place.  No one was home, but Dad coasted into the driveway and parked anyway.  He got out and I followed, each of us slamming our respective truck doors, which were heavy in those days.

He held open the gate to the backyard as I passed through, and smiled wryly at my ignorance of what we were up to.  We weren’t the type to let ourselves into people’s backyards.

I immediately stumbled upon a sizable garden, with vegetables planted in neat rows.  Dad strode over like he owned the place, squatted down, and gently moved a few broad leaves with the back of his hand.  He stood up, fished his pocketknife out of his baggy jeans, and stooped back down.  When he rose again, his hands were full of bright yellow squash and zucchini flecked with green, three each.

Here, he said, and placed them in my arms.  Now we were both smiling.

He re-folded his pocketknife and tucked it away.  Then he reached into his other pocket and withdrew some bills and folded them, doubling them twice.

He stuffed the money into a coffee can on Mr. Fief’s patio, which bore a handwritten sign that read: Weeds are Free.

We walked back to the truck, closing the gate behind us as we left.

Back on the road, I asked: So, Mr. Fief has more vegetables that he can eat?

Yep.

He just likes growing them that much?

Yep.

And they taste better than the ones at the store, right?

He looked at me.  The ones at the store don’t taste at all.

That’s how daddies in the country teach their big little girls about vegetables, and flavor, and community.

It’s the kind of experience you don’t get in a big city, and an education no university offers.

 

 Dad always cooked squash in a skillet with onions, browning them first and then finishing them with the lid on to steam them.  The problem is that he liked his vegetables the way he liked his beans: well done.  In fact, having been brought up that way, I only recently (as in, last week) figured out how to not overcook squash.  It’s been a revelation!

 

Pan Roasted Summer Squash

 

Olive oil

1 large yellow onion, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

Fresh thyme

1 ½ pounds summer squash, any variety, sliced into 3/4-inch rounds

Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)

 

Heat one tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat.  When the oil swirls easily in the pan, add the sliced onion and 4-5 sprigs of thyme.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring, until well browned, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until very soft and sweet, at least ten minutes.  Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.

Heat another tablespoon of olive oil in the same skillet, over medium high heat. When the oil swirls easily in the pan, add the sliced squash in one even layer, cut side down, cooking in batches if the squash doesn’t all fit.  Add another 4-5 sprigs of thyme and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook until browned on one side, about three or four minutes, then turn to brown the other side.  By the time both sides are brown, the squash is likely cooked through – check by piercing with a fork or toothpick.  When all the squash is cooked, return the onions and any previous batches of squash to the pan and remove the woody sprigs of thyme that remain (hopefully most of the leaves have dropped off during cooking).

Serve immediately on its own, or atop rice or pasta with a few shavings of Parmesan cheese.

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A Letter

Dear Mom,

It’s my third Mother’s Day without you, and I can’t say that it’s gotten any easier. If anything, it’s more difficult.

I’m starting to realize that I will never “get over” you.  That I’ll never not miss you.

At one point during your funeral, I found myself surrounded by several women, all ten to twenty years older than me. They said just the right, most comforting things, Mom – and then I understood: they were all daughters who had lost their mothers.  I was being inducted into a sad sorority that I didn’t know existed, but I was grateful to have.

They told me that unexpected things would trigger my grief (like the time I burst into tears while reading an article about the national debt).  They told me how much growing up I would do in the months right after you were gone.  They told me that a day wouldn’t go by that I wouldn’t think of you, and it would be that way for the rest of my life.

At the time, I doubted that was possible; now I know it’s true.  You’ve left a hole in my heart, and it will be there when I die.

I know how odd this sounds, but I’m getting comfortable with the pain.  It’s become like an old friend — it doesn’t hurt any less, but I’m no longer surprised when it shows up at my door.  It’s strangely consistent, and as such, it’s strangely comforting.

Like everyone else, I continue to grow and change.  Each day, I’m older and wiser than the day before, and the longer it’s been since I’ve seen you, the more I have to tell you about what I’ve learned, the more we need to “catch up.”  But not only are we never going to catch up, I have a lifetime left to live without you, and we are never going to share any of it.  It’s a peculiar brand of loneliness.

Motherhood still doesn’t come easily to me, Mom.  I’m not half bad at it, but I’m certainly not a natural.  I work at it every day.

The Boy, for his part, is a marvel.  He’s curious and bright and outgoing, but headstrong and impish.  He’s a heckuva negotiator.  He constantly seeks laughter; it doesn’t take much to induce peals of giggling.  Occasionally he’ll say, “I love you, Mom,” unbidden — trying to sound like a big boy — and it melts my heart.  I know for a fact that you two would be close friends and natural allies, and that melts my heart, too.

Like me, he’s fiercely independent, and for all I put you through, I deserve the challenge of raising such a child.  I wish I could ask you how to survive raising a strong-willed little person: how to not only keep from snuffing out his independent streak, but parlay it into leadership and character.  (And perhaps most importantly, how to not wind up on blood pressure medication in the process.)

His eyes are exact replicas of mine, which I’m still not quite used to. When I bend down to explain why it’s important to tell the truth, or why he’s not allowed to play with knives, I find myself getting lost, forgetting my message, because it’s just so surreal to see my own eyes staring back at me.  Moments like these shake me out of my daily haze and realize that wait: I have son, we are a family, I have passed my genes along to another generation.  He is a whole person, the hero of his own story.  I find this stunning.

If I really believe that I what I believe is really real, then you are with me in spirit.  If it’s all true, then you and Daddy are together.  Maybe you were even there with him that day, when he realized what was coming, but before he fell – those few minutes or seconds probably felt like an eternity, when he was alone and probably afraid.

If what I believe is really real, then I have a chance at seeing you again someday — if I fight the good fight, if I finish the race.  If we meet in heaven, will we embrace and finally “catch up”?  Or will we be so awestruck by God’s presence, so overwhelmed by the beauty of the place, that we won’t have the inclination to do anything but worship?  I like to think that if heaven is really paradise, then we can do both – a kind of cosmic multi-tasking.

The truth is, Mom, that I have my doubts some days.  Most of us do, I suppose.  You were my spiritual mentor, the one I would talk to about all this, and I miss that, too.  If you were here, you would tell me that I have been given all the answers, and I only need to pray and search my heart to make the fear and doubt fade quietly away.  And you’d be right.

Writing this has made me realize that you haven’t actually left a hole in my heart – I was born with it.  We’re all born with holes in our hearts, designed to receive a mother’s love.  And I see now how lucky I am to have had my particular heart filled by you, specifically.  The hole in my heart is still full, still bursting with your love, because as my friend Joy once wrote to me, true love is truly good, and what is truly good never dies.

You are always with me; I just wish that I knew how to always feel it.

I will keep trying.  I will keep learning.

Pray for me.

I love you.

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If Mom were here today, I would have made this Chocolate Caramel Slice recipe to celebrate Mother’s Day.

I think she would have liked this particular combination of sweet and salty. She would certainly have appreciated the recipe itself — how it’s easier than it looks, how pretty the final result is, how it can be made far in advance of an event.

I would have wanted to gab with her about the British-ness of it all: the Lyle’s golden syrup, the Maldon salt, the fact that it’s called a “slice.”  This would have led to reminiscing about our trip to London, before she was sick.  Maybe we would have vowed to return there, after she’d beaten the cancer, to sample more British desserts in the name of “research.”

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

 

Chocolate Caramel Slice
Adapted Slightly from Bon Appetit Desserts, copyright 2010

Crust
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon ice water
1 large egg yolk

Caramel Topping
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons golden syrup (such as Lyle’s), or dark corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate Glaze
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
Flaked sea salt (such as Maldon)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter a tart pan with a removable bottom (either a 12 x 8 1/4 x 1, or an 11-inch round).

Crust:
In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar, cornstarch, and salt to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the ice water and the egg yolk, then blend until moist clumps form. Pat the dough into the bottom of the pan (not the sides), forming an even layer. Prick the dough all over with a fork, then bake until golden, about 22 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.

Caramel:
Whisk milk, sugar, butter, syrup, and vanilla in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the butter melts. Boil gently, whisking constantly, until the caramel is thick, golden, and a candy thermometer registers 225°F. This took me about 15 minutes. Pour the caramel over the cooled crust, spreading in an even layer. Let cool for 15 minutes to set.

Chocolate:
Combine chopped chocolate and cream in a microwave-safe bowl, then microwave on high for 30 seconds. Stir, then microwave on high in 15-second intervals, stirring between each, until chocolate is smooth. Do not overheat or the mixture will separate. This took me 1 minute and 15 seconds total microwave time, but your results will vary depending on your microwave. Spread the chocolate over the caramel, spreading in an even layer. Sprinkle with sea salt. Refrigerate until the chocolate is set, at least 1 hour. (Can be made up to three days ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

To serve, cut dessert lengthwise into strips, and then across into bars.

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Make a Playbook, Have a Cookie.

There’s a document in my life that is so important, so useful, that I have multiple copies of it stashed away.  There’s a printed version in the bag I carry to work every day, and another copy on my desk at home.  I have it saved on my laptop, and on a little jump drive that I keep in my purse, in case I need to refer to it while I’m on the run.  I also have it backed up on an external hard drive that we keep in our safe deposit box.  You see, this document was a gift, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it’s the single most loving gesture anyone has ever made for me.

I’ve told you about the last conversation I ever had with my mother, but those weren’t actually her final words to me.  Her last words are in underlined, bold, all-caps font at the top of the document I’m describing.

Her font choice makes me smile.   Mom was a gentle soul in many ways — strong in her faith, terrified of confrontation — but she had a brash, emphatic way of communicating.  I’ll just say it: Mom was bossy.

It kind of looks like she’s yelling, but to me, underlined, bold, all-caps fits her perfectly.

LAURA, I DID MY BEST; IF SOME OF THIS IS CONFUSING OR IN ERROR/OUT OF DATE, I AM VERY SORRY!!!  I HOPE THIS HELPS DURING THIS DIFFICULT TIME.

I LOVE YOU MORE THAN WORDS CAN SAY, MOM

The rest goes on for sixteen single-spaced pages.  It outlines the following:

  • Basic Identification Information
    • Dates of Birth
    • Social Security Numbers
    • Driver’s License Numbers
    • Contact Information (Name, Address, Email, Phone Numbers) for:
      • Doctors
      • Attorneys
      • Financial Planners / Accountants
      • Insurance Agents
    • Medical Information
      • Medications
      • Prior surgeries and complications
      • Allergies
      • Blood Types
    • Locations of all copies of their legal documents, including passports, birth certificates, marriage certificate, wills, living wills, durable powers of attorney, and medical powers of attorney
    • Location of their safe deposit box and keys, and list of the contents
    • A basic balance sheet, showing what they own, what they owe, and any amounts owed to them
    • Instructions on where to find a separate list of passwords to their online banking and other important websites
    • Basic operational information about Mom’s small business
    • List of all real estate owned, including legal descriptions and location of deeds
    • Their wishes regarding organ donation
    • Warranty information on their vehicles
    • Account numbers and PINs for all their bank accounts and credit cards
    • Location of their pre-purchased burial plots, and whom to contact about them
    • Basic overview of their pension and retirement benefits
    • Basic overview of all insurance policies, including agent names, contact information, company name, policy numbers, premiums paid, potential refunds, expected benefits
      • This list includes personal policies like life, medical, accidental death and dismemberment, and long term care, but also homeowners insurance, auto insurance, flood insurance, etc.
    • A list of their bills, due dates, payment methods, and account numbers
    • Contact information for their neighbors, friends, family, and clergy
    • A complete plan for their funerals, including suggestions for ministers, pall bearers, lectors, choir members, hymns, prayers, and Bible readings.  She even suggested the engraving for their tombstone.
    • A list of instructions/requests regarding certain personal items (who should receive certain pieces of jewelry, for example)

If you’re like me, just reading that list makes you tired.  It’s overwhelming.  But I can’t tell you the amount of stress and grief my mother saved me by preparing this information before she died.

Dad was the first to admit that Mom ran the household.  She spoiled me, he told me after she died, while we reviewed everything at the kitchen table.  She spoiled me, and I let her.  We liked it that way.

He was apologizing, but he needn’t have, because Mom put her playbook into my hands.  She knew that without it, I would be the equivalent of a Pee Wee League quarterback trying to play in the Super Bowl.

While she suffered and we knew she was dying, the days and hours seemed to stretch on forever.   The world was in slow motion, underwater.  I couldn’t breathe.

The moment she was actually gone, the world changed gears and went into warp speed.  There wasn’t enough time to think of all the details.  Everything was swirling and whirring and clicking around me; the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.  I held on to Daddy, which was the only way I could be sure we were both okay.  I couldn’t breathe.

But it could have been worse.  Much worse.  Mom’s playbook eliminated untold measures of worry and guesswork.

I didn’t have to stress, for example, about how to reach all of her friends — even the ones from decades ago that I barely knew.  Without her breadcrumb trail, I would have had to figure out last names and addresses for “Pat and Jesse” (Didn’t they live in Port Arthur?  Or was it Port Aransas?  Or Aransas Pass?) and “red-headed Nancy” (She moved out of state, right? Wasn’t she remarried?).

I also didn’t have decide the details of her funeral.  I guarantee I would have forgotten at least one major component, and I would have been crushed later, when I happened to hear her favorite hymn, or the psalm she loved so much.

Perhaps most importantly, Dad and I didn’t have to wonder if there was a bank account we didn’t know about, or whether a bill was due, or how to pay the property taxes.  It was all right there.

It’s not the most uplifting topic in the world, but the fact is that we’re all going to die one day.  When we do, someone is to have to pick up the pieces of our legal and financial lives.  If we have young children, someone is going to have to raise them and educate them.  Someone will plan our funerals.  Someone will bury us, or scatter our ashes, or keep us in a lovely urn on their mantle.

Do you know who that someone is?  Will they have the information they need to do the job?

I can tell you from experience that being someone’s “someone” is a badge of honor, an act of service, a labor of love.  It’s also overwhelming and very difficult.

But you know what makes me feel warm and loved in the midst of it all?  Knowing for a fact that my mother did everything she possibly could to lighten my load.   From her own experience, she knew that grief is painful enough without the chaos, confusion, and anxiety of trying to handle someone else’s affairs blindly.  She loved me enough to straighten my path.

It’s an act of love that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

MOM, I DID MY BEST; IF SOMETHING SLIPPED THROUGH THE CRACKS, I AM VERY SORRY!!!  I HOPE I MET YOUR EXPECTATIONS DURING THIS DIFFICULT TIME.

I LOVE YOU MORE THAN WORDS CAN SAY, LAURA

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With Tax Day still a very recent memory, a lot of the pertinent information for a project like this is still on the top layer of your desk.  If you’re interested, you can start by looking here and here.  For additional help, find a lawyer or financial professional that you trust and have them guide you.

Or perhaps you already have your affairs in order, and you’ve given your loved ones the gift of their future peace of mind.  In that case, you deserve a cookie!

Here’s a classic chocolate chip cookie, which I adapted from Joy of Cooking.  They are thin and chewy, just the way I personally prefer.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar (light brown sugar can also be used)
1 large egg, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Milk, for serving

 

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.  Stash a drinking glass into the freezer.

Whisk the flour and soda together thoroughly; set aside.  In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and two sugars on medium to medium-high speed until very well blended, at least two full minutes.  (The longer you mix them, the more air you incorporate into the batter, which makes for a lighter, more tender cookie.)  Add the egg, salt and vanilla, and beat well until combined.

Add the flour mixture and the chocolate chips; stir just until smooth and well incorporated.

Drop rounded teaspoonfuls onto the parchment lined sheets, spacing a full two inches apart.  (The more consistent the sizes of the dropped cookies are, the more evenly they will cook.)

Bake (only one sheet at a time!), until the cookies are barely done — slightly colored on top and a little brown at the edges, 8 to 10 minutes.  Rotate the sheet 180 degrees halfway through cooking, to ensure even browning.

Remove the sheet to a cooking rack and let stand until the cookies are firm enough to handle, about 3 minutes.

Remove the drinking glass from the freezer and fill with cold milk.  Put your feet up, eat a just-baked cookie; wash it down with milk.

Transfer the cookies you didn’t eat directly to the cooling rack to finish cooling.

The cookies will keep in an airtight container for about two days.  (To keep them longer, add a slice of fresh bread to the container — the bread will dry out, but the cookies will stay moist.)

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Name That Oyster

It was Unk who fed me my first oyster.

We were at Captain Benny’s, the old-school location on Kirby, and I remember regarding both the place and its inhabitants with trepidation.  We were in the big city — at a restaurant shaped like a boat, no less — and I was surrounded by strangers who were entirely too friendly. 

We sat at the bar, and Unk ordered a dozen oysters on the half-shell.

Wanna try one, sugar?, he asked, smiling.

I leaned over his arm and peered at the platter filled with ice and oysters, wet and quivering in their shells.  It wasn’t standard fare for a ten year old, but I didn’t want to seem chicken.

“How do I do it?”

Use a fork for your first one.  And don’t try to chew it, just swaller it whole.

I eventually reached over and plucked one out of its shell.  I sat there balancing the gray opaque blob in front of my face, desperately hoping it wouldn’t slip off my fork and onto the floor.

When I realized that everyone at the bar was watching, I turned beet red.  Thinking about it now, I realize that they were all probably thinking back to their own first oyster. 

I took a last look over at Unk, waiting to see if – hoping he was — just joshin’ me.  His face was gleeful – eyebrows up, jaw slightly open with expectation, that familiar glint in his eye. Unk was taking joy in this moment in a way that I didn’t understand at all.

Too late to back out now.

I slowly put the fork in my mouth, deposited the oyster, then withdrew it.

I looked at Unk.  She did it, his eyes said, beaming.  He was carefully measuring my reaction.

I flitted my eyes around the bar.  All still staring.

I swallowed dutifully, and the slimy plumpness slid down my throat.  I immediately reached for my Coke.

Well?, Unk said, whatcha think?

“Tastes like river water,” I replied.

That’s what oysters are all about, baby girl. You done good!

He laughed and squeezed my shoulder.  He was “tickled to death,” as he’s fond of saying, even to this day.

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My second oyster experience wouldn’t happen for more than ten years, on my twenty-first birthday.  I was with a group of girlfriends at a restaurant in the French Quarter; ordering oysters seemed like something a well-heeled twenty-one-year-old might do.

Better prepared this time, I plopped a fat oyster onto a saltine cracker, squeezed some lemon juice over it, added a healthy dose of horseradish and a few shakes of Tabasco, and chewed.

Whoa, I thought.  Is it me, or was that really freaking good?

I assembled another, this time with less of each accoutrement.  And another.  And another, until I was slurping them out of their shells untouched.

I suddenly knew what the fuss was all about.

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Appellation Reef Map, courtesy of Jim Gossen of Louisiana Seafoods. (Click to enlarge.)

Most of the food world inaccurately assumes that Gulf oysters are subpar, a far cry from the highly regaled offerings on the East and West coasts.  Part of the problem is that those fancy Yankee oysters are referred to by varied and distinct place-names, or appellations, which lend a certain personality and panache to their offerings.  Oysters from Texas to Florida, on the other hand, are all lumped together as generic “Gulf oysters.”

But appellation names aren’t just a slick marketing tool.  Oysters are a delicacy, in every sense of the word, with flavors that directly reflect their habitat.  Naming them helps identify those subtle differences. 

Oysters from reefs near the mouth of a river, for example, taste “fresher” than their briny cousins that grow tucked back in a cove, where the water is saltier, protected from runoff.

In cold water, oysters plump up and store glycogen, which is sweet to the palate; warmer water stimulates oysters into reproductive mode, which uses up that stored glycogen and gives them a fishier taste.

Water temperature also dictates how long it takes an oyster to reach maturity.  An oyster that takes longer to grow has more opportunity take on the mineral or vegetal flavors of the water it inhabits; quicker growing oysters are milder in flavor.

Here’s the cool part: relatively small changes to an oyster habitat can perceptibly alter their appearance and flavor.  Eating oysters harvested after a heavy rainfall can be an altogether different experience than eating oysters from the exact same reef a week before. 

People get excited about local foods because they reflect the sense of a particular place.  Oysters are hyper-local: they reflect a specific place and time.  Appellation names help capture that magic.

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Naming our oysters is actually a pretty old idea.  In the 1800s, oysters from Galveston Bay were known by the names of the reefs they were harvested from.  So what happened?  Commercialism.  Railroads enabled the export of oysters to other parts of the country as a commodity product, where they are passed off or substituted for local oysters.  In the process, the reef names were forgotten or lost.

Fellow Texans, it’s time to take back our oysters.

The members of Foodways Texas are leading the charge by sponsoring events to raise awareness about the food heritage we have lost.  Most recently, Levi Goode (of Goode Company Restaurants) and Robb Walsh teamed up to host Oysters, Brews, and Blues, a celebration which included a tasting bar featuring six distinct appellations from Galveston Bay.  It was reminiscent of the landmark oyster tasting Foodways Texas hosted a year ago, at their first annual symposium.

The message seems to be resonating, at least within the Houston food community.  Several area restaurants like Goode Company Seafood are offering reef-specific oysters on their menus, and customers are proving that they’re willing to pay for top-notch oysters.

The majority of oyster lovers in Texas will probably stick with the cheaper commodity oysters that they’ve grown up with, and that’s perfectly fine.  But creating a market for larger, hand-selected premium oysters will let us keep the finest of what’s available in our local waters to ourselves.  Hopefully we’ll regain an important aspect of our food culture in the process.

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To learn more about Foodways Texas, please visit their website and consider becoming a member.

Robb Walsh’s latest book, Texas Eats, includes an informative chapter on oysters.  For further reading, I highly recommend his earlier work, Sex, Death, and Oysters.

And keep an eye out for future Goode Company events – Levi and his crew are celebrating 35 years in business by touring the state and celebrating everything they love about Texas.  For more information, visit their Facebook page.

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Texas Preserved: A Linkery

As promised, I’ve attempted to capture all the banter about Foodways Texas’ 2nd Annual Symposium: Texas Preserved in a single place.

I’ll do my best to keep it up to date.  If you know of a write-up not included here, please write me at whitefluffyicing (at) gmail (dot) com.

Enjoy!

Addie Broyles | austin360.com’s Relish Austin | Looking to the Past to See Our Culinary Future

Addie Broyles | austin360.com’s Relish Austin | Foodways Texas Symposium: The Effects of Drought on the Texas Food Supply

Addie Broyles | austin360.com’s Relish Austin | Foodways Texas Symposium: A Short But Not Always Sweet History of Sugar in Texas

Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin | Faculty and Grad Research: Foodways Texas Symposium

Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin | Faculty and Grad Research: Photos from the Texas Restaurants Project

Emma Janzen | austin360.com’s Liquid | Anvil’s Bobby Heugel on Preserving Southern Cocktail History

Jaime Adame | Dallas Morning News | Foodways Symposium Honors Texas Food

Jessica Dupuy | Texas Monthly’s Eat My Words | Texas Spirits: Bobby Heugel Says We Have To Be Patient

Kelly Yandell | The Meaning of Pie | Foodways Texas 2012 Symposium “Texas Preserved”

Leanna Fossler | The Little Baker | That One in the Group

Pat Sharpe | Texas Monthly’s Eat My Words | Foodways Texas is Getting Fat and Sassy

Phyllis Brasenell | You Are Where You Eat | Geeking Out: Notes From The Foodways Texas Symposium, Day 1

Phyllis Brasenell | You Are Where You Eat | Geeking Out: Notes From The Foodways Texas Symposium, Day 2

Robb Walsh | Texas Eats | Texas Preserved: 2012 Foodways Texas Symposium

Virginia B. Wood | Austin Chronicle | Food-o-File

Will Burdette | No Satiation | Episode 110: Foodways Texas

Will Burdette | No Satiation | Foodways Texas Symposium Audio Slideshow

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Foodways Texas: Connection Points

If I haven’t told you before, I started White Fluffy Icing as a memoir — a kind of living history — with food as the medium.  The stories I tell here are for The Boy: stories about today and the way he  infiltrates and enhances my life, stories about yesterday and how I became who I am, stories handed down by previous generations that will die with me if not captured somehow.

When this blog has run its course, I will edit it (heavily), print it, bind it, and give it to him.  Maybe The Boy will never read it, but maybe his children will.  Maybe he’ll never have kids, but his cousin will.  Maybe it’ll gather dust in an attic somewhere and it will never see the light of day, but I will have done my part.  It begins with me.

Both of my parents are gone, but I’m still getting to know them.  How?  Through stories.  I’m finding letters they wrote, notes they jotted down, cookbooks they annotated.  I didn’t know, for example, that when Mom married Dad, she wanted to have twelve children (and presumably live in a shoe).  I’m not sure what it means that she stopped with me, her second, but that’s for me and my therapist to work out.

What would happen if more of us captured our own histories?  We would have a broader base to learn from, a firmer foundation from which to scan the horizon.  We would simply know more, and we can never know enough.

This is why I get so excited about Foodways Texas.  More than anything else, it’s about capturing stories — our stories, all of them.  When I examine my personal history, I learn about myself — but when we examine each other’s histories, we start to understand each other in ways we never could dream of otherwise.  It’s a powerful concept.

I just returned from the 2nd Annual Foodways Texas Symposium, titled ‘Texas Preserved’, and like last year, I was overwhelmed by it.  So overwhelmed, in fact, that when it was over, I sat in my car and had a good cry before I headed home.  I’m not talking about one or two crocodile tears, I’m talking about makeup-ravaging, leaned-over-the-steering-wheel, just-let-it-all-out sobbing.  It wasn’t pretty.

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Actually, the crying began before I even left home.  All my life, I’ve had an overactive imagination, which has a warm and fuzzy ring to it, as though you’re describing a young Jim Henson.  But trust me, it’s a blessing and curse.  It can be terrifying.

As a new mother, my imagination ran wild with all the ways The Baby Boy could be injured or killed — vivid, horrific images that I could not clear from my mind.  They weren’t far-fetched scenarios, they were things happen every day to babies the world over.  It’s easier now, but I still struggle with it.

Since Dad died — so suddenly, and while feeling so well — I have new challenges.  I can’t stop thinking about how any one of us could be gone tomorrow, myself included.  I know it’s irrational, but the thing is, it’s also true.  I’ve told you before, denial isn’t in my DNA, but it sure would be handy sometimes.

The morning of the day I left, I kissed The Boy goodbye at preschool, and for whatever reason, my brain went wild.  What if The Boy dies while I’m gone?  What if Matt dies while they’re home together?  What if this is the last time I see either of them?  What if, what if, what if…?

I’m told that this fixation on death is a natural part of grief, and that it will pass, but that sure wasn’t helping me last Thursday.

Adding fuel to the fire was an acute desire to call my mama.  She would have been dismissive, probably, telling me that we all have enough real problems to deal with, no sense in manufacturing more –  but it would have been just the thing to snap me out of it.

Then another thought hit me: The Boy is only three years old.  His journey to adulthood, with all its inherent problems — real ones — stretched out before and around me in 360 degrees, like the Mojave desert.  How many parenting problems will I face without my own parents to talk to?  How many more times will I want to call my mother?  What if I’m in over my head?

I cried so hard I gave myself a headache.  Then I packed and drove to Austin.

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I approached from the east on Cesar Chavez, whereupon I was greeted by a man riding his bike down the center yellow line of the street in a cockroach costume.  His face was lifted skyward, basking in the sun, with little apparent regard for me (aka, opposing traffic).  Welcome to Austin, I thought.  I need a little of what he’s got.

The Foodways Texas family is a talented crew.  There are going to be write-ups by others about the things we talked about, and the food we ate.  I’ve seen amazing photos already, and there are more to come.  Like last year, I’ll create a linkery for you, so that you can see it all — and like last year, I have no interest in trying to hold a candle to any of those folks.

What I do have interest in is sharing with you some of the personal experiences I had, in hopes of giving you a glimmer of what this organization and their work means to me.

I decided during the drive up that I wouldn’t take any notes or photos.  I wanted to focus on connecting with people, and I’m not talented enough to listen — really listen — if I’m looking for sound bites or photographs at the same time.  I decided that when asked a question, I would answer it in an authentic way.  In short, I wanted to let my guard down and see what would happen.

A lot happened.

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First, there’s Lisa Powell, Foodways Texas’ program director.  I emailed her ahead of time to let her know that I’d be in town a little early, and asked her to please let me know if there was anything I could do to help.

Acts 20:35 taught us that it’s better to give than to receive, and that’s true, but it’s also easier to give than to receive.  After all, being able to give means that you’re in a position of surplus — a fortunate circumstance.  Receiving means that you’re in need of help, something that can be awfully difficult to admit.

Lisa graciously welcomed my assistance Thursday night and Friday morning.  I like to think I really helped her out, at least in some small way — in exchange, I got to know her and her main squeeze Roland, the cutest couple you ever did see.  I got to hear about Lisa’s background in history and math (left-brained girls, unite!), and the dissertation she’s working on about the competition between the corn economy and the energy economy in western Kentucky, her home state.  Roland and I discussed, among many other things, the wonder of astronomy, the ways that the City of Austin manipulates its own real estate market, and the merits (or lack thereof) of okra.

By the end of the weekend, we’d gone from zero to sixty so fast, I didn’t even know how to tell her goodbye.

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Helping Lisa Friday morning meant that I arrived early to our lunch venue, where chef Justin Yu, a Houston sensation, was preparing a bycatch lunch.  He was running behind schedule.  With his permission, I scrubbed in and started counting 150 plates for the service, laying them out like canvases on which he would create his beautiful work.

“All the plates are out, chef.  Is there anything else I can do?”

Sure, he said, without looking at me.  Count out the bowls for dessert.

150 bowls and a new table configuration later: “The bowls are finished, chef.  How else can I assist?”

He looked me in the eye for the briefest moment, then handed me a container of kale.  He took a piece and said, Here, can you lay these on the plate like this?  He propped the small leaf artfully over the other preserved vegetables.

I took a deep breath, tried not to squeal, and said, Certainly.”

About 20 minutes later, as we were finishing the plates, I asked: “Chef Justin, how do you work so quickly without obsessing over each one?”

Eventually, he said, you have to learn to let go.

Yes, I thought.  I do.

A lesson.

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Friday afternoon, I got to know Julia, a lovely young woman and a talented photographer.  The battery in her camera had died, so I loaned her mine — it might as well be of use to someone.

I had just met Carla Loeb (of Slow Food Austin fame) moments before, and we were talking when Julia approached to return the camera.  She joined our conversation.  It took about thirty seconds to see Julia’s gentle, loving soul.

Carla and I asked about her background, and learned of Julia’s widely varied interests and obvious talents.  She’s in her early twenties, trying to figure out a path for herself that will balance it all, use it all, somehow pay the bills.  It wasn’t obvious to any of us what that path would be, but Carla and I were confident that Julia would figure it out.

Just put yourself out there, really out there, Carla said, and you’ll be amazed at how your life will find you.

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During Saturday’s lunch, dumb luck plopped me down directly across from a gentleman by the name of Dr. Jeff Savell, a professor of meat science at Texas A&M University.

We spoke for a bit about the Foodways Texas Barbecue Camp, which he had hosted last summer to much fanfare and success, and then, looking at my name tag, he asked me about White Fluffy Icing.  I explained that it was a memoir-based food blog, and that I was capturing my voice and my family’s history for my son.  I told him about my reluctance to pursue a food-related career, for fear that I would commoditize my passion, and in the process, lose it.

We talked for a good long while, exchanging stories.  I mentioned my gratitude that my mom, who’d died of cancer, had a chance to read and comment on the blog right before she died.  And now my father was gone, too….

My voice cracked, and I dabbed my eyes with a napkin.  I made an excuse to take a walk, I returned with my composure intact, and we resumed our stories.

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Just before dinner that night, I ran into Barbara, whom I’d met in Houston a couple of weeks prior.  There’s something that draws me to her, something about the way she looks at me that puts me at ease.  It probably isn’t a coincidence that she’s about my mother’s age and has daughters about my age.

Barbara asked about my upbringing, and then I asked about hers.  She told the story about how her daddy was from Louisiana and her mother was from the Midwest, where they met and married.  He called his family to tell them he was moving home with his new wife, who was apparently a petite little thing.  His bride was agog when she met his mother and sisters — all tall, sturdy, opinionated women.

They didn’t accept her at first, Barbara explained.  But my mother decided to teach herself how to cook Cajun food, and they started getting along a lot better once she started making gumbo.

“Barbara,” I said, “what a great example of how food connects us. Your mother adopted part of her new family’s heritage, and it changed their relationship.”

You know, she said, I’ve never really thought about it that way.  But you’re right.

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Sunday, I ran into Dr. Savell again, along with his lovely wife Jackie.  He’d read WFI the night before, which made me gulp — why hadn’t I posted something eloquent and witty before hitting the road?

He told me how he shared the Valentine’s cupcakes with Jackie, a scratch baker.

But then I saw the story about your dad’s funeral, he said, and I just wasn’t prepared for that. 

A tear ran down his face.

And then he told me about how he had survived cancer four years ago, and about the colonoscopy that saved his life.  We talked about what it’s like to face death and admit vulnerability, and how it changes you.  How fragile life becomes — or rather, that you realize how fragile and precious life has been been all along.

We talked about how angels appear in the most unexpected places.

We talked about the miracle of modern medicine.

We talked about what it means to have friends in times of need.

Both of our cheeks were wet.  We hugged and departed as friends.

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I could go on and on, but now you understand why I got in my car and cried like a baby.  It was intense.  It was inspiring.  It was unreal.  And you haven’t even seen the linkery yet.

If you care at all about preserving Texas culture, or about connecting with an amazing group of people, please attend a Foodways Texas event and consider becoming a  member.  We would love to have you join our family.

For more information about Foodways Texas and upcoming events, please visit the Foodways Texas website.

More soon.

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Pie Contest!

Hey! Whatcha doin’ next Saturday, March 3?

If you’re free, you should join me at the Brazoria Heritage Celebration. Last year was my first time to attend, and I was tickled at what a charming, well-run event it is.  There’s a car show, a tractor show, a gun show, a parade, and tons of stuff for kids to do.  The train museum itself is worth the trip.  And rumor has it that they’re adding a treasure hunt with metal detectors this year.  The Boy is gonna eat that up.

I’ll be helping judge the pie contest — you remember, the one that 10-year-old Haley won last year, and the year before? I wonder if she’ll be back to defend her title and attempt a three-peat.  Join me and find out — nay, enter a pie and find out!  I’d love to see you there.

Brazoria Heritage Celebration.

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A Cupcake for Your Cupcake

Folks, I have a Valentine’s gift for you: a cupcake.

I’ve explained my feelings about Valentine’s Day before; namely, that it’s a quasi-holiday that puts a lot of weird pressure on couples to be romantic.  Isn’t there enough weird pressure in the universe already?  Pretty sure the answer’s yes.

In recent years, however, I’ve been helping a local youth group with their annual Valentine’s Day fundraiser.  They charge admission for a seated dinner, and the yutes serve as the wait staff and entertainment.  Andy runs the kitchen, Jessica assists, and I do the baking.  I daresay that the experience has caused me to quite look forward to Valentine’s Day.  Miracle of miracles!

I was completely disappointed this year when the fundraiser conflicted with a friend’s wedding.  More than just a chance to hang out with Andy and Jessica, I was missing out on a chance to grow and improve.

When I emailed Andy to tell him about my scheduling conflict, he jokingly replied, “I think you should make about 40 desserts and drop them off on your way to the wedding.”

So I did… and these cupcakes were born.

Happy valen-times, ever buddy.

Before we get down to business, I need to warn you about a few things.

There’s a huge problem right off the bat: the recipe calls for canola oil instead of butter.  In cake recipe terms, that’s like Queen Elizabeth going commando – it just doesn’t happen.

Second, this imposter fat is “creamed” with the sugar and the eggs. Blasphemy!  Everyone who is anyone knows that you only add eggs after you’ve beaten the tar out of your butter and sugar components, and even then, you introduce them gradually, one at a time.  These poor shy little eggies just get plopped right in.  What in tarnation is going on here?

Third, the batter is really loose.  As in runny.  On the verge of watery, actually.  Heck, I’ve made sweet tea with more viscosity than this cupcake batter.  When I made my first batch of the stuff, my hopes were dashed.  If the oven hadn’t been pre-heated, I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time baking them off.

I am so glad I did.  I don’t think it would be an overstatement to declare these to be the most successful cupcakes I’ve made to date.  The crumb is killer – tender and airy, almost weightless on the tongue – with a definite wallop of chocolate to the palate.

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Now I need tell you something else, and this is very important: You could very well stop after making the cupcakes and no one would blame you.  In fact, it’s probably the smart way to go.  No one is asking you to make curd or scoop cupcake tops or deal with the pain in the neck that is buttercream.  This particular dessert was for paying customers, and I knew Andy’s entrée would be lights out — a tough act to follow.  Plus there’s the whole existential issue of it being a cupcake – the stuff of kid’s birthday parties and backyard picnics, not seated dinners.  I needed to up the ante.

I was inspired my moderate success filling with those triple lemon cupcakes with curd.  And I wanted a dash of pink; ergo, raspberry.  (After all these years, I’m secure enough in my tomboyishness to flirt with a little pink now and then.)

But the true beauty of these cupcakes is that they are a blank slate upon which to doodle.  You could simply dust them with a little confectioner’s sugar.  Traditional chocolate frosting would be terrific, ganache would be superb.  And need I suggest white fluffy icing?  I thought not.

Whether and however you’re celebrating, happy Valentine’s Day, one and all.

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Cupcakes for Your Cupcake

For the curd:
6 ounces fresh raspberries, plus more for an optional garnish
3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the cupcakes:
½ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (I used the plain old Hershey’s stuff)
2 ounces high quality milk chocolate, chopped (I used Lindt)
½ cup boiling water
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup cake flour (spooned lightly into the measuring cup and leveled with a knife)
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
½ cup canola oil
½ cup (white) sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the buttercream: ***Warning! Buttercream is a total hassle. And you’ll need a handheld mixer and an instant read thermometer for this exercise.***
10 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
7 tablespoons water, divided
4 large egg whites
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

Make the curd: Combine the raspberries, sugar, eggs, lemon juice, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until thickened and bubbly, about 5 minutes (not to worry, it will thicken more when chilled).  Strain into a medium bowl using a fine-meshed sieve, pressing on solids to extract as much of the berry goodness as possible. Refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

Make the cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350F.  Line 18 standard muffin cups with paper liners (I prefer the paper/foil double liners).  Combine cocoa powder and chopped milk chocolate in a medium bowl.  Pour the ½ cup boiling water over; whisk until smooth.  Add buttermilk, whisk to combine; set aside.

Whisk the flour, soda, and salt in another bowl.  In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the brown sugar, oil, ½ cup white sugar, eggs, and vanilla on medium to medium high speed until light and creamy, at least 2 minutes.  Reduce the speed to low and alternate adding the flour mixture and the chocolate mixture in two additions.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking cups.  Bake until they test mostly clean with a toothpick, with a few crumbs attached, about 15-18 minutes.  Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then transfer directly to the rack to cool completely.  The cupcakes can be made up to 3 days ahead, stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

Make the buttercream: Melt the chopped chocolate and 5 tablespoons of the water together in a medium bowl (I do this in a microwave, beginning with one minute on full power, stirring, and then proceeding in 30-second intervals).  Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

Combine the egg whites, sugar, remaining 2 tablespoons water, and cream of tartar in a stainless steel bowl (steel is important for heat conduction).  Set the bowl in a large, deep skillet, and then add water to the skillet to come up around the sides of the bowl at least as high as the egg whites.  Remove the bowl, then bring the water to a simmer on the stove.

Set the bowl back into the skillet of now-simmering water and beat the egg whites with a hand-held mixer on low speed until the mixture reaches 140F.  (If you can’t check the temperature while you’re mixing, remove the bowl and quickly take a reading – if you stop beating while the mixture is in the water, you run the risk of cooking the eggs solid.  No bueno.)  Once you achieve 140F, switch to high speed and beat the  mixture just until it reaches 160F, which will take just a couple of minutes, five at most.

Remove the bowl from the skillet, add the vanilla, and continue to beat on high speed until you have big glossy peaks of meringue nirvana.

In another bowl, beat the butter until light and creamy.  Add about a cup of the meringue to the butter and beat until well combined.  Repeat, adding half of the total meringue by the cupful and beating until combined.  Add the second half of the meringue and beat until smooth. 

You now have buttercream — time to make it chocolate buttercream!  Switch to the whisk attachment, then curse my name when you realize that every piece of kitchen equipment you have is dirty.  Add half of your melted chocolate mixture to the buttercream in small dollops, then beat on medium high speed until combined.  Add the rest of your chocolate, and beat again until you have smooth, fluffy, chocolate buttercream.  Taste it, then take back everything you said about me.

You may need to let the buttercream set up for a bit before it will hold its shape for piping.  Personally, I was in a hurry and just dolloped it onto my cupcakes, which I think is kind of messy and romantic and homemade in a finger-lickin’ good kind of way.

To assemble: (why yes, I did copy this straight from my last post!):  Scoop out the center of each cupcake using a melon baller, spoon, 1-inch biscuit cutter, or whatever tool you have on hand that will do the trick. Fill each cupcake center with the curd. Top each cupcake with frosting, either piping through a bag (you can use a regular old zip-top bag with one of the corners snipped off) or by dolloping in on with a spoon and smoodging it around.  Top with a fresh raspberry or two and perhaps a mint leaf.

Note: You might be wondering what to do with all those scraps of cake.  If you live alone, this might be a problem, in which case I suggest a parfait.  If you don’t live alone, set out a glass of milk and wait.

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Friendship (Through the Narrow Aisles of Pain)

A friend is a second self. –Aristotle

Planning a funeral is a lot like planning a wedding, only on three days’ notice. For Dad’s funeral, I needed a church, a priest, lectors, altar boys. Instead of groomsmen, I needed pallbearers.

I needed something to wear. I needed something for Dad to wear. I needed four thousand tissues and a metric ton of makeup.

When I took Dad’s best suit to the funeral home, I forgot to include a rosary to be placed in his hand. I intended to bring one to the wake service, but in the sad chaos of it all, it slipped my mind then, too. It was a small detail — nothing more than a symbol, really — but praying the rosary was an important part of both my parents’ lives. Burying each of them with one was meaningful.

Thankfully, I remembered to bring it to the church on the day of the funeral. Among the unending details, I somehow managed to find five minutes that would allow me this indulgence, this one moment of closure. The funeral director wasn’t anywhere nearby; he was busy handling bigger pieces of our somber ritual. I could try tracking him down (and surely be diverted in the process), or I could figure it out myself and know with certainty that it was done.

In our thirty five years together, Dad and I shared a lot of moments in that little church. During Mass, he would always offer me his hand, and I would always take it – a silent gesture of affection that we’d share during the Bible readings and through the homily.

Looking down at our clasped hands in those moments, it was almost comical how different they were. Mine are pale with a highway system of bluish green veins just beneath the skin.  Dad’s hands matched his dark complexion and were rough from a life spent working on tractors and cars.  My fingers are long and slender; his, thick and compact – like the jaws of a vise. A gentle vise. A gentle vise that liked to be held and examined.

I don’t know how many Masses we attended together, holding hands, but that was our routine. Our little routine in this little church.

I was in robot mode when I walked over to place the rosary with Dad, more focused on all the remaining things to be done than on what I was actually doing. I was looking at his hands, trying to decide how to place the rosary, and then… I saw his hands. I snapped to the moment, and I really saw them. They were handsome, bordered by the cuffs of his suit jacket, those calloused hands I had held so many Sundays.

His hands. Tears stung my eyelids; I thought my knees might buckle.

I tucked the rosary in as best I could, threading the beads through his palm and letting the crucifix lay gently across his knuckles. I hovered, staring, overanalyzing.  My fierce intent on it looking natural was ironic, given how entirely unnatural it all was.

Suddenly, Aunt Denise was standing next to me, saying that it looked perfect, just perfect. I felt reassured.

My work was done, but I wasn’t ready to leave him. I reached out and touched his hand again. It was ice cold — much colder than I had expected — but I didn’t care. It was still his. I examined it for the last time. His calluses were still there, his skin still weathered and tough. His hands.

I felt feminine, nurturing: a woman looking after her father. I was holding his hand, as though comforting him, while acutely aware that he wasn’t actually there. I was nurturing the shell of a man that I had known well and loved deeply.

I could have stood there for hours, but it was nearly time for the funeral to begin.  The priest and the family were waiting. I took a deep breath, turned — and literally walked into my friend Meredith.  She’d been with me when I thought I was all alone.

I looked up to explain, but her soft eyes told me she understood. She wrapped her arms around me and I lost my composure for a brief moment. She held me close.

We both knew it would be the last time I would see my father.

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When the ceremony was over, our family shuffled out of the church behind the priest, ahead of everyone else. We were suddenly standing in the sunshine; a beautiful day.

I felt a little lost, unsure of what to do next.

I turned and saw my friend Lisa standing in the church yard, holding her infant son. She must have stepped outside to change him, or shoosh him, not realizing that she was planting herself exactly where I would need her a few moments later.

Her eyes were big, brimming with tears. I can’t imagine, her eyes told me, silently. But when I try, my heart aches and the tears come and I just really hurt for you.

I went to her and she pulled me in tight, her strong embrace having plenty of room for both me and her sweet boy. She touched my hair.

It was invigorating to be loved like that, in that moment.  The rest of the day, including the burial, stretched out before me, and I was more than willing to borrow her strength.

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I can recount a dozen more stories of how my friends rallied around me when Dad died.

How Leah instantly grasped the grief I was too shocked to yet feel.

How Andy held my hand that day.

How Jamie inspired me to somehow find paradise in the midst of my sorrow.

How Shana talked with me about things that only daughters who have lost their fathers too soon can really understand.

In the opening lines of her poem Solitude, Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, “laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.”  I love that piece for its harrowing insights about grief, but bless her heart, Ella must not have had friends like mine.

I weep, but I do not weep alone.

My second selves weep with me.

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Solitude
By Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it’s mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

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I learned from my mother about the importance of having deep, meaningful friendships.  All her life, she maintained a wide and varied circle of people that she loved, and they loved her right back.

There’s a story about Mom and a lemon cake she encountered while on an outing with a group of girlfriends.  She and her friends raved over that cake, and she vowed to replicate it when she got home, which she did.

Linda, one of the friends that was there that day, contributed the recipe for the lemon cake to our church’s 100th anniversary cookbook, in Mom’s honor.  She called it “Girlfriend’s Lemon Icebox Cake,” which makes me smile every time I see it.

I was inspired by this story of friendship to make mom’s icebox cake, but it calls for lemon cake mix and lemon instant pudding, which I didn’t have on hand.  What I did have on hand was a raft of Meyer lemons from my neighbors Joe and Janet — so I made these cupcakes instead.

Triple Lemon Cupcakes

(Adapted from Peace Meals, a gorgeous cookbook published in 2008 by the Junior League of Houston, a copy of which was given to me by my good friend, Jamie)

Cupcakes:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 eggs, room temperature
16 ounces sour cream, room temperature
2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon zest

Lemon Curd:
5 egg yolks
1 cup sugar (if you’re using Meyers, taste them — if they’re sweet, you may want to cut the sugar back to 3/4 cup)
4 lemons, zested and juiced
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut into pats and chilled

Frosting:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Coffee Mate powdered creamer (it cuts the sweetness!)
3 teaspoons milk
1/4 cup Lemon Curd

For the cupcakes:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 standard muffin cups with paper baking liners (I prefer Reynolds brand double layered liners, foil with paper inside). In a medium bowl, whisk or sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium high speed until creamy, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the sugar; beat on high speed until lightened in color and texture, at least 2 minutes and up to 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and then the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the sour cream in two parts, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined, creating a thick batter. Stir in the lemon zest. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the batter into each prepared cup. Bake about 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely.

For the lemon curd:
Combine the egg yolks, sugar, and lemon zest in a medium stainless steel or enamel saucepan. Whisk until smooth lightened in color, about 1 minute. Measure the lemon juice and, if needed, add enough cold water to reach 1/3 cup. Add the juice to the egg mixture and whisk again until smooth. Add the pats of butter, then cook over medium heat, whisking, until the butter is melted. Continue to whisk constantly until the mixture is thickened, allowing it to simmer gently for a few seconds. Scrape the curd into a clean bowl. Let cool, then cover with layer of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. (It will continue to thicken when refrigerated.)

For the frosting:
Cream the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add the powdered sugar and powdered creamer, then add the milk and blend until smooth. Add the Lemon Curd and mix until well blended.

To assemble:
Scoop out the center of each cupcake using a melon baller, spoon, 1-inch biscuit cutter, or whatever tool you have on hand that will do the trick. Fill each cupcake center with the Lemon Curd. Top each cupcake with frosting, either piping through a bag (you can use a regular old zip-top bag with one of the corners snipped off) or with a butter knife.

Note: You might be wondering what to do with 24 little scraps of cake.  I had plans to make a parfait from mine, but my husband and my kiddo swiped them before I had a chance.  I imagine you won’t have a problem disposing of yours, either…

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Room In The Inn

There’s a particular dish that, for me, sums up everything that the Christmas season is all about.

Fried chicken.

It’s an odd choice, no?  Perhaps you expected figgy pudding.  Let me explain.

It was roughly twenty years ago, in the early 90s. After a long day’s work, my friend Andy was greeted at his front door by a complete stranger.  Hi, I’m Holly, she said, peering through her glasses.  I’m gonna call you Daddy.  Her disheveled hair was blond; she wore a dirty, well-worn purple dress.  She was five years old, maybe six.

Andy went inside and learned that Holly really was going to be calling him Daddy – she was joining their family as a foster child.  As stressful or momentous as this may sound to you or me, this didn’t faze him much. It wasn’t the first foster kiddo for him and his wife Paula, and it wouldn’t be their last.

To be precise, Andy and Paula cared for exactly twenty children over the course of their foster parenting career, adopting three of those twenty in the process.  Add the two beautiful daughters they had the, uh, old fashioned way, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide brood.  In fact, Andy and Paula raised so many young children that they literally had a kid in kindergarten twelve years in a row.

Let me repeat that: They were parents of a kindergartner for twelve years in a row.

Given that their house was full of social workers, paperwork, and a mild level of general chaos, Andy knew that a home-cooked dinner wasn’t gonna happen on Holly’s first night with her new family.  So he did the sensible thing – he ran out and picked up some fried chicken from the place just up the street.

Later, at the dinner table, Holly’s eyes were understandably wide.  Reaching into the bucket of chicken, Andy asked whether Holly preferred a drumstick or a thigh; she chose drumstick. A few minutes later, Andy scooped some mashed potatoes onto her plate.  That’s when she said the words Andy would never forget:

You mean I get two things to eat tonight?

Now, I wasn’t there, but I’m willing to bet that every heart in the house melted right then.

Andy had no way to explain that their home was an all-you-can-eat kinda joint – it would have blown her little mind.  Instead, the family did their best to make her feel comfortable, welcome, and safe, the same way they’d done with the others who had sat in her place before.

It took a while for her to adjust, Andy told me.  It was months before she stopped raiding the kitchen garbage can for food.  He and Paula would find remnants and wrappers and scraps in the bedroom, leftovers from her late night scavenges.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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By now, we’re all familiar with the Christmas narrative:

And [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

In one sense, the story of Christ is a story of rejection.  He was rejected by the political and religious leaders of his day, he was rejected by his neighbors and townspeople, and eventually, he was rejected by his closest friends.

That story of rejection actually began the day he was born: There was no room for them in the inn.

Christ taught his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome strangers.  He preached about caring for the sick and visiting those in prison.  When he left, he commissioned his followers to continue his work, to be his eyes and ears and hands and feet – that is, to be “the body of Christ.”

Sometimes I wonder if I’m truly a part of the body of Christ, if I’m really walking the walk.  It seems like such a tall order.  Is it possible, in this modern age, to do what he asked of us?

Then Christmas rolls around, and I think of this story.  There was room in Andy’s inn — for Holly and nineteen others.

Is there room in the inn of my heart?

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Once, during an awkward icebreaker exercise with a large group, I was asked what I would choose for my last meal.  Sidestepping the morbid nature of such an inquiry, the answer was easy: my mama’s fried chicken with all the fixin’s.

I’m not great at frying food, and I’m even worse at making gravy, but I’m learning.  Here’s a basic recipe.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
adapted from the Joy of Cooking

3 to 3 1/2 pounds chicken drumsticks or thighs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 teaspoons salt, divided
2 teaspoons black pepper, divided
Sriracha or other hot sauce to taste (optional)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground red (cayenne) pepper, optional (or substitute your favorite Cajun seasoning blend (e.g., Tony Chachere’s)in lieu of the salt and the cayenne)
About 3 cups solid vegetable shortening
Nearby box of baking soda and/or fire extinguisher, just in case (seriously!)

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat them dry. In a large bowl, combine the buttermilk, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1 teaspoon of the pepper, and Sriracha or hot sauce, if using. Add the chicken to the buttermilk and turn to coat. Let stand for at least 15 minutes, or in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours.

In a large paper grocery bag, combine the flour, the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, the remaining 1 teaspoon black pepper, and cayenne pepper, if using. Shake to mix, then add the chicken pieces to the bag and shake until well coated.

In a large cast iron skillet (12-inch or larger), heat the shortening over medium-high heat to melt it. The goal is to have a 1/2 inch depth of hot melted shortening to fry in, so use more or less as necessary.

Heat the shortening to about 375 degrees, or until a small amount of flour sprinkled into the shortening bubbles furiously. Carefully lay the chicken pieces skin side down into the hot shortening. Cook for until browned on the bottom, about 10 minutes, checking frequently and repositioning if they are coloring unevenly. Lower the heat if they are browning too quickly.

Turn the pieces with tongs and cook an additional 10 minutes or so, until the second side is browned and the meat is cooked through. Remove the chicken to a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Hold in a warm (170 degree) oven if not serving immediately.