On Naming (and on Eating Vegetables)

I have been working, a subject so eye-glazingly dull I cannot bear to even discuss it. And so I won’t. Instead, I would like to share with you a piece of family news and a small recipe, one that everyone should have.

I can only begin the family news, though, by reflecting for a second on the names we use when we write about our families. (The names I use, I mean.) Although my sons love the idea of being known all over the world by their real names, I have long had a superstition about using those names, as though to say their first names might somehow be bad for them.

But I have just this moment realized that is silly. They don’t care in the least if I use their names. And they know better than to go to a stranger who happens to know their name. The world, it seems to me, is not so dangerous that writing their actual names on my blog will put them at risk. (Except the risk that they might be deeply embarrassed by me, but that is a risk they will have to learn to Deal With.) In the end, I’m not sure why I ever thought — in that back of the mind, unexamined place all our fears live — there was any danger in using their names.

I’m quite proud of their names, in fact, because I chose them. My husband (he’d prefer to be referred to simply as my wonderful husband whom I was lucky to marry rather than one of the superbly unreliable men I dated throughout my career) and I agreed, before our children were born, that if they were girls I would choose their last name and he would choose their first names. And if they were boys, I would choose their first names and he would choose their last names.

As things turned out, I got to choose six names — a first and a middle for each of our three boys. He, on the other hand, simply had to get the spelling of his last name correct on their birth certificates, a simple enough matter, I’m sure you’ll all agree, compared to naming not just three boys, but two who are twins and, thus, need names that mesh, but do not actually rhyme.  (We have moved forward from the time when twins were named things like Colin and Rollin and Jessie and Bessie.)

I named then Charlie, Jack, and William, dear reader. (Charles, John, and William, in fact.) My inspirations were as follows: English kings, American guys, Shakespeare, my father, my brother, my husband’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather, his best friend, and my husband. I went this way because I felt it was important that they have a decent explanation for my decisions. You are named after several really fine men, including the man who wrote As You Like It struck me as preferable to, you are named after an actor who played the unreliable doctor in The Days of Our Lives.

The family news is that Jack, who is a singer, performed this weekend with the San Francisco Symphony. He had a solo — a brief piece in which he had to rise up and sing many very high notes — and he acquitted himself admirably. In fact, today in our local newspaper he is described as “excelling in his small assignment.” He’ll like that phrase because it seems so adult and professional.

This phrase, in addition to being part of my family news, has made me think about the aim of hard work. In the last week of grinding work, I’ve forgotten that in addition to actually just finishing my job I might consider how I could excel at some small part of it. Not the whole, long involved thing, but just a piece of it. As is often the case with the young ‘uns, we learn things from reading their press.

And now for the recipe, a little value-added week beginning thing for you.

Every single person who eats — which would include every one of us — should have a nice recipe for vinaigrette. I know I’ve described this before, but I’m going to do it again. And I’m also going to suggest that you consider making it in this enormous quantity. That’s because if you have lovely vinaigrette on hand, you’re far more likely to eat vegetables. Here it is:

Macerate together these things:

2 shallots diced small
2 cloves garlic — diced small
2 teaspoons coarse salt
2/3 cup vinegar (red wine, champagne, balsamic)
–let sit at least 30 minutes

add 1 cup olive oil
4 Tablespoons dijon — shake and drizzle

I’m going to suggest that you begin the week by (a) excelling in at least one thing you’ve been assigned to do and; (b) drizzling some nice vinaigrette on your favorite steamed vegetable.

And later in the week, after I’ve excelled in at least one small thing, or at least eaten quite a number of green vegetables, I’ll be posting the BlogLily Annual Report . It has actually been an entire year, shockingly enough, of telling you exactly what’s on my mind and it is now time to account for how that’s gone.

The Renegade Lunch Lady and Other Matters

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that, among my obsessions, the art of packing a decent lunch is quite high. This is entirely consistent with being a person who owns over 75 colored pencils, and a lot of cool paperclips. The packed lunch obsession began, innocently enough, when I discovered how calming it felt to use cookie cutters to cut the cheddar cheese I was putting into my kindergarteners’ lunches into the shape of…. well, bats. They were leaving home for school for the first time and I was nervous. Somehow, making a nice lunch helped me feel better. The bats were because Halloween was approaching. They were sort of cute.

I’m not allowed to cut their food into cute shapes anymore. (In fact, I never really was. I learned recently that they put up with it, because they felt sorry for me. Their father had to tell me it wasn’t okay to do that.) Now, they all make their own lunches, with some help, so what goes in there is a joint decision. But there is no question that what goes into lunch matters. It matters that we eat well and with pleasure. And so, every culture has an iconic packed lunch container. In Japan, it’s the bento box. In India and in Thailand, it’s the tiffin tin. In the United States, it’s those steel tins that construction workers use and the ubiquitous brown paper bag. English people carry fancy wicker picnic baskets. I’m sure there are others, but I’ve been too busy packing lunches to devote myself utterly to a survey of World Lunches.

But I have devoted an entire blog to the subject of the packed lunch. It’s fun. It helps remind my children that what and how we eat matters. And yes, it’s a little weird. But I’m going with it, because sometimes that’s what you do with things you just really like. And it turns out that, in Berkeley where I live, I am not the only person thinking maybe ‘way too much about school lunches. If you have a chance, you might want to check it out, dip your toe into the utopian scheme that’s happening in my youngest child’s school to stamp out childhood diabetes through the introduction of organic, non-processed, locally prepared and grown, delicious food. Sounds good, huh? Or, possibly, too good to be true. I’ve written about Berkeley’s Renegade Lunch Lady here. The New Yorker has also written about her, in the September 5 education issue. But they’re not right there, in the cafeteria, like I am. Ha.

Tomorrow (Tuesday 9/5), I’m having surgery. I’ll be away until Thursday. I’ve got more scary story reading to do. A novel to finish. Plus, I’ve been reading Francine Prose’s book of essays on reading for writers. Ella, of the wonderful box of books, is leaving me a box of her books, as she leaves the country, so there’s a lot there to read. I need to finish the Sun Also Rises for my book group. I imagine I’ll have a lot to do while I’m recuperating. I’m thinking somebody might even set a nice tray of lunch for me, if I’m lucky, with my toast cut into the shape of something appealing.

See you Thursday. Don’t forget to eat a healthy, delicious lunch!

Love, BL

Summer’s End

Around here, summer always ends in a blaze of cake baking and party-giving, which is why you haven’t heard a peep out of me for a while. (No, I was not buried under an avalanche of shopping bags or so stunned by my clean office I was rendered paralyzed: I was up to my elbows in cake batter.)

Here’s the cake.  It’s a small round chocolate cake with about eight cupcakes arranged around it. The thing in the middle is a dowel with ribbons tied onto it. My favorite part? The grapefruit fruit slice on the top.  It looks sort of jaunty.

Yesterday, the youngest of the BlogLily boys celebrated his birthday at a family dinner. Earlier, over the weekend, he had a little party with his friends. It all sounds very simple, but honestly, it’s not really possible to celebrate a birthday in the United States of America simply anymore. And that, dear readers, is because of goody bags.

How the tradition of giving gifts to someone other than the celebrant at a child’s birthday party is unclear. My guess is that it came about because of some desire we have to help our children avoid unpleasant experiences, thinking — wrongly as it turns out — that avoiding them is the same as learning to handle them.

The worst and best part of a child’s birthday party, when I was a child, was the moment when the birthday child opened the presents. It was the stuff of which drama is made: would your present be acceptable, would there be something you wanted so badly you could imagine tearing it out of the birthday child’s hands and running away with it? Would the birthday child have a little manners misstep, and how would their mom handle it?

This present opening ritual was generally not very pleasant, despite the potential for an entertaining moment or two. I didn’t go to a lot of children’s birthday parties, not that I remember anyway, but I do remember the time we gave a barely literate girl in my class — the girl who struggled every time she had to read out loud — three books from the book order thing you do at school. I can still remember her look of utter disgust and the way her mother busted me with a mean little laugh, I’ll bet you read those first, she said. Indeed, I had, trying not to bend the pages, not thinking anyone would notice, knowing that it wasn’t the thing to do. It was terribly humiliating.

But I did file away for the future something about how not to treat a child who makes a mistake when a guest in my house. I also learned that it is not a good idea to give someone the very gift you would most like for yourself. Not everyone is like you. It was a vicious way to learn this, and the mother and girl were nasty too. Still, it was an experience that helped shape me as a social person and for the better.

What happens now, at a lot of parties among my children’s school friends, is that the presents are hustled out of the way, into a room out of sight, like they’re shameful. They aren’t heard from again until you get a thank you note. You never see them opened, never find out if anyone else gave a better gift than yours. I’ve done this myself, thinking to avoid any unpleasantness on an important day. The rest of the party goes like this: the children are entertained in some way: bowling, a clown, a craft project, a magician. After a while, a cake comes out, the song is sung and the guests are handed a goody bag, full of candy and little nick-nacks that quite possibly cost as much if not more than the gift the child brought to the party. This is the signal that the party is over.

It occurred to me once that goody bags were like a potlatch — a tradition I learned about when we studied the Indians of the Northwest, during the time I lived in Tacoma, Washington. (By that time, the Indians of the Northwest made a living selling tax free cigarettes from their land in Puyallup, but that is an entirely different story.) Anyway, when a tribe had a potlatch event, they’d load up their canoes with every valuable thing they owned and then they’d row over (paddle over, sorry!) to the neighbor tribe and drop the whole damned load off with their neighbors. And then you know what? The neighbors would have to turn around and give all their stuff away. I remember sitting in the classroom watching the filmstrip about this and wondering what would happen if all the other tribe had to give away were books.

Anyway, the goody bag/birthday present exchange does resemble a potlatch, although it has a different impulse at its core: it’s not so much about a kind of militant generosity (take that: here’s a Mercedes! Well, well…. here’s War and Peace..) but more about something I alluded to in the beginning of this post: goody bags disguise the truth that sometimes other people get the presents. Your turn will come — but you will have to wait for it. Instead, we’re telling children, Yes, that kid got a lot of presents. But you got some too, so it’s okay.

It is very hard to learn that you are not at the center and quite understandable that parents might want to short-circuit coming to terms with that knowledge. Certainly this is a painful truth in our own family of three children, where each boy struggles with the knowledge that there are others who command attention and resources, others who have things to say at dinner and want to use the bathroom or the computer.

But I think that handling this fact of life need not be a stark lesson in self-denial and stiff upper lip. It is also the case that the person who is the center of attention must learn how to make his guests feel welcome and important. And that’s why the things you do at the party matter. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more children who attend, and the more complicated the event or entertainment is, the less fun the party is.

It turns out that the most entertaining parties we’ve had have been the ones we put on in the street in front of our house (we live at the end of the street and no one drives down it). We set up a little carnival, hand out tickets and have prizes for the games. (No goody bags — but then there are the prizes, which are a lot of fun to win, even if all they are is a tootsie roll.)

This year, the youngest brother wanted to have his own carnival, having watched his brothers’ parties for most of his life. Except he didn’t want to have a lot of guests. In fact, he had two. And that made it unlike any other birthday party I’ve ever given or been too. It was just incredibly low key. The carnival was a piece of cake, since we’d made the games years earlier. And the cake, was too because it’s the same one I always make. A few neighbors, the two friends, the BlogLily brothers, my husband and I.

In case you are interested in what the carnival looked like, here it is:

An obstacle course:

A ball toss (our neighbor Pam, for the third year in a row, dressed up as a clown and ran this game, bless her heart):

Toss the football through the hula hoop.

Fishing (a BlogLily older boy crouches down behind the screen and eventually clips something to the clothespin that’s on the fishing pole.)

.

And then when the games had all been played (the children had a little bag with enough tickets to play the games a few times each), the BlogLily boy opened his presents — both of them — in front of everyone. The children who gave the presents explained why they liked them so much and the birthday child said thank you quite genuinely, because the whole idea of being given a gift was as fresh and wonderful as it should be. There is nothing sadder than a child who gets present fatigue after the fourth gift and begins to open packages with the resignation of someone opening a past due bill he can’t possibly pay. And then we all ate chocolate cake, played the games for a while longer without prizes, and went home. Until next year, when we have another carnival party.

Lima Stew and Blender Tuna Mousse: Unrescued Recipes

Those are just a few of the unlikely recipes I found today in an old recipe box from Indiana. Other favorites include Lima Beans Au Gratin, Green Soup Plus, and a recipe attributed to “TV Hour Mag” called Carrot Chowder. Carrot Chowder features the unappetizing combination of one pound ground meat (type of meat unspecified), a lot of water, four cups of grated carrots and four cups of tomato juice. You couldn’t have created something more disturbing had you closed your eyes and dumped the first four things you touched in your refrigerator (make that your fridge after you’d just returned from a six week vacation) into a large soup pot filled with water.

I’ve been meaning to rescue some recipes this week from the many wonderful recipe boxes I’ve been ordering from EBay. But these, it seems to me, should never have been exhumed. Nevertheless, the life of a woman who must have been a spectacularly bad cook interests me very much.

I imagine she was cooking in the 1940s through the 1960s, and that she was not a woman who had decided to liberate herself from the kitchen. At least not overtly. Hers, I think, was more of an underground movement. I have a picture of her: she played a lot of bridge (one of the recipes is scrawled on the back of a contract bridge score card). She’d sit at her kitchen table in the afternoon, blinds drawn, husband at work, children at school, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, a small glass of some clear, lethal liquid at her elbow. She’d flip through the pages of TV Hour Mag, looking for the profile of her favorite soap opera star. And then she’d pause at the recipe for Carrot Chowder and think to herself, what the hell, why not try something new? Her next thought, barely expressed under the fog of bridge, lethal liquid and soap operas? It’ll serve them right for expecting me to cook all the time

The evidence is that hers was a pretty successful underground movement. Take “Green Soup Plus,” a recipe cut out of a newspaper and billed as “an elegant way to treat soup from the pantry shelf.” Its ingredients, beyond one can of condensed green pea soup, something I didn’t even know existed, are sour cream, curry powder and this shocker: flaked cooked crab. Crab on green pea soup? What an unkind thing to do with a lovely bit of crab. My guess is that it wasn’t a lovely bit of crab, but an old leftover bit of crab cocktail brought home from a restaurant she’d wheedled her surly husband into taking her to. On top of the crab, you are directed to throw some flaked coconut. I suppose you could squint at the dish, and imagine being in the Tonga Room, drinking some kind of drink with an umbrella in it, while you poison your family with a brew of green peas and slightly “off” crab.

I’m only going to talk about one more piece of culinary Semtex this woman created for her family: Lima Beans Au Gratin. She might have thought that calling it Au Gratin would tease them into eating it. And maybe they did. But that must have been the last time they ever asked her to cook for them. Why? In addition to one pound of dried LARGE Lima beans (“cooked,” the recipe says, but without any suggestion of how long or how) there are directions for making a soupy milky mix of butter flour milk and evaporated milk. The whole thing is then topped with a lot of diced pimento and paprika. Clearly, the idea was to hide the badly cooked Limas under something that must have looked like milk stew. The scary bits of pimento? Who knows. Maybe her family liked pimento and seeing it on top of something lured them into plunging their spoons into the milky morass and actually eating those LARGE Limas.

I hope she made it out of Indiana alive and unprosecuted. I’m guessing her life in Indiana did not turn out the way she’d imagined when she agreed to marry Mr. Blender Tuna Mousse. (I haven’t talked about blender tuna mousse for a reason. Were I to describe it, you would dream of it and that wouldn’t be nice.) I’m hoping she ended up in Miami, the place I know she truly wanted to live. In Florida, her hair would always be the color of the sun, her glass always full, the umbrella perched in her drink always open, her television tuned to a lovely soap opera, her feet pedicured and on top of a flowered ottoman, a nice man scheduled to show up every evening at 7:00 with a bouquet of roses and a promise to always, always, always, take her out to dinner. If he knew what was good for him, that is.

A Dispatch From the Land of Tea Cakes

The tea cake is the madeleine of the American south. Like the madeleine it is a very basic, sugar, flour, butter, eggs concoction. It is the sort of thing our elders served when people came over in the afternoon. It’s simple and a bit dense, the sort of thing you’d dip into a cup of tea. Unlike the madeleine, the tea cake is a shape shifter. But more on that later.
sugar, flour, butter, eggs, salt, vanilla, baking soda

These are the ingredients. The eggs are sitting in warm water because I forgot to bring them to room temperature:

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 eggs

–cream these ingredients and then add:

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon soda

The dough will look like this:

An important thing to remember is that there is a lot of flour in this dough. It isn’t sticky. I think that’s why it’s so easy to roll out.

This is only half the dough the recipe made. I rolled the dough into two logs and put them in the fridge while I considered my next move. I decided I’d make little cakes, and put dough inside a mini- muffin tin. I sprinkled the dough with sugar.

Here’s the mini-muffin tin. And now, a confession. Although I liked these, they were not a hit with everyone in my house. My husband thought they were too dry. One son liked them a lot. Another son said they were just way too rich. He had a quarter of a cake and that was it for him. I left them in the kitchen at work, and they did disappear.  This might not be the best measure of yumminess.  Stale cheerios will disappear from that kitchen, if you are patient enough.

I began to think about the denseness problem, and had an inspiration. If I rolled the dough out very, very thin, maybe the cookies wouldn’t be so overwhelming. And then I remembered those farm animal cookie cutters, the ones I’ve never used because, well, I’ve always been too busy to use things like that. Or thought I was. But this summer — and the rest of my life — is going to be different. I’m using our stuff. But I digress.

Here they are — cute huh? Animals.  I cooked these in a 325 degree oven for eight minutes, then took them out, turned the cookie sheet around and cooked them for another eight minutes. They’re done when they’re brown and smell really good.

Apples are nice too.

This is what I mean by the shape shifting properties of this dough. Roll it thin and cut it out with any cutter you like and it will be whatever you wish. How many things in life are like that?

Here are my family’s reactions:

  1. Husband: The thinner the better. (Not you, of course, just the dough. Your shape is perfect.)
  2. My youngest son: They’re good. I like the fat ones better, because you get more.
  3. One of my older sons: Good job mom. I’d like these in my lunch. They’re like chessmen cookies.
  4. Other son. Too busy talking on the phone with a friend to say much. Thumbs up.

Have a cookie, darlin’:

Red, White, and Blue, Baby

Today’s my brother Tom’s birthday. He’s taken it well, having to share his birthday with that of our beloved country. This year, he’s having a birthday celebration in El Paso with our parents, his girlfriend from Columbia, Lena, our friend Aurelia and my three boys. Whew. There will be fireworks, as there often are on his birthday.

My brother lives alone most of the time. He’s a bachelor, a category of male life my sons find fascinating and wonderful. Every room in his house is magical. For example, the laundry room in his house has the usual stuff — but it also has an enormous bucket of bubble gum. He has an entire refrigerator in his garage devoted to soft drinks. He has THREE televisions. He plays the guitar well. He is terribly kind and very generous.

Today, thinking about my brother, I made the Cake with a Thousand Faces

I employed raspberries and blueberries and will not explain why that is. I’m sure you can guess. This is how it looked before it went in the oven.

This is how it looked when it came out of the oven:

I’m sure it is very clear how much I love my brother. Happy Birthday to him, the Red, White and Bluebaby.

Jam Today

The jam is done. If you want to see how it all started, you can read about it here. This is how I finished it.

Sterilize the jars. That means: wash them in hot soapy water, fill them with hot water and put them in the microwave on high for ten minutes or in the oven at 250 for about half an hour. I use boiling water. You do not have to; boiling water can be scary. We don’t want you to be afraid.

Next, open the fridge and take out the jam you put in there a few days ago, the jam that’s been sitting in its sugar and lemon bath and becoming more and more delicious.

Put it in the lovely copper preserving kettle. While you’re at it, take the top of the two part canning lid (there’s a screw top and a flat sealing part), and put it in a sauce pan with water.

Turn the heat on. As soon as the water begins to boil in the saucepan where you’ve put the lids, turn it off. You don’t want to cook the lids, you want to keep them warm. When the jam begins to boil, turn it down to a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes. Sometimes the jam is a bit runny. That’s okay. It firms up in the fridge. It is not meant, anyway, to be glutinous.

Can the stuff. That means, put it in the jars using a ladle (there is a special funnel you can get that helps this.) Leave about 1/4 inch of headroom. Wipe the top of the jar with a clean cloth. Screw on the two part lid that comes with all Kerr and Ball canning jars. (If you live in another country, this process will have to be as per the manufacturer’s instructions.) Turn the jars upside down.  Set a timer for five minutes.  And then turn the jars right side up.

You will notice that, somewhere between ten and thirty minutes later, the jars will make a most satisfying “pop.” If you’ve canned a lot of jars, there will be a lot of popping. This is the sound of the jar sealing. In our small house, when I make jam at night, I can hear the popping all the way up in my bed. I love it.

And that’s it. Except you need to try to keep the jam for the winter and not eat it right then & there, which is what we did with some of it last night. This picture doesn’t really do justice to the color which is a deep … raspberry. Here are some things you can do with jam:

  • spoon it over plain yogurt
  • spoon it over ice cream
  • eat it with a spoon
  • use it as a relish with meat
  • and, of course, put it on toast