Saturday, August 26, 2017

The cast iron pan that came to breakfast

My son-in-law is one of a kind - polite, genuine, funny, and wicked smart. His transition into our family was seamless, which says a lot, considering just how crazy we are. He is also, as we have discovered over the last couple of years, an excellent cook. This is a good thing because the other half of The Love Couple – First Born – is not exactly a fan of cooking. You can’t blame it on genetics. I enjoy cooking, even if I do it more out of necessity than an overwhelming passion for it. Spouse will occasionally chip in and make (most of) a meal, but if it’s anything special I am reminded of how good it was for an interminable amount of time. He made spaghetti sauce in 1986 and still talks about it.

Last weekend, The Love Couple paid a visit to Maine and we enjoyed some much-needed family time. During their stay I realized how seriously The Groom takes his cooking. We had experienced a taste of his culinary delights last Thanksgiving in Atlanta. This time he promised to make homemade cornbread and guacamole while here in Maine. I tried to find out ahead of time what ingredients he would need, but he insisted on picking them out himself. Fine, I thought. I can understand that some chefs are quite particular about choosing things like produce and spices. And then --

He brought his own cast iron pan.

That’s correct. Even though I had a cast iron pan that was perfectly good, which he could have used it to make his delectable cornbread, he chose to check a bag at the airport just so he would have his own seasoned cooking vessel. Oh, and he also brought his own special-ordered grits.

We discovered it’s not avocado season when the Groom attempted to make guacamole and almost broke the counter with the bag avocados he purchased (apparently, he wasn't tipped off when he needed a forklift to put them in the cart). While he sputtered over trying to chop up pieces of green rock, Spouse, Second Born and I ran back to the store and found the only five ripe avocados in Maine. The end result was an amazing guacamole that was completely wiped out within hours.

Over the weekend this 50-don't-ask mid-lifer who has been making meals for more than 30 years with considerable success (my lasagna is especially noteworthy), was schooled in the art of seasoning a cast iron pan by a 29-year-old. During this process I felt compelled to admit to several cast iron cookware infractions:

I’ve used soap and a sponge on my pan.

I don’t always dry it immediately after cleaning it.

I have cooked eggs in it. A lot.

In the world of cast iron cookware, these lapses of judgment could end in disaster. My son-in-law wasn’t taking a chance that my pan may not be seasoned properly or the appropriate weight for his cornbread recipe. He was correct - it wasn’t seasoned, but isn’t one cast iron pan the same as the next? Oh no, I learned. Different manufacturers and different eras meant different weights, as faithful cast iron users know. The Groom researched them, read reviews, and eventually found exactly what he wanted on eBay, not Wal-Mart... like some of us may have done.

Because I was never going to get around to it, I took him up on his offer to season my large cast iron pan. This method involves applying and reapplying oil or grease (in this case, bacon grease) to the inside and outside of the pan, then baking it at 375 for about 45 minutes… I think. All right, honestly, I wasn’t fully paying attention except for acknowledging this was the one week in Maine where you did not want to have the oven on for any length of time.

My son-in-law is trusting me to use kosher salt to clean my pans going forward. I didn’t make any promises but it was with a sigh of relief that I unearthed kosher salt in the cabinet, thereby proving that my intentions were good.

I can’t let him down even though technically he showed me up. That cornbread was like a little slice of heaven. I will accept that someone younger can still teach me a few things… but I guarantee I’ll be doing the schooling when it comes to using a lasagna pan.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Please and thank you, Alexa

When First and Second born were being brought up, they knew politeness and respect went a long way in our family. When “Please” was not added to a request and “Thank you” was absent from a kind deed, it was a short trip to the word “No.”

Enter Alexa. Chances are you’ve seen or at least heard commercials (while you were flipping through Facebook) for this “intelligent personal assistant” created by Amazon as another reason to never publish another encyclopedia. Does anyone even publish encyclopedias anymore?

I have a problem with Alexa, or Siri, or any of the smart electronic devices that can recite lyrics to a song with a simple teaser or time your baked goods or order flowers. None of them teach you how to be polite. When is the last time you used “please” when you asked Siri to show you the most direct route to a Thai restaurant? Have you ever thanked Alexa for reminding you about your dentist appointment? Of course not. They don’t require you to use your manners.

Second Born devised a sneaky little method to get around our “please” and “thank you” rules when she was very young. She would ask for something and, with the confidence of an adult who concludes a query letter for a job with “Thank you in advance for your consideration”, Little Miss Smarty Pants concocted her own version. “May I have some ice cream? Please and thank you!”

While this was not exactly the phrasing and emphasis I was going for, I had to acknowledge her clever way of covering all the bases.

So, how are we teaching our kids to ask for things now? We aren’t, at least not with these electronic gadgets that have the answer or solution for almost everything. On a side note, I just had a flashback of my twenties, when I was sure my parents were old because they used phrases like “gadgets” – and here I am. I can almost feel my hair turning white in Second Born’s eyes as she sits across the living room from me.

Back to my point of politeness. Spouse was given an Alexa as a token of appreciation from his work place. Alexa is sitting on our kitchen counter all charged up and ready to answer our questions. In fact, Alexa keeps reminding us how ready she is, if we would just start using the dang smart phone application and ask her some stuff already. I have added a condition to our use of Alexa. We must – and I mean MUST – always say please upon our request, and thank you when Alexa responds.

I have also forbidden Spouse to call Alexa stupid. That’s one of his favorite words when his smart phone or his laptop does something to irritate him. Call me quirky (and I’m all right with that) but I don’t want anything with a name to be degraded. What if it rebelled and stopped working? Mind you, user error is a significant factor, but until my mate admits that sometimes he’s messed up, he is putting us all in jeopardy by being too critical of the electronics we are surrounded with. I, for one, don’t care to end up driving down a dead-end dirt road because my GPS decided we didn’t deserve to find our way home. If you think I’m crazy, do a YouTube search of Dave and Hal from A Space Odyssey.

Am I being too persistent about politeness? Personally, I don’t feel you can be too polite or courteous. So, if you do take advantage of this new technology, use your manners, even if you are talking to an electronic know-it-all. That way you’re less likely to find yourself at a biker bar when you really just wanted Italian.

On a final note, I should apologize for doubting Garth Brooks in the commercial where he asks for a weather update. Alexa really does know that "deep in her heart" the thunder rolls. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

How not to be a turkey

You’re a turkey. Oh, don’t get your feathers all ruffled, we’re just pretending. You and your family or friends make up a flock turkeys. You’ve just stepped out of a wooded area after visiting your favorite pond or bug hunting spot, and you’re about to cross a quiet little road on your way back to your favorite sleeping tree. Yes, turkeys sleep in trees.

You don't stop and look for oncoming traffic because - well, you're a turkey!

But the driver of a car that’s supposed to be doing 25 miles per hour and is rounding the curve at 40 has no idea they are about to cross paths with you. Can anybody win in this scenario?


That’s a heck of a way to start off what is normally a humorous post, I know. There’s nothing funny about a turkey-covered windshield, especially at the moment it happens. In fact, there is really nothing funny about an animal placing themselves in front of a dangerous situation. Even less so, a person. But if you drive, you probably do just that more than once a week.

So, I want everyone to count with me. I’ll go first. One, Two, Three. Your turn.

One. Two. Three.

You may have just saved your life and possibly someone else’s, because almost every day that you drive, you could be first in line at a traffic light. You wait for your turn. Your light turns green. You move forward.

Did you read that carefully? I’ll say it again.

You wait for your turn. Your light turns green. You move forward.

But the other driver is determined to beat the yellow light that’s about to turn red. Or they think they’ll just squeak under the red light.

Or, all too often these days, they JUST KEEP DRIVING long after the light has turned red.

One. Two. Three.

The American Traffic Solutions website recorded that in 2015, two people died every day in red light running crashes. That becomes 60 people dying each month, and that becomes an average of 720 a year. 720 Lives A Year. It starts with two and it doesn’t stop.

Now, here’s a somewhat embarrassing statistic.

In a national telephone survey by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, 94 percent of drivers said they believe it is unacceptable to go through a red light if it's possible to stop safely. We won't try to figure out the mindset of the other 6 percent. But the bigger irony? In that same survey, 39 percent reported doing so. In the past 30 days.

Three. Two. One.

Remember, the order doesn’t matter. The time it takes you to count does.

In this great state of Vacationland, reckless driving ramps up during the summer tourist season. Sometimes a driver is following another car and doesn’t want to become separated. Maybe they’re lost, or paying more attention to the GPS, or reading a text, or JUST NOT STOPPING. The reasons don’t matter as much as the devastating result.

Several cities use red light cameras now, and statistics show up to a 40 percent decrease in red light violations. But some cities have removed the cameras amid the backlash from an increase in traffic tickets... shooting the danger level back up by 30 percent.

One. Two. Three.

New England winter driving can be harsh, but it is somewhat predictable. The snow and ice don’t make the decision for you. In summer, a lot of other factors come into play. For instance, a holiday weekend equals more cars, more lost tourists, more impatient drivers not always making the best decisions.

I started with some name calling – or is it turkey calling - to get your attention, but what I really want is to ask a favor of you all. Don’t become a statistic. Please value your own life and others on the road.

I’m asking you to resist running a yellow or red light and avoid making what could be a fatal decision. I’m also asking you to always be aware that another driver just might be making that decision for you.

When the light turns green, before you move forward, count.

One. Two. Three.

Please... don’t be a turkey.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

What's next? Don't ask.

Second Born is officially a college graduate. Her authentic degree arrived in the mail, replacing the fake degree handed to each student at commencement a few weeks ago. So where does she go from here, you ask? Has she been applying for jobs? What type of job is she looking for? Where is she looking? All of these and many more little pop quizzes face the graduate any time she is near another adult. Her response is polite, somewhat practiced at this point, and pointedly vague. She is adept at avoiding the question while convincing the interrogator they know everything by the end of the conversation.

I’ve more or less learned to refrain from asking too much or repeating the same questions within a 48-hour period. Spouse, not so much. He doesn’t query about his own daughter’s progress – he follows up on every one of her closest college friends, from the gaggle of girls she shared living arrangements with during the past four years to the few friends from high school that she still keeps in touch with. It goes something like this.

Spouse: So… does anyone have something lined up yet?

Second Born: Grad One and Four have summer jobs. Grad Two isn’t sure what she wants to do. Grad Five is moving into her apartment next week to be closer to her new dream job. And, well, you know Grad Three.

Do we know Grad Three? I get them all mixed up. It seems like each time Spouse asks (I don’t have to say too much - his curiosity keeps me out of trouble and in the loop), things have switched around. Next thing you know, Grad Four could be opening a tattoo parlor and Grad Three might decide her creative writing major would be more beneficial if she takes a summer course in accounting to better understand why she’ll never make any money with a creative writing major.

Then there are her local friends who have jobs or boyfriends or both. Second Born is just starting to arrange get-togethers so they can catch up and trade stories from their final year of awesome and atrocious professors, wonderful and weird roommates, and endless exams and projects. We usually get a reader’s digest version of these visits.

This question and half-answer game about the others is just a ruse on the part of my occasionally clever husband to give his daughter a chance to clue us in on her next move, figuratively and maybe somewhat literally. But we also meant it when we said she was not expected to be on her own the minute she graduated. That had been her plan until she realized taking a full load her last semester meant that putting her all into the job and location search would have to wait.

Shortly after graduation, Second Born and a carload of The Grads took a road trip to a fellow grad’s graduation party. It was what you could call their last hurrah prior to a lifetime of workdays and responsibilities. She returned just as Spouse and I were set to leave town for a few days to attend the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ conference. That meant she’d have the house to herself for three days – three whole days with nobody asking about her plans or anyone else’s. Heaven.

The right job and location will come. It might not happen overnight – or over several nights – but it will happen. So, to anyone out there who comes across a new college grad, instead of the same old inevitable questions, tell them about your first job, your worst job, your first dumpy apartment, or your own apprehension when it was your turn to enter the workforce. Give them the benefit of your experience and welcome them into the club of uncertainty and not always getting it right the first time. We’ve all been members.

Congratulations to all graduates, from college right down to kindergarten. Remember, first grade is a whole new world... with better scissors.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Bad habits and teeth are hard to break

It was a typical weekday morning. I was eating breakfast at the kitchen table, gluten free waffles and meatless sausage patties, the result of recently shopping at Trader Joe's. As I bit down on a tiny, hard substance I recall thinking, “Hmm… what would be hard in a waffle and a non-meat sausage patty?

Immediately after this thought, one of my bottom front teeth felt strangely rough. I tried scraping off what I believed to be an offending piece of food stuck on the tooth, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t something stuck. It was something missing – the top of my tooth.

Here’s the thing. The minute you realize something in your mouth has changed, you start talking differently. I don’t know if you’d call it a lisp or a slur, but I was definitely compensating for my unhappy incisor. A detour to the dentist before work was obviously in order.

Now, ask yourself, is a dentist’s office a place where you would expect to find a “walk-ins welcome” sign? Absolutely not. But I did just that and I all but begged them to fit me in that day. Despite the business of their waiting room, they took me in for an x-ray and determined that only the top had broken off and could be repaired at the end of the day. I can do that, I figured. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a tooth at all – it was just the top that had broken off.

My tongue, on the other hand, had a different idea. It would not leave that dang tooth alone. No matter how hard I tried to consciously steer it away, my tongue kept gravitating toward the sharpest spot on that tooth until it had developed - to the surprise of no one – an extremely painful sore on the bottom.

During my work day, nobody seemed to have taken much notice of the chunk of missing tooth, my fool tongue was causing the most grief.

I’m a big baby at the dentist, stemming from bad childhood experiences, but this time I didn’t cringe hearing the drill that was smoothing the jagged edges down. It only took a few minutes for things to be packed, patched and polished so that it looked like the rest of my teeth. I had no idea they could make this kind of paste with a coffee stained hue.

This lovely little incident is believed to be the result of a life-long habit of mine - grinding my teeth. It often happens during the night in my sleep, where I don’t have much control (and yes, I’m considering a mouth piece). It also happens in daylight hours when I’m stressing or over thinking, and since the dental debacle I’ve noticed it happens because I seem to have an inexplicable need to tap my bottom front teeth with my top front teeth.

It’s a bad habit. There are others but this one takes the cake, or - in this case - the tooth. At this very moment, I am willing my teeth not to clang together, especially considering the fact that this filled-in spot is only as permanent as I make it by not biting down on anything too hard, and by stopping my own tooth abuse. I’m finding this to be quite the challenge. It’s fairly easy to avoid chomping down on anything that would loosen my dentist’s glorious work, but policing my own grinding is proving to be a challenge. However, becoming a frequent flyer at the dentist is not an option, so awareness will be a priority.

My tongue healed quickly and I am back to biting down, but with some caution. I can tell you this little mishap will not deter me from eating those gluten free waffles and meatless sausage patties.

Sometimes you just have to live dangerously.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Have belly, will dance

A few weeks ago, I took on a new challenge. Ignoring the fact that I don’t dance, sashay, or for that matter balance well, I signed up for a weekly belly dancing class through our local adult education program. Spouse didn’t even snicker when I suggested it. I think he was grateful I had stopped suggesting we take ballroom dancing lessons together. He escaped that one because those dances require high heels, and I’m afraid of heights. You don’t need shoes for belly dancing. I’m in.

Any type of dance can be intense exercise, so for this reason I chose not to tell my body where I was going ahead of time. Let’s head toward the ice cream stand, I told my quivering thighs. We’re just going to satisfy our imaginary craving at the nearest drive-thru, I convinced my wobbly arms. I took a right into the school parking lot and never looked back, except to wonder if the ice cream stand would still be open after class.

Shortly after I entered the classroom a handful of women joined me, most of us somewhere in the middle of middle age. The instructor, however, was anything but middle aged - more like an age between First and Second Born. With her perfect posture and tiny but strong dancer’s body, she could rock the bells off her hip scarf. I had to wonder whether this young whipper snapper could work with us old-ish fogies, but she was wonderfully patient and sweet, and she immediately began teaching us just how to whip and snap our somewhat mushy bodies into belly dancing shape.

Luckily, we are relegated to the school cafeteria for our lessons, which means there are no mirrors typically found in dance studios. I would only be able to stand so much hysterical laughter (which would be coming from me) if I had to watch myself attempt to be graceful. Our instructor stands in front of us and we try to mimic her moves. Of course, when she delicately swirls a leg in the air, I thrust my leg out and instantly grab a chair back so I don’t fall over. As her hips make a figure-eight, mine are going more for a triangle in an attempt to not knock a hip out of joint.

Our instructor has been staying after class, video-taping herself reenacting the lessons each week, and e-mailing them to us so we have the option of practicing before the next class. During the first week, I stood in front of my laptop in our living room before Spouse woke up Saturday morning. I studied the video and attempted to follow her steps. It only took 25 minutes of practice to successfully complete a 50-second routine.

As uncoordinated as I am, there is something freeing about belly dancing. The moves can be close to fluid with a little practice, or with a lot of practice in my case. Hip scarves are provided by our instructor to use during the class, giving us the chance to jingle and jangle when we jiggle. I’ve learned to let my fingers and arms slip smoothly through the air in a gentle lilt. I can protrude my pelvis and shimmy my shoulders right along with the other eager students who are challenging themselves to experiment with this very different kind of movement.

There are two more weeks of lessons to go and I can guarantee you won’t be confusing me with a professional belly dancer any time soon, but I’ll keep practicing. Any dance where you can shake it while shoeless is my kind of dance.

Monday, May 1, 2017

First, we learned how to pronounce quinoa

There is a bag of quinoa on my kitchen counter, you know, the kind you pour from a giant bin into a flimsy plastic bag four times before you hit a pound on the mystery scale. In case you were wondering, I don’t search out quinoa very often. If I had my druthers I’d be buying chocolate chips from those bins. But we’re trying to find some better alternatives to our occasionally questionable food choices.

It took a while to track down the aisle where quinoa and all those other bins of grains and stuff are now hidden since our local supermarket went and renovated. I refuse to refer to those green maps planted around the store. I believe the order should make sense and not be a lesson in futility over finding rice or seltzer water.

The problem is those bags that you pour food into don’t come with directions, and we are less than proficient at preparing unknown substances such as this, though we’ve come a long way since we couldn’t even pronounce quinoa. Come on, you know it looks like quin-OH-uh. The more popular this oddly powerful ingredient became the more we heard it pronounced Keen-wah. I don’t think that pronunciation even makes sense but who am I to argue with health-conscious proponents of this grain-like substance? That’s the other thing – I’ve seen it described as a grain-like substance, the seed from part of a plant, and a seed grain. How many different ways are there to say that it’s not really a grain?

Spouse keeps saying he wants to figure out what to do with the quinoa for breakfast. Anyone who’s been married for more than 30 years knows what he’s really saying is that he wants yours truly to figure out what to do with the quinoa for breakfast. I tried a new recipe last week that included bananas, cinnamon, butter and maple syrup. This led to the discovery that quinoa needs a lot of help to sweeten up. I added brown sugar and extra syrup, and even with that I could see by his dubious expression that it sort of passed as a breakfast food.

The quinoa seed has competition from the chia seed as far as offering health benefits, and it’s certainly easier to pronounce, especially to those of us who grew up with those ch-ch-ch-chia commercials. You’re singing it now, aren’t you. Because I work with people who are vegetarian, vegan or gluten free, I hear a lot about beans, soy, and edamame. Why is health food so hard to pronounce anyway? Does that word look like eddamommay?

The older we get the more conscious we need to be of how to stick around a little longer, especially since they keep making our retirement age higher. But even when we were younger we were exposed to healthier eating, or at least what sounded healthier at the time. I’ll bet Baby Boomers remember the cereal commercials with outdoorsman Euell Gibbons claiming that the taste reminded him of wild hickory nuts. Seriously, I don’t want to eat anything that tastes like a tree. I just want to be alive to enjoy my not-yet-conceived grandchildren.

On my kitchen counter are bags of green lentils and garbanzo beans, which I knew growing up only as chick peas, and already puffed up in a can. I had carefully included these items on my grocery list about a month ago in preparation for an interesting vegetarian dish I had seen on a website or an email or maybe Facebook. That’s the problem. Darned if I can find the recipe I wanted to use this stuff for.

So, if you have a great recipe that I can throw lentils and garbanzo beans into (and don’t have to add chicken to make it flavorful), by all means pass it on. I’m going to just put these bags of beans right back in the kitchen cabinet where they… oooh, look – I just found the last of the Girl Scout cookies.

Now what??

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Final Four

We just passed the four-week mark. It is less than a month until Second Born graduates from college. College? Did I really say that? That's impossible. She was 12 years old last time I looked.

This child has been preparing us for watching her take flight since she came kicking and screaming out of the womb. When she was three years old, "I do it!" was a frequently heard phrase.

Second Born was my rock collector as we walked the beach for as many hours as her little four-year-old feet would carry her. She held her ground during the rough middle school years when friends went through their catty phase. She grew up too fast in many ways when medical reasons kept me from being there as her sounding board in seventh grade, but her spirit, even when bruised, remained strong. She excelled in high school and graduated with honors... and dragged us through 15 campuses during her college search.

I can easily recall a couple of memories that would make her instantly laugh or possibly cringe. When she was six years old and in a summer program, she told visiting firefighters in no uncertain terms that she would NOT be entering their demonstration smoke house. It was around that time that our usually brave, little brown-eyed girl informed us that she was afraid of deep water (i.e., anything over six inches), dark, closed in places and - as previously established - fire. Did I mention this epiphany came during a trip to Disney World? That left the teacups and the Dumbo ride. We also got Mickey and Minnie's autograph at least six times that week.

That spring our little daredevil resurfaced when, during an attempt to jump off the arm of a chair to catch a wayward balloon, she broke her wrist in two places. That shocked the nurse who had asked her if she could move her wrist (she did). She probably should have asked if my child could move her wrist without feeling like it was on fire.

Second Born had her challenges as the kid at home when her sister left for college. She got dish duty and plant watering, and other responsibilities she definitely did not sign up for. I would say the most distasteful of these had to be the weeks she spent coming home to a daily doggy disaster when her sister brought home an abandoned pup from school. Sometimes growing up is far less appealing than you think.

Every parent thinks they’ll have plenty of time to do stuff with their family, that the summer or the holidays will come and life will slow down and we’ll catch up. It doesn’t and we don’t. I swear this child went from asking non-stop questions in the car at four years old to boarding a plane for Budapest where she would turn 21 as a college junior. The expression “Don’t blink” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

This is the child who talked so incessantly at home that we thought her middle school teachers were joking about how quiet she was in class. The one who didn’t touch anything except grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, pizza and chocolate for the majority of her years. The one who loves tradition and harmonizing to the radio and her cat Sophie.

In less than four weeks, our baby girl will don a cap and gown, hold her diploma and feel all grown up and excited, and maybe a little uncertain about where life will take her. But she will navigate these waters with her usual determination.

Having gone through this with First Born seven years ago, I know graduation day will come and go in a blur, and I know I’m going to cry – that’s inevitable. But under that cap and gown, I will still see a little munchkin with mascara smeared all over her face after raiding my makeup bag. I’ll picture her in a shimmery dance skirt over her t-shirt, her pixie haircut, sitting on our front stoop painting seashells. And I’ll always feel her sweet “I need something” hugs.

Oh yes, some moments you know by heart.