Sunday, January 31, 2010

Gloomy weather, time for story-telling, and whale watching

The sun came up Saturday morning with a sort of surly reluctance, as if it really would rather have just slept in and let the rain run the show for the day. A full moon, of course, brings on astromically high and low tides and a correspondingly strong urge on my part to go to the beach and see what beautiful artifacts of pre-history might have been cast up by Neptune's whim. When the rain receded into the dark clouds we rushed out into a dry spot on the radar map and walked for a mile or so under stubbornly gloomy skies, for there is always something to be discovered, ancient or otherwise.

Sunday was forecast to be colder but clear so we planned to spend much of the day at the beach. Instead it was one of those days that suggest meteorology to be a science only slightly less primitive and uncertain than alchemy: it has been colder, certainly, but relentlessly overcast; not a beach day. Maddening, as my friend Louise reported the sight of 4 North Atlantic Right Whales Friday. They'd been traveling southward so I didn't expect to see those same individuals, but the thought of watching for them added more weight to the moon's pull. Last year, Rodney saw one, a female traveling with a new calf...and there is a story I need to tell, later. Not a beach day, but a fine resting day for reading, napping, thinking about writing, and good for several long-distance conversations about writing and food and love.

After a lovely dinner of tilapia a la meuniere last evening, I wrote about Cafe Alcazar as I've been threatening to do and found myself with more story than I'd expected. A LOT more. There are more characters, more depth, more personal history, and MANY more instances of lives crossing over or glancing off one another. My friend Sue and I often laugh at the recognition of these moments, and say, "Only in St. Augustine". And honestly, although I think these subtle webs of intereconnectedness must exist whereever people do, there does seem to be some inexplicable influence of location here. There is even (courtesy, again, of Lorie) the recipe for the Tahini Dressing, waiting to be shared. One of the many beauties of the blog, I'm learning, is that there's time to tell the stories. Ms. Moon pointed out today that she's posted over a thousand blogs since she started, in 2007. So there is time, my loves, and I'll try to tell you all the best stories.

Often one story brings me to another. Tonight Lorie noted for me that I'd made a mistake in the Curried Chicken Salad recipe (which I am correcting now) and this reminded me of my maternal great-grandmother. She made the most creamy, unforgettable fudge, studded with the black walnuts the mountain people love, and was often asked for her recipe. My mother suspected that though the recipe was often shared, there was always a key ingredient or part of the process left out so that no one would be able replicate the perfection of the result. In the chambers of remembrance where our memories are saved, they are all - whether treasured or hated or feared or beloved - they are all as connected as the lives I mentioned earlier. They are all as interwoven and interdependent as the threads of a sweater so that a gentle tug on one moves a corner of another. And before you know it the stories tumble out, to be poured through fingers like twisted yarn, sorted and pieced together or returned to the place that held them. But there is time. For this evening, I leave you with a view of the dark Atlantic, home to less than 400 of the endangered great creatures of the northern hemisphere, tragically named by pragmatic hunters of a bygone century for the physiology of their bodies, so perfectly "right" for the act of hunting. Here it is, being surveyed by my love, watching for the whale he spotted last year, Arpeggio, and perhaps a glimpse of her baby, a hopeful glimpse into the future.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ode on a Grecian Salad (and its amazing antecedents)

If you've been reading along for a bit you've already figured out that the Cafe Alcazar is sort of the spiritual living room of the MadriGalz. It's a fine match of philosophies. Our simple a capella arrangements of Christmas carols reflect several centuries. The Cafe is nestled inside a lovely turn-of-the-century hotel which is now home to both the offices of the City of St. Augustine and the breathtaking collection of the Lightner Museum, where simple, beautiful food is served and after lunch people are happier than they expected to be. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the Cafe itself is in the deep end of antique (and now completely dry) swimming pool. The Cafe is centered in an assortment of shops featuring art and antiques, where the theme of straddling centuries is perfectly reflected.

There are two stories here, really: the story of the Cafe, and the story of How The MadriGalz and The Cafe Make Christmas Magic. They're as entwined as Barbry Allen and Sweet William, so you may have to hack through the briars with me a bit. The best way to share a restaurant experience, of course, is to take you there, and since I can't do that I have to use words. So it'll take a bit longer. Be patient if you can, my dears.

The Cafe part of it began for me with an incidental visit. Someone said, "Let's have lunch at the Alcazar" and I found myself sitting over a plate of something called "Artichokes Giovanni" which was more or less artichokes and mushrooms served over pasta, with a delicate topping of beautifully browned bread crumbs and a hint of lemon. It was preceded by a green salad with a tahini dressing from which I've never quite recovered, to this day. And though it's all a bit foggy, that first visit of mine, I think it may have been someone's birthday or some other celebratory occasion, for there was coffee and a memorable oatmeal cookie pie with ice cream (this still brings a tear to the eye of those who've tasted it). The food was good. In fact, the food was VERY good. But there was something else happening, too, something that happens at the most special of restaurants, something I wish I could better put into words: everyone felt right at home. I don't mean "at home" in the sense that you could take off your shoes or do anything rude at the table without reproach. I mean that there was a feeling of connection. You nodded at people seated at neighboring tables, because you had the feeling they might be distant cousins you'd forgotten. There was sense all around the room that you'd finally found a seat at a table where they remembered you, where they brought out the best wine for you, where you could rest, and eat, where the music suited you as perfectly as the wine and where you almost thought you might have invited all these (strangers) people to eat lunch with you. Upon reflection I realized that I'd had the feeling of stepping past a long line of people who had reservations or were trying to get a table, being recognized by the maitre'd and immediately seated at my favorite table and served something special that wasn't on the menu. And that's what it was, and is, to have lunch at the Cafe Alcazar.

Lorie sold the restaurant a year or so ago, but I asked her about its history because I had no memory of its evolution. She worked at Cafe Alcazar for nearly 20 years and owned it for almost 12. When asked about the menu, she gives all the credit to its previous owner, Maureen, claiming that she herself isn't much of a cook, but Maureen's innovations ("She is incredibly talented with food," Lorie says) needed no refinement. Remember the Curried Chicken Salad recipe I gave you? That must have been Maureen's creation, originally, perhaps including its setting in the elegant menu offering "East Meets West", where Curried Chicken Salad sets off green garden salad and fresh fruit to perfect advantage. And the Greek salad? The crepes, filled with something fresh and delightful du jour? All Maureen, or maybe one of a succession of chefs who worked in the kitchen over the years, each touch changing and refining the result. But the sense in the place that you're one of the insiders, that the maitre'd seated you at your favorite table, without you asking or even offering a tip? That's all Lorie.

And here the two stories begin their intersection. There had been a madrigal singing group in St. Augustine for some years under the direction of Sister Patricia Eileen (SPE), based at the Cathedral. (In fairness I should say that as in many small towns the best musical talent tends to find its way to the local churches; St. Augustine is no exception. There is today a fine group called Vivace and there are probably others doing period music. Religious feeling has less to do with it than you might think. I promise a story about this some of these days, my dears, to do with pipe organs and dreams and people who are part of both.) Both Miss Judy and I had been members and when it faded away, we continued to sing madrigals in different vocal configurations when we could. We worked as a trio for a time with our soprano friend Tracy until she moved away and the singing of Christmas madrigals was set aside. We would get the odd request every year, but close harmonies don't work with two voices unless the arrangements are very carefully constructed. And so we left it.

One year we got a couple of requests at about the same time. One was to do something purely for the sake of entertainment, and one was to provide the music for a holiday church service, but we had no soprano. Oh, I shouldn't say that: we had Miss Judy and she is an amazing soprano, actually, but she's too strong a weapon to post at that station. With her vocal range and ability to sight-read and sing different parts, she always served as our utility player. With my own limitations, this meant we needed someone with a clear, blend-able upper range, who could sing the melody in most cases, so that I could sing the lower harmony and Miss Judy could do whatever the hell magical thing is it that she does. And suddenly, I thought of Lis. I'd been listening to her sing for more years than I cared to count, but had recently come into closer orbit with her, gotten to know her, and dared to ask. And she said yes! Imagine. This amazing voice, this astonishing person, deigned to sing with me and Miss Judy, and there we were, unexpectedly: The MadriGalz.

So there, my loves, are the two winding stories. You already know that The MadriGalz try to sing at the Cafe Alcazar every Christmas, and that this year we were invited to sing at Creekside Dinery and Saltwater Cowboy's. You know we have a CD and you know how much we love singing together, and you know our hiberation is underway and will end when the days begin to grow shorter once again.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wintering in the sun

Over at Bless Our Hearts (; I'll figure out the linking thing) Ms. Moon happened to mention a fine old gopher turtle she sees on her walks, enjoying the mild winter sun on his face, who moves so quickly to his hobbit house she doubts she'll be able to catch him with her camera. The slowly gliding alligator you see here is suffering a bit from the cold weather, and probably looking for a place to bask, like his distant relation at Bless Our Hearts.

I long for the spring and summer residents to return. I'll miss the crisp, bright air of winter in northeastern Florida, but I'll trade it to welcome the visitors of spring, like the summer tanager. He visits the water fountain with his rather more drab wife, though it is only fair to say that she would be beautiful in other company if she weren't being upstaged by his brilliant finery. She is a delicate green color, her breast feathers touched with yellow, and like her husband she has no interest in visiting our various feeders but does drop down from the canopy now and again for a drink or even (though we haven't been lucky enough to catch her in the act yet) a bath. In full summer we often see the roseate spoonbills. Last year there were several nesting pairs at Guana who seemed to move as a family group. Spoonbills sport gloriously vivid colors, ranging from snowiest white to a pink so deep it suggests vermillion. They're impressive when you see them feeding, which they do wading quietly at the shoreline, sifting water through their spoon-shaped beaks. They're quite amazing when seen in flight, bright colors illuminated by the sun.I hope you enjoy the reminder that though we must warm ourselves in winter, slowly and evenly the sun turns round to us again, bringing glorious days of another sort.

Here's one final note of genuine delight: Eat Here's resident photographer has located the missing photos that will enable the telling of some delicious tales, my dears, including those of the Cafe Alcazar, and our friend Claude and HIS friend, Julia Child. Stay tuned, and sleep well.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Best friends and homecomings

My heart's sister is coming home soon, from darkest Africa and her dear love. Here we are together at Gatorbone, having slipped onto a wide porch that would soon be a stage filled with music. Here we are paused for a moment together, before we ever guessed that she would go so far from home and be so long away.

There is a passage in T.H. White's "The Once and Future King" wherein a kindly badger tells the very young and not-yet-king Arthur about a treatise he's written, explaining why Man has become superior over the other species of the earth. It's about how the animals choose their gifts, how these gifts are granted by God, and most importantly, how the gifts influence the development of their recipients. It's whimsical and funny and if you haven't read it I won't spoil it for you. But my point is that I do believe each of us arrives at the door of life with certain gifts, the influence of which shapes and changes us.

My gift, I think, is friendship. I am blessed beyond measure by friendships that have changed me, and by which I have been incalculably changed. Some friends are already known to you at Eat Here. You know Lis and Judy by their music, and Ms. Moon by her blog. You know Lorie by her recipes, and O'Hare by her dramatic exit. And I hope you will know Lauren and Susan and Mary and Tina and so many others and if you do, you're likely to catch my references to all of them as my "best" friend, for each of them is a sister of my heart.

Come home, sister. Hurry. Hurry.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Brief but tasty, and a preview of things to come - updated

I'm working on a post about The Cafe Alcazar, a restaurant beloved of St. Augustinians and visitors alike, charming for its location in the deep end of the swimming pool of what was once (circa 1890) the Hotel Alcazar and now houses the Lightner Museum as well as the offices of the City of St. Augustine. But I need to find some pictures and think about what to say, and as I was working on those things, the recipe for Cafe Alcazar's famed Curried Chicken Salad happened to arrive and it seemed unkind to make you wait for it. So through the brilliance of its original chef, Maureen, and the generosity of its last-but-one owner, our dear Lorie, Eat Here is delighted to share this little taste of perfection.

Some things to keep in mind before you mix up what might seem to be a simple chicken salad, and is, but needs a thoughtful touch: the quality of the curry you use is critical to the outcome, so use a good one. Lorie recommends Frontier, and it's a brand you can find in most health- or whole foods stores. And before you start, you need about 6 cups of cooked, finely chopped chicken, but you could also make this with tofu. If you want to do that and don't know how, please email me and I'll help you figure it out. Also, the original recipe is halved here for your convenience, to serve a regular-ish number of people rather than thousands.

Put the chicken into a large bowl and add half a rib of celery, finely chopped,
1-1/2 fresh green onions, finely chopped, 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley, 1/4 cup raisins (I like golden ones), 2 cups of mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of honey, and 2tablespoons plus two teaspoons of the aforementioned curry powder. Mix well, and serve with fresh fruit, green salad and pita bread or crackers. Flavoring tips from Lorie, exclusively for Eat Here readers: if it's too bitter, add a little honey. If it's too sweet, add a bit of curry. And if it needs flavor, add both! And if you want the MadriGalz to come and sing at your Christmas event, you pretty much just have to tell us you'll have wine and some of this amazing salad. Odds are, we'll show up. Stay tuned for more Cafe Alcazar later this week.

Pictured: The Cafe Alcazar, St. Augustine, Florida (photo credit to Rodney Christensen); taken at the shallow end of the elegant, turn-of-the-century pool. Those shadowy figures at the back of the shot, one floor above the restaurant, are the MadriGalz, completely drunk on Curried Chicken Salad.

Monday, January 25, 2010

In memoriam, again and again

Since my routine has altered to include this writing ritual, I come home from work and have a glass of wine and write for about an hour. This afternoon I settled in to the mix Rodney was listening to, and was about halfway through when Thunder Road came on. I kept writing, singing along blithely, and not really thinking about it (except for how much I love the song, how happy I was to hear it) and before I knew it I was singing the words

show a little faith, there's magic in the night,
you ain't a beauty, but hey, you're all right...

and my throat closed and my voice stopped and tears were running down my face.

Oddly, I wasn't thinking of the approximately 3 million hours my friend Trish and I drove around together in her Barracuda, singing those words as loudly as was humanly possible. I wasn't thinking about seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert, though I grant you it has been a gift beyond price when I have. I wasn't thinking about the song, even, especially: what a great song it is, what a great lyric, how much I love it.

I was thinking of Carrie O'Hare Hogan, who lived most of her life and died within a couple of hours of Bruce Springsteen's house, who like any self-respecting Jersey girl worshipped at his shrine, who loved me from the time we were 12 years old until she died. I wasn't even thinking, really. I was seeing pictures, memories flashing like a slide show on meth, too fast but perfectly comfortable. The last time I was with O'Hare before she died, we watched a Springsteen concert on TV. That was right before she asked me, in the dark nighttime after everyone else was finally sleeping, to come back up and speak at her funeral. She trusted me to do it, she said, "But don't forget: no sex, drugs, or rock and roll. My mother will be at this funeral," and we laughed until we couldn't breathe, thinking of her mother, driving us to a Rod Stewart concert, long before we had a clue about The Boss. And I did speak at her funeral. It was 5 years ago. Tonight I realized I probably should have used those words of Springsteen's that I found I could not sing:

you can hide 'neath your covers and study your pain
make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
waste your summer praying in vain...

My dears, hold fast to your beloved friends, for they may be with you and then not with you. Sometimes it happens so fast.

Oh, why the palmetto photo? You might have expected me to use a photo of O'Hare, or me and O'Hare, or her kids at The Happiest Place on Earth (her credo, not mine), or one with her much loved sisters and brother...I used this one because one of her endless delights in visiting me was that there were PALM TREES in MY YARD. I never could make clear the distinction in her mind; she didn't care, anyway. Palmettos were close enough, and anyway, she was always that friend you treasure for her generosity with forgiveness. If I could call her now and say how sorry I was that I'd let 5 years go by without talking to her, she'd laugh and say, "There's no crying in baseball," and that would be that.

Onion pie and resurrection

Because we live under an oak canopy, we're surrounded by graceful curtains of silvery Spanish moss and have a variety of flowers that grow happily: impatiens and begonias, kalanchoe in many colors, wedelia...all those shade-lovers whose colors brighten the shadows where they dwell. And the oak trees are covered with other mosses and lichens and with this amazing stuff. It's called resurrection fern, because it dries up, turns brown and seems to almost disappear from the tree trunks in warm, dry weather. Until it rains. And within hours of moisture in the air, the bright green of the delicate leaves is visible again, and there is the fern, magically alive again, almost as though it had never disappeared. On evenings when the rain has pushed through and left achiningly bright blue skies and cooler air in its wake, you might be lucky enough to sit under trees, kissed with resurrection ferns, and have a glass of good wine and a slice of onion pie.

I'd better tell you how to make the onion pie, in case you don't have a recipe of your own. The one I used comes from my treasured copy of Southern Sideboards and is attributed to Katherine Anne Porter, by Miss Eudora Welty herself. If you don't have a copy of this amazing book, go look for the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi and get yourself one. You'll never regret it. Here, more or less, is how I learned the recipe, but for the exact thing you'll need to consult the book.

Miss Welty gives a recipe for the crust, which sounds delicious, but here is one of my shortcuts, my loves: I don't really make pie crust anymore. It's one of the shortcuts you can take if you can live with it, and if you can't, go get Miss Welty's recipe and make the crust. For myself, I use s storebought crust, which I proof just a bit with dried beans. (If you don't know how to do this, you can ask me.) The filling is 3 or 4 onions - the recipe calls for Spanish onions, but I user any old kind I have as long as they're not too sweet, and they're big enough. You put a lump of butter in your cast iron skillet and put those onions, thinly sliced, into the skillet and cook for a long, LONG time, longer than you think, until they have reduced greatly and are deliciously browned. (You did salt and pepper those, didn't you?) Mix together two nice big eggs, preferably from Ms. Moon's hens, but we do what we have to and whip in about a cup of cream. Add the onions, and perhaps a touch more salt and pepper, according to your own judgement. Don't be tempted to add sugar to caramelize the onions. I promise you they will be as sweet as sugar and if you use any sugar, or onions like Vidalias, the resulting pie will be so sweet you'll hardly be able to eat it. Bake it at 350 or so in whatever pie crust you've decided on, until it's nicely browned and looks like a finished quiche, which it more or less is. Slice and serve with your preferred wine. It's really good with beaujolais nouveau in the years when it's good, but any wine you like will be fine.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rescue Me

Quite by accident, we got ourselves into the Boxer rescue business nearly 20 years ago, because a small, strange-looking wet brown thing appeared at our window on a rainy evening when Mac was small and I was actively nesting. I'm pretty maternal by nature and ordinal position, but it was red-zone-mothering when the boys were little. So this small wet pathetic thing turned out to be a Boxer puppy who belonged to a neighbor and couldn't stand being left alone while he worked. Over and over again, she escaped to our house; each time I bathed her and fed her and she curled up with tiny Mac to sleep and finally the neighbor just said, "Pay her vet bill and keep her." And so we did. She came to us with what I thought was the embarrassing name "Sheba", and we asked Mac for his thoughts on a new name for her. He was about 2 years old, extremely talkative though not in a language usually recognizable as English but rather some patois of his own creation. But on this occasion he removed his pacifier from his mouth (I know, I know) and gave thoughtful consideration to the matter. He ruminated for 20 or 30 seconds, and then said deliberately, "I think a good name for Sheba would be...Sheba." And so it was.

Later we would rescue in a variety of ways 3 dogs who stayed with us and were part of our family. Sheba died peacefully at the Boxer-ancient age of 14. Rocco was put to sleep at 13; Faye was about that same age. And by this time, we knew we always wanted dogs with us, and that we understood this breed in some fundamental way. And in our search for a young dog to accompany our seniors into graceful old age and be with us as our boys flew from the nest, we connected with a group called Boxer Aid and Rescue Coalition, fostered a dog, and were hooked. Well, in fairness, I was hooked and my most excellent husband came along for the ride until he was hooked, too. It was - and is - harder for the boys. The coming and going of foster dogs is harder for them, but they are kind to their mother and usually pretty indulgent.
After being part of a remarkable bucket brigade of volunteers who helped place April and several other dogs in happy homes, we helped rescue Zeke. He was a hard case, needing lots of work to rehabilitate whatever had shaped into a defensive, sometimes- aggressive hard timer. With help from other BARC volunteers, hard work, research, reading Cesar Millan, and coaching from a local dog behaviorist, "The Muttman", we brought Zeke along step by step, with Rodney putting his heart into the work. About 6 months into the work, Zeke, who'd made great progress and become a beloved member of the pack, fell over dead. (This happens rarely but consistently with dogs in our climate who have heartworms. I can tell you more about this, if you like, but you probably know it, and you are probably careful to be sure your own dogs get a dose of HeartGuard or something like it every month. Until we became active foster people, I really had no idea.)This weekend, we spent most of our time driving from St. Augustine to Jacksonville to St. Augustine to Starke to St. Augustine, trying to find a foster home for a dog who'd been adopted through BARC and has become somewhat neurotic and has special needs. You don't plan to spend your weekends doing this, of course, but sometimes you gotta step up. Stepping up with us are the volunteers of BARC, other rescue groups including Paws in Prison, Cathy Sherman's amazing organization which has been subject to some of the troubles that plague all rescue groups, and unsung heroes including vets like those at Antigua Veterinary in St. Augustine and Scott Mill Animal Hospital in Mandarin.

This is tiny work, I know. We could be among the heroic legion in Haiti, helping reassemble broken lives and allevaite suffering already beyond description and only made more intense and more intensely visible by the recent earthquake. And there are a million other things. But we make the planet better in this small way, rescuing dogs. And we are humbled every day by the sacrifices made to make the planet better. So whatever you do, whether it's saving animals or giving advice or chicken and dumplings or music or reminding people that azaleas are sometimes in too great a hurry to welcome spring: whatever it is, you make the planet a better place and we are grateful, indeed.

Pictured (top to bottom): Prissy Miss April, Bandit (Donnie), Zeke and Olive. April is taken to breakfast at Panera by her wonderful family; Bandit is in Dog Heaven with his new pack, and Olive is still in foster care. Zeke will live in our hearts forever.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Evening at The Creek, with some comfort food

Our land slopes gently away to the back and touches the tiny narrowing finger of Stokes Creek, connecting it to the Tolomato River, and connecting us to Guana Reserve. You'd hardly believe it, but when the tide is right, someone who knows the curves and unseen shallows can navigate right out to the river and, in theory at least, follow the Intracoastal Waterway as far north or south as they care to go along the eastern seaboard. Here is how it looks this evening, as the light changes. I know many dear friends are gathered at Gatorbone, celebrating years of creative work culminating in the release of a new CD by the talented Doug Spears, and we're sorry not to be with them.

The best laid plans, though, are often derailed by kids or weather or, in our case, dogs. Since we began our affiliation with the Boxer Aid and Rescue Coalition, we've been foster parents to some amazing dogs. We're proud to say we've helped to permanent, loving homes several Boxers who might otherwise have come to sad ends. It's an organization of dedicated volunteers, and every dog is touched by the work of many people. I'll tell you the story of this group and its work later, my dears, because there are some seriously happy endings to be had. But for today, we were engaged in helping the organization accept an owner-surrendered dog, and it took a bit more time and effort than we expected. We relaxed with a glass of wine by the creek and I thought you'd like the pictures.

And because I haven't included a recipe lately, here's one I've been thinking about. This is one of those things you're a little embarrassed to publish on a menu because you know it's not original, you know everyone cooks it, and you know it's not to be found in any of Julia's cookbooks. But it's such a comforting dessert, so homey and plain, that you know Julia would have put a dab of it on her plate if she'd come to your house at Thanksgiving. There are many variations (including an appalling version with sugar- and fat-free ingredients and worst of all, fake whipped cream). You can make it into a simple food wonder with some additional preparation, so here's an Eat Here staple: Banana Pudding.

You'll need to make a quart or so of vanilla pudding. My grandmother Dade made puddings so routinely that they required no concentration at all, and certainly no recipe. Come to think of it, I have no memory of her even owning cookbooks; she cooked beautifully and effortlessly. It was the work of a moment for her to whip up pies for my cousin Susan and I when we stayed with her in childhood summers. Susan liked butterscotch and I liked chocolate, and if we made the slightest sound indicating that we might enjoy a slice of pie, before we knew it, she'd have two pies made, from crust to pudding to perfectly gilded meringue (which Susan did not like and would surreptitiously slip onto my plate). No shortcuts. So it IS possible, and you should make vanilla pudding from scratch if you can. It's better for you, of course, and it avoids that vague taste of chemicals you get from the box. One of my culinary heroines is Susan Purdy, author of my beloved "A Piece of Cake". Since she taught me that it's really not that much more work to bake from scratch, I've abandoned cake and pudding mixes almost completely, with a few delightful exceptions (another Eat Here recipe, my dears). But whatever works best for you; boxed or homemade, you'll need about a quart.

Vanilla wafers are another one of those things you can make homemade more easily than you think, and with dramatic results. I know, I know. I buy them, too. But if it's holiday time, and you're baking cookies anyway, look at the Fannie Farmer cookbook or whichever you prefer and make them from scratch. They're more delicate and full-flavored than the storebought ones. If your palate is accustomed to things from boxes, you'll think these are another food category altogether. But they're plain and simple, and you can actually taste subtleties you didn't know vanilla had. Again, whatever is best for you.

Here's the easy part. Line a 13 x 9 inch baking dish with the cookies, whichever you use. Cover with pudding (warm pudding is easier to work with) and add a solid layer of fresh sliced bananas. (Here's another opportunity: vary the fruit. Use whatever you like, as long as it doesn't change the equation too drastically by having too much moisture. Berries, cleaned and dried, elevate this recipe from the homely to the spectacular.) Layer away until you've run out of the key ingredients of cookies, pudding and fruit. Cover and chill. If you have cookies leftover, you can crush them and garnish the top. And of course you can always add whipped cream, but you sure don't need it.Every now and then, take a bowl of this ambrosia and sit under the setting sun with your sweetheart or friends, or even just yourself. I hope your view is perfect, your company impeccable and your pudding a small taste of home.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Neurologies

My friend Cass is the daughter of one of my best work pals, Mary. She's about 4, and as you can see, has a all the exuberant, uncomplicated joy of most people who are 4. She's outspoken, confident and fun to be around just about all the time, although she has put me in my place once or twice when we disagreed about something. (Just imagine. Her mother would never do such a thing. Ahem.) Cass had surgery around Thanksgiving. She has CP, and a certain amount of spasticity which has kept her from walking without a walker, so far. In a quietly miraculous sequence of events during the holidays in which planets aligned and the heavens parted, Cass was accepted as a candidate for a highly specialized surgery, and it was done. The doctor guaranteed - guaranteed, mind you, the reduction of the chronic spastic state of some of the nerves preventing her from walking, and said that Cass would have no limits, once she re-learned things: no limits. Surgery done, post-op recovery well underway, Cass was a bit like a noodle.

Well, think about it. If you didn't have to hold your head upright because a contraction of muscles in your neck and back did it for you, your brain wouldn't think it needed to allocate brain-cell-resources to that function. And if the muscle contraction stopped one day, your head would flop over. If you were a kid whose brain had never needed to work on learning to hold up your head, your brain would have to say, "Hold on a damn minute. We gotta re-allocate some brain cell resources here, and tell those muscles to hold up our head. Stand by, stand by." This is what happened to Cass, in a gross oversimplification. Her brain had to step in, build the connections and bridges between itself and the appropriate nerves and muscles, and allow her to learn how to do things like hold up her head. Some of this happens fast, and some comes in time, with encouragement and physical therapy and boundless love from two people who are as committed to this success as they are to waking up every morning. And as Mary and I talked about it the other day, it dawned on me that Cass and my dear Rodney are, in some ways, on different ends of a certain continuum.

Rodney has something called neuropathy. It occurs in people who are severely diabetic or alcoholic, but it also in occurs sometimes for no reason anyone can understand. He has neither of those afflictions. And neither his family doctor nor a range of other consulting doctors, like neurologists, can put their fingers on a cause; he just has it. One night a year or two ago, he said, "Do my toes look swollen?" and I said, more or less, no indeed. But from that point forward, he began to experience both numbness and excruciating pain, and testing revealed that he has an almost complete lack of nerve conductivity between his toes and his brain. Doctors expressed astonishment at his pain tolerance and stoicism; apparently they could send an amount of electical current intolerable to you or me through his nervous system but the vital connections took no notice. He takes rather alot of medication to try and manage his pain, he suffers, I think, more than he says, and we do some things that help him dissociate from it. We walk on the beach. He takes a metal detector, because that combination of brain functions removes him from the pain for a bit. But he can't walk too close to the lapping waves down close to the shoreline, because his toes don't really work any more and his balance is unreliable. We don't care. I walk closer to the water and find sharks' teeth in the gleaming water lit by the sun . He walks higher up on the beach, where purchase is easier to come by, and if he teeters a bit or should fall, he'll recover his balance, and stay dry.

So Mary and I were catching up at work this week, and I asked about Cass's reduction in spasticity (yes, it is much removed, perhaps even gone) and how's she's doing, re-learning some things her brain had probably begun to take for granted. Physical therapy, the natural recuperative powers of childhood, and a bottomless well of love are helping her move forward, helping her determine how far she wants to take this virtually unlimited set of new possibilities. "Her TOES are starting to move," Mary said, "I never thought about it much before, but you know, you use your toes to help you walk, and Cass's toes really didn't move before the surgery..."

For a tiny second I lost the sound of Mary's voice, realizing that Cass has toes that are waking up, coming to life, discovering and figuring out how to do the job of helping her walk. One of these days, Cass will be able to walk, or run, or scoop up a baby sister or brother on her hip, or walk across a room physically with the same confidence she moves now, the same beauty, the same certainty. Rodney will be moving differently on his feet, finding new ways to move, just as Cass did. Perhaps he will need to rely more on his conscious brain, do more work to figure it out, but he will find his way. And while he can't rely on the recuperative powers of childhood, he does have a similarly deep well of love from which to draw. He might have to work a little harder but he won't work alone.

And finally, because it's Friday and there's a bank of fog off to the east that could befuddle the nimblest of brains, a clear, blue-sky sunset seemed like a fine closing note. It was one of those sunsets we get in early January, when the days have begun to grow noticeably longer and we are humbled with gratitude. Tonight is one of those nights, for though it's damp and cool and foggy and faintly wintry, the light has returned. And when the light returns, robins land in our yards and hope settles in right beside them, warmed by the sun and promising everything.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A note from the Ed.

Seated on the far right is Eat Here's Editorial ConsulTick. This disclaimer informs you that Certain Blog Posts have NOT been reviewed by him (including tonight's "International woman of mystery"), and those posts are doomed to be riddled with typographical mistakes and occasional blatant errors. I've given consideration to the idea of Grounding for Life in order to have his editorial skills always on tap, but as this edict is likely to be ignored I've abandoned it. So sometimes, dear reader, you will have the benefit of a well-proofread blog. Other times you may be sure you'll see "littel" instead of "little" and arcane usages lifted from early Victorian literature, among other unpredictable errors. The Eat Here management apologizes. The Editorial ConsulTick almost certainly does not.

Photo credits (left to right): Hannah the Beautiful; Luke, well known actor, singer and all-around pretty good guy; Eat Here Editorial Consultick

International woman of mystery

The tabletop looked like this, right in the middle of the living room before she left. And this is Katie's tabletop, mind you; she is a woman given to recovering from large messes, but usually after parties or serious bouts of remodeling or Expeditionary Furniture Rearrangement. It was a littel frantic, those last days before she left to join her beloved, Adam, in Africa. Yes. Africa. I know. I tried, believe me. I cried, gnashed my teeth, rended my garments in stunning fashion and pretended to have several deadly diseases of which I was like to die before she could possibly return. But she went, anyway, of course. She's an adventurous woman.

Once she was gone, and I had pretty well done with crying, been comforted by my dear husband and offered all manner of balm for the soul by my other sisters (for whom, O Be Thankful), I resigned myself to the situation with appropriate therapeutic measures, including a viewing of Out of Africa, which pretty well fixed Kate in my head as just as exotic and beautiful as Meryl Streep, and kind, patient Adam as a sort of quiet, Jewish Robert Redford. Clearly I was absolutely correct about the image, as you can see.
On top of that, they look blissfully in love, and it's not just in this picture. It's every single picture of them together. Which is wonderful, and something no self-respecting best- or top-tier friend could possibly feel other than joyful about, and I do. But, oh, my, how I miss her. There are some things that just felt strange or empty or awkward or all three, especially during Christmas. The MadriGalz sang at Creekside Dinery one night, and the mothers of Adam and Katie joined us for dinner. We all love them both, and they are so much fun together. There are glimmers of the classic stereotypical Jewish and Catholic mothers in them, and yet they are both so far from the mold it's hard to find the right words. There they sat, on the beautiful Creekside deck under the twnikling December stars...and yet it felt so strange to me not to have Katie with us. And you can't even get me started on the holiday movie The Man Who Came to Dinner, which has been a staple with us for more Christmases than I can imagine. Before Katie fell in love with Adam, she was so often with Rodney and me that we called her Rodney's non-conjugal wife; for this movie, the three of us would curl up on the couch with the boys and the dogs and laugh our heads off. Based on a play by Moss Hart, the dialogue is snappy, the acting crisp and wonderful, and some of the lines have entered our family lexicon. Tiy may have heard us say, "You are the moonflower of my middle age and I love you very much," or even "Shut your nasty little FACE!" and wondered. This is the movie from which these lines were stolen and are used early and often. So I watched the movie, dogs, boys and dear husband, but no Katie this year. Weird. And while I mourned her distance, the silent unchanging and horribly permanent loss of my dear old best friend Carrie was always with me to remind me: be grateful. Be grateful, you terrible person, because she is happy, and in love, and seeing the world, and she is not dead. I tried to remember. Now and then, there was a photo like this, to kind of keep me on track. Look how happy they are, fresh and dewy as the Alps behind them, filled with hope and visions of their shared future.

And the countdown has begun. She will be home for Valentine's Day. Can you imagine? I love you so, Katie. Travel safely.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The new and eternal Jerusalem

In early December, as I was beginning to look forward to my long winter's nap (er, vacation; I did more than take naps, really. No, I mean it, I did. Really. Oh, never mind) I got a visit from one of my work pals. There was a work-related topic, and then some friendly inquiries about plans for the holiday season. Jack and his family were going to Israel to visit family and travel around a bit. We talked about all the things to see, and I happened to ask if they were going to visit The Wailing Wall, and, yes, as a matter of fact, they were. If I wrote my prayer on a tiny piece of paper, Jack would take it with him to The Wall and place it, as so many uncounted prayers have been carefully placed before, in a tiny crack or crevice in that mightily holy spot.

So I did. I thought carefully; Jack promised not to read it, whatever it was. I thought some more. And then I wrote my prayer in tiny letters on a small piece of yellow paper, torn from a sticky note. I gave it to Jack and went on vacation. I thought about it over the holidays, mostly when I walked on the beach, as this is when I usually step most fully into prayer and meditation. And then the boys were at home, and the MadriGalz were busy, and Lis had her Blue Moon CD Release Party for Deep ( - we are so excited!) and the memory of the heartfelt prayer was displaced from the top-of-mind spot.

Vacation over, I returned to work, and so did Jack. He dropped by one day in early January with a tiny folded piece of yellow paper, torn from a sticky note, and gave the note to me. He hadn't been able to leave it, he said. Oh, yes, he had been to The Wall. We talked about the holiness of that wall to so many millions of diverse believers the world over: its obvious importance to Jews, the layering of Christian tradition that makes it so important to Christians, and the holiness to Islam, whose tradition says that Mohammed was pulled from the site, more or less, by the very hand of God. He had been to The Wall, had prayed, had been deeply moved, but had not been able to leave my prayer.

How odd, I thought. Jack is a very smart, funny person, clearly devoted to his wife and daughters, short, not someone who would offer to take one's prayer to The Wailing Wall and then just... what? Forget? Decide not to do it? But there is some fundamental courtesy in me or deeply held unwillingness to be unkind or give offense: something in me made me not able to say anything like, "Jack, what the hell are you talking about? Why the hell didn't you leave it there?" Whatever this is, this observation of etiquette or simple reluctance to be rude...whatever it is, I was only able to say, "Well, okay. That's fine", and then take the piece of paper and set it on my desk. I did have the presence of mind to ask him to send me a photo if he got the chance, and he did, as you can see.

During the course of the day I left my desk for a meeting and when I came back, the little piece of paper, still carefully folded, had fallen from the desk into my chair. I picked it up and put it on the desk again, unopened, thinking about what the prayer had been, thinking that I still wanted that prayer, as trite and simplistic as it would sound to anyone outside my brain, to be answered resoundingly. I thought I would just leave the little piece of paper there, that it would be a reminder to offer the prayer again and again, and on reflection this didn't sound like such a bad idea. And then I thought, You should not need a little piece of paper to remind you to pray for this. So I put the tiny piece of yellow paper gently into the trash, and resolved to continue to pray without this small reminder.

The next day, Jack came in. He studied me for a moment, and then said, "You should look at that piece of paper." I 'fessed up right away: I hadn't looked at it, though I'd thought about it - a LOT - and I'd thrown it away. Jack said, "Didn't you notice it in your chair?" I said I had, but hadn't given it any thought. Jack said, "I put it in your chair so you'd notice it." And I said, Well, I did, sort of, but I didn't keep it. But by now I could see the twinkle. And then Jack said he had placed my prayer carefully in a tiny crack in The Wailing Wall. It was there, never fear.

But Jack had written me a note, a tiny note on a torn piece of yellow sticky note, telling me God regretted He would not be able to answer my prayer, as it had been written in English, and not Hebrew, in which language God, presumably, conducts all His business. I bet I laughed for 5 minutes, which according to some medical calculations added about 15 years to my life. Thanks, Jack.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Surf report, more or less brought to you by Troika Studio

Lots of people make a living; lots of people do what they love, but everyone knows these aren't always the same people. The people at Troika Studio mostly manage this juggling act. Sometimes they just have to shut down at lunchtime because the waves are good. They work hard. But sometimes the waves are good. The waves are good, but sometimes they have to do their work. These photos were taken with both ends of the continuum in mind, and because it's light work being a Wendy to The Studio. So the photo at the top is a tale of Why We Go to the Beach. If this is your first introduction to Troika Studio, you should know it's a talented agency in St. Augustine, focused on integrated marketing. And though they do a great deal of local business, their connections and personal interests in surfing and skating have brought quite a surprising range of international clients to the door. But, sometimes, the waves are good.

This weekend was hit-or-miss at the beach, but after Friday there was a strong west wind taking the very tops off the waves, but making them taller. All the intrepid surfers we saw were in wet suits, for despite the warm sun the water temperature has dropped below what subtropical surfers are probably most used to.

I walked suddenly upon a jellyfish of considerable size. This isn't unusual, of course, but if they're washing up on the beach it's usuaully in numbers. The lone big one, like this, is one fairly good reason for staying out of the water, though hardly a Troika Studio-worthy reason.

As the weather changed, cold coming in with wind and eventually a line of thunderstorms, there was another reason to leave the beach. It was a bitter departure, I admit, for the tide had fallen very low so the sharks' teeth and other bits of fossils easy to find. We had noted the dramatic change in the high tide line, gone from sharp drops to a smooth gradient in less than 48 hours. Winter is the season many fossil hunters prefer; it's also a nice time to be at the beach, because there are very few people braving the chill. So here's a surf report, Troika surfers. Be safe out there.

In the interest of full disclosure I should tell you that not one single person associated with Troika Studio reviewed this before I posted it and I'm not on their payroll. I just like their business model and love their principals.

O Gatorbone

There are places in our world filled with magic and wonder and things you can't put into words, and these places are all around us. One of these places is a small, simple, marvelous house which sits alongside the small, simple, marvelous and improbably named Gatorbone Lake. (Mac went along with Rodney and I to a house concert there, several months back, to hear the amazing music of Jim Hurst.) The house nestles under the widespread branches of a dogwood tree, and curls itself about its residents and their visitors.
Things bloom at Gatorbone, and they are things you expect, and things you decidely do not expect. Among the things you expect are the aforementioned dogwood blossoms, which somehow each spring seem more wondrous than before, despite the fact that the tree doesn't lie within the ideal environs for dogwood -- they grow around here, but are seldom splendid. This one is truly splendid. I wish I had a picture for you. And you pretty much expect a fine garden, especially from people who've chosen to grow things with the seasons and turn as they do. But while you might expect a good, even a really good tomato, you would not expect tiny tomatoes called "black cherry tomatoes", and with good reason, because they actually taste like tomatoes delicately flavored with black cherry. And while you might expect wisteria and johnny jump-ups, you do not expect the star-shaped flowers blooming wild in August, and you surely don't expect the astonishing flora of the lakebed, which has become a field as the aquifer underneath is depleted, and so grows a botanical display quite its own.

And you don't expect the music. It's rooted in bluegrass, often enough, but it spreads its wings to folk and jazz and...I don't know....this is one of the places I run out of words. But it is completely inclusive and wraps its arms around the players, as the house wraps its comfortable antique wooden arms around the people. My sons are both musicians, neither of them bluegrass or even folk musicians, and yet I have seen the place, the space, open its arms to them. Perhaps more interestingly, they always open themselves to the space. And this is all, really, because of the people. You don't expect them, most of all.

It's because of them, of course. But it's also the beauty of the place and most especially, the people they draw around them. On the surface of the thing, they are two perfectly ordinary people, made extraordinary by musical talent and their bond to each other, the former something you can only experience by listening, the latter something that's as plain as Quakers when you see them together. And when you see them together, you feel as though this love, this music, this simple magic is yours, too. And it is. Because this juxtaposition of the ordinary and the oh-so-NOT-ordinary probably sounds familiar to you. It's probably not much of a stretch to imagine that it applies to you. Not the same in the details, of course, but if you look closely, don't you see yourself there? Even if you can't sing a note, make a rosemary bush grow or sometimes think you can't get out of bed in the morning, isn't there some tiny magic about your own house at morning or evening, some sweetness of your own family that has been a benediction on more than one occasion? Some full-heartedness you feel at the thought of your own treasured friends? Even if you've a mere handful, or even just one, aren't you rich beyond imagining? So perhaps the best Gatorbone glamour of all is its unadorned reminder that the gift of life is for the taking. The riches of music and friends are beyond price and within reach.

Here's a view of Little Lake Gatorbone. You can sit quiely alongside the lake with nothing at all to make it perfect. You can have a glass of wine or good Gatorbone water. If you plan well, you can have Cappuccino Pecan Nuggets. And though this may be the first and last time Eat Here links you to a recipe, here it is.

For information about this weekend's CD release party for Gatorbone favorite (what am I SAYING? He's a favoite the world over!) Doug Spears, please email me, or

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fault lines, family and pecan pie

Interesting patterns sometimes happen in families; some represent time-honored traditions, warm memories and good feelings, and serve to underscore our connections. Others are not so positive, and can carry hurt and even destruction down through the generations. I imagine almost every family has its share of both; ours is no exception. I thought about this when I wrote about Mac and Dylan as little boys, and thought about it again last night when I mentioned Pop in my post. These fault lines, like the geophysical ones responsible for the catastrophe in Haiti, may change. We may grow in our abilities to cope with them, take their good and avoid being crippled by their bad. But the fault lines are immutable.

Though the pattern I'm thinking of tonight didn't really present itself in painful, undeniable focus until Pop was probably pretty far gone down the dreadful road to hell that is Alzheimers, it must have been repeated over generations from whom we cannot hear. And maybe our collective family view of it isn't even accurate, though it's all we have to go on. Briefly, then: Pop's family pattern, from which he seemed unable to deviate, was that the family had a son of whom he generally approved (Rodney's brother, and eventually, Mac) and one of whom he generally did not approve (Rodney, and eventually, Dylan). This confined his interactions with our sons, while Pop lived with us, to the limitations of those roles. And it created a break, in the long run, from which Pop's family wasn't able to regain its equilibrium. After Pop entered the nursing home, neither of the boys would ever see him alive again. When he died, the two men of our nuclear family who were present at his funeral were Rodney and Mac. (His very kind sister and her husband came down from Wisconsin to be present, that very kind brother-in-law delivering the brief homily.) Mac wore the uniform in which he graduated, his rank above that of his grandfather's, but his title, Machinists' Mate, proudly identical. All of us felt the absence of Dylan sorely. Perhaps Pop, resting at last, felt it most profoundly of all.

And as one of the other things we share in the face of grief is food, I thought I would offer you one of our family's most beloved recipes, which my dear friend Tracy gave me long ago. The time year I made it, years before we realized Pop had Alzhemers, I served it for dessert at Thanksgiving. Pop and his wife, our own tiny little saint, Bernice, were staying with us for the holiday. (One of these days, I will be courageous enough to write about Bernice, who truly was loved by every person who met her.) After his first taste, Pop leaned over to me and said, "I'll meet you in the kitchen at midnight with two forks".

So: into a slightly pre-baked deep-dish pie crust, you pour this mixture (I usually just throw it all into the mixer and whirl it together): a stick of melted butter, 1-1/2 cups of sugar, 1 heaping teaspoon of cornstarch, 1/4 cup of buttermilk (see me after class if you need to know why you have to use buttermilk), 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, 3 lightly beaten eggs and a cup of so of chopped pecans. Bake it for about an hour at 350. It's not impossible that some family fault lines -- the tiny ones, the ones that CAN be repaired -- could be made at least a little better by a slice of this pie.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Words about no words

This is what it looked like at the beach this morning, and this is what I was going to write about today. But I'm not going to talk about the beach. A fine writer once wrote (and I paraphrase; forgive me) that the single most important fact a person could know about her was that her father died when she was very young. This notion resonated with me, because I believe with her that the single most important fact anyone could ever know about me is that my mother died when I was eleven years old. And everything changed. I mean EVERYTHING, and I mean FOREVER. But in the year or so following her death, whenever anyone found out, or that worst of all horrors happened and I had to say the words, "My mother died," very kind, well-meaning, empathatic people would say, "Oh, I am so sorry" or "How terrible for you," or worst and most infuriating of all: "I understand how you feel". This last made me murderous. I knew they meant well; I was mature for an 11-year old, and had younger siblings, some of whose care now fell, for better or worse to me. But no one knew how I felt. No one could possibly have known, not for one second, how I felt.

In my grown-up mind, I know now that they were searching for something to say. That they felt terrible and awkward and often wanted desperately to be comforting. And as this year has been a particularly painful one of losses (Rodney's dad, our friends Eric and Debbie's son Alex, not yet out of his 20s, and finally our widely loved Claude Sinatsch, of Julia Child party fame - I do promise to tell you that story, my dears) the feeling of wanting, needing, desperately, some words of comfort to offer is all too fresh in my heart. But the truth, as we all know, is that there are no words. No combination of words, however casually or carefully composed, can really offer balm to the heart. There is only standing together, laughing or crying, or both at once, helping, and remembering. We find ourselves wishing for them, praying that they will spring to our lips, miraculously allowing us to make the suffering a little less. But it doesn't happen: it can't. There are no words.

And so my heart goes out to the people of Haiti, along with the heart of the world. I am profoundly grateful that our friend Ron, who lives and works in the Dominican Republic, will be traveling tomorrow with some of his co-workers to Haiti to help erect cell towers and do, as he said, "...whatever needs done". I am grateful that his daughter Heidi, a nurse, is traveling with Doctors Without Borders to offer medical help. I am so glad to know that some of us will be standing together with the people of Port-au-Prince, crying, laughing, helping and remembering, because that's what we can do. And because there are, simply, no words.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Little boys, little Ty, little seashells

Here they are. Little boys. And most of you know my boys to be WAAAY bigger than this now. And they're wonderful, each with his own astonishing talents and powers and dreams and marvels, each of them a blessing beyond price to their dad and me. But even in this sweet picture is captured a memory presaging their more modern-day selves; it's like a ghost image that only their dad and I can see. There is tiny Mac, making certain Dylan had his own ice cream, and working very hard to be tidy, tucking his Tracey Long nightshirt around himself neatly, looking around to check on things in between bites. There is Dylan, making us all laugh with his laissez faire view, going for the laugh, and putting his nose into the ice cream cone with confident abandon...this is all caught in the ghost image immediately before the photo was snapped and frozen for us forever. And now? Mac, making everyone proud with his service to our country, putting others before himself, trying, in fact, to be sure we all have our own ice cream, in his small way. Dylan, about 6 or 7 feet tall, still making everyone laugh, finding his voice as a singer and more, and (tanks be to GAHD, as my old friend Father Terry would say) proofreading this blog before I post it. (Yes, I know. You can always tell the ones Dylan hasn't read first.) And everyone always says this to you, and sometimes it seems like The Biggest Lie in the World, but it really DOES just go by so fast. And, oh, the wonders those boys have taught me...but those are tales for another night, my dears.

Little Ty, for short. She is the very patient, slightly vexed-looking aging debutante in the front right of the picture. Most Boxer rescue people will tell you that it's a dicey business having more than one female Boxer together, as one tends to be the dominant one and this can work out poorly for the others. But here is sweet old Ty for Short, tolerating incursion upon indignity, and making way as she must. I know dogs live only in the moment, but I can't help but think she has some dim memory of being herself a castoff, lost from her people for reasons she would never understand and taking what kindnesses were on offer. This is certainly anthropomorphizing, but that old grey face does serve to remind me of some important things, not the least of which is humility in the face of change. Which, it should be remembered is far easier to say than it is to do. Just look at that face.
My last little miracle will take you back to a previous post in which I talked about a sort of informal, organic, living art installation you can see at the northernmost point of the beach at Guana. I told you about it, but I think I was distracted by a recipe that night (can you imagine? Me? Distracted by a recipe?) and didn't get to the most important part. I even showed a picture, but I don't think I did it justice when I wrote about it.

There are little sections of this monument where people have created tiny bits of beach sculpture-within-sculpture. You'll see a corner dedicated to beach glass in all colors and shapes. For a time there was a lovely collection of those delicate scallop shells with the pink and white variations of color; it was lost to one of the winter storms whose tide was too high and strong to be withstood. There are artistic arrangements of beach detritus, wood, fishing tackle...just about anything you can imagine amassing itself on a beach. There are even arrangements which are eclectic and have their own standards and criteria not related to a focus on one kind of shell or bone or color. They are like an exhibition in a gallery, hung by a different curator, with a different eye, a unique sensibility.

And there is my collection of cats' eyes. It changes all the time, but seems to remain intact as a collection and I believe I'm not the only one who notices it. Too Young Looking to be a Grandmother, who told me she collects shells for her grandson (though she honestly looks about 30) finds them beautiful. Another lady told me she collected cats' eyes for artwork of her own. "Oh, that's YOU?" she asked me, "your collection?" I said that I collected cats' eyes for it, but that it wasn't mine, it belonged to all of us, and she should feel free to take any of them she wanted to use in her artwork. "Oh, no," she said. "It would feel weird to take them from the collection," and I knew just what she meant.

And it has another fan, or at least someone who's taken note of it. Hippie Segway Guy talked to us about it one day, how people have become curators of the whole thing, or perhaps just one small section of it, and how much it means to him to share this unvoiced connection with all of us. We finally stepped past that respectful reservation all of us observe with each other on this shared landscape and introduced ourselves. "Well," he said, in a sort of "can-you-beat-that" voice, after Rodney told him our names, "I won't forget that. Not only is my name Rodney, but my wife's name is Angie." Can you beat that?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

But luckily, spring comes early here

So we don't have to wait as long as some people to see this guy, for instance. Last year, and in the other years we've seen him, he shows up in about mid-April. I know it's not time yet, but as we're all so everlastingly sick of the cold weather, and it seems to be loosening its grip a bit, it seemed reasonable to take a look at the ridiculous colors and remind ourselves that before we know it, the wisteria will be twisting its windings fingers around things and then blooming, those big showoffs, the azaleas, will burst into riotous color, and my precious tiny wild violets will raise their shy heads to the sun, gentled as it touches them through the oak branches. In fairness I should also remind myself that around this same time of year, when other locales have left the various plagues of autumn behind them, along with their joys, we will be dealing with the thunderous rain of oak leaves, which in our area don't fall until they absolutely have to, that is, until the new little green leaves actually push them off their perches. But there are worse woes to have, of course. So we shoulder on, waiting for the bright reminder of the painted bunting and his plain-but-lovely wife. The waiting is made slightly sweeter for me by my friend Debra, who reminds me that this is what HER bird feeder looks like, as of yesterday.
This is much better, even if we do have to wait a little.

I was thinking about my mother today, probably because I gave you the Eat Here Meatloaf Recipe last night, which was one of her signature dishes. After World War II, there was a concerted effort to bring women back to homemaking in order to reduce competition for the jobs they had taken during the war, and which men now needed to reclaim. Magazines for ladies were a major part of the marketing/propaganda campaign that facilitated this, and ladies of my mother's age continued to read them and learn how to cook using ingredients like, well, probably ketchup.

This might have been one of those recipes, too, but I suspect it really used the previous summer's canned tomatoes. It's simple and wonderful, and was always called "Tomato Gravy" in my mother's kitchen. Start with bacon. (I wish I had a dollar for every Southern recipe that begins with those words.) You could dress it up with ham, or add an interesting subtle flavor shift with pancetta, but the old school version is plain old bacon, fried crisp and crumbled into small bits. Set the bacon aside and add a really nice big onion, chopped in small-to-medium dice and cook until the onion is transparent. Salt and pepper the onion as it cooks but remember to salt accordingly; bacon may need less salt than ham, or whatever you've used. Note to my vegetarian pals - this is easily done with olive oil in place of the bacon fat. Add a big can of whole tomatoes, juice first, and stir well as this is effectively deglazing the pan. The tomatoes should be squished up in your fingers as you add them and you can remove the tomato cores as you go. This yummy mixture should simmer until it's well reduced and served over pasta. Rigatoni was preferred in my mother's kitchen although I didn't know what it was called until I was a teenager. I'm not sure my mother even knew what it was called. It's good with just about any logical variation, like spinach. Go crazy.

Oh, speaking of that: thank you to friends who are reading this, especially to my friend Lorie, who has raised my mother's macaroni and cheese to an entirely new place in the stratosphere with her addition of mushrooms and spinach. It hardly bears thinking about. Thank you, Lorie, and all of you who now and then Eat Here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Yes, yes, it's still cold.
No, I didn't take this picture today, although I wish I had. But it does have the delicate pink frosting provided by the sunset, and I couldn't resist sharing it, especially when it was far, far too almight cold to go to the beach today. And if you couldn't make yourself get out of bed and go to work (I did, I promise) you could have stayed at home by the fire and watched William Powell movies. Even now, and it's after work-time, there are William Powell and Luise Rainier and even - yes!- Myrna Loy. If you can't go to the beach, and your husband has just baked an apple cake with a sinful glaze made of butter and brown sugar, you can just stay in and watch. And it's fine, indeed.

If you're a dog person, there's that other fine thing about staying in by the fire: it makes your dogs positively blissful. First they tell you how happy they are by greeting you with appropriate enthusiasm. And then they indicate bliss in that time-honored dog way: they immediately go to sleep. If they are Meg, they may sit in chairs in distinctly unladylike positions between moods.

But then she goes to sleep. In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably warn Ye Who Read This Blog that we help when we can with Boxer Rescue, and there are three Boxers who moderate their lives, roughly, between our bed and our couch. See? The person sitting on the floor is a well, person. The people, er, dogs on the sofa to the left are...umm...dogs.
And there are many dog stories to tell, though for now I can say we have Meg (she of the appalling pose), Ty For Short, who came to us as Tyson (I know - people think it's hilarious to name the dogs after that other kind of boxer) and Calvin. He also came to us with that name, and I never say it without thinking of the scene in The Bells of St. Mary's where Ingrid Bergman introduces a kid named Luther to the new priest, Bing Crosby, who says quietly, "How'd he get in here?" So it is with Calvin. But so it is with rescue and especially fostering. We never meet the same dog twice. So there's more to tell you, my dears, but since people keep telling me they've actually make some of the recipes I've shared, I can't resist them temptation. I warn you: you'll freak out. It's not vegetarian-friendly. It's not remotely healthy. But it IS the foundation of Eat Here, as it was the first meal I cooked that made my family say, You should open a restaurant, and it should be called Eat Here, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So here is my mother's meat loaf recipe. You can use ground turkey or chicken, but I confess to using good quality ground beef and pork in roughly equal proportions. Put this into a bowl and add some very finely chopped onion, green pepper and garlic, pretty much as you like - you can leave out any of them if you don't like them. Add an egg (I like a nice big one; If Ms. Moon was your friend you might be able to get a beautiful blue or green one) and some fresh bread crumbs. If you have an old hot dog bun or just any old bread, crumble it up yourself, right into the bowl. Dash in some Wocestershire sauce, a tablespoon of kosher salt, some pepper, and seasonings you like; I put in fresh rosemary and parsley (though I'll tell you later, my loves, how I cannot grow fresh rosemary) and marjoram. A dash or two of Texas Pete can't hurt, and you squirt in some ketchup, maybe 1/4 or 1/2 cup. Mix it up and shape it into a loaf, and bake it in your cast iron skillet at 350 (a 1-1/2 lb. meatloaf takes about an hour and a quarter to cook). About half an hour before it's done, mix about 1/2 cup of ketchup, 3 or 4 tablespoons of mustard, a palmful of brown sugar and just a touch of ground cloves. Stir this together and pour it over your meatloaf.

And here's the Eat Here part: put a couple of slices of leftover meatloaf on good hearty bread, like oatmeal or 7-grain bread. Add a slice of good cheese (if you're going to do it, just do it, for heaven's sake) and if you still have it, a bit of the leftover meatloaf sauce. No one will ever forget it. And I do promise to get Lauren's excellent hummus recipe and Lis's sweet potato soup and make it up to those of you who'd rather die than eat any of this. More to come, my darlings. Thank you for reading.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Does cold weather make for better (clearer, more...well, golden) Golden Hours?

It's still cold here. In northern Florida we think it's cold when the daytime high is less that about 60 degrees; today we felt the warming trend because it was (I am not making this up) nearly 48 degrees, and this felt warm compared to yesterday, when the high temperature did not rise above 38. So here we are, and at least we have the beautiful golden light, for which, as one of our old favorites might say, O, be joyful.

And there is so much more to tell. I should tell about my children, my precious sons who changed everything for me; my dogs, who change everything every day, my dear husband, whose constancy began to shift my landscape long ago and has never wavered, and so much more about the friends, my heart's sisters, whose magic is with me every day. I should tell about the crazy work of Boxer rescue, where some of the dogs will look just alike in photos but whose spirits are like unto nothing else. I should tell about walks through our small bit of land, where winter sunsets really do look like this:

And no matter what the landscape light shows you, we're all in agreement that you need dessert. This is something I've made for the entertainers at the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival for some years. It's easy and wonderful. And it's one of those cake recipes that will start to convince you to abdandon cake mixes. When you make cake from scratch you find it's really not that much more trouble than using a cake mix. But what's most shocking is the difference in taste. I don't know what they do to cake mix, how they treat the flour, what they add...but I can tell you that one or two of my cakes (which aren't mine, really, and which I'll credit as we go) will change your mind. Really. So try this. I make this in two round cake pans, about 9-inch pans, because they can be shared. I know, I know. It's a rich, fattening cake. So make it and share it. A tiny slice of this much chocolate can't be bad.

Melt together 1 cup butter and 4 ounces unsweetened Baker's chocolate (you can reduce the amount of butter if you substitute a combination of butter and cocoa for the Baker's chocolate). Cool slightly and combine 4 beaten eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons of milk, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Add 1 cup sifted flour and 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (you can leave out the nuts if you like; I never use them). Bake in the two round cake pans I described or a 10 x 15 inch pan at 350 for about 24-26 minutes - and don't overbake. For the frosting (and you need to have this ready before the cake comes out of the oven), beat together 1 tablespoon of melted butter, 2 tablespoons of cocoa, 1 cup of confectioners' sugar, and 1 egg white. As soon as the cake comes out, pour this frosting over the top so the egg white is cooked. Credit where due: This comes from a cookbook called Southern Sideboards, a wonderful wedding gift Rodney and I received from Eileen Ronan (I have an amazing note from her but alas, my dears: a story for another evening) and is credited in that lovely cookbook to Mrs. Howard Nichols.

Make it. I can't wait to hear how you like it. Tomorrow I'll probably have a new story to tell you - I'm thinking a LOT about the intersections of people I love and how they've changed what I do every day. Until then, here is an evening picture of my own sweetheart and me, and a fond hope you'll stay warm and toasty on this chilly evening. Thank you to our dear friend Lorie, whose camera's eye is always affetionately open and who commemorated Gatorbone with this picture. Love, love, love.

P.S. Thank you to Dylan, resident copy editor. I'd be lost without him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A winter walk, a glimpse of gold, and something to cook

So this is what it looked like, when I was warmed enough by layers of clothes and the briskness of our pace to be able to focus the camera. The wind was not quite howling, but was blowing hard and steadliy, as though it had promised its mother to do so and was afraid one of its aunts might drop in unexpectedly to check. This meant it was damned COLD at the beach, but considering the sudden, brilliant appearance of the sun and the astonishing blue of the sky, Rodney and I found we couldn't stay away. If you look closely at the sea shells you'll see a fine lace overlay in rainbow colors, the residue of the sea foam cascading all over the beach like wet tumbleweeds. We walked half a mile or so to the south, just a few hundred feet to the north, gathered a small collection of fossils, and began to think about a nice fire, a cocktail and the golden hour.

Clean up awaits, at home. Thanks to the continuing cold, the detritus accumulates and changes; the fallen branches need to be cut and stacked, the sad, melted cannas and elephant ears trimmed away, and so much more. But it's too sad, and anyway, it's too soon; there may be still be protection afforded by fallen plants to those growing in their shadows. So we wait. And today, waiting, we walked down the narrow path that connects our front yard with the delicate finger of the Tolomato River that folds back in upon itself and winds its way to us as Stokes Creek. The light changed quickly, as it does this time of year, and Rodney took photos.

I thought about what to cook, and though in the end we ate leftovers, I was prevailed upon by Dylan to share this favorite of his. When you have boneless, skinless chicken breasts, part of a bag of potato chips and some butter, this is the easiest way in the world to please the still-maturing palates of the young. Cut the breast meat into fillets and dip in melted, cooled butter, then dip in crushed potato chips. When I say crushed, I mean you should have your youngest family member take the bag of chips and do with it what they've always wanted to do: roll it around, crush and smash (taking care not to tear open the bag). When the chips are very fine indeed, dip the chicken in, and place it into a lightly greased baking dish. Bake at 350 or so for about 40 minutes or until lightly browned. Why do they love this dish? I have no idea, and I suspect my own mother may have learned it from Woman's Day or Ladies' Home Journal or some such magazine in the 60s. But though I can't explain it, no matter how many times I ask my sons how they'd like chicken breasts cooked - and I am telling you I have some perfectly marvelous ways to cook them - this is invariably their request. Kids. Palates. What a mystery. Never fear, my loves: I shall soon tell you the story of Julia Child, Le Pavillon, Jacques Cousteau, exotic birds, a Boxer dog and the Lamented Claude Sinatsch. Soon, soon.

For this evening, move a bit closer to your warm fireplace, wrap that soft, warm blanket a bit closer around your shoulder and if you have the luxury of a love to hold you close, do. Here is one last look at the fading view of the golden hour at our house tonight, and a look at another kind of cold-evening blanket, this one called Meg. But this, my darlings, is a tale for another evening.