Tag Archive | food

Let’s think about what we’re putting on the holiday menu, metaphorical or otherwise

For several years while blogging on LiveJournal I would post a survey asking about food people were making for Thanksgiving dinner. Half the fun in these polls were the conversations that would happen in the comments about the differences in what we thought of as traditional holiday foods. The first few Thanksgivings after this became my primary blog I constructed similar polls… but no one responded (there were occasionally be a couple of comments, but not many votes). So it hasn’t seemed worth it to construct a poll here.

I do think talking about the foods we loved as kids can be a great way to share memories and get to know each other better. But sometimes I have to remember that not everyone has great memories of holidays spent with family. And even some of us who do cherish a lot of those memories have a lot of bad memories associated with the holidays.

Because my dad insisted that, if at all possible, we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with his parents, that meant that for most of the Thanksgivings and Christmases I experienced before the age of 15 he was on his best behavior. It was like being in a magical zone where bad things couldn’t happen to you. He would transform into the Good Son™ his mother expected, and therefore none of us got slapped, beaten, or yelled at. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother was a different sort of abuser, tending toward emotional manipulation and gaslighting. So it wasn’t that the holidays were perfect.

And then, when one is queer and closetted, whether family members are abusive or not, the holidays are an opportunity to be reminded that one is different. I preferred to hang out in the kitchen and help with the cooking, for instance—but if certain extended family members were there I would be scolded for not playing with my male cousins or at least hanging out with the adult men watching football. One particular a-hole uncle loved pointing out every one of my behaviors that he saw as being a sissy, for instance.

And then there are the questions about whether I had a girlfriend. Which got worse once puberty hit. Because no matter what your answer was, there were always those self-assured declarations, “Just you wait! When you meet the right girl…” and so forth.

And then there were the political conversations. In a sense, I’m sort of thankful that gay rights didn’t start being in the news with any regularity until my twenties.

What got me thinking about all of this was this amazingly horrible story: Junior’s Contest: Ruin Thanksgiving To Own The Libs. That’s right, Donald Trump, Jr, is daring his followers to intentionally goad your liberal relatives into having an argument. And of course all the trump voters are sharing it as if this is a great new idea.

I have a few responses to this:

First, once again we must thank the Republicans for demonstrating that they firmly belief hatred is a family value. While arguing at the holidays is a tradition in lots of families, it isn’t a good tradition. Taking delight in ruining to day of someone you claim to love? On a holiday that Republicans insist is a religious holiday, to boot. Way to show how will you understand the teachings of Jesus, guys.

Second, conservative relatives, in both my experience and according to a few studies on the matter, have never been shy about spouting off their controversial/racist/homophobic beliefs especially at holiday dinners. They don’t need any encouragement in that matter.

Third, those of us on the progressive end of the spectrum already have a lot of practice at biting our tongues and avoiding arguments at the holidays. See my second point. Now, it has been argued that disasters like the election of Trump might have been avoided if more of us had confronted our racist relatives more often at previous holidays, but I have my serious doubts in this reasoning. At least in my personal experience, arguing at family gatherings has never changed anyone’s mind. It was the one-on-one conversations outside the group situation that has been more successful.

Fourth, the libs in most families are far more likely to bite our tongues and roll our eyes with stuff we disagree with come up. The meltdowns are almost always from the racist uncle going off on an angry rant because of some fairly innocuous thing someone says.

It’s true that the last few years I’ve just been avoiding the awkward/angry conversations by simply not spending time with the trump-voting relatives at Thanksgiving, and limiting my Christmas visit to a day before the actual holiday. There is something about the gathering together that seems to bring out both the dysfunctional behavior and the need to assert their xenophobic-dominionist-racist-homophobic opinions. It took 23 years after I came out of the closet for some of the family members to stop saying some of those homophobic things to my face. Once again this year I don’t get to eat Mom’s Mistake Salad for Thanksgiving, but my husband and I are doing just fine with our pear and ginger pie, turkey, savory sweet potatoes (like Great-grandma S.J. used to make), green bean casserole, scalloped corn, and my Insane Relish Tray. And the downside for them—I’ll probably get comments as I have the last few years from several of the extended family because the variety and quantity of olives and pickled things on their relish trays never match what I used to bring down every year.

I much prefer our Peaceful Queer Thanksgiving to anyone else’s HaHa Trigger the Libs Holidays.

What are you serving, what are you talking about, and what are you avoiding during the holidays?

"Hello, member of my extended ! Good to see you, it's been too long. No, I'm not in med school anymore. I'm an opthalmologist. No, that's not an optometrist. I do eye surgery. I know, sounds kind of gross doesn't it? Sorry to hear about your vague eye ailment. You should see an eye doctor. Sorry to hear about your vague medical ailment. You should see your doctor. Sorry to hear about your friend's vague physical ailment. They should see their doctor. Yes, I go a flu shot. You should get one, too."

Being shared on Twitter with the explanation, “Instead of having the same conversation over and over this Thanksgiving, I’ll be handing this out.” (click to embiggen)

Back when I was blogging on LiveJournal, about this time every year I would post a survey about what sorts of side dishes and pies and so forth that people like to serve at Thanksgiving, if they celebrated. And I used to get lots of respondents. I’ve tried it a few times on this blog but got far fewer participants, so it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort of constructing a new survey. This image of a printed list of answers to all the questions that come up again and again at one person’s family meals gave me a chuckle, and reminded me of certain topics and questions that come up at my family gatherings any time that there is more than just Mom there.

I don’t have to deal with that sort of thing this week because we’re staying home again this year. And I had a lot less of it to deal with last year because we stayed home for both holidays. I drove down twice during the season to see folks and drop off Christmas presents, so I did see a lot of the extended family, but it’s different when you aren’t sitting in one place for a long time either waiting for food to cook, or more people to arrive, or whatever.

Anyway, if I were to do something like this letter, it might go something like this:

Hello, cousin/aunt/cousin-in-law I only see at holiday gatherings! It’s been too long!

As a matter of fact, no, I don’t technically live in Seattle any more, I’ve moved to a small suburb called Shoreline.

No, I still take the bus to work. It’s only four miles further from the office than my old place. I would love to talk about our new neighborhood and all the things I’m growing in my–

Yes, I am still working in the same part of the telecommunications industry that I have been for the past 31 years.

Yes, you actually use the stuff we do every day. Our products are the servers that figure out where you phone is anytime you use maps, or need to call 9-1-1, and so forth.

I’m sorry to hear about your vague problem with your very cheap Android so-called smart phone that is almost certainly running a very outdated version of Android and is loading with bloatwear. I don’t do Android. At all. I’m an Apple user.

No, that is not an iPhone. It has the name of another company printed right there in very large type. I’m sorry the salesperson at the place you went to get a cheaper phone than you could buy from your carrier (after two other cheap phones died on you this year) lied to you. You should probably go somewhere else next time.

I’m sorry to hear about your vague computer problem on your super cheap very old Windows machine that is probably infested with more malware than actual software. Can’t really help you, as I said, I’m a Mac user. You should probably stop taking it to that guy who runs the combination Pawn Shop/Smoke Shop/Computer Repair Shop and go to the place my husband recommended last year.

Yes, I voted. No, I really don’t think we should talk about it.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do still believe that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, just like his birth certificate said. And no, I’m not at all glad he’s gone. I’m really sad that voter suppression and Russian interference put a person who lost the popular vote into office.

Yes, yes, I completely agree we should change the topic. Did you see the Seahawks game two weeks ago?

Since the form of this thing is a flier you could hand out to people, I decided to leave out the many times that I wind up sitting very tight-lipped awkwardly listening to someone try to explain away some real world news with very very mangled Bible references. Or the latest quack medicine/magical Bible cure someone is trying for their vague physical ailments.

At least for the last five or six years everyone has realized that talking about anything related to their opposition to gay rights or transgender people isn’t a good idea. Please note that I have been out of the closet for over 26 years and they have all met (and all seem to really like) my husband who has been coming down with me to these things for 20 years, but it took this long to decide that maybe telling us some of those things to our faces isn’t polite dinner conversation.

I am going to miss not getting a taste of Mom’s Mistake Salad (it’s a concoction of pistachio pudding and pineapple and whipped cream and I don’t remember what, that seems to contain about a million grams of sugar per spoonful, so I can literally only have a few bites, but dang it is so, so, so good!) or share and compare anyone’s attempt at making Grandma’s Frozen Cranberry Salad—for a long time we thought the recipe was lost, so several of us came up with versions of our own; Mom found an index card with the official recipe hiding in one of Grandma’s photo albums. And then when she made it, it wasn’t quite what any of us remembered, confirming our suspicion that she did never made it the same way twice.

Since it is just the two of us, Michael and I are cooking a small turkey. We’ll have stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole, my Great-grandma’s creamy savory sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie, cranberry sauce, and a relish tray that will have enough pickled foods and olives to feed about 30 people.

Oh! And I plan to make the Fiery Thanksgiving Manhattan again: Rye bourbon, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, and Tillen Farms’ Fire and Spice Maraschino Cherries. It will be divine!

Can I offer y’all some tea?

Making sun tea on my veranda.

Making sun tea on my veranda.

A while back I was reading with more than a bit of amusement a conversation on tumblr where some Americans (by which I mean people from the U.S.), specifically some of my fellow southerners, were trying to explain sweet tea to some British folks. There were a few Brits who had spent some time in the U.S. also chiming in. I’m not sure if the most amusing bit was how many of the Brits were scandalized that most Americans don’t own tea kettles, or how horrified they were to learn about southern sweet tea. Southern sweet tea is not the same as tea which has had sugar or honey added. Southern sweet tea is an altogether different phenomenon. Just for a hint of what I mean, there is a recipe for Tea Punch (a different drink, but likely the granddaddy of sweet tea) from shortly after the American Revolution that includes this: “Make a pint and a half of strong tea in the usual way, then pour it boiling over a pound and a half of sugar…”

This article gives a nice overview: Why Sweet Tea Is the South’s Quintessential Drink.

In the movie version of Steel Magnolias Dolly Parton’s character observes that “sweet tea is the house wine of the south.” Which is true, though there can be weird nuances. For one thing, there are people who disagree about which parts of the country constitute the south. Seriously! I once had a temporary co-worker from Georgia sniff very disdainfully at I and another co-worker after we mentioned that our families came mostly from Oklahoma and Texas, that “those aren’t part of the south, those are in the West.” I have also heard people from North or South Carolina insist the Florida is not part of the south. I’ve been told by one acquaintance who grew up in New Orleans that “N’Orleans doesn’t really do sweet tea!” Whereas a friend whose family comes from other parts of Louisianna once commented after sampling my sweet tea, that I didn’t have nearly enough sugar in it. Some people insist that Sweet Tea states should get their own designation, with arguments about whether the “tea line” encompasses all of Texas, or only East Texas, for instance.

I grew up on sweet tea, and I learned how to make it from my mom and various grandmothers and one grandfather, and each of them had a slightly different recipe. They were all good in their own ways, but they were also very different. Many families guard their sweet tea recipes, sometimes referring to them by names like, “Great Aunt Pearl’s Sweet Tea.” So, before we get any further, I’m going to warn you right now that no, I absolutely will not tell you my Great-grandma S.J.’s Sweet Tea recipe, nor Great-grandma I’s, nor my Nice Grandma’s Sweet Tea recipe nor her Sun Tea recipe (which is a different beast altogether).

What I will do is tell you my Evil Grandmother’s Sweet Tea recipe. One reason why is because she frequently told it to other people outside the family. Another reason is because I don’t think hers was the best, but it will give you an idea of how these go.

My Evil Grandma insisted that Sweet Tea was best made in an aluminum pitcher. She had a 2-quart aluminum pitcher for just that purpose. To make her tea, you fill a whistling tea pot with water and set it to boil. While it is going, you measure out four and a half cups of sugar into the bottom of the aluminum pitcher, then you add a half teaspoon of baking soda. You let the kettle get to a loud whistling, then pour the still boiling water into the aluminum pitcher. Stir furiously until the sugar dissolved, then count out fourteen Lipton flow-through tea bags, put them in the pitcher, stick a lid on it, and put it into the fridge for one hour. Then, take the pitcher out, pull out the tea bags, but make sure you squeeze them so all the dark tea gets into the pitcher. Top off the pitcher with however much tap water is needed to fill, and stir some more (because some of the sugar probably precipitated out). Put it back in the fridge for at least another hour. Now, you can serve it over ice.

Now that you’ve read the one recipe that I am willing to disclose, we can analyze it a bit. Most of the sweet tea recipes I have acquired over the years use tea bags, not loose tea. And very often people have strong feelings about which ones to use. I have seen, for instance, recipes that call for specific brands and varieties of tea bags–specifying X bags of specific brand of black tea plus Y bags of a specific brand of mint tea plus Z bags of a specific brand of orange pekoe, for instance.

I will neither confirm nor deny having witnessed two relatives almost come to blows over an argument about whether an Earl Grey tea is ever suitable for sweet tea (with a third relative opining that Earl Grey is all right in a sun tea as long as you have a few other kinds with it, but really should only go in to sweet tea if you have nothing else).

Why do some recipes include baking soda, you may ask? Tea leaves contain tannic acid which is very bitter. When you steep most teas for more than, say, 2 minutes, you can get a lot of tannic acid in the tea. Some people swear that a small amount of baking soda (which is an alkaline compound and will neutralize an equal amount of acid) mellows out the tannic acid flavor. I’ve also heard people claim that the baking soda helps with dissolving more sugar into the water.

Many recipes specify how to boil the water. There are people who insist the sugar must be in the pitcher that the hot water or hot tea is poured into. Others say that most of the sugar should be mixed with the water as it is brought to a boil.

My Evil Grandma’s sweet tea was very dark, nearly the color of coffee. A lot of people say that is two strong, the tea should have more of a rich reddish color than a deep brown.

Because most of my life has been lived outside of the sweet tea states, I got used to drinking the rather weak and completely unsweetened tea served here. Also, in my late twenties when I realized just how rampantly adult-onset diabetes stampedes through my dad’s family, I made the decision to mostly stop sweetening my tea or coffee. And now that I am diabetic, I don’t make sweet tea ever.

And while we’re on the subject of diabetes, I want to point out that all of the sweet tea recipes from my mother’s side of the family called for way more sugar than any that I learned from Dad’s side, yet Dad’s family is where almost all the diabetes is. So don’t come at me on that.

While I don’t make sweet tea, I still make and drink a lot of tea and have many fond memories of sitting down with friends and family, everyone with a frosty glass of tea, on hot summer days. So the last few weeks, after my husband brought home a one gallon glass jug, I’ve been experimenting with sun tea recipes, based only loosely on my Nice Grandma’s. Put the collection of specific tea bags in the water, set it out in the sun for an hour, then remove the bags and let the jug chill in the fridge. The one thing to remember about sun tea is that since the water is never brought to a boil, it is more susceptible to bacterial contamination, so you want to finish off the whole batch in no more than two days.

It’s not quite the same, but drinking the cold, unsweetened tea that I’ve made this way, brings all those fond memories back. As Fred Thompson observed in his book, Cornbread Nation,

“Sweet tea—your mother’s sweet tea—means you are home.”

Tea and books and maintaining an even keel

A picture of a teapot, a steaming teacup and a pile of books: “Now that's what I call a hot date!”

“Now that’s what I call a hot date!”

There is something very relaxing about making a cup of tea, then sitting down with a book (or my Kindle or the iBook app on my iPad) and reading. It was especially nice to do that out on the veranda when the weather was warmer. I still go out there with a mug of tea, but I wind up drinking the tea faster because it’s getting cold (and I’m chilled). So I come back inside once the tea is done. Besides, now that we get frequent visitors to the bird feeder, I feel guilty being out there and scaring the little guys off.

I do sometimes sit in front of the window and watch them. Which means I don’t always get much reading done. But it’s all good.

It has only been a few weeks since I changed the format of my Friday round up of links, and I have to say that the much shorter list has made Thursday night feel much more relaxing. I wish that I had been self-aware to realize that the old long form version was such a stressful chore, but that’s okay.

I’ve mentioned that I began questioning how much effort was going into the process because the number of people reading the round up had gone way down. What I didn’t mention was the timeline. If I look at the stats on my blog, I can point to a very specific time when the readership dropped: the first Friday after the Inauguration. They didn’t drop all the way to the recent lows right away, but the drop off was noticeable.

Now, long before then, the round up had always included a stories about unpleasant topics. And I dare say the ratio of bad news to good news was about the same. But I totally understand how exhausting it is to be reminded about this bad stuff since there is now so much of it, and it’s hurting everyone, and it feels as if there’s nothing we can do about.

So, that’s another motive for the change: I don’t want to contribute to other people’s sense of exhaustion or hopelessness, and I don’t need to wear myself out, either.

This doesn’t mean I’m not still reading as much news as before. Nor does it mean that I’ll stop calling my congresscritters and adding my voice to the throng. I’m just not spending as much time aggregating the news for other people.

There are other habits I’m trying to get into to try to limit how often I’m having to think about unpleasant topics. That’s part of the reason there is a lot less activity from me on Twitter, for instance. I still find reading my friends, acquaintances, et al on Twitter useful, I’m just limiting how much time I spend on it.

I’m behind on my writing goals (NaNoWriMo notwithstanding; there are things that I meant to have done before November that I didn’t get done). But there’s a lot of stuff going on, and I just have to accept that some of my energy is going to go into other things. And some of those other things are about taking care of myself and my husband.

Like curling up with a good book and a nice warm cup of tea.

One of those things we’re doing this week specifically along that line is we are not going to drive down to see family for Thanksgiving. I don’t need the stress of the drive each way. Neither of us needs the stress of constantly biting our tongues around my Trump-voting, Bible-thumping relatives. It will do wonders for the blood pressures of several of my relatives, too, truth be told.

Which means that instead of figuring out what dishes I can make in advance and transport down there, we’re doing a whole dinner! So far it’s just the two of us; which will be fine. And since I love talking about food, here’s our current menu:

  • Relish tray (many many olives, pickles, pickled carrots, pickled green beans, pickled asparagus so far…)
  • Turkey (my hubby found a 10-pound one, so not too big!)
  • Stuffing
  • Green bean casserole
  • Creamy sweet potatoes
  • Gravy
  • Sweet potato pie

There will likely be other things added before we’re done.

Also, the official cocktail of our holiday will be a Spicy Manhattan. Based on the recipe suggested at Central Market, this weekend, but after trying it, I have to change it so:

2 oz of your favorite bourbon or rye
1.5 oz of sweet vermouth
Several dashes of orange bitters
Tillen Farms Fire & Spice Organic Maraschino Cherries

Chill your glasses. In a cocktail shaker with ice, mix the vermouth and bourbon, stir at least 45 seconds. Shake a generous number of dashes of bitters into the cocktail glass, strain the contents of the shaker into the glass (turn the glass while he do so to mix the bitters better). Garnish with two of the spicy cherries.

Cheers! And happy holidays!

(Also, feel free to leave your menu or your favorite holiday food in the comments!)

Don’t let anyone go hungry

And now that November is here, this is a good time to post a link like this: Stop donating canned goods to food drives: Your corned mutton castoffs are only making things worse. Here’s the short version: boxes or barrels full of random groceries actually take more time and resources from the food banks and similar charities than groceries cost, because they have to be sorted, inventoried, checked for expiration date, and put into inventory. The amount of money you or I might spend buying a single can of stew or tuna or the like to donate could be used by the charity to buy much, much, much food at bulk discount. Which they get in already sorted cases that are a lot easier to store.

My particular local food charity, Northwest Harvest, says they can “feed a family of three a nutritious meal for just 67 cents.”

Hunger is a serious problem, and lots of people who work multiple jobs trying to keep a roof over their kids’ heads, often don’t know where the next meal those kids will get is coming from. So, find a local food bank or a blanket food charity, and give them money. Even a little bit can go a long, long way!

If you don’t want to go read the above article, watch “Adam Ruins Everything – Why You Shouldn’t Donate Canned Food to Charities:”

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here

It’s an old family recipe…

Enjoy yourself a nice food coma... (Click to embiggen)

Enjoy yourself a nice food coma… (Click to embiggen)

I learned a lot of incredible recipes from my grandmothers and great-grandmothers as a kid. There are a few favorite old dishes that, for one reason or another, I never learned how to make before the only person in the family that knew it passed away. One of my great-grandmothers cooked sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving in heavy cream and molasses. They were incredibly delicious, but it was apparently a rather involved process. If she wasn’t attending the big Thanksgiving dinner, we didn’t get the creamy sweet potatoes. Her daughter, my Grandma B, didn’t like the creamy recipe. She preferred to just pour a bit of molasses and a bunch of mini-marshmallows on top and bake the sweet potatoes. Lots of people eat them that way, but they just don’t compare to the way Great-grandma made them.

My Grandma P. had all sorts of favorite old recipes, but most of them weren’t Thanksgiving fare (her chili was to die for!). But about ten years before she died, after she had let my Aunt Silly take over hosting the annual Thanksgiving dinner, Grandma brought this frozen cranberry salad which everyone loved. Really, really loved. And they begged her to make it again for Christmas. It became the dish she brought to all the holiday get-togethers from then on. For some reason, I never asked her to explain the recipe to me. I was a bit surprised, after Grandma died, when I found out none of my cousins, nor my aunt, nor Mom, had ever asked for the recipe. We had some discussions and realized that none of us agreed on all the ingredients we recalled being in it. It was frozen, it had cranberries, and orange slices, and Cool Whip mixed together, but also had layers. But some of us remember it having nuts, while some said it never did, and others remember coconut, while others thought it was marshmallows, and so on. I suspect it’s because Grandma had alway been an improvisational cook, so I bet she never made it exactly the same way, twice.

Over the years since, I experimented in an attempt to re-create it, and have come up with a process that gets something most of the family members agree is darn close. I know that Grandma probably made hers with canned cranberry sauce, but I always start with raw cranberries and mandarin oranges, cooking them down to make homemade cranberry sauce. In the tradition of none of us remembering it the same way, every year I intentionally do at least one different ingredient than the previous year. My sister keeps insisting Grandma’s had mini marshmallows (at least two cousins agree with her), while Mom and I are pretty sure it didn’t. But this year, for my sister, I’ve added mini marshmallows.

For the last fifteen years or so, Mom has made this thing she calls Mistake Salad. Originally she meant to follow a recipe she got from a magazine, but she skipped a major ingredient. But everyone liked what she made, so she’s kept doing it “wrong.” If you’ve ever heard the novelty song “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise,” this thing Mom makes is from a similar tradition. Except if there were a song about Mom’s, it would be called “Pistachio Pudding Pineapple Cottage Cheese Surprise.” And while that may not sound good, I assure you it is sinfully delicious.

Family holiday traditions are weird like that. Several years back my sister had Thanksgiving dinner plans go badly awry, and she wound up making spaghetti and meatballs, because that was what she had left that was fit to eat. Her oldest daughter (my niece) loved that Thanksgiving, and now spaghetti and meatballs is her favorite food to make for the holidays.

When I was young, the gravy served at big family meals was always so thick, it could have been served with a fork. After you spooned some onto your mashed potatoes and stuffing, he had to sort of mash it into the potatoes and the stuffing with your fork to get the flavor blended. A friend once explained that her family’s gravy was always thin and runny, so when you poured some on any part of your dinner, it flowed all over the plate, and everything got some gravy on it. For her, that’s the flavor of Thanksgiving: a bit of gravy on everything.

For me, it isn’t a holiday dinner if there isn’t a relish tray (at least two kinds of olives, pickles, other pickled vegetables). For my husband, the dinner needs a green bean casserole—specifically the kind made with cream of mushroom soup and French’s fried onions. And afterward there has to be pie. Unless I’m feeling up to make cherries jubilee (the kind with flaming brandy! Fruit, sugar, ice cream, and fire! How can you top that for a dessert?), then I can live without pie.

This year it’s just going to be the three of us at my Mom’s. So we’re only going to have part of a turkey, and only a couple of side dishes. Though I can tell from the messages I’ve been exchanging with her that both of us have picked up a few extra things besides what we discussed when divvy-ing up the menu. So we’ll probably wind up with enough food to feed a dozen. It may be more than filling, but it will also be fun.

So, what are you having?

What’s for dinner?

I used to always run a survey on my old LiveJournal for what people are having or did have for their Thanksgiving Dinner:

And:

Don’t forget:

Some heretics don’t have a relish tray (and even worse, don’t know what that is), but everyone has sauces or relish of some kind, right?

“I’m looking for pie”

In the middle of the day Wednesday, my mom sent me a picture of a plant she’d found growing in front of her house and asked if I knew what it was.

Mom's mystery plant

Mom’s mystery plant

I replied “Rhubarb?” Because that’s what it looked like, right?
A reference image from the web of one variety of rhubarb.

A reference image from the web of one variety of rhubarb.

There are other things it could be, but rhubarb seemed a reasonable guess.

At about the same time I was looking at the picture Mom sent, my husband sent me a text, explaining that he had come home from work sick. Somehow, my reply to Mom went to Michael instead. I didn’t realize it until sometime later when Michael replied, “Heh. Sure, I guess!”

So I had to re-send my answer to Mom, and send an explanation to Michael that I had actually been answering Mom.

During my walk home from work, I kept thinking about the rhubarb. I felt as if I had raised Michael’s hopes for some pie, only to dash them when I explained that I’d been talking to Mom. So I stopped at one of the grocery stores near our house, one that often carries pies which are made without added sugar (most fruit actually doesn’t need it) and with a whole grain crust. I had been thinking it was still a little early in the year to be finding rhubarb pies, but, lo and behold, there was a no-sugar added strawberry-rhubarb pie. So I grabbed it and a container of vanilla non-fat frozen yogurt and headed home.

I also picked up a few different options of the comfort-food variety for dinner. Though when I showed Michael what I’d picked out, I pointed out that depending on how much comfort he wanted, we could just split the pie for dinner. Instead, he picked mac and cheese, with pie for dessert.

All day at work I’d been feeling inexplicably grumpy. At home that night, I tried to get some writing done, but just couldn’t string words together. Thursday morning when the alarm went off, I felt as if I hadn’t slept in days and my stomach was hurting. A lot. I checked my temperature and I had a low-grade fever. So I called in sick and crashed back into bed.

When I woke up a few hours later I felt less awful. Not better, but less awful. I stumbled into the kitchen, looking for some juice. I saw the pie we’d cut into the night before, and the sudden realization that I could have pie for breakfast made me feel that life might just be worth living, after all.

So, pie for breakfast, then pie again for dessert that night. And I picked up a couple more small pies (different flavors, this time), because we both seemed to be enjoying it so much.

When we were next in the grocery store together, Michael headed into the bakery section after we’d gotten other things on our list. I asked him why.

“I’m looking for pie.”

When I pointed out that we hadn’t, yet finished off all the pie we had, he said, “I know. But we will, and we’ll want some more, after.”

Of course, he was right. He almost always is.

Sweet and savory

I love munching on olives while waiting for the big holiday dinner to finish. When I was a kid, there were always at least two kinds of olives out, usually away from the kitchen, often laid out with candy and nuts and some little napkins and tiny plates. It was part of “this food is to distract you and keep you out of the kitchen until the main event” table.

Depending on which branches of the extended family were present, the setting was referred to as either “the olives and pickles” or “the relish tray.” It was called a relish “tray” regardless of whether there was an actual tray. A real relish tray is a bit of glassware meant for a buffet table in a formal dining setting, which has separated compartments.

Sweet and Savory!

Relish Tray, Gene & Michael’s, Thanksgiving 2012

The relish tray’s heyday was before the 20th Century, when the only foods available during the winter months were those which had been canned, pickled, or otherwise preserved during the growing seasons. Home canned foods often are very bland, so pickled foods added bursts of vinegary or briny or sweet delight.

I didn’t know that as a kid. There just were always at least two kinds of olive, and usually sweet pickled beets and at least two kinds of pickles. And if this was the right branch of the family, most of the pickles were home-pickled produce. Grandma B. liked an even mix of savory and sweet choices. Grandma P. always had a lot of very spicy pickled vegetables. If Great-grandma S.J.’s pickled squash was in the mix, it was a very special relish tray, for instance. One year, Great-aunt Pearl (though now that I think about it, she was my Grandma’s aunt, so she was technically my great-great-aunt) had sent a jar or two of homemade pickled watermelon rind, and that may have been the best relish tray, ever.

It just doesn’t feel like a real holiday dinner, to me, if there isn’t a relish tray. If given half a chance, I’ll set out a spread of dozens of different kinds of olives alone. Even if it’s going to be a small group. Each vinegary, briny, and sweet morsel is a little bit of my childhood, coming back for a visit.

Grandma’s cranberry salad

One of the best parts of my childhood was growing up with a collection of truly kick-ass grandmothers. I say collection because in addition to my two grandmothers, all four of my great-grandmothers were still alive when I was a teen-ager (one lived until I was in my thirties).

My Great-grandma I. taught me how to make egg noodles from scratch, (which is the first step to making the World’s Best Chicken Noodle Casserole {which she also taught me how to make}), and that measuring cups are only guidelines. My Great-grandma S.J. taught me how to crochet, how to make biscuits from scratch, and how to listen in on the neighbors’ conversation on a party line (if you don’t know what a party line is, google it). Great-grandma B. taught me how to make ice tea with so much sugar, it was amazing the stuff would actually pour (and there is a secret, it’s not just about adding more and more sugar, although that’s an important part). I could go on, and on.

But during this time of year there are a couple things I regret never learning from my various grandmothers: I never learned Great-grandma S.J.’s heavy-cream-and-molasses sweet potatoes (I’ve found and tried some recipes, but so far, none come out right), and I never learned how to make Grandma P.’s frozen cranberry salad. I have recreated a close approximation, but it also isn’t quite right.

Every holiday when I get together with that side of the family, someone laments the absence of Grandma’s cranberry salad. I’m not the only one who has attempted to recreate it. Every version I’ve tried has been tasty, but it isn’t the same.

The funny thing is, that unlike most of the other dishes each of them was known for, this one wasn’t a really old recipe. Great-grandma S.J. once told me she’d learned how to make divinity from her own grandmother, for instance. It’s the reason she couldn’t write the recipe down, she’d have to show you. That had been the case with her homemade biscuits. When I make her biscuits I throw ingredients together and mix. If the consistency isn’t right, you add more of one of the ingredients, depending up how the consistency is wrong. It’s hard to describe. You have to experience it.

Grandma P.’s cranberry salad was something she started making when I was an adult. She’d seen it on a cooking show, she said, and just gave it a try. We know it involves canned cranberry sauce (the chunky kind), whipped cream, canned mandarin oranges, and some kind of jell-o. After that, none of us are sure. Or, more truthfully, we had contradictory memories. Some of us insist it had coconut, but others are certain it had marshmallows, for instance.

The thing that I don’t want to say to any of the family: I bet all of our contradictory memories are right. It fits right in with Grandma’s style of cooking. “Oh, I don’t have any shredded coconut? Hmmm, oh here’s some marshmallows, maybe they will be good…”

And probably the real reason it never tastes right, is because it’s missing the most important ingredient. The one we can never replace…

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