Monday, June 19, 2017

A Somewhat Delayed Fathers' Day Post*

PVT John Theodore EckersonGenealogy research is one of those activities, like bird watching, you don’t come to until you are older.

I don’t know why this is, because it’s rather counter-productive. By the time you’re interested, most of the people who could have provided the information you desperately need are dead or mentally incapacitated.

I never knew my paternal grandfather, who died in the trenches of World War I. I’ve been gazing at his picture from a newspaper article written about him in the early years of the war, when he voluntarily signed up to serve -- in spite of his military exemption because he had several children (my infant father) and one on the way -- because, as he is quoted as saying, “there are plenty of slackers.”

I want to slap him, knowing as I do the hardship his death caused my widowed grandmother, who was forced to dole her children out to boarding houses to raise themselves.

So I signed into an ancestry research site. A search reveals his name on the draft registration roster and in two clicks I'm looking at my grandfather’s signature on his registration form. Suddenly he is a person – my person. My grandfather. For a moment I’m stunned.

This man whose name, when spoken, resulted in an eye-roll from both my father and my aunt, was suddenly real to me. Would he have asked me to pull his finger? Would he have swiped in front of my face, bent his thumb toward his palm and claim possession of my nose? Would he like me?

And why, for God's sake, do I care?

At one point, the family tree splits, with each branch settling in two different counties in New Jersey, and two entirely different economic and social classes. I don’t think I need to mention which branch I’m descended from.

There are no Elizabeth Bennetts or Mr. Darcys lurking in my family tree; not even a Jane Eyre or Jo March. My people were servants to those characters, nameless, faceless workers who supported the romance that is presented as the Regency and Victorian eras.
Is it some sort of inherited memory that I never had the same romantic vision of the 19th century as the media presents?

Deep down I’m always aware that while a small population was fluttering about in hoop skirts and covering their noses with lace hankies, even more people were breaking their backs carrying the water to keep them in their dainty finery. That's my people.

I look back at my grandfather’s picture. Though he gazes back at me with my father’s eyes, I still feel anger at this arrogant truck driver who stumbled into the line of fire. Had he not been who he was, had he not died, growing up I might have actually had a grandfather.

But then, had he lived, my father might never have been forced to leave college to get a job as a jewelry salesman to support his mother. It was there he met my mother. Where it not for that arrogant truck driver (or as Pa used to say, “I think my father was sort of a jerk.”), my parents would have never met.

And you, dear reader, instead of reading this, would be scrolling through Facebook posts on “Look at These 70s Celebs All Grown Up!” And Dirtman would be roaming freely about the world, trying to engage anyone and everyone into conversations about the weather. (On behalf of my family tree, you’re welcome.)

Physicists say that it is humans who impose a linear quality to the concept of time; some claim that events just happen without regard to past, present or future.

My existence has depended on the trajectory of a bullet shot in 1918 by a soldier whose name I’ll never know.

This amazes and humbles me.

*Portions of this post were originally published in (an old, old) column of Spot-On.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

A New Year's Post In Which I Manage to Not Invoke the Name of the President-Elect*

Dear 2017,
Image result for Baby New Year
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the need to address the New Year. Things seemed to be progressing at a pretty normal pace. It seemed my input wasn’t necessary like it was for your siblings 2012 and 2014.

And then there was your sibling 2016 – the Hannibal Lechter of years. I realize now that, as New Years go, these little discussions are mandatory since evidently subjective and arbitrary timeframes have no respect for decency.

In the past, I’ll admit I’ve judged you and your siblings on the crap you flung at me, personally. It never occurred to me that, lacking my direction, you’d expand your systematic destruction to the world at large.

So…2017…we need to talk. Because evidently, like a pre-teen, you seem to think that if I don’t specifically tell you not to do something, it automatically means it’s okay to do. For instance – I never said to my kids, “don’t play Jousting Tournament on your bicycles.” I went for the simple “don’t be a moron,” assuming that would prevent them from careening at each other with the gas grill rotisserie shafts. I was wrong.

Indeed, I never specifically told your sibling, 2016, to not bring our entire civilization to its knees. At this time last year, such as statement was sort of like telling someone “don’t take any wooden nickels.” Such a phrase was outdated because any idiot would know the difference between a sanctioned, intricately-minted coin and a piece of worthless junk carved to look like something of value that can slip through a dysfunctional mechanism.

And so 2016 was the year that was so horrible, a bevy of celebrities opted to jump ship rather than endure even one more week of it. It was the year so horrible that even the people who got their way still seemed to be really mad at the people who didn’t. It was the year no one was happy.

What has made it even worse is that 2016 packed up and disappeared, but didn’t take its garbage with it. So here we are, drowning in the detritus of your sibling and you show up expecting some sort of celebration.

Well 2017, you’re going to have to prove yourself. Frankly, you don’t have a whole lot to work with and Kardashian mutations are still infesting every aspect of our culture (deep down I suspect this is the root of all the world’s problems).

So for now I’ll wait…and watch…and find a nice, safe place for my spare pair of glasses.


*Sort of.

Monday, November 23, 2015

10 Things That Really Bug Me A Lot More Than They Probably Should

1. People who talk about their sports team in terms of "we;" as in "WE really tore them up this week;" as if the speaker him- or her-self had been out on the field instead of parked on the sofa eating tortilla chips.

2. Using Facebook to say "Happy Birthday, "Happy Anniversary," "I love you," etc. to someone you live someone you live with. For pete's sake, turn your head! There he or she is! Now speak the words. That's how we used to do it in the olden days.

3. (while we're on the subject of Facebook) Postings threatening me that if I don't "share" them, I don't love the poster, I don't love 'Murica, I don't respect veterans, I want people to die of cancer, will have something horrible happen to me.

4. Not just stinkbugs, but dive-bombing stinkbugs; dive-bombing stinkbugs IN THE DARK. They turn me into Tippi Hedren in The Birds when she for some inexplicable reason goes to the upstairs room, opens the door, sees big honkin' birds all over the place and then enters the room anyway.

5. When people write "Walla!" instead of "Voila!"

6. Owen Wilson. I don't know why -- might be his lips. He has Donald Trump lips (and I DO know why HE bugs me).

7. The fact that, in 28 years of marriage, Dirtman has not finished a single container of anything. He leaves approximately a tablespoon of product in any container -- whether it's shampoo, a box of cereal only he eats, or milk -- and then opens a new container. I guarantee, if I go into the kitchen right now, there is a bag of wheat squares on top of the fridge with precisely two squares in it. And, actually -- I think this bugs me precisely as much as it should.

...and yes, I've told him. I've gone on 10-minute rants about finding one freakin' cracker wrapped up in a big saltine box in a cabinet already crammed with a jar of Jif with a teaspoon of  peanut butter and a bottle of Log Cabin with a tiny pool of syrup at the bottom, along with almost-full opened versions of each product. I mean, how is that one freakin' cracker too much?

8. That there are people who will think I am overreacting to #7.

9. When my computer refuses to download something with the phrase "You are not connected." I take this personally and get really sad.

10. That every article you read these days is in the form of lists. It's a cheap trick to get people to read something absolutely inane.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Boneless Pork Frankenloin
How to make so many substitutions to a recipe it no longer resembles the recipe you started with

So I had this portion of a pork loin sitting in my freezer; this hunk of meat that I had to commit ahead of time to make because one doesn't defrost a loin of pork and then put off roasting it because one got home late and only had the energy to make a martini OR make dinner and, the way things have been going lately, the martini always wins so long as the Tanqueray holds out.

This particular pork loin was a cute little end piece I surreptitiously snipped off the end of a larger roast I'd made earlier this summer for the family at large. It was the perfect size for two people to have dinner and a few pork sandwiches.1

A boneless pork loin is basically a big hunk of solid meat, a sort of blank canvas for flavor and, paired with a morning spent watching Food Network, it was destined for a more creative treatment than my usual rub-n-roast.

At first I thought I'd cut it into individual boneless chops, butterfly the chops and stuff them. But, in seeking inspiration from the internet, I happened upon a video of stuffing a pork loin roast.

Now here's the thing about recipes off the internet: they're written by people who actually make meal plans; people who go grocery shopping on a regular basis -- people who have money to go grocery shopping on a regular basis. Here in Linguiniland, grocery shopping is done as a last resort -- when even the ramen is gone and you can see straight through the top shelf to the bottom of the crisper drawer.

The guy on the video had thought out his meal so far ahead that he had figs on hand for the stuffing and time to hunt down something with the unfortunate name of "fat caul.2" He was so organized, he had butcher's twine and so wealthy, he had a Le Creuset roaster.

So, basically, this is the same recipe, in so much as there is a pork loin that it's stuffed, but all similarities end there. My stuffing is significantly more humble: the only bread on hand was stale hot dog buns in the freezer and from that I just threw together the standard stuffing I use at Thanksgiving in a much smaller quantity.

I substituted the "fat caul" with bacon because I figure you can substitute just about anything with bacon. (Couldn't they come up with a better name than "fat caul?")

My butcher's twine is the end of a skein of cotton yarn I used to knit dishcloths. Just call me the MacGyver of the kitchen.

I did have to learn to butterfly a pork loin, not easy when it's a teeny tiny pork loin end. But, just as you can use bacon as a substitute for everything, you can also use bacon to camouflage ugly knife skills. And it doesn't have a depressing name like "smoked pig stomach lining."

I roasted the whole thing on a bed of onions and made a sort of jus/gravy (I like jus, Dirtman likes to drown things in gravy -- so I compromise).

The recipe was a success, but will work infinitely better with a full roast. Next time, I'll plan ahead and put apples and pecans in the stuffing.

The bacon could barely contain the stuffing in my tiny butterflied roast and I doubt that...Thing That Shall Not Be Named... would do much better. I'm sticking with the bacon anyway; the flavor was out of this world! I doubt anything called "caul" could do much better.

...And then I don't have to explain to anyone that I wrapped their dinner in a caul.

1. The perfect size for a couple that never hears from their sons for whom they sacrificed and slaved, obtaining gray hair and probably an ulcer, yet are never bitter or expectant of any gratitude for the 70 hours of labor she put into bringing said sons to life or the ENDLESS MONTHS OF HOMESCHOOLING SHE SPENT EXPLAINING THE DIFFERENCE AMONG "TO, TOO AND TWO" AND "THERE, THEIR AND THEY'RE;" but a couple that does not want to confine their pork loin consumption to times when said ingrates deign to drop by expecting to be fed.

2. The only other reference I can think of to a "caul" is in the book David Copperfield -- apparently David is born with a "caul," which is eventually sold because people were evidently less squeamish and more superstitious. Since a "caul" is, basically, the afterbirth over the head of a baby that hadn't been pierced in the birth process, it hardly conjures culinary visions in my brain but, instead, sort makes me throw up a little in my mouth.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The (not anything like Campbell's) Cream of Tomato Soup recipe

Let's face it. I could write prose until I'm blue in the face and most people who know me would just say, "Knock it off and cook something."

While writing is an aspiration, cooking I do okay -- save for a few pathetic stabs at vegetarianism in the 90s and some extremely frugal recipes requiring the addition of something called "texturized vegetable protein."* It was a sad, sad time in Linguiniland.

And so...the Tomato Soup recipe. This is the one I made for the cafe. Notes follow.

7 cups crushed tomatoes
1 cup shredded carrots
3/4 cup finely chopped onions
1 (13.7-oz.) can chicken broth
1 T. sugar
2 tsp. salt
3 T butter
3 T. flour
1 cup heavy cream (have used half-n-half successfully)
2 tsp. dry basil or 2 T. chopped fresh basil
1/2 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. pepper]
1/4 tsp. garlic powder

Sweat carrots and onions in olive oil. Add tomatoes, chicken broth, sugar and salt. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Cream mixture with immersible  blender (or food processor or regular blender1).

Add cream.
In a separate pot, melt butter and blend in flour. Add to soup and stir until thickened.
Add herbs and spices and simmer 1 hour. Taste to adjust seasonings.

Just a few caveats:
Since canned tomatoes differ so much between brands and I can't afford to choose one over the other, I don't always use the flour and butter to thicken the soup. If the tomatoes are thick enough, I just splash in the cream (you can use half-n-half too -- which I usually do, since that's what I have around).

Also, the basil is going to vary widely, especially if it's fresh. The 2 T. is based on basil I grew. This last time I used fresh basil from the store and it took the whole package to get it to where I was happy. Just remember that, if you add more, let it simmer at least 10 minutes before tasting again.

So there it is. Too much trouble for soup? After a while it become second nature and goes very quickly. Especially if you do it twice a week for a year or 8 o'clock in the morning before the double shot espresso kicks in. 

*Back in the day, Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP) was a staple in Linguiniland. TVP could replace meat in a myriad of re.cipes, but we only used it to reduce our meat bill as much as possible. By pairing TVP with deer meat( given to us by a member of our church who loved to hunt but whose wife could not bring herself to "eat Bambi"), I was able to slash our food bill to next to nothing ($75 a month for a family of 4). However, the TVP experience is a frequent subject of many nostalgic conversations between the Heirs, usually involving the frequency of bathroom use or as a gauge of how nauseous something made them; as in, "the food poisoning made me run for the bathroom more than TVP;" or "the flu made me throw up more than TVP." Through it all, I insist, I was a good mother.