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.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

On Being an Introvert

I am so glad that being an introvert has become fashionable. At least, I assume it has -- one can never tell whether what you are interested in has become popular, or if it's just showing up a lot on your Facebook feed because of your interest. 

At any rate, it turns out that being an introvert is okay now. 

Image result for introvert people

"But, Sisiggy," you say, "Here you are blathering on about being an introvert -- but you are blathering in a very public place -- the internet."

Yes, but my original blather is as I sit at my computer alone (but for Topper-get-down on the bed spewing noxious fumes and Dirtman  a few yards off muttering sport statistics that have no basis in my reality).

This isn't about the obvious attributes of introversion, but the most common is that introverts find large gatherings draining -- which sounds to me like I'm being accused of snobbishness ("I find these people so tedious, Dah-ling!"). It is actually the opposite of that. I think, when faced with a large gathering, we introverts become extrovert-wanna-bes.

What? You think we want to huddle in the back, pretending to be talking on our cell phones? (Prior to cell phones, the most we could do is dive into the bathroom.)

I manage a teeny, tiny remote portion of a very large non-profit and, therefore, have to attend meetings where I know, if I'm lucky, only one or two people out of hundreds. I am there with my boss's directive to "network."

Networking -- the person who invented this activity should have a flat tire on I-395 outside of Arlington at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday; they should encounter a locked bathroom a half hour after having consumed bad guacamole; they should get in a checkout line at the grocery store behind someone with a fistful of coupons, only some of which have not expired, requiring further examination on behalf of the clerk and the supervisor, called to pass judgement on the wording on several of the coupons.

My boss is a networking superstar. She works a room like Auntie Mame and makes small talk sound like the Gettysburg Address. I am in awe of her as I follow her around, smiling politely as she introduces me, while the entire time I'm just thinking up an excuse to go home or, perhaps, go help out the caterers (thereby at least accomplishing something).

This actually came in handy recently. I escaped during a break in a meeting where we were told to "introduce ourselves" to at least one other person from outside our department (since I'm a department of one, this meant everybody). I would argue, as an introvert, that this was not actually, then, a break, but a continuance of the tortuous interactive meeting. So I headed to my car with my phone plastered to my ear. Blessed silence! To fill out the time, I decide to clean out my glove compartment and noticed that I needed to print out a new insurance card.

See? Introversion has it's purpose.

Usually, though, when faced with such a meeting, I scan the room for someone like me -- usually sitting at the back row or table, pretending to be texting someone. This is where I will sit. We introverts have an understanding with each other. We will exchange names and, if asked, we will both have someone to refer to as "a connection" we made. Then we sit in silence and pray for the event to be over.

Later, though, I always swear that next time I will enter the room with a, "Hello everybody!" And everyone will give an exclamation of delight as I enter the room, my arms outstretched to encompass all these people I consider friends -- because what extrovert doesn't consider as a friend every person with whom they've made eye contact?

I will not have to introduce myself to anyone because everyone will be coming up to me, unable to resist the gravitational pull of my charm and folksy eloquence.

And there I'll be, in the center of all those people...those people whose names I, of course, remember*...who expect me to...what? What do they expect of me? Read their expressions, right? That 's how you tell what they want from you. But they're all smiling. That's it. Smiling. And talking about...what? I can't understand what they are saying, they're all talking at once...saying things and smiling...

It requires focus and listening. But it's always someone who talks too quietly and you lean in and still can't hear and ask, "What?" and still can't hear, then give up and just smile and nod until you notice a look of horror on their face and you realize that they've just related to you about their recently-deceased grandmother who raised them.

Or they ask me a question. Oh no!

I make a noise, nothing like speech. Like any good Italian, my mouth doesn't work without the aid of my hands. And I'm off, babbling and gesticulating like an idiot, running out of air at the end of sentences and laughing at my own stupid jokes. I go on and on because I don't know how to end it, so I say (and I'm not exaggerating; this is honestly how I've ended some of my more inane diatribes), "I'm done now."

Then I chuckle, pretend to suddenly notice the refreshment table and say, "Oh! Water!" and hurry away.

And speaking of the refreshment table, what demon of Satan's thought up the idea of having to eat, drink, stand up and talk, all at the same time? (I suspect it's the same person who came up with sing-alongs, high school gym class and those silly games they make you play at Tupperware parties -- all, ironically, activities at which extroverts excel.)

So, you see, in a way, it's a blessing I'm an introvert. No one, not even the most annoying extrovert, should have to witness that embarrassment.

So, Extroverts of the World, I have a deal for you: If you will just leave me alone when you see me sitting placidly off to the side at some event, next time I'm completing some mundane transaction like gassing up my car or buying a pizza, I won't punch you in the head when you command me to, "Smile!"

*I have, under pressure of speaking to someone I didn't know, forgotten the name of my husband. Recently. We've been married 27 years. And the question, "Is it 'Jean' or 'Jeanne'?" confused me because I didn't know who they were talking about.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Return of the Native

Let's face it -- I wasn't ready to return to New Jersey.

I've known this for a long time and, out of respect for the citizens of that state, I've kept my distance. They don't need me timidly attempting to pull out onto freeway or holding up the line at the coffee kiosk asking the lady how she was today.

But there comes a time where the longing to see loved ones trumps courtesy and, in this case, the gathering was a wedding.

John Boy did all the driving, thus preventing traffic snarls as I white-knuckle my way in front of an 18-wheeler. And my early morning exuberance at the coffee counter resulted in a confused stare on the face of the barista. I realized I had this simpering smile on my face that is the requisite "you must like me" prelude to any public discourse in the south. But to her, I probably looked like I'd already downed way too many venti lattes along with half a bottle of Dexedrine.

In spite of my insistence that I would never be assimilated by southern customs, I've slowed down considerably over the past 34 years. I've lost my edge.

After walking the halls of my hotel looking for the ice machine, I finally gave up and called down to the front desk. The clerk gave me directions, yet I still could not find the machine, in spite of checking all three floors. So I called again and got a different clerk who told me they'd taken out the one ice machine in my area of the hotel to have it repaired. Oops! She forgot to tell the other clerk, she said anxiously, anticipating the anger that was sure to be coming her way.

I apologized and thanked her. Even as I said it, I hated myself -- that cloying, "thaaank youuuuuu!" that ends every southern conversation ensuring that, had there been any misunderstanding during the previous discussion, it was unintentional and that all is well between the participants. It's a good way to keep the atmosphere laid back and friendly.

But it doesn't get you ice at 10 o'clock at night in Morristown, NJ.

Then there was the matter of my wardrobe. I'm afraid I've gotten a little behind in the wardrobe area. And I share the late Gilda Radner's idea of clothing: "I base my fashion taste on what doesn't itch." This has so far served me well because of my rural Virginia surroundings and complete lack of a social life.

Now, though, I was facing a weekend in New Jersey. There was talk of dinner at a real restaurant where people come to your table and serve you. Plus we would be seeing my Aunt Marie, who at 94 makes my wardrobe resemble that of Gladys Ormphby.

...and a wedding.

A wedding.

I could pull together something for most of the weekend, but a wedding requires grown up clothing. A wedding was going to require...

A Dress.

One of those dresses that require panty hose and nice shoes and nice shoes means...

Heels. Remember Heels?

I have not worn any of those for over a decade. I used to brag about that fact and now it was biting me in the butt. Normal, responsible grownup women have at least one dress. They have dress shoes and do not groan at a 1-inch heel.

Now here's the thing about buying a dress at my age and figure: you balance a very, very, very...I cannot exaggerate how very...fine line between going too far and not going far enough. Let me illustrate.

Too far:

Not far enough:

Because either extreme is rather disrespectful to the bride. Too loud and it's like you're trying to draw attention to yourself (I emphasize the word "trying," because nobody can really do that; but we pathological people-pleasers are very focused on making sure no one thinks we think that we think we can). Too low-key and it's as if you just didn't care or, worse, have gone into mourning for the event.

At this point, I can tell you, I know what you are thinking. How? Because it was at this point in my thought process, which manifests itself in my stalking about and muttering to myself, that Dirtman summed it all up with the phrase, "You may be over-thinking this."

And so I bought a dress that wasn't black and didn't itch.

And I brought along a back up pair of flat sandals to slip on at the reception. 

And my Aunt Marie and I were too happy to see each other to even consider anybody's apparel.

And I was too busy stuffing my face with really, really, really...I cannot exaggerate how really...good Indian food and enjoying my cousins' and brother's company to even think about my ensemble.

And the second morning when I visited the coffee kiosk, the same barista greeted me with a big smile and said, "How are you this morning?"

Never did fill the ice bucket, though.

And I'm still not ready to return to New Jersey. And I won't be ready when I go back.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Got Your Glasses? Got Your Teeth"


What Goes Around Comes Around

I heard it whenever my mother or my aunts went anywhere with my grandmother. We'd all be ready to head out the door and, just before we stepped outside one of them would ask her, "You got your glasses? You got your teeth?"

It was as common a phrase to me as "see ya later" or "drive carefully" and part of the ritual of traveling with Gramma. She would put on her black and white tweed coat then drop a clean handkerchief into her purse, which would snap shut with a waft of violet (the only gum she ever chewed) while one of her daughters would wait patiently by the door. And then, "Got your glasses? Got your teeth?"

It's not like Gramma needed either one of those all the time. The glasses were reading glasses and the teeth were only a bridge that fit way in the back of her mouth that no one could readily tell whether it was in there or not.

When I was very small I wondered what cataclysm had occurred that this was the ultimate question prior to leaving. Not, "Got your driver's license?" "Got enough money to get where you are going and back?" What horrible thing happened in the past that remembering glasses and teeth prevented?

When I got older, though, I was embarrassed for my grandmother. It wasn't like she was senile or even forgetful. She was sharp as a tack and quite feisty. In fact, I can't figure out why she allowed the indignity of the questions in the first place. Usually anyone questioning her got a, "don't tell me..." Think: an Italian Miss Daisy.

So, to this day, I really don't get what started the two questions and why they were allowed to become part of our lexicon.

Fast forward to present day.

Personally, all my teeth are my own and, unless I'm sleeping, my glasses are always on my face. For the record.

Dirtman, however, has a cap on one of his front teeth and recently that cap has succumbed to a particularly nasty habit he has of chewing tobacco. He will argue this point and say the cap coming off has nothing to do with the Skoal but, let's face it -- it can't help. And I will use any excuse to scold him for this particular habit. The fact is, the cap fell out and we don't have dental insurance or the money to fix it. So he uses denture fixative to keep the tooth in (and prevent us from making fun of him).

On top of this, since only one of the lenses in Dirtman's glasses is of any use (he is blind in one eye), he has taken to not wearing his glasses a whole lot when he is working at home. Since I do most of our driving (you're welcome), he can go days without having to put his glasses on.

And so it happened. The Heirs came for a visit and, since I had some free coupons, we decided to go to one of our local vineyards and do a wine tasting.

I must admit, my goal whenever I leave the house is only that I'm somewhat tidy and don't smell. But when we visit places like a winery, I do tend to succumb to cultural pressures and try to look a little less like a homeless person and more like a middle class person who can actually afford a bottle of the wines she is tasting -- in other words, I put a scarf around my neck because that seems to be the thing.

Dirtman has no such aspirations. In fact, Dirtman enjoys testing the limits of what society will allow. He is true counterculuralist -- an individual; a nonconformist. He would never be caught dead wearing a scarf around his neck. Or combing his hair. Or...

Okay, I'll say it: we have to check on Dirtman before he walks out the door. As a public service.

And that is why, as Heir 1 turned the knob to leave for the winery I said to Dirtman, "Got your glasses? Got your teeth?"

Glasses AND Teeth
The Heirs looked at me as I must have looked at my mother and my aunts.

I almost wish it was still the custom to bury people in family crypts. Because that is what I would have carved in the lintel over the door.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

From Humbug to Hallelujah

(or how working a catalog call center in December helped me find the true meaning of Christmas)

I never thought there would be a time when I would find Christmas annoying. I don’t mean just “the holidays” – I think just about everyone is a little exasperated with The Season muscling out the cozy earth tones of autumn. But, as December approached, the day itself had begun floating around in the back of my mind like an upcoming dental appointment or tax deadline.

I used to love Christmas. No. Scratch that.

I used to love thinking I could find the ideal Christmas. And the ideal Christmas was one where I would finally hit upon the perfect balance of spiritual fulfillment and holiday ambiance. Needless to say, any time the word “perfect” enters the conversation, you may as well give up right there.

When financial disaster and subsequent unemployment turned our holidays into something visited upon by The Grinch, I thought surely, there would be some sort of epiphany or flood of meaning. Instead Christmas a lá the Cratchits brought an uneasy feeling that we no longer had the entry fee to participate in our own cultural festivities.

Yes, of course there are tons of “free” events designed to foster the Christmas spirit and I would dutifully (because, in addition to becoming more and more cynical about the season, came the guilt over being cynical about the season resulting in an all-out assault on my cynicism) plod to one Christmas concert after another, only to be confronted by the inevitable “free will offering.” I’m not saying anyone made me feel obligated to toss my (literally) last dollar into the basket, but in my mind everyone was watching and judging and waiting to see if I was a freeloader…and did I mention that I’m a pathological people pleaser? But the reality of it is that Christmas is a fundraising opportunity for churches and organizations – and as someone deeply involved in a nonprofit, I totally understand that.

So I was almost relieved when this year the opportunity arose to work through the entire Christmas season, head down, nose to the grindstone, putting in as many hours as I could to make what I earned last long enough to get me through to my next paying gig (someday I will write of the humiliating, heart-breaking, soul-crushing challenge of trying to find a job as a woman over 55, but that is a subject best discussed once resolved). I was going to be a seasonal telephone customer service representative for a national catalogue company based in my home county – and NO I’m not going to name it.

Let me start out with a little Economics 101, for those who don’t know: big retailers have absolutely no feeling for you whatsoever. No matter what they say or what they do, you are a number to them and it’s a numbers game. Know that and you will save yourself a lot of heartbreak and frustration. So, when they “give” you a “deal,” be assured they are getting something in return – your e-mail address, your home address, your shopping habits and the shopping habits of your neighbors.

That being said, as an employee of said retailer, it is my job to maintain the façade that we are, truly, there to serve you. This was the most difficult part of my job because, in spite of all the lip service we were subjected to about delivering quality service, the only thing rewarded, recognized or even noted was sales – not the things you call in to buy, but the things we talk you into buying.

The avarice of my employer was matched only by the rudeness of some of my customers. Granted, most were pretty benign and some were downright charming; but all it takes are those four or five phone calls a day to make you fervently pray for another flood to wipe out the entire human race. I was yelled at, cussed at, talked down to and, on several occasions, called an entirely different species, all over policies or mistakes over which I had no control. At no time was I permitted to “defend” myself, only apologize over and over again for something I didn’t do. For the most part, these were situations for which I had no remedy – I can’t make UPS move any faster or change the fact that you didn’t read the information on how long it would take for specialty items to ship.

What I am trying to say here is that I had landed myself in the very eye of the jaundiced Christmas storm. Had I one iota of Christmas spirit left, it had dissipated after one hour of cyber Monday greed.

It got steadily worse as Christmas Eve approached because the closer we got, the less we could do to get stuff to customers on time and everyone knew that by Christmas Eve, it is too late to do anything about anything. I’d been warned it would get uglier and uglier – and it did. Pretty soon my entire day consisted of people yelling at me and accusing me, personally, of ruining their children’s Christmas.

“This was his only Christmas,” one woman snapped at me about a wind chime she’d ordered for her husband.

That was when I noticed the trend of referring to the stuff as the holiday. She hadn’t bothered calling it a Christmas gift – she just called it “Christmas” – his Christmas. As though he had sole ownership of the holiday.

As if any of us do.

Needless to say, it’s no revelation that gift-giving has usurped the holiday. Turn on the TV during November and December. But I knew something else had shifted and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then, Dirtman and I were driving home from grocery shopping a few days before Christmas when I saw what was probably just a silly little church youth activity taking place in front of one of our local Mennonite grocery stores. It was dark, but whether they had turned the store sign’s spotlight on themselves or someone had provided them with one, I don’t remember. I just know I could see them from a quarter of a mile away.

A line of angels, jumping up and down and waving.

Excited angels, as if happy to be finally delivering news of the Best Gift Ever, to use the vernacular.

Delivery guaranteed by Christmas – to all of us.

Why hadn’t I thought of that when people asked me if their gift would be there by Christmas?

Because I’d get fired, that’s why. And I am no prophet. And, goodness knows, prophets in this day and age would be subject to some nightmarish vetting process I’d rather not think about. No, these days, a gentler touch is required. Something more basic.

No ideological minutia or none of my finger wagging borderline puritan extremism.

Just angels. Glowing in the light. No sign. No shouts of dogma. No expectations – the recipients of their message were passing them at 60 miles per hour.

Why did it make me cry? Why does it still make me cry?

Because of the pure simplicity of it; the boiled-down heart of everything that Christmas about of it. They could have stood at the grocery store door and told people, “Merry Christmas!” They would have gotten a greeting back; they may have even gotten a chance to share their faith (though, considering the venue, they’d be preaching to the choir…so to speak…).

Instead, they were out sharing good will with no chance of knowing if their joy touched anyone. And all for just…anybody. Travelers, truck drivers, farmers, commuters, and maybe even some shepherds. Both the faithful and sinners. People too busy to bother with “that part” of Christmas…

…And at least one angry middle-aged woman having a crisis of faith.

I wonder if they knew how powerful was their little display? They took what had become a selfish, overly-burdened day of high expectations and inevitable disappointments and reminded a bunch of weary travelers that the gift of Christ is all we need to be joyful.

When Christmas comes from that kind of joy, it changes the way you not only see the holiday, but the way you see everything. And so I pass on this message, which I’m almost sure I heard driving down the highway not too long ago:

Glory to God in the highest heaven; and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.