Alive, but with Corrections

I survived snowboarding yesterday and even enjoyed it. But my sister is finally enjoying her moment of triumph after I forgot her birthday in October. She noted that I neglected to mention a few ingredients in my Granny’s dressing recipe–namely, onion and celery sauted in butter. The corrected version of the recipe now appears in the original post, which you can find here, along with her comments.

Here’s a photo of me with the dressing, at Christmas a couple of years ago. Note the towel on the shoulder–for my family, this is an essential part of preparing any meal. It’s handy for all those times you accidentally spray yourself with water or otherwise spill things on yourself.


You can vaguely see my sister taking a photo in the mirror in the background. I’m sure she’s cackling at the thought I might have forgotten the celery and onion.

On the Road Again

Today we’re in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where we will spend our first anniversary skiing with my family. I am taking snowboarding lessons with my 14-year-old niece sometime this week. I hope I survive.

This is what I look like when I ski, except for the standing up part:

I’ll report on eating adventures as they happen.

Getting Our Mojo On . . .

After a day spent waiting for the plumber to take $445 so that we would have the privilege of using the toilet in our own home, we now sit here waiting for the gas company to come and turn our fireplace off. Apparently overwhelmed by the sight of plumbers running past it with giant machinery, and perhaps a bit disconcerted by the sight of the toilet sitting in the hallway, the turn-off mechanism on the fireplace decided to call it quits.

And so, two days before our first anniversary, our home fire literally keeps burning.

And so we are ordering pizza from our local favorite, Mojo.

UPDATE: The gas company came by to turn off our fireplace. The technician walked into the house, looked at the fireplace, pulled out a pair of pliers, and turned it off.

Not much mojo around here, it seems.

The Great Flour Expedition, and Pecan Pie

Coming home from our day with Fred’s family on Christmas, Fred and I decided to stop at a convenience store on the way back from Covington, GA, to pick up some flour. The goal was to make the pecan pie he loved so much at my mother’s, and which had disappeared all too quickly. Flour was the only ingredient we lacked. We even had Karo syrup, which I hope never goes bad, since this particular bottle has been on my shelf since before I married Fred.

At our first stop, I trotted to the back of the store where a lone bag of flour sat next to several bags of sugar, a few containers of salt, and charcoal. The price was alarmingly absent. Still, I picked it up, but was brought up short when I noticed it was open.

Being the good citizen that I am, I took the open bag up to the counter and set it in front of the clerk, who was probably also the owner. He was an Indian version of Mr. Rogers: kind-eyed, gray-haired, just beginning to go gray, wearing a light blue sweater vest and sensible shoes.

I chirped up in my best good citizen voice, “I was going to buy this, but it was open.”

The owner looked bewildered. “You take?” he asked.

I tried again. “No, I’m sorry, it’s been opened.”

He looked kindly at me, as you might at a mentally deficient child, and nodded. He took up the bag from the counter, carefully folded the top back down, lifted it up, carried it to the back of the store, and returned it to its place on the shelf.

Stunned, I considered spluttering out something about bugs, or crazy people with arsenic, or terrorists with powdery substances that might react mysteriously with an open bag of flour. But realizing the owner would only wonder why the odd lady who brought a perfectly good bag of flour to the counter for no apparent reason was babbling on about bugs and terrorists, I thought better of it and left.

Our quest continued, through two Shell stations (one with no flour at all, the other with only self-rising, which I feared would fluff the pie crust to twice the required size); an Exxon station that stocked only chips and beer; a CVS pharmacy that had sliced pineapple, the ubiquitous sugar, and honey, but didn’t even carry flour at all; and a few other places I can’t remember.

We finally despaired of finding any flour in Covington and got back on I-20 towards the ATL. We took our exit at Candler Road and stopped at the first convenience store we saw. I steeled myself against the hungry eyes of the hollow-cheeked, crazy-haired meth/crack addicts standing outside, one of whom kindly wished me “Merry Christmas” and opened the door, and dashed in.

In a back corner, next to some graham crackers, sugar (of course), and only a few shelves away from the motor oil, I found it: a bag of all-purpose White Lily. Not the ideal pie flour, of course, but better than nothing.

One of the addicts opened the door for me on my way out. “Spare some change?” he chimed hopefully. Not wanting the store owner to shoot me for encouraging these guys to lurk outside his shop, I shook my head and zoomed past him, keeping my head down, as I got into the car.

About a block away, the Piggly Wiggly was open. I like to think they were out of flour.

Naturally, it was two more days before I made the actual pie.

Out of curiosity, I compared my mom’s recipe against Cook’s Illustrated’s so-called “Perfect Pecan Pie” to see how it stacked up. I am getting a little tired of CI’s claims to “perfection,” but I can’t help myself–I am a good citizen, and I like getting the teacher’s approval. In this case, my mom’s recipe has a lot of similarities to CI’s–lower on sugar the typical version, with more pecans, which are chopped and mixed in with the filling rather than floating on top. Your typical Southerner may not appreciate it for those reasons, but it’s what our family loves.

I confess I veered away from my mother’s pie crust recipe, which is basically the same as the one on the back of the Crisco can, and ventured into a butter crust for this pie. This was because our Crisco had gone rancid, and I had to make something up. Fortunately it was spectacular–crispy and buttery, with just enough flake–and so I’ll share that recipe here too.

Pecan Pie

Crust (makes 2 single crust or 1 double crust):

1. Put a coffee cup filled with ice water in the fridge.

2. Stir or whisk together, if your whisk is not in another city:

2 cups plain flour (I had to use coffee cups and guesstimate)
1/2 t salt (again, guesstimated using the palm of my hand)
1 -2 tbsp. sugar (or however much you get when you dip three fingers and your thumb into the sugar bowl and scoop it out)

3. Cut in 12 tbsp. butter, cut into 1/4″ pieces. With no pastry cutter or food processor handy, I used the French method of pinching and rubbing the butter and flour with the ends of my fingers until it resembled cornmeal with some large pea-sized lumps of butter in it. I’m now wondering if I’ve underutilized this technique.

4. Remove ice water from fridge and add to flour mix. This is the trickiest part of a pie crust, and there are multiple techniques. The key is to mix as little as possible. For this crust I used what I call the flip technique, although I have no idea if this is the technical name or not. I sprinkled about 4 tablespoons of water over the flour, then flipped upward through the mix rapidly with a fork until it began to come together. I kept adding water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until the dough came together in fairly large chunks.

4. Gather dough together and form into a ball. Separate into two separate balls, put in plastic bags, and refrigerate at least an hour before rolling out.

5. Before mixing pie ingredients, roll out crust into a 9″ pie plate. Prick bottom and sides with a fork (or cover bottom with aluminum foil and pie weights or beans). Finish edges and return to refrigerator.

Pie:

Pre-heat oven to 425. Mix together:

1/2 c. dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. white sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
3 eggs
1/3 c. melted butter
1 c. dark corn syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. coarsely chopped pecans

Remove pie shell from refrigerator and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven. Reduce heat to 350. Add pecan filling to shell and return to oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until filling bubbles slightly around the edges. Let cool completely before serving. Top with whipped cream, if desirec.

Granny’s Dressing Recipe (Because You Need to Start Planning for It Now)

I’m intimidated when I think too very much about our holiday dressing (turkey dressing, that is, not what we’re wearing). Thus it was that in the hustle and bustle of the holidays I was unable to face writing about it. But today, as others slog through post-Christmas sales and I sit here at 1:14 p.m. in my embarrassingly cute new kitty pajamas, I feel I can begin to describe it.

We’re not stuffers in my family–we cook our dressing in a pan once the turkey is done. But what intimidates me is this: Preparations for the event begin in the spring, when the sage in my mother’s herb garden begins to grow.

My Granny (not Mammaw of potato soup fame, who was my father’s mother) apparently grew and dried her own sage for the sake of holiday stuffing. The things my grandmothers did for the sake of food–wring the necks of chickens, grow tomatoes and herbs, and bravest of all, pluck eggs from beneath laying hens–would make Martha Stewart wish she were back in jail. In fact, that last job of egg gathering is the most fearsome task I can remember facing as a child. I don’t think I ever did it, actually, so terrified I was to reach underneath that fat feathered body, my tender wrist just inches below that sharp beak. Being too chicken (dear God, please don’t let Fred see that pun), I would lurk about until the hen had left her nest unguarded before sneaking in like a weasel and making off with the eggs.

Anyway, for the dressing, which is moist and very flavorful. One note of caution: This recipe is hopeless without good sage. If you know of a place that sells exceptionally good dried sage, you might be able to cheat and use that as a substitute–but if you think you can squeak by with the grocery store variety, try another recipe. You can’t cheat with canned turkey broth either–you have to siphon the fat off the bird. But I have yet to find a dressing I like better.

Good luck. If you actually try this on your own, please let me know next year.

Granny’s Turkey Dressing (serves 10, with leftovers)

In the spring:
Plant 5-6 sage plants.

In the fall:
Harvest sage and dry for at least 2 months. Alternatively, buy some fresh sage in August and let it dry in a brown paper bag.

At least one week before Thanksgiving:
Buy a loaf of white bread and allow to get a little stale. Granted, given the amount of preservatives in your typical loaf of Wonder this could take more than a week, but you can always remove it from the package to hurry the process along–provided, of course, you don’t have lard-butt cats who will leap onto the counter top, wrestle the loaf to the floor, and eat it.

Day before:
Make a pan of cornbread. Any recipe will do.

Crush sage by rubbing it together. Remove stems. You will need at least ½ cup and probably more.

Melt 1 stick butter in skillet. Finely chop 1 large onion and 1 bunch celery in food processor or by hand. Saute onion and celery in butter until soft. Refrigerate overnight.

2 hours before mealtime:
Crumble cornbread and several slices of the white bread into a large bowl. Siphon as much broth from turkey as you can with a turkey baster. Resist temptation to make jokes with your lesbian relatives/friends. Pull off and shred about ½ cup dark meat, the cooked liver and other giblets. Add to bread. Add celery and onion, 2 or 3 eggs, 1/2 cup sage, and salt and pepper to mixture. Add broth to moisten. Mix by digging your clean hands into the mess and squishing it together.

Taste the mix. Add more salt. Add more sage. Taste again. Get someone else to taste it. Argue about whether or not it needs more sage. Add more sage. Have everyone taste it again. Add some pepper. Add some salt. Keep adjusting ingredients until all tasters are relatively happy, except the one who thinks it needs more salt, which you can always add at the table anyway. The mix should be the consistency of very thick cream of wheat or oatmeal.

Put dressing into large (9 x 13 or so) casserole. Bake at 350 for about an hour. It should be very moist but golden on top. Slice into squares no larger than 2″ and serve. Makes a fabulous lunch, breakfast or dinner the next day.

Snorky

Merry Christmas all! Today it’s time for my own little Christmas story:

I suspect that everyone who celebrates Christmas has one Christmas hallowed as perfect–either one they actually lived through or one just imagined. These are the Christmases that make you cry when you see the Whos singing together in The Grinch, or at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (which I have never seen but which seems to be that kind of movie).

For me this Christmas was 1970, when I was five. Of course five is a prime Christmas age, when Santa Claus flies around the world distributing toys to good children, and there is just the tiniest chance that you might get a lump of coal in your stocking but you are pretty sure that he will have forgotten that little incident with your sister over the summer (especially since you were very sorry and apologized), and when you do not have to worry about year-end spreadsheets, or exams, or gifts for picky relatives, or spiraling credit card debt to pay for the gifts for your picky relatives.

Instead, if you are lucky, you are living in a state of happy anticipation that a benevolent fat man is going to deposit a bounty of toys in your living room, and everyone you love will be with you and share a glorious meal, and all of you will be happy together and laugh a lot.

All that happened the morning of December 25, 1970. That morning it was a splendid sight that met my five-year-old eyes as my sister and I sped into the living room, long before anyone else was awake. The room sparkled–maybe because of the overabundance of tinsel my sister and I had used in our childish but exuberant efforts to decorate the tree, or maybe just from my own joy.

The room was bursting with toys, but the one that stood out was Snorky. Snorky was a very large stuffed elephant, roughly the same size as my five-year-old self. He’d clearly been designed by someone whose taste in clothes ran along the same lines as my early taste in tree decorating. His body was yellow; he wore a fuchsia vest underneath a lime-green jacket; he had a gold band around his neck with a bow-tie which was at some point ripped off and disappeared forever.

My grandparents and great-grandmother dragged themselves into the living room shortly thereafter and set about opening the dull gifts that caused such strange delight in adults–clothes, power tools, fishing equipment, cookware, and so on. Our 16 mm film of the occasion shows everything a child imagines as the perfect Christmas–smiling grown-ups sitting together at the table, my sister and I running about with our toys, a plump turkey, a perhaps-a-bit-shiny but still beautiful tree.

Eventually, of course, the turkey was eaten and the football games played and the grandparents dispersed. I carried Snorky to bed and from that moment developed a pattern that persisted throughout my childhood. I would hunker down with Snorky underneath the covers. At some point he would fall off and I would drag him back into bed by his trunk. This naturally deteriorated and soon began to emit little white Styrofoam peas that were, I assumed, vacuumed up by my mother or eaten by the thing that lived underneath the bed, which was never there when I actually looked but was waiting for just the right moment to grab my dangling foot.

Snorky stayed in my room throughout high school and college, his trunk repaired with masking tape, a hole that emerged in his back ineffectively patched with more tape but still spewing white Styrofoam peas on occasion. Eventually, as I moved all over the country pursuing jobs and degrees, he was relegated to a black plastic garbage bag in a storage room in my mother’s office, where he snoozed peacefully, probably grateful that no one was picking him up by his trunk every night.

When I got married at 41, my mother seemed to feel it might be time for me to move those items out of storage and into my own house. So my husband and I were forced into action, dragging ourselves up to Tennessee from Atlanta to haul away my stuff. Amidst the college essays and prom dresses and 4-H project books, Snorky was still there in his black plastic bag littered with Styrofoam peas. Not having time to sift through the geological layers of my life, we threw everything into my dad’s 1979 Chevy Big 10 Bonanza and hauled it back to Atlanta.

Soon afterwards, I got the job in Durham that currently keeps me far away from Fred, and we began the ongoing process of moving our things from our little house in Atlanta. This effort led to some ruthless purging. I tossed out my public speaking trophies. I got rid of the prom dresses. I threw out elementary school report cards, literature notes from college, battered and beloved dolls. But even though he occupied approximately one-sixteenth of a room in our tiny house, I could not bear to throw away Snorky. He stared up at me with his weirdly iridescent blue eyes and silently begged me not to let him go.

He was one of the last tattered remnants of that perfect Christmas, when our whole family was together and Santa Claus was sure to show up every year. At one time I was always trying to get back to that Christmas. And I would sometimes find the holidays depressing because I couldn’t get there.

Thank goodness that today I realize that we don’t have to look for the past, or wait for, or long for the perfect Christmas. We just have to find joy when we can get it. The Whos tell us that Christmas day is in our grasp as long as we have hands to clasp, as long as “we” have “we.” What sometimes makes Christmas sad is that the “we” will change and some hands just aren’t there anymore. But we will always have the memory of those hands, and find new hands, and new love, even as we don’t lose the memory of the old love, wherever the holidays may find us.

This is why I hang on to Snorky. He’s just a big yellow elephant filled with Styrofoam peas, but he reminds me that there’s always a tiny bit of magic to be found in the world, if you’ll only look.

Why No Christmas Recipes?

Because at the moment I am trying to figure out what to do with all the wrapped presents I just put in my suitcase, before I learned that the TSA might unwrap them at the airport. And just how I am going to convince them that it’s okay for me to carry four gigantic bags on the plane. And how I’m going to pay my cat sitter fully one-tenth of my monthly salary for cat care while I’m away.

Among other things. Mostly, though, I look forward to seeing family, and the Fred most of all.