Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A TWENTY IN MY POCKET



We couldn’t get on the road until well after dark. Years ago, I would pack a Thermos of coffee and a few snacks.  Little towns had yet to see yellow arches. Gas stations offered pots of coffee which had usually been sitting for a couple of hours. On a bitter November night, a few swigs of black bean hit the spot.

Just off the interstate, the rest area was fairly new and sat at the top of a little mountain which gave down into miles of harvested land. Other mountains were nearby but the scraggy fields and far spaced small towns reflected nothing but space. I got out of the car and gazed up into the night sky.  

A few cars were parked at the curb next to the brick building. Park benches and picnic tables stood away from the building. Another car was parked more closely than the others. It was old and battle worn. A man leaned under the hood, messing with something.  A non-descript item like a pillow or blanket and paper trash were smashed up into the rear window and blocked a passenger window.
Burt and I walked into the rest area without mentioning the old car.

I walked into the Ladies and immediately got the picture. I said hello. The room was stuffy from the two hand dryers hanging near the faucet. Harsh lighting and yellow tiles reflected into a wavy polished metal mirror scratched by more than just an uneven lipstick. I walked past and into a stall.

Instant dilemma. What should I do? I had never seen anything like this before. A mother was standing by a hand dryer. The sound never seemed to end as she regularly pushed the button to keep the warm air near her daughters. I had never seen anyone like her before. She was a large woman draped in ill-fitting clothes that appeared to have been worn a long time without washing. Her face and hair were not clean.

At her feet, two little girls huddled together on a blanket, children sitting on the floor of a rest area in a blanket to be used for sleeping. They were wearing thin clothing. There was no hint of the rosy blush of a sweet childhood. They needed good food, warm clothes, hot water and a soft bed.

Frankly, my twenty-two years were in shock over this situation. What could I do to help them?
I had a twenty in my pocket. A twenty would buy a week’s worth of groceries.  My parents always gave me money for my pocket when Burt and I were leaving. I could give the woman the twenty. I felt compelled that this was the right thing for me to do.

I listened to some of her story. I could only help this much but I hoped it would get them down the road. She was very appreciative and blessed me profusely. I almost had to turn my eyes away from the girls. I had never seen two little girls in such a dire situation. They didn’t offer any smiles, huddled together on the blanket, on the floor of the restroom, warming under the hand dryers like baby chicks under a light.

I had had an almost religious experience giving the woman the twenty dollars. In my immature twenties, I didn’t know if she was there to bless me and my generosity or if I was there to offer her hope and a minimum of salvation. My heart seemed to overflow, no matter which reason. I even thought maybe she was an angel. 

But in not too many more minutes, Burt pointed out it was probably a scam. I should have tried to get the little girls help on that bitter November night. I failed even though I thought I had offered Christian charity. After the Thanksgiving holiday, I waved goodbye to my parents. I left without anyone giving me even one dollar bill.

Last week, a young man walked up to a group of my friends as we stood outside saying goodbye. When he first walked up, I assumed he was a high school boy going into the restaurant. He was wearing khakis and a yellow hoodie. His hair was neat. 

He stopped and asked if we could help him. Those words. “Can you help me?” He had run out of gas and the filling station (next door) wanted 14.95 to loan a gas can. Here was a picture of his car. Here was the phone screen where he had tried to call his father. He was 17 and lived in “Pricey Neighborhood.” Just a few miles down the road. He was politely pleading, to this group of ladies – grandmothers, retired ladies, working women - a very compassionate group to come across in your time of need – good Christian women.

Three of us walked to our cars, the only cars on the other side of the building. First one friend pulled out of her place and then the friend next to me. I backed out and put my car in drive. I am startled to see the boy running across the grass, straight for my car. I brake to stop. My window was barely rolled down. He has pulled up his hood and is standing with his hands in his pocket. So close to my window I can see the cratered skin of severe drug abuse.

“Mam, please, anything. Change. Just quarters.” For a minute I remember I have a handful of quarters in my purse. But something in me remains resolute. I had a twenty in my pocket. But I was afraid. He was so close to my car. My antenna went up. I drove off.  The paper has been full of purse snatchings and robberies. 

Was I supposed to put my car into park, open my purse and look for quarters or pull the twenty from my pocket? My instinct urged me to drive away.  

I doubt he was seventeen or lived in the nearby fancy neighborhood. But he belongs to someone. Is a Mama sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, thinking about her son? What if he were my son? I could only hope someone would help him.

I’ll never know if he was a scam or a thief waiting for me to roll down the window. His face is still clear in my mind. I don’t know how much favor I can afford him.

People are literally running to us for help. Blocking our pathways. Interupting our conversations. Startling our senses. So many people need help that we are overwhelmed, frightened and exhausted. What can we do? How do we know?

A little voice inside of me. Lord, give me heart and courage. And a pocketful of twenties.



Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE PERFECT CORNBREAD DRESSING

This is a recipe which begins with making chicken broth. A person can use canned broth in a pinch but for the best flavor nothing but homemade. Sweet Oreo loved to help me cook chicken. He would Velcro himself to the stove, sitting patiently, waiting for the funny chicken bits to fall from my fingers. Never turn your back on a dog "helping" with this procedure!


CHICKEN BROTH

4-5 large chicken breasts -
      WITH skin and bones still intact
3-4 stalks of celery and celery leafs
2-3 carrots
1 onion, quartered
salt and pepper to taste

Place chicken breasts in pot and pour enough water to cover completely. Add vegetables and salt and pepper. Stew on stovetop for about an hour but depends on amount of meat. I use a thermometer to test doneness. Keep on a low boil until cooked thoroughly. Cool thoroughly. Any broth left over from a recipe can be frozen in ice cube trays. Pop out frozen broth cubes into a Ziploc bag. Keep in the freezer for instant homemade broth for making rice, adding to soup or cooking veggies.

The pot pictured on the right came from The Elk Hotel kitchen, my grandparents' hotel, once located on the corner of the square in the county seat, when the county square was the center of all commerce and communication.



PERFECT CORNBREAD DRESSING

2 skillets of perfect cornbread
1 stick of butter
2 cups each of celery and onion, sliced and diced
4 cups of homemade broth*
4 eggs
5 tsp rubbed sage (adjust for personal preference)
salt and pepper to taste

Add celery, onion and butter to skillet.  Cook on low until veggies are softened but not mushy.  Turn off heat. Cool veggies.












I mix the dressing up in my 8 qt. pot. I have used non-latex gloves, but in truth, I usually use the best tools: very, very clean hands.


 In large pot, add cornbread and crumble up, smooshing it well with your fingers. Think of this as playing with your food. This will take a few minutes if done properly. Next, add butter and cooked veggies to the cornbread mash and mix well.
Dry cornbread and sauteed veggies ready to mix



Add cooled broth (not straight from the pot, too hot) and mix. Add four beaten eggs and mix.  Add sage and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. This should have a consistency between cake dough and cookie dough but not stiff.


Everything well crumbled but not enough broth.



Don't even think of throwing a few crumbs of light bread into the mix. However, I have known of cooks who have added dry cornmeal to reduce the mix if too much broth is added. The nice thing about dressing is that you can make it the day before and take your time to get it right. Good luck.


More broth added, perfect consistency - a good hand



Spray 9 X 13 pan with Pam. Pour wet dressing mixture into pan but don't fill to the very top.  This will more than fill up a 9 X 13 stainless baking pan. I will sometimes use an additional, smaller pan. Dividing up the mixture into two separate pans will help them cook faster. I have learned the hard way, waiting and waiting). Cook at 350 for one hour.  Insert a knife blade into the middle to test for doneness.  Let it set for a few minutes before serving.




Cooked shredded chicken maybe added to raw dressing and ready to bake.


Hot from the oven, baked to perfection


Plated for your eating enjoyment
Ocean Spray canned cranberry used for convenience

VARIATION:  To make Chicken and Dressing, use cooked meat from Chicken Broth.  Skin and bone breasts well.  Shred meat and mix into the uncooked dressing. You can also spread the cooked meat on top and press it down into the uncooked dressing before cooking.

ENJOY!

We love fresh cranberries in my house but do keep canned on the shelf for convenience.





Saturday, November 18, 2017

CORNBREAD PERFECTION - NO STICK GUARANTEE

 
Butter melting on a slice of Perfect Cornbread

Before even thinking about making the delicacy of Southern Dressing for the holidays, the matter of cornbread must be addressed. 

Any good Southern cook worth her weight in Crisco can stir up a fitting pan of cornbread, worthy of all the purple hull peas, fried okra, butter beans, sliced tomatoes, fried eggplant, cooked squash and new potatoes that might have the honor of residing on the same plate with this crispy delicacy.  But there are new cooks rattling the pots and pans every day.  This recipe is for the new cook of any region seeking an authentic quick bread to serve with soup, beans or meat and three.  Or maybe the experienced cook who can't get the cornbread to pop out of the skillet without sticking.  If it starts out in a packet or a little blue box, it is only an imitator hoping to achieve greatness.

I have mentioned Perfect Cornbread previously, Pea Salad for a True Southern Repast 9-1-13.  The original recipe came from a cookbook that looks like a checkerboard tablecloth which was a wedding present of my Mother's.  This is the only recipe I ever use.  I don't mess with perfection.  I learned the secret to good cornbread at my Mamaw's knee.  It's all about the sizzle, two sizzles to be exact.

1 cup of flour                                                 
1/4 cup of sugar                                    
1 tsp salt                                               
4 tsp baking powder
1 cup yellow cornmeal                         
2 eggs
1 cup of milk
1/4 cup of shortening


Yes, this recipe does have sugar in it.  Now I am a die-hard Southern cook, except in this case, but a little bit of sugar only sweetens the pie and will get you lots of compliments.  Infact, I have never made it without.

Add flour, sugar, salt and baking powder to a mixing bowl and mix up.  Put your cast iron skillet on the stove over a good heat, a bit more than medium.  Add the shortening to the skillet so it can get hot and melt. Add cornmeal to the dry flour mixture and mix.  Add two eggs and 1 cup of milk to the dry mixture, mixing everything together very well with a fork.

Watch your grease. (Do not ever walk away from a stove when heating shortening.)  When it is hot (just learn by doing) pour the hot grease from the skillet into the wet mixture.  You should hear a sizzle (1).  The picture to the right is just after pouring the hot grease into the mix.

Put the skillet back on the hot stove and add a good dollop of shortening.  This will melt while you are stirring the hot shortening into the wet cornbread mixture. When the second round of shortening is hot, pour the cornbread mix into the skillet, still on the stove.  You should hear a sizzle (2).

Using a mitt, put the skillet of cornbread into the oven at 425 for 20 minutes.  It will be done but you might want to check it and turn down oven (5-10 degrees) if too brown on top.  Using a mitt, remove from the oven and flip the skillet of cornbread onto a cutting board or heavy plate.  And then using another plate, flip it back to the desired side.  You can play with that.  If you have done all of this correctly or even mostly correct, it will jump out of the skillet for you!  Enjoy!

Now that you can make Perfect Cornbread you can move to Lesson 2, Perfect Cornbread Dressing.

Perfect Cornbread hot from the oven!

The backside of Perfect Cornbread



PERFECT CORNBREAD DRESSING
POSTING NOVEMBER 19, 2017


                                                                              







Friday, November 17, 2017

CORNMEAL CONSPIRACY - FAKE NEWS?





The season is upon us. Those of us who are cooking the holiday dinners. And probably the ones growing weary standing in long lines at Kroger. One night I spent three grocery store hunts for sour cream. If you can, shop early. I feel for the people who have to wait until the last minute.

What do racing and cornmeal have to do with each other? NASCAR.com (2016) reports over 10 million miles have been raced on Sunoco Green E15. The very last race of the season, the end of NASCAR ethanol consumption, is days before the holiday season begins. Connection?

We need to be concerned. "People" know about it but nobody is talking. There is the possibility that the cornmeal shelves will be empty days before Thanksgiving. I tell you it is all being burned away in engines every day but most notably in the auto racing industry. There is no sense whatsoever in thirty-two cars going around a track or a track that twists and turns on a course. That is a lot of gasoline for five hundred miles and all of those cars are burning, burning, burning.  And there is only one women they let race. But to look at her, I don't think she eats much so it is of little concern to her that the very essence of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals is going up in the air as all those little cars race their tires off.

This is serious. This is not fake news. Without cornmeal, there can be no cornbread. And you have to have cornbread to make Dressing for Thanksgiving. Cornbread is to the South like a popover to Menomonie, Wisconsin, a flour tortilla to San Antonio, Texas and a lobster roll to Boothbay, Maine. A shortage of cornmeal could disrupt the usual beautiful holiday tradition of steaming sage dressing full of onions and celery and the plated little jellied roll of cranberry sauce.

Thank goodness this nonsense will soon be shed.  #48 is stuck with seven titles to end 2017. Will he retire? Daryl Earnhardt and Richard Petty did win seven times but will Jimmie go for #8 in 2018?

He was raised in California. I don't know if they give a fig about dressing over there, sitting on that fault line.  This is true because I wouldn't make it up.  Dressing, as we Southerners know it, may be at stake.  Corn continues to be a bumper crop.  That should be a good thing but they are growing it to make fuel.

But with all of that corn going for fuel, especially the racing kind, the eating kind is getting scarce.  No one will say anything because corn has always been so very important to the American diet, right from the first step out of the boat.  They don't want a corn panic like the spinach panic of 1843.

I am having trouble sleeping at night because I am worried about having enough cornmeal to make my dressing for Thanksgiving.  It is the perfect dressing.  Course, a perfect dressing is only doable with a perfect cornbread.  You have to have a Mamaw to teach you to make perfect cornbread and I'm not giving that secret away for nothing.  But it is a real secret, I promise.  And there are good Southern cooks who can't make a mean dressing.  Bless their heart.  Cornbread is the backbone.     

 Fixing dressing in my family requires nerves of cast iron.  Iron chef is nothing.  We have so many good cooks we can't fit all the food on the table.

Stuffing is not dressing.  Little pieces of “light bread” do not make up a southern dressing.  Let’s face it.  What success can you hope for by saving bread scraps for two weeks?  They get dry.  Did you ever hear of someone taking Chicken and Stuffing to a grieving family?  They’d mourn all over again. 

I have stuffed those little chickens but I will never stuff a turkey.  I know folks can't help where they are raised but the thought of stuffing makes me lose my appetite for a couple of weeks.  Millions are raised on white bread stuffing.  White bread is good for toast and a peanut butter sandwich and a fried baloney sandwich. 

I've got to put my mighty pen down and find out more about this conspiracy.  Maybe they are just trying to put us on a diet by taking away corn.  I'll be glad when all of this racing is over.  It is not healthy to sit out there in all of that dust, noise and smells.  Course, I can't be too harsh because a lot of good Southern folks are rooting on their favorites.  And they don't know about this NASCAR Cornmeal Conspiracy.  It hasn't even been on Fox news, yet.    


 COMING TOMORROW  
# Sizzle Perfect Cornbread - No-Stick Guarantee 






Revision of original 11-11-13









Sunday, November 5, 2017

ALOFT

Car love. Color. Outside. Inside. Tires. Leather seats. Lift gate. Heated seats. Expansive windshield. Horses. Sunroof.  

Nine years later, I still love driving it as much as the first day. Reliability. Pedal to the metal. Could there be any new experience left to discover behind the wheel?

Driving down the road to visit my mother. Tom Petty’s Freefallin’ on the radio, a mesmerizing song which always changes my volume. She’s a good girl.

Freefall. You cannot say the word without the up and down it represents. Seconds of suspension hanging in time, unaffected by earth’s movement. Falling into what was.

First memorized poem – eight years old. Robert Louis Stevenson.  “Up in the air I go flying again, up in the air and down.” The magic.
I spend the night. We make the requisite WalMart excursion. Then to Oceans for Fried Catfish and shrimp and cry about ‘em fries. A good visit. Sally on Best Behavior Cat.

Heading home the next day. Eighty degrees. Running naked weather. Perfect. Big, blue ribbon sky. Bedraggled trees I will not kid you about the leaves.

I only open the sunroof on city streets – a decent breeze. But this day, I open the sunroof for the highway. And just for something new, the front windows too, all the way down. The sun on my head and arms. Even my short hair whipping around my face.

What a rush! Flying eighty down the interstate. Little traffic. Wind all around, rushing through the windows and up through the sunroof. The sun. The swirl. Wind lifts. It’s almost like flying, driving in the full sun and blasting wind. I yell like I’m riding the Himalaya at the Fair.

Driving down the highway. Radio cranked. Hoping for the notes and lyrics sung for thousands of miles. Notes which lift and exhilarate. Freebird and Frankenstein. Stairway to Heaven.  American Pie. Stayin’ Alive. Hotel California. Sweet Home Alabama. Jet Airliner. September. Bennie and the Jets. Bohemian Rhapsody. Let It Be.

Blue. Breeze. Heat on my skin. Fleetwood Mac. John Denver. We Are Family.

Free. Being there. Staying there. Summer 80. “How can they be that close? Just let me say for the record we’re giving love in a family dose.”*  Three dancing. Daddy twirls the Dancing Queen. Shuffle. I can see his smile. Anything to make his girls happy. Parquet dance floor. Disco Ball. Backgammon. Sunday. Employees. We are family.  

The freefall of memory. Hanging in the air, aloft. A minute of everyday halted, triggered by the notes of a song or a fragrance. Suspension. Earnest focus. Memory of touch. Obsession. The bright flash will not bring back the place or person. The world has kept on moving. Falling, stretching out the dance until landing back on earth into time already passed.


*Sister Sledge We Are Family  1979


Saturday, October 21, 2017

DROP DAY


My husband thought he heard a gunshot last night while watching t.v. He jumped up thinking it was coming from the deck. Then he realized it must be the roof artillery ricocheting off of the grill. 

As a writer, one of the nicest compliments one can receive is a reader talking about a particular story. Just to know someone has enjoyed the story. Drop Day is a story people mention.* The Bride Who Wore Red Tennis Shoes (Parts 1-4/ Beginning with 9-12-13) is a favorite but nothing to do with acorns. Just an adventure in Eureka Springs one fine spring. For your reading pleasure.

I woke up this morning and realized today was the day, the primary day of acorn flinging, Drop Day. Elephants running across our roof.

We do not have tickets to the World Series.  At this late date, all the baseball uniforms of every team are at the cleaners.  So who is running bases on my roof?

It is that time of year again, the Squirrel World Series.  Day barely breaks before they are playing with acorns as big as crabapples.  And they can’t catch!  If I sneak out on the deck, I can hear the fans singing “Take Me Out to the Taylor Tree,” smell the popacorn and hear little bitty cans of Nut Beer popping open, all before 7 a.m.!

Drop Day is a big deal at my house.  We have oak and hickory trees circling the house.  But this year we are experiencing Drop Week.  The acorns are so big everyone knows someone who has either been hit in the head or broken a bone falling over an acrimonious nut.  The dog has had his legs crossed for days. 

What is the purpose of the squirrel?  Maybe their purpose is to drive the meek mad. Friend or foe, ask a person not what they hate or love, but what drives them crazy.  A whole industry has developed to thwart the endeavors of these birdseed thieves.  My father had a little chair for the squirrel to sit on and eat corn, thinking it would distract the cute rodent.  They just got fatter. 

They keep their teeth sharp by chiseling deck rails.  We have especially talented squirrels that leaned out over the roof edge, devouring a shoebox size piece of soffit.  We covered the opening with mesh wire stuffed with steel wool pads, about the only thing they can’t get their teeth into!

 The antics of the squirrel are so amusing we forget they are just rodents in the tree of life.  Recently, we watched a squirrel climb into the BBQ grill.  He thought he had found a secret paradise, his twitchy tail still hung out the back.  Later, we looked in the grill and found a half-eaten acorn.  I left two fat ones as a gift.

 Do you know why you never see a squirrel kid?  They can’t run with nuts in their mouth and aren’t long or fast enough to keep up with Mama.  What makes a squirrel change direction in the middle of the street?  Count the times you’ve zigged for his zag.  Come to think of it, have you ever seen a squirrel lying dead from an inaccurate leap?  No.  A Secret Squirrel Society gathers up the errant Wallenda to perpetuate the myth of the flying squirrel. 

 Despite the negative, there are good things about Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel.  They are thorough and tireless when building a nest high in the treetops.  Think of the courage required to jump out a distance five times your length or the confidence required to zip along branches and electrical wires.  Despite my frustration with them, I am drawn to their secret treetop world, only imagining the thrill of flying through the air and maneuvering their hickory mazes and oak bowers. 




*Revision  Originally published October 17, 2013

Friday, October 6, 2017

SQUIRREL ON A WIRE

I love fall!

My newest habit is a result of cooler weather.  But a warm front came along, throwing the digits back into the miserable eighties.  Really?  At the end of October.  But that is just October.  My favorite month.  Apple pie.  Football.  State Fair.  Reading a book sitting by an open window.  The sun changing.  Baseball.  Caramel.

A cool evening draws me out outside. Faithful pup runs up the stairs, stomping in the leaves just beginning to fall.  Happy for company, he grabs a twig to catch my attention.  But I am busy lighting a candle, setting down a mug of marshmallow overflowing hot chocolate to strike the match.  A perfect fall evening of solitude.  No air conditioners, just a low current of night time noise. I pick up my phone and begin my latest obsession - Spider. Peace, quiet and relaxation.  A tonic for a goodnight's sleep.

Then the artillery begins.  The thawacking sound of an acorn letting loose, dropping through levels of leaves, ricocheting off the roof.  I raise my hand to my head as minimal protection.     

What goes up must come down.  A girl, a bow, an arrow.  Standing in the middle of a quiet street, she leans back, shooting the arrow up into the blue.  Gravity sends the arrow back down.  Her little brother picks up the fallen arrow and the process begins again.  Up it goes and down it comes.  At some point, he questions the operation and is running around with a dishpan on his head.  "Where is it?  Where is it?"  He stands next to her, sticking to her like glue.  He can't see the arrows whooshing down through the leaves.  She is not afraid, then, now or ever.  Until one of the arrows hits the roof of a car parked at the curb.  They retreat quickly into the house. A dishpan is not quite the perfect accessory when the sky is falling.     
   
This was just a little thing.  But I am into little things.  Last week, I was in traffic on a four lane thoroughfare, a major east west connector and also a primary exit off the interstate.  This road runs through red lights, past strip shopping centers, churches, schools, drug stores, banks, the gym I sometimes think about, local and chain eateries, the vet's office, the grocery store, my favorite antique mall, apartments, entrances to lovely subdivisions.  

There are trees everywhere.  And poles connecting this to that with wires crossing the street.  A wire was silhouetted in the sky.  A little squirrel was running across with a mouthful of acorns or nesting material sticking out of his mouth.  Zippity Do Da.  Zinging across the certain canyon of death as thick traffic traveled below.  One slip of a little foot.

But he was on a mission.  Building a nest and gathering supplies.  He may have the advantage of not sensing the perilous situation.  He just did what he had to do.  No quibbling.  From watching squirrels in my backyard, I doubt he gave a second thought to jumping out on that wire.  He didn't test the tension with his foot or grab an umbrella for balance.   He didn't stop to consider the traffic below.  He was moving along even though the very scary was right below.  A squirrel has to do what a squirrel has to do.  I think that is amazing.  The something inside of him that says nuts to gather and nests to build.  This is that time of year.

His sky is falling.  Acorns.  Manna.  Provision.




Revision. Previously published 10/20/14.