Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Egg and I

I wrote this column for the paper a few months back about one of my favorite authors, Betty McDonald.

Have you ever read The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald? If you haven’t, please do.

The Egg and I is the hilarious memoir of a young bride living in Chimacum (yes, that Chimacum, just across the Hood Canal Bridge) in the late 1920s. Betty was a Seattle girl transplanted to an isolated farm on the Olympic Peninsula. Her closest neighbors were the original Ma and Pa Kettle, and I don’t mean that in comparison. Their names (in the book, anyway) were actually Ma and Pa Kettle. In the 1947 movie The Egg and I starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, the Kettles were such a big hit that the characters were launched into eight sequel films starring Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. I highly recommend watching at least one—big fun for the whole family.

The fact that The Egg and I was made into a movie should give you a hint at its popularity. The book was so successful (as Wikipedia assures me) that in the two years following its 1945 publication, it was reprinted on nearly a monthly basis. I believe it; my 1947 copy is from the twenty-third printing. So cool.

An international sensation, Betty’s books for some reason proved especially popular in Germany. I like to picture them—German-speaking, sausage-eating, Lederhosen-wearing, post–World War II men and women—enjoying funny stories from a young farm wife in Chimacum. I suppose they admired someone who had experienced tough times, but retold them with optimism and humor.

I’ve read The Egg and I more times than I can remember, and except for that first magical read, my favorite was one winter’s day a few years ago when I shared the book with my whole family. We had spent a couple of days with grandparents, and as the ferry is too expensive to ride westbound home when you’re paying for a car and driver and six passengers, we chose to drive the two and one-quarter hours around by way of Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Which is a story for another day.

Anyway, with all five kids and my husband captive in the van, I pulled out The Egg and I and nonchalantly said something like, “This is an interesting book. There’s one part I like that’s pretty good, if I can find it.” And I started reading, at page one.

Two and one-quarter hours later, my voice was gone, and everyone was laughing and wanting more. I had six Betty MacDonald converts on my hands.

Betty was the queen of finding humor in the everyday, and hitting the right subtle notes to turn a potentially funny story into something side-splitting. When she describes her ornery cook stove as being against her, you get it. We all have appliances (or computers, or cars) that seem out to get us.
Because you’ve been nice and read to the end, here’s a treat from The Egg and I:

“By one o’clock on winter Sundays the house was shining clean, my hair was washed, Bob had on clean clothes and dinner was ready. Usually, just as we sat down to the table, as if by prearranged signal, the sun came out. True it shone with about as much warmth and lust as a Victorian spinster and kept darting behind clouds as if it were looking for its knitting and sticking its head out again with an apologetic smile, but it was sun and not rain. The mountains, either in recognition of the sun or Sunday, would have their great white busts exposed and I expected momentarily to have them clear their throats and start singing Rock of Ages in throaty contraltos.”

Check out The Egg and I and Betty’s other wonderful books—including the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children—at your local library. If they don’t have these titles, request them!  

Monday, August 29, 2016

I Am From

Last May, a pair of dark-eyed juncos set up house in the hanging basket outside our kitchen window. We watched them gather materials to make the nest, including hairs from our white dog, Ez. We watched them commence incubation, and at one point I snuck a photo of four small eggs.

The day finally arrived when Mama and Papa Bird darted to and from the basket, bringing food to their tiny babies. Even in the shallow nest, we could barely see the tufts of their heads.

Every day they grew. By day six they were standing up to be fed, their necks stretched long to reach the food, their beaks open so wide you could see down their throats.

Then, on day nine, they just flew away. One dropped to the ground before hopping off to try its wings. The others flew short distances until they were safely in the bushes. I wondered if they’d all meet up somewhere under the blackberry bushes and cuddle up when night fell. None of them have returned to the nest.

So, our Libby graduated from high school in June. She’s our third, so we’ve done this before. But it wasn’t until this time around that I realized I don’t love when my kids graduate from high school.  In fact, it occurs to me that I’ve been tricked.

Libby has received graduation cards. “Congratulations, graduate!” “You made it!” “Best wishes as you follow your own path.” Yes, she’s earned it.

But then people cheerfully say to us, “How does it feel to have another high school graduate? Only two kids to go … You’ll be done before you know it!”

All these kind words are offered as if we want our chicks to leave the nest. Why do we want them to leave? We like them. Just when we’ve trained them to clean up after themselves, have interesting conversations, and be awesome, we’re supposed to rejoice that they’re leaving?

You don’t have to remind me that it’s good for them. I know they need to have their own experiences, start their own lives, conquer their own little part of the world. If they chose to just stay home forever, we’d have to kick them out for their own good—that’s the final goal.

But it still feels like a mean trick. When Daughter #2—Cassidy—graduated, two hours after the ceremony we drove her to start summer term at her out-of-state college.  That was four years ago, and she has only been home for visits since.  We celebrate that she’s independent and thriving, but we miss her, too. That day-to-day closeness we had stopped abruptly, and it all started with high school graduation.

Libby wrote this poem a while back. Every time I come across it, I end up reading it twice.

I Am From 
by Libby

I am from rainy days cuddled on the couch reading

I am from listening to my mum’s stories and cracking up

I am from wearing out the VHS tape of Beauty and the Beast

I am from crouching in the corner motionless and soundless just so I could watch my sisters play

I am from saying bless you whenever someone sneezes

I am from moving wood assembly-line style during the summer

I am from unsuccessful vegetable gardens

I am from jobs on Saturdays and church on Sundays

I am from reading the book before watching the movie

I am from everyone singing different songs while playing Mexican Train

I am from a calendar filled with times carefully planned out but being late anyway

I am from library trips being frequent but never boring

I am from ABBA, the Go-Go’s, and Queen

I am from loudly calling into the woods for our bearlike dogs

I am from “What did you learn today?” at the dinner table

We are where our kids are from, and I’m as curious as anybody to see where they’re going. Mama and Papa Bird only got nine days. I’m thankful we have them for eighteen years.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Living the dream, in my van, in the rain

Another favorite column, published in the paper a couple of years ago.

I’m sitting in my minivan with a Diet Coke, a book (never leave home without a book), my laptop, and just enough dark chocolate to keep me happy but not feeling too guilty.  Maybe a little guilty. 

It’s Saturday.  My kids are attending a church youth activity, so I’m just waiting in the parking lot.  I already ventured off to do my Costco shopping, but I still have almost an hour to wait. It’s pouring buckets outside.   A sudden creek running down the pavement between the cars changed my initial thought of, “Maybe I’ll go inside and see if I can help.”  No.

When I was a teenager, I never would have guessed I would enjoy writing on a computer.  I made it through college with my trusty electric typewriter. I loved the challenge of writing a paper, beginning to end, one time through.  The sentences and paragraphs have to be well-planned when you know you can’t go back and make changes.  One idea in the wrong place, and Bam!  Start over on another sheet of paper.  Talk about a rush!  Do nerds have extreme sports?  Yes we do.

When I started dating a boy my senior year who owned a computer (the only one in his apartment complex), for months I refused his offers to let me use it for writing essays.  Computers, I reasoned, fell in the same category as day planners.  The truly creative needed neither.

I finally gave it a try, and never went back.  Goodbye White-Out, hello cut and paste!  Also, I married the boy.  The computer was not a drawback.

When I was a teenager, I never – ever – would have pictured myself with a personal computer on my lap, in my car.  This is not how I envisioned my grownup self.  I pictured me…with ten children, all out exploring the woods near my house, some with books in their hands, while my lumberjack husband tended trees in the forest.  (I liked the idea of a lumberjack, but never the associated destruction.  Maybe a forest ranger?)  Meanwhile, my housekeeper, Alice, would do the laundry and tend dinner.  And me?  I’d be by an open window, dressed in something soft and flowing, my electric typewriter clicking out my latest romance novel.  Diet Coke and chocolate nearby.

I got halfway there.  Still working on that novel. I had five kids, I’m at this moment wearing soft, loose sweatpants, and while I don’t have a housekeeper, there’s a job chart for the kids posted in the kitchen.  That’s something.  Also…my computer geek sweetheart both plants trees and cuts firewood.  I’m a lucky, lucky woman.

I read one of those Facebook memes recently:  “Don’t give up your day dream.”  Get it?  Like don’t give up your day job.  I like it.  Sitting with my laptop in my van, the back productively full of groceries, my usefulness as a mother secured as I sit and wait to complete chauffeur duties, I feel pretty successful.  I think the teen me would be okay with it.  My daydreams are still intact. 

When I’m done writing here, I’ll switch to the other document I have open: a romantic story I’m working on that whisks me far from parking lots and errands and whatever.  Modern mom, dreamy girl.  That feels right.  Thank heaven for minivans and laptops, and daydreams.

The rain is holding steady, and the wind is picking up. Still a long wait for the kids.  I don’t mind it.  I’m a princess perched in her tower, an authoress weaving stories from inside a deceptively common minivan.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Teaching Sandwich Education

I guess I’ve been a mom for awhile now, because one of my kids is getting married. While Cassidy’s wedding plans have kept us busy all winter, I think I’m still in denial. Where did my little girl go? I could swear it was just yesterday she went everywhere in her pink dance leotard with a feather boa around her neck, dragging her favorite doll by one arm. Now I have pictures on my phone of her trying on her wedding dress.

Looking through some of my columns from oh so many years ago, I found this one, and thought I’d share.

“Do you have a sandwich?”

My sister, Cindy, was standing in her kitchen talking on the phone (to me), when her 4-year-old, Josh, wandered in. She said he looked around the kitchen, frowned, and asked, “Do you have a sandwich?”

Not, Will you make me a sandwich? but Do you have one? As though she would say, “Why, yes!” and pull one out of her pocket.

We had a good laugh, and wondered whether we’d be successful in teaching our kids about where sandwiches come from; about the value of work, and self-sufficiency.

Cindy wondered, “Does Josh know that I make sandwiches, or does he think I’m just someone in possession of sandwiches?”

There are so many things kids need to learn from their parents. What if we forget to teach them something important? What if little Josh never learns where sandwiches come from? What if he never realizes his mother puts work into making his sandwiches, and she makes them because she loves him?

If he doesn’t learn this at home, he’ll pick up a few ideas at school about sandwiches, probably not the ones his mom would want him to learn. The day may come when he arrives home from school with a dab of jam on his shirt, and his mother says, “I sent you ham and cheese today. Where did the jam come from?” And her son, smiling at the memory, will say, “I traded with Sarah. She had peanut butter and jelly.”

Life may start to look like one big sandwich bar to him, all his for the asking.

That’s when it’s time for The Talk.

“See, honey,” you’ll say, “sandwiches are made in the kitchen. They start with bread.” Maybe get his father involved; it wouldn’t hurt him to remember all that goes into sandwich making.

Then Josh will know, and he will learn the value of a sandwich.

But I digress.

The sheer number of things we need to teach our children is overwhelming. Often I worry that I remembered to teach my first two kids a certain principle, but forgot all about it by the time my other three came along. The older girls know not to run with scissors, but did I remember to tell Megan? Do they all know not to stick their tongues to a frozen flag pole? By the time they leave home will I have managed to teach them how to mop a floor, how credit cards work, and how to say, “I’m not interested” to a telemarketer? Will they all receive adequate reminders to have good posture?

Recently I’ve been quizzing our younger kids on our phone number and address. I always get a little thrill when they get it right. In fact, this morning when Cassidy, 13, wrote our address on a form and I caught a glance at it, I felt myself exhale just a bit that she didn’t make a mistake.

Some things that we want our kids to know are life skills, some are for safety, some are just so they’re not dippy. I went to college with a few people who thought New Mexico was south of the border, and that all sinks have garbage disposals, some just without a switch.

There should really be a checklist, like a chart of recommended vaccinations, or qualifications your child should have before starting kindergarten. A “How To” for preparing smart and responsible citizens, placed in your hand before you convey your newborn home from the hospital. It could be called, “What Your Child Should Know before Being Released from Home,” and be broken down into years.

By their seventh birthdays, for instance, they should know not to light a match when there is flour floating in the air, not to run with lollipops in their mouths, and never to drink bathwater. Also, they should know the three best ways to stop hiccups, legitimate reasons for staying home sick, and why you should not attempt to bathe with your cat.

The list has never been made because it’s endless. There’s just no way we can cover it all. From teaching them what to do when the house fills with smoke to how to play nicely, I just have to hope my kids know enough to take them successfully to adulthood.

And, by all means, I must make sure they learn where sandwiches come from.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Garlic, Mushroom, and Quinoa Soup for Crock Pot

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 lb fresh mushrooms, sliced (I used baby portobella)
1 heaping Tbsp fresh minced garlic (I may have used more...I love garlic)
6 cups water
4 tsp chicken base (or 4 bouillon cubes)
½ cup uncooked quinoa
1 tsp dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lb ground turkey, browned and drained (optional)
1 cup fresh spinach, chopped

In a frying pan, sauté onion, mushrooms and garlic in olive oil until tender. Transfer to crock pot.  Add remaining ingredients, except spinach.  Cook on high for 5-6 hours or low 8-10 hours.  Stir in spinach for last hour.  May top with Parmesan or sour cream if desired.  Yum!  And smells divine.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bringing Hotdish to the Potluck

My teenagers came home and said they needed to bring a hotdish to an event.  Hotdish?  I'd heard the term on television, and I think maybe in the Mitford books, but I wasn't sure what it meant.  Clearly it's something hot, and hotdish feels like it should be some kind of comfort food. Is it a particular dish, we wondered at our house, or regional terminology? Was it similar to the southern term barbecue, which refers to something you consume ("She served up some tasty barbecue,") rather than the act of barbecuing, or the event where people get together to barbecue? ("Are you coming to the barbecue?  We'll be barbecuing chicken.")

Isn't grammar fun?

The answer is that a hotdish is a type of casserole, no specific ingredients required.
It's worth looking in Wikipedia for hotdish and casserole, just to put a little smile on your face.  Here are some quotes:

Hotdish: a variety of casserole which typically contains a starch, a meat, and a canned or frozen vegetable, mixed with canned soup. The dish originates from and is popular in the Upper Midwest region of the United States, particularly the states of Minnesota and North Dakota. Hotdishes are filling, convenient, and easy to make. They are well-suited for family reunions, funerals, church suppers, and potlucks where they may be paired with potato salad, coleslaw, Jello salads, and desserts, and pan-baked desserts known as bars.  (That’s my favorite part. Please help yourself to this pan-baked dessert.  I call them “bars.”)

Casserole: usually consist of pieces of meat, chopped vegetables, a starchy binder such as flour, rice, potato, or pasta, and, often, a crunchy or cheesy topping.

FYI, my spell check didn't know hotdish, so I added it to my dictionary.

For someone who makes casseroles (and specifically hotdishes) several nights a week, the detailed descriptions are surreal.  Makes me feel like we're studying the lives of remote villagers. Imagine if in a hundred years your great-great-great-grandchild reads about casseroles in history books.  I wonder if the terms or the recipes themselves will follow future generations.  You never know what will get passed down, and what will go by the wayside.

When reading Wiki's entry on casseroles, be sure to explore “See Also,” and click on “List of Casseroles.”  Some you’ve probably never heard of: Moussaka, Flying Jacob, Nut Roast, and Rappie Pie, for instance.  There are also variations on old favorites, like American Goulash, Lasagna, Scalloped Potatoes, Frito Pie, Macaroni and Cheese, and Funeral Potatoes. That last one should catch your posterity's curiosity.

Comfort foods, casseroles, hotdishes, crock pot soups ... soft, warm foods for rainy, winter nights.  Perfect.

Here's one of our favorite recipes:

Gluten-Free Tater Tot Casserole (AKA Hotdish):
1 lb ground turkey, browned and drained
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp dried minced onion
1 ¼ cup (11 oz) gluten-free condensed cream of chicken soup (see recipe below)
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 lb bag frozen tater tots

Preheat oven to 350°. 

In a 9x13 pan, spread ground turkey and sprinkle  with salt, pepper, and onion.  Spread cream of chicken soup over top of meat.  Drizzle Worchestershire sauce next, and use a spoon to gently spread into soup mixture, without disturbing the layers. Top with enough tater tots to cover the surface.

Bake at 350 for 30–40 minutes, or until the food is hot and bubbly.

Gluten-Free Cream of Chicken Soup
6 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp dried minced onion
1 tsp dried thyme
½ tsp dried parsley
¼ tsp each garlic powder and salt
⅛ tsp each pepper and paprika
¾ cup brown rice flour
1 ¾ cup gluten-free chicken broth
1 ¾ cup milk (I used dairy-free rice drink)

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat.  Add onion and seasonings.  Add flour, and stir until thick and slightly bubbly.  Add broth and juice.  Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.

This will make more than the above recipe calls for.  What you don't use can be frozen for future recipes.