Trigger Warning

You know, when it came to spouses, I think I got pretty lucky.

If I had to put up with me, I would either run for the hills, or drop a piano on my head (although where I’d get a piano, or get it airborne, is a puzzler).

Billie Holiday, and her puppy, Mister(!).

My capacity for self-knowledge is on a similar level of my ability to sing like Billie Holiday or sit through more than five minutes of the Bachelor.  But I do know this much.  My last nerve can get strummed at the drop of a fedora.  But, my ire disappears just as quickly.  And, I have enough self-control that when I do pop off it’s directed only at the offending situation, not innocent bystanders.I am not one to ‘take it out’ on people or animals who are at hand, but in no way responsible for my pique.  I only hurl my stinging invectives toward the situational catalyst.

So, furiosity comes easy, goes quick, and I rarely lash out at the people around me.  The main reason is I know what a giant pain in the keister I am at my default setting.  I’m not going to go out of my way to be extra-double-secret-vexatious and alienate friends and family.But Petey and I are around each other most of the time, so he gets the most exposure to my displeasure, despite the fact that the true object of my ire is in the TV box, or the telephone, or doesn’t even actually exist, and I’m just bellowing into the void.  My vociferous proclamations still roll over him and then recede, like some cranky ocean tide.

But, the things that provoke me are truly infuriating; they are things that should anger any right-thinking human.The government announced the other day that the progress they’d made to keep kids nicotine-free has completely been erased—by vaping.

Vaping!

The manufacturers claim that they have no desire for children to use these products.  But they sell flavors like fruity pebbles, coco pops, bubblegum, and unicorn poop (yup—unicorn poop).And now they’re airing commercials in which adult smokers talk about how they switched from cigarettes to vaping, and ain’t life grand?  I guess it’s better because…they can do it at church or sitting on the nice sofa?

Here’s the deal.  There are hundreds of chemicals in each pod.  But nobody’s sure exactly which because individual shops can mix up their own cartridges.  Nine of the known chemicals in these things are either on lists of carcinogens or documented as dangerous to reproductive systems.

Like something you might use on a summer evening…and the bag it came in.

Plus, vaping makes you look like the kind of person who’d wear sunglasses at night or stiff a waiter and laugh about it.

Memo to Duke Energy: it is in no way “convenient” to charge me an extra $1.50 to pay my light bill online or over the phone.Martha Stewart is a new celebrity judge on Food Network’s Chopped.  There are three segments in which dishes created by participants are eaten and evaluated.  No matter what the food is, no matter what course, Martha eat with chopsticks.  And now, another judge, Iron Chef Jeffrey Zakarian has joined her in this straight-up affectation.I’m sure they feel they have a perfectly rational reason.  Maybe they’re trying to limit calories.  Maybe it’s their way to pick through the dish and taste separate components. Don’t care.

It’s not a good look, guys. To Bridget, Carmen, and any other robo-calling wenches who want to help lower my credit card interest rates; I will find you.  When you least expect me, and are feeling quite proud of your scamming, computer-generated selves, I will find you.Thanks for your time.

What Can Brown Do For You?

My mother would be convinced that the veggies were burnt and should be discarded.  This would result in my father running over to Food Lion to acquire more microwavable veggies as the family sits around the dinner table and Mom frets about everything getting cold and dried out.

It’s because she has the lowest of thresholds of what burned is.If her baked macaroni and cheese has brown spots on the top, it’s burned.  If rolls go beyond the lightest of caramel-color, they’re burned.  And if veggies get a barely perceptible touch of char, they’re burned and ruined.

Except.

Except, as Chef Ann Burrell delights in proclaiming in a fake, growly, bear-like voice, “Brown food tastes good!”.The Maillard (my-yard) reaction is when amino acids and sugars mix with heat and to a certain extent, pressure, making those delicious, delicious brown markings on food.

If you want to know how important and tasty the Maillard reaction is, think about a hot, melty grilled cheese, on limp blond, not browned, but crispy bread.  Or, flaccid bacon.  Enjoy grill marks?  Maillard reaction.Due to exposure to my mom’s brown food aversion, and my own, near-certifiable level of impatience, I came exceedingly late to the brown food fan club.

But I’m now recording secretary.

It’s easy to get a nice brown crust on meat, no matter how long it needs to cook, the recipe you’re using, or the method of preparation.All you need is a metal pan (a cast iron is best here) that’s screaming hot and a little oil.  Dry both sides of the meat, put the thinnest coats of oil on it, then season both sides.  Place the pieces in the pan without crowding them, which will steam them, rather than sear.  They should be no closer than ½ inch.  And the more contact meat makes to hot surface, the more of it will be brown.

Then cook the meat on each side until there’s a beautiful, deeply caramel-colored crust.  Flip, and cook the other side.  Finish cooking according to directions. Brown veggies though, are my newest obsession.

It all started with some frozen, multi-colored Trader Joe’s cauliflower.

The directions said to put a bit of vegetable oil in the pan to cook them.  But, we really love cauliflower with brown butter, so I put a few tablespoons in the pan and let it brown.  Then I put in the still frozen cauliflower, turned it down to about 4, and covered it.When the cauliflower was heated through, I uncovered the pan and turned it up to about 6.  There was a little water in the skillet from the veg which I wanted to cook off.  This is where I had the happy accident.

I was preoccupied with getting the rest of dinner put together, so I neglected the cauliflower, and it cooked longer than normal (for me).When I got back to it, it had developed beautiful browning.  In the past, I never cooked vegetables until they picked up color.  But, instead of deciding it was burned and discarding it, I just flipped it to expose another part to the pan.

The result was a side dish that Petey is still talking about.You can do this with both frozen and fresh.  But it must be a harder veg, like broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots.  A more tender veggie like peas, will turn gray.  So cook them gently, then roll them in brown butter.  They’ll pick up the maillard flavor without going all elementary school cafeteria food on you.

Chef Ann Burrell and chocolate can’t both be wrong.  Brown is good.And, not burnt.

Thanks for your time.

What The Hey, Is It Hot In Here?

John Mayer, serial dater and troubadour for romantically challenged thirty-somethings sang, “Your body is a wonderland”.

But for many women, our bodies can be more of a creepy abandoned seaside amusement park; the kind Scooby and the gang would pull up to in the Mystery Machine.It starts at puberty.

Most girls in middle school are desperate for the commencement of their monthly visitor.  They think about it, talk about it, and read about it. When I was in junior high, they’d separate the class by sex, then show the girls films and pass out pamphlets about “Becoming A Woman”.  According to them, once mature there are lots of flowers, swelling violin music, and for some reason, horseback riding.Even Walt Disney Studios got in on it with the Citizen Kane of female reproduction, “The Story of Menstruation”.  Sadly, it didn’t include a scene of Minnie sending Mickey out to the Walgreens for supplies, chocolate, and Midol.But, once Aunt Flo actually showed up, we realized what a messy, bloated, crampy pig in a poke we’d yearned for.  And as a bonus, we’d get to experience it twelve times a year for the next forty years.

There’s a break when pregnant, but a whole new garden of earthly delights awaits; from head to toe.Pregnancy brain is really a thing.  I once left my car running and in gear when I got out at the dry cleaners.  How I didn’t run myself over and make the business a drive-through is anybody’s guess.Then, there was the clicking.  For weeks, I heard an odd sound coming from my belly, like the monster from the movie, “Predator”, but slower and muffled.  I just assumed auditory hallucinations were another part of the gestational swag bag.

But one night, Petey heard it, and I actually cried from relief.  He rushed me out to Duke for answers.  None of the OB staff had ever seen anything like it, so they did an ultrasound.

Not The Kid, but it looked just like this, and we saw the removal of the thumb, too.

Turns out, The Kid was sucking a tiny little thumb, and as the digit was removed from mouth, there was a pop, which translated to the outside world, as a “click”.

Funnily enough, after birth, The Kid was not a thumb sucker…

Morning sickness?  I spent nine months constantly feeling like a drunken sorority girl ready to revisit meals from preschool. Early on, I experienced a sleepiness of an industrial-strength.  I’d be reading or watching TV, when suddenly it would be 90 minutes later because I had fallen asleep as suddenly as a toddler passes out into their lunch.

Later on, I tried to sleep, but sometimes a solo soccer match would break out, and I’d be poked repeatedly from the inside by little knees and elbows.  I very often felt compelled to walk, which would tire me out and rock my passenger to sleep.  Unfortunately, when I then attempted slumber, the cessation of movement would wake The Kid, and induce a dance party.There are random physical curveballs served up by growing a human, as well.  I had a hair inside my nose grow backward.  It eventually showed up on the outside.  Then I couldn’t breathe through my schnoz, but I could smell anything anywhere that might turn my stomach—at one point I’m pretty sure I smelled a fish fry on Noah’s ark.

After the many splendored thing that is youth and fertility, at middle age a woman experiences the joy of menopause.This is a voyage planned by a psychopathic travel agent from hell.  Without my glasses, I can’t see myself in the mirror—which makes mascara a vision-risking adventure.  A magnifying mirror works, but the suddenly enlarged, dilapidated visage staring back shocks and horrifies.  My joints sound like I’m smuggling a box of broken glass. The mood swings and the hot flashes are a charming two-fer.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve been buttered and set ablaze.  If at that point, a human male informs me that it’s all in my head and I should ignore it, I suddenly experience strong desire.  A desire to snap said human like a dry twig and use the resulting pieces to toast marshmallows and weenies on the raging camp fire that’s my left thigh. campfireIt’s not all tragedy and cold French fries, though.  I’m anticipating the happy day I discard the last tattered fragment of restraint controlling my tongue.

That’s right, Gentle Reader.  I shall be the brutally honest little old lady that reveals to mothers their babies look like Newt Gingrich.  I’ll tell stupid people they’re stupid.  And I’ll inform that guy with the particularly ridiculous comb-over that he ain’t fooling anybody.Thanks for your time.

Oh, Fudge!

If you’ve ever wondered how long fudge can stay in the freezer, I have the answer.

Not sixteen months.

Have you ever seen those giant teeth at the dentist’s office?  You know the ones that are about a foot tall, which open to a cross section of the different parts of a tooth? Well, it’s a life-size model of my sweet tooth.

When it comes to chocolate fudge, there are two different types.  There’s creamy fudge; the kind with marshmallow cream—quick and easy.

Then there’s traditional, classic fudge cooked in a pot on the stove until it reaches a very specific temperature.  Then it’s beaten vigorously.  It can go wrong much easier than right. At the state fair, All-American Fudge makes a stellar example.  It’s better than any old-school version I could make, so I let them do it.  Every year I buy two pounds, bring it home, triple-wrap and freeze it.  I then ration it like it’s the very last pizza at a Super Bowl party.

Well, last year I rationed it too well, and when the fair rolled around, I had about a pound left, so I didn’t buy any more.  Thus, sixteen-month-old awful fudge that broke my heart and left me without fair fudge for Eight.More.Months.But.

There are two fudges of the easy, marshmallow cream variety that are close to my heart.

The first is a PB&J fudge.  I shared my recipe with Lisa Prince, who along with Brian Shrader does a segment every Friday on WRAL’s noon news, called Local Dish.  This was last Friday’s dish.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Fudgepb&j fudge1 7-ounce jar marshmallow cream

1 11-ounce package white chocolate chips

¾ cup creamy peanut butter

¼ cup crunchy peanut butter

¾ cup butter

2 ½ cups granulated sugar

pinch of kosher salt

1 cup heavy whipping cream

¾ cup jelly, jam, or preserves of your choice

Line 8-inch square baking dish with parchment paper. Set aside.

In large mixing bowl, add marshmallow cream, white chocolate chips and peanut butters. Set aside.In large saucepan, combine butter, sugar, salt, and whipping cream. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 4 full minutes.

Pour boiling mixture over ingredients in mixing bowl. Using electric mixer, beat for 1-2 minutes, until completely smooth and creamy.pb&j swirlPour half of mixture into baking dish. Drop spoonsful of jam. Using a knife, lightly swirl into the fudge. Top with remaining fudge and dollops of the rest of the preserves. Gently swirl again with knife, just until marbled.Refrigerate 4 hours, or overnight, until set. Cut into bites. Store in airtight container in refrigerator up to a week.

The other fudge is a long-time favorite; chocolate peanut butter.  It’s easy and tastes so darn good.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Fudgechoc pb fudge3 cups sugar

4 tablespoons cocoa

1 tablespoon butter

¾ cup milk

1 cup peanut butter

1 cup marshmallow crème

*When measuring peanut butter and marshmallow cream, spray measuring cup and spatula with cooking spray to facilitate removal from cup.

Mix together first 4 ingredients in saucepan. Bring to rolling boil. Boil exactly 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add marshmallow creme and peanut butter. Stir until melted then pour into buttered 8X8 pan. Let cool.The secret to this is to boil exactly 3 minutes. Use a timer. I’m not joking.

I’m sad and disappointed about my fair fudge.

But.

When I get my next fudge stash, I can’t bear to get less than two pounds, and I know it doesn’t last forever in the freezer.  So, like it or not, to avoid wasting food, I’ll be forced to eat more fudge more often. What a bummer.

Thanks for your time.

Multi-Metamorphosis

I am a woman of great enthusiasm, slightly above-normal persuasive powers, but minimal forethought.The wearing of post earrings means being continuously poked in the neck.  Every time you hold a phone to your ear, every time you lay on your side, that insidious little metal shiv shanks you.

My delicate, sensitive nature precludes me from wearing such jab-happy jewelry.  I now only wear the tiniest hoops they make; literally, they’re made for babies. A normal human might ponder such pain-inducing side effects well before the piercing and rethink the whole enterprise.

But as I said, thinking before doing is neither skill nor talent that I possess.

Pestering however, so is.When I graduated from kindergarten, I also received a doctorate—in beleaguering.  Give me a cause, and I could nag all four guys at Mount Rushmore into submission.

In the first grade, I was obsessed with getting holes poked through my tender little earlobes into which I planned to hang sparkly bits of metal and/or stone.  My poor mother bore the brunt of this unbridled obsession.  I brought it up and argued in its favor multiple times a day.Finally, on the very last day of school that year, Mom said yes.  A man was coming from away to our local Belk Tyler’s for ear piercing.

Even though my mother said she’d take me, I knew I had to be on best behavior until those holes were actually in my ears or the opportunity could be snatched away.  So, all day, I did my very best imitation of a meek, obedient child.When we got to Belk’s, there was the piercer, a dapper, charming man in the fanciest suit I’d ever seen in Elizabeth City.

Mom had told me they would probably spray my ears with something that would numb them, and then slip the earrings in—it would be quick and painless.So, imagine my surprise when he wiped my lobe with some alcohol, put an actual cork, like from a Gunsmoke whiskey bottle, behind my ear, and stabbed me with the sharpened post of an earring.My eyes and mouth were three perfect O’s in my face.  I wanted to cry and run away, but I also wanted both of my ears pierced, so I remained silent.

My mother, however, did not.

The first ear was assaulted so quickly she hadn’t registered what happened until afterward.  Completely out of character and against everything I’d been taught by her since birth, my mother proceeded to make a scene in Belk Tyler’s.“What is wrong with you?  How could you do that?  Take your hands off my daughter and get away from her!”

Meanwhile, I was paralyzed from pain and the shock of my mother raising her voice in public.The swank disappeared from the man as he spun around to face her and growled, “So, whaddya want lady?  You want the kid to walk around with one ear pierced?  ‘Cause I don’t care, you already paid.”

At that point, Mom was shocked into silence along with me.  Taking her stillness for acquiescence, he finished the job.  Struck dumb, we left Belk’s and went home without a word.When you get your ears pierced, you must leave the original earrings in for six weeks.  Wearing those sharpened golden daggers and being continuously stabbed by them bred a loathing for post earrings deep inside my soul.

Hence, the baby hoops.

My mom?It was like a logjam broke that day.  My mother was never again hesitant to speak her mind in public.  Which is very honest and extremely healthy.  But sometimes, for her daughter, a bit less than comfortable.

Thanks for your time.

It’s French, Dahlink

When is a convertible not a convertible?

When it’s the fresh crusty loaf of bread with cloud-like interior that the French call a baguette.  The most French of breads that actually has laws defining what is in the dough.

One might think that when prehistoric French painters wandered out of the Chauvet and Lascaux caves for lunch, they dined on baguettes and wooly mammoth nuggets.But, one would be wrong.

Baguettes are the relatively recent sum of experience, ingredients and technology of the baking world.  There wasn’t even a bread officially called “baguette” (meaning wand or stick in French) until the early 20th century.Fortunately, even though there are laws about baguettes, as far as I know, none of them prohibit us non-French rubes from enjoying them.  And, unlike your average loaf of Sunbeam, baguettes are sublime at every stage, from fresh out of the oven to old, hard and stale (just not furry—that’s no good for anybody).

Thus, the convertible-ness.So fresh it’s still warm: break off a hunk, and smear it with a big scoop of runny, buttery brie.  You eat enough of this and you will acquire a French accent.  You’ll also acquire a butt so big that you need two seats at the movies, but that’s a whole other conversation.Super fresh but room temperature: sharing a large piece with a friend on a veranda with butter, strawberry jam, and coffee (French press, of course) or thick creamy hot chocolate.  On this side of the Atlantic, the very best place to do this is Caffe Driade, in Chapel Hill.  Honest, it is one of the few supreme joys in this life that cost less than $20.

The top patio at Caffe Driade, in Chapel Hill.

Same day freshness: the jambon-beurre; a modest amount of very good butter, preferably from Brittany or Normandy, and thinly sliced top shelf ham.  Chef Vatinet, owner of Cary’s La Farm is a Gallic rebel who adds gruyere to his version.  It’s so delicious the not quite authentic recipe is not only forgiven, it’s welcome.

La Farm.

The days following baking have its own tasty gifts.

The simple: sliced into rounds painted with a bit of olive oil, seasoned and baked at 350 for 15-20 minutes, and you have crostini, a much more urbane vessel for dips and spreads than potato and corn chips.If you cut the bread into cubes, and toast them in a skillet with oil, herbs and salt and pepper you have croutons that will make you wonder why you ever bought those sawdust squares in the bag.And one of the greatest uses for any bread: pain perdu.  What a North Carolinian calls French toast, a resident of the Loire Valley calls, “lost bread”.  You make a custard with eggs and milk, flavor with brown sugar, vanilla, fresh nutmeg, and a pinch of salt.  Heat the oven to 375 and melt a dollop of butter in a skillet while you soak both sides of 1&1/2” slices in the custard.  When the butter’s foamy, cook the slices on both sides until golden. As they finish, lay them on a sheet pan you’ve fitted with a cooling rack.  When they’re all ready, bake in the oven until puffed and the custard’s cooked through, about 5-7 minutes.  Dress and devour.If you have a baguette, and can’t get to it while it’s fresh, freeze it.  When you’re ready, dampen the entire loaf, and cook in a 350-degree oven for 13 minutes.  Right before you put in the loaf, splash ½ cup of cold water into oven to bring up a burst of steam.  It will come out as fresh and crusty as day one, I promise.

Coco Chanel and Gigot.

Merci pour votre temps.

 

 

In Other Words

Gentle Reader, this is the second essay I’ve written for this week’s spot.The first one stunk.

So, here’s the thing; the original subject is vastly important.  It’s polarizing with the potential to get people from zero to irate in just a couple of words.  And just like too many issues these days, the divide between each side is the distance between here and the sun. I’m not sure if you know this Gentle Reader, but one of the aims in my writing is to amuse.  And, to me at least, this subject is not funny.

But I thought I had an interesting take.  One that would throw a new light onto the entire debate.  I pictured my particular combination of 600 words the words that would, if not bring everyone around the campfire for a rousing Kumbaya, at least shed new light on the subject, and provoke conversation.True to my morbidly geeky soul, I framed my column as a science fiction story set in the future.  The characters looked back from a time where the issue had been solved many years ago.  They’d look at 2019 and feel the kind of bemusement and shame we in 2019 feel about the Salem witch trials, or new Coke.I wanted to write the piece without offending or alienating a single pair of eyeballs.  Writing that, I cringe at how utterly deluded and smug that ambition was.  Stratospherically better minds than mine understand that a subject that doesn’t arouse passion is not a subject of import.Here is the evolution of one of my columns: I choose a topic.  Then the piece starts writing itself in my head.  Usually by the time I put finger to key board I have a pretty clear idea of where it’s going. But I can’t begin the actual process of writing until I come up with an opening line.  And, Petey and The Kid will sadly attest that often this step is torturous for all of us.  I wander around like an especially hammy silent film actress, bemoaning my lack of inspiration and proclaiming that I’m not cut out to write anything more than a grocery list, and I should’ve become the guy at the circus that follows the elephants around with a broom.Walking the dog and showering are the activities that are the most frequent opening line maternity wards.  Some weeks I log more dog walking miles than a long-haul trucker and take so many showers that I start to look like the creature of the Black Lagoon’s mother-in-law.But, once I start, my trouble is not finding things to write, but finding a way to stop writing.  Brevity is not a familiar companion.

For that first piece, every word was a struggle. And it showed.  It was a mediocre essay written by a self-effacing yet nauseatingly earnest middle schooler.  In my heart I knew it; I couldn’t admit it, but I knew it.

The Kid knew it.  My child is my first look editor.  When I asked for an opinion, I was met with an uncomfortable silence—for the first time since I’ve been writing.So finally, I admitted its awfulness and begged my kind, patient and accommodating editors to pull the original column.

And, since I strive to make this a “warts and all” space, I decided to document for you, Gentle Reader, the path that brought this week’s word to page.  Funnily enough, this replacement column only took one short shower and one quick dog walk in the rain.

The result is one column, a wet dog, and freshly shaved legs (mine, not the dog’s).Thanks for your time.

Mouths of Babes

They had a ninety-minute ride ahead of them.Jennifer Jetpaque was taking her eleven-year-old daughter Jillian to summer camp in the mountains of southern Venus.  She considered the time a gift.  They had some of their best talks during this type of enforced togetherness.

“Mom, I wanna ask you something.”

Hiding a grateful, maternal smile, Jen responded with a studied casualness, “What’s up?”madam president“I’m reading a book about Jane Doe, and how she became president.  Do you remember that?”

“Good grief, Jilly Bean, I wasn’t born until 2092!”

“How about Grammy?”

“She wasn’t born yet, but her mommy was about your age when Doe was elected.  So, I’ve heard stories.  And I studied it in school.”“Well, there’s some stuff in the book that I don’t understand.  It says that her opponents talked about her appearance; that she was old, and not very attractive.”

“That’s true.”

“But why?  What did her face and body have to do with what was in her head?  Why did that matter?”Jennifer answered the question honestly.  “I have no idea, Jilly.  To many people back then, the most important thing a woman could be was beautiful—like an ornament.  Women who weren’t conventionally pretty were discounted and pitied.  Beautiful women were celebrated, but not respected, because women weren’t allowed to be both attractive and smart.”“What does one have to do with the other?  And why did it matter what other people thought?  Why didn’t women just do what they wanted and not listen to other people?”

“Because for a lot of people, including some women, the females of the species needed to be taken care of.  They thought that men knew what was best for them.  That we weren’t to be trusted with anything truly important.”Jillian’s forehead was crinkled, and she was tugging her left earlobe, her familiar tells of frustration.  “What if a woman had the right answer?  What if a man hurt a woman and then said he didn’t?  Did they not believe the woman?”

“Many would not.  Or they would tell her that she was responsible for being hurt because she’d dressed in a certain way or acted in a certain way.  Or sometimes they’d say that she was playing a game and she wasn’t hurt at all. That she had decided later that she didn’t like the game.”

(Actual advertisement.)

Her daughter’s face was pink with indignation on behalf of her entire gender.  “It sounds like they thought we were children!  Or jokes!”

“To many people, women had very strict roles; they were decoration, or caretakers, like mothers, teachers, and nurses.  If they stepped outside that, it made some people very uncomfortable.”Jenn continued, “Since they thought of women being less than, it especially upset them when women stood up for themselves or expressed emotions.  So, they’d make it into a joke, or declare the offending woman was crazy, evil, or both.”

A cry of near anguish came from the back seat.

“But why, Mommy?  Why”“Well, Jilly, tens of thousands of years ago, it was ‘might makes right’.  And because most men are bigger and stronger than women, they ran things.   Men realized they liked this power thing and wanted to hold on to it.  So, they came up with rules to keep it out of the hands of women.  And if a woman stepped out of line, it made some people very angry.  But honey, all that ended a very long time ago.”Jilly grinned.  “I guess they never went to kindergarten.”

“Why do you say that?”“Because,” her wise eleven-year-old said, “The first thing we learned in kindergarten was sharing and cooperation!”

Thanks for your time.

definition of fierce

This little girl is my hero.