Everybody’s A Chameleon…Expert

punchyHave you ever been so tired that you got punchy?  Where everything is hilarious and you laugh so hard, so continuously that you’re also crying?

Well years ago, on a seemingly never-ending road trip I’d made a rather anemic joke, and my friend Sherelle meant to say, “Everybody’s a comedian.”What actually came out was, “Everybody’s a chameleon.”

That phrase entered my, and now our family’s lexicon.  It means that everybody thinks they’re America’s answer to 90’s stand-up comic Sinbad.

By adding the “expert” part, it speaks to a phenomenon that perhaps due to easy access to the interwebs, seems to be everywhere.know it allAnd it’s kind of getting on my last nerve.

I first noticed it when we bought our house.

All of a sudden, everybody we met was a carpenter, plumber, electrician, landscaper, and decorator—sometimes all at once. trashI’d take out the trash and somebody I’d never met would tell me why my grass was more weed than grass and what combo of toxic chemicals would take care of it.  Or a complete stranger would inform me that the shovel I’d picked out wasn’t the right tool for the job, even though, he had no idea what particular job I planned on doing.keep calm knowFinancial geniuses would insist we absolutely should renegotiate out mortgage, never mind interest rates were going up; we were just too unsophisticated to understand the complex forces at play.bullwinkleThen we met a whole new raft of scholars when we were expecting, and again after The Kid arrived.

The shape of my belly denoted a boy, or a girl, or triplets.  I should exercise constantly or move as little as possible.  I should eat anything I want and as much as I want.  Or, I should severely restrict my calories, and become a vegan. little know it allLucky for The Kid, we ran into hundreds of child development specialists and pediatricians each time we left the house.

Nursing was bad, or formula was a clear-cut case of child abuse.  We should enact a strict routine or go with the flow.  The baby should be given a thorough bath daily, or soap or water should never tough a child’s skin and instead should be rubbed down with butter and olive oil twice a week.big babySolid food should be eaten within days of birth or maybe not until the thirtieth birthday.  Potty training should be early and Draconian, or child-led and have a goal of the child being fully trained by sometime around high school graduation.

The baby should never be held and rarely picked up.  Or the baby should be duct taped to one or both parents for the first three years. dog mythsOnce one becomes a dog owner, it’s astounding how many authorities you’ll encounter.  If you have a mutt, you’ll be shamed for encouraging indiscriminate mating.  If you have a full-breed, people will inform you that a rescue dog in a shelter was put down because you have a fancy, over-bred show dog.shelter petaIf you do have a an AKC registered pooch, you’ll discover 90 percent of the population is either a breeder or trainer of that variety.  One should treat them like the fur-covered children they are or treat them like wolves and never show affection. akita feedingOne guy in our neighborhood has bred every Akita anywhere on the planet for the last 200 years (except ours, I guess).  He’s also trained them all to obey him by blinking his eyes.

And not only is he the world’s expert, he actually invented dogs, and created the very first one in 1972 by carving it out of a block of Swiss cheesecarved dog

 

Thanks for your time.

A Professorial Appeal

prof and geoffI think you’ll agree with me, Gentle Reader, that well-stocked libraries are vital to the type of civilization in which we want to live.  No one can know what may be the trigger that fosters the love of reading in a young person.  And books enrich one’s life in infinite and eternal ways.

Sadly, some evil-doer walked into the library in Sussex, England and stole every single graphic novel they had.prof mikeMy friend, Paul Alborough, also known as international recording star and pioneer of chap hop Professor Elemental, has recorded an appeal for donations to restock the looted shelves.  And if you have any books that you are able to donate, you can help.  His video has all the info you will need.

If you’re new to the party and would like to discover the amazing Professor, head over to his website.  In addition to his ground-breaking and delightful music, he always has ideas for small things you can do to make the world a better place.  Right now he has links to donate for training support dogs for folks who need them.prof chapsThanks for your time.

Why We Write

I went to BJ’s and picked up some Nabs for Petey.  And because I got them at BJ’s, there were 36 full-sized packages of crackers and peanut butter in the pack—hey, he likes Nabs, and they were really cheap.

But the upshot was that I was standing in my kitchen wondering how and where to store enough Nabs for, literally, the whole class.  I decided to check our guest/box room for a forgotten basket or vessel of some kind.

final_5c11666232962c0013aa6d0bWhile I was in there, I noticed an old Duke three-ring binder.  I opened it to see if there was anything interesting in it.  In it was pure comedy gold.

Among the many camps The Kid attended while in school (cooking camp, camp at the Museum of Life and Science, a history museum camp that was an immersive experience in the WWII Homefront) was a Duke-sponsored writing camp.  The first year our child was a day-student.  The second was extended day, and for the last year it was sleepaway camp.The Kid has always had an interesting imagination, and a way with words.  Not long after learning to write, my child wrote a story about a pirate that was both afraid of the water and prone to extreme seasickness.  I know that’s my baby, but c’mon, that’s hilarious—I mean, just picture that poor guy.  Somebody’s junior high had the world’s worst guidance counselor.Each morning at camp they had a writing exercise.  They were given a prompt and had a set amount of time.  Where they went was up to them.

I’m guessing that this particular topic was handed out in either later days of a session, or if early on, not The Kid’s first year at camp.  There is a certain element of smart alecky-ness to the result.What follows are The Kid’s own words.  Comments from me are in italics.

I write because:

Because I think my dog is writing about me.  Our new dog doesn’t write, he instagrams and snapchats.crowleygramBecause the mole men tell me to.  They’ve stopped urging creativity and are now focused on digging and building an underground kingdom into which I’ll one day fall while mowing the lawn, never to be heard of again.

Because the lady at the drive-through gave me the evil eye.  She still does.

Because I want to scream but am in a library.  Nothing’s scarier than a librarian’s glare.

This guy says, “write”, I write.

Because a leprechaun I met when I was three told me I had to.  But not one word about that darn pot of gold.

Because my mom likes purple.  Yup.

Because I once saw a gremlin on a plane.  First I’ve heard about that.Because they serve a combination of chicken and fish called a chish.  Gross.

Because I expect the mother ship any day now.  Is mother ship one word, or two?

Because stereoditional is too a word.  It kind of sounds like one of those huge German portmanteau words that possess a paragraph of meaning.  Here’s my take: stereoditional is an object, or a state that can only exist as a pair, like bookends.  Or, an old lady’s purse and Kleenex.Because I have a chalkboard full of ideas and I can’t write about just one.  Lay’s potato chips of the mind.

Because the spirit of Bob chooses you to read your writing.  Don’t know a Bob. I think maybe The Kid was running out of gas here.There you have it.  A hopefully humorous, but more likely unsettling look into the mind of my one and only progeny.  Who’s now living as an independent, unmedicated adult.

Heaven help us all.

Thanks for your time.

What’s The Big Green Deal?

Spinach, that’s the big, green deal.Did you know that curly leaf, or savoy spinach almost went extinct?  With the advent of the triple-washed, bagged baby spinach the demand for it among the big produce companies pretty much disappeared.  The flavor is less mild, and all those nooks and crannies on the surface of the leaf makes it hard to thoroughly clean a product which already has a somewhat problematic reputation and history concerning sick-making microbes.But Petey and I both love a classic spinach salad: spinach, sliced button mushrooms, hard-cooked egg, shaved red onion (Petey’s a hold-the-onion man), crispy bacon shards drizzled with freshly made buttermilk ranch.

So, I almost always have some greens in the fridge.  But they go wonky quick, and when most leafy greens get past their prime, there isn’t much to do with them, other than adding them to the compost heap.  But spinach is different.  When I have spinach that’s too shop-worn for salad, I cook it, either sautéed or creamed. I put it into a large microwave safe bowl, cover it with a paper towel and nuke it until it’s completely wilted; somewhere between 2-4 minutes depending on how much I have.  Then I turn it out into a colander to drain and cool.

If I don’t plan on making it right away, I put it in a labeled, dated zip-top bag and freeze it.  If you’re not a big salad eater, you could also skip the whole fresh spinach step, and just buy it frozen. For both sautéed and creamed spinach, you start the same way: onions.  Put some butter or oil into a skillet and add chopped onions.  Season and cook until they begin to caramelize (the more color on the onions, the sweeter they’ll be, you choose).  Then add 2 cups of thawed, wilted spinach that you’ve squeezed most of the water from.  Season and add 10-12 gratings of fresh nutmeg.  For sautéed, let it cook until it’s mostly dry, and a little browned around the edges.  Take off the heat, add the juice of a lemon, check for seasoning, and serve.For creamed spinach:

Start like for sautéed, but after adding the spinach, add about 2/3 cup of 2% or skim milk and ¼ cup cream.  Season and add nutmeg, then stir in ¼ cup of grated Parmesan cheese (not the stuff in the green can).  Let it cook until the spinach is in a nice thick, creamy sauce (about 10 minutes on medium).Take it off the heat and stir in a couple of heaping tablespoons of whipped cream cheese (this will stabilize the sauce).  Then stir in the juice of a lemon.  Check for seasoning and serve as is, or over a baked russet or sweet potato.

Or.My new favorite thing is to use the creamed spinach in the place of pesto in pasta.  Cook the pasta while the spinach is cooking.  When the spinach is finished, and the cream cheese and lemon juice are stirred in, transfer the pasta into the spinach pan with a slotted spoon.  Don’t drain it, because you’ll then use enough of the pasta water to thin out the spinach, and starch in the water makes the sauce silky and it coats the pasta perfectly.  Then top with more parm.It’s really good, and frankly I’m not sure how this took so long to occur to someone who normally has at least seventy-five varieties of pasta in her kitchen at all times.

Next week I’ll tell you what I got up to tonight with a box of Costco mushrooms and a kitchen full of pasta.Thanks for your time.

Follow The Bouncing Lunatic

In school, The Kid had a band of unique children for friends.

There was Wrenn, a tall willowy blond, who would’ve given Jane Birkin a run for her money (look her up).  Wren busked (performed music in public for donations) by playing the tuba wearing a top hat and long swirling gypsy skirt.  I called her my little wood sprite.

Kacie was a middle school friend who named all her food.  Not like, “This is asparagus, these are noodles.”  Nope.  It was more like, “You are a beautiful cupcake.  I shall call you Arabella.”Yup.  Then she’d eat it.

There was Andy.  Andy’s a good kid, and so is The Kid.  But put them together, and some type of chemical reaction occurred that turned the two into middle school miscreants. With Andy as accomplice, there was skipping of school, saying they’d be one place, and actually being somewhere else entirely, and all-round, general butt-head-ery.  But even though they drove all the involved parental units crazy, they were and are thoroughly good kids.

And Thea.  The child was a walking exposed nerve.  Everything was felt very deeply, and all emotions were heightened, given free rein, and emoted with volume and gusto.  There were no mixed messages from Thea.  If you ticked her off, you would be informed of it, with no room for misunderstanding or confusion.

She also had a terrific surfeit of energy, of every type.  She was an overly caffeinated puppy inside a Red Bull-fueled race horse, wrapped in a rocket ship from the future.  Thea was so constantly, so completely wide open, we called her Animal, after the frenetic, demented puppet drummer on The Muppet Show.While in high school, The Kid, Thea, and a third student James Henry, were chosen to compete on Brain Game, a quiz show on a local TV station.

They studied—everything; the questions came from subjects as varied as Chaucer, the Betty/Veronica love triangle, and osmosis.

Finally, the big day arrived.We arrived for the taping well before the appointed hour.  That left plenty of time to kill, with contenders that were already twitchy with anticipation.

There was a large garden at the station, and we sent them for a walk to hopefully burn off some nervous energy.  Soon, The Kid and James Henry came back up, feeling better and less frenetic.  Thea, however, stayed a bit longer.

The child was running up and down rows of azalea bushes.  She’d disappear as she ran behind the larger shrubs, then she’d pop back again where the plantings were lower.She resembled a real-life mole in a garden-themed whack-a-mole game.

Then it was time for the big game show.  We were shepherded into the studio; parents and teachers in the bleachers, contestants on stage.  The host welcomed us, gave us a rundown of how the taping would work, and had a brief chat with each kid to steady their nerves, and get them ready to compete.*Spoiler alert: our kids won.  They blew the other teams out of the water.  They almost had a perfect game.

And, they accomplished it with only two members.

Because when the red light came on, and the cameras started to roll, Thea, the girl who never had nothing to say, the girl who was feisty, fierce, and funny, was struck, as if from the hammer of Thor himself, silent and frozen.For the entire thirty minutes of taping, the child was broken.  Then the show was over, and the red light went out.  And like an especially loud and profane meteor striking the earth, our scrappy Thea was back in the building.Thanks for your time.

I Hope You Like Jammin’ Too

mystery man

The Unknown Food Writer.

Each time I write about food, I think of him.  He is responsible for what I do, as much as Petey and The Kid, any editor, supportive family member or friend, or adoring fan (and let me tell you, Gentle Reader, there are tens of them out there—well, maybe ten…including the ones I pay).

He had such an unintended influence on my life, and I don’t even know his name.Many years ago, before food blogs, the explosion of food writing, and even mass usage of the interwebs, I read a column in my local newspaper.  It was about onions.

But it was more than just a recipe, or a spread in a magazine.  It was a story.  A story that was a glimpse into the life of the writer.  He was an empty nester; his daughter was away at college.The story began with his daughter coming home on a break.  And she immediately dove into the refrigerator.  She pulled out a jar of this dark brown marmalade-like substance that was obviously homemade.  It intrigued, but was completely unknown.When she asked him, he informed her it was caramelized onion jam.  That it was incredibly easy but took hours to prepare.  That it might resemble run of the mill fried onions but it was so, so much more.

Then, in the column he offered the recipe.  I’ve made it many times over the years.  And, in the ensuing decades, I’ve tweaked the recipe according to my tastes and made it my own.

Amended Onion Jamonion jam

5 pounds yellow onions

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ teaspoon salt + more to taste

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper + more to taste

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1/3 cup dry Marsala winePeel the onions, cut them in half and slice into ¼ inch half-moons.  Put them all into large, heavy Dutch oven with tightly fitted lid.  Pour in oil.  Add salt, pepper, and thyme. Stir together to coat.  Place on stove and turn to 2-3 or medium-low.  Cover and cook for about 20 minutes.  You’re looking to get all the water out of the onions.  Uncover, give it a stir, and take a look.  If it’s not ready, recover and cook more, checking every 10 minutes or so.When the onions are wilted-looking, and swimming in an inch or two of liquid, uncover.

Continue to cook, stirring every 15-20 minutes.  Keep cooking until they are the color of an untoasted pecan, with flecks or caramel (2-3 hours).  At this stage the onions will be cooked down to two cups or less.Turn burner up to just over medium (6-ish).  Let the pan heat up, then pour in the Marsala.  Scrape up browned bits on the pan bottom and cook wine is gone and the jam is a nice deep caramel color.  Taste and re-season, if necessary.

Store onions in airtight container in fridge for 1 week or freeze for 2 months.The jam is really good on burgers and grilled cheese.  Use as a flavoring in mayo, humus, or salad dressing.  Replace regular onions in smothered pork chops or country-style steak.  Can you say, French Onion Soup?  And I love it on pizza, and a million other things.One word of caution: a little goes a very long way, don’t go overboard.  And this is coming from someone who loves onions.  It is possible to use too much—so start light, taste, and add more if needed.

Not only did the unknown food writer give me this wonderful, useful recipe, he gave me a whole new way to think about writing and a second act career.

So, thank you Mr. Jam Man.  Wherever you are!Thanks for your time.

Portraits of a Petey

Not Petey.

The first view of Petey is an actual portrait.  It’s a school portrait from the seventh grade.  My ever-loving spouse is about 13.  His dark wavy hair is cut short, as befitting the son of an army officer.  His bright blue eyes twinkle and are made brighter by a complexion one might call, “English Rose”.

He’s wearing a groovy turtleneck in a color that was called harvest gold, under a sweater in the far out 1972 shade of burnt orange.  I didn’t know him at this age, but in this photo, he looks exactly like season two Greg Brady.

greg b

Not Petey either.

The second view is his high school junior photo.  Greg Brady has left the building.  His now curly dark hair hangs well below his shoulders.  The eyes are still blue, the skin alabaster, and the cheeks still pink.  His shirt is silky with collars so long they almost brush his wide, white leather belt.  Dad has retired from the army, and military precision haircuts have been retired as well.

Petey lived here, but this is not Petey, it’s a sign.

The first time I see him, I’m 15 and at my best friend Kitty’s house.  There are two brothers in the Murphy clan, Michael and Chrissie.  Petey’s best friends with Chrissie and lives across the street.  He’s cute and nice, unlike cranky Chrissie.  But I barely register him, because I’ve been madly in love with Michael since I was nine.

But, Petey’s awfully cute.

The hospital we both worked at, but this is not Petey.

When The Murphy’s move to Indiana, I begin working at the hospital, where Petey works as an orderly.  We bond over missing our friends.  We spend way too much time fraternizing at work and talk on the phone every day for hours.  He’s sweet, really funny, and I make him laugh.

And his white orderly uniform looks really, really good on him.

Jerry Lewis, not Petey.

He’s wearing that uniform on New Year’s Eve when he stops by a party I’m attending with mutual friends.  He has to be in at 11PM, but decided to swing by on the way to work.  Two things happen that night.

Right before leaving, he asks me for a New Year’s kiss.  Then he says something that changes my life, forever.

Not Petey, but dates (Get it? Dates?).

“I’ve been wanting to date you.”

With the quick thinking and nimble tongue for which I’m internationally famous, I reply, “You’ve been wanting to what me?!?”

Possibly because of the uber sangfroid I display, we actually begin dating.

Nope. Not Petey.

I glimpse a new side of Petey.  When he looks at me, his eyes get soft.  My friend Kat says it’s love.

A little over a year later, he’s wearing a gray tuxedo, and watching me walk down the aisle.  He’s standing next to the magistrate, who’s waiting to marry us.

A hotel room, still not Petey.

The next day, I peek in the bathroom of our honeymoon suite at the Williamsburg Inn.  He’s sitting in their swimming pool-sized claw-foot bathtub.  He’s singing and swilling a bottle of our wedding Champagne.

Fast forward nine years, as he smiles, and says, “Well, hello there.”  The eyes of our minutes-old Kid open for the first time, and instantly focus on the most familiar voice in this newborn’s world.

Cameron Indoor Stadium, and not…Petey.

Eighteen years later we’re sitting in Cameron Indoor watching that baby receive a high school diploma.  In a move that shocks only him, Petey cries.  He later confides that the entire life of our child flashes before him, and he is reliving the milestones all over again.

The movements are slower, and due to illness, a bit more hesitant.  But the twinkle in the eye, the twinkle I’ve relied on for more than thirty-five years, is still there.  Often, I spy the softness as well.  But more likely, that’s just the onset of age-related presbyopia.

petey

Petey.

Thanks for your time.

Is It Brunch? Or Dunch?

It would be really easy for me to give you the polite, for-company explanation; “Petey worked 7P-7A for so many years, it reset our circadian rhythms.

But, despite the fact that it may pinch, or embarrass, or make me sad, I always endeavor to tell you, Gentle Reader, the truth.  So, here’s the dog-honest truth.From the day I was born (in the late afternoon, I might add), mornings and I have had a sincerely adversarial relationship.  1AM is the shank of the evening, and my morning does not comfortably start until at least 12-1PM.

Growing up, it drove my folks around the bend trying to get me out of bed for school.  When The Kid was in school I bemoaned the absolute lack of night school for second-graders.It’s just how I’m built.  I worked 7A-3P in a hospital lab for a year.  People told me that after a while, I’d get used to it and become a morning person.  I hated and dreaded every single day of it.

Every.Single.Day.Luckily, Petey has a matching loose screw.  We actually take turns getting up early (for us); first with our child, and now with our dog.

And, I usually eat a little something upon rising.  But, I’m not sure what to call it.

By the time I get up, walk the dog, take care of a few things, I sit down with a light meal somewhere north of 2PM.  So, is it breakfast? Brunch? Lunch? Is it dunch (dinner/lunch)?Breakfast for dinner, though, I have no problem naming.  Heck, I love breakfast for dinner so much, I’d happily call it Fred.

Fred’s a wonderful meal.  It’s easy to cook; because every item’s normally one cooking technique.  And there’s a lot of stove-top cooking, which keeps you close so that you’re forced to keep an eye on things. So, here are a few tips and methods that will make your breakfast for dinner a treat, and not a penance.

1.) For scrambled eggs; use a blender so there’s no weird white stuff.  Use a tablespoon of butter for every two eggs.  Season the eggs right after they go in the pan.  Stir constantly, cook quickly, and keep them a little wetter than you want to eat them, as they’ll continue to cook on the plate.2.) Hash browns; melt butter in a skillet, then toss shredded potatoes and onions in butter to coat.  Cook in a flat cake, flip when browned, and cook on the other side.  At a stove-top setting of 3.5-4, they should take about 15-20 minutes to cook.

3.) If you have some not-so-fresh biscuits or scones, melt butter in a pan, place in biscuits, cover, lower temp to 3 or so, and cook for just a couple minutes.  This will heat it through and crisp one side.  Remove cover, add more butter to pan, then flip and crisp on the other side.4.) If you take nothing else from this epistle, clean up as you go along.  Breakfast can make a mess of your kitchen.  Keep your counters cleared and wiped.  Throw food waste in the compost or trash can right away, not the sink—that stops the quick rinsing and washing up that will save your sanity. Get your prep work done and cleaned up before cooking anything.  Set your table and have beverages and condiments ready.  If you use a dishwasher, have it empty and ready to receive the oncoming storm.So, call it breakfast for dinner, call it Fred, call it Agent Colson, just don’t forget to call me when it’s on the menu.

Thanks for your time.

Field Trippin’

When I was five, I learned the meaning of the phrase, “heathen savages”.

The kindergarten class of Lad-N-Lassie School in Mobile, Alabama went on a field trip to a local fire station.  When we arrived, one of the fire fighters met us and showed us all around the inside of the station house.

Frankly, it was dull.  We saw the kitchen, dormitory, offices, and a living/rec room where the firemen hung out between calls.  We wanted to see the Dalmatian and a house fire.  We wanted to go flying down the road hanging onto the truck wearing giant raincoats.Finally, we were led into the engine bay.  Our guide spread his arms wide and told us, “Go ahead, kids.  Look around.  Have some fun!”

Have you ever seen one of those videos where they drop Mentos into a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke?  How it explodes, shoots out of the top, and then just keeps exploding ‘til the bottle’s about empty?That was pretty much the entire kindergarten class of Lad-N-Lassie that day.

Except, shockingly, me.

Here’s the thing.  My dad was in the Coast Guard.  He flew; in either helicopters or very large airplanes.  He welded them when something needed welding, navigated when they were flying, and jumped into the ocean to rescue folks when they got there.I grew up visiting the base, running around giant hangers, and climbing in and around huge flying machines.

So, to me, a couple of fire trucks were not the fascinating novelty they may have been to other children.  But I had spied something that did seize and hold my attention.  It was all I could see, and all I could think about.  It was that great, shining fireman’s pole. Next to it was a compact metal circular staircase.  In caper movies, or films with a big escape scene they all have one thing on common.  The need for a distraction.  Something to draw the eye and engage the concentration.

If I had ordered a distraction out of the Sears Roebuck catalog, I don’t think it could have been any better.Two classmates were stuck in one giant rubber boot having a slap fight.  A couple of kids were doing what looked like swing dancing on the roof of a truck.  One girl had found the horn and I think was attempting to play “The Girl from Ipanema” on it.  One boy, named Prairie, had taken off his shirt and was sitting on the floor whacking two helmets like bongo drums.  The teachers and chaperones were dividing their time between running after some children and begging others to get down.

The fireman/tour guide looked like he wanted to cry.Keeping one eye on the chaos, I sidled over to the steps and started up, thinking as hard as I could, “I’m invisible, you can’t see me, I’m invisible…”

At the top, I wrapped my arms around the pole.  I took a deep breath, leaned in, and gave a little hop into space.  I slid down, my brand new field trip dress blown up around my shoulders, my underwear fluttering in the wind.  It was the most exciting 1 & ½ seconds of my young life.My feet hit the ground about the time the adults registered my trip.  I was the first and last kid to make the journey that day.  With the assistance of the rest of the fireman, us kindergarten cats were herded out and onto the bus for the drive back to school.

At dinner that night Mom and Dad asked how the trip went.  My answer was a question.

“What are heathen savages?”Thanks for your time.