Ring In The Holidays

I honestly thought it was a promise ring.  It wasn’t my fault though, the man gave me absolutely no direction.

I’d only known Petey three years, but I already knew he was the hedgiest of bet hedgers.  He avoids straight answers and declarative statements the way other people avoid bathing suit shopping and taking the last doughnut at work.

It was Christmastime, and we’d been dating almost a year.  We enjoyed each other’s company, understood each other, and were absolutely okay with that knowledge.

We hung out together almost always when we weren’t at work or school.  We ate a lot of Pizza Inn, Sonic, and walked around the tiny mall often.

There was a Belk’s on one end, a Roses on the other end, and twelve or fifteen smaller shops, including a Jewel Box.  As we glanced in the window and I saw a diamond ring, and said, “Buy me that!” It was a joke, like saying buy me a sparkly pink pony, or asking for a ride to work on the space shuttle.  We kept walking, and never mentioned it again.

These are actual 80s ski togs. You could be buried 100 feet in an avalanche and they’d still see you…

We’d begun thinking that for Christmas, we might go up to the mountains for some skiing. I’d bought him a ski parka for Christmas and had already given it to him.  As we were leaving my folks, he asked if I wanted mine. 

The three-year-old inside me was screaming and jumping up and down all over the place.  I calmly answered, “Sure if you want to give it to me now.”

And there, in my mom’s garage he put his hand in the pocket of his new jacket, pulled out a ring box and handed it to me—without opening it.  But his grin was huge and the sparkle in his eye could have lit the whole place.

I opened it.

It was that ring from the jewelry store at the mall. I was as flabbergasted as a possum presented with a spork.  Not only could I not speak, I also had no idea what the ring was for.  I’d had no inkling that marrying me had even entered his thoughts.

I couldn’t make my mind believe that it was an engagement ring, so without the power of speech to ask, and with nothing forthcoming from Petey, all I could come up with was a promise ring.

For the young and/or uninitiated, a promise ring represents the intention to become engaged sometime in the future of the future.  It was normally a tiny diamond chip surrounded by a collar of sparkly metal to fool the eye.

The ring didn’t fit, so we headed to the mall for it to be sized.

At the mall, we ran into a girl from school who worked at Belk Tyler’s.  I showed her the ring.  She was the one to finally ask the half carat solitaire, four-pronged question.

“What’s it for?”

Good question, Mary!  I looked at Petey.

His infuriating, enigmatic, response? “It’s for whatever she wants it to be for.”  Honestly, it was like I was going steady with the Oracle at Delphi!

I finally lost my patience.  We left Belk’s and walked over to the fountain in the center of the mall.  I sat down and said, “Look, I have a few ideas, but I want you to tell me what this ring is for right now!”

Men!

Still standing, Petey held the ring out to me, and said, “Debbie Ross, will you marry me?”

And we lived happily (mostly) ever after.

Thanks for your time, and from silent Petey, The Kid, and me, have the very happiest of holidays and an uninteresting but joyful 2021.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.

The First and Last Christmas

As soon as the geneticist introduced herself, I started to cry.

It was early December, and I was four months pregnant with The Kid.  It was our last childless Christmas, yet it really wasn’t; our new child was there, readying for a late spring debut.

We’d gone in for a routine ultrasound.  This was the second or third time, so Petey and I knew the drill.  I’d lay down on an exam table, the technician would cover my belly with goo and run a wand around it. 

But this time, the vibe was kind of off.  The tech was a bit quiet and didn’t chat about names, nurseries, and unexpected cravings like usual.

And, instead of saying goodbye and leaving while I cleaned up, she stayed, then took us from the sonogram lab to a consulting room when we were ready.

We knew something was up.  Petey was quiet, but I jabbered non-stop, wondering aloud if we were having twins, triplets, or even a basketball team.

When faced with scary situations, it’s what I do.  I become so ridiculously optimistic that it doesn’t verge on magical thinking, it is full-on abracadabra land.

Then the geneticist arrived. 

So, we knew it wasn’t good, and was potentially very bad.  I was nearing the end of my twenties—my eggs weren’t farm fresh.  I assumed whatever crisis we were facing was my fault.

We were informed that the images were troubling because the fetus had a short neck and a tail.  Every embryo has a bit of a vestigial tail, but it should disappear around eight weeks gestation.

We were fifteen weeks in.

She gently explained that this combination could signal Downs Syndrome.  The only way to know for sure was an amniocentesis, which came with its own risks.  It was our choice, but there was no question for me; I would not survive the next six months unless I knew, one way or the other.  If it was Downs, I needed time to mourn our expectations so that we could greet our baby with joy.

We had the procedure the same day and were told the results would take weeks, well beyond Christmas.

All the excitement and pleasure of being pregnant during the holidays instantly drained away.  I was furious at all the happy people I saw.  Didn’t they realize and appreciate what we were going through?  Couldn’t they sense our hollow hearts?

Petey had bought us a gorgeous Christmas tree for this unique holiday.  It remained on the back porch, undecorated, a cruel reminder of the jubilant anticipation which we had before that sonogram.

Petey had to work overnight Christmas Eve, so at his urging, I went to Elizabeth City.  I wanted to bury my face in my mom’s lap and cry until I was empty.

I’d forgotten the four-hour drive to get there, with nothing to keep me company except my terror and sadness.

Back home Christmas night, Petey and I strove to wring every measure of holiday happiness from our situation.  

We held close the fact that we were together and would face what came with love and courage.

Petey’s birthday is January 3rd, and that year he got the best gift ever when we found out everything was okay.  The Kid just had a short neck (like Mom & Dad), and the tail should reabsorb before birth (it did).Later in January, family threw us a baby shower in New Jersey, so we took a road trip.  The shower was terrific, and we loved our presents—all except for our parting gift; Norovirus.

But that’s a whole other story…

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

The Ballad of Susan

When you’re a military kid, every house is temporary, usually only lived in for three years or so, then you pack up and move on.

We’d arrive in a new town with almost nothing; no house, no friends, no school, and aside from what we carried with us, no possessions. 

It would eventually become a pseudo-home, but it wasn’t a hometown, with history, extended family, and friends that you’ve known since diapers.

Living this nomadic life meant that our parents’ hometowns were designated “home”.

Granny and Pap-Pap’s house is gone, but here is where it stood in Pittsburgh.

Dad’s from Pittsburgh and on visits, we’d stay with his parents, Granny and Pap-Pap.  They lived in a house built right into a steep hill, so the kitchen and basement were on the same level, up the narrow, steep stairs, were the bedrooms and Pap Pap’s workroom, where there was a door which opened up right on to the backyard.

It was as if the house had sprung from of the slightly creepy, Byzantine imagination of Roald Dahl.    

My mom’s parents died years before she met my dad.

So, our home base in Jersey was at Mom’s oldest sister, my Aunt Polly and her husband Uncle Bill’s, our surrogate grandparents.  They had a huge yard, a damp, cool, slightly mysterious cellar that was under the house, and a kitchen cupboard dedicated to cookies, candy, and chips. 

When we lived on the east coast, we would often spend Christmas at both homes; a few days in one, six hours on a turnpike, then a few days in the other.

This particular year we spent the first portion of our trip in Jersey, so we were there when Santa came and opened our presents there.

One of my presents was a baby doll, but not just any old baby doll.  She was a Vogue doll, a well-made, beautiful baby with brown hair and bangs like mine, a soft body, and the sweetest expression.  Vogue dolls were the Rolls Royce of toy dolls; in today’s dollars, it cost about $100.  It was my main gift from the jolly fat man.

A couple of days later our family was in Pittsburgh. Once there, I was happily swilling my grandmother’s homemade grape juice, eating her potato bread, and following my older cousins Cookie and Gerry around like a Christmas puppy.

The first evening after dinner, my two-year-old brother Bud and I went upstairs to change into our pajamas.  I came downstairs, and my little brother hurried after, not wanting to be upstairs by himself. 

He took the first couple of steps, then lost his footing and tumbled down the rest of those treacherous stairs.  He landed in a heap at the bottom.  My mom, a world-renown worrywart and nervous mother was a writhing ball of frantic.

Luckily, the only injury was a busted lip.  They cleaned him up and settled in for a night of keeping Bud awake to watch for signs of concussion.

Then something rather curious happened.   

My bro had been wailing away, non-stop, ever since he fell.  When I came over to him, holding my fancy new doll, he suddenly stopped.  He was fascinated by her, and the only thing that kept him from hysterics was holding her.  I was persuaded to temporarily turn her over to calm him down.

I never got her back.

He named her Susan, shaved her head, and gave her a face tattoo with a magic marker.  She was his constant companion for years. 

To be honest, I don’t think Susan would have gotten from me anywhere near the love and devotion he showered upon her.

So, that injury-induced change of custody was probably for the best.

It is shocking how much this little guy looks like a toddler-aged Bud.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Thoughts While Walking The Dog; Yule Log Edition

AM-

Petey and I alternate getting up and walking the dog.  I know we do.  It’s his turn every other day.  So why is it that it seems like it’s my sleep-deprived carcass rolling out of bed and pulling on my sneaks every single day?  Is it some kind of Jedi mind trick Petey’s working on me?

“Easy Crowley…the UPS man is going around the corner.  It’s okay, Buddy.”  How does a dog have a super hero-level nemesis?  Is it the big brown truck?  The knees?  Why and how does every person in this neighborhood get five or six packages every single day?  If it’s not UPS, it’s FedEx or the Amazon guy. 

Do people never actually go into stores?  Have they never experienced the joy of eating cold sub-par pizza while sneaking peeks of the cute guy at Orange Julius?  How did they fall in love?  Where did they work soul-sucking part-time jobs for gas and tennis shoe money?

All of these deflated blow-up Christmas decorations around here.  It looks like the last stand of the Santa Village massacre.  They might take up a lot of space when they’re all inflated, but they get no credit in my very own Griswald Christmas decoration lunacy scale.  They take no work or creativity. 

I want holiday decorations that take time, sweat and possess the very real possibility of falling off a ladder and spending Christmas in traction.

When I left the house I was freezing.  It’s warmed up so much that if I take off any more layers and tie them around my waist I’ll be arrested for indecent exposure. 

“Crowley!  That is not a dog.  That is a plastic reindeer, it does not want to be your friend, and you’re making us both feel uncomfortable.  Knock it off, and get over here!”

PM-

How is it so dark at 5:30?  It seems like just a few months ago it was light ‘til 8:30 at night.

“Crowley, I am happy to take you to visit your friends.  But you need to make up your mind whether or not they actually are friends of yours. I will not stop and visit with somebody so that you can stand six feet away from them and bark for ten minutes.  That’s just plain rude.”

That guy’s lights over his garage are listing like a sinking ship.  He’s either really unobservant or had imbibed in a bit too much Christmas cheer before he got up there with a stapler gun.  I don’t know, maybe it was intentional—it is kind of festive, in an amusing, too much egg nog kind of way.

That “As seen on TV” searchlight, holiday flood light thing is unsettling.  I think it’s supposed to be holly and berries sweeping back and forth over the front of their house.  But it looks disturbingly like a radioactive swarm of extra-terrestrial termites at an all-you-can-eat wood buffet.

“It’s too dark to play ball right now, Buddy.  I’m sorry…ok, we’ll play right here under the street light.  Nope.  Too dark.  I just picked up what I thought was the ball, and it turned out to be a big, slimy, exploding toadstool.”

No way!  The crankiest, most anti-social guy in the neighborhood; the man about whom everybody will say “we absolutely saw it coming” when the news shows up;  the misanthrope who I only heard laugh once and which scared the heck out of me, has decorated for Christmas and put up lights.  This I never, ever saw coming.  Crowley my big baby, I think we may be witnessing a Scrooge redemption moment. 

It’s a Christmas miracle!

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

She made red velvet…shortbread that is

homie failIn a continuing effort to educate all comers, I share useful information I’ve learned, and conversely, offer myself up as a horrific, terrifying cautionary tale.  So, this anecdote of mystery and invention would have been shared, regardless the outcome.

I’ve previously written about the woefully underdeveloped and overly discriminating sweet tooth possessed by The Kid.  There are only two items always on the child’s dessert list; red velvet cake, and buttery, sandy, not too sweet shortbread.

I know from shortbread, and have a recipe my child loves.

Red velvet though, creeps me out.  There’s something about adding an entire bottle of red food coloring that’s just all kinds of wrong.  Plus, as any frosting connoisseur knows, red tastes awful.But, The Kid loves it

So, I decided to find a recipe for red velvet shortbread and make a batch for under the Christmas tree.  There was only one problem.

There was no recipe for red velvet shortbread—anywhere.  As far as I can tell, it didn’t exist.

So, I decided to invent it.  And I had to work around some non-negotiable criteria, and some pretty complicated baking-related restrictions.

Traditional shortbread is flour, butter, and a small amount of sugar.  There are no eggs, no leavening, and no liquid other than a bit of extract. shortbreadRed velvet is made with the afore-mentioned bottle of food coloring for color and buttermilk for tang.  If I added these ingredients, it would be too wet and no longer shortbread.

What to do?

For color, I used a small amount of gel food coloring as well as Hershey’s dark cocoa.  For acidic buttermilk, I substituted a bit of apple cider vinegar.

A baking god.

I mixed, said a quick prayer to the baking gods, and slid it into the oven.

When it came out, the burnished brick color had deepened to the familiar red velvet hue.

After it cooled there was a taste/texture test.  It had a mouth-feel like shortbread and seemed to taste like red velvet.  I put it in a big jar with a pretty ribbon and waited for The Kid’s discerning palate and final verdict.

The Kid’s Red Velvet Shortbreadred velvet shortbread

1 & 1/3 cups softened brown butter

2/3 cup sugar

¾ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon red gel food coloring

3 & 1/3 cups all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons whisked together with 2 tablespoons Hershey’s Dark Cocoa

2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 275. Butter 9X13 baking pan, and line bottom and two sides with parchment paper, leaving enough to use as handles when removing shortbread from pan.

Brown butter: Melt butter and cook until dark amber-brown and nutty-smelling.  Allow to cool to softened-butter stage.  Make sure to use all the browned bits—this is where the flavor is.

Cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light, about 2 minutes. Add salt, vanilla, and red food coloring.  Beat to combine.  Add flour and cocoa, 1 cup at a time, beating until just combined.

Press dough into prepared pan, smoothing top. Cut dough all the way through lengthwise into nine strips. Cut strips crosswise into four pieces for a total of 36 bars, or fingers. Then pierce each piece with five holes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABake shortbread until color’s deepened and just set, 70-85 minutes. Sit pan on wire rack to cool completely. Turn shortbread out of pan, and carefully coax pieces apart with serrated knife. Store in airtight container.

It was a Christmas miracle—The Kid loved it.  And quickly informed me that I had to write a column about it.

That was already the plan; no matter what.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks for your time.

 

 

Feliz Navidad

Puerto Ricans have their own version of the warming, life-affirming chicken soup made by Jewish grandmothers.

Only it’s a drink, which is a heck of a lot more fun, and way tastier.  It’s a spiritous little beverage called coquito.  It’s tempting to say it’s a Puerto Rican eggnog—but don’t.

Sure, there’s egg and dairy in there, and of course booze.  But coquito (little coconut) isn’t just some random carton you grab at the local A&P in early December.  This is a concoction with deep familial roots in Puerto Rico.Every Puerto Rican family has their own super-secret, super-special version.  The recipe for it is normally tightly-guarded and handed down to only the very favorite offspring.

And somehow, I, and by extension you, Gentle Reader, are now in possession of one of those venerated family heirlooms.

A couple years ago I met the then-Durham chief of police, Jose Lopez, and his awesome wife, Becky in line at Costco.  They have become friends, and Becky is now my Puerto Rican food mentor, coach, and head cheerleader.  And in the spirit of friendship for which Puertorriqueños are known, she gave me her family coquito recipe to share. So, here, in her own words, is Becky Lopez’ great-grandmother’s coquito recipe.  And if you’d like to say thanks for her generosity, take a moment and spare a thought or a prayer for the residents of Puerto Rico who are still in dire straits.  If you can do more, visit https://hispanicfederation.org/unidos, where 100% of your donation goes to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

Becky’s Family Coquitocoquito ingredients5 fresh cinnamon sticks

1/4 thumb size piece of ginger (about 1/2in.)

2 capfuls of vanilla extract

2 egg yolks (no membrane)

2 cans of evaporated milk

2 cans of coconut milk

1 can of coconut syrup (Coco Lopez)

151 proof dark rum or your choice of dark rum (Important: add only after mixture has cooled down)

Bacardi stopped making 151 last year. I now use Cruzan 151 aged rum.Take cinnamon sticks and smash them in a paper towel with a mallet so that their oils and taste may be released in the boil. Peel the ginger then cut it into thin pieces. Place the cinnamon and ginger in a small pot filled halfway with water and boil it for about 15 min. This should yield no more than 1 cup of liquid mixture.

Open one can of evaporated milk and one can of coconut milk and empty them into large pot. Place egg yolks in this mixture. Stir well until there’s no separation between eggs and liquid. Remove anything floating (remove any egg membrane) and cook on medium for 10 min.  Turn off heat and add the coconut syrup, stir, then add the rest of the ingredients including the vanilla extract, cinnamon and ginger water. Stir well. Cool down and add rum to taste.

Optional: before adding rum, place this mixture in a cold place (fridge or outside) @ 45 degrees or lower overnight then strain the congealed fat from the top.coquitoWhen mixture’s cooled down add rum to your taste.

Because the eggs were slowly cooked this drink can last for years in the fridge. Grandma would always bring out the last year’s Coquito (which always taste better) and served it in shot glasses. With time it thickens and becomes even more creamy.

I have had up to 4-year-old Coquito in my fridge. The trick is to shake your refrigerated bottles at least once a month.

Buen provecho! (Enjoy!)

And from the Matthews’ house to yours, have the most wonderful of holidays, and a happy, peaceful new year.Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at momsequitur@gmail.com.

The Christmas Charm

 

Ol’ Riker is different, all right…

I guess I did it because I’ve always marched to the beat of a different trombone player.  But whatever the reason, I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to make out a Christmas list.

Most of my list was populated with normal things, but every year, pretty much without fail, I’d ask for some kind of oddball item, which must have made my mom wonder, “Where the heck am I supposed to find this?”One year in the late seventies, smack dab in the middle of the glittery disco era, I asked for an old-fashioned, Victorian-style, locket watch pendant.  Another year, I asked for a Fair Isle sweater.  Think 1930s skiers and stoic little British boys during World War II in slightly too-small sweaters with stiff upper lips on full display.

It’s a time-honored UK tradition.  I swear Duchess Kate shops with a time machine for those kids.

Today those asks aren’t much, but this was decades before the Google.  I don’t know how she pulled it off, but that woman fulfilled every crazy Christmas wish.

Except one year.I had a charm bracelet.  And one Christmas I received a brightly enameled charm with three children caroling under a street lamp.  I loved it.  I made my dad pull out his needle-nosed pliers and add it to my bracelet right away.

My folks warned me not to wear it except for special occasions.  But of course I snuck out of the house with it every chance I got.

Until one day, on the bus coming home from school, I looked down and realized it was gone.  My beloved charm had fallen off the bracelet.  I’d never noticed.

I was heartbroken.So, when I made my next list, I asked Santa to find my charm.  My folks told me not to get my heart set on it, because there was no telling where it may have gone, and even St. Nick might not be able to find it.

Christmas morning rolled around, and I expected those caroling children to be in every package I opened.  But no dice.  I opened the last gift, and tried not to cry as I realized I’d never see it again.  My mom felt as bad as I did as she handed me my stocking, “I’m sorry Santa couldn’t find it, but you got some nice presents, didn’t you?”Lip quivering, I nodded and removed the tangerine, candy cane, and walnuts that were in every stocking, every year.  When everything had been extracted, I felt something cool and smooth in the very bottom.

I pulled it out, and there, lying in my hand, was the missing charm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is the actual bracelet and charm.

I jumped up.  “He found it!  Santa Claus found my charm!”

My parents had the funniest looks on their faces.  They silently gazed at each other, and each shook their heads.  My dad gave me a crooked smile and said, “This time we’ll take it to the jeweler to attach it so it will never fall off again.  Go put it in your room, and we’ll take it downtown tomorrow.”x shopAs I walked down the hall, I heard Mom and Dad in intense, whispered conversation.  I couldn’t make out anything but the occasional, “No” by one or the other.

I wondered if my parents had just found it on sale somewhere, and bought me a new one.  I was a grown-up eight-year-old, and starting to doubt little things like miracles.  I placed the charm on my dresser, and glanced down at it with a cynical eye.

And…I swear the little girl in the middle winked at me.

I wish the merriest and most magical holiday to you and yours.

Thanks for your time.

Nog me

I was pretty young the first time I had eggnog, and since the grownups didn’t want to deal with a bunch of inebriated preschoolers (kindergarteners can be ugly drunks), my glass came from the kids’ hooch-free punch bowl.The flavor reminded me of when Dad would make a vanilla instant breakfast shake and add vanilla extract.  Only the nog had a strong egg flavor, and it was very milky.  I had given up milk after getting a carton of malodorous, lumpy moo juice during snack time at school.  Yeah, no, egg nog really didn’t move me.

Then a million years later, I was working as a bartender at a country club in Raleigh.  This is actually where my culinary fire was sparked.  I was friends with the kitchen staff, and they were my patient, generous tutors.

It definitely wasn’t Bushwood.  I never saw Bill Murray, not once.

I began to learn the traditions, unwritten rules, and rhythm of a professional kitchen.  I picked up how to observe without getting in the way.  I became familiar with, and learned to appreciate, the black humor that is woven through the very fiber of the denizens of the cook house.

And I learned that one of the very best places in the world to be is on the chef’s good side; especially when he or she develops new recipes and recreates old ones.

One night in early fall, Chef Wes came into the bar office bearing gifts.  It was a tall frosty glass full of what looked like a vanilla milkshake.  I got excited.  He told me it was eggnog.I got bummed.He then informed me it was made using the recipe of George Washington.  Yeah, the father of our country, and evidently, enthusiastic imbiber of spirituous beverages, George Washington.

I got intrigued.

He handed me the glass and I could immediately smell the hooch.  It wasn’t teased by some lightweight eggnog-flavored liqueur, it was chockful of multiple types of hangover-inducing hard liquors.

So, practicing enlightened self-protection, I took a small cautious sip.

First of all, it was boozy.  But not the throat burn-y thing that takes your breath away boozy.  It was mellow.  The alcohol flavor kind of reminded me of one of those fat, hearty gentlemen from a Dickens novel like Mr. Fezziwig; boozy, but jovial and refined.  Does that make any sense?The texture of this egg nog was very different.  It was thick and creamy, like the milkshake I’d mistaken it for.  And it wasn’t too milky or too eggy.  This cold creamy glass of good cheer made me understand what the whole eggnog fuss was about.  When made right, it was really good.

So, below is what scholars and cooks believe was served at our first president’s table.  And since recipes from that era are notoriously skimpy when it comes to details, the directions are from both me, and Chef Wes (Thanks, Chef).

George Washington’s EggnogeggnogOne quart heavy cream

One quart whole milk

One dozen tablespoons sugar (that’s 3/4 cup for you and me)

One pint brandy

½ pint rye whiskey (bourbon works just fine)

½ pint Jamaica rum (Debbie here-no disrespect to the prez, but I’m partial to rum from Puerto Rico)

¼ pint sherry

12 eggs, separated

Mix the alcohol and set aside.  Place egg whites into mixer and beat until they’re glossy and stiff peaks appear.  Remove from bowl and set aside.  Make sure you do the whites first because if there’s any yolk in the whites, they won’t beat into stiff peaks. 

Place yolks and sugar into the mixer bowl and beat on high until it’s the color of butter and runs from the beater in ribbons.  Stir in alcohols, milk and cream.

Then very gently, fold the whites into yolk mixture.

George recommends at this point to let the egg nog rest in a cool place (fridge) for two days before serving. 

Makes one honking punch bowl’s worth.  Enjoy.I hope you enjoy this Colonial nog.  And I hope you get every gift on your list.

But more, I really hope that you, Gentle Reader, and all of your loved ones can spend a few relaxed hours together having fun, and remembering why these are the people that populate your world.

And to all, a good night.

Thanks for your time.