The Tree That Fought Back

I take after my dad in a lot of ways.

I have his long limbs, his chin, and his impulsive, daredevil streak. 

Combining the colt-length arms and legs with shared underdeveloped coordination means we frequently require first aid.

When I was four, we lived in Mobile Dad was sent to Connecticut for some type of Coast Guard continuing education school.  The rest of us stayed in Alabama.

Mrs. Cotter was a widow in Connecticut who rented rooms in her home for Coast Guardsmen who came from away to attend the school.  That’s where Dad stayed.

One afternoon, Mrs. Cotter mentioned a tree that needed to come down.  My dad volunteered to chop it down with an ax.

He made pretty good progress until he missed.

As the tibia and fibula are much more fragile than a tree, he came darn close to chopping off his leg.  Luckily, he only gave himself a particularly grisly multiple fracture.

After receiving the call, Mom packed all of us kids, luggage, and baby supplies into our very small, very old Opal, and we were on our way to a stately old home in New England—around 1300 miles away.

The house seemed like the largest oldest house I’d ever been in.  There were three floors and an attic that probably served as a model for every creepy attic in every TV show and movie ever made. 

My mom spent her days at the hospital along with Bud, because he was too young to be away from her.  I stayed with Mrs. Cotter and her hired man.

Mrs. Cotter was old.  She was the type of widow for which walks were made.  She may have had kids, but they might have died in the Civil War or gone looking to make their fortunes in the California gold rush.  I don’t think her hired man had ever seen a child.

It was as though a Keds-wearing, fairy tale-loving Martian had been plopped down among them. 

They asked what I’d like for lunch each day. 

I requested peanut butter & jelly, but what I meant was Goober Grape, the concoction with ingredients swirled together in a jar.  But at home, we just called it peanut butter & jelly.  The very first lunch Mrs. Cotter began making my sandwich, and I saw that it came from two different jars, and was spread on separate slices of bread.

“I want it mixed!” It was an objection that was only a little about the lunch.  It was mainly a cry about being little and missing my dad, and scary hospitals, and awful, long car rides, and mom being gone all day, and staying in a strange, boring, old house, with strange old people who didn’t even know anything about kids.

Mrs. Cotter and her hired man had an intense, whispered consultation, and she scraped the bread clean.  A dollop of peanut butter and a spoonful of jelly were feverishly stirred, then the resulting melange was triumphantly transferred back to bread. 

They set the sandwich in front of me and stepped back.

It wasn’t what I wanted.  It wasn’t even close.  I’d lost my appetite.  All I wanted was to curl up in my daddy’s lap and have a good, long cry.

I was poised to run out of the room in dramatic fashion, and give in to my sadness, fatigue, and disappointment, when I looked up into their nervous, smiling, hopeful faces. “How is it?”

For the first time in my short life, I thought before I spoke.  I realized it was tough for them too, and they were trying.

“It’s yummy.  It’s perfect.  Thank you.”

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at

Surprising Foods that are Always in My Pantry

dentistI was visiting my dentist the other day.  As in almost any situation I’m in, we were talking about food.

Jan, the dental assistant, knows I write a food column and asked me if I was a chef.  She’s not the first person to ask me that question.

Christmas from the Matthews

My slightly odd Kid.

Nope.  I’m an endlessly curious home cook with very generous teachers; friends, family, food folk I meet in the course of my writing, kind strangers, and of course, my culinary school-educated child, The Kid.

I thought for a long time that culinary school and working in a professional kitchen was the road for me.  But it’s crazy hard work—and I’m old.

line cooks

The Kid says this is like being chased for eight hours by someone holding a knife that’s on fire…it’s a fair description.

So, I am less wannabe and more dilletante.  But an extremely grateful dilletante.

One great thing about not being a chef, is that I have nothing to prove and no one to impress with the contents of my pantry.  Some of those items might be embarrassing. And some are a little out of the norm.pantry game

Here’s a tiny glimpse.  And no matter what, I have no shame in my pantry game.

goober grapeGoober Grape.  It’s that striped peanut butter and jelly product from kindergarten.  I don’t think I’ve ever had it on bread.  It is my martini, my cigarette, and my valium.  A spoon of this stuff is just what I need after a bad day.  The first scoop from a brand-new unsullied jar probably brings me way more joy than it should.porridge sesame seedsToasted sesame seeds.  I buy them at the Asian market where they’re cheaper, and because of high turnover, much fresher.  I put it in tuna, sprinkle it on my oatmeal, add it to breading.  It adds flavor, texture, vitamins and minerals.chix and starsCampbell’s chicken and stars soup.  I haven’t bought or used a can of cream soup since the (First) Bush administration.  But when you have a cold and sore throat, or are just feeling sorry for yourself, nothing goes down easier, or makes you feel so loved.  But there’s so much sodium in it, the next day I blow up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float.

tomato paste

Most grocers carry them these days; at all kinds of price points.

A tube of tomato paste.  Many dishes I make need tomato paste.  But almost none need an entire can of it.  With a tube I can use a squidge, cap it, and next time I need some, I won’t have a dried out, furry part of a can.  It’ll be fresh and ready to go.ka espresso powderEspresso powder.  I use a bit of this whenever I cook with chocolate.  A little just enhances the cocoa flavor.  Some more gives you a mocha taste.  And there’s nothing wrong with coffee with a slight choco-kick.  You can also stir it into things like peanut butter, mascarpone, and whipped cream.  The espresso is ground super fine so there’s no grit.kraft macAnd for the last item: Kraft macaroni and cheese.  In thirty-five years of marriage I have never not had this in my pantry.  The are many nights that without Kraft dinner, as the Canadians call it, I may not have made it to morning (Honestly, it has gotten me through some very tough, very dark places).  But I use cream instead of milk; it’s comfort food, Gentle Reader, you might as well go all in.mac in a bowlIf there are any foods in my pantry you’ve never tried, give it a whirl.

But my bigger point is to celebrate what makes you and your pantry unique.  If you have a jar of pig’s feet pickled in Kool-aid, or ranch dressing soda, or even Pop Tarts, you do you.pop tartsHoney, you let that food-stained freak flag fly.freak flagThanks for your time.