Archive for November, 2011

Truman Capote; A Christmas Memory

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable-not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “It’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together–well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

So begins the semi-autobiographical short story, A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote.

I first read this book some years ago and I have joyfully returned to its pages again and again each Christmas. It makes me laugh and it makes me cry and brings home all that is special about giving gifts from the heart.

Giving fruitcake to folks they know, and folks they don’t,  like President Franklin Roosevelt, brings about interesting situations to Buddy and his elderly cousin, who is also his best friend. First they must obtain the whisky that goes on the delectable cakes and something, of course, must be done with the little bit of whisky left over.

This unlikely duo finds ways all year-long to earn money to buy the fruitcake ingredients, and they do it all in a house filled with stern aunts and a faithful dog, Queenie. It is the story of loss and the story of love in a small southern town of long ago that will stick with you long after it ends.

This is a story to read over again, and, if an audience can be found, to read aloud, and it is a Christmas tradition more potent than the fruitcake’s special ingredients. First written for Mademoiselle Magazine and published in their December, 1956 issue, it was later published as a book. There are several editions of A Christmas Memory, including the one shown here. I do think you would like it, dear reader.

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This took me by surprise as I rounded a bend on our woodland walk. Bright red berries performing an arietta to Autumn; such a brilliant contrast to the russets and browns hanging onto the otherwise bare branches.

Isn’t it delightful the way seasons hang on to each other, leaving berries for birds to carry the last of the seeds for the future?

These berries made me smile. They were more a harbinger of Advent and the fast approaching holiday season that will soon be upon us than the mere remains of last summer’s bounty.

Oh, a mighty wind is blowing here, reaching dangerous gusts for pedestrians and motorists – and anyone daring to near Lake Michigan. Winter is knocking on our door, my friends, but, how very thoughtful it is that Autumn left us a few lasting seeds of hope.

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Chicagoans lost a friend this Thanksgiving. She was buried on Monday, and left a legacy of goodwill, courage and grace in a city filled with plantings where cement once grew, with a renewed center for culture inside the forgotten walls of a magnificent library that will likely soon carry her name. There are the programs for disadvantaged children, an appreciation for the arts that brought much to the City of Chicago and a respect for her husband’s call to service as mayor – as long as it wasn’t on Sunday.

Chicago and its surrounding areas lost a friend in Maggie Daley’s passing.

I was only able to watch a small part of the telecast this morning. The procession leaving the Chicago Cultural Center slowly motored through the streets of Chicago to Old St. Pat’s Church, one of the few buildings which survived the Great Chicago Fire. Family arrived, then the Shannon Rovers, piping the hearse to the church.

I watched as the coffin was carried up the steps of Old St. Pat’s and the bagpipes played. It took me a few moments to recognize the song. It  brought me to tears, that old Irish tune, Maggie. Between sobs I thought, how fitting. How fitting, indeed.

Rest in peace, Maggie Daley. Rest in peace.


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After the turkey

What does a young gal do after a day of turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes and cranberry relish, mashed potatoes and her very first taste of pumpkin pie?

She goes for a walk in the sunshine, of course.

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My thumbs hurt. Both of them. Underneath the fingernails. The kind of hurt one gets when a sliver slides in – or a chestnut shell.

See that chipped nail polish on my thumb? It took me days to find the courage to remove it with nail polish remover. When you hear Johnny Mathis crooning “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, don’t be fooled. Roasting them in front of a blazing fire with your sweetie may be romantic, but, taking the hard, outer shell off and rescuing the nut meats in not for the tender-hearted.

I should begin at the beginning.

Throughout my childhood, all our Thanksgivings and most other holidays, in fact, were celebrated at our house. My grandmother, Yia Yia, lived with us and her children and grandchildren nearby. A large, extended family, there were also first and second cousins and anyone else who needed a place to be on Thanksgiving. My yia yia was known to be a gracious hostess and an extraordinary cook.

Thanksgiving brought us the traditional turkey, seasoned with Greek herbs and lemon, and chestnut/meat stuffing. Oh, the aroma of the holiday bird roasting in our Tappan oven. It was only matched by the scents emanating from the turkey as the stuffing was removed to a bowl and the turkey sliced onto a platter. It was like the spirits of the Pilgrims and the native Americans transcending hundreds of years and as many cultural divides one can imagine a country like ours having.

Ah, I tend to wander in my thoughts when it comes to food and history.

I don’t know if it was the fact that my sister and her family were joining us this Thanksgiving or the headiness (or nuttiness) of our first walnut harvest several weeks ago, but, I had a “hankerin'” for my grandmother’s stuffing this year.

I had never made it before and it had been more than twenty years since I last tasted it. A few years before my Aunt Christina had died.

So, dear readers, off I went to buy some chestnuts with all the rest of the turkey fixings, including ingredients for bread stuffing, which everyone was used to. Now, not any old chestnuts were to be had. No, along with organic oranges for our traditions cranberry relish, because the entire orange goes into it, rind and all, the chestnuts were to be organic as well. After I paid with the usual arm and a leg that one pays in such stores, home I went to start preparations.

First, the chestnuts have to be slit. X marks the spot. The shell is pierced so the nut doesn’t burst in a heat induced chestnut explosion in the very hot oven.  When toasted, the shells then have to be opened, while still hot, and the nuts removed. The longer the chestnuts cool, the harder it is to get the meats out. A skin starts to form on the nut that becomes rather hard and, well, that’s where my thumbs came into use.

A pound of chestnuts, ground round steak, all manner of chopped vegetables, Romano cheese, breadcrumbs, and enough butter to weaken any heart, and into the oven that stuffing went. Fennel was the ingredient that gave off the most essence of my past and it was worth the effort, I must admit, just for the smells. The stuffing, however, did not measure up. Maybe it was because I cooked it outside of the turkey, or not enough herbs, or, whatever . . .

. . . maybe just too much time had passed between my own childhood and my granddaughter’s.

It was a lesson, perhaps, not only in the fine art of chestnut roasting, but, in holding on to those family recipes as long as one can. I’ve managed a good many of my Yia Yia’s dishes and pastries, but, this one, well, maybe once my thumbs heal, I’ll give it another try.

How about you? Do you have a family dish that you wish you could make?

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‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free’

Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right’

Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Simple Gifts.  Shaker hymn


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Thoughts from Piglet . . .

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” 

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I have a fear of turkeys. Frozen turkeys.

It started when I was 26 years old. It was my maiden voyage in the fine American culinary tradition of roasting the Thanksgiving turkey. I come from a long line of extraordinary cooks and married into a family of equal expertise. Big shoes to fill – and I only wore a size 5½ myself. The pressure to roast a good turkey was on.

On a crisp November day, on my way home from a day of teaching first graders, I stopped at the grocery store, which was a newly opened Jewel Grand Bazaar. A precursor to the big box stores of today. At four in the afternoon, it was already crowded, and parking my 1972 green Ford Pinto hatchback took a few passes down the rows to find a parking spot.

Once inside, I grabbed a cart and selected produce, then dairy, bakery, then canned goods, saving a space in the cart for Turkey Lurkey. What a pair we were that afternoon. Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey. My mom and Tom’s, as well as his sister, Maura, were all bringing accompaniments, but, this bird and his stuffing were my responsibility. All mine.

I’d never bought a turkey before. This was long before Mr. Google could answer any question asked. With my 1972 red and white checked Better Homes and Gardens spiral bound cookbook as my guide, I picked out a frozen turkey, the biggest one I could find, loaded it onto the cart, and headed to the checkout, confident that the twenty-two pound gobbler would feed our guests and yield plenty of leftovers.

Bill paid, groceries bagged, I loaded up the hatchback of my Pinto and headed home as dusk  settled in. Rush hour traffic was in full throttle, but, I only had a few miles to go and was thinking about all I still had to do to prepare for our first Thanksgiving hosting.

I’ve always loved Thanksgiving, from when I was a child, but, never more so than when I was young. Do you remember a time when we only had turkey for Thanksgiving and maybe Christmas dinner?  We had our Thanksgiving meal, maybe turkey sandwiches later, leftovers a day or so more, and that was it. The scents and tastes were put in abeyance until the next year.

I was thinking about these things, I am certain, as I drove home. Anticipation and great expectations as I listened to the news on the tinny car radio (I was a news junkie even then).

Suddenly, the car in front of me stopped. I slammed on my brakes, just in time, and checked my rearview mirror to see if I was about to be hit. In an instant, I saw it, hurling at me at 35 miles per hour with me at a dead stop. My life actually flashed before my eyes, as did all my Thanksgivings and a few misgivings as well. It was two or three seconds of pure terror as 22 pounds of frozen turkey hurled, straight from the hatchback, over the back seat, and straight toward my Farah Fawcett coiffed hairdo!

Turkey Lurkey catapulting like a shot out of a cannon toward Henny Penny. I truly thought the sky was falling!

The back of my car seat stopped that frozen fowl. Stopped him mid-flight. There I was, saved,  in a backhanded sort of way by foul play in the last second of the ’72 turkey tourney. The car in front stalled, the driver behind me staring, mouth agape. I can only imagine his view from his steering wheel as he witnessed a turkey on the loose in, of all cars, a Ford Pinto.

I managed to get this year’s turkey, all twenty pounds of frozen poultry promise, into the cart, into the car, out of the car, and into the freezer. It is now in a slow swoon in the refrigerator.

I thought about the turkey of yore each and every step of the way.

I still have the 1972 red and white checked Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.

The 1972 Ford Pinto hatchback , dubbed “the horsey car” by Jennifer in her toddling days, eventually went on to greener pastures.

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We have finally experienced our first hard frost here on the Cutoff. While I won’t say I welcomed it, I know its time has come. We been fortunate with warmer weather this fall. I don’t really mind the change in the air, but, a steady and sturdy wind has been blowing these past few days, reminding me once again that I am not in charge. The last of the leaves and pots need tending to and there is some cutting back of roses and such to do. All in good time, I know, and then there is Thanksgiving to prepare for, reminding me today that the turkey needs thawing, the linens pressing, the silver polished, and thankful thoughts remembered.

These grasses were ethereal, swaying in the November breeze, and breathtaking in their simple elegance. They had a rather “America the Beautiful” air about them when I passed by.

A pot of Jerusalem Cherries that I bought at the Oak Park Farmers Market in October is still bright and colorful in a sunny spot on our deck.  What a wonderful site it is from the kitchen and a bit of a harbinger of the reds of Christmas ahead. 

In spite of a few deer nibbles, the Oak Leaf hydrangea is stunning in its red coat,

and tiny crabapples are hanging on for dear life in Kezzie’s tree, which is surrounded by fencing, lest a randy buck tries to spar with it again this year. They remind me of the cranberries that will soon be chopped for our festive cranberry relish.

Now, about that turkey . . .

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Engaging reads

I picked up my 2012/13 engagement calendar a few weeks ago. I’ve already had to plan meetings and events for 2012. When I saw this one, I knew it was meant for me this year. It is so elegantly appointed with art of women reading and has lovely literary quotes as well. This is the front cover and is repeated in the sleeve that the engagement book came nestled in. The painting, Sogni (Dreams), is by Vittorio Matteo Corcos. I just love that touch of turquoise in her scarf, don’t you?What a thrill it must be to see in person.

The cover painting reminded me of another reading woman.  A toddler, actually. Here she is scanning a book. She, too, is in turquoise, a fetching color on such a little miss, and she is quite intent on the pages before her.

What are you reading these days?

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