Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Trip Down Cookie Lane

While growing up, cookies were the other food group. If there weren’t cookies in the house, it was either because we had already eaten the last ones up, or we hadn’t bought or made the next ones yet. My mother liked cookies, so that made it very nice for the rest of us, since she couldn’t eat a whole bag herself, or at least until we had all had a go at it.

Although I make most all the cookies we eat today, back then, we seemed to buy more than we made from scratch. Since Mom’s favorites were all crunchy ones, that’s what we always had around. Which was perfectly fine with me!

When I think nostalgically about cookies of bygone era (bygone because I will never again be able to eat cookies with the impunity I did as an active, normal-weight kid) I think first of the bag of odd little cookies called Hey-Days. They were based on a crispy wafer and had caramel, coconut and chocolate coating drizzled over them. Sort of a candy/cookie. Since I haven’t seen them for decades, I’d guess they are gone-gone.

When we would stop by the market to pick up snacks for working in the bee yard, we would usually grab a package of cookies. Even then, I craved variety. I especially liked the “Mother’s” assortment that had five types in the tray. Not because I was crazy about any of them, but it was because they were all different. We often got Nilla Wafers, vanilla or lemon sandwich crèmes, those hard, flat oatmeal cookies, Lorna Doon shortbreads, Vienna Fingers, Windmill cookies, and Fig Newtons, the only soft cookie available.

Once in a great while, just to be nice to us, Mom would buy those pink and white coated animal cookies with the sprinkles. Not that you could tell what animal it used to be before they encased it in that strange waxy mixture, but it was fun guessing.

We had our home-made favorites too. Toll House recipe chocolate chip, Quaker’s oatmeal cookies, Nola’s No-Bake cookies, pineapple squares from the old Blue Ribbon cookbook, and peanut butter cookies, though we never stayed consistent on the recipe for that.

My kids are going to have their nostalgic cookies too. The recipes I have used most often have now been transferred to them, and have become a standby in another generation. We like Molasses Crinkles, from an old 1950’s Gold Medal flour cookbook, and Sugar Cookies, fondly called “One-Half Sugar Cookies,” due to the peculiar measurements of one-half this and one-half that. For special occasions, we make my grandmother’s special persimmon cookies.

I am interested in seeing what cookie recipes my kids all come up with that are true keepers. Let them experiment away, trying out the oddly flavored and textured ones until that true gem appears. And please, let me in on some of the experiments!

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Mystery of the Lost Rider

This post is in honor of Shar, who compliments me by enjoying my blog, even though she finds food boring.

The Old-Timer patted the dusty, sweaty neck of Tucker and leaned forward, wearily, almost whispering into his horse’s ear, “There, Old Fella, that flat grassy space. Just a little further, and then we’ll rest awhile.”

Tucker’s ear swiveled back, and almost as if he understood what the man said, the little Arab quickened his pace as if to reach the small, verdant glen sooner than his previous plodding would have done. Old-Timer winced. Tucker wasn’t limping any more, but the man wanted his horse to take it as easy as possible, just in case the old stone bruise wasn’t completely healed up.

As they reached the small glade, Old-Timer slid off Tucker’s back. His legs held him up just long enough to check his horse’s feet, and then, satisfied, slumped down into the long, green grasses, just to set a spell. Tucker pulled up a mouthful of the green stems, and then, his nostrils flaring, found what else he was looking for beneath the trickle on a granite exposure of the hillside.

“So old Tuck’s found himself a water hole.” The man chuckled. He pondered on this latest good luck. “I guess we may as well stay here a day or two. Rest up, see if we can figure a way out of this God-forsaken country.” Old-Timer was used to conversing with Tucker. Sometimes using words, sometimes not. But they always understood each other. Tucker nickered, and then paid some more attention to the water hole.

With a groan, Old-Timer rose to his feet and reached out to his horse, loosening straps and buckles, pulling off the saddle and bridle. He laid them together on a flat, lichen-covered boulder near the water hole. After making sure there was enough water to spare, he pulled a tattered sponge loose from the saddle clip and dipped it into the little runoff culvert and stroked it over the sweaty, dusty shoulders, neck and legs. Only then did he dip his hands into the cool depths and splash his own hot, browned face. He sat down and leaned against the cool, shaded rock face, stretching his legs out in front of him. The man chuckled with real humor as he noticed the most recent rips and shredded areas in his faded black riding tights. He was almost ready to fashion a loincloth from a section of Tucker’s horse blanket. But the thought quickly made his expression serious again as he imagined how he might arrange his clothing and still be comfortable while riding.

The man pulled the small plastic bag from his pack and reverently opened it, unfolding a wrinkled and weather-stained sheet of paper. Forty-nine small tick marks decorated the edge of the crudely drawn map. With the stub of a pencil, Old-Timer put another mark. Now, that’s fifty, he thought. Fifty days, lost in this wilderness, this trail-crazed wilderness, a maze of trails that joined up with other trails, only to peter out, trails that had been made by off-road vehicles, only to dead end into rivers and creeks, game trails, cattle trails, and finally, his own trails, made when he was still frantically chasing his own tail up and down the canyons and hillsides. The only trail he never found was the one he was looking for, the one marked with the blue ribbons.

Now that Tucker had settled himself down to some serious eating, Old-Timer felt that he could finally satisfy his own stomach-growlings. The granola bars were long gone. The Slim Jims were just a greasy patch in the fabric of his pack. He had even licked up the crumbs from the pretzels he’d thrown in his shirt pocket that morning so long ago, back when he was innocent and believed in accurate maps and well-marked trails. He’d learned, after that, to make do for himself.

Pulling a few more threads from the hem of his shortening cotton shirt, he fluffed the material and arranged it carefully in a small, protected rock clef. He gathered small tinder and larger sticks and set them by to feed the fire that he was so adept at making by now. He pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle from his pack and unfolded it, revealing a shaped chunk of rock and a horseshoe. Taking the flint in one hand and the horseshoe in the other, he struck at it with the rock, sending a shower of sparks onto the threads, starting them to glowing. He blew air on the precious coal, carefully, and set bits of dry, splintered wood on it to catch fire.

Once the crackling fire was stable enough to satisfy the man, he turned to the next task—making his dinner. Some time back, probably twenty tick marks ago, he had managed to break his aluminum water bottle in half. Since he already had a couple of plastic bottles for water, and his pressing need was for a soup pot, he’d decided to sacrifice this one. He now filled it up to its ragged edge with water from the little rivulet and set it on three stones within the fire to come to a boil.

When the man had lain down in the grass, he had thought that he’d smelled a familiar odor. Now he went looking for that and found it, a patch of wild onion stems. He smiled, feeling the saliva rise, just from thinking about the flavor of wild onion soup. The soil was moist and gave up its white pearls with just a bit of tugging. He washed and peeled them, and then set them into the simmering water. He rummaged around in his bag again. This time he pulled out a folded white card. The scores dutifully written by the ride vets were now not as important as the treasure folded up within. He opened it flat and tipped out the dried sage leaves he had come across a week or so ago. Old-Timer smiled.

“Ok, Tuck. I need you now for this part.” Old-Timer approached his little horse with a fresh bit of cloth. He dipped it into the stream, and then stroked it over the cleanest part of the brown hide he could find, and then rinsed it in his gray plastic water bottle. After letting the sediments settle, he poured the slightly bitter, salty liquid into the bubbling soup. “Never could stand a soup without salt,” he said. Just before the soup was done, he threw in a handful of nettles to thicken the broth and add some more nutrition.

Finally he settled down with his meal. This wouldn’t do for very long, he knew. Not nearly enough calories. But maybe tomorrow, he’d catch a fish, or maybe scare a buzzard off a kill that was fresh enough to do for a man. The onions were really a find; he’d pull a handful, lay them on a rock to dry out in the hot afternoon sun and pack them for next time.

Old-Timer hadn’t given up hope completely yet. If he did that, he may as well just lay down and die! No, for Tucker’s sake if not his own. He knew that he had lost any chance of winning a prize for finishing, and that disappointed him. But getting out of this labyrinth would at least meet one of his personal goals. He snickered to himself. If he ever got out, he was going to rip off his bumper-sticker that said “To finish is to win,” and replace it with one that said, “To get out alive is to win.”

The tired man tied Tucker’s lead rope to a nearby tree branch and then wrapped himself up in the hairy horse blanket, glad for the warmth, not minding its rank odor. As he drifted off to sleep, he prayed for release from his recurring nightmare, but relief did not come. All night long, in his sleep, callous mountain bike riders were pulling yards of blue trail marker ribbons off and letting them blow away in the breeze.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I always like to create menus. I like to think, What is the perfect meal for this or that occasion? I make, in my mind, each component; I lay it out on the plate, I admire it, I serve it. Once I asked my husband, “What are your favorite foods? What would be your favorite meal?”

In my mind, I had already prepared my favorite: For the meat, Ham. That’s Ham with a capital “H.” The kind that comes with a bone in it and is cooked long and slow and carves loose in big sloppy savory slices. For the bread, sourdough loaves, generously slathered with butter and garlic and baked until it’s a bit crispy at the edges. For the vegetable, corn on the cob, not doubt about it. Buttered until it’s dripping off, and well salted. For my dessert, I chose strawberry shortcake. The whipped cream isn’t all that important, but the good quality vanilla ice-cream is. The shortcake is like my mother always made, a sweet biscuit glazed in sugar, split and served still warm with ice-cream and lots of sugared strawberries inside and on top. In answer to my question, my husband thought a bit and answered, “Roasted lamb, Ham, pork chops, and a great big T-bone steak!”

I think it’s a guy thing.

So recently, I was thinking again about what my favorite menu was. And I came to the conclusion that it was… Potluck! Yes, potluck dinner is my favorite menu. I’ve always thrived on variety, and that’s just what you get. Especially when the instructions are random, like, “Bring what you would want to eat, and we’ll trust that we get a good spread.” Sometimes that works out, but sometimes that means a whole table full of iced lemon cake, brownies, Mrs. Smith’s apple pies, ambrosia, chocolate chip cookies and a lone bucket of fried chicken.

There are some foods that I think were just invented for potlucks. They always show up, but I’m not sure they are real food, since they are never on a regular dinner table. And they taste too good to be real food, sort of like potato chips. I’m thinking of something called “company potatoes.” I ate this at a potluck dinner and could hardly restrain myself. From what I could tell, the main ingredients were grease, starch, and dairy product. Inquiring more closely, I discovered it was composed of frozen hash browns, condensed cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and cheddar cheese. Mmmm….

In a good potluck spread, you’ll see the same beloved friends. Bucket of fried chicken, lasagna, enchilada casserole. Chicken casserole with broccoli and creamy cheese stuff, a crock-pot full of beans. Meatballs. Green salad, potato salad, macaroni salad (at least two versions) and Chinese chicken salad. Rolls and butter. At least one Jello dish. Chips and French onion dip. A veggie tray. For dessert, see above.

Even though a potluck is sort of a chancy thing, you will find a certain predictability. Sometimes a party is held as a potluck. But most of the time, a hostess will want more control over the victuals, and that’s when she plans her own menu. So what would be the perfect menu for a Bluegrass Jam party?

Let’s plan that most of the attendees will be playing and singing. For that reason, I’m going to skip the tortilla chips and nuts. There is nothing worse that trying to sing while little particles of chips and nuts are tickling your throat. Oily finger food is also a no-no. Who wants to get greasy paw-prints on their vintage Gibson Mastertone? Fussy items like soufflés are out. Why would anyone want to spend any more time messing around in the kitchen with something fancy when good music is being enjoyed by other people, and you’re stuck at the oven?

So I think I would put some pulled pork in a crock-pot, a few foil-wrapped sourdough loaves, very lightly buttered and heated, out beside it, accompanied by a veggie tray and a couple of dips. Sodas and beer in a well iced chest, and apple pie at the side.

What’s your perfect menu for your favorite kind of party? Or do you prefer to trust to potluck?