Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Comfort Food?

Pop Quiz: What’s your favorite comfort food? How many of you said, “Mac and cheese”?

I might be the only person in North America for whom macaroni and cheese is not a fond childhood memory.  My mother’s mac and cheese was the worst! Somehow she missed the recipe where you fold shredded cheddar into a classic white sauce (no one called it b├ęchamel in my neighborhood.)  Instead, my mom poured milk directly over cooked elbow noodles, tossed on a scoop of flour, dropped in some cubed-up Velveeta, dusted the top with bread crumbs, dotted it with butter and popped it in the oven. There, everything, inevitably, curdled.  Milk and flour, far from blending on their own, instead, coagulated. Velveeta turned to runny, orange pockets of cheesy goo. The bread crumbs became a tough crust. It was truly terrible. On a positive note, my mom preferred to cook “fresh” and was seldom tempted to buy commercially prepared foods, such as Kraft Dinner. So while other kids on our street were scarfing down their smooth, creamy, cheesy KD in front of "The Jetsons” on TV, I was choking down “homemade” at the kitchen table. Ketchup, in this instance, was a godsend – and counted as a serving of vegetables!

Mom did, however, make her own version of spaghetti that has become my guilty pleasure in adulthood. To a potful of spaghetti noodles, she added one tin of undiluted Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup and a cup of grated cheddar. Maybe some dried onion bits on gourmet nights. I was all grown up before I even heard of ragu or bolognese. Spaghetti sauce at our house was tomato soup. But I’ll tell ‘ya, if it weren’t for Weight Watchers, I’d be eating this once a week.

Come to think of it, mother made some really odd meals featuring ground beef. My dad called this one “Ground Beef Number One:”  Into a banged up old pot that wobbled on the stove of its own accord when the heat was turned on, mom plopped a pound of ground beef, dried onion bits, chopped carrots and a dash of salt, added water to cover and let ‘er boil for a half hour. This was served over either the omnipresent mashed potatoes that I detested, or a thick slab of white bread. It actually tasted surprisingly good, and probably would have made an apt choice for an invalid’s diet, minus the onion bits. Certainly a person did not need teeth to eat it.

“Ground Beef Number Two:” This was a mixture of ground beef browned in a frying pan to which mother  added Minute Rice, the ubiquitous onion bits and a can of tomato soup. This simmered for a half an hour or so. Also surprisingly not bad and for me it was a bonus because it wasn’t served with mashed potatoes. Neither of these recipes has made it to my kitchen, however.

To be fair, just about any casserole is better for the addition of Campbell’s soup. I marked the autumn equinox last week by putting a casserole in the oven. One of those “family-only” dishes that you’d never let on to your friends you actually make. Elbow macaroni, ground beef, grated cheddar, green peppers, onions, zucchini, dill pickles and a can of cream of mushroom.  Mm, mm, good. C’mon, admit it. You probably have something similar in your repertoire as well.

At this time of year, I am really happy to get back to cooking fall and winter dishes. I find it nice to abandon the grill for the season. It gives me a cozy, snug feeling to braise or roast something, or make soup instead of salad, or assemble a rich, creamy risotto or pasta dish. It’s like wearing a sweater on the first cool evening of September, or putting the duvet on the bed again. Comforting, you know?

I’d love to hear about your favorite childhood foods. Or was your childhood home similar to mine? Did you grow up in a homey atmosphere of comfort food or in a culinary house of horrors?

p.s. my mother more than made up for the mac and cheese by being an awesome baker of pies, cookies and what Winnipeggers call “slices.”

Friday, September 21, 2012

Top 5 Things to Make You Cry at a Wedding

Our niece, Kate, made an astute observation this past weekend on the eve of her cousin Kyle’s wedding to the gloriously gorgeous Laura. She said, “There are really only two family events that are guaranteed to make you cry: funerals and weddings.”

“True,” I agreed.

Funerals. Obviously. Sadness, combined with the inevitable flood of memories and the awesome truth of human mortality. How do you not weep at funerals?

But, weddings? Why do we choke up at these happy occasions? We suddenly find ourselves dabbing a tissue at tears erupting when someone says, “I do.” Such a simple, optimistic phrase! Makes me sob every time.

I think weeping at weddings might be due to the fact that there are so many more complex emotions involved than at funerals. At a wedding, you’ve got joy, delight, happiness, nostalgia, longing, nervousness, pride, hopefulness and love….certainly, love. All colliding with the anxiety that the event should turn out perfectly, a touch of melancholy, perhaps, for those whose own loves are lost, sometimes lingering family tensions that are barely contained for the day, and maybe even a little bit of sorrow or grief mixed in. Weddings are rife with touching moments, declarations of devotion, sweetness, and that wonderful innocence of young lovers starting off on lives filled with hope and promise reflections on our best qualities when we were that age.

The thing about weddings is that you never know when your throat will clench shut sending a chain reaction of tears spilling over your mascara, moisture gathering in your nasal passages that you know will require an undainty nose-blow and gasps preparing to escape with little “uh-huh-huh-huhs” from your throat. And we try so hard to not let that happen! We say things, like, “Oh, I hope I don’t cry!” and, “For heavens’ sakes, don’t hand me a Kleenex – you’ll only make it worse!”  But when the waterworks well up, we stifle the impulse. We choke down the urge and swallow the instinct. I say, let it go! Let the emotions rip! Go ahead and cry your eyes out!

“Do you, Kyle, take Laura…….”

“I do.”


Can you imagine 250 or so witnesses to a wedding all loudly bawling their eyes out?  It would be awesome!

Anyway, as for me, per polite custom, I stifled at Kyle and Laura’s wedding as much as I could and caught stray teardrops with well-timed tissues. And besides I didn’t want droplets of eye makeup dripping onto my dress. I choked up on a number of occasions, however and will share with you now the Top 5 that got me going:

5.       At a party two nights prior to the wedding, my sister-in-law, Donna, the groom’s mother, sang her signature piece: “Turn Around” – lyrics including, “Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four, turn around and you’re a young man going out of the door.” Every time I looked at Kyle’s Dad, Glenn, who was struggling to stifle, I choked up more. I’m sobbing just writing this.


4.       Both parents giving the bride away. Laura’s Mom and Dad walked her down the aisle together and then kissed and hugged her before she took Kyle’s arm at the altar. It was lovely.


3.       The vows. See above.


2.       The flash mob that broke out at the reception after the speeches. Organized by Laura’s younger siblings, “the young people” got up to dance to a karaoked version of a popular song that they adapted with specific Kyle and Laura references. So sweet, so joyous.


1.       Ken, my dear husband of 35 years, played guitar along with his brother, Gordon, and our nephew Charlie, at the aforementioned pre-party as well as at a family night on Sunday after the wedding.  Donna sang. Each of them did numbers that got me in tears. Ken adapted a Jackson Browne song, “Lawyers in Love” especially for Laura and Kyle, both of them attorneys, which was very sweet. But what touched my heart the most was Ken singing a Vince Gill song that goes, “If you want to see what true love can be, look at us.” Now I’m sitting here in front of my computer, writing this in my p.j.’s, not worrying about mascara stains, and crying my eyes out. Thank you, sweetheart.

 Weddings are excellent for a good cry. Next one you attend, try not to stifle.

Best wishes to Laura and Kyle for many, many happy years together. Look at us.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Thanks a Lot, Walt!

I went in search this week for a new, modern bathroom cleaning product. Criteria: pleasant fragrance; sanitizing. Preferably: spray-on; no scrubbing, no wiping, no rinsing. These things exist! And it’s only recently that I’ve found out about them! In fact, it seems that there are products out there that do all the cleaning for you. I’ve been living in a barn apparently because I have been cleaning porcelain surfaces with Comet Cleanser for the last 40 years. That grit is a total nuisance to rinse! Why has no one told me about these new-fangled cleaners sooner?

It seems that the least amount of effort possible is the zeitgeist for domestic chores in the 21st century. And why not? It took the entire 20th century to get to this point. Manufacturers have been working on this goal since the invention of vacuum cleaners in the late 1800s which ultimately led to the liberation of housekeepers from the tyranny of dirt. Hallelujah for those guys! As a household product, vacuums have advanced a lot, but I kicked…er, accidentally dropped my most recent canister vacuum down the basement stairs for being a good-for-nothing piece of poo. (“Oops! Aw, it’s broken.”) Now there is a robot floor cleaner that will scour your floors and you don’t even have to be in the house at the same time! I’m going to want one of those bad boys for Christmas!

I hate cleaning. There isn’t much that can compel me to fill a bucket with hot soapy water, lug it up the basement stairs and wash something. But one day last week I tried spritzing Windex on the grime hiding in the corners on the verandah. It was inadequate to the task. So, clearly, the bucket was the only solution. I plodded down to the basement, heavy of heart. I knocked a couple of spiders out of a pail hiding under the laundry sink. They had obviously been there awhile. As I filled the bucket with hot water and some Simple Green industrial-strength cleaner, a melody started to ramble in my head. What is that? I filled a second bucket. The melody persisted.

I started for the stairs. Lugging the two slopping containers and grabbing my mop as I went, the tune overtook my brain. Suddenly, I knew what it was. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice! You know! Da-dum! Da-da-da-dum-da-dum-dum-dum-dum! That totally terrifying scene from Disney’s Fantasia starring Mickey Mouse whose master goes for a nap telling Mickey to clean the lab while he’s gone. Mickey tries out a spell that he casts on a mop to help him do his work. It grows arms and legs and picks up a bucket! Everything is going fine, until the spell slips! The mop starts to split into hundreds of mops, swiftly becoming awash in floods of water and soap; SO much water and soap. Poor Mickey with his little bucket can hardly bail it fast enough. Upstairs and downstairs. Water everywhere! Mops carrying slopping pails of water, everywhere! Oh, it’s scary. I first saw it when I was about six. Scared me to bits. When the sorcerer returns to his flooded lab and sweeps his arms to end the spell, glaring at his hapless apprentice for the havoc he has wreaked, I screamed, “Run, Mickey! Run!”

No wonder I balk at housekeeping! It’s a childhood trauma relived, over and over again. I don’t just hate cleaning. I’m terrified of it! Da-dum! Da-da-da-dum-da-dum-dum-dum-dum!  Agh!

The very next day I bought a big ass spray bottle of no-rinse, super-foaming, no scum-residue cleaning stuff that smells like spring rain. No mop. NO Bucket!!!

p.s. My blog will be back in two weeks - taking a break for Spring Cleaning. Kidding!