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Once is Enough

How did I miss National Cheese Fondue Day on April 11 and Chocolate Fondue Day on February 5?  Maybe because after Husband and I hosted a fondue dinner we both said, “Never again.”

            In a column recently, I wrote that by the time I had a fondue party, others had fondued for years.  Many of us long-time married folk received fondue pots as wedding gifts.  In the early 1970s, Husband and I heated cheese in our pot and dunked chunks of bread, but our only time to fondue with a group was about ten years later when we hosted a fondue dinner.

            In 1978, Husband and I and five other couples formed a supper club, that we named The Gourmet Group, and we began gathering in each other’s homes.  We cooked and served food from many countries, and fondue seemed like a fun and easy meal.

             Fondue originated in Switzerland in the 16th century as a way to use hardened cheese and stale bread during winter months.  So, melted Gruyere, a traditional Swiss cheese, and bread cubes was the logical choice for our appetizer.  As we six women planned our menu, we decided to make the whole meal fondue since each of us owned a fondue pot.

            Fondue appetizer.  Fondue meat.  Fondue dessert. 

            Husband and I set two tables so six people could share one pot. The cheese melted perfectly, we dipped bread and drizzled cheese on tables and our chins.  We dropped bread chunks in the pots and retrieved them with slotted spoons. We enjoyed every bite.

            The cheese pots were removed and main dish pots were brought to the tables.  The person in charge of main dish had researched the size to cut beef cubes, the oil to use, and how much oil to put in pots   Each person’s dinner plate held raw beef and sides.  I don’t remember the sides, probably traditional Swiss vegetables or salad, whatever those are. 

            We waited for the oil to heat.  We waited and waited.

            Finally, the oil was hot. Each of us put a piece of meat in pots.  After the suggested time, the meat was raw.  Hardly warm.  Maybe just two people could cook, but cooking two bites at a time would make for a long evening.  

            None of us were that patient so I pulled out my heaviest deep pot, put it on the stove, and poured in oil. We stuck a few pieces of beef on forks into the hot oil and within seconds it cooked.  Not perfectly, but not rare. Forgoing forks, we dropped beef cubes into the oil, which splattered everywhere, and quick-fried.

            I don’t remember dessert.  Maybe we ate strawberries and chocolate hand-to-mouth.

            What Husband and I never forgot was the grease – on the stove, the floor, the tables. Now, about forty years later, The Gourmet Group continues to gather monthly and if the word fondue is even said, Husband and I shake our heads.  Never again.

Mother’s Day is a Day for Memories

When you think of your mother, where is she? 

            I see Mom in her kitchen and in her sewing room.  She’s standing in the flower shop in the basement of my childhood home.  She’s sitting in her brown recliner.  She’s driving a lawn mower. 

            Maybe you think of your mom at one place, and I first picture Mom wearing a dark green plaid apron tied around her waist and patting biscuit dough made with Martha White self-rising flour, Crisco, and buttermilk.  She’d sift the flour, cut in Crisco with a pastry cutter, pour buttermilk into a flour well, and gently stir with a wooden spoon just until the flour wasn’t dry.  Never measuring.  Never looking at a recipe.  

            Mom handled the dough gently, patting it on a flour covered pastry cloth and then making it about ½” thick with a rolling pin that didn’t have handles.  She cut biscuits the perfect size for two bites for Dad and three or four for me.  Smaller biscuits bake more evenly, she told me, and you can eat more. 

            That same biscuit dough became dumplings for my chicken and dumplings birthday meal and Mom made dessert butter rolls using the same dough.  (When biscuit dough is more than biscuits is a topic for another column.)

            Mom and Dad hosted many family holiday dinners and backyard cookouts.  She taught me to fry chicken, make vegetable beef soup, and use a pressure cooker for a perfect beef roast and all the trimmings.  When I made lumpy gravy, it’s because I didn’t follow Mom’s directions.

            Out of necessity, Mom learned to sew when she was a teenager and made clothes for herself and her two younger sisters.  During my growing up years, she made clothes for me, both my grandmothers, and herself; every seam was smooth and even and every garment fit perfectly.  Mom took up quilting to make each of her three grandchildren a quilt – machine pieced and hand quilted. 

            In 1960, Mom turned her love for flowers into a business to pay for my brother’s and my college educations when she opened Ruth’s Flower Shop in the basement of our home.  She arranged gladioli and pom-pom mums or carnations in white metal containers to take to the local funeral home and she made orchid corsages for Mother’s Day.  More than once, she dyed wild roadside Queen Anne’s lace for brides who couldn’t afford store-bought flowers for their bride maids’ bouquets. 

            Saturday house cleaning was finished by lunchtime so Mom could watched baseball games.  Leaning back in her favorite recliner she cheered for the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. 

            When Mom’s grandchildren were young, one of their favorite things to do was ride in a metal wagon pulled by a riding lawn mower.  Mom drove all over Dad’s and her backyard, as long as the kids sat on their bottoms in the wagon.  

            Mother’s Day is a day to make and share memories and to celebrate with those you love most.  Happy celebrating!

What’s Your Favorite Family Story?

This Saturday, April 30, let’s go to Dogwood Park behind the History Museum between 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.  Storytellers will entertain us with tales of their growing-up years, travels, and their friends and families. 

            If I’ve learned anything writing this column, it’s that everyone has stories.  Like the time Husband left town for a four-day golf trip and a trampoline was delivered and nine-year-old Son found a snake.  It was harmless garter snake, the size of a yellow #2 pencil and a bit longer than an unsharpened one, but I put on Husband’s work gloves to handle it. 

            Daughter, age 11, wasn’t happy that Son and I punched holes in a metal screw-on lid and put Garter in a quart canning jar so Son could take it to school the next day.   (The teacher had agreed a little snake would be welcome.)  Daughter thought Garter should’ve been left crawling in the weeds near our backyard creek and Son thought Garter should sleep in his room.  We left it inside the jar on the kitchen table.

            The next morning Son, Daughter, and I walked into the kitchen about the same time.  The jar was empty, except for grasses.  We searched, but we didn’t find Garter before school that Friday morning.  All during my teaching work day, I was eager to get home, find the snake, put it outside, and enjoy a calm weekend.  But that wasn’t to be.

            When we arrived home, three huge cardboard boxes blocked our front door.  I pretended I didn’t know what was in the boxes and thought when Husband got home, he could unpack those boxes and set up the trampoline. 

            After a thorough search, Garter wasn’t found.  Daughter and Son were disappointed so, in a moment of insanity, I suggested we look inside the boxes.  Long metal poles.  Heavy metal coiled springs.  Black mesh fabric.  Lugging all of that to the backyard was a chore. 

            Daughter, Son, and I applauded ourselves when a metal circle frame stood stable on level ground.  The children hooked the springs to the frame and laid the fabric on the ground inside the frame.  We began connecting the springs from the frame to the fabric and all went well, until the last few springs because the fabric tension was tight.

            I cut my finger on the sharp end of a spring and sent Son to the house to get the work gloves I’d left on the kitchen table.  We made a plan: Daughter and Son would pull the fabric and I’d pull on the spring to hook it into the metal ring attached in the fabric.

            I put on the gloves, grabbed the spring and said, “Ready, set, pulllll——oh, oh, oh, s***!”  My children dropped the fabric and stared at me.  In a shrill voice, I slowly screamed, “I’m okay.  The snake just crawled up my arm.”             Garter was returned to its outdoor home.  The trampoline was set-up.   Daughter and Son jumped and flipped and somersaulted.  And I knew this would be an all-time favorite family story.

More Than a Cheese Tray

It’s more than a cheese tray.  More than pepperoni and salami on a platter.  More than a fruit plate.  More than a basket of crackers and a bowl of nuts.  It’s cheese, fruit, crackers, nuts, and cured meats on a flat board, any size and any shape.  It’s a charcuterie board.

            When I first heard charcuterie, I asked, “A char what?”  I looked up the word in my online dictionary: cold cooked meats.  It wasn’t in my trusty paperback Webster’s New Dictionary, copyright 2002.  What’s the origin of the word?  When and how did charcuterie boards become the rage for entertaining? 

            According to online sources, charcuterie is from two French words: ‘chair,’ meaning flesh and ‘cuit,’ meaning cooked.  It was a way to preserve meat, before refrigeration was available, and to prepare meat products.  During the first century in Rome, meat was salted and cured, and centuries later charcutiers in 15th century France produced and sold bacon, sausages, head cheese – any pork that could be preserved. 

            Corkdining.com states that charcuterie is rooted in the belief that nothing from the animal should be wasted; not even the heart, lungs, kidneys, fat, or brain.  This takes me back to hog-killing day on the Friday after Thanksgiving when I was a kid when Dad and Granny certainly didn’t know cured meats were called such a fancy word as charcuterie.

             According to most sources, a charcuterie board must include meat, so add cured meat to a simple cheese tray and voila!  During the past few years, charcuterie boards have evolved into meals, party themes, works of art, and almost anything goes. 

            Wanting to learn to create a board from a master, I recently took a class taught by Diego Alvarez, the owner of the Royal House of Cheese.  On my working space, he placed a two-inch thick, eleven-inch diameter wooden disc and enough food to feed a family of six.  Grapes. Strawberries and raspberries.  Three kinds of cheese.  Salami, polish sausage, and prosciutto. Dried apricots and cranberries.  A sleeve of round crackers. Handfuls of bagel chips and nuts.

            Was it possible to balance all of that on something with no sides? And what went where?

Diego patiently explained the circle as a clock face and suggested the placement of foods.  As crackers slid, he expertly fanned them into a crescent.  He suggested food arrangements based on flavors that complement each other and said to vary textures and colors.

            Diego is an excellent teacher, as well as entertaining, and I created a charcuterie board that I proudly served to guests the next day.  Only one raspberry rolled onto the floor.  And Diego taught me how to confidently say charcuterie: char- like to blacken meat, cu- like cu when saying a cute baby, and erie rolls off the tongue to rhyme with rotisserie.

            Now that I can put together charcuterie boards, will they go the way of fondue?  Remember fondue parties in the 1970’s?  By the time I hosted one, they were going out of style.

Easter – Way Back When

Sometimes, I wish for the Easter of my childhood. Easter morning was as exciting as Christmas because the Easter Bunny filled my Easter basket just as Santa Claus filled my Christmas stocking.  Common sense said that my parents were the Bunny and Santa, but the possibility of not getting a filled basket or stocking kept me from ever admitting facts.

            I’d run down the steps from my bedroom into the living room to see what was in my Easter basket, and I laid out each candy, piece by piece.  Mom knew my favorite was the individually cellophane wrapped egg-shaped candies that had marshmallow centers and hard-shell coverings ofpink, yellow, green, lavender, blue, or white. 

            I sorted candy by color, ate one or two a day so they’d last a long time, and saved the best for last – the yellow lemon-flavored ones.  Now these candies are called Easter Hunt Eggs since almost no one hides real eggs for an Easter Egg Hunt.

            But years ago on Saturday before Easter, Mom and I dyed boiled eggs for the church egg hunt.  My brother helped until he decided he was too old.  (I never got too old, even as a high-school and college student and mother and grandmother.)

            Easter Sunday morning, I felt like a princess!  All my clothes were new, from black patent shoes and white lace socks to a hair ribbon or decorated headband.  My new dress covered my new slip and new underwear and I even wore new white gloves.  I was told that wearing new clothes for Easter would bring good luck, but I didn’t care about luck, I just liked wearing all new clothes.

            Not only did I get new underwear for Easter Sunday, I got seven new pairs of panties – one for each day of the week.  The names of the days were embroidered in pastel colors.

            The only Easter Egg Hunt was after Sunday morning church service.  While the minister preached, for what seemed like hours, we children craned our necks to see outside through the open church windows where our daddies hid the Easter eggs.

            There was one prize egg, a big goose egg, and a prize was given to the person who found the most eggs.  From experience, we kids knew the prize egg might be hidden in the church building downspout or nestled in tall weeds beside a fencepost.  The egg hunt turned into a race.  For a few minutes, kids ran helter-skelter until we couldn’t find any eggs and the prize egg had been found.  With great ceremony, crisp one-dollar bills were presented as prizes.

            While I can’t take my Grands back two generations, together we make Easter traditions and memories.  We’ll decorate an Easter bunny cake and dye hard-boiled eggs and there’ll be an egg hunt, not for real eggs, but plastic eggs filled with candy and money.            

And maybe I’ll buy my Grands new clothes, or at least new underwear.  That would be a memory they’d never forget.

One Night’s Adventures of Ralph S. Mouse

My Grand snuggled beside me on the couch, lay a book on my lap and asked, “Can we finish this book now?”

            I opened to the bookmarked page of Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Clearly and began reading aloud in the middle of a chapter, the top of a page.  Micah nudged me. “Gran, it’s okay, but do you know we’ve already read this?”  It had been three weeks since we last read about Ralph.  How could Micah remember?

            If you have read one of the three Ralph books, you know that Ralph is an unusual mouse.  He had listened to so many children and watched so much television that he learned to talk, and he rode a motorcycle that was propelled by his voice, “pb-pb-b-b.”

            Ralph lived at a hotel where Ryan, the young son of a housekeeper, was his best friend and confidante.  Ralph became frustrated with his cousins because they begged for motorcycle rides and were leaving signs of a mice infiltration at the hotel so he convinced Ryan to take him to school.  Ryan’s classmates discovered Ralph.  He had to escape a maze they created, avoid being seen by the school custodian, and deal with the class bully who smashed Ralph’s motorcycle.

            Micah remembered that we’d read about the motorcycle being destroyed.  As we continued reading, Ralph was given a sports car, a Laser XL7, but it didn’t move by pb-pb-b-b.  Ralph was told that he had to make a sports car noise to make it move.

            “Vroom!!” The car rolled across the floor.  My Grand clapped.  When the car needed to move backwards, Micah read the word much easier that I did, “Moorv.”   Micah said, “Stop!” He ran upstairs, came back, plodded down beside me, and ran his red Hot Wheelssports car along his leg while I read the last pages of Ralph S. Mouse.

            After brushing his teeth, putting on his pajamas, and snuggling under the covers, Micah asked, “Will you tell me a purple cow story?”   A story that I’d make up as I told it.   

            Purple Cow, tired after a day of picking grass in the pasture and playing outside, lay down on the straw covered floor in her barn.  She heard a noise, a squeaking noise.  My Grand grinned and whispered, “It was Ralph.” 

            I continued, “Purple Cow looked around, but she couldn’t see anyone or anything.  She asked, ‘Who’s there?’”

            My Grand raised his hand.  “Stop, Gran. I’ll be Ralph.”  Oh, the conversation between Purple Cow and Ralph!  They talked about what they’d done that day, the places they’d been, and what they liked to eat.  When Purple Cow said it was time to sleep, Ralph asked if she’d forgotten that he was nocturnal.

Purple Cow didn’t understand so Ralph explained the meaning of nocturnal.              In several columns, I’ve written about Heart Tugs, those times when heartstrings tighten and I want to imprint t

One Shining Moment

One Shining Moment is probably the most recognized song in sports.  College basketball players dream of hearing it after winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.  The song is played while a three-minute video shows the best plays of the three-week tournament.

            Monday night, April 4 right after the championship game is played in New Orleans, One Shining Moment will signal the end of March Madness, the 2022 tournament.  Every team and every game will be featured. Slam dunks. High arching three-point shots. Back-door cuts. Alley-oops.   

            And this year two Indiana cheerleaders will surely be featured in their shining moment. During the Indiana and St. Mary’s game on March 17, Cassidy Cerny and Nathan Paris brought the crowd to its feet.

            Two minutes into the second half, the ball bounced high above the rim of the goal, above the backboard and didn’t come down.  It hit the top of the backboard, then rolled to a stop balanced on a metal support rod and the backboard – thirteen feet high.

            Three referees and ten basketball players momentarily froze in place looking up.  The crowd became quiet. When a ball gets stuck between the rim of the goal and the backboard, a player jumps and tips it free. But no player can jump to the top of the backboard.  

            A referee grabbed a mop that is kept courtside to wipe sweat off the floor after players hit the hardwood going after loose balls.  Holding the mop by its base, the ref reached the handle toward the ball.  It was too short.  Even standing on a folding chair, he couldn’t hold the handle high enough to dislodge the ball. The television announcer suggested that play could continue with another ball or maybe a tall player could stand in the chair.

            Cassidy and Nathan, Indiana cheerleaders, ran onto the court.  The crowd cheered.  The announcer called, “Yes, cheerleaders!  Get her up!”   Nathan lifted Cassidy into the air and she landed her feet into his hands.  He extended his arms straight as she stood perfectly balanced.

            The announcer said, “Get her the mop!” It wasn’t needed.  Nathan stood steady and Cassidy rolled the ball along the metal support, grabbed it with both hands, and tossed it down to the referee. 

            Imagine the many times Nathan and Cassidy practiced this stunt.  Imagine the strength, the balance required by both.  Normally, they, their cheerleading teammates, and all cheerleaders perform during game halftimes and time-outs, but are never featured on television broadcasts.  But this extension stunt was witnessed live; the youtube.com video has been viewed 1½ million times.

            On March 26, during the Duke and Arkansas game, the ball again lodged on top of the backboard and Arkansas cheerleaders immediately retrieved it, just as Cassidy and Nathan had done.    

            The lyrics of One Shining Moment says, ‘And all the years no one knows just how hard you worked, but now it shows.’               

One Shining Moment always makes me wonder how many shining moments are never caught on camera.

The Power of the Pen

Thirty-five 6th graders shuffled into the room and sat in groups of seven as directed. They gathered in this big school cafeteria-sized room to participate in a one day writing workshop, Power of the Pen, and had ridden busses from the five Putnam County Middle Schools to a meeting place new to them.

            To participate, each student had written a short story based on a prompt: As you’re paying for your groceries, you mention to the clerk, that there’s a mess in aisle 16. They give you a puzzled look and reply, “There is no aisle 16.”  The students’ stories covered every genre from science fiction to mystery to humor to fantasy. 

            I had been invited to be one of five authors to share the day with these students.  We were a varied group: a published novelist, a poet and short story writer, a songwriter, a motivational and inspirational writer, and newspaper columnist.  The students, in their small groups, met with each author and our task was to encourage these young writers.

            A day away from school might be enough to make students smile, but these are 11 and 12-year-olds who aren’t prone to look happy.  I remember these students well from the years I taught 6th grade.  Each morning, I stood at my classroom door to welcome them and they would walk past me, not even acknowledging my greeting, but the next day they crawled under my arm for a hug.  Like two-year-old toddlers, they want to be independent and need assurances.  They need to know that what they say is heard and accepted.

            During the thirty minutes I met with each group, we imagined that we were in charge.  We read Judith Viorst’s poem, ‘If I Were in Charge of the World.’   According to her writing, Ms. Viorst would cancel oatmeal and Monday mornings.  She wanted healthier hamsters and basketball baskets forty-eight inches lower. She wouldn’t have lonely or clean or bedtimes.  A chocolate sundae would be a vegetable and a person who forgot to flush would still be allowed to be in charge of the world. 

            The students wrote their versions of this poem. I won’t share all their writings, and I vowed not to name names.

            They cancelled tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, raisins, and any cookie with oatmeal. War, fighting and hunger would be eliminated.  All children would be safe.  Everyone would be kind, follow rules, and there would be peace everywhere. Cancer would be wiped out.   

            A double-stuffed Oreo cookie would be a vegetable. Chocolate would be medicine.  Reading would be exercise.

            One student looked to the classroom teacher who accompanied his group.  “Can I say something…” he hesitated, but continued when she encouraged him, “something religious?”  The teacher nodded. “If I were in charge of the world, all people would pray and trust their God.”  

            At the end of the workshop, everyone waved good bye, most students smiled, and we all wore gray tee shirts with the words Power of the Pen.  These children had shared their written words.  That is powerful.

Soaking in Spring

I’m letting Spring seep into my mind and body. 

            When I got my 2022 At-a-Glance calendar, I drew a big smiley sun face on March 20th.  Here in Middle Tennessee, Spring officially begins at 12:33 P.M. when the vernal equinox marks a time that the direct rays of the sun produce equal day and night. 

            I was taught that on the first days of Spring and Fall the hours of daylight and darkness are twelve hours each.  While that’s not exactly correct, it’s within minutes.  Here in Cookeville, on Sunday, March 20, the sun will rise at 6:50 a.m. and set at 6:58 p.m.  Until June 20, we’ll have sunshine a few minutes longer each day and I’ll track those minutes.    

            Spring brings brightness, a welcomed contrast to winter’s gray and brown.  Yellow daffodils bloom and, even after last week’s snow and frigid temperatures, many still hold their heads high. Because the forsythia bush is my favorite springtime marker and I know where several are blooming, I drive out of my way around town to see them.  Unfortunately, dandelions the weeds I hate most, also bloom so I dig up every one that is near my yard.  

            The world is taking on a vibrant green and soon we can smell the fresh cut grass aroma after lawns are mowed.  Buds swell at the ends of tree and shrub branches, waiting for a few days of warmth and sunshine to unfurl leaves.  Soon blooms on strawberry plants and blueberry bushes promise fresh juicy fruits.

            Anyone who has lived or lives on a farm knows babies are born in the Spring.  For years, my brother’s mare Pepper had a spring colt.  Another mare, a short-timer in my childhood family’s barn, gave birth to Hey Boy and then refused to let him nurse.  That’s a story for another time.

            Papa’s cow birthed twin calves the spring I was 10 and Mom picked me up from school right after lunch so I could watch the newborns come into the world.  Every March, Granny bought baby chicks and those lightweight fluff balls were fun to play with until they began to peck.

             Spring is when gardeners seriously dig in the dirt, first turning the soil to mix the organic matter and letting it absorb more oxygen and dry out for later planting.  Even that earthy, woodsy smell is welcomed. 

            Through windows, I’ve watched birds at birdfeeders all winter, and now I hope bluebirds will build a nest in our backyard bird box.  Soon I’ll hang hummingbird feeders to entice them to sip sugar water and chatter on our front porch.

            Even though it takes a few days to adjust to Daylight Savings Time, I’m happy for more daylight at the end of a day.  It gives time for front porch rocking for Husband and me and longer times for our Grands and neighborhood children to play outside after supper.

            Spring brings brightness and growth and newness. Soak it in. 

When There Are No Words

Sometimes there are no words.

            No words to say to a wife whose husband drank his morning coffee and took his last breath a few hours later.  No words to a friend who didn’t expect a diagnosis of cancer.

            No words to encourage someone who continues to be in pain after surgery.  No words to comfort the parents of a teenager who collapsed and unexpectedly passed away.

            No words to express distress and grief for the people of Ukraine.

            One early morning last week I sat with pen and journal in hand and thought, ‘There are no words.’ Yet, I wrote names and hardships and grief, and I shared with a few college girlfriends who live miles away. They responded.  They, too, have friends and family members who suffer and my friends also hurt for the Ukrainian people.

            What can we do?

            I was taken back to a day many years ago when I visited my Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh who were then only a few years older than I am now.  We talked about what we’d done during the past week.  Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh had been to funerals and she had taken food to the families of those who had passed away, as well as taken a meal to a sick friend.  I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” 

            I have never forgotten Aunt Doris’s words. “It’s okay.  It’s where we are.”   I’m sure I frowned and I know Aunt Doris explained, “It’s where we are in life and it’s okay.”   She talked about the fun that she and Uncle Hugh had enjoyed with friends: playing competitive Rook card games, celebrating a new year, taking weekend trips.  Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh laughed as they reminisced about happy times with a friend whose funeral they had attended a few days earlier.  And through their conversation, I took in their happiness of times past that made accepting sadness easier.

            Last week I reminded myself that even though I don’t like what’s happening, I know life cycles. Calm. Jubilation. Sadness. Anger. Celebration. Grief.  Happiness.  And through those times people walk beside each other.

            Being raised in a small rural southern town, where everyone knew everyone’s business, I watched my parents and my extended family take care of each other and their friends.  They showed up.  They took food.  They hugged.  They listened. They prayed.

            I know that pain, distress, grief, and heartache are part of life, and I can follow my family’s examples.  Sit beside someone in emotional or physical pain.  A pot of homemade vegetable soup or a take-out meal speaks more than words said.  When I put my arms around the parents who mourned their teenager, there were no words.  Nothing to say.             

There’s hope that a touch and a hug speak love and caring.  There’s hope that showing up and listening show sympathy and concern.  There’s hope that prayers are heard, even unspoken prayers.