Category Archives: Cooking

Non-Fiction (April A ~ Z Challenge)

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I read a lot of non-fiction. That’s partly because self-help books are included in this category (and I am the queen of self-help), and also because it encompasses so many sub-categories. Sometimes they overlap, but here are some distinctions:

  • Biography and autobiography. Some of the dullest books, the ones most difficult to get through, fall into this category. Also some of the liveliest, most exciting books. And it doesn’t simply mean that the subject matter made the difference. It means that good, engaging writing is important, no matter whose story is being told.
  • Instruction. Cookbooks usually fall into this category. Also books on writing, gardening, exercise, etc. Then there are the many art instruction books; whether for drawing, painting, paper-making, ceramics or printmaking, I have read plenty of them.
  • Self-help. “How to:” raise [polite/well-behaved/well-adjusted/healthy/successful/happy] children; de-clutter; stop procrastinating; be happier; become healthier; be a better employee; be a better friend; manage money; run a small business; be a better conversationalist; diffuse an argument; train a dog. Like I said, I’m the queen of self-help books!
  • Inspiration. This is one of those gray areas, but I’ve certainly picked up books that are inspirational first, and the instruction or self-help falls in behind.
  • Education. Again, this seems to overlap. Educational books could encompass any other category as well. My distinction is that these books do not even attempt to be entertaining. If you want to simply learn something, these books will tell you what you need to know. That’s it.
  • Memoir. The difference between autobiography and memoir is subtle. Mainly, it seems to me, it boils down to artistic license. An autobiography should have names and dates correct. A memoir, which by definition is reliant on memory, can play a little fast and loose with the facts, and the sequence of events. Some of my favorite books fall into this category: Growing Up, by Russell Baker; The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr; The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; Let’s Don’t Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller; Becoming, by Michelle Obama; What You Have Heard is True, by Carolyn Forsche; and many others.
  • Essays. Of course, essays are not always non-fiction, but the ones I enjoy most are. The Essays of E.B. White are some of the best. Essays by Jim Fitzgerald, compiled together in his book, If It Fitz, also have a special spot on the shelf. Essays by Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Evan S. Connell, Annie Dillard, Bill Bryson, and Anna Quindlan are as entertaining to me when read for the tenth time as they were when I first encountered them.
  • Reference. Some reference books do double duty as instruction, self-help, education or inspiration books. Depending, I guess, on how likely one is to refer back to it. I’m thinking, though, of reference books being dictionaries, and things like that. Sometimes, in a pinch or for a purpose, fun to read, but mostly just to find a specific bit of information.

Though I love a good mystery, and I relish quality fiction, I’m sure I read more non-fiction than anything else.

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Magazines (April A ~ Z Challenge)

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I’ve always loved magazines. A nice, regularly received gift in the mailbox, with fresh ideas, new stories and colorful pictures. These are the ones I grew up with:

  • Ladies Home Journal. I liked reading “Can this Marriage be Saved?” I’d try to make a game of it with sisters or friends. We could each read the accounts by each spouse, and draw our conclusions. Only then would we turn to the opinion of the professional, to see how he weighed in.
  • McCall’s. As a child, I had a whole collection of Betsy McCall paper dolls, because there was a new one in each issue, along with a seasonal outfits and a short story.
  • Redbook. This magazine had more stories than the others. Being a reader, I appreciated that.
  • Reader’s Digest. I loved this compact magazine! I’d first turn to “Life in These United States,” then “Humor in Uniform.” I loved all of the anecdotes. Then I’d find the heart-wrenching human interest story, hidden somewhere in the center. Next, the condensed book featured in the last several pages of the magazine. After that, if I needed reading material, I’d pick it up again, for the stories and articles I’d missed first time around.
  • Life. Always topical, with famously beautiful photographs. I remember the discussion around the adult table (“no different than seeing a woman nurse a baby,” was my Dad’s opinion) when the cover photo featured a woman, arms folded chastely over her chest, in a topless bathing suit. I recall an issue from the sixties with a photo of a stunning black woman, in profile. The caption stated, “Black is Beautiful.” Growing up in a fairly isolated small town, Life Magazine made the world accessible, and it helped to broaden my mind. When my mother died eight years ago, the issue of Life Magazine that came out right after John F. Kennedy was assassinated was still among her belongings.

I still love magazines, though I don’t have as much time to read them. I’ll get a subscription, then let it lapse when I find I have unread issues piling up in the rack. Every now and then I’ll pick up a People magazine at the grocery store. Though I love all that gossipy news when I’m reading in a waiting room somewhere, it rarely seems worth the purchase price to me. When I’m on the mainland, and have access to a greater magazine selection, I’ll usually pick up American Craft or Ceramics Monthly. Sometimes ArtNews or ArtForum. I enjoy O magazine, and sometimes Martha Stewart Living. I love cooking magazines. I often pick up home magazines, gardening magazines and health and fitness magazines. The only magazine I subscribe to right now is RealSimple. And that’s enough.

Kitchens (April A ~ Z Challenge)

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My mother’s kitchen was expansive, with large picture windows on the front and side, and corner windows behind the sink facing into the garden and back yard. The light fixtures were circular fluorescent lights, the height of modernity when they were new. The long table dominated the space. We sat around it for meals, but also for doing homework, and for evenings of puzzles and games. We used it for meal preparation, bread-making, cake and cookie making, and tasks involved in canning and freezing. I remember using it to cut out fabric for patterns. I can clearly picture Mom with her teacup at one end of the table, Dad with his newspaper, or dealing out cards for solitaire at the other. I haven’t had a single kitchen that provided the good feelings and cherished memories of that one. Still, I’ve enjoyed a few kitchens:

  • My first kitchen as a young newly-married adult, was in the upstairs apartment on Court Street. It had a stripey floral wallpaper in cream, red and blue. I hung a large poster with the same colors, of Uncle Sam saying “I want you!” That kitchen’s sink was in an alcove outside of the room, and was shared with the bathroom.
  • When we moved to a downstairs apartment in the same building, we were rewarded with a much larger kitchen. It was here that my father-in-law stopped in almost every morning, just to say hello to his first grandchild, and to watch her have her baby cereal. He’d always take the cup of coffee I offered; if I had pie or a muffin to go with it, he’d break into a grin.
  • The kitchen at the lake house was a narrow hallway. Three small windows over the sink looked onto the driveway and the neighbor’s house beyond. One of my first purchases was three tiny African violet plants, one to sit in each window. The first winter we lived there, a thousand mice climbed up the plumbing from the Michigan basement, and made themselves at home inside of the metal cabinets. They ate everything that they could get into, and tormented me for weeks until we got rid of them. The memory of the sound of those hundreds of tiny jaws could still give me nightmares!
  • The townhouse that was our next home had a small but pristine kitchen, with brand new appliances and a perfect layout. There, I taught myself how to prepare cashew chicken, lasagna, potato soup, and several other dishes that continue to be my favorites.
  • When we stayed at the farmhouse on Beaver Island, it seems there were always plenty of people to cook for. The large kitchen with big farmhouse table was perfect for rolling out piecrust, and I made many pies there with island apples and berries.
  • The large kitchen in the duplex apartment at Corner 16 was one of my favorites. Without a stove for the first several months we lived there, I learned to bake (lasagna, dinner rolls, even birthday cake!) in the electric frying pan. The long counter top was lined with special things: a tall apothecary jar filled with dried gourds; a piece of driftwood my husband had found; a framed photo of my sister Brenda and me, as babies; a beautiful large shelf fungus brought from Beaver Island. At Christmastime, we set the Christmas tree up in the corner of the kitchen, and hung the cards on the door.
  • The small kitchen at the Cherry Lane apartment on the campus of Michigan State University was simple, but efficient and well-used. We were right across the highway from the grocery store, that had large selections of ethnic foods. I had fun becoming familiar with the new flavors.
  • My current kitchen, in my little house on Beaver Island, is used mainly just for my own simple meals. It’s pleasant, though, with its view into the backyard garden, wall of bookshelves, and hanging baskets. Because I rarely eat out these days, the kitchen gets plenty of use, even just for me.

This isn’t a list of all of my kitchens, but I think I’ve mentioned all the best ones.

Cookbooks (April A ~ Z Challenge)

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Cookbooks are an entirely different category than regular books. Though they each have a direction, they rarely offer much of a plot. Still, for me, they are wonderful to explore. The ones I love best gained that status for various reasons. These are my favorites:

  • Meals: Tested, Tasted and Approved, by the Good Housekeeping Institute. I don’t know when this book was published, because there is no copyright. Some things that suggest its age: a chapter on how servants should present the meal; another suggesting that babies should not be served solid food until they are two-years-old, and no meat until they are at least three. Though I rarely use this cookbook, it has a place of honor on my shelf. I treasure it because it belonged to my Grandma Thelma, and has, in her own handwriting, her recipe for Green Tomato Relish inside the back cover.
  • The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. This was a gift from my mother, given to me when I was seventeen years old. It’s the book I learned to cook with, and its spattered pages are a testament to its use.
  • Home Food Systems, by the editors at Rodale Press. This book came out in the early 1970s. It is a little dated now, both in the bearded and bell-bottomed cooks in the photographs, and in the product reviews. Still, it has my go-to recipe for the very best easy whole-wheat bread. Plus, if I ever decide to start raising rabbits, goats or even trout, this book has the information I will need!
  • Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, by the Moosewood Collective. Though I rarely cook from recipes in this book, it is, to date, the most entertaining reading of any cookbook I’ve found. Each chapter is written by a member of the Moosewood family, and tells about their own experience with food. They introduce the cuisine and customs of their country, or region of the United States, and recipes for a full-course meal are presented. I’ve read this book at least three times from cover to cover. If I ever retire, I’m going to start travelling the world right in my own kitchen, through these recipes.
  • An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler. This author has been compared to M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote wonderfully and extensively about food. This book is simply outstanding.
  • Let’s Get Together, by DeeDee Stovel and Pam Wakefield. This book is sub-titled “Simple Recipes for Gatherings with Friends,” and that pretty much defines it. This is the book I most often turn to when I’m cooking for others. It has the best no-fail popover recipe, an easy and good muffin recipe with several variations, and main dishes that are simple yet impressive in both taste and appearance.

I turn to Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for specific instruction. I often turn to Martha Stewart when I’m baking. I count on The Mediterranean Heart Diet for the best pizza crust. The Quick & Easy Vegetarian Cookbook by Manners and Manners has my favorite “Dark and Handsome” chocolate cake recipe. And, I have to admit, most of my cooking is based on time and ingredients at hand, and doesn’t require a cookbook at all. Still, I like having them here in case I need them!

Cabbage

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Cabbage makes rare appearances on my table. Every now and then, in the summertime, a cabbage salad sounds just right. In the winter, diced cabbage will enrich a broth. Once in a while, a sauteed wedge of cabbage, flavored with a little soy sauce will serve as the vegetable for my dinner. Cabbage is cheap, stores well, and has a reasonably mild flavor, but it’s not my favorite.

I love the cousins: Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli and Swiss chard. They seem to have a little more personality than cabbage. It could be just because it was so often on our table when I was growing up, I’ve come to think of cabbage as ordinary.

I can remember at least three variations of cabbage salad that made regular appearances on our table. Dad’s coleslaw was finely grated cabbage and carrots doctored with mayonnaise and a little vinegar. Mom’s coleslaw was thinly shredded cabbage and a little grated carrot in a dressing of Miracle Whip thinned with milk. My favorite, though, was the salad Mom made with roughly chopped cabbage, slices of sweet onion, and diced tomatoes. It was dressed with a mayonnaise, milk and sugar combination.

Boiled dinner made regular appearances during harvest season. Pig hocks or a picnic ham would be the foundation, rounded out with potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbage from out garden. In the winter, we always had several large heads of cabbage in cold storage, and a big crock of sauerkraut fermenting somewhere. Jars of sauerkraut that my mother had canned shared shelf space with stewed tomatoes and other vegetables. They would be pulled out to cook with ribs, kielbasa, or a pork roast.

A couple years ago, when I was visiting family downstate, two sisters and I went to a Farmer’s Market. It was the perfect time of year for finding lots of treasures. Everything seemed plentiful and cheap. We bought a head of cabbage about the size of a bushel basket. I think it cost less than five dollars!

I was staying at my sister Brenda’s house, so she and I started incorporating that cabbage into meals. Shredded and sauteed, topped with cooked chicken pieces and shredded cheddar cheese. Diced and allowed to cook with burgers in the large frying pan. Cut in wedges and cooked with carrots as an accompaniment to meat cooked on the grill.

Everything tasted good. It didn’t seem overly repetitive. We didn’t get sick of the flavor, and were pretty proud of ourselves for working our way through that giant vegetable. The house though, noticeable only when you left and came in again, had picked up the distinct smell of cabbage over those few days!

A Meal I Loved

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Any meal is best when it’s shared, so my most memorable meals are the ones where the company and the surroundings contributed to the experience. A few stand out.

There was the chicken and dumplings I made several years ago and shared with my mother and my sister Sheila. It was one of our last meals together, and one of the last meals my Mom truly enjoyed, before medication and pain took her appetite away. Before the month was out, both Mom and Sheila had passed away (no fault of the food!).

The hamburger, from the Dairy Queen, that I purchased with my own money when I was twelve years old was memorable. It had a steamed bun, and was doctored with mustard, pickle and onion because I had just decided that was the only way to dress a burger. I then walked down to the park, accompanied by my best friend, Linda, and we ate our lunches looking down into the Flint River.

Last summer my daughter, her husband, and two of my grandchildren were my dinner companions at a lovely old Italian restaurant near the theater where we would later see Hamilton. From appetizers through dessert, it was a wonderful meal.

I loved the booth tucked in with high-backed seats that gave us the feeling of privacy in a very crowded restaurant. We enjoyed the friendly bow-tied waiters, and the owners who hovered, and peeked in, to make sure everything was going as it should.

Everything sounded wonderful, so we each chose something different. We then passed forkfuls from one plate to the next, saying, “Oh my God, you have to taste this!” I specifically remember cannoli, the crust perfectly crisp, the filling not too sweet. Beyond that, I can’t remember exactly what I ordered, or what many delicious things I tasted. I just know that I loved it all.

The 52 Lists (for Happiness) Project #49

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List the things you are ready to rid yourself of, things in your home, in your closet, and in your heart:

Let me point out, first, that this directive clearly asks for the things I am “ready” to rid myself of, not the things I “could,” “should” or “ought to.” That distinction alone makes for a much shorter list.

  • I am almost – but not quite – ready to get rid of the cheap candle holder that hangs in the back window. It consists of a glass barrel-shaped chimney sitting on a circle of metal. A loop of wire attached to the bottom plate allows the whole thing to hang by a chain. The chain is rusted. The glass that shields the flame used to be green, but the plastic coating peeled off the first time a candle was burned there, so now it’s clear. It has to be taken down to lift the chimney, in order to insert and light the candle. It only holds a votive candle, anyway, so for the trouble of lighting it, I get about an hour of glow. And yet, when I start thinking of getting rid of it, I remember that this particular candle holder was one that my sister, Sheila, and I carried, in our little “Seven Sisters” shop here on Beaver Island. It was  one of the items that Sheila picked out, and ordered for us. The shop has been closed for many years and, now, Sheila is gone, too. So, for now, the candle holder stays.

I have a hundred old, decrepit items that have stories like that. This one, that was an early gift from someone that loved me, way back when they loved me; that one, that my daughters used when they were small; another that reminds me of my childhood; this, that my mother gave to me; and those jeans that are proof positive of how skinny I used to be. I am not yet ready to be rid of any of them!

  • I do, to my credit, have a couple large boxes of things to be donated to the library or the re-sale shop. I am ready to get rid of books that I won’t read again. Someone else may as well enjoy them. I am ready to get rid of dishes and small appliances that I don’t use. I am ready to get rid of clothes that don’t fit, or that don’t fit my lifestyle.
  • In my studio, I have a stack of rejects to be recycled. I have a tendency to work a piece to death, in an effort to turn a failure into, maybe not a masterpiece but, something worthwhile. Sometimes a failure is simply that, and no amount of time or materials will redeem it. I am ready to be rid of it all.
  • Finally, happily, I am ready to throw away the concept that the past holds the key to the “ideal.” For my whole life, Christmas was my favorite holiday. I loved it when I was a child, and I loved it even more when I had children. Then, years went by, circumstances changed, and I found myself living alone on Beaver Island. Some years, I travel downstate to visit my family for Christmas; last year, I went to Charlevoix to meet up and hang out with my best girlfriend. Often, I just stay home. Long ago, I quit decorating for the holiday. “Why bother, just for me,” I asked myself and, “It will be so much trouble to have to take it all down again.” “If the kids were coming, I’d go all out for Christmas,” I’d tell myself, knowing full well that with the time and inconvenience (including the expense, the unpredictable Michigan weather, and the varied schedules of several working adults) of bringing children, gifts and holiday traditions to Beaver Island, my kids were never going to come here for Christmas. So, I let my own traditions go. I have not been sad and miserable, but the season has certainly not had the giddy, anticipatory joy of years past. This year, all of that changed. I cut down a tree, set it up and decorated it. I made hot cider, and put on the old holiday records as I pulled out the ornaments. Then I decorated the tiny artificial tree that I had in the Christmas tote. I set up the little nativity set that was a gift from my husband on the first Christmas after we were married. I pulled out all of the “Santa”s that I collected over the years, and lined them up on a shelf in front of my cookbooks. It doesn’t seem sad, that it’s not the same as when I was little, or as when my children were little. It’s only different. It’s still Christmas. This is what the holiday is like now, for me. It’s not about what is missing, or what is not the same. It’s about me, finding joy in my favorite holiday. It feels good to have the lights and sounds and smells of Christmas around me. And it doesn’t seem, now, like it will be such a terrible chore to take it down after the New Year. If it is, I assure you, it was worth it!