Archive for the ‘Family Memories’ Category

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September 27, 2015: Tri-color “Salt” Potatoes

September 27, 2015

Tri-Color Salt PotatoesOne is never sure what will work. Sometimes, what can seem at first mundane, is virtually unheard of to the world at large.

Back in December of 2010, I was stuck for a topic/food/recipe for the blog, and I got a brainstorm: I had never seen a recipe for “Salt Potatoes” in any of the sundry food blogs and magazines I subscribed to. At the time I thought that was because I couldn’t imagine anyone documenting such a common dish.

How wrong I was.

Growing up, salt potatoes were at least a weekly dish. We kids didn’t mind. Salt potatoes are tasty, go well with many meals, and with eight kids to feed…cheap and plentiful! Having an Irish woman as a mom probably added to the frequency with which she added them to the weekly menu.

Writing the original article, what I didn’t consider was how common this dish is to my locale and why. You see, I hail from Syracuse NY, which in an earlier American history was where much of our salt came from. The natural deposits of primeval salt in the local lakes made salt production easy and cheap. One main street of Syracuse is named “Salina Street” due to the impact the industry had for residents.

So, with cheap salt supplies and Irish workers digging the nearby Erie Canal, salt potatoes were pretty common. They are still often sold at open markets and fairs, often replacing french fries as the potato treat of choice.

So, I was pretty surprised when my (to my mind..a very, very basic) recipe was picked up by a national food blog! The recipe was “featured” as best recipe of the day and yielded my best day for the blog, with a total of 125 hits!

My sister Mary Lou, happened to call that day and I was excited to tell her the news. When, knowing my range as a chef, she asked what recipe was featured, and I told her…there was long pause. “WHY?” she asked! Turns out what a native Syracusan considers commonplace was not so for the rest of the world!

Salt Potatoes are indeed so basic, it is hard to improve them, but recently I picked up these tri-color baby potatoes in a local farm stand and these upped the ante! As well as color, each potato had its own individual taste, and I was surprised to find the inner part tinged with a slight color of the outside. The one that appears black, is actually a dark purple like a beet, so the inner potato had light purple color!

A good chef is always looking to improve on even the most basic recipe! Adding this one to my repertoire of cheap, easy, aesthetic, fun, and unusual dishes!

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July 06, 2015: Montcalm

July 6, 2015

Montcalm HeaderB&W

A memory can make an indelible impression on a young mind like that of a potters mark in soft clay. Once fired, that mark lasts as long as the vessel itself.

Montcalm MenuOne evening, when I was around 12 years old, was an evening of many firsts: first “real” restaurant, first link with a living history, and first (and last) lobster. My family was visiting my sister who was attending college in Glenns Falls, NY. To celebrate the occasion, my dad decided to take the whole family out to a “fancy” restaurant in the area called the “Montcalm” that he had heard good things about. Back then, the Montcalm was located on the grounds of what once was Fort William Henry, on the shore of Lake George.

Please LobsterBack in the early 70’s, it was still the style of people to dress up before going to dinner. Now, I’m all for casual Friday’s and such, but I feel we, as a culture, have lost much by giving up this tradition in America. I used to enjoy the preparation and subsequent buildup of anticipation to the special event. There was also a kind of respect for oneself, fellow-diners, the restaurant itself…but mostly for the respect for the family occasion of dining out.

So, resplendent in my suit-coat and tie, I go to my first real dining experience. I remember the Montcalm being large, somewhat dark, with eclectic artwork. My memory is bit fuzzy here, but I believe they attempted to recreate the feel of the fort in the overall decor. The focus of the dining room was a roaring fireplace, over which was a portrait of what obviously was a military man in a light blue uniform. From the clothing, hair style, weapons. etc. in the portrait, I judged the time period to around the Revolutionary War. To my query about the portrait, my dad gave me a history of the place.

B&W-father-smMy dad explained that Fort William Henry was an English fort against the French in a war, that among other things, was the battle over which nation would rule what would eventually become the United States and Canada. As Americans, we call this the “French and Indian War” because that’s who “we” (as we were British back then) were fighting (although the British used Native American allies as well…largely the Iroquois nations against the Hurons, Ottawa, and Abenaki, who were allied to the French.) In the wider European aspect, this conflict was called the “Seven Years War.”

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was the French commander attacking the fort. After several days of bombardment by the French, the British commander of Fort William Henry, Colonel Edmund Munro, met with Montcalm in parley for terms of surrender. Munro was surprised with General Montcalm’s generous terms for the fort’s surrender: all people in the fort were allowed to leave safely, with their arms…an almost unheard of convention, under the condition that they do not take up arms again against France.

As the British were leaving the fort, they were attacked by over 2000 French-allied Native Americans who saw the surrender as robbing them of the spoils of war. They wounded, killed or captured, not only soldiers, but many men, women, and children the soldiers were to protect. Numbers vary, but later research seems to suggest that over 150 people were lost, under the most brutal conditions, in the attack.

When I asked my dad why anyone would name a restaurant after a commander who essentially “beat us” my dad thought for a moment and said that it was probably for the honor and respect Montcalm bestowed upon Col. Munro and the residents of the fort, despite being victorious over them.

I had other questions for my father that night, not all of them about history. Up to this point the only waiters I had ever seen were the ones at Howard Johnsons and Friendlys. These were different: dressed in formal service attire complete with bow tie, vest and a longer-tailed suitcoat. The bussers (which I had never seen before…dad explained their function) were dressed in their own more simple uniform. I remember being amazed and anxious that the waiters could balance huge trays with just one hand. I also asked dad why we were served salad before the meal (at home we always had it after the main course) to which dad told me it was to keep us quiet while the staff could make the main part of the meal. Before we ordered, dad talked me into having a whole lobster, which I had never had before.

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre

Many years later, reading up on the history of the Seven Years War, I came across the Battle of Fort William Henry, and discovered that it was generally accepted that Montcalm himself tried to stop the attack on the citizens of the vacated fort, but the violence had escalated too far by that point. I also found that being on the “frontier” like they were, residents of New York State had more dealings with and trading between, the French and so were a little bit more accepting that the British hard-liners from other areas. More reasons, I suppose, why there would be such a place dedicated to Montcalm in New York State.

Just before the meal came, the waiter helped me on with what I was to discover was a required accoutrement: a lobster bib. I was at an age where I found this all very embarrassing. After the waiter left, I asked my dad if the bib was truly required. With a chuckle, dad told me that I would find it very helpful once I started eating. The next set of tools the waiter gave me was a nut cracker and a small pick. “What am I getting myself into?!!!” I thought to myself. When the lobster came, I had even more reservations. “Looks like a big BUG!” I told dad.  “Yeah.” he said, “That’s pretty much what it is: a big, oceanic bug! But it is also delicious!” Dad proceeded to give a few lesson on how to crack the shells and pick out the meat, told me not  to eat the organs, etc. Dad was right, it was delicious, but all-in-all a little too messy for my tastes! Although I have happily prepared lobsters for others (even professionally…as a chef’s assistant in a French restaurant) I have never eaten lobster since that night.

Cooper's Cave-1917

Cooper’s Cave-1917

So, the lobster didn’t make a big impact, but the history did. Years later, I was reading “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper and realized that the whole story takes place right around the area of the Montcalm, where I had dined so many years previously! In fact, the genesis of the whole story was when Cooper visited the cave under the Glenns Falls. When a friend of his commented on the cave by saying “here was the very scene for romance” Cooper promised the friend that he would write a story worthy of that “romance.” By doing so, Cooper became America’s first internationally recognized novelist.

Cooper’s story begins a few days preceding the French attack on Fort William Henry. The hero, Hawkeye, and his adoptive Mohican father Chingachgook, and brother Uncas, are hunting in the woods west of Albany, when they foil an attack on a party traveling from Albany to the fort. The attackers are Hurons, led by the villain of the story, Magua. The party is led by British Major Duncan Heyward, who is guiding Col. Munro’s daughters, Cora and Alice, along with a singing instructor, David Gamut, to Fort Henry. After the Hurons are either killed or driven off by Hawkeye and the Mohicans, and realizing Magua (who escaped) would return with reinforcements, they lead the group to a secret cave under the falls, where they spend the night in safety before continuing on to the besieged fort.

Hawkeye is just one name for Cooper’s hero, who seems to have more monikers than any other figure in literature. He is also “The Trapper;” “Le Longue Carabine (the long rifle);” “Leatherstocking;” “Pathfinder;” “Deerslayer;” and (oddest of all, what seems to be Hawkeye’s birth name) “Natty Bumppo!” I’m not quite sure what he was thinking with all the names, but perhaps to Cooper, the number of names suggests the varied people Hawkeye comes in contact with and the esteem they hold for him. The “Natty Bumppo” only makes me think of an early “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnnie Cash (as in…with such a silly name he’d just have to grow up a tough tracker!)

“Last Of The Mohicans” is the second of the five “Leatherstocking Tales” by Cooper, all with Hawkeye as each book follows him through different phases of his life. I always think of Cooper and his hero as I travel by the “Leatherstocking Region” sign on the NYS Thruway on my way home, but I never really knew its’ context. Turns out “leatherstocking” is what the Native Americans call boots.

Revisiting Cooper’s writing, I found it a bit uneven: his style can actually be confusing to the point that I often did not know what I just read. I admit, that I tend to race through a book, so when I slowed it down a bit, Cooper’s style became a little more readable. Cooper’s writing style so angered Mark Twain, that he felt compelled to write an essay called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and even started a Huck Fynn/Tom Sawyer parody of  “The Last Of The Mohicans” but gave it up before publishing. There is the occasional historical inaccuracy or confusion in Cooper’s writing, also. Like the name, “Mohican”…no such Native American tribe. Did Cooper mean “Mohegan?” “Morican?” “Mahikan?” Cooper also consistently calls Lake George by “Horican” throughout the book, but that seems to be a name he picked up (yet another Native American tribe is “Horican”) because he liked the sound of it. To the casual reader, there are other confusions. Like why, if the Iroquois are allied to the English does Hawkeye consider them enemies? It could be that Hawkeye is allied to the Mohicans, a subset of the Delaware tribe, and they are enemies to the Iroquois. But Cooper clearly states that the Iroquois are allied with the French! As the group is coming close to the fort, Hawkeye warns them, “Montcalm has already filled the woods with his accursed Iroquois.” A bit of sloppy history research, there. All this may be historical nit-picking, but only if the story holds up. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn’t.

Glenns Falls-1896

Glenns Falls-1896

At a couple of places, the inconsistencies of character or situation tore me right out of the reading. One instance: while holed up in the cave under the falls, Hawkeye allows the singing instructor, David Gamut, to sing a song, and then proceeds to get a little weepy when he does. All this while they are being hunted by the Hurons! OK. Wrong place! Wrong time! Wrong action! I picture the Mohicans frantically priming their weapons, while rolling their eyes at Hawkeye!

There is also Hawkeye’s treatment of Cora and Alice. So…we have a 40-year-old man…who has spent a lot of time in the woods…with just male Mohicans to hang out with. He meets two attractive, vibrant, young women and after an adrenaline-infused rescue, what does Hawkeye do? He nods, smiles at them and then starts treating them like sisters! I mean, the girls have been around (you know…London, Boston, Albany) I’m sure they have some great stories to tell, but does he engage them? Noooo…not the boyscout Hawkeye!

I can’t help but picture the following conversation:

Cora: “What’s with this guy?”
Alice: “I know. I mean, we’ve been on the trail for a few days…but jheesh!
Cora: “Hey, look. Is dung on my dress? Venison in my teeth?”
Alice: “No..no. Ya think maybe he’s a little…[teeters hand vertically]?”
Cora: “Mm…maybe when you’re in the woods too long, social skills get..um..mossy!”
Alice: “Say, I wonder if his Mohican friends are free?”
Cora: “Yeah! Dibs on the young one!”

The worst offense by Cooper takes place at the start of the massacre of the fort populace. A woman and her baby are slaughtered in an extremely violent manner. Yikes! I only hope that all the high schoolers reading  “LOTM” as required reading are warned ahead of time!

So…a few problems with style and consistency. Still, “LOTM” has good story potential, if one could iron out all the highs and lows.

Luckily, someone has.

Michael Mann’s 1992 version of “Last Of The Mohicans” totally morphs Cooper’s book, smooths out all the story bumps; adds exciting battle scenes (both hand-to-hand and on a large-scale); romances; a villain you love to hate; sweeping panoramas of nature; an near-perfect film score; accurate costumes and makeup; and stocks the film with some of the best actors available at that time.

Hollywood has made four versions of “LOTM” (1920, 1932, 1936, and 1992.) I think it interesting that in the 23 years since Mann’s “LOTM” no one has dared a re-make. I think Hollywood acknowledges that it would be silly to tamper with perfection!

Although I mourn Mann’s choice to substitute my native New York with North Carolina as a setting, I understand that the Adirondacks don’t look quite the way they did in 1757. NC is an excellent stand-in with its majestic forests, steep rocky cliffs, raging waterfalls, and clear rivers. You can tell how much effort went into set design, wardrobe, and makeup (notice the warpaint of each Huron, for instance: no two look like…the way it would have been!)

Daniel Day-Lewis, as the perfect

Daniel Day-Lewis, as the perfect “Hawkeye”

Daniel Day-Lewis has played more challenging and provocative roles before and since, but he is the perfect Hawkeye: what every boy wants to be, yet what every lady likes to look at! Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye as tough and capable, with a bit of a snide humor, and best of all, he has the capability to be sensitive, romantic, and tender. NO wooden boy scout here! Day-Lewis has rounded Hawkeye out into a full figure of man! At the time of filming “LOTM,” Day-Lewis was at the height of his immersing himself in the role part of his career. DDL stayed out for weeks before the shoot in the woods, eating only what he could bring down himself.

“Forget all that ‘Natty Bumppo’ stuff, Miss Cora. Here, I’m called Nathaniel…or even better…just call me ‘Hawkeye'”

Mann has (mercifully) changed Hawkeye’s name to the more dignified “Nathaniel Poe.” Where the book is almost devoid of romance, in the film everyone is in love: Hawkeye loves Cora, and so does Heyward. Uncas loves Alice. I would go as far as to say that Hawkeye and Cora’s love scenes are as smoking hot as a director can show with the leads still wearing clothes!

In fact, all the emotions are amped up in Mann’s film. The best is how he has changed Magua. In Cooper’s book, Magua’s motivation of revenge is because Col. Munro introduced Magua to alcohol and when Magua acts up under the influence, Munro has him whipped. So…Magua is a mean drunk with a grudge. The film Magua, played to perfection by Wes Studi, is a lean, brooding, stealthy, sociopath, always an inch away from violence. This Magua has a real reason for a grudge: Munro has made Magua lose his entire family and had him driven from his tribe so that he has to be adopted by his enemy, the Mohawks, in order to survive. Magua not only wants to kill Munro, he wants to eat his heart, but only before he has killed his daughters in front of him, so Munro knows his whole line dies under Magua’s tomahawk!

Hawkeye and Cora get all swoony on the parapet of Ft. William-Henry

Hawkeye and Cora get all swoony on the parapet of Ft. William-Henry

One other change Mann makes is that of his character of Montcalm. After Montcalm has graciously allowed the English to leave the fort, he clandestinely meets with Magua, and implies that he would rather not meet these English again as he drives his forces towards Albany. Magua picks up on the hint and organizes the massacre, thereby enabling a chance for revenge on Munro.

I began to see that there are as many versions of Montcalm’s actions prior to, and during the massacre in media since 1757. Even Cooper has a more abject version of Montcalm’s actions. After the massacre has begun, Cooper’s characters are observing from a nearby mountain:

“The cruel work was still unchecked. On every side the captured were flying before their relentless persecutors, while the armed columns of the Christian king stood fast in an apathy which has never been explained, and which has left an unmovable blot on the otherwise fair escutcheon of their leader.”

[This being a fair sample of how convoluted Cooper’s writing can be, but what he seems to say is:] “Montcalm stood by and did nothing to save the fort’s inhabitants.”

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm

I think these versions exist as they make good drama. But in actuality, why would Montcalm behave more honorably than just about any military leader known one day, and then behave so dishonorably the next? Not only is not keeping in character, but there is only one way his colluding with the attackers could benefit him: if there was not a single survivor, and that was something he could not possibly guarantee. If word got back to the English of his collusion, the only possible reaction for them would be hatred toward a dishonorable foe. As it was, the outrage over the massacre would never be surpassed in America, until after Santa Anna decimated the Alamo!

I tend to take whatever version of history with a grain of salt. There are many variations of events that have taken place just yesterday. To find the absolute truth in actions taken place 258 years ago, is next to impossible. All one can do is look at the general character of Montcalm. He was brave, a good leader and military strategist. At the very least, he feigned honor in the occasion of Fort William Henry, if only for the sake of good form. Having made this stand, why would he then renege on it when he knew the outcome would only to have history typecast him forever as a scoundrel?

Just when I reached a point of frustration with Cooper’s writing, I read a section from the earlier Leatherstocking Tale, “Deerslayer.” In this tale, Hawkeye is younger and has met an older fellow tracker called “Hurry Harry ” who gives Hawkeye his opinion of the races. He rates the white race as the highest. Blacks he considers “useful.” His opinion of the American Indian is the worst of all. He tells Hawkeye: “You may account yourself as a red skin’s brother, but I hold ’em all to be animals, with nothing human about ’em but cunning….”

One begins to think that maybe Harry is in a “hurry” to judge his fellow-man.

Hawkeye’s response is perfect: “I look upon the red men to be quite as human as we are ourselves…. They have their gifts, and their religion, it’s true, but that makes no difference in the end, when each will be judged according to his deeds, and not according to his skin.”

Sadly, history was not written in the woods of the frontier. History was (and still is) written in the towns of the victors… and History (with all its inconsistencies) chronicles the general movement of us over time:

The British overcame the French. We overcame the British.

The “frontier” of Eastern New York State did not stay still. It was pushed constantly westward until no frontier exists in our United States. Along with this sweeping frontier, we wiped the original inhabitants away. We will never completely know the could-have-been-contributions of a Peoples who might have added much (as did subsequent immigrants) to the textured amalgamation that is America culture.

Montcalm lost his life fighting the British in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham, outside of Quebec.

The falls that covered the real cave that inspired James Fenimore Cooper to write “Last Of The Mohicans” has long since been dammed over…it’s once raging flow restricted and tamed.

The restaurant named after Montcalm, that I dined at so many years ago, moved from the shore of Lake George, to a few miles away in 1984. It was closed in 2013 and now a shopping center exists where it once stood.

It has been some years now, that I have had the joy and benefit of the culinary prodding to adventure and impromptu history lessons from my father.

Times change, but our memories, cemented into words, become what we call “History.” Generation after generation, we put these words down. In a sense, we are all the last of our kind. Best stated by Uncas, who at the end of Mann’s film, finding himself to be “The Last Of The Mohicans” our stories let the world know:

“But once, we were here.”

[Much thanks to Jim Dowrey for his wonderful historical mind and for his memories of what fine dining was like back in the day.]

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March 08, 2015: A Riff On A Classic

March 8, 2015

Riff On A ClassicMost of my adult life I have been prone to slam my mother’s cooking. In recent years, I’ve come to realize how unfair my attitude has been.

Like most children, I suppose, we don’t find the true worth of a parent until it is far too late. My mother had to cook, daily, for ten people. If she sometimes found shortcuts to stretch my dad’s salary and cover what must have been a huge drain on our household…well, now that I am older and perhaps a bit wiser, I realize she did a pretty decent job, all in all.

Like most women of post-WWII, my mom took advantage of popular foods of the day. Many of these included, frozen and canned foods. Some were bland and awful…and a few were pretty spectacular! One dish my mom made often was “her” tuna fish casserole. I seem to remember that it came right off the back label of a Campbell’s mushroom soup can. It was a combination of boiled noodles, a can of tuna fish and two cans of the mushroom soup (plus milk) then baked. It was cheap, fast, fed a lot of hungry kids, and was a no-brainer. Best of all, as kids, we loved it! No wonder my mom made it often!

I thought I could make a healthier, veggie-based, slightly more jazzed-up version of this dish:

Peel skins off 3 large portobello mushrooms (I put these in a sandwich bag and keep them frozen until I make my next broth.) Slice them 1/2″ thick, and saute in 4 Tblsp. melted butter until soft. Add the juice of 1 lemon and a splash of sherry. Continue cooking a little until the shrooms almost absorbs all the liquids.

Chop 1 head of broccoli. (In keeping with my mom’s economy sense, I used the stalks as well, but chopped them a bit finer.)

I set about 4 Qts. H2O to boil while I made my veloute. This is always slightly different, depending on the dish, but this one was:

4 Tblsp. of melted butter+4 Tblsp. flour whisked together on medium heat until it has turned a slightly tawny color. Add 2C. whole milk and 1 can mushroom soup and continue whisking until just thick enough to pour easily. I had some organic mushroom gravy so I added 1C. of that. Normally, I would have used veggie broth instead.

When the H2O came to a boil I added 1 bag (12 Oz.) wide egg noodles. These usually boil for about 7 minutes, but I did them for 6 (knowing I was to bake the dish, a bit al dente is best) adding the broccoli for the last 2 minutes. Drain.

Butter the bottom and sides of a large (18″ X 12″) Pyrex pan and add drained noodles and broccoli. Top this with mushrooms and add veloute. I then topped this with 1/2C. each grated Swiss, Asiago, and Colby Jack cheeses and a sprinkle of each ground pepper and herbs de Provence and baked at 325°F for half hour.

A crunchy, cheesy top with tender noodles and veggies underneath. Best of all was the earthy, tangy, lemony shrooms that accented every bite.

Mom’s dish was more easily made than mine, but with just a tiny bit more effort and time, this classic turned into a real treat!

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December 17, 2012: Bittersweet

December 17, 2012

Bittersweet LayoutI know what you would say. “We have more than enough Christmas traditions. There is no need to concern ourselves with yet another Christmas decoration” and in one sense you’d be correct. We have all the holly, ivy, wreaths, mistletoe, Yule Logs, perfectly healthy conifers that we cut down and bring inside to put lights on. No, I’m talking a decoration for a very different set of folks. Let’s say the holly, ivy, etc. are for the “haves” of the world, because let’s be honest…few people with money collect decorations from nature. I know of no one now that actually goes out to chop down the Christmas tree, anymore. Most people buy Christmas decorations, and if you have the ready cash to buy temporary vegetation to decorate your home for the Christmas season, that pretty much qualifies you as a “have” as opposed to a “have-not.”

Here, I want to break off and say I hope you are a “have.” I sincerely want each and every single one of you to be a “have” because now that I have had the experience of a “have-not” there is no one I would wish this state upon. Yet, I am far from alone…not this Christmas anyway, and for most Christmases either. As the man said once,”The poor will be with us always.”

The Christmas decoration that I propose for the “have-nots” is that of the American Bittersweet. First, it is a true American plant, as opposed to the holly and the ivy, both which grow in the Americas, but it is the European varieties that we see at Christmas. Bittersweet has a festive coloring, forming red berries with the occasional yellow sheath covering, just before Christmas. It is found on a long, flexible vine that can be wound around like a wreath or cut into smaller pieces. It grows in abundance just about anywhere in the wild and is free for the taking. Symbolically, it is appropriate for us “have-nots” as like poverty, Bittersweet can surround and choke off all other life it grows around. Most symbolic is the plant’s name, because as we all carry memories of better Christmases, being poor at Christmas can be perfectly described as “bittersweet.”

Bittersweet_LThe Sweet
My first introduction to Bittersweet as a decoration was at my last “real” Christmas four years ago. I was visiting my sister in Western New York State and she had her house decorated in her unique and quirky artistic style. Every corner of her house had a different and usually antique, decoration or toy. I noticed she had tastefully placed vines of red berries with yellow accents behind a number of pieces of artwork and when I asked what they were and she told me it was Bittersweet. As always, she was the perfect chef and hostess and served the family a most wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner, complete with candlelight, champagne, and  a slew of wonderful Christmas desserts she is famous for. Christmas morning was the best because I had the money to spoil my niece and nephew with a shower of gifts. As Christmases go, it doesn’t get more sweet than that.

No Cash at Christmas is a Real Dickens
Probably the biggest success story of being poor at Christmas is famous because it has been turned into the best-loved Christmas stories in English literature. Despite having been the most celebrated authors of his time, just before Christmas 1843, Charles Dickens was having his own financial crunch. His last two novels were a critical, but not monetary, success. He had just come back from a bad tour of America, where he hoped to get new ideas. It wasn’t a good mix. Dickens found Americans crude and boorish. They found him foppish and irritating. With his fifth child born and overdrawn at the bank, Dickens needed a real good story, and he needed it quick! Dickens was forever haunted by the idea of poverty. When he was eleven, he was pulled out of school and had to work at a boot-blacker shop as his father was put into a debtors prison for his own bad money management. Not only was the work, messy, dirty, smelly and filling the long day with mind-numbing dullness, but Dickens had ignominy of having to perform his job in front of a window for passer-bys. He was never going down that road again if he could help it.

So, by locking himself in a room with pen and paper, in just six weeks, he Bittersweet_Cpounded out “A Christmas Carol” and self-published it just in time for the Christmas season. The rest, they say, is history. He had managed to not only eventually rekindle his bank account but also to capture the perfect and concise story of what it means to be human. He also, single-handedly reinvented Christmas from a not-so-special holiday into what we know of it today. He managed to do all this, while at the same time not sacrificing his moral or creative ideals. Due to his own experiences, Dickens was much concerned with the education of English youths and counted it as the only way to improve the welfare of his nation’s future. Witness, the youthful spectres of “Want” and “Ignorance” that are sheltered under the Ghost of Present Christmas’s cloak.

As with our dreams, storytellers tell stories about what they know…and what they know best is themselves. It is understandable that in “A Christmas Carol” Dickens is at once Cratchit, Fezziwig, and Scrooge, especially when chastised for his avarice from his young finacee with, “You fear the world too much!”

Bittersweet_RThe Bitter
Yet who could blame anyone for “fearing the world too much” when you are under the threat of poverty? The fear is generating from the idea that you have no real control over your life. Having some experience with this, now for the fourth year, I would like to offer some thoughts that may possibly help others in my “have-not” condition (and might not hurt those of the “have” category as well!) Most of these are indeed old chestnuts, so roast them long and slow over your Christmas hearth:

No amount of wretchedness can remove your good memories. Those are yours forever. Use them to remember a time when things were not as bad. All things pass.

Never lose your ideals. There is one thing worse than being poor and that is being poor and not being able to look yourself in the mirror from being bad to yourself or others.

The only real thing you have control over is your attitude. Misery hates laughter. Find the humor. You might even find (like Dickens) with a little imagination, you have a good story.

You might feel embarrassed because it seems  you are failing. Please stop. The only people your condition matters to, are the ones who love you anyway and sincerely want you to improve. Just do your best.

The world tends to obscure blessings through the cataract of misery. Look closer. You will find blessings behind the veil.

Find solace in the free (or cheap) stuff…it is usually the best stuff anyway. Libraries, laughter of children, exercise, sunlight, fresh air, the occasional moment of grace….and just a whiff of hope, are all not to be undervalued.

I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point out that like most Christmas decorations, Bittersweet is also slightly poisonous and should not be placed in households with pets and small children.

To my friends and family: to all the “haves” and “have-nots;” I wish you a most lovely and wondrous Christmas season. Oh…one more exceptional free thing…a good wish. Yet…if I had wealth of millions that sincere good wish would still be the best of what I could offer.

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December 12, 2012: Christmas Filberts

December 12, 2012

Christmas FibertsThere is something about filberts (hazelnuts) that somehow for me make the holiday season. Maybe it is that growing up, I never saw them all year round except for the holidays. I wanted to do something special with them, to commemorate all those past memorable Christmases. The danger is that this time, I exceeded my own expectations. Living alone, as I do, there is no one to stop me from scarfing down all these delicious Christmas Filberts. Luckily, I have you, dear reader, whom I feel obligated to distract me long enough to write this recipe down, before it gets too stale in my mind.

Nice and glossy, a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, a little bit salty, with a delicate citrus accent to the tasty woody nut…you are wanting to double this recipe…quadruple if it is for a party!

Christmas Filberts
Shell 1 Lb. Hazelnuts (sadly, this only yields about 2C.) In a small pan bring 1/4C. H2O and 1/2C Dark Brown Sugar to a slow boil and reduce heat. Add 1/4 Tsp. Orange Zest, 1Tsp. Cinnamon, 1/4 Tsp. Ground Clove, 1/4 Tsp. Nutmeg and 1/4 Tsp. Cayenne Pepper. When the sauce is thick, remove from heat and add hazelnuts and stir, coating the nuts. Spoon hazelnuts from liquid-sugar and add to a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Sprinkle with fine sal de mer, turn hazelnuts with spoon, and salt again. Bake at 325°F for about 15 minutes, turning often. Do NOT over-cook! [remove from heat if you find the excess sugar turning solid] While still warm, push the hazelnuts from the puddle of caramelizing sugar-spice, turning until they cool. Remove to an airtight container. Delicious anytime, but best while still a little bit warm!

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September 17, 2012: “Toast” (2010)

September 17, 2012

I take it for granted that most of the movies in the DVD collection at the library have been found to have some flaw by the people who donated them. Probably the most common reason for donating them is to make room for the new DVD purchases. Still, these movies must have been found lacking in some way, by the donators. So, I play this game that I call “find the flaw” as I view them.

I was thrilled to find a new-ish “indie-foodie” (my most favorite category of cinema) in the library’s collection called “Toast” (2010) by director S.J. Clarkson, a biography about early life of British food writer Nigel Slater.

Poor Nigel has a rough childhood. He has an inherit sensitivity to, and desire for, fine food, but is condemned to have a mother (although very sweet and caring) that has absolutely no clue how to prepare even the most simple dish. His voice over, states what every child knows, “When you are deprived of something, it just makes you all the more hungry for it.” It doesn’t help that his father has a very surly nature, “Not a sweet man, despite a very sweet tooth.” Mr. Slater is clearly not getting much sugar (both literal and metaphoric) from his wife, probably exacerbating his surliness. With Nigel’s pleading, his mother tries to make the dishes he craves, usually with disastrous results. Her default dish after these failures is toast, which oddly, despite its simplicity, Nigel finds satisfying, “No matter how bad things get, it’s hard not to love someone who has made you toast.” Nigel pleads with his mom to teach him to make mince-pie for Christmas, but she is ill and it is a race against time…a race that ultimately is lost.

Enter Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter) first as a cleaner but who slowly wins over the father with her very good cooking skills, earthiness and attractiveness. Dad finally has all the sugar he wants, but Nigel finds her “common” and can’t stand her. He can’t help but admit that she is a superior chef, but that just starts a rivalry between the two over the father’s affections with food as the weapon selected by the duelists.

I loved the setup of “Toast” as period piece about food and personalities and it certainly has some very fine moments. I loved the “tossing the mom’s sandwich” scene (something I have been guilty of, with my mom’s sandwiches.) The “grade school milk line” and the “food-porn” scenes I found to be just hilarious! “Toast” has a few very well-rounded and interesting side characters. I liked Nigel’s advising childhood friend and the young gardener Josh, who both sets the tone of the value of a life well-spent and explains the love of a garden in way that I have never heard before. The big surprise in acting came from child actor Oscar Kennedy as the young Nigel. In contrast, Freddie Highmore, himself having been a very good child actor, phones in his performance as the teen-age Nigel. Helena Bonham Carter does a superb job playing an unlikeable character (or is she…truly unlikable?) After viewing…feel free to talk amidst yourselves.

I found “Toast” to be very frustrating in one aspect. My group of friends’ nickname for this kind of film is an “effin-pint-o’-stiffy” after one of us saw “Trainspotting” a number of years ago. Our friend said that because of the accents, those were the only words she could make out in the entire film! I question any filmmaker, these days, not including subtitles! I want to catch every nuance of the spoken word of a film. A film with rich accents and period or colloquial words needs to be subtitled!

Where “Toast” absolutely shines is its use of the idea of food creation as expression of ones soul. Even amongst the characters that don’t have the skill to express themselves this way, somehow give meaning to this…and those that have it to the extreme, do not always choose to express their soul in the right way.

“Toast” also influenced me in a way that I never expected…but that is for another day…another article.

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August 20, 2012: “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa

August 20, 2012

Every Summer my superb local library (Hudson Public Library) puts out a cart they call the “Summer Reading List” which are suggestions to young adult readers about what the librarians think would be good reading material. I call it “The Treasure Chest” because, over the years, I have found such good reading material that I otherwise might never have found. A couple of weeks ago I found there “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa, which is the shiny gem in this years chest.

The gem that is “Obasan” is the semi-autobiographic novel about the internment of Joy and her family in a series of relocation camps in the interior of Canada during WWII. I have written about this topic before, and quite possibly will do again, because I still can’t quite believe that a nation would intern its own citizens, even under the threat of war. Unfortunately, we are still seeing such discrimination in our own country, even up to the last administration. For those that are unaware of our own sad history, at the beginning of WWII, Americans of the United States and Canada of Japanese decent, were relocated into camps in the interiors of both countries. Many of these people, particularly the children, as the case was of Ms. Kogawa had never even been to Japan, and almost all were nationalized citizens of their adopted countries. Families were separated, some members being shipped back to Japan. Many of the internees had their homes and possessions stolen from them by the government, even to the hand-made fishing boats, that were the heart of their family’s economy. Some died in the camps. All were discriminated against and betrayed by the very country they had travelled so far to immigrate to.

“Obasan” is a very real portrayal of a dispossessed people by a woman who lived the events. “Obasan” is very much a woman’s book. Men certainly are present, but largely take a back seat to the feelings and actions of the women. Obasan means “aunt” and one of the main characters is the somewhat complacent, quiet aunt of Naomi, the narrator of the story. Opposite Obasan is another aunt, Emily, who is a whirlwind of vocal protestations and militant-like written proclamations against the Canadian government addressing the abuses done to her, her family, and her fellow internees. As such, Naomi is caught in the middle between silent obsequiousness and militant activism, a position that itself, speaks volumes of what most American-Japanese must have felt going through this. Caught between their Eastern culture and Western discriminations. Caught between respect to a country, at the same time with that country failing them in the most miserable way possible. Caught between the duty to obey orders and honor for oneself and family.

The Kogawa Family (with a camp minister) in Slocan Relocation Camp; 1940’s

Like Naomi, reading “Obasan” I felt caught between as well. “Obasan” is extremely well written with clutches of prose so beautiful, they can only come from a poet, and yet that beautiful language only reinforces the perpetual sadness that saturates every page. I loved the words but hated how they made me feel. After one chapter, I felt compelled to find another book to “cut” Obasan” with, to get some relief. I chose its polar opposite: “Why We Suck” by Denis Leary, being not only the perfect foil in humor to the sorrow of “Obasan” but also reinforced that yes, any country that can commit crimes against its own citizens does in deed “suck!”

Another issue I had with the book is that much of the Japanese language and terms often go untranslated or undefined. I happen to know what a koto is because I’ve had the benefit of seeing and hearing one played. I’ve (obviously, if you follow this blog) been exposed to good deal of Japanese foodstuffs and know the Japanese words for them, but again that has been my privilege of experience. I sincerely doubt that your average young adult in America would have the same experience. With that in mind, I think that “Obasan” would be a wonderful (and even necessary) book for young adults. I do also regonize that “Obasan” could be a potential drag to students, so I offer the following recommendations to teachers:

  • “Obasan” should be taught by teacher that had a good knowledge of Japanese culture, language and history in America.
  • It should  be broken up with another, lighter, piece of literature.
  • Don’t expect a lot of the males to be captivated by the book as it has little, by way of strong characters they could relate, to hold their attention.
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