Posts Tagged ‘American Families’


January 06, 2016: “Little Night” on “Little Christmas”

January 6, 2016


Moo's Minestrone SoupI get this Christmas article done just under the wire: today is the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Today, January 6th, is known as “Little Christmas” or (in Irish) “Nollaig na mBan” otherwise know as “The Feast of the Epiphany” when the wise men, according to tradition, gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child. It is also the day, James Joyce used to place in time one of my favorite short stories, “The Dead.”

It is quite appropriate that I should publish this on “Little Christmas” as it concerns the Christmas dinner I made for my family, which I called “Little Night.” Swaseys+DogsFor a while now, I have been promising a “Big Night” for my folks. This is a dinner based after one of my most favorite foodie films of that name. The film features some of the most amazing Italian food in cinema, and my idea is to make a number of dishes from the film to serve after my family seeing the film. Christmas, of course, has too much going on to devote all that time to cooking, so I thought I would give my family a scaled-down version to whet their appetite…hence, “Little Night.”

One of our family traditions for some time was developed when, years ago, I made Minestrone Soup at Christmas and it was a universal hit. Even the guys who won’t eat veggies (…and you know who are…Stephen Swasey…oh, did I just type that?!!!) liked it. A tattered copy of my recipe has been hanging around for some time, and the actual dish has been duplicated so well by others, that I haven’t made it at Christmas for years now. Moo did an excellent job with this years’ batch. The rest of the meal was mine, ‘tho. We had:

Moo’s Minestrone Soup Chicken Roasted in Spiced Dough Bow Tie pasta with Greens Fancy Salad Tiramisu Chicken B-Ball

The chicken dish is called “Pollo al Sal” or chicken roasted in a salted dough. The dough spices the meat as it traps all the delicious moisture in. The dough bakes as the chicken roasts. At the end of cooking (dubbed the “chicken basketball” by the guys by virtue of how it looked) and after resting, you break the dough with a hammer and you have the most tender chicken of your life! We decided to substitute fresh herbs (rosemary, and thyme) instead of salt for a healthier, tastier chicken.Hammering Chicken

My next dish was a bit of a flop…this time. I usually make the bow tie pasta dish with broccoli raab, a slightly bitter veggie that looks like broccoli gone to seed. It sweetens very nicely when you saute it with garlic in olive oil and sweet red peppers. Trouble was…I couldn’t find broccoli raab anywhere, so I substituted dandelion greens instead. This ended up a little too bitter for most of my family’s taste. I also made the mistake of grilling the parmesan cheese which ended up hardening the pasta a bit. Microwave always has worked for me in the past. Lesson: stick to what works for the basic dishes.Plated Chicken+Pasta Salad

My salad was nice with a center of lentils cooked in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and spices. This was covered with exotic greens, matchsticked fennel, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, clementine sections, all topped with a blood-orange olive oil and wine vinegar. The salad tasted very good, but I need to work on my salad-arranging skills for the next big meal.

My Tiramisu has been perfected over the years, and I love especially it near Christmas. When I found out that Nickki my niece liked it, I had to make it! Most recipes use beaten raw egg yolks. I cook mine with kaluha, beating all the while, to make zabaglionTiramisue, an Italian light custard, which I then cool before whipping in the marscapone (an Italian cream cheese.) I could not find espresso either, so I brewed a strong coffee and concentrated its brewing to get a good substitute. I also could not find spiced cocoa, so I made my own. Then, it’s all assembly: lightly dip lady fingers in the coffee, a layer of the custard, sprinkle of spiced cocoa, and shaved dark chocolate. Cover and chill. I save the top layer of chocolate shaving until just before serving. Steve+Sophie“Little Night” was my gift, but my family spoiled me rotten with gifts of their own, with the charming company of four lovely dogs, as well as their own sparkling personalities!

[Thanks to Stephen Swasey for all photos, except the one of the family (me) and the one of me and Sophie (Nickki)]


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: “ Ya think maybe he’s a little…[teeters hand vertically]?”
Cora: “Mm…maybe when you’re in the woods too long, social skills!”
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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June 04, 2012: Sandwiches of the Freakishy-Strong

June 4, 2012

When I go on about my older sisters I know I will be thought of as ascending towards hyperbole. When I start to describe them in terms of powerful weather systems or compare them to a Nordic mythological figure, you will just have to forgive me. True, I wax poetical sometimes, and I will confess to a great affection towards these wonderful women. “But how” you may ask, “…can a man have such intense affection and extreme awe (sometimes in the very same moment) for a sibling?” And you would be right to question me, but take a couple of things in consideration:  I have lived with these women through my formative years. Also, I hear  a lot of people complain about their families. They say you cannot choose your family, you just have to adapt to the one you have. I, outside all my other troubles, am lucky in one respect…that if I could choose my family, I would choose exactly the one that I have.

The Eye of the Hurricane

Being bigger, older, and thus, more worldly, my sisters had the right of seniority, when I was young. True to their kind natures, they rarely chose to enforce this, but the threat was inherent. Although all unique individuals, my sisters had a strain of traits that they all had in common. On the exterior they are all gorgeous, outgoing, willful, courageous, athletic, and hardy.  On the interior: intelligent, creative, caring, talented, loving, funny, nurturing and sympathetic. You know how tornadoes and hurricanes have that dramatic exterior surrounding the still eye in the center? That’s a pretty good visual metaphor for the Vedder-women. An awesome force of nature. Put yourself in their path and they will change your life forever.


I was always amazed (and truthfully, sometimes a little bit repelled) by the men that would attempt to court my sisters during their teen-age years. I’m not talking about the fine men they eventually ended up with, but the lunkheads that vied for their affections with no sincere intentions. Certainly I could understand the attraction to any of my sisters. What man wouldn’t want an intelligent, beautiful and talented woman at their side? My feelings aside of the unworthiness of these handsome, philandering-wanna-be’s, these silly simpletons, these lazy Lotharios, it was more that I just couldn’t  believe that they knew what they were getting themselves into! “Look,” I wanted to warn them (wanted to, but never did) “If you need that kind of excitement in your life, you’re better off just purchasing a bear! When things die down, you can collect your remaining limbs and sell the damn animal to a circus!” Of course, I never told them this. Not for any love lost on the suitors (they had the shelf life of bread left out on the porch on a rainy day, anyway.) No, I never said anything because any one of my sisters would have flattened me for sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong!

The Goose and the Gander

One of the things my parents did quite well when we were all growing up, was that they put no division of labor between the kids. Sure, I griped about it, but I was expected to dust and wash dishes as well as any outside chores. Conversely, my sisters were expected to shovel and mow the lawn. I think this removal of any sex-bias towards work made my sisters hardy and showed them that physically, they were just as capable as any boy. For, me, I know that I never shirk any chores of a household nature, and this helped open up the world of culinary arts to me.

As they have grown older, my sisters became tame enough to become wonderful mothers to a slew of amazing children (nieces and nephews that have become more family I would choose!) But a banked fire can still emit an intense…and lasting heat. Another quality the sisters share is that most of them are excellent chefs whose skill exceeds my own. When I tell my friends this, they are amazed. I tell them that it is only that I may have had more time to excel in the culinary arts as I have never been a parent.


My version of Joanne’s sandwich: fresh basil; grilled red pepper; portobello mushroom roasted with garlic; mayo and provolone on a wheat ciabatta bread, then grilled.

My eldest sister Joanne is one with a myriad of conflicting traits: on the outside she is this gorgeous blond-haired, blue-eyed, slim, yet compact beauty. Her’s is the image of the Valkyrie that the Vikings gleefully leapt into battle, in order to end up at her side. Stern but charming, forceful yet kind, stubborn ‘tho nurturing, capable of cleaning out the gunk of a broken garbage disposal or create stunning artwork, her extremes of capabilities and personality traits complement one another to make a balanced and strong woman. When I used to visit or babysit, she would make me the most fantastic sandwiches. A while ago, I was visiting and she made me this sandwich to fit my vegetarian diet. As she was making it for me, she got into a loving tussle with her delightful daughter, Bryna. True to Bryna’s funny and wry humor she shouts at her mom,”You are so freakishly strong!” Never hearing this particular phrase before (at least when referred to one of my sisters) I ask Bryna what she meant. Bryna goes on to say that Joanne is preternaturally hardy and could beat me in an arm-wrestling match, if I was dumb enough to take her on. Never one to back down from a challenge, I took that bet! After all, I had lifted weights every other day since I was sixteen, so I figured this would be pretty easy. At first grip from Joanne, I knew I was in trouble. Gone, was that funny and cheery hostess that artfully made that delicious sandwich a moment ago. I had locked hands with steely eyed Brunhilde!

Yeah…you might want to skip the fisticuffs and just buy her a beer!

I honestly can’t remember who won that match. I, who usually remember such incidents with crystal accuracy, figure the male ego has that perfect defense mechanism that clouds memory from humiliating defeats. As for Joanne, she won’t tell…she’s too much a lady.


May 16, 2012: Truant

May 16, 2012

While I am pleased as punch to have an acceptable access to the entertainment technology that the 21st C. offers, I can’t help but think of how drastically different my life would have been if I had all the stuff we have today: internet, DVDs, UTube, video games, IPods, etc., in my youth. Sure, we had TV, but then it was only three channels, no remote, and I’d like to see you jockey for your favorite show competing with nine other family members on a single set! My parents were pretty cool. If we did our work during the week we were allowed Friday nights to watch our shows. Our family dubbed Friday as “Popcorn/Soda Night” because those snacks went along with our entertainment. I think this was pretty good parenting: we worked hard for our weekly reward, and thoroughly enjoyed the treat. Still, we are talking a couple of hours of TV during the whole week!

Filling the Void

So, without all the trimmings of the 21st C. how did kids from the 60’s entertain themselves? Well, for one thing…we got outside more than most kids these days seem to. The 60’s parenting norm was to chuck a child outside after school until dinner and then after, the kids hit  the books until bedtime. Sure, this tactic worked pretty well for the parent: they got a few hours to themselves preparing dinner and enjoying the obligatory pre-dinner cocktail so prevalent in the 60’s, but it also got the kids tons of exercise and forced us to socialize via outdoor games. In short, without distractions of the spoon-fed, electronic ilk, we were forced to use our imaginations, intelligence, and our bodies to make up for the entertainment shortfalls.

A Partner in Crime

My childhood friend was Johnny B. He was actually my closest child neighbor, living only two doors down. Slightly older than I was, we were friends since I (literally) could first remember. I once saw a super-8 that  Johnny’s parents took of him as a toddler and I, in baby carriage, meeting for the first time. Johnny was different from me in almost every way: physically, he was thick and bullish to my lithe smallness. Socially, he was extroverted and chaotic as a foil to my quiet thoughtfulness. What brought us together was our imaginations, art, and our habit for getting into trouble! And here…people who know me now, will think to themselves “When did Steve ever get into trouble?!!!” Well, folks, I got most of my trouble out-of-the-way very young, the worst being my altar-boy/cub-scout days. Much of this trouble was in Johnny B.’s company. I don’t want to lead you to believe that Johnny was the sole instigator in these events (it was about 50/50) or that we were “bad” in any real (criminal or evil) sense, it was just that the ideas that we came up with (at least to our minds) were just too good to not make a reality. This draw towards trouble gave us many adventures, including, but not limited to: firearms; first love; physical dares; courting; drinking; cruising; sports; pranks; pyrotechnics; camping; really strange home movies; injuries; hunting; brawls; sex, drugs, and rock and roll…and Mary Ann Semonelli’s missing bra.

Skipping School for a Really Lame Meal

…oh…and lest I forget…a single count of truancy! I think it was Johnny’s idea to skip school, but rebels without a clue that we were, we had no plan what exactly to do with our free day. Earlier that week, one of my sister’s had done a decent job making Shrimp Newberg, so to my mind at least, making this dish seemed like an interesting and somewhat exotic way to spend the day. I remember Johnny shrugging and I suspect now that he wished that he had spent a little more time on thinking the whole event through, but he finally acquiesced. Needless to say, my sister was a few years ahead of me, culinary-wise, and while I think I could do a bang-up Shrimp Newberg these days, back then it was waaaay out of my league. Oddly enough though, this dismal failure put me onto an early track to improving my culinary skills. I started paying closer attention to my sister’s culinary successes and how they attained them.

The Hunger of the High-School Heart

So, to my childhood friend: thank you for all the fun, adventures, imaginings, as well as the bumps and bruises to our bodies and hearts…and for all that time spent cruising. Here is a word that has forever left American social life…cruising. In those days before IChats and Facebook, socializing was done  out in the open, but perhaps with the same embarrassment and sad desperation that haunts todays teenagers. Cruising, in the 60-70’s was driving a car up and down the fast food strip of the local town. It sometimes led to taunts, races, occaisionally fights, and rarely…that teenage Holy Grail…the glimpse of that perfect babe, cruising just like you…to be (hopefully) met at the next party!

No one has quite captured the unique American social activity of cruising like David Wilcox, in his song “Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again

Johnny’s out cruising down the fast food strip
He rides his high-wheeler Ford
Down here every evening since the school let out
An ordinary man would be bored
Johnny’s got the hunger of the high school heart
And a tank full of minimum wage
So it’s six lights down, six lights back
Pacing like a lion in a cage…

February 28, 2012: Squashed Hopes

February 28, 2012

My sisters all tell me that I could not possibly remember this story as I was very young. I have to admit that is possible that this is not a memory as I DO have quite a vivid imagination. All I know is that I seem to have a number of memories from a very young age: I remember quite well that unique marriage of bobby pin and electrical socket as a toddler (“OH! I’ve seen the adults do this! I know just where this goe…ZAP!!!!) I remember my crush on Mighty Mouse’s girlfriend (…and I DO feel a tad guilty that I can’t remember her name. Such is the capricious nature of young love.) And…I remember this story.

Wind up the Way-Back machine to my family household, early-60’s: Dinnertime in the Vedder homestead was a lively affair in those days. At this time, we had seven kids, with another one due in a couple of years from this point. [Let’s put it this way, if the Weasley household could compliment an entire Quidditch team, the Vedder household could provide the team, a coach and a cheerleader to boot!]

Barely a toddler, I’m still in the baby chair. At the main table, there is the classic test of wills between my parents and my older sisters.. The kids are boycotting eating their vegetables, in this instance,  winter squash. My parent’s rule with this kind of thing was simple: you don’t finish your plate, you don’t get dessert. End of story. Now, with a household full of many, energetic and strong-willed children, my poor parents had a tough job. They did a lot of pretty cool things to raise us all, but the “dessert rule” was not one of their more stellar ones. Making dessert special just managed to turn us all into raging sugar-fiends!

At the point where my sisters are debating the value of eating something they absolutely hate to get to eat something they love, my parents (as if they didn’t have enough to do) are drawn downstairs with some kind of household emergency. It was then that the kids have a revelation: over in the corner, happily munching his squash, is me. “Welllll, then.” they think, “If Stevie likes squash that much, we know where there is lot more of that!” They then proceed to pile all their own squash into my bowl, to then skip downstairs to inform my parents that they are ready for dessert!

Now, this is the part I will never be able to convince my sisters. I’ve seen distinct character traits like this in the very young. I dunno..are we hardwired to have fairly sophisticated emotions from day one? Is it reincarnation? All, I know, is that if this same thing happened to me today, I would feel exactly the same…and that is PISSED! I loved squash then (still do) but I was NOT about to eat all of my sibling’s squash! So, in my toddler’s mind, the solution was easy: take that bowl and fling it!

Of course, as soon as everyone came up from downstairs it was immediately evident that the jig was up! No dessert for anyone that night, for which my sisters have never forgiven me.

So, when this story comes up, and I am castigated by my sisters for my transgression (and that part I understand…preventing a sweet fix is a cardinal offense in my family) but when I recollect a clear memory of it happening, and get called “fibber?” Well…it can’t really be proven one way or the other. Luckily, I have spent years developing my mature reason, mellowed with dignity, and tact. I just reply to them, “I know YOU are, but what am I?”

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