Friday, January 20, 2012

Not Just Any Day, January 20

Look at the calendar—it’s January 20, Friday—just another day with a long to-do list and a party tonight. But wait, January 20, the date rings a bell. Think. Yes. It’s Inaugural Day. Well, some years it’s Inaugural Day, and suddenly a couple of quick snapshots pop into my mind as I regard the calendar.
            In 2008 I lived deep in the south of a deeper than Deep South state so red (Georgia) that you might consider it a pre-primary color. While, even there, a few others shared our feelings, we mostly headed the 40 or so miles south to the friendlier environs of Tallahassee. After all, Tally is a state capital and has two major universities—what else would you expect? We had a women’s (we didn’t ask if they were ladies—didn’t matter) lunch group that could grow quite rabid. One of my good friends and fellow club members gave me a call a few days before Inauguration Day. Come on down for lunch and a glass of wine to watch the ceremonies. I got there early.
            When the time came we gathered around the huge screen, silent. Picture the group—all women of a “certain age.” Some of them certainly of a “certain age.” Except for me, all were native north Floridians, most from families of substance, families who had settled the land in the early 1820s, doubtless slaveholders. These women had grown up accustomed to African American servants, the traditional southern way of living.
            And now they clustered around the huge screen, glasses of red wine clutched in their hands, ready for the moment. The President-elect, soon to be President, strode up the steps. One woman burst into tears. She stood up, glass in hand.
            “I never thought I’d see the day!” She raised her glass. The rest of us rose and joined the toast to our new leader. Certainly a day to be proud!
            Go back, way back, 49 years to a young housewife/part-time student thinking about cleaning the kitchen. She was always thinking about cleaning the kitchen; lots more than she ever cleaned the kitchen. She poured another cup from the electric peculator and settled down at the kitchen table—really just the table, in this tiny house, there was no dining room. Her barely-two-year-old thundered up and down the hallway on the tiny tricycle he’d gotten for his birthday a couple of weeks before. It was too cold on the blustery plains of the Texas Panhandle for him to go outside. Why not? She asked herself. It’s a historic day. She flipped on the TV, and as she would so many more times began to watch a President-elect with a lovely family mount to the platform.
Sometimes he rode
a pony instead of
a trike.
            “Ask not what you can do for your country. . .”
            She grabbed the child as he whirled by and held him fast on her lap. “You are watching history!”
            During the campaign she’d been a vocal campaigner, even if she didn’t vote for Jack Kennedy—she was too young, wouldn’t hit 21 until that July. But that didn’t hold her back. When Kennedy made a five minute layover at the Amarillo Airport she’d gone with her equally ardent granddad and had been at the front of the handshaking line, child in her arms. She sported a bumper sticker on the clunker of the white Studebaker Scotsman that the young family tried to get around in. (Sometimes it preferred to take a nap.) That sticker had gotten her in trouble.
            The family usually joined her mother for services at the First Presbyterian Church and then, along with a chunk of the congregation, for dinner at the Silver Grill. As they stood in line one of the church dowagers came up to her.
            “Honey, I know you’re young and probably haven’t thought about it, but you really shouldn’t have that sticker on your car and park in the church parking lot. Really, dear, you shouldn’t have that sticker at all. You know,” she lowered her voice, “that man’s a Catholic.” In case the point was missed, she said it again. “A Catholic.”

            The young woman (you know who she is) almost bit a hole in her lower lip. She was too good a daughter to be rude in front of her mother. But the next day, the Studebaker had two bumper stickers.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Birthdays and Diapers

Earlier this week my older son celebrated his birthday. . Well did I remember, just as most mothers do, that January morning many (for both my son’s and my sake, we’ll leave it at many) years ago. The joy of my husband and parents, and the panic this nineteen-year-old new mom felt when the nurse plopped him in my arms. What next? I asked myself. I don’t know anything about babies. He was the first new baby I’d ever held.
The brave littlest cowboy. His mom
is the "bush" under the pony.
ur            A picture I found when I was sorting through old photographs reminded me of what next. The brave littlest cowboy perched on the back of a door-to-door pony. “Lady,” the fellow at the door had asked, “you got a kid who’d like a picture on my pony?” You don’t say no to an opportunity like that. After all, we lived high in the Texas Panhandle in Amarillo. Cowboying was part of our culture.
I asked how little a kid could be, mine was still not too steady a sitter. “Not a problem. You get behind the pony and hold him on.”
            “But I’ll be in the picture too,” I protested. “No’m, you won’t. I’ll scratch you out of the negative. You’ll look like a bush.”  He sounded slightly desperate. Chris and I were spending the afternoon at my mother’s house that was in an older neighborhood with very few children. The poor chap hadn’t had many takers that day, but he was in luck now, Mother and I bought a bundle.
            Now, looking at the picture I remember more. I remember that the cowboy hat and bandana made him look like a little man, but the rest of the outfit didn’t—diapers. Ah, I remember the diapers. Mostly I remember washing the diapers, and I remember drying them.
            We were student-poor. Bob was still in college, days and working the 4 to midnight shift at the telephone company. I’d stopped going to classes when I began to “show.” In those long-ago days we tried to hide the coming event—thank goodness, not the case now! I stayed home day and night with the baby and took one evening class on Tuesday while the entranced grandparents watched the baby.
            Not much money, translated to not many diapers—cloth naturally. Almost every day I washed diapers. My mother assured me how lucky I was to have a washer; she remembered doing them in the bathtub and stirring them around with a plumber’s helper. But I was not all that lucky; I didn’t have a dryer. I was the dryer. I lugged the laundry basket into the back yard and pinned the diapers (and all the other family laundry) on the seemingly endless clothes line. Then I lugged them back in. Okay. No big deal, and in windy Amarillo they dried so quickly in the summer that usually I could go back and start the take down as soon as I’d finished hanging them.
\           Not so in the winter when frigid air swept down across the plains straight from the Rocky Mountains. The first time I tried hanging them out—this would have been when the baby was about a week old—I ran into the house and called my mother after I went out and discovered that the diapers were frozen. Had I ruined them? We didn’t have money for more. Should I put them in the bathtub to thaw and then hang them a couple at a time on a chair near the floor furnace (my usual emergency drying spot)? I couldn’t hang them on the shower rod. This tiny house didn’t have a shower in its one bathroom. She calmed me down.
            “Lay them on the bed and forget about them for an hour or so, they are dry; they’re just frozen.”            I followed her instructions except for two I put by the floor furnace, because there were no more clean ones and the babe was begging for a change. As usual, Mother was right.  The next time we went to visit her, she had a surprise for me—a rack that fit over the furnace. I thought I was in the lap of luxury. I didn’t own a dryer until the third child was almost a year old—I didn’t know anything could make me so happy.
            Not only did the picture of the little cowboy remind me of these memories. I recently read a fine book Just Beyond Harmony by Gaydell Collier. (I’ll post a review soon.) She recounts her family’s adventure in the 1960’s when they lived in a log cabin in Wyoming for several years—Collier, her husband, and their four children. They had limited electricity and only enough running water for a tiny stream from the kitchen sink. For this time not only did she hang out the wash—she did it in a washtub with water she’d dragged from the nearby Big Laramie River. All year, and Wyoming winters are mighty cold. More than cold. Cold and snowy, and windy. When she told of bringing in the frozen laundry, I smiled and remembered my little cowboy’s diapers again. How lucky I had been with just one babe and a Panhandle winter, not  Wyoming one. And I hadn’t known it.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Great minds

Sure, we had blackeyed peas yesterday. Along with a fine coleslaw. I didn’t make mustard greens—their color supposedly guarantees a prosperous New Year, but I did toss some bright green cilantro in the slaw—I trust that’ll count.
            We almost didn’t get the blackeyes—well, we almost didn’t get the blackeyes on New Year’s Eve. No way was I going without, even if I bought canned ones at the 24-hour Walgreen’s. That afternoon our cooking son and his wife invited us last minute to their house for beef tenderloin if we’d bring our own potatoes and lobster tails.  Happily we complied and stopped off, at their suggestion, at Central Market, our upscale, upscale store (like Whole Foods with more cheese). Lobster tails, no problem. Baking potatoes, right there. Blackeyed peas, a problem. The produce department had a huge display of fresh hulled peas, but they were purple hulls not blackeyes. I ask an employee; she grinned. They’d run out by noon; “but these taste just like them.” Clearly, she didn’t understand blackeyes. Up in the all organic department they had some little bitty cartons—looked like about four ounces for $4. Good luck or not, I wasn’t going to spend $12 to get one good bowl of blackeyes, and since the clock was ticking toward dinner time and those potatoes had to bake, I wasn’t about the venture into the maze of aisles to look for dry ones.
            We arrived, greeted, I played “Bobba” with our grandson, and Bob headed around the corner to Foodarama, a supermarket at the other end of the spectrum from Central Market where he snagged a bag of dried peas. Disaster averted. I even remembered to put them in to soak before I went to bed in the early hours of 2012.
            Now, while they simmered nicely over a low gas flame and the coleslaw soaked up its tangy dressing, I got ready for our last traditional dish—the cornbread. For many years I made cornbread from scratch using my farmer Grandmother Nordyke’s recipe—only cornmeal, no sugar, lots of bacon fat, but lately I’ve gotten lazy and reached for the cornbread mix. Which I did now. Oops. No cornbread mix. No! I was not going to the store on New Year’s Day for cornbread mix; I would make it from scratch. But how? The cookbook with her recipe is back in Georgia. Quick, to the computer to search. I couldn’t find a recipe with only cornmeal; so I adapted one. I did use the cooking oil it called for instead of bacon fat. I remembered to oil the cast iron skillet and put it in my hot oven for a couple of minutes before pouring in the batter.
            It worked, but the creative cook in me began the critique. Too crumbly; next time I’ll put a little flour in next time to get it to hold together, and clearly it need bacon fat. It really needs bacon fat. One thing was totally clear though—no more cornbread mix. Not that much trouble and so very, very good.
            Here’s my amended recipe:
1 egg
1 cup milk (Grandmother N. would have used buttermilk)
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 1/2  tablespoon bacon drippings
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
So good! The cast iron gives a gorgeous golden crust.
            Beat egg milk and cooking oil together, and then add the meal, baking powder and salt. Melt the drippings in an 8 inch cast iron skillet. Pour the hot grease into the batter, stir, and immediately put batter into the hot skillet (Grandmother N’s technique). Bake (check often) for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
            Not the end of the story! Here’s the great minds part. I don’t take the daily New York Times, but I do get it online. I also get lots of notices about subjects I’m interested in—like cooking. So I sit down at the computer this morning and check out “My Alerts: recipes.” What’s there?  A recipe for cornbread using only cornmeal, lots (more than I would) of bacon fat, and heating the cast iron skillet. It’s almost my recipe! It even goes on to say that if you are not using fresh rough ground cornmeal (Grandmother N. ground her own [or had one of the seven kids do it] in the barn behind the Texas farmhouse), then substitute a bit of flour for some of the cornmeal.
            Great minds!
            If you’d like to check out the NYTimes recipe, here’s the link.