Friday Book Whimsy: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

searchI really had no idea what to expect when I started author J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Would it be a story about cooking? Would there be recipes? Would it be restaurant reviews for Midwest eateries? What I didn’t actually expect, however, was that it would be such a charming and wonderful story that yes, involves cooking, but mostly involved family dynamics. I absolutely LOVED this book.

It is the story of Eva Thorvald, abandoned as an infant by a mother who preferred devoting her life to being a sommelier rather than a wife and parent. Eva’s doting father, who was himself a chef, began developing Eva’s palate shortly after her birth. Unfortunately, he died soon after Eva’s mother left, leaving her to be reared by kind and loving relatives.

Eva has a gifted palate, beginning at a young age when she began growing and then selling chocolate habanero peppers. Eventually, Eva grows to become a gifted chef with a very unusual way of offering her food.

The storyline seems mundane; however, the way the author chose to tell the story was, in my opinion, ever so creative and clever.

The book consists of 8 chapters, each which could nearly stand as a short story in itself. The main character of each chapter is not Eva, but someone who has a tie to Eva in some way. Via those vignettes, the reader learns about Eva and how she becomes who she is, a good and kind person and an amazing and creative chef.

The entire story takes place in – you guessed it – the Midwest. The story begins in Minnesota, but parts of it take place in South Dakota and Iowa. As such, the reader becomes familiar with a lot of the peculiarities of Midwest cooking. And Midwest people. I’m not from Minnesota, but I would imagine that Minnesotans would be greatly amused by this description of Eva’s grandparents: Theirs was a mixed-race marriage – between a Norwegian and a Dane – and thus all things culturally important to one but not the other were given a free pass and critiqued only in unmixed company. Like lutefisk, which, according to the novel, is whitefish that is bounded, dried, soaked in lye, resoaked in cold water, and ends up looking like jellied smog and smelling like boiled aquarium water.

The book does contain some recipes, but not regularly, such as at the end of each chapter. When it comes to food, the book shines in its descriptions of the art of simple cooking using fresh ingredients. But I will tell you right now that thoughI am someone who likes to cook, and therefore enjoyed the recipes and descriptions of food, mostly I loved the clever story-telling, and the main character, Eva.

The book, my friends, is currently selling for a mere $3.99 on Kindle, and I encourage you to buy it!

Here is a link to the book.

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Thursday Thoughts

Make the House Ready
Late tomorrow (like midnight!), Dave and Jll and the four kids arrive in AZ for a visit. YAY! We dangled the opening game of the Chicago Cubs Spring Training before their looking-at-disney-picseyes, and they bit. Dave is a life-long Cubs fan, stemming from the fact that both his father and mother were born and reared in the Windy City, and Dave spent considerable time there visiting family. In fact, he was born in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago, though they moved to Denver when he was small. He had wanted to go to a game when the Cubs were in the World Series back in the fall, but it didn’t happen. But given the fact that we are already seeing people in Cubs garb here in Mesa, the Spring Training season should be fun. Bill and Dave are going to the Cubs opening game, and all of us will be going to games on Sunday and Tuesday. Go Cubs! By the way, if you want a reminder of just how much the kids like the Cubs, re-read this blog post from December…..

Gophers
I talk all the time about the number of Midwesterners who come to AZ to spend the winter, getting relief from the below-freezing temperatures. The longer I’m here, the more I suspect that a major share of the so-called winter visitors are from the great minnesota-license-platestate of Minnesota. Who can blame them? One of our priests – who himself is retired and hails from Minnesota – claims that the bishop of the Minneapolis Archdiocese actually holds his Christmas collection on July 25 because on that day, the state is full of visiting tourists intent on fishing the 10,000 lakes, while on December 25, the churches are empty because everyone’s in AZ! Bill and I were returning from somewhere the other day, and we were a mile or so from home. I said to Bill, “I’ll bet you that we spot a Minnesota license plate between here an home.” I wish I would have bet him after-dinner clean-up duties for a week, because sure enough, a few blocks from our house, a car with Minnesota plates drove past.

Would You Like that Wine in Paper or Plastic?
One of the featured appetizers at Bec’s annual Mardis Gras party are mini-muffulettas, those wonderful sandwiches featuring salami, mortadella, cheese and a delicious olive spread. It’s the olive spread that makes these sandwiches stand out. Each year, she has gotten her olive spread at Fry’s. But she called me a couple of days before the party to lament that her neighborhood Fry’s no longer carried the olive spread. I told her that I would check the two Fry’s that are near me here in Mesa to see if they still carried the spread. I was actually at my Fry’s unsuccessfully seeking the olive spread when my phone rang. It was Bec. “You won’t believe where I am,” she said. “I am at the fanciest Fry’s Market that I have ever in my life seen.” “Uh-huh,” I said, still searching for olive spread. “No, I’m serious,” she said. “It has a sushi bar. It has a salad bar. For heaven’s sake, it has a WINE BAR.” Wait, what? I was still smiling as I went to the self-check registers to ring up my groceries, which didn’t include olive spread because the fancy Fry’s of course, had an olive bar and so Bec had already bought the spread. The woman assisting at the self-check registers came over to see if she could help me with something because I was laughing. I explained about the telephone call from my sister, and she was not surprised. She told me that all of the new Fry’s were including all of those things, and that there was one not far from where I was standing right that very second. I quickly paid for my groceries and headed that way. It was true. It was just as Bec had described, down to the sushi bar and the wine and beer bar. When I say sushi bar, I don’t mean just plastic containers of sushi; I mean there are people making sushi to order and you sit at the bar (probably with a glass of wine from the wine bar) and enjoy your sushi. There was no one partaking at the wine bar that day, but I have gone a couple of times since, and both times there have been people drinking a beer and eating something from the deli. Maybe the reason this so astounds me is because they don’t sell wine or beer in grocery stores in Colorado. All I know is, I AM GOING TO GO HAVE A GLASS OF WINE ONE AFTERNOON WHILE I’M SHOPPING. Because I can.

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Ciao.

Old Stuff

A number of years ago, my sister Bec had to pack up her house in northern Virginia, in which she had lived with her husband and two kids for something like 30 years, and she had to do it all by herself. Her husband had passed away, her kids lived in lands far, far away, and she had sold that house and was moving to a smaller house in AZ. She had no choice; she was on her own. It wasn’t going to pack up itself.

She tells this story: After spending the entire summer going through cupboards and dressers and closets and dusty boxes in the attic and garage, all the while making decisions about what would travel to AZ, what would be sold in her end-of-the-summer garage sale, what her kids would take, and what would be tossed, she came face-to-face with her cedar chest. She opened it up and saw such things as baby clothes and her wedding dress and mementos she had collected over the years. All those manner of things which women save in their cedar chests.

Having spent the entire summer taking on this huge task mostly by herself (her kids helped as they could, but see above – far, far away), she had reached her limit. “I simply didn’t know what to do with my wedding gown,” she says. “So I closed up the cedar chest and said out loud to myself, ‘I am leaving this for the kids to go through after I die.’”

Sometimes I think our Denver house is so full of STUFF that it could topple over. Much of the stuff, however, is easily disposable. Start by packing up boxes of clothes and giving them to Bill’s BFF Jane-from-ARC who calls him nearly every week.

But the things that paralyze me are things such as my good Royal Doulton china or the beautiful things that my mother-in-law has given me over the years. Then there’s the boxes and boxes of photos – both mine and those that came out of Wilma’s house when she moved to assisted living awhile back and were sent to Bill and me because we weren’t there to stop his brother and sister who were packing up Wilma’s house from sending them to us. Bless their hearts.

Or my dad’s clarinet. The clarinet that he used when he played in the Navy band during World War II and later when he played in my mother’s brothers’ dance band. The clarinet that my grandparents probably worked their butts off to afford to buy him. Several years ago, our granddaughter Addie decided to play clarinet in her school band. I offered her Dad’s instrument, and she was tickled. But she took it to her teacher who told her that because of its age, it would require a great deal of work to get it back working properly. As with many things, it made more sense for her to get something new. And so that instrument sits in my basement. I can’t throw it away. I couldn’t in a million years.

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I came across this article recently that confirmed my suspicion: no one wants my stuff. Young families no longer use expensive and easily breakable china, even for holidays. No one yearns for the old dresser in my guest room with a waterstained top, even if it did belong to my dad when he was a kid. All of the baby sweaters and booties in my own cedar chest that were handmade by my grandmother – do you ever see a baby wearing old-fashioned booties anymore? Maybe baby mary janes or baby converse. No baby booties that go up to the infant’s knees. As for Royal Doulton? When I went on their website to see if they even sell the Carlyle pattern anymore, I saw that they sell things called the Gordon Ramsey Union Street Collection or the Pacific Collection. In order to purchase my particular pattern, it would require Ebay or replacements.com, and more money than most young adults would want to spend.

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So, at the end of the day, in the event that Bill and I sell our Denver house, many of these items will be placed in a box and carried to our next home, where it will sit until such time as it will no longer be our problem.

Done. And thanks for your good example, Bec. Drop the mic.

Linked to Grammy’s Grid.

The Big Easy

I was fairly untraveled as a child and even as a young adult. Though my family took a vacation each year, we almost always went to Colorado, and mostly to Estes Park. I wouldn’t change a thing about our vacations, but suffice it to say that I was close to 20 before I ever boarded an airplane.

Back in those days, flyers dressed up for the trip, wearing a good dress or suit. The idea of blue jeans or – heaven forbid – sweat pants on a flight was absolutely unthinkable. Flight attendants – aw, heck, we can call them stewardesses because they were absolutely always young women — wore business attire, shoes with modest heels, and hats.

I remember being about 21 or 22 years old, and yearning to visit exactly three places before I died. Today we would call them my bucket list. So my bucket list cities were New York City, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

But our recent Mardis Gras party got me thinking about New Orleans, and recalling all of my visits to that interesting city. And it was the first of my three dream bucket list cities that I was able to visit. I traveled with a woman I scarcely knew, familiar with her only because she taught my brother and sister at Leadville High School. Her name was Lily, and despite the fact that I traveled 1,300 miles with her and lived in the same hotel room for probably close to a week, I recall very little else about her. Isn’t that funny? But what I do recall is that she wasn’t an ax murderer (as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t get hacked to pieces) and we had a good time together. And then never did a single thing together again.

mi0002859504We didn’t have a lot of money, so I’m certain we didn’t go to any fancy restaurants, though I’m afraid I also couldn’t tell you what restaurants we did visit. I remember that we went to Café du Monde and had beignets and café au lait and stayed in a nice hotel near the action. Other than that, the single thing I remember is that we went to a jazz show in the French Quarter and watched musician Al Hirt play from front row seats. Non-vocal jazz never really being a favorite musical genre of mine, I’m sure I must have heard of him from my dad. At the end of the show, he came down from the stage and shook the hands of a few people, INCLUDING MINE. Having not met many famous people at that time in my life, I was thrilled.

The other two times that I have visited New Orleans, Bill has been my traveling companion. The first time he and I visited, I remember being conned by an expert con artist, who bet me $10 that he could tell me where I got my shoes, and I bit. The answer, of course, was on my feet. Lesson learned.

During that trip we dined at Commander’s Palace, where Bill ate what to this day he proclaims was the best dessert he’s ever eaten (and the man knows desserts) – Commander’s Bread Pudding Souffle. We also tried Muffuletta sandwiches at Central Grocery, where they were created. Muffulettas are sandwiches made from salami, ham, mortadella, cheese and a delicious olive spread.

And, of course, beignets at Café du Monde.

The second time we visited, we ate brunch at Commander’s Palace, where we ate what I would call the best dessert I’ve ever eaten – Bananas Foster. Oh my.

But just as my primary memory of my first visit to New Orleans is seeing Al Hirt, my primary memory of that visit is ducking into a hole-in-the-wall place where we had the most delicious oysters on the half shell that I have ever eaten. The guy shucking the oysters was like a caricature of a guy shucking oysters. He had been a so-called cut man for boxers in his younger days, and as he told Bill story after story, he kept shucking oysters. He shucked way more than the dozen we had ordered, but didn’t charge us a penny more.

I’m happy to say that I’ve been to all three of the cities that I dreamed of as a young woman. Interestingly, though I enjoyed them all, out of the three, I would say that only New York City is someplace I could return to again and again, and have. I enjoyed San Francisco and certainly found New Orleans interesting and the food amazing, but neither are places that I yearn to revisit.

The sound you just heard is that of my sister Bec fainting.

But as a nod to New Orleans, here is the recipe for the Hot Crab Dip that I contributed to Sunday’s festivities…..

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Hot Crab Dip

Ingredients
1 T. olive oil
1 c. chopped onions
1 c. chopped green peppers
1 T. minced garlic
1-1/2 t. salt, divided
1 T. Cajun seasoning
1 lb. cream cheese, softened
1 c. mayonnaise
¼ c. fresh parsley
2 green onions, minced
1 T. fresh lemon juice
3 6-oz cans crab meat
½ c. Ritz crackers, crushed
2 T. butter, melted

Process
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, peppers, garlic, 1 t. salt, and Cajun seasoning. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are soft, 5 or 6 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine the cream cheese, mayo, parsley, green onions, lemon juice, and remaining salt. Process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl.  Fold in vegetables and crabmeat and place in an oven-safe dish.

Mix cracker crumbs with butter, and spread on top of the dip. Bake for 30 minutes, or until crackers are browned.

Like N’Awlins

eating-mardi-gras-2017As I hugged my sister Bec goodbye yesterday evening, the smell of jambalaya and gumbo still in the air and the dusting of powdered sugar from the beignets still on my jeans, we speculated as to why this particular gathering each year is so much fun.

“The delicious food?” I suggested.

“Maybe,” she said. “But I think it’s just because we get together for no other reason than to be together and enjoy one another.”

The gathering about which I am speaking is our annual Mardi Gras party. And when I say our, I mean Bec’s, because while we all contribute, she is the hostess with the mostess, and has to clean up all of the powdered sugar that I missed in my rudimentary counter wipe-down. Because you can’t cover hot beignets with powdered sugar without getting it places other than the beignets. She will likely be cleaning up powdered sugar until Easter.

As usual, Erik provided the bulk of the meal — his jambalaya and his gumbo, both of which were delicious…..

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He makes enough to feed an army, which is a good thing, because that left enough for some of us to take a bit home for lunch tomorrow. While both were yummy, this year the gumbo hit the spot for me. Anyone who has made real gumbo recognizes the patience and skill it takes to make a roux that color.

Making its premier at Bec’s annual party were the beignets, those hot fried pieces of dough covered — COVERED — in powdered sugar. The treats were provided by Jessie, with some help from her dad (my brother David)….

 

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Also making its debut at our Mardi Gras celebration were drinks called French 75. These amazing concoctions originated from the famous New Orleans’ restaurant Arnaud’s, and consist of gin, champagne, fresh lemon juice and something sweet. Josey used Agave nector. They were, in a word, yum….

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But of course beignets aren’t quite enough dessert for us, because if there isn’t a King Cake, it isn’t Mardi Gras….

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And where there is a King Cake, there must be a baby hidden within. Tradition has it that whoever gets the baby in his or her piece of cake (and manages not to choke on it) must host the next year’s Mardi Gras party. Since many of the cake partakers were under the age of 11, the tradition was tweaked so that the one getting the baby was instead crowned King or Queen of the party, with a scepter to prove his or her royalty. Queen Mackenzie Rose was the lucky winner, shown here with her scepter….

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As for Jenna, she may not have gotten the baby, but she certainly is the proud wearer of the most beads….

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We may not make it to New Orleans for Mardis Gras this year once again, but we certainly have our own kind of celebration.

Saturday Smile: No Bartering at this Yard Sale

I have mentioned before — maybe two or three hundred times — that the area in which we spend January through May is the Wild, Wild West. Admittedly, most of the Phoenix metro area could be considered the Wild, Wild West (I just heard the entire town of Scottsdale suck in their breath) because it’s the home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who used to make his male prisoners dress in pink when they were out picking up litter as part of their punishment. He was defeated in the last election. Even President Trump couldn’t carry him into another term on his coattails.

But the area of Mesa in which we live is more like Dodge City than other parts of the Phoenix metro area. Perhaps it’s our proximity to Apache Junction. In fact, you may recall that I recently posted a blog in which I noted that Bill’s nearby barber was packing heat as he cut Bill’s hair. So it should have come as no surprise to see this sign just down the street from where we live……

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Yard sales are big around here. Huge. In fact, I think it might be some people’s way of earning a living. Just sayin’. But I must admit I’ve never seen a sign for an Ammo Yard Sale. Bill and I drove by just to see if they were really selling ammo in their front yard, and indeed they were. It was on a table just behind the kids toys and right under the worn-out T-shirts. I have the photo to prove it…..

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It’s not a great photo, but let’s face it. One doesn’t want to annoy a person who is selling ammo in her front yard by taking pictures of her yard sale. It wouldn’t be prudent.

Have a great weekend.

Friday Book Whimsy: To Capture What We Cannot Keep

searchBeatrice Colin’s novel To Capture What We Cannot Keep could have been complete drivel, and I would still have read it front to back simply to learn about the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the novel’s focus.

Thankfully, it wasn’t drivel. It was, in fact, a passably readable love story, love between two people, but more importantly, love for a creation that turned sheets of metal into one of the most, oh heck, THE most recognizable structure in the world.

I found Colin’s novel, though about a difficult love affair, interesting mostly in its portrayal of 19th Century Paris and the incredible changes that were taking place at this time and in this place. Impressionist art was becoming more palatable to more people. Women were becoming increasingly independent. The city was abuzz in preparation for the 1889 World’s Fair, for which Gustave Eiffel’s tower was going to be the entrance.

Cait lost her husband to a weird accident when still a young woman. Left nearly penniless, she becomes the paid companion for the two teenaged children of a wealthy Scotsman. As part of her duties, she accompanies them to Paris, where preparations are underway for the upcoming World’s Fair. There she meets and falls in love with Emile, the engineer in charge of the tower’s construction. The seemingly-doomed love affair comes to a head at the end of the book in an amazing scene in which Cait climbs to the top of the tower despite a fear of heights to seek out Emile.

Aside from Cait, Emile, and Eiffel, the characters are insipid and self-absorbed and quite unlikable, just as I suspect the author crafted them. But as I mentioned before, the main character is the Eiffel Tower itself.

I have been lucky enough to stand in front of the Eiffel Tower and have my breath taken away by its beauty. Colin’s novel made me think for the first time just how NUTS people must have thought Eiffel was to think that a tower made out of metal was going to be anything but hideous. Metal and bolts and nothing else.

And I had also never thought about the difficulty involved in building such a structure, especially given the times and the lack of computers to measure the wind and the air pressure and the seismic activity. Lots of best guesses and fingers crossed.

I was actually quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. As with The Last Days of Night from which I learned about the invention of the light bulb, Capture What We Cannot Keep taught me a great deal about architecture, engineering, and the construction of one of our most endearing landmarks.

Here is a link to the book.

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