Archive for December, 2010

Quick — add a new holiday!

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Tomorrow, in response to one of the comments on the previous posting as well as to a hot debate on the homeschool atheist loop I’m on, I want to post some musings on what kind of celebration of what kind of holiday is appropriate for a secular family. But real quick, I wanted to put the word out: St. Nicholas’ day is quick, easy, and fun. And cheap (woohoo!).

I don’t know why I got a St. Nicholas bee in my bonnet a few years ago — I’d read about it here and there, but it wasn’t part of my family tradition growing up. But when I finally sat down and started researching, I was hooked.

St. Nicholas’ Day is technically December 6, but the night before is just as important.

I can’t remember where I read about the tradition that kids are supposed to leave a letter in their shoe telling St. Nick what they’d like for Christmas. I do remember thinking what an excellent idea this was — far more practical than the night before Christmas. This way, you’ve got some planning time.

We don’t have a chimney, but those who do might want to partake of the ritual of burning the letter to St. Nick as a method of magic mail delivery. You’ll have to judge whether your offspring would find this delightful or scream-inducing.

I myself save the letters. They’re too good to lose. Besides, they were one of the earliest clues I got that when it was his idea and he was just enjoying himself, my son not only loved to write but was really good at it.

Children in some countries leave carrots and hay in their shoes as an offering to the reindeer, along with the letter to St. Nicholas. We’re short of hay in the city, but there will be carrots. Probably wrapped in non-traditional plastic, in case the reindeer aren’t interested and Cheapskate Mommy wants to chop them up for the family to enjoy.

What I especially enjoy about tonight is that it’s a low-pressure holiday. It’s not a huge shopping extravaganza. The presents the kids will wake up to on the morning of December 6 aren’t supposed to be huge. It’s just a little candy in their shoes.

I found some cute stuff, deliberately leaning toward old-fashioned and quaint — a licorice pipe, bubble gum in a cardboard box, Swedish fish, funny flavored lollipops. Peanut butter and jelly will either be a big hit or a big laugh, but it’s no big deal either way. It’s just fun. Which is easy to forget at this time of year, when the pressure for everything to be perfect can feel relentless.

My only regret is that I learned, much too late to do anything about it, that a traditional St. Nicholas’ day gift is chocolate in the shape of the child’s first initial. I’m going to spend this year learning either how to make these, or where to order them. And you can bet my shoe will have a treat in it next year. I’ve been a good girl, and this is chocolate we’re talking about here.

Oy, the oil.

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

The miracle of Hanukkah is supposed to be that the oil lasted for eight whole nights. No one ever says anything about the fact that the smell of yes-I-made-latkes-from-scratch lasts until roughly next Hanukkah. And longer if it rains the day after the latke fry, which for some reason it always seems to. We have to keep the windows closed against the wind and water and, thanks to all the ambient oil in the air, we’re all terrified to light the heater.

The other Hanukkah miracle is that I always manage to forget just what a pain in the keister it is to make latkes. The grating of eighty thousand potatoes isn’t so bad. It’s the squeezing the wet out of them that reduces me to inappropriate language.

The funny part is that I’m not Jewish and before my son was born, we never celebrated Hanukkah. But he has Jewish relatives and I don’t want him growing up utterly clueless about part of his family’s culture. Plus there’s something about having a kid that made me want to grab every possible holiday. We even do St. Nicholas’ day. But I digress.

I was always worried about having Jewish friends and family over when I started making latkes. I figured mine would be compared to how Grandma from the old country used to make them, and found wanting. But when I apologized in advance for their potential shortcomings, I was always told that this was the first time the Jew in question had ever had latkes.

My goyim friends have had them. Last year, my shiksa girlfriend served some in late December at our usual Monday lunch/homeschooling get-together. She didn’t make them herself. She paid a lot of money to get some from the deli around the corner. Guess what? Mine were better. And way cheaper.

But getting back to the miracle of the oil. This year, I really thought it would be better. I used olive oil instead of plain vegetable. I opened windows in advance, and kept them open late. I scrubbed down the kitchen right after dinner. And thanks to my in-laws’ generosity, we have blinds now instead of nice absorbent curtains, and some fake hardwood floors instead of carpeting right next to the kitchen.

And still this morning, there was that familiar smell. Perhaps not as stinky as in years past, but defiantly present just the same.

The latkes were good, though. I even made two batches: one regular potato-onion, and one where you grate together parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, and regular potatoes. I thought these were terrific. My son, who has the good sense to love pretty much anything I make since he knows he’s lucky to have me cooking for him and he’s seen some pretty weird food at friends’ houses, thought they were good. My husband thought that anything lacking in onions failed the pass-fail test for dinner savories. More for me.

After dinner, we sat around playing dreidel. which is spelled correctly in spite of what the WordPress spell-checking software insists. We had some gelt, but nowhere near enough; so we supplemented the stash with a couple of bags of small peppermint patties. These were not York brand. They were smaller and flatter and firmer and, in my opinion, way better — kind of like mint-candy sandwich cookies rather than a big slab of white mintness wearing a thin chocolate shawl.

There’s not much suspense to playing dreidel in our house, since my husband is allergic to chocolate. He can gimel all he wants; he’s not keeping the loot. Especially with me sitting right there. Still, it’s fun.

And loud. There are just the three of us, but my son keeps things lively. Because unfortunately, he has a supply of novelty dreidels from Hanukkahs past. So just when I’d be sure I’d put the winning spin on the nice heavy wooden one I like to use in spite of its Disney decorations, the little wind-up dreidel-with-feet would come hopping over and nun my hay, or shin my nun. And when it was his turn, my son would catapult the built-to-bounce plastic-and-rubber dreidel (with its own special launcher) right into the middle of the game. The later it got, the more hiLARious this became. To him.

Finally, after my husband had yet again won the pot (seriously, how does he do it? and why?), we sat down to a quiet traditional reading of Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story.
Which is actually reasonably educational. It talks about the Maccabees and everything.

We did not light candles. We are not observant Jews. We are not observant anythings, unless you count the close eye I keep on the household supply of chocolate. So lighting candles would be completely inappropriate for us.

A lot of people are confused by where we draw the line. Specifically, they find it weird. They think that if we celebrate Hanukkah, we should go all the way; and if we’re not Jews, we shouldn’t touch it.

I agree it would be pretty weird to indulge in our bit of this holiday if we didn’t have any Jewish relations. Grabbing other cultures’ traditions out of thin air, as it were, is a little too close to colonialization in my eyes. Learning about Hanukkah, enjoying a great meal, and playing a game where you gamble for chocolate feel all right to me.

Lighting candles does not. We don’t have a creche packed in among our Christmas decorations; we don’t have a menorah in the Hanukkah box.

But we do have the traditional scent of simmered olive oil to hold us over until next year. That’s ritual enough for us.

Smashed and hammered brownies

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

I ran out of Halloween candy and Thanksgiving pie on the same day. Which is, not coincidentally, the day that the winter holiday season begins in our house — at least so far as baking is concerned.

The brownies I bake are fudgy rather than cakey (brownie aficionados know what I mean), so they need a long time to cool after baking. I began making the latest batch right after breakfast. I hoped that with any luck, they’d be reasonably settled by lunchtime.

My go-to brownie recipe is not the one I spent years (in every sense) making, where you have to beat the eggs and sugar together for fifteen minutes and be all delicate and add each ingredient in its precious little order. Yes, these brownies were awesome. But my life is getting shorter by the minute, and my standing mixer broke. It was time for a change.

I read a recipe called “Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies” in one of Laurie Colwin’s cookbooks. It was a lovely recipe: easy, friendly, fun. Only problem was, the brownies in question were mediocre — at least if you’re used to my killer brownies. The texture was all right, but the flavor only wistfully hinted at chocolate so far as I was concerned.

But they were a lot easier to make than mine. So I decided to shock them into a whole new species by inflicting an act of punctuated equilibrium on them. I amped the chocolate and vanilla extract, raised the temperature, and added chocolate chips. And then I put the recipe in Bitter/Sweet: The Bitter Homeschooler’s Chocolate Cookbook, which I just now decided to shamelessly plug in the spirit of the season.

But — also in the spirit of the season — I decided to give you, right now and fer free, a variation of the recipe that my son and I came up with yesterday.

Smashed and Hammered Brownies

Candy canes or small peppermint candies (as many or few as you want)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, preferably salted
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 oz. semisweet chocolate
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. REAL vanilla extract (if you use that icky fake stuff, please leave right now)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chocolate chips

1. Find a child willing and able to do whatever it takes to smash the peppermint candy into smithereens. If you have offspring over the age of, say, three, this should not be difficult. For safety and health reasons, this will probably involve a double layer of freezer storage bags, newspaper or brown paper to put under them, a long-suffering floor that doesn’t mind the occasional pounding, and a hammer.

2. Melt the butter and chocolates together over very low heat in a heavy-bottomed pot. For more on the subject of this kind of work, please see “Notes on Melting Chocolate (or: Why the Bitter Homeschooler Hates Double Boilers)” in Bitter/Sweet, in which the author compares melting chocolate over boiling water to keeping an acid bath near your baby’s crib.

3. Insert your favorite “heavy-bottomed cookbook writer” joke here.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

5. Pretend that step 4 is actually step 1.

6. Also, grease an 8-inch square baking pan and pretend that step 6 is step 2.

7. Stir in sugar, eggs, and vanilla in whatever order strikes your fancy. Beat well.

8. Over all protests that it’s just not quite ready yet, retrieve shards of peppermint candy from conscripted child laborer and stir them into the batter. Add the chocolate chips while you’re at it.

9. Put the batter into the pan and the pan into the oven.

10. Bake for exactly 20 minutes. Do NOT try to tell if these are done by looking at them. They will NOT look done when you take them out. They will look swimmy and strange. Making these for the first time is an act of trust. I PROMISE that this is how they’re supposed to look at this point in their lives, and if you chicken out and bake them any longer, you will DESTROY EVERYTHING YOU’VE BEEN WORKING TOWARD (and every chance of earthly happiness you may have held out hope for).

11. Let them cool on a rack for a very, very long time. At least a few hours. It’s best to take these out of the oven right before you were going out to run errands or something, because you’ll want to eat them right away and this will be a very bad idea. (See above about destruction, earthly happiness, etc.)

12. Cut carefully. These are fudgy. Especially since there’s no way you let them cool enough.

Serves 1.

Waiter, there’s a fish in my yogurt.

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

“Circumstantial evidence is occasionally very convincing, as when you find a trout in the milk, to quote Thoreau’s example.” Sherlock Holmes*, “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

*yes, I know he’s fictional. And no, he isn’t.

I promise to talk about a lot of chocolate this month, but can I just vent a weird-food rant here?

My son is a veggie. I vacillate back and forth like crazy between veggie and person who cares nothing about the deeply sensitive inner lives fish may nurture deep inside their scaly little selves.

When I’m veggie, everything is veggie. When I’m fishy, everything is still veggie because I don’t feel like cooking twice for one meal. My pescy-tendencies manifest in the occasional indulgence in a can of sardines or salmon, or (when someone else is paying) some sushi.

Because we’re broke, my husband has food allergies, and the world of processed foods is a strange and scary place, I’m doing a lot of cooking from scratch. Yogurt is fun and I like making it myself because I know exactly what’s going into it. I buy Organic Valley milk to make it with not because I’m all about the organic — from everything I’ve read, a lot of questionable stuff can hide behind the o-word — but because Organic Valley has actual cows who eat grass in the actual outside. It’s also more likely to be from local farmers. And did I mention their cream is about five times thicker than anyone else’s?

Our local health-food store — okay, stop. Can we please call them something else? Better yet, can we call the other markets something else? “Ghastly Foods market chain just opened their fifteenth franchise to great fanfare today. Locals are pleased, although Shamelessly Exploited Workers objected to what they consider to be unfair competition…”

Anyway. Our local won’t-kill-you-as-quickly-food store was out of the usual Organic Valley 2% I use. Instead, they had a new kind with a happy yellow stripe across the top. Omega-3! It’s good for you!

I thought I sort of remembered hearing somewhere that omega-3 acids were indeed necessary and important things. At any rate, I was in a hurry and we needed milk. So I bought it. That night, I made a batch of yogurt.

Which is not difficult, by the way — and no, you don’t need a yogurt maker. You need a stove, an oven, and a towel or baby blanket. You bring a quart of good-quality milk to a boil (you can boil lousy stuff if you want to, but what’s the point?). You turn down the heat before the roiling, bubbling mass blows out your stove’s pilot lights and destroys your entire kitchen. You simmer the milk for two minutes. You let it cool (stirring frequently, so you don’t get that creepy milk “skin” across the top) until you can keep your finger in there for ten seconds without screaming. You stir some of the milk into a nice glass jar or bowl that has a couple of tablespoons of already-made yogurt. You stir the rest of the milk in and mix well. You cover the container, wrap it in the towel or blanket, and put it in the oven, which you have preheated to a cozy warmth even though I forgot to tell you to. You let it sit overnight — did I mention you should be doing this at night? You don’t need to keep the oven on all night — the leftover preheating plus the pilot light is plenty. And in the morning, you have a nice big bowl of yogurt that is way better than the stuff you get in the store.

So I did that.

The next morning, I was sitting at the table with a big bowl of porridge. Morning is not my time, and unless I exercise first thing on waking up (which I’m trying to do more often), I’m not awake for at least an hour. (I’m not awake for at least an hour even if I do exercise, but I don’t care if I sleep through exercising. I don’t want to be around for that kind of pain.)

So I sat at the the table in a pleasant stupor, drowsily spooning porridge and looking hazily at the carton of milk in front of me. Which is NOT the kind of thing I usually have on the table, I hasten to add. I think I was just too tired to do anything about it.

Organic Valley products like to talk about themselves, so if you’re the kind of suburban slob who litters her table with their cartons, you won’t lack for reading material. I noticed absently that the cows involved in this milk were indeed their usual happy selves, enjoying the sun and grass that ought to be every cow’s birthright. I also noticed that this milk had an ingredient list, which is weird to me since I think of milk as an ingredient in its own right. I mean, yes, technically they have to mention that they added vitamin A and vitamin D and fish oil –

Fish oil?

I looked at it again incredulously. Fish oil, from sardines and anchovies. And fish gelatin, which is really not the kind of thing I want to think about at the breakfast table.

The thing is, the milk tasted great. I mean, really good. And if I’m in a pescatarian phase and fish is on my personal menu, I shouldn’t mind having it in what was admittedly a rather weird form from an unexpected source. Fish is fish, right?

Maybe. But first of all, I’d just used this stuff to make yogurt for a veggie kid. He’s not the obnoxious sort who’d throw a screaming fit over something like this. I explained the circumstances and apologized for the oversight, and he was fine. He even ate the yogurt — the fish was already dead, as he pointed out.

But I’d have to go out and buy vegetarian yogurt for a new batch of starter. Even I felt a little weird about having a little bit of fish wriggling around in every batch of yogurt I made from now on.

And the whole thing just kind of ticked me off. If it’s really not a big deal that they’re putting a non-vegetarian ingredient into a food that many vegetarians are fine with, why not say so right upfront? Especially since people who are vegetarians for environmental reasons are way more likely to be buying from a place like Organic Valley.

I don’t know how many complaints they’ve had. I did post a comment on one of their sites, and got a very nice email back offering a coupon for a free container of “replacement” milk. I’m not sure I feel ethical in accepting that — we did use the milk, after all. But it was nice of them to offer.

I just think it would also be nice if they left the “to fish, or not to fish” lifestyle choice up to their customers. Thanks to my husband’s allergies, I’m used to reading ingredient lists. I didn’t think I had to on something that is an ingredient. It’s not as if I look to see if there’s any beef in my eggs.

Maybe I should…

Writing advice for the frantic and deranged

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

A young and devastatingly talented friend of mine is in the habit of making me squirm by calling me a “real writer.” I’m not sure how many publishing credits and how much hate mail it’ll take to confirm that status in my own mind. I’m not sure there’s enough bile in the world — or love, for that matter.

On the other hand, I do know that I’m a writer. Just a writer, I think would be the most accurate description. Writing is the water I swim in, whether I’m gasping in admiration of other people’s words or holding my eyes open (with my fingers if necessary, which occasionally it is at the end of a long day) as I struggle to order my own.

I write. And recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be of help to other people who also write.

In the past few months, I’ve answered the phone expecting nothing more than a chat about setting up a family play date, only to find myself fielding an urgent plea for help on the writing front. Will this plot work? Is this a good idea? Can a unicorn be a speaking character and also not exactly a unicorn?

Recently I had a manuscript handed to me with a plea not to pull any punches, and became engaged shortly afterward in a discussion about how to craft an unreliable narrator without leaving a reader feeling that she may be in the presence of an unreliable writer.

This very November, I utterly failed to take part in NaNoWriMo but was delighted to be of help to someone who was typing madly away and was running out of fuel well before she hit her word quota.

I gave writing lessons once to a friend’s daughter, and it was fun; but this was different. That had been with the specific goal of teaching a specific skill. What I’ve been doing lately is deeper, and a deep joy. I’m being of help to people who, for whatever reason, have to write.

It’s made me realize that this is something I want to do on more of a regular basis, and on a professional basis.

I’m setting up my site, figuring out my model, learning the wonders of Skype so that I don’t have to be limited by geography. I hope to be ready to make this official in about a month.

In the meantime, and speaking of someone who quite literally has to write, a friend of mine is completely freaked out because she’s homeschooling her daughter and working, plus now she’s working on her dissertation. And she’s getting some terrible advice on how to handle this, which is only making her even more stressed. For instance, someone told her she absolutely had to read a particular book that instructed her never to write for more than two hours a day. I don’t know if this is a book on writing in general, or on dissertation work in particular, but clearly someone’s been smoking something they shouldn’t be.

So if my own experience can be of any help at all, I’d like to offer the following advice. This might be of use to anyone attempting to get some writing done when life keeps intruding.

1. If you can get long stretches of uninterrupted time, grab them — by the neck with claws unsheathed, if necessary. Fight for them. Pay for them. Don’t actually kill for them, since that’ll just get you the wrong kind of long stretches of uninterrupted time; but be prepared to do so. It’s amazing how many obstacles an expression of murderous certainty can knock down — and how willing spouses, children, and good friends will suddenly be to give you whatever you need. At least until they have time to get used to your new look.

2. Regardless of how faithfully you follow #1, stretches of uninterrupted time, long or otherwise, are not going to fall into your lap. They do fall into some people’s laps, but those people aren’t usually desperate enough to be seeking advice here.

Instead of waiting with increasing bitterness for the perfect writing conditions, be willing and able to work with what you can get. A few minutes used well can be more productive than an hour in which you keep leaping up to do other things.

3. The best way to make sure you’ll use the writing time you manage to tear away from a Keats-killing world is to have your ducks in a row. Have all kinds of work ready and waiting for you, suited to all kinds of circumstances, so that whatever comes along, you’re set.

I learned this from the construction crew that did the repair work on our earthquake-damaged building several years ago. The foreman had indoor non-time-sensitive work available for days when it was raining and their outdoor work was impossible. Similarly, writers should have:

* “Low-brainer” stuff for when you’re tired and/or distracted. You have to decide for yourself what constitutes a relatively mindless session. For some, researching and taking notes or marking pages with those cute little sticky tabs is something they can do even if their kid is firing “Guess what?”-type questions at them the whole time. Some find outlining soothing. Or rereading/rewriting. Figure out what aspect of writing demands the least from your particular twisted little mind, and save it for a screamy day.

* Portable pain: writing supplies that can come with you when you’re out in the so-called real world and find yourself waiting around. Again, this might be a book that needs reading, a notebook for note-taking and outlining, or a laptop for composing or doing online research.

* “Focus, please” stuff for those times when you really did get up at four in the morning (or, if you’re me, stayed up until two) in order to work undisturbed, or your family left and promised not to come back before a certain hour. This is crucial time. You must use it well. But this kind of pressure is exactly what can make you freeze up with a bad case of performance anxiety, and make you hate yourself for not being a better, more productive human being. Warm up with a little — just a little — of whatever constitutes an easy ride for you. I often find it helpful to start by rereading the last page or paragraph or chapter I’ve been working on, correcting as I go along, and then just keep writing when I reach the end of my charted territory. Or maybe you can map out exactly where you’re going to go next with this project. Or read the research material that demands silent concentration. Be honest with yourself about what aspect of writing is hardest for you, and time it accordingly.

4. Speaking of quiet time: If you’re the anxious type and you wake up in a writing-related panic and can’t calm yourself down right away, just go ahead and get up and work. I’ve learned this the hard way. If your personal demon is going to torture you, you may as well get some work out of him as long as he’s there. Make a cup of herbal tea (or black coffee, if you know you’re not getting back to sleep at all) and just write. If you’re too panicky to get anything constructive done, try to distract the tormentor. Take a hot bath or a cold shower. Or try an exercise a friend of mine told me about, where you choose one particular object or corner of the room or patch of garden and just stare at it. You can blink, but don’t look away when you open your eyes. This is all you’re allowed to look at or focus on. With any luck, the foul imp assigned to your case will die of boredom, or at least fall asleep, and you’ll be calm enough to work. Don’t let yourself start right away. Keep staring until you’re sure he’s really out, and then quietly begin to scribble or type.

5. And speaking of scribbling or typing: if you’re feeling absolutely stuck, try varying your usual medium. Try making an outline in longhand if you usually type, or jot down your first drafts in pencil instead of pen. Use a weird-sized paper, and/or something colorful. At one point, I found writing sideways across pale purple legal pads very helpful.

6. Take care of yourself. Do not do shove this into the “When I have time, if I have time” bag and then kick it under the bed. Do it first. Every study in the universe currently concludes that exercising wakes up your brain and makes it work better. Exercise early or late, depending on when you’re going to be writing. Exercise and then write. And don’t forget to eat. And don’t eat junk. Use some of your most tired, useless time to shop for and prepare healthy stuff to have around that you can grab when you don’t want to stop working but need to energize: chopped fresh vegetables, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, whole-grain snacks. Don’t forage when you’re already starving. Eat when you need to — some people find it helpful to eat before they need to. If you’re working with a computer, you already have enough potential system crashes to deal with. Don’t add yours into the bargain.

7. Find what works for you. Listen to other people’s advice and ideas, but don’t necessarily adopt them. If the idea in question feels like just one more thing to add to your to-do list, it’s probably not a good fit for you.

8. Seemingly in direct contradiction to the previous item but in fact in complete agreement with it: be willing to try something new if what you’re doing now isn’t working. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself: do you feel reluctant to try this new method or system because it doesn’t seem like a good fit, or because it sounds too much like work?

9. Almost every writer in the world doesn’t feel like writing when they sit down to write. It doesn’t matter if this is for work, school, or was 100% your own idea. If you’re a parent, you’ll have plenty of experience with a small immature creature screaming “But I don’t WANT to!” about something that they really ought to be used to by now. You may not have realized that you’ve got just such a creature living in your skull. They usually respond well to calmness, consistency, and a refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Keep working for however many minutes it takes for the whining and pleading to stop (“I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! I want to do something fun!”). Be prepared for some low cunning (“Is this really what you should be doing with your time? With your life? Are you sure this is a good idea?”). Keep working. Keep working. It does get better.

And then it gets worse again. But you can do this.

Think about it this way: the part of your mind that keeps trying to convince you to stop believes that you can do this. That’s why it’s trying to stop you. Because writing is work, and all of us carry around a lazy slob who shudders at the prospect of anything that looks like work. And succeeding at writing usually means you’ll be doing more of it.

You can do this. Just keep working.