Shaking, Not Baking

The sunset over Daufuskie Island, S.C.

Don’t hate me, but I took a vacation.

With two Covid 19 shots and a bad case of wanderlust – I’d taken comfort in sitting on an I-95 overpass and looking at cars whizzing by in recent weeks –  we decided to take our annual road trip south. We drove because neither the Curmudgeon nor I love to fly. And then there is the issue of packing: if we flew, we’d need to ship a cargo carrier down with all of our stuff.

At one point during the packing process, the Curmudgeon said, “If anyone was coming with us, we’d have to strap him to the roof.” I have no idea how we used to fit in two kids, and a dog.

The Curmudgeon is worse than I am, assembling boxes filled with pantry staples like balsamic vinegar, Good Seasons salad dressing (he forgot the cruet!), and store-brand Shake & Bake for our week-long stay. He packed Brillo and enough laundry detergent pods to last three months. I told him that I didn’t want to eat Shake & Bake chicken while I’m away – that I want to eat lowcountry fare: shrimp and grits and snow crabs plucked from the Piggly Wiggly’s shellfish display case, but he packed it anyway. It remained unopened for nearly 2,000 miles, just as I had predicted.

I enjoy eating local when I’m away, and there’s no better place for seafood than South Carolina. Walking the “squeaky” white sand beaches, you can see the shrimp trawlers dragging for their catch, and buckets of local shrimp are sold at roadside stands along with boiled peanuts, another local delicacy. I like to order “She-Crab” soup, sweet tea, peel and eat shrimp, hush puppies and Hoppin’ John, a mixture of black eye peas and rice. This year, my brother-in-law Ted surprised everyone by ordering alligator bites as an appetizer, which he generously shared with the table. The verdict: sweet and tender, a little like chicken. The next day, we snapped this photo and sent it to Ted with the caption Gator Revenge:

We spotted this guy the day after feasting on Gator Bites at the Salty Dog on Hilton Head Island.

For me, food is as much a part of getting away as the sun and surf. So I’m always a little disappointed when I’m away, and someone suggests baked chicken or hotdogs and hamburgers for dinner. That’s a little like ordering a Maine lobster in Ohio, or fish at a Connecticut pancake house, as I did one evening with disastrous results. It can be done, but why?

Though “eating local” has become as grating a term as “self care,” I’ve always been a fan of regional cuisine, from New Haven pizza and New York soft pretzels and hotdogs to New England clam chowder and Maryland crab cakes. During my family’s annual summer vacation on Cape Cod every August, I loved feasting on whole belly fried clams dipped in copious amounts of tartar sauce with a side of french fries and coleslaw. Being a late August baby, that was my birthday dinner. I can’t go to the Cape without craving fried clams, though these days I usually skip the fries.

When I’m on Martha’s Vineyard, I want to eat fish all the time, even if it means contending with everyone else crowding around Larsen’s Fish Market in Menemsha to eat boiled lobsters off their lap for lunch or clams on the half shell at sunset. I want to eat harpooned swordfish, bay scallops as sweet as candy and piles of steamers with drawn butter. I want to cook grey sole the way my mother-in-law did – lightly seasoned with bread crumbs and paprika sprinkled on top and baked quickly at 500 degrees – and I want to eat stuffed littlenecks even if I must return from the beach two hours early to prepare them.

I want to eat local, from the overpriced greens and breads sold at the West Tisbury Farmers Market, the cheese from the local cows and the salsas, jams and hand pressed Limeade rustled up by Islanders. I want to buy overpriced salt harvested from local waters and smoked in flavors like oak and hear stories about different salts from the woman who makes them. I want to buy blueberry muffins from the pie lady, and spring for a sandwich at an overpriced shop. I rarely splurge for sandwiches at home, so why not? Isn’t that the point of being on vacation?

Years ago, my parents went away with some close friends, sharing a house on the beach close to where we stayed this year. My father’s friend pulled a half gallon of ice cream out of the freezer at 10 a.m., and began eating it as though it was routine. My father couldn’t get over it – ice cream in the morning! But his friend explained that he’d never do this except on vacation. My father didn’t get it: he was a disciplined guy and would never indulge like that. But I understand it, more now that I’m older. It’s fun to break the routine, particularly after the year we’ve all been through.

With only about an hour before checkout and coffee ice cream in the freezer, the Curmudgeon made himself a shake at 8:30 a.m. He’d never do that at home, but as he explained: “There was ice cream and milk.” He actually returned home three pounds lighter than when he left, so who am I to question him about shakes before lunch?

Ice cream at 8:30 a.m.? Why not!

So the Shake & Bake didn’t happen, even after the Curmudgeon offered to make it and serve it for lunch. I warned him I didn’t want it, and I meant it. Maybe next time, he’ll listen.

Happy Anniversary

Photo courtesy of istockphoto

I was recently asked to write a short bio for a new venture one of my friends is launching. 

That’s the good thing about friends: they’ll ask you to join their new business when your resume has more holes in it than a moth-eaten sweater. I sat there looking at the blank screen for a few minutes and thought, “Boy, I don’t have much to say on the career front.”

And then I thought of the two reasons why: my son and daughter, who have occupied most of my time for the past 23 years. Years ago, I had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around a reporter’s decision to step away from her job to raise her kids. And then my son entered my life at age 39 and I thought, “I’ve got one chance to do this right, and I don’t want to screw it up.”

I doubled down on that thought after my daughter joined our family when I was 42. I’m glad I was able to stay home with them because they’re my pride and joy. So rather than pad my resume, I made it abundantly clear that I was a stay-at-home mom in my very short bio. I don’t care if it doesn’t sound impressive: it’s the truth, and I’d do it again tomorrow if I had the chance.

Though staying home with kids is certainly an acceptable route in our society, it’s not valued in the workplace as experience and doesn’t sound impressive at cocktail parties. Saying you’re a blogger often elicits eye rolls, but here’s the thing: blogging has given me back the gift of writing, something I took for granted all those years as a reporter. It’s given me a forum to express myself, and the confidence to believe I can produce longer pieces.

My road to stay-at-homeness was gradual, certainly nothing I planned when I was setting out. In fact, I wanted nothing more than a successful career, having grown up in a time of women’s liberation and equal rights. When a college friend told me during senior year her goal was to marry, have kids and join the garden club, I winced, believing she was shortchanging herself.

“What about a career?” I thought to myself.

I spent most of my 20s and 30s as a reporter and editor at small dailies and weeklies until I got a job at a bigger newspaper. As much as I loved my work, I knew I wanted to be a mom. My road to motherhood was fraught with disappointment until a miracle came along after about 10 years. I named him Matthew, gift of the Lord. Nearly four years later, we welcomed his sister Maura.

I continued to freelance when my kids were young, waking up the crack of dawn to complete writing assignments while the little monsters slept. But as they got older, even freelancing became difficult because I was so busy shuttling them to sporting events, CCD and other after school activities. What you learn is that it’s actually easier to get things done when your kids are babies. Once the hustle and bustle of shuttling kids begins, your life is not your own.

My desire to write waned as my children got older and I took on the role of taxi driver. I used to tell people that my day didn’t really begin until 3, when I buckled them into their seats and began driving the back streets of Guilford, CT., to avoid highway traffic to get them where they needed to be. I now know every shortcut in town like the back of my hand. But I was a little lost when my son went off to college: without him around, I was sad and didn’t know what to do with myself. I decided to start a blog, just to see if anyone might be able to relate to my experiences.

I thought it was three years – honest. Then I got my anniversary notice from WordPress and it says four years, so I guess it must be so. 

I still enjoy blogging, sharing experiences in hopes of connecting with people. It thrills me when people write back, telling me they can relate or sharing their own spin on things. I’m overwhelmed by the positive feedback I’ve received, and can honestly say it’s been a great experience. I have nothing but good things to say about blogging, and encourage anyone who wants to blog to try it.

At this point, I’m nearing 300 followers on WordPress, with others following on Facebook. I don’t gauge my success in terms of number of followers, but in terms of how I connect with the readers I have: did I strike a chord and remind you of something in your own life or childhood? Did I make you laugh, cry or wistful? I’m not trying for a certain reaction: that to me is manipulative. But if I happen to strike a chord, that’s the money shot. I think that’s what every writer is after at the end of the day.

So here it’s been – four years. Not a long time, but as long as high school, college and some short-lived marriages. Thanks for coming along for the ride. I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring.

Truth in Advertising?

The depiction of the 60+ crowd upset a lot of people, including me.

I’m not sure what happens to women over the age of 50, but we become a little obsessed with aging.

It’s not necessarily just our own aging process that interests us. We’re also interested in the age of other women we see on the street, in the supermarket, in the CVS drive-thru line, in ads and on the TV screen, wondering how old they are. Senior days at the supermarket are a particularly fertile time for this pastime: it’s interesting to see how many older women rock spandex leggings or pink streaks in their hair these days.

I don’t remember age being part of the equation when I was a “kid” in my 20s and 30s, but maybe it was always there waiting to be unleashed like the grey hair at my temples. People say one of the gifts of turning 50 is no longer caring what other people think of you. If that’s true, then so is looking at other women around your age and seeing how Father Time is treating them.

My first memory of making a point to Google an actor’s age is after a play at Long Wharf in New Haven that I attended with a few friends several years ago. The star of the show was a gorgeous actress with a killer body, but it was obvious that she was a mature woman. My friends and I debated her age, finally settling the debate with a few finger strokes on our trusty I-Phones. For the record, the woman was a few years younger than I was, but looked a helluva lot better than me. That’s OK. That’s not a high bar these days.

One of my pandemic obsessions is Googling people’s ages on my phone as I watch various shows, or should I say programs? I don’t much care how old men are – they’re merely a blip on my phone screen. But I’ll admit that I did a double take when I realized an old bald guy on a recent episode of “Magnum PI” was Corbin Bernsen. As an early fan of The Young & the Restless, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Corbin because he is the son of the late Jeanne Cooper, who played Katherine Chancellor for years.

I’d seen his name in the credits at the beginning of Magnum PI, and looked forward to seeing the hunky blond actor from “LA Law.” As I watched the show, I kept thinking, “Where’s Corbin?” It wasn’t until the end of the show that I realized that he was the old guy dying in a hospital bed. To be fair, the makeup people did a job on Corbin, making him look much older than his 66 years. He’s still a very attractive man. But it was hard seeing him as the old bald character actor rather than the gorgeous lead from his younger days. Maybe seeing him reminded me that I’m no longer the young woman I was when I was watching him rock that blond mane back in the ‘80s.

It’s nice when you look up a celebrity’s age and are pleasantly surprised that they’re holding up so well: Jane Fonda is 83, Lily Tomlin is 81, Helen Mirren is 75 and Christie Brinkley still looks great at 67. Of course, it’s possible a fair bit of work may be involved, but that’s OK. I’d never fault anyone for plastic surgery, though it’s not a route I plan to take (never say never). I only ask for honesty when plastic surgery is involved: please don’t tell the public you’re all natural when we all know you’re not.

Aging isn’t easy for any of us, and it doesn’t get any easier with each passing year. It’s hard to know what you look like to the outside world as you age, particularly with everyone wearing masks that cover troublespots like lined cheeks, sagging jowls, drooping chins and laugh lines. One of the most humbling experiences is catching a glimpse of myself in the camera at the self service checkout at Wal-mart and Big Y: I look quickly and then avert my eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding going out in public like this,” I think.

You’re having a pretty good day, and then you realize you’re on camera . . .

Though I’m not consumed with age, and realize that aging is a privilege, it’s hard to think of myself as looking like an old lady at 62. So it was with a mixture of amusement and horror that I looked at an age progression chart for the Keto Diet on Facebook. Each of the age groups features a depiction of women at different ages and what they can expect to look like on Keto. Everyone looks pretty good until you get to the woman in her 60s, who looks old from her head to her toes. 

I thought I was the only one who objected to this scary depiction of a frumpy if kindly looking old lady until a Facebook ad for Keto popped up in my feed this week. The responses came from around the world, with the consensus that we’ll all stick to our terrible diets if this is what awaits us:

“How about some new photos of over 60? one woman wrote.

“Wow, looking at how you depict women at certain ages. This is so off,” wrote another.

“My 83-year-old mother looks better than the example of the 60+ woman,” wrote another.  So does my 87-year-old mother, for that matter.

“If going on Keto means that I’ll lose my sense of style and look like this, I’ll stick to my current diet,” a 71-year-old woman wrote.

It was a relief that I wasn’t the only one who objected to the depiction in the 60+ age bracket. And people found other problems with the ad, from misspellings (stake instead of steak) to its lack of representation for men and minorities. Some people criticized the clothing, with one guy noting:

“I didn’t realize that age 40 was the age that Karens got their wings.”

Of course, most people commented on the diet, which was, after all, the point of the ad. But I think the comments about the 60+ woman’s appearance speaks to the importance of accurate branding. I know plenty of women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who are in fantastic shape and stylish. Seeing how the 60+ crowd is depicted in the Keto ad is insulting because it’s not an accurate depiction. In fact, it will probably turn off more women than it will attract.

Maybe the ad people will get their act together and update the chart – we can always hope they come to their senses. In the meantime, there’s a bowl of pasta with my name on it.

Artichokes, 101

You know you’ve done something right when a group devoted to cooking and eating enthusiastically embraces one of your creations.

I posted a photo of a single stuffed artichoke I made using my grandmother’s very simple recipe on Wooster Square Cooks and the response was overwhelming, at least as far as my posts go. People love artichokes, especially stuffed the old-fashioned way with breadcrumbs in the center cavity. My grandmother used to spoon breadcrumbs in the individual leaves too, but I don’t because I find the breadcrumbs get too mushy. Besides, the dish is filling and rich enough without adding more breadcrumbs to the mix.

What surprised me is that so many people love artichokes, but had never made stuffed artichokes because they don’t know how. I was happy to share my recipe because they’re easy to make and so satisfying, particularly at this time of the year. I don’t have my grandmother’s recipe written down, but I watched her prepare them so often in her Brooklyn, N.Y., kitchen to know it by heart. The secret was her breadcrumb mix – the same recipe, I believe, that she used to stuff clams and lobsters on Christmas Eve and for stuffed mushrooms.

She favored good quality plain breadcrumbs, not Italian seasoned. She’d dump them in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and a good shake of garlic powder (not garlic salt). A shake or two of dried parsley. From there, she would drizzle in good olive oil and stir, stopping when it reached the consistency of damp sand. Combined, but not saturated. If she added too much oil, more breadcrumbs would go in the bowl until she had the desired consistency.

Some people commented that they used fresh garlic and parmesan cheese in their stuffing, but I don’t. I want to taste the artichoke without being overwhelmed by other flavors. Fresh garlic seems overpowering, but to each his or her own. I’d never dare argue with another cook, particularly an Italian American one.

Like a lot of old-time cooks, I don’t remember my grandmother ever using a measuring cup or spoon, cookbook or recipe card. She was a fantastic cook, but did everything by memory or feel. That’s just how she rolled. So when a few people on Wooster Square Cooks wanted the recipe, I had to think long and hard, particularly about the breadcrumb mixture. It didn’t help that I’d had my 2nd Covid 19 shot earlier in the day, or that I had a few glasses of wine to celebrate.

For my Wooster Square Cooks post, I didn’t have enough breadcrumbs so I crushed up a bag of croutons. My grandmother wouldn’t like that, but in a pinch it will do. The most difficult part of the recipe is making sure that you have enough water in the pot. You’ve got to check it periodically to make sure it doesn’t boil down too much, adding water as needed. Some people said they baked theirs in a Dutch Oven, but I prefer the stovetop so I can keep an eye on them.

I think it’s important to share recipes – can you believe some people guard them with their life? Not what cooking is all about, at least for me. So when a few friends asked for a simple recipe for Easter Brunch, I offered them my mother-in-law’s holiday standard Eggs for Brunch. She got the recipe from her daughter, Sarah, and included it a fundraising cookbook. Here’s it is, in case you’re still trying to figure out what to make for Sunday:

Start by cutting off the stem of the artichoke so it will sit flat in the pan. Next, snip off the sharp tips of each artichoke leaf with a pair of kitchen scissors or a knife (scissors work best). Remove any outer leaves that are withered or don’t look appetizing.
Wash the artichokes, separating the leaves with your fingers, shake off excess water and drain on paper towels to dry.
Use your fingers to spread out the artichoke leaves to open the center cavity. Be gentle, or you’ll end up ripping it apart.
After stuffing generously, place artichokes in a pan containing about three inches of water. Don’t crowd the artichokes. Cover the pot and bring to a boil, immediately reducing the heat to a simmer. Cook for an hour, until leaves are tender. The breadcrumbs will steam, becoming moist and a bit darker during the cooking process. Serve with melted butter, if you want.

Here’s the complete recipe:

GRANDMA ROSE’S STUFFED ARTICHOKES (SERVES 4)

4 large artichokes, outer or any dry leaves removed

About 2 cups of breadcrumbs. If you don’t have breadcrumbs, flatten some croutons in a plastic bag.

About 4-6 tablespoons of olive oil

Garlic powder

Dried parsley

Salt and pepper

Method:

Remove the tough outer leaves of the artichoke. Snip off the end of each leaf with kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Cut off the stem and top of the artichoke with a knife. I usually remove about ½ an inch from the top. Gently spread the leaves of the artichoke apart with your fingers, taking care not to break off any leaves. Rinse under cold water, shaking to remove excess water. Blot the top of the artichoke face down on paper towels to remove remaining water.

In a small mixing bowl, combine breadcrumbs with olive oil, mixing in enough oil to create the consistency of damp sand – combined, but not saturated. Add in a shake of garlic powder, salt, pepper and about a tablespoon of dried parsley.

Open the top of the artichoke and spoon the breadcrumbs into the center cavity. If you want, you can spoon breadcrumbs into the individual leaves. I find that the breadcrumbs sometimes become too soggy in the leaves, but it’s all a matter of personal taste. Once stuffed, drizzle a little olive oil on top for good measure.

Place artichokes in a covered pot with about three inches of water with a dash of salt and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Check the artichokes periodically to see if more water is needed. Cook for one hour, letting the artichokes rest in the water for about five minutes.

Serve with melted butter.

This is a meal in itself, very filling. Serve with a side salad and dinner is served.