Friday, December 28, 2007

Ten Year Anniversary

Last night for dinner I cooked a family favorite and we were contemplating how long ago I found this recipe. We realized it was the tenth anniversary of Harira. (tambourines and oboes playing...) Harira is a traditional North African soup that is served in the evenings to break the fast of Ramadan. I found the recipe in the Washington Post food section in November 1997 and it looked terrific. It was filled with all my favorite foods: onions, garlic, lentils, tomatoes and cilantro. It just begged to be cooked, and from the first time I served it to my family, it was a hit. It remains everyone's favorite after all these years. Just google it and you will find pages of recipes and commentary. It is a food somewhat like potato salad: there is a basic, agreed upon form, but everyone's mother has her own personal version and there isn't just one "Potato Salad". Harira seems to be this way, too.

The recipe I use calls for lamb chunks, but since lamb was uncommon where I lived when I got this recipe, I finally found blade cut lamb shoulder (a really inexpensive cut) and I brown it, but then I cook it with the bone in for the first part of the recipe, and take it out and cut it up into chunks later on. Also, many of the recipes I found call for celery. Mine doesn't have celery. Some of the recipes thicken the soup only with the egg/lemon juice mix; mine calls for flour/water paste plus lemon juice/egg. The basics are: tomato, chick peas, lentils, noodles and spices. My friend calls it "air soup" because it uses so little of each inexpensive ingredient and yet ends up being a delicious and filling hearty meal.

Our daughter who lived in Morocco serving in the Peace Corps is visiting, and as we ate last night's harira she told us about the soup she consumed there. It turns out my recipe is the Rich Lady version. Most of the people whose tables she shared made it meat-less just because they couldn't afford to put meat in an everyday dish. It is a more utilitarian food there--being served every day for a month. But it gave her bonus points with her families that her mother cooked harira, too.

Once I was teaching a cooking class in Relief Society and my theme was using "The Three Friends: Beans, Legumes and Grains". I was telling my audience about harira and one sister turned to my other daughter, just home from a mission in Spain, and asked her (with great skepticism) "Oh, come on--did you kids really eat this?" My daughter replied solemnly, "If mom had been willing to make it for three meals a day, every day, we'd have gobbled it up---it's that good." I rest my case. And the ladies sampled it and were converted.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

We talked about the earliest memories we had of Christmas today as we ate dinner. I remember my dad setting up our first t.v. It had a little round screen and a huge wooden cabinet. I would have been five years old. Cool Guy remembers as a tiny kid going over to his grandmother's house which would have actually been the home where his mom was born nearly fifty years earlier. This grandma was really the second wife of his grandfather, his mother's mom died when her children were quite young.

Most of my memories of Christmas are all about food, and I realized still that food is what I think of when the holidays come around. I buy treats I never have around any other time. I make things I'd never cook any other time of year. Here's a partial list:

Chex mix (homemade)
gingerbread cookies
pumpkin bread
poppyseed bread
pecan pie
Chocolate refreshers
candy canes (I don't even really like them...they just look nice)
butter cookies

Something my mom made that I loved and will probably never make in my life: suet pudding. I wouldn't even know where to get a recipe! And where does one buy suet? She also made fruitcake that was fabulous. Everyone maligns fruitcake, but hers was so good. It was an elaborate ceremony to make it. It seems like she worked up to it for days, cutting and chopping dried fruits and shelling nuts. She mixed the batter in a huge pan and baked loaves and loaves of it. It all got wrapped up and put in the basement for a week or two before we could eat it. She didn't soak it in brandy or anything. It just needed to age. It doesn't make any sense now, because why wouldn't it go bad or at least get stale? But I remember eating lots of it--laying a slice of cheddar cheese on a slice of fruitcake and just savoring every bit. Yum...honest! So I don't know why fruitcake gets such bad press.

Anyway--food. That means Christmas to me. Not the gifts, not the decorations, nothing but music is as powerful a signal to me that the holiday time is here. Food, glorious food. Long live Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2007

2 Days of Christmas Memories

My parent's farm was in rather remote valley that wasn't particularly near to anywhere urban. I've said to friends that it was 90 miles to K-Mart. And it still is. So, the big thrill signaling the beginning of the Christmas Crave season was the arrival of the Toy Catalogs. J.C. Penney, Sears, and Montgomery Ward all had a special Christmas catalog that arrived sometime in November that had pages and pages of toys. We'd pore over the slick pages of these tomes and dream and covet. I remember marking them, circling the EXACT thing I wanted. I don't know how much of our Christmas my mom ordered from them, but I rarely got the exact items I'd lusted for. Mostly though, my gifts were wonderful and I loved them all. I do remember really, really wanting the book Album of Horses by Margaret Henry and not getting it. But I recovered from that disappointment. I barely remember any of my childhood gifts except for the cupboard my grandpa made. I see from photos that I always received a new doll, lots of toy dishes and other girlish things. I don't feel I was too programed, because I did grow up and become a good cow milking/horse riding/hay hauling farm girl. I did get a Barbie (finally) at age 11 and my sister sewed me an entire wardrobe of fabulous clothes for it. I still have that Barbie and her clothes. My own daughters got a Barbie at about 5 years old from grandma, but that Barbie met an untimely death at the hands of GI Joe and was buried in an unmarked grave in our yard in San Diego. I didn't replace her. We went with My Little Pony mostly. They seemed to be able to hold their own against the Joes.

3 Days of Christmas Memories

When I started the tradition of going to friends' houses on Christmas Eve with my children, I don't think I put it together that my mom had always done that too. She'd bake all these awesome things and, on Christmas Eve make doughnuts. She'd arrange plates of her treats (which include handmade chocolates) and we'd hold these treasures steady in the backseat. We went to widows, old bachelors, disabled people, and a couple of just good friends. But mostly, she took her bounty to people who could not make these foods themselves. She could talk to anyone about anything and seemed completely at ease chatting with these folks as she brought them Christmas plates.

I started it with my kids one year when were we so poor that we only had gifts for the kids because the grandparents had sent some. I'd had a baby in the fall and had to give up my day-care, so money was extra tight. I had been moping around feeling sorry for myself because we had no money for Christmas when I had an epiphany like the Grinch: It isn't about tinklers, packages and bows!! So I organized the children and we baked cookies on Christmas Eve, they decorated them (and they looked like the work of a 3 and 2 year old) and when Dad got home our plan was to take these to friends' houses and sing to them. It used up the whole day and kept us very busy and was very satisfying and wonderful. And our friends loved it, too.

It was a good way to spend the loooong hours of Christmas Eve day in the ensuing years and we've done it ever since. Our children carried on the tradition when they went to college and on missions, and now as adults with their own homes they still bake and sing for Christmas. Multi-generational traditions are fabulous.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

4 Days of Christmas Memories

I think I was a freshman in high school when my mother had to have back surgery and was hospitalized at Christmas. One of my sister's came home from college (maybe both of them were in college) and each of them tried to be the "boss" since mother was gone. It was the saddest Christmas we ever had. Even though we had all the food, presents, and activities of the other years, the mere lack of her physical presence was so depressing that it didn't even seem like a holiday. I tried to remember this as I became a mother and started our own family traditions. It isn't the things you do, it's who you're doing it with that makes the Christmas spirit work.

5 Days of Christmas Memories

It's about Arizona, again. Even though my mother's parents lived down there half the year, they were a prominent part of our lives. When I was in sixth grade we even visited them in Mesa during the 10 day school holiday. My mother's younger brother, the air force pilot, was also living there, stationed at Luke AFB and he was scheduled to leave for Viet Nam in the spring (I think) so it seemed urgent to my mother to go there for Christmas. This does not seem like a big deal: go to a warm place during Christmas break. But--it involved hauling nine people in an Oldsmobile 88 sedan for a thousand miles and back again. In addition to that (I was oblivious at the time) my mother was pregnant (none too happily) with kid #8 who was due in July. She would have been at the nauseous, exhausted stage, packing for nine people and trying to figure out how to squish us all in there with the luggage for the two day journey. My dad had to spend an entire afternoon at an electronic guru's house trying to get our car radio to work (I was hanging around in the backseat for this ordeal, bored out of my skull.) And at last--what to do about the cows? The previous summer one of my second-cousins was our live-in hired helper, and he had proven himself reliable enough at 17 that my dad was willing to pay him and another kid (also 17) to live at our house and milk for the week we'd be gone. I can hardly imagine the courage this took. But all went well. (Except on Christmas Day when my dad had called and called and finally got an answer around 11:00 A.M. because they'd only just finished milking--by hand--because of a power outage.)

So we hit the road. I barely remember the driving. I do recall the waitresses peering through the round window of the door leading into the kitchen of a small cafe and counting wide-eyed as we entered, and entered and entered. Yes, table for nine, thank you. It was southern Utah. You'd think they'd seen a big family once or twice. I remember reveling in the palm trees and green grass at my uncle's apartment on December 24th and realizing that there were parts of the world where it wasn't frozen for months at a time. (Foreshadowing...) My adorable 4 year sister gave away my only present, a purple stuffed dog, to her new friend she met on the block where my grandparents lived. No one could figure out where it went and I never saw it again. She told us later.

My uncle took us out to eat at a really nice Mexican restaurant and none of us could finish our food---too spicy. He kept apologizing and explaining that usually it was much more mild. We had naive palates. We also went to see the movie "Goldfinger". At least the grown-ups went and I got to go too; it was a rare priviledge. Again my uncle apologizing to my parents...naked girl all covered in gold paint was the first thing on the screen. And wasn't there a character named "Pussy Galore"? That went right over my head. I was thinking kitty cats.

Anyway the whole trip was filled with amazing adventures, plants, and sights I'd never experienced. Saguaro cactus, yucca and joshua trees, Hoover Dam, Fremont Street in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve 1964, eating in restaurants, staying in motels!! My lack of sophistication was endless. The whole thing was incredible and unforgettable. I'm sure sitting in the backseat with five other people was appalling, and I have no idea how my parents financed the whole thing, but none of that even mattered. It was really a Christmas to remember.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

6 Days of Christmas Memories

Every Christmas we would go to our other grandparents' house either on Christmas Eve or Christmas afternoon to visit. They lived only a couple of miles from us, and didn't go away in the winter. They raised my dad after he was orphaned at eight years old, but he didn't take their name. (It was many years before I understood they were actually blood relatives, but it is a convoluted story I won't go into here.) Their house was a huge ante-bellum style dwelling with vaulted ceilings built early in the 20th century. In fact, the plumbing was added some time later, as was the electricity. Their Christmas tree was enormous. It went right up to the ceiling in their living room, at least fifteen feet high. My aunts would decorate it with amazing precision--each icicle carefully placed until the whole tree was a shimmering cascade of tinsel. I was in awe, icicles were very tricky to put on artfully. We'd always get a gift, we often ate Christmas dinner with them. Sometimes our cousins from Salt Lake City were there, too. There was a long wooden bannister to slide down, and boxes and boxes of ancient magazines upstairs to read during boring times.

One Christmas Eve we went there to have a rather formal reading of the scripture story and gather reverently at the feet of our somewhat scary grandpa. However, one of my older sisters had perfected her imitation of Snaggle Puss, the cartoon cat, and had been going around quoting him for weeks. Remember? "Well, now, let's get out of here, EEEVUUN." So when Gandpa got to the part where the shepherds say "Let us go now, even unto Bethlehem" he read it in his sonorous voice and suddenly the four of us big girls were stifling ourselves and trying really hard not to all burst out laughing together at our mental version in Snaggle Puss' stupid cartoon voice "Let us go now EEVUUN, until Bethlehem." Our mother gave us SUCH a look---we didn't dare laugh. But none of us can read Luke 2 without remembering that horrible moment when our rather pompous grandpa would have kicked any of us right in the fanny for messing up his ceremony. We still laugh!

7 Days of Christmas Memories

When I was about 8 years old my grandfather (the one who'd send fruit and nuts from Arizona) made my sister and I a piece of furniture. It was a small hutch, with an upper cupboard, a counter top with a drawer under it, and a lower cupboard. It was painted pink, with aqua drawer pulls and interior shelves, a mirrored backing on the countertop and even plate rails in the upper cupboard shelves. It is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. He was an artist with wood, truly. Then, "Santa" filled it with tiny cake mixes and other mixes and we received an Easy-Bake oven that year!! Wow!! We had a blast with that thing. All of our toy dishes went into the cupboard, the drawer actually had a divider so we could separate our eating utensils from our mixing and stirring utensils. We played with our cupboard every day, I'm sure. We quickly went through our mixes, and I don't remember getting any new ones. And I don't know what happened to the oven.

But last year, just before my mother passed away, she insisted that we load up the pink cupboard in Cool Guy's truck and take it right then to our house. The sister with whom I shared it died two years ago, so I am the sole inheritor of that wonderful relic of our childhood. Two generations of kids played with it--first, my sisters and I, and then our children. It's quite worn, the countertop is peeling up and the drawer pulls are missing. But we'll fix it up and my grandchildren will get their turn rolling out pretend cookies on the counter and standing the plates up in the shelf rails. It is still a work of art--I don't know what inspired my grandpa, if my mother asked for it or if he just thought it up on his own. But I cherish it and I'm thrilled to have it for my kids.

Friday, December 21, 2007

8 Days of Christmas Memories

Our first Christmas tree after we married was rather small, and I didn't have extra money to buy decorations, so we got lights for it, but I made the rest of it. I rolled and cut out gingerbread boys, poked a hole in the dough before baking them, and when they cooled, I hung them with red curly ribbon from the branches. I also tied red bows on the tree and it looked adorable. I baked cookies for the decorations for several years until I found a kit for brown felt gingerbread boys. I sewed them (complete with red sequin eyes, and rick-rack "icing" trim) and they were our first permanent ornaments. I've had fun over the years adding to the homemade (well..."handmade") ornament collection. Plus our children have contributed a whole variety of awesome new ornaments from Cub Scouts, school, and just their creative minds. I also started buying an ornament from each of the American history destinations I've visited, so several tiny colonial style buildings are also hanging on our tree, too. The result is eclectic and sentimental. We like it. A lot.

9 Days of Christmas Memories

We always had a real pine tree for Christmas. My dad usually scouted it out while elk hunting in October. He'd go back up and chop it down, it would be propped up by the fence for a few days, and then we'd bring it in for the exciting challenge of fitting it into the stand. When a tree is growing on the side of a mountain, its scale is altered. It seems shorter and smaller than when it is standing in the living room. There wasn't a year that my dad successfully estimated the height of our living room. The tree always had to be sawed shorter. But it was also a very fresh, fragrant lush pine tree and it made the whole house smell fabulously. It was such an exciting time.

My mom had a string of lights shaped like birds that had some type of liquid in them that would bubble when they got warmed up. These were in addition to the regular tear-drop shaped multicolored lights on the fabric wrapped wires that clipped onto the branches. It seemed to take my dad forever to get the lights put on the tree so that we could then hang the ornaments. Someone always got too excited and dropped a glass ball, and reprimands and crying would ensue. [So, as a mother myself I sewed most of our Christmas tree decorations so that no one would have to get in trouble on tree decorating night.]

But finally the last string of "icicles" was placed and the angel adjusted and we'd turn off the living room lights and turn on the tree lights and oooh, aaaah---it was the BEST time of year!! It still is even today. Christmas trees are one of my favorite part of this holiday.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

10 Days of Christmas Memories

Today I made "Chocolate Refreshers" to take to my co-workers. This is one of my favorite Christmas memories. We always and only had them at Christmas because the recipe calls for dates, and dates were not available except at that time of year when I grew up, where I grew up. Actually, again, my grandpa would send them to us from Arizona--freshly harvested, ripe dates. My dad was the only one who would eat them undisguised. I still do not like ripe dates. However, my mother found a recipe that disguised them in the very best way you have ever eaten. I guess I have no choice but to include the recipe here, huh?

Chocolate Refreshers
1 ¼ c. chopped dates (you can buy them already chopped and the 8 oz. pack is enough)
¾ c. brown sugar, packed
½ c. butter or margarine
1 ¼ c. all purpose flour

¾ tsp. soda
½ tsp. salt

1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 beaten eggs

½ c. orange juice
½ c. milk

1 c. chopped walnuts

Combine dates, brown sugar, water and butter in large saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until dates soften. Remove from heat. Stir in chocolate pieces and beaten eggs. Sift flour with soda and salt, adding alternately with orange juice and milk. Blend thoroughly. Add nuts. Bake in a greased and floured 15 x 10 x 2 inch pan at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool, spread with glaze. Cut in bars.

Orange Glaze:

1 ½ c. powdered sugar

2 Tbsp. soft butter
1 to 2 tsp. grated orange peel

2 to 3 Tbsp. cream

Okay, you make them now, and have a moist, orangey, chocolatey treat for the holidays.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

11 Days of Christmas Memories

Yesterday our journal writing prompt was "List some gifts that don't cost money". My students were mostly stumped. They couldn't imagine something that would be worthwhile that didn't cost money. We finally talked it over and got some ideas about coupons for service, or spending time with a sibling, etc. Today I read them a storybook that one of my sisters sent me a couple of years ago that also tells the story of a gift we gave our dad each year for Christmas. I didn't hear this story until I was an adult, although Pearl Buck wrote it many, many years ago, and the church has made a movie of it, too. The book is very meaningful to me because the illustrations are so vividly similar to my home and barn as a child. My sister also knows the illustrator, so I have an autographed copy. It's a really lovely story and I encourage you to buy one, too.

We'd get up early on Christmas and sneak out and milk the cows before my dad would wake up. Then we'd sneak back in and hide in our bed in our clothes (we'd hear his alarm ringing as we'd come in and just barely have time to evade detection.) Then he'd come up and "wake" us up, we'd pretend to be sleeping, he'd go out and VOILA--already done! I remember doing this at least once, and I know my older sisters did it once or twice. But apparently we didn't do it often enough for him to expect it because he'd always go and check. It was a great surprise for him, because he'd come back in and go back to bed. I think we did it a couple of times and the second or third year, we just told him so he wouldn't have to get up and go out. He was a hard guy to get something for and this gift was just perfect.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

12 Days of Christmas Memories

I'm once again copying someone who is doing this, but I really liked it, so I'll just be a copier. Plus, I'm about three days late on the "12 Days" business. But that is just about right this month for my entire life. I'm behind in everything! I feel a slight breathlessness about the whole season. I realized on Sunday that I would not be able to finish and mail on time the gifts that go out of town. People will be receiving their gifts from me after Christmas. I won't have my cards out before Christmas. I will be lucky to have my laundry done in time to wear my Christmas shirts to school this week. ACCCKKK! I don't know why I'm so far behind. Maybe I'm just getting tired-er and slower as I age.

A memory: I remember receiving a package each year, as the holiday season approached, from my grandfather who'd migrate from Wyoming to Arizona for the winter. It contained, among other things, pecans from the most recent harvest in the Southwest. It was a great treasure to receive these. It also meant a lot of work. Our job as the children was to crack and shell them carefully, trying very hard to keep most of them whole. It was important, too, to clean off all of the membrane from the inside of the shell because it was very bitter and really ruined any baked product it got into. But, pecans were really yummy to eat while you shelled because, unlike walnuts, they didn't make your mouth sore. My mom would bake them into all the yummy things she created for Christmas and--best of all---pecan pie.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Some Old Friends

We were sifting through a drawer and found some pictures from a trip a few years ago. It was like getting a Christmas photo in the mail! It reminded us a of fun times and past acquaintences. Here, I'll share:

This Mr. Bendo... He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, outside a muffler shop. He used to have a muffler pipe in his upraised hand which he, of course, was bending. He looks quite sad. That's because his girlfriend lives in Blackfoot, Idaho, where she works as a waitress serving french fries. They don't get to see each other much, as it is difficult for him to get off work and harder still to get on a plane.

We're hoping some day to facilitate their courtship by, oh, I don't know--win the lotto and buy them both so they can share the same pedestal outside a little taco shop in National City, California?

How Did They Know?

I opened my mail on Friday and it made me look around my kitchen for tiny cameras, or perhaps bugging devices in the light fixture.

The top of the page read in huge letters: EXPERIENCING HOT FLASHES?

Um, well, yes. How did you know? You mean it's that obvious to everyone? Well, don't just send me letters, HELP!

Oh, as I opened up the whole page it was actually a solicitation for some clinical study. Okay. It was sent to women of a certain age--us Elders of the Tribe. Okay--call off the search for the surveillence items.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

I Vote YES

Here's a story from the world: CSM to which I just have to give a resounding "Hear! Hear!" These things are a huge scourge in the desert. Everywhere you go they are billowing and blowing. Most obnoxious invention of modern times.

Rare Weather

It rained gently all day Friday in Las Vegas. This is noteworthy because it rarely rains here, and my experience with precipitation in the desert has been mostly storms of the flash-flood variety: wind whipping, gale force, torrential cats&dogs rain. So, this rain was pleasant and non-threatening and lasted and lasted. It was nice that it was a kind storm because at the end of every day we teachers are still required to go and be traffic-cops as our families drive up to retrieve their students, and I didn't have to risk having my umbrella flipped inside out or getting soaked from rain being blasted sideways.

I was commenting to Cool Guy as we drove to the Thai place for dinner that the students were completely nuts because of the weather. Then suddenly as I had the thought "It's like they've never seen it rain before," I realized that, in fact, they have RARELY seen it rain. It rained on Aug 27, the first day of school, but it cleared up by noon. And the last previous rain was probably eight months earlier. So, in their lives of less than 10 years, there have not been many opportunities to feel rain falling on their skin and see shimmering drops of it running off the fences and cars. No wonder they act so silly and excited.

When we got to the restaurant, a block or two east of the Strip, we were treated to another rare event. Fog had descended over Glitter Gulch. All along the strip low clouds hung over the hotels and lights. The tops of all the buildings were obscured and the lights were all muted in the shrouding mist. We were two blocks from the Stratosphere, but we could not see the top. The towering legs went up and disappeared like the top of the Tower of Babel. It was quite surreal, especially because the fog was limited to Las Vegas Boulevard; the rest of the city was clear after the storm.

As we traveled home we drove along the east edge of the valley bowl toward our house and looking west, it was very strange to see the sea of lights suddenly blotted out in the center leaving only a glowing blur--Vegas, Baby, was gone.