Thursday, January 27, 2011

Is it a Bird?! Is it a Plane?!

No, silly, it's just a condensation trail.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thanks Border's Books

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese was a recommendation from Border's Books website. I visit the site and their store often because they offer huge selection and good prices. I'm so hoping recent rumors about Border's demise are false.
I don't normally buy books simply because they appear on best seller lists, but I made an exception for this one. The title told me nothing, but the synopses intrigued me.
The story is about several Indians who take medical training in India and wind up in a poor, Catholic mission hospital in Ethiopia. The time period is during Emperor Haile Selassie's reign and exile and Mengistu's power grab. Ethiopia and Eritrea are struggling with the legacy of Italian colonialism and have yet to separate. The entire Horn of Africa is a mess having just gained independence from various European interlopers.
This is the stage onto which conjoined twins are born to an unlikely pair and barely survive their birth and separation. Their mother dies in the process and their father, a gifted surgeon, abandons them in shame and horror. The twins go on to take medical training and work with their surrogate parents in the mission hospital.
The story is deeply compelling and the characters are beautifully developed. The situations they encounter are wrapped in the political turmoil of their times and places. As complex and passionate as the characters and situations are, the multiple tales Mr. Verghese tells are perfectly interwoven and though the ending is surprising, it is completely satisfying and believable.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The first time I saw The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society I knew I had to read it. I'm a big fan of BBC America and the British comedies and dramas on PBS. [OK, so I was curious about the pie, too.] The British Channel Islands, of which Guernsey is one, were occupied by the Germans during WWII. Nazi planes bombed key locations on the islands then moved in for five years. I doubt it was that simplistic, but the story skirted many of the really ugly details of the occupation. The book is comprised entirely of correspondence between a young British author, her publisher, her publisher's sister (who is also her best friend) and a slew of fascinating Guernsey residents. The friendly, sometimes earthy banter in the letters makes me wish people still wrote letters to each other -- the kind written on paper with a pen. From the first page I was laughing out loud. Tears and sadness inevitably came because it is about WWII. By the end I felt I knew the characters so well that we could have been friends. Their integrity, loyalty, humor, courage and generosity survived despite five long, hard years being held captive on their own island. Gotta add a trip to Guernsey to my "bucket list". If you've read it, I'd love to hear your take on it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Demolition Derby in the Kitchen

(Please don't think I'm insensitive to last weekend's tragedy. I just can't cope with it right now and needed something light to help me get through the week. I may take up the topic later, but it will probably have been beaten to a pulp by then.) I love cardamom. True confession and the reason for the above. Several weeks ago, I found a cookie recipe - online - for Swedish ginger snaps, a.k.a. Pepperkaka. Eagerly printing off the recipe, I realized I actually had all the ingredients on hand, including an expensive little jar of ground cardamom. It was a little too close to Christmas to attempt something new, so I filed it away for a later time which turned out to be yesterday. For those of you who may not know this, I come from hardy Norwegian stock on my dad's side. Norway and Sweden have not always been on loving terms and there are old jokes to prove that, e.g. "Did you hear about Norway's new zoo? The put a fence around Sweden." Ha . . . Anyway, I hereby curse whichever Swede put this recipe out there for innocent me to stumble upon. By no means am I a new cook. I'm older than dirt and have cooked and baked my way through several different cuisines. I also have developed recipes of my own that I've shared with family members in a family cookbook. None have died, so far as, a result of eating any of my concoctions! So -- back to the Pepperkaka. It's a two day process. The recipe states that one must mix and heat an enormous amount of sugar, molasses, spices (there's the cardamom), a touch of water and a full cup of butter. No prob. The aroma of all that coming to a boil is beyond words to describe. The fun begins when one adds five cups of flour and a tiny amount of baking soda with an electric mixer. [I kid you not!] Now my hand mixer, being a hideous harvest gold color is also older than dirt, but still works. It vents through slots on the bottom of the mixer which is, of course, directly over the hot pot of sugar and butter now topped off by five cups of flour. Even at slow speed, flour blew up and out of said pot, straight up my nose. After a short break to blow said nose and to slap flour off my face and front, I returned to the electric mixer which very nearly died from the effort of incorporating five cups of flour. At that point, the directions say to cover the cookie dough and refrigerate overnight. Knowing I couldn't put my pot with it's long handle in the frig, I efficiently transferred the lovely smelling, warm, soft dough into my favorite mixing bowl. [I have had this Danish bowl since I bought it for serious bucks in a duty free shop on St. Thomas, USVI in 1973. I intend to pass it on to one of my nieces or nephews. -- It's special, OK?] We all know what happens to melted butter when it is refrigerated, right? Today, when I eagerly reached in to pull out the bowl of dough for the hour I was advised to let it soften up a bit, I thought it would probably take a bit longer because it had a whole cup of butter and five cups of flour in it. After two hours, I set the oven to preheat then approached the bowl -- my favorite bowl -- my most used bowl -- to scoop out some dough to roll and cut into perfect, delicate, spicy, yummy cookies. Peeling back the plastic wrap, I realized the dough had become roughly the consistency of a thick block of leather. There would be no scooping. This looked like a job for hammer and chisel, but it was in my favorite bowl! So, I let it sit on the counter for another hour. No change. By then our tiny kitchen was getting really hot, so I pulled out a table knife, planning to cut the dough into workable wedges. Yeah, right. Half an hour later I was searching for a sweat band and cursing words I thought I'd blocked from my vocabulary. It didn't help that I was standing directly next to a metal box that had been preheated (for a long time now) to 350 degrees. Nevertheless, I clawed out a chunk of dough and slapped it onto the counter to roll out. Good thing I have a serious rolling pin -- not one of those cutesy glass, marble or porcelain ones. Mine is silky smooth, seasoned, solid maple allowing for me to beat the dough into submission. I was really glad I'd found my sweat band because by the time I finished beating and rolling the dough into 1/8" thickness, carefully cutting perfect rounds and baking 600 dozen cookies (remember those five cups of flour) I was dehydrated and exhausted but glad I hadn't dripped onto any of them. Now all I have to do is let them sit in a tightly covered container for a month so they can develop their full flavor. Yeah, right . . .

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why Must The Good Die Young . . .

[To spare those suffering from this all too recent loss, I'm changing their names.] Twenty year old John was found staggering along a highway ramp late one recent night. Police who found him thought he'd been a victim of a hit and run driver and called an ambulance. Doctors at the hospital soon discovered that John had been shot twice in the back of his head. He died two days later, never regaining consciousness. This young man was looking forward to starting a full-time job next Monday after working part-time so that he could raise his adored little girl. He had forgone his senior year of high school to care for his baby daughter while her mother finished her schooling. John then returned to graduate himself. According to John's mother, Mary with whom he and his daughter lived, he did everything for his baby girl. They were inseparable. The baby's mama, Ann, was a regular visitor and was always welcomed by John and his mother. She was younger than John, but trying to take part in her child's rearing. So far, authorities have not developed a motive for John's execution-style slaying. He wasn't into drugs or illegal activities -- just trying to finish his education, find work and support his daughter. Even if he had a history of misbehavior, he was clearly off that path and trying to be a responsible adult. This sort of story is all too common. It breaks my heart to think about the last thoughts of young people - so many of whom had rough beginnings - when their lives are suddenly taken from them. John was a role model in so many ways. He and his girlfriend may have been irresponsible in the heat of the moment, but when push came to shove, John embraced his role as father. Unlike other young men, he didn't simply walk away. Now his family and friends are left to grieve and his beloved daughter is fatherless. How does one explain to a toddler that she will never see her daddy again? What can the rest of us do to prevent this from happening to more young people? Guns and greed are two culprits in senseless killings. Stricter gun laws and equal and fair employment practices might help, but . . . jealousy, disrespect, prejudice, misunderstanding and hopelessness also play huge roles. I didn't know "John", but I'm familiar with another stupid, senseless killing. The brother of a friend of my husband's was shot dead by a young man who thought he'd been "dissed" when they bumped shoulders on a crowded sidewalk. Most of us would have accepted a mumbled "sorry" or "excuse me." Why couldn't that guy? What has given some the idea that they have a right to end another's life simply because they feel miffed?! Can't blame it all on TV, movies and video games. American society needs urgent attitude repairs.