A cold day a long time ago

On the very coldest mornings, my mother used to wake us up by saying, “It’s cold out, girls! It’s ten below! It’s twenty below! It’s very, very cold!” 

Why she did this, I cannot imagine. I was already, and still am, the most reluctant bed-leaver possible. Like so many things, getting out of bed made me cry, and I used to try to explain what a shame it was to ruin such a good thing, such a shame, as if they didn’t understand it was warm and soft and comfortable and safe under the covers, and cold and dark, harsh and demanding outside. 

But my mother did make hot cereal most mornings. Incredibly, she often made several different kinds, so we could choose: Corn meal mush and Maypo and Wheatena, or oatmeal and Maltex and farina. These are things my children would reject with horror and alarm, but imagine coming down on stiff cold legs in holey socks into the chilly kitchen, and there in the double boiler, your mother has made something just for you, something warm and fragrant and faintly sweet, and you can pour a river of milk and sugar over it and bury your face in it. Maybe even get the nice wooden bowl that smells a little weird, and the spoon with the flying noodles carved in the handle. My kids think Pop Tarts are a treat in the morning. They have no idea.

There were hot water radiators in every room, and when we could afford to heat them up, I kept a lump of wax from my Halloween vampire fangs stuck handily to the warm side, to keep it supple and chewable. But we had some lean years when the radiators stayed stone cold through the winter, and the whole entire house, with its many large, high-ceilinged rooms, had to grab a little heat from the coal stove in the living room downstairs. My father, a Brooklyn boy, found himself knocking apart frozen lumps of coal with the blunt end of an awl so he could shove them into the black belly of the stove, where they would hiss and fry demonically and eventually send out green and blue and white waves of hot, hot flame, hot enough to burn your skin off if you ran or roller skated past the stove too fast and let your arm touch down. Which we always did, every winter. We could proudly point to the scraps and patches of grey skin that used to be ours, now part of the stove. 

And we walked to school. I was in first grade and my sister was in third, and the school (I looked it up) was over a mile a way, but nobody thought twice about sending us out all winter to struggle through the snow to school together. Well, my mother did think twice, which is why she insisted we wear our humiliating one-piece belted snowsuits purchased at some godforsaken Army Navy surplus store. My classmates were all decked out in glossy, two-piece ski sets in quilted mint green or lavender, but I had some miserable olive green monstrosity, or is is possible they were bright orange? They were the color of humiliation, that no other child was ever forced to wear or even know about. For the first few days when it was cold, very cold, ten below, twenty below, tears of humiliation ran down my chin and froze onto the heavy duty zipper as I trudged to school.

But when we got to school, I forgot my shame. Because on that playground, there was something excellent.

Behind the school was a hill, a hill that was tremendously steep, so steep you had to scramble on your mittened hands to get up it. You would scramble as high as you could, until you met the line, and then you would wait with all the other kids, bouncing your butt against the chain link fence, knees trembling in the cold, sucking anxiously on the strings of your knit hat, waiting your turn.

This was a sliding hill. A sliding hill extraordinaire, a rocket hill. The sun beat down on this hill all day long, and it turned the steep slope into one long, solid, glittering tongue of ice. All you had to do was sit at the top and wait for gravity, or a little shove between the shoulders from the kid behind you. Down you would zip with a high singing sound on your bum, no sleds needed or allowed. The teachers only let you near the hill if you had on the proper snow pants, SUCH AS A BEAUTIFUL THICK ONE-PIECE OLIVE MONSTROSITY FROM MARSEN’S ARMY NAVY DEPARTMENT STORE.

And sometimes a kid would flip over and bloody their lips or bonk their skulls, but mainly it was a wild shot through the frigid air straight into the afternoon sun. Pure blind glory. It was over too soon, and you’d be left spinning and scrabbling at the bottom like an upended turtle, trying to get out of the way of the next kid hurtling down the chute.

Sometimes, when the teachers weren’t looking, that bully Lance would give you a “whitewash,” shoving your face into the snowbank and scrubbing it back and forth brutally until you cried, your face burning red with melted snow trickling down your neck. But nothing could make you give up your spot in line. Three or four times you could go down after lunch recess, if you didn’t waste time.

Anyway, they turned that school into condominiums a few years ago. It’s a nice building, so why not. High ceilings, hardwood floors, huge windows. I haven’t driven by to take a look. What if the hill isn’t as steep as I remember? 

It really was colder then. We were further north than I live now. And the winters were really longer than they are now. And the sky was bluer, and the air was sharper, and the snow was deeper. The snow isn’t white; it’s blue, and it’s yellow, sometimes purple, or green. People think that, because New Hampshire is cold, it’s dark all winter, but it’s not. The sky is blue, high blue, and the sun shines in a particular, piercing way, that hurts and gladdens at the same time.

What cold days we had. How hard it was to get out of bed. How fast we went down that hill. 

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 187: In which I make good choices and bad choices

I know I said I was ready to start cooking cold weather food, but this time, I mean it. Come for the honey chili acorn squash, homemade applesauce, and heavenly bacon tomato bisque, stay to feel better about the birthday cake you bought at Safeway. Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY
Beer brats with onions, chips

The kids unexpectedly begged for beer brats with onions, and that could be arranged. Damien boiled them in beer and onions and then browned them up in a pan. For me, however, he bought a surprise steak, since I was feeling low. 

It helped!

SUNDAY
Spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, chocolate cake

This was a birthday meal for Moe. Moe’s birthday is in May. 

Now, you may think it’s pathetic that we wouldn’t get around to celebrating a May birthday until October, but you are mistaken. That’s not pathetic! THIS CAKE IS PATHETIC! 

You will have to take my word for it that the theme was not “mangled remains of a once-proud city after a nuclear holocaust.” It really wasn’t. He is very into theater, so the theme was “comedy and tragedy,” and I made a comedy and tragedy mask with ribbons, and a bunch of olive leaves.

See, last time we made little garnishes out of melted chocolate, they turned out great.

What’s for supper? Vol. 144: Chocolate garnicht

It was easy, even. I don’t know what the hell happened this time. I guess maybe possibly I was rushing a bit. And also, it’s possible my confidence was a little shaky after the cake I had made last week, for Clara’s birthday. 

Now Clara, if you will recall, already had a huge blowout birthday in August when we went to Hadestown

A quick review of Hadestown, which you should sell a kidney to see

So I’m not saying I didn’t try to make a good cake, but after a birthday like that, I did feel less pressure to absolutely nail the cake part.

That being said, this was one garbage cake.

I had meant so bake it the night before, but it turns out I bought cake mix that requires egg whites, and we were out of eggs, and the quik-e-mart was closed, and there’s really no substitute for egg whites. So I asked Damien to bake it the next day while I was shopping. I couldn’t find the right pans, so I ended up giving him two round pans and one flower-shaped pans. 

In my head, it would look something like this:

A sort of grim, underworld nod to a wedding cake, topped with a glowing red blossom and dripping with shiny, dark chocolate. EASY ENOUGH, RIGHT?

So I set about fashioning a glowing red blossom out of fruit rolls and toothpicks, as one does. That part was actually not terrible, except that I got tired of feeling sticky, and didn’t make enough petals.

The inspiration:

And the execution:

To be fair, this was halfway through. It did end up looking a little better. A little.

Then the cake cracked a bit when it baked. That’s fine, that happens. But then, I decided to put the layers together without leveling them off. Why? Who can say? Maybe I suffered a mental injury while trying to fashion a blossom out of toothpicks and fruit rolls. Of course the unleveled cake cracked even more, and continued to crack, in a way that was no longer fine. So I broke up some wooden skewers so they’d be nice and splintery, and jammed them in to keep the layers together. 

But wait, it gets worse! Let’s talk about the chocolate ganache, which was going to rescue the whole wobbly mess by gracing it with a rich, glossy chocolate coating that dripped decadently down the sides.

I have never once in my life been able to make a chocolate ganache. It’s just beyond my capability. Doesn’t matter what recipe I use, what ingredients I splurge on. It never comes out. I’ve wrecked it so many times, and so consistently and so thoroughly, that we’re way beyond the point that there’s anything remotely admirable about trying again. There is a section in the DSM about people who still try to make a chocolate ganache with my ganache history. So naturally, that is what I tried.

You’ll never guess. It didn’t turn out.

It was grainy and soupy and bad. I slopped it on the cake anyway, hoping that a last-minute birthday miracle would make it magically coalesce into something edible. That did not come about. It did not come about, even though I helped it along by dumping a lot of gold sugar into the crack in an effort to make it look symbolic!

So.  That was what I had in my arsenal of cake confidence while approaching this other cake. Yeah, remember the other cake?

I didn’t mean for it to look like a photo you show to a cricket when threatening him about what you could do to his family if he doesn’t spill what he knows. I didn’t mean for it to be straight out of the “this is why you never go to sleep with a cell phone charging under your pillow. Poor Madyson now has a plastic bag where her jaw once was, and she wants you to look at this picture and think hard about your choices” file. It just turned out that way, all by itself.  

The good news is, there are no birthdays in November. 

MONDAY
Buffalo chicken salad

This actually tasted far better than it looks.  And yes, that is a sheet in the background. I was eating salad in bed. 

I wanted to make something like the salad I had at Wendy’s. I love Wendy’s salads. They are fresh and delicious, and let’s face it, sometimes you get a little surprise, especially if Pilar is working that day. 

I bought two bags of breaded chicken strips, one regular and one buffalo. I cooked those and cut them up and served them along with mixed greens and shredded pepper jack cheese, with buffalo ranch dressing and some of those crunchy fried onion things people put on that gross Thanksgiving string bean casserole. I thought it was very good! And of course extremely easy. The cheese didn’t really hit the spot, and I did mean to get tomatoes. I think maybe blue cheese next time. But there will be a next time for this salad.

TUESDAY
Pork ribs with applesauce, mashed squash, mashed potatoes

It’s edible squash season, motherfuckers.

I had the kids pick all the terrible apples they could reach from our terrible apple tree, Marvin.  We don’t do anything at all to take care of this tree, and the apples aren’t great for eating, but most of them are just a little spotty and weird, so fine for cooking. 

Well, some of them are terrifying. 

Doesn’t it look like it wished it could scream? This one didn’t go into the pot.

We also had an awful lot of bruised, dinged, maltreated apples left over from apple picking. 

I cut out all the bad spots, quartered them, and chucked them, peels and cores and all, into a big pot with a few inches of water, and set it to simmer with a loose lid. A few hours later, the apples were mushy and collapsed, and the kitchen smelled heavenly, and I suddenly remembered I had gotten rid of my food mill. So I was reduced to shoving the cooked apples through a strainer to get the peels, cores, and seeds out. Bah.

 I still stand by leaving the peels on when you cook the apples, for color and flavor, but if you don’t have a food mill, be smart and core them before cooking. Bah. What a stupid week. Anyway, I put the strained applesauce back into the pot and added a hunk of butter, some cinnamon, and some honey and let it cook down a little bit more. SO GOOD. There is nothing like warm, homemade applesauce.

I had two acorn squashes. I cut them in half and scooped them out, then put them in a pan in a 400 oven for about an hour, until the flesh was soft. Look how October it is:

Then I scooped it out, mashed it a bit, and added butter, honey, a little salt, and chili powder. I figured I was the only one who would eat it anyway.

I thought it was delicious! And yes, I was the only one who ate it. 

The pork ribs, I just sprinkled generously with salt and pepper on all side and put them in a 450 oven for about 25 minutes, turning once. This is the best way to make pork ribs. Fight me. 

Behold, my Salute to October:

WEDNESDAY
Meatball pizza

Aw yisss, leftover meatballs! I did not take a picture. Too busy eating meatball pizza.  

THURSDAY
Bacon tomato bisque, grilled cheese

This really is the soup of all soups. It takes even less skill than some soups, but it tastes both delicious and fancy. It is absolutely packed with flavor. I tweaked it a bit after last time I shared the recipe card (below). Bacon, garlic, onion, rosemary, tomato, and so creamy and rich. 

I also sprinkled the top of mine with some of those crunchy onion things we had left, and that was an excellent choice. 

I made a bunch of grilled cheese sandwiches with sourdough bread and American cheese, because dammit, I like American cheese. It melts good. I cooked them in the pan that the bacon, onions, and garlic had been cooked in. 

FRIDAY
I don’t know. I think I wrote spaghetti. 

***

Tomato bisque with bacon

Calories 6 kcal

Ingredients

  • 1/2 - 1 lb bacon (peppered bacon is good)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 35 oz can of whole tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 46 oz tomato juice
  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • salt and pepper
  • crispy fried onions (optional garnish)

Instructions

  1. Fry the bacon until crisp. Remove from pan, chop it up, and drain out all but a a few teaspoons of grease.

  2. Add the diced onion and minced garlic to the grease and sauté until soft.

  3. Add tomatoes (including juices), bay leaves, rosemary, and tomato juice, and simmer for 20 minutes. Save some rosemary for a garnish if you like.

  4. With a slotted spoon, fish out the bay leaf, the tomatoes, and most of the rosemary, leaving some rosemary leaves in. Discard most of the rosemary and bay leaf. Put the rest of the rosemary and the tomatoes in a food processor with the 8 oz of cream cheese until it's as smooth as you want it.

  5. Return pureed tomato mixture to pot. Salt and pepper to taste.

  6. Heat through. Add chopped bacon right before serving, and top with crispy fried onions if you like. Garnish with more rosemary if you're a fancy man. 

How to thaw a frozen heart

Ever have frozen pipes?  Us hardscrabble New Englanders are used to dealing with them, but 2017 is shaping up to be colder than average, and soon people all across the country may discover the joy of waking up, heading to the sink, turning on the tap, and getting a fine, rushing stream of nothing at all.  Bah.  I suppose you should have checked the weather report last night, and you should have left the cabinet doors open and left the faucet running just a trickle. Or gosh, you should have invested in some pipe insulation or heat tape when the home inspector said it would be a good idea.  But you didn’t, and now here you are.

Moreover, you need to do something about it quick, before the ice in your pipes expands and bursts and floods your basement and walls.  Then you’ll have more than no water to worry about — you’ll have water damage, corrosion, mold, and alligators.  Basement alligators.  Take it from me, a hardscrabble New Englander:  when my pipes freeze and I have to send my husband, who is from Los Angeles, down to the basement to deal with it, you do not want any part of those burst pipe basement alligators.  They do not fool around.

So, your pipes are frozen.  What do you do?  Oh, it’s simple.  You dedicate the next several hours of your life to one of the most mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly tediously activities known to man:  you sit there with a hairdryer, heating up the pipe.  You could use a blow torch, which is hotter and faster, but then you will hot and fast a hole in your pipe, and your pipe will no longer be frozen, but it will no longer be a pipe, per se, either.

You sit and you sit, and you heat up that pipe.  Is it working?  Who knows?  If you are in the basement (which is where the frozen part probably is), you will be haunted by the fear that you are not aiming the heat at the right spot.  Somewhere in there, up in the cobwebby shadowland of joists and timbers, there is the spot of evil, the point where everything is getting held up, the coldest little nubbin in the universe, which is making everything miserable, unworkable, intolerable, frozen.  You think you are probably heating it up, and making that little gob of ice smaller and smaller, but what if you’re not?  What if the real trouble spot is icing itself up more and more as you speak, and you’re sitting there like a moron, concentrating all your time and effort on a bit of pipe that is fine?

Do not switch tactics.  Do not move.  Take it from me, a hardscrabble New Englander who has done this at least once, several years ago, and then realized that, even if your husband doesn’t want to do it, he kind of has to, and so it’s his turn from now on:  stick with the spot you picked.  Sit there.  Blow with that stupid old hair dryer.

And eventually, it will happen:  WHOOSH.  The water will come on.  I promise you. Just when you are about to give up — or maybe when you have given up, three or four times already, and then glumly, grudgingly, hopelessly gone back to the dreary task, it will happen.  It will work.  The blockage will clear, the ice will melt, the water will flow again, and life can go on.  You will have running water again.

Oh!  You thought I was talking about the pipes, didn’t you?  Yes, well, that too.  But I’m talking about prayer.  I’m talking about suffering and pain, and despair, when everything is blocked up and impossible, and the water won’t run, and the day can’t happen.

I’m talking about the seemingly foolhardy effort we put into fixing our lives, sitting there in the dark, wishing and praying and hoping with all our hearts that our stupid little hot breath of air is actually going to make a difference. We’re not even sure if we’re aiming it in the right direction. What if I should be doing something else, instead? What if all this effort is wasted?  What if I’m not having any effect at all, when I go, “Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary?”  Should I try something else? Should I even bother?

Take it from this hardscrabble Catholic, who cannot, after a certain point, palm everything off on her husband.  Do not move. Do not switch tactics.  Keep on praying, keep on pointing your feeble little stream of air at that invisible clump of ice.  It will melt, I promise you.  It will give way.  And the water of life will come  rushing back, WHOOSH.  And life will go on.  And you won’t have to even think about the alligators again.  Not until next time.

***

This essay was originally published in the National Catholic Register in 2014.
Image by Lara Danielle via Flickr (Creative Commons)