Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Important Book Found in French Quarter

   Sometimes I am lucky enough to travel with Handsome whilst he saves the world from energy crises, regulatory challenges, management mishaps, and such.  Really any escape is appreciated, even to oft-stomped grounds like Tulsa. 

   But another way I am lucky is that sometimes I get to accompany him on trips to amazing cities like New Orleans, from where I might actually originate, despite all evidence to the contrary. 
   Mom & Dad, is it SLIGHTLY POSSIBLE I was born here and you just forgot?  Or did you feed me bread pudding in my bottle?  Did something formative happen to me on the great Mississippi? 

   No?  Eh bien...  I am content to claim Oklahoma as home and visit Louisiana from time to time. 

   On one such N.O. business trip in the warming months of 2010, I had the afternoon to myself while Handsome attended meetings.  I enjoyed lunch of half a cold muffaletta and hot, rich chicory coffee.  With sugar and heavy cream.  Always.  The cafe had a curved painted ceiling.

   And live jazz nearby.

   In the arts district I made purchases of sparkly gifts for my teen aged daughters, and then I found the most beautiful book store.

   Like many New Orleans shops, it was three deeply set, ornate stories stacked onto a diminutive footprint.  It was creaky, painted for the umpteenth time, and crammed to the hilt with treasures.  Treasures the proprietor is happy to reveal to his visitors, but only in hushed tones...  Like he's letting you in on a little bit of Creole magic...

   This isn't the same building, but it is a New Orleans building with some elusive magnetism.

   I looked for over half an hour, lazily tempted by five or six good looking titles, when I decided to ask the bearded book pusher for a recommendation.  I asked specifically for anything not mainstream, maybe something local?

   I suppose everyone knows that Anne Rice is just about the hottest New Orleans author known, but the treasure offered me that day was a title not widely published and also one not centered around vampires (arguably her most well known flavor). 

   The Feast of All Saints had three big things going for it even before I swiped my debit card: 
  • Local author in my very favorite city
  • Relatively limited circulation
  • Historical fiction off the beaten path 

Purchased without hesitation, thank-you-very-much. 
This is an unfluffy, uncrunchy image of the book cover.

   I always devour Rice's prose with shameful gluttony.  She writes with sensuality and  painfully accurate emotional detail.  Her characters are many and varied, and they are each developed exactly as much as you want them to be.  Her stories are reliably complex, fast moving, entertaining...  Feast of All Saints was no exception.

   I blazed through the first third of the book immediately upon returning home, only to drop it in our swimming pool that summer.  It needed to dry out baby! 
   During those page drying days I moved on to a new title and then got busy with back to school tasks and rituals.  This was not a book I wanted to read with divided eyes, so it got temporarily shelved.

   I noticed the now fluffy and crunchy paperback several times throughout the winter of Snowmageddon but could not bring myself to read more, even with undivided eyes, because it had such a summer feel. 

   Do you ever read a book and crave certain tastes in your mouth?  Certain fragrances or tactile sensations?  Well sometimes I associate certain books with certain seasons, and this book begged for summertime.   It demanded humidity and sexiness and profound beauty, just like what the French Quarter provides. 

   So finally late this Spring the reading stars aligned and I resumed my unladylike feast of Feast.  And I loved

Full review to follow...

Couchsurfers are People Too (part one)

   So, this past winter we stumbled upon this virtual-slash-real life community called "Couchsurfing."  Have you heard of it?  It is basically a network of groups and individuals who are interested in travelling the globe a little, umm, outside of the box. 
   They like to stay with people in their private homes rather than in hotels.  Or, they like to host such travellers.  Or both.  I guarantee this is happening in your city, and it is happening all over this colorful world!

   Before we go any further, I would love to hear your innermost thoughts right this minute:  Are you thinking, "That is awesome!  I would LOVE to try that!  Hey I know, let's remodel the guest room!" 
   Or are you thinking, "What a bunch of crazy hippies!  Do they WANT to be axe-murdered?!?"  Most people fall into one of these two categories.

  On we go.

   Handsome and I were introduced to this phenomenon by a friend and coworker, Luis, and Luis' partner, Kevin.  Super people. 

   Most of OUR friends and family might assume that I was the one who talked HIM into this, but I assure you, it was quite the opposite.  Of course, there wasn't much talking-into for him to worry about.  My reaction was immediate excitement (placing me in the first category mentioned above), but the fact remains that HE brought this idea home to MOI.  Just for the record.


   So we signed up.  And yes, it's free.  The first part of the process is building a profile for yourself online.  And just like in junior high when you do the personality-career tests and such, or like in third grade when you write and draw about your personal likes and dislikes, this was fun in a really egocentric way. 
   Handsome and I went to work as a team describing our home, our accomodations, our specific willingness to entertain, cook, drive, etc.  It was great learning more about my husband in this regard, by the way.  Might be a worthwhile exercise for couples, even if you have no intention of being crazy axe-murder-craving hippies along with us.

   Oh, and you get to upload photos.  Nothing like posting a photo of your home online to make you want to beef up the flower beds!  Public shame is the mother of improvement, after all.  Do you think I need more gladiolus here, or more spiralling ivy?
   After gaining our authentication, collecting exactly one personal referral (thanks Luis & Kevin!) and getting generally happy with our profile, we waited.  Unsure of exactly what to expect, I was silently hoping for visitors who would volley to us profound cultural truths and then show us how to cook exotic foods.  I had just read Eat, Love, Pray not long before, so you will perhaps forgive my overly romantic view of this whole experience that had yet to happen.

   We did receive one couch request not long after signing up, We had to decline it though because Oklahoma was then in the thick of a pretty hefty snow storm.  Our farm was without running water, and the driveway was completely impassable.  We felt this was not the picture of hospitality we wanted to display.  Hence, a slow start to our couchsurfing career...

   Before long, REDEMPTION.  Luis and Kevin received a couch request they could not fill due to scheduling conflicts, so they very generously sent the travellers our way.  I was away from the farm that day, shoppping and luncheoning with my little sister (hi Ang!), so the midday notice of overnight guests sent my hostess mind into a mild tailspin.

   Deep breath.  This is what we've been excited to do, right?  So after finishing our "very important errands" and just in the nick of time, Angela & I swung by a super classy giant chain store (starts with a W) to stock up on not only guest-worthy dinner ingredients but  also a few spontaneous creature comforts like a new polka dotted body pillow, extra toothbrushes, and vanilla candles.
   Looking back, the body pillow is difficult to explain.  When I saw it in a center aisle though, it stage- whisered to me, "COUCHSURFERS WILL NEED THIS!"  So it became part of our home's pillow arsenal for a mere $9.

   One extra word on dinner prep for couch surfers:  Handsome and I had the notion that lots of our visitors might never be exposed to Oklahoma except through this experience, so we (meaning I) really wanted to make a splash.  We (meaning I) really wanted to make a Land of the Red Man-Prairie Life impression, ya know?  So lovely pasta dishes, Tex-Mex, and take out Chinese were mostly out of the question.  We were going for an authentic Okie menu, and that proved to be tricky.  What would you have served?

   To be continued...


Made From Scratch Buttermilk Syrup

   This morning, the Tuesday following a wonderfully restful Memorial Day weekend, Handsome and I are enjoying a bonus day off together, albeit mildly perforated with some loose-end tying up, etc.  We stayed in bed much longer than normal then lingered even longer watching recorded episodes of Gordon Ramsey, the vicious but passionate T.V. chef who reinvigorates privately owned restaurants in a week.  We love this show.

   Anyway, it usually gets us in the mood for meals a little elevated from our daily fare.  This, combined with the bonus day off together, meant crepes for brunch!

   So I set to work mixing up the necessary stuff for our little romantic meal for two and realized it was the perfect opportunity to try this recipe for homemade syrup!  I found it somewhere on Tasty Kitchen but only wrote down the main ingredients.  Fingers crossed...

    Had I stopped cooking long enough to take a photo of the syrup making process, you could right now be gazing at its rich, amber color and glassiness.  Instead, you should just make your own as soon as possible.  It is super easy and so worth the small pantry expense.

Here is what you need:
  • 1/2 cup real butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk ( I had to do the vinegar thing & it worked just fine.)
  • 1 Tbsp Karo (light corn syrup)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla
Here is what you do:

  • Use a nice, roomy stockpot, like the one you use for boiling pasta.  Just combine the six pantry staples and boil it up!  Easy.  Pretty quick too.  It will become quite voluminous after boiling (hence the seemingly unnecessary large pot).  Then it will lace your kitchen and adjoining rooms with its buttery fragrance.  Yum...
  • Grab a good looking wooden spoon to whisk and stir the mixture as it boils and reduces and boils more.  Once it is heated to a consistently stirrable thinness and is a uniform color of gold, just remove the stock pot from heat and wait maybe a minute to pour the liquid gold into a heatproof glass measuring bowl. 

   I started serving it immediately, before checking the measurement, so am not sure of the exact yield.  But let's say it was a little under 2 cups.  And this is so rich and flavorful that a very small amount more than sweetens a plate of crepes! 

   So consider doing this next time you have company for brunch.  One batch should make its way around the table nicely, and you will be collecting compliments till the coffee is cold.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Top Ten Summer Don'ts

   Summertime 2011 will be a season different than any I have ever had in my life, for so many reasons.
  • I have been a Mom for sixteen years, but this will be the first summer both of my two beautiful daughters plan to spend full time with their Dad & his family. 
  • Handsome and I have a busier hobby farm than we have ever had before. 
  • I am actually on the road to losing weight instead of gaining it. 
  • The gardens are mostly planted by now, and not just on paper. 
  • I have a blog, a new, shiny, unscrewed up blog. 
  • Handsome's car show calendar is the fullest it's ever been. 
  • I am scheduled to be a bridesmaid in our nephew's wedding.  
  • Handsome & I will be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary in July. 
  • And our very best friends will be sending their youngest off to college in August, a milestone we cannot help but commemorate along with them. 
Gulp.  Lots going on!

   So how shall I ensure that this summer of patchwork challenges and opportunities doesn't fly past me like a kid greased up in Coppertone, zooming down a wet Slip-N-Slide?  I have a plan....

  1. I will use sunscreen & self tanner on my face and throat as often as possible, acknowledging all the while that I am now in my late thirties and no can no longer afford multiple sunburns there.  Similarly, I will wash up frequently, because summertime means outside, and outside means dirty (especially around here), and dirty means surprise breakouts.  I will not be grody.
  2. I will seize every day for what it offers.  No matter the weather or the agenda, I will accept every day for the specialness it bears, because Summertime 2011 will be made up of only about eighty-four days and eighty-four nights.  And we all know how quickly those can evaporate, especially in the Oklahoma heat and humidity.  I will not luxuriate in the freedom of summer so much that I waste it.
  3. I will send gifts to my children, call them frequently without asking when we'll see each other again, and pray for them and their Dad and Step mom every day.  I will get through this summer without bitterness, and I will conquer the seeds of resentment.
  4. I'll spend some time with my sweet and wise ol' Grandpa Rex.  He has the prettiest and most productive garden in the world, and he has taught me nearly everything I know about this rewarding art.  I hope this isn't our last summer with him.  I will not take my loved ones for granted.

5.  I will entertain zealously, like probably once or twice a week, but I will NOT, I repeat I will NOT gain three to five pounds for every party we throw.
6.  My husband and I will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary in July, woohoo!!  I will not wait until the morning of departure to pack my suitcase and mop the floor.
7.  I will not spend more time on Facebook than I spend writing something that will last.  Yikes, that one could be difficult.
    8.  I will not shy away from the most difficult and icky farm chores, forever resting on the brute strength and industriousness of my Handsome Husband.  I will shoulder more of this burden than he's honestly expecting me to, but I won't tell him first.  Who was it who said this?  "Don't tell me what you're going to do; show me."  This is good advice.  The bank where I used to work had a customer service tenet:  "Under-promise and over-deliver."  Bingo.
    9.  We have a great book club.  I mean, we have collected some of Oklahoma's best and brightest women, and we have a great time!  But this summer I will not read the last page first, not on any of our chosen titles.  Like, I totally promise.
    10.  Lastly, I will not freak out too awful much if I fail at any of the previous nine resolutions.  Life is good; life is beautiful in fact, and I am so grateful for every detail of what I have been given.  Even the tough stuff. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Particular Insightfulness of Aimee Bender

   The most recent selection of our fantastic little book club is another style departure, something different than what we've read so far as a group and, for most of us as individuals, ever.  There is plenty to say about this wonderfully unusual book, but the bottom line is that Aimee Bender can count on selling many more titles to this reader. 

   She is just the right amount of offbeat to be interesting and addictive, not offputting, and her writing style is so well reduced, so concise and intense, that even just one page offers great buildup and equally great release.  The book as a whole was a stand-alone pleasure, but it opened so many thought provoking doors that Bender could follow up with at least two or three connected stories without diluting the essence of the original.  (Hint, hint...pretty please!)

   Have you read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake yet?  Find it.  Buy it, borrow it, read it, share it.  Savor it, and see how it effects you.

   We're not talking about life-changing paradigm shifts here; this book offers no eating, loving, or praying.  Well, there is eating I suppose, but in a very different context.  This is just 292 pages of emotional insight & struggle mixed with some incredibly imaginative science fiction. 
   The most basic description might be that a young girl discovers her ability to taste in her food the emotions of the person who prepared it.  The gift stays with her throughout her life, and gradually she hones it quite well.  But her difficult circumstances are way more far reaching than this strange gift/curse. 
   As I read through these beautifully crafted pages, Khalil Gibran kept surfacing in my mind:  "Bread baked without love is a bitter bread that feeds but half a man's hunger."  This book had me reconsidering lots of things, not the least of which is the emotional content of my kitchen. 

   Back to our awesome central Oklahoma book club (we need a group name and mascot, ladies!), the next discussion & dinner party is in late June here at the farm.  Guess which very generous author is planning to call in for some friendly Q & A??   Yep.  Aimee Bender herself.  We owe this special favor to a literary connection we enjoy in a certain Ms. Julia Callahan. 

    Julia is a literary publicist by trade, awesome friend to my baby sister Gen (hi Gen!) and up-and-coming L.A. Derby Doll by vocation.  No amount of home baked cookies can thank you enough for this connection, Julia!  We'll post about the Q & A phone call in early July.

   In the mean time, general public, buy and reaad this book.  It is different than anything you are likely to have read before, and it serves up a lot more than lemon cake.

Tornado Season in Oklahoma

   As a little girl I never found tornadoes scary.  In fact they were a source of great excitement, testament to the fact that I never had a close enough call with one to become properly frightened.  Tornado drills were a welcome interruption to school every spring, several times per season, and our family's evening meals were frequently set against the backdrop of Gary England's affable, in fact folksy weather reports and warnings.  We had safety plans in place, of course, and my parents always made sure we were safe.  But it was just a feature of life. 

   We grew up learning to recognize wall clouds, hail clouds, and that eerie yellow glow that our skies could adopt with just the right atmospheric changes.  We smelled rain, we felt electricty, and we giggled while hiding from tornadoes in the innermost windowless room of the house.  For us it was the utility room, and we always wore good shoes, just in case a tornado indeed struck and we had to walk around outside in sharp debris.
   As an adult my feelings about tornado season are quite different.  I have been through two formidable storms now, and several smaller ones, thankfully uninjured every time.  But I have seen the overwhelming dangers as well as the merciless property damage that tornadoes can deliver.  Even the best insurance coverage cannot make recovery painless.  And of course the loss of life is a very real possibility.

   Our hearts go out to the town of Joplin tonight as they buckle down to collect their families and rebuild after the devastating tornado yesterday.  The suddenness and brutality of a strong storm like that will rattle your nerves for a very long time. 

   Kudos, Mom & Dad, for making sure we always felt safe during Oklahoma tornado season.  We are so blessed!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Work That Matters

   The work we choose often has a lot more to do with filling a financial or otherwise practical need (like health insurance, daycare, etc) than it does intrinsic value or personal satisfaction.  At least in my exposure to this world, most people work because they have to work, and they stay in unhappy jobs because those jobs pay big bills.  Sometimes, though, life is blessed with a job that serves up both a paycheck and a personal reward.  Such is the case for us right now, thank you Lord.

   In describing my husband's work I will inevitably reveal my wide-spilling ignorance, sorry Handsome, but hopefully the basic truths are here.  He does good stuff, man.  Together with some incredibly hard working people at the State of Oklahoma, he has his capable hands in the goings on of our public utility services.  They not only regulate prices and tariffs (laws) but they also spur education, efficiency reform, job enrichment, and the overall strength and futures of the industries they regulate .  And that's just HERE! 

   Did you know, fellow Okies, that our state is a global hub for natural gas capture and delivery?  We set the standards, baby.  There are countries all over the Eastern hemisphere where homes and businesses are just now beginning to receive gas piped in for heating, cooking etc.  Right this minute a woman in an opposite time zone from here is excited that soon she'll be able to turn on her interior stove and cook dinner for her family then run hot baths, rather than have propane hauled through town on a donkey.  That sounds a bit Susanne-Struthersy, but it's just true.  And who is helping these countries establish brand spankin-new systems?  Our Great State.

   People are amazingly capable of great things.  The unseen systems of our modern world are just fascinating, from ground level production and deliveries to fluorescent-light conference rooms and courtrooms, I doubt we'll ever know all of it, all these systems, all the businesses of human effort that make daily life so comfy. 
   Hug your civil servant today.  Or...pat him on the posterior if you think you can get away with it...  I just did.

A Beginning

   The idea of writing a blog at first smacked of ego trip, as if it would be assuming I have anything different or interesting enough to offer.  Certainly the questions in my heart far outweigh the answers I have so far. 
   So this will not be a well of wisdom necessarily, nor could it possibly be a mouthwatering tastemaker's blog like so many I adore.  But maybe at least we can share how many eggs get collected on a daily basis.  That is pretty Zen.  Our life is incredibly beautiful, after all, even with its nicks and bruises.  And sometimes in sharing questions with each other, we stumble upon answers.  If you read this, please join the conversations.  Cross-pollination is where it's at.


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