A Confirmation of Character

Whilst cleaning through the flotsam and jetsam of my computer this weekend, I ran across the following submission to a short story contest. Fiction is not my forte, but I figured there would be no harm in giving it a whack.

The short story was to be precisely 78 words long, not one word more or less, and the subject matter was “A Confirmation of Character.”

I didn’t win, place or show, but I don’t think it was too bad an attempt either. Here it is, and we’ll let history be the judge…

A Confirmation of Character

Maisie carried the hog’s innards, still warm from its body, to the pump, rinsed them and began cleaning them out so that she could make a stew for supper, since the carcass was reserved for the table at the Shipley household, where linens and fine dishes were the rule, when out popped a man’s toe, ragged and bony, and she knew what had happened when Moe got drunk, fell asleep in the pigsty and woke up screaming.


Posted in Southern food | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Earthquake Preparedness for the Gourmet Minded

EQ stash

Every time there’s a spate of earthquakes it sends me scrambling to our emergency stash to see how everything is holding up and what might need replacing or adding to; to take note of where the tent, sleeping bags and trunk of camping supplies have gotten up to; and to take stock of what we’d be eating for several days should the ground beneath our feet and under our house start to rock ‘n roll.

It’s good to periodically return to the stash and look at everything with fresh eyes so that I can note the glaring omissions and do something about them. For instance, as many years as we’ve kept a supply of non-perishable foods on hand for emergencies, I only recently noticed that there was no can opener in the kit. There is now!

Another thing I hadn’t considered until this week: We may have a Coleman stove, but who knows if we’d be able to use it after an earthquake? If the gas lines are broken, the last thing we should do is start a fire. So to the stash of assorted canned meats, beans, vegetables and fruits, quick-cook rice, instant oatmeal packets, dried fruit, nuts, instant coffee, powdered milk and Tang, I’ve added a bottle of Tabasco sauce and several types of seasoned salts. Just because we might have to eat our food cold during an emergency doesn’t mean it has to be bland.

Here are some combos I came up with during today’s inventory. None are what I’d call haute emergency grub (or apocalypse gourmet, as Himself called it), but they’re not half bad for cold meals you might be consuming from an upturned frisbee as you sit on the curb with your neighbors:

spamIf you like Hawaiian skewers of spam and pineapple chunks, then this pairing is good served cold with a sprinkling of hickory-smoked bacon salt to sub for some of the flavor you’d get from grilling.

beansPour black beans and sweet corn (both drained as best you can) into a bowl, stir and top with a sprinkling of chile-lime salt. Sure, it’s lightyears away from Mexican or even Tex-Mex fare, but it ain’t bad at all.

tunaHow about a Greek(ish) salad of sliced new potatoes, green beans and a dash of Greek seasoned salt?

Laugh if you will, but in this trio of meals we’ve just treated ourselves to three different cuisines comprising three protein sources, two vegetables, a starch and a fruit, all without relying on gas or electricity, and all ready to consume within minutes.

Food science writer Harold McGee similarly sorted through his earthquake supplies and made an amazing and wonderful discovery: Some food aged in the can—even when exposed to extreme temperature swings between summer and winter and back again—tastes really good and is safe to eat, as long as the can is intact, of course. His enlightening article on the gustatory delights of can-aged food gives me hope that we’ll be able to ride out the aftereffects of The Big One with some tastier-than-expected morsels from our stockpiled cans as we huddle in the backyard awaiting some semblance of normalcy to return.

Lest you think this is helpful only for those living on the West Coast, I grew up in West Tennessee, where we faced tornadoes, flooding and the occasional earthquake, so I can say that preparation for at least a few emergency scenarios is pretty much the same, as far as food is concerned anyway.

After the Fukushima quake in 2011, I read an earthquake preparedness piece online, written by a colleague of mine who lives in Japan, including a list more detailed than I ever could have imagined of the things it is wise to have on hand in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. Her list was fairly exhaustive and included things like hazmat suits and pickaxes. In fact, it was such a daunting list that I momentarily lost sight of two facts that are good to keep in mind:

1. It is impossible to be completely prepared for a natural disaster.

2. You just have to do the best you can and try not to be overwhelmed by what you can’t.

P.S. Don’t forget the can opener!

Posted in Hungry Passport | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Garden Mystery Solved


For ages I’ve wondered what force of the Universe was leaning down and spitting on my herbs when I wasn’t looking. Something hateful and spiteful (and spitful?) and totally jealous of my expert herb-growing abilities, I was sure.

You’ve wondered this too, right? You’ve strolled out into your yard with your morning coffee to admire the evidence of your healthy green thumbs when suddenly you’ve been completely grossed out by the sight of globs of white spume on your parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

“Ewww! NastEEEEEEEE!” you screeled as you slammed your morning cuppa to the ground, the pitch of your voice in the range of a three-year-old on a tricycle. Just not the gleeful holy-jeebus-I-have-a-tricycle kind. You danced around the yard doing an embarrassing little number called “The Gross-Out Shimmy,” looking more like a goober who’s afraid of a little foam on a plant and less like a boss on a Big Wheel. And God help you if any of it got on your hand….am I right?

For ages I’ve wondered what that stuff was. Turns out it is the evidence of “spittle bugs.” Can I get a “Duh?!”

Just in case your herbs look like they’ve been spat on (and let’s hope that, like me, you have them planted in the backyard where the general citizenry won’t see your humiliating little dance), let me enlighten you on what I’ve found, because it makes me as happy as a person can be who finds spittle on her herbs.

Turns out it’s completely harmless. The foam comes from the plant itself, in reaction to the bugs attaching themselves to it and laying their eggs. They’re harmless, too. The foam obscures the view of all that nesting and reproducing going on. Probably a good thing, because who wants to watch bugs mate, especially on something you were planning to eat?

Anyway, just snip that part off and use the rest of the plant. It’s as simple as that.

It’s amazing what you can find online when you finally get around to looking it up, isn’t it? If you happen to find a cookbook for spittle bug lovers, please let me know.

Posted in Hungry Passport | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I spoke too soon…


As if to proclaim me a liar-liar-pants-on-fire, the arbor vine has decided to put on one heck of a show and gift us with a bounty of grapes.

If you’ll recall, just a few weeks ago I bemoaned those dried, crumbly bits of “grape dust” that came off in my hands as the days got longer, hotter and drier and the vines grew increasingly desperate. Quite suddenly after that initial disappointment, tiny grape clusters began popping out everywhere, growing larger and plumper with each passing day.

The jays and others of their ilk have taken notice now. One day last week as I sat beneath the arbor pecking on my laptop, a jay swooped in, landed on a vine, and took a good look around, as if sizing up his future dining prospects. He didn’t eat anything then, but he eyed the grapes with a “What ho?! I’ll be back for you soon, my pretties!” kind of expression. Then he flew away.

With competition like that we may not get enough grapes to do anything other than gratefully munch them straight from the vine, but if you find yourself with a bumper crop, this is a pretty cool way to prepare them for a party. Just be sure your grapes are seedless and that you’ve rinsed and dried them completely so the coating will stick:


Crumble 4 ounces of your favorite bleu cheese into 4 ounces of cream cheese (both at room temperature; regular cream cheese works better than low-fat or whipped) and stir to blend completely (this amount will coat about two dozen grapes, give or take). Add in a bit of cracked black pepper if you like.

Take a generous pinch of the mixture and press it around each grape. This is messy business, so be sure your hands are really clean and then give yourself over to the oodginess (if you loved playing in the mud as a kid you’ll love this too—plus you can lick your fingers!) Put the coated grapes on a sheet pan lined with waxed paper and pop it into the fridge for an hour to let the coating firm up.

While the grapes are chilling, toast a cup of walnuts, pecans or almonds and chop them finely. Then roll the grapes in the chopped nuts (any leftover nuts can go over your ice cream or into your cereal or yogurt). For a really showy presentation, arrange them like a big cluster of grapes on a platter covered with grape leaves.

Prepare to collect all the socks you’ll knock off your guests! This is a great do-ahead, but leave the coated grapes in the fridge and wait until just before serving to roll them in the chopped nuts. This way the nuts won’t get soggy and sad.


Note: Since our grape vines aren’t yet thick enough to provide adequate shade from Mom Nature’s klieg light, we fashioned an adjustable blind, a cotton Indian bedspread in a paisley that goes nicely with our arbor furnishings, to which we clipped curtain rings. We attached a bunch of screw-in hooks to the arbor and slipped the rings onto them. No matter the sun’s position, we can adjust the spread to provide coverage and better take advantage of our outdoor living space. Sweet!

Posted in Hungry Passport | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Fistful of Spaghetti

My mother died on the Winter Solstice, for whatever you make of that, and we buried her two days before Christmas on a stunningly beautiful afternoon. Both Andy and I spent the rest of this winter being sick with one ailment and then another, prolonged and enhanced by the bone-depth of fatigue that accompanies grief. I frankly haven’t felt much like writing.

I spent December back home in Tennessee with her as she completed her journey on this earth, every day resisting the urge to go out and buy her a Christmas gift. In those final days she looked so much like her own mother that I caught myself twice calling her “Grandmother.”

Her death was not a surprise. Fourteen years of dementia had taken their toll, and I’d mourned each milestone in her decline. First it robbed her of her short-term memory, with her lapses alternating between frustrating and funny—until the first time she forgot my birthday. I cried as if I’d just been orphaned. Then it took away her capacity for sound judgment, which brought its own particular season in hell. Then it took her physical health. And then it took her life.

So it was not a shock when she was gone. What I felt instead was a deep, cavernous sense of loss, that this amazing person just wasn’t around any more. Even though it has been years since our last coherent conversation, I still expect her to call on Sunday afternoon. When we recently got rid of our landline, part of me couldn’t shake the feeling that she wouldn’t know to call my cell phone.

During a visit last spring I arrived at her assisted living facility at lunch. She was sitting at a table by herself, a mass of spaghetti clutched in her fist. She didn’t know what to do with it. The attendants were helping other residents, so I got a napkin, cleaned her hand, and then took up the fork and began to help her eat—the first time I’d ever fed my mother.

Feeding ourselves is so elemental that once we get the hang of operating a fork, a spoon, a pair of chopsticks or even just our fingers, we’re good to go for decades to come. But when this ability fails us, it’s clear that things are going downhill fast.

What was stranger than feeding her was the contents of her plate. The food choices were clearly not her own. She seldom made spaghetti and never ordered it in restaurants, for it wasn’t something she’d grown up with. On those rare occasions when she did make it, she always broke the noodles into small pieces that could be eaten in tidy bites. No fork rolling or slurping in our house. What I found in her hand that day looked like a strange knitting project gone awry.

Also on her plate were cooked carrots, another food that was as foreign to my childhood as it was to hers. (Instead, I ate enough raw carrot sticks in my youth to build a city of towering orange skyscrapers.) But I fed her cooked carrots that day, and ever so slowly she ate every bite.

My final trip back home to see her was precipitated by a phone call from my brother, who said, “She failed the swallow test.”

I almost laughed when he said it, for my mother was at the top of every class she ever took. She’d never failed a test in her life, not that this was one she could have studied for. But it signaled that the end was near.

* * *

In about nine months’ time there have been eight deaths among my friends and family. In deference to the privacy and feelings of their kin and ours, I won’t go into any particulars except to say that most were way too young, and they died in some terrible ways.

It seems like the sheer volume of tragedy around me recently has made it even more difficult to sort out my feelings, for how do you compartmentalize grief? How do you decide to cry for one person now and another one this afternoon or maybe tomorrow after breakfast?

I couldn’t figure this out the last time it happened either.

Almost 30 years ago, my father died in my arms of a heart attack. His passing was one of four close family members who died within just a few months’ time. What did I learn then? If anything, it’s that mourning has no finite rules or time length.

What has sustained me lately is this quote I found in an Iraqi cookbook:

“Sit at dinner tables as long as you can, and converse to your hearts’ desire, for these are the bonus times of your lives.”

I have fond memories of sitting around the table with all these people who have recently departed. Those are some of the best memories of all, for they recall times when we were at ease, and breaking bread together, sharing stories and relishing each other’s fine company.

Suspended in those golden moments, we were all immortal.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments