Friday, October 14, 2011

There Are Bad Days and Then There are BAD DAYS

Go ahead, name me your worst. Your kid forgot his lunch. The cop behind you turned on his lights. You cut your finger while making dinner. You got laid off. You backed the car into a Hummer. The doctor called you back for a "consultation" after the tests. You found icky stuff in the computer's history.

I'm impressed by your troubles, really, I am. But I can top them. Not with my own, thank goodness, but over on the Finished Book Pile, we have Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell, chronicling the life of General Custer, a man who had one very Bad Day.

It starts out gory, following a few cavalry soldiers as they come upon a scene of barbaric slaughter (missing scalps, evisceration, long gashes down limbs, arrows sticking out of delicate places).

So what happened at Custer's Last Stand? Well, we aren't sure. All the eyewitnesses ended up scalped, eviscerated, gashed and pierced. (See paragraph above.)

What we do know is that Custer was a mean dude. His cavalry had the highest desertion rate of them all. And why not, when he marched his men in 120' heat, making them wear their full wool uniforms and carry pounds and pounds of equipment?

He rose fast in the army, but historians agree that he ascended on a bubble of other men's brilliance and strategy. Custer's only strategy was to yell "Charge!" and plunge in. And it worked. Until one very Bad Day in 1876 when it didn't.

Connell's book circles around in time, examining all the theories and eyewitness accounts about the man. I was never sure the author had any organization in mind at all. But I stuck with it for all the tidbits that came up. For instance, I would not have wanted to miss the story of Mrs. Nash, who traveled along with the 7th Cavalry as laundress, midwife and baker of pies extraordinaire.

Near the end, all that circling tightens until he introduces some new eyewitnesses. When I finally closed the book, I walked away with the sense that I could see Custer in his last moments.

Next, we have Martin Dressler by Stephen Millhauser. Martin is a dreamer who comes of age at the end of the 19th century. He is the kind of restless soul who always looks for the next big thing to build. It's mildly interesting but, Mr. Author, I spent the whole book wondering why you didn't resolve the matter of Martin's women. He married Woman A. Woman B had every right to expect he'd marry her. Do you really think flesh-and-blood women react the way she did?

As for your recipe, we feature QUICKER CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS. This implies that there are more tedious ways to make chicken and dumplings, don't ask me what they are. Unless it includes plucking an actual chicken. That I know something about, and it is tedious indeed. That is, until it comes to the part about getting the very last bits off, the ones that are too much trouble to pluck. For that, my mom poured a little rubbing alcohol into a jar lid, lit it and burned off any final fuzz off the chicken carcass. Open flames always make the kitchen more interesting.

Come to think of it, I didn't really know what a dumpling was, until I tried this recipe. Basically, they are dough balls. Well, they cook up like a biscuit, but the broth they cook in makes the outsides gooey.

Cooks probably never fix foods they don't like, which might explain my dumpling ignorance. My mom loved crispy and crunchy, while I loved gooey and squishy. She loved throwing in a little of this, a little of that. I loved to measure ingredients. She loved dogs. I loved cats. She loved the countryside. I loved the city. She loved . . . wait, I'm getting off the subject here, aren't I?

Anyway, this recipe saves you untold effort, not that we know what it is, and fills you up on a wintery night.

Quicker Chicken 'n Dumplings

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Last Person in the 50 States to . . .

OK, I'm pretty sure I'm the last person in the whole United States to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

But just in case I'm not the last, let me tell you that you will, like about 12 million other people, enjoy reading about Minny, the big-mouth maid who gets fired for doing something Terrible/Awful to her employer. (The Terrible/Awful wasn't what I expected. It was better.)

You will enjoy reading about Hilly, the queen bee of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League.

You will like Skeeter, the too-tall white girl with the frizzy hair, who gets an idea that seemed a little contrived as a plot device but eventually earned its keep.

You will enjoy riding the bus home with the maids and hearing them talk about the white people they serve.

Yep, it's no wonder you have to fight for a place in the long line at your library to read this book.

In honor of Minny, the big-mouth maid who makes the best caramel cake in the world, I offer you:

Banana Fudge Cake

We recently enjoyed this cake in honor of a certain two-year-old's birthday. The honoree, upon arriving at his beloved grandma's house, ignored his grandma and went straight for the big red box with the picture of a trike on it. I do believe that helping grandpa assemble the trike was the most fun he had all day. He carried wheel parts around. He brandished screwdrivers. He checked grandpa's work and made sure grandpa stayed on the job.

When the trike was all done, so was dinner. But do you think we could get him to sit down for some macaroni and cheese? Nooooo.

Really, I don't know what else we could expect from the little fellow.

He can't even reach the pedals yet. But that doesn't stop him from (as Emma put it) Fred-Flintstoning his way across the floor.

He was, however, willing to take a break for a piece of this cake.