Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mormons As They Really Are

How did you feel when you read your first Mormon novel? Did you read about sacrament meeting and Dad being the bishop and look over your shoulder and wonder, "Can we talk about this stuff?" Or was the romance so hokey, the conversion plot-line so ham-handed, that you wanted to round up and burn every copy before outsiders could get a peek at it and decide we're all even weirder than they previously thought?

Well, thank goodness Mormon literature seems to be growing up a little, offering characters that feel as real as the folks who sit beside you at the driver's license bureau. One good example of credible Mormon fiction is Death of a Disco Dancer by David Clark. Clark's people play pranks with ripe oranges. They tell ghost stories at the scout camp-out. They quake under the commands of their cruel gym teachers and they try to figure out whether their older brother's warnings about junior high are credible, or just so much leg-pulling.

And they deal with Grandma. Like too many grandmas, she's not all there, but she has come to live in their house. She often visits Dancer's protagonist, Todd Whitman, in his bedroom in the middle of the night. She totes along a Saturday Night Fever album cover and speaks cryptically of "The Dancer" from her past. Grandma's nocturnal visits are the least credible part of Clark's story, but I played along anyway. He seemed to need the plot device. And anyway, it wasn't too long before we got back to that older brother, whose mind games against Todd raise the spectre of Fred Savage's Wonder Years siblings.

And let me just put in a word for Dancer's publisher, Zarahemla Books.

Judging by Mormon comment boards on the Twilight series, some Mormons don't want to read anything riskier than a conference anecdote and others long for a Mormon tale that's at least as interesting as the most middling book on their library shelves. What we need are readers that understand that the pulpit and the reading chair needn't cancel each other out. One is a place to talk about how we should be. The other is a place to reveal how we are right now, which is messy, mistake-prone, capable of monumental selfishness, but capable of great nobility, too.

Zarahemla and similar publishers (Parables, Covenant) offer Mormon fiction for those who have tried it elsewhere and found it not worth their time or their money.

All publishing houses struggle, but those who cater to whisker-thin niche markets like us Mormons, live a special kind of hand-to-mouth existence. If they topple, Mormon writers have nowhere to send their stuff.

So check 'em out on Amazon. See if they've got something that piques your interest.

Now, since Dancer is set in Arizona, let's go Tex-Mex.

Tex-Mex Chicken Starter

Use this chicken mix for Tex-Mex Chicken Fajitas

More ideas for using up the Chicken Starter in future posts.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Official Misinformation

I don't suppose you want to gaze at pictures of the burning twin towers. One sickening run-through (with endless repeats for the next week or two) might have been plenty for you. But one day, I was at the library trying to get useful things done and my eye kept wandering over to a book on the shelf, 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. "The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers." It's a subject tantalizing enough to keep you from getting useful things done at the library, I tell ya.

I don't know about you, but my curiosity about what happened to everybody that day has not spent itself.

Even the ones that survived had no idea what happened. Something went boom. The building swayed. Smoke blew in through the vents. That it was a commercial airliner -- well, how inconceivable is that?

Some had a bad feeling, found the nearest stairway and got out. Some were trapped above the impact zone, spending that 102 minutes calling the fire department, relatives, anybody who could help. Some started down the stairs, then their supervisors told them to go back to their desks and wait for evacuation instructions. And they believed what they were told.

That's the scariest part of this story. We live in a highly interdependent society. We can't possibly know what we're doing all the time. So we turn to the experts. But when the unthinkable happens, how much do the experts really know?

Sure, they tell you there's a flotation device under your airplane seat, but is that thing really going to do you any good? If we land on water, aren't we all toast anyway? (And soggy toast at that!)

Sure, we're all storing our pictures and documents in the cloud now, but what if the elves who maintain that cloud somehow lose track of it? If a simple laptop can crash, how much more can go wrong with a satellite?

Makes me hope that any trouble I get into isn't groundbreakingly new. May the trains I ride and the germs I swallow all be known quantities so that when the experts tell me what to do, it's not the equivalent of curing cancer with leeches.

I'm striking quite a cheery note tonight, am I not?

Why don't I just recommend a strange little dish that I didn't expect to like? It features cabbage, the frumpiest crop on this planet. The only thing weirder would be kale, but kale has somehow gotten itself some hipster glasses and a fedora hat, and now it hangs out in coffeehouses and independent bookstores. Poor old cabbage is still the vegetable of oppressed peoples.

I just happen to like it, especially this mildly pepper-y version.

Pork Cabbage Saute

Monday, March 18, 2013


This post violates the format of Bye-Bye Nesquik, because I failed to read much this week. I also failed to cook, unless we can count pouring green milk on my Lucky Charms this morning.

No, this week has been a rarity, sorting through dusty boxes of old pants, picking through stuffed scrapbooks of family pictures, weighing the value of old VHS tapes, marriage certificates and other little evidences that people leave behind.

What to save? What to let go? This is how my sisters and I spent the week. We read bits of letters out loud, uncovering new clues, raising new questions. Do you think those childhood radium treatments are what gave our sister the cancer that killed her? Do you think the run on the grocery stores at the start of the Korean War was what pushed our mother overboard on food storage?

To clean out a person's house after they are gone is to discover what they were. Mother was a person who clung. She clung to the many skeins of yarn, fodder for more projects than she could ever complete. She clung to church talks, believing she would listen to them again on reel-to-reel tape. She clung to letters, organizing them by writer and year written, making it easier for us make sense of their sheer volume. She clung to her money ("Is there enough? I'm sure I'm running out"), her ideas (some useful, some not), and especially to her house. We tried to take her away from it, but she refused to go.

Now, the house that was built so cleverly to suit her needs stands empty of the personality that made its rules and ran its routines. When she was there, farm dirt never crossed the threshold and grandkids never got more than one toy at a time out of the closet. When she was gone, we snacked in the living room and tossed pictures of her school chums, all while looking uneasily over our shoulders.

It's not that I visited her house often. Nor do I regret staying away so much. I just want to remember an era that is already long-gone. I want to know how the family corn roasts and the odd years when Uncle Such-and-Such found work in Alaska fit into the bigger picture. My people can look at the larger world, at its wars, its top-40 tunes and its ceaseless press of people reaching for something better, and regard it all as something that doesn't touch them. But it does. It buffets them about just as much it buffets people in Ottawa and Orlando.

And so, as the letters and pictures passed through my hands this week, I plucked up ephemera to take away with me. I will want to remember that Mother stood at the stove like that. I will want to remember the rocky wasteland where Dad grew up. I will want to remember how Aunt So-and-So sounded before it all went wrong.

Didn't I come here, resolved to sort and dump and take nothing away? Oh, no, can't weigh down the suitcase. Uh-uh, no way could I ship that thing home. Then what am I doing at the post office, sealing all this ephemera in boxes and handing over my credit card?

I think we have more than one woman who clings.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Save the White Bread

Among all the problems threatening our once-great country, might I add to the list that whole- and multi-grains are taking over the bread aisles, squishing the white bread in to ever-smaller spaces.

Those of you who like the stuff that sticks to the roof of your mouth had better act now. Write letters. Post You-tube videos. Buy up extra loaves to skew their sales statistics.

Either that, or get yourself over to the international foods aisle, where the white stuff comes already squished in the form of flour tortillas. If this is what it means for immigrants to take over our nation, I am weaving a big welcome mat for them because, if you visit Bye-Bye Nesquik very often, you may have already noticed that I have a weakness for those things.

Yep, I give you another recipe featuring flour tortillas. This was my birthday dinner, so you know I ate a lot of it. Our toddler wouldn't try it (he's a hard case, food-wise), but our adults, some of whom are sophisticated enough to appreciate sushi, pretty well licked their plates clean, then launched into heavy negotiations about who gets the leftovers.


1 pound ground beef
1 can (10 3/4 ounces) Condensed Tomato Soup
1/2 cup Picante Sauce
1/2 cup milk
6 flour tortillas (6-inch), cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Cook the beef in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until well browned, stirring often to separate meat. Pour off any fat.

Stir the soup, picante sauce, milk, tortillas and half the cheese in the skillet and heat to a boil. Reduce the heat to low. Cook for 5 minutes. Stir the beef mixture. Top with remaining cheese. 595 cals./serving

As for your book, I'm reading about a president of the United States who is just as bland as white bread, with approval ratings in the twenties ("the high twenties" his staff will tell you), who cannot get the Senate to approve his Supreme Court candidates. So he nominates a fetching TV judge.

In Supreme Courtship by the wacky Christopher Buckley, Washington and Hollywood egos abound. The lines between reality and TV criss-cross like yarn strung around the house by a kitten. I'll be finishing this book when I get on a plane tomorrow and I hope my frequent loud laughter doesn't disturb my fellow passengers too much.

It is with regret that I leave behind what's left of the Beef Taco Skillet, but at least Buckley's book will comfort me.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Bad Dudes, Those Vikings

I admit it. I'm a wanderer.

I try to pick the nice areas of town. Million-dollar homes, urban plazas (especially with large, burbling fountains)--that's what I aim for. In fact, I can make one certain assumption about wherever I wander: if I like the neighborhood, I can't afford it.

Sometimes, though, I draw the scary card. Like that day that I walked by the abandoned distillery. True, they were trying to gentrify it into cool office space. It's just that the tenant list looked a little sparse. And they needed to do something about that broken window.

Then there was the time I happened upon the village of homeless men, well-hidden from the passing traffic, but not well-hidden from me. I nodded good day to the scruffy guys and moved on at my most aerobic pace. Surely a woman whose exercise pants have shrunk above her ankles is too ridiculous to attack.

Train stops at the gates of urban hell, being the only white woman for blocks around--been there.

My point is: I've gotten away with it. As full as newspapers may be with stories of people shot, run over and mauled by dogs, it's still a relatively safe world out there.

It's certainly safer than the world portrayed in Bernard Cornwell's The Burning Land. His story plays out in ninth-century England. In fact they weren't even calling themselves "England" yet, probably because they had trouble spelling their place names. The Southwark of today used to be "Suthriganaweorc." Really, how can you run a country when everything on the map leaves you cross-eyed?

Anyway, a walker like me would have wanted to stick real close to the village back then because England had a Danish problem. Those Danes would come over in their ships, steal the nearest horses and silver and castles and set themselves up as mini-kings (while working on becoming maxi-kings). If the Danish horde came riding over the crest of the nearest hill, you would want to take all your sheep and run into the woods. Actually, you got some warning before they appeared; when they set fire to your neighboring village, the smoke wafted your way and you knew it was time to pack the camping gear.

So Cornwell's tale follows an English warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who knows a few good battle tricks of his own, and who also wants to wrest the family castle from his uncle. I haven't finished it all yet, but the fine battles on sea and land, the beautiful-but-untrustworthy women, the fighting men loudly enjoying an evening in the tavern, have all kept me entertained enough to stick with it. And I'm not exactly a war-saga reader. Oh, and Uhtred's a misogynist booger. But he anchors a colorful tale.

Cornwell is one of those prolific authors whose books fill whole shelves in the library. If you like him, you may have found enough books to keep you busy for two or three years. I think Uhtred of Bebbanburg appears in several of these tales, but I'll let you check that out for yourself.

And now for some peasant food, dressed up to make it un-peasant-y:

Slow Cooker Mashed Potatoes