Sunday, September 28, 2014

Good-Bye Plan A

I listened to a lot of southern accent this week.  So I had no trouble hearing John Grisham's Ford County characters in my head.

Ford County is a short story collection, heavy on lawyers because, as I think we all know, Grisham was one before he made it big in book world.

His tales, set in Clanton, Mississippi, introduce us to a disgruntled plaintiff, to an unambitious lawyer who wants to chuck it all, and more.  In a story that still leaves me smiling, the biggest hustler in the county matches wits with the blandest man in town. And then there's the cigarette-puffing family that piles into a van to visit little brother in jail.  Little brother has been busy behind bars, working on his literary career, his music career and his exoneration.

Just think how much poorer the world would be if John Grisham's Plan A (Be a baseball player!) had worked out.

Speaking of foiled Plan A's, the woman who submitted the following recipe to Taste of Home said she aimed to make a chicken caesar salad but looked in the freezer and found herself short on chicken. So she got creative and threw together:

I improvised on it myself, since I was missing a few supplies today.  I baked 4 Tyson's chicken patties, divided a Caesar salad kit between my husband and myself and served the cut up patties on top.  That takes the calorie count up to 605.

Added King's Hawaiian rolls. And we were happy.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Keeps Us Up at Night

Like turning down the wrong hallway in a bad dream, I opened a book that tossed me right back into my sophomore year.

Joan Bauer's Peeled follows an eager reporter at the high school newspaper who investigates the threatening signs that appear at the town's haunted house. Our girl reporter wants to get the story before the town newspaper breaks it, yet no one takes her seriously.  (Honey, it's because you write for the high school paper.)

The town's claim to fame is growing apples.

I'm not sure how this story ended up on my list, because I get my book hints from sneering hipsters. Every title takes years to work itself up to the top of my list and, by then, I simply have no idea where I ran on to it.

I can't speak for the rest of Peeled, but from what I read, the author missed no chances to toss in an apple pun, or an apple place name.  In any case, I need to get this thing back to the library post-haste, where it can be found by some young, eager reader who will appreciate it more than I did.

In its place, I picked up Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder.

The fist you're looking at is painted like the flag of Burundi, one of the least fortunate countries in the world.  It's right next door to Rwanda, if that tells you anything.

In Strength, a young man named Deogratias arrives in New York City from war-torn Burundi and begins to make a living delivering groceries. If I had met him, I would have mistaken him for a lowly cowherder, completely missing the fact that he once attended medical school. Not only that, but an emaciated cowherder whose pants can barely hang on to his sunken hips.

People who knew Burundi wondered how he managed to make it out of that hellish country. All I will say is that story includes a lot of fleeing the by the dark of night and a lot of stepping over dead bodies. As you might guess, Deogratias hates to go to sleep. The nightmares that wake him up--oh my!

How does one make sense of so much evil in the world? people ask. "But look at all the good," Deogratias tells them.  Look at all the small miracles that helped him along the way--the remarkable woman at the Burundi/Rwanda border whose cool stealth saved him from getting herded into yet another massacre, or the former nun in New York who placed call after call until she secured him a place to live and a chance to resume his education.

Kidder reigns as the master of nonfiction. If I were you, I would not miss some of his other highly engaging books, such as Hometown and House.  Everybody has a story and Kidder is the man who hangs out and takes notes until he can discern the central drama of his subjects' lives.

Now, just in case your own life takes a bad turn, you might want to pick up 100-Day Pantry by Jan Jackson and try a few of her ideas.

Jackson offers up 100 recipes that can be cooked with shelf-stable foods.  You can cook the everyday versions--using fresh onions, celery and peppers.  If you like one dish, stock up on the canned and dehydrated ingredients, then thumb your nose at ice storms, unemployment and whatever else bolts you awake at night.  Go at it full tilt, stocking up for each recipe and you have--ta-da!--a 100-day pantry full of potential comfort food. 

Every few weeks, I've slipped some of Jackson's dishes right under the noses of my handy subjects who may or may not suspect what I'm up to.   So far, the score is 3 yeps and 1 nope.  This one was surprisingly good:

(everyday version)

2 (12-oz.) cans roast beef with gravy
1 (15 oz.) can green beans
1 (15 oz.) can corn
1 (15 oz.) can peas
2 (15 oz.) cans carrots
2 (15 oz.) cans diced potatoes
1 (10 oz.) can tomato soup
1 (10 oz.) can cream of celery soup
1 (10 oz.) can cream of mushroom soup
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 TB Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp.salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

Do not drain cans. Mix all ingredients together in pot and heat through.  (My goodness, what laborious cooking this is!)  Makes 12 servings @ 190 calories each.

Consult Jackson's book on ingredient substitutions for the emergency version.

Photo Credits

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Down the Bloodline

We finish Bryan Burrough's Big Rich with tales of the great oilmen's posterity. As you might guess, the children of the rich can range anywhere from responsible and handsome fellows who grow the business and get invited to join the best clubs in Dallas, to cocaine-snorting ne'er-do-wells who own great football teams and attend cheerleader tryouts for all the wrong reasons.

My own brush with oil heirs was my first job out of college. Some library I had never heard of offered me a job.  They were attached to Southern Methodist University, but they weren't the main library where students crammed for finals, or where you hunted down a novel, took it home and stayed up all night with it.

No, this was a Special Collections library.  In Special Collections, the books never leave the building.  Professors, writers, researchers come to these temples of knowledge and scribble notes from the books therein, filling up on material for their own books.   Burrough himself probably sat in a few of these research libraries.

"Special" means the library concentrates on a narrow band of knowledge, say Great Lakes history, or history of labor unions.  My library at SMU had its beginnings as the personal collection of Mr.D., an oilman I had never heard of in my life, and his pet subject was Western Americana.

As a side note, all his books about the settling of the West, the water issues of the West, ad infinitum, would not be complete without including some of the big players in the region which means the Mormons. We dusted and tended a good deal of shelf space given over Joseph Smith and everything that came after him.  And deep in the temperature-controlled vault, where they kept the really valuable stuff, we stored original editions of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, which we were never to handle without first donning cotton gloves.

Anyway, the original collection was in Mr. D's home.  He willed it to the university upon his death. Perhaps it was was Mr. D's money that built the building, too. Now, my job was just a job, but walking into that building, entering a vast hall of fossilized limestone and walking up the forty or so steps to the hushed confines of library-ness, left me awestruck every day.

Mr. D was such an obscure oilman that I never expected to run across him in Burrough's book.  But there he was on page 152, playing a walk-on role. In the postwar years, Texas was the king of oil the world over. Then rumors popped up about the Mideast and what just might lie under all that desert sand.  A top Roosevelt aide chose Mr. D to cross the world and camp out with the Bedouins. His top-secret mission: investigate the rumors; see if American companies could get a piece of the action.

Evidently, he survived the mission.

But back to his library. Mr. D's son, Mr. D the Second, also added his hobby collection: railroad history.  In addition to books, we kept file drawers of his train pictures.  To my eye, each one was indistinguishable from the next. But train buffs the world over knew that if they wanted really good stuff, we were the library to track down.

Then there was Mr. D the Third.  He was still a young man when I worked there, a student at library school. His contribution was to come in every so often and sort train pictures.  One day, he hinted that when he finished library school, he would no longer be willing to work gratis. I'll never know if Mr. D the Third achieved this professional status. All I know is that he was in his fifth year of study, and library school is only two years long.

So, as far as the D bloodline was concerned, they landed somewhere between solid billionaire status and losing it all to cocaine and cheerleaders.

And we will now celebrate the end of oilman stories with a nice bit of:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Finding the Next Best Thing

I wish I had kept count of the miles I have walked this summer.  We have got to be talking over five hundred.  

And oh, the things I see!  The neighborhoods I want to move into! I used to suffer from house envy, but now I've calmed down to mere neighborhood envy. 

Then again, if I picked up and moved, I would have to give up something I love, something I have never had before and will never find again--the view out my kitchen window:

It is all curved lines, and people-watching.  I can see the main boulevard through the neighborhood.  I can see the walking paths, and everybody strolling, biking or hauling their children in little red wagons.  

Up until Thursday, this wonderful view was marred by a window like this:

That middle bar sat right at eye level.  I either had to stretch or slouch to look out on all the backyard beauty.

But, all fixed now.  New window.  Thank you, Mr. Nesquik.

Of course, if I had a bathtub full of money like the folks Bryan Burrough writes about in Big Rich, I could keep the view from my kitchen window and add, oh, seven more kitchen windows, hopping from one to the other in my fleet of private planes.

In other words, I have advanced from the chapters where the tycoons discover the oil, to the part where they figure how to spend all the moola.

When we lived in Texas, my husband once sat on a plane and listened to a woman from Lubbock, "just flyin' to Dallas to get mah hair done."

With that kind of money, you don't have to choose whether to buy yourself a ranch in Montana or in Mexico.  Just buy both.   

Of course, when you move up into this league, you acquire a whole new set of problems.  One of Burrough's chapters begins with this gem somebody overheard one day in Houston: "It's been a hard day all around.  First, my wife's pet kangaroo has to go and get poisoned, and then somebody stole my midget butler's stepladder."

Back in this heyday, oilmen liked to own a few airplanes but didn't much care about buying yachts.  What cruises they took, they complained about all the wine, preferring, instead, more bourbon, more "barbecue, greens and black-eyed peas." 

Little wonder old money looked on and called these people "Texicanus vulgaris."  But who cared what old money thought?  Texans just went on throwing parties where champagne flowed out of miniature oil derricks.

In my Dallas days, I was the ward organist, just like now, and I had no car.  I had to walk to the church every Saturday, which meant meandering through Highland Park and University Park, two millionaire enclave cities surrounded by Dallas itself.  Oh, the pink marble mansions!  The broad circular driveways!  The magnolia trees and azalea bushes, everything professionally tended!  The gleaming Mercedes, Beemers and Porsches!

I could've taken dozens of different routes through this wonderland, and I aimed to try them all, no matter now hot those Texas afternoons got.  I mean, I was already hooked on walking before I arrived, but the Park Cities were like smoking walker crack. 

My walks these days are probably about finding the next best thing to Highland Park.  Pockets of loveliness abound out there.  I see beautifully terraced backyards, perfect for entertaining all one's friends.  And I covet.  I see streets where everybody can walk to the library, the grocery store and the ice cream parlor.  And I covet.  I see houses convened around darling little parks with pretty benches and paths.  And I covet.

But if I traded what I have for what I don't, there goes my perfect kitchen window, with its inimitable view.

So that's where I'll be, inside my kitchen, looking out.

Oh, and cooking things.  This week, we get:

One reviewer said the filling was a little bland, and I agree.  She suggested using a sharper cheese.  I thought about adding more salt to the dough.