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Archive for November, 2013

DressingIf you’ve sung “The Thanksgiving Hymn” (aka “We Gather Together”), you may recognize my title. The actual line, of course, is “The wicked oppressing, pray cease from distressing”, but when I was a kid, I heard it the other way. I really liked dressing, you see, and keeping the wicked away from it struck me as a fitting punishment.

So this is a post about dressing. Not stuffing, mind you. Other people might stuff their turkeys, but we of the Weathers clan had only dressing baked separately in a glass casserole dish. That was one of the guiding dressing principles, but not the only one. Here then are The Dressing Rules as passed down from my forefathers, or more likely foremothers. I don’t necessarily obey them all, but I have to admit I’m still aware of them.

Proper dressing is austere, even minimalist. No eggs, no sausage, certainly nothing like chestnuts or oysters. I suspect this was partly due to the fact that we lived in Wichita, Kansas, where additions like chestnuts and oysters were not particularly easy to come by. Anyway, dressing as I know it includes only celery and onions along with the bread. As I recall, my mom would toss that chopped up onion and celery into the dressing raw to cook in the oven along with the turkey. I break with tradition and sauté the veggies in butter. Lots of it.

About the bread. True dressing is made with stale bread you’ve been saving for that purpose. Thus it includes lots of heels and little thin pieces that nobody wants for a sandwich. This in turn means that there are some fairly recalcitrant pieces of bread in the dressing that never really soften up. This is another rule I disobey. Stale bread tastes like, well, stale bread. I make a couple of pans of cornbread using a mix (yeah, usually Jiffy) and let it sit out overnight to get a bit more substantial than it is straight out of the oven. If I’m feeling particularly fancy, I may buy a baguette, cut it into pieces, and let it sit out too. Needless to say, the Wichita of my youth had no baguettes available.

When you put everything together (i.e., bread, onions, and celery), you soften the mixture with liquid, and here again I have major differences with The Dressing Rules. My mom, for reasons that escape me, dunked the bread in ice water and then rung it dry, creating a damp but crummy mixture. I use warm stock, usually vegetable stock since our Thanksgiving guests include vegetarians. I also don’t wring it out since a wet mixture seems to puff up better than a dry one.

On seasonings, I’m a purist. Salt, pepper, and powdered sage. I may occasionally throw in a little thyme if it’s available. But since I’m usually cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, I stay with the big three.

And then you bake it. Oven temperature doesn’t matter much—anywhere from 325 to 375 seems to work. Length of baking time depends on how hot the oven is. Just follow the old recipe guideline “’Til it be enough.”

And it will be good. Very good. Good enough that you will definitely want to keep the wicked as far away from it as possible.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

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chef's hatI live at altitude—around 5600 feet, to be exact. Altitude has a lot of effects, including thinner air, brighter sunshine, and (apparently) a greater tendency toward suicide. However, one area of life where altitude has a very pronounced effect is cooking. Atmospheric pressure decreases as altitude increases, and that fact turns out to screw with some of the most basic aspects of food prep.

There is, for example, the fact that almost every bag of food you buy at the grocery store is inflated, so that a bag of, say, Doritos looks sort of like a Doritos balloon. This inflation is the result of transporting sealed goods manufactured at lower altitudes to higher altitudes. The lower atmospheric pressure outside the bag allows the air in the bag to expand. The balloon effect doesn’t hurt the food, of course, and I like to think it even provides a little extra protection for your potato chips, but it’s unsettling to say the least.

I’m not a baker, so some of the most notorious altitude effects don’t get to me, but baking around here requires adjustments in both ingredients and cooking time. The decreased atmospheric pressure means that your breads and cakes can rise higher, which, in turn, means that they’ll collapse unless there’s extra flour to provide more structure. The combination of altitude and very low humidity can also doom your cookies, particularly delicate ones.

The altitude effect that hits me most directly, however, is the simple fact that lower atmospheric pressure means that water boils at a lower temperature. So what, you say? Try boiling spaghetti for the same length of time you do in, say, San Antonio, and you’ll have spaghetti that’s very, very al dente. Pasta actually isn’t a problem, although the increased cooking time can be an annoyance—you can just fish a strand of spaghetti out of the boiling water and taste it to see if the stuff is cooked enough. No, the real problem comes with something like rice or beans. You end up cooking rice like spaghetti: in a large pot of boiling water. Cook the rice that way and it will end up soft, although you’ll still have to cook if for longer than you’re used to. Cook the rice the low altitude way—carefully measuring water and letting the rice absorb the moisture—and you’ll probably end up with the same very, very al dente rice.

And then there are beans. I think the thing that finally drove me over the edge with bean cookery was when I tried making black bean soup in my slow cooker. I soaked the beans overnight and then cooked them for eight hours in the slow cooker, the smell of long-cooked bean soup driving me slowly mad with hunger. Then I served up a couple of bowls for the hubs and myself. And bit into beans that were very, very al dente.

I bought a pressure cooker then because I’d heard Jacques Pepin (whose daughter Claudine lives in Denver) argue that it was the only way to cook beans at altitude. It works, although I’m still learning how to calibrate the thing. The recipe booklet that came with the cooker said to cook beans between five and ten minutes. Nope. Lorna Sass, bless her, has more precise cooking times between twenty and thirty minutes. But even at that length I’ve had mixed success. I’m learning that dried beans differ in their age and that older beans will take much longer to cook. Since I buy a lot of heirloom beans at farmers markets, I can end up with some beans that are overcooked and some that are, once again, very, very al dente.

So cooking at altitude is a challenge. But it’s an interesting challenge. And I’ve come to think of it as part of the whole Colorado gestalt. Outdoor markets, dried beans, and long-boiling pots—we may not be mountain men, but there are times when I think we’re close!

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booksEloisa James recently quoted the final lines of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree on Facebook. She described it as “a book that needs no introduction.” She’s probably right—I’m sure the majority of people who saw those lines recognized them immediately. I’ve heard The Giving Tree quoted in sermons. I’ve seen adults tear up as they reach they end. I’ve seen adults tear up as they refer to the end. Everybody loves The Giving Tree.

Everybody but me.

If you’ve never heard of the book, you may need a quick recap. The Giving Tree is a children’s picture book about the relationship between a boy and a tree. The tree gives the boy everything she can (and yes, it’s a she—Silverstein uses that pronoun specifically). When he’s a child, the boy swings from her branches, rests in her shade, and eats her apples. But as the boy grows older, his demands grow too. When he needs money, he sells her apples (at her suggestion). When he needs a house, he takes her branches to build it. When he needs a boat, he takes her trunk to make it. The tree is perfectly okay with all of this, of course. In fact, she suggests most of it herself. But the boy/man is never entirely satisfied. At the end of the book, he returns, a shriveled old man, and sits down to rest, leaning on the stump that’s all that’s left of the tree. And the final words of the book? “And the tree was happy.”

There are a lot of interpretations of this book, some of them religious (the tree is God) or environmentalist (the tree is Mother Nature). But the interpretation I’ve seen most frequently is that the tree and the boy represent parent and child. More specifically the tree is Mom, constantly giving whatever she has to her children until there’s basically nothing left. But she’s happy because, as Mom, that’s what she’s supposed to do.

And that, my friends, is why I find this book sort of disturbing. Because, no, that’s not what Mom is supposed to do. Mom or Dad either one. What Mom and Dad are really supposed to do is raise a kid who’s not a selfish little snot. Moreover, there’s something troubling about a book that hypothesizes the parent/child relationship in a way that makes the child a kind of emotional vampire and the parents a pair of chumps. There is nothing particularly noble about parents as enablers.

As a point of contrast, consider E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, another book in which the two protagonists (Charlotte and Wilbur) have a parent/child relationship. Charlotte also gives herself to Wilbur, devoting herself to keeping him alive. But in the end, when Charlotte dies, it isn’t because Wilbur has used her up. It’s because Charlotte has reached the end of her life cycle. And she doesn’t leave behind a selfish little pig (literally) who’s learned nothing. She leaves behind a pig who’s now able to stand on his own four feet. I feel annoyed with myself if I tear up over The Giving Tree, but the tears at the end of Charlotte’s Web are totally earned.

So if you want a children’s book that teaches the value of giving and receiving, I’d leave The Giving Tree on the shelf. But Charlotte’s Web? That’s a keeper.

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woman writingSo I picked up this book at my local library last week. I admit I was attracted by the cover to begin with, but the blurb sounded interesting. Plus I’d heard of the author—she’s fairly well known in her genre. I hoped I might discover an author I hadn’t read before with a sizeable backlist, always an enjoyable experience!

But here’s the thing: the story that had attracted my attention via the blurb was good. The author had an interesting idea and she carried it through. But the writing? Not so much. What I had stumbled into was a standard conundrum—which matters more, the writing or the plot?

Now let me be clear here. This was a book published by a major house so it had obviously been copyedited. There were no grammatical or spelling errors of the type found in self-pubbed books whose authors haven’t bothered to spring for an editor. But the style was sort of, well, pedestrian. The characters never really came to life. The author told me what they were feeling, but I didn’t feel for them myself. The potentially intriguing villain stayed very much at arm’s length—I was told how clever she was, but nothing she did seemed to bear that out.

I kept reading, mainly because I wanted to see how the story played out, but I never really got into the book. And I skipped some sections, which is always a bad sign. I might read another book by this author, just to see if the style here was an anomaly, but it would have to be from the library. I won’t buy her books for myself.

There’s a maxim in the pop fiction game: good writing won’t save a bad story. To some extent I believe this, but I have to say I haven’t come across the good writing/bad story combination all that often. To me, the opposite should also be considered true: bad writing can sink a good story. In fact, I find that an author’s style is more likely to catch my attention than a sensational story, particularly if that story is too complex or convoluted. An elegant, engaging style will keep me going even when I can anticipate the twists and turns of the narrative. The pleasure of spending time with a skillful writer can mitigate the minor irritations of a predictable plot.

But, of course, it’s when plot and style combine to produce something out of the ordinary that real magic happens. My favorite authors—Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Sherry Thomas, etc.—are the ones who are skillful on both sides of the writing divide. When you find a book like that, you’ve hit the jackpot as a reader. And as writers, we’re all doing our best to create them.

So plot versus style? Why do we have to make a choice? As Guy Clark sings (in a totally different context), “Long as you’re handin’ it out, Lord, I’ll have a little of both.”

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