Sunday, November 26, 2006

Passing the torch

I was so lucky in the grandmothers I had. On my father's side, there was the swashbuckling, salty, but surprisingly feminine and sentimental gambler. On my mother's side, there was the youngest daughter raised to be the son on the family farm. I never felt anything but unqualified love from either of them, although when I look back on it, I think my sister probably was more my parental grandmother's cup of tea. My mom goes on to this day about the similarities in their personalities.

Anyway, my mother's mother, although completely hopeless at housework (because of spending her formative years doing farm chores) somehow grew up to be a wonderful cook. A wonderful baker, anyway. What I remember most is the hot applesauce she would serve at dinner, and the apple cake she taught me to make. And fruitcake.

Most people don't like fruitcake. Everybody likes to make jokes about it. I, however, have always loved fruitcake, especially the kind my grandmother made. It is different from other fruitcakes in a couple of ways. First of all, it is made with dried fruit that is candied ahead of time. No nasty citrons or weirdly preserved cherries. We candy the fruit ourselves, which is why the fruitcake takes two days to make. Secondly, there is no alcohol infusion, or alcohol of any kind in this cake. My grandmother was a strict teetotaler. This is a genuine Midwestern fruitcake.

My mother has also made fruitcake, for as long as I can remember. It's been a long time since I lived at home, and even longer since I was young enough to enjoy doing things in the kitchen with my mother, so I don't actually remember ever helping out with the fruitcake. (What I do remember are the little sailboats my father used to make out of the half walnut shells left over after we had cracked all the walnuts for the nutmeats to go into the cake. They had little origami paper sails on toothpick masts, and were painted beautiful colors, and were truly wonderful.)

Be that as it may, my mother has continued making fruitcake all these years, even after all her children have left and her marriage has dissolved, all by herself. She's been thinking about stopping, but she likes having it, so finally (why didn't this occur to me sooner?) I asked her to bring all her stuff over to my house so we could make it together. (No way I'm taking that job on all by myself.)

So she came over on Wednesday, and we commenced to candy fruit. Ziad peeled and cored the apples, Maya and I sliced orange peel and dried fruit, and my mom sliced some and supervised some. Then we boiled the syrup on the stove and were on our way. And guess what? It really wasn't that much work. My mom had this enormous energy rush going, like she was going to power through some enormous all-day kind of task, which is probably what it has been for her, doing all that prep work alone year after year. With four of us working (and two only sporadically) it only took a couple of hours. Plus, it was fun being in the kitchen together.

On Friday, she came over to finish up the cakes, and again, much less work than anticipated. Especially since Ziad got goofy with the flour, so I made him clean up the kitchen. I feel so bad that she went through that all by herself for so long, but she never made any attempt to include, invite, or solicit help, so I just didn't think about it. The last thing I want is for the fruitcake tradition to end when she gets too tired, though, so I need this transition period to get me going.

I wonder, though, if I'll ever get to the point where I make it on my own just because. Ziad and Maya don't seem to like it, although Jennifer does. My own sister didn't like it as a child. She claims to like it now, but I'm not sure I believe her. Since she lives in Massachusetts, and I don't, I don't think we'll be making fruitcake together any time soon. So unless Ziad and/or Maya see the light, fruitcake may die out from this branch of the family in the not-too-distant future.

Now I have about seven fruitcakes on my counter, and I could eat them all myself. I always start out wanting to give fruitcake to all my friends, but then I think about how everyone maligns it, and I wonder, "Will they give this fruitcake a chance? Are they going to love it as much as I do? Will they appreciate it? Maybe I should just make them some cookies." The spirit of Christmas, indeed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

You're It!

Tagged by Vivan: Write five things about yourself that people don't know. Am I such a woman of mystery? My life is an open book. Here are five random attempts.

1. My oldest daughter Jennifer, was born at home. This was in the late 70s, when home births were not quite as common as they have since become. Deciding to pass on the hospital birth was kind of a no-brainer for me -- the hospital informed me, "You WILL be shaved, you WILL be strapped into the stirrups ...." My response? "I don't think so." Finding midwives was maybe a little trickier then, because legislation to legitimize nurse-midwives had not passed, and many midwives were operating underground. I was fortunate to find midwives who had a collaborative agreement with a doctor; this meant that in the case of an emergency I could be admitted to the hospital. Right around the time I had Jennifer, two babies died when their mothers were refused entry to emergency rooms because the hospital staff suspected an attempted home birth. I liked the experience overall, and even began training to become a midwife, but in the end I decided to go back to school instead.

2. I have a second-degree black belt. It's not clear that I really deserve this rank, but by God, I have it. My martial arts career was interesting in the consistent way that political considerations impacted on my ranking. I may be the first person NOT to have been given a black belt after a year of intensive training in Japan, and the reason basically was that the head of the dojo was unhappy with my husband. So I came back to America, took my test, got my rank, and went on with my life as half-owner of a martial arts school. Eventually I requested, and got, an honorary second degree, more or less on the grounds that I had been under-ranked basically forever. Now that I haven't trained in years, and my knees and hips are bad, the rank is really just a memory, but I do have two really nice looking pieces of Japanese calligraphy to hang on my walls. One for each degree.

3. I have never taken a college-level English class, but I have read the entire six-volume Remembrance of Things Past, as well as the 24-volume translation of the Thousand and One Nights. Feats I probably could not duplicate now.

4. I have an almost mystical ability to get babies to go to sleep. This has actually been inconvenient for friends who were trying to get their children to stay awake for some reason or another. I love babies. I just love them. I will babysit anybody's baby, any time, for free, because I love them.

5. I have a B.S. in Mathematics. Surprise! Not a liberal arts major!

I tag Zelda and Jennifer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

So I have a question

This is what I packed in my husband's lunch today:

4 sandwiches of feta cheese in pita halves
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced
cherry tomatoes
1 roasted eggplant sandwich on a francese roll
1/2 peanut butter sandwich
tomato soup (from Trader Joe's) in a thermos
1 apple, peeled and sliced
a container with some leftover pasta
some Pepperidge Farm cookies

This sounds like a lot of food, but he doesn't usually eat breakfast at home, and is often at work well into the wee hours of the morning. Usually I leave a plate in the microwave for him to heat up when he gets home, but not always.

Generally I make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for Ziad and Maya. Sometimes I eat with them, sometimes not. Basically it depends on whether they're having Annie's macaroni and cheese or Ramen noodles, or actual food. Their tastes are still pretty limited, so my efforts to provide them with variety tend to be sporadic. They've been pretty effective at discouraging my creative energy in the kitchen. Nowadays I mostly save it for company.

So, for example, on Monday they had oatmeal for breakfast (cooked on the stove, not in the microwave). They had tomato soup and pasta with grated parmesan and parsley for lunch. Then we took my mom out for her birthday, but let's pretend they had Ramen noodles for dinner. That would be a pretty typical day.

On weekends, I usually cook dinner on one or both nights. Sometimes we're out and about, and just eat out because it's easy, sometimes we go out because we like it.

So my question is: is this a lot of cooking, or not very much? Sometimes I feel so outrageously lazy not to have to make a big family dinner every night (i.e., sometimes the macaroni and cheese is just because I'm not trying very hard) and then sometimes, when I'm making a particularly complicated lunch, I feel like "Jeez! This is a ridiculous amount of making lots of different little things! Nobody does this! Why am I doing this?" Can anybody provide some perspective?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Moby Dick rules

I think we all agreed that Moby Dick is a worthwhile read. Maybe not such a great candidate for books on tape, but definitely good reading.

What did we like? The language, the symbolism, the style, the imagery. The historical period, the locations, the ocean. The action, the lulls, the rhythm. At least I liked those things.

Main discussion question: Who was ultimately responsible for the destruction of the Pequod? Was it Ahab, or the crew who followed him? Was it the owners who let him captain their ship, or was it all in the hands of fate?

The discussion went unfinished, to be continued at our next meeting.