Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Recipes for an Edible Text

This morning, my Alpha Son Nick asked me if I would find a slow cooking recipe for rack of lamb, with a lot of garlic.  It needs a lot of garlic.

Although it should not surprise me that Nick cooks things like rack of lamb – he is his French father’s son – it does give me pause.

I have only cooked rack of lamb once – long before Nick was born – for another Frenchman.  From a Julia Child recipe.  I sent Nick three recipes, including Julia Child's.

When Nick & I lived in Washington, D.C., I would cook lamb chops in red wine with a side of rosemary potatoes.  My boss in D.C. loved to roast lamb, encrusted with herbs, on the grill. 

But I don’t think that is why Nick prepares lamb for his wife & for his friends.  I think it comes from his father Jacques, as did his affection for the caviar in a lobster & breakfasts of sausage & a baguette.  Or a baguette & cheese.  Or a baguette with anything.

In earlier decades, I would have been jealous of that influence.  I will not sugar coat or deny that.

But now, I remember all the meals I shared with Nick’s father.  The best country pate ever.  The best venison stew ever.  Lobster to die for, with homemade mayonnaise (although I always preferred melted butter).  And Jacques’ grandmother’s recipe for a fried egg with vinegar & herbs.

Nick’s father was probably the only man who could convince me to try wild boar or pheasant.  Although his introduction to tripe in Paris did not go well for Jaki Jean.

Although the desserts in Paris were sublime.  But Jaki Jean does not do tripe – not in Menudo, not even in Paris.  

For his rack of lamb, Nick has chosen a marinade of Dijon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, garlic & Italian herbs.  With side dishes of scalloped potatoes & asparagus.

I think about this – that both of my sons cook.  Although neither of them was  ever interested in spending time with me in the kitchen.  They were, however, appreciative of the results. 

And now each of them has found their own way to the kitchen & preparing food.

Perhaps I did something good.  I cannot take all the credit - Nick's father is an amazing cook.  My youngest learned all his culinary talents on his own.  

Because preparing food for people is a bit like writing.  It is offering sustenance, an opportunity for conversation & companionship.  And a way to share an edible text.  

I hope Nick & Sam continue to share that edible text.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Jaki Jean on My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, Emily Dickinson & Willie Nelson

When I gaze at this photo, taken in Cuernavaca< Mexico in 2011 by my friend & fellow writer, Cate Poe, I am reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem.

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition ed by Ralph W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

Dickinson’s poem has stayed with me over the years, long after I left my role as an English major & women’s studies minor. 

I was introduced to the poem by Dr. Patricia Lee Yongue, who was my mentor at the University of Houston.  Amazing woman. 

One morning, as we were talking in her office, Dr. Yongue told me about an assignment she given her graduate seminar for their final:  write an essay about Emily Dickinson’s My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun with Willie Nelson’s rendition of Seven Spanish Angels.

I remember being incredibly jealous of the assignment.

Over the years, I have spent many moments, listening to the Willie & Ray Charles rendition of Seven Spanish Angels - my favorite version, staring at one of two copies of Emily Dickinson’s complete poems. 

(One copy I always kept on a bookshelf at whatever office I occupied.  Because a woman never knows when she might need a bit of poetry.  Or a feather boa. Always keep a boa & a book of poetry in your office.)

I am not sure I will ever progress beyond My life had stood - a Loaded Gun.

I always want to move beyond what passes across the lines between the opening & the last phrases:

For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

One, just one gift among so many others, given to me by Dr. Yongue, was the power of Emily Dickinson.  I think that is why I turn to Dickinson when my heart & soul are weary & need to be revitalized.'

Which explains Dickinson’s presence in my offices.  The boa is another story.

As I gaze at this photo of a young woman dressed in jeans & pink tennis shoes, standing next to the statue of a powerful woman, forever captured with a loaded gun, Dickinson rings in my ears.

And do I smile, such cordial light.

And that female warrior smiles, the loaded gun, not hanging not on her side like a man, but over her vagina.  Open & defiant.

Like a loaded gun, this is me.  This is my power.  This is what you cannot take from me or replicate.  Threaten me, threaten those I love.  Aim at me & I will pull this gun & end the argument.

For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

During these difficult times, when so many men and, unfortunately, women, want to restrict & strip women of their power, their right to choose, their right to stand firm, their right to excel,  perhaps it is a time to revisit Dickinson. 

And one day, I will write that paper never assigned to me.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Barbecued Chicken in the Crock Pot, Friendship & my Friend Muriel

My dear friend Muriel calls me on a regular basis to visit, to ask about my mother & ask about the state of my mind & my spirit.  If it is a holiday, she asks me what I am cooking.  Sometimes just on an ordinary day.  We exchange menus the same way we exchange stories of our days & the people involved in our lives.

Our friendship began with conversation – over lunch when we worked together. 

Since the death of her daughter Cheryl, Muriel has been raising her grandchildren Maddie & Jules.  She does something that never occurred to me when I was raising Nick & Sam.  On a regular basis, she asks them what they would like for dinner.  While I always asked Nick & Sam what they wanted for their birthday dinners, it never occurred to include them in the daily process.

I must confess I am a tyrant in the kitchen.  Not one member of my family will say otherwise. 

How I became a tyrant remains a mystery.  I learned to cook from women & men who invited me into their kitchens & included me in the process.  But that is another story.

The inclusion of her grandchildren in the choices that make up the daily process of family life is just one of the things I love about my friend Muriel.  Not only do the children participate in choosing the menu, Maddie & Jules compile the weekly grocery list for their grandmother & go shopping as a family.  

I am quite in awe of this team building for families. 

Although Maddie & Jules miss their mother every day, the family Muriel has made for them results in two happy, well-adjusted, loving children who are wise beyond their years.  Make no mistake,  Muriel is the parent in charge.  But she has created a team & the team thrives because they all feel empowered, they all have a voice.

A lesson for all of us.

For Labor Day, my menu was Jaki Jean’s Infamous Orgasmic Turkey Burgers, roasted corn on the cob & Blue Bell White Chocolate Almond ice cream with hot fudge for dessert.  The menu at Muriel’s house was barbecue chicken in a crock pot, pinto beans because Julian wanted them, & potato salad.

The idea of barbecue chicken in a crock pot hit me today when I returned from the store to discover that our AC was not functioning.  And because I no longer keep bottled barbecue sauce in my pantry since my friend Jayne Pride told me, “Barbecue sauce is not our friend.”  (Jayne is a grandmother, a healthy & fit beauty who looks as young as her daughter – so I always listen to her on these things).

So, for the first time in my six decades, I made barbecue sauce from scratch.  And I began to realize the truth of Jayne Pride’s words.  I used honey & maple syrup instead of molasses, but there was no leaving out the brown sugar.  Except for adding a chipotle pepper in adobe sauce crushed into a pulp with a mortar & pestle, I followed the recipe for the spices – cinnamon, cayenne pepper, paprika, ginger, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, mustard. 

All who know me understand that I like spicy.

 As I put the sauce together, loving the crushing of the chipotle pepper in the mortar & pestle, I think to myself:

Muriel gave you this moment, doing something you love, creating something to share.

Friends do that for you, give you a moment to create something to share, doing something you love. 

This evening, my menu is barbecued chicken in a crock pot, potato salad made with sweet rather than white potatoes & more Blue Bell White Chocolate Almond ice cream with hot fudge sauce.  

And smiling, I wonder what Maddie & Jules have planned for their menu tonight.

 Jules, Muriel & Maddie

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

About my grandfather, ALS & the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

My memories of my grandfather, John Simpson Alexander Ettinger, are filtered by time &  conversation & photos.  

Memory is like that.  It is not always clear or concise.  It is created by the influence of who we talk to & interact with & who we become.

But some memories are clear.  I remember when my grandfather took me to Love Field in Dallas to watch the planes.  He worked for Braniff Airlines.  He was still able to walk then. 

I remember climbing into his lap when he was in the wheelchair.  He always kept a roll of Lifesavers – Pep-o-Mint - in the shirt of his pajama pockets.  Perhaps he did this before he was in the wheelchair.  I don’t have that memory.

And there is the memory of letting me plant watermelon in the flower beds.  But I am sure I have that particular memory because I was told the story over the years by my mother.

I do not remember when he built a sandbox for me the backyard of the house on Wylie Drive he & my grandmother Helen shared.  I hold the memory of his greenhouse & the flats to start seedlings from old slides & photos & stories.

He was the only son of a farmer, an only son who left the farm in Pennsylvania & discovered my grandmother in Texas.  He always had a garden, he always planted.

My memories of grandfather outside a wheelchair have faded from when he & my grandmother were living across the street on Wylie Drive.  I don’t remember visiting him when he was no longer mobile, in a bed, stricken by ALS.

Perhaps because I was very young, my parents Jack & Jean decided to shield it from me.  Perhaps I went.  Perhaps I saw.  Perhaps I have filed that memory in a long forgotten filing cabinet.  I ask Jean & she tells me that she doesn’t remember.  She tells me other stories that she does remember & I listen. 

After my grandfather had to leave the house on Wylie Drive for a hospital, I do have another memory.  The look on my father’s face when he lost his own father.  I was too young to attend a funeral, but I remember that look in the aftermath.

ALS is an insidious disease.  It attacks the body & leaves the mind intact. 

As I watch the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, I am always reminded of my grandfather.  And I am reminded of the purpose of the challenge – to raise awareness for ALS, to contribute to  research for a disease that has no cure or treatment.

All the videos, all the internet sensation supporting this cause has raised an unprecedented amount of money for ALS research.  To date:  $80 million.  Amazing.

But, at the same time, there are posts of challenges to very young children, who cannot possibly fathom the stories behind the challenge & who have to be coached by their parents recording the video.

And too often, no one mentions ALS or the ALS website where viewers can donate.

The ice bucket challenge did not go viral as a game.  It went viral as a cause.

If other worthy causes use the ice bucket challenge to raise funds - wonderful & I support it.  It worked for ALS & I hope it works for other diseases that need a jolt in awareness & funds.

For me, all that ice is about my grandfather.  John Simpson Alexander Ettinger.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Why Houston & Jaki Jean love Michael Strahan

On September 14, 1927, the Houston Public School Board funded two junior colleges, one for whites & one for Negroes & the Colored Junior College was born.

In 1934, the Houston School Board changed the junior college to a four-year college & renamed it Houston College for Negroes.  Classes were held in Yates High School.

In the summer of 1945, the Houston College for Negroes added a graduate program & was quickly outgrowing its space at Yates High.

And then philanthropists like Hugh Roy Cullen stepped in & aided the purchase of 53 acres in Houston’s Third Ward & philanthropists like Mrs. T.M. Fairchild & Mr.& Mrs. C.A. Dupree & a host of men & women of color in the community came together to fund the first structure on the new campus, a structure which is still operating today.

In March of 1947, in response to a law suit brought against the University of Texas law school by an applicant of color, the Texas legislature, believing that the concept of separate but equal would apply, created a law school & the Houston College for Negroes was renamed the Texas State University for Negroes.

In 1951, after students petitioned the Texas legislature, the Texas State University for Negroes became Texas Southern University.*  Although I have heard bits & pieces of this history over the years – I owe this recitation to the Texas University website.  I pray I have been accurate.

Michael Strahan played football in Houston.  First at Westbury High School, then at Texas Southern University.   The only school to offer him a scholarship.  He caught the eye of the NFL & got drafted by the Giants & now has a Super Bowl ring.

None of that, not the fact that Michael Strahan holds the record for number of sacks in a season or his Super Bowl ring, is the reason why I admire this man.

It is because of a speech he delivered in May of 2013 at Texas Southern University when he received an honorary doctorate.

At the end of the speech, he told the graduates: 

I am Michael Strahan.  And I am Texas Southern University.

Because he is both.  And he stood before a group of graduates & acknowledged his family, his faith & the University. 

Tomorrow, Michael Strahan will be formally inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. 
His family, Texas Southern University, & Houston could not be more proud.

The Texas Southern University band, The Ocean of Soul, will be performing in the celebration. 

This is why I love Michael Strahan.  Because he reminds me of why something that happened on September 14, 1927, still matters.

Houston is a city with a history of great universities:  Rice University, University of Houston, St. Thomas University,  Houston Baptist University & Texas Southern University.

Texas Southern University, that descendent of the Colored Junior college, continues to offer the opportunity for an education to a diverse group of students in an amazing number of fields.  And do it with well deserved pride.

What happens in the past, whether in the fall of 1927 in Houston, or yesterday, matters.

Congratulations, Michael. 

Although, as a Texans fan, I have high hopes for J.J. Watt to sack a few more.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering Debbie Duran, Holden Caulfield & El Jacalito.

Today, my friend, the writer Cate Poe, living in Mexico, posted about Menudo & closed the post with the following memory:

Brings back fond El Paso memories of New Year's Day at 'Buelis -- Abuelita Duran who the rest of the time ran El Jacalito.

Now, I am not a fan of Menudo.  Pozole, yes.  But Menduo brings back a very painful evening in Paris, while still suffering jet lag, I allowed a Frenchman to order for me (it had always worked in the past) & he ordered tripe.

If it was a test, I failed miserably.  The only lovely thing about the evening was the wine & a dessert of chocolate ice cream covered in a vodka sauce.

And I have not tasted anything with tripe since that evening.

The closing lines of Cate’s post that brought forward a memory were the words “Abuelita Duran” & “El Jacalito.”

I remember the first time I went to El Jacalito.  I can’t remember if I went there with my family or with the family of a friend, but I remember a beautiful older woman greeting us & a beautiful young woman waiting on us.

And I remember that the food was sublime.  Right in the center of the note.

And then I met Debbie Duran, the granddaughter of the owner of El Jacolito. 

We were both in David Cohen’s English class.  In those days, it was called accelerated whatever.  Whatever, we were in an advanced class.
I may have met her before David Cohen’s class.  

I may have used my ploy of “My friend Douglas would like to meet you” that was my way of introducing myself to people I found interesting.  Douglas was a purple mouse pin given to me by my best friend from the second grade, Sue Ann McLauchlan.  The introduction always resulted in a friendship.

However we met, my memory recalls a sprite of a young woman, with fiery copper hair (including eyelashes), deep brown eyes, freckles across her nose & cheeks.

And an amazing spirit.

I would have to ask her, but I think I remember Debbie Duran appearing at school in knickers & dancing with tap shoes across the walks that led to our classrooms.

After reading “Catcher in the Rye.”

The memory of that performance came to mind & caused me to reread J.D. Salinger recently.

But, the memory that came to my mind today, after confirming with Cate Poe that the Debbie Duran stored in my soul was the same Debbie Duran whose Abuela made Cate’s standard for Menudo, is this.

One day, during that English class with David Cohen, somehow the discussion led Debbie Duran to take a stand & speak.

She talked of her parents’ marriage, of a white woman marrying a Mexican.  She spoke of how she was raised in two different cultures.  And about how that experience enriched her life, how glad that she was born to the parents & the cultures that nourished her.

Not in those words.  It was much more eloquent than I can quote all these years later.  This is just my memory of what Debbie said.

A memory that has lasted all these years.

A memory that drives me when I deal with my niece Felicia Marie & nephew John Alexander.  When I so want them to embrace their identity & rejoice it its richness.

Their Mexican heritage descends from a mother, grandmother, & a great-grandmother born in Texas.  And a great-great grandmother who never learned to read or write, but managed land, raised & sold livestock.

When I look at my niece & nephew, who are so much more Ettinger than Castillo in features but so Castillo mixed with Ettinger in coloring & so both Castillo & Ettinger in spirit,  I think of that magnificent young woman with red hair, freckles, & brown eyes, standing up to tell her story.

Who danced across the walks of Coronado High School.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

About garbage collection & why writers like Cate Poe inspire me

(Photo by Cate Poe, Lake Travis, 2012 - totally stolen)

Today, I read a blog post by my friend Cate Poe. 

For those of you who don’t know the back story, Cate & I both attended Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas.  Although neither of us graduated from the halls of blue & gold.

We both remain connected by friends & memory.

I don’t remember ever meeting Cate at Coronado.  But when her name popped up in Facebook posts from CHS friends, I remembered something about Catherine Poe.  I was drawn to her by the fact that I believed I should remember something important about her & by the voice of her text on social media.

My friend Cate has lived an extraordinary life.  Her life as a community activist inspired me & changed the way I viewed the state of our world.  Her example left me filled with hope.

Cate currently lives in San Miguel Allende in Mexico, with the amazing Tejano.   Who has another name (which I know) , but I like Tejano better.

How she traveled from a community activist based in Brooklyn to a resident writer in San Miguel Allende, is her story to tell & write, not mine.

(Although I would happily be her biographer.)

Cate has a fabulous blog & today she posted about garbage collection in San Miguel Allende. 

Cate has a unique voice when she writes – genuine, honest & full of an appreciation for the wonder to be found in what others find mundane or ordinary.

Always laced with intelligence & kindness & respect.

I, however,  have no scintillating stories about garbage. 

Although I still remember when the raccoons raided my friend Marguerite’s garbage & angrily threw away champagne bottles in search of food.

I also remember the times I watched the doors to the basement of my building on Virginia Avenue (next to the State Department) in Washington, DC, open to accommodate the trash trucks & watched the largest rats I had ever seen, except for in Naples, scurry. 

And I remember leaving out the remnants of my sons’ childhoods on the curb – car seats, high chairs, walkers, day beds - & a man at my door asking in broken English if he & his wife could take the items.

I remember all the mornings when I have forgotten to place the trash on the curb the night before.  When I run out of the house in my night clothes, open the garage door & try to take the trash can to the curb before the truck hits our spot.

One morning, I was pitifully late – the truck was at the curb.  I was at the garage door.  One of the workers ran up the driveway, grabbed the trash can, emptied it & then brought it back to me.

Cate’s blog post brought back of all those memories & experiences. 

And gave me a new perspective about each one of them.

I thought of the quote by Salmon Rashid posted on my refrigerator - so in the center of the note:  
The miraculous coexists with the mundane.

And  I was reminded to look & find the wonder & miraculous in every day.

Reading, words, matter.

From this reader, excellently well done, Cate.