Ziti

Ziti

My grandmother used to sing to her African violets, pet their tender leaves, and encourage them to grow by calling them ‘pretty baby.’ She could pick up a pencil with her toes, and even after her fingers were gnarled with age and arthritis, she was a flawless knitter (though her taste in yarn was questionable).

By the time I was old enough to help in the kitchen, she did her best to avoid cooking, but I have fond memories of hamburgers cooked on the back yard grill, of sun-warmed tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden, of Jersey corn, and of being asked – as everyone was – what kind of potato they wanted (white or sweet). Whenever she ate those summer vegetables, she would pronounce them ‘luscious.’

Sometimes, she made baked ziti. Ziti is easier than lasagna because you don’t have to keep the pasta intact, but it uses similar ingredients. Sauce that simmered all day. Meatballs served with it. A blend of Parmesan, Romano, mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Just the right combination of spices to make the flavors all pop in a complimentary fashion.

I never learned her recipe, but I remember the flavor, and over the years, my own version has come closer and closer. The cheese, I think, is what’s wrong, or maybe it’s that I usually just ‘doctor’ sauce from a jar. I remember her adding a dash of sugar to her sauce, but I think I also remember her squeezing lemon juice into it, and that memory confuses me because wouldn’t that just increase the acid?

I made Ziti tonight because the temperature was dropping and I wanted something that was comforting and would provide leftovers. As I served it, just for a moment, I thought I caught the scent of my grandmother’s perfume, just the way I sometimes wake in the night feeling certain that her cool hand was soothing my sweaty brow.

But it wasn’t really her perfume, of course.

It was just a sense memory triggered by making ziti.

Holidailies 2014

The (Nutcracker) Prince and Me

This post has been included in this year’s Best of Holidailies collection!

A Very Young Dancer

Hi, I’m Melissa, and I’m addicted to The Nutcracker. Oh, not the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but the ballet based upon the story. You know the one – it has music composed by Tchaikovsky, and everyone trots it out in December.

I blame my Auntie Annette for this addiction. Of course, she wasn’t really my auntie at all, but a dear friend of the family, one who always seemed to waltz, rather than merely walking, wherever she was going, and who always smelled like the forest at Christmas, even though I’m pretty sure the most rural place she ever lived was Connecticut.

Every junkie has a gateway drug, and mine was a book called A Very Young Dancer, by Jill Krementz. It’s not a story, so much as a captioned photo-essay about a young girl named Stephanie, a student at the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the New York City Ballet, who is cast as Marie in the annual production of – you guessed it – The Nutcracker.

It was Auntie Annette who gave me the book – a book I still have, by the way, the year I was six or seven. (Amazon says the publication date was October 1976, but I’m pretty sure I had it in August. Then again, Auntie Annette had connections so it’s very possible she gave me an advance copy. I have vivid memories of being the first of my friends to know anything about this book.)

Let’s assume my memories are correct, and I was six. I was still taking ballet lessons then, and I have an equally-vivid memory of another aunt’s dog eating my ballet slippers the following summer. But really, it doesn’t matter, that book got me hooked on The Nutcracker, and I remain loyal to it decades after I stopped taking ballet lessons, or, in fact, any kind of dance classes whatsoever.

But isn’t The Nutcracker the first ballet for almost every little girl? I mean, I guess some kids see Coppelia first, but it’s not quite as engaging, or as magical. (By the way, has anyone noticed how many ballets are based on some kind of doll coming to life? Not just ballets, actually, but children’s stories in general.)

My earliest memory of seeing The Nutcracker live is when I was nine and we lived in Arvada, Colorado. My best-friend-at-the-time and I had been in a fight for the weeks leading up to the performance, but our mothers had bought a row of seats for the four of us and her little sister. Each of us, independently, had worked out how our mothers would sit next to each other, with us on their far sides, so we wouldn’t have to talk.

Of course, by the time the actual day came, we’d started speaking again, which both good – because for weeks afterward we did our best to recreate the ballet in their basement bedroom – and bad – because my mother worked with one of the dancers, or knew her mother, and had arranged for us to go backstage, and that meant I had to share the experience.

My addiction was cemented at that point.

Since then, I’ve seen numerous productions, both live, and on video. San Francisco Ballet’s version is one of my favorites, but I grew up on PBS’s annual airing of the ABT version with Mikhail Baryshnikov & Gelsey Kirkland, and that’s still the one I know best. I’ve seen the movie that was made out of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version (which features sets designed by Maurice Sendak. (Yes, that Maurice Sendak.) It’s a favorite as well, and just the other night I was watching a version of the NYC Ballet’s interpretation that was filmed years ago, and features a Home Alone era Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker/Prince.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to see different things in the different versions of the story.
For example, Marie (who is sometimes Clara), is often played by a child, as is, in fact, the Nutcracker Prince. These interpretations usually have lots of children in the first act, and very few in the second (only those who pop out from under Mother Ginger’s skirt), while Marie and the Prince pretty much just watch Act II from a throne all the way upstage.

Other interpretations use an adult dancer as Marie/Clara, or at least an older teenager, and play up her budding romance with the Nutcracker/Prince. Sometimes they even get an Act II pas de deux.

The Nutcracker/Prince is often introduced in the Act I party scene as Drosselmeier’s apprentice or nephew, which means that, if Drosselmeier isn’t merely an ‘affectionate’ uncle, Marie and the boy are kissing cousins.

A rare few interpretations (and Pacific Northwest Ballet is one of them) add a dash of unresolved sexual tension between Marie/Clara and Drosselmeier. (There’s a fanfic waiting to be written.)

I haven’t catalogued all the details of every production, obviously, but I do know this: during December there is a version of the Nutcracker playing somewhere almost every day. In the next two weeks, my DVR will be recording at least six different productions, only one of which I’ve seen before. There are at least seven local live productions of the ballet happening in the same time period, within 30 miles of my house. (I might drag Fuzzy to one. He’s never been.)

I prefer the live performance experience: the thrill when the overture starts to play, the way the audience always gasps when the Christmas tree starts to grow (which is really Marie/Clara shrinking, of course, but…it’s still cool), the little girls all dressed up for what is, for many, their first time in a real theater, and the obligatory trip to get hot chocolate (when I was a kid) or Irish Coffee (now) afterward. I love the pure dancing in Act II, when the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her cavalier, and the Dew Drop Fairy dances with her flowers.

But even if we don’t make it to a live performance, I’m looking forward to having a few dates with my Nutcracker Prince over the weeks between now and Christmas. He’ll bring the great music and muscular thighs, and I’ll bring coffee, Danish butter cookies, and my appreciation of the arts.

And when Christmas comes, and the magic is over for a year (because a post-Christmas Nutcracker is just as sad as the early morning walk-of-shame after a poorly chosen one-night stand) I’ll put my Nutcracker, the one sent to me from Germany, back in its box, and focus once more on more contemporary stories.

But only until next year, of course.

I mean, you can only go so long until your next “fix.”


Holidailies 2014

Decoding

Ornamental 2013

When I was a very young child, one of my favorite record albums was the Marlo Thomas creation, “Free to Be…You and Me.”

I loved many of the songs and stories, and can still quote the version of “Atalanta” that she and Alan Alda performed, but the song that I’ve always really connected with is “Glad to Have a Friend Like You.”

There’s a lyric in that song that goes like this:

Pearl told Earl that they could do a secret code
Earl told Pearl there was free ice-cream when it snowed
So they sent funny letters that contained myst’ry messages
And nobody knew just how they made it
And they raised up the window and they scooped all the snow together
Put milk and sugar in and ate it

And except for the names, that could have been me and any number of my friends. The year we lived on 16th street in Golden, CO, Heather and Kerry and Ben and I would beg our parents to let us make maple syrup candy with the fresh snow, and we’d make up codes and ciphers, and we were in and out of each other’s houses and apartments, and shared beds the way six and seven year olds do.

The codes and ciphers were my favorite, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the children’s novel, Alvin’s Secret Code was a favorite, not just because the story (deciphering codes to find a lost treasure) was great fun, but because it actually taught you how to read the codes you found all around you. Of course, that was before bar codes on price tags, when SKU numbers actually meant things you could understand without a scanner, but still.

Later, when I encountered Sherlock Holmes for the first time, one of my favorite stories was “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” because a code (really a cipher) was integral to the plot.

Cut to tonight. Our friend Ben (a different Ben), and I have spent the evening making cookies and working on the code that came with the first envelope of the “12 Days of Holiday Bullshit” trinket from Cards Against Humanity. Well, really I’ve been baking, and Ben has been decoding/deciphering.

But, you see, I’m pretty good at codes and ciphers after all the practice I had as a kid…so he spent a few hours working on it, but I looked at it, figured out one of the keywords, and solved it in about five minutes.

Yeah, I’m annoying like that sometimes.

Solving the code to read the message was fun, but the walk down memory lane that I got in the process was even better.

And if that other Ben, Benjamin Simon, born 8/15/1970, is out there somewhere, I hope he remembers me as fondly as I remember him.

Happy Holidailies.

No Santa today. Instead, the entire spread of ornaments, which, in the picture, look like mass of junk until you start to decode the specific shapes.

Wax Paper

In my recent spate of pre-holiday baking, I’ve rediscovered wax paper.

I’ve had a couple of rolls in the back of the pantry for a while, purchased because some recipe I was going to make at some point required them, but I hadn’t actually begun to use it until wax-paper last Saturday when I baked a lemon pound cake. The instructions for that recommended lining the loaf pan with wax paper so that it was easy to pull the cake out after baking.

Removing that lemon pound cake (which was divine, by the way – DIVINE) was so easy, that not only did a friend and I actually have a conversation about wax paper yesterday (Well, not just about it, but still, we are not 1950s housewives. We both do paid work, you know?), but I used the same trick when I made banana bread this morning.

It’s weird, the way common objects can have so much meaning. I mean, yes, on one level wax paper is just a tool that makes baking a bit easier, but at the same time, the texture of it, the satisfying ripping sound it makes when I remove a length of it from the roll, those things are time portals that take me back to summers at the Jersey shore with my grandparents.

I remember picnic coolers lined with dry ice, holding a pitcher of iced tea, tuna or egg salad sandwiches wrapped in wax paper (or, if my grandmother had them available, wax paper sandwich bags), and paper napkins that went into the cooler with the food. Something magical happened to those napkins in the process. Before they went into the picnic cooler they were normal paper, slightly rough, but when they came out of it at the beach they felt like cool, soft tissue, and I used to love holding them up to my sun-warmed skin before using them as actual, you know, napkins.

Food tastes better, at least to me, when it’s wrapped in wax paper instead of plastic wrap. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t sweat, or maybe it’s just nostalgia, but if there’s beauty in ordinary things like dandelions and autumn leaves, there’s a kind of beauty in wax paper and fresh baked goods, and even in tuna fish sandwiches, whether they’re eaten in the sunlit kitchen or while sitting on a blanket in the sand.

Happy Holidailies

Rubber (Glass?) Ducky, You’re the One

I meant to post this last night, but after a morning of dropping the foster dog, Dexter, at adoptions (He was adopted. Congratulations to Dexter’s new family, and Happy Whatever Holiday You Celebrate!), having an early lunch of tacos, making lemon pound cake (which involved finding and washing the juicer so I could use real lemon juice), and an afternoon of good company with good friends, all I wanted to do last night was soak in the tub and watch a few episodes of Warehouse 13 on Netflix. Duck-Ornament

In any case, my friend Carmi hosts a weekly (and fairly loose) meme called “Thematic Photographic” on his blog, and I haven’t participated forever, but I noticed that the current theme is “Mellow Yellow.” No, he’s not celebrating a defunct brand of soda with that title (well, not directly, and anyway, they didn’t use the Ws in that) but all things yellow.

I could have taken a picture of the lemons that went into the pound cake (five of them), or the finished product, but since I made my friends work for their dessert by helping me hang ornaments on my Christmas tree, I thought a picture of an ornament would be most appropriate. And what better choice of subject could there be, than my whimsical rubber duck ornament.

Which is made of glass.

I suppose you’re thinking, “That makes it a glass duck ornament,” which, technically it is, except it’s modeled on the classic bath-time Rubber Ducky toy. Which makes it a glass rubber ducky. Or a rubber glass ducky. Or…hey, look at the adorable duck ornament nestled in the dark green faux pine needles!

(And on that note, I’m off to meet friends for brunch. Potato pancakes, anyone???)

Happy Holidailies

Jersey Strong: Sandy Hook Lives

Sandy Hook Sign by USNavy13@Instagram

Has it really been over a week since I’ve written anything here? I guess it has. I wish I could tell you that I’ve been off having grand adventures, but the reality is that I spent most of last week, except Halloween, watching coverage of Hurricane Sandy, first on The Weather Channel, and then via News 12 New Jersey, a cable channel that I could live-stream over my Google TV. Now, my mother and I share a love of weather movies and weather disaster films, and I do try not to buy into hype when there’s a real weather disaster, but Hurricane Sandy was personal for me, even though I was dry, warm, and safe here in Texas.

Why?

Because I was born in Ocean County, NJ at Fort Monmouth.
Because I spent the first four years of my life hearing the foghorn wafting over Sandy Hook.
Because every summer until I was thirteen, I stayed with my grandparents in Middletown, and went to the beach at Sandy Hook, Ocean Grove, and Avon-by-the-Sea.
Because the year I was nine, my mother and I lived in Ocean Grove, two blocks from the ocean.
Because when I was little Asbury Park still had a functioning amusement park (I loved the tilt-a-whirl and spinning teacups), and I’ve been to Seaside Heights more than once.
Because I remember walking up and down the piers of the Atlantic Highlands yacht harbor before going to my cousin’s diner for rice pudding.
Because Sandy Hook, and Fort Hancock (which is out on the Hook) are among my favorite placed on earth, and I have played in the bunkers, and climbed the lighthouse, and built sand castles and learned to swim in the salty blue ocean off those beaches.
Because I have family and friends, and friends who may as well be family who have spent the last week and a half bailing water out of their houses, not having heat, not having power, not having working water, because of Sandy, and now today’s snowstorm has some of them without power again.

Because even though I’ve lived in Colorado, California, South Dakota, California (again), and Texas, at heart I am, and always will be, a Jersey Girl, and Monmouth County will always be my truest home.

After the storm, I went out to Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, searching for images of the places I knew best, the places I loved, and the entry sign at the top of this post is just one of the images I found. It led me to the National Park Service’s Facebook Page for the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway Park Service (Sandy Hook, NJ; Jamaica Bay & Staten Island, NY) and there, I found images of Sandy Hook and Fort Hancock post-Hurricane Sandy.

The beaches are trashed. The parking lots are in disarray. The beach pavillions took serious damage. But the lighthouse still stands, the old houses of Officer’s Row are still there, the Coast Guard dock survived, and even though they’re technically off-limits and covered in poison ivy, future kids will still play in the old bunkers.

Sandy Hook Lives.
And New Jersey is small, but strong.

Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches

There are some flavors that you meet in life and just completely hate. There are others that, even if they seem weird to others, are family traditions.

Two of mine are peanut butter and banana sandwiches, which my grandmother introduced me to as a child, and liverwurst and cream cheese, which was a culinary treat from my grandfather.

Today was a peanut butter and banana kind of day – I woke with a headache and was a bit hung over from having to take migraine medicine the night before, and then, in the middle of the night, having to chase THAT with an anti-nausea pill. When I finally slept it was fitful so I was cross and bleary, as well.

So I sought solace in comfort food.

I toasted multi-grain bread and slathered it in organic peanut-butter.
I sliced ripe banana onto the peanut buttered bread.
I drizzled a hint of honey over it.
And then I put the sandwich together, and cut it into quarters.

Because I was craving it, I had the sandwich with a glass of cold, non-fat organic milk.

It was delicious.
It was comforting.
It made me miss my grandmother.

She was born on September 21, 1914.
She would have been 98 years old today.

But in a sense, she’s always with me – in the fresh flowers I always have, in the way I sing when I’m working in the house, in the way I always set our dining table correctly, even though it’s just me and Fuzzy, and in my love of written letters and proper thank-you notes.

And if a little peanut butter and some mushy fruit can bring all that back, I think I’m very lucky.

Kitchen Tables

Some of the best moments of my life have taken place with a mug of coffee or tea in my hand and my elbows propped on a kitchen table. The table I remember most vividly from childhood is my grandmother’s. I think I was twenty-one before I ever saw it without some kind of table cloth on it, but I remember that it seemed huge, even when the expansion leaves weren’t in place, and that no matter the number of people who showed up, there was never “not enough room.”

DrinkingCoffee400 from iStockPhoto.com

Summers of my childhood included so many gatherings around that table – breakfast served by my grandfather, who made the perfect poached eggs, the best cream of wheat, and used to sing “Sweet Adeline” while he cooked. Afternoons were punctuated by my grandmother’s need for “a little something,” often an Entenmann’s coffee cake, but sometimes just a Stella D’oro anisette toast cookie (like a sponge biscotti, laced with anise). That’s when cousins would drop by – my grandmother’s niece Ginny, born 31 years before me on the same day (she called me her birthday girl til the day she died), or her daughter, my cousin Cathy, who is the closest thing I ever had to an older sister.

Evenings would involve grilled burgers, slices of Jersey tomatoes, corn on the cob, and baked potatoes wrapped in foil. Sometimes there would be cousins, sometimes the friends who are really non-biological family – they know who they are. Conversation would rise and fall, kids would share the bench from the foyer, jammed into the far corner of the room, at the curve of the table, or sit on the piano stool (and be forbidden to spin it, though we all wanted to).

But that was years ago.

This morning, the kitchen table around which people gathered was mine, and instead of cousins and friends who’ve known me since before I was born, it was newer friends – two women who are part of my chosen family here in Texas, and one of their mothers. I served strong Caribou Obsidian blend coffee, and homemade banana nut bread and we spent a pleasant morning talking and laughing.

At one point, early in the visit, one of my friends said, “Sitting here at this table with a cup of coffee is like coming home.”

It’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid.

Do You Remember…?

I have a long memory that is at some times vague and at others very specific.

My earliest specific memory is from when I was two or younger, and involves my grandmother’s back door, with the gauzy translucent curtain that veiled (but did not completely obstruct) the view through the heavy glass of the door, and their black dog, Misty. There are no details, beyond the presence of the dog, the fact that the door was closed. I think she may have wanted to go out, but I was far too little to even reach the doorknob.

It is somehow appropriate that I remember this dog in soft focus, as she was to fade from life before I really had memories of interaction before.

I wonder if I was born a “dog person” or made one, later. I’ve always responded more to canine pets, even before cats began to make me sneeze.