BUT ANYONE COULD DO IT … Marilyn Armstrong

We all have friends who do stuff we can’t do.

They make a perfect pie crust and the filling is great, too. They build and refinish their furniture. They tune the car and rewire the basement on Saturday afternoon and still have time to make dinner for company.

You love them, with just a hint of hate because they can do it all and you can barely drag yourself out of bed, brush your hair, and have coffee before mid-afternoon.

They do a little painting, a bit of carving. Frame their own pictures. Repair anything that breaks. They are never worried about anything because they know exactly what to do.

apple pie

These are the woman who breezily raises two children after dad leaves while working full-time and never do they seem overwhelmed or even tired. The men build corporations, sell them, build another one — and don’t know why you can’t do the same.

It’s so easy.

They throw great dinner parties and the food is delicious. The dishes match or are charmingly casual yet coördinated to look casual in a fashion magazine sort of way. But you know they are supposed to look that way and no matter how hard you try, your version of “casual” just looks … well … casual.

Because that look takes work and an “eye.” It’s an art form.

stove and kitchen counter

When you ask about that wonderful pie crust, they say “Oh, it’s nothing. Just a bit of butter and flour. A bit of sugar. Cut everything up with a couple of butter knives, roll it out, and there you are.” If you are lucky, you get a demonstration and it does look easy.

You go home, get all the ingredients together and give it a try. Which results in an unusable lump of muck which ultimately, you toss in the trash.

After which you buy a pie crust or better yet, buy the whole pie. Because it isn’t so easy. Not for you, anyway.

Modest, humble people who do brilliant stuff about which they are completely offhand. They seem baffled why you would think any of it is a big deal. Apparently, it isn’t. To them.

To you, it would be a minor miracle if you could accomplish one little piece of it. Yet they will always say “But it’s so easy. Anyone could do it.”

Anyone except me. I can’t do it.

EASTER AND PASSOVER: JOINED AT THE HIP – Marilyn Armstrong

RDP Saturday: EGG

Last night, I made French toast — pain perdu — for dinner. I don’t know how they serve it in France, but here, it gets served with bacon on the side and real, Vermont maple syrup on top.

It is delicious and more like dessert than dinner.

Dinner or breakfast, it’s delicious

Over the years, eggs have been good for you, bad for you, terrible for you, good for you, excellent for you … and here in New England, brown ones are supposed to be healthier than white ones. I have no idea if there’s any truth to that because I always buy the cheapest eggs I can, but always large ones because one day I came home with medium-sized eggs and my granddaughter refused to even speak to me.

My Easter eggs never looked this good!

She really loved eggs and she though buying small eggs was cruel and unusual breakfast.

A very modern Seder plate
It can also be pretty funny

This week is Passover and Easter. They always come at the same time because “The Last Supper” was a Seder during Passover, so this is one of those times when Christians have to examine (if they think about it and I’m pretty sure most of them don’t) their Jewish roots. There are hard-boiled eggs on the Passover table too, by the way. Just so you know, this is a very eggy week.

A Seder table – More work than you ever imagined for a single meal!

Personally, I ignore warnings about eggs. I don’t eat them every day and never did. Also, I figure a house that has eggs and bread will never be hungry.

The eggs of the bunny?

Happy whatever you celebrate and happy whatever you do not celebrate. And enjoy your eggs. I add a hint of vanilla extract to the beaten eggs and it definitely adds a certain “Je ne sais quoi” to the French toast.

Oh, almost forgot: I shake a LOT of cinnamon on the bread as it is frying. How wrong can you go with vanilla, cinnamon, and maple syrup?

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LITTLE VICTORIES – Marilyn Armstrong

Last night, dinner was perfect. I cook dinner every night except for the few when we are away from home, order in, or actually go out to dinner. Not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time pondering what to cook.

When we lived in Boston, we ate out. A lot. There were so many good places to eat, too. A lot of our choices took us down to the wharf where they had some great places for fish and lobster and clams. A lot of them were shorts and sandals kinds of places and some of these rather rough little restaurants had the best seafood you could imagine.

Dinner, anyone?

Then came The Big Dig. Between the construction which seemed to have closed every street in Boston and turned the usually difficult traffic into a calamity, those restaurants disappeared. Some of them reopened in other places in the city. They kept the same name, but they weren’t the same restaurants. They got fancy. All the effort that had previously gone into creating great food now went into dining room decor.

We left Boston. Of the many things we never imagined we’d miss was food.

The Blackstone Valley has its wonders. A beautiful place … with such pathetic restaurants. It must be something about we the people. Food is drab. No spices. Anything stronger than salt is regarded with deep suspicion, so bland is the name of the game. When anyone asks what we’ve got in the way of dining, I say “white bread and brown gravy.” But that’s not fair. A few places also make really good hamburgers.

We stopped going out to dinner except for very special occasions. I’m pretty sure there were better restaurants some years back, but they closed down. So we eat at home and periodically, we develop an intense boredom with food. It isn’t lack of appetite, though we don’t eat as much as we used to. It’s more that I can’t think of one more way to make chicken that doesn’t seem drab.

My goal in home food preparation is to keep feeding us without boring us into starvation.

Last night, I made “breakfast for dinner.” We don’t eat breakfast. We have coffee. I have an English muffin too. Garry just drinks a lot of coffee. Sandwiches suffice for lunch. This week, we’ve had chili, one of my standards. Sweet-and-sour chicken. Baked salmon. Shrimp with onions and peppers over rice. And frozen pizza.

I had cheese, bacon, and eggs in the fridge. Time to do something with them.

I make bacon in the microwave. Do not judge me. I do not like cleaning grease off half the kitchen after frying bacon, so I have developed a way of cooking it in the microwave that skips most of the grease and still turns out a pretty good platter. Timing has been the major issue, but last night I got it perfect. For 8 slices of bacon, two layers of paper towels on a platter (make sure it is small enough to rotate). Another double layer of towels on top of the raw bacon. Cook at full power for five minutes. Let it sit for a minute or two. Turn it back on for another 2-1/2 minutes at full power. Perfect and not all wrinkly. Chewy, but not raw. Everything was still hot when it got to the plate —  a small miracle in its own right.

Even the cheese omelets were perfect. I was still congratulating myself on dinner as we were going to bed.

This was a little victory, but still, a victory and all mine. A simple dinner in which each piece was as close to perfect as it could make it. Easy to clean up after, too. If I have to spend an hour cleaning up the mess, I feel a lot less victorious.

It’s the small things, you know? Big things can be overwhelming. These days, in a time when there is far too much “big stuff” blowing in the wind, my world is complete if dinner is perfect. Small victories help keep the wheels of life rolling smoothly.

SOMETHING TO GO WITH YOUR COFFEE? – Marilyn Armstrong

Doughnuts are not good for me. Or you. We know that. No matter how you slice and dice it, those yummy fresh-from-the-oven treats are nothing but fat, carbohydrates, and sugar, probably with a dollop of artificial flavoring. But gee golly whiz, there’s nothing like a couple of warm crullers and a freshly brewed cuppa joe on a frosty morning. Or, if you’re me, any morning.

75-downtown-21

I love my morning coffee. Much as I complain about the problems of getting old and being poor, retirement has a few perks. The biggest and most obvious is not having to go to work, not having to put up with the idiocies of bosses who know less about the job than the newest intern and base their impossible demands on a spreadsheet.

The other big perk is time. You don’t have to gulp your coffee in the car on the way to the office. Or drink horrible machine coffee in the office. You can brew your own, sit in a comfortable chair with the morning paper, a book, laptop or tablet and savor the experience.

Doughnuts are an extension of this top of the morning experience. As tasty as ever, you can enjoy them with your own or boughten coffee. Locally, the coffee and donuts emporium of choice has always been Dunkin Donuts. Unlike Starbucks whose “dark roasted beans” is a code for “burned coffee,” and whose donuts are clearly not fresh, Dunkin Donuts coffee is mm-mm good and the doughnuts are just out of the oven — at least until 3 in the afternoon.

A couple of times over the past year, in a fit of gustatory nostalgia, Garry picked up a small box of donuts from Dunkin’s to ramp up the quality of our morning coffee experience.

The first time I could barely contain my excitement. As I reached for a second forbidden but delicious doughnut, I discovered it was guarded by a militant-looking cockroach of considerable heft. One of the big ones who is obviously daring you to “bring it on.”

I took the whole box of donuts, roach and all, and dumped them in the trash. As far as I know, we don’t have roaches here. We have ants in season (like now, for example). Mosquitoes the size of sparrows and hungrier than sharks. Slugs and beetles of all kinds in the gardens and who knows what in the woods … but no cockroaches. So I fondly hoped this was an aberration. Surely our local Dunkin Donuts was not packaging cockroaches with the doughnuts? Tell me it ain’t so!

 

When Garry asked what happened to the donuts, I made some lame excuse like having knocked them off the counter and the dogs getting to them. Garry is a brave man, but he has two phobias: snakes and cockroaches. Both knock the Semper Fi right out of him. I chose to spare him the trauma.

Operating under the optimistic assumption that Dunkin Donuts wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t include cockroaches with their mouth-watering confections, I encouraged him to pick up a second batch a few weeks later.

I ate a couple of doughnuts. Garry ate a couple of doughnuts. And standing in the box guarding the remaining Boston Creme and Honey Raised, was General Cockroach. I think he had an anti-aircraft weapon strapped to his carapace.

I carried the box and its occupant to the trash. This time, though, I told Garry. He needed to know lest he spontaneously purchases a box of fresh donuts on his way home.

After Garry stopped shivering and muttering “I hate those things,” we agreed we’d take a pass on future purchases from our local emporium. There are plenty of other doughnut shops in town.  In fact, the only shops of which our town has more than enough are hairdressers and doughnut shops.

For some reason, we’ve lost our taste for doughnuts. I don’t think either of us has eaten one since.

Odd, isn’t it?

WIFED OUT – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Paltry

I opened the freezer. It was empty.

Not completely empty. There’s always some kind of stuff in there. Freezer pouches for our next picnic, should we ever take one. Some frozen French fries. A pouch of frozen clams and a packet of minced beef. Miscellaneous English muffins and a loaf of bread.

The refrigerator is a lot more full. Mostly with drinks. Fruit juice, Powerade, Ginger Ale. Potatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, eggs. Lunch meat.

Leftovers for the dogs or what we call “the important food.” So even if we weren’t having company tomorrow, we’d have had to shop today because we had none of the makings of what I humorously call “dinner.” I’ve considered switching to the British style for the evening meal and calling it “Tea,” then serving tea with toast. I don’t think that would go over really big.

I used to like grocery shopping or at least like it a lot more than I do now. Probably I liked it more because I liked cooking more. I can hardly remember liking cooking less than I currently do.

Ironically I am a better cook than I was. I’m faster, neater, very sure-handed and I do not make a mess. But when the time comes to extract myself from whatever I’m doing, regardless of how paltry and meaningless the activity is, I don’t want to.

I’m cooked out. Whatever you can make easily for two people from any food you can readily buy at normal prices in Uxbridge, we’ve eaten it too many times. We are suffering from a serious case of diner’s ennui.

A few months back, I subscribed to Martha Stewart’s Cooking newsletter because I thought maybe it might give me a bright and shiny idea for something to make in the kitchen.

I won’t read the newsletter. I see the word “cook” and instantly delete it. Apparently, I do not want to be stimulated to greater creativity in the kitchen. What I really want is to be excused from cooking. Completely. Permanently.

I’ve been making meals for me and a husband, kids, friends, and family for more than 50 years. From now until forever, I could live on sandwiches and air-fried onion rings and be content.

Sad, but true.

I’m all wifed out.

OPTIONAL SUNDAY – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Optional

After getting up a dozen times this morning to try and convince Bonnie to stop barking — which only something crunchy will accomplish, it would seem — I began to wish I was deaf, too.

Normally when I get up in the morning, I take out something to defrost for dinner but I decided today is optional. I’m not doing squat. I am tired. I’m frustrated. I don’t want to cook dinner, put away laundry, or clean anything.

I’m sure by tomorrow, I’ll manage to get past this, but right now, I am feeling as un-housewifely as I ever have. Am I the last woman of my age who cooks dinner — a hot dinner — every night unless I’m hospitalized? Do other people get a day off sometimes?

Is any woman married to a man who actually recognizes that dirt is not something to be ignored because you-know-who will take care of it, but actually cleans it? Just wondering.

So today in Optional Sunday. I will do as little as I can. I might even go TWO days and option Monday, too. I think I’ll call it “Marilyn’s Weekend.”

EFFORT OR DOING IT THE HARD WAY – Marilyn Armstrong

RDP Saturday: EFFORT

As one of those people who has usually found an “easy” or at least “easier” way to do things, I’ve noticed as the year advanced, there are no more easy ways. The shortcuts don’t seem to work anymore and one is left with effort, or as I call it, doing it the hard way.

Let’s take cooking as an example. Back in the very long ago old days, I threw stuff together and it tasted pretty good, or so everyone said. I used a ton of prepared — cans and packaged — ingredients. That was just fine.

Maybe it’s the quality of prepared food that has degenerated. Or maybe my taste has become more discerning, but I use as little prepared stuff in my cooking as I can manage without getting weird about it. I cook food in the least amount of time I can and make sure to clean as I go to avoid leaving a mess behind, but I cook foods from scratch or very close to it.

I don’t, for example, peel my own tomatoes for sauces or grate the parmesan personally. but I use prepared marinades and breadcrumbs from jars and cans. I’m not a masochist, but I know how it should taste and something “kind of close” doesn’t work for me.

Then there’s reading. I can read very quickly. Not speed-reading, but fast reading. I always could … but eventually, I found that I wasn’t enjoying books when I read them that fast. One of my reasons for listening rather than reading was pacing. A book that is read out loud can’t be hurried. It’s a lot harder to skip a chapter and see what’s coming next. I didn’t know I’d become addicted to narrators and the charms of oral performance, but it’s funny how often you get more (or less) than you intended, isn’t it?

What brings this up? I’m now four books backed up in the review department. People — not just other bloggers, but actual authors — get in touch with me and ask me to review their books and unless it’s a close friend, I say yes. Close friends are a problem because what if I hate it? I can’t say that to someone I really like … so I try to never review a book for someone I really care for unless they are the kind of writer I know is going to give me a good book to read.

Writers are thin-skinned. I don’t care what you say on your blog. We are all thin-skinned about our art, whatever it may be. We put a lot of our souls into our work. We aren’t neutral and we tend to hold grudges. Don’t say you don’t. We all do. It’s hard to not get cranky when someone doesn’t like our book. Or painting. Or sculpture. Or dinner.

And the strangest part of all of this? I don’t remember how to do things any other way.