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A Little of This, A Little of That

“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”—Thomas Keller

As the temperatures drop (That is going to happen, right? Summer is going to end? Eventually?), my thoughts turn to comfort food. Something to keep my belly warm and satisfied. Many dishes from my childhood fall under the umbrella of “comfort food,” but one I keep returning to is my grandmother’s cornbread.

There was almost always a pan of cornbread to be found at Grandmother’s house. If it wasn’t just out of the oven and sitting on the stove to cool, it was already sliced and stored in individual, foldover sandwich bags on the counter ready for someone to grab and add to their meal, or have as a snack. To this day, it is not unusual for me to find myself sitting at the wooden table that is situated in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen, eating a slice of cornbread as she pads around the small space, offering up every foodstuff she has at her disposal.

“You hungry? Let me warm up some of these beans for you. How about some vegetable soup? Can I slice up a tomato for you? They’re real good with some salt. Just right. Mary brought me a cake yesterday, let’s have us a little bite of it. It’ll be good with some coffee. I’ll put a pot on. I bet those girls will want a Little Debbie. Let me get ‘em down for you.”

 Y’all, my grandmother has a whole cabinet of just Little Debbies. My memories and thoughts about that cabinet could be a story all on its own. Maybe one day I’ll get around to telling it. For now, suffice it to say that my grandmother, at 90 years old, has a heart of gold and a focused, solitary purpose to feed her people, through their bellies and their souls.

“Sit down!” I say. “I’m really not even hungry, I just want to visit for a minute.”

 The kids basically have their entire upper bodies in the Little Debbie cabinet, and I’m hoping they’re going to choose something that I’ll want a teeny bite of and can later pretend I didn’t actually ingest. I’m still not hungry, but we all know that hunger is not a prerequisite for what is arguably America’s best snack cake.

All the family members and friends that pass through this small, wooden box of a kitchen get the same special treatment. We also get the same cornbread, even though each person enjoys it a little differently. One of my uncles prefers it crumbled in a bowl of cold milk. My cousin wants it drizzled with honey. My mom likes to find the crunchy pieces along the edges of the pan. My personal favorite is to have it when it’s hot out of the oven. I want it cut in a triangular piece, like pie, then sliced lengthwise, so that the middle can be smothered in butter that melts down into the bread and drips out of the sides.

So maybe it’s not the healthiest choice I could make, but it sure is delicious.

The cornbread might be consumed in many different ways, but it is always, always served up in a cast iron skillet. Grandmother had several of these pans, in various sizes, shapes, and ages. She recently started thinning out her collection and gave a few of her pans away. My sister and I are both recent recipients of one of Grandmother’s cast iron skillets.

When she first gave it to me, I admittedly didn’t know what to do with it. It looked like a clunky relic stacked in my cabinet among the many smooth and shiny non-stick pots and pans. Since all I’d ever seen cast iron used for was cornbread, I sort of had the idea that maybe that was all anyone ever made in it! I’m not much of a cook, and I consume carbs sparingly, so whipping up a pan of cornbread wasn’t really a priority. But when my sister brought a pan of heavenly skillet brownies to a family get-together (totally worth the carb count, by the way), it opened my eyes to the idea that the cast iron skillet might be capable of more, much more.

The benefits of cast-iron cooking are pretty considerable. In an era when many of us are trying to eat clean and return to a more natural way of preparing food, cast iron is right in line with this movement. Cast iron is a naturally non-stick material and needs minimal cleaning. The material is basically indestructible and will last for generations, never needing to be replaced. But if you did need to replace it, it’s an incredibly low-cost choice. A well-made 10” cast iron skillet should only set you back about $30.

As long as you give it enough time to heat up, cast iron cooks very evenly, and can go from stovetop to oven and back again. Just be sure to use a hot pad to transfer it, because nothing puts a damper on a loving family meal quite like 3rd-degree burns. A cast iron skillet can even improve your health because it actually adds safe amounts of iron to your food. Many of us have iron deficiencies, but last time I checked, no one is suffering from lack of Teflon in their diet!

Another benefit of the cast-iron skillet, and I haven’t tested this out just yet, is that this thing would be an excellent weapon, should you ever find yourself in a situation that you need to knock someone out, or defend yourself against a rabid animal that has wandered into your kitchen. The pan I have is heavy as all get-out, which is about the only negative I can find when it comes to cast iron cookware. When I think of skillets, I have a vision of a pioneer woman with a skillet held overhead, chasing a man around a campfire to teach him a lesson about something offensive he’s done. All I have to say is that pioneer woman is way more woman than I am because I don’t think I could make it one trip around that campfire before my arms turned to jelly and I dropped the darn pan on my own head. Seriously, they should add a cast iron skillet to the Workout of the Day at CrossFit.

When my grandmother gave me her skillet, she handed it over and said, “I’ve already seasoned it for you,” a comment that scared me a little bit. “Great,” I thought. “Something else for me to do.” It is true that cast iron needs to be regularly seasoned to retain its non-stick properties. But the seasoning process doesn’t have to be evocative of Martha Stewart with a jar of naturally derived animal fat, massaging a skillet and then placing it on a spit she constructed over a fire in her backyard. Really, all you have to do is wipe the skillet out when you’re finished cooking, then, using a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil, wipe it down once more and put it away. Done. You’re seasoned and ready to go for the next use.

With my initial reservations of cooking with cast iron a thing of the past, I was ready to create my own cornbread tradition with my family. I asked my grandmother if she would mind sharing her cornbread recipe with me. She looked at me, and then set her gaze on a point in the distance. I wondered for a minute if she maybe didn’t want to share the recipe with me, but that’s not really her style. She would give me the slippers off her feet if I complimented them, so I knew she wouldn’t be a hold out on a recipe. While she paused, I asked, “Is it one of those things that you’ve been making for so long you don’t really have a recipe? Do you just sort of eyeball everything you put in there and maybe don’t know exactly how much of what goes in?” Remember, I’m no cook, but I’ve heard that there are people who can do this. They just know what ingredients to use, and how much to mix in, and how long it needs to cook. It all seems like magic to me, a person who needs a recipe to boil noodles.

“Well, no… It’s not that,” her words trail off a bit. “I just get the recipe off the back of the bag of the cornmeal.”

 Well, how do you like that? A constant element of some of my most special moments with my grandmother is just out there for the taking for anyone who picks up a bag of White Lily cornmeal. Who knew?

But don’t you think for one minute that I believe that cornbread is created solely from a rote recipe found on any grocery store shelf. The recipe on that package is missing some key ingredients. The smooth wooden table. The sound of the furnace rumbling in the hallway as it tries to keep up with the high temperature set on the thermostat. The window above the sink that looks out onto the sloping backyard and my grandfather’s barn. My grandmother’s hands, opening cabinets and rooting around in the refrigerator (which she calls “the icebox”) so she can feed us more. The phone that she lets ring because she doesn’t want to interrupt even one minute of our visit.

A little of this, and a little of that. It all adds up to something I’ll never be able to recreate, but I’ll also never forget.

If you’re interested, I did actually come up with a cornbread recipe that seemed to please my crowd of picky eaters. After they each found their own personal tweak, of course. 

Skillet Cornbread pdf

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Find Your Merry

“May the day be the bowl of cherriest; And to all, the Merriest!” –June Christy, singing “The Merriest”

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Is it? That’s the message that gets shoved in our faces at every turn before we can even put away our Halloween candy. But by the time December arrives, things are feeling a little less than “wonderful.”

What is “wonderful” about madly dashing from one get-together to another? Arriving in a full-on sweat, watching the clock to make sure we make it on time to the next party, or to relieve the babysitter, or just figuring up how many hours of sleep we can get if we leave right now? I suppose there’s quite a bit of “wonder”-ing involved in the process of figuring out what to wear to an event described as “Christmas Casual,” or “Festive Attire.” And while all the heavy foods, drinks, and tempting sweets are incredibly “wonderful” the moment they hit our lips, the headaches and extra pounds they leave behind are certainly less than desirable. And what about the gifting? I would estimate about half of my gift list is enjoyable, but the other half is admittedly out of duty or given to people for whom I have absolutely no idea what they may want or need. Another holiday activity I’m 50/50 on? Christmas cards. I love having a great picture of my kids to share, but the arduous process of locking down the perfect photo can be downright painful. I have so much fun combing the web for all the different design options for the card, but panic sets in when I have to commit to the one that will be ours. I get so excited when I go to the mailbox and find holiday greetings from our family and friends, but I feel a distinctly Grinchy sense of dread when I look at the box holding my own unaddressed cards, waiting for my late night undivided attention.

Some holiday activities start out as “wonderful,” then take a hairpin turn into woeful. Take, for example, holiday decorating. For me, decorating anything is a painful process. Bookshelves, bulletin boards, cookies, console tables, even trying to pick out a necklace to go with an outfit is a journey of intense indecision for me. I can look at the placement of objects for hours, wondering if it’s just right or blatantly wrong. So, the task of adorning my home to make it festive for approximately just a month and a half is, well, maybe not the most wonderful time of the year for me.

Each year I start out full of joy and positivity. I don’t do my decorating until after Thanksgiving, so by then I’ve had time to look at scores of catalogs that have landed in my mailbox, making holiday decorating look fun and easy, and most likely completed by Santa’s very own elves. Just a few weeks ago, I captivated an audience of ladies at my daughter’s ballet practice by telling them all about my plans to purchase an all-white Christmas tree and decorate it with shiny ornaments and multi-colored blinking lights. Sure, it might sound tacky, but I saw it in a catalog, and it looked so fun! So easy! So festive! Everyone thought it was a fabulous idea. No one had any advice on where I could find an elf to bring my catalog idea to life. Fast forward a couple more weeks. The Christmas card pictures were snapped, scrutinized, and selected. Thanksgiving was planned, prepared, and consumed. An 8-year-old’s birthday party was hosted and (barely) survived. The Clemson vs. Carolina game was endured. The decorating was next on the list. *sigh*

So, as I’ve done in every year past, I trudged up to the attic and opened the oddly shaped little door that leads to the dungeon where unnecessary things go to finish out their useless lives. There, my gaze settled on scores of boxes and bags of merry and bright STUFF that would all have to be carried downstairs, unpacked, placed, then their boxes returned to the upstairs dungeon. All to be enjoyed for just a few weeks, when the entire process would then have to be reversed. *sigh*

It took almost 2 days and 427 heavy sighs for me to sprinkle holiday cheer around my home. Garlands and wreaths were hung and fluffed (and cursed). Ladders were climbed and dismounted. Three pre-lit trees were assembled and adorned. One had zero working lights. One had a random section of lights that were burned out, which required me to manhandle the entire tree to turn the offending section to the wall. The last tree, the biggest one, didn’t let me down until we added on the last section. I was proud of the way I held my composure up until the moment I had to snake an extension cord from the top of my pricey pre-lit tree down to the floor. The top section needed to be plugged into the timer that I’d carefully set up to provide us with automatic sparkly merriment from the hours of 3:30 to 11:30pm. Like some sort of Christmas Marine, with my belly on the floor and greenery snagging my hair while I dragged myself by the forearms towards the outlet, I searched for the carefully hidden extension cord. I found it and went to connect it to the timer so I could survey my twinkly masterpiece. This was when I discovered that the timer only had one outlet. An outlet that was already occupied by the cord supplying power to the rest of the tree. If I wanted scheduled sparkly merriment, my only choice was to start over with a new timer. *cue cursing and kicking under the tree*

angry elf

And that is the story of how I started drinking wine at 2:00 on a Sunday.

And this is the start of the story of how I turned it all around. The timer dilemma is actually a rather small event in my storehouse of holiday snafus. One year, half the lights went out on the tree after it had been fully decorated. I was planning to just slap a bunch of extra lights on it, but after a closer examination, I noticed that I’d put the sections together in the wrong order. The whole thing had to be disassembled and reassembled AND extra lights strung. Incidentally, that tree ended up at the dump the day after Christmas. One year, the entire tree fell over approximately one hour after the decorating was complete. That tree ended up on the curb, along with dozens of shattered special ornaments. And what about the year that I dragged our little family onto an odyssey to capture the Christmas card photo, only to arrive at the destination and realize that I’d forgotten to pack the camera? That was a long time ago, as in, before the days that phones had cameras. We don’t really talk about that, actually.

So, in the midst of all this drama and these less-than-wonderful duties, where can we find our merriment? For me, it’s not surprising that I find my merry in a song. After I shimmied myself out from under my half-lit tree, located a new timer (and, yes, a glass of wine), and got my corner of the living room sparkling bright, I turned on a little mood music to carry me through the final stages of decorating. I stood back and surveyed roughly 500 pretty little lights and all the boxes of ornaments that were about to escape their exile to get their chance to shine when I heard the first strains of the song that would usher in the official start of the holiday season for me.

“I-I-I don’t want a lot for Christmas…

 “There is just one thing I-I-I need…”

 Y’all, I don’t care what kind of diva-like behavior she displays, Mariah Carey is an angel. She could rob a bank in broad daylight wearing a full-sequined Dynasty-esque dress, carrying a Chihuahua, and when she went on trial, the attorneys would play “All I Want for Christmas” as Exhibit A, and all charges would immediately be dropped.

mariah-carey-macys-1024-2

But maybe that’s just me.

Christmas music, when used in moderation, can cure many holiday ills. I’ve seen it firsthand! In the interest of spreading merriment, and because I can’t buy you all a present individually, I made you a mixtape. Enjoy responsibly.

Jingle All the Way Playlist (get it here on Amazon Music)

“All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey. Because the song is magic.

“Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” by Michael Buble. Because it’s a law that every holiday must include some Michael Buble.

“Run Run Rudolph” by Kelly Clarkson. Because she completely rocks this song.

“Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley. Because he’s the King.

“The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole. Because of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, duh.

“Cool Yule” by Louis Armstrong. Because he, and this song, are the epitome of cool.

“Donde Esta Santa Claus” by Augie Rio. Because it’s adorable and catchy and we all need to know more Spanish.

“The Man with the Bag” by Kay Starr. Because if you’re not waiting for the man with the bag, you are the man with the bag.

“Mele Kalikimaka” by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters. Because we can all empathize with Clark Griswold and his swimming pool dreams.

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Blake Shelton & Miranda Lambert. Because your family drama doesn’t seem so bad when you compare it to hearing yourself on the radio singing Christmas carols with your ex. Ummm, awkward.

“Merry Christmas Baby” by Lou Rawls. Because “got me some good music on the radio…”

“Jingle Bells” by James Taylor. Because it’s funny to watch people sing along to a song they think they know, but it’s arranged completely differently.

“My Favorite Things” by Tony Bennett. Because Tony Bennett is a national treasure.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by The Temptations. Because once you get past the first 15 seconds, your whole family will be singing along.

“Please Come Home for Christmas” by the Eagles. Because sometimes Christmas is sad and it makes us miss our people.

“Sleigh Ride” by Harry Connick, Jr. Because you gotta bring the party back up after those Eagles made you sad.

“Christmas in Hollis” by RUN-DMC. Because the lyrics are actually family friendly and you also want to know who’s really listening to your playlist (hint: they’re looking pensive and saying, “Wait, is that…RUN-DMC??”)

“What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder. Because it’s happy and has the right message.

“Winter Wonderland” by Aretha Franklin. Because, in true Aretha fashion, she hits it hard from the first “Sleigh Bells RING.” Oh, I’m listening, Aretha. Bring it.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Ella Fitzgerald. Because that’s what I want for you.

A holiday full of merriment and quality time spent with those precious people that you love and enjoy, free of stress and pressure and unrealistic expectations. It’s a tall order and will take nothing short of a miracle to achieve. But it just so happens that this is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and miracles abound if you just open your eyes.

 

 

Let’s Be Adults About This

Being an adult isn’t a matter of age. It’s a matter of responsibility.” –Jonathan Howard

For millions of Millennials, “adulting” is trending. Or maybe it isn’t anymore. I’ve been an adult for so long now that I’ve missed the novelty in regularly announcing my proficiency in being a capable and marginally responsible citizen. But apparently, Kids These Days (also known as “Millennials”) saw a need for a hip way to complain about the tragically un-hip, mundane tasks of ordinary life like paying bills, working a full-time job, or maintaining a vehicle. Enter #adulting to the rescue.

Example: “Feeling so ick. Probably should go to doc, but my mom says I have to call and make my own appointment. What the what? UGH. I hate #adulting.”

 Or: “So, you guys, that Check Engine light thing is totes for realsies. #needaride #adultingistheworst”

 Or this one: “It’s Saturday and I’m gettin’ my grocery on! Feeling so accomplished! #adultingonthedaily”

 As a long-time, card-carrying adult, I get a little annoyed by all the fuss made over people just doing what they’re supposed to do. What’s next? Participation trophies for taking out the trash? If so, I’d better clear some space for the motherlode of awards headed my way, because I am the adultiest of adults. I pay the bills on time. I clean out the refrigerator regularly. I make all my people go to the bathroom before leaving the house. I carry a light sweater in case it’s chilly. I use the word “chilly.” I have ibuprofen and lip balm at the ready at all times. For heaven’s sake, I own a garlic press. AND I USE IT. Basically, I could give a TED Talk about adulting. But I won’t because I am too busy, you know, adulting.

The irony of the term “adulting” is that the person using it is likely only scratching the surface of what adulthood really means. Which got me thinking, how does one legitimately earn adult status? Is it turning 18? 21? I don’t think so. I know plenty of 40-year-olds who have miles to go before reaching adulthood. Maybe it’s when you get the boot from your parent’s insurance plan. When you leave college, do you just automatically enter adulthood? Or does your adult card get punched when you send in that first income tax return?

After careful thought and reflection while organizing my garage this weekend (a super-adult-y activity), I’ve come to the conclusion that adulthood is a milestone reached by repeated successful completion of grudging tasks that are necessary for living a productive and hygienic life, and that generally receive no recognition whatsoever. If that last sentence was confusing to you, all it means is that being an adult is complicated, and just spending one Saturday afternoon paying bills doesn’t make you one.

One thing for sure is that once you’ve crossed over into adulthood, it’s nearly impossible to come back. You’re just in too deep. There are many experiences, large and small, memorable and forgettable that eventually earn you the rights and burdens of adulthood. For some people, adulthood is achieved on the 455th morning that they sit in the parking lot of their job, looking at the door, taking a deep breath and saying, “You have to do this. You have to go in there. Again.” For others, they know they’re an adult when they’d rather turn in early on Saturday night because they don’t want Sunday to be a total wash. It’s different for all of us.

As for me, I owe my adulthood status to a rat. I don’t like giving that much credit to a lowly rat, but I’m an adult, and I give credit where credit is due, so there you go. That fact of the matter is, only a real adult can handle a rat and live to tell that tale, without shame. Fellow adults can empathize with me here without judgment.

Do you have a dwelling for which you are solely responsible? Congratulations. You now have problems for the rest of your life. A rat will be one of many excruciating headaches you will encounter. Rats and headaches and dwellings are all very adult-y. You’re well on the way to earning your first adulting trophy.

Dealing with a rat can also earn you a badge in adult problem-solving. Your problem starts innocently enough. You might notice a jagged hole torn into your bag of $12.99/lb organic almonds. Maybe you yell at your husband that he shouldn’t tear into the snacks like some sort of rabid animal. Perhaps he snips back that he didn’t do it because what sort of wacko wants to eat raw, unsalted almonds anyway, and how much did you say those cost?? There’s a chance that when you hold up the vandalized package as evidence you notice an unusual amount of small, dark…crumbs? Those are crumbs, right? Right?

Ummm, no. Those are not crumbs. And those almonds need to go in the trash because, friend, you’ve got yourself a RAT. Not a mouse. A RAT. You see, a mouse runs through mazes while smart people in white coats write things down. A mouse sings and dances and cons you into handing over a month of your salary in exchange for 5 sleepless days in Florida. A RAT exists only to eat your food, leave droppings, and possibly kill you with the plague.

The good news is, you’ve identified the problem. Level complete! Now you need to articulate the problem and accept it. At my house, this usually involves profanity and rage cleaning. Cursing while cleaning is a very adult thing to do. Gold star.

Once you’ve accepted the fact that you’ve been unknowingly sharing your living quarters with plague-carrying vermin, it’s time to solve your problem and serve some eviction notices. An adult steadfastly defends her castle (and the almonds contained within it).

I still remember the first rat I battled. I called my mom to see what I should do. I was not an adult yet. I thought I was, but I obviously still had things to learn because I didn’t take her advice immediately. Mom offered to give me a few traps that she had for just this problem. Oh, no thank you, I said. Surely rat management had come a long way from the old days of using traps. Certainly, there was a better way. If not more humane, at least less visibly barbaric, right? Right?

Ummm, no. True, rodent extermination options are more varied now than in the days of The Pied Piper, but as with most unpleasant duties, in this case the simplest method is the most effective. In my experience, an old-school mousetrap is the way to go if you’re not interested in sharing your living quarters with a rat. Sure, you risk breaking a finger or two in the process of setting the darn thing, but that’s the kind of sacrifice a real adult is willing to make. Rats are certainly smarter than you think, but they also can’t resist the allure of a strategically placed glob of peanut butter, even if it’s sitting atop a spring-loaded platform of death. Be an adult and don’t lose your nerve here. When you start getting all soft-hearted and feeling bad about trapping the rodent, just remember that this uninvited guest has been frolicking like a schoolgirl across your food in the middle of the night, carrying disease on its tiny feet and laughing at you while it leaves souvenirs of bubonic plague confetti. The rat shows you no mercy, so don’t return the favor by being all ethical and civilized.

I am not ashamed of my truth. I fought the rat, and I WON. I am now supremely confident in my status as a bona fide adult. And for any rats out there who think they can help themselves to my almonds, BRING IT. We’re all adults here–and adults don’t play. #adultswin

 

 

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