Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Worst Week of the Year

We came to Chicago after my husband graduated from architecture school so that he could begin his career. We had spent three years in Virginia, enjoying Charlottesville and the opportunity to live near my family when our daughter was small. Chicago represented a complete change of environment and plenty of challenges, but we started settling in.

Two months after we moved to Chicago, our second daughter was born. She lived only two days. Suddenly everything was different. I had no family here. My good friend Peg (from my St. Andrews days) was the only person I already knew in town, although we had discovered a lovely next door neighbor and were beginning to meet folks at church. My sister flew in right after our daughter's birth and was with me from then on, which meant that our older daughter had her 'second mother' to comfort her, but I had to stay in the hospital for a week before I could come home. My husband, daughter, and sister took our baby to downstate Illinois for her burial in the Bess family plot in Fairbury.

Some of you may have had a similar tragedy and will understand the dark, dark place that results. I won't dwell on those weeks and months after I came home from the hospital. All the bright hopes and promise of moving to a new city and starting an exciting new chapter in our lives dimmed and diminished. That winter seemed endless and sad.

Over thirty years have passed since her birth, short life, and death. Many blessings have come to me in that time, and much happiness. Yet, my daughter has never left me. I talk with her every now and then, in good times and bad, and I know she would love her niece and nephew. I taught girls her age when I was at Mother Guerin High in Chicago, and I have never been surprised that the class of 1999 is as dear to me as if they were my own daughters, because she would have been their age. Generally, I do okay.

The week of September 16th, however, is the worst week of the year for me. Regardless of where I am or what I am doing, the events of those three days are constantly playing in my heart and mind. I relive every moment. I welcome her and sit beside her in the NICU and hold her hand as I watch her die. This is just a very hard week for me. It's especially tough if I am at home by myself.

So this year, since my husband was out of town with his students, I decided to drive home to Virginia and spend these days with my sister and brother. As I walked into my sister's kitchen, I glanced at her calendar and saw that she already had written down my daughter's birthday. She never forgets, either.

I had a good visit, saw some dear friends, hung out with my sister and brother, and if I had sad moments, well, I was not alone.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Curry Powder

My mother cooked simple, straightforward, nourishing food. She didn't particularly like cooking, but she faithfully insured that we had meat/fish, veggies, and a starch at most evening meals. I believe that in the early days of her marriage, she studied her Good Housekeeping cookbook religiously. We certainly benefited from her care and her ability to provide variety in our food over the years. Thanks to her studies of that cookbook, we learned to love spare ribs, liver, and all kinds of seafood. Slices of her meatloaf appeared as a staple in my early school lunch sandwiches. I still hold her potato salad as the exemplar of all potato salads, and I despair of ever making gravy as expertly as she did. (How did she learn to make such a perfect roux so effortlessly?? And without knowing what in the world a roux was?) She and her oldest sister, Willie, seem to have intuited the same spaghetti sauce recipe, which I discovered decades after I had married, moved to the Midwest, and had dinner at my aunt's house in Michigan. Mother's vegetable soup will always remain in my family's 'food memory' as another delicious classic. She could also stir up a batch of biscuits in the blink of an eye and never needed to follow a recipe. (I asked her to make biscuits a couple of years before she died, just one more time, but she said she'd forgotten how. Alas.) For someone who regarded cooking as more chore than creative pleasure, Mother was a pretty good cook.

But she never cooked anything with curry powder.

I'm thinking of Mother's cooking today for two reasons. One because last night, while my husband (who doesn't like this meal) was in Chicago, I fixed a lovely batch of liver and onions just for myself. Total indulgence for less than $3.00. It reminded me of so many meals at home. The second reason is that today I am making a crockpot recipe for curried chicken, which has made my house smell mouth-wateringly scrumptious. These aromas never appeared in my mother's kitchen.

Nothing really spicy ever did appear in our kitchen. I remember introducing various seasonings after I had married and would visit my parents and cook for them, but I don't recall my mother ever following recipes that required more than salt, pepper, ham or bacon for greens, and mustard. (Now that I think of it, there must have been a little extra zip in the sauce for those spare ribs so long ago.)

My gastronomic experiences in college truly flung open the door to the delights of different foods, and, though you may not believe it, spending a year in Scotland broadened my food horizon even farther. I lived in a residence hall at the University of St. Andrews, and we all ate together in the dining room every day. I loved cauliflower and cheese. I had never eaten cauliflower at all, so this was a new veggie. I loved 'tatties and neaps', AKA potatoes and turnips. While I had eaten turnip greens quite often, I had never actually had turnips. I had never eaten lamb. My fellow residents, all from the UK, groaned at what they considered pedestrian fare, but I gobbled it up. Who knew that you could put cold peas in a green salad? I mean, really. At breakfast I could eat blood pudding and scrambled eggs and porridge. I even love haggis. (True.)

I first discovered curries in that dining hall. Not adventurous, super spicy, eye-wateringly hot curries, but curries nonetheless, matching up ingredients that I had never imagined. Wow. I looked forward to the meals that featured curry. So exotic to someone raised in southeastern Virginia and so very delicious. (I visited London on several occasions and we ate Indian food several times there, too.)

Of course, when I returned home, I wanted all my favorite homey foods and put curries out of my mind for awhile. I then spent a year working at Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions, and was delighted to meet several scholars and their families from India. They plied me with an even broader array of wonderful food. When we moved to Chicago, I lived near the area heavily populated by folks from South Asia. Curries again! And I began to use curry powder in my own cooking. My culminating experience occurred in the summer of 2001, when I actually spent six weeks in India, enjoying just about every new dish I ate.

I never tried to introduce either of my parents to curries. I never sneaked curry powder into any dish just to see 'how they liked it'. I'm not sure my mother had ever even heard of curry, as a matter of fact. But she is responsible for the breadth of my culinary tastes.

Mother's cooking demonstrated how delicious good, plain, wholesome food could be, and that formed the foundation of my own cooking skills. More importantly, Mother's determination not only to send me to college but also to send me off to Europe for a year, to open windows to a world that she knew would enrich me, provided me with experiences and adventures that shape who I am to this very day.

That means Mother introduced me to curry powder after all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How Did Halloween Become So Popular?

Reading email today, I saw advertising from a children's clothing site touting Halloween costumes. The basic message told me that I needed these costumes so that my grandchildren would sport the most memorable and cutest costumes for Halloween. How did Halloween become such a major holiday that I am already supposed to be thinking about costumes for 2-year-olds who don't attend school?

I am not a Halloween Grinch by any means. (My high school's colors were orange and black, so I am predisposed to enjoy the color themes.) My sister and brother and I went trick-or-treating every year and always wore costumes. But we generally put our costumes together the day before, and certainly no earlier than the week before. We have been known to raid the linen closet for the oldest sheets in order to be ghosts (an always-reliable idea). In fact, I recall re-using one or two costumes for several successive years. And, of course, all that ended when we finished eighth grade.

With my own children, I kept things very low-key for Halloween. Before my oldest started kindergarten, I solved her need for costumes plus the need for very warm outer garments by cutting head and arm  holes in a black plastic garbage bag to wear over winter coats and putting a black witch's hat on her head. Nice enough. Generally, every other costume somehow fell together in the hours before we headed out for candy.

I do confess that I spent extra effort on two special costumes. Once, I sewed Star Trek officers' shirts, and once I fabricated an outstanding Tin Man costume for my youngest to wear to kindergarten. In fact, I think that was for the same Halloween, probably spurred on by my friend's (and landlord's) exquisitely-crafted furry bear costume for her son (my godson).

I don't, however, remember Halloween parties everywhere I looked, whether as a child or an adult, or seasonal stores dedicated solely to Halloween costumes and paraphernalia. Halloween was just a little blip on the radar between the beginning of school and Thanksgiving. Hardly a multi-million-dollar industry.

Isn't it just all about the candy, anyway?

That was our motive. We knew we had to wear some kind of costume or the homeowners wouldn't give us any candy. So we dressed up. And we carried brown paper bags to hold the candy. Nothing fancy or complicated that we would have to store somewhere until next year. Who stored decorations for Halloween? The pumpkin didn't last more than a week or two after carving.

During the last few years that my sons were eligible for trick-or-treating, we even ditched costumes and trick-or-treating altogether. Both of them, contemplating an especially cold, wet, and miserable Halloween evening, told me that if I would just go out and buy some bags of their favorite candy the next day, we could all stay inside and relax. That's what we did, and that's how Halloween finished up for us a couple of years later.

My sister has a dear friend whose favorite 'holiday' is Halloween. I think it's an endearing quirk, but I don't understand the appeal. There's not really anything substantial to Halloween. Really. Why has it become such a compelling celebration in the US? And, honestly, what are we celebrating?