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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Thoughts on Things: The Way I Am

The way I am is this: I am a creature of habit. I am a lover of routine. The way I am is this: I am a delicate wine, designed to be drunk locally because I do not travel well.


The way I am defies description, as does the way you are. In our attempts to know each other, we are like the six blind men investigating an elephant. One describes her as a sturdy tree trunk because he's touching her leg. Another, holding her tail, describes her as a whip with a brush at the end. Another, stroking her long trunk, describes her as a large snake.


None of the blind men is wrong. Each is accurately describing what he is touching. But not one of them is telling us what an elephant really is.


So I can describe you as a warm and generous person, or her as a quick-silver mind, or him as a person of great depth of feeling. And I might be accurate for each of you, but I would not be complete. I can neither see nor comprehend the myriad other sides to you. We are all as multi-faceted as well-cut diamonds.


The way I am is hard to reveal not only because I am complex but also because I change continually. I can show you the way I am at this moment. Tomorrow I may be different. Yesterday I certainly was.


Perhaps it is my very reliance on routine that holds me together. Without routine my protean parts would fly from my soul like drops of water flying off a spinning umbrella.


So I'll welcome routine. For example, I'll willingly mark the arrival of summer every year by roasting half a ham and making a huge potato salad. We'll sit in the sun on our little deck and eat lazy summer lunches of ham and potato salad for a week to embrace the new season. This is my routine for greeting our Toronto summer.


But wait! That's a lie. I'm telling you the way I once was, the routine I once had. But routines change. It's almost oxymoronic to think of it. If a routine changes, is it still a routine? My routine to welcome summer is now more along the lines of summer vegetables (eggplant, red peppers, tomatoes) grilled on my stove-top ridged grill-pan and dressed with beautifully green Spanish olive oil. I use the nightshades to celebrate the arrival of summer!

I eat nightshades in the bright light of the noon-day sun.


But this is just my current routine. It may change.




The way I am is the way the wind blows.


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor   

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thoughts on Things: Eyebrows

When I was fourteen, I began trying to learn to raise one eyebrow. I'd stand for half an hour at a time in front of the mirror, one hand holding the right brow down while the other hand pushed the left brow up. Hold, relax, then reverse the procedure. My plan was to free up the tight forehead skin between the two brows, so that I could lift either brow at will. This never happened, despite years of practice.


Later, to compensate for my inability to cock a disbelieving eyebrow at pontificators, I married a man who could do it. (That isn't really why I married him. I married Rolly because he and his best friend could whistle the "American Patrol" march in harmony. Whistling was another skill I had failed to perfect.)


As good as Rolly was with the eyebrow, however, he was a piker compared to his mother. Thelma (though I never dared call her that; I just called her "Mrs. Harwell" until the children came and I could relax and call her "grandmother")—Thelma was the best eyebrow-raiser I've ever known. She was a tall, big-boned Tennessee country-woman who had little formal education but who knew how to work hard. She taught me how much I didn't know about keeping house.


A true country cook, Thelma turned out daily breakfasts of biscuit, sausage, eggs, bacon, and toast. And her Sunday dinners (for which all the family converged after church) consisted of fried chicken, pot roast, country ham with red-eye gravy, collards or turnip greens, southern-style green beans (grey from long cooking but salty and soft, infused with bacon or ham fat), cornbread, summer squash and onions, mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, mashed potatoes, fried corn, and three kinds of gravy (the red-eye that went with the country ham, milk gravy for the chicken, and pot-roast gravy). Desserts came after.


The first time I visited Thelma's home, before Rolly and I were married, I woke up on Sunday morning hearing voices. It was 7 a.m., according to my watch, and I thought there must be a family emergency. Why else would the family be up and talking in the kitchen at 7 on a Sunday morning? I knew that the church service started at l0. In my family, if Mass was at l0, you slept in until 9:30.


But I hadn't reckoned on the southern Sunday dinner. Thelma was just putting the pot roast on at 7, in order to have dinner ready at noon for the hungry hordes.


But back to the eyebrows. Thelma, though she had no formal education beyond high school, was not at all intimidated by anyone else's education. Her book-loving, academic, perpetual-student son, Rolly, didn't impress her at all. Her true source of knowledge was the Reader's Digest. If she hadn't read a piece of information there, it couldn't be true. When Rolly tried to present her with the latest thinking on any topic whatsoever, including even the subjects that were his academic specialty, she would tilt her head to one side, raise that left eyebrow in a gesture totally natural to her (she'd never had to practice in front of a mirror), and say, in her Tennessee drawl, "Why, Rol-l-ly!"


And it was a waste of time to try to change her mind with the facts.


Thelma made fried corn all summer long, and we loved to eat it. To make fried corn you take a lot more ears of corn than you want to deal with--say, three dozen or more ears for the family. And you take them out to the back fence to shuck them. You throw the husks over the fence for the neighbor's cows.


Then you take your shucked ears to the kitchen, and with a sharp knife you cut off the tips of the kernels, into a big bowl. Then you take the back of the knife and run it hard down the cob, so that all the milky corn juice also falls into the bowl. Then you go back outside to the fence and throw the spent cobs into the pasture, where the neighbor's cows will be thrilled to eat them.



So, all your corn stripped, the cobs disposed of, you come back inside and put a large skillet on to heat, melting a goodly chunk of butter or bacon fat, depending on your taste, into the hot skillet. When the fat is melted and bubbling, dump in the big bowl of corn, liquid and tips, and add salt and pepper and a little water or milk.  Let it cook. Some southern cooks leave it on low heat for a long time so that a crust forms on the bottom of the pan. That's deliciously decadent, but it isn't the way Thelma made it. She just cooked it till it was done. I don't remember ever hearing any complaints


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Thoughts on Things: New Shoes

Oh, the baby needs a new pair of shoes!

Come on, you seven. Roll eleven.

And she won't get 'em if you lose.

Roll eleven.


I don't know how to shoot craps. I'm always amazed at how easily people seem to absorb the arcane rules of such activities. How do you learn such things? Is there a Hoyle's for neighborhood craps games or for playing the numbers? And if I went to a casino, how would I learn to play blackjack or chemin de fer? There's a whole world out there that I know nothing about. Well, there are several such worlds. A world of worlds.


But back to the topic. I don't buy new shoes very often these days. To me, the very term "new shoes" evokes high-heeled beauties, usually black suede or red calf, that you just fall in love with and can't resist. Buying new shoes used to be like buying a slice of beauty to take home in a box. But today's shoe styles are often so ugly or so impractical that I'm not even tempted. I can walk right past the shoe stores and give the show windows only a passing glance.


In their rush to profit from a mass market, shoe company executives made the decision thirty or forty years ago to produce shoes in only one width. If your foot is not a B width, they don't want your money. Those of us with narrow feet have two choices: we can go to the high-priced specialty stores that do stock widths, or we can stop buying shoes. I've stopped buying.


My most vivid shoe-buying memory is the time I went to the big city nearest to our little town and I spent $25 on a pair of navy calfskin sling-back pumps. My father was furious at the expense. "$25 for a pair of shoes!!?"


My long narrow feet skipped a generation and landed at the end of my ten-year-old granddaughter Hannah's long legs. Her feet look just the way mine did at that age. Shopping for shoes with Hannah is like shopping for diamonds, with respect to both the rarity and the price. Some day she'll have to choose: which would you rather have, Hannah? A pair of shoes or a year at university? Mea culpa.


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thoughts on Things: Tempt Me

It's that time of year again, when the air is full of good intentions, which will soon be paving the way to hell. This year, as a change, I decided to set goals for the year rather than "resolutions," which to me have always had a Lenten feeling, like a whole pile of "thou shalt nots." But not this year. This year I have GOALS! I'll let you know how well this works.



The problem is that I can resist anything except temptation. I know this for certain. A pound of good chocolate lasts only a few days. If it's in the house, I must eat it. Summer ice cream cones inevitably draw me. Without consulting my mind, my feet move immediately to any summer ice cream stand. Tempt me with ice cream. Stay me with flagons.


Now, I do have standards. I won't eat soft ice cream, one of whose main ingredients is methyl cellulose, also known as wallpaper paste. (Don't panic; they use only food-grade methyl cellulose for making ice cream.) And I can easily resist anything with the Nestle's brand name. My small, personal boycott of Nestle's doesn't hurt the corporation, but it certainly makes me feel better. And the more Nestle gobbles up small ice cream brands, the better off I am, since that reduces the possibility of my being tempted. But, other than Nestle's and soft ice cream, I'm a ripe peach waiting to be plucked by the next ice cream vendor I pass. But only in the summer.


Are all my temptations food-related? Gossip tempts me. I want to know the hidden secrets. It has taken me years to learn not to tell everything I know to anyone who is around and listening.. Gossip about food is particularly tempting: the industry, who's doing what to whom, where the chefs are and why they left one job for another—this double whammy combines my two weaknesses.


Tempt me. This is hard to write about. I keep waiting for someone to tempt me with a writing topic so delicious that my writing will be like chocolate.


Copyright  2008 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thoughts on Things: Secrets of the Bride

When I married for the first time, we lived in Hawaii and I was two days shy of being 23 years old—quite young, actually, but old enough to know better, as my mother might have said. In fact, she probably DID say it, to someone else if not to me, since she and my father were not in favor of this marriage.


I was convinced that marriage would alter me immediately. Without delay, I would become an adult. My idea of an adult female, however, was not based on the examples of my mother and her friends. My view of an adult woman came from the movies.


An adult woman, I knew for sure, didn't wear ordinary house slippers on her feet; she wore mules. In the movies from the '40s and '50s, all women wore satin mules with their negligees (and all of them wore negligees; not a single one wore a flannel nightie).


So I bought myself a pair of mules before the wedding: white satin, open-toed and high-heeled, with a pouf of marabou at the vamp. Being mules, they of course had no back. Slipping my dainty feet into these satin mules would instantly transform me into an adult. I could hardly wait. I had no doubt about this coming transformation. It was unspoken but self-evident.


The other item that would turn the bride into an adult was a bed jacket. My bed jacket didn't have to be trimmed in fur or feathers, as many of them were in the movies, but it should be made of satin and lace, in ivory or a very feminine pale pink.


Unfortunately, time and money were both in short supply. Although I bought the mules, I never found the bed jacket that would help me make the transition from naïve girl to wise and all-knowing married woman. It might have made all the difference if I had.


At my request, my mother sent one of her homemade coffeecakes for us to serve at the "reception." The ceremony was on December 23, and Christmas was traditionally the time of year when she made yeast coffeecakes, so my mother set aside her misgivings about the marriage and she made a large coffeecake, shaped like a ring, and sent it to us in Honolulu.


Our honeymoon took place at a Diamondhead mansion that we were housesitting over the school Christmas break. Imagine a mansion in Honolulu, with lanais and pools and courtyards and balconies. Keep imagining. Make it larger. Embroider it a bit more, because this mansion was really, really nice. And we had it all to ourselves for ten days.


We set the reception up around the swimming pool, using the beautiful Brown Jordan pool furniture that came with the house. Our reception was attended by a dozen colleagues from our respective schools, including my three roommates and a couple of male teachers from my husband's school.


The next morning, my first morning as an adult married woman, I arose to fix breakfast. I put on my flowing batiste negligee over my flowing batiste nightie and slipped my feet into my satin mules. The mules were not comfortable. Was that a sign?


I began walking to the kitchen of this enormous mansion, to make coffee. I awkwardly high-stepped my way along the upper-level balcony that ran the full width of the house, then went down the outdoor stairway leading through the open-air lanai and the dining room. I walked through the room-sized pantry and finally into the kitchen, with its four sinks, two stoves, and two refrigerators.


My feet hurt already.


It didn't take long for me to realize that it would take more than a pair of magic marabou mules to effect my transformation to adulthood.


But I'm almost there now. I promise.


Copyright 2008 Ann Tudor