Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Stuffing, dressing and one vulgarity

December 26th, 2016

Back to yesterday and yesteryear, the stuff of stuffing emerges. Most of us, it seems, just know what is supposed to go in the roast bird. Our grannies or other family cooks did the perfect version — in our hazy memories. Anything different or less fails.

I too grew up with plugged up and trussed turkeys, ducks, chickens and geese. I am honestly indifferent to stuffing on my own and really prefer the control over the appearance, flavor and cooking times with an empty carcass. If you really want the best flavors and looks, cook a hollow bird.

However, do not delude yourself; holiday food fans want to see and smell (and in a perverted Proust madeleine moment) fully recall and relive stuffings of childhood. I advise acquiescing and producing the expected here. You can be creative with the rest of the bird and meal. At the least concentrate on a groaning board of beautiful, memorable appetizers.

Yesterday was the Christmas feast for a dozen. We did not go to mass on Christmas, rather massed for languid frivolity, gift and jest swapping and popping Christmas crackers.

As I prepared stuffing for the too-big turkey, I thought back to a Thanksgiving nearly 50 years ago in an alley in Cambridge, MA, with the grandiloquent address of King Place. It is a quarter block long, dead ended and perpetually shabby.

Oh, 10 or a dozen of us college types shared this narrow house of four tiny apartments in a brick building cheek to jowl with the next. We did not know each other except in pairs or small subgroups before moving there, but heck it was Thanksgiving away from family and friends. We’d make our own communal feast.

Then as now I was the primary cook. Our house consensus though included two essentials. First, we needed a sizable turkey, and second, it had to come from the oven extruding bread stuffing. Then democracy and family became obvious. We were all WASPy types, but our family and regional differences became pronounced. Each of us knew exactly what was necessary for a proper stuffing.

We had outlying votes for oysters, chestnuts and other favorites from other homes. We ended up agreeing as youth are wont on too many, just to make sure everyone would fork through to find the right bites. As I recall, in addition to the requisite cubed junk bread, stuffing stuff included celery onion, walnuts, prunes AND raisins, onion, poultry seasoning, pepper, salt, sausage and more and more.

I finished prep with far more than the turkey or any bird short of an ostrich could have held. Hence came the trays of patties, morphing from stuffing to dressing. My companion of the period loudly dubbed the patties buffalo turds. She was born in North Dakota, but more to the point, she was charming and attractive enough that she could and did get away with such vulgarities. I am sure to this day there are a few from the house who will refer to dressing patties that way.

We were all happy with our democratically derived stuffing and dressing.

Flash forward

Back to fewer than 24 hours ago, our Christmas feast benefited from that memory. I relented and decided to stuff the gigantic bird.

I’m not much for too easy and quick. Those result in bland or worse. I think Stop Top stuffing is more like wood wool, a.k.a. excelsior, than food. I fell back on childhood, King Place, restaurant, and previous stuffing goes. Still I was surprised as virtually all at the table went on about the stuffing.

  • The previous day, I cubed two family sized, thick sliced loaves of junk white bread into a huge bowl.
  • I added things that wouldn’t go bad, including 12 ounces of chopped walnuts, two teaspoons of kosher salt, a teaspoon of black pepper and a teaspoon of powdered sage. I mixed these and left the lid off for the cubes to harden up a little.
  • I cooked the turkey neck and giblets to death, removed the neck meat and minced everything. to this, I added a pound of smoked ham run through the food processor. These meats rested overnight in the fridge. Separately, two cups of turkey broth from giblet cooking cooled overnight.
  • I minced two medium onions, one long celery stalk, the celery core including the fine leaves, and a half cup of fresh parsley. Those too rested in the fridge.
  • Early in the morning, I ran about 12 ounces of rinsed baby bella mushrooms, stems included, through the food processor.
  • I got the broth from the fridge and microwaved a cup of golden raisins in it on high for two minutes. The idea was to pre-plump the raisins before stuffing the bird.
  • I heated a stick of unsalted butter and softened the onion mixture, and added the mushrooms.
  • All the ingredients went into the jammed bowl (I have some huge bowls) in the sink to permit an occasional errant lump. When all were squished by hand, I pressed as much as possible into the body and neck cavities of the dry-brined turkey. Six hours and one turning later, the bird received much praise.

To me, stuffing is merely a side dish. Yet, it got the level of compliment a well scrubbed, smelling and looking deb would have at the ball.

We should not overlook or deride simple pleasures. As one of Robert Frost’s poems concludes, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. ”

 

 

Midtown, snow, long legs and a tree

December 22nd, 2016

Here in Boston, the light snow on Christmas week reminds me of Radio City Music Hall. A dear family friend, Evelyn Justice, took it on herself to guide my sister and me to our first Christmas spectacular there in 1963.

We waited in barricade queues, caught snowflakes on our coat sleeves and tongues, and grokked the Midtown essence of Christmas at Rockefeller Center. Yes, gigantic tree. Yes, ice skaters. Yes, a stage awash with long-legged Rockettes. Yes, a first-run movie.

Pic note: Public domain image by U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Gabriela Hurtado, 2006.

Evelyn was my biscuit lady. More on her here.

We’d known her as little ones in far Southern Virginia (Danville). We were delighted years later when we moved from rural Virginia (Chester) to New Jersey (Plainfield) to learn that she and hubby Rollins Justice (Justice to everyone) had moved there before us.

Evelyn was the kindest, most gracious, most empathetic human I’ve ever known. Of course, she’d be the one who wanted to take us to Radio City. I played chess too and she knew that two blocks away Brentano’s had a magnificent selection of boards and pieces.

She made even waiting on line fun, with jokes and stories of her childhood and things we didn’t remember about ourselves. We saw the wonderfully garish kick-dance show, kind of like Vegas showgirls, minus the decolletage and jiggling breasts. As I recall, they twirled mini-hula hoops that glowed under the lights around their calves and ankles. And the flick with Charade, starring the unnatural cervix lovely Audrey Hepburn.

I’ve been to the center since, seen the shows and tree, and of course the skaters. They aren’t as magical without Evelyn. She died in 1997. She was swell.

Old coots, chaws and vegetable display

November 19th, 2016

The farmers’ co-op in Romney WV was integral to my childhood. It had been moribund, then closed after long-time manager Fred Judd had a dreadful fall from which he never really recovered.

Just this week, it’s reopening in a form I would not have recognized. It is now the Hampshire County Co-op & Market Place. It offers local artists’ work and fancy food. The promo on the town FB page includes, “PS: Eric Hott’s smoked bacon pieces dipped in dark chocolate will change your life forever!”

That’s not the way I knew it.

Next door to the co-op on South Marsham Street was my grandfather’s tailor/dry cleaning shop. Abutting that was the family house where I spent summers and holidays. For a peripatetic  lad and his sister, that town and that specific street were home. We moved every couple of years but Marsham Street was always there for us.

We could sit on the front porch (and did often) watching as rain storms sheeted down the mountains before us, first wetting the apple and peach orchards.

Two doors down was a playground inside the co-op. The manager, Carl, let us play. In the big room by the entrance were bins of seed. If a farmer or gardener needed just a few pounds of corn to plant, he could fill a bag using a tin ladle and weigh it out. Likewise, you could get 16-penny spikes loose.

We kids were fascinated with the offerings. We’d also bury a toy in the seeds and challenge each other in a primitive hide-and-seek.

For the big games, the warehouse was filled with 50- and 100-pound bags of seed, feed, flour and such. We’d hide, chase each other and play battle with pea shooters.

Back in the front was a pot-bellied stove, replete with one to six old men. Several were excellent at sitting on nail kegs across from the stove and accurately spitting a big drop maybe 10 feet into the teardrop openings of the stove grate.

They’d tell true tales or maybe lies about their farms and WWI times and such. Highlights included remarkable vegetables they grew, like a 14-inch long bean pods. As I recall McCaslan was the usual champion bean.

I loved the stories and characters who told them. The co-op was a social club for them and me.

Next time I’m in town, I’ll surely visit the artisinal food and art version. I am pretty sure there’ll  be no stove glowing red and certainly tno tobacco-spitting performances.

 

Splayed Social Skills

October 30th, 2016

Occasionally, I wear a kilt. That has become a family thing.

alkiltMy first daughter-in-law, wife of our eldest son, is singularly proud of her Scottish heritage. She’s not a skirt/dress person, but does wear a kilt. Our son does too and so does their son. He is one of the two males pictured here; you can decide which is his image and which mine.

A Scottish neighbor discussed the manners and mindfulness involved in kilt wearing. His was a long tale about a wedding. He was in the groom’s party and sat in the nave during the ceremony. Of course, as a Scott, he was kitted in kilt.

During the wedding, he wondered what dementia gripped his wife and other family members. The women he could see gesticulated repeatedly in some indecipherable sign language He smiled faintly by way of acknowledging them but did not get the message until after the nuptials.

mbdouglasTurns out, the women in the pews were trying strongly to say, “Close your damned legs!’

He was, as I do, wearing his kilt traditionally  — with no clothing underneath. The whole church other than those standing or seated with the wedding principals had no doubt of his gender.

I thought I had gotten the hang of it. I observed other kilt wearers and saw that most men push the front material in a fold between their thighs, making a crotch curtain. Yet last evening at a fair sized party at our house, my wife crossed the room to provide my own close-your-damned-legs moment. She was more pleasant but the message was the same.

In my experience, women are no more polite or considerate than men. Yet nearly all try to preserve modesty when they wear a skirt or dress or kilt. The Sharon Stone Basic Instinct reveal when it occurs is intentional.

Men on the other hand (other leg?) do not grow up learning to keep their knees together when seated. For all but men with the least muscled thighs, keeping legs closed when seated allows no hanging room for what the Brits call naughty bits.

I enjoy wearing a kilt, for the variety and comfort. I only once was out in the bitter air and wind of winter in one though.

I suspect I’ll master the physical and social skill of the seated curtain. I also tend to travel with my kilt watcher to remind me.

Urine and Mine

October 2nd, 2016

tallurinalsOf course, most women have no need or desire to visit men’s rooms. I doubt they ask XY counterparts for details on urinals.So they don’t know there are a wide variety, which have changed in style in my lifetime.

I write of one memorable, re-emergent style. For details and pix see Chris Higgin’s post.

Meanwhile for the women who have never toured the men’s john, the snap left shows a pair of the ones that impressed me as a lad. This happens to be in Stoddard’s in downtown Boston.

It’s an adventure in that the stairway is very steep, very long and very narrow. Not only do the runners bring food up and dishes down, but M and W facilities are there. It’s a true test of how sober you are.
newcenturywThis tall urinal style used to be real common, mostly in fancier places. I first saw them in the hotel build in my childhood hometown (not birthplace) in West Virginia. The hotel was called the New Century; it went up before WWI and lasted into the ’70s. (For the New Century Hotel, a hat tip to Historic Hampshire. It’s a trove of snaps and postal cards of the Romney area.)

Romney long had east-west traffic on Route 50, from D.C. to Cincinnati, as well as being on the B&O line. It also featured a must-stop-at restaurant, the Green Palm, loved by Duncan Hines among others. However, until the New Century, it was short on hotel rooms, relying more on guest houses.

As a child in the ’50s and early ’60s, I’d occasionally visit the hotel, either with my grandfather for a meal or a pop, or sometimes for a meal.

Oddly enough, the urinals stay in memory. They are very much unlike toilets, small wall versions, and certainly different from the metal troughs at fairgrounds. Instead, the New Century’s looked like a boy, had he interest in doing so, could have stepped in for a shower.

They were about the right size. I see that new versions tend to be up to 38 inches high. In memory, the New Century’s were bigger. Then again, I was wee (if you pardon).

Nowadays, fancy joints tend to use flushless urinals, basically large bowls smaller than a regular urinal. They don’t require or allow flushing, which seems great until you know that someone has regularly to drain them and replace the lighter-than-pee chemical that lets the urine pass through while deodorizing the bowl. (Yuck. A job no one should have to do.)

I bet some hipster restaurant ended up with the salvaged New Century tall urinals.

White Squirrel Fest #6

September 10th, 2016

The JP Music Fest is a tot by Boston standard, but really they’ve pulled off six annual versions now.

We enjoyed a few hours there. As a note, the hipster quotient was low today. For example, I only counted two Trilby hats.

Here follow a few snaps of groups we heard in a few hours. I recommend following the links and listening to each. You can also catch a track from each at the JPMusicFest site.

The festival is this time each year, runs with continuous music from noon to 7, offers a wide variety, and is free.

Merrie Amsterburg plays a wide variety of instruments, including allegedly a washing machine. She was on the electric mandolin in JP. merrie3
amechoes2 America Echoes reminds audiences they are identical twins, Laura and Nina Ganci.
The America Echoes women do R&B and folk, electric and acoustic. amechoes6
boxofbirds1 Box of Birds is a folk rock quartet. Steph Durwin leads the vocals.
Guitarist Charlie Gargano of Box of Birds sang too. boxofbirds4
louder1 Louder Than Milk is a very local fun and funny country-like band.
Louder Than Milk has a drummer vocalist too, Jay Page (h.t. to Bridget Murphy). louderthanmilk



jpflute



On the way to the festival, we had a mini-concert from a wee flutist trying to get the ducks and her brother to listen.

Pix note: Published under Creative Commons . You are welcome to use them. Just credit Michael Ball once.

Shoot Me Not

August 13th, 2016

My fashooterlure as a senior engineering manager was not shooting my direct reports. That was both physical and digital.

We all put in long, productive workdays. Mine tended to run longer. I got to the office around 5 AM. They’d stumble in around 9 or 10. I was the documentation manager/head tech writer. The chief UI designer would arrive about the same time. We’d work alone and together on our stuff and the complex interface, head to the downstairs FitCorp gym at 6 or 6:30 and be groomed and caffeinated when the programmers finally showed.

They’d goof around, then work, then insult each other, and keep it going until 5 or 6. Then they’d shift from coffee to Pepsi. As all savvy tech companies, ours provide unlimited cold and hot caffeine. They’d do hours of multi-player games over our network, taking great joy in visually splattering each other for hours.

Weekend meetings might be paintball, when then mayhem was more literal, involving downers (beer) and bruises from the balls.

Old Mike instead read books, wrote blogs, worked cryptic puzzles, and philosophized. I had no interest in figurative murder or literal punishment.

I’m older. The sprouts seemed to forgive me. We all went out to lunch and after-work drinks. I just had no interest in multi-player games and feigned warfare.

When my engineering VP went off to sell the company, he dubbed me in charge of engineering, as in development, test, QA, docs and such. I became the socket for the whines. “His code sucks…he doesn’t know how to clear a memory address…she uses 54 lines to do what I can in 12…my girlfriend’s cat pisses in my shoe…I found this function perfectly done in Fresh Meat…Tom did not subversion his code and I wasted four hours waiting…”

You’ll never find a bigger bunch of kvetchers than developers.

Yet, I admit, I’d been a better sport had I picked up a paintball gun and tried to humiliate and hurt my reports. I could have upended my life and fought rush-hour Boston traffic to get in late, leave late, and devoted two hours every evening to network shooter games.

Sorry. I win.

 

All Lowell All Day Folk Festival

July 31st, 2016

You don’t have to wait until the last weekend in July to go to Lowell, MA. Lots of art, restaurants and music are worth the trip the rest of the year. Yet, here we’re big on the annual Lowell Folk Festival. We’ve only missed two of its 30 years, when we were far away.

By the bye, Seattle has an older one (45 years) with more performers. It runs Memorial Day weekend.

We’ve never left the LFF without a new favorite musician/group. Oh to tip the scales, I note that they’ve kept this free. They gently ask for donations as volunteers wander, swapping Mardi Gras necklaces for whatever you chip in (and you don’t have to flash).

Fado (fate in Portuguese) is the mainstay of the country’s music. Many songs are of heartbreak, loss and jealousy. They do mix them up with some fun. Ana Laíns was extremely expressive in voice, body and face. LFFfado7
LFF16ceili1 Of course Irish music…Old Bay Ceili Band played that. Let’s call this the trad Irish mirrored sunglasses.
The several century old Peking Opera, replete with much percussion, garish costumes and battles was by the Qi Shu Fang troupe. I honestly am not sure I would be a regular but no one could say the style is boring. LFFpeking3
LFFjason2 Jason D. Williams, who may or may not be Jerry Lee Lewis’ son, more than plays piano. He uses his fingers, fists, feet, butt and like that. High energy does not being to describe his boogie woogie. I doubt a keyboard could survive more than two of his shows.
Deacon John is in his seventies, but sings and moves like he’s 22. Powerful jump blues. LFFdeacon
LFFlurrie1 Lurrie Bell, Chicago bluesman and son of one, delivered strong and pounding blues.
Gibson Brothers bluegrass band included driving base by Mike Barber and demon mando by Jesse Brock. The leads actually are brothers Leigh and Eric, only 11 months apart. LFFgibson2
LFFmacmaster1





Bad nighttime lighting and the fast movements of Cape Breton fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and hubby Donnell Leahy limited shots of them. They wowed on the violins and she claimed the Irish step dance routine she through in she hadn’t done in almost 30 years.

More pix: These and additional shots are on Flickr. There are many more snaps there.

Pix note: Published under Creative Commons . You are welcome to use them. Just credit Michael Ball once.

Failing the Mom

July 18th, 2016

wanda1While my mother, Wanda Lee Michael Ball, died almost 12 years ago, I continue to recall my times with her. Those are almost entirely happy and grateful. She raised my sister and me solo, did a damned good job of it, and balanced fun and moral and smart by example and word.

On occasion, I do have minor regrets though. I recall particularly how I failed her by turning down one request. Sure, she denied me this or that over the the years as well. Yet, as an old guy now myself, I am increasingly aware of the stresses and pains — interpersonal, intellectual, physical, emotional — that living and aging bring. I could have taken one for the team that afternoon.

In her mid-50s, she had a devil of a year. Even typing that, I snort at Wanda’s example. She was loath to swear or even euphemize. “Damn!” was extreme language for her. When she was angry or very disappointed, her strong language was typically, “For crying out loud in a bucket!” (full emphasis on bucket). A malefactor we might call a bastard or asshole would suffer her, “What a crumbum.”

To most of us her 1979 was a year from hell. It included:

  • She had finally found happiness and fulfillment with a lover, who was chased by his ex-wife’s lawyers and courts for new spousal and child support. He got his company to transfer him to Asia and safety.
  • Her own  company got sold to a much larger pharma who handed payouts to the entire sales staff. Thus she was jobless.
  • With her payout, she had to invest it in six months or lose much of it to taxes. That meant buying a house for her and her sister across the country a decade before she wanted to consider such.
  • She got a breast cancer diagnosis. Her doc wanted to aspirate the growths, but her nurse sister convinced her to get a second opinion in her pending new town of Santa Fe. The surgeon there saw the lymph cancers as well and scheduled her for a radical mastectomy.
  • As part of the treatment at the time, her doctors immediately stopped the heavy doses of hormones she was getting for a hard menopause. As a result, her personality changed and her always modulated and logical self became short-tempered and even occasionally irrational, in other words like most other adults her age.

Beaten up and beaten down in every way, she did cope. In Santa Fe without her friends and lover, without her career, without a breast, and on an on.

In many ways, I was there and helpful. I visited, I called, I sent her goody boxes (something she had always done for her children). I was swell to her until she asked one thing that choked me.

Her surgeon liked to tell the story of when he visited her with the post-mastectomy lady and a couple  of nurses a few days after the surgery. The woman showed with a suitcase of padded bras and prostheses. The nurses were there to observe and learn.

Wanda looked at the assembled crew and asked, “What are you doing here?” The woman said she was there to help with the recovery. The surgeon said that Wanda then stated very clearly, “I’m not sick. I just had cancer,” and shooed them out. She was definitely not interested in being fitted for an artificial breast.

You should know that she never identified strongly with her mammary glands. Hers were small. Her daughter’s large. They’d joke about it being obvious whose bras were hanging to dry.

She had cancer of both breast and lymph. The prognosis after successful surgery was death within five years. She went 25.

On one of my visits not too long after the surgery, but when she had healed as much as her body was going to, she asked and I faltered. I knew they had taken a big chunk of muscle as was the style in those years of mastectomy. When the two of us were on the living room couch, she asked in her previous style whether I wanted to see and feel where the breast had been.

I did not and she seemed truly disappointed. It was a ritual offering that I failed to accept.

Yes, yes, the idea of a son touching his mothers breast, rather where the breast used to be, sounds morally and sexually wrong. It really would not have been. It was a medical, anatomical thing. It was yet another of her healing mechanisms.

I should have bucked up and gone with it…for her. I couldn’t and didn’t.

Shortly after I was rereading one of my favorite poets, Frederick Nicklaus. In The Man Who Bit The Sun, one of his poems starts:

I remember a horse in Indiana;
it came from the fields, it ran alongside
the bus. I remember its reddish hide.

But believe me, I failed the fright of its eyes.

So here it was. My mother looked me straight in the face and asked for something pretty simple. I failed. I couldn’t do it.

 

JP Porchfest Again

July 9th, 2016

We’ve gone to all the JP Porchests. Truth be told, that’s a small deal. Today’s was the third annual. Yeah, yeah, it’s spottier than say the Lowell Folk Festival, but no matter what music you like, they got it and if you don’t like one group, look at the event map or simply wander the neighborhood. There are 100 or so in play at any moment.

I finally relaxed on this one. Previously, I’d planned the long day from noon into evening, hopping in 15 to 20 to 30 minute listens. I wanted to get the maximum aural and visual exposure. This year, I sussed out the performers in advance off the Porchfest site and simply picked several to listen to a long concert with each.

Liv Greene is apparently a Tufts senior and likely older than she looks. Her voice and song writing are plenty mature. She is wont to compose morose lyrics that she mixes with folk cover songs. She pulls off her sad tunes with strong guitar to match her sweet voice.

We saw her later playing with Liv Brook in the duo they call Liv and Letliv, doing Appalachian songs to guitar and fiddle. I grew up with WV hillbilly music. They’d do just fine on Jersey Mountain.

livgreene2
Aurora Birch was starkly slender and dressed all in black. She closed her eyes when she sang. She could seem forbidding except for her frequent gesticulations and grins between songs. She clearly enjoyed herself. She switch among several acoustic and one electric guitar and jocularly regretted not also playing her banjo. abirch1
Fiona Corinne followed the sincere and subtle Aurora Birch…in a very different style. She let us know that she grew up in the world of musical theater. She proved it with the strongest voice of my afternoon. fionac1
Boston’s poet laureate, Danielle Legros Georges, was serious and politically aware. dlgeorges
Allysen Callery accompanied her ethereal voice with finger-style guitar. allysen

We heard snatches of several of the many dozens of performers, but those were ones I dove deeply into. I think that suits me better than trying to catch as many as possible. This is like my beloved Lowell Folk Festival. The key is to pore over the schedule carefully and map an itinerary.

Lowell is an absolute must, but JP’s Porchfest is damned good. Each is well worth hitting the schedule in advance and plotting your performance. Oh, and like Lowell, this one is free too.