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Archive for November, 2012

Truman Capote’s story, “A Christmas Memory,” is the best way I know of to launch the holiday season. It is perfectly delightful, calorie-free, and costs nothing unless you buy a copy to give as a gift (you can find it in many editions of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a couple of other stories). Need a free sample before you make the commitment?  In the following excerpt, 7-year-old Buddy and his friend, an elderly female cousin, go out to select the family Christmas tree:

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy?'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”  The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from?  “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits cash for that ol’ tree.”

Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.”

In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Having spent this Thanksgiving walking the woods of North Carolina, I can tell you that Capote knows his way around a Southern pine forest. We didn’t have more than a touch of frost in the mornings, and instead of a renegade hog we had the sound of coyotes yipping after dark. Still, nearly everything else was there:  an abandoned beaver dam, briars, burrs, a close call in which Daddy nearly slid into the creek, and a sunset return up the back path.

Things were exciting indoors, too. Evidently there is in my family a genetic inability to place a full pumpkin pie in the oven without sloshing a half-cup of filling into the floor or onto the open oven door. Mama and I laugh too much to do things neatly and properly.

It doesn’t spoil a thing, though. Yes, the side of the pie where the filling spilled over the crust got a good bit darker than it should have. Yes, Ernesto tore his hand on a briar, and one of my shoes got mired up with black creek mud. But it’s so much more memorable that way, to enjoy things as they are.

“You know what I’ve always thought?” [my friend] asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—”just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

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In my younger and more vulnerable years I faced a deadline for a poetry assignment. Poetry didn’t come easily to me, and I was most likely to serve up a Dr. Seussish rhyme or jingle.  Even so, I always needed some sort of hook to get started.

My sister had given me a copy of The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I picked it up hoping to find something useful. When I came across his piece entitled “Turkey Remains and How to Inter Them With Numerous Scarce Recipes,” I knew I’d found my starting point. I wrote a series of six light verses based on several of Fitzgerald’s recipes and met my deadline with time to spare. Sadly, these verses did not survive except for the one that I committed to memory.  It is called “Stolen Turkey.”

Walk quickly away from the market,
And if someone should sound an alarm,
Laugh, and look down in surprise and dismay
At the turkey tucked under your arm.
Then drop it with the white of one egg,
And well, anyhow, beat it.
But if you should chance to get away clean,
Take the bird home and just eat it.

If that morsel of leftover poetry left you unsatisfied, here—in plenty of time for Thanksgiving—is an excerpt from Fitzgerald’s  “Turkey Remains.” See if you can spot the one I borrowed for my poem!

At this post-holiday season the refrigerators of the nation are overstuffed with large masses of turkey, the sight of which is calculated to give an adult an attack of dizziness. It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to give the owners the benefit of my experience as an old gourmet, in using this surplus material. Some of the recipes have been in my family for generations. (This usually occurs when rigor mortis sets in.) They were collected over years, from old cook books, yellowed diaries of the Pilgrim Fathers, mail order catalogues, golfbags and trash cans. Not one but has been tried and proven—there are headstones all over America to testify to the fact.

Very well then.  Here goes:

Turkey Cocktail
To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.

Turkey à la Francais
Take a large ripe turkey, prepare as for basting and stuff with old watches and chains and monkey meat. Proceed as with cottage-pudding.

Turkey and Water
Take one turkey and one pan of water. Heat the latter to the boiling point and then put in the refrigerator. When it has jelled drown the turkey in it. Eat. In preparing this recipe it is best to have a few ham sandwiches around in case things go wrong.

Turkey Mousée
Seed a large prone turkey, being careful to remove the bones, flesh, fins, gravy, etc. Blow up with a bicycle pump. Mount in becoming style and hang in the front hall.

Stolen Turkey
Walk quickly from the market and if accosted remark with a laugh that it had just flown into your arms and you hadn’t noticed it. Then drop the turkey with the white of one egg—well, anyhow, beat it.

Turkey Hash
This is the delight of all connoisseurs of the holiday beast, but few understand how really to prepare it. Like a lobster it must be plunged alive into boiling water, until it becomes bright red or purple or something, and then before the color fades, placed quickly in a washing machine and allowed to stew in its own gore as it is whirled around. Only then is it ready for hash. To hash, take a large sharp tool like a nail-file or if none is handy, a bayonet will serve the purpose—and then get at it! Hash it well! Bind the remains with dental floss and serve.

Turkey with Whiskey Sauce.
This recipe is for a party of four. Obtain a gallon of whiskey, and allow it to age for several hours. Then serve, allowing one quart for each guest. The next day the turkey should be added, little by little, constantly stirring and basting.

For Weddings or Funerals. Obtain a gross of small white boxes such as are used for bride’s cake. Cut the turkey into small squares, roast, stuff, kill, boil, bake and allow to skewer. Now we are ready to begin. Fill each box with a quantity of soup stock and pile in a handy place. As the liquid elapses, the prepared turkey is added until the guests arrive. The boxes delicately tied with white ribbons are then placed in the handbags of the ladies, or in the men’s side pockets.

I have my own ideas about how to handle Thanksgiving leftovers.  I love turkey and dressing sandwiches slathered with French onion dip.

And here’s an idea for leftover desserts:  Last month I made a hefty batch of pumpkin pie bars. There were far too many to consume as dessert, but I didn’t feel comfortable taking them to the office. They were so… heavy. Then I hit on the idea of crumbling one up and swirling it through my morning oatmeal. Delicious, and filling!  I propose that leftover pumpkin or pecan pie, or even an aging coconut cake, could also be treated in this way. A slender slice of pie will add a bit of sweetness and spice to the virtuous feeling you get from eating your oatmeal.

Whatever you eat in the coming feast-days, have a happy Thanksgiving—and inter your leftovers with care.

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The St. Louis Art Museum sits atop Art Hill in Forest Park. A fine statue of King Louis IX on horseback overlooks a long sweep of grass—excellent sledding turf after a good snow. It’s a welcoming place, filled with beautiful things and charming people.

A few years back I visited the museum before Christmas to buy something in the gift shop. I don’t remember what I went there for, because I got distracted when I discovered a basket filled with little three-legged clay pigs, called chanchitos.  Made in Chile, they are considered good luck. They were darling, and I decided to buy one for my brother-in-law, Mike.  He already has everything he really needs, but all of us can use a bit of extra luck.

As I paid for it at the counter, a second clerk said, “Does this chanchito have a butt?” She was probably in her 50s, with a chin-length blonde bob. She looked like the sort of museum lady who would know a great deal about setting a proper table and baking delicious tea cakes.

I looked blank.  “He has a tail,” I said uncertainly. 

“Some of them have actual butts,” she said. “Not all of them. I think they’re really cute.”

While I finished paying she went over to the chanchito basket and started rummaging through it, presumably to find one with a butt.  I joined her, with my butt-less chanchito in its little bag in my hand. 

She said, “Someone put the price stickers over the butts, so I’m having to peel them back to check.”  I started helping. 

“What are we looking for, exactly?” I asked.

“It’s just a little hole, like one of the eyes. I think it’s so cute.”

None of the other chanchitos had a butt, as it turned out, and we decided that increased demand for lucky chanchitos had probably led to the need for greater efficiency in their manufacture—thus the butts had been discontinued. 

But all of that happened later. When I first arrived at the museum, I thought I remembered that the large gift shop was on the 2nd floor, so I entered through the back door, walked across the lobby, and took the stairs on the north side of the building. They are the type of stairs that go up seven or eight steps to a landing, then the stairs turn and go up another seven or eight steps to a second landing, turn again, and finish the trip with a last set of steps to the top.  At the second landing I noticed a plaque on the wall.  There was no piece of art nearby—not even a nail on which a piece of art might have once hung—but I stopped and read it anyway. 

You can make yourself enter somewhere frightening if you believe you’ll profit from it. The natural response is to flee but people don’t act like that anymore.

I said, “Huh.”  Then I moved on to the 2nd floor.  At the top of the stairs I stopped, turned around, and went back down to the landing. I copied the words carefully on the back of my grocery list (diced tomatoes – 2 cans, cabbage, carrots, coffee), then I went on to the 2nd floor, realized I was in the wrong place, and came out at the stairs on the south side of the building. A directory near the elevator didn’t appear to list the gift shop, but I remembered that it was near the café, which was on the lower level. I started down the south stairs, and this time I was prepared when I saw an artless plaque on the wall.  I stopped and pulled out my grocery list.  This one read:

Exercise breaks at strategic points during the day enhance productivity and provide simultaneous sensations of relief and rejuvenation.

“Isn’t that great?” A woman coming up the stairs stopped and looked at the plaque with me. She wore a museum name badge. She said, “I sometimes stop as I’m coming up and down these stairs and read that out loud.”

A year or two later, I received my own chanchito from my nephew, Ryan.  Ryan understands how much I like pigs. The chanchito sits on my desk and regards me with his deep, gimlet eyes and panting mouth. His front legs are spread apart in a pose that implies he’s only pausing temporarily and will soon make a sudden, pig-like dart to resume his energetic, rejuvenating exercise.

He is, alas, butt-less.

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