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Father's Day 001

I decided to make a mincemeat pie for my dad for Father’s Day. He mentioned a little while back that he would like to have a mincemeat pie, something he hadn’t had in years. I said I’d never had one, ever, as far as I knew, and I forgot all about it.

Then, a week or two ago, I ordered a copy of The Farm, chef Ian Knauer’s cookbook and celebration of his family’s centuries-old farm in Pennsylvania. I forget exactly why I decided I wanted it, except that I had seen his cooking show on PBS once and enjoyed it.

The family farm he writes about (and gardens on) is a beautiful place. There’s a gigantic hydrangea with white blossoms that look good enough to eat, and a small pond and a meandering driveway and a family cemetery where the founding Knauer, Johann Christopher, is buried. He died in 1769, so obviously the white, two-story stucco farmhouse is not the original family home. Ian and his family in general seem to use the place as a getaway. It’s not clear who owns it, but Ian and his sisters have planted a large garden there, and he goes down for weekends and cooks for family and friends.

I was reading through the book and marking the recipes I wanted to try, when I came across a recipe for mincemeat pie. And that’s when I remembered my dad’s wish for one.

You would think that I would be beyond the homemade Father’s Day gift, but evidently I am not.

I am also aware that this is not the season for mincemeat pie. So what? Now that homes are air-conditioned, cooking things for hours on the stove is not that bad.

The pie appeared to be quite a project. Ian’s version had a mile-long list of ingredients and it made enough filling for four pies. He only had a recipe for making one bottom crust, though, so once you filled it you were encouraged to freeze the additional three quarts of filling until time to make another pie.

I decided to cut the recipe in half. I made my grocery list, and added the ingredients that I didn’t already have: suet, pineapple juice, apple cider, raisins and currants, ground beef, molasses, and apple cider vinegar. There. Friday night, and my list was in order.

I woke up on Saturday morning in a mild panic. Ian’s farm was in Pennsylvania, not North Carolina. I didn’t know where to find currants in the store—would they be in produce, or with the dried fruits? Did I have to use beef suet? What if this pie was not at all like the one my dad remembers? Shouldn’t it have a top crust?

I went to the Internet and looked up more recipes for mincemeat pie. Martha Stewart had one, but it was meanly hidden behind some sort of subscription requirement and you could only read bits of the recipe around the “Become a member now!” box, which floated as I tried to peek beneath it. But I saw everything I needed to see. One of the first instructions in the recipe was to “take down two jars of mincemeat filling from the shelf.” Really, Martha?

Alton Brown, I believe—after a while it’s difficult to say where I read what—offered the advice that butter could substitute for suet. Thank you.

Then I pulled down my grandma’s old cookbooks, thinking one of them might contain the recipe that she used for her pie. Her cookbooks are always fun to read through. She used to cut recipes out of the newspaper and tape them inside in open spaces and on the end pages and sometimes on pages with other recipes, like Martha’s floating subscription box. I bet she did that to cover up recipes she hated. I would.

I came across many wonderful things in those old cookbooks, including a recipe called “Do You Like Oyster Stew?” that didn’t have oysters in the list of ingredients, and then sprang them on the cook midway through the instructions, very casually: “Add 2 or 3 pints of oysters.” None of these old cookbooks, most of them church or community collections, seemed to have dependable, thorough instructions. But the recipe titles were priceless. “Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick” was my favorite in The Lizzie Sills Friends Circle cookbook. (In case you’re wondering, the “slick” refers to dumplings. Aren’t you a tiny bit relieved? I was.)

But in all the charming antique cookbooks that I consulted, there was no recipe for mincemeat pie. Perhaps it was already too old-fashioned to make the cut for Lizzie Sills, which included this paragraph on the copyright page (capitalized as in the original):

THIS BOOK includes the finest plastic ring binders available, BUT, like most plastics, the BINDERS CAN BE DAMAGED BY EXCESSIVE HEAT, so AVOID exposing them to the direct rays of the SUN, or excessive heat such as IN A CAR on a hot day, or on the top of the kitchen STOVE. If not exposed to heat, the binders will last indefinitely.

I don’t know why they didn’t put indefinitely in all caps, but maybe by the end of that passage there wasn’t enough oxygen left.

Since I didn’t find a recipe called “The Mincemeat Pie Your Father Fondly Remembers,” I went to the store with my list and bought what I needed to make half a recipe of Ian Knauer’s version. As I collected my ingredients and sent up a desperate prayer that I would find a good substitute for currants, the song “You Can Do Magic” came on over the Food Lion sound system. Excellent. I can do magic. I can make mincemeat pie. I can make it without currants.

And that’s what I did. It was hard to get started, because I was nervous, but I browned the beef in a little bit of butter, then removed it with a slotted spoon to a large, heavy pot. I put a pound and a half of raisins in the pot with enough dried cherries and cranberries to take up the space that currants would have occupied. I peeled and chopped apples, grated orange and lemon zest, decanted varying amounts of fruit juice, cider, cider vinegar, honey, and molasses; I added a half stick of butter. I sprinkled in salt and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger. With the heat turned up to bring it all to a boil, I took a large wooden spoon and began turning the mixture over.

That’s when the magic happened. Oh, the smell. It was like apple pie and Christmas. It was rich and spicy and dark and wonderful with the citrus zest sending up bright sparks. It simmered for about an hour, getting progressively thicker. I tasted it, and began to think that maybe I had eaten some of my grandmother’s mincemeat pie. An angel sang, softly, and not for very long.

I do hope that my pie comes close to Grandma’s. Because the whole point of making a mincemeat pie in June was to recreate a feeling and maybe provide at least a quick flashback to a yellow kitchen in a white house on a small farm in eastern North Carolina. Unlike Ian’s family, we can’t still visit that farm, and I’m seven miles removed from my parents’ farm, which also overlooks a pond. But Redbud farmlet is chugging along. Our chickens are now 12 weeks old and healthy, the goats are staying inside the corral and haven’t lost their collars, and the kale and squash are growing. When I step under the shelter where the tractor lives, the soft dirt underfoot and the shade and the smell of the old tractor make me feel like I’m back in my grandfather’s barn. In a way, the original Winslow family farm is still thriving—it’s just scattered around the state a little more than it once was.

I delivered the pie this morning right after going to church with my parents, where my dad won a gift certificate for being the father with the oldest child present. I bet I was also the oldest child who had made her father an ugly homemade gift. Best part: I can give him another one in December, because the frozen mincemeat keeps for six months. Boom.

Want a little homemade ice cream with your mincemeat pie on Father’s Day? Read this!

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ImageIt has been a longish time since I produced a tract. The original piece, which explains the reason for the series, is here. Today’s tract is for those of us who have perhaps waited a bit late in the day to rustle up a Christmas gift or two and are feeling a tad desperate, but it is also aimed at those smug persons who have completed their Christmas shopping and are sitting back with upper lip curled at everyone who has not. Because shopping has very little beauty in it, whereas a homemade gift is always merry and bright.

Tracts for the Pleasant Life #3:  Homemade Christmas Gifts

Chances are, if you are participating in the holidays to any extent, you have already made cookies for the office, or the traditional family fruitcake. The treats that you make each year would be a perfect gift for someone, assuming that you know that person’s food allergies and tolerations.

If you don’t have your own recipe to share, here is a simple recipe for homemade fudge. The list of ingredients is short, the amount of time required is minimal, but the result is a wonderfully heavy tin of delicious chocolate.

One 12-ounce package (2 cups) semi-sweet chocolate chips

One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1-1/4 cup chopped nuts

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the chocolate chips and the sweetened condensed milk in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for about 1 minute. Stir, and if it is still not smooth give it another 30 seconds and stir harder this time, like you really mean it. If you had stirred vigorously after the first minute you would have been fine. Stir in the vanilla and nuts and glop it into a wax paper- or parchment-lined 13 X 9 pan (or a 9 X 9 pan, for slightly taller fudge). Leave the ends of the paper hanging over two of the sides to use as handles when lifting the fudge out later. I also like to put a piece of parchment or waxed paper on top and press it down to smooth it out before placing the pan in the refrigerator to chill. Once it’s firm, use those nifty handles to lift out the block of fudge, peel off the top paper if you used it, and cut the fudge into reasonable portions and package as desired.

To make Rocky Road Fudge, follow the recipe above, using walnuts and adding three cups of mini marshmallows. I also made a batch using dark chocolate chips with chopped dried cranberries (about half a cup) and 1 cup of pistachios. I made some of that last night, and it is good and rich in antioxidants.

I did say that the amount of time to make the fudge is minimal, but be warned that the clean-up is sticky. You will certainly have to wash the can opener. Why doesn’t condensed milk come in a pop-top can?

If you are unwilling to add to the caloric load of the season with a gift of food, then I have another idea for a homemade gift:  Write a letter to your gift recipient. The power of  written communication is mighty. If you need a recipe for your letter, here is a simple one addressed to Joe. Please change “Joe” to the name of your recipient.

            Salutation:  Dear Joe

            Paragraph 1:  Wish Joe a happy holiday season.

            Paragraph 2:  Tell Joe that you are grateful to know him, and give at least one reason why.

            Paragraph 3: Recall a memory that you share with Joe, and why you recall that memory

            with fondness.

            Paragraph 4: Express your desire to experience more happy times with Joe in the new year.

            Closing:  Sign your name.

It isn’t difficult, and it is a great deal less sticky than making fudge or even cookies. Don’t worry about perfection in spelling or punctuation, because perfection is not the goal. I made a batch of Rocky Road last night, and realized as I was cutting it this morning that I had forgotten to add the vanilla. But it doesn’t really matter. I sampled it, and it tasted delicious.

That’s the magic of Christmas. Our gift offerings, even when they are flawed, are valuable.

Merry Christmas!

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Easter eggs

Photo: While unable to write anything, I did manage to create a nest from yarn (drape glue-soaked yarn over inflated balloon; pop balloon when dry) and decorate a few Easter eggs. I did the two-toed thumbprint biddy, my sister did the caterpillar. This counts as an appropriate illustration because Fabergé made both eggs and icons. So ha.

We can compare an icon to a carefully constructed poem. Indeed this is why we call it icon “writing” instead of “painting.” Every “word” or element fits very concisely and precisely to contribute to the overall meaning and integrity of the whole. – Marek Czarnecki

Photo: While unable to write anything, I did manage to create a nest from yarn (drape glue-soaked yarn over an inflated balloon and let dry, then pop the balloon) and decorate a few Easter eggs. This counts as an appropriate illustration because Fabergé made both eggs and icons. So ha.

One of the tricks of icons: paint it 50 times. Also: do not be realistic. Also: use gold that will shine out of shadows, and eyes that will follow you. Icons aren’t really windows. Because they aren’t representational, they are actually the presence of Heaven. It’s Catholic (Western Rome) tradition that features windows that open, beyond which is Heaven. In the Orthodox tradition, saints are sanctified by the belief of believers only, with no canonization process needed other than the devotion of repetitive layers of paint, which is a lot of devotion to be sure! Like making a pie. – Harold Rhenisch

I wanted so much to write an icon. It would be nice to find all of the right words, arrange them concisely and precisely, and wind up with a story that is haunting in its intensity and as tasty as pie. But I can’t seem to do that. I’ve been sitting here at the computer for days and days, completely unable to write anything in spite of having been so inspired by my new pie basket with its mandala lid.

I blame the whole idea of icons, which are beautiful but scary. Trying to make my ordinary writing fit into my mental image of what an icon should be brought me to a complete standstill. Then today I stumbled across an old piece I wrote about writing, in which I preached blithely that one must treat writing as an adventure, to be approached with joy! In fact, here’s exactly what I said, if you think you can stand it:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public. – Winston Churchill

A writing project is an adventure, and one of the first and most important tricks to success is to approach it as one. Gear yourself up for it by anticipating how well it is going to go and how much fun it will be. Imagine launching a kayak into a river or floating in an inner tube down a mountain stream. The words, like the water, will flow easily and take you exactly where you want to go. Don’t forget to wear a helmet.

The second trick is to maintain perspective. Remind yourself that you are good at what you do. You are intelligent, and capable, and interesting. Once you leap into your writing project, all of those characteristics—and thousands more that are unique to you—will be at your disposal to get you moving.

The third trick is to focus your attention. Your project will not be as successful if you are not giving it your full attention. This does not mean straining and forcing your mind to labor over the task; it means thinking about your topic and your purpose and then applying the first two tricks by reminding yourself: This is an adventure I am well-equipped to enjoy. If after gearing up mentally you find that you still face a blank screen or page with an equally blank mind, try this: Recall a time when you were feeling particularly creative. It can be from as far back as kindergarten, when you were happily stringing colorful beads on a piece of yarn. Writing is simply a more complex type of bead-stringing, after all. Banish your fears and concerns about it, and try to regain that spirit of calm absorption you feel while doing something relaxing and enjoyable. Isn’t it wonderful that you can bring back that peaceful feeling right now? And isn’t it much nicer to look at the blank page while feeling that way than it was to slump down and bang your forehead on the desk?

Why yes, it certainly is. But lately my writing projects have skipped the toy and amusement stages and gone straight to tyranny.

bunny jars

Another thing I did while I wasn’t writing was I put some Lindt chocolate bunnies inside little jars with Wilton candy grass (left) and paper grass (right) as nesting materials. Yeah, I don’t know why I did this, either, except that I saw it in Martha Stewart’s magazine and knew it was something that even I could manage successfully.

I did find a nice set of Rules for an Icon Painter online that I thought might be helpful, like a sort of recipe to make a pie. I borrowed the first three rules and adapted them for my own use in writing:

  1. Before starting work, pray in silence & pardon your enemies.
  2. Work with care on every detail of your ikon, as if you were working in front of the Lord Himself.
  3. During work, pray in order to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually; avoid above all useless words and keep silence.

Do you ever read the reviews of Internet recipes? There is always at least one that says, “Really enjoyed this recipe, which I followed to the letter except that I didn’t have ground beef so I used ham, and then I added a can of black beans to the sauce and substituted crushed pretzels for the sour cream because my family is lactose intolerant.” That’s basically how I treated the Rules for an Icon Painter, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I never did end up with a digestible pie.

But I have several Easter treats to show for my trouble, and all my enemies have been pardoned.

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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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Last weekend the Jehovah’s Witnesses returned, reminding me of my plan to create Tracts for the Pleasant Life that I can force on people who come to the house uninvited.  Tract #1 was a solid success, and it’s time to continue the series—because you never know when the Witnesses might be mobilized again, and I need to update the tracts as often as they update The Watchtower.

Tracts for the Pleasant Life #2: Woodlands in Fall

There are wooded areas nearly everywhere. Even if you don’t live near the country, look for clusters of trees in parks, bands of trees running like stitches behind and between subdivisions, and tiny groves in your own back yard. If all else fails, and you find yourself fenced off from every stand of trees that you’d like to visit, go to a nursery or garden center and pretend the rows of root-wrapped trees are really a forest on its way to a new location.

Scarlet and gold with the fall colors, the woods beckoned me. …

As I walked along and the trees grew more dense, the light became more muted. I relished all the color about me and loved the great thickness of the tree trunks and the pleasing shapes of the oak and maple leaves.  – Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer

Woodlands do have a different air and light and sound, especially in fall when the leaves lisp underfoot and the sun, no matter where it really is in the sky, seems tangled in the treetops where it burns yellow, orange, and red.  And the scent of the woods in autumn is interesting, like strong brewed tea, tart fruit, and a hint of something like tobacco.

[S]eams of blood-red maple and dogwood shoot through the strata of golden beech, pale yellow poplar, elm and hazel, and the violin-browns of chestnut and oak. – Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

I love that line about the “violin-browns of chestnut and oak.”  I can practically  taste the trees in that passage, and it tastes like I’m munching on walnuts or pecans.

Now That I Am in a Wooded Area, What’s the
Most Pleasant Thing to Do?

There are many pleasant activities that you can pursue while in the woods. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Chase falling leaves, and save a colorful one that you particularly like.
  2. Climb a tree, preferably one with yellow leaves, and pretend you’re sitting in a sunny room. If you don’t care for heights—or if most of the leaves are already under the tree—sit beneath the tree instead. You’ll get the same effect.
  3. Swing—on a vine or on a limb by your arms. Test the limb for stability first, and try not to swing yourself into another tree. (Note: Don’t try this in the temporary forest of your local garden center.)
  4. If there is a creek in the woods, remove any fallen leaves that may be clogging the flow. This is a very satisfying activity, so be warned that you may lose a largish chunk of time while doing it.

Those are just the things that I like to do. You may have other ideas.

Speaking of pecans and walnuts, it seems fitting that I should continue to include a recipe on my tracts, perhaps as a tear-off card. So here’s my mom’s recipe for Spicy Pecans. They are simple to prepare and mildly addictive. They are also a lovely violin-brown and reminiscent of a violin in shape, too, I think.

Best of all, they are a gift from the trees.

Spicy Pecans

Toast 2 cups of pecans in a 300° F oven for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
As the pecans toast, melt ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) of unsalted butter.
In a large bowl, mix 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of soy sauce and 1 teaspoon of hot sauce into the melted butter.
Stir the pecans in the savory butter until thoroughly coated, then drain them on paper towels.
When dry, place the pecans in an airtight container.
Or eat them while you walk in the woods.

Photo:  The Missouri Botanical Garden, Saturday, October 20th

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Magic isn’t always pretty; sometimes it’s intentionally creepy. This weekend I carved our Halloween pumpkin—or, to be more precise, Ernesto used a 2″ bit on his cordless drill and drilled seven holes in about 14 seconds. This method meant that a plug was left behind in the pumpkin, which had to be extracted. And because it was difficult to get a good grip on them, and because they were still firmly attached to pumpkin pulp and seeds and sinew in the middle of the fruit, they did not come out willingly.

“Go get the corkscrew,” Ernesto said, wiping strings of wet pumpkin drool off his drill.  So I did, and when I brought it back outside Ernesto used it to quickly and efficiently remove all the plugs. Once that was done, all I had to do was clean out the holes a bit and then place my rubber rats (three for $1!) in various holes, in various positions. Don’t they look nasty?

Magic is nearly always unexpected. For the past several days Ernesto has been looking for a particular book—One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. We both love that book, and finally last night after several failed attempts to find his Spanish copy amid the ridiculous number of books in our attic, Ernesto asked me to order a Spanish-language copy for the Kindle. I did.

“Here it is,” I said, passing him the Kindle.

He looked at it, then handed it right back to me. “Read it out loud,” he said.

This was a surprise. Because I know the story, I could understand a lot of it, and as I read Ernesto would translate (and correct my lousy Spanish pronunciation), and when it was a wonderful piece of Garcia Márquez silliness we would both laugh. Here’s a sample in English:

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Gypsies visit the village each spring, bearing magical things that they’ve found in their travels around the world. They bring ice to the village for the first time, and later a telescope and a magnifying glass. But listen to this description of the time the gypsies bring magnets:

A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration…. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind the Melquíades’ magical irons. “Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”

There are three levels of magic at work here—no, there are four. First is the simple magic of wishing you had a certain book, and then having it in hand five seconds and $5.99 later. Second is the magic of the story that Garcia Márquez tells. Third is the magic of sharing a book that we loved. Each line, first read in Spanish, then explained in English, gave us a chance to enjoy it fresh, and together. I am hoping that the fourth level of magic will happen, over time—that I will begin to learn Spanish, finally. (After Solitude, we have Spanish copies of Love in the Time of Cholera and Diary of a Shipwrecked Sailor, so there is a great deal of Garcia Márquez lying about to further that cause.)

For my final magic trick of the weekend, I made pumpkin pie bars. They have so many ingredients in them that it’s ridiculous—not a long list of ingredients, you understand, but they have an extravagance of certain items: two tubes of chocolate chip cookie dough, seven eggs, two blocks of cream cheese, two cans of pumpkin, and three tablespoons of pumpkin pie spice!  Add sugar and a splash of vanilla, assemble everything in a 13 X 9 pan, and you’re pretty much done. The cookie dough forms the bottom crust, and the spiced pumpkin and cream cheese mixtures are added separately and then swirled. Well, it seemed like too much, but I did it anyway only I held back one of the eggs. The finished product weighs about 30 pounds, but good?  Holy smoke, they are magically delicious. And we have such a huge number of them that I expect they will last for at least one hundred years. I wish I could magically come to where you are and give you some. 

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. 

– Roald Dahl

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Pound cake under glass: Making life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant.

I complained to my parents recently that, finding myself at home on a work day, I had to get up three separate times to answer the doorbell. “There was a flower delivery, which was fine, a political survey regarding Todd Akin, and a Jehovah’s Witness,” I told them. “You can’t imagine how many times the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in our neighborhood, spreading around copies of The Watchtower.”

“You should write up some tracts of your own, and give those out in return,” my dad said.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. It’s a brilliant idea. I have plenty of advice that I’d like to dispense, and mine is less aggravating and more useful than what I’ve seen in The Watchtower. And since Jennifer Stuart commented recently that she would like to try my pound cake recipe, and I am very fond of Jennifer, I decided to start with it. So I bring you Tract #1 in the Pleasant Life Series: Pound Cake.

Tracts for the Pleasant Life #1: Pound Cake

This recipe is my favorite for pound cake. It comes from Carolina Cooking (1990), produced by the North Carolina chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America (“Answering the call of those in need”). It is important to note the following printed disclaimer:  “This cookbook is a collection of our favorite recipes which are not necessarily original recipes.”

Heavenly Pound Cake was contributed by Mable Bullard. I have rewritten her recipe to include some of my own notes, but the general idea, original or not, is all Mable.

Heavenly Pound Cake

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 box confectioner’s sugar (1 lb.)
5 eggs
2 cups sifted cake flour (or 2 cups regular flour, with 2 tablespoons removed)
½ teaspoon lemon extract (or almond extract, if you prefer)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10″ tube or bundt pan. (I use Baker’s Joy, a spray-on flour and oil mixture. It may not be nice to inhale, but it’s much less messy to apply and the cake pops out of the pan beautifully.)

Cream butter with sugar.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Alternate adding flavorings with flour, beating very well between each addition. Beat an additional 2-3 minutes just for good luck, and because a stern beating makes for a finer cake.  Bake for approximately 1 hour, until golden brown.  Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate or wire rack to cool completely. If chunks of crust fall off, it is natural—indeed, expected—that the baker shall eat them.

[Note: The photo above is of a smaller pound cake baked in June 2012. I almost made a Heavenly Pound Cake today; I went so far as to take five eggs out of the refrigerator. But ultimately I didn’t feel much like it so I put the eggs back and dug up this photo instead.]

The recipe and photo would appear on the front of my tract. The reverse side would contain the following text:

Now That I’ve Baked a Pound Cake, What’s the Most Pleasant Use for It?

Having successfully baked a pound cake, you may find yourself asking this question and puzzling over the very pleasant possibilities:

  1. You can eat the entire thing by yourself (not necessarily in a single sitting).
  2. You can share it with others.
  3. You can give it away entirely.
  4. You can freeze it  and decide later.

There are no wrong answers, but all of us here at Tracts for the Pleasant Life (i.e., me) would submit that sharing it or giving it away—now or in the future—will be most satisfying in the long run. Plus, either course of action conforms nicely with the philosophy of the Telephone Pioneers of America.

If you are still not convinced, then we ask you to consider this quote from Aldous Huxley, who as far as we know was not acquainted with either Mable Bullard or the Telephone Pioneers of America, but whose words seem tailor-made for this occasion (to a frightening degree):

If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution—then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise.

Indeed.  Thus endeth Tract #1.

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