Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Rally Cat and Other Four Legged Friends

A few nights ago, the small grey cat streaked across center field of Busch Stadium like the proverbial “bat out of h***” the very least….its fifteen minutes of fame.  The crowd was riveted to to the big screen struggle between the young groundskeeper and terrified animal, but after those two actors leaped into the stands and vanished into the maw of the stadium, Yadier Molina created an even bigger sensation when he launched a grand slam homer, putting the Cards ahead in a moment that was Roy Hobbs the view of ecstatic Cardinal fans, like us!
Wednesday night, #RallyCat shared the spotlight.  Wednesday night, we were all cat people. general, that has not been the case.  Dogs have been the critters in our family pictures…Nip and Tuck and Skaggs on one side...Frisky and Silver on the other.  Of course, Millie has always had chickens and my dad had cattle as soon as he had pastures for them.  Laura and I were proud owners of Brownie, but even though she was named, it was strictly a business relationship. Nip and Tuck were the Labs that flung themselves, slobbering and barking, upon our Dodge Dart when we pulled into the driveway at Granny’s house. They greeted us in the same way, tackling us with their giant paws and giant jaws as soon as we stepped out the back door of the car. It was always a terrifying experience.

Compared to Nip and Tuck of memory, Juno, our first dog, was as gentle as she was large and calm despite her Doberman/German Shepherd heritage.  She loved Blake and became the consummate farm dog companion when she was transplanted from the duplex we lived in the last year of college to a life of pickup seats, wide open windows, and standing on the tool box in the back with her ears streaming behind her.  As far as I know, she only fell off once and climbed out of the ditch and jumped back into the truck with more damage to her dignity than injury from the tumble.  

Juno’s great doggy friend was Barney, Nancy’s beagle.  He was a wanderer, traveling from farm to farm to visit and staying until Nancy physically hauled him back to their house.  Even after they were both old and gray, Barney would find his way the six or seven miles through the country to our farm to visit his friend. He would stay for weeks while we enjoyed the sight of the two old dogs napping companionably under the shade of the elms.  

When the girls were old enough to be enamored with pets, we tended to acquire puppies in pairs.  Tommy and Holly, two black and white mutts with mirror image personalities: Tommy never knew a stranger and would roll over for a scratching before he was introduced, but Holly, who had been hit by a pickup early in life, was cautious, aloof, with sad black eyes. Tommy and Holly and I had a love hate relationship during their puppyhood.  Every time I planted something in the yard...a tree, a shrub, a rose, a perennial of any kind, they found it and dug it up.  We made our peace, but I spent an intense and angry spring chasing them through the yard, screaming imprecations that they couldn’t understand, and attempting to flail them around the ears with whatever desiccated plant carcass they had literally unearthed.

During these full house years, word evidently went out on the doggie grapevine that we were soft touches when it came to canines.  Every dog dumped heartlessly along our gravel road made its way to our dog dish. And some lovable scamps they were:  Frisky, a beautiful black puppy with a penchant for pulling clothes off the line; Mister, a raggedy long haired black and white critter with a desire to dance; and Bob, an enormous well mannered giant with a passion for fetching fireworks.  All three passed through giving us at one time or another, a population of five dogs on the farmstead along with the unnumbered unnamed cats; no wonder any stranger to our farm tended to wait in the car.

The very last stray appeared, like Mary mother of Jesus, pregnant in the deep of winter.  She was a cautious quiet nervous black dog, that we found hiding in the straw in our old shed very near Christmas time.  And, sure enough, she delivered her puppies in the barn….eight of them...and thus she became Mama Dog for all the rest of her life.  The puppies ranged from cocoa to chocolate to black and were cute as could be.  Ann and Matt fell in love with a chocolate male, and Ike was their faithful, loving, though finicky, family member before Aaron, before Lizzie and before Josh.  Peanut wound up staying at the farm, spooky, gargantuan presence under the front porch; like her siblings, she had personality quirks and a thyroid problem to boot.   Mama Dog was a good friend, following us out to the greenhouses to work, though she was far too nervous to nap inside.  During the summer hours though, she would come down to the mum patches and and rest in the clover nearby, keeping watch over her people as long as we were out of doors.

Like the lyrics from a Lyle Lovett song, these are but a few of the furry friends that spent time with us.  Chickens from Grandma Millie.  Fish that lasted longer than anyone had a right to expect after their people decided cleaning the tank was too gross. Bubbles, the head butting bottle calf. Cats like Magnum, PI, the only pet Blake ever brought home, and Pumpkin, an enormous...yes, you guessed tabby.  Finally, Baby, the last named and most loving cat ever, who would climb upon my shoulder and curl herself around my neck, giving me both a purring massage and a fur stole.

“And there are more I remember
And more I could mention
Than words I could write in a song..”

Lyle Lovett, Family Reserve

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Comfort Food

Last week at this time I was seated in Amen Street in Charleston sharing a platter of Chincoteague oysters with my dearly beloved under an oyster shell chandelier, surrounded by parti-colored brick and watercolors of jazz musicians.  Our waiter recommended a William Hill chardonnay, but I should have followed my instincts and chosen the Chenin Blanc; nonetheless, if the  wine was pedestrian, it was the only part of the evening that was.

Chunky crabcakes and fried chicken sandwiches; hogfish with pureed cauliflower and omelets with grits; just baked cinnamon rolls dripping with buttery icing and glazed ‘dossants’, a square cross between a croissant and a doughnut with all the glaze and flakiness...and yes, fat of both its parents: this is just a sampling of the overeating we enjoyed during a few days in the Low Country.  Eating Southern seemed only polite after visiting the splendid exhibit “Feast Your Eyes” at the Myrtle Beach Art Museum.  Beginning with porcelain oysters, knives and chandelier, and progressing through the food groups: yams, beans, bacon, BBQ, berries, chicken, Crisco, and finally peach and pecan pie, each artwork is accompanied by a literary reference, so beautifully written, they made my mouth water.

And that brings me around the long way to food and our family.  Long before anyone other than the Sunday paper food editor featured gorgeous spreads of juicy vittles created from exotic ingredients, the eaters in our family memorialized the cooks in writing, for better…..or for worse...but mostly in high praise and appreciation.

My mother and my grandmothers were the cooks I first remember.  Granny knew how to fill a table: meat, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, bread and dessert...much of it home raised from my grandpa’s garden and canned or frozen in the steamy brick oven that was their galley kitchen.  This was workaday food, big pots full to feed a big table...or two.  I know her kids had favorite dishes, but the family cookbook is full of recipes that note, “Mom always made (name the food) and this recipe is almost like it”, so my guess is that Granny cooked by the seat of her pants from the foods in her cellar and freezer and everyone always ate it.

The dishes I remember my Grandma Froerer cooking are fried chicken and mashed potatoes...with gravy for the potatoes, though I was too young and ignorant to appreciate it.  I made a major production out of making the lake for the big hunk of butter to melt in.  Yum!  She also made veal birds, also fried, but I didn’t like those as well as her chicken.  She made yellow cake from scratch and chunky lumps of oatmeal cookies. Both of these she bathed in hand beaten caramel frosting...the nectar of the gods.  As she got older, she always baked pineapple upside down cake, a dish I haven’t had for thirty five years, I’ll bet, ( though Millie used to bake them a long time ago).  The upside down cake was good too-- she had a generous measure with brown sugar--but it couldn’t quite match up to the frosting.

My mom was a marvelous baker and I can attribute my love for coffeecakes and breads to her.  
It’s a pretty good legacy!  Quick breads from apples and cherries and bananas and pumpkin….gooey rolls studded with plump raisins, dripping brown sugar and cinnamon and caramelized sugar as they were tipped carefully from the pan.  That same recipe, titled simply ‘Ma’s Coffeecake’ could be raised in two 9” pans, sprinkled with streusel and topped with pie cherries, apples or peaches. When the kids were young, a visit to Redbarn almost always meant coffeecake for breakfast.

And Grandma Millie is no slouch at baking either, though you’d never know it by talking to her!  The cake is always fallen...or the rolls are burnt...or bubble didn’t turn out right so she had to a) make another bubble...or b) make an entirely new German chocolate cake….or c) start all over again on a hand-beaten-from-scratch angelfood cake!  Despite her protestations, the dinner rolls, the bubbles, and the angelfood cakes are fit for royalty, gifts from hands and heart and no one else can touch them...even though she has generously tutored the next two generations of cooks.

The men may be  the most creative and most particular cooks of the family.  Freed from the challenge of getting something/anything on the table, Mark, Ryan, and Matt do what some of us women never seem to master: plan ahead...even though Matt will resort to chicken patties in the oven every so often as a summer lunch for the Schlueter kids.  Meats in all their aromatic smoked glory are something to anticipate when Matt, Ryan and even Ben take over the menu. In particular, I admire the careful use of herbs, a far cry from my dash of this, some more of that, and liberal dollop of Tabasco when the results aren’t lively enough…..

One of my fondest food memories will be the good-natured ribbing every Thanksgiving between my aunts about baked beans.  Someone would be deputized to bring beans with the caveat that Liz would absolutely bring HER beans because THEY were the best baked beans.  I cannot tell you whether Aunt Anne’s beans or Aunt Liz’s beans were the best, for the simple fact that I wouldn’t waste a square inch on my Thanksgiving plate for baked beans when there was so many other seasonal treats covering every square inch of serving area.  Baked beans?  Heck, we ate those at least nine months out of the year!  But the gentle jesting happened every year and was part of the togetherness and tradition that is the reason we all cook. It’s why Lee makes all the pies, why I overdo it on Ann’s cucumber dip in the summertime and why Millie complains...every Christmas...that the gravy didn’t thicken…....