Category Archives: MEMORIES

THE JOY OF PENPALS IN 2016

My Very first penpal was a distant cousin that I met when my family visited hers in Detroit; I was 9 or 10 at the time. Pat & I became friends and exchanged addresses and corresponded for a while. My next penpal, I believe, was a Vietnamese girl who was attending high school in New York State. During my freshman year, teachers asked if we wanted to exchange addresses with girls attending the NY school. Anne’s family were political refugees–in the mid 50s! and sought sanctuary in the United States. We corresponded until after graduating from high school.

I don’t think I thought a lot about penpals for a few years, while getting married and becoming a mother I married in December of 19 58 and my first son Michael was born in September of 1960. . We moved to California in 1961 and I began corresponding with friends and family in Ohio.

I began subscribing to Women’s Circle in the mid 1960s. Specifically, I think I “discovered” WC in 1965. I think I began finding the magazine on the magazine racks of the supermarket where we shopped. Around that same time, I became interested in collecting cookbooks. Simultaneously, a friend of mine told me about a Culinary Arts Institute cookbook on Hungarian cuisine that she was searching for.

“I bet I know where we can find it!” I told her. I wrote a letter to Women’s Circle, asking for the cookbook, offering to pay cash. As an afterthought, I added that I was interested in buying/exchanging for old cookbooks, particularly club-and-church cookbooks. Little did I suspect what an avalanche of mail would fill my mailbox when my letter was published! I received over 250 letters. We purchased several of the Hungarian cookbooks and I began buying/trading for many other cookbooks which formed the nucleus of my cookbook collection. And I have to tell you something that I think was pretty spectacular—I was never “cheated” or short-changed by anyone. Even more spectacular were the friendships that I formed, as a result of that one letter, which still exist to this day.

One of the first letters I received was from another cookbook collector, a woman who lived in Michigan. Betsy and I—both young mothers at the time (now both grandmothers)—have remained pen-pals for over fifty years, while our children grew up, married, and had children of their own.

The first time I met Betsy and her husband, Jim, they drove from Michigan to Cincinnati, where I was visiting my parents, to pick up me and my children, so that we could spend a week visiting them in Michigan. A few years later, my friends repeated the gesture – driving hundreds of miles to Cincinnati to pick us up and then returning us to my parents a week or so later. On one of those trips, I took my younger sister Susie along with us and we all have fond memories of going blueberry picking at a berry farm. We visited the Kellogg factory and went to some of the flea markets where you could find hundreds of club-and-church cookbooks for as little as ten cents each (remember, this was the 1960s!). On one of those visits, I met Betsy’s British pen-pal, Margaret, who was also visiting. We had such a wonderful time together.

Around this same time, I responded to a letter written to “WOMEN’S CIRCLE” by an Australian woman (whose name I no longer can recall). She received such a flood of letters from the USA that she took them to her tennis club, spread them out and said “If anyone would like an American pen-friend, here you are!” A young woman named Eileen—who was, like myself, married to a man named Jim, and—like me—also had a son named Steven—chose my letter. We’ve been corresponding ever since. In 1980, when we were living in Florida, we met Eileen and Jim for the first time and from the time they got off the plane and walked up to us, it was just like greeting an old friend or relative. (We liked—and trusted—them so much that we lent them our camper to drive around the USA). When they reached Los Angeles, they contacted, and met, friends of ours who lived in the San Fernando Valley. About a year later, our friends from California were visiting us, when the best friends of my Aussie friends’ (who lived in London) contacted us in Miami and paid us a visit. The following year, when my California friends visited London, they paid a return visit to their new London acquaintances.

(I hope you have followed all of this). I think during those decades when penpals became fast and lasting friends with one another it was sort of like belonging to a particularly friendly club, whether you MET in person or not.

Another young woman who wrote to me (around 1974, we think) was a housewife/mother who lives near Salem, Oregon. She wrote in response to a letter that I had written to Tower Press, noting that we shared the same birthday. In 1978, my husband and children and I drove to Oregon in our camper, where we met my pen-pal and her family. I’ve lost count of the number of times they have visited us in California. And yes, we’re still penpals.

Another pen-pal acquired in the 1960s was my friend Penny, who lives in Oklahoma. We first visited Penny and her husband Charles and their three sons in 1971, on our way to Cincinnati for a summer vacation. We spent a night at Penny’s and were sent on our way the next morning with a bagful of her special chocolate chip cookies. What I remember most about that visit was my father’s reaction when we arrived in Cincinnati. He kept asking, “How do you know these people in Oklahoma?” (The concept of pen-pals was a foreign one to both my parents. I think they sometimes wondered what planet their middle daughter was from!)

Two other pen-pals were acquired when we moved to Florida. Lonesome and homesick, I wrote yet another letter to Women’s Circle, and mentioned my love of Christmas (and preparing for it all year long). One of these was a woman in Louisiana and the other was an elderly widowed lady who lived in my home state of Ohio. Years later, I think both ladies passed away and had no one to notify me.

Before everyone owned a computer and Internet services flooded the market – we had Prodigy. The concept of Prodigy, at that time, was to offer bulletin boards to which you could write, asking for friends, recipes, whatever. It was through Prodigy that I became acquainted with my friend Pat and her husband Stan. We met for the first time when Bob & I went to the L.A. County Fair one year. Pat & Stan came to visit us at our motel in Pomona; they lived in nearby Covina. Eventually, Prodigy would be overcome by AOL, Earthlink, Juno—and the dozens of other Internet services which have changed our lives so drastically. I think the one greatest thing about the Internet is that it has brought so many of our family members and friends back together again.

I don’t know when I acquired a penpal in Ithica, New York—a girlfriend named Lisa, who, at this time, still doesn’t have a computer and writes all handwritten letters to me. (sometimes I respond in pen and ink and sometimes I type letters).

In 2006, I acquired two Canadian penpal girlfriends—ten years later, our friendships are going strong, whether by handwritten letters, emails—or visits in person. One thing these two friends and I have done is provide names and phone numbers of family members—just in case one of us falls out of contact for whatever reason. These two friends are as near and dear to me as sisters but none of us are spring chickens anymore.

You would be surprised to know that writing letters is NOT a forgotten art—there are many of us alive and well and a handwritten letter is such a welcome sight in our mail boxes.

Sincerely Yours,

Sandra Lee Smith

BAD FOOD – UPDATED

BAD FOOD. UPDATED

(PREVIOUSLY POSTED 2011)

We’ve all had experiences with “bad food” – food prepared improperly or maybe not agreeable to our taste buds.

Topping my list of “Bad Food” would be my mother’s library-paste rice and Hasenpfeffer (sweet and sour rabbit). The smell of the marinade in which my mother soaked the rabbit made me sick to my stomach. I knew it would be on the table in the next few days—only recently did I discover how my younger brother Bill side-stepped anything he didn’t like that was going to be dinner one night—he would hang around at Aunt Dolly’s until she asked him if he wanted to eat with them. Of course he did! (It never occurred to me that a person could deliberately skip a meal).

Mom didn’t have much talent with cabbage, either. She would put it on to boil around 9 am so it would be slimy mush by dinnertime. My sister Becky shuddered at the memory of mom’s lima beans while we all pinched our noses remembering the smell of kidney stew. (Maybe not Bill—he LIKED kidney stew).

My mother’s philosophy seemed to be, if the recipe required one or two hours cooking time, all day would be much better. Granted, we never suffered the ill effects of eating undercooked food and dinner could sometimes be a mystery, guessing what was in the pot. I was an adult living in California before I discovered how wonderful a pilaf rice can taste or how delicious corned beef and cabbage is when the cabbage hasn’t boiled all day.

I was born on the brink of World War II and many groceries were rationed or simply unavailable. My mother stretched her ten-dollars-a-week grocery allowance by cooking a lot of organ meats, which were cheap and un-rationed (liver, kidneys, tongue, heart and BRAINS). Ew, ew. No, don’t tell me it tastes just like scrambled eggs.

And, a child’s imagination can run amuck with the names of certain things. Take “head cheese”. Actually, it’s not a cheese but a lunchmeat, served cold–but do you know why it’s called “head cheese”? It was made with the head of a calf or a pig. As for my own particular aversion to stewed rabbit, I’m not sure which I despised the most – the rabbit or the occasional BB that might be found floating in the gravy. We only had hasenpfeffer when my father went rabbit hunting. The rabbits were cleaned at the kitchen sink; some things are better done out of the sight of small children. After I watched my then-husband clean fish shortly after we were married, I only ate fish sticks for several years. I think the only kind of fish my mother ever cooked were salmon patties (which, oddly enough is one of my comfort foods) but bear no resemblance to creatures that once swam in the ocean.

All of which only demonstrates that much of the visceral reaction we experience with certain foods can be traced to how the food was prepared, along with the deep-seated American aversion to eating some parts of an animal but not others (such as brains, liver, kidneys) .

I became curious about bad recipes initially when I read that many recipes in cookbooks aren’t actually tested prior to publication.

Have you ever followed a recipe in a reputable cookbook, only to find the results dismally disappointing? After many years of cooking, I can generally tell just from reading a recipe whether it sounds right to me. My curiosity about bad recipes was piqued when someone sent me a food section from an old newspaper. The author opens the article, titled “IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE RECIPE” by relating the story of a lady whose hobby is trying recipes until she finds the perfect one. In her quest for the perfect crab cake, this cook tried many different versions including several provided by notable cookbook authors. “They were soggy little balls of yuck,” she reported. “Even my husband wouldn’t touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting.”

It may surprise you to learn that most cookbook publishers have no test kitchens. Most newspapers don’t either, and consequently, they can’t test every recipe they print from a cookbook. Most recipes are printed as they appear in cookbooks or from wire services. And while cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers.

Added to the mistakes that may be made somewhere between the writing of the cookbook and its publication, there is another important element to all of this. It translates to the difference between the kitchen of the cookbook author and the kitchen of the person who purchased the cookbook.

One writer noted, “… the curious truth about recipes is that they often produce dramatically different results in different hands in different kitchens…recipes are only partly science; following a recipe is not like solving a quadratic equation. There is play involved, wiggle room, variance, uncertainty, and the person in charge has to know how to adjust.”

I’ll always remember my neighbor Lynn, in Florida, who managed to burn every batch of chocolate chip cookies. It was a recipe I had given to her.

“Lynn!” I said “That’s the recipe on the bag of Nestle Toll House morsels—it’s foolproof!” So I went next door to investigate and discovered that she was tightly squeezing two cookie sheets side by side on her single baking rack. The air couldn’t circulate and the cookies burned.

Over the years, my own cooking/baking techniques have improved (I think) with age. I am also the owner of an old (1940s vintage) Wedgewood stove that requires a little pampering on occasion. I seldom try to bake more than one tray of cookies at a time because the oven isn’t big enough and a second rack would either be too close to the bottom or too near the top. I often make up cookie dough and then just bake one or two dozen for us to eat, refrigerating the remaining cookie dough for another day. I indulge myself with an ample supply of parchment paper to line the cookie sheets. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it, when my sons were growing up. We also ate a lot of spaghetti when my sons were children and to this day, my son Kelly doesn’t particular care to eat spaghetti no matter how good it may be. (They DID all like spaghetti with Cincinnati chili, though. (it’s a Cincinnati thing, spaghetti with chili).

Bottom line, maybe it’s not bad food but actually bad cook. But, I still don’t eat rabbit—no matter how it’s cooked. Do you have a particular aversion to a certain food or the way it’s cooked?

Happy Cooking!

–Sandy

FOR THE LOVE OF BOOKS

Mark Twain once said “Those who don’t read good books have no advantage over those who can’t”.

Before I ever embarked on a quest to collect as many cookbooks as I could, I was interested in two particular authors; one was Norah Lofts, perhaps the most prolific fiction novel author in my collection (*There are undoubtedly other authors who have written as many if not more novels than Norah Lofts—but I am referencing just those authors whose work I have collected). I began collecting the works of Norah Lofts around in 1965, about the same time I began collecting cookbooks. Norah Lofts’ published works is enormous—so much so that she has published works under other names. When I began collecting the fiction (as well as some non-fiction) works of Norah Lofts, I would buy two or three copies for a girlfriend here in California—as well as for a penpal in Australia. You could often find one of her titles for about a dollar each. My collection of Norah Lofts is undoubtedly incomplete, as I discovered when I began finding titles published in the United Kingdom but not always in the USA. The Internet has changed all that!

Another much-loved author was Janice Holt Giles. I think I began searching for her titles in roughly the same time period as I was searching for Norah Lofts. Again, I would buy more than one copy of JHG’s novels—one for me, one for girlfriend Connie – and sometimes one for my Aussie penpal. I think I have all of Giles’ published titles—several were published after she passed away, by the University Press of Kentucky, (I was in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Newport, Kentucky, with a nephew, grabbing up reprints and newly published copies of Giles’ books and I exclaimed to the cashier “I can’t believe how many of my favorite Kentucky authors you have on your shelves” – to which he drawled, “well, MAM, You ARE in Kentucky!” My nephew Russ and I laughed all the way back across the bridge to Cincinnati.

Kentucky was Giles’ home for most of her life—and the setting, often, for one of her novels. I once wrote a letter to Giles, in appreciation for one of my favorite novels, “The Believers” – she sent me a typewritten response, mentioning that the day she received MY letter, she also received a letter from a fan in another state, also about The Believers. It was through Giles’ novels that I developed a love for and an abiding appreciation for American pioneers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.

Another favorite fiction author of mine—but one who only wrote a few novels—was a woman named Ardyth Kennelly. “The Peaceable Kingdom” was followed by a sequel, “Up Home” and are two books I have read repeatedly. The setting was Salt Lake City and the period of time was when Polygamy was being practiced. Also published was “Marry Me, Carry Me” and “The Spur”.
I am aware through the Internet that Kennelly had many other publications and works, not necessarily fiction novels; she passed away in 2005 at the age of 92. “Variation West” is a 2014 novel published posthumously and I don’t have that one yet. (I found an excellent article about Ardyth Kennelly in Wikipedia, for anyone who wants more information about Kennelly’s life.)

I remember back in the 1970s, when I took my young children to Ohio for the summer, taking my kid brother with me to downtown Cincinnati to explore the extensive shelves of a large used book store named Acre of Books—I had begun collecting cookbooks but still searched for books by any of my favorite authors; it is one of the major blessings of the Internet that you don’t have to search for the bookstores or their contents—it all comes to you via the Internet.

I would search for anything by Janice Holt Giles, Norah Lofts, Ardyth Kennelly—and some others. I had not yet discovered many of the authors whose works I would search for, and collect, for my own bookshelves. I also started a steno notebook of the business cards for bookstores that crossed my path—as well as the telephone book yellow pages in the cities I visited spanning several decades of my adult life – B.I. (before internet). It came as a distinct shock when, in 2008, my Canadian penpal Sharon and I stopped to visit a favorite book store in San Luis Obispo – only to find it gone; all that remained was an empty store front. Obviously, what the country gained in Internet services providing vendors throughout the country, we lost something vital to the life’s blood of any avid book lover….actually being there, browsing, touching, finding—and buying books.

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. – P. J. O’Rourke

And one of my favorites: Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book. –Author Unknown**

One of my favorite chefs, Louis Szathmary arrived, in his own words, “virtually penniless” in New York in 1951, with only fourteen books in his small wooden trunk. He appeared to have been fond of telling the story of arriving on our shores with $1.10 in his pocket, one change of underwear, two pairs of socks, one Sunday suit – and fourteen books. (It is worth noting that the 14 books Szathmary treasured most were not donated to any of the universities. The books he carried with him to America included a Bible he received as a child, three books on Mozart and several volumes of Hungarian poetry.

Upon his arrival in America, Szathmary began to collect books. Writes Szathmary, “My first purchase was a book by Ludwig Bemelmans at the Marlboro outlet store at 42nd Street and Broadway, where in 1952 all the remainder books were sold for nineteen cents each.” Szathmary confessed that he worked two jobs in the beginning, one during the day and another at night—and spent all the money he made on books. Of his early days in America, Szathmary said that he would spend hours in the Salvation Army basement searching for books, which he purchased for as little as five cents each. He said, “I rummaged through books in bins, on tables outside the door, and amid the garbage the accumulates in the back of used bookshops. I found treasures—valuable items—because I had the time.” Later, as time and money improved, he often worked at one job during the day and another in the evening. On the seventh day, he recalled, “I spent all the money I made on books.” (A man after my own heart!)
**
Szathmary’s confessions about buying books struck a chord in me; when I first started working full time at Western/Southern Life Insurance Company in downtown Cincinnati, where I was born, I often spent a portion of my paycheck on books that I found in thrift stores—sometimes in trays placed outside the entrance—for 25 cents each. Some times I found old early editions of Nancy Drew books. I wasn’t in the least interested in finding old books for their value—I wanted them because I wanted books; I didn’t want to just READ the books; I wanted to OWN them.

After Jim & I moved to California, my mother began sending my books to me and I began searching for used book stores in Burbank or North Hollywood, where we had settled. I found paperback mysteries at a used book store in North Hollywood, that I could buy for ten cents each. Michael was about 2 years old and in a stroller when I would walk to that bookstore in North Hollywood.

(I was a steady customer of another used book store in Burbank, on Magnolia, for decades—until the owner, Pete, passed away. When I would take all four sons to that book store, he’d warn me “I’m counting children! Make sure you leave with the right number!” What a fantastic bookstore THAT one was.

Are all the used book stores a thing of the past? Brand Bookshop in Glendale? Moe’s in Berkeley? Ravenscar Books in Sherman Oaks? The Book Village in Pasadena? David’s Books in Ann Arbor? After Words, also in Ann Arbor? Margaret Mannati in San Diego? Vintage Books in Vancouver (Washington)? Bart’s Books in Ojai, California? Madhatters’ Old Books in Langley, Washington? Phantom Bookshop in Ventura, California? Book Castle, Inc., Burbank, California? Shorey’s Used, Rare and New Books in Seattle, Wa? Simmer Pot Press/More than Just Cookbooks, in Boone, North Carolina? Yesterday’s Books in Washington, DC? Idle Time Books, also in Washington, DC? Earthling Book Shop and Café in Santa Barbara, CA? Again Books, also in Santa Barbara? Bookcellar in Carson City, NV? Timeless Books in Redding, CA? the Seattle Book Center, Seattle, WA? CODY’S BOOKS in Berkeley, CA? and one of my all-time favorite sources for cookbooks, MARION GORE BOOKSELLER in San Gabriel, CA? (I know, she has been gone for a long time—but not long ago I came across one of the annual booklets she would publish and send to customers. I met her once a long time ago.

And how about some of your favorite book stores?

The only redemption that we have is that many booksellers are now peddling their wares on sites like Amazon.com. It’s not the same thing as walking into a dusty used bookstore and spending hours browsing through their shelves—but it may be the next best thing—providing us access to hundreds of used bookstores of the past.

–Sandy@sandychatter

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT TIL IT’S GONE

(They paved paradise and put in a parking lot)

The following is an update to my post in October of 2011:

To all of my blog followers who may have been wondering ‘what’s new’ I apologize for not writing much throughout September. My significant other of 25 years passed away on September 22. He was not involved with my writing—and hardly knew a thing about computers—but I miss his presence. And if you’ve read the posts in my archive files, you would have found occasional references to Bob. Many of our projects over the decades were joint endeavors – when I canned jellies and jams, pickles and relishes, – it was Bob who hauled all of our entries to the Los Angeles County Fair. When we created a gingerbread house, he drew the blueprint for it–and together we put it together.

When we made sauerkraut, Bob was the person doing most of the shredding (I tend to cut my fingernails off).

And, I do have something new to write about; I went to Ohio for 6 days in 2011, to regroup amongst family and friends and a cousin gave me a cookbook that had belonged to our maternal grandmother, Barbara Beckman.

September 22 will mark the four year anniversary of Bob’s passing from this world to another where I often have one-way conversations with him—finding it remarkable that so often when I ask, aloud “Are you listening?” – something very apropos plays on the radio…there is a song about “Sandy” on the Fifties radio station and following it will be something else to remind me that he is listening. If you want to know if a loved one who has passed is really listening to whatever you have to say….then you have to really listen or pay attention to whatever is blooming in your yard or what birds are chirping –you have to be aware of your surroundings.

I always remember how a red cardinal bird appeared in our feeder exactly six months after my sister, Becky, passed away in 2004. I managed to take two photographs through our louvre windows before the red bird flew away; and I had the realization that it had been six months to the day that my sister passed away.

And I said aloud “now you really can fly!” – to the sister who always dreamed of flying and even took flying lessons at a small nearby airport in Cincinnati.

My sister passed away on October 10, 2004, late on a Sunday night. I had flown to Nashville and rented a car to get me to Castalian Springs; she suffered a great deal of pain and looked nothing like the older sister I loved so much. I believe Becky’s spirit hung around for a while after she died. For one thing, their house phone quit working. Becky’s husband angrily asked me if I was on their computer. I said no, I was nowhere near their computer. I called the telephone company on my cell phone the next day to report their telephone not working; they called back on Monday to say that they couldn’t find anything wrong with the telephone line. When one of my nephews arrived with his wife, I told my nephew and his wife about my experiences with their father, who became extremely hostile towards me after my sister passed away.

It would have cost me another $600 to fly back to California if I wanted to get another one-way ticket, so I waited it out. I think it was on Thursday that I accompanied my brother in law back to the funeral home to receive my sister’s ashes. One night I stood in the rain in their front yard, calling out to my sister. “Why did you wait for me to get here? I cried out, “You KNOW how your husband can be!”

I had begun sorting my sister’s clothing and other belongings when my brother in law insisted it would all end up in the dump. I called another nephew who lives in Cincinnati and he in turn called his youngest brother to tell him to get over there and help me with their mother’s clothing.

When I was finished, this youngest nephew and I took two carloads of Becky’s belongings to the Goodwill Store. I had sorted out nice pullover sweat shirts for her sons.

I think Becky held on as long as she did to life because she knew what her husband would do with her things.

When Becky chose to go home from the hospital to die, the doctors told her husband she would never last the week it took me to get a booked flight and make it to Nashville.

She did wait for me to get there. I think we are everlastingly bound in unity with our sisters or brothers, the people who have known us best in this life—the siblings we grew up with. Perhaps those ties also apply as well to parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents—as well as nieces and nephews. These are the ties that bind.

Thank you for your continued interest in Sandy’s Chatter.

–Sandra Lee Smith, August 9, 2015

KEEPING A PACKED PANTRY

In my last home, the Arleta house where Bob and I lived for nineteen years, we had a walk-in pantry off the laundry room. Originally, it had ceiling to floor shelves on the left side with a few shelves on the right that were large enough for storing small appliances. When Bob and I moved into the Arleta house in 1989, I pointed out how much more efficient the pantry would be with shelves on the right from top to bottom – with maybe a few across the back for good measure. I wish I had photographed that pantry after Bob added all the shelves. It was a kitchen-lovers-ideal pantry.

There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of cupboard shelves in that kitchen – enough for dishes and pots and pans with a small cupboard dividing the kitchen from the eating area ideal for glassware. Another small cupboard above that cupboard with the glassware was ideal for medicines—out of the reach of children, especially.

I loved that kitchen. When Jim and I first moved into the Arleta house in 1974, my girlfriend, Rosalia, made lovely gingham curtains for the kitchen. A camellia bush was right outside the front windows, enough to see out but no one could see in. (and the house sat a good ways back from the street). Out of all the places in which we lived throughout 26 years of marriage, my favorite was the Arleta house, owned by a girlfriend of mine.

I also loved that pantry – and I thoroughly enjoyed keeping it packed. It was during the 70s that we acquired some Latter Day Saint (Mormon) friends and I was intrigued by their belief of keeping a year’s worth of bottle water and staples on hand, in case of an emergency. Well, my then-husband, Jim, was self-employed with business precarious throughout most of our marriage. I was a stay at home mom for 12 years, returning to work full time in 1977—and when only one of you has a steady income, you have to be able to create meals out of almost anything – or almost nothing. We frequently had spaghetti—so often that one of my sons won’t eat it at all today. (and I couldn’t tell you the last time I cooked spaghetti for myself) – but back then, I kept as much dry spaghetti as would fit inside a large potato chip can. I also kept boxes of macaroni and cheese on hand (something growing boys would always eat).

When canned vegetables were on sale, I bought as many as I could fit on two of the pantry shelves. Sugar, flour, brown and granulated sugars, pancake mix and Bisquick are kept in large Tupperware storage containers.

My daughter in law and I were talking recently about an obsession she and I share – keeping pantry shelves well-stocked; we think it may have something to do with our childhood experiences of never feeling like there was enough to eat. My mother fed six of us with one can of peas, spinach—whatever.

For years, I wondered why my mother cooked almost no fresh vegetables—even the spinach was from a can The only vegetables I can remember my mother cooking were potatoes, carrots, some onion, sometimes celery—even peas were from a can.

The only kind of salmon we ever had came out of a can (and we all loved salmon patties) and there was the nefarious cabbage that my mother put on to cook around 9 am for dinner at 6 pm. I grew up thinking I HATED cabbage, beets, and rice—only to discover years later in California that it wasn’t the cabbage, beets or rice that I loathed – it was the way my mother cooked these things, cooking them all day long (mind you, crockpots hadn’t come along yet). I was an adult living in California before I discovered I LIKE rice – we called my mother’s rice “library paste rice” My brother Bill is the only person I know who likes the library paste rice.

It was a March St Patrick’s Day years later that I discovered how great Corned Beef and Cabbage is. And both my sister Becky and I loved canned peas cooked in a creamy white sauce ala Viola. It was one of the few things my mother cooked that we liked.

When my cousin, Renee, gave me the cookbook that had belonged to our maternal grandmother, I had an inkling of an understanding why my mother cooked everything to death—very old cookbooks advised cooking canned foods to beyond recognition—this reference to “canned” meant home-canned-foods. If you can vegetables, a good long boil will prevent you from getting botulism, in case there are any botulism toxin in the jar.

The cookbook author wasn’t referring to manufactured canned goods—but just as my maternal grandmother would have boiled things to death, so did my mother. And although I do a considerable amount of home canning, I don’t can anything low acid – I only can foods that can be put into a boiling water bath, rather than a pressure cooker.

And I will be the first to admit that frozen vegetables are always a great addition to a meal—I keep several boxes of frozen spinach on hand in my freezer…it isn’t something actually coming from the pantry, but frozen vegetables, poultry and ground beef are a part of the packed pantry.

If you want to keep a packed pantry, I suggest stocking up on various vegetables or even fruits, different kinds of pasta, even some cans of chicken and salmon to have on hand in an emergency. Stock up on sales of tomato sauce or tomato paste, cans of diced chilies. I have lived for years in areas where dry beans of all kinds are easily available and (key word) inexpensive. Pack your pantry with the kinds of staples that you, your significant other, and any children still living at home – will readily eat. Don’t buy any canned foods that are dented – it’s too risky and not worth buying, even on sale.

I also stock up on boxed cake mixes when they are on sale—for which I am pleased, because a) cake mixes have been considerably reduced in size by the manufacturers and b) the prices have skyrocketed in recent months—but a thought about storing items like cake mixes – I have two large plastic bins with tight fitting lids in my laundry room/pantry that hold a lot of cake mixes, as well as flour and sugar. I also have all these recipes for making cookies out of cake mixes and I haven’t played around with my recipes enough to know what changes we may need to make with a boxed cake mix. I will get back to you on what changes we may need to make with those stream-lined cookie recipes. If you have attempted cookie making with cake mixes since the sizes have been reduced, let me hear from you!

Related reading: BAD FOOD, February 2011
CANNING VEGGIES FROM A “SMALL” CITY GARDEN
CITY FARMERS November 2012

–Sandra Lee Smith

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS IN JULY

I wrote the following several years ago and posted it on my blog around 2011 or 2012. Bear with me as I go back in time once again to reflect on my favorite hobby and pastime for all of my adult life: Christmas.

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS IN JULY
It’s July and I have begun thinking about Christmas. Well, to tell the truth, I really start thinking about Christmas in January. This goes back to the late 60s and early 70s when I was raising four little boys and would search for clearance sale items right AFTER Christmas.
There is so much to plan and do for the holidays, but mainly my thoughts center around Christmas presents which are now stored, such as they are, in a spare bedroom. Throughout all the years we lived in Arleta, Christmas presents were stored in a very large built-in hall cupboard that I called (obviously) “The Christmas cupboard”.

Back in the day, I would send a box of books to my pen-pal, Eileen, in Australia. You had to get your overseas packages to the post office by September, so they would reach their destination by December (this was for surface rates. Airmail will get there a lot faster but costs quite a bit more). I used to send at least one box of books to Eileen each year. We loved the same authors, Eileen and I.

But our lives have changed quite a lot; we are now retired as are most of my penpals For years I sent Christmas parcels to all of them, little things picked up here and there along the way—or books. Now, no one can afford to exchange gifts although I still do exchanges with several of my penpals. My penpal Bev and I stopped exchanging Christmas presents but still do gifts for our birthdays which are on the same day.

I save up recipe booklets and inserts from cooking magazines to send to penpal Eve, who also lives in Australia—but there’s no timeframe for that. I just seal the envelope when it’s full. Indeed, all of our lives have changed and hardly anyone can afford to send gifts—not just the gifts but the cost of postage. Isn’t that sad?

I like to send some magazines and maybe a couple of jars of jam to my brother Bill every so often, not necessarily for Christmas. Ditto my brother, Jim. My sister Becky and I exchanged boxes of things throughout the year—often books—not for any particular reason – just because.

And speaking of my brother, Jim, I will always remember that he gave me my first books – five Nancy Drew mysteries – when I was about ten or eleven years old. It was an unforgettable moment in my life. What I discovered, then, was that it was not enough just to read the books: I had to own them, too).

However, all of this being what it is, I still continue to make up batches of jellies and jams, pickles and relishes—and start around in May when fresh strawberries become available in our supermarkets. My friend Bev often brings me some pureed blackberries when she and her husband visit me before heading for Arizona in January, to meet up with other Oregonian snowbirds for the winter. Blackberry is my favorite; not a lot gets given away.
I will still make little loaves of banana bread (and save up ripe bananas, mashed and measured in one cup increments, in the freezer) and I love to make fruitcake—but who is there to give fruitcake to any longer?

I like to make cookies and candy in the fall, to give as Christmas gifts—and last year my grandson, Ethan, became my sous chef in the kitchen as we made some Christmas cookies. He wanted to give Buckeye Balls (a kind of peanut butter candy that is dipped in melted chocolate to look like a buckeye) – those are very popular and well known in Ohio, my hometown, but not so much here. We bought pretty little boxes with plastic openings on the lids, at Michael’s and while I directed in the kitchen, Ethan actually made the buckeye balls and packaged them to give to some of his favorite people. He and his sister, Savannah (who is now 17 and not as preoccupied with cookies anymore) have been making cookies with me since they were very young children, maybe starting out around the age of eight.

I send cookies and candy to the claims department at the office where I worked for 27 years, with the help of an employee who lives in the Antelope Valley and does a delivery for me ever since I moved up here. I also send a jar of jam to friends who are still working there.
A word about cookies – some, like lebkuchen and gingerbread cookies can be made well in advance and allowed to mellow in a tightly closed container. A lot of cookies can be wrapped tight and stored in the freezer until the holiday draws near. Some are too fragile (such as meringue cookies) and shouldn’t be made until right before Christmas.

And I can’t recommend making them at all if you live in a humid State such as Florida. (This is the voice of experience talking—I lived in Florida for 3 years). Meringue cookies do keep pretty well in a dry climate such as the high desert, where I now live. If I am going to glaze or frost cookies, I don’t do that until I take cutout cookies out of the freezer just before Christmas, and then add my finishing touches. Gifts of cookies can be given to the girls at my post office, to my mail carrier, to my mechanic, or other service people who are in my life. Who doesn’t enjoy a box of freshly baked cookies? Last year, Ethan helped me take two large trays of cookies to the nurses at the chemo center where Bob underwent treatment throughout the year.

I have written in the past about the Christmas cookbooks in my collection – but this year, I would like to tell you about just one Christmas cookbook although there are dozens in my cookbook collection. And, since I have also written in the past about my own childhood Christmas memories, I thought it would be nice to share those of other (somewhat more prominent) writers.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” is a collection of Christmas memoirs and recipes offered by famous chefs and cookbook authors. It was published by Kitchen Arts & Letters/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. It is available on both Amazon and Alibris, some copies for as little as 25 cents, others – such as Alibris – has copies for 99c. But a word of caution—I found copies of the same book with the author being listed as Evan Jones or Martha Stewart – they are just contributors to the book itself. I will attempt to include a photograph of the book I am referring to. Amazon.com does have some other cookbooks with the very same title but judging from the covers, they’re not the same book.

And goodness knows—there are hundreds of Christmas-themed cookbooks and memoirs as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of cookbooks about cookie making. Before we moved to the desert, a friend came and created a spreadsheet for me on my computer—I logged on all of the Christmas/cookie titles and found I now have over 500 (yikes!) – a far cry from the days when my sons were children and most of my cookie recipes came from Farm Journal cookbooks or recipes I found in December magazines and cut out to put into a 3-ring binder, or cookie recipes exchanged with penpals. When one binder of recipes became too full to hold another sheet of paper I started another cookie binder – and when that was full….well you get the picture. I now have 7 binders for cookies. The oldest one was started in 1958 when I got married.

Included in CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES are contributions from Bert Greene, Marion Cunningham, Martha Stewart, Maida Heatter, Helen Witty, Irena Chalmers, Julee Rosso, Beatrice Ojakangas, Evan Jones, Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Betty Fussell – and others! And, although there are recipes included with each memoir, the recipes are really secondary to the thoughts and recollections of the various writers.

‘IT’S a lot like getting married,” Irena Chalmers offers. “There has to be a beautiful solemn bride in a long white dress and everyone gasping a she comes down the aisle. And all of us, craning to catch a glimpse of her as thought we had never seen her before. And then a heart-stopping moment when for a terrible second we all fear that he really has forgotten the ring. And then, of course, the best man finds it in his other pocket and the tension makes the relief all the sweeter. And in moments they are safely across the high wire and the vows are all completed and the organ is crashing out the Wedding March and the couple is dancing down the aisle and all the guests break out from orderly rows to greet the bride and groom, and each other, and the party is ready to begin….It’s like that,” she notes, “with Christmas dinner. Once you’ve embarked on it you’ve got to go the whole way: do it up properly with the plumpest turkey that ever there was and the sage and onion dressing and the chipolata sausages and the lumpy mashed potatoes and the gravy and the Brussels sprouts and the gooseberry sauce. And then, when there is not an inch of room left, the lights are turned out and in comes Father carrying the plum pudding borne on the silver platter….”

“Maybe the way to say it,” suggests Evan Jones, “is that Christmases make a mosaic of nostalgia. My memories begin with the year the first ice skates were the parental gifts for my siblings and me, and there is an odd bit of sentiment for the friend whose handmade cradle, much later, was his celebration of my own first child’s inaugural Christmas….”

Edna Lewis recalls Christmas in Freetown, writing, “When I was a girl growing up in a small farming community of Freetown, Virginia, preparations for Christmas started in early September, when we children went out to gather black walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazelnuts….Whenever she saw a break of a day or two from the September harvest, Mother would set about making the fruitcake. It was a family affair that my older sister and I cheerfully participated in….”

Craig Claiborne, writing of distant Christmases, states, “The Christmases that pass most often through my mind are from my early childhood, the most dramatic being when I was about four years old, and in a moment of innocence, set my family’s home ablaze…”

Betty Fussell recalls in brilliant clarity, a Depression Christmas on her grandparents’ farm in Riverside, California, while Jane Grigson writes that one of her earliest memories is of her father singing at Christmas. She says he had a “lovely tenor voice, clear, unaffected, warm, and joyful”. *(Grigson’s memory of her father singing made me think of my mother playing “Silver Bells” on our upright piano—she couldn’t read music and played entirely by ear).

Bert Greene remembers that while he is a Christmas lover, his mother was not. “Her yuletide animus,” writes Greene, “was undoubtedly affected by a traumatic childhood experience. She had been chosen to play Scrooge in a school production of Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL when she was about ten or twelve, and spent the better part of her lifetime, and my own, sneering, ‘Bah! Humbug!’ whenever the first snows fell. She was also a woman who, for one thing, hated shopping and, for another, hated cooking…”. Bert goes on to explain how the Christmases of his childhood were celebrated – during the Depression, when his family lost their house, silver serving dishes and wedding crystal—and the story he tells is heart-warming. When Bert’s mother complained that she didn’t have the Christmas spirit and “it will cost a fortune”, Bert took over. He volunteered to do all of the work and shopping—but he ran out of money and had to ask his mother for more.

His mother said “Just how much do you think it will cost to finance this damn foolishness?”

Bert recalls, “I dreaded to tell her. Ten Dollars”.
“TEN DOLLARS?”

“Even as I write this,” says Bert, “almost fifty years later, it is hard to believe how much that amount of money actually represented. My mother and I stared at each other a long while, weighing the momentous sum before she carefully unbuttoned her coat. There, on the street, without glancing up or down, she quickly remove a bill from her boodle, a small bag that she always wore tucked into the top of her brassier.

‘Make it last,” she said wryly. “Try not to come home too late. And for God’s sake, don’t tell your father!”

“The party was a great success” remembers Bert. “All of the relatives ate well, demolished the desserts, and played games, and those who drank sang dirty songs afterward. All the cookies we made were carried off like Tiffany bibelots….” ***

(Bert’s story reminds me of the annual trips I made downtown (Cincinnati) when I was a child along with two younger brothers, sometime in December for a number of years. We might have no more than two dollars to buy presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings. My brother Bill’s money was mostly pennies, in a little change purse, that he held tightly in his fist to present any pickpockets from taking his money. It begs the question—how DID we manage bus fare, gifts for so many people—and sharing a grilled cheese sandwich at the Woolworth lunch counter? I can only compare it with the loaves and fishes in the bible story.) And we wrapped all of our presents with old gift wrap paper that was ironed to get the wrinkles out.

Maida Heatter, whose dessert cookbooks are familiar to all of us (including her “Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies”), tells the story of World War II, when she was a young mother with a one-year-old daughter. Her husband was in the army and her brother in the navy. Maida was living at home with her parents. Professionally, she says, she was a fashion illustrator—but her hobby was cooking. She tells the story of baking and mailing cookies to everyone she knew in the service. When the New York City USO wanted cookies for a big Christmas party, Maida began baking. “I baked those cookies,” she recalls, “from early until late every day for weeks. My only problem was getting enough boxes to pack them in. Food shortages and rationing (butter and sugar were strictly rationed) didn’t bother me, as there were always friends and neighbors who wanted to help. They gave me their ration coupons, they shopped for me and they helped pack the cookies. The filled boxes lined the entrance hall and the dining room flowed over into the living room. The day before Christmas a neighbor piled the boxes into his truck and my mother and I went along to deliver the cookies to the USO at Times Square. Gasoline was rationed but this was a priority delivery….”

“If I counted the cookies,” she writes, “or the number of recipes, that special Christmas, I don’t remember it now. One thing I do remember is that none of those cookies was dainty. They were all he-man cookies. The ones that had raisins or nuts had lots of them. The chocolate cookies were very chocolate. The spice cookies were very spicy. In a way, that one baking experience influenced everything I have baked since….”

(Maida provides the recipe for her mother’s gingersnaps, which I think I will have to try when I start baking Christmas cookies this year. Another cookie that has entered our lives—I was making batch after batch for a few months this year—is a molasses cookie that I found in the L.A. Times SOS column. My youngest son says they are like “a crack cookie” – you can’t stop eating them).

Helen Witty, whose “Fancy Pantry” cookbook is a favorite of mine, starts her memoir off with “Ways of keeping Christmas seem to drift down through the generations of a family, so it’s likely that the holiday customs I grew up with had been established on one coast or the other long before my mother, from the East, and my father, from the West, met in the Pugent Sound country, married, moved to Southern California, and began to bring up their own family. There, where snow and sleds and genuine holly were only a rumor, one family custom that came from somewhere was firmly maintained: the celebrations of Christmas Day began after breakfast, not before…” Helen goes on to relate her family Christmases, and sums up, “As in my childhood home, Christmas morning at our house still starts with a not-for-everyday breakfast…”

Her Christmas breakfasts reminded me of the many special Christmas breakfasts I prepared when my four sons were children, I’d bake a variety of sweet breads and stollen, but the piece de resistance in our household was always pork chops and gravy, a big pan of homemade biscuits, home fries and eggs, or occasionally, what I called a Mexican breakfast casserole. My husband’s mother was from Bluefield, West Virginia, and I learned the art of making what we called “white gravy” from her. If not pork chops, I’d fry cube steaks and then put them back into the white gravy after it was made.

There are heartwarming stories from twenty-five chefs and cookbook authors in “CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES”. I’ve just given you a sampling—a small taste.

As the holidays draw near, we become busier and busier with shopping and addressing Christmas cards. During the years that Bob and I went to Pismo Beach for Thanksgiving weekend, I would take my cards and address book with me to start working on my cards and letters.

Last year (2011) was the most difficult Christmas. It was the first without Bob, who had shared my life for 26 years. I would have liked to go off and ignore the holiday, but was coaxed into putting up one of my trees—and my grandson, Ethan, was determined to put up the Snow Village, because it was one of those things his grandpa put up every year. I realized that so much of what we did—all the decorating inside and out—was accomplished only because Bob was such a willing spirit. He loved doing it. He loved the compliments.

Then a few angels made their way to the fireplace mantel and I found myself baking cookies and showing my grandson how to do some things. He and his sister also made gingerbread houses, from a kit we bought at Michael’s. After Christmas, I thought it was a good time to go through all of the ornaments and tree decorations; most had been packed in boxes and stored in a shed. I had some water damage to some of the boxes. Kelly took me to Walmart where I bought 20 large red and green plastic containers, and methodically went through all of the boxes, repacking everything in plastic containers that are now stored in Grandpa’s workshop. As I worked, I set aside all bear decorations/tree ornaments to send to my penpal, Betsy, who collects bears—with a suggestion that she put up a small bear tree. She liked the idea. I know I have to downsize but it’s a mammoth project that will take a lot of time to accomplish.
I hope we all will take a little time to reflect on Christmas, and what it means to each of us. These twenty five food writers have done just that. They have reflected on the Christmases of their pasts and have shared those memories with us. And much of what they have written reminds me so much of my own Christmas memories.

Author Julie Rosso sums up Christmas memories with words that all of us might appreciate: “Those years are long gone,” she writes, “and since that time there have been many Christmases in faraway places—some just like those of having as a child. We’ve found ourselves in Paris, New York, Vienna, Rome, Monte Carlo, and the Caribbean at Christmas time, and while it is ever so nice to visit other countries at Christmas, I’d give almost anything for one of those Christmases in Michigan, just once more”.
I haven’t spent any Christmases in other countries – but I would like to spend one, just once more – in Ohio, where it always seemed to start snowing on Christmas eve before we went to midnight mass.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” was published by Kitchen Arts & Letter/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1988. It is available on both Amazon.com and Alibris.com; prices start as low as 4 cents on Amazon. Alibris has copies for 99c.

FANCY PANTRY BY HELEN WITTY is available on Amazon.com starting at $2.40 for a soft cover copy. It also has some ridiculous prices, such as $129.99 for a hardbound copy. Alibris also has the book for $2.40 – and copies priced at $251.99 and $241.74. I can’t imagine anyone actually paying that much for a cookbook you can get for far less.

Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies is available on Alibris.com for 99c. I couldn’t find the EXACT same title on Amazon.com so am not listing it. She does have a number of cookie cookbooks listed.

Well, I have rambled on long enough with you. Cookie recipes are available on my blog along with some photographs of previous cookie baking marathons. I woke up one morning recently and realized that Christmas will never again be as sumptuous as it was for Bob and myself, for several decades, especially in Arleta where we put up 8 Christmas trees. That idea of spending Christmas in Ohio is becoming more appealing. I hope your holidays are cheery and bright.

Sandy@sandychatter

THE SECRET GARDEN

The Secret Garden

You began building the Secret Garden sometime in 2007 or 2008, I think. What was most incredible about this creation is that almost all of the materials that went into building a gazebo came almost entirely from things you found all over the yard—discards from other people and other times, many things buried under grass and leaves and other debris. When it came to building a lattice-type roof, we spent about $200 in wood at the Home Depot and you created the top of the creation. We named it the Secret Garden early on—although there was nothing, really, secret about it. It was sheltered by two olive trees in the front yard.

You created a path to the entrance of the Secret Garden out of slabs of wood—from a Jacaranda tree chopped down by the man across the street, who didn’t like the lavender blossoms that cluttered his front yard once a year. He was happy to get rid of the wood. You were happy to get it and cut it into round slabs leading from the grill to the entrance to the gazebo.

You loved spending mornings in the Secret Garden, reading the newspaper and sipping your coffee. We spent many evenings in the garden with friends, sipping wine. Despite a busy street only a few hundred feet away, somehow the noise of traffic faded away into nothingness. Would that be an oxymoron, calling it the Secret Garden when it was anything but?

When, in September of 2008, we learned we would have to move—and I bought a house in Quartz Hill, around the corner from youngest son, Kelly, and daughter in law, Keara, and grandkids Savannah and Ethan—when most of the furnishings of the house had been moved to a storage unit we gained access to our new home—you finally dismantled the Secret Garden. The wood was piled up in a spot in the new back yard where it remained until 2010.

Then, motivated by an inner self—I know not what—you began to rebuild the Secret Garden. Just as you had built it once and dismantled it once, you began to rebuild. This is the most amazing aspect to the Secret Garden—that you, with no experience in house building, driven by some inner force—put down the bricks (originally salvaged from the 1994 earthquake at which time we collected all the whole bricks that could be found around Northridge, Mission Hills, and San Fernando) – now placed down where the new Garden was to go, but—you explained—you were making it a full foot larger all around, so that there is a dirt border into which plants or flowers would go. I photographed the re-building of the Secret Garden. It went up into what was the most logical and sensible spot on our property.

I have often wondered what drove you to get the Secret Garden rebuilt—did you know your time on earth was limited? I don’t know the answer; I only know that at the end of 2010 you knew you needed medical attention; you were diagnosed and treated until your passing in September of 2011.

The Secret Garden has been sadly neglected until now. When I go there, I talk to you, asking you how you knew—IF you knew—what we never talked about. Maybe that is what the Secret Garden was all about, from the very beginning; it was the place where secrets could be shared and talked about.

Your absence is felt, keenly, in my life. I talk to myself a great deal, having no one but two dogs and a cat to talk to. I rarely cook, having no one to share a meal with. Occasionally, I will make a pot of soup or chili or stew, knowing I will have enough to freeze some bricks of the dinner to share with friends, Mary Jaynne & Steve or my sister and her family.

I baked cookies, knowing I can give most of them away to the mail carrier or friends at bowling. My kids, around the corner, are living their own lives and I rarely intrude. My granddaughter, who virtually lived with us throughout high school, has been in college in Sacramento, since 2013. Next to you, I miss her the most. How can I explain to anyone that I, who have never felt lonely throughout my life – now feel the absence of two of the most important people in my life? I stand inside the
Secret Garden and listen to the wind blowing through the trees above me.

This is what it feels like, to be alone. –Sandra Lee Smith