Sunday, August 28, 2005

peas in cream sauce, comfort food I

This is not really a cream sauce—it’s a simple white sauce with frozen peas thawed into it. Simple ingredients and patience, well worth the simple and delicious result. This is my grandmother’s recipe, and it made my brothers and me roll our eyes and rub our bellies in anticipation.

Equal amounts of real butter and white flour (start with a tablespoon of each, and see how it goes.)
Whole milk, a few cups
Frozen peas, a small bag
Sea salt to taste
Fresh ground pepper

While the butter begins to melt in the pan, measure out the flour—whisk in and watch: if there is more butter than the flour can absorb, you will need a sprinkle more of flour. If dry flour will not incorporate into the paste, add a touch more butter. Cook for a minute, whisking, and don’t worry if the mixture gathers onto the whisk while you are stirring. (If the butter has browned, if the paste browns, you will have to start all over—but it’s only a little butter and flour, right? No problem.)

Add a splash of milk, and you will see a quick paste form. Add a second splash and incorporate, continuing to add a quarter cup or so at a time until you have a thick “gravy.” Place a “flame tamer” under the pan to keep sauce from scorching.

Sprinkle in the frozen peas and stir. Cook until peas are thawed and green, stirring occasionally. Add a half teaspoon of sea salt, to begin. A steam will begin to rise before bubbling commences, and this is a good time to serve it. Taste the sauce and you will see how perfectly sweet your peas are. Bring the pepper to the table.

To be completely decadent in a Midwestern fashion, serve with mashed potatoes. It’s a starch-fest, a beautiful thing. I am no good at fried chicken, but if you provide that, I’ll bring the peas and potatoes, so we can get all of our high-fat foods and starches in one delicious swoop. Leave a few days for recovery.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

for pay

Scribbled on the back of a bank deposit envelope, while waiting for the store’s deposit to be processed, a list of odd tasks from job descriptions in my life:

Unjam the bowling pin setter (wielding another pin like a bat).

Guide cave expeditions for large groups of small kids. Hide the bats from view.

Artfully rearrange a rotating display case for Parker Bros’ annual unveiling of new games, with a script timed to the second. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain with her hair on end!

Glaze and weatherproof old-fashioned pulley-weight windows.

Play victim for emergency cut-away rescue on a ropes course.

Give participants a helpful shove off a forty-foot high ropes course platform. Use a stepladder to remove participants from the forty-foot Tarzan swing.

Shake the”thunder sheet” to approximate a storm from backstage of a play.

Crush ten pounds of garlic with a French knife. “Smaller,” my student supervisors said. “Much smaller.”

Arrange a campus-wide discrimination of blue-eyed people for a racism simulation.

Write letters.

Pick apples on a high bluff, in the company of students from Namibia, Korea, Germany and Japan.

Sleep in the home of an elderly woman struggling to keep her independence.

Prevent children from sledding down the highly attractive lawn of a historic museum.

I have been a live-in tour guide for a historic home. I have nannied. I have sold books for a mail-order catalog, catered small-town events with my grandmother, served my favorite tabouli and pineapple-mint salsa to my supervisor’s dinner guests. I have temped. I have bussed tables and made milkshakes, and I have cleaned practically anything that needed to be cleaned. I have painted buildings. I have been guided to the top of the steeple of Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian, with an amazing view of downtown Pittsburgh, by a janitor whose graces I earned. I have dusted silverwork tooled by Paul Revere and paintings by John Singer Sargent. I worked as a telephone operator on one of those ancient plug-cord phone systems. I worked as a phone receptionist while recovering from dental surgery! I have played a lot of silly games and a few really good serious games. As a dorm director, I wandered the halls of my building, chatting with people. Library, post office, chapel, snack bar, yacht club, YMCA, bank, teacher of English as a Second Language, scrapbook design teacher, Sunday school educator, writing tutor.

And I am learning, now, how to use a cash register, how to use a pricing “gun,” how to straighten rows on shelves, how to multitask in public. Always, I am learning to listen with more sensitivity, to talk less. I’m learning not to start making birthday presents for childrens’ friends while running late for work. I’m learning how to “see for myself” what needs to be done to make the store just right. Secret: it’s pretty fun!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

reclaimed shelving

This is a piece I intend to send to the editorial page of the local paper, once I've passed it by my employers for an okay.

I am up to my elbows in this strange black grease. The posts for the kitchen shelves are marked inch by inch with a number, and the highest number is 84, so 84 times I press my rag-covered thumbnail into each groove while spinning the pole with my other hand. Eighty-four little globs of ancient grease evicted, eighty-four grooves disinfected. There are sixteen poles, for four sets of industrial wire shelving. There’s no need to do the math: each groove needs to be clean.

In a twist of irony, the expanding Common Crow store purchased kitchen shelving from what was once McT’s, so you get the picture: I am removing years of cooked-on airborne grease from hamburgers and onion rings, fishermen’s platters and French fries. I am reclaiming shelving from a carnivore haven in order to serve customers shopping for organic groceries, including (but not limited to) vegetarians and vegans. Now, I am a carnivore, in fact an omnivore if you get right down to it, but I certainly don’t want any remnants of my last burger at McT’s to contaminate my current groceries. So I clean. I believe in recycling. So I clean some more.

My mother created two cleaning aprons for my husband and me to organize our housecleaning efforts when we were first married. I sent her a picture of the apron I wanted, with pockets for my cleaning razor and my putty knife, with loops for my spray-bottles, with a pocket the size of a gallon bag for trash and, in this case, congealed brown bits. For a joke, she designed these aprons in a Mickey Mouse print, so we would have more fun, I suppose. I did not ask her for aprons because I love to clean—I asked her for aprons because it is the kind of practical project she would love, a practical way to serve us. Scott’s apron is gathering dust on the hanger, but I will need his when I wear out my scrubby sponge pocket.

My first full-time job was serving on the work crew of a summer camp in northern Indiana, and all of us got to try a hand at every kind of chore: chopping wood, raking the beach, digging postholes, and of course, cleaning. Lorraine was my beloved supervisor, and she taught me how to clean every kind of surface that could ever need to be cleaned. I did not love cleaning then, either, but I loved working with my crewmates, and the sooner the work was done, the sooner the staff went swimming in the camp’s lake. I did not want the staff to wait in the truck until I cleaned the oven again, more thoroughly, so I learned my job, well.

At that time, also, I did not like to do cleaning tasks on my own—it felt like being banished and missing the action I felt sure was happening somewhere. Now is different. I am the mother of two small children, and doing any task without interruption, until the project is completed… well, it is so rare that it practically sets me to reverie just thinking about it. I could think my own thoughts! I could sing, if I want to!

I can see Pat and Kate, the owners of the Common Crow, are concerned I will feel insulted by the nasty cleaning task, or perhaps desperate to be stuck off in the new store working endless hours alone with my cleaning fluids and putty knife, but I don’t mind. I couldn’t do this every day, but it’s good work, work that needs thoroughness and patience and elbow grease. It requires a ridiculous amount of time, and to be honest, there is no hourly wage that could pay enough to do this work. It takes a bit of love, a bit of singing, a putty knife. I have all three.

Eight hours pass and I have used two ragged bathtowels, two scrubby sponges, two microfiber cleaning cloths and two bottles of heavy-duty cleaner. The underneath sides of the shelves are the worst, hiding a black mold, as well as the other stuff. My cleaning razor definitely needs a new blade and the entire cleaning apron needs a good wash to be freed from the smell of old grease.

There are good shelves here, for vegetables untainted by cooking grease. Or organic meat. I go home to shower off the gooey globs and wash my hair with some organic lavender shampoo from the store’s sample basket. I emerge to find a long thank you message on the answering maching from Kate for my heroic cleaning effort. The new and expanded Common Crow will open in a few weeks, and I’ve given a good effort toward the move. I play the message three or four times and sit down to a nice dinner my husband has grilled for me: hamburgers, thick and juicy, dripping with fat, just the way I like them.

Friday, August 05, 2005

weather report, august 2005 diary

an article on "how to blog" said never, never talk about the weather. "But you don't live where I live," I reply in my head. The article also said to be sure to break the rules...

The month of August has never been so beautiful, not for all the summers I can remember (outside of the Colorado Rockies, in which August is actually akin to autumn in the rest of North America, so that’s cheating…). We have spent the last two summers away from home, and the sweetness of this summer at home seems new and luxurious. The day’s harvest: the last handful of raspberries, a bouquet of black-eyed susans, a spray of spearmint for my favorite iced tea.

Generally, I agree with Robert Farrar Capon’s assessment that August is Hell, that direct all-day overhead lighting looks bad on all but a few human beings. Waking with a shine on my face before I’m even out of bed seems an ill omen of the day to me. But this August is different. The locals will complain it is too cold, it is not summer at all. I say let them. The thermometer has barely grazed eighty degrees and the breeze is endless goodness, coming off the ocean. And somehow in all this not-too-hot weather, the Atlantic is at its warmest, quite bearable. Last night the kids and I packed ourselves home from the beach when the sun dipped too low, seven-thirty.

The printer is spitting out instructions for lanyards made of “boondoggle” or “gimp,” to which my children were introduced at summer camp. (, if you want to play, too.) Yesterday, the counselors divvied up supplies to children and we will be boondoggling for awhile, my Madeleine thrilled to make bracelets, zipper pulls. I laughed when I saw it—summer camp thirty years ago relied on the same kind of projects, and of course with a quick refresher I find it delightful, too. I think of Billy Collin’s poem about making his mother a lanyard at camp, feeling sure it was an equal exchange for all she had given him thus far… The boy’s teenage counselor gifted him with a book of paper airplane designs, and he said thank you by diving headfirst into the tall boy’s belly, an earnest goodbye.

The boy also rode his first wave yesterday, on a borrowed boogie board. Two years ago the boy had a three word vocabulary, and last year his conversation was still low-key, particular to just a few settings. Now his words flow, sometimes maddeningly, at me in endless streams. How delightful to hear him talking to the waves, to his borrowed boogie board: “I am waiting for The Big Wave. Are you The Big Wave? I will wait. It will come. I am waiting. Waiting. There you come. Let’s go.” Throws himself, kicking like mad, onto the board and onto the wave, which takes him all the way to shore, his dark eyes blinking out the spray. He is still not interested in water in his face, on his face, but he may get past that very soon.

And while my two built a sand bakery with their pal, Taylor, I practiced solo Frisbee, the disk soaring back to me in the strong wind. Boomerang exhaustion, perfect end to a day.

I am an imperfect parent, too often irritable and flying by the seat of my pants. Writing seems like an exercise in narcissism, often tempting me to leave all the undone projects still undone in order to noodle with words. But oddly life-giving, too. At its best, it is an act of gratitude, of weaving this life all together, better than boondoggle. I am thankful for this day, thankful for these children on this beach, thankful for my husband down the highway tutoring teenagers in reading skills, all of us giving life to our work, big and small.