Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Blue Cookies

Today I wiped the last fragments of dried blue icing out of the cookie jar.  The egg shaped sugar cookies I made a couple weeks ago for Easter are history.

Easter egg sugar cookies have been a tradition at Googie's house for a long time.  There is no prettier centerpiece for a spring table than a basket filled with these cookies (recipe compliments of Betty Crocker) iced in a rainbow of pastel colors and adorned with sprinkles.  My cookies are traditionally frosted pink, green, yellow, and blue--and if I have the time and energy, you might also find some in orange and lavender. 

I like to bake and frost the cookies one day, let the icing dry overnight, and package them in pretty cellophane bags as an Easter treat for my mom, kids, and grandkids.  If we happen to be going somewhere for a social gathering, I like to stack some on a platter for a hostess gift or for a beautiful and tasty dessert.

I remember one particular Easter lunch we shared some twenty years ago at the home of my mother- and father-in-law.  At that time, our son and daughter, Teebo and Cookie, were a tween and a teen.

Sadly, Grandpa W was in the later stages of Alzheimer's and no longer able to converse with us.  Instead, he had to rely on gestures and a variety of incoherent vocalizations in order to communicate.  Often, he would do neither and sit quietly and somewhat sullenly among us as we continued our family traditions as best we could.

That had pretty much been the case on this particular day.  Cookie and Teebo had enjoyed a relatively quiet lunch.  Although I don't actually remember, I imagine that Grandma F had fried a skillet full of crappie (If you are not from the Midwest, you need to know that crappie, pronounced KROP-ee, is a delicious, mild-flavored fish abundant in our freshwater lakes.).

Anyway, I had taken along a basket of Easter egg cookies, which Grandma F had set in the middle of the table.  When dessert time came around, it was time to pass the basket and dig into those cookies.  What happened then was something I will never forget.

Grandma handed Grandpa a pink cookie.  Grandpa refused with a scowl and a violent shake of the head.  He pointed to the basket and gestured spasmodically with a perfectly straight forefinger.  This happened repeatedly as she offered him the other colors.  Nothing seemed to please him; that is, until she handed him one of the blue ones.  With a blue cookie in hand, he returned to a calm state and proceeded to devour it with great relish.

Strangely, Grandpa wanted another blue cookie, and another.  Further, if one of the rest of us chose a blue one, he quickly made it known that he did not approve.  So we would put it back. 

That year, Grandpa W got all the blue cookies.  This year, I could not wipe the pieces of blue icing out of the cookie jar without thinking about him.  Remembering the year of Grandpa and the Blue Cookies always makes me smile, and Pa-pa and I still miss him every day.

Alzheimer's is one of the cruelest and most debilitating diseases in our present-day repertoire of end-of-life maladies.  It takes vibrant, loving people and builds a wall between them and the ones they love.  It erases the personality and replaces it with paranoia.  It tortures the caregivers, often spouses who are themselves in their later years with their own health issues.

If my grandchildren read this post years from now, I want them to know that their Great-Grandpa W would have loved every one of them.  He would have lifted them up and said, as he did so many times to my own children and their cousins, "Pam-paw loves you a whole great big lot."  I can say unequivocally that he was the kindest, gentlest man I have ever had the pleasure to know.  I count myself lucky beyond measure to have called him my father-in-law for seventeen years.

Kids, your great-grandpa was many things.  He was a dairy farmer, a deer hunter, a fisherman, a postal worker, a Baptist deacon, and a decorated World War II veteran.  Eventually, one of you may inherit his Purple Heart.  All of you have inherited his heart of gold.  I hope you use it, as he did, to buoy the people around him with a love for God, country, and family; a selfless spirit; and an unrelenting respect for traditional values.

In years to come, it will be up to you to carry on our Easter sugar cookie tradition.  If you do that, make sure to think of this story and this great man.  And when you frost your cookies, just for old time's sake, be sure to make a few of them blue.     

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Every time Beenie sneezes, I say what my dad always said to us years ago:  "Scat, you old cat!   Get your tail out of my gravy!"  At our house, it was never "Bless you" or its German counterpart, "Gesundheit."  It was always "Scat!"

The other day I found myself wondering why this was so.  Was this something peculiar to Dad's family?  Was this an idiom related to region?  To generation?  My friend Google would surely be able to shed some light on the mystery.

A quick online search revealed that "Scat, you old cat . .." and its variations are indeed "Southernisms" commonly used in response to someone's sneezing.  Among other things, I learned that even country singer Toby Keith has a song titled "Scat Cat" on his Hope on the Rocks album. The reference appears in the final three lines of the song's chorus:  "If a bullet doesn't find me,/They'll let me rot in jail./Scat cat, you've got gravy on your tail."

By now, my mind has branched off into other family figures of speech referencing gravy.  In his characteristic style fraught with hyperbole, as an example, Pa-pa always liked to tell our kids the "gravy sandwich" story.  His family was so poor when he was growing up, he told them, that they had to take gravy sandwiches to school for lunch.

When times were especially hard, he said, they couldn't even afford bread, so on their way out the door the children would have to file past the cook stove so that their mama could ladle a spoonful of gravy directly into their back pockets.

My father-in-law used to declare that all gravy fell into one of two categories.  Brown and white? Nope.  He categorized gravy as either "chasin'" if it was on the thin, runny side or "slicin'" if too much flour pushed it over to the thicker side.

Great-grandpa's gravy categories speak to the challenge of making gravy of a perfect consistency, with just the right ratio of grease to flour and then flour to milk.  Once this is achieved, the salt and pepper part is easy.

I grew up in a 1960s blue collar family for whom fried meat, mashed potatoes and gravy were staples on the lunch menu.  So without really trying, my mom passed on to me the mechanics of gravy-making, and my children, Cookie and Teebo, also grew up with a steady diet of the creamy white stuff.

When I was working, one of my colleagues would shudder at the prospect of white gravy, blaming it alone for the fall of the South.  This attitude, along with the tendency of today's families to fall back on the likes of fast-food burgers and pizza, makes me worry that the fine art of gravy-making is destined for extinction.

Therefore, in the interest of preserving this fine family tradition, I will record here how to make gravy.  But I warn you--I will have trouble.  I will run into the same problem I encounter every time I try to explain to my daughter or my daughter-in-law how it is done.

First, I firmly believe that the best gravy grease comes from either fried chicken or browned, crumbled sausage.  (The sausage will make its own; you will have to give the chicken a start using solid shortening.)  If you fry your chicken in a big skillet, save about enough grease to cover the bottom.

Whatever you do, DON'T throw away the rest of the grease.  Instead, save it to use later when you want to have potatoes and gravy without freshly fried meat.  Baby food containers work well for freezing just the right amounts.

To make your gravy, heat the grease until it is hot but not popping.  Then, stir in a rounded tablespoon of flour and a little more if needed to make the mixture resemble a thick sauce.  Keep stirring as you add milk.  I don't really know how much milk; it varies with the exact amounts of grease and flour that are already there.  I just know that you pour and stir and pretty soon your instinct tells you when to stop.  If it doesn't, well, neither chasin' nor slicin' gravy tastes all that bad.

Finish the mixture off with salt and pepper to suit your taste.  (You have to actually taste the gravy to know how much it needs.)  Bring the gravy to a gentle boil, keep stirring, and turn the fire off when it reaches the desired thickness. Then, pour it immediately into a bowl for serving.

When I create gravy (I use the word create here because gravy-making is an art), I have to take care not to inhale deeply as I add the pepper.  Doing this invariably leads to a sneeze, whereupon someone nearby is likely to say, "Scat, you old cat," and I am lost again in my memories of this good life of mine lived in the savory, abundant presence of a wonderful thing called gravy.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Aloha Oe

It has been the kind of weekend a person only dreams about.  After several weeks of kicking around possibilities and probabilities, the plans were finalized only yesterday.

I have already pinched myself in disbelief at least ten or twelve times so far today.  Yes, my friends, today Googie has big news, and I mean BIG.

If you know us personally, you know that six or seven times over the past ten years Pa-pa and I have enjoyed vacations in Hawaii.  Most of these have been spent immersed in the breathtakingly beautiful tropical paradise of the island of Maui.

On one of our early trips to the island, while snorkeling near Black Rock off Ka'anapali Beach, we became acquainted with Aolani and Kanunu, native Hawaiians who work at the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, where we often stay.  The couple live in a beautiful home just down the beach a ways from the more commercial, touristy area.

A couple weeks ago, we learned that Aolani and Kanunu plan to spend a year on the mainland lending their expertise in native Hawaiian language and culture to a research project conducted at a university located not too far from our home here in the Midwest.  What began as a phone conversation Kanunu initiated to get our advice on a temporary living arrangement has ended with an unbelievable solution:  beginning in June, we are going to swap homes for a year.

Even as I stare at the words I just typed, I find myself incredulous.  However, it doesn't take long to wrap my mind around what this actually means.  For a year, Pa-pa and I will drift off to sleep to the sound of the ocean lapping the shore.  We will begin every morning with a pot of coffee, a bottle of Bailey's, and a two-mile saunter where we squish our toes into the soft, wet sand of Ka'anapali Beach.

Two or three times a week we will venture into nearby Lahaina to take in the night life there.  We will sit under its world-famous banyan tree, which has grown in 140 years to encompass two-thirds of an acre.  We will breathe in the night air rolling landward off the ocean and eat dinner in all our favorite places, including the Cool Cat, where our friend Captain Eric croons and strums as long as the restaurant management keeps him adequately plied with Captain Morgan.

The longest we have ever stayed on Maui at once has been two weeks.  Then, it was always a countdown as the days slipped by way too fast, shrouded in the awareness, always present in the back of our minds, that the dreaded day of departure was never far away.

The one down side, of course, is how much we will miss the kids and grandkids.  But there is always Skype, and I am hoping that vacations can be arranged so that everyone can come and spend a couple weeks or more with us a time or two while we are there.  I love the idea of splashing in the ocean and building sand castles with Sooby, Pooh, Bootsie, and the two baby boys.

Like I said, it has been the kind of weekend a person only dreams about.  And that is just what I did.  I sat at my computer and dreamed this whole thing up.

Confession time.  I just couldn't resist.  We really do love Hawaii, but we have no immediate plans to go back there.

You guessed it.  April Fool's.

P.S.  Followers and Facebook Friends:  I would love for you to comment, but please do so discreetly.  Help me keep the joke going, at least for the rest of the day!