Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Food for Thought, or Thoughts about Food

Since the weather was cloudy and cooler when I went out to feed the cats this morning, and since I had promised three gallons of blueberries to a couple of ladies at church sometime soon, I decided to go out and pick those berries this morning. Well, the weather didn't stay cloudy and cooler for long, and the berries are very thin this year, so it took me all morning to get the three gallons. Normally, I would have to come in from the patch and get something ready for lunch, but today Lily came out around 11:00-ish and asked if it was ok if she made cream of potato soup. I was hot and tired and soup didn't really appeal to me, but I didn't want to be that mother who squishes all her child's ideas, so I said "sure." It crossed my mind that Lily has never made cream of potato soup before, but I was still about a gallon away from being finished, so I didn't let it concern me. As long as she didn't burn down the house.....

I finished my picking at 11:45 and came in to find three bowls of potato soup waiting and a very proud young cook. She had used the good old Better Homes & Garden cookbook, but when the soup didn't taste quite right, she added some pepper on her own (I guess watching all that Food Network with her father came in handy!). We supplemented with leftovers, and it was a very nice lunch. Let me tell you, I was very grateful to have lunch waiting. And I was impressed when I found she had made a white sauce as a base for the soup all by herself. White sauce is not the easiest thing in the world to make, and she had never done it before. Good for Lily!

One of the leftovers I had to go along with the soup were some cornbread pancakes I made for supper last night. I didn't even warm them up, just spread some margarine on top. They went well with the soup. But that's not why I'm telling you about them. Now don't laugh at me, but one of the by-products of writing historical fiction for me has been a desire to learn how people used to live. More than "learn" in an intellectual sense - I want to be able to learn by experience (as long as I'm not giving up electricity for an extended period of time, lol). One of the things I became very aware of while writing my book was how limited people's diets were on the 19th century frontier. Throughout the book, my characters are living on cornpone and salt pork. (I know there would have been other foods available to them, especially seasonally, but I imagine cornmeal and pork were the staples of the menu for working-class people.) Last night, inspired in part by the Hatfield/McCoy movie on the History Channel, I decided to make a batch of cornbread pancakes, also known as johnnycakes.

I had tried them before with a Betty Crocker recipe and found them to be greasy and not very good, but this time I found a different recipe online that turned out much better. They were easy, easy to make. This recipe made flat little cakes with a slightly sweet taste and enough body to them to stand up to butter and sorghum molasses. They were just as good today without being warmed up, and they were plenty filling.

The experience of making and eating these cornbread pancakes gave me some valuable insight into an aspect of everyday life in the 19th century. These pancakes were made with simple ingredients and were so easy to mix up and cook on a griddle that a busy wife or mother could throw together lunch quickly, even if she was tired from working in the field or garden. The recipe made probably 12 pancakes, so it would be enough to feed a fairly good-sized family. They could be stacked and eaten as pancakes, or they were thin and flexible enough they could be used to wrap around a piece of meat (much like a tortilla). And if the work to be done was out in a field far enough away from the house that it would take too much time to come back home for lunch, the johnnycakes hold over well, would taste good cold, and would be easy to eat picnic-style.

It's a small thing, I suppose, but I like learning that kind of information. Sure, history is about the big things like wars and treaties and elections, but it's also about the little, day-to-day things like filling one's stomach.

There was also another interesting little side path Lily and I talked about over lunch. I was putting sorghum on my cornbread pancakes, and Lily asked why I called it "sorghum" when the jar says "molasses." Well, I didn't know, so we looked it up. "Sorghum" is the genus name for the plant which has the sap that is cooked down to make the syrup; "molasses" is "a syrup made from boiling down sweet vegetable or fruit juice." So to be technically correct, we should always call it "sorghum molasses."

This was a very educational lunch!

In case you want to experiment with the cornbread pancakes, here's the recipe (from

3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup buttermilk (I didn't have buttermilk, so I used the old trick to use vinegar to sour the milk)
2 large eggs
3 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled

Mix dry ingredients together, then mix wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry and blend well until the batter is smooth. Cook the pancakes on a hot griddle until golden-brown on each side.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Most Nerve-Wracking Critique

I'm teaching a course in our three-week summer term called "The Story and the Script," which deals with the major elements of storytelling, applied to writing scripts for television and film. Today we talked about the importance of finding people to give critiques. One of the things we discussed was how awkward/difficult it is to have people who are family or close friends to do a critique of your work, because either a) they won't be completely honest in favor of sparing your feelings, or b) they will be completely honest, which might hurt your feelings. Regardless of who does the critique, we agreed it's important for a writer to separate the work from one's self - to remember the story is NOT you and says nothing about your ultimate value as a human being.

I hope I was listening today, ha ha. A couple of weeks ago, I had a copy of my manuscript printed by, not because I'm ready to publish it, but because I was tired of looking at it as a collection of pixels and wanted to see it in tangible form. The picture above is the cover I designed, which I am quite happy with. I'm actually quite happy with the whole project. The day it arrived, my husband commandeered it and started reading it.

This is a big deal, folks. I've been working on this book for eight (yes, eight) years, and while I've talked a lot about the story, I've never let him read any of it. I always told him it was probably not a book he would be interested in, since he's not the target market. But this time I decided I wouldn't stop him - it's time. But it has made me jittery to come in and find him reading it before bedtime. I guess I'm afraid he'll think it's stupid - and he wouldn't be shy about telling me so (he's used to judging band contests and saying exactly what he thinks about a performance). Who wants your life partner to think your favorite hobby is stupid? (Not that it would make any difference if he did....)

In the week and a half he's been reading it, he hasn't said a word about it. Not one. And though it has been REALLY difficult for me, I haven't asked what he thinks. As I told my sister (who has been ultimately patient in listening to me talk about this project for the whole eight years, bless her), I guess it's a good sign that he has kept reading.

Tonight he finished. And what was his comment? "Your chick story gets really sappy in the last chapter." That sounds kind of cold, I guess, but his nonverbals let me know he didn't mean it in a bad way. Actually, it's about what I expected. It's as I always told him - this wasn't his kind of story.

I'm going to let it stand at that for the moment, but believe me, he's not going to get off that easy! After I finish cleaning the kitchen, I'll pin him down and make him give me more details. And now I can ask him to read and give me feedback on the first draft of the sequel, which is told from the male protagonist's viewpoint and has more history in it - less of a chick story. I've been needing a male reader for that story - now he's trapped!

Friday, May 18, 2012

My Inheritance, Part 2

I have to admit, the pattern cabinet as an inheritance was rather unexpected on my part - well, not totally unexpected, I guess, since I'm the only one in the family who does much with sewing clothing. Since then, however, I've received a second inheritance from my grandmother, and it was the one I was really, really hoping for.

A long time ago (I'm not even sure when), I gave Grandma one of those "Grandma's Album" journals that had blank pages with writing prompts as a Christmas present (I think it was Christmas). This little note is written on the first flyleaf:
Oct. 11, 1999 - Greta, Mother always told me it was an evil wind that blew no good. So maybe these sick bouts I have had for the last 3 months have had some good in them. At least, not being able to do anything else has given me a chance to write in the album. Grandma.
Most of the pages that follow are crammed full of content, ranging from family stories Grandma wrote out by hand, to pictures of my family going back to my great-grandparents and forward to my own children, to little notes and Valentine cards drawn by me, my sisters, and my cousins.

What a treasure! I knew Grandma had filled out the book, because she had mentioned it to me in person a couple of times, but I had no idea how much she had put in there. A lot of the content was also stuff I hadn't seen before, like a picture of my dad on his tricycle when he was maybe three years old. There are also pictures of things I had seen but forgotten, like the picture of all the clothes she had made for family members for Christmas one year.

The best part, though, are the stories. Some of them are short, like the one about her being "Marigold" in the senior play and having to cry a lot for the role. Others fill two complete pages with close-set handwriting, with little added notes stuck in catty-cornered with details she remembered after the fact. I knew the basic factual outlines of some of the stories, such as that Grandma and Grandpa got married and wanted to keep it secret for a while. But these versions of the story are more detailed than I ever heard them told, and it really brings the stories to life. Priceless, absolutely priceless, both as a granddaughter and as a writer.

I feel very fortunate in that I have stories from both my mother (she wrote a book - as a novel - about her early childhood) and now from my grandmother, from opposite sides of my family. I think it's important that someone in a family write down the stories - not just the "factual" stories, but the way the facts affected people. And both of these stories have something personal added to them; Grandma's is written in her handwriting and in her voice, and my mom's has wonderful little sketches she made of things like the sorghum cane harvest. Priceless.

Looking through the book this week, it was like visiting with Grandma again, even though she's been gone nearly 12 years.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Inheritance

About six weeks ago, my last grandparent passed from this life to the next. Grandpa was just a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday, which would have been this past week. Since that time, his children have been going through and dividing up his belongings, which in this case also included the belongings of his wife, who died about 11 years ago.

Grandma was an incredible seamstress who made clothes for everyone in the family, from three-piece suits for the men to frilly "doll dresses" for the little girls. I'm really the only one of the children or grandchildren who makes much clothing - others in the family are talented with quilting or doll-making. So when it came time to bequeath Grandma's cabinet full of clothing patterns, I was the recipient.

When I say "full of clothing patterns," I am being quite literal. The cabinet is a commerical pattern cabinet, probably purchased when a fabric store was changing its inventory or going out of business (though I'm not sure about that). Of its four drawers, three are simply stuffed with patterns. One of the drawers (seen in the above picture) held a number of boxes with brand-new zippers, sorted according to color. (The boxes, by the way, are another of Grandma's hobbies - she covered cardboard boxes with wallpaper scraps to make storage containers that are beautiful as well as functional).

Since Grandma died in the late 20th century, most of the patterns are pretty badly dated. I don't know how old the oldest patterns in the cabinet are, but I know they will probably go back to the 1970s and maybe even earlier. The night the cabinet was delivered, my daughter had quite a lot of fun looking through the old clothing styles. Because I've been so busy with the end-of-year grading and with finishing up my chapter of the university's self-study report, we haven't had a chance to go through them since that night. It's something I'm looking forward to for this summer (after I'm through with the summer class I'm teaching). The good news is, some styles seem to be coming back into fashion, judging from what I've seen while shopping for my daughter (I once said - aloud - "When did clothes from my high school years come back into style?!!"). Maybe we can find some patterns that we can use this summer to give Lily a very fashionable wardrobe to take back to school in the fall.

One thing about Grandma that made her unique is that she drew a lot of her own patterns by copying from a piece of store-bought clothing (another useful skill she taught me - hooray!). One section of one drawer is devoted to the homemade patterns, all of which are in regular white envelopes and labeled, in Grandma's handwriting, with the name of the person the pattern was for, the size or person's age, and a brief description of the piece. I could tell Lily was beginning to feel a little left out as she saw pattern after pattern drawn for cousins and (especially) for her brother. I told her not to expect to find one, because she was only two years old when Grandma died, and so there wasn't a lot of time for Grandma to have made something for her. However, she kept looking, and eventually she found two envelopes with her name, including one for a Valentine's Day dress full of ruffles made when Lily was three months old.

It was really cool (for lack of a better word) to see Lily's satisfaction at being part of the legacy. I look forward to exploring this inheritance with her this summer, and maybe to pass on this tradition to another generation.