Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Power of the Network. And Darling Daughter. And Scotch.

Yesterday afternoon, I made one of those absolutely necessary, but embarrassingly-infrequent circuits of the house, checking the exterior paint, security lights, gutters, etc.  (Really, which kid do you suppose penciled in a monster face on the wood siding?  And when?)

As my inspection reached that side of the house least seen (and every house has one, right?), I saw that a towering pyracanthas bush against the fence had been tethered to our home by a ropey, six-foot strand of spider silk.  It tickled me to think that this favorite shrub, which I rely on year 'round for foliage cuttings, floral filler and seasonally decorative berries, had been assimilated into our actual home.  The bush was now, officially, Chez Wiles.

That night, hours after my completed inspection, I was on the phone with a Charleston friend who likes to be referred to as Cougar Bait (CB).  (Honest.  He's 23 days younger than me.  This is just the beginning of things not fabricated in this blog post.) As I babbled about my day, Darling Daughter (DD), who'd been upstairs getting ready for bed, came down to notify me that the lights were on in my car.  It was 9:30 at night and raining.  I was irritated that I had to go outside and see which door was ajar, so I could get the lights off.

Long story short, I disrupted a car break-in in progress.

First, no worries.  We are fine.

Second, it turns out that 12-year-old girls are pretty darn powerful because what happened next was like a scene from a horror movie.  Still on the phone, I went outside, opened the driver's side door and was ticked off to see the glove compartment door gaping wide.  At the same time, DD, who is home with the flu, was watching me from an upstairs window and saw a man ("no hair, about 30, red shirt, red umbrella, about as tall as my mom," as she later told the police) crouching on the other side of the car.  Despite being nearly voice-less a few hours earlier, DD summoned the energy to frantically and loudly alert me, scaring off the perpetrator.

Terrifying?  Well, let's say I may have found yet another target market for Depends adult diapers.  And not just 47-year-old female crime victims.  Thirty-something-year-old crime suspects, as well.  In the words of Mr. T, "I pity the fool" who crosses a pre-teen who thinks her mom is in danger.  DD's siren-like warning penetrated that second-story, double-paned glass and sent the would-be burglar scrambling.

That's when the strands of my network began revealing themselves.  I quickly hung up on CB to call 911.  Unbeknownst to me, CB -- who'd heard DD's shrieks over the phone (did I mention she was loud?) -- quickly called Dear Friends (DF) who live nearby.  At my request, DD called CB to assure him that we were OK.  DF pulled into the driveway minutes later.  Two police cruisers followed shortly thereafter.  DD and I each gave our statements.  With police escorts, we inspected the property -- just as I had earlier in the day.  And then, a mere 35 minutes after the break-in, DD and I were on our way to DF's for a sleepover.

Thirty-five minutes.  No fabrication.

As news spread over the next 12 hours, my network continued to emerge. Friends, family and neighbors supported us -- offering advice, cell phone numbers, resources for improved security, unrelenting love and lavish praise for DD's quick thinking.

Our network turned into a virtual "net"  -- a comfy hammock holding, supporting, comforting and cradling us -- something we very much needed, even though we were perfectly fine.

DD took a five-hour nap this afternoon, recuperating, I think, as much from the flu, as the night before.  I've answered countless e-mails and phone calls and even shed a few tears out of sheer gratefulness.  I've also offered my undying gratitude and assorted favors to Cougar Bait and Dear Friends -- the starter strands of last night's network.

I can't say I've got much in the way of a recipe right now.  Between the flu and the napping and the network, DD and I haven't broken bread together today.  The most memorable thing I had last night was a stiff Scotch while unwinding at DF's last night.  Talk about an easy recipe.

But first, how lucky am I?  Yep.  The answer is "amazingly" -- thanks to DD and our powerful network.

Scotch On The Rocks
As served by DF and as consumed while on a late night call to CB.

One hefty, cut-crystal double-old-fashioned glass
An abundance of crushed ice
Lovely, fragrant, smooth, calming 15-year-old single-malt Scotch (I prefer Dalwhinnie, which, serendipitously, can be found in DF's liquor cabinet)

Fill glass to rim with crushed ice.  Pour Dalwhinnie over ice until glass is 1/2 full.  (Really, it's not that much when you think about it. Remember, ice is frozen water, which makes it an ingredient.  When you think of it that way, Scotch is only the second of three ingredients.)  Splash some non-frozen water (the third ingredient) on top.  Sip slowly as you recount the tale of your evening.  Decline, when offered, a second Scotch (and Dear Friends always offer a second).  Sleep well, knowing your network is stronger than any spider's web.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Stormy Weather. Just Couldn't Get My Poor Self Together.

Twenty years ago today, I called a client in Richmond, Virginia to explain that I might miss a deadline.

“The electricity's out, but I’m sure it will be back up in a couple of hours.  No problem.”

Oops.  That was my first mistake.  That was no simple storm that had blown through the night before.  It was full-forced Hurricane Hugo, downing trees, snapping power lines and severely debilitating Charlotte for days and weeks to come.

I’d known Hugo was making landfall, of course.  Just not here.  Indeed, I’d been urging my Charleston family to come to my new home in Charlotte -- which we'd owned for less than a month -- and “be safe.”  Not one of them would consider it. So I spent the entire night worrying.  It never occurred to any of us that Hugo could come so far inland.  As the storm raged and transformers blew and oaks the size of bridge pilings tumbled like blocks, crushing homes and cars, I peered out the windows, thinking, “Wouldn’t you know it.  We bought one of those houses where you hear every single drop of rain.  Damn.”

I was still in denial as the sun came up.  Alongside our neighbors, we lurched like zombies, still in robes and pajamas, surveying the aftermath, climbing over fallen trees and mystified by the thick green confetti (leaf shreds) and swarming yellow jackets (apparently, they nest in the roots of trees -- who knew?)   "Well," I thought, “it can’t be like this everywhere.”

That was my second mistake.  Of course ours wasn't the only neighborhood hit.  We weren't the only ones who couldn't get their cars out of their driveways.  Even if we could, there was nowhere to go.  All – and I mean all – the streets were blocked.  (Miraculously though, as we stood outside, dazed, the delivery guy from The Charlotte Observer swashed a path through the neighborhood, tossing the day's paper in our driveways.

Just the day before, I'd stood in line at The Fresh Market.  I'm a Charlestonian, so with a storm abrewing I knew it was time to stock up on the basics -- milk, bread, beer.  Duh.

The woman ahead of me bought 10 pounds of shrimp (on sale!), and I remember thinking:  She's not in her right mind.  Southern storms often bring power outages.  What would she do if her freezer thawed?

I thought about that woman for days.  Maybe she just wanted to cook to settle her nerves.  Lord knows I did.  But post-Hugo, without a stove or oven or refrigerator, there was little I could do.  Yes, we grilled.  And grilled and grilled.  (Grilled coffee became a specialty of the house, as were scrambled eggs with almost anything tossed in, and grilled meat four or five times a day.)  In all, we were without power for about 10 days.  Faced with rapidly defrosting freezers we gorged on steak and shrimp (and one neighbor's venison).  We sipped warm beer.  Yuck.  We piled clothes in and around the hamper, in anticipation of an eventual laundry day.  Once some of the streets were cleared, one neighbor ventured out of town and returned with a bag of ice for us.  Upon receiving it, I kid you not:  I cried.  But most of my time was spent scheming about what I would cook when electricity once again graced our home.

Truly.  When power finally returned (and the Harris Teeter re-stocked and re-opened), I had all four burners going -- with chili, my favorite pasta sauce (the way I like it -- with peppers and mushrooms -- because I didn't have any kids to please), soup, you name it.  I was filling my stomach, filling the freezer and filling the house with comforting aromas.  I was like Scarlett O'Hara -- I would never go hungry again.

And that was my third mistake.  It wasn't bread or milk or even beer that I should've stocked up on before the storm.  Non-perishable, savory food would've been wiser.  Next time I'll know better.  As the next storm takes a turn, I'll be taking my first batch of Super Savory Cereal Mix out of the oven.  And stocking up on ice.  Warm beer is the pits.

Super Savory Cereal Mix
This is your basic "chex mix," but amped up.  I like mine much more flavor-filled than most recipes allow.  This is a particularly zesty version -- with lots of nuts, but no peanuts.  And it keeps for weeks.

3 cloves garlic, peeled and each impaled on a toothpick
1 stick of butter (not margarine)
1/3 cup worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1, 12-ounce box of Crispix cereal
1, 6.6 ounce bag of Goldfish snack crackers
1, 2-pound jar of deluxe mixed nuts (no peanuts)

1-2 teaspoons kosher salt

Preheat oven to 250.  In a very large roasting dish with high sides, stir in first five ingredients.  Put pan in oven until butter melts -- about five minutes.

Once butter has melted, gently stir in Crispix, Goldfish and nuts.  Bake for one hour, stirring (gently) at 15 minute intervals.

Remove from oven, and while still hot, sprinkle with kosher salt to taste.

Allow to cool and serve.

Monday, September 21, 2009

We Need To Cook.

“Mom, we need to cook.”

Were more inspiring, gratifying words ever spoken?

Darling Daughter (DD) and her darling friend (DF) indulged me this weekend, accompanying me to Julie & Julia, the movie based on the true story of an aspiring writer who, in a pique of resentment with her friends’ career successes, decides to tackle all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1.  Making her hastily-considered idea even whackier, Julie self-imposes a time limit of one year.  That’s right.  That's 524 recipes (many of them extraordinarily complicated) in 365 days.  In a cramped NYC studio apartment.  While working a full-time job.  Blogging all the while.  And ultimately, publishing her own book, Julie and Julia:  My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

Now that I’ve finally seen it, I'm embarrassed it took me so long to get there.

When I was growing up and learning to cook, Mom had an entire shelf of cookbooks I could thumb through and splatter on, including the venerable classics, The Joy of Cooking, with its endearing red ribbon bookmark and The Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, with its recognizable red and white gingham cover.  There was also local favorite Charleston Receipts, which, just like an oven or a yard, appeared to be standard issue in every house on James Island.  And there was my very first cookbook, blandly titled Kids’ Cooking, which in fact, was my source for tuna salad.

I also could leaf through Mom’s older cookbooks, one with the titillating title, The Way To A Man’s Heart, which, if memory serves, included a recipe for a lettuce wedge with blue cheese dressing – the only type of salad a manly man would deign to eat.  Finally, of course, there was Julia Child’s master opus, Mastering The Art of French Cooking.

I used all Mom's books liberally – both for precise recipes and guided inspiration -- as I learned to simmer and bake and roast and saute.  All, that is, except Julia’s.

Julia’s was an overwhelming book, published in two volumes, each of which was 500-600 pages.  It was impractical, too; we had the paperback version, rendering each more similar to a chunky Michael Crichton novel than a reference book.  Is it possible it was thicker than it was wide?  I could hardly prop it open, much less flop it open.
Even more challenging for me, though, was that most recipes were so exotic I couldn’t even conceive of them, much less muster the ingredients.  This was in the mid 70s, when Parkay, not butter, graced most tables, garlic salt, not a garlic clove, was king, and well, who was to say that Cool Whip wasn't "real" whipped cream?

Even if, for example, I somehow managed to procure the three pounds of lean stewing beef and 24 tiny white onions needed for Julia’s legendary Boeuf Bourguignon, then what?  What about the "three cups of full-bodied young red wine" Julia ordained?  The Blue Nun Liebfraumilch our family kept on hand was clearly no substitute.

And beef aspic?  Really?  Who eats such things?  (Of course I read the recipe, but it was like reading a horror story.  I couldn’t put it down.)
Nevertheless, beef aspic and all, DD was enchanted by Julie & Julia.  I was inspired as well and before the lights went up, I determine to go directly to the bookstore to get my own copy of Mastering and immediately begin sauteeing the luscious mushrooms we'd seen in the movie.  (The phrase "food porn" comes to mind.)  Before I could get my own thoughts out, though, DD insisted that we had to go home and “cook something.”

"Mom, we need to cook."

Surprised, I tried to suppress my joy.  "What should we cook?" I asked.

"Something from that book," DD replied. "Something good.  Something like baked ziti."

DF quickly chimed in.  "I love baked ziti!  Do you have the recipe?"

Um.  Baked ziti?  French cuisine?  Julia Child?

You know.  That sounds perfect.  Let's cook.

DD's Baked Ziti (Without Yucky Ricotta)

This is an easy recipe, quickly assembled with any pre-made red sauce or marinara sauce.  I keep lots of homemade sauce in the freezer, though, with Italian sausage as my kids prefer.  Click here for the recipe.
½ box (about 8 ounces) ziti
2 ½ - 3 cups red sauce, heated
4 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, cut in ½ cubes
½ - ¾ cup grated mozzarella, or grated Italian cheese mix (I used Sargento brand, which includes mozzarella, parmesan, provolone, asiago etc.)

Preheat oven to 350.  Spray an 8 x 8 baking dish with Pam. 

Cook ziti in a large pot of boiling water until almost done, or slightly chewy.  Drain well, and stir in sauce.  Stir in cubed cheese.  Pour into prepared baking dish and sprinkle grated cheese evenly over.  Bake until heated through and bubbling – about 20 minutes.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Keeping My Cool When Kanye, Joe and Serena Cannot.

With apologies to my Mom, who, in addition to always encouraging me to wear clean panties, strongly cautions me against blogging inappropriate language.  Sorry, Mom.

"He’s a jackass."

That’s what President Obama replied when asked his opinion of egocentric rapper Kanye West’s treatment of ingénue country singer Taylor Swift at the recent MTV video music awards.  (For a clip from the awards show, click here.)

(Soon-to-be-former) ABC reporter Terry Moran, apparently so gleeful to have harvested this "off-the-record" tidbit, scarcely paused before sharing the scoop on Twitter (hence my “soon-to-be-former” assumption).

Although the President’s statement was made "off the record," I heartily agree -- two thumbs up to The Chief.  But only "off the record," because as a parent, I’ve got to come up with a more delicately worded response when my kids ask my opinion of  Kanye's literal “upstaging” of Taylor.

Recent news stories about adult behavior challenge my parental obligation to calmly respond and explain without judgment.  I had to edit my wording when I talked to the kids about SC Congressman Joe Wilson’s recent outburst (“You lie!”) in last week’s joint session of Congress.  And tempestuous tennis superstar Serena Williams’ thuglike-threats at the US Open left me all but speechless.

I know I should regard these recent news items as “teachable moments.”  But cheese and rice.  Cheese.  And.  Rice. (Is that OK, Mom?)  Does anyone else feel that civilization as we know it is rapidly swirling down a super-sized toilet?

Look.  Although I’m from the South, I’m not insisting on magnolia-manners or plantation-politeness here.  Manners misdemeanors abound Chez Wiles.  My days of expectedly chanting, “And what do you say?” have long passed.   After a third elbows-on-the-table infraction at any meal, I just look the other way.  And my kids give me props for being a fearsome burp contest contender.  (The trick isn’t swallowing air.  It's being patient.)

Still.  WTH?  What.  The.  Aitch?  (Again, apologies to Mom.)   Has it become cool not to keep your cool in public?

How do we explain to our kids that bad behavior isn’t cool – even when it’s rewarded with clamoring reporters and unending television coverage and, in the instance of Congressman Wilson, vastly increased financial support? How to explain that some people, despite extravagant blessings of fame and wealth and talent and power, can't exercise the basic self-control a kindergartner?  How to convince a teenager that being a good guy will pay off in the long run?  Really.  I promise.  No kidding.

For me it's an ongoing challenge.  Who knows what could confront us on tomorrow morning's Today Show?  I shudder to think.  Right now, though, it's one news story at a time, and I'm hoping that somehow, some time, in a galaxy not too far away, our kids will derive some positive lesson from this outrageous -- and unacceptable -- behavior.  I'm reminded once again that the future is in their hands.  All we parents can do is offer some basic guidance.  And of course, some basic role-modeling in ways to keep your cool, including this somewhat unusual, scrumptious cucumber salad.

Oh.  And one more thing.  Kanye West?  Off the record?  He's a jackass.

*Keeping Your Cool Cucumber Salad*

1 seedless cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seed oil (or 1 tablespoon regular sesame seed oil)
1 tablespoon white balsamic or rice wine vinegar
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
toasted sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
Toss first four ingredients together. Season generously with salt and pepper. Chill. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, if desired, and serve.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I'm A Mom. I Can't "Just Chill."

This post ran as a guest column in the Moxie section of The Post & Courier (Charleston, SC), Friday, September 11, 2009.  (Click here for the column.)

When we were growing up on James Island, one of our great summertime thrills was when somebody's exhausted and pestered parent would cave in and drive us across the old Cooper River bridge (an adventure in itself) to the Super Slide in Mount Pleasant.

The Super Slide was, in fact, just that: A "souped-up" old-fashioned metal slide -- on steroids.

To my 9-year-old eyes, it looked to be about 10 stories tall, but more likely came in at two or three, with what seemed like about 20 lanes, but again, was more likely five or six. After paying the attendant, we'd traipse up the stairs, each clutching a square of carpet to sit on, Aladdin-style, for the all-too-quick ride down.

The carpet square served several purposes. One, it maximized the glide. Two, keeping our feet and hands on the carpet helped us avoid friction burns with the slide, which even the littlest kids knew would be far more painful than the "Indian burns" we inflicted on each other's arms at home. And three, well, for the love of St. Philip's, we were in Charleston. In the summer. With no shade. And the slide wasn't that high-tech, stay-cool, molded plastic that's used today. It was metal. You know. Like the bottom of an electric iron.

The metal slides in our own backyards were blistering hot and unusable.  What made anyone, particularly an adult, think an even higher, longer slide would be preferable?  With a little bit of Pam, every single egg at the Piggly Wiggly could've been fried on that scorching piece of sheet metal. Bacon, too.

I sometimes think of that slide when my kids demand explanations for my parenting decisions. Plainly, it would be safer, and usually smarter, not to even begin the descent. The rule is the rule. Make your bed. Put away your clothes. Walk the dog. Because I said so. Now.

But the kids are 12 and 14 now, so I can't always get away with that.

Older Child (OC) recently laid into me: What can't you just relax? Why can't you let things slide? What difference does it make if I put away my clothes? Why can't I eat in my room? Why do you care how late I'm on the phone? Why do you get to tell me when to go to bed?

And finally: Why can't you just chill?

Are you kidding? I can chill! I'm the chillest mom around! I'm so cool ...

Um. Did I say that out loud? 'Cause there's no way I can win the "cool" point.

In fact, I am decidedly not cool -- in any sense of the word. But I am an adult. I pause. I take what feels like a lung-bursting breath. I know that once I get on this slide, there's no stopping -- at least not without incurring serious injury, either to our relationship or my own ego.

It'd be so easy to get burned.

I consider walking away, giving both of us a chance to cool down and avoid the possibility of medical intervention. But oddly, OC seems to be expecting a response.

I dig deep, trying to think of an answer I can give that's honest, worth giving, worth hearing and, most importantly, won't sear the skin off of either of us.

"Because," I offer hesitantly, "you're in training.

"I don't expect perfection. You're a kid. But you're a work in progress. The point isn't for you to get everything right. The point is for you to eventually emerge from training as a thoughtful, contributing, informed, decent human being.

"But that won't happen automatically. That's why I can't just chill."

I stop talking. I wait. I try to read OC's face, but I can't tell. Did one of us just get burned?

"OK, Mom. Whatever. Can I finish watching this show now?"

Phew. I deflate my lungs. That wasn't so scary. Looks like we both made it to the bottom of the slide with hands, feet and egos intact.

I suspect I'll be traipsing back up those steps again in no time, though. He's 14, and his training's only begun.

What a ride.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Going With What You've Got (Gingered Carrot & Pineapple Salad)

I couldn't help myself.

Yes, the temperature has shifted – I now shuttle to the morning bus stop in cropped pants, not shorts.  Yes, Labor Day came and went earlier this week.  And yes, I know the rule about not wearing white after Labor Day.

Too bad.  I’m not quite ready to stow my cute white denim clamdiggers with my bathing suits and cover-ups and other wait-‘til-next-summer clothes.  As ready as I am to embrace fall, I can’t quite let go of summer.

These clamdiggers are some kind of white, too.  Not “off-white.”  Not “winter white.”  And certainly not “cream.”  Nope, these are bleached-bright, bone-in-the-desert white.  The kind of dazzling white you can only get in a dentist’s chair.  The kind you wish you'd worn when you were 15, and your best friend's bedroom had a black light.  Or better still, when you were shopping in the back room at Spencer’s in the mall.

Sometimes you just gotta go with what you've got.

Earlier this week, I got to watch Darling Daughter’s (DD’s) first cross-country meet.  Actually, this particular race was a relay, which is a fun and relaxing way for a first-time runner to compete, because running only one mile in a three-mile race can take the pressure off.

Right.  When I get there, I learn that another runner had gotten sick, so DD had been “called up.”   She'd be running the second leg on team with much more experienced runners – a team which previously had been expected to win the race.

The team had to go with what they’d got.  And they got DD.

So much for a fun and relaxing event.  I was now in full-on Prilosec-Popping-Mom mode.  The other two girls have had a lot more training.  One, in particular, is a truly gifted runner.  How did my little girl end up in this mix?

I positioned myself on the course so I could watch a good portion of the second leg.  My eyes flicked frantically between the course and my watch, trying to predict when DD would emerge from the woods.  And then she appeared, smack in the middle of the leaders.  I took in her run, watching her stride lengthen, her cheeks puff and her arms pump as she concentrated on the runner just ahead of her – not on me as I mindlessly shrieked encouragement.  (“Mom.  You’ve got to stop.  It’s embarrassing.  She can’t even hear you,” her brother later advised.)

Across the lake, I could see her teammate waiting for the hand-off.  DD’s brother, an experienced runner, had positioned himself farther down the trail, so he could let her know when it was time to dig deep and sprint. As DD ran past me, I stopped breathing, unsure whether she could keep up with the forerunners, whether she had the energy and ability to last those last few minutes.

OK.  Did I really doubt her?  Call me Thomas.  Still, all of the sudden, my girl was right there at the front, making the tag.  I took another look – to make sure she was done – and re-inflated my lungs.  After DD made her (leisurely) way over to where her teammate would soon finish, her brother noted admiringly, “She didn’t even break a sweat.”

As predicted, DD’s new teammate finished first.  Her team had gone with what they had -– DD – and that was enough.

Later, DD shared with me that she’s a bit nervous about next week’s meet – where she’ll run as an individual, not as a member of a relay team.  “I think people will be expecting something of me,” she said.

“Maybe not expecting something of you,” I offered cautiously, “but maybe interested to see what you can do.”

In my mind, though, I want to do whatever I can to help her live up to those expectations – which admittedly, isn’t much.  Just like those white clamdiggers, I’ve got to go with what I’ve got – and that’s cooking.

I can't force her to sleep more or practice harder, but I can offer gracious plenty nutrition – starting with this tasty and healthy carrot salad.

Gingered Carrot & Pineapple Salad
Excellent with grilled fish.
3 carrots, grated
2 cups fresh chopped pineapple
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1/2 juicy lime, juiced
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
fresh ground pepper
kosher salt (to taste)

Combine all ingredients in a large glass or ceramic bowl.  Chill until serving.  Keeps well for 3-4 days.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Not To Wear In Faux Fall. (Pumpkin Bread)

Yesterday -- just one week into the school year -- we pried open our sleepy eyes to greet a cool 57 degree morning here in Charlotte.

And wonder of wonders -- same thing today.

This is noteworthy because our city's average low for September is 63. And we’re a mere three days into the month.

Mind you, both 57-degree-mornings days – as predicted – wound up climbing into the upper 70s. Nevertheless, Chez Wiles, we are reveling in these practically chilly temps. The dip was sufficient to have me hefting open windows in our 85-year-old house and send all of us scrambling for sweatshirts and jumping into jeans.  Makes you wonder what we'd do in 40-degree weather, right?

Of course, we’ve been programmed to believe that as students return to school, the season follows a parallel path on its return to cold weather. Television shows, commercials and back-to-school signage support the premise, splashing autumnal leaves on any and all promotional materials, which also inevitably feature trendy teens wearing fleece-lined boots and woolen earmuffs.

I know. It is possible autumn really has arrived.  It's also possible my kids will prepare chateaubriand for dinner tonight.

C'mon.   It may be autumn in Maine right now. Or in Wyoming. But here in the Carolinas, we all know we’ve got plenty of oven-like days ahead.

Still, consider me guilty as charged. I’ve already been eyeballing the sweaters in my closet – the very same sweaters I hastily shed back in March when the temperature warmed up to – you guessed it – a toasty 57 degrees.

A long time ago (but well after the Renaissance, thank you), I celebrated my 16th birthday by traveling to a Commodores concert in Columbia, South Carolina. Last week, as I reminisced about the event, a friend teased me, saying, “I bet you even remember what you wore.”

You bet I do.

First, I remember because like so many women, my favorite memories are ensnared in memories of favorite outfits and favorite meals. (Wanna know what I had for dinner the night of my Senior Prom? Click here.) Second, I remember because my birthday falls in September – the Faux Fall month.

So yes. I remember clearly that, in 1978, as Lionel Richie crooned, “Three Times A Lady" and we all boogied to "Brick House," I wore a long sleeved, high-neck blouse made of material that was only slightly more breathable than a shower curtain. Or maybe slightly less breathable than a shower curtain. With that ill-chosen top, I wore tan, cuffed, wide-wale corduroy slacks, with a leather-covered fly button. Hey, I knew what I was doing.  Since it wasn’t yet October, I opted not to wear the matching jacket.

There’s no story here, really. As my friends and I got dressed that night in our room at the Downtown Holiday Inn, I looked fabulous. I could’ve passed for 18. Or at least, 17 ½ . But by the time we rode the elevator downstairs and crossed the street to the Columbia Coliseum, I wasn’t just sweaty. I was slimy. I was awash in my own au jus.

So yes, I remember what I wore.

And I remember Mom advising me not to wear it.

What did she know?  Thirty-one years later, I remain as susceptible to Faux Fall as my kids. The instant I opened the door to let the dog out yesterday morning, and that less oven-like air billowed in to meet me, my mind immediately skipped to fall fare.

OK. I'm not quite ready to get going on a kettle of chili – not even chicken chili.  But Cranberry-Pumpkin Bread with Pecans? Twist my wooden spoon.

It was, after all, 57 degrees outside.

Cranberry-Pumpkin Bread
Makes two 9 x 5, or three 8 x 4 loaves

3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
1 16-oz. can of pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup dried, sweetened cranberries (e.g., Craisins) (optional)
1 cup toasted, chopped pecans (optional)
2/3 cup warm water

Preheat oven to 350. Beat oil, sugar, eggs (one at a time) until well-blended. Stir in pumpkin. In a separate bowl, stir together dry ingredients (except cranberries and nuts). Stir dry ingredients into pumpkin mixture. Fold in cranberries and pecans, if using. Slowly stir in warm water until mixture is consistent. Bake in greased and floured loaf pans until golden -- about one hour. After allowing to cool 15 minutes, remove from pans and cool completely on racks. Freezes well.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Kids Are In School, But I'm Still Learning. (Pork Fried Rice.)

Darling Daughter and Sensational Son (“Sensational” only because “Awesome” would result in the initials AS, and other than a snarky 14-year-old, who wants that?) finally got back to school last week.  As always, certain universal lessons have already emerged:
  • The art teacher is awesome.
  • Backpacks come in only two sizes:  too large and too small.
  • Homework will never again be as manageable as it is the first day.
  • Every morning, someone (everyone) is going to forget something (if not everything) until someone (OK, me) lays down the law.
At the beginning of every school year, we hold these truths to be self-evident -- as predictable as hairbows on kindergartners and slouches on middle-schoolers.  Truly.  My kids were in school three days last week.  How many days do you suppose they forgot stuff?  Well, including all three days, the answer would be, let’s see … three.

Embarrassingly, that meant three roundtrips to school for me.

I know -- hardly the norm for "The Worst Mom Ever."  (It's official.  I earned it.  Click here for details.)  First of all, school isn’t exactly across the street. It’s four Starbucks away, for Pete’s sake.  In Manhattan, of course, that would be something less than five city blocks, but here in Charlotte, it’s about 10 miles.  In the time it takes to get to school and back, I could fit in a workout at the Y.  A good, sweaty one.

Second – and the kids know this -- I’m all about doing things right.  Nevertheless, we always struggle to get back in the groove these first few days.  I try to be patient, but I know I'm going to have to have The Talk –- the one about organization and responsibility and planning and respect for other people.  While I’m on it, I’ll likely throw a few side sermons about saving for a rainy day, being a good friend, appreciation for the many blessings (i.e., many iPods) in our lives, and the necessity of turning off lights and making beds.  But then, I'll get back on point and finish strong, promising to provide each child with a morning checklist.  And threatening seizure of iPods and cell phones should they fail to comply.

The situation is dire.   I’ve got to schedule The Talk quick, fast and in a hurry.  I need to make it clear that Mom’s Delivery Service – like so many other businesses as of late – would like to thank its customers, but is shutting its doors (FOREVER!)

Unbeknownst to DD and SS, I plan The Talk for Sunday dinner.  While they unwittingly finish up their homework, I cook, building my case by mentally re-creating Friday morning’s chaos.  I've got plenty of examples.  I recall the kids packing up their lunches, water bottles and extra food to tide them over between school and cross country practice.  I see them loading up books and binders and signed syllabus forms and medical insurance permission slips and homework assignments fresh from the laser printer – not to mention the oft-forgotten USB key.  I remember them stuffing their sports bags with shoes and running clothes and PE clothes.  I can see SS gathering his stuff for an overnight trip with his cross country team, which required him leaving straight from school. Finally, both of them packed bags to spend the weekend with their Dad.

Then it hits me:  Should I really be casting stones here?  Three times out of four, I can’t remember to take my grocery list to the store.

Yes.  DD and SS need to be more responsible and organized.  But I can cut them a few days' slack.  Under the circumstances, they're doing just fine.  I go ahead and set the table, deciding to postpone The Talk and only briefly mention that they may want to start loading their backpacks at night.

Lo and behold, Monday morning goes off without a hitch.  Or if there was one, no one was bold enough to text an S.O.S. my way.

We all need at least one part of our life to be easy and predictable.  That may be my most important job right now -- just greasing the tracks as DD and SS ease into the school year.  That, and preparing plenty of comfort food -- like the Pork Fried Rice we had this week.

Pork Fried Rice
3 cups cooked rice (brown is best), cooled
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 baby carrots, cut into matchstick-sized pieces
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 cups chopped fresh pineapple

2 cups leftover (cooked) pork roast, chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste
½ teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
generous grinding of black pepper

In a large skillet, sauté carrots and onion until slightly soft and brown.  Stir in garlic and ginger, stir frying another minute or so, or until very fragrant.  Stir in rice and pineapple.  Stir fry, gently tossing the ingredients, over high heat for another 3-5 minutes, until combined and very hot.  Stir in pork and remaining ingredients.  Heat through, adjust seasoning and serve.