Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the 27th Time

Here's my second place-winning entry to The Colony Public Library's 30th anniversary writer's competition.  Thanks Kevin for encouraging me to enter.  I love you!                                    

                                  On Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 27th Time

I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of Harper Lee’s only novel. My mother and sister referred to it often, quoted it when the occasion presented, and Atticus stood but one notch below my own father in my personal pantheon of male achievement. 

I had heard so much about this book and seen my sister act out the main scenes of the film so many times that by the time the paperback became available to me through a school book sale and my mother handed over the $1.95 Scholastic wanted for it, I could hardly wait to get it home.

I still have that yellow-covered paperback with its red-block title font somewhere, although it’s the hardcover version I read now. I’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird” every summer since my seventh-grade year. This story means summer to me. Summer and freedom. Freedom from school, freedom from kids my age, freedom to read whatever I feel like reading- the freedom of childhood. 

The opening sentence is never far from me: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow,” and the last sentence “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning,” crosses my mind every time my own daughter is sick.

This summer, though, I only managed to skim through the book, but I watched the movie with my three year-old daughter. I watched it and I watched her enthralled with the first half of the film, then watched her drift off to her toys when things got serious and sad and adult- just as I had drifted away from the sad stuff when I was a girl.

What strikes me now, listening to the book on CD and doing dishes while everyone else is sleeping, is how life carries on. I vividly remember thinking that things were “over” at each turning point in the book. Scout goes to school and isn’t allowed to read with Atticus anymore. Miss Maudie’s house burns down, Jem is waylaid by old Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, Scout is confined to petticoats and tea parties by Aunt Alexandra; Atticus’s fellow citizens show up to lynch his client and him, too.  How will things ever be the same?

As I grew up, each of these developments wrenched me, saddened me, laid me low, but I kept reading, kept loving this book. 

At forty now, it hits me. Alone at night, listening to the book on CD and washing dishes while everyone else is asleep- this is what happens: life carries on.

As children, as young people, every major shift in life is the end- how will we go on?  Our family moves, our friends marry and move away, our loved ones die- life will never be the same comforting tableau we’ve come to know. 

Then we wake up the next morning. We brush our teeth, go to work, take the kids to school- and things carry on. Tom Robinson may be gone; Boo Radley may have been explained and demystified, but still we go on. 

We carry on living and working and loving and reading- above all, loving and reading. Then we share “To Kill a Mockingbird” with our daughters. We share that sense of summer, of fun, of youth, of melancholy, of fighting even though “we were licked a hundred years before we started.”

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Humble Potato- Elevated

Ronald Reagan said that "all great change in America begins at the dinner table."  I'm not a Reagan fan, but I am down with that statement.   Let's start with the basic, the favorite, the most potentially delightful object on many an American dinner table, or supper table, if you're from my neck of the woods, and change THAT- or at least the way many of us prepare it.   

Mashed potatoes.  They don't come out of a box. They're not made by fictional tarts called Betty or Ida. :-)  They DO take more than ten minutes to prepare, but most good things in life take more than ten minutes to make, do, arrive at, or accomplish. 

If you've been dragged down into as many caverns by your spelunking parents as I have, you will know that potato flakes smell exactly like bat guano. If you haven't been dragged down into countless caverns (or as I like to call them, the bowels of hell) consider yourself blessed and lucky. 

You with me still?

Get some potatoes.  Figure on one per person- or two per if you're feeding the family I grew up in.  Big brown potatoes.  You don't want tiny new potatoes for this.  Those little red guys you roast entire with olive oil and herbs or you turn them into a yummy German potato salad- no mayo allowed.  But that's another post.

Give those taters a good rinse and scrub off any visible dirt with a veggie brush or non-soapy scouring-type pad. Peel those potatoes, or don't.  That's up to you.  Kevin and I like the peel in there, but Mimi won't touch it.  Dice up those taters into smallish cubes.  The smaller your pieces, the faster they'll cook.  (A sharp knife is really important here.  You don't want a dull knife slipping off the potato's damp flesh and into yours.)  

Add the cubed potatoes to the big pot of salted water you've already got going on the stove.  I usually smash a clove or two of garlic and throw them in the water along with the potatoes.  

Let the water come to a boil, then boil a couple of minutes, before reducing the heat a little so the pan doesn't boil over.  Prod a piece of tater after five or ten minutes- the cooking time is totally dependent on how small you diced your praties.

Once they are tender, but not disintegrating, drain them in a colander as you'd drain pasta.  Now for the fun part.  

Melt some butter in the tater pot, which you should have over low heat now, add some milk, salt, pepper, and a dash of Tabasco, and let the ingredients warm up.  Alternately, you can you use chicken or veg broth to cut fat and calories, but this is mashed potatoes, so...

Now return your taters to the pot and mash away with a potato masher.  If you have a potato ricer, use that for finer, fluffier taters.  You can also use a big spoon or fork if that's what you have.  I wouldn't recommend any electrical means of mashing or whipping here- a hand beater, immersion blender , or fo-pro will only turn your fluffy little lovelies into wallpaper paste.

Once you've got your babies mashed, you can add diced green onions, chives- whatever strikes your fancy.  Chipotle mashed potatoes anyone?  Bacon mashed potatoes?  Oh, my!
Mmm, taters!
Anyway, there you have it.  Homemade mashed potatoes are easy and you can get creative and/or crazy with them, and you're keeping all those potato flake boxes out of your recycling bin or landfill. 

Your new mantra: