Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Sanctity of Cornbread Dressing

I never knew cookware could bring out such emotion in me, but somehow it did.  This is no ordinary pot, though.  It's not high tech or new, but it is very special to me, none the less.  You might look at this battered, silver pan and think it's ready to be replaced with a more modern, stylish piece.  I look at it, and my childhood holiday memories flash before my eyes.  Every Etch-a-Sketch, Lite Brite, and Malibu Barbie appear clear as a bell to me.  This metal dish that twice a year held the most heavenly cornbread dressing was as much a part of Thanksgiving and Christmas for me as cranberry sauce and indigestion, and I made an Executive Decision this week that I will not spend another holiday away from it.

Although I am neither nostalgic nor sentimental, I have very strong opinions when it comes to traditions.  You know, such as how there's an unwritten rule that all people (maybe it's just all Southern People) must shoot off fireworks and barbecue some variety of animal on the fourth of July.  If a sparkler isn't lit or a spent bottle rocket doesn't find its way to your rooftop, then you aren't properly celebrating the birth of our nation, people.  Also, I'm fairly sure that if you don't have baked ham and potato salad on Easter, well, then you're just going to hell aren't you? And, those naysayers who balk at a New Year's Day menu of black-eyed peas, greens and some over-cooked pig dish may as well just crawl back under the sheets on January first because their hope for a New Year full of happiness and prosperity just went into the garbage along with the wrapper from a McDonald's Big Mac, bought to quell a queasy hangover stomach.

I would be lying if I said that getting gifts at Christmas as a kid wasn't a big deal, but just as important was the tradition of eating my mom's baked goodies that she prepared for us the whole season through.  It wouldn't have been the same without her haystacks, home made fudge or spicy sausage balls.  And, it would have surely been a downright travesty if we didn't have her extremely sage-y  cornbread dressing baked in this famous pan that probably pre-dates the death of JFK.  I don't remember a single Thanksgiving or Christmas in my life when I didn't either sit around her table for lunch or at least stop by for plate of her good cooking if other plans kept me away. 

After she passed on, I knew my holiday traditions would never be the same. When it comes to cooking, I suck.  There is just no nicer way to say it.  The first couple of years after her death, I prepared the meals on my own following her recipes, and it was mostly fine.  At least I could boast that I did it from scratch even though the dressing was a little dry and the mashed potatoes "needed something".  This year, however, my in-laws were graciously providing the Thanksgiving lunch.  We were invited to "just show up", and no cooking or fretting was required.  It sounded good to me at first, but then I found out that our entire meal would be not-so-lovingly prepared by strangers at a local grocery store, picked up the day before, and re-heated on the Big Day.

No. NO. NO!  My husband's parents are two of the nicest people on the planet, but that isn't what we do for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  A re-heated grocery store meal is utterly sacrilegious! The tradition is that we spend and plan and sweat and bake and mix and worry and mash and check the oven and say that we'll never have everything done in time and funnel Merlot (okay, that's just me), and then we sit down at the table to a Holiday Feast, and everyone eats until their pants no longer fit. 

So, this year we had our Whole Foods lunch on Thursday, but Friday, I took it back to my roots.  I got out that beat-up old pan and made cornbread dressing that would have made my mama proud, along with turkey, gooey, yummy macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, buttery corn, and pecan pie. Even if I really can't eat any of that stuff in real life, I felt like I had just created the Venus de Milo as I surveyed the spread.  Although it was the Friday after Thanksgiving and only the four of us, it still felt right.  This was how it's supposed to be.

So, I'm officially declaring that my family will celebrate the holidays the good old fashioned way at our house with Jell-O molds and a dash of family tension until further notice.  Y'all come.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Sitting at my desk on a sunny late-November afternoon with a steaming gingerbread latte in my hand and Christmas music playing in the background,  I decided to pretend that it's not seventy degrees outside.  Instead, I turned on the ceiling fan and donned summer clothes in an attempt to conjure a little seasonal chill.  (Unfortunately, the only chill happening was down my spine as I listened to Angela Lansbury brutally murder "We Need a Little Christmas".) It seems that I have a borderline psychotic love for all things Christmas.  I love decking not only the halls, but the bushes, my cubicle, the dogs. I can't wait to watch Charlie Brown every other day until we can quote the script from beginning to end.  I get a thrill out of answering my phone at work with, "Buddy the Elf. What's your favorite color?"  (Why do my co-workers not find that hilarious?)  I force my family to watch "A Christmas Story" in July, and secretly tune in to the year-round holiday music station when everyone else is groaning about how we haven't even finished with Halloween yet.  So, when my fifth grade son tried to step on my Christmas buzz by telling me he doesn't believe in Santa Claus, I had to put my foot down. You don't mess with Santa, not in my house.

 Yesterday at lunch I casually asked my kids what they would like for Christmas.  There was a time in my life (a wonderful time) when asking the children what they wanted was never even an issue.  I decided their loot a good ten months in advance and had it all wrapped and ready to go by Labor Day.  I would brainwash them over the course of the year into believing that whatever I had purchased was EXACTLY what they must have.  It worked quite well until they discovered the world outside of commercial-free television.  Now, I wait until the last minute because they will inevitably change their minds with each new Nickelodeon ad campaign.

My son was running through his expansive list of Items He Cannot Live Without, and each time I would poo-poo one of his requests, he would make quotations with his fingers while saying, "Santa can get it for me."   Oh, really?  "Santa", huh?  I had to stop him right there and school him in the protocol of Christmas giving.  First of all, by virtue of the blasphemous act of denying Santa's existence, it's a given that his name automatically went straight to the Naughty List.  Secondly, everyone knows that Santa only brings toys and not stick-built, adult-sized army bunkers for Nerf Gun War Games in the backyard.  And, lastly, I have it on good authority that the elves aren't mass producing commercial video equipment, and if they were, I'm sure there would be age and education requirements which he would not meet.

It's not that I don't understand where he's coming from.  He's a boy who is approaching his middle school years.  Making a wish list for Santa is strictly prohibited under the Unspoken Laws of Pre-teen Coolness.  I remember very clearly the Christmas when I was ten years old.  My family had an unusual tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve.  After supper, the kids and my mom would pile into the car to drive around town and view the light displays.  It always somehow worked out that Santa would stop by the house while we were out.  (Looking back, I don't understand why I never asked my Dad what he and Santa talked about during his visits - probably Old Milwaukee and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom - these were a few of his favorite things.)  That year, my fourteen-year-old brother decided to stay at the house with my father, just in case Santa Claus needed help unloading.  It seemed plausible because I had asked for a large, free-standing chalkboard, and an aging Kris Kringle could always use an extra hand.  When we returned, the porch light was on, indicating that the gifts had been safely delivered.  I burst in to find the chalkboard by the tree.  Written on the board was a message to me from The Man himself: "Merry Christmas!  Love, Santa".  That was awesome, except it was in my brother's handwriting.

Epic. Christmas. Fail.

I told my son that it's perfectly fine if he doesn't believe, but that means  he will only have gifts from us under the tree, and on Christmas morning, he will have to sit back and watch as his little sister bounds down the stairs to find all the goodies Santa left for her overnight.  I also happened to mention that The Big Man would probably leave her extra presents since he wasn't getting any.  Oh, and I imparted a tiny nugget of wisdom known to all adults: once you stop believing in Santa, your gifts are mostly practical, like shirts and socks.

He's keeping his hands in his pockets now when referring to Santa Claus. The finger quotations have disappeared.  I caught him at his desk making a wish list, too.  He's not letting on whether he has decided if Santa is real or not, but personally, this Mom hopes he never stops believing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gag Me with a Spoon

Please, don't ever call me skinny. I just might punch you in the face, and if I hear one more time how lucky I am to be small, I will absolutely go all Tonya Harding on the nearest shins.  I'm neither skinny nor lucky, unless you think a lifelong battle of the bulge is "lucky".  I could have been Mary Kate Olsen's sick and demented mentor, showing her all the tricks of the non-swallowing trade, although she looks like she did just fine without me.  I was a pioneer, blazing the trail for eating disorders, so excuse me when I don't smile at your compliment.  More than likely, I am too busy thinking about salami.

Food is like cocaine to me.  It has that tough of a grip on my brain, my soul.  Macaroni and cheese is my gooey, yummy crystal meth in a crock pot.  (Ummmm, let me savor that for a moment.) And there is no mistaking the adrenaline rush that overcomes me when chocolate-y, melt-y fudge hits my tongue, kind of like if Ghirardelli put out a new decadent line of acid hits.  Like any good addict,  I fight my demons every waking moment of my life.  Just when I'm successfully back on the wagon, some pusher lurking around the office pulls me into a corner and tries to force glazed doughnuts down my throat. Between candy-bearing, butt-kissing vendors and pot-luck retirement luncheons, life on the cube farm can be brutal for a recovering foodaholic like me.

My addiction began in tenth grade.  While my friends were wondering just how much was too much shoulder padding, I had a desperate need to be super model thin or risk losing out on the possibility of actually dating Simon LeBon.  (Keep your thoughts to yourself.  At least it wasn't George Michael.)  Food was in the way of adding "Rock Star Wife" to my resume, and these were the days before Sir Mix-a-Lot gave women permission to sport a big booty, so I started scheming. My plan was surprisingly simple: Stop eating.

So, I did.

Not only did I stop eating, but I discovered Jane Fonda and leg warmers, too.  I lived on crushed ice, fresh air,  and aerobics until my stirrup pants and Gasoline jeans started falling off of me.  Oh, I might pretend to take a bite here or enjoy a meal there, but the food was going any place but my mouth.  If a tiny morsel actually found its way down my throat, I made sure it found its way back out.  This was a closely held secret between the Porcelain God and myself.  My new favorite accessories were protruding hip bones and clavicles.  I had perfected the Heroin Chic look before Kate Moss was even in a training bra. My weight fluctuated during those three years, but every time I felt it getting out of control, I was back in the bathroom faster than you could say, "Gag me with a spoon!"

Once I was sprung from high school hell, I moved on to the "binge" side of eating disorders.  (That part was decidedly more social.)  I binged on pizza.  I binged on beer.  I binged on pizza and beer with ramen noodles and tacos for dessert.  I managed to add seventy-plus pounds to my body in the span of a few years, looking like some bloated version of my former self.  It was after a sobering trip to mall for new jeans that were in the upper double digits that I snapped.  I had a moment of clarity (lunacy), and I made a promise to myself that I would never be The Fat Girl matter the cost.

I ran. I did push ups. I slurped vegetable broth like it was Mother's Milk. I would spend an hour and a half on the stair climber only to  follow it up with sixty miles on the stationary bike.  I doled out for myself just ten grapes per day, and treated  alfalfa sprouts and cucumbers like they were exactly what I wanted for dinner.  I once again found my way back to the Land of the Stick People only to have my doctor tell me that I was going to die if I continued my pursuit of complete emaciation.  I didn't care.  I would have rather been dead than fat.  I was (am) that completely out of my mind. 

Even after all these years, I still agonize over food.  I am, today, a battle-weary foot soldier in the war against eating. The irony is not lost on me: the very sustenance I need to survive is the one thing that I'm desperately trying to avoid.  Don't tell me to "indulge" myself every now and then.   I can't, for fear of not stopping.  It's like telling an alcoholic to have a couple of drinks every day, but don't get drunk.

I have managed to find stable ground these days, and Food and I are in peace negotiations at the moment.  So, when you think how "lucky" I am to fit into skinny jeans, you should know that I am thinking how "lucky" you are for eating a piece of birthday cake without beating yourself up over it.  Wanna trade?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Great Escape

From the moment I decided to throw my daughter a semi-elaborate Princess party for her birthday, I figured it would be some good fodder for writing.  The story was practically written in my head before the party even took place.  It would be sweet and sentimental, chronicling a wistful middle-aged mom’s devotion to her precious daughter born late in life.  I would share how I gently (like a drill sergeant) enlisted the help of my family to pull off the best birthday a six-year-old girl could dream of.  I might even admit to the world that this was really more about it being the party I never had, and that I cooked up the whole scheme myself while under the influence of Disney/Pixar and Seven Deadly Zins. 

I also considered going in another direction with the tale.  It’s no secret that I don’t like crowds or talking to people, or talking to people in crowds.  I can’t stand to be the one in charge of orchestrating any event, and I have serious issues when it comes to my house and cleanliness.  So, invite eight squealing girls into my home for a few hours, and voila! Madcap hilarity ensues.  There was so much good material in this party that the words were writing themselves.  However, this story isn’t about the party.  It’s about my three dogs, affectionately (not) known as the “Bumpus Hounds”  (an homage to “A Christmas Story” and a darn good description of the smelly mutts, too) and what not to do when traveling with Man’s Best Friend.

Party day was meant for Girls Only in our house.  In addition to all males being ordered to vacate the premises, I also declared the temporary Princess Palace off limits for any non-bipedal creature, so the whole hairy crew hit the road for the forty-mile drive up to the In-laws' house. What dog wouldn't be delighted at the idea of a field trip?  There are new trees to pee on and fresh holes to dig, and with a backyard full of unsuspecting squirrels, I assumed the dogs would prefer to spend the day at Grandma's house rather than to spend it locked away in a bedroom while giggling girls huddled just down the hall, taunting them.  I guess I was wrong.

My husband was driving on one of the busiest streets in town as they headed toward the interstate.  It's six lanes across and completely littered with fast food restaurants, strip malls, and pay day loan stores.   It is also home to about seven thousand out-of-sync stoplights, and the only time it isn't crowded is when we have a quarter inch of snow on the ground, and everyone is home eating white bread and drinking up the fourteen gallons of milk they hoarded when they heard the words "frozen precipitation". 

The events that were about to transpire can be blamed in part on my son's insane love of overplayed eighties music.  The three dogs were in the back seat of the SUV, and the guys were up front when "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell came on the radio.  This one hit wonder is a favorite of my little Michael J. Fox/Alex P. Keaton wannabe, so he cranked up the volume.  This is where the madcap hilarity ensued. What the humans in the front didn't know was that the canines in the back were plotting an escape.  Is it because I force them to listen to yoga music?  They seem to like it.  They fall asleep every time they hear it.  Is it the fact that I buy cheap dog food?  They're all well-fed and healthy, so why should I spend big bucks on animals who find cat poop to be a delicious treat?  They obviously have no sense of taste.  Maybe it was just the need for a potty break, and they decided to seize the moment.  
Whatever the reason for their wander lust, once the music was playing loudly, Bumpus Number One quietly stepped on the automatic window button and lowered it all the way down.  When the car came to a stop at a busy intersection, he jumped out, unbeknownst to my husband and son.  Now, he would have gotten away with his well thought out escape plan except that Bumpus Number Two decided to play follow the leader and jumped out after him.  Unfortunately for Number One, Number Two is dark brown and very furry, and as she leapt to her freedom, my husband caught a glimpse of her going past.  Our dogs were running wild in traffic, going as fast as they could in the opposite direction of our car.  

My first thought upon hearing this was how awesome it would have been to be in the car behind them when two medium-sized dogs came flying out of the side window of the car.  How many times do you think the driver told that story yesterday?  My second thought was Holy. Crap.

My husband spun the car into the next parking lot and instructed our son to stay with Bumpus Number Three while he gave  chase on foot.  The good news is that Bumpus Number Three is an enormous Weenie Dog with no interest in life on the street. He was wagging his tail voraciously and thinking, "Yay!  More pepperoni for me!  Those fools don't know which side their Snausages are buttered on!" 

Cars were stopping as some drivers got out to gawk at the spectacle of this forty-something Dad in a Ralph Lauren sweater running down our main drag red-faced and screaming, "Benji!! Millie!!"  My son reported that a couple of "older women" (in their twenties) stopped by to watch the show, and he overheard them say, "How stupid do you have to be to roll your windows down with dogs in the car?"  My son was quick to correct them, and said, "The dog rolled the window down by himself!"  With that one line, my son erased all doubt from the girl's mind that she was looking at a couple of crazy dog people.

The Escape Artists didn't make it very far, just a block or so when they were stopped by a fence at a nearby auto dealership.  A very kind employee helped to trap the wayward hell hounds and escorted them back to the car with my husband.  The windows were promptly rolled up and locked, and my husband wheezed and coughed for twenty minutes from the combination of dog hair, cold air, and involuntary aerobic activity.  

Later that day when my son rushed into the house after the party was over with this wild "Marley and Me" type tale, I knew that any Princess story I might concoct was out the window.  Yes, the party was a success and went off without a hitch, and yes, I got many beautiful pictures of dainty little girls sipping from china teacups.  But the one picture I wanted but didn't get was of my husband sprinting through traffic at ten o'clock on a Saturday morning. Priceless.