Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Voice Out of the Past-Part 2

After finding Marguerite's note to Mrs Clark, I looked for more clues in the other volumes of Parkman. And I found them, in his "Old Regime in Canada". Two bills of sale from stores in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with the goods purchased by Mrs C.F. Clark, of Washington City, Iowa. The fifty cents must have been a delivery charge or a tip, for one statement says at the top that charges must be pre-paid. This makes me wonder if Marguerite was a servant or maid, and if Mrs Clark was her employer.

Perhaps Washington City stores were too limited to buy all the necessities for a household. Perhaps draymen made forays out to Iowa's little towns every week, carrying goods from the big cities.

Then, somehow, notes and bills of sale were tucked away in Parkman as bookmarks. Or just tucked away. The mystery of who read Parkman remains. Into this vast, encyclopedic history of Colonial America someone introduced small artifacts from everyday life in 1912. 80 years before these statements Iowa was a territory with a few settlers, and many Indians, and one might have lived a dangerous life there. Yet fewer than 100 years later Iowa housewives could buy china in Cedar Rapids, and draymen could deliver it safely.

How I love the little mysteries of the past!

A Voice Out of the Past-

One of the best things about old books bought at Antique shops or estate sales or used bookstores are the old notes found tucked inside. I find old letters in cookbooks recommending a particular recipe to a friend or thanking them for their hospitality.

I was looking for a quote in Francis Parkman's "History of France in the New World", and this fell out of "The Conspiracy of Pontiac". I bought the Parkman set at the Bellevue Antique Mall about ten years ago. I paid $100 for it. It would still be worth that, or more, if a beagle had not chewed up the cover of "A Century of Conflict".

This set was published in 1904, and the "drayman" Marguerite asked Mrs. Clark to pay might have been someone local delivering to the house. The UPS man of his day. Anyone reading this might remember the wonderful scene in "The Music Man" where the Iowa townspeople await the Wells Fargo Wagon singing "It could be something very special for me".

No matter what the drayman brought, Marguerite did not have the change to pay him. Fifty cents must have gone farther and put a bigger dent in the pocketbook than it does today. And not a clue here as to what Mrs Clark could expect to come on that wagon. Whatever it was Marguerite would explain it later-

Marguerite, home at seven, lived at that address. So apparently, did Mrs Clark. Was Mrs Clark the housekeeper? Was she the proprietor of a boarding house for young ladies? Those existed into the 1960's. I know this because I once lived in one in Hanover, New Hampshire for a brief time before I went to nursing school.

And who tucked this note into "The Conspiracy of Pontiac"? Who was reading a history studded with names and places such as Fort Pitt and Oswego and the settlement of old Detroit? Not light reading then. Not light reading now-

Maybe there are more old notes. Whomever read this Parkman took a gentle pencil to it to note passages he or she found important. Here is one:

"The subject to which the proposed series will be devoted is that of "France in the New World'-the attempt of Feudalism ,Monarchy, and Rome to master a continent where, at this hour, half a million of bayonets are vindicating the ascendancy of a regulated freedom".

Francis Parkman wrote this in 1865. He dedicated the book to Theodore Parkman, Robert Gould Shaw, and Henry Ware Hall- each "slain in battle."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Winter Day Indoors

The portrait of a woman was painted by Vermont artist Virginia Webb. The amber globe is an old lampshade found at a junk shop. The candle stand was found in the same place-

Meanwhile my white ceramic duck watches over the cookbooks and tries in vain to keep the Shih Tzu from barking at everything that drives or walks by.

Going Fishing

Several weeks ago, the other nurse working the night shift at the prison clinic and I were called to one of the cell blocks to check on an inmate. It is unusual that we go out at night, for the inmates -unless they are in the segregated unit- come to us, accompanied by several officers, and we see them in our house, the clinic.

I will not go into all the reasons we were called, but by the time we arrived the officers were tossing the mattresses and sheets, looking for anything that a man could hurt himself with. I had to wait to check the prisoner's BP while this went on, and I had to wait outside the cell.

If our visits to the cell blocks are infrequent, our visits inside the cell are rare, and usually we step only a foot inside, when the officers have finished handcuffing the man who has just committed the heinous crime of disturbing prison peace and routine and inflicting paperwork on others.

Prison is a foreign country. It has its tribes, it wars, its alliances, its allegiances. The officers, in the hourly company of felons, know this well. The nurses hear of it in rumors, or if a fight breaks out, see it first hand as we travel in to certify that everyone in the rumble has been checked out for damage.

When the officers cleared me, I stepped inside to take an unremarkable blood pressure. How curious I was then to see , in the cell of someone suspected of hiding razor blades to hurt himself, a long, ragged, roped up sheet tied to the air vent high up on the wall. This smelled of harm to me, though how anyone could hang himself this way was a mystery. I pointed this out to an officer, but he was unimpressed.

As the other nurse and I walked back to the clinic, I mentioned the sheet.

"He's not going to hang himself with it", she said, It's just a fishing line".

Of prison folkways it is best not to know too much. But there are times when insight shines in on 600 bored men left to their own devices. Ingenuity springs forth like a fairy circle of mushrooms appearing overnight on wet ground .

What a precious inch of space it must be, the gap between cell door and cell floor . Out into the 0100 world goes the fishing line,unseen by the officers(or ignored), as they sit in their office between their two hourly prisoner head counts.

And what are we fishing for? The Moby Dick of prison contraband, a cell phone? Unlikely, unless it is thin enough. Perhaps a cigarette or a pill never swallowed, then spit out onto toilet paper and sold two doors down, passed on by other sportsmen out for the night on the Prison Pier.

Maybe just a note to some one in Protective Custody, who can communicate in no other way.

A strange night world. Adventure in the light under the door, in the sheet reeled back in-

And perhaps this anecdote- Different prison, different sex.
I went out one evening to Death Row at the women's prison. I went with the tiny LPN who was passing the ladies their evening medicine. Outside the doors- normal noise. Within- Babel.

Screaming. Shouting. Hooting. Hissing. A baboon pack in a jungle of bars.

"What are they doing?", I asked the LPN.

"They're talking to each other", she said.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chicken Braised in Broth, Sour Cream, and Mustard

This dish did not come from a formal recipe. It came from my head as I went along. It had occurred to me that a chicken braised in broth, mustard, and sour cream might be good, and I was right. Even Dippity Dog, my beagle can see that.

I took 6 chicken drumsticks and browned them in a butter-olive oil mixture in my cast iron Dutch oven. I browned them on both sides, then took them off the heat, for they were headed for the oven. I peeled and chopped into chunks 3 carrots and 3 gold potatoes. I put them in with the chicken. And in went 4 cloves of garlic as well.

In a bowl I mixed 1/4 cup of heavy cream, a 1/2 cup of chicken broth, 3 heaping tablespoons of sour cream, and an over sized tablespoon of grainy style Dijon mustard. I also sprinkled on a few shakes of Herbs de Provence. I did not salt, as sour cream and mustard had enough savor already. I whisked all this, then poured it over the chicken and vegetables. I covered the dutch oven with foil, then put the lid on tightly.

Into a 275 degree oven it went for one hour. At the hour mark I pulled it out, turned the chicken drumsticks, and set it back in for another hour. When it came out, the meat was falling off the bone in a most enticing way. A fine one pot dish to feed three or four-

A note- I think winter cooking is hearty cooking, which is why I use butter and the various creams. I do not apologize for it. And if there was ever a winter day, yesterday was it in this city. 32 degrees and a frigid rain. Weather not fit for woman or beagle!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Soul of Small Kitchens

I live in an apartment. My kitchen is a galley, and I must live with the cabinets and wall colors dealt me. It is not the American Dream Kitchen. I doubt anyone but the homeless would envy me this cramped space, but I have learned to love it. Age has taught me that larger is more confining than smaller, for there is more cleaning, more tidying, more walking about through empty space looking for a pot holder or an omelet pan. I prefer cosy and close to daunting and outsized.

A small kitchen must be kept neat. It encourages discipline, though some disorder can be charming if it is imbued with the personality of the owner. Foolish though it may be, I have an island in my small space. Several times I have removed it, but it always comes back. I need it too much. Where else would I chop onions or mix muffin batter? I care not what others think of it. This is my kitchen, and it will please me.

I think a huge kitchen is like a designer jacket with sleeves too long and shoulders too wide. I would rattle around in it. And unlike a jacket, a too large kitchen cannot be altered.

I saw an article yesterday on TheKitchn website about an Italian archeologist living in Parma. She is an everyday cook with a kitchen comprehensible only to herself. She is there in the objects she has collected in travels. She is there in the piles of magazines, and pots, and under a cupboard dressed up with a little skirt. The article contrasts her kitchen with another Parma kitchen so sparse that one might conclude that the owners are either Shakers or compulsive Minimalists. Of the two I prefer the former, where the soul of the owner is in every corner.

I also would mention the "Little Paris Kitchen" of English cook Rachel Khoo, who looks like Amelie, and who once ran a miniscule restaurant in her apartment. She has a half hour cooking show, which is excellent. It is so good it feels out of place on "The Cooking Channel".

Miss Khoo cooks under conditions most Americans over a certain income would not put up with. I am not certain I would put up with them, for when she wants to use her blender she has to crawl under a table and plug it in to the one outlet in her apartment. I think to be young in Paris might make this endurable.

Miss Khoo, with her quirky fashions, makes it charming.

There can be loveliness in having limits-

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dr Wes Explains All

If you are a patient, or if you take care of patients, you may be wondering what is going on in American hospitals and doctors' offices. Why, you may ask, is Dr X quitting, or not taking new patients, or not taking Medicare patients, or only giving you five perfunctory minutes of his time.

Well, Dr Wes can explain. Dr Wes is a cardiologist. He is also the Don Quixote of American medicine,tilting his lance at his three great foes- the computerized world of the evil and mandatory Electronic Medical Record, the McPatient medicine promoted by the Corporate Medical Industrial Complex , and the Algorithms for All now required by the U.S. Government.

Dr Wes knows his quest is futile, but he is a man of honor, and he will fight on anyway.

Now, you may ask,why is all of this so evil? Computers are our servants.

No, says Dr Wes, they have two roles. Both hideous. They are our masters.And they demand we take care of them, and not the patient.

The Corporate Medical Complex. Isn't that a good thing? Surely they are more efficient than the public sector. After all, they are out to make money.

Yes, says Dr Wes, they are out to make money, and that is why you wait three hours to see a nurse practitioner or your doctor for a full three minutes. The money is in the volume, and this office needs to see 10 people an hour.

Now we are down to the U.S. Government which wants your doctor to use algorithms to treat you so that everyone is on the same standardized page and so that they can measure "outcomes".

I see you are getting nervous. You do not want your outcome to be measured. You only ask that your outcome is that you get out of the hospital alive and without going bankrupt.

Well, does not the government know best? Why rely on your doctor's wisdom or experience or brainpower or God forbid, his intuition? Those cannot be measured.
After all your government is the face you see or the voice you hear at the Social Security Office and at the IRS. Remember how competent they were. How efficient and prompt.

If you are still confused you can go to

I do, for he is a voice of reason.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dinner At The Big House

The best thing about prison food is that it is provided free to the people who work there. Whether or not every morsel is fit for man or beast is another story.

I know something about its appeal to beasts since I sometimes bring leftovers home for my dogs and for the possums and raccoons that visit my porch. One would think that animals who like carrion would eat most anything, but this is not the case. Even possums will not eat the mixed carrots and peas, nor will they eat the grits that have the consistency of Spackle. They have no prejudice against rubbery fried eggs however, nor against the hard-boiled ones that are green inside. And no one ever turns down bacon or ham-

Every night,just before one, an officer knocks on the clinic window and asks how many trays we nurses want. Last night we took three, and all ended in the trash.I do not think that even a beagle would have wanted them, and beagles eat anything just on principle.

The entree last night was a Big House specialty.Miniscule bits of chicken floating in a syrupy brown broth innocent of salt and butter and overloaded with pepper. The kitchen sends this out several nights a week under different names though I doubt this fools anyone- Some nights they call it Chicken Fricassee, or Creole Chicken, or Chicken Pot Pie. The pie you build yourself by dumping the liquid chicken over a biscuit.

I tried to eat a biscuit last night, but it disintegrated into powder. It reminded me of pictures of loaves of bread found whole in archeological digs, that turn to dust on reaching the open air.

Several times the prisoner pushing the food cart has whispered to us "I'm sorry Ma'am but this is just gross". Without salt it has no savor, and no sugar comes either since enterprising inmates would use it to ferment alcohol they hide in stills up in the ceiling.

Not all the food is terrible. Some of it is just bad. Perhaps 20% is edible. I particularly favor the hush puppies they serve, as long as they have not been in the fryer so long they are as hard as golf balls. And sometimes we get those rigid corn taco shells filled with hamburger sauce. Not to everyone's taste, but in prison they are the equivalent of a meal from Maxim's.

I suppose there are some critters that would be glad of anything that came out of the kitchen. The House Sparrows pick at crumbs in the yard, there are frequent mice, and I heard tell of an elderly prisoner in mourning because his pet cockroach had died.

Is there anything as omnivorous as a cockroach?

Friday, January 11, 2013

A January Day in the Country-Santa Fe, Tennessee

And finally, a two-lane country road!

Spinach with Garlic and Pine Nuts

This was my side dish last night to accompany left over Paprika Chicken. It takes under ten minutes to cook. I put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet, heated it to medium. I peeled a clove of garlic and let it sizzle away , then added 1/2 standard grocery bag of spinach. Using a wooden spoon, I stirred the spinach to make sure it was coated with oil. When it was wilted, dark green, and cooked through I tossed in a few pine nuts. Then I sprinkled on a tablespoon or two of Parmesan cheese, tasted and added salt if needed.

And here it is, on a plate with Chicken Paprika( My recipe for this came from George Lang's "The Cuisine of Hungary".)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cannellini Stew with Olives

I am calling this dish a stew since in the interest of economy I used only one 15 oz can of chicken broth to two 15 oz cans of cannellini beans. I first sauteed a diced medium yellow onion in olive oil until if was soft and golden. I sweated it with a little sea salt as well, and added two diced garlic cloves. When the onion was done I added the broth and beans along with a dash of celery salt and Italian seasoning. Then I added a handful of chopped up green olives. I used the pimento stuffed ones, but I think Kalamatas or any pitted green olives would do as well. Possibly better. I will be experimenting in the future. Adjusting seasoning is important here, especially with salt, since preserved olives are intinsically salty. This went very well with toasted Italian bread.

This could serve three or four. It was so savory I ate it for supper, then for breakfast, then for lunch. No danger of leftovers with this

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Foodpocalypse Now

Yesterday I went to the grocery, and my first stop was the produce wing where I bought a cabbage. It was the same size as the leg of lamb pictured above. It cost 88 cents. I bought a bag of American grown seedless green grapes. They cost me $6.69.

As always I moved on next to the meat department's bargain bin, otherwise known as the "Manager's Specials". There was an elderly man in front of me. He bought nothing, for the meat discounted was a package of beef tenderloin steaks marked down to $15 dollars from $28. I passed on this as well, for I rarely eat beef, and I wanted a leg of lamb.

Men and sheep have lived together for millenia, for sheep are thrifty creatures who can live in arid, unforgiving, rocky lands. They were the meat of the Persians, the Greeks, the Corsicans, the Jews, the Arabs.

Not the meat of choice of modern Americans however. Go to some of the small town grocery stores between Nashville and Memphis and try to find lamb. No matter, though. Even if you could find it, would you be able to afford it?

This two pound leg of lamb cost 30.00 dollars. The five pounders were over 50 dollars.
A bag of potatoes to roast with the lamb would have been almost six.

I will not argue here with vegetarians or food scolds who think it would be better if we, the masses, avoided meat. Let us call a truce, for it will no longer be a case of avoidance but of affordability.

In every gilded age the rich feast, the poor eat gruel, and if you are someone who openly or covertly despises what were once called "useless eaters", this is how you feel it should be. Worker bees whose life is nasty, brutish, and short do not deserve Royal Jelly. Shed a fake tear over the Cratchits once a year and buy Tiny Tim a goose, then toss the foodless a bag of dry mac and cheese and canned green beans at the food pantry.

Those who would call me a bleeding heart will fail to find any ideological board to pin me to. I am a pragmatist. I have no party. I read, and I read history.
The new peasants work in cubicles and hospitals. They get shot by lunatics when they are called to put out fires. Perhaps they are police, laid off by bankrupt cities no longer able to even afford street lights.

History as always will have the last word for those who can hear-

Let them eat cabbage.

Or Cheetos.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Man's Second Best Friend- Cast Iron

This homely, drab little skillet, and my cast iron Dutch Oven, and my iron comal, are worth more to me than a thousand dollar set of stainless steel cookware.The Dutch Oven has no equal when it comes to braising lamb or chicken, the skillet produces home fries of a crispness stainless cannot. Make the fries in a steel pan and watch the crispy bits cling to the bottom, unmoveable by any force other than scouring powder and an overnight soak in the sink.

My Dutch Oven came from the camping aisle at Walmart. Its tight fitting lid is a skillet, good for morning bacon and eggs around a campfire. Cast iron has come down through the ages with man. In his "The Cuisine of Hungary" George Lang writes "An ancient utensil which recalls their way of life was the "bogracs", or kettle. The large cast iron pot, which could be held on the"szolgafa"(holding stick), was a basic cooking utensil of the nomad Hungarians. It hung behind the saddle even when they went on their marauding excursions".

Cast iron kettles, griddles, and pots went west with the wagon trains, and though the pioneers may have abandoned pianos and desks along the trail, I believe they would no more have abandoned their iron pans than they would their children.

One can spend hundreds on cast iron, the enameled kind from France, but it chips easily, and the newer models of pre-seasoned inexpensive Lodge cookware are just as good. And how fortuitous it is to find antique and vintage pans at estate sales and junk shops. Every cast iron pan I have seen at estate sales disappears within an hour.
Cooks know a bargain when they see it. John Thorne in his "Simple Cooking" talks about finding an old skillet in a shop where the shopkeeper declared it priceless because it had never been washed. Cast iron does not care for water and hates soap, which wears away its seasoned surface. I clean mine with a rag or paper towel and a teaspoon or two of kosher salt.

Some decorate their kitchens with big pot racks and showy, pricey cookware they may not ever use. But someone who recognizes the charms of frugality will give a good home to cast iron pans. They may not be glamorous or colorful or signify how much money one has spent. But though they are plain,the intelligent cook who
knows value will know their worth.

And he or she will make homefries fit for both cowboy and king.

The Evil Phone Tree

After spending over an hour of my remaining life today wending my way through phone trees with robotic voices, I can state that customer service has become an oxymoron.

First I called a gigantic cable company to ask about my bill. Cheerful,their robot asked me to leave my phone number since there was a thirty minute wait. They assured me they would call back. I waited an hour for their call, then gave up and called back to stay on the line waiting for their "service representative". I waited thirty five minutes.It seems that when your company is a monopoly you do not care what your customers want. They are stuck with you.

My second call was to another giant-a government agency, that I will just say was not the IRS. Another 40 minutes of muzak, warnings about how long the wait was, and insincere apologies."We are sorry for the wait", they say, but they are not. It is a ploy to push callers to throw their hands up in despair and use the automated systems that do not need pesky humans who have to be paid.

Two summers ago, after my debit card was hacked and 900 dollars stolen, I was distraught and called the wrong bank. I will never forget it. A pleasant human answered. This was a small local bank, and not the national chain that I used that had a fearsome phone tree.

Automated service works for paying bills, but God help the innocent who just wants to ask a simple question. You will be repeatedly reminded how easy their automation is and how much time you will waste. Inefficiency, thy name is government, but one would expect better service from a for profit company that soaks its customers for well over a hundred bucks a month for cable and internet.

I will say that the cable lady I reached was nice. She did not charge me a service fee for talking to her instead of a machine. She could have, but she waived it. Perhaps she felt guilty for working for such an awful company.

The government lady was not as nice. She acted as though she had been the one waiting for forty minutes. Her mood and attitude improved when she saw I was only a three minute call- I am certain her job was not a pleasant one. I am sure callers grew angry and abusive after the digital maze they have to get through only to be put on eternal hold.

To paraphrase Thoreau, how can we kill time without injuring eternity?