Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Breakfast

Where some folks have pancakes or waffles for breakfast, my favorite, as consumed this morning, is biscuits drowning in syrup. Ahh, that sweetness, that additive of iron to my system!

Biscuits are sometimes home made with a biscuit mix. Who wants to take time to make from scratch? However,the frozen kind allows you to take out as many as you wish and pop them in the oven.

The syrup, however, isn't any kind. Not maple, not fake stuff like Log Cabin, just ordinary sugar cane syrup. The kind that started with a stalk of sugar cane, fed into a crusher by mules walking in a circle and the liquid heated just so. There are so few Mississippi syrup makers left, due to old age, that finding the right taste on the grocery shelves can be tricky. The term is "Ribbon Cane Syrup." Not Molasses, although they are related. Molasses is thicker and has a stronger taste. Ribbon Cane is light in taste. There's a golden sheen to a jar of syrup; whereas molasses is dark brown, almost black.

Handed down from my mother's family, I've enjoyed syrup with a spoonful of one added ingredient. Anyone with a Southern rural background has probably had this combination: adding sour cream to the dish of syrup, mix well to where it is a milky brown, drop in a biscuit, dip, or pour the mixture over an open biscuit and you have a delicious way to enjoy your breakfast. The sour cream gives a smooth taste and cuts down on the sweetness. Add bacon or ham and nothing tops that.

Monday, December 10, 2012

MIning Your Memories

I began a free class in writing family stories back in September at the local library. The last meeting is Thursday, December 13. Like the teacher I once was, I've given class exercises and homework to 14 adults.

As examples of experiences, I used my own writings, far from being the kind that sells at Barnes & Noble, but my own exploration into my  family life. This was done so the participants could see that getting the words onto paper were most important first of all. No editing at this time. We talked about the time from  birth through elementary school. By handing out dozens of questions to prick their memories, I've led them through a process of exploration. And I've been surprised how much the participants remember about their early school life. Perhaps it's because they are much younger and still have their memories available.

Once I was told to think of our brains as arranged with "shelves" stacked on top of each other as in a post office. As we experience life the "notes" of memory fit into the shelves. As one ages, the shelves get stuffed and the earlier notes get pushed so far back a person has trouble finding that one experience. Of course, that's not true, but I use that in my thinking about how we shove some memories aside and it takes constant weeding to find some small incident we want to write about.

The reactions from participants has been pleasing. From drawing the floor plan of an early home to mapping or to writing an obituary, the challenges have been enjoyable. A wonderful group meeting for one and a half hours has created the incentive to write now.

Imagine in the 30th century a kid  fumbling though a box in the attic picks up a notebook titled "Family Stories". He thumbs through the pages yellowing with age and begins to read. He carries the notebook downstairs and settles  into a comfortable chair and flips the pages. Mother walks in and says, "What's that you're reading, Son?" and he replies, "Stories written by somebody named Vivian Newkirk. Who's she?" and his mother says, "Oh, you found those wonderful stories written by your fourth great-grandmother! She lived back in the 21st century. There's a lot to learn about the past, Son, in those pages."

Cooking Frenzy

At this time of the year I feel more compelled to prepare something holiday-ish. The drawback is I show off my poor cooking skills. I've never been one to openly brag about the lack thereof. The older I've become, the less embarassed I am to admit that fault. However, I've found more ladies who can whip up anything delectable at a moment's notice.A skill Mother did with ease.

One afternoon as an adult standing in Mother's kitchen I asked her why her cooking skills didn't wiggle into my DNA? I didn't ask why she never took the time to teach Sis and me, as I knew she worked very hard at her job as manager of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce in Jackson, MS. But I thought the question, hoping she'd admit the reason.

Surely enough, she blamed herself and expounded, "I had to begin helping in the kitchen at age five, taking out buckets of lunch to my older brothers in the field and my reward was teasing. I hated that job. I can still remember having to stand on a stool to stir the pots at the wood stove, setting the table, then having to wash all those dishes. You know, we fed the farm hands as well as our family. I vowed sometime in those early years that I'd never put a daughter of mine through the experience." No one ever told this rural kid cooking would be one talent all young women should possess.

My family ran by clockwork. Mother was up in the mornings before us, preparing our breakfast;  Daddy bathed and dressed; Sis and I  dressed and made up our beds; we ate. Then Sis and I cleaned off the table and Daddy washed the dishes while Sis and I took turns drying while Mother dressed. Where was there time to teach us?

I wish I had the technique to make sweet muffins at the drop of a hat. I recall that when one of us heard a car pushing up our hilly driveway, Dad would say, "Mother, get the oven going, looks like some hungry folks are coming and they'll want your muffins." And quickly Mother would have sturreded up the batter, filled the muffin cups and shoved them in the over just as the doorbell rang. I can't make muffins.

I"ve collected muffin recipes and tried to replicate Mother's plain muffins to no avail. I can make candy. Pralines are my specialty. Only during the December holidays do I ever make pralines. I have a never-fail recipe I found lodged in Mother's cookbook, its tattered yellow sheet smudged with butter, its words written in pencil about to fade. She made divinity, fudge, fruitcake, and pies galore.  I make pralines, period. My pralines are chunks of pecans coated with cooked sugar. If you want to make Pralines yourself, try my recipe. Takes less than 30 minutes on the stove.

            MIX          1 1/2 c white sugar, or a bit less
                             3/4 c brown sugar packed
                             1/2 c condensed milk
Cook over heat until boiling and test for a hard core after a drop falls into a clear dish of water.
          Drop in         3/4 st butter
                               Real vanilla to your taste, maybe 1 tsp (Ok, if you have vanilla extract, that'll do)
          Add              1 1/2 c broken pecans

Stir swiftly to allow air to cool the mixture, when a sheen appears, begin dropping spoons full on oiled wax paper. Cool for 10 minutes and enjoy.     

The fudge I leave to R who cooks less than I do. He relishes making cocoa fudge by his recipe he developed when we lived in the little house everyone called "The Doll House." Five rooms with a galley kitchen, hot as Hades in summer, cold in spots during the winter. We probably made more fudge during that time than any other time in our lives.

Now we eat less sugar. How can you make pralines and fudge without sugar? You know the temptation, "Just one small piece and I won't eat another one until next year." It doesn't work that way. For several years R didn't make fudge unless someone complimented him and ask for a platter for themselves. I got to lick the pan only, which was more enjoyable anyway.

What do I  cook during the holidays? Besides pralines, there's ambrosia, and chocolate pudding (which is supposed to be chocolate pie but something always happens so we eat it with a spoon). No matter what main dish I make, something fails to taste or look right. The rice needs more water, the dressing is too liquidy, the roast has no flavor.

I can't win for losing. Every time.