Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cultural education: the mall on Saturday night

Last week we had a Girl Scout cookie booth at a local mall. I hate the mall, any mall. There was a time I loved malls, and recreational shopping. No more, no more. But, cookies must be sold and if we have to go to the mall to do it, we'll go.

The mall on Saturday at 5 pm is quiet. As time goes on it gets busier, but not so much with shoppers. Teens, kids, traveling in packs, walking up and down the mall. Oh, we did have adults come by and some even bought cookies, but mostly we watched kids going by.

The highlight (for lack of a better term) came when a couple of girls ran up to our booth, asking for a wet washcloth or paper towel. Why they thought we'd have one is beyond me. Maybe they knew Girl Scouts are supposed to be prepared. I saw red on one girl's sleeve. I thought it was a stain from the lipstick she was holding open. But no, it was blood, coming from her companion's hand.

The girls rushed off to the bathroom. A few minutes later a maintenance man (why is he working at 8 pm?) came up and asked if I knew how the girl got hurt. Why are you people coming up and asking me these questions? Just buy some cookies, will you? I admitted that I didn't know. He sighed deeply, then said "it's bad when the girls come to fight." What? Girls come here to fight? I had to ask him if I'd heard right. He gave me that look that says "what planet do you live on?" and said that yes, there are lots of fights between girls. They go to the mall to fight. You heard that right! Girls. Fighting at the mall.

On the way home we had to talk about all this. My kids have no understanding of people who hang out at the mall. The boy despises the place. The girl likes clothing, so she knows sometimes we have to go to the mall. It's like a tool: useful, sometimes necessary. (Though actually we go very rarely, and usually only to one one of the big stores we can access directly from the outside.) It's not a place to go for fun.

We talked about the sad fact that some kids' homes are not comfortable places to hang out. There might not be any parents around so they'd rather be out of the house. Or their parents might not allow friends. They go to the mall so they're not bored at home.

"Why don't they read a book?" my innocent one asked. But she knows the answer. She's seen enough glimpses of other lives to know that for some, getting bloodied at the mall is a far better way to pass a Saturday night than staying home reading a book.

Raelene's Beautiful Mushroom Soup

Last night I made the best mushroom soup. I can say it's the best because it's not my recipe. The first time I made and tasted this soup was about 6 years ago at a church dinner. I volunteered to help in the kitchen - I like kitchen work - and was tasked with making the soup. The name on the recipe is "Hungarian mushroom soup" but it is beautiful and Raelene gave it to me, hence my renaming. She was (probably still is) an extraordinary woman who ran our church kitchen. I learned a lot about cooking for large groups from her. (Also about sprinkling apple wedges with lime juice, rather than the more typical lemon, to keep them from going brown. Also many other things.) I think of Raelene every time I make this soup. Maybe someday I'll see her again and can tell her so.

The recipe starts with this note: "The secret to this delicious soup is using real Hungarian paprika - other types don't have the same flavor." I don't remember what brand and type of paprika I used under Raelene's tutelage, but have always used the sweet. (There is also hot paprika.) Just do your best.

6 Tablespoons butter (you could go with a little less, but why? This has no pretensions to being a low-fat food.)

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

4 teaspoons Hungarian paprika.

4 teaspoons dried dill weed

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 2/3 cup milk

2 2/3 cup water

4 cups sliced mushrooms

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 cup sour cream

In a large saucepan, melt butter and saute onion, paprika, dill weed, salt and pepper till the onion is tender (don't rush!). Whisk in the flour and then the milk and water. Add the mushrooms and bring almost to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes, stirring

And that is where my recipe ends. Somewhere there is a 2nd sheet of paper that says something like:

occasionally. Just before serving, add soy sauce, lemon juice, sour cream, and parsley.

This serves 4, I think. It is a rich soup. But it is so delicious that it's hard to stop eating it!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Troublesome words

The other night my kid was hanging around outside the church after Sunday School and saw two boys scuffling a little. He wasn't sure if it was all in fun - there was a big gap in their ages. He was moving closer to see what was going on, when he was shocked to hear the younger kid, a white boy, say the unmentionable to the other - who is black.

I heard about it in the car on the way home. It was kind of funny, the way he related it, even though we aren't supposed to find anything funny in the use of the word. "Jimmy (names have been changed) called Johnny the n-word." I had to ask "Did he say "n-word" or did he say the actual word?" "It was the actual word." "OK, just to be clear, what did he say?" Panicky voice now: "Should I say it, the word?" (Because of course one must not say that word, even when quoting someone else saying the word.) He goes on, "I know, I'll spell it." This is the boy who can't spell, but, OK, go ahead. He spells out "n-i-g-e-r." "Niger? He called him a Niger?" "No, no! Two g's!"

Well, laughing aside, I was glad he told me. I asked if anything more was said after that. "No. Johnny was dumbstruck." We really didn't have to get into a lecture about the use of the word; been there, done that, and it was obvious he was upset by the kid's use of it.

So I had to call the mom. That was fun. She was gracious and concerned too. I doubt we'll ever hear anything about it again.

It's a bad word. But it's also bad that the word has developed such an aura of evil that it can't be spoken even when someone is quoting someone else's use of it. I can see why people are afraid of books like Huckleberry Finn. It's too bad the word has such power. Maybe if we hadn't made it so powerful, it wouldn't be so hurtful. Easy for me to say, I guess.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Making your own

Every time I see someone in the grocery store picking up a bag of frozen chicken [nuggets, strips, fingers, whatever] I just cringe. We have bought more than our share of those - everyone likes 'em, in theory - but the frozen ones are always so nasty. But it's easy, though not instant, to make your own. You can even do it in steps to save time here and there.

First, make sure you have bread crumbs. Not those things in the cardboard canisters. Make your own. Save all the bread that's too stale to eat, but not moldy yet, in a ziplock in the freezer. When there is enough to make it worth the effort, dry it out in the oven and make it into crumbs. I use a food processor but a blender works too. If you get the bread really crispy you can bash it with a kitchen mallet or rolling pin. Put it in a plastic bag first.

Now, the chicken. Boneless breast is easy and most healthful; boneless thighs are tastier (because they have more fat, of course). I pound them too. Flatter is better. Then, cut them into strips or chunks. If you like them crispy with lots of coating, cut them smaller. But not tiny or they're more work.

Put them in a bowl and mix up a little marinade to pour over them. We use buttermilk - we almost always have it around but not everyone does. You can mix up milk with some vinegar to sour it. Or lemon juice. Then add some seasoning. We use Tabasco or Cholula hot sauce. The bottle of Frank's you keep in the fridge for impromptu Buffalo wings would work too. Of course if you don't like spicy you can leave that out. Or put in some thyme, or tarragon, and a little mustard. Don't forget salt and pepper. Mix the buttermilk mixture up well before putting it over the chicken. Then toss the chicken around a bit (don't spill!) so the chicken is all wet. You'll probably be throwing away a little of this marinade. Don't worry about it.

That can sit around for a while on the counter, or all day in the fridge. The next step is to coat the chicken. First get your pan ready - a cookie sheet will do. I put aluminum foil on mine and spray it with Pam. If I had olive oil spray, I'd use that. Or you can just lightly coat the pan with oil. You don't have to use foil, but it helps with cleanup, especially if your pans are old like mine.

Put the bread crumbs on a plate. Take your chicken, piece by piece, out of the marinade and press it into the crumbs. Make sure you get enough coating on there to completely cover it. Press down a little so it sticks. Then put it on the baking sheet. Don't crowd your sheet - the chicken pieces should not touch, or they won't be crispy. You can spray or brush the tops with a little oil if you like.

Oh, you should turn your oven on to 425F.

Put the pans of chicken in the oven and set the timer for 10 minutes. Turn the chicken over and put it back in for another 5. Test for doneness. Now if your chicken pieces are really thin you have to be careful not to overcook them. A kitchen thermometer is an indispensable tool but if you don't have one, cut into one of the pieces. This is where it really helps if they are all close to the same size. Hard to do with an irregular-shaped chicken breast, but do your best. (This is another good reason to pound the chicken, so it's a uniformish thickness.)

If you want to make a dipping sauce, you could mix up some mustard (honey, or Dijon would be better than yellow) and mayonnaise. We usually don't bother with that.

You notice this is not a real recipe with amounts. That all depends on how many people you want to feed and your opinion of leftovers. I have a family of carnivores, including one who is growing fast. I use 3 chicken breasts (takes 2 cookie sheets to bake them all) so we have leftovers. These make great sandwiches a day or two later (don't keep them around more than 4 days!).

But, here is a real recipe that you can use to start. It has more, and different, ingredients than I use. But, that is one of the beauties of knowing how to cook: you can start with someone else's recipe and change it around.

These are certainly more work than a bag o'frozen nuggets, but they are not so much work and are much, much better in taste and healthfulness. Next time we make them, my kids are going to do all the work.

UPDATE: Sandy asked a good question. I go through the bread and breadcrumbs pretty quickly so freezer life is not a problem. A couple places said 2 - 3 months; here is one.

I tend to keep chunks of bread frozen and make breadcrumbs as needed, so I can use the stale bread for bread pudding. Actually most of the time I have bags of both bread chunks and bread crumbs. I like not throwing away bread. This works with hamburger buns too. Really any kind of bread. Um, you might want to be sure you don't accidentally make chocolate bread pudding with garlicky bread!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The s-word, again.

Homeschoolers have a lot of fun with "the s-word." That would be socialization. I've had my share of questions from people wondering how I socialize my children. The more I think of that concept - socializing my children - the more it seems insulting. I mean, we talk about socializing our dog! But anyway, people do wonder how homeschoolers teach our kids how to act around other people since we keep them locked up all day long.

The other day we checked out a new group homeschool activity: gym day. Not a PE class, exactly, but some semi-organized sports time - indoor soccer, dodgeball, sharks and minnows - for kids ages 9 and up. There were probably 20 kids there yesterday, having a blast, running around and getting sweaty. While there I met a woman who had previously homeschooled her kid, then sent him to school for a while, and is preparing to homeschool him again. She has relatives who homeschool and is pretty familiar with it.

So I was pretty surprised when she asked me how I socialize my kids. She asked me that while we watched our kids, uh, socializing as they played these games. I had pointed out my children and they were clearly in the game, having fun, not having trouble being in this large group of kids that they had just met. I am not sure how much more socialized they could have looked.

I shouldn't be snarky about it; I imagine she is worried that once she takes her son out of school he'll be lonely and she'll need to find opportunities for him to be around other kids. But for a moment I was just stunned by the question. I just wonder sometimes how long I will have to answer it. Maybe I'll always be answering it.

Our day in the cookie booth

Today we had our first Girl Scout cookie booth experience, outside a busy WalMart.

We arrived 2 hours after the booth opened, per the arrangement with our cookie leader - we'd had another Girl Scout activity earlier in the day (not cookie related). The other girls were ready to have another helper at the table.

We had been given some tips for selling at booths but our cookie leader had some other ideas. I thought the girls were supposed to approach people but she preferred they did not. She'd had some experience with people responding rudely to girls when approached. Things like "What would I want to buy those cookies for?" You'd think people would just say "no thanks" but I guess that's asking too much sometimes. The girls were to smile and try to make eye contact, maybe wave a little. It was fun seeing them trying to read the faces of people walking by.

One thing I think the cookie training lacked: an emphasis on the cookie seller's outward attitude. One of our girls complained a lot - and loudly - about the cold, the wind, her hunger, her boredom. I tried to explain to the girls - between customers - the importance of looking as if they want to be there. People do want Girl Scout cookies, but they have multiple opportunities to buy. If I was on the hunt for some Thin Mints, and saw a booth with grumbly girls, I'd pass it by, knowing it wasn't my one and only chance to get my fix. I don't know how much of the message got through. Of course I could be more pushy with my own kid and she did her best despite the cold wind blowing. Next time we'll remember to wear long underwear and gloves.

We had a lot of customers. Most of them knew exactly what they wanted. One woman walked up with her money out and wryly commented "you guys are killing me." She had already bought several boxes from some other Scouts but wanted more. Many people were looking for cookies by their old names and were annoyed in a good-natured sort of way over the change. "Why aren't they called Samoas anymore?" (Change of bakery.) A couple grumbled a bit about the old days when cookies were 50 cents a box. Many of the ladies had wistful looks on their faces as they reminisced about their own cookie days, or their daughters'. Men got on their cellphones, calling wives to get the correct order.

I know a few people who disagree with the mission of the Girl Scouts. I am not convinced it is the very best girls' organization out there. I was pretty displeased with last year's partnership with MTV. But, right now this is the best thing we've got. Our little homeschool troop (5 girls) is great. The moms are in agreement with the sorts of activities we want to do and the attitudes we want to develop in our girls. Still, if I had any assurance we'd be staying here after the seminarian graduates in a year and a half, I might look into starting an American Heritage Girls group here. Because we are likely short-timers, there doesn't seem to be much sense in that.
So I will be an outwardly enthusiastic Girl Scout mom and help my girl enjoy this time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Another new phase

My girl made her first Girl Scout cookie sales today. Three sales! The first was to me. Then we headed to the nice old lady on the corner. Success! But (as I suspected) the lady had her go through each offering, describing it and discussing the fat content. She made the Girl Scout work. Third, to another neighbor who looked into our tote bag of goods and lit up. An easy sale there.

OK, 5 boxes won't send the Scout to summer camp. She's... 1 percent of the way there.

I don't even really like the Girl Scouts, and think the cookies are way overpriced. I hate going door to door, and am not sure I'll like standing out in front of WalMart at a booth. But, it's been a good experience for her so far, and we have to take those where we can get them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Found Day

Yesterday was another big celebration day here: Found Day. That is the day we brought home our good dog Max, two years ago now.

Mostly only my girl really remembers it. But she is a good one for that sort of thing. If she could have had a party with lots of doggie friends and piles of BilJacks (liver treats for dogs!) she'd have done so. Actually, she'd make it a tea party.

The term Found Day came from one of the best books I have ever read: The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson. In the book the found one is not a dog, but a child. But it works for the dog too.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Happy Birthday! You have scoliosis.

My little girly turned 11 a few days ago. The day before her birthday, she got an unwelcome gift: a prescription for a back brace.

At her last physical checkup, the doctor did a scoliosis check, and suggested we go in for a back x-ray as she seemed a little crooked. The doctor seemed pretty nonchalant about it, and it took me a while to get around to getting it done. But the report made me sit up and take notice, and we quickly made an appointment to see an orthopedist.

Scoliosis is a curvature of the spine, measured in degrees. My girl has an S-shaped curve of 30 degrees. At 25 degrees, a brace is indicated for treatment. (At 40 or 45 degrees, surgery is usually indicated. Below 25 degrees, just observation for progression.) She will likely need the brace for about 4 years, or till she stops growing. The brace will not correct the curve, but should keep it from progressing; that's the plan, at least.

If one is going to have a curved spine, I guess the S-curve is preferable to a C-curve. She doesn't look out of balance. She looks perfect!

Tomorrow we will go and get her fitted for her brace. We're told that it will be plastic, hard and uncomfortable. Hot in the summertime. She is supposed to wear it 23 hours per day, but the doctor said most kids don't wear the brace to school, so, realistically, 16 hours is usual. Since she can wear hers to school, it shouldn't be too hard for her to get close to 23 hours most days. She can go to the gym, and continue in the gymnastics class she just started. We'll probably have a flurry of sewing new clothes to fit!

As physical problems go, this is pretty minor. It's not life-threatening. It's probably not a life-long chronic problem. And she is a pretty strong girl. I think she'll have some difficult days, and then she'll toughen up and do fine.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A little work, a little fun...

Today was an almost perfect day:

A little work.

We are a messy family. I just can't get around that. We have projects and books and dog beds (yes, multiple dog lounging areas though we have only the one dog) and, for now, Christmas paraphernalia all over the place. Sometimes we just can't put everything away.

But today we cleaned and straightened and vacuumed and dusted the room we call the family room. It's where the computer, tv, and craft supplies live. And when there's a sewing project going on, the ironing board is set up. And when crafting is going on, a craft table. But no dog bed!

There are still some pockets of clutter but I think I can jam those remaining items into a drawer tonight. It will be nice to be able to sit on the couch and not see stuff all over the place.

A little recreation.

We live within minutes of several great parks that allow dogs. So, the kids and I took Max out for a ramble. It was muddy, and wet, and there were a lot of dogs out. (Max always wants to see other dogs, but once he gets to them he just gets snappy. So we avoid people with dogs.) We came back a little tired, and very dirty.

A little reading.

Not much, but there'll be more to come tonight, I hope. Yesterday the kids and I finished reading The Call of the Wild, which I remembered fondly but not completely. Some scenes were a little too brutal, and unavoidable, even with my (usually) good editing-on-the-fly skills. We ended the book sobbing. We needed to move on to something a little lighter, so we started The Anybodies today. It's one of those my kids could read on their own, but sometimes we need a light and easy readaloud.

A little cooking.

I love to cook and am trying to help my kids to love it too. We wanted to make Hoppin' John for New Year's Day. I am not a southerner but I am married to one so I try to make the food right. The beans and rice were well-received by all; the seminarian and I ate up all the collard greens. (The kids ate their obligatory bites.) The kids made the cornbread on their own and it was perfect. All that was missing from this dinner was the fried okra. Next time.

We're having one more "special" dessert tonight, since it's a holiday and I had some cream cheese I had to use or lose. My girl has been busily piping melted chocolate into shapes to decorate the top of the dessert, which consists of a shortbread-type crust, a layer of melted chocolate, cream cheese, pecans and sesame seeds, then a topping of more of the shortbread. Then, I swear, light, fruity desserts from now till... Twelfth Night.

Why was this only a near-perfect day? We didn't get started early enough, so we ran out of time. And the seminarian couldn't come on our ramble; schoolwork, you know. But, he will get a break in a few weeks and then he'll come hiking with us.

Happy New Year, GMT

New Year's Eve isn't a big deal in our house. We used to have a standing date with some family friends, but moving 3,000 miles away from them makes that a little impractical now. Our kids always want to stay up till midnight anyway, even when it's just us celebrating. We remind them that the year we let them, they were bored and crabby all night and had a terrible January 1 (even without a hangover).

The argument was going on during dinner, at 6:50 pm last night. The seminarian looked at the clock and said "we'll celebrate New Year at Greenwich Mean Time this year. That's in 10 minutes!" The kids weren't fooled but went along with it anyway. Not like they had any choice.

We spent the evening watching "The African Queen", eating cinnamon buns for dessert and drinking "apple champagne" (sparkling cider). We might have opened a bottle of real champagne but the seminarian is on antibiotics and thus may not imbibe.

They were happy enough to go to bed at 10:30. I wanted to call a few people (Hey Ls!) but was too tired myself. All the sickness around here is making me tired, even though I'm not one of the sick ones. Of course I didn't think that they fireworks at midnight would make the dog restless so some of us were up past midnight anyway.

It's 9 am and one has staggered out of bed. The other hasn't emerged yet, but I can guarantee she'll be crabby.

Maybe next year we'll get real crazy and let them stay up till, oh, 10:45.