Tabloid City by Pete Hamill

tabloid-cityI enjoy sharing reviews for books, movies, and music in the section of my blog by the same title. Every now and then, I mention one that didn’t quite hit the mark in my opinion because I also enjoy generating discussion on the material especially if a follower disagrees with my review.

Such is the case with Pete Hamill’s novel, Tabloid City. I would never discourage anyone from reading this book because I allow people to come to their own conclusions but mostly because I’m hoping he or she will point out what I missed. Until then, I believe this novel would appeal solely to people who lived or are living in New York and/or are currently employed or retired journalists. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into those categories.

It’s not that I find New York and journalism boring, but the way both subjects were presented in Tabloid City did nothing to pique my interest regarding them. It’s not unusual for me to grab my phone while reading to Google something for reference even if it’s a subject with which I am familiar. Many of my favorite authors spur this kind of self-education in me, and I love it.

Let me also say that I adored Forever, North River, and Snow in August also by Pete Hamill, and that one mediocre book will not keep me from reading his other works. Still, I’m not sure what the author was thinking when he wrote this jargon filled tale. I know he writes his passions into his works (New York and journalism), and while I can bestow an A for effort here, I cannot go much beyond a D- for the result.

tabloid-city-2Tabloid City is incredibly disjointed. It’s a scattering of stories that read like newspaper clippings replete with jagged backstory and each character’s knowledge of New York, other characters, events, etc. I kept searching for continuity in this laundry list of stories, something to tie them together or make me care for the characters. Slow going defines the novel until about page 104. The thin thread of a tale about a Muslim terrorist and his police officer father and another about the demise of newspapers and libraries saved the book; otherwise I’m left feeling that this was the framework for a better story handed off too soon.

Let me end on a positive note and encourage you to read the other three books by Pete Hamill I mentioned above. Also, I haven’t read the Sam Briscoe mystery/thriller trilogy written by Pete Hamill, but fans of the books will be happy to see Sam reappear in Tabloid City.

Getting Out of a Jam With Marmalade

sweet-solution-4The character of Lucia in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, started out as one of peripheral importance. I created her simply to serve in the role of head cook to John’s Aunt Prudence, but she evolved into someone much more important. Just short of handling finances, it was understood that Lucia ran the household. She also ran Prudence with a style somewhere between a tough love guidance counselor and a wise, older mentor. Lucia also came to John’s rescue in the years following his brief service during World War II. John was unable to deal with the horrors he witnessed and most specifically for the one he caused that he kept secret from those he loved.

One day over a breakfast of popovers and orange marmalade, Lucia suggested that John go on a journey taking him away from his family so he could deal with the ghosts haunting him. John’s Aunt Prudence was heartbroken at the suggestion, but Lucia knew John needed time away to heal his mind and body. Besides, she would still be in Baltimore tending Prudence more as a close friend than as an employee. Prudence would only admit if pressed to say, but her relationship with her feisty cook was exactly how she liked it.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind when I wrote the above-mentioned scene. There are some nice orange marmalades on the market in upscale food shops, but nothing quite compares to the flavor of homemade orange marmalade. Not only will your house smell wonderful while it’s cooking, the taste of homemade orange marmalade on toast, vanilla ice cream, or whole grain pancakes defies any description of deliciousness.

Lucia’s Orange Marmalade

6 large oranges with thin skin

1 lemon

6 c water

8 ¼ c of granulated sugar

Approximately 14 – 6 oz. canning jars, lids, rings

Water bath canner with canning rack

Wash the oranges and lemon using a mushroom brush or another type of soft, clean brush. Cut the oranges into 1/8 inch slices. Remove any seeds. Cut the stacked slices of orange into quarters. Trim any thick pieces of rind into slivers to use. Place the oranges in a large cooking pot. Zest the lemon and juice it. Add the zest and juice to the oranges in the pot along with the water. Bring to a boil over a high heat. Reduce the heat and maintain a bubbling simmer. Stir frequently and cook for forty minutes until the rinds of the oranges are tender enough to cut with a spoon.

sweet-solution-3While the orange/lemon mixture cooks, bring a large pot of water to a boil and place the canning jars in the water. Sterilize the jars by boiling for ten minutes. Turn off the heat and add the lids and rings. Let everything sit until the marmalade is ready. You may need to do this in two separate pots due to the quantity of jars.

After the orange/lemon mixture has cooked for forty minutes, add the sugar and return to a full boil. Stir frequently so the sugar doesn’t burn and the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Boil until the mixture reaches 223° on a candy thermometer. This process should take at least twenty minutes, but depending on your stove and/or cooking pot of choice, it may take longer. Keep a close eye on your thermometer and watch as the mixture darkens, turns glossy, and thickens. Adjust the heat if needed to keep it from boiling over.

To test the readiness of the marmalade, place a saucer in the freezer to chill. A small dollop of the marmalade placed on the chilled plate and allowed to cool should gel and move slightly. Anything runnier and the marmalade isn’t ready. Keep cooking, and watch your thermometer.

When the marmalade is ready, remove the jars from the water and drain on a clean towel. Carefully ladle the marmalade into the jars to just below the threads of the jar. Using a ladle and slotted spoon ensures that you don’t end up with too much peel or too much liquid for the jars at the end. Keep the juice to rind mixture balanced in each jar. Wipe the rims and threads of the jars with a clean, damp cloth and top each with a lid. Add a ring and tighten securely. You may use fewer jars than the recipe called for, but I suggest having fourteen ready just in case.

sweet-solution-2

Cooling Jars of Marmalade

Bring water to a boil in a water bath canner (approximately half full). Using the canning rack, add the jars of marmalade to the boiling water. Add additional hot water to the canner if needed to cover the jars at least one inch. Boil for ten minutes. Carefully remove the rack of jars and set on a clean towel in a cool, dry place to come to room temperature. You should begin to hear the lids pop indicating the jars of marmalade are sealing properly. Do not move for 24 hours. Refrigerate the marmalade once a jar has been opened. Unopened marmalade will last for up to six months.

Enjoy!

sweet-solution

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 20

writers-soul-20I’m two years into my author platform with my third-year anniversary coming up this August. I have a nice quantity of followers on my blog which is the most important part of my platform as far as I’m concerned because it reflects me most personally. I greatly appreciate the people who take the time to view, and hopefully read, my blog.

For this reason, I maintain quality posts that I trust my followers find interesting. These posts include samples of my writing, stories about my family life to give people a feel for who I am, and articles and recipes promoting my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. I try to post on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and I revisit these posts based on a follow-up schedule of one week, one month, and two months. Then there is my presence on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

Why do I mention all this? Because once again I find myself questioning the benefit of the author platform. I went in search of articles, statistics, and/or facts that would answer my question, and here is what I found. Keep in mind that I’m interested in finding info as it relates to the fiction writer.

Per Jane Friedman’s July 25, 2016, post, A Definition of Author Platform, in answer to the question Do you need a platform to get published?:

It depends. If you’re a fiction writer, no.  Fiction writers should focus on crafting the best work possible. That’s not to say a platform is unwelcome if you have one, but an agent or publisher will make a decision first based on the quality of your manuscript and its suitability for the current marketplace.

I was quite pleased to know Mrs. Friedman believes the most important part of our careers is to write good fiction. As anyone who writes knows, that doesn’t always come easily. I try to write 1000 words a day, but life has a way of crashing in on my writing that sometimes makes this difficult. Still, I press on without making pathetic excuses, and if I don’t meet my word goal, I hope I come away with at least one brilliantly written sentence for the day.

Here’s the thing, though: writing three quality posts for my blog takes quite a lot of time. True, they vary in word count, and sometimes I can squeeze three posts out of my 1000 words a day goal, sometimes more, sometimes less. I devote Sundays to writing my posts. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling that the blog is taking away valuable time from my other writing.

Coming up with three different blog posts is like having three different battle fronts open on top of the one for my novel, the one for querying, and the one for maintaining the other aspects of my platform. That’s a whole lot of fighting going on which leads to stress and fatigue. It can negatively affect my frame of mind when I approach my novel. In short, there are too many irons in the fire to allow for good writing on one project.

Then I came across statistics for the fiction writer, who is given the grace of shooting for lower stats than the non-fiction writer for whom platform is crucial, on the Writer Unboxed site in the article Building Your Writer Platform — How Much is Enough?, and I almost had a heart attack. These are loosely defined targets that the fiction writer is to aim for:

Blog Page Views Notable: 20,000/month

Twitter Followers Notable: 5,000

Newsletter Subscribers Notable: 5,000

Public Speaking Appearances Notable: Speaking to 1,000 people (total) a year

Sales of Previous Self-Published Books Notable: 2,000+ for fiction

So, now I’m curious to know if my platform is enough. Luckily, a few agents addressed the question of readiness within the same article, and I would direct you to Writer Unboxed to read them as they are quite lengthy. I’m also not sure if the agents are speaking to non-fiction or fiction writers, but in either case, I’m wondering if an author platform is a good and/or just measure of how worthy a fiction writer’s work is for publication.

I don’t want to live in fear of dropping stats on any portion of my platform, and more than that, I don’t want to offend my followers in any way that would result in losing them. And yet, so much of what I read and hear from fellow writers, whether traditionally, self-, or pre-published, is that it all comes down to how much money a writer will make for a publisher. Worse, if sales are poor, the publisher has a tendency to place the blame on the writer. Does that mean I won’t get looked at until I achieve a certain level of stats on my author platform thus guaranteeing big sales for a publisher?

Perhaps the question I should be asking is: what’s being done to make writers’ lives more conducive to writing and less stressful? I found some relief in the latter portion of Mrs. Friedman’s article, and although she was addressing non-fiction writers, I believe the same clarifications apply to fiction writers when she expounds upon What platform is NOT, What activities build author platform?, and Platform building is not one size fits all.

At the heart of this matter in my quest for publication is the desire to make a connection with other writers who may be experiencing the same concerns. I don’t want to feed the misery loves company aspect of this busines. Rather, I would love to hear from people on how they view the issue and how they are positively dealing with it.  But here is another portion of my anxiety regarding my author platform: why don’t followers engage? In a world where people love to give their opinion on anything and everything, writers are asking, begging even, for people to leave feedback and input, reviews and comments.

In closing, I agree yet again with Jane Friedman from her above-mentioned article when she says:

It rips me apart to hear very new writers express confusion and anxiety about their platform, especially when they have not a single book or credit to their name. Well, it’s not a mystery why platform is so confusing when you may not yet know who you are as a writer.  First and foremost, platform grows out of your body of work—or from producing great work. Remember that.  It’s very difficult, next to impossible, to build a platform for work that does not yet exist.

Javaaaah!

Coffee features quite often in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Whether my characters consumed it with dessert, dinner, or by itself, coffee plays an important role in the scenes as much as the food I’ve chosen for them to eat. Rather than bore you with the entire history of coffee or mention trivia such as how many cups are consumed in the world a day, I’ll focus on how coffee was prepared during the years my novel takes place.

By the time my novel opens in 1907, one of the simplest methods of brewing coffee involved placing grounds and water in a heat-proof container and bringing it to a boil over a heat source. It was that inelegant sometimes. Most of the containers were actually metal pots with a handle and spout intended for coffee, however, brewing coffee in a cooking pot wasn’t unheard of.

javaaaah2I imagine Johnny’s stepmother, Collie, might have brewed coffee in a pot without a filter, heated on a wood-burning or coal stove. I envision it looking much like the speckleware version pictured to the right. Careful pouring ensured that most of the grounds stayed in the bottom of the pot. Another name for this simple process is cowboy coffee. Riding the plains and herding animals didn’t lend much time for the more sophisticated methods of brewing, and in Collie’s case, neither did running a farm.

Perhaps Collie was lucky enough to own a percolator. She still would have heated it on the stove because electricity wouldn’t have been available as far out as the Welleses lived on their farm. The advantage to the percolator would have been a separation of the spent grounds from the final product, making a much more palatable beverage.

Percolating coffee pots consist of a chamber at the bottom with a vertical tube leading from the lower chamber to the top of the pot. Resting on the vertical tube is another chamber with a perforated bottom. This is where the ground coffee is placed. The water level should not touch the bottom of the coffee chamber. There was also a lid with a clear knob.

javaaaahThe heat source beneath the percolator heats the water in the lower chamber. Heated water starts to boil, and the boiling makes the water rise up the tube and spill over into the coffee chamber. The heated water seeps through the grounds, out through the perforations at the bottom, and back into the water chamber. This process is repeated until the desired strength of brew is achieved. Those using a percolator would check the clear knob on the lid to see if the brew has reached the right color and strength.

One source credits James Nason of Massachusetts with patenting a percolator design in 1865. Another says on August 16, 1889, Hanson Goodrich, a farmer from Illinois, received his patent for the percolator. Still another gives American-born, British physicist Count Rumford, AKA Sir Benjamin Thompson, the acclaim for the invention of the percolator somewhere between 1810–1814. Regardless of who invented or patented it first, earlier models used glass construction, but percolators made from the 1930s on were made of metal, mostly aluminum and copper.

javaaaa3Only John, his Aunt Prudence, and some of the wealthier characters would have had access to restaurants that served espresso, the result of making coffee with steam pressure, or friends who owned a French press, a pot that brews coffee then separates the final product from the grounds by use of a plunger. The classiest method the others might have encountered would be filter drip brewing invented in 1908 by German housewife, Melitta Benz, in an effort to eliminate the bitter taste produced by boiling loose coffee grounds

After experimenting with various types of filtration, Melitta Benz ended up using blotting papers from her son’s exercise book. The ensuing result was met with enthusiasm, and she patented her invention, started a company, and hired her husband and two sons. Melitta coffee filters and pots are still around today.

So the next time you enjoy a cup of coffee from your favorite establishment, whether it’s a simple cup of joe or a fancy latte, keep in mind coffee’s humble beginnings and that, as of this post, it’s still the world’s favorite hot beverage.

First Class Storytelling

first-class-storytellingFans of Ivan Doig’s storytelling will not be disappointed with his novel, Work Song. The tale picks up with the character of Morgan Llewellyn, alias Morrie Morgan, after he departs the cast of characters living in Marias Coulee in The Whistling Season.

Morrie, still mourning his loss of Rose to widower Oliver Milliron, finds his way back to Montana and the copper mining town of Butte. He takes up residence in the boarding house of the lovely widow Grace Farraday where he meets Griff and Hoop, the twin-like retired miners full of life, full of the love of mining, and full of themselves.

Morrie’s first job as a funeral crier introduces him to the woes of life for the miners and their struggle with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the Industrial Workers of the World. But it is his love of reading and a fortuitous trip to the Butte Public Library that lands him in the position of glorified errand boy for the enigmatic and terrifying ex-rancher turned library administrator, Samuel S. Sandison.

Before long, Morrie is dragged into the copper miners’ battle between Anaconda, the IWW, and the union all the while dodgingDoig_WS_5.indd company goons who try to peg him as an IWW agitator and Chicago mobsters still looking for him for the gambling debacle he perpetrated with his brother. As if that weren’t enough to keep him hopping, Morrie finds his plate even fuller when a former student from Marias Coulee, now engaged to the union leader, presses him into service on behalf of the union. The Latin-loving bibliophile can no longer stay neutral in the battle, but he must operate below his tyrannical employer’s unpredictable nature and ever-watching eye.

At the eleventh hour, Sandison, a large man with an even larger secret, comes to Morrie’s rescue. All is saved, yet Morrie, who has fallen in love with the Widow Farraday, knows he cannot stay in Butte for it is only a matter of time before the mob finds him. A final, well-placed bet secures the financial future for those Morrie has come to care for. His last goodbye to Grace, another widow he must leave behind, produces the best windfall Morrie experiences to date.

first-class-storytelling-3Doig’s tales of western life transcend the clichéd cowboy story. He writes from the working class point of view and evokes the joys and hardships of life in his beloved Montana. One of my absolute favorite authors, it was my sincere wish that he write a third novel summing up the lives of Morrie Morgan and the marvelous cast of characters spanning both the The Whistling Season and Work Song. Alas, with Ivan Doig’s passing in 2015, not only did his unforgettable characters lose their voice, literature lost one of the best storytellers known to man.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 19

I’ve admitted before in my Writer’s Soul series that I’m not the opening up and sharing kind of person. I created Baring My Writer’s Soul to help me get over that as well as many of the anxieties I have about writing. Well, it worked until it didn’t. Now I find myself back at the beginning of my own series, reading Part 1, and trying to figure out how I derailed myself yet again.

I’ll take responsibility for my derailment when what I really want to say is that I allowed it to happen. I could even pinpoint the exact moment it happened three days before Christmas of 2016. Instead, I’ll return to the methods that had been working for me up until I jumped the tracks and seek fresh methods for dealing with the new worries that have sneaked into my life.

I’ll start by making peace with all the bad, whether real or perceived, that occurred up to this point for it’s the only way I’m going move forward. Even as I do this, I know the negative thoughts will rear their ugly heads to remind me that the sky is falling in my world and that this never happens to anyone else. It would be so wonderful if I could predict when this is going to happen, but since I can’t, I’ll keep stockpiling my Writer’s Toolbox with the tools and supplies I need to move past the bad.

Another thing I’ll stop doing is thinking so much. I overanalyze until I’ve worked myself into a tizzy which dumps me into the middle of comparing myself to others, and we all know that’s the death of joy. I must learn to content myself with not knowing all the answers right now, all at once, or ever. Giving myself a reasonable amount of time to make it back to a healthy writing me is also essential. This is a tricky one for me, and I must admit that, but I must also not fall into the trap of believing that I don’t have time to get it right.

writers-soul-19The biggest issue I’ll need to deal with in my writing life is one that I’ve been working up to:  rejection. All writers face it at some point, but we are also aware that knowing this doesn’t make it one whit easier. The first ones were the hardest, but then I leveled out for a while and took them in stride. At the end of last year when my submission tracking spreadsheet began to pile up with Nos and No Responses, I pushed my writing muse off a high mental bridge and jumped in after her. Together we wallowed in the river of grief.

The best way I have found to deal with rejection is to remember that it is not a reflection on who I am, what I have written, or how I present myself and my writing. Rejection does not alter the merit of my writing or me. People get turned down all the time for various reasons, and it has nothing to do with their worth. Furthermore, rejection is not a valid excuse for quitting. Just like I kept on looking for the perfect man before I met and married my husband, so will I continue searching for the best agent to represent my work. I feel bad for the ones who passed me up, but I don’t want someone in my life who isn’t thrilled just thinking about me and all that I have to offer. That line of thinking landed me an amazing man, and I trust it will connect me with a terrific agent.

So, as I sift through the past Writer’s Soul posts, I’ll keep in mind that all rejection is just re-direction and begin plotting a new path to happiness as I continue writing. I have to do this for myself because my happiness is dependent on me and no one else is going to do it for me.

Remember: Write Happy!

Welcome to The Apple Crate

welcome-to-the-apple-crateOne of the most well-known results of Prohibition was the speakeasy. In total rebellion against the laws meant to curb crime and drinking, speakeasies popped up almost everywhere from 1920 to 1933. According to one article I researched while writing my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, for every legal saloon operating prior to Prohibition, at least six speakeasies opened after Prohibition. With all that temptation, it was understandable that John and his two best friends, Sam and Claude, would end up in one of the illegal establishments pushing the boundaries of youthful adventure.  Here’s what I discovered while creating The Apple Crate, a speakeasy located below a grocery store owned by a gangster of my inventing, Leo Jenkins.

Like legal establishments and today’s clubs, some speakeasies offered entertainment in the form of singing or jazz bands. Entry into the club required knowledge of a password letting the doorman, often the owner or manager of the club, know that you weren’t law enforcement and to keep the government from finding the location. A personal introduction or presenting of a card may also have been required to ensure security against raids.

The term speakeasy came from a bartending term. To speak easy meant to act casually so as not to draw attention to oneself with quick, nervous behavior when purchasing illegal alcohol. Terms used to conceal the identity of bootleg liquor included coffin varnish, monkey rum, white mule, horse liniment, panther sweat, tarantula juice, and rot gut. Not very appealing names for the barely drinkable booze served, but it didn’t keep people from seeking out alcohol every chance they had.

Speakeasies were also known as a blind pig or blind tiger, but these terms were reserved for lower class establishments. There is debatable history surrounding these names. One story claims that entertainment involving pigs resulted in the first name. People supposedly paid to see the pig and a drink was thrown in for free. Blind tiger was purportedly the name used when the identity of the seller was concealed.

While gaining access to a speakeasy required connections, locating one probably wasn’t as difficult. They were everywhere in America and Canada, usually set up in stores and businesses, operating right next to or within legal establishments. Speakeasies were most common in New York where the famed 21 club had the extra security measure of safety switches meant to short circuit and deny access to all the of the doors that contained alcohol.

Because respectable women weren’t welcome in a public bar prior to Prohibition, many started flocking to speakeasies after the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. These women, easily recognized as flappers, would dance the night away to music performed by jazz bands.

Gangsters were often associated with speakeasies, the most famous being Al Capone, but luckily John and his friends didn’t encounter any during their night out. Hustling illegal liquor was an extremely profitable venture for gangsters, and many became quite wealthy at it. Unfortunately, many regular people also became rich by supplying the demands of thirsty Americans.

Some of the crazier methods of transport included hip flasks, hot water bottles, false books, garden hoses, carriages with babies placed on top, carpenter’s aprons, coconut shells, and in one interesting case, eggs. Supposedly, a creative soul emptied the eggs of their true contents and refilled them with liquor.

The interior of a speakeasy could range from the extremely elegant to an unsophisticated hole-in-the-wall. Depending on the success of a particular speakeasy, drinks might be served in appropriate barware or from chipped mugs. In either case, people ranging from the famous, wealthy, and artistic to the downtrodden streamed to speakeasies during Prohibition. The only thing that went away with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was the crime involved with selling alcohol. Well, most of it anyways.  (See:  By the Light of the Silvery Moon)

The Truth in History

Tim Eady’s father worked for Mrs. Burton during the winter months when the construction crews were laid off. Occasionally, Tim’s father landed inside work hanging cupboards or finishing baseboards. This year, all the new homes were completed on time inside and out. The first flakes of snow saw the departure of a handful of families for Florida or one of the Carolinas, seeking work to tide them over.

Tim’s father would have gone, but his mother said it made no sense to pull Tim and his two sisters out of school for three months. The girls had started third and fourth grade in the fall. Tim was in his junior year. Besides, his mother expounded, Tim could hunt again this year, and they’d be near family come Christmas. Not to mention Florida never had snow for Christmas, and what’s Christmas without snow? Tim’s father grew up with fireworks in Charleston for Christmas, but he just shrugged his acquiescence.

Mrs. Burton lived on the outskirts of town and drove a faded, red Ford pickup. She wore a plastic bonnet over her hair whenever she went out, rain or shine. Every day found her in heels and pearls with a lace hankie tucked beneath her watch band on the underside of her wrist. When Mr. Burton died, she went right on living at their farm instead of selling and moving in with her sister in town. From the porch of her home she fended off foreclosure and potential suitors with Mr. Burton’s double-barreled shotgun. She also grew shrub-sized, pink begonias in wash tubs on that porch.

Canning, gardening, and tending chickens kept Mrs. Burton involved, as she called it, and gave her purpose in life. She also baked and attended Bible study, joined missions’ teas and volunteered at the library, participated in the fair and collected clothes for the migrants who worked the lettuce farms every summer. Much to her shame, she could not sew, but a few frenzied days of her clicking knitting needles produced some of the finest afghans to ever grace the back of a couch.

There were no animals in her house save only a yellow canary in a cage in the living room. The bright little bird never sang until the day his mate died, and then he chirped his fool head off every waking moment of the day. Mrs. Burton thought this morbidly hilarious. She had one of her church friends make a double-layered cage cover of black fabric to place over the bird when she needed it to shut up. She wasn’t unkind to animals. She just believed they belonged outdoors. She fed hundreds of strays and wouldn’t kill a snake in her yard. In autumn, when the corn grown on her land leased by others had been harvested, she walked boldly among the cattle let out to graze the stubbled fields.

the-truth-in-history

Winter on the Farm by Guy Whiteley

Tim’s father started with fence repair, and since there were miles of fence, he was guaranteed steady work. But his father wasn’t the one to prolong a job just to draw out a paycheck. Tim hunted the woods skirting Mrs. Burton’s fields and occasionally stopped to talk with his father when he worked the fence closest to the woods. A sharp crack in the distance always brought his father’s head up and a smile to Mrs. Burton’s face. Then she’d drive the truck back in the direction of the shot, stopping to pick up Tim’s father, and together they’d find Tim and the deer he’d killed. She waited in the truck while Tim and his father loaded the deer in the bed.

“Now Tim, you put plenty of them newspapers down under that doe when you hang her in the barn. At least an inch thick. Sprinkle saw dust on any blood that soaks through, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Rake it up and throw it all in the burning barrel with the paper and guts when you’re through, son.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then she’d drop his father back off wherever he’d been working and drive Tim to the barn where he’d dress the deer. There was a handy block and tackle setup with a crank handle for hauling the deer up toward the rafters. Tim supposed Mr. Burton had rigged it for getting heavy stuff up to the loft. Mrs. Burton brought him hot tea and sandwiches, the same delivered to this father, and when the job was done, she’d drive him to Fulmer’s to have his deer processed.

As a reward for feeding the family, Tim’s father allowed him time off from helping with chores to tan the hides of any deer he shot. Mrs. Burton graciously let him use her barn as a workspace. It took Tim a few tries, and a lot of trips to the library, but through his trials and errors he became skilled at producing supple, quality leather. That Christmas, everyone in his family and Mrs. Burton received moccasins. The following year, he sold his hides and earned such a reputation that hunters began bringing him their hides for tanning. Tim’s father let him keep the money he earned, so Tim made sure his father saw him spending it on jeans and shoes for school, fabric for his mother to make his sisters’ dresses, and books for the three of them. Reading was the only thing he had in common with the girls.

When the fences were done, Tim’s father worked in and around the barn. Tidying and repairing kept Mrs. Burton’s farm neat as a pin which always humored Tim because she was a bit of a pack rat. At least the newspapers in the empty stalls were stacked neatly as were the towers of plastic flower pots from the nursery. If she had one of something, chances were she owned at least a dozen of whatever it was. Radios, all in working order and dusty, lined the shelves next to the wood chipper. Scythes and shovels stood like troops at attention five deep against the walls of her garage. More canning jars than she could use in a lifetime even if she broke half of them waited patiently in the cellar next to coils of chain covering the floor and shoe boxes full of different sized knives. But Mrs. Burton wasn’t stingy. From her own personal stores she’d supply whatever need demanded filling.

“Ain’t you worried about rats around here, ma’am?”

Aren’t, Tim—and no. The threat of death keeps them at bay.”

Tim assumed she meant the smell from his hides, and he worried that her comment had been a request to tan them elsewhere. He’d meant drawing rats all over the farm with the promise of hiding places and knew they were attracted by the smell of a fresh kill, not repelled. He let it go when she hinted at a pair of fur-lined slippers.

That year’s wood supply diminished quickly when the weather turned for the worse, and Tim’s father had to drag downed trees from the woods. They worked together bringing the logs in to the barn where his father sawed them into manageable pieces and split them. Tim stacked it on the back porch, sneaking a peek in the kitchen windows where he could see Mrs. Burton sitting at her kitchen table writing out recipe cards. On his third trip from the barn to the porch, he felt a twinge in his throat and a flush of heat on his cheeks. He straightened from piling wood and swiped the back of his glove across his forehead, moving shaggy, wet bangs from out of his eyes. As he did so, he made eye contact with Mrs. Burton who waved him in. She met him at the back door and led him by the arm to sit at the kitchen table.

“My boots, ma’am.”

“It’s just snow and sawdust. Nothing that won’t wipe up.”

Then she put her cool hand on his sweaty neck to draw him forward. He blinked like a toad in a hailstorm when she pressed her dry lips against his forehead and held them there for half a minute.

“Mm…hmmm… You’re fevered.”

Tim sniffed hard to no avail and employed his coat sleeve to stem the flow of what felt like hot water dripping from deep inside his head. The heavy canvas raked his nose but absorbed nothing. Mrs. Burton had turned to the stove to make chamomile tea, but even without seeing she knew to grab the box of tissues and place them on the table beside Tim.

A few minutes later as the kettle whistled, the indeterminate voice of Tim’s father rang out. His footfalls pounded the steps and back porch, preceding a woodpecker’s rap on the glass pane of the back door.

“Come in,” Mrs. Burton called.

“What’re you doing in here, boy? I been calling for you.”

“He’s got a fever.”

“That so?”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Burton’s word was final, and Tim’s father finished cutting and stacking wood on his own.

“He don’t mean to be hard,” Tim said as he sipped his tea.

“He could take unemployment like other men do.”

“Naw, he couldn’t, ma’am. Pride won’t let him.”

“Mm…hmmm,” Mrs. Burton said into her own teacup. Then, “How are your studies going, Tim?”

“Good, ma’am. I got a B+ in Algebra and an A- in English.”

“How’s your Science and History?”

“I’m working a solid B in Science, but History is kind of boring.”

“And what grade does boring translate to, Tim?”

“A C-, ma’am.”

“Oh, Tim,” she said, placing her hand over his, “History is too important to forget.”

“It’s all just memorizing dates and the bad things people do to each other.”

She cooed like a dove behind her slim hand, and Tim understood her to be laughing at his assessment of History class.

“Yes, well, I suppose it’s the way History is presented that makes it interesting or not. Why don’t you slip off your coat and boots, bring your tea, and we’ll sit in the living room?”

Tim had never been in the inner sanctum of Mrs. Burton’s home. She never forbade him from entering; none of the jobs she had for him ever took him beyond the kitchen. She settled him on a love seat with a mound of embroidered pillows and a red and blue afghan. Tim’s size twelves stuck out, and he overlapped his feet to hide the hole in his sock exposing his big toe. A dull thud permeated the frosted windows; Tim’s father was splitting chunks of freshly sawn logs.

“Everyone remembers history differently, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Burton paused her rocking chair to trace her finger through a fine silt of dust on an end table. She frowned and rolled the gray film into a ball to be flicked away with her thumb.

“Did you know I used to keep this house spotless? Spotless without a single thing out of place.”

Tim couldn’t, and wouldn’t, contradict her for he had nothing to compare to except the twine tied bundles of magazines bordering the room and baskets of yarn on every available surface not taken up by a knickknack.

“Mr. Burton insisted on it. Said his mother kept a spotless house, and so would any woman fit to marry. Guess that means I wasn’t fit for marriage to Mr. Burton.”

“But you said you did keep it clean, ma’am… or do.”

“I tried at first, but my efforts always fell short. Mr. Burton could only remember how perfect his own mother was, and it’s that history that came between us.”

Tim shifted on the loveseat. He slurped tea and waited to receive whatever Mrs. Burton would say.

“Then there’s the history of excuses I made when I couldn’t be seen in public because the bruises Mr. Burton left showed up on my arms or face. Only so many times a woman can wear long sleeves in the summer or walk into an open cupboard door.”

“Ma’am?”

Longing glances toward the barn couldn’t will Tim’s father to fetch him home. All he could do was watch the windows darken with twilight. The sky thickened with clouds promising snow that night.

“I always said the dusting wasn’t going anywhere, so what’s the rush? It’d be there when I returned from grocery shopping or running errands. But Mr. Burton wanted it done now o’clock.” She chuckled at the joke. “And the pendulum of his fist always swung on time. Sometimes in the middle of the night for no reason.”

Tim coughed until his chest rattled. He had no place to expel the viscous secretion, so he pretended to sip tea and deposited in the cup.

“So I dusted, and I cleaned, and my fingers and knees went raw from my attempts to please Mr. Burton, and people called me eccentric. Said I was too particular about my house and that it was too clean for a body to feel truly welcome. That’s the history people in this town remember.”

“Ma’am, it’s getting on dark, and my father will just about be done, I’m sure.”

“There’s a light in the barn, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She licked her lips and said, “Do you think I’m eccentric, Tim?”

“Ma’am?”

“I thought I might as well live up to their opinions of me.”

“Whose, ma’am?”

“Oh, you know. Those gossipy, ole biddies at church. I started by saving newspapers because they’re so harmless and absorbent. That’s how I justified it to Mr. Burton, by making newspaper seem useful in more ways than one. He didn’t care as long as the house was dusted. Then I save wooden thread spools, bread wrappers, and twist ties because they were easy.”

Tim thought of the coffee cans of said items stacked on the kitchen counters.

“Did you know there’s a bedroom closet upstairs chock full of peanut butter, pickle, and mayonnaise jars?”

“No, ma’am. I did not.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I suppose them rocks lining the flower beds were part of it, too?”

A nightingale laugh trilled from her lips, and the passion of memory glowed in her eyes.

“Exactly, Tim. I’d forgotten the rocks. And see how easy it is to mix up the real stuff with the useless? You’re such a smart boy to remember.”

Her praise solidified them in unwanted knowledge. Tim sat forward and placed his teacup on the coffee table.

“You’ll remember my history when I’m gone, won’t you, Tim?”

“Where’re you going, ma’am?”

“I don’t care if you correct them in their erroneous beliefs; I just need one person to know the truth.”

“What truth is that, ma’am?”

“I hated dusting. Can you do that, Tim? Can you remember my history the way it really happened?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A soft silence fell between them, ruptured by Tim’s father poking his head in the back door and calling out.

“Hey, boy—I’m warming the truck, so get your stuff and c’mon.”

“Yes, sir,” Tim called back.

He and Mrs. Burton stood at the same time. She carried both cups into the kitchen and set them in the sink. With her back to Tim she said, “The only paper I never saved was the one with Mr. Burton’s obituary in it.”

Tim jammed his arm into a coat sleeve and asked why not.

“I didn’t have to. Everyone remembered for me, told me about it all the time. They never found his body, you know. They dragged the lake come spring where they thought he’d gone in, but they never found it. That lake is so big and too deep. Three in one, really.”

“What was he doing on the lake, ma’am?”

“Trying to save some little kid who’d fallen in.”

“I thought he was ice fishing. Did the kid die, too, ma’am?”

“Huh? Oh, no… I guess I was wrong. I saw a red and blue knit cap on the ice as we were driving by and figured it belonged to some kid out there skating who should of known better with the thaw making places thin. I drove back to town as fast as I could and went straight to the fire department, but it was too late. I couldn’t remember where he’d gone in. Mr. Burton was lost.”

A headache and stuffy ears made it hard for Tim to think. Finally, he asked, “Where were you coming from that day, ma’am?”

“I don’t understand? What do you mean, Tim?”

“When you and Mr. Burton were driving by the lake, where were you coming from?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t suppose, but you remember everything else so well, ma’am.”

“Very good, Tim. We must keep our histories truthful.” She took a deep breath. “From the hardware in Austinville.”

“Why over there, ma’am, when we got a perfectly good hardware in town?”

“Because the road back took us past the lake, Tim.”

“What did you buy in Austinville, ma’am?”

“Matches, Tim. I had a lot of stuff in the burning barrel that needed burning that night.”

Three honks from the driveway told Tim to hurry up. He zipped his coat and shoved his feet into his boots without tying them.

“You take tomorrow off, okay Tim?”

“Yes, ma’am. My mom’ll make sure I don’t escape the house for school or work once she finds out I’m sick. I’ll be laid up with Vicks all over my chest and a hot water bottle tucked in my side. She still gives me baby aspirin, but at least I get ginger ale and popsicles.”

Mrs. Burton smiled at Tim’s mother’s doctoring skills.

“Well, it sounds reasonable to me.”

“I’ll see you when I see you, ma’am.”

“Goodbye, Tim.”

Mrs. Burton watched Tim and his father out of sight. In the morning she’d take a bag of horehound over and see how Tim was faring.

The Hoopla About Chuppahs

Beautiful white chuppa with red flowers for outdoor wedding ceremony.

When John Welles’s best friend, Sam Feldman, invited him to a party Sam’s mother was hosting, John was not at all enthused. Sam, who always had a girlfriend on his arm, wanted John to run interference for him as he dodged the girl his mother wanted him to meet. Little could either young man have predicted how captivating Abigail Cohen, called Babby, would prove to be. Not only was Babby beautiful, the young school teacher was intelligent, articulate, and poised. John began to rethink his opinion about dating Babby, but not in time. By the end of the party, Sam and Babby hit it off exactly as Sam’s mother knew they would. John did not begrudge Sam his good fortune. Rather, he and Claude Willoughby were the best men at Sam and Babby’s wedding.

Being Jewish meant Sam and Babby took their vows under a chuppah. A chuppah is a Jewish wedding canopy with four open sides. There are many traditions surrounding the chuppah, and they have changed throughout the years depending on an orthodox or modern interpretation.

The chuppah is usually a square of cloth supported by four poles. The fabric can be as elegant as silk or velvet, as simple as cotton or linen, or as important as an heirloom piece of lace or tallit belonging to a family member. The poles can be free-standing or held in place by friends of the couple. Either way, the poles should touch the ground. It is a great honor to be asked to hold the chuppah poles, and this role is often given to people very close to the couple.

Many couples like to decorate the chuppah poles and tops to match the theme of their wedding. Whatever material is chosen, be sure that it will withstand unpredictable weather conditions if the ceremony is outdoors. Ruining a family heirloom or the collapse of an unsteady chuppah will definitely spoil the wedding.

the-hoopla-about-chuppahs-2The purpose of the chuppah is to symbolize the new home the couple will create. At one time, the cloth chuppah was draped around the bride and groom but was later spread over their heads. Ancient rabbis compared the chuppah to Abraham’s tent during Biblical times. Abraham was famous for his hospitality, and since his tent was open on all four sides, travelers could enter from any direction.

The bride and groom are brought to the chuppah by both parents. The space inside the chuppah should be big enough for the couple, clergy, and a small table for ritual items such as wine and glasses. The bride will also need enough room to circle her groom without tripping or snagging her dress. Don’t forget to make the chuppah tall enough for the tallest person to stand under without hitting the fabric where it will drag in the center. Family and friends in the wedding party, including parents, often stand outside the chuppah. Afterward, the new couple can receive guests in their chuppah as a symbol of the love and openness of the home they will build together.

A Crazy Little Thing Called Cake

In May of 1951, Dr. John Welles attended the first birthday party of Patty Ann Hoffman whom he had delivered the year before. The doctor was friends of Patty Ann’s parents, Morris and Lorraine, but he also had a soft spot for the spirited little girl since the day she was born. For this reason, he willingly attended a child’s party.

The Hoffmans weren’t well off, but they made do with what they had. The ingredients for the cake Lorraine served were items she probably had on hand. Furthermore, as parents they would forgo the special treat of cake and ice cream to ensure plenty for their children and guests.

The cake I had in mind when I wrote this scene was a cake I grew up with: Crazy Cake. Also called Wacky Cake, this chocolatey cake had its origins during the Depression when milk, eggs, and butter were expensive. For this reason, you may know it as Depression Cake. I have found that most people are familiar with it by one of these names. A little ingenuity solved the problem of making cake without the pricey ingredients, and following generations were none the wiser.

img_20170205_182131906Because it is so rich and delicious, and because so many children these days have dairy and egg allergies, Crazy Cake is one of the old fashioned recipes to have survived until today. Even if one is financially stable, Crazy Cake is not to be missed.

Although Crazy Cake is tasty enough to eat plain or dusted with powdered sugar, I’ve provided a frosting recipe and a fudge recipe as toppings for the cake. The frosting is a titch more elegant if you’re serving the cake to guests. The fudge is the old fashioned kind that you can pour over the cake and allow to drip and puddle down the sides until it sets. There is no other way to describe this magnificent concoction other than to say it is a hillbilly delicacy. But then that’s where my experience with this cake has its origins.

One of the things you’ll find if you conduct your own research on Crazy Cakes is that they were often made right in the baking dish. All the dry ingredients were combined, and then three depressions were made in which the vanilla, vinegar, and oil were placed. The water was added, and everything was stirred into batter. I suspect because my mother learned how to make this in school, her recipe calls for greasing and flouring the baking dish. Either way, the results are the same. You’ll also find recipes for other flavors of Crazy Cake. I cannot testify to how good they are, and they do look good, but I can’t seem to make it past the chocolate version.

Enjoy!

Crazy Cake

1 ½ c flour

1 c sugar (I used raw)

3 T cocoa (heaping)

1 t salt

1 t baking soda

1 t vinegar (I used apple cider)

1 t vanilla

6 T oil

1 c water

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour an 8 X 8 baking dish. Mix the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients. Stir thoroughly. Pour into the baking dish, and bake for 25 – 30 minutes. A knife inserted in the middle should come out clean. Cool completely in the baking dish before frosting. This recipe can be doubled and baked in a 9 X 13 baking dish.

Cocoa Frosting

4 c powdered sugar

¼ t salt

⅓ c cocoa

⅓ c unsalted butter, room temperature

⅓ c milk

1 t vanilla

Mix the powdered sugar, salt, and cocoa. Warm the milk slightly and add the butter and vanilla, then add to the dry ingredients and combine. Blend until it is smooth using either a stand or hand mixer.  This recipe is enough frosting for a 9 X 13 cake. Half it for an 8 X 8 or make two and fill in between the layers.

Old Fashioned Fudge

1 ½ c sugar (I used raw)

¼ t salt

⅓ c cocoa

¾ c whole milk

2 T unsalted butter

1 t vanilla

Mix the sugar, salt, and cocoa in a large saucepan. Add the milk and stir thoroughly. Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches a full, rolling boil. Boil without stirring until the mixture reaches 234° on a candy thermometer (the bulb of the thermometer should not rest on the bottom of the pan). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, after about twenty five minutes of boiling, test a small drop of fudge in ice water. The fudge should form a soft ball which flattens when removed from the water.

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and butter. Do not stir. Rather, swirl the pan until the vanilla and butter are mixed in. Allow the fudge to cool to lukewarm (110° on a candy thermometer). Stir the cooled fudge with a wooden spoon* until it thickens and loses some of it gloss. Pour the fudge over the cooled Crazy Cake. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

*There is some debate on the Internet from professional cooking sites to blogs such as mine regarding the use of metal versus wooden spoons for stirring fudge. Both present logical arguments, however, I’ve used wood and metal with success.

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