Putting on the Ritz

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of family coming together in peace and thankfulness as they dine, watch football, and sleep off large amounts of consumed turkey. But in November of 1978, Shirley Tedesco has bitten off a bit more than she can chew when she decides that her family should spend the day with her wacky sister, Theresa.

Theresa almost ruins Thanksgiving dinner when she screws up Shirley’s instructions regarding the turkey. To keep Joe from noticing the shenanigans taking place in the kitchen, Shirley sets Joe up with snacks in front of the TV. One of those snacks is the well-known cracker, Ritz.

Ritz crackers have a humble history that began in 1801. John Bent, a retired sea captain, improved a recipe for hardtack biscuits (an English term used at that time) with the addition of leavening agents which produced a flat, crisp biscuit. The Bent family managed baking the new recipe while Bent traveled the countryside selling crackers from a wagon. The Kennedy Biscuit Works further refined the recipe by using sponge dough thus producing a lighter consistency.

In 1898, Bent, Kennedy Biscuit Works, and many other bakeries united to form the National Biscuit Company. In 1934, the recipe was perfected which resulted in a smooth, flaky cracker with a light, buttery flavor. Unlike the pale, square crackers widely sold at the time, this new cracker was round, golden, and had serrated edges.

The cracker received the name Ritz as a result of a company-wide naming contest. A legend exists that claims Ritzville, WA supplied the name of the cracker because the flour used in making them at the National Biscuit Company plant in Portland, OR came from Ritzville. This is pure fiction.

Mass production of Ritz crackers began in Nabisco’s North Philadelphia bakery, and the new product was introduced to the market in Philadelphia and Baltimore on November 21, 1934. Thanks to brilliant marketing that promised a taste of luxury during the Depression years, Ritz sold in the five-billion volume area during its first year of nationwide distribution in 1935. Also adding to the popularity of the mass-produced cracker was the low price of nineteen cents a box, a marketing practice made possible since Nabisco was the only baking manufacture with facilities capable of nationwide distribution at the time.

Sydney S. Stern, a Hungarian immigrant who turned personal tragedy into a prolific commercial art career, is responsible for the easily recognizable box of the world’s most famous cracker. Stern established himself as an independent commercial artist, but in 1928, after losing his wife to childbirth complications, Stern accepted a nine-to-four job with Nabisco to support his family. In one weekend, Stern, inspired by a circular label inside his hat, designed the blue circle with the word Ritz in yellow lettering. Although worried that Ritz crackers would rub Depression-era customers the wrong way, the tasty cracker and brilliant marketing had the opposite, positive effect.

Flash forward to the 1970s and the Ritz commercials where Andy Griffith quips, “Everything tastes great when it sits on a Ritz.” Griffith’s affable nature, reinforced by his television persona Sheriff Taylor, made the perfect accompaniment for a posh-tasting cracker meant to satisfy common folk. The catchy tunes sung by the handsome actor were memorable enough to keep housewives reaching for the delicious crackers when choosing hors d’oeuvres ingredients.

Unfortunately, Andy’s crooning wasn’t enough to keep Nabisco from adding high fructose corn syrup to the cracker recipe. I am unable to discover exactly when this happened, but when added to the fact that there is absolutely no fiber in a Ritz, I’m afraid the beloved cracker has been reduced to yet another processed food that has been eliminated from the Gibson family cupboards.

Southern Comfort Food

I couldn’t hold up this recipe for cornbread because a lovely wedge with melting butter is pictured with the southern fried cabbage I featured in a previous post. If you’re drooling right about now, imagine how Joe Tedesco feels when he spies this duo on the serving tables at the Mother’s Day celebration hosted by the Baptist church where his and Shirley’s friends, Smiley and Charlene Roberts, attend.

Naturally, Italian food tops the list of Joe’s favorites, but he’s willing to experience a little cross-cultural, culinary revolution if it means he gets to eat to his heart’s content.

Cast Iron Cornbread

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup cornmeal

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar (I use raw)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Cooking Spray

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8-inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, buttermilk, and butter.

Pour the buttermilk mixture into the cornmeal mixture and fold together until there are no dry spots (the batter will still be lumpy). Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish. Allow it to stand for about five minutes to achieve a nice crown on the batter.

Bake until the top is golden brown and tester inserted into the middle of the cornbread comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cornbread from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Side Note: This recipe can be doubled and baked in a twelve-inch cast iron skillet. Bake for 30 minutes and additional five-minute increments until a tester inserted into the middle of the cornbread comes out clean.

Order in the Court

One of my favorite peripheral characters in my novel, The Tedescos, is Officer Ted Conley. Lieutenant Conley first makes a casual appearance in a chapter where I mention him as a friend who is visiting Joe Tedesco’s bowling alley. Ted and Joe are high school football buddies who stayed in touch after graduation.

It’s probably because I grew up around cops—my dad served twenty five years as a police officer—that I subconsciously chose the profession. But then I realized how handy it was to have a cop on the scene especially with a family like the Tedescos whose escapades sometimes require the compassionate arm of the law. For this reason, Officer Ted Conley makes several more appearances in my novel as both friend and policeman.

I didn’t pin down exactly where the Tedescos live right off the bat because I want my readers to relate to them as members of their own family and/or as friends. Really, where they live isn’t as important as what goes on between them. But I mention their locale every now and then as well as drop in clues.

One such hint came from my own memories of visiting my dad at work. The police station where my dad worked is located next to the courthouse, and in front of the courthouse are two amazing lion sculptures. They are the stuff of childhood fantasy, and more than once I imagined them coming alive. They made such an impression on me as a kid that is seemed natural to have Officer Conley waiting in front of one of the lion statues to be picked up by Joe for poker night.

While the history of the courthouse is quite interesting, this blog post focuses on the lions. After the original courthouse was demolished in 1905, a new one was completed in 1908. The new building was designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style of architecture and included two male statues and two lion statues.

The two seated males, one with a scroll and the other with a sheathed sword, represent law and justice. The two carved male lions are symbols of the law’s majesty and are sculpted of Salem Limestone (commercially known as Indiana Limestone). The lions, mirror images of each other, flank the courthouse sidewalk with one facing northwest and the other facing southwest. The lions rest on their hind legs with their front legs outstretched and mouths open slightly to reveal their teeth. The pair has impressively large manes, and their tails curl around and up to rest on their backs. They are placed on limestone plinths which set on mortared sandstone bases.

The lion sculptures cost $1,160 in 1908 which, according to an inflation calculator, would be $32,127.49 in 2017. In order to position the lions without cracking the stone base blocks, large blocks of ice were placed between the lions and the stone bases. As the ice slowly melted, the lions gently came to rest on their stone bases.

The only information I could find about the sculptor was a snippet by someone commenting on another website. Supposedly, August Blepp, a master stonecutter, is responsible for the carved lions guarding the courthouse. I shall continue to search for any details regarding the sculptor and update this post as needed.

Perhaps you noticed that I still have not mentioned the location of the lions or the county in which they and the courthouse reside. I enjoy a little mystery, and I’d rather these details be revealed within my published novel. Until then, I’ve provided a picture clue of one of the lions.

Happy hunting!

Southern Fried Solution

Joe Tedesco has a big heart, and he can see that his wife, Shirley, could use some cheering up for Mother’s Day. So, he pulls out all the stops when planning Shirley’s Mother’s Day celebration. Joe also has a big appetite, and the lure of a home-cooked meal is more than he can ignore. This is why the Tedesco Family will be attending church with their friends, Smiley and Charlene Roberts, on Mother’s Day. The Baptist church where Smiley and Charlene are members is hosting a meal in honor of mothers, and the dishes the men will prepare are the recipes their wives and mothers use. For Joe, this translates into culinary heaven. But really, the day is all about Shirley.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind for the above-mentioned scene in my novel, The Tedescos. This recipe is a meal unto itself, but when paired with other Southern favorites, then Joe is right in believing it’s ecstasy for the taste buds.

Southern Fried Cabbage

6 – 10 bacon slices

4 T butter

1 medium sweet onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 large head of cabbage, sliced or chopped

2 T Worchester sauce

3 T apple cider vinegar

2 T brown –OR– raw sugar

½ t hot Hungarian paprika –OR– ½ t Cajun seasoning

Sea salt

Black pepper (I used quad-colored peppercorns)

1 t crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Side Note: I used an 8-oz. package of Applegate uncured turkey bacon for this recipe which produced less fat. You will need to increase the butter to 6 T to take the place of the bacon drippings should you choose to do the same.

Slice or chop cabbage, taking care to remove any ribs and the core, and set aside.

Stack the bacon slices and cut them into strips across the width. In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the bacon until brown and crisp. Set the cooked bacon aside and reserve 2 T of drippings.

Add the butter to the reserved bacon drippings in the skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion turns translucent. Add the Worchester sauce, apple cider vinegar, and sugar. Stir gently and allow the onions to caramelize slowly and the liquid to thicken as it cooks off. Return the bacon to the skillet and stir gently.

Add the cabbage and season with salt, pepper, and hot Hungarian paprika ­–OR– Cajun seasoning. Cover and allow the cabbage to cook down about half way. When the cabbage has begun to wilt, stir the mixture. Return the cover to the skillet and continue cooking until the cabbage is tender.

Remove the lid from the skillet to allow the excess liquid to cook off. Stir gently to coat the cabbage and keep it from burning. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes if using. Transfer to a serving bowl and enjoy!

True Grit

Memory Makers Masquerading as Cats

I love blog posts about the magic of ordinary days. You know the ones that expound upon the grit in our daily lives as if it’s some sort of fairy dust sprinkled over us that makes everything perfect and wonderful. This blog post is about the true nature of grit.

If you have ever owned cats or know anything about their personalities, you know they are thieving, little devils. They develop weird passions for things like pens, pencils, Q-tips, etc. Basically, anything they can swipe off a table, out of a cubby in a bathroom cabinet, or from the trash. My three cats (Henry, Simon, and Freddie) crave pencils especially if I’ve placed an eraser cap on the end. They usually chew off the eraser that comes with a pencil (I have found gnarled pieces of metal left as evidence of their handiwork) necessitating the addition of an eraser cap. I believe they work in concert to ensure this happens, and then they celebrate by waiting until I go to bed to work the pencil out of the jar in the living room, the wire spiral of my notebook, or from the side of my laptop cooling station.

Looking for one of my lost pencils is what prompted this blog post. I was on my hands and knees in the kitchen with the three offenders watching my progress as I laid my head parallel to the floor to peer beneath the printer table. I spied a popcorn kernel, and my mind flooded with memories of teaching Joshua how to make popcorn on the stove. I retrieved the kernel and sat back on my knees as I recalled what a great day that was and how many more like it we’ve had since. But I didn’t find the pencil.

I looked into the corners of the fireplace mantel also in the kitchen. A two by three piece of grey Lego was wedged behind the antique wood. It has been years since my kid played with Legos. He started by building every kit according to instructions, but his best creations were those he made up without the benefit of a pattern. The Titanic with a removable panel to simulate destruction by an iceberg, the Iron Giant, a mask similar to that worn by General Grievous, an M1 Garand that ejected the clip, a three-level ship longer than my kitchen table, and a working crossbow were among my favorites. Still no pencil.

Under the stove I found a cap from a bottle of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. How my cats managed to get the bottle cap was beyond me, but its discovery prompted the memory of a wonderful, teen-free evening spent with my husband. The night was outrageously hot and the light beverage tasted delicious and refreshing. Husband and I felt like newly-weds again as we whiled away hours in each other’s company doing absolutely nothing and loving every moment. Again, no pencil.

I crawled all over the house looking for my pencil. I could have simply used another one, but it was a matter of principle now. The cats trailed me with mild interest, and I swear they nodded their heads toward their litterbox as if suggesting I look there. Little creeps.

Every room received a thorough search, and along the way tidbits of stuff located beneath furniture or in corners prompted memories of the past twenty five years. At times I fretted over scuffed baseboards and the scars of puppy-chewed carpet, a house that looks quite “lived in” and the realization that I need to sweep more often than I already do! (A wise friend once said, “If you have pets, you’re going to have pet hair.”) But every inch of every room in our home offered up life that was and still is sound and stable. I cast a glance at my cats who sat just out of reach watching me. Their smug faces seemed to say, “You’re welcome.”

I eventually found my pencil inside the cooling station where a clumsy paw had pushed it in an effort to snag it off the table. I threaten to beat their hides every time one of my pencils goes missing, but I have to admit the process of looking for it adds to my memories most positively. Someday—hopefully not in the near future—my broken heart will reminisce Henry, Simon, and Freddie, and I’ll be most appreciative for the days they decided to steal my pencils.

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