What I Like About Being an American

What I Like About Being an AmericanI developed an interest in Indian cooking after watching the movie The Lunchbox. The main character, Ila, infused her cooking with beautiful, artistic expression in the form of spices. I enjoyed watching her hands move as she seasoned her culinary creations without the benefit of measuring spoons. Her spice box caught my attention and held my interest.

I mentioned this to a former co-worker, Bina, who is Indian. She was surprised that I enjoyed the movie, and we had a lovely discussion on Indian food. She suggested the movie The Hundred Foot Journey which further fueled my desire to learn Indian cooking. Bina invited me and three co-workers to her home for an introduction to the world of Indian cuisine.

One of the first things she explained was masala. I assumed masala was a set combination of spices used in a particular recipe. I had seen garam masala and madras masala in markets selling exotic foods. However, like curry, masala changes depending on the country and regions within said country. Bina didn’t own anything among her spices bottled and labeled masala. What she had were individual spices that she knew how to blend perfectly without measuring to create the flavor the recipe required.

Still, I didn’t quite understand masala, but I kept Bina’s comments and instructions in mind, specifically when she said she has a dessert masala, a chicken masala, and a vegetable masala. I Googled a few Indian recipes and tried them. They were good, and many of the spices Bina owns and uses were featured, but something was missing. My desire to cook Indian food was stifled by a concept I wasn’t grasping. I took a break from pursuing it and kept making recipes with which I am familiar.

One day I decided to make chili for dinner. When it came time to season the chili, jars were opened and contents sprinkled over the simmering pot until the quantity on the surface looked right and I stirred them in. A little tasting, a few more dashes of this or that, and I allowed the chili to simmer for a while. I always taste again before it’s completely cooked just to see if the flavors are balanced and add anything as needed. That’s when it hit me: the combination of spices I used was my chili masala which I return to every time I make it. I know how chili should taste to me, but I’m sure if I visited Texas or other chili-making regions of America, I’d experience other spice combinations.

I laughed to myself as my favorite seasoning combination for chicken came to mind. Then I realized I had been on the cusp of understanding the beautiful concept of masala several years ago when I attempted to swap ground ginger for fresh. The ground variety tastes savory and what I describe as classically American. Think Thanksgiving. But the recipe I was making needed the lemony zestiness of fresh ginger, that classically Asian flavor, because I was cooking a Chinese dish. Herbs de Provence is another example of a spice combination that will reflect the nuances of the person cooking with it. Just like masala, there are some spices that will always appear in the mix, but people love to alter it based on their preferences or just to add a dash of mystery.

What I Like About Being an American 2What I learned about masala, about seasoning food in general, is why I like being an American. Where else can you experience a merging of cultures that bring amazing culinary skills from their own countries so that everyone can enjoy them in one place? The great American melting pot starts in our kitchens and ends with the united flavors of America. I have returned to Indian cooking, and while I use the spices to which Bina introduced me, I suspect that my masala may not taste exactly like what she would expect. But that’s okay.

Gag Me With a Spoon

Lightning Juice is all about funny tales from family life, so today’s is a Retro Lightning Juice from the Reagan years. Enjoy!

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Gag Me With a SpoonBoys will be boys, and girls will be girls. But when they’re teenagers, regardless of the decade, they all turn into little monsters. I’m reminded of this by my own teenager, who reminded me of an incident that took place during the late ‘80s, also known as the golden era of big hair and great music, in which my younger brother and I acted in a way that should have earned us a grounding.

Out of the blue one day, our father asked my brother, Heath, and me to make chili for dinner. In our defense, I’m not exactly sure what Dad was thinking. It’s not as if Heath and I could cook and not because our mother didn’t try. We just didn’t care. We were teenagers, and the only thing that concerned us was getting to the dinner table on time. How the food arrived was not our concern.

Of course, being teens we were highly disgruntled at Dad yanking us away from whatever leisurely activity we were engaged in, which is to say we weren’t doing a stinking thing. I recall that we had some sort of idea how to make the chili, and Dad helped by setting out all the things that went into the pot. At least we had enough sense to brown the meat before adding the rest of the ingredients. That’s where our common sense ended.

When it came time to season the chili, a devious little plan entered our heads. Well, actually, it entered my head, but Heath was quick to accept the idea. He even snickered in the most sly and sneaky way, so I’m crediting him with fifty percent of the accountability on this one.

Now everyone knows that chili is a zesty, spicy dish that ranges in degrees of heat from the mild “did I really just eat chili or was that oatmeal,” to the hot “oh, my goodness, I feel warm.” Heath and I opted for “Dear Lord in Heaven, I can no longer feel my tongue and throat, somebody call an ambulance.”

We didn’t exactly abandon Mom’s recipe, we kind of ignored and/or enhanced it by doubling, possibly tripling, the amount of chili powder we put in the pot. It was our way of ensuring that Dad never again made the mistake of interrupting our nothingness with the silly request to make dinner. And then we spotted the cayenne pepper.

By this time we were both giggling as we spooned in the cayenne and the red pepper flakes we also spied in the cupboard. But wait—there’s more. We rummaged through the refrigerator searching for anything else that might be remotely toasty to the palate and came up with Texas Pete peppers and Tabasco Sauce. Do you know how many shakes of that tiny Tabasco bottle it takes to empty half of it?

Like a couple of witches standing over their cauldron, Heath and I added and stirred, making sure our secrets ingredients were well hidden in the mix. Imagine how pleased our mother was to come home from work to find dinner made by her darling children. I remember her exact comment after the prayer during which Heath and I barely suppressed our laughter all the while making surreptitious eye contact.

“Well, this is interesting,” Mom said after a choked down spoonful.

I probably don’t need to tell you that it was nigh unto inedible. At any moment, Dad would realize his gross mistake and concede that the making of dinner was best left to him or Mom. It wasn’t to be. We all looked to Dad who was slurping up the concoction like it was manna from Heaven.

“This is (slurp, slurp) the best (slurp) chili I’ve (slurp, slurp) ever had.”

With faded smiles slipping from our faces, Heath and I tried to conceal our disappointment. Sure, Dad’s forehead had broken out in beads of sweat, his face was beet red, but he ate two bowls of chili without a single sip of milk to quench the burn. The rest of us gagged it down.

My brother and I probably sound like little demons. We were. I’ll never know if Dad ate the chili to make us feel good for giving it the ole college try, or if he suspected what we had done. To this day, he’d never admit either way. But keep one thing in mind, as far as my brother and I go, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. Don’t believe me? Just ask Dad’s three sisters how ornery he was as a kid.

Dream Cooking

Dream CookingThe weather in Northeast Ohio has been bitterly cold lately. We’re paying for the month of December when we ran around in shirtsleeves and windbreakers. Personally, I’d rather spread out the bad weather instead of having it dumped on us all at once.

The cold puts everyone in the mood for soup, stew, or chili. Recently, my husband’s family all met at his parent’s house where everyone enjoyed a delicious ground sirloin and root vegetable stew. I took two loaves of bread which we cut into huge chunks for sopping up broth. The evening was a perfect blend of good food, great conversation, laughter, and reminiscing.

Today I’m making a pot of chili to combat the falling temperatures. Every family has their own recipe, or rather non-recipe, of ingredients combined without measuring until the chili tastes the way it’s supposed to. As I chop the onion and green pepper, press the garlic, I think about my Swedish photographer friend who I met on Twitter.

I came late to social media because it served no purpose in my life. If social media couldn’t allow me to hear my friends’ laughter, dry their tears, feel the warmth of their hugs, share a glass of wine or cup of tea, or lend a shoulder, then it held no value. Why would I even consider it when I’m the person who complained that e-mail doesn’t allow for the tone of voice to come through and it leads to too many misconstrued statements and hurt feelings? I’m still extremely cautious about what I type in posts, e-mails, tweets, etc.

Then one day I had to take the plunge into Facebook, Twitter, and a blog for the sake of my author platform. I’ll cut to the chase and admit that’s it’s proven to be successful and quite fun. Also quite addictive, so remember why you signed up in the first place. Don’t ignore the work, writing in my case.

But the most important part of my social media experience has been the connections I’ve made with people I’ve never met, only seen in the little photos they use as their profile icons, and never heard speak. They’ve become real friends, and it’s them I’m thinking about today as I cook.

I wrote a post about apple pie not too long ago, and the friend I mentioned above commented that it’s a favorite in Sweden as well. She tweeted a picture of her beautiful kitchen, and I instantly fell in love with it. I replied that someday, we would cook together in her kitchen. She agreed…someday.

Ever since that tweeted conversation, I have dreamt about the two of us baking together. We would probably start with apple pie, while laughing and chatting at her kitchen table, hands warming around mugs of tea. We’ll take turns peeking in the oven, mouths watering, as we anticipate the rich dessert.

My imagination doesn’t end there for I’ve made other wonderful friends online. My handsome photographer friend from India breezes in without knocking because all are welcome here. He arrives from whatever exotic location he was photographing. A touch of mystery swirls in on the chill breezes, and we laugh and scold him to shut the door. After much foot stomping to knock snow off his boots, he sits at the table with his own mug of tea. No apple pie yet; it’s cooling on the counter.

Right behind him, my American poet friend knocks politely before poking his head in and calling hello. His online presence is so kind, so thoughtful, that I imagine him as soft spoken, warm, and gentle: a perfect blend of Robert Frost and a favorite uncle. His photography includes familiar pictures from daily life. That, too, is comforting. He joins us at the table, eyeing up the cooling pie.

Three more photographer friends arriving from India, America, and Finland join us as if they lived right around the corner. There’s enough room around the table that’s magically big enough to accommodate all of us. Many hands participate in the preparation of a pot of something savory now simmering on the stove. Fresh bread is baking. The men demand dessert; the ladies smile and say not until after dinner.

Then my writing friends drop in. I’ve invited them to meet the photographers. The first is a lion-hearted writer with a terrific smile. Then my comic-loving writer friend and my successfully self-published writing friend from England join the United Nation of Artists gathered at the table. Just as the table is being set for dinner, my part-scientist/part-writer friends hustles in. He laughs and says the weather is either cold with too much snow to shovel or hot with too much grass in need of cutting.

Chairs are added to the table, writers squeeze in between photographers, dinner is served. Conversation is replaced with murmurs of satisfaction. The stew is delicious. Suddenly, the door bangs open announcing one more writing friend to add to the mix. She apologizes as she wriggles out of her coat, tosses her snow-crusted gloves on the warm stove, brushes her long brown hair over her shoulders, and finds an empty spot at the table meant just for her. The t-shirt she wears catches every eye; it’s printed with the naked torso of a man staring just below the chin and ending just below his navel. Grins of appreciation for the intriguing shirt leave no doubt in which genre she prefers to write.

After dinner, as friends turned family push back from the table claiming they have no more room for another bite, dessert is served. Coffee and tea are refreshed. A pie that normally would have served eight at the most transforms into miraculous bounty. There is enough for everyone to have seconds. It is around midnight, and everyone’s spirits are still high. All heads turn at the sound of the door opening one more time.

The last friend to join our impromptu party has been out walking, planning paintings, sussing life’s situations, and enjoying his retirement. His wandering has brought him home, so to speak. Everyone presses him into a chair, places stew, bread, and pie in front of him, and asks after his wellbeing.

I sit back and listen contentedly as writers, photographers, and painters blend perfectly. Art talk abounds. Mugs of warm beverages have given way to glasses of wine. We’ve already started planning our next meal together.

Slowly, each friend fades from view, disappearing in the steam rising from the pot of chili I am stirring. But I can still sense them with me. I say still even though I haven’t met them yet. Someday. Someday it will all start with an apple pie baked in a beautiful kitchen in Sweden.

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Thank you to my wonderful friend, Rosita Larsson, for the picture of her beautiful kitchen which inspired this post.

Collie Mercer’s Cornbread

Buttermilk Cornbread Ingredients

Buttermilk Cornbread Ingredients

There are probably as many recipes for cornbread as there are people. Well, at least as many as there are people in the southern part of North America. I chose the following recipe because it was the one I had in mind when I wrote my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles.

The year is 1907. For the three oldest Welles children, Stanley, James, and Eunice, December will hold an extra surprise this year. They will receive an early Christmas presents in the form of a new baby brother. Each has an opinion on whether or not another sibling is a good thing for their family.

After the three children get a peek at their baby brother, the midwife, Collie Mercer, sends them off to do their chores. Collie is a brusque, but kind woman, who makes sure the children have food in their stomachs before heading out into the cold. She directs them to cornbread and buttermilk on the kitchen table with the promise of a real breakfast once they return from the barn.

I love this recipe because it is rich and moist. Usually, I serve it with butter and honey, but the recipe is also good with the inclusion of herbs or spices, cheese, green onions or chiles; whatever you choose to add to make it your own. It is great crumbled up in chili, soaking up the broth from brown beans, or toasted and served with apple butter.

Enjoy!

Served With Butter & Honey

Served With Butter & Honey

Collie Mercer’s Cornbread

6 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.

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

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