Danny Does Denim

The younger Tedesco brother, Danny, is not known for his success with the ladies. It could have something to do with his perpetually broke-down car (his dates always have to drive), his constant lack of funds (his dates always pay for dinner and entertainment), or his questionable sense of fashion (his only decent suit is made of denim). Fortunately for Danny, his most recent girlfriend is not at all put off by her new beau’s style choices.

Known as the Canadian tuxedo or the Texan tux, Danny’s suit, manufactured by Lee, comes with a lovely matching vest. No doubt Grandma Josephine Tedesco bought the ensemble for him, but whether or not she remembers doing so is another matter.

Keep in mind that a denim jacket (also known as a jean jacket) is a different animal altogether. Denim jackets are a stylish staple in casual wardrobes and enjoy varying degrees of popularity throughout the decades. It’s also commonly worn by those in a more rugged line of work (think cowboys and roughnecks). But when it comes to tailored suits, denim is rarely if ever well received.

The history of the denim suit is short and infamous, and its origins don’t go all that far back. Levi Strauss is credited as the originator of the denim jacket in the 1800s, but the earliest reference to a denim suit that I could find was 1951. A story exists of singer Bing Crosby being denied access to a hotel in Canada because he was dressed from head to toe in denim. Although the was eventually allowed in, Levi’s made him a custom double-breasted denim suit jacket so that he would “never have problems wearing Levi’s jeans, even in fancy establishments.”

The jacket, presented to Crosby at the 1951 Silver State Stampede in Elko, Nevada, contained a leather label on the inside bearing a “Notice to all Hotel Men” stating that denim was acceptable to wear on any occasion. At least Danny is in good company. Bing’s suit now lives in the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko.

In 2015, Ralph Lauren took a stab at the denim suit with a hipster and Wall Street version. In my humble opinion, both look like something a demented college student would try to pull off as good fashion sense. I have no doubt CEOs avoided these two suits like the plague they are.

If these denim suits don’t float your boat, you can always opt for one of the two hundred, limited run reproductions of Bing’s jacket that originally went for $1,800.00. I’m sure eBay is stocked with these little goodies.

 

Latkes Like Momma Makes

Muriel Shapiro is one of my favorite peripheral characters in my novel, The Tedescos. The shy, intelligent native of New Jersey flees her home state with the dream of starting afresh in Northeast Ohio. When she moves into Joe and Shirley’s neighborhood, all memories of her disastrous cooking experiences under the tutelage of her impatient mother have been left behind. So have comparisons between Muriel and her well-married, grandchild-producing sisters, a father whose every sentence is spoken in a yelling voice, and the constant reminders of her failed art gallery. If ever anyone needed a peaceful environment in which to recoup, it is Muriel Shapiro.

The following recipe for latkes is quite easy, so perhaps dear Muriel’s talents simply lie elsewhere. I’m sure you’ll have splendid success when making “Momma’s” latkes and enjoy eating them even more than preparing them.

Momma Shapiro’s Latkes

12 Russet potatoes, peeled and shredded

1 large Vidalia onion, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, pressed

2 eggs, beaten

4 T flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Peanut oil

Peel the potatoes and place them whole in a large bowl of cold, salted water until all twelve are peeled.

I recommend shredding the potatoes through a food processor to achieve matchstick like shreds. Be sure to press out all the liquid from the potatoes either by squeezing them through cheesecloth or a clean tea towel or in a colander under a heavy bowl filled with water. Wet potatoes do not fry well.

Combine the shredded potatoes and chopped onion in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients (except the peanut oil) and stir. You may need to mix with your hands to ensure the potatoes are thoroughly coated.

Heat the peanut oil in a cast iron skillet to very hot. The oil will ripple across the top and pop when ready. Drop in large spoonsful of the mixture and gently press them into patties. Fry the latkes until golden brown and crisp on each side. Transfer the cooked latkes by slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined platter to drain excess oil. Serve them warm with sour cream and applesauce.

Enjoy!

She Called Her a What?

Danny Tedesco, Joe’s younger brother, is the black sheep of the family. He’s long on money-making schemes and short on work ethic. And although Danny and Joe get along—they really do love each other—more often than not, Danny is a bit of a thorn in Joe and Shirley’s side.

Joe springs it on Shirley that Danny and his new girlfriend are coming to dinner, and Shirley is not at all happy. She doesn’t want to cook for her loser brother-in-law and the latest bimbo he’s picked up Lord knows where. Unfortunately, Danny is family and must be welcomed. In defiance of the dinner party, Shirley announces that she’ll make spaghetti alla puttanesca. Joe questions her choice, but his strong-willed wife has made up her mind.

The elegant sounding dish is really quite delicious, and Shirley’s choice wasn’t altogether a bad one. If you aren’t familiar with the history of the dish and/or you don’t speak Italian, allow me to explain. Spaghetti alla puttanesca literally means spaghetti in the style of a whore. According to various websites, the dish was created in Naples and dates back to the mid-twentieth century. One legend says the meal was quick and cheap for prostitutes to make between customers while another says the robust aroma drew clients in.

I lean more toward the belief that Italians use the word puttana as an all-purpose swear word the way Americans use sh*t. It would be like saying, “I threw a whole bunch of sh*t into the pan and came up with this.” Reinforcing my opinion is the fact that I watched a cooking show years ago where the Italian Momma taught the host the meaning of, “I just sh*t.” Much laughing was involved, but Momma explained it meant to take stuff from the cupboard and toss it in the pot without the benefit of a recipe.

There are variations to the recipe with a particular ingredient omitted or added based on preference and locale. The sauce is traditionally served over spaghetti, but can also be served over linguine (as pictured above), penne, or bucatini. Trust me when I encourage you to use all the ingredients listed even if you don’t think you’ll enjoy them. I admit there was one on the list that made me hesitate, but ever since I discovered spaghetti alla puttanesca, I have come to love the simple, flavorful dish.

Shirley Tedesco’s Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

1 lb. dried spaghetti

Sea Salt

8 T extra virgin olive oil (reserve 2 T)

6 – 8 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced or finely chopped

8 – 10 anchovy fillets (packed in oil), finely chopped

1 – 2 large pinches red pepper flakes

½ c capers, coarsely chopped (press them dry in a paper towel first)

½ c pitted black olives, drained and coarsely chopped

1 – 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes with the juice (recommend San Marzano), crushed by hand

Minced parsley or basil for garnish

½ – 1 T Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, finely grated (optional)

Ground black pepper (I used quad-colored peppercorns)

Place the spaghetti in a large, deep skillet or sauté pan and cover with water. Add a pinch of sea salt. Bring it to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to keep the pasta from sticking.

In a medium skillet, combine 6 T olive oil, anchovies, garlic, and red pepper flakes, and cook over medium heat until the garlic turns a light golden color, approximately five minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep the mixture sizzling without burning the garlic. Add the capers and olives, and stir to combine.

Stir in the crushed tomatoes and juice and bring to a light simmer. Continue simmering the sauce until the spaghetti is cooked to al dente (about 1 minute less than recommended on the package). Use tongs or a pasta spoon to transfer the spaghetti to the sauce. Reserve 1 cup of cooking water.

Add a few tablespoons of cooking water to the sauce and increase the heat to bring the spaghetti and sauce to a vigorous simmer. Add more cooking water as necessary to keep the sauce loose until the pasta is al dente (about 1 – 2 minutes). The spaghetti cooks more slowly in the sauce, and the starchy cooking water helps the sauce to thicken and cling nicely to the pasta.

Season lightly with sea salt (anchovies, olives, and capers are quite salty already) and heartily with black pepper. Stir in the remaining 2 T olive oil and parsley or basil. Some purists say that cheese has no place in puttanesca, but I find Pecorino Romano or Parmesan perfectly complements the dish. If using cheese, add it at this point and stir to combine. Transfer the spaghetti alla puttanesca to a platter or individual dishes and serve with more grated cheese if desired.

Enjoy!

It Didn’t Cost Me a Thing

I remember how much a loaf of bread cost the year my husband and I married. I remember the price of a gallon of gas the year I started driving. I also remember the hourly rate a teenage girl could make babysitting in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, I have never written about any of these things in my novels or short stories.

When I need to know how much something costs for the year during which my story takes place, I can usually find it by Googling. But every now and then, I use an inflation calculator to go backward or forward in time and come up with a price.

Most often, the US Inflation Calculator, which works for prices between the years of 1913 and 2018 (updates to current year), is my go-to source for pricing. In the event I need to tiptoe farther into the past (1800), this Inflation Calculator is my second favorite. It’s not as official, but the site offers some other inflation-related links which may prove to be beneficial.

I know inflation calculators are not new or impressive, but I find them fascinating and most helpful when writing. Besides, nothing is worse than having to stop the flow of writing to research a detail.

Take the Money and Run

It’s Cotton Tail in the lead by three lengths…

You probably think today’s blog post has something to do with The Steve Miller Band song of the same title. You know the one where the lead singer (possibly Steve) throws grammar and rhyme to the wind? Actually, today’s blog post is about the phrase give them a run for their money. I used the phrase in my novel, The Tedescos, when describing the success of a peripheral character’s sisters.

Per the Collins dictionary, if you say that someone could give someone else a run for their money, you mean you think they are almost as good as the other person. Per the Macmillan dictionary, it means to compete very well against someone so that it is hard for them to defeat you. And about the phrase, the Urban dictionary offers the definition to challenge someone.

Other websites dealing with phrase origin claim that the saying came from horse racing where one wants a run for his money. This means he wants a horse upon which a bet has been placed to participate in the race. If the horse withdraws from the race after bets are placed, the bettor does not get a run for his money.

Also going along with the horse racing theme, to give someone a run for their money is to give a good race (even if you don’t win) in return for their backing. The definition suggests a challenge, and it is in keeping with the definition presented in the Urban dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the phrase originated with horse racing and suggests that it could be used in a figurative or extended sense to mean any sort of challenge whether or not money is spent. The OED supplied the earliest usage of the phrase that I could find.

“1874 Slang Dict. 274 To have a run for one’s money is also to have a good determined struggle for anything.”

It has also been suggested that the phrase originated with the British style of hunting where one chases animals with hounds but doesn’t shoot them with guns. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the fox die at the end of these hunts? I’ve watched enough BBC shows to know Brits use guns to kill animals. But I digress.)

Supposedly, if an area of the country wasn’t well stocked with animals to kill, a hunting party had to purchase a fox or stag to set free so they could chase it. The purchase of an animal to hunt added to the already high costs of hunting (good horse, proper riding clothes, and correct footwear) but was considered to be worth it if you had a good run for your money. It all sounds so civil. I wonder if they recycled the fox or stag.

I used the phrase when describing the rate at which my peripheral character’s sisters supplied grandchildren. The sisters gave rabbits (well known to be prolific producers of progeny) a run for their money, and yet the challenge wasn’t really for rabbits.

If you are at all familiar with a grandparent’s desire for grandchildren, you know that more than a simple challenge was presented. The gauntlet was thrown down at the feet of their childless sister. I expanded the definition to show an elevated level of aggression. Wouldn’t it be lovely if this additional aspect was added to the definition of the phrase with the line from my novel cited as the first usage?

Love is Sharing Your Popcorn

When I was little, I loved to sift through my mother’s recipe cards. I believe a gas station issued a pack of cards with every fill up as some kind of incentive. The cards had to be sorted into a holder according to the type of recipe. Each card bore the number of the category into which it fell. I particularly liked the section on children’s parties and recipes kids could make.

Nowadays, libraries and bookstores are full of cookbooks for children. As a former library employee, I enjoyed browsing these books while shelving them to see what kids might be cooking up. One recipe I don’t find anymore is that for making popcorn. I suppose that’s because today’s kids simply unwrap a package of popcorn and toss it in the microwave.

In my novel, The Tedescos, I chose to write about the old-fashioned method of making popcorn on the stovetop. The first popular home model of a microwave had been introduced in 1967 as the countertop Radarange. It cost about $495 (approximately $3700 today), so it wasn’t practical for my story.

Jiffy Pop, which I had once as a child during the same era in which my novel takes place, was also around, having been marketed since 1959. I believe the thrill was watching the popcorn bursts through the foil because the flavor left much to be desired.

Admittedly, I didn’t bother researching when air poppers came on the scene because, quite frankly, none of these methods were real cooking. Again, for a tasty and fun experience, popcorn made on the stovetop the way Mom did was the best. I know someone out there will gasp and clutch his/her heart when I suggest teaching a child to cook on a real stove, but honestly, a whole generation of children born in the 1970s who learned to make popcorn on the stove with mom are alive and well today.

In my novel, Joe Jr. attempts to make popcorn without his mother’s help. He forgets the oil, has the heat too high, and ends up with scorched kernels. Not to be deterred, Joe Jr. keeps adding fresh kernels to the skillet he’s using, but he never quite achieves success. The following recipe is what he should have done.

Perfect Popcorn

3 T olive oil

½ c popcorn kernels

Sea salt

4 T butter

Add the oil and popcorn kernels to a large pot with handles on each side. Put the lid on the pot, and turn the burner on to medium heat. When you hear the kernels begin to pop, gently move the pot back and forth over the burner. A gentle toss during this process encourages un-popped kernels to fall to the bottom. It only takes a few minutes for all the kernels to pop. During this time, don’t be tempted to lift the lid or hot popcorn may fly out and hit you in your face.

When the popping slows to about three seconds between pops, the popcorn is done. Use a large spoon to transfer the popcorn to a clean serving bowl. Wipe the pot in which you popped the kernels with a clean paper towel to remove pieces of hull and any un-popped kernels. Use the pot to melt the butter over a low heat. Pour the butter over the popcorn and salt to taste.

I cook on a gas stove, so I find maintaining even heat to be quite simple. Never having cooked on a modern electric range, I have to assume the burners are like the ones my mother had when I was a child, and that they don’t cool quickly just because one has turned down the heat. I mention this because you don’t want to burn the popped corn while waiting for the last kernels to pop, and removing the pot from an electric burner rather than shaking it back and forth to prevent scorching may be necessary.

Enjoy!

PS – Charles M. Schulz of “Peanuts” fame is responsible for the quotation that is the title of my blog post.

Who’s Your Momma?

Shirley Tedesco has her hands full with eight children ranging in age from five to sixteen, but she loves being a mother. She’s also very practical about the whole endeavor and readily distributes hugs or spanks as needed to keep her brood of eight angels/hoodlums in line. In the chapter of my novel, The Tedescos, titled “Soul Food,” Shirley is feeling like less of a mother than she normally does. Her husband, Joe, knows she’s experiencing a bout of the blues, and his heart breaks for her. Joe springs into action with a Mother’s Day celebration sure to lift Shirley’s spirits and quite possibly earn him some points.

While writing, I knew that Mother’s Day had been established long before the year during which my novel took place, but the research provided some interesting history with which I’d like to honor mothers everywhere.

One of the earliest example of celebrating mothers came about with the Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.” This holiday fell on the fourth Sunday during Lent, and it was once a major tradition in England and parts of Europe. Faithful church attenders would return to their “mother church” (the main church nearest their home) for a special service.

Over time, Mothering Sunday became a more secular holiday. Children began presenting their mother’s with small tokens of appreciation or flowers. This custom started to fade in popularity, but it eventually merged with the American version of honoring mothers, Mother’s Day, in the 1930s and 1940s.

In America, the origins of Mother’s Day date back to the 19th century. Prior to the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis, a resident of West Virginia, helped start the “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” in an effort to teach proper childcare to local women. Later, the clubs served as a unifying force in areas of the country still divided by the Civil War. In 1868, Jarvis promoted reconciliation between mothers of Union and Confederate soldiers by organizing “Mothers’ Friendship Day.”

Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and suffragette, also provided an important aspect to what would become the modern Mother’s Day. In 1870, Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” Her call to action asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace. In 1873, she campaigned for a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated every June 2.

Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, was instrumental in promoting the official Mother’s Day holiday in the 1900s. After her mother’s death in 1905, Anna Jarvis regarded Mother’s Day as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children.

John Wanamaker, a Philadelphia department store owner, provided financial backing for Anna Jarvis allowing her to organize the first official Mother’s Day celebration in 1908 at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. Thousands of people also attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia.

Anna Jarvis, who never married or had children, started a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and influential politicians in an effort to have Mother’s Day added to the national calendar. By 1912, many states, towns, and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Anna Jarvis established the Mother’s Day International Association to assist with promoting her cause. Her perseverance paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure to officially establish the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

There is no set way to honor and celebrate mothers and motherhood. My experience has been that small, private celebrations or those grounded in faith touch a mother’s heart the most. It isn’t about what you can give to and/or do for your mother; it’s about maintaining the relationship throughout the year, and then taking one special day a year to say an extra “I love you.”

The Buzz About Last Names

Making the last name of the family in my novel, The Tedescos, plural was quite easy. I simply added an S to their name when speaking or writing about the entire clan. And then I assigned one character the last name Roberts and decided to write about his family as well. Time to apply “The Joneses Rule.”

Of course this isn’t the official title of the grammar rule; it’s just my way of remembering that when I make a last name ending in S plural, I add –es. The AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Garner’s Modern American Usage as well as many grammar websites agree with this practice.

Then there is the annoying little pronunciation rule that pops up every now and then. If a last name ending in S sounds like a Z, as in Jones, one shouldn’t add the –es. A trick to determining this is to place your hand on your throat, say the name aloud, and see if you can feel your throat buzzing. Really? We’re supposed to trust proper grammar to the buzzing in our throats? This is made doubly ridiculous because sites that uphold this rule still say that Jones should be Joneses when making the name plural.

Here’s my advice: play it safe by trashing the buzzing rule, be consistent in your writing, and add –es to any last name ending in S. Regional dialects pronounce names differently, and it’s too difficult to pin down whether a name is ending in an S sound or a Z sound.

The Luxury of Chocolate

Chocolate ranks high among all the comfort foods in which one can indulge. It’s even better when it’s incorporated into a homemade recipe lovingly prepared by Grandma’s hands. And while chocolate in all its many forms is delicious, I do believe there isn’t anything that can’t be made better by eating homemade chocolate pudding.

Grandma Josephine Tedesco believes in love as the main ingredient in everything she makes for her grandkids. And even though Grandma’s mind isn’t always in the present, when it comes to cooking or baking, she’s as sharp as Gordon Ramsay’s knives. The following recipe for chocolate pudding is the one I had in mind when writing about pudding in my novel, The Tedescos. It’s absolutely decadent and just the sort of dessert Grandma Josephine would proudly serve. It’s simple, elegant, and a little bit of chocolate heaven.

Grandma Josephine’s Chocolate Pudding

2 ¼ c whole milk

½ cup sugar (I used raw sugar for a deep, rich flavor)

Pinch of sea salt

1/4 c unsweetened cocoa powder

2 T cornstarch

2 large egg yolks

1 large egg

5 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped or in chips

2 T unsalted butter

2 t vanilla

STEP ONE: Whisk the cornstarch, cocoa, and ¼ c of the sugar in a mixing bowl. Add ¼ c of milk, and whisk until it’s smooth. Set aside.

STEP TWO: In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk the whole egg with the two egg yolks. Set aside.

STEP THREE: Combine the remaining 2 cups of milk, ¼ c of sugar, and the sea salt in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Stir constantly to dissolve the sugar. When the mixture in the saucepan comes to a boil, reduce the heat and stir in the mixture from Step One. Once the two are thoroughly combined, bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Do this for about two minutes or until the pudding is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

STEP FOUR: Reduce the heat to low under the pudding and gradually whisk about ½ c of the hot pudding into the egg mixture from Step Two until thoroughly combined. Pour the egg/pudding combination back into the saucepan taking care to scrape out the bowl. Cook the pudding over medium heat, whisking constantly, until a soft boil is achieved, about two minutes.

STEP FIVE:  Remove the pudding from the heat and add the semi-sweet chocolate, butter, and vanilla. Stir until the butter and chocolate are melted and the pudding is smooth. Pour the pudding into six dessert dishes or ramekins that hold about 6 ounces each. A piece of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the pudding will keep a skin from forming. Refrigerate the pudding until chilled.

Serve with whipped cream and/or chopped peanuts if desired.

Enjoy!

La Cucina Povera

In the chapter of my novel, The Tedescos, titled “Soul Food,” the family attends church on Mother’s Day with their good friends, The Robertses. After the service, the Tedesco Clan is invited to attend a meal in the church fellowship hall. The men and boys prepared the meal they will serve to the mothers to honor them. Much of the food the Tedescos encounter is familiar, but one dish in particular initiates a conversation between Joe Jr. and Tabitha and Tonya Roberts and results in the explanation of ‘la cucina povera.’

The Italian phrase literally means the poor kitchen, and it is a style of cooking familiar among the lower classes (think peasants) of a particular society. Often, peasants had to cook with whatever they had on hand whether it came from the kitchen or the farm. The ‘poor kitchen’ can be found in every society. The great thing about this concept is that some really delicious recipes emerged from the simple, high-quality ingredients that were available.

Attempting to cook in the style of ‘la cucina povera’ may earn you a laugh especially from an older person who lived through the war in Italy. They may refuse to acknowledge ‘the poor kitchen’ style and argue that it was simply the preparation of the food they had on hand. Americans, with all their varied food choices and easy access to said food, have a tendency to romanticize a style of cooking that was a part of basic survival. Still, I can think of several recipes in which my family indulges that found their way into my writing because of my love to feed people whether real or imagined. Many cookbooks featuring this style of food have been published, and I highly recommend you try one or two meals from them if you’ve never encountered peasant cooking.

Beans and cornbread, cabbage and noodles, and soup made from some combination of vegetables are the types of peasant food I grew up with. I never knew that what we ate was considered to be from ‘the poor kitchen’ because the adults who prepared it for me cooked with love and made everything taste wonderful. Delicious, simple food is usually the tastiest, and in the end, that’s really what it’s all about. What does your family enjoy from ‘la cucina povera?’

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