Friday, November 28, 2008

The Thanksgiving Report

I will never forget the first real turkey I ever cooked all by myself, fourteen years ago. Despite all the poking and prodding and other indignities required before roasting, we couldn’t find the giblets or gravy packet until Mr. Lucky carved up the bird some four hours later. Oddly enough—and may I say, thankfully—the turkey was unaffected, quite edible and wonderfully succulent.

Then last year, for reasons unknown, though I suspect he couldn’t wait to dig into the pies, he insisted I remove the bird from the oven after precisely three and a half hours of roasting, because the instructions said that was the maximum time for a turkey of that weight.

I was of the opinion that the turkey needed at least another fifteen minutes, perhaps thirty. But Mr. Lucky pointed out the evidence stacked against me: According to the instructions, it was supposed to be ready by now; the button that pops when it’s done had popped; and the tip of the needle on the meat thermometer just brushed the P for Poultry. The state rested.

Since when did he decide to become a stickler for following instructions? I tried telling him that unlike all the other instructions he promptly throws out (along with the corresponding sales receipts), these particular instructions are not set in stone, because ovens and turkeys vary; the button that pops when it’s supposedly done is nothing but a cheap gimmick; and it’s an old meat thermometer, not an oracle. The defense rested.

Justice is not only blind, but she knows precious little about turkey. Mr. Lucky prevailed.

To make a long story short, once the turkey was carved up, there was way too much pink in it. On the plus side, we were spared the usual week of leftovers.

This year I laid down the law to him. I’ve been doing this for years; I think I know my way around a turkey by now. I, AND I ALONE, WILL DECIDE WHEN IT’S DONE.

The turkey was the same size as last year, and came with the same instructions. I pronounced it done at three hours and forty-five minutes.

I was very pleased with it. Mr. Lucky gifted me with one of his rare compliments, and the Crown Prince, who came to stay for the holiday, devoured a whole heaping plate of it. Baby Bear wouldn’t touch it, but when I reheated some leftovers this evening and poured gravy over them, he was very interested and finally enjoyed some turkey.

I’m thankful.

And while reading my previous blog entry earlier this week, Mr. Lucky seized on Phyllis’s suggestion in the comments that we buy one of the smaller frozen pies, and bake it on Wednesday to create that baking pumpkin smell that makes me crazy. He agreed we couldn’t have too many pies.

I wonder if Phyllis could get him to mow the lawn?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pontificating on Pumpkin Pie

I used to make pumpkin pie from scratch every Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day. Well, all right, maybe not from scratch scratch—it wasn’t as if I shot an actual pumpkin and hauled it home on a sled; nor did I make the crust, raise the chickens who laid the eggs, or milk the cow that produced the evaporated milk. I used canned pumpkin and ready-made deep dish frozen crusts.

After mixing all the required ingredients in a large bowl, I’d ladle the pumpkin batter into the pie crusts. I always made two. It was a lot of fun trying to slide a flimsy cookie sheet (they always want to flex at just the wrong moment) laden with two pumpkin pies into the oven without the soupy batter sloshing out. Yes, I’m sure I was doing it the hard way, but the hard way is how I do things. The pies usually turned out well, though occasionally they stubbornly retained liquid centers. But I always loved the smell of baking pumpkin.

That was years ago in the era B.B.B. (Before Baby Bear). Once he grew into a curious toddler, the kitchen became his favorite toy box, and he wandered off with my measuring cups and spoons, my beaters and whisks, everything I needed for creative cookery. If I wanted to bake a pie or cake or cookies, I’d have to go into his room and rummage through his less favorite toy box or under his bed for the utensils I needed. Which brings me to another one of my happy homemaker tips:

Dust bunnies clinging to beaters add interesting flavor and texture to cakes, pies, and cookies!

Mind you, we still keep the knives wrapped and buried high in the cupboard, except for the duller butter knives that also constantly disappear, because Mr. Lucky can never find a flathead screwdriver when he needs one. But will he take my advice to search Bear's room for the screwdriver? Of course not! He's convinced an expedition into that kid's room is fraught with all the perils of the cave in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The day eventually came when I could no longer find any of the utensils, so we resorted to frozen, ready-to-bake pies. We could still enjoy the smell of baking pumpkin the day before Thanksgiving.

Then last week we went shopping at Wal-Mart for Thanksgiving groceries, and found something decidedly different and downright disturbing about the brand of pie we’d been buying all these years.

It’s noticeably smaller this year.

I’ve heard a lot about this on the news recently, that manufacturers are downsizing their products while keeping prices the same to avoid raising them. The idea is that consumers would rather pay the same for less than pay more for the same. Whereas tuna used to come in 6 ounce cans, it’s now 5 ounces. Yet the directions for Tuna Helper still call for the 6 ounce can, which I’ve never thought was enough for my own taste.

Tuna is one thing, but pumpkin pie is another. At Thanksgiving, we demand big deep dish pies, not tarts. Mr. Lucky and I agreed the smaller pies were unacceptable.

Lately Mr. Lucky talks a lot about making everything from scratch to save money. He clams up when I tell him that if I have to start churning butter, then he’ll have to give up cable TV and start playing the fiddle every evening like Pa Ingalls.

This still didn’t prevent him from suggesting I go back to making pumpkin pies the way I did B.B.B. I had to warn him of the start-up costs: We’d need a new mixer. And since I haven’t baked in years, we no longer have those old Tupperware canisters that I bought at my very first Tupperware party long before we were married, for the flour and sugar. (Who uses the ones for coffee and tea, anyway?) Oh, we’ve bought flour since losing the canisters, but once opened you can’t keep it in the original bag; no matter how big a clip you put on it the stuff insists on leaking out everywhere, and their reusable seals simply aren’t. If we’re to have flour and sugar in the house, then I want a nice set of canisters to put them in. And nice canisters cost money.

We shuffled off to the bakery section of Wal-Mart, where we found the large, deep-dish pumpkin pies we wanted already baked and ready to eat. We brought home two. We only need to keep them frozen till this Wednesday, then thaw and eat Thursday.

If for some reason we don’t care for these pies, then we have a whole year to rebuild our arsenal of cooking utensils, piece by piece.

I think they make air freshener with the scent of pumpkin pie. I know they make candles, but we dare not light candles with Bear on the prowl. I may have to find some, because I fear this Wednesday just won’t be the same without that wonderful smell of baking pumpkin in my house.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Did Roger Rabbit Save My Marriage?

It all started several years ago, when we made our final move from the military base to our new house. Mr. Lucky destroyed a bunch of old VHS tapes, many of which were movies he’d recorded years ago from rentals or off the TV. Most of them were never watched; those that were favored had long since been replaced by DVD. He broke them open and unfurled miles and miles of tape before flinging them into the garbage. Why he felt it necessary to do all that, he has never been able to explain (I suspect it’s some grunting macho guy thing), but it planted in the head of our firstborn, the Crown Prince, an idea that we have yet to exorcise.

The Crown Prince took to destroying VHS tapes we wanted very much to keep. I’m not talking the cheap recorded copies, where the lighting in the picture sort of blinks on and off and is occasionally punctuated by some garbled mess representing a commercial break. No, I mean movies we went to the store and purchased—like Disney cartoons that are only available for a limited time. As in the deluxe widescreen version of Lady and the Tramp. When it came out on DVD several years later, I snapped it up and since keep it under lock and key.

Later, in an effort to keep up with changing technology, he moved on to DVD’s. He’d remove the disc from the case, snap it in two, drop the pieces into the garbage, then return the case to the shelf with the other DVD’s. Neither Mr. Lucky nor I had the slightest clue until we wanted to watch a particular movie, and opened the box only to find it empty.

A bewildering pattern soon emerged. The Crown Prince had removed and destroyed the following movies: The Abyss, True Lies, Independence Day, Speed, Titanic, and The Sound of Music. All were produced and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox; three were directed by James Cameron. I was shocked, as I thought the Crown Prince liked all these movies except for The Sound of Music. In particular, Speed has everything he and Baby Bear love: Explosions, elevators, a bus, helicopters, police cars, jet aircraft, subway trains, and flying baby buggies full of aluminum cans.

The Crown Prince enjoyed Titanic, though every time we watched it and got to the part where Leo and Kate came into her stateroom to engage in a little artwork, I’d say, “Okay, I don’t think we need to see this,” and hit the skip button to the next chapter. After a while, he took the initiative and started hitting that skip button himself at the start of that same scene, and yes, he’d always say, “Okay, I don’t think we need to see this.”

Poor guy doesn’t know what he’s missing. I’m such a mom.

The following Christmas, Mr. Lucky gave me new editions of the DVD’s that had been destroyed. While it was very sweet of him, I sort of wish he hadn’t done it, as they were very expensive to replace. However, I must confess I did appreciate the replacement of The Sound of Music and Titanic, as those were my favorites, especially since he upgraded the latter to a beautifully boxed, three-disc deluxe collector’s edition.

Then came the day I wanted to introduce Baby Bear to the delights of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (I thought he might enjoy identifying with the atrocities of Baby Herman).

Empty. Gone. Destroyed. I was devastated, because that was another movie that was no longer available. It had been a very nicely boxed deluxe set, too.

That was several years ago, when the Crown Prince was still living at home. Then last weekend, he was staying with us for an overnight visit. All was well, until Mr. Lucky woke up Sunday morning and went into the kitchen, where he found some broken DVD pieces in the garbage.

For reasons unknown, the Crown Prince had selected North by Northwest and Airport for destruction. These were another two movies I thought he liked. Planes, trains, and Cary Grant; it doesn’t get any better than that.

But it got worse than that. Already Mr. Lucky was not too happy about this, but then I had to make a point of telling him that under no circumstances were those DVD’s to be replaced. I could live without them, or watch them when they showed up on Turner Classics.

We had a very big argument, and stopped speaking for a while.

Then yesterday, we were at Wal-Mart and happened to be walking by all the racks full of DVD’s when I spotted one lone copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I plucked it out and tossed it into the cart, telling Mr. Lucky, “We can replace that but no other.”

I’ll make exceptions for Disney cartoons—and Roger Rabbit qualifies—as those are as precious and rare as Faberge eggs. Only why do they have to be? It causes such grief.

The Crown Prince will be coming over for Thanksgiving next week, and I plan to hide away all the DVD’s.

Oh, and since finding Roger Rabbit, Mr. Lucky and I are speaking again.

Maybe I’ll do like Jessica Rabbit, and bake him a carrot cake.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

L is for Lemmings Locked in Line

If you’ve ever seen any of those old disaster flicks from the 1970’s—think Airport or The Towering Inferno, or in the case of Baby Bear, whose catastrophes usually include water, The Poseidon Adventure—then you have an idea of what it’s like taking all three of my autistic children grocery shopping: Each person has his or her own subplot or drama that intertwines with the others’, all spiraling through a seemingly endless trail of destruction.

Naturally I prefer to go grocery shopping when they’re in school. During the summer months, if Mr. Lucky was deployed somewhere, I would stock up on—nay, horde as many groceries as I could fit into the pantry and refrigerator (one of those big freezers out in the garage would have been nice), simply to minimize trips to the Air Force commissary. But they couldn’t be avoided altogether.

In such cases, we’d go first thing in the morning, right when the commissary opened and it wouldn’t be as crowded. More often than not, it’s very crowded; I’ve since found that Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon is like the base commissary on any day of the week.

Aggravating matters is what happens—or doesn’t happen—at the head of the maze (described in previous blog entry) leading to the cash registers.

A supervisor will stand at the head of the line, watching for when one of the registers is ready for another customer. She will then direct the person at the head of the line to that particular checkout.

“Number Eight is open,” she says, and he pushes his loaded cart to Checkout Number Eight.

A few minutes later, the customer at Checkout Number Twelve places the last of her groceries on the rolling belt, and pushes her cart forward to the opposite end of the checkout.

“Number Twelve,” the supervisor will say to the next person in the maze line.

This does nothing to speed up the checkout process. The result is that over the years, many susceptible commissary patrons have been brainwashed, like religious cult recruits or Manchurian candidates, into never leaving the maze for an open checkout until they’ve been directed to do so by the supervisor.

The problem worsens when the supervisor finds something more worthwhile to do in another part of the commissary. The whole winding line screeches to a dead halt, like that scene in the Disney/Pixar cartoon, A Bug’s Life, where a leaf flutters to the ground in the middle of a column of busy marching ants, disrupting the column and effectively splitting it into two. The ant who suddenly finds himself at the head of the newly broken second line is paralyzed with panic, and doesn’t know what to do until a senior ant happens by and guides him around the leaf, until he can link up with the end of the first line, and the bug’s life returns to normal.

Every time I go to the commissary I get stuck behind two such bugs, usually an older couple—we’ll call them Ike and Mamie—part of the extensive retired military community which, at our local base, far outnumber active duty personnel.

No sooner do Ike and Mamie reach the head of the maze than the supervisor is called away to deal with some other, more earth-shattering crisis—someone’s can of cat food won’t scan properly and the cashier can’t punch in the price manually unless both she and the supervisor insert their keys into the register and turn at the same time, like the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Ike and Mamie are left puzzled and totally bereft of initiative.

“I don’t see her anywhere,” says Ike. “Yet there are at least three checkouts that look open.”

Then pick one! I silently seethe.

“I don’t know, dear,” Mamie dithers. “I’m worried about the Rocky Road melting.”

Then get your Rocky Road to the nearest available checkout! I want to yell. Meanwhile, the line has grown out of the maze, and is stretching all the way back to the deli. “Excuse me,” I say, “but what do you think would happen if you went ahead to that checkout anyway?”

Ike strokes his chin. “I don’t know.”

Mamie shudders. “I’m not sure I want to find out.”

“My kids are about to start World War Three,” I say. “Do you mind if I go around you and risk making a mad dash for it?”

Mamie grabs Ike’s arm. “Don’t let her do it.”

He sternly shakes his head at me. “If you were a young single fellow with no one waiting for you back home, I might tell you to take your chances. But you’re a woman. With children. I can’t in all good conscience allow it.”

You’d think there were watchtowers manned with searchlights and armed guards, ready to shoot and kill anyone who dares to make a run for the nearest available register without the blessing of the supervisor lady. This is the United States of America, and most of the commissary patrons have risked life and limb for the freedom to fill their carts with groceries and proceed to the checkout of their choice. Yet here they all stand like frozen lemmings.

Meanwhile, I have to keep the Crown Prince and Baby Bear from breaking out of the maze and racing each other to the nearest door marked “EMERGENCY EXIT – DO NOT OPEN – ALARM WILL SOUND - WE ARE NOT KIDDING - YOU WILL BE IN BIG TROUBLE IF YOU PUSH IT!”

But what child of mine can resist?

Once my darlings do succeed in setting off the alarm, it gets everyone moving—except Ike and Mamie, who don’t want to lose their place at the head of the maze. As the sirens wail amid flashing red and orange lights, I duck beneath the cart expecting to hear machine-gun fire and explosions, and the voice of Alan Rickman booming over the P.A. system, “T minus thirty seconds and counting.” The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could gallop by through a shower of blazing meteors, reduce everything to a smoldering ruin of ashes beneath a sky choked with obsidian thunderclouds, and I swear Ike and Mamie would still be standing there, wondering if the supervisor lady will return anytime soon to direct them to a checkout, and fretting over the fate of their melting Rocky Road.

Call this my third argument for wanting to pick my own checkout, instead of getting clogged up in the maze.

More recently, the supervisor lady has been replaced by a huge, high-tech device that hangs over the head of the maze. It flashes the number of the next available checkout, and a voice (not Alan Rickman’s) announces, “Next, please!” It strikes me as being very Big Brotherish, and I don't think it makes the line move any faster. People still must be told when they can proceed to the next available checkout.

At least we don’t have to worry about it wandering off like the supervisor lady and my children.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

L is for Lingefelt in a Long Line

This last Tuesday, I spent forty-five minutes in line waiting to vote. Every so often, a poll worker would come out and ask if anyone’s name started with A or G or P, etc. Not surprisingly, they never asked for anyone with an L. I brought along a book to read (The Butler Did It by Kasey Michaels, one I’ve read before; hilarious and highly recommended), and was thankful I didn’t get stuck between two people who happened to be, as they say in Regency England, bosom bows.

I’m reminded of our days in the military, where a lot of time is spent waiting in line for one reason or another, especially at the base commissary where we shop for groceries. We can’t pick any old checkout the way we can at civilian grocery stores. Instead, the commissary uses ropes and posts like the ones at the bank, to create a maze and make lab mice out of us.

Fairness aside, I don’t care for this method of lining up commissary patrons for at least two reasons. In the first place, I usually get stuck between two people, one in front of me and one behind, who happen to be intimate lifelong friends. This happens every time I go to the bank, too. They talk to each other—loudly—and usually about a mutual acquaintance (she couldn’t be a friend—not with friends like these) who isn’t there to take offense at having her gynecological problems broadcast in such gory detail in so public a forum.

It’s very confusing. The lady in front of me appears to be looking at me, when she’s really looking at the person behind me. I have to try and act like I’m not eavesdropping, yet I know the two of them are hoping I’ll become so uncomfortable with their graphic discussion about their hapless subject’s hysterectomy, that I’ll tell the lady behind me to go ahead of me so I won’t be caught in the middle.

Does the woman in front ever offer to let me go ahead, so she can have an unobstructed view of her pal while they continue to foam at their respective mouths over the size of the absent third party’s uterine fibroids? Of course not. Do I ever have the backbone to ask the woman in front of me if I can please go ahead of her? Of course not. I’m Karen Lingefelt.

That, or the two people are long lost friends or lovers who, after—why, it’s been years!—of separation, are reunited right there in line and spend the whole time catching up with each other’s life stories that never seem to include anything I might incorporate into my next novel. Sometimes the line is long enough that if they can find a notary waiting a turn, I might get to be a witness at their on-the-spot wedding.

The second thing I don’t like about the commissary maze is that I’m denied the freedom to choose who I want to wait behind. I’d rather take the checkout with the man holding the armful of junk food for his football game or Star Trek marathon, than the one with the woman my mother’s age, whose grocery cart looks as if she’s planning to entertain the entire Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. She does everything slowly and painstakingly, as if she’s performing open heart surgery on a butterfly.

All patrons are required to present their military ID cards at the cash register. This has always been the rule all over the world, for the three decades I’ve been part of the military. So you’d think after all these years, a military veteran/spouse older than me would know by now to have her ID card ready; but no, she always waits for the cashier to request it, at which point she embarks on a full scale expedition to the bottom of her purse to excavate it. Ditto the coupons and the checkbook, unless she’s paying cash and then it’s usually in coins and small bills, or really really big bills that can’t be changed unless the cashier can find a supervisor with access to the safe.

Even after she’s finally managed to pay, she refuses to move forward until she’s balanced her checkbook and conducted a major audit of her five foot long sales slip, interrupting the cashier while she’s trying to ring up my groceries to question a suspected discrepancy. If the cashier did make a mistake ringing up her groceries, maybe it’s because the customer before her was still hovering around interrupting her with similar trifles. Many’s the time my own full cart has been rung up, and I can’t swipe my ATM card or punch my PIN into the keypad, because the woman who was originally in front of me is still standing there trying to reorganize her purse so as to honor her ID card with a proper reburial.

Next time: What happens—or more accurately, doesn’t happen—at the head of the commissary maze.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Our Halloween: A Nearly Nippy Night!

The Crown Prince came down for Halloween and to spend the night. Mr. Lucky had to work, so I spent the evening running interference between the trick-or-treaters, the Crown Prince, Baby Bear, and the barking beagles.

Halloween chez Lingefelt is like the final reel of the 2005 version of King Kong. Oh hell, let’s change that to every day of the year and the final two-thirds of the movie.

The chain reaction goes something like this: Doorbell rings. Dogs bark. Baby Bear doesn’t like it when the dogs bark too long, and protests by screaming and hitting himself. This, in turn, agitates the Crown Prince. Trick-or-treaters think they have stumbled upon a real life house of horrors, and they run for their frightened little lives. Meanwhile, Karen stands in a daze amid the chaos and wreckage, staring blankly like Jack Black as Carl Denham after Kong makes his escape out of the New York theater.

Only the National Guard, some biplanes and a beautiful blonde can restore order to the beast that is my household. As luck would have it, I’m a brunette.

We decided to keep the dogs crated the whole time, though it didn’t stop them from barking.

The Crown Prince loves to hand out the treats. I insisted on stockpiling, much to Mr. Lucky’s grumbling annoyance, and started feeling alarmed when it was almost seven o’clock and so far only one little trick-or-treater had showed up. I was not looking forward to another one of my husband’s “you and your fear of running out of (you fill in the blank)” lectures that cover anything from gas in the car to milk for the kids, but never housecleaning products. Gazing in dismay at the bags and bags of candy, I started sorting through them, checking for expiration dates to determine which ones might be put aside for next year.

If you read the previous blog entry, you’ll see there can be no happy medium with me. My wit’s end swings from one extreme to the other.

By seven-thirty, things started picking up and I was feverishly ripping open one candy bag after another to keep up with the demand, as the Crown Prince handed out giant fistfuls to everyone who showed up.

We saw princesses and fairies and superheroes, but my award for most memorable costume of the night had to go to someone’s very buxom mother who was dressed as either (a) a pair of county fair “best in show” watermelons, (b) Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Wardrobe Malfunction, or (c)
Elaine Benes’s Christmas card. No, it wasn’t really showing, though for all that upper spillage, I swear she was just an eighth of a millimeter away from corrupting the children. The Crown Prince and I are both tall people who towered over her, so you might say we were--ahem--"treated" to a better view than most. Because she was so much shorter, it was a struggle to look as if I was making eye contact with her instead of—well, I’m just thankful my son’s hands didn’t follow his eyes and plunge a fistful of sweets down her cleavage.

Things went quiet at about eight-thirty, and stayed that way thereafter. At nine o’clock, we unplugged the jack o’ lantern, turned off the exterior lights, and released the dogs.

When Mr. Lucky came home from work, his first words were, “Is there any candy left?” When I told him two bags plus what was left in the bowl, he said, “Good!”

He never says that about the Thanksgiving turkey.