Friday, December 31, 2010

Power to the People

One Crazy Summerby Rita Williams-Garcia, Amistad, 2010, 224 pages, ISBN: 0060760885

I love the sixties, and anything about the sixties.  Many middle school students, girls in particular, go through a stage where they dig the sixties, too.  It's no wonder; the sixties were an exciting time, and there was a lot going on:  the music, the protests, the flower children, the Black Panthers.  One Crazy Summer, a National Book Award Finalist, is an evocative depiction of this happening time.  The story is told by Delphine, an eleven year-old girl, who, along with her two sisters, Vonette, nine, and Fern, seven, lives in Brooklyn with Pa and Big Ma, her paternal grandmother.  The girls' mother Cecile, a poet, left them when Fern was a baby and now resides in Oakland, California.

In the summer of 1968, Pa decides it is time for them to go visit their mother.  Delphine dreams of Disneyland, sunshine, and movie stars, but when they get to California, they find it considerably less magical.  Cecile has no time for them:  She is busy writing poetry on the walls and printing flyers for the Black Panthers.  Instead of Disneyland, they are sent to the Black Panther Community Center every morning for breakfast.  They stay to play in the park and take classes from the Panthers.  Every night they eat takeout Chinese because Cecile does not want them in the kitchen.  After a time, Delphine decides to buy groceries and cook dinner herself because takeout food is sometime food, not for everyday eating.  Against Cecile's wishes, Delphine insinuates herself into the kitchen, where she cooks and cleans, but leaves Cecile's work alone.

Although she doesn't get to Disneyland, Delphine does treat her sisters to a San Francisco excursion, just the kind of day-trip I'd like to take.  When they step off the bus, they are greeted by hippies and flower children.  They visit Chinatown, where they eat dumplings and window shop, and then climb aboard a cable car and head to Fisherman's Wharf  to see the Golden Gate Bridge.  Some intrigue and surprises await the sisters upon their return to Oakland.

One Crazy Summer is a good peek back into the turbulent sixties, one that middle school readers will enjoy, and presents several interesting issues to get them rapping.  One of the questions this book poses is what is a woman's place?  To take care of her children?  To practice her art?  As the summer unfolds, Delphine and her sisters forge a new relationship with their reluctant mother, and she with them.  As impossible as it would seem to empathize with a mother who has deserted her children, by book's end Williams-Garcia has me doing just that.  Also, she challenges the stereotype of the Black Panthers as an extremely violent organization outside the law.  I knew that the Black Panthers were at times unfairly targeted by the law; unarmed Bobby Hutton, for instance, had been gunned down by the police, but I certainly never considered the organization as nurturing.  Yet, in One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia presents us with just that.  At the Black Panther Community Center, children of all races are fed, and black children are taught pride and strength and unity.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Holiday Leftovers

The holidays mean leftovers.  You can't possibly finish a ham or turkey or roast in one meal, no matter how many guests you've got for dinner.  The one exception for us is a standing rib roast:  From that we never have leftovers; we just keep eating it until it's gone.  One Christmas when my son was two, so much did he love this new food that he ate half the roast one little piece at a time.

This afternoon simmering on the stove is a pot of bean soup made with the ham bone left from Christmas Eve, and Sunday I'll be making turkey pot pie, as we're having roast turkey for New Year's Day.  I always buy a second turkey when grocery shopping for Thanksgiving--as the birds are so cheap--and put it in the freezer to save for New Year's Day.  And I always make a turkey pot pie from some of the leftovers.  Not to boast, but my pot pie is the tastiest one I've ever eaten; I know one person who prefers it to the roast turkey dinner from which it originated.

This pie serves four to six people, depending on how hungry or gluttonous they're feeling.  A couple of things regarding the liquids.  First, you can make your own broth from the turkey carcass, or you can used canned.  I've done both and, truthfully, I can't tell the difference.  Also,  you can use light cream, regular milk, reduced-fat milk, or skim.  The higher the fat content, the thicker the filling.  My husband likes it thick with cream, but I prefer it thinner with skim or reduced-fat milk.  So I trade off.  One last thing:  if you've got a recipe for pie crust you really dig, use it.  If you don't want the extra work, buy a box of Pilsbury refrigerated pie crusts.  They come two to a box;  just remember to take them out of the refrigerator before you start cooking the filling, as they need to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Turkey Pot Pie

4 Tbsp. butter (1/2 a stick)
3 carrots, diced
1 small onion, minced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cup fresh turkey broth or canned turkey or chicken broth
1/2 cup milk or light cream
2 cups leftover turkey breast, cubed
1 cup frozen or fresh peas
Pastry for a two-crust nine-inch pie, rolled out and shaped into two disks

Heat the oven to 425º.  In a saucepan, melt the butter.  Add carrots, onions, salt, pepper, and thyme.  Cook until tender, about 5 minutes.  Stir in 1/4 cup flour and cook about a minute; then gradually stir in broth and milk or cream.  Bring to a boil and cook one minute, stirring continuously.  Remove from heat, and stir in the cubed turkey and peas.

Fit one of the pastry disks into a nine-inch pie plate.  Fill with the turkey mixture.  Top with second pastry disk and crimp the edges.  Cut a few vents into the top crust.  Put pie on baking sheet, and bake about 35 minutes, until golden brown.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Movie

One Magic Christmas (1985)
Directed by Philip Borsos
Written by Thomas Meehan
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Gary Basaraba, and Harry Dean Stanton

Disney's One Magic Christmasis not for sissies or small children.  I took my daughter to see it when she was four, and, while  I don't think it scarred her too much, I think she was a tad young for this one.  It was rated G, but this movie is way too heavy for that rating.  PG-13 is about right.  But dark as it is, I love it.  The movie centers on Ginny Grainger, played by Mary Steenburger, a put-upon woman who has lost her Christmas spirit, a common enough theme in Christmas movies.  Her husband (Gary Basaraba), laid off back in June, is unable to find a new job.  Ginny works as a cashier at the local supermarket, where her grinchy boss singles her out for his managerial abuses.  There's no money for Christmas, and, because the house is a company house, they must be out by January 1.  So Ginny spends her days off packing, while hubby's down in the basement working on bicycles for the neighborhood kids for Christmas.  As if all of that isn't enough, it's only been a couple of years since her father died.  Who can blame her for not having Christmas spirit?

But Christmas spirit she must have.  Her daughter, Abbie, who still believes in Santa, is the driving force here.  She is helped by the angel Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton), who was a cowboy in his human days.  He is the creepiest angel I've ever seen, and I can't believe Abbie isn't afraid of him, but maybe he gives off some kind of angel vibe that only animals and small children can sense.  Abbie and Gideon travel to the North Pole to solicit Santa's help.  Jan Rubes plays Santa, and he is the quintessential Santa.  He looks just like you'd expect Santa to look right down to the rich red sweater and coat.  He speaks with a European accent, but he's not just plain, old St. Nicholas.  Clearly he is God.  And as such, he is instrumental in producing the necessary Christmas miracle.  On her way to recovering her Christmas spirit, Ginny suffers horrible loses; Ebenezer Scrooge and George Baily don't suffer a tenth the agony that poor Ginny Grainger does.  Still, Ginny's got to learn:  This is a Disney movie, and Christmas spirit is not optional.

Five more must-see Christmas movies:
  1. Elf(2003).  Will Ferrell is hilarious as Buddy, a human raised with elves who goes to New York to find his real father.
  2. The House Without a Christmas Tree(1972).  In 1940s Nebraska, ten-year-old Addie wants only one thing for Christmas:  a tree.  But her father, played by Jason Robards, is still grieving for the wife who died giving Addie life and refuses to allow a tree in his house.
  3. Fitzwilly(1967).  Dick Van Dyke is Fitzwilly, the devoted head servant of an eccentric philanthropist, who has given away her entire fortune.  To support her and her household, Fitzwilly has resorted to theft.
  4. The Lemon Drop Kid(1951).  In another criminal Christmas movie, Bob Hope is a con man who owes big money to a gangster, creates a fake charity, and enlists his gang to pose as Santas to raise the money by Christmas.
  5. A Christmas Carolwith Alastair Sim (1951).  The definitive Christmas Carol.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Celebrating the Winter Solstice Full Lunar Eclipse

The Tough Winter by Robert Lawson, Puffin Books, 1982, 128 pages, ASIN: B000O8E2IE

Today is the first day of winter, aka the Winter Solstice, and tonight there will be a full moon.  And an eclipse.  This is the first time in 456 years that the Winter Solstice has coincided with a Full Lunar Eclipse.  That means not since 1554, ten years before Shakespeare was born.  To celebrate this special Winter Solstice, I suggest curling up with a good cup of cocoa and a great winter's tale.

I can't think of a better winter story than The Tough Winter, particularly given that we seem to be in for a pretty tough winter ourselves, weather wise anyway.  Written and illustrated by Robert Lawson in 1954, it is, unfortunately, out of print, though it is still available used, and some libraries may still carry it.  I first read this sequel to the Newbery-award winning Rabbit Hill with my son when he was still in elementary school.  It's a bit twee, but it's one of those good-for-readers-of-all-ages books and is particularly fun to read aloud.  My son excelled at reading in Uncle Analdous's backwoodsy dialect.

Rabbit Hill's themes of careful stewardship of the earth and enough for all are tested in The Tough Winter, which brings back Little Georgie the rabbit, his friend Willie the field mouse, wise (but now sick) Father,  Mother, and Uncle Analdous.  Uncle Analdous warns of the tough winter coming.  And he's not kidding.  It's cold and icy, and the snow is deep.  To compound things further, the kind Folks have gone away leaving the Hill to some slovenly, neglectful caretakers and a mean dog.  Because of the weather and the food shortage, many of the animals on Rabbit Hill have to leave.  Before long only Georgie, Willie, and Father remain.  Find this book and see how the residents of Rabbit Hill make it through this tough winter.

For the cocoa, mix 2 heaping teaspoons of sugar and 1 heaping teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa in a mug.  Stir in 1 Tbsp. milk until smooth.  Stir in 3/4 cup of milk.  Microwave on high until hot, about a minute and a half.  Stir well.  Top with mini marshmallows or a dollop of whipped cream.

One more thing.  Add some Biscoff™cookies, those crisp Belgian cookies made with real sugar and brown sugar and a hint of cinnamon.  Yum.  I first had them on a flight to Disney World three years ago; then I found them at Walgreens, and they've been a staple in my kitchen ever since.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Current Top Ten Favorite Christmas Carols

  1. "Silver Bells."  I enjoyed Jeff Bridges' version with Cookie Monster on Saturday Night Live last night, but even better, I think, is the original sung by Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, and William Frawley (aka Fred Mertz) in the Christmas movie, The Lemon Drop Kid.
  2. "Feliz Navidad."  I love this 1970 Christmas jingle sung by José Feliciano on his album, Feliz Navidad. One of my favorite Christmas memories is of the tape my daughter recorded for us when she was seven or eight.  On this Christmas tape, she sings "Feliz Navid," accompanying herself on the recorder.
  3. "What Child Is This?."  My favorite version is sung by Dan Fogelberg on First Christmas Morning.That album includes another of my all-time favorite carols.  Number four (drum roll)...
  4. "I Saw Three Ships."  The tune is an uptempo variation of "Greensleeves."
  5. "2000 Miles."  This the most rock and roll of my favorites--maybe of any Christmas carol--was written by Chrissie Hynde and is one of the tracks on The Pretenders - Greatest Hits.
  6. "One Bright Star (This Christmas Night)."   This beautiful carol is sung by the late Nicolette Larson on Americana Christmas: 20th Century - Coll.Her sweet voice is pure pleasure.
  7. "The First Noel."  I like Emmylou Harris's version of this song from Light of the Stable.
  8. "I'll Be Home for Christmas."  Sung by Elvis, of course, on If Every Day Was Like Christmas.
  9. "Merry Christmas Waltz."   Forget Rudoplph.  This is the best Gene Autry Christmas tune.
  10. Mele Kalikimaka.  Who can forget Chevy Chase fantasizing in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation to this Bing Crosby croon?  Bing sings this Hawaiian-themed carol with The Andrew Sisters on his  White Christmas CD. 
Dear Reader, if you're out there, let me know what your favorite Christmas carols are.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010

    Indian Summer, Part Two

    Flight: A Novelby Sherman Alexie, Black Cat, 2007, 208 pages, ISBN: 0802170373

    Flight, the second Sherman Alexie novel my son and I read this past summer, is my favorite Alexie novel. While not classified as a young adult book and certainly much darker than The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,mature middle school readers will enjoy Flight for its fast pace, humorous central character, and its hope-filled ending.  My son certainly did.

    Zits, half-Indian and half-Irish, is a lonely, unwanted fifteen-year-old boy.  His alcoholic Indian father left him when he was born; his mother died when he was six; and his aunt deserted him when he was ten.   He's lived in 20 foster homes and attended 22 schools.  Everything he owns fits into one small backpack.  His face full of zits fills him with shame, and he is desperately lonely and disconnected.  He doesn't know to what tribe his father belonged, and the only Indians he knows are the homeless in downtown Seattle, with whom he likes to get drunk and hang out.  He runs away from his current foster home and gets picked up by Dave, a policeman and probably the only guy who cares about Zits.

    While in jail, Zits meets Justice, a white kid Zits thinks can save him from loneliness.  Justice teaches Zits to shoot a gun, and Zits takes the gun into a bank full of people.  Zits opens fire; a bank guard shoots him in the back of the head.  His death catapults him on a journey through time into the bodies of sundry other people.  His stops include an FBI agent on an Indian reservation in the 70s, a mute Indian boy at Custer's Last Stand, an old Indian tracker, a broken pilot, and a homeless alcoholic Indian.

    Throughout Flight, Zits feels shame, loneliness, anger, revenge, and betrayal, but he maintains his humor and his strong sense of self, and through his cathartic travels he gains humanity, compassion, empathy, wisdom, and hope.

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010

    It Was 30 Years Ago Today

    Before I hung up my rock and roll shoes and became a mother, I bought my last two record albums, "vinyl" in today's lingo.  In November of 1980, I took some of my tips I'd earned waiting tables and bought Lennon's newly released  Double Fantasy.I loved the album, at least I loved Lennon's songs: I used to get up after every Lennon song and lift the needle to skip over Yoko Ono's songs, as I never did acquire a taste for her music.  On the other hand Lennon's songs were among the best he ever wrote:  "(Just Like) Starting Over," "Watching the Wheels," "Woman," and "Beautiful Boy," his tribute to Sean.  From that song we get quintessential Lennon wisdom:  "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."  Three weeks after Double Fantasy was released, John Lennon was assassinated.  I was in the restaurant busing a table when I heard the tragic news.  Aside from his death ending the speculation of whether The Beatles would ever get back together again, this was astounding news.  Yeah, there were lots of political assassinations in the sixties, but who murders a rock star?

    Meanwhile somewhere in England, George Harrison was recording Somewhere in England.Released in June of 1981, this was the last album I bought.  (Three months later while I was busy with my plans of becoming a rock journalist, life happened and my own beautiful baby was born, so I stopped spending money on records and started spending money on diapers.)  Somewhere in England includes George's poignant tribute to his fallen bandmate, "All Those Years Ago."  The hit song with its allusions to The Beatles' song "All You Need Is Love" and to Lennon's song "Imagine"  features Ringo playing drums and Paul singing backup vocals.  It would be the last time the three recorded together until they reunited in the mid-nineties for The Beatles Anthology.

    And then there were two.  George Harrison is no longer with us either:  He died of cancer on November 29, 2001.  Today, on the anniversary of Lennon's death, I remember my two favorite Beatles--and my youth--by playing those last two albums I purchased all those years ago.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    Stovetop Cooking

    In Memory of Nan (November 5, 1915-December 5, 2010)

    I turned the oven on yesterday to bake a cake, and the baking element on the oven floor snapped and fizzled like a Fourth-of-July sparkler.  I could see the spark eating its way around the coil.  I called to my husband, "Fire.  Get in here."  Then I turned off the oven.  Immediately, the pyrotechnics stopped, but clearly the baking element was done for, and there wasn't going to be any cake.  My husband ordered a new baking element, which I hope arrives in time for me to bake Christmas cookies.  Until it comes, all our food will have to be cooked above board.

    For dinner I had planned to cook some ribs, which I usually slow cook in the oven.  Since I had to use them up, and I didn't have time to go the slow cooker route, I decided to experiment with cooking them on the top of the stove.  Spareribs is a weekly meal around here.  They're cheap--my local market sells them for $2.99/pound--and tasty.  My experiment proved successful; in fact, the ribs were more succulent cooked on top of the stove than they are when oven baked.

    Stove Top Spareribs

    1 1/2 pounds pork spareribs (4-6 bones)
    Penzey's BBQ 3000
    1 cup BBQ sauce
    1 cup water

    The night before serving, liberally coat the spareribs with BBQ 3000.  (If you don't have a Penzey's store nearby, you can order this BBQ rub online at  Place the ribs in a deep skillet.  Mine is 2 inches deep and about 9 inches in diameter, perfect for four to six ribs.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  About two hours before dinner, take the ribs out of the refrigerator.  To the skillet, add the water.  Pour the BBQ sauce directly over the ribs.  Cover tightly and cook on low for two hours.

    That's it.  If you want, you can warm up some additional sauce, though we found the ribs quite saucy as they were.

    As for dessert:  Since I couldn't bake the cake I'd planned, I made a chocolate cream pie.  By the way, I never use cake mixes; I only bake from scratch.  Not that I'm elitist about food—though I can be—it's just so easy to do and the payoff is ten times the little extra bit of work.  I can't stand the hydrogenated-vegetable-oil-flavored cake that results from a box.  Same as when I go to a restaurant, and they trot out their ultimate, scrumptious volcanic triple chocolate cake.  All I taste is hydrogenated vegetable oil.  I don't even want to think about the chemicals in there.  And anyone who swoons over those elaborate laboratory-created concoctions probably never had a cake made with real butter and eggs.  That goes for chocolate cream pie, too.  Never use a pudding and pie mix.  My pie recipe originally came from a cookbook put out by Hershey Foods in 1982, Hershey's Chocolate Memories.Through the years I've tinkered with it and have actually perfected chocolate cream pie.  If you want to eat it after dinner, make this pie in the morning.

    Chocolate Cream Pie

    2 squares unsweetened chocolate
    2 1/2 cups milk
    1 cup sugar
    3 Tbsp. flour
    3 Tbsp. cornstarch
    1/2 tsp. salt
    3 egg yolks
    2 Tbsp. butter
    1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
    9-inch pie baked pastry, graham, or chocolate pie crust

    In bowl, mix together sugar, flour, cornstarch, and salt.  Blend egg yolks into 1/2 cup milk and add to dry ingredients.  Set aside.

    Melt chocolate with two cups milk in saucepan over medium heat.  Stirring constantly, cook just until mixture boils.  Remove from heat.  Stir egg yolk mixture into saucepan and return to medium heat.  Continue stirring and bring mixture to boil.  Boil and stir one minute.  Remove from heat.  Add butter and vanilla, and stir until butter melts and mixture is smooth.   Pour into pie shell.  Press a sheet of plastic wrap onto top of pie, smoothing away air pockets.  This will prevent a skin from forming.  Cool for a couple of hours.  Then chill in refrigerator until cold.  Serve with whipped cream or Cool Whip™.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010


    The Mod Squad (1968-1973)
    Creator: Buddy Ruskin
    Starring: Peggy Lipton, Michael Cole, Clarence Williams III, and Tige Andrews

    The Mod Squad was the first television show to feature young street kids as cops.  When I was nine, those cops, Julie, Pete, and Linc, were my idols.  On long Saturday afternoons we played The Mod Squad.  Sporting long blond hair and a headband or sunglasses atop my head, I was Julie, the loner hippie chick from San Francisco who ran away from her prostitute mother.  My brother posed as Pete, the anti-establishment guy from Beverly Hills whose family disowned him after he stole a car.  A friend stood in for Linc, the street-smart poor dude who had been arrested during a riot in Watts.  All three avoided jail by serving as undercover cops for Captain Adam Greer.  They might be cops, but these hippies refuse to carry guns, are against the Vietnam War, and support young people protesting against unfair or cruel issues.

    I haven't seen this show since it originally aired, but I find it as fun to watch today as I did all those years ago.  It's action packed particularly for Pete and Linc who get in a fistfight in nearly every episode.  They leap onto the bad guys, take them down, and pound the crap out of them.  But no guns, man.  Julie, if present for the fights, takes cover, as a woman would back then.  Now she'd be punching and kicking butt with her costars, all the time being scantily dressed.  (Talk about a sexism paradox.)  Julie, except when in a bikini on the beach, dresses much more modestly than today's t.v. heroine.  But don't confuse her for a prude.  She is a groovy dresser, and, surprisingly, save the brash colors, her clothes look contemporary.  In the pilot, Julie wears jeans and hippie beads, but as the season progresses, her wardrobe expands to include tights, boots, mini skirts, hats, lots of hats, headbands, sunglasses, and false eyelashes.  I want those eyelashes.

    To watch The Mod Squad is to take a trip back to the sixties:  Hippies, peace symbols, beaded curtains, VW bugs and micro buses, motorcycles, mod clothes, psychedelic colors, go-go dancing, guitars, strobe lights, the Vietnam War, protests, underground newspapers, bad drug trips, the slang (dig it?; split; cool, man; scene; groovy; power to the people; peace, baby, peace; and Linc's signature affirmation, solid), and hair, everywhere big beautiful hair (afros, curly hair, long straight hair).

    Many familiar faces can be seen on The Mod Squad.  Sammie Davis, Jr., Ivan Dixon, Ed Asner, Tyne Daly, Lesley Ann Warren, Lou Gossett, Jr., Veronica Cartwright, Robert Duvall, Joe Don Baker, Barry Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Tom Bosley, Margot Kidder, and an assortment of character actors from the sixties appear at one time on The Mod Squad.  The biggest surprise is a brief onscreen, uncredited,  appearance in the very first episode by Harrison Ford.

    The Mod Squad was probably the first television show to feature the exploding car.  Every car accident, no matter how slight, results in the car blowing up and bursting into flames.  Not even their beloved Woodie, the clunker they drive throughout the first season, is spared destruction by explosion.  Luckily, Woodie's not their only mode of transportation.  They drive a convertible and acquire another wood-paneled station wagon.  Plus, all three of the hippie cops and their cool captain, too, at some point in the series ride a motorcyle.  Back in 1969 my Linc drove me around on his pretend motorcycle, actually a banana-seat bicycle.  After one of our rides, "Linc" kissed me, just as t.v.'s Linc kisses Julie at the end of one episode.  Although I think we kids may have beaten them, Linc and Julie probably shared the first interracial t.v. kiss.