Monday, February 28, 2011

New Year's Objectives Relaunch

Hedonism and sloth have overtaken my life.  Though I am still eating my vegetables, the less said about my commitment--or lack thereof--to my other New Year's objectives the better.  But I'm nothing if not persistent and a new month means a new chance.  So for the month of March with spring on the horizon I put myself on a daily schedule to achieve my goals; the two I am most determined to launch are walking and writing.  And to these goals I add spring cleaning.  I am going to give our home a thorough scrubbing and purging of unnecessary stuff.  I vow progress towards all my objectives and promise to report on them by April Fool's Day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Accidental President

Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt!by Jean Fritz, Putnam Juvenile, 1997, 128 pages, ISBN: 0698116092

Jean Fritz writes delightful nonfiction books for kids.  I first read her biographies of the the heroes of the American Revolution with my daughter in the eighties; then I revisited them with my son when he was in third grade.  Her writing is lively, and she has an eye for interesting details to engage her young readers.  While most of her books are for elementary students, she has written a couple more suitable for middle school readers.

Take Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt!  It's a fortunate marriage between an amazing children's author and a rock star of a President.  Teddy Roosevelt was an undeniable dynamo.  In fact being President was just one of the many things Teddy was.  He was also a naturalist, an author, a cowboy, a rancher, a big game hunter (on two continents), a conservationist, an explorer, a Spanish-American war hero, a Republican politician, a governor, and a progressive.  Not bad for a man who began life as a sickly, asthmatic child.

Maybe it was his early struggles with his health that taught him to appreciate life, for he loved it with all his being and seized every moment of every day.  As a father, he loved to get down on all fours and rough house with his kids, as if making up for the play he missed out on in his own childhood.  Even war was fun for Teddy, as he charged up San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders.  But Teddy always had a sense of fair play and once refused to shoot an old bear.  When the story broke, a company began making stuffed toy bears, naming them "teddy bears."

In 1901 when McKinley was assassinated, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt at 42 became the youngest President.  Roosevelt referred to himself as the "accidental president" and wanted to be elected in his own right.  He was not popular with the conservative Republicans, who sided with big business over the working man, but he was popular with the people and was elected for a second term in 1904 by a greater popular majority than any recorded up to that time.  As President, he made his mark in many areas:  fighting for the working man, the Panama Canal, and conservation.  Roosevelt established 150 national forests, the first 55 bird and game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments including the Grand Canyon.

A visiting Englishman once said of America that it has two natural wonders:  Niagara Falls and Teddy Roosevelt.  Well put.  Bully for Teddy Roosevelt and bully for Jean Fritz for this bewitching biography.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Countdownby Deborah Wiles, Scholastic Press, 2010, 400 pages, ISBN: 0545106052

October 1962.  The Cuban Missile Crisis.  Everyone is terrified the Russians are going to drop the Bomb.  Eleven-year-old Franny Chapman lives in Maryland near Andrews Air Force Base.  Her father is a pilot for the Air Force and is often away from home.  Uncle Otts, who thinks he's still fighting the big war, tears up the front yard to build a bomb shelter.  Her older sister, a college student, receives mysterious letters which she conceals in a locked hope chest.  Her little brother is fascinated by atoms and wants to be an astronaut.  Her mother is mortified by all the craziness around her.  And her best friend suddenly hates her.  At school Franny must participate in duck-and-cover drills, but the kids don't always realize that they're just drills.  To deal with her fear, Franny decides to write a letter to Kruschchev and ask him to, please, not drop the Bomb on the United States.  Central to Franny's life is music:  From Del Shannon's "Runaway" to Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"  to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," the songs of the time are a calming influence on her rather tense existence.

Because I, too, was an Air-Force brat in the sixties, I connected to the social historical details in Franny's story.  In 1964, two years after the events of this story, I entered kindergarten on Ramstein Air Force Base, where my father was stationed.  I remember the sense of security I felt living on a military base.   Franny relates, "Just being on base makes me feel better.  There's something solid and safe about it."  Like Uncle Otts my father watched Combat every week, and like Franny and her brother Drew my brothers and I watched Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color every Sunday night; in fact, back then it was still hosted by Walt himself.  We also ate--and loved--meatloaf and turkey t.v. dinners in aluminum trays.  Though the aluminum trays are gone, t.v. dinners, meatloaf and turkey in particular, are still a treat for me.  Just as Franny's parents do, my parents played cards with another couple every week, a pastime adults, alas, don't seem to engage in anymore.

Countdown is the first book in the Sixties Project, a planned trilogy of documentary novels set in the 1960s.  (Books two and three, yet to be written, are set in 1964 and 1968, respectively.  Yea!  That means The Beatles.)  Throughout Countdown Wiles documents the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis with photos, advertisements, songs, speeches, and biographies of crucial people of the time, all of which she intersperses with the novel portion of the book.  A reader left a comment after my blog entry Town with a Past suggesting that Countdown was worthy of a Newbery Medal, and I am inclined to agree with her.  Countdown is a really good book to introduce middle school students to both that terrifying period in American History known as the Cold War and to the romance and revolution that was the Sixties.  I know I'm eagerly looking forward to the second book of Wiles' Sixties Project.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day Jelly Cookies

Every Christmas for I don't know how many years I've been baking jelly cookies for my kids.  Both of them would probably say these are their favorite Christmas cookies.  My son even insisted I bring them to his first grade class's Christmas party.  Interesting party, as the kids--aside from my son--had never eaten a jelly cookie and thus wouldn't touch them; not a problem, for my son and the adults present ate them all.  Because they are so good, I've decided that they should be made more often during the year, so I'm using a heart-shaped cutter and making them for Valentine's Day.  When I make these for Christmas, I use a one-inch round cookie cutter, but my heart-shaped cookie cutter is slightly bigger, about 1 3/4 inches across and one inch vertically down the center of the heart.  Just use the smallest heart you can find, or use a one-inch round cutter.  Before investing in King Arthur cookie cutters of varying sizes, I used to use the cap off a bottle of Gerber baby juice.  I'm not really sure how many dozen cookies this recipe makes, as I've never counted, but I'm estimating about six dozen.

Jelly Cookies

1 cup softened butter (2 sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 300°.  Beat butter, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla until light and fluffy.  Stir in flour to make a stiff dough.  Roll dough out one quarter at a time to 1/4 inch.  Cut with a one-inch cookie cutter.  Place one inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets.  Press center of each cookie with your fingertip.  Spoon 1/4 teaspoon of jam into the hollow.  Bake at 300° for 18 minutes until edges just begin to brown.  Cool on wire racks.  If any cookies are left after the first day, store in covered containers.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Town with a Past

Moon Over Manifestby Clare Vanderpool, Delacorte Press, 2010, 368 pages, ISBN: 0385738838

At the height of the Depression in 1936 Abilene Tucker rides into Manifest, Kansas on a rail.  Her father Gideon has decided that at age twelve, Abilene must stop living the life nomadic with him, and, though he continues working for the railroad back in Iowa, he sends her to live with his old friend, Pastor Shady Howard.  At Shady's house, she finds a box of letters and mementoes hidden under a floor board in her room.  The letters, dated between 1917 and 1918, are from Ned, a young soldier serving in France, to a 14-year-old boy named Jinx.

Very quickly Abilene makes the acquaintance of many of the town's residents including "Reporter About Town" Hattie Mae, fortune teller Miss Sadie, nun-cum-schoolteacher Sister Redempta, and schoolgirls Lettie and Ruthanne.  Sister Redempta gives Abilene a summer assignment:  to write a story, but she's too busy with her new school chums spying on the town and listening to Miss Sadie's stories of the town's past: the orphan train, deplorable conditions for the immigrants working the local mine, the KKK, bootlegging, a young con artist on the run from the law, and the influenza epidemic that killed more people than the Great War.

There's plenty of history and plenty of mystery in this 2011 Newbery Medal Recipient.  Who is the Rattler?  Who is Abilene's father Gideon?  Why is he never mentioned in any of Sadie's stories?  How does Miss Sadie fit into Manifest's past?  Mementoes, letters, newspaper columns, and Miss Sadie's stories weave the events of 1918 with the present (1936), and Abilene learns how her father's story--and hers--fit in with the rest of the town, past and present.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

In Defense of Chop Suey

Back in 1981 when I was pregnant with my daughter I first sampled Chinese food, that is chop suey and chow mein.  (The difference between chop suey and chow mein is simply the starch.  Chop suey is served over rice, chow mein over deep fried rice noodles.)   Back then we ate at several good chop sueys, as Cantonese restaurants used to be called,  but sadly most of them have closed their doors.  Of the restaurants I used to frequent, only Gilberts Chop Suey, in West Dundee, Illinois (http://www.gilberts-kitchen.com/) is still in business.

First served in the 1880s, chop suey and chow mein were popular dishes throughout the first half of the 20th century.  Silent film star Buster Keaton even had his own recipe for chicken chow mein.  In literature, chow mein was first mentioned in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, but only the main character, Carol Kennicott from Minneapolis, is sophisticated enough to appreciate it; certainly the residents of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota are not.  In the Disney film, Lady and the Tramp, Jim Dear must brave a blizzard in the middle of the night to get his pregnant wife, Darling, the chop suey she's craving.  Fortunately for Jim Dear, Chinese restaurants were famous for staying open quite late.

Once beloved by all, chop suey and chow mein have fallen out of favor.  In the 1960s and 1970s Hunan, Szechuan, and Mandarin restaurants opened and began offering spicier fare to the now more adventurous American palate.   Though probably no more authentic, General Tso's chicken, moo shu pork, beef and broccoli, and kung pao shrimp have supplanted chop suey in Chinese American cuisine.  Even Gilberts Chop Suey has added these newer Chinese dishes to its menu to accommodate the changing American taste in Chinese food.  Many people have never even eaten good chop suey.  Andrew Coe writes in Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States,"from the distance of a over a century, it's hard to understand the reasons behind chop suey's  phenomenal popularity.  To current tastes, the dish is a brownish, overcooked stew, strangely flavorless, with no redeeming qualities."

I live in Ohio now and have sampled chop suey in several restaurants, and it has all been vile, wretched stuff.  But chop suey can be a delicious dish, and, anyone who's ever eaten good chop suey, understands why it was so popular.   The difference between good chop suey and the vile stuff is the difference between home cooked southern fried chicken and chicken McNuggets.  I think this has always been the case.  Even in its heyday, chop suey could be a wretched, mushy stew, or it could be "wonderful, awe-inspiring, and yet toothsome," as the writer Theodore Dreiser once described it.

Every trip back to Chicago for me includes a stop at Gilberts, the only good extant chop suey that I know of.  I start with one of Gilberts' giant crispy egg rolls stuffed with cabbage, pork, and shrimp.  Next course is succulent won ton soup.  Finally, some sizzling barbecue pork-fried rice and the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance:  fine cut chicken chow mein with crisp green vegetables and tender morsels of white meat chicken in a delicate sauce served with crunchy deep-fried noodles.  Delicious.  Turns out my favorite Chinese meal was also eaten by Jonas Salk.  According to Jennifer 8. Lee in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,Salk ate the exact same lunch (won ton soup, egg roll, rice, and chicken chow mein) at the Bamboo Garden near the University of Pittsburgh almost every day while he was working on the polio vaccine.  Great minds and all.


My daughter took this picture of Gilbert's chicken chow mein and egg roll on New Year's Eve.  Since I live too far away to get a regular fix at Gilberts, I've learned to make chicken chow mein, chock full of vegetables, at home.

Chicken Chow Mein (Four to Six Servings)

1 pound chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 Tbsp. peanut oil
2-4 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 cup chicken broth
4 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 celery stalks, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups bok choy, diced the same size as the celery--get plenty of the green leaves along with the stalks
8 oz mushrooms, sliced--use the caps and discard the stems
8 oz mung bean sprouts
crispy rice noodles--the thinnest you can find.  I use China Boy, the La Choy being too thick.

In a small bowl, whisk together the chicken broth and cornstarch.  Set aside.  Heat 2 Tbsp. peanut oil in a wok or large skillet.  Add the chicken pieces and cook until no longer pink.  Remove to a bowl (not the one that contains the chicken broth mixture) and set aside.

To the wok add 2 Tbsp. peanut oil.  Add the celery, onions, and bok choy and cook for three minutes.  Add the mushrooms and bean sprouts.  Cook five minutes.   Add the chicken and 2-4 Tbsp. soy sauce.  Cover and cook five minutes.  Stir in the chicken broth and cornstarch mixture, and cook until thickened.  Serve on a bed of crispy rice noodles.

Notes:  The vegetables should be crisp, not limp, but cooked through.  You may want to test the bite of the celery before adding the chicken and adjust the remaining cooking time accordingly.  Also, if you like them, you can substitute water chestnuts or bamboo shoots for some of the other vegetables.  One more thing:  If you need to jazz this up a bit, you can always use the tried-and-true-Chinese method, MSG (Accent).  Just add 1/2 tsp. with the soy sauce.