Random Thoughts of a Disordered Mind

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52 Ancestors #4 – Favorite Family Recipe

I can’t remember when I first had this or who made it. The recipe was my godmother’s and long ago became our traditional food for family gatherings, either for a holiday, a funeral, or just a visit. I’ve made it so many times I don’t even need to use the recipe card, though I treasure it in my mother’s handwriting. Much to my shock, I recently learned that my godmother’s daughter has never even made this cake! How can this be possible when it’s so essential to my own family??

Peg Myers Jewish Coffee Cake Recipe

I’m not sure why this is Jewish Coffee Cake and not just Sour Cream Coffee Cake or some other title. A quick Google search for “Jewish Coffee Cake” yielded recipes and descriptions that sound very much like mine, so maybe this was a common recipe, and maybe it originated in the Jewish community. I did find an interesting article about the history of sour cream coffeecake, but am still not sure of the Jewish connection.

Even though I used my mom’s recipe, we made it differently and our cakes tasted different, too. Mom used 8 oz. of sour cream and I generously filled a measuring cup instead, making mine moister. I also have a passion for cranberry so make mine with dried cranberries instead of raisins – and also pecans from our yard instead of walnuts.

We grew up eating this cake for Christmas breakfast and on other holidays. It was what we ate coming home from college, when we flew in for Thanksgiving, when my nephew came for a visit. It’s tradition that we’ve shared for over fifty years. Knowing that the next generation sought out the recipe and also makes it for these special occasions makes me really happy and connects us all to my mom and to my godmother, who gave it to us.


Beginning to Look Like Christmas

Christmas Music JukeboxMaybe it was the fruitcake baking that got me into the Christmas spirit.  No, actually it was Pandora Radio‘s holiday genre stations — folk holiday, jazz holiday, rock holiday, etc.  If you haven’t joined the Pandora band wagon, do it today – lots of music you never heard of but love when you hear.  About two weeks ago I started to hum and then burst into little bits of Christmas carols while  at the computer, then in the car, then puttering around the house.   Out shopping, I find my eyes meeting those of other shoppers as we sing along with the piped in music, and we smile.

Since I’m traveling for Christmas this year, I decided not to put a tree up.  There’s sadness in that, because I love my ornaments and the stories they tell me about people and places from years past.  But it just doesn’t make sense to put up a tree for 2 weeks only to go away for a week – and I don’t want to leave it up when I’m gone to be a temptation for the kitty to cause havoc.

But I do have other Christmas things and today I dragged them out of my green and red plastic storage bins (color coded so I remember that’s where the Christmas stuff lives off-season).  I didn’t go crazy, those days are past.  But I have my large gourd-Santa that came from the Arts Festival in Park City, UT years ago.  My Spanish nativity scene bought in my college days, with the fuzzy sheep that are losing legs, shepherds with broken arms, and kind of nicked kings.  At 34 years old, they are a beloved part of my holiday.

Then there is a small gate with fake snow and greenery that’s a prop between some of my Byer’s Choice carolers.  I have four – 2 parents and 2 kids, representing my family of origin – but only put up the kids this year.   A red sleigh stands ready to hold Christmas cards, with a ceramic snowman sitting next to it, a gift from a Boston colleague years ago.  On the dining table are a red placemat with a glass bowl holding red and silver ornaments.  My door is decorated with a quilted stocking featuring a Santa face – just in case visitors don’t know what season we’re in.

The only Christmasy thing in the kitchen is a stained glass Christmas tree with presents underneath, standing on the window sill to catch the light that mostly I won’t see because I’m at work during the day.  But still, it’s tradition.  So is sending out cards, even though the number I’m sending now is very pared down.  I’ve weeded out some people from my distant past this year but there are still people I only really communicate with at Christmas – tho by including blog, Flickr and FaceBook information, the chances are good that even that small number will decrease by next year.

One thing I’m not doing is really shopping for presents and that feels just fine.  I’m not really finding anyone getting into presents as much this year, but then, most of us either are single or have older children.  There’s a peace in not getting frantic about it.

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Moving Into Christmas

Star and Tree LightsStores opened at ungodly hours today for “Black Friday” shopping but I wasn’t in any of the lines. My Christmas list is small and I’m not organized enough to really know what I want to give, other than knowing that no one is getting a flat screen TV from me. I do know that my plan is to limit my spending so electronics aren’t gonna happen.

The best presents are really those things that you know the other person will love because you know them well and have heard those little “I wish I had …” comments uttered at random, not when asked what they want. That’s a deadly thing to ask, really, since most minds go blank, mine included. But it’s hard to know what to get people who live far away when you don’t overhear those things in the course of your regular life.

So instead of shopping, I took the car to the dealer to deal with the dreaded “Service Engine Soon” light, picked up some groceries, then came home and dragged out all the boxes of Christmas things. Yes, I know it’s a whole month away, but I really love my tree and wanted to see how well things would work in the new house. Some of it ended up staying in the boxes because I just don’t have the right space or interest this year.

Of course, I also have a cat now. So far she hasn’t climbed the tree or shown any interest in doing so but she’s been batting around her little rattle ball around the base of the tree, hitting the lowest of the ornaments. They’re not breakable but there’s no point in tempting fate; I’m moving them before I go to bed.

Unpacking Christmas always opens the door to memories of people and places, especially ornaments collected from travels or that mark specific occasions or were gifts. Unwrapping each one in turn takes me down memory lane and brings a smile. No two are alike: there are handpainted santas and angels, wooden shapes made of olive wood from the Holy Land, a plastic Heidi doll from Switzerland, my grandmother’s stuffed heart pincushion, a little squirrel with a plumy tail, mirrored balls from Harrod’s, cross-stitched designs in frames, little pigs and cats galore.

My other cherished Christmas decorations are a 56-year old stuffed Santa made by my grandmother for my parents’ first holiday together and a Nativity scene brought from my college days in Spain over 30 years ago. The little shepherds have lost a few arms and the sheep don’t stand up well anymore, but I love remembering how I came to bring it home.

I love them all. But they are just things. If anything happens – if, God forbid, Tessie knocks them over and they all break – I’ll be sad and miss them but the memories are still there and new traditions will take their places. Now that they’re out, maybe I’ll be inspired to find the right presents for those on my list.


Traditional Thanksgiving Food

Inflatable TurkeyI have a weakness for mincemeat, especially enhanced with brandy or rum. Yesterday I bought a jar – even though I knew it was a bad idea – and managed to eat almost the whole thing before finally tossing the last bits. I felt stuffed and slightly nauseous and don’t think I’m going to succumb to the temptation again any time soon. Once a season is usually enough. Though if someone were to offer me some really good fruitcake, I could do some damage. I love fruitcake. But I’m not going to buy any for myself. I’m not that crazy.

It’s interesting how certain foods are traditional in some families and not others, and how traditions develop. My mom grew up having turnips on her Thanksgiving table, despised them, and vowed they would never appear in her kitchen. So I never had them and didn’t miss them because she told me they were awful. My family has turkey, of course, with a simple bread stuffing that’s cooked inside the turkey, not in a separate pan. We also have cornbread dressing, brought to us by my sister in law who grew up having that instead. Now we have both.

I think we maybe used to have mashed potatoes, though certainly not in recent memory. But sweet potato casserole with oranges and those little marshmallows on top are a staple and devoured completely. Some kind of green vegetable – used to be that ubiquitous green bean casserole with little onions on top, but now I think maybe just plain beans. And the newest addition is sweet and sour red cabbage, brought to our table by a neighbor who brought a piece of their tradition when they began celebrating the day with us. It’s colorful and a nice change of color and texture.

The desserts are the usual pies but I’m not really a pie fan. I’d rather have cake if I’m going to do a dessert, especially chocolate cake. But cake somehow isn’t a traditional Thanksgiving thing. Do you think the Pilgrims actually made pecan pies in shiny pie tins and had them for dessert at that first supper? Highly unlikely. Apple or pumpkin are possible but I don’t really like either of those either. I’m weird.

Going to someone else’s holiday meal is fun but disconcerting because their traditions – and traditional foods – are different, and Thanksgiving is about tradition and family. And football, of course, though I did spend one year with friends watching a dog show and playing cards instead and actually liked it more. And had Chinese food one year with other friends, which was different.

I’m nervous about handling myself this year. I’ve been invited out but really would rather by myself at home where I can control the food and entertain myself with weird TV and a jigsaw puzzle. I’m alone but not lonely and this year I have my cat who might even get a can of kitty turkey dinner as a treat. Alone I would have roast chicken, a sweet potato, and steamed vegetables with a baked apple for dessert. No temptation of wine or rolls or “nibbly bits” as Rachel Ray calls them. And the desserts. Even though I’m not a pie person, I’m likely to eat them if they’re there.

Today the food was under control. No exercise but I did get out of the house for a while, paid bills, and tidied up a bit. And read a book and played with the cat. Weekends are for recharging and once I got over my little misadventure with the mincemeat, I enjoyed it a lot more.

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Forging New Traditions

Manasquan BeachWhen I was growing up, summer was clearly defined. It started with Memorial Day and the opening of my grandfather’s beach house and ended with Labor Day, always at the beach with family and cookouts. The clans gathered en masse with adults and kids separating out to do our own things and only coming together for meals.

I still think, come Memorial Day and Labor Day, that I am supposed to be at the shore with my family even though we moved away when I was 16. We usually have a conversation about it, reinforcing memories and tradition, even as we live different lives now.

This year I spent part of Labor Day weekend, not at the shore with family but in New York City with our Frances, taking the train down for the day yesterday. It was my first trip on the Metro North train which is oh so convenient and cheap ($28 for a round trip off-peak hour ticket). By the time we left CT and headed into the city, the train was full of baseball fans off to the Yankees game and extremely loud folks going to the Brazilian Festival. I was grateful to not have to lug a suitcase and to just be going to play.

Frances met me at Grand Central Terminal which is amazing if you’ve never been there. Not many places to sit but beautifully restored and truly a grand space. We had a perfect day to be out exploring and spent our time in Chinatown and Little Italy, armed with cameras and no real agenda.

Street vendors were out everywhere with booths of jewelry, art, tchotchkes, plastic life essentials, and food. In Chinatown that included dried fish which smelled really awful; the fruit was much more appealing. There was a joyous man armed with bubble guns, shooting streams of big soap bubbles and pumping the air with delight. He made us smile and buoyed our spirits.

Most of our shopping time was spent at Pearl River, one of Frances’ favorite stores and now one of mine. They have EVERYTHING, not just stuff for tourists, from beautiful silk garments to exotic spices to paper lanterns and bamboo. Downstairs is where I had the best time poking around looking at pigs and Buddhas and that happy cat with the raised paw that was everywhere, almost like a little army.

We puzzled at the fan display, trying to figure out why some were so much larger than the others. An elderly Chinese lady who spoke little to no English showed us that they were dancing fans and the fluttery extensions rippled gracefully as she moved the fan in dance moves. She was very sweet and shy and charmed us completely.

Buddha Buddha BanksI fell in love with some plastic Buddha Buddha banks – big heavy ones and little bitty tiny miniatures – and bought one of each of the miniatures because, well, they were cute. I had my eye on all things pig and in this Year of the Pig, there was a lot to see and photograph.

We had Thai food for lunch (I adore Pad Thai and have it whenever possible) with a chance to sit down and rest our feet, then treated ourselves to an amazing 46 minute Chinese back rub (aka massage). I have no idea why it was 46 instead of 45 min. but I wanted more more more. Today I’m paying for it a bit with sore muscles where she went very deep but I could feel the knots breaking up so I’m not at all sorry.

Back on our feet and out on the streets, we were spotted by a Chinese man who invited us to a back room with knock off purses. Apparently the better quality fakes are behind these closed doors, not out on the street, so being asked in was a big deal. I just know that I bought two bags I didn’t even know I needed – the leather felt great and who cares if they’re not real Prada?

Our last real stop was at an All Things Italian store with lots of saints statues in the window and inside. Not being a good Catholic girl, I didn’t know who most of them were but I still appreciated the tackiness of the collective display. I’d rather have a plastic Buddha, though.

Then it was back to Grand Central and my train home, down and back in an easy day. I love that I’m close enough to do this often so I can see slices of the city in small installments. Future trips need to include massages and visits to Chinatown, though, which I think can be arranged.