Friday, January 27, 2012

4. Feasting, Ukraine Style (Travel food essay)

In Septemberr 2007 we were in Russia and had this intriguing experience

Everyone on the bus was excited.  We had been dragging our feet and butts around half the restored Russian Orthodox churches in Moscow all morning.  Now we were promised a wonderful group lunch.  It would be at a Ukrainian restaurant and the Program Director kept reassuring us that Ukrainians love to eat, and that we would eat very well when we finally got to Kiev tomorrow.  But today this lunch would be a preview of the delicious food to come.
          We wearily straggled off the bus, dodging cars on the crowded Moscow street in front of Zarushka’s, the promised food heaven.  But we perked up as we saw the building housing the restaurant.   It looked like a darling cottage in the woods.  It seemed to be made of brown logs, and the dark green shutters on the second floor had heart cut-outs.  There was a huge wooden statue of an upright bear next to the entrance.  Everything looked charming. The smiling, blond hostess, wearing a brightly embroidered costume, stood in the doorway.  She welcomed us in and up the rustic cedar stairs to a loft with ancient cooking utensils and colorful woven rugs hung on the walls.   The tables were set with pretty red and white embroidered table cloths and thick pottery style dishware.  We all sighed with pleasure anticipating the mouthwatering dishes to come.
          We ordered beer, we had been told not to drink tap water in Moscow.  When it came everyone merrily toasted each other.  Za Vast!   Then the waitresses scurried around setting down our first course.
          A brown earthenware bowl filled with raw shredded cabbage.  I stirred it around to see if there was anything else in the bowl, or any dressing on the cabbage.  Nothing.   Hmmm.  Well I happen to like raw cabbage but this seemed a little, well, primitive? 
         We continued drinking our beer as the first course was whisked away and the soup course was set in front of us.  Another earthenware bowl filled this time with a clear beef broth.  It had a good flavor not much spoiled by the two tiny pieces of beef and 2 carrot slices that floated on top.  OK, we don’t want too filling of a soup course, because we still have an entrée and a dessert to go.
         They did keep encouraging us to order more beer while we waited in hungry anticipation.  The entrée arrived in another, but larger, earthenware bowl.  We looked in amazement at its contents and were too shocked to do more than spoon it up.  Stew!  The entrée was stew.  It seemed to be the same beef broth only thickened with flour or semolina, and with a few more pieces of beef, carrot and the addition of potato and onion.  My God is this how they eat in the Ukraine?  The people must be skin and bones if they think this is good eating.  Perhaps they never recovered from World War II or the Russian occupation.
         But wait, all these Slavic countries have wonderful, rich pastries.   The kitchen was probably just preparing us for a cream filled calorie laden delight.  With hope in our hearts and stomachs, we patiently awaited our last course.  No bowl this time.  That seemed promising.  The dessert arrived on a plate.  Sweet, fruity aromas arose from...a baked apple with its top sliced off and replaced at a jaunty angle, with a little sugar on top—no sauce, no cream.  It was good, but sparse.
         What a meal and tomorrow we were heading to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where we   would spend 3 days enjoying the best food in this part of the world.  We shuddered in anticipation.

                                                                     The End

Monday, January 23, 2012

3. The Winds of Change (A Tale of Irony)

She always knew that someday she would have to move—everyone said so.  She was too old, too weak, too frail to continue taking care of this old, frame house.  Its paint was peeling, window sills cracked, chimney leaning.  In fact, the house looked like she felt some times.
            But she had been born in this prairie house, married in it, gave birth to 3 sons in it, watched her husband, Don, sicken and die in it, and God willing she would die in it, too.
Yes, she lived alone now.  No one wanted to come out here to the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from town and the grocery store.  Everyone thought she was foolish when she could live in comfort with one of her sons.   Or so they said. 
            Sometimes when she woke out of a sound sleep, she forgot that everyone was gone.  She thought she had to jump out of bed and run to the kitchen to start breakfast.  She didn’t want Don to start a hard day’s work without a full stomach and she didn’t want the boys to be late for the school bus.  But then she’d remember she had no one to cook for, no one to hurry for, and she’d sink back into bed, her heart rate slowly returning to normal.  And part of her would be relieved but part of her would be sad.
            Well, she’d tell herself that was what life was all about—some times you were happy and some times you were sad.  If you were lucky you had more things to be happy about.  Or at least you made up your mind you would be happy no matter what things you got in the life of chance.
            She didn’t want to be one of those old women who always complained about their health and how no one came to see them any more.  Actually she was in pretty good health for a woman of 88 years.  She supposed that’s why no one really pushed her when it came to the issue of moving.  And her boys and their wives were good about checking on her.  Even the grandkids, now that they could drive, stopped by to see her.  Of course, they all liked her chocolate chip cookies.  “Maybe I bribe them but at least I don’t whine,” she thought to herself.
            She heard the wind quicken and swirl around the house.  She peered out the dusty window at the setting sun.
            “Looks like there might be a breeze tonight.  I guess a little freshening wouldn’t hurt this old house and me any.”  She smiled as she climbed back into the bed that had once belonged to her parents.  These days she seemed to go to bed with the sun and rise with the sun.  Of course, that didn’t mean that she slept those long hours.  She happily opened her book.  Thank God, she still had her vision.  Heavens knew what she would a done if that had gone.  It was a new murder mystery that her oldest son’s wife, Martha, gave her.  Martha was a reader, too, and knew the joy of losing yourself in someone else’s life.  Not that her own life wasn’t interesting enough.
            “I guess that’s the problem.”  She thought other people couldn’t understand how she enjoyed watching the clouds shift across the sky, and how the breezes and occasional rain moved across the fields.  In town, in another house, she couldn’t live her own life and see the beauty she was used to.  She’d be living someone else’s life.  And although that might be fun to read about, she didn’t think it would be fun to do.      
            She would continue living her own life in her own house.  The only way she would leave this house, no matter what they said, was in a box, God Willing. 
            People asked her why she liked murder mysteries--weren’t they morbid.  But she didn’t think they were morbid.  In fact, most of them were funny.  The victim was usually hated by everyone in town, so you didn’t feel sorry he or she was dead.   Course then you did have to worry that the wrong person would be jailed and convicted.  But you just had to remember it was just a story and that justice triumphed in the end.  At least in the books she read.  She didn’t want any of those dark, dismal miscarriage of justice miseries.
            She noticed that the wind seemed to be picking up.  “Well, I better get to sleep now, so I can get up early to clean up any wind damage.”  She said her nightly prayers, asking for blessings on everyone she knew—which still took a long time.  And then she added, “ And please God, let me stay in this house forever.”  She slowly fell into a deep, comforting sleep.
            But it seemed that God was not willing.  Later that night was woken by a fierce, roaring windstorm that was sweeping across the prairie  She used to laugh and say nothing was between her house and the Rocky Mountains, a thousand miles away.   The winters could get mighty cold.
            She sat up in bed, wondering if she should go down to the storm cellar.  The windows were rattling, the house was shaking, the chimney making sounds like a groaning ghost.  She shook her head, “No, I ain’t running away from a storm.   This house and me have stood up to much worse than this.  I reckon I’m safer where I am.”
            As she said these words there was a great creaking and breaking sound as the roof was torn clear off the house, she watched branches blowing over the open ceiling and felt the fierce strength of the wind come down into her room.
“Oh, dear, everyone was right,” she cried.  “I am going to have to move.  My house is going.”
She scurried out of bed and under it.  Laying there in shock she felt safe.  Her parents’ bed had been build from sturdy oaks that had been on the farm a long time.  She felt it could withstand anything.  But just then a ceiling beam still hanging from the remains of the roof, was pulled away by the wind and dropped across the bed, crushing it and the old woman beneath it.
For the Winds of Change helped her keep her vow.   She would not be leaving her house except in a box.
                                       The End

Friday, January 20, 2012

2. A Penny from Heaven (Romance in the street)

Brad Pitt strode quickly across the windswept deck of his yacht, reaching out his arms to me and encircling me with his love.  My heart was pounding as I heard him murmur words of adoration and passion.  I nearly swooned with delight as he crushed me tighter and tighter against his manly chest.  But was it from delight or.. or…lack of oxygen.  The weight on my breast became too much to bear and Brad’s breath…his breath…was stinky, like fish, tuna fish to be exact.  I slowly opened my eyes and there was Sammy, my 20 pound Russian blue cat, pushing his velvet paws into my chest, wanting me to wake and play.  Agggh, another bleak, grey morning in San Francisco.  No Brad Pitt, no yacht, just me, Sylvia Berta, a 26 year old, out of work lawyer who also seemed to be out of luck. 
            I groaned and rolled over, forcing Sammy to jump off of me.  I reviewed my options:  1. snuggle back under the covers and sleep the day away  or 2.  stagger from the bed, plug in the coffee pot, and wait in a stupor for it to finish perking so I could start perking.. 
No. 2 it was.  Although out of work, I was still the responsible person raised in the responsible Midwest, and I knew I had to treat finding a job as a job.  No way could I ever be a free spirit sailing the ocean blue with a blue-eyed millionaire movie star. 
Even though I planned to start my job search via internet listings in the privacy of my own abode, I knew it was necessary to shower and dress respectably to boost my fallen morale.   So I downed the coffee straight and did what was necessary. 
After several virtuous hours of sending my resume over invisible electromagnetic waves to anyone who was interested, I thought it was time for a reward.  And that meant , what else, but book store browsing.
Sammy hardly squinted his eyes open as he heard me open the door to leave.  He probably was getting concerned that I hadn’t already left to bring home more tuna kibble.
Walking carefully over the broken sidewalk pavement in my neighborhood, I thought over what had brought me to the most wretched job in the world—job hunting.  It all happened because I have a soft heart.  I have—actually had—a great Aunt Tilly whom I had never met but we wrote great letters to each other.  She lived about 500 miles away, just a little too far for a quick visit.  Anyway, I got a letter from her care taker home saying that Tilly was really failing and she had expressed a desire to see me. 
As the first year ‘associate’ in a small law firm I didn’t have much clout for getting time off.  But I braced myself and I asked for leave to go visit my sick great aunt.  The tyrant in personnel just laughed and offered a choice, “Your job or your sick great aunt.”  I knew the law could be heartless but even I was shocked at this pronouncement.  I decided I didn’t want to work for a place with this kind of attitude.  So I handed in my resignation and went off to see Great Aunt Tilly.
I only saw her for about 15 minutes before I was shooed out of her room. Later that night the caretaker called to say Aunt Tilly had slipped away peacefully.  Well, I had done my duty and as they say ‘no good deed ever goes unpunished,’   I was told she had given me her beloved cat and companion, Sammy, to care for the rest of his natural life.  The key word here is natural life.  He was not to be helped into a life after death for cats.   I also had a small bequest of $1,000 to help pay for his food and vet bills.  Wow, that cat would be living on caviar at that rate. 
Anyway, that was why I was punching the keys on my home laptop instead of in a law office  and why I was now rewarding myself during a ‘work’ day by strolling down bustling Sacramento Avenue towards our local, independent bookstore.. 
As I started to cross the street I noticed a tiny, shiny, copper object in the crosswalk.  It looked like a bright new penny.  Hey, I’ve heard that this is the way the newly deceased communicate their care and concern for you.  Of course no one explains how these spirits get their hands on these pennies from Heaven to leave out for you when they have no pockets and possibly no hands.  Anyway I bent over to check if it was a 2007 and thus possibly a greeting from great aunt Tilly.  As I was bent over, a car came careening around the corner and knocked me over.
What a commotion.  People came running from every where.  The driver of the car got out white and shaking.  I wasn’t really hurt, just shocked and also a little angry—not at the driver but at Tilly.  “First you make me lose my job, not you want my life!  Thanks for nothing, Tilly.”  I complained in my mind. I laid there, embarrassed and whining.
I looked up at the driver who was also whining, “ I’m so, so sorry.  I’ve called 911.  An ambulance will be here soon.”  As my eyes came back into focus, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Could there be two Brad Pitts?  Was I unconscious and having another dream?
“Damn, damn, this screws up my schedule,”  my handsome assailant muttered.
“Well, this may be screwing up my whole life, “ I retorted back.
“No, no sorry, I just mean I’m on my way to court to request another continuance and now the judge is going to throw my client’s case out because I won’t be there.
“A very busy lawyer,“  I said thinking fast.  “Do you need any help?” 
“Who wouldn’t--my partner just ran off with my fiancée.  So not only do I have a broken heart but he left me with all the work.”
“Well, I have a proposition for you.  I’m a lawyer, too, and I won’t sue if you hire me.”
Brad’s eyes, or the beautiful blue eyes of someone who looked as good as Brad did, widened in surprise.  “Well, I guess we could discuss it over coffee.  Are you sure you don’t need to go to the hospital?”  Was he really a considerate person or just a lawyer protecting his you know what.  Which looked pretty good from where I lay looking up at him.
I smiled.  “I need a job more than I need a hospital trip.” As he helped me up I added,  “But I will need your driver’s license, phone number, and insurance information, just in case.  Also, hand me that penny on the road.  It might turn out to be a Penny from Heaven after all.” 
                                        The End

Monday, January 16, 2012

1. Touche` Toupee--A Hot Story (Humor and Revenge)

I thought I would start my blog today, Monday, January 16, 2012 with a very short story that is included in my just finished humorous murder mystery, "Eula May and the Flim Flam Nun."  Enjoy. 

1.  Touche` Toupee
The drums were beating and the trumpets tooting as our Star, Henry the Hungry Hungarian, began his prancing dance down the theatre aisle to the kitchen on stage.  The audience for our hit food show was screaming its approval as he waved his wire whisk in time to the music.  As always, he began the show by picking the prettiest girl in the audience to come up and be his assistant.  Well, actually I’m his assistant but since I’m a functional ‘ugly Betty’ type, the producers felt the audience needed some eye candy to dress up the stage.  I was supposed to stay in the background as much as possible, but still be sure the food was prepared correctly and in time for the fast-pace of the show.
          However, just before the so-called curtain went up, Henry had given me the bad news.  He didn’t need me anymore.  He said he knew enough about cooking now to go it alone, with only the beautiful audience assistants at his side.  I thought to myself, that stinking bastard.  I’ve given him the best years of my life.  I turned down my own cooking show just to make him look good.  I thought we were a team.  At least that’s what he always said to me when he was sweet talking me into bed.  And Lord knows I did what I could to prop up his ego, even telling him that his dorky toupee made him look like a stud.  Actually, I thought he’d be more honest and look more like a real stud if he just shaved his head like other men did.
          I was so mad steam was practically coming out of my ears as well as off the water bath that the crème brulees had baked in.  But I was a pro and I didn’t want to look bad in case another producer might catch my final performance.  I placed the just baked brulees where the camera could get a good look.  We were doing special desserts on the show and as usual I had several trays of crème brulees prepared to different points in the recipe.  There wasn’t time to actually go through the entire prep and baking and cooling of a food item.  As Henry joked with his pretty helper and the audience, I brought out from the refrigerator the earlier baked brulees now cooled and ready for the grand torching finale.  Henry allowed his audience aide to sprinkle their tops with fine sugar.
          “No need to worry dear people.”  Henry simpered at his audience.  “This very elegant dessert which will delight and amaze your guests is also very simple to finish.  Producing a crispy, delicious crust is so easy that even my assistant can do it.”  He handed me the miniature flame thrower and flipped his hand over the desserts.  As he bent over them to watch my procedure, I clicked the torch’s button, the flame shot out, and the audience screamed.  I had ‘accidentally’ torched Henry’s magnificent mane.  When he realized that his head was on fire, he frantically pulled at his hair until he dislodged the fiery toupee and was able to throw it flaming to the floor. 
          The stage manager quickly doused the small bonfire with a handy fire extinguisher, and we finished the show with the audience’s sympathetic support.  Henry’s ego, as well as his fake hair, was in shreds.   I waved goodbye to the audience and smiled apologetically to Henry.  Revenge is sweet, especially when it’s served with crème brulee. 
                                                               The End