I want to enjoy the Christmas season, I truly do. The problem is in the stress of buying gifts, wrapping gifts, decorating the house, fulfilling obligations like helping my daughter to participate in the "All Kids Craft Fair" by practically making all her crafts while she is at school, dance, basketball, etc., attending various "fun" events and battling the worst cold I have had since the turn of the century. The anxiety over attempting to fit all this in within a few weeks because I neglected, yet again, to begin the shopping process early in November, is a product of my own making. One would think that I would buy myself some time by eliminating the holiday baking: excessive amounts of all different types of cookies all hand make by me and lovingly packaged for only the most deserving friends and relatives. No, actually this insanity is what keeps me from jumping off a cliff into the abyss of holiday madness.
Except for one thing...my children want to help me.
If you only watch one minute of t.v during the month of December, you are guaranteed to see an ad featuring a loving mother helping her cute elementary school age children create Christmas cookies and various other holiday treats all while an emotionally charged yet mellow pop song plays in the background. These advertisements serve up a walloping portion of guilt especially during this time of year when all I want to do is banish my own kids to the playroom in the basement so that I can enjoy some peace and quiet by myself in the solace of my own kitchen. Just call me, "Mother of the Year".
I kept them at bay as long as I could. Claiming that I had to mix the dough myself so that I could "focus" on the ingredients. But those kids know what just about every holiday in my kitchen means...cookie cutters.
"I want to do the Santa carrying the bag one!" Ava yelled over Declan's request to use his new "Ninjabread Men" cookie cutters, courtesy of my sister-in-law out in California. (She'll get hers when Maggie and Nate are old enough to insist on helping out in the kitchen about 2 years from now!) Just what I wanted to give to my friends and neighbors, Christmas Ninja Dude Cookies performing various martial arts moves. How festive.
My guilt gets the best of me and I succumb to the constant requests. There are only so many times I can endure the question, "Mo-om! When do we get to help?!"
"O.K. You can both help but one at a time. Whenever you work together, you fight and I can't handle that today. I will call you when it's your turn."
"I want to go first!"
"He always gets to go first, I never do!" and so on, etc., etc.
"Enough! I said I would call you and you won't complain about who goes first!!!!"
Let's just say, that I managed to survive, but just barely.
This post is terribly irreverent. You can turn back now. Just know that you have been warned, that's all I'm saying.
It all started when I was sitting in church on Sunday, this time actually listening to the sermon. At least I tried to focus and listen to all of it, instead of daydreaming. It was about Moses. Moses and the burning bush, only it wasn't really burning, Moses freeing his people, Moses and the Land of Milk and Honey. Milk and honey. Milk and agave. Milk and agave and unsweetened cocoa, a revelation. Hint: here's where the daydreaming began.
Chocolate syrup has been a bit of an issue for me. Any of the premade stuff is full of corn syrup and even food coloring, if you can believe that one. At one point, I subjected myself to making homemade chocolate syrup for my children as not to deprive them of what I consider one of the great pleasures in life: icy cold, chocolate milk. But they consumed the chocolate syrup so voraciously, that it was all I could do to keep up. They not only wanted it in their milk, they insisted on dribbling it on pancakes and waffles, using it to smother scoops of chocolate chip ice cream, and then my husband constantly helped himself to as much as he wanted, likely squeezing it straight into his mouth whenever I wasn't looking. At this point, we were going through at least 3 squeeze bottles full a week. Pure insanity.
I stopped making this delightful syrup maybe a year ago. But that hasn't stopped me from craving a delicious, cold chocolaty beverage from time to time. And it doesn't help that every work out magazine lately has been extolling the virtues of drinking low fat chocolate milk after a workout to "rebuild" your muscles. So, after the gym one morning, as my kids ate their Cheerios, I stood with my back to them and secretly experimented with the only things I had in the cabinet: Hershey's Unsweetened Cocoa and vanilla scented agave syrup from the health food store. By mixing 1 teaspoon cocoa with 1 1/2 teaspoons agave syrup into a paste and then adding a cup and 1/2 of low fat milk, I had come up with a heavenly concoction.
I know that keeping this recipe all to myself, not sharing it with my people may be perceived as selfish, maybe even sinful. But I believe that they are better off without this temptation and I am a better person for taking responsibility and shouldering this burden, alone.
The Norris clan annual vacation week at Swifts Beach in Wareham, MA is a slow torture for me. Although I enjoy visiting with the many cousins, aunts and uncles we only get to see but once a year, there is so much more to contend with.
Excessive drinking in the hot August sun on the beach, children swimming over their heads with little adult supervision, and dirty rental houses that are one step below camping is not my idea of fun. I find myself monitoring the toddlers allowed to wander freely near the ocean's edge and the little ones out in the surf while the parents imbibe, their backs to the ocean, laughing and carousing, not a care or concern about the offspring bobbing in the waves. After the beach fun, we are offered the use of an outdoor shower and a warm can of Bud Light as the kids, run barefoot from rental to rental, screaming and sucking on lollipops given by an overindulgent aunt. I try to calm my nerves and hope that no one falls and chokes until we corral our own and call it a night. My two cherubs cry, "Why do WE have to leave? Why can't WE stay over?" As we load them into the car, I cannot wait to escape to my clean, air conditioned home and relax knowing my kids are asleep in their freshly washed sheets, safe from harm. The problem is, that my husband has enjoyed this vacation since he was a child and my own children can't get enough of it.
Instead of renting a room within my mother in law's place (sharing only 2 bathrooms with 3 families: adults, toddlers, teenagers and everyone in between is awfully close for comfort) we decided to take day trips as Wareham is only a short 30 minute car ride away. I thought I might escape some of the drama and dirt that way. Unfortunately for me, I still had to endure some hardships.
After the beach on the first day, I needed to rinse the salt and sunscreen from our bodies before dinner. A quick outdoor shower was all that was required. Simple enough and welcome in the sticky, still heat at the cottage a few blocks away from the breeze at the edge of the ocean. I should have stayed covered with beach sand and salt.
I opened the door to the dank, dark roofed shower. I knew there would be mold since the sun could not possibly dry out the smelly interior. I reached in and hung up my beach towel, stiff with salt. There was a lot of undrained water from past showers, murky with shampoo residue and a red Solo cup floating in it from last night's party. At least there was a wooden platform so that my feet could remain clear of the sewage. O.k. there was some shower gel I could use, instead of the slimy bar soap left up on the shelf. "I can do this", I thought to myself, "at least I don't have to endure the windowless indoor bathroom with its perpetual poop smell." I held my breath and stepped in.
WHOOSH! The floor moved! I was suddenly surfing through the filthy, soapy water! WTF! Seriously, I expected a rat to swim by. Somehow I found it in me to remain balanced on the floating barge as not to fall in. I reached up to grab the filthy walls for balance, not knowing if I would ever get close to clean again after this horrific experience. How can people who are renting a house for a vacation week put up with this? Do these city people actually think this adds to the "Cape Cod Experience"? (Actually, Wareham isn't technically Cape Cod, but don't tell the Norris family, that.) And I thought the candy cigarettes that Rob's sister bought for the kids last year was bad! This shower surfing through waste water definitely tops the list.
I quickly rinsed off. (I was already in there, and was too afraid to "try out" another mildew and mouse dropping infested shower at this point.) I emerged from shower hell to my husband laughing at me. I shot him my "Don't you dare F with me" look. It was only Monday, we still had four more days to go and I was already plotting my own personal scheduling conflicts so that I would only have to endure minimal time in these less than savory conditions. My husband and children can stay here without me and enjoy the charm in roughing it but I know better. From now on after a day at Swifts beach, I'm taking a sponge bath.
It seems that now everyone not only knows about compost, they are all doing it, too. In homes, schools, restaurants they are dumping decomposable leftovers into buckets and turning them into nutrients for the earth. But I'm not sure anyone would call it an art form. The idea began when sister's friend, Mark B. came over our house to rehearse for the Falmouth High play they were both "starring" in. Mark was a jokester and made me, the younger sister laugh. More importantly, he let me in on the joke, which I thought was a pretty big deal at the time- still do. I remember him coming home with Karyn after school, into our kitchen through the back door, both of them starving and looking for something to eat before they went upstairs to practice their lines. Mark hungrily looked into the big silver mixing bowl that sat on the corner of the counter top. He may have even taken a big whiff before he realized...What was it, trash? He looked quizzically at me and Karyn. "It's compost!" I shrieked and fell into a fit of giggles as only a 13 year old girl can do. "Compost?" Mark said. Back in the early 1980's, it wasn't very popular to throw your scraps in a bucket to make mulch instead of throwing them along with everything else into the landfill. What a weird thing to do! Val came in and calmly explained why banana peels, egg shells, and used tea bags were taking up space on our kitchen counter. I'm sure she explained the benefits of the seemingly insane process while we kids made fun. As always,she offered everyone a delicious homemade snack then ferried me away so that my older sister could have some privacy with her friend. Mark declared the pile of discarded food scraps, "Modern Art" and insisted on inspecting the contents of our compost bowl every time he entered the house. It became our running joke. That somehow what was trash could actually end up in a high end gallery where someone might pay large sums of money to own this work was very funny to us. We thought this idea to be very "punk rock". After all, it was the era of Blondie, the Clash and the Sex Pistols, all anti establishment heroes. Who knows where Johnny Rotten really got his name? On Sunday mornings, when my father comes over for breakfast, he takes my overflowing hot pink compost pail and dumps the coffee grounds, and vegetable ends into our larger receptacle outside. As he wipes out the pail and lines it with newspaper (his own technique) to be filled again, he asks, "What did Karyn's friend, Mark call the compost?" I always laugh when I'm reminded and say, "Oh yeah, He called it Modern Art!"
My adorable,sleeping 5 year old son drooled all over the clean sheets on my bed. Not only did he wake me up with a loud thump and screaming wail, when he managed to fall out of bed at 1:30am, he pleaded to come into my bed and since my nerves were so rattled, I agreed. This little peanut then proceeded to hog my half and then his father added some loud snoring to ensure that I would not get back to any sort of restful sleep. I was driven to the couch downstairs. I knew that turning on the TV would mean I would be up for at least 2 more hours before I would finally drop of to 15 minutes of blissful sleep before my alarm went off. When I need to use the TV as a sleeping aid, it's important to select the right show. One that will not quite hold my attention so that I can actually drift off. The subject matter must be light but, again, in no way engaging- not too funny where I find myself listening to the jokes and absolutely no competition shows that will suck me in since I have a need to know who finally wins. Certainly nothing disturbing or jarring to add to my building middle-of-the-night anxiety. (You would be surprised at what kinds of freaky programing is on in the wee hours.) I continued to flip through the channels, squinting my dry eyes to read the digital information at the bottom of the screen. I finally settled on something mindless and burrowed down into the couch pillows when I realized that I was into it, I was actually watching... Why did I care what Paris Hilton was doing? AARGH! My fail safe, Food Network does no good either. "Cup Cake Wars" is not only a competition, it's arguably the worst show in their line up which causes me to be annoyed rather than helping me to get any shut eye. So I continued to flip, flip, flip, there are a million channels but I had trouble finding a suitable sleep aid. Finally! "St. Elmo's Fire", a truly horrible, classic movie from the 1980's featuring the "Brat Pack" that I probably saw in the theatre when it first came out. (Don't judge, I saw you there.) I've never been so thankful to see something I have probably watched a portion of a zillion times before but have never enjoyed so much to be immersed in the subject matter. Perfect. As I felt my body begin to relax and I snuggled up under the blanket, there it went, my stomach growled. Seriously? Now I have to take care of this issue? Before I flung off the blanket and got up to check the fridge, I mentally went through the inventory. What will work to take the edge off and still get me back to sleep? Liquor? Probably a bad idea. Tea? Takes too long to make, then I have to let it cool before I take a sip so I don't scorch the roof of my mouth (which I pretty much always do). Hot milk? I have no idea why this works for some people, it just leaves an icky taste in my mouth so I have to go and brush my teeth before I can settle in again and then there's that scorching problem. All right, I finally got it. Chocolate Milk. But not just any chocolate syrup will do. It must be rich and dark. Nothing imitation. (Yes, I am still a food snob in the middle of the night.) Thankfully, I made up some chocolate syrup for the kids yesterday afternoon. Yes! There was still some left; those kids would eat it by the spoonful, if I let them. I quickly mixed the sleep elixir and settled into the scene where Demi Moore's character, "Jules" hits rock bottom in her tacky, trendy totally 80's apartment complete with a monster sized likeness of Billy Idol on a hot pink wall. Declan is no worse for the wear and has survived last night's episode. However, he claims he hurt his back. As he sings a song about it while laying on his bed tossing his stuffed dog in the air, he yells out to me, "Mom, did you know I write my own songs?: "I hurt my back, back, back, yeah!"" I'm amazed by the energy level. I've been dragging my ass around all day even though I only lost about 2 hours of sleep. I guess I'll have to use what's left of the chocolate syrup to make a mocha coffee caffeinated pick-me-up to get me through until I can put on my pajamas and go to bed.
This chocolate syrup is really runny and works best when mixed with other liquids rather than as a dessert topping.
Chocolate Syrup 3/4 water 1/2 cup sugar 5 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa 1/3 cup strong brewed coffee
Place water and sugar in a medium sized sauce pan. Heat on medium high until sugar dissolves. Add cocoa and coffee. Whisk to combine. Bring mixture to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 3-5 minutes until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour into squeeze bottles and refrigerate until ready to use.
It's a sure sign of Spring when I hear the sound of the peepers in the early evening as darkness falls. Hearing them always reminds me of the time Val pulled our brown Nova 4 door to a halt with me and Jenny in the car one late April night back when I was in high school. Val cranked down her window and commanded us to do the same. We were parked next to a salt marsh somewhere in West Falmouth, I think it was near the post office. She yelled out, "Peepers!" to our horrified teenage ears. We had no idea why my totally "queer" mother was so excited about a bunch of loud noise filling the air. So, it became a joke year after year. You know the kind,when you are a teenager and you mimick your parents out of embarrassment for their lack of coolness? These past couple of weeks I have found myself putting the windows down and driving slower to hear the song of the peepers. Even my friend Sheila gets excited about the sound that heralds warmer days and longer nights. Last year, at the end of her annual Derby party, she ran out as we were getting into the car. She wanted to know if I had heard them, too. We hugged and enjoyed the springtime moment together. I never thought about how "queer" I must now seem, getting excited about of all things, "Peepers!"
I am the proud owner of a brand new compost bucket complete with a lid so I no longer have to use a salad plate to cover up the used coffee filter and eggshells. The new vessel looks like Oscar the Grouch's famous house only hot Pepto-Bismol pink. I love it. Val purchased it for me after I admired her new stainless steel compost can sitting on the wooden counter top in her kitchen. Although this bucket is not an official composting tool, it does the job nicely, much better and far more attractive than the margarita mix bucket I have been using for the past couple of years. I have been recycling my scraps for quite a while now and the compacted, rotting mess inside the black Darth Vader looking composter sitting in the corner of my yard needs to be put to good use. I know I need a lesson in aerating and turning it so the worms can do their work. The pile of fermented orange peels and tea bags has been neglected for far too long. The squirrels have figured out how to loosen the lid or maybe its because we don't properly tighten it. And Stella, the dog, has been known to chew on corn cobs peeking out of the hole in the top. After she ingests too much of the indigestible roughage, she comes in to throw up on the carpet as if to remind me of the project that so desperately needs attention. That should provide enough motivation to deal with the compost once the ground thaws out. But for now, I am happy to fill my hot pink pail with leftovers from soup making, and apple peeling. I can't wait to have some dinner guests over to see my new counter top fixture. Especially my brother-in-law. He always used to look in the old bucket to see what was in there. Now, when he lifts the lid, hoping to find cookies or some delightful confection inside, he will instead encounter the cast offs of my labor.
I grew up in a house of food snobbery, although I didn't know it at the time and it wasn't at all intentional on my mother's part. What is considered today a"foodie" diet-and part of the slow food movement-was a way of life, and in fact, survival for us back in the 70's and 80's at 540 Old meeting House Road in Hatchville, part of East Falmouth, MA.
My mother, Val, still has her organic garden full of fresh fruits and vegetables and, although she doesn't grow as many varieties as in earlier years, she has an abundant crop. Creativity, combined with a knack for learning the "old way" of doing things was the inspiration behind her cooking. Baking was an imperative to save money. Back in elementary school, I was jealous of the kids who ate bologna on Wonder Bread while I was "stuck" with homemade jam and peanut butter on freshly-made-that-morning bread. Val was always trying new dishes to serve at dinner using what she had on hand.
Pretty much everything I have learned about cooking and life and continue to learn is from my mother, Val.