Monday, April 24, 2006


Saw the movie Capote last night ("saw" meaning in this case that we rented it from Netflix and watched it in our living room.) I don't know how accurate the movie is--Harper Lee wrote in to The New Yorker to say that William Shawn was never in Kansas with Truman and that Shawn didn't fly in airplanes. Someone else wrote in and said that the movie makers conflated Capote's book editor and Shawn for aesthetic purposes.

But as a portrait of how writers love and use the people around them, it is quite good. I don't know any Truman Capotes, and I'd like to think I'm not one, but all of us, at least in some small way, take advantage of the people around us.

We writers really are not trustworthy.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Phone Call From Iraq

I got a phone call this morning from Jason, who is in Iraq. Jason is my son's best friend. Jason had a less than idea upbringing and spent lots and lots of time here and when he basically constructed his own new family in his teens, we were a significant part of it. I have explained to him that as far as I'm concerned, he's not in Fallujah, Iraq, he's in Iowa. Iraq, Iowa, they both being with 'I'. I'm willing to believe there is a Fallujah, Iowa. There's a Paris, Texas. A Versailles, Indiana. A Cairo, Illinois.

It was great to hear from him. Last time he called (about a week ago) he had just been in his first firefight (which he did not tell me--Jason is very protective.) But this time he was just calling to give me his address. Since I sent him a package yesterday, the fact that he has a different address is a trifle distressing, but he promised me that stuff sent to the old address will find him.

It turns out that much of what he is doing is talking to Iraqi civilians in the countryside villages. He's meeting goatherders and really getting a chance to get a sense of the people and the place. This is not without danger--they were pinned down by machine guns that one time. A since then, a roadside bomb meant for them was accidently detonated by the person setting the bomb.

But I intend to blissfully picture him in his fatigues, talking to goatherders in Iowa, surrounded by cornfields, while the goatherder explains the economics of making organic chevre for the California market.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


"...a delivery system for icing."
Ina Garten, host of the Food Network show The Barefoot Contessa, on cupcakes.

I like cake. What I like best is classic birthday style cake. White, yellow or chocolate, moist, with a dense crumb. Decent frosting, not overpowering. Ice cream. This is, for me, about as good as it gets. One of my favorite cakes is made by Giant Eagle. Giant Eagle is a chain of grocery stores with a bakery. Their bread is indifferent. Their pies are not particularly good. But their cakes are better than any bakery I know. And I know because as I mentioned, I like cake.

I like the idea of cupcakes a lot, but in practice they disappoint. Because they are so small, when they bake they tend to dry out more than a nine inch layer or standard sheet cake. I am not particularly a frosting fan. Frosting, with the exception of a really fine buttercream or Swiss meringue, is usually more about looks than taste. So the result is often a dry little cake with an overpowering mound of overly sweet frosting whose main purpose seems to be to provide a kind of pastry mortor. Giant Eagle cupcakes, despite their usually quite good frosting, is no exception.

I'm not above a box cake. A decent box cake is actually not bad, particularly if you doctor it up a little. Add a box of pudding mix, for example, and some mixes become quite passable. But make cupcakes out of it, and we're back to dry little cakes with a mound of frosting. And if the frosting is out of one of those plastic cans, well, it's just sad.

But cupcakes are fashionable right now. Evidently, Sex & The City made cupcakes at The Magnolia Cafe a Thing. There are articles in the food magazines about cupcakes. There are articles in newspapers about where to find the best cupcakes (and The Magnolia Cafe doesn't fare all that well.)

I was trying to think of what to do for desert for Easter and it struck me that if they tasted good, coconut cupcakes would be just about perfect. If you've ever seen that Easter staple, a lamb cake, you'll instantly know why. A lamb cake is a cake cooked in a mold shaped like a kneeling lamb. The icing is covered in coconut to mimic the lamb's wool. I always thought the result looked kind of scary. And as a cake afficianado, I wondered what the effect of all those differing densities on the bake. Wouldn't the nose and head bake a lot faster than the body? And shouldn't something shaped like a lamb have, well, meat in it?

I went looking for a recipe for coconut cupcakes and found place after place where people commented on how good Ina Garten's coconut cupcakes are. They mentioned the important word 'moist'. The recipe had some promising things--a pound and a half of butter, for one thing. Buttermilk, baking powder and baking soda for another. When you put something acidic, like buttermilk, with baking powder and baking soda, the result is gas. It's like yeast in bread, which also produces gas. Specifically little tiny gas bubbles in the batter that make it rise and lighten. So these cupcakes were moist but light. And the frosting was a butter and cream cheese frosting, like the frosting that goes on a carrot cake. I like the idea of the cream cheese to cut the sweetness of coconut cake. Otherwise, all that sugar could be cloying.

Today I made two dozen of Ina Garten's coconut cupcakes. Adam is home for the weekend, and his friend Brad was here. I took a cupcake, frosted and dipped in coconut to give it that lamb's wool coat appearance, and cut it up for Adam and Brad and me to taste. Adam, who is not a fan of coconut never-the-less said that it was really good. And Brad pronounced it the best cupcake he had ever had, so I gave him another one.

They are fabulous. Moist, sweet, with a good crumb. They taste like a regular piece of cake. If someone had brought these to first grade for a kid's birthday, I might never have made it to second grade.

The recipe is in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook and available on Martha Stewart's website. Someone who commented on it remarked that when Ina Garten frosts them, instead of sprinkling the coconut on top, she dips the frosted cupcake in a bowl of coconut, which is what I did. It produces an even coat and it's fast and easy. This is not a recipe to take short cuts on. I sifted my flour (the difference between a cup of sifted flour can be as much as 2 ounces, and when you learn that a sifted cup weighs 3 ounces, it's clear that for something like cake, that can be quite a difference.) But if you're requested to bring desert somewhere, even someplace rather fancy, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Does the World Really Need This?

The Twinkies Cookbook includes:

  • Twinkie Sushi
  • Twinkie Burrito
  • Pigs in a Twinkie
  • Pumpkin Twinkie Bread Pudding
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Twinkie Cake
  • Friday, April 14, 2006

    Ear Worms

    I have a song stuck in my head. Chances are you have never heard of this song. A few years ago my husband ended up a drummer in a punk band. This is funnier than you could ever suspect. Bob is not a raging, anti-everything punk kind of guy. As drummers go he has a really serious problem with playing punk. Here it is.

    He's a really good drummer.

    He studied jazz drumming. He plays Latin rhythms. He reads music, for God's sake. Are punk drummers allowed to read music? I mean, would the Sex Pistols have been any good if they were, you know, great musicians? This is not to say that there aren't punk musicians who are really good. It's just that at some level, I think it might be a bit of a handicap. I say this without much real appreciation for punk. I like some Ska-Punk. That's punk influenced music played by all of the people who in high school were band geeks. So it's got trombones and shit. I like Streetlight Manifesto. But I am offering mostly baseless opinions on punk.

    A couple of years ago, friend was doing a play called The Loud Americans, about the sort-of-nearly-rise of and precipitous fall of a punk band. The actors on stage were backed by a shadow band, that is, four people playing the music that was ostensibly the music of the punk band. The music was all original and when you went to see a performance, you got a free CD. Although reviews of the play were mixed, the band was pretty much universally described as 'Kick Ass.' The writer's brother was a musician, and he put together the little band, and in a remarkably short period of time they wrote the songs, rehearsed them, cut a raw but quite good sounding CD called The Loud Americans Project and then went on stage. There was a guy in his 20s, a girl in her 30s, a guy in his 40s, and Bob, who was 50.

    Hence Bob's brief, glorious career as a punk rocker. (He has a lot of t-shirts from that brief period, including a Ramones t-shirt I secretly covet.)

    For no reason, today one of those songs has risen from the depths of my subconscious and I have been singing quietly to myself, "I'm burning with fever and I'm all stitched up..." I was going to link to a site where you could listen to The Loud Americans Project but alas, they've finally taken it down. I was thinking about putting the MP3 up so you could listen if you wanted but I don't know how to do that. I'd have to contact Steve (who put together the band) and Chris (who wrote the play) and ask them for permission.

    I'll ask you to just trust me when I tell you that the band was really pretty good. They got some airplay at colleges but about a month after the play ended, Howard Stern got fined for using a swear word on the radio and for awhile nobody would play Pink Floyd's "Money" because it had the word bullshit in it. The Loud Americans dropped the F bomb a lot in a manner befitting their punk outlaw status, so they disappeared from the airwaves forever.

    I like the idea that art is ephemeral. It's weird, but I don't mind that art sometimes disappears. Of course, I've got the CD so its not really ephemeral for me. But letting go of stuff like this is like learning to let go of books. It's like knowing that in one hundred years, no one will read my books. It's something of a relief, in an odd way. I don't want Shakespeare to disappear. But there's so much out there, it feels as if it is going to suck up all the available space. When things disappear, they leave space.

    Wednesday, April 12, 2006

    Message title

    From my Spam filter:

    Complain by trepan

    (I didn't check it out.)

    Tuesday, April 11, 2006

    Hell's Kitchen Chili

    This is a pretty elastic recipe, so feel free to make substitutions. I call it Hell's Kitchen Chili because of all the flavors I associate with New York--Italian sausage and plum tomatoes. When I was at New York University in the graduate writing program, a couple of us used to sometimes have a bowl of chili in this place right off Washington Square. It was bar chili, served in a crock and topped with cheese and raw onion. No rice in that chili, and I'd like to think mine's a little tastier. But it's really just a good bowl of bar chili.

    3 poblano peppers
    1/4 cup olive oil
    2 cups chopped onion
    6 garlic cloves, chopped
    1 lb. hot Italian sausage
    1 lb mild Italian sausage
    2 lbs ground chuck
    2 green peppers chopped
    2 red peppers chopped
    3 32 oz cans of whole Italian plum tomatoes, drained
    2 tablespoons of tomato paste
    2 to 8 (depending on how hot you want your chili) serrano peppers
    2 cans of kidney beans
    1 cup red wine
    6 tablespoons of chili powder
    3 tablespoons of ground cumin
    salt and pepper to taste
    2 lbs of fresh plum tomatoes (unless tomatoes are in season, in which case, any good tomato*)
    shredded Monterey jack
    sour cream
    sliced green onions
    a pot of cooked white rice

    (This recipe makes about 10 really large servings, I use a dutch oven to make it.)

    1. Cut the Poblanos in half and roast them, skin side up, under the broiler until skins split and blacken. Drop them in a brown paper bag for at least ten minutes to let them steam, then peel the skin off and chop them. If all the skin doesn't come off, no big deal, it's chili. In fact, if you don't feel like roasting them, just chop them with the green and red pepper and don't worry about it. I'm not even sure anyone but me cares about this step.

    2. Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil for about 5 minutes, or until they start to soften.

    3. Add the sausage. If I can't find bulk sausage, I just cut the casing and take the sausage out of there. Once the sausage has browned, add the chuck and brown it as well.

    4. Add the chopped sweet peppers and poblanos and cook about ten minutes, or until the peppers start to soften.

    5. Take the chili off the heat and add the tomatoes (I drain them in put them back in the can then mash them with a fork or use a stick blender to kind of pulp them up and release some of the inside juice) the beans, the wine, tomato paste, chili powder and ground cumin, salt and pepper and let this all cook for about ten minutes. Longer if you want.

    6. Add the chopped fresh tomatoes and cook another ten minutes.

    To serve, put a mound of white rice in the bottom of a bowl, smother with chili, top with sour cream, cheese and sliced green onions. I like to serve this with cornbread and really cold beer. Veggies and dip are good, too, because the crisp veggies are a nice contrast. Desert should be something like chocolate chip cookies or pie.

    *In winter, when most tomatoes have no taste, plum tomatoes sometimes do.

    Monday, April 10, 2006


    We're having company tomorrow. A bunch of people that my husband went to college with are getting together and today I made a huge pot of chili because he wants it casual and easy and chili is all that in spades. I make a couple of different kinds of chili, although not as many as my friend Tom who has actually won contests. There are people for whom there are religious issues around chili. Beans, no beans. Texas chili is no beans, I'm told. In New Mexico, ask for chili and they'll ask you 'red or green' and what you get will not resemble anything you think of as chili unless you are from New Mexico.

    Me, I don't have a religion about chili, probably because when I come from Cincinnati, where you can get Cincinnati chili. It's a Greek recipe. You boil the beef, not brown it. And the spices include cinnamon and chocolate. And it's served over spaghetti. Three Ways are spaghetti, chili and cheese. Four Ways are Three Ways with either onions or beans. My mom made browned ground beef chili with chopped onion and celery and about a teaspoon of chili powder. She also served it over spaghetti. It's hard to get on your high horse about the proper way to prepare chili when your mom's recipe includes celery.

    I have a rather catholic sense of chili. I like Texas chili unless it's too hot for me. (I can take fairly hot food, but can't eat authentic Thai, for example. I can go pretty hot on the U.S. Thai scale.) I also like New Mexico green a great deal. So much that I can actually make a competent if not exciting version of it.

    The chili I made for tomorrow I call Hell's Kitchen Chili because it's loosely based on a couple of recipes, one of which has Italian sausage in it. Italian sausage is probably not in anyone's authentic chili recipe. But I like lots of flavor and Italian sausage tastes good with chilies and onion and tomato and cumin. I put in chuck, too.

    If you don't know what the difference is between hamburger, ground sirloin and ground chuck, it's fat content. Chuck is 80% lean beef and 20% fat. It has the highest amount of fat in it of the usual ground beefs. I happen to think almost all food tastes better if the fat content is higher. That's one of the secrets of French cuisine. If you eat a meal in a classic French restaurant, one of the reasons it tastes so good is that you are probably eating between half a stick and a stick of butter. So if I'm cooking for company, I try to incorporate fat in ways that doesn't lead to grease. So sausage and ground chuck in chili. And sour cream on top. Oh, and cheese, too.

    If you are a person who has religious feelings about chili, I'm sorry about that. I know it's blasphemy. But sour cream is a pretty sublime substance.

    It took me a long time to assemble my chili today. It's funny, I am very bad about a lot of maintenance. I hate to clean a house. I can. Almost every time I've moved out of an apartment, I've gotten a thank you with my deposit. When I moved Bob out of his apartment when we got married, I cleaned afterwards and he got a thank you. Bob isn't a slob, but he wouldn't have thought to polish the wooden floors. But it's soooooo boring. A lot of the stuff I do when I cook should be boring. Today I started by roasting poblano peppers under the broiler. Then I stuck them in a brown paper bag and let them steam for awhile. Then I peeled them. This ought to be about as stimulating as dusting. But I love to do it. I'm in the kitchen roasting my poblano peppers and I'm just so psyched about the whole process. I'm thinking about why I like poblanos and why they'll be good in company chili. Company chili should be flavorful but not overly hot because not everyone is comfortable with heat. I plunk hot sauce on the table for people who like more heat. (Poblanos are not terribly hot, so lots of chili flavor with less heat than say, jalapenos. Jalapenos are a lot of heat and not as tasty as some other chilies. If I'm asking for heat and flavor, I tend to favor serrano. And if this chili didn't have sausage in it, I'd even go to chipotle chilies. Chipotle chilies were once jalapenos but they've been smoked and packed in adobo sauce so they are flavorful like no ones business. Smoky, hot, spicy, rich. But in this case they'd be a little like wearing too much jewelry on a dress that already has a print on it. They'd clash.)

    I diced my onions and garlic, and my red and green sweet peppers. I sweated veggies and browned meat and drained my canned plum tomatoes and squished them up into the chili. I added light red and dark red kidney beans. It's not particularly difficult cooking. Not like pastry or sauces or any of the hundreds of finicky things you can do in the kitchen. Making chili is unpretentious. If all of the onions and green peppers are not perfect quarter inch dice, no big deal. They're going to cook. And it's chili.

    Like I said. Should be boring as hell. But the whole house smells great and I am filled with a quiet sense of accomplishment. The chili is in the frige for the night, and tomorrow the flavors will have melded and mellowed. I'll make some cornbread. Fruit salad. Roast asparagus.

    If you have a chili religion and you have read this far, avert your eyes. I serve Hell's Kitchen Chili over rice. It's really fine. And I've converted a lot of unsuspecting people to eating chili over rice.

    (If you want me to post the recipe, I will, but this post is already too long.)

    Friday, April 07, 2006

    Don't Tell Bob

    Prednisone can cause insomnia.

    Luckily for me, I have a dog. Dogs are great for insomniacs--well, some of them are. Shelly just sleeps, but Smith is an old lady and like a lot of old folks, she sleeps lightly and wakes up often. She also likes company. Last night at around 2:00 in the morning I went downstairs thinking that a beer might relax me and help me sleep. I'm not a big beer drinker. So when we buy beer, say for a party, we have it for awhile. I think last night's beer was from New Years Eve. It's a brand of beer called Blue Moon (recommended by Adam, who doesn't really drink much beer, either, but who knows a lot of people who take beer much more seriously than either he or I.)

    I sat down with Smith on the wooden floor. (She has arthritis in her hips, so a lot of the night is spent trying to decide which is more important--the cool but hard wooden floor or the soft but too warm couch.) I poured a little Blue Moon in the palm of my hand and she lapped it up. The she lapped where a few drops had spilled on the comforter I was sitting on. So I got her food bowl and poured a little in her food bowl and drank some myself. I told her all sorts of nonsense things. She pushed her nose into my hand and begged to be petted and looked hopefully at the beer bottle. I poured her some more. It was dark and nice and we were happy sharing our bottle of beer. "Don't tell Bob," I said and she gave me a beery kiss. I anthropomorphize her. She caninomorphizes me. I think I probably gave her about half a cup, total.

    I know she's not legal yet--she's only twelve. But she's way legal in dog years. And she really really likes beer. I had no idea. Probably, neither did she.

    I went up to bed after that and did fall asleep. I hope she did, too.

    Thursday, April 06, 2006

    Public Service Announcement

    Since my sister called and asked, I feel I should mention that strong antibiotics and large doses of prednisone have effectively cured my St. Anthony's Fire. I have some pinkness but basically I look normal again. I had an appointment with a doctor today and the diagnosis for my lymph nodes is Sarcoidosis, also known as 'We Don't Really Know What's Wrong.' Prednisone makes me irritable. Pray for Bob.

    Pat, my sister, suggested I should call the blog 'Guano Happens.'

    Wednesday, April 05, 2006

    View From My Office Window

    Please forgive the screen. It is, as I type this, still snowing.

    Monday, April 03, 2006


    Last Wednesday, I thought I was getting a rash. By Friday it seemed to me that it was Erysipelis. I had it before, in April of last year, when I was getting chemo. It's this effing medieval disease, a staph infection of the face that used to be called St. Anthony's Fire. One of those skin things that can probably be cured by having the King of England lay his hands on you. Thank goodness it also responds to antibiotics.

    Friday, the dermatologist prescribed antibiotics and by Saturday it had all but disappeared. Then by today, it had come back worse. So back to the doctor tomorrow. What I really need is someone to go in front of me with a leper bell telling people to avert their eyes. While I'm not there yet, something about the swelling and glossy red surface of the skin that this disease produces make people think 'Elephant Man.'

    I figure my immune system is seriously weird these days, from whatever it is that gave me the relapse scare.

    But I finished a draft of a new story. And to console myself for my hot, itchy, red and swollen face, I made more shortbread.

    Saturday, April 01, 2006

    Imaginary Cities*

    This was on boingboing, but I didn't know that until after I found it in another blog. It's a film about an autistic young man who has drawn an imaginary city called Urville. I love imaginary landscapes. The maps in Lord of the Rings, for example. There is something science fictional about it, the meticulous construction of a world.

    I find A.G. Rizzoli's work to have some of the same appeal. He didn't draw cities, but instead drew buildings which he apparently saw a psychological portraits of people. But he also drew an 'exposition', a kind of world's fair, that he called Y.T.T.E. or Yield to Total Elation. It was full of extraordinarily huge buildings, including The Shaft of Ascension, "in which Euthanasia is available to those desiring and meriting a pleasant painless bon voyage from this land."

    I don't world build anymore. It's a different kind of narrative for me. When I was in high school I used to draw maps of archipeligos--strongs of islands with careful topographical lines showing the elevations and rivers that cascaded into waterfalls (the topographical lines clustering at the point where the river went over the edge.) There is something wonderful about this kind of static world.

    *with a nod toward's Ben Rosenbaum's book of the same name.