Hamburg Barbecue

I pulled the recipe out again this morning and wondered how many times I’ve made hamburg barbecue. 100? 500? It is my go-to comfort food. I’ve made it whenever there is a need for a warm meal on short notice. I’ve made it after the death of a close relative when hungry family members descended, exhausted and travel-worn. I’ve made it on Monday nights when I am not motivated to cook and there isn’t anything remotely edible in the refrigerator. I made it today when I found out at the last minute we were hosting a lunch meeting of the power-brokers for my husband’s drum corps. A pound of ground beef, an onion and some pantry staples stepping in once again as the cavalry of food rescue.

As a child, I remember being served sloppy joes on those pink plastic cafeteria trays with the little indentations for each measured portion, usually accompanied by tater-tots or canned corn. I remember looking at that pale orange mass of  ground something-or-other meat and thinking there was no way I could eat that. I usually ate whatever was put in front of me, but I drew the line on school-produced sloppy joes.

Then my mother came home from her bridge club one day with a recipe for barbecue that contained brown sugar. I was converted. This was dark and rich and slightly sweet and tasted like Friday night football games and Sunday afternoon sledding parties. It was kitchen-table-paper-napkin food. Oddly, my mother had it filed under “party food” in her little tin box of recipes right along with a recipe for an alcoholic punch that could leave you in a stupor after the second cup and one for those lovely molded butter mints so popular at the time.

I still use that same typed and spattered file card, although I have the ingredients memorized. It calls for one-third of a bottle of “catsup” which in those days was always packaged in a glass bottle that you had to pound on the bottom to get started. There were no plastic squeeze bottles of organic ketchup, or, heaven help us, pre-packaged containers of ketchup and mayonnaise already mixed together. It was just plain ketchup for just plain hamburg barbecue. I still make the recipe the same way except that I now add a little Montreal Steak seasoning and back off on the Worcestershire. It works every single time.

Sometimes it feels good to go back to the basics. To not be so concerned with how something will play on social media or whether Joanna Gaines would approve. There is something visceral in comfort food, and I think occasionally it feels good to fuel our bodies with meals that have sustained us for years, even if they’re not what we now consider nutritionally correct.

Lately, I’ve found myself in a situation that’s caused me to question my own thought processes. I’ve been overwhelmed by too many voices and too much rhetoric to the point that I haven’t listened to the voice inside myself struggling to be heard. It’s how I feel when reading cooking blogs where people show off complicated recipes made with obscure ingredients and I think I should be doing that, too. That maybe I’m missing the boat and not staying current. But today I was reminded that often the simplest recipe is the best one. That the humblest ingredients can come together to create exactly what we need, even if it’s not trendy. And that sometimes nothing tastes better than a plain pot of barbecue.


A Holy Moment on Veterans Day

At times, this fall has felt like a relentless barrage of sadness. People I know have lost loved ones at way too young an age or are fighting terrible battles with illness. Somber music from the morning news show this week told me there had been yet another mass shooting. Part of our country is burning from wildfires and part of it is still trying to recover from devastating hurricanes. Hatred has wrapped its tentacles around many of us so tightly, we can’t breathe, let alone speak to each other.  When so much of what we consider sacred—human decency,  truth and dignity in government, acceptance of those who are different from us, lies in the street like broken shards of glass after a night of rioting, it’s easy to lose your perspective.

But in the midst of the chaos, there are occasionally, what our rector calls, “holy moments.” I’ve experienced some of those recently in situations where I wouldn’t necessarily expect them, and when they happen, they provide a whispery sigh of relief, something to cling to in the midst of this hot mess we’re making of the world right now. A couple of silvery stars poking their heads through the darkness.

This morning, I watched an elderly parishioner, clinging to his walker, shuffle up the aisle to take communion. He now waits at the chancel steps for communion to be brought to him, but he’s still not ready to succumb to pew communion. He’s a delightfully feisty character and always happy to share his opinion. Today, in honor of Veterans Day, he wore his overseas cap with the words “Purple Heart” inscribed along the side, tilted jauntily on his white hair. After he received the bread and wine, he turned and faced the congregation and gave a crisp salute. As he made his way back to his seat, the congregation spontaneously rose and gave him a standing ovation, something that rarely happens in the context of our worship service. Before he sat down, he said, “Thank you. I love you all.” There were very few dry eyes in the sanctuary.

Most of us have no concept of what those who fought (and continue to fight) for our freedom and served our country endured. I grew up in the Viet Nam era and can remember wearing a silver POW bracelet in fourth grade with the name of a soldier captured or missing in action. My uncles fought in World War II and I think my mother lost the first love of her life in that war, but that was never part of their conversation at the holiday dinner table. They did what they had to do and, perhaps to their own detriment, never talked about it.

Now we take so much for granted. We yammer on about our wants and needs and how we may be damaged from this or that perceived slight, and yet, most of us have no clue what it means to serve, to willingly give up one’s life for the greater good. I don’t think we can begin to understand what it means to be damaged until we walk the halls of a veterans hospital.

I wanted to not only thank that lovely gentleman for his service but also for providing a poignant  reminder of what truly matters. That the rest of us wouldn’t be sitting there today, smug and complacent and free to worship in whatever manner we choose, were it not for his bravery and that of thousands of others just like him. And that through that simple salute, he offered us all a much-needed holy moment.

Remembering Rob

The man who taught me how to sing passed away this week at age fifty-three. I had only seen him once since he left town fifteen years ago,  but I followed his face book page. One weekend last year when my husband and I were in New York City, we later discovered he happened to be there with his choir for a performance in Carnegie Hall. We were eating dinner at a restaurant while he was rehearsing right across the street. I wish I had known. I wish I had run over there, interrupted his rehearsal to give him a hug and say thank you.

He was an incredibly talented musician who could bring it all home to the fans in the stands. To say he inspired those of us who sang in his choral groups is an understatement.  I don’t know how many times over the years, I’ve looked at a piece of music and said, “Oh yeah, I know this. We did this with Rob.” He opened up my voice like a box of old clothes, shook some things out and said, “I think maybe we can do something with these.”  What I learned from him took me to the Wheatland Chorale and now, the Susquehanna Chorale, both of which have given me some of the happiest and most satisfying moments of my musical life.

I can remember coming to voice lessons directly from a full day of teaching. I would be wound up, stressed out and with enough tension in my body and voice that it took  twenty minutes of warm-ups to get me detoxed enough to sing. Several of the warm-ups we do with Susquehanna are ones he taught me, and they take me right back to late afternoon lessons in that choir room in the Presbyterian church. Rob helped me discover I was a “mezzo, mezzo, mezzo” after years of singing second alto and that there was a whole new world beyond fourth line D.

With his training, I became a small-town soloist. Nothing fancy—just the standard arias from the “Messiah,” Vivaldi “Gloria” and Bach “Christmas Oratorio” and “Magnificat.” When someone asked me to sing the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” at their wedding and I wasn’t sure I could do it, he said, “Oh my God. You could sing the hell out of that.” It was exhilarating to be a student again at forty, to be practicing and learning correct diction and the stylistic nuances of a piece. I remember spinning some lame story to a principal about having to leave school early one day, because I wanted to get one more rehearsal in with Rob before a performance. He broke new ground in our community, brought in fabulous artists and occasionally, pissed off some of the people running the long-established musical organizations. The concert series he started became a roaring success.

Rob coached his choirs with love, humor and brilliance and no matter what we sang, he took us to a place deep inside ourselves, where you simply became one with the music. A performance with Rob meant at some point you were going to feel the hair raise on your arms and have to hold back sudden tears. We did a Tenebrae service during Holy Week and at the conclusion, when the sanctuary was pitch-black and silent, Rob’s stunning tenor voice would begin to sing “Were You There” from the back of the church. Every year on Martin Luther King weekend, we would do a jazz vespers concert. He would bring in a gospel choir with a vocalist who could improvise and scat like Ella, backed up by a top-notch band. We lily-white and uptight people learned what it meant to move and sway with the spirit. We would literally rock the house with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while a standing-room-only audience of all colors, sang their hearts out right along with us.  

People drift in and out of our lives all the time and it’s not until they’re gone that we look around and realize how much they’ve changed our own personal landscape. That before they turned to leave, we should have grabbed them by the arm and said, “Wait, wait. Do you know how much learning to sing with sparkly cheeks and palate up, larynx down and sending my sound to that tiny window at the back of the church has changed me? That the opportunity to sing the Bach B Minor Mass in its entirety is something I’ll remember forever? That because of you, singer was part of my passwords for years? Do you have any idea how much happiness those things have brought me?”

The last performance we did with Rob was a jazz vespers service which ended with Moses Hogan’s “We Shall Walk in the Valley in Peace.” Part of the text says “…there will be no more trials there. For Jesus himself will be our leader. Walk through the valley in peace.” My wish for the man who taught me to sing.


Bumper Stickers

They came in the mail this week and they’re still lying on the kitchen table. Bumper stickers supporting a gubernatorial candidate my husband and I both believe in and support. To be honest, I’ve been hesitant to put one on my car. I’m afraid of my tires being flattened, my doors being scratched or having an obscene gesture directed towards me while sitting in traffic. Four years ago, I had a bumper sticker supporting that same individual and I wasn’t afraid to display it. Now, I am, and that makes me sad.

I can remember in elementary school my classmates and I wearing those little tin buttons supporting our parents’ favorite candidate. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember wearing one for Barry Goldwater.) My parents would argue politics with our staunchly Democratic neighbors over beer and steamed clams on Friday nights, but it was all in good fun. Everyone stayed friends and agreed to disagree. There was no anger, no ugliness.

My high school best friend and I were wannabe journalists and often talked about what we read in the newspapers that arrived on our families’ doorsteps. In those days, the morning paper supported Democrats and the evening paper skewed Republican. We learned a lot from each other’s perspectives and never dreamed of politics as something hurtful or frightening.

Lancaster Newspaper bag (2)

When I was teaching, student-run mock elections were held during Presidential election years. The social studies teachers organized conventions and campaigns where the candidates made speeches, the hallways were plastered with posters (which were seldom defaced or graffitied) and we all got into the spirit of teaching kids how democracy works. I suspect that is no longer done because too many parents would complain.

I know, I know, politics has been a dirty business since the days of George Washington. I’m sure there was a smoke-filled back room filled with drunken men yelling and screaming at each other when they drafted the Declaration of Independence. Many of our leaders, even those who have been revered, we now know were flawed and morally corrupt. But they still managed to get the job done without driving a spike of bitterness and hatred into the heart of our country.

I am not a confrontational person. I tend to play my political and religious cards close to the vest. I don’t want to offend anyone, and yet that stance puts me in the position of the one being offended, especially when I am constantly bombarded with messages that make me cringe, that make me drop my jaw in utter disbelief that another person can truly support vile and repulsive behavior in the name of political gain.

I listened recently to a sermon online entitled “Remember to Fight,” in which the pastor reminded us that sometimes the ubiquitous “hanging in there” until things get better is not always the answer. That passivity only goes so far. That danger lurks in too much politeness, in always staying out of the fray and letting fear win out. That sometimes you need to go right smack into the pissing contest with a skunk even if you get sprayed, otherwise the skunk keeps you cowering in your house.

I need to speak up in support of people who I believe have integrity and decency and speak out against those who do not, even if that means occasionally offending someone. I need to put that bumper sticker on my car.

Breakfast with the Russians

I sat at my breakfast table today with two professional Russian singers and discussed the choral pronunciation of “across the wide Missouri” from “Shenandoah.” My husband and I explained what a schwa vowel was and how American singers approach diphthongs. Between bites of cinnamon muffins and sips of coffee, we introduced them to Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” on You Tube, a piece they had never heard, and which seemed to interest them as possible repertoire for their superb quintet, “Lyra.” They listened to our chorale’s version of “Silent Night,” which is what prompted the discussion of diphthongs and schwa vowels. As our dogs begged for food at the table, one of the singers talked about his dogs, a dachshund and one he described as a philosophical Pomeranian, given more to contemplation than hyperactivity.

Lyra performed gorgeous sacred music from the Russian Orthodox tradition along with delightful folk tunes, as part of our church’s concert series this weekend. Sixteen of us went to out to dinner afterwards where we introduced the singers to the joys of crab cakes and fresh fish. We ate together and drank together and figured out how to understand each although they were quite fluent in English. They loved the restaurant meal and were so grateful not to be fed lasagna. Again. We learned about their families and how they handle being away from them for weeks at a time. Everyone circulated around the table, so we could all interact and learn and laugh. Even the waitstaff seemed to enjoy serving us.

Yes, this is another example of connecting through music, but the point is connecting. In our current atmosphere of spending so much energy on hating and fearing people who are different from us, it felt good to hear voices speaking with an accent, to listen to each other’s stories. To step away from the madness and share pictures of children and pets on our phones. To help someone figure out a restaurant menu and explain the difference between rockfish and grouper and what a crab cake is. No one mentioned politics. There was no need. We were too busy enjoying each other’s company.

Our breakfast companions left us today with grateful hugs, a beautiful calendar of scenes from Russia and an invitation to visit their country  We thanked them for sharing their incredible talent and wished them well on their journey. As I went on with my tasks for the day, I was again reminded that there is powerful hope in music and in raising our heads out of the sand, even briefly, to hear the songs of others. As Anne Lamott says, “Grace bats last,” and we are all in this together.

The Anti-Cookbook

I am a cookbook junkie. I read them like novels and enjoy cracking open a brand-new cookbook almost as much as eating a great meal. I keep a wall full of my favorites right in the kitchen and have others stashed away that have sentimental value or contain a beloved recipe. I am fickle—binging on some for a few years, then shipping them out to the rummage sale and moving on to newer, trendier ones.

My cooking has evolved with the times—from those Pillsbury Classic magazines of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s  to Pampered Chef recipes to the community cookbooks produced by various organizations as fundraisers. Currently, I like Barefoot Contessa and Southern Living. I will use Pioneer Woman when I’m cooking for a crowd and don’t care about the calories. I love Ann Bryn’s “Cake Doctor,”  “Dinner Doctor,” and “What Shall I Bring?” cookbooks which contain creative and easy recipes with wide audience-appeal. Smitten Kitchen if I’m feeling adventurous. Of course, now I’m just as likely to google recipes on the phone as search through a cookbook.

I developed an adventurous palate growing up. I ate whatever was put in front of me because my mother would announce in no uncertain terms that she “was not running a diet kitchen.” Her cooking tended toward the regional cuisine of well-cooked meat and potatoes along with, for that era, a surprising amount of fresh fish and seafood. My dad didn’t cook but would bring things home like marinated herring and ruby-red borscht from a Jewish deli, and a syrupy Moravian cake from a tiny bakery in a nearby town. He always encouraged me to sample things from his plate and order from the adult menu in restaurants. I have been told that I once ordered my own crab cake when I was still in a booster seat. I thought nothing of eating shad roe wrapped in bacon, common on 1960’s restaurant menus, and slurping down steamed clams. I insisted that my beef be cooked rare and still do. I would happily eat dinner at my best friend’s house on Friday nights when there was a guarantee of fried fish or seafood. “Please eat my scallops for me,” she would beg. “They’re like eyeballs.”

However, I do have some iron-clad rules. I do not eat melons, oysters or any kind of organ meat. I have issues with eggs—they must be thoroughly cooked in either scrambled or hard-boiled form, nothing in between. Ever. I do not care for anything burned, even if it’s supposed to “to bring out the caramelization.” I have been known to remove even the slightest amount of darkened crust from a piece of toast. I am not a fan of seeds. Seeds are for birds, and they have a sort of back-taste that bothers me. (Not to mention that the dinner table stories told by my grandfather, a small-town physician, always led me to believe that an errant seed could lodge in your appendix causing it to become inflamed and rupture.)

Which brings me back to cookbooks. I recently bought two new ones while surfing Amazon for a craft  book on writing because, naturally, I wanted to qualify for free shipping. The first book is a work of art, entirely focused on vegetables prepared in their season and filled with enticing but accessible recipes that bring out the flavor of the vegetable itself. I already made a corn sauté that was wonderful and easy.

The second one was described in online reviews as “life-changing,” “the cookbook I will use forever,” with recipes requiring “minimal technique,” and “no pretense.” The writing is delightful, and like in many of the newer publications, the author teaches and shares personal anecdotes instead of just throwing a recipe down on a page.

But, alas, I knew I was in trouble when the earliest chapters instructed me to keep things like “crunchy chili oil,” “everything seed mixture,” “fresh za’atar,” and “yuzu kosho” (google them—not available at Giant) in my pantry to use in the recipes. Grapeseed oil. Aleppo pepper. And ground sumac. Since when did sumac evolve from that terrible stinking weed that causes a rash far worse than poison ivy into an herb to enhance chicken?

The author appears to be obsessed with anchovies, seeds, soaking things in vats of olive oil, and Lord, have mercy, eggs in some kind of semi-cooked form plopped onto just about every salad and entrée. Turn a page and there’s yet another photograph with the cyclops eye of a fried or poached egg glaring back at you from atop a pile of greens soaked in anchovy-infused olive oil, scattered with a buckshot of seeds.

I know my way around an upscale restaurant menu and love to visit cutting-edge eateries on our occasional trips to New York, but most of these recipes stopped me dead in my tracks of culinary enthusiasm. Fried lentils and chickpeas, crispy squid, lamb and garlicky yogurt, (ok, maybe I’d taste that, but I have social issues with eating lamb) figs and persimmons paired with blue cheese. Everything highly spiced and seeded and egged. Tender carrots roasted to utter blackness, zucchini baked in heavy cream. Barley porridge followed by a kimchi omelet and cantaloupe with arugula and black olives for breakfast. I don’t think there is a single recipe in the book that a child or someone with a cautious palate would eat except for maybe a few of the desserts which look lovely, especially since they don’t include anchovies.

I am sure this is a cookbook that many will savor and enjoy, and I am in no way disparaging the author, a nationally-renowned chef whose recipes have become internet sensations. It’s beautifully written and photographed, and I might try a recipe or two that does not involve seeds or eggs, (anchovies may be negotiable.) Some of the desserts are definitely worth a shot.  But, for me, this is the anti-cookbook, the one I would cook from if I ever got serious about losing weight.

cookbook 2

Rental Nights

If you have a child who ever played a band or string instrument, you’ve probably been through a rental night. The school (if they have a decent program) offers an opportunity for children and their families to explore various instruments and register for lessons and instrument rentals. I’m sure my music educator colleagues would agree that rental nights make parent-teacher conferences seem like a day at the spa.

Even though I’m retired, I still go back to my old school district and help with sizing youngsters for string instruments. I measure arms, get little fingers plucking strings, adjust cello and bass endpins, and explain to parents what to expect when living with a beginning violinist. Same thing I’ve done for almost forty years, except now I  don’t have to get up the next morning and figure out how to work one hundred beginners into a two-day schedule, group them by instrument, and make sure they don’t miss math.

Rental nights are an exhausting mish-mash of hope and excitement and apprehension against a backdrop of buzzing mouthpieces, squealing clarinets, and scratching strings. Most kids are over the moon about starting an instrument but have no concept whatsoever of how much work is involved. The potential drummers all want to be rock stars and the violinists think they’ll be playing Devil Went Down to Georgia in two weeks. Some know exactly which instrument they want to play, some want to try them all and some have no clue why they’re even there. I can almost predict who’s going to make it and who’s going to be GBT. (Gone by Thanksgiving.)

For the most part, parents are as excited as the kids. Phones pop out to video little Emily holding a one-fourth size violin for the first time. I meet former students proudly bringing their own children, so they can have the same experience in band or orchestra that they had growing up. Every so often, though, you get a nasty parent. Someone is angry when you tell them their child cannot play grandpa’s full-sized violin (with no bridge and a hairless bow) and thinks you’re trying to spend their money by insisting they rent a half-size. This week a dad lit into me because the school only offers classical training instead of jazz. Classical music is nothing but a boring waste of time, and he should know because he played with Maynard Ferguson and arranged music for Spirogyra in the eighties. I had a mother several years ago whose daughter had no left forearm past her elbow. When I gently suggested that violin might not be the best option, mom silenced the room by shouting at the top of her lungs, “Are you saying my child can’t be in this program because of her disability?”

But grumpy parents are the exceptions. Rental nights are all about the maybes, the why nots, the who-would-have-thought-its. The chance for a lonely child to find a best friend in the back of the second violins. The child whose heart is set on playing the flute but who simply cannot make even a whisper of a sound on the head joint and then wails like Maynard on a trumpet mouthpiece.  A shy child bursting  into a smile the first time she bows the violin. The young man who at age nine, informed his family of athletes that he was going to be a musician and is currently principal violist of a major university orchestra. The wiry little guitar-player I met this week who played “Smoke on the Water” on each string of a one-eighth bass the first time he had it in his hands. In tune.  

Rental nights, warts and all, offer children and their parents a chance to step into the unknown, to crack open the door and peek into to a world shining with possibility. They give them a chance to say, yes, I think I could do this. I want to blow the horn, grab the bow, tap a rhythm on the practice pad, hug the cello. The sound of this instrument makes me happy and feels like something that’s been missing from my life, something I need.  I know I’ll have to practice, and I’ll whine and say I want to quit by January, but I won’t. I will march on the football field, go on the trip to Disney World and play in the orchestra at graduation wearing my cap and gown. My instrument, who I will name Tabitha or Leonard, will teach me that wonderful things happen when you practice and that you shouldn’t quit when it gets hard.