Monday, November 22, 2010

The Divine Slaw

I'm not much of a recipe person. I learned to cook from my Nana, who measured things in pinches, dashes, and splashes. A dollop of this, a knob of that: it was very much a watch-and-learn experience. Still, before we leave the subject, I thought I might share my philosophy of slaw, along with a few recipes.

I was probably eight or nine before I found out it wasn't "cold slaw." Well, it was served cold, you see? So that's important - cole slaw should be cold slaw. That's for starters. Also, if you want to avoid the Slaw of Averages, you would do well to heed Murphy's Slaw, which states:

Don't put so much dressing on, for Lord's sake!

So there's that, as well.

We should always keep in mind that the slaw is there to complement the main course. If the ribs are James Brown, the slaw is Maceo Parker. See? The best slaws are simple, and allow the main course to shine. Cole slaw is a team player, which stands out by contrast. Less is more.

If you feel the slaw needs some dressing up, you might consider cosmetic adjustments, before you get too creative with it: a mix of red and green cabbage, or a red onion in place of a white. Even a sprinkle of fresh parsley might do the job, and show that you put your heart into it without altering the basic flavor. Think pearls with the black dress, or matching tie and handkerchief.

Or, fine... go ahead and load it up with jalapeƱo peppers, or walnuts, or pineapples, but don't say you weren't warned.


Basic Slaw Mix

1/2 green cabbage, cored and shredded
1/4 red cabbage, cored and shredded
1 chopped onion
1 large carrot, coarse-grated, shredded, julienned or what-have-you

It is my firm belief that cabbages should be shredded, with a knife. You shave the cabbage. My personal preference is to have the shreds no more than 2mm thick. I use a long, flexible "T.V. Knife," which I inherited, for this. Use your own judgement here. The mix of cabbage is also up to you: all green, all red, or a blend of the two will work. I choose based on appearance, and also, what I happen to have lying around. That's a factor too.


Slaw Dressing #1

1/2 cup horseradish sauce
1/2 cup mayonnaise
A splash of oil
Tablespoon Sugar

When using this dressing, put about half on the slaw mix, toss, and chill for two hours. Then check and see if it needs more. Add dressing to taste: remember Murphy's Slaw. You can vary the proportion of horseradish depending on how much you like it. I have made it with almost all horseradish for use on corned beef sandwiches or hot dogs. A bit of prepared wasabi can give it a little extra "nose" as well. Your mileage may vary.


Slaw Dressing #2

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vinegar
Splash of oil
Pinch of salt
Celery seeds, to taste


Slaw Dressing #3

2/3 cup ketchup
1/3 cup cider or wine vinegar
Splash of oil
Pinch of salt
Tablespoon sugar
Celery seeds, to taste

When using these dressings, toss with slaw mix, chill for two hours, then toss again, pour off the excess, and chill. The excess can be saved and reused, should you care to.

There is nothing fancy here, which is as it should be. Slaw should be simple: fresh veggies, tossed with a simple dressing: tossed with, not swimming in. I have made all three of these many times and guarantee one thing: people eat them. That's something.


The following slaw is a meal in itself.
It breaks all the above rules, which just goes to show you.

Asian Slaw

To the basic slaw mix, add any or all of the following:

sliced grilled pork
sliced grilled chicken
sliced surimi
cooked shrimp
fried tofu
sliced red or green bell peppers
cilantro or fresh basil or fresh mint
crushed peanuts

Toss the lot with Pad Thai sauce. I just buy a couple of containers from the local Thai place. They usually charge me a dollar for two or three, which is plenty. Chill. Top with chopped scallions before serving. Serve with Sriracha if you like. I like.

And there you have it. Just in time for Thanksgiving leftovers. Need I remind you that cole slaw goes really well with a turkey club sandwich? I think not. Now we are all equal before the slaw. You can thank me later. Enjoy.

And go easy on the dressing, for Lord's sake.

Very Truly Yours,



Thursday, November 18, 2010

Vegetable Rights

My girlfriend in college was one of the few truly good people I've known. How we ever got together, or lasted so long, will always be a mystery to me. I mean, she cared about things, really cared. Now me? Occasionally, I have to put my middle finger in a splint, just to let the muscles rest. I've mellowed some with age, but not so as you'd notice. You see my point.

But first, we need to talk about cole slaw. I love cole slaw. That's the sort of thing I care about: getting some decent cole slaw with my barbecue or fried fish. Most restaurants can't be bothered. They treat the slaw as an afterthought. Shameful. And don't even get me started on the minced cabbage swimming in dressing that passes for cole slaw in a supermarket. Yuck, bleah, and ptui.

Well, not ptui. I'll still eat the stuff, but joylessly.

No, a properly made cole slaw starts with fresh shredded cabbage. Shredded, mind, not put through an industrial grinder. To that, you add some onion, some carrot, and a dressing that complements the main course. That's right: you need a few different dressings in your back pocket. And go easy on the dressing, for Lord's sake. It's a salad, not a soup.

If you have any idea what's good, you already know all this.

A good cole slaw is a true delight that enhances every bite of your meal. And, with a few glowing exceptions, the only way to get good cole slaw is to make it yourself. See? That's the sort of thing I care about.


In hindsight, sometimes you see signs you should have noticed. Little things that should have made you wonder. They seem so obvious after the fact you wonder how you could have missed their greater import.

We had been invited to a backyard barbecue. Someone suggested I bring the cole slaw. No argument from me on that. I'm always happy to bring the cole slaw. Other folks seem to be happy with that too, if empty bowls are evidence. True love shines through.

So I was in the kitchen putting a batch together. I looked up and saw her staring at me, looking distressed. What the... I could swear her eyes were welling up a little.

Um... is something wrong?

I... it's... you... you just shred the cabbages up like that?

Well... yes, and... No, no, no. We're not going down this road. They're cabbages. It's just a salad.

Er, ok.


I must have been blinded by love. She was a truly good person. She really cared about things. But, in hindsight, there was a fundamental incompatibility there. People are one thing. Animals? Fine.

But vegetable rights ? That's going too far.

Very Truly Yours,



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eddie And Shakes

Facility Picture

It would be hard to imagine a bus shelter that offered less protection against the weather: open to the wind, with only a thin sheet of plexiglas in the center. On a bitter, rainy day, it was almost useless. The wind and rain howled in one door, swirled around, and blew out the other. If you faced into the corner and timed it right, you could usually manage to light a cigarette. With a little luck and care, you could keep it lit. So much for shelter.

You could always tell if Eddie was drunk. If he was sober, he pushed his wheelchair forward with his arms; if not, he kicked it backwards with his one leg. He was sober today.

"What's up, man?"

"Hey, Eddie. How's it hanging?"

"Straight down with a fuckin' icicle on it. I'm freezing my nuts off. Ya got a cigarette?"

"Fuck you, Eddie. I know you've got your own."

I reached into my coat pocket. He flashed me a big grin

"Yeah, but yours are better."

Shakes held up two bony fingers and tapped his lips twice. Presumably, he could speak, though I never heard him do it. He looked at me inquiringly. I nodded, stuck two cigarettes in my mouth, and lit them. I handed one to Shakes. I passed the pack and lighter to Eddie.

"Thanks, man."

"No problem."


You never really get to know people like Eddie and Shakes, though everyone seems to know them. You learn their names by osmosis: a part of city lore. We certainly were never introduced. For all I know, his name wasn't even Eddie. For all I know, he just answered to that: Crazy Eddie. I just called him Eddie, though. He never seemed all that crazy to me, just a bit lost.

He was a strange mix of soldier and hippie. The back of his wheelchair was covered with an incongruous assortment of bumper stickers: a pot leaf next to an American eagle next to a POW-MIA next to a Santana logo. One announced that he was firmly pro-tits. A small American flag flew on one side: an orange bicycle flag on the other.

I imagine he was in his thirties, though the years had not been kind. If he was not homeless, he was nearly so. He seemed fairly healthy, though, thanks to the local VA. He never asked for money, only cigarettes and, I guess, a friendly face and a bit of companionship. You never really get to know people like Eddie.

About Shakes I can tell you even less. Tall and painfully thin, he had a constant tremor: sometimes better, sometimes worse, but never absent. He startled easily and never spoke. I sometimes saw Eddie without Shakes but never Shakes without Eddie. I had the clear impression that they knew each other from the hospital, not the service, though I can't say why. Shakes had a searching look in his eye, as if he were forever on the verge of speaking.

One day, I can't say exactly when, was the last time I ever saw them. They were there, then they were gone.


It's an accident of history, I suppose. Most of the veterans I have known served during peacetime. They tell their stories with a smile: of boot camp, war games, and shore leave. It all has the ring of a hunter back from safari. That's all right. You don't blame a fireman if there are no fires on his watch. He was there; he was ready; he served. That counts.

The combat veterans I've known were different. None of them ever told stories about their service. Not to me, anyway. I imagine the actual experience is horrific. The only story I recall is my Uncle Joe telling me of a Christmas Mass celebrated on the hood of a Jeep, somewhere in Germany or France: a tiny bit of heaven in the midst of hell. Other than that, they locked their memories away as best they could.

I suppose some people just can't do that.

If you can get to a parade this year, go. Salute the living; remember the dead. In this season of Thanksgiving, give thanks. But remember, when the parades are over, to say a special prayer for Eddie and Shakes, who made the ultimate sacrifice, too.

Just not all at once.

Respectfully Yours,


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thanksgiving Comes First

Our contribution to Suldog's Thanksgiving Comes First campaign - C & P

To every thing there is a season.
Ecclesiastes 3:1


I think it's the smells that I remember best: cinnamon, nutmeg and pumpkin, roasting turkey and baking bread, a whiff of onion and sage, a note of coffee, and all of that floating above the faintest hint of fresh floor wax. If there is a heaven and if I should go there, perhaps it might smell something like that.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.


All Wednesday morning we watched the clock. A half-day: 11:45 could not come soon enough. Our teachers taught us poker-faced, pretending it was a school day like any other. For our part, we pretended to work as we counted down the minutes to the bell. They couldn't fool us in any case. We caught them sneaking their own looks at the clock.

The bell still echoed as the school doors burst open and we poured into the street. Slowly, I walked home, savoring my freedom, shuffling and crunching through errant drifts of leaves. The gray November sky hung low over trees that had given up their October brilliance for muted brown, maroon, and mustard. The air was sharp and carried the musty scent of fallen apples.

My mother practically met me at the door with a bucket and some rags.

Christopher, I need you to scrub the baseboards.


It never occurred to me that this was all a ruse: a way to keep me quiet, out of the kitchen, and to get some work done in the bargain. We were having no guests. We were going to Nana's for Thanksgiving. But children don't question these things. I set to work.

The house seemed warmer than usual. It was, of course: partly from the oven and simmering saucepans, partly from the alluring aroma of baking pies rising on humid air. Still, the prospect of a fine Thanksgiving dinner filled my father with an uncharacteristic and expansive good cheer. He would bake pie after pie, tapping out rhythms on the mixing bowl with his wedding band, filling the house with his rich baritone.

... kissed my girl, by the factory wall, dirty old town, dirty old town.

His good mood was contagious. My sister and I sang and dusted and scrubbed, forgetting that these were chores.

Evening held in store a light supper of grilled cheese and soup. We munched our sandwiches, wishing they were the pies on the sideboard. We were dutifully bathed, brushed and trundled off to bed, left to dream of roast turkey and pie.

Thanksgiving had almost come.


I awoke to the sputtering percolator and the smell of strong coffee. I knew a bag of doughnuts would be waiting: fresh doughnuts, still crisp on the outside. My father was already dressed. We munched away in cheerful silence, occasionally glancing at the pies. Waiting.

Thanksgiving had almost come.

This was one of the rare days when I would not be welcome at Nana's before the appointed hour. She was preparing and I would have been underfoot. There was nothing to do but wait. Absently, I watched the build-up to the Macy's parade in black-and-white and wondered at all the fuss. I tried to care and failed. And I waited.

At noon we were dutifully starched, pressed, and buttoned-down. Combed, brushed, and photographed. Handed one pie each and bundled out the door for the walk to Nana's. The walk took about five minutes. This was the parade that mattered.

I turned the key in the doorbell. My grandfather greeted me heartily, as if he had not seen me just the day before. He quickly ushered us in. All hugs would wait until the pies were safe and the hugs could not wait. He held out his arms and I wrapped my own around him. My fingers did not touch. I squeezed him as hard as I could. He pretended it was too much. It was our custom. Nana gave me a fleeting smile, a one-armed hug, a cursory kiss, and a shoo.

Thanksgiving had come.


I think it's the smells that I remember best: cinnamon, nutmeg and pumpkin, roasting turkey and baking bread, a whiff of onion and sage, a note of coffee, and all of that floating above the faintest hint of fresh floor wax. If there is a heaven and if I should go there, perhaps it might smell something like that.

To my knowledge, my grandfather never drank. Even so, he enjoyed playing bartender to my sisters and me. With great fanfare, he mixed us his signature cocktail: Fresca with cranberry juice. We were free to roam, anywhere but the kitchen. We searched for hidden dishes of candies and nuts. We slid on the stairs. We wandered among the adults busy gabbling about football, politics, and other things of no importance. We picked out tunes on the parlor piano. My great-aunt winced at every sour note. An electric knife whirred in the kitchen. We made happy nuisances of ourselves until Nana appeared in the parlor door and solemnly handed me a pewter bell.

I suspect the entire neighborhood knew that our dinner was served.

We packed into the dining room and arranged ourselves: Grampa at one end of the vast table, Nana at the other. I took my place at her right hand. I did not yet understand the significance of this. Grampa stood for Grace

Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts
Which we are about to receive from Thy bounty,
Through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

Casting a twinkling eye on us, he added his own prayer: "... and Lord, give us the grace to guide the children wisely." We children always joined in on the "wisely," drawing the word out. Everyone laughed.

And now the meal began in earnest. Dishes were circulated: butternut squash, mashed potato, tiny peas, my mother's creamed onions. Dressing with sausage. Baskets of biscuits and strange little Hawaiian rolls. I smiled to see my father and grandfather scowl at the turnips. Jellied cranberry and cranberry relish. Sweet mix and olives. Gravy and butter, salt and pepper, and a drumstick all for me.

It's the bountiful plate! Christopher has the bountiful plate! My sister trilled.

Indeed, it was. We set to work. While the adults gabbled about football, politics, and other things of no importance, my sister and I crafted careful forkfuls, attempting to recreate the entire meal in each bite. Now and then, someone would declare this to be the best Thanksgiving yet. Nana would simply nod. The dishes circulated again.


And now, a few words about jello salad: Perhaps you may cringe at the thought. I understand. Not really a salad at all. But perhaps, if you're like me, if you're of the right age and disposition, you remember these fondly. My very fashionable aunt always brought an elaborately molded jello salad to Thanksgiving, back when that was fashionable. It was a two-layered affair: cranberry jello, with celery, apples, and walnuts. A sweet sour cream business separated the layers.

In hindsight, it doesn't surprise me that we children could have all we wanted. I'm sure the adults thought it mostly for show, yet we loved it. When else could we eat dessert with our meal and still have all the dessert we wanted after, as well?


When the last trace of gravy had been mopped up with the last biscuit, the adults repaired to the living room. They sprawled on the sofas like walruses in the sun, ignoring the television, talking about football, politics, and other things of no importance.

Nana whisked me into the kitchen. Now I would earn my keep. Coffee was set to perk. The window over the sink was thrown open. Dishes were washed, dried, put away. Leftovers were organized and set aside. Pies and sweets were set out with plates and forks in neat array. Ice cream, whipped cream, fruits and cheeses. Nana relaxed visibly as each item was brought forth. Her smile warmed; her tone softened. Soon, she would consider her work done for the day and enjoy the party.

The doorbell announced the start of round two. The somnolent walruses roused themselves. Aunts and uncles, cousins and friends were arriving for pie. Dessert was strictly self-service. Again and again, we served ourselves. No one was watching and no one cared. I made another meal of pie. On what other day could I eat all the pie I wanted and be asked if I wanted still more?

The lights were dimmed. There was soft music from the radio. The sweet aroma of strong coffee. Adults gabbling about football, politics, and other things of no importance. Cheeks were pinched hello and kissed goodbye. My, how you've grown and how is school? Don't eat yourself sick and would you like more pie? I carried coats and hats upstairs and fetched them down again. The evening built in a slow crescendo and just as slowly faded.

I joined my father at the kitchen table for a final sandwich, on Arnold's white bread, with dressing and cranberry and extra mayo: the perfect coda to the day's excess. Leftovers were packed for travel. Dad walked home to get the car for my now sleeping sisters. Returning, he carried them out one by one. Love and smiles. Hugs and kisses. And we all agreed that this was the best Thanksgiving yet. We made the short drive home in cheerful silence.

Thanksgiving had come, but it had not yet gone.


Friday morning dawned in shades of gray and brown. I awoke to the sputtering percolator and the smell of strong coffee. My father was already dressed. He nodded and smiled. Still in her nightdress, my sister drifted in. We were about to enjoy one of our traditions, one we looked forward to all year: pie for breakfast. I cut her a slice of apple, mince for myself. Two wedges of cheddar. I put water on for tea. In our hearts, we gave thanks for hot tea and cold pie. It was still Thanksgiving.

There would be Christmas sales that day, but these weren't part of our world. My very fashionable aunt would likely be there, but even to her these were sales like any other. She was not rushing to Christmas. She just wanted her shopping done. In our house, it was still Thanksgiving. There would be cold turkey sandwiches for lunch. Perhaps hot browns for supper. All day long we'd nibble at pies, recovering from our day of excess with a day of slightly less.

And we still had Saturday and Sunday.

All week long, that bird would feed us. Sandwiches hot and cold, open-faced and closed, on bulkie rolls or Arnold's bread, with dressing and cranberry and extra mayo. Turkey sliced thin or chopped fine for turkey salad. Reheated with gravy or served as pot pie until his poor old bones were all that was left and we boiled them down for soup.

Then, and only then, was Thanksgiving truly over.


Two weeks ago, I stood in a checkout line by displays of wreaths and trees. I listened to Jingle Bells play as I bought Halloween candy. My four year-old joined in from his seat in the carriage. I decided to sing along: Jingle Bells? What the hell? Halloween's next week! I got a laugh from the cashier and a puzzled look from my son. I didn't bother to explain myself. He wouldn't have understood. Someday.


I love Thanksgiving. It's been my favorite holiday as long as I can remember. There have been changes, of course. My father is the grandfather now and I am the father. My children are the happy, noisy nuisances. Yet there is still something of those long-ago celebrations in every turkey and every pie. Nana is in my kitchen making sure the gravy has no lumps. Grampa still rises for Grace, and prays that we guide our children wisely. It is more than a memory. At least it is to me.

They are really there.

And I hope someday my children will remember our Thanksgivings as I remember mine. A time for family and friends and pies. A time to give thanks for all we have, and for everyone who has touched our lives. And whether my children realize it or not, I know my grandparents will always be there for them too. Even when it is beyond our awareness, love never fails.

Our lives breathe like the tides. A wave of weddings, then a lull. A wave of births, then a lull. A wave of funerals, then a lull. We float along on the surface. We welcome newborns, we mark milestones, we bury our dead. With a little luck, we play our parts: child, parent, grandparent. With a little luck, we greet each season of life with new eyes and an undimmed sense of wonder at each unique and unrepeatable day. And we give thanks.


Why not resolve to make this Thanksgiving more than a day? It is a season all its own. It deserves three days, perhaps even five. Resolve to ignore anything Christmas, at least until Black Friday. Christmas will come in its time, I promise. But I will say no more about that right now.

Thanksgiving comes first.

Respectfully Yours,