MYSTERIES OF WOODWORKING


I am mechanically minded. I used to delight in following directions printed in tiny, obviously translated steps to put together a new tool or device. Going through each step to make sure it follows the instructions was like a jigsaw puzzle. As time went on, the written steps were not as clear, and the object did not operate as promised. The vernacular became less familiar, and a lot of time was wasted trying to determine what was intended if they had only written it in English.

Years ago we ordered a redwood picnic table which arrived in pieces. Not being one content to wait for the man of the family to put it together, I laid it out on our deck with instructions in hand and proceeded to put the screws in the holes and suddenly it became a large and handsome table. I was understandably quite proud of myself, though I’ll admit a bit miffed that the man of the house was off playing tennis with his buddies. I later learned that the other men were impressed that I had actually done the job. The frost began to form when I found that my husband had said that he had known I could do it. A great way to get out of a job I’d say.

That was forty-five years ago, and the deck was replaced with a large family room shortly afterward. The table lived for a time under a pavilion at one end of the garden, obtaining a coat of white paint at one point, and joined by eight chairs. One summer we were seduced by a metal garden set with comfortable upholstered chairs and a built-in BBQ pit in the table. Quite handsome really. But what to do with the old table? Something that large and heavy is hard to get someone else to take home. As it was lying on its side and being rolled from one end of the yard toward an exit, it came to rest between a very large 50 year old orange tree and a lovely large fig tree. It seemed to feel at home there and it may have planned the move all along. You can’t trust old things. In its current and more convenient home, it has given us pleasure for many repasts, party and pick up. I wonder if it has a memory of its humble beginnings? Last Sunday on Mother’s Day, it hosted a crab quiche, fresh berries, and a delicious shortcake made by our grandson, while we brunched in the garden overflowing with roses and hummingbirds.

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THE CHINA CONNECTIION


I miss the sight of the roasted ducks dripping succulent juice into the trough below, and promising the harbinger of good eating. Alas, the Dragon BBQ restaurant is no more. It is only the latest restaurant which has closed with no prior notice. Though this city has a huge influx of Asian people, we don’t seem to have a decent Chinese restaurant. One or two Chinese buffets have come and gone through the years, but they don’t last long. Where do they go for good Chinese food? Conversely, we have many Mexican restaurants.

During the years I took Tai Chi each morning, we had a monthly pot luck picnic. I was the only Caucasian and usually took cake or a casserole. They brought ethnic food including chicken feet. unidentifiable dishes and many delicious steamed buns. Always with an enormous jug of hot tea with leaves floating around. It was a great way to get connected.

A number of years ago I wanted to buy goose livers for a pate recipe, so I went up to Oakland which has a large Chinatown, taking my mother in law for a day’s jaunt. Popping into several markets, I realized that no one spoke English which left me wondering how to connect with them. So I flapped my arms and quacked, hoping I sounded like some sort of barnyard fowl. I never got the goose liver, but I got duck liver and we both got a free lunch.

My mother in law was raised on a ranch in Chico, CA, where they had a Chinese cook, who still wore a queue. A ranch hand, thinking it a joke, cut it off one day. My husband’s grandfather chased the culprit off the ranch, whereupon he and the “Chinee” cook shook hands. Amazingly to my husband’s grandfather, the cook offered him a Masonic handshake. I now have a large porcelain teapot which came with the cook from China.

My MIL was quite fond of the Chinese, partly stemming from the herbalist who cured her mother’s paralysis. Would she be pleased or not with the amount of Chinese immigrants today?

THE GIVING OF THANKS


Why do we set aside only one day a year to say thank you to those we love? The old children’s story about the Pilgrims and the Indians being the cause for Thanksgiving has fallen by the wayside long ago, Were the Pilgrims thankful that they survived the day with their scalps intact? I doubt they formed a close knit neighborhood group thereafter, or met for coffee once a week. But History does tell us that the Indians were helpful in getting the Pilgrims settled into their new homes, and we hear of no immediate property disputes between them, so all must have gone well at the dinner table.

Today we dutifully cook the same meal our forebears made traditional; turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and the ubiquitous pumpkin pie—whether we like it or not. It’s a tribute of love to family and friends. An opportunity to gather around a table and share not only the fruits of our effort, but tales of the past, and a reiteration of how much we love and appreciate one another. We tend to show love for others by feeding them, and if that is so, the enormous quantity of food at Thanksgiving must deliver a powerful message of love. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

CONSIDER THE FLOUNDER


“Orange_ watercolor by kayti sweeetland rasmussen

Would you be better off not knowing?

Baby flounders look like any other normal fish, swimming upright with one eye on each side of their face. Then they undergo a bizarre transformation: one eye migrates to the other side of the face. It’s like a fishy facial reconstructive surgery. No scalpels or sutures, though I haven’t talked to anyone willing to try it out.

While you’re digesting that information, it doesn’t take long to accomplish this act. Five days in some cases and less than one day in some species. If a fish can have an awkward adolescence, this is it.

In exchange for this indignation, flounders get fabulous binocular vision. Great if you were scuba diving. You would have advance notice of any possible predator coming your way. Binocular vision would be useful for a lifestyle of lying in wait on the bottom of a sandy or stony bottom dressed in incomparable camouflage watching for an opportunity to snatch an unsuspecting shrimp or other unfortunate passerby.

In addition to the miracle of vision exchange, flounders have the enviable ability to mimic their background. Think of the advantage this might bring to those of us humans who might prefer to remain in the background? In a high school biology example of a flounder who had been placed on a checkerboard, the change began within minutes; the flounder had produced a believable rendition of a checkerboard on its back.

This ability to mimic background by changing their distribution of skin pigment is poorly understood. If one of the flounders’ eyes is damaged or covered by sand, they have difficulty matching their colors to their surroundings, which hints at some level of conscious control by the flounder. These guys may be smarter than we give them credit for.

My grandson is a wildlife biologist, and a world class fisherman. I wonder if he knows all this.

Selected from new book What a Fish Knows by Johathan Balcombe

COME ON-A MY HOUSE!


Rosemary Clooney set my heart racing when she sang about all the food she would have ready for me if I came to her house. I had never had any of the stuff she offered, but if she had thrown in a bit of Italian pasta or Mexican enchiladas I would have hopped a freight to go right over.

I grew up on plain American cooking; nothing fancy or exotic. I ate what my New England forebears had eaten, and was glad to get it most of the time. My Grandmother leaned toward casseroles; today we would call her the Casserole Queen. My Dad was a meat and potato man, and the dinner plate always contained two vegetables as well. No salad as we describe it today. Perhaps a slab of iceberg lettuce with a splash of Thousand Island dressing on top. No garlic, olive oil or wine, and salt and pepper were sufficient.

In 1890, about 100,000 Italian immigrants lived in New York. Italians in America were fiercely loyal to the food of their country and its various regions. Unlike eastern European Jews, Poles, or other European immigrants, whose children and grandchildren adopted generic American food as a way of assimilation, Italians saw to it that succeeding generations continued to cook Italian food. Even being teased in school about what you brought for lunch, which is still today a powerful inducement to culinary conformity, failed to force Italian kids to reject their parents cooking.

Nevertheless, immigrant families made a number of adaptations, in many cases all to the good. Food was plentiful, and instead of eating meat on rare occasions, families were able to eat meat whenever they chose. When one woman went back home, her neighbors had difficulty believing that people could eat so much white bread and butter and that she ate meat every day.

Americans began eating what were marketed as ‘Italian’ sausages, while in Italy each region had a different way of making them, and people could rarely afford to eat them. Macaroni (pasta) eaten by the well-to-do in southern Italy, became the emblem of Italian cooking, and meatballs and spaghetti became almost humdrum. Rather like thinking that ‘chop suey’ or ‘tacos’ represented the whole of their particular ethnic cooking.

By 1890, Italian restaurants were the most popular foreign restaurants, and a substantial portion of their patrons were non-Italian. For Italian and other ethnic restaurants, moving out of the enclave of immigrant patronage and catering to the majority of the population was irresistible, both because there were millions of people of all nations in New York, and because the non-Italians were less critical about the food.

The huge variety of Italian food is mind-boggling, as is found in all sorts of ethnic cooking. How many times have you heard someone swear that what they were making was the ONLY way to cook that dish? Recipes even vary wildly between families.

My late son-in-law, of Italian extraction, was a great cook period, but I heard his mother complain that he never put enough water in the pasta water. “I taught him better”, she told me once. A story circulated through the family for years about the time a young man came courting her daughter. After consuming a large plateful of homemade gnocci, he asked for seconds, not realizing that it was a first course before presenting the meat dish. She did make marvelous gnocci, a dish I worked on for a few years and then gave up as a lost cause; I even went so far as to purchase a heavy potato ricer. I envision light fluffy balls of potato and flour, but mine sink to the bottom and stay there in the cooking water. The commercial ones are not much better so I take heart.

ONE MAN’S JUNK


When I woke up this morning I thought of households all over America cleaning up after the Thanksgiving celebration yesterday. All the good dishes, linen tablecloths and silverware or whatever choices the family took, have to be put back in their place today, while the turkey carcass is put to simmer on the back of the stove for the soup to come.

We left all this work quietly waiting for us while we set out for the local thrift store to find a small picture frame. People frequently give away small picture frames suitable for 5×7 photos, so while digging through piles of them you may find a treasure. You remember the old saying: “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”.

Today is designated “Black Friday” for some reason. All stores are open with the lights on, so they aren’t black. I don’t remember when the whole thing started, but it’s a reason for normally sensible people to dash out of their homes in the middle of the night to get a good place in a long line in front of all kinds of stores simply to get a bargain. I don’t think they really care what they buy as much as how much they save. It’s an awesome sight to see.

When we got to the thrift store it was apparent that they participate in “Black Friday” too. Dr. A found a couple of picture frames for the one he accidentally broke, and I found a box of white plastic coat hangers 24 of which cost me $1. I had donated a box of them last year, so maybe these were my old ones.

I sat on my trusty walker watching the crowd and categorizing the shoppers. There were those who possibly needed to shop there, and others who were looking for a bargain. When a post-middle aged man walked by carrying a rubber wet suit, I realized a grandson would be surprised on Christmas morning. A small family of parents and two little girls bubbled past me with the father carrying a three-story doll house while the little girls danced alongside.

A sexy young Mexican girl took a bright red silky dress off the hanger, on her way to the dressing room. She will undoubtedly make an entrance at a holiday party. A black leather jacket made its way to the checkstand for $60.

One lady found several decorated tin trays for her cookie exchange–3 for $4. Then the prize of the day. I’m not sure what it was or what the lady planned to do with it, but it was a tall, 3 ft. decorative metal conical object with no apparent use. While I was waiting to pay for my purchase I mentally decorated it with greenery and berries and a red bird on top and called it a Christmas tree. I should have been there first.

THE BATTLE OF THE SHOPPING CARTS


I wonder, as I do each time I do the shopping at the local Costco store; where do these people come from? My mother and grandmother would stare in confusion to the crowds of people from other countries, all speaking in their own language. and all at the same time.

Costco no longer offers a wheelchair for those of us too lazy to maneuver the aisles, so I take my own walker in order to sit upon whilst waiting for Dr. A to come and relieve me of what part of the list I have been able to stuff into my cart.

The majority of customers I see shopping here are from some part of Asia, however there are a great number of people who seem to be from the Middle East. I am quite happy to realize that I no longer wish to to visit their countries, simply because they are all here.

We continue to be disappointed in the manners of fellow shoppers who apparently have not learned the English words for “Excuse me”, “Sorry”, “Thank you”, and “Yes please”; this last in receiving a sample from the food vendor. I forgive them though, as long as they continue to pick up a word here and there of our language. I would be the same in their country.

I won’t go into the subject of child rearing. It is painful to watch small children scream and slap their parent/grandparent because of the lack of their attention. I was always under the impression that children from another country were quiet and well behaved, as opposed to our own. After all, the ploy my mother used to get me to finish my dinner plate was to make me aware of all the starving children in China, so I always held a certain amount of pity for the poor kids.

In the crowded post office the other day, while a mother was trying to make herself understood at the counter, her rotten little boy was screaming for her attention. As a mother,, grandmother, great-grandmother and former teacher, I admit that I didn’t even try to stifle myself when I glared at him with narrowed eyes and yelled “STOP THAT”! His mother looked around vaguely and patted his head.

I don’t remember that shopping was such an experience in the old days. In fact, my mother had our groceries delivered, and I did the same from the same market when I was first married. The small store we frequented was family owned and hired a couple of high school boys to deliver. I had a mighty crush on one boy while I was still in high school. As is the habit of all people, male or female when hormones begin to be active, I found I needed to go to the store more often than necessary simply to gaze upon the object of my desire. He finally invited me to the movies. In preparation I sprayed myself liberally with my grandmother’s Shalimar perfume, which is either a powerful aphrodisiac or equally powerful bug killer. We took the bus from Alameda to Oakland. both of which put him in close proximity to the intoxicating stench.

He didn’t ask me out again, but he eventually married and divorced the girl who became my maid of honor. We saw him again last year at our 70th class reunion, on his walker with his son accompanying him. He was a nice boy and I’m glad he made it one more time.