Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Glory of Wooden Spoons & Zeetburger

As a child, I spent a lot of time around food. I like food for many reasons - its nourishment, its comfort, and lately I've found that I enjoy the making of food. This may be surprising to some people who know me, but if you know my family background you can definitely say I "got it honest".

My mother spent a LOT of time in the kitchen when I was growing up. The family was quite large - with my parents helping to raise my father's 5 siblings, visiting cousins, neighbors, and sometimes near strangers. This was no small feat, feeding a giant family and the others, and thank goodness for gardens that put out enough for all. My mother's record was one Thanksgiving in the 80s, when she had 32 people eating. And this was no grand affair, except in volume. There were people eating in every nook and cranny of my grandparents' small house, from the kitchen table, the living room, and even some sitting on the floor. I can never remember there ever being enough seats for everyone in that house, no matter what time of year.

My mother learned her cooking skills from her grandmother, Grandma 'Bithey. Her real name was Tabitha but I only knew her as that. Visiting her in Springfield, WV (near Romney) was a great treat. She always had homemade bread and pies, and when she knew we were coming she would make cooked carrots for my brother (his favorite) and pumpkin pie for me. I still love pumpkin pie. Her kitchen was mid-century as it could be, with watertank green walls, metal cabinets, and white enamel sink.

On my father's side, he would always wake up on Sundays (about the only day he didn't work) and make coco wheat for he and I. My brother didn't like it much. He can cook, but the kitchen is Mom's area. He does, however, run a mean barbeque in the summer. My sister-in-law can't wait to get his grilled corn-on-the-cob.

My Dad's grandma, known as Granny, could make a meal out of an empty cupboard. I always remember there being gravy on her table, in a little pan in the middle on a trivet. Her house always smelled like Spic-n-Span, and she was probably the nicest person I've ever known in my life.

My Dad's mother, Grandma Henry, was also a mean cook. I was only 5 when she passed away, but her cooking lives on in family memory - her former cooking utensils are now prized family heirlooms.

There are others in my family who are some mean cooks - my Aunt Zeet (she's my Dad's sister Tamela) - makes a dish we call Zeetburger. It's similar to Manwich, but is sweet instead of sour. I'm not sure where the name Zeet ever came from, but that's what my brother and I have called her since we were wee little. I was on the phone with Aunt Zeet and got the recipe for Zeetburger. It's actually quite good.

Zeetburger Recipe:

Medium-sized chopped onion

One pound of hamburger

One cup of ketchup

1/2 cup of water

Squirt of mustard

2 and a half tablespoons of sugar

One tablespoon of chili powder

Salt & Pepper to taste

First, brown the onion in oil, then put in the hamburger to brown it. Once it's browned, drain it off. Add the ketchup, water, mustard, sugar, chili powder, and salt&pepper. Mix well. Cover and let simmer on low for 30 minutes. Serve between hamburger buns, or in the traditional style between two pieces of white bread. (You may need a fork and plate, as it is sometimes difficult to eat Zeetburger in the traditional sandwich manner).

I have learned that my strengths in the kitchen relate to baking. Apparently, I work magic with desserts - pumpkin pie, for example. Also fruit breads - banana, pumpkin, apple & cranberry. Chocolate cake. Cookies (best so far have been my chocolate chip and gingerbread ones). And I make a mean cup of hot coco. Of course, I've been told that my French Toast is to die for –

So, what am I doing to increase my kitchen prowess? I'm going back to basics. Fresh ingredients when I can get them (farm raised eggs, fresh pumpkin, and such). And, I've found that I like to use wooden spoons. Especially old wooden spoons.

They're not expensive, you can find thousands in antique stores, and they feel good in the hand. I've only got four that I use regularly:
All but one of the spoons I use is handcarved. The large one is a gift from my Mom, who bought it off eBay years ago. It's story is that it is from the 1860s and came from North Carolina. The small one with the hole in it is my only machine-made one. I bought it from a supermarket in Budapest when I was there last year. It's a good brownie maker- the hole lets the thick batter stir easier.

The large wooden one and the small wooden one I've picked up from antique malls in West Virginia, and I used the small one last night to make my mother's "Favorite Cookie Recipe". I need to work on that one - they are still edible but came out more like brownies than cookies. Of course, good food takes time. The way I see it, my family's been at it for generations.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Storytelling Retreat in Sistersville, WV

So, I've always been a sucker for Victorian architecture - give me stained glass windows, handcarved wood furniture, conical towers with witch-cap roofs, lead glass chandeliers, and gargoyles. For me, this is true comfort - a place with a history and a life all it's own. These places are where stories are born.

The Wells Inn, in Sistersville, WV is such a place. Built in the late 1800s, this hotel has seen the best of the Ohio River's wealth walk through its doors - and this past weekend it saw 13 storytellers become the latest in a long line of groups to spend time at the grand old dame of the river.

The hotel has seen some rough times of late, and is currently being renovated completely. Evidence of the renovations can be seen all through the place - but honestly it was not as inconvenient as you might think.

In the lobby of the hotel, there's a clock. A black walnut monstrosity that was crackled with age - apparently deeded to the property, and the clock can never leave the building. A veritable icon of time itself, the clock watched us all enter the hotel as it had watched thousands of others - with complacent acceptance and (every now and then) a chime of welcome.

In the dining room, which was under construction (all meals were served in the Black Gold Room next door) there were gold-leafed tin ceilings, with embossed panels featuring goddesses and griffins - a seeming motif in the hotel's decor.

Who is this? If you think it's Ephraim Wells, the hotel's builder, then you're incorrect. This is one of the hotel's former owners, but no one remembers which one. As with everything else in the hotel, it will take some research to find out the origin of this piece.

This is the bar in the basement of the hotel - and this is where some of the paranormal activity allegedly takes place. That's right - the hotel is supposed to be haunted. What better reason to spend the night? I spent some time in the bar, but aside from drawing a few connections with the set of The Shining, I didn't see or hear any ghosts. However, that's not a statement that could be made about the rest of the building.

The third floor hallway is the most paranormally active part of the hotel - and this is where our room was - the second one down on the right. The most reportedly haunted room (as we were told) was the room at the far end of the hall.

All talk of spooks aside, the spirit of the place is being returned to its heavenly heights. As you can see from this nearly completed room, the leaded-glass doors on the cabinets are still intact, and the woodwork is amazing. The chandelier is original. In short, the room was fab. We had one of our storytelling sessions in this room, and I frankly couldn't stop looking at the architecture.

All of our meals we ate together - 13 storytellers in a haunted hotel, on a stormy, rainy weekend. Sounds like the setting of a horror tale in its own, doesn't it? In actuality, this was one of the best weekends I'd had in a long time. I love my storytellers - because no matter how bad life gets, or how lonely you are, there's very little that can't be helped by a warm fire, good food, and an evening with good friends!

And some nice architecture helps too!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Rescue of Franklin Cat

When I was in college, my friend Laura told me that my life was "the best soap opera she'd ever seen". Granted, that remark was made in regards to a different period of my life, but it seems that the drama of life does follow me in (sometimes) inconvenient ways.

Take for example, the latest bit - Franklin, my cute little marble tabby cat, decided to take a walk one evening. When he didn't come in (and the temperatures started to drop), I went looking for him and eventually found him here:

Yes, there he is, 60 feet up in a white oak tree. Up until this happened, I liked this tree - revered it for its ancientness and historical memory. At this point, however, I began cursing its existence.
Franklin was evidently spooked by the herd of South Park deer, and ran up the tree to get away from them. However, he would not come down. Not for food, not because he was cold, not for Julius, not for anyone or anything. The first night I called the fire department (cliche', I know, but they did show up and tried to help). Unfortunately, the tree was too far back off the street for them to get the ladder truck up to the top of it, and they said if he was still there in the morning to call them and they would come back and try again.
That night I watched in grief as the temperatures dropped down to ten degrees, and kept getting up every few minutes to check on him to see if he had come down. I hardly slept, and to quote Mammy in Gone with the Wind, I was "prostrate with grief".
The next morning I called the fire station at sunrise - and although they were not too sure about what they could do, the firemen showed up to help. Once again, an unsuccessful attempt ensued, this time with duct tape, several lengths of bamboo, and a snare-like apparatus on the end of it.
Nada - so day two ensued, and I made hundreds of phone calls to rescue centers, the police, the power company, the animal shelters, the city offices, veterinarians, etc. I think everyone in three states heard about Franklin's predicament, and thanks to Facebook even more people were trying to help.
Finally, a tree trimming service called one of their climbers and he showed up to help. He brought ropes and clamps and such (and sheer bravery). By this time the story had made it onto the news services, and that's WBOY's Mike Krafcik filming the climber getting ready to go after Franklin. The Dominion Post also sent a reporter and photographer - it was quite the show when it all came together.
This is Mike the tree climber going up the tree to where Franklin is - clear at the TOP, and it's freezing outside. The wind was blowing and it was snowing, so this was all very stressful and intense.

Do you see those two little glowing eyes at the top? That's Franklin. He's sitting in the very top of the tree, where it was nearly impossible to reach him. He's back home safe and sound, though, thanks to everyone who tried and came through.
It was a real show of humanity, really. I learned just how many good people there are out there who are willing to help out when the chips are down. And some people were just mean - saying it was only a cat - but he is MY CAT. As he was being rescued, and even after, there were still people who had seen it posted Facebook stopping by the house to make sure Franklin was okay.
And no one is more relieved than myself.
Franklin is now grounded, until the big oak tree gets fitted with cat-proofing. I'm not going to get him declawed, that's just cruel. And the idea is to put something like metal flashing around the tree trunk so his claws can't get a hold. Keep your fingers (and paws) crossed that this will work.
If you want to see the news video or read the article, you can find them at WBOY's website. There is also a Facebook group that will update you on the progress of the catproofing and Franklin.