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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Party Perfection?

            I love parties.  I love going to them, hosting them, and planning them.  There's nothing more fun than getting a group of friends together and enjoying each other's company.  Over the years I have hosted everything from anniversary and birthday parties to formal teas and craft nights.  And if I've learned one thing it is this.  There will be a disaster.  No matter how hard you plan, no matter how early you start, something will go wrong. 


 The dog will puke on the carpet, your child will break his arm, and your husband will eat half of the appetizers and say he was "just having a snack." Disasters are a part of every party The truth is that behind every "perfect" party is a hostess who knows how to laugh at herself, and have fun in spite of the flooded toilet and the burnt lasagna.


My list of party catastrophes is so long I can't remember them all.  Some of them I was able to hide from my guests.  Like the time my cocker spaniel at a dozen cooked bratwurst.  I was being the perfect hostess and cooking everything ahead of time for a family function.  Two dozen grilled bratwurst sat on the kitchen counter when I heard screams from the front yard. By the time I untangled the bike wreck, and bandaged two sets of knees, all that was left of my bratwurst was an empty pan and one very sick little dog.  All it took to fix that little disaster was an expensive trip to the vet and two dozen more bratwurst.  The party was great.

            But sometimes the calamity just can't be hidden.  Like if your teenage son burns pizza right before you have guests.  There's nothing more fun than welcoming people to a smoke filled house with fire alarms shrieking overhead.
The only thing you can do is slap a smile on your face, pass out chips and dip, and talk about how you love the fragrance of a campfire.  You can offer to spray your guests with air freshener but they usually refuse.

            The worst is when the disaster occurs right in the middle of the party.  Like the time I made great grandma's famous brisket.  I was so proud of myself.  I pulled that succulent plate of meat out of the oven and proceeded to trip over one of the kids' toys.  The meat went flying, I went sprawling, and my party ended up in the emergency room.  Well, okay, I ended up in the emergency room.  No burns, just a sprained ankle.  By the time my crutches and I hobbled home, the party was winding down and the guests had cleaned my kitchen.

            The true secret to surviving a party fiasco is the friends you choose.  Fortunately mine are forgiving and have a sense of humor.  I can't imagine being a social maven and worrying about serving the right kind of drinks or having the perfect decorations.  I try to get my house clean.  Sometimes I make it and sometimes only the bathrooms are pretty.  My party decorations are guests' coats piled on the couch and the smiles of my friends.  The best food?  It is usually donated by one of the amazing cooks I know.  I can BBQ and I serve a mean cheeseburger, but urbane cuisine  will not be on my menu.

            My parties aren't fancy or famous, but I still love them.  I enjoy the chatter of friends and family and the laughter that echoes in my memories.  The disasters become a part of party legend and lore.  And me?  I say let's party more!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

All Sewed Up

Sewing, as both an art form and an essential life skill, dates back thousands of years. Early sewing needles were made of animal bone. Thread was made of animal sinew.

For centuries, hand-sewing was the means of holding pieces of animal skin, fur, and later fabric together to form clothing. And then things changed.

In 1790, Englishman Thomas Saint obtained the first patent for a design for a machine for sewing. His idea was modified by others from France, Austria and Germany in the early 1800s. Then in 1818, John Knowles and John Adams Doge invented the first American sewing machine. Unfortunately, it stopped working before much fabric could be stitched.

In 1830, a French tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier developed a machine to produce chain stitching. Unfortunately, his invention angered his fellow tailors. They were afraid this new machine would put them out of jobs, so they burned his factory.

American Walter Hunt built a sewing machine in 1834, but he, too, feared it would cause unemployment. He abandoned the idea.

In 1846, the first American patent for a sewing machine was issued to Elias Howe. His machine combined thread from two sources and secured it through loops.

By this time, other inventors were introducing similar machines to the market. Isaac M. Singer was one of the inventors. He developed a dual thread-source machine that operated with an up-and-down mechanism and was powered by the pumping of a foot treadle similar to that of a spinning wheel. Earlier sewing machines used hand cranks.

Singer and others were subsequently sued by Elias Howe for patent infringement and lost, but Singer continued to experiment with sewing machine development. In 1858, Singer abandoned the idea of producing industrial sewing machines (the industry didn’t seem to want them) and focused on producing a consumer sewing machine that could be used in the home. He received 20 additional patents, spent big bucks on advertising, and created a system that combined sales and service. Soon Singer was mass producing the machines and achieving commercial success.

Singer, who trained as a machinist and cabinet-maker, put expensive price tags on his home sewing machines. He charged $75-$120 at a time when the average annual household income in America was about $500.00. He then introduced a new concept – installment-plan payments – and the sales of his sewing machines skyrocketed. He set up a corporate office and a manufacturing facility in New York City. Sales of his sewing machines in Europe made Singer Manufacturing Company an international entity, and the company continued to grow.

By 1860, his company was the world’s largest manufacturer of sewing machines. He retired to Europe three years later – the same year his company sold more than 20,000 home sewing machines. Singer’s home sewing innovations saved time and changed the way average Americans sewed for their families. They were the first of many time-saving devices (like washing machines and vacuum cleaners) that changed the way Americans did household tasks.

Time passed, and the price of home sewing machines dropped, but sewing machines were still viewed by many as a luxury item. Wage-earners were hesitant to invest such a large sum of money into sewing machines, but Singer was a marketing genius. In addition to offering installment payments, he had retailers do lots of hands-on demonstrations, plus he offered lessons with each machine sold.

More than 170,000 machines were sold in 1870 – the year Singer’s red “S” trademark was introduced. In 1880, more than 500,000 machines were sold. Additional factories were opened throughout Europe and Canada, and new machine models were introduced. The company has now been in business for 160 years and has remained an innovator throughout its history -- even with the rise of competing companies and products.

I thought about all of this recently as Christmas approached. In 1966, all I wanted for Christmas was a sewing machine. I’d watched Mom and Grandma make beautiful creations with their respective Singer sewing machines. My eight-year-old self wanted to be creative, too, and make clothes for my Barbie and Chatty Cathy dolls.

I could hardly believe my eyes Christmas morning when I spotted a large yellow box under the Christmas tree with my name on it. I opened it carefully to find a small portable Singer sewing machine – a lot like Mom’s and just right for small hands. My interest in sewing began that day and continues today.

Through the years I took sewing lessons, became a regular at local fabric shops, and made everything from color guard clothing, purses and Cub Scout vests to bridesmaid dresses and Christmas ornaments. There’s just something extremely satisfying about creating with a needle and thread.

As a young adult, I “inherited” a circa 1890 Singer sewing machine in a beautiful wooden cabinet – complete with a set of tiny tools and attachments in a small wooden box. Very ornate. Things just aren’t made that way today!

I introduced my kids to the sewing machine at early ages, always encouraging a healthy respect for the moving sharp needle. Somehow, no one ever stitched a finger.

A relative gave my daughter a child-size Singer sewing machine in the mid-1990s. The Singer Company had made many changes and addressed safety issues since the production of my first machine. She enjoyed creating things for her dolls and stuffed animals. It didn’t matter if the seams were crooked or the tension adjusted too tight. She was creating and her efforts were beautiful.

She took several clothing construction classes in high school with wonderful teachers who encouraged her creativity. She said she found sewing to be a relaxing activity. She learned the basics on Bernina sewing machines made in Switzerland.

Now a fashion merchandising major, she continues to enjoy sewing one-of-a-kind clothing items. And for her birthday this year, she received a Bernina 215 sewing computer – complete with an LCD display screen and numerous stitch selection buttons and choices. She can manipulate the “computer” and get it to do tasks I didn’t know home machines could do. And yet the concept of interlocking thread from two sources and the use of a sharp needle remains – just like in Isaac Singer’s day.

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I will this year. While I'm not ready to give up my basic 1950s Singer sewing machine, I do want to learn to use at least some of that Bernina computer’s settings and functions. I may not be able to use it with my daughter’s ease and confidence, but I’m going to try. Wonder what Mr. Singer would think?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thankful for Thanksgiving

The Halloween decorations came down, and the Christmas decorations went up. At least that’s what I discovered on recent trips to the local mall and big-box stores.

But what happened to Thanksgiving? What happened to the day we Americans once set aside to be thankful for the good things in our lives?

Each year Americans seem to begin the end-of-the-year holiday season a little earlier. It seems that life moves from the celebration of ghosts and goblins to the arrival of Santa Claus. Maybe it’s just me, but I miss Thanksgiving.

I’ve always enjoyed having one day to simply be with people I care about. As a child, we drove from the city to rural Middle Tennessee to spend the day at Grandma’s with a house full relatives. We ate. We talked. We played. We hiked. We laughed. We enjoyed good food and the warmth of Grandma’s old farmhouse. We were simply – thankful.

I drove down my street the morning after Halloween. Most houses still had pumpkins, hay bales, and scarecrows decorating their front porches. But further down the street I saw a neighbor had already installed a variety of Christmas yard decorations, lights, and ornaments. He stood on a ladder putting the finishing touches on a rooftop Santa and sleigh. I didn’t wave.

I turned on the radio and discovered the local oldies station would be playing Christmas and holiday music 24-7 for the next two months! Seriously? The leaves were still on the trees, flowers still bloomed in pots, and it was warm enough to ride with the car windows down. I wanted to scream! At this rate, I thought, I’ll be sick of Christmas before December arrives!

Last week I heard the term Black Thursday for the first time. Seriously? How greedy is that? Seems like retailers can’t wait even a day to separate consumers from their money.

And what about the people who must work on Black Thursday, who won’t get even one day of rest and time to be thankful before the holiday frenzy begins?

So this year, like last year, I’m staging a personal rebellion. We’re planning to celebrate Thanksgiving in a BIG way. Our house is decorated with pumpkins, turkeys, and lots of fall color. No decorated trees, no colored lights, no snowmen. Not yet.

I’ll spend time buying groceries, cleaning, setting out extra chairs, gathering serving pieces, and cooking. I’ll pull out recipes for Mom’s favorite cranberry salad, Sue’s sweet potatoes, Grandma’s pecan pie, and Dad’s favorite yeast rolls. Things may get a little hectic at times (Ever cooked a turkey with the giblet bag still inside?), but the effort will be SO worth it. For one day I’ll savor and enjoy a houseful of company. We’ll talk, laugh, and catch up with family members from other states.

But most of all, I’ll be thankful. Thankful for family and friends, thankful for little daily blessings, and thankful to live in a country where we enjoy so many freedoms.

Holiday shopping can wait. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Coffee Confessions

I have a confession to make.  I don’t like coffee.  I know, I know.  It is the nectar of the gods, the cure of all ills, and it smells like heaven itself.  Believe me I wish I liked coffee.  It is the culturally acceptable drink of adults.  I’d love to walk up to the barista and request something fancy like a Sumatra Dark Roast or Komodo Dragon Blend.  Instead I quietly creep up to the counter and ask for hot water and directions to the tea bags.  Or worse, a can of Dr. Pepper.

I have never developed a taste for coffee.  I want to drink it.  When my husband brews a cup of cappuccino I always ask for a sniff.  Its scent is so exquisite.  Rich and dark, it smells the way that chocolate tastes.  But every time I sample the lovely liquid, my tongue revolts, my jaws clench, and I have the urge to spit.  I just don’t like the taste.  Please, don’t hate me!  I’m already a coffee pariah.
And coffee houses are so much fun.  Deep comfy chairs for sipping and visiting.  Fun funky art that brightens the walls, and cozy nooks perfect for reading or writing the great American novel.  Who doesn’t love a good coffee house?  I can’t resist them.  Even on a recent road trip to Arkansas with my friend and coffee junkie, Jeanie Ransom, we had to stop at a coffee house or two.  We found a charming spot called Sweet Bay Coffee.  We wanted to stay all afternoon but we were already playing hooky from the conference and good girls that we are, we were afraid of “getting in trouble."  So we soaked up the atmosphere and vowed to spend an afternoon sipping and sniffing coffee closer to home.

Lucky for us there are several charming shops in the St. Charles area.  Jeanie works at Starbucks, which is a perennial favorite for coffee drinkers in the know.  She gives a class called coffee 101 where neophyte coffee drinkers can learn the difference between French roasts and Italian, or latte and cappuccino.  Starbucks even offers coffee tastings called a “cupping” where aficionados can learn to rate coffee on the basis of clarity, complexity, and balance or sweetness. 

I have a different way of rating coffee houses.  I look for charm, comfort and good food.  Three local independent coffee houses have made my list of delightful places to spend the afternoon.  The first is Crooked Tree Coffee at 559 First Capitol in Old St. Charles.  Housed in a 1800's storefront, the coffee shop has an original tin ceiling, a great choice of herbal teas, and really fabulous selection of wraps and sandwiches.  The mandarin orange chicken salad is guaranteed to make you smile.

I also love the St. Charles Coffee House at 3821 McClay Road.   It is housed in a modern building, but still has a comfy stay awhile vibe.  I have literally spent hours visiting with friends, solving the world's problems and not once have I been chased out.  So lovely to be able to sit and enjoy a cup of tea, sniff the coffee, and eat red velvet biscotti.

Back in old town St. Charles, coffee house addicts need to go to Picasso's at 101 North Main Street.  There is a perpetual art show covering the walls with works by local artists, great teas, coffees, and huge muffins!  Big chairs and quiet tables inside are perfect for writing, reading, and visiting.  When the weather is nice you can sit outside and spend a lovely hour people watching.

Coffee houses are a gift to our community.  The provide a gathering spot for friends, a venue for musicians and artists, and of course a serious cup of coffee for those with sophisticated taste buds.  As  for me, I will be forever a coffee wannabe.  But at least the coffee crowd lets me hang out at their wonderful stores.  Thank you coffee shop owners of the world.  You make me happy!

And readers - please let me know about your favorite coffee shop.  I'm always looking for a new adventure.

 Check out these great coffee shops on line:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pimento Cheese, Please

It's happened again. Another traditionally Southern concoction has made it to the big time as a trendy in-vogue food.

In recent years, foodies throughout the country discovered and exclaimed over Southern specialities like chicken and waffles, and shrimp with grits. Now those in the know are singing the praises of pimento cheese.

Bon Appetit magazine listed pimento cheese as one of 2011's food trends. Food Network star and Southern cook Paula Deen is circulating a recipe for Hot & Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip. Its ingredients include Vidalia onion, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and hot pepper sauce. Country Living magazine this summer printed a recipe for pimento cheese deviled eggs.

Pimento cheese has been discussed on NPR radio and various food blogs. And in our American culture that loves all things fried, it's even been fried and served on a sandwich! A recent cookbook release included a recipe for Pimiento Cheese Soup. And the subject of a recent master's thesis was, yes, pimento cheese. Pimento cheese also receives a bit of national exposure each year during The Master's Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Pimento cheese sandwiches are a popular choice during the week of the tournament.

Who knew this simple staple from my southern childhood would one day become such a taste sensation?

Pimientos are heart-shaped red peppers that measure about four inches long. They're sweeter than red bell peppers and were once an expensive imported delicacy.

Pimento cheese began appearing in the U.S. about 100 years ago, filling tiny sandwiches enjoyed at ladies' tea parties. Southern farmers began growing the peppers, which made them more affordable, and then J.L. Kraft introduced processed cheese to consumers. Soon pimento cheese sandwiches were a staple lunch item of textile workers in the Carolinas. The popularity of pimento cheese as an affordable sandwich filling soon spread throughout the South.

In 1933, Moody Dunbar, Inc., a family business operating out of Johnson City, Tennessee, began canning and distributing pimientos in the United States. Today the company is the large produced of pimientos and proudly uses only American-grown peppers. Several generations of my family have used Moody Dunbar, Inc., pimientos packed in small glass jars.

Growing up, the two choices for sandwiches with the elementary-school lunchbox crowd were peanut butter and jelly or pimento cheese. Both were sered on white bread, with or without the crusts (depending on whether Mom took the time to cut them off that day). These sandwich ingredients were nutritious and filling -- and a lot more economical than lunch meats or tuna salad. At least that's what our moms said, and they made our lunches.

The pimento cheese on my sandwiches came from a small container labeled, "Mrs. Grissom's Salads." Mrs. Grissom and her husband owned a company in my hometown (Nashville, Tennessee) that made sandwich spreads -- convenience foods, if you will. Now in her 90s, Mrs. Grissom still heads the company.

Our refrigerator always held a container of Mrs. G's pimento cheese. And if unexpected guests dropped by for dinner, Mom filled celery sticks with pimento cheese for a quick and tasty appetizer.

One day I was visiting my grandma when lunchtime rolled around. She offered me a sandwich -- peasut butter and sugar sprinkles or pimento cheese. I picked pimento cheese, but wasn't prepared for what hit my taste buds.

Mrs. Grissom's pimento cheese has "substance." The consistency is not too thick, but not thin and runny either. I bit into Grandma's crustless sandwich -- and stopped. This wasn't Mrs. G's pimento cheese! It was smooth and creamy and the pimentos weren't tiny precision-cut pieces. These pimentos looked like pieces of, well, peppers. I didn't like peppers of any color,a nd at that time I didn't realize pimentos are a type of pepper.

I didn't want to hurt Grandma's feelings, but this stuff wasn't what I thought I was getting. Its rich creaminess made me feel full in a hurry. I said nothing and choked down the sandwich with a glass of milk.

A few years passed. Grandma came to live with us, and with her came enough recipes to fill a cookbook -- all in her head. One day I came home from school to find Grandma in the kitchen with a mixing bowl, a cheese grater, and an old wooden spoon. She mixed these red things into some grated cheese, and then added whole milk and some seasoning.

"Taste this for me," she said.

I got a spoon and dipped out a bite. Hmmm, delicious! The consistency was rich and creamy with a twangy flavor my childish taste buds couldn't identify. Funny, but this was much better than I remembered. I developed a taste for both store-bought and homemade pimento cheese that day!

Many traditional pimento cheese recipes call for just a few ingredients -- grated sharp cheese, mayonnaise or whole milk, chopped pimentos, and seasonings. Other recipes suggest variations and add-in ingredients including green chilies, pickled jalapenos, Monterey Jack cheese, smoked cheddar, crumbled bacon, garlic, and dill pickles. Pimento cheese also can be found these days as a topper for hot dogs and hamburgers.

Whipping up a batch of pimento cheese can be as easy as turning on a food processor, but I prefer to make mine the old fashioned way like Grandma did -- grating the cheese on a metal grater and stirring together the ingredients with a spatula. The consistency is thick and chunky, but oh-so delicious! My daughter enjoys it as a dip with Fritos Scoops, and it's also good on Ritz crackers. Here's our favorite recipe:

Pimento Cheese
1 cup real mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Juice from 1/4 lemon
8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
8 ounces Colby-Jack Cheese, grated
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimientos, drained
Dash seasoning salt
Dash pepper

In a medium mixing bowl and using a spatula, combine the first five ingredients until well mixed. Add the cheeses and pimientos, gently combining until thoroughly mixed. Add seasoning salt and pepper to taste. Keep refrigerated. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Road Trip!

My husband and I love road trips and this summer we took our longest one, yet.  We packed our suitcases, water bottles, and hiking boots and pointed the car West.  Our destination was Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.  Some of our family and friends thought we were crazy.

 "You're going to drive there?
"Do you know how long that takes in a car?
"You do realize they have airplanes that go to Jackson Hole, right?"

It's hard to explain the joys of a car trip to the uninitiated.  But Darrell and I love the adventure of driving.  We spend hours talking about politics, religion, and what color to paint the living room.  We stop at any tourist trap that catches our eye.  And believe me there are plenty of them on the way out West. 

We stock up on corn nuts and Dr. Pepper and eat at Mom and Pop hamburger joints.  And best of all we get a real feel for the variety and vastness of America.  And let me tell you that the United States is big.  Really, really big.

Upon our arrival at Yellowstone we were blessed to be joined by dear friends.  Sadly, due to their tight schedules they had to fly out and missed the fun of a road trip.  But we all enjoyed the beauty and majesty of Yellowstone. 

I stared in wonder at the steaming Yellowstone Caldera.  Geysers spouted and mud pots blurped.  Mineral hot springs glistened blue, green, and orange.  An old hymn kept echoing through my mind...



  "Oh Lord my God,
   When I in awesome wonder
   consider all the worlds thy hands have made..."

We hiked through beautiful canyons and watched a moose grazing calmly in a mountain stream.  We even walked the 300 steps down to the lower falls of Yellowstone Canyon and 300 steps back UP.  I had the good fortune to be walking on steel steps that were anchored into walls of granite.  I learned that 100 years earlier tourists had been lowered by a series of ropes and ladders to the base of the canyon.  Then they climbed back out.  The women had done this wearing long dresses and petticoats.

Those first intrepid tourists came to Yellowstone via train as far as the rails would carry them.  They traveled the rest of the way by stagecoach or wagon.  No air conditioning, no CD player, and no McDonalds for bathroom breaks.

We stayed in lovely hotels with sparkling clean bathrooms.  They camped in tents and uhm, well, you can guess about the bathrooms.  Although I'm not sure how they managed that and the petticoats.

The incredible beauty of Yellowstone and the Tetons has been calling to humans for centuries.  Native Americans consider the place to be Holy ground.  Of course, they are right.  Nowhere else on earth has such a variety of geological and thermal features condensed into a relatively small area.  It is a homage to the magnificent work of our Creator.

It was a road trip well worth taking.  I enjoyed every one of the 3,921 miles of our trip   As a matter of fact I'm busy planning our next adventure.  This time we are heading North!