Oysters en Casserole

Toss a pint of drained oysters in a cup each bread crumbs, freshly-grated Parmesan or Romano and black pepper. Coat thoroughly, arrange in a shallow baking dish and drizzle with a half cup melted butter infused with two cloves minced garlic. Bake in a very hot oven until browned.  Serve with fresh lemon and bread for sopping.

 

Grinch Cookies

Forget those sissy elves, simpering Santas and ridiculous Rudolphs, here are Christmas cookies with a cranky twist based on the meanest, baddest Christmas character of all.

Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodore Giesel, wrote the story of the Grinch—a grouchy, solitary creature who attempts to put an end to Christmas—in rhymed verse and Random House published How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in 1957. The book was adapted as a Christmas special twice; once as a 1966 animated TV film starring Boris Karloff as both the narrator and the voice of the Grinch in which Thurl Ravenscroft sang “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” with lyrics written by Dr. Seuss himself, and again in a 2000 live-action feature directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey.

These cookies are fun, but they’re a mess to make, as you should expect; still, that’s all the more reason to get the kids involved in rolling the dough in the powdered sugar mixture, which is the messiest part. Mix together one box vanilla cake mix—I used the French vanilla—two eggs, one stick softened butter (NOT margarine) a tablespoon of vegetable oil and a 1.25 oz. bottle of green food coloring; all of it. In another bowl, mix one cup corn starch with 1 cup powdered sugar. Using a large spoon, scoop up a lump of the (very stiff green) dough, shape it into a ball and roll it around in the starch/sugar mixture until coated. Place on a cookie sheet lined with lightly oiled parchment paper and bake at 375 for about 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the dough balls. The trick is to make sure they’re baked through without any browning.

Once done, remove from oven and let sit 2 minutes before placing on wire rack to cool completely. Mix a half cup each of flour, corn starch and powdered sugar mixed with a half stick soft butter, just enough cold water to make a stiff dough and plenty of red food coloring (eyeball it, but you want them really red, not pink) cut into heart shapes and bake on an oiled cookie sheet at 350 until crisp. Glue to the cookies with icing and serve wearing a Santa hat and a sneer.

The Whore of History

I was in the bar having a beer and sulking over my tilted world, thinking nothing worse could happen when Ricky slaps me upside my back and says, “You look like shit.”

Rubbing the bridge of your nose with three fingers and an extended pinky is not a gesture to use frequently, but it fit on this occasion, punctuated by an emphatic groan. “Don’t be mean to me, Ricky. Just buy me a beer and go away.”

“Oh, but Jesse, you realize if I buy you a beer, you buy my company!”

“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. “I was just hoping you’d picked up a sense of decency after going to that fund-raiser for the Belhaven Creek Preservation Society.”

“Oh, my GOD! You should have been there,” he said. “The buffet looked like a crime scene with croutons.”

“Go away, Ricky,” I said. “Just let me stew. Thanks for the beer.”

Then of course first thing Ricky did was run this acid blonde drinking a screwdriver off the stool next to me and sits down with a rude and sinuous motion. Once settled, he lit a cigarette, fiddled with his hair, took a sip, looked at me and said, “You can talk to me.”

I flashed back over a year of juggling one disappointment after another and looked at Ricky, at a face as open as a page. Yes, I could talk to Ricky; I could tell him things I could tell no one else because he wouldn’t care enough to remember. Ricky is one of those people who see others as catalysts for their own self-edification much as Truman Capote did, and Ricky reminded me a lot of Truman: wispy balding blond hair, tortoise shell specks and a wit like a whip, a good guy most of the time, but when he’d had too much scotch you had to dance around him because he got so feely-touchy.

“I know what it is anyway,” he said, leaning back and swiveling on his stool “It’s those damn landmark things.”

“There’s more to it than that… ,” I began.

“No there isn’t,” Ricky smiled as he cut me off. “They’re landmarks, those little pieces of earth that those who are paid to think they know more about history ordain are more valuable than other pieces.”

“That’s not it at all, Ricky, and you know it.” Now he’d gotten my dander up. “This is history! I mean, where do we draw the line? What do we keep? What do we lose?”

Ricky scooted his stool closer and patted me on the shoulder. “Jesse, what is history? What is it to you, I mean.”

“Very well,” I said, “History is a record of human events.”

“Ah,” he said, crossing one leg over the other and scowling at a fat women at a corner table, “Sure, history is a human construct, without us, history is only time, if that,” he said, waving at his sister Ralph. “And on a planet with so much water and vulcanism who’s to say today’s landmark might not be tomorrow’s tidal pool? And what about those “vast and trunkless legs of stone” in a desert stamped ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’?”. The eastern seaboard used to be eaten up with properties touting that ‘Washington Slept Here’ in hopes some ignorant patriot with a fat wallet might be in the market. Of course, you can say any sort of thing special applying any given set of values, but dates and personages tend to take precedent over architectural details, which if you ask me are more important.”

“No, no, no,” I said, putting my palms on my cheeks. “Ricky, history is important, it’s how we position ourselves in the great Scheme of things.”

“No, it isn’t,” he said, smiling. “It’s only as important as you think it is, otherwise it’s just somebody saying something about a house where somebody lived, or a tree somebody hid in or a place where somebody supposedly stepped ashore. These are just labels on things that history puts her price on. She’s a muse, you know, not beautiful at all, just a skinny old woman with gorgon hair who sits in that winter temple on a bluff with dull ignorance as her partner and repetitious greed as her pimp; she’ll sell you a sign, make out a certificate, roll over, get on her elbows, knees or up ass for enough money.”

“Ricky,” I said, “I really wish I hadn’t asked.”

“You’ll be okay,” he said. “Live well and love deeply.”

Ave Medusa by Jeanne K Raines

 

Oven Anchos

Wipe clean, slit lengthways and place on a cookie sheet with lightly oiled parchment paper in the oven at its lowest setting. Bear in mind you do not want the peppers fragile; you’re looking for a leathery texture such that will reconstitute well in a sauce or stew. These peppers took four hours with two turns, a great base in any salsa.

 

The Downside of White Fruitcake

 When I showed Willis this photo of a white fruitcake he sneered in disdain.

“See how they’re pushing that post-menopausal philosophy so innocently,” he said, dangling a beer in his left hand and a cigarette in the right, “even going so far as to bleach such a dark, nutty intensely sensual confection.”

“Willis, It’s a just fruitcake, for Pete’s sake.”

“Oh, yes,” he said with a wink. “It’s also symbolically homophobic, exclusive of anything of a sexual nature. Short of an old white woman, it’s the very physical expression of spinsterhood.”

“You can’t deconstruct a fruitcake, Willis.”

The Orchid in the Kitchen

In November 2015, Hershey’s announced that it would swap out the artificial ingredient “vanillin” for the real deal in its kisses and chocolate bars. Vanilla extract climbed to $150, $200, then $275 a gallon. This March cyclone Enawo devastated Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of vanilla, and given the three-  four-year life cycle of vanilla, extract spiked on March 7 to $700 a gallon.

How is it that vanilla, the most alluring essence in the world, lush and sensual, now is consigned as a byword for the bland and banal? Lagriffe wrote that vanilla “is not, strictly speaking, either a spice or a seasoning; it would seem more exact to call it a perfume,” which might go a long way in explaining its proverbial usage on country siren’s ears or ankles.

Vanilla—like chocolate—comes from Central America and is the only member of the orchid family—which some maintain is the largest plant family in the world—that is widely used as a foodstuff. The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia, a vine that can grow up to thirty feet long. The flowers are naturally pollinated by native bees or by hummingbirds, none of which—unlike the plant itself—have flourished outside of Mesoamerica, but in 1841 a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method using a beveled sliver of bamboo was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion that is still used.

The fruit—a seed capsule—if left on the plant ripens and opens at the end (it’s here that I mention the root of ‘vanilla’ is ‘vagina’); as it dries, the fruits take on a diamond-dusted appearance, which the French—who have all these chic names for everything—call givre (hoarfrost). It then releases the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, and in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, particularly ice cream, these seeds are recognizable as black specks, but both the pod and the seeds are used in cooking.

Mexican vanilla is still the most intense and robust, but closer to home, when buying vanilla extract in the store examine the label and don’t purchase any with ‘vanillin’ on the label. For many cooks—me included—vanilla is an important addition to almost any cake or cookie, and while you might be tempted to serve hot chocolate or cider with a cinnamon stick, try serving cups with a piece of vanilla bean.

Plate from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743).

Noting the Garden

No matter which gutter of the global warming argument you trickle down, barring an asteroid impact—I think we have a 7-year window for those—we’re not likely to see anything drastic in the next century, so don’t let the likelihood that your great-grandchildren can’t grow roses keep you from telling you did. Keep a garden notebook, if only by writing on a funeral home/insurance company/alumni organization wall calendar when you plant a bulb, move a shrub or sow your greens, the date of a late frost and of course the first ripe tomato. Do not neglect to include such enriching details as when Heather drove her three-wheeler all over Sally Jane’s daylily bed as well as accounts or video of the mayhem and its consequences. Start today.

Gertrude Jekyll, the goddess of garden writing.