Friday, May 11, 2012

I remember Mama...

      This will be the third Mothers' Day since I lost my Mama. Scratch that...Mama always appreciated clarity. I can just imagine one raised eyebrow and a wry observation: Lost? Really, darling, you should be more careful.
     This will be the third Mothers' Day since Mama died. But even after three years there  is still a lost-ness about it - that wistful yearning I feel when I reach for the phone to share some good news, or think of one of the thousands of questions I wish I had asked her, or when I set to work in the kitchen, always grateful for the blessing of being raised, nurtured and taught by a woman who was a foodie long before anyone coined the phrase.
     This will also be the first Mothers' Day since my younger sister and only sibling died, leaving two beautiful daughters, aged 17 and 20. There is nothing I can do or say to ease their sorrow on a day that will be acutely painful as, all around them, friends and acquaintances celebrate. 
      But I can speak a word of solace and hope - the promise that pain changes over time.  The "acceptance" that is the final and enduring reality of grief is neither a state of amnesia nor an admission of defeat. Slowly, memory by memory, comes the dawning realization that the awful finality of death is NOT the end of love.  St. Paul's assurance of the endurance of faith, hope and love is not mere sentiment.  God's enduring and transforming love have taken me from red, swollen eyes, sleepless nights, and a yearning for my Mama that actually felt like my heart WOULD break, into a deeper understanding of my blessedness and belovedness.  Now I can see my beautiful granddaughter and smile at the thought of how Mama would have doted on her - while simultaneously denying that she was old enough to be a great-grandmother. I can smell Mama's Spanish beef stew and feel comforted by memories of my childhood. I can see shrimp  and Virginia ham and sugary cereals in the grocery store and rejoice in her dogged insistence that my children enjoy their favorite treats. I can admire the natural hospitality, kindness, intelligence and tenacity of my children and rejoice in the truth that much of Mama lives on. The Psalmist was right, weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning. Grace happens.
     A particular memory has returned, unbidden, from the forgotten recesses of memory to bless me on this Mothers' Day. In 1975, when I was only sixteen, Mama was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was enrolled in a research protocol at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Sometimes, when Daddy had to tend to business, I flew from our home in Florida to Houston with Mama. It was difficult travel with a frail mother, interminable hours in hospital waiting rooms, and explanations to airport security about  the precious vials of chemo meds we carried in insulated bags. Mama could barely eat on these trips - nausea, mouth sores and fatigue had stolen her appetite for food. But her love remained undaunted- strong enough to put me in a taxi one Sunday morning where we headed first to church and then to Brennan's where she watched with utter delight as I tucked into the most elegant brunch I had ever enjoyed and my first taste of the famous Brennan's Bananas Foster. That is what love looks like - an emaciated Mama finding joy in a daughter's happiness. Digging deep into her precious reserves of energy because these were the moments that mattered.
     I remember, Mama. I remember that you had a part of your lung removed the next day. I remember the relief when I knew that we would share more meals around altar and family table. I remember Bananas Foster and the taste of love. And the tears I shed in remembering are tears of joy.
     I wondered: How should I remember and honor Mama on this Mothers' Day?  This is my attempt to embody the love that we shared on that day when all she needed was to see me smile.

Bananas Foster Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, room temperature.
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 1/3 cups mashed overripe bananas (about 4 large)
1 teaspoon banana extract
1 teaspoon rum extract

1/4 cup butter
1 Tablespoon water
2/3 cup brown sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons rum**
1 teaspoon banana extract
1 teaspoon rum extract
** You can also use banana rum or half rum and half banana liqueur.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (or 340 degrees F in a convection oven).* Grease and flour a 9 X 5 loaf pan.
In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt.
In a mixing bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar. Add eggs, bananas and extracts and blend until well mixed. Add flour mixture and stir gently, just until the dry ingredients are incorporated.  Pour batter into prepared loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean -about an hour in a regular oven, a bit sooner in the convection oven.  Begin checking doneness around 40 minutes. You can tent with foil if the crust is browning too fast.
Remove bread  from oven, let it rest for 10 minutes and then remove it gently from the baking pan and onto a cooling rack. Using a thin skewer, poke holes through the warm bread and spoon glaze over the top. (Try a sheet of parchment paper or a double layer of paper towels under the cooling rack to catch the dripping glaze).  Cool before slicing.

To make the glaze: Combine ingredients, including rum, in medium saucepan. Stir to combine and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and drizzle warm glaze over the banana bread.  Warning: Do not add alcohol to a hot pan, this is NOT a flambe recipe!

* High sugar content and a thick batter tend to make banana breads dark crusted before they are cooked in the middle. Convection baking, if you have it, helps.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What is in pimento cheese?

      I was born and raised beneath the cultural divide of the Mason-Dixon line. Even though the corner of Virginia that I have called home for most of my life sits along the banks of the Potomac River, in plain view of the nation's capital, and is fondly known as " the occupied territories" by my friends in the heart of Dixie, my sensibilities, manners and taste buds all bear the imprint of the South.
     I was surprised, then, when a post on a friend's Facebook page elicited a flood of comments and questions about pimento cheese. My friend had spent a day in Richmond and had enjoyed a sandwich that brought together two Southern favorites - fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. Genius, huh? My mouth began to water as soon as I read her post and I immediately began to plan my next trip to Richmond. I wasn't surprised to read the appreciative comments that her Facebook post elicited, but I found myself confounded by those who claimed never to have made a batch of this Southern staple and simply gobsmacked by those who claimed never to have tasted it!
     I have enjoyed pimento cheese on celery sticks, slathered on toast and piped into cream puffs. I dream about grilled pimento cheese sandwiches with bacon and sliced tomatoes. I've slathered it on hamburger and hot dog buns as a condiment for those sizzling, just-off-the-grill burgers, sausages and hot dogs. It is great on crackers as a quick snack.
     But, far and away, most of my exposure to, and appreciation of, pimento cheese comes from those occasions when people gather to celebrate, remember, and eat. I was at an ordination last week where I counted at least eight varieties of pimento cheese tea sandwiches - I attempted to taste them all. A pitcher of sweet tea, a plate of ham biscuits and some pimento cheese sandwiches, and you have yourself a "reception."  One of my favorite books on life in the South is "Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral" by Gayden Metcalfe (Miramax Publishing, 2005).  This witty, and wicked, insight into Southern culture includes not one, but a handful of recipes by ladies for whom "bring-a-dish" is a competitive sport! Pimento cheese sandwiches - cut into quarters on crustless white bread- fit all the criteria for acceptable finger food. Easy to handle, easy to chew, easy to digest.  Perched daintily on a china plate, balanced on a napkin, or snatched directly from the serving platter to mouth - making sure that mama isn't watching.  I've eaten pimento cheese sandwiches at weddings, funerals, baptisms, baby showers, ordinations, tea parties, sorority lunches, rummage sales, picnics and fundraisers.  Whether you like pimento cheese or not is  a matter of personal preference, but the idea of someone who hasn't tasted it...well, butter my buns and call me a biscuit!
     I should make one thing clear...if your only exposure to pimento cheese comes from the slimy, sweet, orange goo that comes from the deli case at the Piggly-Wiggly, you haven't tasted pimento cheese. The real thing begins with real cheese. Almost always cheddar, although family feuds persist over the primacy of sharp and mild. Good mayo, a jar of chopped pimentos, and you've got yourself the beginnings of something special. From there, the possibilities expand.  Every Southern cook has their own ideas on what makes the "perfect" pimento cheese. I like Worchestershire sauce and grated onion. Some add garlic, cayenne or other spices. Some grate their cheese, others mash it to a paste. One friend swears by a splash of beer.
    My daughter and son married into two of the nicest families on the planet. Our new extended family comes with regular  deliveries of some of the best pimento cheese I've ever eaten. My new favorite way to enjoy pimento cheese is around Gene and Debbie's kitchen table while we swap superlatives on the precious grandbaby we share. They  sneak a bit of finely chopped jalapeno into the mixture and it is out of this world! Love on a cracker. Comfort food at its finest.
     There is something sacred about sharing recipes and traditions. Breaking bread around table or altar, baking your grandma's coveted poundcake, sharing the soup you always deliver to the parents of newborns (the same soup your godmother brought you when you brought home your own precious bundle)... This is the stuff of life, and of love. Like pimento cheese, it's hard to get too much of a good thing.
     And so, I'm wondering.....What do you put in your pimento cheese?

Just in case you were looking for some basic proportions, start with this:
      1 1/2 c. mayonnaise
      4 oz. jar of diced pimentos, drained
      1 pound cheddar cheese grated
      1/2 t. Worchestershire sauce
      1 T. Minced or grated onion
Then, let your taste buds take over! Try garlic, onion salt, crumbled bacon, diced jalapeno peppers, chopped olives, horseradish,  Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper. Experiment with cheeses, try American for a milder flavor - but NEVER use the fake stuff! Try a splash of beer or cooking sherry. Mash or blend to desired consistency. Share with someone you love.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Just wondering....

I spend a considerable portion of my life in the spiritual/cognitive state of "Wondering Why..."  I wonder why a wet golden retriever won't shake UNTIL he leaves the easily wipable confinement of the shower stall.  I wonder why the phone book font is so small.  I wonder why one friend's cancer was cured and another's returned.  I wonder why I live in the midst of plenitude while others have so little.  I wonder why I seem to NEED an item within a week of finally discarding it.  I wonder why I'm the only person I know who doesn't like asparagus.  I wonder why I can remember my second grade teacher's birthday but forget the name of the newcomer I met at church.  You get the picture.....

Sometimes my wonderings propel me toward answers.  But more often than not, those wonderings nudge me toward the heart of mystery where I encounter God.  God in the uncertainty of my own capabilities...God in the renewal and re-creation of the brokenness of life...God in the unexpected joys and life-changing moments....God in the opportunities to take a risk and make a difference...God in the chance encounters that disguise new beginnings.   Grace abounds. I wonder where you and I will encounter it today?