Mar 23, 2006

Hawaiian Delight

Here's an essay/book chapter that I'm submitting to my writer's group. Genevieve and Nana are the same person. I need to be more intentional about what I call her. It's only a draft. Only a draft on a blog, at that. Warning: it's long. But with any luck you'll get sucked in. Yummy recipe at the end, folks!

It was 1939, a good year to be in Honolulu. Europe was on the brink of war, but Hawaii seemed safe, thousands of miles removed. Pearl Harbor and the imposition of martial law in Hawaii were two years away and undreamed of. That year, Americans saw at least two Hollywood movies featuring Hawaii: Honolulu, which starred the ever-dancing Eleanor Powell in grass skirts, and Charlie Chan in Honolulu, one in a series of comic detective stories. For now, sun, water, “aloha’s” and lavish real flower leis greeted newcomers with the promise of escape.

For Genevieve and Nancy, my grandmother and mother, the notion of escape was elusive. They had recently moved to Honolulu from Seattle, as Nana had taken a job as secretary to the President of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce. “He was a drunk,” she would say dismissively, “I had to write all the press releases myself.” Nancy was all Genevieve had on that faraway island. A story Nana told me several times was the day the eleven-year-old Nancy was swimming in the surf and playfully ducked her head under a wave. Genevieve, terrified that she couldn’t see her daughter, rushed into the water to save her.

I don’t know who was more embarrassed, Genevieve, who had to ride the trolley back to the apartment fully dressed and without a change of clothes, or Nancy, at her mother’s hovering. (“Mother! I know how to swim!”) Genevieve sat, dripping and uncomfortable on the hot trolley, her wet dress flattering a fine figure, her auburn hair dripping, shoes squeaking, her daughter sulking. At this moment Genevieve no doubt wondered, “What am I doing here?” as she remembered her parents in Queen Anne Hill, still living in the spacious house she grew up in. Their Protestant rectitude might have even appealed to her from that distance, sweetened by her attachment to Seattle. She must have missed the wild blackberry patch across the street, her home’s generous front porch and its view of Mt. Rainier, the soothing clatter of the Counterbalance, even the long walk up and down the hill to church with her family.

But here she was, a middle-aged office worker bringing up her only daughter alone. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She had been the Oregon State tennis champion in college, president of Alpha Gamma Delta, and the belle of the fraternities. In her senior year she had become engaged to the Oregon State men’s tennis champion, Ken. I’ve heard a couple of different reasons from Nana as to why they were engaged for years without marrying. One, that Ken had asthma and his doctor said he shouldn’t marry. Two, that Ken was saving money. Slowly.

Whatever the case, by the time the engagement had languished for seven years, Genevieve had taken a job in San Francisco, much to the chagrin of Ken and her parents. Her parents complained that her apartment building “smelled of garlic,” which in those days meant the presence not of gourmands but of immigrants. One day, Ken, having had enough, took the train down from Seattle to fetch her, perhaps with dreams of an imminent wedding in his head. We’ll never know, because Ken also had a surprise waiting for him—Nana had gotten engaged to another man.

Nana waited until the very long train trip was over to break off the engagement to Ken. How tedious the hours must have been, filled with strained conversation.

“How is your mother?”
"Fine, just fine.”
Long pause.
“Genevieve, are you all right? You seem distracted.”
“Oh, no, everything’s fine. I’m just tired is all.”

Nana always said about John, the new man, that he “swept her off her feet.” He had seen her at a dance and was drawn to her laughing eyes and shining auburn hair. So much so that he bragged to a friend, “I’m going to marry that woman!” It didn’t hurt that he was scion to a large fortune either. Nana returned to California after dispensing with the albatross Ken, and married John quickly in a private civil ceremony. The couple moved to a charming bungalow in Pasadena, the city where John already lived, and where he had grown up. Genevieve gave birth to Nancy ten months after the wedding in the spring of 1929, and the sweet domestic scene began to turn sour.

It turns out that John was not only rich, but rich, idle, and spoiled. And an alcoholic. Genevieve, not knowing a thing about alcoholism, couldn’t understand why John would be gone for days at a time, and then apologize profusely, or why one time he drove the car through the garage door. When my mother was only a toddler, Genevieve divorced him. She divorced him, a bold move for a woman in the 1930s. John’s mother Inez then offered to pay Genevieve $13,000 if she would give her Nancy. Genevieve’s fear that John’s mother would try to take Nancy may have rendered the “escape” to Hawaii more desperate than most tropical vacations.

“Back to Honolulu,” Nana thought, as she roused herself from her thoughts and disembarked from the trolley with Nancy. “What will befall us here?” she asked herself wearily. She gripped Nancy’s hand tightly.

Nancy was a tall skinny girl at this age, extremely shy, with dark braids down her back. Genevieve’s hawk-eyed protectiveness exacerbated Nancy’s low confidence and self-consciousness. But still, Nancy was a girl who knew what she wanted. And one day, playing in the sand and talking with a girl her age named Carol, Nancy picked out her next father and Genevieve’s true love.

“Where’s your mother?” asked Nancy of Carol, as they dug a moat around a lopsided castle. Genevieve, of course, was a few yards away, pretending to be engrossed in a novel.
“She’s not here. She lives in California. I’m visiting my father--they’re divorced,” she added under her breath, studiously plopping down a bucketful of sand to create a turret.
“My mother is divorced, too!” said Nancy loudly, breathlessly. Genevieve looked up from her novel.
A gentle-looking man came up to Carol. “Carol, honey, we’re going back to the hotel now. . . . Who’s your new friend?”
“This is Nancy Owsley. Her mother is divorced, too!”
“Oh,” he smiled, “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said politely in a mild Southern drawl, as he solemnly shook Nancy’s sandy hand. “I’m Colonel William Carne.” His warm brown eyes looked into hers and Nancy burst out, “My mother’s right over there. Don’t worry, she’s not really reading that book.”
“Mrs. Owsley, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” murmured Colonel Carne, decades later to be known to me as “Papa.”
"Colonel Carne? How do you do?” Genevieve replied, properly.

And so love began. They became engaged one day later, and married a week after that, and were not separated until Papa’s death in 1974. I was ten when I learned that he wasn’t my “real” grandfather. Nana always told me. “He was my one true love.”

A couple years after Papa’s death, Nana visited her brother Fred in Seattle, and flew to Hawaii with him and his wife to visit her relatives. At some point in their visit they were treated to a pineapple cake, which they marveled over. Nana took the recipe home with her. This cake is luscious, sweet and rich. Pineapple is one of the most sensuous fruits. Nana’s rustiest file box contains four or five handwritten copies of this recipe, perhaps for handing out to friends, who inevitably asked her for it. Ironically, this cake calls for canned pineapple, even though it is from Hawaii. But perhaps that is fitting, because pineapple isn’t even native to Hawaii; it was introduced by the Spaniards in 1813, and Hawaii is largely transplants and tourists, anyway. A place to escape to and return from. And the baking mix the recipe calls for? Because sometimes you need a shortcut to love.

The cake was a huge hit in our family. Nana, my mother and I each made it several times during my college years and shortly after. The recipe was forgotten for a long time, but right now the cake sits cooling on a baking rack on my counter, smelling rummy and rich, soaking up the sugary glaze. The cake has a new name now. It makes me think of the time, many years ago, when my mother introduced Nana to Papa, on the eve of war, on a small faraway island in the vast blue sea.


True Love Pineapple Cake

1 20-oz. can crushed pineapple
2 cups baking mix (I use Bisquick)
1 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
¾ cup sour cream

½ cup butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons rum


¾ cup sugar
¼ cup melted butter
¼ cup pineapple juice

Beat until dissolved.

Drain pineapple well, saving syrup. Stir baking mix, flour, baking powder, and soda together. Beat together sugar and butter until light and creamy. Add sour cream and vanilla and mix.. Add eggs and beat one minute. Add dry ingredients and beat one minute. Mix in drained pineapple and rum. Turn into well-greased bundt pan and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and spoon half the glaze over it. Let stand 10 minutes. Turn out on serving plate and pour rest of glaze over.

Mar 20, 2006

The Last Gift

I have this scarf. Velvety rayon, its knit body is beginning to tear in a few places. Its wide stripes are an unlikely mix of deep rose, maroon, rich orange, and chocolate brown. It went well with my salon-created dark auburn hair. It now goes well with my naturally silver hair. And it always makes me feel warmer.

This scarf was a present from my mother on my fortieth birthday, the last gift I would ever receive from her. Which is why, when I left it on the coat hook in a restaurant on Saturday, I panicked. The young man who answered the phone was obliging, and said he would try to set it aside, but he also said we'd better get it soon or it would be bound to disappear. So John dropped by the next day and retrieved it for me. (Thank you, dear!)

Yesterday, March 19, was the seventh anniversary of my mother's death. We all went with my father to her gravesite in Valley Forge Park. Next to my mother lies my brother David. Will was screaming that he was cold, but we weren't ready to go. I said "How about wearing my scarf?" and he agreed. So there he was, this big long scarf around his neck, almost dragging on the ground and clashing fiercely with his red jacket. (Unlike Jack, Will loves to accessorize.) There we were, huddled against the March wind, my father and I with our own memories and thoughts, John doing his best to answer Jack and Will's questions, and telling them not to stand or jump on any gravestones. John took a picture of us as we smiled and leaned into each other.

As we walked back to the car, I said, "I can't believe it's been seven years." John agreed. But then he said, "And yet it was a lifetime ago." We looked at the boys, Jack reading the names of the dead out loud, Will prancing around, the scarf billowing and blowing. I pulled my collar tighter and rubbed Jack's cold hands together with mine. "We should come back some time when the weather is warm," laughed John. "We keep coming on March 19." We promise ourselves we will return in May to walk the towpaths of the Perkiomen Creek, to revel in the sun and seek respite in the dappled shade. Meanwhile, we seek shelter from the cold.

Mar 10, 2006

Can You Say "Galaktoboureko"?

Today I met my friend Deb at St. George's Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Not for a service, for lunch. Every Friday the Greek ladies cook up mousaka, stuffed grape leaves, spinach pie, baklava, kataifi, and the aforementioned galaktoboureko. It's a filo-based pastry with custard in it. We each had a hearty meal for $8.50 each, and even got to hear some Greek music on the CD player to boot. Like every old church hall, the atmosphere was that of faint desolation, which I don't mind. It reminds us that our time on earth is fleeting.

Then, on Deb's insistence, and because our time on earth is so fleeting, we had gelato at Capogiro Gelato Artisans, splitting a bowl with the following flavors: Blood Orange, Grapefruit Campari, Bitter Chocolate, and Pistachio. Stratospherically delicious. Then we ran for the train.

All this while John wrote some code and rewashed some of the bedding Will threw up on the other night. But he nevertheless listened
graciouslyto my story of all the food I ate. Bless him for that. Now that I'm a food memoirist, eating is my calling. I like that.

Mar 9, 2006

In Like a Lion

We've been talking a lot lately about spring, and how March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. We're all eager to spend more time romping about outdoors. A couple of days ago, we arrived at school and Will disembarked from the van. Stepping into the sunshine, Will exulted, "It's a sheep!"

Mar 6, 2006

33 Things from Jack, and 18 More Things

I let Jack and Will fiddle around in their own Word documents, which I may regret someday. Will likes to use the numbered lists feature because he's going through a stage in which dates and all kinds of series fascinate him. Today Jack did a list, too, and here it is. The idiosyncratic numbering is because the second part of the list didn't convert too well and I don't feel like trying that hard to fix it . . . . and no, he wasn't ingesting high amounts of sugar near the end.

1. king Arthur

2. morgan le fay

3. queen

4. moon

5. mars

6. earth

7. Saturn

8. Pluto

9. sun

10. noodles

11. dandy

12. yankee doodle

13. rhode island

14. ohio

15. Indiana

16. new Hampshire

17. Vermont

18. California

19. Hawaii

20. texas

21. pensylvania

22. ilinois

23. Alaska

24. Oklahoma

25. navada

26. civil war

27. florida

28. utah

29. Wyoming

30. sushi

31. max

32. phillidalphia

33. steelers

1. eagles

2. cockroach

3. georgtown

4. Ghana

5. Madagascar

6. nambia

7. zambia

8. queen Elisabeth

9. mini wheats

10. hunny bunches

11. bunny

12. chipmunk

13. squirrel

14. espenyole

15. squirrel has big bread

16. girly

17. chipmunk is fat

18. happy egg yolk


Mar 5, 2006

FAQs about My Life, Me, and My Blog

1. No, this isn't turning into a "food blog," although Scrivener has moved me from his "academic" blogroll to the "parenting" blogroll. That relieves me of the pressure to use the words like lacuna, interpellate, invidious, and reify. Now I need to talk about my kids more! Geez.

2. We did decide to send Jack to the local public school. We have told all necessary parties, and feel really good about this decision. We live in a great school district, and are blessed to even have a choice. So many parents don't.

3. My writing group is getting more productive because we're getting to know each other better. They are encouraging me to write a real food memoir. I figure since I am fairly good at writing and cooking, and have all those handwritten recipes from Nana and my Mom, and don't have a "real" job, that it's a reasonable thing to do. I've read Julie & Julia, which I thought was good if rather bloggy. I love Ruth Reichl, and am just now reading her first book, Tender at the Bone. Personal essays with recipes scattered here and there. Next on my list is Laurie Colwin. I have already read John Thorne, who is the best contemporary food writer I have ever read. Of course I've read M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David from a few decades ago.

4. I'm considering using my real name for my blog, and focusing more on the book idea, in which case, hey, I guess it may become a food blog, oh, hell, I should stop worrying about these categories. I still love the name "Dream Kitchen," though, and actually the title would still work with what I'd like to do, to tie food in with the desires and dreams of my grandmother, mother, and me. Food becomes a way into writing about everything else.

Mocha Mystery Solved

Well, I made my grandmother's Mocha Mystery Cake, which I mentioned in my previous post. It was right dandy. You pour a cup of coffee on top, and it forms a sorry-looking looking puddle. This doesn't look promising. Then you slide it into the oven as you tell yourself to have a little faith. As the cake bakes, it rises and the puddle sinks down into the interior. Then at the end there's this lovely dark mocha pudding at the bottom of the cake. I recommend serving this still warm with vanilla ice cream. Another mystery cake from the 1950s is "Tomato Soup Mystery Cake." It has a can of cream of tomato soup in it, which is the mystery, and it says it right in the title, so what's the fun in that? This need for mystery in desserts has me stumped. Nevertheless, I soldier on.

Mocha Mystery Cake

3/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ounce unsweetened baking chocolate
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1 cup cold brewed coffee

Grease an 8 x 8 pan. Preheat oven to 350. Sift sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl. Melt chocolate and butter together, and add to dry ingredients. Mix until crumbly. Add milk and vanilla and stir until smooth. Scoop batter into pan.

Stir together brown and white sugars and cocoa for topping. Sprinkle on top of batter. Pour coffee over all.

Bake at 350 for 35 to 40 minutes. Cut in squares after 10 minutes and turn each square upside down on serving plates.