Jan 29, 2007

Eatin' In (2nd Installment)

We've been trying to eat in for a few weeks now, and it's been interesting. We began by looking more closely at our cupboard, fridge, and freezer, trying to see what's really there. It's actually pretty amazing how we just look past certain things, never really considering them as eatable. But when we change our expectations about what constitutes a meal, it opens up all sorts of options.

We are considering having a weekly menu; our friends the Browns do this and their meals run really smoothly (at least to the outside observer). You know: Monday is soup, Tuesday is italian, Wednesday beans & rice, etc etc. But our schedule is pretty unpredictable; between occasional date nights, occasional night meetings, meals with friends -- how will this really work? Perhaps we'll try it anyway.

One thing we've done twice since beginning is Leftover Night. You know, those bowls covered in foil or nondescript tupperware containers, holding who knows what. Well, as long as you label them with dates (or really, really trust your memory), this meal works surprisingly well. It's fun to sit down to several small bowls of various stuff, perhaps supplemented with a bit of cereal or toast or PBJ squares. We're going to keep this up for sure.

Tonight we're having a recipe for spicy bean dip, hopefully modified to make bean & cheese quesadillas, plus a green salad. Yum!

Jan 27, 2007

Eatin' In (1st installment)

Our friend Will Samson set up a contest called the Pantry Challenge, where he asked bloggers how long they could eat from their fridge, freezer and pantry without having to buy anything except bare staples (eggs, sugar, and milk). Although we opted not to participate, we were inspired. So, Billy and I are trying to eat more meals at home, and have them actually be home-cooked. And by meals, we mean things prepared with knives and bowls, and the stove and oven (not the microwave variety), and pots and pans. We're also trying to consistently eat together, at the table, with placemats and napkins and full sets of silverware, and glasses of water and hot tea. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it hasn't been a habit for us. However, having Miranda has made us more aware of the habits and customs we model to her, and the values and virtues we'd like her to absorb. So, here we are in the kitchen and the dining room.

We're realizing you can have meals that are inexpensive, or fast, or healthy. You can usually even have any 2 of these 3 criteria, but it's difficult to accomplish all three at once. So, this blog thread will chronicle our growth in this area. Hopefully we'll showcase some meals, possibly a weekly menu, things like that. If you have any thoughts, advice, recipes, etc, please feel free to comment!

Tonight's dinner was a repeat of last night -- homemade chicken potpie, green salad with apples, pecans, and apple-chili vinagarette, and sugar-free pudding. Miranda enjoyed most of it but also had avocado and kiwi (her new fave). Making the potpie was enlightening. As I prepared to shop, I thought, "OK, I need boneless chicken breasts, frozen veggies, cream of chicken or mushroom soup, and canned biscuits for the topping." But after thinking a bit, I bought a whole chicken for $3.50, and came home and used my one can of veg-all in the cupboard, then cornstarch to thicken the broth after the chicken had boiled, and my staple flour, etc to create the crust. It was inexpensive ($4.09 not counting the staples) and delicious, and made 6-8 generous servings.

However, it was time-consuming and pretty messy. Cooking a whole chicken is easy to begin and laborious to complete (boil it too long, and all these little bones get in the broth and you have to strain it, plus you burn your fingers getting the meat off!). The biscuit dough got flour everywhere, and it took forever to figure out how much cornstarch to use for the gravy. You really begin to admire people who had to do this every day (and had to kill, gut, and pluck the chicken, to boot). It really made us appreciate the relative ease of our lives, and will hopefully keep my whining to a minimum.

We've been at this for about a week, so I'll blog about our earlier meals tomorrow. It's been interesting, and surprisingly tasty!

Jan 22, 2007

Where everybody knows your name

[I also posted this over at the ashram. Shameless!]

Last Friday John, Miranda and I joined our mailman for lunch at the nearby Buffalo Wild Wings. He was being transferred to another route, and since we've become something of friends over the last seven years, we treated him to a going-away burger and fries. It was yummy; Miranda even had a few finger-licks of the Medium wing sauce. She's a trooper.

This restaurant has become important to John. It was just about 4 years ago, when John was still new to our home, that he decided one night to go out and watch the Kentucky basketball game. This surprised Billy and me, as he was not in the habit of frequenting large, noisy places. But go he did, and he kept going back. For the first year, he sat on a stool next to the register, watching sports and accepting the occasional gift of free fries and Sprite. When he started getting an income, he moved to a table near the bar and increased his orders to "wings and wedges" and the occasional cheesecake (or two). He's watched more NBA, NCAA, MLB, and other stuff than I can imagine. He loves going there; it's his place.

The best thing about the story is twofold. First, the staff has always extended the most gracious of welcomes to John. They never (as far as I know) questioned his nightly seat by the bar, never said "order or get out of here." They seemed to sense his need for a space of his own, a place to come and relax (and get away from his nagging housemate -- I'm just saying). He's become one of the regulars, and that's due entirely to their hospitality.

Second -- and this struck me during our good-bye lunch last week, although I've noticed it before -- the people there really like John. They are glad to see him come in, and seem to offer an extra level of friendliness. During our brief lunch, they (mostly the pretty coed waitresses) called him "hon", "buddy", "sweetie", and simply his name, John. They know what he orders, where he likes to sit, what he likes to watch. He is known to them, and they like him. And when I asked the manager and staff about possibly hosting a surprise party for John's 40th birthday this March, they all said, virtually without exception, "For John, we'll make it happen."

I'm not especially surprised. John is friendly and easy to like. But not everyone goes out of their way to make people feel welcome, and the fact that they do makes me happy. John's dealt with some serious stuff in his life; he deserves a place where he knows they'll be happy to see him. And don't we all? So here's to you, Buffalo Wild Wings, for showing us how to turn strangers into friends.

Jan 19, 2007

Four Out of Five Weight-Loss Experts Recommend Solzhenitsyn over Herriot...

I realized something last night. If I’m hoping to lose a little weight before our next baby – which I am – then I need to be more selective about my bedtime reading. Picture the scene: It’s late in the evening, several hours after dinner, and I’m snuggled into bed with a cup of hot tea and a good book. Trouble is, all my favorite bedtime reads are full of people eating large, tasty meals which are described in such detail that I’m almost drooling.

Take last night, for example. I settle into my pillow and open a perennial favorite, James Herriot’s The Lord God Made Them All. Here’s what I found: "a piled plateful of sausages, scrambled eggs and fried potatoes", "a glorious vegetable soup with pieces of sausage and dumpling"; "on the plate rested a ring of mashed potatoes into which he poured hot fat containing bacon and onions"; "dessert was sago pudding, thickly sprinkled with cinnamon".

Hmmm, now I'm a little hungry. I put down Herriot and reach for Jan Karon’s 2nd Mitford novel, A Light in the Window. But there's more temptation here: "Crab cobbler! He stared at the dozen flaky homemade biscuits poised on the bed of fresh crabmeat and fragrant sauce"; "baked beans, cole slaw, and ribs from home"; "the dessert of orange mocha cake with fresh cream".

OK, now I'm really hungry. I throw Mitford in the corner and pick up the classic Anne of Green Gables. Wouldn’t you know it? They’re at the dinner table: "The kitchen was filled with appetizing odors emanating from the oven, where the chickens were sizzling splendidly"; "she proceeded to prepare her bread sauce for the chicken, mince her onions for the soup, and whip the cream for the lemon pies".

Perhaps I should seek an era when food wasn't so readiy available. I find Laura Ingalls Wilder under the night table and read the following: "Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted in his mouth like cream in his mouth. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie."

You've GOT to be kidding. Wait, I know a certain source of material deprivation. I go to the bookshelf and get Louis L’Amour’s Milo Talon. And wouldn't you know it, those damn cowboys are eating "a plate of beef, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes".

This is ridiculous. In desperation, I reach for the last book on the table, and thankfully find the following: "The men were chasing bits of rotten fish among the cabbage leaves, and they didn't leave anything, not even the gills or the tail, they even ate the eyes"; "he scooped up the last bits of mush with the soggy crust of moldy bread."

Finally. I have found hope in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Jan 18, 2007

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas...

... I realized that it was January 14th and we still had decorations everyone, I hadn't started on my thank-yous, and this Christmas blog series was way behind. This is definitely the opposite of cutting off Christmas on the 26th.

Having Miranda has made me stop to consider the holiday and all its trappings. It's been interesting and somehow comforting to think through what I want to do for Christmas, and why. Here's some of what I've been pondering:

  • What kinds of traditions do I remember and treasure from my childhood and adulthood? Some of these are pretty predictable, but good nonetheless. I loved traveling to my grandparents' home. There were always sweets in little tin canisters, and lots of jellies and jams for breakfast, and a veritable sea of presents under the tree. We'd gather on Christmas Eve and open them, enjoying the evening. Then, Ellery and I would camp out of the floor and await Santa's visit. As an adult, I love visiting my parents' homes and seeing the same decorations, year after year; it's so comforting and welcoming. My mom has these holiday glasses and spoons that she puts out every year; I just love seeing them when we arrive, it feels like Christmas. And for several years, we also took an afternoon to shop for a family for the Salvation Army, which was one tangible way to express an outward concern during this increasingly selfish season. I also love receiving holiday pictures and letters; it makes me feel connected to folks near and far.
  • What do I particularly enjoy doing during the Christmas season? What are my special giftings? Four main things, which have lots of overlap: cooking, decorating, entertaining, and serving. I love the holiday meal; I love cooking it, and I love eating it. And I don't like creativity in this meal; it needs to be the classics. So, I'd like to offer this to our family each and every year, as a cornerstone of the holiday experience. I also like decorating, bringing out the same things every year as welcomed and cherished friends. "Hello nativity scenes, I've missed you! It's good to see you again!" I loved hosting our holiday movie party, and hosting the Browns for Christmas dinner; I'd like to continue these in the coming years.`
  • What are new traditions that I see our family developing? How can I nurture them?We've had the blessing of celebrating Advent with our community for the past few years, and it's something that I'd like to prioritize in the years to come. Perhaps we could combine the daily opening of the Advent calendar with the reading of the daily scriptures. We've also done Chrsitmas morning brunch for a few eyars, and it's a ncie way to begin the day. In addition to the usual holiday decorating, we covered the front door this year with the cards and family pictures we'd received from friends and family. This was a great way to combine tradition and keeping up with friends and family. The flip side of this is that we've sent our own picture/letter a few (non-consecutive) years, and this is something I'd like to continue doing. These may sound somewhat commonplace, but sometimes it's nice to gradually live our way into meaning, as it were.
  • How can I pursue these holiday moments without creating stress and unhappiness in our home? This is a big question for me. Sending 100 holiday letters sounds like a good idea, until we actually have to get it done. And even if we don't mind the folding, stamping, and addressing, it still takes time and energy. Ditto with decorating, cooking, everything else. What can I do to make these things fun, family-oriented, and an integral part of the holiday experience?

These are just some of the things I'm considering; next year it may be totally different!

Last year, my advisor Robert said, "Next year will be a great Christmas, Miranda's first real one to remember and to share." He was right; it was wonderful.

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas...

... we traveled with Tracey, Travis, and Jessica to Georgia to visit Billy's mother's family. We saw "Gigi" (aka Grandma Stevens) and celebrated her 84th birthday. We stayed with Billy's Aunt Linda and Uncle Chuck, who were fabulous hosts. We had more good meals than I can remember. Let's just say... breakfast was bacon, sausage, english muffins, perfect hashbrowned potatoes, and eggs scrambled in real butter. Yummmmmmm.

We also saw Billy's cousins Chip and Todd. Todd lives in London with his family. Hopefully I'll be able to see them when I'm there in March. Chip and his wife Celeste have 2 great kids and are tons of fun.

It felt so nice to have a real vacation with Billy's family. They are great people and I'm enjoying getting to know everyone. We opened presents from Tracey and the Georgia folks and had an amazing run of college bowl victories (Georgia, Texas Tech, Kentucky, and South Carolina!) Miranda had so much fun, and we can't wait to go back.

Jan 17, 2007

On the Tenth Day of Christmas...

... we celebrated Christmas morning at home. We emptied stockings and unwrapped presents, and brunched on cinnamon french toast, maple sausage and spiced tea. It was so nice to have a leisurely morning filled with wrapping paper, carols, and yummy food.

John helping Miranda open her blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Grandmommie gives such interesting gifts!

She became quite adept at ripping open the wrapping paper -- show her an edge, and she's off!

Examining the personalized Christmas ornament from Miss Marie.

No need for help here, Mom! I'm headed for that equilateral triangle. Thank you, Aunt Tracey!

I love apples!!!

John received a gift certificate to Buffalo Wild Wings and a case of Sprite, as well as several Twix bars.

Billy displaying the beer Santa left in his stocking. It was a nice complement to the Reeses cups and banana.

I love the game Scene It. We took this to our friends the Leffels a few nights later and had a blast. Billy can't believe I want the Harry Potter version!

The best present of the year -- a breadmaker for the family. We've been wanting to have more homecooked meals, and Billy thought this would be a great asset. As I write, a loaf of garlic-romano-rosemary bread is baking.

Miranda's first ride on her new "Hog", courtesy of Pop and Nanny. A hint for the environmentally aware -- employing a favorite housemate for propulsion greatly increases gas mileage!
After the morning's excitement, it's nice to stretch out with your Daddy.

After a fun day playing with toys and snacking, we concluded the day with a traditional holiday meal, which was actually fairly stress-free since I cooked some the day before. We were joined by Mike and Sarah Brown and their kids Ya'el and Ezekiel, and noshed on turkey breast and gravy, mustard glazed ham, cornbread dressing, yams mashed with raisins and apples, green bean casserole, homemade cranberry sauce and jello salad, fresh bread and banana bread, and a family favorite - celery stuffed with cheese. We finished with pumpkin pie and assorted sweets from the Brown bakery.

All in all, it was a wonderful day. I hope the rest are just as rich and peaceful.

Jan 6, 2007

On the Ninth Day of Christmas...

... I was initiated into a very special and solemn aspect of adulthood, time-honored and inviolate. What is it, you ask? Education? Graduation? Employment? Marriage? Parenthood? Taxes?

No, the rite of passage of which I speak is that sacred Christmas Eve ritual, the Assembly of the Presents.

This year there was only one, a blue and yellow tricycle with a push-handle (since her legs can't reach the pedals). After we returned from the Christmas Eve gathering and put the Wunchie to bed, I was pretty tired and just wanted to sleep. But instead, I brewed some tea and put on a movie, and sat down with 1) several dozen screws, washers, and strange pieces of metal and plastic, 2) one set of instructions (in English, Spanish, and French), and 3) every screwdriver and allen wrench I could find in the toolbox. I couldn't have felt more liturgical if I had been blessing the communion elements. I read instructions and watched the movie, and lost several nuts and washers amongst the couch cushions, and thought about how many times my parents must have done this for me. I remembered the glasses of milk and plates of cookies we left for Santa, and how they were magically consumed by the time we awoke, and how exciting it was to find the little note that read, "Thank You." (Even now I can remember just how it looked, and can now realize that it was, in fact, my dad's distinctive handwriting.) Did they split the cookies, and did those carrots we left for Rudolph just go back in the fridge?

I also remembered one more recent Christmas, before I was married, that I spent with my mom's family in south Texas. With four grandchildren in the mix, there were lots of adults assembling toys in the living room that Christmas Eve. And the whole thing took on an almost surreal feel for me. This, it seemed to me, was an enactment of a serious duty, a commitment to maintaining the excitement of a young child's Christmas. They'll know the truth about Santa soon enough; for tonight, the mystery remains, and it rests squarely on the shoulders of these committed elves, preparing the feast for the morning.

This sounds pretty corny, I know. But as I sat with those tools and instructions, I was struck by how... significant it felt to be assembling that little tricycle. Knowing that at that very moment, parents near and far were doing the same thing, for the same reason -- to make their children happy, and to allow them that precious, all too fleeting season of genuine childhood. Soon enough, the mysteries will be more complicated, and harder to find. Here's to a fresh and unspoilt gift of a tricycle, and of wonder.

On the Eighth Day of Christmas...

... we celebrated the culmination of the Advent Season and the arrival of Christ with a lovely Christmas Eve gathering. Folks from Communality gathered at the Samsons' home (formerly the Third Street House) for a simple yet meaningful liturgy and a fabulous potluck meal. My favorite part was the kids proudly exhibiting and explaining the Jesse Tree ornaments they had created. Some of the best Scripture discussion I've heard in a while, even if their references weren't always spot-on!

Miranda was lovely in a bright red-and-green plaid dress and tights; she looked like a little Christmas ribbon. She loved all the activity and had possibly her most diverse meal to date, featuring roast goose, venison hash, and oyster dressing. Our little foodie!

See here for pictures and here for the Samsons' blog account of the lovely evening.

Jan 4, 2007

On the Seventh Day of Christmas...

... we hosted the First Annual Kenney-Papafio Christmas Movie Bonanza. (OK, I didn't come up with the title until just now, but I'll keep using it.) With an impressive stack of holiday movies and little hope of actually watching them, we decided to make an occasion of it. We invited friends (young and old), mulled some cider and made soup, put out some candy and soft drinks, and settled in for a lazy, fun afternoon and evening. It turned out to be great fun -- the kids loved the cartoons, and the adults did too!

The evening's lineup included Frosty, Charlie Brown, Rudolph, the Grinch, Emmet Otter (if you don't recognize this, buy it and watch it, immediately), and a Christmas Story. Rumor has it that the excellent South Park episode featuring Mr. Hankey also made an appearance, but sources will neither confirm nor deny this statement.

Strangely enough, this was one of my favorite parts of this year's holiday. It was so much fun to relax with our friends and their kids and just enjoy these classic movies. It was easy to plan and easy to host, and made for a great afternoon and evening. Next year, we plan to repeat the fun, and possibly divide the event into cartoon and non-cartoon sections. Hopefully we can expand our listings as well.

Here's to new holiday traditions!

On the Sixth Day of Christmas...

... we took Miranda to the local mall to ride the Christmas train. We weren't sure how she'd react -- either with definite joy, or definite fear. Fortunately, it was the former. She loved it and began cheering midway through the ride. Somehow, we didn't get that on film -- rats!

Look at our big, big girl!!!

On the Fifth Day of Christmas...

... I decided to dress Miranda for the occasion, as many days as I could. I have several holiday dresses, both from consignment and from my sister's twins, so the pickings were plentiful. The most beautiful of them she wore on Christmas Eve, but I forgot to get a picture. I'll re-dress her in it and take a picture to add later -- she was beautiful! Here are the ones I have captured on film.

I've already posted this pic. Miranda was very festive in a dark plaid smocked dress with lovely deep greens and reds.

This was last year's family picture dress. Notice the little Santas in the smocking. Too precious.

This is borrowed from my sister, and is my personal favorite. I love the sweet red plaid and the little nutcrackers in the smocking. It also coordinates well with the book she's perusing, Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle.

This is Billy's favorite, which I picked up at consignment. It's very plush and has a cute little Santa hat to match, which she refuses to wear.

Frankly, I'm not sure Miranda was partial to any of these outfits; she seems to prefer staying in her jammies.

Jan 2, 2007

On the Fourth Day of Christmas...

... I took a minute to reflect on Christmas past. Sometimes things become so familiar that we lose any real appreciation of their special nature. So without further ado, here is a list of Yuletide blessings:
  • the 37th Christmas with my family
  • the 8th Christmas with Billy
  • the 7th Christmas at 701 Golfview Drive
  • the 5th Christmas with John
  • the 2nd Christmas with Miranda

On the Third Day of Christmas...

... we decorated the house for what is probably the last time. For the last seven years, Billy and I have decorated for Christmas -- sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. This year, early December was very hectic, and we got such a late start that I almost decided not to take the trouble. But, this is very likely the last Christmas we'll have at 701 Golfview, and I couldn't stand the thought of going out with a whimper. So, I simmered cinnamon and cloves while John got the boxes out of the garage, and Miranda played with the packing paper while we taped Christmas cards to the door and arranged the nativity scenes. It was a great day, and wasn't nearly as difficult as I had imagined. And Billy enjoyed arriving home to some holiday cheer!

Decorating committee, chair and co-chair