The  Junk Drawer

Every household has one, mine included. In fact I have several.  I’ve always questioned why the use of the singular “junk drawer”  when the plural “drawers” is much more appropriate. I also have junk shelves in junk cupboards, junk closets and junk rooms, all plural.  Obviously I’m not a very tidy person.

What may have started out way back when as a good idea quickly got out of control. One drawer, usually in the kitchen, to be set aside just for the accumulation of those necessary odds and ends that don’t seem to belong anywhere else.

My junk drawer started out holding a few awkwardly shaped kitchen tools that didn’t fit in a smaller drawer or belong to a set. It soon became a catch-all in which to temporarily toss anything loose that needed a home.

Recently, out of curiosity, I took a serious look into my several junk drawers and was absolutely floored by the variety and quantity of items which could only be called junk.  Most of the original tools were still there somewhere, hidden by more junk than seemed possible.

My potato masher, the kitchen shears, a wine bottle opener that really works, several spatulas, the world’s best little knife sharpener and a package of wooden skewers all belonged there, as well as several types and kinds of jar and can openers, including a pliers.

All well and good, but by now I was intrigued and began turning out the contents of several more drawers.  I found:

An empty prescription bottle

6 blue, 3 red and a yellow rubber bands

A used emery board

The long lost keys to a car I sold in 2013

Countless clippies of all sizes, meant to close bags

A wooden clothespin

Several pieces of string, random lengths

A book of matches from a motel in Lander, Wy. How old was that? Do

they still make book matches? Was it safe to strike one?

Several packets of mustard and mayo

7 packets of Splenda

Sample bottles of hand lotion, shampoo and laundry soap

A dog-eared shopping list reminding me to buy baby food. Since my

baby is now 68 years old, it had to be for a grand- or a great-grand

child.

Quite a few pencil stubs, all in need of sharpening

29 various colored plastic tabs to seal loaves of bread

Uncounted numbers of toothpicks

3 totally unidentifiable objects.

After this archeological dig, I’m convinced most of the stuff multiplies and divides behind our backs. It’s probably dangerous too, if not radioactive  or toxic. At least there didn’t seem to be anything living in my drawers…..not yet……

I’m a great believer in keeping things that may come in handy some day but I think even I’ve reached my limit. I’m very much afraid this can mean only one thing – a serious housecleaning.  Horrors!

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More  Garlic,  Please

Is there any kitchen aroma more appetizing than sliced onions,  green peppers and freshly minced garlic sauteing in olive oil? Throw in some chopped tomatoes and just about anything else you want and you’ve created a feast fit for the gods. Call it whatever you wish,  pasta or pizza sauce, or, with the pasta added in it might be goulash, Johnny Marzetti, or All-American casserole. Add beans and you have the base for chili, taco soup and a variety of ethnic foods. Savory spices are a must  and there you have it, you’ve turned out a dish that can’t be beat.

The secret, of course, is to use more than enough onions and green peppers (for maximum flavor use only the green ones) and a whole lot of fresh garlic.  The fragrance alone will pull people in off the streets or, worst case scenario, drive them away permanently.

Before I retired from my kitchen due to advanced age and infirmities,  my claim to fame was my personal guarantee that I could give anybody heartburn.  They’d also get lectured on the health benefits to be gained from my favorites. Garlic is especially rich in nutrients.

Growing up in the upper Midwest,  I learned to cook from my mother, grandma and many aunts, all of whom were remembered as excellent cooks.  I dutifully followed their methods: Onions? Sure, daringly dicing up as much as a whole teaspoonful for a recipe; Green peppers? Well, maybe they’d risk a slice or two in a very few dishes; Garlic? are you kidding?  If they’d even heard of it they knew no one used it but the newest Americans and you couldn’t get near them for the lingering after-smell. Admittedly, second hand garlic odor can be pretty pungent unless you eat it too, in self defense.

Marrying into a family of equally good cooks, I felt right at home with my few skills until I got out into the world and realized what a difference a few spices and my three new favorites made in a meal. True, I was inclined to go overboard for a while there, and went through quite a few food fads.

My kids accused me at one time of never feeding them anything but liver and brussels sprouts. This was back in the day when liver was known to be good for us  because of the iron content. I still like brussels sprouts, sorry, kids. My cooking was already being liberally flavored with onions, green peppers and garlic, but sometimes enough is enough.

My husband was always up for anything  and went along with most of my fads, being as fond of the big three veggies as I was.  Garlic being his favorite, but even he had his limits. I recall a time when I was in the throes of my  “only the healthiest of basic foods” kick. Our meals began to get a little boring and monotonous.

One evening, after sampling everything on his plate, he stood up from the table, walked over to the sink and scraped the whole mess into the disposal without saying a word.

I guess a bowlful of mixed dark green leaves, with eight or more chopped veggies added, including my Big Three, as I now called them, splashed with a little balsamic vinegar, couldn’t really be called a salad.  Plain poached chicken breasts didn’t do a whole lot either for a man who grew up on breaded, deep -fried everything. I always had to learn my lessons the hard way.

Somewhere along the way, I’d been gifted with a clever little domed pottery garlic cooker to be used in the microwave. I hadn’t had a chance to try it out yet when that dear man decided to experiment without my knowledge.

We were in the habit of having Bloody Marys with a group of friends on Sunday mornings, taking turns in each others’ homes, followed by brunch in a favorite restaurant.  The gang was arriving at our place one Sunday as usual. I assumed my busy-body husband was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the drinks as everyone got seated.

He did make a mean Bloody Mary and was just passing them around when a tremendous explosion from the kitchen had us all jumping out of our seats. Fortunately we had the the vodka to calm our nerves  as we looked around in confusion.

He’d decided to try out the garlic cooker,  hadn’t bothered to read the instructions, and put the biggest bulb he could find in the microwave, turned it on full blast  and come in to pass out drinks. It turned out that he should have sliced the bulb open across the top first so each clove was free to steam as it cooked.

The microwave was full of pottery shards and garlic shreds clinging to every surface, top, sides and inside the glass door.  The smell was overwhelming, to say the least. He spent most of the afternoon cleaning up the mess. The odor lingered for days.

So it is possible to get too much garlic.  For normal purposes, though, nothing can take the place of my 3 favorite veggies, onions, green peppers and extra garlic simmering away on the back burner as I open a bottle of pinot noir.  I do miss it, smell and all.

The Happiest Love Songs

(A belated Valentine to all of you and a favorite re-run)

“Love, Love, Hooray For Love,  Who Was Ever Too Blase For Love?”

Love songs should all be happy.  You want to belt them out with so much energy and enthusiasm  that everyone joins in. They never get old.

Thinking back to the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s,  who could ever forget a song like “Hooray For Love?”  The lyrics were written by the great Harold Arlen, who also wrote a little something called “Over The Rainbow.”  The second line in “Hooray For Love,” “Who Was Ever Too Blase For Love?” has to be one of the most delightful lines in popular music. The imagination that wrote the word “blase”  into a love song and made it work is what made Arlen such a great songwriter.

There were so many other talented  songwriters of that era . We can all recall  Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin,  Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein,  and the list goes on. They turned out one unforgettable song after another.

Maybe it was the times,  the Great Depression, followed by  World War Two, that gave us such an appreciation for simple, joyous music. The promise of sunshine and silver linings ahead kept us going through a lot of very dark days.  Whatever the reason, those songwriters knew how to cheer up an entire nation with their words and music. Funny, isn’t it, how the spirit of an era could be lifted by a few happy songs.

Remember  “Get Happy,”  “Old Black Magic,”  “Million Dollar Baby In The Five And Ten Cent Store,”  “You’re The Tops,” or “ It’s Delightful, It’s Delovely?”   and how about “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” ” You Are My Lucky Star,”  and “Fit As A Fiddle And Ready For Love?”

The smiles just kept coming.  Who could forget “ Oh, Mama, It’s The Butcher Boy For Me,”   “A Bushel And A Peck,” or “Buttons And Bows?” Some of the most memorable songs came out of World War Two,  such as “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree.”

And what about the  happiest, most exuberant  love song of them all? Written in 1929 and made famous in 1952 with lyrics by Arthur Freed and music by Nacio Herb Brown,  it made every one of us want to run out, splash in rain puddles and swing around lampposts. As danced and sung by the one and only Gene Kelly,  “Singin’ In The Rain” has to be the most unforgettable, inspirational, lighthearted love song of all time.

If “Singin’ In The Rain”  doesn’t cheer you up, nothing will!!

“What A Wonderful Feeling To Be Happy Again!”

Auntie Jo’s Advice to the Aging Lovelorn

( February being the month for lovers, I decided to re-run my first and favorite  Auntie Jo story. Hope you enjoy it.)

Elder-amour,  is that a real expression or did I just make it up?   Whichever, it sounds good and love can be such a rewarding addition to the aging process.  It might sneak up on any of us at any age and when it’s returned, these later years of our lives will be enriched.  Auntie Jo, my all-knowing advice giver friend, has some suggestions for us.

But how do we tell what’s real  from a passing fancy? I have another friend, using the word loosely,  who latches on to any man who comes into her orbit like a Venus-Fly-Trap sensing life.  When he gets that deer-in-the-headlights look, it’s too late for him. Auntie Jo frowns on this.  He’s been hooked and the rest of us hardly had a chance to notice whether he had hair, chewed tobacco or wore white socks with his wing-tips.

As a boon for those of you ladies who are looking, but may not be as fast a worker as my friend, I’ve prepared a checklist of priorities:

#1 Does he still drive?

#2 Does he still drive the family sedan, circa 1998?  OR Is the ratio of dents to original paint overwhelming?  If either of these is true, and you value your life, drop the guy.

#3 If the answer to #1 is Yes, he still drives, and you feel daring or desperate enough to ignore #2, don’t hesitate to make your move, white socks or not.  It’s worth a try. Trust Auntie Jo.

In the interest of fairness I’d also like to present a list that you men can refer to, especially those of you who are Not Looking.  You can call it your “Keep-Out-Of-Jail” card.

If your idea of retirement revolves around a quiet evening in front of a fake fireplace, clad in your rattiest sweats and worn down slippers while you sip a single malt and enjoy a crime novel,  Forget It! You’ve already been scouted and appraised, and you need to be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.

Desperate measures are called for here, guys, and you have only two options open to you:

#1  You could consider entering a monastery, although they might not approve of the single malt.

OR:

#2  You can discreetly drop a few hints to the effect that you’re allergic to VIAGRA.

However, all of you, if you Are looking, and you Do spot your perfect target, (pardon me), choice, you might be out of practice, so bear in mind that a certain amount of decorum is called for.  Holding hands in public is good, it’s such a comforting thing to do, and it always gets an “Aw-w-w-w, How Sweet!” reaction from everyone. Auntie Jo highly approves!

Any moves beyond gently clasping your loved one’s gnarled fingers with your own are frowned upon and will bring into play an instant  “cringe” reaction from observers, not to mention scaring the BEEJABBERS out of any offspring who might be counting on an inheritance.  In other words, keep your best moves to yourselves. No hanky-panky in the corners or behind the potted palms.

If, after long and careful thought, you both agree to cohabitate, give yourselves plenty of time to adjust to having another person in your space. This is not as easy as it sounds.  Somehow, someway you find you’ve turned into a bit of a slob. Or just the opposite, your life is now ruled by O.C.D. Whatever has happened to you, your new partner is sure to have experienced the reverse.

One of you stands at the kitchen sink to eat lunch, digging peanut butter out of the jar and licking it off the spoon.  The other one still uses cloth placemats.

One of you flails all night and throws bedding around the room.  The other one carefully tucks the sheet under a double chin and doesn’t move until morning.

One of you wears the same outfit for 2 or 3 days in a row, finally discarding it in a wrinkled, smelly pile in the middle of the floor.  The other one changes 2 or 3 times a day, carefully putting the already worn clothes back on a hanger until it’s time to do laundry.

And so it goes.   It’s called adjustment and no matter how difficult it might be, or how long it takes, the results are more than worth the stress.  To those of you lucky enough to have found a new life together, I wish you only the best. Don’t let it bother you one little bit that Auntie Jo is sitting home alone, miserable and green with envy.

And so am I.

Questions We Should Have Asked

If we could go back in time,  would we change our lives? What changes would we make?  Would we do anything differently? How about conversations we might have had with our parents?  Our grandparents? What questions would we, or should we have asked them?

The more I puzzle over this,  the more confusing it becomes.  The biggest question of all, the most obvious one, would be, why didn’t I ask them 40, 50 or 60 years ago when I had the opportunity?  My only conclusion, children and young people are so self-involved we don’t look ahead much beyond ourselves until we begin to get older.

Instead of asking the big, important things like, how did they manage as small farm families in the late 1800s and early 1900s?  How did they personally cope with The War To End All Wars, as the first world war was known? What did they learn from it? What were their reactions to the everyday loss of life and loved ones?

Instead,  I’d probably ask them all the same questions,  light-weight and frivolous. I’d ask the personal questions, the nosy ones, the none-of-my-business ones that had never occurred to me to ask at the time.

How and when did they meet? Was it love at first sight?  Did their parents approve? How about their weddings? What did my mother wear?  My grandmothers? What were their long term plans and dreams? Photos from those days are scarce now, with not enough of them left to scour for clues.

Times were hard for all of them and big splashy weddings would have been out of the question in those days.  They may never have heard of honeymoons. I picture brief, somber ceremonies in front of country parsons or county clerks with a close  brother or sister in attendance, possibly followed by a few sandwiches and lemonade, then back to work.

Maybe this is why I’m so much in favor of memoirs. I believe that recording the minutia of one’s life, while totally boring to most readers, might be of interest to enough descendants to make it worth the effort. Who knows which great great grandchild might be thrilled to learn about the goofy ancestors who moved 37 times during their married life, climbed Ayers Rock when they were almost 60 years old, and built a canoe in their living room one boring winter?

Holiday Foods (from my memoir)

Looking back on the most recent holidays,and ahead to St. Patrick’s Day,  Passover and Easter soon to come, I realize just how important traditional foods are to all our celebrations.

Living in the tropics for almost twelve years was exciting, colorful and adventuresome until our favorite holidays rolled around. Those were the times when we wanted to recapture the atmosphere, the traditions, and most of all,  the foods that we associated with each holiday.

Raising three school-age children while away from home, families and old friends was cause for a lot of nostalgia.  We were living in what was formerly known as the Panama Canal Zone, which at that time was still all-American. Our many new friends soon became our families, but our holidays were never quite the same.

The Canal Zone maintained a small fleet of passenger-freighters that regularly traveled between Colon, on the Atlantic side, and New York, then later to New Orleans, keeping our commissaries supplied with frozen, canned, and dried food, also clothing, household needs and all basics.  With an average population of around 50,000 people in the Zone, including the military bases, there were a lot of people to provision. The military had their own commissaries, of course, and also used ours.

We had access to fresh garden produce from several small plots of land managed by Chinese families, each with a roadside stand.  The Zone maintained a dairy farm and there were bakeries in the clubhouses in the larger towns.

The public markets in each of the towns in Panama were full of   everything from homemade leather sandals with old tire tread for soles, to live turtles. Their fresh seafood was always available and always the best. We made a trip into Panama at least once a week to shop, usually oftener.

There was never a shortage of foodstuffs. We might have to do a bit of running around to track it all down, not like a one stop supermarket, but no big problem.   When our small ships came into port with something like a load of frozen turkeys, or better still, green Christmas trees, word traveled fast and everyone made a beeline for the nearest commissary.

Local foods made great substitutes for old favorites.  Sliced green plantain chips were deep fried for snacks, yucca and taro provided plenty of starch, chayotes  tasted like summer squash. Yams, corn and avocados (known locally as alligator pears) were all native to the Caribbean and South America.  Guava jelly was great on hot biscuits or the local michas, as French rolls were called. Mangoes were wonderful in pies.

Most of us kept a stalk of bananas hanging under our quarters. There’s no comparison with a banana that was picked green weeks before.  Fresh pineapples were turned upside down and left outside to ripen fully. My favorite red papayas and limes were always available in the Panamanian markets,  And we never knew what might turn up in our commissaries. Our children recall pickled crab-apples on our holiday tables.

Our biggest complaint was the cold storage eggs. No egg was ever cracked directly into a batter or a heated pan. They always needed the sniff and eyeball test. However, fresh eggs were available in the local markets across the border.

As for special local dishes, one of the biggest favorites throughout the Caribbean was  “Arroz Con Pollo,” or rice with chicken. This amazed me because one of the basic ingredients was green peas.  Now, where did they ever get green peas back in the day and how did the recipe originate? Paella, originally Spanish, was another popular, tasty dish in the better restaurants.

Panama itself didn’t have a really local cuisine. Sancocho, a chicken stew, is the only truly Panamanian dish that comes to mind. Sancocho is made with chicken parts simmered down with chunks of corn on the cob, any of several root vegetables such as yucca, yam, taro, or name, chayote which is a local version of summer squash, onions and cilantro.  It was never highly seasoned; the Panamanians preferred their foods to be bland.

Two dishes that all Zonians remember fondly are first, the local empanadas,  pastry turnovers filled with meat, potatoes and savories, similar to Cornish pasties. Balboa clubhouse empanadas were the best ever.

Then there was the dish that built the Canal, every digger’s favorite, Johnny Marzetti.  “Diggers” were the much respected laborers, most of them from the West Indies, who actually worked on the construction of the Canal.  They were honored in later years with well deserved medals and awards.

Johnny Marzetti was basically the typical American mixture of ground beef,  onions, garlic, tomatoes and pasta, often including green olives. Every cook had his or her own version.

All these dishes were good, but hardly holiday fare as we knew it.

Our holiday meals somehow managed to retain a festive, satisfying spirit even though some of the foods were unusual and unexpected.  A table full of close friends and happy children can make a success of anything.

. . .If It Weren’t for Bad Luck . . .

. . . I’d have no luck at all, as the old song goes. There I was, barely into the new year, having just posted a blog about the January Blahs and the boredom that sets in after the holidays.  So what happened? Well, for starters, my credit card was hacked. Then one of my teeth fell out, and just to add a bit more drama, I sat on my glasses again. I didn’t even need to leave home to get into trouble.

For a person who hasn’t traveled farther than the Oregon coast for at least four years,  I was shocked to discover I’d just paid $347 for a one way ticket from London. England to Amman, Jordan. The charge seemed quite reasonable – if I had been in London and wanted to go to Jordan. However, I hadn’t been to any London, whether Ontario, Connecticut,  Oregon or England for some time and had never had a desire to go to Jordan, even back when Jordan was still Jordan and not another bullet-riddled pawn to rabid rebels.

Fearing I might be mistaken for a middle-eastern Mata Hari masterminding a cell of suicide bombers headed for Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street,  I was sure Interpol and the C.I.A. already had me in their sights.

I couldn’t call Visa fast enough.  Apparently hacking has become so commonplace they immediately canceled my number and assured me that it was highly unlikely that either Interpol or the C.I.A. was after me .  And NO, I did not have to pay the $347. My fears set to rest, all I had to do was make a myriad phone calls and spend hours canceling all my online deposits and payments.

After a few sleepless nights  I began to relax, thinking to myself, “Well, I managed to dodge that bullet, what’s next?”   I soon found out. I was vigorously brushing my teeth the next morning when I heard a distinct PLINK in the sink and looked down, horrified to see one of my molars rolling around. Talk about biting a bullet, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Cautiously exploring the gap it left, and assessing the situation, I realised there was no pain, I could still chew, and I didn’t resemble Alfred E. Neumann’s great-grandmother from the old MAD Magazine days. So I put the entire situation on hold. I can see the dentist after I’m certain my new Visa is secure. After all, if the C.I.A. nabs me, they’ll be responsible for my health and welfare anyway, they can spring for one tooth.

And then I sat on my glasses again. I have no excuse, no explanation. It just happens every now and then. The young woman smiles graciously as she straightens them, but her eyes are saying  “Have you ever considered safety goggles?” I’m just happy lenses are plastic nowadays. Sitting on a Band-Aided butt for a week or so can’t be much fun. Might make for some interesting scars, though.

So much for a boring January.  What will February bring? Will I be languishing in a Federal pen breaking in my new tooth and wearing safety goggles? I can hardly wait to find out..