Friday, October 30, 2009

A Posthumous Letter To Madeleine l'Engle

October 30, 2009

Dear Ms. L’Engle,

I was so sorry to hear about your passing a couple of years ago. I’ve enjoyed your books for decades. I loved Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, about your forty years with the actor Hugh Franklin. Through reading it, I felt I came to know you as a real person, and not just as the seemingly ethereal author of some books I like. I meant to write you a letter a few years ago, while you were still with us, but I put it off, as we tend to do sometimes with our good intentions. I wanted to share something with you that I thought you might enjoy.

When I had children, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to your books. One of my sons began to consume books at a very early age. He was driven by a hunger for information, excitement, and a good story. Your books provided all of these. Because his interest in some topics was so strong, he sometimes read books that he probably wasn’t really ready for. And because his interest was so strong, he was able to get through these books that were really too difficult for him. For instance, he read the C.S. Lewis Narnia series the summer after first grade. Over the years of his childhood, he reread them several times. I remember his once telling me “I love rereading these. Each time I read them, I pick up on more and more that I missed the first time I read them.” I can’t remember how old he was when he read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time, but I know he was pretty young. Years later, when he was a teenager, he, my daughter and I were discussing your books. “For some reason,” he confessed to us, “I always pictured Calvin as a big bug. A giant cartoon bug.” We laughed and laughed. I knew he had probably been too young when he read it, but a bug? “Kurt,” we told him, “Calvin and Meg get married. You thought she married a bug?” “Well, yeah. I was just a little kid. I didn’t think there was anything weird about that.” Sometime after that, while in a nostalgic mood, I reread A Wrinkle in Time. Riddle solved: chapter two, page 29, about a third of the way down. Meg is telling Charles Wallace who Calvin is. “He’s in Regional, but he’s older than I am. He’s a big bug.” Ha! I couldn’t wait for the kids, especially Kurt, to get home from school so I could show them what I’d discovered. Your book was first published in 1962, a year before I was born. The term “ big bug” must have been like “big man on campus” back in those days. Calvin was a big bug. You’d written it yourself. What else would a little boy in the 1990’s think?

I hope this letter somehow finds its way to you. I’m sorry I didn’t write it when I first thought to. Perhaps you can tesser your way back and read it on the internet. Thank you so much for the wonderful legacy you’ve left the world. We are truly blessed to have your books among us.


Melinda W. Gassman

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brittany's Belly Buttons

Edible body parts have always been a big part of Halloween. Peeled grapes for eyeballs. String cheese fingers. Bloody toes out of hot dogs with tortilla strip bandages. Pretty gory fare. A young friend of mine named Brittany recently introduced me to a new, much less gruesome body part treat – belly buttons. She brought a bowlful of them to a gathering earlier this fall.

To make belly buttons, place small pretzel twists on a baking sheet. Put an unwrapped Hershey Kiss on top of each pretzel. Bake at 250 degrees for three minutes. As soon as they come out of the oven, top each one with an M & M, m side down, pressing them in well.

Brittany makes these for all occasions. With M & Ms coming in seasonal colors now, she can make them fit any holiday or special event. Imagine cute little red and green elf belly buttons for Christmas. How about pink and red cupid belly buttons for Valentine’s Day? Leprechaun belly buttons for St. Patrick’s Day? With the possible exception of Uncle Sam’s belly button, these sound a lot more appetizing than cold pasta brains or corn kernel teeth.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Halloween book suggestion - The Bell Witch, An American Haunting by Brent Monahan

If you’re looking for a spooky read this week, find a copy of The Bell Witch, An American Haunting by Brent Monahan. It’s a fictionalized account of one of America’s most famous hauntings. A little bit disturbing? Yes. I recommend reading it late at night after everyone else has gone to bed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Winter Squash

Autumn is here and that means it’s winter squash season. I love winter squash even more than I love summer squash. I even liked it as a small child. My mother used to cook butternut squash and mash it up with a little maple syrup or brown sugar. Mmmm. It was so good. And this sounds like a really odd combination, but I used to mix my mashed potatoes and butternut squash together on my plate, put a pat of butter on top, and let it melt in. Yum. I could never convince any of my family members to try this. They really missed out.

My New England paternal grandfather loved squash pie. My mother, born and raised in the Mid-West, made Thanksgiving dinner every year. She’d never heard of squash pie, and was sure it would be in every way identical to pumpkin.

“Make sure you bake a squash pie,” Gramps would remind her each November.

“Oh, I will,” she’d lie.

A couple of hours after dinner (New Englanders always like to let their food settle a bit before dessert), everyone would come back to the table, and my mother would bring out the pies.

“Make sure mine’s squash,” Gramps would say.

She’d make a big production of distinguishing between the pumpkin and the supposed squash pies.

“Here you go,” she’d say, passing him a dessert plate with a piece of pie on it. “This one is definitely squash,” she’d insist, while we kids gleefully smirked around the table. We were in on it. Then Gramps would rave about the pie and go on and on about how much better it was than pumpkin.

One autumn day a couple of years ago, my neighbor, Beth, showed up at my door with a piece of pie.

“Callie and I thought you needed to try this. It’s the best pumpkin pie we’ve ever had,” she said, “but it’s made from banana squash.”

Squash pie!

It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve made a pumpkin pie since.

Banana Squash Pie

3 cups cooked, pureed banana squash
4 eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp allspice
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp salt
2 cups cream or 1 cup cream and 1 cup milk
2 unbaked pie crusts

Cut up a banana squash and scrape out the seeds and string. Cover each piece with plastic wrap and cook them in the microwave. They seem to cook more evenly if you do them one piece at a time. One piece takes about fourteen minutes. Let it cool a little bit. Scoop out the cooked squash and puree it in a blender. Measure out three cups for the recipe. Eat the rest plain on a plate with a little salt and pepper. It’s so good. Or freeze it in Ziplock freezer bags.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add sugar, flour, spices, salt, and squash. Stir in the cream. (Beth said it was okay to use one cup each of milk and cream, but that I should try it sometime using the two cups of cream. I have. It’s really good.)

I always cut thin strips of aluminum foil the cover the edge of my crusts so they won’t get too dark, and it’s a lot easier to do this before filling them.

Fill the unbaked crusts. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake for 30 – 40 minutes. Pie is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Another winter squash recipe? How about butternut squash soup? I make this for my daughter and my niece. The three of us absolutely love it. One day this fall, I received a text message from my niece, Emma, who attends college nearby.

“What’s for dinner on Sunday? Butternut squash soup?”

It was all I could think about for the rest of the week.

Butternut Squash Soup

1 medium sized butternut squash
4 T butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 T flour
3 tsp chicken bouillon
1 ½ cups hot water
2 ½ cups fat free half and half*
salt, white pepper, and sugar to taste

Peel, seed and cut up squash. Place in a large pan, cover with water and cook until soft. Drain and return to pan. OR cut unpeeled squash in half. Scrape out the inside. Cover each half with plastic wrap and cook in the microwave until soft. Scoop out the cooked squash and discard the skin. After squash is cooked, mash it with a potato masher and set aside. Melt butter in a skillet. Add onion and sauté until golden. Add flour and cook for a few minutes. Slowly add the half and half. Set aside. Combine hot water and bouillon, stirring to dissolve bouillon. Puree squash in batches in blender, dividing the chicken broth among the batches. Return pureed squash to the large pan. Stir in the half and half mixture. Heat thoroughly and season to taste with salt, white pepper and sugar.

*I usually use fat free half and half for soups that call for cream or milk or regular half and half. It’s a good way to cut some calories. You can substitute in whatever you’d like to use.

Acorn Squash

Cut them in half, horizontally. Scrape out the seeds and string. Set them in a baking pan, cut sides up. Squirt some maple syrup in each one and add a pat of butter. Add water to the pan until it comes part way up the sides of the squash. Bake them at 350 until soft. Serve them as they are. To eat, scoop out squash, incorporating some of the maple syrup in each bite.

OR, slice acorn squash horizontally into 1 inch thick slices (some will be larger around than others). Remove seeds and string. Spray a baking sheet with non-stick spray. Lay squash slices on baking sheet. Brush them with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until soft. To serve, place a slice on each plate and fill center with a spoonful of whole-berry cranberry sauce.

Squash is so good for us. It's dark orange flesh signals that it's loaded with antioxidants, right? I've tried to understand what exactly antioxidants do for us. When metals oxidize, they rust, right? So antioxidants must keep our insides from rusting. Or something.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Pediatrician's Advice

Our church has a lay clergy, and I’m lucky enough to have a husband who gets to serve as a bishop (like a minister in other churches) for a Brigham Young University congregation. It’s a lot of fun. Recently, a man from the community was called to work alongside Kent in a leadership position. He happens to be the pediatrician we took our kids to for most of their lives. He retired a few years ago.

Dr. Johnson saw us through chronic ear infections, strep throat, seasonal allergies, all kinds of childhood illnesses. And of course, he saw each kid about once a year for a well child exam, also known as a physical. At the end of each of these well child visits, Dr. Johnson would always give me a little advice.

“We like to tell parents three things,” he’d say. “Number one: Always have your children in car seats or booster seats when in the car. Number two: The Pediatric Association recommends that small children watch little or no television. And number three: Don’t feed your children a lot of hot dogs.”

Ha! I loved number three. I always expected him to add a few other undesirable food items, but he never did.

So Dr. Johnson, welcome to the B.Y.U. 122nd Ward. We have a fabulous group of young people. They’re fun and smart and dedicated to the Lord. I’m sure you’ll have opportunities to offer a little advice now and then. These students have outgrown their car seats, and hopefully they’re too busy with school, jobs, and social lives to watch much television. But the hot dog thing? Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to mention it.

Panda Express Orange Chicken

Our kids love Panda Express Orange Chicken. When I saw that Costco carries a bottle of Panda Express Orange Chicken Sauce, I bought some, took it home, and got on the internet to look for a copycat recipe. The one that I found ( included a sauce recipe. I basically followed their recipe (just a couple of changes) for cooking the chicken, and then used the purchased sauce.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 large eggs
1 ½ tsp salt
generous 1/8 tsp white pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ cup flour

vegetable oil for frying

Panda Express Orange Chicken Sauce*

2-3 green onions, chopped

Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in salt, white pepper, and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Add cornstarch and flour. Whisk until smooth. Pat chicken pieces with paper towels to remove excess moisture. Dump into egg mixture. Stir to coat pieces. Heat an inch or two of oil in a pan. I use a non-stick electric frying pan on the highest heat setting.* Add coated chicken pieces a few at a time, dividing into two or three batches. Cook each batch for three to five minutes, depending on how big your pieces are, turning over part way through. I left mine kind of big – maybe two inch cubes – so it took closer to five minutes. Don’t overcook or your chicken will be dry. Remove smaller pieces first so they don’t get overdone. Better to have them underdone and then put them back in than to overcook them. Drain on paper towels. Place chicken on a serving platter. Drizzle Orange Chicken Sauce lightly over the pieces and garnish with green onions. A little sauce goes a long way. Don’t put too much on. If diners think they’d like more sauce, have them put a little on their plate alongside the chicken for dipping.

* The 44-ounce bottle of sauce only cost $5 at Costco. It’s a really good deal, considering how little you need to use.

** When I don’t want to stink up the house with whatever I’m cooking (fish, bacon, pot stickers, frying anything in oil), I take my electric frying pan outside and plug it in on the patio.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

book review - Knitting with Dog Hair by Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery

So I’m walking through the Orem Public Library and stop to check out the Staff Picks shelf – I’m always looking for a good recommendation – and there it is: Knitting with Dog Hair, a Woof to Warp Guide to Making Hats, Sweaters, Mittens and Much More by Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery.

Knitting with dog hair? This must be a hoax. I pick it up and look it over. The front and back covers show photos of people confidently dressed in their handmade dog hair garments.

“Stop Vacuuming and Start Knitting!”

“Warmer than Wool for a Three Dog Night”

“Easy Step-by-Step Instructions for Collecting and Spinning the Fur”

“Original Patterns for Novice and Pro”

“Top Breeds for Best Results”

There’s no way I can replace this book on the shelf and walk away. I proceed to the front desk and check it out.

A couple of days later, I finally have time to give it a read. It’s legit! Well, I don’t know if it’s legit, but it’s for real! People really collect their dogs’ hair, spin it into yarn, and knit with it. Clothing. And they wear it. Are you scratching yet?

I get about halfway through the book and I’m making myself a little nervous. It’s beginning to sound quite rational. Perhaps if I had a beloved pet, I might be tempted to try this. I think of people I know who are very attached to their dogs, and wonder if any of them just might be induced to take this up.

There could possibly be health benefits. The authors tell about a woman in Estonia who sells dog hair sweaters at her village market. She claims that dog hair relieves symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism.

And this hobby is not exclusive to dog lovers. The book contains a photo of a delicate cat hair lace collar and a pattern for a pill box hat made of soft, glossy cat yarn.

My family had a beautiful Golden Retriever when I was growing up. Her name was Sherry, as she was the color of sherry. The authors say that Golden Retriever yarn knits up into a beautiful scarf that looks especially nice with a camel hair coat (so save your camel hair, too). Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a memento of the dog we grew up with? Maybe some Sherry mittens or a Sherry afghan? Too late now.

How about an Afghan afghan?

Don’t know how to knit? No worry. Pet yarn can also be used for crocheting, needlepoint, embroidery, weaving… And if you’re hesitant to take up spinning, the authors include a state-by-state index of Spinners for Hire. Just mail them your cherished bags of pet hair and they do the rest.

Knitting with Dog Hair was a fascinating read. It’s very well written, and somehow makes one think the whole idea is sane. It doesn’t make me want a dog, and I’m not sure I’d ever have room for an article of handcrafted pet hair anywhere in my life, but I’m definitely buying a copy of this book for my bookshelf. I’ll probably buy a few to give as Christmas gifts, too. I’m determined to convince someone I know to take up the hobby.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pear Pie

I love pears. I start buying them in the fall, and eat them all winter. I had never heard of pear pie until this year. I started looking for a recipe. After combining parts of a couple, and changing a few things, this is what I came up with.

crumb topping:
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut in small pieces

6 perfectly ripe, fresh pears*
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger (I bet ginger-in-a-jar would be better!)
1 1/2 tablespoons Minute tapioca
3 tablespoons plus one teaspoon orange juice
1 pie crust**

Combine crumb topping ingredients in a medium bowl. Cut the butter in with a pastry cutter or rub it in with your fingertips. Mixture should resemble coarse crumbs that clump together easily.

Peel the pears with a vegetable peeler. Slice them, discarding the cores. Put pear slices in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine sugar, salt, nutmeg, ginger, orange juice, and tapioca. Pour over pears and toss to coat slices. Cut strips of aluminum foil about one to two inches wide and use them to cover the edge of your pie crust. Put pear mixture into the pie crust, mounding pears in the center. Pat the crumb topping over the pear filling. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. At this point, cover the pie with a tent of aluminum foil and bake for 25 more minutes. Place on a cooling rack and gently remove the foil strips.Serve with really good vanilla ice cream.

*You can tell that a pear is ripe by pressing around the stem with your thumb. If there is a little give, the pear is ripe. To speed up the ripening process, place the pears in a paper bag, roll the top down, and forget about them for a couple of days.

**I used to make my own pie crust, but then I discovered Marie Callender's frozen pie crusts. I think they're really good. They are much better than the frozen pie crusts I grew up with (Sorry, Mom). And so much easier than mixing and rolling out pie crust. I know there are purists who will never agree (my brother-in-law the award-winning pie maker). To them, I say go ahead and make your own. It probably is better.