Friday, February 01, 2008

Wait, You're Not Catholic

Today marks the beginning of the last weekend of Mardi Gras. And what better place to celebrate than in Mobile, Alabama, the birthplace of our country's Mardi Gras celebration.

"Wait, you're not Catholic," said my friend, Susan. You're right, Susan; I'm not Catholic. But that won't stop me from driving the entire length of the Great State of Alabama to get beamed in the head with a few Moon Pies and to gather strands of beads from the roadside like they're manna.

True, the Mardi Gras celebration is deeply rooted in the Catholic faith. But it's not like the Pope is going to show up or anything. It's more of an ecumenical free-for-all. Best I can tell, Mardi Gras parades don't discriminate. So I thought maybe the Baptists could benefit from a little Mardi Gras history lesson and see the celebration in a different light.

For example, Fat Tuesday, which will be in just four days. "Mardi Gras" is French for "Fat Tuesday." To brush up on the vernacular, I turned to the foremost authority on all things Catholic, www.americancatholic.org:

"Mardi Gras literally means 'Fat Tuesday' in French. The name comes from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of Carnival. The day is also known as Shrove Tuesday (from 'to shrive,' or hear confessions), Pancake Tuesday and fetter Dienstag. The custom of making pancakes comes from the need to use up fat, eggs and dairy before the fasting and abstinence of Lent begins." So there you go.

Your instructions are simple: Live it up before your freewheelin' eating ends. Maybe make a mighty stack of pancakes for yourself, and dig in.

If the Catholics have wireless along the Coast, I'll try to post some photos.

Laissez les bon temps rouler, as they say...

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Foods That Make You Sick, But You Eat Them Anyway

(Author's Note: Under normal circumstances, today's post would have been published Wednesday. I'll try to stay on track with the Wednesday food blog next week. Thank you for understanding.)

In honor of flu season and the spread of this mutant stomach virus, I thought it might be appropriate to find a way to discuss food and sickness at the same time.

If we were all completely honest, we have a mental list of foods that we know will make us sick, but we eat them anyway.

Sometimes, you just don't know. I once ate almost an entire basket of fried calamari in Atlanta, and by the next morning, I firmly believed that "ate almost an entire basket of fried calamari in Atlanta" would be scrawled across my death certificate. This is the one food I have vowed never to eat again.

Other foods get second, third, even infinite chances. Like:

* Anything from a place with the word "Wings" in its name. I once ate a salad at such a place and was grateful for the high density of hospitals in the area. How could a salad bring on a fever? And so suddenly? Still, I keep going back.
* Hot artichoke dip. This isn't an appetizer. This is a laxative. But when you gather 'round a table with friends, and there sits a ceramic bowl surrounded by pita chips, how can you say 'no'?
* Stuffed mushrooms. You wouldn't think that a fungus filled with salted butter and bread crumbs would make a person sick, but it's true. Still, if made properly, it's worth the pain and embarrassment.

OK. So those are my Top Three. I conducted an informal poll among my family members to see if they would like to contribute to the list. One of the more disappointing answers was this: "That soup you've been making a lot lately." What? San Antonio Tortilla Soup? How could that be?

Now, what I'm about to ask you to do is somewhat akin to asking, "Hey, this towel has gone sour, hasn't it?" Or, "I think this milk has expired. Smell it." But I'd like for you to try out this recipe when you get a chance, and let me know if it makes you or any of your family members sick. If it doesn't, then we have an isolated case. If it does, well, then, I'll not take it to my next Soup Night with friends.

San Antonio Tortilla Soup

1 T. oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 t. ground cumin (I don't even know what this is, so I omit it; maybe it's a nausea preventative, so you might want to try to find some)
2 14.5-oz. cans fat-free chicken broth
2 15-oz. cans stewed tomatoes
1 T. jalapeno pepper, minced (remove seeds to reduce heat; or, do as I do and skip the entire pepper; toss in some Frank's sauce or something; it can't possibly make that big of a difference)
1/4 t. black pepper
2 c. (about 1/2 lbs.) boneless, skinless chicken breast, uncooked and cubed
2 c. water

Combine all ingredients in slow cooker
Cover. Cook on low 6-8 hours or on high 4-6 hours.

Now, here's where I stray from the recipe and take a real risk: I add two cans of black beans. Maybe that's the problem. You tell me.

The official instructions go on to say that you can choose from exotic garnishes like sour cream and grated cheddar cheese. I personally think that's a little crass and smacks of a chili knock-off. So let's keep things simple and compare apples to apples: Yes to beans, no to garnishes.

Let me know ...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Just When You Thought There Was Nothing Else to Say...

(working title: More on The Joy of Diagramming)

Wednesday's post is supposed to be dedicated to food -- eating it, cooking it, avoiding it, whatever. But like every good freelance writer worth her salt would say, "Um, I need a slight deadline extension."

Here's why: We have some whistle-blowing to do.

My friend Jeanie, who has always and forever made her living by writing, sent me a well-written e-mail in response to the Sister Bernadette post from yesterday. Part of it reads: "I've never diagrammed a sentence in my life. Ever. I had the misfortune of being raised in 1970s Atlanta school systems when they experimented with 'New English' instruction. In this best-forgotten education experiment, the Fulton County School System switched over to an 'enlightened' grammar instruction method that conveniently ditched grammar. We didn't use words like 'adjectives' and 'adverbs,' as they were passé. Instead we used terms like 'modifiers.' And we didn't diagram. It's a miracle I learned to write at all. But I still can't identify all the parts of speech, even if you threaten to torture me."

The torture, I think, would best be found in NOT experiencing The Joy of Diagramming. Some of my best memories of Marietta Jr. High were made at the chalkboard in my English class. So how can it be that only a few years later and one county away on the Georgia map, I happily went about the business of diagramming as if it were an Olympic event? Jeanie, on the other hand, never had a chance.

Dear readers, this child was left behind.

Even sadder is the realization that she wasn't alone. When my husband read yesterday's post, he acted as if he were reading Arabic. He blinked a lot, then said, "I don't know what you're talking about." Clearly, he didn't experience The Joy of Diagramming, either.

Seems to me that a lot of grammar teachers from the 1970s should come forward and explain themselves. Mrs. Page with her stylish haircut, however, is innocent. And still highly revered.

Note: I'll come up with something about food for tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why I Love Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

Some generous soul at Harcourt sent me a complimentary copy of Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey in December. And to you, Mr. Public Relations at Harcourt, a hearty thank you!

Florey does a super job of reviving all the wonderful memories of junior-high grammar and sprinkling it with a heaping helping of the history of diagramming. (Bet you didn't know diagramming had a history worthy of documenting, but it certainly does.)

What makes this book so enjoyable is the nostalgia it stirs. If you love words (and who doesn't, really; we use them every day, for Pete's sake), how can you not enjoy pulling them apart and putting them back together like a puzzle?

Diagramming for homework was one thing, but diagramming IN PUBLIC was the social equivalent of being asked to make the morning announcements on the intercom. It was your opportunity to shine, or wither up and die in front of a tough crowd. If you were fortunate enough to be called to the front of the room to diagram, you would toss back your oily hair, adjust your corduroy Levi's and strut to the board like you were about to embark on some great feat.

And oh, the pleasure of scoring a prepositional phrase! Or compound subjects! Or having to decide whether an object was direct or indirect! Get it right, and they might as well elect you Most Likely To Do Whatever You Darn Well Please. Get it wrong, and you were destined for a lonely lunch period or at least a silent locker visit. Diagramming in public was the stuff that would make you or break you in sixth grade, at least in my sad circle. "Wow, that was really neat how you knew the line should be diagonal instead of straight," or "Adverb phrases. Gosh. I don't know how you do it." Those were the exchanges heard when the bell rang.

Diagramming was different than solving a math problem. Screw up a math problem in front of the whole class? Who cares! But fall short in dissecting your native language? Woe to you.

Anyway, Florey's book is a masterpiece, a tribute to all things grammatical and a reminder of why schools everywhere should resurrect diagramming, if they haven't already. I could go on and on, but I'll not spoil the ending.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Celebrity Death Watch, part 2

Second in a two-part series

For my slower readers, you may not have caught on that Celebrity Death Watch is not about death at all. That would be morbid and perhaps a little unsettling.

CDW is about our fascination with actors, writers, presidents, dictators, entrepreneurs, singers and everyone in between who has had their 15 minutes of fame. (The "15 minutes" is attributed to the late Andy Warhol, who died in February 1987. The others in his Grouping include David Susskind and Liberace. If you aren't familiar with Susskind, you can replace him with James Coco.) And when the famous die, it gives you pause to remember what made them famous, what you liked/disliked about them and even to research them further.

For example, when Sam the Butcher died earlier this month, I was ashamed to admit that I, the most devout Brady Bunch fan EVER, didn't know his real name. A few minutes of research turned me into the biggest Allan Melvin fan around! Allan (Sam) was married to his wife, Amalia, for 64 of his 84 years. And that's nothing short of amazing by Hollywood standards. I remembered that he was in The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC and All in the Family, but what a nice surprise to learn that he also starred in H.R. Pufnstuf and Banana Splits Adventure Hour! Thanks, Google!

I will be the first to admit that CDW takes on an obsessive nature. When I was once touring Ivy Green, my guide explained that Helen Keller's death and burial were overshadowed by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. All I could think about was, "Well, then, who was the third?"

Another perk about CDW is the opportunity to invent secondary games. When Joey Bishop died, there was a momentary burst of "Wait, I Thought He Already Died" (an exchange that spins off fairly frequently). But we also came up with an impromptu round of "Quick, Name the Members of the Rat Pack." (Hint: see photo; complete list of names appears at the bottom of this post.)

In very, very special circumstances, you may even score a round of "Where Were You When (fill in the blank) died?" This spinoff is reserved for presidents and, in the South, football coaches. (For the record, I was zipping out of the high school parking lot in my '66 VW Bug when I heard about The Bear's passing 25 years ago Jan. 26.) You can see that these opportunities don't come around often, but when they do, oh, the things you find out about people. Like, how old they are.

So, there you have it. The Making of CDW. May you never watch Entertainment Tonight in the same way again.

Answer to question about Rat Pack members: Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Joey Bishop (not pictured). Bonus point if you knew that Norman Fell (Mr. Roper) was briefly a member of the original Pack.