Thursday, June 19, 2008

Summer Reading, Had Me a Blast! (Book Review)

"I am a reader."
Of course you are. The majority of the U.S. adult population is literate. So, when someone says, "Oh, yes, I'm a reader," I sort of want to drive a fork into their eyes.
EVERYbody reads.
What separates us is WHAT we read, you might be thinking. And then everybody gets judgmental and snotty about it and acts like they're too good for Danielle Steele, who just happens to be the Queen of Beach Reads. And if you say you're a "reader" but you've never read Danielle Steele, then you're also a liar.
Saturday will mark the official beginning of summer. (Hear that, Land's End? The BEGINNING of summer. So stop sending me "End of Summer" catalogs and e-mails. I'd like to slow things down and enjoy my life and my summer without you pestering me about still-overpriced sunscreen shirts and tote bags.) And with the launch of summer, I offer you a gentle reminder to plan your summer reading.
You parents who read from your kids' summer reading lists, bravo to you! Perhaps you never read Melville or Hardy as an adolescent and want to catch up, or maybe you are overzealous and want to spend your dinner conversation rehashing the fourth chapter of Billy Budd so your kids will see you as a PARTICIPANT and not just a PARENT. Classics are good -- fine, even. But let the kids have their own fun, while you find a little literary pleasure of your own.
To those who are looking for a few good books that are unlikely candidates for the jr. high summer reading list, I will, in the coming days, offer several book suggestions because, people, I am a reader:

We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg

If I were to ask someone to write my story, to take a chunk of my life and make it into a book, that person would be Elizabeth Berg. But someone else with a much more fascinating tale to tell has already done so.
In the preface to We Are All Welcome Here, Berg recounts a letter she received from a reader wanting Berg to tell her mother's story. The reader's mom had contracted polio while she was pregnant and ultimately gave birth to her while in an iron lung. As if that weren't surprising and tragic enough, her husband also left her.
Berg initially said, "No, I don't write biographies. I wouldn't know how to begin. I am a fiction writer." The conversation continued, and Berg came up with a creative way to tell the story: to take a few details and fictionalize the rest.
The story takes place in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, with the baby now 14 years old and the homebound mom trying to hold everything together as best she can. Berg asked permission of the family to use some facts, but she filled in the gaps with her own imagination.
Parallel to the storyline of mother and daughter struggling against all odds (physically, financially, socially) are the events of "Freedom Summer," as Blacks fought and died for voting rights. Berg weaves the two together in a magnificent way, a way that you won't understand until you finish the final chapter and close the book.
I will tell you nothing more here, other than if you aren't already a Berg fan, this should get you started.
After you finish reading We Are All Welcome Here and admit "that Amy Cates sure can pick a good book," check out Berg's other titles. My favorites: The Art of Mending, The Year of Pleasures, Say When, Never Change and The Pull of the Moon. Visit Berg's website,

You're welcome.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Fried Green Salmonella-Free Tomatoes (Cooking With Amy)

Not long after we married, my dear husband grilled two lonely hamburgers on our tiny charcoal grill. I ate mine in the dark bedroom, which was illuminated only by the glow of a 13-inch TV. If I had to guess, I was probably watching "Designing Women." Midway through my burger, I thought, "This burger tastes mushy." I turned on the overhead light only to find that not only was this burger RARE, but uncomfortably close to RAW.
About four hours later, after midnight, I woke up to symptoms you would not believe. To complicate matters, I had recently learned I was pregnant and therefore could not be drugged out of my mind. My doctor led us down the unfortunate route of suppositories, which almost ended our young marriage right then and there. I was going to end up a single mom who had to tell her child, "If your father had only cooked the hamburger, we wouldn't be in this mess."
While I was never officially diagnosed with salmonella, I imagine the symptoms would be a lot like The Hamburger Incident of 1991.
So today's cooking tip is this: Don't eat foods that may be tainted with salmonella. Unless you need to lose a few pounds and don't mind a few embarrassing physical unpleasantries. Unless you have a generous sick leave policy at your place of employment. Unless you're not pregnant and don't plan to become pregnant. Because ladies, let me tell you, your chances of becoming pregnant will diminish greatly if your better half has to witness your salmonella-like symptoms.
One way to avoid salmonella-ridden tomatoes is to grow your own, and keep close watch over your garden. On Saturday, I harvested four huge green tomatoes from my garden (because I'm impatient that way—tomatoes seldom make it to red around here) and transformed them into a delicious addition to our family's dinner table.
Just as everyone in the South claims to make the best potato salad, so it goes with fried green tomatoes. I just happen to be right. Follow these directions, and you can brag, too.

Fried Green Salmonella-Free Tomatoes

green, salmonella-free tomatoes (as many as you're willing to slice and fry)
cooking oil
bread crumbs
corn meal (or flour; but I prefer corn meal, or the result will be gummy--not a good texture)
milk (about 3/4 cup)
salt and pepper to taste

Fill a frying pan with about a half-inch of cooking oil. As the oil heats, soak your WASHED salmonella-free tomato slices in a large bowl of milk. Combine equal measures of bread crumbs and corn meal (or flour) in a large bowl. Maybe 1 1/2 cups combined? I don't know. I don't measure. Stir. Dredge the slices through the meal mixture, then back to the milk, then back to the meal mixture. When the oil is hot, fry away. Cooking time depends on how you like them—soggy or crispy. I like to cook them all the way through. Like I would have preferred that hamburger that almost killed me 17 years ago.

What Are We Supposed To Do NOW, Tim Russert?

We were driving home from the mountains Friday when we heard of Tim Russert's passing, and together we said, "What?" If ever a TV political analyst achieved rock star status, it was Russert. His dry-erase boards, huge maps with red and blue states, his never-ending smirk, his unwavering confidence in everything he said and asked. He was the guy you wanted to sit next to in history class. Or to be your neighbor. Or just be the guy who broke everything down so that you understood it and could then go on to a dinner party and sound like you were an amateur political scientist. He didn't pass along his opinions so much as he helped you form yours. Always one to dice up both sides, Russert could step back and see the big picture.
One of the three presidential debates this fall will be held in nearby Oxford, Miss., just a four-hour drive from here. Just last week, I thought, hey, wouldn't it be a cool road trip to drive over to Ole Miss in September, stand outside the auditorium and catch a glimpse of McCain, Obama and, whoa, Nellie! What if Tim Russert happens to be the moderator?! I had a mental list of friends I would invite to ride along. As the doors closed and the debate began, leaving us standing in the hot, sticky Mississippi night without a ticket or credentials, we would drive over to Taylor and eat catfish and pout about not being able to see the debate. It would have been something else.
Russert made presidential elections FUN. The campaigns. The debates. The returns.
When it comes to severe weather, we have a favorite meteorologist. Breaking news, we turn to a certain network. Political analysis, hands down, it was Russert.