Click any letter for a look at my prize-winning essay from the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. You don't even have to buy a vowel.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Old Family Recipe

I can’t think why I gain weight during the holidays. I’m sure to eat a balanced diet from every food group: food made with cream soup, food made with Cool Whip, food that combines vegetables or fruits with marshmallows in a creative way, and food that distant relatives make. I’m always careful to use garnishes, such as triple chocolate cake and pecan pie with discretion.

But here I am again, straining the seams of my purple puppy dog pajamas and forcing the elastic in my stretchy pants to call for reinforcements. To take the stress off my seams, I find I can generally go easy in the “food that distant relatives make” category.

What is it about seeing people only once a year that makes them think they can try out their experimental recipes without fear of retribution? Everybody has an aunt on a health food kick that makes everything with soy milk and seaweed or an uncle whose specialty is peanut butter casserole, but my family members have earned honorary placement in the Food Terrors Hall of Fame. (Their motto is “Smell This!”) With an eye toward family unity, I have always suffered through the asparagus jello of a forgotten time, but from now on, I’m taking a stand on the Aunt Betty's Rice and Raisin Balls.

I also find that I can resist:

Any dish that combines crushed corn flakes, cottage cheese, and butterscotch topping.

Any dish that blends chocolate chips with a random type of canned fish product.

Any finger food that leaves a film on my hands that requires turpentine to wash away the evidence.

So now I’ve concocted a secret weapon. The next time I’m faced with Sauerkraut and Strawberry Casserole or Better Than Roadkill Chili, I’ll whip the top off the mason jar I’m keeping for such an occasion.

“What’s in there?” the Captain asked when the mixture etched a hangman's noose on the inside of the jar.

I grinned. “It’s an Old Family Recipe.”

“Your great-grandaddy’s moonshine?”

“Better than that."

I unscrewed the lid and a passing fly hit the lineoleum like the top scoop of vanilla on an August ice cream cone.

"My brother’s carp bait.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Grinch, Interrupted

Christmas is a time to count my blessings. I count them at Thanksgiving, too, but that list tends to cover an expansive list of food items, many of which are covered in gravy. At Christmas I’m able to concentrate on the things that make my Grinch’s heart grow. (While I snack on food items filled with sugar and chocolate chips. Just for the record, I’m extra thankful for the people around me who do wonderful things with sugar and share them with me.)

I’m thankful the neighbor abandoned his Labrador when he moved away, because I found out that my husband was just teasing when he said another animal in the house meant I had to sleep in the yard. However, I’m hopeful that I won’t have to test that rule again this year.

I’m thankful for my husband’s eye-opening red flowerdy Hawaiian shirt, even though it caused the teenagers to christen him with the nickname Captain Spiffy, because buying a new shirt is a lot easier way to cope with turning 50 than purchasing a new sportscar or a supermodel. When you have three dogs, a supermodel is overkill. And hard to fit into the budget, although it's probably cheaper to keep her in kibble.

I'm thankful the dog was sick last week because this week he feels fine for Christmas. Unless he eats another angel.

I'm also thankful for a husband that let me sleep through the late night episode of the dog being sick. Husbands who are handy with a cleanup bucket are hard to find.

I'm thankful that I fell down the stairs last month, because Captain Spiffy insisted I buy new shoes. With treads.

Even though it was an adventurous journey (involving railroad tracks and saturated kidneys) to get to that point, I’m thankful the doctor put Bill on a restricted diet, because now I fit into my jeans.

I'm thankful that I broke my casserole dish because I don't have to make the sweet potatoes for Christmas dinner. I hate to cook and peel sweet potatoes, although I'll miss munching on the mini marshmallows. (I’m very thankful for mini marshmallows.)

I'm thankful that my pink felt feather-trimmed, high-heeled Christmas stocking is empty because I still have hope that Santa comes to see girls who have earned permanent placement on the naughty list. And I'm pretty sure he didn’t hear what I said when I found out the dog was sick.

I'm thankful to have a howling coyote and a five-legged zombie in my Nativity scene, because that means the boys are safe at home to practice their pranks.

I'm thankful that I headed back into the traffic and crowds to go Christmas shopping with Son Number One because now he has a job, and I got to see him spending his money instead of mine. Also, he bought gas for my car, which is very thoughtful even though I have to pay him back.

Most of all, I’m thankful that I was seated near the obnoxious loudmouth at dinner last night. Because the more he groused about the texture of his roast beef, the complimentary pancakes he received, the cost of his food, the service, the manager, and eventually the line at the cash register, the more I realized that the things I thought were my troubles all along, were the things I could count as extra blessings.

So thanks Scrooge. You’re the star on my tree this year.

And I’m thankful that I didn’t sling a biscuit at your head after all. Because I’m pretty sure Santa would have noticed.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

CSI Poinsettia Homocide

I love Christmas--known around my house as the Festival of Poinsettia Murder. It’s a ritual I indulge in every year. What says Merry Christmas better than a spray of bare, wilted stems and a blanket of cast-off red petals covering the floor in a crunchy carpet?

To my way of thinking it’s more manslaughter than murder anyway. It’s not like I plan the death like I plan the menu for Christmas dinner, which is an unsettling, but comforting, thought. My Christmas dinner, while not gourmet fare in scope or intent, might make for happy times and give the old stretchy pants a workout, but does not often leave bodies in its wake. My bent toward Poinsettiacide is a well-known, but lesser-appreciated talent.

So if it’s the rituals that make the holiday season important and cement the ties that bind into place, I owe it to my family to kill the holiday Poinsettia.

So this season will see all my familiar and comforting rituals: the manger scene whose assembled cast expands daily to include snowmen, stray wisemen and an occasional ox or ass from long lost nativity sets, and at least one zombie action figure; the Christmas tree decorated around the bottom with an assortment of bells and wind chimes to let me know when the kitties have staged a daring raid on the festive gift bags, and a crumpled Poinsettia that holds my hopes and dreams that this will be the year that Santa finally delivers a green thumb.

Because once the wrapping paper lies in mangled piles and Christmas lights wind themselves back into tangled knots, hope is what Christmas is all about.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jingle Bill$

Now that Thanksgiving is tucked conveniently away in freezerbound Tupperware and I’ve sewn the button back on my accidently expanding waistband, I can look forward to my favorite December pastime; counting down the days until Christmas. There is a complicated formula involving a calendar and a red marker that I could use, but I prefer the new math method. I count the number of sales flyers in the newspaper and divide by how many gifts I have left to buy.

Many of the area retailers have been infused with a generous helping of the Christmas spirit since the eve of the autumnal equinox, but I’m very firm about leaving the Christmas goodies on the shelves until the last of October’s candy corn is gone and the turkey leftovers have disappeared into the Dachshund. There’s something about toting red and green wrapped gifts home in a Frankenstein Trick or Treat bag that takes away the festive air of the whole project.

So I’ve been out this week, taking in the sights and sounds of Christmas. I noticed that “Debit or Credit” is the greeting of choice around town. Waffle House must be the only place left that still takes cash. They have to have something to give the folks behind the mask during the twelve days of armed robberies.

I got all my Christmas shopping done at a store that advertised cut-rate sale prices on all the merchandise. A perky sales clerk in a Santa hat rang up my purchase. When she hit the Total button, the machine started flashing like a jackpot winner on a slot machine. I guess a long list of cheap stuff still turns into a big bill. Especially when they add the state’s share at the end.

As I looked around the store, my eyes reflecting the soft glow of the cash register’s LEDs, I saw the walls were festooned with greetings for every holiday from Christmas to Kwanzaa. Now that we’re all celebrating different things this time of year, there’s only one greeting that still applies to everybody.

Peace on Earth.

Plus Tax.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Does Tradition Start With?

Traditions are important to the smooth running of a household. Just as a pillar of smoke at the Vatican informs the masses a new Pope is on the rise, a steady stream of smoke out my kitchen window indicates I need to make a trip to the store for another roast victim for dinner.

Tradition also helps alert my family that a change in dinner plans is on the way when they see me hurl the pot lids around the kitchen like ring toss at the county fair. They know from experience it’s not a good time to ask me for exact change for the newspaper boy or to invite 12 of their closest friends over for a video game marathon, or to inquire whether I washed their shin guards after last season’s championship game. They also know that a spirited volley of chicken nugget dodge ball with the dog means we’ll be scanning the plastic covered menu at Nacho Mama before the sun sinks below guacamole level.

To me, tradition means trustworthy and reliable. To the kids it spells boring, even if you don’t stop to buy a vowel.

“What’s for eats?” one boy asked the ceiling as he arched a knot of dirty socks in the general direction of what would be the laundry basket had I not reorganized the clutter.

“Meatloaf,” I said brightly, skimming the sweaty socks off the microwave.

“Gross. I’ll make a pizza."

This kid hurls dirty footwear at the appliances and eats perma frost in the shape of cheese shreds and he thinks meatloaf is gross?

Meanwhile, the other son has created a Dagwood sandwich extravaganza with cheese spilling down the sides like the Great Flood, and now is rambling through the contents of the refrigerator looking for cocktail onions. I peered at his bending form, illuminated by the refrigerator light.

“Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Yeah. Meatloaf. It’s Monday.

“You knew?”

“Yeah. You always make food that starts with the same letter as the day. I think it’s some sort of prehistoric filing system.”

“So what am I making tomorrow?”

“That’s easy. Tuesday is Takeout. I’ll be on time.”

While I don’t think I’ve called for takeout every Tuesday, it’s either that or turkey pot pie. The more I think about the Takeout Tradition, the more nostalgic I get. Takeout. Hmmm, that starts with T and that rhymes with E and that stands for Easy!

Now that’s a tradition I can live with!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Deck the Dachshund

My house may not be Martha Stewart clean, but you can eat off my floor--there’s a stash of Cheerios stuck to the linoleum by the stove that I could string for Christmas tree garland. I’m not saying I’m the worst housekeeper since the Addams family decorated their house by taking the skeletons out of the closet, but it’s almost time to deck the dustballs for Christmas.

This year I’m going to keep it simple. I’ll string some lights on the cobwebs and tuck a present or two under the mushrooms that have grown up beside the bathtub. The boys, as clever as teenagers can be, have traced a map to Bethlehem in the dust on the coffee table. If it’s as accurate as the ones I’ve had from mapQuest, any wise men around here would do well to stop at the Citgo station on the corner in Jerusalem and ask for directions. Otherwise, they’ll risk missing a baby Jesus sighting by thirty miles and two left turns.

Keeping close to nature this year, I’m turning my efforts to decorating the dogs. Once you’re greeted at the door by a hundred pounds of black Labrador clad in the graceful garb of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and a Dachshund in Spock-like elf ears, you can appreciate the spirit of the season.

So what’s the big deal? Everybody loved it at Halloween.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Breadline or Bust

The irrationally optimistic weatherman called for snow here today, which in South Carolina is something like having Weight Watchers announce that Amaretto cheesecake will be the favored menu item at their Christmas buffet. Those folks straining the door supports down at the Weight Watchers meeting know it’s not true, just like we know that it will rain macaroni and cheese before we see a snowflake, but by golly, we’re going to be prepared, just in case.

When the temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and wild rumor spreads the S word around like compost on the vegetable garden, or if somebody kicks over a cup of ice at the Dairy Queen and it doesn’t melt before a refill arrives, the Piggly Wiggly rule goes into effect and everyone in the tri-county area proceeds to the local supermarket to show solidarity in the bread and milk departments.

This is the moment when the Live Action News cameras arrive from the major networks. Southerners may collect accomplishments like Leprechauns hoard pots of gold, but it’s not likely that the rest of the world is going to see us on the news pulling Timmy from the well. You’re going to see action packed newsreels of Lurlene pushing a buggy piled high with grocery store white bread, pork rinds, and a tribe size of Charmin, charging past the fresh fruit to beat her sister to the express lane checkout. And when tornado weather rolls through, the news channels race like greyhounds hot on the robot rabbit’s trail to be the first one with Live-Eye footage of a double-wide trailer spinning through the air like a boomerang.

This used to bother me when I was younger. Nowadays I can’t help but wonder why our country is obsessed with women in foam curlers and hair nets buying Moon Pies or the airborne velocity of the family Windstream. But in a country where a team of folks eating insects or a set of parents feuding over TV rights to a flock of kids can draw a major market share of attention, it’s no wonder Southern disasters spark the network glare.

When it comes to entertainment value, some people have it and some people don’t. Around here we spread it on toast and eat it for breakfast with our cheese grits. Which reminds me. The sun just ducked behind a cloud. I’d better go buy bread. You never know when the weatherman just might be right.