On Naming (and on Eating Vegetables)

I have been working, a subject so eye-glazingly dull I cannot bear to even discuss it. And so I won’t. Instead, I would like to share with you a piece of family news and a small recipe, one that everyone should have.

I can only begin the family news, though, by reflecting for a second on the names we use when we write about our families. (The names I use, I mean.) Although my sons love the idea of being known all over the world by their real names, I have long had a superstition about using those names, as though to say their first names might somehow be bad for them.

But I have just this moment realized that is silly. They don’t care in the least if I use their names. And they know better than to go to a stranger who happens to know their name. The world, it seems to me, is not so dangerous that writing their actual names on my blog will put them at risk. (Except the risk that they might be deeply embarrassed by me, but that is a risk they will have to learn to Deal With.) In the end, I’m not sure why I ever thought — in that back of the mind, unexamined place all our fears live — there was any danger in using their names.

I’m quite proud of their names, in fact, because I chose them. My husband (he’d prefer to be referred to simply as my wonderful husband whom I was lucky to marry rather than one of the superbly unreliable men I dated throughout my career) and I agreed, before our children were born, that if they were girls I would choose their last name and he would choose their first names. And if they were boys, I would choose their first names and he would choose their last names.

As things turned out, I got to choose six names — a first and a middle for each of our three boys. He, on the other hand, simply had to get the spelling of his last name correct on their birth certificates, a simple enough matter, I’m sure you’ll all agree, compared to naming not just three boys, but two who are twins and, thus, need names that mesh, but do not actually rhyme.  (We have moved forward from the time when twins were named things like Colin and Rollin and Jessie and Bessie.)

I named then Charlie, Jack, and William, dear reader. (Charles, John, and William, in fact.) My inspirations were as follows: English kings, American guys, Shakespeare, my father, my brother, my husband’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather, his best friend, and my husband. I went this way because I felt it was important that they have a decent explanation for my decisions. You are named after several really fine men, including the man who wrote As You Like It struck me as preferable to, you are named after an actor who played the unreliable doctor in The Days of Our Lives.

The family news is that Jack, who is a singer, performed this weekend with the San Francisco Symphony. He had a solo — a brief piece in which he had to rise up and sing many very high notes — and he acquitted himself admirably. In fact, today in our local newspaper he is described as “excelling in his small assignment.” He’ll like that phrase because it seems so adult and professional.

This phrase, in addition to being part of my family news, has made me think about the aim of hard work. In the last week of grinding work, I’ve forgotten that in addition to actually just finishing my job I might consider how I could excel at some small part of it. Not the whole, long involved thing, but just a piece of it. As is often the case with the young ‘uns, we learn things from reading their press.

And now for the recipe, a little value-added week beginning thing for you.

Every single person who eats — which would include every one of us — should have a nice recipe for vinaigrette. I know I’ve described this before, but I’m going to do it again. And I’m also going to suggest that you consider making it in this enormous quantity. That’s because if you have lovely vinaigrette on hand, you’re far more likely to eat vegetables. Here it is:

Macerate together these things:

2 shallots diced small
2 cloves garlic — diced small
2 teaspoons coarse salt
2/3 cup vinegar (red wine, champagne, balsamic)
–let sit at least 30 minutes

add 1 cup olive oil
4 Tablespoons dijon — shake and drizzle

I’m going to suggest that you begin the week by (a) excelling in at least one thing you’ve been assigned to do and; (b) drizzling some nice vinaigrette on your favorite steamed vegetable.

And later in the week, after I’ve excelled in at least one small thing, or at least eaten quite a number of green vegetables, I’ll be posting the BlogLily Annual Report . It has actually been an entire year, shockingly enough, of telling you exactly what’s on my mind and it is now time to account for how that’s gone.

Lima Stew and Blender Tuna Mousse: Unrescued Recipes

Those are just a few of the unlikely recipes I found today in an old recipe box from Indiana. Other favorites include Lima Beans Au Gratin, Green Soup Plus, and a recipe attributed to “TV Hour Mag” called Carrot Chowder. Carrot Chowder features the unappetizing combination of one pound ground meat (type of meat unspecified), a lot of water, four cups of grated carrots and four cups of tomato juice. You couldn’t have created something more disturbing had you closed your eyes and dumped the first four things you touched in your refrigerator (make that your fridge after you’d just returned from a six week vacation) into a large soup pot filled with water.

I’ve been meaning to rescue some recipes this week from the many wonderful recipe boxes I’ve been ordering from EBay. But these, it seems to me, should never have been exhumed. Nevertheless, the life of a woman who must have been a spectacularly bad cook interests me very much.

I imagine she was cooking in the 1940s through the 1960s, and that she was not a woman who had decided to liberate herself from the kitchen. At least not overtly. Hers, I think, was more of an underground movement. I have a picture of her: she played a lot of bridge (one of the recipes is scrawled on the back of a contract bridge score card). She’d sit at her kitchen table in the afternoon, blinds drawn, husband at work, children at school, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, a small glass of some clear, lethal liquid at her elbow. She’d flip through the pages of TV Hour Mag, looking for the profile of her favorite soap opera star. And then she’d pause at the recipe for Carrot Chowder and think to herself, what the hell, why not try something new? Her next thought, barely expressed under the fog of bridge, lethal liquid and soap operas? It’ll serve them right for expecting me to cook all the time

The evidence is that hers was a pretty successful underground movement. Take “Green Soup Plus,” a recipe cut out of a newspaper and billed as “an elegant way to treat soup from the pantry shelf.” Its ingredients, beyond one can of condensed green pea soup, something I didn’t even know existed, are sour cream, curry powder and this shocker: flaked cooked crab. Crab on green pea soup? What an unkind thing to do with a lovely bit of crab. My guess is that it wasn’t a lovely bit of crab, but an old leftover bit of crab cocktail brought home from a restaurant she’d wheedled her surly husband into taking her to. On top of the crab, you are directed to throw some flaked coconut. I suppose you could squint at the dish, and imagine being in the Tonga Room, drinking some kind of drink with an umbrella in it, while you poison your family with a brew of green peas and slightly “off” crab.

I’m only going to talk about one more piece of culinary Semtex this woman created for her family: Lima Beans Au Gratin. She might have thought that calling it Au Gratin would tease them into eating it. And maybe they did. But that must have been the last time they ever asked her to cook for them. Why? In addition to one pound of dried LARGE Lima beans (“cooked,” the recipe says, but without any suggestion of how long or how) there are directions for making a soupy milky mix of butter flour milk and evaporated milk. The whole thing is then topped with a lot of diced pimento and paprika. Clearly, the idea was to hide the badly cooked Limas under something that must have looked like milk stew. The scary bits of pimento? Who knows. Maybe her family liked pimento and seeing it on top of something lured them into plunging their spoons into the milky morass and actually eating those LARGE Limas.

I hope she made it out of Indiana alive and unprosecuted. I’m guessing her life in Indiana did not turn out the way she’d imagined when she agreed to marry Mr. Blender Tuna Mousse. (I haven’t talked about blender tuna mousse for a reason. Were I to describe it, you would dream of it and that wouldn’t be nice.) I’m hoping she ended up in Miami, the place I know she truly wanted to live. In Florida, her hair would always be the color of the sun, her glass always full, the umbrella perched in her drink always open, her television tuned to a lovely soap opera, her feet pedicured and on top of a flowered ottoman, a nice man scheduled to show up every evening at 7:00 with a bouquet of roses and a promise to always, always, always, take her out to dinner. If he knew what was good for him, that is.

A Dispatch From the Land of Tea Cakes

The tea cake is the madeleine of the American south. Like the madeleine it is a very basic, sugar, flour, butter, eggs concoction. It is the sort of thing our elders served when people came over in the afternoon. It’s simple and a bit dense, the sort of thing you’d dip into a cup of tea. Unlike the madeleine, the tea cake is a shape shifter. But more on that later.
sugar, flour, butter, eggs, salt, vanilla, baking soda

These are the ingredients. The eggs are sitting in warm water because I forgot to bring them to room temperature:

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 eggs

–cream these ingredients and then add:

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon soda

The dough will look like this:

An important thing to remember is that there is a lot of flour in this dough. It isn’t sticky. I think that’s why it’s so easy to roll out.

This is only half the dough the recipe made. I rolled the dough into two logs and put them in the fridge while I considered my next move. I decided I’d make little cakes, and put dough inside a mini- muffin tin. I sprinkled the dough with sugar.

Here’s the mini-muffin tin. And now, a confession. Although I liked these, they were not a hit with everyone in my house. My husband thought they were too dry. One son liked them a lot. Another son said they were just way too rich. He had a quarter of a cake and that was it for him. I left them in the kitchen at work, and they did disappear.  This might not be the best measure of yumminess.  Stale cheerios will disappear from that kitchen, if you are patient enough.

I began to think about the denseness problem, and had an inspiration. If I rolled the dough out very, very thin, maybe the cookies wouldn’t be so overwhelming. And then I remembered those farm animal cookie cutters, the ones I’ve never used because, well, I’ve always been too busy to use things like that. Or thought I was. But this summer — and the rest of my life — is going to be different. I’m using our stuff. But I digress.

Here they are — cute huh? Animals.  I cooked these in a 325 degree oven for eight minutes, then took them out, turned the cookie sheet around and cooked them for another eight minutes. They’re done when they’re brown and smell really good.

Apples are nice too.

This is what I mean by the shape shifting properties of this dough. Roll it thin and cut it out with any cutter you like and it will be whatever you wish. How many things in life are like that?

Here are my family’s reactions:

  1. Husband: The thinner the better. (Not you, of course, just the dough. Your shape is perfect.)
  2. My youngest son: They’re good. I like the fat ones better, because you get more.
  3. One of my older sons: Good job mom. I’d like these in my lunch. They’re like chessmen cookies.
  4. Other son. Too busy talking on the phone with a friend to say much. Thumbs up.

Have a cookie, darlin':

Red, White, and Blue, Baby

Today’s my brother Tom’s birthday. He’s taken it well, having to share his birthday with that of our beloved country. This year, he’s having a birthday celebration in El Paso with our parents, his girlfriend from Columbia, Lena, our friend Aurelia and my three boys. Whew. There will be fireworks, as there often are on his birthday.

My brother lives alone most of the time. He’s a bachelor, a category of male life my sons find fascinating and wonderful. Every room in his house is magical. For example, the laundry room in his house has the usual stuff — but it also has an enormous bucket of bubble gum. He has an entire refrigerator in his garage devoted to soft drinks. He has THREE televisions. He plays the guitar well. He is terribly kind and very generous.

Today, thinking about my brother, I made the Cake with a Thousand Faces

I employed raspberries and blueberries and will not explain why that is. I’m sure you can guess. This is how it looked before it went in the oven.

This is how it looked when it came out of the oven:

I’m sure it is very clear how much I love my brother. Happy Birthday to him, the Red, White and Bluebaby.

Jam Today

The jam is done. If you want to see how it all started, you can read about it here. This is how I finished it.

Sterilize the jars. That means: wash them in hot soapy water, fill them with hot water and put them in the microwave on high for ten minutes or in the oven at 250 for about half an hour. I use boiling water. You do not have to; boiling water can be scary. We don’t want you to be afraid.

Next, open the fridge and take out the jam you put in there a few days ago, the jam that’s been sitting in its sugar and lemon bath and becoming more and more delicious.

Put it in the lovely copper preserving kettle. While you’re at it, take the top of the two part canning lid (there’s a screw top and a flat sealing part), and put it in a sauce pan with water.

Turn the heat on. As soon as the water begins to boil in the saucepan where you’ve put the lids, turn it off. You don’t want to cook the lids, you want to keep them warm. When the jam begins to boil, turn it down to a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes. Sometimes the jam is a bit runny. That’s okay. It firms up in the fridge. It is not meant, anyway, to be glutinous.

Can the stuff. That means, put it in the jars using a ladle (there is a special funnel you can get that helps this.) Leave about 1/4 inch of headroom. Wipe the top of the jar with a clean cloth. Screw on the two part lid that comes with all Kerr and Ball canning jars. (If you live in another country, this process will have to be as per the manufacturer’s instructions.) Turn the jars upside down.  Set a timer for five minutes.  And then turn the jars right side up.

You will notice that, somewhere between ten and thirty minutes later, the jars will make a most satisfying “pop.” If you’ve canned a lot of jars, there will be a lot of popping. This is the sound of the jar sealing. In our small house, when I make jam at night, I can hear the popping all the way up in my bed. I love it.

And that’s it. Except you need to try to keep the jam for the winter and not eat it right then & there, which is what we did with some of it last night. This picture doesn’t really do justice to the color which is a deep … raspberry. Here are some things you can do with jam:

  • spoon it over plain yogurt
  • spoon it over ice cream
  • eat it with a spoon
  • use it as a relish with meat
  • and, of course, put it on toast

Raspberry Jam

The first time I ever saw someone make jam I was horrified. It was a terribly hot summer day and my jam-making friend, a woman who’d never seemed insane before that day, was boiling great vats of strawberries and sugar at a rate so furious you could barely see the stove for all the steam. Hot fruit was splattered everywhere: walls, floor, stove, people. The kitchen was an inferno of sticky, sweet goo. Hot, sticky fruit hurts. So does the boiling water she used to seal the jars. Jam making looked about as safe as climbing into an active volcano, and about as senseless.

But don’t those raspberries look beautiful? And what can you do when there are so many of them in the market and you’ve eaten all you can every day for weeks? And they don’t cost very much?

It occurred to me about ten years after the jam making debacle, that possibly jam could be made in smaller batches — microbrewed, as it were.

And that is what I do when I make jam. After much experimentation I’ve come up with a few rules:

  • I only make two kinds of jam: raspberry and apricot. Why? Because neither is too sweet and both are absolutely beautiful to look at.
  • I make small batches in a beautiful copper preserving kettle I bought at Sur La Table for the ridiculously cheap price of $49. (It is a lot of money, but not for something you use all summer long, year after year, and to perfect effect.)
  • I do not use pectin. I don’t like the way it makes the jam congeal. I use three ingredients only: lemon juice, fruit and sugar. That’s it.
  • I make the jam in small jars. That way, if I give some away, I’m not giving away everything I have. Plus, it just looks nicer in small jars — more jewel-like.
  • I do not use a hot water bath. I have a secret (well, not so secret, just wonderful) way of sealing it that works quite well.

Here are some specifics. First, the raspberry jam recipe. It comes from a book called Preserving in Today’s Kitchen by Jeanne Lesem. (Ms. Lesem was born in Kansas, raised during the Depression in small towns in Arkansas and, from the book jacket, appears to have been a journalist in New York City. I’d love to read her autobiography.)

Raspberry Jam

  • 3 (6 ounce) trays of raspberries
  • 2 Tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
  • Sugar
  1. Set an open 8 ounce canning jar upside down in the center of a microwavable glass measure or casserole. Distribute the berries around it, add the lemon juice, cover and microwave on high for 2 minutes. (You can also just do this on the stove, heating the berries for a few minutes, to get the juices flowing.) Let stand for two minutes.
  2. Transfer berries and juice to a 1 1/2 quart saucepan, add 3/4 cup (6 ounces) sugar bring to a boil quickly, and boil rapidly until slightly thickened.
  3. Pack into a hot sterilized 12-ounce jar, seal with one of those two-part canning rings you get when you buy canning jars , invert for 5 minutes, then set upright to cool. (You’ll often hear the sound of the jars popping, which is the sound of a vacuum being made to keep the jam preserved.) This is the wonderful method of making the jam air tight, so it will keep for the long winter, when raspberries seem a world away.

That’s it. When I went outside to get the lemons, the bush was a thing of beauty:

You can do this in two parts, by the way. Today, I prepared the raspberries up to the point where you do the boiling. I tripled this recipe (which still isn’t a lot) and then heated them up a bit with the lemon juice.And then I added sugar, put them in containers and stuck them in the fridge. They looked like this right before I added the sugar:

They’re in the fridge now, macerating and gaining flavor. Tomorrow, I’ll boil them for about 15 minutes — nothing too dangerous — and then put them in jars, turn the jars upside down for five minutes and bob’s your uncle.

Next? I’m still determined to do those tea cakes. Plus, I’ve got some awfully beautiful apricots to make into jam.

Part Two can be found here.

Rescued Recipes: East Texas Tea Cakes

Today’s rescued recipe comes from east Texas, from a gray metal filing box I bought on Ebay. The seller was a woman in Texas, who’d acquired this recipe box at an estate sale.

Early this morning, before going to work, I spread the recipes out (there aren’t a lot of them, maybe twenty) and, after a few minutes of reading through the cards, a picture of its creator began to emerge.

Some of the recipes are written on pieces of note paper from something called the East Texas Salt Water Disposal Company in Kilgore, Texas. What exactly a salt water disposal company does, I cannot even begin to guess. I don’t know where salt water would be coming from in east Texas, one of those piney, swampy places people tend to leave, apparently after they’ve sold things like their mom’s recipe box to a lady who runs an ebay business disposing of the “estates” of women whose children have made a run for it.

The woman who once owned this box preserved some of her mother and grandmother’s recipes in it — she rewrote them on cards of her own, noting the year they’d first been made.

These three women (the owner, her mother, and her grandmother) were clearly southerners. I know that because a few of these recipes deliver the slow, small town world of that time and place with heartbreaking clarity, heartbreaking because it’s a world that doesn’t exist for this family anymore. Once someone gets rid of their family’s history, it’s pretty clear their family isn’t intact anymore.

The recipe we’ll be making this afternoon, when I get home from picking my boys up from summer camp, is for “Tea Cakes or Sugar Cookies.” In the corner of this recipe, you can make out the words “My Mother & My GrandMother. Cir. 1887.”

When I came across this recipe card, two other tea cakes immediately came to mind. First, in Zora Neale Hurston’s remarkable book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the narrator, Janie, runs off with a man whose name is Tea Cake. And he is indeed sweet. (If you haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God, you should. It was written during the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1930s. It is a miracle of a book, giving voice as it does to an African-American woman, Janie, who is one of the finest literary creations I know of.)

Second, one of my favorite cookbook writers from the south (and anywhere for that matter), Edna Lewis, who, like Janie, came of age in a town founded by former slaves, has a fine recipe for tea cakes in the book she wrote with Scott Peacock shortly before her death, The Gift of Southern Cooking. They’re a bit crumbly and very rich and just what you’d be served on the porch with lemonade when you go to visit somebody on a Sunday afternoon. When my great-Aunt Simona died not long ago, I made those tea cakes in her honor. Even though she was not from the south, they reminded me of her world — a sweet one, in which you were always offered something good to eat at three in the afternoon, and coffee, and then you sat down and talked for a while, and you were never in a hurry to leave, and never wanted to leave.

The 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe is something that looks like it’s been around a long time too. The paper’s yellow and the handwriting is a little shaky. You see this cake mentioned often in cookbooks. It’s a pound cake. This recipe involves separating the eggs and mixing in the yolks first and then, at the very end, mixing in the whipped egg whites.

The tea cakes will be served this afternoon at our table under the big blue umbrella. With lemonade or tea. We’ll play Glen Campbell and Johnny Rivers. Look for pictures and a fuller report tomorrow.

And one other thing: Here’s the 1-2-3-4 recipe. Perhaps you will want to make it for yourself and share in some of that sweetness.

1-2-3-4 Cake

  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


  1. Let the milk, eggs and butter come to room temp for a few hours.
  2. Cream sugar Butter — fluffy
  3. Add egg yolk one at a time. Blend thoroughly
  4. Sift dry ingred. together 3 times.
  5. Add alternately with milk and vanilla
  6. Beat until smooth
  7. Beat whites stiff and fold into first mixture

Bake one hour 350. Apparently, sometimes if you use a different pan for the cake, you need only bake for 50 minutes at 325.