Thursday, May 24, 2012

kitchen theater

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on May 23, 2012.


I recently spent one entire rainy day alternating between reading to the kids, showing them educational videos, and trying to snooze on the sofa.

I had a good reason for being plumb tuckered out. The week before, my son and I had been cast in a play about an Anabaptist family living in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. My son had gotten the part of a Union soldier and I had been cast as Edith, one of the family’s grown daughters. While I was thoroughly enjoying myself, the late nights and the stress of memorizing my lines and learning to wear a corset were taking their toll. Thus, the lazy day.

But right around 4 o’clock, I forced myself to rally. Rehearsals started at 6:30. We needed to hustle to get the house cleaned and supper on the table before then.

I put my younger daughter to washing the lunch dishes. I told the boys to blitz the downstairs. I assigned my older daughter to making biscuits. In the middle of it all while I sauteed the onions for our soup, I started practicing my lines.

In one of the scenes, Edith, who is known for her dreams and premonitions, tells her husband about her nightmare, which foreshadows the terror to come.

“My throat was burning,” I croaked, clutching at my neck, overdramatizing for memorization’s sake, “and all I could think of was water.”

The daughter on her stool, washing dishes, turned sideways so she could better see me and jumped into the part of my husband. “Edie...” she interjected. 

The boys had all but ceased their straightening up to watch my theatrics.

“And then up in the rocks I found a trickle of pure, clear water,” I said. I recounted how the trickle turned to a torrent. “It tore at my fingers and overflowed, gushing, soaking me, streaming down,” I cried, gasping, my shoulders heaving. “I couldn’t breathe!”

When I reached the end of the dream, the kids begged for a repeat performance.

“That’s enough for now,” I said. “My throat’s sore. We need to get these biscuits in the oven.”

My older daughter mused dreamily as she stirred the cream into the flour and lard, “You help your mama make biscuits in the play, and I’m helping you here.” Was she imagining our kitchen to be a stage set?

“That’s true,” I said. “But we never eat the stage biscuits. Besides, they’re probably hard as rocks from all the handling.”

We had no problem eating our biscuits. Even though I made a double batch, only one was left over. I ate it the next night, split and stuffed with ham, on my way home from rehearsal.

Adapted from Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Small Breads by Bernard Clayton Jr.

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup lard
3/4 cup cream, half-and-half, or milk
cornmeal, for sprinkling

Measure the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Cut in the lard with a fork. Gently stir in the cream.

Dump the shaggy dough on to a floured surface and knead once or twice. Press the dough into a rough circle about 1/3-inch thick. Cut the biscuits with a biscuit cutter (or a drinking glass), dipping it into flour between cuts to prevent sticking. Repeat until all the dough has been used. But be gentle—extra handling yields a tougher biscuit.

Place the biscuits on a lightly greased, cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes until golden brown and sky high.

For more information about the play “Jordan’s Stormy Banks” by Liz Beachy Hansen, visit www.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

for the children

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on May 9, 2012.


I get a kick out of trying new recipes. Sometimes my experiments are rather wild. One time I served my family fried lemons and parsley wrapped in tortillas. Another time there was a cold cucumber soup that we all agreed was perfectly horrid (though I didn’t tell them my opinion until after we had eaten it, much to their dismay). And my husband still likes to tease me about the time I served him collard greens on top of oatmeal. The cooking flops don’t faze me much. New flavors are thrilling, and more often than not, the dishes are perfectly edible, though somewhat odd.

My children, however, don’t always appreciate my creative efforts. They are quick to grow weary of the steady stream of new ingredients and flavors. No doubt they would be happy as clams if I only ever made their favorite foods.

I do try to be sensitive. Some days they need comfort food, and whether or not I find the dish exciting to cook is not important. The other week, we had one of those days.

On that particular day, the children were grief stricken.

Five days before, they had rescued some baby field mice that were being attacked by our dog. My husband and I had warned the children that the mice probably wouldn’t live, but that didn’t stop the children from doing their best to keep the babies alive. My older daughter, especially, poured her heart and soul into caring for them. She made them a straw nest, heated up a rice-stuffed sock to keep them warm, bathed and cuddled them, and spent hours feeding them drops of milk from a syringe. On Monday morning when she discovered that one of the mice, a girl named Henry, was dead, my daughter was crushed.

One by one, the other mice died, and the three younger children spent the morning crying.

I tried to stick to our normal routine in spite of the sobbing, but it was hopeless. By mid afternoon I was exhausted. Our rest time—a fixed part of our day in which the kids go to their rooms and I sink onto the sofa to drink coffee and write—was ruined because the youngest child couldn’t stop crying. His focus had shifted from the baby mice to his frustration that I had yet to sign up to be his Sunday school teacher.

Finally I threw up my hands in frustration and set a pot of water on to boil for some pasta. I grated a block of cheese and whisked flour into melted butter for a white sauce. Supper would be baked macaroni and cheese, one of the kids’ favorites. Our day had been rough, but our supper would go down easy.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes I spice up the white sauce by stirring in a bit of grainy mustard, hot sauce, pesto, or chopped ham. Though I then run the risk of turning a comforting dish into something new and stressful. More often than not, I keep it safely simple.

1 pound macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour, rounded
1 ½ teaspoons salt
3 cups milk
8-12 ounces grated melting cheese such as Colby, cheddar, Monterey Jack, or Gruyere

Cook the macaroni according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and cook briefly, stirring constantly. Whisk steadily, add the milk and bring to gentle boil. Stir in the salt and half of the cheese. Taste to correct seasonings.

Combine the cheese sauce with the macaroni and pour into a buttered 9x13 pan. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.