Of Texas and Rebirth

Jump to Arroz con Pollo

With all this beautiful weather, the girls and I have been spending most of our time outside.  My parents live out in the country–it takes twenty minutes to get to the nearest town and we could walk to a large cattle ranch no matter which way we went down our road.  The road that their property abuts is fairly quiet, shaded by very old trees.  It’s so peaceful.  The girls and I walk down the road for about a mile on lazy afternoons.

I scrounged up some flower pots in my mother’s shed and bought some soil and seeds.  I decided to go with local flowers–bluebonnets, cockscomb, daisies, and cacti–in the hopes that eventually I will find a job and begin anew with a new apartment or house with a yard or patio in which to plant these flowers.  It was a lot of fun to plant the seeds with the girls, albeit rather messy.  We also planted the verbs and veggies we’d need for salsa.

By the time we were done, the girls thought it was a fabulous idea to roll and jump in the mud.  But such is the life of a parent.

We also caught a caterpillar munching on my mother’s roses.  I put it in a jar with a bunch of leaves, punched holes in the lid, and we watched the little guy munch away.  We also got to see what caterpillar feces look like.  Sadly, though, it seems the little caterpillar has passed away.  The girls wanted me to catch another one for them, but I didn’t want to negligently take another life.

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I was to mixed up in my own depression, the girls missed out on Ostara and Holi this year.  So I’ve been trying very hard to make sure they get to enjoy Easter.  We still did some pagan things–coloring eggs, having an egg hunt, and talking about rebirth–but I also explained to the girls that some people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

And here, I must admit, it’s been difficult instructing the girls in two faiths.  They see similarities with Jesus and the Green Man, which makes sense to me as well.  But I do worry if it will make it difficult for them to understand what Jesus means to Christians.  Or maybe I’m just not explaining it right?

I’m finding symbols of crawling out of a destructive situation popping up in my life lately.

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph...

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph was taken during Kali Puja at Naihati, a town in West Bengal, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had dreams where the Hindu goddess Kali, normally associated with death and destruction, has talked to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been leery of talking to “dark goddesses,” mostly because their destructive power is not something to trifle with.  But Kali was not telling me to go out and to destroy things.  In one dream, she was warning me about a great evil–a random guy I was having a conversation with in the dream.  In another, we were having tea at some random coffee shop, like a pair of old friends, and she was telling me how my situation (the husband/divorce issue, joblessness, isolation) is only temporary, like most things in this world.  Kali has appeared like a grandmother figure, as well.  After talking to some Hindu and pagan friends (and an anthropologist friend) about these dreams, which at first confused me, and doing my own contemplative introspection, I think Kali is telling me that some things must end for good things to begin.

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ostara and Easter are both about death and rebirth.  Ostara is a Germanic goddess who is associated with the spring equinox.  She symbolizes the rebirth of nature after its death (winter).  Easter is literally about the death and resurrection of a god (Jesus).  Holi is also about the death and rebirth of the Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, who helped Parvati (of whom Kali is an incarnation) to marry Shiva (god of destruction and rebirth) at the cost of his life.


Arroz con Pollo

I grew up eating what my father refers to as “Texican cuisine,” or what many people call “Tex-Mex.”  One of my mother’s favorite dishes to cook was arroz con pollo.  I cooked it for myself during college, but stopped after about my third year of marriage because my husband wasn’t a fan.  Arroz con pollo, which means “rice with chicken” in Spanish, is pretty popular in Latino cooking and, like most Latino cooking, varies widely from culture to culture and family to family.

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that you can whip up to feed many people, and it requires very little work.  As with most of my family recipes, this is my best attempts to measure the palmfuls or shakes of the spice jar, so you may want to adjust the spices to suit your palette.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 cube tomato bouillon
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon cumin (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (more or less, to taste)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the chicken and fry it until it is completely brown on the outside.
  2. Remove the chicken to a bowl, set aside.  (Note, the chicken is still raw and blood may drip, so you want it in a bowl you can easily sterilize.)
  3. Fry the rice in the chicken grease.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.  Add the tomato and fry a little bit more.
  4. Add the water, tomato bouillon, and spices.  Stir thoroughly.
  5. Cover and let simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked (about an hour).  The rice will cook before the chicken does, but it will not burn.  Stir occasionally while it is cooking.

Arroz con pollo goes very well with a fresh vegetable composition, like black bean salad, and homemade iced tea or horchata (or margaritas).

Spring is Summer and Tarantulas for Teaching

Springtime in Texas doesn’t really exist.  “Winter” doesn’t, really, either.  But there is a rather obvious span of chilly, wet months which people who live in Texas call “winter” because it happens during that time of the year so named by the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.  As I’ve mentioned before, the intermediary seasons of springtime and autumn don’t seem to exist in the South, and so the transition from “winter” to what is mildly named “summer” is rather abrupt.

List of U.S. state flowers

Bluebonnets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

March 20 for those of us living in the South, then, was really the “first day of summer.”

Texas Paintbrush

Texas Paintbrush (Photo credit: Knomad)

The chilly nights are now gone.  Days warm up to the mid-80s ˚F.  Garage sales and yard sales abound.  Children–including my own–play outside as much as possible: coloring with chalk on the sidewalk and driveway, blowing bubbles, tossing around a ball, digging for dinosaur bones in the sandbox, picking wildflowers, chasing butterflies.  I sit and enjoy watching their playtime, smelling the neighbors’ barbecuing, listening to distant tractors, or simply soaking up the warm sun.

Summer came in less than a week.  One day, the trees are all dead and bare, the grass still brownish and starved-looking.  Then after a week of rain, suddenly daffodils and dandelions and redbuds and my parents’ plum trees were all abloom.  They added some color to a gray world, much like a 1930s lithograph.  Then little green shoots began to dot most of the trees, and other flowers–wisterias and bluebonnets and Texas paintbrushes and dogwoods and primroses and oxalis and random yellow wildflower–made the landscape seem alive.  And, by the end of that week, the trees were all covered with leaves.

Early spring narcissus

Narcissus (Photo credit: mobilene)

On nice days, one of my brothers or my parents would walk down the quiet country road with the children and me.  We’d observe the world waking up from dormancy, counting cows and horses and goats.

During this time, my youngest brother returned from Texas Tech on spring break, bringing what I’ve dubbed the “Panhandle Plague” (a rather nasty cold) with him.  Combine this with a week of rainy weather (forcing everyone to stay inside) and you have a good petri dish for germs.  After he went back to school, we all came down with it, and most are still recovering.  But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the outdoors (and fortunately the kids bounced back the fastest, so it didn’t faze them much).

Mourning Doves will perch for safety but eat o...

Mourning Dove (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I just sit on the front porch and watch the cars race down the distant highway.  Life here in East Texas is slow, so it’s easy to just sit and soak up the world around me.  I’ve learned to recognize the calls of the local red-tailed hawk and know which trees it likes to roost in at night.  I’ve noticed that mourning doves really only coo early in the morning and in the evening.  I let the crickets and frogs serenade me (but I’m still unsettled by coyotes–probably because I’ve overheard them killing some hapless critter too many times in the past).  I can spot all the trees and shrubs in our area that were killed by last year’s vicious summer heat and drought (and that sometimes makes me wonder if climate change is pushing the Texas scrublands eastwards).

Oxalis triangularis

Oxalis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve taken to walking around the yard barefoot as much as possible.  It’s therapeutic, letting me feel like I’m reconnecting with the earth.  A neopagan mentor of mine once advised me that walking barefoot in the dirt is important spiritually (at the time, I was living in Dallas and finding myself getting sucked into the selfish materialism that plagues the “Beverly Hills of the South”).  I must admit I didn’t do that very much–not even in Ohio–until recently.

But lately, feeling the lush blades of grass between my toes is revitalizing.  Digging my toes into the clay soil is soothing.  I’ve learned that I can tell how warm it will be during the day by feeling the temperature of the morning dew under my feet.  Sometimes I feel like I’m getting back in tune with Mother Earth, and so when I’m at my lowest points emotionally, I try to go outside and dig my feet into the grass and just let the world surround me.  I suck at meditating, but I do have these moments where I just lose all thought and almost feel a part of the living things around me, instead of a separate body.

Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of it.

Tarantulas for Teaching

Texas Brown Tarantula

Texas Brown Tarantula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we have the stretches of rainy days, the girls get bored because they have to remain indoors.  So I wind up being creative in the things I do to keep them occupied.  One of the games we play is “name things that start with this letter.”  One day, we were playing with Letter T.  The kids quickly ran out of things that began with ‘T.’  So, I suggested “tarantula.”  Naturally, they asked me what a tarantula was.  I decided it was time to give the kids the foundations for learning to gather their own information.

First, I took them to my parents’ encyclopedia shelves.  There, we looked for the first ‘T’ volume and I opened it to the entry on tarantulas.  I showed them a picture of the big, hairy spider in the encyclopedia and read aloud some of the details about it.

Then I explained that you can also use the internet to find information.  I took them to Wikipedia and showed them that you can type in “tarantula” and find an entry.  We compared the physical encyclopedia to the electronic one and noted that the information was about the same (Wikipedia actually had more details).  I also showed them that one could do an internet search for tarantulas, or even just pictures of tarantulas.

Similarly, on a later day, Starkitten and I had a discussion about doctors issuing shots and how getting shots (or any other probing that doctors do) is not meant to harm the patient.

I explained, “The doctor gives you a shot, or puts the stick on your tongue, or shines the light in your eyes to make sure that you are healthy.”

“What is healthy?” Starkitten asked.

“Let’s go look it up.”

So I proceeded to take her (and Sunfilly followed) to the encyclopedia shelves again.  This time, we pulled out the dictionary, determined through phonics that “healthy” starts with the Letter H, and I helped them find the entry for “healthy” in the dictionary, which I read to them.

Then I showed them, once again, that they could also use the internet for more information.  I have a dictionary widget on my laptop (incredibly useful for anyone who loves to write) and showed the girls that I could type in “healthy” and get a definition, a list of words with similar meanings (and opposite meanings), and an explanation of how the word itself came to be.

Hopefully, this will plant the seeds for a thirst for knowledge.

Jobitis

I’m still suffering from, as my sister so wonderfully coined, “jobitis.”  It came about during a discussion in which I lamented that for all the interviews I’ve had in the last two years–and the exponentially greater number of resumes and applications I’d sent out–the way employers rejected me you’d think they believed they would contract the Black Death if they hired me.  People who have shared such an experience, whose unemployment makes them feel like a social leper, have jobitis.

But that hasn’t stopped me from applying for jobs.  My law degree pushes me into the legal job market, which is incredibly brutal.  Jobification as a lawyer typically requires a level of schmoozing and ass-kissing I’m incapable of doing.  This is especially true in East Texas, where, like North Louisiana (where I grew up), securing a job has very little to do with one’s actual ability to perform the tasks at hand and more to do with who your father is and what part of town you’re from… and sometimes which church you attend (if at all).  And so, while law school was relatively a piece of cake, I lack the charm and golf finesse and fancy wardrobe required to actually work for a law firm (and that’s kind of a tough case to pitch to one’s student loan servicers).

I’m not limiting my job search to East Texas, but since it’s the part of the state in which I currently reside, it’s where I’ve placed a good portion of my efforts.

My law degree has also made me “overqualified” for any other kind of work.  I faced this problem in Ohio and Dallas, as well.  Even the kind of work I once did (call center) is now unattainable simply because I’m too damn educated.  In all this time, I’d only had one interview scheduled, and it was a phone interview at that, and the company flaked on me.

I have seriously considered standing in front of the courthouse of any of the major Texas cities holding a sign that read, “Will draft pleadings for food.”  Or even just a busy high-rise, holding a sign that read, “Will oppress the masses for food.”  Or even just start rejecting the rejection letters potential employers send me (which others have done before).  And if my jobitis proves to be chronic, I may very well have to.

I could go off on a soapbox tangent here about how my law school still insists most of our class is now gainfully employed, making an average of $100,000 a year, when that is far from the truth (many are in my position or worse), so that they can dupe another couple hundred cash cows into a lifetime of debt (unless they came from a wealthy family–and even then it’s arguable at this point whether a job will be waiting for them when they graduate, and their parents’ money not simply wasted).  Or how unemployment numbers don’t count those who’ve graduated and haven’t found work, whose unemployment benefits have expired, who were denied benefits, or who simply just gave up looking.

I could also admit that sometimes I do get a little jealous when I look at my Facebook feed and it’s filled with people I care about getting awesome jobs, going on fantastic trips, finding their happily ever after, getting the house with the picket fence… and my life is falling apart.  It’s not to say that I’m not happy for them, because I am, but sometimes it makes me feel like a buzzkill when I need to talk about a problem because I don’t want to rain on a friend’s parade.  And sometimes I’ve wondered if there’s something wrong with me for failing at life.  I realize now that these are also normal human sentiments that we all feel at some point (hopefully not multiple points) in our lives, but when those moments hit me, it’s hard to not beat myself up.

So I make light of my situation by over-generalizing it:  “I’m an overweight 30-year-old who lives with my parents and plays World of Warcraft.”  Few outside observers would care for the details, as it’s all about the stereotypes.

Or I crack jobitis jokes to myself.

I am pleased to say that my husband has signed up for AA and has taken up cross-country running again (he was a star in college) to help keep his mind off the booze.  Hopefully, for his sake and the kids’ sake, he will follow through with it, as the girls need a sober father in their lives.  For the most part, he is cooperative with me.  We have had our bitter exchanges via email or over the phone, but I also understand that this is pretty much a normal cycle for divorcing couples.

He is also mailing me a box of things I’d forgotten or couldn’t fit in the car when I left, including the cord for my camera, so that I can upload photos again.

I find myself also borrowing the “Serenity Prayer” from my Christian friends to keep myself from panicking about all the troubles I must grapple with.  The prayer says:

God/dess, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I still have my existential moments, and even had my “Why does every man think I’m ugly and horrible?  I wanted to be treated like a queen!” moment.  Thanks to good friends and countless virtual monsters needing slaying and beautiful starry nights at which to gaze in silent awe, I’ve muddled through each of them, feeling a little stronger after each one.  And each time, I say that prayer to remind myself that there are some things I cannot change, and worrying over them will only do me more harm.

In the meantime, while waiting to jobify, I’ll sun myself like a turtle on a log while the kids play outside, before it gets too hot for that.  And I’ll masochistically level my noobish retribution paladin on a PvP realm.  And I’ll keep writing my fiction.

And try to appreciate all the things I’d hurried past before.  Maybe I’d missed something important along the way.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Jump to Butter Rolls Recipe

Several things happened since my last blog post.  It got colder in Ohio, I’ve discovered that I have not outgrown my dependency on caffeine to be creative, the Super Bowl had the more-sexist-than-usual commercials, Charles Dickens‘ 200th birthday was a pretty big deal, and Starkitten demonstrated that she can write all her capital letters.

And since I’m currently caffeinated (so that I can try to churn another 3,000 words of creative prose in a few hours after posting this), I apologize if my post is too meandering.

The Super Bowl

I admit I do have a seething contempt for the New England Patriots and I hate the New York Giants as a matter of principle (but I also don’t let it get in the way of my personal relationships, so long as they are not playing the Saints).  But, even if I dislike the teams playing, I still watch the Super Bowl.  It’s one of the Great American holidays, right up there with Thanksgiving Day and Buy-Me-Expensive-Things (and maybe celebrate the birth of a God) Day.  I watch because the commercials are supposed to be entertaining and the halftime shows are always either extremely awesome or so terrible that it’s fun.  I think that’s why most Americans watch the Super Bowl, actually.

There were some hilarious commercials, but there were also a few political ones.  What really galled me were the growing number of sexist Super Bowl commercials.

Speed-dating babies?  Hyper-sexualized “naked” M&Ms (as if the Green M&M wasn’t enough)?  Those were sickening, certainly.  But they were nothing compared to the many women-as-nothing-but-sex-objects commercials.

There were the naked models (I have no earthly idea what a naked woman has to do with selling web space) and the cars-as-sexy-women–and that its okay to sexually harass a woman if she is beautiful–and the implication that a woman’s love is only physical in nature and can only be bought with overpriced flowers and perpetuating the social expectation that teenage girls have eating disorders.  These flowers, by the way, are grown in countries where the workers (usually women) develop diseases from pesticide exposure (including miscarriages), get raped by their superiors, and are fired, attacked, or even killed if they complain or try to organize a labor union.  This doesn’t just happen in South America, but also in Kenya (and maybe other countries).  I suppose here I’ll throw in my two cents about how much I hate cut flowers, and not just because they are a sign that the relationship is meant to wither and die.  If you want to get your significant other something for Valentine’s Day, don’t buy cut flowers.

But the sexism of the Super Bowl commercials this year was more insulting than usual.  Do the advertisers forget that women watch the Super Bowl, too?  Do they forget that women buy cars, trade on the stock market, manage websites, and, you know, do all sorts intelligent things?  I promise you, O Mighty Advertisers, the gray stuff between our ears does function.

I really loved the analysis of the commercials given on Jezebel.  The author’s conclusion says best all the things that are wrong with these commercials:

What’s striking about these ads isn’t their offensiveness, necessarily — let’s be honest, we’ve all seen worse. Especially in the case of Teleflora and Fiat, it’s their misguidedness, their commitment to appealing to a bro aesthetic even when studies make clear that this aesthetic dominates neither Super Bowl viewership nor purchasing. Leaving sexism aside, these ads were lazy, and they were boring, and they were outdated. Advertisers need to wake up and recognize that women are watching the game, and we don’t want more commercials about yogurt. We just want to be treated like who we are, which is actual people with actual brains who sometimes buy shit. While they’re at it, maybe advertisers should treat men like this too.

And that’s not even going into all the commercials celebrating only one kind of masculinity: that of barbaric, hulking, violent rage.  Do people realize that children see this stuff and it gets into their heads that this kind of behavior is okay (or that girls should all be straight women who marry this kind of man)?

I can only hope that enough buzz on the web about this kind of nonsense will eventually permeate the powers that be in the advertising industry and they’ll start making more intelligent ads.  And they can.

For instance, the Baby Darth Vader commercial appealed to the nerd in me.  But my absolute favorite was the Fat Dog commercial with the Tatooine cantina attache at the end (which references the Baby Darth Vader)–it won me with a great blend of self-improvement, cuddly dogginess, and geekdom.  You can’t go wrong there.

Charles Dickens Celebrates His 200th…  Only He’s Too Dead to Care

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

Charles Dickens - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

So why do we celebrate Charles Dickens?  Because he is one of those authors whose work is timeless.  Because he wrote on social conditions and the great Human Condition without being sanctimonious or pedantic.  And he is celebrated.  Pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of him or is at least familiar with his characters: Pip, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, and others.  Pop culture references them all the time.

The web has also been abuzz with commemorations of Dickens’ birthday.  There was a Google doodle in his honor.  The royal family in the United Kingdom made a formal celebration of his contributions to the literary world and social thought.

I suppose, as so many have said, the attraction to Dickens today is that, despite progress we humans have made in terms of social and political reform and technology, things haven’t really changed.  Most people can identify with Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” for instance.  Or have a skeptical view of the legal system such as Dickens portrayed in “Bleak House.”

Dickens was also a powerful advocate for education.  He believed that with literacy and education, people would be able to rise out of poverty and society would be all the better for it.  He was, however, not perfect.  By the tone of his writings, he was apparently intolerant of other ethnicites.  The classic example is Fagin, the Jew from “Oliver Twist.”  A lesser known fact is that he did change his attitude when called out on it, at least for the anti-Semitism.  Because of this, not everyone is a fan of his works.

But Dickens, like the Super Bowl, has a way of bringing people together.  Except on an intellectual level as opposed to an athletic/raw entertainment level.

Soaking up the Increasing Sun

The days have been chilly lately, but they were still sunny.  In the mornings, I’d pull up the blinds of the east-facing windows and open the inner front door, which also faces east.  I did this because I hate mornings, but something about the sunlight making everything feel warmer and brighter really did help my spirits.

And my Chihuahua seemed to appreciate it: he sunned himself like a cat all morning, each morning.  He became so spoiled that when we had our first gloomy day (yesterday, because it was going to snow that evening), he followed me around and kept scratching at my legs and trying to draw me to the windows.  I tried explaining to him that there was no warm sun that day, but he persisted.  When I opened the blinds for him, he glared at me like I ate the sun or something, and then snorted and walked away to hide in his bed.

The sunny mornings (and afternoons) were inspiring.  And not just for me.  The girls, who usually sit for maybe 15 minutes at a time to do something educational, would sit for an hour with me.  I worked with Sunfilly on learning to color in the lines.  Starkitten learned to write her capital letters and (I should have taken a picture of it) decorated a sheet of paper and wrote “I LOVE YOU” (I spelled it for her and the letters were jumbled together, but it was cute).  We then mailed it to her grandparents in Texas.

I think Dickens would have been proud.

Butter Rolls Recipe

Because it’s been cold, I’ve been trying to save on the gas bill by baking.  Baking serves two purposes: it makes food and it makes the house warm so the heater doesn’t have to kick on.  And electricity is much cheaper than natural gas here (I never used natural gas in the South, so I have no clue if the same relationship is true there).  I’ve baked enchiladas, fish, and breads.

I finally tried my hand at a rolls recipe that my little brother has been perfecting since before Starkitten was born.  He found it in one of our mother’s old cookbooks and tweaked the recipe over the years.  It’s simple, it’s buttery, and is just the kind if recipe Paula Deen would plagiarize (I am not implying that she has).  Here’s another interesting tidbit:  when we had that infernal (pun intended) heat wave in Texas this summer, he would cover the dough and let it sit in the sun outside to rise.  Those rolls, by the way, were the best he ever made.

Some tips to making yeast breads properly:

The yeast as it bubbles up. This is about as much as you'll want it to bubble before adding it to the dough. If it gets any more frothy, you've wasted your yeast.

  1. Don’t let the yeast sit too long in the prep bowl.  If it bubbles up too much before you mix it in with the bread, the yeast will have used up all its energy beforehand and won’t rise in the bread at all.  The bread will turn out hard and flat.
  2. Don’t let the bread over-rise.  It will loose some flavor.
  3. Yeast needs warmth to grow.  So if you’re in a cold house, turn on the oven before baking and make the kitchen warm and, preferably, set the bowl by a sunny window. Also, some ovens have a yeast-rise setting; if yours does, take advantage of it.

    The dough after it's been properly kneaded

  4. Knead thoroughly.  The kneading actually kick-starts the little yeast organisms by mixing them around and getting them access to new food so that they keep reproducing, which makes the dough grow.  Kneading also makes sure everything is mixed well and the bread will look and taste better.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/4cup of warm water
  • 1 package of yeast
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter

Here are before and after photos of the rolls when set for their second rise, so that you get an idea of how much they will grow.

Directions

  1. Mix the yeast, sugar, and water in a large mixing bowl.  Add in shortening, salt, and two cups of the flour.  Mix until it’s smooth and you can see the little bubbles forming inside the dough.  Remember to scrape the side of the bowl frequently.
  2. Put in another cup of flour.  You must do the mixing and kneading by hand, as the dough will be too thick for the average mixing machine to handle.  Add more flour once it’s all mixed if it’s still a little gooey, 1/2 cup at a time; the idea is to put enough flour in that the dough no longer sticks to your hands.
  3. Cover the dough and let stand 40 minutes.
  4. Grease a glass pan or something similar.  Take off pieces of the dough and roll them into sphere of roughly half the size you want the rolls to be.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it onto the rolls.
  5. When finished, cover and let rise again for another 40 minutes.  Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and brush it onto the rolls again.
  6. Preheat oven to 375 ˚F.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.

If you want to go all-out with the artery clogging, slice these babies open and stuff them with more butter when you eat them.  You can use this same recipe to make homemade hamburger buns; just make larger sized rolls.

These rolls also go great in the morning with some jelly and a cup of coffee.

The rolls fresh out of the oven and slathered in butter. Yummy!

Giving Birth to Light Part 2: Brigid’s Day

Jump  to Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

After enjoying five days of lovely weather (temperatures in the low 50s–that’s in Fahrenheit), and considering how I haven’t really adjusted to real “winter,” I must say I was excited to see an early spring in the forecast for Ohio.  And then I read that Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog, saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter.

Closeup groundhog (Marmota monax)

A groundhog - Image by Eifelle via Wikipedia

I scoffed at the groundhog.  Surely, a professional meteorologist, like the ones predicting an early spring (thank you, global warming!), and who has gone through years of school and training in the natural sciences, would more accurately predict the weather than a two-hundred-year-old rodent that whispers to a man wearing a top hat.

Well, science be damned!

As I sit and type this, the sky is dumping confectioner’s sugar onto the countryside.  At least two inches of that cold white stuff that so enthralls my girls has fallen, and by the looks of things, it won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Even more annoying (and equally amusing), the local forecast for the rest of February has–you guessed it!–changed to six more weeks of winter.

I’ve been tempted to be the Southern redneck stereotype (which I do sometimes become in moments like this) and go out and shoot me a groundhog and cook it out of spite.  It would make for an amusing blog post, certainly, but it’s not very nice.  So instead, I just shake my fist at the squirrels dancing around in the snow, mocking me and my dreams of spring.

Well, we enjoyed the lovely spring-like weather while it lasted.

I hiked with the kids on the nature trail.  My husband took them fishing.  I was able to spend two warm, sunny afternoons sitting in the grass, writing.

Since Vasant Panchami and Imbolc, I must admit, I feel like I have been channeling the creativity goddesses.  Between writing and coming up with creative projects for the rest of the year (I have a fantastic king cake idea, if I can find the supplies I need), my mind has been churning along at warp speed.

Imbolc falls on February 1 or 2, depending on the Gaelic or neopagan tradition.  It comes from the Gaelic word meaning “in the womb,” as it refers to the start of the lambing season.  Imbolc traditionally honors the Celtic goddess Brigid (or Brigit), who is the patron of poets, blacksmiths, and healing.  In some traditions, she is also associated with apple blossoms.  She is also the goddess of wisdom, physical and intellectual uplifting (like mountains and learning or prophecy), and the home and hearth.  She also is the protectress of newborns; Celtic women used to hang crosses fashioned from apple or rowan branches over their babies’ cradles to invoke Brigid to protect their babies from harm.  In Irish mythology, she was also seen as a warfare goddess.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Another way Celt descendants celebrate Imbolc: Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man fighting Jack Frost. Imbolc celebration in Marsden, West Yorkshre, February 2007. - Image by Steven Earnshaw via Wikipedia

Brigid was so important to the Celtic peoples that, upon their conquest and subsequent Christianization, the Roman Catholic Church came up with Saint Brigid, who still possesses some of the qualities of her pagan counterpart.

One side of her face was that of an ugly old hag, and the other was that of a beautiful young maiden.  This was to signify her role in the transformation of winter and death into life and spring.  In the pagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc complements Samhain and signifies the lengthening days and nearness of spring.  Brigid is a personification of that.

Some traditions also referred to her as the Corn Bride or Barley Bride (“corn” in this case is the archaic word that really means “wheat” or any “grain,” as corn did not come to mean the yellow grain from North America until Europeans began to colonize it).  It was a reference to her role as a fertility goddess.  Additionally, since Imbolc falls at the end of the dark half of the Wheel of the Year (when the days are shorter, basically), the lunar month in which Imbolc falls is referred to as the Chaste Moon or Bride Moon (because the next lunar month is when spring starts and is associated with birth).

Imbolc altar

A neopagan Imbolc altar - Image by Christina's Play Place

I’m not sure how the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but many Wiccans and neopagans generally celebrate by dressing a sheaf of wheat, corn, or barley in white lace and ribbons (like a bridal dress), laying it in a basket, and treating it like a baby or a doll bride.  At the end of the festival, they usually burn the sheaf for prophetic purposes.

I must admit that I have not done this, pretty much for lack of a ceremonial sheaf.  My tradition, instead, is to cook something where grains play a prominent role, to honor the Corn Bride, and usually with something white (like potatoes or fish or turkey), to honor the Chaste Moon.  I’d also prepare something that hints at warmer months ahead.  And, instead of invoking Brigid for prophecy, I usually invoke her for creativity (and when I was in college and law school, I’d also invoke her for educational purposes).  This I’d do by lighting candles during the dark of night and burning some incense that would remind me of the coming spring (like lavender, my favorite herb).

Sprouting Garlic

I was in a creative writing frenzy yesterday after my husband came home from work, but, naturally I took breaks for coffee and snuggle time.  During one such break, I noticed one of my globes of garlic had sprouted.  I took it as a sign from Brigid:  the white papery outside of the globe is like a bridal veil, and here is new life–hope–sprouting from within.  I’m not sure what it might be a sign of, but it was refreshing to see while happily writing.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

Since I’ve been experimenting various recipes from the newest addition to my cookbook library, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas (and, by the way, after testing so many recipes, I have found that I love this book!), I decided to try something that involves wheat and/or corn as a primary ingredient for my Imbolc dish.  I decided to go with this recipe, because it involves wheat (in the form of couscous) and corn.  It really serves 6, but since I was cooking it as a feast (translate:  I wanted leftovers for the next day), I was cooking it alongside some simple baked chicken.

The ingredients of this dish are more summery in flavor, but I wanted something that made me think of warm days (and, to be honest, I sorely miss Louisiana springtimes, which start in February and are sunny and florid).  What I love about this recipe is that it can be dressed up for any occasion.  In fact, I plan to make it for the Super Bowl, but I’ll be adding various cheese slices to the spread.  It looks fancy, so is a great dish for entertaining.  This can also be an eat-with-your-hands group dish.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium potatoes, any variety, or 2 medium-large sweet potatoes
  • Ranch dressing or vinaigrette
  • 3/4 cup couscous
  • 2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 medium ears) or frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • minced fresh parsley for topping (optional)
  • 1 red or green bell pepper (or half of each), cut into narrow strips (I diced mine, as my kids prefer them that way)
  • 1 cup baby carrots, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup black olives, preferably cured and pitted (I omitted these, as my kids are not fond of them; in my opinion, kalamata olives would work equally well)
  • 1 cup red or yellow cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 medium red tomato, diced)

Directions

Cutting the Potatoes

  1. Bake the potatoes until done but still firm.  When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into bite-size chunks and place in a small mixing bowl.  Toss with enough dressing or vinaigrette to moisten.
  2. Pour 1-1/2 cups boiling water over the couscous in a heatproof container.  Cover and let stand for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  3. Combine the couscous with the corn in a mixing bowl.  Drizzle in the oil and toss well.  Season gently with salt.
  4. Mound the couscous mixture in the center of a large platter.  Sprinkle with minced fresh parsley, if desired.
  5. Arrange alternating piles of potatoes, bell pepper, baby carrots, olives, and tomatoes around the couscous mixture.
  6. Each person can make up his or her own plate.  Serve additional dressing or vinaigrette to drizzle on the raw vegetables as desired.

As you can see, it’s a fairly simple recipe.  The longest part is the baking of the potatoes, but you can shorten that time by opting to nuke them in the microwave.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

So my review on Nava Atlas’ cookbook is a stellar one.  Most of the recipes involve ingredients that are inexpensive and easy to find, even when you take into consideration that I live in rural Ohio, where eating tofu is equated with godless fascist hippie communism (I wish I were exaggerating).  The recipes are very simple, and she gives options and alternatives to many of the recipes, if you want to kick it up a notch.  She also writes to those who are new to vegetarian cuisine, sharing recipes and tips for adjusting away from meat.  And, as I have demonstrated in this and some of my other recent posts, it’s easy to build upon her recipes to add your own personal flair to them.

Giving Birth to Light Part 1: Saraswati’s Day

Jump to Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Jump to Punjabi Sweet Rice

Since I’ve been grappling with the “winter blues,” on top of the other stressful things in my life that are not made easier by said affliction, I began scouring the internet for ideas to pull myself out of this funk.  I stumbled upon this interesting article from DivineCaroline, which offered many good suggestions, including light therapy, exercise, and aromatherapy.  I realized that one of the reasons I’d been enjoying cooking beans and tacos is because the smell of these foods is a form of aromatherapy, letting my mind wander off to childhood nostalgia.  I also found that brightening up the house has been helping.

Yesterday had a particularly sunny afternoon.  It was a relief, because it’s been so overcast and gloomy for the past few weeks. I pulled up all the blinds on the west-facing side of the house to let in the light.  I can see a pond from these windows, and the way the sunlight reflected off the pond and bounced into the house just made everything seem warm and cheery.  I played happy music and danced around with the kids.  I let them play with brightly-colored paints and stickers and construction paper and hung their art on the walls to add color to the house.  And it seemed like the sun took forever to set, which was a beautiful feeling.

It gave me energy I hadn’t felt in a couple months.

Suddenly I found myself seriously working on some creative writing–a hobby I had not touched in years, except to flirt with, because law school had literally killed the artist/writer in me (that is, apparently, the sad truth for a lot of lawyers).  Being able to write, to create, again was a beautiful feeling.

Maia 20 Tau in Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night, we had a good half hour of a clear sky, with a very thin slit for a moon, so for the first time since we’d gotten a telescope (my husband received it as a prize from work around the new year), we were able to use it.  We zoomed in on the Pleiades and showed them to the girls.

The experience of stargazing with the girls, appreciating the awesome bigness of the universe, helped me to remember that my problems are so small and temporal in comparison.  After my husband took the kids inside for bed, I remained outside with the telescope, sitting on the frozen grass, listening to honking flocks of geese in their nocturnal southward journey, falling in love all over again with another one of my interests that I’d abandoned over the years.

One of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology, and the brightest of the seven stars in the cluster, is Maia.  She is a gentle nurturer and mother of Hermes.  In Roman mythology, she became one of the Earth Mother goddesses.  In retrospect, it seemed fitting that I spent so much time admiring Maia as both the star and the goddess, with Saraswati‘s day on the horizon.

English: Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by ...

The Goddess Saraswati - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saraswati, in Hinduism, is the goddess of wisdom, knowledge (both scholarly and spiritual), creativity, and the arts (visual, musical, and literary).   She is also the one who gives each person his/her essence of self.  She is the wife of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.  She is gentle, wise, and unmoved by material riches (depictions of her rarely show her wearing more than a couple gold pendants).  White geese and swans are sacred to her, and some Hindus believe that books are one of her embodiments (stepping on or destroying a book is therefore very offensive to Saraswati).  Colors associated with her are white, which symbolizes purity and simplicity, and yellow, the color of rebirth of the sun (the days are getting longer again) and the mustard plants that bloom during her festival.

Today is Vasant Panchami, the Hindu festival that honors Saraswati.  Since yellow is one of her colors, Hindus prepare dishes that are yellow in her honor.  They place books at her altar and academic institutions hold services to venerate her.  Children fly kites, filling the sky with color, bringing vibrant life to the dead winter skies.  Part of the purpose of these celebrations is to surrender oneself to nature, the rebirth of light, and the creativity associated with it.

It’s been way too cold here in Ohio to fly kites (although if we were still in Texas, it’s very likely many people would be flying kites today), with the wind chill being in the teens at best.  Instead, the kids and I focused on Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and creativity.  We played some more with bright paints and construction paper, I wrote for fun, and then we played learning games.  Fortunately, the girls were already familiar with Saraswati, since she is included in The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr, and the girls refer to her, along with Athena, as “school goddesses.”  And since Starkitten is already insisting that she is ready to go to school (despite being too young by a couple years), taking time to honor the “school goddess” was something she was more than happy to do.

Maia is the eldest of the Pleiades in Greek an...

The Goddess Maia - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Taking time to honor Saraswati seems to have helped me kick the winter blues.  Her holy day and her role as a goddess are both very similar to the Wiccan holiday that happens about this same time of year: Imbolc (Gaelic for “in the womb,” as this is the time of year when ewes are pregnant), which honors Brigid.  Brigid is a Celtic goddess of the home and the hearth (and fire in particular), but she is also a goddess of creativity–both in writing and in creating things (particularly smithing)–and healing.

It is quite fascinating that, as Diwali and Samhain are close together in time (and of course winter holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, Saturnalia, and Yule share the same general calendar time), so are Vasant Panchami and Imbolc.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if our ancestors were on to some Big Idea that has been lost to the ages as we have advanced technologically.  We get so lost in social obligations and material things that we have forgotten to pause and lose ourselves to nature every now and then: to the lengthening days, the budding leaves, the infinite vastness of the cosmos, the rhythms and cycles of the world around us… and all that they can teach us and inspire within us.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Even though we are sticking to the “mostly vegetarian” diet, my husband originally suggested that we should still eat something meaty and fun for holidays we observe.  But because Vasant Panchami is a Hindu holy day, and many Hindus are vegetarian as a matter of faith, I decided to make a vegetarian dinner.

I tried my first recipe out of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas for this occasion (learning new things for the goddess of knowledge), embellishing it a bit to fit Saraswati’s Day (woohoo for creativity!).  The recipe below is my variation to the recipe in the book.

Ingredients

Frying the vegetables and tofu

  • 1-1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white flour
  • 16 ounces baked tofu, cut into short narrow strips
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 6-8 saffron stems
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan.  Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat until just turning golden.
  2. Add the bell pepper, broccoli, and 1/2 cup water.  Cover and cook over medium heat, until the broccoli is tender-crisp.
  3. Use a little of the milk to dissolve the flour and mustard until it is smooth and flowing.  Stir into the skillet with the remaining milk.
  4. Add the tofu and saffron.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Stir in the cheese and simmer gently until everything is well heated through.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve immediately.  It goes well served over rice or couscous and with a side of corn or sweet potatoes.

Even for a former carnivore, this meal was fantastic.  There were no leftovers.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet with Couscous


Punjabi Sweet Rice

For dessert, and so that we’d have an Indian dish to eat for Vasant Panchami, I scoured the internet for something appropriate and easy to prepare.  I found this recipe for Punjabi sweet rice on Food.com and adapted it.

You’re supposed to use basmati rice for this recipe, but we recently used up our last big bag of it that we brought from Dallas (where there is a huge Indian population and you can get basmati rice fairly inexpensively if you know where to look), and so I used standard American rice (I don’t know what kind it is, exactly, but it’s the common kind you can find at most grocery stores).  If you are cooking with something that is not basmati rice, you may need to add more water to the recipe and/or cook the rice longer.  I followed the instructions below, and my rice came out a little al dente.  That was fine for my family, but since others may want softer rice, I wanted to point this out beforehand.

A jar of ghee

The recipe calls for ghee, which is a sort of butter extract.  You may have to look in a specialty grocery store.  If you can’t find any ghee, you can get by with 2 tablespoons of butter.  You can also check here to see a list of other products similar to ghee, in case any of them are available in your area.  For instance, Kenyans make something called mwaita, which is made pretty much the same way as ghee.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 ounce cashews (or a couple handfuls) or some other nuts
  • 1 ounce raisins (or a couple handfuls) or some other dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Directions

Frying the rice in ghee

  1. Warm up the milk and pour in a small bowl.  Add the saffron.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the ghee in a medium saucepan.  Add the rice and fry it.
  3. Add the milk-saffron mixture, sugar, and enough water to cover the rice completely (I’d recommend you get at least 1/4 inch of liquid above the rice).  Cover and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
  4. When all the water is absorbed, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in the nuts and raisins.  Serve hot.  Garnish with more nuts and raisins.

This was a fantastic dessert.  It was a little on the sweet side, but my husband, who generally dislikes sweets, really loved the sweet rice (he loved it so much, in fact, that I had to make a second batch to put in the fridge for him to take with him to work for brunch tomorrow).

Punjabi Sweet Rice

Light in the Tunnel

Jump to Taco Seasoning

I’ve been in a dark place the past couple of weeks.

It’s been the kind of stressful that killed every ounce of creativity in me.  At first, I didn’t want to even bring up to the blogging world that I’ve been stressed out, since it’s a depressing topic, but parenting isn’t always pretty (and neither is life), and since I’d said I was blogging about the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting (yep, it can feel kind of like a Western film), I might as well be fair about it.

It’s difficult being a good parent when you’re preoccupied with something that’s incredibly stressful.  It’s even more difficult when you’re a stay-at-home parent, and so getting away from work (i.e. taking care of the children) is next to impossible.

A snow-covered world as seen from my back window.

I really miss that about working.  I could leave work and come home to the kids, or leave the kids by going to work.  If one of those was a stressful environment, the other offered respite.   And if both were driving me crazy, I was at least making money and so could afford to occasionally take off for a weekend with friends.

So all I could do was try to keep distracted: playing with the kids, reading something lighthearted, or watching comedies with my family.  Anything that didn’t give me time to myself to think, lest my stress affect me physically.  Of course, it didn’t help that this is the dark time of the year, and apparently I am sensitive to the day length.

At one point, I began to feel hopeless, and so I took time to read excerpts of The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard.  While he is the father of existentialist philosophy (questioning all religion and morality until you come to the conclusion that life is absolutely ridiculous), he basically says, “What the hell.  Take a leap of faith and believe in God.”  (Or, in my case, gods.)  It helped, if for no other reason than reminded me that nothing (not even horrible situations) lasts forever.  It gave me hope.

One night, Sunfilly kept having nightmares, and so I had Starkitten sleep with my husband on our bed and I joined Sunfilly on Starkitten’s twin bed.  Once I finally calmed her down and snuggled her back to sleep, I lay there, admiring how peaceful and angelic she looked.  Her sweet little face–even the way her lips move like she’s sucking an imaginary thumb–reminded me to be strong for her sister and her.

It also helped that, during these past couple weeks, we’d been surprised by small gifts from various friends.  Each one made my eyes well up from gratitude.  Each box was like a small piece of sunlight breaking through a cavern.  It was a cosmic reminder:  We are not alone in this dark path.

And so I found strength.

The Snowstorm

A pair of beautiful swans in the local pond.

A winter storm blew through here last week, bringing biting winds and 5 inches of snowfall.  Right before the storm, I spotted a pair of swans in a nearby pond.  I ran out to take some pictures of them, and then ran back inside just in time to gaze at big, fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky.

At one point, we had a couple days that were so cold we were excited if the highs hit the twenties.  The wind chill was in the negative teens.  I threw on my house slippers and a winter coat and ran out to check the mail (the mailbox is about a football field’s distance away from the house).  By the time I darted back inside the house, my nose, fingers, and feet were so cold they burned.  And so I learned the meaning of the phrase “biting cold.”  And also why people wear scarves.

A bunch of rabbit tracks.

After the storm passed, I made sure to take a few moments to appreciate the beauty of winter (instead of cursing it).  The local pond had frozen to a thickness that supported the weight of an average sized adult.  A couple people were trying to ice fish.  They did not have any luck, and joked that it was because we brought Texas “winter weather” to Ohio (in other words, it’s been too warm for winter fishing and too cold for normal fishing).  The pond was also covered with a thick layer of snow, which was a surreal sight.

Rabbit tracks around the trunk of an oak tree. There are bits of chewed-up acorn.

We took a stroll in a nearby forest and spotted rabbit tracks in the snow.  It looked like they were hopping from tree to tree, either looking for a burrow in which to hide or acorns to dig up (we did spot a few chewed-up acorns on top of the snow).

Here is the pond when it was frozen and covered with snow. For a point of reference, below is the same view of the pond during late summer (I took this photo in mid-September, when we first moved to Ohio).

Taco Seasoning

I love cooking with mixed beans. After I open the bags of various beans to make a batch, I pour the remaining beans into a large jar to make decorative layers like this. I'll mix them together when it's time to cook them.

When a person is depressed, comfort food does a lot for reviving one’s spirits.  Because I grew up with a lot of Mexican food (my father is Mexican and my mother learned to cook for my father), beans are actually one of my comfort foods (which is ironic, considering that beans give me uncomfortable gas).  And since we are eating a mostly vegetarian diet, beans became an easy main dish to prepare.

Beans store easily in the freezer.

I love cooking beans, because you can toss them in a large pot and cook them all day.  Whatever you don’t eat immediately you can divide into 3- or 4-cup portions and freeze neatly to save for later.  They are easy to thaw and can be used in a wide range of dishes (or as a side by themselves).  They are also incredibly inexpensive (cooking your own beans is four times cheaper than buying them canned).

I tended to make bean tacos.  I also made tacos with some leftover Christmas turkey that I’d frozen.  And, for variety, I tried using some Yves Meatless Ground in lieu of ground beef, and it made for some fantastic tacos (it’s also half the price of a pound of ground beef here in Ohio and much lower in its fat count).

I’ve been using the same taco seasoning I gleaned from my Buelita (a diminutive form of the Spanish word“abuela,” for my paternal grandmother).  Learning recipes from her was an experience unto itself.  She did not use measuring tools.  Increments were in palmfuls, or enough to coat two fingers or the food in the frying pan, or a just couple shakes of the bottle.  She just knew how much to put into a dish and relied on smell to get it right.  And I learned how to cook Mexican food from her.

Chicken tacos

NOTE:  I should point out that “Mexican cuisine” is a broad term.  It’s like saying “Indian cuisine” or “Chinese cuisine” or even “American cuisine.”  Mexican food varies between regions and ethnic groups.  Parts of my father’s family came from Veracruz and other parts had lived in Texas from the time when it was still a Spanish territory, and his side of the family is more Spaniard in ethnicity (we come from a line of disinherited nobility) than it is Mayan or any other indigenous tribe (although some indigenous Mexicans are in our family tree all the same).  So I have no clue how to correctly characterize the kind of Mexican food I grew up with (or if it’s just “Tex-Mex”), except to use “Mexican food” in the generic sense.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I bothered trying to measure out the spices that I used to make taco seasoning to help a friend learn to make something more authentic.  I’ve used this blend on a variety of taco “meats” (as mentioned above), and my family loves it.  You can always tweak the proportions, depending upon what flavors you want to enhance or subdue.

Ingredients

Yves Meatless Ground (above) and mixed beans (below) being prepared for tacos.

  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder (chipotle power, ancho powder, or any other chile works just as well–increase the amount if you want spicier food, decrease or omit if you want something milder)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard

Directions

  1. Mix the spices together and sprinkle over chicken, beef, beans, or whatever you’re using for taco filling.
  2. It tastes best if you sautee some onions first and add them to the filling, along with some chopped fresh cilantro.

One of the presents I received was The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas, which is apparently written for people who are transitioning into vegetarianism.  I’ll be trying out a few recipes, so I intend to post a review of that book shortly.

You can use the same blend for taco filling to make chalupas.

Tales from a Winter Trail

Jump to Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

The past few days have been strangely warm.  I mean “warm” by Ohio winter standards, as “warm” in Texas requires the threat of heat stroke.  “Warm” in an Ohio winter means the weather is above freezing–like a balmy 40˚F.

I think we have been adjusting to the cold, because when it “warmed” up to the low 40s, it felt nice enough to go for a hike.  (You have no idea how strange it feels to me to say that 40˚F is warm enough for hiking!)  We didn’t go far, but we explored the nature trail and a local pond and canal.

Iced over pondThe pond had iced over on the surface.  This was something I knew happened in colder climates, but I’d never seen something like it before.  It was strange, like the pond was dead.  I knew it wasn’t, but it sure looked lifeless.  No ripples, no fish jumping out of the water, no fowl landing on its surface.  We stood at the bank and stared at the dead pond.  I picked up some rocks and plunked one against the ice, to demonstrate to the girls what had happened to the water because it’s been cold.  This phenomenon was particularly fascinating to the girls, so we took the rest of the rocks and skipped them against the ice.  It became a game: who can make a rock skid the furthest down the ice.  It was almost like bowling with hockey pucks.

We also wandered along the Miami-Erie trail, which runs along Rapids on the Miami-Erie Canal(surprisingly) the Miami-Erie Canal.  Because the water flows more swiftly there, it had not frozen over.  Past one of the locks, under a bridge, was a rocky area where the water moved more like rapids.  We sat on a blanket near the bank and listened to the water rushing.  It was therapeutic.  Everything around us felt dead, but at least the water was still alive.

Some kind of dead polyphore

Some kind of dead polyphore.

With my handy mushrooming guide in hand (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms), I kept my eyes peeled for the few things that might be alive this time of year.  I saw quite a few mushrooms that must have grown in November or December but had been killed by the snow and frost.  They were shriveled and black and mealy, and some tiny insects and grubs were making a meal of them.  They made me reflect on the irony that saprophytic lifeforms like mushrooms (“saprophytic” means “feeds on dead or decaying matter”) also die and become food for something else.

Trametes versicolor

Turkey Tail Mushroom

I also spotted some turkey tail mushrooms (their scientific name is Trametes versicolor), a shelf polyphore that is pretty common in North America.  They are actually quite fascinating to observe.  When I was a child, I’d imagine that little animals or something fantastic as fairies lived off colonies of these mushrooms, sort of like a small city on a tree trunk.  Supposedly you can make a medicinal tincture out of them, but I haven’t found any literature (at least, from any legitimate source) that was particularly clear about what these mushrooms are used to treat, except that they treat something.  Maybe they are the cure for hypochondria?  (Well, apparently scientists are examining it as a possible treatment for cancer, but that doesn’t explain why a Google search for turkey tail results in all kinds of “Buy this cure-all mushroom pill!” articles.)

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata

I also made note of some possibly poisonous mushrooms that seemed to have popped up and then started dying from the cold.  These are mushrooms in the Galerina genus.  I say possibly, because there are edible (and hallucinogenic) mushrooms that very closely resemble Galerina mushrooms, but only expert mycologists with some impressive laboratory equipment can discern the difference between them.  Even expert mushroomers (usually going for the hallucinogenic kind) have mistakenly ingested Galerina mushrooms, with deadly consequences.  Most mushrooming guides I’ve read strongly recommend against harvesting “little brown gilled mushrooms,” and this is the reason.  So, as I always do, I instructed my girls to not touch wild mushrooms unless I tell them it is safe.  This is one of the reasons why.

These mushrooms were growing off a sawed-off pine log. I believe they are also in the Galerina genus. They appear to be dying from the cold.

A junco in a dormant apple treeWe did see some dark-eyed juncos in the trees.  Juncos are in the sparrow family.  They were obviously frightened by our approach (and the loud laughter of the girls amplified by the echo in the dead woods and pond certainly did nothing to convince the little birds we meant no harm).

These adorable little songbirds were certainly a refreshing break from the dead world of winter.

Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat more vegetarian cuisine.  Not necessarily vegan cuisine (although we will eventually transition to a day of fully vegan, but I’m not a fan of things that are overly processed, either), and for now we’re still doing the eggs-and-dairy kind of vegetarian.  There are several reasons for this.  One is to save money on meat, which is becoming very expensive here (as opposed to fresh produce–and also so that we can afford more whole grain breads and fresh produce).

Another reason is for health: my husband and I have both been packing

Toddler breakfast

A balanced breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, various fruits, a half-slice of whole-grain toast, and yogurt. They have water in their sippy cups. Usually the kids don't eat everything (each girl has her own quirks), but this gives them some healthy options.

on the pounds and, instead of going on a fad diet, we are just going to change what we eat.  We figure it’s better to eat things that are not processed, have more fiber, and aren’t pumped with hormones and chemicals (as so much commercial meat is, unless you buy certified organic, which is expensive and hard to come by in rural grocery stores).  For the girls, we want to make sure they are raised with healthy lifestyle choices (as opposed to my upbringing–which was the same for a substantial number of Americans) and healthy lifestyle choices are best taught by example.

It’s also for environmental reasons: just consuming things that are more sustainable (like buying organic or locally grown) and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas, as cows do.  And for me, as a Wiccan who dabbles in Hinduism, it’s also partly an ethical thing (many Hindus and Wiccans/neopagans are vegetarian because they tend towards nonviolence and they see all living things as brothers and sisters under the divine).

That’s not to preach to you to make any lifestyle changes, but just to explain why we are aiming to eat 4 days a week of vegetarian or vegan.

This is a new thing for me, being a carnivore by nature.  It’s easier for my husband, who grew up eating a mostly eggs-and-dairy vegetarian diet.  So I’ve made a wish list of vegetarian cookbooks and found some interesting websites with recipes for those who are just starting down this path.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting.  One of my first endeavors was making a country-French-inspired scrambling of eggs and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a great success with my family.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve now made it several times.  When I serve it with a side of fresh fruit and yogurt, it fills up my girls’ bellies and provides a balanced breakfast.

This recipe serves 3.

The tomatoes have been sliced and the ingredients in the egg mixture are ready to beat.

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced or chopped (portobello would work best, but any kind will do)
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, dried or chopped fresh, and extra for garnish
  • 1 large tomato (or 1/2 cup small tomatoes), diced
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, shredded or grated, and extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the mushrooms.  Sautee them until they are cooked (usually they will get tender and darker).

    Making scrambled eggs & mushrooms

    The mixture in the frying pan.

  2. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the black pepper, parmesan cheese, salt, and parsley.
  3. Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Stir frequently so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
  4. When the eggs are cooked thoroughly, remove from heat and serve.  Garnish with any combination of parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and parsley.

It goes well served with a side of fruit, whole grain toast, and yogurt.

Striking sunset over the ice

The sun setting over an icy, dead, wintry landscape.

Ringing in the New Year

Jump to Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

Jump to Collard Greens Recipe

We spent New Year’s at home.  New Year’s Eve with toddlers sounds like it wouldn’t be very interesting, but you’d be surprised.

I made some homemade queso dip.  My husband made a spicy (yet kid-friendly) guacamole.  We bought some chips, some of those confetti bomb thingies, and pink champagne for grown-ups and sparkling grape juice for the kids.  And, because regular old New Year’s party favors are boring, I grabbed some Darth Vader party favors during my grocery run.  We all got buzzed up on sugary sweets and danced to one of the dance party games for the Wii.  As midnight drew near, we all donned princess dresses (even my husband threw on a wig and a cape for the kids’ amusement) and turned the party into a “Darth Vader princess New Year’s Eve dance party.”

We explained to the kids that we were going to cheer on the end of the old year, 2011, and the beginning of a new one, 2012.  We explained that some people refer to the new year as a “baby.”  Within the last few minutes of 2011, we turned on the TV and cheered with New Yorkers during the countdown as the ball dropped.

For New Year’s Day, we followed a blend of traditions.  From my husband’s Kalenjin culture, we follow the tradition of power-cleaning the house.  The belief is that by cleaning on New Year’s, you’re starting the new year off with a clean slate or a fresh start.

From Southern culture, we cook black-eyed peas and collard greens.  I’ll take a moment here to admit that it’s not really something I grew up with, as my Polish-Yankee mother and Latino father.  But I grew up in the South, and we’d usually visit someone on New Year’s Day, and they would serve us black-eyed peas and collard greens.  Black-eyed peas represent coins and the greens represent dollar bills–eating them together is supposed to bring wealth and prosperity for the new year.

A lesser-known fact about this Southern tradition is that it’s actually an ancient one.  The practice actually originated in ancient Israel as a Rosh Hashana dish (serving black-eyed peas with a side of something green), and when Jews immigrated to the United States in the 1730s, they shared this tradition with non-Jews, and it became a big hit.  This was true especially in the South, where it blended with soul food cuisine–adding collard greens and pork stock–to make it an absolutely fantastic culinary experience.

Veggies that go into black-eyed peas

Veggies that go into black-eyed peas

The black-eyed peas recipe I use was passed to me by a friend with Arkansas and New Orleans roots, although the recipe is more Louisianian in flavor.  Now that I am living in Ohio, I had the added challenge that such things as fresh black-eyed peas and andouille sausage are next to impossible to find, so I had to make do with canned black-eyed peas and kielbasa.  It still came out all right.

The following few days, as I’d briefly mentioned in my last post, we’d been trying to watch the skies for the Quadrantid Meteor Shower.  However, the only thing we saw falling from the sky was a bunch of snow.  Sadly, the clouds blocked out most of the stars.  And now, from my having been going out at 3 am in hopes of seeing a meteor so I could wake the kids and show them, I seem to have been bestowed with the gift of a nasty head cold.

What a way to ring in the new year!  [insert sarcastic face]  It has taken me three days to write this post because it hurts my head to look at the computer for extended periods of time.

Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

This recipe is very simple to make.  You can prepare it either in a crock pot or on the stove top.  You could even substitute the black-eyed peas for red beans to make red beans and rice.  In fact, this is the kind of recipe that you could set to cook and then go do other chores (like power-cleaning your house for New Year’s).

Ingredients

Black-eyed peas cooking

Black-eyed peas cooking

  • 1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight  (or 2 cans of cooked black-eyed peas)
  • 1 pound sausage, sliced into discs (preferably andouille)
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (this is a staple spice for all Deep South cooking)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • water

Stove-Top Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot with 5-1/2 cups of water.
  2. Bring to a low boil and reduce heat to simmer for 2 hours. Water should cook off and leave a thick casserole consistency.  (If you’re cooking with canned peas, cut the cooking time by half, or else they’ll get all mushy and gross.)
  3. Remove bay leaf before serving with rice and/or cornbread.

Crock Pot Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in crock pot with 2-1/2 cups of water.
  2. Put on low and let cook covered for 7 hours.  Check after 7 hours.  (If you’re cooking with canned peas, cut the cooking time by half, or else they’ll get all mushy and gross.)
  3. Stir and turn up heat and leave uncovered for last hour if consistency is too soupy.
  4. Remove bay leaf before serving with rice and/or cornbread.


Collard Greens Recipe

Ingredients

Collard greens cooking

Collard greens cooking

  • 1 bunch of collard greens
  • 2 oz salted pork
  • 2 teaspoons Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning
  • water

Directions

  1. Rinse the collard greens individually and thoroughly.  Trim off the stems, if desired.  Chop up the greens into strips.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized pot and fill with enough water to barely cover the greens.
  3. Set heat to low and cover.  It should take about 40-45 minutes to cook.  Once the greens start to soften, stir occasionally.  The greens are ready when they are rather soft and don’t taste bitter.

Don’t drain out the liquid; it’s jam-packed with nutrients.  Traditionally, people soak it up with cornbread or rice.

A Southern New Year meal

Yuletide Meanderings… and COOKIES!

Jump to Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Tomorrow is Yule.

Usually I’m super-prepared for it.  By this time, I’ll usually have a Yule log decorated, lots of goodies made, a duck or goose or turkey brining (and another one or a ham thawing for the subsequent Christmas festivities), and one round of presents wrapped for the kids.  The house is usually decorated with greens and reds and candles everywhere and, if I could find them while living in the big city, boughs of holly and evergreens and pine cones.  And, because Yule is a time of renewal, I usually do a mega-cleaning of the house, moving counter-clockwise through the house; it seems to bring in positive energies and sweep out the bad ones.

This year, it seems to have snuck up on me.

Apparently it’s one of the side-effects of parenting.  Time seems to fly way too quickly.

Yule

A Yule feast - Image by Jupiter Firelyte via Flickr

Reflections on Yule

For those who may not be familiar with the holiday, Yule is one of many ways nature-oriented faiths celebrate the winter solstice.  It’s Germanic in origin, but neopagan adaptations of the holiday include some Scandinavian and Celtic practices.  Specifics on how they celebrate Yule varies depending on the pagan tradition the practitioners follow.

But pretty much all neopagans treat it as the rebirth of the sun.  It’s the shortest day of the year, and so every day afterwards is a little brighter.  And because our ancestors, lacking the technological amenities we take for granted, struggled through long, harsh winters, they put aside their hostilities and got together to share their food and wealth and celebrate the coming spring.  If you could make it to Yule, you had a good chance of making it to spring.  It’s a time of hope, of goodwill–just toss in baby Jesus and it sounds a lot like Christmas, huh?

It’s a reminder that even the deepest, darkest, scariest things in life are not permanent.  Eventually the sun will shine through and will shine brighter, no matter what personal problems in life you’re facing.

In my family, we acknowledge the science behind the winter solstice, but it doesn’t diminish the spirituality behind it.  You can revere nature and still understand how it works.  Perhaps it’s also because we love outdoorsy hobbies that we find peace in connecting with the seasons and cycles of the world around us, but I personally find something deeply inspirational in knowing that, in all the randomness and chaos of the universe, life flourished here on Earth, focused around our rather average (by astronomical standards) yellow star and the influence of it and our moon on the stability of the days and seasons.  The solstices and equinoxes, which give a sense of predictability to our world, are not standard for other planets in the universe.  It was a rare chance that life evolved on Earth, because we had all the right conditions (distance from a medium-sized star, a moon with a stabilizing effect on the Earth’s axis and rotation, the fact that the axis is positioned the way it is, and so on) and that alone is something to be grateful for.

No matter what your religious or spiritual views, I think that taking time to reflect on the importance of the sun in our lives, considering how easy it is to inundate oneself in work and stressful events and mind-numbing technology, is key to a healthier outlook on life.

manhattan solstice 3

Winter Solstice in Manhattan - Image by Dave Kliman via Flickr

If you’re interested, you can read a more thorough description of the history of Yule here (Wikipedia) and here (About.com).  The celebration of Yule has been getting more recognition in the media within the past few years.  Mainstream parenting magazines, like this partial article from Kiwi Magazine, and even some newspapers and the US and Canada, like the Montreal Gazette in this article, cover how some neopagan communities observe Yule today.  Also, there is a beautiful and captivating children’s book that explores the winter solstice from the perspectives of both ancient religions and modern science called The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson.  In my opinion, it does a great job of illustrating the way that ancient peoples viewed winter and how some of these cultural practices have been applied to modern-day Christmas traditions without being disparaging to any worldview.  It reflects the sentiments I have expressed above.

Before we had the kids, my husband and I would watch the sun set on Yule.  There is something inexplicably beautiful about it, knowing that it’s the shortest day of the year.  Last year, the night of Yule was also a lunar eclipse, and so our family festivities were particularly exciting.

This year, I’m hoping we can brave the cold weather and watch the sunset over a local lake.  It will be an otherwise simple Yule, with a few baked goodies and brightly-colored foods like sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to honor the birth of the sun.

I like to make gingersnaps for Yule and Christmas because the flavor tastes bright and cheerful (in fact, the tradition started sometime in high school when I baked gingersnaps and sugar cookies for my friends as Christmas gifts).  They are popular this time of year, and I suspect that the flavor is part of the reason (aside from the health benefits of ginger that likely prompted our forebears to cook with ginger during winter).

Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Gingersnaps are fairly simple to make.  They require a lot of sifting, so if you don’t mind the dust (flour can get in the air and make you sneeze), it’s a great project for this time of year.

When following the recipe, I highly recommend having the egg already cracked and waiting in a cup or bowl, along with the sugar and molasses.  When you’re mixing the dough, you’ll have to pour them in gradually, and it saves some time to have them ready in advance.  You’ll also need at least two mixing bowls to carry this out.  As for sifting, if you don’t have a fancy sifter, a large strainer will serve the same purpose just fine.

Starkitten helps by mixing the cinnamon sugar.

Cinnamon Sugar Coating

To make the cinnamon sugar you’ll need for the coating, you need:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Simply mix the ingredients together very well.  If you’re baking with small children, mixing the cinnamon sugar is a simple task that they can accomplish while you work on the cookie dough.

The Cookies

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses

Directions

This is what it should look like if you use a beater to mix the dough. This was my first time trying it this way and, honestly, it's so much easier than mixing by hand--which had been a turn-off for me in the past.

  1. Preheat oven to 350 ˚F.
  2. Sift the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into a mixing bowl.  Stir the mixture to blend evenly.  Then sift and stir again, two more times.  (It’s best to sift from one mixing bowl into another.)
  3. Place the shortening into an empty mixing bowl and beat until creamy.
  4. Gradually beat in white sugar.  Then gradually beat in the egg and molasses.
  5. Sift 1/2 of the flour into the shortening mixture, and stir to blend it thoroughly.
  6. Sift in the remaining flour mixture and beat (or stir) until a soft dough forms.
  7. Pinch off small amounts of dough and roll into 1-inch balls.
  8. Roll each ball in cinnamon sugar and place 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
  9. Bake about 10 minutes,  The tops should be rounded and slightly cracked.
  10. When they first come out of the oven, they will tend to fall apart if you try to move them.  You’ll want to wait a minute or two before removing them from the cookie sheet.  Then place them on wire racks to cool completely.

Starkitten helps by coating the cookie dough balls with cinnamon sugar. This was her favorite task and she took great pride in making sure they were evenly coated.

Since Starkitten wanted to help me, I gave her the task of rolling the cookie balls in the cinnamon sugar.  It was a great experience for her, as it gave her a sense of accomplishment, knowing that those were her cookies, and overall a great bonding experience for both of us.

They don’t taste too sweet, which is great if you have members of your family who, like my husband, don’t care for sweets but still want a holiday treat.  They go great with a hot cup of tea or just a glass of milk.

This recipe made just over two dozen cookies.  And it wasn’t enough to sate my family’s cookie appetite.

The end product. As you can tell by the half-empty plate, they don't last long.

Mommysaurus

Keeping the Winter Holidays Simple

Jump to Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

Jump to Homemade Holiday Stockings

Winter is one of those seasons that always seems so magical.  Maybe it’s because I’ve rarely seen snow and I love being lost in the sparkling, snowy winter worlds in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or White Fang or Dragons of Winter Night and Christmastime television programming like It’s A Wonderful Life or the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or pretty much anything else that takes me back to nostalgia about my childhood).  As a young adult, I’d often imagined myself in some snowy countryside cottage, drinking hot cocoa while sitting next to a roaring fire with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.  And that would be a perfect way to spend a winter’s day for me.

Well things had changed a lot since my young adult years, but I still find myself unusually fascinated with snow.  And now that I have kids, I can relive the magic of this time of year with them.

Some of that weird white sparkly stuff shuts down Dallas when it strikes.

Usually in Texas, we’d get a day or two of snow.  It would shut down the entire city, because we Southerners are not very confident about driving in the snow.  In Louisiana, it was an even rarer occurrence and would lead to a greater freak-out and shut-down of things.  Heck, if it was predicted that a snow- or icestorm would be nigh, the local Wal-Mart would be packed with people stocking up on food, water, bullets, and whatever else will help them survive this hellish weather.  That’s “Yankee weather.”  Give us some triple-digit heat, 90% humidity, and sweet tea and we will feel much more comfortable.  Give us that weird white stuff, and we panic.

Of course, as I’m typing this, we are having an ice storm (and since I’m out in the country, it’s killing my internet connection–my link to the outside world).  And of course I’ve made sure to have an eon’s supply of food and water in case the world ends.  Because, like I said, winter weather makes Southerners nervous.

But, in Texas, that day or two of snow would usually fall sometime between Yule and the Super Bowl (like how last year’s snowstorm in Dallas killed the city’s economy because the local businesses were counting on the Super Bowl commerce to pull them out of the recession), which is really when you’d want snow to fall, anyways.  It feels timely.  Even in that freak spring of 2010 when it snowed right after the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I learned that in Ohio, it can snow in November.

Not that it really bothers me, or that it shocked me.  It just felt weird to see snow when I was still recovering from overindulging on Thanksgiving fare.

It was a sleepy afternoon, when the kids and I had finished off the last of the leftover turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing.  The tryptophan had taken over, and we’d snuggled up with the dog in my bed.  When we awoke from our nap, which was longer than usual, the first thing I did was groggily lead the dog to the front door so he could do his business.

Starkitten, who stood behind me, screamed what she observed:  “SNOW!!!”

And the dog–a four-pound chihuahua–decided he wasn’t going to do any business in that fluffy, cold, white stuff, even if you threatened to put him in the pot to be tonight’s supper.

I guess I got part of my young adult winter fantasy: I'm certainly enjoying the snowy countryside! And, clearly, so are the kids.

The kids had the opposite reaction.  It took a lot to convince them to get appropriately dressed for the snow, but it was worth it.  As if by instinct, they started having snowball fights, making snow angels, and tried to build a snow-T. rex (apparently a snowman is overrated).

All that frolicking in the snow got me into the holiday spirit.  We put up the tree the next day and baked cookies and played in the snow some more.

By “holiday spirit,” I don’t mean wanting to go out and buy a bunch of things.  I think the commercialized version of Christmas is insulting to everything the holiday–and all winter holidays–stands for.

This is a depressing time of year: shorter days mean lower melatonin levels.  Some people suffer mood changes from this–and it’s an actual affliction that doctors treat, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, endearingly, SAD).  The world is still and quiet–something that didn’t really hit me until this winter, when living in the snowy North made me notice why our ancestors had such a need for winter holidays.  The world really does seem dead.  And the snow that blankets the earth, while beautiful and sparkly, is also blinding.  And seeing so much white and black and gray (very much unlike the cozy world of Whoville) makes me instead feel like I’m living in a German expressionist painting or a third-rate knockoff to a Tim Burton film (as in no Johnny Deppto make it better).

One of the candles I used to illuminate my home for Yule last year. I think this picture speaks to what winter holidays mean: a light in the darkness. Hope. Peace.

It’s no wonder our ancestors needed a celebration of lights to get through the winter.  Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, is probably the first thing people think about in terms of winter holidays.  Despite the fact that Jesus was most likely born in the summertime, his birth is traditionally celebrated in winter.  There is much historical literature which suggests that this was to make it easier for people to convert to Christianity, as older holidays occurred during midwinter: the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and the pagan holidays of Yule (Celtic/Germanic) and Saturnalia (Roman).   All of these holidays, at the core, are joyous celebrations of hope, whether it be the birth of the Sun or Son (of God), Oak King or King of Kings.  Or about getting through oppression (i.e. Chanukah and Saturnalia).  Heck, even New Year’s is a culmination of sorts, filled with lights and merrymaking (even the Chinese New Year falls in the cold-as-hell months).

The winter months are depressing.  People need something happy to help them get through it.

That’s why I must admit the terrible commercialization of Christmas is a bit off-putting to me, and I’m not the Christian in my family.  It’s disgusting because the focus on material things detracts from the hope the holiday (whichever holiday one observes) offers.  Gift-giving is fine, but there is no reason to pepper spray a stranger because you really have to get that Xbox for your kids or trample a kid because you have to be the one to snag that expensive video game on sale (and Black Friday at Wal-Mart tends to be marred with violence).  Of course, some people have to go overboard with gifts, such as by wrapping presents with money or giving a pen encased in pure diamonds.  And, of course, we are inundated with commercials on TV and the radio (and ads on the internet if you don’t use an ad-blocking software) that say, “If you love him/her, you will buy [insert unnecessary and expensive item].”

The holiday season ought to be about togetherness, about celebrating whatever deity/deities you worship, and–especially in this crummy economy–about weathering it through another year.

Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

There are several lists like this out there, but I figured it’s worth sharing again.  There are so many things that you can make for someone or pay for that would be incredibly meaningful to them and much less materialistic than, say, a diamond-encrusted pen or an Xbox.

Here are a few of my ideas for inexpensive but meaningful gifts:

  • Bake his/her favorite cookies, bread, or pie.
  • Knit a scarf, pair of socks, or mittens.
  • Make a “coupon book” of IOUs, such as for a night of free babysitting or pet-sitting, housecleaning, and so on.  If you are skilled in a profession (ex. a massage therapist or computer expert), maybe toss in a few freebies related to that profession.
  • If you grow herbs, you could make aromatherapy tea bags or sachets or even infuse them into candles or soaps.
  • If you are a photographer, make a framed collage of the recipient’s name in art.
  • If you are an artist, use your talent to make something special for that person.
  • Make a fun, framed photo collage–maybe even include newspaper clippings or maps from the town where you and the recipient first met (hometown for family members, maybe the town where you went to school with your BFF, that sort of thing)
  • Make magnets.  For instance, if you have a friend who is obsessed with Doctor Who, print out 1-inch pictures of the Doctor in each of his incarnations, and maybe the TARDIS, laminate them, and glue them onto square-shaped magnets.
  • You can even make your own greeting cards.
For those who are pressed for time (or shipping is ridiculously high) or don’t have confidence in their talents, there are some unique options out there:
  • Give the gift of experience:  Movie tickets or scuba lessons (or a gift certificate to a spa or getaway cabin, if you have the money to spend) are such an example.  Think of something that would mean a lot to the recipient, and such an experience will be something that he/she will remember forever.
  • Order personalized calendars–there are several companies out there that will make them.  Some will even let you add “family holidays,” like Grandma’s birthday or the annual family reunion, to the printed calendar.
  • Donate to a charity in your loved one’s honor.  There are charities like the ASPCA and Oxfam America (an international charity where you can choose exactly what the money goes to–like educating midwives or buying mosquito nets and vaccines) which will send a holiday card to your loved one saying that you gave the gift of hope in their honor.  You can also check local charities–there are women’s shelters, homeless shelters, animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and the like who will do the same thing.
  • Order a personalized travel coffee mug.
  • Name a star after him/her.
  • Go to a local embroiderer and get monogrammed towels, gloves, or something else practical.  You help local business and please those who prefer practical gifts.


Homemade Holiday Stockings

That being said, I’ve never been a fan of buying those really big Christmas stockings, because they demand to be overfilled.  And overfilling them requires spending a lot of money.  And overfilling also means giving a lot of gifts, which perpetuates the entitlement culture that has become associated with this time of the year (and that reminds me of an annoying eBay commercial that aired this year with some whiny tween dictating what her gifts should be).

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot, and so we usually didn’t get much for Christmas.  A tradition we had, which was fun, was that when we put up the tree, each of the kids had a small stocking to hang on the tree (it was the size of a small child’s sock).  Every night, “Santa” (a.k.a. my mother) would place a small candy or toy (like a race car or wind-up toy or nifty pencil) into each stocking.  This way, when Christmas rolled around, it was more about the warm fuzzies of togetherness than getting gifts.

My husband and I decided to carry that tradition over, now that the kids are old enough to get an idea of this whole time of year.  Since all I could find were those obnoxiously big stockings (of which I am ashamed to admit to own a few, for winters past, but mostly for decoration than function), I decided to make the little mini-stockings myself.

All I needed was:

Stocking-making tools

  • a toddler sock that had been missing its mate and was still in good condition
  • glitter glue
  • rhinestones
  • snowflake confetti
  • colorful string
  • Gorilla glue

Then came the decorating:

  1. I first wrote the first initial of each girl’s name on her appropriate stocking.
  2. It helps to do this over some newspaper, so as to avoid getting glue all over the table that has been in your family for three generations.  Because that stuff is a pain in the arse to get off.
  3. With Starkitten’s help, I decorated with more glitter glue.
  4. Then we added the rhinestones and confetti, attaching them with Gorilla glue.  (I actually did not let Starkitten touch them once I put on the Gorilla glue, but she directed where I should place what.)
  5. Then I folded up some colorful string and glue it to the back corner of the sock so that it could hang from the tree.

Starkitten's stocking--Her initial smeared a bit because Sunfilly wanted to poke the pretty sparkles.

Sunfilly's Stocking

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