Here we go again, sports fans. It's nearly time to elect three members to city council here in the Star City of the South. And, boy-oh-boy, do we ever have choices. Not.
    To be sure, The Old Sprawler has signs in her yard, and she has made her decision, but the options for voters are not optimum. We're not looking at a field of candidates that exactly

fits anyone's idea of positively inspiring. Instead, we are faced with three incumbents who have zero to recommend them, one recycled from a previous council, one who keeps trying to get elected to anything, three tea party challengers, and a pair of independents who show promise.
    Yesterday the candidates participated in a forum that was so tightly controlled that the most the newspaper found to say about it was that it was tightly controlled. I don't have a problem with clear and specific rules, but if it was so rigid that voters didn't get a chance to hear the candidates speak to the issues that matter to them, then the entire exercise was a waste of time. It shed no light on where they might stand on any issue that may be of importance to voters. And sometimes, it only takes a hairline of difference to make that distinction. Apparently that one didn't succeed.
    So looking at the candidates, we have one incumbent who has a boxcar load of financial baggage hanging over him, and yet the local paper hasn't really made much of that. His family owned a piece of property that they wanted to sell for a tank farm. It was just over the hill from a residential neighborhood that has had plenty of trouble trying to get cleaned up in terms of slumlords, poverty and the accompanying ills. Surprisingly, when that neighborhood rose up in anger, the plan was scuttled. It's also significant to note that the candidate sleezed out on money owed to former employees, not to mention the tax woes with the city, and other similar business problems. Yet, he is running for council and because he is from "that neighborhood" where they stick together like that last battalion marooned on a Pacific island, he is going to be supported. It matters not that his personal business is in the sewer.
    Another incumbent grills speakers who come before council with their issues as though they are unreliable witnesses against his client in a personal injury case. His disrespect and verbal combativeness is legendary, as is his arrogance and dismissiveness.
    The third incumbent is recycled from a previous council and barely made the cut last time. Another one who likes to pontificate, he shows up at neighborhood group meetings and acts like he's all for them. On a more personal note, I can honestly say that the only time he's ever really had anything much to do with da Big Kitty and me would be when he wants something. Classic example: in his previous term on council there was a school board appointment coming up. He blew me off when I called on behalf of the teachers' association. Then, when his second run at council was in trouble, he came to me wanting the teachers' support. I had all I could do to keep from laughing in his face. The teachers most certainly were NOT supporting him and I sure as hell wasn't going to suggest they do otherwise. He'd already screwed us, and the city, on his choice for school board.
    We have a another former city council member running this time. She changed her vote on an issue that set us back another batch of years on a civic improvement project. If they'd gone forward with it, we'd have a great stadium - out of the flood plain - that could host some really terrific events. She was silent when her neighbors were up in arms about a project that would forever alter their neighborhood, but she says neighborhoods are important. Well, they all do, but she and the incumbents seem to like the tax money they think they'll be reaping at the expense of a lovely little modest neighborhood more than they do the residents. Her neighbors aren't likely to forgive her for that deal any more than I will ever forgive her for changing her vote on something that was so forward thinking for this city. Neither should anyone else. She can't be trusted.
    I'm going to dismiss the three tea party candidates with one sentence: Taxes are like dues you pay to belong to an organization; being opposed to taxes is like saying you want to be a Rotarian, but you don't think you should have to pay the dues.

    One newish face is a person who has tried unsuccessfully to run for statewide office. She is very smart, very difficult, and an extremely hard worker. I happen to like her a lot, but I've certainly had my issues with her. To her credit, she's made some changes in her life that have substantially made her a much more positive and likeable individual. Because she listens, one should never assume anything. Listening to constituents is one of the strengths she would bring to the table. Being able to ferret out what would be best for the body politic is another matter. Can she do that? I'd say yes. She hears what other people miss. She can draw the conclusions accordingly.
    One of the independent candidates has been to more city council meetings than some of the sitting council members. She has heard all of the proceedings. She is aware of the issues that face the current council and she is quick to point out where they have spoken out of both sides of their collective mouth. My only complaint is that she has focused on the idea that the city has spent enough time, money and energy on the downtown and that she wants the money to go out to the neighborhoods. What she wants to have happen is less clear. I like her attitude and I like the fact that she has been blogging about the foibles and the various messes created by bad decisions. My problem is that she's focused them on her own corner of the town. I'd like to know what her vision for the rest of the city would be.
    Finally, the last independent candidate is less known to me, and so far from what I've seen, he's not likely to get any more press space in the paper unless he says or does something truly spectacular.
That said, I know the people who are behind his candidacy and for them I have a ton of respect. They wouldn't be putting up just anyone and I know this fellow is smart as hell or he wouldn't have their support. He would represent a segment of our city that always needs representation, and he'd probably do so in a more forceful way than either of the other two folks who come from that neck of the woods. (Those two need to retire from council!) From the very little that has come out, I think he bears watching and probably a chance.
    We're going to have a couple of additional council forums and it will be interesting to see if the candidates do anything to distinguish themselves. I certainly hope so because if there is any one word that describes this campaign season, it is dreary.
    Come on, candidates! Roll up your sleeves and get controversial! Show us what's really going on! Quit playing it safe! You aren't going to stick out in this crowd of flat-liners unless you do. Somebody lob the first rock at the incumbents, please! The targets are so big you can't miss!

On Monday, we bade farewell and celebrated the wonderful life of Ethel Wolfe Born. In life, Ethel was a diminutive woman with a very soft voice. She was also a force of nature! I had the pleasure of knowing her through three different organizations, and she was so integral to each of them.

    As I listened to the speakers detailing bits and pieces of a life well lived and savored until the very end - with no plans for it ending, I might add - something struck me about those of us sitting in the sanctuary of her church. Many of us were blessed to know Ethel through more than one of her interests and passions. It was then that her skill as a weaver began to emerge in a larger sense.
    Ethel was a member of the Handweavers Guild, the National Association of Parliamentarians, the National League of American Pen Women, American Association of University Women and a whole bargeload of Methodist women's groups. She served as a trustee of Ferrum College and wrote a history of its beginnings as a project of Methodist women. She was a gifted needle artist, weaver, writer, parliamentarian and a devout Methodist. She was also fearless in the kitchen and brewed a wonderful pot of tea.
    Those of us lucky enough to be a part of Ethel's life became the threads that she skillfully wove. She guided us in and out of the facets of her life, creating a beautiful, soft and elegant fabric.
    My introduction to Ethel was thanks to attending my first AAUW program. It was an International Affairs program that she staged at her home. The speaker was her delightful daughter Barbara Craig, a teacher of college professors, and she told us about the focus of education for girls and young women in Taiwan, where she had lived. Ethel's home was a spacious "cottage" at a retirement community, overlooking a pond. I noted a collection of thimbles and knew immediately where one I had needed to go to live.
    Some time later, a mutual friend invited two of us to attend a parliamentary workshop because she decided we were future leaders of AAUW. There was Ethel, providing a portion of the program. "There are three rules in parliamentary procedure," she said softly. Holding up a finger, "The first is that we must always use good manners," a second finger arose "the second is that the minority MUST be heard," the third finger waggled "and the third is that the majority rules."
    It was a fascinating workshop
and I wound up becoming a part of the Roanoke Valley Unit of the N.A.P., where I have succeeded Ethel as the secretary. (Along with a meticulous set of instructions for what to do with the records once I leave office!)
    Some time later, I was invited to attend a Pen Women meeting, and there she was! Interestingly enough, that's where I learned she was a weaver. It is also where I learned of her dry wit and her persnickety attention to detail. When the group began to falter, she made a skillful motion that brought it back from the brink and hit the reset button.
    We needed to update our bylaws to reflect some of the changes we'd made to the organization to keep it viable, and Ethel, smarty that she was, volunteered me to work with her on that. She provided the guidance and the compass - keeping us focused and attending to the important details. I typed. And learned.
    At last month's N.A.P. meeting, Jennie Sue presented a problem for our parliamentary workshop. She'd already consulted Ethel on it, and in the course of describing the problem, Ethel interjected her opinion that the group's bylaws were beyond repair. I'd never heard her at a loss for words before, never mind her voice rising to such a level of frustration that she declared their document to be "crap!" My eyebrows shot off my forehead and off into outer space as I doubled over with the giggles. "Ethel Born just said crap!" I murmured. It's been a month and I'm still in stitches over it!
    I received an email from Ethel, four days before she left us. It listed the things I needed to adjust on the Pen bylaws. I didn't get to it right away, but when I did, I followed her train of thought easily and made the changes. Having just spent a delightful three hours with her, talking about what the group still needed to do to grow and thrive, I began to get some ideas.
    And that's what Ethel was all about. Ideas. She was full of them! Jennie Sue tells of the time she conned her into learning to play the lyre so that Ethel could have a program with one of her Methodist groups that involved the lyre. Another time she coerced Jennie Sue into learning to chant so that the group could learn to chant.
    We all agreed, when Ethel came up with an idea and assigned us tasks, we jumped. We said how high on the way up, and asked when we might please come down. She brought us together, from the different corners of her busy and productive life, and she wove her magic around us, binding us to one another in the most surprising ways. Her standards were high and her expectations reasonable. We could and we would.
    Ethel was fastidious and organized. She was a gifted archivist and while she was such a good historian, she was as forward thinking as they came. The recent changes in Robert's Rules of Order came about primarily to address the issues surrounding electronic meetings. With one of her groups, Ethel wondered if they could bring people together by means of Skype!
    And so it is that while she is no longer walking among us, her gifts to us live on. We are forever woven into a web of people who will continue to cross paths and hold her dear in our hearts.
    Rest in peace, my dear friend. I miss you terribly because I know there was so much more you planned to teach me and I wanted so badly to learn it all from you. I promise to help Jennie Sue get some herbs going at Born Cottage, and I promise to keep Pen Women alive. (I have to! Pat is now prodding me in your stead!) The warp and the woof of your influence will stay in place. Love and peace~
Happy New Year, Sports Fans!
The Old Sprawler has had something on her to do list for a couple of months. However, it wasn't until this morning, when her double shot of Lavazza tasted like Starbucks that she realized that task could wait no longer. Time to clean the coffee machine. Oy. Wotta tragedy! A necessary evil to maintain one's standard of coffee.

The process involves taking apart the water tank, and all the platforms that hold cups. It also entails taking apart the "wand" business that holds the coffee. You would not believe the sludge that can accumulate in that little thing. The gunk gets stuck in all kinds of teeny weeny nooks and crannies, so preparation means an S.O.S. pad, toothpicks, a stiff bristled brush, a pin and a  Philips head screwdriver.

I took apart the wand and scoured what I could, soaked some pieces and swished some pieces in the soapy dishwater. The whole time I dug crud out of the little crevices, I thought about the year Big Kitty gave me this fine machine for Christmas. I was so excited! Anna had one and it was so much easier to use than those stupid Krups things. To be sure, I can make great espresso in a stovetop moka, but the machine was the sine qua non of the Italian coffee drinker. It came with a video to show how to use it, and as I poked fresh holes in the coffee basket, I thought back to what a better machine maintainer I was back in the day.

These days, I taste my coffee and when it takes on that telltale Starbucks old cigar taste, it's time and there is no more procrastinating to be done. Lazy, but then again, I don't drink my coffee like Zia Marta, either. (The traditional Zia way is to just toss that puppy back like a shot of whiskey.) I also don't swerp the foam off the top like Anna does. Just sip it, but not slowly. It gets cold faster than a mug of joe, y'see.

So, I brushed, poked, picked and otherwise got the crud out. I ran a couple of batches of water through the Brita and refilled the nice clean tank. Hit the button and when the boiler was ready, I started the machine. Whenever the tank and the filter tube part ways, the result is a vapor lock. The trick is to run the steam wand until the bubble works its way out. Pssshhhhhht!

The last picher of Brita topped off the reservoir and I polished the case. Readied the machine and my little cup for the morning and felt all kinds of virtuous.

So, yeah, you can go to the coffee shop and get an okay cup of coffee, or you can take the time to make your own. The chain stores overroast their beans and the result is a burnt taste like, as I said, an old stogie. Bleah! The local guys roast well, but their barristas insist on dumping in enough steamed milk for a latte. Why do we have to request a cappucino "dry"? Why don't they just make it right without all the extraneous directions?

And do not get me started on the cutesy names for the sizes. Tall for small? Puh-leeze.
Or all the permutations of pretend coffee...a grande half soy mochachino low fat whipped cream no cherry....  I have a little chalkboard thing near my coffee  machine: "Latte is Italian for you paid too much for that cup of coffee." And it's true. While I was waiting for the vapor lock to get unstuck, I was reflecting on that and chuckling to myself.

I guess there are as many different kinds of coffee drinkers out there as there are gimmicks for getting them to drink it. Still, the best coffee is the stuff you make freshly in your own kitchen. Sometimes, the zen of do-it-yourself is really the most satisfying. Once you get the hang of it, you breathe in the s
cent of the brew as it's doing its gurgly thing, stir in fresh additives and, ahhhh. I'll leave grinding beans freshly vs. buying it ground for others to debate. I can go either way. The only requirement for me is Lavazza for my espresso and Columbian for my drip maker, but I do like a nice Ethopian Harrar as a treat.

Wishing all of you a fresh cup of your favorite brew in the morning, a year of zen experiences and the good sense to enjoy them when they roll around. Happy 2014!

On Tuesday, voters in Virginia went to the polls to select a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, delegates to the General Assembly and a handful of local offices.  Since the Supremes allowed Citizens United to stand, the people of this nation have been subjected to mud-slinging that would make even the men of Jefferson's era blush. They have been subjected to the wills of a pair of billionaires wanting to seize control of the government for the purpose of dismantling it - for their own gain. The voting districts have been gerrymandered beyond any semblance of common sense, and the result is the hijacking of the sacred right and duty of every American to go to the polls to vote.
    Does this surprise you? If so, you need to subscribe to a newspaper and keep up with things.
    In today's Roanoke Times, Dan Casey, my favorite columnist since Mike Royko, wrote about how a woman from Salem had a Liberty University graduate come to her door to gather information. Later she received some mail from Americans for Prosperity. According to Dan the Man, they are linked to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. In this piece of official looking mail, they noted that her neighbors had voted in each election, but that she hadn't.
    Somebody, quick! Tell me why that is anyone's business but the lady's?
    So Dan, being the sucker he is for a good righteous cause, decided to get to the bottom of it. Needless to say, he got some stonewalling here and there, but the important part is that he has put out there the story for others to read. There are bound to be some other folks who also got a similar letter.
    On Tuesday, the old Sprawler was an election official, so I fired off an email to Dan, telling him about my own experiences with voter intimidation (let's name that elephant in the living room, shall we?), and I also sketched out for him what happened to Jake and TD when they went to vote on Tuesday. Here is their story:

    "Thought you might enjoy hearing TD and my Election Day story.
    We had our voter ID cards and photo ID's.  Not a big election, only 9 amendments to the State Constitution, and a bond issue (No repugs to vote against!)  We went to our local "sub-courthouse" where you early vote?  "Sorry, you can only early vote here.  On Election Day, you have to go to your precinct..."
    So we went to Cana (Baptist Church) (you'll soon see a theme here), where we voted last time.  "Sorry, you are in precinct 7, Johnson County, you don't vote here..."  The (helpful not) poll worker couldn't tell us where to vote as his computer was down.  Somebody in line suggested "Retta" (Baptist Church), and I think we voted there once recently,  but we were turned away from there as well.  
    Note, we had our voter ID cards, WHICH DID NOT TELL YOU WHERE TO GO TO VOTE!!!!  (Apparently they like to mix it up in Texas!)  I finally googled and called Johnson County board of Elections.  (TG for I Pad and internet!)  Telling the helpful woman who answered the phone that I needed the polling place location for "Precinct 7" was not enough, as she had to verify my name address etc on the phone before she would give me the desired info.  Finally she told me, "Bethesda Baptist Church!".  It was quite far away, we had to get on the interstate, and we have never voted there before....
    What's up with this nonsense?  I mean, I was ready to give up after being turned away twice, and this was a "throwaway election" and accomplished nothing more than putting me on the list to be called for jury duty, again!!!!"

    As I told Dan, this is, thankfully, not the case in Virginia, and especially not in The Star City of the South. When we bring up a voter in the electronic poll book (EPB), it will tell us if the voter needs to be at a different precinct. Often the voter has moved, or there is some other hiccup that is easily solved by looking up on our handy spreadsheet where it is the voter needs to be in order to cast a ballot. If all else fails, we call the registrar's office, where problems can be cleared up - such as the voter providing social security number and the office telling us she was listed under her maiden name. "Let her vote and make her fill out a new voter registration for the name change."
    We also employ other tricks, such as affidavits that voters must fill out to certify that the information they have supplied is the most current and correct. There are a lot of variables, but the point is, it is our duty to make sure people can vote if it is possible. If it means they must vote with a provisional ballot, then that is what we have them do. We are patient. If they don't have identification, we have them search through their pockets for items that qualify from our list of approved identification tools. (electric bill, etc.) We do everything we can to help them cast that ballot.
    Why? Because it is our job to run the election process by the book. When we protect the sanctity of the vote, we are also protecting the integrity of the election.    
    Unlike my friends, though, many voters show up unprepared. They don't know what they need to have and some are flummoxed by the process we must follow. They are shy about telling the official their name and address aloud and shocked when the official repeats that and then checks for a match on the voter's identification. Some move and do not keep up with changes of address for voting and the DMV. Some don't understand why it's a big deal. Come July of 2014, many will be in for a rude awakening. That's when our picture id law kicks in.
    As it stands, Virginia had a voter purge that took place right before this election. We officials braced ourselves for the inevitable mess it could engender when people who never bother to read their mail showed up to vote. Luckily, our precinct didn't have any glitches along those lines, but it's clear that the party in control of the General Assembly was attempting to tilt the vote in their favor for the gubernatorial race.
    The bottom line is that two days after the election, I have already fielded a call from Wisconsin that was going to give me that mythical free cruise to the Bahamas, if only I would give them the right answers on their tea party-slaned questionaire.
    The Republicans' latest wedge issue is the Affordable Care Act, and they are doing everything they can do to torpedo it. At this point, I'm ready to say, "The only way you can take it away is if you replace it with a single payer program like Medicare."
They will continue to buy elections until Americans wise up and clean out Congress. In the meantime, we officials will have none of that nonsense. We will protect the integrity of the vote with every fiber of our beings. Well, as long as we're not in Texas....

Tried the pumpkin scone recipe in the 50 things you can do with canned pumpkin insert. 20 minutes of baking was inadequate given the amount of wet stuff - pumpkin is wet and there was a lot of cream on top of it. 30 minutes was closer to the mark, but even at that, they were still a little gooey on the inside. Flavor was not exciting. Final tally? Not a keeper.
It's that time of year for those of us who subscribe to cooking magazines...the wishbooks should be getting thicker. Sadly, the only one to have gotten the memo is the Food Network mag.

Years ago, Gourmet led the pack with a November issue that was one mouth-watering page after another. The lush centerfold made many a cook's dreams come true. Bon Appetit held its own in those sweepstakes. But, with the demise of the elegant taste-maker, Gourmet, Bon Appetit has suffered from an identity crisis, and it really doesn't do much of a job keeping up. It's turned to trendy, rather than tasty. Ingredients that no one west, north or south of New Jersey can find...that kind of thing.

Fine Cooking's fall issue that combines October and November is never a disappointment, unless you count the fact that everyone I know wishes it was a 12 month magazine, instead of 6 month. It loses a lot of the timeliness by being bi-monthly.

And then there is the Food Network magazine. Holy moly! Fat, full of seasonal stuff, easily found ingredients and accessible recipes.

Those of us who like to cook are already thinking ahead to the holidays. We're already making lists of who will be in town, who will be traveling and who might be alone. I'm doing my fall cleaning so that I'll be ready with polished silver, clean kitchen cabinets stocked with fresh ingredients, and a purged fridge. It's essential if there is going to be a lot of kitchen activity.

The other day, while looking for something else (as is often the case), I ran across something I've saved. It's the November 1986 issue of Gourmet. Why, pray tell? We were married in November of 1986 on Thanksgiving weekend. I had gone through 20 years worth of Gourmets because they were taking up shelf space I needed for other things, but I could not tear up that issue.

This is the season when we plan our baking marathons, the table settings, the things that must be ordered ahead of time and so on. The fat cooking magazines used to inspire this kind of homekeeping creativity. You think Martha Stewart is that innately talented? Gimme a break. She studied those old Gourmet centerfolds with the zeal of a social climber. Here in the South, there are still a few generations who rely on Southern Living. Indeed, newly transplanted to the Star City, I subscribed for a while, until I realized it was the same old same old made with a can of cream of mushroom soup. And seriously, the decorating? There was only so much 18th Century Light, Revisited that I could stomach.

So, these days, I take comfort from those fine people at the Food Network who focus on ingredients we can find easily, fresh foods and accessibility. They know we are busy, they know we want to have a really tasty feast, but they also know that we don't all live in McMansions with Great Halls worthy of Henry VIII. The vibe is more casual than you will find at our house on a holiday, but that's okay. If it gets people into the kitchen, that's fine by me. If it gets some of them to understand that the glass electric cooktop is for lightweights, and that the microwave isn't their most important appliance, I'm all for it.

Stay tuned for what's up on the menus. Right now I have a big collection of squash, so I'm thinking squash lasagne, squash soup, squash mash... Stuffed eggplant, spezzatino with greens, beans and root vegetables... Fall is in the air. Aaaa-choo!
Aw, geez. I'm having a deja vu all over again moment here at the Sprawl. When I was in grade school, I used to have lunch with either Aunt Mary or Grandma Theresa. Grandma was my dad's mother, and she was a cranky old doll who made the world's best apple strudel. She also cheated at cards and bunco!

I always looked forward to lunch with both of them because it was nothing short of fun. Sometimes when I arrived at Grandma's she'd have the kitchen closet completely emptied. There would be stuff everywhere! Baking pans, pots, pans, big bags of flour, sugar, brooms, mops, ironing board... And there would be Grandma, in the middle of that mess, swearing in Slovenian. (I know she was swearing because she made it a point to speak English when I was around. Slovenian was reserved for when she didn't want little pitchers with big ears to hear what she was saying.)

The whole reason for the closet being torn up was that she was looking for something and all the usual places had been checked.

Today I am looking for a box of old photographs. Most of our family candids are on slides, but somewhere in this disaster of a house, there is a turquoise blue notebook that has old black and white photos. And in that box is a picture of Grandma Kate that I want for the Italian Club's cookbook.

So, today, I am Grandma Theresa's clone - there is stuff everywhere, while I excavate all the possible nooks and crannies in search of the darn box. I'm having no luck, but I sure have found a lot of stuff that we could get rid of, and that might be the whole reason why the universe has sent me on this fool's errand!

The House Goddess was watching me fold the dishtowels and we were both remarking on how we were switching to all white because we could bleach the bejeepers out of them with impunity. I help up a great towel that is pretty old, but noted the now lavender design was formerly bright blue. She nodded in assent on the issue of why it no longer pays to have pretty colored kitchen linens. Then she pointed to a rather oddly shaped and disreputable looking rag. "What's that?"

I giggled and admitted that when my Jockeys reach the point of no return, I cut up the salvageable parts for silver polishing. She grinned at me and announced that I was old school.
Here is how old school I am not. My mother and her sister kept house by a strict schedule. Monday was wash day. Tuesday was ironing day. The dishtowels said that Wednesday was for mending, but that was kind of flexible. So was Thursday marketing, given the fact that by Thursday my mother's hair wasn't presentable. (Aunt Mary's hair was always perfect, but she was good at doing it herself.) Friday was for cleaning, but that went on every day from what I remember, and Saturday was for baking. Now, again, that was negotiable. Aunt Mary baked whenever she wanted to, and you always knew what she was up to because you could hear her whistling when she baked. On Saturday, Mom was at Josie's getting her hair done.

The dishtowels decreed Sunday was for church. Sunday was for a roast that was ready when Uncle Eddie and the Mopstick came home from church. (Aunt Mary went on the High Holidays, as did my mother - dressed to the nines, of course in their shoes and matching purses.)

The Monday and Tuesday drill was the same, though, and one thing I learned early on in my apartment living days was that most tenants did laundry on the weekend. On Monday night, the laundry area was available. I had a show I watched on Tuesday night, so I ironed in front of the television. (I still iron in front of the television!)

In my current status as chief cook and housekeeper, I get some odd looks when people find out I pay the House Goddess to come every other week. I guess they wonder what I do with my time. But think of the women in The Help - and the women who live in a certain neighborhood of The Star City. They have someone who shows up every day, in a uniform, to make beds, launder, clean, polish silver and cook. In The Help, there was silver polishing day. That wasn't on the dishtowels, but I'm thinking my mother did that on Wednesdays, if she wasn't in her sewing room making up something nifty or changing the hemlines in our skirts.

The House Goddess keeps me honest. Big Kitty and I are slobs. We are also accumulators of the first order. When HG is due, it forces us to pick up after ourselves. She'd laugh at the idea of keeping house by the dishtowel schedule, but I happen to know that at her house, Thursday was clean-the-house night! Just ask her kids.... She ran that show with the zeal of a drill sergeant with a batch of new recruits!

But, we are on the dishtowel schedule. Today is Friday, and we're cleaning. She's doing her jobs and I'm doing mine. Oh, geez. Here she comes. If she catches me on the computer I'm sunk!

Here we go again. The plethora of pink products that scream Guilt Trip! Guilt Trip! Buy pink or feel guilty!  The good news is that the brand name foundation that was revealed to be right wingnuts who wasted donation money on preventing women from access to health care has become somewhat marginalized in this annual color competition.

The irony of my antipathy toward this band wagon is, of course, the loss of my mother to breast cancer. Wearing or buying pink ribbon emblazoned items won't bring her back. Sound research that focuses on the cause of the disease versus money funneled to a cure will bring millions of women more peace of mind. Determine what causes the cancer and the cure will follow.

This is not the protocol that Big Pharma wants to hear. It isn't what the probably causers of carcinogenic conditions want us to focus on, either. Finding the causes - and yes, they most definitely are likely to be plural - might cost greedy corporations profits, after all.

However, the why of any disease or condition is always the thing that nags us, and drives our uneasiness with the subject. For example:
  • What if my mother's breast cancer originated with the cobalt radiation she received for bursitis a few years prior to the cancer diagnosis?
  • What if my mother's breast cancer originated in exposure to fertilizers and herbicides used in the fields on two sides of our yard?
  • What if my mother's breast cancer originated in living too close to the property where the Radium Dial Co. was located in Ottawa, Illinois?
  • What if my mother's breast cancer originated in her genetic code?
  • What if my mother's breast cancer originated in exposure to asbestos, or other airborne particles, when she lived near the Charleston Navy Yard?
  • What if my mother's breast cancer orginated in the pollutants that were routinely released by the chemical and zinc works into the water and atmosphere when she lived on the east end of LaSalle? 

See? The questions are many and the answers not forthcoming. It's too late for my mom, but it's not too late for us. If we know the cause, we will have a cure, and we will never have a reliable cure without the list of probable causes. Instead, we have the color pink offering us false promises.

Think about it. Cause and effect. You had that in kindergarten. We won't get at the cause until we women rebel against pink marketing campaigns for a cure, and demand scientific answers to the elusive causes. And THAT'S a cause I can get behind.

*In memoriam, Tom Clancy, whose thriller inspired the title of this piece. Requiescant in pace.

Yesterday, Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking, passed away at the age of 89. She was a chain-smoker with emphysema, but somehow she managed to have a very long and rich life. I credit her good genes and good food.

Thanks to a little dance we did with Uncle Tony, I wound up with Grandma's noodle machine. And, thanks to the third floor book store in Marshall Field's, I found Marcella's first volume on Italian cooking. I had Grandma's table in my tiny kitchen in my first place here in Virginia, and I decided to try making noodles. I used Marcella's formula: 3/4 cup flour per egg. The only difference, was that Gram never dusted her pasta dough with flour. She put it in a bowl with a little olive oil. I did what Gram did and as I got into the rhythm of cranking and hanging fettuccine, I felt so darn proud of myself.

I've never been able to let go of the synergy I felt, working at that little table, kneading noodle dough, clamping the Imperia onto the extension, and cranking out the strips of dough that would become incredible thin noodles. And I remember well the excitement generated by a call from my crabby dad when he received the dress box of noodles I mailed him.

The first Italian dinner I made for friends included fettuccine with Marcella's tomato cream sauce, a rosemary and garlic studded veal roast, garlic sauteed broccoli, insalata and a dessert made with pound cake soaked in espresso and filled with a whipped cream mixture and covered with chocolate. It was a big hit and from then on, I never strayed far from Marcella's side.

My mother-in-law used to put a Stouffer's frozen lasagne in for the holiday dinner and whine incessantly about how it wasn't as good as my lasagne. I kept telling her I had never made lasagne, that my grandmother never made lasagne and that we ate Stouffer's at our house. She kept up with the same whine and I needed some wine... About ten years later, I'd had enough. I made Marcella's recipe for lasagne. It was quite the departure from Stouffer's, that's for sure! I wasn't sure I liked it, but the looks on the faces of the others convinced me that it was a keeper.

And so it went. Recipe after recipe. Never a failure. Her instructions were precise. And by following them exactly, I experienced the sweet smell of success ~ not to mention a kitchen that smelled divine!

Marcella had a reputation for having an abrupt manner. Indeed, reading her cookbooks, you get a feel for the autocratic attitude she likely conveyed in her cooking classes. Yet, she was pushing Americans to eat the foods of the rest of Italy, not just the corrupted foods of the southern part of the country. She was a reformer, in many ways, and we needed that. Our idea of Italian cooking was mired in red sauce and meatballs.

Ironically, it was just this past Friday night that I attempted the kind of pizza Marcella would have likely abhorred: The Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. Yep. All caps. What I was aiming for was a memory of pizza at Gino's on Rush. The cellar restaurant with the sign over the door that read, "Watcha Thy Head!"

It was around 1964 or '65. My mom and I had taken the train into Chicago to visit my sister. She was very excited about an Italian restaurant and the idea of getting to eat food that Dad wouldn't touch. When my 5'1" mother saw that sign, she cracked up. Nevertheless, in we went, the pizza was ordered and an eternity later, it was served up with a clamped on handle, a wedge shaped serving spatula and in a blackened pan. My mother looked at it and smiled. "Oh, Jeane," she said. "This is just like what my grandmother used to make!" My sister's face fell. She thought she was introducing Mom to something really new and great. It wasn't new, but it was certainly great, and Mom made sure she knew it.

As the story goes, in the coal mining towns that dotted Illinois (and likely everywhere else there was a collection of Italian miners), there were boarding houses. Her grandmother ran one. In the morning, she would make bread dough and put it in a big black skillet on the back of the cookstove. As the day went on, she added leftovers to that thing. In the early evening, it got baked and that was pizza. A cheap way to make sure nothing went to waste, and something that was very filling.

My effort turned out pretty well. I see how I need to tweak it, and I've already made the notes in the margins of the recipe I tried. This is one I'll never find in a Marcella book, but I still owe it to her to have had the courage to try it. Julia Child may have taught my sister to cook, but Marcella was my teacher. I am eternally grateful, and so is everyone who comes to dinner.

Grazie, Dottore Hazan. Riposi in pace.

Herban Sprawl