Saturday, April 25, 2009

Feel the burn

Working in the garden Saturday earned me the first little sunburn of the season. I am an idiot. Had I been out boating or biking I would have remembered to slather on the SPF 70. Had it been a bright, scorching July day, I would have felt the heat and high tailed it back inside for a coating of 30. But it was breezy, clouds were puffy, the morning was cool and I'm just not used to being outside without sleeves yet. After all these years, You'd think I'd learn. But no. Old habits die hard.

As a teen, I was a sun worshiper. One summer, I had a routine. After a late night out and a few hours sleep, I'd wake up in the morning, spray my hair with Sun-In, put on a bathing suit, grab my spray bottle of baby oil, iodine and vinegar and head for the lawn to go back to sleep. Or read Rolling Stone and listen to KSHE cranking out their brand of classics. As the sun burned into my skin, the songs burned into my brain. It was the summer of the first Van Halen album, Jackson Browne's Running On Empty, Kansas, Styx, Journey, Trooper, Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street and Sammy Hagar. Perfect music to sun by. The original definition of wake 'n' bake.

Now I try to be careful. We know the sun is bad. But like so many other things that are bad for us, why does it feel so good? And like most things that feel so good, why does too much feel so bad? Why couldn't I have become addicted to something better for me, like lettuce or exercise? Once you feel the sun, I guess you can never go back. Hi, I'm the RuralGurl, and I'm a sun-aholic......

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The lazy gardener

In previous years, I was a very industrious gardener. Every fall I planted new bulbs and never failed to "put the garden to bed". Now I am lucky to get the vegetable patch weeded before tossing some lettuce seeds out there. Priorities shift. Weather turns. Situations change. But I still love to dig in the dirt and smell the earth; it is still a tonic.

Now I am quite lazy, though. We have a second hand mini-tiller. Perennials continue to grow, little new planting needed. And today I bought seed tape. It is the ultimate in lazy gardening. Dig the trench, lay the tape in it, cover with dirt, water. No carefully dispersing individual seeds on hand and knees, no thinning the sprouts. While my conscience scolds me, my back and knees are thanking me. My chiropractor? Not so much.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The stone that will not roll

I don't know where it comes from and I don't know where it goes. My stomach is empty, my head is full, my eyes overflow and I pray that the stone crushing my soul will roll away. Battered by an unseen foe, sleep provides cruel refuge. I should fight. Stand up and face the overwhelming storm. Try and crest the wave; freedom always lies just beyond the breakers. But all the shoulds, all the shoulds only help to further sink the stone. The stone that will not roll.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Art of Tea

It is no secret that my job is a source of aggravation, as well as income. Given this, anything that can bring a moment of harmony to the futility of my day is a welcome measure. After lunch, this respite is tea.

Deep within the desk drawer, behind the dried fruit, can opener, soup, nuts and cereal, hides my secret stash of tea. Even the simple act of opening the container provides a fleeting glimmer of calm. I sift through the bags. Is it a jasmine day? Or perhaps Earl Grey? Plum and mint, chamomile and Constant Comment, black, oolong, and green, even spiced chai; choices abound. Hot water from the coffee bar releases the familiar aromas. I cradle the mug, drawing small comfort, and pray that the phone doesn’t ring. As I inhale and sip, there is brief transportation to the first “good” Chinese restaurant in town, a picnic table in Arkansas at dawn, a best friend’s bedroom floor, my Mom’s kitchen table… anywhere but here. Slowly, my identity returns.

Amazing how something so simple can be such a lifeline.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter and the Barefoot Contessa

Long before Ina Garten bought a little specialty food store bearing the name, and even longer before she launched her empire, I was the Barefoot Contessa. It was one of my father's favorite nicknames for his only little girl, who reveled in the feeling of grass between her toes. (Dad loved Bogart movies.)

When I remember the happiest times of my childhood, my days of Contessadom, they are forever intertwined with Easter. Easter was my dad's holiday; Easter was Polish. Every year he would tell us of his mother making up the basket of food, the Swieconka, and how they took it up to church to be blessed. There were tales of his days playing polka music on the radio in the 30's (across the river at WEW?), of all the different ethnic neighborhoods in East St. Louis in the 20's and 30's and of Easter Mass at St. Adalbert. I loved these stories, as they were so few and far in between. Not unlike myself, my father was plagued by ghosts and stirring up the past often brought him more sorrowful than fond memories; Easter was one of the rare moments that his family history, my family history, would come to life.

Then to celebrate, we'd have the feast. Real Polish sausage from Madison, ham, beets, burnt flour Polish green beans, chalka raisin bread, vinegar potato salad, stuffed cabbage, perogies, ham and be sure to leave room for dessert! It was enough to last our tiny family for days. I can only replicate a fraction of it all, but whenever I brown flour or wrap up a golabki, it's Easter again. Even though my childhood and my father have both long since passed, I will forever hold those Polish Easters as timeless in my heart. And Ina be damned, I will always be the "real" Barefoot Contessa.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why do they laugh?

We don't have kookaburras here (okay, we do have kingfishers, but not the same kind) and I can't recall ever hearing one laugh at the zoo. Robins, we have, tons of them. All laughing. This time of year, morning are filled with birdsong, and above the din laughs the robin. HA! Ha ha ha ha ha ha! They do have other vocalizations, many songs, chips and cherts. But in the morning they laugh. Is it because they found food? Are the worms funny? Maybe they're watching me stumble out the door, half awake, poorly juggling purse, lunch, gym bag and coffee. I'm sure that's quite a sight. Perhaps it's an inside joke, one that only robins know. Or is it the same joke the kookaburras tell? Maybe all birds hear it and robins are just an easy mark. Why ever it happens, their infectious laughter brightens even the dreariest April shower morning. Like so many things in life, maybe we just don't need to know why.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Fear, Fearless & the Moon

Here comes the moon again, stirring up thoughts unthinkable. Drawing me to the well, daring me to drink, then teasing me with a rope just a fraction too short. It's maddening.

In the glow of moonlight, I am fearless. The blue shine and shadows transform me like the sip that bridges tipsy to drunk. There is no going back. Beautiful, powerful, graceful and light; I believe. But as the sun brings the morning, fear rides its coattails. The cruel day crushes certainty. Soon the warmth will lull me into submission, erasing my memory, supplanting my vision, returning the spectrum of normal, demanding worship.

When will the sun realize that it is the moon's enabler?

Monday, April 06, 2009

What is this, Chicago?

It is just plain wrong for it to snow on the day of your baseball team's home opener. Whaddya think this is? Chicago? Apples in bloom, tulips and daffodils everywhere, 22 degrees wind chill.

True, I'm not a big baseball fan. Really not much of a sports fan at all, but there are some fundamentals that I grew up with. Baseball season is hot. Football season is cold. Basketball season is always indoors, so it doesn't really matter when you play. Hockey is played on ice, so even though it's indoors, it should be cold for it. Horse racing, dry. Swimming, wet. Golf, hot. Bowling, drunk. It all seems pretty cut and dried. Yet it seems like every year the sports seasons are getting more and more muddled. Kind of like the school year, pretty soon all sports will just go all year long. Where on earth will we find enough beer? Or hot chocolate, as the case may be? Hot chocolate at a baseball game; it's just wrong. Unless you're in Chicago.

Friday, April 03, 2009

A Wish for Fish

Fridays in Lent can mean only one thing in St. Louis. Fish! Church fish fry, to be exact. While I'm still waiting for a Japanese-Catholic (?) church to have a Lenten sushi dinner, there are plenty of other options to explore. Each church seems to have a specialty, so each Friday we seek out a new experience. This year, here's where we've had fabulous fish so far:

Right in our neighborhood sits St. Andrews Catholic Church. When we moved here, it had its own school, but cutbacks left the playground empty. The parish is still going strong, though, and their fish fry is always a tasty, good bet. You can get squares or tails (cod or catfish) baked cod, and usually jack salmon (whiting). What sets St. Andrews apart is the mac and cheese. Very cheddary, thick but still creamy, and baked with a golden-brown crusty top. Sometimes it's so good, you have to get it for both your sides. Also, dessert is included and someone there makes a super-moist red velvet cake with cream cheese icing. Better get there early if you want some.

Not much farther down the road is Seven Holy Founders CC. You got your squares, but catfish nuggets step in for the tails here and don't pass them up. Pieces are big, breaded lightly, and not over-cooked like so many nuggets are. Even better are the shrimp. Big shrimp, a little more coating, not cooked to rubber, and lots of very horseradishy cocktail sauce. SHF special side is au gratin potatoes. Yes, they come from a mix, but they are a cheesy change of pace. Dessert here is extra, but you may not have room for it, especially after a couple of beers.

Much in the media this year, next up is St. Cecilia's (you're breakin' my heart) Mexican Fish Fry. Squares, tails, shrimp... all good, but the draw is the Mexican entrees and sides. All hand made, all amazing. The chili rellenos were roasted peppers filled with queso, lightly battered and fried to firm but gooey goodness. Potato flautas were crisp outside, moist inside, and served with a roasted tomatillo sauce. They also had tostadas and quesadillas, which we did not try, but looked yummy. Dessert is included and if you hit it right, you just might find a slice of flan on the table hiding in between the gooey butter, bundt and angel food cakes. Expect a long wait, but as the line snakes around the school's gymnasium, you can buy home made pico de gallo & chips and Corona and enjoy entertainment like traditional Mexican dancers or a maricahi trio.

Right across the street from my church is St. Joan of Arc. The squares are, well, squares, but the tails, the baked (lemon pepper, yum!) and the shrimp are always a cut above. Slaw here is vinegar & oil, a welcome change to the creamy standard fare. For the die hard St. Louis bar fan, you can grab up some cheese toasted ravioli or fried mozzarella sticks with meatless marinara dipping sauce. What really makes the day here is the Irish potatoes. New red potatoes, not over-boiled, tossed with butter and parsley and just a tiny bit of salt. Fresh baked bread was there the Friday I stopped by, too. Simple perfection. Desserts here are extra, but hey, it's for a good cause, so fork it over and fix that sweet tooth with some extra chocolaty brownies.

Last but not least, is St. James The Greater serving both "The Hill" and "Dogtown" neighborhoods. While the parish's roots tend more toward the Irish side, the sides say "Italy". Squares, tails and baked are there, the fried shrimp have a bit of garlic in the breading, but don't miss the pasta sides. The white sauce is creamy, full of garlic and comfort food at its best. The red sauce is a chunky marinara, plenty of garlic and spices with just the proper hint of sweetness to balance it out. Get there early for the surprise treat, home made clam chowder. Big, juicy clams, potatoes and aromatics suspended in a light, creamy base, fully flavored by the clam liquor and a host of secret spices. You have to pay extra, but it is worth it. I'd like to buy a vat of it, myself. Dessert is also included here, and there were some really different choices, like a pumpkin mousse pie with a gooey butter cake top, sprinkled with pecans. Amazing. I'm very tempted to make a repeat trip on Good Friday. The ladies made sure to remind me that they would be open.

If none of these are in your part of the greater St. Louis area, but you still want to give it a go on Good Friday, hit the "Fish Fry Finder" page that KTVI Fox2 has up. There are churches, VFW's, American Legions and many other clubs and organizations getting in on the Fish Fry Frenzy. Many even happen when Lent is nowhere to be found. Help your neighbors, fill your tummy and have some fun. See you out there.