We writers often lead a secluded, sequestered life. It is said many of us are introverts. We prefer it that way. Combine this with a WFH schedule, and I often find myself unprepared for April Fool's Day hijinx. I forget all about it date-wise, and therefore am easy prey for Internet scams, like the one promising the Firefly series would be revived on Netflix; or the one touting an X-Files TV series comeback (if you consider that fiasco a comeback, the joke's on you).
I never think of April Fools that I don't wring my hands over whether or not to include an apostrophe. And also over the family lore of the time my dad thought it would be hilarious to break up with my mom in high school and let her think it was for real until almost the end of the day. Pretty sure when he bopped up to her locker that afternoon and said, "April Fool!", he's lucky he made it home with all his teeth. Strangely, Dad is now known for his sense of humor and comic timing. I guess he was still learning the ropes back then.
I like a good laugh as well as anyone. Much of the April Fool's horseplay has always struck me as dominated by the adolescent male bathroom humor types. They're either too silly, too gross, or do a poor job of disguising their latent cruelty. I know that makes me sound like a sourpuss. But I can appreciate an April Fools prank if it's done well.
I fondly recall the time, 30-odd years ago now, that I was roped in by one of the greatest April Fool's pranks of all time: the Sports Illustrated story by George Plimpton that ran in 1985 about a phenom baseball pitcher. I devoured the entire article, mouth agape, which got very messy as I was simultaneously salivating over the thought of watching this kid play in the upcoming season. It never occurred to me that it was a hoax until I heard a few days later. And it was such a gloriously prepared prank, I wasn't even mad about it. I spent no small amount of time turning it over in my mind like a piece of journalistic pyrite, marveling over how they pulled it off. That's the kind of prank I like - something so original and well thought out and perfectly executed, so very Sting-like (the movie, not the singer) that you can't feel too badly about being hornswoggled. They set the bar pretty high. Somehow, Vaseline on the doorknob and plastic wrap over the toilet seat pale in comparison.
It's been a while since anyone Fooled me on April 1. No fake break-ups with the ensuing lawsuits and dental bills. No tiresome Whoopie cushions or rubber snakes. I keep waiting for another great fake article from those devilish tricksters at Sports Illustrated. I understand why they can't run one every year. But I haven't read this week's SI yet. There's still hope.
This post originally appeared as part of the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.
I always felt a little bit of a sham celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Like a true Heinz 57 American, I assumed I had some Irish blood in me somewhere; I just didn't figure it would be more than a drop or two. We did the DNA test thing last year, and I was pleasantly surprised. I can't compete with my husband's 56% results, but 6% for me is about 5% more than I would've guessed. (How wrong I was about other aspects of my own DNA ancestry is fodder for another post.) I should've guessed I had a little Irish in me based on how much I enjoy drinking beer.
Beer is a pretty big deal in Ireland. This is not news. What was news to me, however, were the following little factoids I distilled from some Googling;
Beer has been brewed in Ireland for 5000 years or more. Hops doesn't grow well there, so early beers were barley-based ales. They were brewed locally by women known as alewives. Brewing was traditionally a female profession from ancient history until the Middle Ages.
Half the alcohol produced in Ireland is beer. This may be news for the whisky fans.
Stout used to be the leader but was overtaken by lager in the 1900s. Stout initially meant higher alcohol content. In the Irish stout world, Guinness is king, In 1756 Arthur Guinness secured a 9000 year lease on the brewery location at St. James Gate in Dublin. It is the largest brewer of stout in the world. It began brewing Irish dry stout, using roasted barley, to avoid paying the additional tax levied on malted barley.
Porter is a dark colored beer resulting from roasting the malts, barley, and other ingredients. Guinness stopped making ale in 1799 to devote its attention to porter.
I'm not a fan of dark or heavy beers. My favorite Irish beer is Harp. Harp is a lager style, which means it is lighter in color. Lagers are cold processed which means the beer ferments at a lower temperature. Guinness developed the Harp brand in the 1960s.
Irish red ales Such as Killian's Irish Red get their reddish color from the caramel in the recipe. Ironically, Killian's is no longer available in Ireland. Coors bought the rights to the name in the 1980s.
And last but not least (did I bury the lede?):
Until the 1970s, pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick's Day. Excessive revelry during Lent was frowned upon in the heavily Catholic country.
It's hard imagining a dry St. Patty's Day in Ireland! We often throw a party at our house, but this year we're headed downtown to celebrate with a bigger crowd. I'm hoping it's dry, but only meteorologically speaking. Drink responsibly!
As Lent is upon us, I have been interested to learn what people are giving up in this season of abstinence. It is no surprise to me that the item most often abandoned is some sort of food. There are a few iconoclasts who do without tobacco, or alcohol, or shopping. I never got beyond the idea of renouncing something edible (I gave up chocolate). To many of us, foregoing food is the ultimate sacrifice. There is only one person to blame for my epicureal preoccupation: my mother.
Mom is the last of her line in a fine tradition of southern cooks. She grew up in a large family. Her own mother, my grandmother Winona, had to satisfy nine healthy appetites for the better part of two decades. Winona had no microwave or dishwasher as helping hands in the kitchen. It is no wonder, then, that as the oldest of six children, my mother soon found herself the number one kitchen assistant, and thus learned to cook at the apron strings of the master.
It is difficult to recreate the multi-dimensional majesty of my mother’s cooking
via the printed word. Thanks to Mom, if I ever find myself on death row and they ask me what I want for my last meal, I am ready with an answer: my mother’s chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, green beans, and her homemade yeast rolls. Her home-brewed iced tea is the perfect accompaniment. As is the case with most meals, the meat is clearly the star.
Chicken-fried steak is a southern specialty, often confusing the uninitiated. Is it steak? Is it chicken? Deep-fried or pan fried? Some are surprised to learn it is only the humble cube steak, pounded into tender submission before being dunked in milk to allow the flour coating to stick. Then the palm-sized portions hit the hot grease of my mother’s black cast iron skillet with the initial hissssss to rival any McDonald’s French fry operation. Once they have turned a toasty brown and filled the house with the intoxicating aroma of fried meat (my apologies to vegetarians), they are ready to eat. When that first batch hit the paper towel-lined serving dish to make room in the skillet for the next, my father could always be found skulking about in the kitchen, stalking stray nibbles of steak that had become separated from the Pangaea of the bigger portions. Done properly, as my mother always did, chicken-fried steak requires nothing sharper than the side of your fork to divide it into bite-size pieces.
The side dishes pale in comparison to this pan-fried glory. They are there for the sake of upholding tradition; and in the case of the potatoes, upholding my mother’s cream gravy.
Never in all my classroom hours of chemistry or math did I ever approach the level of timing, precise measurement, and pure artistry required to duplicate Mom’s cream gravy. Making gravy from scratch is my culinary Holy Grail. I have tried and failed more times than the Jamaican bobsled team. There are just too many things that can go wrong. The grease must be of the correct temperature (hot) and quantity (equal to the flour). The flour must be stirred into the hot grease vigorously, so that the dreaded lumps cannot form. Then, and only then, the correct quantity of milk is added. If you do not own the little pink crockery bowl my mother uses for the milk, you will never be able to get the milk quantity right. I do not own one of these bowls, as they have not been made since 1960.
This is why, when Lent rolls around each year, giving up some sort of food is the worst suffering I can imagine. When I am feeling contemplative, I wonder how something so harmless as a good meal in good company should be something I should try to control; avoid, even. Then I look at my last cholesterol test results. I suppose setting aside one of my favorite edibles is the least I can do for Lent this year. If I had any guts, I would have given up chicken-fried steak.