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Travel: Wisconsin’s Cranberry Harvest is a Sign of the Season

    They are one of the first signs of the holiday season: bright red cranberries in a sauce or compote on the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes they’re part of the centerpiece or decorations and they’re there all the way through Christmas. 

 

    It used to be that when the holidays were over, the cranberries were gone. But that was then. In the last decade cranberries have moved out of the holiday-only aisle and into the year-round pantries of most Americans. Now they’re baked into cookies and scones, sprinkled on salads and eaten as a quick, healthy, snack.

 

    Most of us grew up with a kind of Norman Rockwell-inspired image of New England as the only place cranberries grow but that isn’t true. Wisconsin has been growing and harvesting the berries for 140 years and since the mid-1970s has produced more cranberries than any other state. Today, more than half the cranberries grown and consumed around the world come from Wisconsin, with Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington trailing.

 

    In the last few years a new industry has grown up around the Wisconsin cranberry harvest: Agritourism. Now you can tour the marshes and get a glimpse of the unique processes involved in growing and harvesting one of the three fruits that are unique to North America (the others two are blueberries and concord grapes.) 

 

 

    I was curious and joined a tour at two Wisconsin cranberry farms: Glacial Lake Cranberries and Elm Lake Cranberry Company.

 

    At Glacial Lake Cranberries we boarded a bus and drove along the narrow pathways between flooded marshes. The iconic image of cranberry fields is a flooded bog filled with floating berries, but they don’t grow that way and the low-growing vines are perfectly acclimated to the sandy soil acidic soil left behind Wisconsin’s ancient glacial lakes. From June through late September they form and ripen. Then, during harvest the marshes are flooded and red-ripe cranberries are scooped off the vines by special tractors (this used to be back-breaking work done by hand) and, thanks to the four small hollow chambers in each berry, float to the top of the water. 

 

   Like any kind of farming, growing cranberries is hard work, subject to the whims of nature and the ups and downs of volatile markets. It’s easy to forget the hard work behind the berry when in the fall the cranberries ripen and the beds are flooded to create a temporary marsh. 

 

    At Elm Lake Cranberry Company, the rich crimson color of the berries, contrasted against the vivid blue of the sky and the brilliant gold larch trees reflected in the water, was as pretty as a postcard.

 

    With slow, graceful, movements, harvesters dressed in hip-high waders walk the circle of berries corralled by a yellow plastic boom and I watched as a man stretched out his arms, extending the wooden rake in his hands to gather and pull toward him the bright red cranberries while a vacuum swept them up onto a conveyor belt and into the deep bed of a waiting truck.

 

    I know it’s intense and a lot is riding on getting the berries to market without bruising them, but he made it seem like water ballet.

 

    Most of the berries are taken to a nearby processing plant where they will be frozen before being processed into juice, sauce or dried sweetened berries. Only a very small percentage of Wisconsin’s cranberries are packaged fresh for holiday sales.

 

    Like every other behind-the-scenes look I’ve gotten into the heart and soul of any kind of farming—usually thanks to the agritourism movement— I came away with a deeper appreciation for the small red berry that has always been such a big part of my holiday table. And now, in ever increasing ways, a part of my everyday diet.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

 

Travel: Starting the New Year with Edible Souvenirs

We were fortunate again this year, the whole family was together for Christmas. We gathered, exchanged gifts, caught up on one another’s lives and enjoyed one another’s company. And we ate. We ate a lot.

When we weren’t sitting down to our traditional Christmas dinner, we were snacking on things I’d gathered on my travels and brought home to share with my family. That’s come to be one of my travel traditions and now wherever I go I spend time looking for goodies to bring home with me.

This year, while playing board games or working on a jigsaw puzzle we opened a can of Virginia peanuts that traveled back from Roanoke tucked into a corner of my suitcase.

We made pots of good Door County Coffee & Tea Company coffee and nibbled peanut brittle from Silver Dollar City in Branson Missouri.

I passed around a can of delicate and delicious Clear River pecan pralines I bought in Fredericksburg, Texas and hand-carried home. And we cracked pecans I gathered from where they’d fallen from the trees around the same city.

I spread tart cherry jam from, also from Door County, Wisconsin, on our toast at breakfast. In the afternoon I sliced a block of Wisconsin's Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese to go with the bottle of crisp white wine I brought back from Rhine River valley in Germany.

One night I made a big pot of chili and seasoned it with heritage chili pepper powder I bought at the Chili Pepper Institute in Los Cruces, New Mexico. I made a batch of brownies with brownie mix spiced with the same chilis.

We warmed up with mugs of hot buttered rum, savoring the bottle of Koloa rum I picked up in Kauai and saved especially for this holiday season.

This is the time of my life when I can travel freely and I don’t take it for granted because I know that could change at any time. My children are mostly grown and my work takes me around the world. I can’t always take them with me, but I can bring the world back to the ones I love and share it with them one delicious bite at a time.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Barrel-aged gifts galore

If you haven't already wrapped up your gift giving for the season, here's a great last-minute idea.

Dry Fly Distillery recently began releasing some more specialty offerings in the new Dry Fly Creel Collection. Among the goodies are a barrel-reserve gin (that was bottled for the first time today), a port-finished wheat whiskey and a triticale whiskey.

The gin is a blend of Dry Fly gin that was barrel aged in the distillery's used wheat whiskey barrels. It gives the gin nice vanilla notes and lovely smoothness. The 375-milliliter bottles sell for $24.95.

The Port Barrel Finished Wheat Whiskey is the Dry Fly signature wheat whiskey that has been aged in Townshend Winery's barrels that have been used for huckleberry port.

Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye grains. The Dry Fly team tasted seven different kinds of triticale before they settled on the grain they are using in the Straight Triticale Whiskey.

These early offerings won't be around long, so if you have a few minutes this weekend stop in to the Dry Fly headquarters: 1003 E. Trent Ave., No. 200. Call (509) 489-2112.

Travel: The Beauty of Christmas in Germany

(Photo by R. B. Millsap)

 

   One night, on my first trip to Germany during the month of December, hungry and still a little jetlagged from the flight, I walked into a tiny restaurant in a residential district near the center of Munich. I opened the door and then, dazzled by what I saw, stopped to take it all in.  
    

   A forest of dozens of small, elaborately decorated Christmas trees were hanging upside down from the ceiling of the room. I’d never seen anything like it before. Beautifully-wrapped packages of all sizes were stacked on windowsills, strung like ornaments on garlands of ribbon and greenery, and piled into corners. Evergreen boughs, woven with tiny white lights that glowed in the fresh snowfall outdoors and were reflected in the mirror over the bar, trimmed every door and window. 
    

   The intimate neighborhood eatery was filled with locals enjoying a big plate of schnitzel or wurst and crowded with friends who’d stopped by for an after-work drink. I felt as though I’d walked into a scene from an ornate Victorian picture-book, but I quickly realized the over-the-top decor was no show for tourists. It was just a perfectly fine example of the way Germany dresses up for the holiday season.
   

    Anyone who has ever spent time at one of Germany’s Advent or  Christkindlmarkts can relate. It’s the same kind of over-the-top feeling. Strolling down the rows of wood huts, most strung with white lights and wrapped in garland and decorations, it’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
   

    Most markets are held in the traditional market square or city center. Surrounded by beautiful architecture, the air is filled with the sweet and spicy scents of sausages, pastries, potato pancakes and warm candied almonds and other nuts. Shoppers crowd around booths buying gifts of handmade wood toys, knitted items, ornamental gingerbread and hand-carved wood figures for the family creche. And the Glühwein stands are the most popular by far, with friends gathering to enjoy a mug of the hot, spiced and fortified wine that is so much a part of Germany’s holiday season.
   

    Each market has a distinctive feel. The walled city of Nuremberg is famous for its red and white striped market canopies. The Munich “manger” market is where families come each year to select hand-carved pieces for the creche displayed every Christmas season. And the sprawling, busy, Frankfurt market stretches from the old city center to the river, highlighting both the history and contemporary culture of the vibrant city. The beautiful market in Cologne is consistantly voted one of the most popular.
    

   If you have the time and want to explore Germany at a more leisurely pace, consider booking a Rhine River cruise.  With frequent stops at villages between Frankfurt, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, a December river cruise down the Rhine River gives you a trouble-free way to enjoy the scenery as you cruise past ancient castles, beautiful and productive vineyards, old fortifications and picturesque villages. Each day brings a new opportunity to explore holiday markets in towns along the river, each with its own flavor and vibe, without the crush of peak-season tourists. Small-ship cruising combines the best of cruising—fine dining, comfortable staterooms and leisurely travel—but most river cruise ships carry fewer than 200 passengers so one never feels lost in the crowd.
    

   No place is as beautiful as Germany this time of year. Every year when I hang the wreaths and decorate the tree I think back to that small but beautifully and exhuberantly decorated restaurant on a quiet street in a very busy city. And I'm always inspired to do just a bit more.

    

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
       

    
  

Holiday gifts from the kitchen

If you need me this weekend, I’ll be in the kitchen making my holiday cookies and gifts.

There’s still time to join me and whip together some treats for others before the season slips away. I'm fussing over ideas for the Meyer lemons I found this weekend at Costco. I was thinking of lemon curd, but I'm cranky about the recipes I've found because they call for bottled lemon juice to ensure they are canned safely. I may end up with a freezer curd instead. I'll report back on what I make.

Here are some of the recipes I’ve made in the past that were well received:

Orange-Cardamom Marmalade

From “Gifts Cooks Love,” by Diane Morgan (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2010)

2 1/2 pounds (6 to 8 medium) oranges (such as Valencia or Cara Cara)

3/4 pound (2 large) lemons

6 cups cold water

20 green cardamom pods, crushed

8 cups granulated sugar

Prepare the fruit 12 to 24 hours before you plan to cook and preserve the marmalade. Wash and pat dry all the fruit. Trim and discard the stem ends. Cut the oranges and lemons into quarters and poke out all the seeds with the tip of a paring knife. Reserve the seeds in a small covered container. Using a sharp chef’s knife or mandoline, cut all the citrus, including the rinds, into 1/16-inch-thick slices. Put the sliced fruit in a large pot, including any juices left on the cutting board. Add the 6 cups of water. Gently press down on the fruit to make sure it is submerged. Cover the pot and set aside at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. (This softens the rinds and releases the pectin.)

The next day, bring the pot of sliced fruit and water to a boil over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat so the mixture boils steadily without splattering, and cook for 30 minutes. Wrap the crushed cardamom pods and the reserved lemon and orange seeds in a cheesecloth bag tied securely with kitchen twine.

While the fruit is cooking, prepare the preserving jars and bring water to a boil in a water bath canner. Sterilize the jars and lids.

Add the sugar to the fruit mixture and stir until dissolved. Add the cheesecloth bag of cardamom and seeds. Continue to cook the marmalade at a steady boil until it reaches the gel stage (see note) or reaches 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer, 30 to 40 minutes longer.

Remove the cheesecloth bag from the marmalade, pressing any liquids back into the pan.

Remove the marmalade from the heat. Using a wide-mouth funnel and filling one jar at a time, ladle the marmalade into hot, sterilized jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Remove any air bubbles by running a long wooden utensil, such as a chopstick or wooden skewer, between the jar and the marmalade. Wipe the rims clean. Seal according to the manufacturer’s directions. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, and then turn off the heat. Wait 5 minutes, and then lift the canning rack and, using a canning jar lifter, transfer the jars to a towel-lined, sturdy rimmed baking sheet and let them rest. Check the seals, wipe the jars, and label.

Note: Here’s an easy way to check whether the marmalade is set. Put a small plate in the freezer. When the marmalade looks thickish and a bit gelled, put a small amount of the marmalade on the frozen plate and return it to the freezer. After a couple of minutes, run your finger or a spoon down the center and see if it stays separated and is a bit wrinkled. If so, it is done.

Storing: Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Yield: 11 half-pint jars

Nutella Biscotti with Hazelnuts and Chocolate

From “The Art and Soul of Baking,” by Cindy Mushet (Andrews McMeel, 2008). These crisp, twice-baked Italian favorites are perfect for dunking in coffee, tea or hot chocolate. They’ll keep in an airtight container for two months.

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup (4 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar

1/2 cup Nutella, room temperature

3 large eggs, room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 3/4 cups (13 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) chopped skinned toasted hazelnuts (see note)

5 ounces good quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, cut into 1/4 inch chunks, or 1 cup (6 1/2 ounces) mini chocolate chips

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) superfine sugar, optional (see note)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and position oven rack in the center.

For the dough: Place the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed until smooth and slightly lightened in color, 2 to 3 minutes. You also can use a hand mixer in a medium bowl, although you may need to beat the mixture a little longer to achieve the same results.

Add Nutella and blend well. Scrape down the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well (15 to 20 seconds) and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Stir in vanilla extract.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the butter mixture all at once. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed and blend slowly, just until there are no more patches of flour. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the bowl.

Add the hazelnuts and chocolate chips and mix on low, just until blended. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir gently a few times with the spatula to make sure the nuts and chips are evenly distributed and there are no patches of unincorporated flour or butter lurking near the bottom of the bowl.

To shape and bake the dough: Divide the dough in half. On a work surface lightly dusted with flour, gently squeeze and roll each piece to shape into logs about 13 inches long. Line one baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the logs on the sheet about 4 inches apart. Press down the logs, flattening them slightly until they are each about 2 inches across the top. Place a second baking sheet under the first (to prevent the bottoms of the logs from browning too quickly).

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the logs are firm to the touch and lightly golden brown. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let the logs cool completely. (If you attempt to slice them while warm, the chocolate will smear and the cookies will look messy.)

Cut the logs and bake them a second time. Turn the oven down to 275 degrees and position two racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Carefully transfer the cookie logs to a cutting surface. Use a serrated knife to slice the logs on a slight diagonal into cookies 3/8-inch thick.

Line the second baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the cookies, cut side down, on the parchment-lined sheets. (You’ll need both sheets to hold all the cookies).

Toast the cookies in the oven, switching the sheets between the rack and rotating each front to back halfway through, for 30 to 40 minutes, until dry and lightly tinged with color. Transfer to a cooling rack.

While the cookies are toasting, prepare the finishing sugar if you like. Whisk together the superfine sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. As soon as the cookies are out of the oven and off the rack, immediately roll them in the cinnamon sugar and return to the baking sheet to cool completely.

The cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 months. If the cookies soften during storage, re-crisp them in a 300-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool and return to storage container.

Notes: To toast and skin hazelnuts, place the hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 10 to 14 minutes. The skins will begin to split and come away from the nuts. Transfer the hot nuts to a clean kitchen towel and wrap them lightly inside it so the steam will help loosen the skins. After 3 to 4 minutes, rub hazelnuts vigorously inside the towel to remove as much of the skins as possible. Depending on the variety, you may be able to remove some of the skin, but sometimes very little rubs off. Don’t worry, the remaining skin will add flavor and color to your baking.

Superfine sugar is sometimes labeled “baker’s sugar.” To make your own, whirl granulated sugar in the food processor for about 60 seconds. You can substitute superfine sugar for granulated sugar on a 1 to 1 ratio one to one.

Yield: About 45 biscotti

Cranberry Turtle Bars

From “The Gourmet Cookie Book,” from the editors of Gourmet magazine. The recipe is also available at www.epicurious.com, along with dozens of other cookie and treat recipes. I chopped the cranberries when I made this recipe, but some reviewers suggested keeping the cranberries whole. I’m going to try that when I make these again.

For the base:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

For the topping:

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (not thawed; 6 3/4 oz), coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups pecans (12 ounces), toasted and cooled, then coarsely chopped

For the decoration:

2 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), very finely chopped

Special equipment: a candy thermometer

To make the base: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Line a 15- by 10-inch shallow baking pan (1 inch deep) with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the 2 short sides. Butter all 4 sides (but not bottom).

Blend flour, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor, then add butter and pulse until mixture begins to form small (roughly pea-size) lumps. Sprinkle into baking pan, then press down firmly all over with a metal spatula to form an even layer. Bake in middle of oven until golden and firm to the touch, 15 to 17 minutes, then cool in pan on a rack.

To make the topping: Melt butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Boil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until caramel registers 245 degrees F on thermometer, about 8 minutes. Carefully stir in cranberries, then boil until caramel returns to 245 degrees F. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, then stir in pecans until well coated. Working quickly, spread caramel topping over base, using a fork to distribute nuts and berries evenly. Cool completely.

Cut and decorate bars: Lift bars in foil from pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 6 crosswise strips, then 6 lengthwise strips to form 36 bars.

Melt half of chocolate in top of a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and add remaining chocolate, stirring until smooth. Transfer chocolate to a small heavy-duty sealable plastic bag. Seal bag and snip off a tiny piece of one corner to form a small hole, then pipe chocolate decoratively over bars. Let stand at room temperature until chocolate sets, about 1 hour.

Note: Bars keep in an airtight container (use wax paper between layers) 1 week.

Yield: 36 bars

Shopping: It’s beginning to look…

Over the weekend, there was a big change in display windows in Spokane's downtown Carnegie Square and West End Shopping District. Several stores, including Two Women Vintage Goods and the just-opened Amby Designs, decorated their big front windows in traditional and vintage holiday style.

From all accounts, the first annual Shop Hop was a success, and individual stores are planning open houses and holiday hours. So, enjoy a big plate of turkey and fixings on Thursday because it's already beginning to look a lot like Christmas around town.

Joy on Christmas Morning


    I hope that when you opened your eyes this morning—no, even before you opened them, even earlier than that—I hope that when you first found yourself swimming into morning light and out of whatever dreams you’d been having, somewhere in your mind there rang out the words Christmas Morning!  And for a moment or two you were a child again, thrilled by mystery, consumed by possibility.

    As an adult, I know that doesn’t always happen.

    It’s so easy to lose the holiday spirit when all you can think about is the fact that you’re the one who is responsible for making the magic. That you’re the one who shops and wraps and cooks and cleans and plans and then makes new plans when the old plans fall through. It’s easy to lose the joy and let any happiness you might find in a song on the radio or a kiss under the Mistletoe slip through your fingers when you are already looking ahead to Visa bills and taking down the tree and packing away the decorations and standing in line to return gifts.

    This time of year, the darkest part of the year, is laden—some might say booby-trapped—with reminders. There is the dragging weight of all the invisible holiday baggage each of us carries. Nothing is safe. Food, music, celebrations and even movies and books come wrapped in memory and association. Some pleasant, some not so pleasant. And, to add to the fun, for those with young children, there is the suffocating parental pressure of creating the mythical perfect holiday; the self-imposed quest of taking on the impossible task of sending our children into the world without the legacy, the thousand little failures, of an imperfect parent. Good luck with that.

    So much of the stuff of life is out of our hands. Forget holidays, on any day the big things, war, weather, economic turmoil, toxic bosses, family issues, bad fortune and lousy luck, are beyond our control. But the one thing we can choose is how we will face each day in world that perplexes and frequently exhausts us.  Even the weariest among us can, if we so choose, celebrate the gifts of sleepy eyes that open on a dark December morning and a childlike heart that unfolds to let the spirit in, and with it the mystery and the possibility of another Christmas Day.


  

Dark December

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)


    We sat quietly in the car as I drove across town, the road-grimed headlights piercing the twilight ahead of us. I didn’t even think to turn on the radio. It was only 4 o’clock but it felt much later. I had a sense of being displaced; even the familiar route looked strange and suddenly unfamiliar in the indigo light of the late afternoon. For a moment I felt as though I’d lost my way, before the eerie feeling faded and I was back on track.
    
    The effect of the early darkness and the warmth of the car after the sharp and biting wind outside, silenced us and we kept our thoughts to ourselves as I steered over slushy streets. The sky, pregnant and heavy with the wet snow that would fall later in the evening, hung over us as dull and gray as lead.

    December, especially in this northwestern corner of the country, is the darkest time of the year. The sun can hide for days, giving at best only a weak and watery light, rising late and setting early. Little surprise then that decorations go up early and stay up long after the holiday. We are starved for the light.

    Still thinking about this, I am struck by the feeling of comfort that washes over me as I turn into my driveway. Light shines warmly through the front windows and I know that once I am inside I will be surrounded by the familiar smells and sounds of home: Dinner in the oven. Music. The sound of boots being kicked off and footsteps on the stairs. The bother of the cat and dogs under my feet, hoping for treats in the shopping bags I am carrying.
    

   So many aspects of the holiday season are centered around images of home. Candles in the windows. Lights on the tree. The Welcome mat. A wreath on the door.  A fire in the fireplace. A glass of cheer once you’re in the door. A shared meal. An embrace. Winter isolates us, changes even the most familiar landscape, blanketing us with snow and silence and darkness. No wonder we sing and celebrate and gather. No wonder we act on an ancient impulse to dress up and dance and make noise to keep the wolves of winter at bay.
   

    We may have evolved, but somewhere deep inside each of us beats the heart of a cave-dweller who wants nothing more than safe shelter and the comforting light of the fire.
    

   We are still lost in the dark until we’re home.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

There Are None So Blind

This is a repost of one of my favorite columns. I recorded it for Spokane Public Radio several years ago and it is available on Public Radio Exchange. This year, the audio essay was broadcast by Delta College Public Radio in Michigan.

 


November 22, 2004

Giving her thanks for a gift of insight
Cheryl–Anne Millsap
Correspondent




   When I was a girl, an old blind woman lived in the faded white house with peeling clapboards and a shaded, vine–covered porch, next door to me. Mrs. Miller was small and wiry, and very old. Her thin white hair was always pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
   

   She lived with a little Chihuahua named Rocky – a strange and exotic pet at the time. The dog was ancient, barely able to walk on his thin matchstick legs and he, too, was almost blind.

   Sometimes, Mrs. Miller’s son, John, lived with them. John was a loud and angry man who worked nights – when he worked – and either slept or watched game shows on the television all day. John drank. And when he was drunk, he wasn’t very nice to his mother.

   I was afraid of that house and everyone in it. To me, the old woman was a person of shadows, living a dark and shuttered life. John, whose angry voice I could hear through the closed windows, frightened me and I was wary of the odd little dog.

   Occasionally, when John wasn’t home, my grandmother would send me over with a baked sweet potato, a couple of ripe tomatoes or a slice of homemade pie. I would knock on the back door and listen to her shuffling through rooms, calling out to me in a thin, rough, voice. Rocky would totter across the linoleum floor, coughing out a dry, raspy, bark.

   As quickly as I could, I would leave the food on the kitchen table – the sticky oilcloth–covered surface crowded with salt and peppershakers, paper napkins and bottles of hot sauce and pickled peppers – and run back out into the sunlight.

   One Thanksgiving Day, my grandmother asked me to take a meal next door. I drooped, but I knew better than to argue.

   I carried the plate, piled with turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and ruby–red spiced apple rings across my back yard. I walked up the bank and past the little grove of plum trees to her back door, and knocked.

   “Mrs. Miller,” I called. “I brought you some Thanksgiving dinner.”

   I listened to her slow, painful, progress through the cluttered rooms. I imagined her reaching out for familiar doorways, feeling the edges of the furniture with bent and arthritic fingers. When she finally opened the back door, I thrust the plate at her, anxious to deliver it and leave.

   But she didn’t take it. Instead, she put her face down to the steaming plate of food and inhaled deeply, breathing in the warm fragrance.

   “Oh, Lord,” the old woman said. “That’s good.”

  And she didn’t move. She just stood there, lost in thought. Finally, as soon as she stepped aside, I set the plate down on the table and ran home.

   Just today, when I thought about what we will have for our Thanksgiving dinner, and my mind remembered, and replayed for me the taste of roast turkey and cornbread dressing, I recalled that day so long ago.

   Thinking about it now, I understand that at that moment the old woman and I traded places.

   I was blind to everything but my desire to run away, but for an instant Mrs. Miller could see. Through clouded eyes, she looked back at other Thanksgivings, long gone. Happy days before she was old and blind, and trapped in a dark house with an angry son.

   In the years since that November day, when the trace of a scent or the sound of a voice leaves me gazing at ghosts, I’ve learned that time gives back as much as it takes away.

   And for that, like the old woman, I’m grateful.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Thanksgiving recipe: Mixing past with present

For many of us, each holiday season is a time to count our blessings.

I am blessed to I have a husband and two kids who let me cook for them. I am also blessed that my mom is a great cook to whom I owe many of my pantry skills.

Thanksgiving in our house when I was growing up always included the usual suspects: turkey, stuffing, gravy, spuds, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. These items were canonical in the meal.

The turkey, roasted in a stand-alone roaster, always came out juicy and perfectly cooked.

My mom's gravy was and still is top-notch. In our extended family, it is the gravy by which all other gravys should be judged. I have never been able to duplicate it, even though I have watched her make it more times than I can count.

I have copious notes from her about how to make stuffing. Over-toasting the bread isn't a bad thing. Check your seasonings. Too much sage, bad.

Not enough salt, bad. Bake it long enough to let it get nice and crusty on the outside.

My evolution as a cook includes carrying forward the tried and true bits of wisdom from my mom, straying from tradition by trying variations of recipes and dishes that sound delicious in their own way.

This year that means:

Poll: Columbus Day Off? Bah, Humbug!