Art vs. science in the kitchen

To me, “recipe” means “suggestion.” If I run across a recipe somewhere that looks interesting, I will follow it — at least to a great extent — the first time I try it. If I decide to repeat it, I refer less and less to it each time. Soon enough, I begin making something of my own based on that original formula. At least as often, I look at recipes to get an idea of what ingredients go well together.

I think of my personal “recipes” as “the way I cook things.” That can vary a little from meal to meal. Besides those based on “suggestions” or observation, others have come about by my trying to recreate something similar to a dish I’ve had in a restaurant.

When I began cooking — and I cannot pinpoint a date — I relied on what I had observed others doing. Early on, I built meals around a pork chop or hamburger in the frying pan or chuck steak under the broiler. Primary seasonings were salt and pepper, plus Worcestershire sauce for pork chops. I generally followed the meat-vegetable-starch menu (usually potatoes for beef, rice for pork).

Later, when my mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure, I replaced salt with a salt substitute I make from scratch — based on a “suggestion” I read in a newsletter. I found that Worcestershire sauce works on a lot more than pork chops. I learned about more and more spices and incorporated them into appropriate dishes.

Early on, I added meat loaf to my repertoire and it’s still a regular. Key ingredients are finely chopped green pepper and garlic, as well as ample tomato sauce.

Spaghetti sauce is something else I began developing a long time ago. Use ample Italian spices, preferably fresh, and cook — in an iron skillet — slowly for a couple of hours.

I’ve always really enjoyed fried chicken. As a young adult I started trying to prepare it and got pretty good at it. Later in life, to try to be a little healthier, I developed an alternative to frying. Now I brown the flour-coated pieces in the frying pan, then bake them. Over a bed of rice— even better. Best yet, add a sauce using the broth you can make by putting a little water in the frying pan, scraping and stirring.

I still, however, occasionally can’t resist the Friday fried chicken special at my local supermarket.

Over time I added roasts and whole birds, baked in the oven. You can bake other things along with them — definitely potatoes, onions and mushrooms and with pork, apples, sweet potatoes and celery. I’ve also thrown in squash, green peppers and even green beans. Baking fresh garlic cloves is always a delicious possibility.

I usually make (and enjoy) dressing with baked fowl. I don’t, however, stuff larger birds. I bake dressing inside Cornish hens, but alongside chickens and turkeys.

Since the early days, I’ve upgraded and expanded my choice of steaks. I’ve learned to make rubs from scratch by observation, including reading the ingredients on containers of prepared rubs, and relying on what I’ve learned about various spices. I concoct marinades based on what I know about which flavors go with what.

I’ve also tried my hand at fish. I often order fish in a restaurant, because it’s likely to be better than anything I can prepare. I look for what’s fresh and local. You can’t go wrong with the fish of the day at the beach. Or mountain trout in Asheville. A waiter there once told me that “trout is a battleground here.” Every restaurant tries to be the best at it.

I do a passable job on a few fish dishes. Two of mine I like best are sword fish steak (butter and rosemary are key) and a tilapia with a sauce made in the frying pan after the coated fillets are browned. I sauté onions, add lime juice and wine, then stir in butter. Yes, both of these are based on “suggestions” I saw somewhere. I also enjoy my catfish roasted with Cajun spices.

Dining in some fine restaurants helped me appreciate the value of sauces. In early years, I had used Campbell’s cream-of soups for easy sauces, but when I got more serious, I looked at basic sauce “suggestions” online and adapted. An appropriate sauce adds flavor and enjoyment to a lot of dishes and meals.

Another evolution for me has been moving from frozen to fresh vegetables. I began years ago regularly to use what’s in season at the farmers’ market. For those not in season, I grew less satisfied with frozen vegetables. Fresh produce in the grocery store is generally not as good as fresh from the farmers market, but almost always better than frozen. I’ve veered somewhat from meat-vegetable-starch but still aim for balance, as well as appeal.

So, for the how-to portion of this essay, if you have a cut or filet you want to prepare or some dish you want to try, do an on-line search. You’ll find many recipes. Choose one that looks doable for you and adapt. You can vary ingredients and amounts of ingredients to your own preferences. Or draw on ideas from two or more recipes to create your own dish. Garlic powder, oregano and minuscule doses of cumin can enhance almost anything.

While baking is a science, cooking is an art.

Several years ago, I was at fund-raising dinner for the North Carolina Symphony at A Southern Season, a wonderful gourmet store in Chapel Hill’s past. I was seated next to Michael Barefoot, who founded and at that time still owned A Southern Season. He asked me how I cook.

“I try to make dishes that taste, look and smell great and are healthy,” I said.

He replied, “You are our best kind of customer.”

Scary stories

Fairy tales never scared me. It was fantasy — entertaining stories that couldn’t happen in real life. Plus, they had happy endings. Similar were movies about “monsters” — Frankenstein’s Creature, Dracula, etc. — and invaders from other planets. They were unreal enough to be fun to watch. Some of them were not great cinema, which could make them even more fun to watch, especially with others.

When I was a young adult, watching such movies with friends, one pointed out that in pretty much all these movies, the grown-ups, including police and military, make a mess of things and the young people save the day. I realized he was right. Another reason to enjoy them.

But the more reality in a scary story, the more it scared me. Prime examples were the TV shows “The Twilight Zone” (1959-64) and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-62). In these stories, ordinary people, believable and relatable, would be drawn into extraordinary situations. I tried to watch these shows some but almost always regretted doing so. After I dropped them from my own viewing choices, I still sometimes saw them because one or more others were watching them on the TV that dominated the living area of the house.

Telling “ghost stories” was a favorite pastime when I was a kid. These could be scary if there was enough reality in them. There were some standards that got repeated, and I suspect several were widely-known, not just confined to our neighborhood. As with the TV shows mentioned above, the easier it was to identify with the protagonist, the scarier it was.

There was one, “Bloody Bones,” that got told from time to time, likely only by my sibs. The characters were the members of my family. I don’t remember all the details (I may have rarely, or never, stayed to hear the whole thing), but it involved each person, one by one, going down into our basement and hearing a spooky voice calling out, “Bloody bones!”

I assumed this one also was part of the universal catalogue. Thus, I got a great deal of satisfaction thinking our family was somewhat famous. Yet it really was scary to go down into the dark basement, and the story made it more so.

There was one exception to the general rule that monsters were not scary to me. When I was in college, a theatre group did weekly plays in Asheville one summer, and I attended regularly. One production was about Dracula. I had seen the actor who played Dracula in a variety of roles that summer and talked with him a time or two.

Yet he was so talented that he virtually became Dracula. Add to this that it was theatre in the round and I was sitting on the front row. There were times he was only three or four feet away from me — looking, talking and acting like a real, living-dead vampire. Despite telling myself over and over, “This is just so-and-so (I forget his name), portraying a fictional being,” it was difficult to sleep for a few nights.

Perfect happiness

(In a different context, my offspring have been asking me random questions. Back in the spring, one was, “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” This is my answer.)

I experience perfect happiness at the start of almost every day. I sip fresh coffee, beginning in the pre-dawn stillness and through the coming of the light. Often enough I see the sun itself appear. When at the beach, I am out for each day’s sunrise.

It’s interesting this question popped up this week. For the first time in 16 months — a break necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic — I just got to visit in person with my three granddaughters and their parents. Genuine hugs can bring perfect happiness, especially after so long.

Or maybe a better word here is joy. I did a little research. Happiness results from external causes. When happiness gets into your soul, joy is engendered.

When I think of moments of perfect happiness, among the first thoughts that come to mind are holding one’s child or grandchild and being together with family or other loved ones in any of a variety of contexts.

Many years ago, a peer-counseling agency of which I was director had a journal in which anyone — staff, volunteers, clients — could write whatever was on their mind. One day I wrote a brief paragraph about sitting on my front stoop for an hour or more, holding my first-born while she slept. The afternoon sun warmed us just the right amount. Her tiny hand wrapped tightly around my finger. Much of my life was a struggle at that time, but for that moment — perfect happiness.

When I first read this question, I began to overthink it. “Perfect”? No matter how happy you feel, you know that high is not going to last forever. So how is that perfect? This led me to realize that one important reason it’s perfect is because it compels you to be completely in the moment. In that moment, it is not temporary because there is no tempus.

Another moment of perfect happiness that comes to mind took place about 65 or so years ago. My family had driven all day returning home from my grandparents — 550 miles in the days before interstate highways. I remember entering my room and collapsing onto my bed, caressing it. I chanted, or maybe just thought, “Oh my bed, my good ol’ bed” more than once, but probably not much more. Then it was morning.

Disney World claims to be “the happiest place in the world.” I’m sure a lot of other places would beg to differ, and I know it’s a marketing slogan, but I’ve certainly had a lot of moments of perfect happiness there. A key element is sharing the experience with people you love.

Petting a dog is a scientifically-proven source of happiness.

Also music. Countless times, listening to or performing music has enabled me to experience perfect happiness. Or, as with other experiences cited, joy.

Favorite sounds

During our recent, annual trip to the beach, as I carried out the usual activity of sitting and taking it all in, I thought about the way sounds enhance life. Sounds of nature are high on my list of favorites, and when I think of natural sounds, I first think of water. First among water sounds is the sound of the ocean waves, rolling in rhythmically and perpetually.

I like the sound that’s come to be known as “the babbling brook.” And waterfalls, whose sound can be similar to either the brook or the waves, or anywhere in between. A gentle rainfall can be a pleasing sound, especially when I’m in bed drifting off to sleep. Another pleasant sleep-inducing sound is the symphony of crickets, tree frogs, etc., on a balmy night.

There are one or two bird sounds that signal the end of winter and beginning of spring. Always welcomed. Yet also, I really enjoy the brash, jungle-like call of the pileated woodpecker.

The list of my favorite musical sounds is a challenge to curate and nearly impossible to winnow down. I love to hear live a full symphony orchestra or a talented rock band. Very loud sounds and very soft sounds in appropriate places make my list of favorites. Also, a well-positioned rest. Wow, what a great sound.

I love vocal harmony, the more parts the better. And a well-played instrumental solo. I’m partial to guitars. Tunes sometimes rise to an ethereal level. Any of them have to be included among my favorite sounds.

I myself have been lifted to an ethereal level by a newborn baby’s first cry. All the more so, if that cry comes a few anxious minutes after birth.

Near the top of the list is a child’s giggles and laughter. And the sound of their voice when they say, “Granddaddy.”

What do you miss from childhood?

As a child, I almost never got mail. I was always interested to see what the postman (and they always were men in those days) brought. Finding something addressed to me was a rare occurrence. I wanted to get mail. I don’t remember if anyone ever told me, “Be careful what you wish for,” but I’m pretty sure I did say something to that effect to one or more of my children in the same situation.

As an adult, I get mail. Plenty of mail. Every day. The advent of email has helped cut down on the volume of paper, but I am not lacking for mail, either paper or electronic. Much of the USPS mail goes directly into recycling, a minor annoyance that takes only a few moments. Even less so to delete junk email.

Some of the mail is welcomed, especially cards and other personal notes. Much of it, however, keeps me mindful of adult responsibilities. It often has task assignments. Stuff of which I was blissfully ignorant as a child.

There are things from childhood I don’t miss and would never want to relive. But, at best, my parents provided a shield from many of the cares, frustrations and anxieties of life. I never had to give any thought to getting the furnace repaired or a clogged water pipe opened up. I don’t think I even knew about tax returns. They provided another layer of protection from “the real world,” on top of a child’s naivete.

Of course, I wasn’t completely oblivious to everything going on in the world, and I had my share of childhood concerns and stress. But none of this kept me awake at night. Not even when I was in the fifth grade with a teacher who was overly-demanding. I can remember being on my way to sleep at night when memories of the day or anxiety about tomorrow would creep in. I was able to imagine my bed floating above the classroom as I said: Sorry, I’m in bed now. I’ve never, as an adult, been able to dismiss concerns so easily.

There’s a tendency among some people to romanticize the past. To use selective memory to create a fictitious “good ol’ days.” I subscribe to the Will Rogers quote: “Things ain’t what they used to be and never were.” Still there are good memories along with the less-than-good ones. And while missing something doesn’t mean wanting to go back to it, there are things I miss.

It’s the innocence I remember fondly. I miss not getting much mail.

What are some things without which I could not live?

My children have been posing me some questions. This is the most recent. My attempt at an answer follows.

Literally, of course, I could not live without oxygen, water or food. Probably need to add “sufficient shelter from the elements” to that.

There are things without which I could likely go on living — somehow — but it would be difficult. I would have to devote more time and energy to survival. High on this list are running water, electricity and heat. Occasional power outages give me an idea of what this would be like and help me appreciate what I have.

Though they are not on the same level as these basic needs, I have likened “wi-fi and cell phones” to “water and electricity.” It’s deliberate hyperbole, yet it is unpleasant to imagine living without them. Yes, we got along fine without them before we had them, but I don’t know that we would get along fine if they went away. The same could be said — and perhaps was said before my time — about phones in general, or radio and TV, as well as cars and other mechanical forms of transportation. I suspect that as each modern convenience has been added, many have looked back and wondered, How did we ever get along without that?

I am looking beyond the physical requirements to sustain life as I ponder this question.

What comes to mind immediately is “love.” I doubt I could live without feeling and sharing love, in all three forms — God’s love, romantic love and true friendship. Part of me reacts to my own statement here by noting it sounds almost cliched to say this. But it is nonetheless true. (At a number of weddings, I’ve sung a song that asks, “Is it love that brings you here or love that brings you life?”)

I couldn’t live without my immediate family. Each member is special to me. They are the most significant source of love in my life. They also bring me much joy, which also is necessary to life. (See my blog post on perfect happiness: .)

Sunshine, though it belongs in the first paragraph above, figures in here as well. It is more than just a physical necessity. The Sun sustains life even on cloudy days, but too many gray days drain the joy out of life.

And while considering joy, I think we can add “laughter” to the list of things essential for life.

I’m not sure life would be possible without music and other art forms. They provide a connection with our spiritual side that I think we need to be truly alive.

Also essential to life, I believe, is a sense of self worth. People need to feel valued. They desire to see how their presence in the world makes some kind of positive difference. They want to believe their consumption of oxygen, water and food is justified.

Without all these things, it would not be life. It would, at most, be existence.

Things can go, without saying

One of my favorite poems begins, “Because of all that goes/ without saying. . . .” The writer was one of my mentors in college, Charles David Wright. We discussed the poem, “The Goodnight,” one day in a poetry-writing seminar he taught.

He explained that “goes without saying” doesn’t just mean “needless to say.” His concern in this poem is the danger that some things can go away if not said for too long — i.e., if taken for granted.

He refers specifically to feelings between life partners. As I recall, he told us he came home from a meeting late one night and wrote this as a note to his wife, leaving it on the refrigerator for her to see first thing in the morning.

The point is also applicable to other relationships as well. Over time, without affirmation, neglected bonds can wither. Without saying they can go.

Here’s the whole poem, from the collection Early Rising, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.


“Samaritans” today

Even many people who’ve never set foot in a church are familiar with the phrase “Good Samaritan,” and many have at least a rough idea of the story. “Samaritan” has come to mean “a charitable person.” Thus, much of the original point of the story is obscured, if not lost altogether.

For those to whom Jesus told this parable, “Samaritan” did not have a positive connotation. They considered Samaritans to be inferior, half-breed people to be avoided. Sure, the listeners probably got the point about how we should help others, but they may have been taken aback when the hero of the story was “one of those people.” Yet, Jesus told the story in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? He was expanding the definition of “neighbor.”

In the ’60s, there was a version that was popular with advocates for racial integration, of which I was one. In it, the man robbed was white, those that passed him by were church leaders and the “Samaritan” was Black. Once when I heard it told, someone suggested that the victim could be a white liberal and the Samaritan a “redneck.” Indeed, Harry Chapin, in his song “What Made America Famous,” offers a similar approach to the parable.

I find it helpful to look at the 1997 movie, “As Good As It Gets,” with The Good Samaritan story in mind.

Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, is racist and homophobic. He earns his living writing trashy romance novels. He won’t bother to take his OCD medication, which would help him be less annoying. He doesn’t seem to like other people and doesn’t seem to care whether they like him.

Greg Kinnear’s character, Simon Bishop, is Udall’s neighbor. He is an artist who is gay. Udall verbally spars with Bishop and with his African-American agent Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr,), making no attempt to hide his prejudice toward both.

Then Simon is beaten and robbed in his apartment. He’s left seriously injured, and on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s not able to get help from his family nor from anyone on a long list of friends and fellow artists.

Melvin takes him in to his own apartment, to give him a place to live as he heals from his injuries and gets back on his feet financially. It’s a more expansive understanding of being a neighbor.

My like-dislike relationship with social media

Facebook is the only social medium in which I participate, unless you count group texts. I suspect that many of these thoughts, though, might apply to other forms of social media. Most do apply to group texts, as well as communication (or attempted communication) in general.

There are things I like about Facebook: being in touch with long-time friends; photos of kids, grandkids, nature, meals; inspirational posts; genuinely educational posts. I also appreciate being able to vent.

Here I want to vent about comments I don’t like to see on Facebook, whether in response to one of my posts or those of others, as well as to others’ responses. These comments fall into two categories: non sequiturs and trolling.

A common cause of a non sequitur is that the person responding didn’t really read the post (or previous comments) first. In this category are those comments that miss the point of the post. The commenter may pick up on a minor element or even a phrase not on-point and change the focus of the conversation. At the extreme are those who hijack the post, making it about them or their own agenda.

While there are “professional” trolls intruding on almost all public pages, I’m bothered more by trolling by friends. Some individuals enjoy playing “gotcha” and engaging in trash talk. At some point, though, “kidding” can become annoying, if not hurtful, because of intensity or frequency. Closely related: making the conversation into a competition and seeking to one-up the poster or another commenter.

Trolling also can include value judgments of another’s personal likes/dislikes, “witty” comments that get only halfway there, feeling a need to explain an implied joke, dedication to “yes-but” responses and proclivity for putting a negative spin on a positive post.

The earliest major news story I remember

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been answering various questions my adult children have posed. Some would be of little or no interest to the general public; a few feel too personal to share outside the family. A recent one was “What’s the first major news story you can remember living through as a child?” It might resonate with others.

The earliest major news story I remember now as being a current event rather than history was the presidential election of 1952. I don’t remember hearing about anything else outside my little sphere at that time or before. I probably did, but paid little or no attention. Likely, I didn’t understand. The election, however, somehow grabbed my 5-year-old attention.

I was surprised years later to learn that the Korean War had taken place in my lifetime. Yes, I was very young. Also, we — like most people — didn’t have a TV. And even if we did, it wasn’t until Viet Nam that wars were “streamed” on TV news nightly. If my parents ever talked about it, that didn’t register with me.

I must’ve known that the current president’s name was Harry Truman, but I don’t recall being conscious of that fact. I’m not sure of the first time I heard that two men were running for president, but I clearly remember seeing on a cereal box photos of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. (This may be what imprinted the event on my brain.) I knew nothing about them, but Eisenhower was smiling and Stevenson was not. So I repeated a campaign phrase I’d begun to hear and said cheerfully to my parents something about wanting to share the phrase, “I like Ike!’ To which my father immediately said — not cheerfully — that it should be, “I don’t like Ike.”

So I learned that we voted for the Democrat, not the Republican. It’s kinda ironic now, considering how unlike the current Republican Party Eisenhower was. The majority did like Ike. When he was inaugurated, a few weeks before my 6th birthday, I understood the significance enough to go next door and watch the ceremonies on TV. I never heard my parents say anything negative about him after he became president.

This wasn’t long before the second major news story I remember. I was very aware of it because it affected me directly. That was the polio epidemic in the early ‘50s. I was aware of a lot of discussion of it, reports of people’s lives being changed by getting it, photos of iron lungs. I remember a summer in which we hardly left the house at all. We played a lot of Monopoly on the front porch.

Then there was the Salk vaccine. I wavered at first, fearing shots, which did hurt more then than they do now that needles are made of harder metal, which can be sharpened more finely. But I feared life on crutches or, worse, in an iron lung even more. So I was part of a major news story when they began giving shots to school children. A few years later, we got the Sabine vaccine, administered on a sugar cube. Without hesitation, I took that, too.

Somewhere in there were news stories about the dramatic drop in polio cases nationwide from year to year. The total in 1956 was a little more than half that in 1955. Then in 1957, there were about a third as many as the year before.