Pug Meets Pig

You have to wonder about dogs sometimes: what matters to them, why they get excited about this but not that, how they process our interactions with them. For the moment, this is the dog I’m talking about. Coco, what’s going on inside that funny-looking head of yours?

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Samuel presents her with various challenges such as putting her in a closet…

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… putting her in a box…

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…and standing her on a bookshelf.

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Does she care? Is she saying to herself (in whatever way pugs and other dogs say to themselves) What’s up with these humans? I was just trying to have a nice nap. Is there any good reason to be bothering me right now?

The questioning goes two ways. Much as I expect she is clueless about our behavior sometimes, about why or how she ends up in a closet or in a box or on a shelf, we are equally clueless about her behavior. Let’s go for a walk with her.

At this time of year my gravel road has lots and lots of fallen leaves along the sides. The cars going by, few as they are, must provide enough air movement in the right direction for the leaves to land everywhere except in the road itself. For whatever reason, these leaves are really interesting to Coco. There’s a treasure of a smell every few steps it seems.

But okay, let’s keep going because down the road a piece there are, right now, two very large and amusing pigs to visit.

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My neighbor Tracy’s very well cared for and fortunate pigs wander around their exceptionally spacious (for pigs) fenced-in area all day looking for acorns they missed or taking a snooze in a patch of sunshine. They seem to love visitors. You approach and they come. You are something to do, an attraction, a point of interest.

Hello! (I love this picture!)

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A few days ago Samuel and I took Coco with us on a walk. We were curious what would happen when the pug would meet the pig(s). Initially, what happened was exactly what you would expect to happen.

Uh, hello, what on earth are you?

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The pig approached, and they sized one another up. You have to assume more olfactory activity than we could ever imagine (especially with a nose like that!), and who knows what, besides the intense and new smells of each other, they notice. Curiosity lingered a moment, then they both decided to get a little closer and the other pig joined the party.  Hmmm, similar nose, different color, different size, different ears!

Pig 1: Hey, sister, what’s happening?…. What IS that??

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Pig 2: I don’t know. Looks like an alien. Vaguely familiar nose though.

Coco: I beg your pardon!

Pig 1: Why is it here? What does it want?

Pig 2: Doesn’t look edible.

Pig 1: What good is it if it’s not edible?

Coco: Hey, watch what you say about edible!

Pig 2: Gotta admire that nose though, smooshed flat the way a nose should be.

Pig 1: It has the nose going for it, I agree. Maybe it wants to play?

Coco: Oh, look, these leaves smell so marvelous!!

And off she went! No longer interested in pigs! Practically perfect pig pals, no less!

Pig 2: Was it something we said?

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Really, Coco?

Coco: If you knew how amazing these leaves smell, you would be on your hands and knees with me! I know that’s a pain for you, bending those ridiculous long legs so you can get to a reasonable height off the earth. The human design is so unhelpful when it comes to smelling leaves and other super important things. By the way, this is super important and I don’t mean to be rude but… busy here!

The preoccupied, party-pooping (possibly pampered) pug pursued personal priorities while these pleasingly plump, perfectly peaceful, pleasantly personable pigs at the pinnacle of their porcine pudginess pondered a plan to play! Positively perplexing!

Isn’t it the same among family and friends though? We get why the people we know or encounter do some things, many things even, but sometimes their behavior is incredible, bizarre, mysterious, absurd. Why, for example, do some people choose vanilla when chocolate is available? I will never understand!

I recently came across a marvelous, short Alain de Botton video about marriage and partnership that makes a similar point about confusing-behavior reciprocity, a.k.a. tolerating each other’s quirks. Why does my husband/ wife/ partner/ girlfriend/ boyfriend/ friend/ colleague/ neighbor/ dog (!) do [….X….]? Weird! Maddening! Crazy! Or maybe just Confusing. Inexplicable. Bizarre. Absurd…

The fact is: You see the other person’s issues much more plainly than you see your own. You have things to tolerate which do indeed get under your skin, and you forget that you (most likely) get under their skin sometimes too.

Why does Coco care more about the leaves than about the pretty pigs? Whoever knows! But she does, and from that moment forth, the pigs didn’t exist for her. Eh. Pigs. Smelled one, you’ve smelled ‘em all. So what. But these leaves!!

 

 

A Smart Phone at 88

Last week Jerry decided to get a smartphone. I give him a lot of credit. His jitterbug served him well. It made and received calls the way a landline can’t – he could take it with him when he left his house and it would work. But he wanted a smartphone, so we went to Verizon and got him a smartphone. Jerry will be 89 in January.

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Going through this process with him, helping him choose one and then, most importantly, figure out how to make a call, has opened my eyes (yet again) to the things we take for granted, the things we have learned but don’t remember we actually had to learn, the things that are not as self-evident as they might appear. For example:

Your smartphone can be “on” but not “on” and “off” but not “off.” The power being on and the home screen being visible are two different things. Another way to look at this is that the phone can be on but the screen can be off. Problem is, when the screen is off, it looks like the phone is not “on” (though it might be and probably is, but it depends on whether the power is on). The little button on the side (or the back, or the bottom, depending on where it is on yours) turns the power entirely on or off only if you hold it down/in long enough, but once the power is on, you have to press that same button – but not for as long! – to get a visible screen and for your phone, which was “on” before, to appear “on.”

The amount of touch, the very weight of the tip of your finger on an icon so that you can get from one screen to another, is not intuitive. Those of us who graduated from one cell phone to the next don’t realize how we have adapted to the incremental changes in technology. Somewhere around here I have my first cell phone, a gold-tone Nokia that I could not find to take a picture of (but I did find some scarves I was missing!!). I got that Nokia in 2001, and all the buttons were physical – you pressed them and heard a click and that made something happen. My next phone was a flip phone – how cool was that!? – physical buttons still, and with three letters of the alphabet on each of the number pads, you could even text. (You may remember that you had to hit the 1 once to get A, twice (fast) to get B and three times (fast) to get C, but hey, we could text!!) From there I went to a flat screen where there are no physical buttons. That was a bit of a learning curve, but I needed it for work and everyone around me seemed to manage it, so sooner or later I got comfortable with that too.

But you have to get-to-know and practice-til-perfect how much pressure to place on a given icon. On my phone, if I hit the green phone icon in the bottom left corner lightly (see the green phone icon with the little 1 showing one missed call?),

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I get to my phone list. Touching that icon with just the right amount of pressure takes me to the screen that can toggle between RECENTS (a reverse-chronological list of calls made and received) and CONTACTS (my full phone directory including all numbers I have saved in alphabetical order).

If I hold the tip of my finger on that same icon too long, I don’t get to my phone list. It gives me other options:

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These other options have their place , and I might even use them someday, but if all I want to do is make a call, and I get these other options instead because I didn’t judge the amount of finger-pressure right, I might (rightly) get frustrated. And it’s not just the phone icon that gives you other options when you hold it down longer.

Randomly hitting buttons will affect your phone’s operation. When Jerry first got his phone, I spent an hour or so with him going over HOW TO MAKE A CALL. I wrote it down step by step, which thing to press and what you will find when you get there. Repetition, repetition, repetition is the name of this game. I came back the next day and found numerous screenshots in his gallery. He does not know what a screenshot is, let alone how to make one. But clearly he hit the home button and the power button at the same time – numerous times – and inadvertently made numerous screenshots.

This morning Mom called me to say that the two of them were “practicing” making calls, but his phone wasn’t ringing. It was just buzzing. Sounds to me like he turned the volume off, Mom. And I walked her through finding the Volume Up button and pressing it until she saw the horizontal blue volume bar that appears at the top get increasingly longer. Oh, that works. Clearly he hit the Volume Down button enough times to inadvertently turn off the volume.

When to swipe and when to touch is not intuitive. When your phone rings, swiping (starting at the larger green phone icon that appears on the lower part of the screen) is the way to answer it when it is not currently in use – i.e. when your phone is either not “on” in the visible screen sense or is not currently occupied with a different app(lication). Touching (the smaller green phone icon that appears on the upper part of the screen) is the way to answer it when the phone IS currently in use – i.e. when your phone is “on” (in the visible screen sense) and is currently occupied with a different app(lication) such as you are in the middle of texting someone or you are reading a restaurant review.

But who thinks this through and realizes the difference? Again, those of us who have been incrementally learning this stuff have learned to swipe when the green phone icon is big and there are arrows moving in the direction of the needed swipe and to touch when the green phone icon is small and the tiny word ANSWER is underneath it. If you are new at this, if you have never used a touch screen before, you don’t necessarily, intuitively, know when to swipe and when to touch. As Jerry puts it, you just want to answer the damn phone.

The challenging nuances of making a call seem unnecessarily cumbersome until you are familiar with the process and have begun to appreciate the value of the many options you have regarding each and every call. But think about it, a four-year-old can learn a foreign language much more easily than an adult of almost any age. Likewise, making the switch in one leap from a mechanical device that serves simply to make and receive calls to an electronic device that can also turn your lights on when you are not at home, track your children’s precise whereabouts and translate a piece of foreign text in a flash is a very big leap.

My Aunt Judy put it well in an email to me this morning:

It’s tough “teaching” us “oldies but goodies” stuff that’s technical, but what goes around comes around. I remember trying to tell my aunt how to operate the “stereo” (young ones probably don’t even know what that word is ??????). Anyway I kept thinking, “But it’s so simple!”  Oh well, now it’s me – you tell me, and it sounds good, but will I remember it tomorrow????   Hey, we oldies are happy to have our feet hit the floor every morning.  

Amen to that. Let us ALL be happy to have our feet hit the floor every morning!

A Saint Barbara Day Cake!

Last week Mom told me she was invited to a “tiny tea party” on December 4, St. Barbara’s Day, a party that included all the Barbaras who live in her community. The host is a Barbara who has been hosting Barbara tea parties since starting the tradition in Park City, Utah, in 1999. What a lovely idea!

I asked the host if I could come and take a few pictures. Here they are posing with a cutout of Marilyn Monroe, whose real name was Norma Jeane, not Barbara. Whatever. You don’t get to pose with Marilyn every day.

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And again the Barbaras at the table with Norma Jeane looking on – see her in the mirror? (Another Barbara came later and another had the date mixed up.) During the party, Host Barbara (in red) showed them various St. Barbara items she has collected over the years and even gave them a crossword puzzle entitled “Barbaras We Have Known.”

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“St. Barbara was quite a lady,” Mom’s invitation had said. Indeed she was. Virtuous, beautiful, locked in a tower by her self-serving father, Barbara of the legend lived in the third century, converted to Christianity (when that was not the thing to do) and was publicly humiliated and finally beheaded, thus the head she holds in her hand.

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For many years I have had a recipe in my cookbook for Barbara-kuchen, or Barbara cake. The handwriting is my friend Anett’s, who lives in Germany, where St. Barbara is more widely celebrated. It’s really quite a simple cake, even if it looks unintelligible. The main thing is to see that it says Barbara-kuchen at the top.

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As a way to thank the host for allowing me to come take pictures at her tiny tea party (and a wonderful excuse to bake), I decided to make the cake. Ingredients are:

14 Tablespoons butter, softened
the grated rind of one lemon
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1/3 cup corn starch
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder

You soften the butter (in my microwave this took 1 minute 20 seconds on defrost), add the sugar and eggs, and whisk it till creamy. A hand mixer would have been handy at this time – for such a small amount of batter I didn’t want to get out my big, wonderful stand mixer, but I had to beat the ingredients with a good bit of wrist action to get the fluffiness I wanted. If you have an electric hand mixer, or your stand mixer on the counter, it’s better to use it.

I added the lemon rind after that. You can see the teeny bits of butter still in the batter (my wrist is only so strong). I decided it didn’t matter and kept going.

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By the time I added and stirred in the rest of the ingredients, it looked like this.

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Those amazing eggs of mine made the batter so golden! I chose a small springform pan to bake this cake in because, Claudia tells me, traditionally in Germany the cake is baked in a “Kastenform” resembling the tower in which St. Barbara was imprisoned. I reasoned that a larger pan would make a flatter cake and a smaller pan would make a taller cake, so I went with small. My pan is 7 inches (18cm) across and 3 inches (8cm) high. I baked mine for 35 minutes at 375F (a toothpick inserted came out clean). I see now that the recipe says 350F. I missed that earlier.

But it came out okay. See? Bit of a tower, no? (Use your imagination now…)

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I made the frosting with the juice of the same lemon I grated plus enough confectioner’s sugar added little by little until it seemed stiff enough. I can’t tell you how much sugar. I was in a hurry trying to get to this party in time!

After I put the frosting on, I realized it was not stiff enough, in fact was beginning to sag a bit down the sides, so I decided to remedy this by adding a lot of coconut all over it. Anyway you can’t go wrong putting a whole lot of coconut on top of lemon frosting that is covering a lemony cake. You just can’t. Then I thinly sliced another lemon and twisted them to make the cake pretty on top (as if loads of coconut is not inviting enough). Here’s the cake on Mom’s table before we went over to the party.

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See those leaves in the jar behind the cake? I brought them too because of another part of the legend. It is said that on her way to prison, St. Barbara got her robe caught on a small cherry branch and it broke. Somehow the branch was put in water and then a new blossom opened on that branch on the day of her execution – the stuff of legends to be sure! I cannot imagine she was allowed to bring her broken cherry branch into the 3rd century prison with her and that someone gave her a jar with water in it, which she then used for her branch until they took her away. But what do I know — maybe this happened!

There is a lot I don’t know about 3rd century prisons. It is not useful to be sticklers about unknowable information like this. Just know that if you cut a branch (cherry or apple traditionally) on December 4, it is supposed to bloom by Christmas. I don’t have a cherry or apple tree, and neither does the community where Mom lives, so I brought branches from my lemon tree (thinking there’s lemon in the cake, so why not lemon?).

I want you to see how droopy my frosting was.

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Time was not on my side, as I said, so I let it go. Anyway, I decided, it would taste the same (delicious I hoped!) and I am not trying to win any pretty-cake contests. Things that are made with love don’t have to be perfect.

To all the Barbaras, but especially to my mom (the best Barbara ever!), I wish a Happy Saint Barbara Day!

What We Do With Obstinate Ketchup

Some people think it’s an abomination to put ketchup on meatloaf. We don’t. We draw the line at putting it on quiche, or mac and cheese, mind you, but meatloaf is fair game. Last night Mom made meatloaf and had invited me and Samuel to come. I have discussed Mom’s amazing meatloaf in another post and there was nothing disappointing about last night’s. In fact, as Mom’s meatloaf goes, this one was exceptional. But it was the ketchup that caught my attention.

Mom has this squeezable container that she keeps it in.

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It’s one of those that people got and used when ketchup still came in a glass bottle (and that was the only way you could buy it). If you had one of these red plastic squeezie things and made a habit of filling it and keeping it filled, you put it out on the table instead of the glass bottle because ketchup is obstinate about coming out of glass bottles. It was too often a maddening experience. You might remember: Either you banged madly on the bottom of the bottle with the flat of your hand and nothing came out, or you banged on the bottom madly and a gigantic blob came out. Only occasionally would the banging result in the right amount of ketchup. We must have the right amount of ketchup, c’mon.

In my family we have been putting ketchup on meatloaf for as long as I can remember. Last night, no surprise, there was that container on the table along with the wine glasses and cloth napkins. Samuel picked it up to decorate his slice(s) of meatloaf and remarked, “This is the best ketchup container.”

“Yes, I’ve had that one a long time,” Mom said.

“Oh, I remember,” Samuel said. “It’s the one I remember from when we came to your house when I was a kid.”

A quick glance at ketchup container images on google revealed a few interesting designs, but most are boring – straight-sided, cylindrical, vaguely transparent bottles with red screw-on lids that have a point. Probably there are not many super cool ones because it is assumed that hardly anyone needs them – ketchup now comes in squeezable containers, not glass bottles. I have one of the boring ones. I use it because I buy ketchup in large containers that yes, are squeezable, but I can barely get my hand around them, let alone get my hand around, turn it upside down and squeeze.

This is a mug shot of mine. I have no idea why I have one with a yellow top, which seems like it goes with mustard. I never thought about it. Mom’s is way cooler.

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It is also possible that some people prefer transferring from the manufacturer’s squeeze bottle to a squeeze bottle of their own, that they are willing to go through the trouble, that they prefer putting an unadorned squeeze bottle at their table rather than one with the word Ketchup in a bold font across the front right under the company name along with supplemental text, a bar code, a list of ingredients and other information manufacturers deem necessary to print on the label because they agree with Miss Manners that packaging at the table is unthinkable.

In her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, in a section headed “Reading at Table,” we see the following:

DEAR MISS MANNERS:
Would you please comment on the proper etiquette for reading at the dinner table? In particular, is it considered proper to prop a letter against the salt shaker or to lean the newspaper against a carton of cottage cheese, in order to free the hands for eating?
GENTLE READER:
Miss Manners was about to duck this question, on the grounds that it is never proper to eat at the dinner table if anyone else is present and that what you do when you eat alone is between you and your God, and not a matter of etiquette. Then she came to the cottage cheese container. No decent person would put a food package – including ketchup bottles, milk cartons or cereal boxes – on the table, even at home alone with the shades drawn.

Laughable, right? I did laugh out loud, though not so much at the concept but at the language. Miss Manners’ very words have their nose in the air 😊.

But think about it, maybe she is not so far off. Most nicer restaurants stick with only dishes, utensils, glasses and actual food on the table. One of our dinner standards when I worked at the hotel was: All condiments are presented in small ramekins or dishes with appropriate service piece; no portion packets are used except sweeteners. In other words, nothing in a package (including mini ketchup bottles) except the white sugar packets and pink, blue and yellow artificial sweetener packets was acceptable. This standard gets tricky when it comes to jam, honey and Tabasco sauce, trust me.

I think it is entirely up to you what you have/allow/tolerate on your table at home and I suspect you will not be judged for this. Fear not. However I do think Mom’s ketchup container would pass Miss Manners’ muster. Better still, Samuel remembered it from his childhood, and I remember it from mine. The same container all these years – there’s something to be said for that. It makes me wonder which of the things in my kitchen, on my table, in my house will be remembered. What do you hope will be remembered from yours?

The Best Life If You’re a Pig

Pigs don’t have many choices in life. They are at the mercy of their owners and keepers, and I’d guess many of them would wish for a trade if trades were possible.  I would also venture to say that the vast majority would do anything pigly possible to have the life that Tracy’s pigs have. Do these pigs look happy or what? Okay, maybe they just look curious. There’s something about those noses that’s hilarious and remarkable at the same time.

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I’m not sure pigs could have a better life than these. They have oak trees dropping acorns all through their spacious, wooded area and freedom to root around all day finding those acorns and whatever else pigs consider yummy among the fallen leaves of this time of year. They have a huge enclosure made with movable fencing so it is, yes, moved around, which is better for the land, better for the pigs, plus a change of scenery (maybe they notice!). Oh, hey, this spot has great dirt!

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Their summertime life along the tree line let them pick shade or sun, assuming pigs can pick. Compared to most pigs, this had to feel like they had the whole state of Virginia to roam around in.

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It’s pig paradise. Check out their big bathtub/pool, which is clean only until the moment one of them gets in it mainly on account of the adjacent mud hole for slopping around in.

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You can’t tell so much when they are muddy, but one of these pigs has a few spots and one is mostly plain. I noticed it when I drove by the other day and they had been moved to the woods near the road.

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The spotted one reminded me of Chester the Worldly Pig, a fictitious, determined, clever creature created by Bill Peet in 1965 and among my favorite children’s books. Chester resented his lot in life. “Of all things,” grumbled Chester, “why on earth did I have to be a pig?” Does his face look annoyed?

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“But before I end up as so much sausage and ham, I intend to try and amount to something.” But what? To solve his problem, he did what we all do (or should do) when we have a problem, he thought long and hard about it. He “turned this around and around in his head until one day it came to him: ‘I’ll be a star in the circus!’” Chester perfected his nose stand and waited for the circus train to go by and see him.

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His plan failed because the train passed by with its shades drawn, so he ran down the tracks until he came to the big top, jumped on a post, impressed them all and got himself a job.

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But as you might imagine it didn’t work out. Sometimes things don’t work out. First they put him in with the lions and terrified him, then they dressed him up like a baby so Roscoe the clown could wheel him around in a doll buggy.

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It was beyond humiliating, so he took off first chance he got. A bear thought he’d make a great lunch,

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but then so did a bunch of hobos. That’s Chester in the bag next to Red Beard.

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“I’m the one that caught this pig,” red beard roared above the noise of the train, “so I’m keepin’ him all to myself!”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” bellowed black beard. “It’s share and share alike! That’s the rule!”

“And rules is rules,” growled gray beard.

“I’m breakin’ the rules,” roared red, “so what can you do about it?”

Chester barely escaped with his life. He resigned himself to his fate, the “at the first barn lot he came to, he turned in the gate to give himself up, and the farmer greeted the stray pig with open arms.”

 “To the farmer’s delight, after a couple of years Chester ballooned into a huge blimp of a pig; and one morning the happy farmer said, “Today this little pig goes to market.”

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Now if you’re a child looking at this farmer, are you thinking What a nice farmer! or He got himself a lot of free pork! Or Poor pig! Is his face happy in a jovial kind of way or happy in a greedy way or happy in a didn’t-I-get-lucky way? That’s the thing about art, right? Even children’s art. Contrived as the representation is, you are still free to interpret it with your own experiences and biases weighing in. In fact, it’s practically impossible not to. From the beginning, Chester is painted as a survivor. And now we all know what the farmer is going to do.

Or we think we know.

It’s just like when you watch a movie the second or third time and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Once you know the outcome, you wonder how you missed the important clues. It was plain as day even in the first scene, but I missed it, and you probably missed it too.

On that very same morning a carnival van stopped at the farm, and out of the cab stepped a dignified white-whiskered man with a broad-brimmed hat and a fancy frock coat. He had stopped to buy fresh eggs, but when he saw the huge pig he forgot all about the eggs.

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“What will you take for your pig?” he asked. The farmer thought for a minute, then named his price, which was at least twice what he figured the pig was worth. And to the farmer’s surprise, the man didn’t so much as bat an eye; he counted out the money and the deal was closed.

After the pig was loaded aboard and the van drove away, the farmer had himself a good laugh. “So he thinks he’s bought the world’s biggest pig! Why I’ve seen at least a dozen bigger ones at the county fair.” But if the fellow had gone to school long enough to study geography, he’d have known that Chester was much more than just plain big.

Here’s author Bill Peet, who worked as a sketch artist at Disney Studio on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty and authored of 35 books, plugging a good education. In the end, Chester’s grit – despite what we all know happens to pigs in this world – led to an ending where everyone wins. The farmer got a good price, the white-whiskered man got “The One and Only Worldly Pig” and Chester got the fame he hoped for.

“Now if you will please move in a little closer,” said the white-whiskered man [to the crowd in the carnival tent], “you will see the entire map of the world imprinted by nature on this remarkable creature’s enormous hide. On his left side, the continents of North and South America, including the land of Australia, which is down under, of course.”

The crowd gasped in amazement, while Chester oinked in surprise. He was as amazed as anyone.

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“But that’s only the half of it,” said the man, turning the pig around on his revolving platform. “On his right side we find Europe, Africa, and Asia, and for good measure, even that tiny island of Borneo. So you see, my friends, this amazing pig is truly one of nature’s wonders…”

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Last week as I passed Tracy’s property and saw her pigs in the woods – and one of them is spotted! – how could I not think of Chester and the good life that some pigs get? There’s a lot we can’t do anything about, but many people do what they do in highly admirable ways. Hats off to Tracy! What lucky pigs she has!

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Bored Chickens? Say It Isn’t So!

I asked Samuel to put an ax to a pumpkin yesterday. I did this because my Aunt Vivian gave me an idea. She suggested that my chickens might be bored. Bored??!! We can’t have that! Not in a place that proclaims unboringness to the world.

It had not occurred to me that chickens would be bored, could be bored, though I suppose on an unconscious level that’s possible? Vivian’s daughter Deb, my cousin, also keeps chickens, and apparently has had similar harassment problems among them. Let me assure you of what we all already knew: Chickens don’t learn. Despite her recent banishment because of harassing the silkies, yesterday morning I watched Goldyneck pull feathers out from Whitey’s tail! Just came along behind her for no apparent reason, right after I’d let them out for the day, and snatched and yanked at those fluffy feathers. I did not banish her this time, standing firm as I was (for the moment) in They will work it out. Whitey retreated to the under-coop space and Goldy minded her own business, for a while anyway.

Deb has mitigated the boredom-leading-to-harassment problem by putting a hay bale in the run, giving the chickens something to do. They’ll scratch at it and break it apart looking for something edible or at least interesting within. Okay, I’m on board. I’ll supplement They will work it out with Give them something to do. I had a bale available but remembered the pumpkins on the cottage deck.

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Yes, that thing to the left of the orange pumpkin is also a pumpkin. Some of you may recall my stating very clearly my preference for orange pumpkins back in October when I went to Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Thanks to Sandy’s thoughtfulness, I came home from that trip to a variety of pumpkins decorating the outdoor space at the cottage, including this unconventional, clearly-not-orange one. It’s an unboring pumpkin – I’ll give it that!

Nonetheless its day had come. After Thanksgiving you have to do something with the pumpkins and other fall adornments you picked up while creating the harvest image, if you have them, which I don’t. (Oh right, I did buy one of those tiny gourds for the little round table in the cottage. I am aware that gourds don’t have feelings, but I still feel bad just chucking it into the woods…)

It is unclear to me why I thought I couldn’t break up this pumpkin myself. The image of Samuel swinging an ax while chopping cords of firewood, the whack of the blade against the hunk of wood, the crack of the splintering fibers unable to resist the force from above, yes, that’s probably what did it. Pumpkins however, especially old pumpkins, are not like wood. It doesn’t take much to break them. Just dropping this one on the ground got things going big time.

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But what the heck. He agreed and it was fun to watch him with the ax. Notice he does not yet have an audience.

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The first whack practically did the job. Had I done this myself, assuming I could lift the ax high enough to come down where it needed to, assuming enough accuracy not to just land the blade in the straw, bemoaning my weak arms all the while, I might have managed a similar split, then flipped it, cut side up, and given the other one to the Sewing Circle – half a pumpkin for each group of chickens, as I did with the watermelon – and stopped there, called it a day.

But no. Whack away, son of mine! The birds began to be curious.

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By the time he was done breaking up half for the Bridge Club and half for the Sewing Circle, there were scattered pieces of pumpkin, a way better situation anyway so that you don’t have them all crowding around one mass of food and possibly competing and showing each other who’s bigger or pushier. This would clearly defeat the purpose of the pumpkin giving them something to do so that they annoy each other less.

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Boring is a slippery slope to me, always has been. I bristled against the word when my children were small. They seldom used bored to describe themselves to me or to complain perhaps because they tried it once or twice (for sympathy maybe, or for a kind of attention?) and when they said it, breathed the very word, I immediately replied with something like, “Here’s a broom. How about sweeping the floor?” They soon learned to occupy their time in engaging and rather more pleasurable ways.

Time is short. We don’t know what’s around the next bend. And the world is so rich, so full of interesting things to do and learn and see and taste and feel and laugh about and listen to and ask questions about and marvel at! How is boredom possible in such a world? We are limited only by our willingness – within our individual capacities of course – to think, to imagine, to stretch, to wonder, to engage, to love, to serve, to explore. And of course by our obstinacy, as in doggedly determining that Boredom will not reside here. Not even in my chicken coops!

Hmmm, what’s this!!??

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It’s a hunk of something that wasn’t here before, sister! Have at it! What a life, eh? Never a dull moment!! 

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Six Siblings Celebrating

This past weekend I witnessed a remarkable thing in Kansas City. My college roommate and her five siblings have made a habit of gathering together to celebrate every time one of them turns 60, and it was Dina’s turn. They came from their homes in Kansas, New York, Arkansas and Kentucky and spent several days together talking, laughing, exploring the area, enjoying each other’s company. I was invited to join the party and marveled at this group, posing here in front of a Monet at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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Kansas City is Dina’s backyard, so she chose the activities, restaurants and agenda. Our excursion at this highly impressive museum had something for everyone. The entrance hall alone gives you some idea of its grandeur.

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I did not expect the exquisite marble interior!

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Or the mummy of Ka-i-nefer.

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Or the mummy mask of Meret-it-es.

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Or works by Degas.

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Or Renoir.

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Or Hieronymus Bosch.

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Or parts of a medieval cloister.

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Or a giant shuttlecock! This one is 18 feet tall – way taller than it looks in this photo. I am standing on a tall ledge.

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But as absolutely remarkable as everything in the museum was (and I am showing only a fraction of what we saw), it didn’t hold a candle, in my estimation, to how remarkable these six siblings are, shown here after the birthday dinner at Cascone’s.

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And here with spouses against the nighttime Kansas City skyline.

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These wonderful people find a way to come together several times a year. They get along, overlook their differences, forgive each other their occasional bumbles, express interest in each other’s separate worlds and not only maintain familial ties, but also have fun and build new memories. The days together included meals of course (this was one breakfast – Dina the Birthday Girl is in pink),

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and time in the hotel’s hot tub, time for naps, time for a jigsaw puzzle, time for telling stories, time for touring special homes (Fred and Dina in front of this 25-room Victorian mansion called the Cray Museum in Atchinson, Kansas),

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and time for Dina’s birthday cake.

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I asked some of them how they manage it, how they are still smiling after the loss of both mother and father, how they navigate diverse political affiliations and life choices, how the physical distances between their homes mean almost nothing – indeed how this many very strong individuals can be so (overall) very agreeable when they get together. The answers were expressed differently, but boiled down to the same thing: mutual respect. No one tries to lord it over anyone else or tell anyone else what they should do or how to think.

I watched and saw numerous examples. They waited patiently while one or more (I won’t say who!) took longer getting through the museum exhibits, even if the rest were ready to get going. Later they all stood outside for a while around that fire pit (in the skyline photo above) even though it was kinda, sorta, yeah quite cold (!) out there – because some wanted to. I watched them give each other room to be individuals, to have different opinions and different preferences. I watched them consistently practice the I Cor. 13:4-5 kind of love that is patient and kind, that does not envy, does not boast, that is not proud, nor dishonoring of others, nor self-seeking, nor easily angered, that keeps no record of wrongs. “Consistently” is a key word here.

I watched Six Siblings Celebrating (try saying that six times fast!!).  When in the future, in another location, they come together again, I have no doubt it will be just as pleasant, enjoyable and meaningful an occasion as this one was. I hope they know what a beautiful group they are, what a wonderful model for their children and friends and others, and how honored and delighted I myself was to have been a part of their amazing circle for a few days.

A Birthday Cake Worthy of Mom

My mom likes gooey frosting. If you are going to make a cake for her, that’s the first thing to know. If you are going to make her birthday cake, that’s perhaps the main thing to know. She will eat all around the frosting, saving the best for last, and savor every melt-in-your-mouth bite until it hardly looks like there was any cake at all on the plate.

I take that back. If you are going to make her birthday cake, the main thing to know is that the cake should be worthy of her. What is a birthday after all? To me it’s a time to celebrate that a person was born, that they came into the world, that they are part of your world. Clearly moms are in the enviable category of people essential to the fact of our own existence. But that doesn’t make them necessarily good, or in my case, great. I know I am blessed. My mom is amazing and I love her to no end. For as long as I can, I will celebrate her.

Last year, Mom moved to Charlottesville. For the first time in my adult life, I was close by – ten minutes from her place to be exact, as compared to six or seven hours as in the past. This year, on this birthday, she is happy and settled and nearby. Let the baking begin!

Fortunately for me, Mom not only loves gooey frosting, she also loves coconut. I’ve seen her eyeing those coconut-smothered cakes in the glass cases in bakeries. I’ve long known of her love of coconut macaroons, with or without a chocolate base. I’m safe putting as much coconut as I want on a cake. Does this look like enough? For a person who doesn’t eat nuts, oh, how I love coconut!

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This is the finished cake. It is two layers of sponge cake (also called genoise) with a filling of homemade lemon curd that has fresh raspberries and blueberries imbedded in it. The white fluffy frosting is a mix of buttercream and cream cheese appropriately smothered with coconut and decorated with more fresh raspberries. It is possible that I never made a cake for anyone that I was so anxious to eat myself!

The sponge cake part was new to me. What I mean is: I do not have a tried-and-true recipe for sponge cake nor do I remember ever having made one. To make this one, I did what any self-respecting wannabe baker would do, I consulted with an expert baker, or at least a credible one, which nowadays you do online. When you get a recipe online, you get not only the recipe, but often the many comments that others have made after trying said recipe. That’s a good bit of credibility, though not foolproof. I went with Natasha’s Kitchen and followed the instructions for her easy sponge cake.

One of the comments had to do with the consistency of the batter after it has undergone eight minutes of whipping in your stand mixer. The instructions said to whip the batter for 8-10 minutes and a reader said she had a trick to know if you had whipped it long enough: Detach the whisk attachment, lift it above the batter, make a figure 8 and see how quickly the 8 sinks into the batter. She said if you can count to ten and the figure 8 is still visible, you had whipped it long enough. At eight minutes (I used my phone timer) I stopped and did this trick. My figure 8 sank before I had counted to 2. I gave the batter another two minutes of whipping. It sank again. Uh-oh. Natasha said 8-10 minutes of whipping. I gave it one more minute on high and my 8 still sank. That’s where I said Bother this, it has to be good now, and poured it into the pans. It was very good.

The best part of this recipe is the suggestion to cut out circles of parchment paper for the bottoms of the cake pans. After the designated baking time, I let the two layers cool in their pans for ten minutes or so on a rack, then took them out of the pans, and let them cool the rest of the way, they wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap and froze them. This paper peeled easily off the frozen cake layer when I was ready to assemble and frost the cake. Another hint if you try this recipe. Use three pans instead of two. The amount of batter the recipe makes divided into my two standard cake pans spilled onto the sides of the pan. In the end this meant trimming off the edges when I took the cakes out of the pans, which left me having to eat them! Oh, yummy preview! Hmmm, maybe this extra, spilled-over part is not such a bad thing?!

Sandy brought marvelous raspberries the day before, and they are so pretty and so delicious, I wanted to use them in and on the cake. But they need something to sit in. On top they will sit in the frosting but in between the layers they needed something. Lemon curd seemed just right. Again I went online, this time to Taste of Home, having never made homemade lemon curd.

Again I followed instructions, and again the mixture didn’t seem thick enough after the amount of time it said to stir in a pot over a flame. I got impatient at that point and put a teaspoon of cornstarch in a cup and added just enough water to stir it into a thick paste, then added that paste to the hot lemon mixture. This worked. I can’t say whether the curd would have been fine with more patience and without my remedy. Probably it would have.

My last bit of improv concerned the frosting. You make a buttercream frosting with butter, confectioner’s (powdered) sugar and a little milk (and vanilla if you want but I ran out last time I used it, and know I have another bottle around here but couldn’t find it, so no vanilla this time). Again I used the stand mixer because I wanted the frosting really fluffy, so I let the whisk beat it like mad for ten minutes or so. But I got concerned that I didn’t have enough frosting for the sides and top of the cake, and I used up all the powdered sugar I had, so I decided that I could add some leftover cream cheese frosting (from another cake sometime recently) just to make sure there was enough. I let this all whip together in the mixer. When I relayed this story at the table while we were eating the cake, my daughter Marie said this example of make-do illustrated my lifelong culinary style. So be it. The frosting worked 😊

The last essential birthday cake element in my house is the plate that is used for the Birthday Girl’s piece (or Boy’s, as the case may be). Long long ago I got this plate and have always brought it out along with the other plain dessert plates. I am not good with balloons for calling attention to the person we are celebrating. But a plate I can do!

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I can’t say I like this plate’s design all that much, and have never been crazy about the orange, but it’s what I have and what we’ve used and it serves! Mom’s piece went on this plate.

Whether or not my children follow this birthday-plate tradition, I don’t know. But I hoped they would. At one point a few years ago I searched on ebay and got them each a birthday plate. My favorite is the one I found for Marie. I have always been enamored with the original Winnie the Pooh stories and illustrations. Could there be a better Happy Birthday plate than this? I hope she uses it on everyone’s birthdays!

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Our tradition, like many people’s, is that we bring the cake with lighted candles in from another room while singing Happy Birthday.

We sang,  Mom blew out her candles and we celebrated this wonderful lady I get to call Mom!

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Where our tradition differs from most people’s perhaps is that after the Birthday Girl or Boy blows out the candles, she or he gets to make the first slice into it. They do not cut their whole piece, just the first slice into the cake, which Marie said was my way of retaining control over portion size, but this is not actually true – that’s just the way my mom did it, so I did! Mom never explained why she did it, but the way I always saw it was that the Birthday Girl or Boy gets to be involved, gets to start the process, but is not burdened with the work of cutting up the cake (which, c’mon, can be messy and tricky and require more concentration than a person celebrating a birthday can rightly be expected to have at that moment) – a perfectly plausible alternative reason to do it this way, wouldn’t you say!?

Mom cut the first slice and I so enjoyed watching her enjoy her piece – down to the last bit of gooey frosting! And I enjoyed mine too!

Mom’s Delicious Bracciole

My daughter and her family are coming to visit and it’s Mom’s birthday on Sunday, so I am making a special dish – manicotti (prepared with homemade crepes) – a meal Mom doesn’t make for herself very often. I planned on having a good baguette, warmed up, and a big green salad on the side, as well as some pan-fried Italian sausage, always a delicious extra protein. But yesterday I happened to see “Beef Top Round Thin Cut” in the meat case and thought Why not make bracciole?  That’s what any person would think if they saw meat like this, right?

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When I was a kid, Mom would make bracciole (pronounced brah-zho-lie) every now and then. I’m not sure why it didn’t appear on the table more often, maybe Mom will tell us. Bracciole is thinly sliced beef, rolled up with yummy parmesan or romano cheese and bread crumbs inside (that cheese was affectionately known in my family simply as “grating cheese”), seared in olive oil, then covered with your best red spaghetti sauce (affectionately known in my family simply as “sauce”) and cooked until tender. Oh yum!

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I asked my sister Lynn for her recipe because it’s not in my cookbook and I wanted to be sure I made them just like Mom used to. Perhaps I don’t have the recipe in my book because it’s so simple I thought I didn’t need the recipe? Lay out the meat, put bread crumbs, grating cheese and salt, pepper and seasonings on top, roll, secure, sear, smother in sauce, cook till done.

One step at a time, and with measurements, that process looks like this. My package contained eight slices. Start by carefully separating the slices from each other and laying them on a flat surface.

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One half cup of bread crumbs was just the right amount to sprinkle on these pieces. Lynn’s recipe called for seasoned bread crumbs but I didn’t have those, so I sprinkled Italian seasoning on the crumbs. If you don’t have Italian seasoning as a mix, use basil, oregano and garlic powder. I bet the Italian seasoning had parsley in it too, but I cannot be sure. Go with parsley too. One tablespoon of the mix was enough for these eight. Some people would use chopped fresh parsley, basil and oregano and minced garlic instead of the dried seasoning. I’m sure this is also wonderful. But in my family we kept it simple.

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I sprinkled salt and pepper on them too, then ¾ cup of grated parmesan cheese.

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Let the rolling begin!

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Nice and tight.

Normally I would roll with the fingers of both hands, but it’s mighty challenging to roll with two hands and take a photo with your phone at the same time! I can roll with one hand, but using two goes faster.

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My rolls looked like this.

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Do you see the toothpicks? I used two in each roll, stuck in at angles so they crossed each other in the middle. This holds the roll together during the searing process. You could also use string, the kind that holds pastry boxes together. I couldn’t find any string so I managed with toothpicks. It’s a little harder to get the sides all seared in the pan when you use toothpicks, but somehow I got through that.

Into the pan I put about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom well, and let it heat up for a minute or so on a medium flame. Then into the hot pan went the meat rolls.

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Give them a few minutes to brown on that bottom side, then turn them to brown them on another side. Turn again when the second side is brown and let a third side brown. Now depending on two things (1. your level of patience and 2. whether you’ve browned them in thirds or fourths), you might need to turn them one more time.

By this point your kitchen smells really good, by the way.

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Once they are seared to your satisfaction, douse with red sauce (meat or marinara, whichever you like best) and turn the heat down to low. Cover and let this cook about an hour.

I let mine cool, removed the toothpicks, put them in a serving dish and covered them tight. I will heat them up again on Sunday (will probably just put my serving dish in the oven for half an hour on 325F) to serve with the manicotti. I have no doubt they will be scrumptious!

Soon I will show you how to use the same thinly sliced meat to make rouladen, the German variation of this dish, also totally delicious, but rouladen would not go with manicotti!

Unbeatable Biscotti

“You could sell these.”

“You should sell these!”

“If you’ll make me more of these, I’ll pay you.”

“These are better than any you can buy.”

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If just one person had said such things about my lemon-anise-almond biscotti, I would have thanked her (or him) and carried on. But these make a great gift – they mail well and keep well – so I have made a gift of them many times. And I have heard similar versions of “these are great!” over and over again throughout the years since I discovered and tried this recipe in the Williams-Sonoma “Cookies & Biscotti” baking book.  I don’t even eat them myself (can’t abide the almonds) so I can’t chime in. Sometimes you have to just take people at their word.

This is the book.

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This is the recipe from the book.

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You can see that the page is wrinkled and has spots of something that spattered on it where it says “Makes about 3 dozen.”

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This is what happens when a book is open near your work area. The marks of use are like a letter of reference or a proof that the book has been opened to this page near splashing ingredients numerous times. You don’t use a recipe over and over that you don’t have success with. The marks on this page are the same as a tattered quilt to me — used, loved, used again.

Not only are these a wonderful gift, but they are a joy to make – even for someone who can’t abide nuts! Start with the mixing of the eggs and sugar. I know I’m partial to my own chickens’ eggs. Yesterday, when I needed one and simply walked out to the coop to get one (and the door was stuck on account of being swollen from the rain and I couldn’t get it open and had to ask Samuel for help!), I thought How many people can just walk out to their coop and get a fresh egg when they need one?

I know my eggs are super fresh, but I think yours would look just as beautiful as this whisked up in a bowl with the sugar.

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When you add the oil (olive oil for mine, I always use olive oil) and it sits on the top looking so separate,

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you might be tempted to wonder how it will incorporate. But a little wrist action brings those pure ingredients together into a smooth, glistening mixture that has its own beauty. I love the gleam.

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I don’t measure the lemon zest. The peel of one lemon, grated fine, has always been perfect not only in amount but also in how it adds to the pleasure of making these biscotti. On and in my grater, the little pieces of peel not only look beautiful, but the lemon oil that gets released fills the air with a freshness like no other. And however much it makes, it makes. I put it all in.

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Next comes the anise, another sensual wonder. You can buy ground or crushed anise, but to crush it yourself in an old-fashioned mortar and pestle, to smell the rich aroma of the anise oils breaking forth from the seeds – well, I’m in heaven.

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Once the grated lemon peel and crushed anise seed have been mixed in, it looks like this. Your nose will tell you you’re on the right track.

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It’s time for the rest: baking powder, vanilla, salt, flour, almonds. The recipe says to use whole almonds and chop them coarsely. If I liked almonds and wanted the joy of that experience (no doubt for almond-lovers it’s right up there with mixing the olive oil in, grating a fresh lemon and crushing anise seed), I would do that. But I simply tolerate the almonds for the sake of those who like/love them, so I cheat here and add the very thinly sliced almonds you can buy. In this case it was raining the other day when I might have gone to the store and Mom had some in her freezer – thanks, Mom!

Notice I moved to a strong wooden spoon instead of the whisk for this part.

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The dough is quite stiff by the time you mix everything in. The strong spoon is better.

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The recipe says to turn this out on a floured board and knead until smooth, about 10 times. I don’t know if I was distracted (that never happens around here!) or if I thought the dough looked smooth enough. Anyway I forgot this part and jumped to the pans. Again not sure what moved me to use parchment paper this time (for the first time ever) but I did, and it was great. I lined the pans. Notice I am not overly generous with the paper. Cheap runs deep!

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And put the stiff dough in.

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Turns out that not kneading the dough did not change the outcome. My loaves baked for the 30 minutes the recipe calls for, and they didn’t look very brown, but I took them out, waited a few and sliced them. It was just right.

Use a good serrated bread knife. You have to get through the almonds, and whether they are finely chopped or thinly sliced, they are an obstacle. Slice carefully.

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Now put those slices, cut-side down, on a baking sheet and right back in the oven.

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After 20 minutes in the oven for this part of the process, I didn’t think these looked quite browned enough, so I left them in another 8 minutes, and I liked that color, so I took them out, let them cool and boxed them up for my sister Joanne and her husband Fred, who were in town for a visit.

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I found just the right box in my handy-dandy empty box collection. Look at that, two layers fit perfectly. My children always laughed at me for saving empty boxes of various sizes, but as any empty box collector knows, all boxes are not the same and there’s something to be said for having a good selection for times such as these, which I did (on account of careful saving), and which came in handy (again). I say, if a thing – say for example my empty box collection – doesn’t harm anyone, shall we perhaps kindly overlook the quirk and allow the collector to indulge? But I digress.

Enjoy your biscotti and prepare yourself for rave reviews!