Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Critical Mom's Jack 'o Lanterns

Even though Hallowe'en is barely worshipped here. . . yes, a few stores have plastic pumpkins or lamps in the window . . . I managed to find a couple of very large ones, the kind out of which Germans make massive pots of soup, and carry them home, where my children carved them.  They are sitting, glowing with candlelit flame, on plastic chairs in our garden, because last year when I put them out in front of the house before Hallowe'en they were stolen.  They may get stolen again, but we'll enjoy them for one night at least, gleaming on our relatively untravelled street, innocent of trick-or-treaters.  I've harvested the seeds, and they will become wholesomely toasted snacks.  My children used to trick-or-treat with one neighbor, but this year we'll have a few chocolate bars at home and then dance around the jack 'o lanterns.  When the kids say, "When do we have to go to bed?" I'll say, "Oh, whenever you feel like it."
Now that's Hallowe'en.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Critical Mom's Nosebleed

I thought nosebleeds were for kids!  And I never had one in my life, until about two hours ago, when I wondered why, as I was reading Mary Antin and preparing tomorrow's American Immigrant Writers class while telling my daughter to start her violin practice, that my nose was running.  And then I thought of the moment in the 1970 French thriller, Le Boucher, when the children are at a picnic with their nice, but it turns out not so nice schoolteacher, and one of them says, "Il pleut! Il pleut rouge!" ("It's raining!  It's raining red!") and then all sorts of complications develop.  Fortunately my nose did exactly what the website said it would do if the blood was coming from only one nostril and if I sat up straight, pinched my nostrils together for ten minutes, and applied a cold pack to the back of my neck.  Which I did, while instructing my daughter to keep playing scales, and dabbing at the flow with a Kleenex.  I have to admit I also remembered the opening death from a nosebleed in one of the many unusual scenes supplying corpses to the funeral home in Six Feet Under (they were so inventive!  Remember the compacted waste from an airplane hitting a woman standing in front of her front door?)
But, gentle reader, my nosebleed stopped after ten minutes.   Why would somebody like me who eats right, gets plenty of exercise, and a reasonable amount of sleep have a nosebleed at fifty-seven?  Is it that I'm using too much garlic and fresh ginger in my cooking?  They're blood thinners, you know.  Maybe I should just go back to globs of butter on my bread and hunks of cheese and meat on rolls.  A traditional German Abendbrot, that is.   Feel free to advise me. 
P.S. My blood pressure is normal: 125 over 80, and I just checked, yes, and pulse is fine.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The School Tests and the Critical Mom's Kids

When I pick up my daughter and ask, "so how was school?" she says, "We had the math test today."  And she looks either worried or thrilled, but has gotten very good at not showing her hand. 
"So how did it go?"
"And by the way we had to do our timetable in English for English class, too."
"Yes, and that's 'schedule' in American, by the way."
"I know, Mommy! So I read 'math or mathematics' and she said, 'Yes, that's mawths."
"She's correcting you?"
"Moths are funny little insects that congregate around light bulbs.  How was the math test you took?"
"Well, Mommy . . . ." and I cannot for the life of me tell whether the look is one of suppressed glee or dejection.  We're walking out the school door and she wants to go the long way, but I'm carrying her seven-ton schoolbag and it's raining, so I insist that we proceed as quickly as possible to the nearest tram stop.
"If we go my way, I'll tell you right now.  Otherwise, I'll tell you at home."
"So, okay, tell me at home."  She looks murderous and is good as her word.  The minute we're in the door and the schoolbag lands with a resounding thump, the muscles in my shoulder buzzing, she says, "Well, Mommy, only one person in the class got nothing wrong," (with a very convincing look of despair.)  "There were ten ones, five twos, three fours, and about six fives.  Only one person got nothing wrong. . .  AND THAT WAS ME!" With a tooth-sparkling grin and a high five.  Wow.  So we're very happy.  Then her brother comes home, and all is straightforward:
"Guess what Mom I gotta one on the Chemistry test!" 
"You could do pre-Med!" I say, with my usual over-enthusiasm.  The poor kid's only twelve.
"Nah, I don't wanna be a doctor.  What else can I do with Chemistry?"
"Oh, research, or---"
He's behind his door immersed in Minecraft by the end of the sentence.  Later, he's correcting his English exam.  The teacher is not a native speaker.  I am, and my husband might as well be, having lived in Southern California for seven sunny years.  Our son had written, "For how long did you live in Paris?" The teacher had marked that wrong.  My husband didn't see anything wrong with it and neither did I.  This may be the very same teacher who pronounced the word "lettuce" as "letooose." We all sat around eating pumpkin soup, listening to the rain, missing the eldest child, who is having fantastic time in Southern China, and wondering what unexpected pronunciations of common words our kids might hear from their English teachers, none of whom seems to have come across this handy guide:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ebola and The Critical Mom

No, I don't have it.  But our son just flew to China and we got him to buy, in addition to the anti-smog facial mask he was planning to pick up anyway, a few latex gloves and a largish bottle of hand disinfectant.
This is in the wake of Texas.  Of the second sick nurse and her flight on a commercial jet with 131 other passengers.  Of plague running wild in Liberia, in West Africa, in Liberia, in Guinea, in Sierra Leone, in Nigeria.  Our son, who thinks the gloves are overkill, was willing to use the hand disinfectant, and Whats APPed me a photo of the sign at the Beijing airport,  a billboard reading:

WEST AFRICAN PASSENGERS ONLY: Incoming travellers from Ebola heaemorragghic fever outbreak countries. . .  or having been to the above . . . during the last 21 days, please pass through the WEST AFRICAN PASSENGERS CHANNEL.

Ebola may hit China in three weeks.  But the Chinese seem to be concocting an anti-viral, and Chinese medicine has developed over thousands of years of practice with plagues and pestilence.  A formula provided by includes the following for such pestilences, including, presumably, the present one:

Shui Niu Jiao (Bubali Cornu)
Xuan Shen (Scrophulariae Radix)
Sheng Di Huang (Rehmanniae Radix)
Mu Dan Pi (Moutan Cortex)
Chi Shao (Paeoniae Rubra Radix)
Da Qing Ye (Isatadis Folium)
Zi Cao (Lithospermi seu Arnebiae Radix)

It's a comforting thought to know that my son will be in the same country as folks who know where to get these things and how to use them.  My husband and I drank to his health tonight, were delighted to hear that he is having a good time and has a nice room-mate, and wish, like anxious parents everywhere, that travel was a sure thing and that all his experiences will be good ones.   I still think the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but I know that there's nothing people lie about more than their bodies.  Illness, sexual experience, age--these are the things we expect people to lie about and about which people delude themselves.  If we could win the war with these lies--this subset of our fears--we'd have a better chance of containing Ebola sooner. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

"It's a trifle," and The Critical Mom

Trifle, my dears is no trifle.  The bombastic British dessert with the name that remains stereotypically British in its understatement is, however, delicious.  A calorie-bomb, as the Germans would say, guaranteed to clog every artery.  But only if you eat it every day.  (Was it Ben or Jerry who had quadruple bypass?  But he was tasting this stuff hourly, not just daily).

The most fun I ever had was tasting the mascarpone when I was trying to figure out how to contrive a stand-in for the required "double cream."  As far as I know, the only place in the world where you can buy "double cream" in a supermarket (or anywhere else) is the United Kingdom.  So I considered sour cream, cream whipped until it's almost butter, and mascarpone, which tastes like the creamiest cream you ever tried, except that it's solid.  And I decided on a mix:  about 200 ml of regular old whipping cream, plus about three fourths of a 500 gram container of mascarpone.  I put the cream in the bowl first . . . . oh, but I'm getting way ahead of myself.  Here is the ordeal of making trifle, the most non-trifling labor I have ever endured in the kitchen, and believe-you-me, entirely worth it, worth it to the point where The Guardian is willing to review a British cookbook entirely devoted to recipes for "Trifle."  Five hundred of 'em.  Now this is just one:

Get a big glass pyrex dish with a cover--the kind that is good for making enough shepherd's pie to feed a family of five or six.

Line the bottom of the pan with ladyfingers (Löffelbiskuit or"spoon cookie" if you are German, and let me tell you, the Wikipedia article on names for this delicacy is entertaining)

If they are big thick ladyfingers, slice them in half first.  If they live up to their name, don't.

Spread over the ladyfingers a layer of the jam of your choice.   Often either raspberry or strawberry jam is suggested, but there are folks who use fresh fruit or jello or some mix thereof.  I used about six tablespoons of raspberry jam.

Pour over the mix about 150 ml of sweet sherry.

Repeat!  That is, another layer of ladyfingers, another layer of jam, another slosh of sherry.  Lots of sherry!  Enough to soak them, but not so much that you can hardly see them under the sherry.

Cover the concoction and let it sit there for at least an hour while you're working on the next layer, which is the custard layer.  If you're pressed for time, I supposed you can use some vanilla pudding mix, but the more interesting way is the following:

Put three eggs in a bowl and add three or four little packets of vanilla sugar. (about 25 grams of vanilla sugar) If that's not available, try sugar and McCormick's vanilla extract.  Mix well.  Pour into this 300 ml (half a pint) of milk which you've microwaved to slightly more than lukewarm, but not hot (some British recipes say "blood heat"which sounds a lot gruesomer than the 98.6ºF or 37ºC normal body temperature that it is.)

Strain this mixture (a sieve will do) into a double boiler or any contraption you've rigged that works like one; the mixture should be over simmering water and you should stir constantly "until it coats the back of a spoon," says the recipe I used.   Until it thickens a bit, that is.   When it does, pour the whole yellowy concoction on top of the ladyfinger-sherry-jam mix.   Let it cool and keep the closed container in the fridge for AT LEAST four hours.  When it's cooled its heels for that length of time, be ready with--if you have access to the British isles, that is--300 ml (or one half pint) of "double cream," which is around fortysomething percent fat instead of the usual around thirty percent that you can get in regular old whipping cream.  So here's what I did, having zero access to the British isles as I do:  I poured 200 ml (the amount in about one coffee-mug sized cup) into a bowl, added a little vanilla extract and a dollop of sugar, and beat that until it was frothy.  Then I dumped in that three-fourths of a 500 gram (around 17.6 oz. size) container in and whipped the mix to a creamy consistency.    Spread all that on top of the custard and then you get to decorate!  I washed and pushed gently into the cream mix a box of raspberries; I noticed we had a pot of Moroccan Mint in our kitchen and found a few leaves untouched by aphids which I washed thoroughly and added to the center of the masterpiece.

Yum, Yum.  And this is why I now weigh sixty kilos (I don't even want to know what that is in pounds) instead of the svelte fifty-four that allows me to easily don the lovely knife-pleat Irish tweed walking skirts that I bought back in 1985 . . . .