November 27th, 2005

ozarque figure

Back on Terra, part 6 -- even faster forward

After Denver, we went back to Sarasota, but we didn't stay there; we moved on to Washington DC. We were living in an apartment in a big old house -- a house that Peter found delightful for its architecture and interior design, and that I found horrifying for its hazards to the children. Tall windows with elegant wooden shutters and deep windowseats, for children to fall out of; a long flight of outdoor stairs down to the basement, with no railing or barrier of any kind, for chidlren to tumble down; a kitchen with bats, for children to interact with.

We weren't popular in that neighborhood; we were the wrong color and the wrong class. When the children and I went to wait at the bus stop the young males that lived in the area would force us to stand out in the street by moving closer and closer to us in a solid phalange and making us keep stepping back until we had to step off the curb, and then they'd move away -- as long as we didn't try to get out of the street. Since I had a toddler by the hand and a baby on my hip, there wasn't anything I could do about that.

I was looking for a job, and that meant calling the employment agency every morning at exactly eight o'clock; if I didn't get a call in then, it would be hours before there was an open line. We had no telephone, and so every morning I took the two girls [my son was in school in Geneva] and walked a couple of blocks to a phone booth in a parking lot. I had been there right on time nine business days in a row.

And then came the morning when the baby wet her diapers just as I got to the door and I had to stop and get her changed and dressed again before we could leave. And when we got to the parking lot there was no phone booth there. Just rubble, like very fine gravel, where it had been. A bomb had gone off inside the booth at exactly eight o'clock, when we would ordinarily all three have been inside.

That brought the FBI to the apartment, which was tiresome, and accomplished nothing.

And it brought an end to my patience with charming old houses and fascinating neighborhoods that were dangerous for children; I fled to the suburbs. In a little over twenty-four hours I had us in a high-rise apartment building in Silver Springs, Maryland.

I had to take three different buses to get to work, but it was worth it.
ozarque figure

Back on Terra [sort of], part 7

In Washington, Peter tried hard to be an interior designer; he gave it 110 percent. He loved the actual designing and decorating part; he loved doing the drawings and the watercolors, he loved selecting the fabrics and colors and furnishings. He was exceedingly good at that part of the job. But he was a total failure at the task that turned out to be what brand new interior designers were supposed to spend most of their time doing for their firms, which was selling. He found everything to do with selling -- in the mainstream American sense of the term -- rude and repugnant. He just could not bring himself to behave that way, no matter how hard he tried. He was like writers who want to be left alone to write while somebody else handles the selling and marketing and promoting. Because it became clear to him that the interior design thing just was not going to work, and he had a wife and three children to think of, Peter did something quite different: he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was sent off to Officer's Candidate School.

Since he was fully bilingual and had every social skill needed to be a valuable resource in foreign embassies and similar exotic environments, the Air Force made him a radar technician. I was uneasy about that, but it turned out to be fine; he enjoyed the work and he was good at it. And he was crazy about being an Air Force officer; it came naturally to him, and he fit in as if he'd been there from birth.

However, he was married to me. I suppose there could be someone less suited for the role of Air Force officer's wife than an ungainly radical pacifist from the Ozark mountains. Maybe. But I can't think of any such person.

It was different from the problems I'd had in Europe, where I was just lost. I had no trouble understanding the Air Force Officer Culture in the 60s; the difficulty was that it was in conflict with everything I believed in. Not just in the fact that its members were prepared to go out and kill people, but in a multitude of little things. (I suspect that most of those things no longer go on, but in those days they were obligatory.)

When I took one of our children to the base clinic, there'd be a whole room full of other mothers with sick children, waiting to see a doctor. But when I went in, because my husband was an officer, they immediately ushered me to the head of the queue. Arguing about it would have reflected badly on Peter, and it would have embarrassed the enlisted men's wives and children who had to watch me do it, so I gritted my teeth and Conformed. I hated that, and I hated all of the other similar phenomena of privilege of that kind that I was expected to participate in.

I was no good at putting on a hat and gloves and going to officer's-wife brunches with fashion shows laid on. I was no good at always having my house spotless when officials arrived to do unannounced spot inspections. I was no good at spending my days shopping and having lunch and dusting and polishing and talking about hairdos and makeup and gossiping about what naughty things other officer's wives not present at the time were doing. I despised gossip, I cared nothing about hairdos and makeup and clothes and good housekeeping. I was no good at putting on elegant small dinners for a few carefully chosen couples. And I had the awkward habit of speaking the truth, which startled people.

I never was able to look like the other wives. They had the flawless laquered look of models, perfectly dressed and made up and coiffed and manicured, and they put in many hours of hard work maintaining that look. I could achieve a sort of clumsy approximation of The Look when I really tried, but it never lasted; half an hour into whatever event I was on display for, everything would start coming undone.

Peter would sit me down and explain to me that in many ways his career depended on my learning to do all these things; and because I understood that and I loved him and I wanted him to succeed, I did try -- but I was just as rotten at that as he had been at selling.

I have no idea how this would have turned out if he had lived. I especially have no idea how it would have turned out when the war in Vietnam became part of the picture. I'd like to think that I would have been able somehow to muster up enough of the necessary officer's-wife techniques to get by, and at least enough that I wouldn't have held Peter back. Perhaps I would have found a way to become the officer's-wife-group Token Eccentric. Perhaps I would have resorted to a classic Southern-lady solution and become an invalid. I don't know.

But he died just a few days after his first promotion, while he was having a drink and a good time with some friends, at the Officer's Club. He died instantly, with no pain, and no long grinding illness (or long grinding treatment for illness) to endure, and no miserable hospital stay to go through hooked up to machines and tubes. May everyone I love be that fortunate.
ozarque figure

Recipe: Really easy-to-make bread.

REALLY EASY-TO-MAKE BREAD
(makes two one-pound loaves)

This bread truly is child's play to make. A lot of time goes by when you're making it because there are two one-hour periods of rising involved. But the actual amount of time you spend doing something couldn't be more than fifteen minutes. For me, ten minutes, and in an emergency I could cut that back some.


2 cups water
4 cups (roughly) unsifted flour
1 TBSP dry yeast
1 TBSP sugar
1/2 TBSP salt


1. Put two cups of warm water in a big mixing bowl. (Warm means the temperature you'd use for a baby's bottle; warm on the back of your hand, but not hot.)

2. Sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of dry yeast over the water, and then a level tablespoon of sugar.

3. Let that sit a minute or two so the yeast can dissolve and start to bubble; then stir gently. (With a wooden spoon, please.)

4. Stir in two cups (roughly) of all-purpose unsifted flour.

5. Stir briskly till well blended and free of almost all lumps. [At this point it will look like a batter; it's supposed to.]

6. Add one more cup of flour; make a hollow in that flour and add 1/2 tablespoon of salt; then add one more cup of flour on top of that. Mix well. Scrape down the dough that's clinging to the sides of the bowl with a non-metal spatula, to get all the ingredients. The result will be a sticky ball of dough.

7. Put the dough to rise for one hour. I let mine rise in my oven, with the oven light turned on, and I push the bowl right to the back under the light. If it's really cold in your house, turn your oven on -- before putting the bowl inside -- to Warm, or to under 200 degrees if you don't have a Warm setting. (For my stove, that's 170.) Count to ten and turn the oven off again. [Note: If your oven has a pilot light you won't have to do this even in cold weather.]

8. Put the bowl of dough in the oven, just like it is -- no need to cover it or do anything else to it. Close the oven and set the timer for one hour.

9. When the timer goes off, take the bowl of dough out and stir it down with the wooden spoon. Don't turn it out and knead it. Don't try to handle it with your hands at all; it's very sticky.

10. Butter two loaf pans (or spray them with vegetable spray if you don't want to use butter or margarine). I use two glass loaf pans because they seem to me to make a better crust, but metal or silicon pans are okay.

11. Divide the ball of dough in half in the bowl with the wooden spoon and the spatula.

12. Use your spoon and spatula to put one half of the dough into each of the greased baking pans. Don't worry if you can't make the piece of dough fit the pan perfectly; it doesn't matter. A rough fit is fine.

13. If it's cold in your house (unless your oven has a pilot light), turn your oven to Warm again, count to ten; then turn the oven off. Put the pans of dough in the oven, back under the light, and close the oven. Set the timer for one hour. (Longer is okay.)

14. When the timer goes off, open the oven just long enough to position the pans of dough properly. Turn the oven on to 375-400 degrees and set your timer to bake the bread for thirty minutes. (My stove cooks a bit hotter because it uses propane, so I bake it at 375; that may not be quite hot enough for standard gas or electric stoves.)

15. Turn the baked loaves out on a rack to cool. If you're using glass pans, let the loaves cool in the pans for seven minutes before you try to turn them out.

That's it... This bread freezes beautifully and will keep several months in the freezer.


Notes:

1. If you have a nice warm sunny windowsill where you can put your bread to rise year round, you can of course forget all that business about turning your oven on to Warm and counting to ten. You can also forget about it any time that it's nice and warm in your house.

2. You can of course add raisins and cinnamon and nuts .... or grated cheese ..... or grated cheese and herbs.... or whatever.

3. This recipe is based on a recipe called "Annie's No-Knead French Bread" on page 96 of a useful book called Simple Country Pleasures, edited by Francine Hornberger and published by Friedman/Fairfax in 1998; the ISBN is 1-56799-632-9. Highly recommended if you're into simple country pleasures. I had to do only a tiny bit of tweaking. My children and grandchildren gave me that book, and I read the recipe with interest -- but I'd made bread all my life, and I simply did not believe that it could possibly work, so it was two years before I actually tried it. Two lost years, when I spent far more time and energy making bread that wasn't as good. Calling it "French" bread is a bit of a stretch, but it's an excellent country bread with an excellent flavor and texture.
ozarque figure

Recipe: a flatbread recipe that works

FLATBREAD
[Based on a recipe from Cooks Illustrated that required a physics (or chef's) degree to understand and had to go through massive tweaking before an Ordinary Person could use it.]


1 TBSP dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 TSP sugar
1 TBSP olive oil
1/4 cup plain yogurt [not low-fat], or 1/4 cup sour cream [not "lite" or low-fat] -- either one will do
2 1/2 cups unsifted bread flour, roughly
1/2 TBSP salt

1. Let the yogurt or sour cream come to room temperature before you use it. [If you forget to do this in advance -- I almost always do forget -- you can warm it for 20 seconds at Medium in your microwave without hurting anything.]

2. Put 1 cup warm water in a mixing bowl. [Warm .... like for a baby's bottle. Not hot, but good and warm.]

3. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of dry yeast over the water; let it sit a minute. Then add 2 teaspoons of sugar and one tablespoon of olive oil. Mix gently with a wooden spoon till most of the lumps are gone. Then add the yogurt or sour cream and mix a bit more, with the wooden spoon.

4. Add 2 cups unsifted flour, then the salt, then the other 1/2 cup of flour; mix well with wooden spoon.

5. Turn the dough out on a floured surface [see note below] and knead till smooth and elastic; if it's too sticky to handle, it's okay to add a little more flour. Two or three minutes kneading is usually enough.

6. Put the dough back in the bowl and let it rise till double in your oven (or on your sunny windowsill) for an hour.

7. Stir down the dough one more time; then turn it out on a floured surface and cut it into eight parts with scissors. That is -- cut the ball of dough in half. Then cut each half in half. And so on, till there are eight pieces. Make each piece into a ball with your hands; then flatten each ball into roughly a 4-inch circle with your hands and set it back on the floured surface to rest for ten minutes. [The original recipe said to roll it out with a rolling pin; I strongly advise you not to do it that way.]

8. 5 minutes into that ten-minute rest period, put a large skillet or griddle to heat, over medium heat. Don't grease the skillet or do anything else to it; just let it get hot.

9. At the end of the ten-minute rest period, you can start cooking the flatbreads. Pick up a circle of dough with your hands, stretch it into as large a piece as you can without tearing it. Lay it on the hot skillet, carefully, and cook it about 20 seconds so that it will "set." Then turn it over (with a spatula) and let it cook until the bottom is speckled (about one minute). Flip again; cook another minute or two. [Exactly how long you cook the bread on each side is going to vary with such factors as how high the flame, how heavy the skillet, and so on; you'll have to experiment to find the exactly right amount of time for your skillet and stove.] Remove each flatbread to a wire rack to cool as you finish it. I recommend not trying to cook more than two pieces at a time.

10. When the flatbreads are completely cool, store them in a plastic bag or other container so they don't dry out. They'll keep several days, and they freeze well.

Notes

1. You can really burn yourself doing this, because that hot skillet is dangerous. You don't want any children in the kitchen while you're making the bread, you want your hair fastened back, and you want to be extremely careful not to touch the surface of the skillet as you lay the circles of dough on it. I'm serious. Doing it outside on hot rocks was an excellent idea; if I had an outdoor oven to heat the rocks in I'd do that myself. It would be safer.

2. Let the skillet cool completely before you try to wash it; otherwise, it will warp.

3. Defining my terms .... there's that "floured surface." I sprinkle some water on my kitchen counter, lay a piece of waxed paper over the damp surface, smooth it down, and sprinkle flour over it. That means tearing off two pieces of waxed paper at the beginning of the process, one for kneading the ball of dough and a bigger one to let the circles of dough rest on. Obviously, if you have a lovely marble slab to work with you don't need to fool with waxed paper.
ozarque figure

Personal note.....

I've done four posts this morning because (a) we're expecting humungous storms this afternoon, and for all I know the power will be off for days, and (b) if the storms treat us gently I'm still looking at a week of commotion and chaos ahead involving a book designer and an agent and a batch of committees and editors and some other exotica. (If the power's off they won't be able to reach me. Sometimes clouds have at least partially silver linings.)

I may or may not find myself unable to post again before Friday, and have therefore Planned Ahead.