26 December 2016

Boxing Day at Brick Arbor: Poppyseed Chicken

My mother adored Christmas. Early in December, we’d rummage the boxes of decorations down from the attic: the plaster of Paris crèche from Japan, the ceramic tree lit from within and studded with plastic “ornaments” (rather like Lite Brite), scads of 1960s era figurines, like a Santa band and little angels.  We twined the bannisters with garland and hung brass horns all over.  A wreath went on the outside of the front door and sleigh bells hung on the inside, jingling at every entry and exit.  The house was transformed, and she loved it.  
Christmas dinner was nearly always just our family of six (excepting the odd relative who might be in town or a college student or two unable to travel home for the holiday). But when I was in college, my mother instituted another dinner occasion that began to rival Christmas—for me at least.  My unabashedly Anglophilic parents knew, of course, of the lovely English tradition of celebrating Boxing Day on the 26th.   In 1989, Betsy invited a group of folks over for a Boxing Day dinner—a tradition that persisted in one form or another for over two decades.
The first Boxing Day invitees were the Powers family, who lived in the neighborhood, and Bill and Ellen, teachers and theatre directors who later married (by the power vested in my Baptist minister father).  Bill had recently become the theatre director at the high school, and my brother and the youngest Powers son had just appeared in The Crucible (as Samuel Parris and John Proctor respectively).  Although I didn’t know Bill or Ellen really at all, my mother had become quite fond of them.  (The following summer, I would play a Pink Lady in Grease under Bill’s direction—one of two summer shows we did together—and get to know him quite a bit better.)
All these years later, I recall how festive it felt to have such a party following after Christmas, to keep the merry going.  It speaks volumes about Betsy Stine, too, that the day after putting on a big Christmas for the family she still had the energy, resources, and inclination to host six or seven guests to a sit-down dinner.  For that first Boxing Day, she made rich and delicious Poppyseed Chicken. I was not yet the pescatarian I am today, so I loved that creamy, cracker-topped dish.  The recipe is written in my mother’s hand on an ‘80s vintage card bearing a Bible verse.  It comes from the kitchen of Martha Santon, a hometown friend whose daughter Karen loved my mother like a sister. (As an aside, I find poetry in the fact that a recipe from the kitchen of the family closest to my mother in her growing up years ended up feeding the neighbors who remain my dearest friends from childhood.)
         It’s a simple and delicious dish, if one doesn’t mind so much canned soup.

Poppyseed chicken

6 whole chicken breasts, cooked (reserve stock)
1 pt sour cream.
1 can each cream of mushroom, celery, chicken.
garlic powder
2/3 C chicken stock                                            50 Ritz
                                                               2T poppyseeds.

[and on the reverse, the directions, rather telegraphic]
1.)    Chicken in 9 x 13
2.)    Sauce (soups, cream, stock)
3.)    Fine cracker crumbs,
melted butter and poppy seeds

Bake 350º until brown & bubbly.

         My mother held an annual Boxing Day dinner at Brick Arbor until 1999, the year her ALS made itself known.  By the following December, she was unable to host, and the Powers family made everyone welcome in their early 1900s cottage-style house. That Boxing Day, the last my mother attended (she was hospitalized by the next Christmas), she gave a recitation I’d never heard before of a funny poem she performed in a Swedish accent.  I can’t remember what it was called or what the substance of it was, but I was struck by this: here was my mother, struggling to walk and speaking in a hoarse voice from her advancing disease, but still pulling out a surprise monologue she had memorized long ago. 
         After that year, Boxing Day traveled: sometimes the Powers family hosted, sometimes Bill and Ellen at their astoundingly decorated recently built home.  When husband and I moved back into Brick Arbor for a spell in the mid-2000s, we hosted once or twice.  Everyone from the Original Guest List who could kept the day open and worked hard to be there.  My mother passed, and still Boxing Day continued, with new additions to the guest roster.  My father hosted it once at his retirement community; another family friend who’d joined the guest roster also held one or two Boxing Days at her great big house on Sheepdog Hill. The year before my father died, the Powerses were slated to host but snowy conditions and concern about older folks’ mobility led them to cancel.  So 2009 was the last, and no one knew it at the time.   Once my father died, Boxing Day as we knew it was at an end.  But I’d say it had a Damn Good Run.

26 November 2016

Midcentury Potluck: Zucchini Supreme

As I mentioned in my reactivation post, it has been our great good fortune to make many new friends since we relocated back to our home state.  We returned, in large part, for the golden friendships we knew, but we have been blessed with many silver as well.  Among these are a gorgeous and hospitable married couple who happen to be Champion Entertainers.  This year, they hit a new high, throwing a Midcentury Potluck Party for Hallowe’en.  The invitation encouraged 1960s-era costume and dishes based on Jell-O and mayo (maybe even together).

With nothing in my closet that I deemed appropriate, I scoured consignment shops until I found a mint green skirt suit, which I wore with pearls and heels (of course).  As for my potluck contribution, I eschewed Jell-O for the savory; I knew I’d be able to rustle up an obnoxiously creamy deep dish from the Recipe Box.   As I leafed through the cards behind the “Casserole” tab, there was this:

I always envied that effortless cursive.

It had me at “Supreme.”  How perfectly retro.   I don’t ever remember my mother serving this; how many other culinary delights are tucked away in that Box, awaiting discovery? There’s no provenance here, no indication of the recipe’s source.  What would prompt her to copy this out?  If she saw it in a magazine, why not just clip the page? (Not knowing intrigues me; and not being able to ask saddens me. )

Zucchini Supreme

2# zucchini. Trim ends; do not peel.  Cook in salted water until tender.  Drain  well and mash.
1/2# bulk sausage
1/4 C chopped onions.
Cook sausage + onions together until meat browns, stirring occasionally to keep meat separated.
1/2 C cracker crumbs
1/2 C Parmesan cheese (reserve part for top.)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 pinch thyme, rosemary, garlic salt, salt + pepper to taste.
Add crumbs, cheese, eggs, + seasoning to sausage + onion along with mashed zucchini.
Turn into greased 9” pie plate or baking dish.  Sprinkle with remaining cheese.
Bake at 350˚ for 40-45 minutes.

I freely admit that boiling the unpeeled zucchini until soft and then mashing them sounded gross.  But the eggs, cheese, and cracker crumbs turn this into a gratiny baked delight.  Being vegetarian, I made it with fauxsage and it was really quite tasty.  Despite the hyperbole of the name, it wasn’t quite over-the-top enough to attain Squash Supremacy.  But I would make it again.

Not surprisingly, the party was a GAS!  There were candy cigarettes and Manhattans, go-go boots and big waved hair—even a Marilyn look-alike.  One of the highlights was a recitation by my beloved of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “DADA WOULD HAVE LIKED A DAY LIKE THIS”  ending with a cigarette flicked to the floor.   And let me tell you: people went to great lengths to outdo one another with sculptural Jell-O, moulded meat products, and sweet-savory dishes (like meatballs with grape jelly) that were all the rage 50-odd years ago.  This astounding Super Supper Loaf ran away with the prize for Best Presentation (of course there were prizes).

The artfully retro table.

The winning Super Supper Loaf.

As we stood around the table, martini glasses in hand, I spoke of making the Zucchini Supreme and feeling close to my mother as I read through the recipe in her beautiful cursive (that capital Z!).  A fellow partygoer (another wonderful newer friend) said, “I actually met your mother once.”  She attended the College where my father professed English literature for forty years and had been to my parents’ home, where students were frequently welcomed.  I told her that my mother would have liked her a lot—and Bets would have, too: a bighearted Midwesterner studying to be a librarian, Friend would have quite a lot in common with my mom.

So as it turns out, Midcentury Potluck is the catalyst for my return to blogging.  I owe my gracious hosts for far more than candy cigarettes and en epic evening. 

19 November 2016


Who of us has not begun a blog with the best of intentions, only to let it subsequently languish?  I’ve started or been part of at least two or three that have since gone to seed out there in the blogosphere.  But I always intended to get back to this one, as I enjoyed it so—and since I have many, many recipe cards to archive and riff on. 

In the four years since my last post, I have sold a house, moved to a different state, begun a new job, bought a house, and made many new friends.  All the while I have taught, cared for my family, sung in the church choir, practiced yoga, ridden the commuter rail, read scads of books, and enjoyed flourishing friendships.  I have even cooked a little bit.

And the recipe box?  It has mostly been in the basement, on a shelf.  When I have gone down to retrieve wrapping paper or walked past on my way to do laundry, I have caught sight of the box, and silently vowed to take up this project again.

The Time is Now.

28 May 2012

Here Comes Summer!

         Beginning in the 1990s, my mom hosted an informal gathering on Memorial Day for several years running and called it “Here Comes Summer!” (Labor Day was of course “There Goes Summer” for her and all the teachers we knew.)  The same group of in-town friends came each year—Kendra, Renie and her family, the Johnsons, neighbors Chuck and Donna and any of their assorted children who might be in town.  My siblings and I would invite various friends as well, depending on who was around.  In later years, a Catholic priest who’d been added to the guest list invariably arrived with a gorgeous confection from a local bakery, making the same charming joke about having slaved away all day.  Beginning in mid afternoon, we would snack on Ro-Tel dip, deviled eggs, wings, crabbie melts—time-honored treats always made the same way by the same people.  In the early years, burgers and dogs and picnic salads  followed the appetizers, but we might have done away with the “main course” eventually because the appetizers were so, well, appetizing.
         At our New England address, Memorial Day was just as often rainy and cold as it was sunny and warm.  Folks would sit on the screen porch nonetheless; rain or shine, we’d break out the first summer ales of the season, along with specially-made whiskey sours for one of the guests.  In the wooden box I find two Here Comes Summer staples, both attributed to Kendra and Renie (both staples themselves in the family friend department and excellent seamstresses): crabbie melts and Jezebel.  Both recipes are materially interesting, too.  Jezebel (named, of course, after the depraved Old Testament queen) is easy to make but tricky, perhaps, to like.  (It’s basically horseradish and jellies over cream cheese.)  I found two renderings of this one.  The first, likely the original, is on the reverse of a pink “While You Were Out” message sheet, and scrawled in my mother’s writing.  

       Even though my mother eventually copied the ingredients neatly on an actual recipe card, she kept the first copy.  To make Jezebel requires

                  1 12-oz jar of pineapple preserves

                  1 10-oz jar apple jelly

                  2 1/2 oz horseradish

                  4 tsp dry mustard

                  Mix and serve on block of Philly

That is all.  I recall it being served with the Pepperidge Farm Entertaining Quartet: butterflies, sesame wafers, wheat and water crackers. There was always Jezebel left over in the fridge.  I would have a bite or two then think how old school a food it was.
Crabbie melts were the purview of Kendra, who always brought the ingredients and made them in our oven.  The recipe is on a plain card, in my mother’s handwriting; on the reverse, the proportions are slightly modified and  written in my brother Nathaniel’s printing-cursive hybrid.
Nathaniel is no fish eater.  (When he toured Japan with a professional chorus, everyone in the group blew their per diems on sushi.  He ate at Subway and returned home laden with expense money.)
But he LOVES crabbie melts.  I know he copied out Kendra’s recipe for himself; what’s on the back of my mom’s original recipe isn’t exactly clear.   Hers reads:

                                          Crabbie Melts — K & R

         1 stick margarine

         1 Old English cheese spread

         1/2 tsp + mayo [+ = opposite of scant?]

         1/2 tsp garlic powder

         7 oz can crabmeat

         Spread on Eng. muffins
                                    15 min @ 350˚

My brother’s version makes no mention of English muffins and calls for more of everything.  I wonder if it is a “dip” version, perhaps?

         By my count, it is 11 years since my Mom hosted her last Here Comes Summer.  That doesn’t quite seem possible.  Sipping a summer ale as I write, on a very hot day on my shady deck, I wouldn’t want to have the oven on today for crabbie melts.  Maybe this is good weather for Jezebel—that creamy, fruity-cool, sour-sweet, no-cook oddity I always passed up in favor of deviled eggs.