Sunday, June 9, 2013

...what I learned about life from banana nut bread

These are my treasures. They are covered in stains and falling apart.
I've entered most into the computer but I can't seem to part with the old handwritten or typed copies.

Yes, I have strong ties to banana nut bread. One of my mother's recipes for this delight survived everything nature hurled at us and the memories of her efforts are fresh. But beyond an emotional - nay, sensual - connection, practical lessons exist.

I've thrown together meals faster than you can say Bob's-your-uncle. I am, then, most grateful for a leisurely kitchen moment. This gift came today. But the practices that made this baking endeavor a pleasure carry over to rushed daily sessions and apply to other areas of life as well.

Get organized.
I read the recipe last night. Understand...I'm one of those people who can never quite remember baking proportions. Is it one teaspoon or one and a quarter? Last night I checked ingredients and instructions.

When I got up, I took two eggs out of the refrigerator along with a stick of butter to allow time for these to reach room temperature. I measured the dry ingredients into a bowl and whisked them together. Measured the sugar into a small glass Pyrex bowl. May I insert here that I love Dollar Tree? Four of these handy kitchen aids for - you got it - one dollar.  Had breakfast and read the news. Just before I began assembling, I mashed the bananas in another bowl. Whipped the eggs in yet another and added the vanilla. Chopped the walnuts and, yep, put them in one of the $-Tree wonders.

Life Skill Equivalent of Get Organized: This works in every aspect of existence. I've learned - from trying the opposite approach - that discipline and organization make for a happier, simpler existence with fewer crises and less drama. Choose clothes the night before. Meditate before rising. Make a budget. But don't be rigid. Somedays good intentions and plans are up-ended. But if every day is pandemonium, perhaps personal discipline and planning have been given short-shrift.

Clean as you go.
My method is a varietal. [Life in and around wine country has crept into my lexicon.] Before starting, I emptied the dishwasher. As I mixed the bread, I rinsed the bowls and implements as I finished with each. Stacked them in the sink. When I put the bread in the oven, I loaded these into the dishwasher and wiped down the counters. I find this less overwhelming than a pile of bowls and implements in various stages of food-hardening. And less annoying than opening the dishwasher door seven, eight, fourteen times.

Life Skill Equivalent of Clean As You Go: Before going to sleep, review the day. Take an inventory of the events and the interactions. Recognize thoughtless and rude behavior and resolve to make amends. ASAP. This keeps wounds from festering. We're not responsible for another's response, only our actions.

Follow GOOD directions and don't take shortcuts.
A time-proven recipe has worked the kinks out of the finished product. With the exception of my friend Barbara's cherry dump cake, mixing in a prescribed fashion works best. I avoid artificial flavorings. "Artificial vanilla extract is an abomination." Chapter 1, Vs. 1 The Gospel of Baking According to Henrietta, Vancene, Jo and Celeste. Fresh ingredients - the real stuff - produce the best results.

Life Skill Equivalent of Follow Directions and Avoid Shortcuts: Look at other people whose lives mirror qualities you want to emulate. Learn from those who have gone before. This is the gift of the ages. We humans are nothing if not original...we make our own mistakes. None of us are perfect. But at least aim high and let these slips be lessons for us and for those who follow. Don't fast-forward past the important stuff.  Listen to others. Stick to your principles.

Finally, share with others.
This part is entirely Life Skill: Good food is better when shared with family and friends. Granted, the covered dish supper is one of the sacraments of southern churches. ALL denominations - in fellowship halls of temples, sanctuaries, cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques and on planks stretched underneath oak trees of country congregations - partake. If you've never seen Babette's Feast, feast your eyes on this adaptation of an Isak Dineson story...a fine example of communion in action.

The late Audrey Hepburn loved this quote: "As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: one for helping yourself and one for helping others." The two go-together like catfish and hushpuppies. A favorite adage of mind comes from the Swedes: "Shared joy is a double joy. Shared sorrow is a half-sorrow." No one should starve in our world. If you can't invite everyone to your table, find a way to see that empty bellies are filled with healthy food. And always say "thank you" for your bounty. There's a reason we call this GRACE.




Here's one of my mom's three banana nut bread recipes...the worst of them is delicious.

Ingredients:

1-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (okay, I put 1 whole teaspoon...)
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar (Mother put 1-1/2 cups. She also hoarded caramels under the skirted table by her bed.)
3 very ripe bananas, peeled and mashed with a fork (about a cup)
1/2 cup sliced pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together into a bowl.
Whisk the eggs and vanilla together in another bowl.
Grease and flour a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Gradually pour the egg mixture into the butter and mix.
Add the bananas and mix until incorporated.
With a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the banana mixture.
Fold in the pecans. 
Bake about 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.
Cool the bread in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn out and let cool completely on a rack.
Wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and put into a ziplock bag.
The printed recipe said, "Banana bread is best served the next day."
Mother said: "Eat a slice immediately. If it's no good, you'll have time to make another before company comes ."
We're only thinking of our guests.
Uh-huh.
But it does get better every day. 
I've never had one last more than two days, however.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

...D-Day and Daddy

John Watson Strickland
AKA "Daddy"


My dad died almost two decades ago...hard to believe. His presence is strong with me. As is a conversation that took place ten days before the heart attack that killed him. It started with a question, one that pre-dated Saving Private Ryan. My son asked his grandfather about D-Day. And Daddy replied, softly, matter-of-factly, "The was the most incredible sight of my life." None of us spoke. Daddy's focus was somewhere else, far removed from that dining table. "The ships," he said. "And boats. All sizes and shapes. So packed we couldn't see the water."

"You were there?" Patrick asked. 

"Yes."

Patrick continued while I held my breath. I didn't want to stop the conversation. "What was it like when you landed?"

"I wasn't one of the early ones on the beach. We were on a Higgins boat for a long time. That thing bucked harder than Old Sam." Daddy smiled. He always did when thoughts of the old mule surface. Those two had plowed and pulled stumps and cleared land together throughout his youth. 

"What did you see?"

"Mostly the bottom of the boat, son. The artillery from both sides was flying over us. I kept my head down." 

"Were you afraid?"

"Sure was. Men were getting sick and it wasn't just from the waves. I just tried to think about everything I'd been told." He got very quiet. I remember thinking that - for the first time in my life - he wanted to talk about it...a purging. "When it was time to go, the end of the boat didn't hit sand. We weren't close enough to the beach. It fell open and we jumped out into the water." 

We waited as he sat there, quiet for a bit. "It was bloody." He frowned and shook his head. "Some of the men from the boat drowned. As we got closer to the beach, we had to crawl over bodies to get ashore." He stopped again.

"What happened next?"

"Mostly, I tried not to get shot. We hunkered down on the beach behind the iron hedgehogs the Germans had placed there." For the first time, Daddy chuckled. "At one point, this captain crawled over and told us to take of our insignia and stuff it in our pockets. The snipers that were left on the cliffs were trying to take out chain of command. So we did. A few minutes later another officer crawled over and ordered us to put it back on. 'If you die here, you're going to die in uniform!' When I heard this, the first real thought I had all day came right about then: 'Strick [his nickname, short for Strickland], you're still in the Army'."

Daddy's was not a mad dash up the cliffs. These men waited it out and returned fire until the snipers were taken out. After he died, I found an old ammo crate in the back of a closet, filled with papers and that highly-mobile insignia. A typed note from the clerk who processed him as they climbed up the winding roadway to the top of the cliffs listed routes and distances to towns and villages. I found passes, a letter from Eisenhower addressed "To All Members of the Allied Expeditionary Force." His eyeglasses...another story. Upon arrival in Europe, the army doctor told him that he was legally blind. 4F. Daddy said he volunteered to return but, nope, no such luck. There were a few copies of the Stars and Stripes and some of the Bill Mauldin cartoons of Willie and Joe that he'd torn out and stuffed in the pages of the old Bible his mother sent with him. And his discharge papers, dated December 25, 1946.

The real treasure in that box were the letters he had sent to my grandmother during the war. She had saved them all. The headers map his trek across Europe: "somewhere in England, France, Germany, etc." I've read them over and over again. Each one assured her that he was fine but was worried about her and Granzie (her mother). He put money orders into the letters when he could but they never made it to my grandmother. The letters were slip open when they arrived.  

These are the last two memories my dad described that June day 1995. He said that when they reached the top of the Normandy cliffs, he saw a young German boy's uniformed body to his right. "He was no older than you, Patrick. A boy." He shook his head. And he talked about seeing parachutes hung on buildings and trees as they moved inland. In some cases, the bodies still dangled below. 

One hour...an hour that reframed this man I love beyond measure. He wasn't transformed into a hero..he already was that for me. But he made history personal...and war, real. After he died, his brother told us that Daddy had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. They spoke of it once, never again. It was "just too bloody awful"...Uncle George's words. In the days following the invasion, he was one of those who fitted "teeth" onto the Sherman tanks so they could move through the hedgerows. The soft underbellies of the tanks as they bucked up over the hedges left them vulnerable to German artillery. Not only was progress impeded: within the thickly woven hedgerows, German runners moved intel and materials. So when my uncle told me about the Bulge, I replied, "But Daddy wasn't infantry." George's response was brief. "Honey, if you were anywhere nearby, you were handed a rifle and told to shoot." 

I can't imagine what these men faced. I'm not naive about war. Granted, I would prefer that better choices be made before madmen take power. But we do not live in a perfect world.  I pray that war would be a last resort. And propose that we send first to battle those who would profit from its spoils. I do believe that a good defense is the best offense. Could I kill someone? I hope I never find out. But I know that if someone threatened my child, my grandchild, those I love, I would do whatever I could to stop them. Whatever...and however. May I never know this test.

My dad was never boastful nor full of bravado. He had seen the price and the cost was high. But I am grateful to him, to all who answered a desperate call, who slogged, died, returned bruised and forever changed by battle. The comments that Daddy had made over the years were usually about people he encountered. One, in particular. Charlie Euler. He'd say, "What I'd give to see old Charlie again" and chuckle. I was young when I asked him if he'd seen Mr. Euler after the war. He said no and I left it at that. But in the intervening years, I've thought about this. Daddy stayed in touch with those he loved. I wonder if Charlie came home...alive, or at all. What I know is that whenever Daddy saw a memorial, with a roll of the dead, tears ran freely down his face. He left some friends along the way. But they never left his heart.

Lord, I miss him.