Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Batches? Batches? We no need no stinking...

Due to a confluence of life and work, I will not be free any night between now and next Tuesday. Those of you who know our family's weird schedule know that we are rarely home at the same time anyway, which means I am often preparing food in the evening for Boy that Man eats at 2 a.m. and is my lunch the next day. So while we can skate by on cereal and peanut butter sandwiches for a day or two, a week and a half really doesn't fly unless we eat at restaurants way too much.

I've never tried to do the big batch of freezer meals before, so this seemed like a good time to experiment. I grabbed a few recipes that could be done in a few hours on Sunday afternoon - those Pinterest articles about doing 40 meals in eight hours seemed like a leeeeetle more than I wanted on my last free day.

This is what I did, in case anyone's thinking of trying it:

• I used simple disposable foil pans from Wal-mart. I could have gotten giant pasta pans at Sam's Club, but that seemed like an awful lot for just my family of three. I might explore some other options (ordering from Amazon, the Dollar Store) because even at a dollar or two each, that's a bit of cash for convenience. For some, I used gallon-size disposable bags - and that seems like something that would work really well for normal worknights, preparing the ubiquitous chicken breast and freezing in advance so that I could just thaw, bake and whip up some rice or pasta to go with it.

In this case, though, I needed it to be really simple, since Boy will be cooking these unsupervised via my text instructions and he's only in his first week of culinary arts. He has basic skills, but I know my spawn. Left to his own devices, it's a box of macaroni and cheese or a frozen pizza, and Jim and I will starve to death.

Total work time: 2.5 hours.

• One pan of simple baked chicken drumsticks. I used a nifty seasoning rub (Canadian Chicken) from a local spice shop. I pick up these rubs many places - there's a pork seasoning mix from a little tourist-trap spot near Nashville that has yet to be topped anywhere in my travels, and a seasoning mix ostensibly for burgers that I absolutely love on chicken that I can only pick up from a burger joint in Memphis. I could have done several pans of these - it's my get-out-of-cooking-free card on busy weeknights - but I was looking to experiment.

• The chicken stuffing casserole became a chicken pasta casserole because I was stupid and forgot to buy stuffing mix. I made up this one in college and named it Stupid Chicken because it was stupidly easy. Just mixing cream of chicken soup, sour cream, the herbs of your choice and pour over boneless skinless chicken breast, then top with stuffing mix that you've already softened with about a cup and a half of water. I've never done it with pasta before, so that should be an experiment: a pound of ziti instead of stuffing. Besides, Boy requires vast quantities of pasta to fill him up on a regular basis.

• My mother's chicken curry casserole, doubled in size for freezing. That's 1.5 lbs. of broccoli, 1 1/2 c. cooked chicken, and sauce mixed up with two cans cream of chicken soup, sour cream or milk, onion powder and lots of sweet curry. Layer the broccoli, mix the rest together and pour over the broccoli. Then top with shredded cheddar or colby jack.

• Ravioli lasagna, which was stupidly easy from Pinterest. Layer two bags of frozen ravioli with jar spaghetti sauce and lots of mozzarella. I added some of my own herbs because I can't bear to just use jar sauce. Watch, this'll be the most popular choice.

• Chicken tetrazzini, another Pinterest one and slightly more work. Cook 8 oz. spaghetti (I doubled that, because Boy), saute two cups of mushrooms in 1/4 c. butter, then stir in 3 tbsp. flour and two cups chicken broth and simmer until the sauce thickens. Then remove from heat and add 1/4 c. half and half, 1 tbsp. parsley, 1 tsp. salt, dashes of pepper and nutmeg and 3 tbsp. sherry, which I omitted because I seem to be out. Add in 2-3 c. cooked chicken, mix together and pour over the spaghetti in the pan. Then cover that with parmesan cheese.

• Easiest one: Lemon garlic chicken. Four tbsp. olive oil, 3 cloves garlic, 2 tbsp. parsley, 3 tbsp. lemon juice, 1/4 tsp. salt and pepper in a gallon-size bag with three chicken breasts. There were several "chicken dump bag" recipes, and I think I might do a lot of these in the future.

• Baked ziti: Brown a pound of ground beef with mushrooms, onions and garlic, then drain fat. Add 2 cans of diced tomatoes, oregano, basil, marjoram and other Italian-type herbs as desired. Simmer 20 mins. - the recipe said to add water to thin if necessary, but I found there was more than enough liquid. Meanwhile, boil more ziti and drain. Mix them all together in the freezer pan and top with at least a pound of mozzarella. (I added some sprinklings of oregano.)

Theoretically, these should all be fine cooked from frozen. Theoretically. In the meantime, there's a roast in the oven and I've got some bread to bake. We shall see how the experiment works out...

Do you have a freezable recipe to share? Please do so in the comments!


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Senior Year

I'm trying to figure out how the adorable, perpetually-grinning baby who sucked his two middle fingers when he was sleepy became a tall, dashing, occasionally bespectacled young man with a smartass mouth.

It started hitting me the day we registered him for his senior year of high school. When he was born in 1999, I did the math and figured out that he would graduate in the class of 2017. That seemed like a weird, faraway, science-fictiony year, something you might see as the footer in the opening sequence of some movie involving aliens and hovercraft. And yet it is upon us, faster than I ever dreamed possible.

I thought back to my own senior year in Tennessee. I remembered going for my senior portrait and not actually understanding what that was about, or why I had to wrap this blue velvet thing around my shoulders. I was a transplant from a private girls' school in Baltimore, and totally unprepared for all the senior-year hoopla. And yet it's still the best picture of me that has ever been taken.

It was 1993 - well, 1992 when the picture was taken. My best friends then are still among my best friends now, people like Sarah Penick Sanford, Janet Pilcher Cagley, Dana Franks, Stephen Reksten, Jason Tippitt, and others who survived the wilds of Martin with me. Malinda Pitts commented on my Facebook that her oldest son is now the same age as we were when we met, when I introduced Tom Pitts to Malinda, his future wife.

I remember those times, sometimes better than I remember last week. And it's strange to me that my son is now the same age I was when so many lifelong memories were made, friendships forged that changed my life forever, and a few youthful transgressions that - well, let's just not go there. Ahem.

I wonder if my parents felt the same way in 1992 as I feel now.

Well, I'm not ready. Of course, he's going to grow up and launch his own life whether I'm ready or not. This year is about getting him ready for that big step. We talk about bank accounts and the difference between debit cards and credit cards and why student loans are a horrible idea and the pluses and minuses of owning a car. (By the way, when I explained the concept of credit cards, he said, "That sounds really sketchy." Stick with that feeling, kiddo.) We talk about careers and balancing work and school and the difference between living at home, living in a dorm, and living on your own. Adulting stuff.

Oh, there'll be family vacations together and plenty of holidays and visits - he isn't going far, after all. He loves this town as much as I do, and as far as work allows him, he wants to stay here. But we know it isn't going to be the same. Even if he lives at home for his first year of college - which is likely thanks to the egregious cost of freshman dorms - it isn't the same, nor should it be. Adulting means a different mode, a different relationship. It's more responsibility on him, and thus more freedom, taking the reins of his own life. My father said it's the point where we parents become advisors instead of running the show. (Though I'm still gonna nag Ian about wearing his glasses.)

Tonight is the night before his senior year begins. I am looking forward with him, but part of me can't help looking back. I see the collage frame of school pictures I've sort of forgotten to update since sixth grade. I see the boxes and bags of various thingamabobs for the scrapbook that trailed off about seven years ago. I think about all the times I forgot to get a picture of him on the first day of school, and the handprint I never inked on his baby sampler, and I try to remember the last time I made it to a PTA meeting and I am so not telling you that, because it's embarrassing. I wonder about all the things I missed trying to juggle two jobs and momhood, and whether he missed out on anything.

I remember when he was little, and everyone told me, "They grow up so fast! Enjoy every minute of it." I heard it so often, it was kind of a drumbeat. Yeah, yeah, I know he's gonna grow fast, he's already outgrowing every stitch of clothing faster than I can resell it on eBay. But that wasn't what they meant.

And now I want to go around to my friends who seem to be procreating at an unusual rate these days, the ones with the new babies, the ones with the toddlers learning to walk, the ones whose kids are dashing off to school carrying their little lunchboxes. I want to yell at all of the new parents, "Don't forget to take the picture! Take them to the zoo and the children's museum - don't put it off! Don't let those moments slide by, don't miss that concert, don't forget the handprint! Their hands get bigger and soon they'll be too big for the baby book you forgot about! Don't let it go too fast, because you're going to blink and when you turn around, he'll be taller than you and you'll feel like you missed something, even when you were there every day."

I want to warn them, but I know they've heard it. And when they find themselves on the night before Senior Year, they'll turn around and wonder where the hell the time went.

I guess we never really know if we did a good job, raising our kids. You just sort of aim them at the world, light the fuse and hope they fly instead of crash. I hope I did right by him, I hope Jim and I have prepared him well enough for the challenges he'll face and the decisions he'll make. I know I did the best that I could.

And while it's been a long, long time since he sucked on his middle fingers when he was sleepy, he still hugs his mom before he goes to bed.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Love Your Spouse: Part Four

A momentous change took place in the Donald-Smith-Gillentine Inc. corporate household recently. Sure, Jim and I have been living together since early 2012, married for 1.75 years and counting. But today, I changed the outgoing message on our house voicemail.

Oh, shut up. My color-coded, multi-categorical to-do list eventually gets done.

It came to my attention recently that the house phone's voicemail was full. That's probably because no one ever answers it or pays attention to it. So why do we have one? Let's face it: everybody wants a number for you, right? When you buy stuff at Walgreens and you can't find that silly keyring stub they gave you for the rewards program, you just need to put in your phone number. But you don't put in your cell, unless you're crazy. They'll text you into insanity.

So we have a landline to stave off the silliness. Also, in case of emergencies. Boy only got a cell phone about a year and a half ago, and I felt better knowing that there was a phone in the house regardless of anyone forgetting to charge his cell.

For all this time, we've been living in a house with a phone that answers, "Hello, you've reached Elizabeth Donald. Please leave a message and I'll get right back to you."

Of course I didn't have Boy's name on it. He's a kid. Who would be calling him? My number's always been publicly listed under my own name in case there were people who wanted to call me with private info and were afraid to call the newsroom.

(As if we had caller ID in the old bureau. Hell, we were still on the "pink paper message slip from the secretaries" system when I started there...)

But that means poor Jim was kind of a nonperson. You've reached Elizabeth Donald! (Other people might live here too.) For some reason, I never got around to updating it.

So I'm giggling a bit at this last (?) step of fully integrating our lives together. We've done all the big stuff, you know. Insurance and bank accounts and pensions, oh my. Color-coded camping supplies - green for him, blue for me, red for Boy. Books and movies all catalogued - though he stubbornly refuses to ditch DVDs that I already own because sure we need two copies of Superman II: Donner Party because what nerd household doesn't?

I teased him that he's clearly hedging his bets against having to re-buy those movies if this whole marriage thing doesn't work out, while he insists it's just because he paid good money for them (like I got mine free). Of course, I've also threatened to sell his super-rare Japanese-cut Godzilla DVDs on eBay, and yet he doesn't divorce me. (It might have been a near thing when I said, "You know Godzilla isn't real, right?" Ooooh, the look I got.)

I never thought I could actually live with someone again. When I was a single mom, I was dedicated to sole possession of the remote control and living my life without clearing each decision with a committee. I knew I was too independent, too headstrong, maybe a touch too stubborn - but just a touch! - to live with anyone, not romantically, not even with a roommate.

That's one of the reasons why Jim lived in his own place when he first moved up to St. Louis. And why we lived together for two and a half years before we actually married. Love may be as grand as the poets say, but living together means being able to rationally discuss the bathmat left on the bathroom floor AGAIN.

We make a good partnership, and sometimes I think that is almost as important as being in love. We work together on our various entrepreneurial projects and support each other in our goals. We do things together, both fun and tiresome, and while I'd never pretend we don't squabble, we manage to live together in mostly-harmony.

It's one of the biggest surprises he's given me, this cohabitation without discomfort.


He rolls the toothpaste tub neatly into a curl, while I mangle it from the center (often on purpose, because it annoys him).

I maintain that macaroni and cheese is an entree; he firmly believes it to be a side dish to some form of meat.

He's a snuggler who steals the covers* and simultaneously throws them off himself; I am a sprawler who can't sleep unless my feet (at least) are covered by blankets.

He is horrified and repulsed by people drinking out of the milk jug; I.... er, sometimes save us all some dishes by skipping the cup. But not anymore. Because it horrifies him.

I throw the groceries into the bags at Aldi in whatever order I please within reason; he carefully "builds the bag" and insists on designing our grocery carrying himself.

He generally likes all the same movies I like: horror, science fiction, thrillers, the occasional drama; the reverse is not often true, as he extols the virtues of Destroy All Monsters! and Godzilla vs. the Giant Rose Thing You Can't Find in the U.S. Also Jerry Lewis. And ventriloquism. Not necessarily at the same time.

I am one of those people who simply cannot stand mouth noises; he chews rather noisily since he had to have several teeth removed and insurance won't pay for a denture.

He can literally fall asleep within 30 seconds, as documented by science! when he had a sleep study done; I am a restless mild insomniac who wakes up at least twice a night and must wear earplugs to sleep at all, even when sleeping alone.

Ten years spent on loading docks and stocking shelves means he cannot help but straighten displays of canned goods in a grocery store; I like to move the peas into the carrots section just to watch him stomp over and fix it. Tee hee.

I have a tendency to use a 25c word when a 10c word might do; he installed a dictionary app on his phone and insists I provide multiple synonyms when I use words slightly outside of the common vernacular.

Neither one of us gives a damn which way the toilet paper goes. So we've got that going for us.

And of course, I make perfect sense and he is frequently incomprehensible to me.

How does this tent go together again?

But that's marriage.

*As quoted once on Facebook: I have photographic proof of the identity of the Covers Thief in our household.


Monday, August 08, 2016

I did time in Jefferson City....

We spent the last four days relaxing with my dad and stepmom at their house at the Lake of the Ozarks. It was a wonderful respite, and delightful to see the folks, whom we get to see far too little now that they're retired.

(Well, sort of retired. Karen's still doing therapy, they wrote a book together, Dad's thinking about picking up one class a semester...)

For everyone who said "Tell your folks I said hi," your good wishes were duly passed on.

Dad took us out on the boat, where the menfolk caught a lot of snarled fishing line, and there were many bites.... from mosquitoes. Not so much the fish. At one point Dad declared a spot was "fished out," and I replied, "Don't you actually have to catch a fish for that to happen?" Hee.

We went on a tour of the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City, which was fascinating! Photographs are pending, and possibly a short story or two. I may write up a separate post on that experience later this week, once the photos are processed and I've had time to do a little more research. Alas, we went on the regular tour, but they offer ghost tours at night and I'd love to try that one sometime.

We went shopping, we ate a ridiculous amount of food, we hit the outlet mall and Boy acquired new shoes in Size Gargantuan for the oncoming school year. We watched the beginning of the Olympics together, which is always a treat, and a good time was had by all.

I also acquired a new toy: a Bosch stand mixer. Now, I was pretty familiar with the Kitchenaid variety, but had never owned one. So now I need to find some recipes! If you've ever used a Bosch and have any tips to pass on, or if you have good stand-mixer recipes, please let me know. Homemade bread, here we come!

Um, probably next weekend. I've got one of those Hell Weeks coming up where we have something going on every night of the week. Sometimes I need to be twins. Or to go sit by a lake.


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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Snippets: Smoke Signals Edition

ME: *sad sad face*
JIM: What?
ME: I thought you made coffee.
JIM: I was going to. I meant to. I got distracted.
ME: There is no coffee. I put the Splenda in the cup and everything.
JIM: I'll make coffee.
ME: As is your Biblical duty.
JIM: No. Don't.
ME: In the Book of Hebrews.
JIM: Now I won't make coffee.
ME: Aaaaah! You have to!
JIM: I refuse in the light of awful humor.
ME: God compels you!

(He made coffee.)


BOY: *fiddles with iPad* So last week, [BTG]'s phone died. Like, forever died.
ME: That sucks.
BOY: Yeah. So she was trying to find a texting app to put on her Kindle so we could text. But she couldn't find one, because it's a really old Kindle. So we're having to talk by email.
ME: Wow. Just like the olden days.
BOY: Yeah. Like that old movie, You've Got Mail. Where they talk by email.
ME: That old movie.
BOY: Yeah.
ME: You know what we did when I was in high school?
BOY: Smoke signals?
ME: [response redacted for inappropriate language]
BOY: *snickers*
ME: We used the telephone.
BOY: No way. I mean, we could use the phone, and talk and stuff. But we're both watching television with our parents, which means we'd have to leave the room to talk to each other, and then they - you - have to pause the show, and everything stops, and -
ME: Yeah, that's how we did it in the olden days.


Texting Jim from the Relay for Life team captains' meeting...

ME: I put you down as Relay co-captain. Do you want to be on luminaria committee or survivors dinner?
JIM: No! I'm just hired muscle.
ME: I can help you reach your potential.
JIM: No co-captain!
JIM: Noooooooooo
ME: You get a T-shirt.
JIM: No.
JIM: No.
ME: Pout.
JIM: No.
ME: Life is about stepping up to challenges, love.
JIM: No.
ME: Hired muscle then. Except you won't get paid.
JIM: Okay.


ME: Ian ate that whole pizza by himself. And now he's prowling for more.
JIM: Lol
ME: He came into the living room with a small bowl from the fridge and asked what it was. "Onion dip," I replied. The evil grin on his face was meme-worthy.
JIM: Goodbye chips.
ME: He's doing his best.
JIM: I have faith in him.
ME: ...
ME: I think he's slowing down.


ME: Dad and Karen want to know if you'll grill your magic pork steaks tomorrow night.
JIM: Of corsets.
JIM: Wait a moment. That came out wrong.
ME: Honey, this is my family. Try to control yourself.
JIM: Sorry. Yes. I will gladly grill for them.
ME: What ingredients do you need? Besides lingerie?
JIM: Ohhhhhhhh
JIM: Ooooihhhhrah
JIM: We'll need to bring the sauce.
ME: Anything else? Coffee, tea, me?
JIM: Mmm, coffee. Salt. Pepper. Wood chips for smoking. Pork stakes.
ME: Stakes? Are we expecting vampires? In corsets?
JIM: Silence woman. We are talking about BBQ.
ME: Remember what happened the last time you said "Silence woman"? And tomorrow is Throwback Thursday.
JIM: Oh.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Guest Post: Reflections

Note: Tonight your guest blogger is my husband, Jim Gillentine, on the anniversary of his mother's death. 


A year ago on this day, my mother died.

It was by far the saddest day of my life. My mother's health had been declining over her last year of life and it had gotten to the point that she had gone into kidney failure. I remember the call I had gotten from my sister Theresa that she was sick and it wasn't looking good. They were trying dialysis to clean her body of the impurities that her kidneys couldn't take care of. But it was too late. Her body was so weak and frail that her heart stopped twice when they were doing the procedure on two separate occasions.

So my mom made the hard choice, and decided to stop treatment and let nature take its course. I went down to see her, knowing that it would be the last time I would be able to talk to her. I had to take the bus ride from hell because the A/C had gone out on the bus, and then had to get a ride even further the hospital where my mother was. Thanks to a cool guy named David Norah, one of the many people that we know because of MidSouthCon, I got down to Jackson, Miss. to the hospital where she was staying.

My son Noah came with me so he could say his goodbyes as well. We both were able to see my mother's smile one last time. I was in the room alone with her, telling her how much I loved her and thanked her for all she had done for me. I promised her that I would stay in college, do my best to get as many A's as I could get, and I was going to get my degree and keep writing books and stories for her. She told me I will, because I always could. Writing is something that has always called to me.

Two hours later, she was gone, and passed on to whatever you want to believe comes after we shed the physical body. We were able to arrange the funeral, and so many people came to celebrate the life of a woman that did so much for so many.

She kept this family together. Her strength was amazing. She raised ten children, and so many grandkids and great-grandkids that I have lost count of them all. We all miss her. I think the hardest part for me has been that every time I got a good grade, I wanted to call up my mom and tell her I had gotten another A. Then it would hit me that I can't anymore. I can't call her and tell her how I am doing. It has gotten better as the year has gone by. The pain is still there - lessened, but still there.

I guess it is a pain that will never fully leave, but the burden has been eased by the love of my wife and children. By the love of my family, that today we all take the time to remember our mother and the grandkids all remember their Nanny, as she was called. W

We love you, Mama.

I love you, Mama.

Let me tell you, Mama: I made the Dean's List! In two years, I'm going to be walking across a stage wearing the funniest hat ever to get a college diploma, and I know that you will be looking and watching. See you then, Mama. Your son will always love you.

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Snippets: The Return of Boy

Man, it's been quiet around here. I might have fallen into a habit of talking to myself. Since Jim works the night shift (seemingly FOREVER) and Boy has been off paddling with the Scouts for two weeks, each night it's been me by my lonesome. On the one hand, I'm booking words with the new novel. On the other... well, talking to myself.

Boy actually returned to civilization on last Wednesday, at least within texting range. Last Thursday was his last day of travel back to steamy Illinois.

BOY: I'm gonna be in town around 1pm
ME: We'll buy milk *moo*
BOY: Can (BTG) be there when you pick me up? I have a present for her as well.
ME: Yes. Ooh ooh do I get a present do I?
BOY: Today is a gift. That is why it is called "the present."
ME: Smartass.


For the purposes of this one, you need to know that Ted Mitchell is our insurance agent. We passed his office while driving in the car.

Boy: Ted Mitchell. You so confused me about him.
Me: What? How?
Boy: Remember there was that billboard on the road going out to the old storage facility, and we'd pass it and I'd ask who is Ted Mitchell, and you said, "The guy who takes our money."
Me: I never said that.
Boy: Yes you did.
Me: I have no memory of this.
Boy: So I grew up thinking he was like our banker or did our taxes or something. 
Me: But I like our insurance agent. They always worked hard for us and we get great rates.
Boy: I grew up confused because you were such a jokester. Remember the bag of Jack Daniels barbecue wood chips?
Me: The ones that took us forever to get through.
Boy: Yes. I asked you who Jack Daniels is, and you said, "He was a very great American."
Me: I did not.
Boy: Such a jokester.
Me: Did I really?
Boy: So I thought Jack Daniels was some kind of great American hero.
Me: Well now, to be fair...
Boy: I was so confused.
Me: It could've been worse. You could have been raised by a mom with no sense of humor.
Boy: Yeah, but at least things would've made sense.


ME: Hey, you remember your little cousin Maddie?
BOY: Yeah. She's what, ten?
ME: Um. She just got her driver's permit.
BOY: Whaaaaat.
ME: That's what I said.
BOY: And I still don't have my license. Stare.*
ME: Shut up! I suck.
BOY: You do suck.
ME: You'll get your license someday. Probably.

Note: the reason Boy does not have his license yet is twofold. One: Illinois requires 50 hours of practice with a parent in the car, and I am so crazy busy (and so nervous with him behind the wheel) that we have barely gotten any practice time. Two: we can't afford the insurance hike. So he has a state ID instead of a license. For now.

* He actually said the word "stare." Smartass.

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