Scarlet Letters

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Home on the Range

I am unreasonably excited about this. I'm getting a new stove! New as in new from the store, not new as in transferred from one of the vacant apartments! And only seven years after I first reported trouble with my stove!

Hey, this is the life of a renter. On the up side, someone else pays for your new appliance. On the down side, you're at the mercy of someone else's decisions about your appliances. For the most part, my landlord's okay. When something breaks, they get someone out to fix it. When we have a problem, they listen and they do what they can to help. It's not their fault that the building has almost no insulation and we freeze to death every winter, or that the college students treat the place like shit. It's just par for the course.

I moved into this apartment in May 2004. At that time, one of the burners didn't work. In addition, the front door of the oven didn't quite close completely, so baking time had to be adjusted, everything had to be rotated mid-bake and it was decidedly energy-inefficient. I reported it all, and they replaced the non-working element. C'est la vie.

That's okay. For seven years I've created mostly-edible meals on that stove. I'm a believer in meal-planning and cooking in batches, because I know what a huge drain it is on our meager fortunes when we eat out a lot. Giving in and going to restaurants, usually for social reasons, is the number-one controllable way we screw up our budget. (Uncontrollable ones like medical bills, utility hikes and car repairs... well, we speak not of these things. Meep.)

This fall, the bad burner went bad again, because it's not the element, it's the wiring. Then the other large burner went out. Then one of the small burners began behaving erratically. But the kicker came when one of the loaves of bread burned despite being cooked much less than the first loaf, and the Thanksgiving turkey finished roasting about two hours ahead of schedule even though it was so huge I had to take out the middle rack. A pecan pie prepared for the family gathering turned to charcoal after twenty minutes on 350 degrees. That's not supposed to happen this side of Hades.

I've been oven-less for five days now and I think I'm in withdrawal. I had no idea how much I relied on the damn thing until I couldn't use it. I have cookies to bake, dammit! A platter of goodies required for Friday's fundraiser! I might have to... gasp! Buy store-bought. [starwars] Noooooo! [/starwars]

Fear not, for the repairman sent forth by my landlord told them the cost of fixing my beleaguered oven would be three-fourths the cost of a new one. I think he was aiming higher on the food chain than my landlord is likely to see - he estimated repairs at $300, and right now I could walk into Home Depot and get an electric stove for $298.

Honestly, I've never had a new appliance. I've been a renter since I left home at eighteen, as we reporters don't make enough money to actually purchase property, you silly thing. We rent, or we marry rich(er). (This isn't hard, as everyone is richer than reporters. Even social workers.)

The closest I've come was the microwave my parents gave me when I got my first apartment in 1995. It's ironic, then, that the microwave is starting to make funny noises when we start it. Yes, I still have it. What did I tell you about being poor? Hey, the damn thing works, which is more than I can say for just about everything else I had in 1995. If my car(s) had held up like that microwave has, I'd be a much wealthier woman. (Dear microwave: please hold out until February. Thanks, Mgmt.)

Every kitchen has had low-end rental appliances, inefficient and leaking heat/cold all over the place. We learn not to put sour cream in the back of the fridge or it'll freeze, and that you can't put dairy products too close to the lightbulb. You adjust your cooking times and dry every load of laundry twice and pay your electric bill with a sigh.

So now I will get a new stove, and have to readjust all my cooking times and learn all the doo-dads and gizmos added to modern stovature (is that a word?) since the mid-1980s. I suppose it's too much to hope that they got an energy-efficient model, but maybe this one will have a little light inside it so I can see whether the bread's done without opening the door. The things they think of these days!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I'm watching Fiddler on the Roof tonight as I do mindless tasks online and off. I love the music, the humor, the culture, the fiddling. And the serious undertones of the plight of the Jewish people give it a touch of gravitas often missing in the musicals of the '60s.

Watching Topol sing "If I Were a Rich Man" reminds me of my first Dragoncon. No, not because I'm so broke at Dragoncon every year that I end up eating Chef Boyardee cold out of a can.

My first Dragoncon was my quietest. My first book had not yet come out, and nobody had ever heard of me. I had exactly one panel and spent the rest of the time haunting my publisher's booth and stalking Harlan Ellison, who was at the show for the last time, as it turned out.

Harlan Ellison and Peter David are best friends. Apparently they had suggested doing a song-and-dance routine to the show, which became some kind of talent show. They were scheduled to do a boring panel on writing for TV, so they decided to shanghai the panel and do song-and-dance numbers for an hour.

I was treated to watching Ellison and David sing "If I Were a Rich Man," obviously enjoying the hell out of it even as Ellison mocked David for knowing all seventy-five verses. While I'd seen the movie a few times and heard the song many more, it is now indelibly connected to Ellison and David for me.

Of course, the fact that I am wending my way through The Essential Ellison might be influencing me just a bit. That, and the man replying to a statement that money is the world's curse: "May God smite me so, and may I never recover!

Amen, Tevye.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mr. Utterson was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile

I love these things even though they make no sense at all. I fed this segment of the new book into the analyzer:

The flexglass slammed into place, right in front of Hawkins and Butler. A moment later, an older man struggling with a cane appeared with Anthony, a teenage sanitation worker that Hawkins had known since he was a midway scamp doing card tricks for the marks. His heart twisted as the old man banged on the flexglass with his cane.
         Then Selena emerged from behind the old man. She slammed her fists against the flexglass, silent screams that Hawkins could feel inside his chest.
         Butler shouted wordless curses at the flexglass, pressing his hands up against Selena's outstretched palms. Her lovely strawberry-blonde hair was tousled around her shoulders, her eyes filled with fear.
         I love you, her mouth seemed to say, though Hawkins could not hear it.

This is what I got:

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

Heh. Of course, when I fed a fight scene in I got Harry Harrison, when I fed in drama I got Stephen King and when I fed in the sex scene I got Anne Rice.

I think I'll go late to the write-in and write like me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Recipe: Cranberry Nut Bread

By request.... here's my mama's recipe. It turned out a little dry and crumbly for me, because my oven is extremely variable these days. Therefore I recommend you double-check with the toothpick beginning at 45 minutes. I also recommend using a food processor to chop the cranberries; you'll save an eternity.


1 c. cranberries, chopped
1/2 c. nuts, chopped
1 tbsp. grated orange peel
2 c. flour
1 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tbsp. Crisco
3/4 c. orange juice
1 egg, beaten

Combine dry ingredients. Cut in Crisco. Stir in orange juice, egg and orange peel - mix just to moisten. Fold in cranberries and nuts. Put in greased and floured bread pan - makes one standard loaf. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees. Best on second day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Big Bird

This year, the boys are going to Memphis for Thanksgiving. J will be spending the holiday with his family - something he hasn't had much chance to do because previous jobs did not allow the time off. The boy will ride down with him to spend Thanksgiving with his father.

Me? I'm a slave to the world of journalism. As in, I gotta work. The fam is out of town, so are 98 percent of my friends. J already warns me he's gonna get it from the family for not bringing me. *waves hi* Sorry, fam, I'll meet you eventually...

Since we aren't going to be together for the holiday, we're having a private family Thanksgiving this Saturday. It's really my excuse to cook a giant meal... and I can eat off it the whole week while they're gone. My evil plan is working.

Me: Okay, how big a turkey should I get? There's only three of us.
Me: Cornish hen.
J: No!
Me: Itty bitty little turkey.
Me: Sparrow.
Me: Hummingbird.
J: Argh! NO! 20 pounds or more!
Me: A twenty-pounder might not even fit in my roaster!
J: I get the pan. Godzilla that baby!
Me: I'm just saying, you're gonna be the one stripping that carcass...
J: Yes!
Me: ... and cleaning the kitchen.

I love this arrangement. I make the mess, he cleans it up. Commence the Thanksgiving Cooking Countdown with cranberry nut bread and two pies...

Monday, November 14, 2011

in which I offer no original content...

... because Brian Keene knocks it out of the fucking park in this speech. Read it all, friends and neighbors. Especially you beginning writers. Yeah, Nanoers, I'm talking to YOU. All of you. Stop the mad typing for ten minutes and read this speech.

A horror writer should know the genre’s history for several reasons. First and foremost, they should know it so as not to repeat the mistakes of its past. They should draw upon that history, letting the books and stories that have been written in the past inspire and inform and shape their own work. You know that novel you’re working on about Nazi ghosts haunting a tank? Graham Masterton beat you to it back in the Seventies. If you’re writing about vampires, you’ve probably read Dracula — but did you also read the works of Les Daniels, or Salem’s Lot, They Thirst, Vampyrrhic, or Lot Lizards? Maybe you saw Ramsey Campbell at a convention and were told he is one of the most important living authors, but you’re not sure why. This is unacceptable. Maybe (and most importantly) you want to become a better writer by studying and understanding the various styles of writers that came before you. The only way to do that is through reading.

Reading is a crucial part of being a writer, and it’s essential at all stages of your development and career. You should certainly read outside of your chosen genre, but it’s also important to read inside your genre, as well. You may not like all of them, but you should read them anyway. Your writing will be better for having done so.

And this goes for all of us who have a TBR pile the size of Texas. It is one of my greatest sins. For all that we scramble to buy book after book, how many of us simply haven't gotten around to the books on the shelf? The books we picked up because we know that author is One of The Big Guys and we should read that book someday.

Life is short. Someday should be today.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Culinary Vacation, Day 5

Today's experiment is actually not an experiment, but I needed to make a cake I could rely on.

1 package white cake mix
1 c. milk
1 stick butter, melted
3 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla.

Preheat oven to 320 degrees. Grease pan. Melt butter. Add ingredients together and blend about one minute. Scrape down the sides and blend two more minutes. Pour batter and smooth into the pan. Bake 20 minutes, then turn and back 25-30 more.

Notes: This makes a deliciously moist sheet cake (9x13) or a two-layer 9-inch round cake. I double the recipe for a half-sheet pan that is my standard. You'll notice it starts with a cake mix, but the add-to ingredients are decidedly different than the oil-and-egg nastiness that they put on the box. That makes a weak, flavorless cake that will crumble when you approach it with your storebought icing *shudder*.

If I were not planning to decorate this cake, I'd have gone for the snickerdoodle version: add 4 tsp. cinnamon to the batter and make cinnamon frosting. It's awesome. As it is, this will make a rich, moist cake that is still strong enough to take a homemade buttercream frosting (recipe below).


2 sticks butter (real!)
2 lbs. powdered sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
half & half

Let butter come to room temperature. Beat butter until fluffy. Add salt, sugar and vanilla; stir. Add half & half by small amounts until satisfied with the consistency.

Notes: This is my mama's frosting recipe. You add a little half & half for stiff, decorative frosting; add more for a smoother frosting to cover the cake. For a smoother, richer flavor, replace one cube of butter with cream cheese - this is delicious, but I find it harder to frost. To color the frosting, be sure to use the Wilton gels, NOT watery food coloring. If you're sticking with white, get the Wilton confectioners' vanilla - it's colorless, unlike regular vanilla, and so it won't affect the color of the frosting.

This makes a metric ton of frosting, enough to frost and decorate a half-sheet cake. If you're making a smaller cake, you might halve the recipe. But it freezes beautifully, so you'd do better to make the big batch and freeze the extra for the next time you make a cake. Or, you know, smear it on graham crackers for an awesome snack. Mmm.

Verdict: I'll let you know; decorating is tonight!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Culinary Vacation, Day 4

Oops, I forgot to post here. Today's experiment will be foisted on an unsuspecting group of miscreants - er, my friends - when we attend a potluck dinner tonight. It's a recipe courtesy of a little country orchard in ... some Midwestern state through which we passed on the fall tour. *shrug*

6 tbsp. butter
2 lbs. apples
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tbsp. lemon juice
2 c. breadcrumbs
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1 tsp. vanilla
(opt.) whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel, quarter and core the apples. Slice them and put them in a bowl. Add brown sugar, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla. Mix well.

Melt butter in frying pan or microwave. Add breadcrumbs and mix well. Spread half the apples in a baking dish. Cover with half the breadcrumb mixture. Repeat with remaining apples and breadcrumbs.

Bake 35-45 minutes until topping is golden brown and apples are tender. If the topping browns too quickly, reduce heat to 325 degrees and tent with foil.

Notes: I didn't peel the apples because I'm lazy and because I like apple peel. I found it easier to mix the brown sugar et al in the bowl and THEN add the apples, as it saved mixing in a separate bowl. They still coated the same. The original recipe called for 3 cups of breadcrumbs; that seemed like a lot to me, so I reduced to 2 cups and still had more than enough. Likewise the original recipe called for using a 9-inch square pan; all I can say is that their pans must be hella deeper than mine. The apples more than filled a 9x13 pan.

Verdict: I'll let you know! The potluck's tonight. If they hate it, it'll be the first failure of the week.

Previous days....

TUESDAY: Mom's Chuckwagon Beans

Okay, not an experiment. But the boys were begging.

1/2 lb. bacon
2 lbs. hamburger
3 c. chopped onion
1 c. chopped celery
beef bouillon
1 1/2 cloves minced garlic
1 1/2 c. catsup
3 tbsp. mustard
1/2 c. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
4 16-oz. cans beans

Fry bacon in large soup pot until crisp. Remove bacon and set it aside. In the bacon fat, saute onion, celery, garlic and hamburger until meat is no longer pink. Drain excess fat. Add 1/2 c. beef broth. Add all remaining ingredients except beans and bacon. Stir well and heat through. Drain beans a little and add to meat mixture, along with crumbled bacon. Cover pot and simmer on the stove an hour or two, or bake 1 1/4 hours covered at 375 degrees, stirring occasionally.

Notes: First, you can omit the bacon and saute in canola oil or similar lower-fat oils if you're trying to be health conscious, though I can't imagine why you would. I have omitted celery to no detrimental effect when I didn't have any, and you can get by with 1 pound of hamburger instead of two when you're pinching pennies. You can substitute ground turkey for the hamburger for less fat as well, and the taste is only slightly impacted. Mom prefers to use Campbell's beans; I use Bush's.

Verdict: The menfolk LOVE this. It's deadly good, with extra flavor coming from the molasses and bacon. Om nom nom. It makes a great big batch - a couple would end up freezing leftovers - but they heat up marvelously second day. My menfolk generally devour them in about a day and a half.

Coupled with....


Courtesy of my wonderful stepmother, this is the perfect side for chuckwagon beans or chili.

2 boxes Jiffy cornbread mix
2 eggs
16-oz. can creamed corn
1 box Jiffy yellow cake mix
8 oz. sour cream

Combine all the ingredients until mostly smooth. Pour into a 9x13 sprayed pan. Bake 30-40 minutes at 375 degrees. The cake is done when the center springs back from being pressed.

Notes: I generally find it takes 45 minutes to bake fully through the center, but remember that my oven really sucks. Best of all, the Jiffy mixes are insanely cheap.

Verdict: I can't keep this in the house. They gobble it up until crumbs remain, then the boy eats the crumbs.

WEDNESDAY: Disney French Toast

Some time ago I nabbed a bunch of recipes from my mother's Disneyland/Disney World cookbook: recipes from the parks. I haven't yet tried one that didn't succeed.

1 c. milk
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 c. powdered sugar
bread of choice

Combine milk, sugar eggs, salt and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Dip bread to soak. Fry in butter and roll in powdered sugar.

Notes: First of all, I had to make two batches to get through a loaf of Italian bread. If you're just using ordinary sliced bread, it might go further. I also ignored the powdered sugar part; my gang likes a lake of syrup and nothing else. I did find I needed to stir the mixture vigorously right before putting in the bread; otherwise, the cinnamon floated to the top and there would be nothing but cinnamon on one side. I generally prefer French, Italian or sourdough bread for French toast; your mileage may vary, but I do recommend thicker and/or stiffer bread to soak up the liquid without falling apart.

Verdict: They ate and they liked it, but apparently no more than my usual recipe, which is heavier on eggs and lighter on milk. Apparently French toast, pancakes and the like are just vessels to carry maple syrup. Who knew?

Tomorrow: cookies and cake. We've got Coffee Hour at church this week...

Monday, November 07, 2011

Culinary Vacation, Day One

So I don't have the money to go anywhere or, y'know, do anything. But I do have a week off work. I have an apartment full of two adults' crap to consolidate. And I have a larder full of food.

I'm going to do three things this week: Sort and organize the apartment. Work on the book. And try new recipes all week. You know how you always have a pile of recipes you never got around to doing? The menfolk will be eating well this week.

Today's Experiment: Herb-Basted Chicken

Assessment: This is a very simple recipe that is also very economical if you are a spice freak like me and have all these things hanging around in your cabinet. Lemongrass and herbes de provence, baby, I have it all. Therefore the actual cost of this was somewhere around a buck eighty for the chicken, as long as you don't have to run out and buy marjoram.

4 bone-in chicken breast halves with skin
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. minced onion
1 clove crushed garlic
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. rosemary
1/4 tsp. sage
1/4 tsp. marjoram
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/8 tsp. hot pepper sauce (opt.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a bowl, combine olive oil and spices. I omitted the hot pepper sauce because I am a heat wuss. Turn chicken breasts in sauce to coat thoroughly. Place skin side up in a shallow baking dish.

Roast covered for 35-45 minutes, basting occasionally with pan juices. Remove to warm platter, spoon pan juices over and munch. Garnish with fresh parsley if desired.

Om nom nom. First, I didn't cover the dish, and the skin crisped nicely. Second, while it was cooking the chicken gave off the most wonderful smells that lingered in the apartment for hours. And, of course, it was tasty beyond belief. The skin with all those spices was good, of course, but I was also pleased at how tender and flavorful the chicken meat was as well.

It'll be a few hours yet before J gets home and heats up his portion, but he's pretty easy to feed. Regardless, this one is strongly recommended. It would be great with stuffing or rice; you could spoon the juices onto it as well. And did I mention the chicken was cheap?

VHS Bonanza!

Blasts from the past in brightly-colored boxes...

Here is a list of VHS tapes we plan to dispose of by any means necessary. Many are for young children, so if you've got a youngster (or know someone who does) and you still have a working VHS player, these would be good for you. You know the one advantage VHS has over DVD? They're a hell of a lot harder for kids to gnaw on. (But not impossible.)

These are all commercial VHS, no pirates. All played just fine the last time we played them, which was a looooong time ago. I've starred the ones that don't have boxes. They're $1 each plus shipping, unless you're in the St. Louis area, in which case I'm happy to meet up with you. Post here if you want them.

Ordinarily I'd be giving them away, but we're trying to raise money for the Hospital Fund and it's sloooow going on eBay, let me tell you. Any that don't sell will be donated to libraries or other good causes (if you know of a local shelter that needs kid VHS, please let me know!)

Kiddo wouldn't let me get rid of his Disney Sing-a-Longs. Sigh.


101 Dalmations (live-action Disney clamshell)
Aladdin (Disney clamsehll)
Aladdin and the King of Thieves (Disney clamshell)
Alice in Wonderland (Disney clamshell)
The Aristocats (Disney clamshell)
An American Tail: Mystery of the Night Monster
Bambi (Disney clamsehll)
Bear in the Big Blue House: Vol. 1
Beauty and the Beast (Disney clamshell)
The Black Cauldron (Disney clamshell)
Blue's Big Musical Movie (Blue's Clues clamshell)
Blue's Clues: Stop, Look and Listen!
Blue's Clues: Story Time
Blue's Big News: Read All About It!
Cars (bonus DVD)
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Charlotte's Web (1972 animated)
Cinderella II (Disney clamshell)
Dumbo (Disney clamshell)
Elmo in Grouchland
Fantasia (Disney clamshell)
Frosty the Snowman (original Rankin-Bass)
High School Musical 2 (behind the scenes bonus DVD)
Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney clamshell)
Hunchback of Notre Dame II (Disney clamshell)
Ice Age 
The Little Mermaid (Disney clamshell)
Monsters Inc. (Disney clamshell)
Mulan (Disney clamshell) - 2 copies!
Pocahontas (Disney clamshell)
Pocahontas II (Disney clamshell)
The Prince of Egypt (Disney clamsehll)
The Rescuers Down Under (Disney clamshell)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (original Rankin-Bass)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney clamshell - original and platinum)
Spongebob Squarepants: Tales From the Deep
Tarzan (Disney clamshell)
Toy Story (Disney clamshell)
VeggieTales: The Ballad of Little Joe
VeggieTales: Where's God When I'm Scared?
The Wizard of Oz 

9 to 5
And the Band Played On
Anne of the Thousand Days
Conspiracy Theory
Crocodile Dundee
Deep Impact
Fatal Attraction
Gone With the Wind (2-tape set)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom*
Kindergarten Cop
The Net
Reality Bites
Sister Act
Stand By Me
Superman IV: Quest for Peace*
Swimming to Cambodia
Tae-Bo Workout: Basic and Instructional
True Colors
West Side Story
Working Girl
Young Guns