Comfort Food-something that your mother or grandmother used to fix

Created Sunday, 30 January 2011 14:44

Comfort Food

Comfort food – it’s just what it sounds like: something that your mother or grandmother used to fix, something plain and good, easy to prepare. It varies from country to country, and even from region to region, but ultimately, it would never be mistaken for haute cuisine. It’s what we fix now for ourselves when we are feeling blue, there is nothing much in the refrigerator, and you just don’t feel up to cooking or eating something complicated. My maternal grandmother’s ultimate comfort food was rice pudding. No, there’s no use in putting up a recipe for it, for although the ingredients were simple enough –  white rice, milk, raisins, sugar and vanilla – the exact proportions of those ingredients remain a mystery, and any attempt to duplicate it in the decades since have met with abject failure. I have had better luck with my own particular favorite: macaroni and cheese, which is nearly foolproof as far as proportions go; however it comes out, it’s always good, even the time when I put in a pinch of cayenne pepper instead of paprika. Hey, it just had a little extra bite.

Make a béchamel sauce by combining in a small saucepan a couple of tablespoons of butter and the same of flour. Add a teaspoon or so of whole-grain mustard and a pinch of paprika. You want only a little, put in a little. You want a lot, put in a lot. Wisk in a cup or two of milk, and while the béchamel sauce thickens, boil a quart of water in another pot, and simmer a cup or a two of macaroni shells, or tubes or even cavatappi until almost al dente. That means, just about done but not mushy. Grate half a pound of sharp cheddar cheese, and whisk into the thickened béchamel. It doesn’t matter if the sauce is a little runny – in fact, it is better that way. The slightly underdone pasta will absorb the sauce and it will all be very nice. Drain the pasta and put into a casserole dish – if you like, add and mix in about half a pound of cut-up kielbasa. Pour the cheese béchamel sauce over it, sprinkle some bread crumbs and a little grated parmesan cheese over the top, bake at about 350° for about forty minutes to an hour – and there you go. Perfectly comforting mac and cheese.

My daughter’s cheesy comfort food favorite is Greek cheese pie, which is a little more complicated, but still very satisfactory: I began making it when we lived in Greece, and it was a staple of her childhood.  Crumble ½ pound feta cheese to the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Make a béchamel sauce of ¼ c. butter, 3 Tbs. flour, and 1-cup milk, and allow to cool slightly. Mix the sauce with the crumbled cheese and add 3 eggs and ½ tsp dill. Allow half a package of Athenos phyllo dough to thaw thoroughly. (they package it with two individual rolls of phyllo dough) Unroll, and cover with a slightly damp towel. Melt ½ cup butter, and use a little to grease the bottom of a small, square baking dish. Layer sheets of phyllo in the dish staggering the layers, draping the half of each sheet over the side if the dish. Brush melted butter after every two layers, in the dish. When all the sheets are used, pour the cheese/béchamel sauce into the center, and begin laying the layers over the cheese mixture, buttering every two layers. Sprinkle a little water on the top of the final layer of phyllo, and bake in a 350 deg. oven for 45 minutes. Perfectly comforting cheese pie – bon appetite.


The Bad Neighbor Policy

Created Tuesday, 25 January 2011 17:06

The Bad Neighbor Policy

By Julia Hayen

For many years, I’ve kept in touch with some friends – a retired couple who live in … well, let’s just say it’s a semi-rural, and congenial neighborhood in a western state blessed with rather nice hills and mildish winters. They have a near neighbor whose antics over the last twenty years have enlivened the occasional communications that I have with these friends … because this individual has the opposite of the golden touch. Everything he touches invariably turns to the stuff that is swept up from the street after the horses have gone by. It’s been an unfailing gift; in the words of the demotivational poster, his purpose in life is to serve as a bad example.

If he were just feckless and congenial, that would be one thing: My friends say their other neighbors all are nice people; they would work hard to rescue such a person from various disastrous consequences. Alas, he is not. Besides the leaden touch, he is also self-regarding, confrontational and a bully. My friends and their neighbors have all learned cynicism, and to sit back and await the inevitable spectacular pratfall. Every neighborhood has one of these people; there was a resident of my parent’s old neighborhood in Sunland-Tujunga who earned an official injunction against ever dialing 9-1-1.

My friends bad-example neighbor got off on the wrong foot, yea these many years ago in buying at the peak of the local real estate bubble. The property was a goodish size, planted with a thriving fruit orchard, mature trees, a lath-house and a beautiful garden planted with many exotic specimens. There was a well-kept double-wide trailer -many residents in this neighborhood lived in trailers or RVs while building a permanent house. The bad-example neighbor moved in with his spouse and children, telling everyone that he had bought this hilltop property as an investment. The bursting of the real estate bubble and a subsequent drought put an end to that plan; the bad-example neighbor pinched pennies by not watering the orchard – the fruit-trees all died. The garden also died, although the specimen plants could have been sold to local plantsmen and nurseries for a tidy sum … if the bad-example neighbor had only known. Bad-example neighbor turned out to be slightly delusional about where his property-lines ran, and engaged in a bitter conflict with the owners of two adjacent properties when they put up fence-lines.

Maintenance on the double-wide was deferred, and deferred again: The electrical system was outright dangerous and the roof leaked. Bad-example neighbor did not really have any construction or technical skills, as many of the other neighbors did, and his spouse was, charitably, not the best housekeeper in the world. To save money on getting the septic tank pumped, bad-example neighbor insisted that his family not flush the toilet until they had been used three times. At that point, my friends and the other neighbors agreed that the place had become unspeakably squalid. Bad example-neighbor and his spouse divorced; most everyone agreed his spouse was struck with a moment of clarity. He kept custody of their children; she engaged in professional training and eventually got a good job.

Around that point, a wild-fire swept through the area, and bad-example neighbor’s double-wide and the remaining outbuildings were casualties … which did solve the problem of deferred maintenance, although several neighbors were appalled to discover that when bad-example neighbor evacuated ahead of the fire, he left two dogs behind. The neighbors fed and tended the dogs, one of which was slightly burned.

Bad-example neighbor lives in town, now – usually coming out to the property on weekends. He keeps a small tractor, in a storage shed. He has delusions about sub-dividing the land, and to that end has constructed a dirt road along the property-line, which has had the effect of shifting a seasonal watercourse to now drain directly into one neighbor’s driveway and another’s horse corral. There will be the inevitable repercussions from those neighbors about this. My friends sigh, with exasperation, now and again, wondering just how it could be worse. That it could be worse is not much comfort.


What it’s like back in the hills at your country retreat

Created Tuesday, 25 January 2011 02:25

On the Edge of the Wilderness

Well, it’s not the wilderness, actually – but it would certainly look so to someone more used to living in the city. No streetlights, and the houses are set back from the roads – which are unpaved – and so a possessing good stock of flashlights and fresh batteries are something that every household out here needs, especially if planning to go somewhere and return after dark. I had to work the combination to the front gate by the light of my cell phone last week, so no – I won’t forget a flashlight again. There may be starlight and moonlight on occasion, but underneath the trees, it’s as black as the inside of a cow.

Which some of the neighbors have, by the way. A cow. And some goats. At least half of them have horses, too, all winter-shaggy and bored, mooching around in their corrals, next to the road. At once place, the horses have managed to chew away a lot of the three-rail wooden fence. The previous owners used to keep it all in good repair and painstakingly painted white. The new owner doesn’t seem to care quite so much. Everyone has dogs in their yards. One can track a pedestrian around the neighborhood by following the sounds of sequential dogs barking. There are also coyotes on the prowl, especially at night. This does not make it healthy for outdoor cats; my parents and most of their neighbors have lost cats to coyotes and other predators, in spite of taking every care. It seems that the only way to keep cats entirely safe is to keep them indoors.

There was a lot of heavy rain over Christmas – which of course did a number on the dirt roads. For some strange, atavistic reason, my parents have always loved living on a dirt road, out in the hills. Possibly this cuts down the numbers of door-to-door evangelists and vacuum cleaner salespeople, but it’s heck on automobile suspensions … especially when a heavy rain has gouged huge gullies across the roadway, and what would have been the gutters on either side have become canyons capable of swallowing up Mini-Coopers.

Or they would, if anyone was demented enough to drive a Mini-Cooper along some of these roads. A couple of neighbors are contractors, with small businesses and earth-moving equipment. They have a lot of fun playing around, re-grading the road, although one of them has not helped much, by trying to fill the ruts with adobe, scraped up from his property. Alas, wet adobe turns into slippery mud; in the next heavy rain, one particular spot will be a kind of automobile slip-n-slide for an unwary driver traveling at more than 20 miles an hour. The water and power authorities offer more useful assistance by dumping concrete and asphalt rubble into the deepest of the gullies.

The rain has made everything most beautifully green, though. The big fire seven years ago cleared away a lot of undergrowth, and of course, the various fire departments since then have cleared even more. The familiar mark of an old brush-fire is evident everywhere: the parti-colored dead branches of a tree or a shrub, bleached white in some places, soot-blackened in others, sticking up out of the middle of a lush thicket of new green growth.

Birds are everywhere – humming-birds squeaking like rusty hinges, and quail rustling through the undergrowth. I see rabbits in the morning, when I walk down the hill for the newspapers: tan-colored, with a little white-cotton powderpuff for a tail. They lollop lazily out of the way, as if humans didn’t frighten them very much at all. Probably they don’t: dogs and coyotes must be more of a real danger to the rabbits.

And that’s what it’s like, back in the hills. Given a choice, I’d have my own country retreat … but I think I’d skip the unpaved road part of it. Asphalt paving is a wondrous invention.


Many households used to home-weave cloth for clothing and trade

Created Monday, 24 January 2011 14:50

Woven in the Past

In a town near my parent’s house there is a museum specializing in industrial and mechanical items, all housed in a range of barns and sheds. They have a huge collection of steam and gas-powered tractors and engines made to power threshers and harvesters … all of those ingenious inventions which came about towards the end of the 19th century as an improvement on the brute muscle-power of horses or oxen or even humans. In a good many ways, we have become so accustomed to things powered by electricity, or various fuels that we take them for granted. Only when the power goes out, or when it becomes necessary to dig a hole with a shovel, do we have any clue about how much sheer physical labor it took to do things in the old way.

I wasn’t at the museum to look at the antique, steam-powered tractors, though – I was looking at the vast collection of working looms, the oldest of them going on two centuries and the process of working them even older than that. I had a chance to do some last-minute authentication for my next book. This book features the minor character of a woman who brings a loom with her to Texas in the 1820s, and thereafter weaves much of her families’ clothing and household fabrics herself. So – I wanted to get a better notion of what that would have involved: what would her loom looked like, sounded like in use? What would her homespun cloth looked like, how fine or coarse, how would she have set up her loom to weave a length of cloth; how wide and long would her fabric would have been? All different from today in what I have in my San Antonio home.

So – when internet searches have only taken me so far, what better way than to consult with experts, re-enactors and hobbyists, those hands-on amateur scholars who explore such matters out of sheer love – and are most pleased to share their expertise. Like most things pre-industrial, transforming plant or animal fiber into garments turns out to have been labor intensive. Leaving alone the process of harvesting cotton or sheering sheep -and let’s not even get into processing flax – it starts with combing or carding the cleaned fiber. That is done with a pair of square paddles set with short wire bristles, which straighten the fibers, pull them all into one direction, and remove some of the debris.

That process is followed by spinning it into thread, which pulls out the fibers and twists them together; this can be done with either a drop-spindle, which spins as it falls, or by a spinning wheel. There are two kinds of spinning wheels; one is worked by a foot-lever – which turns a wheel, which turns the spindle which draws out and twists the thread. The other, the older kind and larger kind, is a walking-wheel: the spinner turns the wheel and takes a few steps to be in position to draw out and twist the thread upon the spindle, and then steps back to turn the wheel again. In any case, it generally took about five spinners to keep one weaver at work – or five hours of spinning thread to one hour of weaving it into cloth.

The actual weaving goes very fast, so the hobby weavers told me, especially if it is plain weaving. The tedious part is setting up the warp threads in the loom; threading them individually through the batten – which packs the woof threads together as they are woven back and forth – and the heddles, which raise and lower the warp threads as the weaver sends the shuttle back and forth, from left hand to right, then right to left, between the raised and lowered threads; pulling the batten forward at every pass. It all gets to be pretty hypnotic. One can sit there, for hours and hours, in a kind of zombie-zone, thinking of all kinds of things, while the inches of woven fabric grow.

Many households went on home-weaving for decades after machine-woven cloth was available: store-bought fabric cost money, and home-spun cost nothing but time.

Call Mission Realty for San Antonio Homes


Texas economy continues to outperform the U.S. economy in the current recovery

Created Wednesday, 05 January 2011 01:38

January 4, 2011
Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Material herein is published according to the fair-use doctrine of U.S. copyright laws related to non-profit, educational institutions. Items attributed to sources other than the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University should not be reprinted without permission of the original source.


COLLEGE STATION (Real Estate Center) – The Texas economy continues to outperform the U.S. economy in the current recovery, according to the Real Estate Center’s latest monthly economic review.

The state’s economy gained 194,400 jobs from November 2009 to November 2010, an annual growth rate of 1.9 percent, compared with the nation’s 842,000 jobs, an annual growth rate of 0.6 percent.

Texas’ private sector continues to play a key role in job creation. The state’s private sector posted an annual employment growth rate of 2.2 percent compared with 1 percent for the U.S. private sector from November 2009 to November 2010.

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in November 2010, the same as in November 2009, while the nation’s rate decreased from 10.0 to 9.3 percent over the same period.

All Texas industries except the trade and information industries had more jobs in November 2010 than in November 2009. The state’s mining and logging industry ranked first in job creation followed by professional and business services, education and health services and manufacturing.

All Texas metro areas had more jobs in November 2010 than in November 2009. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission ranked first in job creation followed by Brownsville-Harlingen and Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos.

The state’s actual unemployment rate in November 2010 was 8.3 percent. Midland had the lowest unemployment rate followed by Amarillo, Lubbock, College Station-Bryan and Abilene.


Autumn color lingering in Texas neighborhood

Created Tuesday, 04 January 2011 19:37

The Colors of the Seasons

It took me a good while to get to living in a place with four distinct seasons – spring, summer, fall and winter – and a little longer to get to a place where the third of those seasons was absolutely spectacular. That place was not New England, but Northern Utah, where large swaths of the lower ranges of the Wasatch Front turned to one glorious sweep of gold – the mountain aspens, of course.

The mountains were granite grey, their summits a jagged outline against the blue sky . . . and at their feet, in the town that I lived in, there were more aspens and poplar trees also turning gold; their fallen leaves thickly-piled on the ground underneath turned the streets and sidewalks to gold as well – very much like the description of those gigantic mallorn trees in JRR Tolkein’s Lothlorien. Beautiful beyond words – but unlike the seasons in Lothlorien, autumn in Northern Utah was as brief as it was spectacular – usually just a couple of weeks before winter stripped the trees bare and a layer of snow covered it all.

Autumn color in San Antonio Texas lasts for much, much longer – in fact, it is still lingering in my neighborhood, where a great many residents planted a great variety of oaks, since it didn’t get properly cold enough to begin turning the leaves until a few weeks ago. So, just this very week, it all looks quite appropriately autumnal, which clashes something awful with the Christmas decorations.

I think that the most spectacular trees here are the oaks; not just the evergreen live oaks – which like the ones I recall from growing up in California, they remain a plain dark green cloak of leaves year round. But other original in our neighborhood homeowners had something more exotic than the usual Arizona ash trees when their homes were first established here: they went for ornamental pear trees, crepe myrtles, sycamores, Chinese pistache, ginkos and . . . the other sort of oak.

I walked around with a camera this week – because the trees look so wonderful. They have put out displays of red and red-bronze, or bronze and green, colors that muddle and blend together, or stand out boldly; pale yellow and dark amber, maroon mixed with paler red and yellow, and even one particular tree with a muddle of pale green and yellow leaves still clinging to the branches. As I said – quite wonderful, except that it looks pretty strange with the Christmas ornaments.







Air Travel Adventure from San Antonio to Salt Lake City to San Diego

Created Tuesday, 04 January 2011 16:14

Winterreise 2010

By Julia Hayden

Over the last decade – or perhaps even longer – all of the adventure, the fun and the excitement of traveling by air has been removed with cruel and surgical precision. Slowly, slowly, all of the frivolous extras have been chipped away, or become expensive add-ons. A small bag of peanuts and a cup of juice, enjoyed while sitting elbow to elbow in a tight-packed flying cattle car, and the only thing to look forward to (aside from the whole journey being over) is a long slog through the wide-flung nodes of a hub airport in order to catch a connecting flight at another gate. Which as luck usually has it, is as far from the gate where you were unceremoniously decanted as it can get and not be in another county. Or state.

No, about the only good fortune one can hope for these days is meeting a congenial person, whilst waiting for your flight or during it, and passing the idle hours in interesting conversation. Here I was most fortunate – even with the East Coast being socked in with Donner Party levels of snowfall, and the West Coast being served up with relentless rainstorms – I passed the time traveling home with a succession of no less than three very congenial fellow travelers.

The first of these had been at the San Antonio airport all day, trying to get onto flight to Salt Lake City and very tired of working Sodoku puzzles. There is only one kind of young man under the age of 21 who routinely wear a black business suit, conservative tie and white shirt. LDS missionaries – they hardly need the nametag, at all. Turned out his home was in Windcrest, he was going to the 9-week long LDS missionary training course in Salt Lake City before going to South Florida for his tour of mission duty, because he was fairly fluent in Spanish. Then, he thought he might join the Air Force. I don’t think he had ever been to Salt Lake City – and I used to live there.

The hour on the ground – and the two hours in the air to Salt Lake City were enlivened by the guy in the seat next to me; he was going to Park City for the skiing and a better time to do that doesn’t exist. He’s a native Texan – and it proves that San Antonio really is a small town because he had gone to school with one of my former employers. Turned out that we had some other mutual friends and interests, including one for local history. His grandfather and great-grandfather were cattle ranchers out in West Texas and I had written a book touching on the great days of trailing cattle north to Kansas – heck, I even had a copy of J. Frank Dobie’s book about longhorns in my bag.

Because of the delay on the ground, I was pretty sure I’d miss the connecting flight to San Diego … but they had just begun boarding as I jogged breathlessly along the concourse between gates (note to self: start jogging regularly again). Made the flight with about fifteen minutes to spare; I could have just walked fast, but not keen on spending the night sleeping in the terminal, fond as I am of watching the sun come up over the Wasatch Front. For the fight to San Diego, I shared a row with a young Coast Guard member’s wife, who was coming home to San Diego after a flying trip to Fargo, N.D. We had a lot in common, as it turned out: her trip was a last visit to her grandfather, whose health was failing rapidly, mine to be with my family and to sort out matters after my Dad‘s death. She had three-month old baby son whom se adored – and laughed and laughed when I told the story of how my father had snake-proofed my brother and I. On one of the first dates with her husband, he had proudly brought a rattlesnake that he had killed, and skinned it in her kitchen sink

So, the flight from San Antonio to home in San Diego was passed very agreeably – although Delta did their part, I think the people I met along the way were the main means of making the journey at least a little pleasanter than it could have been.

Repost in honor of Dad by Julia Hayden

Created Tuesday, 04 January 2011 15:30


From Julia Hayden: I wrote the original version of this post, late in 2002 for the milblog that I contributed to then – and discovered that the readers loved the accounts of my eccentric family. This is reposted in honor of Dad, who died very suddenly and without warning on the day after Christmas. He would have been 81, on January 3rd. He was also an Army veteran of the Korean War, a wonderful father and a splendid grandfather. We will miss him very much.

Beware The Contents Of The Freezer

by Julia Hayden

In a household with a father who is a research biologist and tends to bring work home, and a mother given to adventurous essays into whatever is cheap and plentiful at the co-op, the deep-freeze is liable to contain some very strange things. When I was a teenager living with my parents, my younger brothers, JP and Sander used to win the gross-out contest among their friends just by opening the deep-freezer and unearthing the bag of dead mice. If that didn’t do the trick, the golf-ball sized tumor that the vet removed from the cat (and which my father never got around to doing the biopsy on) was the sure-fire guarantee.

Then there was the monkey skull… Dad brought it home and boiled it clean in a saucepan that we were never able to look at in the same light again, along with a pair of chicken drumsticks. He mounted the cleaned skull and crossed chicken bones on a length of wood, and hollowed out a small depression in the wood to make an ashtray for a friend that Dad thought should stop smoking. I never found out if it worked, but the smell of boiled monkey lingered for days.

The bag of mice were from a failed experiment— again, Dad never got around to doing the autopsies. The muskrat skin came from a fresh roadkill; never got around to curing the skin. He didn’t just bring home dead animals, there were live ones, such as the bowl of goldfish that were supposed to expire from the effects of the experiment, but didn’t and so came home. Sander had a kangaroo rat named Sylvester and a lovely pink and grey rosy boa, named Rosie. She had to have live food, so she went in once a month to the lab with Dad for a mouse or two, until she escaped her cage on the trip back one day. People sat nervously in that car for years, especially ones who didn’t care for snakes. We had a turtle in the backyard, who loved eating dandelions, and for a while, a horse who clomped around, eating kibble from the dogs’ dish. On one memorable day, the horse treed the Fuller Brush man, who came in the back gate by accident. No fan of large animals, he never returned.

Mom had a small budget, a large family and an open mind. She was the only Anglo in town who made tamales from scratch, and cooked things like jugged hare, which Sander refused to believe was rabbit: he insisted that there wasn’t a bit of hair in it. She and Grandma made grape jelly from the Concord grapes growing on the arbor, which we had in our school lunches every day: I still gag at the sight of a PB&J. Then when she discovered the co-op, which had excellent prices for strange things like beef hearts, and made interesting casseroles of slivered heart and rice. This made Dad invariably sing “Heart- you gotta have heart!” from Damn Yankees every time she dished it up. The incredibly cheap chicken should have been stewed, rather than covered in crumbs and baked, for they tasted like chicken-flavored rubber bands. Only Kiet, the Vietnamese refugee living with us at the time, thought they were edible at all. Through all the weird food, we could tease her by ostentatiously opening the freezer and doing an inventory of the mice, tumor, skull, and other biological specimens before tucking in to dinner. Just to be on the safe side, you see.