Holiday Cooks Hat

Here I’ve been for the last few weeks, getting over some surgical procedures, becoming accustomed to a new town (Easton, MD) and generally puttering about until I get my health back. Or some semblance of it. I’ve been steadily feeling better, and with careful maintenance of food and liquids, I’ll be back to what I now call normal.

Lets talk about the Holidays for a moment, shall we? If you aren’t a cook, I’m sorry for you. These early winter days are my favorite time of the year to crack open jars of preserves from the summer and years past, try new foods, can late season apples in the forms of applesauce, apple butter, apple jam and enjoy the company of family and friends.

This year, don’t let it all sneak up on you. If you haven’t already started preparing, do it now! It’s not too late, but it’s getting there. Don’t panic on me, ok? We have lots of time. A cook would have all day, every day to prepare for changing menus and wild crowds and even she is going to be stressed and gloriously victorious after each shift during this season of festivities. To make things easier, put on your cooking hat and apron and get cranking on this list:

  • Make chicken broth. Nothing could be easier and it will taste unbelievable better than the sodium-stuffed broth you buy in the store. I don’t care how many organic stickers and packaging they put on it.
  • Get to know your suppliers a little better. Chat with your butcher now, before he is slammed with orders. Chances are, you’ll get a deal for bulk orders. Order specialty items ahead of time, before the “I need it TOMORROW” crowds get there. Peking Duck, Mallards, Heritage Turkey, Venison, Boar, Trotters, Grains, vegetables, whatever else you may need, plan now. Order meat products now, and ask vegetable vendors what will be available. Pumpkins, squash, onions, garlic, late winter greens, apples, pears, potatoes – all that stuff is still available and most of it will keep. Grab some late season tomatoes while they are out there and you will be your own best friend.
  • Plan your menu. For days you will be hosting, plan your menu now. Would you like to master a new cooking trend or carving skill to impress people with? Do a test run as soon as you can. Don’t let the day of the event be the first time you’ve tried making poached eggs over scrapple on a bed of grilled leeks. Want to learn to carve a turkey? They are cheap right now in grocery stores. Buy a cheap one, cook it and practice. Your family will love you, you can make stock, soup and turkey salad with the leftovers.
  • Stock up on pots and pans that you need.Don’t buy gadget items! Visit a kitchen supply store if you can.
  • Plan your drink menu. Do you have non-alcoholic beverages that go with the meal? Talk to your beer and wine store. Chances are they will be happy to help you now. In a few weeks, they’ll be slammed for time.
  • Want to try some new cookies? Try them now. Specialty cooks can be a pain! Be careful what you promise! https://ramblinron.com/2013/12/18/christmas-cookies/
  • Get with your baker and pick her brain for bread and all things baked. Pre-order so you aren’t forgotten.

I could go on and on but let’s stop right there. Get these things done and you will be golden. Don’t worry: I’ll walk you through it in the next few weeks.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Ron

Montana Bound

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The room sat in stunned silence, with glowering faces and bristling tusks where the smooth, baby-like features of esteemed scholars had sat only moments before, unruffled in their carefully mussed clothes and hair, with a few suits scattered here and there as if for decoration, horribly placed. I felt like I had taken a shit in a display toilet with my back to the street, amongst the hallowed stones of Georgetown, DC. In Restoration Hardware. The City of Angels would hardly blink at such a display, so accustomed to the antics of rock stars and people climbing over one another like an army mindless ants, each clamoring for a moment of attention.

The memories of times of confrontation just like this, along with my rabid hatred for bullies, ricocheted around my mind a few times, like a spent bullet, badly aimed. Then they faded. The truth was, I really no longer cared. I had found what I came to seek from the enlightened ones, our modern planetary scientists, the esteemed ones, and I had found them lacking in the ability to find the front door, much less help solve my questions. Their only real care was funding: Who gave it, who had it, and most importantly, what could they do to get it. Real science has mostly dissolved into a quest for money, the greatest evil to any entity in pursuit of knowledge.

The blackboard, normally my salvation when a team of scholars scowled in scorn, seemed undecipherable to me. I suddenly wished for other days, when I was younger, a kid, with only a dog and a miles of forest, abandoned mines and old coal waste piles to explore. I had learned to downplay any attempt to gauge my intelligence by that point, content in not being bullied, called a nerd or getting beaten by the playground monsters, the hulks from grades forward who should no longer be there, left behind in a system that routinely left such grounded in a rapidly deteriorating childhood.

Those days of systematic battle were over, but they left their mark on me. It was to be found in a suddenness of breath when I was verbally assaulted and a painful urge to resort to physical violence. There was nothing to prove in that recourse, with only a dimly lighted cell awaiting my return.

I took several deep breaths, all the way from my abdomen to the top of my skull, holding them until brief lights flashed and steadily gained my composure. Several arguments had broken out in my sudden and temporary absence, all of which appeared to be directed at me. My advisor sat stony-faced, his OCD firmly in charge of his every moment, with hearing aids that appeared as alien sentinels on the sides of his narrow head. He took pride in his disability and broadcasted his lack of hearing with the ostentation of Socrates, proclaiming things must be so, for he enunciated them.

My voice found its own, a gift from my father, the thunderous minister; capable of holding a crowd of restless hypocrites silent and still as though bound. My voice was stronger: Where such a projection of sound would render my Dad nearly mute for days, I had found that I could do the same with no physical ill effects. At least not during the duration. I had to be angry to do that, and anger always did and always will leave its mark on my physical and psychological persona.

I turned back to the calculations, carefully written the night before. Slightly to mostly inebriated, I had stolen into this room out of habit, to see where the exits were, decide who would be sitting where based on my interpretation of their personality and most importantly, find the physical space that I wanted my personal to rest during the trial leading to my academic crucifixion.

Beyond the blackboard, a teaching utensil doomed for extinction, I could see the mountains and wondered where I would go from here. I prepared to bury myself. To burn the bridges and light the prairies with flame, never to return to this shame of higher education.

I turned, underlined a few sentences I felt were key, and figuratively threw myself to the wolves.

“Pride Goes Forward Until A Fall.”

I could almost hear my Dad speaking those words. I departed as arrogantly as I had arrived, but with the sinking feeling that I would no longer be welcome in the halls of academia again. Not in my chosen field anyway, maybe not ever. Like all scientists, my academic world was small, with the same people populating it year after endless year, a parade of white men in wigs, contorting for various branches and government in vain attempts floundering for surplus funds awash in the forgotten bank accounts open in the name of science.

The doors swooshed shut behind me as I grabbed my pack, favorite pens and a few notebooks out of my work area. I puzzled around the room for a moment, wondering what had happened, how I had become so discontent so fast. The last vestiges of a hangover were clearing my brain and I decided to forego my nightly ritual of drinking myself silly and instead drag out some maps and see where I wanted to go.

Bob sat rather desolate on the curb as I finished packing, as it were. My chainsaw, tool boxes, gear and sleeping pad were in their places in the back of the Suburban, a truck that represented all that seemed right to me. My cast iron skillets and old chef’s knife were backed away in their place in the box between the front seats. Rocky leapt over the tailgate as he always did, tongue hung out, but happily puzzled. It hung over the three of us like a sticky cloud of methane, trapped and angry with its release.

I didn’t blame her. For better or for worse, she had spent the majority of her formative young adult years following me like a lost puppy. Her words, not mine. We were both bleary eyed from fighting and lack of sleep, but I was still unbelievably happy inside. I missed her already, but the future once again opened up for me like a lost horizon, something I dreamed of exploring from my perch in the old oak tree on the ridge above my childhood home.

Bob sat forlornly, so small in her sadness that it broke my heart. For better or worse, we had parted ways, for one of the last times. I drove east, arm out the window, Rocky panting happily and pacing madly about the back of the truck. He finally realized that it was to be a long trip and crossed the folded up seat back into the passenger seat, staring forward through the windshield.

Montana was somewhere in the distance, a cold and rather desolate place, from what I had heard. I place to lose yourself for a while, if needs be. I had pulled some strings with connections the night before and found a destination: A working ranch in the middle of nowhere.

We passed through Nevada like ghosts, following the headlights as they pointed the way forward. The diesel engine growled along, comforting in its stability and reliability. Forty gallons of fuel sloshed in the tank and forty more were loaded in old red jerry cans, strapped carefully to the rear of the truck to avoid asphyxiation in the main cab.

The stars were visible once more. Alcohol was, for now, a forgotten crutch. I did swing by a casino for an all you can eat breakfast buffet. It was forgettable. Unless you count the artificial rain forest all around people gorging themselves. I felt eerily cannibalistic.

Leaving Reno?

Reno

At some point between sleep and wakening, hung-over dinner and drunken breakfast, all hell broke loose. My Felicity look-alike work friend and escort to a smarmy Christmas Party had discovered my best friend and lover and they were having an all-out pitched battle. I hated to break it to Felicity, but this was just the sort of thing that Bob (let’s just call her that, OK?) ate like a starving Russian model at an all you can eat sashimi bar. I had been awake for about fifteen minutes, going through mail, making some phone calls to verify that all the charges had been actually dropped and it wasn’t some joke by my Grandfather’s youngest brother, who also happened to be the judge, magistrate, lawyer, contracts negotiator and person in charge of just about everything in the small town near where I grew up.

Sabrina (aka Felicity) was explaining loudly that she was decidedly NOT happy to find me with my arm around another girl, as we were rehashing our last few months apart while finishing the handle of Vodka and a handful of happy pills with court papers scattered around us like confetti. We were just talking about how fun it would be to go to Italy together (she insisted that she knew just where to go, who to see and how to live there) after a stopover in coal country for me to stock away a few grand to trade for euros. Sabrina had picked a truly horrendous time to come and see why I hadn’t been at work.

Bob decided that this was an argument best won in the nude. She dropped the blanket away, placed one leg strategically over the other, threw her shoulders back, tossed her six-hundred blonde mane into a trashy, sexy, perfect mess, checked her toenails and drained her last martini. Neat. Straight, actually, if you didn’t look hard for the Percocet’s swimming around in the bottom like someone’s spunk that was just too lazy to try anything else. She called Rocky to her. He went obediently enough, but with a bit of reluctance, as though he too were tired of the whole thing already. I know I was.

“Who loves me?” Bob slipped into her best Valley Girl accent like a well-worn favorite sweater. Her blue eyes pinned me to the wall and I wanted to be anywhere else. On a deserted island maybe. With a reverse osmosis water filtration system. Sabrina was dead white and shaking like a leaf. She knew the battle was over. Bob had flown in from LA and her Land Rover was parked at the top of the steps as if she owned the place, which I suppose she did. Her parents did, at least, which is the only way that I could have afforded to live here. Despite the crime rate, desert sand street and proximity to the interstate, it was still a hipster street and market values were skyrocketing. Sabrina, oddly enough, was now mad at me. “You’re a pile of shit! You know that, right? To think….I hired you!”

The gate at the top of the stairs, which were inlaid with tiny stones and hand fired brick from the courtyard below us, slammed, hard. Bob, her most pressing battle won with her opponent fleeing down the street rolled onto her stomach and stretched her toes towards her head. Her crazy icy eyes pinned me to the wall like a specimen in an Entomology Museum.

“Want to do something fun?” I nodded, all the fun gone from my immediate future. I was relatively certain I’d just lost my job as a cook, and I was even more certain that my days with the USGS and NASA were numbered. They had stopped feeding me datasets that could be solved and could only be tagged for further research. That meant my publications had dried up, which meant, at least to smallish community of people who study fracture mechanics on other planets, that I no longer truly existed.

I shrugged. “Sure!” Is there really another answer to that question? She was dressing, if you could call it that, in a white sheer number that would likely land me in jail by the end of the night. Assault and battery, maybe. She really enjoyed starting fights and acting her part as the dazed and confused damsel in distress as my luckless opponent and I battered each other senseless. I had grown somewhat used to it, down to taping my fingers when we went out, just in case. My only real wish is that she would choose someone more my size to start shit with.

The night was as I expected, mostly. I don’t remember much. We met a model friend of hers at the airport, dressed just as explicitly as Bob. We were driven downtown in front of Casino Casino. I felt sorry for the washed up guy sobbing on the street and bought him dinner at a steakhouse. Bob and Company enjoyed it until he started vomiting and begging for a drink. Then they declared it was gross and too real and left to find a drug dealer, I suppose.

I stood in the cold desert air, desperately searching the horizon for stars. I couldn’t see any. I wander into the Silver Legacy and shivered as refrigerated air, reeking of retirement, booze and sadness washed over me like a tangible thing, like a jungle snake watching me with unblinking eyes as I stumbled closer to its lair, lost and frightened.

I ignored the feeling, tossed the last pill out of my pocket into an abandoned gin and tonic and swallowed all of it, unflinching.

It was a fabulous evening, I suppose. I awoke sometime later on my flattened air mattress just as Rocky came in through his gate. The high desert air was cold again, without a trace of humidity. I sat outside on the steps and numbly poured coffee from my neighbors French Press into my old cup. I didn’t argue when he added a splash of whiskey. We sipped our redeyes and watched the sun come up. The two models were still passed out in the remains of the air mattress. I reminded myself to throw that thing away and get a real bed someday.

The heavy oak door creaked open and Bob stumbled out in an old sweatshirt of mine. She didn’t look nearly as good as the night before. I could see the beginnings of age at the corners of her eyes and mouth and her spray on tan was fading rapidly into a jaundiced yellow.

She covered her face with my sleeves and stumbled into my arms. “Promise to never leave me again. Please?” How could I agree with anything else? I did promise and she settled into a comfortable warm mess on my lap and smiled sleepily at me. “We had fun last night, right?”

Her teeth were smeared with lipstick. Like blood, maybe. Mine? I watched the sun finish rising and drained my cup.

I was leaving Reno. That was for sure.

Light Pollution and Home Fries

The harsh city lights lit up the immediate sky. Overlying stars winked above the pollution emitted by the small cities constant drain on the water resources of Lake Tahoe. Not for the first time, I welcomed a look at the stars, looking back through eons of time to what? The beginning of the universe? Creation? The first or latest ripple of energy that rippled through our known solar system, no doubt accompanied by a noise devoid of context to human ears. With nobody there to witness it with any understanding that could be made understandable to the finite abilities of the human brain, it joins the riddle of the tree in the forest. I made my way across the pedestrian bridge spanning the interstate, which provided a indelible boundary of sorts between the garish tourism and crime of downtown and the Institution of higher learning, where I spent strange hours pondering the imponderable, getting paid to essentially think deep thoughts on shallow subjects and transmit those ponderings to the blinking question mark of a computer screen.

The constant stream of automobile headlights sparkled darkly in the constant multi-colored twilight. Although nearly daylight, the screams and laughs of late night party goers in search of something they dared not pursue in within their natural environment of suburbs and McMansions around the world. Those who survived the onslaught of petty criminals, con artists, casinos and prostitutes of all kinds would sleep the restless sleep of the guilty, subconsciously worrying about the ultimate digital trail of their escapades as the fell upon their credit cards like starving dogs, draining bank accounts and ruining credit in their pursuit of something else, something different.

My day had begun nearly 24 hours earlier, as I rose from a few hours of fitful sleep to let myself in the kitchen door of a tiny café across from campus. The owner, a striking blonde with more than a passing resemblance to Keri Russell, a fact that I was made aware of at a Christmas Party she escorted me to.

Surrounded by nerds, technicians, PhD candidates and their mentors, we made an unusual pairing. I refused to be drawn in to any discussions on micro-fracture tip deformation mechanics on mars and she would not respond to any of the enthusiastic advances of my colleagues, who, well into their second drink of the year, were terribly wasted and embarrassing to be around. My own mentor was a nearly deaf middle aged white guy with the most striking case of OCD that I’d ever seen, a house in a gated community, a shy, skinny wife dressed in new outdoor gear and a pet rabbit they’d taught to use their toilet. Not for the first time, I wondered what the hell I was doing there, with that group of people.

I preferred the kitchen. When I rumbled through the steel door with multiple padlocks, kicking opossum filled trash cans out of the way and bonking an occasional coyote on the head, I felt at home. My home fries were wildly popular and I cut fifty pounds of them every single morning, using only my chef’s knife, blanched them in boiling water until tender, drained them well and baked the excess moisture away in a 500 degree oven. I would empty the fryers, refill with rendered duck fat and lard that I screened the night before and kept hidden under the pastry counter and fry each batch to order.

I would also prep waffle mix, pancakes, beat enough eggs for 75 omelets, check my pickles, rescue my hand-cured pork belly and sausage from their respective hiding places, and crank out breakfasts until 10:00 a.m. I was paid in cash, every day, and I packed and cleaned as though I might not be back. With outstanding warrants in Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia and Maryland, there was always a chance.

All this made me a bit more wary as I approached my apartment that night, with the neon night at my back and the faint glow of a light fading out from under my door. Rocky woofed reassuringly and I relaxed a bit. Whoever was in there had to be someone he knew, well, or he would never have let them through the entrance. I dropped the latch on the gate back in place, noting the electronic click of the security locks, checked my mail and made my way down the steps. The sun was just rising to my right, and the lights of Sacramento were on the horizon to my left. Lake Tahoe was no doubt gleaming like the world’s largest and most precious diamond just over the horizon, behind the snow covered peaks of the Western Rockies.

I eased open the door, and the scent of hair product, perfume and vodka became my guide to the interior. There was a small tiled bathroom, a kitchenette and a single king sized air mattress, occupied. Her blond hair spilled over the very expensive blanket she carried everywhere with her and Rocky proudly stood guard by her on the mattress. I locked the door, put water out for Rocky, which he scorned, as usual. It was habit for me, but he’d long since learned the value of a toilet.

It seems I’d left this girl everywhere, and still she followed. She was too fragile, too open, too open-hearted to follow my ornery ass around. I picked through the prescription pill bottles on the floor by the bed, noting the half empty handle of Absolute turned on its side, still dribbling it’s poison onto the stone floor.

I shook out one of the pills, and sat down on her yoga mat. Rocky padded over to join me. I checked his breath and eyes, relieved that he showed no signs of intoxication. That was all I needed. A drunk 110 lb. lab mix and a 110 lb. enraged and inebriated model with a rich girl entitlement attitude wrapped in about a thousand dollars of grooming.

I glanced at my mail, and hastily ripped open an envelope from my lawyer back home in Virginia. I picked up the bottle of vodka, palmed the pill and chased it with a feta stuffed Kalamata olive and a chug of devils juice. My hands shook a bit. Case dismissed. No credible witnesses. Come home.

I relaxed into the air mattress and turned on the TV, barely watching the Dragonball Z episode. Goku was blowing up some world somewhere and his hair was glowing. As the sun broke through the high altitude fog, the girl’s hair, spilled all over her pillow and blanket, glowed as well. I decided to finish of the bottle and sleep for about a week.

Rocky sighed, turned in a quick circle and quietly put his head between his paws. In the mornings early sunshine, the burn of neon lights vanished into the outer realm of human perception. The dog’s paws twitched and I gagged slightly at the familiar burn of the alcohol. I’d be sick tonight.

But I’d be on my way home. Sort of.

The Best Canoe Ever

Well, here we go. I’m going to repost a few favorites as we prepare to journey home tomorrow. Happy travels!

Ramblin Ron

Once upon a time, back in the olden days when dinosaurs such as the AMC Gremlin, the Chevette, the LUV truck, the original Subaru Brat and other such worthless vehicles populated the earth for a short time, I was married. Shocker, I know. I have since been divorced and remarried, and that original marriage has faded into a distant memory that only once in a great while comes to bear on something that is happening in my life, which, is to say, not very often. My wife often says that it’s as if I was never married before her, as I obviously didn’t learn anything during that ill-fated short marriage, which may be why it was so short and so ill-fated. In actuality, there could not have been two people less suited for one another than she and I. As a matter of fact, I actually even liked her as…

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