Friday, December 31, 2010

Tradition, Tradition!

Although I stand here up to my elbows in Christmas cookie dough, I am fiercely determined to get this post out before the end of 2010.  

I long for the day when I actually have a moment to think about anything, anything other than boxes of one sort or another, but until that day comes I will have to resign myself to the moments between the timer alerting me to the relative doneness of the cookies in the oven, the laundry in the washer and the packages still waiting to be wrapped.

Things were just starting to wrap up for us (pun intended), but we seem destined to be sent hurtling from one life changing experience just in time to jump right in to another.

I couldn't let 2010 go by, though, without pulling together this post that has been one whole year in the making:  The recipe for the tourtière.

The tourtière has a long and varied history, including a debate about how it got it's name.  Some say it was named after the container in which the pie was baked.  Others say it was named after what used to be the key ingredient:  the passenger pigeon, known as the tourtre in France or tourte in New France.  

And like everything else in this day and age, the pie even has it's own Facebook page.

Every self-respecting family of French-Canadian descent has their own version of the tourtière, the meat pie that is traditional during the Christmas/New Year Holidays, and ours is no different (even Alex Trebek has a version; but this one is probably closest to Mémère's.) 

Every year we just assumed that the pies would be part of the Christmas festivities, and we were never disappointed.  Then, my little corner of the family moved to California.

For the first few years in California we got by without the pies.  Then, in what I guess was a craving for some kind of tradition, I decided to try my hand at making my own tourtière.  I used Mémère's recipe, but with such vague measurements and instructions, I never could get it right.

One of the frustrations that I faced in translating this recipe is Mémère's use of Québécois French, a variety of french particular to Quebec.  The difference between Québécois French and Metropolitan French is apparently somewhat akin to the differences between American English and  British English.  This difference made Google translate go into some sort of cyber-spasm, and the result was practically unintelligible.

There was also some idiom involvement, which would make the recipe easy to understand if you were Mémère's next-door neighbor, but a little more difficult for someone with 2 years of high school french. 

A year ago, Mom hosted a "Tourtière Tutorial" for the interested to learn the history behind the tradition of the tourtière in the Hebert/Fortin families. At the end of this post is the video created that day.

The second video was created this year when I went back for a  "Remedial Tourtière Tutorial", where I cornered Mom into coughing up more detailed instruction on how to create this enigma.  The information I gleaned from this lesson is in brackets.  In quotes is the exact transcription from Mémère's recipe.  In parenthesis is the somewhat convoluted translation.

That being said, here we go:

"2 lbs. hamburg pork"

(2 lbs. ground pork)

[The fresher, the better- you may need less water if the pork is really fresh.   Also, Mom does mention that Mémère always used her cast iron pan.  I don't think it would make a difference taste-wise, but I do believe that in general cast iron and ceramic coated cast iron like Le Creuset would cook more evenly.]

"1 oinions assez gros."

(1 onion, big enough.)

[5.5 ozs. chopped onion, chopped 
small-ish so they cook faster]

"3 patates"

(3 potatoes)

[1 lb. 2 ozs.- any kind]

"Cuit ta viande met de l'eau pas trop car sa fait 
pamale de juice pour apeu pres 1 hr, lentement."

(O.K., here's where it gets tricky:  Cook your 
meat slowly for about an hour.  Add water but not too much because it will make quite a bit of liquid.)  

[Here Mémère may have forgotten to mention 
that the onions should be cooked with the meat.  

Use 1 1/2 c. water added as the meat starts to cook, then 1/2 c. added after 5mins, then another 1/2 c. added about 5 mins later- you just have to watch that the water doesn't cook out of the meat.  After the meat is cooked you may end up taking about 1 1/2 c. of liquid out of the mixture. 

The meat was cooked just under high heat, but you have to watch it so it doesn't brown.  It's supposed to cook slowly, but ended up only taking about 15 mins. on Mom's stove.]

"Cuit tes patates."

(Cook your potatoes.)

"Ecrase les biens."

(Crush them well.)

"Melange les avec ta viande."

(Mix them with the meat.)

[At this point you may want to add 3 1/2 pinches 
of salt and 3 pinches of pepper.  FYI:  a pinch is 1/16 t.]

"Mets du clove en poudre..."

(Add ground cloves...)

[about 1/2 t.]

" cinnamon aux gout."

(...and cinnamon to taste.)

[about 1/2 t. plus a pinch more- 9/16 t. to be exact]

"Je n'ai pas de recette.  Je fait cela aux gout.  
Melange bien le tout.  Je crois que tu aura deux tarte."

(I don't have a recipe. I do this to taste.  
Mix it all well.  I think you will have two pies.)

"Bonne chance."
[Well said.]

Tourtiere Tutorial Part One from Susan Miller on Vimeo.

Tourtiere Tutorial Part Two from Steve Miller on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

This Magic Moment

 You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment...
-Henry David Thoreau

Why is it that as we get older we start to dread birthdays?  Certain milestone birthdays are especially intimidating....40, 50, 60.  I put some of the blame on greeting card companies and their ilk.  The "Over the Hill" birthday cards, fun grim reaper party balloons, and these

It doesn't help when I stop to consider that there are so many people who, at my age accomplished far more than myself. 

While I still don't own anything purple and I'm not yelling at kids to get off my lawn (yet), there are days when I definitely feel my age.  I do find consolation in the fact that I'm not as old as Barbie and the Edsel.

There are times I relish the idea that I'm getting to the point that I'm old enough to say exactly what's on my mind and not care (much) what anyone else thinks.  The last thing I want to do is become a cliche, though, and I feel I'm dangerously close to that precipice.  This book is now on my wish list and I keep this website close for what our culture likes to call "senior moments".  And it's nice to know that the NYTimes has my back.

There are blogs out there that take ownership of the subject of aging:  How Not to Act Old and Crabby Old Fart.  And Margaret and Helen are my new heroines.

I think we dread birthdays as we age because of past regrets and anxiety about the future.  One way to change this is to start living in the now.  Be mindful of the moment you're in, and stop focusing on the thoughts, negative or otherwise, that come and go.  Easier said than done.

There is a term that Buddhists use to describe the constant hum that goes on in your head.  It is, and I'm not making this up, "monkey mind".  I can't think of a better way to describe what is going on in my brain at any given moment.

Psychology Today had a great article a couple of years ago called "The Art of Now:  Six Steps to Living in the Moment" which is sort of a beginner's guide to mindfulness.

The six steps are, in a nutshell
  • Unselfconsciousness- getting out of your own head and being part of what's going on around you
  • Savoring- appreciating the moment...stop flitting around between past and future
  • Breathe- something you can do anywhere, anytime to bring you back to being present in the moment
  • Flow- focusing your attention on a task so as to not even notice the passage of time
  • Acceptance- a non-judgmental way of looking at emotions
  • Engagement- not assuming you know everything about the moment you're presently in 
So, this is my resolution for my new be more mindful about the present, and to try and tame my monkey mind.

Now, where did I put, what do you call them?  Oh, yeah, car keys.

(thanks again, John and Ann!)

Friday, January 1, 2010

I'll Be Looking at the Moon, But I'll Be Seeing You

 I will honour Christmas in my heart, 
and try to keep it all the year.
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.
The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.
I will not shut out the lessons they teach.
-Ebeneezer Scrooge

Because of several unfortunate incidents, including, but not limited to: the sunburn incident, the shingles incident, and the great thumb incident of aught-nine, and because Christmas waits for no (wo)man, something had to give this year.

So was it the cookies that got the boot? The Raspberry Shortbread Cookies, Dulce de Leche Gingersnap Sandwich Cookies or the Lemon Meringue Filled Ginger Snap cookies? Inconceivable! (They were awesome!)

Was it the Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread Cake or Meyer Lemon-Cranberry Bundt Cake? Not a chance.

The tourtiere? Nope (more on that later.)

It was Christmas cards that took the hit this year. No cheerful notecard with photos depicting our wondrous life in the Bay Area. No newsy newsletter. Not even the random talking squirrel Ecard (there was the occasional dancing elf card, but that's another story.)

I'm not sure I've ever missed a year of sending at least some cards...even when I had the perfectly legitimate excuse of two small children, or the Hanukkah Eve Wind Storm of 2006 that caused a power outage lasting over a week in below freezing temperatures, when I had to write cards with numb fingers by candlelight.

I fear my omission of the annual card writing only succeeded in offending the Ghost of Christmas Past.

I then had the audacity to provoke the Ghost of Christmas Present by making a short unexpected trip to the east coast two weeks before Christmas. I nearly lost three toes and a finger in the sub-zero weather, and I lost all my gelt in a rousing game of much fun-akkah!

So, to avoid triggering the three-strike rule by goading the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I offer this appeasement: "Ode to the Christmas Ornament".

The history of the Christmas tree and ornament is actually pretty interesting. The first ornaments were fruits and nuts. Way back when, German families hung shaped gingerbread cookies on their tree as ornaments. I used to do that, too, until the year we were awoken in the middle of the night by mice jumping into the tree to eat the cookies. I don't do that any more.

I started collecting gold-covered brass ornaments- the kind you can buy at tacky souvenir shops- about 13 years ago when we drove from Boston to San Francisco.  And believe you me, there are plenty of tacky gift shops between here and there.  Because I don't live at 30 Rockefeller Plaza I can't display all of these ornaments on our tree, so for now I stick to the more conventional ornaments.

Other than that, our tree is pretty traditional.  Except I don't use tinsel...I find tinsel distracting :)

So, without further ado I give you my peace offering to the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  Here they are, in no particular order:

The year we got engaged

1982: Our first Christmas together


Hurricane Ridge ornament,
Space Needle ornament,
Ornament made with the ash of Mount St. Helens,
Ornament from the Stanley Family Reunion 1990




No Christmas tree is complete without a Simpsons ornament...
...ours has two!

San Leandro

Poky Little Puppy (complete with diamond earrings)

Oakham and Barre

New Orleans

New England:
Faneuil Hall in Boston,
Longfellow's Wayside Inn and Grist Mill,
Kennebunkport, ME
Gold dipped leaves from Walden Pond

Victoria, BC ornament,
Ornament made of olive wood from Bethlehem (Walnut Bowl Factory Store in Lebanon, MO)
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, CA
San Diego golf ball,
Two ornaments from Leavenworth, WA

Issaquah, WA

Handmade by me

Handmade by someone else

From the kids

Disneyland 2000, 2001, 2002

Curious George in NYC, 2001

Ornaments of accomplishment:
UC Berkeley

Bodega Bay, Monterey, Placerville

Officially the Oldest Ornament on the Tree, circa 1976
(from somewhere in Southern California)

Berkeley 2000
Lawrence Hall of Science

And finally, the quirkiest ornament on our tree:
Liberace from Las Vegas

Hope your Yule Log is burning bright tonight!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost!

I have always loved all things Halloween. I think it may be my favorite Holiday.

I love the candy, obviously. I also love the corniness of bobbing for apples, doughnut races, and scary ghost stories (when I was a kid I read every book my library had by Hans Holzer.)

The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite rides at Disneyland, and this is great.

I love scary movies, but no one will go with me, and I'm too scared to go alone. I was probably around 7 years old when I first saw The Blob, and it scared me to death (years later of course I wondered what could possible be frightening about gelatinous ooze from which one could literally stroll out of the way.)

I love all the new paranormal reality shows on TV now, much to the dismay of other members of the family....hey, they're Roto-Rooter Plumbers by day, ghost hunters by night! What's not to love?!!)

Dark Shadows was my favorite TV show when I was a kid- when I could sneak over to a friend's house to watch it, that is. Now I watch these episodes and they're so schlocky (this one is terrifying though, especially at 5 minutes and 8 seconds into the video. Schtick around until the'll be glad you did!)

I am especially fond of pumpkin carving (if it's scary pumpkin carving, all the better.) I didn't think I'd be doing a pumpkin this year, what with my developing pathological fear of knives (if I had only known, I would have started doing this), but apparently people depend on me for these kind of things.

Pumpkins I Have Known

Circa 1965: Arizonan Primitive Pumpkin

1999: Our "Party Like It's 1999" Berkeley Pumpkin
(quirky but lovable)

2000: Ooh, Our Scaaary Millenium San Leandro Pumpkin

2001: Our "If We Don't Have a Pumpkin the Terrorist Win" Patriotic Pumpkin

2002: Another San Leandro Pumpkin
(I think this subconsciously signified the
beginning of our interest in the culinary arts)

2003: What happened in 2003? We may never know...oooh, spooky!

2004: San Leandro again

2005: Issaquah Pumpkin
(surprised the pumpkins stayed lit with all the rain)

2006: More Issaquah, More Rain

2007: San Mateo: Great Pumpkins- Crappy Photos

2008: San Mateo again

2009: Ho Hum

It's obviously time to either move or perk up our pumpkin projects. Maybe next year I'll try something more challenging, like this, or this.

Here are some amazing pumpkins for your perusal.

If you've got a young 'un, or if you're feeling particularly agressive, you can take a hammer and nail (if you dare) to your pumpkin.

If you're wondering what to do with all your leftover pumpkins, there's always this.

Happy Halloween!