Cooking Our Christmas Goose – A Christmas Memory

Lea Wait, here, preparing for the first Christmas in years when several of my daughters will be here in Maine. That’s good, and a reminder of years when they were growing up and I prepared for Christmas all year. But it’s also a sad reminder that this year Bob won’t be here to share the holiday.  A time for memories. So today I decided to share a post I wrote several years ago.

My husband Bob and I live far from daughters, brothers, and sisters, so we spend our holidays cozily together in Maine, dependant on telephone calls, Skype visits, and email to tie us to family and friends. We’ve developed our own way of celebrating.

We both love cooking. And eating. (No doubt too much the second.) And careers as an artist and a writer aren’t exercise conducive. So after the holidays, each year we become Spartan, and we diet. Atkins, usually, and usually for several months.

But before that, we have one last adventurous meal.

Last Christmas, we discussed our options for several weeks. (The decision is, of course, at least half the fun, especially if made while sipping wine and lingering over an assortment of tempting cookbooks.)

And last year we decided to cook a goose.

Neither of us had ever done that before. And, after all, Christmas goose is traditional. Dickens, among other authorities, says so.

We knew just where such a perfect fowl could be obtained. On a small hill on Route 90 (also known as Camden Road) in Warren sits an enticing shop called Curtis Custom Meats. Although Curtis specializes in cuts of beef, lamb and pork (perhaps plebian elsewhere, but not here, where they raise and butcher their own),  Curtis Meats is also the place for obtaining chicken, turkey, quail, and duck. Goose? But of course.

I was doing a signing in Camden, so I was the one appointed to pick out our goose. That day they had half a dozen. I’d never bought a goose, so I was a bit dismayed by two facts. First, geese are much longer and skinnier than the turkeys and chickens I was used to cooking. Second, they are MUCH more expensive. (Think $50 instead of $12 for a similarly sized turkey.)  I’ll admit I almost chickened out right then. (ouch)

But we’d decided on goose, so goose it was.

I choose one and he (she?) came home with me.

The next step was pouring through cookbooks again. How to cook our goose?

Perhaps overly influenced by several viewings of Julie and Julia, we decided Julia Child would be our authority. She informed us we would first need to steam our duck in a covered roaster to render the fat.

We did not own a covered roaster.

So the weekend before the big “cooking of the goose” we headed out for one of the most complete kitchen supply stores we knew of in Maine — The Well Tempered Kitchen in Waldoboro. The owner kindly told us covered roasters hadn’t been made in perhaps thirty years. “But,” we explained, “Julia said!” “You could use foil,” she suggested. Several other helpful customers chimed in with similar suggestions.

“Have any of you ever cooked a goose?” we asked.  No one had.

In lieu of options, we decided foil would have to do, although it didn’t fit Julia’s strict instruction for a “tight cover.” Her next command was titled, “Surgery.” I won’t bore you with details other than to confirm that, yes, a goose contains a great deal of fat. I felt as though I’d applied about twenty layers of suet to every part of my body that came near that bird. Surgery was followed by Seasoning. Trussing. Steaming. Braising. Roasting. And, finally – Browning. Gravy and Carving finally followed.

The entire process took longer than Julia suggested, and required a great deal of checking along the way (which probably lengthened the cooking time, since we did more than the usual oven peeking and temperature taking.)

Julia also decreed that the only acceptable stuffing for a goose had to include prunes, so we made her prune and apple stuffing with sausage.  We had our doubts about it in theory. But it turned out rich and spectacular.

Results? The goose was good, but, we sadly decided, for us not really worth the time and money we’d spent on it.  (That stuffing was fantastic, though!) We saved the goose fat and liver for other experiments, other days, so considered those bonuses.

And – we do recommend goose for the holidays. Or – for one holiday, anyway! It was fun.

This year we’re having filet mignon (from Curtis Meats) smothered in mushrooms and a goose liver and port pate´. (Hmmm …. wonder where that liver came from ???!)  Served with champagne, of course. (We believe champagne goes with everything. We’re very flexible when it comes to champagne.)

Merry Christmas!

 

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Back Spasms, Walter Mosley, and the Meaning of Ort

Dick here, slowly clawing my way back to health from a nasty stretch of back spasms, the kind of mystery tweaks that appear without warning, where you’re standing at the kitchen counter chopping garlics and you reach for the bottle of olive oil  and a stab like something from old Julius Caesar’s buddy Marcus Junius Brutus knifes through your lower back and you want to drop to your knees but you can’t because you know if you do you won’t be able to get up again. Then a dull throbbing ache takes up residence for a few hours until you bend over to pick up a cat toy and do it all over again.

There. Complaining about it has made me feel much better.

But in the middle of all this, I was interested to realize there was a benefit to feeling so crippled up that climbing the stairs was an adventure. In the spirit of finding a twist of peel from the desiccated lemon of my pain, I started to notice how much more conscious I was of each component of every movement I took and how that attention banished a lot of extraneous worry and thought. When you are so minutely focused on something like the mechanics of how to lift a foot, place pressure on it, push yourself up a step, and then repeat, all without aggravating the darts sticking out of your sacroiliac, the quality of your attention intensifies to where you are, as the Buddhists say, single-pointed. There is no room for loose thoughts, a sudden twist, a stumble. You are there.

Then, of course, I started wishing I could bring that kind of attention to every sentence I write, every story I want to tell, and decided that would mean a different kind of pain. But the notion—probably unattainable—of utter focus, of pure attention, is as seductive as [insert your specific weakness here]. Certainly worthy as a goal, though.

And because I was recently at Crime Bake and got to listen to Walter Mosley talk about this thing of ours, I started ruminating on a point he made several times over the course of the weekend that stuck with me.

To a great degree, crime fiction’s readers, especially readers who continue to draw that sharp line between “literary” and “genre” fiction, see us mainly as entertainers. Mosley’s point, which I applaud, was that as crime writers, we write much more than entertainment. We chronicle culture, write philosophy, psychology, history, social justice. (See Kaitlyn Dunnett’s recent post here on a similar topic.)

These were good words to hear and they included his story of how his latest novel John Woman was rejected seventeen times before it found a publisher. Mosley has published more than forty books, many of them bestsellers, but even he gets rejected sometimes. The book was, judged by different publishers as too political, too strange, and goodness knows too what else.

And finally this month, an etymological question from the flea-flicker section of my monkey brain. Could the word ort, meaning a small bit of something, descend (or ascend?) from the word ortolan, those tiny songbirds eaten whole by Francois Mitterrand and other gastronomes? Your (documented) answers, please. That is all.

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‘Tis The Season

Kate Flora: This time of year brings out the little kid in me. Maybe that happens to many

of you, as well. I don’t go to malls but I love holiday craft fairs and shopping in small stores that curate their displays. I love brightly decorated windows. I love passing bookstores whose displays are so irresistible I end up buying more books. I like the pop Christmas carols playing in the grocery store that make me dance a little as I shop. I like to drive around at night and see how enthusiastic people have gotten about their decorations. There is much to wonder at. How on earth do they get those giant balls of light up into that huge pine? Do they know that that giant inflatable snowman has collapsed? What, exactly, does a large dragon have to do with Christmas? I have silly lights strung on my porch, and they have many different settings from sedate to “these lights have gone crazy!”

This year I added these illuminated gazing balls to the mix:IMG_0447

Christmas, in particular, brings back memories of living on a farm in rural Maine. When we children, one of our Christmas rituals was to pile into the truck, and later into the Ford station wagon, and drive around, looking at everyone’s holiday lights. Then, because of the line in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in which the fog was as thick as a soda’s white fizz, we would go to the local drug store, line up on stools at the soda fountain, and have ice cream sodas. I’m not sure we even liked ice cream sodas that much, but it was part of the tradition, and as we ate out very rarely, a special treat.

Another holiday ritual was baking cookies. We didn’t have money to send fancy presents to friends and family who lived far away, but we have an oven, and during early December, my mother would bake many different kinds of cookies, and tins of assorted cookies would be mailed. In those same boxes, we’d clip balsam boughs into small pieces, and sew pillows that we would stuff with balsam. My father, who loved everything botanical, would buy small round bowls and make tiny terrariums. He was very artistic, and often used spray cans of snow to decorate the living room windows for Christmas, a surprise we would discover when we came home from school.

It can be hard to write when my head is filled not with stories of death and detection, but the cookies my mother used to make, my mother-in-law’s Russian tea cookies, and my attempts, as a Methodist married to a Jewish husband, to make rugelach. (It turns out to be a very messy process indeed, at least the way I do it.) It’s hard to write when I want to rewatch my favorite holiday movies, including one added just this year called It Happened on Fifth Avenue. Hard to write when I want to play all my holiday albums, including a compilation of music my lovely daughter-in-law made. I don’t know about you, but I can listen to Darlene Love sing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) many times over. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UV8x7H3DD8Y

What I like best? It’s that sense, left over from childhood nights trying to sleep so Santa would come, and later putting together toys for my own sleeping children, that there is magic out there. This year, to capture some of that magic, I went to Gardens Aglow at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden. It was amazing. Here are some pictures:

I came home with an idea for a Christmas story which I hope to share with you later this month.

What’s your favorite holiday memory?

 

 

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The Best Gift

Dear readers! You are so appreciated. Please find a thank-you gift here.. https://www.authorsandraneily.com/dtholidaygift

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  We’re in a field looking at Vermont’s impossibly green hills, sitting where generations of writers have come to learn the craft. Our instructor tells us she wants a short, short story about something that deeply affected us, told in the point of view of someone else. She says our work merely skirts human emotion and we must go deeper. “Try letting yourself out through another’s eyes.”

Then she quotes Robert Frost who was an early and frequent teacher, presenter, and mentor at our Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

So I called up my daughter’s voice and channeled my last real family Christmas—through what I thought might be … her eyes.  

                                             ********************

                  THE BEST GIFT 

When I pull into the driveway I count five cars parked in the first winter snow next to the stone wall under the pines. The camp’s green walls are holiday card perfect with wispy flakes on sills and roof. I see that Mum has, as always, tucked red bows into pine branches hanging from window boxes. Red, green and white. So it’s going to be a traditional Christmas is it? 

Wood smoke blows low across the deck, pushed by a bad-weather-wind toward the lake where ice is rattling in small rafts of cubes. One morning we will wake and find the cove glued into ice- hard silence. It could happen that fast. Lots can happen that fast. Overnight.

 

 

No tracks; everyone’s been inside for hours unwrapping presents, eating Mum’s coffee cake, probably made with berries she froze last summer anticipating weekends of blue-flecked muffins and family Scrabble games. Sam, the youngest nephew, is probably walled inside a castle of toys and gifts and well on his way to an early afternoon breakdown from getting too much of what he wants.

And what do I want? I want this to be over. I want to crawl into the bed I’ve had since I was two, pull Pooh Bear under the covers with me, and when I wake up, find my father on the roof, shoveling great clots of snow into a mound I will make into a snow cave. 

Before I can get up the stairs to that Christmas wish, I have to open the door—to what? 

Will we be pretending today? After fifteen years of camp family holidays, that seems likely.

They hear the front door and spill into the front room to hug me. The chaos is familiar and washes over me like a bright wave of welcome water.

“What took you so long?”

“How were the roads? Icy?”

“We saved all our Annie presents to have Christmas part two with you!”

“Look at all the dragons I got. They’re on the floor breathing fire on each other. Some just got killed.”

I look around for Mum The living room floor is awash in paper, ribbon, half chewed dog toys and plates of cake crumbs. There’s a monument of a tree in the living room, easily over ten feet tall and it looks like every light and ornament is out of storage and propped on its limbs. My aunt is setting the long dining room table with the traditional red cloth, and my grandmother is attempting to settle Sam with a story.

The walls of pictures are rearranged. My Dad is missing except for early baby pictures of us together. There are no pictures of my parents together. There’s a lighter space on the wall where my dad’s tarpon used to hang over the bar counter. I wonder how long it will take for the wall’s fish outline to disappear into the smoke darkened panels beside it. I wonder what new wall he’s put it on and what new people are looking at it now.

I climb up to drop my bag in my small room at the top of the stairs. Mum has put the Santa music box on my bedside table. I wind it up to hear its familiar holiday song: “you better not cry” in tinkling tones. As Santa revolves, his serious eyes meet mine for a few seconds in each turn. “You better not cry.” This is the first time I’ve been home since I lost my family. Nothing has changed in my room; pictures of us together sit on my bureau and bookcase. Sitting on the bed I can sort out the smells of roasting turkey and simmering garlic from the spicier ones of pumpkin pie.

Mum must be in the kitchen, but then suddenly she is there at my door. She might look the same to her family. I can see the effort she’s made to be dry-eyed and energetic, but I think she looks too pale, even for winter. She’s made no effort to re-color the grey wisps at her temples, and under the apron she’s just thrown on an old T-shirt that’s inside out. 

She hugs me and sits on the bed. “If you don’t want to, we don’t have to do this anymore,” she says. “It was too late to change it this year.”

In a long ago Christmas, listening to Aunt Mary read.

I nod. “This will be our last Christmas like this,” I say firmly.  “It’s over.” 

“Let’s make a new tradition when we get this sorted out,” she sighs. “Everyone’s waiting for us to open your presents. Let’s go down.”

“Mum.” I lean on her. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Anne. You are the best gift that I ever got.”

And since she has said that to me with tears in her eyes on every birthday and every Christmas, just as she’s saying it today, I feel stronger. We hold hands and climb down the stairs.

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Author’s note: Pictures illustrating this story came from my family albums.

Sandy’s novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a Mystery Writers of America award and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. This year, she’s been nominated for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novel at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website.  The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” will be published in 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Not My Idea of a Cozy Book”

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today tackling the subject of reader expectations. No, this isn’t going to be a discussion of what defines a cozy mystery, although that definition plays into the topic. What I want to talk about is the response to certain elements in Overkilt, the most recent Liss MacCrimmon Mystery, in which my continuing characters encounter a small-minded bigot determined to make their lives miserable.

Social media out of control, the proliferation of boycotts and protest rallies, and the ease with which people’s emotions and opinions can be swayed by a charismatic leader were all real-life issues I wanted to explore when I wrote this book. I realized from the start that fitting serious subject matter into the lighter side of the mystery spectrum was going to be tricky. Although the brutal crime of murder is at the heart of every mystery novel, be it cozy or hard boiled, those set in small towns with amateur sleuths, limited on-stage violence, and no explicit sex usually avoid anything of a controversial religious or political nature.

My villain in Overkilt is Hadley Spinner, founder of a quasi-religious group calling themselves the New Age Pilgrims. He’s also the small-minded bigot mentioned above. In retaliation for a perceived slight by Joe Ruskin, Liss’s father-in-law, Spinner seizes upon a promotion at Joe’s hotel, The Spruces, to make trouble. Joe has been advertising a Thanksgiving special for couples—a getaway for those who don’t have a family to celebrate with, or who have a family, but would prefer to avoid the stress that goes with seeing them on the holiday. Spinner tries to turn this perfectly reasonable promotion into something ugly, claiming it is an affront to family values, specifically because some of those who have made reservations are unmarried and/or same sex couples.

Almost all the reviews I’ve seen have been positive. Some mention cyberbullying and the bigotry of Spinner’s character but have no hesitation about defining the book as a cozy mystery. There’s one exception. A reviewer on Amazon writes that she’s read and enjoyed all the previous Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, but not this one. Her reason? She doesn’t like reading about homosexuals. That is “not her idea” of a cozy book.

I was taken aback when I read that. She’s entitled to her opinion, of course, but since when does the sexual orientation of secondary characters in a mystery keep it from being a cozy? Just to name one example, the Cat in the Stacks series by Miranda James features a gay couple who live upstairs from the amateur sleuth and his cat. There’s no question but that those books are cozies.

I was also perplexed by her praise of all the other Liss MacCrimmon mysteries. She apparently didn’t notice that in the second book in the series, Scone Cold Dead, one of the red herrings is provided by the romance between two women, and that two men in Liss’s old dance company are gay, although no one comes right out and says so.

Now I admit that I may have surprised a few readers when I revealed that one of the continuing characters in the Liss MacCrimmon series is a lesbian. That news surprised Liss, too, since no one had thought to mention it to her before Spinner made an issue of it. Why would they? The character is not a LGBTQ activist. She’s just one of the regular townspeople of Moosetookalook, active in the Small Business Association and entitled to keep her private life private.

Some years ago, I received an email asking me why Moosetookalook didn’t have any gay or lesbian residents. At the time, I replied that it probably did, but there was no reason to single them out. I held to that opinion for a long time. I was especially reluctant to make a LGBTQ character either a victim or a murderer. I also felt that Liss wouldn’t care about, and might not even notice, the sexual preferences of her neighbors.

Isn’t that the way it should be? It seems to me that we’d all be a lot better off if things like race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, national origin, and citizenship status weren’t the first things we notice about new acquaintances. Why should any of those things have a bearing on whether or not we get along with someone?

And why, oh why, would including characters of a certain race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, national origin, or citizenship status in a mystery novel make that book less cozy?

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of nearly sixty traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Overkilt) and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at www.TudorWomen.com

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Weekend Update: December 1-2, 2018

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Monday) Sandra Neily (Tuesday), Kate Flora (Wednesday) Dick Cass (Thursday), and Lea Wait (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

Lea Wait: Saturday, December 1, I’ll be in Brunswick, Maine at the Unitarian Universalist Church’s Holiday Fair at 1 Middle Street — right opposite the library — from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. I’ll have copies of all my books, including the latest ones, and some audio books — and there will be crafters, food, wreaths, live music — a lovely and fun way to spend some shopping time on the first Saturday in December!

 Lea Wait and Barbara Ross get a shout out, along with the whole Maine cozy mystery genre, in the Match Book column recommending Maine women authors in the New York Times Book Review. The column will appear in the print edition of the magazine on Sunday, December 9.

Bruce Robert Coffin: Saturday, December 1, join me at Fine Print Booksellers, 28 Dock Square in Kennebunkport. I’ll be helping kick off Christmas Prelude by signing copies of the Detective Byron mysteries from noon to 2 p.m.

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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Playing With House Money In A Room Full Of Ghosts

John Clark feeling a mix of relief and frustration on a chilly Thursday night. On the Sunday before the election, a large poplar toppled over onto our back lawn. I really didn’t want it lying there all winter, but my chainsaw became an ethanol victim several years ago when that lovely additive ate through the plastic fuel line. I haven’t had any pressing need to get it fixed, so there I was with 70 feet of tree staring me in the face.

calendulas for John

Still a flower child at heart

I asked my friend Gary if I could borrow his saw, but he went one better. He came down and we bucked that sucker up in about an hour. Poplar may be softwood, but it’s still heavy as hell when green and the firewood sized chunks near the base were twenty inches in diameter. I helped him load as much as we could get on his plow truck so he could use it as weight when plowing. Somewhere in that process, I re-injured my left knee. The next day, I was close to useless. Walking hurt like the devil, so I parked myself in a rocking chair after calling the doctor. For three weeks, I scared cats, dogs and small kids every time I tried moving. Clearing the driveway when it snowed was an unpleasant adventure and trying to find a position after going to bed, where shooting pains weren’t threatening to rip my kneecap off, became my holy grail. Looking back, it was a blessing I wasn’t elected because I was in no shape to be around civilized folks.

I’ve learned when life gives you lemons, grab the sugar, some water and start squeezing. I couldn’t do much with the sorting project in the storage building, so I began a new one in my computer room. I looked over all the paper accumulated since Elvis hit puberty and the result was four bags of shredded stuff headed to the transfer station. Next, and surprisingly less painful than anticipated, was triaging all the books I thought I’d get around to reading. Any I found available in MaineCat automatically went in the giveaway pile. So did any I’d started reading and had lost interest in. I did the same for nearly 100 unabridged audio books. Everything was listed in two text files that went out yesterday to some 20 school and public libraries interested in claiming some. Several of them said it was like Christmas because their materials budgets had been cut this year.

 

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These aren’t my giveaways, but I could easily fill this table with them.

Next came collectibles. If something has been gathering dust for twenty years, it’s time to turn it into cash and make someone happy who wants it more than I do. Once all the material stuff was sorted, it was time to reflect. I’ve been feeling rather antsy since I stopped campaigning and realized I wanted/needed to take some of what I learned and formed opinions about during that experience and keep going. There are many areas where Maine needs people with energy and ideas. For example, we had four overdoses here in Hartland on Thanksgiving Day, with seven more in other parts of Somerset County. While the state is wrestling with how to deal with this problem, local citizen involvement will be needed to make whatever plan comes out of Augusta work. Another realization is that in a time of worker shortages, we need to encourage businesses to re-examine their policies toward younger folks with a criminal record. A friend’s daughter, who has busted her tail to stay clean and sober for tha past two years, can’t find work because she did stupid things before getting into recovery.

Another thing I’m exploring is a volunteering opportunity through the Maine State Library. They have a new wireless technology they want to roll out in all public libraries, but don’t have the manpower to do so. I told one of my friends who’s in charge of the project, that I’d like to be part of it if I wasn’t elected, so now is the time to do so.

102017a

I could be here instead of writing this blog.

You’re probably wondering what the title of this blog entry has to do with what I’ve written. The connection is there, fueled by the topic at tonight’s AA meeting I attended. We were talking about gratitude and I realized that not only was I playing with house money in terms of living far longer than I should have, given my early years of abuse, but every time I go to a meeting, I hear voices of old friends who died sober and left me words of wisdom that are still with me.

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