Friday, May 21, 2021

Letter to the Class of 2021











Every year I talk with my seniors about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the lessons that I have learned on my journey in life along the way.  Last year, because of the shutdown, I had to have my senior chat via letter, because trying to have this sort of discussion over one more endless Zoom seemed like a really bad idea.

Jump forward to this year's class, and we are back in school in person, but still masked, socially distanced and trying to get our seniors through their graduation without a Covid outbreak, so careful is pretty much the word of the day every day.  As a result, it felt like a letter was a good idea this year as well.

So for those parents whose seniors did not share the contents of their senior awards bag, or who didn't notice this letter tucked into the bag along with the book and award certificate, I thought I'd post the letter, too.  

This class is like a group full of my own children, mostly because The Peanut has grown up with a lot of them all the way through school, starting in kindergarten.  We truly are a family at Notre Dame, and I am so proud of every student in this class.  Congratulations to all the kids and their parents!

________________________________________

Dear Notre Dame Class of 2021:

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Best Laid Plans...Ringing in the New Year

 











Yesterday, I woke up early, in the mood to write, full of vibrant promise and cooking plans.  None of them got accomplished beyond the writing, because the rest of the family had other ideas on what they wanted for dinner.

It happens.

Instead of my home cooking, what everyone else wanted was tacos and delicious food from Tacqueria Lou Lou, our local favorite Mexican place.  So I didn't have to cook, but got a delicious meal anyway.  I'm calling it a win.

2020 has just been the pits, hasn't it? 

We watched a year in retrospective about this year's losses in terms of famous and not-so-famous folks, and it had me in tears yesterday evening.  I was fine until they got to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Congressman John Lewis, and then I totally lost it.  Everyone we know who has been sick, everything we've had to do constantly to stay well, the stress, the exhaustion of trying to teach through all of this, worrying constantly about all of the kids that I teach and whether I'm doing enough to help them through all of this.  It has just been a lot this year, and I'll be glad to see the end of it, to be honest.

The slow cooker red beans and rice (from yesterday's post discussion) and my plans for spicy chicken thighs and collard greens are waiting for New Year's Day.   For New Year's Eve tonight, we are doing family games and nibbles, and saying a big goodbye to the worst year any of us can remember.  

The Peanut asked for some buffalo chicken dip, so that's a definite for today.  Beyond that we have a motley assortment of things:  charcuterie, cheeses, fruit, random frozen appetizers that we can pop in the oven, you name it.

This year, the name of the game for me is that it has to be easy, yummy, and something we love.  We are starting off the new year with laughter and yummy nibbles, and we are kicking the crazy of 2020 to the curb with gusto.

Every year, I try to make a few resolutions about things that I'd like to improve or change for the better.  This year, I'd like to just survive, find a way to laugh more, eat more vegetables and fruits, and try to write every day.  Not a lot.  Not a grand, sweeping agenda of awesomeness.  But after 2020, it's more than enough.

Please, let 2021 have more blessings and fewer sorrows, and let us figure out a way through this virus and through our divisions to a place of health and community spirit.  We could really, really use more of that in the new year.  I find that it is easier to find common ground and purpose if you eat a meal together -- so maybe, when we finally can, we all try to reach out and work on building our communities a little stronger.  It would at least be a start.

Happy New Year, everyone!

(Photo of beignets taken by me in some long, long ago trip to New Orleans at the delicious Cafe du Monde.  I can almost smell the hot, fried dough and powdered sugar just looking at the photo.)


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

American Melting Pot: Headed Toward the New Year with a Little New Orleans

 















The worst part about this pandemic has been...well, you could start this sentence multiple ways and still be spot on, couldn't you?  This past year, we had several trips planned to some really cool places:  

Spring break in Florida, with trips to Disney World and Universal on the agenda.  When I was planning the trip, which took forever, by the way, because we had to work around sports and academic schedules and work-related hiccups, and more things to name just to get away, we actually got a Fast Pass for every major ride in the parks, including the Avatar ride, the new Star Wars rides and several other impossible ones.  Had to cancel the entire trip.  I actually burst into tears after cancelling the perfect fast passes (the Disney people will understand - you never get everything you want, and this time I did, and had to wipe out the entire thing.  SIGH)  Thanks, Covid!

We were going to a Niall Horan concert in Columbus in May, where we had scored floor seats to see The Peanut's all time favorite music crush.  We were right by the aisle stage that he would walk by to get to the center stage in the stadium, and Niall would be close enough to almost touch but definitely close enough to make eye contact with, except...tour cancelled -- thanks, Covid!  

During the summer, The Peanut and I were going to Europe on a whirlwind grand tour of London, Paris and Rome, with a school tour group that included a special extended tour at the Vatican for Catholic schools that I was particularly excited about...until it was cancelled, due to Covid.  

Mr. Smith had gotten me a particularly awesome Mother's Day gift -- tickets to see Sting in in Law Vegas at Caesar's Palace, with a backstage pass to actually meet Sting in person.   (OMG!!  I Know!  I nearly exploded with joy on the spot.  Sting!  Holy cow!)  

Did that happen?  Nope.  Cancelled due to Covid.

You see where this is going, don't you?

The funny thing is that we haven't been big on planning travel the last few years, because The Peanut's sports practice schedule tends to be year round and our planning for any trip has thus tended to be spur of the moment.  We've also been saving for college and retirement and not particularly huge spenders on luxury travel and events.  Not last year.  Last year we were going big.  It was our last shot at big travel with The Peanut before college takes over her schedule next year, and we thought we'd add in a lot of fun things.  Last year, we decided you can't take it with you and let's have a great summer before her senior year in high school.  

Covid had other ideas.

After months of trying to be super careful, gallons of hand sanitizer, always wearing my mask, and staying home whenever possible, I am jonesing for some travel.  For some reason, as we edge toward ringing in the new year, New Orleans is calling my name.  

Couldn't we all use a little more laissez le bon temps rouler in our day to day weary trudge at this point in the pandemic?  

More than anything, I'd like to be strolling in the humid heat down by the delta of the Mississippi River, brushing off some powdered sugar from a fresh plate of beignets and a large cup of chicory-laced cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde.  Or planning a meal at Arnaud's, in the heart of the French Quarter, with a stop at their fabulous French 75 bar for a cocktail or three before dinner.  

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Thanksgiving: A Little Planning Help





















It occurred to me this morning that planning for a Thanksgiving dinner can be overwhelming when you haven't had to plan things out before.  Especially when it is the first major holiday meal you've ever had to make for your family.

I remember that overwhelmed feeling very well the first year I cooked the bulk of the meal.

What I've learned through the years is that there is no substitute for planning.  And that dishes you can make in advance are your very best friends.

To that end, I thought I'd throw together some links and some information for folks, as well as an idea of how I line out my week on a day by day basis:

-- Here's my cooking schedule for the rest of the week:

Monday:  The Peanut and I will finish decorating and cleaning the house.  I've started cooking 3 days ahead, but that's really too early.  So use this day to get last minute groceries, get the rest of the house fairly clean for guests, and make certain you have plenty of extra napkins and such.  If you are going to the store this week, do it as early in the morning as possible, or as late at night as you can - fewer crowds means a saner shopping experience.

Tuesday:  This is where things start cooking this week.  I'll start by making my turkey stock as early as possible today, that way it can simmer in the crockpot for most of the day and all that glorious flavor develops.  It really and truly is the best turkey stock ever from your crockpot, and your stuffing recipe and gravy-making will thank you for the boost in amazing flavor.

I'll also make Granny's cranberry orange salad, so it has time for the flavors to really meld together (and so I can sneak bites of it for the next two days -- woot!).

I also make an herb butter that gets placed between the skin and the breast of the turkey to baste the meat as the turkey bakes.  To start, place a stick of butter into a ziploc freezer baggie, seal it completely and leave it out on the counter for a while to soften, usually this takes an hour or two.  Then, when the butter is softened, I finely chop the following:  some fresh parsley, thyme, chives, sage and a little but of rosemary.  I add some minced garlic and a little Penzey's poultry seasoning as well.   Open the baggie, pour in the herbs and garlic, then reseal completely; mush it altogether to combine well, then pop the butter baggie into the fridge.  As it cools a bit, try to get all the butter into a "log" so it's pretty much altogether in an easy-to-slice cylinder.  

Monday, May 18, 2020

American Melting Pot: Pasta e Fagioli


Big Night, starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub


One of the things that this pandemic quarantine has taught me is how much food waste we had become accustomed to and not noticed in our day to day rush to get from one sports practice and school event to another.  Being forced to slow down our perpetual motion lifestyle at the same time we are trying to minimize our trips out to the store has resulted in some creative recipe overhauls.

During the school year, our slow cooker gets a lot of use.  For ease, you can't beat being able to toss ingredients in the slow cooker first thing in the morning, rush out the door to work, run to a sports practice, and walk in the door to a fully cooked, delicious meal.  It's a lifesaver for me, and something I've been using with a lot of success for years -- all the way back to my hectic legal trial practice days, when we likely would not have eaten anything other than drive-thru crapola otherwise.

Last night, after doing a short inventory of what we had in the produce drawers in our fridge, I realized we had several bits and pieces that needed to be used up before we lost them.  Let's play pandemic fridge remnant bingo, shall we?

Since we've been shopping as infrequently as possible to minimize contacts, I find that once every couple of weeks we have to do an inventory to round up the assorted random bits and pieces, and then I play a game called "what in the world can I make with this?"  Sometimes, I just type in ingredients in the New York Times cooking website and see if I find something that sounds yummy, but more often than not I'm rummaging around my cookbook collection or trying to get creative in a less scary version of Pandemic Chopped.

Usually, it means I'm tossing together some sort of soup or stew, where I can get my vegetable hating family to eat their veggies and love every minute of it.  My people will eat anything that includes either Tex-Mex spices or Italian flavors, and you'd be amazed how many veggies you can cram in a single soup or stew with the right amount of crushed tomatoes poured in to hide them.

Seriously.  Not kidding.

Today's entry in the America's Melting Pot recipes is a hybrid of two wonderful recipes in one of my favorite all-time cookbooks:  Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Dipping In to the Great American Melting Pot



It's funny how so many of our family memories, our ways of coping with stress, heartbreak and tragedy, and every single moment of celebration all revolve around food. At least at our house, whenever things go well or very, very awry, my response begins and ends in the kitchen, making something special for my family to bring us all back together again.  I feel like that is true for a lot of us.

Jonathan Gold got that fundamental truth: food is what knits the family together.

If you haven't watched the brilliant documentary -- City of Gold -- about Gold's work as a food critic at the LA Weekly and the LA Times, you should make the time to fix that right now.  Seriously, I'm not kidding, make time to watch it today.  His quirky, unapologetic love of good food is far away from the Anton Ego critic in Ratatouille, because he genuinely cares about the well-being of the people whose craft of food genius draws him into the restaurants he loves.

I've been thinking a lot about Jonathan Gold's work as I've made meal after meal for my family at home during this pandemic shut down, because I've been seriously contemplating how our food choices knit us together in a giant, patchwork tapestry here in America.

For example:  Why is there such a disconnect between people who love to eat out at a Mexican restaurant and those same people discriminating against hispanic folks in their neighborhood?  How much of our food tastes are cultural remnants, woven into the fibers of our DNA like some ancestral calling card, the nature outside of whatever food nurture you have built up from years of family meals?   How can our love of pure, ethnic goodness in our food choices not translate to a "love thy neighbor" feeling about people who are different from us -- if by "different" you mean skin tone or language, which we celebrate if it is our own or denigrate if it is not far too often these days.

One of the things that I love most about living in small town West Virginia is that because we are small in population but big in heart, we all begin to feel like family.  We care for one another, we reach out, and we check on those who are a little older and frail -- that's an important thing to do in a pandemic, and a lot easier when you already know and like your neighbors.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Letter to This Year's Senior Class





The virus has taken a lot of things this year:  lives, breath, incomes, time with family and friends, you name it.  One of the things that I have seen very sharply is what it has done to the end of my students' senior year.  It's been rough, I'm not going to lie, and my heart breaks for this year's seniors.

It s just the ones I have in class, either, it is all of them.  This year, seniors all around the country will not fully get all of their lasts:  last time I walk the halls with my friends, last math class, last time I slam my locker shut, last prom.  They will get some closure and some form of graduation, even in the hardest hit areas of the nation, I'm sure, but it just won't be the same.

Our daughter is a junior this year, and her class is also dealing with not getting any of their firsts:  first day as the seniors in the days just after graduation; first time the seniors and juniors come together to hand that over in a beautiful ceremony we do each year called Rose and Candle; first college visits.  They won't get to do any of that any time soon, either.

It's just been really rough for everyone involved.

But, to put this in perspective, we are all still living and breathing.  We are safe and secure with our families.  We can see moving forward, and that is an enormous blessing.

I've been thinking about all of this a lot lately, because this particular senior class is one that I have been around since they were babies at St. Mary's Elementary, where The Peanut went to school from kindergarten all the way through, just across the breezeway from the high school where I currently teach.  We truly are a family at St. Mary's and Notre Dame, and these kids all feel like they are my own.  I have watched these students grow from little kids to young adults, seen them wear their heart on their sleeve, laugh about the little things, cry over the big things, and lift each other up year after year as we have faced some really tough issues or happy times at school.

They are amazing kids, each and every one of them.

Today, I sent them all a letter.  But because it went out to school e-mail addresses, and I'm honestly not certain how many of them are still checking their school e-mail because...teenagers...I decided to post it here as well.  Just in case.

Here is my letter to this year's senior class, but it essentially contains what I discuss every year with my seniors in class just before they leave me for graduation.  Love these kids!

_____________________________

Dear Notre Dame Class of 2020:

Each year, no seniors leave my classes without a chat about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not just your own happiness or mine, but what your actions mean for the happiness of the world around you. Unfortunately, this year the virus has gotten in the way, so I have to impart my words of wisdom to all of you at once, and I beg your forgiveness for the impersonal nature of a mass e-mail instead of the usual heartfelt, individual discussions.

It is what it is, right?

I miss seeing your faces and smiles, hearing your stories, crying with you over the things that hurt, and celebrating your little victories along the way. So let this letter serve as cheers for your successes and prayers over your challenges.

These are things that have been important lessons I have learned — some the hard way — over the course of my life. That sounds very geezer in tone, but you’ll see what I mean as you go further down the pathway of life.

1. At the end of the day, at the very end of your life, what you have left is your integrity and your soul. Guard them closely and choose wisely in how you act and what you do.

2. No one can make you do something you know in your heart to be wrong. No one can make you do something mean or dangerous or unkind or hurtful. The only person who can make that happen is you. So when you have to choose, choose to be wise. Choose to be kind. Choose to do the right thing.

3. People will not always remember the good things that you do, but they will remember that one horrible, mean thing that made them feel afraid or sad. What people will remember about you most is how you made them feel. Choose to be kind.

4. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi was right — when you see a problem, you can come up with a great solution to it, but it is the work that you do to fix it that solves the problem. Choose to do the work.

5. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. You may see someone being lazy or not caring while you work really hard — choose to do the work anyway. Because when you are doing the work to help yourself, to help others, to take pride in a job done well, you are choosing to show that you are a high quality person that people can depend on to do things right. That has enormous value.

6. Do your very best in everything that you do. Take pride in your work and in working hard at it. Do everything you can at 110% — go the extra mile and put in the extra effort each and every time. Very few people ever live their lives this way. They muddle through, cut corners and only do things halfway. If you strive to always do your best, it will put you way ahead. It will also give you a sense of pride in what you have accomplished.

7. Be true to who you are at your core. Be proud of who you are, but also maintain some humility. No one is better than you. But you are no better than anyone else, either. Be gracious and humble, and treat everyone like your equal, because that is the right thing to do. That Tim McGraw song about staying humble and kind gets it absolutely right.

8. You never fail until you stop trying. There will be hurdles in front of you your whole life — this virus is a big one. Most of life is picking yourself up when you stumble or fall, and finding a way to keep moving forward. Sometimes it will be in a different direction than you think, but always keep moving forward, keep working and trying, and you will find a way to make any situation — even a bad one — into a success.

9. Above all, be a Golden Rule person: do unto others at all times. If you wouldn’t want someone to say it to you, then don’t say it. If you wouldn’t want someone to treat you that way, then don’t do it. Do for others as you would wish someone would do for you. It’s a very simple thing, but it has a profoundly good impact on the world around you, on your family, your friends, and your soul. Doing good makes the world a better place, so choose to follow the Golden Rule.

Some of you are leaving for college or other schooling, some are headed out to work after you read this letter, and some aren’t quite sure what you’ll be doing but you are working on it. I am very proud of each and every one of you — you are awesome kids with great hearts who are about to go out into the world and do fantastic things. I can’t wait to see what you do with your gifts and talents going forward — it is going to be amazing!

Good luck in everything you do. Know that you have family and friends — always — back at Notre Dame High School, and that we are all cheering you on as you move forward. Wishing you many blessings, and as much laughter and joy as you can hold, and sending love and prayers your way today and in all the days that follow. Keep reading and keep reading history!

All my very best,
Mrs. Christy Smith

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Giant College Prep Recommended Reading List to End All Lists



Earlier this year, one of my students asked me what they should be reading to prepare for college.  I was telling my kids that one of my high school teachers (Hi, Miss Goldsworthy!) had given me a list of classic literature mixed with modern classics that were designed to make you think and ask the right kinds of questions about who we are and what we can do better.

My kids were amused that I had carried my book list back and forth to college, graduate school, law school and 3 apartment and house moves, before it got destroyed when our garage flooded when I pipe burst a few years ago.  I had been making my way through the entire list of books, a lot of which were ones I read again in college lit classes -- so I was really, really grateful to have read a number of them before I went to college.

A couple of the students in that class asked me if I could remember a list of several of those books and share them.  So I spent some time writing down the ones that I remembered, and then did a little google magic to find some additional lists for some more modern classics that are being recommended today.

Below find my current proposed list, although I'm open to argument on why something else ought to be included or why you think a particular book has no business being on a classics reading list at all, thank you very much.  In other words, this list is a work in progress -- I'm contemplating whether I need revisions before sharing it with my kids next year, and I'd love some opinions from the readers in my audience.

So, what glorious book that you treasure did I inadvertently forget?  What must be there to help shape young minds and make them ask the difficult or important questions?  What do you think I should add or subtract from the list?  Do tell.

____________________________________________

Classic Books to Read Before College

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2. 1984 by George Orwell
3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
6. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
7. The Giver by Lois Lowry
8. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
10. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Pandemic Book Club: Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society




Hello readers!

The Pandemic Book Club discussion on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will begin at 4:00 pm EST today -- Saturday, March 28th.   In order to provide a little background and set the table for discussion I offer the following and will see you back here this afternoon at 4 pm EST.

_________________________________

Mary Ann Shaffer was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1934.  Having grown up from the very beginning facing the threats of the Great Depression, growing fascism in Europe and eventually the difficulties and devastations of World War II, you would think that this is what shaped her decision to write about the island of Guernsey and the German occupation of it during the war.  But it was a whim that brought her to the subject of her novel:

She became interested in Guernsey while visiting London in 1976. On a whim, she decided to fly to Guernsey but became stranded there when a thick fog descended and all boats and planes were forbidden to leave the island. As she waited for the fog to lift, warming herself by the heat of the hand-dryer in the men’s restroom, she read all the books in the Guernsey airport bookstore, including Jersey under the Jack-Boot. Thus began her fascination with the German Occupation of the Channel Islands.

Over the course of her lifetime, Mary Ann worked as a book store clerk, a librarian and even as an editor for a small press publisher.  She was an avid participant in a book club of local friends, who met regularly to discuss favorite books they had been reading and to debate which book of the moment they should read next.  She folded her own experiences and her deep love of a good book into The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which you can see throughout the book, which her book club was instrumental in getting her to write:

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Pandemic Book Club -- 3/28 at 4:00 pm EST




Hello readers!

To make this Pandemic Book Club most accessible to as many of you as possible, I did a bit of time zone calculation and tried to find a day and time that might work for the most broad range of readers. What I am proposing is this:

March 28th -- next Saturday -- at 4:00 pm EST

My friend Tracy -- waves to Tracy! -- is in Italy, so her time zone was the paramount one that I was trying to work with for this.  Some of you are as far West as California, so that's a time difference going backward a few hours.  Afternoon on the East Coast seemed the most reasonable way to go, and a weekend maximizes the potential to participate for any of the folks who may be working in essential industries at the moment.

Sorry to any of you who are medical folks -- I doubt there will be much down time for the foreseeable future, but know that you are in my prayers and that we are all sending you lots of love and thanks, and we'll hopefully have a lively chat thread for you to read when you have the time to get there.

We can chat in the comments on this blog, we can chat on Facebook and we can also chat with sound and video on Zoom.  It feels like we could all use a little contact and laughter with each other, so those of you who have downloaded the Zoom app, I'm happy to set up a chat room so we can gab in person about the book and life in general.

As the week moves forward, I'm going to share a few recipes that I think work well with the book, and that also might be ingredients you are likely to have in a pandemic pantry of shelf stable foodstuffs, and we can perhaps set the mood with something yummy to snack on together while we discuss the book.

Does that sound good for everyone?

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Happy St. Patrick's Day!



Happy St. Patrick's Day, friends!  One of my favorite holidays all year, because it gives me yet another excuse to make some Irish soda bread -- best thing ever warm from the oven and covered in apple butter.

Thought I'd share the recipe that we make for our family with everyone else.  It's healthy, whole grain, and easily convertible -- you can use steel-cut oats, or rolled oats, either one.  You can use buttermilk, or just regular milk with some plain yogurt mixed into it to sour the milk (it has to be plain yogurt, not the sugary kind with fruit in it).

While we're all stuck at home, this is an easy quick bread to make -- it's a quick stir and bake kind of bread, but totally delicious on a cold and rainy day like we are having where I am this morning.

Enjoy!

Whole Grain Irish Soda Bread (Cooking Light)

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Introducing the Pandemic Book Club





Hello Dear Readers,

In response to my friend Tracy, who is under strict quarantine rules in Italy at the moment (waves to Tracy!), and the need for a lot of my friends and family for a fun escape from the chaos of toilet paper foraging, this Pandemic Book Club was born.

After batting around several book ideas, a friend pointed out that we were talking about it on Pi day, and so The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was selected as our first book club read.

We need to pick a date and time for the book club discussion, which we'll do through the comments and also maybe on Facebook?   Could everyone be done reading the book by March 24th?  That would be next Tuesday -- it's a great read, and one that goes quickly because you don't want to put it down.

Thoughts?  Share in the comments below.

(The link above - and at the side of the blog - goes to my blog's Amazon Associates account.  If you purchase though that link, then I get a small percentage of the sale.  I use any proceeds for classroom purchases for my high school history classes.  Thank you!)