Wednesday, December 17, 2014

supper reading

The other day I was listening to the people on Science Friday discuss the best books of 2014 when a listener—let's call him Bob—called in with a book recommendation. Bob said he worked a blue collar job and spent a lot of the time on the road with two other guys. To make the drives less tedious, Bob began reading to the other guys from this particular book. One of the other workers, a nineteen-year-old kid, was decidedly a non-academic. He hated to read, or maybe he couldn’t. But as Bob read, he noticed that the kid was reading over his shoulder. When he finished reading the section, the kid asked to see the book and ended up reading it for two hours straight. He finally handed it back, saying, “I’m going to buy that book for myself!”

Halfway through this guy’s gripping testimony, I grabbed a pen and stood hunched over a scrap of paper, waiting for the announcers to repeat the book title. But they never did! So I jumped on their site and shot my question out into the void. In short order I had the title: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. I clicked over to Amazon and there was the book, but whoa! It had come out in September 2014 and there were already over 800 reviews! Was I late to the party or what!!

The book arrived yesterday. Too much was going on (no fires or bloody sheep this time, I promise), so I shelved it. This morning, paging through, I got positively giddy. The book is hilarious, outrageous, and smart, and I have the perfect plan for it: I’ll read it out loud to the family at supper time.

It’s ideal for mealtime discussion since each section is three to eight pages long. The younger kids will love the cartoon drawings and bizarre questions and the older kids and adults will enjoy walking through the scientific and mathematical solutions. Even if comprehension is elusive (and it will be), the line of reasoning is sure to engage. I mean, you heard what Bob said, right?

Here are some sample questions:

*What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?

*If you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?

*How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? Have that many Lego bricks been manufactured?

*If all the lightening strikes happening in the world on any given day all happened in the same place at once, what would happen to that place?

*How fast would a human have to run in order to be cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire?

*If my printer could literally print out money, would it have that big an effect on the world?

I can hardly wait for supper and for once my enthusiasm has nothing to do with food!!!

PS. I've forbidden the children to read the book—just wait until supper!—but my older son has already stolen it once, the little stinker. He's mad that he'll only get to hear a bit at a time. He wants to read the whole thing in one fell swoop. (I don't blame him.)

This same time, years previous: fa-la-la-la-la, the quotidian (12.17.12), my baby, and scholarly stuff.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

mini dramas

the stage 

Drametta Number One
The other evening, I posted the following on Facebook:

"Friday Night Entertainment: Dog bites sheep. Sheep runs. Kids chase sheep. Sheep runs. Kids and Dad chase sheep. Sheep runs. Night falls. Dad falls. Sheep runs. Kids and Dad and big brother (who had to jump out of the shower) chase sheep. Sheep runs. Sheep gets caught. Big brother gets back in the shower. Medicine is applied to sheep's face. Suppertime. The end."

Annabelle, pre-bitten 

*Both sheep had blood on them. The kids had blood on them.
*My husband wrenched his back.
*The dog bit the sheep because the sheep was getting too close to the dog’s food. This means our dog is not a sheep eater. This is comforting.
*Annabelle appears to be fine. More skittish than normal, but fine.

Drametta Number Two
On Sunday, my husband stayed home from church to burn the brush piles. (The brush piles are a result of many hours spent cleaning up the fence line.) We were having guests for lunch, so he would be able to do the last minute meal prep, too.

As we left church, I called my husband to rattle off a string of getting-ready orders. Our guests ended up arriving at the same time we did, and as we were getting out of our respective cars, my husband sprinted out of the house, yelled hello to the company, grabbed a rake, and took off down to the field. Apparently, the fire was getting out of line? As I led the guests inside, I cheerfully told the kids to change clothes and then to go see if their father needed help.

And so there I was in the kitchen with our guests, chatting on about all manner of things while heating up the brown rice, setting the bowls of salsa and sour cream on the table, and trying to pretend that it was normal for me to prep Sunday lunch while the rest of the family fought fires.

Through the window, I saw my older son sprinting back across the field toward the house. A couple minutes later he burst through the door and yelled, “I need both fire extinguishers and the keys to Dad’s truck!”

“Okay, here you go,” I said, calmly handing him the items and then, turning to the guests, “I’m sorry everyone’s run off like this. I’m sure they’ll be up soon.” I began pat-pat-patting out the corn tortillas.

In his rush, my son just missed crashing the truck into the chicken coop.


My younger son was waddling across the field with a bucket of water.


My younger son had stripped off his shirt and was—oh yes, but of course—beating out the flames.


My older daughter was beating out the flames with her jacket.


By now the guests were standing at the kitchen counter, watching the goings-on through the window with me. “It’s Murch TV,” I quipped.

The man said, “Your husband has a good heart—just look at him work!” I thought he meant that my husband was a good guy, but after a bunch of “good heart” comments I caught on. He meant “good heart” literally, a physically strong heart able to withstand strenuous exercise...and while breathing smoke.

The extinguishers did their job and the firefighters soon trooped through the door, smokey and soot-streaked, eyes bright with excitement. My husband came over to the sink to wash his hands and murmured under his breath to me, “I was this close to calling the fire department.”

Note the spent extinguisher in the foreground.

I lifted the last of the tortillas from the cumal and lunch was served.

The end.

Monday, December 15, 2014

the quotidian (12.15.14)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

Sky painting.

On the edge of his seat: watching this.

Taking push-ups to a new level.

Portrait of a mother.

Christmas show: pas de deux.

Beating out the flames with his shirt.

The guy who started it.

Pumped on Christmas.

3D Santa.

Lights in his eyes.

This same time, years previous: bits of goodness, soft cinnamon sugar butter bars, crazier than usual, fig-and-anise pinwheels, ginger cream scones, and a smashed finger.

Friday, December 12, 2014

hot chocolate mix

I have a problem. Whenever I come across a great recipe, video, product, concept, etc, I get all excited and want to write about my discovery but then I’m like, Nah, everyone knows about it already. Because if I know about it, then surely everyone else does, too.

I’m not sure if this problem is unique to me or if everyone deals with it (oops, here we go again. I told you it’s a problem). Maybe it harkens back to my TV-less childhood in which I never knew what was going on (and didn’t really care). I just learned to (correctly) assume that everyone knew things before I did. I was cool with that.

But now, as A Possessor of the Internet, I find myself discovering interesting things in real time. And as a blogger, I have the means to share. Except everyone is A Possessor of the Internet—because that’s how they access my blog, see?—and so there’s a very real probability that no one needs me to share anything because they already know everything.

And so I discover Things Most Marvelous, rave to the people around me, take photos, and then do nothing. Because what’s the point? Also, I reason, if I wait an extra week or two to share my find, maybe everyone will have forgotten that particular Thing Most Marvelous and it will seem new and fresh. And then everyone will be like, Ooo, she is SO on top of things!


All that to say, I made Deb’s hot chocolate and it is the best hot chocolate mix ever.

There. Did you already know that? This is not a rhetorical question! I seriously want to know how many of you: 1) knew about Deb’s hot chocolate mix, and 2) made it and loved it. Tell me! Tell me! This is an experiment in sociocultural psychology! (Or something.)

Anyway. About the hot chocolate. I am quite picky about my hot chocolate. I can’t stand it when instructions say to mix together sugar and cocoa and then add hot milk. This is wrong. The cocoa turns out gritty. Don’t do it. To skip the cocoa grit, proper hot chocolate must be made like so:

*combine the cocoa and sugar in a saucepan
*add a bit of water to make a slurry
*BOIL (this is what dissolves the grit and makes everything creamy-lush)
*add milk and heat through
*before serving, add a pinch of salt and a drizzle of vanilla

And don’t even get me going on powdered milk mixes—i.e. cocoa and sugar with Whiff of Barnyard—or, heaven forbid, the packaged junk.

But Deb’s mix breaks all rules. She uses cocoa and sugar, yes, but she also adds cornstarch and chopped chocolate. I thought for sure it’d be gritty, but it wasn’t! Well—full confession—there is a slight, ever so slight, sandiness to it, but it’s due more to the ridiculous chocolatey thickness of the drink and less to the non-dissolved cocoa. At least that’s what I think.

Perhaps it helps that the dry ingredients are pulverized in a food process. Or maybe it’s the addition of cornstarch (which is brilliant because cornstarch). Or it’s the real, melted chocolate that smooths things over. Whatever the case, it works. It's like drinking molten chocolate: intense, thick, rich, delicious. Willy Wonka would be proud.

(It's a little too good, maybe. Ever since I discovered this mix, I spend most of my days just waiting till I can have my bedtime cocoa.)

Hot Chocolate Mix
Adapted from Deb of Smitten Kitchen.

½ cup cocoa
½ cup sugar
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt

Put all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the chocolate chips are indistinguishable (though I let my processor run for a good minute or two and I still had a few itty-bitty chunks). Store the mixture in a pint jar.

To make hot chocolate:
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons hot chocolate mix
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
marshmallows or whipped cream, optional (but not really)

Heat the milk in a small saucepan. When the milk is steamy-hot, add the mix. Whisk well for a minute or two. (If the milk boils, remove the pan from the heat.) Add the vanilla. Pour the hot chocolate into a mug and top with marshmallows or whipped cream.

Marshmallow trick: tear your marshmallows into fourths. This way, instead of sip-wrestling with two giant marshmallow blobs, you get an easy-to-manage, foamy, evenly-dispersed marshmallow cap. Such an improvement.

This same time, years previous: stuffing, constant vigilance!, sunrise, sunset, light painting, my elephant, the quotidian (12.12.11), cracked wheat (or cooked oatmeal) pancakes, Sunday vignettes: human anatomy, and iced gingerbread men.      

Thursday, December 11, 2014

in my kitchen (sort of): 4:15 p.m.

*the wall clock says it's 4:13 but it also says "Who cares?" so whatever
*pushed-back chairs and rooster end table to make room for the latest fad: gymnastics
*two of my children + two of their friends = four children
*dying fern hanging by the window
*on the wall, the picture I drew of my husband—I gave it to him the weekend I tried to break up with him
*below that picture, a pencil drawing my brother did of my brother and me when we were little
*on the other side of the window, our wedding fraktur
*leftover decorations (still!) from my birthday
*mountains of laundry and a broken wash basket
*on the table among the stacks of laundry, To Kill A Mockingbird, since my older son decided to re-read it (I think it just may be my favorite book of all time)
*out of the frame and in the very front center: holes in the hardwood floor, and giant cracks, too, as in the boards have split—we're like a pack of elephant kangaroos
*in the basket on the table: the last of our bushel of Fuji apples
*in the muffin tin: flopped gougeres that no one ate (the second batch turned out better but none of us were fans)
*the black record-keeping notebook that I had been jotting notes in for the next Milkmaids meeting
*on the yellow stool: my recipe/cooking notes/menu notebook (for supper that night: roasted carrots, roasted potatoes, and not much else)

This same time, years previous: icedpimento cheese spread, and cashew brittle.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


The day after Thanksgiving, I turned my kitchen over to my sis-in-law and she churned us out a delux Japanese feast.

Her original plan was to make Bento boxes, but the box of supplies from Japan didn’t arrive in time, so she had to switch to Plan B, okonomiyaki. On the off chance you don’t know what that is (ha!), I’ll tell you. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake.

More or less, it goes like this:

Make a crepe batter of eggs, flour, and water.
Pour some batter on a skillet.
Mound the batter-base with green onions, cabbage, and brilliant pink pickled ginger.
Spread several thin slices of pork on top.
Cook on low-medium heat for 15 minutes, flip and cook for another 15.
To serve, place the “pancake” on a plate and crisscross the top with Japanese mayonnaise and okonomi sauce.
Sprinkle with dried seaweed and fish flakes (that undulate gently, making them look alive).

My husband took the last step very seriously. I think he ate four of these monsters.

My sister-in-law made a variation that involved adding a layer of noodles and a layer of scrambled egg.

See all the layers?

And she made octopus balls. Similar ingredients, but with chopped octopus, and all mixed together and then cooked in a ball cooker.

“Ball cooker” isn’t its real name, of course. But that’s what the thing did—it cooked balls.

There was also a root that looked like yucca but wasn’t.

Instead, it was slimy and slightly toxic—it would burn your fingers if handled too much. I think she added it to the crepe batter. Maybe?

And dried, crumbled shrimp bits. Maybe they went in the batter, too? I can't remember.

The next day, the box from Japan arrived.

We encouraged my sister-in-law to save the contents for the next time, but there were a good number of other items for fun sampling. So we had an appetizer feast! Squid stuffed with sticky rice. Dried squid dipped in Japanese mayo (she says that rice wine and dried squid is the Japanese equivalent of wine and cheese). Sticky rice cakes. And boiled eggs in the shape of a rabbit or panda (put a hot boiled egg into a mold and then chill in ice water for ten minutes). There were shrimp-flavored puff-chip things. And bowls of Japanese “ramen noodles”—noodles with cakes of fried tofu—simply add hot water and slurp.

Next up: Bento boxes! (Or maybe shrimp in three seconds flat?)

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.9.13), smoking hot, a family outing, peanut butter cookies, Ree's monkey bread, and butter cookies.

Monday, December 8, 2014

the quotidian (12.8.14)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

My husband has a meltdown if we run out of granola.

These meatballs: good but not great.

I enjoyed this one.
(And yes, I'm still keeping up my commitment to read at least one book a month.) 

My mother puts her guests in the bathtub.
The better to visit with them or something.

We're in the midst of a gymnastics obsession. 
The tiger suit is a bonus.

Gussied up for his first concert.

The remains of the post-concert supper at my parents' house: soup, crackers, fruit, cake.

Wild window: an imprint of a flying owl. 
You can even see its legs!

On my mother's stairs.

This same time, years previous: 17 needles and 4 children, holding, iced ginger shortbread, winter quinoa salad, my kids are weird, zippy me, baked corn, and play areas, scorpions, and ritual cleansings.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

in my kitchen: 6:44 p.m.

*lazy eaters lingering—reading, not fighting—and with wet hair from their pre-supper showers
*on the stove, a dirty skillet from making the scrambled eggs for our silly supper
*also on stove, the leftover cheesy herb pizza made from a ball of dough that was hanging out in the fridge—in other words, leftovers from leftovers.
*fairly clean counter work space...because I had just put away the mess of fixings for the meatloaf sandwiches (we ate them for lunch and then for supper, too—go, leftovers!)
*extra cups from sampling the fresh goat’s milk—it was delicious.
*a mountain of dirty dishes in the sink and on the counter—it doesn’t look bad but it’s actually quite a pile—waiting for my son to come wash them
*my favorite cooking companion—the under-the-cabinet radio—that wasn’t, thanks to the snow storm knocking out our local NPR station.
*on the counter among the dirty dishes, a clean jar of water for in case the power goes out (it didn’t)
*to the left of the stove, a pile of stuff—a flashlight, the basket of paper napkins, a hat and gloves, a discarded lactose pill wrapper, candles, my husband’s hammer holder. You know, stuff.
*on the dining room table, more stuff—my husband was on a cleaning rampage (go, husband!)
*photobombing chair—the handmade Amish rocker that my parents gave us for our wedding
*freshly-washed votive candle holders on the windowsill, just waiting to create some cozy
*the phone, also on the sill, where I usually place it after calls since I always seem to end up at talking at the sink
*dangling on the window opener doohickey, my younger son’s anti-bullying bracelet that he bought at his cousin’s (not-really) garage sale.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

the college conundrum

Back when we took our first financial class, my husband and I didn’t pay much attention to the lesson about saving for the kids’ college. Our children were still young, and we didn’t have any extra money to put away. There seemed to be nothing to talk about.

Four years later, we still don’t have any extra money to put aside for college, but now our oldest is fifteen. College—if he decides to go the traditional track—is three short years away. So this time around, we paid closer attention to the college lesson, especially the little segment they did for people in our shoes—no money and no time for planning.

According to the class instructors, the best options for minimizing college debt (or staying out of debt altogether) are to pursue financial aid and scholarships, get a job, and attend community college or in-state schools. I thought the first two suggestions were obvious, but the third one was new to me. I mean, not really new—I’ve always known that community colleges are an economical choice. What was new was to hear those schools presented as a viable, worthy, smart option in contrast to a four-year, private, or out-of-state college and the ensuing debt.

See, I’d always thought four-year colleges were best because of the whole college experience thing, like what I enjoyed. Living independently from parents in a caring, heady environment packed with peers was the quintessential culmination of a healthy childhood. Four whole years set aside for pondering the meaning of life, finding a purpose, making friends, analyzing the state of the world, thinking, mulling, searching, questioning, being! Any other route, including community college, could only be second best.

So whenever the sending-the-kids-to-college conversation came up, I couldn’t help but feel shame and sadness. Shame because we didn’t have enough money to give this gift to our kids, and sadness because my kids might not get to experience the college magic. According to my standards—standards that coincided with those of the friends in our social circles—I was perhaps failing my children.


My evolving perspective of debt plays a key role in this college conundrum. Through our money management classes, I’ve become much more wary of debt. No longer do I take it for granted, a necessary evil to be accepted with a sigh and a shrug. But at the same time, I don’t think debt is all bad, either. Sometimes it is a necessary tool for advancement. A college degree is, perhaps, one of those necessary tools.

However, now that college costs are skyrocketing, many parents can make only a small dent in their children's college bills. As a result, the brunt of the cost falls to the children, and they end up beginning their adulthood mired in debt. This, I’m afraid, has potential for serious ramifications.

My thinking goes something like this: When you sink teenagers into a four-year university program and then turn them out into the world with maybe-useful degrees and a mountain of debt, the fresh young adults are trapped. A well-paying job, regardless of whether or not it is a good fit, is imperative. Often, the new graduates discover that their best bet, if they really want to do what they enjoy, is to go back to school for a better degree. Gone (or severely curtailed) is the freedom to volunteer, work part time, be stay-at-home parents, take creative risks, and travel. They are less likely to shake up the status quo, challenge power, and take a job for the pure joy of it, regardless of pay. At precisely the point when these young adults think they are finally their own masters, they discover it is their debt that reigns supreme. It’s ironic. It's maybe tragic.


Over the course of the last several months, partly because of the class and partly because of my reading on alternative education, I've realized that I've had everything backwards. The goal isn't college. The goal is self-actualization. Many ways exist to become a fulfilled, educated, productive person. There’s the life education that comes from volunteering, apprenticing, working, and traveling. There are the cheaper community colleges and in-state schools for when a degree is necessary.

My job as a parent isn’t to automatically send my children to college just because they've turned eighteen. My job is to support my children as they discover their interests and passions, and then encourage them to figure out a way to make a living doing the things they love. Their plan may or may not include college.
Even with this epiphany, doubt niggles. In our culture, a high-class education is the holy grail. Devaluing that feels heretical. To complicate matters, in our Mennonite circles where most everyone is either an alumnus and/or an employee of a church university, the belief pervades that a money value can’t be placed on a Mennonite education. Maybe there is truth to this! By allowing the threat of debt to dictate how we approach our children’s educations, perhaps my husband and I are being shortsighted. Maybe we’re doing lasting damage to our children's development by steering them away from a Mennonite university.

But we don’t have a choice, really. There’s that no money thing and all. And the fact is, now that my husband and I have come to terms with how we’re approaching the college conundrum, I mostly just feel enormous relief. There is freedom in living within our means, in being open to less costly ways of getting an education, and in pursuing nonlinear educational time frames. It's liberating.

What’s your approach to kids and college? 
Does the benefit of a quality college education justify incurring big debt?

This same time, years previous: sushi!!!, the quotidian (12.3.12), red lentil coconut curry, and chocolate truffle cake.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Over Thanksgiving weekend, my daughter nanny-sat her friend’s goat. The goat is named Bee (short for Belle, I think), and she surprised me by having a silky beard.

We all took a liking to Bee. It was fun to watch her stand on her hind legs and strain to reach the tree branches (though they were bare, so I don’t know why she bothered). She head-butted Jessica, Annabelle (the new sheep finally has a name), and Rameo over her hay. She even wiggled her way through the little door into the chicken coop—I looked out the window just in time to see her behind disappear through the hole, à la a face-first version of the limbo.

Nanny-sitting Bee involved twice-a-day milkings. At six-thirty, morning and evening, my daughter tug-dragged (tug-drug?) Bee up to the barn where they had set up the milking stanchion. She tied Bee’s legs to prevent kickage, and then, while Bee happily munched grain and the cats hovered, she did the milking. She milked straight into a bowl that was sitting in a bucket of snow. Instant chilling, her owners say, produces better milk.

And the milk was delicious, shockingly so. I have vague memories of yellow, putrid-tasting goat milk from some sad moment in my childhood, but Bee’s milk was nothing like that. It tasted almost exactly like cow milk, but even richer.