Category Archives: reminiscing

You Can Go Home Again

I didn’t want to tell you this, but I was a bit nervous about going to my high school reunion. I mean, the only thing preventing it from being freshman year Howdy Dance all over again was the fact that this time around, I had a date.

I wanted to make an inconspicuous entrance, but as soon as I descended from the private jet*, my friend Karina started screaming and practically vaulted over the beer garden balcony to give me a hug. Then she whipped out the journal I’d given her twenty years ago and had me read the inscription I’d written in it. She made me feel welcome right away, and I’m very grateful for that.

You go to your twenty-year high school reunion hoping that at least one person will have had a sex change operation or show up with a mullet and a hunting vest, but this was not the case. I don’t know if it’s thanks to the reversal of the food pyramid or the fact that people are no longer doing drugs, but pretty much everyone who came looked good and seemed to be happy in their lives. It was heartening. When you’re line dancing with your old gang to R.E.M.’s “Stand” with a beer in one hand and a wedding ring on the other, you forget the ancient hurts and feel genuinely happy that everyone made it out okay.

Even the P-Dawg had a good time. On the drive back home the next day, he said, “You know, I feel like I went to my own high school reunion, only with different people.”

Which is great, because it means I won’t have to go to his.

 

*When I say “private jet”, I mean “hotel cab.”

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If You Do Not Attend Your 20 Year High School Reunion, No One Will Recognize You the Next Time Around

It’s hard to believe it since I’m only 29, but my twenty-year high school reunion is coming up this weekend. That means I graduated from from high school twenty years ago! When people still wore shoulder pads, no one had ever heard of the Internet, and cordless phones were as big as a grown man’s foot.

I discovered red lipstick and the color black in high school, and I thought I looked pretty good in both. I briefly changed my name to Veronica. I ran around town in a “Freedom for Lithuania” T-shirt, soliciting signatures for my Amnesty International letter writing campaign.

I picketed a fur boutique.

I shopped at vintage clothing stores with my best friend Ginny and I wore cheap canvas Mary Janes from China held together with a safety pin. I listened to Depeche Mode, Love & Rockets, the Cure, R.E.M., New Order and Nine Inch Nails.

I had big eye brows and I pegged my jeans.

I tried out for the senior year musical. But it was very last minute and I didn’t have a song prepared, so I went with “Here I Am, Lord” from the Glory and Praise Hymnal.

The Lord went with someone else.

I took Anatomy instead of Physics, and every day when I got to my lab table, the cat I was dissecting had a Dorito in its mouth. Who put that Dorito there? Maybe on Saturday I’ll find out.

I’m looking forward to this reunion not only to see my old classmates, but also because I went to high school in Charlotte and I haven’t been back to North Carolina since graduation. The P-Dawg has never been, so it will be fun to show him where I had my formative years.

I’m going to bust out my southern accent, eat pork barbecue, visit my old neighbors, and dig up a few things I buried in our former backyard. Not to mention I finally have a comeback for that one dude who used to always tease me for being short.

The only problem is that I’m getting to that age where I no longer remember people or faces. So if you see me at the reunion (you’ll recognize me because I don’t look a day over 18), please come up and introduce yourself. Give me some context clues. Did we sit next to each other in homeroom? Did you ever try to stuff me in my locker? Did you sign my petition to free Lithuania?

Did you put that Dorito in my cat’s mouth?

High School

 

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How to Make Farmer’s Cheese Like Your Grandmother Did

I was never very interested in farmer’s cheese when my grandmother used to make it. I have these memories of her standing over the stainless steel sink in her tiny yellow kitchen with the gold flecked Formica counters and pouring a steaming hot mixture through a cheesecloth while beads of sweat popped up on her creased and weary brow. What with all the stirring and the . . . uh . . . pressing? and the . . . I wasn’t really sure what-all, it seemed like too big of a production for a Thoroughly Modern Millie like me.

It took me almost thirty-eight years to work up an interest in making this Lithuanian country staple, and I only learned because one of my blog readers (who I finally met at camp last week!) showed me how. (But let it be written and let it be said, when I gushed to my mom about it, she said, “I could have told you that.”)

It took about thirty minutes, we did it in an un-air conditioned camp kitchen, and I didn’t even work up a sweat (but probably only because I stood around taking pictures while R?ta worked.) We ate it later that evening on black bread with honey and it was out of this world. So I’ve taken it upon myself to transcribe the lessons I learned from Lithuanian Jedi Cheesemaster R?ta (Roo-tah) and present them to you in an easy to read and visually stunning format here.

Let’s tie those aprons around our healthy Midwestern middles and begin!

You probably already have everything you need to make this cheese right in your very own ice box:

  • A gallon of whole or 2% milk
  • A half gallon of buttermilk
  • About a half cup of water

That’s it. Plus a cheesecloth and maybe some salt and caraway seeds, if you wish. I’ll talk about the cheesecloth in a minute.

First, pour just enough water to cover the bottom of a large stockpot. This will help prevent the milk from burning when you turn up the heat.

Here is my new friend and mentor Ruta, pouring some water into the pot

Next, pour in the gallon of milk you got from your icebox and turn the burner to about medium high.

Then hitch up your stockings and stand next to the oven for 20-30 minutes with hand on your hip stirring, stirring, stirring. Don’t even think about looking away from the stockpot to check your email or play a round of Angry Birds, do you understand? You want the milk to reach a point just before boiling. IF THE MILK BOILS, IT’S TOO LATE, and I’m not coming over there to help you scrub your mangled pot. The more quickly you can get the milk to the point of almost boiling, the more flavorful the cheese will be.

How do you know the milk is about to boil? It’s gonna start foaming, like the tide on the Baltic when Egl?, Žal?i? Karalien? (Egl?, Queen of Serpents) called out the special chant needed to summon her evil serpent husband after a brief and closely monitored visit with her family so that he could escort her back to the underwater digs where she was being held captive since adolescence.

Here is a rendering on the wall of our camp mess hall of the evil serpent after Egl?’s brother’s chopped him up:

Actually, he still looks kind of alive. And what’s up with the autonomous hatchet there in the middle? Funny, I never noticed that when we were painting this mural back in the 80s as kids. It looks like one of the brothers (there are always three of them) might have cut and run. Or some kid painted a bloody hatchet and said, “to hell with the guy.”

Once the milk has thickened up, is foaming mightily, and looks like it’s just about to boil, turn off the heat and pour in your half gallon of buttermilk. Then stir, stir, stir.

After awhile, the mixture will start to look like this:

Congratulations! You just made cottage cheese.

No, really. You can refrigerate and eat it if you want. But if you give up now, you will never be able to experience the hearty delicacy that is farmer’s cheese.

Next comes the part where I almost walked out of my lesson because R?ta started talking about sewing up your own cheesecloth. See, she doesn’t recommend using actual cheesecloth, but rather a thick canvas bag, like the kind that corn meal or whole wheat flour comes in straight from the mill. You can’t buy it at Target. You probably have to go to Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods), the mill, or a farmer. But that’s not the part that had me worried.

She said you have to wash the empty sack, cut it at the seams, and sew it into a triangular shaped pouch.

I KNOW

You can do it! Don’t give up.

(I bet you could even just staple it together. But shhhhh!)

Okay, now take your pouch and carefully, very carefully, pour the hot cottage cheese mixture into the bag. Please don’t scald yourself. R?ta held the cheese cloth bag open with a little rubber circle thingie they make to keep potato chips fresh while she scooped the mixture in with a ladle. I would recommend doing this, or asking your husband to hold the bag open with his bare hands while you pour. The liquid that seeps out through the bottom of the bag is called “whey.” Get it? Curds and whey? I was as astonished as you are right now.

This is the point when, if you wish, you can add salt and/or caraway seeds to taste.

You are almost done and it’s only been like twenty minutes! Even though doesn’t it seem like this blog post just keeps going on and on?

Okay, now tie the pouch tightly off at the top and set it on a cutting board.

Makeshift Cheese Press

Next, put another cutting board on top of it, fill your stockpot all the way up with cold water, and set it on top of the whole shebang. If you have a cheese press, you can use that, but you don’t really need one. The point is to squeeze as much water out of the cheese mixture as possible and set it.

The more water you press out, the denser and drier your cheese will be. You might want to check it after a few minutes and load it up with weight again. If you leave it on the moist side, the consistency will just be a little different. But you probably don’t want to leave it dripping wet.

After it’s pressed, let it sit on the cutting board for a few hours until it’s . . . uh . . . done. My friend R?ta said you don’t even have to refrigerate it, so when you get salmonella, you can blame it on her. We made our cheese at about 2:30 and it was ready to eat at 10:00 pm.

It’s best with jam or honey on a slice of hearty rye or black bread. Lithuanians eat it this way for breakfast or as a bed time snack.

Skanaus!

(Please check the comments because if I missed any steps, I’m hoping Ruta will chime in to correct me and add her two cents.)

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I Went to France and All I Kissed Was an Englishman

Party at the London Pub

As far as I could tell, my French host family owned one phone, a rotary, and it held court on a small console table in their lace-curtained parlor. The table stood all alone next to the doorway, so we had to take our phone calls like fugitives, standing up.

When my parents rang, I’d speak to my mother first and strive to provide the kind of details she might expect to hear about a daughter’s life in France. One day I might tell her about the majesty of the chestnut trees I’d seen during a stroll through the Parc Honoré de Balzac, (where is the Parc Honoré de Balzac?), another day about the pain au chocolat I’d purchased still warm from the local patisserie.

My father used the telephone first to confirm that I was still alive, and second that his tuition dollars were being well spent.

“Are you fluent yet?” he’d ask two minutes into our conversation, and I’d shift my weight from one foot to the other on the tattered 18th century rug. “I’m getting there,” is what I’d say.

And I was getting there, but slowly.  That’s because instead of hanging out with French people, I was spending my evenings slinging back Guinness with a lot of drunken Englishmen at a place called “The London Pub.”  Finding French students seeking American friendships was proving hard to do at the international language school where I was taking classes.

There were no French people enrolled there who wanted to learn French.

But the Institute was packed to the gills with Englishmen, who, with their Monty Python accents and scruffy Doc Martens, were very enticing, indeed. The Brits had a sense of humor foreign to their French counterparts and a penchant for American girls. More importantly, they spoke English, and you’d have been hard pressed to find one walking down the street with a poodle sticking out of his bag. Cleaving to the Brits in France was like opting for a comfortable, yet stylish pair of jeans instead of attempting to mold oneself into a sleek pair of glamorous leather pants. It was the natural thing to do.

The London Pub was a little bar in Place Plumereau owned by a man we called “Phildo.” People with names like “Simon,” “Nigel” and “David” convened there, Bass and Guinness flowed on tap, and the Smiths were always playing in the background. Here I met Ian, a student from the University of Bristol. And I quickly discovered that a crisp English accent was more compelling than a shallow complement from a serpentine Frenchman. The few that I’d met so far were physiquement attractive, I’ll give them that, but there was something about them that didn’t sit quite right with me. Their language and mannerisms were too dramatic, too cliché to be sincere.

Ian didn’t just find the French mildly annoying, he despised them. They were “wankers, the whole fucking lot,” and he wished he’d never set foot inside their pisspot of a country. If Ian stepped in a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk, it was because the French were filthy buggers. When he left his wallet sitting out on the bar after a few pints, it was stolen through no fault of his own, but because the country was morally bankrupt. And when Ian scraped the side of his rental car while pulling through a narrow parking lot gate, it was only because France didn’t know its head from its arsehole.

One thing led to another, and soon I found myself kissing him in a cobblestone alley behind the London Pub. My study abroad year was starting to look up. It was exactly the kind of scene I’d been envisioning since I’d set my sights on France, except that my Frenchman turned out to be a bookish Brit who kept a bottle of blue label Johnny Walker in his own personal locker at the London Pub.

If I couldn’t join the impenetrable French, I would team up with their archenemy and mock them gently over whiskey and Coke.

 

To be continued . . . maybe . . . one of these days.

 

This is Part Trois of my uber compelling series about the totally unique and in no way whatsoever cliche junior year I spent studying in France. You can read the first two parts here:

Part Un

Part Deux

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