Category Archives: Rimarama recommends

Between Shades of Gray

I grew up with a vague understanding of what had happened to my grandmother’s family in Lithuania during World War II. I knew about the deportations, the cattle cars, the labor camps, the huts they built out of scavenged materials to protect themselves from the Siberian cold.

I knew my great-grandparents had perished there, but the whole business of Siberia had always been a kind of abstract tragedy, cloaked behind the lyric prose so characteristic of my people, its brutal details fused together under the penumbra of a single, sorrowful word – Sibiras.  But it’s only now, after reading Ruta Sepetys’ best selling novel, Between Shades of Gray, that I begin to fathom the details, imagine their sufferings, and understand their quiet grace.

As much as I wanted to read it, I was reluctant to pick this book up at first. I knew it would be emotionally challenging and I was afraid there would be too many parts I’d have to read with my eyes closed.  But once I started, I couldn’t put it down – and I don’t remember the last time that’s happened. I read Between Shades of Gray in one sitting, and when I reached the last word, I closed my eyes and sat very still, the way you do during the ending credits of a movie that’s moved you to your core.

Between Shades of Gray is the story of a Lithuanian art student – Lina Vilkas – and her struggle to survive in conditions that just keep getting worse after she is abducted one night along with her mother and younger brother during Stalin’s Purge – the mass deportations of thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Finns to prisons and slave labor camps in Siberia in June of 1944.

Intended for a YA readership, the story is told in short, straightforward prose, though it’s anything but simple, and deals bluntly with the gray ethics and stark reality of war. The details and imagery are so deftly rendered that even when they are unbearable, it’s not possible to look away. Despite the heavy subject matter, there is nothing cloying or overly sentimental about the way Lina tells her riveting tale.

That’s what makes it so good.

In a feisty, compelling, and believable voice, the fictional character of Lina Vilkas speaks for thousand of real people who were silenced or frightened into silence, and whose tragedy has been largely unknown to the world.

Please consider reading this book.

Did you like this? Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)

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.)

Did you like this? Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)

Happiness Tea

This post is the first in my series titled, “Taking the Seasonal, Affective, and Disorder out of Seasonal Affective Disorder.” It’s a good thing I never tried to get a job writing ad copy.

I always get the winter blues immediately following Christmas and this year is no exception. But as I lay curled up into the fetal position on our couch last night, the P-Dawg approached me with a cup of tea.

“Drink this,” he said. “I promise it will make you feel better.”

And I was like, “What’s in it? It smells like an Asian supermarket.”

“Just drink it,” he said.

“I hate to tell you this, P-Dawg, but one lousy little cup of tea is not going to lift me up out of the depths of despair. What I need is a tropical vacation or to move to California.”

I’m not usually one to make fantastic claims and I didn’t get even one red penny from the ginger, honey, or lemon industries for writing this post, but I want to tell you that this tea made me feel instantaneously better.  After taking only a few sips, I sat up on the couch. Halfway through my cup I started cracking jokes and feeling like I might just make it through another Cleveland winter.

I’m not kidding.

And because I want you to be happy too – even if you live in California or Hawaii – I am going to share the ridiculously simple recipe with you. If you have the winter blues and don’t make yourself this tea, I’ll have to . . uh . . . come to your house and stare pleadingly at you.

Let’s get started!

First, grate about a half teaspoon of organic ginger into a strainer of some sort and steep it in a cup of boiling water for five minutes. We have a special tea strainer and also a microplane because we are bourgeois, but you could also use one of those cute little tea balls or even steep it in a thermos then run the whole she-bang through a sieve.

Now listen up, because this is important: The ginger must be organic. The other stuff just doesn’t have the same nutrients and miraculous healing qualities, capiche?  If you make this tea with watered down plebeian ginger, don’t come crying to me. And this probably goes without saying, but using dried powdered ginger will turn you into a pillar of salt.

We keep a ginger nubbin in the freezer at all times and it lasts forever. You don’t even have to wrap it up, just perch it unceremoniously next to the frozen waffles. You can grate it frozen right into your tea, honest to Pete.

The next step is totally optional, but it will give your tea a pretty color: throw in five or six dried poppy flower or rose hip petals if you have them, and who doesn’t?

(Seriously, you can skip this step. We just happen to be up to our ears in dried flower petals because the P-Dawg is an organic herb and spice fanatic. I’m not even allowed to use plain old supermarket nutmeg for cooking and baking, I have to grate up an actual nutmeg ball. That’s why I have Seasonal Affective Disorder.)

Okay, now strain the tea into a cup and then squeeze in a lemon wedge:

The P-Dawg said I didn’t need a picture of it because everyone knows what a lemon looks like.  I told him he would make a terrible food blogger.

Next, add honey to taste and don’t be a martyr. The key is achieving a balance between the ginger, lemon, and honey flavors. I used about a teaspoon, but I probably could have used more.

I used raw, unpasteurized honey, but if your honey comes from a plastic bear, I won’t hold it against you. Well, I might hold it against you a little bit because I really think you should use raw, unpasteurized honey. It is very, very good for you. Take it from a Lithuanian – we have a goddess assigned specifically to bees.

Finally, drink and be happy!

Now please go forth and make yourself some ginger lemon honey tea.

No, I really mean it. I want you to make this tea and then report back to me.  I’m really curious to know if it will have the same uplifting effect on you as it did on me. I guess it would probably be best if you were a little sad before you drank it. Maybe you could watch ET or Terms of Endearment to get yourself in the mood.

Did you like this? Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)

Will she ever shut up about France?

I braved yet another Maison Francais meeting last month. As you may remember, I tend to be initially enthusiastic about going, but chicken out on the day of. Speaking French when you don’t remember how just takes so much gosh-darned effort. But, like violin lessons, it’s another one of those things we must do to keep our minds sharp.

This meeting was to be a non-threatening dinner/lecture affair. I figured if I could get through the dinner part by sitting next to my friend Lauren and just adding “le” to the beginning of English words, I would be home free.  In retrospect, I believe I should have brushed up on my vocab before leaving the house.

They had a little table set up at the entrance where you were supposed to pick up your name tag and pay for your ticket, so I marched right up and said “Bonsoir! Je suis Rima Rama.” The lady behind the table responded with a jumble of French words that I could make neither head nor tail of. And since it would have killed me to ask her to repeat herself, I decided that she had welcomed me and invited me to go inside.  So I said:

“Merci beaucoup!”

And then she said, “Do you speak French?”

So that was a real confidence builder.

I found my friend inside and we struck up a conversation.  Thankfully, the room was like a sauna and we were able to kill a lot of time just talking about the weather.

“Il fait chaud ici, n’est-pas?”

“Oui! Il fait vraiment chaud.”

“Je suis sweating like a pig.’

“Vraiment?”

“Oui.”

I find that it’s much easier to ease into speaking le Francais when you drink a glass of wine and wade in slowly using Frenglish. So after Lauren and I helped ourselves to some vin and hors-d’oeuvres, we burdened the two women sitting on either side of us with our textbook language skills.

Luckily, one was a teacher who spoke French like a Rosetta Stone CD and was used to hearing a lot of stuttering. The other was a native speaker whose language skills had atrophied over time. She was very patient with me as I took it upon myself to opine about Stephen Hawking and Black Hole Theory.  Because if you haven’t spoken a language in going on two years and wish to ease the tongue gently into its waters, you’re going to want to begin by talking about quantum physics.

An old familiar thing started happening the more I spoke: neurotransmitters that hadn’t seen action since 2008 started firing away, re-energizing pathways long dusty with disuse.  Words, phrases, figures of speech began coming back to me and I realized I was no longer hunt and peck translating words, I was thinking in French.  I was no longer a self deprecating housewife and wanna-be writer, I was a French speaking self deprecating housewife and wanna be writer! Which makes all the difference.

In the spirit of accurate reporting, I feel I must tell you that the lecture portion of the meeting was a bust.  They had a prof from the Sorbonne talking about an archeological dig he did in Lebanon, but his presentation was on the dry side, especially for those of us who couldn’t understand a word he was saying. He had a pretty good slide presentation, but I was sitting off to the side and his assistant was blocking my view.  It took a lot of exaggerated and passive-aggressive neck craning on my part to get her to move over, and by that time it was time to go home.

The moral of this story is you should occasionally do things you’re afraid of.  Because it’s always worth it.

N‘est-ce pas?

Did you like this? Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)