Friday, April 27, 2012


A couple Sundays ago, I went to a big family get-together at my aunt and uncle’s house – an annual tradition to celebrate Eastern Orthodox Easter. Also part of the tradition is everyone who attends brings a dish for the potluck buffet.

“So what are you going to bring?” Barb, my cousin, called to ask me a few days before the event. “I’m making deviled eggs and baked potatoes.”

“I don’t know. I think maybe a vegetable and a dessert.”

“Like butternut squash?” Barb asked. “That’s my favorite.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll bring some of that! See you Sunday.”

The next day, I headed to the supermarket to buy some squash. As I stood in the produce department and checked one squash after another, it occurred to me that maybe trying to find a good winter squash in the spring was not going to be an easy task. One squash was so mushy when I touched it, I nearly put my finger through it. Another was so shriveled up and wrinkly on its neck, it made me think of my own neck...and that I needed to buy some moisturizing cream.

Three supermarkets later, I finally managed to find nearly enough decent-looking squash to fill the disposable aluminum-foil container I’d bought especially to bring to the party. Then I searched for something I could make for dessert. A cake mix called “Fun da-Middles” caught my eye. The box showed a picture of a cream-filled chocolate cupcake that looked exactly like a Drake’s Yankee Doodle, one of my husband’s favorites. I bought the mix, figuring if I goofed up any of the cupcakes, at least my husband could eat the rejects.

The family gathering was scheduled to begin just after noon, so on the morning of the big event, I crawled out of bed at the crack of dawn (9:30 a.m.) and started to peel the squash. The skin on it was like elephant hide. I mean, I was pretty sure even armor-piercing bullets couldn’t get through it. After only five minutes into the peeling process, the blade on my vegetable peeler snapped off the plastic handle and did a swan dive onto the floor.

“Nooo!” I cried to no one in particular, mainly because my husband was still in bed, snoring. “I’m doomed!”

I rummaged through the junk drawer and found another peeler – which already was broken. Muttering, I tossed it into the trash. Then, out of sheer desperation, I did something so dangerous, so treacherous, I was tempted to dial 911 and have the ambulance standing by.

I peeled the squash with a knife.

Knives and I have been mortal enemies since the time I accidentally hacked off a piece of my fingernail while trying to chop onions for meatloaf back in my junior-high cooking class. And my knife skills have gone progressively downhill ever since. If I use a knife to peel an apple, for example, by the time I’m done, the apple is about the size of a golf ball...and I’m covered with Band-Aids.

Using the knife to peel the squash turned out to be a time-consuming process. I knew I was running late, and the last thing I wanted to do was show up at the party after the guests already were loosening their belts and belching. I put the squash on the stove to boil, then started to make the cream-filled chocolate cupcakes.

The directions on the box seemed easy enough to follow, so I breezed right along. The only part I had trouble with was filling each cupcake paper only one-third full. The rest of the batter, it said, had to be reserved for a later step.

By the time I finished pouring the batter into the cups, they looked more like half-full than a third. Next, I had to squeeze equal portions of the vanilla-cream filling onto the batter in each cup. My portions were anything but even. Some ended up with only a small dot of filling while others had big blobs of it.

The final step was to pour the remaining batter over the cream filling. When I got to cupcake number nine out of the dozen, I ran out of batter. Still, to my surprise, the finished cupcakes were delicious – moist and chocolaty with a nice creamy filling.

The squash, however, was another story. No matter how much I cooked it, it still seemed crunchy, with stringy threads running through it. I didn’t want to be late for the gathering, so I finally just drained it, tossed some salt, butter and pepper into it and whipped it with the electric mixer in effort to get rid of the stringy stuff. It came out looking like baby food. – or a squash smoothie.

 I poured the squash into the aluminum container, shoved the cupcakes into a foil-lined box, and headed to the party.

“Hi!” my aunt, the hostess, greeted me when I walked in. “You look like you didn’t get any sleep last night!”

I’d spent so much time on the squash and cupcakes, I realized I obviously hadn’t spent enough time on myself. For all I knew, the way I’d rushed out of the house, I probably had cupcake batter on my face and squash in my hair.

I set down my masterpieces on the buffet table...right next to a big bowl of perfect-looking butternut squash. It was a deep orange color and was thick enough to form peaks on the top. My squash was pale and looked as if it could be sucked through a straw.

“Pete’s girlfriend brought that,” my aunt said. “And look what else she brought!” She opened the refrigerator door to show me a huge glass bowl heaped with layers of cake, pudding, fruit and whipped cream. “It’s an English trifle!”

I wasn’t sure what an English trifle was, but it definitely looked worthy of Buckingham Palace.  In comparison, my cupcakes looked worthy of some pre-schooler’s lunch box.

I’m already planning what to bring to the party next year. I don’t want to reveal what it is, but it will come in a bucket that has KFC printed on it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


The other day, the popular teen heartthrob, Justin Bieber, was on TV. The crowd of pre-pubescent young girls who’d gathered to see him looked as if they were about to burst blood vessels, they were screaming so much.

“He looked right at me!” one girl, who couldn’t have been more than 11, screeched as the cameras zoomed in for a close-up of the tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Jeez!” my husband said, shaking his head. “These young girls sure do get carried away nowadays! I mean, all the guy has to do is breathe in their direction and they practically have a coronary. Frankly, I don’t see what they see in him.”

“That’s because you’re not an 11-year-old girl,” I said. “I can remember back when I was that age. I was crazy about Ricky Nelson. I practically needed CPR every time I saw him on TV!”

I wasn’t exaggerating. When I was young, I thought Ricky Nelson was the most gorgeous hunk of man I’d ever seen. He had dark hair, thick-lashed blue eyes, and a smile that flashed an expanse of teeth so white and even, they were worthy of the best toothpaste commercial.

Every week, I was glued to the TV, watching Ricky and his family on my favorite show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The best part, however, came at the end of each show, when Ricky usually sang and played his guitar.

“Ooh, hasn’t he got the dreamiest eyes?’ I’d sigh to my mother every time the camera zoomed in for a close-up.

“Those aren’t dreamy!” she’d say. “His eyes are always half-mast. He looks like he’s either in desperate need of a good night’s sleep, or he’s on drugs!”

My mom sure knew how to ruin a good crush.

The walls of my bedroom were covered with pin-ups of Ricky that I’d torn out of teen magazines. I loved lying in bed and seeing him everywhere I looked, his blue eyes staring back at me from all angles. The problem was, sometimes I felt as if his eyes actually were following me around the room, so I’d undress in my closet.

One summer, when I was in the sixth grade, my parents and I spent a week visiting my aunt and uncle in Connecticut.

“Guess what?” my uncle said to me one morning. “We’re going to New York today to a new place called Freedomland USA! It’s supposed to be like Disneyland!”

I practically did cartwheels, I was so excited. If there was one thing I really enjoyed, it was amusement-park rides. I’d ridden on the roller coaster at Pine Island Park in Manchester so many times, my parents figured they owned stock in the place.

Freedomland USA turned out to be so huge, 10 Pine Island Parks could have fit into it. When we arrived, I just stood there and stared wide-eyed at all of the rides, trying to decide which one to run to first.

That’s when I noticed a big billboard to my right. I gasped and my mouth stayed open. It said Ricky Nelson was going to be in concert at the park’s Moon Bowl that day! I just knew it had to be fate. I mean, what were the odds I’d be at a place I’d never even heard of before, on the exact day my idol was going to be appearing?

“Did you know Ricky Nelson was going to be here today?” I asked my uncle, thinking just maybe he’d known about it and had wanted to surprise me.

“Who?” he asked.

That pretty much answered my question.

Ricky’s appearance still was two hours away, according to the billboard. But I wanted to head over there immediately and get a good seat...preferably on his lap.

“Oh, you’ve got plenty of time,” my mother said. “Go on some of the rides. That’s why we’re here. We’ll eventually work our way over to the concert.”

I frowned. I didn’t like her use of the word “eventually.” I knew there was no way I was going to be able to enjoy any of the rides – not when the object of my desire, the subject of hundreds of my dreams, was practically within shouting distance.

I rode on an underground train that went through a cave loaded with bats, lava and monsters. I boarded a ship that was attacked by pirates. I took an aerial ride to the top of the fake Rockies.

The problem was, I barely remembered any of it. My mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of Ricky.

When we, at long last, finally reached the Moon Bowl, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was an outdoor stage that looked as if it was in a deep hole surrounded by a zillion rows of seats. From where we stood on the pavement, we could look down at every seat – all of which were occupied. In fact, people were standing six rows deep all around the perimeter.

When Ricky Nelson was introduced, I actually felt my heart start to race. My mouth felt so dry, I thought my saliva had evaporated. Then, the moment I’d been waiting for finally arrived. Ricky walked out onto the stage. The applause, cheers and screams were so loud, I was pretty sure the people back in New Hampshire could hear them.

I craned my neck to see my dream man. I was so far away, he looked only about a half-inch tall. All I could see was a white dot on top of a black dot, which I assumed were his white shirt and black pants. And when he started singing, I couldn’t even tell which song it was.

That’s because I was screaming so hard, I nearly burst a blood vessel.

So all I can say to Justin Bieber’s frenzied fans of today is...I feel your pain.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I really admire people who work as food servers, or as they were called back when I was growing up, waiters and waitresses. I honestly don’t know how they can work at such a hectic pace, deal with the public, be on their feet until bunions pop out, and yet remain cheerful.

There’s one food server in particular, Esther, who’s worked at Theo’s restaurant in Manchester for as long as I’ve been going there – and believe me, that’s a long time. I swear I’ve never seen the woman in a bad mood. She’s always smiling, cracking jokes, and no matter how difficult a customer is, remains pleasant. You could go in there, order a bowl of their chicken-lemon-rice soup and tell her to hold the rice, and she’d smile and say, “Sure, no problem!” Then you’d see her with tweezers, picking every grain of rice out of the soup. The woman seems to genuinely enjoy her job.

I tried working in the restaurant industry back when I was 16, and all I can say is I was the polar opposite of Esther.

The job was at the Red Arrow cafeteria in Manchester’s North End, which was only a block from my house. I practically could roll out of bed and into the front door of the place, which was handy.

Seeing it was a cafeteria, there weren’t any waiters or waitresses, so I was hired to clean up after the diners and also make certain they had everything they needed.

My first day of work was on a Sunday morning at the crack of dawn. Even though I lived so close to the place I practically could read the menu from my bedroom window, I still arrived late.

“The customers are going to come in here in shifts,” Diane, my supervisor, said. “After each Mass at Saint Catherine’s Church a couple blocks from here, large crowds will come in for breakfast. Your job is to keep the tables cleaned and wiped down as soon as someone gets up to leave. I don’t want to look around here and see any dirty tables. You have to keep up with them. If you fall behind, you’re doomed.”

The job sounded simple enough to me, so I was confident I could handle it with no problem. I was given a black apron, a wet dishcloth and a gray plastic tub sitting on a push-cart. I was ready.

The Red Arrow cafeteria was spacious, with two big dining areas and a long counter where people lined up to order their food.

I spent the first hour filling my cart with dirty dishes and pushing it out to the kitchen, where I unloaded the dishes so they could be washed. After my fiftieth trip out to the kitchen, my feet began to feel as if they had swollen to the size of baked hams. I silently wondered how I possibly was going to make it through another six hours.

After the first rush of customers had finished eating and left, and I’d managed to get all of the tables cleaned and sparkling, I decided to sit down for a few minutes and treat myself to one of the delectable-looking brownies I’d seen the cook take out of the oven during one of my many trips out to the kitchen. After all, I reasoned, I needed to keep up my strength. I ordered a brownie and a glass of milk and sat down at a corner table. I swore I could hear my feet breathing sighs of relief and thanking me.

I’d swallowed only one bite of the still-warm brownie when the front double-doors burst open and a fresh batch of church-goers poured in. If I had been someone like Esther, I would have smiled and welcomed them all – by name. But the only impulse I felt at that moment was to slam and lock the doors, and then finish my brownie.

Another thing I hadn’t realized when I took the job was exactly what cleaning tables involved. I’d assumed it meant picking up dishes, silverware and napkins. Little did I know it also meant picking up everything from discarded chicken bones and spilled beverages (enough to fill an aquarium) to such disgusting things as, well...let’s just say one little kid’s scrambled eggs decided to only temporarily visit his stomach.

“Hey, waitress!” one guy shouted at me. “My steak is still mooing! I asked for it well done! What’re you trying to do – give me tapeworms? Take it back and have the cook do it right!”

I tried to force a smile, but my lips felt as if they’d been cemented together. I wanted to tell the guy I wasn’t a waitress, I was a busgirl, and the only thing I was hired to do with his steak was toss it into my cart along with the other trash.
Instead, I took the steak back out to the kitchen and told the cook exactly what the guy had said about it. Then I waited and returned with a well-done steak.

“Well, now it’s cooked too much!” the customer complained, shoving the plate back at me. “Does it come with an axe so I can cut it?”

The way I felt at that moment, it was a good thing I didn’t have an axe, because I would have been tempted to use it on him.

Miraculously, I made it through the three months I’d been hired to work (my summer vacation from school) at the Red Arrow. During that time, I had to endure rowdy football teams, food fights, endless screaming children and crying babies, and a grumpy kitchen employee who complained about everything and everyone, and told me I talked so much, I must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. Even worse, I gained 10 pounds from eating my way through at least five dozen brownies.

There were highlights, too, such as when people gave me tips (probably because they felt sorry for me) or when one cute guy wrote his phone number and “call me” on his napkin – unless he’d meant it for Diane.

But then there was the morning I was forced to spend much longer than I’d intended in the restroom (I didn’t eat much fiber back then), and when I returned to the dining room, it looked as if the town dump had exploded in it.

“Look at all of these dirty tables!” Diane had shouted at me. “You’d better catch up – and fast – if you want to keep your job!”

All I can say is people like Esther should be sainted.