Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Oliver's Story - a Tail of Love

It seemed as if the timing could not have been worse. My Mom was coming home from her stay in a care home into hospice that Monday. My sister-in-law's mother died unexpectently Monday morning, she and my brother headed up to Massachusetts. My other brother was to arrive on Wednesday from Santa Cruz. Into this situation my sister had a canine client, Oliver, staying at the house. What a time for a dog sitter to have a pooch under foot. 

Yet, the timing could not have been better. Oliver didn't get under foot. Rather, the body part he wriggled his way into was our hearts, and did we ever need the comfort that only dogs can give. 

As late as Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago, I had not planned to be there for my Mom's death. I saw her for ten days at the beginning of September when she was at the hospital and then the care home. We had a very sweet goodbye together before I headed back to California. But while sitting on the very spot on our couch where I now write this blog post, I changed my mind. 

I was informing friends via Instagram of my family's situation back in Connecticut, and I chose a picture of my Mom's house in the Direct Message. I stared at the picture, trying to imagine what grief was inside. A death in the family and another one coming imminently? I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to be there, to not be looking at the picture of that house, but to be in that house. I checked airline schedules, found a night flight, called my husband and my brother who both agreed I should go, and I packed for another trip back east.

I arrived into a house in the middle of hospice care. Visitors bringing food, flowers and hugs. Kind, strong men delivering beds that go up and down and tilt every which way. Pamphlets on the kitchen table about death, dying and morphine dosages. Lots of adult children sharing bathrooms and timing showers and hot water. My family bungling in our attempts to comfort my sister-in-law as we faced the reality of our own mother's situation.

And my sweet Mom. And Oliver the visiting dog, who never left her side. That dog had a job to do and he did it well. He was on her bed. He was at her feet. He was under her wheelchair. He was under her blankets. He crawled up and laid his head on her pillow. He was doing what dogs do best, being loyal.

Friday night brought a power outage. Seeing that I had never administered morphine to anyone in my life, let alone my own mother, let alone by flashlight, let alone on no sleep since Tuesday night, it was quite the surreal experience. After the lights came back on, it was time for the others to catch some sleep. A plane ride back home to California was set for my brother, the funeral in Massachusetts to attend on Saturday for my brother and his wife. 

Into Saturday morning, it was just me and my Mom and Oliver. And then at quarter past five, it was just me and Oliver. I can't imagine a more perfect gift than to have had that sweet, calm and furry bundle of loyalty with me when she died. 

When hospice was called and all the sad realities of a death in the home were being taken care of, Oliver was content to stay in his crate, safely out of the way. His job was done, and soon his people would come and pick him up. The house was so empty without my Mom, and seemed doubly empty when Oliver went home. 

There are dogs and then there are dogs. Oliver is right up there with the best of them.

Waiting for his humans. His job was done.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Love, in Seven Layers

Growing up in suburbia in the 1960's and 70's meant I spent a lot of time in other people's houses. I can still go up the street in my old neighborhood and remember each family's name. I knew the moms, the dads, the siblings, the toys, and of course the dogs. We played in each other's yards, rooms, backyards and after a long day of playing, often my friends would invite me to stay for dinner. This is where I finally learned some table manners, the hard way, and I found out not everyone ate the same three meals over and over and over.

My mom, who did not relish cooking, tried out recipes in her early motherhood years. Easy recipes I'm sure. Recipes not involving organ meats, or fish bones, or any bones that could be choked on, or spices, or things to sink our teeth into lest we choke, or any sort of meat still resembling in any way the animal it came from. Casseroles were big then, and my Mom latched onto the concept of the casserole with both apron strings.

casserole (Frenchdiminutive of casse, from Provençal cassa "pan"[1]) is a large, deep dish used both in the oven and as a serving vessel. The word is also used for the food cooked and served in such a vessel, with the cookware itself called a casserole dish or casserole pan.
Casseroles in the United States or continental Europe usually consist of pieces of meat (such as chicken) or fish (such as tuna), various chopped vegetables, a starchy binder such as flourricepotato or pasta, and, often, a crunchy or cheesy topping.[2] Liquids are released from the meat and vegetables during cooking, and further liquid in the form of stockwinebeer (for example lapin à la Gueuze), gincider, or vegetable juice may be added when the dish is assembled. Casseroles are usually cooked slowly in the oven, often uncovered.  Wikipedia

We were casserole people. Casseroles were made for cooks like my mom. Once all the ingredients get plopped in, they practically serve themselves. They don't make too much of a mess in the oven, no pots bubbling over, no pans to scrub out - except for that one 13 x 9" Pyrex casserole dish we had. Why only one? For seven people? Because it was ready the next day for another casserole. 

There were three casseroles in our family. We ate them over and over. A lot. Weekly. Semi-weekly. 

  • Tuna Casserole
  • Meatloaf
  • 7 Layer Casserole

I'm not sure if meatloaf is even considered a casserole, but let's lump it in, shall we? I know there were other things we ate, like hamburgers and hot dogs in summer, fish sticks, pot pies, and my Dad's charred-on-the-outside, pink-on-the-inside chicken. Later on down the line, my Mom started making something called Taco Pie, without all the spices of course. And we always had a great turkey dinner on the holidays. We lived all year for those turkey dinners. It was, first of all, not a casserole, and all those potential bones to choke on were positively fascinating to our little imaginations. 

But it was the 7 Layer Casserole that became famous in our household. Through the years my Mom started leaving out a layer here and there, but we still called it 7 Layer. The recipe got lost. It didn't matter, it was more of a process than a recipe. Seven Layer was like an archaeological dig through 1950's cooking. Fresh ingredients, chopped and prepared in a way that rendered them utterly unpalatable by modern standards. And yet we lived to torment my Mom with tales about what the other kids on the block were eating. Pasta with bubbling sauces smelling of herbs and garlic, spicy foods, meat with bones, fish with bones, not in sticks. 

With my Mom's recent illness bringing up lots of emotions, us kids have been having some fun with our mutual memories. Apparently I missed the whole Wheat Germ Cookie Era, which had my sister hiding cookies in a garage vent - they were that bad. And my brother is sure our Dad got so sick of 7 Layer, that's when we starting getting take-out Chinese food every now and then. Whenever we talk of our childhood, 7 Layer always comes up. It's legendary. 

So I Googled it. It's a real thing. Apparently other families ate it too. Not three times a week, but still, it was so reassuring to see that Hunt's Tomato Sauce advertisement for our 7 Layer Casserole. With a woman's very lady-like hand, ever so gently putting the infamous casserole together in such a way as to not make a mess. It is so my Mom.

This month, in a shout out to my Mom, I'll be making as many 7 Layer Casserole variations as I can think of. We will eat them until we cry "No more!" All vegan of course, no ground beef or bacon in our versions.

I did one with chopped mushrooms instead of the meat, and with brown rice. I did another with curry spices and garbanzos. Soon to come will be Italian, Tex-Mex, some kind of Asian flavored one, and maybe a Hawaiian with pineapple. They don't have to taste good, that's never been the point. They just have to be in seven layers, or six, or so, and be made with love. That's how my Mom made them.

It was an actual thing!

Really, like in a magazine.

There were matchbooks!
Seven Layer Casserole Matchbooks.

There were other Hunt's recipes.
Messy recipes cooked by ample women in aprons with pudgy fingers and flappy arms.
My Mom had pretty hands and non-flappy arms, for which I am grateful.

But still, there were so many other recipes.

Eighteen minutes. That's quick!

Goulash! How exotic!

Look at those happy people.

Um, those fish do not look happy.

It has no bones, I'll give it that.

Ugh. Run food, run!

This fish is barfing parsley.
That is never good.

Seven Layer is looking really good in comparison.

Tuna Casserole has it all over this.

Say no to organ meats with lemon.

Those frankfurters look mortified. 

What did this little fella ever do to deserve this?

Yum, finally some dessert!
Wait, no, it's not a cake.
It's a sandwich loaf.
A Seven Layer Sandwich Loaf.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Win WinCo October

Our neighborhood mall is going through an identity crisis right now. For years it was anchored by a Macy's on one end, and a Gottschalks on the other. Various mall-like stores filled out the rest, with Ross anchoring the middle. When Gottschalks closed down, the mall looked like a teeter-totter with only one kid on it. Then Ross left, and Macy's was the lone hold out. Macy's closed this year. A Planet Fitness went in where Ross was, who knows what will happen to Macy's but it was the Gottschalks space that made the biggest transformation.  

They propped up the walls, took out the entire second floor and turned it into a WinCo. I was so disappointed! A WinCo? Right across from the world's grossest Walmart? The Walmart where people barely put clothes on to shop? The Walmart where tube tops are considered formal wear? How many low-end-boxy-stores can we take? I let out a huge groan and lamented, "There goes the neighborhood. We now live on the edge of a shoe desert!" There is not a decent store for miles to the east of us where one can find a cute pair of pumps, sandals or ankle boots. Flip flops from Walmart do not count. 

I had been in a WinCo before, and was not impressed. Immediately upon entering, one is hit with the Great Wall of Snacks. It's impossible to avoid. You have to pass by processed, fried, sugar-coated, salt-encrusted, non-food-food items just to walk in the place. It is not Whole Foods, It's not even Half Foods. It could be called Food Particles.

But I certainly don't want the place to fail and give Walmart smirking rights, so after our 99 Centember Vegan Challenge, where we shopped exclusively at the 99 Cent Store for one month, we were up for another challenge. WinCo it is. In October. It's WincOctober!

I ventured into the incredibly weird entrance. Imagine taking a department store that had had a front, back and a mall entrance and turning it into a grocery store. They had to do some maneuvering, and it seems more like you're walking into a really ugly airport terminal. But once you see it, it all makes sense and eventually you walk into the store.

Grab your cart and pick up some serious speed to whiz by the Great Wall of Snacks. You may see some semi-real food nestled in with the plastic barrels of Cheese Doodles, but keep going, the real food is inside. I promise, if you're very careful you won't end up with a shopping basket full of deplorables.

The first section I hit was the produce. Not bad, not bad at all. It's not all gorgeous and fancy like a Nugget Market, but it will certainly do. The prices are great, the produce is fresh and any place with fennel, bok choy and fresh herbs is plenty fancy for me. I grabbed lots of very hardy winterish veggies - carrots, celery, cauliflower, potatoes, peppers, mushrooms and sweet potatoes, I had no idea of a menu, I just wanted a base of vegetables that don't wilt when I turn my back. For fruit I stuck to bananas and apples. We have a secret source for pomegranates. Shhh.

After produce, I went to the bulk area. Wow. Very impressive. Again, you have to look past the first row of bulk stuff - giant vats of gummy worms, gummy bears, gummy everything. It's an assault on the senses, it made my teeth hurt just looking at all that neon candy. But I kept pushing my cart and I found some real food. Beans, beans, beans. Rice. Bulk raisins. Bulk cereal! Oatmeal for an army. And enough cinnamon to get us thru pumpkin smoothie season. I think the bulk section is the best thing going at WinCo.

They also have a pretty impressive vegan plant-milk area. I chose from rice, soy, almond, oat, coconut and they even had hemp milk. A place that has hemp milk is tops in my book. I hate the stuff, can't stomach it, but still I find it's impressive when someone carries it for the 0.0000015% of the population that likes hemp milk. You go, WinCo!

A few cans of this, some cartons of that, some coffee, tortillas and I was ready to hit the door. I bought a lot of food, or rather I bought a lot of potential food. With much washing, soaking, chopping, mixing and cooking, we have many many meals on hand. October is going to be a Win WinCo situation.

My basket full of adorables.