Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Bitchin' Lunch

Today, I stood gazing at the array of salad dressings on my refrigerator door: Italian, Sun-Dried Tomato, Vinegar & Oil, Greek Vinaigrette, and Raspberry Walnut Vinaigrette (Yuck...don't know why I haven't thrown that one out!). Bill and I wanted a salad, but I was tired of lite, so-called healthy dressings. To heck with calories and cholesterol; I wanted a rich, creamy dressing.
And then I thought of Brittany Dressing. The best stuff ever to land on a bed of greens.

I discovered Brittany Dressing in the early seventies at The Brittany Restaurant in Bloomington, Illinois. It had only been open a few days, so my co-workers and I decided to lunch there. It was a lovely upscale place; dim lighting, soft music, solicitous waiters.

We all wanted a salad, but there were so many on the menu that we were having a hard time making a decision. “Our Maurice Salad is very excellent,” our dignified waiter said, pen poised in the air, "And may I suggest Brittany, our house dressing?"

We took “Maurice” (as we came to call him) at his word, and as we awaited our salads we discussed what was happening in the company; who was new, who was leaving. Who was being promoted.
We also spent a great deal of time discussing an important new position just posted in personnel.

“A man will get it,” I said, “They think women aren’t capable of anything not involving typing and shorthand.”

“And bringing them coffee,” Lisa said, slapping her napkin in her lap. “I'm sick of men! Jimmy's blood pressure's sky high and his doctor told him not to eat salt.” She took a deep breath, "He's going to kill himself if he keeps using salt like it's going out of style!"

“Well, I’m sick to death of Joe,” said Janice, “When I get home he's sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, waiting for me to cook supper. And he’s all bent out of shape if I’m five minutes late.”

“Carroll's been grumpy all week,” I said, "It's year-end again."

“Well,” Lisa said, “If Jimmy kills himself with salt, there's nothing I can do.
"One of these days I just might not go home," Janice said, "Let Joe put that in his pipe and smoke it!"

“Know what we need?” Janice said, “A good stiff drink!”

We ordered Margaritas, and when Maurice arrived with our salads, we were delighted. Crisp, cold lettuce and numerous vegetables and meats were piled on a dish big enough for a Thanksgiving turkey. What really made the salad, though, was the dressing. Tossed in sizzling bacon oil and topped with a thick blanket of rich, creamy dressing, it was both tangy and sweet. At first bite I was in heaven.

We all agreed it was the best salad we'd ever had, and we were full and happy as we left The Brittany.
“I ate like a pig,” Janice said, “But for some reason I feel lighter.”

“We got it all out system,” Lisa said, “And it felt damn good!”

“It's amazing what a big Margarita will do for you,” I said.
Leanne started laughing and couldn’t stop. Soon we were all cackling. We were in a good mood the rest of the afternoon.

After that, we headed to The Brittany for a Maurice Salad and a Margarita whenever we felt the need.

“Joe is like an 80-year-old,” Janice said, storming into the office one morning, “Every night, he goes to sleep on the couch!”

Lisa and I looked at each other. “Oh, oh,” she said, “You know what this means.”

We all stood back and chorused, “Time for a Bitchin’ Lunch!”

I had to dig for a while, but I found my recipe for Brittany Dressing; it had been there since 1974. I scribbled it down after we wrestled it from poor Maurice. We tried sweet-talking him; when that didn’t work, we bribed him with a big tip. Maybe it’s just me, but the dressing doesn’t taste quite as good as it did at The Brittany. Don’t know if it’s because I didn't prelude it with a Margarita, or if Maurice left something out.
Nevertheless, it's still the best dressing I've ever tasted. And it makes a bitchin' lunch!
(Note: I pour only about one-fourth cup of bacon fat over the lettuce. Also...heat the bacon fat until it's piping hot. )

Monday, January 28, 2008

The New Frontier

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m already tired of the presidential primaries. Each time we turn on the TV, they’re discussing the candidates: Clinton said this; Obama said that. John McCain insulted Mitt Romney; Fred Thompson dropped out. Today, I watched CNN’s Wolf Blitzer announce that Senator Ted Kennedy, and JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, are supporting Obama.

As usual, my thoughts took a backward turn, and I was suddenly in the middle of the 1960 presidential primaries.
Our two-room attic apartment in Brookfield became unbearable as the hot, steamy days of summer shrouded the area. The only thing we had to cool the place was a huge window fan which stirred up the humid air, sucked it outside, spun it around and smacked us in the face with blasts of suffocating heat. So nearly every Saturday and Sunday afternoon we jumped in the car and took off. We rarely knew where we were going, but most of the time we ended up in Maywood at Roger and Sharon’s apartment; from there, we all took off for parts unknown, just driving around, seeing the sights. Talking and laughing. Eating.

One Friday night in July, we were cruising around in Roger and Sharon’s long, white Pontiac Bonneville convertible. We had been downtown to Courtesy Motors, where we looked at shiny new cars we couldn’t afford; strolled through an outlet near The Loop, where one could buy a whole houseful of furniture for $399 (couldn’t afford that, either, thank heavens!), and on to Frisch’s in Oak Park, where we enjoyed thick milkshakes, Big Boy hamburgers, and greasy onion rings big enough for Rosanne Barr's bracelet collection.

After we were stuffed to the gills, and Roger had filled the convertible with gas (very cheap then!), we sped on out to Glen Ellyn, Naperville, Hinsdale and other western suburbs. The stifling heat had lifted, so it was a pleasant drive, the wind whipping against our faces, Johnny Horton’s Sink the Bismarck drifting from the backseat speakers. I laid my head back against the leather seat, enjoying the ride, lulled to sleep by the singing of the tires as the Bonneville skimmed swiftly through the night.

I was jerked awake by Carroll’s voice. “What’s all this?” he said.

We had just entered the village of Downer’s Grove. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, people were everywhere, and cars were wedged into every conceivable parking place. Many were hurrying along the highway, some wearing white straw hats with red-white-and-blue bands and waving tiny American flags. Others were brandishing placards. Everyone seemed very excited, and they were all heading in one direction.

“Looks like somebody important is here,” I said.

Roger maneuvered the convertible to the curb, where hundreds more were milling around, all keyed up, animated. Most of them were young.

Sharon yawned, removing her compact from her purse. “Must be a candidate of some sort," she said.

“What’s going on here?” Roger yelled at a man walking past the car.
“Senator John F. Kennedy’s coming,” he said.
“John F. Kennedy?” I said, “John F. Kennedy will be here?”
“Yep, any minute!”
Roger turned to us, “I don’t want to see John F. Kennedy.”
“Let’s stop!” I said.
Sharon was now applying deep red lipstick. “He's Catholic, Brenda," she said, rubbing her lips together, "You know he doesn’t have a chance of getting elected."

“Yes, he does!”

“And he’s too young,” Roger said.

“No, he’s not!”

Carroll took a drag from his Lucky Strike. “I don’t care one way or the other,” he said.

Roger drove slowly past the John F. Kennedy supporters and picked up speed. I was not one to assert myself back then, and I was already kicking myself up one side and down the other for not insisting on staying. Why hadn't I gotten out of the car when we stopped?
I felt even worse as we headed out of town, where we were met by several black limos, red-white-and-blue streamers fluttering from the antennas. “That has got to be John F. Kennedy.” I said, “Right there!”

Roger tooted his horn at the last car in the motorcade. They tooted back, and everyone in the car laughed but me. “You know good and well Nixon has it in the bag,” Roger said, “Ike will see to that!”

Later that year, I did see President Eisenhower. The whole company was excused from work for an hour or so, and we walked up to the Magnificent Mile for the parade. Ike was perched on top of the back seat of a large open-top limo convertible, riding down Michigan Avenue that day. The ticker tape was as thick as snow, almost blinding him, but he was smiling and waving as he rode past us.

It was exciting to see Dwight D. Eisenhower; he was our President. But I knew it would have been much more exciting to see the young, energetic John F. Kennedy, the Harvard-educated war hero. The man who had a vision, who motivated people, spoke of the great things to come.
"I hope he's our next president," I said.
Sharon laughed, "You're so idealistic!"
"Get real, Brenda," said Roger.
Even our friends Lloyd and Marion put their two cents in. "Nixon has waited his turn," Marion said, "He should be our next president!"

When November rolled around, most of our friends didn't even bother to vote. But Carroll and I did. We cast our votes for John F. Kennedy.
And thus began The New Frontier.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Truckin' with Paris Hilton

I was informed last week by the publisher of Mississippi Crow Magazine that my short fiction piece, Truckin' with Paris Hilton, has been accepted for publication in their April issue. Mississippi Crow is a print literary magazine based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As regular readers know, writing is my passion, and just knowing people are enjoying my stories is as gratifying as writing them. So a heartfelt thank-you for your comments and encouragement (both here and in person) since I began this blog. Your generosity and support mean the world to me!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Home Run Inn...and Louie

Suzanne visited the other night, and as we were enjoying a pizza, Bill and I began reminiscing about the first time we tasted one.

"What?" Suzanne said, "I can't imagine a world without pizza!"
“We had it in Alabama in the fifties,” Bill said, “But I never had one until I was living in Chicago.”
“I was eighteen before I even heard of it,” I said.

I was introduced to pizza at Paducah's Noble Park Dairy Queen. Carroll and I were sitting in Paul's convertible one night, gazing at the menu which was taped on the window.
"Pizza pie," I said, "What's that?"
"I have no idea," Carroll said, "There's only one way to find out."
We ordered a cheese pizza, the only kind they offered, and when the car hop appeared with our unfamiliar fare, we were aghast. The pizza pie was nothing more than thin, tough crust with a little sauce smeared over it. Bits of cheese were scattered here and there.

“Tastes like cheese on cardboard,” I said, making a face.

Carroll tossed his toward a nearby dumpster, where it flopped to the ground. There was a rustling in the bushes, and a couple of raccoons suddenly appeared from the shadows. They stood, peering around the dumpster.

“Looks like the only ones who like pizza pie are the coons,” Carroll laughed, as we watched them stuffing their tiny mouths on their way back to the bushes.

As I relinquished my slice to the coons, I had no idea my love affair with Chicago’s delectable pizza was about to begin.

It all started on a cold February night in 1960, shortly after we were settled in Brookfield, a suburb of Chicago. We had many friends in the area: Roger and Sharon, Lloyd and Marion; Hope and Jim; Maurice and Glenda, and the two Jerrys (a couple both named Jerry—Jerri and Jerry—whom we all called “Jerry-I” and “Jerry-Y”).

One night, Lloyd and Marion bounded up the stairs to our tiny attic apartment. “Come on,” Lloyd said, “We’re going to introduce you’ens to the best pizza in the world!”

Carroll and I looked at each other. “Pizza pie?” he said, “That stuff tastes like s**t!”

They laughed. “This pizza pie is the best stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth!” Lloyd said.

Home Run Inn was on the south side of Chicago, at 31st and Kildare. A dark little bar, it was run by Italians with musical accents. It was a happy, jovial place; warm and cozy, with Formica-topped tables, candles in old wine bottles, and delicious aromas drifting through the air.

The minute I took my first bite of Home Run Inn pizza, I was hooked. The crust was tender and thick, the tomato sauce just zesty and spicy enough, the toppings piled so high they would have toppled off, had it not been for the thick layers of Mozzarella cheese holding it all together.

After that, we dined at Home Run Inn at least once a week—sometimes two or three times a week—all the time we lived in the Chicago area. Jerry and Jerri carpooled with us, and on our way home from work, we often exited Congress Expressway and sped off toward Home Run Inn. After a hard day in the offices at 43 East Ohio Street, and fighting the rush hour traffic through downtown Chicago, we were ready for some good eating. And we were never disappointed.

We always used the side entrance, and the minute we opened the old wooden door, we were enveloped by mouthwatering smells. Tall, white chefs hats bobbled as the workers moved back and forth, tossing the pizza dough high in the air, shouting, “pizza up!,” and grabbing orders hanging by clothes pins on a line stretching from the bar to the kitchen. A big mural of dogs playing poker hung over the long, dark wood bar, where frosty beers were slammed on trays as fast as the bartender could draw them. The atmosphere was lively, noisy, and so welcoming that I felt I was with people I somehow knew; like a family reunion among relatives you’ve never met, but knowing you are connected.

I gazed around the comfortable bar as we awaited our pizzas, admiring the tin ceiling, the antique wooden chairs, the big old jukebox near the door. It seemed Del Shannon’s Runaway, the Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me, and Percy Faith’s Theme from a Summer Place were always playing. Chubby Checker’s The Twist was played often, too, and one night a bunch of college girls from Northwestern jumped up and twisted from one end of the place to the other, everyone clapping and cheering them on. Other times, someone would start singing, Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall, and everyone in the place sang along.

The only occasion we didn’t have such a great time was one freezing night when three feet of snow blanketed the Chicago area. We all went in Jim’s car that night, a shiny black ’57 Chevrolet with red interior. As we enjoyed our pizza, Jim’s car was stolen, and we had to go home in a taxi.
The Chicago police found Jim’s pride and joy a few days later, stripped. But we were back the following week, ready for more “Home Run Inn.” If we had leftovers, I took them home and ate a slice or two right out of the refrigerator for breakfast the next morning.

The waiters at Home Run Inn were exceptional; always there, Johnny-on-the-spot, any time you needed them. They all got to know us and greeted us by name. Louie, a fifty-something neat and slender little man with black, slicked-back hair and a thin mustache, was our favorite.

“Welcome!” he called, as we walked through the door, “How ya doin’?

I loved how he pronounced our names, “More Coke, ‘Brendia'? Another beer, ‘Cadrel’?”

One night, during an infrequent lull in conversation, I sat watching thick snowflakes drifting past the window, cars and trucks slipping and sliding down the snow-and-ice-covered streets, when Elvis’s Are You Lonesome Tonight began playing. I was hit by a sharp wave of homesickness, thinking of my family way down in south, and me, way up north. What was I doing here, anyway?
“Everything okay, Brendia?”

I turned and found Louie at my elbow, a concerned look on his face. I nodded, and he patted my shoulder before hurrying back to his duties.

When Louie wasn’t rushing here and there, pizzas held high in the air, he sometimes stopped at our table for a minute or two, and one night he stood, smoothing the white towel draped over his arm, giving us the history of Home Run Inn.

In the early 1920’s, Mary and Vincent Grittani bought the little bar. There was a neighborhood baseball field across the street (it was still there when we were regulars), and one day the winning run brought the ball smashing through the front window. So they named it Home Run Inn. In the early 1940’s, the Grittani’s daughter, Loretta, married Nick Perrino, who had just returned from World War II, and they formed a partnership with her mother. They developed the recipe for Home Run Inn pizza. "It's the same recipe we use today," he said.

On New Year’s Eve of 1961, we all got together and went to Home Run Inn. The place was a madhouse; a group at the next table got rowdy, and Louie asked them to leave. One of the party—a big guy with a Russian accent wearing a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes tucked into his rolled-up sleeve—threatened Louie, so Carroll, Roger, Jerry, Jim and Lloyd got up. The man’s friends joined in, and just as one was picking up a chair, the police arrived.

After the troublemakers were escorted outside, we went back to our pizzas, and as we were preparing to leave, Louie sidled by our table. "Your pizzas are on the house tonight, guys!" he said with a wink.

In June, 1961, the time had come for us to move to Bloomington, Illinois, where our company was relocating. Although I had looked forward to moving, since we would have a nice, spacious apartment and would not have to fight the Chicago traffic to get to work, I had mixed feelings. We had made many new friends who would not be relocating, and we were enjoying all the places to go and things to see in the Windy City.

The night before we left, all of our friends gathered in our little apartment, and Lloyd suggested one last trip to Home Run Inn. “It’s on me!” he said, “We’ll make it a bon voyage party!”

The place was packed, as usual; Louie waited on us, as usual, and we ordered a large Italian sausage pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions, as usual. The guys drank frosted mugs of beer and we all tried to be jovial. It was a bittersweet time for me, though; I was suddenly realizing what and whom I would leave behind.

Only Roger and Sharon would be relocating along with us. Maurice and Jerry had been drafted into the Army, so Glenda and Jerri would be moving back to Southern Illinois to be with their families; Jim and Hope were moving back, too. Only Lloyd and Marion were remaining in Chicago.

By silent agreement, Carroll and I did not tell Louie it was our last visit to Home Run Inn. “Goodbye, guys” he called to us across the crowded bar as we left, “See ya next time!”

I can still remember that little place with its battered chairs and Formica tables, candles in old wine bottles and the happy atmosphere, and although I have made a few trips back to Chicago in the years since, I have never returned to Home Run Inn. I checked on the Internet and was glad to see the original restaurant still there, at 31st and Kildare (although it has been renovated). And they have expanded, big time. There are also Home Run Inns on Archer Avenue in Chicago, in Addison, Bolingbrook, Darien, Bellwood, Melrose Park and Westmont. And they now have frozen pizza plants in Woodbridge and Chicago, from which Home Run Inn pizzas are shipped all over the country.

There were more delicious pizza restaurants in Chicago: Gino’s, where thick, deep-dish pizzas were served at the table in black, cast iron skillets, and Uno’s. Both were near The Loop, so I lunched there with my co-workers every now and then. It was great pizza. But as far as I was concerned, no pizza could come close to Home Run Inn's.
I have sometimes wondered why I never returned to Home Run Inn. I guess I just want it to live in my memory as it was back then. But every now and then, I think of Home Run Inn, the friendly, jovial people, the warm atmosphere, and those hot-from-the-oven pizzas, cheese still bubbling, held high in the air by Louie.
"Welcome!" he says, "How ya doin'?"

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Rosamunde Pilcher

I have never been to Scotland, but I feel as though I have. The Highlands are one of Europe’s last untamed wildernesses; of mountains, moorland, coasts and lochs. And since Scottish blood run through my veins, I relate to Scotland and its people.
I am again reading Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. I’ve been hooked on this talented Scottish writer since my sister, Eva, recommended her first bestseller, The Shell Seekers. Her heartwarming stories are set in England and Scotland and are woven with history, glowing descriptions, and strings of unforgettable characters. Unlike many books of today, with terse sentences and snappy new words, a Pilcher book is old-fashioned reading; something to be savored while curled up with a cup of tea on a cold winter afternoon, or lolling in the front-porch swing during the lazy days of summer.

If you are looking for books filled with violence, sex and infidelity, you should look elsewhere (although there is usually a love affair or two in her books). Like her previous works, Winter Solstice is simply a story of ordinary people, doing ordinary things. But, oh, how she strings her words together! She creates people and places so real that I feel I have known them for years. When reading her books, I want to be there, doing that.

Although I am not a fan of frigid weather, Pilcher’s vivid descriptions of grey skies, howling winds and sparkling frost of a Scottish winter take me there. Dressed in heavy corduroy trousers, a thick woolen sweater, and a hooded coat, I walk with the Scots through the snow-packed Highlands, my breath making white puffs in the frozen air.
I am with them as they take off their Wellingtons, boil a kettle on the Aga for tea, and sit at the scrubbed pine kitchen table, discussing the day’s events. I watch from the shadows as they light a fire, “to take a bit of chill out of the air,” and I stand in front of that crackling fire, a tumbler of Scotch in my hand, watching them draw the curtains against the night. (And I don’t even like Scotch!)

I ride along with them as they fill their cars with petro, run errands in the village, and chat with the colorful townspeople. And I shiver at the doorway as they let their dogs out (always a dog or two in her stories) to take their “wees.” She paints a picture so well that I’m as relieved as the dogs!

Rosamunde Pilcher was born in Lelant, Cornwall on September 22, 1924. She began writing when she was seven years old and sold her first short story when she was 18. After attending secretarial college, she served for three years with the Women's Navel Service during WW II. She married wealthy textile entrepreneur, Graham Pilcher, in 1946, and they moved to Dundee, Scotland, where she still lives.

Pilcher began her writing career in 1949 as an author of Mills and Boon romances under the name of Jane Fraser. She once said writing saved her marriage; while bringing up her four children, she wrote hundreds of short stories and more than a dozen novels, mostly at her kitchen table. (I'm betting it was scrubbed pine!) Her last was The Keeper’s House, in 1963.

Pilcher did not achieve her international break-through until she was 63 years old. The Shell Seekers sold five million books and topped the New York Times bestseller list in 1990, kicking Tom Wolfe off the lead. In the United States and the UK, The Shell Seekers became the most sold paperback of the decade. Winter Solstice, Coming Home and September were also bestsellers, and she is now internationally recognized as one of the most-loved and prolific storytellers of our time.

I must admit Pilcher's books are not for everyone. Some readers might find her descriptions way too long and drawn out. But that is why I enjoy her books so much. When reading her stories, I forget I am reading a story; I am there, every step of the way. And that is a real feat, one that only a remarkable storyteller like Pilcher can pull off.

Although I will never be in a league with Pilcher, we do have something in common. For years I hesitated to tell people I was a writer. And when I did, they often responded with, “I’ve thought about writing a book, but I just don’t have the time.” (As I told Suzanne, you would think we were talking about baking cookies!) So I was more than a little taken aback when, in an interview with Publishers Weekly, Pilcher encountered the same thing.
"All my life I've had people coming up and saying, 'Sat under the hair dryer and read one of your little stories, dear. So clever of you. Wish I had the time to do it myself,'" she recalled. "I just say, 'Yeah, fine, pity you don't.' I've been beavering away." She sat back and smiled, "And now I'm hoping that nobody will ever, ever say that again."

Well, I think it is safe to say nobody will ever, ever say that again to Rosamunde Pilcher!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Time for Celebration and Remembrance

It's hard to believe it's already 2008, isn't it? I know the phrase "Where has the time gone?" is overused, but where has the time gone?
The holidays have been a very busy time for us. We hosted small dinners for close family members on both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. And today Bill and I are celebrating our eighth wedding anniversary. (I wanted to post a big picture of him, but he's like Carl Dean, a very private person! He neglected to tell me not to post an older picture, though, so here is one taken several years back.)
On Saturday night, we gathered in Bardwell to celebrate Mother's 87th birthday. There were over 40 people there, and that is not even all of the immediate family. The oldest person in attendance was Mother's brother, Uncle Tom (a WW II veteran, who just celebrated his 89th birthday); the youngest, Patsy's first great-grandchild, little Heath McBride, born in October.
We enjoyed a delicious potluck dinner...savory roasts, tasty casseroles and stews, sandwiches, salads and vegetables of all kinds. And, of course, to-die-for desserts. One of the best was Bethany's heavenly chocolate trifle; the first bite actually brought tears to my eyes! (Bethany, may I please have the recipe???)
The best thing, though, was visiting with relatives, many of whom I don't see as often as I would like. (I meant to take my camera, but forgot it!)
And so, as I begin the new year, I am giving thanks for my loving husband, daughter and grandson, Mother, and my brothers and sisters and their families. And I am remembering loved ones no longer with us, whose presence I deeply miss. Especially during the holidays.
Happy New Year, dear readers, may 2008 be a good one for you!

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley