Author’s Note: A few years ago, this short story placed first in a creative writing competition. The quirky challenge consisted of re-telling a tale penned by William Shakespeare as if it had taken place in the the Ozark Mountains. Soon thereafter, High Hill Press selected this piece for inclusion in the 2013 edition of Coffee & Critique Anthology. So, for your reading pleasure…


A Midsummer Night Scheme

The biggest dog in these parts, a feller name of Theseus, is fixin’ to get hitched to his intended, Hippolyta. They’re about to tie the knot right here in these Ozarks, come summer solstice. What they don’t know is that Robin Goodfellow, an imp folks call Puck, lurks about. And that little rascal does love makin’ mischief.

 “Lookee here, if it ain’t the happy couple.” Puck made a sassy face and then hid behind a pawpaw tree.

“Hippo,” said Theseus, “the moon is waning. When she’s a sliver in the sky, we start our honeymoon.”

Puck pointed at the bride-to-be and laughed. “I reckon he calls her Hippo ‘cause she’s durn near six foot tall and as plump as a pregnant sow. I believe she’s one of them Amazon women.”

“Not long now,” allowed Hippolyta. “I’d best get to pickin’ Queen Anne’s lace and larkspur. I want a big bouquet of Ozark wildflowers to carry down the aisle.”

Puck pinched his nose, and whispered, “Maybe that’ll sweeten her up a mite so she don’t skunk up the meetin’ house.”

“Philostrate,” Theseus said to his best man, “Hippo’s mighty fond of mountain music and I want the weddin’ done up right. We need us a hoedown.”

“I know some old boys down Athens Holler that pick and fiddle.” Leaning on his walking stick, Phil lit off down the gulch to round them up.

About this time, an old codger climbed up the knob, draggin’ a young gal along by her pigtails. Two strappin’ lads and another gal followed.

“Hey, Theseus.”

“Hey, Egeus. What brings all y’all to this neck of the woods?”

“You know my daughter, Hermia. This feller here’s Demetrius and the other’n is Lysander. That little gal is Helena. She’s a friend of the family.”


The young’uns all said ‘hey’ back.

“What you need, Egeus? I’m busier than a one-legged man in a clogging contest.”

“This dad-blamed young’un has vexed my patience. I gave Hermia’s hand in marriage to Demetrius, but the mule-headed gal says she ain’t a-gonna wed him. Says she loves Lysander. I declare, that don’t make no never mind. Demetrius offered up a bride price and Lysander ain’t give her nothin’ but sweet-talk. Tell her what happens to a gal who won’t mind her daddy.”

“Well, young’un,” Theseus said to Hermia, “I reckon if you don’t marry this Demetrius fella, I’ll be obliged to send you off to the nunnery. Here directly my intended and me gonna tie the knot. If you ain’t hitched to Demetrius by then, I might be obliged to put your perty neck in a noose.”

Now, Hermia played along and acted like she would do what her daddy told her. But behind his back, she made up a secret plan with Lysander to run off to a town forty miles north as the crow flies.  They’d a mind to tie the knot amongst his people. Knowin’ they’d need somebody to cover for ‘em, they told Hermia’s friend, Helena, about their elopement. And that right there turned out to be a big mistake.

That two-timin’ Demetrius courted Helena before he took up with Hermia. Poor thing never stopped pinin’ over him. Ain’t nothing worse than a scorned woman.  She had the gumption to tell Demetrius about the lovers’ plan, knowin’ he’d get madder than bull with a hide full of hornets. When Hermia and Lysander snuck off in the woods, Demetrius followed. Helena trailed back a ways to see how it all turned out. She’d a mind to set her hook in Demetrius real good this go round.

Meanwhile, Puck caught up with old Philostrate on the trail to Athens Holler.

“You look a mite peaked, Phil,” he said. “Why don’t you go sit a spell? I’ll run down yonder and get everything set for the shindig.”

“That’s mighty kind of you, Puck. I reckon I could stand a catnap. Talk to a carpenter name of Peter Quince. He knows the rest of the boys. If he ain’t around, see Nick Bottom.”

So, off Puck trotted, as full of mischief as a kid with a new slingshot. He met up with Quince and Bottom at the local tavern.

“Phil sent me to tell you boys he needs you to act out a play for Theseus and Hippo. They’re gettin’ hitched here in a coupla days and he wants to surprise them with somethin’ right cultural.”

Quince squinted and scratched his head. “You sure he didn’t mean play at the weddin?”

“Naw,” said Puck. “Hippo ain’t too fond of pickin’ and grinnin’.”

“Well, sir,” said Quince, “I reckon we can do that.”

And so it happened that the Quince, Bottom and some other Athens Holler boys set to practicin’their parts in the very same woods where Helena was a-schemin’ to drive a wedge between Hermia and Lysander. The story Quince come up with was all about how mulberries come to be red instead of white.

It started with two young’uns, Pyramus and Thisbe, that growed up right next to each other, with nothin’ but a mud wall between them. Their folks were a-feudin’, so they kept them kids shut up in the house. Well, the two took to visitin’ with one another through a chink in the wall. By the time they were knee-high to a grasshopper, they’d done fell in love. They made up a plan to meet by a mulberry bush and run off together. A bobcat come along to jinx it and the lovers kilt themselves with a huntin’ knife. They bled all over that bush, and the gol-durn mulberries have been red ever since.

Puck, feelin’ mighty pleased, moseyed up to the forest, where he met up with a fairy.

“Where y’all headed?”

“Over hill, over dale,” sighed the fairy. “Queen Titiana has me sprinklin’dew on the cowslips and wood violets. She’ll be along directly.”

“Talk down yonder says King Oberon’s all riled up over some Indian she took a hankerin’ to. He’ll be loaded for bear, time he gets here.”

“Ain’t you a hobgoblin, Robin Goodfellow?”

“They call me sweet Puck. I do your work and bring you good luck.”

 “Hush, now,” whispered the fairy. “The queen is coming.”

“And the king’s just yonder. They’re fixin’ to scrap. Let’s hide under this acorn cap.”

Right then and there, the fairy royalty commenced spattin’ over who got dibs on the Indian.

“I believe you’re jealous, Oberon.”

“The boy needs to earn his keep. I got chores for him to tend to.”`

Titiana snapped, “He ain’t set you back a penny.”

“It sticks in my craw, the way you dote on him.”

“Now ain’t that the pot callin’ the kettle black?” Titiana stomped off.

Oberon didn’t take kindly to the idea of the queen having the last word. “Puck, get out from under that dad-blamed acorn,” he commanded. “Go fetch some evening primrose and mix it up with some honey for a love potion. Tonight when Titiana falls asleep, I’ll sprinkle some on her. When she wakes up and lays eyes on me, she’ll forget all about that Indian.

With an impish grin, Puck said, “Yes, sir, your kingliness.”

“And Puck, there’s a sweet little gal from Athens Holler  sleepin’ in that stand of pines by the crick. She’s plumb crazy about a two-timin’ son-of-a-gun. While I’m tendin’ to my queen, you hex him up with some of that love juice. That oughta put an end to his wanderin’ eye.”

“Yes, sir, your royal haughtiness.”

As Puck set about his chores, he spied Quince, Bottom, and company practicin’ their play. Just to be ornery, he cast a spell on Bottom that turned his noggin into a mule’s head.

 Up in the pines, Puck came upon Lysander and Hermia. Thinkin’ those two were Demetrius and Helena, he got all mixed up and cast that love spell on the wrong Athenian. When Lysander woke up, he spied Helena off in the woods and fell plumb head over heels. That left poor Hermia high and dry.

Puck sunk deeper in the brine than a dill pickle.

He spent the whole dad-gummed night tryin’ to undo the mess, but things just went from bad to worse. Lysander and Demetrius both got a hankerin’ for Helena and she thought they were pokin’ fun at her. Hermia felt right peeved about this turn of events and she called Helena out. Danged if it wasn’t the scrappiest catfight you ever seen.

Meanwhile, Demetrius and Lysander commenced to squarin’ off and it took mighty quick thinkin’ on Puck’s part to keep them from comin’ to blows. He ran through the woods, hollerin’ first for one and then the other ‘til they were as lost as Easter eggs.

When Titiana woke up, the first critter she laid eyes on was Bottom. Puck’s knees commenced to shakin’. King Oberon would whomp him good when he saw the queen actin’ all googly-eyed over that mule-headed hillbilly brayin’ like a jackass.

It turned out a mite better than Puck reckoned. Their foolishness gave the king a chance to cozy up to that Indian prince. With their royal highnesses thus occupied, Puck set out to clean up the mess he made with the others.

Climbing up on a toadstool, Puck tipped back a bottle of shine.

“It took a heap of doin’, but I got’er done. By sunrise, Lysander loved Hermia, Demetrius and Helena were smitten with each other, and Titiana and Oberon kissed and made up. That mule-headed Bottom went back to play-actin’… and I don’t rightly know what happened to the Indian. I imagine he high-tailed it home faster than a buck chasin’ a doe in rut.

Later that mornin’, Theseus and Hippolyta took a little pre-nuptial stroll in the forest and came upon them two Athens Holler couples sleepin’ like babies. They reckoned with their weddin’ about to commence, might as well get Lysander hitched to Hermia, and Demetrius to Helena at the same time.”

After everybody got married to the right folks, the shindig commenced with some fine vittles – fried chicken, ‘taters, biscuits’n’gravy, and all the fixin’s. While the weddin’ party tied on the feedbag, the Athens Holler boys acted out their play. A knee-slappin’ good time was had by all.

The sun started peekin’ over the knob before the newlyweds bedded down. The shivaree echoed up the hills to kingdom come. With all the pot-bangin’ and kettle-drummin’, it was enough to wake the dead. When it all quieted down, Oberon, Titiana, and the rest of the fairies flew around sprinklin’ glitter dust on all the honeymooners and castin’ protection spells.Then they flitted off to fairyland, leavin’ Puck behind to set things right.

(Puck addresses the audience.)

“If this story has offended

“Sorry, folks, it won’t be mended.

“You’ll wake up when it’s all over

“Laying in a patch of clover.

“Fairies livin’ in these here hills?

“Why, they’re as scarce as moonshine stills.

“Weddin’s, hoedowns, and shivarees

“On Ozark knobs among the trees?

“A tempest in a buttercup?

“Methinks the author Pucked it up.

“How clichéd, what a hackneyed scheme

“Plagiarizing Will Shakespeare’s Dream.

“At Shakespeare’s Church in graveyard gloom

“The bard rolls over in his tomb

“Tormented by his classic’s plight.

“A Hillbilly Midsummer’s Night?”

© 2012 Janet Y. Bettag – All rights reserved.


I inherited a pink and orange polka-dotted apron from my dear, departed mother-in-law with those words emblazoned in bold letters. Who Invited All These Tacky People? Wearing it when I host meals is usually good for a laugh from family members.

There’s nothing I love more than gatherings, but sometimes finding a date for a holiday celebration that fits the schedules of most of my children, grandchildren, and all their in-laws, outlaws, and significant others proves challenging.

Easter is a prime example.

The first conflict came decades ago when I worked for a large local CPA firm and Easter Sunday fell smack in the middle of the final days of the April tax filing crunch. I had to work the entire weekend. Due to other people’s scheduling conflicts, we had to postpone our family gathering until three weeks after Easter.

At that time, our holiday events included extended family…sisters, nieces, nephews, the spouses and significant others thereof, as well as the occasional renegades, rebels and rogues. When, by some miracle, everybody attended, we numbered 25 or more. Eventually we agreed that we either needed to pare down the gatherings or rent a hall. The majority voted to have each branch on the family tree do their own thing instead of having one huge party.

That was a wise decision. If we were to all come together now – with all the steps, grands, and great-grands – we would number well over 100. As much fun as that would be, (a) scheduling would be a nightmare, and (b) the cost of renting a facility and providing food for that army would probably break several banks.

After that official pruning of the family tree, time marched on and before we knew it, hubby and I had granddaughters. Soon we started running into dance competitions held in other states which, of course, involved travel time…and other complications like family members with conflicting work schedules, and taking into consideration the holiday plans of in-laws . We had to start choosing between before or after Easter and rarely celebrated on the actual holiday.

After a few years, we gave up calling it Easter Dinner and the celebration became known as The Spring Family Gathering.

The years flew by and before we could say “Peter Rabbit,” we had reached a point where those pesky college spring breaks never seemed to align with their high school  counterparts. And by then the situation had become even more complicated since we wanted to include boyfriends of the grand-princesses in our celebrations.  We also added a step-grandson, another significant other, and a baby grandson to the mix.

Sadly, our step-grand-prince sometimes has to miss these events so he can spend quality time with his father. And the restaurant where one of our grand-princesses works seems always to schedule her for a shift  at the exact time the rest of us would be sitting down to eat.

The Spring Family Gathering has unfortunately morphed into Spring-Brunch-And-Whoever-Can-Attend-Does-And-We’ll-Miss-The-Rest-Of-You.  But that’s just how it goes, isn’t it?

In a way, that’s a blessing. We enjoy each other’s company one day and hubby and I relish sharing a quiet Easter Sunday to worship and celebrate on our own – like the happy bunny couple pictured above.

Taking into consideration work schedules, spring breaks, and competing celebrations (among other conflicts), Easter is coming early to our house this year. Spring Brunch will be held on March 18. For the next six days this house will be a hotbed of activity. Between the baking and cooking, the candy-making, the egg decorating, the housecleaning, and the other assorted tasks associated with making sure every family member’s favorites are included, I will be one busy woman.

So far, here’s how the menu is shaping up:

  • Egg, Sausage, and Cheese Casserole (Everybody’s favorite.)
  • Yogurt (One of a few foods our picky toddler might eat.)
  • Devilled Eggs (I can’t disappoint my son or the grand-princesses.)
  • Fresh Fruit Tray (Keeps hubby smiling and offers a healthy choice for all.)
  • Biscuits with Milk Gravy (Dear S-I-L, this one’s for you. Enjoy!)
  • Blueberry Muffins (Because it’s just not brunch without muffins.)
  • Gingerbread Waffles  (I’ll make the batter; you’ll bake your own.)
  • Asparagus Roll-Ups (Dear daughter, I know how you love these!)
  • Cinnamon Roll Swirl Cake (A hit with the significant others.)
  • Solid Chocolate Rabbits (Only for the older grands.)
  • Chocolate Pudding Parfaits (Chocolate rabbit substitute for the toddler.)
  • Virgin Mimosas (No champagne until you’re over 21. I mean it!)
  • Coffee, milk, hot tea, iced tea, and lemonade (Everybody happy?)

Important note to those who can’t attend: Yes, I will fill a plate with all of your favorites to send home to you.

After the feast comes the egg hunt.

The older grands are now in charge of hiding the eggs and the only hunter is the toddler. We learned an important lesson last year. This young man knows the difference between an egg and a plastic do-hickey shaped like a bunny or a chicken. He won’t touch those plastic “egg substitutes,”  but he will collect every egg that actually looks like an egg…even especially the one that fell out of a robin’s nest.

Next Sunday will be a joyful, but exhausting day for me. It is such a wonderful treat having the people I cherish most dearly come together to share love and laughter.

Even though I know the answer (me), I sometimes wonder “Who Invited All These Tacky People?”.


Our tax situation is a little more complicated than plugging in the information from W-2 forms and waiting for a refund, so tax season at our house doesn’t start until the first week in March.

That means this year’s cruel torture has commenced.

Of course, we don’t mind paying our fair share to support our state and federal governments and all the important programs our tax dollars help to provide. We see it as our patriotic duty. I’m not suggesting we’re so thrilled about writing out checks that we happy dance around singing the national anthem, but paying up isn’t the cruelest torture.

Gathering the information needed to prepare the returns throws in my face the fact that my second career as a writer and freelance editor is far from lucrative. It reminds me that I retired early from a job I liked, working for and with people I love like family, so I could pursue my dream of writing full-time. I only regret that decision at tax time, when it feels somewhat like having bamboo slivers shoved under my fingernails. But good compensation isn’t everything, or so I remind myself.

Putting the numbers together forces me to calculate the ridiculously huge portion of our income that goes to paying health insurance premiums and related medical expenses. How depressing it is to realize that our charitable contributions were comparatively small because so much of our money went to insurance companies and tax collectors! Being stretched on The Rack might be less painful.

There is no escaping the reality of our actual tax burden. Aside from the state and federal taxes on our income, there’s the FICA deducted from paychecks for Medicare and Social Security, the tax we pay to assorted state and local entities for the pleasure of owning real estate, the personal property taxes to the same entities because we possess vehicles, plus sales tax on everything we purchase…and that’s not even considering the hidden “add on” taxes like the one on fuel, which we pay every time we gas up our cars. Let’s not omit the taxes our fair city collects every time we pay a utility bill. Kind of makes me feel like I’m being water-boarded and I can’t come up for air because there might be a tax on that, too!

There’s an old saying: You can’t draw blood from a turnip. It’s a good thing that’s true or the government would most likely impose some sort of tuber tax.

But that’s enough whining about the torturous process. If I keep writing about it, I’ll never get around to putting all that info together so we can get our returns filed.

It’s the patriotic American thing to do, even if it is cruel torture.

Misery Loves Chocolate


Just like different physical ailments require different medications, our cravings for specific comfort foods depend largely on our emotional state. Sometimes these foodie cures seem light years away from what you consider your favorite dishes.

When your Inner Child needs a little special attention, a meal that takes you back to your elementary school days might be just what the doctor orders. Who’d have thought that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or frozen fish sticks and box-mix mac’n’cheese could lift your spirits?

Sometimes melancholy sets in when you miss your departed mother and the only thing that will chase away the gloom is whipping up a batch of chicken and dumplings…just like she used to make them. After you convince yourself that one day blowing your healthy diet in favor of this carb-laden entrée is worth an extra 30 minutes of cardio you should go ahead and spoil yourself.

I’ve found that nothing turns frowns upside down in this household better than chocolate, but the fix obtained by eating a candy bar is too short-lived. Only chocolate cake, brownies, or something equally decadent will suffice to achieve a long-term mood lift. I usually rely on my grandmother’s recipe for Chocolate Meringue Pie.

Now, Grandma had a reputation for “accidentally” omitting some ingredient or technique when she passed down a requested recipe. That effort to preserve her reputation as a good cook and an even better baker is understandable.

Do I seem like someone who would allow that to deter me from reproducing…and possibly improving on her famous chocolate pie? I think you’ll appreciate my effort when you take a look at the “before” and “after” versions of the recipe.

Mabel’s Chocolate Pie (Before)

2 squares chocolate, 5 T. flour, 1-1/2 c. sugar, 2 c. milk, and 4 egg yolks. Cook until thick. Add 1 tsp. vanilla. Put in baked crust and put meringue on top and brown.

Janet’s Chocolate Meringue Pie (After)


Pastry for a 1-crust pie

1 pound dried beans (any type will do) or pie weights

2 cups milk (fat-free, low-fat, or whole milk)

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract (divided)

4 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), broken into small pieces

5 Tablespoons flour

1¾ cups granulated sugar (divided)

1 large egg (at room temperature – takes about 30 minutes)

4 egg yolks (at room temperature)

4 egg whites (at room temperature)

Pinch of salt

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar


To prepare the pie crust

Place a baking sheet on the lowest rack position in your oven and preheat to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place pie crust in a 9-inch pie plate, fold and flute the edges. Use a dinner fork to pierce the sides and bottom of the crust at about 1-inch intervals. Line the crust with a double layer of aluminum foil large enough to completely cover the sides of the pastry shell. Pour the beans into the foil, making sure the entire bottom is covered and beans stack up the sides of the pan (or use pie weights). The idea is to apply pressure to the crust as it bakes so it (hopefully!) won’t form bubbles or shrink away from the pie plate.

Bake the pie shell on the pre-heated baking sheet for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the edges of the crust begin to turn golden. Use the aluminum foil to carefully lift the beans out of the pie shell and set them aside. (Since the beans aren’t any good for cooking after being used for this purpose, once they’ve cooled, label them “baking beans” and store them for the next time you pre-bake a pie crust.)

Return the un-weighted pie crust and baking sheet to the oven and bake another 10 minutes or until the entire crust is a light golden brown. Set the baked crust aside on a cooling rack while you prepare the filling and meringue.

Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which you will bake the meringue.

To prepare the filling

Before you start cooking the filling, separate the eggs and reserve the whites for making the meringue.

In a large heavy saucepan over low heat, combine milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and chocolate and stir constantly until the chocolate starts melting. Increase heat to medium and stir in flour and 1½ cups of sugar. In a small bowl, whisk together the whole egg and the yolks, beating until all the egg white is incorporated. Slowly pour eggs into the milk mixture, whisking them in to combine thoroughly. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the filling thickens to the desired consistency. (It should seem as firm as you want it to be in the finished product.)

Remove the pan from the heat and allow the filling to cool while you prepare the meringue.

To prepare the meringue

In a stainless steel or glass mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt on low speed until frothy.

Add the cream of tartar and gradually increase beater speed to medium. When the egg whites are fluffy, begin adding the remaining ¼ cup of sugar about a tablespoon at a time. Add the remaining ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract and continue beating until the meringue looks a little shiny and soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted from the mixture.

To assemble and bake the pie

If you haven’t already done so, reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stir the filling thoroughly and spoon it into the prepared pie shell, using the back of the spoon to spread it evenly to the edges of the crust.

Beginning at the crust edge, spoon the meringue over the filling and work your way into the center. Pile the meringue a bit higher in the center. Use the back of the spoon to lift the meringue into decorative waves or peaks. Before baking, make sure that the meringue completely seals the filling inside the crust.

Place the pie on a rack in the center of the oven and bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 30 minutes or until the meringue is evenly cooked and lightly browned.

Allow the finished pie to cool on a rack, away from drafts, for at least 2 hours before refrigerating until serving time. If there are any leftovers, they must be stored in the refrigerator.


Bone Throne

This article has nothing to do with a video you might find on YouTube or a fan-fiction variation of the epic books penned by George R.R. Martin. Nor is our Game of Bones about throwing dice or stacking dominos. We’re talking about putting kitchen scraps to good use.

Sometimes lovingly referred to as “Jewish Penicillin,” chicken soup has earned a generations-old reputation for being good medicine to cure just about anything that ails you. It turns out that our grannies and their grannies knew their stuff. While hot chicken broth won’t end the common cold it is quite effective at alleviating some of the symptoms, even though it’s not entirely clear how it works its magic.

Researchers who published their study The Journal of the American College of Chest Physicians reported back in 2000 that chicken soup can actually help reduce upper respiratory inflammation. Since fluids in general help loosen congestion and keep you hydrated, the hot broth also helps in that regard.

More recently there have been claims that “bone broth” has other amazing benefits, but little reliable scientific research is available to back them up. In the absence of such evidence, who knows if it really promotes gut and joint health?

We can be certain of one thing: broth and stock are staple items for serious home chefs. And, yes, there is a difference between the two.

Broth is made by simmering protein (meat, poultry, or fish) for a relatively short time in water that’s usually seasoned with herbs and vegetables. Stock, on the other hand, is concocted from bones and cartilage slowly cooked in water for six to eight hours…and sometimes even longer… to release the bone marrow and collagen, which results in a slightly thicker, richer product. In most recipes the two can be used interchangeably, but unless you make an effort to remove it, the fat content of broth will be higher than that of stock.

Just to confuse matters further, that trendy bone broth (which may or may not help your gut and joints) technically isn’t a “broth” at all because it’s made from bones and cartilage, not meat. And even though they sell vegetable broth in your local grocery store, it’s not really broth or stock; it’s concentrated vegetable juice!

There are plenty of stock and broth recipes available on the web and in cookbooks, so I won’t post one here. Instead, I want to emphasize that most kitchen scraps have more to offer than taking up space in a landfill somewhere.

When you’ve had all the meals you can make from a roasted chicken – whether you cooked it yourself or purchased one of those handy rotisserie hens – don’t pitch the carcass. Even in our busy lives it only takes a few minutes to throw that in a slow cooker, cover it with water, and season it with salt, pepper and maybe a few herbs and let it cook on low while you go about your business. Pour it through a strainer and freeze in quart containers and you’ve got some homemade chicken stock to use as a base for soups. Frozen in ice cube trays, the smaller quantities can be used to season rice or make gravy.

The same goes for the scrappy bits that are left over when you trim a beef roast of visible fat. There’s always some nice meat clinging to it. If it doesn’t seem to be enough to make broth, put the raw scraps in a quart freezer bag, label it with the type of meat and the date. Every time you have beef, throw the scraps in the freezer bag and hold it until you have enough to produce a batch of beef broth. After 6 to 8 hours in the slow cooker on low, you’ve got a nice supply of beef broth to freeze for future use. You can do the same thing with pork.

If you’re a gardener, you can save and dry vegetable and fruit seeds to plant in the spring. Even the skins, peels, cores, and other junk left from cleaning fruits and vegetables can be put to further use by composting them. But that’s a topic for another day.

Today we’re just playing A Game of Bones.


You’re probably familiar with the Portuguese fable about a kindly old gentleman who happened upon a starving village. He only wanted a place to sleep and a simple meal, but the fearful people offered no hospitality to the stranger. Food was scarce and the villagers had become quite protective of what little they had.

Unabashed, the elderly man pulled out a cauldron and filled it with water from a nearby stream. The townspeople watched with great curiosity as he set about building a fire under the pot and dropped a large stone into it.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, “There’s nothing like a nice pot of stone soup to fuel a weary traveler. I would be pleased to share it with you.”

He sniffed hungrily at the boiling water. “The only thing better than stone soup is stone soup with cabbage. Now, that makes for a truly tasty broth.”

Soon a woman appeared with a small cabbage, her hunger having overcome her fear. The old man made great ceremony of chopping the cabbage and dropping it into the cauldron. “You know,” he said, “I once ate stone soup with cabbage that was flavored with some salt pork and a few potatoes. That, I must say, tasted delicious.”

In short order, another villager produced a rasher of bacon and yet a third brought half a dozen small potatoes to add to the pot. And so it went with onions, carrots and other bits of food that the people had hoarded.

Soon the kettle contained a hearty meal that the traveler and the villagers shared. And for the first time in a long while, no one in the village went to bed hungry.

Of course, the intended moral of the story is that when everyone contributes what they can and people work together, the greater good is achieved. But there’s another lesson to be learned from this tale: Sometimes it’s possible to make something out of nothing…or at least what seems to be nothing.

The term “famine cuisine” may not be as familiar to you as the stone soup story, but they have something in common. Both involve making do with what is available and neither lets anything go to waste.

Worldwide, nearly every nation has at some time experienced famine…at least among the poverty stricken. When starvation threatens, human beings can be incredibly resourceful in finding nourishment.

Ironically, some of the foods once eaten out of desperation are now considered delicacies. The fried or braised chicken feet offered at high end dim sum restaurants come to mind. At one time, shellfish and fish were considered poverty food in Maine and along the east coast of Canada. So much so, in fact, that people buried the shells in their yards so nosy neighbors wouldn’t see them in the trash bin and know the unfortunate souls had sunken to eating lobster.

Much of the food we think of as Southern cuisine and/or soul food here in the U.S. had its roots in the meager rations provided to slaves and in the poverty and food shortages experienced by Southerners of all races during the Civil War. A pan of cornbread filled more bellies than a single ear of corn. Dandelions and collard greens could be cooked up with a discarded ham bone to feed hungry young’uns. One scrawny old hen and some flour could be transformed into enough chicken and dumplings to nourish a lot of people.

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl once again challenged the ingenuity of homemakers frantic to feed their families. With apples selling for as much as 50 cents each and the average annual income of those lucky enough to be employed hovering around $1,500, baking an apple pie was simply out of the question.

Then some clever person rediscovered a recipe dating back to the 1800s for making a pie with crackers for a filling. And the rest was Mock Apple Pie history. The unusual pastry found renewed interest during World War II when apples were in short supply and rationing once again tested the cleverness of home cooks.

Fortunately, most of us don’t currently find ourselves in a situation of having to make something out of nothing in order to eat and feed our loved ones. These days culinary inventiveness seems to center on the use of exotic and expensive ingredients along with finding ways to fuse seemingly opposing cuisines (Italian-Chinese, anybody?).

Just for today, let’s buck the trend. Let’s reach back into our poverty food history and make something out of nothing. More accurately, let’s make apple pie out of crackers.

Mock Apple Pie


Pastry for a double-crust pie

18 saltine crackers, each broken in half

1½ cups granulated sugar

1¼ cups water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg



Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place one pie crust in a 9-inch pie plate. Layer crackers in the shell and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Bring to a full, rolling boil. Carefully pour the liquid over the crackers. The filling will be thin, but don’t be concerned about that. Allow the filled shell to sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cut strips from the remaining pie crust and weave them into a lattice over the filling. Seal and flute the edges.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 25 minutes or until the crust is golden brown.

OPTIONAL: Serve with a dollop of fresh whipped cream or top each serving with vanilla ice cream (which would transform your dessert into a decadent Mock Apple Pie a la Mode).


Kitchen Chemistry



Recently a friend called me an “experimental cook.” I consider that the highest compliment I could ever hope to receive for my kitchen exploits. Some tests are more successful than others. And, of course, there are the occasional totally disgusting flops. But we learn from our mistakes and move forward.

Here’s the philosophy that drives me to try new things: If it’s edible, it’s not a failure.

Cooking is all about chemistry. Combine the right elements in the appropriate manner and, given the perfect environment, the result won’t blow up in your face. You might even start the next “foodie- must-have” trend. Somebody was the first person to wonder what would happen if you dipped bacon in chocolate, right?

There are things any home cook can do to prepare for becoming a mad scientist in the kitchen. First, and probably most important, is learning about the physiological components that make things flavorful. The taste buds that dot our tongues are specialized. Much like various areas of our brains perform different functions, those little fellas are sensitive to specific flavors. At least five basic tastes exist that, when well-balanced, produce a pleasant sensation for our palates: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (or, as the Japanese say umami).The Ayurvedic style of cooking, prominent in Indian cuisine, also identifies “pungent” (like chili-pepper spicy), and “astringent” (dry like popcorn).

What does this mean for the kitchen chemist?  If we think in terms of layers, we can bring out subtle nuances of in our dishes and impress the lucky folks who get to sample them.

Play an imagination game with me. Let’s pretend we’re baking a cake; let’s say yellow cake with chocolate frosting. But instead of using milk chocolate frosting from a can, we’re going to make a dark chocolate glaze. By itself, dark chocolate touches two of the five main taste sensations: sweet and bitter. Pair it with orange and you add a hint of sour. Now you’ve hit three of the five, so it tastes even better. Envision that you melt that dark chocolate, and then add a pinch of salt, some heavy cream, the juice of a small orange, and grate some zest of that orange in for good measure. Give your concoction a good stir and taste it. We’ve now stimulated sweet, bitter, sour, and salty…and made a lovely orange-chocolate ganache, which we can use as a glaze for a simple yellow cake.  Give that a taste. Isn’t the flavor more sophisticated than plain old yellow cake with milk chocolate frosting? If we were feeling especially brave, we might also add a dash of cayenne pepper to our ganache to wake up our pungent-loving taste buds. It would be such a small amount that you would not discern it from the other flavors, but you would have added another layer that your palate would appreciate. The tiny bit of heat from the cayenne pepper would make the chocolate taste sweeter and enhance the citrus notes from the orange.

The next step is training our palates.

Did you ever wonder why you couldn’t stand asparagus when you were a kid, but as an adult, you can’t seem to get enough of the stuff? (Okay, not everyone loves asparagus, but you get the point.)  The answer is that your palate has become more refined over the years. This evolution took place largely because as you grew up you became more courageous about trying new foods. You probably hated when your mom insisted that you eat at least one bite of creamed spinach, but you should thank her now because if you hadn’t exposed your taste buds to new flavors, you might still be eating nothing but chicken nuggets and ketchup.

There are some easy steps you can take to further educate your palate. Follow your mother’s advice and try something new every now and then so your taste buds won’t get bored.

Try not to be a distracted eater. If your brain is busy focusing on a TV show, it’s not going to process the flavor information it’s receiving, so you won’t know what the food you’re eating actually tastes like. Your belly might get full, but your taste buds won’t be satisfied if you’re eating mindlessly.

Become a culinary world traveler by sampling new cuisines. Some people assume they won’t like Thai or Indian food because it’s all too spicy. Surprise! There’s nothing chili-pepper spicy about Chicken Satay and curry comes in varying levels of heat.

Consider trying the elements of one of your favorite recipes individually to isolate the flavors they contribute to the whole. Make note of trends. For example, you might discover that you only tolerate the flavor of canned tuna in your casserole if there’s extra sharp cheddar in there to offset it. The next time you whip one up, try substituting Swiss and see if you like that just as well. Try adding some bleu cheese and fruit to your tossed green salad. Play with contrasting textures.

Experiment with spices. Relying only on salt and pepper to season your foods is so limiting. If your idea of spicing up a hamburger is adding a little garlic powder, be daring and try sprinkling some dried thyme on there, too, before you throw it on the grill. Add a generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg when you cook leafy greens and see how you like that. On my palate, the nutmeg cuts through the bitterness of the greens without altering the earthiness of their flavor. It might taste different to you, but you’ll never know unless you try, will you?

Go put on your lab coat…er, I mean apron…and embark on your new avocation as a kitchen chemist.  There’s no telling what you might invent.

And remember: If it’s edible, it’s not a failure.

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