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Jane Austen

By nature, writers are a curious sort. By that I mean we are easily led down The Rabbit Hole by the plot bunnies we insist on chasing. Research being an important activity for any serious writer, the lure of interesting information is a siren’s song that sometimes delays our current works-in-progress. Occasionally when we are sidetracked, however, The Muses favor us with an idea worth pursuing.

Recently, while researching dinner party fare that might be served by characters in the novels of Jane Austen, I stumbled across references to Martha Lloyd’s Housekeeping Book. I’ve read Austen’s works, but I’m no “Janeite.” Several of my closest friends are so devoted to that author that anything Jane-Austen-related is certain to please. I understand the attraction; I just don’t share their enthusiasm to the same level.

Until I tumbled down this particular bunny burrow, I was unaware that Martha Lloyd and Jane Austen enjoyed such a close friendship that Miss Lloyd lived in the Austen household for a number of years, eventually marrying one of Jane’s brothers. After the death of his first wife, Mary, Francis Austen married Martha Lloyd – his dead wife’s sister. (But that’s a story for another day. Here I go chasing plot bunnies again!)

Martha Lloyd kept a “household book,” in which she recorded favorite recipes, homemaking hints, medicinal remedies, household occurrences, and so forth. The original Martha Lloyd’s Household Book has been preserved and is safeguarded by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust at Chawton House Museum, in the home where Jane Austen lived the last years of her life.

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Sliding further down The Rabbit Hole, I became curious whether it was a common thing for women to maintain such household books. I learned that many homemakers of the time did as Martha did, but in researching how far back the practice originated, I came up empty handed…well, sort of. That research led me to a later book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861 by Samuel Beeton, the husband of Isabella Beeton, the book’s author.

Then I found reference to Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper, the work of Catherine Beecher. In an era where the cult of domesticity doctrine ruled the lives of women, Catherine became a dedicated proponent for the education of women. She founded The Hartford Female Seminary in 1824 to offer ladies access to higher education. Teacher, lecturer, and author, Miss Beecher’s contributions no doubt had a tremendous impact.

Now that I’ve led you through the labyrinth of my thought process, I’ll advance to the point of this blog : The legacy people can leave to their families – as well as the future – by creating their own household books.

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How to accomplish this is up to the individual. In this age of technology there’s literally nothing that can’t be recorded electronically or converted to electronic storage…locally or somewhere on that mystical Cloud. This is likely the best route for computer-savvy, tech-minded individuals. I haven’t checked, but I would be surprised if there aren’t at least half a dozen apps for that. Some bloggers have found fame and fortune producing their online versions of household books.

 

For more old-school folks, nothing beats a beautiful leather journal and an ink pen that fits well in your hand. A benefit of this method, especially if your intended audience consists of family, is that future generations will be able to read your words, written in your own hand. Pretty nostalgic, don’t you think?

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That brings me to the “Me” in the title. As you may be aware, I am a ruptured cerebral aneurysm survivor. Having avoided the very real specter of death, I recognize the importance of leaving behind something of yourself for your children, grandchildren, and all the generations to follow. I can’t think of any more personal legacy than passing down favorite family recipes, a family tree, photos, and stories of ancestors long passed.

Hindsight being, as they say, 20/20, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to start a household book when I was still a newlywed bride…or in any of the subsequent years, preferably before that nasty brain bleed robbed me of some of my memories. But it’s never too late, is it?

Young or old, female or male…if you haven’t already done so, start your own household book today. Someday one of your descendants may want their high-tech replicator to exactly reproduce your signature dish. What a shame it would be if that information had been lost to the universe because you never passed it down.

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Sometimes a bargain is just too good to pass up, even if you don’t know what the heck you’ll do with the items you’re buying. It happened to me just a couple of days ago.

Cruising around the produce section of one of my favorite grocery stores, I spotted the biggest, most beautiful lemons I’ve seen in a long time. And bonus! A three pound bag only cost $1.79 and contained six bright yellow lemons. At 30¢ per huge lemon, I couldn’t resist.

On the drive home, I started second-guessing that decision. With just hubby and me at home, I puzzled over how I could use six huge lemons before they shriveled up and turned rock-hard.

We aren’t real big on lemonade. I like to add a citrus note to a lot of my recipes, but a little bit goes a long way. I figured I could use two, maybe three lemons before they went to waste. Not good enough.

Then it dawned on me: Lemon Meringue Pie. I hadn’t baked one in years…and when I did, I had always gone the easy route, using box-mix lemon pudding (not instant…the kind that you cook). When I separated the eggs for the meringue, I just beat the leftover yolks and whipped them into the pudding while it was thickening. I never tried making lemon pie from actual lemons, but I was pretty sure that’s how my grandmother did it.

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So, out came the cherished family cookbook, but I found no recipe for Mabel Norton’s Lemon Pie. Darn!

Next, I turned to the 2-volume cookbook I inherited from my mother when she passed away. Mom always said that before she got married she couldn’t boil water without burning it…hard to believe because she certainly developed into an awesome cook, though not much of a baker. I figured if those cookbooks were responsible for her transformation, they could surely teach me how to make a lemon pie from scratch. I found a couple of Lemon Meringue Pie recipes and studied them. Once I’d familiarized myself with the basics, analyzed the similarities and differences between the recipes, and threw back a shot of Apple Pie Moonshine for courage (just kidding…I actually poured myself a mug of coffee), the experiment began.

Here’s the recipe I developed for putting my own spin on the classic Lemon Meringue Pie.

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Janet’s New-Fashioned Lemon Meringue Pie

Ingredients:

1 baked and cooled 9-inch pie crust (see Note)

1 cup granulated sugar, plus 6 tablespoons for the meringue

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch

¼ teaspoon salt, plus a small pinch for the meringue

1½ cups water

Juice and zest of 2 large (or 4 small) lemons

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs, separated

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon almond extract

Directions:

While you’re preparing the pie crust, set your eggs out so they’ll come to room temperature before you start making the filling and meringue.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and place a baking sheet on a center rack.

For the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together 1 cup of sugar, flour, cornstarch and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Zest the lemons over a 1-pint glass measuring cup. Fill the cup to the 1½ cup mark with water. Squeeze the lemons over the cup. You should end up with about 2 cups total liquid. If it measures less than 1¾ cups, juice another lemon. If you’re close to the 2-cup mark, just add a bit more water.

Separate your eggs, putting the whites in a small glass or metal mixing bowl and the yolks in another small bowl. Set the egg whites aside and whip the yolks until they’re broken down and lighter in color.

Add the lemon juice mixture into the dry ingredients in your saucepan and whisk to combine. Cook the filling mixture over medium-high heat, whisking frequently, until it comes to a boil. Stir in the butter and vanilla extract. Once the butter has melted and is completely incorporated, reduce heat to the lowest setting and remove about 1/3 cup of the hot filling mixture and slowly add it to the egg yolks, whisking constantly. (We want to temper the egg yolks, not cook them, so add that hot liquid very slowly!)  Add the tempered egg yolks to the filling mixture in the saucepan. Increase heat to medium-high and bring it back to a boil. Whisk constantly until the mixture thickens to the consistency of pudding. Once thickened, remove from heat and pour into the prepared pie shell.

To make the meringue: Using an electric mixer beat egg whites until frothy. Add a pinch of salt, the cream of tartar and the almond extract. Beat on high until white and a bit shiny. At this point, the beaters should leave a slight trail in the egg whites and soft peaks begin to form when the beaters are lifted. Begin adding the 6 tablespoons of sugar, no more than 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until stiff peaks begin to form.

To assemble and bake the pie: Spoon the meringue on top of the filling, starting at the crust edges and working your way to the center. It’s important that the meringue seal against the crust to keep it from shrinking away from the sides as it bakes. Once you’ve completely covered the pie with meringue, use the back of a spoon or a spatula to lift it into pretty waves or peaks. Place the pie on the pre-heated baking sheet and bake at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes to thoroughly cook the egg whites. Increase oven temperature to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and bake another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the meringue is golden-brown.

Remove pie to a cooling rack away from drafts and allow it to cool completely before serving or refrigerating.

NOTE: For information on how to pre-bake a pie crust, see my blog post titled Misery Loves Chocolate

Don’t skip the almond extract in your meringue. It adds a subtle, but delightfully delicious flavor counterpoint to the sweet/tart taste of the lemon filling.

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What do I do when life hands me lemons? Why, bake a pie, of course!

 

 

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If you were a homemaker in the 1970s, odds are that a kitchen witch adorned your galley, magically preventing pots from boiling over, milk from curdling, and roasts from burning.

She may have been riding a wooden spoon or a whisk instead of the traditional broom. And she may have resembled a plump crone or a sexy maiden. Regardless of their appearances, transferring such talismans brought good luck to both the giver and the recipient, enhancing their popularity as housewarming gifts.

The tradition is believed to have begun in Scandinavia, although there’s some debate over precisely which country gave birth to the practice. Regardless of the origin, the custom dates back hundreds of years to an era that modern Wiccans often refer to as “before the burning times.”

In those superstitious days, thousands of years ago, a prevalent belief existed that the fire heating stone ovens possessed magical, transformative powers. A large black cauldron hung over glowing embers tended by the women of the family became the center of the home. From this vessel, the witches (it wasn’t considered a negative term back then!) prepared food to sustain and herbal concoctions to heal.  These wise women played a vital role in the peasant communities.

We can learn much from the practices of these ancient healers. Our stoves, utensils, pots, pans, and ingredients are the magical tools with which we create nourishing, healthy, and delicious foods for our families and friends. If we educate ourselves on the properties of various herbs and other plants, we can use them not only to enhance flavors, but also to create chemical-free household cleansers and home remedies that effectively treat common maladies.

As one whose love for gardening is almost as intense as my enjoyment of cooking, I suppose I am a kitchen witch. Hearth and home are the center of my universe and I like to believe that – on a good day, at least – magic happens on my stovetop and in my oven.

I grow a variety of herbs in my gardens and at any given time you’ll find bundles of them hanging to dry in my kitchen.  Herbs can be expensive to purchase at the grocery store, but they’re easy and inexpensive to grow. It isn’t necessary to have a large garden plot or a serious green thumb to do it yourself. Most herbs grow happily in pots on a sunny window sill or planted in groups in a container on your deck or patio. They love to cohabitate flower beds with annual or perennial plantings or make themselves at home in vegetable gardens. Basil and tomato are wonderful companions…and what could be more welcoming than the pleasant aroma of lavender greeting visitors at your front door?

A comprehensive discussion of herbs and their uses would be far too lengthy for a blog post. Perhaps we’ll visit the topic more in the future. But for now, I’ll provide you with a list of my five favorite herbs and some (perhaps unexpected) uses for them.

  • Sage is a lovely perennial herb. Once established, it will come back year after year. It pairs deliciously with poultry, sausages, fish, and roasted root vegetables. In the garden, it attracts pollinators and repels cabbage moths, so plant it alongside broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, or Brussels sprouts. Combined with white vinegar and a drop or two of dish detergent, sage makes a delightfully scented all-purpose cleaner. Infuse sage and lavender together and mix with water to create a wonderfully fragrant linen spray that will leave your bedroom smelling fresh. It is believed to repel bedbugs, so carry a small spray bottle with you when you travel and apply it to the linens in your hotel room. Couldn’t hurt, right? That lavender and sage infusion mixed with Epsom salts makes a soothing, relaxing bath blend – great for soaking sore muscles from all that work you did in the garden and even better bottled in a pretty container to give to a friend.

 

  • Rosemary is possibly my favorite herb. Where I live, the winters get too cold for rosemary to winter over successfully in the garden, but in warmer zones it is a perennial herb that grows heartily into an ornamental shrub. It pairs most famously with lamb, but also enhances pork, beef, and chicken as well as roasted vegetables…especially potatoes. Its earthy, woodsy aroma makes it a natural air freshener. If you combine rosemary with peppermint and dry rice and sew the concoction into a small pillow, you have a fantastic treatment for sinusitis or migraine. Just lie down for thirty minutes or so with the pillow over your closed eyes and you’ll likely feel some relief from your headache. A word of caution: this remedy should not be used by folks who have seizure disorders because both rosemary and peppermint are highly aromatic and could possibly trigger an episode.

 

  • Basil is an annual herb, so in outdoor gardens it must be replanted yearly. If you grow tomatoes, plant your basil right alongside them. These two are as fine companions in the garden as they are in marinara sauce. And without basil where would pesto be? I generally plant both green and purple basil, primarily because I can’t decide which variety is the prettier plant. It may be an old wives’ tale, but I’ve heard that if you chew a basil leaf to release the oils and then apply it to a recent insect bite or sting, it will draw out the venom and help ease the pain. Some believe basil has both antibiotic and antibacterial properties and it’s said to calm the digestion. (Would this be why so many Italian recipes call for the herb?)

 

  • Peppermint (and all other members of the mint family) should be grown with caution. It is highly invasive and spreads faster than wildfire. I recommend growing it in a glazed container on a saucer…and checking frequently to make certain no roots have escaped. It’s also important to keep it well trimmed so that it doesn’t go to seed. As mentioned above, peppermint is highly aromatic, so if some does escape into your lawn, mowing it would at least be a pleasant olfactory experience. I originally started growing peppermint for the sole purpose of making Mint Juleps on Kentucky Derby Day, but I found that I enjoy it more when it’s infused into iced tea than when it’s muddled with whiskey. I also use it to make Mint Jelly, which is my favorite condiment to accompany lamb. Sachets stuffed with dried peppermint are great for deodorizing athletic shoes if one is diligent about inserting them every time the cross-trainers come off of one’s feet. Chewing peppermint leaves can freshen the breath and soothe the stomach.

 

  • Oregano is a member of the mint family. Although not as invasive as peppermint, precautions should be taken when you introduce this perennial herb into your garden. Trimming to control flowering is important and pulling up runners to maintain a compact plant makes it more attractive and less likely to overrun its neighbors. I grow both Greek Oregano and Golden Oregano in my garden. This herb lends a Mediterranean flavor to many dishes. We’re all familiar with its use in Italian herb blends, but one of my favorite uses is incorporating it into breads…especially focaccia. I love a slice of warm Greek oregano bread dipped in garlic-flavored olive oil. Yum! You’ll find the golden variety in most of my recipes for marinades. It does something quite magical to the flavor of roast beef. According to Medical News Today, oregano is believed to contain antioxidants and may have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

 

Including herbs in our proverbial “bag of tricks,” contributes to our kitchen success. So, stir that cauldron (or stock pot), with the blade of your charmed athamé (or maybe just a wooden spoon!), and throw in some fresh or dried herbs to create some stovetop magic.

And, please…don’t say “Kitchen Witch” like it’s a bad thing.

pexels-photo-265903.jpegImagine, if you will, how entertaining our Easter celebration became in the company of people plagued by irrational fears.

It’s a wonder there was a meal on the table at all, since the hostess, Aunt Lydia, has magerirocophobia – an intense fear of cooking. Thank goodness her daughters, Cousin Emma and Cousin Stephanie, pitched in as best they could. What with Emma suffering from optophobia, opening her eyes was just too stressful, so she wasn’t allowed to do any chopping or slicing. And poor Stephanie, with her lipophobia, became somewhat hysterical because of her fear of the little bit of fat she saw on the Easter ham.

While the women busied themselves in the kitchen, Uncle Fred stayed curled up in fetal position in the darkest corner of the upstairs closet. Suffering from anthropophobia, his irrational fear of having company seemed to be getting the best of him. I can’t say I blame him, given the quirky people gathering in his home. (Which raises this question: Where do people live if they have domatophobia, a crazy dread of being inside houses?)

Mother seemed edgy all day. What with her syngenesophobia (fear of all relatives), the tic in her eye commenced every time the doorbell rang and more guests arrived. Fortunately, her terror didn’t prevent her from reminding Aunt Lydia that my brother, George, needed a special place set for him at a table for one. All of his utensils, napkin, and so forth had to be positioned directly in front of him. Because of his dextrophobia, objects – including human beings – situated to his right horrify him. Grandmother Jones would, of course, take her meal standing at head of the table. She certainly deserved the place of honor, but her cathisophobia left her petrified of sitting down.

Once dinner was served, the real fun began. My sister-in-law, Abby, wouldn’t allow any food on her plate. Her sitophobia made even the thought of eating far too alarming. Cousin Carl, seated next to her, never uttered a word throughout the meal. He’s deiphophobic, you know, so he’s afraid of large meals and dinner conversation. His twin sister, Camille, made up for his silence, though. She was on the phone the entire time. Her dread of losing cell phone contact, or nomophobia, seemed to be in high gear.

My nephew, George Jr., freaked out when Aunt Lydia put the platter of devilled eggs on the table. Poor lad has ovaphobia – an absurd aversion to eggs.  And his little brother, Devon, burst into frantic tears when he bit into an innocuous looking Easter Peep and discovered what it was made from. Who knew he had such a severe case of althaiophobia that the sugar-coated treat would trigger his fear of marshmallows?

After dinner, we gathered the youngsters for our annual Easter Egg Hunt. I felt so sorry for some of those children. Of course, ovaphobic George Jr., refused to participate in any way, shape, or form. And Emma’s adorable toddler, Maize, absolutely panicked when saw a certain egg nestled among the daffodils. Being porphyrophobic, she was scared to death because the offending ovum had been dyed purple.

I’m sure Grandpa Jones had good intentions when he arranged for a special visit from the Easter Bunny. He didn’t realize how many family members suffer from leporiphobia. For them, the experience brought to life their nightmares about being chased by evil mutant rabbits

Thank goodness, my personal paranoia didn’t set in until this morning when I stepped on my bathroom scale and had an attack of barophobia. Sometimes gravity scares the hell out of me.

But as Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

That would be phobophobia, in case you wondered.

Note: The people, places, and events in this story are purely fictional. No Peeps or bunnies were injured. Really.

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We all have our favorites, don’t we?  And our reasons are as diverse as the genres in literature.

Maybe your kids, who are now grown and have kids of their own, gave it to you. Don’t you fondly remember them as toddlers every time you see “#1 Mom” on your morning cup? Perhaps it has to do with longevity. I mean, who doesn’t have wonderful memories attached to sipping black mud from a certain cup during those all-night college cram sessions? Or maybe your favorite earned the status as your “lucky mug,” because you were drinking from it when you opened that email from the only literary agent (so far!) who agreed to look at three chapters of your first novel – even though that association didn’t pan out.

One might assume I would have bigger things to do than ponder what key elements make up the perfect coffee mug. (Like chasing down the plot bunny that sidetracked the first draft of my current novel-in-progress? Or finishing the short story that’s due in three days?  Or scheduling that meeting with my cookbook co-author?)

Perhaps that’s so, but knowing what’s important when you’re mug shopping can be a pretty big deal.

After giving it much thought and comparing features of my personal favorites, I’ve come up with seven essentials any serious writer’s mug must possess in order to be perfect.

  1. Size: Not too big or the coffee gets cold and bitter before you reach the bottom. Not too small or you’ll spend way too much time away from your desk, which might prevent you from doing productive things like drafting your weekly blog post.

  1. Handle shape: Sure those fancy question-mark shaped handles look cool and all, but unless you’re fairy-sized you won’t be able to slide your fingers through to wrap your hand around the warm mug to soothe arthritic writer’s cramp Big and blocky is the key. Test-drive the mug to make sure this will not be a problem.

  1. Flat rim: Those mugs that curl over at the top, creating a cute little lip on the rim are enticing. They’re lovely to look at – especially if that lip is gold-plated. But 99% of the time, they cause one to dribble coffee down and soak the front of one’s PJs. (In case you were unaware, pajamas are the official uniform of writers who work from home. It’s one of very few perks associated with this less-than-lucrative profession.)

  1. Sturdy construction: While we don’t want our mugs to be overly thick and bulky, dainty cups crafted of fine china are for tea-drinkers and require a saucer. There is not enough space on a busy writer’s desktop for some fancy-schmantsy cup and saucer. We need room to spread out our research. And we certainly can’t risk spilling liquid all over our keyboards, can we? Besides, see “Size” above. Cups are too small. Period.

  1. Stability: At one time, my favorite mug stood proudly on a pedestal. You know, the type pubs use to serve up Irish Coffees. (Yes, with whipped cream on top, please.) Bad decision! Those mugs are top-heavy and the slightest nudge upsets their center of gravity. Spilling coffee all over the 350 pages of manuscript you just finished printing does not make for a great start to one’s day.

  1. Inspirational graphics: My current favorite mug – which has been my java-soulmate for a decade – was a gift from a friend, former co-worker, and fellow author. Boldly emblazoned on the side are the words, “Dream, but don’t quit your day job.” (Advice I sometimes wish I had heeded.) But the best is on the bottom of the mug where it says in tiny letters, “If you can’t see the bottom, jump; don’t dive in.” That advice I did follow when I leapt into my post-retirement career as a writer and freelance editor with both feet.

  1. Dishwasher and microwave safe: This is a must, not only to make sure your mug will be ready and available when you are, but also to ensure that the inspirational graphics that attracted you to this particular mug in the first place don’t disappear the first time you wash the darned thing…or the first time you have to zap icy brew to make it potable. Some manufacturers have taken to using plastic sleeves to apply graphics to their products and don’t always warn the consumer that the vessels are not dishwasher safe. If you don’t want to discover that your favorite mug no longer says “Famous Author,” steer clear of any that don’t specifically say “dishwasher and microwave safe.” Coffee mug love is too fragile to risk destroying the object of your affection.

Now that you’re prepared to embark on your quest for the perfect mug, I have one more bit of advice. One favorite mug is never enough. I recommend owning 3 or 4 java-besties. After all, we’re writers. Who has time to wash dishes?

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…

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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.”

“Howdy.”

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.

easter-bunny-easter-rabbit-bunny-couple-69816.jpeg

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?”.

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