Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Brownie by Any Other Name …

old fashioned brownie

I am prepared to be open-minded when it comes to brownies. Except for the whole nuts thing. NO NUTS IN OR ON THE BROWNIES. Ever. Do I make myself clear? DO I?

I grew up in a simpler time. It was an era when your mom might say, “I made brownies,” and you would rejoice, knowing exactly what to expect: a long, shallow aluminum pan in which a gleaming, featureless plain of chocolate frosting rested. It would be just slightly set; a finger touched on the surface would leave a little divot. Touch it even more gently and you’d create just a perfect fingerprint. Many more crimes would be solved if the whole world were drenched in brownie frosting.

 

history lessonBeneath the frosting was a half-inch of wonderful. The consistency of the brownie was somewhere between chocolate cake and fudge. Dense and dark, it was the after-school snack in its purest, most perfect form. Plato’s philosophy of Ideal Forms would have made  a lot more sense if it had been about brownies, instead of shadows flickering on the wall of a cave. (What the hell are you even talking about, Plato? I’m going to go ahead and guess that Plato’s mom never made brownies for him. Probably because he was such a little smarty pants.)

blonde brownies

Back in the day, our one variation on the standard brownie was the “blonde brownie.” Basically it’s a glorified chocolate chip cookie. Which is in no way a bad thing.

 

It’s a different world now. Type the word “brownies” into the search box on Pinterest and you are presented with an endless catalog of baked confections with the word “brownie” attached to them. Keep scrolling; you’ll never, ever reach the end. Among the novelties listed one finds these truly alien species:

  • Lemon Brownies
  • Banana Bread Brownies
  • Neopolitan Brownies
  • Red Velvet Brownies
  • Apple Brownies
  • and even the absurdly decadent Toffee Caramel Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Brownies (which, I’m not going to lie, sound pretty damned amazing)

There are times when a woman needs to make a stand, to uphold cherished traditions, to fight back against those who seek to destroy our American Way of Life.

This is not one of those times.

Frankly, a country where I’m not allowed to put a layer of caramel in my brownies is not a country I want to live in. In this brave, new world of innovation, does it really matter if our brownies are brown, or white, or made with bananas? (Actually, that does matter. Bananas don’t belong in brownies; we’re not savages). Anyway, I’m pretty sure there’s a profound metaphor in there someplace.

And so, with that triumphant Declaration of Independence, I offer you …

Blackberry Cheesecake Brownies (adapted from here and here)

Tastefully Simple Truffle Fudge Brownie Mix
2 eggs
½ stick butter, melted


Tastefully Simple Blackberry Bliss Cheese Ball Mix
2 oz. pkgs. cream cheese, softened

¾ cup granulated sugar
5 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup milk (I actually used half-and-half, because I had some on hand and BECAUSE I’M NOT FAT ENOUGH ALREADY, OKAY?)
½ cup fresh or frozen blackberries, mashed

Grease an 8 x 8 baking pan and preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix Truffle Fudge Brownie Mix as directed on package with eggs and melted butter. Spread half of batter into the bottom of the 8×8 pan.

Using an electric mixer on medium, beat together cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Gradually add in eggs and milk. Add the Blackberry Bliss Cheese Ball Mix. When thoroughly mixed, pour half of the mixture over the brownie batter in the 8×8 pan.

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The apparently shamelessly Photoshopped “layered” brownies that led me astray. Fraud! Fraud!

In some alternate reality where such things are possible, spread the remaining brownie batter over the cheesecake mixture.

FULL DISCLOSURE: While this sounded like a great idea in theory, and one of the recipes I consulted showed a brownie with a layer of cheesecake in it, anyone well-versed in liquid dynamics physics – or any human person who has interacted with the natural world – will tell you that you cannot spread a viscous substance over a highly fluid substance. You’d think I would have anticipated that.  In the end, I dolloped spoonfuls of the batter on top of the cheesecake batter.

Stir mashed blackberries into the remaining cheesecake batter and pour the batter on top of the brownie/cheesecake/brownie layers.

Bake for 50-60 minutes (I used the full 60), until set and brown at the edges. Note: Mine was still pretty jiggly in the center.

Remove from oven and allow to sit undisturbed on baking rack for one hour. Chill for 2 hours. Serve with tasty sauce (I used Raspberry Divine Sauce), fresh berries and whipped cream.

brownie

Though the brownie layer(s) are not visible in this photo, I assure you they are there. And delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

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My Thorny Crown

wholesomeyo

This is what wholesome looks like, yo.

You wouldn’t guess it to look at me now, with my grey roots and sagging bosom and well-marbled derriere, but there was a time I might have been described as reasonably attractive. At least I was tolerable enough to be crowned Miss Osakis in 1983 when I was 17.

Of course, the official party line of the Miss America Pageant Association, of which our dinky hometown pageant was an affiliate, is that these are not beauty contests, but rather a celebration of well-rounded, wholesome American womanhood.

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Contestants were greeted by angry feminists with flyers on our way in to pageant rehearsals. Self-esteem builder!

To an extent, I validated that claim. I certainly wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the contest that year, but was absolutely the most wholesome – if by “wholesome” you mean, “never been on a date.” Contestants were encouraged to counter feminists’ complaints about the objectification of women by asserting we were competing for the academic scholarships, not the glory.

Pfft to that.

As I recall, the scholarship I won was $350, a piddling amount even in those days. Nope, I wasn’t in it to further my intellectual development. I entered the Miss Osakis Pageant for two reasons: to wear a pretty, long dress (I had no expectation of being asked to prom) and, most of all, to sing a show tune in the talent portion of the event.

This second point caused my parents some consternation. I’d never sung in public, never even belonged to a school choir, so they had no reason to believe I could carry a tune in a bucket. On the other hand, they’d spent good money on about 10 years of piano lessons, and though after all that time I still wasn’t very good at it, that marginal skill was at least a known quantity, less likely to humiliate the whole family. (My folks’ expectations for my success in this endeavor were carefully moderated; mom later confessed that all through the pageant, she prayed that at least I wouldn’t fall down. To be fair, I’ve never been very light on my feet.)

Despite my lack of vocal training or, as far as even I knew, talent, I had dreamed of belting out a Broadway Standard since I saw my first movie musical. My high school was too small to mount even a modest musical, so I knew if I were ever to fulfill this improbable fantasy, I’d have to create my own opportunity.

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My big moment!

Long story short: One night in June, 1983, I pulled a shawl around my shoulders and tucked a basket of plastic flowers under my arm and sang my heart out, a rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from my all-time favorite musical, My Fair Lady. Shocking even myself, I won the talent portion and the interview portion, and apparently scored well enough in evening gown to put me over the top. I have no doubt that I came in dead last in the swimsuit competition. Indeed, when I received the judges’ notes after the pageant (ostensibly to help me prepare for the Miss Minnesota Pageant, several months hence), one of the judges had observed, “Big, fat, heavy bottom.”

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This was a gift from my sister in response to the judges’ harsh assessment of my ample ass-ets.

Thank you, sir, for that constructive feedback.

As noted above, our local pageant rather absurdly fed into the state contest. Back then it was held in Austin, MN – home of Spam, the queen of canned spiced meat. (Any similarity between glammed-up females strutting the pageant runway and tins of highly processed pork scraps rolling down an assembly line is entirely coincidental.)

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Miss Osakis and Miss Minnesota. Spoiler alert: She became more successful in life than me.

It’s safe to say I was not competitive at this level, unworldly little dumpling that I was. That year’s winner was Lauren Greene, a statuesque virtuoso pianist whom you might recognize from her subsequent career as an anchor and correspondent for Fox News. Yeah, I fit in well with that crowd.

My most vivid memory of that experience is – wait for it – the swimsuit competition. Back in the day, there were strict requirements for pageant swimsuits: they had to be one-piece, fully lined and formidably cupped (no nipples, please). Imagine your mama’s bathing suit, assuming your mama was a teenager in the 1940s. And extremely modest. And Amish. These were not items you could pull off the rack at J.C. Penney. I ended up borrowing my predecessor’s suit. It was bright lavender and at least two sizes too small to accommodate my intractably “big, fat, heavy bottom.”

There are certain tricks of the trade in the pageant world. One is smearing your teeth with Vaseline to keep your lips from sticking to them when you smile! Smile! SMILE! for hours at a time. Another is affixing band-aids over your nipples in case the auditorium is unusually cool, and yours are somehow perky enough to overcome even the foam rubber cups (in which case, see your doctor). And to keep your bathing suit from “riding up,” there was double-sided carpet tape.

Basically, you stuck little squares of the sticky stuff strategically on your butt, then pressed the edges of the swimsuit to them to hold it down. Sounds foolproof, right? Alas, even 20th century technology had its limits. There must be some principle of physics, akin to the 1st and 2nd Laws of Motion, that explains the irresistible force of an elastic fabric stretched beyond its designed parameters.

What happened was this: When it came my turn to walk the runway in the bathing suit competition, I took one step on the stage and every carefully placed piece of carpet tape let go. This caused the bottom of my so-much-too-small bathing suit to spring up my a**, exposing a generous portion of naked buttcheek, dotted with wrinkled wads of carpet tape, to the 5,000 or so people sitting in the auditorium.

You’ll never really know what loneliness is until you’ve walked that long, long runway with your sticky butt on display, all the while trying to smile! Smile! SMILE!

I did not win the swimsuit competition that year.

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Riding in a parade with the princesses. I later learned they hated my guts. Yay, sisterhood!

Anyway, despite this mortification, I honestly enjoyed my year as Miss Osakis, and was proud to represent my hometown. I got to wear several pretty, long dresses (as expected, I was not asked to prom), rode in parades and sang (mostly for dozing oldsters at the nursing home, but still). I even experienced my first kiss – albeit an unsolicited and deeply distasteful one – courtesy of a drunk Shriner who grabbed me and planted one on me at a parade. At least I got a little faux gemstone stuck to my forehead from that experience (it’s a Shriner thing, I guess).

I gave up my title the next year to the sort of girl pageants were created for: blonde, athletic, vivacious, the all-American dream girl. She played the timpani for her talent, which I can’t imagine went over very well at the nursing home, but whatever. Determining that this Platonic Ideal Form of the perfect young woman deserved better than the battered old crown that had been passed down from queen to queen since the 60s, they got Miss Osakis 1984 a huge, sparkling new tiara to adorn her golden tresses. (I’m not bitter. Really.) At least this meant I got to keep the old crown, with its associations of tradition and history. I take it out every once in a while, look at it and remember my brief, modest glory days. And of course, it comes in handy around Halloween time.

 

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The Mother of Invention

31352773_sWhoever invented bread was smart. Think about it. Making bread involves a series of steps that don’t seem at all intuitive to me. Wikipedia tells me that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.  It’s a little galling to think that grunting cave men were able to come up with something I’d have no idea how to do myself, if left to my own devices. I tried to imagine the set of circumstances in which some average cave person (let’s call her Cavewoman Keri) might figure something like this out.

22708846_sIt’s late fall, somewhere around 28,000 B.C.  I’m trudging across the Steppe with my cousin Oog, hunting and gathering. I’m irritable, because it’s hot and nuts and berries are scarce and Oog never shuts her irritating yap. Dumb as a mastodon, that one, but somehow she always ends up with the biggest hunk of yak meat. I think it’s because she puts out. Anyway.

After a few hours Oog and I decide to take a break and eat our grub. Our grub is literally grubs, by the way. We’re hunters and gatherers, duh. So we’re sitting beside a little stream in the middle of a stand of rushes, and Oog is yammering on about how pretty the tall grass is this time of year and isn’t life just great and I finally snap and say, “It’s a good think you love these weeds so much, because with all the lollygagging you’ve been doing instead of hunting and gathering today, we’re likely to have to eat this stuff all winter.”* To emphasize my point, I grab a handful of the seedheads and stuff them into my mouth.

Ugh,” I say, spitting it out after a couple of chews. “This sucks. Only thing worth eating is the bug that came with it.” 

“I don’t know,” Oog says, nibbling thoughtfully on a stalk. “I’ve had worse.”

Honestly, this girl would find the bright side of the inside of the cave bear that ate her. How she’s lived this long, I’ll never know.

I’m so mad that I pick up a rock and start beating the hell out of the little stack of grass on the ground in front of me. I pound so hard that the seedheads are pulverized into dust.

“Neat!” Oog exclaims, because she’s Oog. She scoops up the seed dust into a little pile.

“Quit fooling around and eat your grubs,” I say.  “It’s almost time to get back to the old h&g” (that’s how we refer to our day job, hunting and gathering). She’s not listening, as usual, so I scoop up a handful of cold creek water and throw it at her. Most of it lands on the pile of seed dust. And of course, that just makes Oog more excited. She stirs it up with her finger until it’s a puddle of white liquid. “Looks just like that stuff cousin Egah has been squeezing out of yaks,” she comments. I grimace in disgust; everybody knows Egah’s a pervert. Oog smiles at me. “I think you’ve invented powdered milk!”

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Cousin Egah’s “special friend.” Every family’s got one.

 

I dip my finger into the goo, then my mouth. “This doesn’t taste anything like yak milk,” I growl, then blush as I realize I’ve just admitted to sampling Egah’s brew myself.

Meanwhile, Oog’s been adding more seed powder to the puddle and playing around with it until it’s a big lump of dirty gray mud. “I’m going to keep this,” she says, wrapping it up in some leaves.

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What Oog does with her time instead of working for a living. Sheesh.

I just roll my eyes. Oog’s always doing stuff like this. Last week I caught her making shapes on the walls of the cave with wet clay. Gotta admit, it was kind of pretty when she got it done. But you can’t eat clay, any more than that lump of goo she’s so taken with now.

 

So anyway, we go back to hunting and gathering and yada yada yada, we’re back at the cave that night with the rest of the clan and nobody’s found diddly for fruits and berries and it looks like it’s going to be a long winter. Oog sets her lump of goo on a stone next to the fire and a while later I hear her gasp.

“Look at it! It’s growing!”

I look down at the pile of goo and see that sure enough, it’s twice the size it was. “It’s alive!” I shout and kick it into the embers at the edge of the fire.

“Aw, you’ve killed it!” Oog pouts and I’ve had just about enough of her for one day. I stomp out of the cave into the cool night air. Behind me, I hear the crowd chattering away. “Well, I’ll be damned,” comes the voice of my Uncle Crood. About that time, I start to smell something like I never have before. Something … delicious.

I look back into the cave and see that Oog has fished the lump of goo off the coals. Now it looks like a brown rock, and the delicious smell seems to be coming from it. It occurs to me that a person could put a piece of dried yak between two hunks of that stuff and take it with them to the H&G as a nice change from grubs, but before I can turn back into the cave with my suggestion, a giant sabre-toothed tiger jumps out of the darkness and grabs me by the neck. And so the invention of the sandwich is lost for 30,000 years.

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The cat that set back the invention of sandwiches. Bad kitty.

My last thought, as he drags my twitching carcass into the weeds, is that Oog will probably get all the credit for this, when really I was the one who invented bread.

 

You’re welcome.

 Artichoke & Spinach-Stuffed Soft Pretzels (adapted from this recipe)

INGREDIENTS

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Featured Products

Pretzels

Salted Pretzel Roll Mix
1 cup warm water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)
Coarse salt to taste (I used Himalayan Sea Salt)

Pretzel filling

Artichoke & Spinach Warm Dip Mix
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
8 oz. pkg. cream cheese
2 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

 

 

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D’oh!

Mix up Salted Pretzel Roll Mix as directed on package. Cover dough and let rise about an hour (this is longer than specified on the package).

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Artichoke & Spinach filling ingredients

While dough is rising, prepare Artichoke & Spinach Dip Mix as directed on package, substituting mozzarella for Swiss cheese (unless you like Swiss cheese; then use that. Whatever.) Add crumbled bacon if desired.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

When dough has doubled in size, divide it into six equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rectangle.

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Roll out dough

 

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Spread dip mix along one side

Spread dip mix along one side of rectangle, then roll up into a log with dip encased inside. Be sure ends and seams are closed.

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Dough logs filled with tasty dip mixture

Shape dough logs into pretzel shapes.

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Ready for boiling

Gradually stir baking soda into pot of boiling water.

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I think the boiling is supposed to give the crust a chewy texture. [shrug]

Using a slotted spoon, dip pretzels two at a time into the boiling soda water; boil for 30 seconds, then remove pretzels to a baking sheet.

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Ready for the oven.

Brush each pretzel with a wash of beaten egg; sprinkle with salt.

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So much delicious.

Bake pretzels for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool on rack for 5 minutes. Serve hot.

*approximation of stone age dialect

 

 

 

 

 

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Whatever *did* happen to Randolph Scott?

First of all, I’m not actually a big fan of westerns. And an encounter with a nag named Rusty in the Black Hills of South Dakota soured me on horses for life (don’t ask). But there’s just something about a cowboy …

The Internet, which knows all, tells me that the real cowboy era lasted from roughly 1865 to 1880. Before the Civil War, the west was about exploring and settlement, while after 1880 the railroads, telegraph and the invention of barbed wire put paid to the world of the free ranging fella with the 10-gallon hat.

But I think it can be argued that the ACTUAL era of the cowboy began in 1899, when the first western movie (a whole 45 seconds long) depicted a raucous “Cripple Creek Barroom Scene.” It already had all the elements of the classic western: drinkin’, fightin’ and a saloon-hall gal with a heart of gold. Well … the “lady” behind the bar appears to be played by a large man in a wig; if this was the kind of female companionship real cowboys could expect after a long ride on the dusty trail, it’s not surprising they drank.

In the film, which was shot in that fabled cowboy mecca, West Orange, New Jersey, a brash young cowboy tosses back a shot of red eye (we know that’s what he’s drinking, because it’s scrawled in bold letters on a jug next to the bar). Then, driven mad by drink, he knocks a gentleman’s hat off on his way out. This leads to the inevitable fracas, which is broken up by the demure barmaid, whose burly frame is ideally suited to her other job as bouncer.

It really was such movies that created the mythology of the American West. It’s said that actual legends of the era, such as Wyatt Earp, enjoyed hanging out with the movie cowboys, because THEY were the cool guys. Earp and Buffalo Bill even appeared in a couple of silent pictures.

WSHart

William S Hart. A little creepy? Smile when you say that, mister.

But back to cowboys, Hollywood-style. Admittedly, the first movie cowboy star, William S Hart, set the bar low for hottie-on-a-horsedom. Honestly, he looks more like twitchy Anthony Perkins than manly John Wayne. Nevertheless, after this faltering start, the entertainment industry quickly got the hang of this sexy-man-in-the-saddle thang. Gary Cooper, anyone? Clark Gable? Everybody’s favorite good guy, Jimmy Stewart?

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Real-life Billy the Kid. Well, he looks like a nice, wholesome young man.

Unlike real-world 19th century wranglers, whose living conditions did not lend themselves to trivial things like personal hygiene and dental care (Hello, Billy the Kid!), onscreen cowboys evolved into a particular mold, of which any or all of the following elements were characteristic:

  • Stetson hat, preferably white
  • Low-slung gun belt, equipped with gleaming six-shooters
  • Leather vest
  • Buckskins, snug-fitting (fringe optional)

Cinematic cowboys have tended to be clean-shaven, well-coiffed and impressively dentated (great teeth). They had names that would get them beaten up if they weren’t so darned tough: Ringo, Kid, Curly, Hoby and even – God bless him – Hopalong.

The 1960s-80s was perhaps the heyday of the hottie cowboy, with TV westerns like “The Virginian” (Trampas!), “Alias Smith & Jones” (Smith! Jones!), “Bonanza” (Little Joe!) and  “The Big Valley” (Lee Majors, before he turned bionic!).

notliketheothers

One of these things is not like the others.

By the late 60s in movies, and the 80s on TV, these beloved heroes were beginning to be replaced by a less polished variety of bronco-buster. The trend toward gritty realism produced shows like “Deadwood” and the current “Hell on Wheels,” in which the cowboys look like they’ve been rode hard and put up wet. (I don’t actually know what that means; it’s cowboy talk.)

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Bobby Sherman, out of his buckskins

I feel rather sorry for today’s generation, who will never know the thrill of seeing a young Bobby Sherman (in buckskin, natch) or Bruce Boxleitner saunter into a saloon. I say, let’s start a movement to get well-groomed, supernaturally good-looking actors back in chaps. Channing Tatum? Bradley Cooper? I’m looking at you. Saddle up, boys.

Let’s ride.

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Weird Science

There’s something in the air at my house. No, really. There literally is. It’s odorless, colorless and, I have to presume, tasteless (not unlike my sense of humor). Let me back up a bit.

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Dramatic reenactment of the scene in our living room last night

For several weeks, there has been a strange cat (by which I mean, unknown cat; technically, all cats are strange) who prowls around our house at night. I’ve never seen him, but often observe his little pawprints in the snow when I leave for work in the morning. While it tears at my heart to think of a kitty outside in the cold, my two inside cats are less sympathetic. The presence of this intruder on the borders of their already restricted domain has made my felines tense and irritable. They’ve been scrapping more often, leaving little tufts of black and white and orange fur around the living room carpet for my mom to vacuum up. Worse, they have stepped up their habit of marking their territory by scratching on any vertical surface their sharp, little toes can reach. Mostly, this is the sofa and recliner.

This does not please my mother.

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CatScram. Cat scam!

Since every cat I’ve ever had scratched the furniture to some extent, I have had occasion to sample all the purported deterrents that clutter up the Internet. I tried CatScram, a device that emits an ultrasonic screech when a cat interrupts an infrared beam. Turns out, my cats enjoy ultrasonic screeches. Into the junk drawer it went.

I’ve tried double-sided tape. I’ve tried little plastic nail caps that have to be super-glued onto the cats’ claws. Trimming their claws only seems to rile them; immediately upon being blunted, they head straight for something upholstery-covered and get to work re-honing their pointy, pointy toes to scalpel-like keenness.

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Pretty. Ineffective.

I’ve affixed sheets of clear vinyl to the patches they tend to assault most avidly; their response is to shift a few inches to left or right and begin again. I suppose I could cover the entire sofa in plastic, like Marie did on Everybody Loves Raymond. Classy.

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Peep, demonstrating the form that made him World Sofa Scratching Champion three years running

What about scratching posts, you are no doubt shouting. Please. There isn’t a sisal-, carpet-, burlap- or corrugated cardboard-covered edifice that hasn’t occupied some corner of the living room – and subsequently, some disused corner of the basement.

Increasingly desperate to curb the cats’ increasingly destructive tendencies, I recently turned to science. I ordered two – count ‘em, TWO – varieties of Feliway products. These plug-in devices emit “a natural substance, odorless to humans, that mimics a cat’s facial pheromones to calm cats in stressful environments.”

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Feli(no)way

pheromone perfume

Pheremone perfume: includes magical chemicals designed to attract the lonely and gullible (me)

Ah, pheromones. I am familiar with this concept, having once spent an absurd amount of money on a bottle of pheromone-laced perfume that promised to perk up my love life. How well did it work? I invite you to scroll to the top of this page and read the name of this blog on the banner.

Whether human beings produce and are affected by pheromones is controversial. But it’s pretty well accepted that animals use these chemical signals for all kinds of things, from attracting a mate to declaring their dominance to staking a claim on their favorite scratchin’ sofa.

Since Peep and Remington have been beating up on each other as well as the furniture, I selected two Feliway products: ComfortZone Multicat Diffuser, “proven to help reduce tension + conflict in multicat homes,” and plain, old ComfortZone, which purports to “prevent urine marking and scratching.” The label declares it “clinically proven to be 95% effective!”

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Remington faces his foe

It seems I have the extraordinary luck to share my life with TWO members of that elite 5% who have no respect for science or the dedicated, white-coated technicians who toiled to produce this chemical marvel. I do have to wonder whether this clinical testing was done with real cats, or “simulated” fur friends like those robot cats they’re trying to pawn off on lonely senior citizens.

These are seriously creepy, by the way. I ABSOLUTELY need one.

In any case, since I found the cats tearing each other’s fur out DIRECTLY UNDERNEATH the “tension-reducing” diffuser last night, I don’t hold out much hope that this foray into high-tech deterrents is going to be anything less than “100% ineffective!” Time to try something else. Anybody know a good cat therapist?

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I Feel Like Chicken Tonight

A few decades ago, a stuffing mix company ran a commercial that featured a couple of kids making dinner plans.

Kid 1: You wanna eat over at my place tonight?

Kid 2: Whatcha havin’?

Kid1: Chicken.

Kid 2 (with disgust): Just chicken?

Now, the only appropriate response to this is, “Yes. Just chicken. If you don’t like it, go eat at your own place, jerk.” However, perhaps because her boy is socially awkward and doesn’t make friends easily, Kid 1’s mom intervenes to assure the ill-bred youngster that no, it’s not JUST chicken. It’s chicken with Stovetop Stuffing.

Kid 2: Oh, boy! Stovetop Stuffing. I’m staying!

Now at this point, I would have responded in my best Soup Nazi voice, “But no stuffing for you.” I suppose I wouldn’t go very far in the advertising biz.

Anyway … chicken. I’m not sure there’s really any reason to prepare it any other way than fried. However, in this world that craves novelty and excitement, there is always some innovation in the chicken world.

43417152_sFun fact! Did you know that Gallus gallus domesticus (the ordinary chicken) is a subspecies of the red junglefowl? There were 19 billion chickens on earth in 2011, which is almost three times as many birds as humans walking the planet. Theoretically, if they banded together under one charismatic chicken general, they could take over. See how well you sleep nights thinking about that.

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The Noble Red Junglefowl

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The Wonderful World of Chickens

Occasionally I get the notion that I need a live chicken or two. Not plain old gallus domesticus, mind you. I want one of those fancy chickens that harken back to their fierce jungle heritage. And apparently keeping chickens as housepets is a thing. You diaper them (which seems like it would involve quite a lot of fuss) and let them wander around the living room. Once I was very excited to find a website selling “chicken saddles.” I pictured a sprightly bantam galloping among my coneflowers and hydrangea with a teacup monkey in a tiny cowboy hat riding on its back. Turns out, chicken “saddles” are actually chicken chastity belts, designed to keep roosters from … harassing … the hens. Ugh. Men.

 

chickendiapers

Much like humans with a bladder control issue, chickens prefer stylish, rather than purely utilitarian, diapers.

Even without the monkey (note to self: check Amazon Prime for the availability of teacup monkeys), it’s likely my fantasy world in which frilly-feathered fowl adorn my lawn would prove a disappointment in real life. It’s my understanding that actual chickens are loud and dirty and kinda mean. I suppose I can’t blame them, at least for the meanness. The average chicken’s life – even the lucky ones who live on free range farms – is, in the words of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short.” Chickens and humans are alike in that way. So why can’t we be friends?

 

The point of these musings is to introduce my latest recipe. It originated as a way to finally use that jar of Dried Tomato & Garlic Pesto I’ve had in the cabinet since I started at Tastefully Simple in 2003. Alas, when it came time to get cookin’, that dusty old shaker jar had disappeared. So I had to improvise, using another product that was almost as dated: Sweet Pepper Dip Mix. Here’s my recipe for …

Pesto-less Pesto-Stuffed Chicken Breasts (adapted from this recipe).

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This week’s star players …

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 Tbsp. Dried Tomato & Garlic Pesto Mix (if you have it; I used Sweet Pepper Dip Mix)
1 1/2 Tbsp. Balsamic & Basil Dipping Oil
1 Tbsp. water
4 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese, divided
3 Tbsp. sour cream
2 Tbsp grated or shredded mozzarella cheese
1 egg, beaten
3 Tbsp. Crunchy Sesame Pretzel Breading

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Not exactly pesto. But close enough.

Prepare the Pesto (or, in my case, notPesto), combining the Dried Tomato & Garlic Pesto Mix (in my case, Sweet Pepper Dip Mix), Balsamic & Basil Dipping Oil, and water and microwaving on high for 1 minute. Let stand 5 minutes, then stir in 1 Tbsp. of the Parmesan cheese.

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Spray an 8 x 8 baking pan with vegetable oil.

 

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Chicken breasts rinsed, dried and unmolested.

Rinse chicken breasts and pat dry. Treat them gently, giving them no hint of the brutality to come. It’s kinder that way.

Place each chicken breast in a sturdy plastic bag and place it on a cutting board. Then beat the hell out of it with a hammer, meat tenderizer, brick, bat, or whatever blunt instrument you have to hand. The idea is to flatten these babies out. It’s also a therapeutic way to take out one’s aggression over the many disappointments in this world:

“There are only two more new episodes of X Files left!” (WHACK)

“I’m stuck in a dead-end job until I die!” (POW)

“Amazon doesn’t even sell teacup monkeys!” (SLAM)

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Chicken breasts, after pummeling

Once the breasts are flat, whisper your remorse to them quietly and set them aside.

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Pseudopesto goo, in its natural state

Next, mix the pesto/notpesto, sour cream and mozzarella cheese into a thick goo.

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Goo-besmeared, beaten-up chicken breasts. There is no dignity if you are a chicken.

Spread the goo on the flattened chicken breasts.

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Hey, would YOU look pretty if you’d been treated the way these have?

Roll the chicken breasts as tightly as you can manage and secure them with a toothpick.

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Powdered and pretty for the oven

Mix together the Crunchy Sesame Pretzel Breading and 3 remaining Tbsp. Parmesan cheese together in a shallow dish. Dip each chicken roll first in the beaten egg, then roll it in the breading mix until well coated. Place the rolls seamside-down in the baking pan.

Bake until the chicken is brown and cooked through (around 30 minutes).

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Alas, poor Gallus. I knew him well.

Serve it hot and eat it slowly, reflecting with each succulent bite on the twist of fate that made you a human eating a chicken, and not a chicken eating a human. Evolution is capricious.

terrorbirds

In an episode of “Primeval,” the humans were nearly victimized by giant, prehistoric Terror Birds. So in an alternate universe, the stuffed hunk o’meat could be YOU.

 

 

 

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That Damned? Cat

spookycat

Peep, communing with …?

I’m pretty sure there’s a Hell Mouth in my living room. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why my cat Peep has suddenly taken to jumping up on the coffee table and staring intently into the dark rectangle of a turned-off digital photo frame. He crouches, his nose almost touching the screen and the tip of his tail twitching uneasily, for as long as half an hour at a time. Turn the frame on to reveal the photo slideshow and he loses interest immediately; turn it off and he’s up there in an instant, squinting into the depths of who-knows-what strange world only he can see.

Cats can be spooky animals. I think every cat owner has had the experience of watching their animal hiss at an apparently empty patch of wall or suddenly leap into the air, yowling as if something unseen just gave them a good poke.

spirit orbs

Example of spirit orbs

I have a niece who is passionate about “orbs,” those luminous specks that sometimes appear on photos. I’m inclined to attribute them to dust on the lens, but she professes the surprisingly common belief that they are in fact the spirits of the dead hanging around, unseen by all except the unblinking eye of the camera (and, it would seem, the cat). Our house is FULL of orbs, judging by the frequency with which they show up in family pictures. To my knowledge, our house was not built on an old Indian burial ground, nor have any of our family been in the habit of summoning netherworlders through weekly séances as Dan Ackroyd’s folks apparently did. (I know, right? Weird.)

Presumably, then, if Peep is communicating with someone on the Other Side … it must be someone we know.

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Mr. Fuzzy, contemplating his next bit of mischief.

For a while I half-believed my mom’s late cat, Mr. Fuzzy, was my Dad reincarnated. He showed up under the deck not long after Dad passed away. Daddy had lost his adored springer spaniel Ralph a few years before his own death, and I know he longed for another furry companion in the few years that he survived his sweet dog. He was always disappointed when I didn’t bring my own cat, Puddin’, when I came for a weekend visit.

Mr. Fuzzy shared some characteristics of my Pops, in particular making my mom’s life more difficult by being stubborn, ornery and often underfoot. He liked to lay on top of Mom’s dresser, next to the photos of Dad as a young serviceman and an old man, and at night he slept beside mom on dad’s pillow. Sadly, Mr. Fuzzy crossed the Rainbow Bridge a few years ago. Assuming Mr. Fuzzy gave up a ghost (Dad’s) when he gave up the ghost (his own), it may be that the cat who came to take his place, Peep, is attuned to Daddy’s now disembodied presence in the house.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. Unlike a number of other people I know, I’ve never had any experiences that could be considered “paranormal.” And I’m kinda okay with that. Frankly, as much as I love and miss my father, suddenly seeing him sitting in the recliner, like Dana Scully did in that one episode of “The X Files,” or hearing his voice calling me “the little one” as he did in life, would scare the hell out of me. Still, it’s nice to imagine he might be close by, chatting with Peep and chuckling at how creeped out Mom and I are about the whole staring-at-the-photo-frame thing. Dad always did enjoy a good practical joke.

 

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