Category Archives: Philadelphia

Weekend Cooking: Like Buttah

Earlier this year, I joined a women’s group at our UU church. I saw this as a way to become more involved in the congregation while connecting with others, especially after the election. Each month, our meetings focus on a different topic. For November, our  theme was food and memory — appropriately enough with Thanksgiving just two weeks away.

We were asked to bring or make a food that we associate with a memory, along with an accompanying photo, if we had one. I knew right away what I would be baking.

I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and its suburbs and most of our extended family lived close by. Many special occasions, holidays, and celebrations included family dinners at my grandparents’ house with my aunt, uncle and cousins. Those get-togethers also always included butter cake, often from Geiger’s Bakery located on Frankford Avenue. My grandparents lived a few blocks away from the bakery; whenever we visited my grandfather would have already “walked up the Avenue” to get one.

If you didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, chances are you probably don’t know what I’m talking about with this butter cake. (I’ve since learned it is popular in St. Louis, too.)

It’s a thin crust of eggs and (of course) butter, topped with a mixture of cream cheese, powdered sugar, more eggs. It’s ridiculously decadent. Suffice it to say that butter cake is the food of the gods. I mean, if they serve food in heaven — and I would like to imagine that it’s a 24/7, all you can eat, calories and carbs be damned to hell smorgasbord — then butter cake definitely has a place on the menu.

So, I knew that I had to bring this. And I knew I had to make one because you can’t find a real, authentic butter cake here. Nobody I’ve met in Pittsburgh has ever heard of butter cake.

However, I’m now gluten free and butter cake doesn’t quite lend itself to being easily converted.

Or so I thought. That’s why Google is your friend. Searching for “gluten free butter cake” led me immediately to this recipe for Gluten Free French Butter Cake from The Frugal Farm Wife. 

I’ve never made a butter cake, so this required doing a test run on Monday evening in order to have time to fix anything before our Wednesday night meeting.

As one might imagine, the fact that Mom was baking was met with much delight in my house. The Husband, who was part of more than a few of those family dinners back in the day, was eagerly anticipating the results of this experiment. The kids couldn’t remember ever having butter cake, which was just another reminder to The Husband and me that since most of their formative years have been spent here in Pittsburgh (plus four in Delaware), they don’t identify as Philadelphians the way we do.

I’ll cut to the chase. This butter cake?

Absolute.

Perfection.

And the fact that it’s gluten free? That’s just … well, the icing on the cake.

The kids were in love at first bite.

“WHY HAVEN’T YOU EVER MADE THIS?” they demanded.

“To be honest,” I admitted. “I thought it would be harder than it was.”

That’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it? We have a notion that something is too complicated, difficult or beyond our abilities and lo and behold, we surprise ourselves by succeeding. The butter cake was well received at the women’s group meeting, during which we also feasted on pavlova, jello salad, date nut bread, port wine cheese and crackers, sparkling cider, shortbread and noodle soup and heard wonderful stories connected with each of these dishes.

My kids requested that I make a butter cake every week. No, I told them. For one thing, we’ll all gain 500 pounds by Christmas if I did. Besides, there are reasons why it’s a special occasion cake. It’s part of its magic.

But now that I know how to make it, I’m betting we’ll be seeing it more often.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunday Salon/Currently … Summer’s End

Sunrise over Wildwood Crest, NJ ~ June 9, 2017, 5:23 a.m. ~ Photo credit Melissa Firman

Count me among the many who consider Labor Day weekend as the official end of summer, regardless of what the calendar says. As much as I hate to see the longer days and warm weather leave (because I know what follows), I’m fine with saying goodbye to what was oftentimes a challenging couple of months and welcoming a new season.

I’m cognizant that this is my first Sunday Salon/Currently … post since May and likewise, that my posting frequency in general has been lackluster, with only 8 posts since Memorial Day. There are a few reasons for that. Several issues occupying my attention aren’t bloggable, and those that are — say, like the state of the world and daily onslaught of outrage provoked by Twitler, for example — often leave me apoplectic.

But, I really have missed being here more regularly and connecting with those of you who are actually still interested in what I have to say, so I’m going to try and be more of a frequent presence.

Let’s get caught up by recapping the summer, shall we?

June

We took our first family vacation in two years and headed downnashore. (That means the New Jersey beaches for those not fluent in Philly talk.)  Unfortunately, we picked the four worse consecutive days of the entire summer to spend by the ocean — cold, rainy and damp. Just miserable weather. I know, I know … a bad day at the shore is better than a good day at work, but it would have done our souls good to see the sun more than just the morning we left.

The Girl, during a very windy walk on the beach. She’s wearing a sweatshirt I purchased 24 years ago on our honeymoon.

As disappointing as the vacation was, there were some good moments. The sunrise above, for starters. I happened to wake up early and catch it, and I’m so glad I did. The Girl and I also enjoyed several nice walks on the beach, despite being bundled up in sweatshirts. (We walked a total of two miles on two separate days!) We had some great meals and only one not-so-great, and the place we stayed was fantastic.

Gluten free spaghetti with clams, Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza, Wildwood, NJ

Mozzarella and Pesto Pearls (tomato, basil, mozzarella, pesto) at Panico’s Bistro, Cape May, NJ

Salmon with grilled asparagus over rice. Panico’s Bistro, Cape May, NJ

Rigatoni with marinara. This bowl was huge. Panico’s Bistro, Cape May, NJ

Mussels. Godmothers Restaurant, Cape May, NJ

We bookended the shore trip with stops in Philadelphia to spend several days with family and that coincided with a cousin’s graduation party. The Boy spent the whole day in the pool and was in his glory.

After we returned, The Boy went to a social skills camp for kids with Asperger’s. He participated in this program last year and it was a good experience. This summer? Not so much. A rough couple of weeks. It was a completely different group of kids and a new counselor from last summer and the dynamic just didn’t work.

The Girl did a writing camp for a week. This was her third year at this camp, which she loves. She also did another one-day writing camp at Chatham University and now she has her sights set on going to college there and working at the library. (She volunteered one day a week and we got to have lunch together, which was nice and one of the highlights of my summer.)

July   

The Girl and I were in a minor car accident on the 6th. Fortunately everyone was fine. My car was banged up a bit and wound up being in the shop for a month. These things are why one has insurance and I’m very glad we do.

Most of the month was spent dealing with some dental woes that involved several emergency appointments (two in one week), a consult with an endodontist (and potential oral surgery), three sick days from work, and copious amounts of Advil (we’re talking close to 12 per day) with an occasional Vicodin left over from my gallbladder surgery thrown in. It all just got resolved three weeks ago — with a root canal, not the aforementioned more extensive oral surgery — and this past Friday night, one of my crowns fell out. Here we go again.

August 

The Girl participated in Girls Rock Pittsburgh, a week-long camp where those who identify as girls and are tweens through age 18 learn an instrument, form a band, write an original song, create merchandise, take part in workshops (confidence building, healthy relationships), and record and perform their song in public. The Girl was initially reluctant to be part of this program but it turned out to be a fantastic experience. She played the drums and we’re now the proud renters of a drum set and an electric guitar for the next year.

Reading 

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, I read 15 books.

Cocoa Beach, by Beatriz Williams
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987-1992, by Audre Lorde
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas
The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc
Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout (audio)
The Fifth of July, by Kelly Simmons
The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley
South and West: From a Notebook, by Joan Didion
Ageproof: How to Live Longer Without Breaking a Hip, Running Out of Money, or Forgetting Where You Put It, by Jean Chatzky and Michael Roizen (audio)
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by Caitlin Doughty
Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide Open Heart, by Scott Stabile
The Floating World, by C. Morgan Babst
Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, by Derek Thompson (audio)
Heather, The Totality, by Matthew Weiner

This weekend is pretty low key. Time to bring on fall.

 

 

 

 

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In Memoriam: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Sad news today in the Philadelphia poetry world. Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, author of the poetry collection Slamming Open the Door and founder of Musehouse, A Center for the Literary Arts in Chestnut Hill, has died at age 61.

I didn’t know Kathleen personally but her poems chronicling her profound grief in the aftermath of her 21-year-old daughter Leidy’s death from domestic violence in 2003 resonated with me seven years ago. Below is a slightly-edited version of my review of Slamming Open the Door from April 2010.

My deepest condolences to Kathleen’s friends and family.

Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

I never should have read this book.

I never should have read this book because it should never have been written … because the subject of these incredibly heartbreaking poems, Leidy Bonanno, should still be alive.

Leidy should be alive today, not memorialized so lovingly on the pages of Slamming Open the Door, a collection of poems written by her mother Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno.
Her name is pronounced “lady” and her nickname was Ladybug – hence, the ladybug on the cover and the images of them throughout the book in illustrations and in several poems. We meet Leidy as a child (“Meeting You, Age Four”), as a nursing school graduate (“Nursing School Graduation Party, Six Weeks Before”), as a 21-year old victim of domestic violence (“Hearsay”). Her beautiful face greets the reader, and you smile wistfully back, only to be immediately choked by the first poem, “Death Barged In.”

Death Barged In

In his Russian greatcoat
slamming open the door
with an unpardonable bang,
and he has been here ever since.
He changes everything,
rearranges the furniture,
his hand hovers
by the phone;
he will answer now, he says;
he will be the answer.
Tonight he sits down to dinner
at the head of the table
as we eat, mute;
later, he climbs into bed
between us.
Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
clamping two
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
From now on,
you write about me.

As painful as it must have been to do, I’m grateful to Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno for sharing Leidy and her story with us. In each poem, in each line, she gives us every emotion that accompanies Leidy’s death. We are there with Kathleen and her husband as they call Leidy’s cell phone, as they drive to her apartment, as the police officer gives them the news. We’re there in the flashbacks at Leidy’s graduation party from nursing school, and we know exactly who Kathleen is talking about when she writes:

When Dave clears his throat,
and raises his glass to toast her,
we raise our glasses too –
and Johnny Early, a nice young man
from Reading Hospital,
smiles and raises his glass.

In Slamming Open the Door, we see the full spectrum of grief, from the anger to the absurd.

Sticks and Stones

To you, who killed my daughter—
Run. Run. Hide.
Tell your mother
to thread the needle
made of bone.
It is her time now
to sew the shroud.
The men are coming
with sticks and stones
and whetted spears
to do what needs doing.

What Not to Say

Don’t say that you choked
on a chicken bone once,
and then make the sound,
kuh, kuh  and say
you bet that’s how she felt.
Don’t ask in horror
why we cremated her.
And when I stand
in the receiving line
like Jackie Kennedy
without the pillbox hat,
if Jackie were fat
and had taken
enough Klonopin
to still an ox,
and you whisper,
I think of you
every day,
don’t finish with
because I’ve been going
to Weight Watchers
on Tuesdays and wonder
if you want to go too.

I saw this at the library and started reading it while my own daughter was selecting her books (the irony not being lost on me), and couldn’t put it down. Leidy’s story – that domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, regardless of one’s background or education or anything – is one that needs to be told to as many people as possible. It’s a story that needs to be told, too, because it shows us that we’re not alone in our grief – that although the specific circumstances and details might differ, we have all experienced similar emotions.

Although, understandably, the majority of the poems focus on Leidy’s death and the aftermath, Slamming Open the Door is also a tribute to her all-too-brief life.  She lives in the hearts of those who loved her, and for those of us who didn’t know her, we get to do so in these 41 emotional and contemporary poems.

Slamming Open the Door is the recipient of the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award.

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Book Review: Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan had me with that cover.

Actually, that’s not true.

Well, partially. But that cover is pretty kick-ass, isn’t it? I feel like making it my Facebook profile picture.

I was sold on this book simply because it’s written by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile now — loved her novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (one of my Best Books of 2016) and her memoir I’m Looking Through You: A Memoir of Growing Up Haunted (one of my Best Books of 2013) — and I admire her advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community. (She’s the outgoing co-chair of GLAAD.)

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s from Philly. Like me.

The dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s famed and creepy as hell Eastern State Penitentiary is  the setting for Long Black Veil. Darkly suspenseful, fast-paced, and character driven, this is told through alternating narratives that segue smoothly between 1980 and 2015. It accurately captures Philadelphia’s gritty essence from a bygone time. It’s about secrets, friendship, identity and authenticity.

You can read more of my review in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness.

(And yes, this one will be on my Best Books list for 2017.)

 

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wednesday musings

image of a late winter sky with heavy and light cloud streaks over pittsburgh, february 2017

Still with me? I know, I know … it has been a few weeks since I wrote an actual blog post here–besides posting links to several published book reviews, that is. Actually, those are a big part of the reason for my absenteeism in this space. Most of you know I do some freelance workwriting, editing and the like. This in addition to my full-time, pays-most-of-the-bills-and-provides-health-insurance (for now) job, which also involves quite a bit of wordsmithing.

Anyway, to my delight, the freelancing assignments have picked up speed in recent weeks. Definitely a nice problem to have. One consequence (if you can call it that) is I’ve needed to spend more time reading–and since most of those books are for reviews post-publication, I feel I can’t say much about them beforehand.

Which, you know, doesn’t lend itself to having much material for one’s book blog.

Good thing there’s nothing else going on in the world to discuss.

(We won’t talk politics tonight because the whole state of the world has me feeling overwhelmed, angry, sad, hopeless and downright frightened. Often all at the same time.)

Tonight offers a slight reprieve from reading and writing (plus The Girl, who has been using my laptop for homework is finished early) so I thought I’d give you a few updates.


Two weeks ago I made an impromptu, whirlwind trip back to my hometown of Northeast Philadelphia for what was a sad visit. My best friend’s mother died and as I said in my eulogy at the funeral, she was like a second mom to me. I expected it to be an emotional trip–and it was. I’m working on a post or an essay about this because it was a jarring experience to return to my hometown after many years away. I’m really, really glad I went even if it took me a good week to feel back to what passes for my regular self.


On my trip, I listened to the audio of Wishful Drinking by the late Carrie Fisher. Albeit bittersweet, it was the perfect choice for what is a boring five hour plus drive across the red state of T**mpsylvania. (The audiobook is shorter than the drive.) It’s incredibly conversational, as if Carrie herself was riding in the passenger seat. An excellent audiobook. I loved it.


Mrs. Douglas, our cat, had a bout of pancreatitis last week. She’s on the mend now, thank God.


Kids are fine. I’m in summer activity mode. I think The Girl is going to be doing some volunteer work along with at least one or two week-long camps (writing and music).  The Boy is going to camp for four weeks. Thanks to the freelancing, there will likely be a family vacation after not being able to take one last year.


Speaking of The Girl, she has been working really hard to improve in math. At Christmastime, she mentioned she really wanted to see Bon Jovi in concert when they came to Pittsburgh so we struck a deal: if her math grades improved and she sought extra help after school through the tutoring service if necessary (something she has vehemently resisted), I would think about getting tickets. She hasn’t stopped talking about this. She’s been consistently hovering above or close to a B for a few months now so we’ll be seeing Jon in a few weeks.


Can I say how much I love that my girl is a huge fan of Bon Jovi and how grateful I am that she inherited my taste in music? (Because, yeah, twist my arm to take her to see Bon Jovi and pretend I’m back in 1986.)


I haven’t been running. Like, at all. Even though this has been a mild winter by Pittsburgh standards, I’m not a cold weather girl.  I haven’t managed to get myself to a yoga class or anything else I’d intended on doing. Hell, I’ve stopped taking the stairs at work. When the weather gets warmer–maybe as soon as this weekend!–I’m going to start over with Couch to 5K. That means I won’t be ready to do the Pittsburgh Marathon 5K this year, but maybe I’ll aim for the Great Race this fall instead or another 5K.


If you need a good book to read, here are two of my recent Shelf Awareness reviews.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff  (she’s a Philly writer, whooo!)

The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

 

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Second Helpings

Before this tumultuous year, Thanksgiving and the weeks leading up to Christmas were already emotionally-charged holidays for me and The Husband.  A lifetime ago, we got engaged during Thanksgiving week. After years of infertility, our twins were born on Thanksgiving Day in a scenario straight out of a Hallmark movie:  twins, Thanksgiving Day, the most incredible gift you could ever imagine.

And then, exactly one year ago today on Thanksgiving Day 2015, The Husband collapsed in the middle of dinner. We hadn’t even brought out the pie. I found him barely conscious in the bathroom and performed CPR right there on the floor. Dessert was replaced by a rush of paramedics, police, tears and two hospitals before 10 p.m.

Thankfully, he survived this unexpected (and somewhat still unexplained) event; it goes without saying that this year — not to mention the rest of our lives — would have been extremely different if he hadn’t.  Grateful is an understatement. In the face of some significant losses and challenges, we still have each other. That counts for something (a lot, actually).

Nonetheless, there was a push-pull effect to this particular Thanksgiving.  Stay home or spend the holiday with family in Philly?  Part of me felt like sheltering in place after the past 17 days since the election. The appeal and comfort of home far outweighed the prospect of politically-charged dinnertime conversations awaiting us on the opposite side of the state.

At the same time, I didn’t want to be home with the ghosts of last Thanksgiving sitting at the table.

We decided to do a quick trip to Philly — less than 48 hours in duration, with 12 of those spent driving. Some close relatives have had medical scares in the past month, and this would be an opportunity to spend some time with them. As if we needed any reminding, life doesn’t come with guarantees. Take nothing and no one for granted.

At a rest stop in the middle of Tr*mpland, we instructed the children that there were only two acceptable topics of conversation for this visit (and probably every other visit thereafter):  The Weather and How Is School Going?.

“What if [insert name of relative who likely voted differently than us] asks us about the election?” The Girl asked, a bit worriedly.

“You say, ‘on the advice of counsel, I decline to answer the question,'” The Husband replied, prompting a discussion of the Fifth Amendment, because that’s how we roll.

As it turned out, everyone behaved themselves as best as possible. No politics were discussed. Instead, we celebrated the kids’ birthdays (and a nephew’s) with both sets of grandparents. My sister-in-law made a delicious dinner. The cousins had a chance to hang out and laugh and reconnect with each other, reminiscent of the kind of holidays The Husband and I remember as children with our own cousins. It was the first Thanksgiving our extended family spent together in six years.

And best of all?

Everyone had more than enough pie.

thanksgiving-dessert-table-2016

 

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zombies

Halloween Parade (19)

Front row to Halloween. Taken by me, October 2008, somewhere in central Delaware.

“All You Zombies” shuffles onto my Spotify playlist
as I pull into the parking garage
late for work on a Thursday
but because The Hooters are a track
on The Soundtrack to My Life
available on 45, cassette tape, compact disc
I remain seated in my car
(my paper-laden desk can wait)
because me and Jen and Seunah are singing
on a cold January night in an overheated gym
where we paid five bucks to see Philly’s hottest band
because someday they would be really, really big,
someday in our big scary future.

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