Posts Tagged ‘memories’

Today would have been my grandfather’s 113th birthday. I’ve written about him on this day for the past two years, and I thought it would be nice to keep up the tradition. 

My previous birthday posts about Grandpa:

Eleventy-First, with Memories | J.R. Johnson

To Be Fair | J.R. Johnson

My grandparents lived in Chicago for most of my life but when they retired they became snowbirds, the kind that fly south for the winter. Later, they moved down there permanently. My grandfather walked the beaches south of Cape Canaveral and found, among other things, the bleached white skeletons of Echinarachnius parma, otherwise known as sand dollars. 

I saw live sand dollars for the first time on our recent visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They resemble their skeletons only in shape, and even that is unexpectedly flipped upright. Check out the images in the article below.

9 Fascinating Facts About Sand Dollars

The sand dollar—or “sea biscuit,” or “sand cake,” in other parts of the world—is purple and hairy in its prime.

Grandpa used to collect sand dollars and give them to us kids, a tiny piece of a magical, tropical land far to the south.

I still keep one on my bookshelf.

Happy birthday, Grandpa.

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It’s Saturday and we woke to a world of deep, quiet snow. It took me back to childhood and to one book in particular, Ezra Jack Keats’s award-winning classic, The Snowy Day. Here it is, presented with animation and narration: 

Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people’s legs like house cats. It was magical, this snow globe world.

– Sarah Addison Allen, “The Sugar Queen”

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Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash

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My father’s mother baked from scratch, but she always had a container of Cool Whip in the fridge when we came to visit. Did she always stock it? I don’t know, but it was a special treat for us.

I don’t buy it for myself but even now the taste of Cool Whip reminds me of hot summers and warm smiles.

Last week, I whipped up a bit of cream to go with fresh strawberries from a farm down the road. I usually add a bit of Grand Marnier but this time, I decided to try a slight twist. 

It turns out that heavy whipping cream plus vanilla, sugar and a dollop of sour cream creates a thick whipped topping that tastes a lot like Cool Whip. Not as it is, necessarily, but as I remember it. Fun, flavorful, special.

Let’s call it Cool Whip for adults. All of the memories, none of the additives.

Thanks, Grandma.

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Photo by Tangerine Newt on Unsplash

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My father texted the other day to say that he was making a dish from my childhood, Mrs. Chiang’s Eggplant with Chopped Meat. The name brought back memories of hot chili and flavorful meat with rice. I should make that too, I thought. Where is my wok?

Several days later I made the dish with what I had or could get. Two eggplants became one, eight scallions became two huge handfuls from my bag of pre-chopped and frozen, peanut oil became avocado and pork became turkey. Fortunately, the recipe is quite forgiving.

The chili paste stayed the same, as did the complex and satisfying taste. And the fond memories.

I still haven’t found my wok.

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Eggplant with Ground Turkey
(adapted from Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook)

  • ½ lb. ground turkey, pork or beef
  • 3 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
  • 8 scallions
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger
  • 5 Tbsp. peanut or other high-temperature oil
  • 2 Tbsp. hot chili paste
  • 1 to 1½ tsp. sugar
  • 1½ tsp. salt
  • ⅔ cup water
  1. Put the meat in a bowl and stir in the soy sauce and sesame oil.
  2. Clean and chop the scallions into small pieces. Mix half the chopped scallions into the meat. Reserve the rest for later use.
  3. Peel the eggplants and cut into ½-1 inch cubes.
  4. Smash the garlic, peel, and chop into little pieces, about the size of grains of rice.
  5. Peel the ginger and chop into pieces the size of match heads.
  6. Heat the pan on high until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds.
  7. Add the hot chili paste and stir-fry for another 30 seconds.
  8. Add the chopped meat mixture and cook for 2 minutes, stirring to break up any large lumps.
  9. Add the eggplant and stir-fry everything for another 4 minutes or so.
  10. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over the eggplant mixture, stir-fry for another 2 minutes. Stir stir stir stir stir.
  11. Pour in the water and add the reserved scallions. Wait until the water comes to a boil, then cover the pan without reducing the heat. Cook for another 15 minutes, until the eggplant is soft.

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Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

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After a long hiatus, I have returned to the world of waffle making. They really are delicious.

My father used to make us the best weekend waffles. Even the batter tasted great. The leavening made little bubbles that popped on the tongue.

For whatever reason, this week I got it in my head to make waffles. We had a cream-based seafood stew and as I pulled it out of the fridge I thought, “Chicken and waffles!”

For the uninitiated among you, chicken and waffles is a thing. A delicious, savory, creamy Pennsylvania Dutch dish that etched itself in my culinary memory from childhood.

The traditional Pennsylvania Dutch version consists of a plain waffle with pulled, stewed chicken on top, covered in gravy.

Chicken and waffles – Wikipedia

Obviously, seafood is not chicken, but hey, I thought, close enough. I want waffles! Crispy outside, fluffy inside, what’s not to love? After a deep dive into the long-term storage situation I excavated the waffle maker from the bottom shelf of the basement cupboard. A not-so-quick cleaning* and dinner was served.

I made extra because waffles freeze well and if you want a quick dessert, say, don’t need more than visit to the toaster and a healthy dose of maple syrup.

Have we taken advantage of that fact?


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* Sadly, in my experience waffle makers tend to be plagued by poor design and are difficult to maintain. Our current version is no exception. 

* * Um, yeah. Hundred percent yes.

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Today, a recipe that has an important place in our family history.

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Swedish Pancakes
(Mike Johnson)

Mike: The history of this recipe begins with Olga, my father’s father’s (far far in Swedish) sister. For most of her life she was a live-in maid and nanny for a rich family across town, from the time when Swedish girls were brought over to replace other ethnicities in the service industry. She also cooked for her brother and his children, and later grandchildren on the weekends. After that she took care of her son. She worked all her life, living with the same family for 30 years and only retiring at 85. She died at the age of 99, tired and more than ready to go.

Jen: My father often spoke of Olga and how she would stand at his grandfather’s stove flipping seven thin pancakes at a time in the special cast iron pan, piling plates high on Sunday mornings. She didn’t have a recipe, just mixed the ingredients together until they “looked right.” Dad finally made up his own and still uses it to play the role of Swedish grandmother, eating over the stove as the rest of us spread butter and sugar and lemon or lingonberries on the pancakes,* then roll them up to eat. Delicious!


  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ¼ C. milk
  • ¾ C. flour
  • ¼ C. sugar
Photo by M Draa on Unsplash

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* We do the dishes after so Dad can relax. We’re not monsters!

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Here’s a memory that would have been perfect for Halloween or Thanksgiving, but just came to me when I ran across the video below.

The first thing I planted in a garden (aside from myself) was okra. I’d never eaten it but knew that it was a staple in the South by way of some African food traditions. Once grown, I didn’t know how to cook it. The resulting dish was… ok. (If you’re wondering, I recommend using okra in stew or breading and frying the bejeezus out of it. Very good.)

The first thing I grew that I was really proud of was a pumpkin. This was a year or two later and I was still vertically challenged. That may explain why the pumpkin remains a giant in my mind, but maybe not. I’d read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and somewhere in there, probably Farmer Boy, they discuss milk-fed pumpkins. Well, who wouldn’t want to try that?

And it worked. Huge, that’s how I remember this pumpkin. Between the vines and the body the plant took up a whole section of the garden. I would ease down the little hill, through the tall grass and into the tilled area, basking in the hot summer sun while hoping to raise a monster.

A strong, bright, delicious monster, of course. A girl’s got to have standards.

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Malibu Hotel

The sun just broke through the morning clouds bringing warmth and new life to the ocean. Not that it needs it. Birds are everywhere, their presence indicating a basically healthy ecosystem. It also tells me that despite not seeing much in the water, there’s a great deal of life in the ocean. None of this is familiar, from the crash of waves on a choppy day to the glint of sun off water or the gulls floating above the shore. I am here to attend a wedding but right now, that’s the least memorable thing about this trip.

On the way down to breakfast yesterday I passed an old photograph of Malibu Colony. It was taken from the north looking down toward the Adams House and beyond to LA. The houses were small then and pressed close to the beach, low against the wind. A two-lane highway separated the houses from a bit of farmland, a road house that is still there, and a series of empty fields that says all that’s needed about land values in those days. 

It was a very different place and yet the ocean still dominates, the hills still face the water. The narrow road still provides a winding lifeline to the city, although it’s less adequate than it was a hundred years ago. Life is easier here now, if only because the residents have discovered, and packaged, the true value of the land. These rows and rows of pink houses, mansions on the bluff, and motels of all stripes exist because we enjoy the beauty of this place, but also because we love to walk to the edge, lean over as far as we can, and wonder what’s out there.

In my mind, this town at the edge of the continent is an outpost, our leaping-off point into the unknown. What an appropriate place to start a marriage, at the edge of the familiar, loved ones sending you off with well-wishes and heartfelt blessings. 

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We met for brunch at a café down the road from the hotel and I was treated to my first insider glimpse of Malibu life. Despite its unprepossessing location on the strip the parking lot was full of Mercedes. This is a mall, and it is treated with respect.

Squinting against the summer glare, I thought I’d stumbled into a supernova. Instead I was surrounded by women with blindingly white hair, their helmets and war paint and sleek-fitting uniforms overwhelming. Perfect hair, boobs, makeup and noses all packed into bodies at various stages of preservation. I let them pass.

Hands grip the boat’s side
golden skin on the water
summer sets so fast.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

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I’m looking for a good German plum cake recipe. There are (of course) many versions available online, but the problem with that is you never quite know what you’re getting, and I only have the one batch of plums.

There’s also an added complication. I am looking for a plum cake recipe because I made one as a teenager, and it was astoundingly good. Flavorful pastry base, creamy plum filling, and delightful streusel crumble on top. Now, that remembered experience is the standard to which I hold all future plum cakes. 

Was it actually as good as it is in my mind? Maybe not, but I think so:) My mother also remembers the cake. It was her favorite type of German dessert, from when she lived in that country once upon a time. She brought home a classic German cookbook, source of the original plum cake recipe. 

I hold out hope that she still has the cookbook, and can find that recipe, but until then, I am on the hunt for the kuchen of my dreams.

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Photo by Alexandra Kikot on Unsplash

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I thought today might be a workshop or writing day, but instead it turned into a computing and sewing day. That’s fine, I’m happy I made progress with what I had.

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On that same note, last night’s dinner was a medley of things we had in the fridge. They are also the sorts of flavors I associate with summer: fresh herbs, tomatoes from the garden, and sweet corn. 

I was reminded of a dish I had in Boston years ago, a delicate, almost ethereal ravioli stuffed with shrimp and corn in cream sauce. The corn’s sweetness is complex enough not to seem one-note, and elevates the flavor of the shrimp. It’s a good memory, and while I don’t remember the year or the restaurant or the other eleven items on the tasting menu, that dish made a lasting impression.

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We also decided to try our hand at homemade pasta. The same friends who lent us the KitchenAid ice cream attachment also lent us their pasta rollers. Taste and texture were good, and the process was fairly straightforward, considering I’ve made pasta only once? before. 

I used this dough recipe: Fresh Pasta Recipe

Notes to Future Me: use the eggs we get from our local source, the ones from Costco were a little too small and threw off the ratio; knead more enthusiastically; and use more flour than you think you should for dusting the sheets before rolling and cutting.

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My father asked how I made the sauce. I have a fairly casual relationship with most recipes, but here it is, more or less. If you don’t have all of the ingredients, substitute red peppers for tomatoes, dried basil for fresh, or whatever’s in the pantry. That’s what I did:)

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Creamy Summer Shrimp Fettuccini


  • 2 slices bacon, chopped into bits
  • 1 shallot, sliced fine-ish
  • 1/2 C. corn kernels, cut from cooked cob, frozen, or canned
  • 1 C. cream
  • 1 T. lemon juice, or to taste
  • white wine, whatever you’re drinking, a splash or three
  • shrimp, big handful
  • cherry tomatoes, handful, halved
  • basil, six giant leaves from the garden, sliced 
  • reserved pasta water to taste, plus backup cornstarch if you add too much
  • salt, pepper, Parmesan
  • fettuccini


  1. While the pasta water heats, sauté the bacon and shallots until translucent.
  2. Add corn, cream, lemon juice, white wine and cook down for a couple of minutes, until slightly thickened. 
  3. Add shrimp, cook until opaque.
  4. Add the tomatoes and basil and heat through.
  5. Adjust the sauce for flavor and thickness with salt, pepper, more wine, cream and/or and pasta water. If it’s too thin, mix up a slurry of 1 T. cornstarch and a cup of cold water, add until you have enough liquid and cook until thickened.
  6. Serve over pasta, topped with grated Parmesan.

* Note: I would say that have moderately-sized hands. 

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Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash

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