As I grow older, my hair gets frizzier, and there’s many a morning when I like to pull it back and up into a cheap facelift. As I anchor it with a few bobby pins and a claw clip, I often think of Grandma Randall. She had smooth silver hair, not at all frizzy, and she’d sweep it up in one deft twist which poufed naturally in front into a slight pompadour. As a young girl, I admired her gesture of careless elegance, and marveled that the twist stayed put all day long.
Grandma was from Louisville, Kentucky, a southerner and a farm girl who did most things with a certain dash. She was also cranky and fundamentalist. You avoided getting into a long conversation with her; you might end up, as I did once, being forced by guilt into memorizing the first chapter of the Gospel of John.
Maybe Grandma’s critical nature prevented us from prodding her for more stories, or maybe we took it for granted, as children will, that we already knew all there was to learn about her life, but I regret not asking more, now that there’s no one left to witness or explain. I’m left with her pretty old hands on the silver twist of her hair, the wonderful peach cobbler she threw together one hot summer day when too many peaches ripened at once, her slightly bow legs she said were from horseback riding, and those delicious molasses cookies she made from memory.
Oh those cookies! How many times have my sisters and I said to one another, “I wish we had Grandma’s molasses cookie recipe!” But I never saw Grandma work from a recipe. Her molasses cookies were as big as my palm and a half-inch thick, soft and cakey, an aromatic dark brown. Did she use the sorghum she sometimes brought us from down south? I wish I’d taken the time to learn how she made them, to show my love that way. As I twist up my hair, I think of the small things we leave behind us, and the importance of witness. As the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Words save memories; be sure to leave some behind. Be sure to collect them. Especially now while we’re all stuck inside with so little social interaction with those we love, get them to make a video of each other making the treasured brisket recipe, the family favorite O’Henry bars, mom’s inimitable pie crust. Tell us about your results.
And while memory plays tricks and makes many things impossibly delicious, here’s a challenge for you. Can you replicate Grandma Randall’s large, very dark, cakey molasses cookies? Maybe it’s regional?
What follows are two not quite it molasses cookie recipes. One is from TheSilver Palate Cookbook. They’re addictive, but too flat and too chewy to be Grandma’s. The second is an old standby from Joy of Cooking, too small, too light colored, just not Gram’s. Neither can replicate Grandma’s recipe, put together by handfuls instead of using a measuring cup, by guess and by golly, from her long practice of 80 plus years. Got another offering?
Contributing writer Megan Johnson Randall is a retired English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.
The Silver Palate Cookbook By Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins
24 large, flat cookies
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup molasses
1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon ground cloves (I adjust to ¼ teaspoon as cloves can be overpowering)
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger (I adjust to 2 heaping teaspoons)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Melt butter, add sugar and molasses, and mix thoroughly. Lightly beat egg and add to butter mixture; blend well.
Sift flour with spices, salt and baking soda, and add to first mixture; mix. Batter will be wet.
Lay a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet. Drop tablespoons of cookie batter on foil, leaving 3 inches between cookies. These will spread during baking.
Bake until cookies start to darken, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven while still soft. Carefully slide foil off baking sheet. Let cookies cool on foil.
Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies*
The Joy of Cooking By Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker
About 40 2-inch cookies
Beat until soft: ½ cup butter or shortening
Add gradually and blend until light and creamy: ½ cup sugar
Beat in: 1 egg ; ½ cup molasses
Have ready: ½ cup buttermilk
Sift together: 2 ½ cups sifted cake flour ; 1 teaspoon baking soda ; 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger ; ¼ teaspoon cloves
Add sifted ingredients in 3 parts to the sugar mixture, alternately with the buttermilk. Beat the batter until smooth after each addition. Add: ½ cup chopped raisins
Drop the batter from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 12 minutes.
*Please note that this recipe is a perfect illustration of Rombauer’s injunction to always read the recipe through before beginning. But never fear: no buttermilk? Cake flour? See her invaluable chapter on Substitutions.
A friend of mine emailed me an
article today on cleaning house for the coronavirus. Armed with sprays and
wipes I vigorously scrubbed all the high-touch surfaces I could think of while trying
hard, as instructed, “not to be neurotic about it.” Fifteen minutes into my
manic marathon, my stress levels rising, I shelved the wipes and reached for
tea and shortbread. I was gonna need a better project.
Hunkered down at home, we’re all
scrambling to find ways to get through this crisis and maintain our sanity, our
spirits and our sense of self. And while being stuck inside is hardly an
opportunity any one of us would have wished for, it does give us time to do
things we might never have considered. Sure there’s binge-watching Mad Men or
re-reading Jane Austen, but for me neither stretches the boundaries of novelty.
And as the world spins wildly around me, I’m not inclined to file photos or
organize my kitchen cabinets. So let me suggest a project that will set your
imagination free, throw you back into the past, or jolt you into the future. A
project that’s all about you: creative writing.
One of the first and best books I
ever read on the subject, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, talks about writing without any
expectations, “to give yourself the space to write a lot without a
destination.” Let go of your paralyzing constraints. What will people think?
How do I begin? My spelling is terrible! And instead, dive in:
Forget your computer, use paper and pen. There
are plenty of options: a repurposed notebook, a yellow legal pad or a brand new
journal, if you want the thrill of getting a package delivered.
Find a private space and commit yourself to a
few minutes, a half-hour or even an hour.
And as Goldberg says: Don’t get logical, don’t
think … lose control.
She offers a wonderful array of starter
questions to get you going, among them, begin with “I remember,” small memories
or big, just keep going.
Write about the street you grew up on, the walk
you took this morning, your first love, a meal you cooked, going home.
King’s masterful writing memoir, On
Writing, advises that the most interesting story lines can be conjured
asking “what-if questions.” He writes: “What if vampires invaded a small New
England village (Salem’s Lot)? … What
if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid
Of course not all of us have the King’s strange,
you might say tortured imagination, but letting your own thoughts wander
unrestrained can kick off some fascinating ideas. What if a virus shut down America? …. Maybe
Finally, there is visual journaling – the new
rage. Surrounded by artists most of my
life, including a son in art school, I’m not surprised the world at large has
adopted the idea. These are essentially diaries with both images (usually
drawings or collage) and words. They can take the structured, often stiff, task
of keeping a journal into a whole new imaginative realm, tapping into your
creativity in an entirely different way. Be inspired and don’t let your inner
critic get in the way, you might find the process liberating and fun.
If nothing else, letting your creative side run free might take your mind
off the world outside the window. Remember, some of our most treasured writers
were witnesses to the toughest times.
True North: A Love Story In Five Maps recounts a couple’s courtship through their travels and adventures.
The Heart of interviewing
The journalist Isabel Wilkerson
once said the trick of getting ordinary people to open up about their lives is
to create what she calls “accelerated intimacy” between her and her sources.
Don’t ever lead the interview, she cautions, instead let it develop like a
I thought of that the other day
when I sat down to interview a young couple for a Short Take they’d
commissioned for their first wedding anniversary. They were easy-going and
eager to talk, but describing the ups and downs of a love affair can quiet the
most effusive among us. In their case, we were lucky, they’d come equipped with
props: five maps.
As they told the story of the
maps, connecting each to a moment in their courtship, they visibly relaxed into
the conversation. What started as a formal interview quietly shifted gears into
something less guarded. Of course letting a couple steer the narrative can feel
a bit like watching a game of street basketball — he starts to dribble, she
steals the ball, he recovers it, pauses, and passes back to her — but the
process brings out the best of both partners’ tale-telling abilities as they
pick up the thread of each other’s storylines and expand on the other’s
thoughts and memories. It’s a delight to record.
In the best of personal
interviews, what begins as a dry series of introductory questions quickly
morphs into a fun and often even funny narration. It can be irreverent,
intense, emotional and curious, but most often provides the makings of an
openhearted narrative — a love story to cherish. — Caitlin Randall
The Soul of Design
The basketball analogy is apt. The subjects of our book —
Jesse and Betsy — are athletes, and when they are in motion, they are at their
least self-conscious. And so I embraced their suggestion that they be
photographed while going for a run. Not only did that free them from worrying
about how they looked on camera, but it created an air of spontaneity that
resulted in images that pleased us all. Certainly their
dog, Banjo, helped lighten the mood.
only after the portrait session that I read Caitlin’s text for the Short Take and began designing Jesse and
Betsy’s book. Its subtitle, A Love Story In Five
Maps, was a given, but the concept didn’t come together until I actually saw
the maps that Jesse had drawn. His very literal interpretation of a compass
rose — complete with thorns — was as romantic as it was clever. I thought,
What does the rose point to? What is the heart’s desire? The answer was our
title: True North. — Peter Crabtree
Leap Year, that weird calendar oddity that only comes every four years, has inspired a slew of stories and superstitions. The most famous — February 29th is the day women can ask men to marry them — was conjured up in Ireland sometime back in the 5th century.
Legend has it that an Irish nun known as Saint Brigid of Kildare bitterly complained to Saint Patrick that too many women were waiting too long for men to propose marriage. The country’s patron saint agreed to give women one day in the calendar — conveniently one that falls only every four years — when they could ask their longtime suitors to wed. If the man said ‘no’ tradition demanded that he buy his spurned girlfriend a silk gown. I wonder how many rejected women felt they’d won the better end of that deal.
For a woman to propose on any other day among the 365/366 in the Gregorian calendar was and, to a certain extent, still is considered a major no-no. Astoundingly, society clings to the notion that a marriage proposal is a male responsibility. The idea is so culturally pervasive that a woman dropping down on one knee to propose is still a rarity. The image of a ‘desperate woman’ prevails.
So what do you think? Does it really matter who proposes to whom — or why, or how? And a shoutout to all the modern women out there: Would you or have you popped the question? We’d love to hear your stories!
Here are a few famous women who have done the proposing:
Actress Kristen Bell to Dax Shepard
Pop star Britney Spears to Kevin Federline on a flight back from Ireland (where else?)
Singer/songwriter Pink to Carey Hart
Fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg to Barry Diller
TV’s Judge Judy to Jerry Sheindlin
Elizabeth Taylor, married seven times, but only asked one man, Michael Wilding, to marry her
At first blush, writing about romance may seem as easy as, well … falling in love. It isn’t, even for the hopeless romantics among us. At The Story Project we have the lucky advantage of penning the stories our clients tell us. It’s not up to us to devise romantic plot twists, adorable “meet cutes,” or emotional grand declarations. That’s best left to the Hollywood RomCom writers.
Our job is the not-so-small matter of coaxing couples to talk (yes, it’s mostly the men that duck for cover). And then there’s the challenge of writing a story — from first glance to “I do” — that captures the essence of their romance.
As a Valentine’s Day gift to the wanna-be romance novelists among you, or just those of you inspired enough to compose a truly personal card this year, here are some of our best tips for writing about love:
— Steer clear of clichés. “It was Kismet” or “we fit together like pieces of a puzzle” are as old as the hills (excuse the cliché) and read that way.
— Write in your own voice. Any attempt to parrot Jane Austen’s genius, or for that matter, Danielle Steele’s sauciness, reads like what it is: a stale imitation.
— The “meet cute,” Hollywood’s name for a charming, sometimes ironic way for a couple to meet, is one of the most used tropes in film. It’s also one of the most difficult to write. Skip it. A first encounter doesn’t have to be adorable or embarrassing to grab your readers’ attention. Sometimes reality works fine. I once asked a colleague how she met her husband. “We met in the office,” she said shrugging at the dullness of it. “We hated each other. It took two postings and three countries before we fell in love.” You gotta ask: how did that happen? There’s usually a good story behind every match, even if it’s not the made-in-Hollywood variety. Ask around if you need some inspiration.
— Search for words that really express the sentiment you’re trying to convey. Her “twinkling” blue eyes and his “amazing” physique are not exactly descriptive. Then again there’s this: “The elevator whisks me with terminal velocity to the twentieth floor.” Terminal velocity? Ugh, but the author made a gazillion bucks from it. See 50 Shades of Grey.
— Trust yourself. Consider what you really want to say and be brave. Putting it out there takes courage, but then again, so does falling in love.
you need more inspiration, keep an eye out for The Story Project’s upcoming
Short-Take telling a clients’ love story, True North: A Love Story in
Five Maps, posting on our website (with permission)
this coming week.
A moment of silence please for those among us who will sit
down this holiday season to awkward conversations, prickly interrogations and
unwelcome political jousting. Do we really need another round of Uncle Harry’s
latest conspiracy theory gleaned from Facebook? And how many times in one year
can Aunt Tilly ask when she’ll dance at your daughter’s wedding?
Despite the plethora of suggestions out there to guide us
through the political and social minefield that is 2019, The Story Project is
offering it’s own List. We begin by suggesting that everyone at the table or
around the fireplace turn inward. Make the season a true family event. Here are
five questions to help get you started:
• To Your Grandparents: How did you meet each other? Was it a long courtship? Did your parents pray for a wedding or beg you to break up?
• To Your Parents: What was the best-ever family vacation? What was the worst? How did you celebrate the holidays when you were young?
• To Your Siblings: What’s your favorite Christmas/Hanukkah/ holiday memory? And your funniest?
• To Your Kids: What traditions, favorite dishes included, do you most want our family to continue and to pass down to your children?
A few things to remember:
• Avoid yes or no answers by asking open-ended questions. For example, you met Grandpa in New York? How did that come about?
• A good interviewer gives the subject space and time to answer. Sit back, relax and let the stories wash over you.
• It’s about fun and tapping into family memories. If you ask heartfelt questions and listen deeply, you never know where the conversation will lead.
The Story Project team wishes you a holiday season full of
memories and wonderful stories to tell.
Robert Frost moved to Shaftsbury, Vermont, in 1920, intending to establish an apple orchard. During his nearly two decades there, he wrote some of his best-known poems, including the iconic “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
his honor, the Bennington Museum will mount a major exhibition next year, Robert
Frost, At Present in Vermont, examining the poet’s life and work in the
context of the landscape and culture of Bennington County.
a prelude of sorts, the museum’s current exhibition, A Snowy Evening,
features 31 regional artists responding to the poet’s work. Among them is Story
Project co-founder Peter Crabtree, who contributed “After Frost: Do, Does,
artist’s statement follows:
Did I really watch him on TV that January day in 1961 when
John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, or was it later, in some grainy newsreel
footage, that I first became aware of Robert Frost — stooped and white-haired,
like some kindly grandfather — reciting from memory his poem “A Gift Outright”
to mark the occasion? Either way, the impression that he had always been an
even-keeled, mild old man would stick with me through high school and only be
shaded somewhat by the mandatory reading of “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy
But in fact, a closer examination of the poems Frost wrote
while living in South Shaftsbury reveals a person lashed by some dark inner
weather. Read “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” “Spring Pools,” and
“Acquainted with the Night” and you realize that impermanence was much on his
mind and that the darkness must have followed him throughout his life.
And so this piece, “After Robert Frost: Do, Does, Did,” pays tribute to that man and his method. No one photograph could do justice to the way his poems work — building image upon image — or the passage of time, or Frost’s clear-eyed, unsentimental observation of the way we live as part of, rather than apart from, nature.
— Peter Crabtree
A Snowy Evening runs through Dec. 30, although a closed-bid auction for the works in the exhibit ends Dec. 22 at 4 pm. (The winning bid will be split, with half the proceeds going to the artist and the remainder to the museum.) For more information about the event and to see the other works in the show, please visit http://bit.ly/snowyevening
At this time of
year, the question of stuffing can get territorial. There are those who want to
try something new every year—cranberries, giblets, walnuts, wild rice, apricots!
— and those who, having found their perfection, never want to mess with it from
year to year. I fall into the latter camp—with tweaking.
I don’t remember if our mother
always made her Italian style stuffing for Thanksgiving; I think there were
more conventional early years of plain sage and onions. But for me, her
chestnut and sausage version was the apotheosis of flavor and texture, and so
it has remained. We forget how a little thing like stuffing can represent a
radical departure in a family. Our traditions are wrapped up in family lore and
the stories we tell around the dining room table and changing that by even a
teaspoon can stir the pot.
As eldest sister, I have a long history of watching Mom. Looking back, I’m amazed at all we took for granted: her talent, her wit, her Italian persona. Mom was not Italian, but had lived with a family in Perugia for two years. This came about because Mom, a bit passive and accommodating as I saw her in the context of her marriage, always wanted to be an artist. But her parents insisted she go to a liberal arts college where she would become “well-rounded.” She would have more to say as an artist, they insisted. She paid them back by majoring in history of art, learning Italian, and going to Italy right after WWII. The experience shaped more than just her stuffing making. Peeling chestnuts late at night, she might tell you about the count who asked her to marry him in the most backward, passionless way, or her artist lover, as if you were her girlfriend as much as her daughter.
Nowadays you can find plain cooked
chestnuts already peeled in jars or sealed packets, but in the 50s and 60s and
70s, adding chestnuts to stuffing was a labor of love involving raw nuts. First
you had to slice an X on the bottom of each nut with a sharp paring knife so
that steam could escape. We were the kind of family that never had a sharp
knife. It was a chore that seemed interminable.
Next, you roasted them in the oven.
Here, Mom had an advantage: a Garland restaurant stove, bought at auction by
our architect father to accommodate six kids. Once they were done to perfection
(always dicey to get that part just right), came the hardest part of this long
job—peeling. I don’t know if you’ve ever
bought a bag of hot chestnuts from a street vendor in a New York City park (I
hear those days are long gone), but they don’t peel easily. They’re like little
brains, with lots of convolutions and a thin inner skin. I remember late nights
of peeling and talking, and the distinctive velvety texture of the inner
shells. My mother must have been exhausted by Thanksgiving morning.
She would have ordered a 24-lb turkey,
and we ate earlier in those days, so she would get up at 4AM to stuff it, sew
it shut, and slide it into the oven in time for midday dinner. We’d wake to the
smell of roasting turkey and aromatic stuffing as it slowly filled the house,
building anticipation—of cousins and aunts and uncles and lovely Grandma
coming, of delicious food. It was a mouth-watering smell full of the promise of
warmth, laughter and feasting.
While you’re prepping Thanksgiving dinner, during the meal, and in the
drowsy groaning aftermath, ask your older relatives for stories. Get details;
Life is such a little arc, as my mother would say. Too soon, the stories
will be gone forever.
The proportions are flexible; how big is your bird?
1 pound or so of Italian sausage (must contain fennel seed),
removed from casings if necessary
2 large onions, chopped
Sage and rosemary and thyme as you like, but I find any
stuffing is best with a little more seasoning than you’d think, since the
flavors meld together in cooking, and could become indistinct. I use fresh
garden herbs, usually still in the garden at Thanksgiving.
2 cups peeled, cooked chestnuts (Yipes! Don’t use marron
glacés, they’re sweetened for desserts!)
Mom baked bread
throughout our childhood, having been introduced to good bread in Italy. We
never had Wonder Bread and found it horrifying — no bite. These days, one
sister bakes beautiful artisan loaves, but I, having discovered I have celiac,
use homemade gluten free cornbread. No one complains.
Fry the sausage
in a large pan, breaking it up with a spatula. Do not drain. Add chopped
onions, and when the onion is soft, the bread and herbs. You might add up to a
stick of butter to moisten, but remember, the best stuffing is that cooked
inside the turkey cavity, where the juices moisten it. If you have leftovers
that don’t fit, add a little giblet stock to moisten, and cook covered.
Contributing writer Megan Johnson is a retired
English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.
On a recent Sunday, snow whirling outside, I scoured the house for something to read, hoping to curl up with a good thriller. Tucked in among a motley collection of still unpacked titles — picture books, college texts and weighty political tracts — I discovered a dog-eared copy of HMS Ulysses, the classic adventure story of combat in the North Atlantic. Captured by the cover image, a World War II cruiser steaming through stormy seas, I began to read the yellowed pages. This was my father’s war. The treacherous routes drawn up on the book’s nautical map would have felt familiar to him. And as I traced those journeys it struck me how little I knew of his harrowing years at sea and the memories he carried with him into old age.
The novel follows the fortunes of a merchant
convoy’s terrifying voyage to Russia’s Arctic outposts and the deadly game of
cat-and-mouse they play with Nazi U-boats and bombers. Hardly the kind of
narrative I regularly devour. So I was more than a little surprised to feel the
wave of longing and regret the story triggered.
It was the vivid descriptions that moved me:
mountainous rogue waves and Arctic temperatures of -60 F, clouds of frozen sea
spray and torpedo explosions bunched together in rapid-fire succession — three
hits in three seconds — that ripped and shredded metal, catapulting sailors
into the icy waters.
Through it all I pictured my dad. A ship’s
engineer, he survived 30 voyages across the Atlantic, including four missions
to Archangel and Murmansk. He was my son’s age, 26 years old, when he sailed
those deadly waters, running the North Atlantic gauntlet to Russia. More than
800 ships, 40 convoys, followed that route between 1941 and 1945, risking
everything to deliver supplies to the Soviet allies. Of those, over 100 never
made it home, marking it as one of the most dangerous duties of the Second
When we were kids my father shared few tales
of his adventures in the Merchant Marine, shrugging off that time as the
long-forgotten past. Near the end of his life he sometimes talked of a
Christmas Eve when the crew watched helplessly as a nearby tanker was
torpedoed, its sailors burning to death in oily Arctic waters. But mostly he
kept those horror stories to himself.
There was one scene he’d tell us kids, often
with a gruff laugh: “It was late night and I was on deck having a smoke. We
still didn’t have our orders. I hoped we might be headed for Scotland, maybe
get to go to shore, drink a warm beer, dance with a girl.”
Standing in the biting wind, braced against
the ship’s heavy pitch, he offered a fellow sailor a cigarette. The two men
peered into the winter sky, searching the stars to plot their voyage. It didn’t
take long to calculate. “So much for Scotland,” the sailor said, tossing his
cigarette over the stern. My father sighed as he trudged back to the engine
room and his duty. “It’s Murmansk. Again,”
As a child, my take away from the story was
that my father could navigate from the stars. As an adult, I find myself
considering all that my father left unsaid. What was he thinking as he stared
out into the darkness, facing the certainty of piercing cold days and countless
nights without sleep, the possibility of Arctic storms, and the unremitting
fear of sudden and violent death? I wish I’d urged my father to tell me the
story of those remarkable days. I wish I’d recorded his adventures and
documented his memories, decoding how they shaped him in later life to pass on
as a gift to future generations.
Maybe it’s the missed chance of witnessing my
father’s story that’s made me passionate about telling other people’s
histories. I’ve seen firsthand that the stories left untold are forever lost,
and that those told second-hand are corrupted in the retelling, each time with
more lapses and more inaccuracies until finally, drifting from generation to
generation, they simply fade away.
Talking to people about their lives — hearing
their remembrances, often deeply personal and emotional — is an extraordinary
privilege. It’s a privilege that is now my work.
The job begins with listening, but it’s in the writing that a unique theme
emerges and personal histories are woven into a larger story. A timeline for a
life can be constructed, but it’s placing our life stories in the crowded arc
of human events that gives them meaning for future generations and adds an
invaluable dimension to our own family story. It’s those stories that we
cherish most and hope to pass down to our children and grandchildren.