musings, life lessons & poetry from Theresa Jarosz Alberti

Month: July 2012

A Pinch of This, a Dash of That

Last night for dinner, I threw together a chicken salad, after having had a little of someone else’s at a party the night before.  Nothing so remarkable about that, really, making dinner, ho hum, but then I realized when I’d finished and it really was quite tasty– hey, I just threw this together without a recipe!  And that’s the part that amazes me when I think about it… that I’ve cooked enough over the years that I have a pretty large repertoire of things I can cook/bake/make without going to a cookbook or the Internet.

A chicken salad isn’t very difficult, but I played with it, adding halved grapes and apple chunks, celery, onions, cucumbers.  Through trial and error, I’ve learned that I don’t want just straight mayo as the dressing–  after reading labels of other deli salads I’ve liked, I discovered adding a bit of Dijon, some splashes of white vinegar, salt and pepper (I am a pepper fiend, always use it, but not overuse), and a few pinches of sugar.  Just a little sugar takes the acidity of the mustard and vinegar down a notch.  I added water to thin the dressing.  Tossed into the salad, it was great.

I started cooking when I was a kid, the oldest daughter helping mom in the kitchen.  It was the ’70s, the time of the Boxed Everything foods, so I learned to make Jell-0 and pudding and mac-n-cheese and Hamburger Helper.  Mom regularly baked cookies from scratch, so I learned to do that, graduated to baked chicken and chili.  I took some summer cooking classes and learned that I could just try out recipes on my own.  I tried a Baked Alaska that melted some in the oven, and a 3-layer butter cake with chocolate icing.

When I was newly married in my 20s and didn’t want to eat those boxed foods anymore, I started reading cookbooks and learned a lot from Jane Brody and her “Good Food Book,” a bible about cooking and nutrition.  Bulgur?  Lentils? I discovered a whole world of food that I’d never heard of or tried.  I experimented with  all sorts of new things, and wrote notes in my new cookbooks– “Great!”  “We didn’t like.”  “Needs more ___.”

I guess it’s been a long education since I’ve been cooking most of my life, and became the chief chef for my family over 20 years ago.  For the most part I like cooking, but there have been days or weeks where I can’t stand it and it feels torturous to have to think about what to make for dinner all the time.  And certainly not everything turns out–  my family likes to mention “Chard Cheese Pie” to tease me (bleah, tasted sour, despite the glowing recipe intro that said what a favorite it was– not for us!).  And there was “Swamp Soup,” a green zucchini-based kinda slimy soup that only one of us liked– my older son who was about 8 at the time and didn’t like a lot of things.  Go figure.

It feels fun and creative when I can just whip something up, throw it together, use what I’ve learned through trial and error, add a little of this or that to something to change it up.  It’s best when it works and tastes great, but even with the mistakes, at least I’ve learned something.  I still use recipes a lot of the time —  and I’ll give a big grateful shout-out to the Internet, that endless source of recipes, just search any old ingredient, woo hoo!  But sometimes I just get my groove on with my intuition, my Spidey-sense about what I could add to make this taste better, part chemist, part artist, part crazy cook.  And then we get to eat!


Living Inside Books

Girls playing Betsy-Tacy

This past weekend I got to experience another world– somewhat like living inside a book, immersed with other folks in the imagination of a writer… the people, places and events she created.  It wasn’t a re-enactment, but we were in a little sensory time-warp bubble.  The author was Maud Hart Lovelace, the books were the Betsy-Tacy series, and the world was “Deep Valley” (as she dubbed Mankato, Minnesota in her books) and the years were 1892 – 1917.  I was in Mankato for the Betsy-Tacy Convention.

Betsy and Tacy in the piano box

Maud wrote about her childhood and early adulthood growing up in Mankato in these books– they are based on her life, but she maintained they were ficitonalized.  She changed names and locations and situations; she created stories based on some reality; she embellished.  When I was a kid eating up these books like candy, I wished they were real.  I looked up “Deep Valley” on the Minnesota map and could never find it, so I assumed they were totally fictional.  It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I discovered the reality part of the fiction.

These were books I re-read many times over the years.  I loved the world Maud created, and these characters felt like my friends (yes, I did have real friends, too!).  I identified with Betsy, who knew from a young age she wanted to be a writer.  But until the mid-90s, “I thought I was the only one” (a catch-phrase of Betsy-Tacy fans).  For brevity, I’ll keep it short… but I discovered an email listserv of Betsy-Tacy fans, two societies working to promote the books, and I have been a part of all of these groups for 17 years now.

Going to Mankato this weekend for another B-T Convention (we’ve had them every few years) is as much about seeing the many people I’ve come to know and love online, and in the societies, as it is about seeing the actual historical sites.  We have become a close-knit community, and that made the convention extra special.





But there are also the actual houses of the real Betsy/Maud and Tacy/Bick that have been bought and restored, and many historical places to visit in the town.  Living inside the Betsy-Tacy books this weekend also meant:  listening to speakers, some of whom corresponded with Maud, a young adult author panel, a costume parade, a legacy panel of descendants of the series’ characters, a sing-along, touring Minneapolis since one of the books takes place here, a trivia contest, socializing and drinking, and much more.

I feel really, really lucky to have come across this community of fans– it’s brought me friendship and fun, shared experiences and many great book recommendations.  People sometimes look at me strange when I talk about these books, the people I meet because of them, and how excited I get about all of this.  But I feel grateful to be able to live inside these books, and have a weekend like this one where it all becomes even more real.  After all, I can whisper to my childhood self, “guess what?  You’re not the only one!”  🙂


Dancing Like a Fool

Dance Central 2 for Xbox Kinect

I’ve surprised myself.  If you would have asked me 10 years ago, I doubt I would’ve considered myself a dancer.  But today I do–  certainly not a professional dancer, but just a person who loves to dance.

I’m an unlikely dancer.  I still have well over triple-digits to lose, and somewhere along the line in my 30’s and having kids, I totally lost touch with my body (hey, I think those 2 things just might be connected).  But even then, whenever we’d go to a wedding dance or a place with a dance floor, there was this little urge inside me, wanting to get up and groove.  But oh, fear and shame came up, and I squelched that urge.

Five or so years ago, I did start getting back in touch with my body– I felt so awful physically and emotionally I just had to do something.  I started going to the YWCA regularly, doing a little at a time, lost some weight, started feeling MUCH better.  After awhile, I got a trainer, who pushed me harder… and the best thing was, I got her to help me start going to exercise classes (which I’d been afraid to do before).

After a cautious beginning, I started trying out different classes, discovered Zumba– a Latin-based cardio dance workout.  You shake your hips a lot!  I decided early on that I was going to let go of caring how I looked– because of course there are huge mirrors all around in the class studio.  I was going to go for it, just dance like it was no one’s business and have fun.  And amazingly, exercise became fun!

Since then, I’ve gone on to take some hip-hop classes, different Zumba classes, got my husband to take some ballroom dance lessons with me, and found a new favorite class called Flash Mob, which is hip-hop and pop and world music, with a very fun teacher… it’s like a dance party.  And my daughter and I have discovered Dance Central on our Xbox Kinect.  She doesn’t like to exercise but will eagerly join me in the basement to sweat and dance.

I did take 5 years of tap, ballet and jazz as a youngster, and I taught myself to disco dance from a book back in the 70s, when “Saturday Night Fever” was popular.  Maybe the urge was always inside me, dormant for many years, but I’m glad to say it’s thriving now.  All I know is I’m having fun, dancing at last.

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