Friday, November 24, 2006

#156 - Tag Team Thanksgiving

The kitchen at Hacienda Woody is a nice-sized kitchen. Its primary charm is that it is nearly twice as large as was our kitchen in our old townhouse, which really isn't saying much. The townhouse kitchen was about the size of a large bathroom which meant if you turned around quickly you were likely to bump into something, like the fridge. So relatively speaking, our current kitchen is actually quite roomy.

I spend a lot of time in this kitchen. Since I have two young daughters who have entered that "I wanna help" stage of life, I frequently find myself sharing kitchen space with them. This can be both good and not quite so good. It's good from the perspective of having two little helpers in the kitchen. It can be not quite so good when they both wanna help, and they're dealing with poor ol' Dad who is, let's face it, NOT a multi-tasker of the higher order. My idea of multi-tasking is having TWO (count 'em: 2) things cooking simultaneously. When you add two Woodyettes both asking if they can do something, my hard-wired simplex brain explodes into bits of gray goo that probably wind up in the chowder. Yum.

Oddly enough, Thanksgiving was the exception this year. I believe this is because a) they were too excited about the Feast to be worrying Dad with constant requests to assist, and b) Mrs. Woody was sharing the kitchen with Daddy. When Mrs. Woody is on staff at La Cocina Woody, Woodyettes are given every chance they want to help. Mrs. Woody, that is. On stressful days like Thanksgiving where Woody was watching over THREE (Aaaargh! 3!) courses, the Woodyettes seemed to instinctively know that Daddy was best left to his own cooking stations.

Mrs. Woody and I cook together all the time. The truth is that we complement each other as chefs. It's not even really a matter of one being a sous (or, if Woody is sufficiently stressed, soused) chef to the other. It's more a matter of each being a specialist. Mrs. Woody, for example, is our menu planner and food preparer. That is, she decides what we'll be eating at any given meal, then helps by peeling, dicing, slicing, and is only available through this TV offer from RONCO! (Sorry. Got carried away.) In other words, she does the things Woody dislikes doing so that Woody is free to play with fire.

(Note: Isn't this the way it is in life? Women do all the work so men can play. Sometimes it's good to be me.)

For a huge feast like Thanksgiving, however, both of us must spend time in the kitchen if we desire to eat before National Shopping Day commences. This is where we discover that our kitchen is not quite as large as we'd really like. We have a stove/oven combination that sits uncomfortably close to a narrow corridor leading into the service porch. Unfortunately, we have key cooking paraphernalia stored in that corridor so that if one of us is manning the stove, that person needs to move any time the other one needs something like salt or vinegar or any kind of pan.

However, Mrs. Woody and I have developed a nearly instinctive ability to anticipate each other's needs, so it's never quite the logistical nightmare that one might envision.

Our feast yesterday was basic. Daddy was responsible for the turkey. Daddy - a devout Christian - bows to the demi-god of American male cuisine and uses Alton Brown's approach to roast turkey, except for the brining. Brining is waaay more work than Woody is willing to put into any bird as incredibly dull-witted as the turkey. Woody dealt with turkeys in Guatemala, and Woody is impressed with the idea that any creature can be this brainless and still walk on only two legs. So brining is out. Woody has, however, become a HUGE fan of aromatics rather than stuffing when cooking the bird. We love Alton's apple-cinnamon blend. It gives the bird a very nice flavor all the way through its tenth and eleventh lives as leftovers.

Daddy also did the candied yams and the mashed potatoes. Daddy always does the mashed potatoes. It's a kind of compulsion that Daddy has. This is probably because Grandpa always did the mashed potatoes, and Woody always wanted to do everything Grandpa did (including wearing glasses!). So I've become a pretty decent potato masher.

Mrs. Woody concentrated on the pumpkin pies, the cranberry sauce, the rolls, the gravy, and the stuffing. For the stuffing, Mrs. Woody bowed to the Rachael Ray Franchise, Inc.™© and did her "Stuffin' Muffins" recipe. We both thought this was extremely clever when we saw it on her "Thankgiving Dinner in 60 Minutes" show the other day, and Mrs. Woody pulled it off beautifully. They came out with just the right amount of crunchiness to please Mrs. Woody and yet were soft enough in the middle to satisfy Woody's traditionalist heart. The pumpkin pies were scrumptious, and the sauce (Woody let it overcook a bit on his watch. Woody is extremly penitent about it) had just the right amount of tartness and sweetness.

Mrs. Woody does the gravy because Woody still doesn't trust himself to do a decent roux. This is at least partly because Woody still cracks up every time he hears the word "roux," and envisions stirring small stuffed kangaroos into the gravy. ("Help me, Christopher Robin!")

The pies and stuffing were of course assisted by the Woodyettes. Or, probably more accurately, the Doodle Woodyette. Time has proven that when a Significantly Exciting Event is nigh, Jelly just can't seem to settle down to any one task. She has to bounce. She no longer uses a huge rubber ball to do her bouncing, either. She just bounces, generally on the balls of her feet, all over the house. So we can't really rely on Jelly for any real help in the kitchen. This is probably a good thing, given our kitchen's relative size.

All in all, we had a marvelous feast yesterday. There are, by my conservative reckoning, enough leftovers to feed two or three developing nations for at least a week, but which Woody will probably consume in two or three work lunches. Plus all the soups, stews, and kebobs that Mrs. Woody is planning for the rest of this week. Did I mention a vat or two of Turkey Noodle soup? Gotta have that.

So the Woody household was very well-fed yesterday, and therefore also extremely grateful. We had Mrs. Woody's mom visiting with us, which by itself is a mini-miracle. We really did spend time to enumerate many things for which our family can be thankful this year, none the least of which is the very real possibility that we have at least one ancestor that was present at that very first thanksgiving feast so many years ago.

I'll bet he would have loved our kitchen.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

#155 - Miraculous Woodyettes

The Woodyettes both achieved milestones this past Sunday. It was the day of our annual Primary Sacrament program. As I have documented before, these programs have become edge-of-the-seat tension builders for me and the Missus over the past few years. This is because our lovely daughters are both painfully shy. It's not their fault; both Woody's and Mrs. Woody's family lineages are replete with bashful genes. How those genes managed to reproduce is subject to some conjecture.

Anyway, the fact remains that for each of the past several programs the Woodyettes have passed through varying stages of petrification in the presence of any crowd greater than three. This is particularly ironic given the fact that their old man has been a long-time actor and singer (the order is unclear even now) for whom a good crowd holds no terror. Not even costuming that one might consider minimalist could deter me from a performance.

Imagine, then, Woody's joy and pride as he watched both Woodyettes march right up to the microphone and speak their parts. Jelly fumbled hers just a bit at the end, but she substituted words that made sense to the theme, thus demonstrating her excellent stage recovery technique. Doodle just belted away in that still-little-girl voice of hers, but spoke clearly enough that just about everyone in the congregation who knows her was duly impressed.

Just as impressive was witnessing both girls singing all of the songs this year. In the past, Doodle would attempt at least some of the songs, while Jelly would stand there looking grim and entirely uncomfortable. Well, this year Jelly still looked uncomfortable, but she was singing - even when her class was by itself. Doodle just stood and sang. It was wonderful to watch.

This is similar to our Photos With Santa. Every year you can track the girls' levels of relative terror at having to sit on the Big Guy's lap and pretend to be thrilled. Doodle in particular is a wonderful study. She goes from near-complete ignorance of the entire process (at 12 months old) to near-complete apoplexia a couple of years ago. Last year she actually smiled. Another milestone!

The point is that our Woodyettes seem to be turning those corners where they no longer need to remain safe and snug in their protective shells. In nearly all social situations they show themselves to be growing into poised, graceful young ladies.

Then they come home and bounce off the walls.

One miracle at a time, I guess.

Monday, November 13, 2006

#154 - Woody's Music Wish List

So I'm in the market for a few recordings. I either need to replace some old recordings that have gotten banged up over the years, or find some that I've never had and always wanted.

This morning I drove to work listening to an old cassette of Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances." I think it's an old Naxos recording of, I don't know, probably the Azerbaijan National Symphony or some such entity. The problem is that the conductor, believing he only had about 15 minutes of tape per side, set a hellatious tempo that either the chorus or the orchestra (or sometimes both, I'd bet) had a difficult time following. In any case, they spend most of their time being barely synchronized. Also, this particular conductor tends to have two dynamics: very soft or HIDEOUSLY LOUD. It's funniest when he tries to get the chorus to match the orchestra during the HIDEOUSLY LOUD sections, because they're already spritzing Chloraseptic by the gallon by this time.

Anyway, I'd love someone to recommend to me a well-crafted recording of this piece in the original Russian. That's the way I sang it several years ago, and I just love the way the language rolls off the tongue. I'm not sure what language this bunch are singing, but it ain't Russian.

Next: I need a good recording of Vaughan-Williams' "Five Mystical Songs." The recording I have (and still love) is an old vinyl of the King's College Choir at Cambridge from the 70's featuring David Willcocks conducting and baritone John Shirley-Quirk. Side A of this platter is V-W's "Mass in G minor." This was the first classical recording my parents ever gave me, and it cemented my love of Vaughn-William's inimitable style. I am dying to perform the "Mystical Songs," but I need a venue. *sigh*

I bought a CD from Amazon a few years ago that featured some chancel choir in St. Louis, I think. It was a sincere recording, but the baritone's tremolo was turned all the way up, and it was difficult to hear what key he was singing in. Sometimes it matched the orchestra, other times it seemed to miss. For sheer entertainment value, this CD is nearly on par with Mrs. Miller.

Anyway, (back to my point) the old vinyl has long since gotten scratched nearly to the point of destruction and I'd love to replace it. I've burned it to a CD for now, but cheap noise reduction algorithms are no substitute for the real deal. So far, the John Shirley-Quirk version is still the best I've ever heard. I wouldn't mind being proved wrong.

Finally: ccwbass reminded me that - lo, many years ago - I had a platter of the 1954 NBC telecast of "Amahl and the Night Visitors." It was an RCA recording, as I recall, and I played that thing over and over and over as I prepared to play Amahl when I was twelve years old. This is where we learned that Woody has fabulous tonal retention. We performed this with the local high school and Mom was our orchestra. We performed it for the local elementary schools one morning as a special assembly, and the performance went off largely without a hitch. Until, that is, the fire alarm went off in the middle of one of my recits. (This was the early 70's, and it was still considered a dangerous prank to pull the fire alarm, causing evacuations and response from the local firefighters. Kids thought this was hilarious and administrators were constantly embarrassed at having to cancel the fire station's response. Nowadays if the worst thing to happen on your campus is a pulled fire alarm, you're having a terrific day.)

We all froze on stage while our director came up and explained to the kids that this was, in fact, good theatre technique. What it really was, in truth, was a bunch of kids who had no idea what to do until the alarm was turned off and the "all clear" was given. But since I had been in the middle of a recit when we stopped, everyone wondered how to get back into the performance. Fortunately Mom began playing right where we'd left off, and this puny boy soprano managed to start right in on pitch. I can be useful that way.

So there's my current short-list. Borodin, Vaughan-Williams, and Menotti.

At some point I'll need to find a good recording of Resphigi's "Laud to the Nativity." I have a recording made by the Cambridge Singers of Pasadena some years ago (I believe that was just before my time with the group), and it's a comfortable recording. Except, unfortunately, for the middle chant portion where the men manage to drop a full half-step about three measures into the a cappella. Otherwise, I've already been playing this one for about two weeks now. I'm in no hurry to replace it. Not yet, anyway.