17 August, 2009

birthday delights

My word, as my Kentucky Aunt Mary Wayne would say, my word! It was 91 degrees in the shade for my mother's birthday party yesterday. Lord have mercy, she would also say, we were warm. John, slaving over the grill, I slaving over the oven, felt it the worst, I fear, but in any case no amount of sweat and red faces could spoil our fun. It was a wonderful, heart-warming day.

No time for tennis, from the word go, all day, every moment was accounted for in one delight or another. My mother and I fall into a pattern whereby she sits in as much comfort as she can, cruelly plagued by arthritis as she is, in the kitchen rocking chair and entertains me with stories of family and friends. I chop, boil, mix, sort, count napkins, and she reads aloud from "Soap Opera Digest," whereupon we ask each other, "Now surely Bo and Hope cannot have one more child killed. She'll just be kidnapped, do you think?" and my long-suffering husband calls over, "I hope you're not talking about real people that I'm supposed to care about." My father ambles through the kitchen, listening with one ear while also sampling the potato salad, the slaw, the coffee cake. They both watch while I turn a pile of scallops into gorgeous little parcels wrapped each in two basil leaves, then wrapped in a piece of bacon, then slid onto a skewer. Three per skewer, a good serving size (don't tell that to Joel, who was convinced they would be very BAD leftovers and so kindly ate two skewers-ful).

Dad went cheerfully with me and John to buy ice, and to fill the car with yellow balloons, a certain number of which burst in the heat of the day, and then we all, Avery included, strolled around Red Gate Farm tying them to the fence, to the azalea bush, to the rusty but sweet wrought-iron bench that sits demurely in front of the house, to the bench under the hydrangea tree which obligingly bloomed its greeny-white blossoms just in time for the party. The farm glowed with yellow ribbons.

And for those not wanting to eat scallops, I prepared a plate of bison burgers, of all things! My mother in law arrived for her visit last month filled with stories of the bison she had eaten on a holiday in Montana, and I thought, "Lead me to it!" Sadly I did not sample the burgers myself, but Avery and my sister and father raved about them. Avery claims there is a beefy flavor, but underneath that is another, deeper flavor that is truly delightful. It's worth a try. Perhaps later this week I can try them myself. With a piquant Provolone from the deli, red onion slices and a mixture of mayo, mustard and black pepper, they looked divine and smelled better.

The sun shone. Avery and Jane set up their course of jumps, and trampolined. The boys drank beer as John grilled, my sister fed the baby, Anne came briefly with an enormous jug, as you see, of flowers for my mother! "Somebody told me you liked yellow... and Kate is refusing to nap, so we'll be by when we can!" Poor Kate is cutting molars, and Avery described her experiences of twelve-year molars last year which even then were uncomfortable, so the poor baby experience can only be guessed at.

We ate, my goodness, how we ate. Quite the perfect slaw, I think, of Savoy and red cabbages, jicama and julienned carrots with a dressing full of mustard and poppy seeds, kindly brought to me by Joel, from the stash I brought to him! And why should potato salad be so heavy and mayonnaisey? It doesn't have to be. Here's mine.

Light Potato Salad
(serves 10)

5 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, steamed till tender, cut in bite-size cubes
4 stalks celery, minced
2 bunches scallions (spring onions), minced white AND green parts

1/3 cup olive oil
juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsps maple vinegar
1 tsp celery salt
1 tbsp mayonnaise
3 tbsps Dijon mustard
loads of fresh-ground black pepper
sea salt

Shake up all dressing ingredients except black pepper and toss with potatoes, celery and scallions. Grind the pepper over the salad and salt to taste.


This salad is light, tasty, summery, and perfect with burgers, ribs, chicken wings, you name it. And you can enjoy it without struggling through that gloppy, over-dressed fatigue that accompanies so many potato salads from delis. And no guilt.

Once we got to the cake, with its now-traditional legend "Happy Birthday, Mona," the girls gathered around their grandmother for a photo op, and it was like paparazzi, the parents with cameras! My mother, who has the most beautiful skin on the planet, simply glowed with the undeniable warmth, and also another warmth generated by being surrounded by beautiful girls, the next generation, smiling their love for her. Just a gorgeous day.

A quick cleanup, Molly down for her nap, my mother happily watching a Nascar race, John doing some complicated financial things, and the rest of us headed off to the swimming pool for a cool-down. That pool makes me laugh: it's so shabby, so old-fashioned, ringing with "Marco... Polo..." and an endless parade of unoccupied, gorgeous, washboard-stomach lifeguards of both sexes... we swam, Jane jumped off the side with her newly-acquired skills while her parents cheered, Avery dived, also a new skill this summer. Idyllic.

Back home, my sister and her family packed up to make for home and establish some sense of a much-needed routine evening! Enough party for a four-and-a-half year old with energy to spare... and we, we settled in for a nice cocktail hour on the terrace, warm and humid to be sure, but irresistible in the early-evening beauty. Then pierrade for us all, a protein injection in case we needed it. I think my dad was very skeptical about the whole process of grilling his own little bites of sirloin and duck, but he quickly was convinced by the sheer deliciousness of it, and my mother's requested sauteed mixed peppers were the perfect combination.

And for dessert? I've been trying to find an old recipe that my mother and I used to make for her ladies-who-study afternoon meetings, and for old Mother's Days gone by, lemon bars. What I ended up making was not the same at all, but it was nice. Still, we'd like to resurrect the old version which had as its filling, we recall, a mixture of lemon frosting mix and cream cheese. The version I made for the party evening came from mixing up several recipes that all sounded temptingly familiar, and yielded a much less rich thing than what we remember, but still provides a chewy, buttery crust that somehow merges with its lemony flavoring. Give it a try. I think Avery will blog it too.

Lemon Bars
(makes 24 bars)

1 box lemon cake mix
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, melted
1 cup unrefined sugar
zest and juice of 2 lemons
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs

Mix lemon cake mix and melted butter and press into a 9-inch square pan that you've sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 20 minutes at 350F.

With an electric mixer or (as I had to) just whipping really hard with a whisk, mix all remaining ingredients. When the crust comes out of the oven, when it's still hot, pour this mixture over the crust and then bake again for 25 minutes. Chewy, tart, buttery delight. Even I liked it.


John valiantly made it awake until 10 or so that night, and then retreated to bed. Anne had said earlier in the day, "It's always so cozy to look across the road at 5 in the morning, see a light on, and think, 'John's up!'" His early night left my parents and Avery and me to play Aggravation, and then Avery said, "I wonder what's in those old suitcases," pointing to a stack of antique leather suitcases that serves as a little decoration in the parlor, although we've been known to travel with them, in our old London days when we were young enough to care if we travelled stylishly. "Well, I can tell you that the bottom two are empty, but the top one is full of old photographs," I said, so we opened it up. The glamor! The style! Young, skinny, self-indulgent John and me from 20 years ago, in Moscow giving chewing gum to little Russian children, me in doctoral robes getting my PhD, gazed over by my beloved tutor and advisor, on whom I had a completely uncontrollable crush (fuelled by the fact that he had married no fewer than FOUR of his graduate students!), on happy walks in the Cotswolds with John's parents, in the streets of New York waiting to see Ralph Fiennes in "Hamlet"... with my parents at Buckland Manor in Oxfordshire, all of us so young.

Avery loved it! It's so funny, and sad in a way, although I just should be happy that we've had such a happy past. But how quickly it all went by. Such a short time to be glamorous and young, and I must say this summer, I can feel the torch passing to Avery's generation. She's about to be the one with exciting new opportunities, meeting the people who will be her adult world, traveling, taking risks. John and I amuse ourselves at our tennis games by asking, "What would you be willing to have Avery do when she's 16? Can she bring her boyfriend to Red Gate Farm for the summer? Can she travel with him to Europe? Can she go with a group that's chaperoned but not to study, just to travel?" I find myself MUCH more liberal about her plans than I would have expected, and John not so much! The protective father comes out in high relief. It is good to have a past to look back on without much to regret, no adventures that turned sour, no relationships that ended in tears, really. I know we can't expect to have the easy ride as parents that our parents did! We were so tame. And yet... we had fun.

So Happy Birthday, Mona, for another year. How lucky we feel to have had the day in the sunshine, to be together and play, and appreciate each other.

No comments: