Meaning in Molasses

There is a meditative peacefulness in observing the rich and lovely darkness of molasses, meandering across the lip of a glass bottle and flowing in a quiet cascade of sugary goodness into a measuring cup. The pouring of the syrup and the anticipation of its luscious sweetness offers a philosophical opportunity for the baker, which the mindless, crude scooping of white granulated sugar could never provide. The very viscosity of molasses, stretching slowly through space, settles the mind upon the simple beauty of a humble ingredient. Such present-minded pouring not only joyfully stimulates the taste buds, but the patience it requires also alights the deliciousness of gratitude upon the heart.

One does not wake up on a Saturday morning determined to find meaning in molasses. Philosophers and poets may naturally see the value in the ordinary, but for flawed, grieving, self-pitying mortals like me, it requires effort. I am deliberately determined to be more present in the daily routine of my life, but my effort is a practice, and it is oh so very far from perfect. Sometimes, however, almost like magic, I reap the sweet benefit of mindfulness and find quiet beauty, simple joy, and meaning in the mundane. It was just such a magical moment for me a couple of Saturdays ago, when feeling brave and ambitious, I washed and made tidy my kitchen pantry.

Cleaning out a kitchen pantry is an unpleasant chore, offering me nothing but a fleeting sense of satisfaction in exquisite organization destined for almost immediate destruction. For this reason, it is a chore I procrastinate; and because it is a chore I procrastinate, it is always a chore which sorely tests the limits of my extremely weak stomach. This particular cleaning required the chiseling away of encrusted residue of marshmallow cream and the wiping clean of two sticky pools of unidentifiable substances, creeping like monsters born in primordial ooze. Not only did the task of cleaning the pantry make me nauseous, but expired specialty items, like three cans of sweetened condensed milk, purchased for recipes long forgotten, stared at me like abandoned puppy dogs. As well, novelty ingredients such as a tin of anchovies packed in oil and a petite pot of peri-peri spice, purchased in the name of broadened cooking horizons, mocked my good intentions.

After washing my hands and calming my sick stomach, I gazed upon my trash bin and two paper grocery bags heaping full of wasted food and good money thrown away, and I withered. In the sight of so many casualties, a breathtaking first-world carnage, the only assessment was my exquisite failure. In that mood, I could not smile at an orderly cabinet, now glistening with washed glass bottles of cooking oils and vinegars and sanitized canisters and cans, lined up like ready soldiers. But then I remembered why I had tackled my long-neglected disaster of the pantry in the first place.

The Friday evening before, I had a telephone conversation with a friend, and we briefly talked about my intentions to halt all conspicuous consumption and to focus on spending good time instead of good money. She said that when she was on her year-long sabbatical in 2017, she conserved money by pulling out forgotten products from the backs of cabinets. She said, “you wouldn’t believe how much perfectly good stuff I had that I had completely lost track of and yet had continually been replacing.” As we talked, I stood in the kitchen and inspected my pantry, brimming full of items I had forgotten. Our conversation inspired the great pantry purge the following day.

When the pantry cleaning was complete and I had remembered the intended purpose of the task, I looked past the wasted items in the trash bin. I focused my attention instead on the beautifully organized pantry. My pantry may have been a mess of forgotten stuff before, but now it was a pantry full of perfectly good stuff I now knew I had. And among the perfectly good stuff was some perfectly wonderful stuff, too, like a tall jar of long forgotten, but unexpired molasses. “Duh,” Mack whispered in my head. “Sugar never expires.”

Molasses is an ingredient I always enjoyed incorporating into holiday baking with my girls, who loved gingerbread and gooey molasses cookies sharp with ginger. I decided to celebrate my clean pantry and the memories of happy Christmases past that the found molasses had spurred within me. I spent the next half hour or so reading recipes and examining other ingredients I had, looking for a recipe that would not require the purchase of anything new. I settled on a cake. In my pantry-purge cake, the molasses would be the star in tasty concert with a half-cup of golden raisins and three pink-lady apples just starting to soften and wrinkle in the back of my refrigerator’s fruit bin. The cake would be an homage to taking better stock of what I have, a ginger-strong nod to happy memories, and an ode to simple pleasures like molasses.

From the moment I poured the molasses into the measuring cup, I let the delicious syrup work its meditative magic. Never before had I employed such a satisfying and deliberate mindfulness in the making of a cake. When I pushed the cake tin full of the brown spicy batter into the oven, I could account for every minute I had spent in preparation. It is weird to realize how much daily life goes by for which we can make no accounting whatever. But it is also delightful to learn that you are capable of spending precious time living fully in a moment, even if what you are doing is baking a simple molasses cake.

My mindfulness that Saturday afternoon produced a cheerful glow in my attitude and a philosophical curiosity about how and why the hell I was finding meaning in molasses. The cake was pretty good, too. It was moist and warm with spice, and the light dusting of powdered sugar elevated the caramel depths of the molasses in no need of the cloying cream-cheese frosting I astutely edited from the recipe.

Busy and frustrated people might employ the old-fashioned phrase “slow as molasses in January” to express annoyance that another person in their way is going about some task with an insufficient amount of haste. But I think the expression merits a different meaning. To be “slow as molasses in January” is to be patient, to let life come to you at its own pace, and to be present for even the most humble of life’s experiences. It means that to full-stop it, to live in the moment, is to see value in the humble and beauty in the mundane.

Molasses might not be the metaphor for mindfulness, but on one Saturday in January it was mine. Letting this mindfulness in molasses happen was a victory. Because in my bumbling and stumbling journey forward through life, my human legs have often been running far faster than mindfulness allows, and I have missed far too much of the experience. If I slow it down like molasses in January, I know I will see much more of life’s interesting and beautiful terrain.

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Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts

Sometime between Mack’s I’m-on-kiddie-speed-get-outa-my-way phase and her tenth year, we went to an oyster bar for a family dinner. It was in Florida or southern Louisiana, I think, during one of our family escapes from a cold, Midwestern holiday. The restaurant was a cheesy, corporate-shack kind of a place with fish nets hanging from the ceiling and long communal tables covered with crisp white paper, fat paper towel rolls on metal spindles, and silver buckets for discarded seafood bodies. That is about all of the detail I remember about the time and the place, and I have no photos from the meal; but this seafood joint somewhere in the deep South was the setting for one of my most vivid (and horrible) Mack food memories.

This particular restaurant sold all varieties of seafood, but we had come for the oysters. Despite the numerous pounds of crab legs consumed on birthday dinners at Red Lobster and the crappy fried shrimp platters at Barrelhead, the Springfield bar and grill that helped raised my girls, Mack and her sister had never had oysters before that night. We ordered copious quantities of Rockefeller (the “gateway” oyster) and steamed and raw oysters on the half-shell. While Savannah first cautiously picked around the creamy spinach and cheese of the Rockefeller oysters, Mack dove right into the hard stuff. She starting shooting those raw oysters like a drunk springbreaker trying to win a round of free drinks for her friends. In between slurping down those little suckers, she made funny little food-satisfaction noises and praised the existence of oysters in the sea. We all laughed, congratulated Mack on her courage, enjoyed her delight in the feasting, and nibbled, mostly on those wimpy Rockefellers. I do not remember advising Mack to slow down and, in fact, I think we ordered another round.

And then Mack turned green.

Her brow was wrinkled up and her thin white lips were pursed together in a disheartened grimace. She sadly looked across the table at me and expelled a little whimper before abruptly pushing her chair away from the table and bolting across the dining room to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant. Savannah made some crack about how she knew that was gonna happen, and I went to check on the oyster queen. Mack was, of course, puking out her guts when I announced my arrival in the bathroom. Between heaves, Mack kept saying, “I’m ok, I’m ok. I’m ok.” When she emerged from the stall, her big brown eyes were bulging but she was no longer green. She washed her hands and splashed cold water on her face, and we returned to our table.

And then Mack took a big slurp of her coke and recommenced the eating of the oysters.

Undaunted. Seemingly impervious to the ghastly events of the previous ten minutes. Unwilling, I suppose, to let a little vomit come between her and good food. Determined as well, she later reflected, to make a good food memory out of those first-time oysters, to remember the deliciousness and not her rookie mistake.

Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts, baby! And then go back and eat some more.

Ergo, from Mack to me, and from me to you, this is Thanksgiving message 2017: Eat until it hurts, people. Let it out if you have to. And then drink some coke and go back in for some more. Enjoy the gorge and savor the delicious. Be brave. Try something new. And don’t you dare miss out on any oysters that might be hiding in your stuffing.

Oh, and at the end of the feast, don’t forget to construct that Mack-style perfect last bite.

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Is this baby Mack eating crayons and drinking beer?

More Freaking Forks

This summer, Jacquie, my niece and Mack’s oldest cousin, traveled to the UK on vacation with her boyfriend Jon. One evening, in casual summer clothing—perfect for daytime wandering upon the cobbled London streets but less ideal for upscale dining—they popped into an appealing eatery for dinner. Upon escort to their table, Jacquie felt under-dressed and very uncomfortable, as she realized she found herself in a fancy restaurant. As she was seated, however, Jon noticed the decor behind her, which immediately put her at ease. Shining boldly on the wall was a giant dinner fork. Suddenly, Mack appeared to tell her to chill the fuck out, to remember that the clothing one is wearing should not dictate the quality of the food that one should eat, and to order well and enjoy it.

Jacquie Forks

Jacquie and the London Fork.

For those of you who do not remember or do not know about Mack and forks, particularly ginormous freaking forks, I point you now to an old blog entry that will enlighten and entertain: https://macksmommabear.com/2014/11/06/forks/

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Mack and a Fork at Pier One Imports.

Oh, and recently a friend of mine ran into the enormous flatware below and she paused to remember Mack fondly and share a laugh with her; and, of course, she sent me a picture to share the memory. It is heartwarming to me that people who loved Mack have these moments in their daily lives to spend with her, to keep her memory alive, and to continue reaping the benefits of her wit, her joy, and her wisdom.

Nina Forks

Nina’s Found Flatware.

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Mack Memorial Fork on a wall in the McDermott family cabin in Wisconsin (that’s a picture of Mack underneath it).

Macksgiving

In America, Thanksgiving is about tradition, gratitude, food, and family, in various orders of importance, of course, depending upon individual traditions, particular propensities for thankfulness, the quality of the food, and the level of dysfunction within one’s own family. In our family, the Thanksgiving priority was always on the food with a double order of laughter on the side, mackoand so it was, naturally, one of Mack’s favorite days of the year. Our tradition was to travel to Charleston, Illinois, where my brother-in-law spent hours smoking ribs for Mack because she despised turkey, my sister presented an accompanying feast extravagant enough for kings, and we all ate ourselves into comas, but not before splitting seams from all of the laughter.

Without our Mack as master of ceremonies for comedy and for shoveling food into one’s face, there is a whole lot less laughter on holidays, and particularly so on Thanksgiving. In 2014 and 2015, my sister Tracy bravely continued the tradition of preparing the feast, my brother-in-law Jason remained committed to smoking those ribs in the spirit of Mack, and we began a new family tradition of creating a Mack  Perfect Last Bite. But, Thanksgiving is still not right without Mack. Nor, I think, will it ever be. So this year, we are shaking things up a little. No, we are shaking things up way more than a little. This year, Tracy is getting a break from the cooking and Jason is getting a break from the smoke. They will meet Kevin and I in St. Louis, and Savannah and her boyfriend Levi and my niece Zoe will arrive from Chicago to join us. On Thanksgiving morning, all of us will “compete” in the St. Louis Turkey Trot in glorious Forest Park before sitting down to a meal that I am preparing, a meal I have billed as Macksgiving.

Now wait a minute, you say. Mack would never have approved of such physical exertion on the most important eating day of the year. And in so saying, you, my friend, would be absolutely correct. But this year, our feast will feature a long list of Mack’s favorite foods, most of which are a million miles from healthy, many of which are gut-busting comfort dishes that each alone would set you back a day’s caloric intake, and some of which are not even really food at all. Therefore, I believe that Mack would applaud our efforts to run off a few calories before sitting down to Macksgiving in her honor, and I KNOW she’d approve of this menu!

Macksgiving

Appetizers:
Sushi, Thai Spring Rolls, Deviled Eggs

Main Courses:
Baked Smoked Ham, Mack ‘n Cheese with Bacon, Texas Cheesy Potatoes, Homemade Noodles

Sides:
Green Bean Casserole
Spicy Roasted Brussel Sprouts
Roasted Broccoli
Hawaiian Rolls

Desserts & Snacks:
New York Cheesecake with Raspberries
Powdered Miniature Donuts
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Funyons
Candy (Laffy Taffy, Sour Punch Straws, and Warheads)
Blue Gatorade

On Macksgiving, Mack  will be with me as I run. She’ll be in my ear, cackling away, slinging gentle insults about my slow pace. Her laughter will whisper in the wind, and her spirit will reside in my own. On Macksgiving, Mack will be with me for every bite, as I enjoy the foods she loved so well. I will prepare my traditional perfect last bite, think of Mack, and offer gratitude for the twenty  years she graced this earth with her beautiful presence. But on Mackgiving, I will still keenly feel the absence of my girl, who was the soul of this indulgent holiday and whose chair for me will always be empty.

Comfort Food TV

In the past few months, I have spent perhaps hundreds of hours watching the Food Network. While I have always been familiar with the power of comfort food, I am now of the very strong opinion that comfort food TV is even better where missing my Mack is concerned. It occurred to me the other day that on particularly sorrowful and lonely evenings, I find myself settled in on my brown leather recliner in my cozy bedroom, watching the Food Network. Some nights I come out of my comfort food TV coma and realize I have just watched four episodes of Chopped and two episodes of Cupcake Wars! For this, I blame Mack, and here’s why…

Like most kids, Mack was a TV addict. Like most millennials, she was raised on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. But my little Macko was also a little weirdo, and she spent more hours watching the fledgling Food Network than she spent watching SpongeBob SquarePants. And that, my friends, is saying something. Mack watched the Food Network way before the Food Network was cool, and by the time she was eight-years-old, Mack had favorite celebrity chefs. Now, I ask you, have you ever known a kid who could name even one celebrity chef? Among Mack’s favorites were Bobby Flay because he was “cute and rocked the spicy food,” Rachel Ray because she was always doing a “Mack happy-happy dance,” and Paula Dean because she used such generous quantities of Mack’s beloved bacon and butter. Mack also had opinions about chefs she did not like so much. She called Giada de Laurentiis “Dinosaur Lady” because of her large head and teeny body; and to my Mack, Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa, was “The Boring Contessa.”

Mack critiqued, mimicked, and mocked most all of the Food Network chefs, but she was also a cute little fountain of food knowledge, thanks to the Food Network. She frequently asked me why our humble Springfield kitchen lacked pancetta, truffle oil, or an immersion circulator. I think Mack might have been about ten when she announced that she well understood the Food Network show formula, that she had her own food “point of view,” and her show Mack’s Mackin’ Bacon was sure to make her the next Food Network star. She made a very good argument, too, that food TV viewers wanted to watch chefs cook unhealthy ingredients. She was absolutely certain, as well, that her own humorous and creative approach to a beautiful slab of bacon was certain to result in international chef celebrity, culinary endorsements, and her own line of bacon and bacon-related products. And, most importantly, she promised to outfit my kitchen with that immersion circulator just as soon as she had achieved her culinary dreams.

Mack was never very good at keeping her obsessions to herself, and she chose me to share her love of comfort food TV. Her bait was Iron Chef America, as I suppose she thought I’d dig the sporting aspect of the show. At first I thought cooking competition shows were ridiculous, and the weird “chairman” master of ceremonies and the frenetic pacing of Iron Chef made me anxious. But Mack persisted, frequently begging me to sit on the end of her bed and watch the unveiling of the “mystery ingredient” or the judging of plates at the end of the show. To entertain me further, Mack impersonated the food-nerd-host Alton Brown, who played the role of a sideline reporter, and she cackled every time the show employed instant replay when the chefs flipped an omelet or tossed a strawberry-basil granita base into the blast chiller. Mack’s giggle always did bring me around. As well, I marveled at her knowledge of the cooking techniques employed by the chefs, and her infectious enthusiasm for watching them prepare creative and beautifully plated dishes under absurd time constraints finally wore be down.

My favorite activity with Mack was watching sports, but my second favorite activity was, ultimately, watching the Food Network. Late at night we would sit up and watch Mack’s favorite shows and talk about cooking and food. During those three precious months before Mack left for college (and her dad was already settled in St. Louis), we watched episode after episode of Chopped. Mack had used Iron Chef as the gateway drug to get me hooked on comfort food TV, and now I’d rather waste an hour watching an episode of Chopped than doing almost anything else. It should not have surprised me that Mack enjoyed food competition shows. I should not have been shocked that I lined up right behind her to consume so many myself. I guess the foodie nut does not fall far from foodie tree.

But what I would never have guessed then and only fully recognized a few days ago, is that one simple joy of Mack’s is now a simple and comforting lifeline for me. I can settle in to taste some good comfort food TV and escape my sorrows. I can easily imagine Mack sitting next to me as four talented chefs try to make a tasty appetizer out of Chinese celery, fresh chickpeas, preserved lemons, and country-style pâté. I can see Mack Googling preserved lemons on her IPhone and suggesting some creative way that the chefs might integrate them into a dish without overwhelming the chickpeas. I can hear her evil little giggle when one of the chefs inadvertently omits one of the basket ingredients. And I can feel her excitement as another chef haphazardly splatters a wine-reduction sauce across the plates just as time expires.

I find myself now wondering if Mack’s addiction to butter, bacon, and spicy food and her own cheerful and kooky food-nerd personality had less to do with her parents and her own family food traditions and more to do with the hundreds of late night hours and school holidays she spent consuming the Food Network. I also now ponder the prospect that Mack may have spent her life after college pursuing some career that married two of her great passions: TV and food. But there is one thing I know for certain: my girl gave me the gift of comfort food TV, it was a simple and silly pleasure we enjoyed together, and Mack is using it now as her own mystery ingredient for Momma Bear coping on my more sorrowful nights without her.

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In this photo, Mack and I were eating Thai food and watching Chopped. Mack loved this photo because she and Pepper (in the shadows, bottom right) “look like twins!”

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Comfort food in our Springfield kitchen. Notice our dogs at the bottom of the picture (Hops, left, and Barley, right) begging for a taste.

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Olives are a favorite McDermott comfort Food, and Olive Fingers was a favorite Macko tradition. I am not sure about the blue stain on her lips, but I suspect markers!

Missing Mack

It has been a rough month. No lies. Like amusement park rides, emotional roller coasters make me nauseous, and March has jarred my body, unsettled my mind, and bounced my spirit up, down, and sideways. I spent most of the days of this month, sometimes hours at a time, keenly missing my Mack, missing life around me, and mostly missing any level of strength to cope with my sorrow. Passing a second of Mack’s birthdays without her, giving the most important professional presentation of my life at Ford’s Theatre just two days later, making my first visit to Mack’s grave at Oak Ridge Cemetery, and then marking the fifteen-year anniversary of my father’s death on the same day as a McDermott family dinner in Mack’s honor really beat the crap out of me. March has punched me hard in the gut; and right now rainy April never looked so good.

But I am not writing today to remain submerged within my sea of sorrows. Rather, I am writing today to settle my stomach, to put March 2016 in my past, and to set my sights on a happier spring. I want to leave behind this emotionally challenging and spiritually draining month by sharing the blessing of a new family tradition of which my sweet, spicy and always hungry Mack would heartily approve. Mack’s cousin Jacquie, the eldest McDermott cousin, had the idea last year to plan a Mack Day Dinner, and so we gathered for Thai food, Mack’s favorite cuisine, on her first missed birthday, on March 17, 2015. Then, on March 26, 2016, at the King & I Thai restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, twenty-six McDermotts made the Mack Day Dinner an annual tradition. From the belly of our sorrows, a beautiful new family tradition is born. A tradition in which we can all miss Mack together. A tradition that will keep us connected to Mack’s spirit. A tradition that will keep us connected to each other. And a tradition that tethers the past, the present, and the future.

Missing my Mack…

Mack

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March 26, 2016

Missing my dad (here with Mack)…baby Mack and Dad

But thankful for a new tradition…

 

A Thanksgiving Tradition for Mack

Thanksgiving is a perfect American holiday because it is a holiday for all Americans, it transcends religious and cultural divides, it encourages gratitude, it focuses on the family table, and it celebrates food. For all of those reasons, Mack loved Thanksgiving, but mostly she loved it for the food. Every year as we drove to my sister’s house for our annual family feast, Mack would say something like: “Thanksgiving is da best, because I can eat three plates of noodles and no one will judge me.” (I can certainly attest that Mack could definitely put down some noodles!). Sharing a meal with Mack was delightful, because her love and appreciation for food was infectious; and Mack’s enthusiasm for food and her joy of eating always enriched our Thanksgiving dinners together. All holidays without Mack are difficult, but I feel her absence more keenly when food is the focus, and so Thanksgivings without her will always be particularly sad days for me.

In bracing myself last year for my first Thanksgiving without Mack, I wrote a blog about Mack’s love of food and her unique philosophy of eating. At most every meal she ever ate, Mack saved a perfect last bite for the end. It was a bite that epitomized the best qualities of the meal. A bite for which she would close her eyes to more deeply savor the food she had just enjoyed. A bite that would linger on her tongue and remain in her brain. Since writing that Thanksgiving blog, I have frequently finished a meal with a Mack-perfect last bite. It is a small and quiet way to honor my girl, but it is also a reminder to me to stop for a moment to appreciate the simple joy of good food. Thanksgiving is a holiday of food and of gratitude, and so it was a Mack-perfect holiday; and a Mack-perfect last bite is a perfect holiday tradition that I will always observe. So go break bread with your families. Go gorge yourselves on noodles (no one will judge you and Mack will definitely approve). And then, end the meal with a perfect last bite to savor, to appreciate, and to remember.

For inspiration from Mack’s perfect-last-bite philosophy, please read last year’s Thanksgiving blog: https://macksmommabear.com/2014/11/26/the-perfect-last-bite/. I think you will see that Mack’s joyous approach to food was, indeed, an inspiration. Love and cheers to you all and my best good wishes that your perfect last bites this Thanksgiving will be memorable.

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McDermott Family Cheers in Ireland, 2002. (Mack is reppin’ the Yankees in her motherland).