By Susie Berta
Meetings and gatherings these days are a challenge. One word: “pandemic.”
Unlike in pre-internet pandemics, we now have technological options — virtual platforms created to emulate face-to-face meetings.
No longer used solely by businesses, these platforms have become commonplace for the population at large.
Now everybody and their cousin can tune in to see the baby’s new tooth. Or read a grandchild a bedtime story. Or “meet for coffee,” each in his own kitchen — in pajama bottoms and house slippers — making toasting gestures toward a flat monitor bearing a friend’s face. Or say goodbye to a loved one alone in the hospital. Do these virtual gatherings ease the pain of separation?
Do they contribute to actual well-being? Maybe. But at best they serve as pale substitutes for reality. We have Facetime on iPhones, whatever Android phones have and lots of others, like the ever-vigilant Amazon robot with the hair trigger, which now has a video screen, whose name starts with an “A” and ends in “lexa” which I hardly dare utter aloud or in print.
If she hears even a close facsimile of her name she perks up, glows green and starts talking. Especially frustrating when I’m already in a Zoom meeting trying to help a fellow Zoomer unmute themselves.
So take Zoom. Please, take Zoom! (If your age is under, oh, “ancient,” Google Henny Youngman’s wife joke. You’ll get the reference. Maybe you had to be there.) Zoom’s a blessing and a bane in hard times. There’s a learning curve, and if you Zoom, who hasn’t heard or uttered the words, “Unmute yourself!” or “Mute yourself, the dogs are barking!” or “Can you see me now? Why can’t you see me?” or received/sent a text that says, “How do I log on to Zoom? It’s not letting me in! Help!”?
For all its trouble and pallor, though, it may well be the best virtual blessing we have at the moment. We must cultivate gratitude where we can. Before March 2020 I had never heard of Zoom. Now it’s part of our everyday language. I predict here and now that sooner rather than later, the Oxford English Dictionary will initiate “Zoom” as a brand-new word — a proper noun — into their official lexicon. Watch for it. Bet my annual Zoom subscription on it.
All that to say, connections and conversations are vital to humans. Pandemics throw a huge wrench in our spokes. Our familiar customs and forward motion lurch to a sudden stop. We make do, though, because we must. Clubs, churches and businesses are having to figure things out. I’m a member of a small book club. It has become a favorite pastime over the years.
We still meet in person as we are very small, but we don’t touch each other, and we keep our distance. I miss hugging. And we get to enjoy someone else’s cooking. Try eating over Zoom. Nobody serves you anything on Zoom; it’s DIY all the way. There’s no crying in baseball and there are no culinary surprises in Zoom.
That said, I am also in a writing group of talented women writers who meet biweekly via Zoom, and as a one-time surprise, our lovely Chargé D’affaires, Meredith Wilson, made her famous, delectable shortbread, wrapped it lovingly in papers and boxes tied with ribbons, and mailed one package to each of us so we could all break shortbread “together” during our next Zoom. What an incredible gift. It was a wonderful surprise. But unsustainable. The postage alone …
My book club, carpe diem! (exclamation mark intentional, like Jeopardy!) is a small and discerning once-a-month group of five ladies with eclectic backgrounds and tastes. Glenda Davis, retired AP English teacher; Gina Watkiss, chemistry teacher; Lauren Jones, current member of the Carnegie Library Board; and Carol Burke, retired member; and me, well, whatever I am. I will not resort to ageism jokes here, but we are a mature, feisty, fun, opinionated gaggle.
We choose books we think will entertain but also might edify or inspire. We’ve read everything from Terry Kay to Shakespeare. Some of our research metrics before choosing a book include the New York Times and Wall Street Journal book lists, literary prizes and awards, Amazon and other reviews, oldies but goodies, and word of mouth. Some of our book selections have been the latest best sellers, and some have been classics we all say we read in school but didn’t — or did and want to revisit. I have learned so much from these ladies and the books we read. Forty-two books, thus far. Some of our selections even turn up occasionally as answers to Jeopardy! questions (R.I.P., Alex).
Thanks to my book club, I’ve come up with correct responses multiple times sitting in my den watching Jeopardy! because of the books we’ve read: E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone,” Ruth Rendell’s “Tree of Hands,” and “Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky. Sometimes book reviews let us down, and we end up choosing a stinker.
Sometimes our views are divided. I’m usually the one who suggests the loser book. But I’ve made some really great suggestions, too. If you haven’t read “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic” by Daniel Mendelsohn, you’re missing out on a winner. Also “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett and “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman are at the top of our favorites list. And there are so many more.
So here we are, at the refreshments portion of our in-person, socially distanced, book club scenario and the other focus of this column. We serve some fabulous food! And Nota Bene: Book clubs, especially in the South, can be competitions. Who can outdo whom? Florist centerpieces. Elaborate table settings. Expensive eats. We are easy, but we are all great cooks, and we offer refreshments that aren’t complicated and are delectable.
We like flowers from Kroger as well as the florist. We drink wine but not fancy stuff. We’re not stodgy, but neither do we want to be that group that focuses on the party and “maybe a book club will break out if there’s time.”
We like to put the emphasis on the book and then serve up something delightfully smart and tasty without breaking a sweat on our demure, Southern foreheads. Actually, we do have one New Englander in our midst, but we don’t hold that against Gina — nor does she, us.
So since I’ve already shared some of our reading exploits, the ladies and I are sharing a few of our snacks as evidence of really wonderful things you, too, can serve without feeling the least bit intimidated.
Oh, and one little entertaining tip: We often squeeze in a store-bought goodie or two with our homemade eats. Nothing wrong with that! Starbucks’ Cranberry Bliss cake (you can purchase a whole frozen loaf if you inquire at the counter) is an absolute winner.
They only carry it at holiday time. Fresh Market’s candy bins bear lovely little lagniappes that don’t break the bank, like gold-leafed chocolate balls.
Happy Reading. Happy Zooming. Happy Social Distancing. Be smart. Be careful. And whatever you do, have good friends, read good books and make good, delicious things. These are blessings. Food for the mind. Food for the body. Food for the soul.
Get together safely however you can, and share yourself and your gifts with others. We all need nourishing right now, in so very many ways.
Carpe diem, y’all!
CARPE DIEM! RECIPES:
Gina’s Recipes from The Cookbook II by The Worcester Art Museum
Salisbury Street Fudge
Refrigerate: at least 4 hours
2 3-ounce packages cream cheese
4 cups confectioners’ sugar (sift or don’t, your choice)
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnut meats
In a bowl cream the cheese.
Slowly (Gina emphasizes slow-w-w-w-w-ly!) blend in sugar and chocolate.
Blend in vanilla and nuts.
Press into well-greased 8x8 inch pan.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
Cut into squares.
Baked Appetizer Pie — Gina says in New England they eat this in the mornings. In the South, Glenda says they eat it for dinner or supper. In the South, there’s a difference, you know.
Bake 20 minutes at 350 F
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons milk
2 ½-ounce package sliced dried beef, finely chopped. Gina’s came in a 4 ½-ounce jar. From Armour.
3 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons chopped green pepper
⅛ teaspoon pepper
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Blend the cheese with milk. Stir in beef, onion, green pepper and pepper.
Stir in sour cream.
Spoon mixture into a shallow baking dish and sprinkle top with walnuts.
Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes until bubbly.
Serve hot with assorted crackers.
Lauren’s and Carol’s Recipe from River Road Cookbook
Makes about 100
Bake 10-15 minutes at 350 F
1 stick butter
2 cups grated sharp cheese (Cracker Barrel or Wisconsin)
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
Tabasco or red pepper to taste
Blend ingredients together.
Divide mixture into 2 balls, then work each ball into a long roll about 1 inch thick.
Wrap in wax paper and chill.
Slice very thin.
Put a whole pecan half on top of each.
Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 350 F for 10-15 minutes.
Glenda’s Pound Cake
Talking about Southern traditions (that have absolutely nothing to do with pound cake), Glenda shared her family’s Southern ham tradition with us. When she was in her teens and learning to cook, every time her mother cooked a ham, she always cut off what she called “the nub end” and saved it to make soup stock. So Glenda learned to always cut off the nub end because her mother did. She asked her mother once why she did that, and her mother said it was because her grandmother did. So Glenda asked her grandmother why she always cut off the nub end of the ham. And she replied, laughing, that during the war the government took up everybody’s aluminum and metal cookware for the war effort. She said because she had five children to cook for, she kept back one pan, but a whole ham wouldn’t fit in it. So she cut off the nub end to make it fit the pan. And so the tradition was born and will continue as testament and homage to the women cooks in Glenda’s Southern family.
Now, on to the pound cake, another Southern delight.
3 cups sugar
2 sticks salted butter
6 eggs, separated
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
8 ounces sour cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
Combine sugar and butter. Beat until fluffy.
Then add egg yolks to batter one at a time while mixing.
Beat egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff and set aside.
Sift flour and baking soda together.
Alternate adding flour and sour cream to batter, beginning and ending with flour.
Add vanilla to batter.
Fold in beaten egg whites.
Bake in a well-greased tube pan for 75 minutes at 325 F. Cool for 30 minutes and remove from the pan.
THE SECRET: Leave eggs and butter out overnight to come to room temperature. Beat the sugar and butter until it cries for mercy and use Mexican vanilla.
Susie’s Recipes (no idea where these came from)
11.9-ounce package chocolate sandwich cookies with white filling (Oreos, ok?) finely crushed
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 pound white or dark baking chocolate, coarsely chopped
Line a large baking sheet with parchment, waxed paper, or foil, and set aside.
In a large bowl combine crushed cookies and cream cheese.
Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until well mixed.
Shape mixture into 1-inch balls and chill or freeze until firm.
In a large saucepan, cook and stir chocolate over low heat until melted. (You can also melt chocolate in the microwave but do not heat it longer than 30 seconds at a time. After each 30 seconds, remove the bowl and stir, then replace in the microwave for another 30 seconds. Repeat until melted).
Dip each ball into melted chocolate; let excess drip back into the pan.
Place dipped truffles on a prepared baking sheet.
Chill truffles about 1 hour or until firm.
Store covered, in the refrigerator up to 1 week, or freeze up to 1 month.
*Extra added touch. To serve, I insert a toothpick on top of each truffle, and onto the toothpick I stick a Bing cherry. Not maraschino, cherries, but Bings, the deep, dark red ones. Get them on the cherries aisle and look for “Bada Bing Cherries.”
Marinated Cheese & Olives Appetizer
Dress up store-bought cheese like this.
3 ounces cheddar cheese, cubed
3 ounces Havarti, cubed
3 ounces New Zealander or Parmentino, cubed — NOTE: If you can’t find this exact cheese, no worries. Just substitute with any semi-firm cheese. Browse the grocery cheese section. Because we were reading a book about a Scottish family, I got a little pack of Scottish cheeses. (The book was “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart — one of those super highly recommended books on all kinds of awards lists that was full of Scottish sadness, family dysfunction and stark poverty, and nobody liked it but Gina and me.)
¼ cup green olives, pitted or stuffed with pimiento
¼ cup black olives
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
½ teaspoon dried Italian herbs (I used an Italian parmesan herb mix for bread dipping, and it was fab!)
Add the cheeses and olives to a medium bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar and seasoning. Pour over cheese.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.
Serve in a decorative bowl on a wooden platter alongside some summer sausages and crackers.
Be sure to have a nice little container of toothpicks, too.
Piedmont Driving Club’s Buttered Saltines
Makes 48 crackers
Get one benefit from Piedmont Driving Club’s menu without paying the membership fee. I saw this recipe in an article in the newspaper a while back, and believe it or not, it has become a well-publicized phenomenon. The chef created a flyer after so many requests, and it’s available upon request. Apparently, they were created by another chef in 1972 at the Capital City Club when he ran out of oyster crackers and had to punt. So he baked some saltines in butter and a star was born. These things are deceptively simple, but rich in buttery flavor and add a touch of class to plain Saltines.
½ pound butter
48 square Nabisco saltine crackers (no substitutes. Other brands don’t stay crisp)
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Have a rimmed baking sheet ready.
In a small saucepan, make clarified butter by melting butter and skimming off white foam. Keep skimming until butter is clear and golden. This should yield about ¾ cup clarified butter.
In a large bowl, combine crackers with clarified butter.
Toss gently to coat crackers.
Transfer crackers to a prepared baking sheet, laying crackers flat, side by side.
Bake 3 minutes or until golden brown.
Susie Berta has many creative pursuits, including music, art, writing, cooking, gardening, entertaining and decorating. She has lived in Newnan with her husband, Rick, since 1977. They have raised two boys and have two grandchildren. She is retired from a long career as a vocalist/performer, having sung for many years in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Chamber Chorus, as a staff singer at St. Mark UMC in Atlanta, and in many other venues, in addition to her one-woman show, “All Grown Up,” at the Rialto Theater in Atlanta. As an empty nester, she returned to school in 2003 and earned a BFA in art at Atlanta College of Art and SCAD Atlanta. She is now pursuing her passion for writing and is currently working on her memoir, The Veterinarian’s Wife.