Sunday, September 22, 2019

Big Guy, Big Heart

You could say I lost my best friend on Friday. "Underfoot" was just a cat, but he was so much more than "just a cat" to me. I am feeling the loss of his companionship keenly. Here is the story of our 13 years together.

Underfoot originally belonged to a colleague of my ex-husband Jesse's when Jesse worked as head of the architectural model department at Development Design Group, an international architecture firm in Baltimore specializing in commercial developments (think shopping centers and retail complexes) all over the world. Jesse's coworker and friend, Lori Ferrara, owned (and still does) a large flat in the Station North section of Baltimore, which she shared with several cats. One of those cats was a kitten Lori had rescued from the "mean streets" of Baltimore, where he'd been fending for himself. She named the kitten, with his outsized but skittish personality and a habit of getting in the way, "Underfoot", and taught him to live in harmony with her other cats. Underfoot was coached in such social graces as not jumping up on any surfaces on which food is prepared or eaten. He was taught to allow his short coat of solid gray fur to be brushed regularly. He knew his name. He learned to come when called.
Like any cat, Underfoot loved to bask
in the sun

When Underfoot was about four years old, Jesse's brother Jay and Jay's wife, Susan, moved from their native Kentucky to Baltimore so that Jay could take a job at DDG with Jesse. Lori generously offered a portion of her flat as temporary living quarters to Jay and Susan. After about a year, Jay and Susan were able to move into their own apartment. By that time Susan had fallen madly in love with Underfoot, so she asked Lori if she could keep Underfoot. Lori graciously agreed.

In 2006, Susan became ill and moved back to Kentucky to be near her four adult children. Jay was working long hours with Jesse, and I was given a key to his apartment so that I could take care of Underfoot during Jay's extended absences. I visited Underfoot every day, cleaned his litter box, fed him and spent time playing with him. My affection for the large gray shorthair grew with every visit. I could tell he looked forward to the sound of my voice calling to him through the apartment door as I fiddled with the key. He began to be comfortable in my presence.

Underfoot had an outsized personality
A few months later Susan passed away unexpectedly in Kentucky. Jay was overcome by grief, and asked Jesse and me to take Underfoot permanently, as the cat's presence in Jay's apartment was too raw a reminder of Susan's passing. I was happy to make a home for the big gray cat. It had been five years since I'd had a cat or dog of my own. I had long been wishing for an animal companion.

In September 2006, Underfoot came to live with Jesse and me. My ancient farmhouse, constructed in 1862, has a small basement which was hand-dug in 1937 from the red clay earth beneath the kitchen when electricity came to suburban Baltimore County. This unfinished basement space with dirt walls was open to the crawlspace beneath the rest of the house, and therefore fair territory for all manner of raccoons, groundhogs and other critters to regularly visit, so the first thing we did was to enclose the subterranean room with "jail bars" (vinyl-coated wire closet shelving turned on its side) so as to create a secure place for litter boxes and cat food that would allow our new charge to see, feel, smell and hear the elements and wildlife outside without actually coming in contact with it, or its dangers. We pried open a long-painted-shut cat panel in the kitchen-to-basement door so that Underfoot could come and go into that underground space as he pleased. Underfoot was smart. With just a few treats for enticement, he learned quickly how to navigate the swinging wooden cat door.
Underfoot was always near me, by day
and by night

Jay was a chain smoker, and I believe that Underfoot came to me with an addiction to nicotine. I smoked only an occasional cigarette after my evening meal in those days, but whenever I would light up, Underfoot would jump onto my lap and strain to reach the trail of smoke wafting from the glowing tip. When I quit smoking completely in 2007, so did Underfoot.

Underfoot was not a small cat. Weighing in at a hefty 17 pounds, he was a big presence, full of personality with a surprisingly large vocabulary. Since I work mostly at home, Underfoot became my constant companion, spreading himself out across the desk in my home office as I typed away at my
Underfoot loved to spread himself out
across my desk while I worked
computer every day. He was nearby wherever in the house I was, even as I slept or read by the fire at night, or engaged in one of my pastimes. We talked constantly -- exchanging those nonverbal, gutteral feline noises between us that so many cats do as if we were having full conversations. He understood many English phrases, including "eat your dinner", "good boy" and "lie down" -- and was incredibly smart and resourceful.

For instance, like most old houses, the basement beneath my kitchen sports a stairwell which leads to an exterior wooden door that can be opened by lifting it up from outside. Over the years the framing around this exterior panel had shrunk, leaving a gap on one side of the plywood 4' by 4' door. The gap was small, no more than an inch wide and an inch tall. Underfoot liked to sit on the top concrete step inside the basement and peer though this tiny hole out onto the cement patio beyond. He'd watch the legs of birds and chipmunks scamper by. It seemed like an innocent pastime to me.
Underfoot and Ember play with a baby
ring snake they brought up from my
unfinished basement. I rescued the
snake and put it back outside 

Until it wasn't. One day I came home from conducting research for my longtime employer at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and found feathers and a half-eaten avian body on my kitchen floor. There was Underfoot, proudly showing off his catch. How on earth did an "inside cat" manage to catch and kill an outside songbird? I was truly perplexed until I watched him peering through that gap in the door frame one day. Apparently, crouched on that top stair in the basement, Underfoot lay in wait for an innocent bird to walk by on the patio outside. In the flash of an instant, he was able to reach one front leg through the tiny gap between the exterior plywood door and its 2" by 4" framing, catch an unsuspecting bird with a single flick of his paw and pull it back through the gap into the basement. I was astounded at his dexterity.

As upset as I was about the demise of a beautiful songbird, I was more than impressed with Underfoot's considerable one-handed hunting prowess. I figured it was a fluke, likely to never happen again. Until it did. Over the course of several years, Underfoot caught a total of seven birds that way. It was when I came home from a day of research at the Library of Congress and found bright red cardinal feathers on my kitchen floor that I finally put my foot down and closed the gap between the exterior basement door and its framing.  But I never could suppress the pride I felt at Underfoot's hunting skill and the ingenuity with which he repeatedly pulled off such an amazing "sleight of paw".
Helping Jesse review project drawings
at my dining room table

Through the tough months during which Jesse and I made the difficult decision to end our marriage in 2007, Underfoot was there to comfort me. I shed more tears than you can imagine into that thick gray fur over the years. We were inseparable, Underfoot and I. Knowing Underfoot would be there to greet me as I got home from my research was comforting beyond words. And just because I boarded up the hole through which the birds had been caught in the basement didn't mean the gifts presented at my feet came to a stop. Any frog, mouse or grasshopper who wandered into the basement through the "jail bars" from the surrounding crawlspace was fair game for Underfoot, and he proudly showed off these occasional prizes to me.

Jesse and I remained best friends even after our separation, and his brother Jay had dinner with us frequently on Sunday evenings as he continued to struggle over the death of his wife. We knew Jay was overwhelmed by his grief, but we were devastated when Jay was found dead in his apartment in September of 2008. Underfoot seemed to cling to me even more closely after that.

Underfoot let Elfie snuggle up
with  him for naps when she was little
Elfie, left, and Underfoot, right, loved
to spend time in my office as I worked
In 2009 I decided that a playmate might be a good distraction for my furry friend. A new trainer had taken a job at the stable where I kept my horse and brought with her a kitten she had adopted from a shelter in Virginia as she made her way northeast in a pickup truck to Maryland from Oklahoma. No sooner had she set down her gear at the stable than she was called to accompany the stable owner to a horse show in another state. The kitten was to be left all alone in the barn. Frightened of the nine barn cats and not knowing her way around, the kitten kept trying to venture up to the stable farmhouse with the people, but the farmhouse contained a pair of Pit Bulls who would have made short work of a six-week-old ball of fur. I offered to take the kitten in, and the gray and white bundle went home with me that day. I named her "Lightfoot", for her four white paws, which I soon shortened to "L.F.", to be pronounced "Elfie". From the moment Elfie joined the household, Underfoot  became a terrific mentor and companion to her, looking after the kitten, playing with her, and letting her snuggle up with him for naps. They became fast friends, and although they were not inseparable companions (Underfoot liked to stay downstairs on the main level of the house with me; Elfie considered the upstairs bedrooms her domain), they spent the next ten years together in relative harmony.
Little Ember had to wear an infant's
onesie to protect her burn scars

In 2012 I decided to adopt a third cat. Underfoot was now 12 years old and Elfie was three. All they did was sleep all day and I felt both could stand to lose a pound or two. I thought that a bouncy new kitten might be just the thing to breathe a little liveliness into my lethargic feline household. And it was.

Little Ember was a tiny black Bombay, a rescue who had been set afire by a juvenile delinquent in Baltimore City and severely burned. She'd lost the cartilage from both her ears, and had almost lost her tail. She underwent a number of surgeries to repair the deep burns along her spine both before and after she came into my custody, and for two years she had to wear a little shirt I designed from an infant's onesie to protect her burn scars from compulsive licking. I named my new kitten "Ember" in keeping with the vowel-first theme and hoped that Underfoot and Elfie would take to her and she to them (you can read all about little Ember in my previous posts here, here, here, here, and here). I needn't have worried.
Underfoot loved Ember. We were
such a happy family!

Both Underfoot and Elfie quickly accepted high-spirited little Ember, who bounced off walls and ran amok as if she was full of jumping beans. After a couple of years, Ember didn't need to wear her protective shirts anymore, and my three fur-babies and I settled into a contented and happy coexistence. When they weren't napping, my three "children" spent time watching the "squirrel channel" and the "bird channel" through my dining room windows, where I had strategically placed bird feeders for my own closeup viewing pleasure as well as theirs. I positioned fluffy cat beds on the radiators in my home office and in the dining room, and Underfoot, as he had with Elfie, soon taught Ember the art of spreading himself as broadly as possible across the work papers on my desk. 

In 2016, little Ember was suddenly felled by some previously undiagnosed illness over Labor Day weekend. By the time I got her to the vet she had lapsed into acute diabetic ketoacidosis with major organ failure. There was no reviving her, although the vet tried mightily. I was heartbroken, never imagining that my older two cats would outlive the youngster. It was two years before I felt ready to try adoption again.

In 2018 I adopted two kittens from a
feral litter: Sojo, left, and Stache
But in early 2018 my heart opened wide for a pair of kittens from a feral litter: two little girls, one black (as Ember had been) and one gray and white like Elfie. By this time Underfoot was a stately 18 years old, and the idea of getting used to not one, but two newcomers vying for Mom's attention in the household did not appeal to him at all. The black kitten, whom I named Sojourner (Sojo for short) was really wild, a shy girl who didn't cotton to anyone but me. The gray and white kitten, whom I named "Stache" for the smudge of gray fur above her lip, was far more laid back and friendly. All she wanted to do was to curl up in someone's lap and purr.

Despite his protestations, Underfoot began to accept the kittens and was just getting to know and like little Stache when tragedy struck again. Stache suffered oxygen deprivation during her spay surgery which caused seizures, a stroke, and within a few days, her death. Left with only the wild and cagey Sojo, I wasn't sure how Underfoot and Elfie would adapt to this less than sweet-tempered interloper, but eventually something of a truce was established.
Eventually, Underfoot learned to
tolerate Sojo's presence in the house

For the past year and a half my little feline family has coexisted contentedly; Elfie ruling over the upstairs rooms, Underfoot enjoying his kingdom on the main level, and Sojo dividing her time between the two. Sometimes I'd find her lounging on my bed upstairs with Elfie, other times she'd be out on the sunporch/laundry room floor with Underfoot.

One of Underfoot's most endearing habits during our years together was to reach up to me with his front legs and ask to be picked up -- just like a toddler might do. For frequent visitors around whom he felt comfortable, I could even entice Underfoot to ask to be picked up on command. Once hoisted, I would drape Underfoot over my shoulder and carry him around as I went about my business. He just wanted to be in my arms and, until several minutes of his extra weight became too much, I was just as happy to have him there.
In July 2018, Jesse and I built
a cat tree in my dining room

Underfoot going for the
In expressing her condolences to me on the day Underfoot died, his original owner, Lori, relayed her memory of how impish Underfoot could be. "He was trouble, but so much fun," she recalled. I agreed that Underfoot was a lot of fun, but I don't remember him getting into lots of trouble, except for his love of Kleenex. We've all seen videos of cats unraveling an entire roll of toilet paper. Underfoot never bothered with toilet paper, but put a box of Kleenex anywhere within his reach and he would pull out every tissue, one by one, and shred them all. Just a few weeks ago I caught him yanking tissues from a box I'd inadvertently left within reach. He was definitely an imp.

Underfoot taught Sojo the finer points
of spreading himself across my desk
At the beginning of 2019, Underfoot lost a lot of weight. I grew concerned and called my mobile vet. Dr. Seibel ran tests and did a thorough examination. My big boy had a gum infection and some broken teeth, which would need to be treated at a brick and mortar vet. We started Underfoot on antibiotics and I switched him exclusively to canned food from dry kibble. My longtime brick and mortar vet cleaned Underfoot's teeth but advised against surgery or sonograms and X-rays to determine what might be the root cause of his weight loss. "Underfoot is the equivalent of a hundred-year-old man!" Dr. Brown exclaimed. "Have you ever seen any overweight people live to be one hundred?" I had to admit I had not. The vet surmised that Underfoot probably had cancer somewhere in his body, perhaps from the years of "smoking" with Jay. He suggested that I forego any expensive diagnostic tests or treatments and just keep Underfoot comfortable for whatever time he had left. I agreed with that assessment.
Sojo, from left, Underfoot and Elfie
curled up in heated beds in my office 

When Underfoot began to vomit clear bile in the middle of the night, I questioned my mobile vet. Dr. Seibel explained that, like horses, cats need to have something in their digestive tracts at all times, and now that Underfoot could no longer help himself to the dry kibble whenever he liked because of his dental fragility, and was dependent on me for nourishment from canned food alone, too many hours were lapsing between the time I went to bed at night and the time I got up in the morning. Vomiting clear bile was a sign of hunger, she said.

Underfoot was known for his unusual
poses. This was called the
"double-arm extension"
So in addition to feeding him right before I went to bed at night and as soon as I got up each morning, I began to get up every night at 3:00 a.m. to feed my beloved cat in the middle of the night. It took about twenty minutes from start to finish, as I took care to make absolutely sure he'd had his fill before returning to my slumber. Of course it was a hassle, and sometimes it was difficult to go back to sleep. But the vomiting stopped immediately and never came back. Underfoot gained weight and his health stabilized. At that point I didn't know how much time Underfoot had left, but seeing him return to his playful self and having his weight stabilize showed me that my efforts were paying off.  I told myself that no matter if he lived for a few months or several years I would continue my nighttime regimen, so happy was I to see the difference it made in his quality of life.

So a few weeks ago, when Underfoot's breathing began to become labored, I wasn't taken completely aback. I knew the end was coming and would probably come this year. He had already lived longer than either vet thought possible after his weight loss in January. Then, in late August, I broke my leg and was no longer able to get down the stairs for Underfoot's nightly feeding without a Herculean effort. Enter Jesse to the rescue. Despite being divorced for several years now, Jesse is still my near-constant companion, and he generously agreed to stay with me until I am back on both of my feet, which likely won't be until mid-November. So Jesse dutifully began arising every night to give Underfoot his 3:00 a.m. feeding. That was nice, in a way, because Jesse and Underfoot had a chance to bond again. Jesse took his time with Underfoot at night, just as I did by day. Underfoot was surrounded by love and he knew it.
In 2009, Underfoot, left, and Elfie
posed for a perfect Christmas card
photo as they "waited for Santa"

Underfoot's appetite remained good, but the heaving of his abdomen with every breath in early September alarmed me. I knew I wasn't going to take any heroic measures to prolong his life. Still, I wanted an assessment of what was happening, so I called my mobile vet. Dr. Seibel came on Thursday and put her stethoscope to Underfoot's chest. His lungs were "so noisy," she said, that she couldn't hear his heartbeat for the commotion. She said his lungs were so filled with fluid that his chest muscles weren't strong enough to help him breathe on their own, so he was utilizing his abdominal muscles to help, hence the heaving with every breath that I observed. She surmised that wherever his cancer had originated, it had now metastasized to his lungs. When she finally was able to detect a pulse, she said his heartbeat was irregular. "Breathing arrhythmia," she said, was caused by the intense effort needed for every breath.

Still, she noted, Underfoot was eating and drinking and producing healthy-looking litter-box deposits. He didn't seem to be in physical distress. "Watch for breathing through an open mouth," she said. "Or noisy breathing." After she left, I decided that I could not let him suffer. I would take the weekend to say goodbye and then call her to come euthanize my darling boy early next week.

At 19, Underfoot's face reflected the
demeanor of a "grumpy old man" 
But apparently my sweet Underfoot wanted to die on his own terms. I was off at the surgeon's the following morning, getting the cast sawed off my leg, the 31 surgical staples pulled out, and a new cast put on. When I returned home, Underfoot lay dead on the floor where he had been basking in a sunbeam in my sunporch/laundry room. He had come to me that morning as I worked at my computer, which usually means he wants to eat, but when I put the food down for him, he sniffed at it and looked away. I knew something was wrong. Instead, I spent time cooing at him and snuggling with him. I am so glad I did.

Rest easy, my sweet Underfoot. You
made me a very happy mom for
many years 
In the end, there is an interesting twist to this story. Jesse keeps a small photograph of his brother Jay in the visor on the passenger side of his car. With a broken leg, I can't drive myself to the doctor, so Jesse took me in his car on Friday. We were halfway to the appointment when Jay's photo suddenly fell out of the visor and into my lap. I glanced over at Jesse with a perplexed look.  "It's the 20th of September," Jesse said. "Today's the day Jay died eleven years ago."  We decided that Jay was just "saying hi" to us.

But when we returned to my house from the doctor appointment and found Underfoot had crossed the Rainbow Bridge, we changed our minds. Perhaps Jay was telling us he had come for Underfoot, to relieve my furry friend of his discomfort and to bear him on to Susan, who will cherish and adore my beloved Underfoot until I can be reunited with him someday.

“Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. It is the price of love.”
~ Anonymous

Monday, May 6, 2019

Birthdays in May!

I have so many dear friends who have birthdays between the 4th and the 8th of May: biologist Paula Becker, for instance, who is Volunteer Coordinator for the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at which I've been a longtime volunteer; Lora Wong, a master gardener who works as a Research Administration Manager at the American Heart Association; my longest Maryland girlfriend, Janet Levine, owner of Fire & Ice Jewelry stores at the BWI and Philadelphia international airports; my cousin Christian Haudenschild in Switzerland, a former research scientist at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration; my best friend Kari's beloved late father, Lyle Momb, who left us in 2013; my longtime friend Juanita Starbuck from our old Richmond Police Department days in California; my great niece in California, Sophia Mei Tobler, who is turning seven (!); Texas computer guru and IT expert Ralph Haroldson; my ex-husband and dear friend, Jesse Turner, and even my elderly, crotchety cat, Underfoot, who is turning 19.

What better way to celebrate the birthdays of these special souls than with a festive dinner party!  Alas, Lora had accepted an invitation to spend her birthday with family in Pittsburgh, and Jan's elderly aunts decided to host a spontaneous family reunion in her native South Carolina, so as it turned out, only two of the local birthday people could attend my party on May 4th, which was the only Saturday night I had available all month. But sometimes the smallest dinner parties are the most rewarding. And whether for fourteen or four, I would still cook a fabulous dinner for my guests.

What makes my May birthday dinner especially fun for me is that while the fancy dinners I host for Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day feature the same menu each year with a rotating cast of guests, the May birthday dinner highlights the same guests each year but leaves me free to vary the menu. I can choose whatever entree suits my taste and, indeed, my May birthday dinner guests are frequently "Guinea pigs" on whom I experiment with dishes I've never tried before.

So it was with this year's menu. A roast leg of lamb with a Middle-Eastern bent caught my fancy this time. Flavored with a custom sweet-spice mixture featuring ground cumin, cinnamon, coriander, allspice, clove, ginger and nutmeg, the boneless roast was butterflied, stuffed with fresh baby spinach and dried fruit, then rolled up and rubbed with the aromatic spices before roasting.  An accompanying brown rice and lentil mixture, called mujadara, would receive similar sweet-spice flavorings -- with a twist: garlic and cilantro and a healthy scattering of caramelized onions, as well. I could hardly wait to try it.

I "ixnayed" sauteed fiddlehead ferns
for the dinner party vegetable and
went with an asparagus tart instead
So... that took care of the entrée and the starch, but what to do about a vegetable?  A few weeks earlier I had previewed sautéed fiddlehead ferns as a possible side dish. The result was okay but not exceptional; unusual, but not worth the expense or the trouble. I decided to go with an asparagus tart instead.

With most of the menu decided upon, I cast around for birthday cake ideas. A baker, I am NOT, but I wanted to bake a cake for this dinner because, mainly, one of my guests, Paula Becker, is a baker extraordinaire and I wanted to earn her praise. Traditional cakes leave much to be desired, in my opinion. They're dry, cloyingly sweet, lack any distinctive flavor and are ultimately quite boring. Then, a recipe in Better Homes & Gardens magazine caught my eye. How about an apple-maple cake in a bundt pan which made use of the same spices (clove, nutmeg, cinnamon) that would figure prominently in the dinner? Jesse, who designs furniture for the hospitality industry, brought me a beautiful Art Deco-inspired bundt pan from a restaurant industry trade show in Chicago a few years back and I had yet to use it. Surely creating his birthday cake with the bundt pan he gave me would demonstrate my appreciation of his thoughtful gift.

As is my custom, I took the Friday before my party off from work in order to prepare as many dishes as I could in advance, and do the prep work (slicing and dicing, sifting and frying) ahead of time for the rest, so that on the day of the party I could relax and enjoy myself while putting the finishing touches on everything. That's worked out so well for me in the past that I now consider it a happy tradition.
Lentils, left, brown rice, center, and caramelized onions, right,
get tossed together in an aromatic side dish for roast lamb

I started with the mujadara, cooking vast quantities of rice in garlic, onion and the sweet spices, then simmering lentils with a cinnamon stick, ginger and more garlic, and then combining the two. While the rice was cooking, I caramelized a copious number of onions, this time by roasting them in the oven instead of slowly frying them on the stove. The technique worked beautifully, and seemed less labor-intensive than the frequent stirring recommended when using the stovetop method.

Once the rice dish was out of the way, I turned to the stuffing for the lamb. A heady combination of fresh baby spinach leaves and dried currants and apricots mixed with scallions, parsley and cilantro was diced and bagged for the next day.

To accompany the lamb, I thought a sensual chutney utilizing three different types of cherries in bourbon would elicit just the right counterpoint to the lamb. So I simmered dried tart cherries with frozen sweet dark cherries and tart cherry preserves until the chutney was thick and bubbly, then spilled in two tablespoons of whiskey.  The result was wonderful.

Next, I baked the cake, utilizing maple syrup in a piquant combination of sweet spices, apples, butter, flour, sugar and eggs. It came out beautifully, and was immediately coated with a thick drizzle of maple syrup and diced apples. I was quite proud of my accomplishment and hoped Paula and Jesse would be, too.

On the morning of the party, I laid out the boneless leg of lamb, which the butcher at my local Wegman's Supermarket had butterflied for me. Unfortunately, in the process of butterflying the leg, he had created a tear in the meat, so when I rolled it up, the stuffing would surely fall through.  I Googled how to repair a tear in a butterflied cut of meat but was surprised to find that the Internet Gods offered no remedy at all. And although I still possessed my mother's ancient metal chicken trusser, it wouldn't hold fast when I rolled up the lamb. What was I to do?

I used a large needle and carpet thread
to bind a tear in the lamb roast
Well, I MacGyvered it, of course! Just as the 1980s television series highlighting one man's resourcefulness caused his name to become synonymous with the clever utilization of everyday items for vastly different purposes, so I invoked his spirit to solve my torn lamb problem. Indeed, I recalled a time, in the summer of 2012, when I hosted dear friends for a midsummer supper. I planned to create individual layered crab salads with avocado, caviar and mango salsa, but the ring molds needed for the towering concoctions were pricey -- and I would need four of them! Enter Home Depot, where I found four-inch diameter PVC pipe cuffs that were just the right size -- at fifty cents apiece. I took them home, sterilized them and used them as ring molds for perfect crab salad towers.

Now I needed similar inspiration for the tear in my lamb -- and I needed it fast! I sought insight in my hobby room upstairs. And there was the answer, a large sewing needle and... carpet thread! I bound the tear together with a running blanket stitch, and voila! No more unsightly, stuffing-leaking rip.

After pounding the butterflied lamb into an evenly-flat slab, I  layered the dried fruit filling and the spinach leaves on top.  Holding the ends securely, I wrapped the meat up into a tight roll and secured it with kitchen twine. To my great delight, my makeshift repair held tight. Rubbed with the same sweet spice mixture used in the rice dish, I slipped the roast into a slow oven and moved on to my next task: setting the table.

I purposely chose to keep this dinner more casual and go with a woodsy, nature-loving theme. After all, there would be just four of us: Paula, the wildlife biologist, Jesse and me, and Laura Van Scoyoc, president of the nonprofit nature group I've volunteered with for more than a decade now.  Wooden charger plates set the tone, on which I nestled floral dishes I've owned since the Carter Administration. My everyday flatware is molded from real twigs; I settled the apple-maple spice cake on a rustic wooden cake stand.
The asparagus tart came out beautifully

Kalamata olives, lemon zest, scallions
and goat cheese enhance the asparagus
in this savory puff pastry tart
Next it was time to assemble and bake the asparagus tart. I dusted my counter with flour and used my grandmother's ancient wooden rolling pin to stretch a sheet of puff pastry into a ten-inch square. I slathered a layer of goat cheese across the dough and then sprinkled the surface with a mixture of chopped asparagus tips, scallions, Kalamata olives, garlic and lemon zest. Topped with a sprinkling of crumbled goat cheese, I popped the tart into the oven for twenty minutes, long enough to assemble a green salad featuring blood oranges, which I tossed with chopped red pear, sugared almonds, shredded Gruyere and then dressed with a honeyed blood orange vinaigrette.
Homemade rosemary simple
syrup, Aperol, blood orange
juice and Prosecco combine
to make a delightful spring

Finally, I prepared cocktails with fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, Aperol, homemade rosemary simple syrup, and added Prosecco just as my guests arrived. I adore blood oranges and have been enjoying them much later into spring than usual this year.
My magnificent red oak was
at least 300 to 400 years old
when it failed to leaf out
this year

With fizzy cocktails in hand, the four of us ventured out into my yard so I could ask my expert guests their opinion on a number of garden issues. First of all, I was grieving the recent demise of one of my gigantic, historic oak trees. It had leafed out lushly last summer and dutifully lost its leaves in the fall. But my beautiful red oak had failed to sprout a single leaf this spring, while the two white oaks in my front yard had leafed out perfectly.  Was it really, suddenly, dead, I asked?  Yes, came the regrettable response from my knowledgeable friends. We raised a solemn toast to the old Ent, which I'd lovingly dubbed William almost two decades ago. William had been protective overseer of my swimming pool, offering shade to the water and to my nearby guest cottage. He had served as a veritable freeway for my squirrel population, and had been home to uncountable nests of birds and small animals for several hundred years. I was truly anguished that William's long life had expired on my watch. But there it was. An exceedingly wet 2018 contributing to internal rot and decline was likely the cause, yet of little consolation.
The nesting material this Carolina
wren used to line her nest included
bits of plastic wrap

Next we wandered to my potting bench, where I showed off the nest of a Carolina wren who had recently fledged three nestlings in one of my empty flower boxes. A sad testament to the perpetual pollution of our planet, she had lined her nest with pine needles and moss -- and bits of plastic wrap.

As the setting sun cast an alpenglow across my two acres, we traipsed across the yard and entered my fenced garden, where we poked around among the native flowers just beginning to rise up out of the soil, and eventually made our way back to the kitchen, where appetizers were waiting.

Laura plays with my cell phone
As I dressed the green salad, plated the rice, sliced the asparagus tart and carved the meat, we took a moment to pose for a selfie. I discovered that the ceramic stand I use to cradle my cell phone in my home office is a perfect holder from which to aim the camera and set its timer. Shortly after the group photo was taken, Laura proclaimed the stand "creepy" and proceeded to caress her face with it. I decided she probably shouldn't have another cocktail.
I was afraid I'd left the lamb in the oven
too long, but when I carved it, the meat
was perfectly cooked and smelled

We sat down to a robust meal. The lamb was tender and flavorful. The triple cherry-bourbon chutney proved to be a perfect foil for the tasty meat. The rice-lentil dish with caramelized onions was out of this world. Everyone loved the asparagus tart. Wine was poured and lively conversation ensued about all manner of subjects, most of them with a nature theme.
This iridescent beetle
unfolds into a

Eventually it was time to open gifts and serve the cake. We sang to the two birthday recipients and watched as they blew out tall, slender candles I found buried among my late mother's things when I cleaned out her northern California home to prepare it for sale back in 1999. I'd never seen candles anything like them before and kept them all this time because they are so novel.
The apple-maple spice cake looked
beautiful with its slender candles
all aglow

Jesse and Paula opened their gifts from Laura and me. Jesse received a new wallet -- in orange to commemorate his favorite color, of course. Paula unwrapped a large, iridescent metal corkscrew in the shape of a beetle. Gift certificates, lottery tickets and fresh flowers rounded out the birthday gift offerings.

We dug into the cake. Paula proclaimed it very tasty and moist. Jesse marveled at how well the bundt pan had worked out for me. I was quite pleased with the intense maple flavor. The four of us laughed and chatted well into the night. I poured the last of a bottle of rare port with dessert, a 1997 Romariz Vintage Porto.

From left: Laura, Jesse, Paula and me
When we finally grew weary and our bellies could hold no more, we pushed back our chairs to bid each other goodbye. Although it had been raining as we dined, the drizzle tapered off just long enough to allow my guests to return to their homes safe and dry.

Nothing makes me happier than hosting a dinner party just like this one. It was a marvelous evening, intimate and relaxed. American journalist, television broadcaster and musician Mitch Albom once said, “You can’t substitute material things for love or ... a sense of comradeship.”

I can't think of a better way to ring in the month of May than among the camaraderie of longtime friends. Honoring the cherished memories of loved ones while celebrating dear friendships near and far is a joyous gift. We made the most of it.

A good friend is a connection to life: a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world. ~ Lois Wyse

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Bit of Blarney, Lots of Charm

And so it was that exactly four weeks to the day after my elegant Valentine soiree, I hosted an equally festive St. Patrick's Day dinner. True, I did the same thing last year and the year before that, but who's counting? Hosting friends and family for dinner to mark a joyful holiday is a pastime I heartily enjoy, even if the work involved does leave me a little worn out afterward.

I love sending real invitations
in the mail!
So before my Valentine dinner in February had even taken place, I fashioned custom invitations for my St. Patrick's Day party, fastened the envelopes with sealing wax and mailed them out to a different set of guests. Once my Valentine's Day dinner was "in the bag", I got to work preparing for my St. Patrick's day feast, set to take place on March 16.

Simmering the ingredients for my cold
and flu elixir made the whole house
smell good
My initial order of business for the St. Patrick's Day dinner was to prepare small gifts for my guests. First was to make another batch of my special cold and flu remedy, a magical potion, courtesy of Miss Wondersmith, that I was introduced to in the pages of Enchanted Living magazine. This time I already had the herbs on hand: dried horehound, mullein, elderberries and star anise, and I knew to be a tad more restrained when adding the horehound, as its bitter potency can easily overwhelm the tincture's sweet elderberry juice, bourbon and honey. I gently set intentions of wellness and good spirits over each ingredient as I tumbled it into the pot simmering on my stove. Once thickened, the addition of edible gold luster dust lent a subtle shimmer, and then into pretty bottles my elixir went, their cork tops decorated with white tulle and sparkling pieces of green geode I procured from eBay.
These roasted pumpkin seeds are
always a hit. Can't eat just one!

I labeled tiny paper boxes and filled them with toasted pumpkin seeds, the last of a large batch I'd roasted over the winter, and thought about what kind of place-card holders I should make for this fete. In past years I've baked tiny white pumpkins retrieved from my root cellar where they'd sat in cold hibernation since Thanksgiving, hollowed them out and filled them with unctuously caramelized grape chutney. Alas, except for a few frigid days, the winter months were so mild in the mid-Atlantic this season that all of my mini pumpkins had long since been relegated to the compost bin!

Each "swag bag" got toasted
seeds, homemade cold remedy,
Tobler chocolates and a menu
to commemorate the evening
I considered carving slits for place cards into shiny green apples, but that didn't seem quite festive enough. Still, I purchased a hoard of Granny Smiths anyway, just in case a better idea did not spring to mind. Then, as I perused the aisles of my local crafts store one day, I spotted them: golden-hued buckets made of tin in a perfect size. The look of the finished garnish leapt into my mind in that instant: my place-card holders would be mythical "pots of gold", filled with chocolate coins, Lindt truffles, butter mints and other goodies, and onto which each diner's name would be fastened with curled ribbon.

I love giving my guests something to
take home to remember their
evening by
To ensure that my guests would remember to take their "pots o' gold" home with them at the end of the evening, I purchased a green paper gift bag for each family. Into my "swag bags" went the magic cold and flu remedy, along with dosing instructions folded into petite origami flowers, the roasted pumpkin seeds, and my St. Patrick's day menu printed on heavy parchment, rolled up and fastened with a pretty flower hair clip.

The next activity on my to-do list was to order flowers from my go-to florist, Marty Hennigan, who always provides me with the most beautiful blooms for whatever occasion I happen to be celebrating. Once the flowers were ordered, I set to work each night over the week leading up to my party slicing, dicing and bagging all the ingredients I would need for the big day: blood oranges, lemons, tangerines and limes for a festive champagne punch infused with cinnamon syrup, cognac, triple sec and pear liqueur; halved baby carrots in a riot of colors which would be bathed in a lovely sauce; quartered beets and onions to infuse my beef brisket with color and flavor; diagonally cut green and white asparagus spears which would be treated to a topping of lemon and cheese; chopped green cabbage to be dressed in a variety of flavored vinegars; and peeled spuds for what would eventually become a decadent dish of mashed potatoes whisked with savory whipped cream, butter and shredded Parmesan. I melted Irish butter into a shamrock-shaped cookie-cutter mold, chilled it for a few days, then turned the stiffened spread out onto a butter dish and gently pressed a real three-leafed shamrock onto the surface.

I was so happy with how my
centerpiece turned out!
Taking off from work the day before my party, I picked up my flower order first thing. A novel idea for a centerpiece had popped into my head and I couldn't wait to try it out. As with dinners of yore, I planned to arrange chartreuse spider chrysanthemums, green and white carnations, and sprigs of baby's breath in a crystal trifle bowl. In past years, that had been the extent of my centerpiece. But this year I wanted to create something a little more over the top. Rooting around in my costume closet, I happened upon a top hat left over from a long ago New Year's Eve celebration. The hat was quite sturdy and covered with sparkling gold sequins. It would meld perfectly with this year's emerging "pot of gold" theme. I held my breath as I checked to see if the trifle bowl would fit snugly inside the overturned hat. Success! I wanted to arrange gold coins around the upturned brim, but how to keep the coins from falling into the hat? Pea gravel was the answer, which I keep on hand to create  drainage layers in my flower boxes each spring. I filled the hat cavity around the trifle bowl with gravel and scattered the coins on top. Voila. I was quite pleased with the result!

A beautiful tablescape sets the tone
for the entire meal
My final task on the eve of my gala was to corn the beef. While I don't subscribe to the traditional ten-day brining ritual for true corned beef, I do assemble a heady rub of ground bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander, salt, pepper, sugar, nutmeg and clove, which I then blend with fresh garlic, cider vinegar and whole grain Dijon mustard. Once the seven-pound brisket was fully covered in this aromatic emulsion, I stashed the meat in the fridge and took myself happily to bed.

Faux sheepskins from IKEA and spring
flower sprays from Frontgate adorned
each guest's chair
On the day of my party I set the table early, loving as I do the process of creating a memorable tablescape for my guests. Across my white tablecloth I carefully spread a linen runner covered in delicate green embroidery, a treasure I found at a market stall in Budapest in 2017. On went my grandmother's gold china, a variety of stemware I'd been collecting over forty years, and my gold flatware, a cherished gift from my mother in 1980.

Four kinds of vinegar, three kinds of
mustard and two kinds of horseradish
added to the flavors of the evening

The seven chairs were dressed with sparkly wired ribbon tied into large bows at the back, over which were draped colorful cascades of faux spring flowers. As I scattered gold "coins" and faceted crystal "jewels" amid the place settings, my longtime and very creative companion, Jesse Turner, handily folded starched cloth napkins into distinctive-looking shamrocks. And what to do with those Granny Smith apples? A beloved neighbor had gifted me with a carving tool long ago, meant to hollow out fruit in which a small candle could then be inserted. Trying the gadget for the first time, I discovered it worked perfectly to create a cavity in the apples just the right size for a votive.

My oven was working hard!
Once I had set out decanters filled with flavored vinegars for the cabbage: champagne, red wine, cider and balsamic, and small bowls of whole grain Dijon mustard, yellow mustard, brown mustard, and red-beet and plain horseradish for the corned beef, I got to work assembling and cooking all the dishes I would be serving at dinner. The beef and the carrots were treated to a bath of orange juice and beer, covered with tinfoil and parchment tied with string, and tucked neatly into my lower oven. The potatoes were mashed, topped with shredded Parmesan and shoved under my broiler to achieve a perfectly browned crust. The asparagus was parboiled and sprinkled with lemon juice and still more Parmesan. I chopped red pears and blood oranges and tossed them with shredded Gruyere, sugared almond slivers and spring greens for a delightful salad dressed with blood orange juice and honey vinegar.
Chocolate puddings "planted" with
sprigs of fresh mint were served
for dessert

Individual chocolate-mint potted puddings I'd made from scratch were now topped with ground chocolate cookies to resemble "dirt" and "planted" with sprigs of fresh mint. I assembled the Champagne punch for the adults and set out a pitcher of bright green, apple-flavored Gatorade for the teens. I arranged curried cauliflower florets, dainty grape-leaf-wrapped dolmas and pickled Cipollini onions as appetizers. I plated tubular slices of mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto and pepperoni to round out the hors d'oeuvres.

As I ascended to my dressing room to don my party attire, I still hadn't quite settled on what to wear. I knew I would pick black leggings from 90-degree by Reflex and fringed, crystal-studded Roper cowboy boots because both are so comfortable, but what to wear for a blouse? I eventually settled on a beaded kelly-green tunic by JM Collections from Macy's that I've had since I hosted my very first St. Patrick's day dinner many years ago. I topped my curls, expertly crafted by stylist Leanna Leuschner at her new salon, Hairway to Heaven, with a jaunty green fascinator, covered my FitBit with a green rhinestone bangle, and poked vintage shamrock earrings into my earlobes that had once belonged to my grandmother.

From left: me, Phil, Justin, Claudia,
Anya and Riehen. Jesse took the picture
When my guests arrived at 7:00 p.m., I was ready! Justin Wright, vice president of Lion's Wood Banquet Furniture, for whom Jesse works as a furniture designer, arrived solo, as his lovely wife Melanie had to send her regrets. My second cousin, Claudia Tobler, and her husband, Phil Walsh, and their two teens, Riehen and Anya, arrived less than a minute later. Coats were taken, punch served and introductions made as we gobbled up appetizers and engaged in cheerful conversation. Eventually, I returned to the kitchen to carve the meat and put the finishing touches on dinner. It was time.

Of course my front porch
mascot, Spike, was
dressed for the occasion
I called my guests to dinner, delighting in the exclamations of wonder and enchantment as they saw my dining room table for the first time. We poured wine and more green punch and passed plates of asparagus, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, corned beef, salad and Irish soda bread. As the fire in my woodstove crackled behind us, I queried my dinner guests with St. Patrick's Day trivia questions that I had prepared in advance. Claudia, the easy winner, took home a small gift bag containing St. Patrick's Day-themed earrings and a bracelet. Justin, a clear runner-up, received a small bag containing a tiny green flashlight and a multi-tool.  We ate... and talked... and laughed... and ate... and ate some more.

When it seemed no one could hold another morsel of food, I made coffee and brought in the potted puddings. More oohs! and aahs! -- music to my ears. Justin, who says he never eats dessert, finished every last bite of his pudding. I was pleased that everyone managed to find room for the final course.
Everything turned out well at
my party. I was very pleased

We chatted until well after 11:00 p.m., as haunting Celtic tunes played softly in the background. My fireplace exuded cozy warmth, thanks largely to Riehen's continued attentiveness to the flames. Conversation flowed in its best "blarney" form. Eventually, my guests bid their adieus and made their ways home, donning overcoats and clutching swag bags filled with their place-card "pots o' gold" and other goodies.

I turned to the kitchen, scraping plates and loading the dishwasher while Jesse cleared and undressed the table for me. As I put away the accoutrements of the evening and cleaned everything up, I was overwhelmed by a sense of tranquility and satisfaction. I managed to pull off another merry party without a major glitch.  My guests had truly relaxed and enjoyed themselves.

My sense of accomplishment was underscored when I received a lovely thank-you card in the mail a few days later. My cousin Claudia described my dinner party as "exquisite" and "memorable", and said her family enjoyed every moment. Kind words of praise, indeed.

"Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all" ~ Julia Child