Thursday, May 26, 2011


Ah, serendipity. All by itself, the word strikes a pleasant note. We use it to mean the knack of making desirable discoveries by accident. Webster’s tells the first use of this word was by Horace Walpole (1717-92). In a letter to the American educator Horace Mann, Walpole said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." Serendip is an old name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
Serendipity can’t be described as just dumb luck. The real secret to it is to be on the alert and ready for opportunities to do something different.  My husband and I have had many serendipitous experiences in our travels.  One fine May afternoon, way back when, after our first pub lunch and a lovely jaunt around southern England visiting Bodiam Castle, Battle (the Battle being the Battle of Hastings) and Rye, we got back to our base in Tenterden, Kent. We wandered off the High Street to the railroad station, part of the Kent and East Sussex Railway. We were admiring a lovely old train when we were approached by a charming man who asked us if we would like an adventure. Later we learned that the restoration and preservation of the light railway and its rolling stock was an entirely volunteer effort, and that part of their fund raising effort was to serve dinner in an authentically restored Pullman car. Here’s the serendipitous part: someone had had to cancel several bookings he’d made for dinner on the Wealden Pullman, and there were a few reservations on offer. We jumped at the chance.

Returning to our B & B to change into proper dinner attire, our host congratulated us on our fortune, admitting that he’d not yet had his own name come up on the waiting list. The bookings for this popular excursion, then run only on warm-weather Saturdays, were next to impossible to get. We understood why as the trip and the dinner progressed. Rolling serenely along through the countryside, seated at a table for two, we enjoyed a delicious four-course meal, served to perfection by perfectly-uniformed volunteer waiters, complete with aperitifs and wines, port and cigars. We passed on the cigars. It certainly was just by accident that we turned up at the railway station at the right time, and I don’t think it took too much sagacity to take the chance for a different dining experience: we had to have diner no matter what. The picture I took of Frank, seated across the table, shows a smile of absolute delight and contentment. 
Serendipity was disembarking last from a cruise ship in Bergen, Norway, but finding ourselves first to be shown to a waiting taxi. Serendipity was arriving at the ornately Victorian Papplewick Pumping Station in Nottinghamshire on one of the few days in the year when they bring James Watt’s huge beam engines up to full, working steam.  It was deciding to go to a bullfight in St. Remy-de-Provence, and finding ourselves at a wonderful, elaborately-costumed ceremony on what turned out to be the re-opening day of the refurbished arena.

Of course we’ve missed what might have been serendipitous moments by being there too late: “you should have been here last week,” or too early: “can you stay until next week when…comes to town?” But we never dwell on what we might have been. After all, it isn’t as though we were sitting idly, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for things to happen. No, we’ve been very serendipitous in that respect.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011



In the first essay for May you read that eggs are back in favor, how easy they are on your budget, and the basic ways to cook and enjoy them. Now we’re on an egg-stended journey to see how eggs figure into our lives in other than culinary ways.

Never mind which came first, the chicken or the egg, the egg was around long before man even thought of that question.  The recurring egg-chicken-egg cycle was and still is fascinating. From ancient times the egg was revered in most cultures as a symbol of rebirth. The egg has inspired everything from the original L’eggs package, to jelly beans, to those fabulous Fabergé eggs.             

Birds eggs come in all sizes, from the huge ostrich egg, equal to 18 to 24 chicken eggs, down to the minute bee-hummingbird’s egg, no bigger than a pea.  Colors: Easter eggs aside, eggs come in a variety of colors from the most common white to black, with a rainbow of colors in between. Some are spotted or mottled, some are plain.  All are beautiful.  All are edible. Most eggs are egg-shaped, but the eggs of guillemots and some other marine birds are pear shaped and pointed so that they will roll in a circle, but won’t roll off the cliff ledge where they are laid.

One of the earth’s perfectly packaged foods, enjoyed by most omnivores, eggs are nutritious and delicious. They are useful in cooking and the manufacturing of products such as cake mixes, salad dressings, noodles, and cosmetics and medicines.  They have antimicrobial properties and antioxidant properties. The whole egg is useful, from the whites and yolks on out to the shells which can be ground for fertilizer and animal feed.

Here are some egg-cellent Questions and Answers about eggs:

What connection does Michelangelo’s Last supper have with eggs?  The mural was painted in egg tempera – a mixture of pigments, oil, vinegar, and egg yolk.

What connection do eggs have with your T-bone steak?  They aid in the preservation of bull semen for artificial insemination.

What connection do eggs have with your flu shot? Fertile eggs are used in the manufacture of vaccines.  Eggs are also used in testing to feed laboratory animals and as a growth base for micro-organisms.

What do eggs have to do with your glass of wine?  The enzyme lysozyme from the egg white is being used in place of sulfites to inhibit lactic acid bacteria in wine, and to enhance its taste and color.  It is also used in the ripening of some cheeses.

What do eggs have to do with your daily beauty routine? Aside from the egg facial mask you might use, egg membranes are used in testing cosmetics for possible irritating properties.

What will eggs have to do with your dishwasher? Proteins from egg whites are being studied in the preparation of biological polymer films for use in water-soluble packaging like those for dishwasher and laundry packs.

What connection do clowns have with eggs?  A new member of Clowns International registers the design of his makeup on an egg.  A display of hundreds of them can be seen at the Clowns Museum in Somerset, England.

Why do chickens lay eggs?  If they drop them they’ll break.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


A mere coincidence: In today’s Parade Magazine, Marilyn vos Savant answered the question “Do you think we should continue to teach our children cursive handwriting?”  Her thoughts and mine are in agreement. I had this essay ready to post at a later date, but today is as good as day as any.  Happy Mother’s Day.
The ‘handwriting on the wall’ may literally spell the doom of cursive penmanship. Not in the near future, but it is extremely likely that cursive is going the way of the dodo.  Contrary to popular belief it is still widely taught – but that’s “widely”, not “universally”.  Where it is taught the teachers try to give at least fifteen minutes a day to the subject, but with all the claims on their time and the increasing amount of material to be taught that fifteen minutes can quickly shrink to zero. In the long run it may not be necessary at all.
I am often complimented on my handwriting, but these days most of my handwriting is on memos to myself, grocery lists, greeting cards, and the very few checks I write. Both my parents had good penmanship, so maybe it is in my genes, but a large amount of credit goes to the nuns who taught me in the first few grades of elementary school.  Every once in a while I write a really good t, and I say to myself: “Sister would like that one!” I once had to cover the blackboard with t’s as a punishment for doing them incorrectly.  Those of you who had nuns in school, did you ever know one who didn’t have good handwriting?  Those nuns had nuns.
I’ve got two older grandchildren who were first taught printing, then cursive in New York.  Their two younger sisters were taught only printing in Texas. Even before I look at the signature, I’ve no trouble telling who is writing to me when they send a note.  The younger girls are just as quick and facile with their printing as the cursive two. By the time they have to begin signing for things – licenses, voting, passports, and the like – their hand-printed signatures will be perfectly unique. 
Printing can be as distinguishable and individualized as cursive. There is no law that a signature must be in cursive.  To the contrary, in commercial law, any name, word, or mark used with the intention to authenticate a writing constitutes a signature.  Many times when I was in banking I had to witness and attest to a “signature”, a mark that was just an X. 
In many instances, printing is much more clear and readable than cursive.  It’s good that our doctors no longer give us handwritten prescriptions.  There should be no ambiguity about what meds are to be dispensed.  They can send prescriptions on-line or, barring that, provide us with a machine-printed sheet to bring to our pharmacist.
When I cast my thoughts ahead several years I can envision a time when we’ll never have to take pen in hand at all.  Police in many areas are now able to enter the pertinent information into a hand-held device and print out a speeding ticket for you. Many computers have speech recognition input capabilities: the words you speak are printed on the screen. You may have encountered another type of speech recognition, perhaps when phoning your credit card company.  It’s annoying because we’re not accustomed to talking out loud and replying to a computerized voice – annoying, but it does work.
Electronically-encoded finger prints, retina prints, our voice pattern, or even our DNA might one day be our own inimitable signatures.  Anything that now comes in the mail - catalogs, cards, bills, or notifications of any kind - will come to us on line.  Like cursive writing, paper itself may be becoming obsolete.  That should save a lot of trees.
Update on March 9, 2013.  You may want to read this article,
The Curse of Cursive.  Quite interesting.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


I’ve never needed a reason to celebrate eggs: you’ll always find a few dozen of them in my refrigerator. I had to chuckle when I saw the admission at that the egg industry celebrates National Egg Month in May, so soon after Easter, because sales have slowed and they want to remind everyone of the “many benefits of the incredible edible egg.” Now, I could have sent you right to their website and have no further need to keep writing, but that would have laid an egg as far as I was concerned. 

First, let’s deal with that problem of the cholesterol in eggs.  Yes there’s quite a bit, but in 2001 nutrition researchers at Kansas State University published the first evidence that the body’s absorption of cholesterol is significantly reduced by another compound in the egg: lecithin.  More research has been done in the intervening years, and for our purposes it suffices to say that the egg now enjoys a relatively clean bill of health – that is, if you handle them and cook them properly.  Don’t leave eggs out of their carton in the fridge.  The carton keeps the eggs from absorbing odors from nearby foods, and keeps them fairly well protected from breakage. It’s also smart to store them on the lowest shelf of the fridge, along with the milk and other dairy products, because that’s the lowest, coolest section.
Years ago, a dairy man taught me way to go beyond the visual check for cracked eggs: two by two, rock the eggs toward each other to be sure they are loose in their little niche.  If it’s broken, it won’t take long for egg-white to dry and cement the egg to the carton.  Pound for pound, eggs are the cheapest form of protein. A dozen large eggs weigh about a pound and a half.  Compare them price to the price of meat or fish per pound and you’ll be delighted.

I usually buy jumbo eggs. Ounce for ounce, I find them a better buy than regular.  A dozen jumbo eggs will weigh 6 to 12 ounces more than a dozen regular eggs, and they make for more in my favorite dish of soft-boiled eggs.  O.K., there are more calories too, but only 96 versus 70.  One thing cooks must remember about jumbo eggs is to adjust for them in recipes.  In standard recipes, where certain number of eggs is specified, they mean regular eggs.  I’ve got to do a bit of math to make adjustments.  More isn’t necessarily better. Three jumbos for four regulars is easy to remember, but come the holidays, with so much baking, I give in and by regular eggs.

On to the cooking: cookies and cakes and such aside, the motto for cooking eggs is “Low and Slow”.  Never rush an egg, moreover, never boil an egg.  Bring eggs just to the boil, turn off and cover them, and time them accordingly: 2 to 4 minutes, depending on how soft you like them, up to 15 minutes for hard cooked.  Boiling ‘hard-boiled’ eggs just gets you that green ring around the yolk.

Eggs poach at just a simmer, baked eggs cook at a relatively low 325°. Unless you really like the taste of browned omelets or scrambled or fried eggs, cook those slowly too. Medium is as high as you should go. 

Because they’re back in our good graces, there are now egg recipes galore available in print and on the internet.  Now that you know that eggs are back in favor, how easy they are on your budget, and the basic ways to cook them, we’ll proceed to a few ideas a on how to make some easy dishes.  Breakfast, lunch or dinner, you can always depend on eggs to come through when all else fails.  They are Mother Nature’s original convenience food.

Let’s begin with breakfast.  Short of “heart attack on a plate”, a great heap of greasy foods piled inches high, eggs can be part of a smart breakfast.  Many studies show that kids do better in school and are more alert if they’ve had some protein for breakfast.  Why wouldn’t that hold true for seniors too?  You may not want to have them every day, but perhaps three times a week will do you.   Knowing all the ways that a single egg can be turned into breakfast, you could go for several weeks and not repeat a meal. Add some ham or a piece or two of bacon, and the numbers multiply.  If you consider the eggs in pancakes, waffles and French toast in there too, the number of choices grows and grows.  For Sunday morning, perhaps with company coming, you might go all out with Eggs Benedict, or a wonderfully stuffed omelet, or one of the many varieties of stratas.  One thing’s for certain, you should never be bored with breakfast.

Now let’s do lunch.  The French invented one of the tastiest lunches around: Croque Madame.  A Croque Monsieur is a hot, crunchy ham sandwich, grilled with cheese on top. Add a nicely done fried egg on top of that, and the Monsieur becomes a Madame. The name might translate as Mrs. Crunch.  As you may guess, there are endless variations on this theme, with changes of meat, changes of bread, and changes of cheese – but always a melty one.  How about some sliced tomato? Madame’s name might change with the variations, but her constant is the fried egg.
Consider plain and simple scramble eggs on buttered (always buttered!) toast. You’ve done up the eggs ‘low and slow’. Now, while there is some creaminess still in them, you might want to blend in a bit of grated cheese or a pinch of herbs for a different flavor. You might want to add some chop up leftovers. Warm them up first so that your eggs don’t go cold. Again, anything from the breakfast repertoire can be moved up to lunch.

And they can be moved up to dinner too. For his birthday dinner every year, my Dad would ask for bacon and eggs, fried potatoes, and stewed tomatoes. Breakfast for dinner, with or without the addition of a vegetable or salad, is so easy to do.  Quiche Lorraine has a certain set of ingredients associated with its eggs: onion, bacon and Swiss cheese. A quiche by any other name, you choose one, with a chopped up selection from the fridge, makes for a wonderful supper. There could possibly be more calories in that quiche crust than in the filling, so if you’re watching carbs or calories you might consider the crust-less frittata.  Just as good, just as easy.

In recipes, eggs serve more functions than any other ingredient.  They act as a binder in cookies, cakes, and even in meat loaf. They glaze baked goods, thicken sauces and fillings, and give a lift to soufflés and sponge cakes.  They are delicious all by themselves. Outside of the Easter basket they may not be as decorative as something from Fabergé, but they certainly are worth celebrating.