Archive | November, 2015

Gan Gan’s dressing and other Southern blessings

25 Nov


Just a pinch.

A cup or so.

A handful of that.

Whatever looks about right.

After-Thanksgiving dinner table discussions at my in-laws’ house invariably settles into one familiar conversation.

“Gan Gan, how do you make your dressing? Someone else has to learn how to make it before you’re gone. Are you going to teach us?”

The questions are always asked—by me, a cousin, my husband, a first-time visitor who has become infatuated with the dish—every single holiday.

Gan Gan (my husband’s grandmother) laughs.

“There’s not a recipe,” she says. “I just know how I make it.”

Gan Gan’s dressing is a wonderful concoction of cornbread, shredded chicken, saltine crackers, vegetables, spices (but no sage) of imagined variety.

But it’s all only imagined; she’s told us what’s in there, but without the evidence of a transcribed recipe, I can’t actually verify that for you.

And so it goes in the South.

If you were blessed enough to be raised by a Southern mother, grandmother, or aunt—or fed by an armada of church ladies–you know what I’m talking about.

Southern women own the best recipes in the world—for banana pudding, macaroni and cheese, shrimp n’ grits, hoppin john, chicken fried steak, biscuits, divinity—but none of those recipes are on paper.

They’re all recorded for posterity in these ladies’ heads, and in the “here’s what you do” lessons they’ve tried to give to their children, grandchildren and greats beyond that.

It’s the same way with my Mom’s sweet potato pie.

My favorite Thanksgiving dessert is a heavenly blend of sweet potatoes and sugar and butter and vanilla (I think) that’s better than any pumpkin ever dreamed of being.

But Mom doesn’t look at a recipe card or in a cookbook when she stays up late the night before Thanksgiving whipping it up.

She just makes it—with those pinches, handfuls, and dashes.

I’ve watched Gan Gan make her dressing, and I’ve watched Mom make that pie.

A few days after Thanksgiving last year, I tried to replicate the dressing.

The optimum word here being “tried.”

It was too dry, and not flavorful enough, and the accompanying gravy (also a treasured Gan Gan secret) wasn’t quite right. I had watched Gan Gan make it that year, and had even written down what I considered a pretty-accurate recipe for it.

Still, it wasn’t quite Gan Gan’s.

And that, I think, is the point.

It will always be Gan Gan’s dressing. And Mom’s sweet potato pie. And Miss Jane’s rolls. And Gran’s divinity.

Until I’ve become the recipient of the treasured secrets, or have become the bearer of my own secret favorites (I can make a mean red velvet cake and love to cook, so there’s certainly hope), I will do what all Southern daughters, granddaughters, nieces and adopted children do.

I will sit at the table with my fellow admirers and savor every single bite of the mystery and wonder that is Thanksgiving dinner.

And for that I am grateful.


10 things that keep you from writing

12 Nov

In no particular order…

  1. Fear that you’re not good enough
  2. Too many new ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ trailers
  3. A perceived lack of time
  4. Comparing yourself to others
  5. Facebook
  6. ‘Real’ work during the day
  7. Waiting for the perfect idea to come along
  8. J.K. Rowling is more awesomer than you’ll ever be
  9. I need coffee. I need wine. I need all kinds of other things.
  10. You’re not a morning (or night) (or in-between) person

And a few to get you writing…

  1. Facebook and Star Wars will still be there
  2. J.K. Rowling started somewhere
  3. You can make time
  4. You are you
  5. Your idea is valuable. And it needs to come alive.

Personal Essays: Some of the best (with links)

3 Nov

The students in my “Opinion Writing” class this week discussed how to best write personal experience essays. And as is usually the case in my teaching, I taught how to write well by reading well-written pieces.

So, we discussed such essayists as Joan Didion and Anne Lamott; David Sedaris and Kurt Vonnegut. We read some of their best work out loud, and talked about what makes their essays so powerful. (Note: it includes things like a powerful story, relatable experiences, powerful emotions, lyrical words.)

In case you’d like to read some of these essays for yourself, check out the following links:

17 Personal Essays that will Change your Life (a fun Buzzfeed list)

‘The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan (a fabulous essay that started as Keegan’s Yale commencement address; it’s now part of an essay collection)

Bookmark this: Nora Ephron’s ‘A Few Words about Breasts’ (one of the iconic recent American essays, this is Ephron at her finest)

5 David Foster Wallace Essays you Should Read Before seeing The End of the Tour (GQ’s really good list of essential Wallace essays, published in advance of a recent movie on the writer)

David Sedaris in The New Yorker (Sedaris’ essay archives from The New Yorker)

Sex, drugs and superheroes: Our 10 best personal essays (Salon’s favorite essays of the last year are a good place to start)

E.B. White, The Art of the Essay No. 1 (The Paris Review’s interview with the late great essayist)

How to Write a Personal Essay (a really cool, useful guide from Utne Reader)