Retirement Gave Aunt Rae Shingles

Time management is still a thing after retirement. Go all out in service to others, but make sure you rest in-between times.

“My Life Is Being Poured Out As A Libation.” – St. Paul

My sister retired 10 years ago from a career developing on-line course material for University of Delaware. She arranged her exit well in advance and spent a delicious few months anticipating the magic last day of work. She’s always volunteered for scholarly and church groups (as well as mothering and now grand mothering), and she looked forward to continuing this service absent the daily stress of not enough time.

Predictable in hindsight, she soon became inundated with increased demands on her time. Everyone involved, including herself, assumed she could take on more work: to book more speakers for the scholarly club, to develop more fundraising for the pro-life group, to babysit more. In only a few weeks she developed an unwelcome and uncomfortable case of shingles.

A Question of Balance

Shingles–reactivated chicken pox virus–isn’t caused by stress, but may occur when the immune system is weakened by stress. After her recovery my sister resolved to more prudently manage her volunteer time, and so far seems to be striking the right balance between service and well-earned leisure. (Most times, that is, sometimes the grandchildren win.)

We’ll never know if it was only a coincidence that she developed shingles immediately after retirement. No matter, it’s now part of family lore: retirement gave Aunt Rae shingles.

Even if it doesn’t make you ill, cramming too many “fulfilling” tasks into a single day can wind up being a chore instead of a joy. Planning ahead helps retain the joy.

Cooking for a Crowd – Family Barbecue

Last summer we had the family over for a barbecue, about 20 people. My younger self had enough energy to enjoy making food non-stop for 5 or 6 hours, but not these days. For this cookout I wanted to enjoy the day by doing lots of preparation in the days before.

Side dishes and dessert were a cinch to make ahead–baked beans, coleslaw, watermelon and cookies. But how to serve barbecue without toiling over the Weber during the party? My solution was to cook in stages and minimize Weber time:

Grilled Chicken Wings

  1. Parboil for quicker grilling
  2. Marinate overnight in olive oil, basil, and garlic
  3. Grill about 5 minutes per side on the Weber the morning of the party

Smoked Sausage

  1. Grill whole on the Weber the morning of the party, about five minutes to get the good grill marks
  2. Cut in diagonal slices prior to serving and saute over the stove

Pulled Pork Sandwiches – Pretend Smoked

  1. Prepare over two days, finishing the day before the party
  2. Use the cheapest, fattiest, pork roast
  3. If you use soup bones buy a roast with bones; boneless is a lot easier
  4. Cut into 2 – 3 large hunks
  5. Rub into meat a mixture of whatever is handy, like sugar, paprika, salt, cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne
  6. Let pork sections sit in rub at least 2 hours
  7. Brown the pork sections on stove top
  8. Cook in the oven at 225 degrees at least 4 hours -OR- Pot roast the pork sections
  9. Pork is done when you can easily shred it (going with the grain)
  10. Shred the pork, mix with barbecue sauce, refrigerate overnight
  11. Heat and serve on soft rolls day of the party

Time management is even more important when cooking for 50 – 100 people. Experience taught me a fatiguing lesson this past New Year’s.

Cooking for a Crowd – New Year’s Eve Dance

My local recovery center has a yearly cycle of social and fundraising events. In past years I’ve contributed a single dish made at home to these gatherings; it’s pretty easy to cook a turkey or mash 10 pounds of potatoes and just drop them off. No stress.

In retirement I have the leisure to take on a larger role, so I volunteered to plan the menu and manage cooking dinner for the annual New Year’s Eve dinner dance for 100 people. I figured with planning ahead and good helpers I could avoid burnout “the day of.”

It was my first time cooking a meal in a commercial (church) kitchen and it was exhilarating and not a bit intimidating! The biggest lesson I learned was that everything takes longer than you think.

New Year’s Eve 2018 Menu for 100

Appetizers, five pounds of Lipton’s French Onion Soup dip (you know you love it) with crudites, plus donated apps. Success but only after dinner; folks didn’t gather around our appetizer table as we expected. Next year reserve the noshes for the dance portion of the evening.

Beef Brisket, 61 pounds — raging success, browned and cooked for hours with liquid in a slow oven. Beef is an elegant choice for New Year’s, and with brisket there’s no worry about rare, medium, or well done. Next year cook the day before.

Mashed Potatoes, 50 pounds — another success. Peeled in the morning, cooked in the evening. Next year do the same.

Frozen Peas, 30 pounds — epic fail, peas took forever to cook. Next year start cooking an hour earlier. Also, 30 pounds seemed like way too much.

Gravy for 100, 8 oz. commercial gravy base and liquid from brisket — mediocre, mainly because brisket recipe contained a million onions and carrots which neutralized the beef flavor of the brisket drippings. The idea was supposed to be that a million onions and carrots would make another side dish (thrifty), but they were so soggy and unappealing we didn’t even serve them. Next year use homemade beef stock and don’t dilute the pan drippings.

Foccacia, about 6 pounds of flour — Success in execution, fail in service. The big commercial ovens made it easy to show up with refrigerator dough, cook five sheet pans of foccacia in one baking, and be done by mid-morning.  A brilliant move for next year: instead of serving with dinner, put plates of foccacia on each of the guest tables along with olive oil for dipping.

Cole slaw, 15 pounds — limited success, tasty but people concentrated on the hot dishes. Next year try individual bowls of green salad on tables with foccacia.

Vegetarian Pasta Dish with Shells, 10 pounds of pasta shells — Raging success, with homemade sauce and layered with ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, plus sauteed and diced zucchini, onion, pepper, and garlic. Next year make a lot less, the recipe of 10 pounds of pasta was for a main dish entree.

  • Zany Mistake – the plan was to cook half the pasta, mix it with half of the sauce, cheese, and vegetables, then prepare the other half of the recipe. Only after the supposed half recipe was tucked into aluminum pans and covered with foil for baking did I realize we’d used the full 10 pounds of pasta. So we had to unravel all the pans and mix everything together with the other half of the sauce, cheese, and vegetables. Goodbye fancy layering, still fabulous!

Dessert, four volunteers each prepared dessert for 25–success.

Life Saving Son Creates New Warm Family Memory

I count this first effort to cook “commercially” a success because so many of the guests raved about the food. Well cooked beef brisket and real mashed potatoes proved a winning main dish. The effort and expense that went into the deliciously rich pasta dish also paid off, especially in grateful accolades from a couple of vegetarians.

  • Personal Perk–I overcame my prejudice against using vegetables with a baked pasta / marinara / cheese dish. Zucchini is actually delicious in the dish. When I get around to making this dish at home I’m going to make it with equal amounts of zucchini and pasta.

On the down side, the event practically killed me. The original plan was to prepare food in the morning, go home, then come back later in the afternoon to cook and serve. Instead, I worked continuously in the kitchen from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm. Never got to wear my party duds.

While I recruited enough volunteers for the morning, I completely underestimated the need for volunteers in the afternoon, PLUS a couple of key people didn’t show up. If early guests hadn’t pitched in it would’ve been a lot worse, and throughout the evening guests helped with washing pots and keeping the kitchen tidy in advance of the solid cleanup crew.

Best of all, my son showed up to eat at the exact moment we were struggling to meet our advertised 7:00 pm. service time. An experienced line cook, he immediately took charge of expediting the food hot from kitchen to the steam table setup in the dining room. Wonderful new family story.

I had to rest for a couple days afterward, but I can’t wait til next New Year’s Eve to improve my skills with managing a meal for 100 people. Until then I’ll be cooking in the background.

Cooking for a Crowd – Valentine’s Dance Spaghetti and Meatballs

The latest event I helped with was a Valentine’s dance, which offered a simple meal of spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and bread. My role (see photos at top) was limited and purely enjoyable:

  • Making and baking 300 meatballs with three friends at their home. To our surprise it only took about 3 hours. No cheese in the meatballs, but bread, eggs, grated onions (thank goodness for Vitamix), fennel seed, cayenne, fresh basil and oregano. They were really good and didn’t fall apart when served.
  • Spur of the moment, the day of, to save money, I made french bread and rolls. I made both loaves and rolls solely to minimize baking time. Making a lot of bread is a big effort but 1) most of the work is in the beginning with the mixing and kneading, 2) it’s cheap, and 3) people are impressed!

In Giving We Receive

No life truth is more paradoxical: in giving we receive. And not just spiritual or comradely or life experience benefits, often we receive goodies when we pour ourselves out.

We planned for 100 for the Valentine’s dance but attendance was only about 50, so I have meatballs and bread in my freezer (and they both freeze well).

I imagine Aunt Rae and I will continue to flirt with the limits of exhaustion in our giving, but who cares? We’re retired, we can always spend tomorrow resting.

American Snack Day

For food lovers, full participation in American life requires the preparation of snacks on Super Bowl Sunday, whether or not you watch the game.

I was a freshman in high school for Superbowl One in 1967, but it still seems like Superbowl Sunday is a recent addition to the yearly cycle of American holiday meals. Time flies indeed. In those days all I knew about football was that Joe Namath was cute and really good.

I’m not sure how much the food industry has shaped this snack carnival. My sense is that it evolved naturally, the inevitable result of the creation of a uniquely important football game.

Only Thanksgiving scores higher than Superbowl Sunday in caloric consumption. Folksy fact: these two special days bracket the spectrum of American eating habits. Thanksgiving dinner is the meal most often served “at the table” with family, while Super Bowl fare is the complete opposite of a sit-down meal, and celebrated most often with buddies.

Google Trends wants you to know the most popular Superbowl snacks by state. For my state–Delaware–it’s chocolate peanut butter cake. I call bunk, but I think I tracked down the methodology that produced Delaware’s “most googled snack.”

You see, Valerie Bertinelli grew up in Delaware, and she’s got a Food Network gig “Valerie’s Home Cooking.” And Pinterest the Ubiquitous has an entry from Ms. Bertinelli:
Chocolate Peanut Butter Cakes (My Delaware Days).  

I’m no SEO expert, but I am a Delawarean and still get around, and I’ve never heard a buzz about chocolate peanut butter cake.

Compulsion

In the time it takes to heat up the pan you can prepare shredded potato and diced onion for saute. Pair with leftover fried chicken.

Is this a familiar scenario for you? You finish work or doing something equally responsible, get in the car, and now you’re ready to please yourself. What’s for dinner? Sometimes the answer is waiting at home, but many times your hedonistic side kicks in and you think: “Dang, I am going to DO WHATEVER I WANT and indulge myself for dinner. Forget the stuff at home!” You’re hearing the siren song of shopping: buying something will make me feel better.

Sadly remembering that restaurant nachos cannot travel, you run through your options:

  • Something completely unhealthy
  • Healthy takeout that costs a lot
  • Semi-healthy takeout you need to eat hot
  • Supermarket #1 — something delicious that needs preparation
  • Supermarket #2 — expensive hors d’oeuvres
  • Supermarket #3 — a prepared dish you know will disappoint
  • Cheese shop

I usually humor this compulsion with something in the ten dollar range that can serve for more than one meal, like smoked salmon or a half pound of good cheese.

But more and more I just go home, motivated by money, for self-discipline, and because the thrill I anticipate is usually an illusion. But not before I’ve figured out in transit the indulgent meal–with minimum preparation–I will put together at home.

Salt Pork

Old People Stuff

I like meat. Crusty pork ribs, meatballs, and fried chicken will always be on my table. But in these older years I like it less. The other day I had some leftover sausage and made an omelet with the sausage, vegetables, and cheddar cheese. (I’m not a big omelet eater and the whole point of this one was the indulgence of lots of cheddar cheese.)

The omelet was really good because lots of melted cheddar cheese is really good. But the sausage detracted from the dish because it was chewy, and the rest of the omelet was soft and creamy.

It’s old people stuff: I like soft and creamy things now. It’s too much work to eat a big hunk of meat, chewing and chewing and chewing before I can move on to a bite of potatoes or rice.


Flavoring with meat is a grand solution.

Salt Pork and Dried Beans

Unless I’m putting them in soup stock or a Mexican dish, I always cook dried beans–navy, pinto, kidney–with salt pork. That’s from my mom’s West Texas upbringing. We had black-eyed peas with cornbread every couple of months, and I always patted myself on the back for enjoying the meal EVEN THOUGH it didn’t have any meat! But the meaty flavor was there very strongly; salt pork is a powerhouse of salty and smoked pork flavor.


Use salt pork:
  • Indispensable for baked beans
  • Along with smoked sausage for red beans and rice
  • Boiled western-style with pintos, onions, garlic, peppers
  • Boil beans with an onion, then add a ton of chopped greens at the end
  • Navy bean soup
  • Bean soup with vegetables and without soup stock

Thomas Jefferson was a gourmand who famously ate very little meat. “He lived principally on vegetables….The little meat he took seemed merely as a seasoning for his vegetables.” Granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge

I love this fact because it strikes a chord with my mom’s standard meal of pork chops, rice and gravy. The milk gravy made in the pork chop pan was sublime over rice. I like to imagine that Jefferson the Virginian ate rice with milk gravy and pan drippings along with his French-inspired favorites.

Googling for this blog post didn’t enlighten me on Jefferson’s milk gravy habits. Instead I got a little irritated that one–of about ten–references said he ate very little meat “for health reasons.” Prove it! I believe it’s because he was smitten with the European style of cooking with less meat.

Kitchen Gadgets

Cherry Pitter

Many kitchen gadgets are great, some are not. And gadget value doesn’t depend on how often you use it. One of my favorites is one I use about four times a year: a cherry pitter. Amazingly I always know where it is because I keep it high up in a cupboard in it’s original neato European box. I used it over Christmas when I had a gift of cherries, making myself a nice bowl of cherries to go with a cold supper.

Herb Stripper

Gadget-wise, I really burned myself recently at the great Fante’s kitchen store at the Italian Market in South Philadelphia. I really wanted to buy something, but I didn’t need anything, so I convinced myself that a “herb stripper” would be fun and useful. It’s not; there’s too much concentration involved and zero time saved. So I’m stuck with this beautiful stainless steel stupid gadget, stuck because how can you give away something that frustrates you?

New Pastry Brush!

When you’ve been cooking for over 50 years you need a good reason to buy a new gadget. I’ve been on the lookout for a few months for a new pastry brush. They are really useful. There’s no other gadget that you can use to brush BBQ sauce on meat, or olive oil on grilled vegetables. I have three already, but I don’t enjoy using any of them. One is too old, one is too small, and the head keeps falling off the silicone one.

I only wanted to spend a couple bucks, so I’ve been biding my time before buying a new one. I was really happy the other day to find a near-perfect pastry brush at a Mennonite discount grocery store. I always feel good about Farberware, and my new pastry brush has their signature no-nonsense quality, with 2.5 inch natural bristles and a plastic (who cares?) sturdy handle. For $1.50.

First Day in Blogging School

Greetings from beautiful Newark, Delaware! I’m a recently retired housing planner interested in making a few bucks online using my experience as a writer. I’m able to be leisurely about my online search for writing jobs because I have enough income to live on, so I set myself a rough timeline of several months to learn about the online writing “industry”. Many experienced online writers advised starting a blog as a way of developing a portfolio for prospective employers.  

So I am.

My blog is about my lifelong interest in all things food-related. It’s called Cook, Eat, Repeat.  I’m pretty sure my food blog needs to be more specific than “I love to cook and eat”; right now my more narrow concept reflects the lifestyle of a retired person in her sixties. I am a from-scratch cook for almost everything, and I just can’t enjoy frozen foods or even supermarket bread, but I am no longer interested in the time and effort to bring a big meal to the table with everything simultaneously hot off the stove. So I’ll be thinking what to call whatever that is as I learn how to blog.