Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Not me—I’m not superstitious

Not me—I’m not superstitious
I am not a superstitious person. I cheerfully walk under ladders. Never has a black cat crossing my path kept me from my destination. The disasters in my life could not have been prevented by any amount of knocking on wood.

Where do some of our weird beliefs come from? We repeat ideas that have been handed down from generation to generation. We never think to question them. They become common knowledge. We all know that washing a car will bring rain. And it’s true; an apple a day will keep the doctor away.

On one of our warmer-than-summer days in early January, I drove to Chinook. I marveled at the beauty of the sun drenched Milk River Valley. The balmy air smelled like spring. I almost expected ferns and fronds and palm trees to shoot up through the wind scoured soil, like a bald woman donning a frilly Easter bonnet. As distinctly as though he sat in the passenger seat next to me, I heard my Dad say, “It might be pretty today but the raspberries won’t be worth a hill of beans next summer if we don’t get a real winter.”

I glanced over to make sure my father, gone now these six years, was not sitting there. Where did that come from, I wondered—that thought, planted in my head, speaking with my Dad’s voice? I had an inkling that the voice I heard is a common Montana voice; those words are common Montana words, at least in this parched section of the state.

I decided to do some research. Later that day I popped into an eatery to eavesdrop on the local pundits. My wait was not long. The group of men who frequent this place on a regular basis soon arrived, one by one. I sat with my back to them but not so far away that I couldn’t overhear. Sure enough, the conversation turned to our weather.

Real Weather, to a Montanan, is defined as any extreme condition. Our days (and nights) are either brutally cold or blistering hot or hang-on windy and most often two out of three. Real Snow drifts into banks higher than any measured in living memory. Torrential Rain pounds so hard that flash floods are generated in moments. Drought cleaves the hard-baked gumbo clay into cracks and crevices deep and wide enough to be called a canyon and by gosh if it doesn’t rain soon we can advertise it as a scenic wonder and put up neon signs to point directions and bring tourists in by the busload. If I were an outsider I would think all this braggadocio to be exaggeration but I grew up around here. I know it’s all true. We live in a country of extremes.

“We worried all year that this winter we’d get snowfall that would cause spring floods that would make last year’s overflow look like mud puddles,” said one gent. “Now I’m worried about fires. If we don’t get some moisture soon, the whole prairie will likely go up in flames.”

“Well, I suppose that’ll keep the firefighters happy,” offered a slightly brighter voice.

Next spoke a gentleman who farms up north, “If we don’t get moisture, crops won’t come up at all.”

“All I know is we’re supposed to have four seasons and when we don’t it’s no good,” chimed in a gruff-sounding elderly gentleman, a man who looked like he’d lived enough seasons to know the difference. “The way the old-timers tell it, a year just like this brought on the flu epidemic of 1918. Gonna be a lot of sickness this year, just you wait and see."

That was in January. Now February is gone and I still hear the same old negative words. I have come to believe they reflect a simple bit of superstition, a verbal “knock on wood”. We are afraid that if we boast that life is good, that things are going well, then sure enough, the next day all havoc will break loose. It is cheap enough insurance, I suppose, this poor-mouth attitude. If, by our words, we can keep life from going to the dogs, keep the monkey-wrench out of the works, keep the wolf away from the door, then so be it.

Personally, I’m not buying it. But by golly, if we don’t get some real weather soon, I don’t believe I’ll have any kind of garden. Good thing I put up a lot of raspberries last summer. Glad I got my flu shot. Do you smell smoke? Or is that a blizzard on the way? No matter. I’m going to have a terrific year; the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 1, 2012

A Hot Time in the Old Town

A Hot Time in the Old Town
My cousin Shirley and I motored to Havre for a nice meal and to take in the Montana Actors Theater’s latest production. Shirley had a bit of shopping to do, so we left early, adding a splash of minutes for the unexpected. My theory is that when you allow for the unexpected, the unexpected is what you will get.

In the best Western Tradition, we headed off into the sunset, which glared in our eyeballs all the way to Havre. Although we both were hungry, we decided to take care of mundane tasks first. We quickly found the items on Shirley’s list, then headed up the hill to Murphy’s Irish Pub. Neither of us had been there in a long while.

We made ourselves comfortable at a small table right in the middle of the dining room. After cruising the menu, we decided to share an appetizer. We planned to order our main courses once we had knocked the edge off our hunger. Did I mention we were hungry? We both had skipped lunch in anticipation of dinner. We were ravenous.

Our friendly waitress soon placed drinks and a lovely chicken quesadilla in front of us. We tucked right in amid much lively conversation.

Meanwhile, the hockey team streamed in. Actually, I don’t know for sure that it was a hockey team. But the large congregation of youngsters of varied ages had that hockey-team type energy. They began settling down; no, “settling down” is not the right phrase. Imagine a horde of milling children, at least twenty or maybe two hundred, seeking their places at a long table, all the while maintaining the semblance of a perpetual motion machine. Try to remember when you were eight or nine or ten. “I don’t want to sit here. I want to sit on the other side.” “I’m not sitting next to HIM, Yuck.” “Go away; only girls sit here.” “Girls have cooties. Pass it on.” (Slug!) Hey, I like that kind of energy. Those kids were having a ripping good time.

Parents trooped in behind them, trying to get the kids sorted out and seated. They planned to enjoy their meal in relative peace at another table, further away. In the midst of the melee, as Shirley shifted to let a parent through the narrow space between our table and the pack of milling youngsters, she bumped our small table, causing it to tilt. My drink, untouched as yet, turned topsy-turvy. The glass shattered. Icy liquid mixed with glass shards splattered onto my shirt, puddled into my lap, and ran down one leg into my shoe. The word that comes to mind is “drenched”. I sat stunned, looking down into the lake in my lap. I had to laugh. What else could I do. I picked a chunk of glass out of the lake, held it in front of my eyes like a crystal ball and predicted, “There is a shopping trip in my immediate future.”

Our waitress brought towels. We sopped up the mess as best we could, paid for the quesadilla and left into the cold and windy night.

We raced over the hill and down to K-Mart. I grabbed three pairs of pants and headed to the dressing rooms. Shirley went off search of a shirt. The first pants I tried on fit nicely and the legs were long enough. I’m always surprised when that happens. I asked the clerk, Theresa, to please cut the tags off my back pockets. Shirley showed up with three shirts. I ducked back into the dressing room and sent her after boot socks, preferably a wool blend, to wear with my sandals. Once I was dressed and warm again, I tucked my dripping clothing into a plastic bag supplied by the helpful Theresa. I carried my fistful of tags to checkout. The entire shopping expedition took fifteen minutes.

We still had time for dinner before the play. “Let’s go back to Murphy’s,” I said. “The quesadilla was great and we already know what we want to eat.”

So back we went. This time we chose a table far from the madding crowd. We enjoyed a leisurely meal and had plenty of time to drive across town to MSU Northern for the play.

The moral of this story: Expect the Unexpected. You never know when the Shopping Genie will strike.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 23, 2012

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Coffee Snob Gets Her Comeuppance

Coffee Snob Gets Her Comeuppance
After years of living in Seattle, it is no surprise that I developed a taste for exotic coffee. Certainly more exotic than everyday Folgers. I’m not rigid about my coffee. I’ll drink any kind of coffee as long as it is hot. Coffee at the Diner, coffee with friends, coffee while traveling; I’ll drink it without complaint.

But, I confess, behind the closed doors of my own home, I am a coffee snob. Each morning I grind my designer coffee beans fresh. I carefully bring water not quite to the boil. I measure an exact heap of ground coffee into the pre- heated glass jar of my French press, pour the water evenly over the grounds, set the top on the jar, and cover it with a special quilted cozy (that I made myself). I wait the requisite four minutes, plunge the press downward to separate the grounds from the delicious dark liquid and pour steaming aromatic coffee into a heated mug. This process somewhat resembles a Japanese tea ceremony minus the kimono. I retire to the living room, my current book in hand, to savor my morning coffee.

On my recent holiday in Mazatlan, Mexico, I decided to breakfast at Juanita’s. I first wandered into Juanita’s a few years ago, following a hot tip from Tony, a beach vendor. He said he eats there and the food is always good. And he is right. The garlic shrimp cannot be bettered, nor can the price. One can walk by and not notice the few red and white checked oil-cloth covered tables with plastic chairs sitting beneath the corrugated tin roof held in place with crooked tree limbs. A concrete wall separates Juanita’s from the store next to it. This wall is covered with philodendron, ivy, ferns, and bougainvillea, all planted in coffee tins and plastic buckets. A row of Aloe and cactus separates the tables from the sidewalk. Back from the tables is a miniscule “store” with snacks and drinks. And behind that is the kitchen. Juanita’s is not on the tourist map.

I sat down at a table and when Manuel (I asked his name) handed me a menu, I ordered coffee.

He indicated two men eating at the adjacent table to let me know the coffee came in a jar of Nescafe. “Oh,” I said with a slight wrinkle of my nose and ordered orange juice instead. Breakfast was excellent and all for forty pesos. Juanita’s quickly became my morning hangout.

One morning Manuel placed cups of steaming milk, a small jar of Nescafe and a bowl of unrefined sugar before a couple at the other end of the table where I sat. “What is that?” I asked him. “Café con leche,” he responded. I watched while the couple each spooned a half teaspoon of coffee and a like amount of sugar into their milk. I was intrigued. So I told Manuel I’d like to try this café con leche.

When the hot milk arrived I measured the coffee and sugar and stirred them into my milk. Oh, my. It was better than good. It became my morning drink of choice in Mexico.

After I flew back to Seattle to spend time with my children and grandchildren, I missed my café con leche. So I stealthily set out to search for the necessary ingredients to make my own—namely, Nescafe instant coffee and unrefined sugar. Stealthily, because I didn’t want my friends in the coffee-drinking capital of the world to see me buying a jar of instant. And to tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I could find Nescafe in the outer reaches of Montana. I stopped at the coffee display of a giant super market, amazed. Nescafe offered me a choice of gourmet, House Blend, several flavors, and decaf . I chose “Clasico” because the jar label was printed in Spanish.

I hid the jar in my basket beneath bags of sea salt and fresh strawberries and went in search of unrefined sugar. I picked the sugar that most looked like that which I had spooned from the bowl in Juanita’s.

I still make coffee with my French press. But some mornings I reach into the darkest corner of my pantry and extract the jar of Nescafe instant and the sugar bowl. I heat the milk in my smallest pan, pour it into my cup, and measure half a teaspoon of instant and half a teaspoon of sugar. One sip and I am transported to Mazatlan and Juanita’s. Ole!

HDN: Looking out my back door
Sondra Ashton
February 9, 2012