Adventures In Cooking: Occasional Miscues, And My $200 Sheperd’s Pie

Adventures In Cooking: Occasional Miscues, And My $200 Sheperd’s Pie

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I have always had an interest in cooking, and it started at a young age. I remember watching my mother cook dinner, and assisting a bit as well as well as getting tastes of what she was making. For some reason I had a fondness for slices of raw white potatoes, and those were on the menu a lot. Strange, but it worked for me!

She was an excellent home style cook- this was probably due to growing up on a farm, where her mom was responsible for feeding lots of family and hired workers on a regular basis. We still make a lot of my grandmother’s dishes, and I have several of her recipes written in her handwriting. They are more nostalgic than practical because she wrote things like “cook till done”, and listed ingredients in no particular order. Luckily, we deciphered them. My mom also cooked a lot from memory, but she also liked trying new recipes. At family gatherings, she and her extended family exchanged them. I still have my mom’s recipe box, with several of these- with names like Ag’s Beans, Sue’s Economy Casserole ( so named because the ingredients were expensive), and Leatrice’s Sheet Cake. I know exactly where these tried and true dishes came from since I knew the original cooks. It is a treasure to have them.

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My personal cooking adventure started with a Betty Crocker Cookbook For Boys And Girls that I received as a gift in fourth grade. I still have it! It was a fun way to make some dishes everyone might eat, and I tried most of them. I also got some credit for a Girl Scout badge along the way, so definitely a win/win. And I kept doing assistant duty for dinner.

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Cooking took a back seat as I got older and busier with sports and activities, but it kicked back in during law school. Fast food was expensive, so I learned a few basic dishes could make quickly. Not exactly gourmet standards, but edible and enough to get me through the semester. When I lived with three other law students my last year, cooking got a bit more complicated due to our small kitchen. That is when we discovered Domino’s Pizza, the only food you could get delivered in those days. We pooled our money and ate them way too often. I can say without exaggeration I haven’t eaten a Domino’s Pizza since graduating in the 1980’s.

Cooking took on a new life when I stayed home with my kids. Learning to cook healthy food that little ones and adults would eat was one of my major jobs in those days. Luckily, I still liked to cook, and started collecting cookbooks too. Every vacation, I would pick one up in a gift shop. This lead to a way too large collection, but I tried to use them all at some point.

I was always game to try a new recipe and had some funny moments along the way. One day, I decided to make home made runza’s. For those not familiar with them, they are a meat sandwich in a baked bun, about the size of a billfold, popular throughout the Midwest. My recipe called for using pre-made bread dough, and then putting the meat filling inside. I didn’t do something right, because when I checked on them, my runza’s were each the size of a large purse, and totally misshapen. I let them finish baking, and that didn’t help. Into the trash they went, never to be attempted again. Another misadventure was a ginger bread house one December. My daughter and I used a mold and made our own gingerbread. That seemed to go ok, until I took the last batch of gingerbread out of the oven and we started assembling the house. Our walls were so heavy, they barely stood up. The only rescue was to put pins into the walls to hold them together. Decorating was minimal because the house weighed so much we couldn’t touch it without almost causing a collapse.

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Unlike my maternal ancestors, I still use a recipe for most things, but I have mastered a few “go to” recipes of my own over the years. Many of them have “jiffy” in the title. So when Covid hit, and we were in the stay at home phase, I decided to do a combination of carry out from our local restaurants and cooking. Once the regular recipes were exhausted, it was time to try some new ones. A recipe that caught my eye was shepherd’s pie, a meat and vegetable dish topped with mashed potatoes. It served four, so we’d have leftovers for another day.

I got the ingredients I didn’t have an hand and started making the dish. Total cost: $10.00. You can use instant mashed potatoes, which have improved greatly over the years, but since I had time I made my own. The filling was made, and I put the dish together and popped it in the oven. Then I started the clean up process, including the pile of potato peels in the sink. Bad idea! The disposal made a strange grinding noise, and then quit working. The sink was full of backed up water, and the dishwasher was out of commission since it drains through the sink.

A call to a plumber, who was able to come relatively quickly, lead to an easy (for him) fix. He was at the house for less than an hour. So the total cost of my shepherd’s pie was $200.00- $10 for the ingredients, and $190 to the plumber, who charged more due to the weekend.

Luckily, the pie itself turned out pretty well, and we got more than one meal out of it. If I ever make it again, instant potatoes may be the route to take. I can’t afford to call the plumber whenever real potatoes are involved!

Interesting Coworkers

Interesting Coworkers

As people head back to the office after working at home, I thought this would be a good time to reminisce about interesting coworkers I have encountered over the years. From the early days working during high school and college, to the really interesting years as a college professor, I give you a veritable who’s who of my working colleagues.

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My first paid position was working as a waitress at a local restaurant called King’s Food Host. It was an early fast food chain in the Midwest known for its burgers and malts. In addition to waitress work, I also made some of the food on the weekends. My coworkers were primarily teenagers, and we had a good time working together. Our manager, who had just started dating his future wife, wasn’t around much. So we had free reign as long as the customers were taken care of and we cleaned up at the end of the day. We also wore lovely teal polyester pantsuits as our uniform. Ugly, but sturdy.

When things were slow, we had time to chat and make ourselves food. One favorite activity was putting candy bars in the malt machine and making new flavors. There was a boyfriend/girlfriend pair of workers who ducked into the cooler periodically for some private time. Occasional water fights between the dishwashers. But overall a fun place to work.

Other part time jobs followed: more waitressing, a photography studio, and teaching tennis lessons. The photo studio and tennis lessons were fun and pretty stress free. The waitressing was at a Pizza Hut, and it was the low point of my part time jobs- low pay, low tips and low morale among the workers. But one group always seemed to be smiling, and that was the cooks. The only perk of the job was taking home a free pizza at the end of the night. I found out later the cooks laced their pizzas with marijuana every night. No wonder they were very protective of their food, and ever so mellow on the job.

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None of this prepared me for the workplace after law school. My first job was at bank, and it included a lot time crunching numbers, drafting documents and reviewing regulations. There weren’t a lot of women in professional level jobs, and all of the senior executives were men old enough to be my dad. You could smoke at your desk, and there were a lot of smokers in my department. Really kind of a Mad Men atmosphere, but in the 80’s. The only fun part of the day was going to lunch, and that hour went by way too quickly. I kept a jar of jelly beans on my desk, along with a recipe card. Combine a coconut, with a pineapple and it was a pina colada. Other than that, it was a keep your head down, don’t ask too many questions kind of place.

None of these experiences prepared me for my years working at a college. Academia has a well earned reputation for having shall we say “quirky” folks working there. It is well earned. Here are a few of my favorites. No names are mentioned, but work friends will recognize some of them.

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Let’s start with adminsitrative assistants. My first week at the college, with only two weeks until classes started, was very hectic. The admin assistant I shared with other faculty split her time between two buildings. She left me some office supplies, and then went to the other building. I rarely saw her after that. She somehow managed to always be en route to the other building when you needed her. She also had a knack for snagging things she needed, like the window air conditioner in my office, and installing it in hers. I couldn’t prove it, but I knew it was her. She had some foot issues, so she used a cane. This didn’t stop her from being amazingly shifty and hard to find.

She was supposed to work from 8 am- 5 pm, but frequently claimed to be coming in at 6 am, which no one could verify, and then leaving by 3. She had a great affinity for two older science professors who never really learned to use their computers. She liked to do their typing, and make them coffee, and they were happy to monopolize her time.

One day, she was asked to go into a messy office left by another professor who was gone for the summer, and clean out his file cabinet. Offices were being renovated, and it had to be done. When she opened the middle file drawer, she found a long deceased mouse family. After a loud scream, she somehow pulled the cabinet over, and it landed on her good foot. This unfortunate accident lead to a worker’s compensation claim, months of rehab, and ultimately her early retirement.

Two other interesting assistants- one unique character who wore blue rubber gloves every day. This was long before Covid. Her reason? She claimed to be allergic to paper. I did a google search and can’t find any indication this is a legitimate allergy, but if it is, working as an admin assistant doesn’t make much sense. The other was a long time assistant who was being let go for what appeared to be legitimate reasons, and decided to yell about it on her way out of the building. And I mean yell. Years later I heard that she may have been working under an assumed name due to some type of legal problems in her family.

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But I am saving my all time favorites for last- the IT department, and accounts payable. I have a photo of an empty room above because that was a common occurrence when trying to teach. Somehow, access to the Internet, and having everything function properly in our classrooms, was an ongoing challenge. As a small school one would think this would be avoidable. A typical problem- I remember one day trying to play a dvd on the new desktop computer in class. I also had the monitor displayed on the screen in the room. I had used this DVD numerous times, and nothing seemed to be working. I tried calling the “emergency” IT number, and no one answered. No surprise there. Mercifully, a student came in late who said another professor had the same issue, and she knew what to do- press the icon on the screen that looked like an orange traffic cone. I did, and voila! The dvd popped up. Because nothing says “click here to play a DVD” like an orange traffic cone!

And last but not least, getting a bill paid or reimbursement for a work expense. The long time occupant of this job was so unpleasant, I nicknamed her Ms. Congeniality. My first skirmish with her was after attending a conference out of town. I turned in my bill for four days of breakfast at the hotel. The bill just said “breakfast”. She refused to pay it because it wasn’t itemized, and there could have been alcohol on the bill. Alrighty. Duly noted. She once threw a check at a colleague. Several staff members refused to deal with her. There was also a huge lead time for any check to be written, and holidays (campus and her vacation days) really added to it. So if you needed any checks written between October 1st and January 15th, you needed to get your request and detailed documentation in by about the first week of September. I am not making this up.

Luckily, I had the good fortune to work with some excellent admin assistants during my last few years, and the college started using credit cards for conference payments and most expenses. Admin assistants could make the charges for faculty, and help with the documentation. It was a wonderful way to avoid the previous unnecessary stress.

If you are working from home, heading back to school or the office, or are happily retired, I hope you have enjoyed this trip down coworker memory lane, and had a few laughs along the way.

Laughter, Even At The Wrong Time, Is The Best Medicine

Laughter, Even At The Wrong Time, Is The Best Medicine

Who among us doesn’t love a good laugh? And there is research that laugher really is the best medicine. It is one of the most therapeutic things around- it can lower your blood pressure, improve your mood, and doesn’t cost a thing. And it can help patients heal from illness or deal with chronic conditions. The humor- health connection came to prominence in the late 70’s with the publication of the book, Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient, by journalist Norman Cousins. In this best selling book, he recounted watching Marx Brothers movies and reading humorous books to help him cope with a debilitating illness. He discovered that “a good belly laugh” could lead to much lower pain for up to two hours. Taking Mr. Cousins’ advice to heart, I will recount three personal examples of laughter providing some much needed relief, even if done at the wrong time.

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My first example involved a ukalele, an elderly relative, and a musical performance. It was not, of course, intended to be funny, but I thought it was hilarious. Some background is in order- my maternal grandmother, Joyce, was number ten out of eleven children. With that many offspring, there was a large age difference between her and some of her older sisters. One of them, Annie, had married Joe Casey and moved to South Dakota, where she had a large family of her own. Annie missed her family a great deal, and needed help with her children, so my grandmother was sent to live with her for a year to help. I guess when you have eleven kids, it isn’t unusual to farm one out for awhile. But Joyce was very good natured and helpful, so off she went. Even though Joyce eventually had a large number of nieces and nephews, she maintained a close relationship with the Caseys for the rest of her life.

My mom also got to know the Caseys quite well, and over the years they would come to visit, usually one at a time but sometimes in a group. One group visit occurred when I was about ten years old. We were all invited to a dinner at a relative’s house, and there were a lot of people in attendance. I had received my usual instructions that “children should be seen, and not heard”. (See my first blog post for a refresher on my ability to disrupt events, like a church service ).

I did well that evening until one of the Casey cousins, a woman in her sixties, pulled out her ukalele and started to play. I was ok with the playing, but then she started to sing. It wasn’t really singing, more of a warble. This all seemed perfectly normal to the adults, but not to me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stifle the laughter, especially when she tried to hit a high note. And she had quite a repertoire of songs, so there were a lot of high notes. After some dagger like stares from my mom, I excused myself to an upstairs bedroom until the “concert” was over. But I had to avoid eye contact with the performer for the rest of the night or I would start laughing again.

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Laughter Incident Number Two happened at an annual social event held by the college where I worked. It was designed to honor students, and they were introduced to the audience during a formal dinner. As each student came forward, the emcee read a reflection that they had written. Several of the students being honored this particular evening were visiting our college as foreign exchange students. One of the exchange student’s introduction mentioned how much she loved all of the cafeteria food, and then listed each thing she liked- in great detail. Then it said her favorite thing to read was a student published newsletter called The Toilet Paper, which was posted every week in, you guessed it, the stalls in the bathrooms. I was laughing with the food list, but completely lost it when The Toilet Paper was mentioned. Once again, this lead to me excusing myself from the room.

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Incident Number Three happened at work, in one of our seemingly endless meetings. It wasn’t as jovial as the photo above, but that is the best one I could find in the Pexels free photo bank. One of my colleagues, who was a wise and funny woman, had coined a name for our small school based on a tv show. Instead of The Little House on the Prairie, she jokingly called our institution of higher learning The Little College on the Prairie. She saved this nickname for meetings that went on too long, or when strange policy decisions were announced. It struck most faculty as being pretty funny, and the nickname stuck.

The only problem with it was that the powers that be decided it had taken on a negative connotation, so she was asked not to use it anymore. Being a team player, she didn’t say it out loud, and neither did anyone else to avoid getting in trouble. But as many people react to censorship, she got more creative in her use of it. She shortened it to LCOP ( not all the initial letters, but close enough). We all knew what she meant. And even though she didn’t utter the words, she would occasionally sit next to me at meetings, and just for fun, write LCOP on my agenda. Several times. This was fun because it was the forbidden fruit of faculty humor, and it always made me laugh. She was also a master at analyzing other people’s motivations and abilities. If a colleague was taking exception to some minor thing, or asking endless questions, she would smile and say “That’s her gift”. Either one of these could send me into fits of laughter that I had a hard time containing. But it was all in good fun, and the LCOP moniker lives on for a few faculty who remember it.

My inopportune laughing has decreased quite a bit since I’ve retired, but I still find humor in many situations. This is a good thing since I have taken up writing a blog focused on the funny side of life. I hope your days are filled with some laughter as often as possible, because it really is the best medicine!