How to Make an Introduction

Pull your fat address book out of your overstuffed tote bag and browse the names, all of them, the old friends and the grandchildren and the people you’ve met at City Council and in elder hostels and in line at Publix. Consult your notes to find two people with something in common: a glass-paperweight collection, a love of Star Trek, children the same age. Get on the phone and invite them to your condo for lunch.

Put on your best summer pantsuit. Check your teeth for errant lipstick. Pop a Tic-Tac. Pull your shoulders back: posture is important. Roll out plastic runners to protect the carpet. Gather the piles of papers and photos and books that have accumulated on tables and in corners and put them in the bedroom, where no one is allowed to peek. Put fresh guest soaps on the bathroom sink.

Answer the door with a rush of joy and a 1930s-sorority-girl lilt in your voice. Invite your guests in. Find one unusual thing about each of them to compliment. Offer them iced tea. Tell them what they have in common. Regale each with stories about the other until their formality melts into laughter. 

Recall with a start that you have not made lunch. Open the oven. Realize that it’s full of stored photos, and that your toaster does not work. Offer to microwave some bread for everyone. 

While your guests nibble politely at their hot, soggy slices, call the Yacht Club for a lunch table. As you usher your guests out the door, stop them in a sunny spot in front of some palmettos for photos. Count down to the shutter: One, two, oops, just a second, one, two, three. 

A few months later, mail these to each guest, names and dates carefully noted on the back of each photo, with an apologetic note scrawled on the envelope: you’d addressed and stamped but then shifted them to the back bedroom and forgot to mail them. Your guests will understand.

 

- Sarah Grey is a writer and editor based in Fishtown. She writes about food, politics, society, and language. Her work has appeared in Best Food Writing 2015SaveurLucky PeachSerious Eats, BitchJacobin, and Edible Philly, and in several anthologies. She received the 2016 Robinson Prize for Excellence in Copy Editing from the American Copy Editors Society. Find her on Twitter at @greyediting and on Instagram at @FridayNightMeatballs.

Ginny's Magic Cookie Dust

Roll-out cookies are the wild child of Christmas goodies. The dough can be temperamental and sticky, but Ginny Snyder, who was practically a second mother to me, used her gentle ways---and a neat little baking trick--to tame the flour, butter and sugar.  Beneath her large, capable hands, cookie dough relaxed and became a docile, calm collaborator.

Ginny concocted a sweet, silky dust from an equal  mix of flour and confectioner’s sugar to keep the dough in line. She’d pinch a tablespoon or so between her long fingers and thumb and sprinkle it over the work surface to prevent unruly stickiness.  And with each creaky, back-and-forth of the rolling pin, she coaxed the dough into a thinner and thinner canvas.

I marveled at her firm, tender technique. With a grainy swipe, she slid a metal spatula underneath the freshly-cut shapes, lifted them off the board and onto the cookie sheet, not a tear, wrinkle or deformed Santa in sight. Even the leaping reindeer’s antlers stayed intact.

 Image via Chauncer/Flickr

Image via Chauncer/Flickr

With her long torso bent over the cookie sheets, Ginny’s fingertips moved with care and lightness, and each piece of raw dough got a smidgeon of affection.

When the timer pinged and they emerged from the oven, those cookies loved her back. They required only a slight nudge to break free of the pan. No breaks or crumbles either.

- Linda Miller is a freelance writer and memoirist who has worked in newspapers, higher education public relations and magazine publishing. She's a Baby Boomer from Slatington, a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, and grew up with the quickest, funniest Dad ever, a former RN Mom who created a loving and beautiful home, and a younger brother who never missed an episode of Combat! on Tuesday nights. 

Of Modakams and Meticulousness

Savoury Modakams were everyone’s favourite. Soaked uraddhal and chillies, coarsely ground then steamed. Seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves, a pinch of asafetida and a generous amount of grated coconut.

 The author's Patti, whose nimble fingers moulded perfect modakams

The author's Patti, whose nimble fingers moulded perfect modakams

“Never leave the coconut for more than thirty seconds in the hot oil,” was Patti’s thumb rule.

“The determinant of a good ‘Modakam’ is its wafer-thin skin and not the sweet or savoury puran whose taste lingers on after the consumption.”

Pinching off a ball of wet rice dough, cooked in boiling water with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of oil, she would use her fingers to flatten the edges and work the middle to get a cup shape. Then she would spoon the filling, nimbly bring the edges closer to taper it at the top and break off the extra dough. the finished Modakam would join the army in the steaming plate.

 "Innipu kozhukkattai" Image by  Jayashree Govindarajan/Wikipedia  

"Innipu kozhukkattai" Image by Jayashree Govindarajan/Wikipedia 

“It is an endurance test, a testimony to becoming a good wife.” I would look at the broken dough in my hand, panic shuddering through me. Secretly smashing it, I would start again.

As the making peaked, Patti would multi-task. She would knead fresh batches of the dough with water and oil, splash water on the cooked Modakams, coax them apart and transfer them to big steel bowls after they cooled.

The process would go on throughout the day. By night, not a single Modakam would be left. Patti would be stretched on the heirloom wooden swing, expecting no praise.

- Vijayalakshmi Sridhar has been surrounded by stories since young - both telling and listening to. Her day job as a freelance feature writer for the mainstream dailies and monthlies is the platform through which she meets people, many of whom have found their way to her stories’ characters- either as they are or in disguised forms. She believes that human relationships and their dynamics are the most interesting things to write about. She is keen to explore her journey as a story writer in non- specific genres. A mother of two girls, Vijayalakshmi is also interested and involved in many other creative pursuits.

How to Organize a Mother's Day Party

Wear a lungi wrapped artfully around your waist, and an undershirt with frayed sleeves to make phone calls to all the men in the community. If this doesn’t take at least one whole day, you’ve left someone off the list.

Round up fathers, single men, and children over the age of 15. Even if they’re not husbands or fathers, they can still contribute; they have all had mothers. 

They will come to your house the Saturday evening prior to Mother’s Day to prepare and cook the food. Time your preparations so they coincide with the FA Cup final. Cooking is always improved by soccer.

Plan the menu in advance. It doesn’t much matter which curries you cook, but chilli must be used liberally. This is how you maintain your golden rule of cooking; the hotter the curries, the sweeter the dessert. You will organise the dishes efficiently but without much passion; it’s hard to get excited about vegetarian food. 

Your passion is reserved for dessert. You will make sharkara payasam. This sickly sweet umber ambrosia is your speciality, and you’re famed throughout the community for the way you combine the ghee, rice, jaggery, and coconut in perfect proportions. 

 The author's father serving  sharkara payasam  at one of the many parties he loved

The author's father serving sharkara payasam at one of the many parties he loved

Your helpers will be an unruly bunch, heckling soccer teams into wins or losses, but you know they will follow your instructions. Revel in their rambunctiousness.

There will be time to remind them, once more, that all the mothers and mother-substitutes are not to lift a finger on their special day.

- Asha Rajan

Sandwiches for a Crowd

She said I needed to hold back a bit; not everyone liked that much. I watched her garish pink lips and wondered at the pigment in the creases around her mouth. You can’t taste the jam with all that peanut butter, she explained. 

I spread the peanut butter the way I wanted anyway. A thick application that overwhelmed the bread’s integrity. My job was the peanut butter; she did the jam.

I liked a lot of peanut butter. Besides, she wore weird summer shirts with rhinestones and liked making minestrone. Blocks of frozen minestrone lined the freezer for months after each visit. You can’t trust a minestrone-lover to know anything about peanut butter, really.

 The author's great-grandmother living life to its fullest

The author's great-grandmother living life to its fullest

She said I had to think about what other people might want as her knife swept the excess off one slice and onto a fresh one. I focused on her liver spots I was sure had once been freckles like mine, confused as to why anyone would object to more peanut butter. 

It was just too much, she said gently.

But really I was too much, and that’s why I was hardly ever asked to help. More trouble than I was worth in most areas. The peanut butter had been my job and I had mucked it up like always. I climbed down from the chair I’d been standing on to help.

She stopped me and handed me an uncorrected, heavy sandwich.

It’s okay to not like the same things, she said.

- Jennifer Kovelan moves numbers around during the day and studies development economics in the evening. Occasionally she puts words on the internet and in print. Her clothes always clash and she has too many cats. She laughs much louder than you are probably comfortable with.

How to Make Potato Salad

Thanks to Black Twitter, the world now knows the significance of potato salad to Black Americans. I don't know why this is, or why potato salad, of all foods, but I do know that "Who made the potato salad?" is the first question you ask before making a plate at a cookout. Because you don't eat just anyone's potato salad. But decades before Twitter existed, my mother instilled in me this culinary suspicion and potato salad monotheism: hers was the one true way to make it. She would bring her potato salad to cookouts, baby showers, and other events, even when she wasn’t asked to bring it. People raved about my mother's potato salad and this only reinforced her belief that hers was the only acceptable potato salad and no one else’s would ever measure up.

Dice the potatoes. Cook until firm. Unless you plan to make mashed potato salad. Also put on a pot of eggs to boil. Drain the potatoes and let cool on the counter, and then chill the potatoes and eggs inside the refrigerator. Finely chop some bell pepper and white onions. Don’t be lazy and chop them into hunks. No one wants hunks of bell pepper and onions in their potato salad. If you can’t do it right, then move and I’ll do it. Once the potatoes are cold, chop the boiled eggs. Combine the potatoes and egg in a large bowl with the peppers and onions. Then do all of the following BEFORE stirring—you don’t want to overstir and end up with mashed potato salad: season with Lawry’s, black pepper, and paprika; add mayo, not Miracle Whip; add yellow mustard (this is not white people potato salad); add pickle relish. Stir just enough to blend and coat the potatoes. You should have added enough mustard and paprika so that it is almost day-glo orange and not white like white people potato salad. Sprinkle a little more paprika on top. And serve. You know, I don’t eat anybody’s potato salad except Van’s. She’s the one who taught me how to make it. 

 

 Image by Whitney/Flickr

Image by Whitney/Flickr

I never made potato salad for my mother. Hers was delicious, but I prefer to make mine with less mustard. Or as my mother would say, more like white people’s

- Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteFullGrownPeople.com, and elsewhere. At The Rumpus, Deesha inaugurated an interview column called VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color. 

How to Be a Good Party Guest

Always arrive at least an hour-and-a-half early to offer to help. For instance, you might notice the plastic cutlery sticking up out of the cup that’s holding them. Turn them down, for sanitary purposes. 

Or say you arrive and two paper streamers have been sloppily twisted together and hung over a door. Streamers should be folded properly. Start by taping the ends of two streamers perpendicular to each other, and then fold end over end, until you can’t fold any more. Then tape the other two ends together. It will open up sort of like an accordion and look the way streamers are supposed to look. Once at a party, I had to quickly make streamers to replace a twisty mess that had been hung over the door, and others to hang around the cake table. 

 Images by StillWorksImagery and bsaxonspencer/pixabay Modified by Dead Housekeeping

Images by StillWorksImagery and bsaxonspencer/pixabay Modified by Dead Housekeeping

At another party, there were so many things wrong, I couldn’t fix them all. The tablecloth was wrinkled, the silverware was tarnished, the chicken was unwashed. Someone said it was curry chicken. I did not eat it. I could tell just by looking at it that it was unwashed. But the thing that really got me? They didn’t have mints and nuts. Who has a party without mints and nuts? So I drove to the store and picked up some pastel mints and mixed nuts and put them on the table with the wrinkled tablecloth, alongside the tarnished silver and the dirty chicken. It was the best that I could do, given the circumstances.

- Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Pittsburgh Post-GazetteFullGrownPeople.com, and elsewhere. At The Rumpus, Deesha inaugurated an interview column called VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color. 

How to Show the Fight at Your House

Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear while my cousin Tony, the host of that night’s pay-per-view event in his apartment overflowing with friends and family, placed coasters beneath stray tumblers and handed napkins to those eating pizza on his carpet. I don’t know if he witnessed the bite firsthand, he was so busy keeping his place perfectly in place with 20 people taking advantage of his free premium cable. He wiped his kitchen table. Guests would drop, he would pick up. He checked and rechecked his spotless bathroom. I’d been in there moments before just looking around as I tinkled, in complete awe of how it could be so...so clean. Were those baby wipes in place of toilet paper? Is that a cherrywood wipes holder? The wipes were to me the single reminder of Tony’s severe diabetic condition that would eventually kill him at 29: tall, thin, graceful, his mother’s best friend. To anyone else that night, they were simply a sign of a man who took great care in his toilet time.

I missed the ear bite myself. It took about 20 seconds and it stopped the fight. I was in Tony’s bedroom checking on my baby sleeping in his bed, and I lingered at his bookshelf filled with framed photos of family, my daughter included. You notice dust when things are dusty, but with Tony, you noticed how nothing was ever dusty, nothing was ever without care. By the time I could pull myself in complete admiration from this curiosity, the fight was over.

 illustration by  Maia Butler

illustration by Maia Butler

- Erica Hoskins Mullenix is a freelance writer and editor, and a contributing editor here at Dead Housekeeping. Besides personal essays detailing her life as an introverted middle kid, bewildered but kickass mother and special needs parent, she also writes short fiction. Proudly an alum of Howard University in Washington, D.C., Erica created the online writer’s community known as yeah write in April 2011. She has had essays published in Salon, The Houston Chronicle, PANK, and other print and online publications. Her fiction and other writing can be found on her personal blog at freefringes.yeahwrite.me. Follow Erica on Twitter @freefringes

How to Set a Table

Set the table early. With precision. Unfurl the tablecloth. Release its starchy scent into the morning air. Run your hands over it. Take care that the cutlery is polished to a fine shine. Check the place mats for smudges. They are immaculate but wipe them over just in case before setting down the china plate. God forbid there be even a speck of dirt.  

Fork to the left of the plate, knife to the right, blade pointing inwards because outwards would be rude. Place the soup spoon, because there is always soup, even in summer, to the right of the knife. The dessert spoon and fork face left and should be set above the plate, but not too close because people move their plates when eating. The wine glass, delicate and long-stemmed, goes to the right, and after that the tumbler for cold drinks. The napkin, matching the tablecloth, should be folded into a neat triangle and fixed under the fork.

 photo by  Emily Chen-Morris

photo by Emily Chen-Morris

For special occasions, fold the napkin into a lily and sit it in the center of the plate. This will be a nice touch that your dinner guests will appreciate.

Step back and survey your dinner table waiting quietly, obediently, for the guests to arrive. Be ready at least fifteen minutes before the appointed time. Laugh when they arrive, fashionably late, and tell them it was no bother at all. This is how you were brought up and you do this all the time, you really do.   


- Joanna Chen lives on the edge of a forest, where she walks almost every day with whoever will come with her. Most days it's her dog, Pudding. Joanna writes exactly what she thinks at This is Not a Story  and also has a column at The Los Angeles Review of Books, The View From Here.  As for laying the table correctly, Joanna prefers eating with her fingers whenever possible. 

Sleeping Bags for Two or One

Few people know the proper technique for using sleeping bags. I learned how at an early age. Once you learn, you don’t forget.

                                                                                                                        illustration by Ilana Shabnam 

                                                                                                                       illustration by Ilana Shabnam 

You’ll need two sleeping bags, and a best friend. If you don’t have a best friend, I feel sorry for you because best friends are magic. Find one who is kind, likes the same things you do, and has asthma so they’ll stay behind with you to play pretend and tell stories, when the other kids run off to play sports. Go everywhere and do everything together. So that if your best friend died, and someone made a collage for her funeral, they wouldn’t find a single photo of her that didn’t have you in it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Open both sleeping bags all the way. Place one on the ground. Place yourself and your best friend on top. Cover yourselves with the second. Cuddle and whisper all night. Bite each other’s shoulders as a joke. Giggle, but quietly, because your babysitter is mean when she’s sleepy. Hold on to your best friend very tight. Because she’s magic, and has great ideas about sleeping bags. And because she’s Black, and lives in a poor neighborhood. So if her asthma ever gets too bad, and the ambulance won’t come to her “dangerous” neighborhood, and she’s brain dead by the time her mother drives her to the hospital, and nobody has the courage to tell you what brain dead means, and you write letters and poems and drawings that nobody will tell you she can’t read, and when they finally tell, you climb into your sleeping bag and pretend to be dead as hard as you can, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t cry yourself to death and join her. That, they’ll tell you. So hold on tight. 

                                       text by Ilana Shabnam

                                      text by Ilana Shabnam

Maybe if you hold on tighter.  Maybe if you zip the sleeping bags together. Maybe if you spend the rest of your life shouting about injustice, ambulances will show up at little girls’ houses when they’re called.

I recommend two Little Mermaid sleeping bags. Available wherever Disney products are sold. 

- Ashley Nicole Black

 

Five Star Mixtape

Making a Party Playlist

It can't be one of your favorites. You'll just get mad when they talk over the music. 

Put the records in order at the front of your rack. If someone wants to feel useful by queuing up the next one, let him. When he flips through the back sections, reach in and pull one out. Have you heard this? The trumpet player's the same as here. Waggle a finger at the turntable. Smile. Offer to accompany the helper to find a refreshment.  

The B sides will be slower. That's good. Let a particularly slow B side lead into another B side, not an A. Make sure nobody's yawning or sighing. 

Prop up the jacket; lean it against the turntable's lid, and watch for when people linger to read it. Sometimes, when someone needs a pal, the record player's their parking spot. 

 "A good record collection was his pride and joy: insured, he confided, for more than his modest home."

"A good record collection was his pride and joy: insured, he confided, for more than his modest home."

A familiar song or three spread out over the evening is nice. It gets them talking: I didn't know they did this one, too! Is this the same group? But any more and it's a singalong. That kills the conversation. The music is not a guest. 

When it's time to put out the coffee, the music will tell you so. Send people off feeling warm, but don't let the record make invitations for you. 

- Stefanie Le Jeunesse