A Tale From A Crypt
Mark looked around the room, noting the groups talking, the volume level of the music, the amount of snacks and drinks out. His Halloween party was always his biggest party of the year and he worked to make it a success. Some people were in costume, but most were in everyday, comfy clothes. He set the bottles of beer he was carrying into an ice-filled tub and scanned the room again. Sharp details stood out. A witch’s hat towering almost to the ceiling, a black robe swirling with red underneath, toilet paper mummy wraps, bright laughter erupting from one corner.
A hand grabbed his shoulder as he stepped into the crowd. “Mark, who’s that on the patio?”
He grinned. “That’s George. He lives nearby. You should talk to him. He’s pretty interesting. Knows all the local history.”
Mark pushed through, speaking to various people, until he was outside. The night was warm, but with a slight chill. The small glow sticks he’d put in the small cemetery that abutted his property cast an eerie pallor through the long grass creating the perfect effect. That cemetery was one of the reasons he’d bought this house. It was a small, family plot, only about a dozen and a half stones in various stages of disrepair. It was surrounded by an ornate, black metal fence with a gate that opened only after a struggle. Mark had visited many times.
As most of Mark’s parties did, eventually most people found comfortable spots on the patio. A small bonfire illuminated the area with flickering patterns, driving back the minimal cold, and adding atmosphere for what was supposed to be a spooky party.
Mark spoke up, “Hey, everyone! I want to introduce my friend, George, here. He’s lived in the area all his life and we got to know each other, hmmm, almost from the moment I moved into the house.”
There were general murmurs of welcome and George smiled. Conversation flowed and eddied as the evening wore on, until finally Mark judged the time to be right. He stood and the group look on expectantly.
“Okay, everyone, it’s time for the Annual Spooky Tale contest,” he said loudly. There were cheers and smiles. “For those who don’t know the rules, or don’t remember them, here it is. Anyone who wants to tell a spooky tale for Halloween can do so, in any manner they choose. After the last tale has been told, we vote on a winner for this year. The prize this year is a bottle of highland scotch whiskey I picked up on my travels, as well as the privilege to wear the title of Master Story Teller for the next twelve months. Any questions?”
The tales wove through the night involving hooks in car doors, maniacs dressed as Santa, ax-wielding murderers, ghosts, witches, and a dozen other denizens of the dark. When the last vampire had met its grisly demise, Mark stood up.
“Are we done? Any others want to scare us tonight?”
George had remained silent through the other stories, but raised his hand. “I’d like to tell one.”
Mark smiled, splitting his face. He’d hoped for this. “Certainly! We’ve got plenty of time for one more. I suggest everyone get comfortable.”
George smiled again, waiting for stillness. When all eyes were focused on him, he said, “This story started about a hundred or so years ago, perhaps a little more. There was a young lady hereabouts called Emily. She was a sweet little girl, very popular, very pretty. As she grew, she discovered that her looks and popularity could get her things, and the thing she wanted most was suitors. By the time she had reached marrying age, the local boys were lined up for miles to see her. She was a flighty thing by this time and played with their emotions heartlessly. She begged favors, pitted one against another, destroying hopes and dreams almost with every breath.”
“Wow, she sounds like a real bitch!” one young lady said.
Several heads nodded and George continued. “It wasn’t totally her fault. People treated her like royalty, and being young and naive, she came to believe it. She played the queen’s act for quite a while until out of the blue, a man arrived who captured her attention. He came to town with his parents to start a new business and became very successful in a very short time.”
“What was the business, do you know?” Mark asked.
George shook his head. “No, but they were so successful right from the start that Emily’s parents invited them to parties and gatherings right from the beginning. That’s how Emily came to be aware of a stranger in their town, and her curiosity was piqued. The more she learned about him, the more she wanted to know. But there was one problem for Emily. The young man, whose name also happened to be George, was not interested in her.”
Someone in the crowd laughed and said, “That must have driven her crazy.”
George agreed. “She wasn’t very happy with that. George spent most of his time with the business or with his parents. He did go out on the town occasionally, and sometimes in the company of a young woman, but never Emily. Emily did all that she could to let George know she was available. She stopped seeing her other suitors altogether. She made her parents invite him to garden parties. She visited his parents often.”
“Did it work,” Mark asked, curious in spite of himself.
“Yes, over time, the two became a couple. People just naturally took it for granted that where one was, the other would be, also. Eventually, they were only ever invited out as a couple rather than apart. Emily was very happy, but George was less so. He liked Emily well enough, but he wasn’t certain that being in her company exclusively was what he wanted. Then, of course, there was the inevitable pressure to marry. Neither of them was getting younger and both sets of parents wanted them settled and successful as soon as could be arranged. Eventually, George bowed to the pressure and proposed. Between the two families, it was going to be the wedding of the decade.”
George stopped for a moment staring into the flames as though seeing events transpiring. “Emily, certainly, was as happy as a prospective bride should be. Making wedding plans with her friends and family made her complete. Her father wasn’t disposed to deny her anything she wished in the wedding. It quickly became the event of the season. George was busy with the details of his business and the home he was trying to create for Emily, but as time went along, he felt more a stranger to the activity of a wedding, and became less and less enthusiastic.”
“Did Emily know?”
George shook his head. “She was wrapped up in being a bride and the more time that passed, the less the couple really saw of each other. George claimed his business was keeping him late. What was really happening, according to the tales, was that he started visiting the bar near his business. He wasn’t a drunkard, but he was avoiding seeing Emily as much as possible.”
“Why didn’t he just talk to her about it? I know I’d like any fiancé of mine to talk to me.”
George grinned. “Who knows? Perhaps his heart wasn’t in it. Maybe talking about your feelings just wasn’t done in those days. But, as often happens, he started talking about his troubles to the barmaid, a slightly older girl with a sympathetic ear.”
Several groans rang out and a couple of cries of “Uh oh!”
George nodded. “You know where this is heading, right? Before long, George no longer wanted to marry Emily. His heart had found its home with Livvy. It’s an old story. It’s never meant to hurt anyone, but someone gets hurt all the same.”
The crowd fell silent as George stopped, stretching the silence over several seconds.
“It didn’t go well, did it?” Mark finally asked.
“No, not well at all. But not as you’d guess. George went to his parents first and told them he wanted to call off the wedding. Of course, they were horrified. It was an excellent match, and the two families had become very close. George was inclined to be obstinate, but his mother, who was in delicate health asked him to reconsider. She played with his emotions to the point that he continued his engagement with Emily and promised not to see Livvy again.
“But that was a promise he found very hard to keep.”
“She didn’t get pregnant, did she?” The disappointment in the voice dripped like candle wax.
George shook his head. “Not in those days. Not with honorable people, and they were all honorable. George wasn’t a cad; Livvy wasn’t a trollop; Emily was guilty only of thoughtlessness. They were just three people caught up in difficulty that was hard to correct. Emily didn’t even know Livvy existed.”
“But she did, right?” Mark was captivated by the story.
“In a manner of speaking. The day of the wedding broke and it was a splendid day for it. The church was resplendent in white decorations. Emily was dressed and waiting in the anteroom. The organist was playing softly as guests arrived. It was a happy, joyous, and somber occasion. But George never arrived. Instead, a note was delivered to Emily. George explained that he had run off to be married to another girl, and offered an apology.”
“Hoo, that’s harsh,” someone said.
“Well, about two months later, George came back to face his family and Emily. He’d left Livvy in their new home since none of it was of her making. He’d made his decisions and needed to own up to them. When he arrived at his parents’ home, though, no one was there. As he was driving to the old business, he noticed activity in the church yard. He went to see what was going on and found his parents and Emily’s parents at a grave side.”
“Aw, crap,” a voice said. It seemed like the consensus.
“The loathing was terrible. Emily had never recovered from the bitter disappointment and had finally taken her own life when she knew that George wasn’t coming back. Incredibly, George had arrived as they were burying the poor girl. Emotions ran high for everyone. Hateful, stinging words were flung back and forth. Even the minister had to step in between George and the families. The outcome was George was banished, forever. His parents, Emily’s parents, most of the town never wanted to see him again.”
George took a swallow from his drink and looked around. All eyes were on him. “So George left. He’d lost everything but had gained what he most wanted. He returned to Livvy, only to find that she had taken ill and passed away in his absence.”
A murmur of shock ran through the party.
“George was devastated. He’d lost everything. Not knowing what else to do, he liquidated his assets, left the country, traveled through Europe and Asia, alone, and bitter. It was a full twenty years before he returned to his home. By then, his parents had passed away. Emily’s parents had left the town. No one recognized the stranger, and even the events that had forced him to leave were shrouded in legend and old tales. One evening, soon after returning, George allowed his footsteps to take him to the cemetery, and to the family’s plot. His thoughts carried shame, remorse, and sorrow as he looked at his mother’s grave. She had died shortly after he left. His father lasted many years, alone. George couldn’t bear the thought of what he’d caused.”
“Wow,” Mark said.
“Then he heard a slight noise.” George continued not hearing or not heeding Mark’s comment. “It sounded like someone calling. Far in the distance, a voice carried by the wind. He looked around and saw nothing but the leaves scattering before the wind. The voice became stronger. It called his name. It came from all directions, insistently calling his name. Then he saw a figure, pale, draped in white. It approached him along the pathway, holding out its hand to him.”
A strong gust blew through the yard as if on cue. The flames guttered and snapped.
“George recognized Emily. He took a step back but felt helpless to flee. ‘Emily’ he said in a strangled voice.”
“The figure continued to draw near and George could make out details. The skull-like smile exposing teeth and bone. The empty eye sockets, the colors of face makeup running down cheek flesh that was old and desiccated. George recoiled in horror as a thin and bony arm reached out to him. The white bridal glove hung in tatters. George wanted to run, but terror rooted him to the spot. Even his voice failed him, at the end. As the hands clawed at him, the toothy smile never wavering, he tried to scream. His entire soul erupted into a voiceless protest. Not even a gurgle sounded from his throat.”
George looked down at the ground for a moment, as though engulfed in memory. Finally he raised his head.
“They found him a couple of days later. Dead of a heart attack, according to the county medical examiner. Oddly, though, they found him at Emily’s grave, not his parents.”
George looked up with a smile. The tale was over, the spell broken, and the cold wind that still blew was simply a cold wind.
Someone started to clap, until everyone was clapping and shouting, delighted in the tale. Shouts of “Winner!” and “That’s the one!” echoed for a few minutes.
Mark stood with a broad smile. “I guess there’s no need to vote, is there? That one was clearly the winner.” He held out the bottle to George. “Story Master, you have earned this reward.”
George accepted it with a shy smile.
“And that, my friends, is the end of the evening. Thanks for coming by.”
After the last guest had gone, Mark went back out to the fire pit where George still sat.
“That was an amazing story,” he said.
“I hope they all enjoyed it.”
“They did. Same time next year?”
“If you’ll invite me,” George said. Still smiling, he stood and walked into the cemetery.
Mark watched him until the shadows swallowed him up.
There’s a lot going on here, and I’m working on something special for the Halloween post so today I put together a bunch of Halloween funnies. Hope you enjoy!
I was in an online conversation over the weekend where the subject was almonds in chocolate bars. The person who started the conversation advocated that almonds in a chocolate bar were the best thing to be invented. I maintained that any nut in a chocolate bar merely takes up valuable space that could otherwise be filled with chocolate. This does not apply to crispy rice since those are fun. I also think the new form of chocolate bar with air bubbles in it, making it crunchy, is a rip-off. We’re paying for air cuz it’s a novelty?
This is actually a lead in to nuts in cooking. I actually like nuts, most of them, and like cooking with them. Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of protein, fiber, potassium, calcium, and a host of other minerals and vitamins. I keep a bag of walnuts at my desk to snack on during the day to stave off hunger pangs and make certain I get the nutrients I need. Cooking with nuts changes the character of the nut and its flavor. Baking with nuts is usually as easy as throwing a handful of nuts into whatever you’re making.
But not always.
My favorite cookie is the basic chocolate chip cookie. I tend to follow the Toll House recipe, but I modify by decreasing the amount of butter, and sugar, and increasing the amount of flour. Not by vast quantities, but enough that the individual cookie spreads less, and makes a doughier, chewier cookie that I and my family like better. Many times I’ll add roasted and salted sunflower seeds to create a nuttier flavored cookie. Other times, I’ll add sweetened flaked coconut to get a candy bar taste going on.
Sometimes, I make oatmeal cookies but I leave out the raisins since no one in my family likes them. I’m okay with raisins, but I won’t climb a mountain to get one. But what I do to replace the raisins is add mini chocolate chips to give it a flavor twist. One time, however, I went, well, nuts.
I followed the basic oatmeal cookie recipe. I won’t go into it now because it’s a standard that can be found in every cookbook, oatmeal box, or simple internet search. Butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, flour, oatmeal mixed and baked. Various recipes call for different amounts of raisins, and some add nuts. I took that to a whole new level (for me) and I added the following:
- mini chocolate chips
- crushed pecans
- crushed walnuts
- coconut flakes
- almond flakes (not a lot since I don’t like them)
- sesame seeds
- roasted sunflower seeds
- dried cherries
Until the batter was so thick with stuff it barely held together. Then I made drop cookies but found I had to mash them flat since they wouldn’t spread properly. They were so good, and so filling! Two cookies was like eating a whole bowl full of cooked cereal. I haven’t made them since, but think about them a lot. I’ll probably try them again soon. It’s a harvest time kind of thing to make. Maybe I’ll add carrots, too.
The one cookie I tend to think of most when thinking about baking with nuts are Pecan Sandies. Traditional Pecan Sandies are basically a short bread with pecans in it. It’s origins are lost in history with nearly every culture claiming discovery using one nut or another. Over time, the recipe was modified from a short bread to a cookie dough. This is the best recipe I’ve found.
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup oil
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1-2 cups finely chopped pecans
- 1/2 cup sugar for decoration
Heat your oven to 375. In a large bowl, cream together the margarine, vegetable oil, 1/2 cup white sugar and confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg, then stir in the vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt; stir into the creamed mixture. Mix in the pecans. Roll dough into 1 inch balls, generally about a tablespoon, and roll each ball in remaining white sugar. Place the cookies 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes until the edges just start to turn golden. Do not over cook. Cool on sheets for a couple of minutes, then remove to wire rack to cool completely. For a variation, you can add 1/2 tsp cinnamon to the decorative sugar.
A quick and dirty variation is to take packaged sugar cookie dough and follow the cooking directions, but press a pecan half into the center of the dough.
The last cookie I want to talk about is one I found recently at a farmer’s market. I talked with the lady and she said they were easy to make, but they take practice. They’re called Pistachio Cream Cheese Cookies. Because they’re small, the recipe makes a lot of cookies!
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 8oz package of softened cream cheese (do not use whipped)
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 1 3oz package instant pistachio pudding
- 1/4 cup finely crushed pistachio nuts
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 oz semi sweet chocolate
- 1 tablespoon shortening
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, and cream cheese until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Combine the flour, dry pudding mix, baking powder, and salt and nuts; stir into the creamed mixture. Cover dough, and refrigerate for at least one hour for easier handling. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets. Shape teaspoonfuls of dough into finger shapes, about 1 1/2 inches long. Place cookies on prepared cookie sheets. A piping bag makes this easier. If you don’t have one, use a plastic baggie and snip a small piece of a corner off. Alternatively, shape pieces of dough into long rolls and cut at appropriate lengths. Bake for 9 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until set and very lightly browned on bottoms. Cool completely on a wire rack. In small saucepan over low heat, melt together chocolate and shortening, stirring constantly until smooth and well blended. Drizzle a small amount of chocolate over each cookie. Allow the chocolate to set before storing. Very good stuff!
I never ever thought when this blog started that I’d actually keep at. I’ve started journals, diaries, blogs, letters, stories, etc. cuz that’s what writers are supposed to do. We’re supposed to keep writing in notebooks or scratchpads, digital or paper, to capture our thoughts and ideas, to trap our muse, to perfect our craft. I’ve known this since I was in elementary school. And I’ve tried to follow this advice since I was in elementary school. From that time till this, the best gift I can be given is a book full of blank paper. It doesn’t even have to be fancy. I’ve never kept at it. I’ve never filled an entire notebook, not even in school. This blog, though, this blog just keeps calling to me to write stuff down. I hope it’s stuff that people want to know, want to read.
Which leads me to the question I get most often: how do I manage to fill the pages? Actually, it’s the same question I get as a writer. Where do I get my ideas? I’ve never known a serious writer who doesn’t have more ideas than they can possibly write in their lifetime. I’m going to have to live forever to get all the ideas written.
So how do I fill the pages? Some of the time, it’s from answering questions. Some of the questions are posed by readers of the blog, and some are posed by friends.
Once, I was putting dinner together for the family and a couple of friends. I was building the salad, and one friend was watching me very closely. She peppered me with questions about how to make a salad. For me, making a salad is just throwing a bunch of vegetables in a bowl and stirring them about. Sometimes I add cheese, or seeds, or frozen or dried fruits, or croutons. Sometimes I leave out lettuce. She kept asking how I knew how to make a salad in the way I was. I told her I was just chopping or tearing vegetables to bite sized chunks and mixing. She said there had to me more to it than that.
I think people tend to think that a lot. They think that there has to be more to it than that. I think we tend to overcomplicate things. What we should really be doing is thinking outside the box; doing things differently; looking at things and seeing the unusual rather than the usual.
Let’s take breakfast. It’s the meal that’s served first thing in the morning. It’s necessary because the body has just spent several hours in a relaxed mode, spending calories, but having none come in. Even the word is a combination of two words explaining what it is. It’s designed to give the body quick and sustained energy for the start of the day. In the U.S., most people look at breakfast as “baconandeggs” or a bowlful of cereal or “toastandjuice” or some kind of muffin. In recent years, the speed of the meal has become more paramount than the actual meal itself. Pop Tarts, frozen breakfast sandwiches, frozen breakfast bowls, instant oatmeal, these kinds of things abound now. I eat Pop Tarts, but mostly cuz I like them.
But since the purpose of breakfast is really just to get nourishment into the body, you can pretty much eat anything that’s healthy and it’ll do the trick.
One of my favorite items for breakfast is ice cold pizza from the night before. It has all the essentials. It has carbs from the pizza crust. It has veggies in the pizza sauce, and tomatoes in any form are good for you. It has calcium and protein in the cheese. And in my case, more protein and trace vitamins in mushrooms and sometimes pepperoni. I’ve also eaten leftover salad, and other times I’ve had cold cut sandwiches.
I’ve never been a big fan of most of the traditional breakfast foods, particularly the carb-based ones. But a toasted bagel with cream cheese is one of the best things on the planet. And if it’s a blueberry bagel, well! But, again, I’ll eat that at any time of the day, not just for breakfast. I never eat pancakes or waffles, but had made them for dinner. “Breakfast for Dinner” as it’s known around here is a treat for all of us. Eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, fried potatoes and onions, it turns into a huge feast to harden the arteries. Haven’t figured out which wine goes best with it.
Sometimes, when I’m at a diner, I’ll have steak and eggs, but that never seems to come out too well. Steak should only be ordered at a restaurant that specializes in them. Once, I ordered a beef hot plate in a diner for breakfast. It was on the menu! I ended up with a platter-sized plate with mashed potatoes, eggs, biscuits, a chopped steak, and about two cups of pepper gravy over the whole mess. I managed about a third of it before I had to quit.
I love talking about food, and with luck and good weather I’ll continue for another 300 posts. As always, let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to talk about or if there’s a question about something I’ve written about.
It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog longer than a week that I like simple, tasty foods. It’s best put by one of my brother’s in law who, when we were all at a restaurant, asked the waitress for his meal without any sauces. “I like the flavor of food.” he said. I understood immediately. He wanted to taste the meat and veggies, not the sauce, or the herbs, or the spices. It made sense. Several posts ago, I wrote about current and changing trends in the food community. One of those, which is gaining more popularity, is Farm-To-Table. Rather than going to the supermarket to get your food, get it direct from the people who are growing it. Or grow it yourself. It’s cheaper, fresher, and it tastes more like what it is. It tastes like food.
I’m not certain when we heard of this particular book, or where, but I’m sure it was on a cooking show somewhere. It’s The Art Of Simple Food, by Alice Waters.
The book itself is more than a collection of recipes. It’s a discussion of the simplicity of cooking, as well as a course in how to cook simply. Ms. Waters believes that when you use the freshest foods, cooking simply is the natural course to follow since it allows the flavors to shine. She says that cooking the world over is basically the same thing. It’s not dependent on technique or recipe, but on pure, simple, fresh foods that taste good.
It’s hard to get more simple than a baked potato.
As a kid, I hated potatoes. Now I love them. It was actually my sister who taught to appreciate potatoes. When I lived with her and her husband while in college, they showed me not only the different varieties of potatoes, but the different ways to cook potatoes so they tasted wonderful. Baked is the best way. Except maybe all the other ways. However, there a bunch of ways to bake a potato. The most important thing to remember is to prick the skin a few times to allow steam to escape, otherwise, they’ll explode. It’s happened to me. In my house, we have to primary ways to bake a potato. The first is clean the potato, prick it, and put it in a 350 degree oven for an hour or until it’s done. This crisps up the skin and a small portion of the inside. While you’re eating the potato, the butter melts all around and softens things up a bit. The other way is after cleaning and pricking, I drizzle a small amount of olive oil on the potato and wrap it in foil then cook. The potato comes out with a soft skin and the flavor of olive oil throughout. Yummers!
One of the simplest ways of cooking I’ve ever encountered is the Brazilian form of barbeque called churrascaria.
It’s high quality meat on a skewer. rolled in salt, and sizzled over an open fire so only the out half-inch or so is cooked. Then it’s brought to the table and sliced directly onto the plate. It’s then returned to the fire with more salt added. It’s always perfectly seasoned, and perfectly rare. They have other things to enjoy, soups, salads, veggies, bread, but it’s the meat that brings people back. It’s a carnivore’s delight. I never leave without that stuffed-to-the-gills feeling. It’s truly one of the most delicious ways of cooking I’ve ever tasted. It’s also the simplest I’ve ever seen, although you have to be certified to be able to actually cook in one of these restaurants. It’s as Ms. Walker says, though. Cultures the world over do the same thing. Simple cooking with the freshest foods result in the best meals.
Another truly simple food is the tomato. Some people don’t like tomatoes. I don’t understand them. I think there’s a missing chromosome somewhere. I was 28 before I ran into someone who didn’t like tomatoes. However, a vine ripened tomato is so good, John Denver wrote and recorded a song about them. Chilled, sliced, and sprinkled with a small amount of salt between two slices of bread and you’ll never go hungry! Or, one of the simplest and best tasting salads ever.
Slice the ripest and freshest large tomato you can get ahold of. Slice mozzarella in the same size and number. Pick an equal number of fresh basil leaves, the larger the better. Arrange on a plate as shown above and drizzle with a high quality olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste and you’re done! My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Italian cooking delights in using the freshest ingredients. One of my favorite recipes was one I encountered in a hotel in Africa back in 1997 when I did one of my first trips to that continent. I don’t recall the specific country I was in, but since I was by myself and was there for such a short time, I tended to eat in my room. One of my “go to” meals was the pasta al pesto. Now, pesto sauce is fresh basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts whipped to a frenzy with olive oil and drizzled over fresh pasta. It’s pretty good stuff when it’s done right. This place did it different. The put cooked spaghetti in warm olive oil that had fresh minced garlic infusing in it and tossed it about. They put the hot pasta on a plate and sprinkled it with fresh basil chiffonade, freshly grated parmesan, chopped pine nuts, and finely chopped tomatoes. I’ve been making it that way ever since. Totally good stuff!
That’s not to say complex and saucy aren’t good. But if you truly like the flavors of the food, the actual ingredients to stand out, simple and fresh is the best way to go. Alice Waters said it best, it’s an art.