My Chinese Family

Six summers ago, I had the privilege of hosting two students from mainland China at my home for ten days. Middle-schoolers, they were about to enter ninth grade that fall in their home city of Chongqing, a megalopolis of 30 million people.

On the day we met, they proudly introduced themselves to me by their Anglicized names, given to them by their first English language teacher from grade school. Shy at first, they soon felt comfortable in my presence. The language barrier proved easy to scale, as they each had a cell phone with the Google-translate app.

I shared bits of my life with them—hiking on Paine Mountain, kayaking on Blueberry Lake, swimming at the Northfield Pool. We visited an organic farm in Waitsfield, the Montpelier Farmer’s Market, and my church. One afternoon, I taught them to knit. On the Fourth of July, I took them to see a pyrotechnics display at a friend’s farm. Invented in China during the seventh century, fireworks accompany all important Chinese celebrations, so it made me happy to introduce them to this most American of traditions.

Lying on our backs in the field, we looked up at the stars, as red, orange, pink, green, purple, blue, and silver-white rockets whistled and exploded over our heads. The bursts of light seemed close enough to touch, and the girls stretched their arms upward with outstretched hand as if to catch the sparks showering down from the heavens.

The days flew, and in much too short a time we were saying our good-byes. Standing by their luggage next to the bus that would take them to the airport, we held each other tight, posed for photos, and cried. We promised to keep in touch.

In the years since, through email correspondence, we have shared bits our lives with each other. In the photos they attach I have watched them grow from giggling middle-schoolers to sophisticated college juniors. One is studying film production at NYU and came to visit me in March during a snowstorm. The other is studying finance at a prestigious university in Chengdu, and in 17 days I will be traveling to China to visit her.

Six years ago I never would have dreamed of traveling more than 7,000 miles to a country of more than a billion people whose language I do not speak. But if two 14-year-old girls were brave enough to do it, then by golly so am I.


Happy Earth-Day (Rhymes with Birthday)

I have been away from this blog for some time. Too long it seems. But spring is here, at least on the calendar, and in the spirit of new beginnings, I am taking up my virtual pen to start fresh.

Today is Earth Day, and although I had not planned on marking it in any particular way, Mother Earth had her own plans for me, evidently.

Around 11 o’clock this morning I set out for a walk with Luna (my 6-year-old Karelian Bear Dog). Now usually I only bring one recycled plastic shopping bag (of the Tops or Shaw’s variety) with me, but today for some inexplicable reason there were two in my winter coat pocket (it was windy, what can I tell you). As Luna led me down South Main Street toward the center of Northfield Village, I noticed a flattened Pabst Blue Ribbon can in the gutter. Remembering I had two bags in my pocket (one for Luna’s poop and one to spare), I pulled it out and put the container in it. Feeling virtuous, I walked a few steps further and saw a styrofoam cup, also flattened. I scooped that up too. Next there was a a Laffy Taffy wrapper (blue-raspberry flavor), crumpled tin foil, and a styrofoam tray that once held a 3/4 lb. USDA choice beef top loin NY strip steak for $10.49, on sale at Shaw’s for a mere $6.37. Soon there was no stopping me. I found an empty 50 ml bottle of Smirnoff vodka, a grape Powerade label, and a Fireball cinnamon whisky nip bottle, also empty. In no time I had amassed quite a collection, and I had only walked a half a block.

It is amazing what appears on the sides of the road this time of year–the cumulative detritus of a long, cold winter–once hidden by melting snow and now coated with silt left behind by sanding trucks. It tells a story of what people were eating and drinking as they walked or drove to and from the village of Northfield. The sun was shining and I was kind of enjoying my little do-good adventure, and Luna was patient with me as I stopped every few feet to pick up each new bit of litter.

I continued my walk into town, crossed at the crosswalk, did a circle around Depot Square–where I found a Dunkin Donuts Drive-Thru bag with the receipt still attached, and a Depot Square Pizza receipt for a large, cheese pizza and a soda (which cost $16.30 including tax)–before heading back up South Main Street by the United Church.

As I made the long, gradual climb toward home, I gathered up wrapper after wrapper: one had held a Slim Jim, another a Jack link teriyaki beef stick, another a Werther’s original candy, and another a single serving of Duck Sauce. But not everything I found was food-related. I also came upon a broken rubber birthday balloon (lavender colored), a disposable hairnet, a drier sheet, a plastic label bearing safety instructions for a flexible light made in China (evidently cut off from its electric power cord), a piece of cardboard from which once hung a brand new 45″ Totes umbrella (for $5.00 no less), a package that once held 3 premium Dutch Masters cigarillos, and two empty packs of Marlboros–one bold flavor, one smooth original. There was also a 6-in. strip of masking tape, wet wipes (no longer wet), and three UPOs (unidentified plastic objects).

Before I reached home, Luna did her “doody,” so I took out my other plastic bag and scooped that up. I also picked up another plastic bag of containing some other dog’s poop that the owner had tied neatly in a knot and left at the base of a fire hydrant, presumably to pick up at some later time. In all, I picked up 67 individual pieces of trash. I confess I left behind some pieces of cardboard too big to fit in the burgeoning bag, or things that looked too disgusting to touch, including countless cigarette butts.

Incidentally, I just happened to look at the word count of this piece as I paused at the end of the last paragraph; by pure chance that number was 666. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything, but I believe there are no accidents in this life, or any other life for that matter. Everything happens for a reason, and the reason I had two bags in my coat pocket today was so that I could pick up trash and write about it in this blog, and maybe inspire others to do the same. We all share the same planet, the same Mother Earth. It is our one and only home, for now and for as long as human life exists. Let’s all pay her the respect she deserves.

Happy Earth-Day to you.


The Mercedes of Cookies

The woman who coined the phrase, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels,” never ate a homemade Whoopie Pie. These came out so amazing that I renamed them “Whoopie Heaven.” They took a long time to make, but it was oh so worth it! My husband calls them the “Mercedes of cookies.” I think they might be the Rolls-Royce.

The chocolate cake batter is pretty standard, but you will want to use an electric mixer for both that and the filling. The filling requires that you make a paste by cooking milk and flour together on the stove, and then cooling it before adding it to the shortening, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla. This is the secret to the filling. Anything else and it won’t have that authentic texture and flavor of a real whoopie pie.

Because I can never leave a recipe alone when I cook, I made two slight modifications. First, because I am not a huge fan of vegetable shortening (aka Crisco), I used only butter in the chocolate cake batter. And for the same reason, I substituted coconut oil for 2/3 of the shortening in the filling. (I am a huge fan of coconut oil, and use it a lot in cooking now.) If you want your whoopie pies to be nut-free, however, I recommend staying away from it. I also recommend using Hershey’s or another brand of dark, (Dutch) unsweetened cocoa powder. You will find that different brands will render different variations of chocolate taste, so experiment to find the one you like best. Here is a review of 7 brands:  I found online.

So as not to keep you on tender-hooks any longer, here is the recipe. It makes 20 large or 24 small pies:

Chocolate cookie batter:
1/2 cup baking cocoa (unsweetened powder)
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup soft butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 fresh eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder (Calumet)
1 tsp. baking soda (Arm & Hammer)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk to which 1/2 Tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar has been added. Note: Wait 5 minutes to give the milk time to curdle.)

Creamy Vanilla Filling:
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
dash salt
1 cup whole milk (or 1/2 and 1/2)
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. In a small bowl, combine cocoa powder and water. Cool for 5 minutes.
2. In a large bowl with electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla and the cocoa mixture.
3. In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients and add to the creamed mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beating well after each addition.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
5. Drop by rounded Tablespoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto greased baking sheets. (Try to make them as round and as uniform in size as possible. This gets easier with practice.) For best results choose a middle rack in the oven. If the sheets are too close to the bottom of the oven, you risk scorching the cookies.
6. Bake about 10 minutes or until touching one with your finger does not leave an indent. Remove and cool completely on wire racks while you make the filling.
7. In a small, heavy, saucepan, combine the flour and salt. Gradually whisk in the milk until smooth and cook over medium-high heat while stirring constantly, for 5-7 minutes until a thick paste is formed. Remove from heat, cover, and refrigerate until completely cool.
8. In a small bowl with an electric mixer, cream the shortening, coconut oil, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the flour/milk paste and beat for a full 7 minutes until fluffy.
9. Now comes the fun part: with a frosting tool, spread 2 Tablespoons of the creamy filling on half of the cookies and top with the other half. (I find it makes it easier if I match the cookies up by size and shape first before adding frosting). Store between layers of wax paper in the refrigerator.
10. Devour! These taste even better the next day, if you can believe that. So make ahead if baking for company.


Re-Experiencing Childhood Pleasures

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. (As far as I knew, there wasn’t any other kind.) One of the benefits to this arrangement was that I grew up eating homemade cookies. Every day on my walk home from school I looked forward to coming in the door and grabbing a cookie from the cookie tin kept high on a shelf in the kitchen. It was so high, I remember climbing up on a bureau to reach it.

Since there were five children in the family, the cookies were rationed. Every time you took a cookie, you made a mark by your name on a little piece of paper taped to the top of the tin. When you reached the designated limit, you were done. This may sound rather austere to some, but it was a brilliant system. It prevented fights (and the obligatory parental refereeing), it guaranteed that everyone got their fair share, and it taught me about delayed gratification: the more disciplined I was, the longer I got to enjoy my cookies.

My mother baked a huge variety of cookies and bars, always made from scratch. She would collect recipes from the Boston Globe, pasting them into the looseleaf pages of a large, three-ring binder. Two recipes that I remember with great fondness were meringues and honey yo-yos. These particular confections were very time-consuming to make. I know because sometimes I helped make them, adding sugar one teaspoon at a time to the egg whites being whipped up for the meringues in my mom’s Sunbeam electric mixer, or meticulously glueing together the honey yo-yo halves with raspberry jam.

But my favorite all-time cookies were whoopie pies: two rich chocolate cake-like cookies stuffed with creamy vanilla filling. If you have never had a real, honest-to-goodness, homemade whoopie pie, you don’t know what you’re missing. They taste nothing like the ones you see by the check-out at small-town convenience stores. For one thing, the filling in those is made with marshmallow fluff and god knows what else, and for another, I am pretty sure there is no butter in the chocolate cake.

I recently decided to try my hand at recreating these New England-based delights from my childhood. I didn’t have my mother’s original recipe, and it took several online attempts before I found the right one, that is, with the same creamy vanilla filling my mom used to make. But find it I did.

I gathered together the ingredients, and rolled up my sleeves.

To be continued…


Have a Heart: Conclusion

Well, Houdini has won, at least for now. I have decided that the last remaining Animalia Chordata Mammalia Rodentia Sciuridae has earned the right to spend the winter in his burrow in the back yard. I am out of peanuts, having wasted the last of them setting the trap multiple times, only to have the bait taken and the trap sprung, but no one inside. Again, I personally don’t have anything against chipmunks. I even did some research to see if they make good pets (not recommended). But at this moment my dog is trying to scratch her way through the back wall of the garage, convinced that Houdini is in there, perhaps hiding nuts or maybe preparing his winter residence for hibernation. I apparently did him a great favor by removing his siblings so he can claim the territory as his own. And he apparently learned from their mistakes. At least I hope it is a he. If Houdini turns out to be a she, I may be in for another Have-a-Hart summer.

Have a Heart, part V: Houdini

I check the trap this morning–it is tripped, and the peanuts are eaten, but there is no one inside! Apparently this last chipmunk is living up to its species’ name as being excellent escape artists. I get more bait and reset the trap. I am thinking that, instead of Alvin, I may have to name my next catch Houdini.

I go out later in the morning. The trap is undisturbed, but as I am looking at it, I hear a little chirping noise, just barely audible. I look in the direction from where the noise is coming, and I see a little face and two shiny black eyes peeking out at me from the slate rock wall. Aha! I have discovered the opening to the den. This must be their summer home, and the walls of my garage are the winter home. Or maybe the parents have kicked the adolescents out and they’ve taken up residence in the earthworks behind the wall (it is a retaining wall, about four feet high). Little fur-face and I have a staring contest for a while, and then I put a couple of peanuts on the rock closest to the den opening. He (she) disappears into the dark recesses of the wall. I am reminded of the story The Little Prince and the taming of the fox. Maybe the chipmunks and I are taming each other.

To be continued…

Have a Heart, part IV: Catch and Release

I’m on a roll now. Just a few hours after releasing Theodore, I catch Simon. Simon is a little bigger than Chip, Dale, and Theodore, but not by much. Same scenario–I transport him in the trap to the forest’s edge, only this time, I decide to release him a few feet away from the big pine tree where the others seem to have headed. He disappears into the crotch of the tree. I leave some peanuts nearby, as a friendly gesture.

So now I am curious about these little creatures, and decide to read up on them. Here are a few things I learned (thanks to the wonders of the internet, naturally).

“Chipmunks are small, striped rodents of the family Sciuridae (Squirrel family). Chipmunks are found in North America, with the exception of the Siberian chipmunk which is found primarily in Asia.
Gestation period31 days
“Chipmunks have a lot of predators due to their small size. Main predators of chipmunks are snakes, hawks, owls, weasels, bobcats, raccoons and coyotes. Chipmunks are omnivores (they eat both plant- and animal-based food). They usually eat nuts, seeds, berries, fruit, fungi, insects, frogs and eggs.
“Chipmunks are part of the squirrel family, and while they look similar to their bushy-tailed cousins, chipmunks are actually smaller, with alternating light and dark stripes along their cheeks and backs.

“There are 25 species of chipmunk, 24 of which live in North America (who knew?!?!). Chipmunks are excellent tree climbers and swimmers who live in a variety of habitats, including plains, mountains, forests, and deserts. Chipmunks like to live alone in holes or burrows called dens.

“Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather, which means they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. One chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. In just two days, a chipmunk can collect enough food to last an entire winter, although chipmunks typically hoard much more food than necessary.

“Chipmunk young are born in late spring, and stay in the nest for up to six weeks. Female chipmunks have one or two litters per year, each with four or five babies. Chipmunks are 7.2 to 8.5 inches (18.5 to 21.6 centimeters) long including their tails, which can account for nearly half of their length.”

So based on the last paragraph above,  there could be as many as 10 offspring living in and around my garage, plus mom and dad. If that is true, I am going to run out of names pretty soon. Alvin is taken, but I am soliciting suggestions.
Stay tuned for more adventures of the furry kind!
Here is a lot more information about chipmunks, some of it really fun and interesting.
PS Thank you to Russ for pointing out the mistake in my earlier post. I have corrected it.

Have-a-Heart, part III: Three’s Company

No luck last night, but today at around 1:30 p.m., lo and behold, there is Chip and Dale’s sibling in the trap–at least that is what I want to believe. This one looks a little different, I tell myself. It’s nose seems a bit more slender and pointy, but that could also just be wishful thinking.

So off we go in my Toyota Matrix to the chipmunk drop-off station at the edge the town forest. As I gently carry the cage to the foot of the locked metal gate that prevents cars from going any further, little Theodore, as I have named this one, makes some chirping noises. I set down the trap, open one of the doors, and Theodore goes scampering in the same direction that Chip and Dale went, only this time, instead of disappearing into the leaves of the embankment, Theodore climbs the nearest tree. I watch in utter amazement, as Chip (Dale?) greets him! They exchange some cheerful-sounding chirps and disappear higher up in the tree.

I can’t wait to set the trap again to catch Simon and Alvin!

Have a Heart, the sequel: Chip and Dale

I decide to take the trap back to the hardware store and ask if it is defective. Turns out, it is not the trap that is defective, but the operator. I wasn’t setting it properly. I take it back home and reset it, properly this time.

Bam! In less than 24 hours, I have Chip in the trap. He (she?) is very small, probably not full adult size–and certainly not as big as the one I have seen near the bird feeder. I take it to the edge of the forest behind where I live, but three streets down, so that it cannot find its way back (hopefully).

I set the trap again. Next morning I check it. No luck. Later, around supper time, Dale is there. About the same size as Chip. I wonder if Chip and Dale are siblings and how many more there might be. I bring Dale to where I released Chip, and she (he?) scampers off into the woods making a very high-pitched chirping noise, which I hope means it is happy. Of course, it occurs to me that I may have trapped Chip twice.

When I return, I set the trap again, but unfortunately forget to set the “lock” that holds the door down once it shuts. When I check it again later, the door is shut, but the bait is gone, and the trap is empty. I put in more apple slices and set the trap correctly this time.

Going out right now to check the trap. I will let you know what I find…stay tuned…

Have a Heart

I recently purchased a Havahart humane trap at my local hardware store, hoping I could catch and release the chipmunk that has been living in the walls of my garage for a couple of years now. I read the instructions carefully and follow them to a T. Using three recommended apple slices topped with raisins and peanut butter as bait, I leave the trap in my back yard near the stone wall where the chipmunk likes to hang out during the day.  As directed, I am careful to make sure both entrances are open and the bait tray is level.

I should confess, I am not particularly bothered by the chipmunk, but my dog is. She is a Karelian Bear Dog, with an extreme prey drive, and she knows the chipmunk lives in the walls of the garage, and she is determined to stalk it night and day. She has worn her front toenails down trying to scratch her way through the plywood that acts as a barrier between her and the furry little appetizer she can hear, smell, and almost taste, and it is driving her (and me) crazy..

Once when I was young we had a mouse infestation in our home. My parents purchased a Havahart trap and within a few days had captured 12 little gray mice, which they either released somewhere near our neighbors, who had cats, or else they drowned them without telling us. I find gray mice to be rather ugly and unpleasant–not at all like Hunca-Munca from Beatrix Potter ‘s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. But I digress.

So I set my trap with three apple slices coated with peanut butter and raisins, and wait.

First day: it looks like a chipmunk has been inside, because there is a dried leaf in the cage that wasn’t there before, and one of the apple slices is off of the bait tray, without its raisins and peanut butter. I remove it and leave the other two.

Second day: One of the remaining apple slices is undisturbed, and the other is gone, but the peanut butter and raisin topping is left sitting on the bait tray. I remove them and replace with thinner slices of apple coated with peanut butter and raisins.

Third day: All the food is gone. I conclude that I have simply created a convenient feeding station for the chipmunk.

I go back to the hardware store to tell them my story. They say that I should set the trap so only one door is open, and the food is way on the other side of the bait tray, so that the chipmunk has to walk across the bait tray to reach the food, and thus trigger the door. I had already thought of trying this, but the instructions specifically said to have both doors open or the bait tray would not be level. I go home and forget to put food in the trap. My dog goes nuts in the garage again.

To be continued…