Saturday, March 20, 2010

When We Were Angels

First Communion Day is a very big event in a Catholic child's life. In many ways it's like a debutante party or a wedding. Little girls wear white dresses and veils, little boys white suits. Families pack the church. And afterwards there are parties and presents. Perfect strangers on the street seeing your First Communion finery will give you money because on that day you are a little angel.

It's a good time.

When I made my First Communion in April 1967, poufy dresses held out by starchy crinolines and veils anchored by rhinestone tiaras were the ultimate in feminine First Communion chic. Oh, how I wanted a get-up like that. But my mother commissioned Aunt Frances to sew a simple tasteful white cotton pique chemise and a veil attached to a headband with white silk flowers. BOOOOOOORING!

Aunt Frances turned out exquisite christening gowns, Mardi Gras costumes and bridal attire. However, she free-formed accessories without a pattern. So my First Communion veil, rather than fluttering around my shoulders, enveloped me whole sort of like a white sheer net burka. In most of my first Communion pictures, it looks like the veil is eating me alive. If the wind had been right that day, it probably would have billowed like a sail, and I could have drifted up and away like Sister Betrille in "The Flying Nun."
The day itself is a blur of Latin, incense, ringing bells and giggling and whispering with my seatmate (which got me in trouble with Sister de Fatima). My cousin Karen made her First Communion on that day, too. Her slightly yellowed veil, worn by two older sisters before her, was just the right size.

After the ceremony, we posed for family pictures, then went to the hospital to visit our Grandpa who was sick and had missed the ceremony. All the nurses and patients exclaimed over us and gave us pieces of candy and money.

Years later, a small child visiting our house came across my First Communion photos. All sweet baby seriousness, he said he didn't know I used to be an angel. Then he asked to borrow my wings so he could fly up to Heaven to visit his grandpa.

I wish I had those wings myself. There are lots of people I'd love to visit there.

Top Photo: First Communion Day, Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Biloxi, Miss., April 1967. The church is now a cathedral for the Diocese of Biloxi.
Photo Above: As you might gather from the pout, my sister Kim was upset that after weeks of practicing with a bathroom towel on her head, she was not going to be allowed to make her First Communion. As you will note from my somewhat smug smirk, I'm not at all upset that I am the center of attention.

Kim's Meringues

Traditionally, First Communions are followed by parties. These melt-in-your-mouth meringues, my sister's speciality, look like little clouds -- the perfect Communion Day treat for little angels. Make these on a clear bright day or they won't come out right.

2 egg whites at room temperature

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 cup of sugar
1, 6-ounce package of semi-sweet chocolate chip bits
1/4 cup pecans, chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat egg whites, salt, cream of tartar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add sugar gradually, and beat until stiff. Fold in chocolate bits and add pecans. Cover a cookie sheet with heavy brown paper; do not grease. Drop from a teaspoon into small mounds onto the paper-covered cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for about 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees if they brown too fast. When done, these will be crispy and dry and creamy white.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ladies' Luncheons at "The Lab"

During Christmas break, a little stir-craziness always set in. School had been out a while. The holiday was over, and frankly all the excitement of catching up with our out-of-town visiting cousins had pretty much evaporated. The younger set needed a diversion. And you could walk to Rosettis for ice cream only so many times.

Then one day in 1975 my cousins and I discovered the Gulf Coast Laboratory's Marine Education Center lodged in a pre-fab building on the other side of Highway 90. I was vaguely familiar with the lab. My 6th grade class had gone on a field trip to the Ocean Springs campus. I remembered the dense, pervasive musky odor of estuarine mud. If you think you don't know that smell, conjure up the immediate post-Katrina days from your memory bank. Now you know it.

So we went on another field trip across 90 and learned all about estuaries and Mississippi's native snakes. We watched turtles cavorting in a pool of brackish water. We handled horseshoe crabs and learned how to tell the difference between a male and a female.

After an hour or so, we returned to the house much smarter than when we left. And we hadn't even been to school in two weeks.

Some years later, post-college, I briefly worked in the lab's public relations office. By this time, the Marine Ed Center had nearly outgrown its temporary home and was about to move into a brand new building on the Point. It's showpiece was a 44,000 gallon Gulf of Mexico aquarium surrounded by smaller aquaria.

For some mysterious reason, the large aquarium leaked which postponed the grand opening for months.

One of my happiest memories of the Lab are of the employees' monthly potluck luncheons. We held a couple of those in the lobby of the still-vacant new building. At the December luncheon, we made a little photocopy cookbook of all our favorite recipes and gave it out as a party favor.

Even after I left the lab, the Marine Ed Center continued to be part of my life. During the 1990s, my current employer, the Navy, helped sponsor live science broadcasts of the Jason PROJECT there.

Volunteers from the Naval Oceanographic Office helped pint-sized ocean explorers "drive" one of the Navy's Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) around the 44,0000-gallon tank (now long past it's leaking problems).

Hurricane Katrina took the Marine Ed Center -- like most structures on the Point -- down to its foundation. For more information on the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and J. L. Scott Marine Education Center, now part of the University of Southern Mississippi, visit here.

Chocolate Chip Pecan Pie

Unfortunately, the hurricane also took my little well-used photocopy of the Christmas party recipe booklet. There were so many good recipes in it, but my favorite was Dr. Harriet Perry's chocolate chip pecan pie. As a rule, I am not fond of pecan pie, but everything is divine with chocolate isn't it? To this day, I make this pie for my Thanksgiving dessert table. I think the following recipe is pretty close to what I remember.

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1 recipe pastry for a 9 inch single crust pie

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl beat eggs until light and fluffy. Add sugar, flour, melted butter or margarine, salt, lemon juice, and corn syrup. Mix thoroughly, then stir in chocolate chips and pecans. Pour mixture into pie shell.

Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes or until set and golden.