Sunday, April 24, 2011

Going "Eastering"

I must preface this post by noting that I am -- and always have been -- a girly girl. The kind who had a pink frilly canopy bed, every Barbie ever made by Mattel, a pet toy poodle AND a Persian cat.

I also loved getting dressed up -- even when it wasn't necessary.

Easter was a thrilling event -- for the goodies the Easter Bunny left in my basket and because I got to go shopping for a "dressy" dress.

Easter 1964 found my family living in Edgewater Park, the subdivision adjacent to the enclosed shopping mall that had opened just the year before -- Edgewater Plaza Shopping City.

It was like living next door to heaven. There was so much to do and see there. That year we found two prospective Easter dresses for me: a pale pink chemise with a delicate, scalloped collar and embroidered pink rosebuds on the placket from Goudchaux and a puffed sleeve whisper of a dress in pale, pale yellow voile with a sash at Gayfers'. After much agonizing, we went with the pink.

But I couldn't get the yellow dress out of my head. Two days before Easter, my daddy came home with Gayfer's signature shopping bag. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper was the yellow dress.

Mama scolded him. I was already spoiled, and I had no where to wear both dresses. Obviously, we couldn't save one as I was sure to be up a size by the next Easter. She urged him to return it.

Nothing doing. I already had worked out the perfect solution: I would wear the pink dress to church and to Nona and Grandpa's house for Easter dinner, and he yellow dress for "going Eastering."

Noting my parents' perplexed expressions, I patiently explained that Eastering was the springtime equivalent of trick or treating (a gig I had just discovered the autumn before). Instead of wearing costumes and carrying plastic jack o'lanterns door to door, children dressed up in their Sunday best and carried their Easter baskets around the neighborhood collecting chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, robins eggs and marshmallow peeps.

Believe it or not, they indulged me (probably because in a few short months I would no longer be an only child). My mother gave the relatives and few neighbors a "heads up" phone call and I, wearing my yellow dress, went Eastering.

I got a pretty good haul, but I never went Eastering again. Surprisingly, my idea did not sweep the Nation. I can't imagine why. I still maintain that it's a darned good idea.

I get one every 20 years or so.

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 15, 2011

What He Knew About the Restaurant Business and Its Secrets

One of the most treasured items on my bookshelf is a 40-year-old brown leather tome with faded gilt lettering. The cover is scratched, the binding warped, the pages water-stained. Most of my books that went through Katrina had to be discarded and replaced. This one, however, is irreplaceable.

The title: What I Know About the Restaurant Business and Its Secrets. The author: my dad, Jerry Willis.

The pages are completely blank.

A colleague gave him the book as a birthday present. My father, the eternal joker, adored it. He placed it at eye level on the shelf behind his desk at the restaurant so that any visitor, whether the mother of a bride discussing reception catering options or a distributer on a sales call, had to look right at it.

The scenario always played out the same way: Eyes idly skimmed the titles on the shelf, performed a quick double take, then hungrily zeroed in on the bait. Daddy would make some excuse to leave the room, then after a suitable, yet briefer than expected pause, returned and caught ‘em red-handed. It always got a laugh.

It is, perhaps, appropriate that the pages are blank. Fact is, Daddy did know quite a bit about the restaurant/hotel business – and more than a few secrets which he discreetly kept mum. Movie stars hooked up at raucous on-location parties. Prominent businessmen and politicians entertained voluptuous clients and constituents in hotel suites.

A now-well-known female country music star threw a hissy fit when asked to vacate the ballroom she had appropriated for a practice session. Daddy gently, but firmly stood his ground. He needed to set up for a wedding reception, and no diva, however talented, was going to ruin a bride’s big day.

Not all celebrities behaved badly. He had nothing but praise and respect for evangelist Rev. Billy Graham -- who he said was warm, sincere and truly charismatic.

American film icon John Wayne also proved to be a great guy when he and Daddy shared an early morning coffee or two during filming of The Undefeated in Baton Rouge. Mr. Wayne, who then had young children himself, admired the school photos my proud papa showed off and provided not one, but two, autographs.

Years later, “the book” still reels in the unsuspecting. My father, who would have turned 90 this week, would be delighted.

Happy Birthday, Daddy! Hope you’re still having fun. And if you and “The Duke” ever meet up for coffee again, tell him I’ve gotten over his misspelling my name with a “K.” Story of my life.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mermaids, Tigers and Elephants -- Oh My

Each of my parents was blessed with a well-developed sense of whimsy which could turn even the most mundane event into an adventure.

When nightfall found us stranded on a dark country road with only a full moon to light our way (as happened often given my father's love of shortcuts and aversion to asking for directions and filling up the gas tank), we weren't lost but looking for "Spookyville" the mythical village that was home to witches, ghosts and goblins after Halloween (my all-time favorite holiday).

Fireflies in our garden were fairy lights. The eggs we dyed at Easter were laid in our baskets by "The Good Hen." Power plant structures were castles under construction for princesses like me. To this day, I can't view one without envisioning how it would look with turrets and a moat.

Occasionally the attempt at fantasy backfired as it did the day my mother coaxed me to try homemade candied apples for the first time. First tactical error: She called them "Snow White's Apples," and to illustrate, she took a bite, then dramatically fell to the ground in a swoon. I ran, shrieking and screaming, to the neighbor's house with my mother, dusting herself off, in hot pursuit. It took a while for her to calm me down and to convince the neighbor that she really hadn't fainted and hit her head. We both learned important lessons that day: She that there is such a thing as too much whimsy, me that candied apples, no matter what you call them, are damn good eats.

On another memorable occasion, a family excursion to Ship Island, my mother entertained my young cousins and me during the long boat ride over with stories of the magic we would find on the island's shores. Her story started out with mermaids cavorting in turquoise waves and, no doubt inspired by her captive, wide-eyed and, it must be said, gullible, audience, Ship Island soon morphed Dr. Doolittle's Island, a tropical paradise inhabited by monkeys, tigers, elephants and rhinos. We could not wait to get there.

If you have ever been to Ship Island, you know what a whopper she told. Our disappointment was bitter and absolute. Over the years, we have returned many times and learned to appreciate our barrier islands for the many charms they possess.

However, now we know that mermaids, tigers and elephants are not among them.

"Snow White's Apples"

10 medium apples

3 cups sugar

2/3 cup water

1 t lemon juice

1/4 t cream of tartar

15 whole cloves

2-3 drops of red liquid food coloring

Wash and dry apples, remove stems. Insert a wooden skewer into the stem end of each apple. Set aside. Combine sugar and remaining 5 ingredients in a heavy saucepan, stir well. Cook over low heat, stirring gently, until sugar dissolves. Cover and cook over medium heat 2-3minutes to wash down sugar crystals from the sides of the pan. Uncover and cook over medium heat, without stirring, to hard crack stage or until candy thermometer registers 300 degrees. Discard the cloves.

Quickly dip apples into syrup. Allow excess to drip off. Place on lightly buttered baking sheets to cool. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Store in a cool place.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Easter Trees

My sister Kim at Easter circa 1967. Unfortunately, you can't see the Easter tree in this photo. I know we used to have one somewhere, but I think the hurricane got it.

When I think back on it, my mom was really was out there ahead of Martha Stewart. Long before it became commonplace to decorate for EVERY SINGLE HOLIDAY, Mama came up with creative ways to make every day magical for my sister and me.

Back in the mid-1960s, for Easter most people just dyed eggs and put them in a basket with the fake straw and marshmallow peeps and called it a day. Not at our house.

We had an Easter tree that was more elaborate than many Christmas trees. Now I admit I have seen one or two of these in recent years, but prior to 1965, no one I knew had ever laid eyes on such except the one that graced the top of our Zenith television set. We should have charged admission.

The "tree" was actually a bare branch, whitewashed with shoe polish and hung with tufts of pale green net "leaves" and lots of delicate hand-blown dyed eggs festooned with ribbons, sequins and lace. It was a beautiful thing.

Dying and decorating the eggs took all day. First, Mama stuck pin holes into each end of the eggs, and my sister and I would gently blow the contents into a bowl. Then Mama carefully dipped the delicate shells into vats of custom made dye with original Mama names like "Easter Hibiscus" and "Luscious Lilac" (these actually do sound like Martha Stewart paint chips, don't they) and let them dry before gluing on the gee-gaws.

Our favorite eggs were those she decorated to resemble storybook characters like the Ugly Duckling. When she really wanted to pull out the stops, she cut a hole into the side of the egg and created a miniature diorama inside.

Our Easter baskets were also works of art with carefully arranged Elmer's Gold Brick Eggs, Heavenly Hash and Pecan eggs, guarded by a platoon of foil-wrapped chocolate marshmallow bunnies lined up like soldiers around the perimeter of each basket.

I was well into my 30's before I realized that Elmer's confections were regional treats, made in Ponchatoula, La. Maybe you can find them everywhere now, but you couldn't in Boston in 1998. I know. I tried.

I felt so sorry for those Bostonians -- growing up not knowing the pleasures of an Easter Basket by Elmer. I'll bet they didn't have Easter trees either.

Easter Egg and Potato Skillet

The day we put up the Easter Tree, we always knew what we were having for dinner: Easter Egg and Potato Skillet. I guess today people would call this a frittata. My nona used to make these a lot, too, although as far as I know she never put up an Easter tree.

6 eggs

1 cup chopped onion

2 large potatoes, peeled and diced

3 Tbsp. vegetable or corn oil

1/4 cup milk

salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet saute onion and diced potatoes and fry. Beat eggs well; add milk. Pour into the skillet, tilting to cover the bottom of the pan. When cooked on one side, flip the frittata onto a plate and slide back into the skillet to cook the other side. Cut into wedges and serve.

Note: If you want a heartier, dish you can add cooked crumbled bacon to this recipe or dice up smoked sausage and fry with the potatoes and onion.