Monday, November 25, 2013

One Grandma's Sneaky Shortcuts for Thanksgiving

(This is a slightly revised and updated version of last year's Thanksgivng post--Apologies to those who have seen it before!)

Just heading back from New York--to launch into my annual pie baking panic before the kids fly in and we sit down to a Thanksgiving table set for 12, including two-year-old granddaughter Amalia. (Below a photo from her first Thanksgiving--two years ago.  This year, now that she's 27 months,  she's made me promise that we'll bake an "orange pie" together, which I take to mean a pumpkin pie.)  (Pies pictured above are from LAST Thanksgiving, when I was more organized.)  Amalia and I have already made turkey sugar cookies in Manhattan from the tube of dough bought at the supermarket with a turkey pictured in the center.  All you do is cut slices off the dough and put them on a cookie sheet and bake. Welcome to Thanksgiving for dummies.

Amali's first Thanksgiving, 2011
For 42 years I’ve been streamlining the procedure drastically every year because I’m lazy, and my Greek relatives still don’t realize that my special cornbread stuffing comes out of a package (slightly doctored up.)  They spend days making their Greek stuffing, which includes chestnuts, hamburger and a lot of other things.  Amalia's honorary Grandma, "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides, will be making it for our table this year.  Of course everyone prefers the Greek stuffing, but I still make my cornbread stuffing, because it’s “tradition.”  

Every Thanksgiving I try a different apple pie recipe in the hopes of finding the prize-winning pie that will bring tears (of joy, not sorrow)  to my family’s eyes.  This year, because I'm back at Weight Watchers' meetings, I'm doing apple pie with a lattice crust and the low-cal Apple Pie Filling I got off Weight Watcher's web site.  You can serve it with no-cal frozen whipped topping (which has no ingredients that ever came near a cow) or, for the more reckless, with vanilla ice cream.

For those who say "calories be damned",  a fabulous Chocolate-Kahlua pie has somehow become a staple of our Thanksgiving. It, too, can be made way ahead. When I make a pumpkin pie—which is really fast and easy…(just take the recipe off the pumpkin can)—I decorate the top with a circle of candy corn left from Halloween. Or Cinnamon Praline Pecans.This year I'm trying a recipe for "Maple Pumpkin Pie with Cinnamon-Maple Whipped Cream" that I cut out of the local paper.  Don't tell Weight Watchers.

 Nowadays magazines and ads on TV make much of the young wife and mother terrified by the complexities of roasting a turkey and serving Thanksgiving dinner to a crowd. I think the whole thing has been vastly over-complicated by the media.So I’m going to share some sneaky shortcuts for a super-easy Thanksgiving.

The Turkey—don’t stuff it!
 A turkey roasted with the stuffing inside takes much longer and then you have all those risks of food poisoning if you leave the turkey and stuffing un-refrigerated long after taking it out of the oven. Stuffing baked in the turkey comes out soggy. I prepare my stuffing on top of the stove.The directions are on the back of the Pepperidge Farm Corn Bread Stuffing package—Melt 6 TBSP butter in a saucepan, add a cup of chopped celery and a cup of chopped onions, cook for 3 minutes. (Then I throw in sliced mushrooms and maybe this year chopped apples and cook some more. You could also add chopped chestnuts or pecans and crumbled bacon or sausage.) When everything is softened, you throw in 2 1/2 cups water or broth (if you’re not going for vegetarian) and add the stuffing mix, stir and you’re all done.

As for the turkey—I always get a fresh turkey, even though it costs more, so as not to have to defrost it for days and then find it still frozen.  I get mine from a local butcher called Sir Loin's who guarantees that it was free range and had a happy childhood. I cut an onion and a couple oranges in half and put them in the cavity before putting the turkey in the oven.  For the last 15 minutes I baste it with Maple Bourbon Glaze which also gives a nice color. (Don’t forget, the turkey needs to sit for a half hour to soak up the juices.)

Green Bean Casserole and Candied Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows: I don’t make them. I came to realize that nobody eats them. What I do make is: Parmesan Potato Casserole which is mashed potatoes in a casserole dish with a lot of butter and cheese, cream and eggs stirred in and then you bake it with some cheese and parsley on top. I cook Wild Rice mix straight out of the Uncle Ben box. Artichoke hearts alla Polita with peas and dill. Corn and red pepper casserole.  Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer.

Gravy—open a can.
 I’ve tried about a million “No fail turkey gravy” recipes over the years and I manage to fail every time. What I do is open a couple cans of store-bought turkey gravy, chop up some of the neck and liver of the turkey (which have cooked in the roasting pan alongside the turkey), add a nice splash of some liquor—like sherry—or you can throw in some of the pan juices. Who’s going to know that it came out of a can?
Orange-cranberry relish—you can make this up to a month ahead. Everybody loves it and it makes even the driest turkey taste better. Pick over and grind in the blender a one pound bag of cranberries. Grind up a couple oranges—pulp and rind. Mix together with two cups sugar or more. Chill in the refrigerator--the longer it sits the better it tastes. I always make a double recipe.
When the kids were small I would have them cut with scissors a jagged edge for hollowed-out orange halves to make little baskets to hold the cranberry relish—I’d put the baskets surrounding the turkey. Or nowadays I surround the turkey on its platter with green and purple bunches of grapes.

Placecards and menus—Making the placecards or favors is a great way to keep children busy and out of your hair. I used to have mine make favors/place cards that were turkeys fashioned out of (store bought) popcorn balls with a ladyfinger for the head and neck, three toothpick legs to stand, red or orange cellophane tied around the popcorn ball and gathered for a tail.—The three-legged turkey was then stuck in a large flat cookie, where the name would be written using those cake-decorating tubes.  Other creative folks make turkeys out of chocolate cupcakes and candy corn. 
Pie dough—Pillsbury refrigerated. I don’t have the magic touch for “from scratch” pie crust that grandmas always brag about, and I’ve never had any complaints. When I do some clever crimping around the edge, the pie crust looks completely homemade and tastes fine.

The centerpiece is always the same—I have a basket shaped like a cornucopia, filled with various fruits, nuts and some fall flowers that have survived in the garden. Couldn’t be easier. Candles in candleholders.  Also I've acquired a bunch of rubber turkey finger puppets which Amalia has already commandeered. Nowadays lots of craft and party stores are selling activity books and placemats for the the children's table.   And yes, everyone has to tell what they're thankful for. I always print out on the computer a small decorative menu for each plate so people know what they’re eating. What they won’t know is how easy it was, unless you tell them.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Kennedy Assassination, the Media and My Generation

Everyone who was older than, say, five, on November 22, 1963 has a story that begins, “On the day that Kennedy was shot, I…”   Those too young to remember it have filed away Kennedy’s murder in their minds along with other national tragedies: the assassination of President Lincoln, the Hindenburg disaster, Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Titanic, the San Francisco earthquake.

But the Kennedy assassination was different.  And the effect of that weekend in 1963 on the baby boomer generation is still being measured.

When President Lincoln was assassinated, some Americans in the far West didn’t learn the news until months later.  In 1963, Americans turned en masse for the first time to their television for breaking news of a national tragedy, and that news was very slow in coming—it seemed like hours of agonized waiting before the official announcement was made that the President was indeed dead, (although the back of his head had been blown off by the second shot, and his wife and his bodyguard knew instantly there was no hope.)

The entire nation gathered in front of their television sets, sat down, and didn’t move from Friday through Sunday as they watched the drama play out in real time, from the shots in Dallas, through the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby, through the funeral procession, with the rider-less horse and three-year-old John John saluting his father’s casket.

Imagine if the Kennedy shooting happened today—hundreds of people in Dallas would have captured it on video via their cell phones—not just Abraham Zapruder, with his 8 millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera and the shaky 486 frames of film that would ultimately ruin his life.  The nation did not see the entire 26.6 seconds of the Zapruder film until 1975, and Life Magazine, which bought the rights to it for $150,000, did not show frame #313— Kennedy’s head exploding—out of deference to the family and its readers and because Zapruder insisted it be withheld.

Today (remember the Boston Marathon bombing?) the entire event would be on Facebook and Twitter from dozens of different angles, with all the gore, along with all kinds of crazy theories and misinformation—within seconds of the gunfire.

There was nothing instantaneous about the news in those days.   Here’s my Nov. 22, 1963 story:  Two months earlier I had moved to Manhattan from California to enter Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.  Among the 80 grad students who sat in front of their heavy manual typewriters at desks in the J School’s newsroom was Nick Gage, the man I would marry seven years later, but on that Friday I had a date with another young man, who worked for The New York Times, to attend a ball given by the Newswomen’s Club of New York to collect my Anne O’Hare McCormick scholarship, which would help pay for my tuition.

I had left the newsroom early and gone to my dorm room in Johnson Hall to start getting ready, when I heard on the radio “Shots have been fired in the vicinity of the President in Dallas.” 

Like many of my fellow J School students I immediately went back to the school, hoping to get more information from the teletype machines in the newsroom—the only way to get breaking news in those days before it was read over the radio.  The teletype machines, standing about three feet high, would clatter into life as news bulletins from the Associated Press, UPI and Reuters (they each had a different machine) would be typed on a continuous roll of paper.

We stood around, grim-faced, waiting to learn Kennedy’s fate, tearing off bulletins as they came through (I still have a couple, one of them pictured above.) Not until 2:33 p.m. Eastern Standard Time did the teletype machine make it official.  The president was dead.

We all took this as a personal loss.  Nick, who has been my husband now for 43 years, had met President Kennedy only three months earlier at the White House, when Kennedy presented him with the top Hearst Award for college journalism—which was how Nick managed to afford grad school.

After the official news, we were all depressed and at a loss for what to do next. Everything had been cancelled.  Earlier I had tried to call my date at The New York Times to tell him the ball was cancelled and got screamed at by the man who answered the phone, who yelled, “My god, woman.  Don’t you know what has happened?  Hang up!”

Finally, as a group, we walked over to a movie theater on Broadway and sat silently through a film.  It was “The Haunting of Hill House” starring Julie Harris.

We all went out to the West End Bar after that, and Nick and I spent the rest of the weekend together, devouring the newspapers as succeeding editions came out. Unlike the rest of the nation, we did not have access to a television set (although there must have been one at the J-School.)  Nowadays, the students sit down to their computers.  The manual typewriters and teletype machines are long gone.

Over the years, when anyone asks us, “How did you two meet?” we take turns telling the story, beginning, “It was the day President Kennedy was shot.”

Three weekends ago, Nick and I were in San Francisco, attending the Elios Foundation’s Hellenic Charity Ball when we started chatting with California Congressman John Garamendi and his wife Patti, who have been married even longer than we have.  Turns out that they met the same day we did. 

They were both attending the University of California at Berkeley (where I had graduated five months earlier.)  He was on the California Golden Bears football team (and an All-America offensive guard), but the game scheduled for that night was cancelled, so John walked over to visit a girl he knew in a sorority house, and she introduced him to a pretty blonde named Patricia. 

Like so many of our generation, John and Patti had been inspired by Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps. They spent their two-year honeymoon serving in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, teaching local school children that if they could work together, they could achieve anything (including building a bridge). John has devoted his life to legislature creating a pathway to the middle class for poor Americans.  Patti has served as the Associate Director of the Peace Corps and arranges the distribution of American food and aid to famine and refugee centers in war zones and developing countries.

Everyone in my generation has a story about how Kennedy’s life and death affected them, and in many cases, the ripple effect is still being felt.  For my generation, it was the first time the nation pulled together and mourned together as a family, while the now-outdated medium of television made us participants in the drama.   

Thursday, November 7, 2013

New Technology Helps with Eldercare—It’s Not Just Robots

Last May I posted an essay titled:  “Do You Want to End Your Days Talking to a Robot?”  It was my reaction to a New York Times article that described new robots with cute names that have been created to take care of elderly patients.  There’s Cody, allegedly “gentle enough to bathe elderly patients”, HERB who can fetch household objects, Hector, who reminds patients to take their medicines, Paro, who looks like a baby seal and calms patients with dementia, and PR2 who can blink and giggle as people interact with it.   Reading this evoked in me the same reaction as that of Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, who said she was troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman telling her life story to the baby seal robot. “Giving old people robots to talk to,” said Prof. Turkle, “is a dystopian view that is being classified as utopian.”

Since writing that blog post, I’ve learned about some new technological developments that are showing positive results in treating patients, without eliminating the human link in healthcare for the elderly, who will number 72.1 million Americans by 2030—double today’s number (which already includes me—I’m about to turn 73.).

One of the encouraging developments is the Betty Tablet (which also has a cute name—in honor of the inventor’s 93-year old mother-in-law.)  Robert Nascenzi, president and CEO of NLIVEN Solutions, saw that home caregivers treating his elderly mother-in-law, Betty, were trying to communicate her needs and activities to each other with an over-stuffed and unorganized three-ring binder and post-it notes stuck to cabinets: “Betty has an infection, make sure she takes her antibiotic.” 

So Nascenzi developed the Betty tablet.  When a home health caregiver checks into a patient’s home, she can tap information about the patient into the tablet, describing what the patient ate, what activity he/she did, the patient’s mood, any problems, medicines administered, doctors’ appointments-- information which is transmitted in real time to the patient’s doctor and all family members who are subscribers to the plan.  They can receive this information with a smartphone application, or as text or e-mail messages.  (In addition to tapping, the tablet understands written messages or even voice recognition.) Subscribers can also respond and send private messages to agency staff through the Betty web portal.  This way a patient’s children can keep daily track of their elderly parents, no matter how far away, and a continuous record of the patient’s condition and care plan is created.

Jeff Salter, the founder and CEO of Caring Senior Service, is presently testing the Betty tablet with some of his clients and caregivers in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and McAllen, Texas.  Salter, a 42-year-old Texan, founded his company in 1991 to assist the elderly in their home with daily needs like bathing, dressing, errand running, housekeeping and meal preparation   Franchises for his company have now spread to 700 clients in 17 states.  The cost of a caregiver’s visit is between $18 to $25 an hour, depending on the distance the caregiver has to travel. If the Betty tablets prove effective, Salter plans to extend their use to all his clients.

Keeping an eye open for tech developments that help the elderly, I saw that the University of California at San Francisco reported on a study that shows the aging brain can increase in vigor and cognitive ability given the right mental exercise, and that video games can be a powerful help. (The study also said that—who would guess it ?—the biggest decline in cognitive ability happens between the 20s and 30s, but continues throughout life.) The study used a 3-D video game called NeuroRacer. (I suspect this would help me improve my driving, as well.)  The test subjects played the game for an hour a day, three days a week, for a month, and showed a “dramatic improvement” after only 12 hours of play.

The San Francisco findings seem to be validated by Teresa Heinz Kerry, 75, wife of Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced in late October that she is steadily recovering from a seizure that she suffered in July—the result of a fall that caused a concussion four years ago—and that the brain game app for iPad called Lumosity played a big part.  “I have a great feeling of gratitude in my heart that my brain is still working, “ she said.

A couple of new tech inventions that I read about in last Sunday’s New York Times, were designed to protect children who are too young to use a smart phone, but I couldn’t help thinking they might be useful for elderly people with dementia as well.   Both devices  use GPS, Wi-Fi and other location-tracking technology  to find lost children, and can be linked to apps on a parent’s phone. One is a watch from Filip Technologies which tracks a child’s location and lets him get voice calls from up to five people who are looking for him. The watch also has a red panic button, which will dial the parents or people in charge when the child pushes it.

The second tracking device for small children mentioned by The Times is the Trax, which works with the parents’ smart phone application to alert them if a child wanders outside a digital fence which the parents can draw on their smartphone.  And if the child is lost within a store, the Trax uses motion and direction sensors to determine the child’s position. (The Trax can also be used on dogs, and certainly would be useful for elders with dementia who are able to wander away.)

It’s reassuring to know that new technical tools are being developed to aid us senior citizens.  I’ve never played a video game in my life, but I reckon it’s time to learn.  It’s certainly better than ending my days telling my life story to a robot that looks like a baby seal.