Why I’m giving thanks for creamed onions

LK_blog_pots&pansThanksgiving makes me grateful for family and family traditions, especially those related to food. For the first time in many years, I don’t have to cook this Thanksgiving. But if we were eating at home, or contributing to a meal with friends, I would make the creamed onions. This tradition is handed down from my Great-Grandmother McKelvey.

When I was a little girl, any mention of her name sent a frisson of fear through me. Though she died long before I was born, she apparently ruled her household, outside of Youngstown, Ohio, with an iron hand. Many of her rules, which my mother obeyed when she visited, related to cleanliness and the spread of germs: Don’t toss the dishtowel over your shoulder; it will pick up germs. Always dry yourself completely before stepping out of the tub onto the bathmat. Wipe the kitchen counters constantly.   

When I was older, I learned that Great-Grandmother had lost a son and a daughter to typhoid fever. My grandmother, who was the oldest child, also contracted typhoid; her hair fell out and she was frail for months. Great-Grandmother’s fear of germs was probably connected to the devastating experience of losing two children—and almost a third—in that pandemic. 

On Sundays when she was a little girl, my mother and her parents drove to the McKelvey’s house for a required family dinner.  The rules were in full force on those visits, but my mother remembered that the food was sumptuous and tasty. My great-grandparents lived on a farm, so I assume that much of what they ate came from their garden and the animals they raised. 

Creamed onions were one of my great-grandmother’s signature dishes, and as an adult, my mother believed that they were essential to the Thanksgiving meal. Mom prepared the onions ahead of time, since peeling them was labor intensive. Once cooked, she kept them warm in Great-Grandmother’s white enamel double boiler, which she had inherited—much to the distress of my mother’s aunts, who apparently coveted the pot. They were likely to exclaim, when they saw the double boiler: “Oh. So YOU got that!” (The aunts also disagreed as to whether the onions should be sliced, or left whole. Ours were sliced.)

The warming pot was similar to the one shown here, but with black handles. The bottom of the pot reminded me of a plump woman. The lid was pockmarked and the bottom was stained, but it did the job. When I was old enough to handle a paring knife, I helped Mom peel the onions. We stood side by side at the sink, tearing up as we slipped off the skins. After I was married, facing the challenge of my first turkey dinner, I called my mother to ask for the recipe and instructions. That phone call became an annual ritual. Every Thanksgiving, a few days before the meal, Mom and I discussed the creamed onions. Our conversations often segued into a family story, so I never wrote the recipe down. It was more fun to have those holiday chats.

Over the years, I’ve made onions in our Massachusetts kitchen; on a hot plate in a southern cousin’s country house (where the roux curdled); in a Vermont cabin; and in my parents’ assisted living facility. Once, my husband and I hosted a potluck Thanksgiving in our rented condo and our dear friend Lorni offered to bring the creamed onions.  I accepted; we had a big crowd and a small kitchen, so it helped to parcel out the jobs. A thick fog blanketed the roads on Thanksgiving Day. Lorni and other friends drove down from Vermont in a crowded mini-van. When a stop sign suddenly appeared in the gloom, Lorni slammed on the brakes—and the pot of creamed onions slid from the seat to the floor.  Her son sobbed because he’d never heard his mom “say those bad words;” creamed onions oozed across the van’s carpeted floor mats (which smelled oniony for months); and our friends arrived looking frazzled. Clearly, I should have made the onions.

My mother has been gone for three years. Sadly, I can no longer call her to ask for advice on food—or anything else. You can find many creamed onion versions online, but I hope that this one, based on my pre-turkey phone calls with Mom, is close to Great-Grandmother’s recipe:

  1. Take a bag of small white pearl onions. Wash them (per Great-Grandmother’s attention to cleanliness).  Parboil the onions with the skins on for about ten minutes or until just tender.
  2. Drain the onions but save the cooking water. When the onions are cool, slip the skins off while running them under cold water.  Leave whole, or slice thin, depending on your own family tradition.
  3. Make your favorite basic roux, blending butter (or a butter substitute) and flour. Whisk in a combination of onion water and milk.  (For those who avoid dairy, use chicken or vegetable broth with the onion water.) 
  4. Season with thyme, a bit of fresh crumbled sage, ground pepper, and a dash of white wine.
  5. Stir until the sauce thickens. Add the sliced or whole onions and heat through, or cook longer if the onions aren’t quite done. 
  6. Keep warm in a double boiler, preferably Great-Grandmother’s, until dinner is ready. Ladle into Great-Grandmother’s Blue Willow Spode serving dish.   (And yes: I got that.) Enjoy.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

Canadian Thanksgiving: Vietnam War resisters learned new traditions in new country

LK_blog_CanadianThanksgivingBrandon’s father lived in Canada during the Vietnam War. If his dad celebrated Thanksgiving in his adopted country, the deed would be done.

Canada celebrates Thanksgiving the second Monday in October, and was the first country to mark the tradition. Learn more here:

Are you an aspiring author for young readers?

LK_blog_graphic_pen_11.18_Attention, aspiring authors of books for young readers:

Guidelines for the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award have been posted. Each year, our committee reads over 100 submissions. We choose 2 or 3 winners, who share their work at our annual Discovery Awards Night–and also with an editor. Many previous winners have gone on to be published.

If you’re interested, go to http://penchildrensbook.wordpress.com

Why is ‘Sweet Caroline’ a Red Sox fan favorite?

LK_graphic_SweetCarolineWhy do Boston Red Sox fans, even Brandon, sing “Sweet Caroline” at every home game? Maybe because North and South Carolina don’t have major league ball? Here’s another theory, along with a surprise appearance from the man who created the Fenway Park anthem: 

Get drafted into the Vietnam War or flee to Canada? The choice haunting Brandon’s father

PeaceMedallionIn 1960s America, if you were a kid, you went to school. And if you were a high school or college-aged boy, you were assigned a number. And if your number came up, you went, like a Roman gladiator, ready to fight to the death.

Not the happy childhood you expected, huh? What alternatives were there? Young males like Brandon’s father (from Out of Left Field) found it wasn’t an easy choice to make. Avoiding the military draft by fleeing to Canada was a crime, until a 1977 action by President Jimmy Carter. 

Why does Brandon bake bread in Out of Left Field?

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????As I was working on Brandon’s story, I happened to read Linda Pastan’s beautiful poem, “Bread,” in her collection Traveling Light (WW Norton, 2011). The first lines caught me right away: “It seems to be the five stages/of yeast, not grief/you like to write about’/my son says…”  

Brandon is a swimmer, and I knew from my own experience that exercise helps with grief—but I wanted to give him a healing, therapeutic activity that he could do on his own. Pastan’s poem offered a connection between Brandon’s bread making and his need for comfort after his dad’s death. 

 Out of Left FieldAs I researched the experiences of American draft resisters in Canada, I read about the Yellow Ford Truck in Toronto, a place where Americans went to meet each other, to learn about safe places to stay, and to pick up supplies—including fresh bread.  What if—my favorite question to ask myself while writing a first draft—what if Brandon’s father baked bread in Canada and passed that skill on to his son?  Baking could be something they shared, besides baseball. 

 When my sons were growing up, I often made all the bread our family ate. I loved the whole process: the magic of live yeast, the way the flour mix changed during kneading, the feeling of the dough as I shaped it into loaves, the smell of fresh baked bread filling the house.

The Tassajara Bread BookMy favorite recipe is the one that Brandon uses in the novel.  It’s taken from The Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown, published by Shambala in 1970.  My copy is stained and battered but the recipe never fails. I also love a little book that my cousin Jane gave me: The New Book of Favorite Breads from Rose Lane Farm, by Ada Lou Roberts (Dover Publications, 1970). That book taught me the trick of adding ¼ teaspoon of ginger to the yeast and sugar mix at the beginning. It works like a charm.

Batter up! Out of Left Field hits the road

lk_graphic_14-11-04Out of Left Field hits the road this month. I join the author lineup at Wondermore (formerly The Foundation for Children’s Books) “What’s New?” event Saturday, Nov. 8 at Lesley University.

Wednesday, Nov. 12, an Out of Left Field parent/child reading group at Cambridge Public Library meets this author.

Here’s a 2004 World Series ring…and a lawsuit

Doug Mientiewicz

Doug Mientkiewicz

Speaking of “Out of Left Field,” did you know that one of the 2004 championship Red Sox players got sued a year later – by his own team? 


Curt ‘Bloody Sock’ Schilling highlights Halloween

ph_bloodysockJust in time for Halloween, remember one of the scariest moments of Boston’s 2004 season (the dramatic backdrop of Out of Left Field).

Here’s the post-season tale of Curt “Bloody Sock” Schilling! 


Boston fans: 2014 World Series wish?

In Out of Left Field, Brandon loved the 2004 Red Sox. Who would he support in this Sox-less World Series: Royals or Giants? For me…

That’s easy.  Royals, for sure.  First, like the Sox, they’ve had a long drought since their last Series (though not as long as the Sox’s 86-year drought).  Second, they succeeded in spite of being the wild card. Third, the Royals team shows terrific chemistry and an ability to play small ball and win. And finally: they’re in the American League!  But others may disagree.

Who would you support, Boston fans?