Monthly Archives: October 2011

When Wall Street Hit Home

I found little pleasure reading the headline news announcing the bank I had worked for had failed. Before I resigned due to my husband’s job transfer, I was extremely depressed going to work each day. I still recall the evening news reporting the country’s outrage over Wall Street bankers raking in billions in bonuses. As Goldman Sach’s executives received nine million dollars and AIG bonuses hit the million dollar mark, I sat in dead silence as employees in our mortgage department read their email saying there would be no raise or bonuses this year. Salaries were being cut. I couldn’t wait to leave.

On my last day of work, leaving the building was surreal. I felt like I was walking down death row passing other inmates on my way to an execution. Sadly, most of the cubes were empty. Amid the hum of computers, occasional flutter of files, rattling of papers, it was the sound of quiet that overwhelmed me the most as I strolled through aisles that used to be packed with employees.  Hit hard by the economic downturn, the remaining shell of a company barely resembled the vibrant business that existed a few short years before. Prior to the recession, you couldn’t navigate the cubicle maze without bumping into someone sprinting to answer an important call or snatch a fax from the machine to make sure it didn’t get buried. Phones rang off their hooks as brokers, bankers, lawyers, appraisers, demanded immediate attention. Keeping the process going, we helped turn the dream of home ownership into a reality. We financed the deal. We were heroes!

No longer offering subprime loans, zero down mortgages, no income verification options; business was down, way down. The fax machines, with their empty trays, sat silent. Broken chairs filled the barren cubes. On my last day I was happy my new manager, who I hadn’t even met yet, was out to lunch as I placed my key card on his desk and slipped out the back door without being noticed. I couldn’t face anyone. At the time I didn’t know which group was worse off, the employees that were let go, with severance and unemployment insurance, or those few remaining souls left to do quadruple the work on less pay.

Although no advance notice is given to the public when a financial institution is being closed, employees saw the writing on the wall. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before it became a reality. Before I resigned it was depressing for the few remaining employees to walk through the corridors. Once humming with the symphony of voices, phones and faxes, entire blocks of cubicles had become dark, serving as mere repositories for boxes. Those select workers devoted more time to shredding files than servicing loans. Despair reigned as desks were cleared and computers where carted away. Often the only evidence of human existence was the occasional crumbled post it note or dusty coin stuck under a worn out fabric divider.

Reading the newspaper article about the bank’s foreclosure, I tried to imagine how the takeover played out. Picturing Michael Douglas as “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko, (I just like to picture Michael Douglas), a bank failing due to greed and corruption was probably not that far off.  Headlines always point out how banks pray on our basic desire to buy more than we can afford. I was remembering how I felt some people should take responsibility for their situation. I saw customers wanting a bigger house, a newer car, even when they were maxed out with bills. Customers used their credit cards to shop, not paying attention to their total balance. Those making only minimum payments didn’t realize that the spontaneous dinner they charged at Red Lobster would never be paid off. But why worry? The envelope next to that credit card bill is for another credit card charging no interest at all for six months! Such a deal! We can charge that 50” flat screen TV. We can buy that new car. Why wait? That house we thought we couldn’t afford? The nice salesman says we can! And not with 20% down. Not with 10% down. Still, today, amid the financial crisis, we can still buy a house for 3% down! What happens when the value of that house drops? What happens when that homeowner loses his job and can’t pay his mortgage?

Today, more people are out of work. Those no longer collecting unemployment insurance are not even counted in the national figures. Banks are charging more fees. Housing is down. People need jobs. Nevertheless I’m still getting inundated with credit card offers in the mail. I can charge more, buy more. I can refinance my mortgage. And, if I’m really lucky, I might have inherited some money from a Nigerian Prince.

My question is: why does Wall Street have so much money it doesn’t know what to do with it? Every time I see the stock market decline I picture the movie Trading Places. I’m sure the real life Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy character stock manipulators are deliberately letting the stock prices drop so they can buy cheap when it hits rock bottom. While the retired are losing their homes, the wealthy “professionals” are profiting from an artificially volatile market.

And what about those job creators? Why haven’t they created jobs with all their money? If I had an extra $20,000 to throw around I’d add a deck on my house. That would create a few jobs.

I’d like suggestions for what can we do to make a difference. What can I do? What about if all those protestors each bought a sandwich from a small vendor?

The Confused Vegetarian

Is it just me? Or does anyone else think it’s strange to offer bacon on a Gardenburger?

I asked if it would be possible to pay less than full price for my Gardenburger since I did not want the mandatory cheese and bacon. “Yes,” the nice server agreed. “I’ll go check to see if we can prepare for you a Gardenburger with just lettuce and tomato,” she said.
“Oh, thank you so much. ” I responded.

Why was I  looking forward to a vegetarian meal in a restaurant that served almost everything with bacon? I know it’s silly but they specifically listed Gardenburger on the menu. Since that’s where everyone wanted to eat I was a sport. I’m good at rolling with the punches. I was still optimistic. I even got excited when she offered healthy broccoli instead of the fries.

Gardenburger

Anticipation. Out comes my plate. The broccoli looks fresh. Yum. But the burger doesn’t look right or smell right.

Turkey Burger

“Would they cook this on the grill with the bacon and burgers?” I ask my server who seems to be losing patience with me.

“Of course” my server responds, smiling. Now she’s looking at me like I just stepped off the boat.

I look at my burger again. Being vegetarian for two years I know what a Gardenburger looks like. I touch the patty. “OMG, this is beef! ” I send it back.

The server comes back a few minutes later, laughing. “It wasn’t beef, it was turkey.”

It’s funny when people ask about vegetarianism. “Does that mean you don’t eat fish and chicken?” They ask.

Hummm. I think we need to work on educating the service industry.

Being a real trooper, I ordered a flatbread pizza. What I won’t do for my family:)

Pizza

It was yummy.
By the way,  “I don’t eat anything with a face. “

My Cheesecake Frisbee

We’d been going together for three months. I was ready to take the leap. I’m not so sure he was.

“Are you really sure we’re ready for this? It’s a big step,” he reminded me.

“I have confidence,” I said. I didn’t want him to know I was scared to death. I’d been married before. I knew this was a major turning point in our relationship. It was now or never. I’m a good cook. I’d make the best dinner ever. And it would be my first dinner party in my new condo. Most important, our two families would meet for the first time.

I carefully planned out the menu. I’d cook my favorites. The dishes I was confident I’d make as well as any star on Food TV. Serving chicken cacciatore, salad and my famous cheesecake for dessert, what’s not to like?

He wanted to help. He offered to make the topping for my cheesecake. I figured that should be easy enough. I’ll let him. He won’t think I’m a control freak.

My kids arrived first. For once they didn’t complain, “Chicken again!” They knew to be on their best behavior. They were rooting for me. They liked this boyfriend. They wanted things to work out for us. There were no complaints when I asked them to set the table.

Next he arrived with his teenagers. Unlike my kids who are loud and outspoken, they seemed shy, reserved. I didn’t feel right to give them a job to do at this point so I invited them to sit down at the table. I was glad I went the extra mile and made place cards so they didn’t have to guess where to sit. I was so nervous, I figured they were nervous as well. What could go wrong? I thought to myself. Calm down. It’s just dinner. I’ve made these dishes a million times before.

As my boyfriend followed me into the kitchen I thought he was going to try to sneak a kiss. How romantic, especially with everyone in the next room. Instead he handed me a “vintage” harvest gold Tupperware container filled with the fruit topping he made for my dessert. “Sorry,” he said. “I forgot to add sugar. It’s more like mushy fruit than a cheesecake topping.”

“That’s ok.” I told him. I handed him a bottle of wine and said, “Just go sit down at the table and entertain your kids.”

Ok, I thought. I can handle this. It’s no big deal. I’ll just put his topping in a nice crystal bowl and we can spoon it on our cheesecake. I go into the refrigerator and take out the cheesecake so it can come to room temperature while we’re having dinner. I carefully run a knife along the edge of the cake and pull on the release on the springform pan. The cake cracks. Not a little crack. This is a major, Grand Canyon crack. It would take a whole container of Cool Whip to cover it but I only had a little left. I had to come up with something. Chocolate is always good. I had a bag of chocolate chips. Quickly I melted half the bag in the microwave and poured it on my cheesecake and returned it to the refrigerator to set.

We all gathered around the table. I set the salad bowl on the table for everyone to take their own. I’d already tasted my chicken in the kitchen before I brought it in. I knew it was delicious. Moist and tender, it had just the right amount of garlic and oregano. It was just the way I liked it. After everyone had a bite no one said a word. I was afraid to ask. My kids finally opened up and started talking about their day, their frustrations with their jobs. His kids sat in silence. My kids finished their plates asking for more. His pushed their food around. Mine were begging for dessert. They love my cheesecake. His remained quiet.

I was starting to take this personally. Maybe they didn’t like being dragged out of the house, away from their computers, their TV, their friends. Maybe they didn’t like chicken. Maybe they didn’t like my kids. Maybe they didn’t like me. Soon, we’d have the piece de resistance; my fabulous dessert. All will be well.

Clearing off the table, it took all the strength I had to not finish the chicken his kids left on the bone. Someone might be watching. I tossed it in the garbage. What a waste. This evening was not going well at all. I was counting on the cheesecake to save the day. I don’t know what they didn’t like about my chicken but I loved it.

I reached into the refrigerator. There it sat in all its glory. My cheesecake. I will redeem myself, I thought. The night will not be ruined. I put on a pot of coffee. I set out the dessert dishes. I passed around new silverware, fresh napkins. I couldn’t wait. I love my cheesecake. “I hope you like the cheesecake.” I announced, practically begging for approval. “It’s my own recipe.” Yes, no frozen Sara Lee* or low fat version for my company. I put my heart and soul into this cheesecake.

I set the cake on the table in front of me. It looked beautiful. The chocolate coating glistened. I topped it with a little dollop of Cool Whip. I even placed a few raspberries on top. It was perfect. I took a deep breath. I lowered my knife to make my first cut. Nothing happened. I tried again. The knife wouldn’t go through. The chocolate had solidified like a rock. It wouldn’t give. The harder I tried to cut the tougher it seemed. I heard chuckles. They were starting to laugh. I started stabbing it with the knife. They laughed harder. I grabbed the knife in my fist and plunged it into the chocolate Frisbee. The entire topping came off at once. Wiping my brow in frustration I couldn’t help but smile as I was getting a round of applause. I took my bow saying, “Now, for my next act…”

The hard part was over. Not only had I gotten through the chocolate, I finally broke the ice. I handed the Frisbee to my boyfriend who delighted in breaking it up into smaller bits and passed them around the table as if he was passing around a ceremonial matzo during Passover. I had no trouble slicing up the rest of the cheesecake and passing that around. The praises were great, but the laughter was priceless. It’s the mistakes that make memories. And I’ve had my share of them.

“By the way,” my boyfriend told me after everyone had left, “the kids hate any chicken on the bone. And so do I. But dinner was perfect.”

To this day, they have never let me forget my first family meal cheesecake.

*Note: There’s nothing wrong with Sara Lee cheesecake. I’ve enjoyed it many times directly out of the freezer, especially the night before starting a new diet.

This is what the cheesecake should have looked like!

My Best Cheesecake Recipe

Serves: 12

Cake:

40 oz. Cream Cheese, Softened.

1 ½ cups sugar

3 large eggs

2 t pure vanilla

2 t almond extract

1 cup sour cream

3 T flour

Crust:

1 ¼ cups crushed vanilla cookies

1 T sugar

1 T butter, melted
Preheat oven to 375º.

Crust:  Melt butter and mix with sugar and cookie crumbs.  Spread on the bottom of a 10” or 12” springform pan.

Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool. Lower the oven temperature to 350º.

Filling:  In a large mixing bowl, on medium speed, beat cream cheese and sugar together.  Then beat in all the remaining ingredients, adding eggs one at a time, until smooth.  Do not over beat.  Pour into pan and smooth top with rubber spatula.

Bake:  350º for 1 hour, until filling no longer jiggles.  Chill in refrigerator at least 3 hours before removing from pan.

Serves 12.

Variations

Toppings:  Serve with fresh strawberries, blueberries, canned apples with cinnamon, cherries, whipped topping, whatever you like!

Crust variations:  Graham cracker, Oreo Cookie Crust, Cinnamon Wafers!!!  Yum.  Whatever you have in your cupboard.

Like chocolate?  Top crust with chocolate chips before adding filling.

PB&J sound good?  Use peanut butter instead of the butter when making the crust.  Then top the cheesecake with strawberry or grape jelly before serving.

Thanksgiving:  Mix canned pumpkin into the filling and flavor with a tablespoon of cinnamon.

Please add your ideas:   ______________________________________

 

Mom’s Confession: The Secret Box

Having been adopted in New Jersey, I was never able to obtain my original birth certificate. Growing up I begged my adoptive mother over and over for any possible information she might have about my birth mother until one day, shooting her foot through the kitchen wall she screamed, “Don’t ever ask me that again.” I guess that was the end of the story. For years I would go on believing I must have been the product of rape, incest or my birth mother just wanted to get rid of me. I never fantasized about being the daughter of famous celebrities who were unable to raise me fearing an illegitimate birth might ruin their careers. This was a few (?) years ago. At least I thought this was the end of the story until my mother was on her death bed.  Literally.

Mom put much effort into apologizing to me during those weeks I sat at her bedside trying to comfort her after we realized the end to her two year battle with cancer was near. “I know I was a bitch you,” came as a surprise to me.  I smiled, figuring it was probably the morphine talking, allowing her the freedom to let go of her pride for once in her life. “You were a lovable bitch”, I responded, with a wink and a smile, while my heart was breaking inside. Why couldn’t she have apologized years ago?  Why do they always wait until their deathbed?  It’s like the parents who know their children are struggling financially, but refuse them monetary help when they need it saving it instead for “the inheritance.”  By the time the will is read, the family is bitter and torn apart.

We both laughed.  For the first time in years, maybe ever, we talked.  Opened up.  In this dreary hospital room, with its green walls, threadbare divider curtains, IV drip, heartbeat monitor, this same hospital where my son was born, for the first time in my memory my Mom wasn’t judgmental.  Telling me she was proud of me I could only think, why did she wait until she was dying?  No one knew the pain I felt growing up.  I couldn’t tell her how she had hurt me. Not now. She was dying. I let her talk.

A week before she died she told me about a “lock box” that was hidden in the back of the top shelf in her bedroom closet. “There are important papers in there.” She said. Then she gave me the secret code. “Your daddy’s birthday”.

For the first time I was nervous being alone in her house, my childhood home.  Before this trip my only concerns involved the safety of my children as I had left both of them with their alcoholic father, trusting in God to watch over the three of them while I visited my dying mother, and how much longer my mother had to live, praying at this point that her pain would end soon.  As I prepared myself to open “the box, the secret hidden box,” I felt my heart pounding in my throat.

Balancing on a chair pulled up to the bedroom closet, reaching past the stacks of hat boxes, the silk scarves and leather gloves, my hand touched the metal of a small box, like a buried treasure.  I pulled the box down from the closet, placed it on her quilted bedspread and stared at it as I got comfortable in my usual position, legs tucked beneath me.  Memories started flooding into my head like the waters crushing back together after Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea. Like it was yesterday I pictured my Koko, surrounded by her litter of eight poodles, resting on the blood stained blanket right there, in front of this same mirrored closet door.

I looked at the box. After taking a deep breath I rotated the first cylinder to “6”.  The second was already in the correct position.  After easing the third cylinder into place I could feel the lid release and slowly open.  Although I had no idea what was in this treasure chest, I knew it contained something important.  I rifled through lots of papers.  Mostly insurance docs.  Itemized lists assigning values to the jewelry, furs, monogrammed silverware and the China my father shipped over from Hungary during the war.  “My inheritance”.

My parents weren’t wealthy by any means, but they liked their trinkets.

As I worked my way through the documents I came to a sudden halt.  My heart stopped.  “Adoption Papers”.  Oh my God. It listed my birth name.  My eyes burned as hot tears flowed down my cheeks into my mouth. I could hardly read the documents my eyes were so filled. After removing my fogged over contact lenses, I was able to examine the hand typed court documents drafted so many years ago.  While I studied the pages, one memory came to mind.

“Don’t ever ask me that again”.  Was she telling me where this box was so I’d find the adoption papers and open a dialog?  Did she want me to ask her about this now?  Was she ready to talk?  She had apologized for being so mean to me all my life. She realized she had been unfair.  But was she ready to talk?  Is this why she told me about the box?

I returned to the hospital the next morning expecting her to ask me about the box. Did you find the box, do you have any questions?  I’m ready now to answer anything.  But no. She never mentioned the lock box and I didn’t have the heart, or guts, to bring it up at this time. She was dying. I wasn’t going to do or say anything that would upset her now. She had to be the one to broach the subject.  I waited. Nothing.

No matter how many disappointments my mother had in her life, she could never bring herself to talk to me about her greatest disappointment of all – that she could not give birth. She said nothing and I said nothing.

She died the following week. Her secret intact.

The World’s Best Cook!

I miss my Mom most at the holidays. After she succumbed to her two year battle with cancer years ago, we felt some relief knowing she would no longer wince in agony with each an every movement. The morphine helped alleviate some of the pain, but not all. I felt so guilty, wiping a tear from my eye, selfishly thinking I’ll never again taste her chicken soup. If it was such good medicine, why couldn’t it cure her cancer? Maybe the secret is having someone else make it for you. I tried to make it for her, but mine was not as good. It didn’t work.

My Mom was the world’s best cook, and the world’s worst cook. Although we spent countless hours cooking together in the kitchen while I was growing up, I had never realized that the secret to her cooking was in the burning. Yes, that’s right. It was the burnt foods that tasted the best. No, not the burnt parts, but the parts that were right next to the burnt parts that were the most flavorful. Before Food TV taught us to caramelize our onions, my Mom would almost burn them. They were delicious.

Standing at the kitchen counter by her side growing up I learned her secret to killer chocolate brownies was adding a little coffee to the batter. We would taste the batter over and over to make sure it was absolutely perfect before serving it to company. Maybe that’s why we both had a weight problem. We were perfectionists. Sadly, as the tumor attached to her spine grew, her appetite diminished. As I was the one cooking, she no longer got to enjoy the tasting part. Although she praised my creations, her appetite was gone. No matter how hard I tried to please her, eventually she found little enjoyment in food.

Instead of cooking, we began spending a lot of time shopping. The exercise was good for her. And with her diminished appetite, her clothes were starting to get loose. We splurged on vibrantly colored workout suits. She found the cutest gold purse to hold her portable chemo pump. She was by far the most fashionable patient on the oncology ward as well as most stylish shopper at the supermarket. With only a few months remaining in her life, we laughed as acquaintances, those who didn’t know she suffered from cancer, commented on how “she never looked better!” What a cruel irony.

After my Mom passed away, a mere five years after my Dad succumbed to heart failure, I found her recipe collection. In her memory I was determined to duplicate her fabulous chicken soup, her world renowned Mandelbrot and most important, her to-die-for chopped liver. I know, not everyone is a fan of chopped liver. But hers was killer. It was the only food I liked better than chocolate.

I tried and I tried to duplicate her recipe. I sautéed the onions and liver. I added the chicken schmaltz just like she said. I added a little raw onion and hard boiled eggs. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and chopped it by hand with the same chopping blade she had used for over forty years. It was close, but not perfect. Something was missing. I tried again, and again. Not ready to give up I put the onions and the liver in the pan, on low heat, and thought I was safe going to the bathroom for a few minutes. I was wrong. I smelled something coming from the kitchen and checked to make sure the house wasn’t burning down like the time I burned the kitchen as a teenager broiling lamb chops. But that’s a different story. I was worried about my kitchen, but mostly, my chopped liver. I got there just in time. The liver was dry and charred, but not ruined. The onions were black. I went ahead and finished making the recipe. Oh My God. It was perfect! The secret, I found out, was that the liver had to dry out and the onions had to almost burn to bring out the sweetness. Yum!

Since becoming vegetarian, I no longer make real chopped liver. But I developed a recipe that tastes really close. And since there is no liver involved, everyone is willing to try it.

Mock Chopped Liver – Vegan

2 cups water

1 cup lentils

2 teaspoons vegetarian chicken flavoring

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 large onion

Salt and pepper to taste.

Combine water, lentils and vegetarian chicken flavoring in a pot and cook for about 40 minutes, until tender. Drain if there is any liquid left. Sauté the onion in the olive oil. Combine lentils and onion and “chop” with a handheld beater. Season, if necessary, with salt and pepper.

Serve on challah, matzo, crackers or toast. Enjoy!

This is perfect for break-the-fast. Happy New Year to all.