Visions of Sugar Iced Cookies Dancing in My Head

For the last ten years I have dreamt of making sugar cookies that are rolled out, cut into fun shapes, and decorated with royal icing. They always looked so beautiful to me. In my enthusiasm I have spent ten years collecting cookie cutters for different occasions like Christmas, Halloween, dinosaurs, spring, and many other assorted shapes and sizes. Sadly my cookie cutters have just collected dust all these years.

Working late at night icing snowflakes

Working late at night icing snowflakes

Don’t get me wrong; my children have not been deprived of cookies. I have made plenty of other cookies for them and of course purchased many Oreos and Chips Ahoy! along the way. I can remember the Wookiee Cookies from the Star Wars cookbook being a big hit! And we have certainly made plenty of chocolate chip cookies. At Christmas time we have a tradition of making cookies like Russian Tea Cakes that have ground walnuts and are covered in powdered sugar. We also make Chocolate Dips with a recipe that came from my mother-in-law making them extra special. Now we make batches of Chocolate Dips for major occasions of the year like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas.

My first batch of sugar iced  cookies

My first batch of sugar iced cookies

But somehow I always ran out of time to make the sugar iced cookies, that is, until this year. With a son who is now a junior in high school, and a daughter, a sophomore, it was imperative to start my new tradition before they leave the house to go to college. So I researched recipes and watched You-tube videos on decorating with royal icing and I am delighted to report that I made my first ever sugar iced cookies. First I baked them and let them cool overnight. Then the next day I finished icing the first collection of cookies of mostly snowflakes, stars, and bells. Two days later I decorated Christmas trees, Christmas ornaments, and mittens. I was so pleased and happy with myself for finally making my sugar iced cookies. Ten years in the making! And they were a huge hit. I received many accolades from the family and friends. A new tradition has begun. Although I have only made Christmas themed cookies so far, rest assured I plan to use my extensive cookie cutter collection this next year. My thinking is that a 17 and 15 year-old are never too old for sugar iced dinosaur cookies!

The mittens, Christmas trees, and Christmas ornaments.

The mittens, Christmas trees, and Christmas ornaments.

 

 

 

Our Culinary Thanksgiving

A kitchen blackboard shows our daily menus.  I like to add a quote at the bottom of the board.

Our kitchen blackboard shows our daily dinner menus.
I like to add a quote at the bottom of the board.

To say that our family loves food would be an understatement. So when a special occasion like Thanksgiving comes around it is a major project of entertainment and culinary delight for all. It all begins with the menu selection. Then come days of what I like to call hunting and gathering, a.k.a. food shopping. And finally the fun begins with the preparation. Both my husband and I enjoy cooking so we make an excellent team in the kitchen. Our children also participate in the cooking.

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Let the games begin!

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Maya Supervising

And after a full day of culinary orchestration comes the moment when all of the dishes are completed and arranged for serving. We gather around with anticipation and excitement waiting to serve and savor our delicious Thanksgiving meal.

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I hope you and your families enjoyed your Thanksgiving traditions and celebrations as much as we enjoyed ours. And of course, what makes these celebrations special is being able to share them with our loved ones. “Happy Thanksgiving”

I found a wonderful Oprah Winfrey quote that I would like to share with you:

Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.

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Then after all the fun comes even more fun, the cleanup!

A Winter Village

This year I got inspired to set up my holiday winter village in early November. This ritual begins the holiday season for me. As I write this, I’m looking at the snow coming down. Although we are only expecting two to four inches of snow, it is enough to turn the outside into a real winter village.Thanksgiving is “beginning to look a lot like Christmas”.

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My Winter Village 2014

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Snowing the day before Thanksgiving 2014 - A Real Winter Village

Snowing the day before Thanksgiving 2014
A Real Winter Village

Rediscovering a Friend

In life we meet many people that we like to refer to as “friends”, but the truth is that often we don’t take the time to really get to know them. This happened to me with an old colleague from business school. We were two of approximately 171 women in a graduating class of 780. Although we were “friends” we were more like comrades sharing an experience, supportive of each other yet not close enough to fully understand each other’s personal story. After graduation we both went our separate ways and lost contact. After 24 years I would have the opportunity to reconnect with Vera. She had just published a book and shared the information with some of her classmates. So, this summer I read her book and rediscovered an old friend in the process. After completing the book I knew I had to speak to Vera to fully understand the inspiration behind her novel, The Lonely American. Though it was written as fiction, I suspected there was much of Vera herself interwoven in the story, and it sparked a desire, almost a need to learn more. I spent three hours with Vera on the phone, not only catching up on life, but also delving into the historical period of her book from her perspective.

The Lonely American by Vera Lam

The Lonely American by Vera Lam

Vera was born and raised in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. So naturally she chose to write a book inspired by her personal experiences with the Vietnam War, a time period that is of particular interest to me. To clarify, in Vietnam, “The Vietnam War” is referred to as “The American War”. Like many, I grew up in the 1960’s with current events of the Vietnam War playing out in television news and the papers yet I understood very little of it. Reading about the war in Stanley Karnow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Vietnam: A History, was an eye opener. It helped me understand the context, the players, and the actions of a war. When Vera told us about her new book, I was delighted to hear the news, and at the same time intrigued by the subject. The Lonely American delineates the life of an American pilot and his kindred connections to Vietnam. After serving two tours of duty, he returns to the US as a fully decorated officer. He marries his pre-war American sweetheart and has a son. However, he never forgets a woman he had met during his Vietnam years. Years later, as his treacherous life has driven him to complete solitude, he rediscovers his special love and connections to Vietnam. I don’t want to give the story away but suffice to say that it is a story that could have and may have happened to many. The characters personify the true historical experiences that so many have lived.

I wanted to dig deeper and asked Vera about her own personal story. As we spoke on the phone, I listened intently and scribbled pages and pages of notes. Listening to Vera’s story was like reading a novel. I appreciated her openness. Although she was happy for me to share her story I have respected her request to omit some of the events due to their delicate nature. After listening to Vera’s life experience I have a newfound respect and admiration for her.

The United States supported South Vietnam in their fight against communist North Vietnam. In January of 1973 all parties finally agreed to a cease-fire. The United States pulled its troops out leaving South Vietnam to deal with its fate. Many South Vietnamese refugees chose to leave their country when the US left. But leaving the country would become increasingly difficult especially if you did not have money or connections. Soon after, North Vietnam broke the cease-fire and resumed fighting, continuing its push to the south. South Vietnam, with no military aid from the US, was forced to surrender in 1975. In 1976, the country was officially united and called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This caused another exodus of South Vietnamese who chose to leave rather than live under communist regime.

So while I navigated the dramas of middle school and high school, watched The Six Million Dollar Man on television, and listened to Simon & Garfunkel on the radio, Vera was figuring out ways to leave Saigon in 1975. Since her father had been an ‘under cover special agent’ in South Vietnam for the Republic of China for more than two decades, he was blacklisted by the North Vietnamese. Though he had narrowly escaped by boat to the neighboring country of Thailand, Vera’s mother and her siblings were left behind. They were subsequently placed under house arrest for several months. In time, Vera obtained a pass that allowed her to leave communist Vietnam and move to Paris. After having lived through the aftermath of the war and all of its insecurities, Vera understood the importance and need for establishing “security” in her life. She decided it was time to go to America to study engineering. She believed education was the equalizer in society. In 1979, with her unstoppable resolve, Vera moved to LA and began her studies in a community college. In 1981, Vera’s family finally joined her in the United States. She would go on to win a full scholarship to the University of Southern California where she earned a degree in computer engineering in 1984. After graduating from USC, Vera started working for AT&T Bell Laboratories. Soon after, Vera’s path would cross with mine. She and I met in Boston at Harvard Business School in 1988. After graduating from HBS, she would go on to have a very successful career in business. And lucky for us that she would get inspired to write “The Lonely American”.

In writing her book, Vera wanted to express the “things” that are important to her. She wanted to remind people of the horrors of war because as she says, “we have such short memories”. In June of 2014 the UN Refugee Agency reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide due to conflicts exceeded 50 million people for the first time since the end of World War II. Pulling a direct quote from her book, “Bullets have no eyes”, Vera wanted to remind us that many of the victims of war are the innocent bystanders. She iterated the importance of our understanding foreign policy because it will undoubtedly impact us one way or another. Towards the end of our telephone conversation, Vera mentioned that she had bore grudges against her own family members, but later recognized the power of forgiving.

I am very impassioned with the topic of mentoring others and serving as a role model. My “rediscovered” friend is a true inspiration for the next generation. She is an inspiration, not just for young women, but also for all young people around the world living in conflict. Vera’s determination proves to us once again that we are the ones that make the choices in our lives that can alter our destiny in a positive way.

I invite you to read “The Lonely American” by Vera Lam, my friend. http://www.amazon.com/The-Lonely-American-Vera-Lam/dp/9573909111/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1410626853&sr=8-2&keywords=the+lonely+american

The UN Refugee Agency Report June 2014 http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html

For historical background read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam A History http://www.amazon.com/Vietnam-History-Stanley-Karnow/dp/0140265473/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415295380&sr=8-1&keywords=stanley+karnows

The Story of the Funeral Home, Coca-Cola, and the Buñuelo

When I look back at my life I have to laugh at some of my quirky memories. One in particular comes to mind. As a child, my parents would send me to Medellin, Colombia every summer to spend it with my relatives. One of the things I would do often during my visits was to spend time at my grandfather’s business. There is where the quirkiness begins. You see the family business was and still is a funeral home. Imagine their dinner conversations. Although today the family business still performs funeral services, it has evolved into a very successful international funeral services insurance company. However, back in the 1960’s it was a modest family business helping to support a very large family.

The year was 1969. The funeral home consisted of industrial garage premises located in downtown Medellin. The front office was completely open to the sidewalk filled with people passing by and the street bustled with circa 1950’s cars and trucks. In the front room there was a desk with a receptionist, a black rotary phone, and a couple of metal chairs. In the backspace there was an office for my grandfather, the laboratory where the bodies were prepared, and what seemed like rooms and rooms of casket storage.

To my relatives, bringing me to visit my grandfather at his “office” was a very natural thing to do. I have no recollection of who would bring me or how we got to the funeral home. What I do remember is that once we arrived I would have a grand ole time. One of the employees would ask me if I wanted a snack and undoubtedly I would always say yes, because the snack du jour was and still is one of my all time favorites. The employee would go to the corner coffee shop and buy me a glass bottle of Coca-Cola (this is pre-aluminum can days) and a freshly deep-fried cheesy batter dough ball about the size of an orange called a buñuelo. Yummylicious!!!!! My mouth waters as I reminisce savoring a hot buñuelo and chasing it down with an ice-cold 1969 Colombian-formulation of Coca-Cola. There was also a method to buñuelo eating. First, I would slowly peel the hot golden crispy outside of the dough ball, and then I would eat the warm moist cheesy inside by carefully tearing small pieces at a time. (Note: Colombian buñuelos are different to Mexican buñuelos. I have included a recipe at the end of the story). I would sit at the front desk and eat my exquisite snack. But the excitement of the afternoon would not end there. At some point I would get up and skip away into the back rooms. I remember seeing the white-tiled sink body prep area. The truth is that I was probably only allowed in there when it was not in use. But where I got the most entertainment from was spending time observing the rows and rows of hand-carved heavily varnished wooden caskets lined with what seemed to me like beautiful padded velvety soft plush fabrics of jewel-toned colors. There were deep blues, royal purples, emerald greens, and burgundy reds. I actually remember saying, “When I die, this is the one I want” with amazing certainty and pointing to a casket with a deep red velvet interior. How crazy was that! So now you realize why it’s a quirky memory. I don’t know of many children aged 8 getting a tour of the back room operations of a funeral home and picking out favorite casket lining colors.

Medellin, Colombia 2006 My children with one of my favorite aunts. Teaching the next generation to enjoy Coca-Cola with Buñuelos!

Medellin, Colombia 2006 My children with one of my favorite aunts. Teaching the next generation to enjoy Coca-Cola with Buñuelos!

As a teen and young adult, and obviously as part of the family, it was only natural that in time I would be exposed to all of the operations of the business. Although I have always felt funny and weird saying, “My grandfather owns a funeral home”, the reality is that the business fulfills an important need. It has also given me a collection of light-hearted childhood memories.  And yes “red” is still my favorite color, and yes I still love to eat freshly made buñuelos and chase them down with an ice-cold Coca-Cola, although it’s Coca-Cola Light now. The family business has also made me acutely aware that my existence on this planet is temporary, so why not try to live the best life I can and eat my buñuelos too!!

For a buñuelo recipe go to:

http://www.mycolombianrecipes.com/bunuelos-colombianos-colombian-bunuelos

 

Happy Birthday to Me!

Creative ways of recycling your children's birthday candles.

Creative ways of recycling your children’s birthday candles.

I love to celebrate my birthday. I’m a child at heart when it comes to balloons, birthday cakes, and celebrations. I’m very lucky to have family and friends who indulge me. I started the festivities on the weekend before my actual birthday. So this year, once again, my wonderful husband cooked delicious homemade pizzas and baked me an awesome fudgy double-layer chocolate cake. And leave it to my 15 year-old resourceful daughter who found in the basement: balloons, “Happy Birthday” signs, and previously used number candles. Imagine my surprise seeing that chunky “53” sitting on top of my cake. At first I pretended to “act upset” at that monstrosity of a number and then that quickly turned to laughter. The reality is that the number no longer bothers me. A birthday is a cause for celebration! And then again my philosophical husband reminds me that “every day” should be a cause of celebration. I wonder then… does that mean I can eat chocolate cake everyday? So I now embark on a new year looking forward to making every day count. My dad likes to tease me and say, I have really started my 54th, but then again who is counting.

I came across some wonderful quotes during my birthday week. Below I share them with you along with the cake recipe.

It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the Life in your years. – Abraham Lincoln

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone – Neale Donald Walsch

I am always the perfect age for where I am in my life. – Louise L. Hay

Recipe by Robyn for The Best Chocolate Cake ever.

http://addapinch.com/cooking/the-best-chocolate-cake-recipe-ever/

 

Seneca Falls, New York: The Birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement

I just returned from a wonderful trip to the Finger Lake region in upstate New York. We enjoyed beautiful lake scenery, award-winning Rieslings, delicious freshly made cheeses and ice cream. But what came as a most revelatory finding was learning that the town of Seneca Falls, New York was the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. I call myself a feminist, always rooting for women and their rights, always looking for equality for women. And yet I must admit, I knew so little about the history of the Women’s Movement. Sure, I knew about Susan B. Anthony: something about the Suffrage Movement and she’s on a dollar coin. And I knew about Gloria Steinem and the 1960’s and 70’s Women’s Movement. But I must admit I was unaware of so much more history that helped inspire Susan B. Anthony, and shape the role and the rights that I enjoy today as a woman in Western society.

Seneca Falls, New York Birth Place of the Women's Right Movement

Seneca Falls, New York
Birth Place of the Women’s Right Movement

So here’s a recap of what I learned in Seneca Fall.

1840:  One Passion Feeds Another

A World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London and was attended by delegates from numerous countries. The meeting was supposed to be exclusively for “men”.  Among the abolitionist delegates were seven women who despite the rules, decided to attend, creating quite the commotion and after much debate they were allowed to stay but in a separate room all together from the main convention. It was at this fateful meeting that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would meet and commiserate over the status of women in society and the lack of women’s rights. They discussed the possibility of holding a meeting to address women’s rights and issues.

1848: The stars align.

July 9th- Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived in Seneca Falls, New York. Lucretia Mott came to visit her sister Martha C. Wright who lived in Waterloo, a town near Seneca Falls. Stanton, Mott, Wright, together Mary Ann McClintock and Jane Hunt met for a social visit. I like to imagine that it was over tea and cake that these women decided it was time to hold a public forum, a convention, in which they would discuss the social, civil, and religious issues facing women and the rights of women. Although they realized that the convention would probably be a small event, Mott said to Stanton, “It will be a start”. And what a start it was.

July 19th – 20th

The convention was held at the Quaker Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls. Approximately 300 women and men attended the event. Stanton and Mott wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, the document that was presented, debated, modified, approved, and signed by the attendees of the convention. The document drew inspiration from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and presented grievances and resolutions regarding women’s rights. Among the male attendees was Frederick Douglass who was a strong advocate of abolition and women’s rights. He was instrumental in encouraging the attendees to add the resolution around the issue of suffrage. In the end, 68 women and 32 men signed this Declaration of Sentiments presenting 12 resolutions calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.

Wesleyan Chapel - Venue of the First Women's Convention

1848 Wesleyan Chapel – Venue of the First Women’s Convention

1851: Further Introductions and Friendships

Amelia Bloomer edited the first newspaper for women, The Lily. The Lily was published from 1849 -1853. It was Bloomer who introduced Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is believed that this introduction together with attending the 1852 Syracuse Convention and listening to Lucy Stone’s speech were the events that inspired Anthony to join the women’s rights movement. And we know what she went on to do.

1851 - Traveling in time to witness introduction of Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Amelia Bloomer

1851 – Traveling in time to witness Amelia Bloomer introducing Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Trivia about Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone was the first woman in her state of Massachusetts to earn a college degree. When she married her husband, Henry Blackwell, in 1855 she opted to keep her own last name, something unheard of at the time. She and her husband recognized that the marriage laws treated women unfairly when compared to men. They wrote a statement to deliver at their wedding which said that the laws “refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess”. Women of the time who chose not to change their names when marrying referred to themselves as “Lucy Stoners”.

Although most of the history I learned about in Seneca Falls takes place beginning in 1840, I would add that prior to 1840 there had been many feminist and activist women who had already been discussing women’s rights in the US and abroad. The key events of 1848 would serve only as a catalyst. It would take until 1920 for the 19th amendment of the U. S. Constitution to be passed granting voting rights to women. The renewed women’s rights movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s would bring to light the continued inequality and discrimination towards women. We have accomplished a lot in 166 years, but I know there is still much more to do. We must continue to stay diligent and proactive so that future generations of women can enjoy equal rights around the world.

A Note About Bloomers

Note in the picture above of the statue that Amelia Bloomer is wearing the “bloomer costume”, the Turkish pantaloons and knee-length skirt. Although it was Elizabeth Smith Miller who introduced this outfit, it was named after Amelia Bloomer because she wrote about dress reform and this particular outfit extensively in her women’s paper, The Lily. Although a popular choice of outfit for the modern women of the times, it was eventually abandoned after a lot of negative press. I suppose we can call it the predecessor to current day women’s pantsuits.

For further reading:

For the Full Declaration of Sentiments

http://www.nps.gov/wori/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm

Women’s Rights Movement

http://www.nps.gov/wori/historyculture/womens-rights-movement.htm