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Tag: nina’s strata

cleaning, housekeeping, the recipe

sometimes i feel i need to apologize for being such a cleaner. not now, not at the new year. which for me begins today. this is my jan. 2, by the way. i’m on a two-day delay thanks to the accident of my birth.

but here we are. all of us on the relative same page here. all leaping in anew. perhaps you too are cleaning. it seems to be a widespread affliction. right up there with new date books, new diet plans. i, believe it or not, forgo both of those. get my date book in july, just to be a trend-bucker, i suppose. don’t diet; hard to do when popcorn and broccoli are your main food groups.

ahem, back to the subject at hand here, back to the cleaning. the older i get the more i give in to my quirks and my personal square pegs. and the quirk of the day is i love to clean. down on my hands and knees in the corner. vacuuming can send me to the moon. (which by the way, that wolf moon has me howling.)

there is something about wiping away dirt, sweeping off crumbs, returning to order that simply sings to my heart. i cannot go to bed with dishes in the sink. oh, okay, maybe the single occasional popcorn bowl waits ’til the morn. but i am a girl who likes to pretend my life is in order by banning the crumbs to the dustbin.

i am not naturally neat. naturally, i am a piler. piles are not mess, i tell myself. piles are order, vertically. but i married a guy who likes neat. and i am a once-nurse who likes clean. so, once children were born, and my life turned upside down, inside out, suddenly found myself cleaning for joy.

and, oh the joy. i breathe easier when i walk out of or into a room that is sparkling, especially when the sparkle comes from my own sweat and muscle. there must be little tiny specks of my germanic genes washing around in the great irish stew, for the hard work of cleaning is balm to my soul.

the tree is not yet down. i should say trees, for we indulged little T and planted a sweet baby balsam up in the hall on the landing, so he could fall asleep to the lights, wake up to the rumble of the train tumbling off the tracks down below.

so the big cleaning, the clearing of trees, still lies ahead. but for days now, i have been clearing my desk, sifting through files, wiping the slate for the start of a new year of piles.

and speaking of cleaning, how ’bout time for some…

housekeeping: with the holidays tucked behind us, it seems there’s a new percolation of chairs being pulled to the table. i couldn’t be more delighted. it is a gift in ways you will never know. my heart only keeps whispering, carry on, carry on. a most important critical point is that at a table we all take turns talking. please please add your thoughts. and if you’re new here, or took some time off, feel free to meander around. there are some magnificent thoughts being added to meanderings, some way back in the days.

please see a delightful, wonderful passage, tacked onto “extending the table” (12.27.06), by a marvelous thinker and writer, who tags herself jcv, and who trembled at her first-ever blog moment. she is a treasure i know you too will come to treasure.

delight yourself further, and not so far back, by reading along with jan and her moon story, on “bring on the birds” (01.02.07).

marvel, as i do, at anything posted by the mysterious, marvelous wm ulysses, who goes back nearly to the beginning and makes my jaw drop every time.

and finally, drum roll……

the recipe, the one we’ve been waiting for….here’s where i will get teary. if you haven’t, please please read, “eggs, cheese, an ungodly hour” (12.22.06). it was a magical, heart-filling tale of a miracle of a woman named nina who for years made a christmas gift for a soup kitchen. she made a strata, which is an egg-cheese-and-bread layered-y thing. (forgive me, i love making up the occasional word.) well, sweet blessed nina died nearly two years ago but her strata lives on. in a pure christmas twist, her beautiful husband, her father, and her sweet little girls carry on. they make strata by the carload, and we (the ones who get up at an ungodly hour) dish it up in the dark of christmas eve morn. i had thought that we could truly lift nina up if we all got the recipe, and beginning now, made nina’s strata into a most blessed christmas tradition. what if, i wrote, we all made nina’s strata, and, in true nina spirit, we gave it away, gave it away to someone whose eyes needed glistening.

well, michael, god bless him, came through with a marvelous rendition of the recipe. and it seems those who loved nina most have added their heart to the mix. please please, i beg you, go take a look. it’s right there in the archives. and i will re-post the recipe on the lazy susan page, for easy plucking. fear not, next christmastime i will haul it out of the recipe box, remind everyone. and we shall all of us, perhaps, take to our kitchens, tearing up bread by the bits, to lift nina to heights she only could have imagined, as we all brighten the world nina-style, through our great oozy pans of eggs and cheese served at an ungodly hour.

bless you each and everyone. ’til tomorrow…

nina’s strata, coming out of the oven christmas eve morn….

 

eggs, cheese, an ungodly hour

soon as the numbers beside my bed flash 4:01 sunday morn, i’ll be unearthing myself from the covers, stretching a wary toe out into the cold and the black of christmas eve before most of the world gets with the program.

it’ll be time, as it has been for the past four christmas eve mornings, to wake a sleeping boy, now an almost-man child, and head out with our shopping bags and our crates of clementines to a soup kitchen where we’ll be the ones to turn on the lights.

and no doubt i’ll be carrying with me the story of nina.

for two christmases, nina was my compatriot in this pre-dawn drill of cooking the yummiest, oozingest christmas eve breakfast that ever there was.

nina, she took the hard part. a one-time caterer, now a mother of two–two girls under three, mind you–she went to town on her end of the deal. and i’m tellin’ you, the woman could cook.

you see, nina had a heart the size of montana. once, on one hour’s notice, when no one showed to cook sunday-night supper, she turned her little family’s tuna noodle casserole into tuna noodle for 40, and dashed it straight to the soup kitchen.

but the thing about nina was that she was admittedly, emphatically, not a morning person, and certainly not with two little ones who needed to wake up to their mama. so she took what she called the day job, gave me the night job, or at least the still-dark-out start of the shift.

she made the strata, a haute strata, mind you, a huge one, a strata bulging with eggs and imported cheeses, sausage, potatoes and God only knows what. what i know is that when i plated it up to that long line of hungry souls in the chill of christmas eve morn, their eyes how they glistened, their tummies they growled.

my end of the deal has to do with the 4 and the zeroes flashing at the side of my bed, nudging me up out from the covers. has me shuffling down the hall to rustle the sleeping heap i call my firstborn son. it’s been my job to gather all that goes with the strata: the cocoa, the candy canes, the great mound of marshmallows. since it’s christmas eve after all, and the folks we’re feeding are homeless or sheltered in bunks down below from the kitchen, 12 to a room, we go for fresh-squeezed orange juice, serious stand-up coffee doused with industrial-sized shakes from the cinnamon shaker, and sweet breads of cranberry walnut or orange and pecan.

for back-to-back christmas eves it worked just like that. we were a team, in touch through the phone. i’d talk to nina the day before to go over the plan. then, once home, and starting to wilt, i always called nina to give her play-by-play praise from the men and the women who came back for seconds and thirds of her strata.

i never met nina the first year, but i fell in love with her over the phone. and i wasn’t supposed to meet her the second year.

only there in the dark, on a christmas eve that was frost-bitingly cold, as we pulled to the back stairs to unload, i was startled by carlights at 4:40 a.m.. in a dark south evanston alley, you don’t want to be running into just anyone. and since nina always made such a fuss about not being up before dawn, she was the last one i expected to find there under the hood of a great arctic parka. i’d never seen her before, but i knew in an instant who those big brown eyes belonged to. “nina?” i called out. “what in the world are you doing awake?”

“we were running behind,” she started explaining. “we stayed up late doing the tree and never got to deliver the strata, so we just decided to stay up and bring it over now,” she said, laughing. and then barely a blink later, the vision under the fur-trimmed hood was gone in the dark of the too-early morn.

as always, the strata had the hungry and even the not-so-hungry coming back for more. and more. as always, i called later that morning to pass along every last kudo.

that was the last time i talked to wonderful, generous, spontaneous nina.

two months later, late at night, my phone rang. it was my friend harriett who lines up the cooks and the servers for soup kitchen; she was sobbing. in between sobs, i made out the words: “nina died this morning. she just died.”

nina was 37, tops. her little girls, the ones who couldn’t wake up without her, were 3 and 2. her husband, michael, the one who made the pre-dawn strata delivery, he was left alone in an emergency room, bundling together her things. nina had had a headache the day before, and within hours of walking into the ER, the doctors were telling her husband they were so sorry, she’d died. it was an aneurysm that couldn’t be stopped.

i decided then and there on the phone that night that every christmas eve breakfast from then on in would be in the spirit of nina, nina who could not do enough for the world.

i called starbucks, hoping for a gift card for each soup kitchen soul. i went begging at the bread store, asking if i could pick up any unsold bread or sweet rolls to take it up a notch.

i was thumbing through strata recipes, looking for one that might be like nina’s. then my friend harriett called. the strata would be taken care of, she told me. nina’s father and michael, her husband, would make it. they’d drop it off, in true nina style, the night before, but of course.

so last christmas eve, nina’s strata was, once again, the absolute hit of the soup kitchen counter.

and i, the one spooning it out onto plates, couldn’t stop thinking of the love of two men, her father, her husband, side-by-side in nina’s kitchen, carrying on, following nina’s instructions, line by line, layering their grief with the generous heart of the woman who all of us so achingly missed.

here’s a thought: what if i get michael to share nina’s recipe, and all of us whip up a batch of sweet nina’s strata? and then, in the spirit of the woman with the unstoppable heart, we give it away to someone who needs reason to glisten this holiday season.