Thursday, March 19, 2009

commentary: Horton the Elephant

Horton the Elephant Hatches an Egg was never one of my childhood Seuss favorites as far as I can recall. I dimly remembered the book, mainly through phraes like "lazy bird Maisie" and "I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant's faithful 100%." So watching the 1942 cartoon as an adult, a theologian/mom/feminist adult, is pretty interesting: I wish I could say I liked it--or disliked it--100%, but I'm not Horton.

First off I'm struck by how misogynistic the characterization of Maisie the Bird is. She's a completely despicable character and soundly condemned by adjective in the text: Lazy Bird Maisie. Her opening monologue is a self-pitying rationalization of how she really needs a rest because she's tired of sitting on her egg, it's boring, it's too much work, and she would rather play. Of course we hate this deadbeat mom who lies to the faithful Horton. But who hasn't watched Toy Story or Nemo or Horton the Elephant for the zillionth time in a row and thought "this is boring," or cleaned up vomit from bedsheets and blankets and child in the middle of the night--twice--and thought "this is a hell of a lot of work," or just wished that for once, you could sleep in or (dare I say it) head for Palm Beach? And if there's nothing wrong with the sentiment, what is it about saying it, or even doing it, that is so dastardly? I mean, outside of seducing and lying to a poor dope and totally ditching your egg. But the fact is, judgment is passed on Maisie before she commits that crime; she's already the villain simply for doing a little bitching about her life. Which IS, let's be honest, totally boring. Even Horton the hero thinks so when he ever so faithfully takes it on.

Whic brings me to the next complaint--the cartoon actually in some sense upholds Lazy Maisie's view of the burdensome nature of motherhood, because Horton confirms it repeatedly, and on top of that, Horton is, bluntly, a dope. So despite the overt moral regarding 100% faithfulness, apparently, you have to be a little bit of a dim bulb in order to voluntarily take it on and do it right. Yeah, that's the image of SAHMs I've been looking for. Just flippin' great.

Not to mention the completely random fish that commits suicide by shooting himself in the head with a gun after beholding Horton sitting on the egg.

On the bright side, when the egg hatches, of course, not only is the little offspring loyal to Horton, who despite adversity cared for this egg he inadvertently inherited--subverting myths of blood ties, inherent maternal nurture, etc.--the little thing's a hybrid: it looks like an elephant but with wings like a bird. Oh how I love me a hybrid little elephant bird who prefers a non-traditional parental unit over the uncompelling tie of biological kinship. What's so spectacular about it is Horton's initial objection of being biologically unsuited to hatch the egg is completely subverted; he hasn't feathers (boobs?) and he hasn't wings (womb?), but not only does Horton show, through the act of hatching the egg, that biology doesn't make the crucial difference in the act of nurture--the elephant bird understands that Horton is the real mom. And in undoing the biological essentialism of motherhood with regard to Horton, it's also by extension undone with regard to Maisie--whether the narrative itself goes there or not.

(Should gay parents adopt? Is Horton faithful 100%?)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

There's a legendary story that gets retold on occasion at my family's gatherings, about my great-grandmother and g-grandfather. My great-grandmother was an amazing woman. She was still cooking and hosting and playing piano and writing music and painting well into the 1990's. There was a show of her art and a write-up in a Nashville newspaper about it when she was 90-something (?) years old. One of my treasured possessions is a little print of one of her paintings, in an original handpainted frame she made herself--all the great-grandkids (and there are lots of us) got a different print for Christmas one year. I have a book of her original hymns. There was, however, one thing this amazing woman apparently couldn't do.

As the story goes, one morning my great-grandmother decided to get up early and cook a special breakfast instead of just a normal breakfast. Eggs, bacon, biscuits--the whole Southern breakfast deal. Instead of the usual canned biscuits, because this was a special thing, she made biscuits from scratch: mixed them up, rolled them out, used a biscuit cutter. My great-grandfather ate his breakfast and his special homemade biscuits without comment, until the end of the meal, when my frustrated great-grandmother prompted him with the question, 'what did you think about the biscuits?' to which the reply came, 'I b'lieve I like t'other brand better.'

Biscuit FAIL. But apparently she did successfully resist clobbering him with her skillet. She was, as I've said, an amazing woman.

But truthfully, who has ever made homemade biscuits that are as yummy and fluffy as the canned ones? No one can replicate with regular old butter and flour and baking powder what those mysterious chemicals and preservatives do for canned biscuits.

Until NOW.

Over Christmas my mom made us a batch of biscuits using a Cook's Illustrated recipe for Southern biscuits, and if I hadn't watched her do it, I would have sworn it was impossible that they were from-scratch. Tall and fluffy and buttery and WOW. Of course, they're a helluva lot more trouble than opening a can, but they are totally worth it. The ingredients are pretty basic except for an increase in the liquid to dry ratio, but the real secret is in the handling of the dough and the shaping of the biscuits. From now on in my house they will be called "Nana Biscuits" and no one in my family will ever have to say, I b'lieve I like t'other brand better.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 T sugar

4 T cold butter, cut into little cubes

1 1/2 cups cold buttermilk

1 cup extra flour for handling
2 T melted butter to brush the tops

Mix the dry ingredients together by buzzing a few times in food processor, then add butter cubes and cut in by processing a few times more until the cornmeal-like consistency is achieved. (Personally, I have trouble getting this step to really work and end up cutting in the butter chunks with my pastry cutter, so I may eliminate the food processor altogether and see what happens.) Add buttermilk and mix until just incorporated. Using a 1/4 cup measuring cup, scoop the biscuit dough and place the mounds on a cookie sheet dusted with the extra cup of flour (the dough will be very wet and goopy). Consistent 1/4 cup scoops will yield 12 mounds of biscuit dough. Sprinkle some flour on the tops, then pick up each mound and toss in your hands until it forms a rough ball shape, and place in a well-greased round cake pan (9 biscuits on the outside, 3 in the middle). Brush melted butter on the tops (currently without a pastry brush, I just drizzle the butter over the tops and this seems to work too). Bake for 5 minutes in a pre-heated 500 degree oven, then lower heat to 450 and bake about 15 more minutes until well-browned on top. Let cool in pan 2 minutes, then turn out onto plate.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Lenten disciplines

This year, our Lenten disciplines as a household are pretty simple and practical: top of the list, no more casual eating out. This is harder than it sounds, even for me, who grew up practically never eating out. Now that I'm all grown up (hmph) I appreciate the implicit training I somehow soaked up from Mom's disciplined weekly menu planning and grocery list making and shopping. It's what I do. But I'd fallen into the habit of planning for 5 or 6 meals a week and counting on one night of beng able to talk Brent into pizza, Chinese, or burritos or whatever. Plus, I'd gotten very permissive about indulging my love for egg sandwiches...stopping on the way home from Clare's preschool to buy myself a happy little breakfast is the kind of expense I'm usually good about resisting, but I'd gotten sloppy. So what this really means is paying a bit more attention to what we're eating, making sure that I plan and buy enough food for all our weekly meals, staying within our budget--while "eating well," mindfully and sustainably and nutritionally. It's a bit more work but truthfully, not that much more than I was doing before anyway. And I've found that a judicious combination of Trader Joe's and the Shoprite near St.Stephen's is the economical way to go. (I'm especially happy with Shoprite's new organic store canned tomato buying is much simplified thanks to that.)

Personally I'm also trying to re-start my habit of the daily Jesuit pray-as-you-go podcasts. I'm not doing so well on this one yet but I'm not giving up. Sometimes it just takes awhile to get back into the groove.

The other personal Lenten discipline that I'm resolved upon is a little vaguer than the concrete goals of not eating out and listening to the prayer podcasts, but no less important. I am finding it harder than usual these days to maintain a sense of willingness and ability to give to others, probably fueled by all the apocalyptic economy talk. I suspect this is the case for lots of other people at the moment as well. It's hard to spontaneously and generously give to others when you suspect the tradeoff is your own security. But this instinct of withdrawing and pulling back from our commitment to other people is the problem and not the solution. So I'm looking for ways to remind myself that we all depend on each other, and the illusion of self-sufficiency created by shrinking back into our own households actually makes us all more vulnerable.

If you're looking for a good Lenten discipline to remind you of all the above, think about visiting the Webb family's site and donating a few dollars to help with travel expenses to Ethiopia for their two adopted daughters. A better reminder of the dependency of all human lives on each other, this material world, and ultimately the mysterious sustenance of God that fuels this creation, cannot be found. $25 won't break your budget, but it may remind you that a willingness to share, to love, to recognize our connection, is what makes human lives worth living.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Mommy loves Clare (and everybody knows it)

Recently added to the expanding list of things Clare will do when she grows up (and gets taller, can touch knitting needles, and can eat corn nuts): "have a baby in my tummy."

She was a riot on Sunday. Also announced to the whole church during Life o' the Church time that the everyone should pray for her mommy and daddy, she loves her mommy and (more quietly) mommy loves Clare. I think she was drunk on blueberries.

But really, I hope someday when she grows up she will get to do all these things, especially have a baby in her tummy. It's one of the best things I've done so far.