Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Zatarain's for a new start

I used to love the thought of a new 

Its appeal was the possibilities which, like clean new paper, had no prior mark on it.

You could make fancy loops across the paper. You could draw horses or write lines of verse directly into the margins. 

You could color your way through the entire stack filling every page. It was the whole idea. The new year, like a sheet of paper, was all yours to use.

Later I came to think of the new year in terms of the calendar. 

In my family as I grew up we had a calendar that hung on the wall.

It went up January 1 and generally not a day before. The calendar, in its way, was clean new paper which represented all the new year to come. 

It was a relatively short time ago, as you consider the rapid transformation brought about by tablet technology, that the wall calendar was a major home furnishing.

Almost every family had a calendar on a wall or inside a cupboard or pantry to consult. It appraised us when rent was due or bills needed to be paid. It was the organizing tool around which families kept the rhythm of their lives. 

The calendar dates didn't fill with as many activities as they do now. We had more free time. But time, in a way, is never free. It has its obligations. The calendar has always served to remind us of the fact.

The calendar we used was given out by the downtown stationery and office supply store during the Christmas season.

Year after year the calendar kept the same space on the dining room wall. It paired with our rotary phone as our communication and planning center although the duo was never thought of in those terms. 

Putting calendar and phone together wasn't an intention to be efficient about phone calls and making appointments. But instinct and experience are pretty good at getting things set up in a sensible way. 

The calendar was big and it had big numbers. You could use the calendar like an eye chart if you ever wanted to test your vision. 

This came in handy in fifth grade when a note came from school advising my eyes be tested at the eye doctor's.

Without glasses the dates on the calendar were fuzzy no matter that I stood quite close. When I put on my new cat's eye glasses the same numbers were easy to see clear across the room.

Below the calender was an inset of two calendars. One calendar was of the previous month. The other was next month's calendar. Their numbers, ant-size compared to the main calendar, could be read from a distance too.

From providing a kind of eye exam to counting days to Christmas our house calendar earned its keeps.

This calendar didn't have pictures (there wasn't room). But we had other calendars that did. These calendars were gifts and were typically Christmas gifts. A spot was always found for them.

Removing a gift calendar from its wrappings was a big deal. We were excited to go through the calendar pictures.They were like revolving art. Each photo was on display for its appointed time to be replaced by another.

The pictures brought us into a larger world. Their beautiful scenes were never wasted nor was anything that was a gift or free.

They were places which photography made imaginable to us as children, as TV and wider travel were also starting to do. 

One calendar I remember in particular arrived in the mail every year for my father.

At some time he'd made a purchase of surveying equipment. The equipment came from Switzerland or had some Swiss connection is my thought since the calendar pictures were of Swiss scenes.
This calendar showed the pristine beauty of vertiginous Switzerland.

I recall pictures of icy blue alps, summer scenes of cows pasturing on verdant slopes and winter ski lodge panoramas which gave me some of my first inklings of the lives of the rich and famous.

The objective with all the gift calendars was to find the month with the prettiest calendar picture. 

My wish was that the prettiest scene would be my birthday month. You want your birthday month to be outstandingly lovely since the month belongs to you. 

Disappointingly my month always fell short. It was almost always among the least attractive which is pretty sad when you figure the chances.  

It was as if every year the photographer dug himself into a creative hole by the time a picture had to snapped for my month. 

Maybe the photographer went for a coffee break or took a nap as my month came along and went by. 

At any rate the designated picture often looked like an afterthought. The quality improved immediately thereafter to conclude with a frosty white December scene.

My sister noticed this tendency after it was called to her attention a certain while. She began to sympathize. 

"It does seem they cheat you out of the good pictures," she observed. It's like balm to have a sister on your side.

I still look at calendars to see what's been made of my birthday month. 

And my sister will make special note to tell me when an exceptionally good calendar picture has been put with my month.

As we get older the calendar take on more importance than the pretty pictures which come with it.

It's more important than the activities we jot down within the squares or the special occasion days sprinkled through the sequence of months.

We start to recognize that the calendar is our travel record through life.

It is witness to the grace and growth that blesses us each year. It companions us and sees us through.

It's made me less ready to bid the year farewell. The casual "nice to know you" sign-off just doesn't work anymore.

Definitely I'm less keen to part roads with it. I'm inclined to hold on because of the  familiarity. 

The common and known, which once made it less attractive than the untried and untested in the wings, has become dear.

As I've adjusted my stance so has the new year. The fresh start, so awaited in younger days, has taken into account my inner change. 

It waits to walk with me instead of impetuously pulling me forward into the new. More quiet, both of us, we match our steps one to another. 

The new year, with the ups and downs that life hands out, or which I have a hand in, will take on the mantle of friendship. It'll be there steady and true. It'll see me through.

It 's as if we both know time does just sort of melt away. Maybe it's exactly this preciousness of time which is at the heart of New Year's festivity.

We were talking about New Year's at Christmas when family was home. The discussion came about through the rice dessert, an old family recipe, which we make every year. 

The dessert, of Norwegian American origin, is on our holiday table every year. I've written about it. (Chapter 8 in my online book Days of Grace, Years of Understanding)

It wouldn't seem the holidays without rice porridge. This time we switched out spices on it. We made it New Orleans style.

Zatarain's New Orleans Style Rice Pudding is from our grocery store. I wasn't looking for it.  

The shopping cart with the balky wheel came to an unexpected stop in the cooking section where Zatarain's was assigned a top shelf. 

The sticky cart wheel broke my concentration. It was enough interruption for me to glance away from the shopping list held in my hand. I looked up and there was Zatarain's. 

Why I fastened on it I'll never know but once eyes locked it had its hold on me.

It said New Orleans Style on the box in fancy cursive. I hesitated. It seemed next to heresy to court the thought of buying it. 

We had nice Norwegian rice porridge to make. The white rice, in its one-pound plastic bag, was already in the cart. 

My hand reached for Zatarain's making the decision for me even as my mind continued to debate it.

Zatarain's sounded an interesting alternative to the recipe always used. At home I conferred with my daughter. She and I are the rice porridge fans. It was important she was okay with it.

She was equally curious about Zatarain's. Maybe it's the iconic jazzman on the box that decided her. Here was rice pudding with life to it.

Zatarain's, we learned from the box, has been around since 1889. Its longevity makes it a New Orleans tradition. 

Our family climbed into Zatarain's cheering section 123 years after it got going. It shows it's never too late to start a new tradition or borrow from someone else.

Turning the box around she saw that turmeric is listed as an ingredient. Turmeric would certainly be a different taste from the cinnamon called for in the Norwegian porridge recipe.

Both make wonderful and not very nuanced flavorings. Turmeric has Cajun kick and this gave it the edge. For the record turmeric is a tough ingredient to be placed against.

Let it be known that the family recipe was never at risk. Zatarain's won't run it out of town. Nevertheless, the New Orleans rice pudding was more than worth trying.

As board games were underway the rice pudding was done on my watch. It takes its own time and won't be rushed.   

A spoon regularly whisked around the saucepan to prevent the rice from sticking as it cooks is smart if not absolutely necessary. 

It's always a relief when the rice kernels soften signaling the pudding is nearly finished cooking.

The fragrant steam of the seasoned rice made the house aromatic with unfamiliar aromas. 

I thought to add raisins while the rice simmered in the milk. As the raisins swirled in the creamy cooking mixture a picture of a grandly presented dessert took shape.  

All it needed was bananas and whipped cream and both were on hand. It'd be a signature dessert that would put New Orleans in our rooting section.

"We're going to have a dessert that tastes like Christmas, New Year's and Mardi Gras all in one" I announced, removing the saucepan from the heat.

I was feeling clever. Here had been devised a holiday dessert which skirted daringly toward the flamboyant.  

Creative originality rested like a crown upon my head. A winner's sash would look no less than appropriate pinned across my blue apron. 

Entering the kitchen as we cleared the holiday table my daughter noticed the empty Zatarain's box. It was on the counter as it had been left, with the stove top directions turned toward me to read.

"Here's your recipe. Right here. Bananas Foster Rice pudding." She pointed to small print within the red box on the back panel. 

All my originality went poof like spills evaporated to ash in a self cleaning oven. 

I hadn't scored with an original dessert. The proof was on the box in the form of the recipe. My fancy dessert was already invented. 

Missing the small print is what happens when you don't wear your glasses. The calendar told me that way back in fifth grade.

**Zatarain's Banana Foster Rice Pudding (recipe is from box)

Prepare rice pudding as directed. Meanwhile, bring 1/2 cup packed brown sugar, 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup heavy cream to boil in 2-quart saucepan on medium heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer 10 minutes or until slightly thickened.  

Remove from heat. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon rum or vanilla extract. Spoon rice pudding into dessert dishes. Top with sliced bananas. Drizzle with sauce.

Ro Giencke - January 1, 2013 

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