Archive | September, 2012

If You Only Read One Thing Today…

29 Sep

…read this one, published originally in the NYT.  Stories like this are important, even if they have the unintended result of diverting attention to the righteous exceptions and away from the massive systemic flaws that create failure as a rule (ie–if we keep focusing on the people who “make it,” we stop looking at the conditions that nearly require the majority to remain impoverished, unemployed, and poorly educated).

I Was a Welfare Mother

Bethel, Conn.
I WAS a welfare mother, “dependent upon government,” as Mitt Romney so bluntly put it in a video that has gone viral. “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said. “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” But for me, applying for government benefits was exactly that — a way of taking responsibility for myself and my son during a difficult time in our lives. Those resources kept us going for four years. Anyone waiting for me to apologize shouldn’t hold his breath.
Almost 40 years ago, working two jobs, with an ex-husband who was doing little to help, I came home late one night to my parents’ house, where I was living at the time. My mother was sitting at the card table, furiously filling out forms. It was my application for readmission to college, and she’d done nearly everything. She said she’d write the essay, too, if I wouldn’t. You have to get back on track, she told me. I sat down with her and began writing.
And so, eight years after I’d flunked out, gotten pregnant, eloped, had a child, divorced and then fumbled my first few do-overs of jobs and relationships, I was readmitted to the University of New Hampshire as a full-time undergraduate. I received a Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, a work-study grant and the first in a series of college loans. I found an apartment — subsidized, Section 8 — about two miles from campus. Within days, I met other single-mom students. We’d each arrived there by a different route, some falling out of the middle class, others fighting to get up into it, but we shared the same goal: to make a better future.
By the end of the first semester, I knew that my savings and work-study earnings wouldn’t be enough. My parents could help a little, but at that point they had big life problems of their own. If I dropped to a part-time schedule, I’d lose my work-study job and grants; if I dropped out, I’d be back to zero, with student-loan debt. That’s when a friend suggested food stamps and A.F.D.C. — Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
Me, a welfare mother? I’d been earning paychecks since the seventh grade. My parents were Great Depression children, both ex-Marines. They’d always taught self-reliance. And I had grown up hearing that anyone “on the dole” was scum. But my friend pointed out I was below the poverty line and sliding. I had a small child. Tuition was due.
So I went to my dad. He listened, did the calculations with me, and finally said: “I never used the G.I. Bill. I wish I had. Go ahead, do this.” My mother had already voted. “Do not quit. Do. Not.”
My initial allotment (which edged up slightly over the next three years) was a little more than $250 a month. Rent was around $150. We qualified for $75 in food stamps, which couldn’t be used for toilet paper, bathroom cleanser, Band-Aids, tampons, soap, shampoo, aspirin, toothpaste or, of course, the phone bill, or gas, insurance or snow tires for the car.
At the end of the day, my son and I came home to my homework, his homework, leftover spaghetti, generic food in dusty white boxes. The mac-and-cheese in particular looked like nuclear waste and tasted like feet. “Let’s have scrambled eggs again!” chirped my game kid. We always ran out of food and supplies before we ran out of month. There were nights I was so blind from books and deadlines and worry that I put my head on my desk and wept while my boy slept his boy dreams. I hoped he didn’t hear me, but of course he did.
The college-loan folks knew about the work-study grants, the welfare office knew about the college loans, and each application form was a sworn form, my signature attesting to the truth of the numbers. Still, I constantly worried that I’d lose our benefits. More than once, the state sent “inspectors” — a knock at the door, someone insisting he had a right to inspect the premises. One inspector, fixating on my closet, fingered a navy blue Brooks Brothers blazer that I wore to work. “I’d be interested to know how you can afford this,” she said.
It was from a yard sale. “Take your hands off my clothing,” I said. My benefits were promptly suspended pending status clarification. I had to borrow from friends for food and rent, not to mention toilet paper.
That’s not to say we didn’t have angels: work-study supervisors, academic advisers and a social worker assigned to “nontraditional” students, which, in addition to women like me, increasingly included military veterans and older people coming in to retrofit their careers. Faculty members were used to panicked students whose kids had the flu during finals. Every semester, I had at least one incomplete course, with petitions for extensions. One literature professor, seeing my desperation, gave me a copy of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin to read and critique for extra credit. “But it’s not a primer,” he cautioned. (Spoiler: she walks into the ocean and dies.)
With help, I graduated. That day, over the heads of the crowd, my 11-year-old’s voice rang out like an All Clear: “Yay, Mom!” Two weeks later, I was off welfare and in an administrative job in the English department. Part of my work included advising other nontraditional students, guiding them through the same maze I’d just completed, one course, one semester, at a time.
In the years since, the programs that helped me have changed. In the ’80s, the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant became the Pell Grant (which Paul D. Ryan’s budget would cut). In the ’90s, A.F.D.C. was replaced by block grants to the states, a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. States can and do divert that money for other programs, and to plug holes in the state budget. And a single mother applying for aid today would face time limits and eligibility requirements that I did not. Thanks to budget cuts, she would also have a smaller base of the invaluable human resources — social workers, faculty members, university facilities — that were so important to me.
Since then, I’ve remarried, co-written books, worked as a magazine editor and finally paid off my college loans. My husband and I have paid big taxes and raised a hard-working son who pays a chunk of change as well. We pay for sidewalks, streetlights, sanitation trucks, the military (we have three nephews in uniform, two deployed), police and fire departments, open emergency rooms, teachers, bus drivers, museums, libraries and campuses where people’s lives are saved, enriched and raised up every day. My country gave me the chance to rebuild my life — paying my tax tab is the only thing it’s asked of me in return.
I was not an exception in that little Section 8 neighborhood. Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?
Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful. 
A writer who was the co-author of Carissa Phelps’s “Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time,” and is at work on her own memoir.

Pumpkin Bread Two Ways

28 Sep

MamaKef makes just about the most delicious pumpkin bread on earth (and it’s my Aunt Carole’s recipe, so we’re really talking about a family affair here). Strangely, I have no picture of it, despite knowing that I have photographed it at every Thanksgiving and Christmas since 1999.

What I do have a picture of, however, is the imitation version I made for my first shift EVER as an RN (yowza!).  You already KNOW this gluten-free sugar-free pumpkin bar is delicious, because no sane person would ever bring a sub-par treat into the nurse’s station of a very busy unit without being 100% positive that it would be gobbled up and that she would have 15 new friends and colleagues who want to make her transition to nursing easier… right?

Right. So, please enjoy both the gf/sf version AND the full o’ flour version–they’re both delicious and easy-peasey recipes that are proven crowd pleasers (just ask Nurse Ratchet!).

 Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Yumcito Pumpkin Bars
–3/4 c pumpkin puree
–3/4 c almond butter (you could prob use any nut butter–just make sure it does not have sugar in it if what you want is a sugar free dessert!)
–1/2 c honey 
–3 eggs
–2 tsp cinnamon
–1 tsp ground ginger
–1/2 tsp nutmeg
–1/2 tsp ground cloves
–2 tsp vanilla extract
–1 tsp baking soda
–1/2 tsp salt 

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease your pan–I used a 9-inch shallow disposable tin for easy transport–but a cake round, cupcake tin, or casserole dish would work, too, as long as you keep them thin. I would say NOT to use a loaf pan because I do not think the baking soda will do enough to make the batter rise.
2. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
3. Pour into pan. Bake for about 22 minutes, or until edges are brown and center is set. (In my little oven the edges looked burnt before the center set, but those turned out to be the best pieces!)

KefFamily’s Favorite Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

Ta Da!


  • 1 cup salad oil
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 16-oz can Libby’s pumpkin
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  •  1 1/2 tsp  cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg
    1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 12 oz bag choc chips

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease two loaf pans well (these can also be made as muffins if that suits your fancy).

2. Mix the wet ingredients together.
3. Add in the dry ingredients – except the choc chips.
4. After everything is well blended, stir in the chocolate chips.

5. Pour into 2 well greased loaf pans and bake for approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes (I always start checking at about 45 minutes but it really does take this long).

A Birthday Cake

27 Sep

So, there I was. The morning of my twenty-seventh birthday and the gluten-free, sugar-free, four-layer devil’s food cake I had made myself had just slid right off the cake plate and now resembled a Leaning Tower of Sugar-Free Piza. I know– happens to EVERYONE.

Let’s back up a bit. I had spent quite a few weeks researching and thinking about the perfect birthday cake for someone of my palate (which is to say, I spent all my waking moments looking for a cake was that “healthy” but tasted decidedly UNhealthy).  I tinkered about in the kitchen (ok fine, I made and ate entire batches of test cupcakes) and had finally found the perfect recipe. Then I just happened to stumble upon some gf/sf marshmallow fluff, and got the idea to layer the cake and throw some strawberry jam in there. What could go wrong?

Well. Turns out that when your “fluff” is made of brown-rice syrup, the consistency is less sticky and more slippery. So if you think you can make a four layer cake, add a jam to it, and get it in the fridge to set before the whole thing falls apart, you are wrong. Dead wrong.

So like I was saying–my masterpiece cake had just turned to some kind of rice syrup mess and my party was only a few hours away.  My first instinct was to cry and cancel the party, but then inspiration struck–TRIFLE! If you don’t know, a trifle is a dessert layered in a round high glass dish, and usually alternates some kind of creamy sauce, a cake, and a fruit jam… basically, a ruined gluten-free, sugar-free cake dripping in “fluff” and strawberry jam. So I scraped that puppy right off the plate and into my handy-dandy trifle dish… et voila! I had a birthday cake.

This guy really was as good as I had hoped–the cake is full of chocolatey flavor and texture is as close to regular cake as I have ever baked. The “fluff” was great as a layering/moistening tool (once I got it in the dish, that is), but it is the one substance in the universe actually SWEETER than marshmallow fluff, so use carefully! I used the Babycakes German Chocolate Cake recipe as a guide for proportions.
A Devil’s Food Trifle Worth Making Twice

BabyKef and le trifle

–3 c rice flour (I used brown)
–3/4 c potato starch
–3/4 c +1/3 c unsweetened cocoa powder
–1.5 TBS + 3/4 TBS baking powder
–3/4 tsp baking soda
–1.5 tsp salt
–1.5 c + 3/4 c agave nectar
–1.5 c coconut oil, melted
–1.5 c unsweetened applesauce
–1/3 c vanilla extract
–3/4 c hot water
–1 egg
–marshmallow fluff for layering (I used a whopping 2 cans of this stuff)
–your choice of strawberry jam (I made my own by stewing strawberries and honey–it’s super easy, just google or buy)

1. Preheat oven to 325. Grease two cake rounds (mine were 8-inch).
2.  Whisk together flour, potato starch, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Add the agave, coconut oil, applesauce, and vanilla and mix well.  Add hot water and mix until fully incorporated, batter will be grainy.  Add egg, mix again.
3. Divide batter between the two pans. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating once. The cake is very dense, so be sure to perform toothpick check. Once the toothpick comes out clean, let cakes cool completely (about 45 minutes). Then, cut horizontally through both cakes to create four layers.
4. Pour a layer of jam on the bottom of your trifle dish–it shouldn’t be gobs and gobs, but it should be generous. Put one layer of cake down, breaking it if you need to–just get it into oneish layer. Put a big ol’ dollop of fluff, then some more jam. Repeat again, ending with cake on top.

Live Your Best Life

16 Sep

I babysit for two of the sweetest children alive, E & W. After looking forward to his 4th birthday for about 9 months, W had an existential crisis the night before the Big Day.

Mom, to W: Aren’t you so excited? Today is the last day you’ll be three–tomorrow you’ll be four!
W: But, Mom– I loved three! I’m going to miss three!
Mom: Four is going to be so great! And when you’re five you’ll go to kindergarten, and when you’re six you’ll learn to read, and by the time you’re seven you’ll be able to ride a two-wheeler all by yourself … which birthday do you think will be your favorite?
W: (crying) I think three was my favorite! And now it’s gone. I’m going to miss three!
thinks for a few seconds … Mom, you’re going to be 39 soon. Aren’t you going to miss 38?

Around birthday time, I think we all get a little nostalgic–I take solace in the fact that I haven’t had one year that wasn’t better than the last, at least not yet. Thanks to everyone who made 26 so fun- on to 27!

Butternut Squash "Spaghetti"

11 Sep

I thought about not blogging today.  It seems strange to spend time thinking and writing about the banalities of butternut squash on a day with such looming significance.  

I didn’t know anyone who was in the either of the Towers that day, nor did I know anyone in lower Manhattan.  Back then, the only people in my sleepy suburb who worked in the city were fire fighters and police officers, and so for our town the horror of the day grew more personal as time went by– no one I knew had a parent who worked in the World Trade Center, but we all knew parents who went down to Ground Zero for weeks at a time, often unable to communicate with their families during those long shifts of sifting through the remains of what we knew.  Our attempts at efficacy reflected our bizarre new reality: the blood drive organized by the senior class was cancelled when it became clear that there would be few survivors; instead we donated bagged lunches to the first responders and clean-up crews, who would be in harm’s way indefinitely.

When I left New York to attend college in DC, I would spend four September 11ths feeling a strange guilt for not being in New York, not living out the grief I felt with the people closest to the loss.  Perhaps most difficult for me was the strange brand of grief I watched take shape in the rest of the country, outside New York, where it was some twisted trend to “out-9/11” the person next to you in order to validate your grief.  Five years after the attacks, there were still no words to name adequately the mourning we felt for the loss of our old world order, which left many who did not have the name of a lost loved one to mourn grasping for something that would make our sadness comprehensible.  It wasn’t enough just to have watched the crumbling of some 3,000 lives: soon, everyone had a story of someone they knew who had run out of Lower Manhattan, been in the Pentagon, or would have been on one of those flights, if not for some divine intervention.  I never felt able to say to anyone but my roommate, who was also from a small suburb of the city, that I felt incredibly empty, that I still couldn’t watch footage from the day without weeping, or that it was difficult to make it through this day every year.  Not because any one thing had changed in my life, but because everything was, in some way, completely different.

And so today I write about butternut squash spaghetti.  There is no link between this dish and this day, nor do I have a clever transition from the above emotions to the below recipe.  It seems that this is what we do–note the date, feel the sadness, move on to the next topic. 
Butternut Squash “Spaghetti”

— 1 butternut squash (a medium will serve 2), peeled
3 cloves of garlic, minced
— 1.5 TBS butter (olive oil would prob work also)
— Fresh basil, to taste (optional)
— Whatever tomato sauce you like (I love this smokey marinara)

1. Using a julienne peeler (which are widely available for about $5 at most grocery stores–they look like a regular “Y” peeler with teeth), shred the skinned butternut until the seeds in the bulb are exposed. Do not make this difficult: hold the butternut vertically and move the julienne peeler down it.  This will make “noodles.” Collect them in a bowl.
2. Heat the butter until it is melted over medium heat in a saucepan big enough for your “pasta.” Add the minced garlic and let that sizzle for 2-3 minutes.
3. Add the squash.  Using tongs if you’ve got ’em and a spatula if you don’t, move around the pasta so spread out the butter and garlic.  Then, let it sit over medium-high heat for 10-13 minutes, turning occasionally so all the “noodles” get cooked.  You’ll know it’s done when it has the consistency you like your pasta to be.  Throw the basil in and let it wilt.
4. Top with your favorite tomato sauce and enjoy.

One Cake, Two Ways

10 Sep

This Monday is too beautiful for me to be inside blogging–so Ima get right to it: today, we’re working with two versions of a hearty strawberry cake with buttercream icing.  One is full of sugar, flour, and deliciousness; the other is for those interested in a sugar-free, gluten-free, almost-paleo treat.  I will leave you to guess which is which:

So–why two cakes? Earlier this summer, I was honored to bake the cake for my Aunt Tina’s wedding, and though I’m sure everyone would have loved knowing their dessert qualified as “clean eating,” we decided to go the traditional flour-sugar-butter route.  My aunt and her now-husband, Larry, requested a strawberry cake with vanilla buttercream icing, and we went through several renditions before landing on this one, which turned out to be quite a keeper.  A HUGE THANK YOU to my dear friend KefiKathleen, who offered up her childhood home and adult know-how to ensure that this mama-jamma made it from inspiration to fruition.

A few weeks later (still hung over from all the gluten-filled taste tests), I decided to see if I could make a healthier version of the nuptial confection. So I spent my morning puttering about in the kitchen, and came up with the below, which is not as “pow! that’s strawberry!” as the wedding cake was, but it is a good just-sweet-enough cake that would be great for a brunch. 

Full-o-flour Strawberry Cake
Ingredients (makes two 8-inch cake layers)

  • 3 c flour
  • 2 c sugar
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 c vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 c pureed strawberries
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 4 large eggs
  • whatever buttercream icing you like best, homemade or store-bought

1. Preheat oven to 325. In a standing mixer, combine in this order the oil, sugar, eggs (one at a time), extract, and zest. Mix on low until completely mixed.
2. Combine flour and baking powder in a separate bowl. Prepare strawberry puree and have ready.
3. With the mixer on low, alternate adding the flour mixture and then the strawberry puree to the wet ingredients.  Begin by gradually adding about 1/2 the flour, then 1/3 of the strawberries and repeat until you have combined everything, finishing with the puree (basically: flour twice, strawberry puree three times).
4. Pour into two greased eight-inch cake rounds.  Start checking at 25 minutes–this is a dense batter, so it will almost definitely take 35-40 minutes to be completely done. They’re done when you can stick a toothpick into the center and it comes out clean.
5. After cakes are removed from oven and cooled, ice ’em and eat ’em!
Gluten-free, Sugar-Free, Strawberry Breakfast Cake

  • 1 1/2 c almond flour
  • 1/4 c corn starch
  • 2.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 TBS vanilla extract
  • 1/2 stick butter, melted
  • 3 TBS honey
  • 1/4 cup coconut flour (or 1/2 c shredded coconut)
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup of berries, cut small
  • 1/2- 1 c milk
  • 1/2 c coconut oil (NOT melted)
  • 1/4-1/3 c honey
  • 3 TBS lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 325. Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
2. Add wet ingredients–EXCEPT BERRIES AND MILK– in whatever order you’d like. Mix until well combined.
3. Add the berries and mix in gently but completely.
4. Add milk, starting with 1/2 c and adding more if you need it, until you get to “cake batter” consistency. It should be moist and liquidy but not runny.
5. Pour into one greased 9-inch cake round. Bake for 30 minutes, or until inserted toothpick comes out clean.
6. While the cakes are cooling, beat coconut oil, honey, and lemon juice together with an electric mixer.  Apply the icing IMMEDIATELY before serving– this stuff will melt faster than you can say “holy sugar-free glaze.”

A Pretty Fig-Almond Tart

4 Sep

Welcome to the first week of the best month of the year: September! It can’t be long until QueijoKef and I initiate Operation EAPAAAT: Eat Any Pumpkin Available At Any Time!

Usually, I bring you a dish whose picture doesn’t quite do justice to its taste.  Today, we have the opposite. 

Doesn’t this Fig Frangipane tart look yummy? Yes, I thought so too when I saw this post on Tastespotting. 

But of course I couldn’t just leave well enough alone; I had to take a perfectly delicious-sounding recipe and make it gluten free and sugar free.  This usually works out quite well for me… and then came the frangipane.

We now have Chef Kefi Food Principle #4: when dealing with the French and their recipes, leave well enough alone.  What resulted from my tinkering (subbing GF flour and honey for the all-purpose flour and sugar) was a tart that LOOKED great (if I do say so myself) but whose flavor fell flat.  I am very positive if you follow the above link and make a full-flour, loaded with sugar, buttery treat you will get something that looks–and tastes–as Julia Child would have liked it.

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