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Thursday
Dec262013

Here's hoping your Christmas was just like mine...

 

Just outside my front door this morning...a winter wonderland

Very merry holidays to all,

 

Thursday
Dec262013

More shortbread bakers worldwide!

My original posting of my nana's shortbread recipe has prompted more readers worldwide (besides Bunny of Oshawa) to reach out and share family shortbread stories and some charming photos.

Anne's shortbread fingers were headed to school for Heritage Day

This November, Scottish-born Anne McKechan Propst wrote to say her son who is 9 and is taking shortbread fingers in to his class for his Scottish ancestry presentation.

Like my grandmother, Anne's mother was a Glaswegian too. Her brother lives in Largs which is about an hour from Glasgow. Her family grew up in Ayrshire. She said my Nana would know it (ardrossan) because all the Glaswegians would go there in the summer for the beautiful beaches.

Her cousin has a beautiful Bed and breakfast in Largs. Anne said that if I haven't been there, I would love it:

 

You could certainly relax and 'write' from there (lol)." 
I certainly could. It does appear to be the perfect writer's retreat, doesn't it?

 

Appin Bed & Breakfast,172 Greenock Road, LargsCertainly does look like a charming place to visit (and write!) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Very shortly before Christmas, I received another lovely email message from Robb Powell of Calgary who thanked me for posting my nana's recipe. He lost his mother in July of 2012, and she kept all her recipes in her head. Robb wrote,

[My mother] hailed from the MacKinnon Clan and made the best shortbread in the world. I often made it with her as a kid, but was not able to keep the recipe in my head as neatly as Mom, haha.

She was fairly ill her last few years and the shortbread recipe was a lower priority on my list, although the craving has always visited itself upon me each and every Christmas.

Your Nana's recipe is exactly the recipe as I remember it now, I will know for sure when I taste it. Thank you for posting it. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I can not wait to make up a batch!

We fancied our shortbread up with sliced red and green maraschino cherries, which I will do on the batch tomorrow. I remember my Mom's steadfastness on the importance of creaming the butter and sugar very well, as well as the kneading and slow addition of the flour to the mix. So I will pay special attention to those notes...while visions of the final product dance in my head!

Then Robb sent these photos. Look how he's arranged the cherries on top so each pan looks like a Christmas tree.

shortbread "trees" before bakingRobbie's shortbread baked

 

 

 

 

 

 

I received another note from Colleen who said,

"Thanks for posting your Nana's Shortbread recipe.I made it today for the holidays, and a family Christmas at my sister's. And I'm sure it will be a hit, (had a taste test). I'm going to have to hide them from me!!"

And a cheery note from Fiona, a visitor from Australia, who talked about her granny born of two Scots:

She always made the shortbread to give at Christmas but we were never allowed to break it to eat until midnight - for Homany (the new year). On her passing, the tradition and role of baker jumped my mother and passed directly to me at the age of 16. 

Sometimes Fiona replaces granulated sugar with 10x sugar for a finer texture. She also said her recipe includes ground rice and that she makes her shortbread into rounds.

Keep those photos and notes coming. Whenever I hear from blog readers, it makes the the world seem a cozier, warmer place.

Sunday
Dec152013

Why I cherish handmade gifts

 

The handmade angel that inspired my collection

See that little silver foil angel displayed in the middle of the shelf?

I suppose it's not all that little. It stands about eight inches high.

More than 25 Christmases ago, my next door neighbor Mary Sue made that for me. Perhaps that angel's a little worse for wear but consider that it's decades old now. I was touched and surprised to receive it and to learn that Mary Sue had made it herself. At that time in my life, that handmade angel couldn't have meant more to me than if it had been made from sterling silver.

I was nearly 30 at the time, had lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for about five years, and was a new mother. I didn't consider myself a craft-y person--one who made cute crafts like Mary Sue that were nice enough to give as gifts. I didn't think I had good-with-crafts in my DNA like many other Lancaster County women seemingly had.

Since receiving that little angel--my first--I went on to collect whole bunches more. My family began buying me angels as Christmas gifts. I bought a few for myself.

Littler angels fill the dining room hutch

I don't have enough shelf space for all them, so I just tuck them on bookshelves or wherever there's a nook that needs brightening. One angel I display year round on a table in the living room, along with the angel candlesticks. It's just too special to store in the crawl space 11 months out of the year.

I found this fabric angel with a button necklace and button legs at a shop in downtown Lititz

Besides angels, I also have a collection of handmade ornaments from students I used to teach. I've held onto to every one of them and display them proudly, year after year.

Several decades later, I have an official angel collection, all because of one neighbor's thoughtful gift that cultivated a love for angels as a holiday icon. I even tried my hand at making a precious few crafts, some which succeeded, and some which didn't.

 

 

I display the tall angel year round

And here are most of them, displayed together on the desk in the living room two Christmases ago.

Why do I love angels? I have one child--a daughter--who was a little cherub when she was a baby. I am a spiritual person, if not a religious person. But the best reason of all might be, what's not to love about angels at Christmastime?

Sunday
Nov242013

A better Tom Jones than Tom Jones? Sir Tom Jones said so!

Steve McCoy, Tom Jones tribute artist, is a Legends in Concert headliner

Meet Steve McCoy, a super-talented Jersey Boy who happens to be regarded as the world's leading Tom Jones impersonator.

That's according to Philly.com, his legions of fans, and most importantly, per Tom Jones himself:

That guy does me better than me. [He's] the best I've ever seen and ... he's younger than me and has more hair." -- Sir Tom Jones

Several months ago, Steve learned through our mutual friend Ellen Sterling about my soon-to-be-released novel WHO KILLED 'TOM JONES'? about the murder of a Tom Jones tribute artist. Steve asked whether he could be written into the novel.

So, I created a character Stan McCann inspired by the legendary tribute artist Steve McCoy. I drew inspiration for Stan's character by watching videos on Steve's website and reading all about him on Tom Jones International

(But if you want to find out whether Steve, I mean Stan, gets knocked off, you'll just have to read the book launching early 2014.)

Steve McCoy is a wonderfully funny, friendly, and down-to-earth guy. He answered a whole bunch of questions just for me and for you, Scrivengale readers.

It's a pleasure to talk with you, Steve. When did you decide to become a tribute artist?
I’ve always sung Tom Jones music and when there was a Tom Jones look-alike contest sponsored by a radio station in Atlantic City, I entered it. It was the first time I’d sung in public. I performed in front of 800 people and Sir Tom Jones was the judge. There were 10 contestants. The first prize was $2,000 and a travel pass on TWA. As it happened, John Stuart, who owned and originated Legends In Concert, was in Atlantic City. He happened to be looking for a Tom Jones and saw me on the TV news. That’s how it began.

How long have you been doing this and how long did it take you to become the best Tom Jones tribute artist working today?
Thank you. I won’t say I’m the best, but I will say I always do the best I can. I am always tweaking my performance to make it the best I can do. 

(You can watch some clips from Steve's "Legends in Concert" show from the Legends website, where Steve really shakes his tail feathers).

Dig that puffy shirt, Steve!Related question, what were you doing before you embarked on this professional path?
I had my own landscaping company.

Why do you think there's so much commercial interest in tribute artists? Elvis fans, I get. But Tom Jones is still alive and performing.
Certain performers are so dynamic and audiences cannot get enough of them. They cannot readily see them in person or on TV, so tribute artists fill that longing to see these people and hear their music in some way.

Why do women throw their undergarments at you?
[Laughing] I love it. It’s just part of the Tom Jones experience. 

Do you have a favorite song by Tom Jones or any other artist?
It’s difficult to choose. But, among several songs, I’d name “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again;” the George Jones song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which Tom does so beautifully; and “Feel Like Going Home,” a song he performed with Mark Knopfler.

Is this a super-competitive field?
Extremely. There’s always someone out there trying to take your place.

I know from watching the movie Hold On Me (a documentary short about tribute artists by filmmaker Connie Bottinelli) that you said people can do anything they set their minds to do. But if you can't sing, you can't somehow magically become a singer. When did you realize you could sing, that you had major chops for this kind of work? 
I’ve been singing as long as I can remember but it was only relatively recently, in about 2007, that I realized I can really sing. I know I am a good performer, too. I know that, as much as I’m Tom Jones — and that’s second nature to me — I constantly strive to get better. Every movement, every gesture and, of course, every note I sing, is calculated to make the audience believe in what I’m doing. I just love performing. (Hold On Me from Connie Bottinelli on Vimeo:)

 

What is the best part about what you do?
Being onstage in front of an audience and the fact that, on stage, I get to emulate the man I believe is the best vocalist we have today.

What is the worst part about what you do?
Being away from my family.

Are you still touring in "Legends"? If so, how many shows do you do a year?
I do about 200 shows a year, both in Legends and on my own.

Are there any up-and-coming, readily imitable artists you see as worthy of a "Legends" tribute?
They already have Lady Ga-Ga, Britney, and Michael Jackson. They should have Amy Winehouse.

* * *

A huge shout-out to Ellen Sterling, host of the Tom Jones International website, for arranging this interview with Steve McCoy. By the way, there's more footage of Steve doing his thing in Connie Bottinelli's wonderful documentary HOLD ON ME

By the way, Steve McCoy has been nominated for a 2013 BroadwayWorld Best of Las Vegas Award. You can vote for him here. Just toggle through until you get to the category "Best Impersonator/Tribute Artist." Voting continues through December 31.

Thursday
Nov072013

Giving 'The Joneses' a (well manicured) finger...

About ten years ago, I finally realized the proverbial grass isn't always greener. This epiphany followed two decades of marriage, much gainful and earnest employment, and a period of desperate house-wiving.

What took me so long, you ask?

Wish I knew. All I know is that for a span of about twenty years, I may have coveted the weed-free lawn next door, the late model car across the street, the big boat, the bigger house, the two-car garage, the large dog, the toy dog, the lawn balls, the lawn flamingoes . . . all owned by neighbors and not me. You get the idea.

Sometime in my forties I began thinking that the neighbor with all that green, green grass might have a lawn shot full of toxic chemicals affecting the health of his children and pets. 

And that perfect pink flamingoes tragically fade to bleached-out coral in the glare of the summer sun.

Or that maybe my neighbors' lives--their very souls--had been poisoned by their consumerism, their conspicuous consumption, their innate leanings toward oneupsmanship--their desire to not only keep up with The Joneses but to pound them into their Kentucky bluegrass sod strips.

I was reminded of this last night at the nail salon where I now go for my acrylic fills.

The salon is a modest little place in an ideal location for me--within blocks of my office and the train station. It's run by a sweet, unassuming Asian woman named Rose. Rose is good at what she does, but by no means is her business one of the trendy salons in the affluent town where I work. She charges a good bit less than what I used to pay in a blue-collar neighborhood counties away.

She could command a better price on the Main Line, but for some reason chooses not to. Her pricing is attractive to people like me for whom acrylic nails are a luxury and who really shouldn't spend a whole lot of extra dough on such a service. I'm certain her prices also appeal to people with gobs of money who choose to spend as little of it as possible so they can hold onto as much of it as possible.

When I go to Rose's, I don't walk in the door and seek out a captive audience to tell them how spectacular I am. For one thing, I'm not as spectacular as I think I am, and it would be really gauche if I did all the talking the whole time I was getting my nails done. I mean, no one with any class does things like that, right? Most times, I enjoy myself by relaxing and thinking about life and talking as little as possible.

Last night I entered the salon while Rose was finishing the customer before me, who had to stick her freshly painted tootsies under the foot dryer. I said something about her suede boots stashed beside the station where I was having my nails done. I had to say something. I practically tripped over them getting to the chair.

"Those boots are adorable," I said, trying to be friendly.

"They were expensive. $200! I had to call the company to find out what color musk was."

Big mistake. I didn't get another word in edgewise until she left twenty minutes later.

In the time that it took to dry her toenails, I learned more about this woman from her own lips than I ever wanted to know or that she deserved to tell me.

After relaying how many expensive pairs of boots she bought online, without taking a breath, she told me she was taking a trip to Florida for three weeks because she owns a house in Palm Beach. She then squeezed in that she went to both Penn and Harvard, two of the best Ivy League schools in the U.S. Oh, and she used to make six figures selling real estate. By the way, her first husband left her. Her son went to the Haverford School (a private and very expensive boys school near Philly) and now wants to become a doctor. Her new husband's a lawyer in Philly and gives away thousands of dollars to charity each year, they live in Gladwyne, and the bragging went on and on and on and on until I felt sick to my stomach.

First I found her annoying. Then I felt pity for her. Is that what you have to do, to be liked and accepted in her world? Trot out all the details of your life with minutes of meeting someone, so that they can instantly judge how rich and important you are and whether you are worth talking to? Do people traveling in her circles only allot someone a few minutes to prove their worth as measured by money, influence, possessions, winter homes, summer homes, boots, booty lifts, eye jobs, etc.

My mom was pretty poor growing up--she lost her dad suddenly when she was seven and her mom was in domestic service. But Mom taught me that you never scold children in front of their friends and never talk about money with strangers.

Maybe in my twenties I might have been impressed or taken by a woman like this. She did capture my attention (or I wouldn't be writing this.) If that's how a person has to act to be accepted in her elite social circles, I want nothing of it. Or her.

I suppose I have nothing compared to her. No tony house in Gladwyne. No Penn or Harvard education. No Palm Beach estate. No spouse who gives thousands to charity causes.

But I don't care. I've no appetite for keeping up with Joneses any longer. The Joneses can go blab about their social superiority to all their affluent neighbors in Palm Beach.

Because I'm giving "The Joneses" one well manicured middle finger.