Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Spring broke

Spring is a time of awakening, a time of renewal, a time of raising your hand and volunteering for activities you frankly have no business doing.

My role as the Easter Bunny at the annual neighborhood egg hunt last Saturday probably falls into that last category. Then again, when you’re 45 years old and want to participate in an event whose target demographic is the ten-and-under set, sneaking in under cover of an animal suit is pretty much your only option.

This was my fourth year in the bunny suit, so I know the ropes. That turned out to be a good thing because this year, for the first time, I had no handler. I was all set to fire my agent for negotiating a lousy contract until I learned this year’s hunt would feature a mimosa bar. Our neighborhood civic association has limited funding, and I could hardly argue with the decision to throw its resources behind such a crucial strategic initiative. And at least this year I had a viable explanation for staggering around the park. Once I had met, and possibly exceeded, my contractually-established service levels for inflicting trauma on unsuspecting little kids, I went home and turned my attention to making, or attempting to make, pizza gaina.

For the uninitiated, pizza gaina — Italian for “call your cardiologist” –is not your typical tomato sauce/mozzarella number; it’s a pie that consists of several pounds of meat and cheese, plus eighteen eggs, all encased in dough. Pizza gaina is an indulgent dish served on Easter to celebrate the end of Lent, a period of sacrifice that, for Italians, traditionally meant skipping meat on Fridays. It’s also an efficient dish: with just a single slab, you can catch up on all five weeks’ worth of missed meat. But there’s a reason Italians only eat pizza gaina once a year: it’s a royal pain in the rear to make.

I knew making pizza gaina was tough, having watched both my father’s mother and my mom make it year after year. Both Nana and Mom turned out consistently fantastic pizzas, but only after laboring over the dough for hours and then stressing the entire time the pie sat baking in the oven. If it baked for too long, the filling would be fully cooked but the dough would burn. If it didn’t bake long enough, an oozy mess might await when you went to cut it. And no matter how long you baked it, the pizza might display classic Italian stubbornness and refuse to come out of the pan. As further proof of the difficulty of the task, my sister Suzi, who does pretty much everything perfectly, tried to make pizza gaina a few years ago and nearly burned her house down.

I knew all of this, and yet I volunteered to make the pizza gain this year anyway. Mom and Dad were two days out from their move –hardly an ideal time for a major culinary undertaking –so I figured I would try to carry on the tradition. In case you’re inspired to do the same, or to start a new tradition, here’s the recipe Mom gave me, with minor adjustments.

DOUGH: 

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cake of yeast

Mix flour, salt and pepper in a large pot. Add eggs. Mix yeast with one cup warm water. Add to dry ingredients and work well. Grease pot and dough. Cover and let rise ’til double, approximately one hour, and then punch down and shape. Return after one hour to find your particular dough does not believe in Easter, because it has not risen. Punch it anyway, then throw in the trash, where it lands like a flour cannonball.

wrecked dough

What atheist dough looks like before you catapult it into the trash.

Drive to grocery store for replacement yeast, because the only other yeast you have on hand is in a six-pack of beer. Return home and repeat first six steps, doing celebration dance at the sight of the risen dough.

Let stand 20 minutes. Roll to fit over greased 9 x 13″ pan –a roasting pan without the rack usually works–well enough so the top can be sealed. “Well enough so the top can be sealed” means you will roll the dough to the point where it’s so thin you can read the classifieds through it and then maybe, just maybe, it will be long enough to make a complete seal across the top as you fold it over. To be continued, because we Italians believe in suspense.

FILLING

  • 3 and 1/2 lbs of ham, cubed
  • 1 and 1/4 lbs muenster cheese, cubed
  • 18 large eggs
  • 1 cup grated Italian cheese (such as pecorino romano)

Scramble eggs well. Add rest of ingredients, mix well, and pour into pan. Cover with remaining dough, attempt to seal in the filling by pinching dough around the edges. Glance over at countertop and discover “rest of ingredients” apparently did not include the cup of Italian cheese, because it’s still sitting on top of the cutting board where you grated it. Carefully peel back the dough you just sealed, sprinkling expletives liberally as you go, and dump in forgotten Italian cheese. Attempt to stir contents with one hand while holding up the dough lid with the other. Attempt to reseal dough. The dough lets you know what it thinks of this process by refusing to seal in one corner.

Bake at 350 degrees on lower rack in oven until brown – 1-1/2 to 1 -3/4 hours. Before putting in oven, pierce top with fork. Curse yourself for being the kind of person who stupidly does not read the whole recipe before starting to cook because, if you had, you might have noticed that, from an order of operations perspective, the instruction to pierce the top should have come before the instruction to bake at 350 rather than after. Consider removing pizza to pierce it but decide you’ve already angered the dough enough for one afternoon.

After 15 minutes, turn on oven light to monitor progress and discover filling has begun to leak out of the unsealed corner and to pool atop the dough. Turn off light and resolve to wait an hour before risking another peek. Return to this:

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Stop yourself from thinking, “It could have been worse,” because it still has time to get worse.

Remember Mom’s advice to lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely on top for the last 15 minutes if browning too quickly. Discover you have no aluminum foil. Curse as you search for acceptable substitute and find only a silicone baking sheet liner. Place silicone liner atop dough and hope for the best.

Remove pizza, which appears done after 1-1/2 hours. After removing from oven, let stand 5-10 minutes and invert on rack. Or invert 90 % of it, because 10% decides to stay bonded to the pan.

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Conduct a visual inspection of the inverted 90% and discover it’s oozing filling in a way that reminds me of how the Cutlass 88 Oldsmobile we had in the early ’80s used to leak oil.

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Brainstorm ways to reunite the inverted 90% with its family back in the pan so that it will eventually emerge as an intact whole. Google “Is duct tape edible?”

Resign yourself to placing the mostly empty pan on top of the inverted 90%, returning silicone liner-covered pizza to oven, and hoping the entire big mess will, like a sitcom, find a way to come together in the last 5 minutes.

Remove pizza from oven, wait 10 minutes, and voila!

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Spend 3 minutes lamenting your Italian heritage. Had you been half-French, you would have quit at the quiche stage and wouldn’t have troubled yourself with dough lids or pie inversion, meaning you’d be on your second glass of wine by now.

Let the pizza (and you) cool for several hours. Cut into inch-thick slabs and stack on a plate such that the pieces that look like they’ve been attacked by the Easter Bunny are hidden under a pile of pretty ones. Pass it all off with arrogance when your parents show up on Easter morning, and beam when they tell you your grandmother would be proud.

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It’s not Easter without my Peeps.

I describe the child-free aunt experience as “all the joy of grand-parenting without the hassle of parenthood.” I don’t punish the niece and nephews, I’ve never had to conduct potty training, and none of my siblings has been foolish enough to put me in charge of a “Birds and Bees” talk. Yet. But every now and then, I get sucked into performing a distinctly parental function.

In 2013, for example, I took my niece to her cheerleading competition in Virginia Beach when her mother and father claimed to be on a trip in the Dominican Republic (I suspected they were really just in Fairfax, wandering the aisles of Wegmans, but I never could prove it). In 2014, I gave my eldest nephew lessons in driving stick shift. And just a few weekends ago, I wound up deep in the arts and crafts trenches with my nephew Timothy, suffering an acute attack of Science Fair Project Syndrome (“SFPS”).

I could blame my sister Lynne for inflicting SFPS on me, but in truth, it was my mother’s fault. I had gone to my parents’ house to cook dinner one Saturday night. I knew Timothy didn’t have plans, so I’d told Lynne to bring him over if he wanted to come. Not only did he want to, but he showed up with an overnight bag so he could come back to my house for a sleepover afterwards. I was thrilled, even though there hadn’t been time to plan the sort of special activity that’s the hallmark of my niece/nephew Date Nights.

When I mentioned this to Timothy, he said, “Too bad we can’t make another gingerbread house.”

Our last gingerbread house had gone entirely too well, so I’d have loved a chance to redeem myself and was about to say so when my mother said, “Hey, what about the Peeps?”

I knew Mom meant the Washington Post’s annual Peeps diorama contest. Timothy, a connoisseur of both sugary treats and slapstick, was all over it. Mom, Timothy and I brainstormed while we washed dishes. By the time Timothy and I settled on the idea of depicting a typical D.C. black-tie gala and calling it “Dancing Peep to Peep,” it was already 7:30 p.m. I had plans to leave town by 9 the next morning and the contest deadline was Monday. The realization that we had less than 14 hours in total to complete the project brought on the first stirrings of SFPS, an intense panic caused by extreme deficiencies in time, materials, and expertise.

Mom recognized the signs right away, having survived dozens of bouts with SFPS herself, and tried to help. She ran to the basement and returned with a Nordstrom box. Its fold-up lid offered the makings of a ballroom floor and a back wall. Timothy and I grabbed the box, hightailed it out of my parents’ house, and headed to Target, making a mental shopping list as we went.

I should note here that Timothy and I are not arts and crafts people. We derive no joy from working with glue at any temperature. Months ago I wrote that if you were to create a Fantasy Christmas Decorating League and draft players from my family, I would get picked last. This is true, but only if we limit the team to adults. If we expand it to include minors, I would get drafted just ahead of Timothy, and neither of us would put our team in any danger of hitting a salary cap.

Timothy and I arrived at Target half an hour before the 9 p.m. closing, knowing we needed Peeps, materials to cover the dance floor, and glue. Timothy solved the dance floor problem when he spotted rolls of patterned tape in the school supplies aisle.

Pointing to a roll of 1/2″-wide blue tape that featured a very busy white pattern, he said, “That looks like the carpet at cotillion.” Timothy isn’t cotillion people, either, and his remark confirmed what I’ve long suspected: he spends most of his time looking at the rug. But it was a brilliant choice as dance floor coverings go.

Being long on vision and short on realism, Timothy and I thought we could jazz up the ballroom by adding columns and making a ceiling from which to hang a disco ball. (Your better art revolves around a disco ball. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Regardless, a disco ball is always involved.) We found no suitable column materials at Target. I promised him we’d find something at my house, though I had my doubts. My home is full of things that come in handy when you want to hit the Pinot Grigio, not the Pinterest. 

By 9:15 p.m., diorama construction had begun. I handed the dance floor tape to Timothy and he went to work. I watched as he lavished on the diorama a level of attention his math homework will never see. But even with his heightened focus, the “carpet” had been laid down in a way that might make you question the sobriety of the installer.  Timo

Those who’ve suffered from SFPS know this is precisely when one of its most vexing symptoms –a powerful urge to take over the project–manifests, emanating from a deep desire to win and/or get at least 2 hours of sleep. I tried to keep it at bay by going off in search of column materials. I opened a closet, spotted several wire dry cleaner hangers and realized the white cardboard cylinders around the base of the hangers would work perfectly.

I returned to the kitchen, hangers in hand.  Moments later, one of those hangers was really in hand: I sustained a flesh wound while separating the cardboard cylinders from the hangers. As I bled copiously on our project and scanned the kitchen for tourniquet materials, I abandoned the idea of columns. 

Just then, Timothy said, “How will we split the prize, Aunt Wheat?” I had no answer, focused as I was on having split my thumb. 

I got Timothy’s consent to revise our architectural plans. We agreed to concentrate on the details that would make the project special, or at least funny. I made a mini disco ball from a wad of tinfoil and we suspended it from a string of tiny LED lights we’d found at Target. We added a DJ Peep who wore  headphones, which we made by cutting two small circles out of my Jambox case and connecting them with the loopy wire from a wine glass charm. (I had plenty of those to spare.) 

We made “records” out of furniture pads. DJ Dr PeepAnd, because women always outnumber men in DC, we added a wallflower peep, hanging out next to a planter o’ jellybeans.

We quit at 11 p.m. and returned to the job site 8 hours later. 

I had felt we should clothe the Peeps, though a literal interpretation of “strictly black tie” had its appeal. With no time to get fabric, we devised outfits from some heavy-duty, patterned construction paper I happened to have. The patterns added some pizazz but the paper was rather rigid, making the female Peeps look like they’re wearing fashion cowbells. 

We did what we could and then I headed out of town. As I prepared to submit our entry after work the next day, I was seized by a powerful perfectionistic urge, the most painful symptom of SFPS by far. I tried to subdue it but could not resist adding back panels to two Peep dresses that lacked them. (Never mind that most black-tie events would benefit from a good, old-fashioned mooning.) I snapped photos of our work, uploaded them to the Post site, and clicked “submit.”Peep to Peep

The winners were announced this week. If only the Post had included a “sprint” category, we might have made it onto the podium. But Timothy and I had so much fun, I bet we’ll do it again next year, assuming I’ve recovered from my SFPS by then. 

 

 

 

Why bother with fresh starts on Easter when you can dig up family dirt instead??

[Correction: In the original post, I mentioned my parents’ VW bug. Turns out I was ahead one car: the vehicle implicated in the story below was a large, black Pontiac sedan. And my sister? In a car seat, yes. Strapped in? Not so much.]

The local Yanks congregated at my parents’ house for Easter festivities yesterday. After we gorged on pizza gaina and other Italian classics, conducted an egg hunt, and immersed ourselves in Mom’s incomparable pies, the storytelling began.

We’d been discussing the spring break trip my older sister Lynne and her family had just taken. Things went mainly as planned for them, which I pointed out was not how they went when we were kids and my parents took us on an alleged vacation to Ferrum College.  Or when we went to the Outer Banks one year and stayed in a house whose electronics consisted of a single FM radio. This might not have mattered had it not been hurricane season and rained 29 hours a day for six days straight. My siblings and I entertained ourselves by fighting, making my parents so desperate to get away from us they attended a timeshare presentation voluntarily.

“Geez, I don’t remember that at all,” Lynne said. She added, somewhat sanctimoniously, that she tends not to remember unpleasant bits from our family history. This prompted my parents to make two contributions to Lynne’s memory bank, each one involving episodes when my father was left in charge of my sister.

The first occurred when Lynne was perhaps two and Dad had taken her with him to the grocery store. When they returned, Dad decided to leave my sister in the car–strapped into a carseat that was firmly ensconced on the passenger side–while he unloaded the groceries. Dad was a logistician by trade, so this probably struck him as the most efficient way to get the job done. Yet for all his efficiency, he wasn’t fast enough because, by the time he came back outside, both my sister and the car were gone.

When I picture this moment I see my father standing in the driveway, scratching his head and looking around as he says, “Gosh, I could have sworn I left it right here…” the way people do when they misplace, say, a $20 bill. But unlike a lost twenty, Lynne and the car weren’t wedged between two sofa cushions; they were all the way across the street.

My carseated sister somehow managed to knock the car–a rather massive, black Pontiac known as “the Batmobile”– out of gear and into neutral, sending it rolling down my parents’ gently sloped driveway. The car had enough momentum to make it across the street, up the curb and a few feet into the neighbor’s yard before coming to a rest. This incident may have been a low point for my father, but it remains my sister’s greatest achievement in driving.

On another occasion before I was born, Mom went out to run errands and left both Lynne and my sister Suzi in Dad’s care. By this time, Lynne was newly potty-trained. Dad went out to the backyard with my sisters and put them in a sandbox to play, another stroke of parental efficiency. As he kept his eye on the girls, he noticed that Lynne had spent a long time sitting in the same spot. He went to investigate and encountered a stench that stopped him in his tracks. The newly minted diaper grad had to be the source.

“Good thinking in dropping her in the human equivalent of a litter box, Dad,” I said. “Cleanup should have been a breeze.” My father’s shoulders started to shake but he said nothing.

Mom arched an eyebrow and resumed the story. She returned from her errands after some interval of time that was less than an hour and more than a few minutes.

“When I got back, the girls were still out in the sandbox,” Mom said. Dad apparently gave her a status report that made casual mention of the fact that Lynne had been unusually sedentary but indicated that everything had essentially been fine. My mother went out to the litter box, where she found Lynne seated, still, and in a state of advanced fermentation.

“Wait a minute, you left me out there?” Lynne asked my father, indignant. Dad nodded, laughing silently and with such force that he couldn’t form words. My shoulders had begun to shake, too, and I saw Mom snickering.

“You really…hahahaha….left her….hahahah…out there?” I asked as I wiped tears from my eyes.

My father finally regained his composure and managed to speak.

“I couldn’t get near her,” Dad said, his explanation as complete as it was brief. That caused the whole table to double over with laughter.  As gut-busters go, I’ll take family stories over pizza gaina and Peeps every time.

Footage from the annual egg-cracking contest, another Easter staple.

Footage from the annual egg-cracking contest, another Easter staple.

Hare Raising

Last year, I volunteered to don a rabbit suit for my neighborhood’s annual Easter celebration.  It wasn’t entirely without incident—I faced  some major costume adversity along the way—but it was nothing that a mascot professional like myself couldn’t handle.  Impressed by my rookie outing, my neighbor “Toni” asked me to suit up again this year.

This time she gave me more advance notice –she knows skills like mine are in high demand—and that allowed me to negotiate some new terms of engagement.

First, I insisted that the costume be brought up to code.  The industry might overlook a single year as a one-eyed rabbit, but two in a row could easily relegate my career to low-paying niche roles.

I also arranged for a transportation upgrade. Last year I walked to the venue and used the nearby home of two complete strangers as my dressing room.  This made for a rather awkward moment when I had to ask one of them to glue my eye back onto my face.  Toni agreed to drop off the costume at my house the night before so I could change in the comfort of my own home, and to have an escort pick me up and bring me to the park.

I wasn’t home when Toni dropped off the newly repaired costume last night, but she sent me a message to let me know she’d left it for me.

“No random blog entries about animal carcasses being left on your doorstep,” she texted.

Writing that sort of a post was the last thing on my mind when I pulled the costume out of the bag this morning, mainly because “animal carcass” would have been paying the suit a major compliment.

The repair crew had worked diligently and did the best they could, despite poor source material.  The wayward right eye had been meticulously re-adhered, which helped, but I was slightly concerned to see that a paperclip had been deployed to keep a neck seam together.

And then there was the matter of the face. Even with both eyes intact, it doesn’t evoke Bugs Bunny so much as Edward Munch’s “The Scream.”  As kid reaction goes, we mascots generally aim for a hug-to-scream ratio of two-to-one or better, but that face had stacked the deck heavily in favor of screams.

This rabbit ain’t silly. It’s scary.

I stepped into the suit at 9:50 a.m. and confirmed that it was still the same oxygen and sensory deprivation chamber I remembered.  At 9:55, a late-model Volvo sedan had pulled into the driveway.  (I know these details only because my housemate relayed them to me.)  The driver and a handler emerged and escorted me to the car, and we rode to the park in what I assume was climate-controlled comfort.

As soon as I got out of the car, Toni announced my presence on a megaphone and kicked off the hunt.  To ensure that the older kids don’t overrun the little ones, the organizers stage the hunt in different sections of the park according to age.  Since my target audience was kids under five, I wandered off towards what looked like the shortest group of blobs.

My instincts were correct and I had found the youngest kids.

Their hunt, however, had been infiltrated by one slightly older and precocious child who said, “Wait a minute, that’s a person. I see human skin.”

I’m sure he did. The bunny suit paws are separate from the body, so my skin got exposed any time I attempted a movement more strenuous than a shrug.  The smallest children didn’t seem to notice, but this kid’s parents probably had to come up with some sort of an explanation.  Maybe they told him the Easter Bunny had a touch of mange.

This year, just like last year, lots of little kids wanted to hug me.  (And my stalker was back, though she didn’t seem quite as excited to see me.  I think she’s moved on to Santa Claus.)  But for every child that loved me, there was at least one more who fled screaming, as if he hadn’t been visited by the Easter Bunny but sprayed by the Easter Skunk.

A less confident mascot might be dismayed by a bad hug-to-scream ratio, but I know it’s no reflection on my skills.  I firmly believe they’ll want me back next year and I intend to make a few more demands when I renegotiate my contract.

In addition to valet service, I expect one more handler, because a mascot of my caliber warrants an entourage.  Not to mention a costume change.  It’s about time to pull this rabbit out of a new hat.