Friday, February 11, 2011

How I Came To Be Crowned Chili Queen

It started with that trip through the bean aisle of Hyvee, when I picked up two 30 oz. cans of chili beans and said, "Yep. I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna take my chili to the Tomahawk chili supper."

I bought enough fixins to make a whole crockpot of chili. I bought ground beef that only had a few days left before it crossed over from "food" to "food byproduct. But a few days was all I needed. The chili supper was Wednesday.

And then the snow came. It closed the school and cancelled the chili supper. I quick-cooked the meat I had bought, and somewhere along the line, I used up two cans of petite diced tomatoes.

I was glad the chili supper had been put off. It was cold. I didn't want to be lugging my crockpot in and out of the car with all kinds of slippery terrain underfoot. I wanted to stay in and curl up into a ball.

A week went by, and the chili supper came around again. Its new, rescheduled date loomed. The day before, I got a frozen package of ground beef out of the freezer to thaw. The night before, I browned it. The package said, "Use or freeze by February 9th." Well, how do --it was February 9th. I'd made it just in time.

On chili supper morning, I rose early, a single lit window in a frozen world, and I dumped the ground beef I'd cooked the night before into a pot.I added 60 ounces of beans, 60 oz. of tomat...WHAT? Where are all my tomatoes? My petite diced tomatoes? I needed 4 cans. I only had two.

Oh well. Shrug. I couldn't get worked up about it at 6:00 in the morning. I added two packets of French's Mild Chili-O. I added a little water to the bottom of the bean and tomato cans, and swished out the residue at the bottom of each can, and poured it into the pot. That's an extra little step I take. That's how I show my chili love.

Next, I added my own special Mony mojo. My secret to making anything taste good is to throw in olive oil and whole cloves of garlic. Lasagna sauce: whole cloves of garlic. Beef stew: whole cloves of garlic. Dumpling soup: whole cloves of garlic. How my family members enjoy the surprise of biting into a whole clove of garlic.

I got ready for work and tried to think of clever chili names. The Mommers Chillers. An inside joke that no one else would understand. In our house, we put "ers" on the end of our words. (See, I told you-ers you wouldn't understand-ers.) I thought of Willy Nilly Chili. Cute, but misleading. There was nothing willy nilly about it. It was my standard boilerplate recipe. Milli Vanilli Chili. Bad choice. People will think it's a bunch of baloney.

"Chili, don't be a hero," I said casually to Roger. YEAHHHH!!! He said. He gave the name a thumbs up. It was a song everyone liked to make fun of. Everyone old enough to have lived through its popularity, that is. It was that perfect touch of irony that had my chili saying, "I don't have to take myself seriously. I'm that good."

After mixing and heating and brewing the chili to my satisfaction, I poured it into a crockpot, where it would simmer quietly for most of the day, until the afternoon, when it had to be taken to the school. The chili supper organizers had given parents only a narrow window. Bring your chili to the school cafeteria between 3:30 and 4:00, the red flyer ordered. There won't be any place to store your chili before 3:30!-- Deal with it, was the flyer's subtext. Sheesh. That put working parents into kind of a bind. But Roger would be getting home a little after 3:00, so he could take the chili in.

On the way to work I turned on the radio and heard a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The thermometer I drove past said 0 degrees. Oh yeah! I'm glad we put off the chili supper until today because things have really warmed up!

On my lunch break, I went home and checked on my chili. It was a bit sludgey. A little heavy on the beans and spice. It really could have used more tomato. I should have picked some canned tomatoes up at the store on the way home. Why hadn't I thought of that? I looked around, but there wasn't anything that remembered it had once been a tomato, that was suitable. Red Thai curry paste? No. Taco sauce? No. Ragu? No. Those were unstable compounds that could significantly alter the character of my chili. I needed something more simple. The only thing we had on hand was ketchup.

I decided to try using the ketchup. But first I tested it. I put a little ketchup in a cup and added water and stirred them together. Then I added it to a small sample bowl of chili. It tasted --ketchupy. Not good. I added more chili to the test bowl, and stirred it well. Tried again. Okay, better. The ketchup cut the thick beaniness. Should I risk adding the ketchup to the crockpot? I could blow the whole works. I decided it was a chance I had to take. I squeezed more ketchup out in a cup, thinned it with water and poured it in. I didn't add that much--only about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of ketchup with a 1/2 to 2/3 cup of water.

Back at work I checked my e-mail. The Chili Supper organizers had sent out a fresh reminder. But there were new instructions. Your chili must be at the school by 3:30. (If you want it to be judged.)

Geez, these people leave no room for error! You can't bring it before 3:30 and you can't bring it after.

I decided I better call Roger. He was probably going to be all relaxed about things and mosey on up to the school with the chili at say, ten till 4:00. I had to let him know he couldn't relax.

It was about ten after 3:00. I called him on his cell. Thank goodness he answered.

"You have to get my chili to the school right away," I told him. "It has to be there by 3:30 for the judging." Roger sighed, and made some grumpy, indistinguishable noises before getting off the phone.

Heck yeah I wanted my chili to be judged. Because I have a confession to make. I thought my chili was good. After I added the ketchup to the crockpot and mixed it in good and gave it a few minutes to make itself at home, I tasted the chili. And I was pleased. It was thick, rich and tasty. "Yeah, that's a wrap," I said to myself.

Roger and Lilah and I went to the chili supper a little before 6:30. Annabelle was already at the school, working back to back shifts. We were in the hallway outside the cafeteria, paying for our chili tickets, when Annabelle came up and said, "Mom, your chili won."

"No way," I said. "You're making that up."

"No, I'm not!" Annabelle said. "You got best chili overall."

I was surprised, but in a way, I wasn't. Damn, I knew that chili was good!

My new status as Chili Queen became quickly apparent. I couldn't turn around without someone stopping to congratulate me. I approached the chili table, and there it was --my crockpot---adorned with its ribbon and medal. Glued onto the medal was a picture of a big, shiny metal pot of chili. I lifted the lid and saw that everyone loves a winner. The chili was almost gone.

Roger scooped up a ladle of my chili before it ran out. He pointed to a white object floating in the broth, with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. "Is that a garlic clove? Did you put whole garlic cloves in the chili?"

"Yes!" I said proudly. Lilah rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Yes, whole garlic cloves and Hunt's Ketchup. But hey - who is the queen here? You don't argue with success.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Physics Of A Falling Coffee Cup

On Tuesday this incredible thing happened at work. I didn't think such a thing was possible. The laws of falling bodies would explain it, I'm sure. If I knew more about physics, I could say how and why it happened.

What happened was this: I was talking to my co-worker, and standing behind the public service desk in the library, holding my cup of tea. I was getting ready to make an important point--so perhaps I was starting to wave my hand, I don't know ---but all of a sudden the mug slipped from my fingers, and dropped to the carpeted floor. As I lost hold, I thought, "Oh, this is going to be an absolute disaster. The tea will pour out all over the carpet, and the cup might even break. It will be noisy and there will be a big, embarrassing mess." In a fraction of a second, I thought all of this.

As the cup went down I felt the tea splash onto my black work pants. I stepped back from the point of impact, and looked down, expecting to see spilled tea and possibly cup shards everywhere.

Instead I saw that my coffee cup had made a perfect landing, right-side-up on the carpet, as if it had been carefully placed there. A perfect landing! I was stunned. Other than the tea that had splashed my legs, there was not a drop of tea to be seen anywhere. I couldn't believe it.

I looked around the room. Students had their heads bowed over textbooks; they sat talking to each other. No one had noticed my near-calamity. My cup sat there on the floor quietly, still mostly full. Julie said, "You can still drink it."

I reached down and picked it up. I was so tickled. I couldn't get over the fact that we could just go on with our conversation as if nothing had happened.

It was like being on an episode of Bewitched, and having Samantha twitch everything back into the cup and set it upright. I felt like one of the clueless mortals on the show, who are always rubbing their eyes and swearing off drink, because they see things that defy the laws of physics.

I was so puzzled by how it happened, I visited some physics websites, to see if I could find answers. The cup doesn't have a flexible spine, so it can't re-orient itself like a cat. It is the conservation of angular momentum, by the way, that allows the cat to rotate its body and slow its rate of rotation enough so that it lands on its feet safely. Also, the cat manipulates its moment of inertia, by extending and retracting its legs and rotating its tail, so it can change the speed at which it rotates, which gives it control over which part of its body hits the ground.

But I digress. Obviously, my coffee cup didn't need to re-orient itself anyway, since it slipped out of my hands bottom-first. So the whole issue of the cat is moot. Now here's an interesting question: Do you know which would hit the floor first if dropped together? My cup of tea or a feather?

Well, it depends. If a certified Joy Thief suddenly walked in and sucked all the air out of the room, so that you had a vacuum, you could drop my cup of tea and a feather at the same time, and they would both land together. Why? Because when there is no air resistance, the only force working on the cup and the feather is gravity, and when gravity is the only force, objects accelerate at the same rate.

On Earth, this acceleration value is 9.8 m/s/s. This is such an important value in physics that it is given a special name - the acceleration of gravity - and a special symbol - g.

Now, on the other hand, if a blowhard followed on the heels of the Joy Thief and suddenly filled the room with hot air, so that you no longer had a vacuum, the cup of tea and the feather would fall at different rates. Because now air resistance would be another factor affecting the fall of the objects. The cup would drop faster, because it has more mass, and it takes longer for it to reach a point where there is enough air resistance to balance the downward force of gravity and keep it from accelerating any further. This point, once it is reached, is known as terminal velocity. The feather, having less mass, doesn't have to fall long before it encounters enough air resistance to bring it to terminal velocity --at which point it ceases acceleration.

My thanks to the website "Physics Classroom" for explaining all this to me. It has finally made clear that whole feather vs. stone question, which I never understood before. But of course it doesn't have anything to do with my original question. How did my coffee cup land so straight and true? Shouldn't the impact have made it tip over? My crash course in physics has taught me that you can calculate the impact force of an object by measuring its stopping distance --how far it continues to travel after the impact. But my coffee cup didn't appear to travel at all. Does that mean that the impact force was "0"?

Or maybe the cup bounced straight up, and came down again, and all the liquid poured back in, like in a cartoon. Yeah, that must have been it.

If I go back to my cubicle and drop a cup full of tea, will I get the same result?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Live-Blogging the Blizzard of 2011 - LATE NIGHT UPDATE

1:22 am: Trying to write, but can't keep eyes open. Must make long journey to bed. The snow has stopped. Everyone in the house is asleep but me. All is quiet. All intestinal tracts are purring along like happy kittens. No one got sick. No one got food poisoning. And a whole aseptic carton of Swanson's chicken broth did not get poured down the drain for nothing. I paid good money for that broth, good money, I tell you.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Live-Blogging the Blizzard of 2011 --UPDATED

5:00: The kids spread the joyous news throughout the house that their school is also cancelled for tomorrow. The school district website has the tell-tale snowflake on the screen, next to the announcement.

5:10 pm: Time to start supper. Dumpling soup sounds good for a day like today.

5:20: Open aseptic carton of Swanson's chicken broth.

5:21: What's that smell? The chicken broth has a strong odor. But it's Swanson's. I spent good money on this because it doesn't have MSG. How could it be bad?

5:22: Do I use this chicken broth? Is it okay? It has to be. I spent good money on it. I ignore the smell and pour it into the pot. Proceed to cook.

5:30: Continue to notice unsettling smell but flat-out ignore it.
5:59: Open bottle of wine I went out of my way to buy yesterday, in the freezing rain. I just had to have some red wine on hand in case we got snowed in. Pour myself a glass. Ahhh.......

6:14: The soup is almost ready. I test the broth. Oh no. It has an off-taste. It's the broth, I just know it. Am I going to poison my family? Am I willing to take such a chance? I look at a full pot of soup I spent 45 minutes making. Should I play dumb and serve this? YES.

6:29: I serve up the soup. Lilah starts to eat it. Makes a face. She says it tastes funny. Oh dear. She goes to help herself to some Kix cereal instead. Roger thinks it tastes fine. I drink my wine nervously.

7:24: Will disaster strike? Will we be okay, or come down with crippling stomach cramps? Only time will tell. So far, so good.

7:26: Lilah is learning to play the song "Skating", the Vince Guaraldi instrumental from "Charlie Brown Christmas."

7:30: Since we are snowbound with nothing to do, we are going to watch one of the movies I checked out of the library, failed to return on time, was unable to renew because it has a hold on it, and was unable to return late because of the storm: The Odd Couple with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Critics say it is pure magic. Comic brilliance. I have a good supply of salt and vinegar chips to snack on during the show. If we're not all keeling over from food poisoning.

Stay tuned....

Live-Blogging The Blizzard of 2011

The riveting blow-by-blow account......

4:13 am: Too sleepy to look out window and see what it's doing. Sure hope I don't have to go into work. My ears hurt. I must be getting an ear infection. What if it goes to my brain? What if I need to seek medical attention? What if it's fatal? How will I get to the hospital in a snow storm? How will I?.......Zzzzzzzz.............

5:00 am: What's that obnoxious beeping noise? I'm getting a text message. The college is closed and I don't have to go to work. Thank goodness!! I read the message five times to make sure I'm not just dreaming..

7:20 am: What am I doing awake when I could be sleeping in?

8:15: What's going on out there? Is it a blizzard yet? Too weak and achy to get up and look. My head swims.

9:00: Make feeble but brave attempt to become upright. I don't want to waste a snow day being sick. Must will self to feel better! I look out window and see it's already snowing a lot.

9:30: Make a cup of Mandarin Orange Spice tea. Sit in a daze. My ears don't hurt as much. My will power is winning!

9:50: Wander around in robe. Check my Face book. Pet dog.

11:00. Make oatmeal and homemade chai tea. See recipe below.

11:20: Drink tea and idly thumb through latest issue of Rolling Stone. Find myself reading about Lil' Wayne's time in the slammer.

12:10 Roger puts the bowl out. We will use the snow we collect to make snow ice cream later.

12:30: Getting my energy back. Change out of pajama bottoms into a pair of jeans, which officially makes me a member of the living. Wash dishes, and feel incredibly productive.

1:40: Start monopoly game with the fam. We find out that all we have is "Monopoly Junior" and half the money is missing. We switch to the game of "Life," which has a frustrating lack of career and relationship options. I have to get married inside a church.

2:30: Still playing Life. I have a son named Zeb, short for Zebedee. I have given $120,000 to an orphanage, bought a luxury car, invented something for $50,000, but lost my auto insurance due to reckless driving. I am not winning.

2:52 Still playing life. The snow bowl is almost completely covered. We can barely spot it in the back yard.

3:00 Driving snow! It's coming down at an angle, and the flakes are huge. Someone is gonna have to take the dog out to pee.

3:13: I have lost the game of Life.

3:30: The snow bowl is completely buried. All we can see is the tippy-top of a tiny twig Lilah put in the bowl to mark it.

3:35: Lilah ventures out and retrieves the bowl. Time for snow ice cream! Get out the milk, pankcake syrup, and vanilla.

3:50: Just ate two bowls of snow ice cream. Omg, now I'm freezing! Time to go sit on the furnace vent upstairs.

3:58: Lilah and Roger are taking the dog out. I am spared.

4:01: Post my recipe for chai tea.

Recipe for Chai Tea:

Makes aprox. 4 cups:

Take a big hunk of ginger and cut up into little pieces. Mix with the following ingredients: Five tsp of loose black tea grounds. Various spices to taste, probably 1/4 tsp or less: cinnamon, nutmeg, whole cloves, cardamom pods (6 or 7) or minute amount of ground cardamom, small amount black pepper.

I have a tea-making device that lets you mix whatever loose ingredients you want, and steeps the tea in them, and then lets you strain the tea into a teacup. So I boil two cups of water in a tea pot and heat two cups of milk in the microwave, then pour both into this tea device filled with the ingredients listed above, and let it steep for several minutes.

If you don't have such a device, you could boil the loose ingredients in a pot of water, add the hot milk, and then use a tea strainer to sift out the tea and spices.

Makes a cup of rich and milky tea with a nice spiced flavor. Add lots of honey or sugar, or it won't taste so good.

Snow Ice Cream:

Mix together snow, milk, vanilla and sweetener in a small bowl, until you get the consistency you want. I like pancake syrup, but you could also use sugar or honey.