What a Waist!

The current (February/March 2019) issue of AARP The Magazine (which arrived in mid-March, but that is a discussion for another time) has an article on “7 Numbers That Reveal Your Heart Disease Risk.” One of these is “waist circumference.” The number to shoot for is 35″ or less for women (40″ for men). The article provides the following instructions:

To measure your natural waist, grab an old-fashioned tape measure and stand without pushing out or sucking in your belly. Wrap the tape measure around your torso just above your hip bones. (If you lean to one side, a crease forms at the point of your natural waist.) Exhale, then measure.

This is exactly how I would define my natural waist. That is where I want the waistband of my pants and skirts to sit. It is the point at which I am narrowest, so it is a secure place for garments to rest.

Although it is my narrowest point, it is, of course, not as narrow as it once was. I never had an 18″ waist à la Scarlett O’Hara. I don’t think I could have managed that even with a corset (or the Merry Widow that was popular in my salad days), but I think I once boasted 24″. It’s more than that now but still well under 35″.

But you wouldn’t know that from my medical record. The last time I went in for my annual Medicare wellness visit, the nurse wanted to measure my waist. I cleared the area of covering garments and started to put the tape measure at my waist. No, she instructed me, put the end of the tape measure on my navel and then twirl around so that the tape circles me at that point.

This is insane! My navel is 3″ below my natural waist, and the measurement there is some 8″ greater than my actual waist measurement. Because I have a tummy. I have always had a tummy—apparently from birth. Pictures of me from childhood show me with stick-thin arms and legs and round little belly. Even when I had no hips and buttocks to speak of, I always had a protuberant abdomen. So measuring my “waist” this way is disastrous.

My BMI doesn’t need any further insults. I’ve always been short, but now I’m even shorter. Historically, I was 5′3″. Not too long ago I was measured at 5′2½″. I could live with that. But at my most recent medical visit, a nurse reported my height as 5′½″! I commented that this made me even more overweight than I thought (my BMI is still well under 25, but my belly makes me too “fat” to wear clothes well).

Apparently my doctor’s office is not alone in defining “waist” in this bizarre way. WebMD offers these instructions for measuring the waist: “Start at the top of your hip bone, then bring the tape measure all the way around your body, level with your belly button.” The website verywellfit says, “Waist circumference is a measurement taken around the abdomen at the level of the umbilicus (belly button)” and instructs you to “wrap the tape measure around the widest part of your stomach, across your belly button.” But most definitions and illustrations online describe or show “waist” as I understand it.

I plan to take this matter up with my primary care physician at my next wellness visit. If they are required to measure around my navel level, then that’s what they will have to do, but they should not call it a “waist” measurement because, at least to my mind, that is not what a waist is.

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Buying Toilet Paper

A few days ago I brought the last package of toilet paper upstairs to our bathroom and accordingly put “TP” on my grocery list, so when I go to Walmart this afternoon, I’ll be hitting the toilet paper aisle. This usually doesn’t require much thought or effort. I long ago settled on my “favorite” brand (though the reasons for that selection are lost in the mists of time), so I head right to it. I usually buy the Giant Economy Size of 24 or even 36 rolls, avoiding looking at the shelf price since I don’t even want to know how much I’m paying for something that will just be thrown away.

I recently said to my husband that I was thinking of changing brands. He strenuously objected, saying that he liked what we have, but the problem is that it is very linty: I am constantly having to sweep or vacuum up paper dust from under the TP dispenser. If I did decide to switch, Walmart offers several brands to choose among: Cottonelle, Charmin, Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, and its own Great Value brand. Cottonelle, my “favorite,” comes in Clean Care (single-ply), Comfort Care (two-ply), and Gentle Care (with aloe). So I am spoiled for choice. This was not the case for my mother 70 years ago.

As time permits, I’ve been reading the letters my mother wrote to her mother throughout her married life. During the war years, when rationing was in effect, mention of unavailable items was frequent. Even after the war, in the 1945 and 1946 letters, it was not uncommon to find allusions to hard-to-find or expensive meats or canned foods. And my parents had been trying for many months to get a new car to replace the extremely unreliable 1937 Ford my father had bought from his mother before he was married. But toilet paper?

The first reference I noticed was in a letter dated December 1, 1947. My father’s parents had come to visit us in New Orleans for the week of Thanksgiving, returning home on Sunday, November 30. The next day, Mother summarized the activities of the past few days. On Friday, she wrote, “…while Suzanne was taking her nap, Mama and I went in search of toilet paper. Found some at our Maison’s…”

“Our Maison’s” was the Gentilly branch of Maison Blanche, which had recently opened in a shopping center on Gentilly Boulevard at Frenchman Street, within walking distance of our house (the photo below shows its interior in 1948; the location is now an AutoZone). I can’t imagine having to buy toilet paper in a department store!

Six weeks later, Mother was searching again, writing to her mother on January 16:

While I think of it, how is the toilet paper situation in Tennessee? We are really desperate—have been using face tissues at 26¢ and 31¢ a box. If Daddy could get us some good brand, we’d certainly appreciate it. Even Tom’s wholesale grocery customers can’t get it. I’d rather use Kleenex than the sandpaper brands the drugstores have.

Those prices for Kleenex would be $2.70 and $3.22 in 2018 dollars. A box of Kleenex today costs less than $1.50 but would still be expensive to use as toilet paper.

That the shortage continued is evidenced by a March 13, 1948, letter. My father had had to travel to Biloxi-Gulfport on business (he was an IBM salesman), and Mother writes: “Tom got home from Biloxi last night about 8:45—much earlier than I expected him. He brought me a box of candy and 12 rolls of toilet paper!”

This is certainly something to think about when I find myself dissatisfied because I have to get two-ply instead of single-ply or settle for a bundle that has packages of four or nine rolls instead of my preferred six!

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Fairhope Scavenger Hunt: Birdwatcher Edition

When we moved to Fairhope in 1980, there was a sign on Section Street as we turned off the “four-lane” (Highway 98) proclaiming Fairhope a bird sanctuary. Perhaps it is still there.

In the intervening years, birds have been both encouraged and protected in Fairhope. A string of bluebird houses was put up along the bayfront. Feral cats were trapped and removed to prevent them from preying on waterfowl at the Duck Pond. Then ducks and geese were “relocated” in an attempt to reduce the fecal coliform count of the Bay, affected by runoff from the Duck Pond. But birds of all sorts still abound, and many homeowners welcome them, some of them extravagantly:

Any Fairhopian can see seagulls at the Municipal Pier and waterfowl at the Duck Pond, but can you locate these Fairhope birds? Each one was spotted within a block of the Bay and can be easily seen from the street, including this welcoming pair of hummingbirds:

Pelicans are popular:


But there are many other varieties as well:

Even peacocks!

And whatever this is:

Extra credit for identifying what this scene has to do with birds:

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The Copy Editor’s Apology

When I joined the Pensters Writing Group a couple of years ago, my primary motivation was to benefit the Fairhope Public Library’s Tuesday Book Review & Lecture Series, of which I have been program chairman since 1993. I hoped to encourage more of the Pensters to attend the book reviews and perhaps also find some of the members who would be willing to present book reviews. I have been slightly successful in the former, less successful in the latter. As a copy editor, I don’t consider myself a “writer” (that is, a creative writer), but I enjoy the company of writers, and there was also a remote chance of picking up some editing work.

The Pensters meet monthly from September through May, and at seven of the monthly meetings there is a featured speaker on some aspect of writing or publishing. There is also a monthly writing contest, described as followed in the Pensters yearbook:

From September through April, contests are held for dues-paying members. Contests include unpublished poetry and unpublished prose, fiction or nonfiction. Entries are judged by the month’s guest speaker.

Prizes are awarded for both poetry and prose, as follows: $10 for first place, $5 for second place, no cash prize for Honorable Mention, but all winners are asked to read their winning entry. Only one submission in each category is permitted per month.

Entries must relate to the monthly prompts. Prose is limited to 500 words, double-spaced; poetry is limited to two typed pages, single-spaced with double spacing between stanzas.

The “prompts” are evocative phrases that the entry must address in some way. This year they’ve included “In the heat of the afternoon,” “A justifiable sin,” “In the back seat of a taxi,” “A year after he died,” “The heart of the matter,” and “A strange branch on the family tree.” As I said, I don’t consider myself a writer, but I’ve always wanted to be one, and I figured it would be good practice to push myself to enter the contest each month. So far my entries have been pretty dismal, but I’ve used the opportunity to write snippets of memoir or autobiographical fiction. I’ve found the 500-word limit extremely constricting, and it had occurred to me that, with single spacing and rather long lines, one could actually get more words into two pages of poetry. Not to mention that there are always fewer poetry entries than prose. But I am even less a “poet” than a “writer.”

Still, what I turned in last month was a “poem.” The prompt was “Motive for the theft,” which wasn’t jogging any useful reminiscences, so I had pretty much resigned myself to skipping the contest when I had a flash of inspiration the day before the deadline. I started jotting down snatches of thought and eventually was able to combine them into the following:

The Copy Editor’s Apology

I never meant to steal your smile!
Don’t look so woeful: I was only helping.
You asked for judgment, and I judged,
My edits meant to make improvements.

I never meant to steal your words,
Only to offer different, better ones—
Not mandates but suggestions rather
That would create a smoother line.

I never meant to steal your thoughts,
Only to try to read your mind.
Your meaning’s muddy here; let’s clear it up—
Replace this comma with a semicolon?

Your writing’s good but could be better:
The past of drink is drank, not drunk,
And Mary whom you mention here—
Was she not Jane one page ago?

I never meant to make you weep.
Your plot is brilliant, characters rich.
It’s just the grammar that’s a little weak,
With careless punctuation.

We work together, you and I.
To make your work the best that it can be.
We should be friends, not adversaries.
You pay me for my skill, and I respect your talent.

I never meant to steal your smile.
You should be smiling gratefully.
If I cross out a word, suggest another,
I count it not as theft but value added.

When I went to pick up my (as usual) losing entry yesterday, I couldn’t find it. In fact, I couldn’t find any poetry entries at all; they all seemed to be prose, many of them unclaimed entries from previous contests. So I thought maybe I’d at least scored Honorable Mention.

To my surprise, the contest chair announced that there was no Honorable Mention. Then the second-place winner’s name was read, and she came up to read. It was a great poem. The next result seemed inevitable but also inconceivable: I’d taken first place! I was stunned but very pleased.

I had lucked out in two ways. In the first place, there was a substitute judge. Last month’s featured speaker, Sue Brannan Walker, is “a poet, author, and editor. She is a former Poet Laureate of Alabama and is currently the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published. She is the author of five poetry collections and numerous other books and is or has been an advisory editor for several literary journals.” But she was also a no-show: her husband was ill, so she couldn’t make it. Our Pensters president, John Woods, and author Frank Coombs (who writes under the name of Frank Kelso) filled in with a very informative talk about self-publishing and promotion. John then judged the contest entries. I figured I would probably fare better with him than I would have with Sue.

But the bottom line was that apparently there were only two poetry entries!

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Making Bad Choices

In my admittedly hazy memory of the simpler days of my childhood in the 1950s and ’60s, things came in threes. There were the Big Three automakers, of course, but there were also three brands of shampoo (Breck, Prell, and Halo), and three brands of toothpaste (Colgate, Ipana, and Pepsodent). Even though we didn’t have TV, I remember the advertising slogan for Pepsodent (“You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent“) and Bucky Beaver singing “Brusha brusha brusha with the new Ipana.”

Even though we were a Colgate family, I don’t remember any Colgate commercials. Perhaps they didn’t need to advertise, being the grandfather of toothpastes. Colgate toothpaste (or possibly tooth powder) was sold in glass jars beginning in 1873; in 1896, Colgate was the first toothpaste sold in a collapsible tube. As other toothpastes rose and fell (Ipana 1901–1979, Pepsodent 1915–1960s), Colgate hung on. In fact, Wikipedia tells us:

According to a 2015 report by market research company Kantar Worldpanel, Colgate is the only brand in the world purchased by more than half of all households. Colgate has a global market penetration of 67.7% and a global market share of 45%. Despite this, it maintained the highest growth rate of all brands in the survey, with 40 million new households purchasing Colgate-branded products in 2014. Its global market penetration is nearly 50%; higher than the second-placed brand in the study, Coca-Cola with 43.3% penetration.

Some brands declined because they were slow to add fluoride. The first to do so was Crest, in 1954 (it was actually first introduced under the brand name “Fluoristan”). By 1958, Crest was third in sales, behind Colgate and Gleem (an earlier Procter & Gamble challenger to Colgate-Palmolive’s market leader).

It doesn’t take much googling, of course, to be reminded of other brands I’d forgotten—White Rain shampoo and Gleem toothpaste, for example—but one thing was true of all of them: they may have come in more than one size or type of packaging or even form (in addition to toothpaste, there was tooth powder, and Prell shampoo came as both a liquid in a bottle and a gel in a tube, both green), but there was just one basic product. Colgate Dental Cream was one such.

Compare that to today: the product page at the Colgate website list 47 discrete products! These include brand names such as Colgate Total®, Optic White®, Enamel Health™, MaxFresh®, Sensitive, and PreviDent®, plus sub-brands including CoolScrub® and Shockwave™. It gets worse: search for “Colgate toothpaste” at Walmart.com, and you will get 19 pages featuring 725 SKUs of Colgate toothpaste in various packaging options. Obviously, you can’t find all these varieties in a Walmart store, but that hasn’t stopped me from accidentally buying tooth gel when I wanted toothpaste or puzzling over the difference between “Clean Mint” and “Fresh Mint” flavors. The result is that I seem never to come home with the same product twice.

In 1958, when Colgate was the #1 toothpaste and Crest was #3, presumably there were seven others in the Top Ten. Want to see today’s Top Ten? A Statista page lists them for 2017: Crest is #1, but also #7, #8, and #9. Colgate is #4 (Colgate Total), #5 (Colgate), #6 (Colgate Optic White), and #10 (Colgate MaxFresh). The second and third spots are claimed by Sensodyne. In other words, the top ten products represent only three companies. Adding all the figures together, the combined total for Colgate ($583 million) is still more than for Crest ($568.8 million), with Sensodyne a distant third ($365.9 million). Confused yet?

What brought all this to mind (not that I don’t think about it every time I shop for toothpaste—and it’s not just Colgate: my husband uses Arm & Hammer) was an item I recently read in February 2018 issue of The Rotarian:

Business owners and policy makers can make shopping easier if they pay attention to “choice overload.” According to studies and meta-analyses by professors at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, too many options can leave consumers unhappy with their purchase or so overwhelmed that they choose nothing. The researchers recommend that to mitigate overload, companies and agencies should make product information simple to understand, not pressure consumers to make quick decisions, and offer a grace period to allow purchasers to change their minds.

Having recently shopped for a new clothes dryer, I can attest to the effect of “choice overload.” Trying to sort out the comparative features of given models of even a single brand is especially daunting when you are under pressure to avoid yet another Saturday afternoon entirely devoted to getting clothes dry in a dryer that has stopped drying.

Looking back again to the halcyon days of my childhood, I seem to remember a time when there was one variety of a product. Occasionally a manufacturer would pep up advertising by bringing out a “New and Improved” version of its product. We might be secretly convinced that the only difference between the old detergent and the new was the “New and Improved” label on the box, but at least it was the same old Tide. It wasn’t a new version with a different scent sitting side-by-side with the old Tide on the supermarket shelf. It always seemed to me that the rot first infected breakfast cereals. We had shredded wheat, corn flakes, raisin bran, and a few other basics. Suddenly the cereal aisle exploded. If the cereal was good with raisins, maybe we needed it with raisins and almonds. Or berries. Or yogurt. Or (gag) chocolate. You know what I’m talking about!

There are certainly circumstances in which variety is desirable: soup, for example. I recently discovered Campbell’s “Well Yes!” soups. They’re really quite good, and there are 14 varieties. But my grocery store carries only three. I’d love to try the rest. But do we really need this many ways to clean our bathrooms?

This embarras de choix is especially difficult when you have finally used up a product you liked but used so infrequently that in the interim between buying it and exhausting it, it has been replaced by ten similar but not exactly the same products. Which to choose?

Worst of all, you go to replace a household staple, buy the same thing you’ve always bought, and find that it has become something entirely different. I have been buying Ajax Liquid dishwashing detergent for as long as I can remember. If I had to guess, I’d say that it probably had a lemon scent, but nothing I noticed.

Although Ajax Liquid now comes in five scents, I bought the usual one, which is described as having “the fresh, clean aroma of lemon.” This bottle, however, does not smell like lemon, nor does it smell like the old Ajax. It smells, as my husband is wont to say, like a service station restroom: that is, it is obtrusively redolent of some offensively “pretty” scent intended to cover up smells that are less pleasant. I find I can’t bear to use it.

And no, I don’t want to go back to the days of the general store, where you ask for toothpaste and the proprietor gives you a tube (or tin) of the single brand he carries, but I am absolutely not convinced that any particular variety of Colgate will whiten my teeth, freshen my breath, or protect me from cavities or gingivitis better than any other.

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A Dream of Number Theory

A curious “memory” popped up in a dream last night, an allusion to a proof that 69 is an even number. Half awake, I “remembered” reading this “proof” somewhere—a clever, elegant argument, although obviously quite specious. And entirely a product of my imagination, it turns out.

I always say that I have no imagination, and that is certainly true of my waking self. My sleeping brain, however, is prone to extravagant flights of fancy, and this was clearly one of them. As I woke up further, I dismissed this absurd concept but instead decided that I had read that 2 is not an even number, the rationale being that no even number is prime.

Waking still further, I became less confident even of that “fact,” but I do definitely recall reading somewhere recently—whether online or in hard copy I don’t recall—a discussion of prime numbers and their frequency in each increasing decade, and this discussion did definitely describe 0 and 1 and perhaps also 2 as special numbers that were outside the prime/not prime (and perhaps even the odd/even) dichotomy. Google research tells me that the word for “not prime” is composite and that indeed 0 and 1 are considered neither prime nor composite since they don’t have exactly two positive divisors (factors), which would make them prime, nor more than two, which would make them composite. Clearly 2 does meet the definition of prime, so my dream-induced “memory” completely falls apart.

I still wish I could remember where I read the article because its whole point was that there is a pattern to prime numbers. I did learn (from Wikipedia) that “The Riemann hypothesis implies results about the distribution of prime numbers.” A little more googling reveals that in 2010 a University of Texas professor, John Tate, received the Abel prize for his research on this subject. In March 2016, several publications reported mathematicians or “math experts” as “stunned” or “shocked” to discover a pattern in prime numbers.

Perhaps the best pattern of all, however, is the visual one revealed in this YouTube video. The Stephen Hawking voice is really annoying, but the video is intriguing.

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Froached Eggs

Do you love a beautiful sunny-side-up fried egg but want to avoid the greasy “lace” at the edges? Or would you like a poached egg on toast but don’t want to take the time to boil water? Try my instructions for “froached” eggs.

  1. If you’re going to serve the egg on toast, prepare the toast ahead of time; the egg cooking process goes quickly!
  2. In a small (8″) nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, pour a small quantity of water (a teaspoon is plenty).
  3. When the water begins to sizzle (indicating that the pan is hot), break one or two eggs into the skillet.

  1. Add salt and pepper as desired.
  2. When the white has begun to set, pour a little more water around the eggs (this time a quarter cup or less will suffice). I usually pour recently boiled water from my electric kettle so it’s already hot.
  3. Cover the pan and reduce heat as needed to keep it at a steady simmer.
  4. When the yolks have reached the desired doneness, use a spatula or pancake turner to slide the eggs onto the plate or toast.
  5. Enjoy!
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Lazy Cook’s “Good Enough” Chili

’Readers familiar with my previous recipe posts will have realized that I’m not a very ambitious cook. This recipe is a prime example. It’s not a recipe you’d want to use for your Chili Cookoff entry—in large quantities it would be too expensive, and you’d wear yourself out opening cans—but for a family meal, it’s quite adequate. My husband insists he prefers it to any other chili he’s tasted. The recipe as I received it called for an ample quantity of chili powder, but it’s just spicy enough for me without.


  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • Chopped onion (about half a medium onion)
  • 2 (15-oz.) cans Ranch Style Beans (see Comments)
  • 1 (14.5-oz.) can tomatoes (see Comments)
  • 1 (15-oz.) can tomato sauce (see Comments)


  1. In a large stock pot, brown ground beef with onion.
  2. Add remaining ingredients.
  3. Cover and simmer until heated through.
  4. Serve topped with shredded cheese.


Ranch Style Beans: I use the Original style, but you can also get them with sweet onions, red peppers, or jalapeños. If you can’t find these beans, you can substitute Bush’s Best Chili Beans, which come in Mild, Medium, and Hot varieties. In addition to these kidney bean varieties, Bush’s makes kidney beans in a spicy chili sauce.

Tomatoes: The secret here is to get tomatoes that are already seasoned. I usually get Del Monte “Zesty Chili Style” diced tomatoes.

Tomato Sauce: Again, take advantage of seasoning in the sauce. I usually use Hunt’s Seasoned Tomato Sauce for Chili. It appears, however, that this is being phased out in favor of Hunt’s Seasoned Diced Tomatoes in Sauce for Chili (Mild, Medium, or Hot), which doesn’t sound like the same thing, so I may have to try something different.

Cheese Topping: We like Walmart’s Great Value Fiesta Blend.

Makes about six servings—more if you serve it over rice, as we often do.


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Campfire Stew

Now that the Boy Scouts have decided to admit girls, there’s a big flap about whether girls are better off being traditional Girl Scouts or liberated girl Boy Scouts. Needless to say, this was a choice I did not have to make, and, even though I lived in three different cities and attended four different elementary schools between first and sixth grades, I did somehow manage to be both a Brownie and a Girl Scout.

I remember almost nothing of my Girl Scout experience, but recently I’ve been reading the letters my mother wrote to her mother when I was in fifth and sixth grades, and she frequently mentions my Scout activities. Apparently my troop made arrangements for all the girls to earn badges together, and the ones my mother mentioned were Sewing, Home Nursing, and especially Cook. For the last I had to try several recipes at home and put together a cookbook of the recipes. I spent so much time decorating the cover that Mother ended up having to type up the recipes for me so I could turn my book in on time. I don’t remember what any of the recipes were, though I have a vague memory that my grandfather’s Deviled Hamburgers may have been one of them.

I also remember a weekend at Scout camp and possibly a separate overnight campout. On one or the other of those occasions, we made Campfire Stew, which I recall as being composed primarily (or perhaps entirely) of ground beef and vegetable soup (or maybe canned mixed vegetables and water). I’ve adapted that basic recipe into one of our family menu staples.

There are numerous Campfire Stew recipes available online. Many involve actual fresh vegetables—a bit labor-intensive for the woods, if you ask me, and certainly for my kitchen—but the Taste of Home version and Mom’s Campfire Stew, though both more elaborate, are not dissimilar to mine in some respects. Mine is definitely the lazy cook’s version, however.

Campfire Stew Ingredients

  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 2 (18.5 oz.) cans vegetable soup
  • 1 (14.5 oz.) can tomatoes
  • 2 cups uncooked pasta

Campfire Stew Instructions

  1. Brown ground beef in a large stock pot.
  2. Add soup and tomatoes and bring to a boil.
  3. Add pasta and cook for the length of time indicated on the pasta package (you can lower the heat and cover the pot).

Campfire Stew Comments

Ground beef: I get the 93% lean, so I don’t bother to drain it, but you may want to siphon off the fat if there is a lot.

Soup: This should be ready-to-eat soup (not condensed). I usually use Progresso; the specific variety depends on what’s available in the store. Many of Progresso’s vegetable soups already include pasta, and I try to avoid those. Some that don’t are Vegetable Classics Garden Vegetable, Vegetarian Vegetable with Barley, and Zesty Southwestern Style Vegetable. This last, which is all I could find the other day, has the advantage of being a “Light” variety, and it was very tasty.

Tomatoes: There’s a daunting variety of canned tomatoes these days—stewed, diced, petite diced, whole, crushed, etc. Pretty much anything will do. Many varieties include other ingredients that would change the seasoning of the stew: I used to be able to get an “Italian vegetable” soup and pair it with tomatoes with Italian seasoning. Be creative!

Pasta: Any kind of non-noodle pasta will work—shells, bowties, fusilli, elbows, etc. I like to use the colored kind. For myself and my husband, I use Wacky Mac Veggie Spirals (shown in the photos), but when the granddaughters come, I break out the Wacky Mac Veggie Shapes. (The batch of stew shown may have had more than two cups of pasta; it was however much was left after my daughter had used some for her girls, and I didn’t measure it.)

This dish is very quick to make, serves 4–6, and makes a hearty supper on a crisp fall evening.

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In Search of the Perfect Chess Tart

On June 30, on the eve of Canada’s 150th anniversary, one of my Facebook friends reported that she had made “butter tarts” in celebration of Canada Day. I’d never heard of butter tarts, but on googling them, decided (quite erroneously, I think) that the description (“butter, sugar, and eggs in a pastry shell”) sounded a lot like the chess tarts my mother, Virginia Scoggins, used to make. Since her death in 2002, I had not had any of these delicacies, so my memory is somewhat vague, and a rudimentary search of my hand-me-down recipes turned up nothing. One of my brothers actually has the recipe scrapbook Mother made, but it is in storage somewhere, currently inaccessible, so I set out to see what I could find elsewhere.

I started with my cookbook collection, where I found no recipes for chess tarts but several for various kinds of chess pie. The sources I consulted included my “hope chest” recipe book, which included two recipes that I had copied from somewhere but was pretty sure were not my mother’s; the Simply Divine book published by Government Street Presbyterian Church; Recipe Jubilee, published by the Junior League of Mobile; and Huntsville Heritage, published by the Grace Club Auxiliary. All of these recipes called for butter, margarine, or shortening in amounts ranging from ¼ cup to 1 cup, sometimes softened, sometimes melted. They all called for sugar: 1 cup, 1½ cups, or 2 cups. And they called for two, three, four, or five eggs or five or six egg yolks. All except the lemon and chocolate varieties called for vanilla extract (1 teaspoon in every instance—the only ingredient consistent among the recipes). Most called for vinegar (1 tablespoon in all but one instance), and most called for corn meal, in amounts ranging from ½ tablespoon to 5 tablespoons. Additional ingredients in specific versions included salt, water, flour, milk, lemon extract (for the Lemon Chess Pie), Bourbon (for the Whiskey Chess Pie), and cocoa and evaporated milk (for the chocolate version). The resulting pie was to be baked at 250° or 300° or 325° or 375° or “400°, then 350°” for 30 minutes, 35–40 minutes, 40–60 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour, or “till light brown.”

Thoroughly confused by now, I again resorted to the Internet to search for “chess tarts.” Among the recipes I found was one for “Buttermilk Chess Tarts” that sound absolutely divine. This recipe appears to be based on (or at least largely similar to) the “Miniature Southern Chess Tarts” recipe that was handed down by another Virginia, but neither of these is what my mother made. So I looked for a chess pie recipe that included vinegar and cornmeal, which I had decided (perhaps arbitrarily) were essential ingredients for authentic chess tarts. I ended up settling on this one.

I had a Pillsbury pie crust in the freezer, so I made the recipe as a pie. It was okay, but, even though the recipe called for a 9-inch pie shell, and that’s what I’d used, it seemed awfully thin. So I searched for frozen tart shells and eventually located these:

I have now made three batches of these and feel tentatively ready to share the recipe and some hints.

Chess Tarts Ingredients

  • 1 package of frozen tart shells, unbaked (see recommendations below)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Chess Tarts Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine filling ingredients in mixing bowl.
  3. Pour into pastry shells.
  4. Bake 25 to 35 minutes until golden brown and firm.
  5. Cool before serving.

Chess Tarts Comments

The pastry shells I used come wrapped in packages of two. The directions on the pastry shells package say to remove the shells from the protective wrap and let stand 10 minutes, then separate them. Do not do this! After my first two attempts, I had concluded that separating the pastry shells was the hardest part of the preparation because the bottom shell becomes gummy and sticks to the aluminum pan of the top one; it was almost impossible to get them apart without making a mess and breaking off pieces of the crust, and the bottom of the top aluminum pan was coated with grease from the bottom shell. The third time I unwrapped the shells and immediately separated them. They snapped apart without a hitch and in pristine condition.

I think the first time I made the recipe, I melted the butter. The second time I softened it and used an electric mixer to “beat on high speed 3 to 5 minutes” per the original instructions. I didn’t feel that this made any difference except to take more time and trouble and require more washing up. If the butter is melted, you can use a wire whisk to beat the filling mixture, and you can have everything done in the time it takes your oven to preheat. I do think that next time I will add the melted butter to the sugar and beat, then add the other ingredients, saving the eggs for last. But that may not make any difference either. So far my tarts haven’t been very pretty (the photo is from the second batch), but they taste great!

Although the ingredients above make for a very thin pie, they make just exactly the right amount to fill the eight tart shells. The filling will swell during cooking, creating a large balloon above the tart shell, but this will collapse rapidly as the tarts cool.

Although you could ladle or spoon the filling into the tart shells, it is a lot easier if you make up the batter in a bowl that has a pouring lip. I used a plastic pitcher (basically a vintage Tupperware Mix-N-Stor® pitcher) intended for mixing Bisquick pancakes, and this was perfect.

I was initially uncertain about the cooking time, but in fact it is about the same for the tarts as for the pie because the depth of the filling is equivalent. In my oven, the full 35 minutes is required.

These tarts, once cooled, are easily removed from the aluminum pans and are best eaten out of hand instead of using a fork! My mother used to make several batches and freeze them, so I know they can be frozen. Who knows? They may even improve upon refrigeration!

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