Thanksgiving in Florida, 2014

We’re kind of foodies at our house, so Thanksgiving is generally a gala affair. (See Last Year’s Menu and the Even More Dramatic Year Before) However, I’ve noticed that since I started working full time, I have less and less of a desire to spend my entire day off cooking when it’s a holiday. Go figure. Tony has even less of a desire to cook a big Thanksgiving, possibly due to the fact that nearly all of the everyday cooking at our house currently falls to him.

So this year we’ve decided to pare down Thanksgiving a bit. No, make that a lot. In fact, I’m embarrassed to even say what we’re contemplating, nay have actually determined to do. Suffice it to say that our plans for Thanksgiving do not involve either brining the turkey, wrapping it in bacon, cooking it upside down, or even stuffing it. In fact, they don’t involve a turkey at all. Are you ready for it? We’re going to pick up a rotisserie chicken. It was Tony’s idea, since I wouldn’t have been able to bear coming up with such an travesty. However, once he brought it up and I weighed the merits of a rotisserie chicken against the hours of preparation and the reality of turkey leftovers in the freezer for the next several months, I could see he had a point.

But his next idea was the real bombshell: Stovetop stuffing. I was not amused. Stovetop stuffing is too far even for me. I think he was mainly attracted by the ease of preparation, but he claimed (out loud!) that he actually prefers it to homemade stuffing. I was offended. Was he referring to the Leek and Wild Mushroom Stuffing I made last year? Or the  Apple, Sausage & Parsnip Stuffing the year before? Only when I promised to make a completely normal and unadventurous stuffing this year (and reminded him that I’d already consented to rotisserie chicken) did he relent and agree to the compromise.

So I am passing over recipes like Spinach, Fennel, and Sausage Stuffing with Toasted Brioche, Rustic Bread Stuffing with Red Mustard Greens, Currants, and Pine Nuts, and Masa Cornbread Stuffing with Chiles with many a sigh and backward glance. Instead, I have chosen the irreproachable “Simple is Best” Dressing, featuring those old staples of Thanksgiving and Simon & Garfunkel, parsley, sage, rosemary and time. Per the reviews on Epicurious (which one should always, always read, for entertainment value as well as culinary wisdom), I’ll double the herbs and add more broth, especially since I’ll probably sub in sourdough bread if I can get away with it under the nose of Tony, the Thanksgiving Grinch.

High on Axa’s list of important foods for Thanksgiving dinner is pumpkin pie. In fact, she’s been asking if we could have pumpkin pie this year since early October. Pumpkin pie is not my favorite thing, but since it doesn’t have a top crust, it is a candidate for my secret weapon/pie crust dodge (aka the easiest French Tart Crust recipe I have ever encountered). She’s looking forward to making it from an actual pumpkin, so there’s no cutting corners there. I am thinking of using this recipe, which includes white pepper, since I love using pepper in desserts and getting away with it. We fell in love with white pepper when we discovered it in Italy, and started putting it in everything. Everything was better with white pepper, until Tony put it in the breakfast oatmeal one morning. It took me awhile to figure out what the weird taste was, but I could barely choke down my oatmeal. We’ll have whipped cream (NOT the kind from a can) with the pie.

Pineapple bacon wraps are a Bringhurst family tradition. We used to make them for Christmas Eve, but since we’re so often out of town at Christmastime, we make them for Thanksgiving now. They are as easy as they sound–just slices (or half-slices) of bacon wrapped around chunks of pineapple. I think we sometimes might have used canned pineapple growing up, but we always get a fresh pineapple now. Tony learned how to efficiently cut up a pineapple on his mission in the Philippines. Here’s Benjamin managing to burn the pineapple bacon wraps when we invited him to Thanksgiving at BYU eight or nine years ago. No, that’s not a bad quality photo. It’s the smoke in the air.


True to form, Tony suggested that we just buy rolls this year, and get berry jam instead of making cranberry sauce. So no recipes to post for that. And our final menu item is roasted veggies, which we usually cook without a recipe, and are somewhere along these lines. And that’s it; the entire contents of our Thanksgiving spread this year.

What are you planning for Thanksgiving? Is your turkey already marinating? Will you be making homemade rolls, mashed potatoes from scratch, and fourteen kinds of pies? Or will you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did? Remember,

We Got Our Christmas Letter Out Before Christmas This Year!


Special Note: I know that a lot of you are also on our mailing list (I mean email, of course; you didn’t think we were organized enough to actually mail something out, did you?). I apologize for the duplication and will eventually be able to bring myself to forgive you if our letter is not interesting enough to read twice. For those who are not on our email list of people who like us and would like to be (if such exist), it is not because we don’t love you. Give me your email, and I will add you.

Dear Friends, Family and other Special People,

It’s been one of those years where nothing happens. No moving, no international adventures, no exotic new pets, literally nothing, people. You know when you’re actually considering mentioning the fact that you’ve instituted a weekly family sushi night in your Christmas letter that it’s been a truly, madly, deeply boring year.

Still, we’ll see what we can dredge up other than the fact that we’re all still alive, and (yes) still living in Florida. Although it was already news last year that we were setting a record for longest time living in one place since we got married. That means that by now we’ve been living in Florida for about five decades in Familia years. During that time, we’ve managed to make it to three out of four Disney World theme parks, thanks to the kind intervention of the Grandparents, who took us to the Magic Kingdom when they came out for Axa’s baptism in February. It was a lovely baptism, and Axa is now officially Mormon. We’re not sure how our little girl grew up so fast.

Early in the year, we added two darling little sugar glider girls to our family, which now consists of as many sugar gliders as people. Following the Lord of the Rings theme, we named them Galadriel and Nimrodel, appropriately shortened to Gala and Nim, to match their diminutive stature. And really, they only answer reliably to the same name as our other sugar gliders: “do you want a yummy?”

Axa and Raj both started Irish Dance (think Riverdance), and participated in their first Feis (Irish Dance competition), garnering medals, experience, and confidence. We made it out of Florida briefly in July for a Familia Family reunion in Angel’s Camp, California, where we participated in such exciting activities as blackberry picking, water fights with the cousins, and exploring a cave discovered by gold-diggers.

Sarah recently landed a job as Marketing Coordinator for a small company in Palm Coast, and spends most of her time these days immersed in website design, SEO, and blogging (but not on her personal blog, alas!). Yes, I know you were dying to ask: the sugar gliders do go to work with her almost every day. Tony has achieved the level of Domestic God as a stay-at-home dad with a laundry, meal, and cleaning schedule that puts his predecessor to shame. So yeah, we’ve pretty much attained the coveted status of Typical Suburban Family.

Goals for next year: move to Europe, and get a puppy. In that order.
We hope you’ve had a wonderful year, and wish you all the best in the coming new year. Let us know what you’ve been up to lately, and if you want to escape the winter weather, our guest room is always open!


Sarah, Tony, Axa & Raj

(+ Merry, Pippin, Gala & Nim)
P.S. Yes, I know the photo formatting is really wonky, but fixing it would probably cause the subject line of this post to become untrue.


The Familia Family’s Very Late Christmas Letter

I realized that not all of my faithful blog readers are also Facebook friends or email connections. So lest you miss the delight of receiving our family Christmas letter, here it is, reproduced in full (and for those of you who’ve already read it twice and are wondering when I’m going to stop posting it . . . um, sorry):

Dear Family, Friends, and Random People Whose Emails May Have Been Accidentally Added to our Mailing List and are Thus Subjected to the Annual Honor of a Summary of our Life,

It seems like 2012 was an unusually tranquil year. Maybe it’s because we only moved once, and it wasn’t even internationally, just cross-country. Last year at this time found us in California, temporarily staying with family after returning home from more adventures abroad. In February we moved to Deltona, Florida, which is more or less a suburb of Orlando. Hilariously enough, we were written up once again in the local newspaper, just for moving here and being odd.

A dubious honor, to be sure, but we’ll take fame where we can get it. We have not yet made our pilgrimage to Disney World (we’re going next month, courtesy of Grammy and Pampa), but we’ve spent plenty of time at the beautiful beaches nearby and hiking in the lovely and fascinating Florida scrub habitat.

We haven’t seen any alligators yet either, but we’ve encountered manatees, snakes, anole lizards, cardinals, blue jays, gopher tortoises, frogs, toads, ibises, foxes, cranes, eagles, raccoons, and various other wildlife, much of it right in our backyard.

In addition, there have been a few nastier run-ins with things like scorpions, poisonous brown widow spiders, and huge flying palmetto bugs (in case you haven’t yet had the pleasure of their acquaintance, I’d describe them as cockroaches on steroids).

Despite the bugs, the heat, and the hurricanes, at eleven months we have now lived in this house longer than we’ve ever lived anywhere during our entire nine-year marriage. Hurrah for us (or hurrah for Florida, perhaps). Tony has a glamorous job working for The Nielsen Company’s Television Ratings Project. Highlights include getting bitten by a dog in the wilds of Ocala, going on an exotic trip to New Orleans, and meeting some of the more eccentric residents of Florida, like gun-toting survivalists and Star Wars geeks who make costumes for conventions. Sarah has fulfilled a long-cherished desire by acquiring an adorable pair of sugar gliders (yes, in Florida it’s legal to own just about any exotic pet you can think of).

Christened Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, they go everywhere with her, ensconced in a discreet purse designed especially to accommodate them.

Casteluzzo Academy (aka homeschool) is flourishing, built on a foundation of the ever-overflowing book collection (we just bought another bookshelf last month) and supplemented by weekly trips to the library and the goat farm.

Axa keeps busy catching lizards, snakes, and toads and reading everything she can get her hands on about dinosaurs.

Raj envisions a future world in which robots do all our work for us, and he can usually be found toiling to make his dream a reality through the mediums of K’nex, legos, tinkertoys, cardboard, scotch tape, and miscellaneous recycled household items.

If you hunger for more details about our fascinating life, the links above will take you directly to Sarah’s blog, where you can also find a virtual tour of our house, complete 2012 book reviews, and other random delights. We wish you and yours a wonderful new year and good fortune and blessings of every sort.


Sarah, Tony, Axa & Raj

Christmas Tree: After

We incorrigibly insist upon cutting down our own Christmas tree, even when we’re living in climates not necessarily conducive to lush evergreen foliage. Such as southern California or Florida. So we duly went to the Christmas tree farm and hopped on the hayride to find our perfect tree.

The pickings were a little slim. Most of the trees were either under three feet tall or over twenty, giving the farm a sort of “Ents herding guinea pigs” look. The ones of moderate size were all, shall we say, eccentric. One tree was half green, half yellow. Another had a trunk that zig-zagged like a lightning bolt. Still another looked as if someone had been taking bites out of it.

After walking through row upon row of sorry stragglers (who’s scruffy looking?), I was feeling sorely tempted to throw in the towel and just settle for one of the already cut spruces or firs evidently trucked in from some far distant northern clime.

And then we saw it: one fairly decent looking tree. Needless to say, we made quick work of the sawing, and skipped the dusty hayride back, carrying our prize to the barn to be shaken, netted, and packed into our car (yep, it fit inside through the trunk instead of on top, and now we no longer need a “fresh spruce” air freshener).

Once we got it home and into the stand, we realized that very thin branches are characteristic of the quick-growing pines of Florida. Most of the ornaments had to be hung well in on the branches of the tree, so as to avoid the branch bending and dropping them to shatter on our tile floor. Fortunately, Florida pines are also obligingly sparse, so even ornaments hung near the trunk are perfectly visible. Even better, our tree decorating ensemble includes a dozen fake poinsettias, large enough to fill in even the most egregious gaps.

So without further ado, I give you our Christmas tree!

Stay tuned tomorrow for an intimate introduction to some of my favorite Christmas ornaments.

Thanksgiving Menu – Florida

It’s that time of year when I have an excuse to get the kitchen really messy. We have a family tradition of spending the whole of Thanksgiving Day cooking together. For normal everyday cooking I tend to make the same 20-or-so recipes over and over, although every time we move I change things up to reflect which ingredients are cheap and easy to find where we live. But for Thanksgiving, I like to try new recipes every year.

I’ve come a long way from our first Thanksgiving as a little family, in which my freshman sister Hannah arrived just in time to prevent me from sticking the turkey in the oven completely unseasoned and with the giblets still inside their plastic bag in one of the mysterious cavities.

Our most adventurous Thanksgiving was the year we had gone all-raw. It was weird how even in the unchangeable climate of San Diego I started to crave hot food. Especially the smell of food cooking. By the time Thanksgiving came around, we had compromised with ourselves and switched to being just vegetarian. We stuffed a pretty impressive pumpkin, and had some yummy mushroom gravy, but I can’t say it was the best Thanksgiving ever.

Now we’re back to being regular old omnivores, so our Thanksgiving choices are a little more extensive. For recipes, I turned, as usual, to my normal go-to source for recipes, Epicurious. Like any self-respecting foodie site (well at least any American one), they have an extensive section devoted to Thanksgiving. I had quite an enjoyable time clicking on their menus from different parts of the U.S. I’ve only lived in California, the Northwest, and now the South (although I’m told that Florida is not really The South), so it was interesting to see what is normal to eat in other places (rice stuffing anyone? oysters? what about Maple Gingerbread Layer Cake with Salted Maple Caramel Sauce?)  The coolest idea I found was stuffing the Turkey with Tamales. I would totally consider it if we were living back in California and awesome tamales were easy to find.

After an afternoon of serious deliberation (and before the list is pared down by Tony and his unerring sense of the [im]practicality of cooking a dozen different dishes on one day to feed a grand total of four people), I give you our Thanksgiving menu!


Pickled Okra . Yes, this might sound like kind of a weird recipe, but it was the only one off the “Southern” menu that sounded good to me. Plus, it’s supposed to be made beforehand, so it won’t be competing for oven space on the Big Day.

Pigs in a Blanket. I found a recipe for this in the Afternoon Tea Recipe Book I’ve been drooling over lately, and told my kids about eating it when I was a kid. Back then, we used vienna sausages for the pigs, and we thought it was so cool that they came in a package of seven. They were obviously a food tailor-made for our family. I don’t know if I could eat vienna sausages now without gagging, so I think we’ll just use regular sausage.


Heirloom Squash Farrotto. This one just sounded delicious, especially with the cumin yoghurt sauce. I don’t know what my odds are of finding reasonably-priced farro anywhere around here, but there’s always pearl barley.


So, I saw this picture on Facebook a few days ago, and thought it looked pretty impressive:

I looked over a couple of recipes though, and found them unconvincing. Enter Pancetta-Sage Turkey with Pancetta-Sage Gravy. Instead of wrapping the whole thing in bacon, you make a delectable sounding pancetta butter to slather all over it.

Italian Sausage and Bread Stuffing and Apple, Sausage and Parsnip Stuffing. Actually, I’m going to combine these two recipes, since the first one sounded more flavorful, but I loved the idea of adding apples and parsnips, and I think it will go swimmingly with the pancetta-sage turkey.


Not Your Mother’s Green Beans. From Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, and one of my favorite recipes ever. Just-tender green beans tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, toasted pine nuts, scallions, and herbs. I’ve made this recipe in dozens of variations: orange juice or other flavored vinegars instead of the balsamic, walnuts, pecans or almonds, garlic or thinly-sliced red onion, butter instead of the olive oil, etc. It’s easy to whip up in a few minutes, but dressy enough for company (or Thanksgiving dinner).

Roasted Winter Vegetables. This is our only real traditional recipe. We make it every year because it’s just so delicious, and it feels so much like fall.


Bubble-Top Brioches. These look yummy, and my grandma used to make rolls in triplicate like this. Actually, she also made some delicious cheesy rolls that were rolled up like little cones. I’ll have to ask my mom if she has the recipe.


Berry Streusel Pie. Tony wanted either berry or apple, and I’m not fond of apple. Also, I’m not very good at pie crusts, so it’s better to just have a single rather heavy pie crust than a double one. Plus, streusel!

Key Lime Pie. O.K. I have never even tasted key lime pie. But we are living in Florida, and I saw real key limes at the grocery store last week. So I thought it would be a terrible opportunity to waste. For those of you who are key lime pie purists, which topping is more authentic? My recipe has whipped cream, but I’ve also seen meringue (I’m assuming whipped topping is out?). Also, fifteen minutes in the oven? That’s not really long enough to cook a custard. I’m pretty sure it’s not a mistake, since I saw some recipes where the filling wasn’t cooked at all. Maybe this is just my cultural ignorance showing (and I’m no one to judge, since I can put away as much unpasteurized cookie dough as the next baker), but is this dessert actually composed of raw egg yolk mixed with lime juice? Please enlighten me.

What are you having for Thanksgiving, dear readers? Do you make the same recipes every year, or do you like to try new ones? And have you ever cooked a turkey with the plastic giblet bag intact?

photo credit

Stomach Flu and Manatees

The awful thing about a blogging gap is that the longer it persists, the more earth-shattering I think my next post needs to be to break the gap. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of earth-shattering stuff going on in my world lately, so the gap keeps getting longer and longer as I wait and hope that I’ll come up with something blog-worthy to write about. It’s a vicious circle. I justified my laziness about posting for awhile by telling myself it was just as well to leave up my Obamapost until nearer to the election. But the election has now come and gone, and I haven’t posted on my blog for the past month and a half. How long does it take for a blog to go dead?

The sad (or happy?) thing is that my viewing stats haven’t really changed much. I’m not sure what that means; probably that nobody actually reads this blog except people searching for information on pressing questions like the dangers of hubbly bubbly (unless you, my faithful readers, are coming back day after day in the vain hope of reading something new). There was one really weird day last week when I had a bizarrely high number of people visiting The Great Bumper Sticker Poll, but then none of them even voted. What’s up with that?

In other news, we had a bout of stomach flu last week. Axa was the only one affected, so we’re hoping it doesn’t spread. We also went to Blue Springs State Park in pursuit of manatees. We wanted to go back in April or May, but it was already too warm. The Manatees retreat from the open sea to the warmth of Blue Springs only when it gets too cold in the ocean.

It’s a really lovely spot, with a built-in boardwalk through the jungle.

It was also a perfect place for Tony to wear his new aviator shades.

The wooden boardwalk goes straight down to a metal landing over the river, and the manatees are right there! You can’t see it from the picture, but I’m looking at a manatee that is resting almost right under my feet.

I feel like I’m trying to sell a picture of the Loch Ness Monster, but here you can see some actual manatees:

OK, here’s a closeup. Does that make it more clear?

And here is a little baby manatee. He kept rolling all over the adults, and we’re pretty sure we saw him nursing. So cute!

We’re Famous . . . Again!

When I was dating Tony, one of the interesting things that he told me about himself was that he had lived with his family in Indonesia as a teenager. While living there, they spent a summer visiting family in a little town in Idaho, where their exotic expatriate exploit made them instant celebrities. An article even appeared in the local newspaper about the American family who were living in Southeast Asia, and had now brought their international selves home to grace tiny Aberdeen Idaho.

It became an even better story after the same thing happened to us. In 2008, we moved our little family to Chiusa di Pesio, Italy so that we could reconnect with our Italian roots and claim our long-lost Italian citizenship. It was the first time such a thing had ever occurred in Chiusa, and our very existence there  caused something of a sensation. It seemed that everyone had already told everyone else our story. Still, in due time, we were visited in our home by a local reporter, who wanted to publish an account of us in the weekly paper, just in case someone had missed it.

We were flattered, but a little embarrassed, especially after we read the article, and she gushed so liberally about us. Still, it was quite a novelty to read a story about ourselves in the newspaper in the first place. I mean, how often does it happen that you end up in the paper just for being you?

Well, not as infrequently as I thought, apparently. A few weeks ago I was contacted by a reporter from the Daytona Beach News Journal. He had stumbled upon my blog, and remarked that he thought we didn’t really fit in here in Deltona. In fact, he went on to speculate that we probably weren’t going to be around long. I guess reporters can say anything.

Mark turned out to be very nice, though, and we spent a lovely morning chatting. It’s not every day that a captive audience spends an hour and a half listening to your life story, acting really interested and even taking notes. I found I enjoyed it thoroughly. Yesterday, we bought a paper so we could clip it out for our scrap book. And since our family scrapbook only exists in the form of this blog and our family website, here it is:

If you can’t read the small print, the full article is here. Mark took some liberties with the quotes, and bit more with the facts, so if you know us well you can amuse yourself by spotting errors. But at least when he quoted my mom he got it perfect.

Cooking in the Tropics

Last year while I was waiting for our Tunisian landlord to get air conditioning installed in our apartment, I did a couple of posts on cooking for hot weather. When we are not having hurricanes and tornados here in Florida, the weather here is also very hot. And unlike Tunisia, where the sweltering wind off the Sahara desert kept things pretty dry even by the coast, Florida is more of a tropical place. In fact, I’m convinced that if we let our lawn go for, say, six months, we’d probably end up with not a knee-high grassy field, but a full-out jungle. Seriously. You can almost see the grass growing.

It reminds me a lot of the Philippines, where it was so hot and humid (sticky is how I would describe it, really) that I would walk outside and be soaking wet in five minutes, from a combination of sweat and water from the air. While we were there, we stayed for several weeks at a little hotel in Manila. Actually, “hotel” is a little grand. It was called “Pension Natividad,” and it was more like a hostel with a few private rooms, a communal pot of something that they cooked up every night, and a little improvised basketball court where the locals and Peace Corps types would shoot hoops in the evenings.

Pension Natividad had a little refrigerator in the lobby with cold drinks in it. And one of the drinks (by far the best) was the homemade lassi yoghurt.  My favorite flavor was the mango lassi, and to this day, whenever it is sticky hot outside, I am transported back in front of that refrigerator, trying to make up my mind if I need another mango lassi today. One evening a week or so ago it occurred to me that maybe I could make my own lassi. I put equal parts of milk, yoghurt, and mango pulp in the blender, along with a squirt of raw Florida wildflower honey. Heaven.

If it’s too hot to even push blender buttons, tied for best cool drink in the Philippines is coconut water fresh out of the coconut. To. Die. For. Here I am after a long, hot, marital-problem-inducing hike, enjoying one immensely. Axa, not so much.

Green coconut water has become quite the thing these days. It’s full of electrolytes, and is touted as a sort of natural form of Gatorade. You can now get it at Wal-Mart packaged a little more conveniently (i.e. bypassing the need for a machete) in a carton. I keep one in my refrigerator for when I need a healthy, natural, but certifiably mood-altering pick-me-up.

It’s also the season for six-for-a-dollar plantains (you know, those huge green bananas that you can’t eat raw). I saw them on sale at the Latino market where I shop, so I bought them and figured I’d look up how to cook them later. Fortunately, my brother Samuel went on a mission to Puerto Rico, and is a great cook. He sent me recipes for authentic Puerto Rican Mofongo and Garlic Shrimp. With his blessing, I substituted bacon for the pork rinds and chicken for the shrimp, so I can’t claim to have honestly tried the recipes as written. But they were good! My only problem was that I didn’t have the baseball-bat-sized mortar and pestle he informed me the recipe was actually talking about. I managed to mash my plantains anyway, but it was a lot of work. Still, it was worth it. Yum!

Yesterday I had a crazy craving for canned oysters. So I ate some. A lot, actually. As in, two cans full of oysters, right out of the tin with a fork. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I am not pregnant. But I was having my period, and the craving made a lot more sense to me when I looked at the Nutrition Facts on the side of the can and realized that it was by far the most concentrated source of iron available in my house at the time.

I try to make a point to eat lots of iron-rich foods when I’m having my period, because one time at college I went to donate blood while having my period, and they told me I was too anemic. Another time I managed to give blood, but promptly fainted in the middle of my philosophy class, disrupting a lecture on Aristotle and the golden mean. Waking up on the floor in the hallway of the Smith Family Living Center with several anxious fellow-students peering down at me has got to rank as my most embarrassing college moment ever. Or at least second most embarrassing.

What I usually do to celebrate the monthly occurrence is to make liver for dinner. I typically chicken out and buy chicken livers to make pâté. If you’ve never tried it, you should. It is superb. Just don’t be put off by the greyish color. This month, though, I decided to go for it and make liver and onions. I’ve tried this before, with less than palatable results, so I was a little choosy about a recipe. I finally settled on one that touted itself as “Absolute Best Liver and Onions.” I followed the instructions religiously, and it turned out delicious. My kids even complimented it for the entire first half of dinner, until they finally clued in to the fact that it was liver.

What do you like drinking and cooking when it’s summertime?

photo credit: mango lassi

When in Deltona . . .

Do as the Deltonans do. So we did. We went to the 4th of July Parade. It’s been a couple of years since we spent a 4th of July in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Two years ago we were in Ireland, and I was surprised at how much the Irish got into celebrating OUR independence day. They even had special “American” foods (pancakes, maple syrup, and root beer festooned with American flags) on sale at the grocery store. When we went to Church, as the only Americans in the congregation (along with the missionaries) we were wished a happy 4th of July from the pulpit.

I think the Irish excitement had a lot to do with the fact that they’d achieved their own independence from the same colonial power, but much more recently than we. The Irish War of Independence is still within living memory, and they love the chance to celebrate another huge historical embarrassment to their overbearing neighbor.

Last year in Tunisia, the 4th of July passed pretty much without a blip. I don’t think we did anything at all to celebrate, and the Tunisians were mostly preoccupied with their own independence.

This year we’re firmly ensconced in small-town U.S.A., and we were invited to the traditional 4th of July BBQ hosted by a family in the ward who live on the Lake Helen 4th of July Parade route. On the menu were all-you-can-eat giant hot dogs, and a variety of potluck side dishes like baked beans, mac&cheese, frog eye salad, and an abundance of red, white and blue desserts.

The parade was dominated by vehicles like this:

and this:

In the end, the guy we saw on the way in the beat-up pickup truck with the huge confederate flag didn’t make it into the parade (I can’t seem to get used to the confederate flags and racist bumper stickers here). But this did:

Adding to the political overtones, a good portion of the cars (and an even larger portion of the candy) was sponsored by local politicians, some of whom also marched in the parade. I’m not sure if we should consider this bribery of constituents:

There was a snazzy little train,

a lot of horses,

and an obscene amount of candy thrown to the children.

Before the parade, our hosts had passed out grocery bags to the children to hold the candy. I couldn’t imagine enough candy would be thrown to fill a grocery bag per child, but it was.

Happy 4th of July. It’s been a real American holiday.

Welcome Home, Part 7: The Tornado Fun Zone

Yes, we’re currently on tornado watch, due to tropical storm Debby (note to self: find out if they usually get through a whole alphabet of storm names in a season). I didn’t know we had tornados in Florida before we moved here (among other things. This was obviously not the most well-researched move). Someone was killed by a tornado in south Florida yesterday, and when I saw the picture of her house, I freaked out a little. Or a lot.

Fortunately, this was not the first time I had heard of tornados here. Mormons in general are known for being a bit fanatical about disaster preparation. Not only are we enjoined to have a 72-hour-kit full of necessities like high-energy food, flashlights, emergency blankets, solar/hand crank radio, etc., but also a three-month supply of the normal foods we eat, and a full year supply of longer-term food storage like wheat and dried beans.

I don’t know if it’s because this is a high disaster area, or just because people have useful hobbies, but our Ward here is the most disaster-prepared ward I’ve ever encountered. Just a month or two ago, we had a Ward activity centered around preparedness. The lights in the Church building were off, and everyone was supposed to bring an electric lantern to light their family’s table.

We brought a Coleman lantern, since that’s what I found in our camping gear, but I was informed that the fire code proscribed its use, so we sat at a more prepared person’s table. The really hard-core members had been living for the whole week as if a disaster had struck, and refraining from the use of electricity, hot water, and other accoutrements of modern life.

It was a potluck, and everyone was supposed to bring food made out of stuff from their food storage. It was an interesting meal, to say the least, with lots of reconstituted soups and T.V.P. I was not even able to guess what some of the food was made out of. I brought refried beans. Probably the most creative menu item was the fish cakes, made of canned fish rolled in corn flakes. Um . . . yum?

The missionaries turned up late, without any investigators, which was probably a good thing, because sitting around in the dark eating semi-edibles and talking about various calamities of the “last days” might not have been the best introduction to the Church, whatever its ultimate practical value.

After we ate, we sat in the eerie glow of the electric lanterns and people shared their disaster-related expertise. There were presentations on solar cooking, getting water out of sycamore trees (you can get five gallons a day if you tap the tree like a sugar maple), and storm preparedness. I was in charge of talking about how to entertain children without electricity. Most of what my children do all day is not electrically-related, so that wasn’t too difficult.

Somebody had made a little oven out of a cardboard box that would cook a full dinner with just three briquets. Someone else had a ham radio set up. Our Ward has a total of 23 certified ham radio operators, who are organized to keep in touch during a disaster and check up on the various sectors where members live. Even in a church with a culture of disaster preparedness, that’s got to be some kind of record.

And someone else talked about getting your home ready to weather a hurricane. After hearing the talk, Tony and I decided that our method of weathering a hurricane would be to leave town. The presenter also mentioned tornados. My personal experience with tornados is limited to watching The Wizard of Oz, so I raised my hand and asked what we should do if a tornado came through, since we haven’t got a root cellar.

Today when I had my tornado-induced freak-out, I used what I’d learned at the Ward activity to set up our very own storm shelter, aka Tornado Fun Zone.

The first thing we had to do was decide which room of the house would be the safest in case of a tornado. It’s supposed to be an internal room without windows. Our first thought was the children’s bathroom, since it’s technically three walls deep and somebody at the activity told a story about a friend of a friend who ran into the bathroom and grabbed the toilet during a tornado. After the tornado had passed, the only thing left of the house was the toilet and the person clinging to it. I made a mental note to clean my toilet.

But then we remembered that the bathroom has a skylight, and of course I immediately pictured us all getting sucked out through the skylight. Our bathroom is even worse, since it’s on an outside wall with two large windows, and tons of other glass in the room from the shower and mirrors. So yeah. The only room in our house without windows is my walk-in closet. Here’s the entrance, right next to my Mommy Wall in my bedroom. Doesn’t it look so inviting?

Here’s the inside. Excuse the clutter, but it really does spend most of its time functioning as a closet.

Here’s my blanket stash, in case we have to spend the night in it. Not that we would need blankets if the four of us were all snuggled in here together.

Behind the blankets you can just see the back of the mirror that Tony has promised to move to another closet so it doesn’t shatter on top of us.

Here’s our stash of bunny crackers, sardines, and oysters, in case we get hungry while the tornado is passing over us. Below are some books and crayons to amuse us, and a flashlight in case the power goes off.

Here’s the water in case we get thirsty, our 72-hour-kit, and the bicycle helmets that I read on some website that we should wear in case of flying objects (such as all of the containers and boxes stored on shelves above our heads in the closet).

Does it look like we’ll survive the tornado?