John Grindrod: Old school is the best school, says Lady Jane

On weekends when I’m hosting my Lady Jane for the day, part of my experience is always providing a home-cooked meal to share with her. The fare is basic but, I think pretty good and nutritious, that is, until that last part that happens to be LJ’s favorite part of any meal, the dessert.

Now, I will tell you that the dessert thing really isn’t my strongest cooking suit. I surely don’t do cakes from scratch or pies either for that matter although I’ve done from-scratch cookies in one of my confectionary prouder moments. However, with the already-made cookie dough I can buy where all I need to do is separate the squares, grease a pan, set the oven to 350 and then trust my nose as to when to pull them out, I always have an easy dessert option.

Now, sometimes, for variety’s sake, I’ll want to challenge myself a bit by going next level with brownies. Yes, sadly for me, that’s next level, something, no doubt that would cause Mayberry’s Clara Edwards and Aunt Bee to shake their heads in disapproving disbelief, given their talents in the from-scratch baking realm. I refer to it as “next level” because it involves cracking an egg, using a measuring cup to add water and vegetable oil, using a wooden ladle to mix the box’s contents into brown goo and later sticking that toothpick in to see if it comes out clean. That’s next level!

For me, one of the real challenges has always been making sure the brownies once cooled and cut stay in the chewy category and don’t harden. For Lady Jane, hard cookies or brownies are an anathema. Jane’s two expectations can be summed up using a couple of adjectives divided by a conjunction, “soft and chewy,” that are as difficult to separate as has always been other words used by weary mothers correcting their recalcitrant children who always have messy bedrooms. Of course, you know the word “sick” must be followed by “and tired.”

After a recent effort to achieve “soft-and-chewy” status failed, Jane sat me down and told me an old-school technique that she got from her mom, who got the lesson from her mom, a lesson that would solve the hard brownies problem (and also works for hard cookies). She directed me to get a large Ziploc bag to store the brownies and then told me to put a couple pieces of bread in the bag before zipping them up and leaving them for a couple hours.

To be honest, I was quite skeptical that any changes would take place with the hardened squares. However, much to my surprise but not Jane’s, when I pulled out a brownie and took a sample nibble, they indeed scored 10s in both the soft and the chewy categories.

Now, Lady Jane’s old-school ways in using some techniques passed from her grandmother to her mom to her isn’t limited to the kitchen. She also taught me a trick that has allowed me to beautify the grounds surrounding my castle. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no slave to yard work and can easily tolerate, especially in the backyard, bare spots and some growth that isn’t grass. If it’s green, I really don’t find it morally objectionable as long as most of what’s green is grass.

However, despite not sweating certain imperfections outside, I do like some flowers around the grounds both in the front and back yard. My favorite flower both for color and ruggedness since they last well into October until a hard frost occurs is the marigold. In past years before I attended Jane’s School of Country Frugality, I pulled the flowers after that hard frost, bagged them up for trash pickup and bought new flats of marigolds the next spring. However, after I attended Jane’s old-school class, I got wiser and also kept a few more jingles in my jeans.

Jane showed me how to deadhead the blooms that died. After detaching the heads, she showed me the trick of peeling the head and harvesting the seeds inside. After the buds are dead, the seeds inside are light brown at the bottom and black at the top. After making sure they’re dry (so they don’t mold), I was told to put the seeds in a large Ziploc bag. Doing this throughout the growing month as old buds die off and are picked and replaced by new ones means by the time the inevitable hard frost hits, Jane said I would have a large bag of seeds that would become next year’s flowers.

The following year by merely roughing up the soil where I wanted them to grow and sprinkling the seeds on top of the roughed-up soil and watering frequently, I would see after a few days green cover that would grow taller before the blooms would eventually burst forth in June. She said some in areas with a lot of sun would typically grow two feet or higher by late July.

As is the case with most things, my girl again was absolutely right. While many hail the next wave of technology, with the newest phone that can perform more and more functions beyond doing what Alexander Graham Bell intended it to do, I’m far more impressed by the old school lessons first taught generations ago.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].