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Super Storm Sandy Stone Soup

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On Thursday October 25, 2012, Governor Chris Christie told the people of the Jersey Shore to evacuate. Superstorm Sandy was on her way.

I’ve been through hurricanes before, and like many people, I didn’t buy into the “Frankenstorm” hype. It wasn’t until I saw the ticker from NOAA at the bottom of my TV screen that I got nervous. NOAA people aren’t smiling into the camera as they talk tragedy. These people are scientists. They know what they’re talking about and they didn’t say Superstorm Sandy was coming to the East Coast–they named our towns specifically.

At approximately 3 pm on Sunday October 28, the ocean met the lake, the inlet breeched. The storm still had a few hours before landfall.

A house crashed into the Mantoloking Bridge.

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The power went out. People hunkered down. The Jersey Shore was dark and silent but for the wind howling along the coastline.

On Monday morning, boardwalks floated a mile inland. Houses sat blocks from their foundations. A boat from the Belmar marina perched on a street sign three towns away. 483419_4878917939701_507805190_n

Superstorm Sandy

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Cliff drove up Highway 35 those first few days. He works for the power company.

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know.” The man doesn’t cry, but he was shaken up pretty bad.

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For three weeks they worked 18 hour shifts, coming home to eat and shower. Over 2 million people were without power. An elderly couple approached his truck asking about the status in their neighborhood.

He couldn’t give them an answer because there were so many trees down and they had to wait until the tree guys came to remove them.

“Trace, she was shivering and there was nothing I could do.”

I thought about that poor old woman huddled with blankets next to her husband trying to stay warm. I nearly cried when I heard the pilot on our hot water heater kick on and thanked God we have a gas stove.

Brian and Chris were at 10th Ave Burrito cooking for First Responders and anyone else who needed a hot meal. I couldn’t get to the restaurant because Highway 35 was flooded.

On Tuesday, I pulled into the driveway of my restaurant, anticipating the worst. I was lucky.

I called Borough Hall and asked what they needed.

“Coffee cups for the volunteers,” Tabitha said. “And Tracie?”

“Yeah?”

“Whatever you got.”

I wasn’t prepared for this. People stood in the cold rain charging their phones on 2×4’s set up with electrical jacks.

Those first days I drove from Toms River to Belmar, cooked, served, and prayed. The power wasn’t going to be restored anytime soon, so Mayor Matt Doherty set a curfew.

I stood in my kitchen and cried.

Too dark, too lonely. So cold.

The gas rations kept me from coming back to Belmar, so I went to the Silverton firehouse where 29 of their guys lost their homes in the Brick fires. They brought their families to the firehouse and went out to rescue more people.

Their wives worked around the clock feeding the hungry, the exhausted.

An EMT from Delaware put her backpack next to a cot and walked into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?” she asked.

In unison, we told her to go get some sleep.

A part of our world was ending. What could we do? Embrace one another and convince each other everything would be all right?

I watched the tired firefighters clamber on a truck. They hadn’t eaten since their last call.

A little boy stood in the doorway of the kitchen. He asked his Grandma what he could do to help. His grandmother dried her hands and pulled him close.

I handed him a basket of bread. “Why don’t you put this on the big table next to the plates?”

He smiled, happy to have something to do.

Grandma said “thank you” to me and a minute later, he was back.

“What else.”

We laughed, tears in our eyes.

No matter what happens in this country, we’ll survive because people are willing to pitch in. A woman lost her home. She chopped onions to disguise her tears. She’d reserve them for later when everyone else was safe. We pulled together the best part of ourselves and threw it into the pot.

On my way home, I stopped at the Elks in Toms River to have a beer. A truck arrived from Virginia. They needed volunteers. It was the night of the snowstorm.

I put a few chickens in a pot of water and peeled potatoes. Nancy chopped vegetables while Sue opened cans of tomatoes. People came in from the cold and we served Brunswick stew. It wasn’t much, but it tasted good.

An old woman took my hands in hers and thanked me. “Did you make the soup?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am.”

She lost her house and was sleeping at her daughter’s house. They had come for extra sleeping bags and blankets. I handed her a lantern and a new pair of gloves.

“Yes ma’am. I did.”

“That’s the best bowl of soup I ever had,” she said.

When I cry, it’s not tears of sadness but of joy. Yes, it was a sad time. But we made it. We’ll always make it. We took the best parts of ourselves and gave them to others. Like in the fable Stone Soup. It takes a community for a feast.

I saw it firsthand.

We all did what we could, and it worked.

Brunswick Stew for Melissa

Recipe for Brunswick Stew

1 3 lb fryer chicken (leftover chicken can be added to store bought chicken broth)
1 medium onion
2 cups diced potatoes
1 large can crushed tomatoes
2 cans corn drained
1 package frozen baby lima beans
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. marjoram
1 tsp. cumin

Clean whole chicken and put in a large stock pot with water enough to cover chicken (about a quart). Boil gently for about one hour or until chicken is cooked through and the meat falls off the bone. Strain, reserving liquid. When chicken is cool enough, pick the meat off the bones and put in pot with stock. Add the rest of the ingredients and stew for about 20 minutes. Serve hot with crusty French bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.

Oh, I Love Your Tomatoes!

tomato-producers-534x356So I’m thinking of a small garden this year. The past two years I didn’t have a whole lot of luck as I worked too many hours and sometimes, well, I was too darned tired to stand for an hour with a hose on my tomatoes.

But what’s summer without fresh tomatoes? Our Jersey Tomatoes are famous! So I thought, what about getting those big barrels and fill them with dirt?

And then I get to thinking. I don’t really need zucchini and squash. I love cucumbers and how watery they are straight off the vine. I don’t like tomatoes except in the summer for some strange reason but then I eat them every day. And Basil. You have to have basil!

So here’s the plan:

We’ll call the first one the Bruschetta Barrel. In it I’ll plant my Roma tomatoes, some onions and of course basil. When all is said and done, I’ll cut up 4 ripe tomatoes and 1 onion finely chopped. Chop about 6 basil leaves and stir in with some salt and pepper. Drizzle about 1/4 cup of olive oil and 3 Tbs. of red wine vinegar. Stir and cover for at least an hour. Spoon over garlic bread and indulge!

The second container will be the Pico Barrel for my salsa fresca or as some say pico de gallo. Another tomato plant, some more onions, jalapeno and cilantro. Same as the bruschetta with the tomatoes and onions. Then chop up a good handful of cilantro (about 2 Tbs.) Finely chop a jalapeno (cut the seeds out first and if you don’t wear gloves don’t touch your eyes or go to the bathroom for a while). Add salt to taste and squeeze the juice of 2 limes. Let sit covered in the fridge for at least an hour. Great with tortillas or in fajitas. Mash up an avocado, add a Tbs of the pico and ole!

Holy guacamole, Batman!

I had success with cucumbers in the past so I’ll plant a few with a beefsteak tomato plant. I love cucumber tomato salad in the summer or a nice caprese salad with fresh mozzarella. I drizzle avocado lime vinaigrette and yum!!!! For the cucumber salad: Peel and slice cucumbers. Cut tomatoes in bite sized chunks. Coarsely chop an onion. Use the same dressing as the bruscetta, but add a little more vinegar. Again, let it sit for at least an hour.

Another good tomato recipe:

cut up tomatoes in a bowl. Add 1 Tbs. crushed garlic, 1 tsp finely chopped jalapeno, 8 chopped basil leaves, 1/2 cup olive oil and salt to taste. Let sit for 2 hours. Heat it up and toss with some pasta. Easy and good!

I’ll have a pot with several herbs like dill and oregano. My rosemary and thyme always flourish year round, so I don’t have to worry about that. I even have some lemon oregano which is awesome in a big fat Greek salad.

So that’s it. Even if you go to the market for your ‘maters, here are some easy recipes. And when you make a salad, everyone will look straight into your eyes and say, “Hey lady, I love your tomatoes!” 644588_4589382978671_1732029917_n

The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors

“The Next Big Thing”

is a viral sensation where one author answers ten questions about his or her current work. That author then tags 3 to 5 other authors, who answer the questions and, in turn, tag 3 to 5 more, thus spreading the word exponentially.

I was tagged by Meghan Arcuri. You can read her answers at http://www.meghanarcuri.wordpress.com. Meghan and I were at Borderlandspress Writer’s Bootcamp last year with authors Michael Bailey (http://www.nettirw.com ) and Richard Payne http://www.rbpayne.com . It was an intense weekend which encouraged me to continue writing. Incredible to spend the weekend with like minds!

Our work is critiqued by fellow “grunts” while authors F. Paul Wilson (http://www.repairmanjack.com), Tom Monteleone (http://www.borderlandspress.com), and Doug Winters guide us in such a way that not only do we learn to critique the works of others, but help us see our own writing from another point of view. I’ve written short stories because of my time at Bootcamp which is something I didn’t think I ever would have attempted. Short stories are harder to write than a novel. Not as forgiving and every word is crucial to the story itself.

This year Meghan and I will be roommates at Bootcamp. I’ve read her latest short story and am amazed at how much her writing has improved from last year. I enjoyed her story “Worse Ways” and believe that if she keeps this up, she’ll go beyond “The Next Big Thing.”

Now for my questions (sort of like interviewing myself):

1. What is the working title of your book?

I’m almost finished with a book titled “Song of the Cicadas.” I’ve put it on hold for a while because I had an idea for another book I submitted to the Borderlandspress Writer’s Bootcamp, “The Family Tree.”

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

“Song of the Cicadas” was a manuscript I found in a box I had in storage. I started it when I was 19 years old and apparently put it away for a time in my life where I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent. I don’t remember writing it. I found it at an appropriate time and thought it was a great story. The funny thing is, it’s about a woman who comes home to bury her mother she hasn’t seen in 17 years and the mysteries leading to their separation. I couldn’t figure out why I would write such a story when I was young, but when I found the manuscript it had been 18 years since I’d seen my own mother. How could a 19 year old know what it’s like to be estranged from her mother for so long? I know now.

“The Family Tree” came to me when I read some of the stuff my aunt dug up about our family. She’s been researching our genealogy and there are some great characters in my ancestry. I put a few of them together and gave them a sinister plot. I told a friend about the story I outlined and she told me about the fairy rings around the oak tree in her parents’ back yard and I thought what an awesome way to keep the curse going ( my family is actually blessed but I couldn’t let that get in the way of a good story). The premise of “The Family Tree” is jealousy is a curse and bad deeds carry throughout family history acting as a curse not doled out by an evil spirit but by the wickedness of family members.

3. What genre does your book fall under?
“Song of the Cicadas” would be considered Southern Gothic. It takes place in the mountains of Virginia and defies the Southern Belle traditions. It has all the elements found in Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and William Faulkner. Not that I think this book will be as great as those written by these authors but one can only try. Racism and misogyny are prevalent and there is a hint of supernatural. The mysteries of southern superstitions drive the characters.

“The Family Tree” also contains elements of the supernatural. The Walsh house has an energy that seems to speak its history. The wicked deeds of the past carry forth to the future claiming yet another “victim” even though the “cursed” tree has been uprooted. Genre? I don’t know. Maybe horror in the sense that “Wuthering Heights” was horror, or “Rebecca” with her “ghost” lurking about.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

“Song of the Cicadas” cast? I can see Beyonce playing Rachel, Charlize Theron as Kitty, Queen Latifah or Angela Basset as Sadie Johnson. I think Donald Glover would make a good Whitey Johnson. Since the movie would be more of a woman empowerment film, I wouldn’t have any A-list male actors but someone who could steal the show and become a hero because of this movie. Mysterious and handsome, paternal with a dark side for Michael Rivers.

“The Family Tree” I would cast Elle Fanning as Sophie, Dakota Fanning as Hannah, and Kathy Bates as Aunt Margaret. I like Jake Gillenhaal as Richard Walsh since I can see him playing a Heathcliffe type character.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“Song of the Cicadas” is about a young woman who returns home to bury her mother only to dredge up a mysterious past that led to their estrangement for seventeen years, her mother’s murder and possibly her own in a killer’s need to keep their past buried forever.

“The Family Tree” is about a young architect who falls in love with a house she yearns to restore only to find hidden secrets buried in the attic which brings her close not only to discovering a family curse, but her own link to the family’s past and her part in continuing the legacy.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I will seek representation.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Like I said earlier, I started “Song of the Cicadas” when I was nineteen. I found it in a box about five years ago and have been working on it since. I work-shopped it at The Borderlandspress Bootcamp two years in a row. I’m almost finished but put it aside to write short stories and “The Family Tree” which came to me one morning after reading about my family history. I was able to outline it during Hurricane Sandy which left me out of work and in the dark for three weeks. I wrote by candlelight which made me feel like a true scribe. I was amazed at how easy it all came to me since I had no other distractions and was able to focus solely on the story. If I didn’t have to go back to work, I think it would be done by now.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

“Song of the Cicadas” is like no other book I’ve read, but has elements found in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“The Family Tree” seems a little like “Wuthering Heights” meets “Rebecca” but I might be a bit too ambitious in thinking I could pull off such a great novel. A contemporary novel that might be comparable is “The Forgotten Garden” by Kate Morton in that it flips back and forth from past to present with different characters’ point of view.

9. Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Ragin’ Cajun (my restaurant) was shut down by the fire marshal when the town used eminent domain to redevelop the downtown area. While I was trying to get reopened I read a lot and went to the gym every day to work off the negative energy. I read a book by Rita Mae Brown who lives in Afton, Va. where I grew up. I bought the book for 75 cents at a paperback exchange store. While riding the bike at the gym, it took me 45 minutes to read the book.

I can do this, I thought. My story is much better than a dog and a cat solving a murder. I could write a book about what was happening in my community, to me and other business owners because of eminent domain. I decided not to complete my workout but go to Barnes and Noble to buy all books on writing in the Mystery genre (my sense of mystery works were limited to Charles Dickens and Willkie Collins, I never bought books at the grocery store). Here was a chance to tell my story and maybe start a new career. Wouldn’t it be great if the town closes my restaurant and in my revenge I sell a novel about that same story? My second thought was I would call F. Paul Wilson (www.repairmanjack.com) and see if he would help me because I’d never written a novel.

As soon as I got off the bike to head to the locker room, Paul was standing in front of me and my heart raced. I told him what I wanted to do. He was pleased and told me to get the restaurant open because he missed coming on Sundays. I started writing “Imminent Domain” and from there found “Song of the Cicadas.” Paul convinced me to go to Boot camp and that’s how all this got started.

I believe that once you get the creative juices flowing, there’s no stopping it.
The restaurant reopened and is doing better than it ever has. I have three novels that are almost complete. “The Family Tree” was inspired by my own family history and I wanted to write it as a fabulist fairy tale. Because of the storm that left me in the dark, I was able to outline it in a way I never did the other two and so this will be the novel I’ll complete first. Wouldn’t it be great if I can tell my publisher I have two more novels to immediately follow?

When bad things happen, it’s best not to think of it as the end of the world so much as the beginning of something potentially greater than you’ve known. Every time “bad” things happen, I put pen to paper. Now all I have to do is follow up.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

“The Family Tree” has a little history of Bradley Beach. Anyone who grew up on the Jersey Shore will appreciate some of the references to landmark spots and things like eating Jersey tomatoes and going to Vic’s Pizza.

“Song of the Cicadas” addresses racism and misogyny. Overall, it’s a story that empowers women and whose characters are strong. This book will make a great movie because that’s how I see it in my head, like a movie.

I’d like to tag a woman I met not too long ago. Patricia Florio is author of “My Two Mothers” published August 2011 by Phyllis Scott Publishing. Patricia is a travel writer for http://www.stripedpot.com and lives in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. She contacted me for The Literary Adventure Author’s Reading Series where I was able to talk about my cookbook “Sittin’ Bayou Makes Me Hot!” (http://www.ragincajunnj.net). It was a great afternoon and I met some awesome people. Patricia is active in the Jersey Shore Arts Council and has invited me to join their writers group. Read Patricia’s blog http://www.patriciaflorio.blog.com.

I also met Rosemary Calabretta who told me to call her Sugie. She helped me set up the food and made me feel comfortable at The Literary Adventure Author’s Reading Series. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Sugie wrote a children’s book for her two granddaughters “Bella the Bright-eyed Reindeer.” She also collaborated on a book with two other authors V.G. Wells and Rosaleen Mooney Myers “Three Brown-Eyed Girls.” I haven’t read it yet but look forward to it since I enjoyed Rosemary’s company and can’t wait to see her again.

I can’t wait to get back to Bootcamp (http://www.borderlandspress.com) in January. My first year was amazing and you should be on the lookout for Kyle Steele, Angie Deptula and Thomas Carson. We all sat up well into the wee hours writing our Sunday assignments. Kyle and I then drank screwdrivers out of coffee mugs and talked about what we wanted to do about our writing and other matters of life. Angie and I stayed an extra night (her flight was Monday and I decided to stay and keep her company in that creepy hotel). We sat up all night eating Chinese and freaking each other out. It was a spooky night with strange happenings. Definitely haunted and Angie ended up writing a short story about a woman who kills her roommate because she dreamed she was a sea hag. Thanks a lot Angie for allowing me to inspire you. It was a great weekend and we all keep in touch. Angie is moving to Paris to write for a year and Kyle is almost finished with his novel. Thomas Carson is a character himself. He lives in Maryland and pops in to bootcamp to say hello. He’s currently working on a book about his grandfather Ray Ewry who won 8 Olympic gold medals at the turn of the twentieth century. His novel “Unsung” is due for publication soon and I can’t wait having read the beginning and loving the main character who is someone you might find in a Carl Hiaasen novel.

A shout out to Gardner Goldsmith http://www.gardnergoldsmith.com and Sheldon Higdon http://www.sheldonhigdon.com for all the work their doing on their “Next Big Thing!”