Mary Dulcie’s Jam Cake and The Christmas Lasagna Mutiny


IMG_8478By the time I was old enough to boil water, my mother welcomed an extra pair of hands into her kitchen. At twelve, I was promoted to holiday cookie baker. However, my mother entrusted no one but herself with the baking of her mother’s Christmas jam cake. Think English figgy pudding meets American candied fruit cake.

According to Mom the Christmas season wasn’t upon us until the old fashioned Bundt brick was resting under the cake tent in her dining room cupboard drying out nicely for the big day. And every year, all but a slice or two of the dense block of nuts and dried-out cake dough managed to survive the entire two weeks of gluttonous jubilations. The cake, along with the half-eaten, mint jelly centered Whitman samplers, was always the last holiday fare eaten, sometime between the waning days of January and Fat Tuesday.

Chef Iris at Christmas

Chef Iris at Christmas

As it came to pass, the year I turned eighteen, Chef Mom gave me free reign over the Christmas Dinner menu. By then, I estimated, our mother had prepared over 23,000 meals; for her, the excitement of preparing a holiday feast had lost its luster. On this most high of culinary occasions, she abdicated her favorite whisk and mixing bowls to me.

These were pre-Martha Stewart-Paula Dean times, ya’ll, but like those culinary trend setters, I was ready to shake things up in the kitchen. The first item knocked off the menu was, you guessed it, the jam cake and the second item was the standard, ho-hum roasted turkey. Both were banished. In their place, I smugly announced to the family, we would be supping on lasagna on December 25.  “She’s joking,” they said, “No turkey at Christmas? That’s madness. Heresy!” When the day of celebration of the birth of baby Jesus arrived, the lasagna was paraded around the dining room and placed at the table’s center among the yuletide side dishes my parent’s English and German ancestors had handed down to their daughters over the ages.

The diners grumbled over the absence of giblet gravy and mashed potatoes as every morsel of the lasagna disappeared. My sister still refers to that particular holiday supper as the Christmas Lasagna Mutiny. But, as I recall, no one asked for a slice of jam cake.

They were right, my ancestors and my family, and I was wrong. Christmas isn’t Christmas without our holiday memory comfort foods like the roasted turkey and all its trimmings or simple sugar cookies shaped as Christmas trees and angels. The act of baking the cake, rather than eating it, was Mom’s way of celebrating the season’s traditions, the experience which connected her to warm memories of her childhood Christmases. Since she passed away, I’ve baked the cake at Christmastime to honor her and her mother and to connect with my own Christmas Past.

Come January, when the days are their darkest and the cold wind pits freezing rain against your face, I invite you over for a cup of coffee and a slice of Mary Dulcie’s jam cake.  Don’t worry, there will be plenty left over from our Christmas celebrations for you to enjoy.

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Memoirs: They’re not just for celebrities


Doug Jones_PlaywrightDoug Jones says a memoir is not an autobiography, which requires research to verify events and dates. No, he says, a memoir is the story of your life or, perhaps, a milestone event you’ve experienced. Your story must be what you believe is the truth—in all its warts, pain and glory. To borrow from The Bard, “To thine own self be true” is the key to memoir writing. Doug’s a playwright, too.

“Why are memoirs so popular?” Doug asks. In the class my brother-in-law Bob and I attended, Doug says we read memoirs to connect with others, to assure that we not alone. To know that our fears, doubts, and joys are universal feelings; that every human has them.

“Who would want to read about my life?” Everyone in the class asks. “There’s nothing special about it.”

Doug disagrees. Guiding the class through a series of timed writing exercises then asking us to share our “interior monologues”, he proves to us that our stories can be interesting.

“Don’t worry. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Just keep moving your pen,” he advises.

The exercises are designed to help find the “nugget”, or common theme, which can lead to scenes, or chapters, and, eventually, a story others may want to read.

On memories of being four years old, Brother-in-law Bob hit one out of the park by writing the phrase “on my side of the street.” This sweet expression conjures up all sorts of images and questions: What does this four-year old’s voice have to say about Bob the man? Or, what’s so special about his side of the street? Will he ever cross over? If he does, what’s waiting for him there?

Try it out. Starting with the phrase “I remember…” write for ten minutes, non-stop. Then read it aloud to a friend, roommate, spouse, or to yourself. Then, repeat.
Or, better yet, sign up for Doug’s memoir writing class this fall at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

 Memory_Story_intersectionMemoir Writing
Tuesdays, Sept 15-Dec 1, 10 am – 1pm at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts


Here are some memoirs I’ve read over the last year or so. About the author’s stories, one’s funny, one’s heartrending, and every young woman pursuing a career in public service may want to consider reading the third.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleeza Rice

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What came first, writing or reading?


This Common Reader spending time with Gus and Woodrow

If you ask, any writer will tell you he was a reader long before he wrote the first sentence with intentions of publishing.

Like Scout Finch, I was reading before my momma packed me off to first grade. By the time I left for college, I had devoured most of the books in the tiny library in my hometown. Through the years, I’ve managed to hang on to the first book given to me and my mother’s Universal Edition of The Works of William Shakespeare. Everything else, I’ve borrowed from the library or friends and, lately, have asked Mr. Bezos to send along.

In my freshman year of college, I had my heart set on becoming a poet. My writing professor suggested I pursue another vocation as I would surely starve if my livelihood depended upon my sonnets. So economics and commerce it was. Then the years zipped by at the speed of a snapped finger. But as I’ve pinged my way through my own private accelerated time tunnel, reading has remained a faithful travel companion.

And now I’m ready to write my own stories.

Becoming a member of James River Writers has given me the opportunity to meet some of the Commonwealth’s many talented writers—poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, journalists and non-fiction writers. Members have encouraged and supported me as I pursue my dream of creating my literary legacy.

James River WritersJoin us for our Writer’s Conference October 16-18, 2015 at the Richmond Convention Center. If you’re a reader, chances are you’re a writer, too, and just haven’t admitted it to yourself.

Check for updates on conference activities and our “Reader’s Package.”  Come and meet the rest of the tribe.

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Hats off for respect



Mr. G and the Pacific Coast

Mr. G and the Pacific Coast

l love a man who wears a hat. A man wearing a hat badly, not so much.

Recently, my husband and I watched a re-broadcast of In Performance at the White House, the episode  in which some of the nation’s most talented folk and country singers serenade the President and First Lady.

Mr. LovettDressed in his usual made-to-measure style, Lyle Lovett stepped up to the microphone on the East Room stage and sang his western love song, “Cowboy Man.” I’m betting he checked his hat with the butler at the front door because, unless he’s portraying a scurrilous lawyer low-life (The Bridge), you’ll never see this Texas gentleman wearing his John B. Stetson indoors, especially at the White House. Why? ’Cause his mama said so. In his song “Don’t Touch My Hat”, he mentions her lesson:

My mama told me

Son to be polite,

Take your hat off

 When you walk inside

Later during the show, the man from Massachusetts walked on stage sporting what haberdashers call an open road rancher. Where was his stylist?  His mama?

Whatever happened to the practice of removing one’s hat to convey recognition and respect? And, boys, learning good hat etiquette isn’t hard. On Emily Post’s website there is a simple list of where and when a man should doff his hat, with “in someone’s home” at the top. (And there’s a list for the ladies, too.)

In these times of popular music performances, a cowboy hat, or any other kind of lid, worn on stage in a football stadium, a roadhouse or bar, OK, I get it. But the White House? Hear the sportscaster’s plea for common sense, “Come on, man,” and show a little courtesy.

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Time for the Summer Reading List


Warmer days are here and so is This Common Reader’s 2015 summer recommendations, featuring some of the talented James River Writers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.


Dean KingConsider spending time with the “historical adventure stories” of Dean King, co-founder of James River Writers. The award winning author searches for truth in times long forgotten and faraway places, like the Sahara Desert and China, so that the rest of us can experience extreme peril from the comfort and safety of a backyard hammock.

Try Skeletons on the Zahara or Unbound, true stories filled with chance and daring-do.

Kristen Green

In June 2015, Kristen Green released her account of her Virginia hometown of Farmville, segregation and Prince Edward County school closings (1959-1964).  Both title and topic are big. Ms. Green’s Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle shines light on a dark and troubled time in Virginia’s history.


Harper LeeMy 2014 summer reading prediction that we would never see another book from Harper Lee backfired on me. Two million copies of Ms. Lee’s second novel and sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird will be released in July. The new novel, the author’s first manuscript, was discovered among her archives by her attorney Tonja B. Carter. The discovery and subsequent publication has faced much controversy in publishing circles.

Have a Finch family reunion during the coming dog days, re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, then find out what happens to Scout, as a young woman, returning home in Go Set A Watchman.

Kellie MurphyAnd speaking of second novels, James River Writer Kellie Larsen Murphy has just released her second Detective Cancini Mystery, Stay of Execution.  Great for a beach read. Ms. Murphy is destined to become Richmond’s next favorite crime story writer.



Johanna LeeTired of romance novels? Try something truly endearing. Listen to Richmond poet Joanna Lee recite two of her poems for National Poetry Month (April). She will move you.

Joanna shared with me the names of some of her favorite published poets. Joshua Poteat Ian BodkinKelly Cherry, Poet Laureate of Virginia (2010-2012) , Sofia Starnes, Poet Laureate of Virginia 2012-2014, and Angela Marie Carter

And, of course, there is always Richmond’s favorite. On June 20, the man himself reads from his works in Edgar Allan Poe – Richmond and Beyond at the Historic Hanover Courthouse.

Happy reading everyone, wherever it may happen this summer!

This Common Reader spending time with Gus and Woodrow

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Social Media and the Afterlife


Bookcover_Goodbye for nowIn her second novel, Goodbye for Now, Laurie Frankel takes a classic theme of the human experience—we live, we love, then we die—to a new level by adding avatars of her characters’ dead loved ones.

Sam, a software coding genius, writes a computer program that enables his grieving girlfriend, Meredith, to chat via social media with her recently departed grandmother. He creates an algorithm which, drawing data from emails and video calls between the two, allows Meredith to continue communicating with her grandmother after the dear soul’s physical remains are reposed. Sam and Meredith call the software application RePose and offer it to others.

A philosopher with a pen for storytelling, Ms. Frankel has her characters debate the notion that with the onset of artificial intelligence and other technologies, we humans may require an upgrade in Descartes’ proclamation of existence—a version 2.0 of “I think, therefore, I am.” They seem to wonder, “Is ‘the Cloud’ the new heaven since our thoughts, words, and likenesses (pictures and videos) will continue to exist there long after our physical bodies are gone?” What is the soul but conscience and individuality of one’s being?

Skype Chat w Gran-maShe concludes that this “brave new world” of interacting with a facsimile of another pales to experiencing in-the-moment real life with actual loved ones; using social media is, in fact, an isolating experience much like the act of dying.

And, oh, the irony, I’m blogging about this story and sharing it with you via email, Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook has developed policies for loved ones and their dearly departed’s account(s). It’s only a matter of time before a real life “Sam” comes along and creates something like the fictional RePose.

If given the chance, would you want to converse with a loved one after they are physically gone, using the reams of data we are all accumulating from texting, emailing and video calling? Would interacting with a loved one’s avatar help with the grieving process or hinder the healing of the heartbreak of loss?

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Peace on Earth, David Sedaris Style


David Sedaris

If Seinfeld is a show about nothing, then David Sedaris’s essays are musings on the same topic. The humorist has been scribbling about bellybutton lint and other life oddities since courdory jackets were hip.

SantaLand DiariesHis big break came in 1992 when National Public Radio asked him to read from his SantaLand Diaries about his adventures as a “low-key sort of elf” named Crumpet. I became an instant fan when he sang Away in a Manager, Billie Holliday style.

Like an unscripted recording of modern life, Mr. Sedaris’s works are dioramic exhibitions of his everyday experiences. His narratives hold nothing back. They convey blinding truths, realities which come with a spectrum of emotions from happy and funny to sadness and anxiety to full on distress.

Passages in his stories coax me to laugh out loud. And there are times when his more poignant essays cause a cloud of gray funk to float over my head for days. Some just have it all, like the accounting of the loss of a sibling.

Sedaris BooksHis style of humor is grounded in the paradoxes of daily existence, forcing us to see the absurdity of our seriousness and notions of self-importance. To further the cause of peace on earth this holiday season, read Mr. Sedaris’s fables about nothing.


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Summer of 2014 Reading List


This spring my husband and I ventured out on what I called The Grand Inland Southern Tour. En route to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, our road trip took us through Birmingham, Alabama by way of Chattanooga, Tennessee. After we sated ourselves on gumbo, etouffee and jazzy blues in the Big Easy, we breezed through Natchez, Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi, then up the Natchez Trace Parkway to Nashville, Tennessee and back home to Virginia.

The journey inspired this summer’s reading list, a mix of new releases and books from the literary archives.

Harper Lee BookFist up, Alabama. As Harper Lee, who calls Monroeville, Alabama home, doesn’t plan to write a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, read Charles Shields’ biography of the legendary author, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

Birmingham resident  Fannie Flagg has the summer’s quick and fun read covered with her latest The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.  Visit Ms. Flagg’s website to watch her interview with Southern Living Magazine and learn how she got her stage name.

rick-bragg-saving-face-sAnd speaking of Southern Living Magazine, the articles on pruning crepe myrtles are no longer the reason I reach for it while in the grocery store check-out line. News journalist Rick Bragg’s noodlings about his mama, fishing, and stray dogs on the magazine’s back page are as down home as the fried chicken recipes. The man’s got a silver tongued pen. Try his memoir about growing up in Alabama, All Over But the Shoutin’.

While driving through New Orleans’ Uptown District, I thought about Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth.  A story teller at the top of her game, Ms. Smith uses New Orleans and Asheville, North Carolina as settings in her tale of tortured and tender souls. Read it to discover the genius of Zelda Fitzgerald, who was born in Montgomery, Alabama.

Natchez BurningOn to Mississippi, the Magnolia State. While my husband stopped at a Natchez coffee shop for his afternoon jolt, Miss Seren Dipity escorted me across the street to the local independent bookstore. On the counter right next to the cash register sat native son Greg Iles’ latest, Natchez Burning. Miss Dipity insisted I buy the 788 page tome. Tuck it into your tote bag for the beach. It’s a page-turning-can’t-put-it-down yarn.

Also on my list this summer is Eudora Welty’s short novel The Optimist’s Daughter 225px-Eudora_Welty_at_National_Portrait_Gallery_IMG_4558(Pulitzer 1973).  After driving by Miss Welty’s Jackson home, my husband was coaxed into traveling two hours out of our way to pop in to see William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak on The University of Mississippi campus at Oxford. When we identified ourselves as Virginians, the docent shared with us Mr. Faulkner’s thoughts on Virginia civility, saying, “Mr. Faulkner said Virginians were snobs and he liked them just fine.” My grandmother would call that a left-handed compliment.

If your summertime plans don’t include a trip to the Deep South to view the muddy Mississippi River and eat fried alligator, perhaps you can make a virtual visit by reading these tales about a place where “the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”

See you under the sun umbrella and happy reading!





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Something for the New Year's Reading Diet

Author Howard Owen
Author Howard Owen

With the passing of Elmore Leonard in 2013, we were all reminded of his big rule on writing—try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Lucky for us, writer Howard Owen has mastered this skill.

And for his efforts, Mr. Owen’s novel Oregon Hill won the 2012 North American Hammett Prize.  Hel-lo! If you are an avid crime stories reader, you already know that this is a Big Deal. Other American writers who have won this prestigious award are Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, and Martin Cruz Smith, to name a few. Yes, Virginia, Richmond hasn’t been this close to crime writing royalty since Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta left town.

A sequel story, Philadelphia Quarry, was released in July 2013 and a third novel, Parker Field, is scheduled for release in June 2014.

The series is about “call it like it is” reporter Willie Mays Black, a lifelong Richmond resident, who has been demoted back to the night shift of the local newspaper. In his pursuit for truth in a town still wrestling with its un-reconciled past, Willie’s reporting holds the mirror up for folks to see how badly they’re behaving.  In spite of his many flaws and bad habits—too much drinkin’, smokin’, and skirt chasin’—Willie is a man we have to love because he tells the truth no matter the consequences to himself or his beloved city.

Reading Mr. Owen’s stories is like eating Godiva chocolate.  You want to read them slowly and in little pieces so that the phrases and sentences he’s cooked up savor in your memory for a long, long time.  Nutritious candy for your brain and your heart, these smart, funny reads have zero calories and will fit into any New Year’s diet plan.

Learn about Mr. Owen’s other books at

Happy reading in 2014 everyone!

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The Power of Word Imagery


I am watching the Netflix series House of Cards featuring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.  One of the characters is a cub reporter who abandons a bright future at a prestigious newspaper to work outside in the gutter for an online rag called Slug Line. Where have I heard that expression before?

Rewinding the calendar to 1990, I shut my mind’s eye tight on the years streaming by and I’m in Washington DC in the K Street offices of my employer.  A co-worker casually mentions that she was able to make it to the office on time because she picked someone up at the slug line.

“You want to run that one by me again?” I ask.  My small town frame of mind pictures the stream of slime that the slow snail leaves as it slithers across the sidewalk on a sunny morning.

“Yeah, I picked up a couple of commuters at the bus stop so I could take the HOV in.”  She then explains to me the symbiosis in the practice of randomly offering taxi service to total strangers who are waiting at suburban bus stops and park-and-rides to go into DC. Instantly a line of snails reading newspapers and listening to portable music players becomes a two second movie seared into my brain.

Slugging to Work by D.Powell

But what do blogging and tweeting about the back-biters of political ilk have to do with the poor slobs trying to get to work at the Pentagon or Crystal City?

According to my key word search, I have several options from which to choose.  There is the phrase ‘slug line’ used in a song written by John Hiatt in 1979 acquiescing to the music industry to pimp him up so his music gets air time.  Then there are several references to the news industry. Ah, in journalism a slug line is the abbreviated text at the beginning of news copy describing the content of the story. “House Speaker Selected-300”, translation, the story is about a new Speaker of the House and is three hundred words in length. That fits with the House of Cards story but why are DC commuters called slugs?

Also listed is a website which reveals the how’s and why’s slugging of the commuter variety began.  In the mass transit world slugs are metal tokens used in place of coins by commuters looking for a free ride. As with coins and metal tokens, it’s a challenge for the bus drivers to distinguish the paying riders from the freeloading slugs waiting to be warm bodies for that expedited ride down the I-395 HOV lanes.

Eureka!  All this time I’ve imagined that my co-worker had slimy mollusks crawling around in the back seat of her car, when instead she had only a bunch of metal tokens.

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