Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Boxing Day

Because the Monday following Christmas is Boxing Day in the UK, I thought it appropriate to post this particular piece this week. 

It was a recurring theme throughout my childhood: boxing up homemade baked goods, magazines and assorted ‘you-can’t-get-that-over-here’ requests from my brothers in the military. If you could get a passport stamp for every country mailed to, my mom would surely be receiving medals and accolades from the Explorers Club.

I grew up in a family with a long, proud history of military service stretching from time immemorial and now a new generation of family members continues to serve in various posts and war zones around the globe.

As the sixth of nine children, I sometimes got a little lost in the shuffle. I was one of those kids who didn’t take orders well and no one really expected much from me as far as military service. Even my teachers early-on in military base schools would point this out to my parents. “That one certainly marches to her own beat…”

I did have talent, though. I learned to package from the best. I was in elementary school during the Vietnam War but still remember the ritual of double or triple wrapping and packing personal items, books and cookies, then paper wrapping the exterior of the boxes and tying the whole thing firmly with string. I had the best string finger in the house. I knew exactly when to pull out, keeping the string taught until just before it was pulled tight enough to take off an errant fingertip. There was a strict protocol for mailing packages overseas in those days and encouraged to be good soldiers at home, we followed the rules to the letter. My mom lived for this. Give that woman a project and hell and high water could not stop her. Damn the politics of the war, these were our boys and if they wanted cookies, by god, they would have them. And they got there, mostly.

We waited confidently for confirmation on the results of each and every cookie, magazine and paperback book mission. Unaccounted-for boxes were mourned at length and there was much speculation about its final resting place and talk of the potential careless private, no doubt using our sturdy box as a stepstool in some far off warehouse.

Some posts are more difficult than others. Mailing to Vietnam was tough. You had to guard your package against monsoon rains and the ruthless humidity that would quickly soften & mold even the snappiest of gingersnaps. And solid packaging was a must. Thousands of packages mailed to who-knows-where outposts in the jungle would mean the measly little shoe boxes sent by lesser informed moms would be crushed under the weight of military supplies in a heartbeat.

When my brother e-mailed from Afghanistan last year stating that any sister who really cared would send him brownies, I knew I was up to the task. I had a little recent practice sending boxes to Iraq; first to my two nephews Jason and Michael, then to our good friend Curtis. I knew they were arriving in about 10 days to 2 weeks depending upon the soldier’s station. Afghanistan, however, was another story.

I had forgotten to ask the most important of all questions and had broken the cardinal rule of military mailing: KNOW YOUR TRAVEL TIME. This little fact allows you to tailor your perishables to ensure that they are still edible in the end. In my defense, Jim was no longer actually military, but now a contractor living in a metal box under a pile of hot sand in the desert. He was there over a period of five years as head of an EOD team – Explosive Ordinance Disposal- blowing captured munitions to smithereens before they could blow our guys to smithereens. Not an enviable environment and definitely well worth the effort of a brownie mission.

Jim did, eventually, receive the box and thanked me. He wasn’t quite sure what I had sent, the mass being completely unrecognizable at that point – some five-plus weeks later. Home now, working in the California desert, he recently reminded me of that oh, so-painful-for-both-of-us operation and I reminded him about the nice bottle of Jameson I bought him upon his return.

Undiscouraged and true to my genetics, I did recently, successfully mail a package to my 24 year old nephew Ryan, now in Iraq on his second tour. Informing him on Facebook of the parcel in transit his reply was “cookies?! did i read cookies! aunt sharon, in short, you rock. you're the dogs bollocks.” I have no idea what that means. I do believe that with cookies involved, however, that it must be a positive statement.

Some of his latest online photos show him looking older than I imagined. 
There are desert scenes, random images of soldiers in front of various local landmarks and pictures of daily Army life in a war zone. There is a tiny bunk overhung with a Texas flag, helmet and weapon within arms reach (in fact everything appears to be within arms reach) and a shot of Ryan eating Thanksgiving dinner out of a styrofoam takeout container while standing - dressed in full battle gear. A can of what is clearly Mountain Dew with an Arabic label completes his meal. Scrolling through his online scrapbook I realize for a moment what the stress of his daily life must be like. My mom was definitely right about one thing: the only thing worse than living and fighting in a war zone would be to do it without homemade cookies. 

I received confirmation of delivery through Facebook today. Mission accomplished. Mailing that little bit of holiday cheer to a faraway place may seem like a small thing to some but the bond we feel as family, however scattered, is real. I am beginning to understand, as perhaps my mother did some 35 years ago, that whether we like the politics of the place or not is irrelevant when a member of one’s own family is placed in a dangerous situation. Where rocket fire, mortar attacks and IED’s are all a part of daily living, a small connection to home that can be shared with other soldiers is a great comfort.

Yesterday, I called Jim in California and offered a second try on the brownies. I figure I owe him one after all, but he declined. He said things are heating up in Afghanistan and he has to get in shape. He is leaving next month for another year – maybe two.

post script: This was written in 2008. Ryan is home now - he arrived safely last year at about this time after his second Iraqi tour working as a medic. My brother Jim did not to return to Afghanistan and is working as the Director of IED Services for a firm in DC. I sent him the brownies.

The following recipe is based on one from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great American Desserts. If you are in the midst of your search for the best-ever brownie recipe, you just got a lot closer. These are intensely chocolaty, almost flourless and devoured wherever they appear (and they pack well for shipping). The fiori di sicilia contributes an orange flavor that works well with the chocolate. 

Boxing Day Brownies

2oz good quality Unsweetened Chocolate
4oz good quality Semisweet Chocolate
4oz Butter
¾ c Sugar
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp Fiori di Sicilia (or Vanilla Extract)
2 large Eggs
¼ c Flour
½ tsp Cinnamon
1 c lightly toasted Pecans

Melt the butter and 2 chocolates in a pan. Cool slightly. Add sugar, salt and Fiori di Sicilia and mix until sugar is well combined. Add eggs, one at a time and beat well after each. The mixture will become very glossy. Add the flour and cinnamon and mix well. Stir in nuts.

Pour the mixture into a foil lined, buttered 8” square pan. Bake at 325 degrees for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Chill the brownies in a freezer for about an hour or until firm. Remove foil and cut into 16 pieces.

Use the best ingredients you can afford. The freshest spices, best chocolate and real butter make all the difference. If you are unfamiliar with fiori di sicilia it is basically an intense orange and vanilla flavoring. It is available through King Arthur flour.

No comments:

Post a Comment