Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

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The Murphies.

I know that’s not the grammatically-correct spelling, but it’s the way I spell it in my head, like one might refer to a bizarre phenomenon, some type of a rare celestial event, or an ice cream dessert named after famous singing siblings from the late 19th century which had a revival at dinner parties in the 1970s.

Whenever we moved to a new city, I would walk around the neighborhood, meeting other kids — most military kids are crusty veterans at this by the time they’re in the 1st grade.

I say most military kids, but my brother was an exception, so whenever I re-conned the unfamiliar territory, I always asked if the kids had any “little brothers or sisters, ‘cause I have a brother.”

A couple of days after we moved to Ramey Air Force Base, in Puerto Rico, I walked around the corner, toward the homes which faced the ocean cliffs. In a twist that was shocking to no one except a 9-year-old kid, this was the street on which the officers lived.

A girl who was a couple of years older than me, (known instantly in that uncanny way kids have) was outside the second house. Turns out her mother was sick and she was making meatloaf for supper — by herself.

I followed her inside to help.

About 11 hours later we turned out a dinner that at best, didn’t kill anybody.

But my life changed forever that day — the day I met the Murphies.

Bear, aka Captain Edward Murphy, was the patriarch of the family, self-taught piano virtuoso, helicopter pilot and Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard air station and my dad’s new boss.

Mama Cat, AKA Kathy Murphy, was matriarch, trained chemist, elegant hostess, diabetic, and the most hilarious and fascinating women I had ever met.

Michael, oldest son, kind, courtly, he treated strays with kindness, and had the most adorable brown curls ever.

Chrissie, now my closest, oldest friend, then a mean poop head who never had a nice thing to say and always seemed angry.

Min, the oldest daughter and my meatloaf making buddy. Min one of the most unusual people I ever met. She was part 200-year-old wise woman living deep in the forest, part fairy, and some sort of human/animal communication conduit wrapped in the burrito of an 11-year-old girl. Sadly, she didn’t reach adulthood. I wonder how she would have reshaped this world if she had lived.

And, the youngest girl, Kitty. She was one month younger than me and the most exciting, funny, smart kid I ever met. We became best friends and honorary members of each other’s families.

The housing for base command was built for entertaining — in the ‘40s.

Mama Cat’s kitchen was straight out of a Billy Wilder comedy. It had a large kitchen, a pantry literally as large as my kitchen, a butler’s pantry and a small suite meant for the live-in housekeeper. Somehow Min had finagled this for herself.

I was constantly encountering new foods at their table.

When I entered high school, we moved from San Diego to Elizabeth City. The Murphies lived there, but Bear had retired from the Coast Guard and was no longer my dad’s boss.

Kitty and I resumed out friendship, Chrissie was still a cranky presence, and Michael, returning from a stint in the Air Force, was more fascinating than ever.

They introduced me to the Reuben, a sandwich that shouldn’t work, but is that odd gestalt that is the mark of all great sandwiches.

They showed me how to pop corn in a Dutch oven. So cool.

I learned about growing asparagus (Bear was an avid gardener who made his kids do the hands on work).

And one night, for dinner, Mama Cat made a spinach salad. Well, it was the first time I’d ever eaten spinach raw; I discovered I like it.

The major revelation though, was what she served on it.

Ranch dressing.

Oh my good googa mooga.

I imagine I felt this way the first time I had chocolate.

I’ve loved it ever since. In the ensuing years I’ve eaten a bathtub’s worth.

I eat less of it these days, but I don’t use the bottled (the vinegar they have to add to make it shelf stable ruin it for me), and I don’t make it from scratch.

I have never had any ranch that tastes better, or has a better texture than the old school packet where you have to use buttermilk along with the mayo. And, if you use fat-free buttermilk, you can call it “light” with a straight face.

Thanks for your time.

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Mama Cat’s Spinach Salad

This is the absolute classic recipe from the 1970s. The only changes I approve of on behalf of Mama Cat is the substitution of toasted pecans for bacon, and the addition of fresh, bright strawberries.

2 pounds baby spinach

8 ounces mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1/2 pound of the crispiest of bacon shards

1/4 red onion half moons, as thin as you can slice them

4 medium-cooked eggs

Ranch dressing

Place everything except bacon in a large bowl and toss gently with bare hands.

Add dressing, a bit at a time until the salad is lightly coated.

Serve by mounding on a plate and garnishing wit bacon shards. Serves 2 as a main.


Reverse-Engineered Avocado Ranch dressing

2 cups freshly made Hidden Valley Ranch dressing

2 ripe avocados

Juice of 2 limes

Big pinch of Tajin

Big pinch of Caribbean Citrus Garlic seasoning

2 teaspoons salt (not all at once)

Freshly cracked pepper

Blend everything in blender or using an immersion blender until it is as smooth and glossy as silk.

Whisk in salt, a bit at a time between tasting until you can taste the salt, but it’s not salty.


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