What do you serve to a party of dragons?


The Six-Year-Old has been inspired by Hiccup to create her own Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons. This is her diagram of a Captain Hook Dragon. (Art: The Six-Year-Old Howell)

It’s March, which means that any day now, The Six-Year-Old will morph into The Seven-Year-Old. The Six-Year-Old is slightly obsessed with dragons (and their Viking trainers) at the moment, thanks to Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon books, so we are planning a dragon (and Viking)-theme birthday party for her.  Naturally, the topic of what kind of birthday cake we should serve came up.

Years ago, I made an Icelandic Devil’s Cake in conjunction with United Nations day at my daughter’s preschool. I can’t remember if I actually carried the cake in to share with others. I might not have, because that cake was AMAZING. And frankly, I’m not good at sharing AMAZING.

Since the Vikings settled Iceland, I thought our Dragon and Viking themed party would be the perfect time to trot out that cake again.

The Six-Year-Old, flatly: “No.”

Mommyo, pleadingly: “But I could shape the cake like a dragon’s egg and decorate it with little swirly spots of frosting to look like spots.”

The Six-Year-Old, firmly: “No.”

Mommyo, curiously: “Why not? It’s an authentic Icelandic recipe. Something the Vikings might have eaten. I thought you’d think that was cool.”

The Six-Year-Old, decidedly: “That cake was disgusting.”

Mommyo, calmly: “You must be remembering a different cake. That cake had layers of deliciousness, dark cocoa, chocolate chips, chocolate frosting, butter…”

The Six-Year-Old, disgustedly: “And bananas. I hate bananas.”

Mommyo, sadly: “Are you sure you’re remembering the right cake?”

The Six-Year-Old: “Ask Caterpickles.”

So I did. Come with me into the Caterpickles Way Back Machine. Mind the gap.

In Which The Four-Year-Old Takes an Unwanted Trip Down Memory Lane

Posted on October 26, 2011 by Shala Howell

One Devil’s Cake: 3 1/2 cups of sugar, 1 1/4 cups of butter, 1 1/2 cups of very dark cocoa, 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips, and 3 Tbsp of (decaf) coffee, applied to 4 1/2 year old after dinner = 2 1/2 hours of continuous galloping. Priceless. And not in a good way.

Mother, after mashing up a banana to use as the middle layer in a traditional Icelandic devil’s cake, thinks, “Mashed bananas were the first food I ever fed to The Four-Year-Old. I bet she’d think that was cool.”

Without putting any further thought into it, Mother digs in the silverware drawer for a Gerber baby spoon leftover from those halcyon early foodie days. Prepping it with a bit of mashed banana, she carries it into the playroom where The Four-Year-Old is relaxing in front of a Clifford cartoon.

Mother, excitedly: “Look, The Four-Year-Old, it’s the first food I ever gave to you as a baby! Want to try some?”

The Four-Year-Old, totally repulsed, scrambles under the couch cushions in her haste to get away from the scary slimy spoonie thing: “What. Is. That?”

Mother, still trying to keep that sentimental feeling: “Mashed bananas. You used to love them.”

The Four-Year-Old, hand over mouth, just shakes her head and looks vaguely sick.

Mother, abashed, walks back to kitchen, and dumps the rejected bananas into the sink. She pulls out a five from her wallet and puts it in The Four-Year-Old’s Future Therapy tin. We may not be able to fully fund her college, but by George, her therapy sessions will be completely covered.

It’s not actually a good plan to have The Six-Year-Old bake her own cakes for her party in her Easy Bake Oven, right?

Oh well. At least The Six-Year-Old has the party decorations well in hand.

The Six-Year-Old's homage to Toothless. (Art: The Six-Year-Old)

The Six-Year-Old’s homage to Toothless. (Art: The Six-Year-Old)

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Dinosaur Pet Guide

Back in the day when we had one arthritic cat and one merely very old cat, the Then Three-Year-Old wanted to know, “How much arthritis would a Giganotosaurus have to have to be a safe pet?” A cursory examination of the various weapons systems (size, teeth, claws) makes me inclined to answer a lot. Far too much to be compatible with life, in fact.

Last week, one of our favorite Norwood correspondents alerted me to this Dinosaur Pet Guide by John Conway (via I Love Charts). Although the Giganotosaurus doesn’t appear on it, I think it’s safe to assume the experience of owning a T. Rex would be pretty similar.

Dinosaur Pet Guide by John Conway (Via I Love Charts)

Dinosaur Pet Guide by John Conway (Via I Love Charts)

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Wordless Wednesday: My View This Morning

WinterTreesSnow on trees is my favorite part of winter. And I’m ridiculously happy that I get to see it again this morning. Even if it is March.

Morning, y’all.

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Classic Caterpickles: Daddyo’s Winter Survival Tip: “Don’t taunt the hand plague.”

Desperately hoping that this renovation doesn’t morph into another Project Bob disastrophe. Remind me to tell you that little horror story sometime. For now, here’s another Classic Caterpickle to tide you over.

The way I'm eulogizing this canister makes me think I should call it by name. But we really never named it. Oh well. (Photo: Shala Howell)

(Photo: Shala Howell)

Once upon a time we had a lovely green canister that we used to keep sugar on the counter for coffee, tea, and the odd spot of baking. Daddyo and I both adored it. Note the little wooden spoon that lives permanently in a holder on the side. So convenient (as long as everyone obeys the do-not-stir-the-coffee-with-the-sugar-spoon rule).

But over the course of many years of faithful service, the canister’s hermetic seal began to go. I ignored it for as long as I could, but once the canister began leaking sugar every time we moved it, it was time to say goodbye.

So I brought home this beauty. Gorgeous, right?

(Photo: Shala Howell)

(Photo: Shala Howell)

Guess what she’s missing.

Yep. No integrated wooden spoon. It took about three seconds of use before Daddyo and I figured out that integrated wooden spoon was one of our favorite features.

The bleary-eyed, pre-coffee solution? Pluck the spoon from the old green canister and plunk it right into the sugar. Handle up, of course, because you know, that’s how you hold a spoon.

All was golden until one snowy morning when Daddyo came traipsing downstairs and discovered this:

(Photo: Shala Howell)

(Photo: Shala Howell)

Daddyo, exasperatedly: “Shala, can we at least agree to only ever put the spoon in the sugar handle side up?”

Mommyo, defensively: “But when the sugar canister is full, it takes too long to wiggle the spoon in that way. This way you can just shove it down. Much faster.”

Daddyo, didactically: “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re shoving down all the germs from your hand into the middle of the sugar.”

Mommyo, queasily: “Oh. But if we survived the Bubonic Snowflake, surely we can survive the hand plague.”

Daddyo, definitively: “There is no reason to taunt the hand plague. The immune system helps those who help themselves.”

So now we keep the spoon here.

(Photo: Shala Howell)

The approved placement of the sugar spoon. (Photo: Shala Howell)

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(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Turtle on Trial

Over the weekend, The Six-Year-Old put her turtle on trial. She has not yet made the full list of his nefarious deeds public, nor has the jury — comprised of various dragons, cats, and of course, reformed Super Criminal Grace Elvis — decided his sentence. But based on what I found when I cleaned house this morning, things don’t look good for the little guy.

Here's hoping it's a short sentence. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Here’s hoping it’s a short sentence. Maybe just a fine. Or some community service. We could put him to work cleaning up the paper slicks that keep appearing around here. (Photo: Shala Howell)

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Classic Caterpickles: The Bubonic Snowflake & other perils of Snowpocalyse 2013

We’re moving again later this spring. We’re pretty excited about our new place and are full of grand plans to repaint its walls, remodel its bathrooms, and refinish its floors. So while I don’t have to deal with movers quite yet, I am spending totally inappropriate amounts of time with contractors expressing completely appropriate amounts of shock over their bids, and adjusting to the new reality that Life’s Little Pleasures must now all be calculated in terms of rooms which we could otherwise paint, and judged accordingly.

  • Dinner for two at the Rosebud Steakhouse: 14.5% of a bedroom (Not gonna happen)
  • A new dishwasher: 67% of a kitchen (Here’s hoping that old Lady Kenmore’s got a few more months in her)
  • My cousin’s latest book: 2.25% of a laundry room (That one’s clearly worth it. Yay, Michele!)

All of which is a very long-winded way to say, “I’m distracted, here’s a Classic End of Winter Caterpickle to tide you over.”

Originally published February 8, 2013.

The Snowpocalyse is upon us. When The Five-Year-Old and I heard that Governor Patrick had ordered the roads in Boston had closed to all non-emergency travelers, we decided to take a walk. Before you call the Governor to report us, this is what our neighborhood looked like at the time.

FallenBranchSmallerClearly, there wasn’t much going on. The news made it sound like it might be our last chance to get out for a while, so we wanted to make the most of it.

Plus The Five-Year-Old had some work to do.

Daddyo has been openly planning to make snow cream all week. My kitchen counter has been taken over by a small platoon of sweetened condensed milk. If the supplies are any indication, he’s planning to make use of every inch of the two feet of snow we’re expected to get here over the 24 hours.

All the talk of snow cream has made The Five-Year-Old pretty eager for the storm to arrive, as you might imagine. As soon as she saw the first flakes starting to fall, she ran outside with her little blue cup to collect enough snow to get a head start on treat.

The results were suboptimal.

SnowcreamFailFor The Five-Year-Old, anyway. Mommyo was pretty happy about all the running around required to collect those few drops of water.

Fortunately for The Five-Year-Old, Daddyo had better luck. He’s clearly fished for snow before.


Add a little sweetened condensed milk and some vanilla and what have you got?

SnowcreamSNOW CREAM! Ah, sweet nectar of the Snowpocalypse. Totally worth the inner chill that sends you scurrying under the nearest blanket after you’ve eaten it. And that slightly unsettled feeling you get while waiting to find out whether the e. coli that live in the upper atmosphere and form the basis of snowflakes are the sort that will kill you or not.

Daddyo: “Wait. Are you telling me that you can stick out your tongue to catch a snowflake and get the plague?”

Fortunately for us snowflake catchers and snow cream connoisseurs, Georgia Tech microbiologist Kostas Konstantinidis thinks that the vast majority of the bacteria living in snowflakes are harmless.  Of course, he’s not completely done analyzing his sample of snow-encrusted bacteria yet. He could still find some pathogens in there, and if so, he says, that could affect the way disease spreads through the world.

Daddyo: “Bubonic snowflakes. Awesome. How has the human race survived?”


Oh what a difference 24 hours makes. The (then) Five-Year-Old provided for scale. The drift behind her is our Camry.

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The Six-Year-Old eats lunch

In general, The Six-Year-Old isn’t a big fan of sandwiches–or my cooking. So I was a little surprised the first time I ever made her a grilled cheese sandwich to see her devour the entire thing in the time it took me to cook one for myself.

Mommyo, triumphantly: “So, The Six-Year-Old, how was it?”

The Six-Year-Old, enthusiastically: “It was so good, I couldn’t even taste it!”

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If we’re in the middle of a polar vortex, why isn’t the air spinning?

Our forecast this morning. (Source: The Weather Channel app on my iPhone)

Our forecast this morning. (Source: The Weather Channel app on my iPhone)

With an actual temperature of 6 degrees F and a wind chill of -16, it was too cold to walk The Six-Year-Old to school this morning. It’s a shame, because otherwise it’s lovely outside. The sun is shining, and the air is relatively still for Chicago.

As we trudged to the car this morning, The Six-Year-Old’s mind had a question: “Mommyo, if we’re in the middle of a polar vortex, why isn’t the air spinning?”

Before we begin, I would like to remind you that I am not a meteorologist, nor have I ever been trained as a meteorologist, aside from a partially remembered Oceans class I took back in the day at Rice University. I have, however, done quite a bit of reading in the lay press on the subject of polar vortices recently and distilled it into the following explanation for The Six-Year-Old. (But oh my goodness, did I ever simplify things. I suggest if you’re looking for more, you start by checking out some of the links at the end of this post.)

We aren’t actually in the middle of a polar vortex

Turns out all this talk of a polar vortex blanketing Chicago is a bit sloppy meteorologically. Strictly speaking, the polar vortex is a circulating mass of frigid air anchored over Baffin Bay, north of Canada. The temperature differences between the extremely cold air over the Arctic and the normally milder air over the United States combine with the spinning of the Earth’s surface to create a strong west-to-east wind (the jet stream) that generally holds the polar vortex in place over the Arctic during the winter months.

Why is it so cold?

As WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling cheerfully says, cold air has been abundant in Chicago this winter.  We’ve had 22 days with lows below zero this season. (Only three days to go to set a new record!) It’s been so cold here lately that even Anana, the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo, has had to spend a few days indoors.

But the Arctic hasn’t been quite as cold as usual (remember all those stories about the rapidly melting Arctic ice?), which means the temperature differences between the Arctic and our part of the world haven’t been quite as stark. Without broad temperature differences to fuel it, the jet stream keeping the polar vortex in place has weakened a bit, allowing masses of frigid Arctic air to escape the polar vortex and move south to winter over the Midwestern and Northeastern portions of the United States.

If there’s so much wind, why isn’t the air in our parking lot spinning?

The jet stream — the river of wind that typically keeps the polar vortex in place — is very high up in the Earth’s atmosphere — seven miles up in what is known as the troposphere.

We can feel the effects of changes in the jet stream here on the ground — when the jet streams shifts south over Chicago in the winter, it brings Arctic air down with it, for example — but we typically don’t feel the jet stream winds themselves (unless we’re in an airplane traveling from Los Angeles to New York City that’s using the jet stream to boost its speed). Good thing too, as the winds in the jet stream generally pelt along at 110-250 mph.

So what makes the wind in the parking lot?

That, The Six-Year-Old, is an excellent question for another day.

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Posted in Nature, Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Wordless Wednesday: The Flying Gecko

(Photo: Michael Howell)

(Photo: Michael Howell)

OK, he’s not really flying. The windshield he’s sitting on is just really clean. (Obviously, he wasn’t sitting on our car. I think Michael took this picture a couple of years ago on a trip to Houston.)

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The Villains of Children’s Fiction in the Dock

Over the weekend, a Caterpickles reader in London sent me a copy of an infographic from Lovereading detailing the sentences famous children’s book villains would have received, had they been tried in a European court (Thanks, Joe!).

I had two responses to it:

  1. I cannot believe the terrible things that happen in children’s books.
  2. Mr. McGregor TOTALLY deserved what he got.

Take a look and see what you think.

Villains in Court JoeShervallRelated:

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , | 1 Comment