Calling All Writers With Disabilities: Apply For a Grant Today!

An image of a laptop and notebook on a wooden deskDiversity has become a buzz word the past decade or so — a good thing, really — but when it’s talked about, the conversation tends to leave disability at the wayside. Conversation about diversity is often limited to ethnicity, race, religion and sexuality.

Not at the Mendocino County Writers Conference in California, though. Every year the MCWC awards a Voices of Diversity grant to a writer from an underrepresented group “on the basis of age, ethnicity, and sexual identity, and disability, social or cultural background.”

You read that right: the Voices of Diversity grant can be awarded to someone with a disability, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s a thrill to attend the conference – I was awarded the grant last year.

The Mendocino County Writers Conference is offering the Voices of Diversity grant again this year, and if you’d like to apply, you need to act fast: applications are due by Friday, February 15, 2019. To apply for a scholarship:

  • Fully download, complete, and sign the scholarship application form
  • Submit a digital signature, or print out the form and sign it by hand
  • Email it with your writing sample to scholarships@mcwc.org

Being around people from different backgrounds exposes us all to new viewpoints and perspectives, and in the case of a conference for writers, being around people with different sorts of identities impacts how you see the world and what stories you are able to tell. It’s important for fiction writers, non-fiction writers, poets, playwrights and script writers to tell everyone’s story, and I commend the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for recognizing that disability needs to be a part of this larger fabric of stories, too.

Now get those applications in — full instructions for manuscript preparation are provided on the application form itself, and they’re .

 

How I Experienced the Super Bowl Halftime Show Using Smart Glasses Technology

Super Bowl 2019 logoI’m not much of a football fan. I am, however, a huge fan of new assistive technology, especially when you can try it out for free. That’s why I brought my smart phone and headphones along to our neighborhood Super Bowl party last night: AIRA had a special offer to allow anyone to listen in on its Virtual Super Bowl party free of charge. AIRA calls itself a “visual interpreter for the blind,” and you usually need to subscribe to AIRA to connect with their trained sighted guides to have them describe stuff for you. Last night, you didn’t need to be an AIRA subscriber to listen, though. All I had to do was call a toll-free number and I was in. No need for Smart Glasses, either — someone at the game would be wearing them, and my Smart Phone would allow me to hear what that spectator was seeing . Here’s how the AIRA web site describes it:

“The trained agents see the world through the smart glass worn by the customer and describe the view. They respond to requests for information from the user, working at a specially-designed dashboard that efficiently connects to information via the video camera, GPS, and other sources of data.”

AIRA offered the free service during the Super Bowl last year, too, when Greg Stilson, a blind football fan, was at the game in Minneapolis. Stilson wore smart glasses with an embedded video camera during the game, and I listened in at home as trained and certified AIRA agents who weren’t at the game used smartphones and portable WiFi hotspot technology to describe what was in front of Greg remotely in real-time. I was a little disappointed by the whole thing last year — it seemed a bit silly to have the AIRA trained and certified agents describe the game when I could just turn the radio or television on and listen to the announcers.

This year AIRA left the game itself to the announcers. Someone at the game was wearing Smart Glasses, though, and the certified describers were on hand for the pre-game, halftime and post-game activities.

Must admit, I did get a kick (excuse the football pun there) out of hearing a professional try to describe all that was happening on the field during halftime!

To the amusement (more likely, the annoyance) of my sighted friends watching halftime on TV at the Super Bowl party, I repeated the descriptions I was hearing in my headphones out loud for them in rapid succession. “Panning the audience on the field – mostly young girls,” “A fire igniting in front of the stage!” “Adam Levine shuffling, I guess dancing, around the stage with just a microphone, no guitar,” “Young girls freaking out in the audience,” “Lanterns, pink and blue, out in the stands, everywhere,” “Big Boy driving up in a big car, maybe a Cadillac?” “A gospel choir assembling on stage,” “Big Boy getting out of the car, wearing a big fur coat!” “Another fire igniting, this one to the side of the stage!” “Adam Levine’s shirt is off, young girls are flanking him!” It was ridiculous. So ridiculous that I got a good laugh out of it all. And thanks to AIRA, I got to be part of the fun.

 

My 5 Tips for Walking Your Dog in Winter Weather Conditions

Whitney, a golden retriver/labrador mix, wearing snow booties

Whitney in her snow booties

Our Chicago apartment is surrounded by other big buildings. Most ground floor units are retail, and shop owners don’t like their customers falling on ice. So they shovel their sidewalks. Trouble is, they put salt on their sidewalks, too. LOTS of salt.

The American Dog Trainers Network website warns that ice-melting chemicals and salt on sidewalks and roads can cause severe burning to a dog’s footpads. “Whenever possible,” says the web site, “avoid walking your dog through these substances…”

Trust me, I’d avoid walking Whitney through those “substances” if I could. But for one, I can’t see the dang stuff. And two, if we avoided the salt, we’d never get anywhere. We’d be trapped, just like my friends who use wheelchairs and walkers and can’t make it over the piles of snow in the crosswalks.

Musher’s Secret to the rescue! Musher’s Secret is this waxy stuff you can get online from pet suppliers. It smells a bit like Vicks Vaporub, and all you need to do is rub this goop on your dog’s paws before you leave home – I recommend you do this near the door outside so the wax doesn’t get all over your indoor carpet! When temperatures are this low, the wax hardens on Whitney’s paws the second we get outside and the salt can’t get through to her pads. Whitney is not fond of having her paws rubbed, so I alternate between using Musher’s Secret and putting dog booties on her. Some other Polar Vortex tips for those of you with service dogs:

  1. Keep your trips outside as short as possible.
  2. Be aware that even though dogs have fur coats, they are just as susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite as we are. Dogs should not be outside in temperatures below zero for more than a few minutes.
  3. Protect your dog’s paws even when there is no salt on the ground. Pavement feels awfully cold when the temperature is below zero, and paws should not make contact with the cold pavement without some sort of barrier to protect them.
  4. Dog sweaters and coats can provide warmth for short-haired dogs – they don’t have the double coat that protects dogs like huskies or Bernese mountain dogs from extreme temperatures.
  5. Dogs with health sensitivities, such as heart or lung issues, are at a much greater risk in temperatures below zero. Air is bitter cold and very difficult to breathe in, so monitor your dogs very carefully, even after their walk is complete and they are inside.

I’ve been working with guide dogs nearly 30 years now and we’ve made it through a lot of cold winters. My advice: be careful, take your time, and remember to reward your dogs with a lot of affection and play when you get back inside — they deserve it!.

 

Let It Snow, But Make Sure You Shovel Your Sidewalk After

An aerial view of a snowy streetTemperatures are hitting record lows in parts of the country this week. In preparation for the snow and cold, check out our winter safety tips for people with disabilities.

When sidewalks are covered in snow and ice, walking to work — or to school, or just to exercise — can be difficult. Or impossible.

My hometown of Chicago is one of many American cities where the number of people walking or using public transportation to get to work outnumber the people who drive. Every winter here I find myself questioning why it is that when snow plows clear passage for cars, the snow mounds they leave at bus stops — on curb cuts and crosswalks — go unshoveled. What about the pedestrians? We appreciate you plowing the streets, but how can we get to the crosswalk to get to the other side? What better place to find information on all this than on a Minnesota web site. A site called Minnesota Walks points out that approximately one-third of the U.S. population does not drive, including:

  • Children
  • People with certain disabilities
  • People age 65 or better
  • Those who cannot afford a personal vehicle
  • A growing number of people who simply choose not to drive.

Sidewalks and crosswalks are necessary for those of us who don’t drive to access destinations or public transit, and the Minnesota Walks site also points out that the “Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title II Regulation §35.133 requires maintaining ADA-compliant access to walkways year-round, which includes snow and ice clearing.”

Photo of Beth and her guide dog making their way through a shoveled, tunnel-like path.

For guide dogs, everything can look like a tunnel sometimes.

Those of you stuck at home in the aftermath of a snowstorm may want to use your time inside to communicate and educate transportation professionals and community leaders about snow removal and accessibility. Easter Seals’ Project Action has developed a guide related to transportation and snow removal. The 24-page booklet highlights innovative policies and strategies used by U.S. and Canadian communities to improve accessible pathways and transit stops during winter weather.

Happy reading, and hang in there — it’s gotta melt sometime.

 

What It’s Like Speaking to Kindergartners About Disability

I am the youngest of seven, and a lot of my nieces and nephews were toddlers when I lost my sight. It wasn’t until they were five years old that they started to understand I had “special needs” that were different from their other aunts. My favorite example? One sunny afternoon when my sisters were sitting outside passing photos around, my five-year-old nephew Robbie was so pleased at the attention being given to a photo of him that he brought it to me. After placing it proudly on the tabletop in front of me, he grabbed my hand and ran my finger across the photo. “That’s me, Aunt Betha! See me? That’s me!”

A five-year-old I visited on a recent trip to New Orleans had a similar “aha” moment, and although I’ve been unable to find any written studies on when children start to recognize disability in others, personal experience shows me again and again that it happens at age five. Here’s what happened in New Orleans.

Photo of Beth seated next to a white board next to Tallie.

That’s my helper Tallie.

We have friends who live in New Orleans, and their oldest daughter was only a year old the last time we visited. Tallie is five years old now, and her kindergarten teachers agreed to have my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me come visit her classroom while we were in town.

All the kids were seated criss-cross applesauce on the floor when we arrived, except for one: five-year-old Tallie, my special helper, was seated in one of the two chairs in front. We knew she wouldn’t remember me, and we weren’t sure if she’d be too shy to help, but I found the seat next to her, and once Whitney was arranged on the floor beside us, I reached over ever-so-carefully to pat Tallie’s leg and thank her for agreeing to help me. “You’re welcome,” she said, and the fun began.

Tallie and her parents had read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound at home, and she brought her copy to show to her classmates. “Can you find a page with a picture of the dog and me together?” Tallie flipped through the pages, found the perfect illustration, and when she lifted the book to show her classmates, I asked them all if the picture looked like me. The answer came in a chorus of exuberant yesses. “It’s you! And that’s your dog! It looks just like you!”

When I’d been emailing back and forth with Tallie’s teachers ahead of time to plan this visit, one of them had alerted me that Monday would be their first day back after the holiday break. “The kids will be wiggly,” she warned.”You promise?” I wrote back. I love wiggly kids. Tallie’s classmates did not disappoint.

I reached over then to see if Tallie was back sitting on her chair beside me. My palm landed softly on her arm, confirming she was there, and as the teachers continued settling the other kids down, I whispered to Tallie: “Your shirt feels so soft, what color is it?” Quietly and carefully, Tallie described grey and pink designs. When I asked her what color her pants were, she became quite serious. Was that a moment when she understood I really couldn’t see her? I think so. “It’s all one piece!” she whispered. “They’re connected.”

By then the class had settled down enough for Tallie to be able to call on her friends who had questions. Or, in many cases, statements.

    • I have a cat who’s four.
    • How does that dog know when to cross the street?
    • When you’re blind, you look up, and all you see is the sky, so that’s why you need that dog, right? To tell you which way you’re going?
    • Your dog is cute.
    • I know it snows where you live, so does that dog wear a snowsuit?
    • I’m sitting on an umbrella.

One of their teachers, Miss Dominica, must have noticed the dumbfounded look on my face after that bit about the umbrella. “Each carpet tile is a different letter of the alphabet,” she explained. “Each child sits on the first letter of their name.” As I write this, I can’t remember who it was sitting on the umbrella. Ursula, maybe? Anyway, the kids took it from there, each child letting me in on which letter they were sitting on. “I’m on I, for igloo!” “I’m on G, for goat.”

What happens if two kids have names that start with the same letter, I wondered out loud. Off they went, all of them calling out letters at the same time “We have two T’s!” “There’s four E’s!” My husband Mike says I am the worst person to have come and speak to kindergartners. “You’re one of them!” he says. “You stir them all up!”

Guilty as charged. Nothing better than getting questions from kids, hearing them laugh and have fun. Their curiosity — and their exuberance — bring me joy. So when the teachers had to settle the kids again, Tallie and I huddled. “How about you ask if anyone has a question?” Tallie is a good listener. When she asked loud and clear, in her Mardi Gras voice, “Do any of you have any questions?” One hand shot right up.

“I do! I do!” the little boy said. “I know you can’t draw pictures with a pen, but can you write words with a pen?” I reminded him that I was able to see when I was growing up. I’d learned penmanship then, too, and I still remember the shape of letters. “It’s hard for me to write in a straight line, though,” I admitted. I was about to tell them how using a straightedge helps, but when I realized they might not know what a straightedge is, I told them that if you put a ruler on the line where you’re supposed to write, it helps you keep straight. “Do you have a ruler?” the boy asked.

Of course I didn’t. Miss Dominica did, though. “I have a whiteboard and a marker, too!” she exclaimed. “I’ll bring them over.”

I’ve never written on a whiteboard. They weren’t around when I could see. Can I? Aha! An educational moment, Beth. Tell them it’s good to try new things. It’s okay if you fail. You can learn from mistakes. And so, while Miss Dominica held the ruler in place, the kids watched me write on a whiteboard.

The class had just been working on the word “I” before Christmas break, and by chance the first word in my sentence was “I.” They all knew that word, and one of the older five-year-olds could sound the entire sentence out. It was legible. Success!

While the class cheered, I asked Tallie one last quick question: Who’s the other t? “Teddy,” she said with a shrug.

“We share our square.”

 

Variety and Easterseals Southern California Special Report on PWD in Hollywood

Last year Variety Magazine and Easterseals Southern California teamed up to present a first-ever in-depth look at people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. Last summer, when they started looking for writers to work on the special report, it was important to the editors that one of the freelancers they hired for the project have a disability. Thanks in large part to my work moderating this Easterseals National Blog, they chose…me!

Editors assigned me three people to profile: Fred Maahs Jr., Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships for Comcast (he also serves as 1st Vice Chairman of the National Board at Easterseals National); Tiffany Smith-Anoa’I, executive VP of Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion & Communications at CBS Entertainment; and Peter Farrelly, a filmmaker (and one of the “Farrelly Brothers”) famous for movies he’s made with his brother Bobby.

I enjoy interviewing people and writing profiles, but it’s been years since I’ve done that for a periodical, much less a magazine like Variety. Each phone interview was a conference call with others listening in — kind of unsettling — but I managed to get some decent quotes to use in the stories. Examples:

  • Fred Maahs, Jr. has been using a wheelchair since a diving accident when he was 18 years old. “No matter your race, gender, orientation, ability, income, really, whatever your zip code is, everyone should have access to the Internet and to opportunity,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
  • Tiffany Smith-Anoa’I acknowledged that progress for actors and creatives with disabilities lags far behind other minority performers. “This isn’t a situation where people have a tremendous amount of malice, I think it’s much more a tremendous amount of ignorance.”
  • Peter Farrelly told me he thinks making room for actors with disabilities makes movies better. “When I get people in the door who are actors with disabilities, I’m getting a face that nobody’s seen before, and that’s the advantage for me. There’s nothing worse for me than to see a movie where you recognize half the people from other movies. Then you’re reminded you’re watching a movie. I like new faces, and there are thousands of new faces out there, disabled actors who aren’t getting their chance. That just helps make the movie better.”

It took a month or more to get all the interviews done, the stories written, revised and rewritten, and during all that time I reveled in telling family and friends I was “working on a story for Variety.” Abilities Unlimited has been available online since November, and a four-color print version arrived in my mailbox the first week in January. And guess what? They’re reprinting it for distribution at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Sundance starts on January 24th this year, so I’m already telling friends and family that a piece I worked on “will be appearing later this month at Sundance.”

 

8 Helpful Apps For People Who Are Blind

iPhone with headphonesBack in May 2018, I wrote a post here about transitioning from the iPhone 6 to the iPhone 8, and how important this was for someone who uses their phone for everything. It’s a new year now, and I’ve decided to go a little more in depth with my first post of 2019: I’m taking a closer look at what I use my phone for. Starting with the apps I love most, here are some apps I think are especially useful for people who are blind:

  1. Be My Eyes. This app connects a blind person to a sighted volunteer via FaceTime. When I first heard about this app, I liked the idea of having assistance at the touch of a button, but I’ve always been a little skeptical about my camera usage and accuracy. The cool thing about this app is that Voiceover will tell you what camera it is using — the front or the back — so you know how to hold the phone. You can use this app for anything you need help with, such as reading the expiration date on an item. I recently used it to get the expiration date on my vitamins. I knew someone recently who was traveling and used it to get assistance reading a sign. Whatever you need a set of eyes for, they’re there for you 24/7.
  2. Uber. We knew this would be on there because of my assistive technology journal, right? If you didn’t, that’s okay, but I knew when I thought of this blog post idea that it would be on there. As someone who travels a lot – and also as someone who doesn’t always plan when to go out, I just leave when I feel like it — this app is great. It’s also very accessible. I don’t run into issues where there are certain text fields it doesn’t read. It reads everything, and when you leave the app open as you wait for your ride, Voiceover automatically refreshes the driver’s ETA without you having to continuously check. As the driver gets closer, it automatically reads that to you.
  3. Trivia Crack. This isn’t useful for my day-to-day life, but it’s useful because sometimes I need a break from school and I want to play a game. You can play against a friend or a randomly-selected opponent, but it’s basically just 25 rounds of trivia questions. You learn a lot and it’s also rare that I see games that are accessible. (Tip: The version with no advertisements, while it costs $1.99, is much more accessible than the version with occasional ads.)
  4. Amazon. This app is much more accessible than the website. I recently started doing more online shopping for the holidays, now that I found out you can mark something as a gift and they’ll wrap it for you. But anyway, navigating the screen and selecting the item you want is no trouble at all. Entering a credit or debit card number is simple, too. It’s also just one of those apps that I didn’t have to have someone show me how to use. I could pretty much figure it out by myself.
  5. Ariadne GPS. I’ve told pretty much every blind and visually impaired person I know to purchase this app. I think the word “purchase” has made them contemplate actually doing so. I know a lot of people like free apps, but this is 10 dollars well spent. It allows you to see your precise location when you select “where am I?” It’ll give you the address, the city, state, and even tell you what county you’re in. You can select “start monitoring” so it’ll keep updating your location. It also tells you what direction you are going, and how fast you are driving in a car. It’s the most accurate GPS app I’ve ever come across….and I’ve come across a lot that don’t work.
  6. Ventra. This is a great app to use if you travel by train in the Chicago area a lot and don’t want to always carry cash with you — you can use a Ventra card instead of paying with cash. While the signing up process was a bit tedious with Voiceover (the speech synthesizer that comes with iPhones), once I got my account set up, it was great. One of my favorite features to use is “transit tracker,” that allows you to see how far away your train is. It also allows you to add a certain train to “favorites,” so if you’re like me and you typically like to take the same train at the same time, it comes in handy.
  7. Read 2 Go. This app is associated with bookshare.org and costs 20 dollars, but again, it’s money well spent. I put this on the list not for its accessibility, but for what they offer. They pretty much have any book you could possibly want to read. It’s free if you are a student. If you aren’t, it’s 50 dollars a year. That sounds like a lot, but I think that’s worth it for all the audio books you could ever want.
  8. Google Maps. I know, you wouldn’t think this would be as accessible as it is, since maps are pretty visual, but you’d be surprised. This is last on the list because I don’t use it too often. I used it more back when I used cabs and wanted to calculate the fare based on distance and time, so I use it a little less since I don’t typically use cabs anymore, but it comes in handy. I still use it when I’m planning trips, or when someone is picking me up and I know where they’re coming from so I can have an idea of how long it’ll take them to get here. It’s another one of those apps you can pretty much figure out yourself.

Have any apps you especially like? Leave a comment and let me know. I might give it a try!

 

Reflections on the Rose Parade From Easterseals Southern California CEO Mark Whitley

by Mark Whitley, President and CEO of Easterseals Southern California

Easterseals Southern California CEO Mark Whitley (left) and Easterseals National CEO Angela F. Williams (right), with the Rose Parade float riders.

Easterseals Southern California CEO Mark Whitley (left) and Easterseals National CEO Angela F. Williams (right), with the Rose Parade float riders.

Being a participant in the 2019 Rose Parade was a proud moment in Easterseals’ history. I can personally think of no better way for us to have kicked off our 100th anniversary year than by having an award-winning float in America’s most iconic New Year Celebration.

From volunteers who spent hours decorating our float in the days leading up to the Rose Parade, including preparing seeds, nuts, bark and flowers and attaching them to the float, to the staff who worked tirelessly to create an unforgettable experience, and the supporters who lifted us up in cheers, both virtually and in person, thanks to everyone for making this amazing day possible!

Finally, of course, there were our incredible float riders from around the country and right here in Southern California; they were the “superstars” of the Rose Parade, along with their supportive family members. This group of individuals, ages 12 to 68, brought Easterseals’ message Building a More Inclusive Future to life. I was excited to hear from some of the riders afterwards about how they connected with members of the crowd all along the parade route. Together, we realized how meaningful it was for parade watchers with a disability to see another person like themselves riding on a float in the Rose Parade.

Float riders taking a selfieTo danny Blake, Reagan Crabtree, Lora Glassman, Ernesto Gutierrez, Matthew Jameson, Howard McBroom, Brian Nguyen, Katie Pena, Blake Scribner, Kaison Shipp-Collier, Sabrina Stafford and Sophia Stafford, I say thank you on behalf of Easterseals for demonstrating to the world how people with disabilities should be included in all events and milestones as well as how Easterseals helps people live, learn, work and, in this case, play in their local communities!

Our 100 Anniversary Celebration is off to a great start and I’m looking forward to more Easterseals celebrations and milestones throughout 2019 and beyond!

 

Emojis and Accessibility: The Dos and Don’ts of Including Emojis in Texts and Emails

Crying laughing emojiA friend sent me a text the other day that said this: “Wishing you a prosperous new year excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue excited face with money symbols for eyes and stuck-out tongue. You guys free tonight? Give me a call.”

I never got to the part where I was supposed to give them a call. The emojis got in the way.

Five years ago I published a post here about how some people who are blind access a program called VoiceOver to use an iPhone — VoiceOver parrots every letter we type into a text, and a key next to the space bar on the iPhone keypad lets us choose from lists and lists and lists of emojis to use with texts. VoiceOver reads the images out loud for those of us who can’t see them. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a sampling of what I hear when choosing from the list of “Smileys and other people” emojis:

  • “Smiling face with sunglasses”
  • “Unamused face”
  • “Winking face with stuck-out tongue”
  • “Sleeping face”
  • “Nerdy face with thick horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth”
  • “Neutral face”
  • “Expressionless face”
  • “Smiling face licking lips”
  • “Slightly smiling face”
  • “Smirking face”
  • “Face with rolling eyes”
  • “Face with no mouth”
  • “Flushed face”
  • “Thinking face”
  • “Angry face”
  • “Pouting face”
  • “Disappointed face”
  • “Grinning face with clenched teeth”

You get the picture.

Some of the blind people I know tweet and text using emojis, but usually just one per message. Multiple emojis might be easy to ignore if you see them all the time, but listening to multiple emojis? It’s time-consuming, and if you want to know the truth, kind of a pain.

If you are texting a friend who uses a screen reader, or if you want your tweet to be accessible to all, including those of us with visual impairments, here are some simple tips:

Don’ts

  • Don’t repeat an emoji over and over;
  • Don’t place emojis throughout a message;
  • Don’t put a call to action after the emoji.

Dos

  • Do use one or two emojis if you like, most blind people get a kick out of the descriptions;
  • Do put any important information before the emojis so we’ll be more likely to hear them;
  • Do limit yourself to no more than three emojis per message.

If you use texts or tweets to market your business, your blog, your YouTube channel, remember that each of your tweets and texts sends a message out to your community. Approximately 300 million people in the world are visually impaired, and over 50 million of us are totally blind. Go easy on the emojis, and we’ll get the messsage, too!

More thoughts on disability and emojis:

 

DJ Mermaid’s Family Holiday Recipe for Ricotta and Spinach Stuffed Shells

Remember the 9-year-old who wrote a post here for Valentine’s Day years ago about how much she loves her Dad? DJ Mermaid (her pen name) is twelve now, and for this holiday guest post she’s focusing on her mom.

by DJ Mermaid

DJ Mermaid and her mom

DJ Mermaid and her mom

Hi everyone!

Coming to you from our own Italian kitchen… It’s DJ Mermaid and Mommy! In our family, the heart of Christmas is the food. This recipe is one of our Christmas staples, and the story behind it has been in our family for ages.

Enter…. ricotta and spinach stuffed shells. Mom and I both wholeheartedly agree that they are quite a delectable package of cheesy goodness. In order to not get such a high spinach taste, we slather them with tomato sauce to give a pop of acidity.

Mom has a special connection to this recipe because as a little girl she used to make Christmas dinner with her gramma, and this was a dish they would make. Her gramma also used to forget (on purpose) to include ingredients in recipes, but we think this is accurate. Mom and I make it together now to feed our family on the holidays and keep the tradition going. Mangia Mangia! Let’s eat!

Shells: You can use pasta shells out of the box (1-2 lbs), but we like to make the shells from scratch – they are called crepe noodles.
• 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 cup milk
• 3 large eggs
• 1/2 teaspoon salt

Place flour in a bowl; whisk in milk, eggs and salt until smooth. Heat a lightly greased 8-in. skillet; pour about 2 tablespoons batter into center of skillet. Spread into a 5-in. circle. Cook over medium heat until set; do not brown or turn. Repeat with remaining batter, making 18 crepes. Stack crepes with waxed paper in between; set aside.

Filling: Get good quality Ricotta cheese and be sure you drain the water out of it. Combine all of the following in a bowl. Use salt & pepper to taste.

  • 1 ½ -2lbs of ricotta
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 tblsp parsley
  • ½ to ¾ c parmesan
  • 8 oz cooked spinach – be sure you squeeze the water out of this too.

Sauce: There’s no written recipe for this in our house. It’s all done to taste & mom’s memory so it tastes different each time.

  • 3 or 4 large (28oz) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 1 small onion minced
  • Garlic -as much as you want minced
    Oregano, basil – as much as you want chopped
  • 1lb mushrooms
  • Salt, pepper – to taste
  • Splash of red pepper
  • Tomato paste

DJ Mermaid and her momStart with the onions in a deep pot – sauté in olive oil. Once they are translucent, add the garlic & mushrooms. Sautee for another 5 minutes or so. Add the tomatoes, the herbs & salt/pepper/red pepper. Cook for a long time. Mom cooks it all day, so it becomes a thick sauce. Add tomato paste if it seems too watery after a few hours.

To assemble: Spread a little sauce on the bottom of a 9×11 baking dish. Take a shell and fill it with a spoonful of filling. Place it in the pan. Repeat until full. Cover then with sauce. Top with mozzarella cheese and cover with foil. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes depending on your oven. Take the top off then and bake until the cheese gets browned. Serve with extra sauce.