Monday, August 17, 2015

The Patio Tables, Part 2

This is part 2 of two posts about a pair of patio tables my parents bought in the 1960s or early ’70s: Repainting them was one of my summertime projects this year! Click here for part 1, the history of these little tables.

So here we are in 2015, and the tables are renewed. This is at least the sixth redo! I wanted them to scintillate again, to have something “groovy” on them.

Preparing the surfaces is always a bear—scraping, sanding, and scouring off the rust and flaking paint is never fun, but it gives you time to think, and to visualize.

Since I’ve been enjoying the Bhagavad Gita in recent years, I thought the symbol for Om would be kinda neat. I visualized it as being so large that it kind of dripped off the edges.

Sue scanned the quarter-inch-high Om character that appears as a decorative type dingbat at the end of each chapter in my book, then enlarged it to table-size with her amazing computer graphics skills. She printed it out for me, tiling it on four sheets of typing paper, making me a pattern.

From the moment I hatched the plan, I envisioned the character as dark or forest green on a lilac background . . . but as I kept thinking about it, I decided I wanted it to be more energetic, less restful. I wanted it to scintillate!

Why the Om? I like the idea that sound, vibration, music underlies or permeates all of creation. This sound, this music, is not only creation itself but also the name of God, the true nature of reality, and Om is a sound we can produce that connects us to all of the above. And I don’t see it as a counterculture or anti-Christian symbol at all. I see it as one of many human efforts to express and celebrate the vast, majestic, all-encompassing oneness of God, the All That Is.

Plus, it’s an elegant symbol, appealing on a purely visual level. (Especially when it scintillates!)

The second table was much more challenging to paint, with all its persnickety straight lines and perfect corners. At its center is a pan-Asian, Greek, European, African, and Native American symbol for good luck, eternity, and other sacred and auspicious ideas. Before Hitler appropriated that symbol and gave it evil connotations, it was a commonly used decorative element worldwide, with nothing but positive connotations. (Gee, thanks, Hitler, ya asshole. You also ruined a perfectly good mustache style, as well as the once-fine name of Adolph.)

As you can see, my table includes a much more elaborate design than just “that symbol” (long called a gammadion, from the Greek)—and hopefully by making the positive and negative spaces somewhat ambiguous I’ve downplayed anything startling, and emphasized the symbol’s original meaning. Visually, you kind of have to follow a maze before you can see the “eternity” symbol in the center. Hopefully, by then, the act of looking at the entire design has gotten my intended meaning across intuitively.

What do you think? Pretty cool, eh?

. . . Anyway, I’m happy with ’em!

And yes, we’ll be bringing them inside when we’re not actively using them outdoors. I think I want to keep them nice for a while!

Bonus fun! I made a wonderful discovery soon after I’d finished painting the first table: If I stare steadily at the center of these designs for about 20 or 30 seconds, then close my eyes or look at a blank paper or wall, the image remains as a retinal negative-colored afterimage—the red parts of the designs appear as blue, which fades gradually into turquoise and green. What a cool surprise! Try it with the images above! (Remember, you can click on any image on my blog to see it larger.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Patio Tables, Part 1

This is part 1 of two posts about a pair of patio tables my parents bought in the 1960s or early ’70s: Repainting them was one of my summertime projects this year! So first, a little walk down memory lane. As far as I can tell, this is at least their sixth refurbishment since about 1970.

I’ve found some pictures of them in my parents’ photo albums, so you can have glimpses of their former incarnations.

I love these tables, though maybe they’re not the best design for lawn furniture. There’s a small lip along the edge, so they tend to collect water. They’re slightly top-heavy on their tripod legs, so in strong winds they tend to tip over, banging the edges on whatever concrete or patio bricks they’re on. And they’re steel, so they rust.

But I like them. First, they’re not plastic! Woo-hoo! Second, they’re the perfect size for holding a cold beverage plus a book, or a hardcopy printout of that chapter or bibliography you have to edit. That’s how my dad used them on the patio beneath our back porch.

Third, at this point, they’re “vintage,” thus cool. Dialing back, I think their first paint job was white—flat white. Or maybe that was their second paint job. I wonder how they came from the factory? Soon after, Mom dressed ’em up by putting Peanuts (Charlie Brown, Snoopy, et al.) decals on them. See?

As a kid, I loved those Peanuts decals! Mom’s putting them on the tables was a brilliant idea! We all loved Peanuts! (And I liked to paint with watercolors beneath the shade of a lawn chair! Hard to imagine I was ever that small . . .)

By the time I was well into elementary school, Mom had stripped off the decals, sanded off the rust that had accumulated, and given them a nice coating of hot orange-red Rust-Oleum. (Remember, it was the seventies.) At some point, she (or maybe we kids) added a bunch of stickers to decorate them.

The tables were starting to acquire rust again by the time I was in junior high and high school, and by then I’d discovered the fun of enamel paints. (My folks gave me some “beautification projects” to do.) So I’d had a little practice using Rust-Oleum in a creative way.

In ninth grade geometry class, Miss Avery had provided us (for fun) a dittoed handout showing a variety of super-cool geometric designs. I think she was trying to remind us that there were actual creative applications to mathematics, that it wasn’t all just proofs, apothems, and other headaches. (Hooray for teachers who keep in mind that some students are simply more interested in other subjects, and who make an effort to connect their subject to other fields!)

So my parents invited me to do a new paint job on the tables. Being a smarty-pants overachiever (or an obsessive little nerd, I don’t know which), I looked through the designs from Miss Avery (which I had saved—okay, more evidence for the “nerd” category) and selected one that seemed easy enough, though it was intricate. It was really just a series of concentric circles expanding by equal radial increments, overlain with a series of parallel lines intersecting them. Alternate boxes are in contrasting colors, like a chessboard. (It’s been called a “circular chessboard.”) I painted it in Rust-Oleum paints: a bright blue (almost a cyan), and a bright red. It scintillated!

I put a lot of work into it, using the fine paintbrushes I used on my model cars (oops, more evidence of nerdiness!) and even toothpicks to nudge the paint into the narrow, pointy corners, and to touch up the many, many places where paint blurped over my penciled outlines. (The lines had to be absolutely precise in that design, or it wasn’t gonna work.) It took a lot of patience!

It was a masterpiece when it was done! Fortunately, my parents let me keep it in my room as part of my indoor furniture, or that paint job wouldn’t have lasted the ca. 15 years that it did. The one picture I could find of it shows it in my bedroom in 1982 or 1983, in front of my aquarium, with Katie perched on it in order to view the fishes better. (Awww, Katie, what a sweet little girl!)

Then a lot of time passed. I was at college, then went to Arizona for graduate school, then to Montana for my first publishing job. By the time I was back in Missouri and Sue and I had moved to Jeff City, my folks had let us have the tables. We’d been using that table and its twin outdoors again, and they’d received some dings and gotten rusty and needed a new paint job.

So most recently, I just sprayed it: All red. (Yawn!) We painted its twin with a yellow center in a gradient to red edges. Still pretty boring. I’m kind of glad we kept them outside, where they collected rain, acquired some blackish mildew, got dinged, and developed rust spots . . . and finally needed another new paint job!

. . . And my next post will show pictures of their new incarnations!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Remembering King’s Food Host, Columbia, Missouri

My purpose in this post is not to give the official history of this chain of family diners that operated in at least 17 states and in Canada in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. Let’s get the background info over with quickly. Indeed, if you want to learn more than I’ve already just said, I recommend the following:

—Randy Hoffman, “What Ever Happened to King’s Food Host?” at, Dec. 14, 2009.

—Jan Whitaker, “Frenchies, Oui, Oui,” at Restaurant-ing through History, May 4, 2011.

There’s also a commemorative Facebook page, with loads of photos of King’s restaurants and King’s-belia: Kings Food Host—Home of the Cheese Frenchee.

From those websites, I gather that King’s focused on putting franchises in college towns (so our King’s in Columbia, Missouri, fit that pattern . . . though its location on Business Loop 70 made it a little far from campus, in the days when few students owned cars or lived off-campus).

I also read that cigarette machines (so ubiquitous in those days) were not allowed in King’s restaurants, because the owner didn’t want them there. Apparently he wanted to have a less smoky atmosphere in his family restaurant. (He was truly ahead of his time!)

Perhaps, with the college-town focus, he was thinking not so much of college students, but of smart young faculty members, like my father, juggling teaching, grading, research, and working toward tenure, and their families, who liked to go out to dinner occasionally, and who all would have preferred a nonsmoking restaurant.

Dining out was much less common then.

I was born in 1965, so nationwide, King’s was pretty much gone by the time I was ten. I vaguely remember when they closed in Columbia, driving past with my parents, staring out the window at the empty building, wondering what would become of it. Later, I saw it converted into a variety of other businesses. (Businesses I’ve never stepped foot in.)

The one in Columbia was ultimately torn down, but the concrete foundation is still there. A local bus/shuttle service has taken over the land and they park their big tour buses on the concrete pad where the restaurant once stood.

The metal roof for the drive-in portion remains. The shuttle company parks its vans and minibuses under it.

Anyway . . . see these links for photos of King’s restaurants during their heyday: one in Manhattan, Kansas, the other from Ames, Iowa. They’re both pretty close to what our Columbia King’s looked like—the textured horizontal roof treatment, the big yellow crown-shaped sign, the huge wall of windows across the front end of the building.

Personal Memories

My personal memories of King’s are rather fuzzy, but in many ways, they are especially nostalgic.

There was apparently a telephone at each booth for placing orders, which I don’t remember because my parents wouldn’t have let me do the ordering, and annoy a busy food-service worker with my soft, uncertain, hesitating delivery.

There was a similar ordering system in the drive-in parking behind the restaurant. The drive-in was a long, metal-roofed structure extending straight back from the restaurant, with parking spaces on either side. (Gosh! Remember how cars in the ’50s and ’60s had circular depressions on the inner surface of the glove compartment door, which always opened flat into a miniature table surface? The circles were designed as a place to set your Pepsi or milkshake while you ate in your car at the drive-in!)

We went to the King’s drive-in occasionally—I recall going there for lunch with Paul and my Mom.

But we went to King’s more often, I think, as the whole family, in the evenings, and we sat in the dining area. Interestingly, when I asked my parents recently about what they recalled of King’s on the Business Loop, they both drew a blank. I guess it made a far bigger impression on me!

Remember the crown logo and the gold, brown, and orange diamond motif? I recall the seats being orange—but that might be a false memory (specifically, mental pollution from listening to the snarky 1987 Uncle Bonsai song “Family Restaurant,” which recalls “rolling hills of orange Naugahyde”).

I remember walking in the door, which was on the east side of the building. The restaurant was fairly brightly lit with florescent ceiling fixtures. To me as a little kid, the place seemed huge, and kind of magical.

Yes: that big, open dining area, with large plate-glass windows facing Business Loop 70. At that time, the Business Loop was full of family-friendly food places, such as Columbia’s Zesto, a Dog ’n’ Suds, and the city’s first McDonald’s. . . . Was all the seating at King’s at booths? I think it must have been, since the telephone was key for ordering. But maybe they had a row of stools along a counter, however.

Here’s a picture of the inside of a King’s in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I remember it being a fairly quiet restaurant, though since I was a child that memory could also be skewed. Let’s put it this way: I’m sure it was a great place for parents to bring young kids who were still learning to behave like little ladies and gentlemen when dining in public.

I’m sure I must have requested other foods at times—chili dogs, for example, and little chocolate sundaes, and, when I was really little, I must have had the “Kiddie Platter”—but what sticks in my mind, as my very favorite, is the “Cheeseburger Platter.”

I still can’t say “Cheeseburger Platter” without feeling a huge, silly grin blooming inside me. On the King’s memorial Facebook page, someone posted a menu revealing that the Cheeseburger Platter came “with cole slaw, golden French fries, and onion rings.” . . . Yep, yep! That’s what I remember. That menu, from who knows when (the early ’70s, I’ll bet), gives the cost of the Cheeseburger Platter as $1.10. Oh, and I remember having an orange drink with it. (Ha! An “orange drink”! Remember that stuff? And those gigantic clear, cubical drink dispensers every restaurant used to have, with the lemonade or “orange drink” sloshing around inside? So tempting! And hey, I was, like, seven.)

I also recall the food being served on actual cafeteria-style china dishware.

The button I photographed at the top of this post was undoubtedly given to me (and Paul must’ve gotten one, too) by a server, to reward me for “cleaning my plate,” which was something all kids were strongly encouraged to do back then. (As with about every other paragraph in this post, please join me in a resounding: “Boy, times have sure changed!”)

Regarding the Famous “Cheese Frenchee” Sandwich

Many people fondly remember King’s “Cheese Frenchee” sandwiches, but I don’t recall them. Because I was pretty young, I suspect my parents, thinking of my health, had guided me away from them. The Cheese Frenchee, a King’s signature dish, was a midcentury, midwestern, family-restaurant version of the famous French croque-monsieur. There are lots of recipes approximating this popular King’s menu item; here are some:

—At, there is a cheese frenchee recipe purportedly from a former employee at King’s.

—Pam Patterson, “Recipe: Cheese Frenchees,” at

—R_Mess, “Cheese Frenchee” at

Interestingly, there are still some King’s restaurants that remain as restaurants, operating under different names, but in many ways similar, including, with some, the tableside telephones for ordering; one is The Wood House Restaurant, in Bismarck, North Dakota; another is the Pantry Family Restaurant, in Boise, Idaho.

. . . Hmm. Suddenly, I’m thinkin’: ROAD TRIP!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Switchel, Stichel, Switzel, Swizzle: Ginger Water for Hot Days

Six years ago, in a post I’d almost forgotten about, I talked about our sweltery summertime heat. And that’s where we’re at again: heat and humidity. Well? It makes the corn and the tomatoes grow!

But it makes me wilt. And it, with all the rain we’ve had, makes the watergrass, crabgrass, or whatever-it-is grow like crazy. So I’ve gotta mow the lawn it again. I’m going to wait until the sun starts to set tonight. Ugh! I’m dreading it. (Compared to this heat, my hot flashes seem cool!)

Revisiting that older post I did about “Heat,” I recalled John Madson’s description of an old-timey lemonade-like beverage that farmers used to gulp when they had to thresh wheat in the hottest part of summer. It must have been hell on earth. That’s how Madson describes it, anyway.

Madson called this beverage “stichel,” but from what I can see online, it’s more commonly called switchel, switzel, swizzle, ginger-water, haymaker’s punch, or switchy. It’s an incredibly old concoction, a centuries-old thirst-quencher, an antique equivalent to today’s “energy drinks” or “electrolyte beverages.”

Wikipedia’s entry on “Switchel” notes that the beverage is also mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her book The Long Winter. In it, Laura’s mom tells her to make up a bunch of the stuff to take to the laboring men, explaining that cold well water, alone, would make the overheated men feel sick, while the ginger-beverage would quench their thirst better.

Today it’s a super-trendy hipster beverage! Who knew? All the cool kids are drinking it!

You can find plenty of different recipes online, but here’s the one I tried. It seemed simple, basic, and it seemed to fit what Madson described Iowa farmers drinking “by the gallon.” (Sorry, but I can’t remember where I got this particular recipe.)

Use this recipe as an idea starter, and mess around with it until you get it just right: try pure maple syrup instead of brown sugar, as they do in Vermont, here and here. Molasses and honey were probably popular in some areas, too. Or try using the juice from fresh ginger instead of powdered.



3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. ginger (powdered)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 quart cold water

Dissolve together the first three ingredients, then shake with the cold water. Serve chilled.

The recipe, wherever I got it from, also suggested you could mix it with equal quantities of ginger ale. Or, I would suggest, mix in some club soda or seltzer, if you wanted it bubbly and less strong.

How does it taste? Well—Sue and I think it’s actually pretty darned tasty! The hardest part is the first sip, because you can smell the vinegar, and the immediate thought is: This is going to taste like something you’d dip Easter eggs into. Or: “Ugh! pickle juice!”

But despite that initial panicked thought, it really does taste very good, and it goes down easy, and I’ll probably be making it again. The vinegar does the same thing that lemons do in lemonade. (Hey, remember the Greek lemonade recipe I shared with you a while back?)

I hope you’ll give switchel a try! When you do, let me know what you think of the flavor. Bonus points if you report on its efficacy as a thirst-quencher during these beastly hot days!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Grandma Renner’s Chili Sauce

Here’s another retro recipe for you! But first, I need to make a confession: I didn’t like this when I was a kid, when I had the opportunity to eat the chili sauce Grandma Renner herself had made! Now, of course, I kick myself for being such a little nitwit.

But I long ago copied the recipe from Mom’s collection, thinking I’d make it someday. But I had to go through some kind of phase where “real” chili sauces were viewed as somehow “better” than my own grandmother’s.

Maybe it’s a labeling problem: this really isn’t a true chili sauce. There aren’t any actual chilis in it! Bell peppers, green and red, but mostly it’s tomatoes. It’s a spicy tomato sauce. It’s basically chunky ketchup. There’s no heat to it at all.

If you look in church-lady cookbooks from the mid-twentieth century, you’ll find scads of recipes for “chili sauce” that are just like this: really, a tomato relish.

For our little Fourth of July feast, I decided to offer an alternative relish for our burgers, so I made up some of this. And boy, howdy—it’s pretty darned good!

You usually think of something piquant, tangy, tomatoey, and just . . . sharp tasting. Sharply tomatoey. But this has a good combination of flavors, vinegar, sugar.

Naturally, I didn’t follow the instructions to the letter. First, I made the “mistake” of not knowing that one is always supposed to blanch, peel, and deseed tomatoes used for sauce! What a nincompoop I am. (However, I do know that nutrients and flavor are in the skin and seeds, so unless I’m told not to, I tend to keep them in.)

After the initial hour of simmering, I could tell I’d have to run it through my food mill, and that would change the texture from how Grandma used to make it. But okay—I remember Grandma’s chili sauce being chunky and fairly watery, and I wanted mine to be more like a sauce—thicker, more ketchupy. So my “mistake” turned out to be a boon.

Grandma’s recipe calls for “red peppers,” too—I had to ask my mom what Grandma might have used. I mean, any hint of the word chili, and I’m inclined to use red chili peppers, those small, thin-skinned little firecrackers, like cayenne. But no, Mom told me it was more like a red bell pepper. Read: sweet red pepper.

I quartered Grandma’s recipe, since it was a maiden voyage, but next time, I’ll make a full batch and process it. Here’s why:

—It goes on nearly everything. Hamburgers, hot dogs, mac and cheese, baked potatoes, you name it—anything you’d maybe put ketchup on. I mean, just a hot dog or hamburger, a bun, and this stuff—and wow.

—Check this out: open a jar of sauerkraut, pull out enough kraut for however many servings you need, rinse and drain it, sprinkle caraway seeds on it, then spoon some of this relish in. Stir it up, then heat it. A microwave will do. Feed it to people who say they don’t like sauerkraut, and see if they don’t make an exception. Great as a side with brats and potatoes.

—You can use it as a salsa—a chip dip. Stir it in with yogurt or sour cream.

—Mix it with mayo and use as a dressing base for a pasta salad.

For this maiden voyage, I used greenhouse tomatoes—but I’ll bet it will be exponentially better made with red ripe summertime tomatoes! You might want to try it, too.

Here’s the recipe. Notes in [brackets] are by me.

Chilli Sauce
By Clara Renner

16 cups tomatoes (about large pot full)
6 sweet peppers [green bell peppers]
8 big onions [Mom said Grandma would’ve used yellow ones]

—Cook for 2 hours.
—Then, add and cook 1 hour longer:

2 cups vinegar [Grandma would have used apple cider vinegar]
3 red peppers [Mom said Grandma would’ve used sweet ones, such as red bell peppers]
2 Tbsp. mixed spices [Mom said these are pickling spices; I used McCormick, which must have some cinnamon in it—very delicious!]
2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. celery seed

—For catsup or sauce, use 1/2 tsp. ground red pepper, which you can use instead of 3 red peppers [okay, I added a little chili powder—the spice-blend kind you’d use for making chili—and I also used the red peppers as well.]

If you’re like me and you want to just try it out, below is the quartered recipe I used. I made an effort to cook it down.

Reduced Recipe
(makes about 3 pints)

4 cups tomatoes (approx. 4-5 tomatoes), chopped (next time, I’ll blanch and peel the skins off of them)
1 1/2 green bell peppers, chopped
2 regular-sized yellow onions, chopped [I figure what was a “large” onion in Grandma’s day is probably what we’d call a “medium.”]

—Cook for 2 hours in a heavy-based pan.
—Then, add the following and cook for 1 more hour or until as thick as you want:

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
4 sweet red peppers (shape and size of jalapenos—but they’re sweet)
1/2 T. pickling spices
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 T. salt
1/4 T. celery seed

—Adjust seasonings to taste. I’m sure I added more pickling spices and celery seed, thinking my containers of them were rather old. I also added a pinch or so of chili powder.
—When it’s about as thick as you want, run it through a food mill if you want it to have a more homogenous texture.
—I didn’t preserve mine, but this recipe was born to be canned.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Humbling, Amazing Response

I’ve been putting off writing about this subject, because I haven’t been able to think of words to describe my reaction—but there aren’t any. Also, this post has two audiences: First, to “everyone,” a.k.a. tout le monde, a.k.a. “all you kids in Internet-land”; and second, to John G______ (last name withheld, because I’m not sure he’d want to be identified publicly), in Massachusetts.

Back in May, John wrote me a letter and sent it in the mail to my house. Okay, first of all, who writes actual letters anymore? That itself is remarkable. Plus, it was two pages, single-spaced, typewritten (with an actual typewriter, in good ol’ Courier), and it was a thoughtful, and warm, response to my entire blog.

No joke—John had read all 544 posts, dating back to early 2009, and instead of leaving comments here and there on miscellaneous older posts, he wrote me the letter, commenting on several at once.

Seriously: He mentioned reading about lebkuchen, venison jelly, woodchucks, stinkhorns, and spiders.

He mentioned reading about our temperamental historic storm windows, my fibula fracture, and our Christmas tree.

By golly, I think he really did read through every post. Wow!

There’s something a little disconcerting about that—my blog is, basically, an online journal, and although I refrain from posting things that are quite personal, still, if you were to read it straight through, I suppose you would get a pretty personal glimpse into “who I am.”

Despite the slightly disconcerting realization that someone had actually read my blog, the flip side is that it is deeply gratifying, and humbling, and exhilarating, to think someone enjoyed reading it so much that he waded through the whole shebang, starting all the way back at my insignificant little first post.

Again, I’m an editor. And I’ve heard it said that authors, during the editorial process, oftentimes feel this sense of being deeply flattered, because the editor has read and considered every single word of the manuscript. Such a close reading, by someone “on your side,” is supposed to be a big ego boost. At least for some authors. I suppose this is kind of how it feels to be on the receiving end.

But here’s something else. John found my blog (much to my personal satisfaction) when he was doing web searches about Edwin Way Teale’s four American Seasons books. (You might recall that I’ve written at length about Teale, and particularly about his four American Seasons books.)

I admit it: Most of my posts are not well planned. They lack structure. The blog itself doesn’t stick to a single topic the way a “good” blog should (crafts; cooking; grandchildren; hotrods; etc). I’m chatty and rambly. And the posts are way too long. I know better than this.

I worry that potential clients for editing projects will find my blog and think that my haphazard free-writings must mean I’m an awful editor. (Trust me, casual journal writing and editing are two completely different things! Make no mistake: I’m much better at editing! I do this blogging stuff just for fun! ~Honest!)

However, I took extra care with my Teale American Seasons posts. So much “care” that I haven’t even yet finished my post for the last book of the quartet, Wandering Through Winter! It’s still in my file titled “Drafts Op Op.” And someday I will post it. (Meanwhile, John, this next picture is for you!)

My Teale posts are especially long and full of words. They are the antithesis of “successful” blogging and Internet writing; they are not breezy, choppy, simple, hyped-up, dumbed-down.

But here’s the thing: I liked them. I was satisfied with them. Of all my 500+ posts, those are easily in my top ten personal favorites. And if the Internet is good for something, it can be a powerful tool for connecting people who have similar interests, no matter where we are in the world. When I posted them, I’m sure I muttered to myself, “There you go. I spent a week writing that post, and maybe three people will eventually read the entire thing.”

But it didn’t bother me too much, because whoever those three people were, I knew they’d be Teale fans. I knew they’d have just finished reading the American Seasons books, and I knew they’d relish the connection with another person who enjoyed reading them.

So my emotions upon reading John’s letter last May were all over the place. Sure, I was momentarily freaked out: How’d he find my address? —Oh yeah, it’s a matter of public record. (Though I don’t engrave it on my posts, it’s also not a secret.) But most of all, I was elated.

Well more than 500 times, I’ve clicked “post” and had the sense that my little voice has just swirled away . . . into nothingness. Or who knows.

Yes, I was thrilled back when I started blogging, when people started leaving comments. And (spammers excluded) it still thrills me each time someone leaves a comment. (And yes, John, I do get an e-mail notification from Blogger each time someone posts a comment, even on the oldest posts.)

But John’s response has felt much, much different. I’ve been trying to decide how to reply to his letter, but I realize I can’t do better than to simply describe what happened, and how it made me feel.

For weeks after I received it, I showed it to friends and family: “Look at this incredible letter I got in the mail!” I read portions of it to just about anyone who would listen. I carried that letter with me everywhere I went.

I took it with me on two recent vacations. I kept it in my possession the way a dog carries around a treasured bone. Swear to God, I want to frame it and put it on my wall, the way a business owner frames his first dollar of profit. What else can I say?

And so, John, I heartily return your final comment to me:

Thank you! I really enjoyed reading that!

My best regards,


Monday, July 6, 2015

Red, White, and Blueberry Jell-O Salad, alias "Blueberry Salad"

Trust me, this looked excellent before we demolished it.

And the fact that we demolished it implies (correctly) that it tasted really good, too!

It’s the perfect Jell-O salad for a Fourth of July meal. Like all Jell-O salads, its cool fruitiness is a great complement to barbecue, hamburgers, hotdogs, or whatever. And it’s refreshing on a hot day (like it always is here, in July). And face it, most Jell-O salads are more like dessert than a health food, and it’s a holiday, so hey, rock on!

But you gotta be fast if you want to take a picture of it.

File this one under “retro recipes.” I found it in the 125 Year Anniversary Commemorative Cookbook from Trinity Lutheran Church, published in 1995 or 1996. The original recipe, according to that collection, was in “the Kitchen Klatter Cookbook, published in 1982.” (Does that mean the magazine? I can’t find evidence that a Kitchen-Klatter cookbook was published in 1982; only in 1977. Hmm.)

Or it could have come from Country Woman magazine, July/August 2000, p. 42, where apparently it was called “Red, White, and Blueberry Salad”? Online, it’s frequently called “4th of July Party Jello.” (Sic.) (We all know how it’s officially spelled and capitalized: Jell-O.)

Anyway . . . there aren’t many pictures of this particular Jell-O concoction because, no doubt, it gets eaten up before anyone gets a chance to take a picture of it!

I amended the recipe just a tad: It was apparently created before Jell-O had come out with its blueberry flavor/color, so the original called for the blue layer to be created with raspberry Jell-O plus the fruit and juice from a can of blueberries. But shoot! Why not use blueberry, now that it’s available here in the modern age? Real or artificial, flavor-wise, blueberries and raspberries are great friends!

I interpreted the “coffee cream” it called for as “half-and-half,” and I substituted Neufchâtel cheese for the cream cheese in the recipe—it’s got less fat, but darned if I can tell much difference between the two.

Here’s how to make it. Be sure to allow time for each layer to get hard before adding the next—I suggest making it a day ahead. (Which is to say, July 3!)

The recipe suggests using an 8 x 8 or 9 x 11 inch dish. (I used an 8 x 8.)

1. First layer (red):

1 box raspberry Jell-O (regular size box; not the big one)
1 cup boiling water
1 cup cold water

Make the raspberry Jell-O per the usual directions on the box. Pour it into the dish and chill until firm.

2. Second layer (white):

1 envelope plain (Knox) gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup half-and-half (or milk)
1 (8-oz.) package of cream cheese (I use the lighter Neufchâtel cheese), softened a bit
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup pecan pieces

In a little bowl, stir the gelatin into the water and let soften. In a saucepan, heat the half-and-half with the sugar until hot but not boiling. Add the gelatin, mix, and let cool. When it’s no longer hot, in a blender or food processor, mix the gelatin mixture with the cream cheese, vanilla, and pecans.

Pour this white layer over the red layer and chill until firm.

3. Third layer (blue):

1 package blueberry Jell-O (again, regular size box)
1 cup boiling water
1 (approx. 15-oz.) can blueberries with juice (such as Oregon brand)

Dissolve the Jell-O in the boiling water. Stir in blueberries, with their juice. Let it cool so that it’s not hot (you don’t want it to melt the gelatin you’re pouring it on), then pour this blue layer over the white layer and chill until it’s firm.


This is really delicious. If you’re like me, the slightly tangy, creamy white layer, with its pecans, will really transport you back to childhood potlucks from the sixties and seventies. Back then, I would have had no idea what was in that white “mystery” layer—but I sure would have given it my approval!