Thursday, March 9, 2017

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Now Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge

In January, the US Fish and Wildlife Service finally changed the name of Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge. This NWR, near St. Joseph, Missouri, is now aptly named for the spectacular hills lining the refuge on the east, which are made not of rock but of loess, a kind of compacted soil made of dusty, yellowish silt that was blown into great rolling dunes after the last glacial period.

Nearby Mound City is named for the large loess hills in the area.

I hope that people aren’t bent out of shape about the name change. Sure, there’s a Squaw Creek that runs through the area, and that name hasn’t changed, but the NWR’s name isn’t exactly historic, as it goes back only to 1935, when the NWR was created.

Back in 1935, almost every American understood the term squaw to be sort of a Native American equivalent of the German frau, the Spanish señora or mujer, or the French madame or femme. Obviously, no one meant it as a derogative term because they had no idea it had such connotations. People probably thought they were honoring Native American women by naming the creek and later the refuge after them. I hope that in the future, people don’t look back and think that people who used the word squaw were being disgusting, insensitive, insulting. They simply didn’t know about the original meaning of the term. In fact, through their longstanding, benign use of the word, you can argue that they gave it a new, non-insulting meaning.

But finally, Native Americans made it clear to us other Americans (immigrants and children of immigrants, all of us), that squaw was for them a deeply offensive term, used for part of a woman’s private anatomy, so ever since then, place-names of lakes, mountains, trails, and so on, that had long used the word, have been changing.

And it’s a good thing! Some people might grouch and moan about “political correctness,” but I’m convinced it’s simply about being gracious and respectful of others’ feelings. Why continue using a word, a name that essentially insults someone, when we can use a new name that is better, anyway?

So now it’s the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge. And who knows how to pronounce it? Ha-hahh! Hopefully the people in northwest Missouri have already picked out a pronunciation they can live with, whether it’s “luss,” “less,” or (definitely the weirdest choice) “low-ess.” These are Americanized pronunciations, however, of a German word with a vowel sound we don’t make in English, the German “umlaut o” (spelled ö or oe).

It’s a mix of the vowels “ee” (or “eh”) and “ohh.” In a nutshell, you say “ee” (or “eh”) with your tongue, inside of your mouth, and you say “ooh” with your lips. Try saying “oh” with your lips, rounding them, but position your tongue as if to say “ee” (or “eh”). (Here’s a fun explanation of German umlaut sounds.)

French coeur, German Goethe, and my own surname use the ö/oe sound.

So after listening to these examples, you might start saying it more like “lurse” or “loorse” (light on the r’s, in both cases). I have been trying to pronounce “loess” correctly for about as long as I’ve been able to talk, since my dad is a physical geographer who specializes in Missouri landscapes, and he always taught his students (and my brother and me) how to say loess the original German way. Loess! Loess! Loess!

So! On Saturday, we drove up to the northwest corner of the state not to see the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, particularly, but to see the birds taking refuge on it! And what a treat it was!

The big show, of course, was the snow geese, which were so numerous as to look like, yes, large areas of snow. Like, 28,000 of them. (In previous weeks, there’d been as many as 283,000 of them!) White and blue forms. I’ll bet there were some Ross’s geese among them, but picking them out would have distracted me from the main attraction: their multitudes.

Occasionally vast numbers of them would rise and fly off northward, an overwhelming chorus of their thousands of high voices. They were getting a nice brisk tailwind from the south!

They vanished into the whiteness of the northern sky. But there were still thousands left in the wetlands.

We saw lots of other birds, too, of course. There were plenty of Canada geese around; they seemed to love standing on top of the many muskrat homes that poked up out of the water. This one was all “honked off” at something—looking at it through our binoculars, we could see it hissing at something below it, then turning around and complaining the other direction.

Other birds that we saw (in the afternoon) included several trumpeter swans, American white pelicans, mallards, northern shovelers, blue-winged teal, gadwall, American coots, killdeer, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds (but unfortunately we didn’t see any yellow-headed blackbirds, but I certainly looked), and my favorite sight of the day, a female belted kingfisher that was hunting for fish. (Yes, in Squaw Creek itself, so see? It pays to take your eyes away from the vast wetlands and look all around.) Sorry, no pictures of her.

Sue, of course, was the one who first spied the kingfisher. As we watched, the kingfisher flew down to the water and captured a fish. (Judging by the shape, I’m betting it was a green sunfish or something similar.) She flew with it to a nearby wood duck nest box, perched atop the box, and started the process of swallowing it. True to form, she smacked it on the box a few times to subdue it, then got it flipped around so it would go down headfirst (the smooth way).

This was the weekend of Columbia’s True/False film festival, (or as some of my friends who work at restaurants and bars call it, “Hipster Christmas,” “Hipster Homecoming,” or the “Bunning Man” festival). Why would anyone want to be cooped up in a dark movie theater when they could be out watching these miracles of nature? Oh well. Maybe people don’t know you can see these amazing sights for free. Or maybe, because it’s free, they don’t value it as much as something you have to buy a ticket for?

Anyway, during one particularly large and raucous liftoff of zillions of snow geese, we noticed that a few non–snow geese were caught up in the excitement of the crowd. Amid the multitudes of basic sameness were a few different shapes, different wing-flapping patterns: One was a blue heron, and the other an adult bald eagle.

Well! That made our day! Can you pick out the eagle in this photo? (Remember you can click on these pictures to make them bigger.)

It was also great fun to watch some of the muskrats.

One sat on a completely muddy area amid dried cattails near a muskrat home and groomed itself for several minutes. I kept thinking, Dang, with all this mud, it must be a never-ending chore for them to try to keep clean!

As with so many other rodents, you can’t help thinking it’s really pretty cute-looking. Look at the little fist this one made with its left hand while it worked to clean its right arm.

Yeah, pretty cute, huh?

Well, it was a very memorable day. We need to keep going out and seeing these sights. What a beautiful and fantastic world we live in!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Healthy Tiffin: Frozen Meals Are Finally Delicious

Just a quick note today to tell you about something I really like: Healthy Tiffin frozen meals, made by Deep Foods, an Indian food company in New Jersey.

Unfortunately, you cannot buy these in just any grocery store, but hopefully someday you will. Meanwhile, do like us and stock up on them at an international grocery in the nearest large city. (We've been buying Healthy Tiffins at Global Foods Market in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis.)

Why frozen? Because it's extremely convenient, especially when you're freelancin' and you don't want to take time off to fix anything, and you want something you can eat at your desk while you get back to work! And all the Healthy Tiffins I've had have turned out fine, even in the dreaded microwave.

A tiffin, by the way, is basically "lunch," and a tiffin carrier is the standard lunchbox used in India. You might have seen these nifty stacking metal containers, which many people are using now to avoid plastics.

And why Indian food? Because at least in this case, it's vegetarian and delicious at the same time. Indians have been vegetarian for so long, their vegetarian cuisine is completely satisfying in terms of flavors, textures, and nutrition. My friends who eat meat, try Indian for your "meatless Mondays."

Although you can buy plenty of frozen Indian dishes at the international store, what makes the Healthy Tiffin line so nice is that each one is a complete three-part meal, with rice, a dal (beans), and a vegetable (usually a wet curry, one with lots of tasty "gravy" to have with your rice).

So here's four of 'em, and I think there are more:

  • Paneer makhani + rajma + onion Basmati rice (cubes of homemade cheese in a spicy tomato-based gravy; kidney bean dal; rice flavored with onion and cumin)
  • Kofta curry + chhole + spinach Basmati rice (kofta are vegetarian dumplings; chhole is garbanzo bean dal; the rice is fortified with spinach)
  • Palak paneer + dal makhani + turmeric Basmati rice (cubes of homemade cheese in pureed, nicely spiced spinach; a luxuriously creamy dal; beautifully yellow seasoned rice)
  • Mutter paneer + dal palak + cumin Basmati rice (cubes of homemade cheese in a gravy with green peas; a soft creamy moong dal preparation mixed with spinach; a relatively plain rice seasoned with cumin)

Finally, here's another reason to seek out Healthy Tiffin frozen meals: they really do make an effort to make these meals "healthy." They swap out or reduce the cream and butter for olive oil; they offer lots of fiber and protein; they have reduced the sodium from the "traditional" recipes. (I think they could do further with the last item, as each meal supplies about 25 percent of one's sodium for the day; I would rather they use less sodium in their preparations, so I can enjoy my salty Indian mango pickles without knowing I'm going overboard.)

Here's another thing: one of my friends can't get out much because of a disability, but she loves vegetarian food . . . but she's also missing a lot of teeth. These Healthy Tiffins are just the thing for her! Every time we get them, we buy extra for her!

Keep your eyes out for Healthy Tiffins! I'm sure you'll love them.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

Video from a few years ago: our singing Christmas tree!


Merry Christmas, everyone!

Not sure what you're seeing? For more information on our family's Weihnachtspyramide, click here.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Orange Balls, and My Dad

In past years, I’ve shared with you recipes and memories of German-American cookies, with their nuts and spices, dates and candied fruits. Those are “grandma cookies,” the “Cookies of my People”; they connect me with my deep past, with places, times, and people long before my birth. Lebkuchen, springerle, billy goats, pfeffernusse . . . like my blue eyes and fair skin, those cookies are in my DNA, I think.

But on my Christmas dessert tray I also include cookies that are just for me, cookies that have become my personal tradition, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Orange balls fit this category. I make them every year.

And each year I make them, I appreciate them more and more for what they mean, for their special sparks that kindle warm memories.

To understand why I make orange balls every year, you have to get a picture of a little tradition that my Dad and I developed when I was a child.

Dad was a member of the University of Missouri Department of Geography, and he got the recipe from a lady named Brooksie Jennings, who was the secretary of that department in the early 1970s. I suppose she had offered a plate of orange balls at an office Christmas party. Or maybe she just brought some of these little gems in to work one day, just to share.

I imagine my Dad taking a bite of one, chewing it, and remarking on how tasty they were, and I imagine Mrs. Jennings, soon afterward, handing him an index card with the recipe on it. The card’s still there in my parents’ recipe collection.

Like a lot of similar no-bake cookie-balls recipes, it calls for crushed vanilla wafers. In the days before every kitchen had a food processor, Dad figured out how to render a box or two of crunchy vanilla wafers into a fine crumb: Clear off the smooth Formica kitchen table, get Mom’s wooden rolling pin, and start crunching them up.

It was great fun—I helped! And Dad encouraged me. It got to be an annual “Dad and Julie” activity, and we both became skilled and merciless crushers of vanilla wafers. I looked forward to it. We’d sit across from each other at the table. First, we’d pour a few cups of the cookies on the table; then, we’d use the roller to just press straight down on them for some initial crunches; then, as they got finer, we actually rolled the crumbs. The flat pile of slightly oily crumbs wanted to slide around on the slick table, but we managed.

Dad and I would always have a nice conversation while we worked. I can still hear the gentle crunching sound as we rolled the pin over the deconstructed cookies.

Working in batches, and sliding each finished pile of smooth crumbs off the edge of the table into the mixing bowl, we’d soon have our vanilla wafers properly demolished and ready for the next step.

The mixing of powdered sugar, margarine, concentrated orange juice, and the wafer crumbs was the forgettable part, as far as I was concerned, but when that was done, Dad and I rolled the dough into balls in our hands (fun!), and then rolled the balls around in a shallow bowl of coconut flakes. I would sometimes get creative and shape some of the dough into pyramids, or into cubes. (You know . . . kids.)

It became a father-and-daughter tradition because Paul and Mom both said they didn’t care much for orange balls. (I was incredulous: “Whaaat? How could you not love these amazing sweet little orangey-coconutty gems?” . . . But you know how kids are; I just thought, “Oh, well, too bad for you; that just means there’s more for Dad and me!”) (I still always include some orange balls with the cookies I send Paul—I think of it as an inside joke, though I wonder if he even remembers how much he didn’t care for them as a kid.)

So naturally, if Mom and Paul didn’t really like orange balls, they certainly were’t going to participate in their construction. So it became a father-daughter activity, something we’d do on some early December weekend afternoon.

I suppose, for someone of my vintage, it might seem strange to have even one dear and vivid cooking memory associated with one’s father, but I have several. Dad has always liked to experiment in the kitchen—to make tasty things and enjoy them. His mom didn’t use a lot of written recipes; she cooked by feel. And he passed along to me a healthy independence from conventional cooking strictures, a willingness to stray at bit off of a recipe’s path, to color it up, to paint with a wider brush.

So here, my friends, is the simple recipe for orange balls. And after it, a few more notes and memories.

Orange Balls
(from Brooksie Jennings, former secretary of the University of Missouri–Columbia Department of Geography during the 1970s)

1 lb. vanilla wafers, crushed [approx. 4 cups of crushed wafers]
1 lb. confectioner’s sugar
1 stick oleo
1 6-oz. can frozen orange juice (thawed and undiluted)
6 oz. Angel coconut

Cream powdered sugar and softened oleo. Add the thawed orange juice. Add the vanilla wafers (crumbs) and mix well. Form into small balls and roll in the coconut. Serves 40 to 60.

1. The recipe does call for 1 pound of vanilla wafers, crushed, but a standard box of them contains 11 ounces. Each year, Dad and I would work out the quantity: “16 ounces is a pound, one box is 11 ounces, so we need 5 more ounces . . . that’s about half of a second box.” We’d eyeball it. Dad knew it wasn’t rocket science. It always worked, and Dad helped me see how the math I dreaded so much at school had an actual useful application (you know . . . kids). Today, I just throw vanilla wafers into the food processor and turn them into crumbs in seconds. We are all so much busier during the holidays, now, aren’t we. Not like when I was a kid, and Dad and I spent all afternoon making orange balls, enjoying each other’s company in the kitchen. The food processor’s much, much faster than using the rolling pin—but it’s noisy; it sounds like one of those wood-chipper contraptions—plus it’s not nearly as much fun.

2. Because I make rum balls, too, which also uses crushed vanilla wafers, I usually buy about four boxes and pulverize them all at the same time. I have a digital kitchen scale, which simplifies the weight measurement.

3. Oleo is margarine—you knew that, right? You can also use butter, of course. I’ve made them both ways. I think they stay a little moister with margarine.

4. Can you still buy 6-ounce cans of frozen concentrated orange juice? I haven’t seen one in years. I always buy a 12-ounce can, let it thaw a little, and spoon or pour out half. The rest we make into half a pitcher of orange juice.

5. Your hands will get sticky when you’re rolling the balls. It can help to put a little cooking oil on your palms, or to just wash them occasionally. (Or, if you’re feeling kid-like, go ahead and occasionally use your teeth to scrape the delicious goo off your palms! —Just make sure to wash your hands again!)

6. Some people roll them in chopped pecans instead of coconut. But I figure if the recipe specified Angel (Flake) brand coconut, then they probably developed the initial, official recipe, and the least we can do to thank them is to make at least some of them with coconut. And I personally like the tropical fruitiness of these cookies—a breath of fresh air amid all the black walnuts, molasses, raisins, dates, and so forth.

7. You should pack these in a container so they don’t dry out too quickly. Also, keep them in a cool place. We have an unheated sun porch, which is perfect.

8. I tried something new this year, and extremely decadent: Instead of rolling them all in coconut, I dipped some of them in melted dark chocolate morsels, which turned them into awesome orange-flavored little bonbons. It instantly transformed them from “cookies” into “candies.” I had to slap my own hand to keep away from them. Definitely recommended! (See, it pays to experiment in the kitchen!)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Who in Blazes?!

Ah! Another postcard I found at an antique mall. Enjoy!

. . . Wait for it . . .

. . . . . . . . Wait for it . . .


You're welcome!


. . . And because I don't want to get into copyright trouble, here's the official data:

Monday, November 14, 2016

"Dam if I Aint Gitten Tired of This Hell Raisin on My Place"

NOTIS! I been to an antique mall resuntly and gotten this here postcard that jus tickled me to death. I figgered youd understand, cuz if yur like me you aint feelin too sochible after that there elekshun neether.

Maybe in a few more weeks I'll feel less grumpy. Nuff said.