Monday, March 20, 2023

Where Have I Been?

Well, certainly not on vacation. Any free time I’ve had recently has been spent on things like work (actual billable hours!) and the basics of taking care of our home (including, like, getting another new furnace in January). I don’t think I could have done this without Sue. And my brother came to help for two weeks in February.

If you don’t read anything after this, please get this at least: GET THE SHINGLES VACCINATION IF YOU’RE ELIGIBLE FOR IT. (((Okay?)))

Round One

Here’s what’s up. My mom got shingles in the middle of January. None of us quite knew what was going on, since she didn’t have an obvious rash, nor did she have the excruciating pain shingles is infamous for. There were about three days of increasing overall weakness, redness on half her forehead, swelling in her right eye, and, as she weakened, loss of appetite. Had she just slept "wrong," and not been drinking enough? She didn’t want to go to urgent care. So we tried telehealth. The telehealth doc had us hold the camera up to Mom’s forehead, and he said “go to the emergency room, this looks like shingles.”

So we went to the ER on 1/14, she was diagnosed with eye shingles and secondary bacterial infection. Hours later, she was returned home with a prescription for Valtrex and antibiotics. She’d had no liquids or food that whole day, pretty much. Not even an IV. And since it was now late on a Saturday, the drugstore the ER sent the prescription to was closed and would be closed until Monday. So Sunday, we had to get the ER to send the prescription to a different pharmacy. By the time we tried to get her to swallow the first medications she’d had since the afternoon before, she was too weak and dehydrated to sit up on the edge of the bed.

So, for the second day in a row, she went to the ER. This time, she was admitted, thanks to her overall weakness and dehydration, also because the swelling was starting to extend to the other side of her face, with both eyes nearly swollen shut. Not meaning to be mean . . . but Sue and I both decided Mom looked like “a prizefighter who’d lost the round.” She was in the hospital from 1/15 to 1/20. With IV fluids and antibiotics, she started getting better quickly. We visited her every day.

She didn't have much of an appetite, so we brought her food we were pretty sure she'd like.

Then, she went to a rehab facility from 1/20 to 1/28. She didn’t want to go there. She didn’t remember much (if anything) about her trips to the ER, and she still doesn’t remember much about the days before, and the days in the hospital. All she knew was that she wanted to be home.

I don’t think she really understands, yet, that a stay in a rehab place is not the same as being locked up in a nursing home. Indeed, the rehab place simply does the kinds of things that hospitals used to do “back in the day,” back when people stayed in hospitals doing rehab and getting stronger until they were able to go home. Anyway, Mom hated the rehab place.

. . . The food was pretty miserable.

And she felt the chair was uncomfortable. And she had to press her button well before she needed assistance getting to the bathroom. And the TV didn’t work like her TV at home. Also, her eyesight was messed up. She had several days of just having a plain old bad attitude. ("Hmm," I thought; "maybe the inconveniences and less-than-optimal situation can act as an incentive for her to do PT, so she doesn't have to return to a rehab place anytime soon!")

Dad and Sue and I tried to make it nicer for her. We visited her every day. I did my best with the TV. I read to her from her mystery book. Worried that she wasn't eating enough, I brought her Wendy’s burgers (single cheeseburger, no mayo, just the way she likes ’em), Arris pizza, Taco Bell taco supremes. You know—her favorites. As it was in the hospital, my “shift” was in the afternoons and into suppertime; Dad was with her in the mornings, through lunchtime, so he got to see her do her PT and OT.

The Wednesday, January 25 Debacle

A day that will live in infamy. So, until 1/25 (the day the insurance made the decision to deny her a second week in rehab), she was experiencing no pain. But that day was a debacle. First and worst, Mom started getting the excruciating pain associated with shingles early that morning. For the following several weeks, she’d get an attack about once every 3 to 5 hours, and even though the attack would only last about a single minute, it was incredibly draining on her. Her whole body would tense up; she’d cry and whimper. It was so hard to see. So that began early in the morning on Wednesday, 1/25—the same day Mom had an 11 a.m. appointment at the University Hospital’s Mason Eye Clinic. The rehab place said they’d transport her there—we were to meet her at the front entrance to the hospital at 10:30. Dad and I were there at 10:15 (I’d spent the night in Columbia, since snow was predicted overnight, of course).

So, it got to be 10:45, and Mom hadn’t appeared. I called the rehab place (the name rhymes with “The Snuffs”), and the nurses said they were on their way. Around 11, she still hadn’t arrived, and when I called again, “the driver dropped her off; she should be there.” I said, “Well, she’s not here.” More time elapsed. In between these calls trying to find out where the heck my mother was, I was reporting to the receptionists at the eye clinic: “Well, they SAY she should be here!” Wouldn’t it just figure that they’d finally get Mom to her appointment, and the eye place say, “well, you weren’t on time, so we have to reschedule you.” Ughhhhh!!! . . . Next time I called the rehab place nurse, she said, “Okay, they had dropped her off at the eye clinic on Keene Street. She’s on her way now.” So finally Mom showed up, and the eye clinic saw her at noon, a full hour late.

Mom had been dropped off at the wrong University Eye Clinic. The driver hadn’t paid attention to the words “UH - Lobby floor” instruction on her transportation papers. He’d wheeled my mom into the Keene Street eye clinic, asked her if she saw her daughter (me) anywhere, and poor Mom had used her one reasonably good eye and tried to oblige him: “Yes . . . I think that’s her over there.” And the guy just left her there! Without verifying if it was really the right person or not. Jeez!

I don’t know how they figured this out. Was it the rehab place nurse who contacted the driver and told him to go back? Or did eye clinic staff at the Keene Street location go over to my mom, look at her papers, and call the rehab place? The mind boggles.

Anyway, it was a rough damn day. The eye clinic doc had good news for us: her eye is improving. As to the pain that had just started to occur, she said that a regular MD is the one to talk to about starting on pain medication. So as soon as we returned to the rehab place, I got with the nurse and asked if their staff doctor could start her on something. “I’ll relay the message to the doctor.”

End of First Rehab and Back Home

For the rest of Mom’s time at the rehab place, she was never prescribed anything more than the over-the-counter Tylenol she has always taken for her chronic back pain (indeed, I think they effectively took her off that, since they deemed it “upon request,” and Mom wasn’t thinking to “request” it).

So her pain attacks continued, and each agonizing episode strained at muscles she hadn’t used in years. The pain attacks just wrung her out. As a result, even though her first few days in rehab showed steady improvement, she didn’t have much of a net gain in strength while she was at the rehab place. The rehab place's doctor didn't prescribe anything for her shingles pain, although we asked again and again.

Mom felt it was a betrayal for us to try to get a second week of rehab for her, but anyway, our appeal for another week was denied, so she came home on 1/28. On Monday, 1/30, we took her to see her regular doctor, and he started her on gabapentin, a pain medication that must be increased only gradually, to avoid side effects. On 2/1, I had my first entire day at my home. On 2/2, my brother flew to Missouri to be at Mom and Dad’s house. He helped with the transition to visiting PT and OT practitioners, and visiting nurses keeping tabs on Mom’s health. He also helped Dad with Mom’s various medications and with tracking her pain attacks.

Soon after Mom returned home, Sue noticed my parents’ house seemed dry, and we figured out that their humidifier wasn’t turned on. A phone to their HVAC company revealed that their service contract hadn’t been renewed, so we had to get that reestablished (yeah, now we’re in the twenty-first century, with the monthly payments automatically deducted from their checking account, and automatic renewal, instead of being paid by check once a year, and renewal activity having to happen each year). Fortunately, the HVAC company sent a guy out right away to do the maintenance and turn on the humidifier. Hopefully Mom’s eyes and skin wouldn’t seem so dry, right?

Did we all need extra things to take care of? No, but I was so glad my brother was able to help with another issue that my Dad hadn’t gotten to—linoleum removal, cleanup, disinfection, and de-molding of the basement laundry room, where the sewer had backed up a few times, including once while my brother was there (n.b.: “flushable” wipes are not truly flushable). I’m so grateful he was able to assist with dealing with the company doing the work, and with the insurance company, which (yayayay!) is paying for nearly all the work, including duct cleaning and rebuilding part of a closet that had gotten affected by the sewer backup. Indeed, that project isn’t quite finished—but it’s getting close to completion!

We had some good times while my brother was in the state. The family had a little Super Bowl party (and the Chiefs won!); and we served Mom and Dad one of their favorite meals: pork sausage patties, fried apples, and mashed potatoes. Another night, it was my homemade shepherd’s pie! My brother and I even went out for a bro-and-sis lunch at Ozark Mountain Biscuit Company, one of our new favorite restaurants.

The day before he flew back home, we took Mom to another doctor appointment; since her pain attacks didn’t seem to be helped much, he increased her dosage of gabapentin. That night, we had a pre-Valentine’s dinner. The next day, we drove him back to the St. Louis airport. Things were looking hopeful!

More Bumps in the Road

Mom had another eye appointment on 2/16; the doc found uveitis (inflammation between the cornea and iris) and put Mom on prednisone/steroid eyedrops (one drop per waking hour), and started her back on Valtrex (antiviral medication), since the steroid can open the way for a reemergence of the shingles.

Meanwhile, the gabapentin dosage was being ramped up—in hindsight, too much too fast. Mom was getting weaker and her vision was still bleary. By the weekend of 2/18 and 2/19, the pain was finally abating, but within a twenty-four-hour period between 2/19 and 2/20, Mom had ended up on the floor four times. Sooooo . . . another ambulance trip back to the hospital. And another week there.

The pain medication seemed to be the culprit, so they took her off the gabapentin and put her on a different pain medication (pregabalin). They also started her on two blood pressure medications. They’d noticed orthostatic hypotension (BP drop when she stands up) apparently related to the gabapentin, plus old age and poor physical condition. But her BP was rather high when lying down. They put her on two BP medications (midodrine to raise it, lisinopril to lower it—go figure). The eye docs reduced her steroid eyedrops to just twice a day.

Mom was doing pretty poorly, but she really wanted to go home. All the time spent lying in bed hadn’t helped her fitness at all. There was no way she was strong enough to make it up the stairs to the living room. She needed more rehab.

So after about a week in the hospital, Mom was transferred to a (different) rehab place on 2/24 and was there until 3/11—general weakness and a need to keep an eye on her BP. Another trip to the eye docs on 3/7 saw NO inflammation in her eye, and they started weaning her off of the steroid eyedrops. The eye doc took her off Valtrex and antibiotic eye ointment (she couldn’t figure out why they were still giving those to Mom, when she’d said for both to stop, like a week ago). I won’t go into how the rehab place had kept her on Valtrex all this time, and had somehow increased the eyedrops from 2x/day to 3x/day. What the hell?

So after two weeks at the rehab place, Mom came home again on Saturday, 3/11. I had a heck of a time figuring out the medicines, based on the paperwork they sent home with her. Apparently, they hadn’t been tapering off the prednisone at all; apparently they had taken her off it cold-turkey. (Though the next Monday morning, a nurse from the rehab place called and asserted they had, too been reducing it according to instructions. Hmm.) Also apparently, they had not been giving her the Tylenol she’s accustomed to, even though we’d made it clear she gets the maximum dosage every day, to help with her chronic back pain. Finally, I couldn’t figure out why the BP meds were being given so often and at the times of day they said, especially the midodrine, whose third dose they were supposedly giving her in the “evening.” What-what-what? That’s never to be given near bedtime.

Naturally, it’s pretty impossible to talk to medical professionals on a weekend. Why do they release people on weekends? Anyway, we got it figured out. (I think.)

Back Home Again: Time to Blossom

So at this point, Mom’s back at home, her doc’s taken her off of midodrine, she’s winding down on the prednisone drops, but she’s still on the pregablin (which seems to be taking care of the pain attacks, though the right side of her head is still really sensitive and zingy).

While Mom was at the rehab place, I installed a toilet-seat raiser with handrails onto her toilet, and Dad hired their carpenter/handyman to install additional handrails on the staircases, which made a big difference in Mom's ability to haul herself up from the basement garage to the floor they live on.

Mom's vision is still wonky: ever since her right eye reopened during the initial hospitalization, she’s had double (non-binocular) vision. The right eye isn’t in great alignment with the left. The eye docs think this was caused by inflammation, daily antibiotic ointment treatments (which make vision blurry), and general physical weakness, and so far they have resisted giving her corrective lenses that would act as a crutch; they’ve been hoping that her eyes will return to alignment and binocular vision as she improves overall and uses both eyes together. So Mom’s still struggling to read and watch TV—her two favorite activities.

Also, throughout, Mom has acted as if PT and OT is a hardship, an annoyance, a punitive sentence, an outrage upon her constitutional rights as a senior—but hopefully she will finally see that her doing regular physical activity is a key for her and Dad getting to live safely at home for as long as possible. For years, her doctors have told her to simply get up and walk around the house a little, and Mom always nods and says "yes."

But back at home, she always has an excuse for not doing it: “my back hurts; I just got up; doesn’t walking to the bathroom count?; I’m tired; I’m old; but I can do that!; well, shouldn’t Bud be having to do exercises, too?” (Note that Dad has been doing PT and other exercises of various sorts for years; the issue with him is that he wants to do too much!) The day of her return from the rehab place, I suggested Mom do some little marchy-steps while seated, and she complained that she should get at least one day to relax at home!

Mom does PT when a physical therapist is there to have her do it; and the PT folks have told her again and again to do some exercises during commercial breaks, or get up and walk around between TV shows—but when Dad or I remind her to move, she doesn’t listen to us. She just sits there. Lord knows I’ve beaten this drum enough the last two months. Let’s hope she takes it to heart; I’m tired of nagging her about it.

Yeah, it’s been rough emotionally, too. It’s been so frustrating, trying to convey to my mom the importance of her taking care of her body via three simple things: drinking, eating, and doing even just light exercises. But my frustration really doesn’t matter. We’ve all been frustrated! This has been incredibly difficult for my mom, who did everything she was supposed to do to treat her shingles; she did the PT at the first rehab place, and did it well; then she got discharged half a week after her pain attacks started. The doc and nurses at the rehab place let her down by not addressing the pain right away. Then, once she finally got a prescription for pain medications, nearly a week after the pain began, it took ages for the pain meds to build up to hope to do anything. Then, finally, the pain meds were too much and she started falling down. Then, another stay at a hospital, and then rehab and PT all over again.

For someone who hadn’t spent a night in a hospital in like thirty years, never seen the inside of a “rehab place,” and who’s not used to taking much medicine at all, my mom’s had to swallow a ton of it. And the indignity of people making decisions for her. This has been a huge disruption in her life. And who the heck can figure out the weird TVs in the hospital and rehab places??

She can't even see to read her mystery books. . . . Boy, I'd have my crabby moments, too.

Dan, Mom’s physical therapist at the most recent rehab place, told me he’d told my mom that when she goes home, it’s her “time to blossom.” He, too, encouraged her to get up several times throughout the day to walk around, to do some seated exercises during commercial breaks, and thus reclaim her strength and independence. “Time to blossom.”

We’ve had some crabby conversations, but since she’s been home, Mom has been taking the bull by the horns, sort of. She’s been putting on nicer clothing, she’s more independent with toilet habits, she’s been eating more, drinking more, and not raising a big ruckus about medications. I’m not sure she’s doing much physical movement, but hopefully she’ll get some benefit from home PT visits soon . . . before there’s some other bump in the road.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Mark’s Good Old Stuff

It’s not an heirloom recipe, but to me it’s a classic. It helped me survive graduate school. You can file it under “goulash” or “one-dish meals,” but you can also label it “cheap, first-apartment food” or “culinary atrocity number 537.” The major sin here is a ham-handed blending of Italian and Mexican Tex-Mex flavors. The basic idea is to use canned chili, plus other ingredients, as your pasta sauce.

Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

I have two versions to share. Mark, referenced in the title of the recipe, was the owner of the pet shop I worked at all through college. One version of the recipe amounts to the original notes that I wrote down to the best of my memory, after watching Mark make it as a quick, tasty dinner one night. It will give you an insight into how to approach such a dish as this.

I had never seen Mark cook before, and I don’t think I ever saw him fix any food after this. At work, if we ever had any big projects requiring after-hours labor (like the three times we moved the entire pet store within the mall!) he would reward us, and keep us from going home, by ordering three or four large Domino’s “ExtravagaZZa” pizzas. I remember coming to the pet store for work the morning after a late night, and he and I gnawed on some of the cold pizza still laying on the counter in the back room.

We weren’t very close friends; I mean, he was my boss. I only went to his home a few times, so I can’t speak to the rest of his culinary repertoire. Sure, I’d seen him move a rock the size of a refrigerator, and I knew he was a hockey player and part-time/reserve city police officer—when he wasn’t at the pet store. He was not exactly domestic.

Neither was I, at the time. But I was starting to pay attention to methods and procedures for making tasty foods, so in this case it was like a big brother showing me how easy it was to make “good tasty cheap stuff, and it makes a ton.” He kind of laughed as made it. He hadn’t been in college for a number of years, but had just gotten a divorce, was living in an apartment, and was paying alimony and child support.

So here are my original notes for “Mark’s Good Old Stuff”:

Get some links of Italian sausage, cut it up and fry it in a skillet. In a separate, large saucepan, heat up a can of chili beans. Dump the sausage and grease and all into the beans. Put in some cooked macaroni (elbow or whatever). Did he put in some oregano? A bay leaf? Some green pepper, black olives, onion? Some canned tomato?

And here’s my version, as I eventually developed it into more of a formula. (Or maybe it’s more of a checklist for when you stop by the grocery store on your way home from work.)

8 oz. rotini pasta (or elbows, or shells, or whatever)
Italian sausage (2 to 4 big links; remove casing)
green bell pepper (chopped) (optional)
onion (chopped) (optional)
1 can corn (whole kernels) (drained)
1 can chili with beans
1 can chopped tomatoes (optional)
1 can black olives (California olives) (drained and chopped)

Cook the pasta until al dente; don’t overcook it. While it’s cooking, prepare the rest of the stuff. Use a big, heavy skillet. Fry the sausage; chop it up while it’s cooking. Remove some of the grease (or not). Add the green bell pepper and onion, if using, and fry those, too. Add the corn to the sausage in the skillet, and keep heating. Then add the chili and tomatoes (if using), and heat through. Add the black olives last, because they’re kind of delicate. Then combine the drained pasta with the “stuff.” Heat through.

Optional: serve garnished with sour cream or shredded cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella, or parmesan. If you really want to dress it up, top it with chopped cilantro or green onions.

Note: clearly, you can adjust it however you wish. I like it with hot Italian sausage and spicy chili.

Finally, this actually tastes better the next day or so after you make it. So this makes a ton, and you do want to have leftovers.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Jar of Goodness Recap

Usually, when you do “Jar of Goodness,” you write down something you’re grateful for each week, and then you stick that slip of paper into a jar. Then, as part of your New Year’s Eve ceremony, you pour out the slips of paper and read them. If an entire family has participated, then the discussion revolves around who wrote what, and why, and general reminiscing.

But in this case, it’s just me, and it’s a virtual Jar of Goodness. So all I can really do is offer a list of my various Jar of Goodnesses. (See below.) Make of it what you will. To read all the J.O.G. posts, click this link here.

And what will I do this year? Should I continue the J.O.G.?

Actually, as I continued this weekly J.O.G. series, I’ve learned that my blog has pretty much always been a “Jar of Goodness.” In my blog, I usually focus on things that I like and love. Things I appreciate. The thing that’s different about the J.O.G. is the must-do weekly format (also known as a “deadline”), and the “permission” to have quite short, straightforward posts.

So for 2023, I think I’ll drop the J.O.G. concept, and just make a point of posting something weekly, or thereabouts. (In truth, many of my Sunday J.O.G. posts were written and uploaded on Wednesdays. Who knew that midweek was a better time for blogging?) Maybe I’ll still tag an occasional post as a “Jar of Goodness,” but I don’t see a need to make a weekly string of posts with that particular label. What do you think?

Also, I have a new idea for a regular series that could easily have twelve (monthly) parts, though it would probably be a stretch to make it weekly, with 52 installments. Maybe biweekly? We’ll just see how it goes. I’m still thinking about it. Stay tuned!

I can definitely recommend the Jar of Goodness for anyone. It will remind you to see the joy and beauty around you; it will exercise your “gratitude” muscles. You will feel more blessed, in mundane and in sublime ways. If you’re a blogger or journaler, it’s a good way to get back into a rhythm. It would be a great, and meaningful activity for a family, or a couple, to do together. I hope you’ll try it!

The 2022 Jar of Goodness Project

Jar of Goodness 12.25.22: The Holiday Season
Jar of Goodness 12.18.22: Heirloom Christmas Cookies
Jar of Goodness 12.11.22: New Car!
Jar of Goodness 12.4.22: New Gutters, and Done!
Jar of Goodness 11.27.22: Dormer Siding
Jar of Goodness 11.20.22: Artemis I
Jar of Goodness 11.13.22: Sunporch Storm Windows Done
Jar of Goodness 11.6.22: Little House Books
Jar of Goodness 10.30.22: Gans Creek
Jar of Goodness 10.23.22: October Day at Painted Rock
Jar of Goodness 10.16.22: Houseplant Dance
Jar of Goodness 10.9.22: Fall Color
Jar of Goodness 10.2.22: Deborah Cooper Park
Jar of Goodness 9.25.22: Old Munichburg Oktoberfest
Jar of Goodness 9.18.22: My Brother
Jar of Goodness 9.11.22: New Roof!
Jar of Goodness 9.4.22: Shakespeare’s Pizza South
Jar of Goodness 8.28.22: Native Prairies
Jar of Goodness 8.21.22: August 1993
Jar of Goodness 8.14.22: New HVAC System
Jar of Goodness 8.7.22: Dad’s Homemade Cookies
Jar of Goodness 7.31.22: Wait. Jar of Goodness?
Jar of Goodness 7.24.22: Menus for the Seasons
Jar of Goodness 7.17.22: Picnics
Jar of Goodness 7.10.22: First Aid Kits
Jar of Goodness 7.3.22: My 2003 Honda Civic
Jar of Goodness 6.26.22: This Couple
Jar of Goodness 6.19.22: Dad
Jar of Goodness 6.12.22: Air Conditioning
Jar of Goodness 6.5.22: Butterflies of June
Jar of Goodness 5.29.22: Missouri Wines
Jar of Goodness 5.15.22: The Black Walnut Tree
Jar of Goodness 5.8.22: Mom
Jar of Goodness 5.1.22: Clovers Natural Market
Jar of Goodness 4.24.22: Natural Foods Stores
Jar of Goodness 4.17.22: Oasis United Church of Christ
Jar of Goodness 4.10.22: Prairie Dogtooth Violets
Jar of Goodness 4.3.22: The Violets of April
Jar of Goodness 3.27.22: Lois
Jar of Goodness 3.20.22: Three-Chord Songs
Jar of Goodness 3.13.22: Sue
Jar of Goodness 3.6.22: Are the Neighbors Actually Moving?
Jar of Goodness 2.27.22: New Fridge
Jar of Goodness 2.20.22: The Katy Trail
Jar of Goodness 2.13.22: Adrian’s Island Jefferson City
Jar of Goodness 2.6.22: Hope Springs Eternal
Jar of Goodness 1.30.22: The Mosses at Painted Rock CA
Jar of Goodness 1.23.22: KOPN
Jar of Goodness 1.16.22: The Eggplant Leafrollers
Jar of Goodness 1.9.22 (Introduction)

Friday, December 30, 2022

24-Hour Salad (Overnight Fruit Salad)

This recipe is from Alvina Crawford. She and her husband, Fred, were my parents’ dear neighbors across the street on Isherwood. For many years, she would make overnight salads for friends and family at Christmastime. She’d make so many, over so many days, she’d freeze them so she could deliver them all on the same day.

So this is a holiday recipe for me.

I can replay the scene in my memory: our doorbell would ring, we’d go down the stairs to the front door, open it, and there’d be Mrs. Crawford, holding a big container full of salad. It would be a reused plastic ice cream tub, or a disposable aluminum foil casserole container. Her warm, mild voice, with its notes of rural North Dakota and Scandinavian ancestry. Her Christmas greetings—you could hear the smile in her voice. . . . We’d give her and Mr. Crawford a big platter of our homemade Christmas cookies, covered with foil, decorated with a Christmas bow.

There are lots of versions of this dish online; it’s a classic 1950s salad that doubles as a dessert. In this way, it is a lot like a Jell-O dish: “Is it a salad, or a dessert?” How can you tell? If it’s a salad, you serve it on a lettuce leaf—that makes it a salad instead of a dessert. As a dessert, served in a pretty bowl, it’s great with cookies. After a hearty Christmas meal, you might not want a heavy piece of pie or pudding. A fluffy fruit dessert like this is just the ticket! It’s perfect with Christmas cookies!

Grandma Renner made overnight salad, too. I’m not sure if anyone has her recipe. To the best of our memory, she used large, round, juicy red grapes instead of canned sweet cherries. In those days, you couldn’t get seedless red grapes, so each grape needed to be sliced in half, and the seeds picked out with the knife tip. Tedious; a labor of love. If you use seedless grapes (and why not?), slice them in half in memory of the labors of the past.

Other recipes, by the way, use things like drained canned mandarin orange slices, or real orange or tangerine slices, chopped bananas, and nuts. (Though if you’re making it for me, please don’t add nuts.) This recipe is a lot like an ambrosia salad, which has shredded, sweetened coconut, citrus, and pineapple.

My tips and comments are at the end.

24-Hour Salad (Overnight Salad)

Recipe adapted from Alvina Crawford

Dressing ingredients:

1 c. half and half
4 egg yolks, well-beaten
1 T. butter
1/4 t. salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups (1 pint) heavy/whipping cream

Make the dressing first (see notes at end, however). Use a double boiler, or use a heavy saucepan and heat gently. Heat the half and half first. Then add the next ingredients (except for the whipping cream), adding the eggs slowly and carefully so they don’t curdle. Cook, stirring, until definitely thickened. Then, set it aside to cool. This is a good time to prepare the fruit ingredients.

Fruit ingredients:

2 cans (20 oz.) sliced pineapple, drained and sliced (see notes below)
1 can (17 oz.) sweet cherries, drained and halved (or further chopped) [or whole]
[optional: large red grapes, halved and seeded if necessary]
1/2 lb. (24 count) regular-size marshmallows, quartered (or halved)
juice of half a lemon (fold in with the rest)

When fruit ingredients are ready, and collected into a big bowl, and when dressing custard is cooled, whip the heavy/whipping cream until well-whipped. Add the custard/dressing to the fruits, then fold in the whipping cream. Let it stand in the refrigerator for 24 hours (this is an important step).

Serve on lettuce, as a salad, or in dessert dishes as a dessert.

Yield: about 2½ quarts.

Julie’s notes:

Mrs. Crawford noted that, in order to divide the labor, she sometimes would cut up the fruit the day before, then make the custard and whipped cream the second day. “It doesn’t seem like such a long process when divided up.”

Why do you need to buy canned sliced pineapple, and then cut it into smaller pieces? Why not just buy pineapple tidbits? . . . Well, do what you want, but you get prettier pieces, and fewer little blobs of pineapple fragments, if you cut them yourself with a nice sharp knife. (Your knives are sharp, right?)

Also, as I mentioned above, you can freeze this and give it to people frozen; they can decide when to thaw it and enjoy it.

This recipe dates back to the days before they made "mini marshmallows." So you have to buy "regular" marshmallows and cut them! Okay, use mini marshmallows if you want, but quartered or halved "regular" marshmallows are much more fun to eat.

How do you know when the custard is thickened? . . . You will know; it may take a while, but when it thickens, it will happen quickly, and you'll know.

Finally, regarding the canned fruits: in the 1950s, all the canned fruits were in heavy syrup, so that’s the kind I suggest. But use what you want. Although not overly sweet, this isn’t a low-calorie dessert, so avoiding heavy-syrup in the pineapple probably won’t make a big difference.

And what can you do with the syrup you’ve drained off? Here’s an idea: put it in a saucepan, add sugar, maybe also a cinnamon stick, and simmer to reduce it to a bona fide syrup. With the syrup/juice from the canned sweet cherries, the syrup will be pretty purple. You can use this syrup for pancakes! Or, you can add brandy to the syrup and put other canned fruits in it: brandied fruits; great on ice cream!

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Jar of Goodness 12.25.22: The Holiday Season

. . . The weekly virtual “gratitude jar.”

This week, I’m expressing thanks for the holiday season.

Yes, including Christmas, duh. But also for all the other winter solstice–related holidays that humanity celebrates, not least of which is New Year’s. All these winter holidays are “resets” of some kind or other. An urge to remember our higher callings.

This time of year, you cross a bridge. Behind you is the past—a territory to which you can never return. Ahead is the future—a vast, unexplored territory full of new adventures, new things to learn. New year’s, the solstice, even “Festivus” focus on this turning-of-the-page.

Christmas and a wide range of other December religious festivals native to or heavily influenced by North America focus on light and hope. Now, at the darkest, coldest time of the year, we have holidays that emphasize light (including The Light), warmth, peace, love, hope, and joy.

And it’s a time when North America typically experiences hardship: it’s not the growing season, so anything active (birds and mammals) historically struggles for food, which grows scarcer and more precious as the winter drags on. And yet here is also the time for hope and for gift-giving: Here is something precious, for you. I made this for you. Look, a sweet, juicy orange shipped here from tropical lands; a feast; a rich cake full of dried fruits, nuts, and exotic spices.

At the traditional time of scarcity in North America, instead of pinching up and wrapping our arms around our stockpiles of foodstuffs and other goods, and hoarding the money we feel we’ll never get enough of, we are asked to embrace our family and neighbors, even strangers, and to be truly, gladly generous.

And that’s what our religions and spiritual traditions seem always to call us to do: to rise above our animal survival instincts. To act not as competing creatures in nature, but as civilized, empathetic, gracious beings; members of a society. We’re asked to rise above our individual needs, above taking care of only our own family and clan (like some competing, warring tribes)—and instead to care about and help others. To help even the dreaded Samaritans. To care for even the Least of These. We’re called to see the holiness in every being, and in all of creation. We are called to behave, to cooperate, to care . . . and to become much more than competing animals in a jungle.

Bless the beasts and all of the children.

Picture notes: featured in this post are some of the ornaments my mom made in the 1970s. They’re made out of pieces of felt, carefully trimmed and glued together. Aren’t they sweet? I love the multiculturalism it implied, harkening back to a time when Americans were more unified and had a more optimistic view of the world, and all of its diversity. There are several more ornaments that she made, too—stars, birds, tiny Christmas stockings with my and my brother’s names spelled out in glitter, and more. And she made many other types ornaments, too. It seems like she made a series of ornaments each year, of different designs. And she gave them out to everyone in the family. What a wonderful gift!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Jar of Goodness 12.18.22: Heirloom Christmas Cookies

. . . The weekly virtual “gratitude jar.”

This week, I’m expressing thanks for heirloom Christmas cookie recipes.

“These are the cookies of my people.”

I could go on and on about how strongly I feel about our precious family Christmas cookie recipes, but I’d rather just talk about the reasons why these connections are so strong.

But first, honestly, do I love these cookies the best? I sure didn’t when I was a child. I grew up accustomed to sweets that were, well, sweet, like candy, or cookies that are sugary or chocolaty. Each Christmas, when I was confronted with the old-fashioned and Germanic cookies of my forebears, I was rather let down. Dates, raisins, and candied fruits are a different kind of sweet than chocolate chips and Oreo “stuf.” Brown sugar, molasses, and sorghum are also different from white sugar. A lot of it’s the difference between sucrose and fructose. Nuts? They aren’t hardly sweet at all. Finally, when I was a child, I found assertive spices challenging. It’s not that I didn’t like spices—but when a cookie like a pfeffernüsse presented me with a punchy, bewildering blend of cinnamon, anise, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and/or nutmeg, it just seemed “weird.”

So you can imagine my less-than-enthusiastic response to biting into a billy goat cookie, full of dates and black walnuts, when I thought I had picked up a chocolate chip cookie. They do look a lot alike. They taste very different. So I learned to hesitate, my hand hovering over the cookie tray. I learned to carefully inspect my choices before making a commitment to any.

And this is why cookie trays, during my childhood, always included kid-friendly choices. My brother and I learned to scope out the animal cookies (that is, sugar cookies cut into animal and Christmas-themed shapes such as pine trees, bells, stars, and angels, always with straight-ahead icing on them). We also snarfed up the good ol’ chocolate chippers, the snickerdoodles, and the like. Mild flavors; Rice Krispies treats; spritz cookies. Cookies a kid can count on!

But it’s not like I wouldn’t eat the old-fashioned, Germanic cookies. Springerles, I thought, were pretty good, albeit often tough to chew (I didn’t drink coffee, so I didn’t discover the joys of dunking until much later). Lebkuchen, especially with a glaze and decorated with sprinkles, or with half of a candied cherry pressed into the glaze, weren’t too bad, even though the candied fruit was sort of “meh.” Billy goats were tasty, as long as you didn’t have your heart set on it being a chocolate chip cookie.

And so on. My brother and I ate the Germanic favorites, but like the sauerbraten and red cabbage we had only a few times a year (always at Grandma’s), they were “weird.” They were German things, things our school chums in Columbia, whose surnames were English like Wilson and Smith, didn’t have a clue about. The cookies their moms offered us were just “regular” cookies.

And soon enough, we realized our family’s Christmas cookies were special. Everyone who was older, our parents and uncles and aunts, and everyone older than they, oohed and aahed over them: “Ooh, yum, you made springerles! They’re so beautiful! I’ve got to have one of them!” They wouldn’t have gushed so much if it was, say, oatmeal-raisin cookies or peanut butter cookies, because those were everyday cookies; they won’t special.

By the time I was a teenager, I was hooked on these cookies. Like the Schroeder Weinachtspyramide, I knew they were special to my family and other ethnic Germans. I never cooked, but I knew these required some special skills to make. I was grateful my grandmas, my mom, my aunts, and the other ladies who made them. When I lived in Arizona and Montana, my grandmas’ abilities were waning. Grandma Renner had dementia; Grandma Schroeder had lost most of her vision. (Where did their springerle rollers or presses end up? I don’t know.)

Uncle Richard had always doled out his lebkuchen for months after Christmas, keeping a coffee can full of them in his conservation-agent patrol car. Shivering, he’d nibble on leppies and sip from his coffee thermos on his late-night stakeouts for catching deer poachers.

He ultimately refrained from eating the last bite of his last lebkuchen made by his mother; he put a tiny eyescrew in it and dipped it in varnish or polyurethane. It’s preserved and it has his bite marks on it. He made a necklace out of it—a totem—which he wears during holiday get-togethers: “The last bite of my mom’s last leppie.”

So yeah, I started looking for the recipes.

Since then I’ve gotten them pretty much figured out. There’s been a lot of trial-and-error, since it was too late for me to lean on my grandmas for advice. But food memories, it turns out, can be acute, so I’ve had a lot of help and encouragement.

The sense of smell and taste are strongly linked to memory and emotion. That’s why certain scents evoke such nostalgia—like the smell of freshly cut green grass in spring, or the first whiff of a wood fire on a crisp, early winter evening.

With the winter holidays so linked with family and spiritual celebrations, and with holiday foods repeated so many years, it only ingrains and strengthens the many associations of those flavors and smells. So when you smell those special cookies baking, each year the memories and layers of meaning accumulate.

It’s about so much more than the cookies. They’re just a trigger, the portal, the crystal ball, the talisman. They link me to my family, my ancestors, to a continent I barely know. They link me to fifty years of memories, some sad, but nearly all sweet. They invoke a mini meditation, a reverie, a quick portal into another dimension. They have power.

Any other time of year, I’ll make other kinds of cookies (recently, I’ve been partial to hermits and “pride of Iowa” cookies, for instance). But it’s my pleasure and honor to make family Christmas cookies and then share nearly all of them.

I didn’t start this. Ancestors who traveled across the Atlantic Ocean brought their holiday recipes with them; they couldn’t bear to have Christmas without them. . . . And who am I to break the chain?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Jar of Goodness 12.11.22: New Car!

. . . The weekly virtual “gratitude jar.”

This week, I’m expressing thanks for my new car! (Yeah, finally!)

I’ve talked about this already, but here it is in a nutshell: My 2003 Honda Civic gave up the ghost last June. At first, we considered getting a used car, at least to tide us over, but we discovered used cars are costing about as much as new ones, but with tens of thousands of miles, sketchy Carfax reports, and all kinds of signs of poor car care.

The problem with buying a new car is that they aren’t available. You have to order them, pay a deposit, and wait . . . for months.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Daniel Neman described his recent, 2022, pandemic-complicated car-buying experience, that was very similar to ours, though he started off looking for a new car and ended up shopping for used. Also, he was able to find more humor in his experience, which makes his editorial worth reading.

I won’t go into too much detail about what it’s like not having a car to drive around. I know it’s a “first world problem” and I’m not complaining. But it was mighty inconvenient, and a huge eye-opener, to not be able to just, well, go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. Yes, we have another vehicle, but it’s Sue’s 1994 Ranger, and it has manual transmission (I mean, why should I learn now?), and we wanted to drive it only for short distances. So, Sue and I went everywhere together, and Sue drove. Usually, I’m the driver, because her truck is older, and I rather like driving, and the sedan is usually more pleasant that riding around in the big, bumpy pickup.

Anyway, I got the call from the dealer on December 1: the car had arrived! Yippee! And we drove to St. Louis (borrowing my mom and dad’s car) on Monday, December 5 to pick it up. Yay for Mungenast St. Louis Honda!

Fun fact: Mungenast Honda isn’t very far south of Kirkwood, where we go to get our international groceries and where we’ve been finding good wines recently. It’s even on the same road (Kirkwood/Lingbergh). My, how convenient for us!

The saga isn’t entirely over; I still need to transfer the license from the old car and get rid of the old car, get the deposit back from dealer 2, who was unable to fulfill the order before Mungenast St. Louis Honda did, and then, of course, pay off the new car.

But it’s really nice. I actually now have a car that is a trendy color—it’s not just the last/least desirable color that happens to be on the dealer’s lot. And after twenty years with my old car, it gradually became less attractive, especially after the semi-truck had rubbed against it, and after the hail damage; I did feel rather sheepish one time recently when I pulled into the lot of the local country club for a lunch meeting, parking beside shiny new Audis, Cadillacs, and Mercedeseses.

For now, though, I have a car I can feel pride in. I can drive around slowly, thinking, “Yeah, everyone, look at me!” For a change. I know this feeling will subside soon enough. But, you know; after years of driving around a car with 100,000 . . . 150,000 . . . 200,000 . . . 250,000 miles on it, the temporary thrill of owning a car with only 12 miles on it: Squeeee!

I mean, you know me. I’m not ostentatious. I don’t obsess about my looks, or the clothes I wear, or whatever. But every twenty years or so, when I do finally get a new car—which I hope to drive until the wheels practically fall off—I deeply enjoy the first few years of special newness. Sure, a Civic is hardly a “status” car, but it’s a smart, reliable, comfortable, practical car, and for me, that’s something I’m proud to own.

So for the record, it’s a 2023 Honda Civic Sport Sedan in Sonic Gray Pearl (a very trendy color) with black interior. I really like how the paint color (which at first seemed like a rather boring gray) looks dramatically different in different kinds of light.

This is my third Civic sedan, the others being a beige "almond cream" 1989 DX and a metallic-dirt-colored “shoreline mist metallic” 2003 LX. This is the first one for me that has an actually trendy, in-demand color.

It’s really interesting, and I think a testament to the Honda company’s enduring vision and tradition of excellence, that this new vehicle still feels like a Civic, in a very fundamental way. The controls are basically all in the same locations; the road feel, the seats, the fit, the way it drives . . . are clearly on a continuum with the other two. Compared to the various similar-type sedans I’ve rented in recent years, I can tell those couldn’t be Civics—but this one is clearly, well, a Honda Civic. I can see why people are Civic “enthusiasts.”

So, that’s done: the car situation is resolved, and it was the last of the Big Things of 2022. The new second-floor refrigerator (ordering and waiting months for it); the second-floor air-conditioning conking out and us needing to get a new HVAC system for that floor (cha-chiiinng!); and (long delayed) finally getting the new roof, gutters, and new siding on the front and back dormers.

Sue and decided last summer, when it seemed everything was imploding but nothing was moving forward, that we should have come champagne on hand for whenever the last of these 2022 expensive, protracted inconveniences and frustrations were finally all over.

So when we got home from St. Louis with the new car, we did indeed celebrate!

Yep, sometimes gratitude has four wheels, a sporty ride, a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine, a touchscreen infotainment system, a CVT transmission, a Sonic Gray Pearl paint job, and a 10/10 rating from Car and Driver.