Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That Purple

This time of year in Central Missouri, fields, yards, waste spots, roadsides, gardens, and all manner of other landscapes can be flooded with that weird cobalt-violet-light that makes your retinas vibrate. It’s really quite magical how the tans, browns, grays, silvers of winter give way to this jazzy color. That special purple.

There are two plants that a lot of people confuse, and we have both of them blooming right now on our front terrace. Both are in the mint family, the Lamiaceae (if you took botany a long time ago, you learned it as the Labiatae, named for the labiate form that characterizes the family’s flowers—the petals are fused at their bases into a tube but have prominent upper and lower “lips”).

Both plants are weedy, branching herbs with square stems and little purple flowers.

First, there’s henbit, Lamium amplexicaule. The upper leaves seem to encircle the stem like a pretty little ruffled collar. I taught myself to remember the name for this by thinking of a frilly collar a farmwife might wear even as she was standing outside broadcasting feed for her chickens—henbit.

The other one is dead nettle, Lamium purpureum. Together, its leaves typically form an attractive, formal-looking pyramidal structure beneath the flowers. I taught myself to remember the name for this by thinking of the Egyptian pyramids—tombs—dead nettle.

So here are some pictures of henbit.
And here are some pictures of dead nettle.

I hope you’re having a good spring. It’s so nice to see these purple friends again, even if they’re supposed to be weeds.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Today we attended the Thirtieth Annual Hermann Wurstfest to sample sausages. Talk about yer slow foods and localvorism. Talk about your local color! And things that are sincere, and good, and true.

If you’re not already familiar with it, let me explain a little. Hermann is only one of many Missouri towns boasting a strong and continuing German cultural heritage, but it’s the one that’s made the most of it in terms of tourism and “branding” (as marketing folks call it). It’s a picturesque town with hills and lots of historic buildings. It’s on the south side of the Missouri River, between Jefferson City and St. Louis. (Now you can find it on Google Maps.)

Most people think of the town’s wineries and Oktoberfest first among the “things to do” in the Hermann area, but there are lots of other attractions and festivals. Perhaps it’s best to go in midweek, hole up in one of their charming bed and breakfasts, and simply . . . slow down.

But one of our favorite times to visit Hermann is during the Wurstfest. The sausage tasting, competition, and judging is just part of this springtime festival. There are wiener dog races (and costume and talent contests—all very popular with children), a display of antique sausage-making equipment (ooh, shudder-shudder: renewed respect for the whole butcher “thing”), and a whole-hog sausage breakfast at the fire department.

Of course, all the local wineries have special tastings, tours, sausage samplings, and so on. If you haven’t taken a tour of the Stone Hill cellars, you should. You not only learn how wines are made (in case you didn’t know), but also see their historic cellars and learn about the state’s winemaking history.

There’s a great view of the town from the hilltop at Stone Hill, which naturally is enhanced when you and your sweetie are relaxing with glasses of their Norton. Hermannhof Winery, downtown on Highway 100 along Frene Creek, has a wonderful wine garden where you can sit comfortably with your companions and enjoy a bottle of Spring Blush. Five more local wineries and the town’s brewpub were open this weekend for tastings and tours.

Also, the Deutschheim State Historic Site is a must-see for anyone visiting Hermann, and then if you’re going there, you’d better visit the German School Museum as well. This year, they were offering free admission to the museum to anyone who’d purchased admission to the Wurstfest.

Admission? Yes, six bucks for adults, but it’s worth it. Get your hand stamped, and you can go in and out of two sausage-tasting venues: The Stone Hill Winery Pavilion (where we went again this year) and the Hermannhof Festhalle downtown (where we’ve been in previous years).

One of the big draws for me each year is the music and dancing. Today accordionist Marilyn Loehnig of the Loehnig Family Band played at the Stone Hill Pavilion from noon to four. We always enjoy hearing her play those happy German polkas and other melodic favorites. (Remember when music had a melody?) She even the temerity to play that notoriously catchy Disney song—you know the one, about the “planet” being “of a little, little size”?—surprisingly it didn’t get stuck in my head. (Another polka tune did instead.)

Yes, the German music, of course, and then there’s the Wurstjaegers. A word about them: If I was at all interested in dancing, that’s the first group I would join. They look like they have such a great time, doing all these traditional German folk dances. Every time I see them I wish for more hours in my week, in my life! The group formed in 1948, and two charter members were dancing with them today. One of them is looking forward to her ninety-second birthday!

The group’s signature dance is a Wurstjaeger dance, wherein they act out the sausage-hunting (wurst-jaegering!) that traditionally took place the Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday: The menfolks go door-to-door with a carrying stick on which they collect, in dangling abundance, the whole town’s store of sausages; then they bring it all to the local festival hall for the Fat Tuesday “eat up all the sausage” feast. It’s a Fastnacht tradition—the German version of Mardi Gras.

On to the sausage. Hermann basically becomes a top-flight sausage market at Wurstfest. Bring money. Bring an ice chest. Be prepared to stock up. Your freezer at home will be honored to hold such special items for you.

Despite what I’ve written recently about pâté de foie gras, Sue and I are not exactly true devotees of the butcher’s art. We tend toward vegetarianism. We don’t eat a lot of meat; the food on our dinner plates doesn’t “orbit” the meat as a gravitational center. Meat, for us, is for stir-fries, for example. It’s an “ingredient.” That is, unless there’s something special about it . . . like when I marinate a sauerbraten for days, turning and massaging it, and cook it for hours before a big family gathering. Or, well . . . if we’ve got some gourmet sausage or something . . .

The judging and awards ceremony took place yesterday, so the vendors had their plaques positioned prominently near their winning sausages. Helping you to decide, of course.

There were five sausage vendors at the Stone Hill Pavilion: Heintz Processing (from Cuba) (Mo., of course!), Stonie’s Sausage Shop (Perryville, Mo.), Williams Brothers Meat Market (Washington, Mo.), Kurzweil’s Country Meats (Garden City, Mo.), and Schubert’s Packing Co. (Millstadt, Ill.). The biggest line was for Schubert's—they bring a huge variety of sausages to sample. It’s almost overwhelming.

But I can narrow my selections down immediately by category: I’m not into the “snack sticks” and jerky, and there’s only so much of the “pizza brats,” “bacon cheeseburger brats,” and “pepper jack Polish sausage” that I can even think about. And I really don’t see the point of “sauerkrautwurst,” because to me sauerkraut is supposed to be cooked and served with the bratwurst, not in it—it’s far better to enjoy the simple brat with the kraut in its traditional position, hugging and cradling the brat—on the outside, the way nature intended.

I didn’t buy any maple sausage this year, even though I always enjoy tasting it. It tastes just like breakfast. But for some reason, I’d rather dip regular sausage into my syrup when I’m having pancakes.

Many of the vendors, being full-time meat companies, also had other meats besides sausages—cured hams, bacons, kabobs, BBQ pork, turkeys, and so on. But I wasn’t shopping for that stuff today.

There were definitely some very special wursts available. Potato sausage? (Hmmm! Very smooth and mild!) Ukrainian bratwurst? (What’s that like?) Some really yummy andouilles. Chorizo. Several types of Italian-style sausages.

And there were all these traditional kinds of wursts and more: Nuernberger, Krakow, Thuringer, mettwurst, Hungarian kolbasz, bockwurst, braunschweiger, head cheese, blutwurst, leberwurst, scrapple, and more. A wonderment of sausages.

Unusual critters can become sausage, too: Duck salami, summer sausage made with elk or buffalo, and even chicken. We picked up some Italian chicken sausage with sun-dried tomatoes and Asiago cheese. It was light, but incredibly delicious—the flavors bloomed in my mouth as I chewed. This is food to savor.

The Wurstfest is the place to find great, fresh sausage and buy it directly from the butchers who made it. Schubert’s Packing makes a kielbasa that makes the shrink-wrapped stuff at the grocery taste like nothing more than a big pink crayon—well, that, or something made out of silicone—flavored primarily with MSG. The Schubert’s kielbasa is meaty and much leaner than the supermarket kind. The flavor was nuanced. I had to get some more of that.

The sausages that always draw the most oohs and ahhs are the flavored brats, the sausages with unusual ingredients. Last year my grand discovery was a bratwurst flavored with portobello mushrooms that had been sautéed in Stone Hill Norton (which is a full-bodied red wine, aged in oak). The people at Kurzweil’s Country Meats had it on their table . . . Whoa, Nelly! That one put me in sausage heaven. Last year, I couldn’t wait to get up to the cashier lady to place my order. I hope they won a prize for it. Whoo, doggies! Words fail me. . . . It was awesome, served with simple mashed potatoes and a lightly dressed salad of fresh greens—it didn’t need anything else.

So this year, I had my money out and everything, and the Kurzweil’s people had sold out of it! But there was plenty else to occupy my interest. They had a good applewurst that had big chunks of apple in it, and we had to pick up some of their roasted red pepper and asparagus sausage, as well as something they had named in honor of “Zorba the Greek,” which was basically a straight-ahead sausage with a good blend of herbs (thyme and so forth). I’m thinking it would be good on a pizza, or on pita.

Schubert’s, as usual, had scads of sausages to try, and it was hard to decide, but their bratwurst with horseradish was unique and good enough we knew we needed to pick up a package of that. Williams Brothers has a pork sausage with apples and cinnamon that was another automatic “keeper.” Williams also had won an award for their traditional-style summer sausage, and it was another automatic standout, something to host a party over.

I suppose I could have written this and complained about the weather (it was pretty cold, and there was still snow on the ground from yesterday), and I could have complained about the lines (though they were much better than last year), but instead I wanted to just rave about the sausage and the care and creativity that these small meat companies put into their work.

It’s just fun to see big grown men standing around and wearing hot-dog hats (like Larry Schubert wore as he sold sausage and laughed, his eyes wrinkling in merriment). Other men wore huge grins on their faces while sporting tee-shirts that promised: “Thick, hot, and juicy!” And the Kurzweil’s people had a new slogan this year: Eat Our Meat.

There’s something ancient, even primitive about the making of sausage—turning the less-than-choice bits of the beast into something irresistibly delicious—and about the celebration that accompanies it. When the Rhineland Wurstjaegers dance about the bounty and abundance of sausage, they are performing, in a specific, sophisticated, ritualized way, an act of thanksgiving that every single human can understand.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Nothing to Do with the Ozarks

Today we braved the possible snow and drove to St. Louis in time to make a 10 a.m. class at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Sue paid for me to go to a class called “Punjabi Home Cooking,” led by the mother-and-daughter team of Gurcharan and Aman Aulakh.

They are preparing a cookbook of family recipes. If the handouts we got today of recipes and cooking instructions are any indication, it will be a good cookbook to have around.

And ooooooooh boy, what a great time today, especially because it was so cold, windy, and rainy. As soon as the doors to the Kemper Center slid open, I could smell the spices.

I got a front-row seat in the classroom, which was specially designed for cooking; there’s a big mirror above the cooking area in front, angled so everyone can look down into the pots and skillets.

On the menu today: Anda Curry (curry with hard-boiled egg), Aloo Palak (potatoes and spinach), Gajar Matar (carrots with peas), Chawal (Basmati rice), Kheer (rice pudding), Chai, Cilantro-Mint Chutney, and Chapattis.

Indian cooking always tastes just right to me, but today, with the weather so raw, it was especially welcome.

It’s going to get pretty cold tonight, so Sue decided to bring in some of the bonsai trees she had already put outside for the spring. By the time she was finished and back in the house, I had a nice cup of fresh-made chai for her to hold in her hands and sip.

I love learning new things!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Jefferson Landing

Hi! After that last post, I wanted to provide a few snapshots of the historic buildings I mentioned. These are part of the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site, administrated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

First: the Christopher Maus house, which I referred to lovingly in the last post as the "mouse house." Note the Governor's Mansion lurking in the background.

Next is a view of the Union Hotel, which was owned by Charles Maus, Christopher's brother.

Finally, another view of the Union Hotel (the view you would see coming in on Amtrak, as this side faces the rails). The stone Lohman Building is in the background.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Peonies: Connections

Now that I’ve been blogging a few weeks, I’m finding myself looking forward to what comes together in my mind by evening, and tonight I’ve got a good one.

This evening I stepped outside to walk around the yard a little, and I admired the way the peonies are sprouting up. Only a few weeks ago (remember?) I was in our terrace garden, raking out last year’s foliage, snipping off the dried stalks of the 2008 peonies. At that point, they were just tender pink cones peeking out of the ground. Now some of the stalks are about a foot tall, the leaves beginning to unfurl.

More and more, I see spring as an overwhelming, virile, raw, powerful force. Something, a long time ago, had led me to characterize spring as tender and moist, soft, delicate, but that attitude is changing. When we say “winter’s back is broken,” then I guess we also have to acknowledge that the thing that broke its back was the sheer, wild strength of spring.

But I digress. I was talking about the peonies. See, I’ve already told you we live in what used to be my grandmother’s house, and yes, that presents many situations that, in today’s world, seem remarkable. So tonight I’m going to remark about it. It fills me with an overwhelmingly strong sense of connectedness, and I feel that is incredibly precious, in a world where so few people live where their ancestors did.

So the peonies in our yard have been in this yard since about 1930, when my great-grandparents (paternal grandma’s folks), and my paternal grandparents, moved into this house (from where they had been living next door). (Got it?)

The peonies were moved to this property during the original landscaping my grandma and her folks did back in 1930. And they are basically where they have always been, all these years—some along the driveway, others over the retaining wall facing the street.

Here is something, kind of an aside: The peonies always bloom about the same time the mock orange blooms in the backyard. And that is right about at Memorial Day. And that is how, for years and years, the graves of my ancestors out at Riverview Cemetery have been decorated annually with peonies and sprays of mock orange blossoms.

I called up my dad tonight to ask him where the peonies had “come from.” I suspected they had come from his Aunt Polly, but I was wrong. He gave me the background.

Note: I fully expect to be coming back and editing this post, because I suspect I’ll get some things wrong, or “not-quite-right.” But here is what I know tonight.

See, down at 318 W. Elm, there used to be a house, which was demolished, I guess, about the same time my grandparents were moving here, just a block away. This house at 318 had been “the old Bartlett house.” Old Mr. Bartlett was the previous owner of these peonies, before they were transplanted here. Charles T. Bartlett. That was his name.

Okay, with me so far? The Bartletts were connected to me through marriage. My grandma’s older sister Minnie married Claude Bartlett, the son of Charles and Amelia Bartlett. So Charles Bartlett was the father-in-law of my Great-aunt Minnie. Claude and Minnie were living nearby at that time, and you know how gardening-inspired people can’t stand by and let perfectly good peonies get wasted because a house is being razed.

So the peonies ended up here. And Claude and Minnie soon ended up on Forest Hill, one of Jeff City’s swankier streets, while my grandma, her family, and the peonies stayed here in the ’hood.

Want to hear more? Sure.

So. Charles Bartlett’s wife, Amelia, had been born a Maus: Her dad was none other than Captain Charles B. Maus, the Civil War veteran who built the Union Hotel down at Lohman’s Landing, now part of the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site. Historian Gary Kremer says that Maus named it the Union Hotel “to reflect his loyalty to the U.S. government.” (He warn’t no rebel.)

The Union Hotel contains the Elizabeth Rozier Gallery, named for the woman who, in the sixties and seventies, was so instrumental in saving those historic buildings when government officials wanted to demolish them for parking for State Workers (we capitalize them in this blog, because of their separate, distinct status).

The bottom floor of the old Union Hotel is currently the city’s Amtrak station; that’s where we said goodbye to Paul and Karla and the boys as they were headed back home at Christmas. (Connections . . .)

Just up the street, and also part of the Historic Site, is the Christopher Maus house, built around 1854; Christopher was the brother of Captain Charles B. So Christopher was the uncle of Claude Bartlett’s mother.

Are you getting all this? Do I need to make a flow chart for you?

Now: The Maus brothers were German, and they pronounced their name so that it rhymes with “house.” This is why Sue and I refer to Christopher’s house as “the mouse house.” And we laugh. (We think of little wedges of cheese, wiggly whiskers, big round ears, beady eyes.)

But here is something else my dad explained to me: Amelia Maus had siblings, and one of them was named Wilhelmine, or Wilhelmina (spellings were more shifty back then between German spellings and English ones) . . . and she went by the nickname of “Minnie.”

Um, can you see where this is going? Yes.


Her name was Minnie Maus.

Dad says his Aunt Minnie (Claude’s wife; my grandma’s sister) used to refer to her husband’s aunt as “Aunt Minnie Maus.”

Dad says the Maus family changed the pronunciation to “Moss” in the generation after Amelia and Minnie. Shucks! But in a land of English speakers, I guess it sounded less rodentlike.

. . . So now I swirl my figurative brandy snifter and I wonder: Do you suppose our peonies might have once graced the sideyard of the Maus house or the Union Hotel down there on Jefferson Street? I try to picture how it might have looked in the 1880s.

The dresser we have in the back bedroom, Grandma told us, had belonged to Captain Maus, Claude’s grandfather. There’s a solid wood connection between me and the proprietor of the historic Union Hotel. I keep my socks in the same drawer where he might have kept his drawers!

But somehow, it’s even neater to think that the peonies might possibly serve as a living connection between me and the old captain.

And who owned and cared for the peonies before then, do you suppose? Who trimmed away the winter’s dead foliage each spring and smiled in May at their bright white blossoms flecked with blood red?

A friend recently told me that she and her partner had recently transplanted iris from New Mexico to their home in the Bay Area, iris that had belonged to her partner’s grandmother. And it goes on. And it goes on.

Plants have histories and genealogies just like we do, and our mutual paths merge and diverge and cross back again. Do you know what this feels like? It makes me think of those Hubble Telescope views of distant galaxy clusters—we see just a miniscule fraction of what’s really out there. Just enough to know how very little we know.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Farm and Fiddle

Those of you who know me also know that I’m a big fan of Columbia’s community radio station, KOPN. It’s local, it’s diverse, it’s real.

It’s different.

. . . It’s intelligent.

KOPN, by the way, transmits via the Web and not just over the air. So anyone in the world can hear it, if they have a fast computer and Internet connection.

Tonight, though, I’m not going to go on and on about KOPN in general, but about one program in particular: Farm and Fiddle. You can catch it Wednesday nights from 7 to 8 p.m. (Central time), or you can listen to it retroactively via podcast, if you’re into such things.

The hosts, Jenny and Margot, celebrate rural life in Missouri. They both have farms in Callaway County, and much of their conversation is about that. How to care for your beehives. When to divide your perennials. Tips on home canning. And so on. Tonight they hosted a seed exchange up at the station.

They give you the latest in farming news, with a particular emphasis on progressive, sustainable farming. If you’re interested in gardening, you could learn a lot listening to these two. Even if you just like going to the farmer’s market, they’ll let you know what’s going to be available.

In the breaks, they play fiddle music, past and present.

If you’re not a regular listener, now’s a good time to start tuning in, since it’s springtime, and farm life is starting to crank.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Dare You

I dare you to read this without your mouth watering.

I’ve been busy recently with actual work, so here’s something someone else wrote. I know you’ll enjoy it. I suspect Dilliard wasn’t living in Missouri when he composed this paragraph. He was probably stationed overseas or something. I read it and I get nostalgic. And I want to drool.

So what’s your favorite part of this lovely paragraph?

First, though, the citation: From Irving L. Dilliard, “People and Character,” in Missouri: The WPA Guide to the “Show Me” State. Compiled by Workers of the Writer’s Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Missouri. 1941. Reprint, St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1998, pp. 5–6.

Missouri’s eating is as good as it comes. Boone County ham steaks and red ham gravy, ham baked in milk, barbecued ribs and backbone, authentic country sausage and genuine head cheese; fried chicken and baked chicken and chicken pie and dumplings and chicken soup, eggs from the henhouse and bacon from the smokehouse; sauerkraut with squabs, and turnips with spareribs, spring greens from the yard and roadside, and green beans with fat pork—bush beans as long as they last and then long pole beans until frost. Missouri tables are loaded with dish on dish of berries—strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, floating in cream; with Jonathans, Grimes Goldens, Winesaps, Black Twigs, Delicious; apple pie, apple cobbler, apple strudel, baked apples and fried apples; homegrown tomatoes and watermelons and horseradish grown in the country’s horseradish center; an endless number of pickles, always including pickled peaches and “end-of-the-garden”; vast varieties of jellies and preserves; persimmons sweetened and whitened by frost; popovers, wheatcakes and honey, piping hot biscuits and melting butter and molasses; fruit shortcake always with biscuit dough; cornbread from yellow meal without so much as one grain of sugar.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Positive Reinforcement

Sue and I spent a good deal of time this past weekend preparing our tax information for our accountant, and we got our materials sent off this afternoon. Hooray! The annual dreaded chore is done. And it isn’t even April!

I’ve been the worst kind of procrastinator when it comes to taxes, but this year I decided it was important for me to get my act together, especially now that I’m a freelancer and I need to start paying estimated, quarterly taxes. (“Estimated” here equals “stab in the dark.”)

So to reward myself for good behavior, tonight I finally opened that tin of foie gras we bought in Paris. To be specific, it was a bloc de foie gras d’oie trufflé (according to the packaging)—a small loaf of goose liver foie gras with truffles. Oh, man, was it delicious. Vaguely like a braunschweiger . . . one that’s graduated from divinity school. Or no: It is to braunschweiger as fresh butter is to hamburger grease.

Okay, yes, I know how they make foie gras. But I’m willing to enjoy it once in a while, giving thanks for the birds that suffered for my pleasure. And I hope that Tyson never, ever gets into the foie gras–making business, because then the perversion would truly begin, and it would be time to riot in the streets on behalf of duck and goose rights.

It was nice and warm today, sunny, but it was quite windy—gusts in the 40 mph range—and it made our windows rattle. We would have opened the windows a little bit, but we didn’t want our stuff blowing around inside the house like a snow globe. (Taxes, remember?)

So we took our foie gras dinner out on the sun porch, since it’s drafty and sunny out there, enough to make us feel like we were having an outdoor picnic. Or, un pique-nique, en français. Fresh and dried fruits, some plain crackers, some taramosalata, and a small sampling of really special cheeses: Parrano Uniekaas Dutch cheese, which we found at Whole Foods; a seeming cross between an aged parmesan and a fine gouda. A seductive sweet, salty, nutty blend. Then also, two flavored cheeses we got recently from the World Harvest international grocery in Columbia: One with cumin seeds, the other with green peppercorns.

It was all so very good, to sit there on the comfy old sofa next to Sue, as the sun was getting low in the sky, as we nibbled on all this delectable fare. Even the “Fre” wine we were sharing seemed okay. (Nonalcoholic wines have a long way to go to catch up with the flavor of n/a beers. But until they do, the “Chardonnay” by Fre is about the best of the bunch. Drink it out of a nice glass. That improves the flavor. It really does.)

Well, there’s not a lot to report, other than the taxes being sent off to our accountant ahead of the very last minute, and that’s good reason to celebrate.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


It’s really quite simple; all you need is a good knife or two, a cutting board, a place to put the scraps, and a bowl. And your choice of fruit.

Today, as I prepared this morning’s bowl of fruit, I thought about a wonderful point made by one of my great culinary heroes, Edward Espe Brown, in his 1997 book Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings: Recipes and Reflections.

You might remember that Brown is the author of the vegetarian “cooking book” (bible) Tassajara Cooking (1973), which he wrote when he was the head cook at the Tassajara Zen Center in Northern California. He is also the coauthor of The Greens Cookbook. If you aren’t familiar with this man’s classic vegetarian writings, you need to be.

Anyway, the point I was thinking about this morning was this: “Are You Worth Fruit for Breakfast?” That’s the title of his small essay, in which Brown tells how he passed through a breakfast buffet line that got him to thinking. There was a lovely bowl of fresh fruit at the end of the buffet. But there was only a small cutting board and a single, small knife for the breakfasters all to share. And no place to put the peelings. Hence, people were only taking the bananas.

Bananas are tidy to eat. The rest—the oranges, the apples, the pears, and so on—require “work.” Brown gently suggests that cooks ought to think about “ways to encourage people to help themselves,” recognizing the need for appropriate work space, disposal for the compost, and tools adequate for the job. “Make it possible and inviting, and all of us are much more likely to do it.”

But then, reflecting on the work of preparing fresh fruits, he muses: “Sometimes we are not sure: ‘Am I really worth sliced fruit today?’” And he answers this question: “Yes, we are feeling good about ourselves today, and we are worth fruit for breakfast.”

He then proceeds to provide some beautifully simple recipes, plus detailed, logical instructions on how to make supremes (you know: those lovely wheels of sliced citrus that lack all the whitish pith).

Brown’s essay must have been mulling around inside my head two Christmases ago when a friend from Northern California sent us a box of fruit for the holidays. We got all kinds of lovely, special things—farmer’s market items. In addition to the excellent orange blossom honey and fresh almonds, we received guavas, Asian persimmons, sweet little apples, oranges, kiwis, and more. I’d never had fresh guavas or Asian persimmons before, so it was like Christmas on top of Christmas.

And they were lovely—fruits are simply picturesque. Think of all the humans in previous centuries to whom fresh fruits were delicacies, worthy of fine paintings.

So at that time, I had an office job, and I decided I was “worth fruit.” Yes, there was a snax machine in the break room, but I was trying to stay away from that. So I made the conscious decision to make it easy for myself to engage in frugivory.

I outfitted my office: A bowl for fruit, decorative enough; I would bring in the week’s supply on Monday and have it basically gone by Friday afternoon. Functional beauty. In my desk drawer, I stashed a small wooden cutting board and a small, decent knife. Elsewhere, a plate (one of those that doesn’t match any of our other sets), a fork, a spoon, chopsticks. Fruits taste different with chopsticks.

At the store, I make it a point always to get a few fruits that go beyond the “usual” for me. Like the persimmons, which taste like sweet pudding, a little pricey, but they elevate the apples and oranges. Or mangos, papayas, kiwis, blood oranges, Cara Cara pink navels, etc. There’s a whole world of spectacular fruits to try, and they keep bringing us new ones.

So, in late afternoon when the “munchies” would hit, when I’d start feeling a little drowsy, I’d carry my implements and selected fruits to the break room and prep my food. Two or three pieces of fruit, sometimes with yogurt as well.

It looked like something zookeepers might throw down on the ground for the orangutans to pick at, but it was pretty good. It certainly fed my craving, and it saved me from the HooHoos, Ding-a-lings, and fried pork hides of the evil snax machine. If you work in an office somewhere, you might consider this as a way to get you through rush-hour traffic, to keep you in a good mood till dinnertime.

Of course, fruit is good for breakfast, too, and it’s usually what I have these days to get me “off to a nutritious start.” I usually top the fruit with vanilla yogurt; adding it helps with my midlife calcium concerns.

So this morning I celebrated the return of the blood oranges at the supermarket. I encourage you to seek them out and give them a try. The produce department is the best part of the grocery store, you know.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Edna Day—March 22

There are federal holidays and state holidays. There are religious holidays.

And then there are also personal holidays, and this is one. Grandma S—Edna—was born March 22, 1905, the time of the vernal equinox, and you never met a human who personified springtime more.

Because we live in the house in which she lived her entire adult life, I think about her a lot. I can’t help it. She wasn’t a traditional grandmother, because of her character. My brother once described her as “a frustrated actress.” She was the kind of person who brought the party with her everywhere she went. Pretty much.

Anyway . . . as kids, my dad and his brothers started a tradition of presenting their mother with a flat of pansies every year on her birthday, and these always ended up in the front planters, on either side of the front entryway. They stuck to the tradition, pretty much. And I helped some years, especially as Grandma got older.

Pansies are so colorful. They look like little happy faces, smiling at you when you come home after one of those client meetings. They welcome our visitors. Good deal.

And around here, the vernal equinox is just about the best time of year to plant pansies; they’re hardy enough to tolerate the occasional spring snow.

So even though Grandma isn’t with us anymore, we don’t see any good reason to break the pattern. It’s turned into a little ceremony, where we remember Grandma’s love of flowers and gardening. We poke those colorful little pansies into the soft ground and think of how glad we are to have known her. She was cheerful and colorful . . . and so are pansies.

But there is something that goes beyond the comfort of tradition, and the nostalgia of remembering Grandma, when we observe this little celebration.

It feels distinctly satisfying, like a form of consummation. By performing this small ritual of planting pansies in the front planters, we officially put winter to bed. Simultaneously, we formally greet spring, and then the spring greets us back each time we walk through the doors.

It has to do with a lot more than Grandma, but we still call it Edna Day around here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More Proof of Spring

Slow news day. Or at any rate, I’m going to skip the news and cut right to the flower pictures.

The grass is getting green, and the flowers are coming out. The sun rises earlier every day. Here are some recent pictures from our yard. No great photography; just snapshots of what springtime looks like today.

Below, in order: A couple of daffodils; vinca flowers; a portion of the forsythia bush on the corner of the house; a confederate violet; a flowering quince flower.

Here is something else—the garter snakes are out! We love them; they are our little friends. When they see us coming, they hide in the vinca and other groundcovers and bushy places in the yard. We feel blessed to have them in our yard. To us, they are just like more flowers.

When it gets warmer, they will respond to our presence more quickly, and we won’t see them as often. But these days, when the mornings are still chilly, they are quite approachable.

And I suspect they are hungry, too. I’ve noticed the boxelder bugs decreasing since the snakes have been awake. (I’ll bet boxelder bugs taste sweet, like maple sugar. If I try any, I’ll let you know.)

But here’s the fun part: I’ve discovered that I can play with the snakes. Today at lunch, for instance, there were five of them on the front terrace, near the entrance to their tunnel, all slithered together, like a litter of kittens trying to warm up in the sun. I approached very slowly and smoothly. Their heads rose and craned in curiosity. The tongues came out.

Bending down slowly, I discovered that if I dragged one of my fleshy pink fingers away from them through the grass, like a bug or a pinky mouse trying to wiggle away, they could not resist following. They tapped at my finger with their soft tongues.

Voici, voilà-la-la-lahh . . . I’m a snake charmer now.

(Snake charmer: I’ll have to add that to my résumé. It’s no doubt an invaluable skill.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Happy Fisherman

It’s a restaurant at the Lake of the Ozarks. No, it’s not haute cuisine, so get down off your high horse and just relax and go with the flow. The colorful cutouts of the cartoon mascot fisherman and his shrimpy and fishy friends stuck to the outside of the restaurant are your first hint that this is a place to have fun. The tablecloths are vinyl, for instance, not fine linen.

But first off, it’s locally owned. Always choose the local establishments over the Rubee Tuesdees and all those sorts of places.

I swear, when you go down to th’ Lake, it used to be you’d find all kinds of nifty local restaurants. Diners and such. Now, Chili’s and Starbucks have moved in. Horrors! If you can’t find Middle America in Middle America, then where the heck is it supposed to be?

I’m ecstatic that the Happy Fisherman is still there, in Osage Beach on the east side of Highway 54, just south of the big outlet mall. You can’t miss it—there’s a huge sign. The place looks like some kind of nautical fishin’ village (or a spoof of one). There are fake giant clam shells along the road, with loony cartoon eyes peering out at you, luring you in.

I fished around a bit on the Internet trying to see what people were saying about the place, and the reviews are kinda mixed. Which I guess is appropriate, since this is not a place that attempts to make every soul in the universe mildly happy (the way a chain restaurant would).

They do make some allowances for “diversity”: If you’re not into fish, can’t handle the bones, or whatever, you will indeed find menu items featuring big-boned terrestrial creatures for you to consume. They’re particularly proud of their steaks. So “The Lake’s Seafood Authority since 1975” does widen its net to include pisciphobes.

. . . Anyway, we went down there last weekend for Sue’s birthday (she wanted fried fish, and I refused to take her out to Cap’n D’s or Big John Silver’s’s’s). It had been a few years since we’d visited the Happy Fisherman, and although they’d changed the menu slightly, we weren’t let down.

First off, unless you order just an appetizer, every dinner automatically comes with a trip to the salad boat. Yeah, you read that right: salad boat. (Ahoy, mateys!) And this is distinctive all in itself.

I think we all have preconceptions about what “should” constitute yer basic salad bar, right? It’s lettuce, plus a bunch of other veggie-type stuff to add to your lettuce salad. Pieces of broccoli, sliced mushrooms, grated carrots, sprouts, garbanzo beans. Am I right? The other types of salads (potato salad, pasta salad, three-bean, etc.) are there at the end, almost as an afterthought. You add a little dab of that to the side of your lettuce salad, where space permits.

Well, it’s different at the Happy Fisherman. Think: potluck. Think: church basements. Think: what would your mom or grandma serve as a salad? Would it necessarily be a lettuce salad with toppings? Nuh-uh. Let us recall our church-ladies cookbooks from the fifties!

Folks, trust me, they had lettuce and stuff in the salad boat, but they had no less than fourteen different other salads and relishes to enjoy. Seriously! Seven along one side, seven on the other, plus one in the middle after the line of dressings.

Let’s see if I can remember them all. I’m not a professional restaurant reviewer, and I don’t have a photographic memory. Here goes: Creamy broccoli salad. Sauerkraut salad with Italian dressing (apparently) (Sue liked it; I thought it was abominable; both opinions are valid). Green pea and cheese cube salad. Carrot and raisin salad—boy, when’s the last time you had that? Bell peppers and onions in another Italian-type dressing. Pickled beets (I suspect homemade). Pickled onion slices colored deep green. (What a trip!) Spiced apples with a nice clove flavor, also deep green. I think there was a Jell-o salad. I think there was a potato salad. There was a pasta salad. And coleslaw (the creamy kind). What else. Three-bean salad! Of course.

Oh yeah. And there was one salad that I had to ask our waiter about. I was stumped, absolutely stumped about what I was eating. It was orange, it was sweet, it was tart, it had thinly sliced carrots to crunch on, and . . . what was the other stuff?

Turns out the cook has fun with a mandoline or other food slicer: In addition to the carrots, this salad had radishes and broccoli stems, all sliced incredibly thinly. And the sauce? French dressing. Yes, and it was actually pretty good. It didn’t look all that great, which is why (the waiter said), the cook calls the dish “Yuck.” I’m not joking. This is exactly what she told me.

I have to hand it to the chef: What a clever way of using the broccoli stems, which would otherwise just go to waste! I suspect it’s a “mom” recipe—a way to get kids (and spouses, for that matter) to swallow veggies.

While we were eating, a family arrived at the salad boat, and I overheard the young son asking his dad, “What is this?” The dad shrugged and said, “I don’t know, son; just take a little on your plate and see if you like it.” Ha! Isn’t that funny? Like I said—think “potluck.”

See, I like this kind of dining experience sometimes. It’s one reason to visit ethnic restaurants, either in America or overseas: You get to try new things. Only in this case, we only had to drive down to th’ Lake.

More on the Happy Fisherman. First, because it was Sue’s birthday, I encouraged her to enjoy the house drink, lovingly named the “Happy Hooker.” (Get it? Get it?) Served in a Mason jar, it’s one of those pinkish fruity concoctions with a cherry in it. Sweet, but not cloyingly so. Probably overpriced, but whatever. Sue seemed to enjoy it okay. I’ve had ’em before, and they remind me of mai tais.

We got an appetizer, and it turned out to be my favorite part of the meal. Fried dill pickles, in a form I’ve never had. Yeah, I’ve had them as spears, and as chunky wedges of whole dill pickles cut at an angle, and both types can be as hot as napalm inside, but this is the first time I’ve had them sliced so thinly, lengthwise. (Like I said, I suspect someone back there in the kitchen loves his or her mandoline or other slicer.) The result was good! More surface area for the breading to stick to. And the dipping sauce was truly spicy (in Missouri, when you get something labeled “spicy” that actually is, it’s always worth commenting on).

I got the “Baitcaster’s Platter,” which is yer basic sampler plate, and Sue got the “Ozark Fish Fry.” The latter seemed a misnomer, since the fish was tilapia, but it was good, and they were generous with two big fillets. The “Baitcaster’s” dish also came with a tilapia fillet, plus a whole fried catfish (don’t get it if you’re bone-phobic), plus a pile of fried clams, some shrimps, and shrimp sauce. Unless a dish is specified on the menu as fried in corn meal, it will have rice flour as the breading, and (indeed, as the menu noted) it creates a lighter, crispier fry. Two thumbs up.

Both meals came with choice of potato, a hushpuppy, and the restaurant’s own tartar sauce. Garnished with a nice piece of kale and a lemon wedge. The baked potatoes were modest in size, which I appreciate. We were gonna be stuffed, anyway. (Some restaurants give you baked potatoes that are as big as shoes, and what’s the use of that? Who can eat it? And if you can eat it, then you probably shouldn’t.)

Okay, the verdict on all the fried stuff is: Good. Yummy. No, it’s probably not the very best fried fish you could ever have, but it all tasted fine to me. The fish wasn’t over- or undercooked (it was certainly done, but it was juicy). It wasn’t greasy. I’m not a fine connoisseur of fried fish, but it all tasted delicious to me. I can’t talk about any of the beef, chicken, or other dishes, but I imagine they’re good enough for the one insane person in each party who won’t touch fish.

The price for the Happy Hooker, my O’Dull’s nonalcoholic brew, the fried pickles, and the two meals (which, as I said, each come with an edifying trip to the salad boat) was about $43.00. We were stuffed; we couldn’t finish it all. And it was all plenty good enough.

Part of the fun of the Happy Fisherman is the decor. I have to mention the decor. The theme is “boats and fishing,” so just about everything in there is decorated appropriately. The “salad boat” fits the decor, of course. Oh, you can imagine—there’s all kinds of fishy, nautical, anglin’, hip-wader-type stuff in there. Right before you get to the cash register at the end, there’s a small fish tank made out of an antique battery jar. One of the ladies working there told me it was once used to power a home. (Batteries used to require water. If you don’t understand that, try looking on Wikipedia.)

But most remarkable among the decorations is the impressive collection of vintage outboard motors attached to the rafters. Our table, for instance, was situated beneath a Johnson Seahorse Model JW10 (“Single cylinder motor built in 1954; develops 3 horsepower”) and an Evinrude Model A (“Single cylinder with Brass Base; manufactured 1914–1916”). The labels were helpful. I’m personally not into boat motors, but I can really dig how cool this is. I also recognize how “boatin’ and fishin’” is a large part of Lake culture, and I noted that other diners were nodding admiringly at the collection.

So here is the bottom line: When you’re at the Lake, go to the Happy Fisherman. Enjoy the local color. Eat some delicious fried fish. And explore some genuine mystery salads from the salad boat. Finally, don’t forget to relax and smile. This is vacationland.

Happy Fisherman on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Mr. Knisperhexie

Happy St. Pat’s Day to all you Irish people! I hope you’ve got your green on, so you don’t get pinched! Because that could hurt!

We German-types have our own version of leprechauns. You might call it a “garden gnome,” but in my world, a he-witch or other enchanted (and enchanting) little dude is a Knusperhexe.

If you’re into opera, you might recall the term from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel.

To my grandma, who spoke a kind of pidgin German, it was pronounced less like k'nooce-puh-hex-uh and more like k'niss-per-hex-ie. So that’s how it’s come down to me, and I see no reason to go backwards and use the Old World pronunciation. (Even if it’s correct.) I’m a German American, not a German (so there).

So we still have Grandma’s Knisperhexie at the corner of the house, and this spring he seems to be smiling more than ever. I think the daffodils and forsythias are pleasing him. Of course he’s glad to see warmer weather, since he spends all winter outdoors.

Yeah, spring is a good time of year. It’s always welcome when it comes.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Clifty Creek Conservation Area

Hi, folks, I’m taking you on a little hike with me. Along with restaurant reviews, and all the rest of the junk I want to comment on (you might recall), I intend to tell you about some of the good hikin’ areas around these parts. Here is one of our new discoveries.

Clifty Creek CA is run by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Its 256 acres are grouped in with the adjacent Clifty Creek Natural Area of 230 acres, so it’s a nice big chunk of land to explore, in Maries County, a little northeast of Dixon. Beautiful Ozark scenery. (The picture above is of a rocky glade along a high ridge.)

I was out there and thinking: Oh, man, I wish I could show this to “_____.” To every one of you who aren’t here and think that Missouri must be the most dreary place to be. Because the place is full of treasures. Even in early March.

There’s a sweet trail to hike. The literature we picked up at the trailhead says the trail was completed in 2008. No wonder it was in such great shape! It’s a fun trail, about 2.5 miles, with lots of elevation changes; it angles up and down the sides of valleys and dips down to the creek, rises again to the ridgetops, and passes through oak-hickory forest, mixed bottomland, sandstone glades, and limestone glades and cliffs.

The rocks are fantastic—lots of beautiful swirly zebra-striped chert, sparkly sandstone of various hues, limestone and dolomite riddled with holes, and more. Down at the creek, you could spend hours snooping around, oohing and ahhing over the purty rocks. The rocks tinkle like glass when you walk. Along the trail, especially this time of year, you appreciate the many different greens and textures of lichens and mosses that coat the rocks.

We first went out there February 8, when there was still ice on the creek and nothing green save for all the mosses, lichens, ferns, and cedars. But we had a blast even then and vowed to come back. So we went again on Saturday (March 14).

This time, the earliest wildflowers were starting to sprout up. I spied spring beauties, trillium, and Dutchman’s breeches—all just the foliage at this point. The award for “first bloomer” goes to the dogtooth violets (Erythronium albidum)—they were out in force, many sprouting up right in the middle of that new trail. Dogtooth violets, you might recall, are in the lily family and are not violets at all. “Second place” will most likely be awarded to toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) sometime this next week (they’re a type of mustard, and we saw them in bud; see the picture at the very end of this post). (And if there were any harbingers of spring, either we missed them already, or they are looking at third place.)

The trail is a loop, which is a big plus for me, since I appreciate not having to retrace my steps; I like to see new stuff all along the way. But here’s the biggest hoorah of Clifty Creek CA, the pièce de résistance: There’s a natural arch! How cool is that?

Its span is about 40 feet, and it’s right where the Little Clifty Creek (tributary) joins Clifty Creek. Depending on how you take the loop, you can visit the dolomite arch either three-fifths of the way along the trail, or two-fifths. (Looking at the map, it’s 1.4 miles to the arch if you go clockwise; counterclockwise, it’s 1 mile.)

Next time, I think I’ll bring us some tofu salad sandwiches with onion sprouts and some strawberries and feta cheese to enjoy at the base of the arch. (Then, on the way back to Jeff, we can stop at the Vienna Drive-In for a hot-fudge sundae if we’re still hungry!)

I’m also thinkin’ this will be great in summer, when we can put our feet down into that pool of water. Won’t it feel good! Meanwhile, this spring I’m satisfied to track the wildflowers’ progress.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Good Feedback

Just a small update. I wanted to let you know about a little something that made me feel good! And good about the Op Op.

Last night, Sue and I were on the phone with Sue's folks in Ohio,* and Sue's mom commented on the recipe for Wilted Lettuce Salad (posted 3/8/09). "Oh, I remember that. My mother used to make that dressing all the time. It was so good!"

Then she went on to tell us how her mom would use early spring dandelion greens for the salad, too, and how yummy it was.

I always appreciate Mrs. F's capacity for enthusiasm. It's contagious, and it comes straight from her heart.

And yeahhhhhhhhh: Amen to "mom's cooking," however you define it.


* FYI, the phone, or "telephone," was the way people used to Comment before the Internet and "texting" took over all forms of human communication (ca. 2010).

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Joy of Conquest: Thoughts for the Future

Tonight I’m thinking of the future. Plans are forming in my head for upcoming posts. Obviously, I’m still new to this blogging thing, so I hope you’ll bear with occasional or even constant lameness on my part.

For one thing, I want to make a special point of writing about our various hiking adventures here in Central Missouri. Since the first of the year, we’ve been going out nearly each weekend, using the Missouri Department of Conservation’s “Conservation Atlas” as our guide to public lands within a few hours’ drive.

You’d think that as a native of this area, I’d know all these spots already. But I don’t. I’m the kind of person who picks an area, and then visits and revisits. But I’m trying to stretch myself, expand my vistas a little bit. So I look forward to sharing some of our discoveries with you.

For that matter, regarding outings in general: Whether we’re out morel hunting or buying saltwater taffy at “Th’ Lake,” I’d like to tell you about it.

Other conquests I look forward to writing about include the culinary kind. I’ve never cooked Ethiopian food before, but I’m itchin’ to do so. (I’m sure that my first attempts at making injera will be hilarious to read about.) Another thing I want to learn how to make is rouladen, which apparently is a popular German dish, but one that my family never seemed to make. With mustard, bacon, and pickle, it sounds funky and fun. I’ll bet I have no trouble finding dinner guests to volunteer for “taste tests.”

And I’m forever interested in cooking Indian food, which always tastes “just right” to me—like the way food is “supposed” to taste. (If the Hindus are right, and there’s such a thing as reincarnation, then I suspect there’s a good chance I was an Indian in a recent past life.)

Of course, if you have tips for me on making any of these kinds of recipes, contact me. God knows I need the help.

Another kind of culinary conquest is the restaurant kind. I know that it would be easy to complain about Midwestern, small-town cuisine, but there are actually a lot of good places to eat. And I’d like to trumpet about these. I might surprise you. And good local restaurants deserve and need the business.

And then there’s the off-the-wall stuff. For instance, here’s an idea worthy of a little sidebar in a Martha Stewart mag: Presentation is part of what makes dining nice, right? When you’re serving your dinner guests, and you’re making it kind of nice, think about using a used (perfectly clean) wine bottle or two—you know, pretty blue or green—as your water bottles for the table. You can fill them ahead of time and store them in the fridge so they’re nice and chilled. (Well, it’s prettier than that plastic Brita thing, right? Right. And it goes better with your attractive glassware.) (There: I offered a beverage idea that is stridently nonalcoholic, didn’t I. Pure, clear water.)

Or, here’s another kind of thing I look forward to sharing once in a while—file it under “handy tips”: Do you know how to put on your shoes? Do you really think you do? Guess what. I got a lesson from my orthotics guy recently, who smilingly corrected my bad technique. He was gentle about it: “Um, don’t put your shoe flat on the floor when you lace it up and tie it.” Instead, put just your heel on the floor, with your toes well off the ground, so that your heel fits snugly down into the heel of the shoe. Tighten it up and lace it in that position. It will help the shoe to fit better, it helps your arch placement, and everything. Who knew? (I had to break my foot in order to learn this!)

. . . Okay, so I guess this is one of those more “lame” posts, but, well, they aren’t all going to be worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. . . . Sometimes, it’s just gonna be me.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dandelion Wine per Johnny Renner

Okay, while we’re on the subject of libation:

one gallon of Blossoms thoroughly washed. pour over them one gallon of boiling water and let stand for forty eight hours. strain and add peel and all three oranges, two lemons. with two lbs of seeded raisins. three and one half lbs. white sugar. and one cake of compressed yeast. Let stand for 48 hours more strain again and put in a large earthen jar to ferment covering with a cloth. Keep in a warm place untill fermentation has finished, and it is clear then dip off and bottle. do not skim just let settle.

. . . Right. That’s exactly verbatim from what I have on a little piece of ruled notepaper, written in pencil by my Grandpa Renner, who died in 1975 when I was nine.

The paper with his recipe is carefully folded and looked very flattened, as if he had kept it in his wallet for a long time. Mom gave it to me several years ago, along with another recipe (for cherry wine).

So after pondering the idea for years, we finally did make dandelion wine a few years ago, using flowers from our own yard (which we never sprayed, much to the irritation of our neighbors). We based our wine on Grandpa’s recipe, and we filled in our knowledge gaps using other dandelion wine recipes gleaned from the Internet. And we updated some stuff; for instance, we used our home-brew beer-making equipment (a big plastic bucket with spigot, bottle capper, etc.) instead of a “large earthen jar” and “a cloth.”

I’m not going to spell out the entire recipe for you, but I am going to tell you it made yummy, delicious, golden wine. Sweet springtime sunshine in a bottle.

Note: When we first tried the product of our labors, it was pretty awful; it was too sweet and thick. You could have poured it over pancakes. It was gross. It languished in our cellar for a year. When we tasted it next, it tasted much, much better. Yummy.

So I’m sharing this with you, now, in hopes that this might be the year that you take the plunge—once it gets a little warmer, and that won’t be too long from now—the first golden crop of dandelions will start blooming out on your lawn. Maybe this year, instead of cussing at them, you’ll greet them with a smile, and think about your new little chemistry project you’re gonna do down in the basement.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Opulent Hypocrite?

After the last post, I think I need to explain something about myself: I gave up drinking a couple years ago. I invented the “Opulent Opossum” martini well before I quit. Back then I was having fantasies (which I still harbor) about turning our basement/garage into a private nightclub, a rathskeller, with an occasional decadent cabaret band, serving drinks and appetizers out of the old coal bin (there’s a window in it that would be perfect as a serving window). The Opulent Opossum was going to be the house martini. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Last week Dad told me that rathskeller-type basement “party rooms” were common among his parents’ generation, Germans, who had endured Prohibition and probably felt like they had to keep some booze squirreled away. His aunt and uncle in Kansas City carved a little place for a table and stuff behind their furnace. Even our own basement, here at Grandma’s house, had had a small table and chair for enjoying a sandwich and a beer on a hot summer day before air-conditioning. But I digress . . .

I’m not going to go into all the details, but let’s just say that on the spectrum between “perfectly healthy social drinker” and “major alcoholic,” I was somewhere in between. There really is a gradient, and I had reached a point where I recognized I was drinking unhealthily often and for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t full-blown addiction, but it was an ingrained habit, and I was leaning on alcohol pretty heavily. So I decided to give it a rest. Maybe forever.

It hasn’t been all that difficult. I had feared it would be much harder than it was. The hardest part was weathering the increased intensity of emotions that I’d been dampening for so long with alcohol. Also, it was difficult to quit just before Oktoberfest, which was just before the holidays, of course. And those are all prime times to enjoy good microbrews, excellent wines, and lovely, complex whiskeys. Ahhh . . .

Okay, it was challenging, but I went easy on myself, I had good support from my sweetie, from an experienced and clever therapist, and from everyone else . . . and it’s all going okay.

I’m very glad that I decided to stop drinking before it got to be a bigger problem than it was. And I encourage anyone reading this to think about it—if you are wondering if you drink too much or for the wrong reasons, then don’t be afraid to examine the idea with a therapist. There is indeed life after alcohol.

But I’m not going around telling everyone else to quit, and I’m not going to stop serving alcohol at my dinners and parties. For that matter, I think that because I stopped drinking before I had developed a major problem, I get to enjoy the “gray zone” that many recovering alcoholics find extremely uncomfortable—so I’ll let myself have rum raisin ice cream and brandy sauce on my bread pudding. Mirin on my soba. Nyquil when I’m suffering from a cold.

I don’t think my position is too hypocritical, and so far it’s working very well for me.

For that matter, when I really want to feel like a hypocrite, I’ll go down to the deli and order me a veggie sandwich . . . with bacon.

. . . Now that’s a hypocrite.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Our Signature Martini—The Opulent Opossum

Most of the recipes I’ll be sharing here are good ol’ recipes—family treasures, simple things that Gourmet Magazine doesn’t bother with. But this recipe is different: I invented it! It’s not good ol’ anything. It does, however, pay homage to my Grandma S, who loved martinis, and to my Grandpa R, who loved elderberry wine. Here it is.

The Opulent Opossum Martini

1.5 oz. gin
splash of elderberry wine

Shake with ice; strain and pour into a chilled martini glass.

Garnish with a spring of pigweed.


What’s pigweed??!! Well . . . we call it that, but it’s actually not a “true” pigweed (in the genus Chenopodium). Common names of plants are just a mess. So, what goes for “pigweed” at our house is actually purslane, Portulaca oleracea, which is a common damned, creeping weed of sidewalks, gardens, and fields. It’s almost succulent and has pretty leaves. It’s a wild edible.

The root systems of purslane must be made of millions of microscopic, immortal fibers, ’cause when I yank one out of our front planter, sixty tiny new ones sprout up in its place. I kid you not. Apparently hogs like to eat purslane. And yes, like dandelions and other pestiferous weeds, it originally came from Europe. You can actually buy purslane sometimes at the farmer’s market (people use it in salads, as potherbs, etc.), but come on. Quit spraying Roundup for a while, and you’ll have your own crop eventually.

Oh, another thing: If you want, of course, you can substitute some other offensively weedy wild edible (young dandelion greens, clover, sorrel a.k.a. sourgrass, shepherd’s purse, flowering tips of henbit, etc.) as the garnish. These weeds are really quite pretty, especially when they’re drifting around in a martini glass.

Pigweed or peppergrass, it’s the spirit that counts.

(Some information in this post is from Wild Edibles of Missouri, second edition, by Jan Phillips, 1995, but don’t go looking in there for drink recipes. Oh, and in the pictures? That’s henbit as a garnish. It’s the only thing that’s out this early in the spring! Thanks, Sue, for the photo shoot. I’m glad you enjoyed your photographer’s bonus: drinkin’ the props!)