Sunday, May 31, 2009

Walnut Catsup

Building on the subject of the last post, I wanted to talk again about the old tome The Hearthstone; or, Life at Home: A Household Manual, by Laura C. Holloway, published in 1883. Google has the entire book available online, here.

You might remember me making fun of this book’s “Toast and Water” recipe some weeks ago. Turns out some retro recipes deserve to recede into dim history!

But we were talking about ketchup, or catsup, as some would spell it. (Editor’s note: Webster’s 11th Collegiate has ketchup as the first spelling, followed by catchup and catsup in that order, so among U.S. editors, ketchup would almost always be the preferred spelling. Unless you have a good reason to prefer one of the alternate spellings . . . such as when you’re quoting from an 1880s cookbook that spells it catsup throughout and don’t want to annoy your reader by switching back and forth a lot . . .)

So, there are a lot of catsup recipes in Holloway’s book, beginning on page 508, in a section called “Pickles and Catsups.” Here’s a list of the recipes in that section:

--To Pickle Lemons with the Peel on.
--To Pickle Lemons without the Peel.
--Knickerbocker Pickle [“for beef, mutton and pork”; recipe makes one hundred pounds of pickled meat].
--To Pickle Green Tomatoes.
--To Pickle Red Tomatoes.
--Indian or Yellow Pickle (Mrs. Reynolds’ recipe).
--Mangoes. [Not what you think! It is muskmelons stuffed “with mustard-seed, allspice, horseradish, small onions, etc., and sewed up” and pickled.]
--Onion and Cucumber Pickles.
--To Pickle Gherkins.
--Pickled Grapes.
--To Pickle Peaches [3 different recipes for these].
--Pickled Peppers.
--Pickled Onions.
--Spanish Onions—Pickled.
--Pickled Plums [2 versions].
--East India Pickle [What the hey? It’s cabbage, onions, horseradish, green peppers, vinegar, mace, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, alum, and salt.]
--English Pickles.
--To Pickle Eggs.
--Universal Pickle.
--A Tennessee Recipe for Tomato Catsup (1) [I think Holloway was from Tennessee; no wonder she lists it first].
--Tomato Catsup (2).
--Tomato Catsup (3) (Mrs. Reynolds’ recipe).
--Tomato Catsup (4) [Yes! Four different recipes for tomato catsup! Glory!].
--Cucumber Catsup.
--Walnut Catsup.
--To Make Curry Powder.

. . . So, are we scared yet, or intrigued? My home-canning skills are pretty minimal, so if I attempted to put up any of these, you should be very afraid. But I think it would nifty if a skilled home-canner explored some of these recipes and used modern (trustworthy) canning materials and techniques to produce some recipes from history.

For fun, and because I’ll be talking more along these lines shortly, here is Holloway’s recipe for Walnut Catsup, found on pages 515–14 of her book. No, there are no paragraph breaks. (Her book was going to be long enough as it was, huh?)

Walnut Catsup.—One hundred walnuts, one handful of salt, one quart of vinegar, one-quarter of an ounce of mace, one-quarter of an ounce of cloves, one-quarter of an ounce of ginger, one-quarter of an ounce of whole black pepper, a small piece of horseradish, twenty shallots, one-quarter of a pound of anchovies, one pint of port wine; procure the walnuts at a time when you can run a pin through them; slightly bruise, and put them into a jar with the salt and vinegar; let them stand eight days, stirring every day; then drain the liquor from them and boil it, with the above ingredients, for about half an hour; it may be strained or not, as preferred, and, if required, a little more vinegar or wine can be added, according to taste. When bottled well, seal the corks.

Poking a pin through the walnut is the way to tell if the nut inside is still soft enough to be pickled and eaten; if the pin can’t penetrate, then the shells have formed too hard inside. Which, truth be told, would be sometime in June for around these parts, if I gauge correctly.

Interesting how she says you can either strain it or leave them whole. Wild, huh?

Well, more on this subject later . . .


Ketchup and Vinegar

Sue buys me a subscription to Gourmet Magazine every year. I think it’s an example of how truly good she is to me, but she is always quick to remind me that her own self-interests are at play, too.

And sure, I do get a lot of great recipes and ideas from the magazine (like this keeper: Finnan Haddie Gratin), but I have to admit that the writing and feature articles almost always appeal to me as well as the photography and design. I find myself thinking about the stories and topics long after I’ve read them. I think that’s the first sign of excellence in essay writing—you keep thinking about it long after you’ve read it.

Sure, I can find good things to read all over the place, and I can find all the recipes in the world (-wide-Web) on the Internet. But Gourmet serves it all up to me each month in one sweet package. The way a great chef creates a menu that is nutritious, visually beautiful, with harmonized flavors and balanced textures, Ruth Reichl and her staff really do a wonderful job in putting together a satisfying publication.

So with that little introduction—now that you know I’m an avid Gourmet reader—I want to talk to you about ketchup, in part because Gourmet itself brought it up this month (June 2009, page 11). There’s also a Web page about it.

Now, ketchup is an Opulent Opossum topic for sure, because it’s utterly common, it’s undersung, it’s great (come on, it is—read the online article above) . . . and it’s made with vinegar.

Yes, I keep running into vinegar in my recipes—the old-timey ones, the German-heritage ones. Vinegar used to be a necessary cooking ingredient because of its preservative values as well as its ability to add what people used to call “zip.”

Zip! Remember that term? If you’re old enough, you can remember the days in the Midwest before Taco Bell came to town and people started using chili peppers to add pizzazz to their foods. We used to add vinegar and pickles to things to give them a culinary thrill. Ketchup is a member of that tribe—one member that has endured, along with cucumber pickles of various types. (Look at your fast-food hamburger.)

I mean, think about it: the same company makes America’s number-one ketchup as well as the most popular vinegars. When I go to buy ketchup or my apple cider vinegar, I always get Heinz. Chances are, you do, too.

Ketchups were a way of preserving the bounty of the summer garden during the drab winter months. We still laugh at Ronald Reagan’s declaring ketchup a “vegetable,” but when you think about it, despite the added sugars in processed ketchups, at heart ketchup is cooked, strained, pickled, canned tomatoes—the richness of a summer garden preserved in glass bottles. Can’t blame ol’ Reagan for thinking in nineteenth-century terms, as he was such a relic himself. (Sorry, I couldn’t stand him. His head-in-the-sand AIDS policy was the kicker for me. But I digress.)

Sue made an interesting observation once: French fries are good by themselves, but once you’ve started dipping them in ketchup, you can’t go back to eating them just plain. You have to keep dipping them in ketchup until they’re gone.

So it was with interest that I read Adam Brent Houghtaling’s Web post on the Gourmet site, introduced in the magazine thus: “Could the future of ketchup be in its past? Our archives are filled with apple, grape, and mushroom versions. Get the recipes and find out how the country’s best chefs are using this ubiquitous sauce at”

What I find most intriguing is how one type of ketchup—tomato; Heinz—has come to be ubiquitous, while there were so many different types of ketchup adding zip to the nation’s dishes in the 1800s: Grape ketchup? Mushroom ketchup? . . . Walnut ketchup? How fascinating.

I’ll stop for now with this post, but I encourage you to look at Houghtaling’s essay and reflect a bit on how our forebears in the kitchen relied on vinegar as a necessary cooking item (and not just for salad dressings), and how their families grooved on the zippiness of so many pickled and ketchupped concoctions.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Here and Now

I’ve kept a journal since about 1980, which is why I find it pretty easy to write in this blog fairly often. One rule of thumb that has kept me going is that I don’t tell myself I “have” to write “every day.” But if I go a week or so without it, I begin to miss it, to feel like I’m getting “behind,” and that keeps me doing it. This plan has worked for me for almost thirty years.

Every once it a while I get behind and write a list of things I would like to write about but don’t have time to. Oh well.

Another thing I’ve learned from my years of journaling (which is so similar to this blogging, yet so different) is that often my best entries begin with this simple statement: Here is where I am right now.

And then I describe the scene around me, and my position in it. Such recordings rarely say anything profound or make much of a “point,” but they do serve as time-and-space capsules, and that is something. The day, the doings, the scene, the feeling, the sounds, the flavors, my random thoughts, the way my body feels.

When I take my journal on vacations, it serves as a satisfying complement to, say, the photographic record that Sue creates. The images record on one level, the writing on another.

So here is where I am right now. I am sitting on the old sofa on the sunporch, my legs stretched out comfortably, my bare feet cooled by the breezes wafting in the bank of windows facing Broadway. Grandma’s old windchime—the brittle-sounding one made of translucent disks of shells—clatters musically every so often.

The sun is setting; it’s been a long day, even though we slept kinda late. Today’s job was to fix up one of the last flower beds: the one on the corner of our property, just inside the sidewalk. It’s a tricky bed to plant because it’s generally shaded by a respectable-sized ash tree but then it’s also hot and dry there. Not your typical shade garden. First, I needed to do a little light weeding.

The plan with that bed is generally to use it as a place where the tropical houseplants spend the summer. Dracaenas, airplane plants, aloes, Swedish ivy, some arrowhead plants (Syngonium podophyllum) that I got from a friend who was going to throw it all out . . . The houseplants look exotic and jungly once they get established.

I even put a small schefflera in there this year.

The houseplants have been sitting in pots in the driveway getting used to the outdoors, and today was the day they got to put their roots into real soil again. It will be a few weeks before they get comfortable, but they’ll grow like crazy once that happens.

Then I mulched the whole bed, which gives it that lovely finished look (and helps with the dryness problem). Another flower bed put into shape. Check.

It was breezy, even windy at times today, and my allergies were going nuts. I was sneezing and rubbing my eyes throughout the day. It was in the eighties. The mosquitoes are out, and I suspect the chiggers are coming along.

In other words, it’s getting to be the time of year when being outside isn’t so peachy. Missouri’s heat, humidity, and itchy bugs turn summers into winters for me: a second season to spend indoors. On the bright side, once the grasses are finished with their big June pollination cycle, I can start backing off the allergy medication.

So back to where I am right now: I’m relaxing on the sofa after a rather uncomfortable yard-work day, my muscles aching, my nose and eyes itching, though I’m finally clean and showered.

Robins in the backyard are beginning their evening vespers, and the baby grackles are squawking for their evening meals. Chimney swifts chitter high in the skies. The occasional bad-muffler hot rod zooms down the expressway. Mourning doves call from somewhere.

The baby gray squirrels—I think there are three of them—have been extremely entertaining as they try to figure out how to exploit the bird seed in the feeders and the “rock peaches” I mentioned a few days ago. One tried repeatedly to shinny straight up the skinny wire pole of a bird feeder hook, always ran out of steam a foot from the top, and slid slowly back down. Very funny to watch. They earn their bird seed, and entertain us in the process.

Every time I get a Mediacom bill for our cable TV, I keep thinking it’s too high and that we ought to pull the plug on it. Watching the squirrels and the birds—and occasional woodchucks and even a fox that lopes through, sniffing at things, every once in a while—I realize I have virtually free entertainment (just the cost of the seed and suet) that tops anything on the boob tube.

Also, compared to TV, this entertainment is much more intelligent. Especially the squirrels. They are brilliant, plus persistent; it’s a good thing they don’t have opposable thumbs, or we humans would be in trouble.

I know there are all kinds of bird feeders out there designed to exclude squirrels—but wouldn’t it be neat to devise a little obstacle course that would turn the squirrel’s foraging persistence into circuslike entertainment? Give them a little trapeze they must swing on, a bridge to cross, a wheel to spin, a tightrope to walk, before they can access the seed? My sides would hurt from laughing.

. . . Well, anyway, I’m enjoying a glass of cold iced tea—Constant Comment, the old summertime standby. It is any wonder I am feeling relaxed tonight, with a sense of well-being?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Small Voice from the Past

Remember the other week when we had the citywide Big Trash Pickup? I think this is related to that.

Here’s what happened. I was cutting the grass recently, and as I was getting ready to mow the terrace above our retaining wall (yeah, I know, scary proposition), I noticed a notebook lying in the grass just above the wall. Like someone down on the sidewalk had flung it up there to get rid of it.

I turned off the mower and crept down the slope to the top of the wall and retrieved the notebook. I figured one of our darling neighborhood urchins had sought a solution to the challenges of academia by ditching his notebook.

But once the notebook was in my hands, I realized something was “off” about it. I mean, I know that current styles are aping the worst of 1970s fashions (or whatever you want to call the “look” of that decade)—but this seemed like the real thing.

The notebook had illustrations of generic baseball players on it, in generic baseball-playin’ poses. It was damp from the rains. But the plastic, the little clip that said “Mead” in those seventies-style letters . . . And here’s the kicker: there were some stickers on one panel of the notebook commemorating the U.S. bicentennial, 1976. It really was an artifact of the seventies.

There was nothing in the entire notebook but the looseleaf pockets, which were all empty, except for one sheet of notebook paper. The following is transcribed exactly from that page.

My Family

In our family we have six people. We do not have any girls but my mom. My oldest brother Steve is 20. He is manger at the Sirlion Stockade.

I have a brother Brad he is 16 and works at the hospital. My name is David I am 13 I work up at Shell and Ward I clean up. I have a brother name Bill 9 he likes to swim.

In our house we have 5 bedrooms 3 bathrooms 2 kitchens 2 living rooms and a dining room. We have a big garden with tomatoes corn beans, turnips beets, peas and cabage.

Our family likes to go down to the lake. We like to fish and swim. We like to go for boat rides.

Now . . . I don’t want to go getting into other people’s business or lives, but then this notebook and David’s youthful description of his family did wind up on our property. And how did that happen, anyway?

I can only guess that the notebook had been thrown out with all the rest of the refuse on the sidewalk a few weeks ago, and that someone—probably a neighborhood kid—picked it up, looked at it, then discarded it by flinging it over our retaining wall.

So I know this David and his family—not very well at all, but I do know them. They lived two houses away from where I live now, in the house my mom was born and raised in. The parents described in the writing were good friends and neighbors of my grandma. That family still owns the house, though things are quite different now.

For one thing, the mom and dad are gone. Jim, the dad, died in 2001. The oldest brother died tragically young. The house has stood vacant since before 2001, because Jim had been in a nursing home. The three brothers haven’t done much with the house (bums lived in it for a while). I guess they’re busy with their own families.

So I find this simple writing about the family intriguing. Three of the six are gone; the big house once so full of life is now a rehabilitator’s dream (or nightmare); and the big garden in back is only a memory.

I wonder if the brothers found this writing as they were cleaning all that junk out of the house. I wonder if they read it. I wonder if it gave them pause. Currently, they are putting work into the place; word is, they’re intending to rent it out.

I know I’m dreaming. Knock on wood, touch metal; I hope they find someone decent to live there. If we’re lucky, we’ll have new neighbors whose lives will harmonize with the warm and hardworking, dignified spirits of their predecessors who walked the same floors; neighbors who will coax that black soil back there into giving life to new crops of vegetables and sprays and garlands of flowers.

It could happen, right?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Grape Cream Pie

Here it is; I’d been wanting to try this recipe for a while, and yeah, it was pretty darn good. It was perfect on Memorial Day, when we didn’t want to have the oven on for long, and the chill of this dessert was especially welcome.

It’s a lot like lemon meringue pie, only topped with whipped cream instead of meringue, and made with grape juice instead of being flavored entirely with lemon. And there are no eggs.

An old friend of mine got me hooked on grape pies—the traditional kind, double-crust, made with concords that have been skinned and deseeded, and then you add the skins back to the deseeded pulp—which is a whole lot of labor. This following grape pie is much simpler but is just as gloriously purple.

It’s so simple, it could easily be one of those “first recipes” a young person learns.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this recipe comes from the 1949 edition of The Good Housekeeping Cook Book, ed. Dorothy B. Marsh (New York: Rinehart, 1949), page 730.

The comments in brackets are mine; sorry, I can’t resist it.

Grape Cream Pie

1/2 cup granulated sugar
6 tablesp. cornstarch
1/4 teasp. salt
1 tablesp. grated lemon rind
1/2 teasp. cinnamon
2 1/2 cups grape juice
1 tablesp. lemon juice
1 baked 9˝ pie shell [the book gives that recipe on p. 727]
1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped [the basic deal; freeze/chill the bowl and the beaters, and just before serving, whip it with a tablespoon of sugar and a few drops of vanilla]

Combine first 5 ingredients in saucepan [which is to say, blend together the dry ingredients first; the cornstarch will mix in better with the grape juice if you do]. Stir in grape juice and cook, stirring, over low heat until a small amount mounds slightly when dropped from a spoon [this cornstarch transformation is way cool, if you’ve never done this before; it’s, like, “Wow, man”]. Add lemon juice. Cool; chill until very thick. Meanwhile, make and bake pie shell; cool. Spoon chilled grape mixture into pie shell; chill. Top with cream. Makes 1 9˝ pie.

Now, I don’t know why you couldn’t make the pie, chill it thoroughly, and then slather a meringue on it and toast the meringue peaks quickly in the oven, then rechill, thus making “Grape Meringue Pie.” But the whipped cream was good, too. (It always is, isn’t it?)

You’ll have to try this recipe and let me know what you think.

Next, I plan to use this same technique using some other juice or beverage. Apricot juice, perhaps? Or fresh carrot juice, plus spices? That would be neat. Or do you think elderberry wine would work? . . . Ooh la la.

Treasury of Retro Recipes

Last night I went delving through my oh-so-intriguing copy of the Good Housekeeping Cook Book (note the antique letterspacing) of 1949, one of the genuine treasures I selected from Cousin Marguerite’s kitchen when she moved into an assisted-living place some years ago and invited the family to come and take things we’d like to have.

The cookbook (well-worn, stained, lacking the front cover) is full of what we would certainly call “retro” recipes. Fortunately, it’s not like nineteenth-century cooking (which flat-out scares me) with recipes for calf’s head soup and so on.

Yet it antedates the worst culinary atrocities of the fifties (documented so well in James Lileks’s hilarious publications, such as his newest, Gastroanomalies). Still, much of what we take for granted today wasn’t available to most cooks then, and the limitations of people’s tastes and of 1940s food distribution are obvious—and yet there are a surprising number of sophisticated and elevated recipes in here. The book is over a thousand pages long.

An added bonus, for sentimental reasons, is that apparently the book was a gift to Marguerite from her Aunt Esther (my grandma’s sister), because the Christmas card that accompanied it is still tucked within the pages. Signed “Uncle Emil and Aunt Esther”: “Hope you learn a lot from this book!” Bless them all, those dear people who are gone.

This is the cookbook where I found my awesome (and simple) springerle recipe. (More on that when Christmas rolls around.)

You could just laugh at it, because it’s old and seemingly naive compared to the big fat sophistication we bring to our kitchens today (sure, uh-huh), but the book is truly enlightening to me. In fact, it’s a trove.

It’s pretty cool to take a peek through the book—ingredients and flavors that are nearly foreign to us today, certainly out of vogue. Anchovies and sardines. Chopped pickles. Liverwurst. Prunes. Pimiento. Tongue. And chop suey! The recipes distinguish between “canned” and “glassed” ingredients. The “Home Canning” section tells you how to home-can in your leftover coffee and mayonnaise jars, if you want.

There’s also instructions on how to care for “Oil Ranges” and “Ice Refrigerators.” There’s advice to the home cook to “always buy eggs from merchants who keep eggs under refrigeration, not on the counter.” Hmmm. I guess I’ll take that one under advisement!

The section on “Electrical Kitchen Appliances” mentions the wide array of contraptions that can be plugged into your kitchen outlets (though be sure to “ask your local utility office to tell you the kind of current furnished your home”)—“toaster, coffeemaker, beater or mixer, fruit juice extractor, waffle iron [etc.]”—and it ends with this glorious reminder: “There is also the electric kitchen clock.” . . . Imagine.

In the chapter entitled “Sandwiches of All Kinds,” the first statement, under the heading “Sandwiches, an Important Food,” is “Many bakers enrich white bread today. (Look for this information on bread label.) Sandwiches made with this bread . . . take on a new importance.” Later, the cook is instructed to wrap sandwiches in waxed paper for a picnic. It was the days before Saran Wrap, before aluminum foil.

In the section about frogs’ legs, the first helpful tip is: “Only hind legs of frog are eaten.” They needed to say this? Oh, I can just picture the I Love Lucy episode where she spends hours trying to pick the skin from a thousand teeny-tiny frog arms, elbows, and fingers in order to make a dinner for her and Ricky!

The book gives instructions on how to “Disjoint and Cut Up a Drawn Carcass” (of a chicken) as well as how to “Draw Poultry” (which begins: “Cut Off Head—if not already done” and proceeds next to “Remove Pinfeathers”). I had no idea that a nut pick was routinely used for yanking the toe tendons from the drumsticks! And here we’ve been using Grandma’s old nut utensils for . . . nuts! She probably used them for butchering chickens.

There are wonderful pie recipes in this book—from savory types (“Beef Steak and Kidney Pie”) to sweet (“Grape Creme Pie”; “Orange Apple Pie”). The quick breads are pretty cool, too. One of my favorites is “Prune Bread” (which has grated orange peel in it)—very delicious. There’s also an “Oatmeal Prune Bread,” a “Butterscotch Walnut Bread,” and something called “Dark Walnut Bread” made with whole-wheat flour. They used whole-wheat flour in 1949? Apparently so!

Many recipes end in “De Luxe” (as in “Turnips De Luxe”) or “Surprise” (“Broiled Fish Fillets Surprise”) (okay, because now you’re curious, I have to tell you: The “surprise” is that the fish!—are covered with cooked broccoli!—and a cheese sauce!).

The phrase “à la” is used a lot, too (“Salmon à la Newburg”). These kind of dishes remind me of the suggestion in Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints to make one’s mediocre cooking seem tastier by adding the word supreme “to everything you serve—hamburgers supreme, turkey necks supreme, toast supreme, etc.”

So . . . on Memorial Day, I made “Grape Cream Pie” from the Good Housekeeping Cook Book of 1949. It was very easy and turned out fabulously well. And that’s going to be my next post. Stay tuned.

Books Adored in This Post

The Good Housekeeping Cook Book. Edited by Dorothy B. Marsh. New York: Rinehart, 1949.

Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints. Introduction by Bob Hope; drawings by Susan Perl. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.

I keep using this cookbook. To see my related blog posts, click on the "Good Housekeeping Cook Book" tag at the bottom.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cooper’s Landing

We went to Cooper’s Landing yesterday afternoon. What a great decision that was!

This is my first post about Cooper’s Landing; I am sure there will be more. It’s just upriver from Easley, which is south of Columbia on the river. If you drive to Easley and turn right (north or northwest), then Cooper’s Landing is your next stop. Unless the road’s washed out again, that is.

Fortunately, there’s more than one way to get to Cooper’s Landing, as it’s a popular fuel, groceries, and concessions stop for boaters on the Missouri as well as campground and eatery for bikers along the Katy Trail. So you can drive, boat, bike, or hike to Cooper’s.

And once you get there, you won’t want to leave. Here’s why.

1. The river. There are great views of the Missouri. Ahhh. Watchin’ the big muddy river slide by, with the sun highlighting every dimple and swirl on its surface. The trees. The primeval smell of the forest. The sound of the water lapping rhythmically against the docks. (Are we there yet?)

2. Excellent live music. There’s a small area for performers under a beautiful big sycamore tree, with chairs, benches, and picnic tables all around. Bluegrass, folk, country, acoustic, rock. Check out their calendar to see who’s playing. Yesterday afternoon, it was Pippa Letsky and a couple of her friends, playing that kind of bluegrass filled with such impossible woe that your own troubles seem light in comparison.

3. Libation. Note: they do not allow you to bring in your own beverages (see, selling beverages and food is how they get income) (and don’t worry, their prices are reasonable and they have a good selection). And bless their hearts, they have big recycling bins for all the bottles and cans. They care about the environment!

4. Food! They have a restaurant so they can serve regular kinda food, like burgers, breakfasts, and other home-cooking, but there’s also Thai food available! Chim’s Thai Kitchen is in a trailer on the premises; the food is served on paper plates and you eat it at a picnic table. So what an awesome idea, huh? We’re at Cooper’s Landing: “What are you in the mood for?”

Note: as with the beverages, they don’t want you bringing in your own food; don’t bring in a cooler at all. Again, they do offer something for everyone, and the prices are decent, so there’s no need to bring your own.

5. Family atmosphere. Seriously—even though a diverse and not squeaky-clean crowd passes through Cooper’s Landing, I’ve never seen people behaving in ways you wouldn’t let your children see. (Though I’ve never been there much after dark or on nights when rock bands play.)

6. It’s peaceful and casual. Everyone’s been pedaling all day, or boating out on the river, or trapped in some dreaded office, or something, and we’re all here to get away and relax. Camping and fishing clothes are fine. A Hawaiian shirt means “dressed up” here. Be comfortable. Wear sunscreen and Deet, perhaps, but never a tie.

As I said before, it’s easy to get to, whether you’re driving, biking, or boating. And now you can see, once you arrive, you won’t want to leave. The only solution, then, is to come here more often.

Again, check out their Web site for upcoming events and music. If you’re looking for a relaxing place to kick back, Cooper’s Landing is a great place to start.

Friday, May 22, 2009

“Yard Sausages”

. . . Better Known as No-Bake Peanut Butter–Oatmeal Cookies

It’s been getting warmer here. And with Memorial Day weekend upon us, it’s time to start thinking of cookies that don’t require baking.

Sue’s brother-in-law calls these “yard sausages” because of the way they look. The Davises used to have an elderly dog, Buffy, who had to be let out real often for you-know-what. She was a sweet, fat old dog with soft, loving eyes, but you had to watch your step when you walked in their yard. You know what I mean.

Now: Once you shake the image of a squatting Buffy out of your mind and try one of these cookies, you’ll agree these are really good.

This recipe came from The Southern Living Cookbook, compiled and edited by Susan Carlisle Payne (Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1987). Everyone knows that Southern Living has lots of excellent recipes.

But most directly, this recipe came to me via Sue’s mom, who generally didn’t appreciate having her cookies compared to doggie doo. I copied it from her at Christmas 1997—back when Buffy was still around, bless her sweet heart.

The Recipe

2 c. sugar
1/4 c. cocoa
1/4 c. butter or margarine
1/2 c. milk
2 1/2 c. regular oats, uncooked
3/4 c. crunchy peanut butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Combine sugar, cocoa, butter, and milk in a heavy saucepan; stir well. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil, and boil 1 minute. Stir in oats, peanut butter, and vanilla. Drop dough by heaping teaspoonfuls onto lightly greased wax paper; cool thoroughly. Yield: about 4 dozen.

Note: I certainly hope I’m not going to get in trouble with Southern Living for quoting a recipe from them; I’ve credited them, right? And said nice things about their high-quality publications, right? And my genuine endorsement of this recipe amounts to a glowing review, right? (Big, ingratiating smile.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fruits of May

I was just in the backyard taking pictures of some of the lovely fruits I saw, and I thought I’d share them with you.

First, an update on our walnuts’ progress. The last time I showed you (May 8), they were about half the size they are now. I love their pebbly texture, and their black walnutty smell.

The male catkins have all fallen off now; at their peak, clouds of yellow-green pollen would fall from the walnut boughs each time a bird landed or launched. It was a good time to be a stigma, or an investor in Claritin. There’s a fallen catkin in this picture, caught on one of the leaf stalks. . . . See how the stigmas are starting to look kind of dry and worn out? I guess their job is done, too.

So this time I got the bright idea of putting a coin in the picture for scale. Yes, that’s a Missouri quarter. Appropriate, huh?

Next is a little wild strawberry; we have them like weeds in our yard. This little guy is between a quarter and a half inch in diameter. Isn’t it pretty? It makes me kind of sorry to cut the grass. It makes me wish we had more box turtles in our neighborhood.

So do they taste good? Well, yeah . . . kind of. If you like the flavor of strawberry stems. Let’s just say: They don’t taste downright bad.

Next, we have a crucified orange! Holy orange hemispheres, Batman! I hung it on a nail and strung it to our peach tree yesterday when I noticed a Baltimore oriole couple passing through our yard.

I spent about ten minutes yesterday constructing my homemade oriole feeder, and roughly half of that time was spent hopping around clutching my fingertip after I whacked it good with the hammer.

I’ve only seen pictures of orioles feeding at oranges, but I figured this year I’ll give it a try. As far as I could tell, the oriole couple dropped by our house to check out our peaches (which are still, and forever, as hard as rocks), so I hung the orange in that tree.

Yes, Mr. Oriole was lovely. After inspecting our lame peaches, he stood on the perch above our birdbath and admired his own loveliness. He didn’t drink or bathe; just gazed at his reflection.

Last, one of the aforementioned rock peaches. What else do you call them? If they are the “cling” type, then these win the supreme award, for they remain practically solid during their entire development, until they rot and fall off. But the tree—which grew up in a compost pile, so what do you expect—at least flowers nicely in the spring.

There have been some years, when we have bumper crops of both walnuts and these peaches, when it has been hard to stay afoot in our backyard.

Yet like the bright little strawberries, the peaches possess a beauty that forces us to like them just as they are.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cliff House Inn and Restaurant

Now the “place to be” at the so-called Arkansas Grand Canyon is the Cliff House, which offers food, lodging, and souvenirs. And, of course, the magnificent view.

Now, just as you wouldn’t want to confuse the Arkansas Grand Canyon with the more famous one in Arizona, neither would you want to confuse this Cliff House with the venerable Cliff House in San Francisco (see here). They are not the same, okay?

Though a steaming bowl of cioppino does not await you at this restaurant, there is much to enjoy about your stop at the Arkansas Cliff House Inn. First, of course, there’s the view. Nooooo, it’s not a view of Ocean Beach, Seal Rocks, and the mighty Pacific. But come on: Tremendous views like all of these take your breath away, no matter what state you’re in.

I made fun of them in my last post for calling it the “Grand Canyon,” but it is truly a tremendous sight. Yep: About six miles south of Jasper.

And then there’s the grub. I mean, the cookin’. I mean, the food. Naw, this isn’t fine dining, and unlike the place in San Francisco, it’s unlikely that someone would come way out here to secretly replace their fine coffee with Folger’s crystals to see if anyone notices. In fact, that might be Folger’s right there in your cup, already! (I don’t know; I didn’t get coffee that day. I think I ordered a diet sodie.)

The place specializes in homemade pies, so I guess their coffee’s pretty decent, too. It’d have to be, these days, since everyone’s become a coffee snob.

But enough speculation on things I didn’t try. I did sample some of the lunch items among the dishes at our table.

I had the catfish sandwich, with a side of greens instead of the fries it usually comes with; Sue ordered the “Ozark Favorite” (pictured above), which was pinto beans, coleslaw, a cornbread muffin, and sliced tomato and onion. Everything was good, though perhaps a bit overpriced for the quantity and the fact these are not high-ticket ingredients. The fried catfish sandwich plate (with the fries) is seven dollars; Sue’s “Ozark Favorite” plate cost six dollars.

Okay, it’s actually $6.99 and $5.99, respectively. Like I’ve been trying to explain, these folks aren’t birdbrains when it comes to marketing.

The fish sandwich was about how you’d expect—fried fish pieces that were nice and crispy, not greasy, with lettuce, tartar sauce, on a thankfully substantial roll. The greens were delicious. (Why don’t I see greens on more menus? It doesn’t have to be a “southern” thing; they’re tasty and nutritious.) (Eat more greens, people!)

I think the beans were a little oversalted, but then some people might like ’em that way. The “side” of tomato and onion comprised some very thick slices of tomato (unfortunately out of season, so it was hard to get too excited about it) and a generous slice of raw white onion, which (glory!) wasn’t too strong to enjoy, cut up and eaten with the beans. The fresh veggies were welcome. I thought the cornbread—corn muffin, actually—could have been bigger, given the quantity of the beans. Or maybe they could have sent along two instead of just one.

The Cliff House is supposed to be famous for its biscuits, but I don’t think any of us ordered anything that came with biscuits. We did, however, get slices of pie to go. More on that in a second.

The decor was a blend of “old-stuff-on-the-wall” and framed photos of old movie stars, and (on the side facing the big valley) big picture windows showing the view—and the hummingbird feeders and flower planters. The restaurant was built right on the edge of this cliff, so you get a tree-housy sensation of being up in the air. Depending on how you feel about heights, maybe you shouldn’t think about it too much.)

Between the building’s entry door and the dining room is the gift shop! Well, you can’t blame them. Wouldn’t you have a gift shop, too? Yes, they sell cookbooks and postcards as well as those Arkansas novaculite “natural stone” nail files. And all kinds of other stuff.

Anyway, the whole place was clean, the hosts and waiters were friendly and helpful, the food served hot and good, and you do get a pretty awesome view. So this a good place to stop while on Highway 7, whether you’re traveling by car . . . or by motorsickle.

Regarding the Pies . . .

Yes, the Cliff House Inn sells cookbooks containing some of their famous recipes, and the most celebrated of these is their Company’s Comin’ Pie. And it looks like a dream, like cream pie topped with merangue. It looks like something upon which you could take a nice comfy nap.

The menu describes it thus: “Arkansas State Pie and Our House Specialty. Merangue crust with pecans baked and filled w/real whipped cream & pineapple . . . $2.99.”

The story of how “Company’s Comin’ Pie” became the official pie of the Arkansas statehood sesquicentennial is on the Web site “Cuisine Cruisin’ the Natural State,” part of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism’s Web site; the recipe’s there, too.

. . . Too full for dessert right after lunch, we got pieces of pie to go and enjoyed them at a rest stop later, under pine trees and surrounded by wildflowers.

Cliff House Inn on Urbanspoon

They Call It the Arkansas Grand Canyon

First: Apologies for being so far behind. I’ve been pretty busy recently. It’s not that I don’t want to post, it’s that posting doesn’t get me money for the house payment and stuff . . . So today we’re dialing back to the little Arkansas trip.

The day was Saturday, April 25. We left Eureka Springs and drove to Hot Springs, driving first to Harrison and then south down beautiful Highway 7. And I do mean beautiful. As I read in Scenic Driving the Ozarks by Don Kurz, Newton County, Arkansas, is too rugged to have ever had a single mile of train track in it. Meanwhile, the land is rich in flora and fauna, and ecotourism is flourishing here in one of the prime natural highlights in the Natural State.

We had lunch at the famous Cliff House Inn and Restaurant, which is six miles south of the town of Jasper, in the Boston Mountains of Ozark National Forest. (That’s the next post.)

The big attraction here is the so-called Arkansas Grand Canyon, which offers grand views over several miles across the Big Creek valley. I haven’t been able to figure out quite how far the view is.

I have to admit that whoever decided to name this area the [Anything] Grand Canyon had a lot of chutzpah, and even more, marketing savvy. Millions of people see the Arizona Grand Canyon, and millions more would love to see it.

But let’s briefly compare the two, shall we?

The Grand Canyon in Arkansas:

--Presents a steep drop of over 600 feet; according to Google Maps’s topography, the Cliff House is at about 2,000 feet of elevation, and Big Creek is at about 800 feet. (Dry Branch is the creek below the Cliff House; it contributes to Big Creek, which drains into the Buffalo River.) So the valley below is at most about 1,200 feet lower than where you are sitting when you eat your Company’s Comin’ Pie.
--Has an “expansive view of several miles across Big Creek valley” (per Kurz, mentioned above). I think it is about six or seven miles to Round Mountain or Riddle Point, in the distance.
--The town down there, a ways off in the distance, is Vendor (pop. 229), elevation 834 feet. Again, the Cliff House is at ca. 2,000 feet.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, in Arizona:

--The vertical distance from the South Rim to just the Tonto Plateau is at least 2,000 feet, probably more. Total depth ranges from 3,500 to 6,000 feet from rim to river.
--The distances across the gorge are between 4 and 15.5 miles (average of 10 miles).
--Down at the Colorado River is Phantom Ranch, at 2,550 feet in elevation. Grand Canyon Village, at the South Rim, is at about 7,000 feet.

So. If that isn’t enough to convince you these are two radically different places, and that the folks who named the Arkansas place “Grand Canyon” were gutsy and creative marketers, compare the scenes below. Which picture was taken in Arkansas, and which in Arizona? (Hint: You don’t need any hints.)

(P.S. Doesn’t my sweetie take good pictures?)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Lettered Sphinx Moth

This moth was standing on the screen of the bathroom window on Monday morning, the eleventh.

Because I’m not very good about identifying the basic brown moths (all I knew was that this was some kind of sphinx), I made a point of looking it up. “What’s That Bug” to the rescue! Here is their page for sphinx moths.

Another Web site that was helpful is this one.

So what we have here is a lettered sphinx moth, Deidamia inscriptum.

Other well-known members of the sphinx moth family (the Sphingidae) include hummingbird and clearwing moths (which look like a cross between a hummingbird and a bumble bee), tomato hornworms (most sphinx moth larvae have a horn on their tails), and many others. They are often remarkably large, and many have glorious colors, eyespots on their hind wings, and so on. Some of the darker species look like B-2 bombers when they’re at rest. Really cool.

Anyway, this little feller is one of the more drab types, though this species does have the distinction of being one of the earliest sphinx moths to emerge in springtime.

Adults like to feed from lilac and phlox flowers, apparently, and the larvae like to chew up leaves of grape and Virginia creeper, as well as members of the genus Ampelopsis (more vines: possum grape, porcelain berry, peppervine, etc.; some of these plants are invasive exotics).

Lettered sphinx moths are found in the eastern half of our country, more or less.

From the same Web site cited above: “Females call at night, and males fly into the wind to pick up and track the pheromone plume. The species is also active during the day.”

Males, such as this one, commonly rest with the abdomen strongly curved. Probably showing off their “junk,” huh?

Or . . . just happy to be alive—in between the severe thunderstorms, we’ve been having some really nice weather this spring.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Schnittled Carrots

There are certain words that apparently only our family uses. I grew up with these words, thinking they were part of the American lexicon. I learned words like “schmutzy,” “shittle” (schüttel), and Knisperhexie. And “schnittle.”

In German, schnitt means “cut,” so in the pidgin German used by my family, we have brought the word into our English, attaching English plural and conjugational endings like -s and -ed and -ing. It can be a verb and it be can a noun. Here are some examples.

“After the second graders had created their paper snowflakes, the floor was covered with schnittles of paper.”

“I’m busy schnittling up the potatoes to fry them; I’ll schnittle the veggies for the salad in a minute.”

You can see how schnittle comes in handy if you’re cooking. It implies cutting up into little pieces, and not just something you can sever with one whack. Schnittle is kind of like “whittle” or “snip.” Julienning comes close, too; matchsticks, chips, slivers . . . schnittles.

So here is another recipe for you. It’s taken me a ridiculously long time to understand how to make it, but I’m so pleased now that I have it (mostly) figured out. I think I heard my dad say it was one of the first recipes my Grandma S learned to make, taught to her by her German-born mother, Wilhelmine Thomas. And yeah, I’m still working on it, but here it is.

Schnittled Carrots

Peel carrots and cut into matchsticks; splinters. I don’t think grating will work, unless you have an exceptionally coarse grater. Do up about three cups.

Put these in a saucepan with a little water. Bring to a boil, cover, and let simmer until almost done. Cook off most of the water if you can. (I’m still figuring this out. Maybe steaming would be better. At any rate, you don’t want a lot of cooking water, but neither do you want to overcook the carrots.) (I think Grandma often used an electric skillet, with a lid, for this.)

Gently stir in the following, and serve.

  • 2 tbsp. butter or margarine
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar. (Remember what I told you about apple cider vinegar: there is no substitute when we’re talking about “Grandma recipes”)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. flour
  • 1/4 c. packed brown sugar (or maybe a little less)
  • salt and pepper to taste

The carrots should turn out kind of sweet-and-sour glazed.

Another note: This recipe is remarkably similar to what we do with red cabbage around here (grate cabbage, cook or steam in a small amount of water, add sliced apples if you want, then add a dressing that’s almost identical to this).

On the face of it, this would seem a very ho-hum kind of dish, but like I said yesterday, it’s one of those dishes that acts like a time machine for me. It’s “comfort food” of the first order.

Monday, May 11, 2009


This is more of a construction, or a process, than a recipe. Read it over first. It might look complicated, but it’s really easy. You can alter amounts and ingredients to your liking. Once you understand the concept, I think it would be difficult to screw up. (Roll up, yes; screw up, no.)

I think you can play it by ear; you needn’t obsess about exact quantities. I prepared myself by looking at recipes online; I also compared recipes in several church ladies’ cookbooks we have, as well as in other older sources. The best written descriptions of technique came from Betty Crocker’s International Cookbook (Random House, 1980). Also, there’s a wonderful series of photographs of the recipe in various stages of progress online, here.

Have all your stuff together and ready to go at the outset. Clear off a nice workspace. Have your electric skillet or large deepish pan ready with a few tablespoons of Crisco. A good lid is a must. Have some beef broth ready. The following is for six rouladen; a good number for four people so you’re covered for either seconds or leftovers.

Make a little assembly line of the following, in this sequence

1. salt, pepper, paprika

2. medium hot German mustard

3. bacon strips cut into halves

4. chopped onion—just chop up a lot, say, up to a couple of cups; have some extra to use in the braising liquid

5. chopped parsley—just make up a lot, about a cup or more; you can use extra for garnishing

6. dill pickle spears (I used the “yellow” kind from a jar, figuring that’s what all good church ladies would have had available in the 1950s); one spear per roll

7. a platter or cookie sheet to rest them on prior to cooking

8. toothpicks (or string) for securing the meat rolls while they cook


Start with 2 or 2.5 lbs. boneless round steak, sliced into six pieces: 7 x 4 inch slices ca. 1/4 or 1/2 inch thick. If 1/2 inch, pound to 1/4 inch. Your butcher can help; tell him you’re making rouladen. Our butcher pretenderized the meat for us. (Danke schoen, Mr. Schnucks butcher man!)

Onto each slice of meat, sprinkle salt, pepper, and paprika; smear on the mustard in a thin layer.

Then (on the narrower of the two ends, if they’re not equal) make a single layer of bacon strips.

Then sprinkle the onion and parsley onto the whole thing.

Lay a pickle spear at the narrow (bacon) end, and roll up the meat starting at that end. Kind of tuck in the edges as you go (hence using the narrower end for the bacon/pickle part)—it makes for neater cooking and a cleaner look.

After rolling, secure each rouladen with toothpicks (or bind it with string, if you’re “into” that sort of thing).

When you’re done with that, jack up the heat on the skillet pretty high; the first task is to sear and brown the outsides of each of the rouladen. Stand back; it’ll splatter and stuff.

Once the rolls are seared, add the rest of the onion to the pan (I had about 3/4 cup left over after preparing the rolls). Some recipes add paprika, or chopped tomato or mushrooms at this point, but eh. Then add 1.5 cups of beef broth, which is basically one can. (Some recipes don’t even add the onion, or even any broth—just a cup and a half of water. So it’s up to you.)

Bring it to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat to simmer (to braise) the rouladen for an hour and a half or two hours—you know—until they’re done.

Apparently the traditional accompaniments are cooked red cabbage and some kind of blank-slate starch—either potatoes or dumplings—and you can prepare the side dishes while the rouladen are simmering. I would also suggest a salad, or asparagus, or at least a heavy garnish of chopped parsley. (You really need something green with this.)

And then there’s the gravy: When the rouladen are done, move them to a platter and keep them warm. Keep about one cup of pan juices in the pan (I skimmed off a lot of the fat and supplemented with red wine to make about a cup); in a jar, shake up two tablespoons of flour with a little water to blend, then drizzle that into the pan juices, heating and stirring quickly to blend. Adjust liquid as necessary. Very simple.

So how was it?

The verdict on all sides was “yum.” The cons, of course, are that it’s a pretty heavy meal and not very health-conscious. (Yeah, gravy—come on!) Also, it takes some time and forethought to prepare (though once it gets simmering, you can do other things in the meantime, like do up your hair, put on your party dress, and listen to Nilla Pizzi records).

The pros are that the presentation can be quite elegant, especially if you slice each rouladen in half diagonally, lay one half on its side and stand the other on end to display the swirl, drizzle the meat and potatoes with gravy, and garnish liberally with fresh parsley. And the flavors are truly dynamic, the meat is tender, and everyone knows you went to some extra trouble to make such a special dish.

Also—and this is an intangible—if you’re a German American like me, you’ll likely feel “at home” with the flavors. I think we all have our own “soul foods,” dishes that speak to us in flavors and textures in ways so powerful we can hardly express. Foods our grandmas made; flavors that came from the Old World, whether it’s Korea or Kenya or Croatia. Sometimes we German-types joke among ourselves about having “sauerkraut in the blood”; well, if there’s some kraut in your veins, maybe you should try this dish.

Mother’s Day Meal

We had Mom and Dad over for Mother’s Day yesterday. One of the best things about living in your family’s home territory is being able to personally treat your own parents to dinner on occasions like these.

Mom likes beef, so this seemed like a good opportunity to try making rouladen, which I’ve never eaten before, much less cooked. So not only were Mom and Dad our honored guests; they were our guinea pigs as well!

It turned out well; I think I’m getting the hang of this cooking stuff. The dinner consisted of the rinderrouladen (beef rolls flavored with mustard, bacon, and pickle), plain boiled potatoes, schnittled carrots, steamed asparagus, and rye bread. Dessert was brownies topped with ice cream and garnished with strawberries. We found a brownie box mix that has caramel on the top. (Mom loves caramel.)

We ate out on the screened porch, off of the nice dishes; we had a lovely pair of peonies as the centerpiece. The kitties were banned from the room. I got everything served while it was still hot. I love it when everything turns out fairly perfectly.


So in preparation, because I had already peeled and schnittled all the veggies and stuff—just needed to cook them—I even had time to relax for about a half hour before my folks arrived. I sat in the living room with my bare feet up, listening to a Nilla Pizzi LP—Rendezvous with Nilla—that we found for cheap at a junktiques store in extreme southern Missouri a few weeks ago.

From the back of the LP: “Italy’s contribution to the popular singing field, Nilla Pizzi offers her third straight smash-hit album. . . . The throaty songbird[’s] . . . initial success came during World War II when she entertained at soldier shows in Italy. She later toured Europe and the Middle East and scored heavily with her audiences. . . . Those of you who have heard Nilla won’t want to miss this album. If you haven’t, prepare yourself for a real listening treat.” The LP came out in 1957 (I gather).

Have you heard of Nilla Pizzi? I hadn’t. Her voice is resonant, expressive, and perfectly controlled. Regarding style, Sue’s first comment on hearing the first track was “Is she the ‘Italian Doris Day’?”

Here are some YouTube hits for the chanteuse. Perfect music for those satisfying moments between the preparation and the performance.

Next is how to make rinderrouladen. Soon. I promise.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Grandma’s Blue-Ribbon Elephant Ears

I don’t think we’ve officially passed the last frost date, but we planted the elephant ears today, anyway. There’s nothing near freezing in the forecast for the next week, so I think we’re free and clear.

We have about a dozen of these things—elephant ear plants, also known as taro (Colocasia esculenta)—that all came with the house. They were Grandma’s. Before we bought the house, I had some experience in planting these; Grandma would supervise, reminding us to mix plenty of those fluorescent blue sprinkles of Miracle Gro into the soil as we refilled the holes around the rhizomes. (Yes, I know that goes against the package directions. But we water them thoroughly right after planting, and for the last several decades the track record is good.)

The rhizomes, which have to be planted upright into reasonably deep holes, range in length from two to about three feet, and the biggest ones are about five inches in diameter. In other words, they are like logs.

Over the years, Grandma planted them in different places in the yard, but mostly she kept them in the flower bed under the yew tree, where we have them now. The soil is particularly black and rich there, smooth, easy to dig a dozen log-sized holes in.

Although . . . it was harder digging today on account of all the recent rain. I guess gardening can’t always be perfectly easy (gardeners: snort with laughter at that comment).

Our usual m.o. is to dig them up in the fall, cut off the leaf blades, and prop them up in large garbage cans in the basement for their winter dormancy. Last fall, we waited until the last possible moment—the first frost and the first hard freeze were supposed to come on the same evening—and there we were out in the dark, shoveling the elephant ears out of the ground. It would be awful if these big beauties all got frozen.

So now it’s half a year later and time for them to get pumping for the new season. They don’t look like much now—just some yellow spikes and a few assorted leaves veering off the tuber tops. But we’ll mulch and fertilize them; we’ll give them lots of water. By August and September, they’ll be budding and blooming, turgid and crowned by majestic huge shieldlike leaves.

“Blue Ribbon” Claim to Fame

I’m telling this story third-hand, so bear with me. If I’ve got something wrong, let me know so I can fix it (Dad). Years ago, one of my grandma’s cronies and fellow garden-club lady, Bonnie Mae Dunlap, dropped by. She told my grandma that she was heading up to Tipton for a flower show, and she asked if my grandma wanted to enter anything.

I guess Grandma was busy. I guess she wasn’t about to drop everything and whip up a quick ikebana or other flower arrangement. I guess she must have just “thought fast.” So she walked over to the elephant ears, snipped off one of those tremendous leaves, and sent it to Tipton with Bonnie Mae. (I’m trying to picture Bonnie Mae tooling up Highway 50 with a huge elephant ear leaf bobbing around in the backseat.)

The garden club ladies in Tipton probably had to devote an entire table to Grandma’s entry!

And then Bonnie Mae returned that evening with a blue ribbon for Grandma’s prizewinning elephant ears!

And that is why when we have guests, I can put my nose in the air and show off our “blue-ribbon elephant ears.” Because it’s completely true.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Black Walnut Flowers

We’ve been having a fairly wet spring. The grass is growing like Topsy. And the black walnut tree in the backyard is covered with catkins. When you combine it with all the oak flowers, we’re having a pretty “good” allergy season, too.

Last night a line of stiff spring thunderstorms pushed through central Missouri; they had 70 mph winds next door in Callaway County. Even if it wasn’t spinning like a tornado, that’s bad enough.

Luckily, the only “damage” we seemed to have was a few dead branches (small ones) fell out of some of the trees.

The sun came out this afternoon and things started to dry off. We had lovely golden light this evening, and the skies were blue and crystal clear because the rains had cleaned the air.

So the walnut tree has loads of flowers on it this spring—the male catkins are hanging from the branches in such quantities it almost looks like Spanish moss. I hope this means we’ll have a bumper crop of walnuts this fall. Oh, joy!

If you don’t know—Missouri is the number one producer of black walnuts. I’ll talk more about it in the fall, but for now you can educate yourself on Hammons Web site.

Here are some pictures of the tree I took this evening. First, a view of the female flowers, which grow in small clusters at the tips of branches.

Here, some of the dangling catkins of male flowers, followed by a closer look at some that are releasing pollen. If you suffer from allergies, don’t spend a lot of time looking at these!

Here is a view of one of the boughs; hopefully you can see both the male catkins as well as a few female flowers against the sky at the branch tip.

At the top of this post, of course, is a view looking up into the tree. I love black walnut trees, and I love look upward into any tree; for me, leafy canopies are the stained glass of nature’s cathedral.

Groovy Web Stuff

Hey, I'm finally getting around to adding more so-called Gadgets to my blog.

Today I started a long (and merely alphabetized) list of some of my favorite Web sites--including blogs, photo blogs, local and national organizations, favorite musicians, painters, and photographers, and other things that are dear to me.

So the next time you visit my blog and find to your disappointment that I haven't posted anything new, you can fish around and see some of my "keepers."



Wednesday, May 6, 2009

God’s Own Potato Chips

I just had lunch, and I’m listening to Hindu Devotional Sounds on BBC Asian Network. So I hope you’ll indulge me here in the connection I’m about to make.

Mmm, yes, lunch was really tasty today. I did the Jeff City thang and had myself a braunschweiger sandwich. I’ll bet if you took a poll of the eating habits of Missourians, you’d find that Jefferson Citians eat way more braunschweiger per capita than all the other people in the state.

I did it up good—nice wheat bread with a thin slice of Swiss cheese, lightly toasted, then topped with lettuce, sliced green onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and braunschweiger from Williams Brothers in Washington, Missouri. (Remember I told you about the Wurstfest?)

But more about braunschweiger later; along with my sandwich I enjoyed a handful of God’s own potato chips. You think I’m joking? I’m not. I’m serious—ask my friends. I don’t even like potato chips, popcorn, and all that kind of stuff very much. So if I’m motivated to sing devotional praises about some kinda potato chip, you’re going to pay attention, right? Right.

These chips—Ballreich’s—are from Tiffin, Ohio. We pick them up when we’re doing car trips to visit Sue’s folks in northern Ohio; we get a few bags at a time and then try to make them last. (And indeed, you can buy them online.)

There is something different about them. The kind we like the most are the original “marcelled” type—the term was popular as a way of describing that wavy-ironed hairstyle popular among women in the 1920s, doncha know; apparently Bellreich’s is the only potato chip company to use the term.

So what makes them so dang good? Is it that they use specific types of potatoes, Norchip, Snowden, and Atlanta, all (I’m pretty sure) Ohio-grown? . . . Maybe it’s the fat they fry them in? I don’t know. But they have a je ne sais quoi that sets them apart.

So here was my thought today as I experienced potato chip heaven. (Forgive me.)

In chapter 7 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is explaining his nature to Arjuna. It’s a lovely passage, full of poetry, that’s been sticking with me recently. No wonder it came to me as I was munching this afternoon. So here it is, BG 7.8-10, from the Juan Mascaró translation (Penguin, 1962):

I am the taste of living waters and the light of the sun and the moon. I am OM, the sacred word of the Vedas, sound in silence, heroism in men.

I am the pure fragrance that comes from the earth and the brightness of fire I am. I am the life of all living beings, and the austere life of those who train their souls.

And I am from everlasting the seed of eternal life. I am the intelligence of the intelligent. I am the beauty of the beautiful.

. . . To which I would like to add, “I am the yum of the Ballreich’s potato chip.”

(Apologies to Lord Krishna, but I suspect the deity knows what I mean and laughs merrily at my enthusiasms.)

Monday, May 4, 2009

For Hercules the Turtle

I want to tip my hat to all the biology teachers and the animals and plants they introduce to their students.

This spring I have been thinking about my seventh grade life sciences teacher, Mrs. Hessenbruch, who had a nifty little fishbowl in the back of the class with leaf litter and planarians in it. I used to sit back there and peer into the water occasionally and watch those oddly cross-eyed critters glide smoothly across the soft brown leaves.

Mrs. H gave us a wonderful assignment in the spring. We had to choose one deciduous tree and one conifer—the trees had to be available to us daily—and we had to use colored pencils, or markers, or crayons, or some other medium to draw detailed pictures of the emergence of new leaves. I think it was daily chore, or maybe every other day. We also had to take a sample of the bud and emerging leaves each time, to show what we were illustrating, press it, and include it alongside the illustration in our final project.

Doing this forced us to really see what was happening as the scales stretched open and the tender leaves emerged, reached out, pumped full of life and sap, changed colors, finally matured. The differences were striking even with the conifers.

I will never forget that observational exercise and how it forced me to see that transformation in all its magical detail. Forever afterward, I felt like I somehow knew my chosen oak tree and juniper, like I somehow understood them. I felt an affinity and affection for them, and then, by extension, I had a similar feeling for all the other trees of the world.

Well, I just found out from a friend, who is a high school biology teacher, that her class pet, Hercules the tortoise, had died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend. And she had to break the news to her students, most of whom had adored little Hercules.

And I want to thank all the science teachers who go to the trouble, and indeed undergo the grief, that comes with having living creatures in the classroom. On top of all the other stuff educators do, it’s not easy to clean the cages, to monitor the feedings, and to have to explain to the class it’s time to focus on their upcoming finals when tragedy has struck and everyone’s mourning.

Because here’s the deal: Biologists study life; we all love life, but biologists love it so much they make it their career. And it just hurts to lose a thing you love.

Meanwhile, I think it’s all worth it. If I can remember those planarians, the oak buds, that juniper, then Hercules will be remembered, too, with affinity and affection, and perspectives and lives have been forever changed.

Rest in peace, little Hercules.

I Want to Be in That Number

First, an update on where I am these days, sort of, with the blog

At this point my blog is still taking shape—the focus (of course) is “me” and my observations and experiences, and sharing the things I like. That’s why it must have a focus also on the Ozarks, nature, and cooking and restaurants. That’s why it has to talk about being a fourth-generation German American living in the house my great-grandfather made, on the street where both my sets of grandparents lived most of their lives.

I have to admit that I would much rather spend time writing blogs than working, or working on things I am trying to work on, most of it mental work. Or cleaning house.

I still want to “finish” telling you about our Arkansas trip (particularly the Cliff House at the Arkansas “Grand Canyon”; the Fordyce Bathhouse at Hot Springs; and the wonderful music scene at Mountain View); and I want to write more about the Missouri River Lisbon Bottoms area. I’m feeling like I’m “getting way behind” in things I want to write about. I haven’t told you my favorite morel-hunting story. I haven’t told you the story about the Johnny irises, even though they’re almost finished blooming by now.

But this is the season to move all the plants out of the house, establish the flower beds, and cut the grass incredibly often. Plus all the usual work. I’ve just been really busy. And I don’t want my blog to become another one of those things on my “do list.”

So I hope you’ll bear with me being a little disorganized these days.

And now, the topic du jour

When you start a blog, one of the things Blogspot has you do is fill out your personal information or “profile” (which I really only sketched in the briefest way: “From Missourah,” etc.—I do intend to flesh that out a little more), but at least I could confidently list books and music I like, and under “music” I wrote that I like the “unpopular” kind.

Under that category I have to put “jazz.” I don’t want to have to put it into that category, but that’s where it has to go in this country. I guess because it is generally seen as fine art, which by definition excludes the largest, indiscriminate masses.

It is a strange and ironic thing that America’s indigenous musical art form, jazz, is largely unknown here in the States, whereas in Europe it is appreciated and known by all sorts of people. I hear.

Anyway, while we were driving around Arkansas the other weekend, I was playing a CD that had a mix of various southern-flavored music. Some of it was twangy country, some bluegrass, some soul, some blues, and some Dixieland. And one of the tunes was a sassy, swingin’ rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

My dad asked me to turn up the music. (Wow!) He wanted to listen to it. He explained that he had never heard of the song as a kid, and one year when he was at Boy Scout camp, one of the other scouts had a conversation with him. The scout had found out my dad plays the piano, and then asked, “Can you play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’?” And my dad had to admit he’d never heard the song, and couldn’t play it.

And the boy had replied, “Well, you’re not a piano player then.” This is an interesting story to hear from my dad, who plays Chopin, Scarlatti, and Beethoven. Beautifully. When I think of him as a youngster, I imagine he must have been a lot like “Schroeder” in the Peanuts comic strip. Blond, smart, handsome, reserved, and totally focused on his classical music.

Yet one of the big theme songs of American jazz—this rousing, cross-cultural, spirited, jazzy march—had eluded him and no doubt others. Kids of my generation learned the song as elementary students in music class in the 1970s, when school music books included a multicultural selection.

I know that “political correctness” and “multiculturalism” are troublesome concepts for many Americans, but although we always run into trouble when such notions are bureaucratized, codified, and enforced, the basic impulse of inclusiveness, of welcome, of generosity and understanding and simple politeness, is a fine thing to have toward all who are different than ourselves.

When I try to imagine this country before Civil Rights and before schools and the media became more inclusive, I realize that the white majority had been robbing itself of the richness of our complex society. Segregation hurt the whites, too.

Meanwhile, I would wish that all Americans might know the bliss of Chopin, the majesty of Bach, the glories of Beethoven, as well. Even Sousa. These days, even the “white” canon seems endangered. How can we pass all this worthy music on to the next generation, beyond the elite few who attend music school?

And whom shall we blame for the current flood of vacuous music? MTV? Big media corporations? Or our own lazy appetites? Junk music is like junk food; the only solution for the problem is to make better personal choices every day, and to teach our children to be discriminating (in the good sense of the term).

By the way, Dad really seemed to enjoy hearing “When the Saints Go Marching In” that afternoon, as we drove through Little Rock and past the memorial sculpture of the Little Rock Nine.


As usual, no matter who you are or where your feet are planted this moment—on vacation, at funeral time, working or jobless, in the North or the South—that bouncy, magical song always hits the spot.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Big Trash Day ’09

Thursday, April 30, was Big Trash Day on our street. Once a year the city and the garbage company have a citywide big-trash pickup they call the “Spring Clean-Up.” They publicize it in the papers and everything.

According to the city’s Web site, here is what they would pick up:

Large bulky items (in 2007 the city announced this includes “vacuums, tables, sofas, chairs, and chester drawers”) (sic)
Tied bundles of scrap material under 4 ft.
Household garbage in Allied Waste blue carts or Allied Waste clear, printed trash bags

Here is what they would not pick up:

Plastic bags of debris, trash or garbage
Boxes of debris, trash or garbage
Yard waste
Lumber or guttering over 4 ft.
Rocks, bricks, concrete
Waste oil
Car parts
Acid batteries

Basically it’s everyone’s big chance to get rid of dead microwaves, stained, skank sofas, white-elephant window air conditioners, broken stereo cabinets, excess rotting lumber, boxes of rags and broken toys, etc. Yes, I said boxes. Look at my pictures and note how many things got picked up that weren’t supposed to, according to the rules. I’m so glad they picked up all this boxed and bagged and oversized stuff anyway; it saved us from having the neighbors try to burn it in their backyard.

It’s amazing how these houses spew forth all this just . . . crap. One of our “neighbors” (nonresident owners of a house that’s been vacant for at least a decade) finally took the opportunity to start emptying all the junk that remained in the house after his dad passed away (again, a decade ago). I swear: The entire sidewalk in front of the house was filled with rubble. It was a pile that eventually stacked up against the terrace. It looked like an avalanche of junk.

Of course, with my revised perspective post-Arkansas, I realize I should be grateful that JC at least has this annual event: Otherwise, all this trash would end up down a ravine somewhere out in the county, or else take up permanent residence in people’s front yards. Yee-haw.

Because the city doesn’t say which specific day they’ll be by to pick up the stuff, we only know which week they’ll be coming by. In this case, our half of town was supposed to have the pickup begin as soon as 5 a.m. Monday. And the trash had been accumulating for at least an entire week prior to that.

And it’s been raining. And it’s been warm. And then raining again. Ew.

But here’s the funny thing: People are going out trolling through the junk piles. Some people come by in pickups and with trailers, taking specific items like microwaves or air conditioners. Or old lawnmowers. Or old furniture. I think they intend to try to salvage it.

Others come by with the whole family, and the whole clan pokes through the rubble like they’re at a garage sale where everything’s miraculously free. Kids play in the street with raggedy, soggy toys and on bikes too small or falling apart. Women pick through damp boxes and hold up garments. The daddies search for whatever treasures they’re into. It’s kind of funny, kind of sad.

As Sue pointed out: Trolling through the trash on our street is doggone pathetic, since most of it wasn’t new to begin with. People on our street probably found their furniture and stuff in last year’s spring clean-up! We agreed that we would both be tempted to go trolling through, say, the Constitution Drive neighborhood, a doctor-and-lawyer neighborhood, where people are probably throwing out brand-new stuff they’ve never even used. Old-style Blackberries and hopelessly out-of-date Kindle 1’s. (One man’s trash . . .)

Anyway, after almost two whole weeks of having the sidewalks buried in greasy, skank rubble, and having nightly trollers driving by slowly, peering intently at the filthy piles, a series of garbage trucks came Thursday afternoon and took it all away.

There were three garbage trucks for our block: I kid you not.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Arlington Hotel: Venetian Dining Room, Hot Springs

Before I begin the restaurant review, here’s an overview of the place. We stayed at the Arlington Hotel on Saturday, April 25. It’s a large historic hotel built in 1924 on the site of two previous Arlington Hotels. It’s part of Hot Springs National Park; you can walk out your door and stroll down the historic “bathhouse row” or walk right into the wooded trails of Hot Springs Mountain.

The hotel is fun to stay at—the rooms are indeed small compared to most modern hotels, but the hotel is nice, well-maintained, and has all the modern amenities. Our biggest problem was with the door lock: The key, if you jiggled it just right, would eventually turn the deadbolt to and fro, but the door wouldn’t open anyway. The doorknob latch remained closed, and the doorknob wouldn’t turn. It about drove me crazy. We always managed to get into the room by pushing rapidly back and forth on the non-turning knob, but we never figured out how we managed to get it open. Very frustrating. They need to get new locks.

And at night we could hear the bed creaking rhythmically from the next room. The rooms are not very soundproofed. Oh well. It's an old building; what can they do about it? Not much.

We had dinner at the Venetian Dining Room, also known as “Window on the Park.” It’s on the hotel’s lobby level, has big high ceilings and large windows showing the park. Because the front desk people had said it was possible to eat outside at tables on the large veranda, we asked the maitre d’ if we could be seated outside, but he told us there was no service out there, although we could possibly get food to go and then not expect any waitstaff. (Hmm.)

So okay, we ate inside the dining room. The decor was elegant. The pianist was good, and her selections from the Great American Songbook added greatly to our enjoyment. There were plenty of waiters around, and I was glad that we’d be well cared for during our meal. (Note the foreshadowing.)

And the meal was wonderful. I had the braised baby back ribs with polenta and tobacco onions. I have to admit that the last was what made me order the plate—I’ve heard about a “new” trend among chefs to use tobacco as a seasoning ingredient for sauces, and I was thrilled to have a chance to try it. And yes, it was delicious; it didn’t taste like an ashtray at all. {{Note: Read the comments below! --JS 8/25/09}} And the cooked onions paired wonderfully with the rich flavor of the ribs. And the meat was tender and perfect. The polenta, of course, was just the right backdrop for all the savory, salty, smoky richness.

Sue and my dad both got the crab cakes and were very happy with it. The slaw it came with was really fresh, light, tasty, not heavily sauced.

The bread pudding we had for dessert was “kicked up” with cranberries and nuts (I think I remember they were pecans) and possibly some other goodies. I can’t remember, and I didn’t take notes. But yes, it was delicious, too.

So the ambience was excellent. The food was more than excellent.

But here’s the part where I complain bitterly: My water glass was never refilled. Nooo, I didn’t order another beverage. I really just wanted water. I can’t have alcohol, and I didn’t want to mess up my palate for the exquisite flavors I anticipated.

Sue and my dad both ordered glasses of wine, each of which was delivered to the table in a tiny, single-serving carafe that many people would be happy to use as a flower vase. The waiter poured the wine into the glass for them, and another waiter, later on, visited the table just to refill their wine glasses from the carafes—something Sue and Dad could have done perfectly easily themselves. But the waiters were trying to be impressive, I guess.

Meanwhile, I sucked on my ice cubes and rattled my glass as the waiters drifted past: Hint, hint.

I suppose I could have asked for more water, but then again, it’s the point of the thing.

I’ve been to all kinds of restaurants, some little more than greasy spoons, and dang it, they are usually happy to refill my water glass until I’m about to float away. And we were right next to the beverage station; the waiters’ water pitcher was in my sightline, just over my mom’s shoulder. (Agua . . . agua . . .)

So I was already a little ticked off at this small, but important detail, and then the waiter presented the bill to my dad, and it had two orders of . . . macaroni listed on it. Huh? My mom had gotten a salad. So my dad patiently waited for the waiter to return, explained the problem, and the waiter, who didn’t seem surprised that two orders of macaroni were on our bill, did at least agree to fix the bill. He asked if he could take my dad’s card then, or did my dad want to see the revised bill first. My dad chose the latter (well, yeah!), and I sensed that the waiter felt this was being too persnickety. But he eventually returned with a new bill, my dad inspected and paid it, and our evening went along nicely from there.

I don’t know what my dad tipped those guys, but I hope it wasn’t the full amount. In this kind of place, with these kinds of prices, you should receive at least the kind of attention you’d get at a greasy diner, where they get your bill right because they paid attention to what you ordered, or else quickly fix the error, snooty attitude be damned.

So yes, I can recommend the restaurant for the ambiance and the food. But check your bill carefully, and bring along a canteen of water.

And yes, this town is famous for its water.

(Oh, the irony.)

Arlington Hotel: Venetian Dining Room on Urbanspoon