Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cajun Catfish House

Get ready to come with me to St. Martins, Missouri, out by VFW Post 35, where our destination today is the venerable Cajun Catfish House! You might look at the place skeptically and think, Hmmm, it looks like a little hole-in-the-wall. But trust me on this, okay?

But first of all, I have to make a confession: I lied. The lady who waited on us asked why I was taking pictures of the food on my plate, and she specifically asked if I was doing a review, and I said no. That was on June 23. Lady, if you’re reading this, I apologize for lying to you.

But the reason why I feel okay about this is that I don’t have the time to review restaurants I hate—so she need fear me not. In the course of my “reviews,” I might make suggestions, I might mention a few things I wish could change, and I might poke fun at quirky details . . . but I’m not going to waste my precious time writing about a restaurant I seriously wouldn’t tell you to go to.

So! I don’t know a lot about the history of this place, but it’s been there quite some time, and they seem to do a good business. Keep reading for my favorite Cajun Catfish House story. But first, the review I said I wouldn’t write.

When you step in the door, you’ll notice something: It doesn’t smell fishy in there. It smells clean and good. This is a good sign at a catfish joint, just as it is for a fine sushi restaurant.

When you look around, you’ll see that they’ve been collecting fish statuettes and have decorated the place, appropriately enough, with the requisite fishnets and what-all. But it’s not cluttered. It’s clean in here.

I didn’t photograph or memorize the menu, but they do have a decent selection of foods for your friends who aren’t into fish. But why talk about that, when you’re here for the catfish?

We both got the six-piece catfish plate, which came with a choice of two sides and a choice of either a corn muffin or a couple of hush puppies. The waiter brought us a basket (obviously straight out of a refrigerator in back, meaning this stuff doesn’t sit around) with squeeze bottles of their own Cajun ranch and tartar sauces, cocktail sauce, and ketchup.

First, the sides: We had red beans and rice, coleslaw, dirty rice, and green beans. I guess some people, in our supersized society, would want more, bigger portions, and with more care put into the side dishes. But I was fine with the quantities (they did have larger platters available), and the quality was decent enough: The red beans were stewy and comforting, a nice foil for the crispness of the fried fish. The rice was tender and rather peppery, but like the red beans they weren’t overly spicy.

If you’re not interested much in “hot” foods, this is a Cajun-themed restaurant you can enjoy. And if you can’t appreciate food that’s not fiery, then maybe you need to partake of that bottle of Tabasco on the table.

I’m not saying the food isn’t spicy here—it’s just not fiery (at all).

On to the fish, which is the big deal here: It was crispy and perfectly cooked. Not greasy. The breading was nicely spiced and definitely goes beyond the standard breading seasoned with salt and pepper—a nice heat.

I think that one of the reasons why the fish is so often perfectly cooked here is that they use a timer back there in the kitchen; no guesswork. We kept hearing it go off: Beep, beep, beep. (But it wasn’t distracting.)

For dessert, we had the chocolate pie: Mmmm. Not too sweet. Nice and cold. Hit the spot. Sue purred and said it reminded her of her grandma’s. (Well, you can’t get much higher praise for a pie than that!)

Two six-piece catfish dinners (thus four sides), two iced teas, one slice of pie: Twenty-six dollars, not counting the tip. And yes, friendly, good service, pleasant though not upscale atmosphere, and two happy, satisfied diners.

No one’s going to drive for many hours to get to Cajun Catfish House, but for us locals, it’s a spot to relax and enjoy a lot more than the perfectly cooked catfish—it’s a place to enjoy a good-quality diner, some laid-back local color, and the company of other friendly mid-Missourians.


Now here’s that little story I promised you. It’s not a huge deal, but the story goes like this: When my Grandma S was getting old and blind, my dad and uncle enjoyed taking her on little outings, which she dearly loved, and one day they drove her clear out to St. Martins and the Cajun Catfish House.

Grandma ordered a beer—probably some Budweiser or Miller product, right?—and when the waiter brought it, Grandma protested: “Hey! There’s no head on this beer! What kind of beer is this? It’s flat!” The waiter, bless her heart, poured her a new mug, and made sure there was a big frothy head on it.

Pretty nice to humor a ninety-year-old beer snob, huh? Ha ha ha.

I think about that story every time we go to Cajun Catfish House.

Cajun Catfish House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bertha. Bertha Was Her Name.

Mom remembered the first Mrs. Sippel’s first name: it was Bertha.

And she also found another recipe from the Cooking with Faith cookbook, and this recipe is credited to this Mrs. Sippel. The first Mrs. Sippel. So the cookbook has recipes from both Mrs. Sippels in it. How about that.

Here you go. By the way, I think some instructions are missing, such as how to create a “marbled” effect using the two different colors of batter . . . but then I guess you can figure out how to do that: dollop and swirl with a knife or skewer.

“Family” Marble Cake

1 c. butter
1 c. milk
2 c. sugar
3 c. flour
6 egg whites
3 tsp. baking powder

Blend butter and sugar. Combine baking powder and flour. Blend into first mixture alternately with milk. Beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry, and slowly blend into mixture. Remove 4 tablespoons mixture into a small bowl. Add:

4 Tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Bake at 350 degrees about 40 minutes. Does very well in tube pan.

Mrs. Wm. Sippel (Bertha), First President of Faith Guild

From p. 130 of Cooking with Faith: Favorite Recipes of Faith Lutheran Church Women, Jefferson City, Missouri, by the Faith Lutheran Ladies Guild, Jefferson City, Missouri [1975].

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Dinner Mr. Sippel Never Had

I don’t mean to make fun of anyone, but it was kind of funny to think this yesterday when I plated the first Mrs. Sippel’s meatloaf alongside the second Mrs. Sippel’s cooked red cabbage.

I followed the directions, even though I was pretty sure the red cabbage wouldn’t cook well with vinegar in the water. Sue was a little let down by the texture and the flavor. Yeah, my recipe really is better. (I’ll share it one of these days.) But Mrs. Sippel’s wasn’t bad; it was just really plain. And crunchy.

Someday I’ll have to tell you a family story—well, more of a legend—about my Great-grandma Thomas and red cabbage. It speaks of the love she had for beautiful red cabbages, and the love her husband had for her.

. . . Okay, and the meatloaf—well! I was a little let down that it didn’t remind me a whole lot of my mom’s. Partly because I didn’t cook it as long as I remember my mom cooking it; she didn’t want us to get worms, or E. coli, so her meatloaf tended to be a little firmer than mine. I was actually going to leave it in the oven longer, but Sue noticed the sides had pulled away from the loaf pan, and the inside was cooked, so she probably saved me from overcooking it.

And another little detail that occurred to me: the ketchup on top. Mom always used to very carefully pour it out of the glass bottle in little dabs (note that the recipe says “dot with catsup”) . . . and here I am, in 2009, with a handy plastic squeeze bottle of Heinz that doesn’t deliver the ketchup in “dabs” or dots. Oh well.

It tasted really good. I have to admit that I used a little more onion than the recipe called for . . . and I cut up the bacon into little pieces instead of laying big strips down the middle (this way it’s easier to cut slices later on).

Today, we’ll have cold meatloaf sandwiches for a late lunch. It will taste really good with some watermelon and potato chips. Summer is definitely here, folks.


This post builds on the previous one, about the women of the Greatest Generation.

I’ve learned that someone connected to me, a member of this generation, passed away recently: Mildred Sippel. She was born in 1916, got married in 1954 (yes!), and was the organist for her church for many years. This information is from her obituary, here.

I copied this picture from the newspaper’s obituary, and ten bucks says that it, in turn, was copied from her church’s directory.

Here’s how she’s connected to me: My mom’s aunt’s husband was Mildred’s brother. Which is to say, she was the sister of my Great Uncle Adolf. No, I didn’t know her, but my mom did. And I’m sure we’ve attended some of the same weddings and funerals.

So. Mildred Sippel passed away, and I had to go look in my copy of Cooking with Faith, 1950 to 1975, also known as “Favorite Recipes of Faith Lutheran Church Women, Jefferson City, Missouri, 1970.” Because she was a longtime member of Faith Lutheran.

(No, it’s not very clear what the official cookbook title is—the thing on the cover, or the thing on the first page. And you can’t tell what the publication year is, either. Church ladies’ cookbooks can’t be bothered with such details—it’s more important to copy all those precious recipes accurately.)

And behold! I found one of Mildred’s recipes—in fact, I remember looking at this recipe before, because when I was first teaching myself how to cook red cabbage, I studied her instructions with curiosity. (How much red cabbage to use, then? Apparently this must not make very much. Maybe she was just thinking about cooking for two, huh. And do you think the spelling should have been “Bierich,” or what? Hmm. I’ll bet she was one of those gifted “cook by feel” people. . . . Or maybe that’s the pun in the book’s title—you have to have “faith” that it will turn out!)

Anyway, here ya go, verbatim from the bottom of p. 46 of Cooking with Faith. Read my note right after it, however. Very important.

Beirich Kraut

Place finely cut red cabbage in pan with slightly salted boiling water. (Water should barely cover the cabbage.) Add 1 teaspoon vinegar to water, cover pan and cook cabbage until tender, adding water if needed. When finished, add a little sugar or sweetener to taste.
Mrs. William Sippel (Mildred)

Note: I don’t know how long Mildred had to cook this after she’d added her vinegar, in order for it to get tender, but my advice is to cook the cabbage in water alone, first, until it’s completely done, before adding any vinegar. It can only be a small amount of water, too; it basically steams. As a general rule, if you add vinegar before the vegetable is soft, it will stay crunchy. . . . Hmm. Well, maybe Mrs. Sippel liked it crunchy.

Oh, and of course: Use apple cider vinegar. Of course.

Someday I’ll post my own recipe for red cabbage. Which is better; everyone loves it. But this is Mildred Sippel’s memorial post, and I don’t want to brag . . .


And now here’s a bonus recipe for you! From my mom’s handwritten collection! This recipe is known as “Mrs. Sippel’s Meatloaf,” but my Mom pointed out to me that it’s not from Mildred Sippel . . . and it’s not from Mildred’s mother-in-law, either. Nope. It’s from Mildred’s predecessor, the first Mrs. Sippel, who passed away—hence William Sippel’s remarriage in 1954, to Mildred, who was the second Mrs. Sippel.

So yeah . . . I’m feeling warm about this dish. This is the exact same meatloaf recipe my mom used all while I was growing up. This here is real home cookin’, I’ll tell you what!

Note: Making these kinds of connections are one of the best things about living in your extended family’s home turf.
Mrs. Sippel’s Meatloaf

1 1/2 lb. hamburger
1 egg
2 tbsp. chopped onion
1 cup cracker crumbs
1 cup milk
salt and pepper (to taste)

For Topping:

bacon (2 strips)

Mix together meatloaf ingredients and place in baking dish. Put 2 strips of bacon on top and dot with catsup. Bake 1 hour at 350°.

(For more on these recipes, with pictures, click here!)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Greatest Generation: Women

It has often bugged me that modern feminists so often apply to the women in earlier eras a gauge of success based on standards artificial to the women of the past. Sometimes this isn’t done consciously, but it is a way of judging the past by comparing it to the present, which isn’t fair, or possible. If you use a yardstick that’s fit for women like Senator Dianne Feinstein or Martha Stewart, it simply won’t work for the women who lived the majority of their lives well before the modern feminist movement opened opportunities and (indeed) expectations.

And likewise, even though the term “Greatest Generation” does certainly refer to everyone, men and women, and Tom Brokaw didn’t mean to give more praise to the males, it seems that most of the attention given to that generation goes to the men. The war veterans.

As of this writing, the Wikipedia entry for “Greatest Generation” lists eleven “Famous members” of this generation, and every one of them, from DiMaggio to Graham to Carter to Capote to Kennedy, is a man. (Except for one: Harper Lee.)

And of course . . . if we’re defining that generation in large part by the fact that “they” participated in World War II, then men do come to mind, since the military was almost entirely a man’s occupation then.

And I know that people are pointing out, with great sadness, that we are losing this remarkable generation of Americans as they die of old age, but it seems to me that most of the attention is going to the loss of the veterans—the men—and not their wives.

As if the wives weren’t veterans, as well, in their own way.

Maybe they didn’t know the combat, but they were severely traumatized, too.

I guess my feelings for this generation’s women grow out of my admiration for my two grandmothers, who had to figure out how to struggle through the Great Depression and were grown adults—parents—during World War II and Korea . . . and Vietnam. They had brothers and cousins who fought in World War I, and sons and nephews who fought in the other three.

But I think especially about the effect the Depression and World War II had on them, particularly as they were parents of young children at that time. Making ends meet. Each day, enacting home economies that would make us cry and whine today, even with our own “economic downturn.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Heat + Moisture + The State Capitol’s Lawn

More photos from June 23, same day as previous post. It was a day for mushroom photography!

These are shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) (I’m pretty sure that’s what they are—I really need a refresher course in basic mushroom identification. Or else I need to just do the work necessary to identify them correctly, since I’m so rusty—pull some up, take them apart, and seriously examine the structure, take measurements, make spore prints, etc. I’m mainly just lazy.)

These were growing in clusters in the southeast part of the capitol lawn, in a shady spot. Lord, I didn’t even take note of the surrounding trees! How observant.

But then we were distracted—the big Race Across America bicycle race was coming through Jeff City that evening, and we got completely sidetracked. Also, we were trying to get a little exercise, which my picture-taking was hampering. . .

So here are some more mushroom pictures for you. Plus a bonus shot of the Missouri State Capitol.

By the way, here’s a Web site that discusses the current revision of the “inky cap” mushrooms—it turns out that shaggy manes, for instance, are fairly closely related to the agarics (you know—that’s the large group of both poisonous and edible mushrooms that includes Agaricus bisporus, the “ubiquitous white button mushroom of the supermarket”).

Oh, another thing: that phrase about A. bisporus is sort of a recurring joke in the book In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist’s Tale, by Elio Schaechter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is informative as well as spirited as well as vastly entertaining. One minute, you’re learning amazing things about these magical little chemical factories, thinking “wow!”; the next, you’re laughing at some weird human-fungi interaction; and eventually, you’re feeling reference, awe, and gratitude for these amazing organisms.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Heat + Moisture + Mulch

. . . Equals mushrooms!

I took some pictures yesterday. First, here are some simple little shrooms that emerge from our hardwood landscaping mulch every morning, and are pretty much gone once the sun swings around by midday.

I’ve had some difficulty landing on an I.D. for them; they’re dreadfully common, but I gather that their taxonomy has been in flux, as DNA research is showing that not all deliquescing mushrooms with structural similarities are necessarily related (as in, they might not even be in the same family, let alone genus).

Also, I didn’t bother truly inspecting them, doing spore prints, and what-all. I only took these pictures. My Peterson guide makes me think they could be called “umbrella inky cap” (Coprinus plicatilis), though these mushrooms don’t exactly deliquesce (turn into liquid), as I would say they kind of crumble apart. There’s a “troop crumblecap” (Pseudocoprinus disseminatus), whose description also fits, though I think my stalks were longer. My Audubon’s guide calls this latter species the “non-inky coprinus.” Anyway, it looks like the scientific name, in the case of some of these coprinid mushrooms, is actually far less stable (at this point) than the common name(s).

Here are some of the pictures.

Oh, here’s a little cluster growing up beneath a little spider web. (“Err, err, eeerrrr!!”)

Here’s what they look like when you fly over them in an airplane:

Here they are forming:

Here’s one that’s biting the dust.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Walnut Update

Here are a few pictures I took today of our steadily developing walnuts. You can see previous photos of our walnuts using these links: June 6, May 21, May 8. (The photos on May 8 weren't of these same three, but the rest are.)

It is interesting to note how this bough of the walnut tree has been growing and lengthening and drooping; it's almost touching the ground now, and I have to mow around it to keep from knocking the walnuts off with the mower handle.

At this point, some walnuts do abort or get knocked off by squirrels; plus the "rock peaches" have started falling off, too. It's getting hard to mow back there.


One of the nice things about living in Central Missouri is that we are located on physiographic and ecological borders. Here in Jeff City and in Columbia, we’re technically in the Ozark Border Natural Division, but we’re at the edges of so much more.

To our north are the rolling Glaciated Plains and their rich loess soils (think “Iowa”); to the south are the hilly and forested Ozarks, ancient eroded mountains dripping with charming natural springs, creeks, and rivers; to the west are the Osage Plains, including numerous places there native tallgrass prairie persist, given loving protection, in much the same state as when wagon trains and drovers faced it over a hundred years ago. And then we also happen to be situated on the Missouri River, whose “big river” riparian habitat, floodplain, and natural terraces create its own unique character.

Able to plant my feet upon cropfield plains and Ozark forest leaf litter, prairie grasses and the banks of a muddy, half-a-continent-draining river, I can claim it all as my home turf. Growing up here, I have always found myself unable to succinctly characterize or picture Missouri’s landscape, because I developed an organic and inclusive notion of the diversity. You can’t sum it up easily the way people tend to do, say, Kansas.

(Perhaps this is why I found the lands of Arizona so appealing; there, as here, you can drive for a couple of hours and suddenly find yourself in a whole new landscape. It’s much more subtle, here, and more mind-blowing there, but it’s the same basic thing.)

So although I’ve been talking a lot about the Ozarks so far, I also want to talk about the prairie. And this is a good time to think about it, too, because we’re getting our hottest temperatures so far this year. All this week and into next, with no relief in sight, it is getting into the nineties, with the heat index going well above a hundred.

I usually think of prairies as hot places—in part because some of the best times to see the wildflowers are right when it’s starting to heat up, and also in part because there are no trees on the prairie, thus little relief from that battering sunshine.

For fun, and to give you an idea of how prairie folks think about the summertime heat, here’s a few passages from John Madson’s Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995), 181-83. This classic book (originally published in 1982), by the way, is highly recommended reading.

If you’re from the Midwest, chances are there’s someone in your family tree, back before air conditioning, who suffered “heatstroke” or “sunstroke” and died. Here’s a picture for you.

The continental weather that sweeps the tallgrass prairie region is a raw, unrefined climate, untempered by any large bodies of water that might serve as reservoirs of warmth in winter and coolness in summer. Frostbite one month, sunstroke the next. There are places in North America that are colder than the prairie Midwest, and some that are hotter. But I’ll stack our prairie country against any as the hottest cold place, or the coldest hot place, on the continent.

In a switch on Sam McGee’s famous cremation, a story is told of the old Nebraska farmer who had died in retirement in San Diego. The mortal remains were trundled into a crematorium and subjected to an hour of white-hot flame. When the furnace was opened the old man stepped out, a healthy flush suffusing his weathered cheeks. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the edge of a calloused thumb, looked up at the sky, and said:

“Shore good to be home again. But by God, another couple weeks of this and we ain’t gonna get a corn crop this year!”

It has always seemed incredible that only a few sheets of the calendar separate the prairie winter from summer. Some prairie years have a temperature range of nearly 150 degrees, beginning with the land lying numb and silent under its iron sky, melting into weeks when that land is stunned by the full weight of summer, parboiling in transpired vapor that rises in shimmering waves from fields where corn leaves droop and curl.

Given a choice of being parboiled or baked, I favor the latter. I have hoboed through midsummer in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts where the afternoons were a white blaze and nothing geared to desert life would be abroad. . . . And yet, that heat was not exactly uncomfortable—it was simply untenable in the full sun. It had an odd purifying effect, seeming to shrink tissues and burn away unneeded juices until a man was fired into the igneous conformity that the desert world requires. To one accustomed to the sweltering prairies, it wasn’t half bad.

Summer deserts notwithstanding, I can think of no purer form of hell than threshing oats in the old way, and stacking straw under the blower of a steam-driven threshing machine on a July afternoon in central Iowa or Nebraska. The stacker worked directly under the blower, tramping the center of the growing stack to give the proper rounded shape that would not only shed water readily, but which was also the mark of a good farmer. He labored in a midday twilight of dust and blown straw, his face a mask of grime and sweat, consuming vast quantities of water or “stichel”—the ginger-and-water mixture that some old-time threshers preferred. Almost as bad was the job of spreading straw through the barn lofts or “haymows,” working under airless, dust-choked eaves in a torment of itching chaff and smothering heat. It was a labor often complete with the afflictions of Job—I can recall the “thrashers” who did such work while tortured with carbuncles on their necks and wrists, fierce occupational boils that were aggravated by dirt and sweat. . . .

The sun blazes, weighing unbearably on the enduring men. The air is thick and heavy and they are drenched with sweat that cannot cool them.

Madson reflects on the hellish scene he’s just painted: “No, the working definition of heat is not to be found in the Mojave but in prairie fields with the afternoon standing at 102° and a relative humidity of 80.”

. . . It’s still only June, and my weatherman says, “No relief in sight.”

ADDENDUM, July 2015: The "stichel" Madson refers to is also called switchel, or haymaker's punch. And it's making a comeback! Read here for more details.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dad’s Day

Sigh. Dad wasn’t here for Father’s Day this year, and we got home too late to call him. He and Mom are out of town this week visiting her sister, and while Sue had a few things to do at work in Columbia this afternoon, I drove over to their house to check on it.

While I was there I rolled up my pants legs, kicked off my Birkenstocks, and unfurled the garden hoses. It’s been hot and humid here, and Mom and Dad’s plants looked like they could use a drink.

There is nothing like standing barefoot in the yard of the house where you grew up, where your parents’ hands (as well as your own) have tended the lawn, planted trees, bushes, flowers . . . everything.


Their landscaping isn’t a breathtaking showplace or opulent display of knockout plants fresh from the garden store. But it is beautiful and comfortable.

Still barefoot, I walked through the grass to water in back and started to feel philosophical. I felt so much at home.

The sycamore tree is the same age as me. The honeysuckle on the fence, the sweetgum, the walnut tree are older than me. The flower bed in back planted with bright pink impatiens and cheery begonias, and ferns, and columbines. The quince bush, the daylilies. My dad’s taken care of most of these for forty years.

Images of my dad working in the yard flooded my mind. When I was a little girl; hot days, working without his shirt, his back wet with sweat. Dad in an old flannel shirt, raking leaves and picking up walnuts in fall. Dad showing me how to do stuff. How to get my hands dirty. How to make a hanging basket of airplane plants and wandering-jews. How to knock the dirt off of a weed’s roots before tossing the weed into the discard pile. How to plant annuals with a trowel. How to mow the grass. How to arrange rocks into a border for a flower bed.

Yes, my mom taught me a lot of this stuff, too, but much of the backyard’s design and labor has been my dad’s.

And where did he get it? From his folks; from Grandma.

And when that thought occurred to me, I felt strongly the connection that has come to me, to all us grandchildren of Edna, from our fathers. Like the magic of genetic recombination, the gardening vision and techniques are altered and modified with every generation, but like the life force itself, the urge to garden, to comprehend and care for and love a spot of earth, is an instinct that continues unaltered in purity and intensity.

And I felt a little blue that I wasn’t able to fix a dinner for my dad today, but I’ll just use this extra time to decide how I want to fix his belated Father’s Day salmon dinner. Salmon’s his favorite.

I’m so glad I have a Dad I appreciate, admire, like, and love.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Funny Thought

Ha ha—I just sent an e-mail to the Food Network telling them about my big idea. And then my imagination took over—wouldn’t it be funny if they contacted me, now, and asked me to bring myself and my dishpan hands over to New York to discuss the fine points of my proposal?

Then I could start to regain my big-city edge!

Ha ha ha.

I’m sure my letter will get the same response as that time I sent an e-mail to Pizza Hut suggesting to them my brilliant idea for their next sensational pizza breakthrough: Fried-chicken-crust pizza! (Two great tastes in one! It would go over really well here in the Midwest!) Hee hee hee.

. . . No, I never heard back from Pizza Hut. And apparently, they haven’t used my idea yet. (Maybe they’re still experimenting in their test kitchens, eh?)

Of course, maybe the Food Network will look at my blog, show this post to Paula Deen, and she can develop the fried-chicken-crust pizza!

And frankly, she can take all the credit for it!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cleaning Up

Here’s another post about cooking (sort of), to give you a little break from my introspection and bellyaching about my being a true-blue country mouse living in a low- and no-income neighborhood.

Cleaning Up

I do get introspective when I’m doing the dishes, wiping off the counter and stovetop, rinsing my dishrag, hanging it to dry. (We don’t have a dishwasher. I mean, there’s only two of us and a small kitchen, so cripes, wouldn’t a dishwasher kinda be overkill?) Here’s what set me to thinking.

I watched a little bit of Food Network this morning, and once again, I was let down. That used to be my favorite channel; one of the few “intelligent” broadcasts out there, where I could learn useful stuff. But the past number of years, they seem to be having a problem with thinking up new shows.

These days they keep looking for a new “star”; they keep trying to come up with a new “reality” hook. And they're fixated on showing us diner food and how junk foods are manufactured. Meanwhile, their truly “cooking” shows have lost much of their sophistication, their focus on fresh, pure ingredients, and their educational content. Now most of their how-to shows seem to be about “quick home cooking” or “down-home home cooking”—Rachael Ray and Paula Deen, respectively. They use a lot of shortcuts. And the latter seems not to care very much about my health. (For more on P. Deen, look at this food blog: Georgia on My Thighs.)

And while those programs have a place and an audience, I have to say I miss Sara Moulton, Ming Tsai, and even Emeril Lagasse (even if he overdid the showmanship part, he does tend to cook creatively and from whole ingredients, and when he uses pork fat, it is for a good reason). I learned a lot from these “stars,” from technique, to theories about good combinations, to food history, anthropology, and chemistry. Good thing Alton Brown is still on.

So if Food Network is having trouble coming up with new programs, I have an idea for them: “Cleaning Up.” Think about it. There’s one aspect to cooking that none of the cooking shows has touched—in fact, you’d think it was a dirty secret, a taboo subject never to be mentioned on Food TV. And that subject is the dishes.

Those cooking-show hosts use scads of dishes and beaters and mixing spoons, little nested bowls for all their premeasured ingredients, etc. Once those instruments have had their few seconds on-air, they disappear under the counter for the invisible man to clean up later. (Or maybe they give them away to members of the studio audience as souvenirs: “Paula Deen used this very bowl for her eight tablespoons of butter!” Who knows.)

The fact is, almost as much technique goes into cleaning as into the preparation. Chef-writers as disparate as Anthony Bourdain (the dirty-mouthed, smarty-pants, New York bad-boy) and Edward Espe Brown (the gentle Northern California Zen priest) have commented on the need for the right tools—including having plenty of clean towels and sponges, good sharp knives, decent cutting boards and cooking pots—and (here’s the kicker) the importance of taking care of all of these. Just like a carpenter cares for the tools that are his livelihood.

Sure, I can see lots of corporate underwriting for such a television show (any company that manufactures dishwashers, dish soap, cleaning products)—but the show could still focus on technique, ranging from efficient arrangement of one’s kitchen to specifics of cleaning different kinds of materials (wood, nonstick pans, delicate glassware, etc.). And much more.

So the program could always start as the last guests are leaving after some dinner party, and the host could proceed to demonstrate how we’re going to clean up, efficiently, quickly, and thoroughly. Sometimes it could be in a small kitchen like ours, where there’s limited counter space and no dishwasher; other times it can be in a modern “dream kitchen,” which would give them an opportunity to show all the newest appliances. Or some shows could be about the cleanup after a barbecue party, and they could demonstrate how to clean and care for a grill and such.

Sometimes it could be basic a-b-c stuff—my dad is fond of joking about an old home ec book from his era that gave dishwashing instructions as: “First, fill sink with hot, sudsy water. Next, grasp dirty dish with left hand and washcloth with right hand (if right-handed).

Other times, it could be about what kind of oil to rub into your wooden or bamboo cutting board, or how to sharpen your knives, clean your cast iron, or how to properly outfit and store your kitchen tools and cleaning supplies.

Another subject that comes to mind is how to get kids into the cleanup chores. That could be a whole episode right there, filled with lots of adorable, audience-pleasing children.

Then there’s the whole “green” aspect—storing and using trimmings for a stock, composting your scraps, using environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, and so on.

What do you think? Am I off my rocker here? I suspect it’s a great idea. Especially if they could get cameos by some of their happy-ass celebrity chefs, who could talk with love about their utensils and how much they appreciate having clean tools, serving plates, and workspace.

One thing is for sure—as my cooking skills have improved over the years, my kitchen cleanup has become much more persnickety and thorough. For instance, the first things I clean are always my knife and cutting board—because I love them.

I leave you with a small quotation from the end of Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Cooking (Boulder: Shambhala, 1973). Years ago, reading these comments helped me to see that “cleaning up” is an important part of the process, not drudgery at all, and often flavored with gratitude.

Being Good Friends

Cooking makes cleaning possible, cleaning makes cooking possible. It’s all the same when we are good friends with ourselves and with the world around us. To help us be good friends with ourselves and with others, with rice and cabbages, with pots and pans, we may need some rules:

Clean as you go.

Being good friends with the knives, clean and replace them in the knife rack after use.

Being good friends with the sponge, rinse and wring it out; with the towels, fold and hang them up, and wash when dirty, or before.

Being good friends with the counter, wipe it after use, and scrub sometimes; with the floor, sweep and mop. Get into the corners, and when you’re done, stand the broom on end or hang it on a hook. After cleaning a greasy floor, sprinkle some salt where it’s still slippery.

Being good friends with the dish sponge, don’t use it on the floor. Use the dish towel for dishes, and have another for face and hands.

Being good friends with the scraps and trimmings, make some stock.

Clean the sinks! Clear the drains!

Be friends with your friends.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Losing My Edge

Sometimes I just have to face the fact that I fit in here.

I mean—I grew up here in Central Missouri, but I’ve lived in other places, and that’s given me some kind of attitude that I’m slightly more worldly or sophisticated than my fellow Mid-Missourians who haven’t ever moved out of the county they were born in.

Big cities. I’ve lived in Phoenix, south-central Phoenix, no less, a part of the city that most small-town Midwesterners would feel uncomfortable in, as there are a lot of “bad neighborhoods” there. (Meaning working-class immigrant Mexican.)

And I spent a lot of time in Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale, and downtown. I frequented a lot of tourist areas. Sedona was part of my old stomping ground. Movie stars hang out there. Classy place. Tourist destination.

Helena, Montana, was a fairly small city, but then Montana has its own classy appeal; look how the movie stars have flocked there. Think about it this way: Missourians think of Montana as a wonderful, beautiful place, a dream vacation, but Montanans think of Missouri as . . . well, it’s attractive if you’re into Branson’s stuff.

And I lived in San Francisco one summer. It’s one of North America’s trendiest, most cosmopolitan, sophisticated towns. And I’d like to think that after I adjusted to the canyons of skyscrapers, I started to fit in there . . . even if I am from the barbecue, bacon, and corn-fed Midwest.

I used to be proud of my experiences, and the worldly person I had become.

But I’m fitting in here again in Central Missouri. It’s been about fourteen years since I moved back to the state, and I can see that the influences of Helena, San Francisco, and Phoenix are wearing off.

I don’t drive like a Phoenician anymore. I don’t dine (or wine) like a San Franciscan. Wild western Montana winds haven’t freshened my hair since the day I drove away. My big-city edge is dull; it wouldn’t cut soft butter. My sophisticated, cultivated expectations have withered—hell, a gooberburger basket can satisfy me now. And the romantic air of faraway places has dissipated like last week’s cologne.

I’m not particularly blue about all this, but I did have to confront it last week.

. . . And more on that, soon.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Love-Fest List

Oh, there's just too much to describe. I really want to put down long paragraphs of adoration about our next-door neighbors, but I know that if you already have decent neighbors, or if you've never lived on a street dominated by riff-raff, then this will be lost on you anyway.

For the record, though, here's a short list of little things that have meant a lot.

1. Susie, the matriarch of the clan, loves the house and its history. When I first met her (we chatted together on her front porch) she soaked up the stories I told her of how my grandma grew up there, and she just smiled and said things like, "Oh, I could just feel this was a special place, filled with loving people! I love living here!"

2. Donald is gung-ho about the yardwork. They have a garden: Chard, squash, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries. . . . In front he planted marigolds. He tells me he'll take any extra plants I want to share with him.

3. Donald and his wife, Suzanne, have done a lot of work--paying for it themselves--to make the home handicapped accessible, for Suzanne's mom. And they have been making other improvements. And they have been getting the landlord to improve the place, too: Fix the water in the basement, fix the rotten soffits, tuck-point, repair a sidewalk that had been torn up a few years ago when the landlord had the water line worked on . . . etc.

4. Ron, Donald's son, is a guitar player and fan of jazz. He plays an acoustic guitar on the front porch sometimes. It isn't loud. And he is good. And get this: He's teaching his dad how to play, too. Often, they are sitting out there, strumming together. I think this is cool beyond belief.

5. I've been sharing our lawn mower with Don; when he'd complained to the landlord that their grass wasn't getting cut often enough or well enough (the landlord was sending a guy out with a weedwhacker to mow their grass), the landlord gave Don a crappy old lawnmower that promptly malfunctioned the first time he tried to mow his grass.

. . . So I waited until Don had left home for something, and I finished mowing his lawn for him. Next week, I offered him the use of our mower, whenever he wants it. So now we're both cutting on the same day, at the same height. (Hooray! Another yard in the neighborhood that isn't scalped!)

I'm trying to be all generous and stuff, so I fill up the gas tank before I take the mower over to him. He's reciprocating by cleaning any accumulated grass clippings from the undercarriage. (Wow!)

6. Did I mention that one day, I looked over at their kitchen window and saw three tomatoes ripening on the sill? Tomatoes: Vegetables: Real food. (Think about it: Many folks in our neighborhood feed on nothing but Papa John's, Zesto's, and Hot Pockets.)

7. And the windows! Donald has been unsealing the poor old double-hung windows in that house, so they can be opened to let in the fresh air. I don't think anyone has had those windows open in, like, at least thirty years.

8. One day Donald used a straight-edged shovel and cut all of the weeds out of the gutter of the street--in front of his house and ours. He continued and removed the weeds from our driveways--both the shared one and the one that's purely ours, way on the other side of our house. This was supposedly to thank us for letting him simply borrow our mower.

9. They pick up the trash around the place. Even when that house was occupied by owner-occupants, cans and other debris littered the yard. Don, Suzanne, and Co. actually pick it up.

10. Finally, last but absolutely not least in terms of how I feel, Ivy is their young granddaughter who lives most of the time with them. She's five, and she's the one I saw going "Wow!" the morning it was snowing so hard, the one getting the gentle hug from her grandma. She is polite, smart, well-behaved, spirited, and extremely cute. Her mom does her hair up in cornrows. She has a penchant for forgetting to put shoes on before she goes outdoors. Recently, she showed me allllll the strawberries that were ripening on their plants. It is so nice to have a sweet kid next door.

Okay: Now you get an idea of why I've been hanging around in my yard so much recently, instead of blogging. Except for the recent, sudden increase in the heat and humidity that's driven me indoors, it's been fantastic to be outside in the fresh air--in our neighborhood.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Goofus and Gallant

So, we have these new neighbors next door, and we love them. After so long of feeling fairly isolated, we have these people who greet us when we come and go, who do that good-neighbor tit-for-tat, where you do something nice for them, and they respond by surprising you with something nice in return. Soon enough, it’s an out-of-control love fest; no one remembers who started it, and no one wants to stop it.

Most recently, and highlighted by the problem-people across the street, we’ve felt an alliance with neighbors we haven’t felt since we moved here. Even though we have a Neighborhood Watch in our area, Sue and I were apparently the only ones on our particular block who ever reported or complained about anything. It made us feel like outcasts. If this were a Survivor episode, we’d be the ones voted off the island. We were the misfits. We kept our yard nice, we actually worked for a living, we kept quiet, we didn’t engage in illegal activities. We called the cops on everyone else.

But that’s changed now. And glory be, I’ve felt an incredible sense of healing going on inside my heart. For one thing, we don’t feel so isolated. We have these people next door who call the cops as much as, or maybe even more than we do. Together we’ve formed a little alliance for keeping watch on the street, taking care of our yards, fixing up the place, gardening.

Another healing thing is that they are a multiracial family; the wife and mother-in-law are white, the husband is black, and the wife and husband’s children and grandchildren—both were married previously and have been widowed—have various skin colors, all beautiful. It is a loving family.

And I hate to say this, but living where we do, and seeing what we have seen in this neighborhood, it was becoming a habit to think in terms of “black people are trouble.” “Black people don’t work.” “Black people make lots of noise at two in the morning.”

Realize: I’m not racist—I have always tried hard not to be. I have a long history as a true bleeding-heart liberal, Second-Wave feminist, politically correct, blah-de-blah-de-blah. I have always carefully checked my attitudes, my language, my stereotypes, trying to eliminate racism, sexism, and other hurtful distortions. Honestly.

But when it’s two in the morning and the bedroom windows are rattling from the rap music from the local drug dealers, who so often happen to be black, it’s easy to think of very unkind thoughts. In your anger and sleeplessness, you think of the meanest, nastiest names you can think of. If they don’t have jobs and live on public assistance, then you start to think of all the stereotypes in the book.

It has made me especially angry at black people who live the stereotypes, because their irresponsible, ignorant, disrespectful, disgraceful, often illegal lifestyles were gradually turning me to racism.

Don’t get me wrong—currently, the worst problem-types on our street have been white people, and I wish there was a kind of “n-word” I could apply to white folks that is strong enough to express my disgust and anger toward them.

But on Friday afternoon, these scuzzy types finally had their court date, the landlord succeeded in having them be evicted, and so they’re leaving.

In fact, they might already be completely gone. Donald, our wonderful neighbor next door, filled me in on what they saw (and indeed, subsequently reported to the police in a signed statement).

When the creeps were arriving home from their court appearance, they screeched around the corner and tore up into their driveway, hitting the garage door. Then, they backed up a little, and gunned the car to hit into the garage door again. They repeated this two more times, the last time breaking through the garage door. The door now hangs diagonally and is completely broken in at the bottom. Lovely.

They removed some of their stuff from the premises, including their trashy cars (two cars, with one license plate for both), a big microwave, and their television set. Supposedly the electricity’s been turned off by now. The cops keep coming by to try to find them, knocking on the doors (duh, slow). By now the creeps are certainly living with some friends—and driving the people in some other neighborhood crazy.

If you’re familiar with the Highlights comic strip “Goofus and Gallant,” you’ll understand the contrast I’m talking about here; in the comic strip, the two boys of opposing behaviors, Goofus and Gallant, look almost identical, except that Gallant’s hair is neatly combed and Goofus’s hair is always scruffy. They’re both little white boys. It’s not like our neighborhood, where so many of the Goofuses have been black.

And I’m finally experiencing—not just thinking about, but experiencing—a wonderful reversal in skin-color stereotyping that is erasing the racism that had been festering inside me. This evening, Donald told me that the creeps had screamed “nigger lover!!” across the street at them—his wife, their family, their little granddaughter—and even now I’m fuming internally.

More on this in another post. I’m ready to talk more about the good stuff.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

New Neighbors

First, sorry for the little delay here between posts. I’ve been kind of busy. I didn’t want to leave you hanging after the last post, but there you go. Remember, quality is more important. Well, at least I think so.

I hope I don’t need to write about our neighborhood ugliness anymore. Now that I’ve written about it, I can just reference it and link to it in future posts. But now I’ve set the stage: transitional neighborhood. We’ve learned to be very skeptical each time new tenants move in nearby.

So late last fall we got new tenants next door to us. Again. Once again, the landlord had told us he thought we’d like them. We were skeptical. We’ve just learned it.

This is the house that is very close to ours; we share a driveway with them. It’s the house my grandma grew up in, one of three homes my great-grandpa had built on the street.

Our first contact was when a fellow next door called out to us: “Hey, what day is the trash pickup here?” No introductions, no “pardon me’s.” Very abrupt. I called back my answer: Tuesdays and Fridays, starting as soon as 7 a.m. “Okay, thanks.”

Was he the new neighbor? I thought the landlord had told me a disabled woman was going to be living there. Okay, so maybe he was someone who came over to help her. He always drove the van with the disabled hang tag. There was a big bumper sticker on the back with the name of some Christian church on it. Maybe he was a volunteer who was helping her. Hmmm.

We saw people go in and out of the house. “Maybe they’re all pitching in to help the lady in there,” we thought. Never saw the lady.

Then one morning in January I was up in my office working on a manuscript. I have what amounts to a third-story window right next to my computer. And that morning it was starting to snow—heavily, dramatically. It was mostly flurries; big clots of fluffy snow blowing around in all kinds of circles and spirals through the air. Some of it sticking. We got a little accumulation out of the deal, but not anything serious.

Anyway, I kept looking out at that magical snowfall, and then something caught my eye. It was the neighbors, down there in their kitchen, zipping open the kitchen-window miniblinds. There was a sudden change from a white reflection of outdoor light to the darkness of the kitchen interior.

That’s what caught my eye. But what held it was what I saw next. It was a little girl, about four or five, looking out at the magical snow flurries just as I had. I saw her eyes and mouth go “Wooow!”

And then I saw a woman move up behind her, stroke her hair, put her hands on the girl’s shoulders, and then give her a little hug from behind.

It wasn’t like I was spying on them; I couldn’t help it. It just seemed so warm, and caring, and real, and full of life.

I was impressed.

Especially in the neighborhood that I just described in my last most, where parents use the “f-word” at their kids—when they’re paying attention to them—but more often than not they simply ignore their children, turn them out to play outdoors the way people used to put their cats out at night.

So this just floored me, and the vision remains with me to this day.

There is more I’m going to write, but this is just the introduction.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On the Street Where We Live

I think I’ve mentioned that our neighborhood is, um, “transitional.” We’re in a historic neighborhood close to the center of town, and you know what that means: nonresident landlords who purchase properties on speculation, renting cheap, putting the least they can into maintenance. As the properties deteriorate, the landlords rent more and more cheaply, and the quality of our neighbors has declined along with the neighborhood in general.

Since moving here, I’ve learned the phrase “demolition by neglect,” which means that by the time the landlord wants to raze the formerly quaint old building, it’s in such sad shape that it’s not worth saving, that they can actually make more money off the property by paving it and charging for surface parking than they can for renting the decrepit old house. By the time the landlord tears down the building, most people are glad to see it go. This process is so painful to watch.

One of the hardest things to take was when the last true oldtimer on our street passed away. When Dorothy died, her nephew and other survivors sold her property to one of these landlords.

And ever since he’s bought the house, he’s had a string of dysfunctional, immature, helpless, loud, LOUD, messy, destructive tenants. We’ve seen drug sales over there, and oh-so-much-more. I can’t begin to guess the number of times we’ve called the police about things going on over there.

The tenants occupying the home currently are on their way to being evicted; the court date is June 11, and I hear we have ten days beyond that before they are booted out. I understand they haven’t paid their rent since March.

I don’t think any of them in that house work. They are up all night, playing their car stereo, complete with subwoofers, as loudly as possible. All night long. I’m so sick of Pink Floyd and heavy metal. We call the police with noise complaints, the police come and talk to them; then the police leave, and the tenants scream at us (“Bitches! Fag bitches!”), then spike the noise level at odd intervals, slam their car doors and hoods. Just to keep us awake.

And that’s just one house on our street. In the eight years that we’ve lived here, we’ve had our cars vandalized more than once, we’ve had guns fired across our property, we’ve been flipped off, screamed at, and we’ve had a flower bed trampled.

We’ve seen neighbors have bonfires of trash in their front yard, into which they’ve thrown Coke cans filled with gasoline. We constantly hear rap cars going “boom-boom” down the street, crappy cars, rattling doors and fenders with each low pulse; police cars and ambulances are always responding to calls within a block of our house. Once a week it seems the cops or the EMTs are here for something.

Last fall, we had one slum building—an old house that had been broken into a six-plex ca. the 1970s—burn down. It was just three houses from ours. It was arson, from angry, drunken, squatter non-tenants who were angry they were being made to leave—and we were incredibly happy when we heard the building was a total loss. No more habitat for low-life humanity on that particular little patch of land.

On the bright side, we have an active neighborhood association, composed of the owners of many local businesses as well as others interested in the neighborhood, including some resident landowners. And the neighborhood association is making progress.

It’s going to take a lot of work here in our ’hood to make it into a place where we’re truly comfortable, and there are all kinds of things that will help. Carrots for some, sticks for others. Political work, legal work, social work, economic work, sweat work.

Anyway. I wanted to provide this background so that I can tell you more soon, because there have been some developments that have been blowing my mind and opening my heart.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Addendum on the Texture

I woke up this morning thinking about the texture of the pickled walnuts, where you're eating all parts of the walnut fruit: the nutmeat inside, the immature nut, and the outer hull.

I was thinking that I should have said more in that last post about the texture, but I was having difficulty describing it. Then I figured it out and did a little checking this morning to make sure I was right.

The texture is rather grainy or gritty, and that's almost all due to a particular kind of cell in the hull. The texture is caused by "stone cells."

If you've eaten pears and quinces, this texture will be familiar to you, because it's the same thing. In botany classes, pears are the fruits the teacher commonly uses as "Exhibit A" for this cell type.

I hope I'm describing this perfectly accurately; my botany's sadly rusty. Stone cells are a type of sclerenchyma cell. (Here's how I learned to say it: "Sklair-IN-kah-mah.") Sclerenchyma cells are plant cells that develop a tough layer of lignin inside the cell wall; so tough and thick that the cell inside usually dies once the cell matures, because the layer is so heavy that nutrients and waste products can't get in or out.

Elongated sclerenchyma cells are the ones that end up in supportive roles, as in a tree trunk. You can also think about jute, hemp, flax, and other plant fibers that hold up well.

In the case of stone cells, instead of being elongated into woody fibers, the cells form as roundish little blobs, like cobbles, and apparently function in fruits in a protective role, holding off frugivory until the plant is good and ready for its seeds to be dispersed. (If you've tried to eat an unripe pear, you know what I mean.) Now imagine a caterpillar trying to swallow one of these little cobbles.

Stone cells come to their full glory as the walnut shell, the peach pit, the apple seed, the cherry stone, where the tender plant embryo is guarded from an herbivore's teeth and digestive tract even as the young new plant is dispersed away from its parent tree.

Anyway, "stone cells" explains the texture of the walnut hull; it has the same kind of grittiness as a pear or quince, and for good reason.

And I thought you might like a little botany lesson.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pickled Walnuts

I’ve been working up to this post in some of my previous posts (“Walnut Catsup,” “Ketchup and Vinegar,” and some notes about the progress of our own walnuts). I hope you’ll bear with this fairly long entry, given that blog entries are “supposed” to be quick little “thots” only 800 words long. Don’t worry, I’m breaking it up with pictures.

So: remember that 1880s recipe I gave you in the post for Walnut Catsup—apparently pickled walnuts, which could be ground up into a paste? Well, it turns out that one small, family-run company here in Missouri makes the pickled walnuts for you. So you can try it first without going to all the hassle of picking, pickling, and processing the nuts yourself.

The company is called Barnicle Farms—it’s Tony and Lorraine Barnicle, down in Mary’s Home, Missouri. They have a Web site, so you can learn more and order your own pickled walnuts. Easy to remember: http://www.barniclefarms.com/.

Their story is pretty simple—they were visiting friends in London in 1981 and had some pickled walnuts there. Pickled walnuts are an English tradition; Evelyn Waugh and Charles Dickens, for instance, mentioned the food in their writings (the Barnicles quote the passages in their promotional literature).

Of course, the walnuts that the Barnicles ate in England were English walnuts, a.k.a. Persian walnuts, the kind labeled here in America as just “walnuts.” But the type that Missouri is so famous for is the black walnut, whose nutmeats have a much richer, stronger, darker flavor. So the Barnicles did their homework, experimented with traditional recipes, and pioneered the process of pickling Missouri’s black walnuts.

As of 2003, they were approved by the USDA and received certification with the Agri-Missouri program of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. They’ve appeared at the annual Walnut Festival held down at Stockton. You can find their product increasingly throughout the state.

Of course . . . the moment of truth is when you taste the pickled walnuts! Realize: if you’ve grown up around black walnut trees, you’re going to have a deeply ingrained idea that all parts of the walnut tree, except the true nutmeats, are decidedly inedible. Or at least kinda gross.

Remember, black walnuts give off juglone, a respiratory inhibitor (to plants) that keeps other plants (such as tomatoes) from thriving near a walnut tree. As a kid, I simply came to the conclusion that walnut trees must be kinda toxic.

All the green parts of the tree smell funky, and the new growth of shoots and leaves can be sticky and resinous. If you have a walnut sprouting up in your flower bed (thanks to the squirrels) and pull it out with your hands, you’ll smell the walnut juice immediately.

The green husks that surround the shell give off a sap that stains everything it touches dark brown. As a kid I usually had brown hands and knees in the autumn from playing in the backyard under the walnut tree.

So the idea of eating one of these little suckers whole is bizarre, to say the least. But here is my verdict, in a nutshell (pardon the pun): Very good, when combined with other foods, but probably not something you’d want to eat by itself.

They are very pickled-tasting, sour and sweet and funky. For some reason I cannot name the flavor that predominates, though it tastes familiar to me. Is it alum? Is it mace, or cloves? Sue says she thinks it is the flavor of the actual walnut juice. Hmmm.

So they are pretty strong, and they have a grainy texture, which I think comes from the green hull (it all turns black once pickled). I personally wouldn’t want to eat a whole one. Slice it first.

In England, pickled walnuts are often eaten as part of a cheese and cold-cut/sausage tray. I think the nuts are generally sliced when served this way. I would imagine that the cheese tray could naturally contain some traditional British cheeses—cheddar, stilton, and so on. I’ve tried the walnuts with sharp cheddar, and the combination is terrific.

The pickled walnuts are also supposed to be good with roasted or grilled meats (Dickens’s character asks for “a mutton chop and a pickled walnut”). I can see where you could grind up the pickled walnuts, mix it with some of the juice, and make a kind of relish out of it. A “catsup,” if you will. I’ll bet that the dark sharp bite of the walnuts gives some excellent zip to steaming meat. You can also marinate a roast in the pickled walnuts. Look for this as the “next thing” at highfalutin big-city restaurants.

The Barnicles suggest grinding the pickled walnuts and using them “in a dip, in a salad dressing or sprinkled on a salad,” adding that they are also “great with eggs and egg dishes. Sprinkle ground nut in deviled egg mixture and add some on top before serving.”

I would suggest that they are an excellent gift and something to start a conversation over. Of course, I am supporting our local made-in-Missouri products, but you can also tell that I’m sort of a “foodie,” and I find this a wonderful new flavor to play around with.

By the way, they’re not exactly cheap: Down at Columbia’s Root Cellar, they sell for six seventy-five for an eight-ounce jar. But if you stop and review the complicated process for preparing these little suckers, you’ll understand why the Barnicles sell them for so much.

And once you’ve tasted them, you might find yourself with a brand new little addiction. In fact, you might even start doing things that really piss off the local squirrels.

Photo comments. Throughout this post, the photos show the pickled walnuts, whole, cross-sectioned, and sliced and served on crackers. The pickled walnuts are the black ones.

I’ve also included pictures of some fresh walnuts from our tree, taken last night, with the good ol’ Missouri quarter to show how they’ve grown since last time. The fresh walnuts are green. Some pictures show fresh and pickled walnuts together, with cross-sectioning. They are about the same size; I’ll bet the Barnicles are down there in Mary’s Home right now harvesting the same-size immature walnuts for their pickles. I’ll bet their squirrels hate them.

The picture of the “hatpin-through-the-walnut trick” is to show you that our walnuts are indeed still at pickling stage: The shell inside isn’t yet hard enough to prevent the pin from penetrating.

The photo of the jars on the shelf was taken at Columbia’s own Root Cellar, purveyor of Missouri-grown, farm-fresh produce, meat, bread, and milk (814A East Broadway): local, local, local! They were kind enough to let me take pictures in their shop: Thanks a lot!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Bong Part 2

Oops, I really veered off the subject there, but I’m not sorry at all.

This here post is about the loudspeakers on top of Jefferson City’s First Presbyterian Church, uptown on the corner of Madison and McCarty. It’s a stately brick building, built in the late 1920s, and the congregation is one of Jeff City’s oldest (it dates back to the 1830s).

The Presbyterians have an electronic carillon system: Bell-like sounds that blast out of loudspeakers, based on preprogrammed digital renditions of “favorite” hymns.

Are these your favorite hymns? If not, too bad for you, because they play for about fifteen minutes three times a day: 8 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m. They play one, two, or three verses of four or five different hymns. They change the hymn selections every month or so—to keep the town from rioting, I suspect.

At times it seems endless; just when one hymn ends, and you think the ordeal is over, another one whirrs into gear.

Here’s where I have problems with it: they do songs that would never have been played on normal (manually operated) bells, because they’re hymn tunes (not traditional bell chime tunes) with chords and diatonic and even chromatic tones or accidentals, and the songs involve many notes and chords in succession. To play these on traditional bells, you’d need dozens of differently keyed bells (like a handbell choir—and don’t get me started on them). And perhaps worst, with the sustain of the chime notes, the various tones run together and create dissonance. To my ear, anyway.

Imagine if a piano player kept the sustain pedal depressed through a whole song: Tonal mush.

One of the things that makes the “Big Ben” tune work for bells is that it’s all basically one chord, so there’s little dissonance when the tones overlap. Only four bells (notes) are needed.

Plus, I think as you get farther away from the Presbyterians’ loudspeakers, the wind and distance take a toll on the sound quality (pun intended). So when that church first started broadcasting their hymns this way, I usually bristled when I heard the system launch into what I knew would be fifteen whole minutes of dissonant hometown holiness.

Okay: Now I’m going to turn it all around, though, and tell you that although I used to gripe about how the Presbyterians and their loud system are drowning out the “traditional” dingers of the Catholics . . . I’m starting to kinda like them.

(Does this mean I’m starting to fit in, here in Jefferson City? Gads.)

But here is what happened: Because I work at home and leave the windows open, because I go outside a lot, I’m finding that like people from a hundred years ago, I’m using those bells to regulate my day. I’m a freelancer; I quit wearing a watch a few months ago.

So I hear the bells and think, “Wow, it’s time for me to get out of bed.” I hear them at noon and trot downstairs to fix myself a sandwich. I hear them at four and start thinking about kicking back in a lawn chair with an O’Doull’s.

And sure, I know all those tunes—they’re standard hymns. And I find them getting stuck in my head. I find myself humming “Come Ye Thankful People Come” and “Faith of Our Fathers.” I don’t think it’s making me a holier person, but the measured tempos and step-by-step chord progressions seem somehow to mirror the emerging pattern of these freelance days, superimposing the idea of structure where I so badly need it.

And so I’m finding it a welcome companion these days.

Even if the sustain of the tones leads to weird dissonances. Even if the sound comes from loudspeakers instead of real bells. This is the twenty-first century, after all; some stuff is going to have to change in order to stay the same.