Thursday, July 30, 2009

Stupid Finch Bong

Well, the guy at Pay-Way feed store assured me that the finches would be happy to eat out of this kind of feeder, but until recently, it’s been a huge bust.

I mean, really. Why would any critter want to pick little seeds one-by-one out of a tiny opening the size of a hyphen when it can push its entire head into our other feeders and chomp away like a hog at a trough?

After a few weeks went by, and the finches were ignoring this feeder and its abundance of gloriously finch-specific seed, I decided that maybe the birds needed a hint. A visual cue. Birds do see in color (apparently), and finches and sunflowers go together like cats and canned tunafish. So I got out my paints and surrounded each miniscule feeder-hole with bright yellow “ray flowers.” Hint, hint.

But they still ignored it. I felt better, though, because at least the stupid finch bong-feeder is more decorative now. Kinda purty, hanging there, with its yallow flowers, functioning merely as a convenient perch for birds awaiting their turns at our other feeders.

So yesterday afternoon I glanced outside and was thrilled, utterly thrilled, to see a small flock of finches at this feeder, eating like there’s no tomorrow. Hooray! They finally figured it out!

. . . But then I noticed that every time a finch poked its bill at the feeder and toked a seed, about a dozen more seeds fell straight onto the ground.

Turns out the finches hadn’t taken the hint, but the squirrels had. And the bong feeder, being plastic, was an easy mark for the squirrels’ teeth, adapted for cutting into rock-hard walnuts.

So the holes aren’t the size of a punctuation mark anymore—they’re more the size of Parcheesi dice. And the seeds are practically just pouring out.

When it’s empty, we’re flinging it in the dumpster.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Albino Deer

Here are some special photos!

One of my friends in Columbia has an albino deer that's been tiptoeing through her backyard. She sent me some pictures today, including these two.

Yeah, the deer eats some of her plants, but who cares! It's an albino deer, which is just about the coolest thing in the world!

And I'm jealous: All we've got in our backyard are a mess of gray squirrels, and a fat ol' woodchuck that looks kinda like a U.S. Senator.

By the way, my friend's house is for sale. . . . I think she ought to put the deer in her ads as an "exterior property feature"!

Pretty cool, huh?!

Almost like having a frickin' unicorn!

(Here is more on this albino deer, who seems to be making the rounds of Columbia's west side.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Collinsville, Illinois

I’ll talk even more about this place in a subsequent post, but I want to give you a little background first. Here’s the official Web site.

Waaaaay before there was a Collinsville, or an Illinois, waaaay before Europeans rode in boats to North America, there was a thriving civilization in this area. Their prehistoric city reached its peak between AD 1100 and 1200. As many as 20,000 folks lived in the community at that time, and they erected at least five “Woodhenges” (Stonehenge-like calendars made of red cedar posts, which line up with the sun on solstices and equinoxes).

The civilization that built the Cahokia Mounds is known as the Mississippian culture, which emerged from Late Woodland peoples who settled in the area around AD 700. By 900 the Mississippians were building homes and cultivating maize, and their spear points, pottery, and other tools continued to improve. As the community grew in population and sophistication, political and religious leaders emerged, and in addition to their tons of dwellings, 120 earthen mounds were erected in about six square miles. A two-mile-long stockade was built around the center of the town.

There are 80 surviving mounds in the Cahokia site, and the largest is Monks Mound, which has four terraces and is approximately a hundred feet tall. Its base is about the same size as the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s the largest human-built earthen mound in North America, and it stands like a flat-topped pyramid in the middle of the otherwise relatively level Illinois landscape. In fact, the mound builders actually made the landscape more level around the mounds, accentuating the mounds’ height.

Get this: The soil was transported by baskets.

The city at Cahokia (not to be confused with the modern town of Cahokia, several miles southwest of the mounds site) was the center of Mississippian culture, which extended throughout eastern North America. The city was gradually and finally abandoned by the close of the 1300s. Archaeologists can only offer hypotheses about what happened to the people and their civilization.

In the 1600s, the Cahokia tribe of Illinois Indians (unrelated to the mound builders) lived in the vicinity when the French reached the area, and so the site was named after them. Apparently there’s no real name for the people who built this city, with its marketplaces, sporting events, religion, arts, communal sense of purpose, far-flung trade connections, agriculture, and astronomical discoveries.

Photos, top to bottom: Two views of the steps leading to the top of Monks Mound, taken when we were there on Saturday July 25. Next, part of the huge mural at the visitors center (which I think is in three-point perspective, like the famous “turning” Eads Bridge mural at the Missouri State Capitol). And just above, the Birdman Tablet, AD 1300, a sandstone tablet showing a dancing guy with a bird mask and costume, an image that became part of the Cahokia Mounds logo.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Amish Friendship Bread

I was at a party last week, and somebody brought in a loaf of delicious, moist, cinnamony quick bread . . . and “starters,” and copies of the recipe. I’ve heard of this stuff before; it’s like sourdough, where you keep a portion of the yeasty, fermenting glop alive while using some for the baking.

In this case, you begin with a cup of “yuck” in a gallon-size zip bag, and at the end of ten days of massaging and (twice) feeding it, you get about 5 cups of glop: One cup is used to make your own two loaves of quick bread, and the other 4 cups are divvied in one-cup portions into new gallon-size zip bags, to give to your friends.

So they can share in the joy.

This assumes that you have a lot of friends who like to bake. Which I don't have. Uh-oh.

It’s officially called “Amish Friendship Bread,” though I have to say, at least in my circle of friends, maybe it’s not a completely appropriate name.

Maybe a better description would be “Amish Burden Loaf,” “Amish Albatross Bread,” or “Amish Kitten Bread.” It is like adopting a pregnant cat: Soon there will be kittens, so you’d better round up all your friends. . . . You know. . . . All your friends who need cats. Those people.

But as with kittens, maybe not all your friends want to be asked to take on a little mewing bundle of joy. And maybe you’d be better off not even asking some of them to take on the responsibility of feeding, mixing, baking, and copying the recipe for the next round of “friends.” So what does one do?

Unlike kittens, the bag of glop smells boozy—especially when you open the bag a little to burp some air out. This is not exactly something I crave for my kitchen counter, since I stopped drinking. (It’s funny how certain stuff can set me off, push my buttons.)

. . . Here is something else: the recipe calls for “1 large box instant vanilla pudding mix.” Hmmm. Why pudding mix? Is this really an Amish recipe? Hmmm.

I’ve got it! Jell-O invented this crazy recipe in order to perk up sales of their instant vanilla pudding!

“Oh, look, boss, sales are down this quarter in the mid-south sector; should we send out some of the Amish Friendship Bread?”

What a great idea; very little packaging required, and zero advertising. Just some starter in zip bags, some sample loaves, some stealthy, low-tech, photocopied recipe sheets specifying a large box of instant vanilla pudding mix, and some undercover marketing employees who go to parties (where marketing types fit right in!), or meetings, or church suppers, and seed the community with the living, breathing, hungry glop.

As the glop grows exponentially, so do sales of large boxes of instant vanilla pudding mix.

Sneaky, clever little dudes, aren’t they.

But whatever. I did take on my quota of the starter batter, willingly, and it’s been genuinely fun playing with it, mushing it, feeding it, and so on. But today was the end of the line.

So I used up all the starter; I cooked it all up. Yep. The extra loaves are in our freezer.

Why? Because I’m a true friend! I won’t saddle anyone with the care and feeding of the exponentially growing glop.

. . . And also because I hate chain letters!

But honestly? . . . I don’t have anyone to give the starter to. And maybe that is why I find the prospect of “friendship bread” so irritating in the first place.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Streptopelia decaocto

This is the first year we’ve noticed a new kind of bird in Central Missouri. We have a pair, and they’ve been hanging around our neighborhood. They feed beneath our bird feeders.

We generally only see one at a time. At first we thought it was just an odd-looking mourning dove, but no: It’s too large, too chunky, and it’s a lot paler. And there’s the distinctive black collar that only goes around the back half of the neck.

The overall effect? It’s as if a mourning dove and a pigeon “got it on,” and their offspring accidentally got dipped in bleach.

The call is an almost owl-like hooting: Hoo HOO, hoo, all more or less on the same pitch. Unlike mourning doves, these don’t twitter their feathers as they take off and land, though they sometimes call a gravelly, nasal, caaaawww as they swoop in to land.

Oh, yeah, and if you get close enough or use binoculars, you’ll see they have reddish irises. Reddish eyes always look positively satanic to me. (Okay, I’ve seen too much TV, haven’t I.)

But maybe the “evil” angle isn’t far off—some have described the ECD as the “beige starling of the future”—it was introduced into the Bahamas in the 1970s and has already spread as far as the Dakotas. Likening anything to a starling sounds incredibly grim.

Within the last century, the ECD has pushed its way all through Western Europe.

We’ve noticed that the two ECDs that frequent our bird feeders peck at and boss away the other birds, particularly the (native) mourning doves. Hmmm. That’s not fun to see.

Do you think in the next decade or so we’ll have big bossy flocks of ECDs swarming our bird feeders the way starlings do? Ugh. But then maybe the ECDs will push away some starlings—and that would be okay, I think . . .

Meanwhile, it is cool to think that, say, the Buddha might have had one of these little guys hooting away in a tree about the time that he attained enlightenment. Or that these doves might have provided the background music when the great Sanskrit classics were composed. Anywhere you go, the cooing of doves can add a note of calm, of peace. Do you think this is the kind of dove the writers of the Bible had in mind when telling the Noah story?

And another thought: At least a few people have posited that the ECD is poised to take advantage of the ecological niche that was formerly occupied by the native American passenger pigeon, exterminated by humans, which became extinct on September 1, 1914. There is something rather poetic about that. But are we ready for thundering, miles-long flocks of Eurasian collared-doves?

Something tells me it won’t come to that. In Missouri at least, ECDs are being treated just like mourning doves for hunting purposes, and I suspect their numbers won’t get out of hand, as long as people love to eat delicious, tender squab . . .

(A photography note—we’ve been trying to get close enough to get a decent picture of these little goobers, but so far no luck. Despite reports of the species’ gregariousness and comfort around humans, the two we have are rather wary of us. So these pictures of one of their feathers, left behind beneath our bird feeders, are the best I can offer for now. I don’t want to copy someone else’s picture without permission. I’m not that kind of girl. Of course, you can find lots of pictures of them on the Internet and in recent editions of North American field guides.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Black Death

Friday we mowed the grass. When we got around to the backyard, we noticed this.

It had been a nest of baby wrens—probably getting pretty close to fledging.

And so “nature takes its course.”

But we do like our snakes (and this is the first time we’ve seen a black snake in our backyard, and not just the ubiquitous garter snakes), and we understand we’re not in a position to pass “judgment.”

Yet, as the beings who hung the wren box in the tree in the first place, we’re a little bummed out. We can’t help but empathize with the grief, or the confusion, or the terror, or whatever emotions the wren parents must have experienced when all their hard work, when the entire focus of their lives, was abruptly gobbled down by what to them can only be a terrifying monster. Surely the senses of terror, of confusion, of grief, must be common to many vertebrates, particularly those which engage in parental care of offspring.

And it seems as if a hush has suddenly fallen over the neighborhood in these mornings. The wrens’ bubbling singing is mostly gone (I wonder if one or both parents might have been trapped in the box when the snake entered—if they are still around, they are remarkably quiet).

In fact, the springtime songs of most birds are nearly all gone; what’s left are the routine cheeps of sparrows, finches, and cardinals; occasional miews of the catbird; and the railing cries of blue jays as they pass through. And there is the twittering gibberish of hummingbirds as they orbit and land and blast away from their sugarwater.

Cicadas buzz in the trees, a sure sign that we’ve reached the “dog days” of summer; and at nights the yard throbs with the rasping of katydids and all their relatives.

But in the daytime, the yard hasn’t been this quiet since late winter, and just as the first silent snowfall gives proof to winter’s arrival, the sudden cessation of wren song makes it feel like a season has changed entirely.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Glocken Peppers Coming On

Well, this makes me proud: we might be the only people in mid-Missouri growing this type of chili pepper. Some of them are nearly fully grown and only have to turn red.

We bought a single plant last summer from Sue’s niece’s now-retired former band director, Nick Georgiafandis, who is such a big-time gardener that he runs his own produce stand during the summer in northern Ohio.

We were intrigued by these little peppers, which dangle like little red bells from their stalks. Glocken means “bell” in German; and sure enough, Mr. G (as he is belovedly known by the Edison High band members) got his first plants (or seeds? I can’t remember the story) from a German friend. . . . Or something.

Anyway, he grows these curious little peppers and sells them along with lots of other lovely flowers and vegetables, and I suspect there aren’t too many others growing them.

Indeed, there are plenty of German Web sites that reference them—either as “Glocken-chili” or “Glockenpaprika.” Like here, here, and here.

The scientific name is Capsicum baccatum; this variety (var. pendulum?) is apparently originally from Barbados—or according to some Web sites, Bolivia and Peru—and in English it’s called “bishop’s crown,” “Christmas bell,” “friar’s hat,” and “monk’s hat.” Search on those terms to read about them in English.

It’s funny to think that our plants’ ancestors traveled from the Americas to Europe and back again.

It’s a lovely little ornamental—bright red UFOs bobbing around a pretty green cloud of bushy foliage. And the babies are really cute, too.

How do they taste? Well, I don’t know yet! Some of what I’ve read says that the central portions of the fruit can be hot, whereas the flaplike parts that project out are more mild.

But I don’t know yet; we only got a few peppers off of the plant we carried home from Ohio last year (it was pretty late in the season to be planting young chilis), and the peppers we got, we used for seeds.

This year we’re going to have a bumper crop!

. . . Anybody want some?

(Yeah, this is one of the flowers.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Behold the Mighty Bird’s-Nest Fungi

My Peterson’s field guide to mushrooms indicates that these must be “splash-cup bird’s nests,” Cyathus stercoreus: the inside of the cups are smooth; the spore cases (peridioles) are dark and flattish; they’re growing on landscaping mulch, the cups are covered with a whitish membrane prior to opening, and immature cups can be kind of yellowish.

We found these critters growing in my parents’ front flower bed, opening their cheery little nesty-cups alongside the (somewhat shinier) petuneys.

Calling this type of fungus “bird’s nest” is fitting for more than just the cuteness factor (they look like little bird nests, don’t they!)—those round balls in the cups actually are, basically, the fungus’s “eggs,” the new generation, the precious offspring, hope for the future.

In the case of bird’s-nest fungi, raindrops disperse the spores when they hit into the cups, dislodging the round cases, which are somewhat sticky, which then adhere to nearby objects, such as plants.

The spore cases for at least one type of bird’s-nest fungus actually fly out of the cup, dramatically, as if they’ve been shot out of a cannon. You might have seen the aftermath of this when the little bitty sticky globs get adhered to the siding of your house, or on your car, leaving their empty nests behind.

Elio Schaechter, in his inspiring book In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist’s Tale (a book I could not live without), explains how the bird’s-nest fungus “gameplan” is a clever way to achieve dispersal. When a peridiole splashes or flies out of its cup and sticks to a nearby plant, there’s a decent chance that plant might be consumed by an herbivore.

Then, as with many “seeds” that get consumed by herbivores, the spores pass out of the animal’s gut in good shape. And it turns out that many of the bird’s-nest fungi feed on doo-doo, so there you go: dispersal, and then the first dinner, compliments of the chauffeur.

Miraculous, aren’t they? . . . What a wonderful world.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Walnut Update, July 16, 2009

It’s been a while since I showed you how our walnuts are coming along. Here’s the last post, from June 23; on it you’ll find links to the previous posts, with pictures going back to the flower stage.

So here’s a picture I took today.

It’s the same “trio” that I’ve been showing you all along—only you’ll notice that the trio is now only a duo. About a week after that last walnut update, the leftmost one either aborted or was pulled off by a squirrel. (Or possibly by an overly enthusiastic neighborhood youngster.)

The branch they’re hanging from is now drooping well into the grass—the nuts are that heavy. I had to kneel to take their photograph. You can see the lawn between the leaves in the picture above.

And the squirrels are getting pretty excited about the whole thing; we’re starting to see more and more nuts on the ground, opened with distinctive squirrel bitemarks.

Aunt Carole has already been by and scoped them out. She asked for dibs, and of course we said yes. We know she’ll share some of them with us once they’re hulled and shelled.

Mmmm . . .

Black walnuts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

End of the Tube

It happened suddenly last week, just out of the blue (. . . and the pink and the green). It was just fine, but one day we turned on the television and discovered that it’s become a lava lamp. Time to play taps. Time to play sad violin music for it.

Okay . . . this ol’ JVC has served me well; I got it in Phoenix in 1989, so twenty years of absolutely-no-problems-whatsoever isn’t bad.

What’s bad is the cost of the new TVs. I feel like I’m supposed to get an HDTV, or a flat-screen something-or-other, or move to something slightly bigger than a twenty-inch screen, now that twenty years have passed since graduate school and theoretically I’ve got more of an income. But Ouch! Those flatscreen things are frickin’ expensive!

I’ve got half a mind to just ditch it altogether: Ditch the TV. Ditch the cable. It’s all far too expensive anyway, for what you get out of it, which is basically time-wasting nonsense. Or, as the comedian Gallagher put it, “Doncha wish televisions came with an intelligence knob, so you could turn it up? —Yeah, there’s a ‘brightness’ knob, but that don’t work!

As I said before, the squirrels in our backyard are more brilliant than most of the stuff on TV, and letting them have some of our birdseed is much less expensive than the monthly TV bills.

I would entirely miss Sharon Ray, Jeff Huffman, and the other members of the local Stormtrack 24/7 weather team. But at this point, their radar maps are next to useless, since the color coding is a rainbow swirl of distortion. (It surely is pretty . . . but not very helpful.) Yeah, I can catch the weather online, but it’s not the same at 3 a.m. when the weather is wild; much easier to click on the TV than to boot up the computer, navigate to the Web page, wait for it to load . . .

Hmmm. Meanwhile, we’re kinda just living with our groovy hallucinogenic kaleido-television, where a man can have a green face, blue arms, and pink hands.

Angelic Cucumber Soup

We found out about Farmer John Peterson a few years ago when the Ragtag—Columbia, Missouri’s best movie theater—showed the documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John and had Mr. Peterson there to talk and take questions afterward. So we were automatic fans, and bought the cookbook that night, too. (Yes, you can buy a DVD of the film using the above link, or by looking on Amazon.)

Farmer John Peterson’s story is certainly good material for a documentary—he is a fascinating, unique individual, and his successes in farming contrast sharply with the misfortunes he has endured. He is funny and philosophical. You should visit his Web site, here.

There’s a lot more to his story, but I will say that he runs Angelic Organics, one of the country’s largest CSAs—that’s “community-supported agriculture.” CSAs are where local families—shareholders—with preseason payments, help underwrite the farm and in return receive a weekly box of lovely fresh organic produce during the growing season. It’s kind of an old-fashioned idea: the nonfarmers pay for the farmer to do the farming. Directly.

Angelic Organics supplies produce to the Chicago area. There are at least six CSAs serving Central Missouri, but because Sue and I love going to the farmer’s market, we don’t subscribe (yet). . . . Also, we have Aunt Carole!

Aunt Carole is Chief Gardener out at “Touch the Earth Produce” (well, that’s what she called it once when she left us a message prior to one of her deliveries—and it’s really just her private garden, so don’t get your hopes up). She grows lots of lovely veggies in her soil in Moniteau County.

And . . . she . . . shares with us!

Each year, I feel lucky beyond all reason.

First she brought us enormous, perfect heads of leaf lettuce—oakleaf, romaine, and so on—and escarole. Next it was green beans. Or nanny beans, as she calls them.

And I do mean fresh!

Now it’s yellow squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Like last year, the cukes are abundant. Last year, I had to think: What to do with all of these? I am not exactly a big fan of cucumbers.

Well, Farmer John to the rescue.

Angelic Organics grows a huge variety of veggies, several of which go beyond the usual fare people are accustomed to cooking. So to help their subscribers to make sense, and good use, of the bountiful vegetables in their weekly boxes, the farm makes a newsletter that provides recipes and tips.

And apparently, Farmer John’s cookbook grew out of this newsletter. The recipes in the cookbook (cited below) are organized by season and by types of produce—very handy for when you suddenly have a big pile of, say, turnips that you’re not sure what to do with. Just turn to the section “Radish and Turnip Recipes.” You might be surprised at what you can do with them.

In addition to recipes, the book is augmented with little stories and comments from shareholders and the people who work at the farm, as well as from the recipe contributors. And Farmer John writes plenty about his own reflections on farming. It’s pretty inspirational.

So it’s not just a “cookbook”—flipping through the pages makes you enthused about our connections to the earth and to the miraculous foods we eat, as well as appreciative of the risks farmers take against the vicissitudes of nature and weather.

And although the book is a big cheerleading festival about vegetables and herbs, and about the organic and anthroposophical and Biodynamic principles that Farmer John practices, it is not a treatise on vegetarianism. It is much more about connecting with and celebrating the way our food grows.

So about the cucumbers: there are a lot of recipes for chilled cucumber soup out there, but this is the best I’ve found so far. The following recipe is copied from Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables, by Farmer John Peterson and Angelic Organics, with Lesley Littlefield Freeman (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2006), p. 99.

I’ve made this recipe several times, and it’s always good; I’ll provide my comments and suggestions at the end.

Chilled Cucumber-Mint Soup with Yogurt or Sour Cream

Serves 4 to 6

4 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and chopped (about 4 cups)
1 to 2 cups water
2 cups plain yogurt (or 1 cup plain yogurt combined with 1 cup sour cream)
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
several fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1 tablespoon honey
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
2 scallions, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)

1. Combine the chopped cucumber, 1 cup water, yogurt, garlic, mint, dill, honey, and 1 teaspoon salt in a blender or food processor. Purée the ingredients, adding more of the water until the soup is a consistency you like. Season with more salt to taste.

2. Transfer the soup to a large bowl and chill for several hours. Garnish each serving with chopped scallions.

My Comments

Seeding the cucumbers is indeed a good idea for a more pleasing, smoother consistency. But you probably don’t have to seed them (or seed all of them) if the seeds aren’t large or hard . . . or if you’re not serving it to the queen.

Water: I generally don’t add any when I make it (depends on the cukes; the ones we get from Carole are nice and juicy).

Yogurt versus sour cream: I prefer the combination of both, using one cup of each. I use light sour cream.

The dill: fresh is really much, much better.

The garnish: it could be any kind of herb, of course, or finely chopped vegetable, and not just scallions or dill. But you knew that already.

Finally: this goes really well with toasted cheddar-cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Retro Jell-O Recipe No. 62,498

Here’s another recipe that’s just right for when summer temperatures soar, and it comes from my very own Great Aunt Lyd. It was published in her church ladies’ cookbook, Cooking with Faith, 1950 to 1975 (Jefferson City: Faith Lutheran Ladies Guild, 1975), p. 34. (Yes, I’ve mentioned this cookbook before.)

For me personally, it’s a “food of childhood,” something that links me to my great aunt (who was a real sweetheart; she passed away in 1999 at the age of 93) . . . but I encourage you to try this recipe if you find yourself “bringing a dish” to a potluck this summer.

Everyone will be tickled by the sweet creaminess of it; and the tartness of the pink lemonade and the crunch of the pecans keep it from wobbling over the edge into diabetic-coma territory.

And of course, the color is out of this world.

Here it is, in all its glory. Long live the church-lady Jell-O salad!

(Comments in brackets are mine.)

Red Raspberry Mold

1 (10 oz.) pkg. frozen red raspberries, thawed
2 (3 oz.) pkg. red raspberry Jell-O
2 c. boiling water
1 pt. vanilla ice cream
1 (6-oz.) can frozen pink lemonade, thawed
1/4 c. chopped pecans

Drain raspberries, reserving juice. Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water; add ice cream by spoonfuls, stirring until melted. Stir in pink lemonade and reserved juice. Chill until partially set. Add raspberries and nuts. Turn into [ca. 6-cup] mold. [Or casserole dish.] Chill until firm. Serves 10.

Mrs. Adolph Meyer (Lydia)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

World’s Largest Catsup Bottle

It’s the Tangy-est!

Today we drove to Collinsville, Illinois, for the eleventh annual World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Festival.

Here’s the short history: Sixty years ago, the local water tower was built and painted to look like a big bottle of Brooks Catsup, because in 1949 Collinsville was the home of Brooks Foods and the G. S. Suppiger Company. And yes, the Brooks bottles had this shape back then.

The water tower eventually fell into disrepair but was restored, after a spirited community effort, in 1995; it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

So they have these annual festivals to celebrate the funky roadside niftiness of the whole thing, the small town with the big 1949-style catsup bottle. Remember when catsup bottles were made of glass? Remember when Collinsville was the Brooks company’s headquarters? Remember when catsup didn’t have to vie with salsa as America’s favorite condiment? Remember when ketchup was spelled catsup?

So there is the reason to have a World’s Largest Catsup Bottle Festival—to soak for a while in the nostalgia of small-town midwestern Americana, to stroll through a vintage car show and groove to an Elvis impersonator, to watch a hotdog-eating contest, and enjoy the regal presence of the 2009 Little Princess Tomato and Sir Catsup as they mingled in the crowds with their parents.

All of this, set to the golden oldie tunes of KZQZ 1430 AM.

Remember the Pepsi Challenge taste test from the 1970s, where Pepsi would have booths at public events, like county fairs and such, serve people Coke and Pepsi in unmarked cups, and tasters were supposed to identify the better-tasting soda? As I recall, it quickly became an opportunity to simply demonstrate one’s ability to distinguish between the two.

Well, the festival today featured a “Brooks Tangy Catsup Taste Test,” where participants sampled four different catsups, with the goal of guessing which one was the Brooks. The other brands were Heinz, Hunt’s, and the local Schnuck’s store brand.

I tried it—and I won! And yes, Brooks is indeed the “tangy-est.”

And what did I win, you may ask?

I won a ribbon . . . a coupon for a trip to The Pasta House . . .

—and a free bottle of Brooks catsup!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Akajiso: Red Shiso

Red shiso, Perilla frutescens, is a relative newcomer to my herb garden, though I can’t recall where I got my first little plant of it.

It’s pretty amazing—it’s in the mint family, but has a much more subtle flavor than most in the genus Mentha. This red variety looks a lot like a coleus. Some people liken it to basil, mint, fennel, cinnamon, anise, licorice.

Sue and I both think that our plants taste something like rose.

My favorite thing to do with them is slice them into thin ribbons, or chiffonade them, and then mix it into a fruit salad. Our shiso seems to go especially well with citrus fruits, or anything you might sprinkle a little rose water on.

Another thing to do is add the leaves among the other leaves in a green salad. The deep purple is a standout, and the flavor and texture add interest, too.

Of course, one entire reason for having an herb garden is so that you always have a nice source of lovely garnishes for whatever kind of plate you’re serving. A sprig or two of shiso adds a lot of nice color to a relish tray or cheese platter.

And the culture? Easy. In fact, these are somewhat weedy. Once the photoperiod starts decreasing, the plants begin to bloom and make tons of seeds. At this point, we have shiso coming up in our lawn next to the herb garden.

It’s no biggie, but it’s probably a good idea to think about how you might want to contain the plants so they don’t get out of hand next spring when all the seeds germinate. I suggest growing them in a clump somewhere where they can “have at it.” Treat it like mint, even though it doesn’t spread by runners, but by seeds.

If you can get your hands on some of this, I recommend trying it. I really appreciate my bunch, and I love the idea of a lovely plant that you can eat besides.
And I’m only just beginning to experiment with it; the Japanese and other Asian cultures have been cooking with it for ages, so I can take some real hints from them. For instance, the red variety, like I have, is used as a coloring agent for umeboshi (pickled plums) as well as for pickled ginger (which is why those ribbons of ginger are pink when it comes with your sushi). Or so I understand.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Americanization of a German-Immigrant Church

You'll need a fast connection for this, because it's over an hour long, but if you can watch it, I think you'll find it fascinating. It's about the history of a particular church congregation here in Jefferson City, but as with so many things, a careful microscopic view can provide great insights into the macroscopic panorama.

And I admit my bias, of course, totally, because of my connection to the church and to the speaker. Yet I think the talk offers interesting insights into what life was like for our immigrant forebears. It examines the adoption of the English language; the embracing of American democracy; the contributions in the realms of education, music, construction, business, and civil rights. It raises thoughtful points about what it means to be an American, and to become an American--something that is common to every American's experience, on some level, in some generation.

One of the wonderful points he makes, for instance, is about how the language of the Old World persisted among church congregants--how catechisms, prayers, hymns, and Bible verses were some of the last components in an immigrant's life to change to the new language. For example, he points out how even today, "newer" wordings of verses such as "My cup overflows" just don't feel as good as "My cup runneth over." Imagine how foreign such poetic passages would sound in a completely different language.

The program took place on January 22, 2009, at the Missouri State Archives here in Jefferson City.

So here's a link to the talk, "Americanization of a German-Immigrant Church," presented by Walter A. Schroeder.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Basic Oat Bran Muffins

The following is one of my longtime stand-by recipes, one I’ve been making since 1987 when oat bran was starting to get all kinds of press for its ability to lower your cholesterol.

And as I discovered, these fiber-rich, filling, and easy-to-make muffins can help you lose weight, because when you have a couple of them for breakfast, with fruit or with yogurt, you’ll be able to make wise choices for lunch and dinner. Kind of like Slim-Fast, only without the insipid milky, fake-out flavor.

I don’t often think of recipes involving a hot oven as “summer” recipes, but this one is an exception. The whole process takes only about a half an hour: Ten minutes of prep and preheating the oven, about fifteen minutes of baking, and the rest for cooling.

And the result is enough muffins for days. Days that you won’t have to run the oven.

Additionally, you can create single-batch premixes of the dry ingredients, which cuts the prep time even more. Who wants to spend time first thing in the morning fooling around with measuring cups?

After the first few days, keep the muffins fresh by tucking them into the fridge; a quick zap in the microwave returns them to toasty newness.

These muffins are dense, they are somewhat crumbly, you can flavor them in all sorts of ways, and they are incredibly satisfying. Yet unlike other breakfast foods, these little babies never make me feel bloated or stuffed.

Here is my basic recipe, which is adapted from Robert E. Kowalski, The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure: How to Lower Your Blood Cholesterol by up to 40 Percent without Drugs or Deprivation (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), p. 156. The book recommends eating about three of these each day to get the health benefits touted in its title—for instance, two for breakfast, one as an afternoon snack.

Variations in the book include recipes for oil-free, apple cinnamon, banana nut, canned fruit, strawberry, pineapple, pumpkin, and dinner muffins. And yeah, if you remember to take moisture into consideration, you can add all kinds of fruits (fresh, dried, or canned) and nuts, cocoa powder, and so forth.

This morning I used brown sugar, cinnamon, a little cloves and nutmeg, and a little handful of semisweet chocolate morsels. A small container of Dannon vanilla instead of milk. It was all rather decadent, but still better for us than most other breakfasts.

So here’s my version, built upon the basic recipe in The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure.

Basic Oat Bran Muffins

  • 2 1/4 c. oat bran cereal
  • 1/4 c. chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, etc.; optional)
  • 1/4 c. raisins, chopped dates, currants, or chopped dried fruit (again, optional)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/3 c. brown sugar, honey, or molasses
  • 3/4 c. skim milk or evaporated skim milk (or even vanilla yogurt)
  • 3 egg whites or equivalent amount of egg substitute
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl; combine liquid ingredients separately in a smaller bowl. Add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients, mix quickly. Add additional moisture if necesssary (as in milk, water, juice, yogurt); the consistency should be similar to corn muffin batter. Line muffin pans with paper muffin cups (or use nonstick cooking spray); fill. Bake 15–17 minutes.

Do keep an eye on them; they’re done when a wooden toothpick comes out moist but not wet. A little “toasted” on top is fine, but if you overcook them, they’ll be too dry. (And then you’d have to serve them with some butter, jelly, yogurt or something—oh, no, not the briar patch!)

Makes a dozen muffins. Once they’re cool, store them in a plastic bag and refrigerate if necessary. Rejuvenate with a quick zap in the microwave.

(Note: Click on the "muffins" link below to see more posts with oat bran muffin recipes!)

Twenty-first Century Visits Munichburg

. . . And brings a little dose of Western Europe, too.

This Smart Car was seen on Broadway on July 6, 2009.

It had West Virginia plates, however. (Oh, well.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Pied Piper, Huron, Ohio

When you’re in Huron, Ohio, make sure you save room for a little ice cream, like we did in the middle of June when we were in northern Ohio.

Sue says the Pied Piper’s been around as long as she can remember, so it’s been there forty-plus years.

And every summer there’s a new set of teenagers serving up the soft-serve, and the whole community knows it’s the place to go for chilly treats and tasty eats.

This is the real thing, folks. Don’t miss it.

Pied Piper Drive In on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Yellow-Collared Scape Moth

I took this picture yesterday (July 3): It's a yellow-collared scape moth, Cisseps fulvicollis.

Yes, I finally looked up this little sucker. I've seen them, known them, since I was a little kid. They always looked like weird fireflies to me, with the orange "shoulders" and the black body. I never thought too much about them.

We have a ton of blue ageratums that come up every year--apparently it's one of the scape moth's favorite food plants.

And it turns out "lightning bug" is the correct "idea," as these moths (yes, completely harmless moths, which unfurl proboscises and sip nectar from flowers) are Batesian mimics for distasteful beetles, such as lightning bugs, which carry toxic and nasty-tasting compounds called lucibufagins.

And they also supposedly mimic wasps, too, which can sting. Thus they're double-Batesian mimics, right?

(I think they look more like lightning bugs, don't you?)

Oh, by the way, by the looks of the antennae, this one would be a male: On our air conditioner, catching the good vibes.

Fourth Foods

It was and continues to be a surprise to me, to think that not everyone has the same food in mind for the Fourth of July.

For other holidays, it seems, we tend to get the same stuff. Turkey on Thanksgiving. You know what I mean.

To celebrate America’s birthday, the party food truly does vary from one region to another and differs with one’s ethnicity. But the basics are: You’re (generally) having an outdoor dining experience in the middle of summer, in some of the hottest weather of the year, so you tend to cook outdoors. You also tend to take advantage of all the farm-fresh produce that’s starting to become available. Beyond that, what does your family history bring to it? And your region? And what is good ol’ “American” food to you?

With my family, we have generally opted for the simple-to-grill hamburgers and/or hot dogs, with all the fixin’s to your heart’s content (BBQ sauce, ketchup, mustard, relish, tomatoes, pickles, onions, lettuce); potato salad (in my clan, this is often German potato salad); corn on the cob; baked beans; potato chips; a Jell-O salad; melon; homemade ice cream with blueberries and strawberries. Or anything with fresh peaches.

Sue’s family, in northern Ohio, often did the hamburger-and-hot dog thing, or—and this blew my mind—fried perch and/or walleye. Fried fish! And then, coleslaw, potato salad (the mustard kind), baked beans, potato chips, watermelon, homemade ice cream, fruit pie or cake.

Other folks grill steaks or ribs or barbecued pork steak. In the south, of course, it’s barbecue. But then also, fried chicken does it for a lot of people, too.

On the coasts, I see from Gourmet magazine, they have lobster sandwiches. Ooh-la-la.

And then there was that summer in San Francisco when I ate at a Chinese restaurant, which was busy with lots of Chinese American customers. . . . Or the year some Mexican-immigrant friends invited us over for a glorious fiesta with a huge pot of homemade chicken mole, fresh tortillas, and margaritas and sangria to make everyone happy.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that the Fourth of July, the quintessential “American” holiday, varies from region to region and from one ethnic root to the next. The coolest thing about this “melting pot” of ours is that the constituent elements (German, African, Mexican, Chinese, Norwegian, English, Irish, Korean . . .) stubbornly and gloriously persist across the generations, preserving the diversity despite our unity as citizens of the United States, the greatest country in the world.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Fourth

I've been pretty busy; we're going to have a little shindig with the neighbors involving a barbecue grill tomorrow evening, so in addition to all the usual work, we cut the grass today, went to the grocery store, made up a big bowl of potato salad (German--is there any other kind?), and so on.

I took some time out this afternoon and walked around the yard with the camera.

It's always intrigued me how, just about the time the Fourth rolls around, a majority of the flowers remind me of fireworks shooting off. The colors are more intense, the petals flare out dramatically, the shapes flay and spray out like an explosion.

(I wish I had also gotten a picture of a mimosa. This time of year, they're always blooming-exploding, too!)