Monday, August 31, 2009

See You There

This was posted at the St. Thomas picnic: The fall suppers are beginning!

And the Frankenstein fall supper is always good--they stuff their own sausage, and it tastes fabulous. If you live in Central Missouri, put the Frankenstein Festival on your calendar. We'll see you there!

Catholic Church Picnics

I’m a little behind on posting on this, but oh well. On Sunday, August 16, Mom, Dad, and I went to the summer picnic at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in St. Thomas, Missouri (a little southwest of Jefferson City). The photos in this post are from that day.

If you’ve known me very long, you already know that I greatly appreciate these church suppers in rural mid-Missouri, despite the differences I have with the dogmas and prejudices of the Catholic Church.

So even though I wish the Catholics would change their perspectives and policies on a whole lot of things, I greatly value the positive role these parishes play in strengthening their small communities, across the generations.

There are several small towns around here that are strongly Catholic in an almost Old World way, where the church sits on a hill in the center of town surrounded by its members’ homes. The city is the parish; the parish is the city. Pretty much.

Thus when Central Missouri parishes like Westphalia, Folk, Koeltztown and Argyle, Bonnots Mill, Meta, and Mary’s Home have their fund-raising summer picnics and fall suppers, these amount to community festivals.

Nearly every weekend around here in the summer and fall, you can find at least one of these parishes hosting a huge dinner for thousands. And members of one community visit the others, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination.

As a general rule, the summer “picnics” have fried chicken and roast beef, and the fall “suppers” have turkey and country sausage. And all meals come with side dishes, beverages, and desserts.

It’s all served family-style, and all-you-can-eat: You buy a meal ticket. You might have to stand in line a little, or a lot, or not at all. Then you’re seated with other diners at long tables, usually in the cafeteria or gymnasium of the church’s school. On the way, you select your dessert from a big assortment of pies and cakes and other home-baked goodies contributed by members of the parish.

As soon as you’re seated, people start bringing food to the table on platters and in bowls. The side dishes vary with the season and from parish to parish, but you can expect to be served things like mashed potatoes and gravy, sauerkraut, green beans, corn, coleslaw, fresh sliced tomatoes and bell peppers, marinated cucumbers, applesauce, homemade bread, and the aforementioned desserts. Plus iced tea, water, coffee to drink. Yes, it’s grandma food. Mom food. Country food.

Sounding good yet? Here’s the thing that gets me: The communal effort. All the generations participate. The older women supervise the cooking and serving, the older men sell and take tickets. The youth serve food and drinks, help set and bus tables, and oversee the kiddie games (like the bean bag toss and fishing pool).

There are plenty of activities that make the church supper into a festival. In addition to the kids’ area, there’s almost always a quilt raffle and auction, a beer wagon, a bake sale, a “country store” (with items ranging from home-canned dill pickles and gooseberry preserves to knitted Kleenex-box covers with geese on them and decorated bookmarks for your Bible).

Of course, visiting the bake sale always makes me happy.

Sometimes, there’s a Sch├╝tzenfeste—a shooting contest—which is undoubtedly a relict activity from the turn of the century. St. Thomas had a cake walk! And then there’s always bingo.

And then it’s also neat, during these festivals, to take time out to visit the sanctuary of the church, to look at the religious decorations in there and have a reflective moment. Sue and I also like to visit a church’s cemetery, nearly always adjacent to the church, and look at the old tombstones and their names.

We also enjoy the scenery as we drive the rural highways connecting these small towns. We roll down the windows and breathe the fresh air. In the fall, the orange, yellow, green, and red leaves look like stained glass above the road.

I am always impressed by the tremendous amount of preparation and organization involved in pulling off these festivals. Making and stuffing the fresh sausage. Every family preparing loaves of bread and pies to donate. Making stuff for the bake sale and country store. Making the quilts to get raffled off. Setting up tents and tables. Lining up the musical entertainment. And all the other details. This is real work, and it takes a serious time commitment.

Most of all, I have to say I admire the sheer continuity of these communities and their festivals. I know that elsewhere in our country, happenings like these are going extinct in favor of socially stratified and subculturally segregated events. You hear it in other congregations—“Well, the younger generation just lost interest, so we quit having our festival.”

But I asked a teenager at Rich Fountain about this subject a few years ago, and she assured me, “Oh, we’ll never stop having these festivals.” And an attitude like that amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. God love ’em.

Friday, August 28, 2009


This year we have stinkhorns in the flower bed with the elephant years! It's the first year we've had them there. (It must be the landscaping mulch!)

We almost missed them, but when we hitched up a skirt of big green hosta leaves, there they were--what a surprise!

Because of their distinct head, I think the species we have is Phallus rubicundus (based on the key at

Here's one that's all done and gone flaccid.

Because stinkhorns look so phallic, and because of their icky smell and attractiveness to flies, they easily draw attention to themselves. Apparently the Victorians couldn't deal with them very well.

And if you think all this is amusing, you need to see the photos on this Web page.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Peppers, and Mrs. Argiope 2009

Here are a few recent pictures to update you on a couple of things around the yard.

First, here's a few of the glocken peppers as they're maturing. I showed them to you last month. Now they're changing color! Pretty sweet, huh?

(Sweet . . . and spicy!)

And here's a picture of an argiope--apparently the only one we have--probably a descendant of the one we had last year, whose egg case I showed you back in April. This spider has been building her webs in a yucca. (I was pleased that this picture showed some of the velvety texture on her abdomen.)

By the way, I have to mention, with a certain degree of pride, that I suspect I'm displaying the only photograph of an argiope's arse on the entire Internet.

More Summertime Cooking: Zucchini Stew

I adore the produce this time of year; you can’t go wrong when you’re making dinner with such lovely fresh ingredients!

The recipe I’m sharing with you tonight is actually a casserole, but Sue’s family always calls it “Zucchini Stew.” From the first time Sue’s mom served it back in the 1970s, it was wildly popular with the family, a huge hit. The whole family loved it—and that’s saying something in a family with three kids!

So that’s the first thing: People like it. It tastes good. “Even though” it’s full of veggies.

Here’s the second thing: It’s a great way to “use up” that surplus zucchini you might have at this point in the summer. (And grating is not required!) This is an easy recipe!

Third, if you’re like me an’ Sue, you will welcome the leftovers. It can make a lot.

Fourth, you can modify it in all kinds of ways—using more veggies, adding flavors, etc. (See below.) Get creative!

So here you go—this is a total “jackpot” recipe.

The recipe is from Betty Ferber, though I’ve added some notes.

Zucchini Stew

Sliced zucchini—as much as you want [sliced into rounds].
Sliced onions—as much as you want [white or yellow onions, I’d say].

Steam the above until done [depending on the size of your steamer, you might need to work in batches].

Make white sauce; use half to cover the bottom of the casserole dish. Add zucchini and onion, and cover with the rest of the white sauce.

Top with shredded mozzarella; sprinkle saltine cracker crumbs over the top.

Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly, cheese is melted, and crumbs and cheese are slightly toasty on top.

Now. If you don’t know how to make a white sauce, you’ll have to ask Better Homes and Gardens or Betty Crocker—or just Google it.

Obviously, the size of the casserole dish and amount of the ingredients and white sauce can all vary. It’s okay for you to wing it.

And speaking of winging it, here are a couple of variations: Add a layer of tomatoes, and/or a thin layer of chopped fresh basil. Or any herb, for that matter. Thyme.

I’ll bet you could add crumbled (cooked) bacon, diced ham, or little balls of (cooked) sausage, to make it really decadent.

You could also add chopped mushrooms, chopped (and steamed) sliced bell pepper (red would look really nice) . . . it’s kind of a blank slate.

Anyway, this is what we had last night for dinner—I added basil, but that’s all.

And because it was kind of hot and stewy, we needed something crisp, colorful, and zippy to go with it. So I made a Fattouch vegetable salad, too. I won’t give you the recipe here, but here is a link to a video that shows how to make this lovely, bright, fresh Lebanese salad. (Don’t forget the pitas!)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Time Zones

I really shouldn't have to comment on this, so I won't. It's funny enough just as it is.

And remember: I'm a native of Columbia. I just live in Jefferson City.

(Seen at Shakespeare's Pizza, west location. In Columbia.) (Duh.)

Thamnophis sirtalis

I just read that garter snakes are ovoviviparious: Instead of laying a nest of eggs, they give birth to live young. (Ooh, slither, slither.)

So it's clear now that ovoviviparousness (ovoviviparity?) has occurred in our yard, because in addition to our usual lovely adult eastern garter snakes (remember that picture from back in March?), we have a number of little guys scooting around.

They are incredibly cute.

I caught one the other day and took some pictures for you.

I mean, look for yourself. Aren't they just as cute as the dickens?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Oat Bran Muffin of the Day

This morning I tried a new permutation of the recipe: Peanut Butter and Banana Oat Bran Muffins.

I took the basic recipe, and used the following variations:

  • plain yogurt instead of milk (because that's what we had on hand)
  • a little cinnamon
  • about half a cup of extra-crunchy peanut butter
  • one dying banana that was lying around, dreaming about the composter
  • and then no other nuts or fruits

These muffins are a little more crumbly than usual, but they taste great. Sue is partial to anything with peanut butter.

More recent variations of the recipe have included diced dried mango and chopped dried apricots.

Oh, and by the way! Sue saw the doctor yesterday, who said that Sue's cholesterol is "excellent!" Hooray!

So maybe all these oat bran muffins are indeed paying off health-wise! I encourage you to give them a try. They're not "light an' fluffy," but in my opinion--until the weather gets cold--they totally beat a bowl of gloppy, scalding bran-cereal gruel.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Shakespeare’s Pizza

It’s quite simple, really: College town, downtown, pizza. Shakespeare’s Pizza has been around since 1973, and by the time I was in high school in the eighties, it had already become a local institution.

I think most college towns have a beloved pizza-and-beer joint (like Mother Bear’s in Bloomington and Abo’s in Boulder), but Shakespeare’s also happens to be a top favorite all-around restaurant in Columbia.

Why? It’s because they serve excellent food there. Despite all the fun—the coupons promising “free chopsticks” with your pizza, the rock music, the cans of WD-40 in the beer case, the fun salvaged signage that decorates the place, the hand-tossing of pizzas in the front window, and so on—they’ve never lost sight of the prime directives: Pizza and beer. Pizza and beer.

“Peeet-za for . . . Hepzibah!

Yeah, they take your name when you order, then call it out over the loudspeakers when your pizza’s ready. Last time I was there and told them my name was Julie, they said, “Oh—we need an initial for your last name.” (There was already a Julie waiting for a pizza.) I told them to call out “Hepzibah” instead. I’d been wanting to try that for a while. I just wanted to hear them announce it over the loudspeaker with their usual dramatic flourish.

I think everyone in Columbia has his or her own favorite Shakespeare’s pizza. We’re partial to the veggie, on whole wheat, often with broccoli added. Thus we receive a lovely, fresh-made pizza with a substantial whole-wheat crust, double cheese (we usually ask for single, however), red onions, green bell peppers, thick-sliced mushrooms, black olives, and the broccoli florets. With that nice spicy tomato sauce.

I can’t do it justice with words. The veggies are fresh and thick-sliced. You can truly taste each topping. It almost tastes . . . healthy. I say that because the ingredients are so pure.

Which leaves you some wiggle room for deciding which beer to choose, and how much!

The meats are incredible, too. The sausage is made especially for Shakespeare’s using a recipe from The Hill in St. Louis. The pepperoni is sliced especially thick. The sausage and hamburger are lean, with no fillers. Yes, it does all make a difference.

There is no skimping on the toppings; no matter how many different ones you add, they include a full amount of each topping. There’s a reason why the to-go boxes are piled up in self-serve stacks: Unless you’re with a group, you probably can’t finish your pizza.

Shakespeare’s: The Experience

Although the evening crowd can get kind of rowdy (college students + pizza + beer), in the past decade or so, Shakespeare’s has become more kid-friendly. The dough twirlers in the front window, for instance, have developed the practice of tossing little balls of dough to kids, giving them something to knead and play with while their families order and wait for their pizzas.

There is also a second Shakespeare’s on the west side, out by the HyVee super-duper-market, which amounts to the ’burbs. It’s natural that Columbians who developed their love of Shakespeare’s in college would still crave the pizza even after marrying and having children. (But though the pizza is the same, today I’m mainly talking about the downtown location.)

Are there down sides to Shakespeare’s? Sure: It’s popular, so sometimes it’s busy and you might have to wait. They do warn you; there’s a sign board with an arrow pointing to the current wait for a pizza—it ranges from twenty minutes (“Normal”) to sixty (“We’re Hustlin’”) to an hour and a half (“Anarchy”).

One solution is to call ahead and pick up your pie at their carryout kitchen around the corner, where Lone Sock Laundry used to be. I mean, in general, think ahead: Is it dinnertime? Busy. Friday or Saturday night? Super-busy.

Lunches have their own ambience, since most people are on a schedule. Shakespeare’s has for years offered pizza-by-the-slice on weekdays, and for most people, one or two slices is p-l-e-n-t-y. And unless you’re waiting for them to bring out a particular kind of pizza, you don’t have to wait, except for the line leading up to the cash register.

Another down side is that it can get kind of loud in there, with all the people talking and the concrete floors and the metal-legged chairs scraping around. But hey, that’s part of the scene.

If I could change one thing about Shakespeare’s, I’d have them offer some kind of nonalcoholic brew at the downtown location. Something. An O’Dull’s, or Clausthaler, or Kaliber, something. I mean, if they have room in their cold case for the “joke” cans of WD-40, then why can’t they squeeze in a row of nonalcoholic beers for us pathetic clods who can’t imbibe like they used to? [Note: See comments below. 8/28/09--JS]

“Have You Had a Piece . . . Today?”

Despite the rip-roaring good times we’ve all had at Shakespeare’s—the college pals’ night out; the symphony members in their concert black deconstructing after a performance around pitchers of suds, MU Tiger fans celebrating after a victory or consoling themselves after a loss—what I remember most fondly are those times . . . when time stopped at Shakespeare’s.

The story I keep telling (to anyone who will listen) is how Sue and I first felt that “ding” of mutual interest, of attraction. Back in 1991, a friend had arranged for us three to be there together, and that afternoon Sue and I discovered, first, that we both preferred vegetarian pizza, and second, we both ordered Anchor Steam beers (yes, they have an excellent selection of brews at Shakespeare’s).

And as we sat there together with our friend (who happened to be dating Sue at the time), we discovered we have a lot of other similar likes and dislikes. We laugh at the same kinds of things. We felt we could talk to each other for hours and hours. It was kind of like a chaperoned first date—one that came off very, very well . . .

Dialing back further, another Shakespeare’s memory, where time stood still for a while: One evening when I was in college, about 1987, there was a substantial snowstorm and I was out tooling around (like a crazy college kid) alone in my ’64 Dodge (actually, I’d been out hiking). It was getting late for dinner, and business was slow for Shake’s that night.

I sat gazing out the window, enjoying my view of the snowfall as well as the pizza-flavored warm air surrounding me. The music, the spicy hot pie, the drinkers at the bar, the sense of hospitality and good cheer made Shakespeare’s into a beacon that night, a way station for me.

I suspect that most Columbians have Shakespeare’s memories like these. A special date, or a time when we were starving for something and found ourselves fulfilled as well as fed. That’s how a longtime dining establishment becomes interwoven with the lives and thus the history of the community.

It’s not the Brown Derby, but even though movie stars don’t congregate there, people flock there just the same. It’s not the Caf├ę de Flore, but accomplished artists, philosophers, scholars, historians, mathematicians, biologists, journalists, agronomists, and rural sociologists all have deep (and light) conversations around the tables. It’s not the Russian Tea Room, but the food is delicious, satisfying, unique, and memorable, prepared with affection, cheer, and pride.

There are all kinds of reasons why Shakespeare’s Pizza is one of Columbia’s favorite restaurants. So when you visit my hometown, don’t miss it.

Shakespeare's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Eurasian Collared-Dove: Captured

Earlier this month (8/2 and 8/3), Sue managed to capture our pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves with her camera.

Yes, it's a pair.

I've read that they don't migrate, so the couple that we have--we have.

At the top is a photo of one of them on the ground beneath our bird feeders. They always seem to forage on the ground, never from the feeder itself. The photo below shows the pair together in our peach tree. (The "rock peach" tree I've told you about.)

Eurasian Collared-Doves, Streptopelia decaocto, are apparently expanding in range and numbers all across eastern North America. Some are predicting they will be the "beige starling of the future."

Here's my earlier post on them, when the only photographic evidence I had to share were pictures of a tail feather.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Walnut Update, August 22, 2009

Here are some updated pictures of our black walnuts. The last time I showed you pictures was July 16--from that post you can access earlier pictures all the way back to when the tree was blooming.

Here is the pair I've been showing you all along.

Here, you can see a walnut's surface texture better, along with what I'm pretty sure are squirrel teeth scratches.

Here is a walnut that had fallen on the ground (or more likely, that had been knocked down by a squirrel). A squirrel has chewed into the hull exposing the hard nut within. When first exposed, the inside flesh of the hull starts off as greenish yellow then quickly turns brown. The juice will definitely stain your skin. I have no idea why the squirrels' faces aren't constantly brown instead of gray.

Last, here are five walnuts all clustered together! (Technically, I think it's two clusters.) The tree is truly laden this year. It's a sight to behold--and if you're walking under it, um, you might consider a hardhat!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Grandma Renner and Her Crape Myrtles: Photograph

A few days ago I told you all about the crape myrtle we transplanted from my Grandma Renner's former house shortly before it was razed. (Here's the link to that post.)

Well, my mom just loaned us a picture of Grandma and her crape myrtles, taken one year in the 1970s when they were blooming especially well. I remember that day.

This is one of my very favorite pictures of Grandma.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I Am a Bunny. I Am Not an Opossum.

I recently bought myself a children’s book just so I could get the cute stuffed animal that came packaged with it. Yes . . . it was a total “impulse buy.” But reading the book made me reflect a bit on how we teach kids about nature . . . and about themselves.

The book is Opossum at Sycamore Road, by Sally M. Walker and illustrated by Joel Snyder. It’s part of the Smithsonian’s Backyard series, whose goal is to “have an educational message that answers many questions about the habits and habitat of the animals in our own backyards.” The “interactive storybooks, audiocassettes, and stuffed animal toys” that constitute the “collection” are “developed under the direction of curators for the National Museum of Natural History (a Smithsonian Institution Museum).”

Already, I can smell a huge administrative committee at work on this project.

The basic gist of the book is “a day in the life of an opossum.” Well, actually, it’s a night, because the subject of the story is nocturnal. The story begins under a moonlit sky as an opossum drinks from a suburban puddle.

Throughout, this opossum is called “Opossum”—no articles; Opossum is her “name.” So on nearly every page, it’s “Opossum does this”; “Opossum does that”; and “After a while, Opossum does something else.”

Our opossum is a female carrying around her four babies—oops, make that “baby opossums”—in her pouch and on her back, while they all engage in foraging behaviors.

The illustrations are quite realistic; if the animals look cute, it’s because opossums have pink digits and olfactory organs, and their external, hairless ears swivel to face the objects that hold their attention. But there’s no question: These are real, wild animals.

The point I’m making here is that there’s absolutely no anthropomorphism in the whole book; I gather that the entire administrative committee used a fine-tooth comb (one constructed for only veterinary purposes, at that) to remove any semblance of wording that might cause a reader to “identify” with the creatures described. Very “scientific.”

This is not to say that one doesn’t still instinctively root for the opossum when a “large, brown dog” whips around the corner of the beige house and surprises the single-mother opossum family while they are plundering an unsecured garbage can.

(Blooper alert: On page 15, the text reads “Opossum . . . heads toward the garbage cans lined up alongside the house”; and on page 18, it’s again “garbage cans”—but all the pictures show just a single garbage can, alone, by the side of the house. I guess the “oversight” committee overlooked this detail.)

Anyway, the babies escape the terror, and when she is unable to evade the dog and he grabs her in his mouth, the adult opossum instinctively becomes limp and doesn’t move. She looks gross, like she’s dead. The dog then leaves her alone. It’s all carefully objective, like you’re seeing it through a telescope. It’s exciting, but it’s not like a “friend” is in danger of being killed.

But the story is pleasing, anyway, and like so many good kids’ books, it gives a sense of a cycle—beginning as the opossum awakens under the starry sky and ending with the opossum family curling up to sleep safely in their leafy nest in an oak tree as daylight dawns. . . . This would make an awesome bedtime story.

But I also want to dial back to another nature book for kids, one for a slightly younger audience, which came out in 1963: Richard Scarry’s I Am a Bunny. I suspect this might have been the first book that was my very own—my Grandma S gave it to me in 1967 on my second birthday. (See? It’s no surprise that I wanted to have a career making natural history books!)

This book also follows a cycle—a cycle of the seasons, beginning in spring and ending in winter. It, too, ends with “bedtime,” as our cheerful little protagonist-bunny “curl[s] up in [his] hollow tree and dream[s] about spring.”

. . . Bunnies dream? Are you sure?

This book features anthropomorphism gone hog wild. (Hey, what do you call an expression like “hog wild,” where animal attributes are applied to describe human behavior? That’s zoomorphism, isn’t it? And shouldn’t that be “outlawed,” too? What is good for the goose, is . . . oops, there we go again.)

But in this book, there is no question: This is not an actual rabbit.

I Am a Bunny takes other liberties with reality, too—bunnies don’t live in hollow trees (that I know of), and the cover picture shows Mr. Bunny using a pretty red fly agaric mushroom as an umbrella during a rain shower. The problem of scale is only the tip of the iceberg, here. The editorial committees of today surely wouldn’t allow such flights of fancy—but good lord, that’s a poisonous kind of mushroom, even, and the bunny is smiling! We don’t want to give kids the wrong idea! Think of the potential for lawsuits!

Anyway. I am favorably biased toward I Am a Bunny because of its unapologetic anthropomorphism. The bunny wears a pair of red overalls and a yellow shirt—cute like all kids’ clothes—and he rejoices in something in every single season.

“In the spring, I like to pick flowers.” “In the summer, I like to lie in the sun and watch the birds.” “In the fall, I like to watch the leaves falling from the trees.” Each page is like a mantra or affirmation; as you read it, in all this glorious first-person, you become the human-bunny yourself, and his words echo in your head and become your own.

The bunny—he tells us his name is Nicholas on the first page, even though he doesn’t really need a name, except that it is polite to introduce oneself and he is a model of good behavior—is basically just a little kid dressed up in a bunny costume. He sits quietly by the side of a pond and watches frogs. He blows a million dandelion seeds into the air. He stands quietly, smiling, watching “the animals getting ready for winter.”

Yet throughout, nearly all the rest of the animals and plants in this book are illustrated with objective accuracy. The spreads showing autumn leaves, butterflies, and insects are so carefully rendered it is possible to identify to species. (I suspect Scarry used the Golden Nature Guides for reference—same publishing company; how convenient for him.)

So what’s going on here? In a strange blurring of boundaries between child and critter, this bunny-kid is a vehicle for getting inside of nature. Nicholas the bunny-child not only shows the human reader how to imaginatively get inside another being, but also demonstrates the pleasures of appropriate nature viewing. Sit and observe mammals and amphibians quietly. Dance in the falling leaves. Chase the butterflies and let them chase you. Put on a stocking cap and embrace the snowfall. Lie down in the grass to see the insects more closely.

The bunny with human faculties simultaneously exercises our human wont to imagine ourselves in other beings while modeling our ability to see the “other” in nature objectively and, at the same time, rejoicing in our ability to discover and appreciate the outer world. There is symbolism, science, and emotional wisdom taking place in I Am a Bunny, while Opossum at Sycamore Road simply pins down that outer world with dispassionate objectivity, offering information without a soul.

Hmmph. I’m glad my Grandma gave me I Am a Bunny when I was little.

Books Discussed in This Post

I Am a Bunny, by Ole Risom, illustrated by Richard Scarry. A Golden Sturdy Happy Book. New York: Golden Press, 1963.

Opossum at Sycamore Road, by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Joel Snyder. Smithsonian’s Backyard series. Norwalk, Conn.: Soundprints, a division of Trudy Corporation [blah-blah-blah], and the Smithsonian Institution [in some kind of multiorganizational administrative cooperative agreement that is not entirely clear from the copyright page], 1997.

(Thank you also to Norman, my dear I Am a Bunny–reading model. He is not a bunny or an opossum. He is a dog.)