Thursday, January 28, 2010

Retro Jell-O Recipes Nos. 62,500 and 62,501: Lime Jell-O with Cucumbers, Onions, and Vinegar

Hey, folks! I’m almost getting serious about these retro Jell-O recipes! Today I present to you two variations on a theme, and these are both definitely “salad” Jell-Os and not dessert ones.

Both involve lime Jell-O, cucumbers, vinegar, and a small amount of onion.

The first recipe was published in the official Jell-O cookbook from 1930 and was the first “salad” recipe listed, on page 16. I should mention that this cookbook announced a brand new Jell-O flavor: “The new, wonderfully refreshing Lime!” (“You will want to buy Jell-O in all six flavors, six packages at a time. Then there will always be the ‘makings’ of a lovely dish on hand.”) Yes, junior, there was indeed a time before green Jell-O.

Just in case you missed the fantastic news, there’s a “note” just before you launch into the recipes:

Above this particular recipe is a lovely illustration of some pret-ty high-class folks. One lady is our heroine; she’s slicing into her monumental jewel-like creation. Another lady behind her has her pretty little nose in the air. Bleeding off the edge of the illustration are two figures in black suits, and another high-class lady’s shoulder. There’s a magnificent coffee urn on the table (puffing out his stainless chest, with arms akimbo), attended by some fabulous coffee cups and saucers. What a fine, gay luncheon this shall be! (I think the message here is: “With Jell-O, you can forget all about the Great Depression.”)

Here’s the recipe, transcribed with great care. My comments follow.

Sea Dream Salad

1 package Lime Jell-O
1 cup boiling water
1 cup grated cucumber
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon onion juice
Dash of Cayenne
1/2 teaspoon salt

Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water. Add cucumber, vinegar, onion juice, Cayenne, and salt. Force through sieve. Turn into mold. Chill until firm. Cut in squares and serve on crisp lettuce. Garnish with Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. Serves 6.

. . . Now, is there any law that says you have to cut it in squares? Pffft. I molded mine in little cups!

I have to say, this is a Jell-O technique you don’t see very often in your standard church-ladies cookbook, this idea of infusing your hot liquid Jell-O with other flavors, keeping the Jell-O crystal clear. You add the grated cuke and stuff to hot Jell-O, then strain out the solids. It’s like making cucumber–onion–Jell-O “tea.”

Hmm. I think that most church ladies would see this as a waste of perfectly good cucumber. I think most church ladies would just as soon keep the cuke in the salad.

Aha! Hence the next recipe, which comes from my beloved copy of Cooking with Faith: 1950 to 1975, published in Jefferson City by the Faith Lutheran Ladies Guild.

It’s a contribution from “Miss Ann Kielman,” and appears, amid a wiggly, jiggly bounty of other fine Jell-O recipes, on page 30.

Again, I transcribe it for you, with a few comments afterward.

Cucumber Mold

1 pkg. lime jello [sic]
1 c. hot water
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. vinegar

Mix together and let cool until almost set, then add:

1 c. sour cream
1/4 c. or 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 c. chopped cucumbers
1/2 tsp. grated onion

As usual with these sketchy types of recipes, you’re left to wonder about how finely chopped the cucumbers should be, or how finely grated the onion. But I bet I know what Miss Ann Kielman would say: “Well, as fine as you want them.” . . . I chose a small dice.

So! How Do They Taste?

My curiosity about this very question is what made me make these two recipes. They sound so counterintuitive to us in 2010; I suspect many of you are thinking, “Ugh! Nasty! Jell-O ’n cucumbers ’n onions ’n vinegar!”

Yet these recipes were appreciated enough to appear in these publications. Someone paid good money to print these on paper. The first must have ranked extremely high on General Foods’ taste tests, since it appeared at the top of the salad section where they kick off the new Jell-O flavor—two whole pages before the spectacularly famous “Under-the-Sea Salad.”

And Miss Kielman must have had plenty of folks compliment her on her delicious Cucumber Mold, since she tendered it among her other contributions to her church’s cookbook. (Well, unless maybe it was dishes like this that “kept” her unmarried?)

So here’s the verdict. First, you have to let go of your ingrained notion that Jell-O is for sweet stuff. In fact, you need to let go of the common American idea that fruit flavors aren’t used in savory dishes. But try thinking along the lines of a mango chutney or pineapple salsa, where “savories” like onions and garlic walk down the aisle hand-in-hand with delicious sweet fruits.

Both tasted really good! Sue, in particular, liked them—but you have to realize that Sue is a nut for Jell-O. Always has been. She said it was a bit of a leap to get used to “salty Jell-O”—an exaggeration, I think, though it does kind of describe the effect. The flavors of the two are surprisingly similar.

We both agreed that if you were to pick one of these to serve to company, Ann Kielman’s is much better. First, the milkiness prepares you for something “different”—you know just by looking at it that it’s been modified somehow. The Jell-O cookbook version, by contrast, looks for all the world like “normal” green Jell-O. (Until you inspect it closely and see the cayenne flecks in there.) Unless you’re fully aware of the fact that the sparkling green blob before you is a salad, you might be really, um, surprised.

Another point in the Ann Kielman recipe’s favor: The chopped cucumbers do add a pleasant and welcome texture; their presence helps balance the whackiness of the overall concept.

Meanwhile, I found myself unable to finish my portion of Jell-O’s Sea Dream Salad, mainly on account of the mayonnaise, the garnish. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of mayo, anyway, and this is probably my least-favorite way of having it, ever. Bleah. More like Sea-Nightmare Salad. My sea doesn't have mayo in it.

Tomorrow when we have more of this (hey, it’s just the two of us, so there’s leftovers), I’ll try mashing an avocado and putting that to the side instead of mayo. I’ll bet that would be lots better. Or maybe sour cream. So many options.

I guess this is why there are a hundred thousand different Jell-O recipes, huh!

Bonus Fun Information, Just for You!

Maybe you’re wondering about this “Miss Ann Kielman” who submitted such a delightful recipe to the Faith Lutheran cookbook! Well, she was my Great Aunt Lyd’s BFF. They were both about the same age, so Miss Kielman was probably born around 1905 or so.

Oh! And it’s pronounced “Killmun,” not “Keelman.”

If you’re from around Jeff City and keep your ears pricked up for history, that surname might ring a bell: Kielman’s Pool Hall was opened in 1897 and by the 1930s was run by Ann’s father. It was located just south (uphill) of the ECCO Lounge—actually, the two buildings are attached. There’s a consignment shop there now.

My mom remembers going to Kielman’s with her dad when she was little; they’d sit at the bar together. He’d have a beer, and she’d drink a Dr. Pepper and eat a package of Planter’s Peanuts.

Ann’s mother, mom says, drove a car (which is remarkable for a woman of that vintage, and that’s why I’m relating it), and she was a good friend of my mom’s Great Aunt Maggie (Margaret Renner Burkel Jordan), who lived up on East Ashley. She also drove her own car!

The Kielmans were a longstanding Munichburg family, and Ann—who never married—lived in her parents’ house and continued to live there after they passed away.

So Aunt Lyd and Ann Kielman were lifelong best friends; they worked together for years at the Missouri Public Service Commission, and they both were members—charter members, I think—of Jeff City’s Faith Lutheran Church.

After Lyd got married, and before she and Adolf started having kids, they would take Ann with them on trips. Once (my mom says) they even went together on a trip to Colorado! You have to give Adolf some real credit here for being a nice hubby: How many other young married men would want to go on a lengthy motor trip with their wife and wife’s best friend?

Anyway. I never new Ann Kielman myself, but I sure heard her name a lot when we would visit Aunt Lyd. It’s nice to put these whacky pieces together, and to enjoy her tasty Jell-O salad!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

H. Dwight Weaver, and "Missouri Caves in History and Legend"

If you are interested in the history and lore of caving in Missouri--and you should be--I'd like to recommend the book Missouri Caves in History and Legend, by H. Dwight Weaver. It would be hard to find a more qualified person to tell the story of Missouri's caves, for they have been Mr. Weaver's lifelong passion.

Missouri's caves have provided saltpeter, guano, onyx, housing for farm animals, shelter for Civil War guerillas and for outlaws, misplaced hope for treasure hunters, locations for parties, beer storage, springhouses, and tourism income. And more. This book tells all these fascinating stories, and much, much more. For such a compact volume, it provides a huge amount of information.

To whet your appetite, below is a link you should look at. Mr. Weaver gave an hour-long presentation based on this book at the Missouri State Archives, here in Jefferson City. His talk was videotaped and is available online in its entirety at the Secretary of State's "Missouri Digital Heritage" site. (Alternatively, at the same Web site, you can read the entire transcript--in case you can't download the hour-long video.)

I recently watched the video of this presentation, which was recorded on September 18, 2008, and I found it as entertaining as it was educational. I encourage you to enjoy it as well!

To watch the presentation, click on this link:
Missouri State Archives Presentation:
Missouri Caves in History and Legend, by H. Dwight Weaver

Missouri Caves: The Backstory

Missouri has been called “the Cave State” for years, and for good reason. We have plenty of that neat-o karst topography of sinkholes, springs, and caves, where water seeps into the earth, penetrates the limestone rock layers, then follows along cracks and fissures. Because the water carries with it chemicals from organic sources (think of the leaf litter that water passes through), it becomes mildly acidic (think of it as weak tea), and over time, the water eats away at the rock as it flows through, seeking someplace lower, seeking the water table.

The first stage is basically an underground river. This river is called a spring when it exits the ground. Picture a spring at the foot of a hill, where its water feeds into a creek or river. Then, think of what will happen after an overall, regional uplift: Bluffs are created as streams cut downward through rock; as the Ozark region was raised, many spring openings were lifted so high they were no longer at the water table. And those opened up into air-filled caverns. The former mouth of the spring is now the entrance to a cave.

Of course, water still drips in from above, etching the rocks above it, and redepositing minerals where it drips—thus the stalactites and stalagmites and other beloved cave formations. These features actually represent the later stages of a cave, where rock is gradually refilling the cavity.

When you think of the process—the initial fissure, the water table, the widening channel of the spring, the uplift, the cavern, then the (re)formation of geological features within it, you begin to realize this is much, much older than, say, the Grand Canyon. You begin to wonder: Well, when precisely do you say a cave “began to form”?

This process began tens of millions of years ago. What’s more amazing still is that some of the oldest caves are still down there, gaping full of water, hundreds of feet below the mouths of the big Ozark springs where they discharge.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bridal Cave

Post-Christmas, but still winter. The warmth of the holiday lights is long gone, and all we’re left with are our workdays, brown lawns, and grit-sided cars.

And here recently the weather’s been rainy and cold. “Cold” becomes bone-chilling when it’s humid, and in these evenings we’ve been getting fog plus rain, plus cold. The gray days tend to make one feel gray, and yesterday morning I decided I’d had enough. No, I didn’t hop on a plane to Arizona.

Instead, I played reverse psychology on myself. How can you make an overcast day seem brighter? Well, try spending an afternoon two hundred feet below the earth’s surface!

First: I don’t recommend doing spelunking this time of year in wild caves, unless you absolutely know what you are doing—as in, you are a professional caver—since bats hibernate this time of year, and awakening them can cause them to die. (Which sucks, so don’t do it.)

So we went to one of Missouri’s premiere commercially run show caves—these are gorgeous caves that are accessible to the public via tours. Sadly, many of these have been so touched and trampled that they don’t harbor much of an ecosystem anymore. However, since the damage has already been done decades ago, your presence there has a minimal effect on the underground environment. Meanwhile, it is good to learn about and appreciate these amazing chasms, so easy to put out of mind otherwise.

Bridal Cave

The cheery yellow signs with the retro logo are everywhere! If you live in Missouri, you learn to ignore them, but they act on you subliminally, anyway, and sooner or later, you really ought to succumb: Visit Bridal Cave.

The entrance to Bridal Cave—originally only a few feet across—used to be high on a rocky bluff, overlooking the Big Niangua, the Ozark stream that had carved the deep valley below it. That valley is no longer apparent, because the Lake of the Ozarks, created in the 1930s, flooded the chasm, and the water level rose to within easy reach of the cave mouth.

Though it had been explored much earlier, in the 1800s, Bridal Cave was opened as a “show cave”—a tourist attraction—in 1948. Tourist attractions opened up all over the Lake; and by then Missouri was already well-known as a place for caves.

Bridal Cave’s particular schtick was that its front chamber (the “Wedding Chapel”) became a popular spot for weddings. There’s a large, tall formation on one wall that sort of resembles an elaborate pipe organ, plus a central stalagmite that you could say resembles an altar, and I guess that was the inspiration. Well, also, there’s a crusty old local legend about an Indian wedding that took place there in the early 1800s. (True? Who knows.) Anyway, to date, they’ve had over 2,128 weddings in there. And they’re still doing them.

(No, they haven’t done any same-sex commitment ceremonies yet; I asked. Anyone want to go first? To have a wedding there, with their wedding package, they require a valid Missouri marriage license; but then they have also allowed other religious ceremonies on the site, so perhaps there’s some wiggle room for gay folks and their ministers, friends, and families to have commitment ceremonies, which, though not recognized by this state, are certainly not illegal by any means.) (But I digress.)

Though there’s something kitschy about it, they take the wedding thing seriously; the first thing you see when you enter the visitors center/gift shop is a large shelf bearing three-ring binders of 8 x 10 wedding photos. These photos used to be framed and displayed on the walls of the old visitor center. Today, only a select few are framed on the wall: The first wedding, of Mr. and Mrs. Basil Cole, took place June 1, 1949, for instance. Also pictured are the 700th, 1,000th, and 2,000th couples, as well as the “Couple from Farthest Distance,” Mr. and Mrs. Hui-Shong-Cha, from Taipai, who had themselves a June wedding in 1968.

Now, if it were just based on the “bridal” aspect of Bridal Cave, I honestly wouldn’t be very eager to go there. But here’s the kicker: It’s simply a lovely cave.

Indeed! Our tour guide verified this, saying that Bridal Cave is consistently ranked among the top 10 caves in the nation in terms of beauty, accessibility, and the diversity of formations. And that’s saying something, I think.

It’s not a huge cave—this isn’t one where you go back for miles and miles, or ride in jeeps, or access via long flights of stairs. But you do get a lot of bang for your buck. (Prices, times, directions are at the bottom of this post.)

The onyx formations are indeed breathtaking, in milky whites tinted with rusts and yellows; there is an incredibly long wall of uninterrupted drapery formations.

There are, of course, plenty of stalactites and stalagmites to ooh and ahh at, as well as many delicate soda straws hanging from the ceilings, many visible at close range. Plus many other features I’m not smart enough to identify.

There was one thing that really surprised me, and if you’re like me and are already familiar with this cave, this might surprise you, too: They opened up a whole new section!

This project brought access to new rooms behind the ones that had been accessible since the 1940s; indeed, they nearly doubled the cave tour distance!

The last time I toured Bridal Cave was in the mid-1980s, and this project took place in 1988–1990; I was living out-of-state and had no idea this had happened. They call it the “Thompson Expansion,” named for Steve Thompson, who was the general manager of the cave at that time. They had to remove 500 tons of rock in order to carve a tunnel through to the next chambers.

In addition to lengthening the tour overall, the expansion provides two new things: First, today’s visitors are able to see parts of the cave that aren’t so worn out by feet and fingers, and experience a deeper section of the cave. At about 200 feet below the surface, the humidity and the temperature seemed to increase dramatically in the back section.

Second, a whole new treasure is now visible at the farthest extent of the tour: “Mystery Lake.” Yeah, I love how they came up with such a marketing-savvy name, but there is a real mystery to it: They discovered an old ladder and some other stuff in the lake, and they have no idea how it got in there so far, or who brought it.

Visitors can view the lake, from an overlook with a railing. This mineral water is a breathtakingly pure turquoise blue, as you view it through a nearby rock fissure. What a nifty sight!

Well, if you’ve read this far (and yeah, I know this is long), here’s my final point: I especially encourage you to visit Bridal Cave—or any of our other fascinating show caves—during these winter doldrums.

Yeah, I know that we usually think about visiting caves in the summer—tourist season, plus the coolness of the cave is really attractive in Missouri’s heat. But consider this: The cave’s constant 60 degrees feels warm in comparison to the winter outdoors. The humidity feels great, too! And when you emerge from the cave, that overcast, gray daylight suddenly seems bright!

Here’s another reason, possibly the best one of all: Winter is the “off” season for show caves, so when you go there, you practically have the tour guide all to yourself. Our guide at Bridal Cave said that in summertime, they regularly reach their maximum group size of fifty people—to which I say: ugh!

But on our tour, on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in January, we had only six, and we all got to ask questions and wander around in each chamber, inspecting formations as the guide spoke. There wasn’t a rush to keep moving. It truly felt like a personalized tour, just for us.

So if you’re looking for something to do on these boring, cold, gray days instead of laundry, Fiddle-Faddle, and DVDs, I suggest you take a tour of one of our state's amazing show caves. I warmly recommend Bridal Cave.

Here’s the info:

Admission is fifteen dollars for adults, and seven for kids ages 5–13. Group rates are available.

They’re open every day except for major holidays and on days when they close school for snow days. If you have any doubts, you can always call ahead to ensure they’re open.

Hours are seasonal: winter, 9–4; spring and fall, 9–5; summer, 9–6.

This cave can be reached by car or by boat! Cars get there by taking Business Highway 5 for 2 miles north of Camdenton; boats can find Bridal Cave at the 10½ mile marker of the Big Niangua arm of the Lake of the Ozarks.

Contact info:

Phone: 573-346-2676

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thinking Place

You have a place like this, I’ll bet. It’s somewhere you go to be alone, to relax, to clear your mind, and to think. It has to be someplace different from your daily surroundings—different enough to jar you out of your stale mind-set.

It has to be someplace fairly convenient to get to.

For me, one requirement is a view. Over the years, my thinking places have been mountaintops, beaches, hillsides, high bluffs, even the top floor of a big library.

Since I moved to Jefferson City, my habit has been to linger at the Missouri River overlook on the north side of the State Capitol. That’s the place with the exuberant Fountain of the Centaurs, by Adolph A. Weinman, and the large bas relief sculpture The Signing of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty by Karl Bitter, which was created for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

These are remarkable artworks, but for me the real attraction at this site is to the north: The busy train tracks just below the bluff, skirting the river; and the Missouri River Bridge bearing traffic from highways 63 and 54, merged here to cross the Big Muddy.

On the bank across from here is a sand company, with its dredging barges often docked; vehicles crawl back and forth unloading, shifting the sand into mounds; they beep when they back up. Farther across the river is the local airport, too.

And of course, the biggest attraction is the river itself, constantly sliding from left to right, on its way down to St. Louis. It is hypnotic, calming, relentless.

So as I stand there I sometimes make a game for myself and count, like a child, the different forms of transportation: car, truck, boat, train, plane . . . and grow more serious as I think about how important this river and these conveyances have been to the development of this city—and all cities.

It is easy for me to walk up to the Capitol from where I live. The Capitol is also an easy detour before I come home from most anywhere. Day or night, even in the rain or snow; it helps settle my mood before I step through our door.

But most often, I go there to just stare at the river and get a grip on my thoughts, time . . . my life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gene Boucher

Tonight I want to introduce to you someone from Jefferson City, a local who made it big in the big city--New York City, to be exact--in the world of opera.

He was a classmate of my mom's. His rise to prominence as a baritone is one indication of the strong community of singers Jefferson City has maintained over the decades.

Here's a link to a Wikipedia page listing all the performers at the Metropolitan Opera who appeared in at least 250 performances. Scroll down to "Gene Boucher," and you will see that he was in 1,094 performances during his career at the Met, which lasted from June 25, 1965, to March 17, 1984.

And here's a link to his New York Times obituary; he died in 1994. His mother survived him; he never married and had no children (to my knowledge). (These facts, combined with the stereotypes that often accompany his profession, tempt me to read between the lines somewhat.)

I should mention that around Jeff City, his surname was always pronounced "BOW-tcher." Everyone called him that, including, I understand, even him. But in New York City, where this immensely gifted man truly spread his wings, it became "Boo-SHAY."

I don't suppose there are many around here anymore who remember him. I think that once he left podunk, he rarely returned (though I think I recall my mom saying he came back for a high school class reunion or two). But he's someone worth remembering, a man worth claiming, and a life worth celebrating, even if he left no direct descendants to hang his picture on their walls.

After some Internet sleuthing, I found the following YouTube video, a scene from the opera La Fanciulla del West ("The Girl of the Golden West") by Giacomo Puccini (1910). This recording is from a Metropolitan Opera performance of January 8, 1966. (Recall that Boucher's career with the Met began in 1965, so he was probably still a newbie at this point.)

You can hear Gene Boucher's expressive and powerful voice in this early scene, where a group of miners in a California saloon are moaning about their homesickness; they've been away from their mothers and families for oh, so long; will they ever make it home again? ("And my dog, after so long--will my dog recognize me?")

The character of miner Jim Larkens is played by Gene Boucher. His solo begins at approximately 4:00. Among the sorrowful miners, Larkens in particular is having an emotional breakdown; weeping and sobbing, he cries out that he has to go home. Understanding his plight all too well, the empathetic miners take up a collection to help send him back home.

To Mr. Gene Boucher, wherever you are . . . welcome home.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Slippery Slope

By today the snow is almost all gone, except in shady spots and places where it was heaped into piles; instead, daylight brought a fog that conceals the world beyond our immediate block or two. The state capitol dome, with its blinking red light at the top, wasn’t there in the bathroom window this morning—just the bare trees of our backyard.

The topic today, once again, is the house and its history. I can’t help it that this is a recurring topic, because I’m so often reminded of how rare it is to live in a place where stories abound. Some of them are a hundred years old. All of them are true, nuanced, and richly detailed, because they come from my own family.

Anyone else living here would witness things in this neighborhood and go, “Well, that was remarkable.” And that would be it. But I often observe details around here that resonate with family history. The family stories knock around in my head like a clapper on a wind chimes, dinging and striking chords of awareness, of recognition.

When this happens, the resonance often continues until I either write about it or talk about it—or until something else forces my attention elsewhere.

So here’s an example. Remember that snow we got on January 6? It was a pretty decent snowfall for Central Missouri, and (as such snows usually are) it was lovely and magical, even as it challenged motorists. They called off school the next two days, if that’s any indication of how serious the snowfall was.

Even though I felt horrible with my cold, I ventured out briefly with my little camera to take pictures of the snow, including the photograph I posted of the star in our top dormer window. Sue stayed inside, but like me she was excited to see the snow and started taking pictures out the windows with her much better camera.

While I was out, and Sue was in, a car struggled up Broadway hill. We both saw it; when I came indoors, it was a topic of conversation. Maybe they had old tires; maybe they didn’t know how to drive in snow—or maybe Broadway hill was just darned near impossible that night.

But there were other cars, however, successfully driving up and down the hill, so maybe this poor cuss simply had bald tires.

Anyway, our block of Broadway has been notoriously difficult in bad weather for decades. And this is where the layers of history and stories begin to bleed into my present consciousness.

Both sides of my family have lived in this neighborhood since before 1900, since before Broadway was graded and paved (which actually made the hill less steep). We have a family picture that was taken looking north on Broadway, toward the capitol (the old capitol, which burned in 1911), before the street was paved, and the mud and ruts look simply treacherous. I try to imagine horses and wagons struggling up the hill when it was wet and muddy . . .

But when I witnessed this car fishtailing and slithering up the hill, leaving S patterns all the way up, I thought immediately about a story my dad passed along, about how his grandpa, and later his father, used to set out a shovel and a bucket full of cinders (from the coal furnace) on the curb in bad weather. It was a simple act of kindness for the strangers whose cars wouldn’t otherwise make it up the hill. (“Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man . . .”)

My dad says he never saw anyone use the cinders, but that the cinders did disappear, so people must have used them. Apparently my dad and his brothers entertained themselves on winter days by looking out the windows of the second floor, watching cars trying to ascend the hill, spinning their tires, backsliding till they hit the curb, then bumping and bouncing against it, still spinning.

My father also says that when the hill was especially slick with snow and ice, the city would rope off Broadway at the intersection of Elm Street, right by our house. I can see why—on this block, the hill is steep enough that ascent with most tires of the 1940s would be simply impossible, and descending it would quickly become a dangerous uncontrolled slide.

Of course, once the street was blocked off—and face it, when the snow was that bad, most drivers (especially in the past, when they were more sensible than today) would simply stay off the roads—it gave my dad and his brothers and friends the glorious opportunity for no-holds-barred street sledding.

Before the Highway 50/63 expressway was created and intersected Broadway, the boys could sled down Broadway hill clear across Miller and even back up to McCarty, where they finally had to stop because McCarty was Highway 50 in those days.

It’s a stretch for me to picture this; but when it’s snowing hard enough to silence the world and even the expressway becomes barren, everyday reality recedes and ghosts of the past can manifest more clearly.

I think that anyone else witnessing that car spinning its wheels, struggling up the snowy hill, would have felt compassion for the driver, might have chuckled at his tenacity (or foolhardiness), or might have watched with concern, being ready to rush over to help push—all of which occurred to me.

But I am especially fortunate to have this rare, personalized situation, right here; these detailed images that ring in my head of muddy ruts and horse-drawn wagons, the quiet old bucket of cinders, and the red-faced boys, hooting on their sleds.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Mystery Kitchen Gadget

We found something remarkable in the kitchen “junk drawer”; it’s something that was left over from Grandma’s long tenure in this house.

I found it when I was fishing around for our melon ballers (yes, we have two—ours, newer, duller, with a plastic handle, and one from Grandma, that’s pleasantly sharp and has a real wooden handle).

So I discovered this thing and thought: What the hell is this for?

It’s like a deeply serrated steak knife whose blade has been bent into the shape of a hook.

It made me think of those circular metal curry combs that horse people use.

I suspected it would be great for scraping the seeds and strings from the inside of a pumpkin . . . but I doubted that was its intended use. Not when doing that job is so fun with your bare hands.

Hmmm. Clues: There were German words stamped on the blade. “Rostfrei,” it said on one side—and that means “stainless” (literally, “rust free”). Well, duh—it was in this drawer for decades, no doubt, and didn’t have any rust on it, so there you go.

The other side had more words stamped into the metal: “VOR GEBRAUCH ZAHNUNG IN HEISSES WASSER EINTAUCHEN.” Which Babelfish semi-translates into “dive before use teething into hot water.” . . . Now that I know what it is (thanks to the Internet), I can tell you what this really means: “Dip the blade into hot water before use.”

That’s your biggest clue right there! The same Google search that taught me the German phrase is what provided me the answer. It was on a “What is it?” forum sponsored by eBay.

Are you ready?

It’s a butter curler.

Yep, a genuinely overly specific product. (And here you thought your iced-tea maker, or that crazy “banana hanger,” was the supreme one-trick pony of the kitchen!)

Here’s how it works: You warm the blade in the hot water, then drag it across the top of a stick of butter. The butter can’t be too cold, or the curls will crack. And of course, the butter can’t be too warm, either, for obvious reasons.

As they are formed, the butter curls are dropped carefully into a bowl of ice water so that they keep their shape, along with the pretty striations caused by the blade’s teeth.

Pretty neat, huh? . . . And just pretty.

This gadget was invented before people learned that butter is pure evil!

Ha, ha, ha.

Now I might have to have another party!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Westphalia Inn

We’d driven past here numerous times before, but each time, either they weren’t open, or we weren’t hungry. The planets finally lined up on Saturday, November 7, the same day we’d hiked at Painted Rock nearby. (Sorry for the delay in posting; the holidays just couldn’t be put off.)

The Westphalia Inn: I can recommend it, and I can guarantee you we’ll be back. When you walk in the door and enter the front lobby, with its antiques and stone fireplace, you’ll automatically get a comfy feeling.

This building is a historic hotel, in a historic German-heritage town that is pretty to drive to and visit. Westphalia, Missouri, is one of my shining examples of German immigrant communities transplanted to Missouri soil. It’s a picturesque small town of relatively modest brick homes surrounding a lovely stone church perched on a hill; there is a strong “Old World” feel to the place.

In addition to the “restaurant” aspect of the business, the Westphalia Inn also sells wines from Westphalia Vineyards, one of a number of small wineries generally along the Missouri, extending downstream to St. Louis. (Support local products! AgriMissouri! Hooray!)

The main floor of the Westphalia Inn constitutes the dining area—separate rooms, actually, containing four or five tables each, allowing them the flexibility of hosting small and larger groups with private dining areas. (I’ll get to the food report in a minute.)

On the second floor is the Norton Room, which is cozy and casual, wood-paneled, with a bar and plenty of tables for your group, or where you can just hang out. Up there you can order a decent selection of appetizers, enough to have a light meal: fresh-baked pizzas, hot dips (such as “Cajun crab” and “artichoke and sundried tomato”), hot chicken wings, chicken tacos, and “cheesy French onion focaccia.” All are $6.50.

Desserts are available, too: cinnamon crunch pizza with white chocolate drizzle; fruit cream puff kabobs with chocolate drizzle; campfire s’mores fondue . . . any of that sounding good? They also have nightly specials.

As I walked around the Norton Room (named after Missouri’s premier aged-red-wine grape variety), I kept thinking how fun it might be to hang out here on some of these bitter cold nights, having a light dinner of appetizers and sipping a hot beverage (since I don’t drink brandy anymore). Another plus: When we were there, the clientele all seemed pretty grown-up and decent—not seedy; not prone to college-age foolishness.

Also on the second floor are a few rooms displaying antiques for sale—with quite reasonable prices, I thought. You might want to check out what they have.

Back downstairs in the restaurant proper: All the appetizers and desserts already mentioned are available here as well, but the main attraction is the family-style or by-the-plate dinners: the traditional country ham, pan-fried chicken, or German pot roast dinners (or some combination of these). These dinners all come with the usual accompaniments of mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, coleslaw, and home-baked bread (with margarine and jelly). The meals range from about eleven to fourteen dollars a plate, or per adult, depending on if you want plated or family-style dinners. (Note that the children’s “family-style” prices start at $8.50.)

In the restaurant area, you have an extended selection of desserts to choose from—chocolate cake, cheesecake, ice cream, cobblers.

Is it sounding good yet? Let’s talk about the ambience. When we were there, early in the evening, it was quiet and laid-back. The waiter was laid-back and unhurried, but she was nevertheless very attentive. With the small rooms, the atmosphere was cozy. (Though if the place were packed, I suspect it might get kind of loud.)

While we were there, a middle-aged couple was seated near us, along with their quite-elderly mother. The mother needed some special accommodations due to her disabilities, requiring extra time to be helped to the table, and the waiter paid close (but not cloying) attention to making sure everyone was situated comfortably and that their special requests were respected. There was not a bit of awkwardness on her part, and she didn’t seem rushed at all. Kudos to her for that. To me, this kind of thing is huge.

But here’s the kicker. You see, unlike the rest of civilized, sophisticated, metropolitan America, here—in and around Jeff City—meals of fried chicken and country ham are still practically ubiquitous, and I’ve had a lot of them since I’ve moved back to the state. These foods are available at all manner of diners and caf├ęs, as well as church suppers, in this area.

But I swear, the food at Westphalia Inn actually tasted like my own Grandma Renner’s cooking. Not “similar to,” but just like. It almost blew my hair back. It was like traveling back in time to “dinner at Grandma’s house,” the white bread and jelly, the mashed potatoes and gravy, the chicken, the ham, the green beans . . . even the cole slaw tasted like hers. I almost wanted to ask for a glass of milk, to make my childhood memory complete.

Okay, I know that your grandma’s cooking might have been very different from my grandma’s cooking, but surely you can see my point, and understand why this old-fashioned food tastes to me like none other in the whole world, and how, with Grandma gone, it’s like a precious disappearing resource—and you can see why I’ll be back.

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