Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Southwestern Corn Pudding

This recipe is based on one that appeared in Gourmet magazine in July 2007, “Corn Pudding with Basil.” The original recipe is simply a glorious midsummer celebration of garden-fresh sweet corn and basil straight from the herb garden.

Unfortunately, this time of year it’s impossible (or impossibly expensive) to get these two key ingredients, but I have to admit that my version turned out pretty well.

That’s one thing I love about Gourmet’s recipes: they always turn out well, even if you make all kinds of substitutions. I used frozen corn instead of fresh, which didn’t taste as good and wasn’t nearly as tender as fresh—but it was okay. And with no fresh basil around, I substituted a can of green chilis and some diced red bell pepper—which transformed it into a Southwestern kind of dish instead of a Mediterranean one.

Here’s a link to the original recipe at, including a photograph. I highly recommend the original recipe, using all fresh ingredients. (Remember, it was published in the July issue, which was traditionally all about fresh summertime produce!)

It’s a nice creamy side dish, rather mild, almost like a corn quiche, depending on how much corn you leave whole. It’s not very sweet, though the corn you use makes a big difference in that category. And you can always alter the amount of sugar, too.

This would go well with fish tacos, I think. Or grilled shrimp. Or grilled anything. It’s also something you can prep well ahead of time, then stick in the oven without much ado. You can serve it hot or cool.

Southwestern Corn Pudding

(Adapted from “Corn Pudding with Basil,” Gourmet, July 2007, p. 8.)

4 c. corn (can be frozen, but fresh-cut from ca. 6 ears is better)
1 can (4.5 oz.) of diced green chilis (Ortega, OE Paso, Hatch, etc.)
1/4 c. diced red bell pepper
red chili powder to taste
3 T. flour
1 T. sugar
1 c. milk
1 c. heavy cream
4 large eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease/spray/butter a large shallow baking dish, 2.5 or 3 quarts.

Rumble 2 c. of the corn (or more, if you want) in a food processor until coarsely chopped. In a large bowl, combine it the with rest of the corn, entire can of chilis (including the liquid), and red bell pepper. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl and then add to the vegetables; stir well to combine.

Pour into the prepared baking dish and bake in center of oven until center is just set, from 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let it stand for about 15 minutes before serving.

Serves 8–10 as a side dish.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pissing in the Snow

Don’t read this post if you’re easily offended.

I recently borrowed a copy of Vance Randolph’s Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales from a local public library. Vance Randolph, you should know right away, is considered the number-one collector of Ozark folktales for all time. He lived from 1892 to 1980, and spent his last sixty years in the Ozarks among the people he respected and loved.

I have to admit, it’s quite amazing that this book was published even as early as the 1970s, because it’s really pretty rude. It’s even more surprising that it became a national bestseller (although you could argue that the 1970s were less prudish than today). It’s a collection of bawdy humor—101 rude, puerile, silly, shocking stories told to Randolph by Ozarkians in the first half of the 1900s. Many of the stories, their tellers explained, had originally been heard in the late 1800s. This is a book to totally keep away from the censor-happy people: The tales are not only obscene, but also provide strong evidence for the fact that rude jokes are a perennial part, and a hilarious part, of every culture.

Here is a representative story from the collection, copied outright. It is actually one of the cleaner stories, as it doesn’t involve adultery, drunkenness, VD, hillbilly incest, or critters.


5. Why God Made Stickers

Told by Mrs. Ethel Barnes, Hot Springs, Ark., March, 1938. She had it from relatives who lived near Hot Springs in the early 1890’s

One time there was a drummer wanted some gravels for his goose, but he couldn’t find nothing only a girl named Lizzie that worked in the tavern. The folks told him Lizzie wasn’t much good, because she ain’t got no spring in her tail, and nobody likes a woman that just lays there like a turd in a dead eddy. But poor nooky is better than none, and travelers has to make the best of it. Soon as the supper dishes was done, him and her walked out to the pasture back of the corncrib.

When they laid down on the ground Lizzie acted kind of sleepy, but soon as the drummer climbed aboard she just went plumb crazy. You never seen such wiggling and kicking and flouncing around in your life. She give several loud yells too, but the fellow stayed right in there till his gun went off, and then he let her up. “My God, Lizzie, you’re wonderful!” says he. The girl didn’t pay him no mind, but just stood there with both hands behind her. Come to find out, Lizzie had stuck her ass down in a bunch of cockleburs. That’s what made her so brisk and lively.

Lizzie spent most of the night a-grumbling, and putting witch-hazel on her bottom. But the drummer was feeling fine, and he says, “I never could understand why God made weeds with stickers on ’em, but I see it now.” There was a story went round how he always carried prickles in his buggy after that, and the folks claimed you could trail him clear across the country. Whenever they come to a town where the girls have all got scratches on their ass, the boys knowed that drummer has been there with his goddam cockleburs.

Vance Randolph, Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1976; reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 11–12.


Now I’ve got your attention, right? Here’s more information. The introduction to the volume, contributed by folklorist Rayna Green, describes the decades-long struggle to find a publisher for these “unprintable” stories. Folklorists, of course, understood the cultural importance of raunchy, bawdy humor, but publishing companies remained timid. These stories were collected alongside the rest of the folktales that Randolph recorded over forty years of fieldwork in the Ozarks. Even among scholarly publishers of folklore studies, sexually explicit material was eschewed; such bawdy material, for example was rejected, apparently, by the scholarly publisher of Randolph’s monumental four-volume Ozark Folksongs.

The manuscript for Pissing in the Snow was ready for publication in 1954, but no publishers were found. Randolph pretty much gave up and deposited the material at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University as well as in the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folksong. Thus it was available mainly to researchers, and folklorists recognized Randolph’s materials as the best collection of bawdy stories from American folklore.

Randolph himself had one hesitation about printing the unprintable stories as a separate volume: Doing so might make it seem that Ozarkers had an inordinate fondness for puerile and obscene humor. He was careful to point out, however, “I do not believe that the bawdy ballads are more common in the Ozarks than elsewhere, or that the hillfolk as a class are especially fond of them.”

In his folksong collections, Randolph commented (I bet he added this note after his publisher had made him excise the “dirty” material): “Obscene elements occupy a prominent place in American folklore, and should be accorded proportional representation in the literature. Everybody knows that bawdy songs persist in popular tradition. If a collection of folksongs contains no obscenity, it cannot fully reflect the taste and preference of the people.” (Information from Rayna Green, introduction to Pissing in the Snow and other Ozark Folktales, ix–xxix.)

I think it is funny that of all Randolph’s folklore publications, this book, which so many publishers had rejected, turned out to be his most popular book. In fact, apparently it was a national best-seller (which goes to show you that bawdy humor still has a strong appeal).

Rayna Green, who tells the story of the book’s publication, is today the Curator and Director of the American Indian Program at the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, of the Smithsonian Institution. She has led a distinguished career focusing mainly on American Indian culture and has numerous publications to her credit. As a young academic in the early 1970s, she worked at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she met Randolph and became committed to getting this volume of Randolph’s works finally into print.

No, I wouldn’t share these stories in Pissing in the Snow with children, for they are certainly R- or X-rated. But I’m glad that Randolph collected the tales, with the names of their tellers, the date of the story, where they got it from, and even notes on folkloric antecedents, which often go back to Medieval Europe. (Remember the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales?) For one thing, it is helpful to remember that people our grandparents’ age and older “tee-heed” at the kind of rude humor we persistently wish to pretend is a vice only of newer, younger generations.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Irresistible Red Cabbage Slaw

I compleeeeetly stole this idea from the Happy Fishermanlast month they had a slaw like this among the various fascinating concoctions in their “salad boat,” and it wasn’t too hard to figure out how they made it. They are flippin’ geniuses!

The first reason we like it: Red cabbage is always special, always pretty. I don’t know why it’s so rare at restaurants.

This “recipe” is amazingly simple, and though it might not be the first food combination that comes to mind, I suggest you try this before you start snickering at it.

Adjust amounts accordingly.

Red Cabbage Slaw à la Happy Fisherman

1/2 head of red cabbage, shredded (approx. amount)
2 strips of bacon, cut into small pieces then cooked until done, but not crispy (try partially steaming it)
coleslaw salad dressing to your own tastes

Really—just combine it all. Easy-peasy. You’d think “bacony coleslaw” would be kind of nasty, but no. The bacon makes a huge difference, and it’s a very good one. Smoky. Sinfully delicious.

I’m bringin’ this to my next potluck.

Friday, March 26, 2010


A paradox, the goddess of the underworld and goddess of spring growth.


For some years, we had been on the lookout for a lawn sculpture that would really, you know, stand out. Something relatively large, and . . . interesting.

We finally found it when we were driving along Highway 50 last fall, at a concrete lawn ornament place in the town of Rosebud, which is about halfway between Jeff City and the edge of the St. Louis metro area. That’s a really pretty drive in the fall, by the way.

You all, this lawn ornament place is pretty darn good. It’s on the east part of the town, clearly visible, right on the highway. If you’ve slowed down for little Rosebud (as you damn well should, ’cause even if it’s tiny, it is a real town, so respect their speed limit), you really can’t miss it.

They have a huge selection. They have everything there: Patriotic, tacky, syrupy, flat-out bizarre, and yeah, some stuff that is actually pretty dang cool. And the prices are incredibly reasonable.

There is a huge concrete gorilla there. You could buy it, and then have your very own “800-pound gorilla.” Quite literally. (Real gorillas, by the way, only get to be about 450 pounds, and that’s the big silverback males. Oops, I’m digressing again.)

So we bought a voluptuous goddess there. Of course, we didn’t have the truck, only my little Civic, but we got her loaded into the back seat, which she completely covered.

The lady who owns the place was tremendously helpful in this heavy work—we didn’t damage my car at all, though this four-foot-high chunk of concrete easily weighs more than two hundred pounds. (I guess three hundred, actually. I absolutely cannot lift it by myself.)

So we’ve been “working on her” in the basement, off and on this winter, using concrete patch to fill in little gaps where bubbles had formed, and using the Dremel to smooth the places where the halves of the mold fit together and there’s a little edge of extra concrete to get rid of.

Our plan is to give her a nice white or whitish paint job that will look something like marble, and set her out in the backyard where only we can enjoy her voluptuousness. She is nude. We don’t want the moral conservatives, puerile neighborhood boys, or any other uncool riffraff messing with our lovely goddess!

I know that if she is a goddess, she is probably supposed to be Aphrodite or Venus—or maybe she’s just a “bather”—but we like to think of her as Persephone, the maiden goddess of springtime.

So in this pleasant vale we stand again,
The field of Enna, now once more ablaze
With flowers that brighten as thy footstep falls.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

For, see, thy foot has touch’d it; all the space
Of blank earth-baldness clothes itself afresh,
And breaks into the crocus-purple hour
That saw thee vanish.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, from “Demeter and Persephone”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Inconstant Spring

Inconstant everything, it seems. Yesterday was the first day of spring, and after a whole week of decent, warm, sunny weather, winter gave us a parting bite.

Fortunately, here in Jeff City we missed having any accumulation of snow, although towns not too far away got a couple of inches. No, we only got dreary, cold rain, and in midafternoon it changed to sleet—sloppy, wet ice pellets thrashing down from above. The ground was too warm for it to collect.

As the sleet fell, we were driving around town getting some items at Lowe’s and K-mart. Cat litter, some batteries, more contact lens cleaner, and things even more boring than that, plus a little flat of pansies for the front planters. (Remember, tomorrow is Edna Day!)

The sleet collected in the corners of the windshield, making fogged-up patches on the inside. With it coming down like that, it turned our routine shopping into more of a chore. Especially the parts where we hurried to stuff our new acquisitions into the car.

I am however grateful for the brief ferocity of the sleet, which continued during the only time I was outside, because I didn’t want to be tempted to look too closely at my recent accomplishment: the cleaned-out flower bed in the terrace over our retaining wall.

That was one of my big yardwork achievement this week. I might have put it off a few days longer, but news from our accountant late Monday morning made me so agitated I couldn’t sit staring at a computer anymore, so in three hours that afternoon I cleared out the dried-up biomass from this entire garden. And that is a chore.

But when I was done, I felt very satisfied. The mental agitation had served me well, because the whole thing had gotten done in record time. And the difference in the garden is astonishing, visually. I didn’t take any “before” pictures, but last summer this whole area had been covered with grasses and coneflowers, peonies, irises, columbines, daylilies, and much more.

And it’s always a race in February and early March to get this bed cleared out before the daffodils, bloodroots, and others get too high and fragile. So this year, I did pretty good.

It is nice to see all the shoots coming up, the red peony buds, the little green triangles of new iris leaves, the little tufts of star-of-Bethlehem, and the paradoxically pinkish-green new growth of the columbines.

And of course with it opened up again, it is easy to see the garter snakes who live in this area. As with other parts of our yard, they love to sunbathe and hunt for bugs on this terrace. I think at least a few of them overwintered in burrows under the rocks in this bed. I’ve been enjoying them as they emerge from hibernation.

All week now, since I cleared out the bed, I’ve been attracted to it. Whenever I go outside for something, even just getting in and out of the car, I walk over to the wall and peer around, enjoying the view of new growth, and looking for those cute snakes. And I usually see one or two.

There’s been one, in particular, that’s remarkable. It’s a smaller garter snake, and the first time I saw him (it could be a “her”; I don’t know), he was in a loose curl under a rock ledge. He was slow. I poked him gently and he suddenly writhed, opened his pink mouth wide, and waved his gaping head all around, like a blind snake vowing to strike everywhere at once.

Maybe he was cold, or maybe in need of shedding. I don’t know. But I let him be. I’ve seen him a few times since then. The garter snakes are so tame in early spring, when they’re getting used to the new year, at the borderline of “just warm enough to be active,” and it seems like they haven’t had their coffee yet. I took some pictures of the little guy.

But Friday afternoon, I discovered him in the street. Unmarked, apparently uninjured, but dead. It’s a mystery. Did a snake-phobic, ignorant, hateful passerby spy him and fling him hard onto the pavement? Or did he get himself out into the street, then get injured just bad enough to do him in? Did a neighbor cat get him?

I was saddened, whatever happened. I picked him up and positioned him back next to the rocks that were his home and refuge. I am hoping that, well, an opossum or some other critter will happen by in the night and decide that a freshly deceased garter snake is good eatin’.

But I didn’t look out there today, because it would have made me sadder if I’d seen him exposed there by the rock, so still, even for a snake, a wet black ribbon, staring at the rainclouds, collecting sleet in the folds of his body.

How quickly everything can change, from hibernation to life to death, and from winter to spring to winter . . . to soon it will be spring again.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Munichburg Corner

Who the heck was “Hans Doppelbock Schmutznickel”??

Okay, he’s just a joke—I only show you this “conceptualization” to get your attention. Now that I’ve got it, and you’ve maybe chuckled a little, I have something important to tell you. And timely.

(No offense to anyone who actually might be a “Schmutznickel.” I thought I was just making it up . . .)

Here’s what’s going on: Our neighborhood organization is the Old Munichburg Association. Please follow the Web link for more information on them. In a nutshell, “Old Munichburg,” also called the “South Side,” is Jefferson City’s historic “Germantown” neighborhood.

The OMA is currently doing a fundraising campaign to pay for an official Old Munichburg welcome sign, with stonework, lighting, and landscaping, right on the corner of Jefferson and Dunklin, at the very heart of this historic neighborhood’s business district.

This intersection is where the ECCO Lounge and all its predecessors have been since the 1860s, where the old Capitol/Moerschel Brewery was, where the South Side Drug Store and Cole Co. Bank used to be, as well as the Western Steam Bottling Works, the Dunklin Theater, Tanner Bros. Machine Shop and Garage, and Tanner Funeral Home.

It’s within sight of where Milo Walz had his furniture store and offered folks credit during the Depression, where Urban Schell sold ice cream and sodas out of a little hut, and where “Chicken Schmidt” sold shoes.

This “Munichburg Corner” will be on the same city block as Busch’s Florist, Coleman Appliance, and Central Dairy.

Here’s the best part: The OMA was able to coordinate its efforts with the amazing renovation begin done on that whole line of buildings on the south side of the 100 block of East Dunklin. The architecture, ironwork, sidewalk, and other design will be in keeping with the materials and styles being implemented across the street. What a great opportunity!

Okay. If you’re familiar with Jeff City and Old Munichburg, you know that this is basically an inner-city neighborhood that has declined in the past decades. The OMA, comprising business owners, local residents, and others with an interest in this district, has been doing tremendous work in improving the situation.

This is an organization that gets things done. Here’s a list of accomplishments since they organized in 2000:

--20 properties, including about 12 in a contiguous district, have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. (With more to come, I understand.) This was a huge undertaking, and a major accomplishment.

--establishing a Neighborhood Watch program—if you lived here, you’d know how much this has helped cut down crime as well as create more of a “community” feeling among neighbors.

--spearheading the effort for Jefferson City to forge its partner-city relationship with Muenchberg, Bavaria (where lots of “Munichburg,” Jeff City immigrants hailed from).

--creating and putting up “Historic Old Munichburg” banners to identify our area (I’ll bet you have no idea how expensive those cost, even with the design work donated by a member).

--promoting the district’s businesses with brochures, as well as through overall “branding” of the district via events, banners, and so on.

--working with the city to improve curbs and sidewalks, establishing a Community Improvement District with voluntary extra taxes so we can have such repairs done uniformly, well, and soon.

--continuing to lobby the city for policies that encourage landlords and others to maintain and renovate their properties, to get rid of derelict vehicles, and empowering landlords to evict tenants who don’t pay or engage in criminal activities.

--providing and maintaining several flower planters at conspicuous locations at intersections, to beautify the area.

--purchasing the decorative, historic-looking covers for street sign posts in our district (I admit I was skeptical of the usefulness of this project, but they really do look great and they help make the area look lots better).

--establishing and continuing an oral history project of older folks who have connections to the neighborhood.

--cosponsoring a local Habitat for Humanity house, which in this case involves renovating a quaint older home instead of razing and putting up a blah new one.

--partnering with Central United Church of Christ in reestablishing the tradition of Kristkendelfest Christmas celebration.

--and finally, sponsoring “Jefferson City’s Oktoberfest.”

This last began as, and remains, the OMA’s chief fundraiser. It started out as a relatively small event with traditional German entertainment, a handful of crafts booths, and bratwurst meals served out of a trailer. And, of course, the weiner dog races.

It’s grown into a festival that takes up about two city blocks, with dozens of vendor booths, two different stages, a beer garden, a nice big kids’ zone, full meals served out of the Central UCC gymnasium (Central Church is very generous to let the OMA use its property—they help with the food service and provide baked goodies, too) . . . and an old car show, the weiner dog races, which grow every year, and one year, even a small circus.

The Oktoberfest is now officially called “Jefferson City’s Oktoberfest,” because there’s no question that this is a citywide festival, and the entire city benefits from it, not just our neighborhood. And no, it’s not easy to host a festival like this, which has grown each year.

So here’s where we’re going: The OMA has been diligently saving up its profits from ten years of festivals for something that will make a real impact. At one time, there were plans for a pocket park that would be visible from the Expressway, but that, I think, has become unfeasible, for several reasons.

Meanwhile, with Messrs. Kolb and Rollins doing such great work on the 100 block of East Dunklin, and willing to share their design staff with us, we have a tremendous opportunity here with the “Munichburg Corner.”

They’re building it out of stone that was salvaged from the destruction of the historic old Nilges Grocery store a few blocks south on Jefferson. The stone wall will be angled and have iron decoration that reflects the ironwork you see throughout the district and that being used across the street.

It will have a big metal “Old Munichburg” sign with raised lettering, and it will be lighted. The area around it will be landscaped.

If you think this isn’t expensive, think again. And this is one of the big-ticket projects the OMA has been wanting to do for a long time—you see, this old neighborhood doesn’t have any “green spaces”; when these houses were built, the “boonies” were right over the next hill!

So here is why I’m asking you to pay attention: To help pay for this project, and allow the OMA to do so much more—like replace its now-ten-year-old banners—we’re asking you to buy a paver or brick.

They cost $100 or $200, depending on size, and you can get them engraved with the names of people or places you want to memorialize. (Like good ol’ “Hans Doppelbock Schmutznickel” above!)

These bricks and pavers will be there at the corner, in the walkway in front of the sign.

Think about it. Families, friends, teachers, good folks who didn’t leave any kids to remember them . . . local businesses you recall (I wonder if anyone’s bought a brick remembering Hott & Asel Butcher Shop? or the old Broadway School? or what about the Deeg family? or the Lohmans?) . . . or any other persons, places, or things that should be memorialized.

Or, you can put your own name on them, as a donor, or the name of your business! There’s even an option for putting a logo on a brick (see the link below for more information on that).

You need to act quickly, though! Construction of the sign and walkway will begin very shortly and will be finished by May 1—of this year! In order to get your bricks or pavers included as part of the original construction, you need to get your order in by April 1!

Information is available at the Web site of the Old Munichburg Association, or you can call Cathy Zumwalt at (573) 635-6524.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Harbinger of Spring

My parents have a nice little patch of harbinger of spring in their backyard, and it’s blooming now, so I took some pictures of it to show you how pretty these tiny little flowers are.

The scientific name is Erigenia bulbosa, and it’s also called “pepper and salt” for the way the comparatively large red (or darker) anthers contrast with the tiny white petals.

Harbinger of spring is usually found in the southern and eastern halves of the state. Hunt for it in forested bottomlands, moist upland forests, in ravines and valleys, along streams and rivers, and other moist, rich, foresty places.

Not only is this one of the tiniest wildflowers, as I mentioned before, but also, it’s probably the earliest-blooming wildflower in the state. And that’s why we get so durned excited when we see these teensy flowers: Sing praises! Spring is on its way!

Because I try to give you more than just a happy “twirling of buttercups,” I’d like to take this opportunity to pass along some botanical information to you, in case you’re not lucky enough to have learned this cool information yet.

Harbinger of spring is a member of the Apiaceae (ay-pee-ay-see-ee), also called the carrot family. You might be amazed at how many carrot family plants you’re familiar with.

Once you learn some of the characteristics of this group, you’ll be able to recognize other carrot family plants right away. Think about carrot and dill plants as you read this list.

—Stems are usually stout, often with hollow nodes.

—Leaves are alternate, usually sessile and sheathing the stem, with blades that are usually very pinnately divided (that means feathery or fernlike). By the way, black swallowtails lay their eggs on these leaves, and you can commonly find their spiffy green-black-and-yellow caterpillars quietly munching their way to adulthood on them.

—Flowers are usually in simple or compound umbels (umbel? Well, think of it like an umbrella turned inside out from the wind—a bunch of little flower stems arise from the same location at the tip of a larger stem) (oh, and “compound umbel” means the little stems then give rise to their own little umbels).

By the way, this “umbel” flower arrangement (“inflorescence type”) used to provide the name of the whole family back when it was called the Umbelliferae. In a similar fashion, the aster family used to be called the Compositae because of the “composite” inflorescences typical of asters, sunflowers, etc. But now all the family names have been standardized to be based on a representative genus within the family instead of the inflorescence type. But I digress . . .

—The flowers themselves are radially symmetrical and usually have 5 petals, which are usually white or yellow. The sepals and stamens come in fives, too. There’s only one pistil, but it has two styles, and these have swollen bases (cool, huh? these special styles are called stylopodia). (I swear, half of botany is learning ten thousand special terms for plant anatomy.) Many insects are attracted to these crowded umbels of little flowers, and this endears carrot family plants to gardeners who want pollinators to come around.

—The seeds form in pairs. (Remember the paired styles? Here’s where they lead to.) For examples of what the seeds look like, just visit your spice rack: caraway, anise, dill, fennel, cumin, and coriander.

The Apiaceae have a lot more economically important members, too, including celery, parsley, chervil, carrot, parsnip, and cilantro. Where would cooks be without this family?

Around Missouri, you will also probably know Queen Anne’s lace, which is found on just about every country roadside, plus rattlesnake master (a memorable tallgrass prairie species that looks kind of like an agave), pennywort, lovage, and sweet cicely.

There are some “bad boys” in the family: poison hemlock and water hemlock. Other plants in the family contain toxins, as well, so make absolutely certain your identification is correct before you go nibbling on plants from the wild.

. . . But it would be hard to misidentify little harbinger of spring.

I’ve often thought that the best thing botany classes taught me was how to recognize plant families. Once you can begin to distinguish roses from mustards from carrots from mallows, and sedges from grasses from rushes, and all the other major families, the whole world around you changes. . . . It’s comparable to the first day in a new job, when you’re surrounded by complete strangers you care nothing about, versus the day, some years hence, when you realize you know everyone’s story: Suddenly you’re surrounded not by strangers, but by companions.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Oat Bran Muffins: “Four Happiness”

You all know I’m a believer in the power of oat bran, right? I’ve shared variations of the recipe with you before.

Today’s Sue’s birthday, and she said she wanted a surprise blend in her oat bran muffins this morning, so of course I complied!

It’s sort of a “kitchen sink” thing, but these muffins taste really good. The “four happinesses” are carob chips, coarsely chopped candied cherries (left over from the Christmas baking!), shredded coconut, and fresh blueberries.

Oat Bran Muffins: “Four Happiness”

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Prepare muffin tins for 12 muffins. (I use paper muffin cups.)

Start off with the basic dry mix in a large bowl. (I make up quantities of this stuff ahead of time and seal it in zip bags):

2 1/4 c. oat bran cereal
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 c. brown sugar

To this I added more dry ingredients (the goodies), measured oh-so-carefully:

--a little handful of carob chips
--about the same amount of candied cherries, chopped into quarters
--a little handful of shredded coconut
--okay, and also the seeds from 3 green cardamom pods, finely ground

In a separate bowl, mix together the wet ingredients:

--9 oz. of vanilla yogurt (= 1 1/2 of the 6 oz. Dannon containers)
--6 oz. of Egg Beaters (= 1 1/2 of the 4 oz. containers; = 3 egg whites)
--2 tbs. vegetable oil

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, then stir to combine. If necessary, add additional liquid (yogurt, milk, water, etc.); consistency should be similar to corn muffin batter.

Then, gently mix in:

--a small handful of fresh blueberries

Spoon into prepared muffin tins. I think letting them sit for about 5 minutes before baking helps the oat bran to absorb more moisture and helps the muffins to rise better.

Bake for about 13 minutes and check; they might need to go for about 15 or 17 minutes total. Don’t overcook them. They’re done when they’re a little golden on top and a toothpick comes out clean.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Impromptu Miller County Tour

Sue and I had a late lunch on this dreary, drizzly day, and on a complete whim decided not to head straight home from the fast-food establishment we had patronized. (Well? We had a coupon, okay?)

So we tooled down Highway 54 south, toward the Lake. Oops, I mean west, toward the Lake. From the Jefferson City perspective, it’s nonsense that Highway 54, which heads north and south through town, is officially an east/west route, and Highway 63, which heads north one direction and east the other direction, is a north/south route. But anyway.

We drove “west” on 54, through Brazito and past Etterville and got as far as the Eldon exits, but instead of visiting the land of Lloyd Belt Automotive—Where You’re Always a Good Deal Better!—we turned east onto Missouri 52 and drove to Tuscumbia.

Tuscumbia made national headlines a year ago when President Obama signed the federal economic recovery bill, because its crumbling, historic bridge over the Osage River was one of the first projects in the nation to result from the bill. The idea is to create new jobs for people while also improving the infrastructure: They are building a new bridge alongside the old one.

It’s truly sad that the old bridge is slated for demolition, because it is indeed a breathtaking structure. . . . But at this point, “breathtaking” takes on a new meaning when you stop to look at its state of dilapidation. I mean, it’s bad enough that it’s one of those old bridges that seem uncomfortably narrow by today’s standards. But worse than that, it’s crumbling down.

Soon after ground was broken for the new bridge in February of last year, we visited the bridge and were amazed to watch pieces of concrete fall off as traffic rumbled over it. We wandered around, exploring beneath the structure, but we felt safer if we stood to the side of it. The ground under the bridge is littered with chunks of concrete and iron. It is literally falling apart.

Yes, it is sad that the powers that be are planning to destroy the historic old bridge, which is eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. You’d think it could be saved as a pedestrian footbridge, a curiosity and a monument to the engineering feats of the past, offering exciting views of the beautiful Osage below.

Right there at the heart of Miller County, whose total population is about 24,000 in 600 square miles, Tuscumbia, the county seat, could really use a nifty tourist attraction like the funky old 1930 cantilever through truss bridge.

But if funding was unavailable to keep it in repair over the last number of decades, there certainly won’t be money for such fixes once the new bridge is open. And it doesn’t look like Miller County itself has the buckaroos to pay for its preservation, plus the creation of an adjoining park, and so on.

I was driving, so I wasn’t able to look at the bridge much. Like I say, it’s narrow, and there were little piles of concrete debris along the edges where the bridge is disintegrating. I kept my eyes on the road! On this informative page is a YouTube showing the experience, heading northward (though we were driving south). You’ll see the bridge is also inclined.

The link above also includes a Google “street views” of the bridge. If you position the view so that you’re looking at the part over the north bank of the river, you can clearly see the bare iron support rods exposed as the concrete has crumbled away. Yikes!

And as we continued our drive through Miller County, we noticed that its roads must not be a very high priority for MoDOT in general. Pothole after pothole, some blackened with little lumps of asphalt, amid a patchwork of different road surfaces. And I kept grumbling, “Nice place to put a road!”

So, from on the south side of Tuscumbia, we turned left at the Red Oak Inn, thus staying on Highway 52 (Highways 52 and 17 merge to cross the river), and followed an impressive ridge paralleling the Osage. This is the kind of road that sports car lovers and motorcyclists crave: curves and hills, long steep grades. Creek-bottom lows and ridgeline highs.

We continued into the town of St. Elizabeth. The town itself has about nine square blocks and the community is home to a population of about three hundred (they have about a hundred more folks than the county seat, Tuscumbia). We drove through St. Elizabeth at about ten till five, and cars were parked all around the Catholic church: Time for mass.

We were exploring St. Elizabeth’s nine square blocks, and driving past St. Elizabeth R-IV school, when we heard the church bells ring: Five o’clock; mass is starting!

Here is a fun fact: The Catholic church at St. Elizabeth, Missouri, is the St. Lawrence Parish. Don’t that beat all?

We kept on Highway 52, east, and crossed over Big Tavern Creek. After that we drove on Highway 133 to Meta (home of Diamond Pet Foods), then proceeded north on Route B. This gave us a quick taste of the northwest corner of Maries County and the southwest corner of Osage County, then another very brief corner of Miller again.

Back in Cole County, we drove through the community of St. Thomas (where the parish name indeed matches the name of the burg), paused a while at the MDC Osage River access there (all right, it was a potty break, okay?), and enjoyed the view of the river beneath the highway bridge, where an old ferry used to be.

. . . And from there we drove home, via Wardsville, which is increasingly now a Haystack Acres, Pastureville, Hayseed Estates, a rather homogenous modern suburb of Jeff. Blair-Oaks-Falcons-ville.

I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures to share with you, but alas. It was an impromptu trip; we only left the house to grab a burger. Plus, it was gray and drizzly, anyway, and don’t worry: We’ll go back when it’s better weather and take good pictures then.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Jefferson City’s a Smokin’ Place . . . for Three More Days

I try not to spend too much time dwelling on the down side of life, but I hope you won’t mind me venting again, because this time I’m writing about the trouble I’ve had, well, venting.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were lovely, gorgeous spring days. Temps in the sixties and seventies, oh my! And gloriously sunny as well. The crocuses are blooming now, the snakey-snakes are out getting their first tastes of 2010 (I think for them it must taste a lot like box elder bugs!)—and our first few daffodils opened up.

Ahhhhhhhh, springtime! Hooray! It’s time to throw open the windows and breathe in some fresh air. And to air out the house in general. Get all that stale wintertime Nyquil-and-Kleenex air out of the house!

It just feels good to have fresh air on these warm days.

And the cats love to sit in the windows, sniffing the air with genuine excitement, keeping tabs on the birds as they sing and swoop from tree to tree and the squirrels as they fritz around in the yard.

But for each of those three days, our paradise was ruined by evil, permeating, acrid smoke. Because, believe it or not, the City of Jefferson still allows the burning of yard waste inside city limits. Yes.

By golly, you could live right next door to the Governor’s Mansion and light up a big ol’ pile and have that smoke drift over the whole area. Your smoky smoldering pile could contain sticks and leaves, poison ivy (if you're ignorant, and I don’t count on much intelligence in my particular neighborhood), bark, mulch, and (come on, you know it happens) other “miscellaneous items” that people will slip in there.

You know that outright trash, treated lumber, plastics, and whatever also ends up in many burn piles. And that means toxic fumes, smoldering all day. Including dioxin.

And so we had to shut the windows for all three days in a row. The first two days, there was a pile of yard waste that smoldered continuously over both days and during one entire night. It was an enormous pile.

Wednesday, another burn pile right along the Expressway smelled an awful lot like the house fire that occurred on the same block a few years ago. Which means it smelled horrible and acrid. It made my lungs want to shrivel up. I suspect that a lot more than just dried plant material ended up in that fire.

I was relieved Wednesday afternoon when the winds kicked up and ushered in a storm system overnight.

The local city council struggled with the yard-burning issue a few years ago, but enough burn-barrel-lovers raised such a “stink” that the council ending up striking a compromise, permitting yard-waste burning during late fall and winter, and forbidding it in spring and summer. Basically.

November 2 through March 15. It generally robs us of our last precious few warm days of the season, and it spoils the first beautiful days after the long winter.

I guess I should be amazed and happy that progress was made at all, so that now, opening burning is only permitted during part of the year that Persephone is trapped in the Underworld.

I mean, I’m genuinely impressed that Jeff City finally this year—2010!—implemented a curbside recycling program, despite the protests of those who see only problems with the idea. (“Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”)

A friend of mine once told me, flat-out, that he strongly believes that the very best part of living in our civilization, at this moment in history, is the organized community trash pickup. “Think of it!” he urged. “You just take all your trash, set it out by the curb, and for a surprisingly low price, someone comes and just . . . hauls it away! You don’t even need to think about it anymore! You don’t ever see it again! It’s just . . . gone!

The city of Columbia, just to the north, has curbside solid waste pickup, curbside recycling, and curbside yard waste pickup. It’s pretty impressive. Maybe someday Jeff City will look across the river far enough to see that citywide yard waste collection is actually possible and, like trash and recycling collection, makes for a better quality of life for everyone.

. . . Meanwhile, I feel like I was deprived of our first three gorgeous springtime days.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wurstfest Reminder

Just a reminder! Put it on your calendar: Hermann's 31st Annual Wurstfest will be held Saturday and Sunday, March 27 and 28!

I told you all about the Wurstfest last year, and if you like sausage, then you simply must go this year. They don't tend to change the festival radically from year to year, so what I told you in my "Wurstjaegering" post pretty much goes the same for this year.

Only I see this year, in addition to the Dachshund "derby dash" race and "fashion show," they're also having a "longest weiner dog contest." Oh, my. That sounds like something to see!

But seriously, though, the emphasis is on all the fantastic gourmet sausage that's being made by Missouri's sausage makers.

As in the past, the two locations (each with different sausage makers) are the Stone Hill Winery Pavilion and the Hermannhof Festhalle; a single fee gets you into both venues.

Bring a cooler! Basically, you walk around to each sausage maker's tables and sample their various sausages. The variety is mind-boggling. When you decide you want a sausage, you buy it directly from that vendor. Most of them have packages of frozen sausage all ready to go.

I highly recommend Schubert's horseradish sausage, which tastes great without blowing your face off, and their andouille, which could blow your face off. Their kielbasa is a revelation; it has nothing to do with that greasy, over-salted insult to swine that you get at the grocery store.

In June, we had to drive to Schubert's just on the other side of St. Louis, to get more of the kielbasa and horseradish sausage. Yes, it's that good.

And if Kurzweil's has it, snatch up some of their bratwurst flavored with portobello mushrooms that were sauteed in Norton red wine. Their "Zorba the Greek" sausage is really good, too.

Williams Brothers had a delicious sausage with apples and cinnamon that we liked a lot, and their traditional-style summer sausage was really excellent.

But most of all, look for new styles and flavors that you haven't tried before.

Oh! --Are you worried about how healthy this is for you? Here is what we often do: We make a dinner of a bunch of sauteed or steamed vegetables, brown rice, and then a single sauteed tilapia filet and one gourmet sausage link. Each of us gets half a piece of fish, and half a piece of sausage. How about them apples?

Anyway, Hermann's Wurstfest is highly recommended. I'm telling you now, so you can put it on your calendar. You seriously don't want to miss this.

Here's a link to Hermann's Web site; click on "calendar" and scroll down to March 27 and 28.

And again, see my last year's post for the real low-down and for more pictures.

Jeff City Braunschweiger Report #5: Zesto Drive-In Central

Hah! I’ll bet you thought I was kidding about all these Jefferson City “Braunschweiger Reports,” but I’m not. It’s the city’s unofficial, undersung official samwich ingredient.

Today we’re focusing on the second of the town’s two Zestos. (Last fall, we talked about the one out on Jefferson Street, Zesto South, which is run by different folks. That’s why I’m treating them separately.)

A Little Background

The Zesto I’m talking about today is the one closest to its original location, which was at the foot of the bluff where St. Mary’s Health Center’s parking garage is now. I remember going there as a kid (but more often simply driving past it on the way back to Columbia, which was always so frustrating!); it was right there at the intersection of Missouri Boulevard and Highway 50.

Tiny place. Bright lights. Soft-serve. Long lines stretching away from little sliding screen windows. Big neon sign: Zesto!

Zesto was at that location from 1945 to 1978, when it moved to the current spot at the corner of Broadway and Highway 50 (a.k.a. the Rex M. Whitton Expressway). It’s only a few blocks downhill from the state capitol building, so it’s within easy reach of the billions and billions of state workers when the St. Peter’s bells ring and they march off to lunch at noon.

I really love the thematic contrast of the humble soft-serve ice cream shack, with its hot dog, polish sausage, and pimento cheese sandwiches for sale right near the Corinthian columns and magnificent dome of the capitol. And all the rest of those august government buildings.

Recently the signboard at Zesto has promised a 10 percent discount if you present a Missouri state employee card. If you buy a three-dollar sandwich, you could save thirty cents! But you have to show the ID.

New Owners in 2008

Recently this Zesto underwent a major renovation. The fellow who had owned Zesto since 1973, Harold “Brownie” Brown, sold the place in 2008 to a couple from St. Louis, Kevin and Mellisa Berger. The new owners had had careers in law enforcement in the St. Louis metro area and were “over it.” Through with the violence, crime, and bad people in general.

Mellisa has roots in Jeff City, including brothers who’d worked at Zesto, and when they all found out Brownie was selling, they jumped on the opportunity. I don’t blame them one bit. I mean, who wouldn’t rather sell frozen dairy delights and hot tamales than deal with crackheads and murderers?

The first thing they did was close the place for renovation. Notably, they enclosed and expanded the inside dining area, and they added a mural on a retaining wall by their parking lot. Kinda nice, huh?

The seating area inside is no-frills, but it is clean and comfortable in there. The walls are decorated with photos of the Bergers in their police uniforms, American flags, Cardinals and Chiefs posters, miscellaneous St. Louis stuff, and Zestobelia. It is kind of a mish-mash, but whatever. You do get the idea that it’s a family-run place, and not dictated to by some corporate home office making decisions on the basis of a twit-faced focus group.

The prominent photos of them in their cop gear probably go far to keep the riffraff out of the place. This restaurant is located at the edge of a “transitional” older neighborhood and is right on a highway. But a crook would be pretty foolish to try to stick up these folks.

I was nervous just taking pictures in there.

Another thing the Bergers did was add double yellow lines to the drive into the parking lot, I guess so their patrons can more correctly negotiate the passage in and out of the place. I had no idea this was a problem. Well, maybe it bugged them. They are cops, for goodness’ sakes.

One Thing I Do Miss

Another change they made was to the big sign out front. It’s the kind of sign that has changeable letters, so you can update its announcement to drivers passing by. Here is what they did: They made it make sense.

Awwww. . . I admit it: I miss the way it used to be.

See, before the Bergers took over Zesto, the signboard usually read like disturbing haiku on the subject of dyspepsia. It regularly sent us into spasms of laughter. One time, the sign read:


Well, who wouldn’t laugh at that each time it came into view? Seriously, when it first went up, I almost passed out laughing that one.

But here is my all-time Zesto’s sign board favorite:


Ugh! . . . I think it said that for months. Right there on the highway, for everyone to see. Maybe I read too fast, but seeing that message almost made me reach for a Tums!

And then I started to think up other culinary atrocities they might advertise in the future: “Cappuccino - Taco - Milkshake”; “Polish - Ham & Bean - Dip Cones”; “Brownie - BBQ - Floats”; “Nacho - Cheese - Sundaes.”

See what I mean? That stuff used to brighten my day! (Note: recently, a similar type of sign at the local Walgreen’s has read: “HINI SHOTS AVAILABLE.” And that’s almost as good. Kudos to the clever comedian employee who put that up!)

On to the Food

I think the Bergers have upped the prices some. I don’t blame them. They put a lot of resources into fixing up the place, updating the electrical, and all that, plus nothing’s getting cheaper, eh? Meanwhile, the portions are ample enough that you don’t walk away hungry.

No, these aren’t “super-size” portions; indeed, this is the kind of restaurant a lot of people wish for: Less money for a reasonable amount of food, instead of more money for a serving that would satisfy three people. Haven’t you found yourself wishing for that? I have.

Regarding food, the most notable difference between the two Zestos is that the one on Jefferson Street is big on their own barbecue. Here at the Broadway Zesto, they serve a “BBQ Beef” sandwich, and that’s about the extent of the barbecue-type stuff.

The list of sandwiches is long, including various types of hot dogs, Polish sausage, Burgers’ country ham, ham or roast beef melts, foot-long torpedoes, grilled chicken, “rueben” [sic], turkey club, and good ol’ grilled cheese.

Here’s the turkey club:

The cold deli sandwiches include ham, turkey, roast beef, tuna salad, chicken salad, pimento cheese, BLT, salami, bologna, and, yes, braunschweiger! (Glory!)

Sandwich prices are as low as $2.98 for a grilled cheese, BLT, or pimento cheese, or plain hot dog; the more expensive sandwiches are the grilled chicken ($4.39) and foot-long torpedo ($4.19). Not bad, eh?

There are tamales, too. There are loads of condiments and toppings. And do you want your sandwich on white, wheat, or rye? Sandwiches come wrapped in paper, placed on a tray, Amen.

During the cold months when fewer people want frozen treats, the soups, stews, and chili are especially appealing. A bowl of each costs about $3.50. On a recent visit, I noted they had five different soups available: Ham and bean, chicken noodle, broccoli cheddar, potato and bacon, and something called “Dad’s Hobo Stew.”

I couldn’t resist. I had to ask: “Hobo stew? What’s that like? Is it made with real hobos?

Actually, it’s a thick vegetable-beef soup, with tomatoes in the broth. Sue and I agreed that we enjoyed the relatively small pieces of beef in it. No huge chunks of meat to gnaw on and worry around with your teeth. And I guess it’s fitting—hobos probably don’t have much money for beef, so they’d chop it up pretty good to make it go farther. Right?

(I’m sure I’m thinking way too much about this.)

Sides: Don’t look for french fries at Zesto. Instead, choose between potato salad, a hardboiled egg, various types of chips, nachos, cornbread (a must with the ham and bean soup!), and a disgusting preparation known as “Chili Cheese Fritos.” (I’ve seen that last sold at various places, like at outdoor festivals, and I just cannot abide by it. Mainly because I despise Fritos. But if you’re “into” it, then go for it.)

Dessert consists of all the usual soft-serve concoctions: Cones, sundaes, shakes, malts, dip cones, avalanches, freezes, floats, and slushes. (If I could change one thing, I would have them add “peanut butter” as a shake and sundae topping. Why? Because Sue wants it.)

Then there’s also the fancier soft-serve stuff—the strawberry shortcake, brownie supreme, banana split, and so on. You know the score.

None of this is very expensive; the most pricey desserts are the banana split and brownie supreme, which are $3.49, or “jumbo” sized shakes, malts, floats, and freezes, each a little over $4. The least expensive dessert is a plain cone: 99 cents. You can afford that, can’t you.

Finally, the Braunschweiger Report

Unfortunately, the afternoon I went to officially sample and photograph this Zesto’s braunschweiger sandwich, they were out of lettuce. It was disappointing, but at least they told me about it as soon as I ordered. As usual, I had asked for as many veggies as they had—onions, tomatoes, pickle, and lettuce.

Usually, the onions that go on sandwiches have been sliced, right? But here, the sandwich onions are chopped, so they can do double-duty for the hot dogs. So that’s something different. The lettuce would have added a needed crunch, but at least the rye bread, tomato, and pickle had enough body to keep the creamy braunschweiger from dominating the texture.

Overall, the braunschweiger is pretty good. I’ve had it several times from this Zesto, and apart from this time when they were out of lettuce, the sandwich is reliably simple and good, and the price is very reasonable.

Fine cuisine this is not, but the braunschweiger sandwich at Zesto Central pays homage to the generations of braunschweiger-nibbling German Americans of Jefferson City, for whom this liverwurst is a lunchtime staple the same as ham or egg salad. I’m so glad it’s still on the menu.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I Hope This Isn’t Too Repetitive

This might remind you of my post of March 19, 2009; it’s all about springtime in our yard. But I’m suspecting that you are like me, and that each time spring comes, you’re like, “Wey-hey!”

With me, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same ol’ stuff again and again. Spring is always so very welcome when it gets here.

Same ol’ crocuses. Do they bore you? I’ll bet not. These are our first to bloom, and they just started blooming today. Today!

Also, today was the first day we noticed the cute little wildflower (foreign-exotic weed) called bird’s eye, a.k.a. Veronica persica.

Here’s something substantial for you, beyond the purty pictures: This species—indeed its entire genus—has recently been placed in a new family of plants. If you have an older plant guidebook, it will probably list genus Veronica as being a member of the “figwort family,” the Scrophulariaceae, alongside snapdragons, mulleins, beardtongues, broomrapes, and plantains. (Repeat after me: Skroff-you-larry-ay-cee-ee.)

Every botany student had to study the Scrophulariaceae early on, because it was so big. It was right up there with the mustard family, or the roses, the mints, the beans, the mallows . . . you get the picture.

But plant taxonomists studying the family’s DNA sequences have completely dismembered the former Scrophulariaceae. They did violence to it. They blew it up. They drove it off the edge of a cliff. That family used to include about 275 genera, but now it probably holds less than a hundred. Why? Because the former scrophs really weren’t all that closely related; they represented several distinct lineages, each deserving of their own family.

Veronica, therefore, is now grouped with the plantains in the Plantaginaceae. Some botanists call this new family the Veronicaceae, but it looks like Plantaginaceae is the name that will stick. (For now, anyway. Those taxonomists are still at work.)

. . . There, wasn’t that cool information?

The Most Exciting Sign of Spring So Far

Even more interesting than the sight of squirrels copulating this week on our back fence (our “privacy” fence, though the squirrels turned it into a “public display of affection fence”), this is the most exciting sign of spring so far.

Just as the flowers emerge from the earth on these warm days, so do the garter snakes. We have one batch (what do you call garter snakes collectively? a tangle? a slither?) whose burrow is on our front, south-facing terrace.

It’s a lovely, sunny location for them, and there they were today. Some were snuggled together. (No, I don’t think they were mating, though they do mate, often in a slithery, mass orgy, soon after emerging from their dens. But I have yet to see that.) All five were within a square yard of each other.

I mean, here I just stepped outside to take pictures of the flowers for you, and there were five of these cute little fellas sunning in the grass, gazing mildly up at me.

I think I told you before that this time of year they seem really mellow, even gullible. Maybe they’re still groggy from their long winter’s sleep. Maybe it’s so cool their metabolisms and responses are slow. Maybe they’re weak from hunger. (We did notice some box elder bugs stirring around today, too. I bet the garter snakes love them!)

One of the snakey-snakes had some dried-up dirt stuck to his punkin’ head. It was the largest of the five. I wonder if it was the one that poked its head out of the ground, first. (They would have to dig their way out of their burrow with their heads, right? What else are they gonna use?)

Anyway, just like last spring, I could crouch down slowly, gently extend a pointed finger, and touch them. It’s fun to play “snake-charmer” with them. And you have to admit, they’re pretty cute, in a lot of ways.

Yes, they’re completely harmless, except that if you pick them up, they’ll get scared and might smear some icky-smelling juice on you from their nether parts.

I was able to get the camera just a few inches away from the little fellas. They seemed very curious about me.

Ours are the red-sided subspecies of the eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis—or at least represent an intergrade between the two subspecies. See the zippy orange-red they have on their sides?

So that was the thrill of the day. We also spent much of the afternoon clearing out flower beds of last year’s dead foliage, and applying a fresh layer of mulch. But somehow I didn’t think that would make a very interesting blog post!