Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mrs. A’s Lemonade, in the Greek Style!

Warm weather! Summer is almost here. So this is a good time to tell you about this lemonade recipe, which is an heirloom as well as “the best ever.”

My dear friend Mrs. A, who hails from Greece via Lebanon, taught me this recipe. This is the way her grandmother, Yaya Petrina, taught her to make lemonade!

Here’s why we love it: First, it’s delicious, and it’s full of vitamin C. Second, it’s an heirloom recipe, and therefore holy. Third, it uses alllll of the lemon fruit, including the peel, so it’s flavored with the sweet oils from the skin as well as the juice from the pulp. Fourth, it has a secret ingredient, which gives it a certain je ne sais quoi, or as the Greeks say, Apithano! Fifth, it softens your hands! —Read on.

Here’s how you do it.

Wash your hands. Take four or five large lemons, wash the outsides, and slice them as thinly as possible. Use a sharp knife. Put the slices into a large bowl.

Add sugar—about 1/2 or 3/4 of a cup. Use your best judgment. Just dump it on top.

Then, using your hands, begin massaging the lemons. Mash them with your hands, pummel it with your knuckles, rub the peels well, and squeeze and squish the pulp through your fingers. Immediately, juice will start coming out of the lemon slices!

Hey! This is fun! Plus, it’s good exercise to counter that carpel-tunnel you worry about, and it softens the skin on your hands. It’s also a good way to release your anger or anxiety.

The goal is to squish all the juice, the oils, the living daylights out of those lemon slices. Believe it or not, a great deal of flavor and aroma comes from the peels. Your job is to make the peels get translucent. Indeed, try to make them wilt or even dissolve.

Use a sieve or colander to squish the juices out into another bowl. Pour a little water over the mashed-up, wilted lemons, and squeeze that moisture into the bowl, too.

Then repeat the process, adding some more sugar each time. The sugar is important, as it acts as an abrasive, and it draws the liquids out of the lemon tissues via osmosis. (Remember your biology class? The high concentration of sugars outside the fruit cells creates an osmotic gradient, and . . . oh never mind—just call it “maceration.”)

Keep rubbing and squishing, straining and rinsing and straining again, until you’ve extracted all the goodness out of those poor old lemon slices. When you’re done, the lemon fragments should be looking something like sauerkraut!

(Mrs. A notes that the leftover pulp makes a fine facial treatment mask: Put the exhausted peels in a blender with a teaspoon of glycerin, whirl it up, and put the resulting glop on your face: “It is the best facial treatment, believe me! It cleanses, tones, is an astringent, and leaves your skin soft like satin, once you rinse it off your face. Try it. It beats the best commercial facial treatment, guaranteed!”)

Getting back to the lemonade—Once you’ve pressed all the juice and flavor out of the lemons, pour the precious lemony elixir of happiness into a pitcher. From five large lemons, I got about a quart of concentrated juice. Then, you add water and possibly more sugar to taste. But you’re not done yet!

Next you get to add the secret ingredient! —Orange blossom water. Anthonero! You’ll only need about a teaspoonful. Or heck, a little drizzle of it. You know—just to give it that little something extra. This, Mrs. A. told me, is what really magnifies the lemon flavor.

If you’re not familiar with orange flower water, I encourage you to get some to play with—put it in scones, cakes, and cocktails! You can find it at “ethnic” or international grocery stores. In my experience, the most common brand seems to be A. Monteux, from France. It comes in a little blue bottle. This is an essential water that is perfumed with orange blossoms—not oranges, but orange blossoms.

Mrs. A uses an orange blossom water from Lebanon, made by the Cortas company. If you’re in Central Missouri, you can find this product at World Harvest and at Middle Eastern Foods (next to the Islamic Center of Central Missouri) (the mosque), both in Columbia.

And that’s basically it—to recap: Using some sugar to help draw out the juices, and rinsing occasionally with water and repeating the maceration, rubbing, and rinsing, you literally wring out every last bit of goodness from those lemons and make a concentrate; then you dilute it however you want and adjust for sweetness. And don’t forget the orange flower water!

(Oooh, I love heirloom recipes!)

I offer my heartfelt thanks to Alexandra Athanassiou for sharing her dear grandmother’s recipe with me, and for letting me put this on my blog. It was a true honor to receive this recipe—and it was even better to sip lemonade with her!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Grackle Voices

The grackle couple living in our big yew tree have been rather quiet the last few days, but their young have been making up for it!

Only a few days ago, it seems, the babies were simply little peeps deep in the nest. (And yeah, it's a deep nest!) Newly hatched, their voices were shrill cheeps seemingly no different than those of any other new hatchlings.

Within only a few days, their cheeps were deeper and had lost their shrillness. The sound was more like someone wiping a window with a rag. And then, I swear, it was only a few days, and their voices had developed a creakiness reminiscent of their parents’.

Throughout, they tended to stay quiet most of the time—until one of their parents arrived with big juicy grubs! Then they let loose; the nest was a squabbling, chattering melee until each little gullet was filled.

And the parents have been busy, incredibly busy. Not even much time for their own brief “check” calls to keep track of one another—now, they are obsessed with collecting food and flying it to the babies. Honestly, sunup to sundown, they stalk our backyard for grubs and other morsels. (I’ll be durned. Who knew there were so many grubs near the surface of the soil?) And the robins, of course, are doing their best to find every earthworm possible—fortunately, the grackles care more about grubs.

Thursday morning, the young grackles started venturing out of the nest. When I first looked at them, two or three were perching on the rim of the nest or on nearby branches. I took all the pictures for this post on that day.

I’m not sure how many babies there are—four or five. Grackles’ preference for thick evergreen trees fixes it so I can’t tell! Once the babies were hopping around within the tree, they were incredibly hard to locate. . . . Until the parents showed up with more food!

So the parents are mainly silent as they work, and the young are quiet most of the time, except for their intermittent frenzy of feeding squawks.

With the surprising silence in our backyard, it’s given me time to reflect on the strangeness of the grackle’s voice. Many people find their creaks and squeaks “ugly,” but I find them intriguing. Here’s an example of the disparaging reviews their songs often receive:

A mistake which this Grackle makes is in trying to sing. But perhaps the bird isn’t entirely to blame for this, for he may know that the scientists have put him among the Oscines, a suborder composed of “song-birds,” a term which, however, in this connection, means simply that the bird included possesses well-developed vocal apparatus, and entirely disregards the question as to how he uses that apparatus, or whether he uses it at all. Perhaps the Grackle isn’t able to make the scientific distinction between the song-bird who can sing and the song-bird who can’t, and therefore supposes himself to be a singer. His demonstration of his proficiency in the “art divine” consists in drawing in his head in turtle fashion, puffing out his body, ruffling up his feathers and then emitting a sort of asthmatic squeak, which suggests the protest of a rusty hinge. When a considerable number of Grackles do this at or about the same time, the result is what somebody has aptly termed a “good wheel-barrow chorus.” (Pearson, ed., Birds of America, 2:268)

But honestly? I think the “problem” is that they make sounds that we humans simply can’t imitate. I think if we call their voice “ugly,” it’s because we can’t imitate it. Even an onomatopoeic word like “squeak” doesn’t sound like a real squeak. Just the S, Q, and K parts.

Grackle language, like other percussive sounds, lacks vowels. They only speak in consonants—stops, fricatives, the occasional liquid. It is like the language a space alien might use, employing only sounds that we can’t even recognize as a language—thus a voice that doesn’t count as a voice.

If I were to transcribe a grackle’s song, I would use a lot of K’s, CH’s, and X’s, connected maybe by S’s and L’s. “Kxxxxchsssssslllchk!!”

Others have tried to transcribe the untranscribable voice. translates the song as a “gutteral readle-eak” that is “often described as sounding like a rusty gate.” Sue agrees with the rusty gate description. To me, it sounds a bit more like the squeak of a children’s swingset.

My vintage copy of the Audubon Bird Guide, by Richard H. Pough (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1946), says the grackle’s voice consists of “harsh cacks and a series of ascending squeaky notes with a pronounced metallic quality.”

Metallic? Hmm, I don’t quite get that. Maybe the purple grackle subspecies sounds more metallic than our bronzed subspecies?

In the Conservation Department’s book Birds in Missouri, Missouri state ornithologist Brad Jacobs described the grackle’s song as “kree del eeeek,” and the call as “chlak.”

Okay, this one is close. If there’s one vowel sound they might use, it’s “ee.”

My National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America suggests the song is a “short, creaky koguba-leek” and the call a “loud chuck.” —Really? “Koguba”? I think they must be describing that purple phase again, and not the kind we have around here.

At any rate, the grackle’s voice simply astounds and confounds me, and it’s something I take great pleasure in.

I hear them beginning their day while I lie in bed in the mornings, and I try to think of what I would guess I was hearing, if I heard a grackle voice out of context and was asked to identify the sound. This morning, I was thinking of someone whacking a big metal spoon on a large piece of heavy screen, hardware cloth. A few minutes later I thought it sounded like two small, hard, round creek stones being struck together, the sharp chuck and the strange subtle ringing they make. It’s a sound-association game for me as I lie there, picturing them stalking the grass for grubs.

The strangeness of their voice reasserts, with a shock, my knowledge that despite their backyard familiarity, grackles are creatures wholly apart from us. And then I consider the very real gulf that separates us humans from all our compatriots on this spinning world. It is hopelessly out of our hands; we cannot ever really “know” them. But I am not saddened about this state of affairs—I am awed by the mystery of it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Missouri River Pedestrian Bridge at Jefferson City

This morning was the groundbreaking ceremony for the long-awaited pedestrian addition to the Missouri River Bridge here at Jefferson City. I’m not an official journalist, I’m just a blogger, and an amateur one at that—but I’m thrilled that this project is moving forward!

Indeed, it’s a step forward on many accounts. It advances tourism in Jefferson City. It advances the connection of the Katy Trail State Park with neighboring communities. It advances safety for bicyclists and pedestrians as well as for the over 50,000 vehicle drivers that cross the river here each day.

(Nifty shovel, huh?)

In order to appreciate what we’re getting, you have to know what we have now. Right now, there are two bridges crossing the river—the one on the west is for southbound traffic and the one on the east is for northbound. When they built the second of these two bridges (the northbound one), back in 1991, they didn’t take possible pedestrian or bicycle traffic into account.

Meanwhile, also twenty years ago, the Katy Trail State Park was launched. Indeed, they’re celebrating this rails-to-trails park’s twentieth anniversary this month! It follows the old MKT railroad line from St. Charles clear to Clinton, Missouri.

It passes by Jefferson City right across the river at a point they call “North Jefferson”—but which many of us locals still think of as “Cedar City.” Cedar City was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1993.

Anyway, Jeff City has annexed the former town, but there’s really not much there beside the MFA, a golf range, some big soccer fields, and the Katy Trail access point.

So a problem arose: Even though the city built a nice bike trail connecting the cross-state Katy Trail to a point nearer to the Missouri River Bridge, bicyclists had hell to go through before getting across the river to Jeff City proper.

And that’s bad for tourism! And it’s dangerous, any way you slice it. The temporary solution has been to add a “bike lane” to the northbound (wider) bridge. But . . . that lane must function for bicyclists traveling both directions.

Now, if you’re a grown-up, responsible bicyclist, every fiber of your being should rebel against the thought of riding on the left side of the road, against traffic. But that is what you’re “supposed” to do if you are heading south, toward town. Argh!

And God forbid you should have to pass another bicyclist going the opposite way! —But of course, that rarely happens, since most bicyclists don’t want to attempt this ugly crossing.

Seriously—the traffic on the bridge is posted at 60 mph—which you know means many people are traveling at 70 mph. Including huge trucks.

You can’t tell from a car, but you can tell when you’re walking: Those big trucks make the bridge rumble and shake. They pass you in a whirlwind, stirring up grit and litter, creating a suction that threatens to pull you away from the shoulder. No joke.

So they finally did it—all these agencies, governments, and organizations put their heads together, and the work is beginning next week. (They would have begun this week, they said, but for all the rain.) A local company from Fulton, OCCI, Inc., won the bid.

The project is going to cost $6.7 million—the money’s coming from MoDOT, the City of Jefferson, the DNR, and the Missouri State Parks Foundation. That last is a private, nonprofit organization formed to raise money for Missouri State Parks. There was a 20 percent local match.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is naturally in charge of this project, as it pertains to Missouri Highways 54 and 63, which merge at this point to get across the river.

But, as Mayor Landwehr pointed out in his brief remarks, this has been a three-times complex project—complex engineering, complex funding issues, and complex in terms of policy, the drawing together of the governments of Callaway and Cole counties, the City of Jefferson, plus the state agencies for highways and state parks.

He also noted the good the pedestrian access will do for Jefferson City, “connecting the dots” of the Katy Trail with the State Capitol (which is a huge tourist attraction), the 12.5-mile Jefferson City Greenway system, and, one day, a development on Adrian’s Island making it friendly for public recreation.

It also makes it much easier for residents of Jefferson City to ride directly to the trail, instead of having to load their bikes into a vehicle and drive there. And that, my friends, will make Jefferson City—particularly the old-town portions near to the bridge—into a more desirable place to live.

And you know the Jefferson City CVB is thrilled about this project—there are thousands of riders on the Katy Trail, and it would be grand to have them spend the night in Jeff, eat at one of our fine restaurants, do a little shopping . . . !

So the plan is to attach an eight-foot-wide pathway against the east edge of the easternmost (northbound) bridge—which provides enough room for a couple of bikes to pass, as well as pleasant views of the State Capitol and the river. There will be a couple of places where you can stop to take in the sight.

Here is a view of the east side of the bridge, where it is going to be attached:

It must have been fun for them to figure out how to handle the trail on the north side of the river, since the bikes would have to cross the highway somehow. To accomplish this, they’re going to build a multi-staged ramp so that trail riders can get from bridge level down to the ground, then ride under the bridges to the nearby (and scenic) Carl R. Noren river access. (Which is managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation—see, I told you this is a complicated project!)

I took a picture of one of the artist-renditions of what the ramp will look like. I'm sure you can see this better on the MoDOT Web site:

From the river access (boat ramp), the trail will lead to the existing Katy Trail “North Jefferson” access point.

I don’t know about you, but as a native Central Missourian, I treasure the Missouri River, and from a young age, I have always assumed that one of the main reasons for bridges is for you to get a good look at all that water rushing below, and the landscape around. It has seemed unnatural that Jefferson City hasn’t done much to monopolize on its several potentially fabulous river views.

Mayor Landwehr pointed out, I think correctly, that the Missouri River is our own “big nature.” “We don’t have Rocky Mountains or an ocean here. But we have the Missouri.” And yes, it is unique.

As I stood there listening to the speakers at this morning’s groundbreaking, my eyes were incessantly drawn to the river going by in the landscape beyond them. It is hypnotic, it is inevitable, and it is somehow gentle. More people ought to look at rivers, and the pedestrian bridge is one step in the right direction.

They say it will be complete a year from now!

Meanwhile, they cautioned, lanes will be narrowed, traffic will be forced to slow down, and you won’t be able to get on the bridge from Main Street. I say: No problemo! Bring on the bike path!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Common Grackles

Here is a true “Opulent Opossum” topic for you: the common grackle. I’m choosing this bird as today’s subject because right now, I can hear the peeping of newly hatched grackles up in our big yew tree.

I can see the nest in the branches of that evergreen, though it’s too high for me to be able to see into it. The parents are busy gathering food. The “noise level” in our backyard plummeted as soon as courtship ended and egg-laying commenced. Indeed, the adults are practically silent, except for an occasional song or call as they fly to or from the nest, to check in with one another. Indeed, it sounds just like that. Grackle 1: "Check." Grackle 2: "Check."

Their songs aren’t as lusty and vigorous as they were a few weeks ago; instead they are softer, understated, isolated. I think the two are simply reaffirming their bond even though they are preoccupied with the business of feeding the young. I think the change is the same as when we humans experience between the breathless I love yous of new love (the “honeymoon stage”) and the I love you that people remark to each other right before heading to the office in the morning: And don’t forget your umbrella!

The reason I say that grackles are a fitting subject for this blog is that they are one of those critters, like the opossum, that’s so common people take the miracle of their existence for granted. Yes, it is true that flocks of grackles can cause serious damage to agricultural crops. They’re not “perfect” in every way in our viewpoint. But still, there is much to admire about them.

First, the bad stuff. From day one, grackles have been in love with European-style agriculture, which was imported to America, their native continent, with white settlers and spread westward from New England. Before the widespread clearing of land and establishment of crop fields, grackles undoubtedly were much less numerous. And you can’t blame them for taking advantage of a good thing: If someone offered you a free gift certificate to a fine restaurant, wouldn’t you take it?

So they feed hungrily on crops, particularly rice and corn, eating the new sprouts, eating the young kernels as they are still ripening, and then feeding on the ripe corn as well. They also hang around feedlots and any other place where grain is spilled on the ground. (They like to eat off the ground.) Supposedly, a group of grackles is called a “plague.” That sounds like prissy New England Puritan-talk to me.

But being an agricultural pest isn’t the whole story; grackles also eat plenty of insects, too, many of which are destructive. I’ve seen our backyard grackles picking big white juicy grubs out of the ground, and I know that some people resent those grubs so much that they spray poison on their lawns. Grackles also follow behind plows, picking insects from the split-open soil, even eating the occasional (destructive) rodent as well.

At any rate, Sue and I are not farmers—indeed, we purchase grain from farmers in order to feed it to the birds! (It is rather ironic, isn’t it!) The grackles in our yard aren’t overly abundant, and they don’t even seem to be the “bullies” toward other birds that some folks say they are. At the feeder, they more or less coexist with the other birds. For example, they and the mourning doves both feed off the ground, and any pushing and intimidating between them goes both ways, with the searching, stalking grackles encountering a plump, immoveable object in the seed-hoovering dove.

In terms of personality, the grackles in our backyard are simply direct. Their attitude toward the other birds at the feeder and the birdbath is nothing personal—instead, it’s as if they don’t even see the other birds. The grackles focus on what they want—the food, the water—and then get it. I haven’t seen them peck at the other birds or show aggression toward them. Instead, their foraging is as direct as their flight, as purposeful as their long strides through the grass. And I rather admire that. Grackles are cool.

Try this sometime, if you haven’t already: Next time you walk down a sidewalk with a fair number of people on it, try an experiment by altering your posture, facial expression, and gaze to see how other passersby respond. First, if you act lost in thought, eyes low, shoulders slumped, you will find yourself shifting to the side to allow more room for oncoming pedestrians to pass you.

However, if you push out your chest, shoulders back, hold your head high, stride with confidence, and gaze ahead with a proud, aware look, you might notice even big burly guys slouching a bit to the side as you pass by.

I think this is what we see at our bird feeders; the grackles simply intimidate the other birds with their body language. And the weird, pale yellow eyes might help. They give the bird an aware, penetrating expression, an intensity. Maybe it unnerves the other birdies.

I am always impressed by the grackle’s plumage. Calling it a “blackbird” is practically an insult, like calling Vincent van Gogh an “illustrator.” Though the grackle’s plumage is technically black, the structure of the feathers creates rainbows of iridescence. The subspecies or “phase” that we have here in Central Missouri is the bronzed grackle (I’m pretty sure), which has a hood of bluish-green iridescence on the head, and an indescribably nuanced rainbow of bronzy color over the rest of the body, with the tail emphasizing purple hues. The males are the most striking, but the females, though duller, still have quite a bit of iridescent beauty.

When the grackles were a-courtin’ this past month or so, the males were spectacular, with their various courtship postures accentuating their iridescence and the sleekness and splendor of their forms. When they flew, they seemed to be showing off their athleticism, the fineness of being alive. The oddly V-shaped way they hold their tail feathers when they fly during this time seems an expression of pure vitality.

Grackles are not starlings—they belong here in North America. If their numbers seem overwhelming at times, it is because we humans have created conditions perfect for their expansion. One Web source I looked at recently said, however, that grackle populations have declined in North America by 61 percent; at one point, there had been more than 190 million grackles, but now there are more like 73 million. One more declining species of bird in North America! So Sue and I don’t have a single problem with feeding them, and letting them nest in our yew tree.


Special thanks to Sue for taking these nice pictures for me, and for letting me use them on my blog. These photos are from a few weeks ago, when they were courting, pair-bonding, and mating. Now we need to get some pictures of their nest!


See my slightly newer post for a discussion of grackle voices and pictures of the babies!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Munichburg Corner Update, May 2

I took a little stroll at lunchtime today and got some more photos for you. There have been some new developments.

First of all, if you don’t know what the Munichburg Corner is, you’ll have to look at some earlier posts, such as the one here.

Here are a couple of views of the whole shebang—this view is to the north along Jefferson:

This view is eastward along Dunklin:

The biggest new development is that they’ve torn up the old concrete in front of the wall and scraped the rubble to the side: They’re preparing the ground in front of the monument for the personalized pavers!

I also noticed that they’d gotten rid of the surplus stone left over from the building of the wall and cleaned up behind there.

Another new thing is that they’ve added the caps to the wall’s square columns. Here’s a picture of one.

Southside Commercial Historic District

Meanwhile, down the street a little ways, the 100 block of East Dunklin looks very close to being finished—at least on the outside. Look here for a recent post showing some pictures of this project in progress.

They seem finished with the sidewalks. It’s hard to tell from my pictures, which were taken at high noon, but the walks adjacent to the buildings aren’t the typical cement color—they are tinted brown.

They are now focusing on the street and curbing in front of the sidewalk, chopping up the edge of the street there and replacing it with concrete:

Oh, also, they are doing some work on the former “Texas T’s” bar; instead of it being a rude drinking and brawling establishment, they’re turning this into three different storefronts, with three entrances. I understand that they are wanting to attract businesses like a beauty shop, tanning salon, or a Curves, or perhaps even a food franchise, if the parent company approves of a nonstandard building location.

So! Things are really looking beautiful there in the heart of Munichburg’s historic business district, don’t you think?

. . . And this little dude certainly has something to smile at now!