Saturday, August 27, 2011

Spreading Joy in Westphalia, Missouri

It’s a wedding tradition I had certainly never heard about, but if you search the Internet for word combinations like “manure + spreader + wedding,” you can find some information (but not much). If you have done just that, and landed on this Web page, and if you have any information, I hope you’ll post a comment or go to the Op Op Facebook page (see the link at the right) and leave a note there.

As I mentioned in my last post, we drove around south of Jeff City last weekend, and part of that was in Westphalia. While we were there, we asked a couple of locals if they knew about a tradition involving a newlywed couple exiting the church grounds not in a limo but on the back of a manure spreader.

And this couple had indeed heard of it. They said it has to do with good luck—it’s supposed to guarantee a long marriage, or something like that. (They intimated that their observations have disproven the notion, but apparently it’s a tradition that some people might still do.)

—Have you ever heard of such a thing?

The reason I asked them is that my mom has recently been scanning her old slides, and a couple of these show a bride and groom exiting the parking lot of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Westphalia, Missouri, perched side-by-side on the back of a manure spreader (thankfully it was covered with some kind of tarp!). In the picture, they are being pulled by an Allis-Chalmers D-15 tractor.

(These people, by the way, are not friends or acquaintances of my parents; my dad just happened to be in Westphalia when this occurred and took pictures, which is exactly what anyone in their right mind would do when presented with such a spectacle!)

The manure spreader’s wheels are devoid of tires—they are just bare rims—it must have been a rough ride! Also, there are two old brooms tied upright somewhat decoratively on the front corners of the spreader. A rope swings in a U-shape, hanging at each end from one of the brooms. Dangling from this rope are two stirrups from a horse saddle.

The front end of the spreader is marked “Donated by ?” (I think that’s a question mark), and the side (funnily enough) that the groom is on is labeled “HER.” (I bet, amid all the joy and rice-throwing, the couple inadvertently sat down on the “wrong” sides.) The wheel rim that’s visible in the photos is marked “wheel of” something—I can’t see the part not facing the camera.

I’m pretty sure those are strings of Stag beer cans dragging from the back of the manure spreader. Classy!

The date of this photo is almost certainly October 1964: Anyone know who this couple is? If the luck of the “manure-spreader wedding limo” has held out, they’re getting close to their golden anniversary!

Here’s a photo we took last weekend of St. Joseph’s church in Westphalia.

It’s a very attractive, historic town, and if you haven’t been there, you should make a point of visiting it. Westphalia, you might recall, is home of the Westphalia Inn, with its delicious family-style dinners and house-made wines, and its popular Norton Room, Corkscrew Deck, murder-mystery dinners, and live music. Westphalia also has bed and breakfasts for you to relax at, plus the Westphalia Historical Society now has a museum.

And St. Joseph’s, like the other Catholic parishes in the region, has an annual summer picnic (which was August 7 this year) and fall supper. The fall supper will be on October 16 this year. And you know—not even counting the delicious sausage—that’s a perfect time of year to go for a drive in rural Missouri.

. . . Though I wouldn’t recommend seeing it from the back of a manure spreader!

NOTE: The 1964 photos in this post are property of my Mom and Dad, who gave me permission to use them, so don't you dare copy them. Be nice; ask permission first!

MYSTERY SOLVED. Read the comments below, and click here for a newer post explaining everything. And click here for more on the story!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Micro-Trip Sunday

Busy Sunday! It was yard work, and then it was a micro-trip.

Recent Yard Work

The yard’s been a fright all summer. I got behind this spring on account of my busted ankle. (And spring is a bad time to get behind.) Then we had all that rain and bad weather. (I’d like to propose a new word just for the spring of 2011: tornadoiest.)

Then it got too darn hot! And who wants to do anything outside in hundred-degree heat? Might as well ask me to do yard work in two or three feet of snow!

So with the somewhat cooler weather we’ve been getting, I’ve started banging away at the yard again. It’s sheer biomass out there—the weeds, plus all the stuff that simply needs trimming on a regular basis. I would love it if one day Jeff City had curbside pickup of yard waste, like Columbia has, but I guess that would be too much like socialism or something, so it won’t “fly” here.

Anyway, I finally got around to weeding and dressing up a few of our flowerbeds. Mulch hides a multitude of sins. This year I discovered a brand new weed: black nightshade. We had (and probably still have) it in abundance in a flowerbed along the back of our house. Durn stuff snaps off easily right at ground level—I’m sure a lot will resprout.

After reading about the plant, I’m going to tentatively blame the catbirds for its presence in our yard—apparently black nightshade produces juicy, black, edible berries. And you know how catbirds love them berries. For a while this spring, the catbirds were building a nest in the mock orange right near that flowerbed.

Ah well. Just like catbirds love them berries, we love them catbirds.

We’ll find a way to deal with the black nightshades, mulberry seedlings, wintercreeper sprouts, poison ivy starts, and all the other catbird-distributed berries that take root in our yard.

The Micro-Trip

I like that term, don’t you? I made it up just now—though I suspect others have used it, too. It’s something shorter than a “staycation,” even shorter than a “day trip.” It’s more than a single-destination trip; it’s a miniature tour, an adventure that starts at Point A and leads to several more points, including a few surprises, before returning home.

What got us out of the house, after we’d cleaned up from the work outside, was the summer picnic at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in St. Thomas, a little burg south of Jefferson City.

One of the things we like to do at church picnics is step inside the church and look around. It’s really cool to see how different congregations (and denominations, and religions) have decorated their holy spaces.

St. Thomas has a really nifty old pipe organ up in the choir loft. I think it’s being repaired or renovated, as there were pipes lying on the floor next to it. (I hope all goes okay with that process!)

I’ve blogged about the St. Thomas summer picnic before, but here’s a refresher: Fried chicken and roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, fresh tomatoes, sauerkraut with potatoes in it, applesauce, homemade bread, and a dessert, chosen by you off the opulently enticing dessert table.

At St. Thomas, the dessert table is actually organized by dessert type: Slices of peach pie, strawberry pie, blackberry pie, rhubarb pie, pumpkin pie, coconut cream pie, lemon meringue pie, cake, cookies, etc. It’s even labeled. I don’t know of any other of the church suppers in the area that are that careful. Usually, the desserts are spread out on tables willy-nilly, in glorious disarray, and you might have to guess about what kind of pie to choose.

Anyway: St. Thomas! Good fried chicken. Long wait. We had tickets #1770 and 1771, I think, and about the time we got in the door, we saw people with tickets 2120 or something. And this was still three hours or so before the end of the serving period.

Quilt auction. Cake walk. Country store (bake sale, homemade preserves, fresh produce). Stuff for the kids to do, including pony rides. The beer wagon. Country music. And much more. I’ve told you about these local church suppers before.

Sue’s been using an old twin-lens reflex camera—you know, the kind that uses film—and developing her own black and white negatives. (She can scan negatives herself, so she doesn’t need an enlarger or whatever.) So we walked around the town of St. Thomas, where she found lots of fun “textures” to photograph.

Also, St. Thomas has one of the post offices that, according to recent announcements by the U.S. Postal Service, will probably soon be closed. We had to get a few pictures of it. They don’t build ’em like this anymore.

Back on the road, and we drove through the town of Meta, whose big industry is the making of pet foods; formerly, it was a hub for charcoal manufacture.

Meta is a town that reminds me of Eureka Springs, sort of; it’s hilly and decorated with some truly nifty old houses. Unfortunately, Meta hasn’t experienced much of a renaissance, and many of the old homes are quite dilapidated.

We drove on, cruising through the “wide spot on the road” known as Babbtown, and stopping next at Koeltztown. You generally hear it pronounced “kelts-town.”

By far the most prominent building in Koeltztown is the St. Boniface Catholic Church, which in 2008 celebrated its 150th anniversary; the congregation dates to 1858, though the current building apparently went up in 1877.

It’s a lovely church, adorned with remarkable paintings, including the Stations of the Cross on both sides of the sanctuary.

Perhaps more remarkable is the large, elaborate, handmade stone grotto or shrine outside the church. A plaque on it reads: “Donated by Henry J. Lueckenhoff, in memory of Joseph and Anna Lueckenhoff.” It’s really something to see.

The stones were carefully chosen and placed. At certain places, whoever built this (Henry J.?) attached particularly intriguing or beautiful specimens—big chunks of crystals, or rocks with prehistoric mud cracks, and more.

It’s kind of like a geology field trip, just looking at it.

And of course, after a morning of yard work, I couldn’t help but look at it and think, “Hey, maybe I could make a planter like this. We sure have lots of rocks I could use . . .”

From there, we drove back home, stopping briefly at Westphalia, which I guess will have to have a whole separate post.

All in all, a satisfying day—good yard work accomplishment, good country food, and a relaxing drive. And we needed it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Peach Fairy Was Here!

. . . I'm sure that's what the woodchucks, "Beth" and "Little Beth," think whenever we set the morning's pile of peach peelings out under the walnut tree.

I've told you about woodchucks before. We have a few on our block that apparently live in burrows around some of the vacant and semi-abandoned and marginally maintained "rental" housing nearby. (We used to be unqualified preservationists, but some of the houses on our block are beyond repair and are simply waiting in line to be torn down.)

It's not like we're "feeding" the woodchucks, particularly (we don't even set seed out for the squirrels, to keep them from the bird feeders, anymore)--we just feed the birds, and seed falls to the ground, and the woodchucks come to vacuum up the scraps. Sometimes the woodchuck sits there on the ground right next to the mourning doves, who are similarly interested in Hoovering up spilled millet, cracked corn, and what-all.

But on these mornings when I peel three or four peaches to have with our breakfast, we have a choice of where to toss the peels and pits. Should we scrape them into the garbage can (where they would soon get boozy and draw fruit flies)? Or put them into our backyard composter? (It's a plastic bin that is always full of weeds and seems rather creepy with spiders, picture-winged flies, mold, and more--it's kind of hard to face in the mornings; plus, peach peelings seem too sweet and precious for the composter.)

So instead, we put them in the yard, where a hungry and appreciative mammal can find them.

Ever since that lengthy, dry, hot spell we had (practically from June through July), we've been setting our cantaloupe rinds and fruit peelings under the walnut, where we know that Beth and Little Beth walk past, on their way to our bird feeders, and where (we know) the local opossum(s) and raccoon(s) amble past during the night shift.

The scraps always disappear within twelve hours. Although I haven't seen it, Sue says that once or twice, she's seen the woodchucks discover a fresh pile of peach peels.

She says they fall on it like prospectors on the mother lode.

To them, it must seem like manna from heaven, a supreme ambrosial treat--especially given this hot, dry summer of crackling, brown grass and a dearth of anything remotely resembling "succulence."

To them, it must seem like the "Peach Fairy" came and granted them a special boon! If woodchucks are capable of rejoicing (they always have such a deadpan expression), this would inspire it.

And as far as we're concerned--as long as the woodchucks refrain from burrowing under our house--they are quite free to enjoy the sweet peels that we don't want.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Voted “Meanest Common Name Ever”

Many amazing animals on God’s green earth have been vilified, abhorred, hated, persecuted by humans, needlessly—out of fear and ignorance. Out of prejudice, and in complete denial of our own human wickedness and insensitivity.

Spiders generally fall into this group.

And the people who “like” spiders tend to fit into a sort of “type” (trust me, I saw a lot of these guys when I worked at the pet store)—these are the same people who think piranhas, snakes, and any other seemingly “ferocious” predators are “cool.” I used to get the idea that these guys (and they usually were “guys”) didn’t “love” their pets so much as they liked the “bad boy” image those pets conferred upon their owners. (Probably “compensating.” Am I right—?)

But I contend that with a better understanding of their biology, and a willingness to translate their lifeways into the kinds of issues that matter to us—our children’s welfare, our survival, the pain of hunger—we can see them not “just” as predators but as animals more or less like all the other animals, ourselves included.

So today I’ve been thinking about a particular species of spider—a running spider, a wolf spider—that has gotten stuck with a most repellent name. Even the scientific name is unfortunate: Rabidosa rabida. You can probably guess right now what that means.

Here’s the common name: Rabid wolf spider. Rabid? Rabid?? It’s just silly. Invertebrates like spiders don’t carry or suffer from rabies; mammals (like ourselves) do.

I haven’t been able to find an explanation for the Latin name or the first word of the common name. So your guess is a good as mine. Meanwhile, our forever calling it “rabid” can’t do anything to help the PR efforts of this robust, athletic hunter.

For lots of interesting pictures of this species, click here.

The “wolf spider” name is fairly apt. This family of spiders, the Lycosidae, are swift runners. They don’t build webs; instead, like wolves, they have to chase down their prey on the ground. (A better metaphor, however, is a cat—for these spiders are intensely solitary and don’t hunt in wolflike “packs.”)

Wolf spiders, you might be interested to know, are lie-in-wait predators, kind of like pikes, cheetahs, and herons. They sit relatively still and quietly wait for prey to wander by—and then Boom! They’ve got ’em! Nailed! (Duck, turkey, squirrel, and deer hunters do about the same thing, only they “cheat” and use weapons—imagine how hard it would be if they had to chase after and grab their quarry!)

I think wolf spiders’ instinctive hunting strategy is what accounts for their sudden, jerky, fast movements. They’re not trying to be scary—it’s just that their movements only seem to have an “on” and “off” switch—stop, and GO!

When they’re hungry, they have to be able to distinguish between their prey and the “scenery,” which is why they sit so still: They’re looking for motion. Think of a cat frozen in place, zeroing on the movements near your birdfeeder!

Wolf spiders have pretty good eyesight, unlike the spiders that hang around in webs hoping to net and truss their prey. All wolf spiders have the same arrangement of eyes: On the lowest part of their “face,” a row of four little eyes; then a little higher, two quite large eyes, sort of like goggles; then, higher still and facing more to the sides, two medium-sized eyes.

Wolf spiders, by the way, can often be located as you walk around at night, if you hold a flashlight against your temple, right next to your eye, and beam the light parallel to your gaze, against the ground—these spiders have eyeshine like cats and rabbits, and their little “goggles” will reflect back at you like tiny mirrors.

One of the most remarkable things about wolf spiders, however, is the intensity of their maternal instinct. Female wolf spiders lay their eggs and enclose them into an egg sac, then attach the egg sac to the end of their abdomen, against the spinnerets. They drag this sac of eggs everywhere they go, even when they hunt. The egg sac can be almost as big as themselves, and nearly as heavy, too.

They are famous for the intensity of their search, should the egg sac fall off for some reason. They have been described as “frantic” as they hunt for their eggs; if they don’t find the egg sac, they sometimes instinctively attach another rounded object, like an empty snail shell, in its place.

The maternal instinct doesn’t end there, oh no. When it’s time for her eggs to hatch, the wolf spider allows all two or three hundred of the tiny spiderlings to scamper up her legs and onto her body, where for the next six months or so, they ride around, safe, on her abdomen. Again, while she hunts and carries on her life.

This doesn’t seem very “rabid” to me—it’s actually more like “family values”: a mother carefully tending to her children, the way nature intended.

The reason why I’m on this subject is that yesterday, while I was doing a bunch of yard work, I uncovered a female “rabid wolf spider” and her egg case. It was like a pale blue marble. It was about the size of a blueberry, or a green pea, and about as heavy.

In her haste (I was getting rid of an old brush pile that was her home), she dropped the egg case as she darted up the nearby walnut tree. I continued my work, figuring she would either come back for it or not.

About fifteen minutes later, after she’d gotten over her shock, she crept tentatively back down the tree trunk, retracing the steps of her flight, heading to where she’d dropped her egg sac. And indeed she hunted for it. Carefully. She was pretty wigged out at having her brush pile utterly “disappeared.”

But she was evidently quite relieved upon rediscovering her eggs. She put her whole body over them. She seemed to be checking them out. She carried them around. She did not reattach them, however.

I took photos of her, but when I stood to continue my yard work, she ran away again, abandoning the egg case. It was still there when we went in for the night. This morning, it was gone.

Two scenarios come immediately to mind: either she came back and retrieved them (which is my hope, since it was my doings that separated her from her eggs in the first place), or else some critter came along and enjoyed some spider caviar. That wouldn’t be such a bad fate, I guess, since the eggs would at least have done some good, somehow. It would be sad if they just rotted or got squished or something.

But I’ll keep my eyes open for her; if she did reclaim her egg sac, surely in a few weeks the eggs will have hatched and she’ll be walking around with her babies. And that would be pretty cool to see.

But we seriously need to come up with a better name for this creature—“rabid wolf spider” isn’t fair, and it isn’t kind. We can’t change the scientific name, but common names are, by definition, mutable, regional, fickle, inventive. Anyone have any suggestions?

Ummm, for the characteristic stripes . . . “Bacon-backed wolf spider”—? (Who doesn’t love bacon, even in secret?)

“Chocolate-striped wolf spider”? Chocolate has a lot of happy associations!

“Skechers wolf spider”? They remind me of those spiffy brown-striped casual sneakers so popular these days. And they are definitely a running spider . . .

Or . . . well, what do you think?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ginger-Peach Oat Bran Muffins

Peaches are in season—hallelujah! And you know how it goes: You get a big mess of ’em, then soon discover that your strategy of “doling out” those precious, special gems isn’t working—you wake up a few mornings later to find they’re getting softer than they ought to.

And this is why people bake with fresh peaches. Otherwise, you would just suck them up raw, like you should’ve done in the first place!

And anyway, it’s time to share with you a new oat bran muffin recipe! Click here to see the ones I’ve posted so far.

Here’s why I’m addicted to oat bran muffins: They’re delicious, compact, and portable. They’re filling without being fattening (that is, they have lots of fiber), but they never make me feel, well, bloated. With all that fiber, it’s good for the, ah, digestion. And then there’s the whole oat-bran/cholesterol thing.

Also, I believe one or two oat bran muffins, plus some good, fresh fruit, makes an excellent breakfast for losing weight (kind of like “Slim Fast,” minus the spooky additives and outrageous price tag). Great for snacking, too.

Ginger-Peach Oat Bran Muffins

As I’ve mentioned before, the basic recipe’s a blank slate that can be taken in all sorts of flavorful directions, and I can make up mixes ahead of time, making a morning’s baking very easy.

Note that the basic recipe doesn’t include the egg yolks, and uses instead only two tablespoons of vegetable oil (or olive or canola—your choice). Additional liquid can be skim milk or 2 percent, or evaporated skim milk, or low-fat yogurt, or fruit juice . . . take your pick.

So, here’s the basic recipe (for convenience, I usually buy a big bag of oat bran at the bulk store, then make up several batches with the dry ingredients, then store in the fridge in zip bags):

(((Preheat oven at 425 degrees F)))

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

To the basic dry ingredients, I add these special flavors for this recipe:

--1/4 or 1/3 cup chopped candied ginger (see below)
--a small pinch of ground cloves (optional)

In a separate bowl, mix together the wet ingredients:

--3 egg whites, or equivalent in egg substitute
--2 tbs. vegetable oil
--3 very ripe peaches, pitted, peeled, and mashed, including all their juices

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.

Spoon into prepared muffin tins (use paper muffin cups or spray with Pam). (Makes 1 dozen.)

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.

About Candied Ginger

Oh, yum! If you haven’t yet “discovered” candied ginger, you’re in for a real treat! For baking, it’s a wonderful “secret weapon.” Baking tends to mellow its intensity and bring out its pure sweetness. I like to add chopped candied ginger to a pumpkin pie. Ooh, I bet it’d be good with cooked sweet potatoes or butternut squash, if you’re taking it in the “brown sugar/cinnamon” direction.

Also, I think it’s delicious as a zippy little snack—sweet and hot, very intense!—or as an addition to a really good cheese platter, just like you might include a few dried apricots or nice big golden raisins. A little goes a long way.

(Okay, now my mouth is watering!)

Where do you get candied ginger? Well, you can often buy little bitty jars of it in the “spices” section of a regular supermarket—for an arm and a leg! Seriously, that’s too dear for general cooking. Like cardamom, candied ginger is something worth going to an international grocery or bulk store for.

You can buy bulk candied ginger at Global Foods in St. Louis, for instance, or at the Dutch Bakery in Tipton. The price might vary widely, from three to five dollars a pound, but this is more or less like the price of dried apricots, so it’s not outrageous (and still better than buying it off a supermarket spice rack). Like raisins, candied ginger keeps well on a shelf, and it’s great to have on hand for any number of purposes, so I encourage you to try it out!