Sunday, December 30, 2012

Come and Laugh at the Finke!

Do you hear that loud whoooshing sound? That’s the holiday season, nearly over! Whatever are we going to do once we get to the “other side”? No more salty cheese logs, no more fruitcakes, no more strange beers that taste like pine needles!

Fortunately, we don’t have to pack away our “ho-ho-ho’s,” because we here in Central Missouri can go to California’s “Last Comic Standing”! It’s a fundraiser for the historic Finke Theatre—so the cost of the tickets (a measly ten bucks) is a donation to a good cause.

What—you say you don’t know what the Finke Theatre is? Ohhhh people, you need to get out more! The Finke was California, Missouri’s local opera house 125 years ago—most towns of any size boasted at least one opera house—and people went there to see stage shows, musicals, plays, and school events. And yes, there would also be trained professional singers who would tour America, bringing high culture everywhere.

Click here to learn about the history of the Finke Theatre.

And it became a Vaudeville theater and motion-picture house. It was transformed into an art-deco-style movie theater that finally closed its doors in 1978. THEN, an organization called California Progress, Inc. (CPI) started raising funds and renovating the theater—and what a beautiful job they’ve done! Indeed, the work is still ongoing, but the historic landmark was reopened in 2009. It’s used for live performances and as a community center.

Click here to see the lineup for the 2012-2013 season. They have a nice mix of performances (“something for everyone”): magic, music, ragtime piano, storytelling, the annual community play, and more. All in that beautiful, welcoming space. You really should go to one of these shows! (Do you like folk music? Our beloved Cathy Barton and Dave Para, I see, are performing on February 16 . . .)

So what’s this fundraiser about--? Well, CPI is the group that’s been paying for the Finke and its renovations. Click here to learn more about CPI and its plans for the Finke. You see, it’s not just about the Finke as a building—it’s about the revitalization of downtown California, and strengthening that city’s sense of community.

The fundraiser is a “last comic standing” competition: Four standup comics will entertain the audience in 15-20 minute sets, and then the audience gets to vote for first, second, and third place. As an added bonus, there will be three more comics who’ll perform while the voting is going on.

Here’s a Youtube that amounts to a commercial for the event!

Ten bucks! You’ll check out the Finke Theatre, have a fun road trip to California, laugh your buns off, make new friends, and maybe even stop off and get ya some California-made Burger’s ham or sausage! (And do check out the Finke’s other events. You’ll probably want to return!)

When: January 12 (Saturday), 7-9 pm (doors at 6:30)
Where: Finke Theatre (315 N. High St., California, Mo.)
Cost: $10
For tickets: call 913-669-2979

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Aunt Carole

We have a special post today! We’re celebrating the birthday of my Aunt Carole, who was born this day in 1932. The day after Christmas! (That’s how she got the name Carole!)

I’m scheduling this to go online (and public) during her birthday party at my cousin’s house in Moniteau County, not far from where Aunt Carole and Uncle Richard live. She asked that everyone bring a homemade card for her.

Time to get creative! Okay: Since she has such a delicious love/hate relationship with computers, I thought it would be fitting (and fun) for her to receive a card with a URL on it, and have her own special place (however humble my offering is) on the Internet devoted to her.

You realize that any verbal sketch of a human being always falls short—and for that I apologize. There’s no way I can satisfactorily characterize Aunt Carole—a woman I’ve known all my forty-seven years, so she’s as much a part of my reality as air and water and earth—so we have to make do with some vignettes showing certain aspects of her that (I think) illustrate what a beautiful and engaging woman she is.

Eclectic Carole

One of the reasons I’m glad I moved back to Missouri is that I’ve gotten to know Aunt Carole and Uncle Richard (hereinafter, “Carole” and “Richard,” to save space) from an adult perspective, and having unrushed time to spend with them. More than ever, I’m impressed by their wide range of interests. They live in a small town—actually, the outskirts of a small town—but they both negate the stereotype of the close-minded small-town citizen. The only thing greater than the breadth of their knowledge is the depth of their curiosity. As you’ll see below, Carole is always trying to understand things better, and she doesn’t set limits on what’s “worth knowing.” It’s all grist for her mill!

Agricultural Carole

It’s not a surprise that someone who lives in a rural area would be a gardener, and Carole, the daughter of lifelong gardeners, is right in there with the best of them. Her garden is in a forest clearing, next to the long gravel drive to her and Richard’s “cabin in the woods,” lovingly called “Touch the Earth.”

Last year, the drought, and Carole’s being hampered by a serious elbow injury that kept her out the garden, limited her veggie output, but let me tell you—the whole family has been spoiled, utterly spoiled, by her summertime gifts of squash, tomatoes, basil, cilantro, lettuce, escarole, peppers, cucumbers, and beans, her glorious nanny beans, a completely stringless heirloom variety passed to her from her mom.

In our first years at our house, she brought us humongous, just-picked kale plants just in time for our holiday cooking. Such beautiful veggies, I almost hated to cook them. I asked how she kept bugs from eating the leaves, and she told me she plucked off the insects by hand. How’s that for organic! Also, the system she invented for coping with late frosts is ingenious—so smart she ought to patent it!

Gardening in the woods presents its own set of challenges, particularly in the form of critters—so Carole has been inventive in ways to thwart herbivores from above and below (deer, rabbits, squirrels, voles, squash bugs, etc.). And yet there is a sign along their driveway, as you approach their house, that says, “CRITTERS WELCOME.” There’s a paradox right there! One of Carole’s fun original stories is about “Wendy Weevil,” who is a type of critter reviled by most farmers but championed by Carole for its place in nature. She understands the balance, embraces the paradox, and fights the good fight of gardeners everywhere.

Woodsy Carole

This is a good place to talk about Carole of the woods, Carole who cuts firewood alongside the menfolks and who has never lost her childlike wonder about the woods. She has a true gift for getting children engaged with nature, too. (I speak from personal experience as well as from observing her with younger relatives.)

When they moved into their cabin, with its nice tract of wooded Ozark landscape, she discovered “stump dirt,” the freshly rotted wood turning to soil at the base of a hollow or dying tree. Apparently this is nature’s best-ever potting soil!

She glories at the wildflowers, dogwoods, and redbuds in springtime, and she’s a champion morel hunter. When Sue and I wanted to learn more about morel hunting, she’s the one we approached. And she and Richard were kind enough to take us on a hunt in their woods, even showing us where the shrooms usually pop up. (Anyone who knows anything about morel hunting, and its secrecy about fungal treasure troves, understands how charitable this was!)

I could go on and on about Carole’s love of nature, but anyone of like mind understands how all-embracing such a love is, and how it influences everyone who knows her. That her kids—my cousins—all grew up loving, and not fearing nature, is a testament to her unqualified appreciation of our natural world.

Socratic Carole

When my cousins grew up and left home, Carole went back to school and got an education degree at MU. She taught high school history at Bunceton for some years, and I often wonder about those farm-bred Bunceton kids, who were undoubtedly bewildered, trying to make sense of what had to be, for them, an unknown teaching approach: I’m sure Aunt Carole employed the Socratic method of questioning in order to stimulate her students to develop critical thinking skills, and get them to practice a fruitful system for their own intellectual explorations. Carole has always been a questioner—of others, and, I think, of herself. Which is always the approach of the wise.

I have to say (with a mischievous grin), this quality of Carole makes her great fun at parties. She is not bashful about talking to anyone, and the conversations are always fun. Her intense interest, in a huge range of subjects, at first surprises people who don’t know her, but as she draws people out, they find themselves engaged in what will become a memorable, and possibly enlightening, conversation.

Intellectual Carole

Carole is a bona fide intellectual, yet unlike other incredibly smart people, she doesn’t act like she’s aware of it. She doesn’t lord it over people, she’s not snooty; she’s simply enthusiastic. Take opera, for example. Remember that television commercial in the seventies of the cowboy riding the plains on horseback, listening to the Metropolitan Opera via his transistor radio stuck hanging from the horn of his saddle? That’s kind of like Carole, listening to some of the greatest performance art of Western culture with sheer enjoyment, oblivious to the fact that most people consider opera something that only “ivory tower” types can appreciate.

Seriously—the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts are like candy to her. And yeah, after years of listening to the Saturday NPR opera broadcasts, she knows all the stories and everything! (I betcha she can name the opera this picture’s from right off the bat!)

I’ve mentioned her being a history teacher, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she and Richard are core members of the Moniteau County Historical Society, have created many of the museum’s displays, were deeply involved in writing and editing volumes of local history, and much more.

Weaver Carole

Carole has a low-key, part-time home business in rug-making. She inherited her antique loom from her mom’s family and has used this massive wooden contraption for years to make high-quality, fancy rag rugs and related items. During the California Ham and Turkey Festival (held in mid-September), you can usually find her in the front lobby of the Moniteau County Historical Society Museum, weaving a rug, and encouraging children to try it.

She takes commissions. Often her rugs are made to order, including the color scheme. She recently completed a big placemat and table-runner project for some Mizzou Tigers fans, using all black and gold colors. She’s really good at it! The weave is tight and the rugs incredibly sturdy. (I have one of her rugs, and I hate to step on it!)

Healthy Carole

At this point, it’s hard for me to remember Aunt Carole’s pies when she made them with (shhh!!!) lard—but I do remember them being exquisite, perfect in every way. Ripe, succulent fruits, and tender, perfectly flaky crusts. Naturally, people oohed and aahed over them. But guess what? Carole remains the whole extended family’s uncontested top pie-maker, even after she switched away from such traditional ingredients in favor of heart-healthy ones.

I guess it was in the eighties when the doctors told Richard he needed to lower his cholesterol, sodium, and what-not, and Carole took those instructions seriously. Embracing the challenge (and her husband), she explored healthy cooking methods, new ingredients, and low-fat recipes. So, toss out another small-town stereotype! Carole knows her way around pestos, low-fat soups, pies without lard, and much more. She’s learned how to make “healthy” taste opulent!

In fact, Carole’s become famous for her own special Christmas stollen recipe. We greedily anticipate our annual loaf! While most stollens are butter-laden, papoose-shaped affairs, drizzled with icing or sprinkled with powdered sugar, Carole’s stollen are made in loaf tins and are more breadlike—yet they’re sweet enough, with the fruits and nuts that are de rigueur in stollen, but more substantial. I like to toast a slice, and put butter on it. (Yeah, sometimes I use real butter!) Goes great with grapefruit or sliced oranges!

Multicultural Carole

Missouri’s recently been an appallingly “red” state, but Carole and Richard remain staunchly, steadfastly “blue,” and for that, I’m personally grateful. When others in the family vote “red” and therefore seem willing to sell me and Sue “down the river” in terms of civil rights, Carole and Richard are two who question the deep character flaws of politicians who inflame homophobia in order to attract votes. It’s nice to know that they accept us as a couple, and that they don’t have to perform mental gymnastics on election day in order to reconcile their feelings for us with the way they intend to vote.

Indeed, Carole and Richard have welcomed diversity into their family for decades, as my cousins have taken spouses who represent diversity in race and religion and whose children reflect racial and religious diversity as well. In fact, I think Carole and Richard are more than just “accepting” of this diversity—I think they see it as a badge of honor—they’re proud that their kids grew up comfortable enough to reach across subcultural borders, follow their hearts, and not worry about expectations and “shoulds.”

Canoeing Carole

Carole’s favorite thing in the world is to go canoeing on the Current River. In July 2007, she and Richard took Sue and me with them for a day on the river, and we got to see why Carole’s so addicted to it.

Truly, it’s beyond description—the sensation of floating in a narrow vessel sliding with the current downstream, the quietness of the river broken only by the sound of paddles dipping in the water and birds singing in the trees, the lush watercress like green garlands waving below, and the beautiful clear water in a pool just right for swimming on a hot July day.

Carole showed us how she likes to float on her back on the water’s surface, arms outstretched, and let the water carry her gently downstream. Her eyes were closed, her face beatific, her fingers gently outstretched in an unconscious gesture of gratitude, of grace. I think that for her, this is pretty close to nirvana. I had not seen her like this before, and I gained new respect and admiration for her that day.

I understand, now, why Uncle Richard claims that the sure way to get Carole out of a cycle of anxiety or grumpiness is to “get her out on the river!” The river is her cathedral, her holy land, the home of her heart and her soul.

My Aunt Carole

In preparing this post, I kept thinking of my earliest memories of Aunt Carole, which were usually from family parties and get-togethers, usually crowded occasions that felt overwhelming to me as a little kid. (I was always the youngest.) I recall all the adults leaning down to talk to me—big adult faces grinning and asking me questions I had no answers for. Carole was one of these people.

She struck me then as brusque—but then most of the adults seemed that way at parties, since they were essentially taking time out from the more interesting adult conversations to pay attention to me. And Carole often seemed more “intellectual” than “warm”—but maybe that’s more of a reflection of my own kid-self than it is of her.

Anyway, as I’ve gotten to know her better, since my return to Missouri, I’ve come to see more of the caring side of her. I’ve come to realize that one of the big ways she shows her love is by doing things—through actions.

In the last few decades, I’ve seen Aunt Carole, and Richard and my parents, all go through the difficult years of caring for their elderly parents and seeing them through to their passing. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and Carole, with the others in her generation, showed a tenacious, loving grace as she cared for her parents and mother-in-law.

One of my favorite stories about her lovingness and charity, however, is about near-strangers: One time, she brought morels to the old folks at the nursing home. It was all carefully planned and premeditated—she preheated her insulated cooler with hot water bottles, picked a bunch of morels, fried them just so, in the beloved traditional way, then wrapped them quickly, loosely, carefully, stashed them in her prewarmed cooler, then sped out to the nursing home.

Is this “allowed”?! No matter. You know these old folks ate morels for years! She snuck up behind some of the oldtimers, then snaked her hand into their view, waving a fresh-fried morel in front of them: “Ohhh! A mushroom!” The gourmet treats were gobbled up by folks who weren’t able to hunt their own morels anymore. What a delicious surprise! . . . And a thoroughly caring gesture.

And that’s Carole—creative, quirky, full of delicious surprises, challenging, clever, and caring. What an amazing woman! And I’m so proud to be her niece. Happy birthday, Aunt Carole, I hope you have a wonderful day!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

First Snowfall of the Winter

It’s suddenly seeming very Christmassy here in Central Missouri, hallelujah! Naturally, I can be happy about it, since I don’t have to drive anywhere today—but I think a lot of us have felt creeped-out by the lack of snow both this year (we usually get our first dustings of snow around mid-November) and, well, all of last winter. (Climate change, you all—deeply disturbing.)

Anyway, this one or two inches we’re getting today helps give us the feeling that things are set to rights. At least today, when I look out our windows, anyway. (By the way, for similar views during a bigger snowfall, click here.)

It’s remarkably windy today, with 45 mph gusts, which make the snow blow almost horizontally, and stick it to the screens of our storm windows.

The wind and the snow sticking on the windows makes it seem incredibly cold “out there.” But having the Christmas tree up and glowing helps our drafty ol’ house seem a lot warmer. Yeah, the windows are rattling.

I’ve never lived in a house with a fireplace, and for me, the Christmas tree supplies that kind of visual-psychological warmth. (If you don’t know about my family’s Christmas tree/Weihnachtspyramide, click here for the back story.)

This year, especially, the familiarity of that dear ol’ thing is especially welcome, “grounding” me in my place in time, giving me a sense that I somehow can comprehend history and immortality, or eternity. And it feels like a comfort, and it’s especially welcome on a cold day like this, at the end of this solar year, and upon this first blast of snow.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday Distractions

We’re way behind schedule for this year’s holiday preparations. I’m kind of giving up hope that we’ll be able to accomplish the usual baking, decorating, and gift-procuring activities, and once again I think Christmas cards will go by the wayside. I used to send out handmade cards every year, with a “newsletter” included.

Yes, we have excuses. No, I’m not going to go into them. We had a difficult fall and are now in “recovery” mode. We’re basically going through the motions of Christmastime in hopes that the familiar holiday distractions will help us get back to “normal” quicker. And by the time we’re on the other side of the holidays—in January—maybe life will seem more “routine.”

But there are plenty of other distractions. Last weekend, for instance, we put up the tree (the Weinachtspyramide)—two weeks later than we ordinarily do—and my folks came over Sunday evening for a visit, and for soup.

I made a nice, healthy vegan black bean soup. And as I was in the kitchen off and on, Sunday, I noticed activity at our neighbors’ house. Even though we have our nice privacy fence, I have a direct view to the sole entryway to the upstairs apartment in the house just north of us. It’s second-floor to second-floor, and I see them going in and out when I look out my kitchen window, the one right above the sink.

By the way, their door is pathetic. I think the previous owners of the house had installed an indoor-rated door for this outside entry. I think that’s why the outer layers of wood have peeled off during the tenures of two or three renters of that place. The landlord should be ashamed of this door. Surely it’s not up to code. That door says, “Slum, slum, slum.” (And—grimace—I look at it every day.)

Well, Sunday this couple apparently moved out. It didn’t take them long. I don’t think they had a lot of stuff. They are poor.

They’re also messed up—like many people in the low-income housing in Munichburg. “Poor” and “messed up” naturally go hand-in-hand. Sometimes we’re furious at such people, when they disturb our sleep, and our peace, with their inconsiderate, loud “whatever.” Poor doesn’t have to mean “uncouth.”

Anyway, this couple has serious challenges. We weren’t spying on them, but we couldn’t help noticing things. They have two little kids—a baby girl and a boy who’s about three or four. “She” works—I think at a hotel uptown, as a maid or something—and they don’t have a car, so she walks to work every day. “He” has never seemed to have a job.

Actually, for a long time, he seemed to be a pretty good stay-at-home daddy. We decided we like the couple. They’re reasonably quiet, for the most part, and seem to take care of their children.

But “he” has been trouble, off and on; we finally decided he’s fairly worthless as a father and partner. He has some friends or relatives—men—with whom he tends to get reinvolved every once in a while, and they apparently are into drugs, or whatever. They tended to come over and “hang around” with him while she was away at work.

She has kicked his sorry ass out of the house at least once or twice. A few years ago they had a spectacular fight on a Palm Sunday morning—swearing and throwing each other’s stuff out the door. (Remember, this is a second-floor apartment, with just a single rickety-seeming wooden staircase leading up to the small landing outside their door.)

That morning, we were sitting on our back porch, enjoying coffee and breakfast, the pretty spring daylight, the birds chirping, the fresh green that had sprung up everywhere . . .

The fight started with shouting and stamping and slamming doors. Then we watched a boombox sail out the door and heard its brittle crash on the ground below. Then came handfuls of CDs. Then came a blanket and wads of clothing. She was throwing his stuff, and he was throwing hers. Then they went inside and apparently commenced hitting each other.

We didn’t need to call the police for this neighborhood incident, as apparently the people downstairs from this couple had called before us. The cops showed up presently and put an end to the altercation. (As for the junk they threw, it littered the yard for months afterward; no one ever picked it up. The landlord’s brutish yard guy just kicked the stuff aside or simply mowed over it, CDs and all.)

From what we could gather, she had discovered that he’d been involved with those no-good loser friends of his, and (I’ll bet) he had run them out of money, or in some other way betrayed or failed her.

So he was gone for a long time after that—but he came back, apparently somehow mending his ways. And I should also point out that, to this couple’s credit, as far as it’s worth, right before they commenced that big fight, the fellow had quickly carried their little boy (who was then about two) down the steps and put him into their then-car—so that the little guy didn’t have to see his parents fight.

Of course, they shouldn’t have been fighting at all, but considering that they did, it was good of them to try to protect their children from it. You have to give them credit for that.

Anyway, in recent months, they seem to have gotten into a relatively stable pattern. They’ve walked together to pick up their children from daycare. We hear them vacuuming, see them taking out their trash. Doing normal stuff. They have friends and family drop by, we hear talking and laughing, and it’s seemed pretty decent over there.

But we’ve noticed that he seems to have become preoccupied with talking on his cell phone, recently, and not watching the children. Maybe he got into trouble again.

Anyway—on Sunday they moved out. They had plastic storage bins and laundry baskets full of stuff on their landing, and friends to help carry it to awaiting cars. And the landlord showed up. When we saw him standing around up there, walking inside the apartment with them, we knew that was it. Although I’d like to hope that they had accumulated enough income to move into a better place, my guess is they couldn’t make the rent, and he made them move out.

And that was Sunday.

As usual with our neighborhood’s rentals, we wonder what kind of people will move in to replace them. Will they be outright drug dealers? Will they litter their yard with trash? Will they play thumping music incessantly in their house, in their cars? Will they scream curses all the time? Or what? Can we get relatively lucky two times in a row?

We scarcely knew this couple, but we grew used to seeing them. I rather liked them, or at least her—I got the idea that even though they were messed up, they were at least trying. She would probably be much better off if she told him to take a hike. She doesn’t need him. And he would be better off if he grew a backbone and learned to say “no” to his no-good “friends,” got a job, found a direction in life, became a man.

Wonder where they’ve gone, and where they’ll go?

Anyway—I was just trying to make my bean soup and focus on the “joy” of the season—and there they were, carrying their little boxes of stuff down the stairs. It makes me sad that they lost their apartment the week before Christmas. I do wish them well.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Mom’s Ham and Bean Soup

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a recipe with you, but with the transition from “red autumn” to “gray autumn,” the installation of the storm windows, the bringing in of the houseplants, and this onslaught, now, of cold, rainy weather, it’s truly feeling like we’ve entered the cold time of year. Winter!

And what better way to battle the chill than with a nice big pot of ham and bean soup?

File this under “opulent opossum”—it’s one of those simple, homey, perfect things we have here in the Midwest. One of those absolute glories that we take too much for granted these days. It has no gourmet ingredients in it, so it’s not “cool.” Frankly, though, we should be celebrating good ol’ ham and bean soup, holding it up as a healthful, delicious, cherished dish. The food of our people!

This is not a fancy recipe—it’s basic. And for me, it’s home, because this is my mom’s recipe. I’m not sure where it came from originally, but I have noticed the same recipe available online—for example, here.

Maybe it came from the back of a package of beans. Or maybe it’s from a popular cookbook or ladies’ cooking magazine. One time I had ham and bean soup at a café, and it tasted just like this! (Naturally, I thought it was ex-cel-lent soup!) Wherever the recipe first appeared, and regardless of how many other people also use it and call it their family recipe, for me, this is the one. So file it also under “mom recipes”!

We all have foods like this—scenes and images from home waft into the mind just as the cooking aroma penetrates the home. I think of coming home from school on a drizzly fall day, and mom would have this soup on the stove, and corn muffins keeping warm above the stove’s pilot light. Or maybe it’s been a snow day, and my brother and I have spent the afternoon reading comic books or playing outside in the snow. Sometimes, I think of college days, when I’d come home dog tired, and there’d be that soup, which both comforts and revives.

Note: At my mom’s house, the accompaniments always include corn muffins (sure, you can use Jiffy mix), butter, and jam. Or a few little pieces of cheese. Pickles and olives go well, too!

Ham and Bean Soup

2½ cups (16 oz.) dry navy (or northern) beans
3-pound meaty ham bone
3 quarts water

1 cup chopped celery
1½ cups chopped carrots
1¼ cups pared, chopped potato (1 large)
1¼ cups chopped onion (1 large)
½ teaspoon (or more) salt (to taste)
¼ teaspoon pepper
3–4 dashes bottled hot pepper sauce

Rinse beans; place in large Dutch oven with the ham bone and water. Bring to boiling; reduce heat and simmer, covered, till beans are tender, 3 to 3½ hours. Remove ham bone and meat; cool till it can be handled. Coarsely chop meat and return to soup along with the remaining ingredients; discard the bone. Simmer 30 minutes more or till vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Makes about 3½ quarts.