Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

Video from a few years ago: our singing Christmas tree!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Not sure what you're seeing? For more information on our family's Weihnachtspyramide, click here.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Orange Balls, and My Dad

In past years, I’ve shared with you recipes and memories of German-American cookies, with their nuts and spices, dates and candied fruits. Those are “grandma cookies,” the “Cookies of my People”; they connect me with my deep past, with places, times, and people long before my birth. Lebkuchen, springerle, billy goats, pfeffernusse . . . like my blue eyes and fair skin, those cookies are in my DNA, I think.

But on my Christmas dessert tray I also include cookies that are just for me, cookies that have become my personal tradition, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Orange balls fit this category. I make them every year.

And each year I make them, I appreciate them more and more for what they mean, for their special sparks that kindle warm memories.

To understand why I make orange balls every year, you have to get a picture of a little tradition that my Dad and I developed when I was a child.

Dad was a member of the University of Missouri Department of Geography, and he got the recipe from a lady named Brooksie Jennings, who was the secretary of that department in the early 1970s. I suppose she had offered a plate of orange balls at an office Christmas party. Or maybe she just brought some of these little gems in to work one day, just to share.

I imagine my Dad taking a bite of one, chewing it, and remarking on how tasty they were, and I imagine Mrs. Jennings, soon afterward, handing him an index card with the recipe on it. The card’s still there in my parents’ recipe collection.

Like a lot of similar no-bake cookie-balls recipes, it calls for crushed vanilla wafers. In the days before every kitchen had a food processor, Dad figured out how to render a box or two of crunchy vanilla wafers into a fine crumb: Clear off the smooth Formica kitchen table, get Mom’s wooden rolling pin, and start crunching them up.

It was great fun—I helped! And Dad encouraged me. It got to be an annual “Dad and Julie” activity, and we both became skilled and merciless crushers of vanilla wafers. I looked forward to it. We’d sit across from each other at the table. First, we’d pour a few cups of the cookies on the table; then, we’d use the roller to just press straight down on them for some initial crunches; then, as they got finer, we actually rolled the crumbs. The flat pile of slightly oily crumbs wanted to slide around on the slick table, but we managed.

Dad and I would always have a nice conversation while we worked. I can still hear the gentle crunching sound as we rolled the pin over the deconstructed cookies.

Working in batches, and sliding each finished pile of smooth crumbs off the edge of the table into the mixing bowl, we’d soon have our vanilla wafers properly demolished and ready for the next step.

The mixing of powdered sugar, margarine, concentrated orange juice, and the wafer crumbs was the forgettable part, as far as I was concerned, but when that was done, Dad and I rolled the dough into balls in our hands (fun!), and then rolled the balls around in a shallow bowl of coconut flakes. I would sometimes get creative and shape some of the dough into pyramids, or into cubes. (You know . . . kids.)

It became a father-and-daughter tradition because Paul and Mom both said they didn’t care much for orange balls. (I was incredulous: “Whaaat? How could you not love these amazing sweet little orangey-coconutty gems?” . . . But you know how kids are; I just thought, “Oh, well, too bad for you; that just means there’s more for Dad and me!”) (I still always include some orange balls with the cookies I send Paul—I think of it as an inside joke, though I wonder if he even remembers how much he didn’t care for them as a kid.)

So naturally, if Mom and Paul didn’t really like orange balls, they certainly were’t going to participate in their construction. So it became a father-daughter activity, something we’d do on some early December weekend afternoon.

I suppose, for someone of my vintage, it might seem strange to have even one dear and vivid cooking memory associated with one’s father, but I have several. Dad has always liked to experiment in the kitchen—to make tasty things and enjoy them. His mom didn’t use a lot of written recipes; she cooked by feel. And he passed along to me a healthy independence from conventional cooking strictures, a willingness to stray at bit off of a recipe’s path, to color it up, to paint with a wider brush.

So here, my friends, is the simple recipe for orange balls. And after it, a few more notes and memories.

Orange Balls
(from Brooksie Jennings, former secretary of the University of Missouri–Columbia Department of Geography during the 1970s)

1 lb. vanilla wafers, crushed [approx. 4 cups of crushed wafers]
1 lb. confectioner’s sugar
1 stick oleo
1 6-oz. can frozen orange juice (thawed and undiluted)
6 oz. Angel coconut

Cream powdered sugar and softened oleo. Add the thawed orange juice. Add the vanilla wafers (crumbs) and mix well. Form into small balls and roll in the coconut. Serves 40 to 60.

1. The recipe does call for 1 pound of vanilla wafers, crushed, but a standard box of them contains 11 ounces. Each year, Dad and I would work out the quantity: “16 ounces is a pound, one box is 11 ounces, so we need 5 more ounces . . . that’s about half of a second box.” We’d eyeball it. Dad knew it wasn’t rocket science. It always worked, and Dad helped me see how the math I dreaded so much at school had an actual useful application (you know . . . kids). Today, I just throw vanilla wafers into the food processor and turn them into crumbs in seconds. We are all so much busier during the holidays, now, aren’t we. Not like when I was a kid, and Dad and I spent all afternoon making orange balls, enjoying each other’s company in the kitchen. The food processor’s much, much faster than using the rolling pin—but it’s noisy; it sounds like one of those wood-chipper contraptions—plus it’s not nearly as much fun.

2. Because I make rum balls, too, which also uses crushed vanilla wafers, I usually buy about four boxes and pulverize them all at the same time. I have a digital kitchen scale, which simplifies the weight measurement.

3. Oleo is margarine—you knew that, right? You can also use butter, of course. I’ve made them both ways. I think they stay a little moister with margarine.

4. Can you still buy 6-ounce cans of frozen concentrated orange juice? I haven’t seen one in years. I always buy a 12-ounce can, let it thaw a little, and spoon or pour out half. The rest we make into half a pitcher of orange juice.

5. Your hands will get sticky when you’re rolling the balls. It can help to put a little cooking oil on your palms, or to just wash them occasionally. (Or, if you’re feeling kid-like, go ahead and occasionally use your teeth to scrape the delicious goo off your palms! —Just make sure to wash your hands again!)

6. Some people roll them in chopped pecans instead of coconut. But I figure if the recipe specified Angel (Flake) brand coconut, then they probably developed the initial, official recipe, and the least we can do to thank them is to make at least some of them with coconut. And I personally like the tropical fruitiness of these cookies—a breath of fresh air amid all the black walnuts, molasses, raisins, dates, and so forth.

7. You should pack these in a container so they don’t dry out too quickly. Also, keep them in a cool place. We have an unheated sun porch, which is perfect.

8. I tried something new this year, and extremely decadent: Instead of rolling them all in coconut, I dipped some of them in melted dark chocolate morsels, which turned them into awesome orange-flavored little bonbons. It instantly transformed them from “cookies” into “candies.” I had to slap my own hand to keep away from them. Definitely recommended! (See, it pays to experiment in the kitchen!)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Who in Blazes?!

Ah! Another postcard I found at an antique mall. Enjoy!

. . . Wait for it . . .

. . . . . . . . Wait for it . . .


You're welcome!


. . . And because I don't want to get into copyright trouble, here's the official data:

Monday, November 14, 2016

"Dam if I Aint Gitten Tired of This Hell Raisin on My Place"

NOTIS! I been to an antique mall resuntly and gotten this here postcard that jus tickled me to death. I figgered youd understand, cuz if yur like me you aint feelin too sochible after that there elekshun neether.

Maybe in a few more weeks I'll feel less grumpy. Nuff said.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Opossums Have Super Powers!

I am the Opulent Opossum, and I approve of this message!

On Oct. 13, the Center for Biological Diversity posted a wonderful video on their Facebook page!

Click here to view it.

Consider these amazing facts about our North American opossums, Didelphis virginiana (I’ve copied these directly from the Center for Biological Diversity Facebook page):

Did you know opossums have superpowers?

Here are a few examples:

  1. An individual possum can eat 4,000 ticks in a single week, cutting down on infectious diseases like Lyme disease.
  2. They have a near-immunity to rabies.
  3. They have a total immunity to rattlesnakes, cotton mouths and other pit vipers.
  4. Their kind has been around since the time of Tyrannosaurus Rex and they likely ate dinosaur eggs.

Get more wild and weird facts about the critters all around us by joining our online network:
#opossums #possums #marsupials #fightextinction #biodiversity

And here is the video they used as a basis for their public service announcement--enjoy!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

More Halloween Fun

Hi folks! It's been a busy autumn, but I've found time to acknowledge one of my favorite holidays, Halloween! Like last year, I hung up a Walgreen's-bought "reaper" decoration in our top window facing Broadway and rigged up lights and strobe lights to draw attention to it. To remind you, here's a photo from last year:

This year, Sue suggested I add an oscillating fan so that it would occasionally blow onto it and make it move! Oh! What a great idea! Even more spooky!

So now, once again, it's all on a timer: There's a green shop light on one side and an orange one on the other, a string of regular small Christmas lights laying in a bunch in the window sill (to provide some orangish light from below), and three strobe lights zapping at different rates . . . plus the oscillating fan.

It's not a spectacular video, but here's a quick glimpse of what it looks like! (The sound of a car going by at just the right moment makes it extra spooky!) Mooooah-hah-hah-hah-hahhh!

Whatever you're doing for Halloween, I hope it's spooky good fun!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

D. C. Peattie, on the Sugar Maple

It isn't very original to copy stuff outright, but when it's far better than what you could write yourself, I think it's a virtue to tell others about it.

If you've never heard of Donald Culross Peattie, STOP, do not pass GO, and pick up some copies of his books. If you like plants, trees, anything green and living, and if you appreciate well-crafted language, you will love Peattie (1898-1964), who was a botanist and a poet. (His writing style reflects the expansive compositional tastes of his day, but we can't blame him for that. Reading his work, you may even learn an excellent new word or two.)

The selection below is from A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, first published in 1948. It is an enormous collection of essays, each on a single species of tree, that provide technical, nuts-and-bolts information on growth habit, lumber value, and botanical description yet also poetical descriptions that give you a true feel for the tree. This book, and its companion volume on Western trees, are a monumental achievement for a natural history writer. Hopefully, some recent reissues of his books will help restore his position as one of our country's best-ever natural history writers.

Happy autumn, everyone!

The most magnificent display of color in all the kingdom of plants is the autumnal foliage of the trees of North America. Over them all, over the clear light of the Aspens and Mountain Ash, over the leaping flames of Sumac and the hell-fire flickerings of poison ivy, over the war-paint of the many Oaks, rise the colors of one tree--the Sugar Maple--in the shout of a great army. Clearest yellow, richest crimson, tumultuous scarlet, or brilliant orange--the yellow pigments shining through the over-painting of the red--the foliage of Sugar Maple at once outdoes and unifies the rest. It is like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra.

There is no properly planted New England village without its Sugar Maples. They march up the hill to the old white meetinghouse and down from the high school, where the youngsters troop home laughing in the golden dusk. The falling glory lights upon the shoulders of the postman, swirls after the children on roller skates, drifts through the windows of a passing bus to drop like largesse in the laps of the passengers. On a street where great Maples arch, letting down their shining benediction, people seem to walk as if they had already gone to glory.

Outside the town, where the cold pure ponds gaze skyward and the white crooked brooks run whispering their sesquipedalian Indian names, the Maple leaves slant drifting down to the water; there they will sink like galleons with painted sails, or spin away and away on voyages of chance that end on some little reef of feldspar and hornblende and winking mica schist. Up in the hills the hunter and his russet setter stride unharmed through these falling tongues of Maple fire, that flicker in the tingling air and leap against the elemental blue of the sky where the wind is tearing crow calls to tatters.

--Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 454.

Photos in this post: Yes, I've taken pictures of pictures. An *abhorrent* practice. The originals are prints that my mom took in the 1990s. You might recognize the Missouri River bluffs overlooking Cedar City along Highway 63. (Remember what it looked like before the sod farm went in, and it was crop fields?) The last picture is of a maple tree growing in my parents' backyard. It's about four times that big today.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Some Birthday Bonbons: Fun Germanic Music

Hi, friends! It’s my birthday, but I’m giving you the bonbons! Well, I’m sharing, anyway!

My brother, Paul, recently told me about some fun YouTube music videos he’s found. He’s really into Germanic/Northern European stuff, history, language, ancient and Medieval cultures, and Game of Thrones. (I guess that’s a TV series—?) (Remember, we don’t have a TV anymore.)

So I watched his recommendations, and yep, they’re pretty interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I thought I’d turn around and share ’em with you. (I know a lot of my readers have similar interests.) I won’t go into great detail about these music groups and the meanings of the songs—I know you can Google all that for yourselves, if you want. I’ll just provide a few links for more info.

Faun is a German music group that plays “pagan folk, darkwave, and medieval music” (per Wikipedia). They play on a lot of traditional European folk instruments. Give ’em a listen! Where else are you going to hear a hurdy-gurdy? And there’s nice video storytelling, too.

Finally, for my friends who like Celtic music, you’ll find this interesting. As one commenter put it, “German root version of Siúil a Rún! Dear Gods . . . Bless you.”

Then, there’s a song called “Herr Mannelig” performed by Garmarna, a Norwegian group specializing in medieval ballads and such. The video shows scenes from the movie Beowulf and Grendel, but I’m not sure if there’s any official connection between the movie and the song, much less Garmarna’s performance of it.

Saving the best for last, my favorite of Paul’s suggestions is this one by Faroe Island native Eivør Pálsdóttir. The video below, of her song “Tròdlabùndin” (Trøllabundin), pretty much speaks for itself. Not many performers can completely mesmerize an audience with just singing and simple drumming. The setting for the live concert, Aurlandsfjord, in Norway, is absolutely spectacular.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Lynn’s Homemade Grape Jelly

We recently spent a week in Ohio visiting Sue’s family. It’s fun to go there in early October, before the fall color has really started much in Missouri, because we get a taste of things to come.

Burnham Orchards, for instance, has its fall festival every weekend in October, while here in Missouri the apples hadn’t really come on yet. So we brought home a big bag of Honeycrisps, Cortlands, Blondies, and Melroses. And in northern Ohio, the air was already getting crisp, and several maples were starting to blaze with color—while it was still in the eighties in Missouri, with green tones of summer stubbornly holding on.

We always enjoy our visits there. And we even had a meal at Berardi’s, where the special that evening was a Polish sampler plate: pierogies, sausage, noodles, and cabbage. Sue had the Lake Erie perch, and we shared. Variety is the spice of life!

Anyway, Sue’s sister, Lynn, sent us home with a lovely jar of her homemade Concord grape jelly. It’s made from the Concords they grow in their own backyard. As you might expect from Lynn, she did it up pretty, using Ball’s nifty purple-glass canning jars and a bit of pretty purple fabric and lace to dress up the lid. (It’s almost as if she knew that purple is my favorite color!)

We haven’t opened the jar yet (we’ll do that on some chilly morning when we make biscuits from scratch), but while we were in Ohio we got a sample of it from Sue’s mom.

Wow. It tasted just— Well, how can I describe it? Do you think you’ve tasted grape jelly before?

Listen to me: there’s a reason why people make their own grape jelly, even though you can buy it at the store for cheap, and making homemade’s kind of a headache. The homemade actually tastes like Concord grapes. The flavor is complex, fresh, fruity, tart, and sweet. And the texture is . . . rich.

There’s no comparison.

Wonder if I can subscribe to her jelly-of-the-month club—?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Story Continues

As it always does in every case, the story continues. Clouds pass over the sun, then the sun comes out again, then there’s more rain, et cetera, et cetera. Day to night, night to day.

I never really believed our knusperhexe would be back, and as the days go on, the likelihood and my hope dwindles even more. Posting signs promising a $250 reward for its return was less about its actual return and more about helping me feel as if I’d “done all I could.”

I’m still upset, and there are still times I wake up in the early morning hours, and the vision of our gnome pops into my head. I open my eyes, look around the room, trying to picture something, anything else. I’m still sometimes resorting to wordy eighteenth-century literary classics to try to get back to sleep.

At the end of my last post, I wrote that I was open to acquiring a new “house gnome,” and I wasn’t joking. A few days after writing it, I got on eBay and bought a “vintage concrete garden gnome” that had supposedly stood in some elderly lady’s yard in Ohio forever. Supposedly it had been bought at an estate sale. (With our experience, we have to wonder if any of the purported provenances of vintage items for sale can be believed. But whatever.)

I didn’t tell Sue I’d made the purchase. I felt kind of silly about it. But there you go—about a week later it arrived on our doorstep, double-boxed, and while Sue was taking a shower or something, I unpacked it in the basement and carried it into the living room and sat it on the floor. He just sat there, smiling placidly, taking in his new surroundings.

When Sue saw it, she was speechless—“Where’d that come from?” I told her I found it on the doorstep—“It was just there . . .” I thought about trying to make it seem like some kind of anonymous gift. Maybe from someone who felt sorry for our loss. But I couldn’t lie to her. I told her I’d gotten it from eBay.

Sue had been looking on eBay, too—she hadn’t seen this one because I’d purchased it before she’d started looking. The same seller had some other vintage concrete mini-statues for sale—all apparently from the same elderly lady’s estate sale. After some deliberation and discussion, Sue and I decided to get the other gnome that the guy was selling—apparently from the same yard, we thought maybe they were kind of a “set,” and (romantic thinkers that we are—don’t tell anyone) we thought they should “stay together.” So Sue purchased the second gnome.

The one I bought looked the most like our old one, posture-wise, though the way his beard’s painted he looks like a Mennonite or Amish man. He’s got a curious little hole in his right hand, as if something had once been stuck in it.

What’s your guess? Was he holding a fishing pole? A little flag? A beer stein? . . . I’m thinking beer stein, most likely . . .

And his left hand seems to be holding—what is that? Is it a seashell?

The one Sue bought is crouching over an open book. And he’s got a few mushrooms down by his feet. That’s a nice touch. (Maybe he’s reading a field guide to mushrooms!)

So, they’re “Social” and “Cerebral”; “Extrovert” and “Introvert.” They are kind of a pair, aren’t they.

The one reading the book, however, arrived damaged—the point of his little hat had broken off in the box. So . . . we’ll have to do some concrete repair. As you can see.

And they are quite worn. We’ve been debating how much restoration to do—I’m thinking to hell with the idea of retaining the maybe-vintage patina/crappy old paint jobs; let’s fix them up good and get a nice new protective layer of paint on them—so I guess we’ll sand off most of the paint, fill in all the cracks and chips, rebuild corners that were broken off, sand them again to make them smooth, and when we repaint—repaint how?

All the garden gnomes I recall from old people’s houses, from when I was a kid, had been painted white. (Like ours had been.) Maybe that’s the way to go, instead of trying to color in all their facial features, hair, and clothing. Just have them be a statuesque white. What do you think?

And are we silly to care so much about this? Silly to toss away a couple hundred bucks on eBay and shipping for two garden gno—wait, because they’re ours now, they are knusperhexes—and then spend hours restoring them?

Eh! Whatever. It makes a difference to me.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I Can’t Miss It

Hi there—it’s time for another post; just an update, really. It hasn’t been a good month, much. Sue had a sudden, literally debilitating attack of sciatica—something she’s never had before—and she’s been gradually feeling better. But there have been doctor’s visits, tests, and a cortisone shot, and things are looking up at this point. But that shock set the unsettling tone for the month.


But there’s more. All of last week—a week that began with pleasantly cool, fall-like weather—our friendly neighborhood slumlord got busy with some of his projects. Right across the street, he had a plumbing company tear out a section of sidewalk and part of the terrace to fix a water main that had been leaking water into the street for about a year.

You’d think that was a good thing, right, people fixing stuff up? But no, I’m going to complain about it: They didn’t fill in the hole. They made a little bit of an effort, but there’s still a big gouge in the terrace (you can see severed tree roots sticking out of it), and no one’s made any moves toward filling it and seeding it with grass. (We know from experience that this slumlord never bothers with such things—the ground remains uneven, with nothing but erosion to smooth the edges, and weeds eventually fill in on the surface.

We see this every time we look out our front windows: An eye-catching, big, ugly, brown hole. I can’t miss it.


Also this week, this same slumlord had a tree cut down on one of his properties. But this wasn’t just one of the trash trees—hackberries, mimosa, white mulberry, Siberian elms, box elders that predominate on his rental holdings. It was a huge American elm (yes, the kind that you will never see large anymore because of Dutch elm disease). The slumlord never trimmed it, ever, and the limbs hung over its house. Sure enough, a long but smallish limb finally fell on the house (miraculously, it was a glancing blow and did not apparently cause any damage serious enough for the slumlord to bother with)—but this was the impetus for the slumlord to finally cut the entire tree down.

It was solid. It was a solid, huge, healthy American elm tree. Hard wood. It took the company nearly all week, with two big cherry-picker trucks, to cut it away, piece by piece. For days, I heard the growling, undulating whine of their chainsaws; the screams of the big chipper machine, instantaneously destroying all the small branches and green leaves; and then there were the huge thumps of the log sections hitting the ground.

Surely there’s a place in hell for tree cutters who agree to remove perfectly good, solid, American elm trees, when a trim job would have sufficed.

So, now, the front yard of that house, everything but the sloped terrace, is covered with firewood. It’s stacked all along the roadside. I guess the slumlord is thinking people will take it away for him. I suppose that’s cheaper than hauling it. And people in Jefferson City know what to do with things that are visible along the side of the road, that aren’t locked down. . . . So it just lays there, what’s left of that huge, rare tree.

I’d take a picture of it for you, but I don’t want to burn the sight into my memory. It makes me sick to see it, or to smell what fresh-cut American elm wood smells like. You’ll have to just imagine what a solid, 3-4 foot diameter core of a genuine American elm tree looks like. You’ll never see one again.

So every time I drive on our street, I have to pass by this obscenity. No matter how much I want to, no matter how much I try to look away, I can’t miss it.


In an attempt to handle all this grievance, Monday night I finally got around to weeding our front “flower bed.” I put that in quotes because an infestation of field bindweed has made gardening in that quadrant of our yard a depressing, Sisyphean endeavor. Whatever grows out there gets covered with it. So I’m resigned to just keeping that flower bed trimmed, disinfected, the way Nazis and other evil captors shave the heads of their prisoners to kind of reduce the depredations of lice and fleas.

So with my anger, I decided I could do some yard work, and pulling weeds with my bare hands usually helps me let go of rage and frustration. But in this case: My heart stopped. Glancing at the corner of our house, I suddenly realized that our knusperhexe—our garden gnome—great-grandpa’s knusperhexe!—wasn’t there.

I mean—it wasn’t there—it had vanished—my heart stopped again, and so did my breath. Somebody had stolen it.


I finished the weed-pulling, numbly, with sweat burning into my eyes and making my vision blur. This was definitely not helping me release frustration and anger.

The knusperhexe—grandma always pronounced it “knisperhexie”—has sat on that corner of the house as long as I can remember. So, for at least about fifty years, it’s gazed benignly out at passersby, adding a grandfatherly, elvish charm to the property. Before that, it was in other locations in the yard. I guess it’s been in the yard for about a hundred years, or at least since the thirties. For a while, in the forties, I guess, my great-grandfather had perched it on a strange piece of granite overlooking Broadway.

Look, I can’t even call it “my” gnome—like the house, like the Christmas tree—it is the family’s, and we are only the present caretakers. In a fit of naive happiness, I blogged about him in one of my earliest posts.

The front of the house looks bare without it. Characterless, incomplete, like nobody cares. In fact . . . it’s starting to look like the other houses on our street, which are all blighted rentals. Hey, we’re starting to fit in!


Naturally, the theft has influenced the way I view my neighbors, and anyone who goes by on the street or sidewalk. People who drive by on the street. Ragpickers in their pickup trucks filled with junk. Where did they get that junk?

My first action was to approach neighbors, show them a photo of the missing gnome, and ask if they knew anything or saw anything, begged them to keep an eye open, told them I’d pay to get it back.

This activity was depressing in itself. Our closest and most decent neighbors, sitting and smoking on their front porch, just stared at me blankly and blandly: “Nope. We didn’t see anything. Sorry about that. Huh. If we see anything, we’ll let you know.”

The next people were the ones who have the American elm tree now strewn all over their lawn. (I had to actually walk through the remains of that noble tree in order to knock on their door. Or what’s left of their door; they’ve been really hard on the house.) After some moderate knocks, I eventually beat quite loudly on the door. Two females eventually stood in the doorway—but blocking the door, so I couldn’t see in—and spoke with me. The second woman blurted out, “Oh did someone take your garden gnome?” before she’d really had a chance to see the picture I’d brought with me. They, too, tried to seem sympathetic but shook their heads and couldn’t offer me anything. (Uh-huh, right . . .)

I had walked around their lawn for a few moments before knocking—since we had caught their children numerous times in our backyard (which is fenced), and we’ve caught them stealing from our backyard (an old birdhouse, thank goodness, nothing we truly care about) . . . it seemed like a good idea to just look around.

But it was a bad idea—filth! Greasy old rags, all manner of garbage, wrecked furniture; their backyard is a hellhole. Stench. And I didn’t see our gnome.

I realized something: Those people didn’t deserve to live in the shade of that beautiful American elm tree. It occurred to me that maybe that American elm committed suicide—dropped a limb on the house out of sheer exhaustion and sadness, knowing that it would trigger its execution. “Time for me to go away from here.” If a tree has a spirit, who could blame it?

I won’t go too much further into my notions about our neighbors. You get the idea. If any of them took our gnome, I could never find out, since it could be indoors or in their backyards, and judging from what I’ve seen of these people, I believe I could be shot if I went snooping around.

Next, of course, were the pawnshops and antiques stores and malls. Talking to these people educated me about the tremendous value that “vintage” yard statues can carry. Like those little yard donkeys, “lawn jockeys,” and cutesy Dutch kissing boy and girl. Vintage, vintage, vintage.

We’ve been to a lot of antiques malls in the past few days, and this vintage stuff, and the market for it—the high prices, the anonymous, questionable sources—has become increasingly disgusting to me. Somewhere, there’s a good chance that our family’s heirloom knusperhexe is in just such a place, having gone from our yard to some dirty fleabag scavenger-thief, to some antiques seller in an antiques mall. “I got this at the estate sale of an old lady who kept it in her yard all her life . . .”

That’s how the descriptions read on eBay—but where do they really come from? I think about how heartbroken those old ladies would be if those yard statues had been stolen. How would you know? When you buy a treasure at an antiques mall, how do you know your purchase doesn’t represent the theft of a treasure, a broken heart?


But I am making an effort to recover our gnome—I don’t think I could stand myself if I didn’t try. In addition to talking to our neighbors, and going to pawnshops and antiques malls in Central Missouri, I have:

—Filed a police report. Ha! From too much prior experience, I know this is probably the longest shot of all, the biggest waste of my time. Police don’t do anything except take notes and nod, and give you a report number. (Shit! At least, they could give you a cookie, or a candy cane, or something, besides that damn useless number!)

—Posted notices about it on Jefferson City Facebook sites. Why not?

—Put up a sign in our front flower bed where the gnome used to be, and another on the utility pole on our street corner: “GARDEN GNOME. Reward: $250. Please help us recover our family heirloom.” . . . I’m actually kind of hopeful about this, because last night I saw a truly suspicious-looking woman walking rather slowly west along Elm Street. She was pasty white, blond, smoking, wearing sunglasses at sunset, holding a cell phone, and looking into everyone’s yard, on both sides of the street, up above the terraces near the houses—as if she was looking for something. “Good Vibes” read her black T-shirt (isn’t that an adult toys company?). Anyway, what a classy-looking lady.

It’s possible that she was looking for her dog, or looking for her own stolen yard statue—because apparently thieves go through areas stealing from lots of properties at a time . . . but maybe, if she’s the thief, she’ll come by again and see our sign, and “just happen to recover” our statue. “Hey, look here, someone left this statue in our yard and I don’t know where it come from. I think it’s yours! Can I have the reward money?” After suppressing an urge to clap her with a brick on the side of her skull, I would indeed cough up the money, because I really want our knisperhexe back, even if I have to pay a ransom.


But then . . . I know it’s an impossibly long shot. The theft, we think, for detailed reasons I won’t go into now, probably occurred at the very end of July, leaving at least three weeks before I noticed it missing (remember: the first few weeks of August were a crisis here, with Sue’s pain and disability, and weeds grew up, obscuring where Mr. Knisperhexie sat—all my fault, but still . . .).

I know I have to accept that I’ll never see our house’s guardian gnome again. I acknowledge it: He was stolen under “my watch.” I should’ve known he was “worth something.” I should’ve moved him into the backyard, or even into the house, a long time ago. But I kept a naive faith in the goodness of people, blah, blah, blah . . . And so we lost him.

But I can’t bear to miss him like this. For a week, now, I’ve been unable to sleep. I read and read, late into the night, trying to distract my mind and tire myself to sleep (I’m reading boring stuff, too—Samuel Johnson, even), until I can’t keep my eyes upon anymore, and as soon as I shut them I see the knusperhexe, sitting there, with that benign smile on his face . . . my stomach lurches, and I’m awake again, to gnaw away at Dr. Johnson, the Great Lexicographer, some more.

(Unable to sleep, that sick, lurching feeling, the downward spiral, unable to stand myself and my thoughts: it’s been a long time, but this is my major depression coming back to bite me.)

So what can I do now? How can I stop missing him? How can I glance at the corner of the house and miss the sight of his gaping absence? I can’t miss it.

I’ve decided I have to move on; I need to find a way to conceptualize this so that I’m not flat-out hating everyone I see, not wanting to drop a brick onto people passing by on the street, not wanting to blow up our ratlike neighbors and their houses. Not wishing the darkest evil on our friendly neighborhood slumlord, and not wanting to puke on the invertebrate city leaders who could never do anything that might impose on a landlord’s convenience or profitability.

It’s a good thing I’m not a magical creature, a gnome, because a lot of folks would be suffering right now, and not just me.

These thoughts led me to a new, more expansive consideration:

Maybe there is something magical, mysterious, about these elderly garden gnomes. Maybe, like I fancy with that American elm, our gnome somehow decided it was time to move on, get away from this blight. Maybe his magical work here was done. Maybe some other person or family needs his presence more than we do. Maybe someone will buy him for $200 at a flea market and treasure him like crazy. Maybe, in his second century of existence, he will be more beloved than ever before. And for us, maybe it’s time to have a new yard sprite around here—kind of a “changing of the guards.” . . . I think I’m open to that.

But if we do get another gnome, he’s going to preside over the back yard. Which we will soon be fencing in the rest of the way. No one will get to see our backyard anymore.

And that’s what’s been going on around here. I know I started this blog to get away from depressing subjects, to celebrate things that make me happy. And usually, I try to be upbeat about our Munichburg neighborhood, and its gradual progress up from slumland, but these last few weeks, we’ve been fantasizing about moving far away from here. This time, I just couldn’t miss the bad stuff.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Samurai Sandwich: Retro Veggie Recipe

Here’s another recipe inspired by Bloomingfoods Coop in Bloomington, Indiana, from god-knows-how-long-ago . . .

Okay, actually, I do know how long ago, because as an inveterate journaler, I took notes at the time. I know the exact day I ate the original sandwich that inspired this. I cribbed this recipe, sort of, from a visit to Bloomingfoods Coop (now Bloomingfoods Market and Deli) in June 1988, when I was taking a break from the National Women’s Music Festival, which was then held on the IU campus.

Like my beloved concoction called “Bric-a-Broc,” this is another stuffed-pita sandwich I had purchased from the deli case at Bloomingfoods. I devised my “recipe” from the ingredients listed on the label stuck to the sandwich wrapper. . . . I mean, ingredients list? I just figured it out. By now, it might be very far from the original; but hey, I like it.

Here are the ingredients, more or less, as I copied them: Pita bread, chickpeas, tahini, miso, sautéed onions, bell peppers, lemon, sea salt, garlic . . . and, of course, sprouts.

From this, my current recipe has evolved, basically a good ol’ fashioned veggie hippie hummus with Japanese influences. I’m enthusiastic about this blend, and I hope you’ll try it!

Samurai Sandwich
Based on a 1980s deli offering from Bloomingfoods Coop, Bloomington, Indiana

  • 1 15-oz. can garbanzos/chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • approx. 2 big T’s of tahini (it’s basically a ground sesame butter; get it at the health-food store)
  • approx. 2 big T’s of miso (another health-food-store item; I suggest light miso, in the summer, and darker in winter; trust me, it’s a macrobiotic thing) (also, get the kind in the refrigerator case, because you want the good stuff)
  • juice of one lemon
  • sea salt (to taste)—or soy sauce or tamari, I say, to go with the theme
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed or pressed
  • 1 onion, chopped, sautéed until starting to brown/caramelize (add a little mirin or rice wine, if you have it, or a little splash of sherry or a pinch of sugar)
  • 2 T sesame seeds (optional)
  • half a large green bell pepper, chopped
  • pocket pitas, halved, bonus points for whole wheat, because this is a crunchy vegetarian recipe
  • crunchy greenery, such as alfalfa sprouts, or bean sprouts, or shredded raw cabbage, chopped lettuce, whatever

1. Put the garbanzos, tahini, miso, lemon juice, salt or soy sauce, garlic, and half the sautéed onion into a food processor and whirl it around until it’s super creamy. Add a tiny bit more water or more lemon juice, if necessary. Turn out into a mixing bowl.

2. Stir in the rest of the sautéed onion, the sesame seeds, and the bell pepper.

3. Pita pockets are more flexible and fillable if you nuke them or heat them in a skillet for a bit. (To honor our hippie heritage, microwaving or “nuking” them is not recommended; it’s just out of character.)

4. Spoon the mixture into pita pockets and add the crunchy greenery (sprouts, cabbage, whatever). (You could also use this as a stuffing in a wrap, made with a flour tortilla like a burrito.)

Truly, this is a recipe to mess around with to suit your own tastes. I like the sweetness of the caramelized onions and mirin. As with any hummus, you’ll need something to add crunch. Chopped cabbage or sprouts are a nice complements.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Bub’s Sangria

When I lived in Montana back in the 1990s, one of my coworkers shared with me a homemade cookbook—a smallish, green-covered loose-leaf job full of hand-typed recipes and hilarious commentary. The author, whom my coworker declined to identify (perhaps it was he himself), had apparently made the book just for fun. My coworker said he had encouraged this fellow to seek publication, but that he had repeatedly declined. Too bad!

I photocopied a few of the recipes, but I wish I’d copied the whole book.

The writer of this cookbook had adopted an alter-ego with the pseudonym “Snodgrass,” who was part hillbilly buffoon, part everyday Joe, a guy-in-the-kitchen making tasty chow with whatever’s available. Except this common Joe had an extraordinary vocabulary and wit. There’s a deceptively well-educated writer behind the bumbling cook sharing his culinary discoveries, describing his cooking techniques in hilariously perfect descriptive terms.

Today, I imagine this writer has a blog somewhere and is entertaining the hell out of his readers. I hope so. (Trust me, I’ve looked.)

And I hope the writer finds my post, here, and contacts me, because I’d like to thank him (her?) for creating such a fun cookbook. And like my coworker, I’d like to encourage him to seek publication—even if just an Amazon publication. Even if just online. And I’d love to credit him by name.

Below is one of the recipes I copied from “Snodgrass’s” little masterpiece. I hope you hoot at it just like I did when I first read it. By the way, it loses something when converted to prettified computer-kerned type. Its writer took great care in typing out the whole work in glorious Courier and hand-drawing text boxes and arrows, and affixing color prints on the pages. Yes, there were staged photographs of rustic characters sprinkled throughout the book, too. Apparently it was the author and his friends, in disguise.

After reading this recipe, you’ll wish I would also share the other recipe I copied from this book, three entertaining pages of “Wilson’s Legendary Incandescent De-Escalated Thermonuclear Enchiladas” . . . just as I wish I could peruse the entire “Snodgrass” cookbook again.

Enjoy! And if you are the original anonymous Snodgrass, I hope you’ll contact me.

33. Snodgrass’s Brother Robert’s Salubrious Native Fruit Elixir
and All-Purpose Inebriant
more generally known as

Snodgrass discovered the formula for this important health-food beverage during one of his latter-day expeditions to New England. Bub wrote it down on a piece of old Kleenex box and gave it to Wifey who lost it for several weeks before rediscovering it under a stack of five-week-old mail and paraphernalia on the kitchen counter.

This is an excellent way to dispose of about a gallon of cheap rot-gut Burgundy. It requires no cooking and very little proficiency in any enterprise other than pouring, mixing, and drinking. It does need to age at least a day after you’ve assembled it. The end product is a nice sharp fruity punch with certain edifying inebrious properties.

Bub’s original formula was for half a gallon of wyne. But Snodgrass has made a few strategic volumetric modifications in order to enhance the more efficient exploitation of metric wyne bottles. This recipe makes enough Sangria for a whole Sunday School picnic.

  • a 3-liter jug of BURGUNDY or some other cheap RED WYNE
  • 1½ cups of BRANDY
  • ¾ cup of SUGAR
  • 3 LEMONS—squoze
  • 3 ORANGES—squoze
  • 3 APPLES—sliced thin (greenish apples, Bub says)

1. Go down to the store and see what kind of BURGUNDY is on sale. Buy a 3-liter jug. When you get it home, drink 2 or 3 big mugfuls. You need that much space in the jug.
2. Squeeze Yr LEMONS and ORANGES into a big pitcher. And fish out the seeds. Pour in the BRANDY and the SUGAR and mix it up. Dissolve as much of the sugar as you can. Then pour it into the wyne jug.
3. Finally, slice Yr APPLES and stuff them into the jug with everything else. Shake it all up until everything seems to be properly scrambled and the sugar is dissolved.
4. Let it sit at least 24 hours before you drink it.

. . . Isn’t that a hoot? Wouldn’t you like to read more of Snodgrass’s recipes and culinary commentary?

In all seriousness, sangria is not exactly quantum physics; adjust everything to your tastes. Most people mix it in a big pitcher instead of stuffing the fruits all down the neck of a wine jug (as funny as that idea is). Basically, you fortify and sweeten the red wine with sugar and brandy and flavor it with sliced fruits; let it sit overnight, and the result should be rather syrupy and thick. Adjust flavors to taste. Sometimes I add some lemonade or orange juice.

Then, what most people do (which Bub’s recipe doesn’t mention—perhaps he misplaced the bit of Kleenex box this part was written on) is, upon serving, to add club soda or seltzer, or possibly a lemon-lime soda such as Sprite, to thin it out a bit and make it bubbly. Serve it over ice and garnish with fruit slices. A perfect punch for a hot summer evening!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Formerly Household Hints, Now “Life Hacks”

Maybe the word “household” is something people want to get away from. Maybe it sounds too much like a 1950s housewife, and maybe some people think there’s something wrong with that.

So the term “life hack” has taken its place. It sounds like something from MacGyver (I guess—I’ve never seen the show)—or Mission: Impossible. (I remember the original!) In other words, I guess, the opposite of a 1950s housewife, in other words, cool. (Or maybe “geeky” is the objective. How should I know? You have to wonder about it, though.)

Whatever. Call it what you want, but here’s my recent submission: A better way to seal up the many plastic bags we keep food in. It’s cheap, efficient, compact, and airtight.

Compare my suggestion, below, to all those annoying plastic “potato chip clamps” that always slip off the bag and take up acres of space in your kitchen “junk drawer.”

So: You know those double-wire twist ties that come on every bag of coffee? —Save some of ’em!

When you straighten them out, they fit very neatly wherever you want to store them, and they never tangle up.

The basic idea is, “If it works for a bag of coffee, why won’t it work for a bag of chips, crackers, or cereal? Why not use those ties for any kind of plastic bag?”

First, gently press the air out of the bag and flatten the empty part at the top.

Then, fold over the edges until you get a point large enough to get the twist tie behind.

Then, roll it over a bit . . .

Fold over the ends of the twist tie . . .

And presto! Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy! —A great idea, am I right?

Now you can toss those silly “potato chip clips” into the recycling bin—they never worked very well, anyway!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Cattleman’s Roadhouse, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky

At first I was skeptical: It looked like one of those chain restaurants that orbit the motels at highway exits. And maybe it kind of is. But as a chain, Cattleman’s Roadhouse is blessedly small and local. Five restaurants, all in Kentucky. Scarcely an “engulf and devour” multinational corporation.

So we were spending the night of June 15, 2016, at one of those motels on the highway exit, dog-tired and fried from driving through thunderstorms on the West Virginia turnpike. And after shlepping our bags into the hotel, it was marvelous to walk (not drive!) over to this restaurant. We had our choice of indoor or outdoor seating—the latter with a nice view of . . . our hotel (well?)—but with it hot and humid, we elected to collapse into a booth inside. It was fairly dark in there, but the tables were well lit. Lots of wood on the walls, tables, booths, chairs. Some corrugated galvanized metal on the walls, too. Posters of old western movies and their star cowboys. (Tom Mix was in my sightline!)

The menu had plenty of good choices. It’s a steakhouse, so obviously they have steaks, potatoes, and so on. If you’re a vegetarian, you won’t find much, but what do you expect? At least they have a big salad bar, and the vegetable side dishes were good.

We always look for local specialties, and this place gave us some interesting choices, things we don’t see much in Missouri: Several of the fried appetizers, including fried green tomatoes (y’all, we’re in the South!), came with a “petal sauce” (that was new to me), and the “tower of onion rings” is truly a sight to behold. Another distinctive thing was steaks served with a house-made bourbon glaze (because Kentucky) and/or “tobacco onions”; and there are a nice variety of sides, including three (three!) options for sweet potatoes (baked, french fried, or casserole, complete with marshmallows on top). Other entrées include “moonshine chicken” (yes, made with moonshine) and “grandma’s fried pork chops.” Of course, they’re proud of their steaks and burgers.

The restaurant has a website, so visit it and look at the menu. Also realize they have specials; the night we were there, beer cheese (another local specialty) was an optional topping for hamburgers. You must try the beer cheese! Variety is the spice of life.

Finally, beverages. Yes, yes, there were local craft beers. But, Glory! —They had 25 Kentucky bourbons to try! The waiters were cheerful and helpful about them; if you ask questions, as I did, and they don’t know, they will ask one of their colleagues for details. I ended up trying a local-distribution single malt from a large distiller, and another whiskey from a distillery I’d never heard of.

When the waiter brought me that second bar glass of ice and “happy water,” she smiled sheepishly and shrugged: “The bartender poured a double by mistake.” A nice little reward after that long, rainy drive through the mountains! And I didn’t have to drive back to the motel!

Sorry, but I didn’t take any photos because we were exhausted, and I didn’t think I’d get very good pictures anyway, what with the bourbon and my nerves after the drive. You’ll have to imagine what a steak looks like! Unfortunately, I do wish I could show you a picture of our waiters’ smiling faces. The servers were cordial and helpful, which of course is really refreshing, especially at a highway exit.

(They really are friendly in Kentucky; everybody seems to call you “honey” as a matter of course.)

So next time you’re driving through Kentucky on I-64 and you’re feeling peckish, check out the Cattleman’s Roadhouse. The one we went to was in Mt. Sterling, just north of the highway next to the cluster of motels, the Cracker Barrel, and the golf course. The other locations are in Frankfort, Louisville, Shelbyville, and Shepherdsville.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Springtime Crayfish Happiness

Okay, here’s a real “Opulent Opossum” subject for you: the glory of crayfishes in early spring! Plus, the Missouri Department of Conservation has just published a new booklet to help you learn to identify our state’s 36 crayfish species!

Chris Riggert, the Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Coordinator for the Conservation Department’s Stream Team program, headed up the project. The new booklet is an excellent introduction for identifying the state’s crayfishes—a good “jumping in” place to get you started in learning about (and thus appreciating) our beloved crawdads.

I love to see rocky creeks come alive in early spring.

In early spring, with the leaves still off the trees, light penetrates through the bare branches of the forest canopy and shines on the creekbeds. This light creates a short-lived “bloom,” first, of a matlike brown algae (I think it’s a diatom), and then of a wispy filamentous green algae—like flowing green tresses, wafting in the current. That algae is to creeks what bloodroot, trilliums, and spring beauties are to the springtime forest floor.

And though the water’s pretty cold, it’s no longer frozen, so the animals start getting active. I have spent hours and hours by streams, watching the snails crawl around on the rocks, minnows glide and dart hither and thither, and crayfish explore the miniature aquatic caves and canyons.

It’s our midcontinent version of tidepooling, and it’s a fun as all get-out.

Last weekend, when we had some really nice weather, Sue and I visited Clifty Creek Conservation Area (which is fast becoming my favorite hikin’ place; click here for the MDC web page on it).

When we were there, we saw lots of golden crayfish (Orconectes luteus) scooting around in that crystal clear water. They were nearly all about one and a half inches long.


One of the things that the new MDC brochure (and their other printed crayfish publications, and the online Missouri field guide) emphasize is that crayfish identification involves more than just colors, spots or stripes, and body shape. First, you narrow your search by habitat and geographic range.

Although a handful of our crayfishes are found nearly everywhere, most are restricted to certain parts of the state, and certain watersheds within those regions.

Some crayfish species occur only in the glaciated and unglaciated plains of north and northwest Missouri, where they live in streams that are rather sluggish and turbid, or where they tunnel clear down to the water table in prairies. Others occur only in the Ozarks, where the streams tend to be clear, brisk, cool, and rocky. And others are found (in our state) only in the Bootheel, where swamps and ditches prevail.

And within those broad ranges and habitat types, many crayfish species are confined to certain particular river drainages. An example is the Neosho midget crayfish, which occurs only in the Spring River and Elk River systems, so in our state, you probably won’t find it anyplace besides our far southwestern corner.

So if you want to identify a crayfish, first, identify the region, habitat, and watershed, and then start looking at the color, the spots or stripes, and peculiarities of pincer shape and so on. The new brochure organizes our crayfishes by location: Ozarks, Prairie, Lowland (Bootheel), and Statewide, and each entry has a distribution map showing watersheds, which helps you immediately narrow down your search.

This, by the way, is the same situation when you’re trying to identify fish, particularly minnows and darters, which are also numerous and diverse—unless you know where they’re from, they can be kind of a pill to identify to species.

I love being able to identify plants and animals. It’s not so much that knowing the name has some kind of magic (though it helps me remember)—it’s that the process of identifying forces me to look, really look, at the organism, and see things I might not notice before. That’s the value; that’s the fun.

For example, did you know that one of the keys to identifying crayfish can be the shape of the rostrum? Crayfish bodies are quite different from ours, so you have to learn a little “Crayfish Anatomy 101.” The rostrum is the triangular little beaklike structure between the eyes. It’s shaped differently in different species of crayfish—pointier or less pointy, long or stubby, ridged or furrowed (or furrowed with a little ridge within), with or without spines flanking the tip . . . Isn’t that fascinating? Now, you can really see it!

Anyway . . . these and many other thoughts pass through my mind as I peer into a creek like Clifty, watching the crayfish explore like little armored vehicles among the rocks and crannies. Crayfish happiness!

It’s my happiness, too.

Do you want a copy of this nifty booklet? It’s hot off the presses, so it hasn’t been promoted much yet. Send an e-mail to, and ask for A Guide to Missouri’s Crayfishes FIS011.”