Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gamboling through life

Our next-door neighbors breed dogs. A fact we did not know when we bought our acreage four years ago, but of which we were soon aware. The barking was incessant and loud every time we stepped out our back door. Every walk across our lawn required navigating an obstacle course of dog droppings. Their dogs treated out yard as their own, particularly when it came to bathroom duty.

The fact that the dogs are white German shepherds, a breed that is simultaneously beautiful, graceful and eerie when seen loping across our front yard in the early morning mist did not change our desire to have them stay home. It took several increasingly blunt visits to get the owners to finally take steps to keep their dogs in their own yard.

This is a prelude to stating what is no doubt obvious – we have never been fond of these canine neighbors.

So it surprised me that I laughed when I looked up from my breakfast coffee this weekend to see the latest litter of pups exploring our back yard. Gambol is an old fashioned word but it fit exactly the spirit with which these four pups played. They chased, they tumbled, they sprang, they romped. They Gamboled.

They ran across the garden, their white paws turning brown with every step. They chased in and out amongst the sunflower stalks, pausing from time to time to chew one to the ground. Through the grape arbor. Around the edge of the raspberry patch. From their yard to ours and back again.

Their parents were restrained by the invisible fence, but the pups suffered no such restriction. It lifted my spirits to see such irrepressible, free-spirited living. It helped, I’m sure, to know that there was nothing growing at the moment that they could damage.

But their puppy antics – their gamboling – made me laugh. And now I am in the spirit to gambol. Our neighbors’ dogs finally left me a gift I was delighted to receive.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Holiday Story

I have always believed that Thanksgiving dinner is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult meal to make. Easiest because there is no wondering what will be on the menu. At least at our house, the meal is always exactly the same, from homemade pumpkin and mincemeat pies to cranberry sauce cooked up and cooled in an aluminum mold used only for that purpose to the dinner rolls my aunt bakes on Thanksgiving morning. A turkey with sage dressing is the centerpiece.

At the same time, the meal is difficult because of the high level of expectation attached to all holiday family gatherings. For me, sage dressing is the food I desire most. I can pass on potatoes and gravy, forgo cranberries, even skip the turkey. Fill my plate with the sage dressing that I wait all year to taste.

So it was with more than casual interest that I listened to the phone conversation my mom was having with her granddaughter in Pennsylvania about Thanksgiving dressing.

"Say, Clorinda," Mom said. "Your mom says you do a great job making dressing. If you want to make it when you're here for Thanksgiving, I'll get everything around so it's ready when you are."

Mom cradled the telephone between her shoulder and ear as she reached for a pencil and paper. "Okay, I'm ready," she said, pencil poised to write. I knew she anticipated a list beginning with dried bread and progressing through sage seasoning.

Watching from across the table, I could see the list as Mom wrote down the ingredients Clorinda detailed: Stove ... Top ... Stuffing. Mom hesitated as she took in the words and glanced up at me. I couldn't stifle a laugh.

For nearly 60 years, my mother had put three square meals a day on the table, all made from scratch, mostly using produce grown in her own garden. The very idea of making a Thanksgiving dish so basic and so traditional as dressing out of a box nearly made her go into shock.

But she's quick on her feet, my mother. "How many boxes do you think we need?" she asked Clorinda.

Though Mom takes justifiable pride in the meals she prepares, she has her priorities in order. If her granddaughter wants to help make the meal, and that help comes out of a box, she won't bat an eye. But don't underestimate what a mental shift that took.

From the time my sisters and I were 10 years old. Mom taught us not only to grow the food we'd eat but also to cook it. She guided us through the basics of growing and canning peas and beans, tomatoes and corn. From there we explored the complexities of meal planning and cooking. Mom made cooking easy, measuring out ingredients before we knew what we needed, cleaning up every drip and spill as we made it. We knew no failures in her kitchen.

When 15-year-old Clorinda arrived in Iowa that November, Mom swept her granddaughter off into the kitchen as her newest apprentice. Some lessons were a snap. To make eggs over easy without flipping them, for instance, Mom shared the trick of putting a lid on the frying pan, drizzling a few drops of water at the edge, and letting steam cook the egg top. Some lessons were more challenging. Gravy without lumps took two tries. These cooking experiences continued throughout the week up until Thanksgiving Day.

By 5 a.m. the kitchen was a hive of activity directed by Mom and guaranteed to deliver the traditional Thanksgiving meal we all knew and loved. As noon approached, I watched in amusement as Clorinda opened the Stove Top stuffing mix and under Mom's watchful eye completed a cooking task in five minutes that done in the traditional way would have taken a good two hours.

When the turkey came out of the oven at precisely 11:30 a.m. and a parade of heaping dishes made it to the dining room table at exactly noon, among them was a large t)owl of Stove Top Stuffing. We all ate it. And it was good. Grandma agreed.

Would stuffing from a box ever replace homemade sage dressing and become the new tradition at our holiday table? Probably not. But Mom keeps Stove Top stuffing mix on her pantry shelf, ready for the day her granddaughter comes for another holiday visit.

This essay was originally published in The Iowan, Nov/Dec 2006

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Comfort Food - Home Memories

Heading toward the holidays, the media bombard us with new ways to cook the old standards. While I'm sure many enjoy the adventure of new foods on the holidays, for me these meals are all about 'going home.' Enjoying family and friends surrounded by the aromas of the old standard comfort foods.

CBS Sunday Morning took the memory of comfort food one step further last weekend with an homage to macaroni and cheese. They showcased trendy restaurants that serve nothing other than variations on this home and childhood favorite. One New York restaurant serves mac and cheese with shaved white truffles and charges $95! My mother would be appalled.

Macaroni and cheese was one of Mom's signature dishes. She took it to church potlucks, school picnics, family reunions. We had it for supper on a regular basis. I can still see her heavy blue casserole filled to the brim with macaroni and cheese, the cheese burned just slightly on the top from spending a little too long in the oven.

After watching that show, I fixed mac and cheese for supper on Sunday night. How could I not? Homemade, using Mom's recipe. As I stood at the stove stirring in the cheese, I realized mac and cheese from scratch is every bit as easy as making mac and cheese out of a box. And a whole lot better.

Mom's Macaroni & Cheese

Elbow macaroni - cooked al dente - drained
Sprinkle a tablespoon or two of flour on the macaroni
Add enough milk to make a sauce, return to heat, stirring constantly so milk thickens
Add Velveeta cheese - cubed - and keep stirring until cheese is melted
Salt and pepper to taste

Don't bother adding a shaved white truffle. This is as good as it gets.

Home memories. Comfort food. What a great start to the holidays.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Strands of gold

The trees outside my office window are devoid of leaves. Even our sugar maple finally gave up. It's brilliant yellow leaves turned brown and now cover the ground with an ankle-deep, brittle blanket.

No denying it. We're marching steadily toward the inevitable black and white of winter.

The only tree on our property still wearing fall color is our weeping willow. It, too, is losing leaves fast, but for now it glitters yellow in the sun. Having never had a willow tree before, I don't really know what constitutes a 'branch' or a 'leaf.' Is each long, weeping thread one leaf? With each leaflet part of a larger whole? Or are the threads branches in training and the leaflets true leaves?

The willow tree has been an ongoing source of thought-provoking lessons. I'll probably look up the answer to this leaf question sometime over the winter. When the landscape is black and white. I may even draw some larger life lesson from the answer.

Right now, I'm enjoying the idea that the willow tree looks as though it is dripping with strands of gold, each leaf a link in the multitude of chains that hang from the branches. So much jewelry on a human would be gaudy, an ostentatious display. On our willow tree, though, the display is a last colorful fall display carrying me into winter.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A day like today

When I was in 8th grade, my teacher had us memorize a poem each week. One week it was Helen Hunt Jackson's "October's Bright Blue Weather." I still remember the first stanza:

O SUNS and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weathe

Every year when October's cerulean skies reflect autumn sun, I think of that poem. To me there is nothing better than October skies. Until this year. Cold. Wind. Rain. That was October.

But today - in November - we saw an October sky and enjoyed October weather. With temperatures in the 60s, the wind in my face, the sun kissing my cheeks, I headed out for a walk. Who could be anything but cheerful on a day like today?

The yellow leaves clinging steadfastly to the sugar maple flashed against the brilliant blue sky. Plump red crab apples begged to be appreciated. The laughs of children charging out of the school for recess floated on the breeze. People passing in cars smiled and waved.

It's easy to be cheerful on a day like today. And thankful. An October day in November is a special blessing.

On a day like today, run outside, lift your arms to the sky, laugh, and yell, Thank You!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Seeds that last

The prairie is brown now. As my county extension agent promised, the crab grass died with the first hard frost. Dropping millions of seeds before letting go. A gift for future years.

I mowed off most of the plant residue on the prairie, leaving only one swath of tall crab grass. A ground cover experiment for the winter.

The mown area reveals little flashes of green. Prairie forbs that took hold in spite of the crab grass and continue to thrive in spite of the frost. And dandelions. The dandelions can yet be treated with glyphosate, though dandelion seeds are as persistent as crab grass. The common sunflowers that began blooming at the start of October, continue to push forth new blossoms, tiny flashes of yellow against the brown.

In mid October, my husband and I visited a prairie 'remnant' that is part of the Honey Creek Resort on Rathbun Lake. A remnant is a bit of Iowa's original prairie that somehow escaped the plow all these years - amazing since 99% of Iowa's original prairie has given way to agricultural production.

As we walked the trail through this original bit of Iowa landscape, I watched birds soaring high over the trees, felt the breeze that rippled through the Big Bluestem, listened hard for the echo of bygone horses, buffalo, Native Americans and pioneer settlers.

I could not help myself. I gathered a few of the seeds from this remnant prairie - grasses and flowers. Is this legal? I expect not. But I just had to bring some seeds - descendants from Iowa's original prairie - home with me.

Scattering those seeds, I imagine years from now walking through Big Bluestem, watching birds soar over head, listening for the echo of Iowa's bygone prairie right in my own front yard.