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.

Fair, Food & A New Friend

The Iowa State Fairis full of the familiar. But it’s the surprises I look forward to. My husband and I made our annual Fair trip yesterday, taking in the usual: new farm equipment, the quilt exhibit (that’s my sister-in-law Anita’s quilt in the picture), giant pumpkins, and the butter cow. We never miss them.

But the most memorable moment came when we joined a young black man on a bench next to a group of Marines challenging passersby to do pull ups. I settled down to eat my personal Fair Food Favorite – a gyro. I expected to enjoy the gyro; I didn’t know I’d meet such an interesting person at the same time.

Turns out our bench companion was from Uganda. He had arrived in Iowa just four days before, (via Addis Ababa, Brussels and Atlanta). A graduate student who will study horticulture at Iowa State Univ., Denis was having great fun at our Fair.

I learned a lot about Uganda during our visit. Crops his father grew on their farm – food crops such as bananas and mangos; that their tourist season is May – August with weather similar to our summers; that they have several significant mountains, including volcanoes, but they also have beaches. He was quite an ambassador for Uganda and Africa. And he spoke English – something else I couldn’t have said for sure I knew about Uganda.

We joked about meeting next year at noon on the same bench. We forgot to pick a day. But if he shows up, I expect he’ll make another friend. And next year, I’ll be back at the Fair, looking for the familiar and another surprise.

Writer’s Block

A writing buddy and I just spent four days sequestered at LaCorsette Maison Inn, a wonderful bed and breakfast in Newton, Iowa. Our intent was to write, and write we did.

After an early morning walk and breakfast provided by our hosts, we applied ‘butt glue’ (one of my favorite terms picked up at the Iowa Summer Writing Festivaland also known as dedicated effort) and consigned ourselves to our computers for the rest of the morning.

Endless cups of coffee later – long about noon – we printed out the fruits of our labor, read each others’ work, and provided feedback. Then we went back to the computers to continue writing through the afternoon, until ‘the sun was over the yardarm,’ as my friend who spent years sailing said, and it was time for cocktails. Which we usually drank as we continued to write, throw out plot challenges, and work through possible solutions.

The outcome of this concentrated block of time was that we each brought home greater understanding of our characters and the stories we are creating, in addition to several chapters of new writing.

Our hosts joked that they could market retreats like ours as ‘Writer’s Blocks.’ I like it! Instead of viewing writer’s block as a problem, now I will think about writer’s block as the solution. It’s all in the perspective.

Who’s in control?

I just spent an hour and a half in the prairie, pulling seed heads off the crabgrass. I’ve been doing this for a couple of hours every day. It is a futile, exercise, I know. The prairie has turned a hazy brown – the color of crabgrass going to seed. My efforts have created little islands of green, but there is no way I can remove all the stems before they burst open to spread a new crop of seeds. Even so, I do not consider my efforts a waste.

My time in the prairie has given me new appreciation for the persistence of these native plants. Even though the crabgrass appears to have the upper hand, spreading like a thick carpet across the ground, hogging all the sunlight, coneflowers, Partridge Peas, Big Bluestem push their way through. Were I only to pass the prairie at a clip on my morning walk, I would not see these tiny plants.

When I spot a seedling, I clear away as much of the crabgrass as I can, hoping to encourage the newest plant by allowing it a full day of sun. I was rewarded this week when the Partridge Peas began to bloom. Hurrah! My first native flower blossoms.

Today, I also began to appreciate the persistence of the crabgrass. Did you know that every single crabgrass leaf produces a seed head? It does. I observed this as I pull off one after another until every leaf is stripped. And each seed head has a million seeds. Okay, I haven’t become so obsessed that I actually counted, but it sure looks like it. Crabgrass would only go to this length if many of those seeds were destined never to germinate. All those seeds by one plant just to ensure survival of one.

Leaving the prairie today, I took a look back at the tiny green area resulting from my hour and a half of labor. I chuckled as I thought, ‘I am NOT in control here.’ I am doing what I can. Enjoying the effort. Hoping to make a tiny difference. But, I am not in control. And remarkably, that feels okay.

Prairie – By any other name

This weekend marked the second month for my prairie. In spite of the crabgrass and barnyard grass, I have begun to spot native plants: Big Bluestem, Partridge Pea, many coneflowers. That’s a Partridge Pea in the photo, surrounded by crabgrass before the crabgrass really took off.

People tease me – Isn’t crabgrass a native plant? What about nutsedge? And how about that fireweed (Erechtites hieracifolia)? All native, but considered weeds. Which reminds me that the definition of a weed is any plant where you don’t want it.

As I look back on the last two months, I marvel at the roller coaster of emotions I’ve been through in such a short time. Now I’ve adopted a longer view, wait and see, attitude. My efforts with Roundup were futile. The crabgrass is going to seed. My efforts to rip off the seed heads before they scatter are futile. Which doesn’t mean I don’t spend hours each day out there trying. It gives me something to do and in the process I build a personal relationship with my prairie.

Getting ‘up close and personal’ with the crabgrass opens my eyes to the prairie seedlings that are taking root and pushing through in spite of the competition. I put my faith in their prairie ruggedness, trusting that they will keep on and in another month claim their own space.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of walking in a four-year-old prairie established by some friends. I have seen the future and it is beautiful.

The bounty of the moment

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone …” Joni Mitchell captured the universal truth in “Big Yellow Taxi.”

I found myself humming the tune as I looked with longing at our plum tree. Last year loaded with plums. We ate them. We gave them away. I canned quart after quart. There were just too many. Or so I thought.

I did not know, as I blithely gave away bags of plums, that this year there would be none.

The winter was too cold. Plums only produce every other year. Who knows why? We are new to plum trees. This one was on the acreage when we moved here and we don’t have enough experience to know its patterns, its rhythms. I just know we will not experience that luscious, purple fruit this year.

Every year, there are moments when I am swept away by the abundance of our garden. Colanders of green beans. Bushels of tomatoes. Quarts of raspberries. All fantastic, amazing, delicious. All requiring me to cook, to can, to freeze. Anything, so we do not lose, do not waste, such precious bounty. By the end of the summer, our shelves are lined with jars, our freezer packed with containers of produce – enough to last until the next summer.

As overwhelmed as I may be at the annual onslaught of produce, I count on the garden to ‘do it again’ each year. And the garden does not disappoint. But not so with plums, apparently.

One jar of plums remains in my pantry. I am hoarding it. For what special occasion, I am not sure. Truthfully, I did not know how much I would love the canned plums. But I do. Isn’t that always the way? “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone …”

It seems I have to learn again and again to appreciate what I have, in the moment. This time, plums.

This essay was published in the Des Moines Register on July 12, 2009

A mature garden is like …

I took advantage of the beautiful weather – spring at last? – yesterday to clean up one of my perennial gardens, the first I planted when we moved to this acreage four years ago. In the process I was struck by how much a mature garden is like a mature woman, in some ways like myself.

After the winter, my garden takes some time and some doing to wake up and look fresh, just as I do after a long night’s sleep. Raking away the leaves and cleaning the paths is like combing my hair. Areas to untangle. Spent foliage to remove. Mulch where it doesn’t belong. Quite the mess.

My garden wakes up in stages, sending out one plant and then another as though recognizing it is not necessary or possible or even advisable to appear in full flower all at once. First the brilliant yellows and deep purples of daffodils and hyacinths. Then the pink and purple blossoms of the pulmonaria. With last year’s foliage cleared way, the first tender shoots of the hostas emerge. I, too, wake by stages. A long walk. A cup of coffee. The newspaper, before I am ready to face the day. Though I am not so bright as spring’s first flowers!

My garden is comfortable in its predictability. I know which plants will eventually appear even if I may forget about them until they come forth, just as I know my own talents and patterns of responses to opportunities and crises. I do not have to approach every situation as though it never happened before. I do not have to learn it all for the first time. After all these years, I know myself. For the most part.

But there is still room for the ‘new,’ for surprises, even in a mature garden. It takes three years for some plants to become fully established and when they do all of a sudden you have offshoots springing up everywhere. Virginia bluebells appear like magic yards from their parent. Purple Palace hucheras and Raspberry Splash pulmonaria pop up at random.

As a result, a mature garden like a mature woman has much to share. Hostas that have overgrown the path can be divided. All those baby bluebells, huchera and pulmonaria go off to populate the gardens of my friends.

When I finished my garden work, I saw patches of bare ground, areas that were rough and wrinkled. The area was clean but looking a little tattered. But I know that in a few weeks, hostas, astilbe, huchera, sage, purple cone flowers, daisies, black-eyed susans will fill in. My garden will be dressed in all its glory. And I know the old girl will look pretty good.

Throwing away money

Okay, visualize this.  Every day as you drive home from work, you reach in your pocket, pull out a nickel, and throw it out the car window.  Every day.  Sometimes you throw out a dime.  By the end of the work week, you’ve thrown out a quarter or more. By the end of the month, more than a dollar. Does this make any sense?  Of course not.  But people are doing it.

I know this because I take a walk most mornings and along the way I see pop bottles and cans, beer bottles and cans, liquor bottles.  Each worth five cents. I know people throw these containers out their windows every day because I carry a plastic bag just so I can pick up this refuse. No sooner have I cleaned up the roadway than it is littered again.  I can pick up a dollar or more – each day.  
Lazy. Disrespectful. Flagrant. Annoying. The people who throw out trash along the road defy my understanding. For crying out loud, just put it in the waste basket when you get home! Even more astounding is people who throw away money. My husband has seen people at gas stations take bottles and cans out of their vehicles and deposit them in the trash cans just outside the convenience store door.  They could have taken those bottles and cans five steps further and collected the deposit. 
Governor Culver over reached during the last legislative session.  He had the door open to add juice and water containers to the Bottle Bill in Iowa. Then he got greedy and added a tax to the process.  As a result, the whole thing went down.  Too bad. We needed that addition. 
But I guess this proves one thing. Clearly the economy is not as bad as we’re led to believe if people are still rolling down their car windows and throwing out nickels!

What do you need?

Recently I stopped at a deli for lunch.  When I walked up, tray in hand, the young man at the cash register said, as they always do, “How are you today? Did you get everything you need?”  I said – as I always do – “I’m well, and yes I did.”  I said this as I fished through my purse for the money to pay. Then, I hesitated, remembering my some-time vow to note and call people by name, so I looked up, caught his name from the badge, and added, “It’s a nice day. And how are you, Jason? Got big plans for the weekend?”

“I’m looking forward to seeing my family. They’re coming in from Colorado. Thank you for asking how I am,” Jason said.  
Our little exchange lasted maybe 30 seconds.  But it was his comment, Thank you for asking how I am, that has had me thinking ever since. 
We interact with people every day, many of whom provide us some service. I value all these people who facilitate my life, I truly do. But it’s easy to look past them. Easy to be in a rush. Easy to stay lost in my own thoughts, my own agenda, my own problems. Easy to overlook that another human being has just entered the sphere of my life.
It is quite likely that Jason did not see running a cash register as the job he’d most like to have in the world. Just as likely that after taking money from hand after hand, he felt more like a robot than a person. So when someone called him by name, he was pulled out of anonymity, validated as a person in some small way. 
I am glad he noted that my comment meant something to him.  Because when he did, he made me think about what I need, perhaps what any of us needs. What we really need may be for someone to take a moment to see us – and talk to us – like real people.