The greatest invention of all time

Yep. No power here!

Yep. No power here!

We lost electrical power Saturday. A little after noon, the TV went off, the fan stopped turning, the oven stopped heating, the clocks stopped ticking off seconds. In that moment, modern life as we know and love it stopped. We may as well have stepped back in time 100 years.

My husband picked up the phone to call MidAmerican Energy to report the outage. Oops! The cordless phone doesn’t work without electricity. Nor could we report it online with the computer. No electricity, no wi-fi. Thank goodness for a cell phone.

When I asked my 92-year-old uncle what he considers the greatest invention of his lifetime, he didn’t hesitate. Electricity. Born in 1922, he remembers when electricity finally made it to their farm.

“Everybody was waiting,” he says. Even though they didn’t have anything to turn on. No toaster. No radio. No microwave. No hair dryer. No electric lights. No TV. No computers.

As I write my novel set in 1913, I’ve done my level best to imagine life in that time. Living without electricity is hardest to get my head around.

“What did you do at night?” I asked my uncle.

“When it got dark, we went to bed,” he replied.  Life was not easy, but it may have been more simple.

My husband was getting ready to put two loaves of bread in the oven when we lost power. He remembered the old gas stove in the basement and went to get it going. We’d never used the oven and he learned the door doesn’t really close tightly. A resourceful man, my husband found a 2×4 to prop the oven door closed.

Cooking by flashlight.

Cooking by flashlight.

If he could make bread, I could make the blueberry cobbler I planned to serve the company coming that night. I took everything to the basement only to realize I’d be working in the dark. No matter how many times we flicked a light switch (and we did it plenty), the lights did not come on. A flashlight provided the little halo of light we worked by.

The good folks at the power company came right away, assessed the problem, and determined they’d have to dig up the cable. They assured us we’d have power again sometime that night. I think they feared we’d scream. But what are you going to do? I was grateful this didn’t happen last week when the temperatures were in the 100s. Or the day when we had 40 guests for a party.

Six men, a backhoe, and eight hours later, we had a hole in our driveway and the electricity back on. Just in time to go to bed. We retired that night very happy to be back in the 21st century.

What do you think is the greatest invention of your lifetime?

Passing on the scone tradition

Samantha's Girl Scout troop relishes a fresh-baked Lemon Poppy Seed Scone.

Samantha’s Girl Scout troop relishes a fresh-baked Lemon Poppy Seed Scone.

Holiday traditions usually pass down to the next generation. But this holiday, our family passed a tradition both down the line and back up.

My sisters and I were in 4-H where we spent many hours practicing for and giving demonstrations on everything from baking bread to ironing shirts. Demonstrations gave us opportunities to organize our thoughts, present in front of groups, and learn that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. My sister’s granddaughter Samantha is a Girl Scout. Girl Scouts also give demonstrations and recently Samantha chose to demonstrate making Lemon Poppy Seed Scones.

This scone recipe was a favorite of my sister Jane. Jane taught her daughter Clorinda to make the scones. Clorinda taught her daughter Samantha. Samantha taught her Girl Scout friends. The tradition passed down just like it’s supposed to. Somehow in all that time, I never made those scones. But when I heard about Samantha’s demonstration, I figured it was time. Especially when she shared her exact way of doing it.

Following Samantha’s directions, I had success on the first time. Thanks to Samantha, the scone tradition has come back up a couple of generations. Here’s the recipe if you want to give them a try. And if you want to enjoy them in the true English way, serve them warm with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Yum!

Lemon Poppy Seed Scones

COMBINE: 2 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1 Tablespoon poppy seeds,  1/4 tsp salt

CUT in 1/3 cup cold butter

ADD 3/4 cup milk and 2 Tablespoons lemon juice.  The dough will be soft.

TURN dough onto a floured surface. KNEED gently six times. SHAPE into a ball. PAT into an 8-inch circle slightly smaller than the thickness you want your scones. CUT into wedges. PUT on a greased baking sheet. SPRINKLE with sugar

BAKE at 425 degrees for 12-15 min. until lightly browned.

NOTE: As described, this recipe yields eight large scones. You can make two or even three circles from the same amount of dough, yielding 16 or 24 scones.

Don’t overlook the small stuff.

The Iowa State Fair wrapped up on Sunday. In the course of 11 days, contestants participated in 11,278 events, competing in everything from cattle to cup cakes, jazz to jam, dressage to desserts. Keeping it all straight and just as important, on the up and up, is no easy task. A friend and I learned that when we sat in on the judging of the “I have a secret ingredient” competition.

Iron Chef has nothing on these competitors

The gist of this contest is that competitors bring everything they need to make a main dish meal on the spot. Before they begin, they’re presented with a surprise ingredient they must incorporate into their dish. In this case, a bell pepper. But as it turns out, the bell pepper would be the least of their challenges.

There were four competitors. Two of the women were the two who had taken first and second in this event last year. These women were calm, confident, and seldom smiled. The third woman was a student in the culinary arts program at Des Moines Area Community College–our favorite only because we talked to her in advance of the event. The fourth competitor, a man, arrived moments before the competition began, pulling a cooler on wheels and juggling several additional bags of utensils and ingredients.

As the competition unfolded, we provided our own running commentary of each participant’s effort. We were impressed that our student was not flustered by the fact that the fair-supplied electric skillet didn’t work. We were astounded at the quantity of ingredients the man chopped and diced. We wondered when, if ever, he’d get around to actually cooking something. The two seasoned competitors completed cooking and plated their dishes (an Hawaiian pork chop with rice and a lamb with Feta cheese tostada) before he even put patties in the skillet.

By the time the judge had evaluated the first two entries, our student was ready to go. Except she wasn’t aware she had to provide a written copy of her recipe. So she sat and wrote it while her shrimp congealed in a cooling Alfredo sauce. The man was still chopping ingredients and from time to time molding everything together in his hands. My friend questioned whether she wanted anyone handling her food that much.

Finally, our student’s dish was evaluated. Finally the man actually cooked what turned out to be buffalo sliders. Finally, he arranged everything on a plate, topped one slider with a little paper umbrella for good measure and presented it to the judges. Only to realize he hadn’t written down his recipe either. At least all was equal. His entree was cold before the judge tasted it, too.

Finally, the judge was ready to announce her decision. Fourth place to our student. Third and second to the other women. Before the judge could walk to the end of the table to award first prize to the man and his buffalo sliders, the seasoned competitors filed a protest. Much hushed discussion by the judges. A senior fair official was called in. More hushed discussions.

Finally, an explanation and a decision. The rules clearly stated that everything on the plate must be edible. The man’s paper umbrella was not. Therefore he could not win. Ribbons were retrieved. Awards re-presented. Last year’s winners were this year’s winners. Our student took third. The man went home with an honorable mention.

Proving at the very least that fair competitions today are every bit as serious as they were when Aunt Bee entered her infamous kerosene dill pickles in the Mayberry Fair. Proving once again that it is often the little things that undo us. Proving as well that it is not wise to mess with people who know the rules by heart!