Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cook Book Wisdom

By the time we had kids, the Renken family Thanksgiving was firmly established in Columbia where my aunt Anne and uncle Tony, cousins Tracy and John, opened their gracious home to all comers, adorning the multiple tables with imaginative place cards and setting a glorious spread of food that only encouraged culinary one upmanship among the ever competitive Renken relatives, adding to the general merriment and the tendency to overfill one’s plate.
For several years, Lee and Ann ruled the roost as the only great grandchildren to my Granny.  This privileged position gave them their own bracket in the putting contest, access to the pinball machine in the basement, spots at the card table with Granny, books and art supplies from their doting great aunts, and finally, a chance to soak and steam in the hot tub before we bundled back into the car for the long ride home.  Oftentimes, the girls napped, awaking just as night fell and they could count the Christmas lights that had sprung like mushrooms since morning.

Ben was just three months when we made the trip his first Thanksgiving.  We left before daylight with the grand plan that the kids would sleep a goodly portion of the drive. Back then, almost everything closed for Thanksgiving, so there would be no distracting stops for pop or doughnuts or milk or coffee..just the necessities at the rest areas.  But Ben had a different plan.  He began screaming about Kansas City and continued unabated ‘til we reached our destination.  He was a cute kid and a big hit with his grandma, his aunts, and his granny, and I hoped all that attention would wear him out for the trip home.  No go.  He was nothing if not persistent and wore US all out with his yelling until just north of Kansas City.  As holidays go, it was something less than idyllic.

But I digress.  

One year my uncle Steve rolled out the first edition of the Renken’s Recipes to Die For Thanksgiving 1992. Family get togethers were never quiet: I can remember my uncles castigating announcers, the players, and the officials...on a televised game.  The kitchen at my aunt’s was an open air soapbox of suggestions, despite the fact that each family had already had their say about the menu by virtue of the dish they’d contributed.  There was lots of good natured devil’s advocacy, but at some point in the afternoon, voices would be raised in something pretty darned close to an actual disagreement.
Most of the recipes contain a fair share of editorial content…..

From Steve, regarding “The Best Baked Beans”:
I’m not kidding; these really are the best.  They are far better than anything Liz ever thought about.

From Liz’s corner: “Liz’s Most Requested Baked Beans”.

From Steve, about Liz’s recipe: “You will notice that no one claims these are the best: they are just the most requested.  Probably by Terry and what choice does he have?”

Some recipes are quite brief:

Tim’s Beaver Tail
Take one beaver tail and hold over open flame until rough skin blisters.  Remove from heat. When cool, peel off skin, roast over coals or simmer until brown.

Serves 86

Or this one:

Hard-boiled Eggs
By Laura
Mark’s note: Most of you know that Laura does not have a large cooking repertoire.  However, at this one she is great and you won’t mess it up either.

2 eggs in the shell
4 cups water
1 medium saucepan.

Place eggs in saucepan. Add water and bring to a boil.  After three minutes of boiling, fish one egg out on a spoon and carry to the sink.  Halfway to the sink, drop the egg (accidentally) on the floor.  If it oozes on impact, cook remaining egg one more minute before eating and after cleaning up the floor.

But the recipes I turn to the most often are my mom’s.  Some of them are dog eared and stained, fragile to the point of illegibility. But I keep them for sentiment’s sake, even though those recipes have long since been committed to memory.  
Included in the Recipes to Die For are some of the comfort foods of my childhood, like the Raisin Bars, which my mom made at least once a week for my father’s lunch. I loved the combination of plump, sweet raisins after their bath in boiling water and the layer of sweet frosting atop the spicy cookies.  Or the multiple Jello recipes: the cherry jello with bing cherries that was my favorite, although I also like sliced oranges in lemon jello (not mandarin oranges!) and the apple grape jello with crunchy apples and green seedless grapes.  Yes,I am a kid of the Jello generation.

Some of the notes are windows into my mom’s kitchen after I was grown: the Mulled Wine we  would enjoy during winter visits just before bedtime (Good in cold weather and decidedly beneficial if one has the cold or the flu, ), the Hearty Corn Chowder (I use the microwave and make this in a 4 quart Corningware dish.  Good for a winter supper), the Caramel Corn (This is yummy and freezes well) or the Apple Butter in a Crock Pot (This tastes wonderful on hot toast and makes your house smell wonderful while it is cooking).
There are little scraps of paper with random recipes stuck throughout my cookbooks, like the Salsa Cruda with the addendum: I used three little hot peppers. It gets hotter the longer it “ages”.  I used your canned tomatoes.  Easy & yummy with tortilla chips. Every time I bake a Mrs. Peters’ coffeecake, I hear her admonition: Check with a toothpick for doneness.  It is a horrible flop if underdone! The recipe is one I know by heart, but I repeat that phrase like a blessing every time I bake it.
At the very back of my hyperextended recipe box is an assortment of cards that have nothing to do with food and everything to do with life.  When my aunts (Anne and Liz) hosted our wedding shower, they handed out cards to the guests to fill out with their advice for a good marriage.  Forty years later, those words of cheer and wisdom still reside in my box.  My sister: Keep the plants off the windowsill! My mother-in-law: Just talk things over! My Granny: Recipe for marriage 1 woman, 1 man. 1 lb sense of humor, 2 lbs love, 3 ½ lbs. tolerance, Shut up! P. S. Had a big argument with my husband this morning! Ran out of sense of humor…
My granny is gone...and so is Uncle Steve, the witty curator of the Renken Cookbooks….and his brother, my father, though I am certain heaven is a spicier place with the three of them in residence.
My mom was always more of a listener...and the best....letting me chatter on endlessly about whatever was on my mind. So I treasure the little asides recorded in the cookbook, and the tattered recipes she shared as well as this advice from years and years ago about her happy marriage:
Good companionship and secrets (almost) Train him right but don’t let him know you are doing it.
Lots of loving!! (with a giant balloon of an exclamation point)

Be Blessed this Thanksgiving …..

Friday, November 10, 2017

Before You Was Born, Dude

“Well, that was your mother and that was your father,
Before you was born dude,...”
Paul Simon

Before the dudes and dudettes were born? Whoa, that was a LONG time ago!
The one advantage of all that time is it gives us a chance to tell the stories as WE remember them, with paltry few to gainsay us in matters of truth or tale…
He says he saw this girl wearing a big hat sitting at the desk of the dormitory where incoming MU freshmen checked in for Summer Welcome. And...then they wed, implying he married the first girl he met at college.  My husband makes it sound like a scene from a chick flick...but I’m fairly certain he has never seen a chick flick, so it must be the truth, right?  
I remember that day too.  We had a discussion about Allen Drury...Blake was carrying around a copy of Advise and Consent, a scenario which should surprise absolutely no one….

Well, it can’t be a chick flick without some plot twists.

A few months and a couple of dates later, we were both part of an ag students’ group traveling way up north into Manitoba over the Christmas break.  When we stopped in Tarkio on the way south, it seemed like a perfectly logical place to spend New Year’s Eve with friends.  Only later did my mother-in-law tell me she was delegated to tell Blake’s other New Year’s Eve “date” that he was already busy.  
Blake drove a 1974 baby blue Torino.  It wasn’t “Gran”  by any description: the trunk smelled of sale barn, but that was masked by the blue pall of burning oil.  It took a gallon of oil to drive from Tarkio to Columbia.   Blake had a case of 8 track tapes by Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings punctuated by Tompall & the Glaser Brothers (Put Another Log on the Fire) and David Allan Coe (You Never Even Call Me by My Name). The tires were constantly going flat.  When the right side was caved in by another car’s  slow motion slide down the icy hill where we waited at a stop sign, it was a mercy killing.   

The next car was a stripped down sedate red sedan…
...which in due course we turned into a family car.  No more oil spills, no more spinning out around the curves.

We married the year Elvis died. For two days I listened to Elvis tunes while I sat on the floor of our duplex south of Columbia staining the unfinished furniture that, along with a carload of houseplants, was my contribution to our new household.  
Our ‘70s wedding was not a fairy tale concoction.  Neither the bride nor the groom thought it essential to get a decent haircut.  The tuxes were an obnoxious beige, and the groom’s new shoes were not brown nor black but rather on the orange-ish side of rust. They didn’t match then and look even worse in the fading pinkish tint of our wedding photos.  The bride wore heels down the aisle, but went barefoot in the pictures for fear of appearing taller than the groom.  
We drove off in our soaped and creamed chariot for our Union, Missouri.  But our plans for a romantic toast at the Italian restaurant went awry when the waitress carded us.  Newlywed or no, she wasn’t going to serve us alcohol for our wedding night.  So much for being grownups…if I remember correctly, we even thought it was funny back then.
The next day, we stopped by Daniel Boone’s home in Defiance, then drove back to Columbia to study before class that Monday.

Yep. That’s what we did
“That was your mother...and that was your father...
Before you was born, dude,
When life was great!”....


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Words to the Wise

7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in.
1 Kings 3:7
“I am but a little child.”
Solomon, poster child for wisdom, speaks these words to God, at the very beginning of his story. I picture him standing arms outstretched and empty-handed, the classic pose of a man wondering what to do next.  “I do not know how to go out or come in.”  In other words, God, I wait for your guidance.  What next?   
9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
1 Kings 3:9
And this deferential request is granted, because it is neither self-seeking nor self-serving.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. James 3:13

James reminds us that wisdom isn’t showy. But he lists other admirable qualities:

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
James 3:17

Wisdom is often personified as a white bearded man in long robes or a tall hat enthroned on a big chair...or as a hermit sitting around a fire in a cave.  Athena, the goddess of wisdom, wears a helmet and an owl upon her shoulder.  

I see people everyday who are merciful, kind, sincere and considerate and wear no particular costumes, hide no amulets or magic wands ‘neath their sweatshirts, and dispense advice only when asked.  They volunteer and share, without fanfare.  They call by name.  They are aunts and uncles and neighbors to all they meet.  By James’ definition, these Good Samaritans and cheerful givers are indeed wise.
Wisdom is in works as much as words.  As a matter of fact, saying nothing is often the wisest action of all!

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Proverbs 31:26
Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.
Proverbs 17:28
Well! Here is good advice for any of us...and a chance to add by subtracting!   If only keeping our mouths shut and our tongues quiet was that easy…..we could all be Solomons….

Monday, October 30, 2017

Important Enough: Field Notes

“Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.”

- Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Whether the day is frigid or warm, dark or sunny, the first thing I do after I come down the stairs into the kitchen is make coffee.  Perhaps it’s the whole nine yards in the Bunn...or may be just a quick cup from the Keurig. I pour tumblers of milk, then either fill cereal bowls or cut a coffeecake for the two of us. It’s our breakfast; it’s what we do everyday. Thornton Wilder reminds us, what seems commonplace and routine to you may be fantastical in someone else’s eyes.
Some deep atavistic urge must well up after the autumnal equinox, else why would people flock to pumpkin patches and sunflower fields?  I understand the attraction of apple orchards and wineries, but piling up pounds upon pounds of picturesque but largely inedible squash as a proxy for blessings of a bountiful harvest?  Acorns...or potatoes….or, heaven forfend, turnips..are  a more rational option.
October is the season for news reporters and television producers to leave their urban enclaves and seek out those ‘raise the song of harvest home’  while they ‘safely gather in, ere the winter storms begin…’ Only harvest itself is as predictably perennial as the human interest story featuring stalwart farmers, dusty red sunsets, and the fascinating machines that transform standing stalks into hoppers, then truckloads, then bins full, of the golden grains that feed the world.

Hugh Sidey not only wrote about Presidents as a professional, but he was known and respected by the men and women of the White House as a friend.  Mr. Sidey had deep roots in Iowa; his brother ran the newspaper in Greenfield, and one trip west in 1994, he drove down to Atchison county to talk about agricultural trade with the Hurst family.  Blake and I considered him a celebrity...he was not just an icon in Time magazine, but also a pundit on several of the political shows we loved to watch on Sundays. We discovered he was also a sincerely kind and generous man, genuinely fascinated with agriculture and respectful of Midwesterners in general. (He treated our whole family to a steak dinner in Washington, D.C. producing the biggest tab I had ever seen, and bestowed books of history on each of the three kids….)

Back in the ‘90s, CNN came to visit us, hot on the trail of an encouraging heart-warming harvest story featuring a ‘real’ family farm.  From the sausage and eggs popping grease to the school bus pulling up into the driveway and the work clothes flapping on the early morning breeze, no homely detail was too small to be recorded.  They interviewed Blake in the midst of one of the prettiest corn fields on the farm, and made their story more theatrical and less honest when the whole family feasted under the big pine trees of Millie and Charlie’s front yard for the noon day meal.  

Years later, another early morning in a different kitchen, the cameras are rolling while Blake talks about technology in farming and I peel apples for a big slab pie for the midday meal.  Once again, the smallest of food details fills the lens and I’m as conscious of the string of Golden Russet peels as Blake is about the nuance of his explanations.  
Times have changed, but Charlie still drives the filmmakers across the wide bottom field while a drone hovers overhead and some of his great granddaughters sit in the stalks making corn husk dolls.  And we’s what we do!  Crock pots and corn chips, sandwiches and salads.  Pie.  Simple fare, the kind of food we sling into Tupperware and Rubbermaid every day of harvest.  But someone is watching; we are not alone. This Sunday’s meal is recorded, if not for posterity, then at least for our memory, which makes it important enough.

They were a rare and wonderful experiences when Hugh Sidey and the guys at CNN came to the farm; farmers typically didn’t attract the attention of major magazines and news organizations without a farm crisis or the natural disasters that are the staple of slow news days.  We were proud to host these visitors from another world to our family farm: proud of our family  as much as the farm itself.  There was no particular angle or ‘gotcha’ issue or practice we needed to defend or pussyfoot around.  Our big machinery, our terraces and no till practices, our productivity, and our hard work from generation to generation told our story.
The folks from Farm Evolution sought answers to complex and controversial questions, not a feel good story about families working together on the land.  Eating together was picturesque; the weather was beautiful; the grandkids playing in the dirt were endearing...and good video!..., but tell us about why we should trust you with this science called genetic engineering?

No doubt in my mind these fertile Missouri fields will host other curious visitors some future sunny breezy October day.  What will they expect as they film the harvest? Will they find our family farm quaint?  Confusing? Cold and technological? Will we be able to convey the bond between family and land?  The deep knowledge built of decades of experience and passed by stories as much as field maps?  Will they understand that our least important days...our routine days of coffee, dust, and paper plates …. week after week, year by year….are important enough.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

File:Jim Nabors Frank Sutton Gomer Pyle 1966.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
Trivia time, anyone?  No, I never actually watched a half hour of Gomer Pyle...not really my kind of humor. The only kind of slapstick my family watched was Rocky and Bullwinkle (Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat?  Nothin’ up my sleeve!)
But for some reason,  Jim Nabors’ trademark goofy voice has insinuated itself into my brain and appears like a genie from the lamp every time someone says “Surprise!”
Clearly the only part of my body with muscle memory is my ear.
Surprise is a two edged sword.
A bouquet of flowers welcomes you home…
There’s mouse poop and three bags of chips with teeth marks in your pantry.

You get the idea….

So let’s talk about real serious surprises, the kind that make tears well up and bring you to your knees.  

One long ago evening, Blake was reading on the couch and Ben was relaxing in the big leather chair when Ann and Matt walked in and handed him a small package.  That was unusual, but not as odd as the contents, which was a box of Uncle Ben’s Rice (and Broccoli).  I can remember thinking, “Well, Ben really doesn’t like broccoli,’’ but Ann wasn’t going to wait  for her pathetically slow on the uptake parents to catch on.  The point wasn’t the rice...or the broccoli, it was the UNCLE BEN!  While it was embarrassing to be so dumbfounded, Matt and Annie had certainly scored a perfect 10 on the surprise meter…
I was standing by the hydrant in front of the greenhouse office, face to face with the morning sun the day Lee called.  We were awaiting that call and the air whooshed out of my lungs when my phone rang.  “Mama, we did it, “she said, and at that moment Blake and I knew there was not one, but two grandbabies to . But even that wasn’t news enough: Ann and Matt were expecting number two child at the same time!  Three in the same month!  Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!!
Grandpa Blake got a twofer for his birthday the day he opened the birthday card announcing grandchild number five was on the way...and when November came, Joshua Blake even shared a name with one grandpa and a birthday with another.  Surprise again!

When Ben brought out a very nice Barboursville red after Blake and I arrived at Reagan National Airport, we thought it was a pretty high class welcome for folks who were staying at a Hampton Inn on the Leesburg Pike. He had even brought glasses! (We are the kind of folks who will drink wine out of hotel plastic).  But wait!  This was no ordinary visit to Virginia: at that very moment, in Colorado, Kenzie was telling her folks that they were soon to be grandparents! Surprise! Toasts were made; sisters were called; and this set of grandparents had a hard time falling asleep that night.

I hesitate to tell this next story….not exactly sure that it’s appropriate for publishing.  But it is funny...and as true as memory can be,  I promise….
Our family visited the Field Museum in Chicago when I was very young. I don’t know if we had company because I only remember two things about this particular visit. One: the size and grandeur of the Main Hall.  Today it holds Sue, the very largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered to date and the emblematic fighting African elephants, a fixture in the museum since 1909.
But back in the day, what caught my eye were the statues lining the outside of the hall.  Many of them wore classical garb like robes, or armor, but some of them did not.  I noticed that some of the unclothed statues did not look like me and pointed that fact out to my mother.  She said, sensible woman that she was, that all men looked like that.  I remember being shocked and mortified….though I’m certain my folks got a good laugh out that episode later on.  Some kids learn anatomy from animals….or their baby brothers or sisters...or the National Geographic...I got my first lesson from the statuary in the Field Museum in Chicago.