Monday, October 25, 2010

Toy Story

Ryan told us we should eat at the Range Cafe. He thought so highly of his meals there, he brought a cookbook home and fixed us supper ala Range one evening. Not wanting to miss out on a good thing, I looked up the address on our fall trip to New Mexico and we planned our lunch around the Range Cafe in Bernalillo. The entrance sported a Western mosaic, but the gotcha moment hit me after we were seated: I had been under the impression that "range" referred to the dry plains along the Rio Grande. Au Contraire! "Range" meant "stove" in my Midwestern parlance and there they were, arranged like a choir in the loft, overlooking the restaurant: play stoves of varied sizes, colors, ages. And near the middle, colored deep carnation pink, the spittin' image of the plastic stove my sister and I had in our play kitchen. We had two stoves and fridges, as I remember, both sets pink. One set was metal and pale pink and the other plastic and the color of tropical punch. We never had a life size set of appliances, though year after year we longed for the play kitchens in the Sears and Montgomery Ward toy catalogs at Christmas, but we wore our scaled down play kitchens out; maybe they survived us and were donated to the nursery at Sunday school, but its far more likely that the hinges failed and the cardboard backs collapsed.

We were lucky though; we had a fabulous child size hutch my grandfather made, and a whole houseful of doll furniture my grandfather built and my grandmother upholstered. The little china people were fragile and were born to a privileged existence; the father wore a bow tie, mother was dressed in a linen print dress, and the children had a nanny/nurse. I was always captivated by the family's appliances: a sturdy black and white gas range matched the one in our kitchen, but the wooden icebox clearly belonged to the same age as the pink cheeked dimpled family of the twenties. We could even set their table with a few blue enameled dishes from the past: a platter, the coffee pot. Laura and I had a doll house of our own, a two storied tin Colonial, but the plastic furniture it contained also stood a distant second to my mother's toys.

We had three Barbies, of the most vintage style. Barbie was the red haired "bubble-head" as we called the 'do. Sylvia was another "bubble-head" but in basic black. Ginger had curly bangs and a black ponytail; she may not have been a blonde, but she was the most glamorous of our three dolls. At that time,Barbies, in the generic sense, came wearing a one piece strapless bandeau swimsuit, pearl earrings, and toeless high heeled shoes. Heavy eye shadow and mascara was frequently augmented by whichever little girl was in charge of her makeup. These Barbies were nearly indestructible, with rigid straight arms and legs and heads that could pop off and on with little effort. My Grandma the seamstress kept Sylvia at her house as a model for several years, until she could make play clothes in her sleep. Every year for Christmas, we would receive a new outfit for our dolls as well as brand new toasty flannel nightgowns in matching or coordinated fabrics. We had a couple of purchased outfits: I remember a shiny green satin tight skirt with a flounced overskirt, topped with a white satin shell and a short matador type jacket. Well dressed women of the sixties wore hats and this Barbie outfit came with a little green pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy could have worn. Actually, some of the prettiest outfits my grandmother sewed could have graced the White House: a floral sheath topped by a cape back tweedy coat with three quarter length sleeves, cuffs and scarf of the same floral print as the dress. As skirts grew shorter, Barbie kept pace, though it became more difficult for her to be modest since she couldn't bend her knees.
Though our Barbies never had a pink sports car, or boyfriends named Ken, they too lived in some pretty classy digs. My mother and father joined forces to create a splendid bedroom for the dolls. A flat white scarf box became a big bed, with a bedspread of trendy pink and brown trimmed with eyelet and topped with bolster pillows in a reverse print. There were two padded stools padded with cotton balls and upholstered with the same fabric. The mirror from one of my mom's compacts became the mirror on a four drawer dresser with working drawers and a tiled top. A small latched formica covered box, no doubt a refugee from some electrical part, was painted with a floral motif and became a trunk Wooden lids from perfume bottles, spools, and beads became lamps. The large open box had curtains at the windows and was papered with the same wallpaper that graced our bathroom. It was a masterpiece.
What we didn't have on hand in the way of furniture, we built ourselves with wooden blocks. These blocks and their wagon were made by my wood working grandfather and are still the stuff of roads, hangars, and runways to this day.
But the blocks were not only tables and chairs. Like most little girls, Laura and I were crazy in love with horses. We had Breyer horses in all sizes, some given to us, others purchased with coins carefully saved from weeding or other chores. We made a whole herd of horses from pipecleaners and yarn; our little town had a dime store where we perused the choices of black, browns, golds and other possible horsey hues. Our ponies were all named,from imagination or from fictional sources like Marguerite Henry's tales or Walter Farley's. Various dramas took place on our bedroom floor or even in the gardens during the summer. When my mom allowed, we got free use of all the artificial flowers she stored up and a whole bag full of colorful scarves. With these we created "Paradise", a wondrous place for our play herd. We were nothing if not anthropomorphic.
I don't remember much in the way of purchased toys. Our aunts and uncles bought us paints, paper, pastels, colored pencils, and books. I'm pretty certain our male cousins didn't get these same gifts! But we used them all, especially the Venus colored pencils, which drew bright deep hues without much pressure. All other colored pencils literally paled in comparison.
I still check out all the toy catalogs that fill the mailbox as Christmas nears. Some of the old toys are back, if indeed they ever left. We had a box of colored wooden tiles called Tangrams that we received as a gift....sure enough, these are still available. I can't wait to buy Colorforms for the kids; we spent many an hour making pictures with them. Even the Sunday School nursery had them, which really puts them back aways; we were pretty young when we were "old enough" to sit still through church. The church had an abbreviated assortment of Tinker Toys; we had some Lincoln Logs, but never enough to really build something substantial. But the best thing of all at the church was PlayDoh. I loved everything about it: the texture, the softness, the colors, the smell. Even though we were supposed to use 'home made' Playdoh for craft times, it was nothing close to the real thing. Did we have Playdoh at home? I don't remember. We did have real gray modeling clay which we carved and formed into little animals and dinosaurs which we painted and kept on our dressers til various appendages fell off.
Laura and I played games too....card games like Rummy and War. We learned to play cutthroat Hearts and Spades with my Granny and father. Granny was kind and funny; my dad used card games to teach life lessons about winning, losing, and the concept of no quarter. Part of the game was to keep a straight face even when you got stuck with the Queen. No handicap was given for age during Monopoly games either. My sister and I played endless games of Chinese checkers because we were evenly matched and we liked using my mother's old board with the marbles stored in tubes within the board.
These days Aaron is the engineer building structures and machines and vehicles with complicated attributes from Legos; Gabe is the farmer and pilot, gathering a stack of his favorite planes and trucks, heavy on the orange. Abbie is the artist with hieroglyphics penciled on a multitude of sticky notes and Lizzie is the domestic goddess, filling her hand bag with, well, anything and everything, talking on a domino (her phone) and laying her baby in the cradle in the living room. Best of all are the times a whole new world comes to life built by two, three or even four young imaginations. Then the toys, old, new, used, become merely props and not the main act in the play.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Road Food

Back before we had cell phones, we survived harvest using a number of two way radios. We didn't all have them: most of the pickups had a receiver, one combine had a receiver, one a portable. The guy driving the auger wagon had a he could hear exactly where the wagon was supposed to be and how fast it should be going when it got there. We wives had base units at home, better than nothing, but leaving a wide margin of error. For instance, one would prepare a meal, then call the guy on the machine. He would give a destination, and a range, rather like the probability that a particular electron would be in a specific spot orbiting the nucleus of an atom. One would depart with victuals safely stowed, aiming for the intersection that would lead to a food exchange, knowing full well that the time, the place, and even the vehicle could be one, two, or more standard deviations off the norm. Only God could hear me, and I know I'm forgiven, but some colorful language was employed more than a few times as I set off in hot (hot!) pursuit of my particular responsibility, airborne over terrace basins, road ruts, heedless of dust and reason.

But the two ways had their moments. From our home on the eastern edge of radio range and high on a hill, we could pick up several ongoing conversations on a daily basis. One group was all business, primarily telling their drivers where to deliver fertilizer wagons and trucks. It was some consolation to know they couldn't find each other on the road either. One group was obviously another family farm with at least one member who was either hard of hearing or deliberately ignoring all pleas for conversation. "Are you in there, Harold" became a running joke on our farm, even as we tried to remember what we might be saying on the airwaves that other listeners would find amusing.

But the most consistent of all was the combine crew somewhere south and east of us. The two way would be quietly snap, crackle and popping until they came to work. But once they manned their machines, there was just one topic of conversation: FOOD. Starting not long after 10 a.m., these fellas would speculate about who would fetch dinner and when they would fetch dinner. The one fact they would NEVER discuss was just what they would EAT for dinner. Nope, the only item on the menu available, apparently, cheeseburgers, because that was the universal subject of the food conversation. Day after day, week after week, month fading into next month, this combine crew spent half their working hours discussing cheeseburgers.

Well, by the middle of November, I sometimes feel we've been in a rut food-wise, though nothing as tediously repetitive as a steady diet of cheeseburgers. When the kids were little, I attempted to produce a real meal once a day, replete with plates and tableware, so Lee and Ann could see their father during harvest hours. Then we ate a mom/kid type supper of eggs, or grilled cheese, or hot dogs while Blake made do with a sack lunch repast. But by the end of harvest, the notion of loading the dishes, the kids, the thermos, the theoretically hot food, into the car, spending fifteen minutes wolfing food and balancing assorted plastic containers and Crock pots, then bringing the whole mess home, cooled and congealed, got to be pretty unappealing and Blake ate by himself in lonely splendor after children had eaten at home. This became even more imperative by the time Ben came along. We ate meals in the combine with one kid perched behind the seat, one on a cooler on the floor and little Ben on my lap. That was before the days of buddy seats, and I wore a pretty good black and blue mark on my behind.

We've had some feasts. My birthday falls right smack in the middle of bean harvest. Many times Millie hosted an evening meal with birthday cake for a host of dusty family members coming in to eat in shifts. But one year, we ate down at the bin site of our rented farm on a bright lovely perfect fall day and another featured fish Millie and Charlie caught in Minnesota that summer. Its been years since we finished harvest before Halloween, so trick or treating is either preceded (for older ones) or finished (for little ones) with soups and spooky cupcakes at Grandma Millie's. It may not be eating at home, but it is home cooked food featuring metal spoons instead of plastic.

One year a CNN crew decided to film a feature piece on harvest and came to visit Hurst Farms. I was giggling inside as I cooked the bacon and egg breakfast they expected to see on a farm table and even more tickled when a closeup of my griddle appeared in the final version. Eating in the field is standard operating procedure, but these guys wanted film of our great big happy family spreading our noontime repast out among pines at the 'home place'. Out came the tables and the table cloths; the last time Millie's yard had looked so festive was a wedding rehearsal supper. We had put our best foot forward, but typical it was not! Even this fall we enjoyed one of these surreal meals in the field when a Japanese delegation came to visit and Kevin stood, surrounded by Japanese taking notes, answering question after question while Nancy set up a table of Matt's catering and served up tailgate fare of the finest kind. Of course we typically drive up from miles around for ribs and fixings directly at our 'business casual' dress. We had terrific fun with that occasion. I always appreciated hearing from Lydia as suppertime approached and I was helping dump trucks, offering to bring out sandwiches or pizza for the entire crew. During combine season, a good hot 'slab of grease' can really hit the spot.

My meals on wheels these days can be carried in a HyVee bag. I eschew cold cuts unless desperate; we eat plenty of sandwich food in the spring. Tortillas, pasta, burgers; harvest fare is beef based. Chili travels well and stays warm a long time; tomorrow may well bring a meatball sandwich. I bake apple bread often as a stand in for dessert, or if the day has been particularly rough, an infusion of Junior Mints may be required.

A discussion of road food is not complete without coffee. Coffee drinkers suffer during harvest, not for lack of availability but for lack of quality. I bought a serious go mug for Blake as my contribution to hot coffee this fall, but nothing can compensate for having to put up with that nasty metallic aftertaste from a stainless steel Thermos. I tried to satisfy the epicure one year with a glass lined Thermos. But HA! Just imagine how long that equipment lasted rolling on the floor of the John Deere. Nope, we just enjoy the rainy mornings when we drink the whole pot at home and look forward to winter. And I continue to heat up those antique and indestructible Thermoses just like the one my dad took to work decades ago.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Arts and Crafts

What better way to spend a brisk early October afternoon than in the pursuit of beauty. You might choose football, or hunting, or biking, or be virtuous and clean up the yard and wash windows. Today, though, we chose to wend our way north hopscotching eastern Nebraska on the North Hills Pottery Tour.
This is the third year we've spent a Saturday afternoon in the esoteric and impractical pursuit of pottery. We join a procession of SUVs, foreign and domestic, and conspicuously green or artfully odd automobiles, creeping at the snail's pace of vehicles unfamiliar with the dust of gravel roads en route to the farthest North stop of the tour, Big Table pottery.

Big Table came as a shock our first visit. The mailbox is ensconced in a cocoon of fierce pointy horns. "Pods" and other vaguely organic shapes hang from the tree limbs and spring from the turf. The tin roofed shed covers the open brick kiln with a little white troll of some kind blessing the contents. Big Table has coffee and cider in the shed and napkins protecting the cookies from flies. Today, the potters are conspicuous....why? Some combination of hair, skin, body type, accessories, perhaps? Such ethereal waifs to bring forth these ponderous slabs of earth. Nothing ephemeral about these pieces; there are gray jointed pipes of clay holding sprays of lilies, odd footed decanters looking like they'd skitter back under the bed when one wasn't looking, slabs of red clay with luminous glass dots and puddles of color. There is a whole set of dishware, dinner plates, bowls, dessert plates of a hue and texture reminiscent of the concrete sidewalk we just poured at the greenhouse. This pottery is so lacking in glaze, pattern and color, I believe the artists took the words "earthy" and "elemental" to the logical extreme: these pieces could have been formed before single celled beings divided to form life. At Big Table, the most appealing creations are the motley but friendly pack of pooches greeting the visitors.

Down the road we go, none the poorer for our experience, into the little town of Fort Calhoun. In the past, the Too Far North Winery has been entertaining for its nice selection of Nebraska wines and its very pleasant front porch and decor. Today, the place is humming with activity and we can barely get in the door. Last year we labeled the pottery at Too Far North as "art", our code for "too expensive for purchase" and "where would we ever put this?" Today, there are two potters exhibiting at Too Far North. One young man displays monumental pieces that could conceivably be considered sculpture and little triangular puzzle pie slices of clay I think the three year olds could make with playdoh and plastic knives. Don't get me wrong; they are clever constructions and would really be fun to doodle with while at your desk on your phone. They just don't add up to more than a hundred of my dollars. But this young man could have come from central casting and makeup: his black mane was wavy and his features chiseled. I'm sure his teeth were straight too.
The other artist was young, too, but bald. He was a high school teacher in Sioux Falls. But he had something else going for him: he had a long line of buyers. While I assumed some of the footed jars and irregular vases were his work, there was a shelf of tall concave tumblers glazed with swirls that might be waves, or a mountain range, and vertical ribs of color that could have been trees or blowing grass. There were comfortable mugs, either tall for maximum heat retention or broad, so one could wrap both hands around them. I was captivated by one with a wide bowl swirled with glaze on the bottom, dotted on one side like a starry night and the other like chocolate chips. He had graceful bowls of modest proportions and reasonable prices. Was that the reason for the line of customers? I don't think it was money at all; I think his work was pretty. It utilized the raw materials of earth, but borrowed the motifs of the natural world as visualized in the mind's eye. We didn't have to use much imagination to bring back a pleasant memory when we picked up his pottery. And we'd use it often: these were pieces to get out of the cupboard, nothing so precious it need gather dust.

That's one of the reasons I enjoy the Pottery Tour. All the creators are artists in the sense they have a vision of what clay should be. Some make terrifying masks in stark black and white and gory red. Some pieces are luminous and so delicately glazed and decorated, they appear to have been transported from the farthest Oriental palace, not St. Joseph, Missouri.
I hope to try my hand at this craft some day. I know it takes skill and practice, not just a vision. In the mean time, its a pleasant way to meditate on the different interpretations of "Craft" and "Art".