Saturday, September 24, 2011

Deep or Wide

Before she decided to use pig farms as the villain in one of her books, I enjoyed reading Martha Grimes' murder mysteries.  Though an American writer, Ms. Grimes is an Anglophile; her milieu is England; her characters recognizably British, or at least literary British, meaning they exist only between the covers of a book.  There is sufficient romance, angst, atmosphere, and irony to make these adult entertainments slightly less fluffy than the food equivalent of key lime pie.  The stereotypes come with a twist, like reflections in an antique mirror. But they all have a redeeming sense of humor and don't take themselves too seriously.

This is not a review of Martha Grimes' writing though.  Rather, one recurring minor character keeps popping into my mind.  This gal dresses elegantly, is coiffed beautifully, and is described as a natural at the art of the cocktail gathering.  Diane DeMorney knows a little about everything.....literally.  She can participate in a conversation about any subject............for a sentence or two.

Superficial?  Shallow?  Well, maybe.  But, in a way, I'm rather envious of Diane DeMorney.  She may only grasp a factoid or three, and perhaps knowledge this narrow does not truly constitute knowledge at all, but she does know something.  Like the Peggy Lee song, ' I know a little bit...about a lot of things....', this gal is all surface and no depth.

'That wouldn't make you a shallow person, would it?'  Lyle Lovett putting thoughts into words.  How much knowledge does it take to exceed the epithet  superficial?  Is it a sin to know 'a little bit about a lot of things?'

I stand tonight in defense of factoids, trivia, and anecdotes.  We can't all be PhDs.  I can't know it all.  But I earnestly desire to be 'a jack of all trades' even if I'm a master of none.   I eagerly participate in the lyrics game between Lee and Ben, whenever it comes my way.  Next line of a song, show tune or country.....let me think on that a bit....and I'm not above Google.

I 'll never win at sports trivia; I don't love all sport.  But I want to recognize the birds of the air and the blooms of the field where ever I roam. (I know a bit about biology).  I am frustrated because I don't remember the winter constellations.  I want to recognize basic geology (I'm a little gem at geology) whether fossil, glacial, or tectonic.  I want to name names.....

When the kids were in school, they memorized the countries of Africa (thanks, Mrs. Schneider) and the kings and queens of England (thanks, Mrs. Schmidt).  We memorize the books of the Bible and the Apostles' Creed. Elementary school kids are responsible for states and their capitals and the United States Presidents.  We learn the names of dinosaurs, clouds, continents, bones, and Indian tribes. We follow the Pilgrims across the Atlantic, Custer to Little Big Horn, and Grant to Appomattox. This is our common culture, our common knowledge.

Maybe I have this name fixation because I have an eight year old grandson.  The four year olds ask 'why' of subjects equally serious and absurd (the time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...of shoes and ships and sealing wax.  Of cabbages and kings.)  But Aaron can exceed his grandmother's cognizance on more than one front...machines for instance.  Thank goodness for grandpas, I say.

Google is my co-pilot on this quest.  Ask me about Nevada, Missouri (it burned to the ground in 1863 during the Civil War), Tillamook, Oregon (those are blimp hangars from WWII outside town), or Dumbarton Oaks (the owners commissioned Igor Stravinsky to create music for their thirtieth wedding anniversary).  Did you know the Beatles took a day off in Oregon county, Missouri during their first US tour?  Hey, maybe all that staring at cell phones is part of an ongoing search for knowledge!!

I wish I knew more. I wish I remembered what I once knew.  Why?  I can't tell you, beyond a desire to take advantage of God's beautiful world and the life of the mind.  I am reading a Kathleen Norris book about her months as oblate in a monastery . I envy the depth of their immersion in Scripture even as she describes their renunciation of individuality for the good of the community.  William Least Heat Moon's book PrairyErth is an example of a non fiction 'deep map' of a limited geographical location, including, by one definition, archeology, folklore, memories, weather, natural history and interviews.  Wendell Berry espouses the same devotion to a place through time in his novel, Jayber Crow. The protagonist in this story tries out the rest of the world before settling down for the remainder of his life in the town near his birthplace.  He has decided there is nothing of value from the outside world he cannot find in his geography, narrow in span, but spiritually deep.

As denizen of a small place; as occupant of a home with a past; as part of a family with ties to the same wet spots and dry hills, I am sympathetic to this view.  But it strikes me that this mindset confines our wandering minds and adventurous spirits. When I was a child.....I read the same beloved books over and over.  These days,  I am exquisitely attuned to the volumes on my shelves I have not cracked, much less the tantalizing tales and untapped knowledge in the electronic world.  I tend to make the tried and true treats over and over, even though a new recipe might be a new favorite.  Thankfully, I seldom have to choose where to travel.  The decision between a known, beautiful and fascinating quantity and trails unfamiliar is too much.  

Do I go deep....or wide?  Anecdote or monograph?  In the end, I guess no one is keeping score.  Diane DeMorney or Jayber Crow? 

Not a Renaissance man; not a polymath. I'll have to hope I can remember more than I forget.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Happy Apple Bread

Just back from a stay at a splendid city hotel where we enjoyed breakfast each morning under a substantial crystal chandelier surrounded by bucolic murals of gazebos, doves and vines. The breakfast buffet was on par with the decor, including cheeses of all matter of cloven hooved critters; hot and cold fish and fowl; and a mosaic of sliced seasonal fruits. Strawberries and melons, pineapple and citrus, blueberries and raspberries. Mmmmm. For three mornings, I luxuriated in a bowl of red raspberries with a dollop of whipped cream atop Red raspberries and cream for breakfast is a pretty fair distillation of the essence of a getaway.

Today, back to earth because earth, in the tactile, grainy, windy sense, is where I operate. Back to bringing in the sheaves, aka large scale mum deliveries, when we gather the fruits of our labors four by four and load them into the arks of the delivery trailers for their voyage to the cities. It concentrates the mind on the pressure points of finger tips and shoulders and knees. Back to harvesting another fruit, a humble fruit, not featured on the china plates at the Mayflower. Many of the apple trees on our farm are barren this year, victimized by chilly nights and unfriendly days for either bees or blossoms. But the quartet of trees with fruit bear heavy burdens on their branches. The apples are not perfect, but they are remarkably scab free and blush beautifully where the sun bathes them in the afternoon. These are apples I would not have to hide from my mother and father.

We had a Red Delicious and a Yellow Delicious in our side yard in Orland Park. These two seemed to grow with a cylindrical habit, without the muscular wide spread branches of the orchard at Granny and Grandpa's house. Somewhere along the line though, my folks learned how to grow fruit trees. They planted hundreds on the contour along the terraces of their farm in Moniteau county. They ran drip lines under the infant trees to forestall mortality during inevitable droughty summers and to promote fruit size and prevent fruit drop as the trees grew. They pruned and guyed, sprayed and raked up drops as the seasons demanded. One of the old buildings was refurbished into a market with an insulated, airconditioned room to keep the fruit in condition after it was picked. The last boxes of the best keepers were taken down to the fruit cellar in the pump house to be rationed deep into the winter until nothing was left of the apple but the sweetness.

Raising apples in mid Missouri is an art as much as a science. The glossy recommendations of New York catalogs bore little fruit, forgive the pun, in a climate with winter might rocket from minus 10 to 75 degrees like a pin ball machine. Trees would come and go, replaced with another more tolerant and tough. The window of opportunity for protective spraying could be but a sliver as well. Good spraying weather bears many similarities to good greenhouse covering weather, with the addition of a threat of rain. Meticulous growers that they were, they got those sprays in, because beautiful fruit was what they wanted to grow. Remember the lost Entwives of Tolkien's Middle Earth? In my father's judgement, my mom descended directly from the Entwives, so ordered and bountiful was their garden. In the summertime, we would all cool off in the shade of the market with statice and globe amaranth drying overhead, a few peaches ripening on the picnic table and the rows of tidy fruit trees marching on to the edge of the view like a vision of the Shire.

The apple season at Redbarn began in July with harvest of the immense flattened green Lodis. Lodi apples are thin skinned and don't store, but they peel easily and virtually sauce themselves. Lodis made thin applesauce that required liberal additions of sugar, but they came on early and were harbingers of good things to come, like the first robins in spring.

We weren't down there to catch every apple of the seasonal progression, but my folks kept boxes of their favorite keepers until we visited. Paula Reds were tasty handfuls for eating, but came on when the weather was warm enough, they didn't keep long either. McIntosh had to be watched like hawks; waiting one day too long for some color could mean the entire tree's fruit would be on the ground. And that would be such a shame! McIntosh applesauce is just about the best; the big apples left peels two foot long. They cooked down into a lovely pinkish hue with just enough fruity texture to have substance. A shelf of canned McIntosh will look completely different than a shelf of canned Delicious, or Ozark Golds, or Jonathans.

August brought in the Ozark Golds and the Galas. I don't know if my folks have any of these two trees remaining, though we have a couple at the farm. Galas are so beautiful, heart shaped fruit with a hint of blush on the side and so sweet and crisp! You can buy them in the store, but they won't originate in Missouri. The Ozark Golds were not as sweet, but they were a wonderful multi purpose apple and would tide a golden apple lover over until the fall apples were ready. You could munch an Ozark Gold out of hand, slice it for cinnamon sugar apples for a treat for the kids, or bake it into pies. The rootstock for the trees was just not sturdy enough for the repeated freezings and thawings of mid Missouri though and many of the Ozark Golds uprooted and blew over.

Finally the crown jewels of Missouri appledom would be ready, the wonderful main attraction in my opinion, the queen of fruity versatility, the Golden Delicious. Our family rejected the Red Delicious out of prejudice born of the thick skinned mealy fruits available year round at the stores in those days. My folks raised a few and no doubt they were tastier off the tree, but there was no getting around that thick skin. The Golden Delicious were not quite as pretty, bearing some rough cosmetic patches most years. But they stored well, made great pies, and could be canned into sauce or apple butter. We ate a dozen a day between snacks for school and harvest and lunches for all. These years of bountiful Golden Delicious were the years I started preserving my parents' apple harvest in the form of apple bread.

My mom made the apple bread first. The "old" Farm Bureau cookbook has the recipe which she would make for us when fruit was in season. When you have four boxes of apples and lots of friends and neighbors to bake for, it doesn't take long to connect the dots, head to the HyVee for sugar, eggs, flour and Crisco, and sharpen the paring knife. The apple bread recipe is just about fool proof in both construction and baking. It can be made successfully from a wide range of varieties, orchard fresh or store bought. It freezes just fine and actually slices more neatly after frozen.

I bet I've made hundreds of loaves in the big yellow Rubbermaid mixing bowl and worn out one set of loaf pans....for home, for family dinners, for holiday dinners, for funeral dinners, for breakfast, for birthday treats, for teachers, bus drivers, choir directors, piano teachers, Sunday school teachers and pastors. For gifts for friends. As giveaways for campaigns.
Just last week for Abbie's breakfast. Just today for a Farm Bureau supper.

Its a gift that keeps giving.....share the recipe, share the delight. I love it when someone walks up to the door and says, 'That smells WONDERFUL'. Its not rocket science and its no big secret.

It is a harbinger of cooler days, a pleasant reminder of fall at my parents' place, a 'remembrance of things past' that connects all the happy busy times spent with the oven warming, piles of peels in the sink, and family in the kitchen.

Happy Apple Bread.....

4 cups apples, peeled and diced
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups Crisco oil
2 eggs
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 heaping tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups flour

Mix sugar, oil and eggs. Add apples and stir. Add other ingredients and stir. Batter will be stiff.

Bake for 1 hour at 350 in 2 ungreased loaf pans. Let cool then tip out. Freezes well.

don't use off brand oil....for some reason, it doesn't work as well.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


I have wonderful sons-in-law. They work hard, laugh easily, cook well, help their wives, and are exemplary daddies to their children. They are tolerant of the foibles of their in-laws. I can never thank them enough for making their home here, close to our home, so we have the company and blessings of all our growing family, right here, on a daily basis.

BUT.....there was a time when Matt was not the flavor of the day. Just about eight years ago, we waited anxiously by the phone in the minutes between September 6 and September 7. Ann's trip to the doctor that day sent her on to the hospital with the prospect of induced labor and the arrival of their first child...and our first grandchild. We waited....and waited...not just for news of the baby, but also reassurance that our daughter was all right. We waited for the call. Not real patiently.

Around 12:30, we received the wonderful news that Aaron Matthew was born. The new little family was fine, just exhausted. We could hardly go to sleep, but the night passed quickly. The morning of September 7 meant not just a trip to see baby Aaron, but also parking cars at the Chiefs game and watering the mum crop at the farm.

I had big plans to celebrate this little boy's birth with a new blue sheet and a can of black spray paint awaiting the number one grand baby's name. I was going to proclaim to all of Tarkio, "WELCOME, AARON MATTHEW!" Instead, in my excess excitement, I painted, 'WELCOME, AARON MAtHEW', committing the mortal sin of misspelling this brand new boy's name. ARGH! I noticed my error before I hung the big banner from the porch and painted in the extra 'T', but I was sure God and all his angels would forgive this error, much less my family, friends and neighbors.
As it has turned out, there is no one more forgiving of his grandma's foibles than this number one grandson, Aaron. I know his mommy and daddy worried and lost sleep during his first months, but I can only remember little Aaron plunging out of his mother's arms to reach out to me at about six months of age. As a very little boy, he loved his uncle Ben's Brio trains, especially the cranes with magnets. Over and over again, we would load the 'cargo' onto the little cars from the little trucks. Downstairs, we would hide the 'gold' in a fortress of blocks, then destroy the building and liberate the gold, loading it with another little blue crane and pushing it with a little orange bulldozer.
Aaron helped bake, perched on the counter or the high stool...he still sports remnants of the giant goose egg that is his grandma's greatest guilt trip and regret. We read Thomas the Train, Smoky (the train), Hobo Dog, McDuff, and the Big Farm Book over and over and over. We searched for Lowly Worm and Gold Bug in Richard Scarry books. He took full advantage of the bath room just off the living room, using the 'cups and spoons' to concoct all manner of delicacies and laughing uproariously as the frogs would squirt or the "monkey" would climb up my back or slide down my leg. His mother would caution he was getting 'too big' for any number of activities whether climbing or getting picked up. Well, he is now, but he wasn't then.......
Instead of going up to the second floor to bed, we would build a wall of pillows and blankets to make a dark cozy spot for a little boy to snooze in til Mom and Dad came to pick him up. More than once or twice, the little boy and Grandpa would be snoring harmonically in the quiet of late evening.

Eight isn't grown up, but its not "little" any more either. Instead of a cocoon of pillows, Aaron falls asleep with the Mizzou snuggie. He can deconstruct the 'body' book or the Stephen Biesty cross section book. We read about weather, water systems, and electricity now. He can build a better Lego from parts than I can from directions. We're learning piano now; Aaron mows the yard for his mom and dad; he's got a pretty good grasp of the flowers in the greenhouse, helping more than one customer find what they need. This spring, we hiked the hallowed halls of our Capitol together; he drove the simulator at Air and Space with his grandpa and uncle Ben....this summer he's been driving his dad around in the golf cart, helping to pick up mum orders.
It is fun to have Josh crawling around the house these days, even if he plows through anything on the floor like an ice cutter in the Arctic sea. It was pleasant to pore through the pictures watching Ben grow from scrapbook to scrapbook last month as we celebrated his birthday. But Aaron (or the Big A, as my dad calls him) could just as well be dubbed the big S at age 8 as he soaks up knowledge and experience like a giant sponge. What a wonder it is to have adverbs on your tongue at all times, to have learning explode like the 'Incredible Cross Section' book, to run, throw, bike, at warp speed, and to rest from it all in a sleep so profound, nothing short of a tornado drill or earthquake could arouse you.

Eight is great. Happy Birthday, Aaron!