Monday, September 28, 2015


It's funny how these old feelings hang around
You think they're gone...

No, no

They just go underground....

 ......You and me, we're like America and Russia

We're always keeping score
We're always balancing the power
And that can get to be a cold cold war..
...Joni Mitchell,  1976
Emblem of the 351st Missile Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base
After all these years, the strident beep of the Emergency Broadcast System alert still freezes me in my tracks.  The recorded script was just part of the familiar background noise of my childhood, the menacing tones  causing barely a ripple in everyday activities even as we awaited the message emphasizing the words 'This is only a test.'  The EBS test was a much a part of life as fire alarm evacuations and huddling in the hallways, faces to the wall, during a tornado drill.  Tornado warnings were a  fact of life on the Illinois prairie and a genuine risk in a tract house with no basement: conversation stopped if the sirens went off.  But we chattered away during an EBS test like it was a car commercial.

Until the day we didn't.  I was standing in the kitchen when the alarm came through the teak speakers in our dining room.  My mother heard it too; my sister was playing in our back bedroom.  "THIS IS NOT A TEST".   The FM radio station we were listening to did not tell us what the actual emergency was, just that further information would be forthcoming.  And then there was silence.  

My father was out of town.  We had no way to reach him.  In confusion, we switched over to other radio stations, but several of them were broadcasting normal programming. Suddenly our routine sunny winter Saturday became terrible. We could only assume the worst: that Chicago was under attack by Soviet missiles.
It is a warm sunny afternoon in September at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri. Though we stand in the middle of the middle of the U.S., a visit to the hangar of a B-2 Spirit or the National Guard Apaches reminds me I'm on the front lines of the defense of our nation.   But to step inside the gate of the Oscar-01 launch control facility is to enter another era, of missiles, of fallout shelters, of the Emergency Broadcast tests: the Cold War .  Oscar-01 was home to three Strategic Missile Squadrons which controlled 150 Minuteman II ICBMs from 1963 to 1995.  The missile silos and command centers dotted the rural Missouri countryside in fourteen counties, silent sentinels in pastures and cornfields behind barbed wire on lettered state highways. 
 We sit in the former crew lounge in front of a map of sites and control centers, now owned by farmers and ranchers, storing hay or machinery, the facilities now empty, filled with debris or imploded: the last missile removed in 1995.

Minuteman missiles were based in the Midwest and Northern Plains, designed to fly across the North Pole to their targets in the Soviet Union.  They were armed with a single nuclear warhead and could not be recalled once they were launched.  From launch to target took 28 minutes.  
The freight elevator delivers us to the underground control center as if it slogs through the weight of time itself.  To our left is the machinery of survival after the unthinkable: an Allis Chalmers generator, scrubbers and filters for contaminated air, an air conditioning unit for the immense banks of non miniaturized computers, a suspended floor to absorb the shock of detonation, 750 gallons of water for the two man crew living stationed within the hardened concrete capsule and responsible for turning the keys that would launch the missile.  
The commander and deputy commander were on duty for 24 hour shifts behind their multi ton doors; the sites in Missouri were connected by more than 1770 miles of hardened buried cable.  The 150 facilities were built on bedrock anywhere from 60-90 feet deep, used more than 25,000 tons of steel and were completed in just over two years from ground breaking.
The Cold War was serious business...and the precautions and preparations were terrifyingly specific in dealing with an untested eventuality.  Every contingency had its solution...up to and including an exit strategy for those trapped underground during a holocaust of fire above.

For those of us who grew up with the missile silos in their neighborhood (Orland Park Nike missile site) and the EBS as their sound track, this back stage visit is a sobering reminder; for those who came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union, the history seems as dated as Great grandma's woven plaid Lazy Boy rocker recliner and the deterrence of mutually assured destruction an acronym from the bad old days. The EBS false alarm of 1971 was revoked after an hour; that afternoon we went shopping for fabric. And I remember thinking how normal it was to be standing among the bolts of fabric, enjoying an innocent, harmless outing with my mother and my sister, when a few hours earlier, we had been shocked speechless with fright.

It may be that removing our shoes at airports and walking through metal detectors in public buildings is more a charade than an assurance of public safety.  But the men and women that stood guard in Strategic Missile Squadrons like that of Oscar-1 exhibited the same dedication and fortitude to their duty as those manning the Apaches and maintaining the B-2 Bombers at Whiteman today.

 "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it." --Thomas Paine: The American Crisis

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

From Scratch II

" I had a greengage tree, that's the best of all plants, espaliered on the wall outside my bedroom. And there is nothing that tastes better than a warm greengage plucked out of your bedroom window on a summer evening. And I did have the extraordinary good fortune to grow up eating what I think the romantic movement dreams of. We had milk fresh from the cow; I never had pasteurized milk until I went to school. We had fish from the river, pheasant from the farm. The food was extremely good. French friends used to come and stay for great long periods of time because they liked it so much. It wasn't fancy, but it was--we never had cans, we never had tins, we never had--everything was fresh from the garden. So, I do romanticize--some of that because the taste was often extraordinary. " Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, from the interview with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast: (Rachel Laudan on the History of Food)

"This book of recipes of wonderful things to eat suggests that we were all raised with a background and heritage of good food, and for the most part, this is true.  But the definition of luxury food has changed over the years.  What is now economy food was in some cases a luxury item 50 years ago. For example, chicken is now one of the cheapest meats, but several decades ago chicken was the choice for Sunday dinner or when there were guests.  Lucky indeed was the man who married a girl that could fry chicken since it was an inborn trait."
C. John Renken, Jr. , Introduction to The Renken's Recipes to Die For, Thanksgiving 1992
Nelson Ladies with Peach orchard
Millie: "Mom baked bread every Saturday; she made loaves enough to last all week.  She baked home made donuts with some of the dough. The older kids told us younger ones biting into a donut hole would kill us.  And when we left a chewed around hole behind, the older kids came after and ate them all.....   Mom baked biscuits from scratch every morning for breakfast...biscuits and gravy and fried leftover potatoes and fried beef.  We got a bucket of beef every week from the Farmers City beef club; it was always gone by Friday.  Mom had to get up early to get the fire going in the wood stove to cook breakfast."

Charlie :  "There was an upstairs room in the old house that we stored salted meat in.  When we tore the house down, it still smelled like Morton salt. We didn't eat much beef....mostly pork and chicken. "

Millie: "We only had iced tea...though it wasn't cold...when the haymen or threshers came to work and eat with us.  That's when we would eat "special food" like chicken..  First the men would eat, then the children, and the women would eat after everyone else was finished.  Everything was from scratch.  We ate roast, noodles, and a lot of hash...onions, beef, and leftover potatoes."

Millie: "My grandma kept butter and milk cold in her well. We had an icebox. Mom made cottage cheese every week, setting milk out in a crock on an enameled table in the kitchen.  We churned butter by hand and separated the cream. "

Charlie: "We had a water separator for cream; it was a 10 gallon column with a valve at the bottom and a sight gauge.  You'd pour the milk in the top and then pour in water.  The water made the cream separate faster.  You'd open the valve to let out the cream.  The chickens got the leftover milk and water.  It stood on a three legged stand."

Millie: "We'd shell peas til our fingers blistered."

Charlie: "Mom tried shelling peas onto a sheet by running them through the Maytag wringer washer...peas flew everywhere!"

Millie: " We 'd walk by Grandma's after church after she'd  baked bread.  If she was home we'd stay and visit.  If she wasn't, we ate all her food. We'd spread mustard on the homemade bread..."
Young Charlie Hurst

Charlie: "When I was six, we had three single men and the school teacher living upstairs and eating with us."

Millie:  "There were always nine people to feed."

"Raising five kids on a letter carrier's salary required holding the weekly grocery bill down but we certainly never went hungry.  However we did have some menus which represented a real challenge to a kid's palate.  Even now, I can feel the gorge rising at the thought of breaded beef brains or fried eggplant.  Often when something new was on the evening menu, Mom would take me aside before the meal and charge me with trying the new food and showing a favorable response to my younger brother and sisters. The responsibility was awesome; at the first bite, I could see their eyes scanning my throat muscles.....
.....Dad was also the recipient of occasional gifts of dressed coon from some of his patrons especially when he was carrying mail in the east side of town.  Mom would dutifully bake the coon.  I can't remember any negative reaction to it which means it must have been good.  Dad and I would also go down to Weir's creek below Lincoln University and seine for crawdads which were delicious.  We frequently received gifts of cooked cheese which was a special treat on homemade bread.  Momma Beck would buy it from out in the country.  I have never seen anything like it in the supermarkets or delicatessens.  I don't know its proper name; maybe it doesn't exist anymore except perhaps in rural Germany or Switzerland."  C. John Renken, Jr.

 Millie: "We ate A LOT of eggs."

Charlie: "You had to boil and boil to get rid of enough salt to make that pork edible."

 If we say that peasants in the past ate healthier and safer food, it's easy to translate that into the world of development and say, 'We really want people to stay in small farms on the land. We want women in South Africa to continue pounding their maize in a mortar with a great big pestle.' And to condemn them to the kind of poverty that our ancestors escaped, 3, 4, 5, 6 generations ago. I think we just simply have to give up the myth of a golden age in the past that is a template for the present.
Rachel Laudan

History professor Rachel Laudan wishes critics of today's food systems would  look back to the not so distant past and have a conversation or two with people who truly ate what they grew and lived on the food available seasonally.  Folks who were pork folks...or beef folks...and killed, not the fatted calf, but a squawking chicken, when company called.  The breakfast my husband's grandmother prepared for her large family every morning: from scratch biscuits and gravy, fried steak and potatoes, cornmeal mush, sounds like a feast. But it required her to rise early to revive the fire in the wood stove to bake and fry and boil the water she hauled from the well to clean up the dishes afterward.   Today's abundance of food is no mystery; it is the result of both the revolutionary increase in productivity on the farm and a concurrent transformation of processing, preserving and transportation, increasing not just the amount of food available, but giving consumers of all incomes an astronomical increase of choices and variety....

And then I tweak myself and I say, 'Look, Rachel, your mother spent all day, every day gardening or cooking.' Essentially. As well as doing other chores. And she said to you, 'Rachel, it's servitude. I want you to have a life I didn't have.' And here I am sitting in this very privileged position of having had a life as an academic, which has to be one of the happiest situations a human being can find themselves in, with time to think and money to live on and the chance to travel. Rachel Laudan

  Whenever we add up the pluses and minuses of a modern food system, we are less than honest if we do not include the freedom to do something else with one's time and talent besides make a meal.  Cooking can be art, created and composed with loving attention to the mingling of tastes and textures; we all remember and treasure meals like that.  But food is also fuel and sustenance; the world is a richer place if Mom throws a take and bake pizza in the oven before she goes to church for children's choir with one kid and Dad gets home from coaching Little League with the other....

We haven''t always had that choice....
Renken family circa mid 60s

Monday, September 14, 2015

Lovable Ruffians

This is my very first contribution ever to the advice column genre.

Not to worry....I'm not planning to critique wedding etiquette, offer comfort to the lovelorn, or solve your issues with troublesome faraway relatives.  No, this is my version of the infomercial that promises to clean your glasses, answer your phone, and make you disappear standing sideways to a mirror.

And it has to do with two troublesome but overlapping topics: 1) that awkward but unavoidable season between real summer and real fall...and 2) the ugliness of one's garden in said awkward time period just when the weather is finally becoming agreeable enough to brush the ubiquitous cobwebs off the lawn chairs and drink your morning coffee.
It's just not right.

But wait!  There's a solution!  I call these ''lovable ruffians", but someone else might call them "weeds".  And some of these plants are indeed vigorous, uncontrollably so.  Obsessively neat gardeners tend to classify plants out of bounds as pests, but more laissez faire backyard artists soften that pejorative and hail them as "volunteers".

Whatever your outlook, these flowers come up all by themselves, bloom late in the summery season and, in my garden, cover a multitude of sins.

Let's take a look around.....
Chief among these wildlings is the autumn glory clematis, a hardy perennial also known as Japanese clematis.  Small white star shaped blooms blanket the silvery leafed vine by the thousands and give off a pleasant scent.  Butterflies like it OK, but other pollinators are so attracted that the entire plant seems to be vibrating with activity. It is reliably hardy and carefree and fast growing and will cover a trellis or pergola in a season, no problem.  That's the upside.  Now for the downside.  Autumn Glory will also cover your porch railings and your rosebushes.  It comes up anywhere thanks to the poofy parachutes of seed heads produced after bloom.  In other words, it can be a pest.

Unless....unless you fall in love with a frosting of white woven amid your other vines come Labor Day...unless you allow it to duke it out with rogues like trumpet vines or black spotted defoliated climbing roses or the faded foliage of shrubs like spirea or lilacs.  I leave a certain number of these sweet invaders to clamber over my dusty fall garden like a wedding veil.  When it gets out of bounds, I will whack it off ruthlessly with my mower or my pruners. I know I won't kill it!
So fighting the good fight year after year doesn't appeal to you?  Can't say that I blame you.  How about something less permanent that still comes back...more or less...every year...with an element of surprise to boot.  Some untold number of years ago, I planted four or five kinds of annual morning glories alongside the cattle panels that pass for my garden fence.  They grew...(of course they did...unimproved morning glories are bona fide weeds in crop fields), but remained disappointingly green and leafy for most of the summer.  No rose picotee, no heavenly blue, no icy white.....

I was hasty with my judgment.  As the rest of the garden succumbed to various unpleasant leaf diseases and old age, the morning glories threw out long candelabras of twisted buds until, one morning, every single bud unfurled into a banner of brilliant hue, so thin as to be translucent, so numerous one forgave the months of green before. Morning glories do shut up shop and droop drastically on a hot afternoon, but they are refreshed overnight and give a little caffeine free kick to one's morning when they open anew.

I haven't planted a morning glory since that first year.  They sprout all by themselves from last year's fallen seed pods: the deep blue ones with the shiny heart-shaped leaves dominate one fence line while the rose blossomed vines with twining fuzzy leaves appear willynilly amid cannas or coneflowers or hibiscus without smothering any of their supporting cast.

Yes, it is fall and cooler weather beckons. Enjoy the great plumes of ornamental grasses.
 Anticipate the season of colored leaves.  Don't let me discourage you from acquiring such fall stalwarts as mums or kale or lovely fragrant pansies.

 Just be assured that a little benign neglect has its upside too!  Go a little crazy and let a wild free and reckless vine give your fall garden a fresh facelift.....

There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Apple Lion

What a crummy year for tomatoes! This summer of 2015 has granted cool nights and drenching days: fabulous for flowers of begonias, not so conducive for blooms on tomatoes.  I bring in the harvest one handful at a time...enough to decorate either three BLTs or two iceberg wedge salads. I am disheartened when my photos from Septembers past feature buckets of juicy fruits, gold and striped, pink and scarlet.  There they are: in the garden, arrayed on the picnic table to ripen, on the countertop cored and cleaned ready to be cooked, and steaming out of the canner...meals for the cold season, just add beans or pasta. 

Well, that was then and this is now.  Thankfully, the Lord doth provide: 
9Out of the ground the LORD God
 caused to grow 
every tree that is pleasing to the sight
 and good for food; (Genesis 2:9).  
Ben with apple, circa 1987

Josh helps himself, circa 2011
If there be not tomatoes, or peppers, or other garden bounty as the calendar turns to September, we look to the trees.... where there will be apples. They may not be beautiful; they may not be bountiful.  But apples will be there for the picking....
We are apple people. I was raised on the Stark Brothers fruit tree catalog.  My grandfather tended his adopted orchard with diligence and brought fruit for tart sauce and fruit for sweet pies to my Granny; we kids pounded the tether ball he planted in the center of the orchard for our entertainment and assumed the long low hanging limbs were welcome mats to literal tree houses. 
My folks planted fruit trees on the terraced field south of their farm house.  The trees benefited from drip lines during dry spells and the careful cultivation and pruning of these meticulous growers.
 Visitors to the farm were treated to boxes of apples that exemplified the breed; regular customers called to see when their favorites would be ripe.  The litany of  Missouri apples and their place in the great march from summer to frost are markers in our family calendar: the great green Lodis, sour and saucy;  the lovely spreading Earliblaze, not much for keeping, but tart and almost crisp out of hand, first summer apple to pick and eat before they carpeted the ground. Rosy honey sweet Galas, moody and susceptible to all nature of disease, but as pretty as a blushing peach. Little Jonathans for pie. Beautiful big red and green Mackintosh for the tastiest, fruitiest, chunky applesauce.  
( A mere zephyr would drop a Mackintosh; after one fell came an avalanche.)  Ozark Golds, so versatile, perfect for lunches those first days of school and not half bad keepers for a hot weather summer apple.  Then, as the days shortened, it would be time for the All Stars of Missouri apples: the Golden Delicious, green and gold and juicy and crisp.

Lastly, the Blushing Goldens would be nestled carefully in boxes lined with newspaper and carried down into the fruit cellar to keep and use all winter.  At Christmas time, my father would fetch a box of Blushing Goldens for us to take home, their barely wrinkled skins giving notice to the concentrated sweetness underneath.  Blushing Goldens: without them, no Apple Breads for treats in January and February!

Lee and Ann and Ben learned proper apple picking etiquette: to use two hands to pick so the fruiting spur would not be damaged and to set, never drop, the apples in the basket or box. The kids were always eager to help if it meant a ride back to the shed in the wagon behind the four wheeler.  Grandpa always told them to stay in the mowed path or the Apple Lion might get them.....
I don't remember the origin of the Apple Lion; perhaps he was related to the BarkaBoos that we humans couldn't sense  but that would get the dogs all riled up.  Ann thought the Apple Lion looked like Aslan from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I assumed he was a merry prankster....kind of like his creator...with the enthusiasm and bright button eyes of Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh.  Either way, the Apple Lion proved to be elusive and invisible, as such mythical creatures can be; he was a scapegoat for all kinds of unexplained phenomena, but served to keep the kids on the mowed paths and out of the reach of ticks and other unfriendlies.....
Like an up to date version of Johnny Appleseed, my folks brought me twenty little apple trees to civilize our homestead not long after we moved to the farm.
 Over the next few years, they came up to visit us early in the spring...and to give the apple trees a professional pruning and good start in life.  These same trees are well past middle age, apple tree wise, and have fallen prey to ice and drought, disease and wind, but we still fill boxes and bushels,  flower pots and ice cream buckets with our favorite fall fruit and have enough to share with friends and family and the resident bee hives. 

 Apple bread for breakfast?  Of course!  Apple pie a' la mode?  Why not?  A Dutch apple pancake some chilly evening?  Can't wait.....

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

From Scratch

As predictable as Santa Claus and way more dependable than the Tooth Fairy or the Great Pumpkin,  I will come home from work one afternoon in the general vicinity of my birthday and find my present from Millie on the counter.  It will be not just home made, but made "from scratch": a tall, fragrant, sticky, angel food cake, the dripping glaze just begging for a finger to scoop it up and a tongue to lick it off.  Millie's chickens provide lots of eggs, and an angel food cake is a perfectly splendid way for a dozen eggs to be cracked.

Lest you think my birthday is somehow special, I hasten to mention that Millie makes "from scratch"angel food cakes for almost EVERYONE's birthday: like Caesar, she includes 'friends, Romans, and countrymen' in her wide flung generosity. Her chickens may contribute the raw materials, but the beating, the baking, the delivery on either the blue/white china plate or the melamine chicken plate is all a personal labor of endurance and love.
Love...and homage.  Millie's gloriously light and moist angel food cake is a legacy of her mother, Dora Nelson. Not to be impious, but every wedge of birthday cake says to her children, grandchildren and great-grands: Enjoy this!  And remember..... Grandma's copious notes and scribbles speak to us from the pages of the old St. John's cookbook and come back to life every time Millie brings us a cake.

Clearly, Grandma thought of her cakes as works in progress.  She would laugh out loud to hear me express it this way, but she had high standards for her cakes and sought always to express in writing what she innately sensed through repetition and experience.

Millie has the same humility...I don't know if I've ever eaten one of her cakes that 1) she was satisfied with ("It fell","Ít stuck", "It's uneven"...or the perennial "Its just not quite right.") or 2) tasted like anything other than what I imagine the Lord sent down as manna.

All the directions and notations in the world cannot capture the nuances of "from scratch".   Consider this advice: Sift cake flour four times...fold in flour and sugar mix 1/4 cup at a time, counting 15 strokes....add vanilla and fold 25 more strokes...beat each egg 21 times....Pretty calculated, huh?  One expects the measures to include a decimal point or two of significant digits..With directions this precise, even a novice should be able to reproduce a "from scratch"masterpiece, right?

But's the rub...Beat the egg whites until foamy...beat the eggs 'til soft peaks form....fold the sugar one cup at a time gently 25 times by hand.  All of a sudden the clinical precision of the recipe has diffused into haze of subtle judgement calls, the kind of make or break decisions that leave novices rigid with deer in the headlights terror.
Only time's pendulum ensures more successes than flops and makes legends of grandmas and aunties.  My grandmother was a magician with caramel frosting from scratch.  With her ruffled apron protecting her dress from hot splatters, she wouldn't say a word, just smile while she beat and beat the brown sugar and butter until it was creamy and spreadable.  I think of her every time I count down two minutes of boiling and stirring, not hundreds of strokes with a wooden spoon, before I add powdered sugar with the electric mixer to ensure smooth rich and reliable frosting. I can remember my mother's indecision about when to take her angel food cake pan off the Coca Cola bottle it was upended upon.  Meringues, pie crusts, homemade bread...all approach the level of alchemy when successfully concocted from scratch...and their makers earn every plaudit bestowed for the effort lavished on something so ephemeral.
After all, it's just a today...and with us eating it...gone so soon!  But a well worn recipe is family history...and legacy. Every time we cook a dish that begins with 'Mom's' or 'Grandma's', we reinforce the memories of our common past and honor all the backs of envelopes and dog eared recipe cards stuck inside the stained and sticky pages of the church cookbooks.
And if it takes a dozen eggs and more than a hundred strokes of's a 'from scratch' angel food cake....and priceless!