Monday, February 29, 2016

Let Us Eat Cake!

Let us eat cake!  Let us celebrate!

My turn to make cake........but the birthday girl gets to choose what kind.  And the winner is?  Applesauce cake with caramel frosting! Happy birthday, dear Leo....happy birthday to you!

I love making this cake for so many reasons.  First reason is the cookbook itself, a gift from Millie almost 40 years ago.
 It is what we fondly call the 'old St. John's cookbook', full of well known names past and present.  There are kitschy little quatrains and helpful household hints in the margin.The pages are stained, sticky, and yellowing at the edges. The apple cake recipes have all been sampled, except for the one with coconut, an ingredient I don't regularly have on hand.  Even though I've made many cakes from this cookbook through the years, I still have to stop and read the recipes to ensure I am getting ready to bake the right one: no to the raisins and the cake flour, yes to the cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cup and a half of applesauce. No to Mrs. Anna Rolf's recipe; yes to Mrs. Adolph Kemper's.
I've got a tall quart jar of homemade applesauce.  I used to cheat and throw in a whole pint jar for the 1 1/2 cup applesauce the recipe calls for just because I hated to have that little dab of sauce left in the jar. Bad idea! Better to open a quart jar and avoid a result that is more 'sauce' than 'cake'. Besides, that leaves a part of a jar for the kids to finish at lunch!
I sample this sauce...mmm, it's pretty and pink, sweet and tart simultaneously....a jar of Macintosh from the tree by my mother and father's back door. Macintosh apples are not for eating out of hand and they don't keep well as fruit, but there is no better apple for sauce...and thus for breads and cakes year 'round.  When I stir up this cake batter in my big Kitchenaid, I am mixing up the ingredients of our family's heritage. What better way to celebrate a family birthday!
As a purely practical manner, this recipe is always perfect after 30 minutes at 350 degrees.  No guesswork, no toothpick, no angst.

It is also a perfect vehicle for a batch of caramel frosting.  Another vintage recipe from a vintage cookbook, this time a Kitchen Klatter cookbook that was already a classic when I received it as a shower gift from Grandma Hurst's friend, Mabel Pursell, back in 1976.
The cover is gone, but there are two frosting recipes in this book that are nonpareil.  One is a quick fudge frosting notable for its sheen and smoothness; first step for this one is beating an egg to frothiness.  The other is the 'Elegant Caramel Frosting'.  I'd swear on a stack of cookbooks of its infallibility if I hadn't managed one time to burn it to inedibility.  But, honestly, the exception proves the rule: this is the next best thing to a homemade caramel candy minus the risk of damaged dental work.  Caramel frosting is at least half the reason to bake this cake and this recipe piles it generously on all four corners.
Finally, the interpretation of "fruit" in our family is lenient and the leeway allotted to a birthday celebrant is broad. IF, perchance, there is any  applesauce cake remaining after dessert is served, it is completely appropriate to eat it for breakfast the next day.  Carpe diem!

Another day, another birthday. Another chance to bring together past and present, to light candles and have the little ones blow them out in a gust of smoke, to dish up tradition and thanksgiving around a big table.

To eat cake.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sometimes a Great Notion

"The past is never seems to let things lie, finished."
 Ken Kesey

Midway through February. X's marking the days on the calendar. Not just the days...but the years, too. Driving north on our way home from this year's Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers conference as we have many times before, beginning back in the early '80s, when we were unarguably not only farmers but,officially, also very young.

The young people at the conference today are sharp, energized, informed; not at all the insecure, inexperienced, former suburban farm wife I recollect signing my name tag and attending my first seminar. I simply can't imagine them participating in the misadventures, mistakes, and miscalculations that comprised our baby steps into the new world of what the sages of that era called 'alternative agriculture.' If you Google search 'alternative agriculture', you'll surface a long litany of articles with the word 'sustainable' in the accompanying blurb. In the early 1980s, 'alternative' meant some enterprise a farmer and/or farmer's wife could undertake to supplement their farm income, something different than their usual commodities, something they could grow that would use their talents, energy, and labor to reach beyond their crippled local economy and build independence. But our young family was just looking for something a busy farmer and stay home mama could do that could be built on the cheap on Saturday evenings and nights after work.

"Do you remember...?"
 This phrase is the introduction to tales crystallized into family legend that can bore children unto the third and fourth generation. 'Do you remember'...the small town customers whose business collapsed one afternoon into a pile of bricks....the poinsettias we didn't sell the Christmas Eve it was 25 below zero....the windy spring day a good neighbor drove by just in time to rescue Blake and me and a piece of greenhouse plastic from a scary parasailing experience into our cornfield.
I do.... I remember when a big gust of January wind lifted the baseboard of the first incarnation of greenhouses number 3 and 4, homemade of of 3/4"conduit,three inches off the ground. The original number 2 greenhouse, also home engineered, succumbed to a wet late spring snow....but that didn't stop us from growing a few more flowers in what was now an odd shaped cold frame!
We remember delivering what we thought was a big load of flowers...100 flats! a customer way down in Wichita, Kansas. Blake and I rattled south on the quiet Kansas Turnpike, pulled into Wichita about midnight to unload our flats of posies, then drank coffee and stared out at the empty darkness all the long drive home. What were we thinking? I don't know...we should have been wondering how we made a cent on the transaction. Not surprisingly, that particular garden center experiment disappeared without a trace in a year or three.

One year we tried to save some money buying some little pots at an auction, one of our very first 'wholesale' purchases with our brand spanking new sales tax number; we  bought them, only to discover later that the building holding the supplies was a nasty EPA Superfund site! The trunk of our 1981 diesel Delta 88 was commodious but insufficient for business purposes..besides, three kids in the back were pushing the limits of togetherness. The death knell for the diesel was the day it burned up its second transmission on I-29 while we were picking up baby plants at the airport, stranding us at a rest stop while two Missouri Highway patrol cars made a screaming arrival with wailing sirens and flashing lights

Still living on the cheap, we bought our first dedicated delivery vehicle off the parking lot of our local repairman  for $600. In its first life, the little flat front 1969 Ford cargo van worked for Fairfax Comfort Air.  With a new paint job covering most of the rust, it would hold a homemade plant rack and was downright cute painted up with a big red geranium on the side.
Ben's very first driving experience was in that van: a mere three feet over a curb....toward the plate glass window of the flower shop in Rock Port. He was two and couldn't reach the clutch, but that didn't stop him from dropping the van into gear when his mama left it running and his sister was supposed to keep him under wraps.
Today, 2/16/2016, I started up the seeder and planted some vegetables.
This seeder pops and crackles, breathes in and puffs out like Thomas the Train. It was already twenty years old when we bought it in 1992 or so, but, with continuing maintenance it should, as my father says, take me out. This is not inconsequential; Lee hates to seed and won't mind if we retire to watch the Cardinals at Spring long as I come back once a week to plant tomatoes and peppers and eggplant til I'm eighty. This seeder is far from hi-tech, but it is a better tool than pinching each seed between thumb and index finger and dropping them by hand in a little furrow in all manner of plastic trays of potting mix.
Back when my sister Laura would come up one weekend a year to help transplant the plug trays of begonias and petunias and seed geraniums we had picked up at the airport, we couldn't have imagined the six hundred flats Matt will transplant in just two days this week.
Sometimes I wonder what became of the greenhouse salesman who sold us our half dozen Canadian greenhouses over a five year period. We bought them because they were supposed to be strong enough to survive any wind short of a tornado. He always showed up just before suppertime and we always invited him in. Guess his commission wasn't enough to cover a hot meal....
Last month we visited a farm that hosts more than 12000 people on fall weekends for their corn maze. Their biggest problem these days: finding a place to park all their visitors. But the farmer also pointed out another venture: a field beautifully trellised and irrigated studded with an occasional 3 or 4 foot scraggly shrub. This was supposed to be an olive plantation, the successor to a sod field that fell victim to the real estate bust of a few years back. They had planted five acres of olives after farmers in a neighboring state had success with the enterprise. Only problem was: the olives wouldn't flourish that far south. That kind of upfront honesty about one's failures is a great example and comforting reassurance to all of us with a recycling bin full of misguided notions.
Sometimes, mistakes, bullheadedness, bad luck and poor timing stand out in memory like a 5 story flashing LED billboard on Times Square. If only.... What if......? Truth be told, a careening pinball path to success is likely no better and no worse than the norm. I hope all the young entrepreneurs Kansas City this past weekend have smooth sailing through their endeavors. And when they don't, I hope they survive to joke about it decades afterwards. May they laugh long and prosper!
You're not the only one who's made mistakes, but they're the only things that you can truly call your own....
Billy Joel

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Post Super Bowl Post

Roll out those glazed, dazed, crazed days of springtime
Those days of phone calls and emails and sun
Roll out those glazed,dazed, crazed days of springtime
It’s still winter, but those days will come!

Head's up!  It's February!  The Super Bowl is over, thus paving the way for the most welcome words of the winter, "Pitchers and Catchers report!" Baseball, beckoning us all with visions of green grass and sunshine.

February!  This week we will look for the very first tender tomato to unfurl, pushing up through the chilly potting mix into the artificially long days under the high intensity lamps.

 By next week, it will be time to sweep the winter's debris from the seeder, time to plant the early vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.  These hardy seedlings don't mind a week of cloudy days; they need no coddling, just an assurance that wee mousies and opportunistic sparrows leave them be. This is a week we relish getting those boxes from FedEx, anxious to plug the little cuttings into their new homes, water them in, and watch the hanging basket lines fill row by row and bay by bay.  We breathe deep the welcome scent of spring, a sneak preview of April: the combination of water falling on soil.  Even in February, the winter sun can raise a sweat; farewell to itchy dry skin and hello to the cuts and scrapes of cheap plastic pots and hanging basket wires.  Aveeno lotion and over the knuckle Bandaids are our sponsors.
The frame of "number 16" February 1, 2016
February and there's an unfinished greenhouse.  It's not the first time we've looked at our prospective spring business and said 'Whoops!'  The heavy snow forecast for last weekend lent extra urgency to the business of finishing the frame and getting all the tools under cover.  The doors are in; the endwalls wait for exhaust fans and vents; the heaters will arrive this week.  There is still lots of work to do, but getting this far in the middle of winter leaves us optimistic.  More than once in the past, the last heater is still being wired as the first plants are being wheeled into one of these 'overflow' greenhouses!
Smoothing the ground for an overflow greenhouse January 2006
Rarely do we escape into March without a few snow days.  While the disruption can be anything from inconsequential to a considerable hardship, the first snow day is always kinda fun. The kids react as if it were the first day of summer vacation; helping the adults is still a novelty and not the drag it will be when the days are warm and they want to play outdoors.  Some of my favorite winter memories are snowdays with the grandchildren at work and at play in the largely vacant greenhouse.

With the work comes the worry.  Up til now, bad weather meant no more than bad roads.  Now, there are plants to keep warm and wind brings the constant risk of electrical outage and damage to the layers of plastic that constitute the roofs of the greenhouses.  The alarm system, aka the "little man", the computer generated voice on the other end of the unwelcome nighttime phone call, is that guy you don't want to talk to.   We just picked up a small but mighty piece of electronics to repair that vital part of our safety net: the generator.

The greenhouse, like the farm, is built on a bedrock of immutable seasonal truths: rain and snow, day length, frostfree dates. To believe greenhouse production is immune from the vagaries of weather is to be disappointed.  A sunny February or March can cut a week at least from scheduled production time blessing us all with the upturned faces and sweet fragrance of adorable pansies.  Dull cloudy cold days mean the propane truck comes to call more than once a week and we water sparingly to protect new and fragile roots from nasty rots and fungi.  Who says people are the only victims of Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

But the vagaries of the business extend beyond the weather.  February is the first time some customers call us with their plans for the coming spring.  Some, especially those landscaping for their own clients, won't call us with their orders until late in the month. It does no good to tell these folks that flowers must be grown and some kinds take two full months to grow to salable size; they are at the mercy of their clients and doing the best they can.  From year to year, we don't really know what we are going to grow in our greenhouses, a situation that makes us flexible...and gives us indigestion too.  Small businesses all: Thy middle name must be Nimble.

I think I planted our first tomato seedlings in spring of 1979 in a homemade greenhouse we later moved to Tarkio.  We didn't use a stick of treated lumber, and the structure it pretty well melted after just a few years.  My first tomato seedlings didn't fare any better; we went to church one cool and cloudy Sunday and left the door closed to keep the little plants warm.  Yeah, that's right: the sun came out while we were at church; the greenhouse did its greenhouse gas thing; and the tiny tomatoes wilted and cooked.  I was a sad earth mother, but learned a vital lesson about greenhouse growing: don't rely on fallible humanity for climate control.  
 The cyclical nature of growing makes it easy to wax nostalgic.  We commemorated in photos nearly every greenhouse we ever built; there are plenty of pictures of our kids from toddler to teen, at work with their a sundial, we record only the smiling hours. 

There are even more pictures of the next generation! There's little Aaron helping pick up fall pansies;
Little Lizzie and Abbie splashing about in their rubber boots;
 Gabe lugging four hanging baskets like a big kid; 
and Josh, who doesn't need any help picking out pots.

Speaking of seasonal.  Let's not forget the holiday at the end of this week.  I went searching my scrapbooks and found the delivery note for a single rose to Julie Renken, 401 Conley, Columbia from Blake way back in 1977.  One flower nearly four decades ago....acres of flowers now!  Happy Valentine's Day, dear!

Monday, February 1, 2016

You Ought to Give Iowa a Try!

So, what the heck, you're welcome,
Glad to have you with us.
Even though we may not ever mention it again.
You really ought to give Iowa
Hawkeye Iowa
Dubuque, Des
Moines, Davenport, Marshalltown,
Mason City, Keokuk, Ames,
Clear Lake
Ought to give Iowa a try!

Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man

"Are you waving?"

It's Lee on the phone.  She's been watching the recent Republican debate on television and wants to know if we are anywhere near the big camera panning the Iowa Event Center as the audience departs.  Yes, Blake and I were in the audience.  But, no, we were never in the klieg lights with the pundits, nor could we see the VIP section from our seats. I get her text while we are heading down the escalator with a host of our Iowa neighbors, past the guys dismantling the Pork Congress props, past the "Caucusing for Ethanol in 2016" sign, two foreigners who will not have to make up their minds by Monday night's caucus.
This both frees us to observe and makes us less relevant to the historical proceedings at hand.  Judicious eavesdropping leads me to conclude that much of the audience at this debate is on a first name basis with more than one of the candidates.  The menfolk of the family seated behind us, ages 10 to 50 or so, are dressed for success in jackets, rep ties, and slicked back hair.  Despite their formal attire, they are on a first name basis with "Rick" and "Mike" and have decided that Messrs. Santorum and Huckabee will be on the stage with the absent Donald Trump at his competing event 'strictly for the veterans'. Or it could be, as Mr. Santorum admits, "Because I'm not doing anything at 9 o'clock tonight.'' Both Santorum and Huckabee have been around this Iowa block before; I bet much of the audience for the undercard debate is on a first name basis.  The father behind us meets and greets during every commercial break, including Frank Luntz, the pollster.  Mr. Luntz attracts lots of attention from the political junkies of the audience; you are indeed a small subset of the voting population if you count among your trophies a selfie with Frank Luntz.  
That being said, I am impressed by the potpourri that is in attendance at this debate, for instance, the anticipated healthy contingent of well dressed couples in red and blue. With rousing cheers of "President Paul, President Paul!", the Ron Paul crowd seamlessly switched over from father to son.
When the chant changes over to “We Stand with Rand”, Greg Gutfeld, author, satirist and Fox News personality, yells out “I sit with Mitt!” He is sitting a row in front of us and murmurs to everyone and no one in particular, “I couldn’t help myself.” 
Entire families are sprinkled through the crowd, devoting their evening to civics and keeping the youngsters up too late.  We share a stand up table with a mom and her two teenage kids, just plain folk in the clothes they came from work or school in. They each wear a tasteful pin, (not badge!), that says 'Carly'.  Mom voted for Jim Gilmore when she lived in Virginia; 'Back before you knew Dad?', asks her son.  'Oh no, I knew your dad then,' she laughs.
Jim Gilmore is here this time and not uninteresting in the warm up debate. While Santorum and Huckabee, like old flames tossed aside, entreat the voters to remember all the good times they've shared, Mr. Gilmore produces the most cutting gibe of the early evening.  "At least," he says to the crowd and the air, "I'm not about to go across town and carry some millionaire's coat."  I doubt he was invited to join Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huckabee on stage at Trump’s erstwhile charity event a couple of miles away.
The temperature rises as the main card strides onto the stage.  The moderators are all business on break and all smiles on camera.  But they are unflinchingly tough and borderline contentious to the candidates.  The crowd takes this approach in stride, saving its boos for any mention of Hilary Clinton.  The gentleman on my right is frustrated though. "They passed right over Ben again!" he cries.  He is from Des Moines, here alone, doesn't know who Greg Gutfeld is and a supporter of Ben Carson.  Has Dr. Carson drawn him into politics?  Will he attend his first Iowa caucus?  He leaves at the last break and I never get to ask.
I'm not disappointed to miss the non elephant in the room, Donald Trump.  There is plenty of fiery back and forth without adding the sort of personal invective I associate with 19th century yellow journalism and desperate last minute political ad spots. Scathing denunciations of your opponents' voting records, political theories, policy prescriptions, or vocabulary are all part of the process; the unforgivable sin as far as this listener is concerned is to whine.   No matter how many times a candidate intones "When I am president...", will the electorate have confidence in his strength and leadership if he tells a national audience he's being picked on and may just have to leave the stage?
A debate is face to face, politics close up, like boxing.  If your only exposure to the process is the long distance carpet bombing of advertising, it's easy to forget the vitality of hand to hand, town square to town hall, bus ride and church basement politicking. A Missourian watching Iowa in an election year cannot help but feel a pang of envy for the experience of having the future leader of our nation pound the ground of your communities, not just fly into the nearest major airport for a fundraiser and a press conference.  Sure, it's theater, but not without meaning, just like the debates.

Do I have a favorite? Yes, I guess I am not unbiased even at this early date.  But I'm not writing to sway your opinion about any of the candidates. When I listened to the debate...and eavesdropped on the people around me, I felt reassured about our country, even if the campaign to this point has been “unprecedented”,i.e. bizarre, extraordinary, anomalous.  If you are disenchanted with our system,  a debate is an arena in which leaders vie in the same way Lincoln and Douglas met in front of the people. It is a space where words and ideas stand alone, unfiltered by suggestive backgrounds, unflattering mugshots and threatening sound tracks.  A debate in Iowa, the last one before the caucuses, is persuasion unplugged: the voters and the candidates, no less and no more, as it has been since our country began.