Friday, August 29, 2014

This is what we eat here

It's home.

Some people love the bed and breakfast experience. I’m not one of them. It’s the breakfast part I hate, sitting at the dining room table, forcing interest in your fellow boarders. Just give me a cup of coffee and a piece of bacon. That’s all I’m asking.
But last fall, we found ourselves in just such a situation in Willamette Valley. Oregon’s wine growing region has beautiful views, interesting wines, amazing restaurants and a handful of housing options. So it’s no surprise to find a self-proclaimed foodie or wine snob sitting across the B&B table, as hung-over as a college student. 
They are generally gregarious, anxious to impart their wisdom about a super-secret restaurant that they’ve stumbled on, to add to their street cred, drive traffic to their blog. And after the soliloquy on last night’s food rapture, they ask the question: Where are you from.
“Iowa. On the Mississippi River.”
And a look of horror passes over their face. It takes a moment for them to form the words.
“What do you EAT there?” As though Iowa were a vast food desert. Nothing but flat acres of corn fed to cows somewhere else. 
It’s a question I struggle with sometimes and I have learned that most often the question means “Where do you eat there?” The food tourist isn’t as interested in the meal as they are in the stamp in their mental passport so of course they’ve never considered Iowa.
We have our restaurants and they serve us admirably. But there aren’t many where I can say “This is what we eat and you can get it nowhere else, nowhere better.” 
The question comes down to local foods, meals that remind a homesick Iowan of home. We’ve got our Maytag cheese. We’ve got our morels. We’ve got our Sterzings. We’ve got pork tenderloins and Windsor chops. We’ve got … that’s my list., my You Know You’re From Iowa When … list. We have our points of pride.
But I didn’t run down that list when confronted with the “What do you eat” question. 
“We cook at home. We have friends over. We raid our friends’ gardens.” 
Because a meal isn’t just about the food. It’s about the people you share it with. The connections you make and keep and cherish long after your favorite restaurant goes the way of arugula pizza. 

Sweet Potato Breakfast Hash For People Who Hate Breakfast Food

Diced up an onion and toss it into a skillet where you’ve already melted some butter. Peel a sweet potato and chop it into little 1/4” squares. Or grate it. I don’t like it grated as much, but you might. Toss that in with the onions and fry it on medium heat. Too hot and the outsides brown but the insides don’t cook. You’re looking for that nice brown caramelized outside. When it’s almost done, toss in some left-over chicken cut into little bits. (What, no leftover chicken? I thought everyone had leftover chicken.) Season with salt and pepper. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A history of Labor Day in 3, maybe 4, beers

Nick at the tavern.

The last Hooligans Picnic was probably 40 years ago. The guys that hung out at my grandparent's Southside tavern — that's the south side of Chicago, Roseland to be exact — would reserve some tables in a forest preserve, rent a few kiddie carnival rides to keep us occupied and throw some charcoal in a 55-gallon drum that had been sliced in half and sandblasted at the corner auto body repair shop. It was Labor Day and the neighborhood celebrated it vehemently. St. Patrick's Day was for rookies.
    A few kegs of PBR or Schlitz were rolled in, the neighborhood beer, back before they were ironic or cool. The ladies circled their aluminum chairs near the kegs because that was the best shade. They refused the beer and drank highballs out of plastic cups.
    I remember the drinks. Remember sneaking a sip when no one was looking. And I remember making 7 and 7s for the aunties (Seagrams 7 and 7-Up, but not too much 7-Up. They were very specific in their instructions.)
   But I don't remember the food. Hot dogs, I'd guess. It was Chicago, after all.
    The Hooligans broke up, moved away, drank themselves to death. It's what you'd expect from a group created on a bar stool. I moved too. To Carbondale — Southern Illinois University — where the Labor Day picnics were on rotting old porches and the beer wasn't much better. But the entire bottle was now mine. I didn't have to sneak sips.
    A grill was always going. There were hot dogs. And hamburgers. Standard grill fare, far better than standard cafeteria fare. Some ambitious girl would show up with a salad of shredded iceberg lettuce and grated carrots, not realizing there was nothing to eat it with. We were moving up in the world.
    Years later, the calendar pages flying past as if blown by a tornado, I flip through a pile of cookbooks, looking for a great Labor Day meal. I already chosen the beer. A home brew quietly aging in the basement. But the meal? It has to have zucchini in it. And tomatoes. Because that's what I picked up at the farmers market. I've found several complicated recipes, a dozen ingredients that look beautiful in the after pictures. But so much work.
    Last week, a friend, Nathalie Girod, posted a picture of her lunch on Facebook. Just slices of the freshest vegetables, lightly grilled. I didn't ask her for the recipe, because she won't have one. She never does. Great cooks don't work that way. So I made one up.

Grilled Zucchini

Cut  zucchini lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices.. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and put it directly on a medium hot grill until the grill makes marks on it. That'll be about 6 minutes. Flip it over and repeat on the other side. I'll sprinkle some parmesan on top sometime. Maybe.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Other Blog

Let's just call this Concordia, shall we?

I've writing the second in a series of books set in Concordia, an old Mississippi River town on the upswing. By now, the place is become very real to me and there's all sorts of things going on that the characters are part of. Art fairs, church activities, weddings, weather incidents. Not all of it's going into the books, so I started a faux news site

You can take the old reporter out of the newsroom, but you can't always take the newsroom out of her blood.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Best dressed

Look what I found at the local resale store. A trip to the past. I was that girl in high school, the mid-'70s version of Goth, wearing vintage before vintage was much of a thing. It was stuff my mother had saved, hoping to lose enough weight to fit back into the clothes she'd worn in her 20s. (That, apparently, has always been a thing.) They were beautiful dresses in extraordinary fabric and I felt beautiful and extraordinary in them. 

I can try to relive that, even though it will take every shred of dressmaking skills I've ever learned to resize these. (The Vogue Pattern Size 14 is for a 32-inch bust. The Size 14 I now wear is for a bigger rack.) They were hidden, tucked on the bottom shelf at the charity store, three huge bins of patterns. I bought 76 from the '50s to the '70s (in case I ever want to dress like I was in high school.) I'll make a few, if I find perfect fabric. Will it be a lot of look? I'm sure there are going to be people that say that. But I'm going with Miuccia Prada on this, with my own twist: Wilder, yet with refinement. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Off kilter

My virtual ass is dragging. Dad died a couple weeks ago. 10 days since the funeral. I don't feel like doing much but sitting in the corner of the couch and drinking, so not-drinking is taking up all my energy. All of it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Led Zepplin saved me

I wrote this back in September and it was published on one of my favorite sites, Better After 50 while I was on vacation. Just found it.

Rock On, Pretty Baby!

October 11, 2013
singing in the carI’m driving home from the grocery store with a case of cheap Pinot Grigio in the trunk because I’m hosting what my husband calls “a little family gathering.” What that really means is I’ll be feeding more people than I want to be feeding and the only thing that’s going to make that OK is a lot of wine. The “family” in this case is HIS family and since this is our second marriage, his family doesn’t always like to share him with me, the interloper.
I’m not happy about this whole thing, which is redundant to even mention because we’re smart women here. We’ve been there. We’ve all soldiered on, taking a back seat so someone else can ride in the front. We’re starting to feel invisible and it doesn’t help when the check-out girl at the grocery store doesn’t stop chatting with the bagger long enough to even acknowledge us. If it wasn’t 10 a.m., I’d start on that wine.
And then, like a gift from the universe, the song comes on the radio. It’s one of those songs that burst out of you in moments of joy, a song from your youth which reminds you life can be … amazing. So, since I’m sure no one can see me in my car, I start singing along. “Hey baby, pretty baby …”
Then it hits.
The Pretty Baby in that song is in her mid-50s now, probably pushing 60 or maybe even 70…a true Baby Boomer. Those moves that sat one man down with a pen to write a song that lives on are now less noteworthy, crippled by bad knees and aching joints, and if Baby was, oooh-oooh, in the front row today the only person eyeing her with interest would be security. But, hey baby, that was us. That was me and it was probably you. We wore concert shirts unironically. We danced in the aisles and no one told us to sit down. We may not have specifically been the girl the songs were written about, but we knew that girl. We knew we could have been that girl if we wanted it enough.
But then we wanted other things more and that was OK. We grew up. Those concert t-shirts became cleaning rags and those songs dropped off the charts and on to oldies stations. The 8-tracks we’d played were replaced by cassettes and then again by downloads which we’d secretly listen to on the treadmill, a little embarrassed by our stunted taste in music. Embedded on my iPod, Pretty Baby never grows up, she’ll always be a catchy anonymous refrain. Once, we were the face of a generation. Now, no one would guess we were that girl. On bad days, even we forget that was us.
But today, I remember. It plays in my mind like an opening bass riff. Sitting there at the stop light, I remember that there is no song without an inspiration and that inspiration is always there, somewhere inside, waiting, hidden, a little afraid its time has passed. So sitting there with my a trunkful of warm white wine, I vow to reclaim that inner Pretty Baby. It is time to write our own verses and if we must, our own song. It may only be in the quiet of a car. Or it may be in a bustling kitchen, surrounded by family and friends, where we rock on and on and on.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Emergency woodworking

Building tables from old house parts

Someday I'll remember to take better pictures. This is the first of several planned tables using reclaimed lumber from Burlington, Iowa's, Preservation Station, a non-profit run by the Heritage Trust that strips old houses of useable parts before they're torn down. They were kind enough to donate the materials to the Art Guild, where we're creating high-tops for our social events. 

Here's the plans. Quarter sawn oak from baseboards, accented with brass kickplates aged with ammonia and coarse salt.
We chose baseboard, stripped the finish off on the jointer then glued it up to form the thickness necessary.
These brass plates came from an old school, where they protected the bottom of doors. Aged them with a mixture coarse salt and ammonia, then let it sit in the sun. Finished it with a spray of clear fix. Below is the base laying on the shop floor.

So here's the thing. This old wood is VERY dry and the cracking forced us to give up on details like mortise and tenon joinery for pocket hole screws and lots of glue. And because pieces kept cracking I had to substitute wood I had in the shop, which was often pine, when I ran out of oak baseboards... did I mention the tight deadline? So instead of the tung oil finish I'd hoped to use to bring out the grain, I ended up using a a Minwax gel stain in Cherrywood..The top is pine covered in blackboard paint, which was fun for the partygoers. Since these are all donated materials we're hoping for a nice soapstone for the remaining 4. Maybe slate. Maybe chalkboard. If not, it's all good.