Food for Thought

2017-09-17 18.41.06I read cookbooks like I do novels—reading first the front and back covers followed by the copyright date. I flip through the pages to see if there is anything interesting like prologues and letters in novels, advertising and how-to pages in cookbooks. Like a novel, if a cookbook holds my attention, I will fight exhaustion and ignore my to-do list to finish it.2017-09-17 18.37.29

My mom recently shared two family cookbooks with me. Cato Heights 4-H Club Cookbook had belonged to her mother, my Grandma Elizabeth. The Book of Recipes, published in 1923, had been my great-great aunt Verna’s. Both were falling apart at the seams and had yellowed with time. The cookbooks were like unexpected gifts my relatives left for me. Carefully handling pages splattered with decades-old cake batter and pickle juice, I remembered both women fondly. Their DNA were on the pages. My grandma wore several jeweled rings at a time and pink nail polish. I pictured her licking her right index finger as she turned pages. Verna’s eyebrows remained dark even though her hair had turned white. Her hands shook when she served tea with banana bread. Both my grandma and Verna were writers. Verna, so eager to jot down a recipe for “My Own Made up Oatmeal Rocks,” wrote over the text on the first page. My grandma’s beautiful cursive handwriting covered recipe cards that were slipped in between pages. The cookbooks held childhood memories in the form of a divinity recipe my grandma used at Christmas and a corn relish recipe Verna followed in the summertime.

2017-09-17 18.39.27I have a shelf of cookbooks that I have collected over the years. Many of them I found at antique and second-hand shops. I don’t buy them for the recipes, rather their providence. Some contain quotes about food and family from famous authors. In others, hand-written cryptic notes are in the margins. Margaret served this at her husband’s wake. My favorites contain pages dedicated to advice. For example, to remove candle wax, rub the area with ice, scrape off the excess then place stain over white blotter and press with a warm iron. A Party List for 100 People caught my eye and includes 25 lbs. of wieners and four gallons of ice cream. Both pieces of advice are found in the Saint Philip’s Parish Mix and Stir cookbook circa 1965. I have my mom’s copy. She has my grandma’s. It is the only cookbook I actually use. Like my Aunt Verna’s cookbook, the Quick Breads, Cookies, Pies, and Cakes sections are stained with chocolate, egg, and vanilla. I committed my pie crust recipe to memory after a peach slice slid across the page blurring the measurements for oil, flour, salt, and water.

In Verna’s cookbook, I found a Western Union telegram from Albany, New York dated October 25, 1940 addressed to Verna’s sister, Gladys Butler.





2017-09-17 18.38.47At the time, Europe was in the throes of WWII. That same month, the National Geographic timeline  reports : More than 400,000 Polish Jews are herded into a part of Warsaw known as the Warsaw Ghetto. This continues in Poland the Nazi campaign against the Jews—the Holocaust, in which six million Jews will be killed, along with hundreds of thousands of other minorities. Italy invades Greece. German troops later come to the aid of Italian troops.

A far cry from cookbooks, we track history through war, economic despair, and political upheaval. Baking, cooking, quilting, canning, gardening, sewing, slip into the shadows when there is a crisis, but they are the things that mark our daily lives in good times and bad. Anniversaries, birthdays, christenings, weddings, holidays, etc. connect us to the people we love and help us overcome uncertainty.

Our country is struggling right now. Like many of the people I know, I find myself angry or in tears over things I cannot control, but I take solace knowing I am able to gather the folks I care about around my table for good food and laughter.

The first page of the Mix and Stir cookbook contains a Recipe for a Happy Life. It may not solve our problems, but it can help us get through the day:

Make your own sunshine.

Take equal parts of kindness, unselfishness, and thoughtfulness.

Mix with love and scatter with helpful words.

Add a smile or two.

Throw in a spice of cheerfulness.

Stir with a hearty laugh.

Share with everyone.






Do You Ever Get Bored Out There?

2017-08-29 09.03.59A friend asked if I ever get bored living on the ranch. I outright laughed at the question. The day after she called, we were woken by two illegal immigrants who showed up looking for food. After they left, I picked apples and canned apple butter until well after the sun went down. Ron came in yesterday with a crate of pears. Before setting them down, he looked at me apologetically and said, “You probably don’t want to see these right now.” Last night a rattlesnake met at us at the backdoor, and this morning we spent nearly an hour scouring the desert for an abandoned Great Pyrenees. This afternoon I am making peach jam if I can find the Sure Jell among my canning supplies. Tonight I would like to get some school work done. Classes started a week ago.

I can say with certainty that no, I have never been bored out here. But I have been exhausted and I find myself feeling that way more and more. It’s a combination of the demands I put on myself and the feeling that I just can’t seem to get ahead of the work. This isn’t something unique to country living. I look at my friends and family who live in the city, and I don’t know how they do it. Working forty plus hours a week at jobs that many find unsatisfying. Carting kids around town for games, practices, and lessons. Eating on the fly and sleeping five or six hours a night all the while living a stone’s throw from neighbors they are expected to acknowledge and act kind towards even on their worst days.

The CDC states that demanding schedules and sleep deprivation are killing us. Hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, and even some cancers are linked to our frantic lifestyles, and there are no signs of us slowing down any time soon. Author Mary Mann explores boredom in her new book “Yawn, Adventures in Boredom,” and admits that in our culture it isn’t cool to be bored or boring. That’s okay with me. I’ve never been accused of being cool. I wouldn’t mind a little boredom if it means I get to take a nap.

I thought of my friend this week while in town babysitting our two-year-old granddaughter. I had stepped out onto the front porch in my underwear and a t-shirt at my stepdaughter’s and son-in-law’s house. Minutes passed before I realized I wasn’t at the ranch rather in town surrounded by people. I crept back inside the house praying no one had spotted me. Our granddaughter met me at the door wearing only a diaper, and I thought how lucky she is. I couldn’t wait to go back to the ranch. I may be as busy as everyone else, but at least I get to sit on my front porch in my underwear.

Losing More Than My Mind

StockSnap_7IMNZ3WFWPThis week I managed to lose the clicker for the stereo and one of four stainless steel cat dishes. At some point each day, the need to recover these items nips at me until I give in, tossing my to-do list aside. Crazy thoughts go through my head as I fling couch cushions and check drawers and the refrigerator. (Yes, the refrigerator.)  Who stole the clicker? Did I throw away the kitty dish? Did Ron take the clicker? Why would he do that? Oh my God, I’m losing my mind! Before full-blown panic sets in, something in need of my attention distracts me, and I’m off to grade papers, defrost the freezer, or water trees.

I didn’t lose a thing as a kid. It was an adult malady that I never quite understood. I’d roll my eyes when my mom asked if I’d seen her keys or her purse. A bunch of us moaned when my tenth grade English teacher searched her desk for her glasses, which happened often. A friend nearly died of embarrassment when her mom thought she lost her car in the Kohl’s parking lot only to learn it had been stolen while she shopped the post-Christmas 50% Off Sale. No, this losing thing didn’t start until I had a house and responsibilities of my own. And it’s gotten worse over time. Sometimes I don’t even know I’ve lost something until it shows up. I found a can of soup in my truck that by my estimation had been lodged under the front seat for three months. Last week I found a sweater I forgot I had bought.

Some things are meant to stay lost: a cause, our virginity, our marbles. But most things, like the clicker and the cat dish, are meant to be found. I like to know where my things are. It gives order to my life and provides a sense of stability. I may be wearing mismatched socks, but if I know the book I’m reading is on my nightstand, I’m okay.

It seems the losing things conundrum is tied to multitasking and our obsession with time. I shove the car keys in my pocket as I grab a bag of groceries and a thirty pound box of cat litter from the bed of the truck then rush inside to make dinner because it’s six-fifteen and at seven I have a phone conference with a student. The next day I go for my keys. and they’re not in my purse or on the counter. My first thought? Who stole my keys?

Like prayers or a glass of wine, the lost clicker and cat dish are like talismans sent from a sacred place to remind me to slow down.

Double Blind Peer Review (By an Owl)

2017-07-23 08.27.53A biologist friend told us not to become attached to the three baby Great Horned Owls that hatched this April. He explained the owls have brains the size of peas and that their sole purpose is to hunt. This isn’t our first rodeo; we’ve had baby owls before, but I didn’t mention it.

It’s hard to be objective when Ron and I watched the mother owl sit on her nest for thirty-seven days without so much as flying to a nearby branch high up in the pine tree from where she nested. We were thrilled when the first baby poked its head up from under its mother’s wing and were in awe when we counted heads again a few days later to find the mother was willing to share her nest with three rambunctious babies. All the while, the father brought food to keep his brood alive.

In mid-June, when Ron found one of the fledglings on the ground out by the windmill with a broken wing, we made calls and found Dennis who works for Gila Wildlife Rescue in Silver City. Two days later, we found out the owl had an infection and needed to be euthanized. I was sad but told myself its part of nature’s plan. “We still had two babies left,” I said, when a friend asked how I was doing.

One evening in late June, a wind storm came through sending dog dishes and lawn furniture skittering across the lawn. The next morning, we found a second baby owl under a pine tree. We called Dennis, and Ron and I agreed to keep an eye on it. A day went by. The owl was able to fly short distances but continued to return to his place under the pine tree. We took the owl in to be examined where it was decided it had been electrocuted. It died shortly afterwards. Devastated, I followed the third baby with my binoculars praying nothing would happen to it. As the monsoon season approached, I secretly hoped the wind and rain would remain at bay until the baby was strong enough to withstand the punishing storms. In these parts, where every drop of rain counts, this was an act of treason for which I harbored no guilt.

My interest in the baby owl, which bordered on obsession, grew into something that now resembles friendship. Each morning, I am greeted with screeching when I take the dogs outside. At night, after chores are done and the animals are in for the evening, I step out into the yard beyond the lights and call for her. Sometimes she answers from a nearby tree, but now that she is getting bigger and hunts on her own, I hear her faint screech from a half mile away. When I return home after being gone for a few days, she will greet me from an outlying branch where she bounces and shrieks as though saying, “Look at me! I’ve missed you!”

Like many kids, I took my first biology class in eighth grade where, with trembling hands, I dissected a frog that had spent its post-life in formaldehyde. It was in that class that I was introduced to the scientific method:

  1. Make an observation
  2. Pose a question
  3. Form a hypothesis
  4. Conduct an experiment
  5. Analyze the data and draw a conclusion

At no point was I asked to share my feelings about the dead frog that lay on the metal tray in front of me spread eagle with pins sticking out of it to keep it from sliding onto the floor. If given the chance, I would have asked to go home where I would have gone to bed, pulled a blanket over my head, and cried until my mom said it was time for supper.

Like some of the other kids in my class, our friend the biologist was cut from a different cloth. I imagine examining the internal workings of a frog or a sheep’s heart may have provided a sense of order in his world as he studied systems and learned about the taxonomy of animals. And by spending a career steeped in the scientific method, he learned to avoid the obvious: Great Horned Owls are capable of forming relationships.

As so often happens, I didn’t have a rebuttal when he said, with professional authority, owls were designed to hunt. That’s all. Period. But if I had been prepared, or at least wittier than I generally am, here is what I would have presented to him in terms he would have understood:

  1. Make an observation- The baby owl seems to notice me more than it does other people.
  2. Pose a question- I wonder if the baby owl has formed an attachment to me?
  3. Form a hypothesis- If the baby owl has formed an attachment to me, it should react to me in some distinct fashion.
  4. Conduct an experiment- Each time I go outside, I will screech and see if the baby owl screeches back in response. Control Group: Ron will also screech when he goes  outside to elicit a reaction from the owl.
  5.  Analyze the data and draw a conclusion- The baby owl reacts differently to me than to other people. Proof: Ron comes in and says, “You need to go outside. Your owl is calling for you.” Conclusion: Great Horned Owls are capable of discerning their attachments toward humans.

My own conclusion? I care deeply for the baby owl who continues to defy the monsoon storms that have arrived in full force. I delight in her antics and feel a connection when she calls out to me. I can’t predict what nature has in store for her and will have to deal with the loss, god forbid, something happens. What I have learned in observing the owl is that the things that matter most like friendship, feelings, and love cannot be accurately measured using the scientific method. I guess for now, the owl and I will stick to what we know, and let science ponder questions that don’t concern us.

Let the Star Spangled Banner Wave

Fireworks 9



We spent the Fourth of July in Rodeo, New Mexico. Once a whistle stop on the old El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, it now boasts a population 101. As the crow flies, it’s just southwest of the ranch on the west side of the Peloncillo Mountains. It was ninety-five degrees in the shade, so many of us stopped in at the Rodeo Tavern where they were serving root beer floats, iced coffee, and good, cold beer.
The thirty-ninth annual parade began promptly at six o’clock and featured the grand marshal, Shriners wearing funny hats in little cars, local folks toting flatbed trailers depicting ranching scenes and promoting local businesses, several fire trucks, pretty horses, and a decked-out tractor. Kids and grown-ups alike waved little American flags someone in the parade handed out, and we all raced to pick up candy tossed into the crowd by folks on floats that lined state highway 80. Traffic headed north and south was forced to stop and partake in the fun or find a dirt road around it.
After the parade, most everyone met over at the Rodeo Community Center for a BBQ prepared and served by local men and women. The meal included roasted beef, ranch beans, coleslaw, tortillas, and desert. My mom and Jessie, a great kid who helps out at the ranch, joined Ron and I. We sat with friends at one of the long tables covered in a red checkered table cloth, where we caught up on all the goings on in our lives. American flags hung from the walls and red, white, and blue decorations twirled from the ceiling. Following dinner, a raffle was held (my mom won a TV!) and prizes were given out for the best horse in the parade, best shootout (there was only one), and even the funniest float. We were too tired to stay for the cake auction and dance that followed, but I’m pretty sure folks had a good time.
If this sounds to you like the muse for a Rockwell painting, a chapter out of a Mark Twain novel, or a scene from an old Western, it should. People like my mom, who had taken the holiday literally, showed up in red, white, and blue, while others had dusted off their cowboy hats and donned clean shirts. People talked about the state of their gardens, the incredible heat wave we’re experiencing, and summer vacation plans. We all commented on the clouds building to the south, a sign of a monsoon storm we hoped would charge up the valley.
Through it all, I couldn’t help but think someone got it wrong on the campaign trail. It isn’t about making America great again. We are pretty great the way we are. Neighbors watch out for one another, churches look after their flocks, communities band together in times of need, and many people in local government do give a damn. Our greatness was felt throughout this country yesterday as we gathered at parades big and small. We ate hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad. We lifted our beer cups and wine glasses in celebration. We sat in awe watching star-spangled firework displays boom and crackle above our heads in city parks. Despite the current political climate, I am proud to be an American, and I look forward to waving my little flag on the Fourth of July again next year in Rodeo, New Mexico surrounded by friends a neighbors.

Photo courtesy of © R. L. Wolverton | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When to Say No or at Least, No More

webpage photoMy spider bite and subsequent health related problems prompted me to get answers, so I went in to see my new doctor armed with a litany of information about getting to the bottom of my recurring and severe reactions to insect bites. In a nutshell, I told her I was no longer interested in taking antibiotics and steroids, being treated with a nebulizer, or spending countless hours in an emergency room. I’d done a bit of research and asked what she thought about me going to see someone who knows about malaria and bugs. She thought it was a good idea.
My sister had some major health issues as a kid. On the advice of our family doctor, my parents took her to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Without the expertise and skill sets of several doctors, my sister may have died. In our family, the good deeds performed at Mayo Clinic are revered as something akin to religious. When I settled on Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, I was certain I would have my health problems diagnosed and treated in short order.
By some sheer stroke of luck, I was scheduled for my first appointment with an internist a week after I made my initial call. Surely this was a good sign! Ron and I adjusted our schedules, then I packed my bags and headed off to Phoenix.
My first appointment went well. The internist admitted he’d never heard of the symptoms I’ve experienced, but he didn’t dismiss me as so many doctors have and believed the root cause might be from the malaria I had years ago. Within fifteen minutes of leaving his office, I had my itinerary to include labs, tests, X-rays, neuro-psych exam, meetings with an ophthalmologist, an allergist, an infectious disease doctor. If you have never experienced a trip to Mayo Clinic, throw your disdain for doctor appointments and crowded waiting rooms out the window. It is a well-oiled machine that rivals the organization and scheduling magic of a Carnival Cruise. Everyone was helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly. I not only felt like I was in good hands, I was in good hands. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and support staff are at the top of the food chain professionally, and they love what they do.
All was good until I met with the one person I thought would have answers—the infectious disease doctor. Instead, she had formed her own theories about my case before our meeting and was unable or unwilling to hear my responses to her questions. I left her office angry, confused, and disappointed. I’d already been told by three doctors that insect bites simply don’t bring on the problems I experience. In one case, just a few years ago, a doctor said my symptoms could not be brought on by a spider bite as I lay in his office unable to sit up while he prepared a steroid IV.
My final appointment that day was with the internist I had originally met with. When he asked how it went with the infectious disease doctor, I took a deep breath to keep from crying and told him she simply didn’t know a thing about malaria or insects in general. He was empathetic and continued with his report that included all my test results and notes from the doctors I had seen over the course of four days. In the end, I learned I am completely healthy. My heart and liver are functioning as they should. I have no allergies to speak of, my eyes, though not great, show no sign of disease, and my chest X-ray was clear. I should have left his office exhilarated, but no, I was still hell-bent on finding the cause of my health issues. I didn’t have answers to my questions about the long-term effects of malaria. Still angry, I called Ron and gave him the news, then I went back to the hotel and collapsed.
That night I stopped in at a little Mexican restaurant and ordered a delicious meal and a margarita to calm my nerves. It didn’t take long for me to realize what an ass I’d been. I was just given the best possible news anyone could receive regarding his or her health. I felt ashamed. I’d seen so many sick and dying people at Mayo who would have rejoiced at the diagnosis I had received. And when I thought about it, I did get my questions answered. At least some of them. I learned that whatever is behind these crazy symptoms, they are not whittling away at my brain, my lungs, or my kidneys. I learned that all the antibiotics and steroids I’ve taken over the years haven’t caused any kind of permanent damage, and that I will live through the next round of symptoms. Sitting there sipping my margarita, I decided I’d had enough—enough doctors, enough medication (unless absolutely necessary,) and enough worrying. It was simply time to be thankful.
After it was all over, I left Phoenix and made it as far as my mom’s house where I spent the night. The next morning I got up and went for a bike ride. Five miles from her house I hit a bump in the road. The crash left me full of scrapes and bruises. The following day, I was back home picking peaches when I was stung by a tarantula hawk. Now anyone who knows anything about these winged-devils knows the pain goes right to that place inside a person that makes her scream for mercy. As the pain subsided, I worried I’d end up down the rabbit hole again, but it didn’t happen. Apparently this is one bug that doesn’t throw my system out of whack.
You don’t have to be religious to see the kismet in all of this. After surrendering to my health issues, I was tested. First a bike crash and then the wretched sting of the tarantula hawk. I will no longer ask, “What else can happen to me?” As the last three weeks have proven, the story of Job can present itself if we invite it into our lives. I’ve made peace with what the internist dubbed a “medical anomaly.” Sometimes it’s enough to take stock in what we have and to be grateful for answered and unanswered questions.


Along Came a Spider and Sat Down beside Her

cobweb-morgentau-dew-dewdrop-53367From nursery rhymes to Emily Dickinson’s poem, The Spider Holds a Silver Ball, these eight-legged, silk-producing arachnids ignite wonder for the curious-minded and, in Charlotte’s case, bestow wisdom that stretches far beyond the barnyard. And why not? Their ability to spin glorious webs that catch droplets of morning dew make romantics swoon. But as Little Miss Muffet reminds us, they are also to be feared.
I’ve been a gardener my whole life. I blame it on genetics. My people were Irish and Bohemian farmers. Hearty Northern folk who held the seasons in their bones. I grew up in the 70’s in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where lawn care bordered on religious doctrine and dads fired up the grill in the backyard on Saturday night. In our backyard we had a garden that rivaled those found on hippie communes. It never occurred to me that we were the only family in the neighborhood who spent the summer planting, harvesting, canning, and pickling. My sisters and I were too busy weeding to notice most people just went to the grocery store. I was a scrawny kid who froze most of the year. If for no other reason, I loved working in the garden because it provided plenty of warm sunshine. My mom had a shelf in the bathroom of salves, sprays, and repellents for the bug bites and scratches. If I complained to her about spiders or any other creepy-crawlies, I don’t remember. That all changed after I was bit by a mosquito carrying the malaria parasite while living in Honduras.
I was sick with malaria for five years. What I didn’t realize at the time was that few US doctors have the training or knowledge to address the long-term effects. When the last fever passed eighteen years ago, I thanked God I had survived. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a long list of health anomalies I would encounter over the years.
Our orchard and garden demand our full attention right now. Along with the work, comes a host of insects that can do me in. Whether it’s the seemingly benign grass spider that builds its funnel-looking web among the squash leaves or the banded garden spider whose ladder-like web stretches along the tops of tomato plants, I know that as soon as I enter their domain, I’m fair game. No matter how careful I am, spiders seem to be attracted to whatever it is malaria left behind in my blood.
We finally planted our garden last Friday. It was a terribly windy day. Both Ron and I were exhausted by the time we finished. After a hot shower and some lunch, I was still tired and took a nap. I woke three hours later disoriented and experiencing muscle pain and chills. I immediately checked my body for bites. Sure enough, I counted three. I couldn’t focus my thoughts to make dinner and over the next twenty-four hours, things went from bad to worse. A red ring formed around one bite (perhaps the sign of either a tick carrying Lyme’s disease or a brown recluse) and thoughts of worthlessness consumed me.
Two days later, as I started to come out of it, Ron and I went for a walk through the desert where I was bitten again. Beyond the pain and exhaustion, my greatest fear is that the confusion will stick with me. I wonder if in a week, a month, or a year from now, I will pick up a book or sit down to write, and all I will see are individual words on a page that my brain can no longer link into sentences and paragraphs. I’m terrified I will lose the ability to make sense of the world through stories and my thoughts.
I woke up today feeling much better. My Little Miss Muffet fear of spiders has receded some as I sit here thrilled that I am able to write this. The seeds we planted last week are poking through the soil. Nature waits for no one, and I have work to do.