Cooking Memoir

Classic family breakfast

This image of a recent breakfast tells a story I’m the only one who hears.

Hashed brown potatoes, commercially prepared ketchup, two organic scrambled eggs, home made hot sauce, and a Gold Rush apple grown at a local orchard. Each part of this breakfast has its origins in the heart of my kitchen garden.

I watched my maternal grandmother make hashed browns many times and the way I do it is how she did. My earliest memories are from time in her small kitchen when she lived in a duplex where Mom, Dad and I occupied the other half. Cooking, growing, acquiring and preparing food ingredients would become a major part of my life, one that should be part of any memoir. Spending time with Grandmother during meal preparation has been influential and became part of who I am.

At the same time, Mother’s kitchen transitioned from meals cooked from many raw ingredients to ones that leveraged help from food processors. In the late 1950s and early 1960s we shopped at a corner grocery store. That gave way to a supermarket that sold many lines of products. Notable among these were bread baked at Wonder Bakery in town, and a Mexican food section where we could buy branded tortillas, sauces, spices and canned ingredients to make tacos and tostadas. Tomato ketchup was one kind of help.

Development of a recipe for tomato ketchup is attributed to Philadelphia scientist James Mease in 1812. The condiment became ubiquitous, including in our house. I have a few old cookbooks with recipes for tomato ketchup yet the idea of making our own wouldn’t stand the heat of August summer. Over the years, ingredients and process of commercial ketchup changed. Despite the use of high fructose corn syrup, we continue to use Heinz brand tomato ketchup on hashed browns. That’s what is in this photograph.

Scrambled eggs reflects many hours of watching cooking programs on television and YouTube. I sourced eggs from many places, although in recent years I buy organic eggs at the wholesale club or get them from local growers. Scrambling an egg is both easy and complicated. Very few times is the result inedible. Reaching culinary perfection has been beyond my reach with any consistency. Eggs are tolerant of erratic cooks. I continue to work to be better at it.

I recently wrote about hot sauce, something I learned to make from my platoon sergeant when we were stationed in West Germany. Over the years my recipe changed to include different kinds of hot peppers, tomatillos and occasional spices. What I used in this photo is similar to what I made in the 1970s when I discovered the condiment.

Finally, apple culture. Like many I came up on mostly Red Delicious apples. That’s one of the four varieties of trees in our current back yard. It was working at a u-pick orchard for seven years that taught me about apple culture. Even though I declined to return this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, I bought eight varieties for their different characteristics. That this breakfast was made in October is reflected by the presence of a Gold Rush apple which is among the last to ripen in Iowa.

How should I write about cooking in a memoir? Today that is an open question. Key cooking events will appear on any timeline I write as an outline for the book. It is unclear how information about cooking might be presented in the final product, whether in its own section or with stories dotting a beginning to end, chronological narrative.

It will be a part of my autobiography. Writing this post made me hungry.

Living in Society

Final Week

Autumn Blaze maple tree.

More than 66 million voters already cast a ballot in the general election that ends a week from today. For perspective, Donald Trump’s popular vote in 2016 was 62,984,828, Hillary Clinton’s was 65,853,514.

The coronavirus pandemic is driving the high number of early votes cast. We won’t discover who won until election staff around the country finish counting according to their local laws.

Nate Silver’s puts it this way:

We’re in the last full week before Election Day, and as we’ve been saying for a while now, President Trump is running out of time to mount a comeback and close the gap Biden has opened in both national and state polls. We’re way past the point where a normal polling error alone could hand Trump the win. Still, Trump has a meaningful chance, per our forecast — a little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die and a little better than the chances that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles. And remember, it does rain there. (Downtown L.A. has about 36 rainy days per year, or about a 1-in-10 shot of a rainy day). election forecast, Oct. 26, 2020.

If the electorate fails to recognize the mistake made in 2016 and correct it, I don’t know what to say. Well I do have some things to say, but I’m keeping them to myself for the time being. It’s an uncertain year made worse by a pandemic that people, including the Iowa governor, can’t agree about. It’s been a public health crisis and a failure of political leadership. There is no separating ourselves from the impact of the coronavirus as it spreads without significant constraints. I don’t know anyone in Iowa who has not been affected in some way.

If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the election it’s hard to say what’s next. There is a lot to do. If Biden summed up the challenge succinctly by saying “Build Back Better,” the resolution of challenges facing the nation are complex. At a minimum we must implement a better plan to contain the pandemic and immediately reduce the number of ongoing infections and deaths. Simultaneously, damage done by the Trump administration must be undone if it can be. Biden may rescind many of the executive orders Trump signed, and rejoin international treaties where possible, yet there is more to it. We won’t know until the election results are known and Team Biden has a chance to look under the hood of the car wreck the current administration has been. Then we will discover the extent of the damage.

I’m optimistic there will be better days. Because of the resilience we’ve built into our Midwestern lives the last four years have been tolerated as well as could be expected. Having a Democratic president who has support in the legislative branch of government would be positive. Positive enough to provide hope after a long, dark period in American history.

Let’s hope it isn’t raining in Los Angeles on election day.

Living in Society

Being an American

Lilac blooming on Oct. 24, 2020 after the hard frost.

Like many Americans I’m ready to move on from politics for a while. The almost four years of Donald J. Trump have been exhausting on so many levels. I find no comfort in saying I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government,” Trump said at his inaugural address. “But whether our government is controlled by the people.”

It appears the people will take ownership of our government during voting that ends on Nov. 3. Having lived through 2016 I’m not ready to stop working to turn out Democrats. With the restrictions on gathering imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, none of my usual get out the vote behaviors are available this cycle. Instead I volunteered to be an election day poll observer in our precinct.

Trump referred to “American carnage” in the inaugural address. What we didn’t know or understand was he would devastate the economy, our government, and society more generally, thereby creating his own brand of carnage, the likes of which there is little living memory. The nation roils under Trump and not in a constructive way. It has been turbulence to little purpose, annoying and irritating. Republicans took advantage of our sense of fair play and did what they pleased with scant restraint.

The raw exercise of power by Republicans has been appalling no more so than during the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court Justice. A final vote on her appointment is expected later today. The 30-day confirmation process from nomination to today’s certain appointment demonstrates Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can get things done if he wants. He doesn’t favor doing anything meaningful for regular Americans like me, so bills passed by the House of Representatives languish in the U.S. Senate. This has been McConnell’s MO since President Obama took office in 2009. He’s up for reelection this year and seems likely to be returned to office.

Like most Americans I’ll dig out of the cesspool created by Republicans since the 2000 election. It’s what Americans do. If Trump and Republicans win next Tuesday there will be one journey. If Biden and Democrats win, another. Yet the vehicle on which I’m traveling has many good, righteous and progressive ideas.

It’s the green bus of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, who died Oct. 25, 2002, and was eulogized by Senator Tom Harkin. Like Wellstone’s life, Harkin gave us hope. He encouraged us to work for a progressive society and never lose hope — to have the courage of our convictions.

“To me, the most important goal is to live a life consistent with the values I hold dear and to act on what I believe in,” Wellstone wrote in his book The Conscience of a Liberal. Americans have had values, some in darkness, others in light. A majority seems poised to act on them by voting for Joe Biden as president. If the results bear this out we will emerge scarred yet hopeful from recent years with the opportunity for a new American consensus.

What we make of this new opportunity will be up to us.


UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Ratified

The weekend has been a stream of emails from friends leading to ratification of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

On Oct. 24, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), reported Honduras became the 50th state to ratify the treaty. This started a 90-day clock for the treaty to enter into force and become international law on Jan. 22, 2021.

Congratulations to everyone who worked to achieve this significant milestone.

What we have known all along is the nine nuclear states have scant interest in eliminating nuclear weapons, even if most of them give lip service to Article VI of the Non-proliferation Treaty which calls for it.

During the Obama administration activists fully understood the United States would not lead on abolition of nuclear weapons. ICAN, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and others took the cause to the international stage and yesterday set the world on a more definitive path by making nuclear weapons illegal. The hard work now begins.

There remains a growing danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. In an Oct. 24 statement, reacting to the 50th state ratification of the TPNW, IPPNW laid out the risks:

The treaty is especially needed in the face of the real and present danger of nuclear war climbing higher than ever. The hands of the Doomsday Clock stand further forward than they have ever been: 100 seconds to midnight. All nine nuclear-armed states are modernizing their arsenals with new, more accurate and “useable” weapons; their leaders making irresponsible explicit nuclear threats. The cold war is resurgent—hard won treaties reducing nuclear weapons numbers and types are being trashed, while nothing is being negotiated to replace them, let alone build on them. If the Trump administration allows the New START Treaty to expire, then from 5 February 2021, for the first time since 1972, there will be no treaty constraints on Russian and US nuclear weapons. Armed conflicts which could trigger nuclear escalation are increasing in a climate-stressed world. The rapidly evolving threat of cyberwarfare puts nuclear command and control in jeopardy from both nations and terrorist groups. Close to two thousand nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched within minutes of a leader’s fateful decision.

~ Tilman Ruff, Ira Helfand, Arun Mitra, and Daniel Bassey—Co-presidents of IPPNW

This milestone is a moment for celebration as the plan to eliminate nuclear weapons comes together as well as it has since the United Nations was established 75 years ago. Whatever uncertainties there are in our global civilization — the coronavirus pandemic, economic injustice, and armed conflict — today there is hope for a better world. That’s worth noting.

Living in Society

Autumn in Iowa

Autumn Blaze maple tree.

The colors of the maple tree in front of our house don’t photograph well. We have to stand and take in the feeling they arouse. The variety is called Autumn Blaze.

Branches high up in the tree have been blown down and broken by wind storms. The foliage is not as dense as it once was. Like all maple trees the wood is soft and if the right kind of insect gains entry it will be curtains. I remember planting the tree with our daughter in the 1990s, shortly after moving to Big Grove Township.

We had no idea how the changing colors of autumn would make us feel. If we knew, we would have planted another.

The coronavirus pandemic rages in Iowa and in the United States. Republican politicians in charge are downplaying the seriousness of the virus so as not to have to address it before the election. Only a cynical, craven person could do so. The same kind of person who sent meat packers back to work without adequate protections after outbreaks were revealed.

The end of the year holidays are upon us with Halloween a week away. I wrote a post for our neighborhood Facebook page:

“My personal two cents: Just finished reading the complicated Iowa City rules for trick or treating during the coronavirus pandemic. To me, it’s simple. If parents want to take their children out in the neighborhood they should be free to do so. At the same time if members don’t want to participate, they should leave their front lights off and not answer the door. There should be no “tricks” or unpleasantness for anyone during the pandemic. As President Trump said in Florida last night, ‘you should do all the things’ to prevent spread of the disease. We know what those ‘things’ are: wear a mask, practice hygiene, use sanitizer, and clean up upon returning home. It’s important to create a positive environment for children during a fun holiday that marks the beginning of the end of year holiday season. I hope we are closer to normal by Halloween 2021.”

It really is autumn in Iowa.


A Personal COVID-19 Timeline

Lake Macbride State Park trail.

The coronavirus pandemic brought normal to a screeching halt.

On March 13 I spent the day with a friend I’ve known since grade school ending with a beer at a bar in Tiffin. After that there has been no normal.

My personal timeline went like this:

March 7: Governor Reynolds activated the State Emergency Operations Center for COVID-19.

March 8: Iowa Hygienic Laboratory reported the first three positive test results for COVID-19 in Iowa.

March 9: Governor Reynolds issued a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency regarding COVID-19.

March 11: World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.

March 24: First Iowa death attributed to COVID-19.

March 29: President Trump extends federal stay-at-home order until April 30.

April 2: My final shift at the home, farm and auto supply store.

April 6: Began 30-day COVID-19 leave of absence from the home, farm and auto supply store.

April 11: Purchased poetry books via email from local used bookstore to support them during the coronavirus pandemic.

April 14: Received CARES Act coronavirus pandemic payment from U.S. Treasury.

April 16: Interviewed by Andrew Keshner of MarketWatch about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on gardening.

April 21: Conducted first home owners association board meeting via conference call because of the coronavirus pandemic. Same with sewer district board of trustees.

April 28: Gave notice of retirement to the home, farm and auto supply store due to the coronavirus pandemic.

April 29: Statewide food policy council meeting on the CARES Act, via Zoom.

May 1: Iowa for Biden Round table on the Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Rural Families Moderated by Tom Vilsack, via Zoom.

May 6: Webinar on UPS Supply Chain Challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, via Zoom.

May 6: Arms Control Association meeting about COVID-19 and Global Security, via Zoom.

May 27: First COVID-19 screening (negative).

June 1: Prescription for cholesterol medicine during followup at local clinic. Socially distanced.

June 2: Began exercising for 25-30 minutes daily for health reasons and due to shelter in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

June 15: Conference call with Vice President Mike Pence on COVID-19, other topics.

June 16: Second COVID-19 screening (negative).

June 18: Began bicycle riding for exercise.

June 28: Haircut at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

July 13: 75th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings – Deconstructing the Myths and Promoting a Nuclear Weapons-Free & Just World, via Zoom.

July 23: First garden donation to local food rescue non-profit.

July 23: Rita Hart meeting on re-opening the schools, via Zoom.

July 29: Dental appointment in Cedar Rapids. Partial treatment because of COVID-19 restrictions.

August 2: Bicycle crash on Lake Macbride Trail.

August 9: Op-ed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 75 Years After Hiroshima.

August 10: Derecho, lost electricity.

August 13: Bicycle crash on Polk Avenue detour because of derecho damage on the trail.

August 14: Electricity restored.

August 15: Discussion with the orchard about return to work for the fall season. Declined due to the coronavirus pandemic and high number of infections in Johnson County.

August 20: Third COVID-19 screening (negative).

September 10: Followup appointment at local clinic. Socially distanced.

September 13: Op-ed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Is Rural Iowa Different?

September 26: Pop-up event with Doug Emhoff (Kamala Harris’ husband). Drive through campaign sign pickup due to restrictions of coronavirus pandemic.

October 23: Washington Post reports, “America is poised to enter its worst stretch of the pandemic, with cases spiking and the country on the precipice of shattering its daily record for infections in the next few days.” In Iowa we have the eighth highest COVID-19 infection rate among the states. There have been 1,617 Iowa deaths linked to the coronavirus.


October Rain

Pelicans on the lake.

There have been Iowa rainstorms in late October for as long as I can remember. Rain is usually followed by a period of warming during which we can get the yard ready for winter. There is comfort in the repeated patterns of nature.

Rain recharges the Silurian Aquifer where we draw our water. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recently renewed our permit to draw water for another ten years. We don’t worry about draining this aquifer because of its proximity to the surface and ability to recharge. Our temperate climate makes it more sustainable. Even during the most severe droughts, like in 2012, water supply is adequate, and rarely questioned.

Let it rain.

At the beginning of the pandemic I asked a local used bookstore to pick $100 worth of books of poetry for me with the main criteria being I didn’t already own a copy. I’m still reading from that stack and just finished Honest Effort by Michael Carey. In 1991, when the book was published, Carey was an Iowan transplanted from the East Coast who farmed his spouse’s family farm, writing poetry about his life. His Facebook page shows the farming thing, and his marriage, didn’t work out.

It’s clean verse, and by that I mean he brings very few objects of contemporary culture into the poetry. That creates a timeless quality and allows his unique voice to be heard. For a couple of hours he held me in his world. Highly recommended if you can find a copy. My recent reading list is here if readers are curious.

After my morning writing session the day is a blank slate. It’s Friday, one of the few days distinguishable from others because it’s the trash and recycling day. We also plan a pizza dinner on Friday. It’s raining so it will be an indoors day enlivened by the imagination, I hope. Thanks for reading.

Living in Society

House District 73 and the Pandemic

Woman Writing Letter

As Election Day approaches, the coronavirus dominates the news and lives of many who live in House District 73. I voted early for Lonny Pulkrabek as state representative and recommend you vote for him too. Pulkrabek will engage with other legislators to do something about spread of COVID-19 in Iowa.

Given the chance; the Republican majority did little to address the global pandemic for Iowans.

The single bill related to the pandemic that passed last session was Senate File 2338 which took away liability for COVID-19 from businesses. State Senator Rob Hogg said of the Republican majority, “no proposals, no bills passed,” to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. As a member of leadership Rep. Bobby Kaufmann has culpability.

At a minimum, what was needed was to add capacity at the Iowa Hygienic Laboratory so they could process more tests. Because the legislature did not, Iowa fell out of compliance with White House and CDC recommendations regarding testing in nursing homes.

Iowa friends and family of mine tested positive for COVID-19. A child I know did too when schools reopened. The minister who officiated at our wedding died of the disease. The pandemic is proving to be personal for so many of us.

Republicans had their chance. It’s time to elect Democrats like Lonny Pulkrabek to effectively address the pandemic.

~ A version of this letter first appeared in Little Village Magazine in Iowa City. Also published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Oct. 24, 2020.

Kitchen Garden

Harvest After A Hard Frost

Broccoli, celery, bell peppers, butternut squash, and kale gleaned from the garden.

Pepper and tomato plants were bitten by a hard overnight frost so I gleaned the garden Wednesday morning. A lot was available, a lot remains. I hadn’t been in one of the plots since the Aug. 10 derecho.

When frost comes, kale and broccoli turn dark green and represent some of the best garden eating all year. I froze the kale I picked as there is plenty more. We’ll serve broccoli multiple times during the coming week.

I had forgotten squash vines volunteered in the celery patch and didn’t know what kind they were when they emerged. The four butternut squash I picked look healthy and should provide variety to our dinner plates. We have a new recipe to make pasta sauce with butternut squash so we’ll try that with one of them.

Now is an abundant time for gardeners. The refrigerator has been full, the counter has plenty of squash, onions and garlic on it. The dehydrator is full of red hot peppers. Bins are full of potatoes, onions and shallots downstairs. Two fall shares remain from my barter arrangement at the community supported agriculture project. While we’ll be isolated this Thanksgiving because of the pandemic there will be plenty of food available for our special dinner.

And then winter…

How winter goes will depend on the weather, which is expected to be warm again; on the results of the election, which we hope will favor sanity and competence; and on an ability to be productive on home-based projects new and old.

I’ve been active this election year with multiple political projects. As Nov. 3 approaches many activities enter their endgame. I’m looking toward what’s next and hope my work as a poll watcher on Election Day provides diversion as we all wait for the results of the Electoral College.

A pall fell across the land, a dark shadow from Republican governance. Disoriented, we don’t know if it’s caused by a setting sun or one that’s rising on a new day. Because of the large number of vote by mail ballots, the counting may not be finished election night, and could drag out for a couple of days as states with less financial resources deal with the unusual workload. The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on everyone, including election officials. There is no clear indication when the pandemic will end, or if it will. The election won’t resolve that near term.

For now, with a temperate climate we raise our own food to reduce the amount purchased at retail stores. Produce remains in the garden for gleaning and harvest will continue until the plots are stripped bare during the next warm spell. We’re counting on a warm spell.


So Many Letters

Morning in Iowa

Here’s a post I wrote about writing letters to the editor while working as a proof reader at a local weekly newspaper on Oct. 20, 2012. The newspaper in Iowa’s second largest city continues to print letters to the editor and guest opinions daily. The main newspaper in the county seat practically eliminated printing letters to the editor, now doing so maybe two days per week. Weeklies, like the one where I worked, are challenged with loss of advertising, consolidation with other newspapers, and an uncertain future. They welcome this free to them and engaging to their readers content. Letters to the editor of local newspapers play an important role in political campaigns and about anything else going on in small cities, towns and school districts. While it continues to exist, the letter to the editor is an effective way to gain readers’ attention. It reaches many multiples of the daily views a blog like mine or a social media post reaches.This is reprinted with limited editing.

Just returned from my job at the newspaper, where I had to work longer than usual to get through a spike in submitted letters to the editor… election and all. Many topics, some letters better written than others. Some writers I know well, others, not so much. More well written than poorly written, in fact all of them were understandable.

Which leads me to the question of why these same writers don’t take advantage of this forum, except when they have an axe to grind, cause to promote, or we are two weeks from a general election?

The small slice of the community that still reads newspapers is one of the most intelligent and articulate parts of our society, believe it or not. As a lowly proofreader, I earned extra pay for my time, so am grateful this day. But I know from experience the volume and time will drop off dramatically after the election.

So for Pete’s sake, spend 30 minutes a month and write a letter to the editor. You will feel better and it keeps us piecework wage earners in the green.