Cooking Home Life Local Food

Nostalgic Breakfast Tacos

Fresh Cilantro Tacos

There is a 25 percent chance of rain beginning at 9 a.m., according to the weather application. I pulled the cars out of the garage so that space can be used for other projects if the forecast proves to be true. Despite the coronavirus epidemic the waste hauler is working today so I put the trash and recycling bins at the end of the driveway.

I made a taco for breakfast this morning and one of my go-to recipes is easy.

Nostalgic Breakfast Taco

When Mother began cooking tacos at home it was revolutionary. We hadn’t had that at home until the 1960s. The change was partly due to the rise of mass-produced, Mexican-style options at the grocery store. It was also a result of her work at the grade school cafeteria where they made dishes different from what we grew up with. Cafeteria work broadened our home food repertory. While we don’t eat beef in our home now, commercial soybean crumbles create a texture and flavor that reminds me of those early days when she made tacos for the first times. Here’s how it went this morning.

Two frying pans go on high heat. In one cook a pre-made organic flour tortilla. In the other heat a scant tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.

Dice half a medium-sized onion and part of a frozen bell pepper. They go into the hot oil. You’ll hear the sizzle. Stirring constantly, season with salt, dried cilantro and powdered chilies. Cook until the onions and peppers are soft. Stir in a clove or two of minced garlic and cook until a garlic aroma rises from the pan. Stir for a minute or so and add one half cup of commercial frozen soybean crumbles. Stir until thawed and set aside.

Place the cooked tortilla on a dinner plate and garnish from the bottom up: a layer of Mexican cheese to taste, pickled sliced jalapeno peppers, salsa or hot sauce to taste. Put the fry up on top of the garnishes and serve with a beverage of choice.

I look forward to when garden cilantro and tomatoes are available. Tacos are a way to explore your palate and discover who you are. For me it’s a chance to remember standing around the kitchen in that American foursquare home with family while reflecting on how our lives have changed. Even on a rainy day that is positive experience.

Garden Home Life

First Big Grove Garden Plot

First Garden Plot, Feb. 24, 2020.

I planted our first Big Grove Township garden in Spring 1994. What I grew is lost in memory.

Yesterday the original plot looked a wreck with desiccated weeds and a hodge-podge of sunken containers, fencing, two composters, a wheel barrow, an old wash tub, six-inch pieces of drainage tile resting on a couple of pallets, and a locust tree. The locust tree was intended for transplant but it got away from me.

I don’t know if the locust tree will recover from last winter’s extremely cold temperatures. The tips of branches in the crown did not leaf out last spring. If it doesn’t recover I’ll take the tree out even though the shade it provides protects plants and conserves moisture during our increasingly hot, dry summers. The plot was not meant to be a permanent residence for trees.

A friend in Cedar County gave me black plastic tubs in which feed for their animals was delivered. I cut large holes in the bottom for drainage and buried them to grow potatoes, radishes, lettuce, basil and sundry root crops. Mostly it was for potatoes which when planted in the ground fed small rodents who thrive with us in the garden. The containers worked to keep them away from the roots.

Composters are necessary for a garden to turn organic matter into fertilizer. One is an open air composter made from pallets retrieved from the home, farm and auto supply store. Garden waste goes in there. The other is a sealed, black plastic container for organic household waste such as peelings, fruit cores, and other fruit and vegetable matter generated from the kitchen. That is, it used to be sealed. Over the years something got inside and has been pushing stuff out of the entry point chewed into the plastic. I should fix or replace it. Until I do it remains a place to dump the kitchen compost bucket and produces some usable compost. The next time I move it there will be compost.

If I had a garden shed I would not use the plot for storage. I continue to think about building a shed, but that’s as far as it has gotten. It won’t be this year, or probably next.

Despite all the useful clutter, the plot continues to be productive. Last year I grew broccoli, eggplant, radishes, basil and beets there. The year before I grew cucumbers. The containers are always busy with multiple crops each year. As I plan this year’s garden I see better utilization of this plot.

Ideas about 2020 in plot #1: Belgian lettuce on or about March 2; potatoes in containers on Good Friday; radishes in a container; a crop of something, cucumbers, eggplant, or maybe hot peppers to change from cruciferous vegetables planted here last year. These are ideas, and the beginning of planning. We’ll see how it unfolds, although Belgian lettuce seems certain a week ahead of the date.

I remember digging this plot in 1994, measuring the distance from the property line, a memory of nothing growing in the yard except grasses and a mulberry tree in the Northeast corner. I barely knew how to garden then. In the interim, my views of how to garden have changed for the better.

Based on the 15-day weather forecast, winter is finished. As temperatures climb and the remaining snow melts we had just better accept it we won’t have had much of a winter. It is time to lean into the growing season as soon as Mother Natures enables us. Soon it will be Spring.

Home Life

Saturday Errands

Turn-Style Department Store, Davenport, Iowa. Photo Credit – Davenport Iowa History Facebook Page

I yearn to live a normal life. I’m not the only one.

Raised in a community of a hundred thousand people, I found something new was always going on. I didn’t discover the half of it. My craving for discovery continued with our move to a rural community in 1993.

In the context of yearning and discovery I ran errands on Saturday.

I had a list. Citirizine from the pharmacy, organic celery from the supermarket, a cup of coffee from the coffee shop, writing supplies from the office supply store, furnace filters, canning jar lids, 4-ounce canning jars, and a big tub for soil mix from the home, farm and auto supply store… milk and eggs from the warehouse club so I wouldn’t have to shop there next Wednesday. I also got a much needed haircut before heading home across Coralville Lake.

Two things I had to do were pick up the keys to the meeting room for a Sunday political event, and post flyers about the Food Policy Council’s event next week on community bulletin boards in the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop, a restaurant, the home, farm and auto supply store, the gas station, and the pharmacy. These bulletin boards are ubiquitous, and are seen in the community. Not everyone has one but those who do know why they exist.

The trouble started at the food cooperative where my spouse has had an account since before we were married. They remodeled, and according to a cashier, “couldn’t find a place” for the community bulletin board which was now gone. Seriously? I get that the cooperative has changed since the days of bulgar wheat piled in burlap bags, ready for distribution. However, one hoped some sense of community would persist as the shelves filled with organic versions of processed food.

As long as I was there, I found the Tofurky brand Italian sausages I use when making red beans and rice.

Nearby I encountered “Beyond Burgers.” O.M.G. Two quarter pound “fresh” patties of the meat substitute cost $8.99. The ingredients? “pea protein isolate,” “methyl cellulose,” “bamboo cellulose,” and 19 others. I knew the product came from a lab, but Z.O.M.G. To make matters worse they were heavily packaged.

The packaging appeared to be foam and I looked it up. “Beyond Burger packaging is made up of almost five different types of substrates, including low density polyethylene, polypropylene, cardboard, paper, and wood products.” Not only is the packaging diversely made, how would a recycling company sort it if it even made it there?

Understood that a growing number of people don’t want to eat animals… but not like this.

I am mostly veg., that is, most of the time our diet is ovo-lacto-vegetarian. I’ll have the aforementioned Tofurky a couple of times a year to make a dish filled with memories of how I learned to cook. A staple in our household is Morningstar Farms soy-based burgers and recipe crumbles. At $1.25 each they are more affordable than Beyond Burger. They seem less processed, less engineered as well. We have fallen off the tofu bandwagon and carefully consider how we get our protein. The end game is I don’t see how highly engineered and processed food is an adequate replacement for beef cattle, hogs or chicken in our diet. Somewhere there is a middle ground and if red meat makes me feel queasy, I need to find something else to balance nutrition with a yearning for cooking the way Mom did. Beyond Burger is too special for that.

I don’t run errands that often any more. We get by on less. When I lived in Germany I had scant leisure time but when I was off duty I yearned to go shopping at the rail station, the post exchange, and across the Rhine River at the box stores in Wiesbaden. Today shopping trips like Saturday are a couple times a year thing. I wish it engendered less outrage. I don’t want to be that cranky old man of which one hears tell.

All the same, running errands is a way of engaging in society. I’m grateful for conversation with cashiers, sales associates and hairdressers because it breaks up the isolation of aging. I like getting away from society, yet have the same basic need to join with others… even if that means complaining about stuff that doesn’t make sense.

It’s all part of sustaining our lives in a turbulent world.

Home Life Politics Writing

Pivot From the Caucus

Palmer House Stable, Solon, Iowa, Feb. 8, 2020.

While the Iowa caucus news cycle lingers, I am already gone.

After a Saturday of political engagement — an interview with Michael Franken of Sioux City who is running for the Democratic nomination as U.S. Senator from Iowa, and a town hall meeting with my state representative Bobby Kaufmann — Michael Wines of the New York Times contacted me about my experience at the Big Grove precinct caucus. I told him the story… which is metastasizing.

The narrative is repeated so much I might resurrect a circus like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey to take it on the road. As locals know, circuses are an Iowa thing and four of the Ringling brothers were born in McGregor, Iowa. What more fitting outcome for the caucuses?

Nontheless I am pivoting away from politics. I’m in a position to do so because of great caucus turnout. I’m confident our four delegates to the county convention will show up. Two volunteers stepped up to participate as precinct representatives on the county central committee. Despite lingering interest in what we did, the news cycle will eventually move on. It’s time for me to go.

I unsubscribed from the county party weekly newsletter, thanking the public relations chair, and saying, “I have less need to stay abreast of what party insiders are doing.” There is life beyond politics.

Toward what will I pivot? Will a divot of politics follow?

Our big family news is on Feb. 5 we made the last payment on our daughter’s student loan. Including loan interest, our contributions, and her work study and scholarship, the cost of her four-year education was about $140,000. In the box of letters I sent Mom during college, I wrote my monthly bill at the University of Iowa was $50. Add in the scholarship I had and my college expense was about $6,800 for four years.

My freedom from politics will be used to become a better citizen. Monday I start a brief term on the county Food Policy Council. If that proves to be engaging, I’ll volunteer for a full, four-year term. I’m writing more for Blog for Iowa, have written up one interview, two more are done, and there may be more. I hope to have a better garden this year. I invested in an electric tiller, bought some rolls of mulching, and began planting onions on Friday. There are plenty more projects in the works. There are also the farm jobs, which have been reduced from three to two this season.

A group of us were sitting around a table in the break room at the home, farm and auto supply store on Wednesday. The discussion was about retirement as a couple of us have retired but continue to work because of the social engagement a job involves. Our store manager was there and he told me, “If I were you, I’d retire as soon as possible.” Depending on how the next couple of months go, I may take his advice and help on one of the federal election campaigns.

For now, I’m on to what’s next while sustaining ourselves in a repressive national political environment. Life will be better, at least I hope so.

Home Life

Winter Flight

Winter snowfall Jan. 24, 2020

While I’m typing our daughter is driving to the airport where she will board an aircraft for a rare visit home. The flight is on-time despite Iowa’s winter weather.

Except to attend Mother’s funeral, she hasn’t been home since April 2016. We are looking forward to seeing her as phone calls, text messages and email are not enough.

I cleared the driveway to allow ingress and egress. If she wasn’t coming I may have left the snowfall for another day. Once she’s home, I’m not sure if anyone will leave the house for a while.

We are thankful for the Federal Aviation Administration and the work of the pilots and crew of the airline and airports. Thankful for safety on this winter flight.

Cooking Home Life

Cavendish Banana Bread

Banana bread made with Cavendish bananas

Three bananas were going bad on the counter so I decided to make banana bread. That’s what people do, or at least did when I was still at home.

These were Cavendish bananas as most commercially available ones are. They were also organic although I’m not sure how cultivation is different.

Like its predecessor, the Gros Michel banana, the Cavendish is susceptible to  a fungus that could wipe out the variety. If that happens as expected, diets will change.

For a recipe I got out my copy of the Holy Family School PTA cookbook. I like this book for the familiar names of the recipe authors, some of whom I knew. Monsignor T.V. Lawlor served as the church’s second pastor from 1943 until 1961 and his photograph is printed inside the front cover of the book. This dates the cookbook in the 1950s most likely, after the school moved to the location I attended a couple of blocks south of the church on Fillmore Street.

I chose a banana bread recipe contributed by Mrs. H.A. Tholen. It called for shortening, although I substituted butter and kept everything else the same. Here are the ingredients as written:

1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup shortening, 2 eggs, 3 bananas mashed, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon soda, 1-3/4 cup flour, and a pinch of salt.

Instructions are, “Mix in the order given and bake in a slow oven.”

Well that won’t do. Looking at other sweet breads in the book I decided on a 350 degree oven for 50 minutes. It turned out great as you can see in the image.

Making banana bread from overly ripe bananas is a cultural inheritance not only from my mother and maternal grandmother, but from a broader society where fruit like the Cavendish banana is readily and cheaply available. However, like most mass marketed fruit and vegetables it is subject to change from climate and from other pressures, forcing old habits and patterns to change.

There was something positive in yesterday’s bakery. It was a warning too, that life is fragile and ever changing. We seek comfort in what we know, delaying the embrace of what is coming. I don’t just mean what’s coming for Cavendish bananas.

Home Life Writing

Last Days of 2019

Front Moving East at Sunrise on Dec. 29, 2019

Snow flurried outside the dining room window for a while. I thought we might return to normal winter weather. The thought passed and snow stopped without accumulation.

We need a good streak of very cold days to prune the fruit trees. Last year it was difficult to find such a streak yet I’m hopeful this year. I’m not going to wait for ideal conditions. I’ll take what we get in our evolving climate.

This year’s reckoning with the past and planning for the future is taking more time and effort. It’s not because I did more. The process has been more organized and thoughtful than in recent years. I’m conscious of my age and weighing carefully which projects and activities will get my attention. At the end of it I want a definite plan with time lines. It’s a better process.

While our personal lives went okay in 2019, our participation in broader society was like the wafting odors from nearby feedlots. It was hard to stay separate from the international shit storm.

As Julian Borger pointed out in The Guardian, 2019 was the year U.S. foreign policy fell apart. “Donald Trump’s approach to the world is little more than a tangle of personal interests, narcissism and Twitter outbursts,” he wrote. That’s no way to run a country, even if a majority seeks to isolate American interests from the rest of global society. We can do better than this.

Steven Piersanti wrote on, “Under the bankrupter-in-chief, the national debt is skyrocketing while economic growth is lagging.” Trump is running the country just like he ran his failed businesses, according to Piersanti. “The country’s economic resources are being wasted and our economic health is endangered.”

“The next 12 months will determine whether the world is capable of controlling nuclear proliferation, arresting runaway climate change, and restoring faith in the United Nations,” Stewart Patrick wrote at World Politics Review. Those things matter to everyone and positive outcomes on any of them are dubious without American leadership. President Trump, ditcher of nuclear arms control agreements, critic of the need to address climate change, and bad-mouther of the United Nations does not appear to have an appetite or the capacity to lead at home or abroad. The prospects are bleak on these fronts and more until government changes hands.

It comes back to personal planning for next year. What amount of time will I devote to addressing these problems? The overarching motivation is to remove our current federal elected representatives from office and replace them with people who understand the importance of foreign policy.

At the same time, I can’t let politics be a single thing that absorbs all my time. Regardless of the Republican shit storm, we each need balance in our lives.

It’s taking a little longer to plan this year but the premise of it comes back to my tag line. How shall we best sustain our lives in a turbulent world?

A toast to 2019, an aspirin and vitamin for 2020, and off we go into an uncertain future with the potential for great things.

Home Life

Holiday Gift Cards

Christmas Coffee

Our family holiday season begins with our Dec. 18 wedding anniversary and continues until New Year’s Day. Two weeks of slowing down, eating more traditional food, reading, reviewing the past, writing, and planning.

2019 was a difficult year. It was a pivotal year. It was a year of coming to terms. There were gift cards.

The first gift card came from the home, farm and auto supply store in the amount of $125. Receiving a gift card in lieu of a salary bonus is a leftover from when the family that founded the retail chain was more involved. The founder’s son continues to make rounds of the stores and knows me by name. He sent a personal birthday card with some bad information about how long I’d been employed. It’s the thought that matters. They also provide a paid holiday on our birthday which in my case falls during this end of year period. I made it to age 68!

The second gift card was re-purposed by my spouse. She spent the $100 gift on herself, but didn’t use the card. She gave it to me and I considered it a welcome birthday present since it was the only one.

Where does one spend this kind of gifted money? At grocery, hardware and other retail stores mostly.

Major purchases included some premium bay leaves ($8.99), a fifth of Jack Daniels No. 7 ($27.55), a Craftsman screwdriver set ($29.67), a 24-bottle case of Stella Artois ($26.63) and a set of storage bins for garden seeds ($29.67). I also got a bottle each of low-dose aspirin and B-12 at the pharmacy, jars of organic seasonings clearanced at the home, farm and auto supply store, some Boetje’s mustard (a local specialty that used to be made in Rock Island, Ill.), a package of roasted chestnuts for New Year’s Eve, and a new Craftsman box cutter to place near the recycling bin. We’re lucky to be able to afford these luxuries.

We received a screwdriver set from the best man at our wedding. Some of them had gone missing over 37 years. It was a purchase of hope as in I hope to spend more time organizing the workspace in the garage and shedding some of the duplicated and unnecessary tools accumulated at dozens of household and farm auctions. Something just feels good about having new tools. They match the ones we got as a wedding present exactly.

The price of the whisky was shocking as I hadn’t bought any for more than a decade. A recent newspaper survey showed Iowans prefer cheaper varieties like Black Velvet Whisky and Hawkeye Vodka. I don’t drink spirits very often and the gift cards were the reason I even considered getting a bottle, it’s like free money and Jack Daniels is a personal holiday tradition. Besides, the local small batch spirits were too expensive at $50 for a fifth.

I bought the beer at the wholesale club, another luxury. My favorite is Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, which my father preferred. PBR is not available there. The plan is to drink a bottle when we have pizza or chili for dinner while reminiscing about my several trips to Belgium. The case should last into spring. At that time my memories will likely be worn out and I’ll get a case of something else to ice down in a cooler for after yard work. Had it not been for the gift cards I would likely have gone without beer at home until summer.

The bins for seeds were an impulse purchase. I examined them and found there was enough space in each drawer for the packets to lay flat. It will go a long way to clean up the workspace where I sort seeds for my weekly planting sessions at the greenhouse. Now the bins need to be labeled so I know what’s in them. More work to do this holiday season.

No one got rich off my shopping spree. I feel better for the fun of unexpected shopping. Whatever anxiety I had about whether the gift cards would work was offset by the adventure in spending them. It was just enough of our consumer society to recall what it is and sate my desire to shop. That done, I can better consider what 2020 will bring.

Home Life

Into Winter

Iowa Winter

After I returned from a shift at the home, farm and auto supply store I scrubbed and cut up potatoes to roast for dinner. Roasted potatoes, a burger patty and frozen peas made a dinner — comfort food as winter approaches.

The Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, our pantry and ice box are full. There was no need to grocery shop after my shift comme d’habitude.

In eight weeks it will be time to start onions, leeks, and shallots inside, then begin soil blocking at the farm a week or two later. For now there’s indoors work of reading, writing, cooking and cleaning.

A neighbor put out bird feeders to attract birds, then expressed concern that cats were hanging around, chasing the birds away and prompting her dogs to bark at them. I wrote a response.

This is an interesting topic. Although I don’t have any solution to the issue of dogs barking at wandering cats, by putting out bird seed, like I have, a person attracts a variety of animals to the yard, which includes not only birds but mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, deer, and maybe others.

Because of our proximity to the state park, we see almost every species native to Iowa here.

The bird feeder also brings predators of small animals, including cats, but also hawks, owls, and foxes. Then there are the scavengers like possums, turkey vultures and crows.

My point is when we decide to place a bird feeder out we are creating an ecosystem, especially if we fill feeders year-around. If members have pets, they should be kept on a leash or indoors, that’s long been our policy. However, there is a bigger ecosystem that will continue, even in the event pets can be controlled.

On that note, we head into winter.

Home Life

Thanksgiving 2019

Tree Decorating Contest the the Solon Public Library

Happy Thanksgiving readers!

Thanksgiving week continues to be a special time. There is a certain something in the air. As a writer I should do a better job describing that. Doing so would reduce what’s special to mundane. Let’s not go there.

We all need time to recharge after this long year. The days find me planning next year’s garden, determining how to improve our community in the months ahead, and budgeting. Those are markers along the way that don’t get to what’s special this week.

It seems unlikely we will decorate our home for year-end holidays. We’re in the middle of down-sizing, organizing, and re-arranging for coming years. Translation: stuff is pulled out everywhere. The library in town displayed the results of a competition to decorate Christmas trees. We took it in last night and gained a bit of holiday spirit without the work it would have caused us at home. That will have to do.

Thanksgiving is a quiet time for us. With our daughter a thousand miles away and all four of our parents deceased, there is little reason to get too carried away. We will celebrate with a special meal that includes home made baked beans, wild rice, baked sweet potatoes, a relish tray, sweet apple cider from the orchard and an apple crisp made with backyard apples. It will be good, filling and with some calculated adjustments and portion control, nutritionally balanced.

According to the American Farm Bureau, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people is $48.91 this year. Ours would feed the same number at a fraction of the cost, due to no meat products on the table and producing and sourcing items from our garden or from the local food projects where I work. When most food is produced close to home, eating well is not expensive.

There’s more to the special feeling of Thanksgiving than food. Describing it escapes me. I’m better off not knowing what it is and basking in the glow of its exceptional character. At least for this year.