Categories
Home Life Writing

Don’t Cook Tonight

Great Grandmother in her garden.

When I was a grader, Mother would send me to the corner grocery store to secure provisions for the evening meal.

We had a corner grocery store. It was a block and a half away from home. There were no supermarkets within walking distance.

I don’t recall its name. A family owned it and the husband was the butcher. When it closed, run out of business by the multi-location Geifman Food Store that situated a block and a half away, they moved to the west end of town where the butcher was murdered in his store.

I was a paper boy for the Times-Democrat. The hyphenated name is from a 1964 merger into what eventually became part of Lee Enterprises and is now the Quad-City Times. I delivered the evening edition after school and the corner grocery was near the end of my route. At that time paper boys collected subscriptions directly from customers. When I finished weekly collections I’d stop at the store to buy a package of baseball cards or a candy bar. I remember a six-pack of 10 ounce bottles of Pepsi sold for 60 cents, the lesser known sodas bottled a few blocks away sold for 54 cents. Mother discouraged us from drinking soda.

The corner grocery store was an important part of our family life. Then it wasn’t.

Grandmother grew up on a farm and knew how to cook. She knew where food came from and how to prepare a live chicken. In our early years she lived near us, next door when I was a toddler, upstairs when I was in the first grade. After that she was a regular guest for Sunday dinners and special occasions like Easter when she checked in with her grandchildren and helped mom in the kitchen.

In the 1960s we began to eat more food prepared outside our home. Mom also began experimenting with different food preparations. We developed a taste for tacos and I recall the corner grocery didn’t carry some Mexican ingredients we liked, requiring me to walk to nearby Geifman’s. It was a sign of the end of the corner store.

In 1966 Joe Whitty moved to Davenport and ended up living with his young family in a rental the second house north from ours. It was across the street from a family that owned the dairy. He worked at the nearby hospital where I had been born, first as a baker, then as dietary director. He went on to establish a chain of pizza and ice cream stores. One of the ice cream stores ended up on the lot where the corner grocery store had been, although after I left Davenport.

On the other side of the church where I was baptized, about two blocks away from home and next to the Geifman Food Store, was a restaurant called Chicken Delight. They had a radio jingle, “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight.” The chain was founded in Illinois in 1952 and grew to have more than 1,000 locations. It was a take out and delivery only place and I don’t recall eating their chicken during the eleven years I lived at home there. Without the dining room we had little interest. If we had their product at home, I have no memory of it.

Chicken Delight was not known for its quality as each store followed their own cooking process, sometimes with their own equipment. That’s unlike the McDonald’s franchises which grew to prominence in the 1960s. McDonald’s prided itself on consistent quality in all their stores. They even had a “Hamburger University” near Chicago to train managers in how to operate with consistent results. Today there are not many Chicken Delight stores and most that remain are located in Canada. The women in our house knew how to make chicken and the family consensus was ours was better. Eventually one of the former neighbor’s pizza restaurants located in the Chicken Delight space.

That’s not to say we didn’t dine out in the 1960s, we did. We favored local, family run restaurants like Riefe’s Family Restaurant and Bell Eat Shop. Our parents knew both families. When McDonald’s built a restaurant on Brady Street we drove over there as a family once in a while. Their burgers and fries were different from Mother’s. They were cheap too. We ate in the car. We also drove to the A&W Root Beer stand where servers brought trays of food and drinks that hung on our car windows.  The rise of automobile culture made home delivery pizza popular and inexpensive.

Grandmother would take us to Bishop’s Buffet on special occasions. We enjoyed being able to pick what we wanted from a generous selection of items like Mom and Grandmother made at home. In some ways it was a form of nostalgia. Grandmother insisted on paying the bill. These family events were important to her.

That’s the range of our 1960s dining experience outside home. A lot has changed since then. When Grandmother was born in the 19th Century people cooked most meals at home or took a dish to a potluck for weddings, funerals or other occasions where they ate what others had prepared. Prior to the current pandemic food prepared outside home comprised more than half of American diets according to the USDA. When the coronavirus recedes I expect there will be a rebound in restaurant eating.

It takes work to remember these things. Memories are not always accurate. What is important now may not have been important then. In the end, it is up to the author to research and present each story leaning on known facts. We must resist the temptation to tell a story only because the narrative flows or with ideological intent. It is hard to listen to one’s own voice and ignore what others may have experienced or have to say about something. We each own our memories even though there are shared experiences. We must be true to ourselves.

I’d like to be writing more pieces like this. I hope I will.

Categories
Writing

Adjusting to the Pandemic

Apple blossoms on trees planted in 2020.

In an effort to move on to what’s next, here’s another post about the coronavirus pandemic.

Please bear with me. There is a “what’s next” although it will be different from what we would have expected a few months ago.

The threat of COVID-19 spreading into our household had me retire from the home, farm and auto supply store. It was inevitable I would do so soon. The pandemic flipped the switch. Now I’m done with outside-the-home work except for what I do in the local food system a few hours each week.

As I pointed out Thursday, we are in the pandemic for a couple of years or at least until a cure is in place. I believe there will be a cure in the form of a vaccine simply because there are so many bright minds and dollars being invested in this work. No one knows for certain how long it will take to develop and implement a cure, so if we’re smart, we will adopt a long-term perspective in order to keep our sanity.

For our household, with two retirees, resolution of the pandemic is to retire from society until there is a cure and life returns to some sense of “normal,” if that’s possible. While phone calls, social media, video conferences and the like will be an important means of communicating, it’s no substitute for every day activities to which we are accustomed. We yearn to return to those things and validate the Joni Mitchell lyrics from my college years, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Returning to what was is not possible because the coronavirus is only the next in a series of pandemics expected as humans continue to exploit the natural environment and live in an increasingly connected society. To be resilient, our choices now have to prepare us for what I believe is that eventuality.

I don’t know what I would do if I were in my prime earning years like our daughter currently is. Our assumptions about what we are doing have to change. A simple truth is the life I wanted and thought I would have when I entered the post-college workforce was gone by the time I got there. What we’ve made for ourselves relies heavily on federal government programs of Medicare and Social Security. We are vulnerable to a major change in these programs, but so are a lot of people and I expect there will be sufficient political will to resist changes to the core programs of the pension and providing health care for the elderly.

For now, I’m working on projects: writing and gardening mostly. This in addition to checking in with key family and friends is a mainstay, one that will help me survive through the end of the coronavirus pandemic. If the future is uncertain, I am resolved to make it through. I appreciate readers sticking with me as I write to understand who I am and how we can adapt to the new world made for us in 2020.

Thanks for reading.

Categories
Cooking Review

Book Review – A Cook’s Tour of Iowa

A Cook’s Tour of Iowa by Susan Puckett.

A Cook’s Tour of Iowa is a well-curated collection of culinary culture that represents a certain view of Iowa. It’s the picture Iowans can recognize. We also recognize many of the things mentioned as fading in cultural prominence.

As a resource for writing autobiography, the book conjures personal memories of Iowa things like the Grant Wood Art Festival, Maytag Blue Cheese, the African-American community in Buxton, Iowa, and many more. It is indispensable for that reason.

What is lacking is the diversity of what Iowa has become, even since 1988 when the first edition of A Cook’s Tour appeared. Our culture is also leaving behind things like VEISHA, Old Creamery Theater (no longer in Garrison, or Amana), and some of the festivals and events to which Puckett referred.

If we had an Iowa-themed dinner party, picnic or cookout, one might search the book’s contents for dishes to make for pure nostalgia. However, life in Iowa has become more than that.

I appreciate the work that went into A Cook’s Tour of Iowa. I may not open it often, but knowing it is there provides comfort as the food system changes along with the society that engendered it.

Categories
Home Life Social Commentary

Living with COVID-19

Supermoon viewed through the atmosphere, May 7, 2020.

I participated in a United Parcel Service webinar about challenges posed to supply chains by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rich Hutchinson of Boston Consulting Group presented an overview of our response to the pandemic that made plain, clear sense. He used three Fs — Flatten, Fight and Future — to frame his discussion.

We read and see a lot of information about the pandemic. In Iowa we fixate on daily reported number of cases and deaths. We need a break from that. The take away from Hutchinson’s analysis was as global corporations and mid to large size businesses use the pandemic to re-engineer their approach to supply chain and how they operate their businesses, regular people should be doing the same.

We understand what flattening the curve means, the first F. By reducing spread of COVID-19 we take the peak load off the bell curve of hospital bed usage and ventilator deployment so our health care system can handle the pandemic. In Iowa we began flattening the curve eight weeks ago with the governor’s March 9 proclamation of a disaster emergency due to COVID-19. Thus far the health care system has been able to handle the caseload. Hutchinson expected this phase of the pandemic to last several months with regional variations depending upon the extent of community spread of the disease.

Recent surveys show most people are not ready to end sheltering at home and restriction of business operations, although the president and the Iowa governor favor easing restrictions now. Governor Kim Reynolds issued new orders to ease restrictions yesterday. Whether we agree or disagree with elected officials’ approach, at some point people have to do more than shelter at home and shop on line or in limited trips to retail establishments that remain open. When the flatten the curve stage of the pandemic is over, COVID-19 will persist into the next phase. To cope with it, new approaches to what we previously took for granted about social interaction must be developed and adopted.

The second F, fight COVID-19, is not much discussed, but needs to be. Fighting the pandemic is expected to be book ended by an end to the first phase (i.e. the curve has been flattened) and development and implementation of either a cure or herd immunity. Policy implemented during the flatten the curve phase continues but will be relaxed. It could get ugly. Cases of COVID-19 continue to exist and spread during the fight phase, including additional significant outbreaks. The expectation is this phase will last another 12-24 months until there is a cure. This is the scariest part of the pandemic because as severe restrictions on business and social interaction are relaxed, identification of cases of COVID-19 and deaths are expected to continue in our daily reporting.

The most important phase is our future, the final F. I’m concerned about what the future will look like. My spouse retired last year and I retired last month because of risk of COVID-19 exposure. It seems likely my consumer behavior will change and be more limited than it was last year. With retirement this would happen without COVID-19. Society is not in a place where it makes sense for our political leaders to tell us “the economy is opening.” Nor would the advice President George W. Bush gave as we were coming out of the recession, “to go shopping,” make sense. I empathize with small business owners like cosmetologists, nail salon operators, and barbers who are itching to get back to work and generate operating income. At a minimum we need to deal with the pandemic for at least another couple of years and accommodate new behavior to protect us from the disease. How will businesses create needed changes in light of an extended pandemic? Our path forward is unclear at this writing.

If the question is whether workers will offer themselves as human sacrifice on the altar of late stage capitalism, Americans seem unlikely to do that. That’s not who we are. We expect more from our political leaders than they have given. The vacuum of leadership at the top — the president, the legislative branch of the federal government, and the Iowa governor — created a disconnect between corporations which can lobby government and people like me who lack such standing and may be forced to return to society beyond its digital aspects. My bottom line is no one is providing us with the type of information we need to make it to the new future us. That is as much a problem as the pandemic itself.

The first step in developing a future, post-pandemic life is recognizing our current location in the process. For a newly retired person it is easier to develop a future life than for those in their prime earning years. Our lives depended on so many beliefs and assumptions which have now been scrambled. If nothing else, Americans are a resilient people and we’ll figure it out together. Here’s hoping.

Categories
Cooking Garden Local Food

Bow Tie Pasta with Garlic and Arugula

Bow tie pasta with garlic and arugula

The arugula is top quality this year and I’m in a use it up mode. I spent more time preparing for this dish of bow tie pasta with garlic and arugula than usual. I researched recipes and thought a lot about it during the past two days. I used Parmesan cheese from a green can because of the coronavirus pandemic. It came out well but would be better with higher quality cheese. Here goes:

Ingredients:

Big bunch of arugula, half a pound, washed and roughly chopped
2 cups dried bow tie pasta
12-14 cloves of garlic
Quarter cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons salted butter
1 cup grated hard cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino Romano)
Salt and pepper to taste

Process

Set a pan of water on the stove to boil for the pasta.

Peel and trim the garlic. Then slice finely (1/8 inch).

Once the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pasta and cook according to directions.

Once the pasta is down, bring the olive oil just to the smoke point. Add the garlic, stirring constantly. As the garlic begins to brown, add the pine nuts and cook for a couple of minutes.

Add the knob of butter and stir. Before the foam begins to subside, transfer everything to a mixing bowl. Drain the pasta and dump it in the bowl. Combine until they are incorporated.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Add the arugula and cheese and mix gently until the arugula wilts.

Makes two generous servings.

Categories
Social Commentary

Meditation on the Coronavirus Pandemic

Fresh arugula from our garden.

“PPE is the scariest part,” an emergency room physician said during a conference call yesterday.

They wear an N95 mask until it wears out. They use one isolation gown per shift, introducing a risk that COVID-19 is transmitted from patient to patient by attending medical staff.

It is unbelievable that in the United States, during a pandemic, medical staff in a local hospital cannot get adequate personal protective equipment.

Where are our priorities?

I understand “flattening the curve.” It was an easy decision for the two of us to stay home as soon as the president and governor called for us to do so. If we don’t get sick, more hospital beds, ICU units, and ventilators are available for others. It’s not a long-term solution to the pandemic but it prevents hospitals from becoming swamped with patients, especially if more people do it.

As pensioners our lives are financially predictable and likely better for having to leave the property less often. The coronavirus pandemic became the tipping point in my career as I phoned the home, farm and auto supply store last Tuesday while on a COVID-19 leave of absence to announce my retirement. While we worked hard to get to this point in our lives, we don’t take it for granted. The challenge is determining how else besides sheltering at home we can contribute to society.

There is politics. We must summon the political will to change our governance to address not only the pandemic with its health and economic disruption, but the climate crisis, environmental degradation, economic injustice, an expensive and inaccessible health care system and more. That means all of us contributing to electing candidates with the backbone to do more than current office holders have. Political change is always an uncertain endeavor yet I feel a wind beginning to fill our sails.

How long should we shelter in place? It’s hard to say because of the opacity of the federal government. In March, administration models for the pandemic indicated between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans would die. The Washington Post yesterday indicated that’s about right. If we don’t address spread of the disease more than we have it could be worse.

The IHME model projects 1,513 Iowa deaths from COVID-19 by Aug. 4. The May 3 report was 188. The same model projects 134,475 U.S. deaths by Aug. 4. It’s no consolation to know the 1918 influenza pandemic was more severe with an estimated 675,000 U.S. deaths over its course.

Yesterday Steve Mnuchin announced the U.S. Treasury Department plans to borrow nearly $3 trillion between April and June to bankroll the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. While the number is bigger than I can imagine it’s no surprise this increase in our national debt was coming. It makes me wonder about the stimulus bills.

These were junk bills, hastily created and influenced too much by lobbyists. They provided little real hope for people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. I’m not impressed that we received an “economic impact payment.” I’m even less impressed that the president wasted resources by sending me his explanation of what’s going on during “this time.” Further into the descent of lesserdom, I’m not sure taking out a large loan was a good idea. The only conclusion I can draw is the politicians don’t know how to help real people.

My intent is not to complain. I present above a positive image of our garden arugula. Planted March 2, it is the best crop I’ve yet grown in terms of quality and quantity. Salads, pasta dishes, and arugula pesto are in process before this patch is finished. I have another batch of seedlings growing in the greenhouse for the next wave. Typical of these times, the best work we do is on our own. That’s not good enough to get ourselves out of the societal pickle we’re in. We will be stronger if we can come together in building a better future after the pandemic.

Yesterday a fight broke out near a liquor store in India as the government lifted stay at home restrictions. There is also pent up demand to do things here. My prediction is when the U.S. opens up, and people believe it is safe to return to normal, tattoo artists will be very busy.

Categories
Environment Garden

Insects in a Garden with Arugula

Pear blossoms ready for pollination.

Pollinators came in abundance and did their work. Now it’s snowing flower petals.

The collapse of insect populations is a well-documented phenomenon. 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction, due mostly to habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture. Agricultural chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change are additional causes, according to Biological Conservation.

In our yard insect populations find a home, begin doing their work, and cause trouble in the garden almost as soon as freezing temperatures abate. They are relentless. Humans should be so relentless.

Insect damaged Pak Choy.

Because of insects our yard has a bird population. They nest in the fruit trees and lilac bushes. They perch everywhere there is something upon which to stand. It’s easy to find them chasing insects through the air. It’s for the birds and insects I use no weed killers or lawn fertilizers and let the grass go to seed.

We are an island in a sea of agriculture. When wheat is harvested Japanese beetles head to property like ours where they feed on certain types of vegetation. Corn and soybean harvests result in visits of additional species of displaced insects. It is important to consider the world outside our property lines as insects know few boundaries and what farmers do a section of two over impacts us.

The first white butterfly flew around the cruciferous vegetables yesterday. They lay eggs on foliage which hatch and produce green worms that eat said foliage. It didn’t take long after planting for the butterfly to show up.

I observed a number of bee species during the pear tree pollination. Dandelions are an excellent source of early pollen for bees so I let them go. A large bumble bee lumbered through the air, laden with pollen, and flew through an opening in the chicken wire mesh around a garden plot.

The pear tree is being pollinated as I type this post. If pears form this year there will be another struggle with Japanese beetles over the fruit. Last year we lost the whole crop to the pests.

I went out to the garden before sunrise to see if I could catch the culprit eating my Pak Choy. In order to defend against bugs they need to be identified. I shone the light on my mobile phone but couldn’t find it today.

I turned to the arugula which reaching maturity. I returned to the garage, got a colander, a pair of scissors, and a knee pad, and pulled back the fencing to harvest a big bunch. I removed an insect, cleaned it and put it away in the ice box.

When I returned from a shift at the farm I made a lunch using this process:

Add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a large bowl. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, tablespoon of home made apple cider vinegar and finely minced spring garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Whisk until incorporated. Fill a serving bowl with arugula and dump it into the larger bowl. Toss gently until the leaves are coated. Return the salas to the serving bowl. Sprinkle feta cheese on top and serve.

Categories
Environment

Climate Change in 2020

Image of Earth 7-6-15 from DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory)

I noted the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a letter to the editor.

“That’s it?” I asked myself this morning.

Next I reminded myself the essential environmental task between now and the general election is to remove as many Republicans as possible from office nationally, in Iowa, and locally.

When I attended Al Gore’s slideshow presentations and the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training I held certain assumptions about how government would work. What may have been isn’t or has been tossed out the window in the time of Donald Trump’s political leadership.

When I say we should “Act on Climate” it means getting involved in politics to elect people who will address the climate crisis. None of us can do much alone.

Our choices are few but to do the work of getting people to vote. Six months from the election Democrats can feel the wind at our backs. Nonetheless it will be a hard sail to shore and a foundation on which we can begin to face the challenges of the climate crisis more directly.

Categories
Cooking Garden

Planning A Vegetable Garden

Pear Blossoms

Since retiring on Tuesday there has been one good day to work outside.

Tuesday and Wednesday were cool and dark with scattered showers. I read two books, reworked the family budget, and spent most of my time indoors.

Thursday was a glorious spring day when I measured and cleared the remaining three garden plots and planned the sequence of events and layouts. Today looks equally nice and an opportunity to start direct seeding and planting from the greenhouse.

This year may be the best yet start to the garden. I’m hopeful even though a lot of weeding and combating pests lies ahead.

There will be spring garlic from the volunteer patch and arugula planted March 2 is ready to harvest. I’m reviewing cook books for ideas, seeking a spring pasta dish as a chance to combine fresh arugula and last season’s garlic. Repetition is anathema to having a kitchen garden so a key ingredient will be spontaneity.

Mario Batali has a recipe using fresh mushrooms cooked in sweet vermouth with ten cloves of garlic. It sounds good. I have the garlic, but no vermouth and only canned mushrooms from the wholesale club. A recipe I remember from television is Jaime Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo making pasta using wild rocket they found growing in London. The spontaneity of their process is more what I’m after. Deborah Madison has a recipe called spaghetti with overgrown arugula and sheep’s milk ricotta. It’s closest to the ingredients on hand. Where our ice box is lacking and could improve is by having some pecorino or any kind of ricotta cheese. I make this once a year, so I’m in no hurry to get into the kitchen. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ll use whatever ingredients are on hand.

Another spring-use-it-up recipe is a quick version of eggplant Parmesan. When the eggplant harvest comes in, I cut large ones into half-inch disks, roast and freeze them. Every so often I get fresh mozzarella pre-cut in disks from the wholesale club. Canned tomatoes are always in abundance and these three things together make a dish.

Make a simple tomato sauce using canned tomatoes (reserving the juice for soup), basil, dried onions and dried garlic. Whatever you like is fine, even a prepared pasta sauce. Place a few tablespoons of tomato sauce to coat the bottom of the baking dish. Seat frozen eggplant disks in the sauce and cover them with more sauce. Next, a disk of fresh mozzarella on each piece of eggplant. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the top and bake in a 400 degree oven on the low-middle shelf. It’s ready as soon as the mozzarella begins to brown. I usually make individual servings in small baking dishes.

A last spring tradition for today is vegetable soup using fresh greens and whatever is in the freezer that needs using up. I always begin with onions, carrots, celery and bay leaves. Key ingredients were a bunch of fresh greens roughly chopped, a quart of canned tomatoes, two quarts of vegetable broth, frozen sweet corn, frozen grated zucchini, and a quarter cup each of dried lentils and barley. There are few rules other than starting with mirepoix and whatever diners like and needs to be used up. It made about a gallon of soup.

Living with a kitchen garden is the center of so much. When arugula, garlic and spring onions start to come in we are ready to break the long winter absence of fresh vegetables.

Categories
Work Life

Retirement in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Detail of Garden Plot #4

I decided not to return to the home, farm and auto supply store after my voluntary COVID-19 leave of absence.

Whatever the cultural resonance of the word “retirement,” I’ll take my leave from the workforce without fanfare, without the customary sheet cake, and fade into the background of our life in Big Grove Township.

It’s been a good run. Whatever uncertainty lies ahead, I’m fortified by decades of experience in business and in living — the latter making the difference.

More than anything, our Social Security pensions make retirement possible. I made my first contribution to Social Security in 1968, thinking retirement was in the distant future. All along the way, in every job I held, I paid in. I paid in on my last paycheck on March 17. Of all the government programs that exist, Social Security, and its methodology of enabling even the lowest paid worker to save for retirement has been there. I hope it endures not only for my lifetime but for every American into a future as distant from today as is the teenage boy I was when I started.

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