Living in Society

From Society to Soup

Vegetable soup before cooking.

I’ve turned from society to soup. Not sure how I feel about that, yet the soup smells pretty darned good. The leafy green vegetables were harvested the same day, many of the vegetables were grown in the kitchen garden last season then preserved, and lentils and barley came direct from a super market. This soup made a fine dinner with five quarts leftover for the coming week and beyond.

As we age we spend more time alone. Children, if we have them, develop their own lives. In the Midwest, many of us work to age in place and the home becomes a quiet warehouse of memories and too much stuff no one needs or wants any more. To expect something different puts too much burden on our offspring. A key element of successful living after age seventy is learning to live well alone… and to let go of the possessions because you can’t take them with you.

After working a five-hour shift in the garden, I’m pretty tired for the rest of the day. Yesterday I came indoors for lunch and started the pot of soup. Most of the knife work was done before I put up the vegetables last year. All I had to do was peel potatoes and carrots, gather items from the freezer and pantry, and put everything in the pot with salt and a few bay leaves. It simmered all afternoon.

Loneliness is a normal part of aging. Because of connections formed over a lifetime, we live in a galaxy of friendship. From time-to-time we forget about our network, although we shouldn’t. When one makes so much soup, there is plenty to share.

Kitchen Garden

Apple Trees Peak Bloom

Red Delicious and Earliblaze apple trees in bloom, May 3, 2023.

Four days into the main apple tree bloom it looks to be a banner year. No hint of frost since blossoms opened and plenty of native pollinators work the flowers. Yesterday flower petals began to fall to the ground, indicating successful pollination.

I planted these trees on Earth Day in 1995. It was a roll of the dice because a gardener never knows how they will fare in Iowa. The Red Delicious was a cultivar taken from the original one discovered in Iowa. For $18.75 each in 1995, the trees have returned many times the purchase price. They already exceeded their life expectancy of around 25 years for a semi-dwarf tree, so anything else is a bonus.

The goal this year is to put up at least 24 quarts of apple sauce, a dozen pints of apple butter, Refill the half-gallon jars of apple cider vinegar, make a couple of gallons of sweet cider, and fill the refrigerator drawer with the best of the crop for storage.

A lot can happen between now and harvest, with wind storms representing the biggest threat. The Red Delicious tree lost several major limbs, including the northern half of the tree during the Aug. 10, 2020 derecho. It is blooming today like there is no tomorrow. One never knows if that is a reaction to imminent death, or just another year. In any case, the new Zestar! and Crimson Crisp trees planted in 2020 are coming along. I might get a real crop from them this year.

Yesterday I planted the row of herbs and vegetables with row cover. From time to time, I looked up at the blooming apples trees and what they represent: another year’s spring promise.


April 2023 in Big Grove

Trail walking in Spring 2023.

The last few days of April have been marvelous. Rain subsided, ambient temperatures were mild with low humidity. It has been a spring month, as good as they get. No more close friends have died this month, so there has been psychological relief as well. We needed a breather.

Spinach planted in the ground on April 15 is up. Onions are doing well. Yesterday I planted cauliflower, cabbage and kale, and there are two more rows in that plot for broccoli, collards, and other leafy green vegetables.A mad garden rush will be happening in May with the target of getting the initial planting done by Memorial Day, which this year falls on May 29. Gardening is going well.

The Biden administration announced that it intends to end the presidential declaration of national emergency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) public health emergency attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic on May 11, 2023. I was at a restaurant last night where a couple of people continued to wear a facial mask. With my full regime of COVID-19 vaccinations, I did not.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 104,538,730 reported cases of COVID-19, 1,130,662 deaths attributed to it, and 55,743,629 doses of vaccine administered. There are currently 9,167 hospitalizations due to the coronavirus. It was, in no uncertain terms, a public health disaster. The scale of 1.1 million U.S. deaths is difficult to wrap one’s head around as we close in on the end.

The Iowa Legislature has taken up budget bills, which means we are close to the end of session. Thank goodness. There has been so much controversy over bills it had been like drinking from a fire hose trying to understand what is happening. Republicans won super majorities in 2022, and are exercising their power like never before. Democrats are hanging on, trying to get a message out. Democratic messaging has been like trying to light a candle in a derecho: word is not getting out beyond political junkies.

Our blogging group went to dinner Friday night at Royceann’s Soul Food Restaurant in the South District Market in Iowa City. The menu has a fixed number of daily items on it and diners can order a meat and two sides for $18. It is a bit tough for vegetarians to find something on the menu, and tougher for vegans. I ordered cabbage, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese. The preparations were distinct and tasty. I plan to return to try the collards with cornbread. I usually say I can cook better than what I find in restaurants, yet not this time.

Our furnace gave up the ghost this month. We have been discussing which new one to get and have made a decision. When an expensive item hits a household on a fixed income, it takes some wangling to determine how to pay for it. We have it figured out.

I have finished reading seven books in April. Check out what I’ve been reading on the Read Recently page by clicking on it at the top of this page. I got new glasses for the first time since 2019. It’s great to be able to see clearly again. Hope your April was as good as mine. Thanks for reading my post.

Living in Society

Cold Saturday

Blue Bells.

I planted peas yesterday. It seems late getting them in, yet like everything in gardening, we sow our seeds and hope for the best. There is nothing like a bowl of sugar snap peas in the refrigerator for snacking.

Cooler ambient temperatures have made it difficult to get in the garden. Meanwhile, seedlings started indoors have used up almost every available space. We need a few days in a row of better weather to get at least the cruciferous vegetables in the ground. Fingers crossed we’ll get that this week.

I finished reading William Styron’s memoir about depression, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. It made me think about whether or not I have been depressed. My tendency is to say no, yet after reading Styron, I’m not sure. I certainly haven’t had debilitating depression like he did. When I heard him read from The Long March at university, he had no appearance of being depressed. He recovered from his depression and wrote the memoir. The fame of it eclipsed that of his previous books. Despite depression, Styron achieved a level of success few writers have.

Depression has not played any significant role in my life.

Darkness Visible raises the question of suicide. Styron lists many successful, creative people who took their own lives. He considered suicide himself. I’ve considered what suicide is, yet have not been tempted to take that step in my creative endeavors. I accept that I’m alive, and thanks to my parents I felt valued as a child. That carried me through difficult times in my life. I’m more worried about unintentionally killing myself by things such as falling off the roof during my twice annual inspections, flipping the John Deere tractor while mowing the ditch, or by falling down the stairs because there is no handrail. These situations need resolution soon.

The best news is I continue to crave sugar snap peas grown in our garden. Growing them keeps me engaged with life and chases the blues away. I can’t wait to get back out in the garden… So I can chill a bowl of peas in the refrigerator.


Onion Planting 2023

Onion plot 2023.

It was 64 degrees at 3 a.m. Saturday morning. That’s weird.

A gardener contends with weather, so temperature anomalies come with the work. The vegetables I plant in my Midwestern garden have a wide range of tolerance to climate, moisture and light. They have been bred and propagated because of those qualities.

Potatoes and onions should be safe to plant now, and I did. I direct seeded spinach when putting in the onion sets. Garlic is doing fine after being uncovered from winter. There are many apple and pear blossoms in the early formation stage. Pollinators are already abundant, seeking the early purple flowers and dandelions in the lawn. The greenhouse is packed with seedlings. What could be wrong?

Regardless of weird weather, Spring has arrived and it would be difficult not to feel a part of it. I can see leaves on deciduous trees bud and burst into foliage in front of me. All is well in the garden, or at least as good as it gets.

What will weird weather mean this growing season? I don’t know. I am, however, both concerned, and getting used to it. The overall trend does not look good.

If you aren’t following Bill McKibben on the climate crisis, you likely should be. In yesterday’s edition of his substack, The Crucial Years, he wrote,

This week’s Fort Lauderdale rainstorm was, on the one hand, an utter freak of nature (storms ‘trained’ on the same small geography for hours on end, dropping 25 inches of rain in seven hours; the previous record for all of April was 19 inches) and on the other hand utterly predictable. Every degree Celsius that we warm the planet means the atmosphere holds more water vapor; as native Floridian and ace environmental reporter Dinah Voyles Pulver pointed out, “with temperatures in the Gulf running 3 to 4 degrees above normal recently, that’s at least 15% more rainfall piled up on top of a ‘normal’ storm.”

Get ready for far more of it; there are myriad scattered signs that we’re about to go into a phase of particularly steep climbs in global temperature. They’re likely to reach impressive new global records—and that’s certain to produce havoc we’ve not seen before.

The Crucial Years, We’re in for a stretch of heavy climate by Bill McKibben, April 15, 2023.

McKibben is not one to use hyperbole. He must realize the downside of doing so. In social media, instead of seeing McKibben’s work promoted, the right-wing spokesmodel for all things cultural was getting attention. Even climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann snarked about the Georgia congresswoman’s comments.

It is getting difficult to follow the scientific discussion of the climate crisis. Partly, major news media find it too dull a subject for headlines. Partly, the right-wing media noise machine drowns out serious topics in public discourse. Yet we notice temperature anomalies when they happen, and wonder for how long we can go on the way we are.

While we wonder, we’ll need onions, apples and spinach.

Home Life

Iowa Spring – 2023 Edition

Trail walking on April 12, 2023.

My spouse and I noticed the mulberry tree on walkabout Tuesday afternoon.

The mulberry tree was damaged by the 2020 derecho and has begun to die. Branches high in the canopy are losing bark and not regrowing it. Soon it will need to be cut down and recycled. This is the only tree remaining from when we bought the lot in 1993.

We were discussing what to do with the yard. Mainly, we need to plant the area in front of the house where it was cleared last year. A flower bed of some kind will go there.

We took out the maple tree stump last year. We are considering replacement with some kind of tall bush rather than another tree, a forsythia or hydrangea, maybe.

More than half the Red Delicious apple tree is gone due to wind storms yet it seems very robust. Hard to tell if there will be an apple crop this year, yet under normal circumstances, there should be one.

Finally, the trays of seedlings are now outdoors in the greenhouse. It should be easier to water them. Next into the ground are onion sets, beets, and spinach. Hopefully there will be progress midst ambient temperatures in the 70s today.

Now to close this entry out and head for the lake trail for a morning walk.

Kitchen Garden

Garden 2023

Potatoes planted on Good Friday, April 7, 2023.

Gardening began in the traditional way, with onions planted indoors beginning in December, and seed potatoes planted on Good Friday. Fourteen trays of seedlings are either on a table near the French doors or under a grow light downstairs. As soon as I can get the greenhouse assembled, cruciferous vegetables will head out there. Onion sets arrived Thursday and need to go right into the ground. Chives from last year are up and garlic is poking through the leaf mulch that covered them since October. Once again, I’m committed to raising food in 2023.

I plan to reduce the number of varieties of what I grow and grow more of it. The idea is to use or preserve what we can and donate the extras to the local food pantry. This year, the volume of clients visiting food pantries has risen significantly. We each must help how we can.

I need to make a trip to Monticello to buy fertilizer. It will be the same 50-pound bags of composted chicken manure that have become standard. I also need to visit Beautiful Land Products in Tipton and pick up a couple of bags of soil mix. I think I’m good for fencing this year, so it may be a low capital garden. I need one of those.

I will likely be sore in the morning, yet I relish the fresh air and sunshine. As we age, it is important to stay active. Gardening can be done at whatever pace we choose. Cheers to Garden 2023!

Kitchen Garden

Winter Cooking

Taco supper on March 8, 2023.

We accumulate empty canning jars as a result of winter cooking. As the integration between our garden and kitchen continues, I’m learning which things we will use and which not so much. I’m also comparing various ways to preserve vegetables. It has been a good winter of meals.

Canned and frozen tomatoes, garlic, vegetable broth, frozen kale, apple sauce, apple butter, and dried herbs are most used. There is plenty of each to make it to next season.

The flavor of what we ate improved. We recognize when the flavor of a dish is sub-optimal. There is a long way to go, yet growing awareness of flavor will be good for our life and diet.

Making vegetable soup uses the largest variety and amount of preserved vegetables. Soup is based on a mirepoix of carrot, celery and onion with a few bay leaves. I start each batch with a quart of canned tomato juice or vegetable broth. This is where the stems of leafy green vegetables get used, along with their leaves. Barley thickens the soup and lentils add protein. If there are root vegetables, especially potatoes, they get peeled and diced, and go in. I preserved parsley in ice cubes and a couple of those go in. Whatever is available goes in. Soup makes many a winter meal.

My project to make hot sauce by using up old jars of preserved hot and dried peppers has been a roaring success. The flavor is better than anything store bought. After extracting the sauce, I blended and froze the pulp in a muffin tin. That has become a useful ingredient in fried rice and other spicy dishes. Home made hot sauce is superior in flavor. There is enough of it to last until the next pepper harvest.

We make a lot of taco filling. Our vegan, non-spicy version has bell pepper, onion, garlic, black beans, leafy green vegetables and tomato sauce. When I’m cooking for myself, I use guajillo or hatch chili pepper sauce instead of tomato, and lots of red pepper flakes. We buy our tortillas raw from the wholesale club. We like them because they have simple ingredients and no additives. The addition of white miso and Mexican oregano elevates the dish.

I use garlic in everything and there is plenty left from the July harvest. Home grown garlic proved to be the best.

We began to use apple sauce more quickly because we put it in vegan cornbread. After opening a quart jar, the rest gets eaten. Apple butter remains aplenty. Going forward, I don’t need to make so much of either when our trees have a bumper crop of apples. A dozen jars of apple butter serves through winter and gifting to next year’s harvest. Maybe two dozen pints of sauce, and a dozen quarts. The rest can go to sweet cider and apple cider vinegar.

We miss fresh vegetables in winter, yet we get by with flavorful meals. As a cook I am learning to adapt to the availability of vegetables.

Kitchen Garden

Straying from Recipes

Go-to Summer Meal – Sliced tomato, toasted whole grain bread, basil pesto , salt and pepper.

We make about two dozen regular meals based on what is available from a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. In season, we adjust meals to include fresh vegetables from the garden. Cooking has become ingredient-driven in our kitchen garden. If we have an ingredient on hand, it is likely to go into a meal. That is different from the way Mother put food on the table when I lived at her home.

I do seek new recipes. If one comes along requiring a special ingredient we don’t stock, it is usually discarded as I move on to one that fits into our food universe. Seldom do we adopt new recipes without modification to accommodate our outlook about cooking process and vegetarian cuisine. Our meals are pretty basic and that is a good thing.

For example, I don’t follow a recipe for making bread. Water, all purpose flour, yeast, sugar, and salt can make a decent loaf. I start by measuring hot water from the tap into a bowl. I measure a teaspoon or so of dried active yeast and a scant teaspoon of sugar, whisk, and let sit for the yeast to activate. Then I add the flour with a pinch of salt, and knead it into a ball for the first rising. After it doubles in size, I turn it out on the counter and knead a few minutes. I form it into a loaf and put the bread pan into a warm oven for the second rising. Once doubled in size, I take the pans out, turn the heat to 375 degrees, and bake for 30-35 minutes. The result is almost always good.

There isn’t a bread recipe, yet maybe there is. The picture I have of myself while making bread is of interaction with ingredients rather than following a recipe.

Beginning after World War II, changes in the availability of processed food and the rise of community cookbooks reflected a new era of home cooking. Review some of the recipes in these cookbooks and find reference to gelatin, shortening, instant pudding, boxed cake mixes, sweetened condensed milk, and other processed foods. Ingredient measurements for a recipe assumed a certain sized bag of frozen vegetables or can of beans before a time of larger purchases from wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. In part, this is due to the rise of larger grocery stores with diverse supply chains. In part, it is due to a growing population influenced by television advertising and national brands. As we are coming to recognize, it is part of a movement toward consolidation of the food production industry into a small number of large, integrated companies. We had 15.5 ounce cans of beans because that is what the manufacturer made and was available at the local grocer. It is easier to use canned beans than preparing dried beans, so we did. Having read dozens of community cookbooks, I found recipes in them were often quite similar to one another.

The advent of short-form video about cooking may be influencing how we cook. I viewed hundreds of cooking videos on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. What I found is while some of the ingredients changed, common threads run through a majority of them. The substance of food preparation was similar and came from a relatively small list of ingredients. Additionally, a video presentation was not a “recipe” but more the idea of a recipe. I wrote about this in September. I believe our cuisine is poorer for dealing with ideas rather than the taste and economics of actual dishes on our plates.

There is a dynamic between a new recipe, our habitual cuisine and our pantry. Because of my experience as a cook, I am more likely to take the idea of a recipe and use it to make a meal than I am to use a recipe as a starting point for grocery shopping and process control. Making three meals a day is not that complicated, nor does it take a large variety of recipes.

It is normal to adjust recipes. A well-known recipe is for Toll House cookies printed on the Nestle brand of semi-sweet chocolate chips. When I made this recipe, I added a tablespoon of flour to the cookie dough to produce a firmer cookie. Cooks everywhere make such minor adjustments to recipes.

The key transformation as a cook is to stray from recipes completely. To become like that bread-making cook I described and visualize what the dish will look like using techniques needed to create the dish. They say we shouldn’t stray too far from the reservation. Straying from recipes may be the best way to cook.

Kitchen Garden

Planting Onions

Tray of planted onion seeds on Dec. 28, 2022.

For a few years I over-wintered garlic. Since then, there has been something going on in the garden year-round. Yesterday I planted onion seeds and situated them on the heating pad. If they sprout, I’ll have a couple hundred starts to transplant into the ground this spring.

It seems early to plant anything, yet I checked with a vegetable farmer and they agreed Dec. 28 was just fine for onions. Their farm needs to get things rolling for their much larger onion and herb operation. But first, the person who is staying in the onion room needs relocating.

I had very few onions last year. I couldn’t keep up with the weeding. There is a better plan this season. We eat part of an onion almost every day, so it’s an important crop to successfully grow at home.

Between Christmas and the new year is a quiet time. We decided on a menu for this coming weekend when we expect visitors. Today I plan to provision to match the menu. There are a few errands to run as well.

Ambient outdoors temperature is already up to 45 degrees. It appears it will be another weird weather January. For now, I enjoy the quiet and take each day as it comes. I relish the last of the quiet days before the new year.