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.


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.


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.


Preparing for Winter

Enterprise apples.

It’s time to prepare for winter.

A repair person is scheduled to inspect and clean our furnace next week. I got a navy blue wool blanket out of storage and put it between the sheet and comforter on the bed. On the doorway to my writing table I put an old pink, white and green bedspread, printed with ballerinas in pointe shoes, to hold warmth created by a space heater. Winter is about keeping warm in Big Grove Township.

It’s not winter yet. I hope for a few more days of bicycling on the trails, a few more jogs on my 2.5 mile course, before being relegated to indoors exercise. Winds calmed this morning so maybe another trip to Ely. We’ll see.

The Nov. 3 election and the coronavirus pandemic are always in the background. One of those dissipates in 15 days. The pandemic, however, will be with us for a while. Experts say throughout 2021.

I’m ready to write this winter. With the garden idle, government in transition, and a pandemic all around us, there is no better time to hunker down behind my ballerina-covered shield against the cold and figure out where I came from, what I’ve done, and importantly, what work remains.

I’ll be warm, if not as safe as I’d like.


Pedaling Against the Wind

Storage apples drying on the counter.

A steady, westerly wind blew the last few days making the daily bicycle trip more challenging. I wore a hat under my helmet, a pair of gloves, and a sweatshirt to hold against the chill.

It has been good riding on the trails near our home since I changed the front tire and tube on Monday. I’m finding a 40-year old bicycle needs constant repairs and enjoy diagnosing problems and resolving them.

I have been thinking about participating in an event-style ride next summer, although I need to train for it if I do. Maybe a century ride, or a day of RAGBRAI if they resume operations. For now my attention turns toward winter. The change of seasons is in the air.

The orchard has the last apples of the season available this week. I picked Gold Rush from trees and got Jonathan and Enterprise in the display cooler. Gold Rush and Jonathan are for storage and the Enterprise will be converted to apple crisp or apple sauce during the next couple of days. It is hard to believe the season is already at its end. I am happy to have the nearby orchard to fill gaps in our home apple growing culture.

With cooler weather I turn from finishing the work in the yard and garden to creative work indoors. I filled in a couple of blanks on my autobiography outline yesterday. I hesitated to re-start the project during gardening season because I didn’t feel ready. With the combination of the coronavirus pandemic, a forced retirement, and winter’s approach I feel more ready than in a long time.

Politics took a holiday yesterday. There were at least four televised events yet I viewed none of them. On my to-do list is to obtain a digital television and set it up. The analog ones don’t really work. I am loathe to turn them on. Because I voted already my interest in details of candidate positions is waning.

It will be different if Joe Biden wins the presidential election. Having someone who uses reason, logic and careful deliberation for process will be refreshing yet something to which we haven’t been accustomed the last four years. The coalition of supporters Biden brought together is broad and deep. There will be Republican resistance to a Biden administration, yet any more, that’s to be expected and most people realize it. The moderator of Biden’s televised town hall meeting asked him what he would do if he loses the Nov. 3 election. Biden’s response, “I won’t lose.”

There will be wind but no rain according to this morning’s forecast: a fine day for pedaling against the wind. Such resistance is important to human progress. It makes us stronger and builds stamina. Both are qualities needed for the road ahead.


Hot Sauce

Hot Sauce

Editors Note: This is from a work file that resulted in the photograph and related art pieces. The main object was a mason jar with a print of this photograph and a poem inside. The poem can be found by clicking here. I was employed at Amoco Oil Company at 200 East Randolph Street in Chicago on Oct. 27, 1990 when I wrote this. By leaving work with an Iowa-based transportation and logistics firm I really had cut the cord on my Iowa roots, intending to go on living with our small family in Indiana or wherever life took us. Part of that new life would be what I called creative endeavor, or creative work with specific outputs. This piece marks a significant commitment to creativity. The text below is transcribed from my hand written notes without changes. It is only part of the document.

This piece is about hot sauce, but about more than that. It is about my vision as a person, family member and citizen of the global village for the next five years. But it is about my recipe for hot sauce, how I first learned it, and about my philosophy of life and art. First there will be the mason jar. Acquired at auctions mostly, and stored in our house. A container in which to put hot sauce.

The photograph of the ingredients a moment in time with my camera in the sun. Specific pieces of vegetables that gain significance when I take their image down on film and reproduce it on film. The instructions, so someone could make the hot sauce, then my written piece about the genesis and my vision.

The aspects, combined with the mail package and handling by the U.S. Postal Service represent a product of my creative endeavor.The first creative work for presentation to my small group of friends.

Not true really. Next in a series of creative endeavors is more like it.

Coping with modern life. It is not easy. In modern life, I have chosen to be an original, and in so choosing, have limited my contact with people outside work. I have become accustomed to staying within the borders of our property here in Lake County. I have taken to gaining weight. I have a vision of being a creative person who makes a significant contribution to society. That has long been my goal. But as another warm season comes to a close, I see I have accomplished little. The work with Amoco takes much of my time. I need to do better, work smarter, to allow more time for these home activities.

And all the while I ponder these things we get older.



Turn around near Seven Sisters Road.

In his book What Unites Us, former CBS news person Dan Rather refers several times to the “neighborhood where I grew up” in Texas.

This narrative meme should be abandoned by anyone who is serious about autobiography because the plural form of neighborhood is more accurate. In addition, growing up is not a linear process. We don’t “grow up” in a single way or in a single place and magically become a “grown-up.” The communities that surrounded our lives in the 20th Century were not homogeneous. They were diverse and less rooted in place. To root autobiography in place seems arbitrary. The narrative force of this meme casts aside our diversity of experience. We shouldn’t do that if we seek to be true to ourselves.

Our mind doesn’t stop growing as Rather points out. I had formative early experiences and it seems normal to emphasize them. I’ve written about getting injured when a swing set collapsed on me at age three and a half. That experience combined with my arrival at the hospital, taking ether through a funnel, and a lengthy stay had an effect on me that persists. There was a lot else going on at the time. I like to tell this story yet is it most representative of what makes me who I am? Probably not.

Writing autobiography means setting aside favored tales like my injury and hospital stay. It would be hard to write a memoir and leave it out. However, there were more significant influences by 1955. By then our family had moved to Madison Street where we lived only a short time until I finished kindergarten. Next we moved to a rental near Wonder Bakery for most of my first grade year. Then, in 1959, we moved to Marquette Street where I lived through high school. The house on Marquette represents a significant amount of time yet to characterize it as the “neighborhood where I grew up” is not accurate. I was well into personhood by 1959.

Part of autobiography is a timeline. It doesn’t have to be the main attraction. I’ve struggled with the single, time-based narrative and seek a way to articulate something different about how I “grew up.” Rather’s book raised awareness that one should really use the plural form of the word neighborhood. Or use something different like communities, or cohorts, or cultural nests, or something. Growing up meant experiencing many different kinds of social settings.

When Mother attempted a memoir she rendered it to a single narrative. It really didn’t work and she abandoned the project after a few pages. While there is always a timeline to autobiography, I don’t feel that’s the hook on which to hang a life story. Passing time moves a narrative along but complexity is sanded off in the woodshed.

I like Rather’s book well enough. It cost $2.10 on Kindle (cheap). It’s an easy read that touches on many areas of modern life that seemed important in the last century and are diminished in this. To the extent it inspired this post it was worth the purchase price.

Living in Society

Feeling A Cage

Peppers gleaned from the garden.

While riding my bicycle around the trail system I press against the edge of a boundary. It is mental, not physical.

I feel trapped in a cage, ready to break out.

June 18 was the first bicycle trip. I don’t remember where I went. The scale told me this morning I dropped two pounds since then. The purpose of increasing daily exercise wasn’t weight loss though. It was a way to deal with my diabetes diagnosis.

Since seeing my health practitioner in June I developed five types of exercise to get my heart going, produce a sweat, and support whatever magical physiological workings reduce blood sugar. I missed only three days of 25 minutes or more of exercise that included bicycling, jogging, using a ski machine, walking, and sustained gardening and yard work that produced a sweat. Combined with watching my carbs, eating fewer big meals, taking Vitamin B-12, an 81 milligram aspirin, and a cholesterol drug, my numbers came down to a more normal range. If I went to a physician today I wouldn’t be diagnosed with diabetes.

I’m ready for what’s next.

Part of me wants to ride and ride the bicycle. Mostly I run one of four five-mile routes and once or twice a week ride 10-14 miles. I have no interest in riding across Iowa with the tens of thousands who do so most years but I’m pressing the limit. I want more.

Desire is balanced by caution because of my age and the age of my 40-year old bicycle. Bicycles are always needing repair, adjustment, and maintenance so I’ve learned new skills and identified a bicycle repair shop. Even though I don’t work outside home there is a lot to do and I can’t afford a two or three-hour daily trip just because I’m restless. My lower body is strengthening and my jeans fit better. For the time being that may have to be enough.

During the days before the Nov. 3 U.S. general election the limits of my range are more profound, the cage more tactile. A lot depends on the election outcome. If Trump and Republicans do well, there is one course. If Biden and Democrats win there is another. I expect the results to be mixed in Iowa. There is a broad Republican base where Democrats win majorities only when everything aligns. Recent polling showed Biden leading Trump by 14 points in national popular vote polling. Hillary Clinton led Trump by 14 points in the same polling exactly four years ago. Political work remains this cycle.

With cooler weather approaching I’m not sure how much more outdoors exercise I can accomplish before winter. I have a good start on the ski machine and expect that to be my daily regimen until it warms again. Between the plan and reality comes a shadow.

For now, I’ll continue what I’ve been doing. At the same time this bird wants its freedom and to break loose from restrictions of a cage where we’ve been living too long. Not today, but soon.

Living in Society

Holding Pattern

Turn around at Lake Macbride State Park, Saturday, Sept. 26.

While waiting for Joe Biden’s first presidential debate my mind was not on politics. I was wondering what to do after the election.

I returned in memory to a trip I made to Philadelphia in September 2001 after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the day an airplane laden with terrorists and bystanders crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Passengers on my flight were few, with most seats open. The country was still in shock although I had business to attend. While driving to the Cedar Rapids airport I heard the president was also planning a trip to Philadelphia that morning, his first trip after the terrorist attacks.

Because of the president’s visit our aircraft entered a holding pattern as we approached Philadelphia. It lasted a long time, 45 minutes or so. When we were cleared for landing and did I entered a changed world, eerily quiet. I rented a car and drove to our operation on Grays Avenue. There were law enforcement officers on every corner. I encountered the Bush motorcade heading back to the airport on the opposite side of I-95. It was a turning point in my support for the president after the attacks.

The question I find myself asking today is similar to what I asked myself that grey day in Philadelphia. What will be next? An honest answer today is I don’t know. A lot depends upon the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.

Yesterday the other shoe fell as the Walt Disney Company announced layoffs for 28,000 workers in Florida and California. After cast members were on furlough for six months this is an unwelcome announcement. Airlines will soon follow suit with layoff announcements. Cruise ships haven’t figured out how to operate post-pandemic. People aren’t going to the movies as they did. Government has done a poor job of containing the coronavirus and people do not want to join the more than one million people world wide who died from COVID-19. Everyone is cautious and it is unclear if or when we will do things again that once seemed so normal. If the travel and entertainment industry can’t figure it out, there’s little hope for us until well into 2021 or maybe 2022.

In the meanwhile we are in survival mode, conserving resources and making do. Every extra cent from our pensions is used to pay down debt and keep our credit lines open. The August 10 derecho resulted in $1,200 in direct expenses for us. We got off easy compared to many. The unresolved stress of the elections works against our best intentions. It will be worse if Republicans win.

In all of this we must find hope enough to find our way out of the darkness while remembering the darkest hour is just before the dawn. It is hard to find hope when we’ve been up all night.


Introduction to a Memoir

Turn around, Ely, Iowa.

A high school classmate died on Sunday. In 2013 he sent a copy of a 54-page draft of his memoir for editing.

I didn’t offer much because his writing was good and it was his story, not mine. Our life experiences were different, tied together by four years we spent in high school together in a cohort of 262 students. If it weren’t for social media we would never have collaborated.

My life has been lived in the second half of the 20th Century and the first quarter of the 21st. I want to tell that story, although I’m not sure how badly.

I wrote many words about my life and part of the task of a memoir is pulling that writing together. It seems important, not urgent. I have a question: what have I done the story of which hasn’t been told by someone else? Not much when we think about it.

Today I see a memoir in two parts. One, a collection of past writing and historical analysis that tells the story chronologically. The second, an analysis of important life events from today’s perspective. Both parts will become big projects.

The first reason for a memoir is to record a history for our daughter. The second is to understand it myself. I doubt my life has much significance beyond family. Although I’ve done a lot, I’ve been a reflection of contemporary times rather than shaping them. I’ve been a regular guy trying to get along and that’s not too special in the broad scope of society.

For the time being I work on a couple of community projects and plan to address the memoir after the Nov. 3 election. A lot depends on the outcome of the election, including whether or not progress is made on a memoir. Here’s hoping for the best.