Ode to Sweet Corn

Truck farmers slowly drove pickups through the neighborhood where I grew up, sing-songing, “Tomatoes, peaches, peppers, melons, sweet corn.” Neighborhood moms stepped to the curb in white sleeveless blouses and faded Bermuda shorts, handing over a few dollars from their change purses.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 7.59.52 PMBefore dinner, we kids ripped and shucked off the corn’s cool stiff leaves, crumbled dry brown corn silk from the top of the ears, and pulled clingy translucent green silk from the cobs. Then we snapped ears from the stalks and leaves. Sometimes milky juice popped from nearby kernels. In the already-hot kitchen, water rolled and boiled in a deep pot, adding steam, more heat, and the cabbage-y stink of boiling corn to the room.

At the table, we guided melting pats of butter with a knife across the bumpy kernels. Salted the ears. Bit into crispy yellow and white sweetness. Kernels crammed in my teeth but I didn’t stop. I just kept going around and around till the cob was bare.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, in the midst of Jeep, spark plug and glass factories, sweet corn was simple and wholesome, something we Midwesterners took pride in. There was so much sweet corn that we could eat it every day for six weeks if we wanted. Then it was done. The truck farmers disappeared. We never froze it or canned sweet corn. For my family, sweet corn was a summer-only feast.

The Makings of an Extraordinary Pie

Photo by Miika Silfverberg - originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

Photo by Miika Silfverberg – originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

It was the sure sign of spring—those first green tufts of rhubarb pushing their way through a patch of the garden that may just a month earlier still have been covered with snow. After seeing the rhubarb, we knew the growing season would soon follow and the garden would once again be full of green and growing things. With their agrarian roots, my parents both tended the garden, but it was my mother who found a use for the rhubarb.

She showed my siblings and me how to tame its tartness by dipping the stalks into a cup of sugar. I imagine that her mother may have shown her this on the Iowa farm where she started her life. Picking the pinkest stalk available, I would dip one end into a cup of sugar so it was completely covered with the miniscule crystals of sweetness, the juice from the cut end of the stalk leaving just enough moisture for the sugar to stick to; I’d bite off the coated end and immediately taste a tart and sweet mixture of flavors that made my mouth pucker in delight.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.53.59 AMOf course, rhubarb is the perfect conduit for sugar, as proven by one bite of my mom’s rhubarb pie, a particular favorite. My mother and I would pick a variety of stalks—the ruby red ones, the ones that were both pink and green, and then a few that were perhaps a little too green. But mixed with flour, sugar, and butter, the mixture would meld together into a tangy, sweet concoction that tasted perfect between the layers of a flaky pie crust.

Admittedly, rhubarb is not the most popular of vegetables. I believe the reason we may have had it was because it was a food that the earth could provide, and in my parents’ upbringing, no food went unused. Even a vegetable that needed a great deal of sugar to make it palatable. Now as I see rhubarb come back in my garden, spring after spring, I am reminded of that some things will always be.

But in truth, I let this harbinger of summer go to waste. I get excited about its growth, but don’t pick the stalks when I should, always thinking that I don’t have enough time for pie or muffins or even a simple rhubarb sauce. Soon their leaves start to turn yellow and their stalks shrivel, as if shaming me. I think of my parents and their disdain for waste. I look at the waning crop and admonish myself to be a better steward of this steadfast plant. Perhaps I should be gentler with myself, remembering that my mother baked pie when she was off from teaching school in the summer and had more time to show me all the steps to baking a pie—from mixing the filling, to rolling out the pie crust, and knowing when the filling was bubbling up just enough to tell us it was done.

***

After my mother had moved out of my childhood home with its massive garden, we went for one last look before the closing sale. Surveying the garden, which was overrun with weeds, I asked my mom, “Do you want anything from the garden?”

“Will you see if there is any rhubarb?” she asks. Sure. And there is, among the stinging nettle, wild daisies, and bindweed. Of course there is rhubarb. There always has been. I gingerly make my way through the weeds and begin breaking stalks off. “How much do you want?” I call up to my mom, who’s watching from the deck. “Oh, I don’t know, a few stalks,” she answers.

I pick a fistful of stalks, and not eager to stop, I get a few more, knowing that this rhubarb, the last that we will pick from this garden, will make an extraordinary pie.

Pondering Easter Traditions

Growing up, Mom was the creator and keeper of Easter holiday traditions. She helped us color eggs, and after we were asleep, she hid the Easter baskets. Each one had a name in it so the four of us wouldn’t fight. She made sure we each had the same amount of candy and eggs. She bought my sister and me Easter hats, dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, gloves, and spring coats. My brothers had dress shirts, pants and ties. It was always too cold for the summery clothes we wore to church. But every year she lined up the four of us next to the tulip garden for a photo. Year after year, she made ham, au gratin potatoes, fruit salad, and Mimmie, my grandmother, brought coffeecake. It was work, but all I saw was the joy Mom took in those traditions.

My husband, sons and I don’t live close enough to be a part of my parents’ celebration and our own observances are hit or miss. When my sons were young, my husband and I traveled to his parents, and I bought the Easter clothes and candy and sent the greeting cards. We all went to church despite my ambivalence about Catholicism.

Over the years, the old ways had begun to seem hollow instead of joyful. I told myself that it was better to lighten up and let go. We would invent new traditions and keep the day simple.

In the last ten years since my father-in-law died, we have stayed home. Now that Mom is gone, I feel even more unmoored from Easter customs. I have quit pretending to be an observant Catholic. Easter is a low-key affair. No church. No dress-up clothes. My sons and husband are relieved. None of the four of us likes ham, so we make a big Easter breakfast instead. Mimmie’s coffeecake is the one thing we always have.

FullSizeRenderWe have gone our own way and simplified our celebration, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve let too many of the old ways slip away.

Keeping up those rituals tied us to generations of family who did the same things—put on new clothes to symbolize renewal, ate special rich food after a period of fasting, and came together as family because that’s how you strengthen bonds.

What remains in our minimalist Easter ritual is that my family of four spends the day together, eating good food, talking and laughing. There is little history or religion in our day, but I believe our celebration has what’s essential: it strengthens our ties with each other.

Trying Hard to Embrace Winter (even though I hate being cold)

Although this week is a blessed reprieve, winter came WAY too early to Minnesota. This year, we had high temps in the mid-20s on Veteran’s Day and by mid-month we had single digit lows. And snow. Jeesh.

This unwelcome weather called for drastic rethinking of my usual approach: gritting my teeth, hunching my shoulders against the cold, and waiting for it to be over. Instead, I’m trying to embrace winter and focus on what I do like. So here goes—

Drinking hot tea – Holding a hot mug full of tea warms you up. Drinking it warms you up even more. I don’t see much of my favorite mugs during summer, so it’s a treat to pull them out. I stash the peppermint and green tea with blueberry (good as iced tea) in favor of Celestial Seasonings Candy Cane Lane and Gingerbread Spice—teas that are sold only in winter.

Eating homemade soup and stew – Stew is such an ugly word for the wonder that is Guinness stew (tender chunks of beef braised for hours in a rich beer and onion gravy served over champ – an Irish version of mashed potatoes made with green onions) or Hungarian goulash – not the hamburger hotdish, but beef simmered with spicy paprika and onions. Chicken mole chilé – spicy with a hint of cocoa – the taste is rich with nothing sweet about it. Tortellini soup with chunks of carrots, zucchini, and Italian sausage. Mmmmm.

Spitzbuben are sandwich cookies made with ground pecans, butter, flour and sugar. Raspberry jam holds them together. Don't tell my husband there's one missing! Quality control.

Spitzbuben are sandwich cookies made with ground pecans, butter, flour and sugar. Raspberry jam holds them together. Don’t tell my husband there’s one missing! Quality control.

Baking Christmas cookies – Maybe I should really say eating Christmas cookies since that’s mostly what I do. My husband is a whirling baking dervish who makes dozens of breads, spitzbuben, chocolate cherry espresso drops, spicy peanut butter cookies dipped in chocolate, and almond bars, while all I usually manage to make is a batch of ginger cookies and frosted sugar cookies.

Watching TV shows while I exercise (re: cookies) – While I log miles on the treadmill, I catch up on the TV shows I never watch from April through October. I love going to the movie theater to see the year’s best movies. Plus, Mad Men and Downton Abbey resume in January (geeky fun – I can’t wait!)

Wearing Smartwool sox – OMG are they expensive, but they work. My feet are warm and dry. So worth it. So are silk long johns, a puffy down coat, shearling boots, mittens, and earmuffs. Yes, I’m aware that by New York standards I’m one big walking Fashion Don’t. And I get tired of putting on all of that, but I hate being cold even more, so look out for the hot pink parka headed your way – that’s me.

lightsSeeing Christmas lights, moonlight on snow, sundogs on January mornings – Yes, I hate that it’s full dark at 5:00 p.m. in December, but there’s something so fanciful about Christmas lights—they help tamp down the gloom. To me, it’s magical when the moon reflects off the snow and casts blue shadows—so occasionally I’m willing to don all of the gear described above so I can walk on a quiet winter’s night. Blue shadowsSundogs (flame-shaped rainbows that flank the rising sun like parentheses) appear only in the dead of winter when it’s really cold—a small compensation for being up early when it’s minus 20.

I haven’t completely lost my mind. I still hate tear-your-face-off winds, shoveling snow, icy sidewalks, slushy streets, sooty snow clumps chunking off my car and hulking in the garage. And no, I’m not a skiing, skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing nut. But winter does have its rewards and if I’m going to win this battle against Mother Nature, I have to outwit her. Starting now. With Irish coffee – the kind with Bushmills and whipped cream.

How do YOU cope with winter?

Lemonade, Anyone?

For years, a hand-painted Nippon china lemonade set has had a place of honor in my dining room. My grandmother, who was born in 1885, gave it to me. Mimmie, as we called her, had a 4th grade education (hence the spelling “Mimmie” instead of “Mimi” as others might have spelled it). Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 2.04.44 PM

Mimmie’s maiden name was Margaret Zoe Mominee. She was born in a log cabin in Mominee Town, which is east of Toledo in Northwest Ohio. Mominee Town was at the crossroads of Corduroy Rd. and what used to be called Big Ditch Rd. (perhaps the names were descriptive of the roads at the time). Family lore has it that Mimmie’s French Canadian ancestors came through Windsor, Ontario, past Frenchtown Township in Michigan and settled a little south of Lake Erie.

Map circa 1900

Map circa 1900

Mimmie was an easygoing cheerful woman. She laughed easily and didn’t fuss when her grandkids (my two older brothers, younger sister, and I) grew restless and squirmy during. Every week, we drove across town with my Dad for a visit. There was nothing to do at her house, but she’d pull out an old red rubber ball for us to bounce outside.  Or my sister and I could look through the button collection in the drawer of her treadle sewing machine. When we’d had enough, she’d offer root beer floats, which she called “brown cows.” We also got chalky pink or white mints from the covered candy dish that sat on the built-in china cabinet in her dining room.

Centered inside on one shelf was a yellow lemonade set painted with violets and a gold rim. On another shelf was a blue and white chocolate set that was painted with pink flowers.  It was also Nippon although it looked like Bavarian china. Nippon porcelain was made between 1891 and 1921 in Japan. It was a less expensive version of the European tea, lemonade, and chocolate sets popular at the time. The pieces could be collected at Sears, Montgomery Ward, grocery stores, gift shops and dime stores. These porcelain sets were some of the few fancy things Mimmie had, and more than likely, she bought them a piece at a time. When my sister and I admired the sets, Mimmie told us they’d be ours one day.

Looking back, they’re a puzzle.  Mimmie was very practical and down-to-earth. She made many of the cotton house dresses she wore. She’d create a pattern from the old dress and “run up a new one on the sewing machine” as she said. She only wore jewelry with her one good dress—a navy blue crepe dress with a white lace collar. And she only wore her good dress to church or family occasions.

She was a good cook and liked to bake, but she made Boston brown bread in empty vegetable cans, banana cupcakes (to use up bananas going bad), and oatmeal cookies, our favorite. Mimmie was not one to make shortbread cookies or fussy foods suitable for a ladies tea. But I wonder if she ever invited her sisters or women friends over for lemonade. And if she didn’t use the sets, but kept them for good, did they meet some yearning for nice things? A yearning I share, which I why I coveted the set as a girl.

Today, the sets are collectible and valuable. But after dusting them and keeping them for good for 30 years, I’ve decided to invite friends over for lemonade this summer.  And if a cup gets chipped, so what? Except for my sister, no one will ever care about this set as much as I do, and she has her own set!

A book called The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffell inspired this blog. I’ve decided a lot of my things have stories to tell, too.