The Kid Who Wiped With Poison Ivy

Made some soup on Saturday, and it was not bad. What I like about soup is you don’t really need utensils. You can simply cup a bowl in your hands and drink it, or take it to go in a Styrofoam cup. Or do like my cousin Earl did when we were kids. He’d pour it into a Ziploc bag and poke a hole in it and drink the soup that way. It was funny for a while, but then it became what Earl did and it wasn’t so entertaining. Thing about Earl is that he was most interesting when he was least aware. When he wasn’t at all tryin’ to be cute or make us laugh.

I remember comin’ around the corner of a barn at a family picnic and there was Earl, barefoot and squatting, carefully gathering lilies of the valley into a small bouquet. I watched him tiptoe over to my Aunt Margaret’s lawn chair, and place the flowers there for his mother to find when she got back from using the portable toilet shed Uncle Tom had rented. “Be darned if I’m poopin’ in the woods,” Tom said when he heard where we’re going to have the picnic. See, Tom was the one who, in 3rd grade, did just that and wiped his butt with leaves and the leaves turned out to be poison ivy and he was in pain for days. A hospital visit even. And of course everyone tried not to laugh but how could you not, and the story stuck and Tom was for the longest time “the kid who wiped with poison ivy.”

Earl became “the kid who picks flowers for his mom,” despite all his naughty ways. With his friends, he played jokes on the neighbor (a flaming bag of cow poop left on the porch which Mr. Jungerberg promptly stomped on and earned Earl a conversation with a police officer), he instigated small rebellions at school (“Everyone drop your pencil at exactly 10:30,” he would whisper, and the class would do it, and so much for focus the rest of the hour), and he generally made us all laugh and laugh with booger jokes and pulling kids’ pants down on the playground. But when he was alone? Earl liked to swing and sing and throw a ball against the stairs and catch it. Over and over again, gentle soul that he was.

Humans are complicated. We hide things about ourselves, and rob others of knowing us at what might be our best. But, if we’re lucky, we get comfortable one day and just be who we are and what a world of good comes of it. Earl is still out there entertaining people. He’s a musician, and writes beautiful songs about prairies and waltzing and the midnight sky. His mother is gone now, but he still picks lilies of the valley, and he gives them to his wife. He built a swingset out back for his kids years ago, and now that they’re gone I imagine he goes out there now and then, and has a go, pushing his feet up into the sky and humming songs from way back, when he was just a wee lad and things were a bit simpler. As they should be, now and forever.

Time o’ year for soup, and here’s one for greeting November. Serve it with fresh baked bread and a scoop of cobbler. But start up the fire first. Nothing like a good fire when the wind blows raw.

Good Tomato Soup

1 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, smashed with knife and peeled
2- 28 oz. cans whole tomatoes in juice
1 cup water
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp celery seed
1/4 tsp oregano
1 T sugar

In a large pot melt butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and saute 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, water, cream, and all remaining ingredients. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat & puree in a blender. Return to pot and warm to serve.


The Balance of All Things

The View from Mrs. Sundberg’s Window

Made some apple crisp Saturday and it was not bad. I had spent the day out and about, giving a baking talk at a local orchard and – being an introvert – I was a bit wrung out. It’s just that way. I talk with people all day and I feel as if my nerves are exposed. Nothing I feel badly about; it’s simply how I am wired. Being an introvert isn’t about being shy or quiet. No, Siree. It’s all about where you get your energy. I get mine from the quiet hours. Not that I have to be alone. In fact, I get energy at parties and gatherings just like extroverts do. Thing is, I like to be on the edge. The fringe. The periphery. Where I can sit and sip a drink and look out the window and talk in the candlelight and lean back against the wall.

Spent a good part of my life talking, in fact. Mr. S is always teasing me because sometimes it takes half an hour to mail a letter since my good friend Colleen started working at the post office. And I’ve been known, when the kids were around, to spend a good three hours shopping for groceries on a Saturday morning. I have cut down on my phone time for sure, but even a stranger knocks on the door and I welcome a good conversation. Everyone has a story, and I’ve met a very few people who didn’t have something interesting or important to say.

At the orchard Saturday I talked about pie and cobbler and crisp and Brown Betty, bars and pork chops and fritters and pancakes. All the things you can make with apples. And I listened, too, to all kinds of stories about so-and-so’s mother’s apple pie, and the best road trips for color this fall and how one couple were on their honeymoon and that one sweet little girl said her first word that day. (It was “pie,” and once she said it, she didn’t stop. For over an hour.) I listened to a couple argue about which apple is best for pie, and to a silver haired man playing guitar under a tree. Come to think of it, I didn’t talk much at all on Saturday; I mostly listened.

Maybe that’s part of the whole introvert thing. Maybe we are the listeners in a room full of talkers. Makes sense, you know. The Balance of All Things. For every thunderstorm, a sunny day. For every passing, a birth. Lovemaking, sleep. Fear, comfort. Dinner, dessert. Storyteller, Listener. It’s the way of it, I think. Always something to keep us level and sane. Think of it.

I’m a big fan of the crisp. Apple, blueberry, cherry, peach. But apple, my friends, is first in line. Try this recipe over a weekend. Makes a nice snack while raking leaves, after the hike, just before a nap in the hammock.
Caramel apple crisp

½ cup caramel topping
½ tsp ground cinnamon
6 large baking apples (about 2 3/4 lb), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 6 cups)
2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
2/3 cup quick-cooking oats

In large bowl, stir together caramel topping and the cinnamon until blended. Add apples; toss until evenly coated. Spread in ungreased 8-inch square (2-quart) glass baking dish.

In same bowl, mix 2/3 cup flour and the brown sugar. Cut in butter, using pastry blender (or pulling 2 table knives through mixture in opposite directions), until mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Stir in oats. Crumble mixture over apples in baking dish.

Bake 45 to 50 minutes at 375 or until apples are tender and topping is golden brown. Serve with home-whipped cream and some more caramel topping.


Let the Livin’ Commence

Made a cream pie Saturday with the last of the fresh berries, and it was not bad. Neither was the fried chicken, and the biscuits were flaky as can be. Had to open the windows as I cooked and baked. It got so hot in the kitchen, and though it’s been cooler lately, we keep the bedroom windows open all night. Nothing like cool, crisp air as you sleep all tucked in with clean sheets and a fuzzy blanket and a quilt of some heft. Makes for good sleep, the kind from which one wakes and stretches and is up and running before the sun itself.

The night of my birthday was like that. Good sleep breathing in cool air, and a good long stretch when I woke. Only I didn’t jump up and at ‘em; I lay there awhile. Mr. S had left early for a meeting in the city, so I was in no rush to rise. I lay there feeling what it feels like to be a year older. It doesn’t feel much different, really. It happens so slowly, and when you turn and look back, it all went so fast. A series of snapshots. The moments. A blur.

There’s a line from the movie “Shawshank Redemption” that has been in my head lately. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.” Sounds like a no-brainer when it comes to a choice, but if you don’t think about things like what kind of person you want to be and how you want to live and such, you can kind of slide into ways you don’t much see until you’re way down low without much in you to climb back up. That’s when somethin’ in you starts dyin’. And you don’t want that. Let the livin’ commence.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy thinking so much. Perhaps it increases my chances, before I move on to whatever lies beyond, of finding myself having lived the life I wanted to live, and having been the kind of person I’d not be ashamed at all to be. Makes for good sleep, too, thinkin’ does. Along with that fuzzy blanket.

Raspberry/Blueberry Cream Pie

Make and bake a flaky crust or use a frozen one.
Cool before filling.


1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup vanilla Greek yogurt
2 T honey
1 tsp vanilla
1 container raspberries
1/2 cup blueberries

Whip cream in a medium bowl until stiff peaks form.
Whip in yogurt, vanilla and honey to taste. Spread in the cooled pie shell and scatter berries over the top. Chill before servin’.


The Gift of Time

Made some cookie bars Saturday and they were not bad. A new recipe from an old friend, and they were just what I was thinkin’ would be good during a rainy day to myself. And they were. Oh, boy. And so was the leftover bacon and cheddar burger we’d grilled on Thursday, and so was the popcorn I ate while watching Sweetland for the 17th time, and so was the small pile of buckwheat cakes I ate without a fork and with genuine maple syrup. And butter. Oh, my.

It’s my birthday next week, a big ol’ birthday, and I admit I’m feeling more like 27 years along and not nearly old enough to see my lit cake from space. Which could happen, if the sky is clear and Target has enough candles. This year in particular I figure it’s ok to celebrate that I was born. And that my mother survived those 26 hours of sheer agony trying to push into the world the fat baby that was me. And that my father survived what might have been his most anxious hours up until then, pacing the halls of the hospital, waiting for the word back in the day when fathers were off limits in the delivery room and mothers likely were not covered in hot, moist towels after my own challenges to breathe and push and breathe.

A lot of life is like that…you breathe and push and breathe and sometimes you navigate the wheelbarrow up the hill and sometimes it rolls on back down. Sometimes the soufflé falls, and sometimes the sandcastle is there in the morning. Now and then the grill won’t light, and I’ll be darned if I can hang a picture straight. My back kind of goes out (it did last week), but I can stand on my head at any given moment and there’s something to be said ‘bout that.

I’ve got a poem in my head most of the time, and this week it’s one I learned as a child, and it goes like this:

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me,
are builders for eternity?
Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.
― R. Lee Sharpe

I don’t know what over the hill is, but I ain’t there yet. Really, it feels as if I am just beginning, the second story of my life, perhaps. The one where I don’t have to push so often or so hard. The one where breathing is a bit easier, and I give away my wristwatches, all three of them, to people who have a need to know what time it is. I certainly don’t. What I know is that I have it, and it’s a gift, and I can open it every day and throw the ribbons all about or wear them in my hair. I can waltz with it, and sing, and take a trip to Italy where, on a second floor, there’s a table by a window with a view of the sea. I can plant a holly bush and watch it grow, and hang at last the hammock I’ve been waiting to try. I don’t plan to retire; life must retire me. Until then, that day, when there is no gift of time, I’ll keep making cakes and lighting candles and making wishes that always seem to come true.

I don’t wish for much, you see. Just my favorite jeans, fresh bread, a cup of coffee in the morning. Windows open when the winds pick up, and a promise to never oil the creak in the swing on the porch. Good books piled about, the children calling now and then, a day to rake the fallen leaves, and hot baths and friends over for dinner with Mr. S at the grill. And in the night when breathing is all there is, and the sheets smell of the meadow as I fall into sleep, I feel grateful I am here, and that I know it’s just for a while. And that I’ve yet to live a day without laughter in the house.

These bars are simple to make, with all the flavor of cutout cookies and I must say they’re not filling at all. Even three of ‘em leaves room for more, and I had to contain my enthusiasm by taking a plate over to the neighbor’s and packing the rest in a Tupperware container I placed on the top pantry shelf. Even had to use the ladder, and that is somethin’.

Sugar Cookie Bars

2½ cups flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 T sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

The Frosting:
5 T butter, softened
3 T milk
1 T vanilla
4 cups powdered sugar
3-5 drops food coloring

Preheat your oven to 375. In a medium sized bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar for about 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Add egg, sour cream and vanilla and combine.

Slowly add flour mixture while stirring until everything is combined. (The dough will be crumbly.) Press the batter into a greased 9×13 baking dish and spread it out evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until edges just barely start to turn golden.

Cool completely. Mix together all ingredients for frosting until creamy. Add in desired amount of food coloring and spread frosting evenly over bars.
Cut into squares and serve. Makes 18-24.


About to Turn the Corner Now

Made some roasted veggies Saturday and they were not bad. Roasted cauliflower, and some red peppers, and Sweet Vidalia onion. It was what we had in the fridge, what I picked up from last week’s farmer’s market. And there were potatoes too, which I did not roast but made into yet another iteration of potato salad as I search for the Perfect Potato Salad Recipe. This one may be it. 6 potatoes, 6 hardboiled eggs, some mayo and mustard and apple cider vinegar, onion powder and garlic salt and half a jar of capers. They’re like little pickle balls and they seem to be just the thing.

We’re about to turn the corner now, lately, with the sun setting a bit earlier each day, and the green of the trees fading a bit. The neighbors are rolling up their hay in big ol’ bales, and the mazillion baby frogs that appeared a few weeks back have become fewer in number but big as walnuts now. And today, as I drove by the school, I saw a whole bunch of teachers out getting some sun over their lunch break. It’s prep week already and they are hard at work. And I imagine they are full of thought about how to go about things with all that’s happening in our country. I imagine they’re thinking about things like bias, and tolerance, and peace and hope and connection and truth.

I know I’M thinking about all that. I’m not one to rant, but my goodness. We each have a line that ought not be crossed. It’s kind of like personal space, and it has to do with how we are treated and how we observe others being treated. It has to do with how we carry ourselves. And, it seems, we have a line Together. The one where the crossing has a bearing on humanity itself. Compassion awakens. Empathy rises up. Time to stand up. To speak, to walk, to write, to talk with each other. Time to reach out, to embrace, to lift up.

Whispers won’t do much good right now, it seems. Nor will silence. We need to talk with each other. Conversations all the heck over. In classrooms and churches and parks and restaurants. On the streets and at home in the living room. On the light rail, airplanes, the phone and in waiting rooms. On road trips, in seminars, over lunch and on the beach.

And by Each Other, I mean every person. Every human. And until we can see that, and talk about who we are and from where we come and where we wish to go and how and why, and feel heard, and listen to Others until they feel heard, well, I just can’t see much progress happening.

Each of us is an Other. Let’s consider making “Other” not about segregating but celebrating.

Here’s one to balance out the fried fish. Nice ‘n light and worth the trip to the Farmer’s Market.

Baked Cauliflower Bites

1 large or 2 small heads of cauliflower
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
½ cup grated Parmesan
½ cup grated cheddar
½ tsp garlic salt (optional)
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 425°. Wrap cauliflower in a clean dish towel, then turn it upside down, and bang it against the surface of your counter until you feel the cauliflower crack (rotate to break it up on all sides). Pull florets off stem and break apart the bigger florets into smaller pieces.

Pour flour in one small bowl; in another, whisk two eggs; and in a medium bowl, combine bread crumbs, Parmesan, and cheddar cheese. Coat each piece in flour, followed by the eggs, and finally the bread crumb mixture.

Spray a baking sheet and place all cauliflower bites in it, then drizzle olive oil over them or spray with cooking spray. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Serve with marinara, ranch, or sour cream, and enjoy!