Saturday, November 26, 2011

Design Find: Combine (or tractor) Gear Candle Holders. Courtesy of The Tool Shed.

I took a little trip to my Grandma's house back in September (it might possibly have been October) to meet my Dad there and to catch up on...farming. Not that I know much about it. The point is, it was perfectly beautiful fall weather. The kind that makes you want to weep and clutch your chest and lasts five minutes.

This is Grandma's house (a panoramic shot via Autostitch); it is located deep in the heart of southern Illinois between Benton and Mt. Vernon and not nearly far enough away from the maximum security prison where John Gotti died for comfort. The house is surrounded on all sides by cultivated fields. The building to the extreme right in the photograph is: The Tool Shed. The other stuff besides the house and The Tool Shed are much newer.

The Tool Shed has been there since perhaps the 1940's (? maybe longer). When I was a kid growing up (I'd like to say mostly in the eighties, but I'd be lying) and spending holidays and vacations at Grandma's house, the Tool Shed was (well, and still is) the most likely spot in which to find male persons of the farming persuasion. I spent many early summer/fall/winter/spring evenings perched in my three step booster chair watching as the creamy whipped potatoes and fluffy yeast rolls slowly cooled on the table while we waited for my Dad, his brother(s), and their Dad (or some configuration of this group) to deign to leave The Tool Shed, come in the back door, wash their hands with Lava soap, and sit down to dinner so they and the rest of us could eat.

There was no eating before they got there. And there was no discernable sign of impatience on the part of my Grandma, no matter how long the pause between placing dinner on the table and the time the eating began. Nobody had to be told what time dinner was served because it was on the table at the same time every day and that time was either five or six o'clock, I can't remember which. Occassionally, like kids do, I would become convinced I was in danger of collapse from hunger if I had to wait another minute and, on those days, I was sometimes sent out to The Tool Shed to remind those who already knew dinner was ready that dinner was ready.

Not that I went IN The Tool Shed. No, I'd climb off my booster chair, head outside, hop down the the front porch steps, walk down the sidewalk, and begin crunching my way across the gravel drive going around the old Studebaker and past the big gas tank (both gone now), until the massive door of The Tool Shed yawned in front of me, exhaling the scent of motor oil from its inky inscrutable depths. There were always guys milling around out front, sometimes just my family members (Dad, uncles, Grandpa), at other times other men as well. They were usually smoking. They paid me little mind, and knew why I was there.

"Dinner is ready" wasn't exactly a newsflash.

I'd learned the trek was futile by the time I was in double digits. As a teenager, I could be found at the dinner table chin in hand and resigned to cooling potatoes as inevitable fact of life. By then, however, I'd thought to wonder just what the hell was so fascinating out there and to include "Stag film playing secretly in back room" on my list of imaginary possible explanations. It would have to be good to distract one from Grandma's delicious horticulture beans and perfectly latticed fruit pies (as often as not topped with real Dairy Queen frozen soft serve), I reasoned.

Anyway, honestly, the stag film theory is unlikely (but I'm open to anyone's confession--leave it in the comments).

And on that day, the day just a few months ago, the perfect fall day in either September or October, fast forward thirty years or so and I actually got to poke through The Tool Shed my very own self. Which is where I found the items in question:

Don't these just scream VINTAGE CANDLE HOLDERS to you? They did to me. To my father and uncle who accompanied me they screamed:

Something is seriously wrong with the person who would think of these items as "home decor".

Of course, I'm not the type that would be deterred by such an attitude. And I think they're very nice, don't you? They are spare (extra? important?) parts off a tractor or combine originally. Stay tuned for another vintage find on that same expedition and subsequent re-mix.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hamburger Helper Potatoes Stroganoff: The Home Made Recipe (And my usual TMI back story)

I'm a little frustrated today because I've developed a home made version of a dish I used to regularly cook for my son, Chase, (now a father himself) when he was growing up that I wanted to post at All Recipes (my go-to cooking site). What I didn't realize until now that to be a posting cook you have to "join" and pay money. Hrrmph!

The recipe, in case you haven't guessed by now, is a home made version of the Hamburger Helper classic: Potatoes Stroganoff. A quick Google just now left me with the notion that this box dinner may no longer be available in stores and, yes, there is some weeping and wailing out there about the loss! Thus, this post may be more helpful to some out there than I first realized. You can thank me later.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly proud to announce that I fed my growing son Hamburger Helper on a regular basis. Let's just say I wasn't the more evolved cook then that I am today. In fact, I was SO bad that my cherished son grew up with the notion that Sloppy Joe sandwiches are Food of the Gods. And at age 26, he still holds this opinion. Yes, yes, leave your indictments in the comments. In my defense (if in fact there is one) I was a) Young b) Poor c) Extremely taken up with the Drama of Being in My Twenties. And people, if you either don't recall or have not yet reached your twenties, let me assure you: there is no more dramatic condition in this life than being in one's twenties. The HORROR! The INDIGNITY! The DRAMATIC SITUATIONS that no one else on earth can POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND!

I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

Anyway, to make a (largely unnecessary) back story even (unnecessarily) longer, for the record, I didn't start out as a Sloppy Joe Hamburger Helper kinda mom. Much like Nathan, Junior, the pages of "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care" was the dog-eared bible of Chase's first year. Dr. Spock's suggested schedules and baby menus served as the skeleton that his baby diet was constructed around. I read baby food jars with the critically suspicious eye of a nutritionist. Sugar?! No, thank you! Farina, Cream of Wheat! These were the whole grain, hearty cereals that served as the foundation of a baby diet calculated to promote healthy growth and development. Oh, those halcyon days when I could control everything!

Throw in four more years, a full time job (mine), a burgeoning tee-ball career (his) and the aforementioned Drama and let's just call it a recipe for Hamburger Helper, shall we? In any case, this is a more delicious version of the original that, for the most part, consists of whole ingredients. I cooked it the first time a few weeks ago once it hit me that the whole thing was based on ranch flavoring. And, yes, I could construct the ranch flavor from my existing spice cabinet and do away wtih the the dip ingredient. But for now, baby steps.

Most importantly, there is something about this comfort food that's hard to beat this time of year. I've probably cooked it three times in the last month. As a bonus, it's one of those dishes that's as, if not more, delicious reheated. I'm not seeing a recipe like mine anywhere else on the internet--the ones I have seen call for noodles (??) and some for cream of mushroom soup (NO!). I assure you, noodles were not part of the original stroganoff package and cream of mushroom soup would be an abomination in this dish.

Without further adieu:

Potato Stroganoff (serves 4)

1 lb ground chuck
4oz can mushrooms drained or--better-- half cup fresh sliced baby portobellos (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
olive oil
1 14-oz can beef broth
1 envelope ranch dip mix
4 small or 2-3 larger (more if you prefer) washed unpeeled red potatoes halved lengthwise and thinly sliced into half moons
couple of tablespoons of minced fresh parsley (preferably from your yard)
half cup sour cream
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Salt and pepper to taste.

Begin by mostly covering the bottom of a deep skillet with olive oil. Heat oil over medium heat until hot; add garlic, onions, ground chuck and mushrooms, season (but be stingy with the salt, the broth tends to be too salty, I try to by reducted sodium for this reason). Brown ingredients stirring occasionally over med to med-low heat until nearly all liquid has evaporated (15+ minutes). De glaze with the beef broth. Bring mixture to boil, add potatoes, dip mix, half the parsley. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until potatoes are done, stirring occasionally, 15- 20 minutes. Whisk in cornstarch and simmer a few more minutes to thicken. Remove from heat, stir in sour cream and remaining parsley--do not boil. Return to heat if necessary to heat through (but don't boil!). Serve topped with a little Parmesan cheese and fresh parsley, if you like.

[I am committed to seeing that, at least at my house, this will be the only version of "Hamburger Helper" that my granddaughter ever know. Also, I'll try and update this post with a photo of the dish if I ever get around to it. But, be warned, the stuff's not pretty. Just comforting and yummy.]

Friday, November 04, 2011

Kamryn Elizabeth

[Updated with 2 new photos 11/17/11 at 1:51 am]
[Updated with 6 new photos 11/13/11 at 3:45 pm]

[Updated with 3 new photos 11/4/11 at 11:46 pm]
[Updated with 3 new photos 11/1/11 at 12:00 am]
[Updated with 10 new photos 10/31/11 at 11:15 pm]

YES, I am Paducah's first Gangstah Grandma! And, damn, it feels good.

Kamryn Elizabeth was born after three exhaustive days in the hospital on October 29th at 6:30 a.m. weighing in at 4 lbs 3 oz (five weeks early) and measuring 17 inches long. She remains in the neonatal intensive care unit, but is doing well, is active, and sucking down 3 ml of formula every three hours.

[As an aside, I've been assured Kamryn will be an "only" just like her Grammy. So we'll have that in common.]

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Guess who's iPet...

SEE how much better my Isabelle post looks over at iList Paducah. Where everything's properly formatted! Right here.

Golden Girl

A few weeks ago I participated in a 5K run/walk, a fundraiser for Project Hope, a worthy no-kill animal shelter that serves the southern Illinois and western Kentucky areas (send them your spare cash this instant!). I decided Isabelle would take the walk with me, her being a dog and all and that morning, as is her way, Isabelle caught on very quickly to the fact that she was having an Outing. She learned as a puppy to identify the word "walk". She will perk up her ears the minute the word is spoken, tilt her head to one side, stare intently into my face, every nerve and sinew aquiver, and begin the pant of excitement that translates loosely to,

Did you say WALK? Is it me? ME??? I'm going for a WALK? OHMYGOD REALLY? REALLY? SHIT! I gotta pee...

pant, twirl, sweat, slobber, tremble, release fur cloud--REPEAT.

The rattle of her leash (it doesn't come out often now that my yard is completely fenced for the dog's enjoyment) only confirmed her growing suspicion and amped up her already off-the-chart level of hysteria,


With difficulty (because of her extreme excitement level), I got her loaded into the back of the car. Once we set off, it was a constant stream of the sound her trying to pace in a space barely larger than a kennel, coupled with my ultimate pet pet peeve of the universe, the dreaded, the annoying, like fingernails on a chalkboard, the: mouth breathing.

And make no mistake? Isabelle knows exactly what mouth breathing is and that she isn't supposed to be doing it in the car (or anywhere near me). It goes something like this:



(shouting over my shoulder into the din)



(suddenly dead silent)

7.5 seconds later...






(suddenly dead silent)

Repeat above 10+ times on the 7-minute ride to the park.

Once there, I unloaded the shaking, drooling, mouth-breathing mass of quivering fur that perhaps, say, a mere 30 minutes earlier had been a boneless unresponsive heap of jointless dog on the floor. I clamped her leash on and began the arduous task of both walking her in a strange place and reminding her of her training. This means not allowing her to pull me, but rather, when she does, stopping, pulling up on the leash, turning the dog in a circle, commanding her to sit and then setting out again, giving her the command to "Heel!".

Much like with mouth breathing, Isabelle, all appearances to the contrary, knows what she is supposed to be doing. She's just. Too. Damn. Excited. To concentrate. For more than a few. Seconds. At a time. At first.

We make our way to the sign-in station in this lurching fashion: pull up-stop -turn-sit-heel-walk a few steps...pull up-stop-turn-sit-heel-walk a few steps, over and over. By the time we get there, Isabelle is beginning to respond slightly better to commands and has regained a small fraction of her senses. I can stop and sit her, saying "wait", giving her the hand signal (basically my palm in front of her face) and she will do so for brief periods before becoming distracted and trying to lurch away. This trick will get her another pull up on the leash, a tap of her haunch with my foot, and the "wait!" again.

By the time the race/walk was about to begin, Isabelle was mostly under control. We positioned ourselves firmly at the back of the pack (no running for me! still hate it!). I thought nothing of taking Isabelle along for a brisk three-mile (no, I'm never converting to metric) walk. It was a beautiful crisp fall morning, the perfect weather--blue skies, puffy clouds floating by. It was warming up quickly, though, and most everyone had shed the light jackets they had arrived wearing. Once the runners sprang away, we set out, me chatting all the while. Isabelle fell into step mostly beside me, and, after a time, I had to pull her back from straining on the leash only occasionally and then, a while after that, not at all.

We had completed perhaps the first half of the walk before I noticed Isabelle falling a little short. I glanced down at her, a little incredulous. Her face, almost completely white now, was near the ground and she was breathing in slow, tired pants. I heard a scraping noise that took me a moment to realize was the sound of her dragging one foot slightly. For the first few seconds, I couldn't understand what I was seeing. Like looking at those purposely illusory drawings you have to stare at for few seconds before the picture comes into focus, I stared down at Isabelle. She looked exhausted. Suddenly, a hundred observed but not studied moments began falling into place in my mind: Isabelle not being the first out the door in the morning; Isabelle with a strange look on her face sometimes, as though she can't quite make sense of something; a certain still quality she has now when she's resting...too still; a pause sometimes for a few beats between the time I say her name, and the time she looks over and becomes responsive.

In that moment, a bell that had been ringing in the distance for months, maybe years, became an ominous clang.

Isabelle is...old.

She just had her eleventh birthday.

I suddenly remembered a conversation I'd had with a dog lover when I was first considering adopting a dog of my own, probably a few months before I got Isabelle:

What's it like having a dog, I'd asked.

And what he said was that a dog is a little like having a child but speeded up in fast motion. With a dog, he said, everything--puppyhood, adulthood, old age--is compressed and condensed into a much shorter timeline. Of course, I knew this. We all know this, right? But something about the way he'd put it that day made the words stick with me. And as I stood there seeing Isabelle, usually the most rambunctious and enthusiastic of dogs, now stooped and nearly worn out from a walk that she wouldn't have even noticed not that long ago, I knew I was seeing that short arc for myself.

We would slow our pace and finish the walk that day. And, afterward, Isabelle was tired, but still excited and happy to be there. But as I loaded her into the car, she had to have help getting in. For the first time ever, she was too tired to execute her usual easy one-motion precise leap into the way-back area in which she rides. And I came away that day with a new appreciation for what I've always known is true: my time with my big, furry oldest girl is limited.

Even so, most days, Isabelle is able to gallivant around as if she were a much younger dog. She is often spry given a full night's rest. The vet told me when she was younger that Isabelle had some of the best hip joints he'd ever felt (especially in a retrieverish sort of dog--no doubt the benefit of some creative breeding) and these still serve her very well, enabling her to sproing through the tall grass on occassion. She will still jump enthusiastically into any body of water she encounters, although she won't stay in as long as she used to and she struggles more when hefting herself back out again, when her thick coat is heavy with the weight of the water. Isabelle, more often than not, is a very happy and fairly active dog indeed. If we're lucky, we still have many more years left together.

But since the day of the walk and for weeks now, Isabelle's life, at different times and in different ways, has been replaying in my head off and on. Even when I'd rather it didn't. I'm remembering times and days and incidents I haven't thought about in years. I suppose this is the normal process. This is what happens when one comes to a realization like I have.

In the meantime, Isabelle has been enjoying additional privileges and freedoms since my ephiphany and I suspect these will continue to grow. Her tendency, since puppyhood, to swipe food off momentarily unsupervised plates and ingest it quick as lightening followed by the, "Who me?" face has resurfaced. Only these days, she's getting away with it. I suspect this will continue. Whatever happens, I will be here for Isabelle for as long as she needs me. Just as she has done the same for me every day and every night since that October day eleven years ago when I spotted her, a fat shy blonde little thing, hiding behind her kennel. I mean, hello? Clearly, she was a puppy destined for doggie greatness.

A few weeks ago I began the going through my digital files and editing my photos of Isabelle and consolidating them into a single file. I felt the need to get them all in one place. That process, which began as a casual project, quickly turned to steady occupation, then semi-urgent mission, and, finally, to full blown obsession. It was a massive undertaking given my sloppy tendencies where things like photo files are concerned. Not only did I have to slog though Pinky's only marginally organized archives, but also the external drive that holds approximately a zillion images from my old computer and even some film images before that. Isabelle has been much photographed to say the very least, first with old skool film, then on my crappy Fuji digital camera that came free with something or other, then with my "real" camera and now with my iPhone. Isabelle, along with the rest of us, has advanced fully into the digital age.

Once I amassed Isabelle's photos, I became equally obsessed with the idea of organizing them into a little slide show; it sounds simple enough, right? I used the only program on my computer for such a project: Microsoft movie maker (probably not the best choice). Regardless, it's been cathartic--if exhausting-- to put together the the thing together (I'll spare you the details of my technical problems and nineteen nervous breakdowns, and countless viewings of Movie Maker "fix" videos).

I've often been accused of favoring Tallulah over Isabelle by those that read me here. But I submit the following video as evidence to the contrary. Doubters? This one's for you...