Saturday, December 27, 2008

Post-Christmas Wrap Up

It felt strange the day after Christmas not to have to bake anything, and with the abundance of cookies wrapped in tins that we now have, I may not have to think about sweets for a while.

Christmas was a day of a lot of driving. My husband was tired from working the all night Christmas Eve-into-Christmas morning shift at the hospital, and so the driving from our house, to the in-laws, to my mother's, and back home again was performed by me. The day after Christmas I refused to get back into a car for any reason. Still, it was an enjoyable day of shared meals and visiting.

I was gifted with the elusive black walnut cracker that we forgot to pick up in Ohio. Watch out walnuts, here we come! The gift to myself was finally catching that mouse that had been wreaking havoc in the kitchen every night, causing me endless amounts of cleaning each day. Having ignored the traps with peanut butter, I finally baited them with bread crumbs which worked instantly. It was so unbelievable to finally catch this thing that my husband asked if I had just managed to grab it with my bare hands and shove it in the trap. That option seemed more likely than catching it in a trap! Unfortunately, I only had one day of rest and then another mouse moved into the former mouse's territory. Back to the drawing board.

We decorate mostly with Christmas cards (because when your house is in renovation mode, decorating of any sort is a non-issue) and among the more memorable cards we received this year was one from my great-aunt Margaret who sent us some pictures of her pet fox.

Pertzel the fox is six years old, and was raised by my aunt and uncle as an orphaned pup. My uncle is really the only one who can touch him- he even gives Pertzel vaccines that he buys from the veterinarian. My aunt says that the fox brings them a lot of joy, but they can't ever go on a vacation. Indeed, who is going to come by and feed the fox? Surely no kennel would board him! Just so you know, I wouldn't try this at home, and don't at all recommend keeping wild animals as pets. Their fox ownership came about through unique circumstances, not to mention an apparent lack of wildlife laws where my aunt and uncle live.

Today I want to get out to the market and restock. Maybe there are still some good deals left, too. We'll see...

In the Kitchen: Restocking mostly. The cupboards aren't bare, but the refrigerator nearly is. Today I want to get out to the market and see if there are any good deals left.

On the Table: Yesterday was just leftovers and sandwiches. Cookies, leftover trifle, and a bowl of popcorn for a snack. Today I'd like to do some baked fish with ginger broccoli and rice. I'll see what's fresh at the market as far as fish.

Around the House: Did I tell you what happened with the wood stove? This important part called a "baffle" was slightly damaged (by accident) while the stove was being set into place. My husband called about a new one and they said they could send us one in twelve weeks or something ridiculous. Just awful. All that work putting it in, and our wood pile is healthy and ready to go, and now we have to wait for this part.

On the Nightstand: Emma: A Widow Among the Amish, by Ervin R. Stutzman. A true story.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Amish Christmas Story

This story, which was a bit of a writing exercise for me, is a dim memory recollected from a dusty corner of my mind. I thought some of my readers might enjoy it as a Christmas story. It's been many years since it's been retold, and the absolute accuracy of details can't be verified any longer. It's my present to you, so Merry Christmas.

It was the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, and the sky was low and grey with an occasional snow flurry in the air. The dresses in that community were the color of the winter landscape in Indiana, muted grays, taupes, and earth colors. With what color we acquired during the summer now faded from our skin, we had an ethereal appearance that blended us into that place and time. Aunt Dorcas’ gnarled fingers deftly worker her lap embroidery, while Uncle Eli worked at the kitchen table on some bookkeeping for his oldest son’s tac shop. My cousin Liz’s children, numbering seven, filled the air with their energy and excitement for the joyous celebration of the Savior’s birth. Two hired girls, including one who never smiled, fluttered about picking up errant crumbs even as they readied their own suitcases for the return trip to their families for Christmas. The driver would come shortly to take them back to their home communities. Liz’s husband Atlee was on a constant run between the house and shop building where there was a phone, as he coordinated transportation and relayed messages from distant family. The shop was a good distance, and when the phone would ring, the sound could be heard clearly across the flat landscape. But that didn’t bring the phone any closer to the house. It occurs to me today that this was a time before cell phones, and that today in an Amish house, someone would more than likely admit to having a mobile phone.

A few sparse decorations marked the time of year, a small shelf of cards, a candle on the table. It was the smell of toasted nuts and cinnamon and ginger that made this day feel like the Season. That, and the anticipation of familiar visitors.

As the sky darkened, a black van arrived to carry off the hired girls. Supper preparations were under way, and extra food would be made for visitors who wished to stop by. Festive jello salads and breads and pickles and pie. Uncle Eli would stop his work and wander over to the window about every half hour, seemingly searching the sky. I joked that he was looking for Santa, as some of the children were indulged in that myth. It was then he confessed that he was looking for the North Star, and I understood because my whole life I too had looked skyward for that special star on Christmas Eve. It was then he told (or retold) us the story of how when he was a boy, he and some other boys got it in their head one Christmas to follow the Star ala the Three Wise Men. After all, it had worked so well for them!

This was back in the 1930’s, Eli, two of his brothers, a neighbor boy, and a cousin set off in early evening when there was still a hint of light thinking that they would probably make it to Bethlehem in about six hours. Of course, when the boys disappeared this caused a huge worry that extended for miles as word got around, and soon, family, friends and neighbors were searching on foot and by horseback for the “five kings.”

A man in a car drove by, and soon he was searching, too. Meanwhile, the young not-so-wise men managed to cross two swamps, climb six fences, and eat their entire night’s worth of provisions (cookies and pop corn) in the span of a couple hours. The conversation reportedly centered on how much the land, no matter how far they traveled, continued to resemble LaGrange County.

Eventually, the boys were found, cold, hungry. A couple of men standing outside at a family Christmas celebration saw this bedraggled band of Amish boys meandering down a dirt road and decided to ask questions. Raising a lantern, a man addressed Eli as he was the oldest. Their muddy clothes must have been a given that something was amiss.

“You boys look worn. Would you like to come inside and rest by the fire?”

“No Sir,” replied Eli. “We’ll be traveling on.”

Eli and his troop had managed a little over three miles in a north-easterly direction, and not nearly as Far East as they thought. No worse for the wear, a missing button, muddy pants and shoes. The boys felt terribly embarrassed and feared the worst upon their return, and were pleasantly surprised that their families were simply relieved that the boys came home unharmed.

Many years later on the day my great-uncle Eli (Hostetler) Yoder was laid to rest, four elder men in their good Mutze jackets and hats huddled together in solace and shared memory.

“He finally traveled on,” I overheard one say. “Without us.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

When people hear that I'm a librarian, they inevitably ask me whether I've read "Great New Book" by A. Popular Author. The answer is always no, as most popular contemporary literature does not interest me, certainly nothing on the bestseller lists, and so I always feel like a bad librarian or like I'm letting someone down when I can't commiserate with them on popular-book-of-the-day. This extends into Christian themed books as well, like that "purpose driven" stuff that was all the rage for five minutes and now floods our library's used book sales with unwanted copies. So naturally when I kept hearing "Blue Like Jazz" over and over, I shunned it like a bad disease and went back to reading my non-fiction or whatever vastly unknown book I was reading, likely put out by a small-distribution Mennonite publishing house.

But then, when someone whose beliefs are close to mine (I think) recommended the book, I dug in to see what the fuss was about. Plus, it's a memoir, and I enjoy those.

It was difficult (though not impossible) to put the book down, as it initially felt like it was all going to lead up to a great revelation in Donald Miller's walk with Jesus, one that would drastically change his views and motivate him to enlighten the masses through his writing ability. But that never seemed to happen. It was disappointing when he would suddenly take a sharp turn and spend a page mooning over a girl he likes (and he likes a lot of girls.) In fact, Miller talks about things he likes and doesn't like a lot. He is most deeply critical of other Christians. He also makes the occasional shallow comment that is disjointing, and takes away credibility from his more thought-provoking insights.

Still, Miller did have some good observations about contemporary culture that carry some weight, like how people tend to idolize and even emulate people without having any idea what these individuals believe. And how mainstream evangelicals have come to define themselves almost solely by their politics. No argument there.

I was hoping he would mention Anabaptists and how we might fit into the picture, but he didn't mention us except for his thought that a friend might have become Amish because he was courting instead of dating. Sigh.

Finally, there was one paragraph that I gave a hearty amen to, and that was where a friend was telling Miller about the new "postmodern church" that will be "relevant" to people, to which Miller replies that only a church that believes in Jesus and the power of his Gospel can be a relevant church. Without that, a church with fancy web pages and modern music is just a tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing. Right on.

But by the time I had finished the book, I was acutely aware that this was the most postmodern commentary on Christianity that I may ever read. And the church Miller now attends has rock bands and very fancy web pages, and also strives to be "relevant."

I'd like Miller to write a sequel to this book in twenty years because his thoughts as a mature Christian might be a interesting contrast to the identity-crisis in Christ that he described in Blue Like Jazz.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas Baking: A Few of my Favorite Things

Don't you love perusing the baking aisle of your market this time of year? So many interesting and long forgotten specialty items, not to mention great sales on all of the staples. Every year there seems to be a few items that I have been holding on to and set aside strictly for the purpose of Christmas baking. Here are a few items and ideas that I'd like to share with you:

Homemade Vanilla

Okay, this bottle comes from the very private vanilla reserve of Bob at Small Kitchen Cooking, but the great news is that you can make your own private reserve too. He has a great tutorial on his blog about it, and there is also one by Heather over here. It looks so easy that it makes me wonder how we ever got to the point of buying vanilla extract at the store. This one from Bob is made with rum, making it somewhat sweet and pungent. I can't wait to use it- no extract needed!

Elderberry Jelly

Since elderberries are somewhat scarce, I hold on to this homemade jelly with plans to use it in my Christmas trifle.

Gingerbread People and other fun cut-outs

Last year I made these Gingerbread Folk from a recipe on the Simple Folk blog. Let me say, I consider this to be the absolute best gingerbread cookie recipe. We usually decorate ours plainly with raisins, but you could really get very creative with these.

Making Fudge

Okay, I haven't made fudge in forever. But this is a great time of year to do it because evaporated milk is on sale everywhere, and it makes a nice little gift, all wrapped in wax paper and boxed with a bow. I have a recipe for a honey-nut fudge that I'd like to try.

As a side note,
the experts say this is a good time of year to buy new baking powder, since it loses it's potency with time. You can test yours by pouring 1/3 cup of hot tap water over 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder in a cup. It should bubble up like a mini hurricane. Mine failed the test...and I'm terrified to proof anything else around here.

The last thing I was saving for Christmas baking were those black walnuts I harvested from the back yard and hung up to cure. They haven't been cracked yet and there' s a little bit of a funny story there. It seems that we were planning on picking up one of those specialized black walnut crackers when we took our jaunt out to Ohio, and somehow came home without one. We couldn't believe it! So, that's still a project on hold for now. But those nuts are ready and waiting.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

House Angst

Things have been feeling a bit overwhelming these past few weeks. It always starts like this. The cold sweeps in and takes away that spring in my step. The lack of sun spreads threads of despair through me, and then, it's Christmas.

My husband has been off from work for the past couple weeks working on the inside, and the house is more of a mess than ever before. Dust hangs so thick in the air that I sneeze even more than normal and my nose constantly runs, crippling me while I am in battle against a certain trap-savvy mouse. The kitchen and everything in it has to be cleaned before I can even start cooking, and everything takes so much more effort. The cleaning schedule is way off- there was a power outage last weekend and a mishap with our fuel tank the weekend before. How often do you hear of someone having a mishap with their fuel oil tank? I am patiently waiting for the day when I can laugh at this. Yesterday, my friend asked me, "Can I come stay at your house?"

Absolutely, I told them. Just bring a 3-season tent, and anything else you might bring on an outdoor survivalist mission.

That is what the never ending task of renovating an old house (while you are also living in it) feels like: a survivalist mission. Or at least it does for me, but perhaps some people are calibrated to handle dirty, chaotic living conditions where important things go missing or are randomly destroyed all the time with greater grace than I. Most men, for example. I have long chewed on the theory that men don't care where they live. They would gladly pitch a tent in an open field and claim it as home, if they could. It's why bachelor's quarters are infamous for all the wrong things, like horribly mismatched furniture and strange lighting. In college, a friend of mine lived in a riverfront town where recreational boating was extremely popular. There was a man who lived on his small recreational watercraft year round, anchored out in the middle of the river. In the winter, the guy just threw a cover over it and kept right on living. It was pretty amazing. He was not homeless either, he had a house and a wife. Obviously, there was a bigger story, but you get my point.

In the Kitchen: Thinking about staying warm and dry (it is wet here) with lots of comfort food, and stocking up on baking essentials. Christmas baking is something I can really get excited about, and I have a post on that coming up soon. Also, next week I was thinking about making some macaroni and cheese, which I love but never ever ever make. There is this recipe that calls for using cottage cheese (in addition to cheddar) and I am wondering whether to be daring and try that. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

Around the Home: It's not inspiring at all, so lets skip this.

On the Nightstand: "Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality" by Donald Miller. For all of the buzz this book has gotten, I was hoping for something a little more profound. It is a memoir though, so it's really about Miller's unique journey. Still, it's engrossing and hard to put down, and that is saying a lot these days since I no longer finish about half of the books I start.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Menu Plan Monday

Sunday: Pan fried pollock with butternut squash, wild rice, and salad.

Monday: leftovers

Tuesday: Roast Chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, chow chow, and noodles.

Wednesday: Crock pot sausage with sauerkraut and peppers.

Thursday: leftovers, and there's some broccoli in the freezer that I need to do something with...

Friday: Hamburgers

Saturday: Corn chowder with grilled cheese

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Shoo-Fly Tutorial

Okay, you can do this.

Step 1: Ready your unbaked pie crust.

I'm not going to go into pie crusts here. There are so many different schools of thought on pie crusts that it could be a whole post in itself. Suffice to say, just get one together. For this pie, I am using one of the pie crusts that I have frozen and pre-stacked in my freezer so I can make a pie in a hurry.

Step 2: Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Step 3: In a medium sized bowl, put:

1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 T butter, shortening, or margarine (I prefer butter.)

Cut these together with a pastry blender. If you do not have a pastry blender, I have found that crumbling them with your hands works just as well. You are making a nice crumb topping with this.

Step 4

Combine the following in a mixing bowl:

1 cup molasses (or corn syrup, or sorghum.)
1 egg slightly beaten
3/4 cup cold water
1 teaspoon of baking soda diluted in 1/4 cup hot water

I use a combination of 1/2 molasses and 1/2 sorghum, or sometimes just the sorghum. Some people use dark corn syrup instead of either of those options. They all taste delicious, so use whatever is convenient for you.

Step 5

Add half of your crumb mixture to the contents in the mixing bowl and mix again.

Pour the contents into your unbaked pie shell. Since this is liquid, it may help if you put your pie on a cookie sheet to reduce spillage.

Finally, take the remainder of your crumbs and sprinkle them on top of your pie to cover. Bake for 35 minutes.

Let the pie cool before serving. Some people like to eat it a little warm with whipped topping.

Any questions? I offer pie support- just ask me if you need help.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

And Other Unpopular Ideas

Okay, first of all I have the pictures for my shoo-fly tutorial ready to load, I just need to write the instructions, but look for it this weekend.

With my husband off from work, I have been spending more time with him and have had less time to squeeze in my regular posting. For instance, yesterday we went out to Cabela’s, the huge hunting/fishing/camping store so he could look for new work boots. If you have never been to a Cabela’s store before, it really is quite something. Taxidermy everywhere, a fresh water aquarium, and even a restaurant. I am not by any stretch of the imagination an outdoorsy person. Camping strikes me as an unnecessary hardship. Cabela’s was filled with items that could prepare me for an experience I don’t necessarily want and hope to never have. I am probably in the minority on this, but then again, I have lots of unpopular ideas.

For instance, I would not at all be opposed if perfume-wearing was banned in public places. Now don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate many smells; our home contains a few scented candles, and fruity soaps and lotions inhabit my cabinets. But when working with the public you come across many people who embrace the “more is better” philosophy when it comes to applying cologne, without regard to those of us who will be sent into a succession of sneezing fits, followed by an itchy throat, and ultimately manifesting in swollen red eyes, and a nose that won’t stop running. I loathe shaking hands with these people, and am terrified when they reach out to hug me. This would be a terribly unpopular idea, and I know this because I also would have also been in favor of banning cell phones in certain places and we all know how that went.

They say there is no love like a mother’s love, but as the years go by I tend to disagree. There are an abundance of cases where the true love that cannot be equaled is that of a grandmother. Maybe it is because they have fewer of those moments of child training challenges than parents do, and get to enjoy more leisure time with them, but most grandparents really really REALLY love their grandchildren. This is a concept that would be unpopular with parents, but more popular with their parents.

I also have a vastly unpopular and oft-challenged belief that it can be as much of a blessing to be an only child as it can be to have one sibling, ten, or twenty.

But like I said, I have lots of unpopular ideas.

To Do this weekend:

Christmas cards


Hem a dress

Clean the bathroom

Fill the bird feeders


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