Monday, August 31, 2009

My Birthday Surprise

Thank you for those who dropped by or e-mailed me to wish me a happy birthday. It was not just a wonderful day, but a wonderful weekend. In an earlier post, I had mentioned how my husband was unwilling to field gift ideas from me since he claimed that my gift was already taken care of. This of course, was a real surprise, since I had not so much as hinted at anything recently. So. We went out for a lovely meal at a Mexican restaurant that we used to dine at when we were still courting. That in itself was a wonderful treat. And back at home when the Mister gave me a beautiful card and a book that he picked out all by himself, that was more than enough for me. But there was one more thing! Hidden in our backyard under some tarps (that I would have never looked under in a hundred years because we have tarps covering all manner of construction nonsense out there) was a brand new shiny red gang reel push mower. Now in order for this gift to make sense, you would have had to eavesdrop on many previous conversations in which I point out the benefits of having such a mower. Benefits such as its lack of noise (I detest loud noise) and how it doesn't spit tons of grass dust in the air as you are mowing, causing the allergy-prone among us to struggle for days with an itchy throat and watery eyes. And best of all, how it never runs out of gas and there is no complicated starting mechanism which I don't have the strength to start. Yes, just fast, easy, and perfect for quickly tidying up the grass around the gardens in between the major mowing sessions (which will still be managed by the Mister with a gas mower.) But for my purposes, it suits. And it cuts grass like a knife through soft butter. I love it. Even better was the story of how the Mister had to procure it by running out to Lancaster one day while I was at work so he could shop for it. Then, how he just made it back home in time to throw on his work clothes and make it look like he had been there all day about fifteen minutes before I walked through the door. Who would have thought that a man who once gave me a hammer and screwdriver set as a gift (he really did think I would find it handy) could actually come through with something so, so...wanted? Even better, it is tangible proof that once in a while he actually does listen to me. Oh, and my birthday cake was a completely delicious Boston Cream cake of my own choosing. And although it was still not as good as my mother's homemade Boston Cream pie, it was good enough to be memorable.

In the Garden
Pole limas are coming in now. Although our tomatoes have not been great, I'm not going to complain since hearing that Brenda up in Maine did not get a single one this year. Also, I've at least canned the same amount as last year, maybe more, so what is there to complain about? I'm already thinking about the Fall garden- peas, lettuce, spinach. Someone recently asked me how we keep the animals out of our garden. All I can say is, we don't. We don't have a fence or any complicated wiring, and there are at least two rabbits that live in our yard. If those rabbits do any damage at all, it's minimal and I don't notice it. The only advice that is fit to offer on this subject is to strive for balance in your garden by planting diverse crops, and hope it will attract diverse critters that are both predator and prey.

In the Kitchen: Canning tomatoes, freezing peppers, and thinking about using the watermelon jelly I made in a jelly roll.

Books I'm Reading:
The Amish-Jewish Cult series by Patricia Hochstetler (Riveting and almost hard to believe) and Home Life on the Prairie by Susan Hochstetler (some hard living in Oklahoma!)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Cultured Family

The other morning when I was out in the garden trimming back the tomatoes and trying to get the green ones off the ground, I was thinking back to a conversation that I had with my Aunt E- some years ago regarding an incident that had happened in her childhood. It seems that when she was around the age of eleven or so, she was sent off to live with a far-off aunt and uncle for a year, without any say-so on her part. Her mother's sister had just had her second baby and needed some help, and so my aunt's mother packed her off and sent her away. This horrified me, and must have had a deep impact on my aunt in order for her to recall it and still speak of it some fifty years later.

"What must you have thought?" I asked.
"Well I didn't think anything," she told me pointedly. "It was just how things were done then." But she admitted that often, alone in her room, she would cry sometimes.
My mind wandered. You could best believe I would have had many thoughts had it been me. Like, why me? And don't my parent's love me? And are they ever coming back for me? It got me thinking about how, in our family and in all families, there exists a culture of how things are done. And you don't question how things are done because as part of the family you just know these things and go along with them without question, and these things are impossible to explain to other people outside your family. I was never more aware of this when as a new bride, I was able to both observe the family culture of my in-laws, and found myself having to explain or make excuses for how things are done in my own family. For me, it was deeply interesting to observe how in my husband's family, words serve only one purpose: to exchange information. You would never catch my husband's family talking about feelings, making compliments, and certainly not expressing any form of vanity. You can talk about the weather, small engine repair, or what neighbor died, but you won't ask something like "How does that make you feel?" Chances are, it hasn't occurred to anyone to think about something as so besides the point like how they might feel. All I can say on that front, is thank you Lord for giving us sister-in-laws, who love to latch on and share the meaningful stuff after everyone else has gone home from the picnic!

Equally amusing to my husband is the ongoing dialogs that take place between three generations of complicated women in my own family. For instance, the yearly negotiation for what type of birthday cake I will have. One would think that since it's my birthday, that I could have whatever type or flavor that I might like, but nothing would ever be that simple in our neck of the woods. The negotiation is always started very casually...
"Have you thought about what type of cake you are having?" someone will ask.
"No, not really. Maybe an ice cream cake like last year."
"Do you remember the cake you had with the raspberries? G--- really liked it."

Me having no memory of this cake (probably because it was just okay but not really great), can realize that it is a ploy to have some sort of fruity cake on my birthday, which is the last thing I want. But the negotiations are just beginning. And why does everything is this family end up being about food, anyway? Must be our culture.

By the way, my poor Aunt E- who was sent away? She always makes this fruit pudding when we visit. I made it here with fresh cherries, but you can use any fruit.

Cherry Pudding
3 cups flour
9 T butter
9 T sugar
1 tsp. salt
3 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups pitted cherries or canned equivalent
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
2 T flour
Blend the first five ingredients together with a pastry cutter or your fingers to make a crumb consistency, then add milk and vanilla. Stir this mixture with a fork until a soft dough is formed. In a pot, boil together the remaining ingredients. If you are using canned fruit, skip the full amount of sugar. Pour the mixture in an 8x8 pan. Spread the dough on top. Bake at 350 for 50 minutes to an hour. Serve warm with milk or ice cream.

Here's what it will look like going in...

And here it is coming out...(It smells especially good out of the oven.)

 I wish you could smell it. You just know that smelling capabilities will be one of the features of Web 4.0 some day.

In the Garden: This enormous Brandywine tomato almost scared me when I saw it hanging on a low vine. This one tomato, cut up, made a large serving of fresh salsa.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quick Update

We are still waiting to get our computer back from the very capable hands of a good friend who is a tech genius, so I am unable to post photos of the delicious recipe I want to share with you, or much else at this time since my online activity is somewhat restricted. In fact, it is frustrating when you have photos on your camera that you cannot download to share at all. But here are few brief suggestions for savoring the summer, Mennobrarian-style:

  • In case you were wondering, it actually takes not one, but two weekends without internet access before you start to see an improvement in the area of domestic productivity. One weekend will shape up your garden and get a few projects out of the way, but two weekends will get you an uncluttered desk, cleaner house, and you will finally be caught up on laundry. I don't know about anyone else, but this time of year I could do a couple loads of laundry a day just to keep up with the constant flow of dirty, sweaty work clothes. 
  • Find someone who will repair our computers in exchange for produce and canned goods.
  • What happened to our computers can happen to anyone, and your surge protector is useless if lightning strikes your phone line. Spread the word.
  • You know it is hot when you go outside to pick a couple ears of corn, and when you come back inside are so drenched that you are no longer presentable, and have to shower and get dressed all over again, even though you did that twenty minutes ago. 
  • If you want to add interest to your Bible study group, hold the meeting outside, in a semi-wooded area at dusk when the mosquito population is in its prime, and you are endlessly cracking up because (and I am not making this up) the neighbor's rooster crows every time someone mentions the name "Judas." Then, go home and scratch your heart out.
  • Savor summer by watching a rabbit park itself outside the front window in a deliberate attempt to taunt your dog, and then find it all terribly unfunny when your dog lunges and tears the screen. Sigh. 
  • Get a first hand lesson in just how busy and distracted you are by coming home to a mess because you forgot to turn off the kitchen faucet on the way out the door. (And be grateful that if this had to happen, it happened in a house that is a construction project, because this flood could have really messed up a nice kitchen.)
  • Offer to give your husband some ideas on what to get you for your birthday, only to find out he has already gotten you something. Ponder how that could be when he has no idea what you need.
  • Smile every time you drive by the watermelon truck, and seriously consider making watermelon jelly.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tomato Ricotta Tart, fresh from the garden

It was a hot, humid, tropical morning. The kind where I already had one shower under my belt and was getting ready for my next. The Mister was hauling away some branches he had cut from low hanging trees, and I was to be on look out for the township building inspector who was scheduled to stop by and check on some of our living room construction. I had just finished picking berries and my skirt was stained with enormous red splotches- like maybe I had been butchering chickens. So as I stood sweating helplessly in my bloodied berry-juice skirt, that was the moment the building inspector pulled into the driveway. I smiled, made some jokes and invited him inside. Within two minutes of his visit, the poor guy managed to step on our weakest floor board, the one that promises to drop you down underneath the house. "That's okay, we do that all the time," I told him truthfully, and he chuckled. Then he pointed out a wall we had torn down but forgot to tell him about and asked about some of our other rooms. Overall, the inspection went very well, even though a puddle of sweat was forming at my feet. The inspector signed off on our permit and said he'd be in touch by phone.

Which reminds me that we are still without phone and internet service, a situation that is supposed to be remedied by a repairman today. Meanwhile, the garden is nearly weed free, squash is ready to be picked, and a many pints were processed this weekend. Here are some other things we have been enjoying...

A lovely display of sunflowers and canna lilies in the front garden.

Peppers, tomatoes, and what is left of the corn.

Not bad from one seed, and there is plenty more between the rows.

For supper we had this delicious and suprisingly filling Tomato Ricotta Tart, which is actually a family recipe created by my cousin's cousin (who is a very good cook.)

You need: a 9-inch spring form pan (that thing you use to make make cheesecake.)
1/2 cup grated parmesan
2 eggs
1 cup whole milk or skim ricotta
a handful of fresh basil
a small package of either frozen spinach or cut broccoli (defrosted)
1.5 lbs. beefsteak tomatoes (or one large one)
coarse bread crumbs
salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, italian seasonings and a little olive oil

Preheat over to 450

Grease the bottom and sides of your spring form pan well. Press your bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned panko bread crumbs, but you could make some coarse ones in a food processor with your own bread, and it would probably work with your plain old garden variety bread crumbs, too) into the bottom of the pan. This is your bottom crust. In a food processor, mix the ricotta, basil, eggs, parmesan, and seasonings together. At this point you can either add some spinach or broccoli to the mixture. Spread the mixture evenly over the crust. Finally, place thinly sliced tomato slices over the filling and brush with a little olive oil. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until edges are browned. Let it sit for ten minutes before unmolding. At this point, you can brush the top with a little more olive oil, and if you want to be fancy, garnish it with basil. Serve with a salad for supper.

Friday, August 7, 2009

My Discouraging Conversation with the Phone Company

It seems that phone company claims to have never received our request for repair service which was placed on Monday, and so it was all news to them when I called yesterday to find out the status of our repair order. To make matters worse, the earliest they can send anyone out to our house to fix the phone/internet connection is Tuesday.
"But I won't be able to post to my blog! You'll be disappointing about a dozen people! They will be forced to find something else to read on the internet!" I cried.

No, I didn't really say that.

Truthfully, I was much more irate that they fully expect us to pay for about four days that we had no service at all, since they claim that we did not notify them. Which we did. But I digress.

Well, that's fine, because there is plenty to do around here without the constant stream of distraction/entertainment that the internet provides. One evening, when I normally would have been making witty banter on Facebook, I spent two hours weeding the garden. The weedy garden that I just cannot keep up with this year due to all the rain. Another evening I made a special dessert. And I have squeezed in more reading time than would be usual for this busy time of year. Yes, having no internet has definitely given me more time to work on the things that need to get done, and tend to get done later rather than sooner. 

And yet, there is an irksome feeling that comes with not being able to check e-mail or tell if someone is calling you on the phone. It is a feeling of disconnect, and it is probably the same feeling that many television owners would have if they suddenly had to cancel their TV service and haul their noise box out the window. So now I am getting a new perspective on why people look at me crazy with disbelief when I tell them we do not own a television. It is because they can't fathom the feeling of being disconnected. Okay, I get it now.

So, if what I have experienced so far in this holds true, I should greet you folks early next week with a clean house, immaculate garden, freshly folded and pressed laundry, and half a dozen other things that will be checked off my to-do list. Who knows what forgotten projects or unscheduled kitchen experiments will take off as a result of my unintended weekend sabbatical from the internet? Hmmm...we'll see.

And to think that less than ten years ago, I did not even have an e-mail address let alone a computer. It all reminds me of how I was amazed last week when my sixty-year old cousin purchased and competently started using her new handheld phone/texting/internet/all-things-to-everyone device which I would need nothing short of a six week class to learn to operate. My cousin, who does not even have an electric can opener and still uses old green canning jars, has usurped me in the technology sector of cell phones. Progress always comes, if only slowly for some.
See you next week!

Monday, August 3, 2009

We Lost It.

Power, that is, and we lost it good. You know a power outage is going to be serious when you are standing in the kitchen after church and you actually see what looks like lightning coming out of an errant electric wire. The crash so loud, it feels like it hit the next room. The lights go out, the refrigerator stops humming and the dimness descends over your day. So you find a few low tech things to do while the monsoon blows outside. You clip coupons. Read the paper. Take a nap. Wish very hard that you could wash your hands. Eventually, your husband gets restless and starts poking around with a flashlight, even gets into the car and drives up and down the road you live on to take an informal census of who has power and who does not. Then, the prophesies start setting in as you begin to make good guesses of when power might be restored based on previous power outages.

But then the hours go by and by, and you hear of some neighbors whose power has gone back on, but it does not happen to you. Maybe it will be return by the time you return from evening Bible study? But the closest sign of life when you come back is your neighbor telling you that his store got power back, but not his house. And the electric company claims everything should be fixed. And that is your first sign that maybe you have been forgotten. So you go to your in-laws to bathe, your in-laws who lose power all of the time but are smart enough to have a generator. And when you return home again, the house is at it's darkest because it is indeed night, so you are the designated flashlight holder while your husband call the electric company, again. And they give you the cheery news that a thousand people are still without power, so they are not sure when they can get a truck back to your neighborhood. And then you go to sleep, worrying about whether you will lose the food in the freezer. And are more grateful than ever that you can a lot of food so you are not completely dependent on a freezer.

Finally, a huge truck arrives at one in the morning, stirring the dogs and awakening you with its lights and noises. All your windows are open, so you are not phased when a man shines a powerful light at one and asks about your power situation. The dogs bark the whole time as your husband stands out front explaining what happened twelve and a half hours ago. And that is when you find out that lightning struck the transformer in front of your house. For the next four hours, you will try to sleep through the long replacement process all the while still worrying about the food in the freezer.

Our lights came back on around five, and I groggily surveyed the contents of the fridge and the freezer. Everything was still frozen solid except for some soft ice cream. The real damage came later in the morning to find that one of our computers no longer worked, the phone was down, and we have no internet. The phone company has told us that they can have it repaired within a week. Inconvenient, but it could be worse.

Around the Home: Most of our corn has been harvested, husked and processed. I am very grateful that I was able to get that done before the black out hit us. There now just stands some lonely stalks that were planted later for our corn-on-the-cob eating pleasure. I am done with pickles for the year, and look forward to tomatoes, having only recently used my last jar of salsa from last canning season. It's such a nice feeling to see our shelves filling up with fresh food for the year.

In the Garden: Sunflowers are blooming, and a fragrant pot of lavender greets me at the front door. I have to say, all the rain has been helpful but the long wet grass is not treat to walk through.


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