Thursday, June 30, 2011

An unusual gift

This was a recent gift from my sister, Joan:

She knows I love, love, love pottery. But isn't this the most unusual thing you've ever seen?  I mean, it looks like a bowl, but I can't imagine what one uses it for. 

So what in the world is it?  ....I'll tell you later.

But first, let me tell you about my sister.  She loves to shop. I mean, LOVES to shop.

This most often works to my advantage as I consider shopping a big waste of time. I let her know what I am in need of, and sure as can be, she produces a bargain price. She once went to a sale at Herberger's and bought me a complete winter work wardrobe. Pants, blazers, sweaters, the works,

Joan and her friend, Janet, who lives five hours away, consider shopping a favorite pastime. They often drive approximately halfway between them to meet in a different town each time, their sole purpose being to discover all the little shops the town has to offer. I must say, they find some unique treasures.

I took a notion to join them once.  Janet came to our area for the weekend, and the three of us went off for a day of exploring in Stillwater, Minnesota.  Stillwater, a charming river town, boasts gift shops, antique malls, coffee shops and book stores galore. 

We started at one end of the town, intending to work our way up and down the streets on either side.  Such fun to browse among the goodies: hand-dipped candles, unique notecards, wall art, homemade fudge, and more, more, more.

By early afternoon, I figured we'd have covered the town and would stop for lunch.

But not at their rate,  After I had finished my browsing, I went outside to wait for them.  And discovered I was in for at least an hour's wait. At each shop. They went at a snail's pace, picking up each item to closely examine.

By 4:00 (we did at least stop for lunch), I had had enough. They couldn't understand how I could possibly be ready to go home, but they gave in and we left Stillwater behind.

However, they then wondered how late in the evening Target and Wal-Mart were open in nearby Forest Lake.  Until midnight, a telephone inquiry revealed.

And off they went.  Needless to say, I didn't join them, and haven't since.

Back to the bowl.

On this occasion, they met in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for the weekend.  They saw this bowl and Joan just knew that, being a knitter, I would love it!

Yes, it is a yarn bowl

Perfect for the large skeins of yarn I use to make prayer shawls for our church to give someone in need of comfort. I use it all the time and you can see how handy it is keeping the yarn together with the end coming out in a single, neat strand.

So I am really glad my sister loves shopping. Most of all, I love her for her thoughtfulness and generosity.

Thank you, Joan.  You and Janet just keep on a'shoppin....but without me.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Midsommer Fest

It is dark in Sweden much of the year, and their summers are short.

But the middle of June brings the summer soltice: the longest day, when the sun shines through the night. I was there once during this time, and it is indeed light all night long.

It is also cause for celebrating in almost every Swedish town.  

Midsummer Day, a celebration of summer and the season of fertility, was originally celebrated on June 24 to commemorate John the Baptist. In 1953, it was moved to the nearest Saturday.

And so, in a town settled by Swedish immigrants, and in true Swedish tradition, Midsommardagen was celebrated last Saturday in Lindstrom, Minnesota.

Dancing around the maypole
It starts early in the morning with the building of the maypole by some trusty, hard workers, who must first gather freshly-cut branches to wrap around the large pole. These are carefully woven around and across the pole. 

Flowers must be gathered and assembled in and around the branches to decorate the pole. Wreaths are also made of fresh flowers and branches.

After colorful ribbons are tied on, the Swedish flag is placed on top. 

It is then raised by several strong hands and placed in a well-dug hole in the ground.

In our town, we are fortunate to have a long-standing Swedish Club, and a dedicated instructor for teaching young people traditional Swedish dance. They performed for the crowd, dancing around the beautiful maypole, as is done in Sweden, and then inviting the rest of us to join them.

Food, of course, is the other feature of the festival. Swedish sausage, riced potatoes, herring, crackers, and many delectable dishes and desserts are served. Everybody brings something to share. It always amazes me that no two dishes are alike. Such a wonderful variety!

They say it always rains or at least drizzles for a while in Sweden on Midsummer Day. And sure enough, it sprinkled enough for umbrellas to be raised as folks began to gather together. But the sun came out and the skies cleared for the remainder of the evening.

Varma Midsommar Hälsningar!  (or Happy Midsommer Day)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fun at the festival

"Grandma, this is a fun day!"

When two little 4-year old girls say that in unison, you know it's a hit.

We were having this fun day at the annual Flint Hills International Children's Festival. Held in Rice Park in downtown St. Paul, it is sponsored by Ordway Center for Performing Arts.
The day is all about children (and learning, but that's a secret).

Together with performing artists from around the world, cultural music and dance events, international cuisine, demonstrations and hands-on crafts, children become aware of the world around, and beyond, them.

 The two girls enjoyed a live Ordway musical performance by Dala, a wonderful, young singing duo from Canada.

They not only entertained children and adults alike with their beautiful music, but they invited the children to come to the stage floor to dance and twirl.

They started the performance by emphasizing "this isn't a shush show." Clapping, singing along, and snapping fingers were all encouraged.

Many craft tents offered children the opportunity to use paper, glue, sparkles, beads, pom-poms, wooden sticks, and markers to use their imaginations and create to their hearts' desire. Paper hats, rockets, flowers, and even buttons the children drew themselves were seen, with the children proudly wearing or carrying their objets d'art. 

Two granddaughters (mine) working on their projects.

The outside of the nearby Lawson Building served as the dance floor for Project Bandeloop from California. A 20-minute, amazing performance involved the two dancers being suspended by wire rope from the roof of the building and dancing in mid-air, pushing themselves off with their feet from the side of the multi-story brick building.

Latin American culture was interpreted in dance. Performed by a local St. Paul group, their colorful costumes and lively dances were energizing and interesting to watch.

An exhibition of children's artwork from schools and community organizations across Minnesota was displayed throughout storefronts and skyways in downtown St. Paul. You could see these signs on every sidewalk surrounding the festival.

Crafts, face painting, outdoor performances, exhibits like the butterfly garden, take-aways for children, the is all free.  No admission charge. No tickets to buy. No rides. No carnival atmosphere. No charge for face painting.

International and local food is available for purchase, but picnicking is encouraged, and seating is provided for all, right in front of the Flint Hills World Stage...where performances are, of course, free.
It is Ordway Center's gracious gift to Minnesota, and a generous gift to our community. 

I know two 4-year old girls and their Grandma are very grateful. My son and daughter-in-law agree as together we joined in the celebration of children around the world.

I can certainly see why my little girls considered it a "fun day." 

And I'd be hard-pressed to say who enjoyed it more.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rhubarb a-plenty

No, not on my grandparents farm this time. 

Right here in our own back yard garden, we have the most abundant patch of rhubarb I think we've ever had.  And we love it.

Rhubarb is so versatile. From bread, to muffins, to pies, to custard, to cake, to sauce, it can be used many ways.

My neighbor gave me what I think is the best rhubarb cake recipe ever. So I thought I'd share it with you:
Rhubarb Cake

1/2 cup butter (softened)
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup sour milk (add 1 tbsp. vinegar to a cup of milk, let stand 1 hour)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups rhubarb, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream the butter and sugar. Add egg, milk, flour, soda, salt, and vanilla. Fold in the rhubarb. Pour batter in a 9-by-13-inch cake pan. You may sprinkle over the batter: 1/2 cup sugar mixed with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.

I made half of the recipe into muffins and the other half into this cake, baked in a deep-dish quiche pan. I sprinkled raw sugar (my favorite), mixed with a bit of cinnamon on top.

Mmmmm. On a cool, crisp day as it is here today, this is warming my kitchen and delighting us with a wonderful aroma.

Now we're going shopping for a foodsaver so I can vacuum-pack this wonderful rhubarb and keep it fresh in the freezer.

Another cake, another day.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Back to the farm

In 1957, we learned that my Aunt Norma was engaged to be married to a man named Bob Kristensen. She had known him for many years; most of her life, actually. We had never heard of him.

But that wasn't the worst of it.

It meant she would be moving from St. Paul, Minnesota, back to her hometown, the small farming town of White Lake, South Dakota, following her June wedding.

Now this came as a real shock.

Aunt Norma, my Dad's sister, was our very special, beautiful aunt who stayed with us to babysit, bought us things and, in any way possible, spoiled us. She had a bubbly, outgoing personality and an infectious laugh.

She had been dating a handsome man in St., Paul named Don. So, I just naturally assumed if she got married someday, it would be to him.  Don was jovial, fun, a tease, and...well yeah, okay, maybe a bit boisterous. Maybe even more so after a few beers. Okay, sometimes obnoxious.

But who in the world was this Bob Kristensen guy, and why would Norma leave the glamour of her city life to settle down in White Lake? On a farm, no less. It was great fun to visit White Lake every summer as kids, but to live there? All the time? That was another matter altogether.

Aunt Norma worked in a contractor's office, not far from our home in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. By this time, I was old enough to venture that far on my bike, so I occasionally rode over that way to stop in to say hello.

Of course, I was reasonably sure I'd also be treated to a ten-cent cherry phosphate at Towey’s corner drugstore on the corner of Selby and Snelling.

To a twelve-year-old, pre-teen girl, Aunt Norma was just the type of young woman to be idolized. She always wore the most beautiful clothes, red nail polish, clip earrings and high heels. And she had a winning smile and that wonderful, charming laugh.

So the whole move-to-White-Lake thing was baffling to me. 

And then we met Bob Kristensen. His quiet, soft-spoken and gentle ways very quickly won us over. So opposite the boyfriend, Don. So less artificial; so very much more real. Our new "Uncle Bob."

June 1957
The wedding was at Trinity Lutheran Church in town. 

Construction had just been completed at the newly-built brick church, but the landscaping had been delayed due to many days of steady, soaking rain.

With no sod having yet been laid, the entire church yard resembled a muddy pig-pen  Not just your mere garden-variety mud, but something more like quicksand. My memory is very vivid in that regard because I got stuck in the mud, and I wasn't the only one. Someone, I don’t know who, had to come pull me out, my shiny black patent shoes caked with the wet, sticky, gritty substance.

It was a beautiful wedding. Following the church basement reception, a party that continued to the wee hours was held in the garage at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.

Norma and Bob settled on the Kristensen family farm, not far from Grandma and Grandpa's farm. Uncle Bob continued to share farming the land with his twin brother, Ray.

And so my glamorous, Aunt Norma became a farm wife. She took pride in tending her chickens, cooking, baking, and playing the organ at church. She was actually a natural in, what was to her, a familiar environment.

Come to think of it.....she never seemed happier.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Threshing days

You never hear about threshing anymore. 

According to my husband, who grew up on a southern Minnesota farm, modern machinery and equipment ended the need for this laborious process.

But in my grandparents' farming days in White Lake, South Dakota, threshing season rolled around in the fall of the year, after the grain was harvested.  The men on the farm would begin the threshing process, which separated the grain (edible) from the chaff (inedible).

Because it is a huge, labor-intensive job, farmers would get together and help each other, first completing the work on one farm and then moving on to another.

The farmer who owned a threshing machine would harvest other farmers' grain. A machine called a combine later replaced the old threshing machines. The combine had a chute that loaded the grain into a wagon, or directly into a grain bin.

It was hard work for the men-folk, but perhaps equally as hard for the women.

The women got together as well, moving from one farm's kitchen to another, pooling their culinary resources by cooking and baking in large quantities together. Many calorie- and carbohydrate-laden meals were needed to keep the men supplied with ample energy to do their work.

In some communities, I'm told, threshing bees were held, involving flea markets, dances, and other community events.  I don't know if that was the case in White Lake, in my grandparents' threshing days, but I have never heard any stories to that effect.

Whatever the practice in various locales, threshing season was part of Americana for many years.

And one thing was common to all: celebrating the end of threshing season.

When the work was done, the grain bins full, the hay bundled neatly in rows, farmers glowed in the satisfaction of bringing in another year's harvest, and looked at their fields with pride.

And evidenced by this great photo. 

(L to R): Leonard Steffen, Harvey Steffen,
Carl Markhardt, Herbert Steffen,
Wilmer Steffen, Charlie Steffen (kneeling),
 Art Ketelhut, Otto Steffen (sitting), Emil Steffen
For the benefit of my Steffen cousins, I've identified the men in the photo by name.

You might know, it would be my own grandfather, kneeling with the bottle tipped to his lips.  It looks to me like the bottles were mostly empty.

So, hmmm, I wonder.  How did the women celebrate?

My imagination knows no bounds in that respect.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Taste a little of the summer

Some years back, Greg Brown wrote and recorded a wonderful, folksy song called, Taste A Little of the Summer.  I really love the lyrics, which go partially like this: 
When I go see Grandma, I gain a lot of weight,
With her dear hands, she gives me plate after plate.
She got magic in her, you know what I mean,
She puts the sun and the rain in with the beans.
She cans the pickles, sweet and dill,
And the songs of the whippoorwill,
And the morning dew and the evening moon,
I really got to go and see her soon.

Cuz the canned foods I buy at the store,
Ain't got the summer in 'em anymore.
You bet Grandma, as sure as you're born,
I'll take some more potatoes and a thunderstorm.

Peaches on the shelf, potatoes in the bin,
Supper's ready, everybody come on in,
Taste a little of the summer.
Grandma put it all in jars.
Grandma had a large vegetable garden on the farm. Though she likely never heard the phrase organic gardening, she used only manure to make her soil rich and fertile.

I'd go out to the garden with her to pick green beans for dinner, listening to the plink-plunk sound of them as they hit the bottom of the aluminum kettle, and then quieting as the kettle was filled to the brim. We'd carry the beans into the kitchen, after cleaning our muddy shoes on the boot scraper kept by the back door.

From Grandma's garden, I learned that potatoes grew under soft mounds in the ground and you had to dig them up. In the city, Mom just bought them at the store.

Grandma preserved all her own fruit, vegetables and pickles in Mason jars. They were stored in the fruit cellar (they said cellar; we said basement), all lined up in an orderly fashion, like treasures, on wooden shelves. Cases of pop were kept in the fruit cellar as well, so you could always open a cool bottle.

She'd open up a jar of peaches at mealtime, put them in a large bowl, and serve them with a “sauce spoon.” A sauce spoon was larger than a tablespoon and more rounded. I would love to have a sauce spoon like Grandma had.

Her dishes were Fiesta ware. Now they’ve made a comeback and you can buy reproductions quite cheaply. Grandma had the economics of this beat, however, as hers were free. Premiums in boxes of detergent.

Grandma made a chicken dinner for fifteen look effortless. Here is her recipe.

The recipe looks pretty simple, I know. 

But, first, Grandma had to find the chicken running in the yard (I think they knew what was coming), catch it, use her little axe to wack off its head, and then before she could prepare it for baking, pluck its feathers and clean it. Until then, the poor hen just ran around in circles with no head.

Grandma made her own bread, kept in a blue speckled canner on the kitchen counter. She made raised doughnuts, and the best homemade butter you can even imagine. Remembering the creamy saltiness of it makes my mouth water.

For the dog, Butchy, she made Johnie-cake out of cornmeal. Cut in large squares, covered with leftover gravy, if there was any, she'd bring it outside where Butchy would be salivating from the aroma coming from the kitchen. The oven was heated by burning corncobs.

I only saw my Grandma cry once.

Uncle Marvin had enlisted in the Marine Corp. and went off to his tour of duty. We were there one summer when he was home on leave. But the time had come for him to return to Camp Pendleton. As he left the farm and drove down the long dusty driveway, Grandma stood by the road watching him go, wiping her tears with her apron.

~ A mother’s love. ~

And she stood again by the road as our summer vacation came to an end and it was time for us to leave the farm. We watched from the back car window and could see her waving until we were down the road, around the corner and well out of sight.

~ A grandmother's love. ~

My grandparents,
Charles and
Christina Steffen
When I look back on those summer days visiting Grandma and Grandpa on the farm, I realize just how rich those experiences were. We couldn't know then the valuable lessons we were learning.

My dear grandparents were the most loving people I've ever known.  Full of faith, character, integrity and conviction.

.... And at night, when the house was very quiet, Grandma could be heard softly reading the day’s devotion from Portals of Prayer to Grandpa before they turned out the light and retired for the night. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Small town rituals

The small, rural town of White Lake, South Dakota, held great fascination for us six kids as we visited there each summer. It was our Mayberry.

Although the farm itself was a novelty, the small town routines of the 1950s were even more interesting to us.

An "ice cream man" came to the farm to deliver Popsicles, ice cream and frozen novelties.  This differed from the ice cream wagons with their tinkling bells that drove slowly up our neighborhood streets in the city. The White Lake ice cream man stocked the deep freeze (we said freezer; they said deep freeze).

Then there was the "bread man" who, similarly, stocked the freezer (deep freeze) with bread and buns. We had a "milk man" in the city, but, of course, there was no need of that on the farm, because another ritual was taking the milk to the White Lake Creamery in town. First, of course, came the twice-daily ritual of milking, skimming the cream from the frothy milk in the stainless steel "separator" and filling milk cans.

The stores were open on Friday nights in White Lake and everyone headed to town, as much for socializing as for weekly shopping at Oltman's dry goods, Gambles, or Ehler's General Store.

We were excited as we cleaned up from our day's play, dressed in something better than our play clothes, and piled in the car for the 8-mile ride to town.

The kids all congregated together by the stores as we'd each been given a nickel for a pack of gum, maybe Black Jack, Beeman's, or Clark’s Teaberry. Or a Baby Ruth candy bar. Or Necco wafers. When we were a little older, we could get a cherry Coke at Warrell's drug store, or the Silver Dollar cafe.

The women did their shopping, while the men played pool or just drank red beer (beer with tomato juice) in the tavern or the Legion Hall. It was a big social night for all, and a weekly ritual for farm families isolated most of the week.

Saturday night was bath night. With one small bathroom and a limited water supply, we had to share the water. Where at home we could fill the bathtub, there was barely enough water to cover us, but we didn't mind.

Trinity Lutheran Church
ca. 1970
Sunday mornings, as at home, were reserved for church.

But church at White Lake was much more fun than it was at home as it meant we could sit together with all the other kids, and not with our parents.

This was a practice they had, and we thought it was great. We wished we could do that at our church at home.

I made friends with a few girls my age. Mary Ann lived down the road from my grandparents' farm, and Kathy lived a few miles away. Grandma would drive me to Mary Ann's, and that was the only occasion, or the furthest, I'd ever seen her drive. 

Kathy's mom would drive over to pick me up for a visit. I thought she was the prettiest mom I ever saw, and always pleasant, always smiling. I thought Kathy was so lucky, as I couldn't imagine her mother ever scolding her. She always offered us nectar (we called it Kool-Aid). 

Over the years, I was able to see how different my White Lake friends' lives were from mine; and yet we were the same, laughing at the same silliness and sharing 'Teen magazines when we were older.

My Grandpa had a quiet sense of humor, always stood with his hands behind his back, and delighted in playing tricks on us. His cow-pie trick became a ritual for us kids, as well as our cousins who visited.

First, he would claim to have a “secret" to tell us, or he'd ask us to come over by him to look at something oh-so-interesting. 

Of course, he’d stand in front of the pile of manure, blocking its view.

When we came close enough to him, he’d take us by the arm and into the “cow pie” we’d step. He'd take no regard of our footwear: barefoot, sandals, or Sunday patent leather shoes. If we were barefoot, he’d laugh about the manure squishing between our toes.

No cow pies in sight? Then it might be chicken poop. My mother didn't always think it was so funny, but we sure did. We fell for his trick every time, even though we usually knew what was coming. Grandpa would laugh like he really got us.

Ah, the simple fun, the simple rituals, the simple life.  I know now how choosing life on a farm is anything but simple.

But to us as kids, it was simply delightful, and a treasure to recall.