Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest -- A Book to Devour? Savor?

It has been a while since I blogged about the Circle of Friends book club, but I’m glad to report we’re still going strong. For a change of pace, we met yesterday for a luncheon rather than our regular dinner. We enjoyed delightful egg casseroles supplied by hostess, Carol, and an array of colorful and healthy salads. To offset all that healthfulness, desserts included lemon cookies, crepes with lingonberry jam, and Pat Prager’s award-winning peanut butter bars.

No, this isn't Pat. This is Cheryl who
whipped up a batch of Pat's peanut butter bars
to share with the Friends. Cheryl says she has
to admit they're tasty (even if she did make them
This pan attests that the Friends agree with


Thank you Shelly for nominating
this book for our club!
Now if you’re thinking Pat Prager is a member of our club and wondering exactly what awards her peanut butter bars have won, you obviously haven’t read the Friends’ selection for this month—Kitchens of the GreatMidwest by J. Ryan Stradal. And you should read it.
It’s hard to describe this book, but if you think Prairie Home Companion meets Fargo with a few recipes thrown in, you might be getting close to the idea.
Or maybe this will help.
Take one obsessive-compulsive female jock; one love-struck teenage boy; one spoiled, selfish, ego-centric woman; one traumatized, twenty-something alcoholic; one lonely, middle-aged woman whose identity is wrapped up in her cooking. Sprinkle generously with a spicy blend of Lutheran church ladies, pretentious foodies, middle-school bullies, and all manner of misfits, mayhem, and music references. Gently fold in one big and big-hearted female chef with a near perfect palate. Mix together in an Olive-Kitteridge-type plot, and serve with a generous dollop of satire and spot-on language.
Follow this recipe carefully, and—voila!—you have a delicious and fitting read for a group of ladies who love their food almost—almost—as much as their books.

Elizabeth brought some yummy succotash, also a
dish of significance in this book. Sadly (or not),
 there was no lutefisk to be had. Cheryl tried to obtain
some via the internet, but it seems no one is willing
 to ship this Scandinavian delicacy in the summer months.
 Probably a good idea.
 A couple of reviews to prove that others enjoyed this book as much as the Friends did:

"An impossible-to-put-down, one-of-a-kind novel. I have never read a book quite like this. This stunning debut announces J. Ryan Stradal as a first-rate voice in American fiction."
                                                   --Rob Roberge, author of The Cost of Living

"A Great American Novel in the fullest sense of the term. Everything you want a book to be."
                   --Ben Loory, author of Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Latest Gardening Strategy --Tough Love

This is the season I grow increasingly offended by Facebook posts. No, not political ones. Few of those ridiculous rants will tempt me to unfriend you. But a pic of your hussy of a hydrangea, exposing her voluptuous blooms for all the world to see? That’s a different story.  
Admittedly, there is a good deal of envy behind my outrage. If Facebook is any indication, it would seem that growing show-stopping hydrangeas is an inalienable right of any gardener south of the Mason-Dixon line. But, sadly and unjustly, that is not the case.
I have two hydrangea plants. One is on the side of my house and gets limited light exposure. About every other year, it produces one or two decent blooms. It has been there a long time, and I haven’t pulled it up because . . . well, it’s doing its best under trying circumstances.
My sun-deprived hydrangea
... you have to admire this kind of effort.
The other plant, however—the one on my patio—is a different story. I’ve tried everything—cutting it back, not cutting it back, fertilizing it, moving the pot around for maximum sun. For a while, the plant gave me fairly decent blooms, but now it's going through its teen years—that’s about age six in plant years—and has grown lazy and stingy. Over the last two summers, it has given me nothing, nada, zilch in return for all the love and pampering I’ve lavished on it.
I need to explain that I began setting up housekeeping in the mid-70s—that transitional period between the Age of Aquarius and Stayin’ Alive. It was also the time of decorating your space with enough houseplants to replenish a ravaged rainforest. When it became apparent the green in my thumb was lacking, my friend Donna—still under the lingering effects of love and peace—offered advice: “Words of encouragement and tender caresses will restore vigor and vitality to your languishing plants . . . along with regular watering and feeding and adequate exposure to sunlight.”
I followed that perfect blend of mystical and scientific advice for years, but recently I’ve realized that plants—like pets and kids—have distinct personalities. Even when they’re in the same family. What works well for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. Some respond favorably to positive reinforcement and kindness. Others require something a bit more . . . forceful.
I tested this theory last spring with my obstinate hydrangea. I squatted in front of that petulant plant to deliver a tough-love talk.
“No more coddling,” I said sternly. “No more free ride. If you don’t produce a bevy of beautiful blossoms this season, you’re compost.” With that I stood, brushed my hands on my jeans, and walked away. When I glanced back, I could’ve sworn its over-indulged foliage was smirking.
I waited all summer. As had become its habit, the plant accepted my feedings and waterings like they were services owed, not privileges. Every day it lazed in its bed of dirt, soaked up the sunshine, and snacked on slow-release fertilizer. Not a single bloom appeared.
Toward summer’s end, I stood over it, shaking a hand trowel. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m through with you. I’ll let you stay in this pot for now because it’s too late to replace you. But come next spring, a butterfly bush is going to occupy this very space.”
With steadfast determination, I made good on my threat. The rest of the summer and all through the fall, I didn’t give that plant so much as a sprinkle of water. I turned a blind eye when its impertinent green leaves paled. I watched with sadistic pleasure while they withered and turned crispy. In winter, when hard frosts threatened, I didn’t bother to move the plant to a more protected space, and I scoffed when I saw its naked, shivering stalks protruding from a blanket of snow.
In the early days of this spring, I surveyed my patio, making note of what new plants I would need. I came to the bare twigs that once was my hydrangea and with stalwart resolve leaned down to rip them from the soil. But as I peered into the pot, I saw a speck of green the size and shape of a doodle bug. On closer inspection, I saw that this was a bud, not a bug, and it was attached to one of those twigs . I released a weary sigh.
 “Okay,” I said. “One more chance.”
My "other" hydrangea shows
that it's trying...we'll see.
As of this post, I’m pleased with the attitude adjustment my hydrangea has made. At last count, there were eight—count ‘em, eight!—blooms bursting forth from those once-barren stalks. Not huge blooms, to be sure, and I don’t consider this a total turnaround on the plant’s part. But I’m a reasonable person. I can appreciate small victories.
Also, I’m feeling a bit smug these days. I’ve never been over-confident about my gardening skills, but it appears my tough-love theory might have some merit. I’ll give it this summer before coming to a definite conclusion.
In the meantime, I’m preparing for a little heart-to-heart with an uncooperative clematis.