pink peony

pink peony
old-fashioned peony

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A rose is a rose is a rose -- yes, roses are nice (even wonderful, if you know how to make them grow) but I would take a peony any old day over that proverbial rose. If there is such a thing as a perfect flower, my nomination would be the peony. They are easy to grow, dependable, long-lasting in a bouquet, smell heavenly and are gorgeous from bud to full blossom. What more could one ask of a flower?

My peonies have been in this spot for 28 years, planted the first summer we lived in our home. They are, however, much, much older than that. These timeless beauties were carrying on their business at an old home site on the farm, high on a windy hill above our little valley, long before I ever thought about living here. It had been decades, truly, since some pioneer woman had planted them outside her humble cabin, and then it had been more decades since that home had been abandoned, leaving the peonies to fend for themselves. That's one of their most admirable qualities -- they do take care of themselves. When I found them in the middle of the cow pasture on that long-ago May morning, they were blooming their sweet heads off, tended only by the hand of nature itself. Perhaps the cattle grazing around them added some natural fertilizer to the rocky soil, but that was the extent of any extra care they received.

Anyone who grows peonies knows you don't dig them up and transplant them when they are fully grown and blooming -- but I, novice peony grower that I was, didn't know that. I only knew that if I waited, I'd never find them again. So, grunting and groaning, I hacked at the rock-hard soil until I got enough roots and shoots to transplant. I honestly wondered if they'd just give up the ghost after I so rudely disturbed their carefree existence. And that first growing season was a challenge. I did water them that year, each time they began to really wilt, and I waited to see what would happen the coming spring. I probably even crossed my less-than-green fingers, hoping against hope they would survive.

Sure enough, the peonies happily greeted me that next year with lots of shoots and quite a few blooms. And every year since, they've shown me nothing but their best. Not that we've treated them well: they've been tread upon by farmers, children and grandchildren, living as they are in such close proximity to where we enter the house. They've been slept upon and under by various dogs. They've lived through drought years and seasons of too much water. Never mind: the peonies thrive, and every year in May they produce the prettiest blossoms imaginable.

Despite all the poetic references to roses, I don't know of any flower that smells as lovely as the bouquet by my side right now; indeed, it is almost intoxicating in its sweetness. I picked the blossoms on Monday, and four days later they are still simply beautiful. Yes, I vote for peony as flower of the year -- no, the best flower ever. Period.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

A One Egg Cake

On this snowy late-February morning, I stirred up a cake. My inspiration, besides the cold weather and being cooped up inside the house for the fourth day in a row because of a winter bug and my husband’s pitiful plea for something baked and sweet, was a recipe in the rural electric cooperative magazine that came in today’s mail. It’s called an Irish Tea Cake, and that’s plenty to recommend it. But as I read through the ingredients, all just plain and simple, I realized it must be almost identical to my very first cake. Nostalgia overwhelmed me, and I set to baking … and remembering.

It was a day much like this, and I was probably nine years old. The snow was flying, and I was tired of being cooped up inside with only my two younger brothers for company. So I did what I often did at such a time: I walked down the street to my great-granny’s house, ostensibly to keep her company but really to entertain myself. Granny let me do stuff, and I also just loved to rummage around through the old stuff in her big old house.

Not only was her house old and her stuff old, Granny (Mary Magdalen Luna Bushong, 1882-1971) was old. She was 78, and in 1960 that seemed pretty old to a nine-year-old. But still, it was fun to be at Granny's. Widowed for several years, she lived alone in a rambling, two-story turn-of-the-century farmhouse in the middle of town. Actually, Granny had a whole farm in town, with a huge garden, an orchard, a chicken house where she kept about 200 hens, a big barn across the highway where she kept a milk cow, a smokehouse, a brooder house, another barn and a building where she stored things.

The old house had had a bathroom added a few years earlier, but there wasn’t much else about it that was modern. Its source of heat was a Warm Morning stove in Granny’s sitting room; it kept that room cozy but did little for the rest of the downstairs and nothing for the upstairs. So on a cold winter’s day, it was like a refrigerator up there.

The best place was Granny’s kitchen, where a big old wood-burning cookstove held pride of place. My grandmother had insisted on getting Granny a modern electric range from the Western Auto, but she refused to part with the old wood-burner and always used it in the winter months.

That stove radiated comfort. I loved to curl up on the rag rug behind it with a book and read. That was where baby chicks that Granny ordered from the hatchery (delivered to the post office in a cardboard box with breathing holes, cheeping for all their might!) made the transition from life in a shell to life on Granny’s farm in town. They stayed behind the stove, little downy balls of fluff, until Granny deemed them ready to move to the brooder house.

Warmth was not the only wonderful emanation from that wood stove; the aroma from whatever Granny was cooking on or in it seemed more intense. At any given time, there would be a baked sweet potato ready to melt a fat pat of butter, a cast-iron skillet with wedges of leftover cornbread, some pieces of bacon saved from breakfast, or a bubbling pot of pinto beans or chicken and dumplings going on top. Things just tasted better when cooked on that old stove.

On the day in question, I wanted to make a cake. Mom was not one to let me cook – too much mess, and Mom never could tolerate a mess (still can’t.) But Granny said we’d make us a One Egg Cake. From a high shelf in her cupboard to the right of the cast-iron sink, she pulled down a rarely-used, old black-bound cookbook; I believe it was a Searchlight. She opened its yellowed pages and searched until we found the One Egg Cake recipe.

I asked Granny why it was called that. She said it was from the days when women hardly had anything to cook with, so they found ways to make a little go a long way. Of course, she was referring to the Great Depression, a time Granny remembered well. It may seem ironic to think that anyone with 200 hens would skimp on eggs, but eggs were the currency of many women of Granny’s day. Even by the time she helped me make my first cake, when the Great Depression was a memory, I doubt if Granny spent much, if any, money at the grocery store; she still traded eggs for what she could not grow or raise herself – things like sugar, coffee, or tea. Self-sufficiency and thrift were so deeply ingrained that she never overcame her tendency to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

We made ourselves a one-egg cake, and we ate most of it for dinner (no lunch in those days) while it was still warm. Not too sweet, a little bit dense, and full of the flavor of its simple ingredients: butter, sugar, vanilla (Watkins, of course), egg, milk, flour, baking soda and salt. The butter, milk and egg had all come from Granny’s farm in town. That little cake stood alone; it needed no frosting or sauce to enhance its importance.

After dinner, Granny always took a nap on her little divan by the Warm Morning, so I braved the arctic regions upstairs to nose around. I started (where I always did) on the sleeping porch where my great-grandfather’s doctor tools were stored in glass-topped cases. Laid out neatly, as if he might need to use them again at any minute, the shiny silver implements were fascinating and a bit intimidating. Then I went into a bedroom where his old medical books from the early 1900s were still stored in a bookcase. Things have changed a lot in medicine since then, but not everything. The graphic illustrations of women in childbirth provided an early lesson in the birds and the bees; equally fascinating was the tome with the descriptions, complete with lurid photos, of hideous deformities and growths that can afflict human beings. It's funny, the things one remembers ....

I rummaged through dresser drawers and wardrobes and trunks, fingering quilts and linens and old clothing and old photos (oh, those photos!), and when I was thoroughly frozen, I came back downstairs and helped myself to some more of my cake. I did a few things to help Granny, such as polish her black shoes, paint her fingernails and read a story to her from the Grit. And then I pulled on my red rubber galoshes, my wool gloves and hat and warm coat, and walked the block to home.

It was an ordinary day from my childhood, like so many others. And yet, I now realize that, truly, it was an extraordinary day, one that I’d love to relive. As I look out at the big, fat snowflakes drifting down and mounding around the door, I pour a second cup of Constant Comment and help myself to another slice of what I’ll call my Two Egg Cake. It may not be exactly the same as my first cake, but it’s close enough.

If you’d like to try my Two Egg Cake, here’s the recipe. Let me know if it conjures up any memories for you. You may prefer to call it

Irish Tea Cake

½ cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan. Beat butter and sugar together until creamy; add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one. Stir in vanilla. Blend flour, soda and salt together in separate bowl. Add to egg mixture alternately with milk. Pour into prepared pan and bake about 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack for 5 minutes, then remove and completely cool. May dust top with powdered sugar, if desired, when cool.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Losses ... and a bit of healing

Our close-knit community has been saddened by the loss of two women in the last couple of weeks, our neighbors Virginia Plaster and Connie Souder. Virginia Plaster was our mail carrier, along with husband Howard, for many years, and she always made it a point to deliver more than the mail when her bountiful garden was producing. It was not uncommon to go to the mailbox and find a bag of tomatoes as well as the usual bills, magazine and papers. Virginia didn't only have a green thumb; she was blessed with ten green fingers. She produced a garden full of vegetables, as well as a yard full of beautiful flowers, artfully growing in all sorts of unique containers and beds. It was wonderful to visit late in the evening of a warm summer day, when fragrant vines covered the sides of the Plasters' front porch and the walk and fenceline were a riot of color. It seemed that she grew things effortlessly, but the truth is she loved growing vegetables and flowers, and they responded to her diligent, loving care.

Virginia also knew her way around a kitchen, putting up all those vegetables into jars and jars of good things for when the garden was dormant. She cooked good, old-fashioned things like chicken and dumplings and homemade cookies and pies as effortlessly as some people open boxes or pull packaged things from the freezer. When the Wasola Fire Department was young, fundraisers such as pie suppers were a popular community gathering, both for the social aspect of getting together and as a means to support the growing entity. Virginia could always be counted upon to bring a couple of her delicious coconut pies, and they always commanded top dollar in the auction. I particularly remember one memorable evening when my husband must have been feeling quite neglected in the homemade pie department; he kept bidding on one of Virginia's coconut pies until he got it -- and the auctioneer made sure he paid! It was all in good fun and for a good cause, but honestly, Virginia's pie was that good.

At her funeral, Glen Dale Robertson, who grew up at Almartha and was a classmate of Howad and Virginia's son, Glen, played the banjo, a most appropriate choice for someone who loved to attend bluegrass festivals when her health still allowed. After the service, Glen remembered that Virginia sometimes drove the "bus" (her car) when the kids went to the one-room Almartha school and took a real interest in the well-being of all the neighborhood children. He poignantly recalled how Virginia stopped in at the school on November 22, 1963, to share the sad news that President Kennedy had been shot. Donna Walker, who was teaching at the time, remembered how the news affected the children and always appreciated Virginia's support of the school and her efforts.

Another neighbor, Sue Porter, recalled working with Virginia in the restaurant at Rockbridge and mentioned how she made a sometimes challenging job seem easy, helping new employees learn the ropes. Virginia, who worked as a cook, always had a can-do attitude, said Sue, and showed her how to make every step in a busy shift of work count.

Fishing and hunting were two of Virginia's hobbies, and when a hard day's work was finished, she often headed out with either gun or fishing rod, almost always coming home with something. Howard remembered coming in one evening and Virginia saying she needed "a little help" after supper. Virginia served the meal, cleaned up the kitchen and then took him out back where she showed him the results of her afternoon hunting foray: a five-gallon bucketful of squirrels! She and Howard cleaned squirrels till long after dark, and the next day they shared squirrels with every neighbor they could track down.

Whatever she put her hand to, Virginia could do -- and she did it well. She will truly be missed and will be remembered for her unique sense of humor and capable, willing attitude.

Connie Souder passed away on Valentine's Day after a sudden illness. It came as a shock to hear that someone so young was suddenly taken, and our deepest sympathy goes out to her family. Connie's particular pride and joy were her children and grandchildren. Even though I didn't see her often, I spoke with Connie on the phone and always thought about her as I passed the home she shared with her husband, Charles "Todd." She, too, will be sadly missed.

A third neighbor, Lee Fox, is spending time in Cox Hospital in Branson, receiving inpatient therapy after unexpected brain surgery. Lee understands that his coming home and rejoining the coffee group at Spurlock's Store at Squires depends upon his making significant improvement, so his wife Deanna reports that he is trying very hard and is making good progress. Lee has been a fighter and has overcome other health obstacles in the past two decades, so we're pulling for him to win this battle, too.

Beyond our little neighborhood, other sad losses in the wider community, including the unexpected passing of Carryl Brown, Craig Cockrum and Edna Uchtman, have marked the beginning of this year in a way that reminds us to never take for granted each day that we have to live and to love each other. When her family came across some of the last words that Edna Uchtman wrote in her final days, they found a bit of simple but profound advice: she wished people would be kinder to each other. Just imagine the impact if we would all do just that. Wouldn't that go a long way on the road to healing?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Betty's Best

This morning I found a carton of whipping cream hiding in the back of the fridge, left from last month's Christmas shopping. Seeing that it needed to be used right away, I decided to NOT make something sweet (which neither of us needs. We ate the last two Date Pinwheel cookies last night and shall be OFF sweets for a while.) Instead, I pulled out my favorite-of-all-time cookbook, dear ole Betty, because she holds one of my secrets.
Betty has been with me a long time, as you can readily see, and she's been with me through thick and thin, figuratively speaking, through everything from too-thick oatmeal to too-thin gravy and all my successes and failures in between. I always call on her for some of my favorite stand-bys. And that's what I did this morning; Betty has the best recipe for Chicken Tetrazzini ever. And yes, you guessed it -- it's the whipping cream that makes this special!

I've made Betty's tetrazzini many times without whipping cream, simply substituting milk or half and half (or a combination of the two)in the white sauce. And it turns out okay. But, oh, my goodness, when I happen to have whipping cream on hand, this dish is elevated to the level where it belongs!
I never have the sherry that the recipe mentions, so I just add a bit more chicken stock. And of course, homemade chicken stock is FAR better than anything out of a carton or can. There is simply no comparison to the taste. But again, when I don't have homemade, I blithely open that can. This morning, though, I had it all (except the sherry.)
Everyone in our family loves this tetrazzini, from the youngest to the oldest. If you have a carton of whipping cream languishing in your fridge, here's a great way to use it:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons sherry (in case you have it!)
7 oz. spaghetti, cooked and drained
2 cups cubed cooked chicken or turkey (both are good)
1 3-oz. can sliced mushrooms, drained
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Melt butter in saucepan, then stir in flour and seasonings. Cook over low heat, stirring until mixture is smooth and bubbly. Stir in stock and cream and heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Cook and stir one minute. Combine spaghetti, mushrooms and sauce and pour into 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes or until casserole is bubbly.