Sunday, March 25, 2012

Easter Egg Hunt at Maple Syrup Time

Hunting for Easter eggs in the maple hills north of town was a brief experience but one which was exceedingly special during a certain period when I was young.

This opportunity likely came about through my teenage brother. He worked for a local concessionaire. A born entrepreneur, his boss began his concession business at the age of fifteen at our county fair.

In the summer the crew went "on the road" to many small town festivals in the Midwest and the rodeo country of eastern Montana.

My brother's earnings were probably redistributed rather quickly as he tested his skill on Midway games and rode the rides. He had a great time in his seasonal job.

He came back with stories. It's been suspected he withheld the better stories from us younger ones.

One year he brought stuffed animals for my sister and me. They were prizes he won. As with most prizes at the fair, some good luck and concentration of aim was involved.

Surprise gifts are wonderful. They're even more so when they meet a desire you possibly didn't even know you had.

They were our first cuddly creations not counting dolls. We thought them very special. I got the black ocelot with spots. A red ribbon around its neck had visual impact. It was as though it took the trouble to show its personality.

My sister had the tawny-colored lion. She may have it still. She named it Tiger Lily. Casting about the farthest recesses of memory the name I pull out for mine is Moonbeam. It sounds correct. The two of us went for fancy names.

With one bent ear and one green glass eye missing my ocelot is otherwise remarkably well preserved. She remains guardian of the space of my former room at home.

My brother's employer, besides providing pay checks to dozens of teens, and some oldtimers who loved the excitement of the road, was generous to the place he was born.

He lived close to the land. He hunted and fished. He saw the need to safeguard what he so much enjoyed. He was a founder of the area chapter of Save the Wetlands. A civic booster, he participated in the locally popular Smelt Fry held each spring.

Among his interests was property in the maple hills where the Easter pancake feed tradition came about. There on sunny slopes he tapped his maples for syrup in the warming-up days of March and April.

With the good maple syrup boiled down from sap he collected (assisted by family and surely friends as he was sociable to the core) the makings for a pancake feed were right at hand.

The Easter invitation might have been going on for years when our family began attending. The event may have been a way to give back to the community. It was a chance to round up the concession workers and create a link to the carnival season ahead.

The welcome was obviously wide open. For there we were, my dad parking our Chevrolet sedan alongside the other cars in a field adjacent to the pancake feed, or alongside the dirt road with just enough shoulder (in places) to let a car sit.

It was all country where we were. Event parking, with folks to signal you to a space, hadn't been concocted yet. At any rate it would have been snickered at.

I can surmise what would have been said. "Not able to find my own parking space? Who do you think you are, Buster!" There would be self-sufficiency, and perhaps some mild indignation, in their expressed attitudes about this.

We came to the pancake feed hungry. I had an even keener appetite for the excitement soon to get underway. There was freedom in running through the woods looking for hidden eggs.

If I'd known to look, spring ephemerals were popping out of the ground. They catch the sunlight before the leaves come on.

Easter can be early. Winter is often late. We dressed warmly when this was the case. Sometimes snow lay scattered in thin drifts at the edges of the woods. It was usually soft snow and wouldn't last long.

Out of direct sunlight there remained pockets of compacted snow. This snow had an icy translucence as it thawed and refroze in the fluctuating temperatures.

By Easter even the most obdurate of snow piles was headed out of town. Faced with bare ground the hard snow was usually no more than silky smidgens of ice soon to be gone.

The remnant snow contrasted with the signs of spring all around. The contrast intensified the joy of the season to me.

The area covered in our egg search was moderately rough. It wasn't an Outward Bound course but it had its obstacles, mostly bumpy little hills and briars that could catch your clothing.

Inevitably there were muddy spots. There were puddles to step into if you had boots, or avoid if you wanted to keep your shoes brand new.

The wild grasses that clad the open slopes lay flat in a state of compression. Sporting their fall color - which spring rains would soon green up - the grasses were as tawny as Tiger Lily, my sister's little lion.

Sun fell with abandon on the bare slopes, hastening the warmth of the day as you undid a button or two on your jacket. You stood for a moment in tune both with nature and the noisy clamor unexpected of this quiet spot.

The older set was somewhere. This included, by our reckoning, anyone who was a teenager. They were vague background to the kid-level activity going on.

I place the growups around the food. They're enjoying pancakes, coffee and maybe bacon hot from the skillet. Bacon, getting appreciative sniffs as it sizzles over the fire, seems essential to hearty breakfasts served outdoors.

No single detail of the pancake feed is recalled except, perhaps, a sense of collective relaxation. Folks mill around or sit elbow to elbow over filled plates at the table.

They visit in loose knots of constantly forming groups as is natural when almost no one is a stranger to you.

For the kids there may have been other games. There maybe was a sack race or an Easter egg relay. There might have been the game in which you move an egg with a spoon in a straight row to the finish line.

Most is a blur, blown swiftly across my personal screen saver like the movement of milky-white clouds in a brisk spring sky.

The Easter egg hunt stands out for its sheer energy. We were a pack of kids in pursuit of the moment.

Literally bounding over the maple hills, our hopes were tied to the Easter baskets we carried that surely would fill.

Memory, broken down as if by the sun on recalcitrant ice, can be as bright as the colored Easter eggs we set out to find.

Ro Giencke - March 25, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Clap of Thunder

It's spring. Officially, by the rays shining more directly on the northern hemisphere, the sun declares it. Scientific explanations aside, actual lived-in spring arrived some weeks ago.

A record setting March has us reeling in a state of bliss. It's been wonderfully mild. It's good to open windows and be outside so easily.

The last day of winter left with lightning and the clap of thunder. The first real fireworks of spring brought much needed rain with it.

Winter dug in where my brother lives in the West. Spring can be vexatious when it teases like that. Springtime in the Rockies can be a hope that gets buried under ten inches of new snow.

The robins are back filling the yard with the happiness they bring. Their arrival puts the seal on spring here in Minnesota.

With the gorgeous full moon a couple weeks ago, and two intense planets burning in the western skies, nature has been staging a spectacle for all to see.

It was my daughter who called attention to the planets. I was noticing them and I told her that when she asked. You see the beauty of the night but perhaps it becomes somewhat common to you. Perhaps sharing is necessary to make more of it.

After our visit the night sky has more stature. The planets have gained in significance. They're a shared piece of experience between us.Venus and Jupiter, positioned closely, stand out as particularly visibly bright.

The first northbound towboat of the season, pushing seven barges, reached St. Paul on St. Patrick's Day, March 17. The hoopla from the celebrating, in this Irish-proud capital city, must surely have reached the crew as they made port.

Despite the mild winter that went into the books, and the fast spring we're having, March 17 is only a few days early for the big boats.

Opening date for the Mississippi River navigation season, based on a 30-year average, is March 20. That's today.

The March 17 date is not the earliest opening date as we'd be led to believe. Earliest date is March 4, which occurred in 1984 and again in 2000 and 2001.

A river the size of the Mississippi runs on its own calendar. The same goes for our lakes. Local lakes are ice free. This is two to three weeks earlier than usual.

It's tantalizing to be thinking of retrieving our boats from winter storage. In last year's backward spring they were almost forgotten. This year they were hardly out of mind.

Meanwhile, the land is heating up. Trees are budding. All of nature is starting to stir.
Yesterday's newspaper had a photo of a magnolia tree in magnificent bloom in Champaign, Illinois.

Al and I know the area fairly well. We've been through there in the spring. We didn't see flowering magnolias either time. But flowering ornamental trees on Neil Street on one late March visit just took the breath away.

The Upper Midwest spring never gets to that full-blown eye-popping dazzling array of bloom and scent as elsewhere in our region. It certainly can't stack up to the riotous color and blossomy intoxication of the Southeast spring.

A friend originally from Virginia misses her home state at this time of year. "Spring is so pretty in Virginia," she says wistfully. She specifically mentions the blooming which outdoes itself, and the sweet concentrated fragrance carried on the soft southern air.

The seasonal snowfall, totaling a scant twenty-two inches, long ago soaked in. Ground is ready for the rains of spring. Yesterday was a good start. Lawns will be turning green.

Gardeners, knowing it's too early, get itchy to plant.
Our first packet of flower seeds has been bought. Some outside work has begun as we find ways to hang about in the super weather.
Al was outside raking the other day. The yard looks neat rid of its winter debris. There's so much energy in tackling the season's first projects.
Ro Giencke - March 20, 2012

Friday, March 16, 2012

Greek-style Sour Cream Raisin Bars

Al requested oatmeal raisin cookies and it was my full intention to make them.

I got the recipe card out and set the directions on the counter. I began assembling the ingredients. And there I stopped.

We were low on raisins. The cookies couldn't be made just now. And as things go I got busy with other things. Then we were away for a couple days.

Another couple days passed. There was no ambition to turn on the oven. I'm not a procrastinator by nature. But this had the clear signs of procrastination all over it.

Al wasn't languishing because the cookies didn't appear. That eased my conscience somewhat. Because I really did plan to bake them.

The beautiful weather was partly the culprit. Seventy degrees and your head is in summer no matter what the calendar says.

"Spring me from the house." I said to no one in particular. Inside stuff deflates in importance when gorgeous days roll into town.

Al and I were the ones watching the breakup of lake ice (which is dark and about ready to open from one end of the bay to the other), picnicking in the park and taking coffee outside at the local Dunn Brothers.

These were among the restful, lovely outdoor pastimes we embarked upon. In spring break weather you do spring break activity we figure.

Today, with raisins on the shelf, my resolve was to get at cookie baking. I started right away. I brought out the recipe box to retrieve the cookie recipe, filed away when the first effort fell through.

Raisins and oatmeal. Raisins and oatmeal. The roll call of main ingredients, requisite to the outcome, caused me to think of a bar recipe that seemed even better than the cookies to make. I flipped through the bar section of my index cards and located it.

The recipe is for Sour Cream Raisin Bars. It dates from the early years of our marriage. We lived in a small town where Al's job placed us. Through work we became good friends with a couple considerably older than us.

With our wedding bands shiny and new, and John and Bernice's family grown and gone, we perhaps filled the bill for each other. They brought experience into the relationship. We had the new thinking and youth which complemented the other set very well.

Al liked John immediately. He was sold on them as a couple with a sample of Bernice's baking. Food is such a bond.

The guys enjoyed woodworking. They had this, and many other interests, in common. Many winter evenings were spent together. The men worked on their wood creations (John was building a grandfather clock). Bernice and I visited.

Sometimes it was at our house. Mostly we were at their place. They were homebodies who loved to socialize.

While the husbands puttered away in John's workshop Bernice and I visited at the kitchen table.

She poured for us the first cups of coffee of the evening that would see many more cups poured. It seems almost unbelievable now but one could and did sit and visit an evening away in those more leisurely times.

They were night owls. We picked up their nocturnal habits as we kept company with them.
They taught us to be excellent coffee drinkers.

The guys came in for coffee and refreshments later. They reported on progress on their projects. Ease and enjoyment was in the air as we seated ourselves as a group at the table.

Bernice set out a plate of delicious bars (or cake or pie) to go with her strong brewed coffee. "Coffee" was shorthand for coffee, dessert (almost always something freshly made) and conversation that could go on to midnight.

Coffee was typically served at about the hour of night that, at this stage of our lives, we're thinking of retiring to bed. Looking back we laugh thinking how impossible it'd be to do now.

This couple, with their country-bred kindness, helping ways and the continual treats from Bernice's stove, made those months of being newcomers feel instead like being ensconced within the heart of hospitality.

As I began making Bernice's bars I was sure Al wouldn't object. His cookies will be made. But the good sour cream filling and raisins in this recipe have the upper hand.

When I read down to the part in the recipe that lists sour cream I thought, Here we go again. First there's not enough raisins. Today too little sour cream.

The sour cream, most recently used as topping on baked potatoes, wasn't (as I peered into the container) going to extend itself to one and a half cup as needed.

Fortunately, Greek yogurt is also in the refrigerator. It'll have to do I thought. This was decided with the half-doubt, half assurance of one often caught in a pickle or a jam.

As I mixed, measured and stirred it came to me. Bernice's bars have been translated into Greek. As it turns out, she did some substituting of her own (see P.S. on her recipe). She would savor this new twist.

Enjoy! Recipes (my adaptation and the original) are below.

Greek-style sour cream raisin bars

Crust: Blend together 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed,
1 3/4 cup flour, 1 3/4 cup Quaker oats, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted. Press 3/4 of crumbs into bottom of lightly greased 9 x 13 pan. Save remaining crumbs for topping.

Filling: In medium saucepan stir 2 beaten eggs into 1 1/2 cup Greek yogurt (Fage Total 0% in 17-oz. container works well) until smooth. Add 1 1/2 c. raisins, 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons cornstarch and dash of cinnamon. Cook over low heat until thick. Remove from heat. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, stir. Pour over crust. Top with crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees about 20 minutes.

Sour Cream Raisin Bars (source recipe as written out for me ) 1 c. brown sugar, 1 3/4 c. oatmeal, 1 3/4 c. flour, 1 tsp. soda, 2 sticks margarine, melted. Mix together with a fork and press 3/4 of the crumbs into the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Don't bake yet. Save the rest for topping. Make a filling of 1 1/2 c. raisins, 1 1/2 c. sour cream, 2 beaten eggs, 1 tsp. salt, 3 tbsp. cornstarch, 1 tsp. vanilla, 1 1/2 cup sugar. Dash of cinnamon. Cook raisins in covered pan with small amount of water a few minutes. Drain. Mix remaining ingredients and cook till thick. Add raisins. Pour over crust. Sprinkle remaining crumb mixture on top. Bake 350 oven 20 min.
P.S. I use whipping cream and sour it with vinegar about 3 tbsp. Hope you enjoy these as we do.

Ro Giencke - March 16, 2012

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Orange tee shirt and khaki shorts

It's good to be home. We enjoyed Southwest Florida. We fit in seamlessly. Most winter residents, however, know the tug we call where we live.

It has a pull that makes us willing enough, when the time signifies, to locate our air tickets or fill the gas tanks and head north toward home in sync with the dance of spring.

It's a great warm Saturday in Minnesota as we settle in. It's going for sixty which is a temperature record for this date. Cardinals are calling. It's happiness to be hearing our birds again.

March winds and the morning sun rising through the adjacent woods have given their authority to the early season as we get back to the business of being home.

We're glad to connect with the things that make our household tick. We dive into work which feels more authentic when resumed in your usual computer work spot.

Easing into favorite chairs at the end of the day is heavenly. Everything seems right and comfortable because it is. One says that of home.

My little joy is putting on something different from the vacation clothes which grew perhaps not tedious but way too familiar as one reached for the same few tops or an even smaller assortment of shorts.

I don't miss the beachwear as much as I thought. At ease in the unlayered uncomplicatedness of coastal Florida dressing my hunch was that it'd feel goofy to be back in regular clothing.

The flip flops unpacked and put away proved that idea faulty. We're back in sweaters and jeans as if never away.

When Al and I eventually choose to wear the Florida clothes (washed, folded and along with the flip flops stowed out of sight) they'll likely be hailed as old friends.

An effort was made to iron out the wrinkles, mend the rips and remove the food stains as we unpacked and laundered the contents of the emptied luggage. You can't be neat on vacation is what we learned and a hint for how to pack in the future.

The clothes we chose to take along turned out to be vacation companions of a sort. Our time in them is the story of our winter in Florida.

It's not just an orange tee shirt or pair of khaki shorts or the flip flops that left their prints in the sand. It's the association with each piece that we will recall as perhaps we don't notice the wear points on them at all.

Ro Giencke - March 10, 2012