Saturday, December 27, 2014

When in Rome, remember it

Some places are so fabulous that words and photos hardly do justice but we keep trying. 

This is how it was with a recent land tour of Italy and cruise taken by our friends this past fall.

After their return they wrote up a travelog which they then shared with those of us who were tracking their vacation through their posted emails as they journeyed through Italy and then sailed from port to port.

Their travel account, thorough in information and lively with detail, put us there with them in the historic places and charming Slovenian villages.

They pulled out chairs for us so we could feast with them on spreads of delicious food. They regaled us with interesting encounters come upon by chance, or directed to through research on their part before their trip.

When they wrote of flying over the Irish coast it joggled a memory of our first trip to Europe. Our flight took us across Ireland just before dawn. You could see scattered lights as you looked down, and we could also start to discern actual countryside as night began to retreat.

We came in low over the North Sea with dawn breaking. The sky was all pink. From our aerial elevation the sea was gentle as a pond. (Which I really marveled at, always thinking of the North Sea as a stormy gulf between England and France).

I was thankful to our friends for writing about their experience of this, for it awakened our association with our flight to Amsterdam.

They wrote about walking miles in Rome. They bought gelato, found pizza that they’d go back for in a heartbeat dodged crazy traffic and soaked up the present and past, which breathes life from each other in the Eternal City.

After the shops and markets at Campo de’ Fiori they passed the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (first king of unified Italy as they added) and came to the Palazzo Venezia.

This building in the central Rome district, the residence of Cardinals, comes with a lineage. It was built in 336, rebuilt in 833 and in 1451 had a reconfiguration of space with more construction done at that time.

The Palazzo, at this time, was one of the first buildings to quarry rocks from the nearby Coliseum. This became a common practice in the middle ages and lasted into the 17th century. The multitude of temples and ancient buildings close at hand was a builder’s treasure trove.  

In our visit to the Vatican five years ago we were told parts of it are built from rock quarried from the Coliseum. The old Roman landmark was viewed by the pragmatic Romans of that era as a handy provider of building supplies. It was like a Home Depot store of the medieval ages.

The Adriatic ports our friends visited, and the Amalfi coast afterwards, were especially enjoyed. 

These spots, which they explored on foot, and went on tours into the countryside, struck a chord. It was as if they were saying, Here we have what's important in life.

Maybe it's because our friends were first-time travelers. Partially they may have been smitten because everything was new. All they did was novel to their experience and was presented well in animated settings.

The mild sunny weather quite likely also had its influence. The pleasant day-after-day conditions softened all the fibers of their being, as good weather does to vacationers far from home.

They were feeling, as many of us who visit the Mediterranean and the Adriatic areas, that the residents there grasp something essential which we're still in the process of coming to understand.

For thousands of years their culture, separate by region but united as if by sun, an easeful view which in part comes from realizing life will have its way, has flourished, waned and been reborn in this crossing point of western civilization.

From out of all of this has evolved a sense of what’s important from what is not so much. This in turn has been crafted into a lifestyle with impact to anyone visiting from elsewhere.

The combination of respect for food as a source of life, and food as a connector for life's moments (ordinary moments as well as the eventful), the significance of close ties (family and friendships unbroken through the generations), of wine as a salute to life, and gracious weather shapes this region of the Mediterranean and Adriatic.

In the bustle in these places, where there is bustle, there's also a peace which just knocks us over, it can be so unknown to us before.

I'll be thinking of things our friends wrote about these different places for a long time to come.

We’ll read or hear about these places and be reminded they were there, and that they mentioned them in the real and clear picture they drew for us.

When in Rome, remember it. When we’re anywhere (might be a good thought) remember it. 

Let us pay attention to our settings and our experiences and appreciate them as the building materials in our lives. Let us, where we can, share something of these things with others.

We all gain from sharing. When we send out from what’s good in our life there’s an inclination to build and reconstruct with improvement as a natural end goal. Let us all be in the sphere of positive building in this new year of 2015.  

Ro Giencke - December 27, 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Flurry can be the mixed bag of precipitation which here in Minnesota has fallen from recent skies.

In another observational sense it's the collective stir and action of getting ready for the December holidays.

The seasonal bustle that manifests through multiple events on the calendar, special baking which goes on, shopping for presents, gift wrapping, and all the festive touches lavishly bestowed, is hopefully giving our adrenaline systems a mildly stimulating workout and not draining us silly.

Wherever we are in the midst of our holiday preparations (which can last a great long time, and extend into the New Year) we’re wise to remember a wonderful truth.

Joy is very real within this period of time, and in us, and among us all.

We may as well stop right now and think about it. Joy is the underlining theme of the season. It’s there in the happiness, the delight, the anticipation and the gathering of family and friends, some not seen since last holiday time or before.

In all the experiences that come with living the fact of joy as a constant in our human makeup is very important to how we view this season and all the weeks of the year.

Joy is happiness that knows how to stick around through thick and thin. It isn’t lost or misplaced, as it can seem to be, when something isn't going well.

It can be unimaginable to believe in joy in the deepest trials and grief which, like a specter, streaks through our earthly existence. Nevertheless, we do well to acknowledge joy as part of the strong thread of who we are, as it’s meant to be.

To recognize the place joy has in our life is to say we understand life has shades of meaning and works by methods we don’t always grasp at the moment.

When we depend on joy as there, even when our sense of it comes up paltry to bare, we affirm trust in its presence. It's a signal to the world that we're on secure ground. We know joy is to be found when we look around.

Joy is steadier and deeper than the happiness we feel (or don't feel) as we go through any given day. 

When we expect there'll be something to be happy about it usually shows up. In time this becomes a way of approaching life in general. This translates to joy as we recognize the treasure in each fleeting moment.

There was advice I once read that I’ve come to appreciate, coming to the wisdom in it. The suggestion was to cross an item off your list that isn't bringing you joy, and add (in a second column) an item that has the intention of fun about it. 

The item you identify as fun will probably also introduce more joy into your routine.  

The more we can identify what is fun for us, and worth building time for, the more we get to the things with meaning for us. This frees joy to find us easier, and that can change everything over the long haul.

When days are cool, as they get to be in late December, the warmth is in thoughts of special ones. Holiday cheer wraps a bright bow around everyone, and this too is joy.

The twinkle of holiday lights largely brightens this dark time of the year. Not so dark - where there is cheer!  Enjoy these days, so dark in nature's detail, but shining, beautiful and hopeful in the context of the holiday season.

Ro Giencke – December 24, 2014


Monday, December 22, 2014

Let the sun come out

It’s a wonderful time of the year. 

We hear again the beautiful old carols and picture all the different moments the music has entered our hearts to place us at the Christmas scene.

As official winter begins (yesterday was winter solstice) we’re in a bit of a weather warm-up. This didn’t look very likely after an early chilly start to the season.

Our lawns, back to emerald green, have thrown off their snowy quilt for the time being. 

With staying snow arriving November 10 we were prepared for another endless stretch of snow cover like last year. This changeable cycle, perhaps attributable to El Nino, is called a reprieve by many of us.

Chances for a white holiday are discussed daily. Green grass may be very temporary. The forecast has snow in it before Christmas Day.

There were three days of fifty degree readings last week. It was as though we collectively packed up and moved to Tennessee. 

It rained the last day of this mid-month mild spell. As temperatures fell precipitation came as freezing rain before changing over to snow. We were left with an inch of snow on ground that had been newly bare.

The brief transition to freezing rain glued our mailbox shut. It took more than a yank to break the ice lock on the mailbox door the next day.

When I couldn’t open it (with as determined a pull as I could muster) there was no question as to the next step. I called Al. He had more persuasive influence. He wrenched the door free so we could put out the last of our Christmas cards.

While the thermometer in these parts has been everywhere the sun isn’t around at all. 

We recall two sunny days this month but (for honesty’s sake) we didn’t start counting until the sun started not to show up. December 22 being today, two bright days aren't a great percentage based on our informal recall.

There was one other sun sighting besides the two noted days. This third appearance brought pure joy. 

Sun wasn’t in the forecast for that day. It just happened. The sun broke through cloud cover, which had hung on all day, and dazzled us for about thirty minutes toward setting time.

The first Saturday of December was the sunniest day as we scan our memory.  

We opted not to go directly home after finishing up some shopping that afternoon. Maybe the cheerful sun had some part in it. Maybe it was teasing us to stay out in it and enjoy it.

Constructing our plan on the spot, we decided to make a drive of the area we were in. (We know the area somewhat, but you can always learn a place better.) 

The idea was that we'd wind up in an an adjacent neighborhood and eat out. Maybe, without formulating it as a thought, it was kind of a celebration of the sunny day and the sparkle that overlays the holiday season. 

It was beautifully sunny. The sun came in mellow through the car windows. We remarked on the sun. We admired it, as you do winter sun. We commented that it did much (in theory, anyway) to offset the coolness in the air.

The sun dropped behind the snowy hills as late afternoon came on. It created an orangeish glow at the horizon where the low sun remained visible through scattered stands of evergreens.

As the sun set we thought we were saying goodbye to the sun until tomorrow. We didn’t have a clue how long its absence would be. 

It deserved a much grander send-off. For sure I know I’d have whispered to it as it sank out of sight, “Goodbye, farewell, old friend, until we meet again.” 

Ro Giencke – December 22, 2014


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sprezzatura - style your way

A new word has entered my vocabulary and it ripples with Italian flair. 

Rightly so, for it comes from the Italian.

The word is sprezzatura. It rolls off the tongue with a skip and a knowing wink. 

It has pizzazz. It’s fun to say (or hear it said). Mellifluously it suggests dashing, sparkling, carefree. Even before you know what sprezzatura means your instinct is to pocket the word to make it your own. 

Then you find out the word in Italian pretty much means what you intuitively figure out it suggests. It’s the happy knack of making yourself look good. It’s the artful presentation of you to the world.

Sprezzatura in the fashion sense is the total effect of the clothing we wear through the seemingly unthinking touches we give it. It’s dressing with a statement of nonchalant confidence to it.

I learned the word while visiting “Italian Style,” the Italian fashion retrospective currently showing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). 

The style show, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, depicts the evolution of the Italian fashion industry from 1945 to the present.

“Italian Style” runs through January 4, 2015. Time is running out to catch it while it's in town. It makes a great holiday outing. Extended hours now in effect throw you a break so that you can still fit it in.

We went to see the show earlier in the Minnesota visit. Making it a forenoon event won us some time before things got busier. We appreciated our decision to get a move on it and be there prompt at forenoon opening.

There was plenty of elbow room as we began. It allowed us to proceed leisurely to not miss anything. We could circle back to rooms already visited when another peek at the stylish displays was warranted.

Beautiful embellished gowns, impeccable suits, sportswear, leather goods (luggage, handbags, gloves, shoes) and textiles that make up the display are the creations of Italy’s gallery of world-famous designers.

Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Fendi and Armani are names in contemporary Italian fashion but the review is thorough in giving the Italian fashion industry its due all the way back to its postwar beginnings.

Informative panels, pictures, films, along with the clothing exhibits which are the star of the show, tell the story of the fashion dynasties of Milan, Florence and Rome.

These are the fabled designers with their influence on men and women’s wear, the association with luxury by which their labels are known, and the integrity of the fabrics and workmanship that go into their products.

The rich tints, sumptuous fabrics and meticulous detailing make you feel you’re on the movie set of your own “Roman Holiday” as you mosey along.

I learned more than a handy new word with our visit to "Italian Style." The fashion exhibit is a history and cultural lesson that adds perspective to the program as a whole.  

For instance, it was new to us that the Marshall Plan, our American aid program set up after WWII, was instrumental in mobilizing the Italian clothing industry after the ruinous years of war.

Then Hollywood came along and was swept off its feet by all things Italian. 

Big-screen entertainment, with its huge impact on mid 20th century America, gathered up its movie audiences and most of the rest of us to include us in its love affair with Italy.

The Hollywood connection with Italy stayed strong into the 1960s. Movies were filmed on location in Italy and suddenly Italy was the new international playground for stars and celebrities.

Italian actresses like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida were household names. Italian scenes became familiar through movies like “Roman Holiday,” in which Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant play out their fleeting chance at love against the stately background of 1950's Rome.

Jacqueline Kennedy marked her vote for Italian design when she ordered from Valentino. We were taking our cues from the well dressed and the well dressed were looking to Paris and the fashion houses of Italy.

American consumers with growing disposable income wanted more than to simply emulate the smart dressers of the day. 

Increasing contact with European culture, intensified by the US military presence there during WWII, created a desire to add Continental suavity to hometown ingenuity. 

All of this contributed to the interest in Italian fashion, which remains a notable player in fashion today despite many changes as fashion becomes a global industry.

With information gained in the walk-throughs of the different exhibit rooms I found myself, at the end of “Italian Style,” circling back to the word sprezzatura.

I like the word not only for how it sounds. It's useful for describing my clothing style (as I wish it to be). In truth, sprezzatura is more an idea. It's what I could pull off if I put commitment to the result to the test. 

Clearly I’ve got the hang of casual, which is part of what sprezzatura suggests to me. 

This aspect of my personal style is well broken in. My closet holds simple, functional pieces. It gets me dressed fast. It can be thought of as sturdy pieces and mindlessly simple assemblage.

To demonstrate that something tangible has come from grasping the nuances of sprezzatura means I have a job to do. 

It'll take concentrated effort to get to the place where it looks like it takes no time at all to get dressed, and to make it seem all nicely fitting (in the Italian way), and absolutely uncontrived.

“Italian Style” made me take note of the inner workings of style. It helped me see that many of us, not clothes-conscious in one sense, manage to create a personal style that suits us and, more importantly, let’s who we are shine through

“Italian Style” is gentle encouragement to value what we wear as the conscious choices of who we are, with some of the best in apparel as standards to hold up to our light.

The exhibit put a little fire under me. Afterwards, I set down some pointers for getting closer to sprezzatura my way.

The thoughts jotted down (which follow) are a mix of ideas picked up from everywhere. 

A few borrowed from somewhere else, a few my own interpretation. Like the real sprezzatura the secret is to take it all and make it your own.

Sprezzatura – style your way                       

When you put on what you wear each day keep in mind that looking at the top of your game is often about simple presentation.

A confident style (as if your outfit was effortlessly pulled together) is not always as breezily constructed as it appears. It usually takes time and work. Judge if that extra time and consideration is a priority for you.

Mix up what you wear. Play with your pieces. Create new matches. Introduce unexpected pieces to signature staples to keep your personal style fresh.

The key to dressing well and happily is to have items in your closet that you love and that flatter you. You know the ones they are!

Invest in versions of your favorite pieces. Wearing what you like the most gets you closer to your authentic look. The ease this gives you in turn boosts your clothes authority.

Dress more to feel good and dress less to try to compare yourself to others. Being you is always the best first step in getting yourself together.

Reducing your closet inventory can be a good thing. It lets you focus on the clothes that really speak to you and which project you. 

When it fits don't you just know it! 

When the mirror says you nailed the look the energy you receive from this affirmation is amazing.

Accessories (everything from handbag to wristwatch to Grandma’s old brooch) can draw attention away from what you have on, which is sometimes exactly what you want. They can put focus on your outfit as well. Know how to utilize accessories to retool your basic look.

Think of a scarf as an investment piece. Get smart in the ways to tie a scarf. Keep a few quality scarves (wool, silk, cotton) in your fashion arsenal. You have an ally in your scarf. It’s like a buddy who plays sidekick for you.

What you put on your feet is eminently important. Fashion is fashion, but with style there’s a spot for being comfortable. 

Style, after all, is the look you own. If your feet feel good it’s likely you do too. 

That transmits to everything. It shapes how you’re perceived. Feel free to skip the cramped toes, stiletto height, or any other fashion trend if it doesn’t make you smile an hour after you put it on. 

Get up and get dressed for the miracle that meets you today. This is my own bit of fashion advice. It popped into my head a couple years ago and I liked it and wrote it down.

Ro Giencke – December 13, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

Garlands and lights, small towns celebrate December holidays

We came through a small town west of the Cities the other day which was all decked out for the season. 

Christmas decorations of vintage origin dressed up the streets. 

The holiday display began at the very edge of town, where the first buildings sprang up. 

The lighting continued through the next section of businesses and main street residences and brought its old-fashioned charm to the end of town. I could picture the sweet twinkle of lights if you drove this way at night.

We commented on the spirit of these small towns to keep an identity and be stewards of the community traditions that often link many generations. 

Years ago, when everything wasn't lit at night as it is now, you can imagine the joy and wonder in the small towns whose streets through the Christmas season were brightened by municipal holiday lights.

The lights were simple (and charming because of their simplicity). They were saved forever and put up each year.

Elaborate lighting and presentation are the norm almost everywhere these days. Society is always craving "more." Pretty and sufficient are no longer enough. We expect something to be continually novel if it's to interest us.

This is why this season brings out an appreciation for yesterday in many of us. The past evokes remembrances of more easily appreciated ways and times.

The small town lights seen with my husband called to mind my hometown at Christmas when I was small.

The electric glow of the December streets after dark created an aura of anticipation for the happy arrival of Christmas Day as the town trundled through weeks of short daylight and the first cold snaps of winter.

We shopped for presents (as a family, probably making one Christmas shopping trip downtown each year). We went after supper – in the cold and dark - after the dishes were done.

In other blogs I’ve written about Christmas shopping as a girl. My brother and me - at some age allowed to go off together on our own - covered the few blocks of shops handily in the time given to get our purchasing done.

With spending money in our pockets we were as much on the lookout for what we hoped to receive as what we'd set out to buy. We were independent, out in the crowds and Christmas was coming. Nothing could have been finer.

These shopping trips, paltry as a grand total as they'd be if actually tallied up, persist as a pleasant memory of holiday expeditions carried out a hundred times.

Strings of festive street lights and the ringing of bells on opened store doors stand out as impressions made on two young kids.The cheerful lighting made us welcome and the store bells ushered us into the warmth inside. 

My friend Barb also has a story of small town lights. Eighteen years ago she and her husband found themselves in one of the range cities, the catch phrase for the rugged mining towns that dot the Minnesota Iron Range.

Dark comes early in December in the north country. Dusk is a brushstroke away from the pitch black of long cold night. They were still a good stretch from home as the light began to steal away.  

The town's old-time Christmas decorations impressed Barb as she noticed them from the car. 

They warmed her through and through, catching her (as they did) at a tired moment at the end of the day. Their day had been spent checking out assisted living places for a relative (the reason for the trip to "the range"). 

Anyone who has done this kind of looking can appreciate the weariness that hits after the search has gone on for a period of time. Barb was in need of a lift and the Christmas lights delivered. 

"The garland strung across the main street was still the real thing" she notes of the transformed street that filled her with delight. 

By “the real thing” she alludes to the evergreen boughs that made up the garlands. 

The fragrant branches would have been gathered from surrounding forestland to compose the green living banner above the commercial district that marked downtown. 

This is not done so commonly now, which makes the recollection extra special to her.

"All garlands arched to the corner of the main street in the form of a crown where a bright star was hung, with all its old wattage light bulbs shining like the North Star.”

“It was snowing lightly" she adds, underscoring the charm a soft drift of snowflakes lends to a holiday scene.

 "It was magical and romantic," she says of the experience. "That old town charm . . . I felt like a little girl again in the tiny port city of Superior, Wisconsin."   

Ro Giencke - December 5, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Our heritage cookbook

“In proposing a collection of Mom's recipes, these are the recipes she could make with her eyes closed, or one hand behind her back, if you get the idea.” 

These were the words that last year launched our family’s heritage cookbook project.

The idea had been working on me for some time. It was hastened along when several of us discovered we held differing versions of a cookie recipe Mom made every Christmas and Easter in our growing-up years.

It wasn't new to me that recipes can alter relatively soon after leaving their home base, either by how they are copied down, interpreted according to directions given, or purposely tweaked afterwards. But the surprise of it was still an impact.

Recipes follow a decidedly evolutionary pattern. They mutate over time and by the number of hands they pass through. Their transitory nature after they ensue from their origins felt like a revelation when the experience happened to us.

There’s fragility in anything of substance. Change and loss come to everything. This is true also with family recipes as we learned. 

It was clearly time to collect and preserve this loose treasury of Mom’s recipes, and there was no better time than now.

The recipes we dug into our files for, to write out to put together into a cookbook, mostly had their origins with Mom as we began to formulate the scope of this heritage volume.

Some of us contributed favorite recipes but the emphasis was on the main dishes, breads, desserts, homemade jams and miscellaneous food items under Mom’s mastery as she fed all who came to her table.

These were the recipes we associated with her busy kitchen and the family times when the call to eat was the defining moment of the day.

My recipe files and my sister’s are especially full of Mom’s recipes. Some are recipes she wrote out for us. Other recipes – recipes Mom used often - were copied down by us out of her recipe books.

A few recipes were written down while watching Mom measure and stir as she made a dish for which we wanted the recipe. We wanted to ensure we could duplicate her steps. Putting what she did on paper was a good start. 

These were the recipes that were in her head. She’d made them for so long she didn’t know where she came by them or if there was a written recipe for them. With these recipes she shared best by showing us rather than writing them down.

Some of Mom’s recipes, and my remembrances of food in our family life, have been written about at this web site. Food is a big deal and comes easily to be written about. 

If I were to name one recipe that says Mom, out of the many which qualify to share top billing as favorite foods she made, it would be brownies.

Brownies were the treat we couldn’t get enough of as kids. They were made mostly for special occasions, such as for company. Their spaced-out appearances made brownies extra special.

The recipe came from a relative. Mom made up her own chocolate icing to frost the bars, which makes a 9” x 9” pan. She arranged three rows of walnut halves (a total of nine walnuts) on the icing as a finishing touch.

She made brownies to serve when Al's parents traveled to Minnesota for our wedding. The two sets of parents met for the first time two days before the wedding date.

His folks, upon arrival in town, were invited to my folks' place. When we all came into the house together, with the good cheer of a happy group, I saw the covered pan of brownies in the kitchen for serving later.

It was pleasant to know that these bars, so consistently delicious, and going back so far with us, were to be part of our family’s welcome to my future in-laws.

There were other goodies on the platter passed around with coffee that night. The brownies stand out. They were that good.

About this time Mom began to make Hershey Brownies, a recipe that came from my sister-in-law, a great cook. This recipe is for a 9 x 13” pan. The bigger yield was what Mom was looking for then as the family started to grow. 

More of us home for family gatherings meant more food was needed. The large pan of brownies provided more pieces, and that was important.

Mom made many varieties of cookies through the years. Chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cookies were made most often, probably based on what we kids liked. 

Her cookbooks, with food stains (we kids liked to "help") and her written-in notations on certain pages, point to the recipes used the most.

By far, molasses crinkles were Mom's favorite cookie. My kids were with her on this. 

As with all the grandchildren, these were happy trips to Grandpa and Grandma’s house. There was always something freshly baked to welcome us. No one who visited them ever lacked for snacks or dessert.

Many times in those years the cookie jar was full of molasses crinkles. With our small ones as allies, Mom was able to indulge her preference for the crisp, spicy cookie.

Jello in multiple flavors was a staple on Mom’s kitchen shelves. She made Jello in summer as a light touch and made Jello salad for the holiday table every year.

The Christmas table derived some of its festivity from the seasonally colored Jello salad. Mom used red (strawberry) Jello or green (lime) Jello with usually some kind of fruit folded in. 

A Minnesota heritage cookbook is incomplete without a Jello recipe. Jello had a dominant sway then (less so today). 

Jello’s place on the table was true for our family as well. Our cookbook endeavor would have to incorporate a Jello recipe or two as we began the vast collecting task.

In later years Mom became a pro at making Knox Blocks. It was my recipe to begin with. I shared it with her. As it turned out, she found she had a hit with it with the grandkids.

Jello, Knox gelatin and boiling water are the only ingredients. The soupy mixture is poured into glass pans, refrigerated and cut into squares when set. Knox Blox is bright-colored and squiggly. Under-ten is the age to enjoy it most.

Knox Blocks was a summertime treat that rivaled Rice Krispie bars for how it made the grandkids smile to eat it. 

It was another recipe to put in the cookbook. It would stand as a remembrance of the years when to cook and make for the grandkids was for Mom - everything.

Others in the family, asked to name a food or recipe they link to Mom, would rightfully answer homemade bread. 

Mom loved to bake bread. We were familiar with the heavenly aroma of bread cooling from the oven and the sight of the kneaded dough rising in the big covered bowls beforehand. 

She used a basic yeast dough recipe which lent itself to several variations. Her homemade pizza dough was made from this.

This recipe was used for crispellis, finger-length slices of dough deep-fried in oil and rolled in powdered sugar, which was the Christmas Eve dessert we borrowed from our Italian side.

Mom's cinnamon rolls, from this same yeast dough recipe, were outstanding. The soft warm rolls were all gooey caramel on top where dots of butter and the sprinkling of brown sugar and cinnamon introduced themselves and agreed to harmonize.

By the time we younger kids came on the scene she was baking less bread. This wasn’t strictly her choice. 

Store-bought bread had established itself as budget friendly and convenient. Moreover, we kids probably preferred the pre-sliced white slices that made good and easy toast.

She continued to bake loaves of bread, particularly Swedish limpa, a dark, dense and delicious rye bread which I like to this day.

In our school days Mom occasionally made Boston Brown Bread, which is more like a steamed pudding. It has whole wheat flour and cornmeal in it, molasses, sour milk and raisins. It’s iron-rich in every way.

The bread was sometimes made in the pressure cooker although the original directions say to steam three hours, cover with wax paper and tie it with a string (an old recipe). 

This recipe came out when the supper meal was beans, which cooked at low heat on the stove through the afternoon. It was a bread from Mom’s girlhood and first made by my grandmother. Even then the tracks of a recipe felt long.

Mom's Scandinavian background influenced her tastes in food and the foods she prepared. Potatoes and bread, which her family consumed as basics, were her stock in trade as she put meals on the table to fill up her big family.

Rice porridge (the recipe coming from a Norwegian-American aunt) was liked by most of us. I’ve written about rice porridge in a previous blog.

Norwegian fruit soup, also possibly the subject of a previous blog, was a winter dish like rice porridge. It was generous with dried fruits – prunes, apricots, raisins – and thickened with tapioca. Some of us liked it, some didn’t.

The relative who gave Mom the brownie recipe additionally provided the lefse recipe the family still uses.

We've heard lefse called a Norwegian burrito but that doesn’t quite describe it except the similarity of folding it with something inside it.

Mom didn’t make lefse often. Occasionally, on a cold winter Sunday afternoon, with mashed potatoes in the refrigerator, left over from the noon meal, it became a family activity to make lefse.

Lefse is made by mixing cold mashed potatoes and flour together. The mixture is rolled into 7” circles, rolled out with a rolling pin and baked in a dry (non-greased) skillet on the stove.

My brothers took turns at the stove watching to see that the lefse circles didn’t burn as they baked. Each of us gravitated to certain kitchen jobs. Lefse, as with the crispellis, was where the boys got involved.

When done, the lefse was folded into triangles or, as some of us did, we rolled them tight like cigars after buttering them and sprinkling them with granulated sugar. 

We liked lefse, which was a rare treat. Lefse is not a taste I miss but without a doubt it had a place in our cookbook.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, when J. I. Rodale of Organic Farming and Prevention magazines, and healthy eating advocates Adelle Davis and Euwell Gibbons were popularizing natural foods, Mom began making homemade granola.

She fixed what she called “Adelle’s Cereal” for years, filling large empty peanut butter jars to store the old-fashioned rolled oats, sunflower seeds, shredded coconut, honey and oil mixture baked on a cookie sheet in a 250 degree oven.

At this time Mom found a yogurt recipe which used powdered milk, evaporated milk, water, gelatin and 3 tablespoons yogurt.

The mixture is poured into glass jars set in water heated to 120 degrees, and the heat maintained at 120 degrees for 3½ hours. 

These were the getting-back-to simple recipes that were in vogue then, and Mom found them interesting. The recipes used techniques that took time but emphasized the individual's role in the choice to eat wisely.

Many of the foods we remember in particular are the meals we ate at the family table. 

They were a rotation of hot dishes and meat and potatoes suppers. Each of us had meals we waited for and entrees we didn’t much care for (think liver and bacon).

All recipes, as we considered them for inclusion, were to be treated equally. If on the family table, and liked by some of us, they were earmarked for the cookbook.

Pie making was an area in which Mom excelled. Pie was Saturday dessert for many years. 

Mom made all kinds of pies - apple, lemon, pecan, pumpkin, sour cream raisin - to note a few. She made them all very well. We knew the pie listings would be among the cookbook’s best sections.

Food which Mom cooked and served was nourishment, warmth, inclusion, connection. 

We took in these elements of love along with the air we breathed and the times we lived. Our collective food history threads us together well into our adult years and extends into the next generations.

A family recipe collection is a record of past times and present moments, as we are finding out. 

It’s a snapshot of family then, and family as it is now. It lets any of us, at any time, any number of years down the road, pull up a chair to the family table and be part of the story. 

Like a good plate of food in front of us it's there to tuck into and enjoy.

Our heritage cookbook, undertaken as a family project, without any sure thought as to how the idea would be received, or its end result, simmered and cooked and is now on the family table. 

It comes seasoned and savory, and ready to serve us for many years to come.


3 - 3 oz pkg Jello, 4 envelopes Knox gelatin. 4 cups boiling water

Stir till entirely dissolved. Pour into two 9” square glass pans. Cool. Refrigerate 

Ro Giencke - November 25, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

If it's in you

Dear Grandma and Grandpa

We climbed a real steep Hill. on top was a metal plate in the ground that was marked U.S.G.S. Eddy. We went to our summer place too. We had a real nice day. they caught some fish. Love, 

... me. This letter, sent to my grandparents almost too many years to count, filled a half sheet of paper and was hand printed. Our 2nd grade class had not yet been taught cursive.

At the bottom my grandma has noted: "Can you believe at 7 years? I mean of course, this good work."

The letter, and Grandma's kind writing beneath, was found when looking for a letter from an old friend which I believed I could find in a collection of saved items. 

The search brought out the folder of my oldest things, a miscellany of fading pictures, report cards and the like. It's a treasured stash because of the associations with my start in life, but a folder seldom foraged in because, quite honestly, there's too much present living to do.

I'm thankful for the thought of this old friend which caused the hunt. it didn't lead to finding her letter but it did put me in contact with this letter of mine written at the age of seven. 

When I read now the few lines set down for my grandparents there was instantaneous acknowledgement that if it's in you, you do it. And you'll do it naturally, spontaneously and repetitively.

It's been that way with me with writing. As soon as I could put pen to paper I did. I've written all my life. It's been joy and fulfillment all the way.

And dear Grandma!  A role model for mentors, she saw something in my letter and took time to remark on it. 

Making a comment or giving encouragement validates an effort. This kind of confirmation is valuable in raising up our young, and others who can use guidance and support as well. 

My grandma saw passion and an interest in things in my desire to communicate. Then she more than noted it mentally. She added her evaluation of the effort and sent the letter back to my mom.

Mom also plays a part. She kept the letter with words on it which belonged to both her daughter and her mother. At some point she gave me the letter, probably early in my married life. I took the letter and put it away.

Quite probably it tickled me then to read it before I consigned it to storage. It takes years and perspective, however, to revisit something and see it properly. 

When that time comes, often requiring the passage of time, you look at it in the light of experience and the knowledge you've gained about yourself.

The letter written at seven is the real me. It was me as a 2nd grader and will be me at seventy-seven when that time arrives.

It's a snapshot of more than the person I'd become. It's a picture of me already formed by my love for writing and a keen desire to share with others out of my chosen words. 

The seven-year-old simply awaits further shaping, which the years have come along and brought.

Ro Giencke - November 20, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

Serendipity in Sorrento

Outside it’s a chilly ten degrees.

I know because I just looked. Ten is what you can expect as a start to a January day in Minnesota if you’re lucky. 

This, however, is ten degrees at mid forenoon in the middle of November. Come on, really, we grumble. This is winter way too soon.

Luckily, a couple weeks ago some of us had a free vacation to Italy with an Adriatic and Mediterranean cruise thrown in.

Memories of sunshine and warmth are helping get us over this rough patch. Weather was mild, packing was minimal and when the cruise was over we were well traveled, well informed and well rested.

The free vacation didn’t make us any more ready for the cold that’s settling in. At least we have a cushion of well-being to fall back on, which is all to the good.

We didn’t win this vacation in a lottery. We didn’t sign up and our names were picked in a drawing. It was much easier than that.

Friends took a trip of a lifetime by mapping out a vacation that included train and bus travel in Italy with stays in Rome and Venice for sightseeing. 

When you’re about to say, “Wow, that’s some getaway”, the bigger share of their adventure begins.

They boarded their cruise ship in Venice on an itinerary that took them to the fruitful, sunny welcoming lands of Slovenia and Croatia and swung them around the boot heel of Italy to Sicily and so on back to Rome.

There were wonderful days of exploring on their own time before the cruise. There were the excellent land tours that are done as part of the cruise. Almost daily they emailed updates and photos.

The emails were looked forward to.They made us feel that the essence of the experience was ours to share in.

Almost every day they were somewhere interestingly new. Some places were new for us in every sense. We were unfamiliar with some of the ports they visited. We did a fair amount of googling of locations to keep up.

Usually an email came with just one photo attachment. Our friends didn’t wear us out by showing us everything. They gave enough to open the door to each place with the promise that there's so much more.

The emails were brief. They were kept to a couple lines each. We learned their current locations. There might be a comment on the weather. More than once there was mention of the delicious food.

The emails set the stage so we could travel along from our homes thousands of miles away. We had everything with us to enjoy this fall cruise. It didn’t entail passports or carry-on luggage to be there with them.

Their arrival home was followed by a long phone visit with them (after a decent interval for jet lag recovery). 

It was great fun to ask questions of the trip and to hear more about places they saw. In a way it was a chance for us to relive the Mediterranean cruise we took five years ago. 

The cruise we took was one of those experiences that come along that you call a life changer. Of course, we thought life changing meant we’d book another cruise soon and continue to put our passports to work. 

Time has elapsed and another cruise hasn’t happened. This is less important than that we had this time, used it advantageously and benefited from it.

Like us, their cruise stopped at Sorrento. I wanted their reaction to it believing they couldn't have escaped its charm.

We (meaning me for sure) left our hearts in Sorrento. The memorable noon meal that a Sorrento restaurant served our tour group, with much visiting among us at the table, with glasses of wine to reinforce the fact we were dining in Italy, is not to be forgotten.

The stroll through the lemon groves afterwards, the fragrance of lemons splendid and yellow as they grow on the trees, the sheer beauty of steep cliffs, and the blue sea with Capri and its famed Blue Grotto lying to the westward, captivated me differently from other places we took in.

My forebears could have come from here is what I thought. I drank in the scene along with the limoncello, the refreshing and potent Italian liqueur, which we enjoyed at some outside venue as we recall. I felt I was returning home.

I remarked to our friends on the fragrance of the lemons at Sorrento. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line. 

They don't have an association with lemons as we do by visiting in May. Lemons were out of season (harvesting is done by October) when they were there, they said. They missed the whole lemony sense of Sorrento which we embraced.  

Travel is a matter of serendipity we agreed. Season, time of day and weather all play a part in the impression you take in and the impression you take away.

Ro Giencke – November 14, 2014


Thursday, November 6, 2014

A father-in-law's perspective

My propensity is for sharing what I read, hear or see.

Call it a gift, or call it a developed inclination, satisfaction for me is taking in life and beaming it back out to the world.

Blogs are a way to do this. Sharing things of interest also happens when visiting, as my husband Al will readily testify. 

The car is often where thoughts formulate as the two of us drive somewhere together. The other day a quote from the November 2014 O (the Oprah Winfrey magazine) worked its way into the conversation. 

"There are no wrong turns, only unexpected paths" is the quote (attributed to Mark Nepo). It was fresh in my mind when I brought it up as a line with truth to it. 

The quote has meaning for me. It corroborates my game sense. Give me a new road and I’ll take it every time. I’m not unwilling to back up, turn around, admit I’m lost, or retrace the route, if it comes to that. 

The thing gained is new area that is tested and tried. You widen your boundaries on familiar when you press into the previously unknown. My philosophy has evolved to believe that the journey is every bit as worthy as the destination. 

Provide yourself with extra time is my tip for anyone wanting to experiment with this creed. Extra time and a topped-off gas tank are handy when you skip the straight road for unexpected paths.

The quote from O led Al to recall and share a comment made by my dad many years ago. Dad’s words have stayed with him he says.

It was after a long road vacation we took. It was the kind of trip made in the years our kids were in grade school. We wanted to show them the wonders of our big United States. 

The trip included stops at many places that aren’t on interstates but require going out of the way to see them. We put a bunch of miles on the car. We came home full of the vision of our wonderful country through its regional attractions.

The trip, and the photos we took, were happily shared with my folks when we visited them shortly afterwards. 

Al and my dad were probably in the living room, close enough, as it came to dinnertime, to hear the rattle of plates as they came out of the kitchen shelves to be set on the table,

As they visited Al remarked (with a sense of accomplishment in his voice) that we hadn’t taken one wrong turn on the trip.

“That’s too bad,” my dad answered. An inveterate road trip man himself, my dad by then had racked up thousands of miles with my mom as they traveled West each fall in well-earned vacation time after closing down the seasonal home.

The wisdom in my dad’s reply took maybe a second to sink in. Al was impressed with it, enough so that it has stuck and shaped some of his perspective about travel.

The gist of what my dad was saying is this: a wrong turn here or there, or a detour, can be considered a nuisance or a delay at the time. It can have interesting and even beneficial results if you’re open to the experience.

Seemingly wrong turns and detours can teach us there are many ways to get where we’re going in life. 

Unexpected or spontaneous roads may turn out to be more suitable or more rewarding than the planned (and often predictable) route, or the destination you start out to see.

Ro Giencke – November 6, 2014.




Monday, October 27, 2014

Orange and royal blue: the 2014 World Series

World Series baseball isn’t on TV tonight. The series has played through Game 5 and a break is in order.

We all need a rest, if you will, from the exertions of cheering our teams of choice. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals are swinging the big bats and what an October they’re giving us.

Major League baseball has a day off as the teams fly back to Kansas City to complete the series. It’s Game 6 tomorrow. It may take a seventh game before they’re through. 

San Francisco leads Kansas City by one game in a well matched series. It crackles with purpose and seethes with excitement. 

Al and I try to recall what we were doing with our evenings on the other side of the wholesale TV viewing which began with Game 1 in Kansas City last Tuesday. 

Tonight (I say this with a sigh of relief) we can dispense with the obligation of making popcorn. It’s a start toward eventual postseason normality. 

Popcorn has accompanied each game so far. Making popcorn for the games is the best fan support we could think of, and the crunching and munching help defray rattled nerves. 

America is being treated to super baseball. You want to root for both teams. The quality of play is outstanding. 

The players are quick and bold. They’re scrappy, brazen even, with their strategies when the ace pitchers of either side don't freeze them out. 

This is the year of dueling pitchers for sure. San Francisco’s ace Madison Bumgarner, 25 years old, had everyone in awe last night. 

Several games haven’t ended close in score. You wouldn’t have predicted this from some of the innings, which have been very tight competition. 

Each team has had innings of being held off again and again as the ball sails across home plate and there’s failure to connect, get on base or bring in a run. 

Then the other team is at bat. They’re similarly held in check by brilliant pitching and defense. These are the innings when nothing seems to happen except the slow fraying of your patience as you will your team to step up and act. 

The team who’s ahead in a game can't be complacent. A lead by the other team is a stolen base or crack of the bat away. Each team (as the other side is aware) is capable of instantaneously rewriting the script for the game. 

There are times I look over the ball park and can believe the players are in combat stance as in the jousting fields of old. These are men who, in fighting spirit, go back to medieval ancestors. 

They appear to be connecting with mighty warrior forebears in the steel they show as they face their opponents through sequences of innings that demand stamina and strength. 

If you’re not a baseball fan here’s the pitch to get on board. There’s no better moment than now. 

See for yourself what baseball excitement is about. You pick a good time. The 2014 World Series is sure to bring new interest to the sport through the sterling performance of both teams. 

Line up with the Giant fans and their waving orange towels, or shout yourself hoarse with the rabid Royals fan base. Root for both if you can’t decide, but take my advice and put some baseball fever into your fall mix. 

There’s a bunch of us on cue for tomorrow's ball to be thrown out. We’ll be ready for resumption of a baseball match that’s been giant in mastery and royal in class.

The 2014 World Series championship is still to be decided. It’s a guess which team will ultimately claim the baseball trophy. Both teams have been tested. Both are deserving. We stay tuned. 

Ro Giencke - October 27, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stocking up on October

It’s beautiful October in the Midwest. We’re soaking it in. 

The month is a free show. All we have to do is be here to enjoy it.

The patchwork countryside, as the hills burst into seasonal shades of russet, yellow, orange and brown, is the thrill of glory as natural daylight wanes and nights grow cool.

The clash of bright colors adds rich seasonal vitality to the landscape soon to go bare. We stock up on this kind of weather.

It’s like putting a 100-pound bag of potatoes in the cellar to feed you through winter. It’s a reserve you count on. It keeps you going. It's like money in the bank to have any precious or necessary supply laid in.

I reckon October is also like a landing on a stairway. Midway through it lets you catch your breath. You can enjoy where you are before you continue on.

While color has been exceptional I won't wager it has outshone previous years. They’re all breathtaking as you live them.

Some years do stand out by specific images of trees whose brightness burns into your memory, or because of special trips or drives made to see the color. 

Year to year you forget the breathtaking effect of the changing colors. It’s like seeing them for the first time to see them again.

The fiery hues of a few weeks ago are dulling. The canvas is getting bare. Windy weather is helping with the process. Leaves are falling by the bushel load.

It’s no wonder in the summer, with leaves large and firmly attached, as if they came that way from the start, trees are such dense green screens. So many leaves!

When the leaves tumble from the skies in their autumn dance they collect in deep piles on the lawns. They swirl into house corners as if already thinking of shelter from the cold days to come.

A considerable number of leaves wind up on driveways and front steps. They’re swept or blown off repeatedly in what is an annual rite of clearing away.

Al and I note that our golden highway is no more. It’s the name we give our street at this time of year. 

At peak color the mature plantings of maples in nearby front yards become a golden canopy overhead. We’re uplifted by the sight of them as we pass under.

Their luster has dimmed the past few days. The gleaming golden roof we look up into, with awe and surprise that catches us each time, has mostly been shed.

Outside work is getting done. The pleasant temperatures make home chores an active and satisfying preparation for winter. 

I washed the sliding deck windows, wondering how they get so dirty. Wind was my guess as I carefully tried not to streak the glass. Wind flings dust and grit. 

Today I removed a bunch of fallen leaves from the deck. When all was done I discovered a small trick was played on me as I worked. 

One perfect yellow leaf sat, as if arranged, in the middle of a deck chair just brushed clean of the damp residue of leaves left from overnight sprinkles. It fell the moment I turned away. 

The leaf was prettily shaped. It reminded me of leaves you single out from the others as a child to collect and bring to school for show.

“Count on it,” I believe the leaf would say if it could think or had a voice, “you’ll shovel the deck of leaves soon again, for of my kind there are plenty more.”

Not all leaves were as attractive this year as the one which preened on the deck chair for me to notice. Not every tree, as with not every leaf, winds up visually stunning in the fall.

Along with wide areas of extreme color were equal spaces of faded greens and washed-out yellows. Nature plays her cards her own way.

All the leaves will be missed, whether vivid in color or fading into the background. It’s a long season of stark and bare on the other side of this.

By stocking up on October we hold to fall a little longer. It’s what we can wish our leaves, as they sail by and skip along, would consider to do. 

Not a chance now as the leaves steadily fall. The request will have to go in for next year.

Ro Giencke – October 23, 2014