The River House

I hope you enjoyed food. I did. I like how thinking about one specific thing can unwrap a whole idea, event or more depth to a person. Let’s move on to place you have lived, be that locations or domiciles or whatever. Let’s try for three this month!

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When we first move to Indiana, we lived in this amazing house. A topic for another day. My mother had dreams of living on the river, like she had as a child. My father had dreams of being a gentleman farmer, for reasons I really have no idea. Lucky for them, the perfect property appeared. An old farmhouse with 11.5 acres. Granted most of it was straight up the hill side, the driveway was a gravel goat path, and the “grass” in the yards around it was 85% thistle and taller than I was… they were not to be deterred, this was place they had dreamed of (and maybe one of the last things they agreed upon). So, we moved.

My uncle, father and brother attempting to tame the front yard upon moving in

I have now sat here for three minutes trying to think of something positive to say about the house.

Ok, two and a half things. One: it had very interesting built-in China cabinets in the dining room, two: the phone cord was long enough you could stretch it to go into the bathroom and sit on the clothes hamper for those important private high school calls and three, we could roam the property as much as we wanted, no need to check in. This only gets a half a point as I have major allergies to grass, trees and all warm-blooded animals. Adventuring in fields and woods normally meant a major allergy meltdown.

My mother loved growing up on the river. She would talk so happily about wandering in the woods or picking through the drift piles for treasure. (The Ohio River frequently floods in the spring; the water levels rise and then drift and stuff gets stuck in the fields when the water goes back down. She would go (and she took us a few times) to tromp through the drift left over and see if we could find toys etc. that had floated from upriver). When I reflect on her memories of living on the river, there was no work. It was adventures, explorations, and tea parties with dolls with hollyhocks as teacups.

Me as a teenager repairing the shingles and chimney.

My memories of living on the river were so different. To me it was work, constant work. Something always needed to be fixed. Wood needed to be hauled for heat. Animals (cows, chickens, rabbits and one evil to the core, goat) needed to be fed. Things needed to be fixed; drainpipes, shingles, siding. And then there were the WTF moments. Some nights rats ran over the keyboard of the piano. Rat traps needed to be emptied to be reused. Blacksnake in the bathtub (I just decided not to shower and was hopeful it would return to its home). Blacksnake skin in the closet (is that worse that the bathtub? I am still not sure). Wolf spiders as big as the palm of your hand and being told to relax they were not poisonous. Mowing the grass with a push mower, constantly it seemed. And pulling up thistles with the snake tongue hand tool. At one point early on, I remember my dad paying us a penny a thistle.

That house, with its bright orange living room walls (“it is my house now and I will paint things any color I want!” My mother told me when my father left), quirky heating and nonexistent cooling, constantly trying to fall down around my ears, formed me in ways I am still unpeeling (like a dysfunctional onion).

Teen me painting the living room orange as per my mom’s wishes.

Vanilla Ice Cream/Dirt

When my parents got married, they did not have much in the way of belongings. He worked for General Foods and their first location was in Memphis Tennessee. They had a small one-bedroom apartment and a card table with lawn chairs for a kitchen table. I have seen pictures. It was home to them and soon after he was transferred to Mobile Alabama, where they bought their first house and I showed up to make things more exciting.

When they were in the south (not sure in Alabama or Tennessee) the newlyweds went to the grocery store to buy food and were going to get ice cream. I remember her telling me that the did the whole “what flavor do you want?” “No, you pick, what flavor do you want?” I guess this went on for a bit until they landed on vanilla. Now I know my mother’s favorite flavor was Butter Pecan and while I am not sure my father’s favorite flavor, pretty sure it was not vanilla. He always struck me as a man who needed more going on with his ice cream, unless it was on a fruit cobbler, then vanilla was just fine.

Vanilla Bean Ice cream with black specks. Spoiler: not dirt!

The story goes they get home and open it up only to find all these tiny black specks in it. Maybe a manufacturing issue or shipping problem. They decided not to eat the ice cream. It stayed in the freezer (sort of like time capsule the one insurance commercial speaks of) until it was thrown out.

It was many years later that my mother discovered the difference between vanilla ice cream and vanilla BEAN ice cream. There are scones I get from Trader Joe’s that are vanilla bean and I smile every time I see the black specks and eat the scones.

Turducken

When I was young, we would all go to Ron and Pat’s house for Thanksgiving. They lived the next town over (a more affluent area) and had a basement with a pool table. For contrast, our basement had a dirt floor, spiders, walls made of random rock, a scary oil tank that you had to go down with a flashlight to see what the level was and on occasion, black snakes. My 10 year old brain thought there must be a zillion people there. With reflection, it was probably more around 20-30. Card tables were set up to eat upon and later sported puzzles the women and kids gathered around to put together (after cleaning up the kitchen), while the men folk went downstairs where football, pool and drink were to be had. I remember being so intrigued with their magical basement, yet knew my place was upstairs.

The Thanksgiving cast of characters but not at Thanksgiving (Pat, Ron, Julie, Jim, my mom, John, Mike and Sue)

Time went on as time will do. Less people came to their Thanksgiving. Some had passed away; others had their own growing children and desire to go to their house for thanksgiving. Ron and Pat stopped hosting. And their kids moved to the West Coast so they frequently went there.

My brother, Donald, was three years younger than I and I think to him those Thanksgivings represented a special time pre-parents-divorce (not to mention he frequently snuck downstairs with the men folk). As he grew older, he started to host Thanksgiving at his house, maybe in an attempt to recreate that feeling. He cooked a great deal of food (he enjoyed cooking) and about 10-15 people showed up along with others just popping in for an hour or two for dessert and a to-go-plate. I went to these dinners for a while but then 1) I wanted to start my own traditions with the holiday and 2) I always got stuck washing all the dishes and the man had no dishwasher.

One year he called me in late September and told me I HAD to come to Thanksgiving this year as he was serving Turducken. I had learned at a young age not to admit ignorance to Donald as it resulted in a longwinded, more than slightly condescending soliloquy on the topic. I said, sounds fun. I will let you know and promptly looked it up.

A turducken is a chicken in a duck in a turkey, and stuffing might also be included. What in the world? Ok, I had to go even if it meant washing all the dishes. I went and it was … interesting. It tasted fine and I am ok with all three fowl, but it just seemed busy and dry to me (and to no ones surprise there were a ton of dishes) I enjoyed the chocolate chess pie more I have to say. So, I will leave you with that recipe:

Donald’s Chocolate Chess Pie Recipe

Bagels

One of my apartments in Salem Massachusetts was right downtown. Parking was a pain (as was grocery shopping and carrying all the things home) but it was nice to walk downstairs and a block away was a CVS for those last-minute needs. There were at least three bookstores that I remember and quite a few tourist traps that leaned toward the witch history of the town.

The best however was Red’s Sandwich shop. It was down the stairs make right and one door down. It was your ultimate local deli spot. For breakfast I would get a cheese omelet. Growing up, we did not go out to eat much and certainly not for breakfast. My mother did excel in the area of breakfast but eating breakfast out was foreign to me. Therefore, I did not really have a yardstick to measure the differences in East Coast vs. Midwest style food. The omelet at Red’s was flat, like open a napkin put in cheese flip it over and done. In contrast, here in Indiana the one breakfast place we frequent (ok both of them) has giant omelets, at least two inches high and so large we always just split one.

bagels, store bought but boiled

But you are here for the bagels. The bagels were pure East Cost bagels. They were boiled, which gave them the crispy on the outside, dense and chewy on the inside. At Red’s they would take the bagel slather it with butter and put it face down on the grill. Once golden brown, it was tossed onto a plate (the grill area was open behind the counter with individual stools so you could watch all this magic and there was a lot of tossing of foods), a chunk of cream cheese was cut off and slapped on top and the whole thing served to you to devour. I fell deeply in love with bagels.

When I returned to the Midwest, my love of bagels waned. I could not pinpoint it, but they just didn’t taste the same. They were not crunch on the outside and dense on the inside. They just seemed like bread in a different shape.

I have a friend who we frequently have coffee and catch up at her house. She is an amazing cook and originally from New York. On our last get together, she told me to come with an appetite as she had made bagels. They were amazing and she made them! As she walked me through the process (let’s be honest, I am never going to have the patience to do this, I barely have the patience to let them thaw from the freeze before I toast them!), I realized what was missing in the bagels here. Boiling them. I still cannot fathom the idea of boiling dough but it works, wow does it work! Now I just need a giant flat top grill and a huge chunk of cream cheese.

Vegetable Soup

First off, not a fan.

My husband and I have had talks about vegetable soup. His memories are a bit fonder. His father did most of the cooking growing up. As his mom was a nurse, the two of them could work their schedules so that one parent was home with the kids most of the time. This was one of the reasons my father-in-law did a lot of the cooking and became quite good at it. Also, his Navy time where he worked in the kitchen. He would sit and chop vegetables for what seemed like forever. Each piece very precise and similar in shape and size. If I were to guess, this was from his Navy days, small pieces cook faster not to mention the military is known for uniformity. If there was meat in the vegetable soup, it would be hamburger but more often than not, it was meat free.

Now in my house, when this pot came out from behind all the day to day use pots, I knew two things 1) we had company coming or there was little to no food until payday and 2) I was going to be hungry.

The pot that signaled vegetable soup was near

Can I just say how discouraging it was to try and find a picture of this pot, and it is not exact? I swear ours had actual handles but the coloring with the fad red to brown is spot on. I finally ended up entering vintage red stock pot. Vintage bah!

I regress, if no company was coming I knew it was a long time until payday and we would be seeing soup the next few days. This vegetable soup had any vegetable that could be found in the crisper, regardless of age and bags of cheap frozen vegetables, rarely was there meat, even hamburger in this soup. The one served for company always had hamburger. When I reflect back, I am not sure I ever remember anything getting chopped to put in the soup; more an opening of cans and frozen bags of vegetables. Maybe a fresh onion or two.

I find it interesting how the same food can trigger so very different memories in people. Apparently, my paternal grandmother made vegetable soup as my cousin excitedly texted on of the cold winter days that she was making our grandmother’s recipe. My text bubble said, great! Enjoy!! My thought bubble said, Damn glad we are 3 hours apart!

Scones

If you had asked me 15 years ago my dream vacation location, I would have said Ireland. If you asked today, I would say Ireland. Unless it is the middle of winter and I just finished shoveling snow and then I would say any warm island. When I returned from my trip those many years ago, I told my mom that I now knew what Green smelled like.

Me in Ireland

While there, I insisted we stop for tea and scones on our last leg of the trip when we were in Dublin. Yes, it was very touristy but this was something I had dreamed of. I must say when the first brought the tea and that tiny thing on the side of the cup! I was NOT impressed.

Tea and Scone

Turned out that was not the scone. Silly Tourist.

I am pretty sure that we had tea and scones when we arrived at the first bed and breakfast after we got to Ireland, but I was so darn tired, she could have fed me stale white bread and I would have smiled.

My other scone adventure was in London on the recommendation of a friend. It was a plate for tea. And when we got to pick our “one last thing” on the final day, mine was go back for the Plate for Tea.

Plate for Tea in London

I do not make very yummy scones. I try. But I am always a tad (or more than a tad) disappointed. I did find some decent scones at a bakery once and took them to my mom. I was eager for her to enjoy this amazing treat only to have her say to me, tastes like a glorified biscuit to me. I ate the rest for her. Maybe I should have served it with tea.

Now in her defense, my entire life she made biscuits from scratch. Cut the Crisco into the flour, add the other dry ingredients, milk, roll them out, cut into circles and baked. They were amazing. My idiot brother, when we were in middle school, complained one time about “how we can’t have them from a can like the rich kids”.

To me, scones and tea make me feel fancy and relaxed. I will keep trying to perfect mine and when I do, I will be sure to share the recipe.

Over the Falls

My husband and I got married on Tunnels Beach on Kauai. It was magical. Needless to say, we have been back more than a few times. If only the plane ride from the middle of the United States were a bit shorter, we would go even more.

Wedding Sunset

We explored mostly the North Shore of the island. There were so many local places to eat and try. We tried very hard to not go back to what we knew (and liked) and keep trying new places. It was hard. We did frequent our breakfast spot (and Mermaid’s Café for fish tacos) more than once. We stumbled upon this very small coffee shop in Hanalei that had excellent coffee (slightly abrupt waitstaff) and “Over the Falls” stuffed French toast. Why not? we thought.

Over the Falls

It was amazing, ok more a dessert than a breakfast but the perfect Vacation Breakfast. The toast was stuffed with this amazing custard and then topped with crushed pineapple and then whipped cream. The first time we ordered we both got our own … we shared one going forward with a shared plate of eggs and meat to help balance the sugar high.

I have tried other stuffed French toast, but it is not the same. Maybe it was being on vacation or sitting out on the deck, sometimes listening to it rain, sometimes listening to the birds and watching the waterfalls come down the mountain. A delight for all the senses.

Gravy

I come from a long line of people who can make really good white sauce and gravy from, well to be honest, it seemed like flour, milk and magic. There was never any measuring going on. It was a plop of this, spoon of that. It was just use the “fixin’s” or the left over grease, it is easy. My father made excellent sausage gravy (if a bit too spicy for me). My mom was the goddess of white sauce… creamed spinach, creamed beef on toast, creamed hard boiled egg on toast.

My own family? For years, they have gotten Thanksgiving gravy from a jar (with a bit of cut up turkey in to hopefully distract from the jar quality). Ok, I also even put it in a pan on the stove and hide the jar in the bottom of the trash.

One time I said to my mother, I would REALLY like for you to write down your White Sauce Recipe. It is very handy thing to know and I cannot make it. She eye rolled me and told me there isn’t a “recipe” ; you just put flour in and milk and let it come to boil. But how MUCH I would ask. And she would tell me, when it looks right, you know.

She then made me a recipe card… that she had copied out of the Betty Crocker cookbook. But also the following recipe card, that reads pretty much like she tried to explain to me a zillion times. It makes me smile to read it.

White Sauce Recipe – Side 1
White Sauce Recipe – Side 2
White Sauce Recipe – Side 3
White Sauce Recipe – Side 4

I have learned in just the last few years to make a white sauce (it is pretty much an adaptation of a Chicken Pot Pie recipe I have found) and she was right, once you make it enough… when it looks right, you know.

Banana Bread

And March begins. Let’s take stock, how did February go for you? I found the prompt of people to be quite difficult. Some people I had to narrow down by event and other people I just felt that I did not do them justice. There were a few ideas in my notebook, I just didn’t have the ability to remove myself enough to write about yet. I think that prompts that start small seems easier and lend themselves to more detailed written accounts. Hopefully Food does a better job and is a bit more fun. Onward!

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My whole life my mother would make homemade banana bread. She had two loaf pans and when I saw those being prepped with Crisco and flour, I knew what the day would hold. With hindsight and age, I realize she was just not wasting food as I was very particular about the ripe range in which I would eat my banana.

No nuts were ever involved in the bread as my brother did not like nuts. I honestly never even thought about nuts being in the bread until I went out into the world on my own. I am not sure what was better, that first warm slice once it came out from the oven, or the next day toasted with a warm, soft center and slightly crispy outside. They both were delicious.

My son and my mother also made lots of loaves of banana bread together. We would go down for a visit. They would insist that I leave so they could do important grandson and grandma things and I would return to find loaves of fresh bread or a pan of brownies. My mom was the queen of letting a kid be a kid and she would later share pictures of him covered in batter and “helping”.

ok this is brownie batter but you get the idea of how my son helped

We would all devour one loaf and then she would carefully wrap the other one in foil and send it home with us. I would keep it in the freezer and then one day when we both needed a pick me up, take it out and we would feast. She died over eight years ago and we still have the last loaf in the freezer. I am sure it is freezer burnt and not very yummy but it is a reminder of a wonderful time for both of us.

At her visitation, along with the cards of memory, I made copies of the recipe that people could take home with them and attempt a new tradition in their homes in her memory.

front side of the recipe card
side of of the recipe card

Connie Lakes

As I mentioned, I started a brand-new school in first grade. We had moved to the town not that long before the start of school and while I knew a lot of business owners (my parents ran a hobby shop downtown) and the librarians (because they rock), I did not know a lot of people my own age. My mother would help this later by being a leader of my Brownie troop, but I started first grade being the new girl.

Mrs. Lakes was my first-grade teacher. She was young, newly married and working to finish her teaching master’s degree. She had kind eyes and long straight brown hair. I was instantly in love with her and wished if I had an older sister, it would be exactly like her.

Part of finishing her degree needed a student to conduct testing with or something. I honestly have no idea what we did or how long it took or what. All I knew was 1) I was important to be selected because this meant my favorite teacher liked me and 2) she and her husband took me to dinner as a thank you. We were not a family used to going to restaurants. I am sure we did, but I cannot picture the four of us out to dinner. Even when company came, it was always a big meal in the dining room; birthdays were the same way. When we finished, Bill and Connie took me to the mall (45 minutes away) to Morrison’s Cafeteria and they said, pick whatever you want. There was so much food! They let me have my own tray! I could pick ANY DESSERT I WANTED and didn’t have to finish all my food to eat it. It was amazing. I felt like such an adult.

Connie is big on Christmas ornaments. I have never seen her house at Christmas, but she has given me one as a wedding gift with the date on it and one for my brother’s passing. Her mother died the week of my mother’s funeral. She sent a lovely card and note. Telling me that she had always looked up to my mom and was so glad she had her as a scout leader. The tone of the note and the special place my mother had in her life sounded a lot like how I feel about Connie.

We have snail-mailed in the last few years during the pandemic. Talking about getting together and catching up. She lives four houses down from my mother-in-law but still we have not been able to make it work. I do hope it is a summer thing. I would love to pick her brain more about my mother as her scout leader.

This picture not only has Connie (top row, third in) but me (four more pictures over) and two of my husband’s cousins. Oh and of course Charles.

And aside, as much as I love Connie, it was her classroom that one of my sayings has its roots. When something in the nation or at work or in life happens, when the larger masses are punished for the stupidity of a smaller group or one person, I tend to say Charles was throwing scissors. I am old enough that we had room monitors when the teacher left the classroom. One child was appointed to stand in the front middle of the classroom and watch for any infractions in the teacher’s absence. As we learned, it had to be pretty bad for you to tell on the other kids because then you got labeled. However, Charles, who would have benefited from a more one on one style of teaching, would use that opportunity to throw his scissors at the room monitor. This then led to a chorus of CHARLES THREW HIS SCISSORS AT (fill in the blank) when she got back. And then we would all miss recess. With the value of age, I see the point of trying to teach chain of command and not tattling. I will, however, go to my grave using ‘Charles threw scissors’ as an exasperation of managements decisions.

Connie was an amazing teacher and exactly what I needed that first year as the new girl. Hopefully in the coming year I can tell her all that and listen to her stories (ok and also write them down afterwards).