Posts Tagged 'Growing Up'

raising the roof

We’ve arrived. Finally, it’s Minnesota State Fair season. Which basically means I revert to being 12—begging to go, while also getting overly nostalgic for my home state. And, it gets me thinking about my dad.

fairchild

My father was a man of habit. He could have served as a fire safety spokesman for as routinely as he changed our smoke detector batteries. Saturday nights invariably involved t-bones on the grill and caesar salad made with his recipe clipping from St. Paul’s iconic Blue Horse restaurant. On weekday mornings our kitchen radio was tuned to Minnesota Public Radio, but on weekends he went rogue and switched over to am—WCCO. The day after Thanksgiving meant vacuuming behind the refrigerator, an event which was actually scheduled in his date book. Who does that?

At any rate, in my college years I came to predict a phone call each Labor Day. “Wanna go to the races?” he’d ask. “My treat.” It was forever his treat—this invitation to the Minnesota State Fair Speedway. I’m sure I respectfully begged off more times than I said yes, wheels I wish I could turn back of course. (Insert your own poignant quote about not taking things for granted here.)

By and large, my dad was a liberal, suit and tie, let’s meet for a martini at five o’clock sort of guy. Later in life he earned a black belt in Aikido, hopped on the local foods movement, and took up meditation. None of these lifestyle choices, however, curbed his love of stock car racing. I grew up watching the Daytona and Indy 500s, learning about the racers, their cars, and the pit crews. So when the big time ASA racers made their annual, one day trek to Minnesota, he hated to miss it.

And what a great venue. I mean on what other tack does the winner get a post-race glass of milk presented by Princess Kay of the Milky Way? Forget the prize money. This is serious incentive. The late Dick Trickle was a long standing crowd favorite, and we could raise the roof for him with the best of them. We’d get a couple of Kiwanis Club malts (which my father insisted were better than the official malts from the Dairy Building) and find seats as close to the track as possible to watch the next 300 laps unfold.

Dick Trickle and Princess Kay

My dad outlived racing at the fairgrounds, but only by two years. In 2002 the classic half-mile mile track saw it’s final Labor Day race. Fans were uprooted when the the fair board voted later that fall not to put forth the $4.5 million needed to update the track for just one day of racing a year. It was an abrupt end to a 95 year tradition.

I haven’t been to a stock car race since, but that’s probably just as well. My head turns when I hear a broadcast, but it’d be hard to top the two of us taking in the last bit of summer with the mesmerizing drone of engines racing by. My dad was not without some hard edges. I know, because I pretty much have the same ones. And we went head to head plenty of times. But if there was one thing we could pull off, it was knowing how to do the easy, uncomplicated parts right.

Happy summer friends.

live large

Last week I did exactly what they warn you about. I went back. I took a perfectly good childhood memory and jimmied open the door. I went to Disney World.

My brother surprised his two daughters at Christmas with a spring trip to the Magic Kingdom and invited me to tag along. I was hesitant to say the least. It’s not that I’m anti-Disney, quite the contrary. I have such fond memories of my own childhood trips that it seemed foolish to tamper with them. I’ve also heard one too many adult horror stories of barely surviving endless lines, non-stop piped in music, whiny kids, bad food, and overall crowded chaos. Five things I make a point to avoid.

Still, it was snowy and below zero outside when the offer came. My nieces’ tears of joy around the Christmas tree pushed me over the edge. I was in.

cinderella's castle

As our trip approached I started getting texts from my nieces. What color magic band did I want? (yellow) Should we do a character dinner? (of course) Did I want a homemade autograph book? (hell yes!) Oh, and by the way, we’re staying at the Contemporary Resort. (you know, where the monorail passes right through the hotel) Clearly my brother was embracing our father’s approach to vacation. Which can be summed up in three words. Do it right. Generally speaking our dad lived a modest lifestyle, well within his means, but when it came to vacations, he did not scrimp. Vacation was a time to check out of ordinary life and live large.

My excitement was brewing. Trepidation crept back in though when nearly every respectable adult who asked where I was going responded with a sardonic “why?” upon hearing my answer. I even got a few “heaven help you” sort of responses. Did they know something I didn’t? Maybe it wasn’t quite as magical as I remembered. I forged on, and even boned up on all the Disney movies I’ve missed over the past decade (for the record, Stitch is my new favorite character.) And I knew I was going in from a position of strength—I was riding on my nieces’ pure, undiluted enthusiasm. That’s powerful stuff. 

Here’s my report. Disney has changed. When I was a kid, Mickey and the gang roamed the streets at large. Now you have to pay to dine or endure long waits to get a giant mouse hug. In my day, there were lines for sure, but they were shorter. Fast passes didn’t exist. Nor did meal plans, or magic bands, or park hoper passes, or magic hours. It just seemed simpler, and a little less structured.

But the upshot, for me anyway, is that it’s still a magical place. People (albeit a lot of them) are generally happy to be there. The staff (who even go so far as to call themselves cast membrs) are happy to be there. There is a good mood vibe that’s easy to tap into. I surprised myself at how fast I embraced the fantasy of it all. I ignored my phone, emails, and even my Instagram feed. Can I tell you how refreshing that felt? It made the piped in music seem not so bad.

hidden mickey

I discovered that my brother does an uncanny impersonation of Mickey Mouse. He turned more than one head with his act. Forty three years I’ve known this man. Not once have I heard him pull out a Mickey Mouse voice. Untapped talent, I tell you. I also learned the fine art of looking for hidden Mickeys. A definite high point, and something I wasn’t privy too as a kid. The jokes on the Jungle Cruise are as corny as ever, Space Mountain is still a spectacular thrill, and the People Mover (yes, the People Mover) remains on my top 5 list. I could live in Tomorrow Land.

I have to admit that going in I was probably most worried about the coffee situation. I don’t drink a lot of of coffee, but I’m extremely particular about getting at least one rock solid cup. So much so that I dutifully packed my aero press and a bag of Big Water, Bayfield roasted Sea Smoke. I fumbled and crept around the hotel room the first morning, only to discover a great double Americano down in the lobby. I also stumbled on a perfectly steeped four-minute Kona french press at the Polynesian Village. Definitely worth a morning monorail trip. My aero press sat untouched the rest of the trip.

On the food front, there is plenty of fried, unhealthy, and poorly cooked mishaps to be sure. But it didn’t take much work to find some real gems. Everything I ate at Epcot was delicious. I’m still thinking about some of it. Potato and goat cheese ravioli with fennel leek cream from Norway, stuffed grape leaves and baba ghanoush from Morocco, the dank tequila cave in Mexico. They were all home runs. But even in the more kid-centric Magic Kingdom I did alright. My two best vegetarian friendly scores (besides a great black bean bowl at the Tortuga Tavern) were a beautifully cooked, salt crusted baked potato from the Liberty Square Market and a cup of good old fashioned, nicely buttered green beans from Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe. Brilliant.  

Cosmic Rays

So, would I go back? Maybe. My nieces’ zeal certainly raised the bar. I’m not sure how it’d be without that unbridled energy. But I will say this. One late afternoon during our standard retreat to the hotel to regroup and cool off, my brother and I sat pool side in the delicious Florida sun, drinking an ice cold beer, watching his kids swim, talking about nothing in particular, and I was slapped with one of those rare, flawless moments of perfection. Had the fairy godmother herself appeared (and I knew she was close by because I spied her at the head of a long line earlier in the day) I’d have been hard pressed to make three wishes. My wishes were full. Complete. Not bad for a dubious princess. Not bad at all.

autograph book

pickle defeat

When my Grandpa Orville retired from corn and soybean farming, he moved into town and started cucumber farming. That’s what retired farmers do. They find a way to keep farming. He had ten or so acres of cucumbers that he grew for Gedney Foods. Gedney must have put their feelers out, because he wasn’t alone in this venture. Cucumbers were the hot thing in south central Minnesota during the 1980’s.

orville

Orville’s place eventually became the neighborhood grading station. Every night after picking, he’d fire up the rickety grader and trucks from around the area would start rolling in to have their harvests weighed and sorted. It was mesmerizing to stand at the edge of the conveyor belt and watch hundreds of cukes bobble along, gradually dropping off into their designated bushel baskets below. My favorites, of course, were the miniatures – the ones that got turned into crunchy “baby dills.”

My brother was partial to the big yellow hogs – the ones far too overgrown for anything useful beside chucking at random objects (sisters excluded). He was a master at firing them onto the tines of farm implements. Ah, to sit in the cucumber shed next to your big brother, drinking a cold Bubble Up, and be carefree again. Take me back.

When my brother and I got a little older, someone in our family (no doubt our father) decided it would be a good experience for us to try our hand at farm labor. We were shipped off to Grandma and Grandpa’s on the Greyhound bus for a week of paid cucumber picking. I’m pretty sure this was my first ever real-life eye opening experience. Wow. Cucumbers have prickly spines. The sun gets really hot. There is no shade in a cucumber field. It matters when you get paid by volume. I was full of revelations that summer.

It became instantly clear that my brother and I were no match for the Mexican laborers we worked beside. Their stamina was unbelievable. And they didn’t even wear the silly gardening gloves that I fussed with – on and off, on and off. But unlike me and my brother, who were working for pocket change, they were working to support their families. Kids much younger than us were putting in full, hot days. And they were always laughing to boot. I acquired an early admiration for immigrant farm workers.

I don’t know if it’s still the case, but according to the history page on Gedney’s website, they were rejecting machine-picked cucumbers as late as 1988. That was also the year, incidentally, they declared themselves the official source of “The Minnesota Pickle.” Does every state have an official pickle? Things to ponder the next time you bite into a kosher dill.

cukes

My whole adult life I’ve wanted to be a pickler. A really good pickler. Every sumer I embark with enthusiasm on major pickling projects. Unfortunately what generally results is a load of poor, mushy pickles. Occasionally I’ve turned out some mediocre pickles. But I’ve never come close to the perfect pickle. I’ve tried so many methods and recipes that I’m almost ready to raise the flag of pickle defeat. Almost.

My only saving hope is that I can, without fail, make a relatively crisp and very tasty fridge pickle. I guess it is still considered pickling, but it always feels like cheating. I’d rather be skimming the film off the top of the crock in the cellar, or filling the larder with sealed jars. As it is, I have to settle for cramming as many quart jars as I can into the fridge every fall, knowing my tangy slices will keep well into the winter.

I’ve adapted my recipe over the years to use honey instead of white sugar, but either one works. If you’re using honey, make sure that it is nice and viscous, without a trace of crystallization. You can even warm it gently if you’re in doubt. This ensues that it won’t solidify later in the chilled brine.

Sweet and Tangy Fridge Pickles

1 1/2 cups honey (runny and viscous) or 1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 cups vinegar (white, cider or a mix)
1/4 cup kosher salt
3/4 scant teaspoon turmeric
3/4 scant teaspoon celery seed
3/4 scant teaspoon mustard seed
2 small onions, thinly sliced
20 or so 4-5″ cucumbers (about 3 pounds)

Scrub the cucumbers well and refresh for a bit in an ice water bath.

While your cukes are cooling, mix honey, vinegar and spices. Do not heat (if you warmed the honey to liquify it, let it cool before you brine the cukes).

Trim the blossom end from cucumbers, and peel alternating stripes, leaving some of the peel intact. Dice into chunky coins. Mix sliced onions and cucumbers together. Pack into 2 clean quart jars. You may need to start a third jar, but as the vegetables settle and brine, they will shrink a bit, allowing you to pack more in.

Pour the room temperature brine over cukes. Seal with lids and let rest in fridge for a few days before eating, turning jars occasionally to mix brine and spices. You can keep adding fresh cucumbers to the jars when there is room. Pickles will stay crisp and flavorful for several month in fridge.

pickles

shake it up

My grandpa Orville was a genuine, kind-hearted Swede who spent the bulk of his days on a tractor in Lafayette, MN – a small farming community in the south central part of the state. My brother and I would often travel via Greyhound bus from big city Saint Paul to spend stretches of our childhood summers with our maternal grandparents – Orville and Myrtle Swenson. The bus deposited us at Lyle’s Cafe in Winthrop (the next town north) where grandpa would be waiting to fetch in his Mercury. Then, luggage stowed in the trunk, Mister-Misty from the Dairy Queen in hand, off we’d go, barreling down Highway 15 – much like falling through the rabbit hole into another world. I couldn’t soak up rural, small-town life fast enough.

Upon arrival in Lafayette, the very first thing grandma would do is give my brother and me enough money so we could each go buy our very own box of sugar cereal for the coming days ahead. I still don’t know if my mom was privy to this arrangement, but I do know she wouldn’t have approved of it. We never got sugar cereal at home. Instead we got things like homemade granola, shredded wheat, and maybe if we were lucky, plain cheeriros.

Giddy with anticipation, my brother and I would trek the three blocks to Malmberg’s Store and spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the cereal aisle. Even though I knew what I wanted before I set foot across the threshold, I still felt compelled to check out all of my options. Then, armed with my very own box of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch that I wasn’t even required to share with my big brother, I’d go up to the counter to make my purchase. Inevitably, the clerk would eye me up and say “You must be Mary’s girl.” How could she possibly know this, I’d think? How does she even know who my mom is? But I’d smile and nod yes in amazement.

Thinking back on these visits, what I remember most (cereal aside) is the food. In particular, I was strangely fascinated with watching my grandpa eat. Three times a day, like clock-work, he’d sit down at the head of their big rectangle, vinyl clad, table and wholeheartedly indulge in whatever was put before him. It was so foreign to me. This man wasn’t just eating, he was literally fueling up for the physical demands that lay ahead of him.

From my pre-teen perspective, my grandpa was a man of simple culinary pleasures. But reflecting on this as an adult, I’d say his indulgences were well chosen. Funny that I seem to have adopted most of them (save his annual lutefisk and blood sausage feast). I’ve already shared our mutual fondness of popcorn. And it’s my grandpa I credit for my love of a plain piece of bread slathered in butter and honey. The key word here is the slathered. His table knives, several of which now reside in my silverware bin, have wide, flat blades made for spreading – not cutting. The more butter the better was his motto. Knowing this now only makes me wish I knew him better.

And then, there was the ice cream and the malts. Ice cream (at least when I was visiting) was a nightly staple for Orville – which you’d never guess, given his slim build. Now ice cream was as rare of a treat in our house as was sugar cereal. But my father always told me “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” And so I dutifully ate ice cream with my grandpa. Plain vanilla with Hershey’s chocolate syrup is what I remember best. Sometimes in a bowl, sometime shaken up with a spoonful of malt powder in his tin malt cup.

I had nearly forgotten about this fine, non-motorized invention until one night several years ago on a visit to my mom’s. We were standing talking in the kitchen when she unexpectedly reached up to one of the top shelves and handed over her dad’s Carnation Malted Milk shaker for me to have. “Really?” I asked, stuffing it in my bag before she had time to reconsider.

I think Orville would be pleased as all get out to know that his beat up old malt cup is now one of my prized possessions. I have spent many a night combining flavors in search of the perfect malt. And though I’ve tried some wild things, I have to admit that plain old vanilla ice cream, a splash of milk, some Hershey’s, and a spoonful malt powder is hard to beat. But then the other night, I shook up a very simple malt that I have been craving ever since. I happened to have some homemade honey-cardamom ice cream on hand (recipe below), but I think you could make these just as well with vanilla ice cream, an extra spoonful of honey, and dash of some warming spice. Nutmeg, cardamom, mace, or cinnamon all sound fabulous. Just a subtle hint of one of those flavors combined with the honey and vanilla would be spot on. I also can’t wait to try this later in the summer with a handful of fresh blueberries tossed in.

Honey Malteds

3 small scoops slightly melty vanilla ice cream
3/4 cup milk
2 rounded tablespoons malt powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1-2 tablespoons honey (I used 1 T with the honey ice cream)
small dash of nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom or mace

Shake up in a malt cup, or pulse lightly in a blender. Pour into chilled glass, adorn with a cheerful straw and enjoy. Makes one 10 oz malted.

Honey-Cardamom Ice Cream
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

I’ve also made this plain with no spice and love it. Adding a pinch of nutmeg instead of the cardamom is another favorite combo. It’s a wonderful light tasting ice cream.

1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 – 1/2 cup mild flavored honey
Rounded 1/8 tsp. salt
2 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon cardamom (to taste)

In a small saucepan, warm the milk over medium heat until it begins to simmer gently around the edges. Pour it into a medium bowl, and allow to cool completely. Add the honey and salt, and stir well to dissolve the honey. Stir in the cream and cardamom. Taste, and adjust the amount of honey and spice as needed. Cover and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.

Freeze according to the instructions for your ice cream maker. Freeze the ice cream in the freezer until hard enough to scoop, at least 3 to 4 hours.