Saturday, August 29, 2020

Flattened

Iowans felt the way the corn looked. Image Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. 

On August 10, a straight line storm howled through Iowa, the state where I live. Meteorologists called it a derecho, a word for a widespread and long-lived straight-line storm. I had never heard the word before, even as a life-long Midwesterner who's seen her fair share of scary storms; but Wikipedia assures me that the term has been in use since the late 19th century. 

In 2020, it meant winds equivalent to a category 4 hurricane with no time to prepare. I had been walking around the neighborhood in the morning before the storm hit; thunderstorms had been predicted for that afternoon and I wanted to get my walk in before the weather turned. When I got back I'd also paced around our yard, checking the tomato plants, puttering, and trying to delay the start of my work day.

There is a moment before a bad storm when birds and insects stop. Stop moving, stop singing, stop whirring. If you are paying attention, it is one of the most ominous silences in Creation. It made me lift my face to the western sky, where there was a bank of fast-moving darkness heading our way. I went inside, and half an hour later, the storm hit my town. 

In Iowa there is a standard line of dark humor about the country rube who is too dumb to be scared, who watches tornadoes and hailstorms from his front porch, when all common sense and storm sirens and meteorologists are telling us we should be in our basements. But the plain truth is that we are all that dumb rube. I think Iowans feel that we need to "keep an eye on it." As though we could prevent it just by keeping watch. As though it is somehow likely to be worse when we can't see it, if we're hidden in a dark cellar corner between the boxes of Christmas decorations and the shelf of surplus canned goods. It's a perverse kind of courage. Tom and I played the part, watching from the front living room window, while transformers blew, trees cracked apart, and our street ran in full flood. As soon as the storm was done in the central part of the state, it gathered strength and blew full force into the eastern part of the state, finally petering out somewhere in Illinois.

The result was an estimated quarter of a million households without power in a state with approximately three million residents, and 10 million acres of destroyed crops, mostly corn and soybeans, but others as well. Split and crumpled grain bins. Thousands of downed or damaged trees. Wrecked homes. 

Weeks later, communities in Iowa are still digging out. It would be more than enough in a good year. And by good year, I mean any year not this one. But here we are. Iowans are looking at a physical manifestation of all that's happening to our nation, as well as, you know, what's happening to our nation. That's some shit, people. It flattened us like it flattened the corn stalks. 

Also weeks later, we have other layers piled on the flat surface of our physical destruction. News that Iowa's numbers in the pandemic have reached new and alarming heights. News that multiple school districts are in a legal fight with the governor's office over the right to protect their students and teachers from the risks of the pandemic. News that the executive office of our nation intends to reallocate funds from FEMA to other uses, funds that we desperately need right now in our state, and will not be getting. News that the federal aid package approved for Iowa was too small, and included no aid to homeowners or farmers, the very people who suffered the most damage. News that unemployment here took another big bump as a result of the storm damage. News that elsewhere in the Midwest, racial protest rages on and has cost people their lives. 

It's a lot of layers. Layers of hardship, pressed down with more on top, and no sign of it ending soon. It makes me reconsider that perhaps we don't want to keep an eye on it anymore, and that it would be better to ride this (the storm, the country's political crises, the economy, the pandemic) out in the aforementioned basement, dusty Christmas decorations and cans of green beans be damned. But that would also be sinking beneath the acreage of all this flattening, all these suffocating layers. That seems as though it might be fatal, no matter how tired and pained we might be. Unlike the country rube, I am plenty scared of the flattened landscape of my state, my country, my people. But I will continue to keep an unflinching eye on it, even so. I may not be able to prevent it by keeping watch, but I will be witness, and that is often how one finds the fortitude to stand back up again. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

August Serving Suggestion: BLT Sandwich


On packages of the nonsense they sell as food in grocery stores (rice cakes, ranch dressing, Count Chocula), they often use the term "serving suggestion." For food conglomerates, it's a legal disclaimer. For me, it's that I don't consider writing about a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich to be a recipe. I don't really consider this cooking. I'm not talking about measured amounts of anything-- and if you can't figure out how to make a sandwich at the same age you should be able to read this sentence, I can't help you.

Writers who are more hip than I (read: nearly all of them) might speak of "curating" ingredients. I kinda hate that word being used unless you work for an art gallery or a museum...and we're talking about a sandwich, for crying out loud. But, the BLT is nearly worthy of that kind of particularity, if not in the ingredients list, at least in the how and where they assemble-- a kind of feng shui of pork fat, summer heat, and vegetable garden excess. It's a very specific experience. 

It's best for supper, not lunch. It's a kitchen sandwich. I've never had a good BLT at a restaurant. Never. Better places will destroy a BLT with "improvements" like pepper bacon and arugula and herbal mayonnaises. Chain restaurants always have weirdly dry and tasteless tomatoes, the harried teen boy in the back kitchen won't toast the bread precisely the way you like it, and they'll be stingy with the bacon. Nope, nope, nope. Kitchen is best. So much so, it's part of my serving suggestion.

For one BLT sandwich, you need six things:

1. Your own kitchen. Ideally, you've come in from a few hours of yard work, you've got dirt on your bare feet, and you're not really sure what to have for supper. But you have a shit-ton of tomatoes from the garden sitting on your counter you don't know what else to do with, and you're too tired for anything more ambitious. If there are other people involved, they are the ones who have seen you every damned summer Saturday in your paint-stained Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt and still love you anyway (but wish you would go take a shower, like, right now). You know that the knife that slices the tomatoes best is in that drawer over there. The skillet that fries the bacon just the right shade of crispy is within reach. You don't have to wash your feet or comb your hair or find the car keys to get this sandwich. 

2. You could say about bacon what is often said about pizza and sex; even when it isn't that good, it isn't bad. Trying to be fancy about bacon is ironic. It's a blue collar food; it's got a job to do and it is going to do it as the earthy base layer of the sandwich. I've used store brands. I've used the good stuff you can get at a decent butcher counter. I like the thick cuts for crisp/chewy bacon, but can appreciate the position of people who prefer thin and crunchy. Either way, the whole point of bacon is the smoke, fat, and salt. 

3. Iceberg lettuce. I know. I once denigrated iceberg lettuce as the salad of my grandmothers, but what was I thinking? Grandmas are smarter than we are; that's how they get to be grandmas. Iceberg lettuce has its place and it is as the capital L in the BLT. Its layers of cold, sweet, and crunchy are the yin to the bacon's yang. You can't really be fancy about iceberg. You can't grow it either, and you shouldn't have to-- grocery stores on Mars have iceberg lettuce. And unlike the sissy baby boutique greens that we grandchildren have wasted our hipster spending money on, iceberg lettuce will last forever in the bottom of your produce drawer. Or at least until the next time you make BLTs, which will be soon with as many tomatoes as you have to get through. 
4. Tomatoes. I think of the BLT as the Sandwich of August, because that's when I have tomatoes from my own garden. I put a lot of thought and planning into growing my tomatoes, starting seed indoors in February, just so that I can have this particular sandwich in this particular month. Look at that bad boy: 
This one weighed over a pound, and a single slice made a whole sandwich. There are, in any given August, about eleventy-billion of these things growing right outside my back door. There are few better ways to which they could be put when they are this perfect. And by perfect I mean that the juice from the tomato will soak your bread, run down your wrists, and require multiple napkins. 

5. Mayonnaise. The mayo isn't part of the acronym, but it should be. BLTM. I have my strongest opinions about the mayonnaise. First of all: obviously pro-mayo. If you live east of the Rockies, it's Hellman's; if you live west, it's Best Foods. If you live south, I'll let you folks have your Duke's. It's a fine mayo and we've got bigger things as a country to argue about. Kraft people, you're excused from the conversation. And Miracle Whip people? Satan get behind me. As for getting it on the sandwich-- load up. This is no time for halfway measures. 

6. Toast. As a snob in general about bread, you would think that I would be a snob about it when it comes to BLTs. But really it's just a vehicle for getting the BLT (and M) combination from plate to face. Honestly, almost anything will do as long as it's toasted and not too weirdly flavored. I've used hamburger buns when out of sliced bread. I've had a pretty darn good BLT in a pita pocket. I like multigrain bread best, but my husband likes white. You can be fancy about the bread in a way that you really can't be about bacon, but the truth of the matter is that no matter how awesome the bread, the bacon grease and the messy tomato and the Grandma lettuce and the kitchen table and your Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt will drag this right back down to the proletariat. And that's okay. Better than okay, because you have a BLT sandwich. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

This post should make anyone feel better about their half-done renovation

Renovations are supposed to have a start date and end date, right? A before and after. A glorious reveal. 

This post will contain none of those. Instead, I will present you with during, during, during, and, to top it all off, some more during. Because that's how renovations go around here. 

The photo below right is probably the best my kitchen has ever looked in its most recent incarnation. Not saying there's anything wrong with it; there wasn't. I'd moved into my house, put a brand new Formica countertop on refinished 1960s-70s era maple cabinets, painted, and....well. Not much else. 

I was at that time a single parent trying to raise four boys and fix up a house that needed more attention (and of course money) than I could give it. So many things (kids, broken water heaters, yards, jobs) were desperate for my attention that something had to give. Kitchens being the center all things-- meals and homework and craft projects and bill paying and board games-- there's never a good time to have your kitchen all torn up. So I just didn't bother.

I had a list though. I'm good at making long, day-dreamy, expensive lists full of the things I'd like to do to a room. 

That was back in 2012. Eight whole years ago. It seems at the same time an eternity, and a few wild seconds. You'd think that in that span of time I'd have ticked off a majority of the boxes on that list. 

Nope. 

The kitchen pretty much has looked the same ever since I put the paintbrush down in the summer of 2012. 

In the summer of 2014 my sliding glass door cracked, at a time when money was tight. (I'm trying to remember a time when money wasn't tight.) It waited months, until the spring of 2015, before I was able to get a new one installed. Living with it even for a few months was really discouraging for me. I'd spent so much time and some hard earned cash to make it be basically okay looking and functional, and it seemed like a huge step backward. 

In this collage photo, on the left is the half of the broken sliding glass door. On the right, the newly installed one. 


I was supposed to have painted the trim and sliding door frame on the new install. That also hasn't happened yet. Five years. I suppose that gives you an idea how much I hate painting trim. 

One of the up sides, if you can call it that, of living a long time with a DIY list while you DDI (Don't Do It) is that you are usually pretty darn sure what isn't working in the space by the time you finally get around to crossing an item off the list. 

The big ticket item on that list for this room of our 1939 house was the windows. The window over the sink, and big one in the eat-in area were 70s-era casements. They were poorly installed and poor quality, which meant the kitchen was freezing in the winter, and roasting hot during the summer (the kitchen is on the northwest corner of the house). The crank mechanisms didn't work very well any more either, and screens were missing. Over the sink, one of the panes was replaced with plexiglass, which was clouded and scratched. 



Those 70s-era fabric curtains were wool, lined on the inside with a heavy felt backing. In the winter they kept out the drafts, in the summer, some of the heat. 

Over on the aesthetic side, the windows were ugly. They didn't match the windows in the rest of the house, which are white eight-over-eight or six-over-six double hung windows. And the dark brown trim seemed to trap the light right at the windows, never getting into the room. 

This year, finally, we used our tax return to fund window replacement. Tom decided that he didn't want to do the install, so we hired it done. This turned out to be a magnificent decision for the welfare of our sanity and our marriage (which are, as you might guess, unavoidably related to each other). 


These are Marvin fiberglass windows, with wood trim that still needs painting, but matches the trim in the rest of the house in design. The white color bounces tons more light into the room, and makes the space seem bigger. The sashes tilt in for cleaning. Everything about them is sleek and bright and smoothly gliding, basically everything our janky old windows were not. 

Over the sink the new window does an impressive job keeping the sun from heating up the kitchen in
the afternoon, even without a curtain or blind. And while I did not request it, the windowsill is deep enough to host ceramic chicken planters. I'm shocked that Marvin did not advertise this feature in their full-color brochure, but you can see I wasted no time in claiming some windowsill territory for my poultry (and houseplant) shenanigans. 

Eight years later, I'm not much closer to "after" or "reveal" with the kitchen, but these windows made such a huge difference that we feel a bit more energized about the possibilities. At any rate, we're going to bask in the joy of newness and accomplishment while we consider where we go next, which is: 

Paint. The new trim needs to be painted. While we're at that, we should paint the sliding glass door trim. It has also occurred to me during the last eight years that while I like the color green, the shade I chose for this room is too dark. After eight years it's looking pretty tired, and I admit I'm tired of it. 

Dishwasher. The dishwasher was old when I moved in, nine years ago. I think it's probably about 137 in human years, and has reached the unfortunate stage where it removes the food from the plates and puts it on the silverware. Basically, it's overdue for a meltdown, which, following Appliance Law, occurs during the least convenient moment (Thanksgiving, in a dishwasher's case). I see a Labor Day appliance sale in my future. 

Floor. I had ambitions about the floor when I moved in, in 2011. It was disgusting then. It has reached a nadir, but it's another big ticket item in a year full of them. It will probably have to wait. But will it be another five to eight years before a big change in our kitchen? 

Not if the dishwasher has anything to say about it. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Hate the wabbits, eat the squash. It's July in Iowa.

Gardening, it turns out, is an ongoing lesson in the fact that you cannot control Nature.

It's always in July that some switch is flipped, and the heat and humidity that is an Iowa summer comes steaming down. It's the seasonal trait that makes us known for our corn. Iowans wear shorts, sweat through our deodorant by 10 a.m., drink Arnold Palmers by the gallon, consider Dairy Queen drive thru a medical necessity, and try to move slowly. 

It's about this time, too, because of that humid heat, that the garden becomes more bristling with life than even the spring. The cucumber vines grow six inches or more a day. (It's true. I measured.) The lawn needs mowing every three days. Everything looks shaggy and a bit too much, like a woman who's only managed a single haircut in the seven months of this pandemic year.  (That would be the head gardener. That would be me.) Everything needs weeding or trimming or harvesting. 


I cannot control the rabbits. Heck, the rabbits cannot control the rabbits; their reproductive prowess is already legendary. I garden in a mid-sized Midwestern college town, where the term "urban" is used in the mildest of senses; it's no concrete wasteland. We have older homes set close together, but people have more or less landscaped properties and there are city parks with trees and paths through wildflowers and prairies. It's lovely for its citizens, but also for the rabbits, who take advantage of this as a 24/7 free salad bar. 

Don't tell me they're cute. I'm not buying it. With no real predators, they maniacally chew through my hostas, my lilies, my marigolds, my zinnias, my dahlias, my hydrangeas. The only reason they don't make off with the vegetable garden entirely is that it is a raised bed further topped by a two-foot high fence, a kind of horticultural West Berlin. Then the rabbits have flagrant, frenzied sex on my lawn, raise dozens of hungry babies, and the carnage to my landscape intensifies. Nothing seems to slow them down, and my early efforts to live trap them and relocate them was short-lived; they got too smart to fall for it. So now I have smart, hungry, sex-crazed rabbits eating and procreating, and I'm pretty sure they are laughing little demonic bunny laughs every time I come home from the nursery with more fodder (literally) for their evil world domination plans. Elmer Fudd sang about killing the wabbits. I wish something would; owls, foxes, hawks, and feral cats, where are you?

This was a hosta, before the toothy little mammals got to it. 

In West Berlin, er, the vegetable patch, I have summer squash. "Having" summer squash is not the same as growing it or eating it. Summer squash is a lot like life. It is easy. Until it's hard. And then it's really, really hard. And sometimes it's all or nothing, which also sucks. 

Starting squash from seed is ridiculously easy. It's one of the seeds they start in paper cups in kindergarten classes, because dirt + water + squash seed + sunshine = sproing! An itty bitty little squash plant. It lures you in that way, with its charm and simplicity. 

However, every other summer I have been able to grow zucchini or patty pan or yellow squash, I have had beautifully healthy plants with loads of blooms. Some of those years, the plant even gave me a squash or two, just to be a tease. To lift me up to that smug place where gardeners think, "I am a goddess of all things green; behold my produce." We are precisely at that point in this annual exercise of hope and, sometimes, denial. 


It is at this point that a tiny little caterpillar known as a squash vine borer is born, burrows its way into the juicy thick stalks of my pride and joy. I didn't notice the adult moth hovering over my veggies earlier. I definitely didn't notice the teeny little brown egg clusters the moth laid on the underside of the leaves. And then one day the entire plant goes limp. I think it's heat stress, but it's worse than that, the borers have demolished my squash vines from the inside out, and all those baby squash are not going to grow up to see my dinner plate. It is over. It is compost heap. It is maddening. 

Or, the exact opposite happens. Somehow, through a combination of old folklore (wrap the part of the stem emerging from the earth in aluminum foil), worried examination (is that brown spot an egg? Or is it dirt?), application of organic pesticides, pure dumb luck, or the laser beam of my focused anxiety, the squash plants somehow make it through the infestation, and thrive. They become the verdant version of the rabbits, and I am stacking up squash on the kitchen counter in disorganized pyramids. So. much. squash. We eat it grilled and in kabobs, sliced raw with hummus, covered in tomato sauce and cheese, sautéed with butter and tarragon, baked into lasagna, diced into vinegary salads, and yes, even made into zucchini noodles (I will not ever say zoodles, because I am a grown-ass woman and I have standards.) Every night I go into the garden with my basket, and return with more gold and green wealth, out of only two plants that are falling apart in the business of making squash babies. We share our squash with family. We share with neighbors. We share with friends. We share with coworkers. 

We don't share with the rabbits. To hell with them.