The Farm

The last parcel of our family homestead is up for sale. The Minnesota farm, which was homesteaded by my Norwegian ancestors back in the 1860′s, has been held by our family ever since. My great grandparents, Lars and Louise Troseth, whose parents originally laid claim to the land, worked it as a dairy farm for many years, raising a family and building a good life. They were successful dairy farmers complete with a delivery wagon emblazoned with “Troseth Milk and Dairy” on the side. They were the last of the family to truly work the land. The acres hold the remnants of the original sod house, built into the side of the hill leading down to the creek and nearby woods. Later, they would construct a log home and then a simple wood-framed house. And as they prospered, they eventually built the “Big House” in 1912 for $5,000 cash. When farming became difficult for the aging farmers, portions of the property were quarried for sand and gravel and this sustained the farm for many years. The fruits of this property helped fund Gol Lutheran Church, St Olaf College and later paid the tuition for my grandfather and great aunt Gertrude to attend that same school in nearby Northfield. Gertrude and Grandpa eventually left for careers and marriage, and created lives of their own off the farm, returning to that place when my then widowed grandpa and aunt Gertrude, retired in the seventies. As kids, we loved to explore the barren gravel pit; a tomb for the rusty old dilapidated steam shovel, abandoned when the digging stopped sometime in the fifties. We’d wander the woods, wade in the creek and search for treasures in the attic and the remains of the old clap board house. This was the place of births, weddings and wakes. One hundred and fifty years of living and dying.

The majority of the good land was sold a few years ago, and now, just the old big house and woods is left.
It’s sad, but none of us have really had much to do with it for a number of years. As the family is scattered across the country, it’s difficult for any of us to care for a crumbling farm from afar.

I had the privilege to live there for several years with Willie back in the late eighties and have some wonderful memories of holiday gatherings, hayrides and walks in the woods. We raised chickens, ducks and goats and planted trees and tilled a large garden. We made good friends, canned hundreds of jars of pickles and learned to shoot a 12-gauge shotgun. It holds secrets and it spawned legends. Love was found and hearts were broken there. And it was the place where my mom danced with my dad for the very last time.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the farm itself is the keeper of memories and that the house is the urn that holds the ashes of all that has been. It’s not. Lars and Louise left homes and family in Norway to create new memories in America. And so it was with my grandparents, my parents and now with me. I get really emotional when I think about our home in Seattle. I loved it so much; the design, the view of Mt Rainier, the lake and the fabulous kitchen. But without Scott and Henry, none of that has any real value. Everything that is good in my life is about them and the rest of my family. And our four years in this one hundred and sixty year old Philadelphia home is just a blip in its many years of memory making. Eventually, when we leave, we’ll pack up those good times and take them on to the next place.
As for the Berg farm, it is time for some other family to make some memories in that special place. Because without the joys and difficulties of life happening there, it’s just a house, a broken down barn and woods.

Berg Farm

Berg Farm

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Channeling Beverly

Last evening, Scott and I went to Scoogi’s, a local Italian joint that on Wednesday nights hosts a spiritual medium who reads cards and does a bit of channeling. She’s not exactly the Long Island Medium…but she seems to get the job done without the big platinum hair and the annoying L.I. accent asking perfect strangers: “who’s the ‘s’ who paaassssed, who’s paaaasssssed????” while she’s picking up her dry cleaning.

I had barely sat down when the medium said she had my mom with us. And after she did the typical “validating”, she talked extensively about how much time she and I spent together in the kitchen. I said, “Yes, when she was alive, we did spend a lot of time together in the kitchen”. To which she replied; “She’s there right beside you every time you cook or bake.” She also wanted to know the significance of “CH”. CH? I wracked my brain trying to figure out what mom was saying..cheesecake? Chunky peanut butter or cherry chip ice cream? I may never know. But I do know, at least, what she means about mom’s presence. Last year I wrote a story about the cookbook mom hand wrote for me and how much she influenced my life in the kitchen. I do really feel her presence especially when I make recipes she taught me, or when I use one of her utensils or pans. But I digress. The medium told me that when odd things happen when I’m cooking, it’s a way for my mom to let me know she’s there watching over me. Okay, sure. Well today Bev came through loud and clear. And was she annoying. I loved my mom, but she and I had very different approaches when it came to cooking. She burned stuff all the time and was notorious for having to substitute ingredients, (with varying degrees of success), because she had forgotten something at the store. She wasn’t what I’d call a careful cook. But she loved to cook.

Those who have ever cooked with me, know I am a really precise baker. I am a true boy scout; always prepared, except I’ll let anyone into my kitchen. I figure if I’m taking the time, making the effort, and spending good money, it sure as hell better turn out. So I’m careful. When something needs to bake for a specific length of time, I will set numerous timers in the event one of them fails. I have a “measure twice, cut once” mentality when I bake. I even make sure to use both dry and liquid measuring cups just to get it right. That is, I get I’m a bit of a freak.

Today since it was rather hot and muggy, I decided to throw together a Key Lime pie to go with dinner. I dug out an antique ceramic pie plate that was my grandmother’s and went to work. I prefer a regular pie crust over graham cracker crust and my usual recipe has me bake it for about 40 minutes. But this afternoon I went off script and decided to use the traditional recipe found on the bottle of my Key Lime juice. It promised to be easy and had just three ingredients. You can guess where this is going.

I lined the pie plate, made the filling and as I was pouring it in, realized that the recipe calls for it to bake only about 15 minutes before chilling it….that is, if you are using a graham cracker crust. I hadn’t even finished pouring when it dawned on me that I should have pre-baked the crust. I started thinking; “what would mom do?” I know what mom would do. She wouldn’t have realized her error until she went to serve the soggy mess and had to resort to Sara Lee for dessert. I got a hold of myself and thought; “No, what would Julia Child do?” as I frantically tried to calculate how long I should bake it for, and at what temp so that I don’t end up with an under-baked soggy crust and an over-baked filling. I had used the last eggs in the house and I just didn’t have it in me to go to the co-op and start over. Maybe it’s a sign I shouldn’t be making and eating stuff like this. Or maybe it’s my mom’s spirit playing a little joke on me. I guess I’ll have to see just how much she’s watching over me and what power spirits weld on this side. I picture both mom and Julia having a good laugh over this. I’ll keep you posted how it turns out.

Bottom line is, I will definitely think of Bev when we are either enjoying it, or sending it down the garbage disposal. Today, both of those scenarios work for me.      

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The Sweet Smell of Youth

I was a driver the other day for Henry’s school softball team. As several of them piled into the car and settled in, my eyes started watering as the stench of stale sweat quickly wafted through the closed in space. I glanced around as I rolled down my window, trying to determine who the culprit was. At first I was pretty self-congratulatory as I recalled Henry taking a nice long shower the prior night, and remembered the wide array of deodorant, body spray and acne medicine containers that littered the bathroom vanity. There was also a scattering of nail clippings and a glob of toothpaste in the sink, but at least he had accomplished that task as well. I look after my son. I am a good dad.

But as Henry threw off the shirt he had worn all day and pulled on his new Under Armour sleeveless tank, I realized the smell had grown suspiciously stronger as the rumpled shirt landed next to my seat. The potent ripe scent was not emanating from the other boys. No, it hung over my own son like a heavy morning fog, but with an essence reminiscent of Durian fruit, beef jerky and burning tires. I leaned over and whispered that we needed to have another talk about what drives girls away. Henry, of course, rolled his eyes and dramatically mouthed for me to: “shut it”.

It seemed like just yesterday, that whether he had gone a day or a week without bathing, he always smelled like “new baby”; a combination of lavender scented talc and formula. And even with a drenched diaper, he still somehow smelled sweet.
It was twelve years ago that we first met him at his orphanage in Cambodia, placed in our arms by his nanny. And it was twelve years ago last week that we flew thirty long and exciting hours, carrying him through immigration to his new home. Even at nearly a year, Henry could not yet crawl; always carried around by Kat Minh and never allowed to flex his muscles on the tiled floor of the baby house. Now he runs and catches fly balls and kicks goals. He spits and laughs and can curse like a sailor and he sweats and yes, he stinks. When did this transformation happen? I fear I was too wrapped up in trying to keep my own mortality in check that I forgot to keep him from growing up. Unbeknownst to me, that ship sailed and now my baby is thirteen. What the hell was I thinking? I knew intellectually that kids grow up, but in my heart I was holding on to that little baby…our Buddha baby; so round, always smiling and so sweet smelling.

It’s time to face reality as we prepare for the teenage years and start navigating his foray into the world of high school entrance exams and his dreams of one day driving. I also realized that we’ve reached that milestone where his time left at home is less than his time he’s already spent with us. I can’t tell you the panic that wells up inside when I think about all the unfinished work we still have ahead. And don’t get me started on all the mistakes we’ve made that I hope we can still somehow fix. I’m sure there will be times when I’ll be tempted to sabotage his inevitable leaving, but then I’d be failing at my job; preparing him for new adventures. I guess for now I’ll focus on middle school and all the trials and tribulations that comes with that. Well, that and his personal hygiene.

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Getting It Right

Yesterday was one of those mornings when my parenting skills were really called into question. And if truth be told, when I say morning, it started at one a.m. when I was suddenly awakened by my bladder and realized I had fallen asleep before checking in with my son Henry. If it wasn’t bad enough that he was still up at that ungodly hour, he was of course, playing a questionable M rated video game and requesting a burrito. Yes, a burrito. In the middle of the night.

We really like Henry’s pediatrician, but we don’t always see eye to eye. And in an epic fail he contradicted me at a recent checkup. I had explained to him that Henry was having trouble falling asleep, and also snacking late at night. I felt that “feeding the furnace” was part of the cause of his insomnia. He told Henry if he was hungry, even late at night, that a nice hearty snack might actually help him fall asleep. That was right after I asked him to explain to Henry the importance of not picking at his scabs. His response was; “Maybe, instead, you should focus on clipping his nails”. I just couldn’t win. But I’ve got to give Henry some credit, though, for watching my back. When the doc asked Henry what time he generally heads to bed, without missing a beat Henry replied; “8 pm”, with the conviction of a preacher. I thought, “8pm?, In what time zone?” But I wasn’t going to correct him since I already looked like a loser parent. As the doctor turned towards his computer, Henry looked up at me, flashed a sly grin and mouthed, “you owe me.”

My partner Scott, gets up quite early, generally about 4:45. And normally I lay there in a twilight zone between sleep and a slow awakening that finally gets me up around 6:30. But yesterday, between my one a.m. short-order cook shift and my clumsy fingers, I must have hit ‘off’ instead of ‘snooze’ on my iPhone and we overslept. A lot. I woke when our Italian Greyhound, Dexter, stuck his head out from under the covers and I caught wind of a smell that emanated from a dog who clearly had finished off Henry’s early morning burrito. And like Barbra Streisand’s final long-sustained note in Evergreen, the hang time of Dexter’s fart held heavy in the air like a stage reading of John Milton’s, ‘Paradise Lost’.
As I cleared my head, I noted the time, and frantically dressed myself as I searched for something relatively clean for Henry to wear. He was slow but seemed to rally a bit, buoyed in part by his morning ablutions consisting of copious amounts of Clearasil and a generous misting of AXE body spray. Honestly, our drill is normally a well-oiled machine.

You see, since January, we’ve changed our morning routine. In the past, we fought intensely about doing homework after school to the point where it became a real road block in our relationship. I found myself dreading that daily battle. I would try reasoning with Henry, explaining that if he did it right away after school, that he’d have the whole night looming free and unfettered of that daunting task. Every day it was the same. I’d ask him to do his homework, he’d beg me to let him take a short nap. I’d forget the sleeping boy until it was almost bedtime at which point I’d wake him, beg, plead and barter, followed by me yelling, him slamming the door, and one of us ending up in tears. Usually me.

So I met with the school counselor and together we came up with a plan. I gave Henry the choice to pick when he would like to accomplish homework. As it turned out, Henry knew what was right for him. He’s a morning guy. Who’d a thought? So I get Henry up early and he does homework without any fuss while I fix him breakfast of scrambled eggs, some fruit and a can of diet coke. Not really. The coke is for me. I pack his lunch and then head out to warm up the car and turn on the heated seats. Henry drapes a blanket over the warm radiators and at ten minutes to eight, we race to school with him bundled in a toasty warm blanket. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

Yesterday, not so much. I pretty much did his homework; calling out questions as he shook a jar of bacon bits into his unbrushed mouth, washing it down with a swig of OJ drunk straight out of the carton. He sucked on a couple Altoids as we made our way to school arriving just in the nick of time. I think the lunch I packed was pretzels, a container of hummus and a couple dill pickle spears.

Today was a better day. Homework was completed, breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, nails cleaned and a wholesome lunch locked and loaded. Okay, it was a Lunchable, a bag of Fritos and a can of V-8, but the rest is all true. I probably won’t win any parenting awards, but hopefully when Henry’s older, he’ll remember the times when I got it right.

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Are You Fixing Dinner, Or Is That Just Your Wet Barn?

If you know me at all it’s no surprise that one of my favorite hobbies is food. Essentially I love everything related to food; innovative kitchen appliances and gadgets, purveying foodstuffs, cooking and of course, eating. But I’m also a cook book and food magazine aficiondo .

I have a decent and diverse cook book collection, and while I rarely cook directly from recipes, I glean from them all sorts of ideas and inspiration. As a writer myself, I love authors like Ragavan Iyer and Lynne Rosetto Kasper who weave magical stories amongst their wonderful recipes. And I am impressed when a writer has a gift for transporting me to their mother’s kitchen or a Cordovan olive grove in Spain with their adept word smithing skills. There’s nothing better than a well-crafted description of a cheese that convinces me I’m smelling the pungent aromas of the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

Unless you count the summer when I was 11, and took a week-long kids “cooking-with-gas” class at NorthStar Appliances in Decorah, Iowa, I’m not at all formally trained in the culinary sciences. So I’m not particularly keen on food writings with overly technical language and I quickly lose interest in a story that tries too hard to impress me. Thus I love a great recipe with an interesting tale.

But I digress. While perusing the most recent issue of Saveur magazine a photo of a sumptuous dish caught my eye. Not recognizing what it was, I read through the caption and within those couple of sentences, I immediately knew my destiny. I would be making a Tartiflette. With this riveting description and beautiful photo, my plans were set in motion:

“Soft, pungent reblochon, a washed-rind cheese from eastern France’s mountainous Haute-Savoie, is at the heart of my obsession with tartiflette. This rustic regional casserole of potatoes, white wine, lardons, and the cheese, with its wet-barn aroma, is like a wonderful bear hug on a winter’s day. It’s a simple dish with no secrets or tricks, but it sings an homage to the Alps as it bakes, perfuming the kitchen as the rosy rind of the cheese bubbles to create a tangy crisp top.”
–Litty Matthew, Los Angeles based free-lance writer. Saveur, Jan/Feb 2014.

With two poorly trained dogs living in my house, I can’t guarantee that the wafting scents will “sing an homage to the Alps”…but I’m confident I can pull-off the “wet-barn aroma.” And, despite myself, hopefully Tartiflette will be my new obsession too.

Tartiflette

Tartiflette

Feeding the Masses

I’d like to say that this is a “throw-back Thursday” photo….but it’s not.  It’s also not prop food from “Fargo”.  It’s dinner.  At some point in Henry’s short life he went to a pot-luck and had tater-tot casserole, loved it and now requests it from time to time.  Today was one of those times.  Having grown up in the midwest, I have cream of mushroom soup coursing through my veins and I was in junior high before I realized potatoes didn’t grow in the form of little cylindrical crunchy barrels.  So I know my way around a hot dish.  And since I grew up in a pastor’s household, potlucks and the ubiquitous hot dish was a way of life. It wasn’t just that they were a staple of every potluck, picnic or funeral luncheon, and since we didn’t have a lot of money, a casserole or hot dish was a way for mom to stretch her very tight food budget.  

A few days ago I posted about the handwritten cookbook that mom gave me shortly before she died.  And if you page through it, you’ll find many examples of hot dishes that mom prepared throughout our childhood.   Some good, others not so good.  But all came from my mother’s hands.  A couple of our family favorites included something we called “Russian Hot dish” which we had for the first time at a Russian Orthodox festival in northern Minnesota.  This inter-continental dish was made with ground beef, elbow macaroni and ketchup.  Another staple at our table was a nod to the indigenous population; “Squaw Corn”. This native dish was made with ground beef, bacon and creamed corn.  When we wanted to go “oriental” we’d have beef chow mein; ground beef, the bottom can of La Choy Chow Mein, rice and the top can of crunchy chow mein noodles.  If we wanted it a little bit spicy we’d sparingly drizzle a few drops of soy sauce on top.  Later on in life we had a special hot dish that was fancy enough even for company; “Malaysian Hot dish”  This was sophisticated on several levels.  The first being that it was an exotic array of ingredients but also it was a deconstructed hot dish. The components were artfully presented and each individual assembled it on their own plate.  Malaysian Hot dish was comprised of hamburger, rice, and small bowls of condiments: shredded coconut, ground peanuts, cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, pimento and I wish I had italics for this….crushed pineapple.  

But for me, my favorite hot dish was the one dish that happened at the end of the month; when the money was gone and even hamburger was beyond our budget.  It’s also the one dish my mom did not include in her book.  I don’t know if it held painful memories, or was just not one of her favorites, but I absolutely love it and to this day, I call it; “End of the Month Hot dish.”  It was simply Birdseye frozen mixed vegetables, béchamel sauce and homemade croutons on top made out of stale bread.  It was simple, wholesome and I loved the garlic buttery crunchy cubes of bread.  

I realize I sound like I’m making fun of my mom’s cooking, but her greatest assets were her ability to feed a family of six for under five dollars, and her sense of humor.  And she would have enjoyed my stories about our family.  As an adult, I appreciate how stressful it probably was for her to feed her brood on a tiny budget.  And who knows what sacrifices she must have made in order to feed us the occasional ham, roast or special dessert.  When she signed up for this gig, she probably had no idea what it entailed.  But we were always fed, sated and happy. 

 

 

Tater Tot Casserole

Tater Tot Casserole

Baking With Beverly

Shortly before my mom died back in 1988 she gave me my most treasured belonging. In her distinctive script and teacher-like print handwriting, she wrote out some of her most favorite recipes in a simple notebook. This very worn and food-stained book also includes helpful household tips, table prayers and words of wisdom. If you page through it you’ll also find a few recipes where the ink has washed away from having edged into the bath water while I was reading it late at night in the tub. Most of these recipes are etched into my memory and I really no longer need to reference them. But over the years, I find I pull it out often, because of its transformative properties. Seeing the notebook pulls me back to those times when we cooked and baked side by side in her kitchen. If I press my nose against the pages I pick up the faint smell of flour, almond extract and chocolate, and I can still taste her Danish puff pastry, her German chocolate cake and her own mother’s Schaum Torte. When I read her words, I can again hear her voice inside my head, which over the years has become harder and harder to recall. In those raw weeks and months after her sudden death, I would have never thought that my memory of her would ever fade. But over the past twenty-five years time has taken its toll on those memories. I want so much for both Scott and Henry to know her in some manner. So I bake and I cook those special things that I can connect to her. And when Henry wrinkles his nose at the sweet and sour cabbage I place before him, I tell him my mom made it for me when I was his age, and someday he too will learn to relish it. And one day he’ll look through my book and connect those recipes to me as well. My mom grew up on the south side of Milwaukee and on occasions when we visited her family, we’d be treated to O&H Danish Kringle. And when we moved far from there and my mom missed its flakey goodness, she found a recipe for homemade kringle which she tweaked and mastered to make it her own. This year Henry discovered the goodness of Kringle, and while O&H is really fine, it’s not the easiest thing to come by way out here. So this afternoon, I brought out that well worn book and started a batch of my mom’s own Danish kringle. For a while today, mom and I baked side by side in my kitchen, and my hands became her hands gently kneading the dough. And when Henry takes a bite of Bev’s Kringle, maybe on some level, not yet apparent to him, he too will be transformed.
 
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