Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer Vacation

I'd like to write about Terry Gilliam, as last week we had a great little Terry Gilliam-fest-- Brazil, Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasus and the amazing documentary that explains it all: Lost in LaMancha. But it will have to wait, because I'm on a little roll here.

We had a great vacation this past weekend, about 54 hours (up at least 6 from last year!) at Vera and Sy Theisen's cabin on Burntside Lake near Ely. Followed by our anniversary on July 26 and so a dinner out, topped significantly by the dinner at home tonight (I wish I had pictures, but my camera's at work).

We left home early Friday morning (well, 8:30 is early enough) and got to the cabin about 2 p.m. The summer has been warm-- unlike last summer, and the water was amazing for swimming. There is truly nothing on this earth like a clear, deep lake. Also, we were the only guests, except for Sy and Vera's delightful son Carlo and their 14-year-old grandson Tanner. We met Tanner last year and he's just a great kid. Steve is totally bonded with Tanner, who was quite happy to see him, and by the end of the weekend Steve had Tanner fully convinced he should go home to Denver and start raising chickens. If his pro snowboarding career doesn't work out, Tanner wants to have some acreage and have chickens running around and stuff like that. Seeing him has also led us to believe that the Justin Bieber haircut is definitely in style.

The Blueberry Festival was going on in Ely. It is a giant craft fair, and I pretty much hate craft fairs. Steve wanted to go through the whole thing, looking for ideas, but after about 150 booths, I convinced him to desist. We did have a great lunch there, including the first cheese curds of the season. Alas, I had no appetite after the pork sandwich for cheesecake on a stick and will have to wait for the state fair later this month. Which reminds me of my reading material, David Foster Wallace's book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. This is perfect lake reading, in my opinion, and I got through his essay on the Illinois State Fair, which had me laughing out loud, especially at the baton twirling section, and into his essay on David Lynch, which reminded me why I never want to watch a David Lynch film again. (Note: If you want to read the essay, Harper's has put all the essays by him they published online for free. Click here for that essay, though realize it's almost 7.5 MB as a pdf)

After a few hours we could head back to the lake, where we kayaked and canoed and swam and swam and swam. Up until now my favorite lake in the whole world was any one of the alpine lakes in Desolation Wilderness outside of Lake Tahoe. It is Sierra country, granite and pines and deep, cold, clear water. But I actually love Burntside more. It is out on the very edge of civilization-- north of there is nothing but canoe wilderness and water all the way to the Hudson Bay and North Pole more or less. It has the same granite, unglaciated feeling of the Sierras. And the water is warmer, the amenities far superior (no flush toilet, but hey, a wood-burning sauna!), and no altitude sickness.

The whole thing was bliss, and much too short. I had brought a bottle of good wine that I'd received from my brother and it turned out it was produced in Vera's father's hometown in Central Italy (I can't remember the name at the moment). That was a great coincidence! And paired with Vera's amazing cooking, was even better.

At home, the tomatoes look like they'll be a bumper crop (though blight stricken as usual and peckish in places), but I'm most excited that I've picked two large yellow tomatoes already, and a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes. The zucchini is a huge disappointment, but maybe will suddenly get its legs and take off. But even if all I get is tonight's gorgeous caprese, with alternating slices of yellow and red tomato, fresh mozzarella and garden basil, it is worth the effort of gardening.

I'll return to serious things, soon, (I have to write more about DFW, for one thing, and the Gilliam) but for now I'm lying low and summering...

For a photo album on Facebook, click here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cabbage Love

On Sunday night I made a recipe using a cabbage from my garden. It remains to be seen if the other two plants will produce anything as good, but this was a solid, medium-sized head of green cabbage that shredded wonderfully and had that clean, fresh smell. I had just put together a cucumber salad with sour cream and mayonnaise, so didn't want to make a slaw. But I'm also not a terribly big fan of cooked cabbage.

I remembered a recipe called "Cabbage Love" from the Common Ground Garden (monastery CSA) Web site. It had struck me as an odd combination of ingredients, but I really trust the creator of the recipe, Ryan Kutter's wife Jenny Kutter, so I thought I'd try it. So far their recipes on the site had never let me down (though I can't say I'd tried any of Jenny's originals yet).

Cabbage love is shredded cabbage stir-fried/sauteed in vinegar and a sauce that is molasses, sesame oil and sweet pepper sauce. It is served with tomatoes over pasta. I also had pulled off the first plum tomato from the garden that day, so I was set. It called for Philippino hot banana sauce, which I didn't have, but looking around it seemed Thai sweet pepper sauce would be comparable.

The molasses is what scared me. I almost substituted hoisin sauce, and in the future I might change that out. I did substitute rice wine vinegar for the white vinegar called for in the recipe.

The dish is quite good. The sauce is subtle enough and balanced and there was just the right amount for my medium cabbage. I wondered about serving it over bowtie pasta instead of rice, but that was a great combination, too. The pasta absorbed enough of the sauce and complemented the dish. It was a great, simple summer supper, and I'll definitely make it again. I have two more cabbage plants out there busily making leaves and pulling them into a little ball...

Here's the recipe:

Cabbage Love

by Jenny Kutter
(serves 4-6)

1 medium savoy or other green cabbage, finely chopped, almost shredded
1 large tomato, finely chopped, 1/4 inch or less
scant 1/4 cup sesame oil
2 tsp molasses
2 Tbs hot banana sauce (Philippine hot sauce)
or heat-equivalent measurement of other hot sauce, to taste
1 tsp black pepper
1/4–1/2 cup white wine vinegar
16 oz. rombi or bowtie pasta, or your favorite shape (the flatter shapes present better)

Place the cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt until lightly coated. Mix with your hands, then place a heavy plate or bowl on top of the cabbage to press it for at least 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the sesame oil, molasses, hot sauce and black pepper. Heat a large skillet over med-high heat. Spray lightly with cooking oil. When the pan is piping hot, quickly pour the vinegar into the pan and allow it to steam and reduce about 1 minute. Add the cabbage and cook, stirring frequently for 1-2 minutes. Add the sauce and cook until the cabbage just begins to lose shape but is still crisp. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl.

Bring a pot of water to boil and cook the pasta. Drain. Add the tomato to the cabbage. Mix, then add the pasta and mix well.

There are other good recipes at the site, arranged by main ingredient: www.sbm.osb.org/recipes.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I have to admit that the constant work of transforming our landscape from grass to prairie and from prairie to more prairie is still completely overwhelming to me. Not that I'm doing it, but to have the landscape constantly being worked over, with large swaths being sprayed and mowed and other swaths being burned feels to me like an ongoing struggle of large proportions.  I can't imagine how farmer's wives feel, but I imagine that the even rows and consistent crops are somehow orderly and comforting, even as you learn over and over again the hard lesson that you are not in control. My environment feels chaotic and full of invaders.

Steve, on the other hand, relishes every minute of it. He continues to be the happiest man alive, mostly because of his work outside. This is the second year of a multi-year attempt to extend the prairie behind and to the west of our house. Last year it involved tilling up what was already there, namely grass and weeds, and a swath of prairie flowers that hadn't taken very well and had become mostly grass and weeds. Actually, some of it was sprayed the summer we got married (much to my dismay), so some form of killing has been going on over there for at least two years. Spraying goes on and on, as the weeds continue to assert themselves and the Roundup keeps everything yellow and then just dirt dead.

This year, in the spring, the whole area was tilled and seeded in prairie grass and flowers. That, of course, doesn't stop the weeds. Mostly what comes up this year is still weeds, and Steve goes out on the tractor and mows them down again and again. He also looks closely to see the fragile-looking native plants, which barely seem to grow an inch over the course of the summer, wispy grasses and tiny, delicate leaves and stems. I went out searching for them to take pictures for this blog and couldn't identify a one.

But they're out there.

And they need some help to assert themselves over the sturdier crop of weeds. Steve sits on the porch, at the dining room table or in the living room each morning and night pouring over a giant book called simply Weeds. All the non-natives, all the hideous strong grasses, all the pretty but invasive flowers, are in that book.

Just seeing the strength and size of the grass trying to grow up in my new garden gives me a fright. It's a formidable enemy, the weeds of Central Minnesota.

Next year, I'm told, the prairie will slowly start to win. At the end of that year, we can burn it to help the natives even more.

Lately Tim has started mowing less of the Commons, the large lawn between the houses. He's scalloping the edges and leaving two paths going through to the pond. I know what this means-- soon there will be spraying, and we'll have entered another three-year cycle of death and weeds. Spray, mow, burn. Spray, spray, spray, mow, mow, mow, burn and hope for the best.

OK, yes, eventually we do get coneflowers...

and grass prairie as well... if you like that kind of thing...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I know the photo doesn't match this entry, but I just wanted to share this rainbow. The weather on Saturday was very strange, almost like Hawaii, with brief showers all day. I think there were severe storms just south and we got lucky, always getting the tail end. The day was comfortable but one minute there would be blue sky and the next it would be raining. Toward evening, there was a gorgeous, gigantic rainbow stretching from one horizon to the other. We were watching Alice in Wonderland and it was surreal as the sky went bright yellow and shimmered with light and rain.

But now, to gardens. Today I was doing one of my favorite summer jobs, editing the e-newsletter for Common Ground Garden, the CSA at the monastery. One of the gardeners, Ryan Kutter, is quite philosophical about gardening and writes lovely introductory essays. The production gardener, Ryan Heitland, is a great big teddy bear of a guy, with dreds and an eyebrow ring and a very positive attitude. He writes the more prosaic "life in the garden" column. But this week he captured something that I feel exactly about gardening. The strange thing about the garden is how much you're always looking forward to what's coming next. When something is ripe, it's immediately less interesting than what is yet to come. The cucumbers have already become prosaic, as have the snow peas, and I can hardly wait for the tomatoes, that are coming in much better than last year's wind-ravaged and blight-stricken plants ever did, to ripen. Anyway, here's what Ryan wrote about this time of year at the CSA:

On a different note, the Fourth of July kind of serves as a mid-season marker for our time with the gardeners. Realizing that in just over six weeks the gardeners will be returning to the classroom serves as an almost sobering reminder of the massive harvests that August and September bring. I know it seems strange to be looking so far into the future with all the work that needs to be done now, but it's the vision of the future that keeps us moving throughout this mid-summer heat. We are excited for the beans and zucchini that are new this week, but for us the real excitement lies in what is yet to come, because that is what we are still watching and learning about. And, at least for me, that unending promise is where the excitement in gardening lies.

There's weeding to be done, and the harvest is coming in daily, but I'm excited about the zucchini that are just starting to swell on the vines and the green tomatoes. I'm dying with impatience over the carrots. I'm a little worried the gourds and pumpkins were planted too early, and I wish I'd planted onions and potatoes. But mostly I just feel, even here in the middle of it all, full of expectation of what's to come.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

otters in the neighborhood

On my way home from work, I was stunned to see an otter crossing the road. I was about a block from home, and this guy was obviously making his way from the wetlands in a nearby park back to our large pond.

Otters out of water are clumsy fellows. He darted back and sort of hid behind a tree. I had my camera in my bag, so fumbled to get it open. When he saw I wasn't leaving, he loped across the street again. I had a pretty good shot of him, and also, I think I could have caught up with him if I wanted to. But the poor guy was so scared, I took my shots and left.

These aren't great photos, but they certainly give you an idea. For me, it was the first time I really saw one, not just the little head the point of his wake as he crossed the pond.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Swimming Hole

The major improvement to our property this summer has been the addition of a proper swimming hole. On the farm we have three ponds. There's the small one behind our house that I'm using to water my garden. The water is sitll coming out cool, although the pond has swampy weeds growing right up to the surface. It's the smallest and shallowest of the ponds. The second is the large pond in the area we call the Commons, between our house and Tim and Annie's house. That's where we take out the small boat and where we ice skate in the winter. It's the loveliest of the three ponds, surrounded by prairie.

The third pond is used by Steve to water the trees in his tree nursery. It's the deepest by far, and truly more a hole than a pond. There are willows along the edge, and it feels remote. Steve leveled one approach on the north side and dumped a truckload of dark brown sand there. It's not very beachy, and because the bank drops suddenly, you kind of wade in until you're knee-deep in the sand and then push off into the water. The water is warm on top, but gets quite cold underneath, and it's clear of algae and other plant life.

I went for the first swim today, after my stint at the Joeburger stand from 9-12:30. I was a little wary at first-- it's absolutely the most "sketchy" place I've ever swam! There was a very unhappy small bird flying around making a racket the whole time, and I spotted a nest in the reeds, but it didn't look inhabited. I stayed in the middle of the pond, pushing myself down into the cold depths. As promised, it wasn't possible to touch the bottom.

In addition to the bird, I looked over once to see a large muskrat making his way toward the reeds. I said my friendliest "Hey there," and he ducked under and disappeared along the shore.

As soon as I was cooled off, I scaled the muddy bank and rode my bike back to the house for a shower. The only real worry now is chiggers. I've been told it's late enough in the season for them to be gone. I don't know what they are exactly, except that they burrow and bring up welts when they die under your skin. Sounds unpleasant!

Steve has used this swimming hole for years, jumping in wearing his landscape shorts after long, hot days of landscaping. He jumped in from the dock where his water equipment is, and I don't konw how he got himself out. The beach is for me, a luxurious improvement. I plan to make good use of it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Small Town Crime Scene

There's nothing like a hovering helicopter to give one a sense of menace. There have been two hovering three blocks away, and doing slow circles over our house and farm, for two days now.

When I lived in Long Beach, there were constantly helicopters overhead. They meant one of three things: 1) police chase on one of the highways; 2) searching for a suspect (with a spotlight); 3) changing of the beach patrol. The third kind ran up and down Redondo Avenue all day long.

Compared to Long Beach, St. Joseph, Minnesota feels like the safest place in the world. It is hard to understand how Jacob Wetterling, at 11 years old, could be abducted and disappear without a trace in 1989. The abduction, by a "masked" man at the edge of a driveway leading to a farm, was awful in itself. Jacob was riding his bike home from the video store with his brother and best friend when the three were ordered off their bikes at gunpoint. They were told to lay in a ditch and the gunman asked each one his age. When the younger brother answered, he was told to run away. The same happened with the best friend. The two boys ran 100 yards, turned around, and Jacob and the man were gone.

The search for Jacob Wetterling and his parents' activism led to some of the earliest child protection laws. His father is still a chiropractor in town and lives in the house where they lived when Jacob was abducted. It is less than 1/2 mile away from the abduction site. He drives down that road and past the driveway every day on his way to work. The parents kept the house because they still hope someday Jacob will return, and they want to be there if he comes looking for them.

The media arrived on Wednesday when word got out that several police cars were at the Rassier farm on 91st Avenue. When I came home for dinner, I saw the two helicopters from our place on 95th Avenue. Steve came in from his tree nursery shortly thereafter, somewhat agitated, and said the helicopters had been there for an hour. All we knew was that it was related to Jacob Wetterling. Steve got out his binoculars and told us what channels the helicopters were from. The media had virtually nothing to report. The FBI and police and sheriff's department were on the scene. No one was allowed in and out. A court order prevented anyone from speaking about what was going on.

The media found their own news: the Rassiers, who are much beloved in town and in their 80s, had been in Europe at the time of the abduction, but a male relative had been home. This male relative had been questioned several times over the years. He teaches band at Rocori High School and is also much loved. The story of the two families, and the difficulty of thinking ill of the Rassiers, was becoming clear.

This morning, there was more news. Steve reported that the two freezers we need for the Joeburger stand for the 4th of July parish festival were on the farm property. The newspaper said two flatbed trucks had taken out materials and supplies for the festival-- the Rassiers, parishioners, have been storing that stuff for years. There had been a canine unit there, possibly from Louisiana.

One of the Sisters told me about 10 a.m. that the word was that a backhoe and other digging equipment had entered the farm property. At lunch, there was still the helicopters, and when I came home. Aerial photos on local news sites show a pretty extensive excavation site.

The parish festival is closing in on us. Tonight the onions are grilled for the burgers, and tomorrow all the booths get set up in preparation for the big outdoor concert on Saturday. That might account for some of the excitement, the edginess, in town, but not all of it. There's a tension, an expectancy, a sense that after all this time and many, many false leads, this time is different. "This is big," people say. "This is different." "There must be something new." We speculate, and try not to speculate. We hope they'll find something and bring closure, and then think how awful it will be if they find something. We compare what we know and understand to all the true crime stories we've heard. We talk about how this might go, how it's different; how it "makes sense." 

Looking at random news clips on web sites, I almost laughed watching the truck come out of the driveway with the barrels on it for the festival. I heard late today that another woman went in and "got her bratwursts" out for the festival. Maybe the freezers came with them. One of the parishioners on the news spoke kindly of both families and their pain, saying we're praying for both. There is the familiar treeline, the fields, the road back to those little cul-de-sacs and their clusters of houses, where another family we know live as well as the Wetterlings. We've snowshoed to their house through the corn field several times. Their kids bike over here for bonfires and other events.

So, although it is hard to imagine something like that happening here, it is also very, very easy to imagine.