Friday, April 29, 2016

Time Capsule: A Letter to the Future Owners of Camp Doug

Dear Future Owners of Camp Doug,
If you are reading this it means you are either remodeling the kitchen (and thus gutting it to the studs) or you are tearing down the house (or a tornado finally took it out) and you found this letter in the pile of rubble. Either way, a warm hello from the year 2016.


The red-roofed four-square house in autumn.
This house, which we fondly call "Camp Doug," was built around 1900. It is (or was) what they call a Four Square, a common farmhouse design back then. Practical, functional, simple, solid, and a little plain, the architecture personified Midwest values. The house’s white siding with the red roof was also the common color combo in the region. A front porch, however, was not a standard feature on these houses, and the three-sided porch on this one was added much later.

We don’t know who built the house. It is said a log cabin sat on the site first. A rock foundation remains from some other original structure and there is another foundation built around that. Here’s what we do know: Milton and Ardis Sander lived in it for about 50 years, until 1970. They raised their kids here, including a son who moved to the West coast and became a big executive at Apple computers. (Do they still make MacBook laptops and iPads and iPhones in whatever year it is when you are reading this?) When the house was built it did not have a kitchen or a bathroom. I don't think it had indoor plumbing at all. The section of the house where you found this “time capsule” was built later, a one-story, flat-roofed rectangle addition that included a small bathroom and a kitchen in an uncommon reverse L-shape layout. Before getting a real kitchen the cooking was done on a wood-fired stove in the dining room; evidence of the chimney and stovepipe connection is still visible. We don’t know what the first kitchen looked like, but Milton and Ardis remodeled it in what appears to have been the 1950s. They painted the walls mint green, the color of young caterpillars. They chose a tortoise-shell-pattern of green and yellow linoleum for their floor. Not the most appetizing of hues for a room that is meant for cooking. Fortunately trends and tastes and flooring choices evolve—even improve—with the years.

The kitchen right before its demolition
Our "retro" kitchen, prepared for take down.

Milton and Ardis eventually grew too old to maintain the farmhouse so they moved into town, then into a nursing home until they eventually moved on to the next life. They kept the farmhouse, renting it out for several years, but as soon as young Doug Seyb graduated from college in 1977, he bought the house and moved in. Doug grew up next door (the definition of next door being a quarter mile down the gravel road), where his grandfather, then father, and then Doug and his brother, and then his nephew, all farmed the land. When I met Doug, the Seybs had owned and farmed these 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and cattle for over 100 years, thus being granted Century Farm status. Maybe, as you read this, it is still owned by Seyb descendants. I wonder if there could be a Two Century Farm status designated in the future.

Doug sitting among the shooting stars.
April 2016.
Because he grew up next door, Doug knew Milton and Ardis very well. It was Ardis who planted the shooting star wildflowers on the hillside located just a short walk across the pasture, and it was Ardis who introduced Doug to the appreciation of these delicate-yet-hardy perennials, their leaves appearing first, then a stem shooting toward the sky, and finally a whole meadow lit up with light pink petals. When Doug moved in, he continued to protect the flowers and their habitat, and always took his guests on springtime wildflower walks to see the shooting stars in bloom.

By the time you discover this letter, Doug and I will have passed on. Doug wants to be cremated and have his ashes spread on this “Shooting Star Hill,” as he calls it. So if you follow the fencerow to the north and turn west at the row of cedar trees (farmers don’t say right or left, they give you compass points), you will eventually come to that wildflower patch. Surely those shooting stars will no longer be so delicate with Doug’s DNA thrown into the soil mix. He was a fit and lean man, a rock climber, kayaker and marathon runner. With all that muscle transferred into the ground as fertilizer, those flowers might be as strong and tall as the trees by now.

When I met Doug he had already lived in the house for 40 years. I don’t think I ever knew anyone else who lived in one place that long. He had lived here at least 20 years before updating the kitchen. He put on a new roof over it (one can only resurface with tar paper so many times.) He raised and angled the roofline as high as the second-floor windows would allow. He then painted the kitchen walls white, the cabinets bright yellow, the door trim burgundy and created a chili pepper theme. Even the light switch was painted with peppers. Alas, Ardis’s tortoise shell linoleum floor remained.

This is what a pork tenderloin
looks like. Pounded & fried and
as big as dinner plate.
When I met him, in 2014, nothing, including the decorative chili pepper cluster hanging next to the door, looked like it had been dusted for a year. Doug was a bachelor. He was a redheaded, freckled farmer and outdoor adventurer whose attention was devoted to all things exterior. The inside was only for showering, sleeping, making toast, and laundering his Carhartts. Even dinners were outdoors, as he grilled meat (beef or pork from his own livestock or venison from his annual hunt on the farm) on his charcoal grill. Unless it was the height of harvest when he drove his tractor until after dark, and the late night meant ordering pizza from the local gas station or wolfing down a pork tenderloin at the local tavern.

This kitchen got a much-needed renovation in April of 2016, which is why we were able to place this letter in the wall.

The current state of the kitchen as
I write this letter to you, when there is still
time to place the time capsule in the wall.
I moved in with Doug last September (2015) and discussions of home improvements soon followed. I always joked to him that the impetus for this kitchen renovation was his beer bottle collection. A numerous but not exactly impressive assortment had been prominently displayed on a shelf close to the ceiling. This shelf was meant to be a plate rail. You’ve probably never seen one as even now in 2016 they are considered old-fashioned, but a plate rail is for displaying decorative dinner plates. Instead of just dusting his bottles, he let me get rid of them. That’s how much he loved me and wanted me to feel like his home was my home too. But it didn’t stop there. Poor old bachelor, he didn’t know what he was in for when he let me move in. No sooner were the beer bottles deposited in the recycling bin, I took the skis off the opposite wall. Yes, skis. He had his cross-country ski gear, including the boots, adorning the door transom, right above the table where we ate. And then there was the triangular beer box. Sure it was clever in its shape, but that box was better suited for a dorm room.

Still, the house—the way he had it set up, dust and all—was charming, warm and inviting. You could feel the good energy, the solid bones, the happy spirits permeating the layers of wallpaper and plaster.

Our kitchen table has a temporary home in the dining room during construction.
As we began our life together, we started having dinner parties. And house guests. And soon the round oak kitchen table didn’t feel big enough. No matter how beautiful or inviting the other rooms in the house may be, everyone loves to gather in the kitchen. It’s the heartbeat of a home, where nourishment of both stomach and spirit originates.

This is me in my old house, where I
could open my oven all the way.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have a bench seat?” I said over wine and candles one night. “We could fit more people around the table.” Doug agreed so I threw out my next line. “And you know what would be really great? To be able to open the oven door all the way.” I don’t know who was responsible for the earlier construction—surely Ardis couldn’t have lived with an oven door that opened only half way, blocked by the door frame—but this was the one thing I was really hoping to change. I was a pie maker (not a pastry chef, but you could say a semi-professional one given I had run a pie stand and written a pie cookbook.) But I couldn’t get my pies in and out of Doug’s oven without burning my arms. “It’s so much easier to be happy when you eliminate life’s little irritations,” I prodded him.

Doug's key lime pie
Doug had learned how to make pie too—I taught him a year earlier—and he made plenty of them (Key Lime Pie was his specialty), so he understood the issue. So when we talked about what started us on the renovation project and I say “beer bottles,” he says “No, it started with pie.” He’s right. That’s why I’m leaving you a pie recipe in this letter. Because assuming you are renovating this kitchen and not tearing down the whole place, my hope is that you will keep our memory alive and bake lots of pies here.

I wonder what your lives will be like in this kitchen—in your new kitchen. Will you find this note twenty years from now or 50? Or more? Will you be able to read my cursive handwriting? Do they still teach that in schools or has it been relegated to history like hieroglyphics? What will your world be like? Will there still be fighting in the Middle East? Will terrorist attacks have become an everyday thing? Will everyone be armed? With nuclear weapons? Will there still be 4-H and county fairs? How will farming be done? Will tractors be high-speed hovercrafts? Will GMOs and fertilizers and pesticides have caused genes to mutate beyond repair? Will water still be drinkable? Surely there won’t be newspapers in print, but will there still be Facebook and Twitter? Or will you laugh at what we call social media and call it obsolete? Maybe you won’t even have internet, rather something more advanced, something solar powered, maybe telepathically connected with other planets. Whatever it is will surely be an improvement over the painfully slow information pipeline we have today. (One thing I guarantee, Windstream Communications will have ceased to exist. God willing.) The way the world is going we aren’t doing the best job for you and for future generations. I wish we could do better, be more mindful of those who will follow us when we are gone. Still, we manage. In spite of ourselves, our oddities and our imperfections at being human, we are doing our part to keep the species going.

It was a bittersweet day when we said goodbye to the old cabinets.
As I write you this letter we have only just started our renovation—the cabinets carved out, the walls peeled away, the beams exposed. Hopefully we will be lucky enough to enjoy many years in our new and improved kitchen. I say “our” kitchen, because even though we are not married and don’t plan to get married (Doug is 61 and I’m 53), renovating the kitchen has become symbolic of our commitment to each other. We picked out the quarter sawn oak Mission-style cabinets because their wood is a little rough, and will fit well with Doug’s collection of Arts and Crafts antique furniture in the rest of the house. I wonder if there are any pieces of it left behind for you to use. We are building extra counter space into our new design to make it easier to roll pie dough. We are building in the bench seats below the east window to be comfortable when we linger long hours at the dinner table. And since we had to move the stereo, on which Doug’s cat Maybellene liked to sleep to keep warm, we are still trying to configure a heated perch for her out of my dog’s reach. (My terrier, Jack, likes to chase the cat, while Doug’s dog, Mali, a springer spaniel/beagle mix is better at coexisting.)

Maybellene in her favorite sleeping place.
We still need to find a new warm spot for her.
We finally tore up the tortoise shell flooring—someone had suggested they didn’t even want to walk on it because it looked like something that should be wiped up! But we did save a few sections of it. We took our carpenter’s joke seriously when he suggested using it to make picture frames. We’re going to frame some old house photos with this green and yellow stuff (even though it’s probably toxic) and send them to Milton and Ardis’s grandkids. Their nostalgia was ignited when they learned we were renovating. They remember visiting their grandparents in this house and have fond memories of this kitchen. They should have a piece of it as a keepsake.

Doug and I don’t have grandkids to become nostalgic over our kitchen when you gut it. It is your kitchen now. You have to make room for your own houseguests, your own meals and memories, your own choice of flooring. But you have to admit, our neutral-toned, linen-pattern flooring is (or was) very tasteful. I hope it doesn’t look too dated, too “period,” by the time you decide to rip it out. It will have served us well, worn down from the traffic and mud of farm boots and dog paws. I will have spent many days, hopefully years, scrubbing it, cleaning up everything from coffee to ketchup to the colostrum replacement Doug mixes up to bottle feed baby calves, and surely plenty of pie crumbs.

Beth and Doug at Camp Doug
I just hope you love this house as much as we did. And that you love and honor this land—as well as each other, your friends, your families, your neighbors—as much as we did. And that you try your best to leave not just this kitchen, but this world, a better place, like we did.

Now, please, go make some pie!

With love and gratitude,
Beth and Doug

One of the many apple pies made in our old kitchen.
We look forward to baking many more
in the new and improved kitchen!
APPLE PIE RECIPE

CRUST (Basic Pie Dough for double-crust pie) 
2-1/2 cups flour (white all-purpose)  (Plus extra flour for rolling dough)                                      
1/2 cup butter, chilled
1/2 cup vegetable shortening  (or skip this and use all butter)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ice water (fill one cup but use only enough to moisten dough)

In a deep bowl, work the butter and shortening into the flour with your hands until you have a lumpy consistency (you want to leave mixed nut-size chunks of butter which will give you a flaky crust.) Add ice water a little at a time, sort of “fluffing” the flour. Keep your movements light, as if you are tossing dressing into a salad with your hands. When the dough feels moistened enough, do a “squeeze test” and when it holds together you’re done. Do not overwork the dough! You are not kneading it like bread. It takes very little time and you’ll be tempted to keep touching it, but don’t! Now divide the dough in two, form each half into a disk shape and roll flat and thin (thin enough to where you could start to see the table through the dough) then fit your pie dish. Sprinkle flour under and on top of your dough, and keep rolling surface and pin free from gunk to keep dough from sticking. Trim excess dough to about 1 inch from the dish edge with a scissors, leaving enough extra hanging over the edge for crimping later.

FILLING
7 to 10 large Granny Smith apples, peeled (see tip below) 
1/2 tsp salt (you’ll sprinkle this on so don’t worry about precise amount)
1 to 2 tsp cinnamon (use however much you like, but remember it’s a powerful spice)
3/4 cup sugar (more or less, depending on your taste, tartness of apples, and number of apples)
4 tbsp flour (to thicken the filling)

1 tbsp butter, to pat on top of filling
1 beaten egg, to brush on top crust

The pie is “assembled” in two layers, which is not only a nice shortcut, it saves you from having to wash an extra bowl! 

1. Prepare the Basic Pie Dough for a double-crust pie. 
2. Prepare the Filling: Slice half of the peeled apples directly into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently to remove extra space between slices. Fill the dish enough so you don’t see through the first layer to the bottom crust. 
3. Cover with half of salt, cinnamon, sugar, and flour. 
4. Slice the remaining apples into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently on top of first layer, and cover with second half of ingredients. 
5. Add a pat of butter on top, then cover with the top crust. 
6. Trim the edges with a scissors, leaving about 1 to 2 inches overhang, and then roll the top and bottom crust together underhand so that it’s sealed and sits on the rim of your pie plate. 
7. Crimp the edge with your fingers or a fork, then brush with a beaten egg. (The egg gives the pie a nice golden-brown shine. Do be careful not to let egg pool in crevices. You will use about half an egg per pie.) 
8. Use a knife to poke vent holes in the top (get creative here with a pattern), then bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes to set and brown the crust.
9. Turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until juice bubbles. Keep an eye on it as it bakes. If it gets too dark, turn down the temperature. 
10. To be sure it’s done, poke with a knife through the vent holes to make sure apples have softened. Do not overbake or apples will turn mushy.

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE…AND PIE: It’s okay to use a variety of apples. Try Braeburn and Royal Gala. I don’t use Fuji (they are too juicy) or Red Delicious (they have no taste). Tart apples work best for pie. The number of apples you use will depend on the size of apple and the size of pie dish, but the general amount is about 3 pounds per 10-inch pie.

BETH’S TIP: Slicing your apples too thick will mean your pie takes longer to bake. But slicing them too thin will translate in filling that’s like applesauce. I don’t like to suggest numbers, but think 1/4 inch thick. Also, keeping your slices a consistent size will help the pie bake more evenly.

KEEP CALM!
Don’t worry about your apples turning brown. I mean, think about it: what color is cinnamon? Exactly! No one will ever know.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Is World Peace Possible?

This past summer I left my home in Donnellson, Iowa and traveled all the way around the world, baking American pie in 10 countries as a way to promote cultural tolerance. I returned with the intention of writing a book about my experience. I already had the title: World Piece, spelled p-i-e-c-e.  But it is hard to write about world peace when you’ve lost your faith in it.

My trip went well enough. I toured apple orchards in New Zealand. I did a pie demo for the Women’s International Club in Sydney. I baked 75 pies for the American Embassy’s 4th of July reception in Thailand. I learned how to make pie-like pastries in India. I delivered a dozen pies to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. I picked wild blueberries in the Black Forest to make pie with 10-year-olds, and then with a gay couple in Budapest’s bombed out Jewish quarter. I interacted with people all around the globe, weaving my way through a lattice crust of nationalities, religions and races. I made 211 pies and almost as many new friends. I returned safely.

Baking pie in the Black Forest.
We all wore our hair in braids.
But since I’ve been back, I’ve been listening to a lot of news. Bad news from the places where I had just been. A bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, the exact spot where I had made my pies. A growing garbage crisis in Lebanon. The Syrian refugee crisis worsening. Trains halted from Hungary to reject the migrants. Terrorist attacks in Paris, and then Brussels. Instead of spreading world peace, it was as if I had left only violence in my wake. Add to that the vitriol of the presidential campaign with threats to build walls and ban certain religions from entering the U.S., to divide instead of unite people, and any remaining optimism I had for healing the world evaporated.


Lugging that rolling pin for 30,000 miles was all for nothing. Or was it?

In the Bekaa Valley Refugee Camp.
These Syrian kids are the happy
recipients of homemade pie.
In my state of disillusionment, I reached out to my Facebook friends, the ones who had cheered me on during my 3-month journey. I asked them, “Do you believe world peace is possible? How do you define peace and what examples do you see of it? What do you do to try to make the world a better place?”

The responses were plentiful and thoughtful.

Limit exposure to news. Meditate or pray. Spread joy. Practice kindness and tolerance. Teach children to be good citizens. Invest in the education of the next generation. Focus on the good. Live with a soft heart. Dig deeper for awareness and understanding of yourself. Choose to think positively. Help others. Talk to your neighbors. Share a smile. Cooperate with those you don’t agree with. Believe in the ripple effect. (Like pay the bridge toll for the car behind you and see it continue for hours.)

One woman in Des Moines said, “Each Sunday at the end of our service we sing words of John Wesley: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” She believes an individual's inner peace created by these words will lead to collective world peace.

A bike shop owner in Ottumwa said, “Peace is yin and yang because energy is in constant flow. There is goodness and there is anger. Anger has its place, because oftentimes it is what pushes a change for more goodness.”

Some of the comments included links to videos—of the Dalai Lama, a CNN story on the peaceful kingdom of Bhutan, a TED talk. There were also links to organizations, a Dutch one called World Peace is Possible, whose website states, “There was peace for 1 percent of the 3,500 years of civilization, so we know it’s possible.” There is the “I Declare World Peace” hashtag movement on Twitter. There’s “A Peace of my Mind” —p-e-a-c-e— book of photography and interviews. And in LA, there is a man whose Global Vision for Peace non-profit is organizing a LiveAid-type concert to be held on September 21, the annual date the United Nations has established as International Day of Peace.

Humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup. So why can’t we get along? Why is there not 99.9 percent peace in the world? We may try to be good and do good, hardwired for survival, but we are tribal. We are opinionated, power hungry, fearful and hotheaded, with some more prone than others to strap on an explosive vest and detonate it in the middle of a crowd. Still, I want to believe mankind is basically good. I want to have hope.

One commenter suggested that wanting global piece is too daunting. “You should scale it back,” he said, “and just think about your own world, your own piece of the pie. Each piece put together in harmony can add up to the whole.”

These beauties (Margaret, left, age 94 and
Rosalie, right, age 92) know a thing or two
about life. Sharing stories pie with them
 over pie is the definition of peace.
With this in mind, I’ve reimagined my own view of world peace. It is sleeping soundly under my down comforter, next to the man I love, in a country we are blessed to live in. It is doing yoga as the sun rises over the barn. It is walking through the hay field over to the creek to look for wildflowers. It is watching the baby calves nurse on their mothers. It is dropping by my old neighbor’s house after his heart surgery and seeing his face light up at my arrival. It is listening to the stories of two 90-something-year-old sisters in my town, made even sweeter over pie. And it is about community, people connecting with each other, even if just on Facebook, who lend each other a helping hand, restoring their faith in humanity and, in my case, to push them past their writer’s block.

That last commenter was right. It is not about world peace as a whole. It’s about having one little slice of it. And that I have found. Right where I started. On a farm in Iowa.