27 February 2010


Sun on melting snow, near Spearfish, South Dakota

There's no doubt about it: spring is inching its way toward us. The days are longer and the sunrise is brighter. Snowmelt is trickling down the streets and turning the yards into mudlots. No one's complaining. This has been a hard winter for many of our friends and family; everyone can use a bit of spring.

Up here on the prairies, no one's assuming anything. The blizzard season can last into May, after all. So we took advantage of a beautiful day to get up and go on a birding trip to Spearfish and environs. Spearfish is a lovely town in the Black Hills, at the center of a great bird-watching region. Having two fish hatcheries in the area doesn't hurt the birdwatching one bit. It was a quiet day with some spectacular raptors, most notably prairie falcons and bald eagles. One even posed for us.

Adult bald eagle in full awesomeness above Spearfish Creek. My camera's not that powerful; he was that close.

It was another good day for architecture of the open places, too.


Deserted cabin


Tiny shed


Happy weekend from the prairies.

25 February 2010

Quilt Thursday: Hexagons

Barbara Brackman has a terrific post today about hexagon quilts (e.g. the Grandmother's Flower Garden pattern). She describes how unexpectedly fascinating it is to make a large work with a simple, repeating, single-shape element. Hexagons fit and nest in ways that mathematicians can explain via tiling theory far better than I can. They crop up in the natural world again and again (honeycombs, snowflakes, basalt, etc.). They can be tiled indefinitely, infinitely.

In her post, she notes the astonishing hexagon quilts made by Albert Small of Ottawa, Illinois. This is found at the Illinois State Museum Society site. Mr. Small apparently was out to create a quilt with the largest number of individual pieces. I'm dedicating today's blog to him. That's only because I will NOT be following in his footsteps; I can practically guarantee this.

Here are the ISMS pictures of Mr. Small and two of his amazing hand-pieced quilts. As they note, in the second quilt below, the individual pieces are so tiny that six of them fit under a dime.

There are over 123,000 hexagon pieces in this quilt. I am now officially an amateur. For life.  

Happy Thursday. The weekend is almost here.

22 February 2010

Family recipe Monday: hummingbird cake

Anna's hummingbird image by Doug Sparks, from http://hummingbirdworld.com/h/17.htm

Our friend Pat called from the road on Saturday, on her way from Colorado to Florida. She was in El Reno, Oklahoma, just west of Oklahoma City. Pat is a tremendously gifted cook, among many other hats she wears, and she has started using the Roadfood.com resources as a way to liven up long drives. Today she was at an El Reno culinary shrine, the home of the onion burger. Apparently there is a lively debate over which restaurant in El Reno invented this, but word has it that it is not to be missed, especially if you are on a long drive across Oklahoma and you are cross-eyed with road fatigue as you drive through what she calls "frizzle" (=freezing drizzle). It propelled her all the way to Houston in one day; it must be good.

Pat was describing the menu to us and noted that there was a dessert called Hummingbird Cake, of which she had never heard. It's very, very, VERY hard to stump Pat when it comes to anything having to do with cooking and recipes. (This is the woman who has her own cook's trailer and puts together three-course dinners for paleontology field crews 60 miles from nowhere.) But I was able to tell her, gleefully, that the family recipe archives came through again: I do in fact have a recipe for Hummingbird Cake.

Not that I've ever made it.

Or that I know why it is named that, or where hummingbirds come into the picture. I'm relieved to report that they are not ingredients, so stop worrying about that. No hummingbirds have been harmed in the making of this cake.

There seem to be many weird explanations: that the "taste of each bite makes one hum with delight" (mmmm...), that it is as sweet as hummingbirds' sugar water...who knows? Myrecipes. com says that this is the most requested recipe in Southern Living's history, a favorite of covered-dish suppers. It is a very sweet cake with pecans, pineapple and bananas, graced by a rich cream-cheese icing, not unlike an Italian cream cake.

Here is my grandmother Johnson's recipe. The note in the top left corner reads: "From Maude." This is considerably older than the Southern Living recipe published in 1978. I notice that there are lighter versions, healthier versions, decorated versions of this online...but this is hers. I can't find any online resources that describe this as anything but a layer cake, so I'm curious how the tube cake would turn out. The oil makes it very moist, and the fruit and pecans are lavish. Extravagant, even.

Humming bird cake
For a tube pan or for 3 layers

3 cups flour
½ tsp salt
2 cups sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp soda
3 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups salad oil
1 ½ tsp vanilla
1 8-oz can crushed pineapple, undrained
2 cups chopped pecans
2 cups chopped bananas

Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bowl. Add eggs and salad oil, stirring until dry ingredients are moistened. Do not beat. Stir in vanilla, pecans, pineapple and bananas. Bake at 350 F.

Cream cheese icing
2 8-oz pkg. cream cheese, softened
1 cup margarine
2 16-oz pkg. powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla

Use only half of this for a tube cake.

I don't know how this compares to the El Reno version. If I ever go through there, I will most certainly find out. It's a good excuse for a road trip to Oklahoma. Happy Monday!

20 February 2010

Catching up

Light on the drive home from Piya Wiconi

It's a cold, lovely Saturday morning with snow showers in the forecast, a perfect day to catch up on a number of deferred (OK, procrastinated) tasks and assignments. I've made tea strong enough to stand a spoon in, because I'd rather hibernate, honestly. Yesterday morning, though, stumbling awake at the usual time, I saw the thinnest rim of blue-light sunrise for the first time since the winter solstice. Spring is creeping over the horizon. Time to get things going; no time to laze.

So I will spend the day writing, with perhaps a detour to make teacakes. Baking and writing are interconnected for me, and the baking forces me to take breaks and let the subconscious work on the writing. The aroma is a magnificent bonus.

In the meantime, here are some shots from a couple of recent trips: a birding trip last Saturday to the Hammerquist Road area east of Rapid City, and a lovely drive through early morning fog and late afternoon light to the Piya Wiconi campus of Oglala Lakota College yesterday.  The light on the prairies in its endless permutations may be the most spectacular part of the scenery. The prairie architecture isn't bad, either.

FWIW: I was trying to show some of these online albums to our friend Pat last week, hoping she'd enjoy the views. Instead, she and Gene were tickled by my late-night fumble-fingered typos, spellos, grammos and punctos. By "tickled," I mean, of course, convulsed in hysterics on the floor. So I hope that nothing on here is still labeled Sputh Dakora. If it is, I'll kindly thank you to keep quiet about it. Just enjoy the views. Happy weekend from Sputh Dakora.

Cattle and sharp-tailed grouse, Hammerquist Road

Frozen pond, Hammerquist Road

Barn, Hammerquist Road

Light through the fog, Sheep Mountain Road area

Our Lady of the Sorrows, Kyle

Wild turkeys near White River Visitor Center

Tatanka Trading Post, Scenic, South Dakota

Scenic, South Dakota

Stone house in snowbank, Scenic, South Dakota

Shed, drive to Rapid City. I love the diamond pane window.

15 February 2010

Family recipe Monday: cornbread and chili


It's been another cold week up here, and a busy one to boot. On Saturday we were out birding in the Rapid City-Rapid Valley area. Top sightings: 5 adult bald eagles, 1 immature; a big flock of sharp-tailed grouse feeding close to the ranch road we were on; numerous hawks everywhere; and a great horned owl on his/her nest. Why they nest in the bleak midwinter is unclear. The owls start duetting on the cold nights in December, a lovely, deep, eerie sound in the small hours of the morning. The owlets first learn about life in the cold months.

Everyone has different warm-up recipes for this time of year. Here is a favorite Texas combination that cures frostbite from the inside out. All of these are from the Shelton-Johnson family recipe collection.

Corn bread

1 cup buttermilk
1/3 tsp soda
1/3 cup flour
Cornmeal to thicken
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Yes, that is another cryptic one, isn't it? Here's one with a few more directions:

Corn kernel cornbread
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
¼ cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup milk
3 T melted margarine
1 cup yellow cream-style corn

Preheat oven to 450 F. Brush 9” square baking pan or skillet with melted shortening. Combine dry ingredients in mixing bowl, stirring to blend well. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, milk, margarine and corn. Add all at once to dry ingredients, mixing quickly and thoroughly. Pour batter into pan and bake about 30 minutes, or until bread tests done. Can also be baked as sticks or muffins. Serve hot.

I generally bake cornbread in a cast-iron skillet or cornstick pan. The trick is to grease it with the agent du jour (shortening, butter, bear grease, or whatever works in your household) (yes, I was joking about the bear grease) (unless that's really what you use; I'm not trying to insult the bear-grease lobby), and then to pre-heat the skillet in the oven before pouring in the batter.

Traditional Texas/Arkansas/Oklahoma cornbread is made with buttermilk; end of discussion. Many people (Lyndon Johnson and my grandfather Mack Johnson, no relation, just to name two) would then crumble the fresh cornbread in a glass or bowl of cold sweet milk as a late-night supper. Can't say I've ever tried this, because I am generally adding green chiles and cheese to my cornbread, and they were baking it simple and plain. I don't know how green chile cornbread would do in milk.

The cornmeal in the recipes above would have been either white or yellow. I personally also use blue cornmeal for a slightly different and more delicate texture and flavor. We had a black-bean potpie with a blue cornbread topping ready on Wednesday for a friend who drove 10 hours from Colorado and would, we knew, be tired and hungry when she got here. But that's another recipe.

Cornbread is very forgiving. You can keep it plain as above or throw in whatever jazzes it up for you. There is always an argument about adding sugar to the dry ingredients. Here's the issue: we are using very different corn varieties and hybrids from those in use in the 19th century. Theirs were naturally sweeter than ours, so they did not add sugar in the old recipes. That doesn't mean that adding sugar now is wrong--it may be the best way to approximate the original flavor. Sugar brings out the taste of the corn (and chiles, if you're using them), so, the sweeter the corn, the better the flavor of the bread. If you think that yours is a bit bland and dry in flavor, experiment with a little sugar or (even better) molasses.

Mix the dry ingredients, blend the wet ingredients, combine them into a batter, and bake it until the top is slightly springy and golden. That's all you need to do. Don't bother with a commercial mix.

Cornbread goes wonderfully with soups and stews, but perhaps best of all with chili. I'm not going to rehash (so to speak) the beans-no beans chili wars here; I'm just going to share a very old recipe that falls squarely in the no-beans camp.

Texas Red Chili

1/8 lb. suet, finely chopped
3 lb. round steak, coarsely cubed
6 T chili powder
1 T ground oregano
1 T crushed cumin seed
1 T salt
½ to 1 T cayenne (½ mild, ½ hot)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 T Tabasco if you dare (½ T)
1 ½ quarts water
½ cup white cornmeal or 3 T masa harina
8 oz tomato sauce

In Dutch oven, fry suet until crisp, add steak cubes and brown. Add seasonings and water; heat to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 ½ hours. Skim off fat. Stir in cornmeal and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. Serve with cornbread or pinto beans. Serves 8-10.

This recipe dates back to the 1800’s when it was served by vendors on the streets of San Antonio.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

With real chili like this, beans are only served on the side.

The vendors she mentions are doubtless the legendary Chili Queens of San Antonio.

Jack Sprecht/Institute of Texan Cultures at UTSA. The chili queens of Haymarket Plaza in San Antonio, Texas, pictured in 1933.

For more information on these ladies, check out this link. Chili is actually a north-of-the-border invention, possibly from the 1850s, as it turns out.

I'm following a fairly common convention in using two different spellings: "chile" for the peppers themselves and "chili" for the main dish. That's not set in stone. You also see it spelled "chilli." Chile is a Nahuatl word, not a Spanish one, for the pepper itself, and every spelling is a transliteration from this deep and ancient Aztec language. Here are a few other Nahuatl food words from this site:

Avocado (ahuacatl)
Chile (chilli)
Chocolate (from xoco(l)atl)
Cacao (cacahuatl)
Tomato (from (xi)tomatl)

Stay warm in the nest and eat well. If you try these, please post the results. Happy Monday.

08 February 2010

Family recipe Monday: pears

It's a frosty Monday morning and I'm not happy about being an adult human instead of a hibernating bear. Hibernation sounds like a great idea right now. But I've warmed up with cinnamon tea and am off to face the day. Just don't ask me to be perky yet.

Gene will soon be posting a series of family recipes from the Hess-Shaffner side. These reflect a totally different heritage, pure Pennsylvania Dutch, and some are even older than any I've collected from my side of the tree.

In the meantime, I'm thinking about pears...

Pear preserves

1 quart thinly sliced pears
1 cup sugar per quart pears
Very thinly sliced lemon to taste
Water to cover

Cook over very low heat to right consistency.
 --Mrs. E. A. (Leo) Tipton

I am not sure who Mrs. Tipton was; I'm assuming that she was a family friend who shared her recipes (unlike some people we know, or have read about). I love the combination of exactitude on the slicing and heat, but vagueness on the consistency. Hint: cook this until the syrup coats a spoon, but the pear slices are still intact. You're making preserves, not jam, and these are lovely. The preserves will continue setting up in the jar as they cool. I'd use at least half a lemon per quart, and make sure that the water only just covers the pears. mmmm....
Pear honey
4 quarts ground pears
3 quarts sugar

Cook in pan over medium flame until pears are tender and juice is clear. Add 1 quart crushed pineapple--continue cooking 10 minutes.
 --Vada Brooks Johnson

Pineapple was another exotic fruit that transformed cooking in the dryland areas when it became available in stores. People put it in everything they could get away with, as I recall. The pears were ground with a hand mill/food mill. You could use a food processor for this, with no problems. Just don't overdo it--this should be a coarse grind.

A note on the recipe card itself: this is obviously a sheet from a scratch pad rather than a card. My grandmother and her mother wrote down recipes on any paper that was at hand, and my grandfather always had scratch pads from the businessmen he worked with as an architectural draftsman. This is a prime example. I think we need to do a little local research and find out what we have in our recipe papers from businesses that no longer exist. We could do a micro-history of the businesses in the area.

Finally, here is a preview of the Shaffner-Hess recipe files. Gene's mom Dolly was an ace cook and had the dietitian's degree to prove it. Her recipes are short, crisp and exact. More on her when Gene gets his recipes up.

Early American pear pie

Make pastry and line 9” pan. Fill with:

Pare and slice firm pears—6 cups. Mix ¾ cup sugar, 1 tsp nutmeg or cinnamon, 2 T flour. Mix through pears. Fill pie tin, dot with butter, cover with crust. Bake 425 [F] for 35-45 minutes.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess

Being a fan of eating produce in its season, I only have six or seven months to go before fresh pears are available. I'm ready for them right now. This is why hibernation would be such a great idea. Snarl. Happy Monday.

06 February 2010

A new building, a new era

Groundbreaking still-life with golden shovels and hard hats, SDSMT, April 2009

Sometime this spring, sooner than we thought a year ago, we will cut ribbons and ceremonially open the doors to our new paleontology repository building. This is a development 30 years in the making. If you're wondering why my posts lately are so spotty, well, it's a lot of work getting half a million items ready for the big move. It doesn't make for exciting writing, describing the myriad tasks required to get 125 years of collections and records in shape for 21st-century use. ("Dear Blogosphere: Wow! Another 200 data entries today!" That would not exactly bring you back to read anything else, would it?) The result, though, will be splendid. This may be the most important thing I have ever been asked to do, professionally, and it's humbling.

And if you're wondering why I think this is so important, please read my friend Chris Norris's blog today at http://paleocoll.blogspot.com/2010/02/cut-to-bone.html. It's hard to remember, in difficult times, how much we depend on saving the past and present for the future. That's what this work, and this blog, are all about--the threads, tracks and traces of the past that we hold in our hands today and pass on to the next generations, as they were passed on to us.

We are facing difficult times on all fronts, and sometimes sheer survival is hard enough--but I hope we can keep our grip on these fragile threads of memory and legacy. The smallest things, like old recipes, or tiny fossils, or brittle love notes from another century, connect us to past lives and past worlds in so many ways. We are processes rather than points in time.

01 February 2010

Family recipe Monday: bananas

It's hard for me to realize just how exotic bananas were to my great-grandmother and her generation in Arkansas and Oklahoma. I find myself wondering when they first became available, how costly they were, and how they got to the dry rural areas for the first few years. They were a breath-taking luxury. Naturally, they were not to be wasted, so there were soon recipes for using the older, softer, overripe ones in cooking.

Banana nut bread is a classic teabread, a dense, sweet bread leavened with baking powder or baking soda, or both. Teabreads were kept on hand for dessert and for company. It was unthinkable to receive a visitor without providing refreshment as part of the hospitality.

I have two versions of banana nut bread in the Simple Gifts family recipe files. The first one is above. It is lovely and delicious, but not exactly heart-healthy. You can experiment with the fat and egg proportions and substitutions to your satisfaction.

Banana nut bread
½ cup Crisco
1 ½ cups sugar
2 beaten eggs
1 cup mashed bananas
2 cups flour
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp [baking] soda
1/2 tsp salt
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup nuts

Bake at 350 F.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

Another recipe with cryptic directions. I cream the Crisco, sugar and eggs, mix the dry ingredients, mix the wet ingredients, mash the bananas, and combine everything in that order: creamed, dry, wet, mashed. This is for hand-mixing; I change the order for the kitchen mixer.

Here is a second, similar version.

Banana nut bread

½ cup Crisco
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, one at a time

Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 tsp. baking soda, ¼ tsp. salt. Add to first mixture. Add 2 cups mashed bananas, ½ cup chopped nuts, 1 tsp. vanilla. Bake at 350 F.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

The result either way is a rich teabread with that unmistakable banana fragrance.
Notice that there is no time for baking given. That's something else you're just supposed to know, apparently. Banana nut bread will rise a bit in the oven and needs to bake thoroughly, or else the interior will be soggy. I usually give this 30 uninterrupted minutes--that is a low temperature; it's going to take a while--and then test for doneness with a cake straw or pie pin every 5 minutes or so. This needs to cool thoroughly in the loaf pan (you did use a bread loaf pan, right?) before being removed. Wrapped and refrigerated, it will last a long time, and will be there when visitors next show up on the horizon. It reheats beautifully in a low oven; never microwave it. I like it with Earl Grey tea and cold grey weather. Right now, I have all three on hand in abundance.
Finally, here is another one from the old days. This is one of my great-grandmother's specialties and favorites, I understand. I have not changed the measurements or directions.
Cressie cake with hot banana topping

1 ½ cups sugar
3 cups flour
1 ½ cups shortening
2 rounding tsp baking powder
1 ½ cups sour milk
1 level tsp soda
4 eggs
pinch of salt

2 cups sugar, enough sweet milk to wet well and butter the size of an egg. Let boil and add 1 T flour and 2 T sugar mixed together. Let this boil until thickness desired is reached. Use mashed bananas for banana filling.
--Mary Marcella Walker Brooks. Cressie was a cousin of the family who provided the recipe.

You are supposed to know how to make the cake, for goodness sake. The tricky part was the filling/topping. It seems that bananas were optional, but, if you had them, you used them, however much you had. This can be either a 2-layer or a sheet cake, with that lovely hot banana mixture lavished on top and between the layers. This was a family favorite.
Happy Monday. If you make any of these, do let us know how they turn out.