On remembering at Thanksgiving

I don’t even know how old this pot is. It’s a roaster. Big enough for a 20 pound turkey. Big enough for a family feast of fried chicken at the Fourth of July. Big enough to feed crowd.

This one belonged to my grandma Elsie. My childhood surfaces every time I bring it out, memories of this very pan filled to the brim with whatever she was serving to the crowd in her kitchen when we visited. Thanksgiving was always at Grandma’s, even after she downsized, left the farm, moved into a trailer, and then to an apartment in town. Often, more than 50 of us—family and extended family alike—gathered in the community room in her building for Thanksgiving dinner.

We’d have at least two turkeys. The menu also reflected the whims of whomever was bringing sides. There was always mashed potatoes, and gravy, and stuffing. My mother’s baked beans, sometimes sweet corn, and sweet potatoes speckled with marshmallows sat at the table next to occasional treats brought by cousins who lived further afield than rural Wisconsin.

We ate. We gossiped. We played games of all kinds. We’d have a cribbage tournament sometimes. Other times we’d find the Macy’s parade on the little TV in the corner, followed by whatever football game was playing. (Bonus points for days when the Packers played the Lions.)

This year looks a little different. None of us are traveling, to keep us all safe. This pan is out in my kitchen, ready for the turkey, which I fully expect my small family will be eating for the next week. I have lots of little treats for us to nibble on over the course of the day, and the parade is already on. We’ll connect with other family members later today over the phone. And as we give thanks, we’ll remember we have food, we have shelter, and we have love.

Best wishes to all of you on this Thanksgiving.

Rose Wilder Lane on D.W. Griffith and the Great War

I’m trying something a little different today. I’ve been inspired by the numerous artists and actors who are reading aloud online to help entertain those of us who have been stuck at home.

Below, you’ll find an audio link. It’s an MP3 file of me reading a work from my book, The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist. It features Rose Wilder Lane’s article about D.W. Griffith and that famed director’s attempt at creating great cinema from actual battle footage during World War I. It’s sixteen minutes long. Have a listen. Lane had a habit of letting readers draw their own conclusions, but it’s pretty clear what her thoughts are about Griffith’s approach.

On D.W. Griffith and the Great War

Amy Lauters reads “Mars in the Movies,” first printed in Sunset, February 1918. Written by Rose Wilder Lane; reprinted in The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist.

Just Two Weeks to LauraPalooza

So I’m pretty late in getting my registration in, but I’m excited to be heading to LauraPalooza in two weeks. While I won’t be able to go for the entire three-day conference, I’m really looking forward to the day that I’ll be there.

The program shows a set of research presentations that focus on Rose Wilder Lane and on On the Way Home, and a bus trip to Pepin with special programming. I look forward to seeing some of my Laura friends, too.

That entire week will include not only LauraPalooza, but a road trip to Walnut Grove over the weekend to attend the Little House television show cast reunion. Guests will include two of my favorite people, Alison Arngrim and Dean Butler, as well as several original cast members. One, Radames Pera, also played the young Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, and my husband (a martial artist) is excited to get his autograph.

I know several other Laura friends who plan to make the whole week one long Laura trip. And as Alison recently said on Twitter, it will be “amazeballs!”

Keep an eye on this space to hear more about it when it happens.

Summer Fun Begins at Como Park

Memorial Day marked the beginning of summer for my family, and we started our summer last week with a day trip to Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, a perpetual family favorite.

I don’t have clear memories of my first trip to Como because it’s a place my family’s gone to since I was tiny, myself. This large, gorgeous park was constructed between 1891 and 1922, and it remains a staple of family life for anyone near the Twin Cities area. Admission to the zoo and conservatory is free, though donations are gratefully accepted for the work of maintaining the park and for the conservation programs to which the organization contributes.

The grounds have evolved a bit since their earliest construction. Our favorite place to park is at the West Picnic Grounds, which are closest to the zoo and conservatory, contain a well-maintained toilet facility, and include a playground suitable for children ages 3 and up. We like to take a picnic to one of the many picnic tables at the grounds and eat before heading into the zoo at its main entrance.

The main entrance features several well-maintained carnival rides for all ages, for fees that help offset the costs. It’s a fun place to start, or end, the trip. The zoo itself is small, and easily walkable, but features a variety of animals in clean, appropriate habitats. Last week, we saw the tigers, giraffes, gorillas, orangutans, polar bears, bison, zebras, penguins, and many other animals, large and small. The zoo’s popular sea lion exhibit and show is on hiatus this summer, as the entire area devoted to aquatics is under construction and slated to reopen in 2020.

However, that’s not really a deterrent for visitors. The day we were there last week, the temperatures were pleasant and the park was full of school groups taking their end-of-year field trips. We enjoyed a visit to the conservatory as well as the zoo, and my preschoolers loved the children’s gallery inside that allowed them to play with water in an exhibit about planting.

C in particular liked seeing all the plants in the conservatory. She loved the sunken garden, laughed under the spray in the fern room, and excitedly gasped at the sight of a cacao tree. Both girls loved the Japanese garden, and the area that let them build their own paths in puzzle form.

We were mildly disappointed that the butterfly house was not yet ready for visitors; visits in the past have been favorites. But it’s early in the season for butterflies, and the house will open June 15.

Finally, though mine are not yet excited about the big carousel, I’ll relate that it’s one of my favorite places, and has been since I was small. For $2, take a ride on Cafejian’s Carousel, named for the man who helped rescue and restore it. Built in 1914, the carousel features 68 horses.

We finished off our day with ice cream and play at the playground. Como itself is much larger than our day would suggest; the total grounds feature a lake with walking trails and a golf course nearby. Locals enjoy much more than the zoo. But it’s well worth a visit.

If you go: Concessions are available at the park, and it’s all that luscious carnival food you might love. It’s also pricy, as concessions are one way the park is able to maintain a free admission policy. I generally choose to simply “eat” the cost as a contribution to the park, but if money is a concern for you, take a picnic. The grounds are lovely. Just don’t feed the animals.

The Mahkato Wacipi

We spent a good portion of our Saturday on the grounds at Land Of Memories Park in Mankato, Minn., for the 46th Annual Mahkato Wacipi, a gathering sponsored by the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community, the Prairie Island Indian Community, Mankato Area Public Schools, KMSU, and The Center for American Indian Affairs. This year’s theme was “Honoring the 38 Dakota,” and the overall tone was one of reconciliation and reflection about that terrible chapter in Minnesota history.

The 38 refer to the Dakota who were executed on the public square in downtown Mankato on December 26, 1862, in the wake of the Dakota conflicts. The effects of that event and that year on Minnesota culture and living continue to ripple in many ways, and the tribes who sponsor and organize the Wacipi continue to hold it in Mankato in part as a means of calling attention to them, and to foster the reconciliation between First Nation peoples and others in the community.

My husband and I have attended many such gatherings over the years. One of my personal interests in First Nation culture stems from my own search for the roots of the family story that suggests our own descent from one of the tribes on the U.S. eastern seaboard. We can neither confirm nor deny that story at this point, though my search continues.

In those early years of my childhood, I lived in northern Wisconsin, very near the La Courte Oreilles Ojibwa reservation, and in the company of many Ojibwa and St. Croix Chippewa tribe members. While I’ve been told and I’ve read that things were pretty tense in the area of my youth at the time, (it was the late 1970s and the American Indian Movement deeply impacted the area) what I remember was many, many conversations and sharing of cultures.

I distinctly remember a school assembly that featured local tribal leaders in Luck, and my summer day camp featured cultural traditions from the local tribes. One of our guests at that camp was an elder woman who made fry bread over an open fire on the grounds. I remember also trying wild rice and other foods common to our neighbors.

And I remember the drums, and the dancing.

These early events frame my favorite experiences when I go to a gathering. I love to browse the vendor booths featuring handcrafted items, and I always buy at least one pair of earrings. This year’s are hand-cast pewter medallions that feature butterflies. I must taste the fry bread, and I must watch the Grand Entry that features all the dancers and the important songs and ceremony.

We brought our little girls to the Wacipi for the first time this year, and they enjoyed coloring on popsicle sticks to make their own game. They tasted their first fry bread, fresh, hot, and coated in cinnamon sugar. Two elders who sat with us at our picnic table nicknamed my four-year-old “Quick Hands” because she was able to catch her popsicle stick with one hand immediately after dropping it through the crack of the table with the other.

We talked with many people, and my three-year-old literally ran in circles around me as we moved through the grounds. I was able to quietly witness the reconciliation ceremony on Saturday that featured descendants of the 38, while my husband took the girls for another walk through the grounds. But my girls came to me and watched with wide eyes as the Grand Entry began. It featured dancers in order and full regalia, and the rhythm of the drums, the motions of the dance, and the quick melodic jingles of the jingle dresses held their attention through all the first dances.

The Mahkato Wacipi site features a page devoted to dancing etiquette. I’m afraid that my own mobility was limited this year so I didn’t join the dancing, as I often do when Intertribal Dancing is called, but if you’re inspired to go to a Wacipi in the future, do check out the etiquette rules.

The weather was perfect, sunny and cool, and we’ll be glad to go again next September, and meet old and new friends.

And yes, I do have a recipe for Fry Bread. For another post.

Of Pirates, Ponies, and Princesses

One of my little girls turned four this week and her big birthday party is on Saturday.

Since we first started talking about what she wanted for her birthday party, the overriding theme has been princesses. A is very interested in dressing like a princess, wearing tiaras, and having adventures like her favorite Disney princesses do. She loves Elsa and Anna from Frozen, in particular.

So we started to plan a party that was mostly Frozen-themed, but generally involved letting everyone dress like royalty and eat a lot of cake. (Every time I asked what we should serve for lunch, A said cake. Chocolate cake. Cupcakes. Ice cream cakes. Just, you now, cake.) We branched into letting people dress like pirates if they wanted, too, in case they weren’t feeling princess-y.

It helped that her Uncle Ryan promised to wear an eye-patch.

And then, she watched her first episode of “My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic.”

Oh, boy. Suddenly, it’s not just about princesses and pirates; it has to be about ponies, too.

So we have dress up things for princesses, and for pirates. We have Frozen-themed plates and snowflake sparkles for the tables. And we have a My Little Pony-themed cake and piñata. It looks like Rainbow Dash.

I’ve decided to call the party a triple-P bash.

At the heart of it is love for a little girl who loves fantasy and stories. We have castles to color and costumes to dress up in, a “tea party” menu with lots of cake, and all the adults playing along to dress up, too. My nieces, who are older, are particularly excited to be re-wearing their prom dresses so they can be princesses, too.

As adults, we often forget the small joy of being ourselves, letting our imaginations run wild, and playing along with the fantasy. I’m excited that we’ll have an opportunity to do just that tomorrow for A’s birthday.

I think I might wear an eye-patch with my crown.

A Weekend in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

We celebrated my niece Kayla’s 18th birthday Saturday in our hometown of Chippewa Falls, Wis.

I actually only lived in Chippewa (which residents pronounce CHIP-wa) for about ten years, but I did finish high school there, and most of my immediate family still resides in the vicinity. It’s a pretty town grown from a lumbering community, and it is probably best known for its hometown brewery, Leinenkugels, and the brief mention it had in the movie Titanic as Jack Dawson’s home town.

However, there’s plenty in Chippewa to enjoy. I realized at the end of our day Saturday that we’d had pretty much the quintessential Chippewa experience for the day, missing only the brewery tour, which I recommend for the of-drinking-age set.

After a hearty breakfast at my parents’ home, we took our three-year-olds to Irvine Park, established in 1906 by the William Irvine family. Over the years, the park has grown to encompass 318 acres of natural woods and cultivated spaces, making it the place for residents and their guests to linger year-round. A zoo in the middle of the park includes a variety of guests, including tigers, hyenas, and bears, as well as a farm animal petting zoo that our girls adored.

Numerous families were taking advantage of the fine weather to picnic at the park, and we counted birthday balloons at five different pavilions on our way in. Our girls also enjoyed playing on the playground equipment that was just their size, across the main park road from the zoo.

When we were tired out and ready for lunch, I called Bresina’s Carry Out. Bresina’s doesn’t have a web page, and as the proprietor informed me when I went into the storefront on the edge of the park, he never intends to get one. A quick web search will turn up the phone number and the Facebook page that features their menu.

Bresina’s has been serving fresh broasted chicken and fried fish, sandwiches, jo-jos, and assorted other local favorite foods for decades. There’s no true seating area at the storefront, because the locals know to call ahead and come and pick up their food to take home or into Irvine for a picnic. We got fish and chicken, jo-jos (fried wedge potatoes), and cole slaw.

From the time I called within the park until the time we got children loaded up and to Bresina’s, fifteen minutes, our food was ready. It smelled absolutely delicious, and I decided to add a dessert that is also a quintessential Chippewa experience: Olson’s Ice Cream.

Olson’s employees make ice cream on site daily, and we stopped by on our way back to my parents’ for a quart of chocolate and a quart of black raspberry to share. If we’d been in less of a rush to eat our chicken, we’d have gone in to get a waffle cone filled with one of the daily flavors in the ice cream “bar” at the front of the restaurant.

We had our chicken for lunch, and for dessert, we chose to fill a bowl with a scoop each of the chocolate and the black raspberry, and as the girls said, it was “yummy.”

We finished our day with a bowling and pizza party at Ojibwa Golf and Bowl, another classic Chippewa spot. There are numerous golf courses in the area, and at least one other bowling alley, but this one hits all the nostalgic notes. I bowled a 76. It’s not my best sport.

If you’re ever in the area, just off the I-94 and I-29 junction in northwest central Wisconsin, stop in. It’s worth the trip.

On Soul Food

img_6260

As promised, I’m writing today about the few soul food recipes I know well. My oldest children are fraternal twins who are African-American. My husband and I adopted them both when they were sixteen, and from their first Thanksgiving with us, our food boundaries expanded.

My son, Jovann, showed me how he fried chicken. My daughter, Nina, requested collard greens and banana pudding, and that required a bit more research. Together, we expanded our holiday table to include these favorites, which have now become traditional on our table.

For this post, I’m going to focus on the collard greens and the banana pudding, because fried chicken has other memories and stories to go along with it. Fried chicken was a staple of Fourth-of-July picnics on my Mattson grandparents’ farm, and my Grandma Elsie made it mouthwatering and delicious. Fried chicken is more a procedure than a recipe, so it deserves its own post.

For collard greens, I had to do some browsing on the web, talking to the kids’ biological Auntie and Grandmother, and a lot of Food Network surfing. This is the recipe I came up with:

Thanksgiving Collard Greens

In a large stock pot, add eight quarts of cold water, several shots of hot sauce (Tobasco or similar), a tablespoon of granulated garlic, a tablespoon of salt, and a teaspoon of black pepper. Add one to two smoked ham hocks, about three pounds total.

Bring to boil; reduce heat to a simmer and forget about the pot for at least two hours.

Meanwhile, wash three to four bundles of collard greens. Strip the stems, then roll and chop into one-inch pieces.

At the two-hour mark, remove the ham hocks to a strainer to cool slightly. Add the greens to the pot. Shred the meat from the hocks and add those back to the pot. Bring back to a simmer and let cook for at least another hour. (You can let it go as long as two; don’t let the pan go dry or they’ll burn.)

Serve in big bowl with the liquid on the side, which is commonly known as “pot liquor.” It’s also delicious. If there’s any left after Thanksgiving, I think it’d make a great base for split-pea soup. We’ve never had enough leftover to try.

Nina’s Banana Pudding

Makes one 8-inch square, deep pan of dessert.

6-8 large bananas

1 large box Vanilla wafer cookies

1 large box of instant vanilla pudding mix

3 cups milk

1 large (16 oz) container of Cool Whip

Make the pudding according to the package directions, using the milk specified in the recipe. Set aside.

In a deep casserole or baking dish, spread vanilla wafer cookies in a single layer. Peel and slice the bananas, and a single layer of sliced banana over the cookies. Pour or spoon a third of the pudding on top of the banana, spreading evenly so the pudding fills up all the spaces left by the round cookies and banana slices. Spoon a third of the Cool Whip over that and spread evenly. Repeat the layers twice more.

Optional: Crush a few vanilla wafer cookies to sprinkle on top for garnish.

Chill in the refrigerator overnight or for at least an hour before service.

Struggling

Mental health is on my mind this week. I’ve struggled with chronic depression for years; at points, it’s made me withdrawn, dissociative, restless, and unbelievably angry. I’m in a good place right now, but there are others around me who are struggling.

I have a niece and a nephew whose anxiety is so crippling, leaving the house is a struggle.

I have a daughter whose depression is putting her in a very dark place, and I’m deeply worried about her.

When I talk about depression and anxiety, I don’t mean the everyday struggles that come from stressful situations that arise during the course of regular life. I mean the overwhelming struggle to simply get out of bed in the morning, engage with other people, and get things done.

At points in my own life, I’ve had to literally map out my day in ten-to-fifteen minute increments, on paper, so that I could check things off as I went to feel accomplished and somewhat positive. And sometimes, the biggest check mark was right next to “Get up.”

What many don’t understand is that depression and the family of illnesses that surround it aren’t situational, and they can’t be explained away. Biochemical problems in the brain create a medical problem that can be treated with medication, and therapy can help people who suffer from these illnesses to come up with coping strategies. When left untreated, many who suffer can turn to self-medication in the forms of alcohol or other drugs, looking for anything that might help take the pain of these illnesses away.

It can’t be beaten. We can’t just get over it. We can only do our best to control how we deal with it. And we need others to understand that sometimes, we can’t even do that. These illnesses are insidious, making our own minds turn against us, and rendering us impotent, helpless to make any changes at all.

If you are struggling, too, remember you are not alone. You are loved. Help is available to you. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, and if that’s too much for you, go to Suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with someone online.