Behind the Apron: Thanksgiving!

I would be hard pressed to identify another holiday that I love as much as Thanksgiving.

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This is 8 parts because I’m a foodie, and 2 parts because I love preparing and sharing a big meal. You’re wondering .. you don’t love your family? Nonsense. I love them just fine, but I don’t need a Thanksgiving meal to love my parents. For the record, we are usually a quiet threesome with a table full of awesome.

Thanksgiving 2010 was spent in Spain, with a flat full of fellow teachers. We had a pueblo turkey, pot-lucked sides and a loud, perfect home. We also hosted two Spaniards that needing some navigating around our dishes (see: sweet potatoes with colored marshmallows, a result of in-country shopping) and our table (the everlasting meal). Nothing says America like Thanksgiving, right?

Thanksgiving 2012 will be spent here in Charleston. I know, you’re freaking out. Don’t worry, I’m not cooking for myself. I’m cooking for myself and my dear friend, Holly. With work and the price of flights, we are too tired and too broke to head home, so we’re calling this a down home Illinois holiday.

So what’s on the menu:
* Turkey + gravy (yes, Holly is a vegetarian but I am all about leftovers)
* Stuffing
* Mashed potatoes
* Sweet potatoes
* Green bean casserole
* Copper pennies (carrots + brown sugar + butter)
* Scalloped pineapple
* Cranberry sauce
* Homemade bread

Anyone who has any qualms with the amount of food listed here, has never seen Holly and I eat. Oh, and there’s more.

* Pumpkin roll
* Pie .. apple? tbd.
* Pie .. imported from Springfield bakery Incredibly Delicious (because it is)
* Cranberry bread (the morning after, of course)
* Apple cider, mulled wine .. where was I? Oh right, PIE.

Here’s to you and yours this holiday – give thanks, eat up and save room for dessert!


Behind the Apron: Whoopie Pies

I think I’m drawn to the whoopie pie because of it’s controversial past (or, equally likely, the significant chocolate content). This recipe, and millions of others, have been circulating the U.S. for ages. Also known as black moons or black and whites, they claim to be from Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania all at the same time. With my mother’s family holding down the New England side, and our family living for 2 decades in Pennsylvania, I feel like it’s my duty to report on these cakes… and to bake them. Whether they came from the Amish or from the New Englanders, let’s be real .. they’re delicious.

It’s important to note that I was motivated to make these during our Homecoming Week preparations at school. There is no other excuse for the violently blue filling I chose to use, as a nod to our school colors (and Cookie Monster). What I am sorry about it is that I did not get a photo of our university President sampling one, with a bright blue line down his tongue. My marketing materials would have changed in an instant.

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Black Moons (or Whoopie Pies) – recipe courtesy of Phyllis Raynowska

1/2 C shortening               1 C sugar
1 egg                                    1 tsp vanilla
2 C flour                             1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda       1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 C cocoa                        about 1 C milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cream shortening and sugar together. Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix dry ingredients together and add to shortening / sugar mix. Add milk and mix well. Drop by teaspoon* or tablespoon onto greased cookie sheet**. Bake 7 minutes. (A word of warning: the batter is addictive .. I slipped into a “one for you, one for me” batch and was high as a kite halfway through. Woo!)

Paste: 2 1/2 Tbsp flour and 1/2 C milk. Cook on low heat until thick, stirring frequently so it doesn’t catch.
Cream: 1/4 C butter, 1/2 C shortening, 1 tsp vanilla. Add cooled paste to cream mix & beat til smooth.

Makes 26-28 pies (52-54 single sides – the fun is in the matching up while adding the filling, particularly if you’re OCD like me .. you will begin to be very serious about your spoonfuls).

* Teaspoon or tablespoon dilemma. These will expand quite a bit, so start small and adjust from there.
** Greased cookie sheet can be subbed for parchment paper, my weapon of choice.
*** I doubled the filling for a thicker layer between the cakes. There are myriad variations for filling, some with shortening, some with cream cheese and confectioners sugar. Likewise you can get creative with the cake – pumpkin, zucchini, red velvet. This is a more traditional choice, from my grandmother’s kitchen to yours!

Once Upon a Helicopter

Occasionally in my life as an educator, I have the opportunity to meet with parents. Some are supportive, some are worried, some are curious. This is not a new phenomenon in education, as research and actual academic positions have materialized at institutions of all levels, everyone asking the same question: how do we deal with parents?

There is a fine line

between hover and smother.

In high school, when you’re a minor, your parents legally and literally have control of your records. Thanks to FERPA (Family Education Rights & Privacy Act) – once students turn 18, their records are their own. Granted, some students fly the coop before 18, but in the eyes of the law, that’s the age of majority.

In college, you’ve supposedly crossed the threshold to adulthood. Not only because the law says so, but because you’re out of the nest (in most cases). Yet even in a student’s early 20’s, you can still find a parent waiting in the wings, not just to cheer them on, but to intervene.

I have always been extremely close to my parents. As an only child, I had all the glory and all the blame – “the dog did it” really doesn’t hold any salt. I made some mistakes, and some great strides, and there were my parents all along: coaching me, encouraging me, raising an eyebrow if I was being an idiot (you know that look). But I was brought up to be independent, and to solve my own problems. If a teacher gave me a bad grade, the question was – what could I, the student, do about it? I could gripe to my parents, and ask for advice, but would not have dreamed of getting them involved. Bear in mind, this is not one-sided. I knew it wasn’t their place to get involved, and THEY knew it wasn’t their place to get involved, as well.

In a recent issue of the Chronicle Review, Terry Castle quoted Craig Lambert’s piece in Harvard Alumni magazine entitled: “Nonstop: Today’s Superhero Undergraduates Do ‘3000 Things at 150 Percent.’

“Parental engagement even in the lives of college aged children has expanded in ways that would have seemed bizarre in the recent past. (Some colleges have actually created a “dean of parents” position – whether identified as such or not – to deal with them.) The “helicopter parents” who hover over nearly every choice or action of their offspring have given way to “snow plow parents” who determinedly clear a path for their child and shove aside any obstacle they perceive in the way.”

Castle focuses on understanding why her Stanford kids are talking or texting with their parents several times a day, and Lambert acknowledges we might have a much bigger problem on our hands.

For me, it comes down to five points:

  • Trust – At some point, you have to trust your student to do the work. If they miss the deadline? Their fault.
  • Dependence – It’s a beautiful thing when a parent can provide for a child, but don’t forget to bring some work ethic in on the silver platter. How else will they learn?
  • Failure – Confucius is credited with the quote, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Learning from mistakes is a necessity, not a luxury.
  • Embarrassment – There is something to be said about the elephant in the room.
  • Expectations – No one is perfect. Collaboration is key in managing expectations. Parents often pay the bill, and students do the work. Shouldn’t they discuss meeting in the middle?

Imagine my surprise when a colleague shared the story of a study abroad student losing her luggage. I anticipated some small faux pas that was probably addressed in pre-departure orientation. What I didn’t expect to hear is when my colleague asked her to identify the contents of her bag, the student couldn’t do it: “I don’t know what’s in it, my mom packed it.”

Kids? Pack your own bags. Parents? Let them pack their own bags.

Butter Cow Chronicles

So several weeks ago, I got my fair feet wet in Indianapolis. And let’s face it, I was impressed. Exactly one week later, I was headed for Springfield, IL: ready for the Illinois State Fair.

After seeing both, I can pinpoint some basic differences and similarities between the two:

* The websites are a world apart, the IL fair is hosted on the state’s Dept of Agriculture home page and was last updated circa 1995. Free of branding, themes and general marketing it is the exact opposite of the well appointed Indiana State Fair page. We did some significant food-related research on Illinois’ food vendor list, and sadly several of the things we focused on were not actually at the fair (deep fried pizza, deep fried strawberries).

* Indiana’s fair seems larger, and the layout a bit easier to understand – more intuitive. We spent a lot of time walking back and forth at the Illinois fair, and had to make a concerted effort to find specific things. Whereas in Indiana I just made a gigantic loop and saw everything without trying.

*Admission fees were standard at both locations. In Indiana, I had to make a pit stop at a local CVS for a discount ticket ($7 instead of $10), and then pay $5 for parking in a lot directly across the street from the gate. In Illinois, we pulled up to a parking gate and were charged admission ($7 each) and parking ($7 also) at the same time. Both quick, easy and relatively cheap.

* Maps were provided at both fairs. Illinois a black and white photo copy, with all the day’s events. Indiana clearly put some marketing money into their color, sponsor-included, extensive program booklet. I received the booklet with admission, so it was not extra at the door.

* Cows and sheep and pigs, oh my! Plenty of livestock at both locations. Let’s be honest, that’s half the fun. The buildings were relatively similar but the layout in Illinois threw me off. At any rate, I was petting animals left and right at both fairs.

* With regard to livestock, I did keep an eye out for hand washing stations. In Indiana there were several full sink, soap and water, paper towel hand washing stations. This makes the farmers happy, the animals healthy, and the OCD moms very happy. Hell, it made me happy. I’m down with the snuffling pig but I don’t want to eat lunch with all that on my hands. Illinois did have hand sanitizer setups near the animals, but Indiana went the extra mile.

* Illinois had plenty of live music venues throughout the fairgrounds, and a surprise appearance by The Voice. Or at least, a tent promoting The Voice with dancers out front. Both Indiana and Illinois had big name music acts lined up for the evening entertainment. Demi Lovato was on the night we were in Illinois, and the line stretched on for days. Train played both fairs, although in Indiana his tickets were $70+.

* Both fairs had other well known attractions. The Illinois State Fair is best known for it’s life size cow carved from butter, which I assume is how the Year of the Dairy Cow folks in Indiana turned to cheese for their carving medium this year. A fun fact from @ILStateFair – we saw a sign that the butter was recycled, and I tweeted to ask for details. The response: “We freeze the butter and then use it again for the next year.” So don’t get your hopes up, you’ll never eat the butter from the butter cow. I did tweet @IndyStateFair to ask for details on the cheese, so stay tuned.

* Can you believe it took me this long to mention the food? I ate like a queen in Indiana for a quarter of the price. Although it’s not typical fair food, the Year of the Dairy Cows meant the Dairy Barn as a central fixture and a damn good deal on a large milkshake and grilled cheese sandwich (only $5). We picked our way along the fried food in Illinois – I walked away from a few choices because the prices weren’t equal to the food. My companion and fried food connoisseur noted that the frying back home in our little town of Bethlehem is far superior .. miss you, Musikfest! In the end, between us we managed fried girl scout cookies, fried green tomatoes, fried mac & cheese, nachos and corn on the cob. Holly gets credit for 90% of the fried food, as I played it safe. Missed opportunity: Red Velvet Funnel Cake.

Next year I suppose we’ll have to branch out to Missouri and Iowa, won’t we? Iowa does have deep fried butter. Enjoy the photos from Illinois!

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What the fair?

I left the house bright and early last Saturday, before 8 a.m. In several hours, I was pulling into the Indiana State Fairgrounds. I stopped at a nearby CVS to pick up a discounted admission ticket ($7) and parked directly across from the entrance for only $5. Already, this fair is more affordable than half the festivals I’ve been to.


calf in the cattle barn

The traffic is thick and the sun is already hot, so I dip into the first building I see. Turns out it’s the cattle barn. The building is endless: long rows of gigantic cows, nestled up to the whirring fans in their faces. The area is wide open – no stalls or partitions. I could walk right up and say hello, but I’ve got no interest in the business end of these bovines. Next to each pair of cows, sits an entire family in various states of relaxation. They appear to be tailgating. There’s food, drinks, camp chairs and coolers. Every few feet I see a competitor, usually a teenager with a number pinned to their chest. I pass several folks who are cleaning their cows, some with a hose, others with a vacuum. Really.


vacuum? blow dry?

Walking out into the competitor’s arena there are teenagers, children, adults leading livestock through the gates. They move on to the cattle call, and I head for the sheep. A boy of no more than ten races by pulling a neatly shorn sheep behind him. I pull open the door to the anteroom and to my right is a gift shop. “Wool for sale” says a sign on the table display, next to bags and bags of the stuff. Ribbons hang from various bags, decorating the collection and driving up the price. In the pens I see more naked sheep, sheep in blankets, sheep in coats. There are teenagers with rhinestone studded belts literally dragging their sheep by the ears through their paces in the arena.


sheep on the run

The pigs are nearby in their own area, and nearly every one is asleep. This barn is hot, and the fans are on high. I search for piglets but am unsuccessful. The pigs share the aisles with the people and I am nearly bowled over by a wide bodied pig, waddling ahead of it’s master in overalls and flannel. Stereotypes abound. I look for spiderwebs with profound predictions, but no dice. Charlotte is not present in Indianapolis.



Once I’ve made a circuit of the animals, I wander out onto the Main Street. A John Deere tractor rattles by with a sign proclaiming SOY BIODIESEL and carrying two long cars full of folks taking a spin around the fairground for $1. A tinny voice from the driver’s seat announces the monster truck racing in the stadium, and I veer toward the food tents.


Fried what?

Fried everything. This is the stuff fairs are made of. Fried brownies, fried butter, fried bubblegum. And then, there’s pork. Indiana is apparently down with the pig, and patriotic Indiana Pork signs line the Pork Tent where all sorts of good smells are wafting out. The bubblegum sounded weird, but the donut burger made my eyes bug out. I steered toward the Dairy Bar and picked up a grilled cheese sandwich and a lemon chiller milkshake for a mere $5. (Later I would snack on a corn dog for $4 .. a waste.)

In honor of the Year of the Dairy Cow, one of the main attractions is the Dairy Barn. I followed the “Don’t miss the big cheese sculpture inside!” sign where I found a woman and her apprentice hard at work on several blocks of cheese. The design is drawn up on a nearby easel and promises an entire week of work. The crowd is full onlookers and photo snappers. The lead carver is wearing a mic and dictating her every move, making jokes with the crowd. My first thought was, that has to be extremely expensive. This was closely followed by, “where are the crackers? pass the wine.”


“under carvestruction”

I wander past the Midway, the land of rides and prizes and harried mothers. I see little ones with fistfuls of tickets and stars in their eyes, and I hustle toward the Horticulture building. In the basement I find the culinary prizewinners. Plated cookies for days, with ribbons and notecards. Clever cakes and thick slices of bread share space with preserves and Ball jars full of bright colors. The main floor is dedicated to blue ribbon vegetables, flowers, and honey. Beekeepers have come to town to explain their work, sell their wares, and they travel with the American Honey Queen and the American Honey Princess, complete with tiaras.


not by the hair on my multiple chins

A passing thunderstorm drives the crowd indoors, and me into a 4-H building that feels like a science fair with posters and model rockets. At this point I’ve only seen half of the fairgrounds, and it’s been several hours. I consult the map and leave the building for the Family Zone and what I hope are baby animals. Everywhere there are hand washing stations and hand sanitizer. This makes me, my mother and the farmers very happy. Baby goats are chowing down on pellets from a machine, and calves are munching on handfuls of carrot handed out by volunteers. But the highlight is the pair of potbellied pigs snuffling around the pens eating just about everything. My grocery bill would be through the roof if I brought one home, but I am sorely tempted.

john deere

House? Tractor? Tough decision.

There are tractors with For Sale signs that cost more than a house ($250K+), and a Pioneer Town set up complete with cobbler and blacksmith. Go-karts are zooming in the distance and the CowTown set up is quite small, for the banner animal of the fair. But the row of stables on the end of my loop around the grounds made up for everything. Here were my mother’s favorites: horses. With their heads out of their stalls nosing for sugar cubes, they posed for pictures and stood still long enough to be admired by fairgoers. One of them was nibbling on my camera and shot me a look of disappointment when he realized it was clearly not edible.


my ride home

A dance stage, a Ford giveaway area, and a long line of John Deere tractors led the way back to where I started. I stopped into a building I had missed on the first round, and found myself surrounded by alpacas and llamas (and no I don’t know the difference). Some of the animals looked so highly groomed they could have passed for poodles. Watching them walk with their owners and parade around yet another arena, I had settled onto a bench to rest my feet and heard the words “costume contest.” They weren’t kidding. I circled around the pens and within 45 minutes several of the animals were being trotted out in various forms of costume, many dressed to match their owner. A Flintstones pair, Dorothy & the Scarecrow, Woody & his horse. The winner stood in collared shirt, slacks, suspenders, tie and fedora next to a teenager dolled up as an old lady. Brilliant.


the fedora & reading glasses really do the trick

It is fairly easy to get faired out, and I was exactly that by 6 p.m. Total expenses were under $20 for food, and there were plenty of freebies throughout the day (holler, Turkey Hill ice cream). Some startling exhibits I could have done without: live spay / neuter surgery on a cat and live birthing of a calf. Even the most curious of kids were saying “MOM. What is THAT” for both of these graphic processes. Otherwise, the fair was everything I thought it might be. In fact, it was cleaner than I thought and certainly much bigger than I originally anticipated.

This weekend I’ll go to Springfield for the Illinois State Fair, for the sake of comparison and for a fried food binge with Holly. One is more important than the other.


Thanks, Indiana State Fair!