Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Whose House? Our House.

The "Burns Farm" in rural Iowa County, Wis.
My house will never be my own.

And I don’t mean I will never own my house outright, although the chances of me paying off this mortgage in my lifetime are right up there with being chosen as the next Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model.

Even if I manage to cough up that much money in my lifetime and truly own this place, it will never be my house. It will never be Jane’s House, it will never be the Burns House.

No, this will always be the Schlub House (pronounced shloob).

I moved back to my hometown three years ago. I had walked down the street that is now mine untold times as a kid because it’s on the way to the swimming pool. Yet I didn’t really know anyone who lived on this street. I learned that, though, the second I started looking at a house here. I heard it over and over, including from my realtor when we first looked at this property:

“Oh, it’s the Schlub House.”

I told my mom what house I was looking at.

“Oh, the Schlub House,” she said.

When I moved in, I’d tell people I lived next to the old church, thinking that was a landmark enough.

Oh, the Schlub House,” would be the response then.

This house belonged to Adolph ("Bud") and Eleanor Schlub for many decades, although it’s not who I bought it from. It’s a house that feels like someone’s home, beautifully crafted throughout with a few goofy built-in quirks that clearly show somebody wasn’t thinking “resale value.”

I had never heard of the Schlubs before, but now I hear stories that make me smile. My neighbor across the street tells me that on warm summer nights, he and Adolph would raise their beer cans in a toast when they both were sitting on their porches winding down at the end of the day.

A former teacher of mine was at my house to pick up some portions of a project we were doing together and he told me that his wife grew up in the house that is next door.

“When we were dating, we always had to be very careful about what we were doing on the porch because we could always see Bud watching us from next door,” he said.

My family home is gone; an empty lot now sits where we grew up, where my dad had his photo studio and my siblings and all the neighbor kids had spirited games in the big lot out back.

Yet so many other homes in this town have retained the name of a previous owner. I had coffee with a relatively new resident to town and I asked him where he lived. He gave me the name of the street, a block from mine, and said “the Smith House.”

I didn’t know who the Smiths were, but after he described the house to me I said, “Oh yea, that’s across from the Schmit House and up the street from the Gullick House.’  

People have ways of trying to ensure their immortality – donations that lead to plaques or naming rights for an auditorium or stadium. But sometimes, all it takes is being part of  your community and creating a home that is yours and will remain so long after you are gone.

There is no Burns House in my town and perhaps there never will be. Yet north of a speck on the map called Hollandale, Wis., about 20 miles from here, there’s a farm that sits atop a hill on a winding country road.

It’s the farm my Irish immigrant great-great-grandfather purchased and worked, a place that stayed with some part of the family until the 1940s.

“They still call it the Burns Farm around here,” said my aunt on a recent drive through the country. I had never heard that before and it still makes me smile to think of it. 

So I accept that I live in the Schlub House and think of Adolph when I sip a beer on my porch on a hot summer night. And while I don’t have a pile of children to raise in this house, I like it because it’s a warm welcoming place that has often hosted friends, family and happy holidays.

I like to think the Schlubs would be pleased.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Lutefisk Report

Just a quick tally on the day at Vermont Lutheran Church:

Bites of lutefisk: 2
Utterances of the word "yuck": 0
Utterances of the words "what is this?": 1
Moms of high school friends seen on site: 2
On a scale of 1 to 10, the need for a nap after: 43

It's very jiggly. That's what I would say about lutefisk. It's very jiggly. I don't know if the Norwegians have a special utensil for it but neither a fork nor a spoon seemed to work very well for this jiggly food. Kind of reminded me of the time my cousins and I decided to play baseball with a pan of finger Jell-O one of our mothers had made.

But even so, a lovely day at a lovely church. A few illustrations:

The gorgeous church:

And yes, we had to wait in the church until our very non-Norwegian name was called amongst the Olsons, Tollefsons, Haglunds and Larsens. There was, however, no playing of religious films as in the childhood of George H.:

On to the main event: The Lutefisk, which one day soon will star in its own horror film: "It Came By The Plateful":

Of course, it wasn't all lye-soaked fish. Tasty meatballs, tasty gravy, taters and the highlight of the day, lefse:

And you know, even if we were required to watch religious movies beforehand, it would have been worth it for this:

All in all, it's a great day when you can eat church lady food in a church basement without having had to go a funeral first:

For any further questions about lutefisk, I'd like to refer you to the Lutefisk Hotline. The number is on this placemat:

Stay tuned. Coming later this fall or winter: The Meat Paddle Report.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Food Is Food, and That's No Lye

 Lutefisk and lefse
Takk skal du ha
Hollandale High School
Rah rah rah

News that I was headed to a Lutefisk Supper sparked pretty simple reactions from friends and family alike.





Yes, really.

These things are legendary around here. At the one I’m going to Saturday at a little country church, they expect to serve more than 1,000 plates of lutefisk (and lefse, rommegrot or, for the less daring, cookies). And, presumably since I will be in attendance, not everyone there will be named Ole and Lena.

Lutefisk and lefse are such a part of life here in Wisconsin (and other places) that they even got integrated into a cheer my dad said they used to chant at his old high school. I used to think my dad was pulling my leg, but others have said they heard that cheer, too.

I profess no love of lutefisk, because I’ve never eaten it. Can’t say that I’m much looking forward to it, because a recipe I have for it from a new book of Norwegian family recipes called “Gudrun’s Kitchen” goes something like this:

This recipe is an old-fashioned way of making lutefisk that must be started about four weeks in advance …

5 pounds dried codfish
1 cup of washing soda (lye)
3 gallons boiled cooled water

Special equipment: cheesecloth, enamel pot for boiling lutefisk (aluminum will turn black).

All righty then. Rachael Ray this is not.

I haven’t had lutefisk, but have had or been around many other Norwegian things. Lefse, a pounded potato flatbread that looks kind of like a tortilla, is one of my favorite foods in all the world. Krumkake, a waffle cookie, is as delicious as it is beautiful.

Other things, not so much. Many people I know love herring. My dad used to eat that and something called Sotsuppe, but my sisters and I as children tastefully referred to it as “elephant boogers” from either the tapioca or raisins in it. We grew up in a household where dammit, you cleaned your plate, but Mom gave us a pass on many of the Norwegian things my dad would bring home.

So why go to a Lutefisk Supper? The adventure. The tradition. And even if I hate it, it is somebody’s tradition.

Because, really, all food is cultural. Some countries eat brains, other people might eat slugs. I’m adventurous enough that in England years ago I told my then-boyfriend – a born and bred true Cockney – that if he bought some jellied eels, I would try them. He never did, but he could whip up tasty things such as Oxtail Stew, Bubble and Squeak or Toad in the Hole and took me to marvelous Pie and Mash shops.

I tried Pig’s Feet in Paris, just because. And because of that, I would not recommend it. I’ve eaten octopus in Italy, which tasted fine but it was weird seeing those suckers sticking out of the batter. Made it look as if I was eating a window decoration.

Face it: Your disgusting dish is somebody else’s comfort food. I mean, if you’re not American, would you really ever eat a hot dog?

Years ago, I spent an entertaining afternoon with Nebraska folklorist Roger Welsch, who is a regular on the CBS Sunday morning show. He had written a book called “Digging In and Pigging Out: The Truth About Food and Men.” He talked about how it’s good to tell people about tasty things like roasted goat but not to brag about it too much while you are sitting at a tavern while the goat is roasting because you come home and find the roasted goat missing.

But he also spoke lovingly about how his mother was a cook for a rich family who would then turn around and make delicious food out of the leftover pig parts for her own family.  He felt sorry for the rich people who had to eat ham and pork roast, because they never got to eat his mother’s Jaternice. This traditional Czech dish is one of my all-time favorite recipes to read; no writer ever wrote a first paragraph as brilliant as 1 Hog head, preferably scalded, not skinned. Who could resist reading further?

For now, I’ll pass on the hog head, scalded or skinned. But if anyone wants to invite me to a Czech Supper, I’m game.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

We Had Joy, We Had Fun ...

OK, I dare you to look at this picture and not smile.

Doesn't matter if you hate sports or think baseball is boring. You will smile, I know you will.

You'll particularly smile when you learn the guy on the left, the one with the Air Jordan hang time, is 41 years old and the oldest player on the team. But at the same time, you don't even have to know the team or the players to love this photo. Yes, this photo by David J. Phillip of the Associated Press is about a victory, but it is also about pure unabashed unadulterated joy.

I love sports. I make no apologies for it. And to those who are too cool for school and offer that whole "opiate for the masses" pablum, I tend to answer that sports did far more to advance racial and gender equality in this country than any institution ever could. But that's a topic for another day.

For now, the topic is joy. Today it's the Milwaukee Brewers and all those fans in the background. Tomorrow it will be somebody else and the day after it will be somebody else.

Joy is so fleeting in our lives it's a wonderful thing to celebrate it when we see it. The joy of this moment will pass as soon as tomorrow's game begins, but this photo will make me smile forever.