Sunday, December 29, 2013


This long winter holiday, I’m finding, is tough on old people like me. Most of us live rather quiet lives, orderly lives filled with familiar routines. We have learned to appreciate simplicity and quiet time. These are the very antithesis of the winter holiday season, which stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

We are enveloped in a great rush of food preparation, plans made, events anticipated and prepared for, and gift giving. For some of us there are religious ceremonies and concerts to attend.

Russian Tea Cakes, Our Traditional Cookie

Reunions with family and friends made it all worthwhile, but now I’m ready to slip back into solitary pursuits. Sewing projects are waiting and I’m still trying to perfect my whole wheat sourdough bread. I have a long list of projects – several started but not finished – in my mind,

After all the feasting I’m ready, too, for the simple meals that Dennis and I enjoy regularly. Even the traditional New Year’s Day meal of black-eyed peas and cornbread is a simple meal, nutritious and not taxing on the digestive system.

It was fun, but I’m glad the hubbub has died down. Give me the serene simple life.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sleigh Bells Ring

I'm far too busy making things out of sourdough to write, but my daughter, Carol Masterson, has graciously permitted me to publish a piece she wrote about Christmas last September.

"So,” I announce to my family, "I would like to have a consumer-free Christmas this year." My husband says that whenever I start a sentence with "So," he knows that I'm about to declare a new law. When he hears the first ssss issue forth from my lips, he booms, "Hear ye, hear ye, her majesty is about to speak." After I'm finished with whatever new restriction I'm placing on my family, he booms again, "Hear ye, hear ye, her majesty has declared that henceforth, there shall be no consuming by this family to be assoicated with the holiday of Christmas!"
I've had this Little House on the Prairie Christmas fantasy for a while. As a kid, however, I loved a glitzy Christmas. We shopped to a soundtrack of "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" and "Winter Wonderland.” Andy Williams was as much a part of my Christmas iconography as Santa -- or Jesus himself. Our suburban Kansas City tree glowed with hundreds of tiny lights in gaudy colors and gold foil ornaments. After the present-opening frenzy of Christmas morning, we would leave the mountains of wrapping paper on the family room floor to go consume a gooey, sticky mess of cinnamon rolls and other assorted combinations of sugar and grease. Sitting around after our binges, I felt a deep emptiness. Somehow, Christmas had once again failed to deliver the promise of magic that the songs, decorations, and television specials promised. 
There is one Christmas special, however, from childhood that sticks with me: the Walton's Christmas which was actually entitled, "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.” For those who are too young to know of the Walton's television series, it was about a writer (the character's name is John Boy) who grew up in rural Virginia during the Great Depression. These people had very little. The kids all slept piled up together in a big room and the grandparents lived in the house with them. They had so little money that each child received only one gift. I remember that John Boy got a new Big Chief tablet (again, for those who are young, these were tablets of newsprint writing paper with a red cover featuring a picture of an Indian chief) for his writing. He was thrilled. They sat around an enormous table eating, talking, and laughing -- and their lives as poor people seemed so much happier than mine. Same with Mary and Laura Ingalls with their corn husk dolls and oranges in their stockings. Same with Bob Cratchit and his family. They live in poverty and little Tiny Tim is lame, but they're having a much better time eating their scrawny goose dinner than poor old, rich old Scrooge is, alone with his money.
Still, my children hear the siren song of consumerism like all other American kids -- poor, rich American kids. My 10-year-old daughter is especially worried about this upcoming Christmas. I've told her that gifts will either be homemade or things like horseback riding lessons, going to a play or a dinner at a Thai restaurant -- experiences. Most of her friends already own cell phones and I-pads and my kid is looking at a Christmas of nothing but handmade things like knitted hats and experiences. I feel for her, I really do. 
I made a cartoon once that featured homemade gifts like god's eyes and teapot cozies. The objects were saying, "We're not as good as store-bought." It's true. Those of us who are adults probably appreciate a handmade gift -- but kids? For mine, at least, it's store-bought all the way.
I've been trying to interest other families in my consumer-free Christmas idea. So far, everyone has declined -- and all but one because of...would you like to guess? Go ahead. Something they feel that their children must have, otherwise the children will feel deprived and might possibly be creatively stunted. Here it is: Legos.
I, too, have been seduced by Legos. I remember telling my husband during a time when we were trying to save money that I absolutely, without-a-doubt NEEDED to spend money on Legos. Our son NEEDED them. Okay, let's get real again. My son needed Legos? No, he didn't even know what they were (he was two). I WANTED them for him. I wanted to inspire his creativity, yes. But mostly you know what I wanted? I wanted for him to be occupied so that I could get some shit done.
Karl Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses. I'm thinking that Legos might be the opiate of American children and their parents. I know, this is pretty radical thinking -- hypocritical, too, considering how much Lego is strewn throughout my house -- but hear me out, please. Legos are made from petroleum. They cannot be recycled. The basic sets that are just little bricks of differently colored plastic aren't so bad, as plastic items go, but the sets that create spaceships, the Hogwarts Castle, etcetera, they are really only fun once, maybe twice. After that, they stay put together as an object and the Lego addict (your child, my child) needs another fix. This time they might need the Star Wars Super Star Destroyer (priced at, no kidding, $399.99) and possibly the Star Wars Advent Calendar so that the force may be with them as they countdown to Christmas.
Here's a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche for all of us parents to think about: The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.
Here are a couple more Christmas memories I've collected from others: My sister remembers one of our Christmas trees from childhood, discarded at the curb, blowing down the street, used and forgotten. My good friend has a memory of leaving a holiday symphony performance with her family and having to walk past the line of homeless and their children who were waiting to eat what was perhaps their only meal of the day at a soup kitchen.
Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus -- someone who taught us that if someone wants to take our coat, we should give our cloak as well. What do you think his message would be for us today? Perhaps if someone wants to take our Lego Hogwarts Castle, we should give them the Star Wars Advent Calendar too?

Copyright 2013 by Carol Masterson

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Every Day Is a Holiday

Judging by the slow development of buds on the Christmas cactus, I’m not the only one who isn’t ready for holidays to begin. What’s worse, I don’t even want them to begin. I try to look back over the decades to my childhood, when this season seemed magical, when I ate horrible ribbon candy that no one really liked, and when I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Santa Claus, who by an amazing coincidence wore house slippers just like my mother’s.

Now, instead of eagerly awaiting the holidays, I eagerly await their being over. These days, ordinary daily life delights me. I find delight in the winter sunset.

I find delight in a pot of broth simmering on the back burner.

I find delight in baking and sharing a cherry pie made from cherries we pitted ourselves. I find delight in the fact that six of us were forced to savor our slices very carefully and slowly because any bite might contain a cherry pit. We found a total of 52. Barbara and I were tied for the championship with thirteen each.

And, yes, I still find delight in baking sourdough bread, in knowing that by creating the starter I captured wild yeast spores from the air, spores that transform flour and kill off any bacteria that might invade their domain – a quart-sized mason jar in our refrigerator. I love my starter, I respect it, and I am fascinated by the symbiotic relationship between myself and these organisms. My pal Linda says I should write a blog post called, “I Was a Sourdough Slave,” but I could no more fail to feed and nourish my starter than to quit feeding and caring for myself.

Holidays, schmalidays. Every day is a holiday, a celebration of life.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Saturday, December 14, 2013

New Skills, Old Skills

I’ve been learning a new skill, making sourdough bread. Making sourdough bread is quite different from making bread using commercial yeast, which I have done regularly for many years. Sourdough dough should be much wetter than what I’m used to.  It has a different feel, a different texture. It rises much more slowly, taking up to 10 or even 12 hours to be ready for baking. Consequently, my old confident bread-making skills don’t totally apply to this new method. I’m learning a very different process.

Today I baked my second loaf, but I started it yesterday. This time I used a little unbleached flour along with the whole wheat, thinking it might rise more quickly. Wrong. I finished mixing the dough and started the first rise at 10:20 A.M. At 8:30 P.M. the loaf was slowly rising in a bread pan, but I was too tired to wait for it to be doubled in size and ready to bake. I’d read about “retarding” the rise, so I set the covered pan in the snake room (entry room), where the temperature wouldn’t go above 50ยบ F.

I probably didn’t let it warm up sufficiently this morning before baking it, but I’m not disappointed in the result.

Sourdough bread has a firm crust on all sides, even when baked in a pan. Its texture is strong – I believe a slice of if would bend without breaking. One would have to cut or tear it apart. It truly has a slightly sour taste and a sturdy mouth feel. We love it.

While this new skill is developing pretty well, an old one has gone rusty. Having finished with bread for today, I turned to sewing a flannel nightgown, a Christmas gift for Pippi. I had cut out the pieces several days ago, but now it was time to actually sew them together. Woops! It has been 18 months since I’ve sewn anything, and years since I’ve made a garment. I’m having to find my equipment and slowly feel my way through the process. My muscle memory is beginning to come back, but my old sewing confidence has eroded.

It’s hard to keep all of one’s skills honed and ready to summon up when needed. It makes me think of the entertainer who used to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. This guy would set a plate atop a long pole and set it spinning. Then he would start another pole spinning with another plate on top of it. Pretty soon he had eight or ten poles spinning and was rushing from one to another, speeding them up as their spinning slowed. Rather like a juggler having too many balls in the air. As age and disability diminish my vitality, it’s clear that I’d better keep all my plates spinning, lest I lose them.

On a cheerful note, a friend brought me an amyrillis with two fat buds. Now one has opened into four five-inch blossoms. It’s in my sewing room to cheer me on.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Stone Walls and Hedge Rows

I have a soft spot for old hedgerows and dry-laid limestone walls. Once ubiquitous in the rural landscape, they have all but disappeared. Only remnants remain to remind us of the settlers who came here to wrest a living from the land, to farm. One would be hard-pressed to find a diversified farm today, but in the nineteenth century every farm was diversified. They had to be if the farmers and their families were to have food to eat and a little money to buy the few things they could not produce.

Every farm kept a variety of livestock – a few pigs, a few cattle, a milk cow, workhorses, and chickens. The land was devoted primarily to wheat, corn, and pasture. Fences were required to separate the animals from the row crops and to keep them from wandering off down the dirt road.

Farmers around here had two fencing material options: dry-laid stone walls and rail fences. Back then there were few trees to provide rails, so the most popular option was building stone walls. Limestone is plentiful in this prairie that once or twice in geological history was an inland sea. Countless marine creatures lived and died in those waters, their skeletal remains falling to the bottom. Over time these layers became stone, four-foot-thick layers of calcium carbonate and other minerals. Imagining the length of time that took makes my head swim.

A few more eons and those limestone layers are eroding and breaking into chunks. The early Willow Springs farmer had only to turn the soil or take a wagon to the creek to get plenty of stone wall material. The down side, of course, is that stone wall building is back-breaking work and stone wall-building requires a lot of searching for stones that fit together in a stable way, but farmers built them, even in the hilly woods here at Paradise. A walk through our woods reveals numerous remnants of stone walls. I never see them without imagining the original settler and perhaps his son, laboriously gathering stones and fitting them together into a wall to keep their cattle from straying.

Another fencing option appeared in the 1880's: the Osage Orange hedge fence. This option was not back-breaking. It involved planting seedling trees and, as they grew, bending and weaving their branches into an impenetrable barrier to their stock. Trouble was, it took a long time to grow and, once grown, it had to be pruned and shaped. Oh, did I mention that the Osage Orange has wicked thorns?

The introduction of  barbed wire later that century caused farmers to lose interest in the former two options and both stone walls and hedge rows became obsolete.

Most stone walls have been torn down or have fallen apart. Most hedgerows have been bulldozed to make more room for crops. Only remnants remain, such as this one in our neighborhood.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Monday, December 9, 2013

More Fun with Flour

Last week I wrote in “Just Food” that homemade bread would be even less expensive if one used sourdough starter to leaven the dough. Then I got a hankering to try my hand at sourdough. Seems that sourdough bread is more nutritious than other bread because its nutrients have been transformed into more absorbable forms. Michael Pollon wrote about that in his book, Cooked. Other writers have published detailed descriptions of these transformations. I read one on the Internet.

The problem was that I’ve never owned sourdough starter nor have I ever tried to make it. King Arthur Flour will ship a one-ounce container of sourdough starter for $8.95 plus shipping. I could have bought starter from Amazon, but my thrifty gene kicked in. I wanted to make my own starter.

Then another problem cropped up. After reading a gazillion different ways to make starter my head was swimming. Finally I settled on the most simple one, which called for mixing ¾ cup of water and ¾ cup of flour in a glass container, covering it with a non-metal lid, and letting it sit for 24 hours. Next day, stir well and incorporate another dose of flour and water, using the same proportions as on the first day, and do this for a total of five days. Feeling rebellious I decided to just make the starter in the bowl of my mixer with a plastic bonnet to cover it. I used whole wheat flour.

After 24 hours I found my flour and water mixture had done nothing but sit. I was hoping for a bubble or two. Here’s how it looked.

After incorporating more flour and water with a whisk, I decided to cheat just a little. I sprinkled just a pinch of yeast over the top before covering the bowl. Maybe the starter would have taken off without the yeast. Maybe not. Whichever, uncovering the bowl on day three I found plenty of action.

By day five the starter smelled a little sour and was making lots of bubbles. I was ready to bake! A new problem arose. There are as many recipes for sourdough bread as there are for starter. Different ingredients, different proportions, different baking procedures, different temperatures.

I knew I wanted to use only whole wheat flour, although sourdough is traditionally made with white flour. I knew I wanted the loaf to be rectangular so the bread would fit in our toaster. I knew I didn’t want to mess with an elaborate recipe, so I winged it, using starter, whole wheat flour, water, and salt.

The seat-of-the pants dough rose nicely in an oiled bowl, but very slowly. I had time to drive to town and do some errands, When I got back I dumped the dough onto my kneading cloth and was encouraged by the airiness of the dough.

The end result doesn’t make my heart swell with pride, but it ain’t bad. I had hoped for oven spring, but the loaf clearly didn’t spring. The dough should have burst up through the long slit. The loaf should be taller than 4½  inches.

Still, I am not discouraged. The bread had the distinctive tangy smell while it was baking. I’m looking forward to the first bite and I’m looking forward to further experiments. A jar of starter is waiting in the fridge.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Friday, December 6, 2013

An Oldfashioned Christmas

Dennis has long called me “Squirrelly Shirley,” not because he thinks I’m a bit nutty (which I might be), but because I tend to squirrel things such as money away. This may have started in the early days of our marriage when I always added extra dollars to our mortgage payment in order to reduce the principal more quickly. Those extra dollars – sometimes ten, sometimes one hundred, or any amount inbetween – enabled us to pay off the thirty-year mortgage in fewer than 20 years.

Maybe being born during the Great Depression molded my frugal nature. Maybe it came from watching my grandmother carefully re-sewing my falling-apart storybooks. Maybe it came from watching my mother canning quarts of produce from our garden so that we would have vegetables to eat during the winter months. It could just be that a thrifty gene runs in my family.

One thing is certain: observing the things my mother and grandmother did gave me the knowledge I needed to get started in life. Over the years I’ve added to their repertoire, always striving to be as self-sufficient as possible and to save for the proverbial rainy day.

Now, in my old age, I’ve finally given up darning the holes in worn-out socks and turning shirt collars when they become frayed, but most of my thrifty ways remain intact. I’m not alone. Searching the Internet for “thrifty” and “frugal” yields connections to many news articles and blogs, usually written by people much younger than I. 

One of the younger ones is my daughter Carol, who must have inherited the thrifty gene. Shecan stretch a dollar farther than anyone else I know. She manages this while buying only organic ingredients for her family’s meals, sending her children to good preschools, and flying home to visit us twice each year.

This year Carol has decreed an oldfashioned Christmas for her family in Maine, which includes ten-year-old Pippi and four-year-old Zander. Pippi was none too happy about that until Carol told her their Christmas would be like the Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie, books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder beginning in 1932. Pippi loves those books and is now excited about having an Ingalls Christmas.

Squirrelly Shirley is happy to go along with that kind of Christmas so I’m making Pippi a flannel nightgown and for Zander, who loves to dress in superhero costumes, a Spiderman mask. I saw one at Target today. It was made of plastic, which Carol abhors, so there was no question of my buying it. All I have to do is find the right size gourd in my basement stash and figure out how to turn it into a one-of-a-kind Spiderman mask. This is going to be fun, I hope. When it’s finished, I’ll post a photo. Wish me luck.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Buying Frenzy

Christmas time is coming and Americans are in a buying frenzy. Newscasts show us videos of people camping out in tents in order to be among the first customers when stores open the day after Thanksgiving, commonly known as “Black Friday.” There are scenes of people pushing and shoving and fighting over the last television set available at a bargain price. Police and security guards are called to intervene and keep people from hurting each other, all caused by a lust for more things.

I don’t participate in Black Friday or any other shopping events, but our daily mail brings sheaves of advertisements for electrical appliances, electronic gadgets, and a host of other manufactured objects. As I look through these come-ons I can’t imagine why anyone would want or need them. Will they enrich people’s lives? Will they make their new owners any happier?

This is a good time to examine our real needs and the real needs of those we love and care for. Could we find better gifts than expensive things? Could we give the gift of time spent together engaging in an activity not involving things? Could we visit an art museum, go together to a concert, walk together in a natural setting? Could we make something delicious or useful or personal to give to those we love? Could we not burden one another with yet more objects that will break or disappoint or just take up more space in our homes?

This might be a good time to spend our time and money doing something to better the lives of less fortunate others, of whom there are many. This might be the time to give money to a charity in the name of someone we love. This might be the time to re-examine our values and, if Christian, emulate the Christ whose birthday we celebrate.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Farewell To The Little Red Hen

 A few of our hens are red sex-link. A red sex-link chicken is a cross between a red rooster and a white hen. (Black sex links have Rhode Island Red fathers and Barred Rock mothers.) The red sex link hens resemble their fathers except for a white tail and other little patches of white.

This crossbreeding produces something unusual in the chicken world: newly hatched chicks that can be easily separated by sex right away because the male chicks’ coloration is different from the female chicks’.

The pure breeds of chicks all look alike, male and female. Only a highly trained chick sexer, usually a person of Japanese extraction, can tell the difference. The development of red and black sex-link chickens made it possible for any untrained person to sort chicks by sex.

Red sex-links also are good producers of brown eggs, but the eggs are gigantic.

The size of her eggs is a great disadvantage to the hen, principally because the large shells require more calcium than the hen can provide. As the hen ages, her egg shells become more and more fragile, no matter how much oyster shell we provide or how many eggs shells we return to the hens to eat. Often these eggs break in the nest and are consumed by the hen herself or other hens. The broken egg content also coats other eggs in the nest and makes them difficult to clean.

A couple of days ago one of our red sex link hens became ill or exhausted. She lay all day under one of the nest boxes. Yesterday morning she was dead. Dennis left her remains in the woods for the coyotes.

I have concluded that producing or keeping red sex link hens is unethical. I know, I’m some kind of nut, but it does not seem right to produce a chicken that lays gigantic eggs. What’s more, I’m deeply sorry for the little red hen, who gave her all producing eggs.

Copyright 2013 by Shirley Domer