Humor

The Inadvertent Symbolism of Aprons

1962-sept-29-joan-nelson-setting-the-table-pittsburgh-pa

An apron-wearing Joan, almost 12, learning the domestic ropes!

In our last blog post we talked about the mysterious “holes” problem—you remember, right? We ruminated about those tiny holes that mysteriously appear on the bottom front of blouses and tee shirts. Maybe it is just one hole, or two holes, maybe a mysterious pattern of multiple small holes—like the crop circles of the apparel world. Where do they come from? Who made them? Well, as we decided in our last post, we are the culprits! We make these tiny holes most of the time by trapping the fabric of our clothes between the edges of counters and the buttons of our jeans. So, the pressing question is—how to avoid them?

Searching the internet yielded some solutions, including a few advocated by domestic maven Jessica Hewitt. You can avoid the holes by adopting one or more of the following simple strategies: wear high heels when you work, wear pants with no buttons, tuck your shirt into your jeans, or wear an apron.

Let’s take each of these in turn. High heels? Let’s just say that this is not an option in our household. In a text exchange about the holes with our middle daughter Kristyn (who also suffers from this mysterious malady), Joan explained that wearing high heels was a solution we had discovered during our inquiries into the topic.

Greg, however, interjected, “I can see you and Mom doing housework in heels…not!!!”

“Yeah ain’t going to happen LOL” was our daughter’s reply.

Pants with no buttons? We just don’t see Joan in pants with an elastic waistband if they aren’t pajamas. Also, Joan is passionate about jeans (in the same way Imelda Marcos was passionate about shoes). Hello, my name is Joan, and I have a denim problem. Her collection of jeans is all one specific brand (Levi’s, yeah you guessed it) and only certain numbers—numbers that have some arcane meaning to her. The collection is curated carefully, let’s put it that way, and has mostly been assembled from “Goodwill Hunting.” Joan looks for the correct size and specific Levi Strauss number (505, 512, 515 or 550, the number she claims as her work jeans).

So, if it is a choice between the jeans and the holes in shirts…well shirts are cheaper, especially those purchased through careful coupon use and Goodwill purchasing.

As to tucking a shirt in? Well, possibly, but Joan has yet to do that and frankly, it’s not her style.

So that leaves aprons—a very sensible solution indeed. Those of us who came of age in the sixties remember a time when mothers and grandmothers routinely did their housework in dresses protected by aprons and sometimes in heels as well. (Those holes were certainly going to be held at bay.) As forty some years have since passed, the practice of wearing aprons has declined—but not entirely disappeared—the apron is not extinct and still roams the American cultural landscape. Food service workers have continued to wear them, and aprons are certainly sported by grillers at outdoor barbecues. Aprons even seem to be making a comeback in American homes, as evidenced by the “retro’ and “vintage” aprons popular on Etsy and Ebay. A variety of aprons are even available now at stores like Kohl’s and Walmart.

For we baby boomers, however, aprons evoke a plethora of mixed emotions. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the dear women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts—in our lives serving up comfort foods like meatloaf, pot roast, or one of Joan’s childhood favorite dishes “tuna spaghetti.” In our mind’s eye they are wearing aprons—bib aprons, pinafore aprons, and, of course, waist aprons. They are plain and frilly, patterned and plain, and almost always a bright, colorful testimony to the palettes of those decades.

1967-christmas-mom-aunt-helen-wearing-aprons

Christmas 1967: Mom Nelson and Aunts Helen and Evy

Television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements featuring women in aprons sold everything from foods, cleaning products, and detergent to kitchen appliances. We remember fondly our most well-known television “Moms”—June Cleaver in “Leave It To Beaver,” Margaret Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” and Donna Stone in the “Donna Reed Show.” They were the cultural exemplars of apron-wearing domesticity from our long-gone childhood, emulated to greater or lesser degrees of success by our own mothers

As a young girl Joan’s first sewing machine project was to make her own apron. It was a waist style made with pretty blue-flowered material. It had a useful pocket (something many dress pants don’t have!) and a fanciful bric-a-brac trim. She had forgotten about this apron for decades, but in 2005 when we had to sell the home her parents had lived in for almost fifty years, she found the apron nestled comfortably in a box along with her mother’s aprons.

For us, and maybe for you too, that apron is a symbol of a domestic world long gone. It harks back to a time when using a sewing machine was a skill taught only to girls in the family, and an apron was the perfect first sewing project. Naturally, a girl would need to wear it in her own kitchen some day.

mother-margaret-anderson-serving-her-family-in-father-knows-best

Mother serves…and Father knows best.

For those of us who emerged changed from the sixties, altered in mind and attitude in so many ways, a woman in an apron wasn’t just an avatar of our mothers but also a template for what we were expected to become. This once unobjectionable protector of clothing became a symbol of inequality, a marker of diminished choices and the constraints of domestic identity. A woman’s place was not in the workforce or the boardroom, or even, apropos to this year’s election, in the Oval Office. Her place was in the home: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, with a husband as the sole and undisputed breadwinner for the family.

When Joan left home and left the sixties, she firmly put her apron-wearing days behind her—in a box, with her mother’s aprons. While Greg was in graduate school, Joan worked full-time and came home to a dinner prepared by Greg. When one of Greg’s many apron-wearing aunts found out, she chided Joan gently, “You let him do that?” It was almost unthinkable to one of our parents’ generation for a wife to “let” the husband do the cooking.

Even though economic and family circumstances changed later, and Joan took over cooking responsibilities and major household chores after almost two decades in the workforce—the decision to do so was her choice—made in order to stay home with the children and create a home life that she hopes they now fondly remember. It was not a decision made easily and without misgivings, but one she in no way now regrets. We are certainly aware that this choice is not always available to either partner due to economic or other circumstances.

So, let’s go back to the question at hand. Would Joan wear an apron to prevent those holes? No—probably not, for reasons both fashion-related and intimately entangled in the identity crises of many women of our generation.

Joan, ever practical, simply works in shirts that have already sprouted holes. But maybe, just maybe, as an ironic half-wink to who we were and who we are now, if she is ever in the kitchen with good clothes on, she might, just might, pull out that old bric-a-brac apron—the one that doesn’t have holes in it.

What’s up with those holes in my shirt?

Holes in Joan's tee shirt--just above the bottom hem

Holes in Joan’s tee shirt–just above the bottom hem.

You might know immediately what we’re talking about, or might know someone this minor problem has afflicted. Maybe you haven’t a clue what we’re referring to—if you are clueless, or, as the case may be, “without holes” read on to be edified!

For some time now Joan has noticed tiny holes appearing in the bottom front of many of her shirts. She would see one hole, two holes, maybe a pattern of multiple small holes. We have had cats—sometimes multiple feline friends—for almost our entire married life, so Joan never thought the holes were much of a mystery. Cats have claws. Said be-clawed cats pounce on us, knead on us, and snuggle (often with claws unsheathed) in our laps. Occasional holes in one’s clothing are just a part of the deal—an inter-species tradeoff—when cats are members of your household (see our previous post about our cats https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/constant-and-faithful-companion/). Joan never gave the matter much thought or mentioned it as a matter of interest to anyone.

However, two years ago, after we lost our sweet cat Muffin and became a cat-less household, Joan began to notice that her new (post-Muffin) shirts were continuing to manifest the distinctive little holes. They weren’t random and seemed always to appear in the same area of the shirt: just below her bellybutton on her abdomen, close to where the button of her jeans would lie beneath. Cats were apparently not the problem after all!

This sweet little cat was not the culprit

This sweet little cat was not the culprit!

Curious, she asked Greg about it. He claimed not to have ever had the problem at all; he couldn’t remember ever seeing the kind of holes Joan described on his own clothing. This absence seemed quite strange. We both wear tee shirts and jeans most of the time, and the shirts are pretty much made out of the same material, aren’t they? Why would one member of the family be afflicted, and the other escape this couture calamity?

Now we were faced with a minor, but intriguing mystery. What in heaven’s name was creating those pesky little holes? Joan isn’t one to ignore a burning question (even if a relatively minor one) until it is answered. And if Greg is to have any peace during an information quest, he has to assist in finding a logical explanation.

Further, we found it strange that we had never heard of anyone having this problem while we were growing up. If our mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles had this problem, we certainly didn’t hear of it. Was it possible that the “little hole problem” is a modern-day phenomenon? And if so, why? Or did this happen to our elders, but, absent the internet and its blogs and tweets and posts discussing the mundane inanities of life in great, endless, and unimportant detail, we simply had no way to hear about it?

For instance, could it be moths? We ruled that possibility out immediately. Moths would have affected other items of clothing and fabric, certainly. And many of the affected items were not likely to be attractive to moths—made of synthetics. Not all of Joan’s clothes were affected, and Greg’s clothes showed no holes at all. And moths surely wouldn’t choose just the lower front area of a shirt and leave the rest of the material alone. Our “little holes” weren’t at all likely to be the result of hungry little moths. There was a pattern here—but what was it?

This was also not the culprit...at least not of these holes

This was also not the culprit…at least not the perpetrator of these holes!

Joan resolved to pay close attention to the domestic activities she did during the day in hopes of discovering the source of the problem. Does the old rough wooden laundry cart in the basement catch her tee shirt when she leans over it to retrieve clothes? Do the bobby pins or hair clips on her lap poke a hole or two into her tee shirt fabric when she’s pinning up her hair? Speaking of modern causes, what about working on a laptop? Joan often works on her MacBook Air for hours at a time doing genealogy (an activity that surely benefits from her single-minded pursuit of unanswered questions and trivial mysteries). Could the edge of the laptop bottom be thinning the material in her shirts making them more liable to develop holes? Observation seemed to indicate that none of these innocent possibilities appeared to be the likely culprits. But over time, and with more diligent observation, a couple of telling clues began to emerge.

Clue 1: Joan noticed that the phenomenon occurred only in shirts she worked in around the house. None of her fancy tops, blouses, shirts and chemises, worn for “good occasions,” going out to restaurants, for example, seemed to have developed any holes. The cause of the holes, it seemed, was a domestic one.

Clue 2: Joan started asking members of our family about whether they had noticed little holes in their shirts. Our oldest daughter didn’t notice any holes. Our son didn’t have any. Greg, as we’ve already reported, didn’t exhibit any.

She texted our middle daughter one day: “Random question – do u get small holes in ur tshirts near ur waistline?”

Our daughter’s response was rapid and decisive: “Yes I do!! What is up with that? I always get those holes! I always thought it was the kitties who made the holes.” (Note: our middle daughter has two cats and academically researches feline behavior).

Joan felt a little relieved that she wasn’t the only one after all. “So I’m not crazy! This isn’t happening only to me!” As it turns out (from this small and quite unscientific sample), the height of the shirt-wearer seems to be a significant variable. Greg, our son, and our oldest daughter are all at least five inches to ten inches taller than Joan. But our middle daughter is only about an inch taller. Hmmm…were shorter people somehow more likely to accumulate these holes? We were perhaps onto something here.

When no other useful clues emerged after the height discovery, we decided to let the subject rest a while—but still keep out a watchful eye out for new holes and the conditions under which they might develop. While vacationing in the Shenandoah Mountains with two good friends last summer, we happened to broach the subject over dinner (God knows why!). Turns out our friends were also no strangers to the mystery. Although Dave didn’t have a problem with the little holes, Brenda was, like Joan, a victim. This added some credence to the “height-related” hypothesis.

This was a topic our friends had discussed with some of their own circle of friends, and they suggested that if we googled the problem, we’d probably find lots of explanations. They weren’t kidding! What we found were endless speculations and tentative explanations.

Several online sites noted that material sold in today’s world is cheaper, thinner, and poorer in quality, making holes more frequent. This could support a “modern phenomenon hypothesis.” Maybe the clothes from our younger days—we are after all sixty-something—were simply of better quality. Problem is, that explanation doesn’t really account for why most men and taller women today don’t seem to have the holes.

Some claimed the problem stems from wearing belts. Another theory is that it comes from standing at a kitchen or bathroom sink where you come into contact with cleaning solutions that weaken the fabric of your shirt. Someone suggested a correlation between the appearance of holes and the new HE washing machines that don’t have agitators. On another website one woman claimed that holes only started appearing in her clothes, but those of no other family members, when she moved into a new house with a walk-in closet. Some of these explanations seem unlikely to us. After all, for instance, tall men wear belts and don’t complain of the little holes. It isn’t clear why the absence of an agitator would create holes! One might expect, logically, the reverse. In fact, we still own an agitator machine.

Nope, also not the culprit

Nope, also not the culprit.

We decided to settle on the explanation that fit best with the clues we had already unmasked and well, frankly, made the most sense. Here we have to give credit to Jessica Hewitt, author of a parenthood blog called “Five In Six.” In her post, “Those Tiny Holes at the Bottom of Shirts – The Culprit & The Cure,” Jessica concludes, “The small holes at the bottom of shirts are caused by the shirt repeatedly rubbing between a pants’ button and a hard surface…” You can read her blog for yourself here: http://fiveinsix.com/2014/02/tiny-holes-at-the-bottom-of-shirts.html.

Jessica tested her theory by purchasing a new, hole-free shirt (Jessica bravely took “one for the team on this one”). She wore her new shirt with jeans for four days straight but kept the front of her shirt tucked into her jeans the entire time. Outcome? No worn spots at the bottom of her shirt. No holes!

Jessica’s conclusion matches perfectly with the clues we uncovered. Joan only gets holes in the shirts she wears working around the house. Do the holes appear at the spot where her jean’s button presses against the kitchen counter? She stood against our hard granite kitchen counter, and sure enough, found that her tee shirt’s holes and jean’s button hit the granite at precisely the same place. And this was not the case for Greg, who is quite a bit taller. The height of the jeans/shirt wearer—which is positively correlated with gender in most cases—seems to account for the variability in who is afflicted and who is not. Greg’s jeans button, simply stated, is higher than the counter. No “fabric sandwich” ever happens.

When you wear tops with jeans and come into contact with a hard surface like a kitchen countertop, the fabric becomes sandwiched between the jeans and the hard surface. This causes friction, rubbing the fabric of the top repeatedly against the metal button of the jeans—the result, over time, unnoticed and unbeknownst to the wearer, is a pattern of tiny holes! It can likely be any hard surface: a counter, edge of a desk, or maybe even where a seat belt comes into contact with the shirt material over the jeans button.

The culprit!

The culprit!

Mystery (at least to our satisfaction) solved! But the trick, of course, is figuring out how to prevent getting any more of the pesky little holes. In our next post, we look at some of the solutions—with a generational twist and a nod to the domestic apparel of an earlier age—to this pervasive but, admittedly, trivial problem!

 

Talkin’ Bout My Jell-O-ration

Perfection Salad

Perfection Salad

Greg keeps a daily calendar on his nightstand, a paper page-a-day calendar received as a Christmas gift—because otherwise he’s gone all digital with calendars nowadays. The calendar reminded us that February 8 is the first day of National Jell-O Week.

Ok, maybe we weren’t really reminded; in truth, we weren’t even aware that there was a National Jell-O Week. But we weren’t really surprised either. There are, seemingly, an endless number of designated days, weeks, and months to promote causes, raise awareness, honor dead people, and commemorate all kinds of historical events.  These named and designated chunks of the calendar are not holidays, like Christmas, Presidents’ Day or the Fourth of July. Many of these are something less, something more trivial and capricious, the poor relations of holidays, holiday wannabes.

The first Friday in June, for example, is “Hug an Atheist Day” and also “National Doughnut Day.” Some wise folks on Twitter and FaceBook have suggested, waggishly, that we be economical with our time and combine these two into “Give An Atheist A Doughnut Day.” Not a bad idea: a holy pastry for the devoutly unholy.

February alone has “Baked Alaska Day,” “Clean Out Your Computer Day,” “National Day the Music Died Day,” “National Thank A Mailman Day,” and an “International Pancake Day.” For those who need more time than a single day can provide, February also boasts “Solo Diners Out Week,” “Random Acts of Kindness Week,” and “Condom Week.” Guess which venerated romantic holiday falls during Condom Week every year?  February is also the month set aside as the “Bake for Family Fun Month,” “International Boost Your Self Esteem Month,” “Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month” (no problem if, like us, you shop at Aldi’s and want your quarter back), as well as “Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Month.” So why shouldn’t Jell-O, too, have a week set aside to celebrate its distinct and important role in American quasi-cuisine?

National Jell-O Week was a brainchild of the Utah state legislature. It was first declared an official week in 2001 and is now celebrated annually every second week of February. It is unclear whether the Week is for Utah residents only or if any of us can celebrate the venerable but wiggly concoction. Utah claims to have the nation’s highest per-capita consumption of Jell-O, thus, it is no surprise that Jell-O is also Utah’s official state snack. If you doubt the veracity of our gelatinous tale, you can read Utah’s original “Resolution Urging Jell-O Recognition” here: http://www.le.state.ut.us/~2001/bills/sbillenr/SR0005.htm

Although Jell-O was invented long before baby boomers came along, it was really during the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s that Jell-O came into its own, grew into its mold, so to speak. For a certain class of people—you know who you are—Jell-O was served everywhere and at all times. Jell-O was a staple at church pot-lucks (at least at Lutheran ones, Joan can attest), children’s parties, in school cafeterias and in our homes, especially when there were large family gatherings.

Back then Jell-O didn’t come in some of the “unusual” flavors you can buy now, like blueberry (because back then blue Jell-O would have just been “weird”), watermelon, “tropical fusion”, and margarita.  We were served the relatively simple, Jell-O “Classic” flavors: orange, cherry, strawberry, lemon, lime, grape, and the ever-present raspberry (never one of Joan’s favorites!).

During the two decades when we baby-boomers grew up, prepackaged and easy-to -prepare foods also came of age and into vogue. And what could be easier that adding water to a package of Jell-O? It was likely one of the first foods our moms allowed us to make (yes, women pretty much did all the cooking—even Jell-O making—back then). Jell-O was so easy to make, it became the subject of classic “Yo Mama” jokes: Yo mama is so stupid she can’t make Jello; she can’t fit 2 quarts of water in the box!”

That didn’t mean, however, that Jell-O wasn’t used in all kinds of creative or unusual ways. Speaking of unusual, back in October Joan read Scott Berkun’s latest book, The Ghost of My Father (http://scottberkun.com/). In the book he recalls his grandmother offering him hot Jell-O to drink, which he admitted sounds “disgusting now but was sweet and warm then….”

We ourselves never tried hot Jell-O, but looking back, many of the Jell-O dishes we were served back in the day now seem bizarre and disgusting. At one Lutheran church supper Joan remembers having something called “Perfection Salad” that was anything but. It had pieces of celery and (to Joan’s horror) olives in it. During our childhood years there were actually vegetable flavors of Jell-O, including celery and tomato! These are mercifully now extinct.

While hunting through her mother’s old recipe box, Joan discovered a recipe for something called a “Green Gold Salad.” It is similar to a gelatin dish called “Sunshine Salad” that you can find on the web. The recipe called for a box each of lime and lemon Jell-O to which three grated carrots (“salted” no less!) and canned crushed pineapple were added. Fortunately for Joan and her siblings, this recipe never made it to the family table because Joan’s mother hated pineapple in all its forms.

Green Gold Salad, Ruth Cornelius Nelson Recipe circa 1965

Green Gold Salad, Ruth Nelson Recipe circa 1965

This isn’t to say all our Jell-O memories are of unappetizing concoctions. Joan’s mother Ruth made a delicious “Frosty Orange Dessert” recipe using orange Jell-O, orange (or lemon) sherbet, and mandarin oranges. This dish is still served as comfort food on holidays in the Shreve household. For occasions like Christmas Joan’s Grandmother Tilla prepared a so-called “Jell-O salad”, quite simple in its ingredients and presentation. Her grandmother would make lime Jell-O in a rectangular pan and press canned pear halves into the gelatin. Once they were chilled, she would cut the Jell-O into individual rectangles, each rectangle with its own pear half. She would carefully place the rectangles on a bed of iceberg lettuce on individual salad plates. Good, simple comfort food. A classic any good Lutheran girl from the mid-West would recognize!

Christmas 1963

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana with Grandma’s “Jell-O salad”

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana with Grandma’s “Jell-O salad”

You can’t think back to the Jell-O of the 1950’s and 1960’s without also thinking about Jell-O molds. Tupperware parties were all the rage, and Jell-O molds were, of course, included in the Tupperware product line. Joan’s mom had a “Jell-N-Serve” mold that had interchangeable lids. You could choose a different design to “top off” your molded gelatin: a star, Christmas tree, tulip, or heart.  Here for your delectation is that sherbet and Jell-O mandarin orange recipe we mentioned earlier as prepared for Thanksgiving many years ago in a “Jell-N-Serve” mold.

JellNServe Mold

Jell-N-Serve Mold Jell-O with Mandarin Oranges

“Frosty Orange Dessert” Prepared in the Jell-N-Serve Mold

In Joan’s childhood (Lutheran) household, cheesecake was an unknown dessert. Her first introduction to cheesecake came via Jell-O pudding, when she heard about the now classic Jell-O No-Bake Cherry Cheesecake recipe and prepared it for her soon-to-be sister-in-law’s bridal shower in 1967. According to Wikipedia the Jell-O pudding “No-Bake” dessert line was launched the previous year, in 1966. The cheesecake Joan made required no baking, and was quick and easy. If you Google it, you’ll see the recipe is still very popular.

In the tumult of the late 1960’s, children of the Jell-O generation began to experiment with change. We changed our hair styles, our dress; we revolutionized our music and our sexual mores. We experimented with spirituality, communes, and obscure and mysterious substances.

But, on a more mundane level, we also expanded our culinary horizons. For Joan the Jell-O cheesecake recipe was a revelation, a seductive gateway to more exotic foods to come. Learning that cheesecake even existed was the beginning of a new gustatory and culinary awareness. It’s difficult to imagine now, but back in the homogeneous culture of the 1950’s and early 1960’s many of our generation had never eaten lasagna, tortellini, sushi, knockwurst, burritos, croissants, Reuben sandwiches, baklava, tacos, or even, yes, cheesecake. Pizza was eaten, yes, but never as a meal, only as a special snack or by teenagers on dates. So many ethnic foods, now normal parts of today’s everyday cuisine, were unknown to us back then.

Jell-O, in its simple, uncomplicated way, and certainly without intending to, was a symbol of our culinary innocence, our white-bread palates, our ignorance of a vast and variegated world waiting to feed us with so many wonderful and delectable foods.  Happy National Jell-O Week!

Lil Bub Goes Postal

Lil Bub in the mail!

Lil Bub going postal!

We have posted about the vagaries of the US Postal Service before (see Theo Theokitos, Valued Feline Postal Service Customer http://wp.me/p4uyM6-I and Mr. Gregory Shreve, Official Starfleet Officer http://wp.me/p4uyM6-F ). In this post we return to the topic of the USPS, an organization that can, apparently, engender a multitude of amazing stories for us to recount. We come to you now with a new fable, an absurd adventure of misdirected packages, wandering mail carriers, disinterested postal supervisors, gracious neighbors, and a vanished internet feline.

The story begins with Joan. As you read in our last post, we are currently without a (real, live) cat. This has led to some adjustment problems on our part (including the disconcerting habit of seeing apparitions of dearly departed felines around the house out of the corners of our eyes). One particularly difficult adjustment for Joan (which we can label “cat on the bed syndrome”) has been going to sleep at night without a cat lying nearby or, preferably, snuggled close.

While it is, of course, obvious that no home should be without a cat or two or more, we have decided, for the time being, that bringing a cat into our household would be difficult. Now that we are both retired, we are traveling frequently. Just in the last four months we have traveled to Eastern Europe, South Carolina, Oregon, and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. At this point in our lives, we would find ourselves leaving our cats alone for long periods of time.

With no real cat to comfort her at night anymore, Joan began sleeping with a large stuffed tiger by her side who goes by the name of Jade, a gift from our children years ago. However, Jade, a giant among its kind, is at least three feet in length and threatened to dispossess the bed of its other long-time occupant, Greg. When she would awake in the middle of the night, Joan would find, much to her annoyance, that Jade had mysteriously been removed from her side and placed at the bottom of the bed. A smaller bed companion apparently had to be found.

There were requirements for this new companion: portability, suitability for cuddling, softness and general, all-around, cuteness.  These are requirements that Greg, in all honesty, does not fulfill (although he claims other compensating virtues).

While trying to locate a birthday gift for our middle daughter, a felinologist at Oregon State University, we ran across a plush toy imitation of internet sensation “Lil Bub” at http://lilbub.com/ and purchased one from the site’s online store.  After holding our daughter’s plush avatar of Lil Bub, Joan decided that having one was the best possible cure for her syndrome.

We ordered a Lil Bub for her on December 28, 2014. Response to the order from the folks at the Lil Bub website was fast and efficient. Lil Bub shipped on December 30 and was expected to arrive around January 2nd. We should have known, however, that something would go wrong when we read the following message in our Lil Bub shipping confirmation:

Your Lil Bub order has shipped via United States Postal Service!

Track your package!

But, we were confident. The United States Postal Service, respected branch of our federal government, had custody of our little cat. They would take care of her, surely. Our fears were more than allayed when we read from the tracking application that Lil Bub had been delivered securely right to our front door on Friday, January 2nd as promised! Exactly at 2:43 pm! We went outside to gather her in and tuck her into bed with Joan. Except, except—she was nowhere to be found. Not on the front porch, not on the side porch, not laying in the yard, or on the back stoop. She was gone, vanished.

Delivered! (or not?)

Delivered! (Or not?)

Thinking she might appear miraculously over the weekend when our mail carrier discovered her fallen behind a bag in his truck or neighbors discovered her mislaid on their front steps, we waited. And then we waited some more. Finally on Tuesday, January 6th Greg drove hopefully to the Kent, Ohio Post Office to inquire about our wayward feline.   Once there he waited some more.

Here Greg must digress and indulge in a small rant. The Kent Post Office is like the anteroom to Hell. Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. There is almost always a wait to buy stamps, ask a question, or procure meaningful postal service of any kind. The wait is engendered by some sort of local policy that prevents the Postmaster from staffing all three of the postal service counters at the same time. One is always closed, even when the line of customers reaches back to the doors. But, as said, this is a digression. We return to the main narrative.

After an unnecessarily long wait (45 minutes according to the time stamps from text communications between Joan and Greg), a postal clerk shunted Greg to a supervisor with the words “you’ll have to talk to a supervisor about that.” The supervisor (who shall remain nameless, and deservedly so) deigned to appear after another unnecessarily long wait. He took the tracking information, disappeared again for a while and then returned to indicate that “according to scans” (apparently mail carriers have to check in during their rounds and indicate where on their route they are at a particular time) the mail carrier had not been on North Prospect Street where we reside at the time in question, 2:43 pm. He had been on our street some two hours earlier. This begged the important question: where was Lil Bub actually delivered? The supervisor had no answer, offered to quiz the mail carrier as to Bub’s whereabouts, and said that if she didn’t appear in a few days to submit a postal claim. Greg left with little hope of any resolution.  The postal claim might (or might not) produce a refund but would most likely not produce the missing cat!

The next day, while blowing snow off the sidewalk, Greg happened to see the mail carrier and raised the issue of the missing package. The mail carrier claimed no specific knowledge and said that the supervisor had not spoken to him about the misdelivered package—but did say, vaguely, that he “might have seen a note about it.”  The carrier did say that at 2:43 pm he was most likely on Park Avenue, the next street over. Greg asked him to look for the package but noted a distinct lack of commitment for resolving the problem in the carrier’s response.

Then Joan, the one with the memory in our family, brought it to our attention that several times in the past mail had been misdelivered to a house with the same number as ours, but on another street, Chestnut. Maybe the package was there? With hope in our hearts we went to that house and knocked on the door. No packages visible. No answer to our knock.  We were stymied again.

Another several days passed. Finally, about a week after the supposed delivery, we decided that Lil Bub had gone postal and disappeared forever. Greg ordered a replacement Lil Bub, this time from Amazon since The Bub Store online was temporarily closed for revamping. Our plush would appear, as scheduled, two days later on our doorstep (United Parcel Service) with no problem. The saga of Lil Bub was over.

Or so we thought.  On Sunday January 11, about nine days from the botched delivery, we decided to go grocery shopping. We turned out of our driveway and proceeded to the intersection of Prospect and West Main. We turned right. A car following us turned right. We went down to the next street, Chestnut, turned right and decided to take another quick look for our missing package. The car following us turned right with us. We passed the house where we suspected our package might be, slowed down, looked, but saw no one at home. We then proceeded to turn right on Bryce. The car behind us turned right on Bryce. Quick on the uptake, we realized were being tailed! Several worst case scenarios flashed through our minds.

Greg asked, “What is that car doing?”

Joan replied, “He’s pulling alongside, let him pass!”

Greg stopped the car, suspicious and wary. The car behind us pulled alongside and then stopped in the middle of the street. For a brief moment puzzled glances were exchanged with the stranger. The stranger then rolled down his window and asked:

“Do you live at 167 North Prospect?”

Still puzzled, we nodded in the affirmative.

“I think I have something of yours.”

He exited his car and handed a package containing one plush Lil Bub in through the window and into Joan’s waiting arms. She had indeed been delivered to the house that Joan had suspected all along, but to the rear of the house and not the front. We had knocked on the wrong door earlier. Lil Bub’s savior had thought the package was his daughter’s and had put it aside until she came home after the New Year. Mystery solved (although why this never occurred to our mail carrier is beyond us).

Lil Bub came home with Joan. That evening her twin, the replacement Lil Bub, also appeared. We now had a surfeit of Lil Bubs. Interestingly, this overabundance of Bubs seemed not to bother Joan at all. Quite the opposite.

Both now reside in and on our bed and have been renamed Lille (Norwegian for “Little”) and Katt (Norwegian for “Cat” in honor of Holly Golightly’s feline friend). All is right with the world. What was lost is now found, thanks to a gracious neighbor and good fortune. No thanks to the United States Postal Service and our local Post Office who had, quite obviously, been content to let Lil Bub go postal.

We encourage you to visit Lil Bub at http://lilbub.com/ to read about this real-life precious cat. A portion of all purchases at The Bub Store goes to a fund for special needs pets. It is a site worth supporting.

Culinary Misconceptions

Doris Neubert’s wonderful recipe for Quarktorte ohne Boden und Bohnen!

Doris Neubert’s wonderful recipe for Quarktorte ohne Boden und Bohnen!

In the 1980’s we spent a year (from 1985-1986) living abroad in a most unusual place, “behind the Iron Curtain” in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Most Americans referred to the country at that time as “East Germany,” but the Germans living there preferred their country be called the “German Democratic Republic.” In 1985 when we traveled there with our two-year old daughter, it was still the era of the Cold War, and Germany was still divided into two very different countries. As the result of a series of career decisions and (frankly) happenstance, Greg had the opportunity to teach as an exchange professor for Karl Marx Universität in Leipzig—a famous historic university once known, and now known again, as the University of Leipzig.

Our year abroad “behind the Curtain” will certainly be the subject of further posts, because it was at once a most difficult, but also quite a significant year for us. It turned out to be (although we didn’t know it at the time) a turning point in Greg’s professional life. But more on that later. Even under difficult circumstances, we made friends in that small socialist country, some of them would become not only long-term colleagues, but life-long friends. We learned a great deal during our time there. We learned some important things about ourselves, about the inestimable value of freedom and privacy, and about the pervasive, invasive nature of totalitarian states.

However, today’s blog post isn’t about these big, important issues. It’s about misconceptions—little things, little mistakes of thinking we make. We all have misconceptions about those who live in other countries and practice other ways of life. We Americans have them about foreigners, and those in foreign countries have them about us. But when you actually live in a foreign country for as long as we did, your pre-conceived notions about that culture, it customs, even its cooking, are challenged and, if you listen and learn, your notions change. Generalizations, misconceptions, and stereotypes dissolve and disappear once you actually meet and get to know those “foreign” people and places.

Misconceptions abound about many things but, and now we get to the meat of this post, they especially surround the topic of food. Hence our blog title, “Culinary Misconceptions.” Before living in the GDR, when Joan thought of German food, she, like many other Americans, mainly thought of beer, bratwurst, and sauerkraut. These were to her, of course, the main staples of German diet. Most of her knowledge of German food dated back to the 1970’s when we would frequent some old German restaurant haunts when we lived in the Columbus, Ohio area: the Leipzig Haus on East Livingston Avenue in Bexley, Ohio and Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in German Village. Greg, who had German relatives and had spent several of his childhood years living in Germany as an Army brat, didn’t grow up with these same stereotypes.

While it is certainly true that Germans drink a lot of beer and are justifiably proud of their immense array of brews, it isn’t the only thing they drink. Indeed in the GDR we were usually offered wine or bottled water first when enjoying a dinner at someone’s home. As to Bratwurst, well little did Joan know—but soon found out after her first visit to a Metzgerei (butcher shop)—that the humble Bratwurst is only one of a myriad of Wursts (sausages) found in Germany. There was Blutwurst, Bockwurst, Weisswurst, Knackwurst, and Leberwurst, just to name some small few of the ones we ate and enjoyed (with a staggering variety of mustards!). Most regions had their own special varieties of Wurst. In Lower Saxony there was Bregenwurst and Thüringia had its own unique large Rostbratwurst with distinctive spices like marjoram and garlic. When we visited Nürnberg we enjoyed the smaller finger-sized Nürnberger sausages that have become world-renowned.

When eating out or eating at someone’s home, we also sampled many delicious non-sausage dishes: Sauerbraten, Rouladen, Kasseler Schinken, and Schnitzel. One of Joan’s favorite dishes was Jaeger Eintopf, a kind of stew made from beef, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms. If memory serves us right, sauerkraut was never served once when we dined at someone’s home.

Before we lived in Germany, Joan’s idea of a German dessert was strudel and German chocolate cake (also something we recall being served at Schmidt’s restaurant in German Village). German chocolate cake? It was nonexistent throughout Germany. Turns out it didn’t originate anywhere in Deutschland. The recipe for German chocolate cake (a favorite of Joan’s brother, by the way prepared for him by his wife every year on his birthday) actually is derived from Samuel German, who in 1852 developed a bar of sweet baking chocolate while working for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. In 1957 a recipe using a “German’s chocolate bar” appeared in a Dallas, Texas newspaper, and the rest is history. Many Germans, in fact, would probably dislike German chocolate cake. Several have told us that they dislike most American cakes because they are too sweet for their tastes.

German desserts also turned out to be so much more than strudel: Lebkuchen, Stollen, Obstkuchen (an only slightly sweet thin cake topped with fruit). Indeed any early morning visit to a Bäckerei (bakery) would reveal a wide array of torts, pastries and other sweets. One of Joan’s favorites was a dessert made by her friend Doris called “Quarktorte ohne Boden.” It resembled cheesecake but was baked with “quark,” a kind of curd cheese. “Ohne Boden” which literally translates as “without a floor” meant that the dessert was prepared with no bottom or crust.

Before leaving Germany Joan made sure to ask Doris for the recipe, but mistakenly asked for “Quarktorte ohne Bohnen” (which translates as Quarktorte without beans)! When our German friends started laughing, Joan, quick to catch her mistake, insisted that the recipe was “auch ohne Bohnen” (also without beans)!

So, indeed German cuisine was, and is, about much more than beer, brats, sausages, and strudel. But Americans aren’t the only ones to have misconceptions about another culture’s food. Before and after the Wall fell, through our experiences living in the GDR and meeting people, as well as traveling in and visiting Greg’s relatives in what was then called West Germany, we learned, too, that Germans had many misconceptions about our American food as well.

Some Germans think our beer or wine to be of inferior quality. When we visited a local winery in the Rheinland of (then) West Germany, the owner told us they shipped their “inferior” wines to the United States for consumption. The implication perhaps was that Americans (as every German knows) wouldn’t know the difference between a good wine and a bottle of vinegar. While we certainly enjoyed very good beers and wines in Germany before and after the Wall came down, you can, indeed, get very good beer and wine in the States. A burgeoning American viniculture and the growth of American craft breweries have transformed our alcoholic beverage landscape. And we can testify that while we lived in the GDR, we did purchase some VERY low quality wines in the supermarkets! Although, truth be told, there were days where we were glad to be consuming even those inferior vintages!

Some Germans also have a low opinion of American food. We encountered this when one of our GDR friends came to visit us in Ohio. Although during those Cold War years, East Germans were not allowed to travel “to the West,” exceptions were made. If you were a pensioner, you could freely travel outside the country. If you were a member of the Communist Party and had professional reasons, you could also receive permission to travel. One of our friends, who was allowed come to Ohio for academic purposes, visited us after we returned from the GDR when we lived in the small Ohio town of Burton in Geauga County.

For the first dinner our German friend had with us, Joan had prepared stuffed manicotti shells, a salad, and had baked homemade bread. We had never encountered Germans who baked their own bread the year we lived in the GDR so it could be understandable that seeing an American do this was a bit surprising for her. She had expected, instead, the typical soft, spongy American white bread (think Wonder bread) that was a staple in the homes of those of us who were children in the 1950’s and 1960’s—indeed it is still a household fixture in many homes although, hallelujah, Americans finally seem to have discovered good bread along with good beer. This kind of bread is still sold in American supermarkets, of course, but is no longer the only or most popular choice available to consumers. We both personally have not eaten that kind of bread for many years! Germans have wonderful bakeries, even in the smallest villages, with a variety of marvelous breads that we still remember fondly. Our theory is that the Germans we knew didn’t need to bake their own loaves to get delicious tasting bread.

When our GDR visitor tasted the manicotti shells, she asked if they had come from a box that we had purchased. She had heard that Americans prepared their foods from boxes of pre-made foods; Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper is an example of exactly what she was thinking. While, true, the shells had not been home-made, Joan had hand-stuffed the shells and prepared the sauce and stuffing for the manicotti. We have since read that it is a common misconception for Europeans to think Americans not only eat mostly fast food but also prepare their dinners at home from boxed pre-prepared meals.

Sometimes, misconceptions are based on customs that have been slightly “warped in the translation.” One of our GDR friends, for example, thought Americans ate their cheese with ketchup. We had been invited one night to some dear friends’ apartment in the GDR for dinner (where are you now Knut and Angela?). As appetizers we were served toothpick-speared chunks of cheese topped with ketchup. While sampling the cheese, Joan mentioned that this was a German custom she had never heard of. Our friend, surprised, laughed and replied that it was not a German custom but had thought it an American custom. His father had told him that Americans ate their cheese topped with ketchup. After some discussion we decided that his father had probably heard that Americans liked to eat French fries with ketchup—this, obviously not a misconception but a pure and unvarnished truth. We eat lots of things, maybe too many things, with ketchup.

The thing about all misconceptions is that there is a kernel of truth behind them. You can find bratwurst, beer, sauerkraut, and (very good) strudel in Germany. There are poor quality American beers and wines. There are Americans who frequent fast food restaurants and routinely prepare Hamburger Helper type meals. Americans have been known to put ketchup on all kinds of things: steak, macaroni and cheese, eggs (just do a Google Image search if you have the stomach for the results). But it is always a mistake to generalize about another culture’s food or eating habits. Cultural culinary traditions are rich and diverse; immersion in a culture is without a doubt the best way to learn about them.

There are, of course, other misconceptions we encountered that Germans had about Americans. But these will be food for another day’s blog!

The Pastor’s Boxers

The Pastor's Boxers

The Pastor’s Boxers

Being of Scandinavian descent, with roots in the Swedish communities of Chicago and the Norwegians of Minneapolis, Joan was raised as the kind of Lutheran popularized by humorist Garrison Keillor. Like Garrison, Joan has a wealth of stories of “her people.” This is one of them.

Whenever Valentine’s Day rolls around and those ubiquitous boxers with red hearts appear in the stores, Joan recalls a little prank she and a friend once pulled on a small group of Lutheran ministers.

During the summer months growing up, Joan and her brothers usually spent a week away from home at camp. Joan’s camp summers were mostly church-oriented. One summer in the 1960’s she had the opportunity to attend something called “Leadership Training School,” which was sponsored by area Lutheran churches for the benefit of Lutheran teenagers. Sadly, Joan remembers nothing about her week learning to become a “leader,” thereby depriving the world of her beneficent and just leadership, but she does remember the details of a certain prank she participated in with a newly-made friend.

“Leadership Training School” was held at the quaint, charming Christian campus of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. In charge of the training program were three, maybe four male Lutheran pastors. (Back in the 1960’s women couldn’t be pastors of Lutheran churches.) Joan remembers just two of the pastors that were there that week. One was a former military man, a bit gruff on the exterior and clearly used to giving orders. Although he seemed to be the pastor in charge, Joan suspected he was likely more bark than bite.

Every morning when the teenagers would assemble after breakfast, he would issue the command “front and center!” It was kind of amazing to watch; all the teenagers would actually quiet down and line up. There really is something called “command voice!” The other pastor was quiet, very sweet, but had some difficulty in communicating one on one. He had no difficulties speaking in public, however. That’s probably a good thing for a preacher.

A girl named Pam became friends with Joan during that week and came up, for some reason, with the idea of short sheeting the Lutheran pastors’ beds. The pastors’ quarters were on the first floor of the college dormitory below the girls’ quarters on the second floor—an arrangement, by the way, probably impossible in today’s society.

The pastors’ room was directly below where Joan and Pam were staying, making the dastardly plan all the more feasible. Joan had never short sheeted a bed before, but she thought it sounded easy, fun, and perversely inspirational. To understand why this would appeal to her, you would have to understand the seemingly innocent Joan. Sometimes what you see isn’t really what you get. Still waters and all that.

For anyone needing a refresher on short sheeting, there is a YouTube video (of course there is…), that can be checked out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jzdadheKI8

One evening while the pastors were away at a meeting, Joan and Pam seized an opportunity to sneak downstairs and execute their secret adolescent plan. Tiptoeing quietly down the stairs, they entered the room where the pastors slept at night. They worked quickly and efficiently as a team, short sheeting all of the beds with near-military precision. As they unmade one of the beds, they found a shirt and a pair of white boxers with red hearts under the pillow. They checked for clues to see which pastor wore them. It was the quiet pastor’s boxers! Hmmm, what was that about still waters?

They finished the deed and quickly ran back upstairs to the girls’ quarters. Actually, they could have easily been caught in the act because the pastors returned to their room no more than five minutes later. Rather than return to their rooms and safety, Joan and Pam decided to sit at the top of the stairs so they wouldn’t miss any of the (they hoped) ensuing excitement. When they heard pandemonium and loud voices exclaiming below, they glanced at one another and started giggling. Making things worse, they couldn’t stop laughing about those boxers with the red hearts. It just didn’t seem like something a dignified Lutheran pastor should have been wearing.

But their giggling gave them away, and the “military pastor,” opening his door, saw them at the top of the stairs. As he marched up the stairs, instinct took over, and Joan and Pam both immediately assumed an air of innocence.

“What are you girls doing here?” he angrily demanded to know.

“We heard a lot of commotion downstairs and were afraid,” stated one of the girls demurely.

We can imagine the widened eyes and innocent look accompanying this claim; we’ll leave it to your imagination as to who came up with this quick-witted answer!

The response was extemporaneous and unrehearsed, and quite effective because it wasn’t actually quite a lie. Joan and Pam did hear the commotion, and they were afraid that they had been caught.

The gruff pastor’s face suddenly softened, and he told the girls that everything was OK and that they should go back to their bedroom and get some sleep. Joan and Pam had no need to boast to anyone about what they had done. Knowing that they had succeeded in getting away with their short sheeting operation was reward enough.

In a strange twist of fate, the quiet pastor with the red heart boxers would later become the pastor of Joan’s childhood church. Fortunately for her she had by then grown up, moved away, and left the church. Otherwise, she would have had to sit through his sermons every Sunday while thinking about those red heart boxers under his robes!