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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Everything Old Is New

Contributed by Valerie Battle Kienzle

Sometimes I feel like a relic. I try to keep up to date with what's happening in the world -- wars, disasters, political leaders, socio-economic changes, health care trends -- but sometimes I fail. I wonder how I missed out. My latest "how-did-I-miss-it" experience involved, of all things, aprons.

Aprons have been used by men and women for centuries to protect bodies and clothing. Until recently, I associated aprons with childhood memories of grandmas and holidays. I owned a total of two aprons -- neither of which I wore. I kept them in the back of a drawer for strictly sentimental reasons. The pretty pink and white half apron with rick-rack trim and three deep pockets was worn by Grandma when she had company. The homemade bib apron was a gift from a friend when she had little money to buy Christmas presents.

Suddenly, I began to notice all manner of aprons for sale in upscale retail stores, in catalogs, and online. Their prices ranged from $14.99 to $49.99. Then I attended a niece's bridal shower. She received the cutest smock apron and matching oven mitts I'd ever seen. Bold, contemporary fabric and very ruffled. She tried them on and looked adorable!

Each November I get together with a group of friends for a daylong, marathon cookie-baking event. We spend hours making hundreds of fanciful and delicious cookies, then go home with enough cookies to see us through the next six weeks of holiday festivities. Friend Carol has a large, fabulous kitchen and more cooking gadgets and accessories than most of us know how to use. We gather there for our annual cookie extravaganza.

Last year we arrived early on a Saturday and she handed each of us a wrapped present. We opened them together and found that she'd made aprons from Christmas-themed fabric. No two were alike. Her instructions were to use them each year when we gathered to make cookies. We looked festive, but I soon realized that her gift was practical and functional.

Instead of wiping flour-covered hands on a paper towel or blue jeans, I used the apron. When the mixer speed was too high and cookie ingredients sprayed from the bowl, the batter landed on the apron, not the clothes.

Then friend Stephanie loaned me a stack of magazines. One was titled Apronology. It was
thick and loaded with images of aprons. That prompted me to do an online search for aprons. To my surprise, I found countless websites devoted to -- aprons.

There were free apron patterns, apron tutorials, images of designer, vintage and retro aprons, aprons for children, and matching adult and child aprons. I learned about the many types of aprons -- bib, smock, dish towel, butcher, homemaker, half, cobbler, bistro, four-way, crocheted, Bar-B-Q, tea towel, chef's, holiday, and Kappogi (a traditional Japanese apron). I also learned a new word -- apronista. In case you don't know, apronista is a person with an appreciation for all things related to aprons. How had I missed this?

My mom's home has been lived in by seven generations of her family. That means she's inherited a lot of "stuff" -- stuff that others left behind. It's filled with furniture, housewares, books, and decorative items that once belonged to a great-grandpa or Grandma or a spinster aunt.

On a recent visit, I opened a dresser drawer to store some of my clothes and discovered a fabric-filled bag. I peeked inside and saw stacks of colorful folded cloth. I removed a few items from the bag and realized they were aprons. Some had the faded look of well-worn cloth. Others looked new. One still carried the price tag from a long-gone variety store -- $1.97.

Grandma was a farm wife. An apron was part of her daily uniform. As a kid, I never saw her without an apron unless she was going to church. Aprons allowed her to multi-task. I remember her using an apron to wipe up spills, to carry beans from the garden to the porch to string and snap, and to dab the perspiration from her face while she stirred simmering pots of fruit preserves.

Aprons fell out of favor in the 1970s as the women's movement progressed. The apron was for some a symbol of subservience. I never made a conscious decision to NOT wear an apron; it simply seemed to me that aprons were old-fashioned and not necessary.

But I've changed my mind. And from what I've observed, it seems that younger generations are discovering what their ancestors knew -- aprons are handy, useful and functional. However, I'm guessing Grandma wouldn't have paid $49.99 for an apron!

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Very Big Project

Contributed by Stephanie Bearce

Everybody knows I collect antiques. My house is full of them. There’s the icebox in the family room, the Bradley lamp on the desk, candy tins in my office, and the wardrobe in my dining room. You’d think I’d have enough antiques, but no. A true collector just can’t stop. So what am I working on now?
How about an antique house!

Oh, yes. We did it. We bought an antique house in the Frenchtown area of St. Charles. And not just any old house, this one is a house built before the Civil War, complete with coal chute, and a very scary cellar. Of course this house needs to be completely gutted. I mean what’s the fun of an antique if you can’t refinish it or rebuild it?
I’m still digging into the history of our old home. I know that it was built as a single family home sometime around 1860 or 1861. It was used as a boarding house in the early 1900’s and then in the midst of the housing shortage after WWI, the home was turned into four VERY small apartments. 

It was four very small, very ugly, apartments when Darrell and I purchased it last year. Sadly there were no vestiges of the grandeur of the old home. It had long ago been stripped of any nice woodwork. And when we bought it, there was no electricity and no running water. 

I know what you are thinking… and yes, we are a little bit crazy. But underneath the purple painted rooms and the dangling ceiling fan, we could see a sturdy solid brick house that had survived a civil war, two world wars, and 28 presidents. We had to save it.

It has a taken a year and a lot of muscle and sweat, but the house is almost gutted now. My darling handyman husband tore out most of it himself. He did get some help tearing stuff up from Josh.
Beth, and Greg, and Beth’s friend, Drew, came and pulled THOUSANDS of tiny nails out of the wood. And Nichole, in her usual managerial style, rounded up a bunch of college guy friends who shoveled out over 15 TONS of lath and plaster into three dumpsters. We think we have about one more dumpster to go.

Next week we get the plans back from the architect. I’m excited to see what he has drawn up. Of course we have our own definite plans of what we want. We are putting a fully modern home inside the shell of an antique. I love those modern conveniences of indoor plumbing and nice safe electrical wiring. 

And I’m totally excited about moving back to old town!

We will be three blocks from the Katy trail. We can zip down the hill with the bikes at a moment’s notice. We are three blocks from Main Street and all those nice restaurants and charming shops. Plus I just love walking in the area. Not to mention, I can see the Fourth of July fireworks from my roof! I can ride my bike to the library. I can walk to the post office. I’ll even be able to walk to church and my work!

In the mean time Darrell and I are enjoying the process of refinishing our antique home. We have met the neighbors. Two doors down we have a Celtic harpist who plays concerts on the front porch when the weather is nice.

Behind us we have a sweet elderly couple who have two Banty hens as pets. We are praying Lucy, the vicious Yorkshire terrier, doesn’t kill them.

Next door we have an eight year old who wants to know if he can still use our back yard to play army. Of course he can!

This house is truly a labor of love and not just for the building. It has been so much fun for Darrell and I to dream and plan about this house together. We both love history, antiques and Old Town. It will be a great place for us to build our empty nest.

Of course it won’t be without adventures. We have already appeared before the board of appraisals to assure them that we are indeed planning to inhabit the home and no, there is no plumbing yet, but there will be. Someday. Soon. I hope.

We also found out we have to pay $25 to the historical board to have them tell us that we need to put on round gutters instead of square. Looking around at some of the houses in the neighborhood, I think they might be happy that we intend to put up any gutters… But that’s part of the adventure.

So, Dear Readers, stay tuned!
I will give you updates on the progress of 1001 North Third Street in St. Charles, MO. And feel free to stop by the house and peer in the windows to view our progress. Listen for the Celtic harp music on Saturdays, wave to the Banty hens next door, and when the neighborhood boys yell “bang, bang” remember to fall in a dramatic heap on the porch!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sugar Is Sweet...

Contributed by Valerie Battle Kienzle

To say that someone has a "sweet tooth" isn't exactly correct. The tongue detects sweetness, not teeth. The human tongue has taste buds with taste receptors that respond to five taste sensations, one of which is sweetness.

The American Heart Association says Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar EACH DAY. And it's not talking about naturally-occurring sugars such as those found in produce and dairy products. It's talking about added sugar.

That's a lot of sweetness! tecommended sugar consumption is six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons for men. So how did America get to this state of sugar overconsumption? It didn't happen overnight.

Sugarcane, the plant from which sugar is derived, is said to have originated in Southern Asia. People chewed the raw plant for centuries before the process of crystallizing sugar was developed almost 2,000 years ago. Because sugar's sweetness is a pleasant sensation, people wanted more of it, and the demand for it increased. Sugar's popularity spread to the Middle East and China, then to Europe and the New World. Christopher Columbus is said to have belped spread sugarcane as he sailed to new lands.

The British, in particular, had an ever-increasing appetite for all things sweet, including sugar-sweetened beverages, candies, and condiments like jams and jellies. Sugar's popularity spread as the Americas were colonized.

Growing and processing sugarcane was labor-intensive, making sugar an expensive commodity. It was valued and traded like pearls and some exotic spices. The Caribbean islands became the hub of sugar production. About the 18th century, sugar was processed into a hard cone-like shape called sugarloaf. Consumers purchased sugarloaves and used small hammers or sugar axes to break off chunks of sugar. The chunks were then broken down into smaller pieces before being used in foods.

The high cost of sugar made many consumers, particularly in the southern United States, keep it locked up to provent theft. Often it was locked into a piece of wooden furniture called a sugar chest.

My mother owns a sugar chest that's been handed down through generations of her family. It dates back to the days when sugar was a precious commodity. The highly-polished chest stands about four feet tall, and with tongue-and-groove construction, is a fine piece of furniture. The top is hinged, which allowed my ancestors to place several sugarloaves inside the deep storage compartment. It also has a key lock. I'm told the chest's turned legs made it difficult for mice and insects to gain access to the sugarloaves.

Today, Mom's sugar chest is strictly decorative. It hasn't been used to store sugar for more than a century. But Mom and others of her generation who were children during World War II can remember a time when sugar was again a precious commodity.

During the war years, the United States implemented a rationing program that impacted all
citizens. Food (including sugar), gasoline, and some clothing materials were rationed in order to maintain supplies for U.S. troops fighting the war. Sugar-buying coupons and certificates were issued based on family sixe, and Americans were forced to reduce their sugar consumption. Posters reminded them to "do with less so they'll have enough." Once the rationing program ended in 1946, sugar consumption increased.

Today, sugar is easy to obtain. It's no longer rationed or kept locked up. Individual packets of sugar grace the tables of most restaurants and coffee shops. Grocery shelves feature bags and boxes of sugar for a few dollors. Sugar can be found in scores of prepared foods and is a main ingredients in many of the foods we prepare at home. The fact that it's easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive have contributed to today's reality -- many of us consume too much sugar. But oh, sugar-sweetened foods sure taste good!

Following is a recipe for a traditional Southern favorite -- chess pie. It's loaded with sugar and has little nutritional value, but it's delicious! Try it sometime when your taste buds crave a sweet treat.

Chess Pie
3 eggs

1 stick margarine, melted

1 tablespoon corn meal

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon vanilla

Mix the above ingredients and pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake for 35-40 minutes at 350 degrees. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Coco's Collection

Photos by Erin Poppe and Nichole Finke
Story by Stephanie Bearce
Her third word was shoes. Mama. Dada. Shoes. I should have known we were in trouble.

I blame it on my sisters who bought her adorable patent leather shoes and ruffled socks when she was a baby. They started the whole “collection”. And that’s what Nichole calls it. Her “collection.”

“Mom, some people collect stamps. You collect those rocks. Trust me, shoes are better. I mean, I don’t see you wearing your fossils.”

She has a point.

Of course it didn’t help when she went to work at a shoe store.

“Mom, you have got to see these boots. They are so sweet.”

“But I really needed those heels. I didn’t have any that were purple.”

It was okay when she was living at home. Nichole was a very tidy child. Her shoes were organized into racks and boxes. I tried not to think about how many she had.

“Mom, flip-flops do not count as shoes. And neither do tennis shoes. Well, unless they are Coach.”

Funny, but in my closet tennis shoes definitely count as shoes. As a matter of fact it is a lot easier to hunt fossils in tennis shoes than in sparkly high heels.

The real trauma came when it was time to go to college. Forty-seven pairs of shoes in a dorm room the size of - well, a shoebox.

“I can’t leave any of them at home. What if I need them? Besides they would miss me.”

“They are just shoes.”

“Mother! It’s a collection. I can’t break it up.”

We crammed them in. It was high heels floor to ceiling. Her roommate had three pairs of tennis shoes.

Soon Nichole was the college fashion consultant. She loaned out her shoes for first dates, formals and costume parties. Her shoes went on interviews, to funerals, weddings, and even the Big 12 Tournament. In addition to being the head of shoe central, she organized outfits, created hair styles and did make up.

“These girls need me!”

I wondered how all this time with shoes and fashion was going to fit in with her architecture studies. I mean she was supposed to be studying buildings, artists, and history. I was pretty sure there was not a course on Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, or Kate Spade.

I shouldn’t have worried.

“Mom, there is the most amazing program for architecture students. We get to go to Italy and study product design. I can spend an entire semester studying shoes!”
Who knows. Maybe someday Nichole really will have her own collection. CoCo’s Original Shoes. I guess I better clear out some space in my closet. I wonder if she will design a special pair of fossil hunting shoes. I could use a little glitter in my life.

But then, of course that’s why God sent me Nichole.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where There's Smoke...

Contributed by Valerie Battle Kienzle

History surrounds us. I live in an area that until about 40 years ago was completely rural. Today, little remains to even hint at the area's rural origins. Subdivisions, strip malls, convenience stores and chain restaurants line the multi-lane state highway that once was a gravel road.

The remnants of two farm homesteads are located near my neighborhood. The highway crisscrosses the properties, allowing glimpses of life as it existed for many generations. Rusting barns, clapboard houses, and deteriorating outbuildings tell of a time when people lived fairly sulf-sufficient lives off the land and their livestock. Day in, day out, a steady stream of commuters passes these properties, but few people probably notice them.

Commuter traffic james happen regularly near the homesteads. While sitting in standstill traffic, I've tried to figure out how some of the outbuildings were once used. Chicken coops, implement sheds and storage barns are obvious. But each homestead also has a small structure with a high-pitched roof. They're too big and not the usual shape of outhouses. One day it occurred to me that these were smokehouses -- small structures once used for curing and storing meat.

In the days before refrigeration, preserving meat took some forethought and planning. Smokehouses were an important part of working farms. Hog-killing time in the cold days of late fall was as much a part of rural life each year as planting seeds and harvesting crops. If families wanted to eat pork, they raised and slaughtered hogs. Cuts of meat, like hams, that weren't going to be consumed immediately were packed in a large container of salt for about six weeks to remove the meat's moisture and to aid in preservation.

The meat was then hung from nails, poles and rafters inside a small square or rectangular building called a smokehouse. A low, smoldering fire using green wood or the wood from fruit trees was started inside the house and maintained for several weeks, further preserving the meat. The meat remained hanging in the smokehouse until it was sufficiently "cured" and ready for consumption -- usually about two years. Hanging the meat overhead also helped protect it from insects and hungry animals.

In the late 1990s, my parents restored Mom's ancestral home and farm in rural Tennessee. Seven generations of her family have lived on and worked the land. One of the outbuildings located near the main house is a smokehouse. There are no records indicating the building's age, but the construction and door date to the 1800s.

The smokehouse's exterior clapboards have been restored and repainted, but inside it remains rustic and primitive, with a dirt floor where fires were once built. The air inside still smells smoky. Beams and rafters bear traces of creosote from years of exposure to smoldering fires. Square-head nails and twisted segments of wire line the rafters, signs that hams once hung there.

The little smokehouse hasn't been used to cure meats since the mid-twentieth century when my grandfather lived on the property. Chances are it, as well as the two smokehouses located near my Midwestern subdivision, will never again contain meat and smoldering fires.

A few commercial operations around the United States still cure meats using the old-fashioned smokehouse method. Their products are delicious, but somewhat expensive. For the most part, curing meats at home for family consumption is a lost art. Today, most folks get their meats from a grocery or market, not a smokehouse in the back yard.

Meat-curing techniques, like recipes for favorite family foods, were passed down from generation to generation. Both of my grandfathers enjoyed reputations in their respective communities for curing outstanding country hams.

A few years ago, we discovered my maternal grandfather's hand-written recipe for pork sausage. Prior to "hog-killing time," my grandmother sewed long strips of fabric together on her foot-powered sewing machine to form cloth sacks for the sausage. Meat was pushed through a hand-cranked grinder, and then mixed with spices and stuffed into the long bags. The sausage was then stored in the smokehouse. I know I'll never use this recipe, but reading through it gives me a sense of connection to Grandpa, his father, his grandfather and other faceless ancestors I'll never know. It's a tiny part of history. Indeed, history surrounds us. We just have to open our eyes and look for it.

Here's Grandpa's sausage recipe:

Pork Sausage

16 lbs. ground pork meat

5 tablespoons salt

3 tablespoons ground red pepper

3 tablespoons Watkins' black pepper

3 tablespoons sage

3 tablespoons sugar

Mix the spices together and sprinkle over the ground pork. Work it in with hands, then sack the mixture and hang it up in a cool place.