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Monday, November 26, 2012

All I want for Christmas is...BOOKS!

When I was eleven I had the best Christmas ever.  I got a set of five Nancy Drew books, two Trixie Beldon books, and Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.  I was in reading heaven!

I spent most of January curled up by the fireplace with my nose firmly planted in a book. Of course that was probably no different than any other winter.  I have always been a voracious reader and my night stand is often piled high with magazines, books, and articles to read.  And now that I have a kindle...oh my goodness - what a great invention for readers!

The top of my gift list is always something from the bookstore.  I do love reading on my Kindle.  It is much easier to pack ten books on my Kindle than ten physical books, but I still love the feel and look of regular print books.  And books rich in illustration are still best viewed in print version.  At lease in my humble opinion.

So for all of you readers out there - here are some books to add to your gift list.  You will enjoy receiving or giving every one of these great stories.

First on my list is Postcards of St. Charles.  For anyone who lives in the St. Charles area, this is a wonderful Christmas gift.  Arcadia Publishing is known for their amazing photographic histories of American towns and Valerie Battle Kienzle does a fantastic job bringing historic St. Charles to life.  I am of course excited because Valerie is a friend of mine, but friend or not - this is a great book!

I adore mysteries, especially series mysteries.  Once I meet a set of characters I want to visit with them again and again.  Blame it on Trixie and Nancy.  Two series that I have fallen in love with this year are Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen and The Bibliophile Mysteries by Kate Carlise.  Very different settings, but both are great fun to read.

Her Royal Spyness stars Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter to the Duke of Atholt and Rannoch and thirty-fourth in line for the throne of England.  Unfortunately the title does not come with money. She is flat broke, along with the rest of London in the 1930's.  Lady Georgie has to learn to make her way among the commoners and work for her tea and crumpets. Too bad there is a dead count in the bathtub and her brother is accused of murder!  This book is a great combination of mystery and comedy with plenty of fun royal antics.


Homicide in Hardcover is set in modern San Francisco where book restorer, Brooklyn Wainwright saves rare books from mold, mildew, and greedy thieves.  She gets more help than she wants from her hippie new age parents and not enough attention from the cute security agent, but Brooklyn still manages to solve the mysteries and save her beloved books.  I not only enjoy the mysteries in these novels but I also like learning about the art of bookbinding and book making.  Lots of great details about rare books!

Besides Mysteries I also like fantasy books.  Yes, I am a Tolkien fan.  And I really enjoy some of the new fantasy books like the Goblin Wars by Kersten Hamilton.  I know - the goblin wars sounds kind of gross, like zombie wars or something.  But it's not!  Hamilton uses the old myths and legends of Ireland to create a totally different kind of fantasy world of high born goblins and the underworld of Mag Mell. It is one of the most unique fantasy books I have read.  And there's not a single vampire to be found!

If you have children on your Christmas list, I must plug my favorite authors who also happen to be members of my  writing critique group.

For a great Young Adult novel try Kristin Nitz's, Suspect.  Set in Missouri wine country, this homegrown mystery has enough twists and turns to keep the most avid reader guessing.

Mama's Window, by Lynn Rubright, is a wonderful story of a boy's dream to fulfill his Mother's final wish for a stained glass window in their church.  An uplifting story that is perfect for the holiday season.

A delightful non-fiction picture book is Out on the Prairie by Donna Bateman.  Donna writes in perfect rhyme and does impeccable research.  She spent her vacation on the Dakota prairie researching the animals for this book.  It has starred reviews from Kirkus and is a must have for any child's library.

And for a great picture book mystery - that's right - a great mystery for little kids!  Pick up a copy of Jeanie Ransom's What Really Happened to Humpty?  You'll have a great time investigating with Joe Dumpty (Humpty's brother) and laughing at the eggs-ellent puns!

The best place to shop for all your gift book needs? The Main Street Bookstore in St. Charles.  Owner Vicki Erwin and her fine staff will help you select great titles for even the toughest critic.

Merry Christmas and Happy reading to all!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Everything Old Is New Again -- Lard, Rediscovered

By Valerie Battle Kienzle

What’s true of fashion trends often is true of food trends – wait long enough and what was once popular will be popular again.  Such is the case with lard.

By definition, lard is hog fat -- waste pig tissue that has been rendered or processed into more useful products for human consumption.  Sounds disgusting, but that’s what it is.  And it’s been used in food preparation for centuries.

Both of my grandmothers were Depression-era farm wives.  Their families raised hogs and each year slaughtered a few in the cool days of fall.  Cuts of meat from the hogs were preserved or prepared and provided a source of protein for their families in the months ahead.

In addition to providing hams, ribs, roasts, sausage and bacon, the butchering of hogs resulted in a lot of leftover fat and waste tissues.  These leftovers were boiled in huge pots of water over an open fire.  The rendered fat floated to the top of the pot, was skimmed from the water surface and saved as lard.  The lard was then used in the preparation of a variety of other foods, much like many of us today use shortening, oils, butter or margarine.

Large coffee cans filled with lard were regular fixtures near both grandmas’ stoves.  It’s a good thing I didn’t know exactly what that creamy substance was until I was much older.  I was a picky eater, and chances are I wouldn’t have touched much of anything they prepared if I’d paid attention to how often they dipped into those cans.

Grandma Bettye was known throughout her rural community as an outstanding cook.  Preparing large mid-day meals for her family and farm hands was a daily activity.  People still talk about her light, flaky pie crusts.  Her secret ingredient?  Lard.

Grandma Cleo served heaping bowls of vegetables grown in her own garden.  They were seasoned in such a way that others often found difficult to duplicate.  Her secret?  A big scoop of lard.  

Lard composition is mainly fats known as triglycerides.  High triglyceride levels are considered a health risk.  That, along with concerns in recent decades about high cholesterol levels and other dietary concerns, led to a switch from lard to vegetable-based oils in cooking.  Suddenly lard was viewed as unhealthy.

However, in recent years American consumers have become concerned about the health aspects of the trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.  Hydrogenation is a process where an unsaturated oil such as corn oil has hydrogen added to it to cause the creation of hydrogenated fats.  The fats become more solid at room temperature.  Then a few experts recognized that unhydrogenated lard has no trans fat.  It also has less cholesterol and saturated fat than an equal portion of butter.

In addition, a few noted chefs publically acknowledged the positive properties of lard in food preparation (sound familiar?).  This led to increased usage and popularity of lard with food aficionados, or foodies, throughout the world.  And now the use of lard in food preparation is again accepted and applauded.  The New York Times, Food & Wine magazine, Gourmet magazine and The Washington Examiner recently published stories praising the use of lard.  In addition, the editors of Grit magazine and Ogden Publications, Inc., have released a book about lard called, Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient.

The December issue of Southern Living magazine features an article about the art of frying foods.  It states that the secret of successful frying is selecting the right oil, which includes some vegetable oils and, you guessed it, LARD.

Obtaining lard today is much easier than it was in Grandma’s day.  Lard is available for purchase in most groceries in blocks or in cans.  It can be found alongside cooking oils.

So the grandmas were right!  This product, which isn’t at all appetizing when you think about its composition, is the latest trend in the food industry.  Who knew???

Monday, October 22, 2012

God is a Gardner

Some crazy employee at Walmart just marked all the flower bulbs to 60% off.  Of course I bought 100 bulbs. 
Before I put away the toilet paper and shampoo, (the real reason I went to the store) I was in the garden planting my treasures.  It was the perfect day to think about spring.  The Bradford Pear across the street is a deep crimson and my mums are glorious in their purple and yellow flowers.  The squirrels are gathering up the walnuts in the back yard and I can see birds flocking on the telephone wires.  Winter will be here shortly.
Winter is my least favorite time of year.  No flowers to pick and ground too frozen to dig.  I miss sitting in my flower bed plucking weeds and enjoying the smell of wet soil.  Planting bulbs is the perfect cure for the soon to come winter blahs.  I will keep peeking out my window, waiting for the first tips of green to poke through the frosty soil.  Then I will know that warmer days are coming.  Gardening can resume.
When I am gardening I learn many analogies about God and how he takes care of us, and I learned another one today.  I purchased those bulbs knowing full well that Darrell and I plan to put our house on the market early next spring.  If we are fortunate, I will not be living in the house when those 100 bulbs burst from the ground.  Why in the world would I plant 100 bulbs if I’m not going to enjoy them?
Because they are beautiful.
I love gardening because I can work with the beauty that God has created and build a little space that showcases his handi-work.  God has generously created an entire universe of amazing sights, sounds, and smells.  I may never see the entire splendor of his hands, but I know he created it.  And more important, God knows what He has created.  It is all to his glory whether we see the fruits of our labors in this life or never.
I hope I will remember to try to create little spots of beauty in the lives of the people I meet.  I want to plant seed of joy and hope.  Maybe I can garden in the winter.  My soil may just have to be the souls around me.



Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Simple Country Wedding

By Valerie Battle Kienzle
It’s 2012, and the WEDDING concept has changed since I got married in 1980.  Weddings can be as simple, extravagant or unique as the two individuals whose lives are being joined together.  Gone are the days of the must-haves – the engraved invitations and the matchy-matchy bridesmaids’ dresses.  The possibilities today are endless.

Destination weddings, beach weddings and outdoor weddings are popular alternatives to formal ceremonies and sit-down dinner receptions.  A woman I know recently wed on the concrete deck surrounding a large swimming pool.  After the vows were exchanged, the bride, groom and most of the guests jumped into the pool fully clothed, and the celebration began.

Recently my brother Rob and girlfriend Julie wed in what could be described as a tasteful Southern country wedding.  Like their personalities, theirs was a unique celebration of the melding of their lives.

Technology brought them together.  After various failed relationships, they met two years ago through  When they decided to publicly commit themselves to one another, they wanted to create a memorable experience – and they succeeded.

The couple exchanged rings and vows they wrote on the porch steps of a tiny renovated log cabin located on family property in Middle Tennessee.  The rays of the setting sun illuminated their faces like a soft spotlight.  The bride wore a beige mid-calf dress.  She carried a bouquet of flowers picked from her own garden.  The groom wore a black vest and pants.  Both wore cowboy boots.

Guests sat on bales of hay topped with lengths of white linen.  The bales were arranged in semi-circle rows around the cabin’s porch.  Their couple’s parents witnessed the simple ceremony from handmade wooden rocking chairs under a nearby tree.

Following the exchanging of vows, guests helped themselves to beverages iced down in an old bathtub or served from a table make of a repurposed barn door.  Bottled water was available in the front-end scoop of a circa 1950 red tractor.

Forget crystal and wine glasses.  Guests drank from Mason jars.  Appetizers were served from old 33RPM vinyl albums heated and shaped in bowls.  Small tables were made from lace-topped repurposed wooden barrels obtained from a Kentucky distillery.  The tables were accented with Mason jars filled with more flowers from the bride’s garden.

Guests dined on a Southern barbeque dinner with all the fixings – smoked brisket, cowboy beans, potato salad, slaw and broccoli salad.  The wedding cake consisted of a small flower-topped chocolate cake baked by a friend of the bride and three trays of flavored cupcakes made by the bride.

The music of Johnny Cash and other traditional country music legends, plus a dose of classic rock, played in the background.  Strands of tiny white lights provided a soft ambiance in the yard near the cabin.

Many of those in attendance agreed that this was one of the simplest – and most beautiful  -- weddings they’d attended.  It’s amazing what can be done with a small amount of money and a large dose of creativity!


Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Different Look at New York City

By Valerie Battle Kienzle

Last month friend Stephanie and I traveled with our college-age daughters to New York City.  Sporting comfortable walking shoes and cross body purses, we looked like thousands of other tourists who’d traveled there from all parts of the world.  We were anxious to experience the city that never sleeps.

Thanks to, we secured a room at the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for a reasonable (by NYC standards) rate.  We wanted that “grand hotel” experience; it was that and more.  We spent time just wandering through the hallways and ballrooms, carefully studying framed photographs of historic events that have taken place there through the years.

We had dinner in Times Square on a Friday night (unbelievably crowded), saw “The Lion King” on Broadway (amazing costumes and choreography), roamed through Central Park on a Saturday (a beautiful oasis among all the concrete), and wandered through So Ho, Chinatown, Coney Island and The Guggenheim Museum (each could be described as a cultural experience). 

We spent a somber Sunday morning at the World Trade Center Memorial, where the names of the almost 3,000 people who died on September 11, 2001, are engraved around two large fountains built where the twin towers once stood.

We literally walked miles each day, heard an amazing number of foreign languages (local lore says more than 200 languages are spoken in the NYC area) and ate some incredible meals in places like Little Italy.
I’ve visited New York City many times.  I’ve traveled up to the Empire State Building’s observation deck for a bird’s-eye view of the city, and wandered through the different neighborhoods, but for the first time ever I noticed the Old World craftsmanship and architectural details to be found on so many structures throughout the city. 

By the end of the trip, my traveling companions knew that if our foursome became a threesome, I had stopped somewhere to take yet another photo of a gargoyle or an Art Deco building.  They knew I’d soon catch up with them.With childlike wonder, I wandered along sidewalks with my eyes focused up, marveling at the creativity and talent of long-gone unnamed artists.  

So the next time you visit New York, or any older established city for that matter, take time to look up and around.  The main tourist attractions aren't the only items of beauty and interest to be found.  Thousands of nameless and faceless artists left their mark on urban America.  Most of us just never take the time to notice and appreciate their work.