Mae’s Raisin Wine

This is, according to my mother, in Mae’s handwriting.

I have no recollection of anybody drinking this during my childhood. There was always stuff for cocktails in Mae’s pantry, though I’m not sure if Mae drank even socially. But as kids we always got dosed with a medicine made of warm whiskey, honey, and lemon when we were at Mae’s and we were sick.

Maybe this recipe is an old Depression-era artifact.

Anyway, it calls for 3 pounds raisins, 3 pounds sugar, 1/2 yeast (half of what, I can’t tell you), 2 oranges, and 6 quarts of water that has been boiled and then cooled.

The instructions are to mash the raisins, then add sugar and oranges. Let this mixture set for six weeks. Then take off and bottle.

“Take off” what I also can’t tell you. I presume that at some point, you are to add the mashed raisins etc. to that cooled water and put the whole thing up in some kind of container, although the recipe as given skips those specifics.

Obviously I haven’t tried this, and I’ve never made any kind of beverage at home that needed fermenting, so I am ignorant about how those specifics might go. But if you know, please share!

See the Family Recipes directory here.

Letters to Lily: Baby Chickens

Dear Lily,

We have a whole bunch of chickens, and usually when chickens are going to hatch baby chicks, they do that in the springtime when it’s warm. But for some reason, this crazy hen got it into her head that she was gonna hatch chicks in the fall.

And a chick just hatched today! I wish you could see it. It’s very small and fuzzy and really cute and curious about the world. Baby chicks like to stay very warm when they’ve just hatched, and so they spend a lot of time sitting under their mama’s wing in the pine shavings and feathers that the mama made the nest out of. But this chick chirps *all the time* and it’s so loud that I can hear it even though the sound is muffled by the mama’s feathers and the pine shavings. And it pokes its head out to see what’s going on all the time. You can see it peeking out here.

Its mama’s name is Gwen, short for Guenevere. We don’t have a name for the chick yet. What do you think we ought to name it? Maybe you’ll get to come see it one day soon.

Good night, Lily.

love, your grandmother

Nanny’s Crawfish Puffs

For y’all younger cousins/grandkids/etc., Nanny Laclos is Dio and Julia’s marraine (godmother). This recipe came to Grandma via Nanny’s daughter Janice Hebert, according to the note on the recipe card.

12 frozen puff pastry shells1 1/2 sticks butter
1 tablespoon tomato sauce1/3 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped bell pepper2/3 cup chopped onion
1 pound cleaned crawfish tails1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper1/8 teaspoon red pepper
1/2 teaspoon saltdash of fine black pepper
1 1/2 heaping tablespoons corn starch1 1/3 cups water
1/4 cup chopped parsley2 cups grated processed cheese
1/4 cups crushed sliced almonds2 tablespoons parsley

Preheat oven to 350. Bake pastry shells per directions. Set aside.

Cook all veg in butter. Add seasonings. Cook 15 minutes.

Make corn starch paste in water and add to crawfish. Cook until thick.

Add cup parsley. Mix well and remove from heat.

Fill puffs. Top with cheese and crushed almonds. Return to oven a few minutes. Top with parsley and serve while hot.

See the Family Recipes directory here.

The Magnificent Dickhead Joe

RIP, my good boy. You were the best rooster we ever had and you should have lived a lot longer.


Joe was not, in fact, a dickhead at all. He was a great rooster. Before my daughter struck out on her own, she helped us name the members of the flock we’d inherited from the former residents. There was Mangy Carl, Tank, Hawkeye, Dickhead Joe – colorful names inspired by her colorful imagination but not necessarily by any particular personality trait of the chickens themselves.

He was the last of the original flock. I think it must have been dogs that got him, probably the same ones that were on the property a few months ago and killed the last of the original hens, Dolly. We also lost Hi-Top and Pepper this year, and whatever got Joe also got his son Pretty Boy (we aren’t as creative as my daughter when it comes to chicken names). It’s been a really rough year for chickens.

People who live in the country and let their dogs roam around at will *suck.* I can’t walk my dog on the road on a leash because nobody will confine their dogs behind fences, and my dog weighs 70+ pounds, has very long teeth, and doesn’t let go once she gets a grip. If there were a fight, I couldn’t break it up by myself. And apparently I can’t let my chickens scratch around in the woods 50 feet from my front door, either, not without risking corpses. Those dogs are gonna get shot one day – not by me, but by somebody, and those dogs are just being dogs. They deserve better people. I deserve better neighbors. Joe deserved a longer life.

He saved all his girls, though. He was a good boy. I miss him horribly.

Letters to Lily: Froggy Went a-Courtin’

Dear Lily,

I doubt you’ve gotten to know my father, your great-grandfather Glenn at all, either, since the world is still all crazy. Used to be most of the family would meet up at my grandma’s house for dinner every single Sunday afternoon. We saw each other all the time, at least if we lived in the same city. And even if we didn’t, we saw each other at least once a year – maybe at Thanksgiving or at Christmas, or maybe even at a special birthday party for some really cute little baby or another.

But this past year, we didn’t get to see each other at Thanksgiving or at Christmas, and that’s just the weirdest thing ever for our family. And then I heard you had your first birthday party, but I guess it was just your mom and dad and your other grandparents, ’cause I didn’t get to see you or make you a cake, and neither did your great-grammy Margaret who makes cakes 50 times better than mine. Well, I hope somebody made you a cake that didn’t come out of a box or from the grocery store and I hope you got some cool presents. And I hope you get to meet the other side of your family soon.

Your ma’am’s grandfather, my father, has played guitar most of his life, and just about all of us played some instrument or another at least sometimes growing up. I did, and so did your ma’am, though I have a feeling she hasn’t touched her violin for a couple of years now. So we grew up around lots and lots of music, and we know lots and lots of songs, and we sing lots of them to cute little babies whenever we get to see them.

So if the world was being normal right now, you’d have already heard lots of these songs a bunch of times by now. I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard any of them, though. I’m having a hard time picturing your mom singing them to you. But who knows, maybe she did.

When I was little, one of the songs my father used to play a lot was a song called “Froggy Went a-Courting.” It was one of my favorites, and just in case I never get to know you and you never get to hear your great grandfather play it, either, I wanted to make sure you still knew about it.

Sometimes you will find the story of the frog who courted Miss Mousie in picture books. Here’s one example:

from New York Public Library Digital Collections

I believe that must be Miss Mousie with the bow on her butt, her Uncle Rat in the dapper pinstripe pants, and that leaves Mr. Froggie standing, hand on his heart, nearly overwhelmed with what must be something like the vapors and having unaccountably left his tophat upside down in the middle of the floor.

He’s a much snazzier fellow, though, than this next guy, don’t you think? This one is far lumpier and is a decidedly unattractive shade of yellow. He looks as if he might have a sock full of mushy peas shoved into his waistband, and I’m seeing at least a parking ticket, if not a moving violation, in his near future. You will not convince me that he is duly licensed to operate that salamander.

I do rather like the feather in his cap, though.

from New York Public Library Digital Collections

Anyway, the version I heard growing up was very close to this. This is Doc Watson singing and playing “Froggy Went a-Courting,” and this is just one of a bunch of Doc Watson songs we grew up with. He’s something of a family hero. I’m surprised we never named a dog after him.

Now your ma’am is likely to object on principle on account of her hating acoustic guitar music, so she says. (She thinks she’s being rebellious, I suspect. I went through a phase like that too. It passed.) Here’s why you can’t let her get away with that:

This is your mother at about your age, helping her grandaddy play the guitar.

And here she is crashed out on the sofa, all worn out …*from dancing.*

I hope I get to see you soon and I hope you get to hear your great grandfather play you some songs on his guitar.

Goodnight, Lily.

love, your grandmother

Grandma’s Fruit Cobbler

This is a really simple but really good fruit cobbler recipe. If you have fresh blueberries from the garden or farmer’s market, it shows them off without hiding them under a bunch of glurge. If you have fruit that’s kind of beat-up looking but still fine to eat, this highlights the flavor and nobody will know about the bruises. Nothing but some canned mixed fruit that nobody is going to eat? This recipe is brilliant with it and it will get eaten. In fact, the only fruit I have met that this recipe couldn’t “fix” was canned mango. I had to give that to the chickens, and the chickens didn’t actually seem too impressed. But when I’ve made it with *anything* else, everybody I’ve served it to has devoured it.

As given in Dio’s scrapbook:

1 cup flour1 cup sugar
1 cup milk1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 stick butter

Preheat oven to 400 (F). Melt butter in baking dish. Mix remaining ingredients together. Pour over butter. Add sweetened fruit. Bake for 40-45 minutes.

“Melt butter in baking dish” means put the stick of butter in the baking dish and put it in the oven while it’s preheating. By the time it’s preheated, your butter should be melted, or just about.

Obviously this is not the hot-jam-with-biscuits-on-top type of cobbler. If you use canned fruit and pour the juice or syrup in too, you’ll arrive more at dumpling texture than biscuit texture. And then there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities in between, depending on how much fruit you use and what kind.

HOW MUCH FRUIT: And no, it doesn’t say how much fruit to put in. The answer is basically “whatever you have” (or “until it looks right“). I have made this with several cups of blueberries and I’ve made it with a single small can of canned peaches. You can’t really go wrong. (Except with mango.)

SWEETENED FRUIT: What constitutes sweetened fruit will probably be a matter of personal taste. This is plenty sweet enough if you use canned fruit. I do not drain the water/juice or syrup that the fruit comes in when I use canned fruit, and if you do it like that, you’ll probably find you can get away with less than a cup of sugar in this recipe. In any case, I wouldn’t add any extra sugar with canned fruit.

In fact, I don’t sweeten any fruit I put in here with the exception, sometimes, of fresh berries, and only if the berries are the only fruit going into it. And then that usually just means the whole thing gets a sprinkling of sugar on top that’s honestly mostly for show – a little lemon sugar to top a blueberry cobbler, for instance. This is a moist cobbler anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if your available fruit isn’t already sitting in its own juices. So where you might sprinkle your fruit with some sugar and maybe a little cornstarch ahead of time to get a nice, thick fruit “soup” in a different cobbler recipe, that doesn’t make much difference in this recipe.

BUTTER VS. MARGARINE: I have tried this with margarine when someone was sent to the store for butter and came back with a tub of the pale yellow abomination because some people were raised by wolves.* I think it was absolutely disgusting: the texture/mouthfeel was all wrong, and it wouldn’t melt in the baking dish like the butter will, and it definitely tastes like margarine and not butter, so I just don’t recommend it. But I suppose it can probably be done if you really want to do it. Other people liked it and one of those people has accused me of being a baking snob, so I guess YMMV.**

*Same person who was sent to the store for cheese and came back with … something shredded and orange. Nowhere on the packaging did the word “cheese” appear, not even in the weaselly phrase “cheese food product.”

**I’m really not a baking snob. In fact, I’m probably the worst baker in my family. My daughter was a better baker than I am by the time she was 12 (and probably before). I was just raised in a family that doesn’t do boxed cake, and I currently live with people who might wax rhapsodic about baked goods that you can buy at the gas station. So in my opinion, I’m not so much a snob as I am simply not a philistine.

See the Family Recipes directory here.

the unflower mind, take two

More fiddling around with a public-domain-based recreation of the little book of proverbs featured in our last installment of the Adventures of Jo Pantha and Maggie: The Early Years. Still not great, but getting better, I think.

I have a lot of trouble turning what’s on my screen in the image editor into a properly-sized, printable, and legible physical object. I did finally succeed in turning this one into a “greeting card,” but it was a tiny little greeting card – honestly probably better described as a gift tag lol

So I’ve turned it into a PDF now in hopes that it won’t somehow be a different size every time I print or save it, and in theory we’re now closer to normal greeting card size. If (for some reason I can’t fathom) you want a copy of it, here’s a PDF version downloadable below that you should be able to print and fold to make your own little greeting card. Or gift tag. Or whatever.

(I printed on a half sheet, 8.5 x 5.5, and so I had to trim a few inches of white space off one end before I folded it. I think I should have trimmed a few millimeters off the other end, too, though. Well, work in progress, I suppose.)

Letters to Lily: Heffalumps and Woozles

Dear Lily,

When your ma’am was a little girl, we didn’t have anything like cellphones or tablets or computers we could take anywhere we went, and for a long time, she and I didn’t even have a television set. We just read books and listened to music and played when we were home. I had never wanted a TV because I was of the opinion that watching very much of it turned people into idiots.

But when we moved to Germany, it would still be dark outside when we left the house to go to your mother’s daycare in the morning, and in the winter, it would already be dark when we finally got home, too. And there would be snow everywhere, and let me tell you, Lily, snow is only pretty in the postcards and picture books. In real life, snow gets really dirty just as soon as the sun comes up and people and cars and animals start moving around , and a lot of it will melt and turn into patchy puddles mixed with patchy ice, and it will all be dirty and gray and muddy and freezing cold and it will look like that as long as it’s still sitting there. Snow really sucks.

So we couldn’t really play outside as much as we used to. And your ma’am would get bored while I was cooking dinner or studying or doing office work. So we got a TV when we moved to Germany.

Now it didn’t get any channels, and even if it had, they wouldn’t have been playing anything little American kids liked most of the time anyway. So when we wanted to watch something, we had to pick out a tape to put in the VCR player. We had a lot of tapes after a while, but your ma’am really liked to watch the same few tapes over and over and over again.

For example, she liked Winnie the Pooh an awful lot, as you can probably gather from the picture. But we only had one or two different Winnie the Pooh tapes. So it wasn’t too long before your ma’am had the entire thing memorized and I would get the songs stuck in my head and could never get them out.

One of our favorites was “Heffalumps and Woozles.” And I was wondering the other day if you’ve even heard “Heffalumps and Woozles” or if you’ve even seen any Winnie the Pooh. Well, honestly, you’re only one – you don’t need to have seen any Winnie the Pooh yet. (I am still of the opinion that too much TV turns people into idiots. Lazy ones with lousy cardiovascular health and quite often crappy posture.) But the music? You should definitely be listening to cool music already, and this one is a classic of its era.

You can watch it on YouTube (but I bet your mother remembers most of the words and could sing it for you if she wanted to… but I realize I don’t even know if your mother sings to you or not).

I know she remembers it because I used to call her gram’s dogs, Beau and Ziggy, the Heffalump and the Woozle respectively.

This is Ziggy the Woozle. At this point in his life, he had his own sofa. If you were careful, you could pet Ziggy once. If you were extra careful, you could pet him twice. But if you tried to pet him three times, he’d bite you. (Well, everyone except your mother. She could pet him however much she wanted.) It wasn’t really his fault, though. It was on account of his Evil Tail. But that will have to be a story for another letter.

I can’t find a picture of Beau the Heffalump to show you yet. I’ll come back and add it here when I find it.

And your dog Rocket? Rocket is definitely a woozle. (My dog Roo is a heffalump.)

Watch out for the Woozles, Lily, and give Rocket a big old hug and kiss for me. I miss her so much, and I hope I get to spend time with both of you one of these days really soon.

Good night, Lily.

love, your grandmother

Letters to Lily: Horses and Carnivals

Dear Lily,

I told you in my letter about Grandma Conner’s horse named Ruby that I would tell you two more stories about horses. It took me a really long time to find the picture I was looking for for one of them, though, and without the picture, your mother would deny it until kingdom come.

This is your ma’am having a pony ride. This was when we lived in Baumholder, Germany. She was about two years old, and we would always go on adventures when we lived in Germany, your mother and I. And in Germany, adventures were pretty easy to find. Sometimes we’d go to the park and there would suddenly be pony rides and games there just because!

That’s what happened this day. We went to go play in the park and when we got there, there was that nice man with the really sweet, gentle pony, and there were other kids, and games to play, and somebody was even grilling sausages, and we had a whole lot of fun and we didn’t even expect all that.

Sometimes we’d go down the hill to the part of the village where the bakery was, and there would suddenly be a carnival there that wasn’t there the day before and wasn’t going to be there tomorrow.

Some weekends we’d decide to take the train to Frankfurt to go see dinosaur bones, or go to see a real castle in Heidelberg or Trier. We’d just get on the train or get in the car and go to a castle!

Once we went to the park and there were a bunch of knights and kings and queens all dressed up in pretty clothes and armor, having swordfights and jousting contests. We walked all around there and watched them for a long time.

Or sometimes we would go to visit your mom’s pet boar.

I’m just kidding – it wasn’t really her pet. But it liked her a lot and would follow her around whenever we visited the petting zoo – and we went a lot! We went everywhere together, and there were lots of places to go. It was a really cool place to live and a really cool place to be a little kid. I hope you get to visit Germany someday.

And if you turn a corner and see a carnival and pony rides, make your ma’am let you have a turn and don’t believe her when she says horses are evil, ’cause it’s not true, and secretly, she knows that 🙂

Good night, Lily.

love, your grandmother

Adventures of Jo Pantha and Maggie, the Early Years: Losing the Un-Flower Mind

I have a little book, Springs of Indian Wisdom, published by Herder Book Center New York, copyright 1965 Leobuchhandlung. Its title page promises that it contains the wisdom of Aurobindo, Gandhi, Hitopadesa, Ramakrishna, and Tagore. From poking around on the internet, I suspect it once had a hardcover enclosing a spiral binding, but all that’s left for a cover now on this one is the title page, and at the final page, this dedication:

I don’t know when exactly this was given as a gift, but I’m tentatively placing it between 1965 and 1970, so the very end of what I’m calling “the early years,” right when our heroines are at the cusp of full-fledged adulthood. And I have absolutely no idea what an un-flower mind is, but perhaps this little book will give us a clue, window as it is into some of the later early adventures of Jo Pantha and Maggie.

This book is still under copyright, and there aren’t that many pages, so I should probably only share one or two as a sample. Most pages consist of some proverb or quote set in what is perhaps meant to be a decorative faux-Sanskrit-esque font and accompanied by simple artwork resembling block printing, like so:

However, a few of the quotes are accompanied by really beautiful, brightly-colored paintings of flowers. Near as I’ve been able to tell, these paintings are public domain – they’re reproductions of Mughal style miniatures from various extremely old sources. (I’ve been able to locate some of them elsewhere and confirm they’re out of copyright.)

So what I’m doing is essentially reproducing these by finding public domain flower miniatures to slap these quotations onto, and I’m turning them into greeting/thank you cards that I’m sending family members. Here’s my first one. I’m not super happy with the resolution on the frame – this painting didn’t have a frame, so I had to Frankenstein one from a different painting – and I’m still working out the kinks on some of this. I’m no artistic genius and I couldn’t use any graphic design/photo editing software at all as of this time last year, so I still have a lot to learn. Also, the font is meh… working on finding something affordable (read: free) that gets us a little closer to the original aesthetic, too. So consider it a draft:

Now the book attributes this quotation only to “Indian Wisdom,” the publisher’s version of “anonymous,” I suppose. Near as I can tell from my research into the Vedic sacred texts, however, credit for this quotation actually belongs to the Beach Boys. But I suppose one takes inspiration where one can find it. No judgment here.

(Ok, only a little judgment lol)

I’m going to keep playing around with these, though, as I suspect they may hold they key to what Jo Pantha meant by “losing your un-flower mind.” So stay tuned for the next chapter of “The Adventures of Jo Pantha and Maggie” (or: “Karma incurs some bad karma by making fun of Vedic proverbs”).

Letters to Lily: Christmas

I thought there was a small chance I might get to see you at least in passing this Christmas, but it turns out we couldn’t go anywhere at all because one of the guys Mike works with got sick with COVID. We had to stay home until we could see the doctor and be sure we weren’t sick, too. So we couldn’t even go to the grocery store for a few days. I had made cheesecake cupcakes, a lot of them, to bring to your great-grammy’s house. Since we couldn’t go after all, you know what we ate for basically two days? That’s right, cheesecake cupcakes! I still like them but it’s ok with me if I don’t have them again for a few months.

I hope you had a good Christmas. You’re still a little young to have asked for a pony, but by next year you should be big enough to. And I think you should really make it count, just aim for the bleachers with this one.

So don’t just ask for a pony – ask for a gingerbread Christmas goat. That you can ride.

Oh, and a drum set. Every toddler needs a drum set, don’t you think? *I* do :).

I found a book that you need for your Christmas present, but I understand you’ve moved and I don’t have the address you’ve moved to. I’m hoping your Aunt Pascale can get it for me so I can send something for both you and Rocket. (Rocket’s gonna need a Thunder-shirt for the New Year’s Eve fireworks noise, poor baby.)

Good night, Lily. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I don’t guess it’ll ever really matter to you that I missed an entire year of your life since you can’t remember it anyway, but I always will 😦

love, your grandmother

Letters to Lily: Hold Fast To What I Give Ya

Dear Lily,

I wanted to tell you about your great-great-great grandmother Mary Louise Hall. Her daughter Mary is my grammy and your mother’s great grammy. Everybody calls her Grandma, though. This is a picture of you and Grandma.

So Grandma’s mother was named Mary, too, but everybody called her Mae. Mae lived in Pensacola, Florida her whole life, and that was a really long time, because she lived to be 100 years old.

This picture was taken sometime around 1920. That’s her bathing suit she’s wearing – they are going to the beach. And that’s what cars looked like back then.

Mae was so much fun. She used to play games with us and tell us all kinds of stories. One game she played with us when we were little was called “Hold Fast To What I Give Ya.” You had to hold your hands in front of you with your palms together like you’re praying, and then Mae would do the same thing, except she had something hidden between her hands. And she would slide her pressed-together hands in between yours a few times, saying “hold fast to what I give ya!” every time she did it. And you would have to pay attention and be ready to hold tight onto whatever it was she had in her hands when she was ready to let go.

Sometimes it was a stick of gum or a piece of candy. Sometimes it was a dime or a nickel or even a quarter. (This was in the 1970s and 1980s – a quarter was a big deal to us kids back then. It used to buy a whole lot more than it can buy now!)

I don’t remember Mae ever tricking us with that game and giving us anything gross or weird, like a Brussels sprout or a burnt-out match or a dead lizard, but I think it would have been *absolutely hilarious* if she had done that. Maybe I’ll pick the tradition back up for you and Teddy if I ever get to see you again. Maybe I will have the occasional cruciferous vegetable or desiccated amphibian or dog treat mixed in with the quarters and the sticks of gum.

Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have tipped my hand here. I might have to come back later and edit this letter so I don’t give anything away!

Good night, Lily.

Love, your grandmother

Letters to Lily: Wiyld Thengs

Dear Lily,

I was cleaning up some old papers and found this drawing your mother made at some point when she was a little girl.

I have no clue what this was about or what class it was for or what exactly is supposed to be happening here. I’m pretty sure the first figure with the ears is Max from Where the Wild Things Are. And that probably means the blonde person’s utterance is “wiyld theng” (i.e. “wild thing”).

I don’t remember any other people being in Where the Wild Things Are. Maybe your mother drew herself recognizing the characters and that’s her. Or maybe that’s how your mother pictured Max’s mom.

But then Max turns into a blue gummy bear and the blonde person turns into a purple pterodactyl? Or maybe the blonde person just left or Max already sailed away and these are totally different monsters and not Max and the blonde person. What do you think?

And then the purple pterodactyl turns into Gengar with one huge arm and … is that an arm? A wing? I’m not really sure. But at the end, looks like Max and Giant-Headed Gengar are happy even though they’re both saying “No!” And looks like Max’s head is tiny, he lives in a teacup, and he has Pikachu lightning whiskers. But we know it’s him because his teacup has his name on it. And Giant Headed Gengar… well, you’ll have to ask your mother.

I heard you’re walking now.  You’ll be a year old soon. I don’t guess there’ll be a birthday party, or if there is, that I’d be invited to it. People still have to stay out of crowds and wear masks everywhere and limit the number of people they come in contact with. And I haven’t been lucky enough to make the cut for who gets to see you yet, so I guess I just have to keep waiting.

Good night, Lily.

Love, your grandmother

Gopher Turtle Soup

I don’t have a family recipe for this one, and I have a hard time imagining anyone clamoring for one. And in any case, gopher tortoises are now threatened and under federal protection in much of this region, so you shouldn’t eat them or alligator snapping turtles, which most old recipes for turtle soup in this region would have called for. But I include this anyway as a part of family history/legend.

The story I have always heard goes that one day, Mae’s kids and grandkids sat down for supper at her house, having been told they were having stew. The kids didn’t really know what they were eating until one of them pulled a turtle flipper out of their soup bowl. The kids were shocked and traumatized.

Janie has given me more details. She says Uncle Billy had two gopher turtles that he kept at Mae’s house. The kids had been taking care of those turtles and feeding them lettuce. To the kids, they were pets, and one day they were gone, and then there was stew for dinner.

And then there was a flipper in the soup. Nobody was very hungry after that, Janie says.

But now my mother tells me that her cousin Pat says they knew what it was ahead of time and the story must have been embellished for dramatic effect in the telling all these years, to most effectively deliver the payload of “and then he pulled a flipper out of his soup,” so we could all imagine a table full of kids shocked into silence and staring at the flipper held aloft from someone’s soup spoon. Cue dramatic fanfare.

And of course everyone doing the telling is doing so 50 or so years after the fact, so who knows. I think it’s quite possible that some of the kids knew and some didn’t, perhaps depending on how old they were, or maybe Pat and the boys were just eavesdropping around the corner and overheard in advance. We may never know “the true story” now, but I don’t suppose that’s really the point anyway.

Anyway, here’s an article in Saveur by Jack Hitt on the history of turtle soup (aka cooter stew), turtle hunting, and the American taste for meat more generally.

And here’s a story in Slate by David Steen that responds to the Saveur article. It explains the status of a few different turtle populations, which ones are illegal, which ones are threatened in the wild but can be had farm-raised, and why it’s probably a bad idea to capture and eat them even when it’s legal (snapping turtles can live for decades – all the while, they’re absorbing our pollutants, so a 50 year old snapping turtle can test positive for high concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls, for instance, which were banned in 1979 and are horrendous for our health).

I went looking for a creative commons or public domain image I could use, but in the context of this story, they were all kind of awful, by which I mean they featured cute turtles, and I’m not trying to further traumatize anyone. So you’ll just have to use your imagination.

Family, if you have anything to add here, please do!

House Rules

I think this should put an end forever to anybody staying here, sitting on their ass, and then when I get mad, protesting that they didn’t know I wanted them to help around here or I never came and told them what to do. What do you think? Is any of it unclear?

Welcome to our house. It’s time to adjust your perspective.

A few people who have stayed with us have an open invitation to come back any time. But a significant number of them have been kicked out instead. If you’d like to avoid getting kicked out, pay attention.

If you’re staying here, you are now a member of a little community. You need to think of yourself that way and think of this place that way. You are in our house but you’re also on our farm and in our shop and studio, where we make a living. Don’t just try to offset the precise number of forks and sheets of toilet paper you’ve used. You need to offset the disruption that your being here causes. Contribute constructively and proactively. Learn how things work. Make things go better. Make our lives easier, not harder.

The way your last roommates did it or the way you were raised is probably NOT how we do things here. We probably have different expectations. It’s your job to learn, observe, ask questions, and figure out how to fit into this community and contribute to its improvement. We’re incredibly busy and we can’t afford to support you or tutor you, so you need to hit the ground running. We have our own obligations and problems and responsibilities, so while we might be sympathetic to yours, they will not outweigh ours.

We aren’t looking for a roommate. We weren’t looking for someone to split the bills with. We don’t need you here, so show us why we *want* you here. This requires YOU to consider our perspectives, pay attention, take initiative, and follow through. Ask what you can do to help, clean things that need cleaning, ask where they go and how you should handle them. It’s on you to be concerned about what we have going on and how you are helping. Do that and we can all be happy you’re here. Fail to do that and you will be asked to leave, and not with two weeks’ notice.

This is a working farm. Maintaining and improving the house and land is a huge part of how we pay rent. We work very hard and we work every day, usually for at least 14 hours a day. We don’t sit on our butts sucking up air conditioning and we don’t see why you should, either. This is not a bed and breakfast or weekend getaway. You stay here, you work.

This is true even if you are giving us cash for bills, because work on the house and land was in our written and verbal lease negotiations when we moved here. It is a requirement of our living here. And if you are not giving us cash for rent and bills, you need to show some initiative that much faster and plan to spend more time working around here accordingly to pull your weight.

Nobody here has the time to give you a printed list of chores or tell you every day what you need to do next or supervise you or remind you. Every minute spent doing that is a minute taken away from something else. If you walk on the floor, it will need sweeping. If you use the bathroom, it will need cleaning. If you use the microwave, it will need wiping down. Don’t wait to be asked to pitch in. If we have to seek you out to ask you to help, you’re making more work for us.

Every square inch of space you use could be going to a different purpose (and probably was before you got here). Make us want to keep on letting it be yours instead. Earn it. Prove that we’re not better off storing tools in that space instead of making room for your things. Show us that you will make a better use of those square feet than our dog will if we designate that her nap and toy area. (Our dog has already proven herself as a member of this community and contributed a lot to it. You haven’t yet.)

Mike and I do not have “days off” and “vacations.” This is a farm. Animals and plants and land don’t take days off or have vacations. They must be tended daily. If Mike and I took a vacation, we’d have to hire somebody to tend things. It would not be housesitting – it would be skilled manual labor. Three hours a day inside the house and three hours a day outside the house is a VERY LOW estimate of average weekly upkeep time required to keep this place going. Then there are utilities.

So if you aren’t doing your fair share of work, you will owe us $200 per day for our labor that goes to keeping a roof over your head and keeping the AC and water on. This figure does not include food, beverages, soap, detergent, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, or wear and tear on utensils, carpets, furniture, bedding, hardware, floors, appliances, or my nerves.

Maybe from your perspective, you’re starting with a clean slate and we’re just all getting to know each other. But from our perspective, you’re not the first or the 10th or even the 20th person we’ve had to clean up around and make space for and adapt to. You may have only used a little bit of power and water and moved a couple of things around in the kitchen, but we’ve had to ask somebody where they put our stuff, pay $50 water bills, and tell people not to put wet things on the wooden table plenty of times already this year.

You absolutely do have something to prove here. You have to earn our trust and your keep. You are not entitled to anything here by default — not resources, not space, and not our time or energy or consideration for your comfort. You don’t deserve to enjoy the benefits of our labor just because you exist. We have had people staying here who’ve lied to us, stolen from us, created drama and conflict, disrupted our work and lives, brought sketchy people around, and generally not bothered to think about anybody but themselves. That stuff has a cumulative effect. Our patience doesn’t get reset when a new person comes in.

So you need to act right and prove yourself. If you don’t, you will not be enabled to sit around here sucking up resources in peace and quiet. It will be unpleasant for all of us – I promise.

But if you do, you’ll be welcomed with a smile and an open door. We will have your back in a pinch. I even bake cookies occasionally. And you just might join the ranks of the very few who have been warmly invited to come back any time they need to.


If you act sketchy and it makes the dog nervous, you’d be wise to treat it as an important problem that you need to solve and prevent from happening again.

Do not yell at the dog, push her, hit her, knee her, kick her, etc. Do not even accidentally step on her tail without apologizing to her, modulating your voice so she understands your emotions, and making sure you are right with her. Her opinion of you matters more than your opinion of her right now.

Be aware of the volume of your voice and your music. We don’t want to hear your phone call or your favorite jam unless we’ve said we do. If you wake one of us up and it’s not an emergency, we’re gonna wake up really cranky. Nobody wins when that happens.

Don’t touch our laundry. If our stuff is in the washer when you want to use it, ask us what the deal is. Do not take it out of the washer and do not wash it or dry it without asking first.

Do not smoke cigarettes inside the house.

Do not use perfumes, colognes, air fresheners, scented hairsprays, scented candles, Febreze, or scented cleaning products that were not already here without asking first. Your doing so is not just annoying and inconsiderate; it can be a threat to my livelihood and/or health.

Do not touch the thermostat or leave doors or windows open without asking.

Do not touch the cast iron without asking.

If you’re going to take a shower that lasts longer than it takes you to take a dump, make sure nobody else needs to or was about to use the bathroom first.


More notes toward gumbo genealogies

Finally transcribing the handwritten notes I took at the last family gathering (Grandma’s birthday at the end of February this year).

above one section, I wrote the phrase “never written down.” That refers to Mae’s’s gumbo recipes, right?

Mae put allspice balls in her chicken gumbo and so did Grandma, according to my mother. My mother does not because she doesn’t like them. I also wrote “also oysters,” but I don’t know if that referred to Mae or not.. I do remember Grandma’s gumbo with oysters.

I think we were definitely saying Grandma’s gumbo recipe didn’t ultimately hail from either what we’d call the Creole camp or the Cajun camp decisively. Matter of fact, I suspect the recipe at any given moment had a lot more to do with what was easily available and inexpensive rather than with any kind of gumbo ideology. Her family had been in Pensacola for a good while at that point and it makes sense to me that Pensacola might have its own distinct character or distinctions or divisions, perhaps. And seafood was cheap and plentiful, and sassafras grew wherever. And probably most folks had more than one gumbo recipe to fit available ingredients, seasons of the year, company dinner size, whether or not it’s Lent, etc.

The only thing all these family recipes seem to agree on with gumbo is the roux. I don’t think they even all agree on whether or not to serve it with rice.

I mean, Mae made okra gumbo with tomatoes that Aunt Betsy remembers as being quite thick. She also made chicken gumbo and seafood gumbo. If I wrote this all down correctly, that is at least three distinct gumbo recipes.

But on the next page I wrote that Aunt Betsy said that Mae made chicken and oyster gumbo and that was thinner and used file (imagine an accent ague there on that e, sorry). [Do I have *this* right, family?] So is that 1. chicken and oyster gumbo and 2. seafood gumbo with okra and tomato? Or something else? Mom said Mae made her own file (accent ague), ground the leaves in a Mouli grinder, and that she (Mom) has one. Of course I had to google what that was.

I wrote down that Grandma never used tomatoes (or okra) in her gumbo. So all of this raised in my mind a pressing question – why did Grandma’s gumbo recipe call for tomato ketchup? And why ketchup and not just tomatoes? And since her recipe seems to involve some deviation from the way her mother and sisters had prepared it in Pensacola, *where did this recipe come from?* That’s what I was dying to know.

So a few things. First, on returning to said recipe, Grandma apparently *did* use tomatoes in her gumbo after all, at least her seafood gumbo. Why did I write down several times that she didn’t? Well, ’cause somebody told me that. Who told me that and why?!

grandma seafood gumbo

Also of note – the “Lea & Perrins” instead of just Worcestershire sounds like her daddy. PaPa always called for it by name and would accept no substitutions. Had to be Lea & Perrins. The dash of Mrs. Dash sounds like Grandma. Grandma put a dash of Mrs. Dash in flippin’ everything.

Second, the gumbo-with-ketchup recipe apparently came from the neighbors. So Aunt Iris and Uncle Tommy McPhillips lived across from Grandma’s house on Victory Drive. Next to them on the corner was Aunt Sarah and Uncle Mike and Aunt Lizzie (who might have been Sarah’s aunt). That’s the Aunt Lizzie of the recipe Aunt Lizzie’s Pound Cake from Dio’s scrapbook.

Iris and Irene Moore were twins who lived down the street. Their mother was Irene Moore. They were relatives of Aunt Iris and Big Irene from around the corner. [Do I have this right, family? This seems… convoluted. Or needlessly repetitive. Or just wrong. or something.]

And the gumbo with ketchup recipe came from Aunt Iris and Big Irene. Now I  should have asked y’all where Iris and Irene were from, because that’s important to the story and history of the gumbo. But if i did ask you and I did get an answer, i don’t seem to have written it down :/

Third, I looked at Aunt Joyce’s again to see if we could trace any patterns at all here, and look at that — KETCHUP.

aunt joyce gumbo 1

aunt joyce gumbo 2

I’m wearing my skeptical face now. Anyway, juice of a lemon in common, most seasonings in common, and in fact she and her sister could have cribbed off each other here, really – theyr’e so similar. But Aunt Joyce used okra as well in this seafood gumbo, no file, yes oysters.

So now the genealogy of the entree of ketchup into the family gumbo no longer seems like the right question. It wasn’t apparently the very odd thing that I was led to believe it was. And now I’m not so sure it matters where those neighbors were from.

Anyway, okra makes sense to me in a gumbo with tomatoes. And I am agnostic on the question of tomatoes more generally. I think both tomato and non-tomato gumbos have their place. But y’all, I still don’t get why the hell you would put ketchup in the gumbo.

Now looking at Grandaddy’s side of the family, his sister Aunt Jean seemed to think like I do – if we are gonna do tomatoes, just make up your mind to do so and figure it out with what you have. I see no evidence she would put in tomato paste AND tomatoes, or tomatoes AND ketchup, or etc.

Jean MeeMa Turner Gumbo Recipe

She’s yes on the okra, yes on the file, dark on the roux, and this is actually a chicken and seafood gumbo – or at least seafood with possibility of chicken. I’m a little wary on the crab boil element, but other than that, this is pretty much how I’d make gumbo (like my mother, I give the oysters a pass). Well, and I would not cook my onion in the microwave. But anyway – I “get” this one. (I have never in my life felt like I could afford all the seafood to make a big old pot of seafood gumbo. So this is all theoretical on my part lol… I only make chicken and sausage gumbo, which I’ll deal with next time I guess.)

Finally, I didn’t get too far with tracking down gumbo ketchup clues with this, at least not yet. But in the looking, I found a ketchup recipe, at least, that was probably copied around 1900 and has survived in the papers of Mobile’s German Relief Association. Apparently ketchup recipes at the time were pretty different to what they are now.

tomato catsup recipe

I imagine our ketchup today is a lot sweeter and tangier and altogether noticeably different. So it’s possible that ketchup in gumbo wouldn’t have seemed as weird then as it does to me now. This is really kinda more like a savory tomato paste or something??

I don’t know. Somebody make this antique ketchup and report back to us!

And if you know why people use modern ketchup in gumbo instead of tomato paste or whatever, please say!


  • Daniels, George. “From the Archives: Cookin’ with History… an Old South Catsup Recipe.” Gulf Coast Historical Review, 1.1, Fall 1985. 79.


For any non-family wandering by actually looking for a recipe, some of these are kind of taciturn or assume you know certain things already on some of the details. If you haven’t ever made gumbo before, you probably want to start with a recipe that explains some more details than these. This one at Scrumptious 
Chef has some good notes that might be helpful.

Letters to Lily: Curtis and the Stubborn Mule

Dear Lily,

At my house, we plant food on a lot of land, too much of it to move the soil around with just a shovel. So when it was time to plant a brand new garden patch, we borrowed a machine called a tiller to help us cut through all the grass and roots and stir up the soil so we could plant our seeds and they would have plenty of room in the soil to grow. I guess you could compare it to a lawnmower – it’s a machine you put gas in and it’s loud when you turn it on, but it works way faster than trying to do everything with just hand tools.

But when your great great grandfather Curtis Conner was a boy living on a farm in Alabama in the 1920s, they didn’t have machines that you could put gas in and start up and make quick work of all your chores. But they didn’t do it all by hand, either. Instead, they had mules to help them. The mule would pull a plow through the field to break up the soil and make rows to plant seeds in. His plow would have looked pretty much like this:

Except that’s two horses instead of a mule. And Ohio instead of Alabama. And the 1890s instead of the 1920s. But the technology was pretty much the same. This image is in the public domain. The photographer was a Miss Julia Jay Coon, who took this around the 1890s before she got married, became a housewife and mother, and apparently stopped doing photography altogether, which is a shame, but that’s the way it used to be when you were a woman of her particular social class and ethnicity. Women had to fight to be able to have their own money and vote and have jobs other than being a housewife and mother (or if you weren’t middle class, being somebody else’s housekeeper and/or nanny). And they did fight. And so now you can be a rocket scientist or the president or the founder of a series of halfway houses for recovering heffalumps and woozles trying to earn their dinner honestly or basically whatever the hell you want to be when you grow up, as long as you keep reading your books and saving your money and being skeptical of the latest social trends. Personally, I encourage you to go to trade school. You definitely should not go to grad school in the humanities – at least not unless you’ve gone to trade school first. Trust your grandmother. I learned this firsthand.

As a boy, Curtis helped on the farm like all his siblings. His sister Jean “Hermione” wrote down her memories of one time 12-year-old Curtis was plowing the corn field with Old Doc the mule pulling the plow. Apparently Doc was a hereditary mule name, because Grandma Conner had a mule named Doc when *she* was little. Aunt Jean explained, “This was in the days of one-mule plows, ten cent cotton, and watermelons cooled in the creek.” And this particular one mule did things at his own pace.

“Move along, Doc!” Curtis urged with a flip of the reins. . . . Doc changed to a slightly faster pace, lowering his head a bit as if deep in thought. “I know what you are thinking, Doc, and don’t you dare try it!” Curtis said.

Doc glanced at Curtis, who was walking barefoot and wearing a straw hat against the sun. As it got hotter, Curtis would fan himself with his hat and Doc would flap his ears and tail. At lunchtime, they found themselves on the far edge of the field, so they had to plow a row on their way back to lunch.

But as Aunt Jean wrote, Doc “had an inner timer of his own.” He seemed to know it was about time for food and water and a lunchtime rest, and he picked up his pace a bit starting back in anticipation. Then about halfway back, he decided it was officially noon and thus officially shortcut time. Aunt Jean wrote,

The shortest way to the house and barn was across the rows. Doc never hesitated. He took the shortcut as he had many times before, cutting across the rows of corn, dragging the plow and Curtis with him. Curtis pulled the reins tight and dug his heels in the dirt.

“Whoa, Doc, whoa!” he demanded, but Doc was not about to listen to a twelve year old boy at twelve o’clock noon. He snorted, flipped his ears, and plowed through five more rows of corn.

“Whoa, you mangy, flap-eared, miserable idiot of a jackass!” Curtis yelled, using all the derogatory words he felt he could use with his parents near enough to hear.

At the edge of the field, Doc stopped and waited for somebody to take off his harness. But Curtis had had enough of that mule. Jean concludes,

But Curtis’ brother Lloyd would have to unhitch the mule, for Curtis threw his hat down and walked away. “I quit,” he declared to Lloyd and to all ears listening. “All that fool mule thinks about all morning is how much fun he is going to have pulling me across the rows plowing up corn!”

I’ll tell you the story of the *other* mule named Doc another time. That mule tried to go ice skating!

Goodnight, Lily.

Love, your grandmother