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At the moment, Tom and I are sitting at the sidewalk tables in front of the BookEnd Café in Boulder, Colorado, soaking up the atmosphere and a large glass of iced black tea. Okay, okay. I also nibbled on a cookie, but I’m on vacation, so it doesn’t count. Anyway, it’s a beautiful day here in Boulder, and it was a beautiful morning at our cottage up in St. Vrain Canyon just outside of Lyons, Colorado.

We arrived at the cottage early yesterday afternoon after spending Sunday night with some good friends in Denver. We had a wonderful time in Denver, and hope—with any luck—to spend another evening with our friends before heading back home, maybe a dinner here in Boulder with them. I’ll let you know.

Meantime, we’re doing as much NOTHING as possible. This morning, doing nothing meant hanging out in the cottage. Yes, the cottage of Shelly’s Cottages fame, the same cottage I wrote about earlier. If you read my post on P.S., it will not surprise you at all that being a guest at Shelly’s involves RULES. Even more rules than we were given when we first made the reservation, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We headed up to the cottage from Denver mid-morning yesterday. According to the official-looking letter we received from Shelly’s prior to our departure from home, check-in time at the cottages is 3 p.m. Considering the no-nonsense tone of the phone conversation with Kim, the owner, when I initially made the reservation and the equally strident tone of the letter, we were a bit nervous about arriving any earlier than we were “allowed,” so we pit-stopped in Boulder to eat a late breakfast and to kill some time. There aren’t many places on the planet more entertaining to hang out and watch the world go by than the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder—which partially explains why we came back this afternoon—but after leisurely morning meal and a slow stroll up and down the mall yesterday, we were tired and ready to get unpacked and settled. We took a deep breath and called Kim to inquire about an early check-in.

Kim was perfectly pleasant. Our cottage wasn’t ready just yet, but if we could wait an hour, she’d finish cleaning it and have it waiting for us. Sweet! An hour was just enough time to grab a few groceries and drive the 20-or-so miles up there. We headed back to the car, found a Whole Foods a few blocks away (imagine finding a Whole Foods in Boulder), and grabbed a grocery cart. The cottage has a full kitchen, so we figured it would be a good idea to bring in breakfast- and lunch-type goodies, making it easier to sloth around until such time we feel compelled to tidy up and leave the cottage this week. As an aside–and in our defense–our lives have been pretty nutty lately, so—at this point—our idea of the perfect vacation is one that involves no dress clothes, no early mornings, and no schedule of any kind. Sweats and flannel pants are required.

Anyway, Whole Foods was packed, so shopping took longer than we expected. Since we were ready to crash for the day, we decided to grab salads at the salad bar at the grocery store to eliminate the need for another stop on our way to the cottage or the need to go scavenging for lunch after getting settled. Elbows out, we navigated our way down each side of the salad bar, filling our re-cycled, totally organic, flimsy-ass paper salad containers, and headed to the front of the store to check out. Thank goodness, I’d had the presence of mind to grab my re-usable grocery bags from the car before entering the store. I would not want to be the lone schmuck standing in line at the Whole Foods in Boulder, CO, the birthplace of all things green and the home of the largest contingent of Green Peace volunteers I’ve ever been accosted by, having to ask to have my groceries sacked in paper or plastic.

After a long wait at the checkout, the two of us and our re-usable grocery bags full of healthy, over-priced chow were headed for the car. Because we hadn’t been to the cottages yet, the trunk was still full of luggage, so we loaded the groceries in the backseat of my car and took off for Lyons (In the wrong direction, but that’s another post. Stupid googlemaps.). Within minutes of leaving the grocery store, I could smell the balsamic vinaigrette on Tom’s salad. “That’s strange,” I thought to myself, but because I was driving, I had to concentrate on going the wrong way out of Boulder. We’d have to deal with the smell later.

Once we were out of the circus that is Boulder traffic, I said aloud, “Man, I can really smell the dressing on your salad.” Apparently, Tom had been thinking the same thing. Without a word, he whirled around in his seat and lifted the offending bag. “Shit,” he mumbled.

Salad dressing was everywhere, including on the leather seat of the car, so we pulled over in a little town outside of Boulder (Niwot for those of you who know the area) to assess the damage and attempt a clean-up with the only thing I had in the glovebox: Windex wipes. Dried-out, nappy Windex wipes. Ugh. Needless to say, it was a feeble clean-up attempt.

So, still going the wrong way (actually, it wasn’t necessarily the wrong way, it was just the loooooong way—I repeat, stupid googlemaps), we got back out on the road, more desperate than ever to reach our destination. As we drove, Tom clung to the dripping salad container (around which the helpful checkout clerk had placed a large, worthless rubber band), grumbling and cursing, periodically threatening to throw the whole mess out the window. After 5 miles or so, we couldn’t take the smell any longer and rolled the windows down. It was about then I got the giggles, then the guffaws. Then we hit road construction.

Thirty long minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of Shelly’s Cottages and leapt from the car, gasping for fresh air. Before we could do anything meaningful about the salad dressing mess, we had to get checked in, so we headed to the office where we were met by a smiling, cheerful Kim who robotically ran through all of the additional rules for staying at Shelly’s that had not already been posted for our viewing pleasure on the website. She concluded her spiel by saying, “ Also, you need to know there are black bears in the area.  In fact, there are often black bears on the property, so NEVER leave any food outside and be sure to place all your trash in the receptacles behind the cottage. Oh! And don’t leave any food in your car.”

“Are you kidding,” I shrieked in my head. “My leather seats are currently marinating in balsamic vinaigrette. My car’s an Italian-panini-sandwich-lover’s dream! Total bear food!” Groan.

Luckily, I was exhausted when we went to bed last night, so I didn’t lie there worrying about a bear eating my car, but I sure as heck checked on it when I finally crawled out of bed about 9:30 this morning.

We drove to Boulder with the car windows down this afternoon, so, with any luck, my car won’t smell like an Italian deli when we get back in it.

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Before I get too far, several of you have inquired about the state of Brian’s digestive tract after the ostrich episode. Suffice it to say even after swigging half a bottle of Pepto Bismol within hours of wrestling the thing down, he didn’t feel normal again until early the next afternoon. Ostrich-on-a-Stick? You might want to think twice. I’m just saying…

Now back to our regularly scheduled posting. Sadly, this will be my last post about the food-on-a-stick available at the Minnesota State Fair. Brian got called back to Kansas City to work on another project earlier than he’d originally expected, leaving more than three dozen skewered possibilities un-sampled. He got home last night in time for dinner, extremely tired and–amazingly enough–hungry. The smart-aleck part of me wanted to fix a meal of fried-everything, but my mom side won out. Stupid mom side. So, instead, he was served lots of fresh fruit and raw veggies. Tom, however, did try to skewer Brian’s serving of meatloaf before carrying it to the table.

Even though he didn’t get to sample everything before leaving, Brian did find several more things to share with us. You’ll never believe a couple of them.

First on the line-up: Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick. He had already sampled this particularly nasty sounding option–and had sworn he would never eat it again–but, at my request, he did find someone else who was eating it and managed to get a picture. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but, sadly, Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick looks just like every other stabbed, battered, and fried grub-on-a-stick offering we’ve already seen. Sigh.

Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick

Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick

The same is true for Mac-and-Cheese-on-a-Stick. Phooey. I really had high expectations for this one, as well as for Spaghetti-on-a-Stick (which Brian never managed to find, but which I found a picture of on the Minnesota State Fair website). Unfortunately, neither is the culinary marvel I imagined. In both instances, it appears the pasta is scooped into a tight ball, dipped in the ever-ubiquitous batter, and deep fried. Are you sensing a pattern here? Even worse, the mac and cheese wasn’t even of the homemade variety. Brian said it tasted just like it came out of a blue box. It’s an OUTRAGE! I have no choice but to assume the spaghetti comes out of a Chef Boyardee can? Honestly!

Mac-and-Cheese-on-a-Stick

Mac-and-Cheese-on-a-Stick

Next up: Nacho-Mama-Dog-on-a-Stick. Pause and say that out loud before continuing. This particular offering isn’t exactly what the name suggests, in as much as there is no traditional hot dog involved. Yes, the “dog” looks like a corndog, and it is, in fact, breaded in cornmeal and deep fried. But where you’d expect to find a frankfurter, you actually find taco meat pressed into the shape of a hot dog…SURPRISE! The faux dog is then piled high with traditional nacho fixin’s, including melted processed cheese food. I was ready to give this entry a few points for its catchy name until I saw the melted cheese food. Velveeta IS NOT CHEESE, people! Geeez!

Nacho-Mama-Dog-on-a-Stick

Nacho-Mama-Dog-on-a-Stick

And what’s a meal-on-a-stick without a dessert-on-a-stick to go with it? In my book, not much. Luckily for fair-goers, there are plenty of speared sweets to pick from. Brian’s choice: Key-Lime-Pie-on-a-Stick, which is strange because Brian doesn’t even like key lime pie. He didn’t like this version either which could mean it actually tastes like the real thing. It could also mean it was just plain awful. Strangely, it appears to be covered in chocolate. I love chocolate, but on key lime pie? What are they thinking?

Key-Lime-Pie-on-a-Stick

Key-Lime-Pie-on-a-Stick

Unfortunately for us, Brian did not sample the Pig Licker, aka Chocolate-Covered-Bacon-on-a-Stick, which several of you asked about, so no picture. Worse luck. The poor boy had actually tried chocolate covered bacon a couple of weeks ago at the Indiana State Fair and just couldn’t make himself go near the stuff again. Understandable. He did, however, man up and give the Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick a go which he says tasted like “a Hot Pocket on a stick.” Overall,very disappointing. He was especially put out when he discovered that the stick in the Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick wasn’t even a proper stick. The pizza folks were spearing their pepperoni-stuffed blob of dough with flimsy-ass disposable chopsticks. Very un-Italian.

Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick

Foot-Long-Pepperoni-Pizza-on-a-Stick

He had no complaints about the Chocolate-Covered-Frozen-Banana-on-a-Stick. In fact, he tweeted, “Chocolate + Frozen Banana = One Happy Kid.”  He does look pretty happy, doesn’t he. I’m guessing he was relieved to be eating something that wasn’t breaded or dipped in batter.

Chocolate-Covered-Frozen-Banana-on-a-Stick

Chocolate-Covered-Frozen-Banana-on-a-Stick

And Brian had absolutely nothing but praise for his next on-a-stick experience. I believe the picture tells you all you need to know.

Beer-on-a-Stick

Beer-on-a-Stick

Clever, is it not? Those crafty folks up in Minnesota have this whole stick business down…really take it all quite seriously…then again…

Brian came home with one more item on a stick, and you’ll never believe what it was. I just hope the folks who were passing these little gems out didn’t put holes in them when they were putting them on the sticks. That could get rather…ummm…sticky.

Condom-on-a-Stick

Condom-on-a-Stick

Kudos to you, son! You survived. Thanks for taking us along on your adventure! I promise to feed you nothing but healthy food the entire weekend…but not on a stick.

According to fair organizers, if it weren’t for the fact that the Texas State Fair runs twice as long as the Minnesota State Fair, the latter would be considered the biggest state fair–attendance-wise–in the country. Based on our conversation last night, I don’t think Brian would argue that claim. He estimates he’s met at least half the people who live in Minnesota plus a number of others who have arrived from neighboring states for the festivities.

Brian, who has attended a number of state fairs in recent years, seems genuinely amazed at how many people are packing the fairgrounds in St. Paul from early in the morning until late in the evening. He is, without a doubt, having fun yakking it up with the fair-goers, but the large crowds do make it difficult for him to slip away from his work to pursue his quest to sample every food-on-a-stick offering at the fair.

Never fear. He’s a Woltkamp and not easily deterred from the task at hand (except, maybe, by pretty girls). He’s a man on a mission, a 23-year-old bottomless pit with an appetite for something more exotic than mere burgers and fries. He’s busy, but, this weekend, he kept his digestive system even busier. So, with a nod to his tenacity and his iron gut, I share with you his findings in the order they were eaten. I hope you yourself are not eating right now.

First up, Meatballs-on-a-stick, a hearty offering of meatballs rolled in garlic bread crumbs, skewered on a stick, and deep fried. Brian declared them “not bad,” but said little else. Obviously, not a terribly memorable option. He made no mention of dipping sauce, but I think, if you’re going to eat one, a bit of marinara on the side might make the thing more palatable. Maybe.

Meatballs-on-a-Stick

Meatballs-on-a-Stick

Next, Scotch-Egg-on-a-Stick. This one is definitely novel. According to Brian, a hard-boiled egg is impaled on a stick, encased in sausage, hand-dipped in a batter tasting strongly of nutmeg, and finally deep fried to a golden brown. His assessment: “intense.” He seemed particularly put off by the nutmeg. If you ask me, that’s the least of this dish’s problems.

Scotch-Egg-on-a-Stick

Scotch-Egg-on-a-Stick

On to the next offering: a Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick. Amazingly enough, this one is not fried. It’s served cold and is exactly what the name and the picture suggest. A Twinkie, punctured by a Popsicle stick, covered in butterscotch. Brian wasn’t impressed. Specifically, he called it “gross.” Wouldn’t you think that at some point the folks as Hostess would get tired of having their snack cakes defiled?

Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick

Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick

After the sugar rush from the Butterscotch-Twinkie-on-a-Stick, Brian opted for a truly unique–and savory–offering found only at the Minnesota State Fair: Hot-Meal-on-a-Stick. And here, I must give the good folks of Minnesota their due. Just when you think there cannot possibly be any other way to combine meat, tater tots, and a can of cream-of-fill-in-the-blank soup into another casserole or repast of any kind, the clever cooks up there devise Hot-Meal-on-a Stick, the extremely popular offering in which meatballs and tater tots are lined up alternately on a stick, dipped in batter, and…wait for it…wait for it…deep fried. Lest the cream-of-whatever soup feel left out, they serve that on the side. Brian said he wasn’t sure what the soup was cream of, but it looked like “snot.” Brian has a way with words, doesn’t he?

Hot-Dish-on-a-Stick

Hot-Dish-on-a-Stick

Brian declared the next speared entree on his agenda, “Delicious!” and “a nice break from fried food.” The Wahoo-Steak-Dinner-on-a-Stick is essentially what the name implies–chunks of steak, potato, onion, and bell pepper skewered on a stick and grilled–a steak dinner on a stick. Nice. Except for the pasty white dinner roll smooshed onto the end of the stick. Couldn’t they just leave well enough alone? Still, Brian gave it two thumbs up.

Wahoo-Steak-Dinner-on-a-Stick

Wahoo-Steak-Dinner-on-a-Stick

Next stop? A Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick. I have to say, I’m fascinated by this one. Considering the folks in any food booth on the fairgrounds are feeding hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a short amount of time, how in the world do they manage to find the time to get the potato to spiral down the length of the hot dog so evenly? That must take forever. How many volunteers does it take to prep all those Texas Tater Dogs? And how many different ways–you may be thinking to yourself–can a Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick be seasoned? Well, I’ll tell you. Four: Parmesan garlic, lemon pepper, seasoned salt, and TNT. If you know my son, you know he ordered TNT. Apparently not many folks choose that option. Brian said the woman who took his order raised her eyebrows at him and asked if he was sure. Was he sure. YeeHaw! Stand clear, Robin.
Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick

Texas-Tater-Dog-on-a-Stick

Before he stopped for the night, Brian went international. The Chinese-Chicken-Dumpling-on-a-Stick and the General-Tso-Chicken-on-a-Stick both received a “tasted-like-it-came-0ff-a-crappy-Chinese-buffet” rating, but the vegetable Eggroll-on-a-Stick got rave reviews.
Chinese-Chicken-Dumplings-on-a-Stick

Chinese-Chicken-Dumplings-on-a-Stick

General-Tso-Chicken-on-a-Stick

General-Tso-Chicken-on-a-Stick

Egg-Roll-on-a-Stick

Egg-Roll-on-a-Stick

Brian ended the weekend with Ostrich-on-a-Stick, which he called a “karate kick to the innards.” When I talked to him late last night–a three full hours after the encounter–he claimed to be still feeling the effects and planned to stop by the tent where volunteers were passing out Pepto Bismol. In fairness to the ostrich, it could have been the Twinkie.
Ostrich-on-a-Stick

Ostrich-on-a-Stick

See, I told you you’d be better off not eating while reading this.
As for you, son, twelve down. Forty-seven to go.

Actually, if you count the egg-sandwich-on-a-stick Tom fixed for Brian before he left for Minnesota Wednesday morning, this posting would be about Day Two, but I’ll not confuse the issue.

Brian and Kyle arrived at the fairgrounds early yesterday morning, the first official day of the fair, to a “whirlwind of delicious fried smells.” I’m guessing Brian’s use of the word “delicious” in his Tweet was tinged with a bit of sarcasm, but I forgot to have him clarify that when I talked to him a bit earlier. What I did learn was professional obligations kept the two of them from exploring their surroundings yesterday as they had planned, but they did manage to try two novel food-on-a-stick offerings before heading back to the hotel late last night.

The first was gator-on-a-stick which, according to Brian, “wasn’t bad.” When pressed to elaborate, he said it “tasted like pork sausage.” Actually, had the sign not announced that the offering was, in fact, alligator, it sounds like–from Brian’s subsequent description–no one would have known the difference. Phooey. I was hoping for something a bit more exciting. A bit more exotic. Swampy, even. At least, I suppose, we can take solace in the fact that he didn’t say it tasted like chicken.

Gator-on-a-Stick

Gator-on-a-Stick

The second food-on-a-stick they tried was a Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick. Yes, you read that right. Curd. Not curds. A single gigantic cottage-cheese-like curd impaled on a stick. Served hot. “Death,” he said when asked, “It tasted like death.” Yummm! Apparently, he was able to stomach only one bite before throwing the whole business–curd, stick, and all–in the trash. He didn’t even hang on to it long enough to take a picture. Rats. Maybe he can stalk a curd-lover or two between now and the end of the fair and get a picture. I want to see Cheese-Curd-on-a-Stick. Not eat it, mind you. Just see it.

When I talked to him, they haven’t had a chance to go a-tasting yet today, but he promised they would. Stay tuned!

I’m extremely fortunate and grateful to have enjoyed a number of beach vacations in recent years. Beach chairs set up on the warm sand by resort staff, cloudless blue skies, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze, the soothing sound of the waves lapping the shore, and, on many occasions, cabana boys bringing me flavorful drinks with chunks of fruit hanging from the rim of the glass while I recline under the shade of a thatched umbrella reading a good book. Ahhhhh. Does it get any better? Well…actually, yes.

Last week, I had the privilege of going to the beach on South Padre Island with my sister, Amy, my niece, Elisha, and my two great-nephews, Jesse and Cameron, ages eight and three respectively. For an hour and a half prior to our departure, Elisha filled zip-loc bags with food; loaded and iced a cooler big enough to have its own zip code; gathered beach chairs, towels, and umbrellas; filled water jugs; chased two excited little boys into their swim trunks; and schlepped all the aforementioned stuff (excluding the boys) outside to tie down in the bed of her truck, insisting the entire time she didn’t need any help. I was worn out just watching her.

After driving just over an hour to get there, Elisha parked along a residential street that ran parallel to the beach. We clamored out, doors open wide as the truck was unloaded into the hot, muggy Texas afternoon sunshine. Squirmy little boys were slathered head-to-toe in sunscreen before chairs, umbrellas, beach bags, and inflatable beach toys were hoiked onto every available shoulder, arm, and hip for the quarter-mile-plus hike down the street, over the sand dunes, and across the beach to a spot which was selected solely for its proximity to the walkway back over the dunes and back to the truck. Hey, you try dragging the monster cooler through the sand!

Within minutes, we had umbrella stands screwed into the sand, umbrellas up battling the wind, chairs unfolded and situated–along with the cooler–in the shade of the umbrellas, and towels unfolded and ready for use, all to the tune of, “Can we get in the water now? Can we get in the water now?” My sister can be soooo impatient.

I was personally ready for a beach chair, a fruity drink, and a good book, but it was not to be. Jesse and Cameron had other ideas, and none of them had to do with sitting in the shade.

Here, it must be said, that I had never been that far south on the Texas coast, and it was much nicer than I had expected. Granted, I wouldn’t want to be in South Padre during Spring Break, but I will certainly look forward to going back with Elisha and her family at other times of the year. The sand was clean and beautiful, the water was clear, warm, and free of seaweed, and the beach was busy, but not crowded. On that particular day, the current had created what Elisha called–for lack of a better term–a wading pool. Between the shore and a sand bar approximately 50 feet out, the water was no deeper than 18 inches. Also, because of the sand bar, and another approximately 50-75 feet beyond the first, the waves were tamer than they would have been otherwise, perfect for cautious eight-year-olds and fearless three-year-olds.

South Padre Island

South Padre Island

For what seemed like minutes, but turned out to be hours, we bobbed in the waves, tried our luck floating in the inner tubes, watched for the tiny fish we occasionally saw swimming around our feet, tried to hold our breath the longest, practiced backward underwater somersaults, and looked for seashells along the edge of the water. Occasionally, when thirst or hunger could no longer be ignored, we would head to the shade for a bit of rest and to raid the cooler for goodies. During one such raid, Cameron grabbed the bag of trail mix and, with a conspiratorial look in my direction, began plucking the M&Ms from the mix, healthy peanuts and raisins be damned. I smiled and said nothing. The prerogative of a great-aunt, right?

Jesse

Jesse (They don't come any kinder or sweeter!)

Cameron
Cameron (Yes, he’s a pistol!)

When someone finally did think to ask about the time, we were shocked to learn that it was well past 7 p.m. Time to gather up our belongings, drag ourselves and our plunder back to the truck, and get as cleaned up as possible (thanks to the jugs of water that Elisha had thought to bring) before meeting Elisha’s husband, Jesse, at one of the local restaurants for dinner.

By the time we collapsed into the chairs at the restaurant, I was exhausted, slightly sun-burned, sticky from the salt water, and had sand hidden where sand should never be hidden. As I sipped iced tea and snuggled a sleeping Cameron on my lap, I marveled that at no time during the entire afternoon had I been near a lounge chair, a book, a fruity drink, or a cabana boy, but I had undoubtedly just experienced one of the best days I’d ever spent at a beach. All because two of the sweetest, most energetic little boys on the planet had reminded me how much fun a beach can really be.

As I type, Brian is heading north to the Twin Cities for the Minnesota State Fair. While his primary responsibility is to execute the assignment Department Zero and Toyota sent him up there to do, his–and his traveling companion, Kyle’s–primary off-duty objective is to sample every one of the 59–yes, that’s right, 59–fair food offerings on a stick, supposedly the largest food-on-a-stick menu at any state fair in this great nation. Cue the anthem.

For the next seven to ten days, these two brave souls will selflessly sacrifice their waistlines and arteries to bring us the details of such novel offerings as spaghetti-on-a-stick, fried-alligator-on-a-stick, hotdish-on-a-stick, deep-fried-candy-bars-on-a-stick, and Pig Lickers (chocolate-covered-bacon-on-a-stick), along with the more traditional corn dogs,  cotton candy, and frozen confections that, as it happens, also come on a stick. I’m so proud. My job is to chronicle the entire gastric extravaganza for you in all its crunchy, gooey, burbly, acidic detail (Brian has promised pictures).

So, if you have the stomach, please join us for the fun. Tom, who never fails to put his snappy-ass spin on any new adventure, got into the spirit of the thing by serving Brian an egg sandwich on a stick this morning before his o’dark thirty departure.

Egg-Sandwich-on-a-Stick

Egg-Sandwich-on-a-Stick

Grab your Tums. It promises to be quite the ride.

My husband, son, and I recently drove across Minnesota from Fargo (why we were in Fargo is another story) to Duluth on our way to a wedding on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The North Shore is incredible—worthy of multiple postings—as was the wedding we attended, and, when I sat down, I initially intended to write about those experiences, but I keep being drawn back into childhood memories. Memories triggered by the sights and smells along the windy, two-lane highways we traveled that day.

When I was a kid, my family went up to Minnesota every summer to visit my grandparents who lived on Lake Osakis, a small lake roughly 120 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Grandma and Grandpa’s house sat between a dirt road and the shore of the lake, facing the water. Behind them, on the other side of the road were farm fields and the loveliest dairy farm with a big white barn. The barn was the sign my little sister and I looked for to tell us when we were almost to Grandma and Grandpa’s. Unfortunately for us—and our parents—there were a lot of white barns between Kansas City and my grandparents’ place, and my sister made sure to ask, “Is that the barn?,” every time she saw one.

Mom and me on one of my first trips to Lake Osakis

Mom and me on one of my first trips to Lake Osakis

During those vacations, we’d typically spend early mornings and sometimes late afternoons out on the glass-like lake with Grandpa, fishing for crappie on the Rock Pile or for sunfish in the reeds near the outlet. It was a special treat when my sister and I got to go fishing with Grandpa by ourselves. No parents. Not as many rules. He would sing silly songs and teach us off-colored poems such as, “Mr. Martin went a fartin’…” He’d patiently bait our hooks and take fish off our lines, swat mosquitoes and endure our own feeble attempts at humor—all with a smile and a deep, raspy chuckle. He didn’t even yell at us when we’d hook him trying to get our lines back in the water.

After lunch—and the obligatory hour we were told was necessary to let our food digest—Grandpa and Dad would head off to work on some project while Grandma and Mom retired to the lawn furniture under the shade trees to watch my sister and me leap off the dock into the sandy-bottomed lake and thrash around in the water chasing minnows. When our skin was good and prune-y and/or our mom couldn’t stand to hear us yell, “Watch me!,” one more time, she would make us get out, and we’d start scavenging around in the sand for any treasures that might have washed up onto the beach since our last search. Grandma would go up to the house and bring back a tray of cookies and lemonade, and we’d all enjoy a snack.

Later, after we were dried off and dressed, my sister and I would grab a handful of the pennies Grandma would have stockpiled just for our visit, and we’d walk the quarter mile up the dirt road to the tiny grocery store at Wells Wood Resort to buy penny candy. Sometimes, Grandma would send quarters and dimes and ask us to bring back a loaf of bread or can of evaporated milk. While we were at the resort, we would check out the license plates of the cars parked around the cabins to see where the guests had come from. We were especially pleased when we’d find another car from Missouri.

In the evening, my parents, grandparents, sister, and I would sit down at the kitchen table to a meal that was, more often than not, caught and filleted earlier that day. My favorite meal was when Grandma fried crappie fillets in beer batter and served them with her made-from-scratch hush puppies and homemade applesauce sprinkled with red hots. As we ate, sunburned and exhausted from our busy day, we would look out through the huge picture window at the end of the table, watching the egrets settling along the shore and the sun setting across the lake. Grandpa always had a story or joke to tell.

Sunset over Lake Osakis

Sunset over Lake Osakis

If we had any energy left at all after the dishes were washed and put away, we would take our dessert out onto the patio and sit in the glider to gaze at the stars…at least, that is until the lake flies and bird-size mosquitoes drove us back indoors. Then it was off to the showers. Back then, neither my sister nor I understood why we had to take showers when we’d been in the water all afternoon, but in hindsight, I’m sure we smelled like the bottom of a bait bucket. We didn’t care.

After talking Grandma out of one more snack, my sister and I would finally fall into bed—totally spent—with the sounds of the grown-ups out at the kitchen table playing cards or dominos to lull us to sleep.

Bright and early the next morning, we would be up, ready to get back out on the lake and do it all over again. It was heavenly.

I finally got to play with my Monday night golf league. About time. The league started back at the beginning of April, but between rain-outs, having company, being out of town, and life in general, I haven’t managed to get out there, that is until this Monday.

The upside of Monday evening was I got to meet some of the ladies in the league. The downside was I played like…well, I don’t know what I played like. My game defies description. Suffice it to say, I could not find the holes. I had little or no trouble getting to the greens, but I couldn’t sink a putt to save my soul. On at least two holes, I putted past the cup at least four times. The ball always rolling within a inch of the edge of the cup and then coming to rest at least three or four feet past the cup. Often farther. You could almost see the ball smirking. It eventually became a joke. A twisted, painful joke.

I wish I could blame it on the gal in our foursome who was so slow she all but went backward. Truly. She was a sweet lady, but she’d obviously did not subscribe to the concept of ready golf. Slow to get out of the cart. Slow to get to her ball (often without a club). I swear, I never saw her move faster than a mosey, and she took multiple practice swings on every shot. Personally, I think there ought to be an iron-clad rule that any golfer who takes more than one practice swing  before a shot is instantly vaporized. But I digress.

As frustrating as it was to lose sight of the foursome in front of us and to be pushed by the foursome behind us, I can’t blame Pokey McPokerson. Well, actually, I can blame her for making us take nearly three hours to play nine holes, but I can’t blame her for my poor performance. I just sucked. And the really sad thing is I can’t wait to get back out there. Why is that? What is it about golf that makes a person want to go out and publicly humiliate herself over and over again? Six years ago, I wouldn’t have played a round of golf at gunpoint, and now I’m salivating to be on a course every chance I get. It’s a disease.

I’m guessing my performance on Monday night made quite a first impression on the other women in the league. If it didn’t–if they missed seeing me play–the score I had to post in the clubhouse will certainly WOW them. They’ll be fighting over who gets to play with me. Groan.

Years ago, shortly after advanced age forced Tom’s grandmother from her beloved farm and into town, the women in the family descended upon Grandma’s three-story brick farmhouse to pack her belongings and deep-clean every inch of the house from baseboard to ceiling. I was assigned to the kitchen, starting with the cabinet under the kitchen sink.

Clearing that particular space was an all-together unremarkable task until I got to the back of the cabinet. There, hidden behind the bottles of Fantastik®, Windex®, and Drano®, obscured by the boxes of mouse traps, mothballs, and Brillo® pads, and wedged behind the water and drain pipes, I found a saw. Not a dinky saw. Not a small hand-held hacksaw one might possibly use to cut through chicken bones, but a three-foot long rusted rip saw with half inch teeth from its nose to its handle. A manly saw for manly tasks like building barns or cutting huge branches out of 100-year-old oak trees. What on earth was it doing in Grandma’s kitchen? I couldn’t imagine. I certainly couldn’t imagine tiny, petite, little Grandma ever using the sinister looking implement. It was nearly as tall as she was. I carefully extracted the brute from behind the pipes and stood with it in my hands, staring at it, my mouth open. Then I heard a snicker.

I looked up to see Tom’s cousin, a farm girl, watching me, a smile curling her lips. She waited. My mind raced. What could you possibly use this huge saw for in the kitchen? I have to admit, several of the possibilities—including the ones involving human limbs and deep wells—that danced through my cranium curled my toes. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and blurted, “What in the world is this saw doing here?” By then, others in the kitchen were watching events unfold, and my outburst triggered gales of laughter. Unfortunately for me—however, not unusually when it comes to anything having to do with the farm—I was the only clueless one in the crowd. Luckily, Tom’s cousin was happy to educate me. Too bad she couldn’t stop laughing.

Seems it’s not at all unusual for a farm wife to have just such a saw under her sink. Apparently, she might need it to saw through hog and cow bones when she’s fixing dinner. WHAT?! More laughter. Hey, short of having “City Slicker” tattooed on my forehead, every inch of me screams City Girl. I don’t deny it. And where I come from, meat comes on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane. It had never occurred to me that anyone ever got that close to the actual animal. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Which brings me to cheese. Last summer for my birthday, a dear friend, who had listened to me rave on and on multiple times about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in particular the chapter on cheese-making, very thoughtfully gave me one of the cheese-making kits from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company that Kingsolver talks about in her book. Yes, I freely admit. I did tell this friend (repeatedly) I thought it would be fun to make cheese. Yes, I suppose I did lead her to believe I intended to tackle making a batch of cheese. Was I overstating my intentions? Did I really mean it? Well…

Both Kingsolver and Ricki Carroll, the owner of the Cheesemaking Supply Company, swear making cheese—particularly mozzarella cheese—is child’s play. According to them, you can make up a batch of mozzarella in the afternoon to serve at dinner that night. Uh-huh. I refer you to the paragraph before the last one and the sentence starting, “Where I come from…” only substitute the word “cheese” for “meat” and eliminate the Styrofoam tray. In my world, cheese comes in plastic wrappers. With labels. And nutrition information. Maybe a re-sealable closure. It’s made up in Wisconsin by some fifth-generation Northern European dairy farmer (artisanal) or in a factory (Kraft). In my world, cheese does not come from a pot of hot milk. Jeez. Me and my big mouth. What had I been thinking?

Months passed. Periodically, I’d get the kit out, spread the contents on the counter, read the directions, and then, overwhelmed, shove it all back into the box. From that vantage point, nothing about cheese-making seemed easy. Clearly, Kingsolver and Carroll had been noodling around in the medicine cabinet. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.

Then one day early this year, I was having lunch with some other friends, and we got to talking about Kingsolver’s book. The subject of cheese-making came up—much to my chagrin—and I sheepishly admitted to having been given the kit but never having the cojones to try making the cheese. Being the good friends they are, and always open to being bribed with wine, they offered to come over and help me. So, a few weeks later on a cold winter night, with a big metal pot, metal spoons, strainer, cheesecloth, rennet tablets, enzymes, milk thermometer, rubber gloves, a gallon of whole milk, full wine glasses, and the directions before us, we began.

I’ll not go into the step-by-step cheese-making process here, but suffice it to say—with help from my friends—making cheese really was easy. Admittedly, we had one point where we debated whether or not to continue because—based on the dubious looking contents of the pot—we were certain we had screwed up royally, but the wine gave us courage and we decided to plow ahead anyway. I’m certainly glad we did because less than 20 minutes later we had a real honest-to-goodness blob of mozzarella cheese to show for our efforts. Really. Real mozzarella cheese. We even ate it.

Brief pause for a free cheese-making tip: curds and whey do NOT look appetizing; do not be put off by what appear to be little white lumps floating around in dirty water; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, you’ve screwed up; if you don’t have little white lumps floating around in dirty water, more wine is required—for you, not the cheese.

I’ve since made five more batches of mozzarella. Two of them by myself. It’s made me cocky. I’ve started telling everyone I want to try making cheddar next. I don’t learn.

And now my aunt in Australia (my culinary muse) tells me that in an effort at one-upmanship, she and a friend have enrolled in a class to learn to make Camembert. Damn. I guess I’m going to have to put up or shut up about the cheddar. Time to restock the wine rack and call my friends.

Just know, I may make my own cheese—at least mozzarella—but you’ll NEVER find a rip saw under my sink.

It’s official. Brian walked down the hill and into the alumni roles at the University of Kansas on Sunday. His name was even in the program. Right there in the first column on page 34. His full name. Official. Several family members have pointed out that the final grades still aren’t in, but, as far as I’m concerned, he’s a graduate. And as promised, he made his unique mark on the festivities. I’m including pictures to prove it.

Decked out in his graduation finest

Decked out in his graduation finest

He capped off this lovely and very dignified ensemble with a replica of Study Hall on his mortarboard. Study Hall is what Brian calls his boat. That way when his dad or I ask him what he’s up to, he can say–without lying–that he’s in study hall. Translation: I’m on the boat at the lake. Great pains went into adding the wakeboard, wakeboard tower, speakers, and waves. It was all Tom’s idea. I’m completely innocent. Not surprisingly, Brian was quite pleased with his father’s handiwork.

Study Hall

Study Hall

Aside from having to wait over two hours for all 4,000 plus graduates to walk through the Campanile and down the hill, Sunday was a perfect day. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful, and the party afterward couldn’t have gone any smoother. I’m grateful to all the family and friends who came over to help us celebrate. It was quite a crowd. I’m also grateful to Big Dawg BBQ for fixing probably the best meal we’ve ever served our guests. I can’t imagine that anyone went home hungry. A memorable day by any measure.

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