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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Stepping stone recipes



One project on my "to do" list has been there for years: "recipes." It never moved up or down the list much. This week it suddenly shot to the top of the list. It has turned out to be a very distracting project. The idea is to throw out all the old ones that are useless.

Instead, the cards, stretched out one after another, are like so many stones. The recipes have begun to look like a long rough road back into the past.

I have a thick stack of American index cards that once filled two plastic cases with flip-top lids. They were bright yellow and orange and I bought them the year I had my first real job, working in a children's publishing company. I had great plans for the future, and they included cooking, if only for myself. A friend of a friend named Mary Lu and I rented an apartment, second floor of a big old house in Minneapolis. It was too expensive so we found a third roommate who was studying opera in her spare time. She practiced the scales frequently and liked to do it walking around the apartment nude. Mary Lu and I had little in common but we became friends, clinging to shared notions of how roommates should and should not behave. We began to spend less time at home, and in particular we rarely invited boyfriends, especially new dates, back to the apartment.

The recipe box at first held only a couple recipes from my mother, but I had plans to expand. I was, at long last, on my own and independent and if I wanted to decorate my world with yellow and orange - my favorite colors at the time - I could.

The boxes had category cards with neat little orange pre-printed tabs for bread, soup, meat and so on. The first job paid so appallingly that I had to leave after three months. I started in the summer and rode my bicycle to work but soon realized that the bus fare I couldn't afford in July would be crucial in a Minnesota winter. The meat and fish tabs in the recipe box had nothing behind them. I began to hunt for a new job.

In the meantime, Mary Lu had a good casserole that she made on weekends and I often used the first recipe my mother gave me, for chili con carne, Iowa-style. I had just turned 14, was starting high school in a new city, Cedar Rapids, and I wanted to have a slumber party. We had to have food, I announced. That's what you did.

I cannot find the photo of that party, but the image is clear: a dozen girls sitting around in cute pajamas and large curlers in their hair, for the year was 1965. We listened to the Beatles and talked about the school football season that was about to start. Two of the girls in particular squealed a lot - one of them later went on to be the head cheerleader and homecoming queen. Soon after this school cliques were established and they became part of the popular crowd whereas two of the other girls, in the background of the party photo, became part of my little trio of pals and a slightly larger set of the smart girls. Cathy, Judie and I have become close lifelong friends.

I don't remember where all 15 girls slept that night, perhaps because we didn't. I vaguely remember being embarrassed that my father showed up several times to tell us to get to sleep and that some of the girls found him old-fashioned.

The large shiny pot filled with chili sent curls of kitchen perfume around every corner of the house. I'd spent the day preparing it, and there was none left when the girls went home.

We were at that critical point where each of us was deciding what path to take towards adulthood, in terms of friends and school and relationships to adults, as well as music and clothes and the other trappings in which we wrap our fragile teenage personalities. We were about to spill out of our childhood selves and run in several different directions. For one last brief evening, steaming bowls of chili with saltine crackers held us together.


Two tablespoons of mild chili powder were shockingly spicy in my circle. I had no idea where the powder came from or how it was made, and I doubt if my friends did. In the bottom of those bowls of chili lurked a hint of something exotic and sexy, vague images of Mexican men with long mustaches and come-hither dark eyes.



Florence Wallace's Iowa chili recipe for 15, c. 1965

1 T vegetable shortning (T. for tablespoon and tsp. for teaspoon, in our house)
1 onion, chopped small
2 # hamburger meat (my mother was a shorthand teacher and loved abbreviations such as # for pound)
4 cans tomatoes
2 cans red kidney beans
1 T salt
2 T mild chili powder

Melt the shortning over low heat. Add the onion and stir for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the hamburger and break it up with a fork. Stir until it is nicely browned.

Add the tomatoes. Stir until well mixed. Add the beans. Stir again. Add the salt and chili powder and stir.

Turn down the heat to low, cover the pot, and let cook for 6-8 hours. Stir every 15 minutes. Don't let it stick to the bottom of the pan!

Serve in bowls. Crumble saltine crackers over the top of each bowl.

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