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Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

I reached a milestone this week, one that testifies to how nomadic my life has been: I have now lived in our house here along Lincoln Avenue longer than I have lived anywhere else during my adult life.

The Texas Gal and I have been here now for seven years, four months and five days. My previous longest adult residence was seven years and four months on Pleasant Avenue in south Minneapolis, a tenure that ended when the neighborhood was gentrifying and the corporation that owned the building wanted to get in on the action. Had that lease not been terminated, I think I would have happily stayed on Pleasant Avenue for many more years. And I might never have met the Texas Gal.

I won’t bore you with the list of the twenty places where I’ve lived over the years. (I mined that vein at least a little for a post when I was playing with Google Earth more than five years ago.) By my count this morning, there are twenty places on that list, starting with the ill-kept and poorly heated house on St. Cloud’s North Side where I went when I left Kilian Boulevard and ending here on the East Side just six blocks from where I grew up.

Will there eventually be a twenty-first place on that list? Most likely. The Texas Gal and I are finding that keeping the house in order is gradually becoming more and more of a challenge. So is living on three levels. One small example: Doing the laundry on Mondays requires numerous trips between the main floor and the basement and at least two trips to and from the loft. Can I do that? Yes, but not as swiftly as I could seven years ago. Will I be able to do it as easily seven or even three years from now? Almost certainly not. Life would be easier and simpler on one level and in a smaller place. We’ve been talking about those things for a while but have made no decisions yet about when or where.

But the topics of where and when will likely be on the agenda as we make our way through this winter and move on into the spring. Whatever we decide, though, I do know one thing: Wherever the Texas Gal is, there is my home.

There are more than a thousand tracks in the digital files with “home” in their titles. Sifting through them this morning, I find many that don’t quite fit what I’m writing about. Some come close in one way or another. Here’s one of those, one that cut deeply into me during the years before I found my Texas Gal. It’s “Home Again” from Carole King’s 1971 masterpiece, Tapestry.

Of Pate & Rye

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Once more, we visit the ghosts of East St. Germain, the main drag here on the East Side of St. Cloud. It’s 1965, and we go once more into the dining room of the Ace Bar & Cafe, where the young whiteray, his parents and his sister are celebrating one occasion or another.

After we order, as we sit with our beverages – probably a Mountain Dew for me, a Coke for my sister, a Hamm’s Beer for Dad and an old-fashioned for Mom – our waitress brings us the relish tray: Carrots, celery, radishes, pickles, liver pate, probably some pickled herring, and an assortment of crackers in cellophane packages.

Restaurants don’t do relish trays anymore. They’re too labor intensive and too wasteful, I imagine. But fifty years ago, every “go out for a nice dinner” restaurant in the St. Cloud area offered them: The Ace, the Persian Club, the 400 Club, the Hub, the Log Lodge, and maybe more I can’t think of right now. The trays’ offerings changed a bit from place to place but a relish tray was a constant of a nice dinner out in those days.

My favorite portion of the relish tray, as I’ve noted here once before, was the liver pate. (I love pickled herring almost as much, but it wasn’t a rare treat, as we routinely had a jar of it in the fridge at home.) Almost as soon as our waitress placed the tray on our table, I’d have my eye on the pate, and I’d rummage through the selection of crackers until I found a packet of Ry-Krisp. The flat rye crackers seemed made for liver pate, and just thinking about that long-ago treat makes my mouth water as I write.

The pate and of the pickled herring on the tray were no doubt a reflection of the Northern European origins of many of the East Side’s residents back then. Most families on the East Side had been in the U.S. for a couple of generations – there were a few immigrants and first-generation Americans – but even second- and third-generation folks fifty years ago tended to hold onto the ethnic tastes and traditions of their ancestors.

There were still vivid connections to those immigrant ancestors: My mom spent a lot of time as a child with her maternal grandfather, who emigrated from Prussia as a child (and in fact, William Raveling lived long enough that I sat on his lap as an infant). My dad’s family had come to the U.S. from Sweden a little earlier but still held onto many of its Scandinavian traditions, lutefisk, pickled herring and flatbread among them.* The families of most of the kids I knew on the East Side were like that. Not all of them descended from Northern Europeans; the names I recall of some of my schoolmates reflect origins in England, Scotland, and the Slavic nations of Eastern Europe. But we all cared about our ancestors’ origins, and the folkways and tastes of those ancestors were important as well.

So why this today? Because last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Ry-Krisp has come to an end. After nearly a century, the company is closing. As Kevyn Burger wrote:

For as long as there have been modern grocery stores, there have been boxes of Ry-Krisp on their shelves. Every one of the commercially produced crackers inside was mixed, baked and packed at the world’s one and only Ry-Krisp plant in southeast Minneapolis.

But the Minnesota-born brand is no more. Production at the boxy white factory wound down in March. Soon the final packages of Ry-Krisp will disappear forever from the cracker aisles, and with them, a bit of local history will crumble.

In one short century, Ry-Krisp rose from humble origins to become a product distributed around the globe. The crunchy rye-flavored snack became an emblem for overlapping culinary trends, shifting from peasant fare to health food to diet aid until changing tastes led to the cracker’s quiet demise . . .

Reading that piece brought me back – as so many things seem to do – to the Ace Bar & Cafe. And it brought me back to the occasional stock of Ry-Krisp I used to keep on my shelves at home. I’d buy it as a snack – a platform for cheese – now and then, and about fifteen years ago, after my doctor advised me to adopt a whole grain diet and further encouraged me to avoid yeast and fermented products for a year, Ry-Krisp was one of my bread substitutes. I recall sitting at my kitchen table in my small apartment on Minneapolis’ Bossen Terrace, eating kippered snacks on Ry-Krisp for a quick lunch.

Once the prohibition on yeast and fermented products was lifted, I found myself a brand of whole wheat bread. At about the same time, whole grain Triscuits and Wheat Thins became my snack crackers of choice, and Ry-Krisp left my shopping list. Until this week, that is. Once I read the piece in the Star-Tribune, I knew I had to buy one last box of Ry-Krisp. And here it is.

My Last Box of Ry-Krisp

I wasn’t the only one with the idea, though: By the time the Texas Gal and I got to our neighborhood Ca$h Wi$e on Sunday afternoon, all of the regular Ry-Krisp was gone from the shelves, as was all of the seasoned Ry-Krisp. I was left with the consolation prize of a box of light rye crackers. (The company also made multi-grain and sesame versions of the cracker, but there was no shelf space for those new-fangled varieties at the local store.) It may be light, but it’s Ry-Krisp, and the ingredients are the same as they always were: Whole rye and salt. (The idea of a multi-grain Ry-Krisp, a version I don’t ever recall seeing in stores, bothers me, if only vaguely; Ry-Krisp was supposed to be rye, and when you start throwing other grains into the mix, you’ve got something else.)

So I’ve got my last box of Ry-Krisp, and I think I’ll head out sometime in the next few days to the Byerly’s grocery across town – it’s a little more high rent than Ca$h Wi$e – and see if there’s any liver pate from Scandinavia or even Germany on the shelves. (If I have to settle for French, I will.) Then I’ll have myself one more snack of pate on Ry-Krisp, and for a fleeting moment, it will be 1965 in the Ace Cafe once more. I think I’ll skip the Mountain Dew this time.

And here’s a record that we might easily have heard in the background at the Ace on a Saturday evening in 1965: “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by Sounds Orchestral was No. 1 for three weeks on the Billboard Easy Listening chart and went to No. 10 on the magazine’s Hot 100.

*That attachment to tradition was likely enhanced by the homogeneity of the area around Dad’s hometown of Cambridge – most folks there in the early 20th century could trace their roots to Sweden – and by multi-generational living: Among the members of Dad’s household during his childhood was his Great-Uncle Charlie, whose parents or grandparents came from Sweden. (Great-Uncle Charlie’s rocking chair, refinished and reupholstered a few years back, sits in my dining room.)

Bread In The Night

Friday, March 6th, 2015

One of my regular stops here on the East Side is the Country Hearth bread store, where the nearby bakery sells second-day bread and goodies. Second-day? Well, sometimes third day, I suppose, but the bread is fresh enough. And it’s much cheaper than any of the grocery stores in town: I get my whole grain bread for $1.99, and the Texas Gal’s plain white bread runs – depending on sales – about $1.25. That saves us at least three bucks.

The bread store’s been there a long time, right next to the bakery building, which has also been there a long time, at the intersection of Wilson Avenue and East St. Germain. One of the most potent sensory memories I have comes from a moment just south of that intersection: It’s a Monday in autumn, probably around 1965, and the weekly meeting of Boy Scout Troop 112 has just ended at nearby Salem Lutheran.

I pilot my Schwinn bicycle east from the church and reach Wilson Avenue just a block from St. Germain, and the night air is filled with the tangy aroma of yeast and the hearty and somehow comforting smell of baking bread. I pause at the stop sign and draw in a breath, savoring the aroma of the night shift’s work.

As I think of that moment – most likely late September, for the leaves were turning, crackling softly on the trees in the breeze that brought me the bakery’s aromas – I also see the long-gone Dairy Bar just across Wilson Avenue from where I stood. That’s where we sometimes bought Cheerio ice cream bars – chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream on a stick – during the summer. During the school year, however, the Dairy Bar felt like foreign territory, for that’s where the kids from the nearby St. Augustine School – a parochial school – bought their candy.

(I suppose the kids from Lincoln School who lived nearby – north of the state highway that separated Lincoln from St. Augustine – went to the Dairy Bar. Most of Lincoln’s students lived south of Highway 23, and we did our candy shopping at three other locations: the Wilson Avenue Store just south of the highway; Tuey’s Grocery – once Wyvell’s and eventually Norb’s – on Fifth Avenue just half a block from our place on Kilian Boulevard; or the Hilltop Store, about eight blocks further south on Kilian.)

In memory, I turn from the Dairy Bar to the next block on the right, and I’m not certain if the current Church of St. Augustine is there or not. It was built sometime in mid- to late 1960s; until then, St. Augs’ parishioners – including Rick and Rob and their family – went to Mass in a basement church on the far right end of the block across Wilson Avenue from where I stood breathing in the night’s aroma.

And I look in memory to the left of the Dairy Bar, toward the bakery, which still stands today. It’s been expanded over the years and now fills the entire block, including the place where the Dairy Bar – and several homes behind it, I think – once stood. Large red letters on the western wall of the oldest portion of the bakery now proclaim “Country Hearth.” As I stood there in the autumn of what was likely 1965, however, that western wall was painted something like the picture below. (I can’t find the exact graphic, but this one’s pretty close.)

Sunbeam Bread

And if I did indeed glance at the bakery while savoring its aromas on that autumn evening, I likely thought about touring it a few years earlier as a Cub Scout, seeing the huge metal bowls with their robotic mixing arms, the immense ovens turning out ranks upon ranks of loaves, all of them winding their ways down the roller paths to be sliced and then wrapped in heat-sealed cellophane wrappers. (Plastic bags and twist-ties came along a few years later.)

And I also likely thought about the Saturday morning kids’ gathering a couple years earlier at the Paramount Theatre downtown. Several cartoons and a pitch for traffic safety (I think) were interspersed with on-stage appearances by Clarabelle the clown from the Howdy Doody show and Miss Sunbeam, her golden curls shining in the theater lights.

And all of that would have coursed through my mind in just a few moments, of course, with me straddling my Schwinn at the stop sign. After those moments, I would have turned right on Wilson Avenue toward Highway 23, leaving the fragrances of yeast and baking bread behind me and heading for Kilian Boulevard and home.

Here, unrelated except in title, is the slinky “Sometimes Bread” by Mongo Santamaria. It’s from his 1971 album Mongo’s Way.

‘Are All Three Of You Looties?’

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

We headed out last evening to celebrate my mother’s birthday. She turned 93 yesterday, and we took her to the Ace Bar & Grill here on the East Side, where she and I often have lunch (though we haven’t been there recently, as the cold weather has kept Mom inside in the past few weeks).

As we entered, Mom leading the way with her walker and the Texas Gal and I trailing in her wake, the hostess smiled. I waved three fingers in the air, and she said, “Three tonight! Are all three of you looties?”

None of us answered, and in the silence, I tried to figure out what she had said. “Are we what?” I finally asked.

“Looties! Here for the lutefisk dinner!”

We’d not known that Monday was the date for the Ace’s lutefisk buffet. Mom and I glanced at each other, knowing that we’d love to have lutefisk for dinner.

The Scandinavian dish has become a American joke over the years, the punch line often wielded in self-deprecation by descendants of the Swedes, Norwegians and Finns who brought the dish with them during the great migration from their homelands to the United States in – mostly – the mid- to late 1800s.

It is an odd dish. Here’s how it’s prepared, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Lutefisk is made from dried whitefish (normally cod in Norway, but ling is also used) prepared with lye in a sequence of particular treatments. The watering steps of these treatments differ slightly for salted/dried whitefish because of its high salt content.

The first treatment is to soak the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH value of 11–12. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.

It sounds dreadful, I know. When lutefisk is baking, the aroma is pungent (though the taste is much more bland than the aroma would lead one to believe). The memory of that aroma makes me think of December evenings on Kilian Boulevard long ago, where we had lutefisk at least once every year, and makes me think as well of my grandfather’s farm outside Lamberton, where we had lutefisk every Christmas Eve. In the early 1970s, that tradition moved to my parents’ home, and it lasted there until 2002, the Christmas before my dad died.

At the Ace last night, when Mom and I learned that lutefisk was on the menu, we looked at each other and shrugged. A lutefisk dinner for her birthday would have been a wonderful surprise, but the white sauce was almost certainly made with wheat flour, something she must avoid completely and that I can only have if it’s whole grain. (The Texas Gal, for her part, shuddered at the thought of lutefisk, which she’s tried once, and began thinking immediately of prime rib.) Just to make certain, I had our young waitress check with the kitchen on the ingredients in the sauce.

She confirmed our suspicions about the flour, and we regretfully said we’d have to pass on the lutefisk. “Well,” she said, “we do have lutefisk in butter.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding, “but we’re firmly in the Swedish tradition with the white sauce. The other stuff? That’s for the Norwegians.”

The waitress laughed along with us and then said, “So that’s the difference! I’ve always wondered.” And she went off and got us our beverages as we all settled on the prime rib. As we waited, Mom and I discussed the possibility of making a lutefisk meal using a flour we both can have, probably brown rice flour. “It wouldn’t look very good,” I said.

“And that’s a lot of work for just the two of us,” she added. I nodded in agreement. And we pretty much decided that, like other things and people still cherished but now gone, lutefisk is a memory.

And here’s one version of the most common lutefisk joke among we Scandinavians: The song “Oh, Lutefisk,” offered here in barbershop harmonies by four sharply dressed fellows in 1979:

Saturday Evenings With Dad

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

It’s not very important, not after forty-seven years, but I’m still puzzled. For about five weeks in January and February of 1966, my dad and I went out and did stuff on Saturday evenings.

Oh, I didn’t mind at all. I liked spending time with Dad. I was twelve, and a Saturday evening with Dad was a pretty good weekend treat. And we did some fun stuff.

At least once during that stretch we spent the evening at St. Cloud State, watching the men’s basketball team – the college’s only basketball team in 1966 – take on another team from the Northern Intercollegiate Conference. The Huskies had one of the better small college teams at the time, routinely contending for the NIC championship and a spot in the national tournament of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), kind of a small college version of the better known NCAA.

We sat on the side, where our family always sat, but this time it was just Dad and me, three rows up from the Huskies’ bench, close enough to the press tables that I could listen in as a sportscaster named Peter Jay called the game for KFAM, one of the two radio stations in town. Being fascinated with radio and sportscasting, I likely greeted Mr. Jay before the game, as I often did when our whole family went to games. As always, he would have taken time to talk briefly to me, time that most surely could have been spent studying statistics, memorizing numbers or checking his connection to the radio station.

Then the game started, and I cheered for the Huskies, taking a break to get some popcorn from the concession stand at halftime. I don’t recall who St. Cloud State played that night; they likely won, as they did most nights. And it’s entirely possible that Dad and I went to two games during that five-week winter stretch, with me listening to the pep band play the “SCS Rouser” and taking my cues from the cheerleaders in their red and black uniforms. (The cheerleaders and the players – and their college-age fans, for that matter – seemed so much older than I was. It’s a shock this morning to realize that they were only ten or so years my senior. That gap now is minuscule; as I sail through my late fifties, they would now be pretty much my contemporaries.)

What else did we do on those Saturday evenings during that five-week slice of January and February in 1966? We went to at least two movies, maybe three. I think that’s why those Saturday nights linger in my mind. Just the two of us going to a basketball game at Halenbeck didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary. That happened occasionally. But movies were a family thing (unless my sister and I went with friends). So a movie with Dad but without my mom and my sister was different.

What did we see? I recall The Sands of the Kalahari, about the survivors of a plane crash in that African desert trying to put together an escape craft from the wreckage of the plane that brought them there. I think we might have seen The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a 1965 film based on the John le Carré novel and starring Richard Burton. And I know we saw The IPCRESS File, another spy flick from 1965, this one based on a novel by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine. Why am I sure we saw that one? Because the music was by John Barry, whose name I knew from the James Bond films. I never got the soundtrack to The IPCRESS File, but I remember liking the music a lot.

Whatever we did on each of those Saturday nights, we found ourselves heading back to our car about nine o’clock. That was a late night out for a twelve-year-old kid in 1966. But our evenings weren’t over yet. On each of those four or five Saturday nights, after we got back to the East Side, Dad pulled the car over in the parking lot of the Ace Bar & Cafe.

We had dinner occasionally at the Ace, and I loved it when we did, as the Ace was one of the few places I ever knew that served liver pate as a part of its relish tray, and I loved liver pate on rye crackers. (I still do, though it’s more rare these days. So are relish trays, for that matter.)

But in the winter of 1966, Dad and I were walking into the Ace sometime after nine in the evening, and the character of the place was different. The dining room was nearly empty. Actually, I imagine that on a couple of those Saturday nights, Dad and I were the only customers in the dining room. The Saturday night action was in the adjacent bar, and the sound of weekend revelry came down the hall and around the corner

I’d been in the bar portion of the building only once, and that was by accident when I took a wrong turn from the restroom. Feeling very small, I’d ducked past big and loud people as I retreated to the familiar dining room. So during the winter of 1966, sitting at a table with my dad in the nearly empty dining room and hearing the sound of the drinkers in the bar made me feel a little vulnerable, a little lonely, a little bit how I often feel these days when I see the works of Edward Hopper. (Check out Nighthawks.)

However I felt, we’d order hamburgers, and Dad would have a Hamm’s beer. During our first stop at the Ace in that stretch of Saturday nights, I noticed something – a sign, an ad on the table, I don’t know what – that reminded me of a soft drink I’d recently heard of and never tried. So I ordered a Mountain Dew, and for the rest of that four or five week stretch, that was our order at the Ace: two burgers, one with raw onions, a Hamm’s beer and a Mountain Dew.

And after those four or five weeks, it stopped. Saturday nights went back to being nights spent mostly at home. Oh, we’d go see the Huskies play, but it was all four or us, not just Dad and me. And if I saw a movie, it was with the whole family or else with Rick or some kids from school.

I don’t know what was happening during that time. Did Mom and Dad decide for some reason that I needed more Dad-time? Maybe Mom needed time for herself, or with my sister, who was fifteen. Maybe Mom and Dad had their own issues – every couple has them from time to time, I know now – and my Saturday evenings with Dad were the result. I remember being puzzled, and I know that whatever I thought at the time, I came to no conclusions.

So there the minor mystery lies, forty-seven years later. I never asked Dad about it, and I have no idea what he’d have said. He was a pretty private man, my dad was, and I know very little about what he thought or felt about his life, or if he even spent time pondering how that life had unreeled for him. But I still think of him every time the RealPlayer falls on a couple of records by Frank Sinatra. I wrote a little about “Summer Wind” once, and that still brings Dad to mind.

But so, too, does one of Sinatra’s greatest performances, “It Was A Very Good Year.” If anyone was, Frank Sinatra was the voice of my father’s generation, and Dad might have found himself nodding to Sinatra’s interpretation of Ervin Drake’s song and its reflective nostalgia. So as I think about my Saturday nights with Dad during early 1966 and wonder why they happened, I find it fitting that “It Was A Very Good Year” was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Easy Listening chart forty-seven years ago this week.