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Winter Is Not All Bad

Winter Is Not All Bad

Winter is not all bad. That was my mantra a couple days ago when a surprise storm dumped 9 inches of snow on our town in a few hours. It was very pretty coming down (good news) and half of it had melted by evening (even better news). If all snowstorms were like that, I’d be a big fan.

Winter is my least favorite season. My reasons begin with cold and dark and snow. They end with 25 years teaching elementary school, during which I spent 4-5 months of every year supervising kids who at least 6 times a day were either putting on or taking off hats, scarves, mittens, snow pants, coats, and boots.

However, winter is not all bad. Kind of like fictional characters, who need to be a mixture of good and bad, like real people. For instance, the protagonist of See Jane Run! has good characteristics such as caring for kids and seeking justice by catching the bad guy. And the bad guy, who shall remain nameless, is bad. But not all bad. He reinvented himself after a bad break. And he’s a good listener.

But what, you may be wondering, is good about winter? The answer is soup. By my way of thinking, soup season begins with the first snow, so this year’s soup season will be longer than usual. To celebrate this goodness, here are links to my favorite soup and stew recipes. Except for Mom’s Chili, they entered my recipe bank after we moved to Iowa.

  1. Mom’s Chili
  2. French Stew
  3. Minestrone
  4. Crock Pot Bean Soup
  5. Slow Cooker Chicken Thai Soup
  6. Turkey Tortilla Soup

Do you have a favorite soup or stew recipe? Please share it in the comments below and leave a link to the recipe if you can.

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Concrete Withdrawal

Concrete Withdrawal

Concrete withdrawal was something I dealt with during our first year in South Dakota. The memory surfaced yesterday while we watched a skilled crew of men pour the floors of the basement bump out and the downstairs and upstairs garages.

To me it looked like our addition boasted more concrete than all of Camp Crook’s paved outdoor surfaces. The town had no paved roads or paved parking lots. There wasn’t a house in town with an outdoor patio. During a reading lesson that included “curb” as a vocabulary word, my student asked, “What’s a curb?”

I thought a while. “Have you gone shopping with your parents in Belle Fourche?”


“Well, you know how when you park downtown, you get out of your car and go to where the street and the sidewalk meet?”

She nodded.

“You know the bit where the sidewalk is higher than the street and you step up?”

Another nod.

“That’s the curb.”

Big grin.

To be fair, Camp Crook did have more concrete outside than our addition has. The gas station had some around the pump. The Forest Service complex had a few sidewalks. So did the school and a couple buildings on Main Street. Across from the school was what everyone in town called “the concrete slab.” It was a fenced in area about the size of a basketball court complete with baskets. But that wasn’t enough for a young woman who came from an Iowa town with paved sidewalks, roads, and parking lots everywhere.

In a letter to a high school friend, I said I was going through concrete withdrawal. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know it wasn’t concrete withdrawal. It was culture shock. Jane deals with the same sensation in See Jane Run! and subsequent books in the Tipperary County Mystery series. Until she learns, like I did,

that gravel roads are safer to drive on during the winter–and the winters are long on the tall grass prairie,
that raised wooden decks are better than concrete patios in summer–because it takes longer for mosquitos to hunt you down, and
that gravel roads and walkways lead to houses filled with people who welcome you inside whenever you visit.

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Life with My Heart in Two Places

Life with My Heart in Two Places

Life with my heart in two places was hard for many years. Writing fiction helps me cope, though my homesickness will remain as long as I live.

Life with my heart in two places began in 1978 when Hiram and I moved from the ice cream capitol of the world in Le Mars, Iowa to a remote part of South Dakota. I was homesick for paved roads, orderly green fields of corn and soybean, and living close to the library and stores. And my family. I really missed my family.

Not surprising since I was twenty-two and away from home from the first time.

The surprising bit began seven years later when we moved back to Iowa, and I became homesick for South Dakota. My homesickness continues to this day, even though my morning walks along the lake are filled with beautiful views. I snapped this picture and imagined what fall must be like in Harding County as the cottonwoods drop their leaves against a backdrop of rugged buttes and short grass prairie.

Life with my heart in two places won’t end as long as I’m on this earth.

Writing fiction is the perfect way to cope with homesickness. Every afternoon I sit in our Iowa living room, open my work in progress, which on this day is Hear Jane Sing!, and start writing. Immediately I’m in the town where we once lived, surrounded by the children and families I still love. I can smell the crisp, fall air and almost touch the stars hanging low in a sky untouched by light pollution. When it’s time to fix supper, I return to Iowa where a trip to the grocery store for missing ingredients takes ten minutes or less.

So far as life with my heart in two places goes, this is the best of both worlds.

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Ekalaka, Montana: The First Town Over the Border

Ekalaka, Montana: The First Town Over the Border

Ekalaka is the first town west of Camp Crook, the town upon which See Jane Run! and the rest of the Tipperary County Mystery series is based. I snickered when I first heard the town’s name because, I mean really, who names their town something that sounds like a cheerleading chant.

Ekalaka, Ekalaka, shish boom bah!

Someone mentioned that Ekalaka was named after an Indian princess. An interesting factoid to toss around, but that was all to a young college graduate who was pretty sure she knew everything. Before life broadened her lens and took her down a peg or two.

In June of 2007 a fellow writer, who had once lived in Ekalaka, and I visited the tiny western towns where we had once lived. We toured Ekalaka’s museum, which was amazing for a county seat which boasts a population of 369. The museum even has a complete stegosaurus skeleton. More on that in another post.

The exhibit about Ijkalaka Eagle Man, the town’s namesake, took the older and wiser me down a few more pegs. Like twenty. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. When I read the plaque under Ekalaka’s portrait, I thought of the changes she experienced–moving from a Native American upbringing to life on a ranch to her marriage.

How did she navigate those changes? What was it like to see her way of life obliterated? How did it feel to learn you were worth eight horses and a hundred pounds of sugar?  

Those are questions I’d love to explore and answer in a novel. Maybe once the Tipperary County mysteries have run their course. The wonderful thing about fiction is that once the research about a time period and place is done, imagination and life experience can fill in the gaps. They can answer the question that’s niggled at me since I read the plaque in the museum: What it was about Ekalaka that led white settlers to name a town after her? In my book, that’s a question worth answering and a story worth writing.

Eklalaka. It’s a wonderful name for a town.

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Caramel Rolls: An All-Time Favorite

Caramel Rolls: An All-Time Favorite

Caramel rolls have been an all time favorite at our house for decades. Ever since my mother-in-law gave me this cookbook when we lived in South Dakota.

During our years in Harding County, South Dakota, I added 2 cook books to what was a meager collection. The first was the Camp Crook Centennial Cook Book. which I purchased after it came out in 1982. The second, the Better Homes and Gardens All-Time Favorites that was published in 1979, was a gift from my mother-in-law Elsie Philo. Anyone who knew Elsie for more than ten minutes knows that she didn’t like to cook. At all. However she knew I loved to cook, so I received her gift with heartfelt gratitude.

Many of the recipes were on the fancy side, requiring either ingredients small grocery stores didn’t carry or preparation time beyond my limited supply as a country school teacher and mother to a toddler with significant medical needs. But I have used the basic sweet dough recipe found on page 380 for almost 40 years, and it’s the reason for the cook book’s worn cover. This past weekend, I made caramel rolls using the basic sweet roll recipe as I have always done on one fall Saturday or another as the weather turns cool.

Caramel rolls have been an all time favorite at our house for decades. Ever since my mother-in-law gave me this cookbook when we lived in South Dakota.

I made 2 double batches of the recipe below and baked them in pans of 12 rolls each. Our freezer now holds 7 foil-wrapped packages and our collective stomachs (Hiram, our daughter, our-son-in-law, the toddler, and mine. Our grandson has his own gluten-free version.) hold the contents of 1 dozen. Here’s the recipe updated to be dairy-free and for kneading by a mixer with a dough hook, something not available in what my grandchildren refer to as “the olden days.”

Basic Sweet Roll Dough

3 1/2 to 4 cups unbleached flour (I used 2/3s whole wheat bread flour)
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup water for dairy free
1/8 cup sugar
1/4 cup lard
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs

In large mixer bowl, combine 2 cups of flour and the yeast. In saucepan, heat water, sugar, lard, and salt until mixture is warm (just begins steaming) and lard is melted. Add to flour in the mixing bowl. Add the eggs.

Beat on low speed of electric mixer for 30 seconds, scraping sides of bowl constantly. Beat 3 minutes at high speed. Using dough hook on mixer, stir in as much remaining flour as possible. Continue mixing until dough is smooth and elastic and comes away from the bowl’s side to form a ball on the dough hook (6 to 8 minutes). Remove from the bowl and shape into a ball.

Place ball of dough in lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease surface. Cover. Let rise in a warm place until double (45–60 minutes). Punch dough down. Turn out onto lightly floured surface. Continue as directed below.

Caramel Rolls

Basic Sweet Roll Dough
3 tablespoons Earth Balance buttery vegan sticks, melted
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter (Earth Balance or coconut oil for dairy free)
2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Combine 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup Earth Balance and corn syrup in a saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly until shortening is melted and mixture is blended. Distribute mixture evenly in two 9×1 1/2 round or two 8×8 square pans or one 9 x 13 cake pan.

Roll sweet dough into a 24×16 inch rectangle. Brush with melted Earth Balance. Combine 2 tablespoons brown sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle mixture over dough. Starting from long side, roll up dough jelly-roll style. Seal seam. Slice into 24 rolls.

Place rolls, cut side down, in prepared baking pans. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double (about 30 minutes). Bake at 375° for 18–20 minutes. Cool about 30 seconds. Invert onto racks covered with foil and remove pans. Makes 24 rolls.

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