We’re all familiar with certain conversations that become confused, entangled, sidetracked, or completely derailed – for good or ill – due to one reason or another: a sudden burst of wit, a defensive attitude, a reliance on irony as a way to put a spin on an idea, or just plain mean old ugliness of heart. Consider:
“How you doin’, Jake?” “I been better, but it costs more.”
“How you doin’, Margaret?” “Almost as good as you, from what I hear.”
“How you been, Virgie?” “Damn code enforcer’s on my case.”
Each one of these might spawn a story, which I think is just fine – as long as both parties emerge mostly unscathed at the end. What’s fascinating to me is that there are a few people, scattered here and there, who would be scratching their heads at any and all of the above.
Every now and again on our road trips, I’ve encountered one of those people and entered a conversation that is utterly sublime in its straightforward simplicity and soul-calming in its obviousness. When it ends, and my wife and I are back in the car, I’ll feel I’ve just experienced something remarkable enough that I sense it as a slight tingling of the skin.
So it was in far western Missouri, just across the Missouri River from Atchison, Kansas. We were headed north to St. Joseph (St. Joe) and then on to Iowa to visit my son in Iowa City, but when we spotted a sign for Antique Furniture and Lamps, we thought, let’s take a break and have a look. We pulled into an empty parking area by an enormous barn, got out, and went in to find what must be America’s largest collection of old kerosene lamps.
There must have been hundreds of them – on tables, shelves, dangling from rafters, hanging on walls – of every size, shape and curvature, all of them glass and dazzling in their sparkly brilliance. And now the proprietor presented himself, a peaceful-looking man on the tail end of middle-age, with a hint of a smile.
“Looking for lamps?”
“Yes. We could use a couple of lamps.”
“Well, have a look around. There are more lamps upstairs.”
My wife and I poked around, admiring the huge variety of lamps, and soon the proprietor joined us again.
“Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Yes. I love old kerosene lamps.”
“We have a very large collection.”
“I can see that.”
“They are beautiful,” he said. “Would you like to see some finger lamps?”
“Yes. What are finger lamps?”
“They’re lamps that you carry with your finger.”
We went into a large side room that was home to hundreds of smaller lamps, all with one or two protruding glass finger rings.
“They’re all different,” I said.
“Yes. Almost every lamp here is different from all the others.” He picked one up, with a finger through the glass ring. “See? This is how they’re meant to be carried, with your finger through here. That way, you can easily carry the lamp from one table to another, or even to a different room, and feel pretty sure you won’t drop it. That’s why it’s designed this way.”
“Very clever design,” I offered.
“They knew what they were doing, making lamps like this.”
“They burn either oil or kerosene.”
“Yes, I know. We like kerosene.”
“I do too. It has a nice smell.”
“They’re all very pretty,” I said.
“Yes, they are. I enjoy looking at them, every time I start the day, and throughout the day. I especially like the finger lamps.”
My wife picked out a lamp to buy, and I chose another one – both finger lamps. As I recall, they were about $15 each, which was very reasonable. We got in the car and drove off in silence toward St. Joe, feeling oddly peaceful and refreshed. I wanted to tell her, “What just happened was exquisitely ordinary,” but I kept my thoughts to myself. I believed she may have felt the same way.
It was only about lamps, but of course it was more than that.
It’s comforting and reassuring to share in certain moments of absolute plain clarity, utterly lacking in surprise, irony, repressed tension or duplicity. Thank you to the man from the great Barn of Lamps, and to whatever piece of Midwest culture supports such uncommon expression.
Incredibly enough, it’s an easy leap of thought to introduce fried corn meal mush. It’s been a breakfast and supper favorite in the rural U.S. for generations – especially in the Midwest and South – and frequently appeared on the tables of my wife’s extended family in Indiana. It’s about the simplest recipe you’ll ever see, it isn’t the least bit “mushy,” it’s exquisitely ordinary and honest, and wonderfully delicious with hot syrup. Serve it for breakfast, or as a sweet side dish with a simple supper.
The only catch? This is an overnight dish: it needs to be cooked one day, refrigerated overnight, and fried the next day.
Traditional Fried Corn Meal Mush
You’ll need just a few things:
• 4 cups water
• 1 cup corn meal
• blend of half canola and half peanut oil
• maple syrup (or other syrup)
Get 3 cups of water boiling in a pan. In a bowl, mix 1 cup cold water with the corn meal and salt, and stir until well-blended. Pour or spoon the wet meal into the boiling water, stirring constantly (it’s good to use a long-handled spoon because the meal tends to spatter). Cook the mixture until it’s well-thickened (this happens pretty fast), stirring nearly constantly. Now cover the pan, and simmer gently for about five minutes.
Spoon the mixture into a nonstick loaf pan, cover with foil, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, pour off any water that may have separated from the mush. Slice the mush into pieces about 3/4″ thick, remove them carefully from the loaf pan, and dust them with flour. Fry in the oil blend (about 3/4″ deep in the pan should do it) over medium heat till golden brown and crispy on outside, using tongs to turn them over once. It takes a few minutes to cook them just right – crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle. Remove the pieces and drain on paper towels.
Now serve them up with warm syrup, and await the “mmm”s and “aaah”s.
I’ll be posting weekly from now on – usually Sunday mornings. Next week is a beautiful and delicious rustic Tuscan treatment of chunks of lamb, Agnello in Salsa, otherwise known as Lamb with Parsley.