Agnello in Salsa – and a curious memory of Denison, Iowa

Welcome to Denison, Iowa

Not long ago, my wife and I spent an evening in Denison, Iowa, the birthplace of Donna Reed (born Donna Belle Mullenger), star of movies and her own eponymous TV series. Her teenage daughter on the show was played by Shelley Fabares, who is now married to Mike Farrell, a man I worked with for a few days. He’s a terrific guy and, though I don’t know Shelley Fabares, she must be a terrific woman to be with Mike. Continue that thought, and Donna Reed must have been a great person to have worked with Shelley, and apparently she was (she died in 1986). These tendrils of connection intrigue me.

Donna Reed and Shelley Fabares, publicity still, “The Donna Reed Show”






All that said, we learned that Denison greatly values its connection to Donna Reed, but otherwise is not a town you’re likely to visit, since it’s tucked away near Iowa’s western border at considerable distance from major highways.

Regardless, my wife and I, on the way east through Iowa by back roads, ended up there for a night. We found a mom-and-pop motel on the edge of town that was nearly vacant. It had a small pool and a fitness center and a very friendly proprietor who seemed to be, at the moment, on the outs with his teenage son.

Feeling under-exercised, we found our way to the Fitness Center. Treadmill, elliptical, weights, all the basics.

“Wow,” she said. “Ashtrays in the Fitness Center.”

Yep. I recall seeing three standing ashtrays – one by the treadmill, one near the weight machine, one near the hot tub. Some had butts in them.

“Very considerate,” I said, “when you’re hot and sweaty and exhausted and need a smoke.”

“Once in a lifetime. Ashtrays in a Fitness Center.”

True, this cannot be repeated at any motel throughout the entire country, assuming the proprietor is not plum crazy. Just a few days ago I asked my wife if she remembered Denison, Iowa. She said, “No.” I then asked, “Ashtrays in the fitness center,” and it all came back instantly and clearly.

It’s comforting, in a way, to have something absolutely wacko to trigger a long-ago memory. Otherwise, Denison, Iowa might fade into the mists of memory oblivion, Donna Reed notwithstanding.


Tuscan Lamb with Parsley (Agnello in Salsa)

For years this blog has betrayed a nearly obsessive delight in Italian cuisine, especially recipes that are miserly on ingredients, using only what’s necessary to celebrate simple and honest flavors. This particular dish is rustic cooking at its best, and as usual makes excellent use of the holy trinity of Italian staples – garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes. It’s clean and pure, with no folderol, and has wonderful flavor with a hint of peppery bite.

You’ll need (for two people):
  • • 2 lbs. of tender lamb, preferably from the leg, cut into stew-sized pieces
  • • 2 ozs. olive oil
  • • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • • 1 dried red serrano or red jalapeno pepper, diced with no seeds (I say “red” because it adds color to this dish; I say “no seeds” because you will regret it otherwise)
  • • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary – about 2 tbsp.
  • • salt and pepper
  • • 1/2 cup white wine
  • • 1 lb. diced fresh tomato, or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
Now do these things:

In a casserole or large skillet, sauté the garlic, parsley, chili pepper and rosemary in olive oil till softened.  Add the chunks of lamb, a dash of salt and pepper to taste, and brown the meat on medium, adding a little wine. Sprinkle with more wine as it cooks. After a few minutes, raise the heat to evaporate the wine.  Add the tomatoes, and cook on low for about 10 mins. uncovered and about another 10-15 mins covered. If there’s too much moisture, and in my experience there always is, drain most of it while cooking. Test the lamb for tenderness and keep cooking as needed until the lamb chunks are soft and juicy.

Since this is a Tuscan favorite, we serve it with a good Chianti and a side salad.

There it is. Mangia bene!


My books are here…

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.