Day #83: Finding Betty Crocker

Finding Betty Crocker

My grandmother began working as the cook for a doctor’s family in the small town near their farm when she was 18. Her brother was the family’s chauffeur. It was a very small town. I’ve always been bemused that the family had servants. My grandmother was a very good cook. She had a large family who could always be assured of tasty meals when they visited for a weekend or a week. Grandma had a large garden. She canned, froze blueberries and the fish Grandpa caught, and ordered 20 pounds of flour at a time for the six loaves of bread she baked every Monday morning and the pies she baked several times a week.

I remember distinctly going to my grandmother’s pantry in the late Sixties and finding two boxes of cake mix. I was shocked. My grandmother had never made anything out of a box. “It’s much easier,” she explained. “And it saves time. It’s cheaper, too.”

I have the records of my grandmother’s cooking: recipes she saved which she annotated, newspaper clippings, and ads she cut out of magazines for products she must have wanted to try. There are recipes written in other hands sharing a dessert or bread or salad enjoyed when everyone got together for a meal. It was the late Sixties when more and more of those recipes called for a cake mix. Betty Crocker. Duncan Hines. Pillsbury. Each of those cake mixes had a persona who helped to sell the brand. Duncan Hines was a real person. Betty Crocker was not. And the Pillsbury Dough Boy ….

I am grateful for the book Finding Betty Crocker. Author Susan Marks shares how the marketing techniques developed that would make Betty Crocker one of the most well-known brands—and women—in the country. It’s a wonderful, chatty, eye-opening book about marketing and the anthropology of women’s lives in the United States. I once had our marketing book club read the book and it engaged us in conversation for hours. It’s eye-opening.

Day #78: I’ve Got Mail!

When I was quite young, my grandparents had a mail slot in the front of their house. It was metal. There was a flap that clanged to announce the mail had arrived. When the mail slid onto the floor, I rushed to pick it up and deliver it to my grandmother. Receiving the mail remains a daily thrill for me (except when it’s -40ºF and they smartly keep the letter carriers at home). In an era in which sending an e-mail or an e-card is expedient, I am always grateful when a card or letter arrives in the post. I especially appreciate those that appear for no reason at all but to say “Hello. Here’s what’s going on in my life.” I always notice the stamps, how it was postmarked, and the visual aspects of each piece. I love mail!

postal mail

Day #77: Snowstorm!

On this Minnesota day, I am GRATEFUL to be working from home, as I have been for 30 years. (When I first began working from a home office, it was so unusual that I was written up in several magazines. How times have changed.) There are disadvantages (I can work 24/7) but I am thankful to not be on the roads. I am mindful of all the people driving in challenging conditions, sending my best wishes for your safety. (Thanks to Steve Palmquist for bravely stepping outside to take this photo. Mind you, as of 4:00 am, our weather forecasters were quite certain we would get no more than one inch of snow today. Um-hmm.) Apparently I am also thankful for parenthetical statements.


Day #76: Showering

What’s your best place to think? Mine is in the shower. All kinds of ideas are borne in that soothing cascade of water. I get a lot of writing done. I have to focus to remember what I’ve composed in my head until I can write it down. I’m grateful for the privilege of taking a shower. I have to think fast. I am sharply aware that the world’s water resources are threatened so my thinking has to occur quickly. How about you? Where do you do your best thinking?

shower head

Day #70: Cheese Grater

I know, what a weird thing to be grateful for, but this cheese grater is important in our lives. Roughly 20 years ago, I started coughing about 15 minutes after eating in some restaurants. I talked with my doctor, asked other people, and no one knew what could be causing this. The reaction increased: I could barely breathe for five minutes, my voice was raspy, my head plugged up, and I coughed and coughed. Through trial and error, we figured out that it was a reaction to two things, PHO (partially hydrogenated oil—trans fats) and propylene glycol (which is used to keep food, such as grated cheese, from sticking together). I have to be very picky about what I eat in a restaurant … and we’ve stopped buying grated cheese. With this wonderful cheese grater, it is very easy to grate your own cheese … and it saves money! (At Ikea, it’s a Stralande Rotary Cheese and Food Grater; adjustable for left- or right-hand use)

Day #61: The Morning Program

When I was a teen, I remember sitting in a friend’s kitchen with the producer of a show on our public radio station. “Are you listening to The Morning Program on MPR?” Um, no. I was listening to light rock, Top 10. I was 16. “You should be,” she exclaimed. “It’s the best thing on radio.” She immediately turned the radio on. We listened while finishing our breakfast. I was intrigued.

Garrison Keillor and Jim Ed Poole (Tom Keith) played folk and classical music and performed skits with characters who became members of the family (Dr. Larry Kyle, B. Marty Barry, Captain Billy). From 6 to 9 am Monday through Friday, listeners were transported to another realm.

Tom Keith and Dale Connelly. [Photo: Bruce Bisping / Star Tribune]

When Garrison Keillor left for A Prairie Home Companion, Dale Connelly became Jim Ed’s co-host. Tom Keith was a master at sound effects and voices. Dale Connelly wrote skits and dialogue which the two performed EVERY WEEKDAY. A true feat. Together, their sense of humor and wry observations of life helped listeners be aware of the world without taking everything too seriously. They were a tour de force. The show stopped broadcasting in December 2008, leaving a hole in my heart.

I have a playlist of Morning Show songs including “Rooty Toot Toot for the Moon,” “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Little Potato,” “Waltzing with Bears,” and “Easter Island.” I play those songs when I need a reminder. But the music, and the voices of Jim Ed and Dale, play in my mind. I am grateful that they are so prominent in the music of my life. As Greg Brown sang, “What good is the radio without you?”

Day #57: Star Trek

In 1966, a television show set in Outer Space debuted on Thursday nights. I was twelve. My mother wouldn’t let me watch the show. But I was already reading everything I could find about “outer space.” The show was irresistible for me. When reruns ran during the day, this latchkey kid watched every episode. I read books set within the Star Trek universe and I continued to learn in real-time about the space program, ongoing exploration, and the courageous adventurers who set off into the cosmos. That TV show and its subsequent iterations are a constant thread for me, a connection to story that is strong and vital. I am grateful to the new generations of writers, actors, and crew members who keep the mythology dynamic. (A new season of Star Trek Discovery began last night—it’s on my mind.)

Day #55: Cloth Napkins

Many years ago, we stopped using paper napkins. Cloth napkins feel so nice and they dress up even the most informal table. A number of our guests look at us askance and eventually ask something like, “Why would you want to wash napkins?” Well, you know, that landfill thing.

We have white napkins that go with any table setting. Some of our tablecloths have matching napkins, but I love the variety because a tablescape can always look different. And you can sew your own!

And then there’s napkin folding! What a joy! I always reserve five or ten minutes before guests arrive to sit down calmly and enjoy folding napkins. I have a book that I flip through for inspiration but just try looking up “folding napkins” on Pinterest! Wow. Endless inspiration.

I am grateful for opportunities to make everyday life and special occasions beautiful.