Several of my co-workers are Catholic; and a few days ago I heard them discussing Lent.

One said she had given up beer for Lent, but would likely switch to vodka. It didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice … though this person has given more time and attention to the church than I ever will, so I am not one to judge.

It seems like most discussions of Lent I hear have a somewhat farcical edge, like the one above. Few of them ever seem to involve real self-denial. Perhaps that has gone by the wayside. (Or perhaps I do not travel in deeply religious circles, which is the most likely answer.)

My grandparents, as previously discussed, were not deeply religious either. However, Lent made its way into their consciousness each February. Or at least it did in a couple Februaries for which I have calendar entries, covering the full 15-year scope of my grandpa’s calendars.

February 12, 1975.

February 12, 1975. Presumably the start of Lent was not contingent on Mertz calling.

February 27 and 28, 1964.

February 27 and 28, 1964. “Lenten sign” was presumably one of the pieces of signage my grandpa created for his church.

February 15 (up top of George), 1961.

February 15 (up top of George), 1961.

This raises an interesting question for me: What would my grandparents and great-grandma have given up for Lent?

Their lives were pretty plain-Jane, and not long in indulgences to begin with. Perhaps my grandfather gave up saying “damn,” or eating sauerbraten, or drinking the half-beers he used to split with my great-grandmother.

Or maybe, by my dad’s telling, they gave up nothing at all:

I have no recollection of anyone giving up anything for Lent.  If anyone did, it would have been Grossee, but I don’t remember anything being different at mealtime or any other time during Lent.  No one ever went to any sort of Ash Wednesday service (don’t think Springdale Methodist had one).  

I suppose it’s possible that my grandfather put Lent on his calendar out of some sense of civic obligation. But, I still can’t help but wonder whether he actually did make a commitment to give something up.

If I really had my act together, I’d check his calendars 40 days later and see if he left a record of reveling in anything. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do that, though.

I dunno. I guess I’ll leave the topic there and go indulge in one of the fleshly sins I give in to year-round.

I’ve written a couple times about my grandpa and grandma going out for a restaurant meal, and I’ve always wondered what they ordered.

In their day and age, a night out to celebrate usually meant a steak of some sort, and I’m sure my grandpa enjoyed more than a few of those.

There is one dish, though, that I know my grandfather enjoyed at home and at restaurants, when he could get it.

I know this because — you guessed it — he expressed his fondness for it on his calendar.

Exhibit A, from January 29, 1966, involves a meal out:

January 29, 1966.

January 29, 1966. Hugo’s used to be a German restaurant (don’t see many of those any more) somewhere in Fairfield County. I ate there once myself, in the spring of 1981, as part of a huge family gathering to celebrate my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It’s possible I had the sauerbraten, but I don’t remember.

And Exhibit B, from almost exactly the same time the year before, features a meal at home.

January 26 and 27, 1965. Some people look forward to Shark Week, others to Sauerbraten Week.

January 26 and 27, 1965. Some people look forward to Shark Week, others to Fashion Week, and still others to Sauerbraten Week.

Despite being fairly handy and experimentative in the kitchen, I’d never made sauerbraten. The thought had never even crossed my mind.

But when I saw these two calendar entries, I knew I would have to give it a try. My grandpa would expect nothing less.

To the kitchen, then.

# # # # #

Sauerbraten, for anyone not familiar with the concept, is an old German recipe in which a beef roast is marinated for several days in a mix of vinegar and spices before being cooked pot-roast fashion. The marinade cooks with the meat, and is then thickened to serve as gravy.

It’s solid, stick-to-your-ribs fare, perfect for wintry nights … but not bland or lacking in nuance, like some such dishes can be.

Unfortunately, I do not have my great-grandma’s sauerbraten recipe. So I took my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking in hand and went to work.

The principal ingredients.

The principal ingredients.

The beef prepares to enter the fridge, ensconced in a soak of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, onion powder and maybe a trace of nutmeg.

The beef prepares to enter the fridge, ensconced in a soak of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, onion powder and maybe a trace of nutmeg.

Joy says sauerbraten should soak anywhere from two to four days (Wikipedia suggests as long as 10, but that sounded long to me.)

I gave my beef about three-and-a-half days, turning occasionally, which seemed like a good amount of time. And when it came out on Saturday afternoon, it looked like this:

German food is -- how does one say this? -- not the sexiest of cuisines.


The next step was to brown the meat on all sides while warming up the marinade in a separate pan:


Then, everything went into the oven for about three-and-a-half hours at 320 degrees. (In the interim I did some laundry; shoveled off my deck; napped on the couch; and started making spaetzle, Teutonic mini-dumplings that go nicely with just about anything German.)

At the appointed time, I took the meat out of the oven and admired my handiwork and … well, I’m pretty sure I screwed it up.

See, all the pix of sauerbraten I’ve ever seen show it as conventional slices of beef, like a pot roast looks.

But the beef I had had the breaking-down texture of barbecued beef or pork — more suitable for pulling into long strings.

So that’s what I did with it. Who am I to blow against the wind?


After doing that, I strained the remaining marinade and combined it with a bit of light cream and some crushed gingersnaps — an old cook’s trick to add both body and spice to the sauce.

How do you say "secret ingredient" in German?

How do you say “secret ingredient” in German?

For the final touches, I served some applesauce as a side dish, and poured the sort of light American pilsner that would have been common in my grandfather’s time.


How was it?

Well, I’m still not sure I made it right — I don’t think real sauerbraten is supposed to break down into strings. (Joy suggested several different cuts of beef, but the one I chose may not have been the same cut most commonly used by German cooks.)

But it tasted pretty good — considerably better than it looked. It was pleasantly puckery without being overbearing, and the gravy added a nice sweetness to the meat and the spaetzle.

In between the vinegary tang and the moist, sweet sauce, it came out almost like a German twist on barbecue.

My older son and wife ate heartily, and even my younger son — who usually assumes a high-handed Statler-and-Waldorf contempt toward my cooking — ate a good amount and suggested I make it again.

I think my grandpa would have enjoyed it as well … though at first glance, he probably would have asked me what I did with the sauerbraten he’d been waiting three days for.

“Hoping that our youth may be persuaded to love and imitate the virtues of the men whose great names they have been accustomed, from the cradle, to lisp with veneration, I have long coveted to set these virtues before them.”
- Mason Locke Weems

This week we find ourselves in the retrospectively sunny world of JFK’s New Frontier, face to face with one of America’s enduring myths.

When first I looked at the calendar entry for February 22, 1963 — nine months to the day before Dallas — I squinted at the dotted apparition in the center.

What in the fresh hell is that supposed to be? I thought, sipping my Ward 8. There’s no plant or tree that looks so vibrant and alive in February in Connecticut. February is too late for holly berries, and too early for apples. What IS that?

And then I remembered a certain American legend involving an axe, and a fruit tree, and an honest little boy who grew up to have a federal holiday proclaimed in his honor.

February 22, 1963. Axe and boy not shown.

February 22, 1963. Axe, boy and ham dinner not shown.

Mason Locke Weems, the author who gave the world the cherry-tree story, is known today — to those who remember him at all — for never letting the truth get in the way of a saleable bit of hagiography.

The snippet of “biography” that gave the world the cherry-tree story can be read at Weems’ Wiki page. Project Gutenberg, meanwhile, gives us the texts of Weems’ biographies of Francis Marion and Benjamin Franklin.

(The Franklin bio is titled, “The Life of Benjamin Franklin. With Many Choice Anecdotes and admirable sayings of this great man never before published by any of his biographers.” Reminds me of the remarkable, unprecedented access Clifford Irving had to Howard Hughes.)

Here’s a choice bit from page one of the Franklin biography; I’ll buy a cherry pie for anyone who can stand to read the whole book:

Some men carry letters of recommendation in their looks, and some in their names. ‘Tis the lot but of few to inherit both of these advantages. The hero of this work was one of that favoured number. As to his physiognomy, there was in it such an air of wisdom and philanthropy, and consequently such an expression of majesty and sweetness, as charms, even in the commonest pictures of him. And for his name, every one acquainted with the old English history, must know, that Franklin stands for what we now mean by “Gentleman,” or “clever fellow.”

I find it interesting how a scrap of fiction, apparently made up out of whole cloth as Weems dipped his quill, could become an entrenched bit of national lore known to every generation of Americans.

Nowadays, everyone knows the cherry-tree story isn’t true. (This is not a recent development; I’m sure my grandpa knew this in February 1963.)

But everyone knows the story anyway. Even in the skeptical 21st century, when warts-and-all is the rule and presidents have feet of clay, this antiquated, hopelessly sunny legend still goes around.

Just to verify that schoolkids today still hear the cherry legend, I went upstairs and asked my kids, aged 14 and 11. They hastened to tell me it wasn’t true — but they’d both heard it. (Neither of them could quite remember when and where, which suggests it was some time ago.)

No matter what you think of the relative virtues of truth and falsehood, the eternal resilience of the story is kind of charming.

America’s stock of shared lore is like a patchwork quilt — Paul Bunyan in red plaid over here, steel-drivin’ John Henry in stark gray and black there, Johnny Appleseed in russet dapple in the corner … and a little boy with a white-flowered cherry tree right in the middle, one of the oldest and best-stitched patches of all, as if affixed by some wizened, winsome national grandma.

Taking the cherry tree out of the quilt now would just about require unraveling the whole thing. And Americans, even in the darkest of times, have never bought into that idea.

So Mason Weems’ bald-faced lie will probably outlast us all … as it outlasted our fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers.

I wonder whether any legends of our current crop of presidents — or any truths, for that matter — will last as long.

One of the two calendar items shown this week is still current, while the other is faded and gone.

I don’t know if, given the choice in 1974, my grandfather would have predicted which would be which.

February 5-6, 1974.

February 5-6, 1974.

The CPI inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website says 55 cents in 1974 has the same purchasing power as $2.64 today.

Two dollars and sixty-four cents is well more than the current price of a gallon of gas where I live — and that’s not including the discounts you can get by buying through grocery stores or discount clubs.

Just the other night, my wife used a whole bunch of piled-up gas discount points that were about to expire, and ended up filling her tank for roughly $1.25 per gallon.

Whether this run of low gas prices is a good thing is debatable … and it certainly isn’t going to last forever.

Still, if you dropped my grandfather into 2015 and gave him an inflation calculator to work with, he would recognize the gas prices of the moment as roughly akin to what he used to pay in the Seventies.

(His underline of 55 cents suggests he maybe wasn’t thrilled about paying that price. So he wouldn’t necessarily be happy. But he wouldn’t be shocked, either.)

On the other hand, the days of using phone books are going, maybe even gone — never mind the days when one left oneself a note to remember to start using the latest edition.

There was only one phone book then, I’m fairly certain. That’s not like today, when we seem to get two or three different versions a year and we don’t need any of them.

Once in the bluest of moons, I will take out a phone book and look something up. Usually, it’s when I need someone to perform a service I don’t need very often, and I’m too lazy to go downstairs to Google it, and the phone’s charging so I can’t look it up on that, and I’ve forgotten to ask a co-worker for a recommendation. This happens maybe three or four times a year, and the number dwindles as the years pass.

It’s interesting: Running an Internet search for, say, barbers in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania will still turn up a lot of dead-end links, false-front pages and general crap. It’s not a perfect process by any means.

And yet, most people I know prefer the online search, hassles and all, to the familiar, time-honored method of looking in a phone book — to the point where the print lookup is pretty much obsolete.

(I should watch my words, I suppose. I’m sure the phone book still has its loyalists, all of whom probably read Hope Street and will let me know in no uncertain terms that they still prefer the old ways. Phone books are still good for propping up stuff that needs a little more height, too. And they burn a while, if you’ve got a fire pit in the yard.)

Small-town phone book meets its maker, Keuka Lake, N.Y. I still think there's at least one great story in this image but I don't know what it is.

Small-town phone book meets its maker, Keuka Lake, N.Y. I still think there’s at least one great story in this image but I don’t know what it is. Maybe if I look under “W” for Writers, Fiction …

Last Monday night, I put up a special bonus post about an interesting person who’d crossed paths with the Blumenaus of Stamford, Connecticut.

Turns out that the student minister at their church in the late 1950s (minor edit: student minister, not youth minister) rode with the Freedom Riders in the Deep South … took part in the remarkable burglary of an FBI office, helping to expose the Bureau’s surveillance of U.S. citizens … and taught at Temple University for forty-plus years.

I might have just given away the meat of it; but if you missed it, consider reading it anyway. It’s quite a yarn.

Before I get into this week’s regularly scheduled calendar entry, I’m going to touch on an amusing thought I didn’t discuss in that post.

My grandfather –the guy who kept the calendars — was a law-and-order type. Not in the knee-jerk Southern-sheriff fashion, but in the sense that he believed in respecting authority and obeying all applicable laws.

Like other Americans of his generation, he’d been exposed to plenty of pro-FBI mass-media messages. He probably believed that if J. Edgar Hoover was watching you, you’d done something to deserve it.

When the story of the FBI burglary unfolded in the newspapers, my grandfather was most likely appalled. Those lawless kids, he would have thought. Where will they stop? What kind of criminal would do something like that?

He never would have imagined for a moment that the charming, intelligent, clean-cut student minister who had connected with his kids — heck, who had probably sat at his table for a cup of coffee — was among the masterminds.

The minister’s intelligence and ability to connect with others made a deep impression on my dad. My dad believes that, if the minister had been able to sit down and talk with my grandpa, my grandpa would have understood his point of view and recognized, if not endorsed, the need for civil disobedience.

It’s a shame that didn’t happen — it would have been a conversation for the ages — but of course it couldn’t, for any number of reasons.

And so my grandpa went about his daily life, walking the line, never suspecting he had a personal connection to the rebellious counterculture.

mediaoffice# # # # #

And now for our regularly scheduled post, which will reaffirm how mainstream and conservative my grandfather was.

Over the 15-year timespan of my grandpa’s surviving calendars (1961 through 1975), both he and Richard Nixon had pretty eventful rides.

This week’s calendar features a high point in Nixon’s experience; and it seems like my grandpa relished it as well.

January 20, 1969.

January 20, 1969. An uncharacteristic bout with bad spelling.

When first I wrote about my grandpa and Richard Nixon, my dad wrote in to suggest the former was not that strongly attached to the latter.

My grandfather — a Nixon voter, and a classifiable member of Nixon’s famous “silent majority” — was not one to get worked up about politics or politicians, my dad said.

This week’s calendar entry makes me think that my grandfather liked Nixon a little bit more than that.

I don’t think the other presidential inaugurations during that period (Democrats Kennedy in 1961 and Johnson in ’65, and Republican Nixon again in ’73) made it onto my grandfather’s calendars.

If they did, I didn’t take a picture of them … and I took a lot of pictures, so if I don’t have it, I don’t think it was there.

But Nixon’s first seems to have been a noteworthy occasion in my grandfather’s eyes. Maybe even an occasion to celebrate, given his use of Nixon’s campaign slogan. It sure looks in retrospect like “Nixon’s the one” seemed to Bill Blumenau like something worth repeating, even savoring.

Jan. 20 fell on a Monday in 1969, so my grandpa would probably not have watched the big event. I doubt Time-Life was so profligate in those days as to provide a TV set to distract its employees. He could have made the short drive home for lunch and turned on the tube, I suppose, but I doubt he would have done so. When a man’s at work, a man’s at work.

(By contrast, I remember watching Barack Obama’s first innaugeration — er, inauguration — on a flat-screen TV in a conference room at my current job. Having worked in newsrooms for a dozen years before that, it wouldn’t shock me if I’d seen at least parts of other ceremonies while on the job … though comparing a Nineties reporter’s job to a Sixties corporate gig is chalk and cheese.)

A 28-minute clip of Nixon’s first inaugural is available online, in probably much the same grainy quality my grandpa would have seen had he turned on his TV set at home.

Wiki, meanwhile, offers a transcript of his inaugural address. It’s a nicely written and even uplifting piece of work, full of references to brighter, turmoil-free tomorrows.

Watching Nixon confidently deliver it in the archival footage, it’s easy to understand how the average American would have bought in.