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Posts Tagged ‘connecticut’

A couple odds and ends before we get into this week’s installation:

– For the two of you who dug the Hope’s Treat musical project, another of my offbeat musical explorations (not directly related to this blog) has been loosed on the world. The tunes live here; some writing that attempts to explain them is here.

– For the somewhat more of you who dug the blog post on sauerbraten, my parents very kindly unearthed my great-grandma’s sauerbraten recipe, along with a side recipe for potato dumplings.

If that sounds interesting to you, click here for the handwritten recipe. Let me know how yours turns out.

And now for this week’s adventures …

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I’m pretty well gassed when it comes to writing about my family.

There have been times in recent months when I’ve sworn that I’m not even going to think about anything that happened before I was 21, ever again, because I’ve spent so much time over the past four years picking it to shreds.

And, there have been lots of nights when I sat down at the computer and wondered what the hell else was possibly left to say. (Tonight, for a few minutes, was shaping up as one of those nights.)

I still plan to spend a bunch of time when I’m done here thinking about the history of freshwater mollusks, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, and chocolate milk, and a bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with my bloodline.

I find, though, that when I get burned out, something comes along to cheer me up and remind me why I do this.

Like the somewhat out-of-season calendar entry I’m featuring this week:

December 25 and 26, 1973.

December 25 and 26, 1973.

The first of two Els on my grandpa’s calendar — my Aunt Elaine — showed up, with her husband, at 1107 Hope Street in time for Christmas dinner. To extend the holiday festivities, my grandparents also talked on the phone with my dad and the other El, my Great-Aunt Eleanor.

If either El knew what my parents had in mind for the next day, they did an El of a job keeping it quiet.

My grandmother’s handwriting — my grandpa wouldn’t burst out like that — tells the story of what looks to have been a much-enjoyed post-Christmas surprise visit. I can only imagine the looks on their faces when Baby Kurt and family turned up at the door.

Since Aunt Elaine and her husband were already there, I’m guessing we stayed with my other grandparents elsewhere in Stamford. That’s the best kind of surprise visit — one where you can spend plenty of quality time, but don’t have to shoehorn borrowed cots and folded-out couches into every room in the house.

In fact, I know that’s what we did, because another entry from a few days later makes reference to a special sleepover on Hope Street. My grandfather’s all-caps seems a little more excited than normal — this visit seems to have been one surprise after another:

December 31, 1973.

A momentary pop-culture sidetrack: December 31, 1973, would have been my first New Year’s Eve. I doubt I stayed up long enough to catch the deliriously funky New Year’s special featuring George Carlin, Tower of Power and Billy Preston. But my dad, free of his kids for the night, just might have tuned in:

Anyway: When they planned their surprise visit, my folks might have had other things on their minds besides spreading holiday cheer.

Connecticut had been hit by a historically nasty ice storm a week-and-a-half before, and it’s possible my dad and my uncle came to town, in part, to save my grandfather the physical stress of cleaning his yard. (They spent some time doing just that, as recorded in an earlier blog post.)

Both sets of grandparents had also come to my folks’ aid three months before, after my mom got into a car accident. (Wrote about that too. See how I might get burned out?)  Perhaps, with my mom feeling better and more mobile, my folks came up for Christmas as a gesture of thanks.

Whatever the reasons, my parents’ surprise holiday visit seems to have pleased its unsuspecting recipients.

And that, to me, is refreshing, even inspirational.

I suppose that under everything I write — under all the YouTube links and wise-ass cultural references and lengthy digressions — is the spark of interpersonal contact with someone who is loved and cared about. That’s what family life is about, and what family history is about.

And that’s what happened the day after Christmas 41 years ago, when a big brown Plymouth Satellite pulled into the driveway on Hope Street.

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A little thematic music … but whatever you do, don’t dance.

To steal a phrase from the Mennonites, I consider myself to have been in the Eighties, but not of the Eighties.

Growing up in that decade, I spent most of it wanting to be somewhere else. Most of my cultural choices in my pre-teen and teenage years (long hair, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Saturday Night Fever and Midnight Cowboy, to name a few) evinced a desire to escape.

I couldn’t avoid the popular culture of my youth, though.

For instance, I was still listening to Top 40 radio (the late, unlamented WMJQ-92 in Rochester) when the movie Footloose hit big in 1984, dragging a whole raft of hit songs along with it.

The movie told the unlikely but apparently true story of an Oklahoma town that banned dancing, with Kevin Bacon (not yet a pop-culture in-joke) starring as the big-city drop-in who broke the elders’ grip on their children’s hips.

Sounds dopey now — and indeed, I think it was kinda dopey then — but it made its mark on People Of A Certain Age, even those who wished they were somewhere else.

I had to think of Footloose, and all the related Eighties baggage, when I saw this week’s calendar entry:

March 4, 1961.

March 4, 1961.

I dunno what was going on in the red print — something about birthday cards, gifts and Time magazine.

Instead, I concentrated on the black print, which says something about my dad the teenage musician having a gig (“Job”) but stipulating that the gig involved “no dancing.”

I found that curious for reasons having nothing to do with Kevin Bacon.

Stamford and its environs are not particularly fundamentalist, and certainly not the sort of places to prevent people from shaking their tail feathers.

Inevitably, I had to wonder: Where was this gig, and why did the musicians hired in advance know that people wouldn’t be dancing?

And what did it matter to my dad? Did his preparations for the gig somehow change, based on whether or not people would be cutting the rug? Did he have to adjust his musical phrasing to be as corny and square as possible, to discourage any would-be jivers from taking the floor?

I asked my dad, and not surprisingly, he was unable to recall this specific gig at almost 55 years’ distance. Nor did he recall why Terpsichore was not a welcome guest.

He did come up with one interesting suggestion based on the calendar entry. In those days, he sometimes brought musical “fake books” to gigs, to help him navigate unexpected and unfamiliar tunes. If he knew in advance there was not going to be any dancing, that might have been a cue to bring a different book.

In his words:

Pretty mundane, but at the very last “no dancing” would indicate a different repertoire, and therefore would probably be a clue to bring different music.

 I did occasionally play with folks I didn’t play with regularly, and brought a cardboard fold-away music stand (looked like one of those big band stands when assembled) from which I read.  Other times it was probably more a security blanket, but yeh, I brought it.

Funny how much you keep in your head at that age.  Nowadays when I write a gig on the calendar I write the time, who’s on the gig, the place, the dress, sometimes the pay (that’s usually in a contract I have in my filing system).  Can’t believe how cavalier I was about gigs then!

(Apparently, around this time, a Midwestern office of the FBI noted that “practically every professional musician in the country owns a copy of one of these fake music books.” The cultural history of the fake book would be a fascinating blog post … but, alas, this ain’t the one.)

So, who knows what the story was?

Perhaps there is some person in Stamford who recalls going to hear music but not being able to dance to it. Perhaps they were even the Dance Police, responsible for dragging rump-shakers off the floor and administering suitable punishment.

Like Footloose, it’s a long-ago memory now.

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It’s been a pleasure over the past few years to acquaint total strangers in cyberspace with people who were dear to me.

It’s also been interesting, from time to time, to acquaint myself with people in my family I never really got to know — as in this entry from a few years ago, and this one and this one as well.

We’ll do that again this week, as we step back in time 46 years to the funeral of a relative I wish I could have met.

March 13, 1969.

March 13, 1969.

Bob Kidd would have been my great-uncle, had we lived at the same time; but he could have been my grandfather.

Back in the ’30s in Springfield, Mass., Bob dated a young lady named Corine Wambolt. Then he decided that Corine’s more outgoing older sister Eleanor was more his type, and transferred his affections.

Corine went on to marry a draftsman named Bill Blumenau — the guy who kept the calendars — and, years later, became my grandmother. Bob Kidd and Eleanor also got married, had two sons, and settled in the Springfield area.

Bob and Eleanor on their wedding day, November 1940.

Bob and Eleanor on their wedding day, November 1940.

My dad’s description of his uncle:

Bob Kidd was a fun-loving, athletic, bright, truly funny man. Had kind of a New England nasal way of speaking. Self-made man. Worked for Holyoke Wire & Cable (I believe). High school graduate; was at one point a time-and-motion study person (forerunner of an industrial engineer), and ended up as a vice-president.

(Ancestry.com tells me that Bob’s Scottish-born father, Charles MacEwan Kidd, entered the U.S. from Canada in March 1911 through Rochester, New York — a city that would pop up again in Blumenau family affairs 55 years later. Coincidental, but interesting.)

The Blumenau and Kidd families spent time together fairly regularly when my dad and aunt were growing up. My dad still holds fond memories of those days, and of his funny, fun-loving uncle:

He and Eleanor were a great match; two of a kind. It was always fun to get together with them and our cousins.  Nice, decent, grounded Methodist folks, just a heck of a lot livelier and more fun than the Blumenaus!
The only time my father had beer was with Sunday dinner and whenever we got together with the Kidds.
Bob Kidd hula-hooping, 1958, at 1107 Hope Street.

Bob Kidd hula-hooping, 1958, at 1107 Hope Street. Can’t say whether beer was involved.

Nice, nice people. (This is my dad talking, again.)
Eleanor and Bob Kidd at my parents' wedding, July 1967.

Eleanor and Bob Kidd at my parents’ wedding, July 1967. Jeez, don’t they look happy?

Unfortunately, by my dad’s telling, the stresses of a vice-president’s job wore hard on Bob; my dad describes him as “more high-strung than he used to be” in his last years. Like most men of his age and time, he also smoked.

Both of these things might have contributed to his early death. On March 10, 1969, Bob Kidd died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 54.

My grandpa took it hard. My dad, who still remembers the phone call, has a few regrets regarding his passing as well:

I will forever feel guilty for not making that funeral; I had a bad cold and my ’66 Mustang was acting up with carburetor problems and I apparently had my priorities in the wrong place.  Uncle Bob was a great guy!

Clearly, from his calendar entry, my grandfather, grandma and aunt (who was in college in New Haven at the time) attended the service. He was not so grief-stricken that he couldn’t keep track of his mileage; but I don’t take that as a sign that the day was not meaningful to him.

My great-aunt Eleanor is still alive at 102, and has had the pleasure of meeting grandchildren and, I think, great-grandchildren as well.

I am sure she still feels her loss of 46 years ago. But, if it is any consolation, her husband is fondly remembered by those who met him.

And some who didn’t.

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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.

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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.

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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.

S-e-x-x-y.

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

101_7766

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?

101_7773

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.

101_7779

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.

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