The Power of Lentil Soup

A cold that had been threatening for a couple of days making my nose run and throat sore, strengthened overnight, and by Sunday morning was burrowing into my chest giving me a deep, rattling cough. The cold worsened even more last night, so I’m staying home from work today. I wonder what to have for lunch and remember the soup that I prepared on Sunday.

I signed up to make lentil soup for the Maundy Thursday Seder meal at the church later this week. Our church enjoys learning about and celebrating traditions of other faiths, and the Seder meal has become a part of our Holy Week practices. I began to prepare the soup early Sunday afternoon, suspecting that I would run out of energy later in the day. Last year I made vegetarian lentil soup for our church’s Lenten soup and sandwich meals, partly as a challenge to myself. I love making soups, but I always start with a broth made from meat. I wanted to try my hand at making a vegetarian broth. The soup I made was well-received and I was asked to prepare it again for last year’s Seder meal. I made a very large batch of broth so that I would have plenty left over to freeze. I wanted to have some handy just in case a friend or family member got sick and needed some TLC. I’m convinced that there’s nothing better than homemade broth for whenever viruses or infections get the better of us.

A year has passed and thankfully, no one had need of my supply of homemade broth. I decided to use it as a base for the lentil soup for this year’s Seder meal. I thawed four cups of the frozen broth and then began preparing the vegetables. I chopped up lots of garlic (quite a lot more than the recipe called for), onion, and celery and put them in some oil in the kettle. While they were browning, I washed up several carrots from last year’s garden and prepared them for the soup. Even though my recipe didn’t mention green beans, I thought that they would be a nice addition. I use my soup recipes as a guide and often add or substitute different ingredients and amounts than are called for. The resulting soup never turns out the same way twice, and that is part of the fun for me. I really enjoy the give and take of the various flavors that blend together in the pot.

I started the broth last year by roasting the assorted vegetables.

I feel a sense of belonging, of connection, through this simple task of preparing part of a shared meal, and realize that connection is what my soup-making task really is all about. It seemed completely appropriate when I realized that “Lent” is part of the word “lentil.” The soup I made today is connected to the soup I made last year for the people who attended the Seder meal: friends, members, strangers, whoever they may be. I won’t be able to attend the Seder meal and Tenebrae service this year, but I feel connected to those people who will share the tradition. The soup I’m making will become part of them and our community, and I will be there too, in spirit. Often, when we plan to enrich the lives of others around us, unexpectedly we end up enriching ourselves in the process. Now I’m going to warm up a bowl of that lentil soup for lunch.

This is a poem I wrote about the joy I feel in the process of preparing a simple meal to share with others:


I make poems sometimes.

I start with a cup of raw great northern beans
boil and soak, add a ham bone, salt and spices
carrots, celery, tomato sauce
simmer, stir and taste.

Other days, the poem starts with potato water
honey, yeast, and flour
stir, knead, rise
punch down, shape, and bake.

We eat the poem and then
may go outside for a night-time walk
under crisp stars overhead —
sometimes one falls.

Usually there are leftovers from the poem
to take for lunch later in the week
or eat with butter and honey for breakfast.
These poems usually don’t last too long

but they’re delicious.

“In My Kitchen” by Ruby Wilson, from At the Rim of the Horizon (Finishing Line Press, 2014)

Action, Impact, Voice: Contemporary South Dakota Women

The voices of South Dakota women resonate in this  AIV_Cont_SDWomen_resizedanthology of articles, poetry, short fiction, and original interviews. The book was an ambitious project edited by Meredith Redlin, Christine Stewart-Nuñez, and Julie M. Barst. The cover art was created by Betty L. Beer.

“The book uniquely captures the complicated experience of women in South Dakota,” according to Redlin. “It encompasses both the broad scope of women’s status in politics, education, activism, agriculture and health, and the intimate moments which compose women’s lives.”

I am honored to be a part of this collection of writings by scholars, activists, and artists, and had the privilege to read my poem, “Time Warp,” at the book launch held on March 17th in the Hilton M. Briggs Library on the campus of South Dakota State University.

The South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum has the book available for purchase in its gift store on the South Dakota State University campus in Brookings, S.D.

Talk About Cold!

Two South Dakota cities just made the “Top-50 Coldest Cities” list according to Niche Company News, and numerous schools in the area have been calling off school or shortening their hours. I grew up in northern South Dakota so this cold weather is nothing new to me at all, and I’m a bit surprised that it’s making the news. I’m a little envious because I don’t remember school ever being called off because of low temperatures when I was a youngster. I walked a couple of blocks every morning and afternoon to and from school regardless of the weather, unless there was a raging blizzard in which case school was dismissed. I have great memories of one storm that lasted about five days (no school!) and also knocked out our electricity. I remember my dad making toast in the coal-fired furnace in the basement. The snow had drifted so high that after the storm we could walk right up onto the roof of the garage. My brother, sisters, and I dug down into the drift to make an awesome snow fort.

Dsc_00472007-03-03I must admit that I actually enjoy all of the seasons, even winter. I take the dog for a walk almost every day of the year including wintertime, and he whimpers impatiently at the door when I start putting on my insulated coveralls, boots, hooded insulated jacket, parka, mittens, and scarf. The only skin exposed to the cold may be a little bit around my eyes.

After one of these walks a few nights ago, I was approaching the driveway and I started to get an idea for a poem. I was afraid that if I went inside to write it down I may get distracted and lose the poem — that has happened to me before! I went inside briefly to get a small notebook and pencil (pens won’t work when it’s this cold), and went back outside. I was wearing gloves inside my mittens, so I took off the mitten on my right hand, held a flashlight with my knees and started to write, but the pencil point broke partway. I turned the pencil and was able to keep writing for a little while, but the flashlight had a bad switch and kept turning off. It would work for a little while when I shook it, but then turn off again. The tip of the pencil broke off completely when I was about half done so I took off my glove and began breaking away the wood at the point to get to the graphite. Finally I was able to get the words down on paper. That was one of the hardest-fought battles for a poem that I’ve ever had! Did I mention that the windchill was -22 that night?

Before going back inside, I decided to walk down the road a bit so I could get a better look at the night sky. The moon was waning and just a couple of days past its full phase. The strong north wind blew the snow across the road, creating a hazy snow cloud that started DSC_0466at the horizon and went up into the sky about ten degrees or so. I noticed a couple of small clouds to the right and left of the moon, and while I was studying them I realized that they weren’t clouds, they were a similar phenomenon to sun dogs. I could see a hint of the colors of the light spectrum reflected in the ice crystals. I had never seen them around the moon before. When I got back home I asked my husband if he’d ever seen “moon dogs” (not the correct name, but the best I could do at the time!) I was delighted to get a small reward for my trials and tribulations, even if they were self-inflicted!

On the way to work a couple of days later I snapped some pictures of the sunrise just before the sun popped up over the horizon. I watched two sun dogs develop, and the colors grow more intense as the sun neared the skyline. In the space between the sun dogs, the glow of the sun below the horizon was reflected in the ice crystals above and grew brighter until it looked like a flame burning on the edge of the frigid landscape.

When I got home that night I researched sun dogs, and learned that they are a type of ice crystal halo. The illustration of halos on this page reminded me of a poem by Hafiz that I recently read, called “Something About Circles.” Here is an excerpt:

The moon is most happy
When it is full

And the sun always looks
Like a perfectly minted gold coin
That was just polished
And placed in flight …


Plagenda, Blachinda, Plachinda??

I have a family recipe and don’t know how to spell the title. I searched in my German-Russian cookbooks, and practically every recipe for it that I find is spelled differently. So, of course, I turned to the internet. I first searched for the spelling that most closely resembled how it sounded to me, “plagenda.” That turned up numerous “placenta” sites which was definitely not what I was looking for. Then I searched for “pumpkin pastry” and found lots of recipes for empanadas, which looked really similar to what I remembered, but they aren’t German or German-Russian. Next I tried searching for some different spellings that I found in one of my cookbooks and finally found some recipes and pictures. I still couldn’t find a consistent spelling so I’m just going to use the one that I found most frequently,“plachinda.”

You’re probably thinking, what the heck is plachinda? It’s an apple or pumpkin turnover; dough wrapped around a fruit filling and baked. So your next question probably is — what is a German-Russian? That is a long story that began over two centuries ago. My ancestors migrated from Germany to Russia in the 18th century when Catherine the Great invited Germans to settle in Russia, encouraging them with attractive incentives such as exemption from military service, self governance, tax breaks, a stipend, and free land[1]. The Germans in Russia initially struggled, but eventually thrived in the Black Sea area, now the Ukraine. Apparently the Germans had good reputations as thrifty and productive farmers, and that was why Catherine the Great was keen on having them move in. That, and the fact that Catherine herself was German. The political situation for the Germans in Russia deteriorated in the late 19th century, some time after Catherine’s reign ended, and as a result many Germans migrated from Russia to the United States and settled in the Great Plains[2].

When they moved, they brought along their recipes, and my family and community cherished those traditional foods made from recipes that may be centuries old. I have no idea whether the plachinda recipe is from their time in Russia, or maybe even earlier when they lived in Germany. After my search for the correct spelling I began to wonder why there are so many spellings for plachinda. Is it because we’re slowly losing our language, or is it because it was never written down until contemporary times? Was our tradition mostly oral? I know that my grandmother didn’t follow recipes, she just knew how to make food from memory and lots of practice.

My mother was determined that all of her children do household chores every day after school and learn how to cook, bake, and clean. When I made a recipe, she had me write it down so I could create my own recipe collection. My mother often told me that she had to cook and bake when she was a girl because her mother worked out in the fields. Mom had to learn “on the job” because she didn’t have any recipes to follow. That must have made her all the more determined that her children would at least have a good collection of recipes when we left home and had to cook for ourselves and our families.

My son and his wife brought along some pumpkin that they grew in their garden when they visited for Christmas. Actually, the pumpkin volunteered in their garden — it sprouted everywhere that they buried compost that happened to contain pumpkin seeds. I decided to make plachinda instead of pumpkin pies since I haven’t made them for a long time, and I think that my two-year-old granddaughter and her parents may enjoy a little treat that would be fairly nutritious. While she’s taking her nap, I pull out the large yellow ceramic bowl that I inherited from my mother. I have fond memories of mixing up cookie dough and cake batter in it when I was a child. During the holidays, and especially when I’m making some of my family recipes, I think of my mother and those times doing chores after school. It’s a little like she’s looking over my shoulder while I work. We didn’t always get along very well when I was growing up, but now that I’m a mother and grandmother, I see her in a very different light. I feel that much of what I am today is due to her tenacity and foresight.

I haven’t made this recipe in a very long time, and I’m a little uncertain of myself as I mix up the dough, roll it out, and cut it into squares. DSC_1359How big should I make the squares? How much filling should I put in each one? I don’t like to have too much extra dough when I fold them over and pinch them closed, but if I put in too much filling it squishes out and leaks onto the baking sheet. No matter how good the directions are, they just don’t tell me everything that I need to know. I still have to learn by trial and error and make adjustments. It is much the same as being a mother or grandmother. Whatever the task, there are some things I just don’t know and sometimes it is best not to be too sure that I’m always absolutely right. Sometimes what seems like the right answer turns out to be wrong in retrospect.

As I slide the baking sheet into the oven, I think of a poem by John Brantingham called “Putting in a Window.” I often remember these lines when I’m working on a project:

“… The only good carpenter
is the one who knows that he’s not good.
He’s afraid that he’ll ruin the whole house,
and he works slowly. It’s the same as
cooking or driving. The good cook
knows humility, and his soufflé never falls
because he is terrified that it will fall
the whole time he’s cooking. The good driver
knows that he might plow into a mother
walking her three-year old, and so watches
for them carefully.”DSC_1364

The oven timer is beeping and it is time to take the plachinda out of the oven to cool. Served with a mug of mulled cider they’ll make a nice snack for our family when my granddaughter wakes from her nap.

If you’re interested in finding German-Russian cookbooks, two of my favorites are: German-Russian Pioneer Cook Book and Schmeck’s Gut!



More Fall Pictures

In her poem “Plentitude,” Barbara Crooker beautifully describes the evening light as streaming “from the west like honey.” Long shadows caused by the low angle of the sun creep across the landscape as the days grow shorter, and we’re left feeling a little sad that summer is saying goodbye. It sounds like the thermometer readings could fall dramatically soon. Maybe the warm colors in these autumn pictures will warm us up a little bit when the white stuff comes! Here are some more pictures I took a few weeks ago when I wandered outside to enjoy the sunset:

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SDSU Campus in Autumn

I just saw an article in our local paper, the Brookings Register:

SDSU Alumni Green article, Brookings Register Oct. 31, 2014

The story reminded me that I had recently taken some fall pictures of the Alumni Center and other scenes on campus. The temperatures were so moderate, that the colors were more stunning and the leaves “hung around” for a lot longer than usual. The Tompkins Alumni Center courtyard next to the clock tower is a particularly beautiful place on the South Dakota State University campus. When I learned that the existing Alumni Center would be demolished to allow for a redesign of that area of campus, I wanted to make sure to snap some pictures when I had a chance. Here are some pictures I took as I walked across campus on a gorgeous autumn afternoon.

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Winter is Knocking

After a couple of weeks of beautiful, mild, autumn weather, a cold breath of air has moved in from the north and is sending the cottonwood and poplar leaves skittering across the deck and clattering against the window. Dsc_04122008-11-07Winter is knocking at our door, and many of us may dread the snow, cold, and bleak gray days that are coming.

I am reading Ted Kooser’s memoir, Local Wonders, during my morning reading and journaling time. The book is organized around the seasons of the year and I’m in the last section set in the wintertime. This morning I read about Kooser receiving a cancer diagnosis earlier in the year. He was unable to write for months afterward. He “began to heal” as he put it, near the beginning of winter when he started going for walks. Much to his surprise and delight he was able to write a poem after one of the walks. He continued writing a poem after each daily walk, scribbled them on a postcard, and sent them to a friend. He eventually put them together in a collection titled Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

I loved learning that Kooser regained his poetic voice and began to recover his health in the winter, a season that we often associate with death and endings. The trees look barren and dead, most of the birds have left for more temperate climates, and the lush plants that thrived in the summer gardens are twisted and shriveled. The ferocity of the winter weather also reminds me of how small I am compared to the power of nature. I feel much the same way when I gaze at the night sky and the mysterious, infinite spaces between the stars. I find it oddly comforting that I am not in control.

Winter is a time for slowing down, enjoying the silence and the crisp contrast between light and dark. There is very little color in the landscape, but that serves to help us appreciate the more subtle hues created by the winter light: the blue at the bottom of a footstep in the snow, the rainbows that the sunlight creates inside the crumbs of frost scattered on the tree branches. The abundant life that surrounds us in summer seems to have disappeared, but actually it has just gone to a deeper place, a safe place to rest and build up its stores of energy to burst to life again in the springtime.

Living things need both the light and the dark, summer and winter, moisture and drought, cold and warmth. The dead plants in the garden will be tilled under and nourish the garden next year. They will be reborn in a new way. Nothing is wasted. The same is true for us. If we feel tapped out, exhausted, lifeless, we can take that old dead material and mulch it to create something entirely different.