Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Frost’ll Get ‘Em

Farms aren’t what they used to be. Decades ago, about this time of year, frost would tinge the stubble left after the harvest, and soon winter weather would halt the plowing and dictate a change of pace. The crops were in, and farmers could shift into a lower gear. Wait--check that. Farms were probably never what they used to be. Most farmers didn’t slow down; they tended livestock, fixed machinery, and worked other jobs to make ends meet.
And nowadays, with confinement livestock systems, genetically modified crops, and wireless  Internet access, farmers are often logging on to a year-round digital schedule much like their urban counterparts. But I imagine a few folks still buck the trend and live at their own pace no matter what season of the year pops up on their “Gone Fishin’” wall calendars. One of those off-the-grid characters lived in the small rural town of my childhood.
In the sixties, Pooch’s gas station sat just off Main Street, but in some ways it was in its own time zone.  You would eventually get your tank filled, and you might get your windshield washed, but if you were in a hurry, you soon adapted to Pooch’s own version of self-service.  “Go ahead.  You know how the pump works.”  He might be busy in the grease pit or he might be on the padded wooden bench, opening his tobacco pouch and listening to one of the locals saying, “You got some mighty big horse weeds along the side of the building, Pooch.”
 “Ain’t that the truth. Oh well, the frost’ll get ‘em soon enough.”  Lighting his pipe and talking with friends outranked weed-eating on his priority list.  So did having a cup of coffee with his wife, Hazel.  With his house adjacent to the old barn that had been converted into the gas station, Pooch could sit in his kitchen, and with the help of a rearview mirror he had attached outside the window, he could see if anyone drove up to the pumps. 
Pooch functioned according to his own clock.  He was a good mechanic, and before taking on the gas station, he had run a corn-shelling operation and been a farmer.  His livestock got fed, but if friends drove up during chore time, Pooch could be persuaded to “put the buckets down til later” in exchange for a local road trip.  He and the boys knew where the morel mushrooms hid out and which fishing holes paid the highest dividends for the least effort.
Pooch treated everyone with respect, whether they were fishin’ buddies or high school kids.  His gas station was the teen-center during the American Graffiti Era.  After football practice, we’d park our ‘57 Chevys and ’65 Mustangs along the dusty street, and inside we’d shoot the breeze while eating ice cream bars and drinking Dr Pepper laden with salted peanuts we had dumped in the old style bottles.  Pooch’s payment system was a haphazard mixture of fuzzy math and an idealistic honor code.  The pop machine sat nestled between Penz Oil cans and cases of Coke bottles, and the key was in the machine door, so we grabbed our own.  Usually on a Friday, Pooch would say something like, “We’re $2.75 short this week, boys.”  We’d grumble at each other about who was the cheap skate and then toss enough coins on the counter to cover the deficit. 
Pooch didn’t make much money with his business practices, but he deposited plenty of goodwill in town.  He might tell a story, make a wry comment, or occasionally set up the practical joke that most “newbies” experienced when they first came to the station.   Some guys would be sitting around while a few worked on an engine, and Pooch would ask the “inexperienced kid” to pull the lever that adjusted the height of the car lift.  A short in the wiring resulted in a jolt equivalent to getting shocked by a livestock electric fence.  The initiate would do a little dance and utter a few phrases, but nobody ever got hurt, and the state safety inspectors were none the wiser.
An early frost took Pooch, but his philosophy lingers. Some things are worth getting excited about, but we need to set our priorities, and in his own way Pooch foreshadowed the “don’t sweat the small stuff” movement with his opinion of the hassles and unnecessary tasks we often take on.  “Don’t worry; the frost’ll get ‘em.” 
by Dan Gogerty (photo from; edited from a version originally published in Our Iowa Magazine) 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

International Delicacies--Tarantulas, Eyeballs, and Squid Pizza

Feb. 2014: Bon app├ętit...
This new article offers us international treats ranging from tarantulas to puffer fish to birds’ nest soup--and coffee from beans that are produced by an Indonesian cat (you might not want to know the process).

From Sept. 2013:  In case you've been anxiously waiting, somebody has released the revised edition of 40 Ways to Cook Crickets, Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin

The media is crawling with reports about the UN recommendation that we all consider eating insects. Apparently, two billion people already do--and that doesn't count those of us who involuntarily suck in bugs while biking on warm summer days. Edible insects are being promoted as a low-fat, high-protein food that comes with appetizing side benefits: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and livestock pollution, creating jobs in developing countries, and feeding hungry people around in the world. 

I'm no culinary expert on bugs, but I will recommend the glazed, stir-fried grasshoppers at a yakitori shop in West Tokyo. A table full of Japanese salarymen offered us a serving, and we couldn't refuse the hospitality as my daughter shows in the photo at the right.
Glazed, stir-fried grasshopper

Eyeballs on the menu?  This npr article points out that they are taboo for many, but in some countries, diners can "see eye to eye" with the idea. Maybe eyeball consumption gets a blank stare from diners because of the texture or perceived taste, but some experts says it is because eyeballs represent faces--and some cultures have a thing about eating anything that's looking at them.

I may have eaten eyeballs in some dish or another along the way, and I've certainly been served whole fish on many occasions. But when it came to the head, I checked out the cheeks, not the eyeballs. A friend who liked to fish told me years ago that a little pocket of fatty meat in the fish cheek is the best part, and after my non-scientific, random research, I'd say he's right.

The eyeball article got me thinking about food preferences around the world, and this entry I wrote from November of 2011 captures some of the varied fast-food items that are dished out--from a Rugby Burger to a McGrillschnagg.

McSquid Burger?  Menu Globalization Works Both Ways

A recent online story highlights the obvious: Tastes around the world vary.  And even though major fast-food companies appear to be homogenizing the world with a one-size-fits-all product, they occasionally bend to local customs and sometimes benefit from taking their menus outside the box.  The MSN article, “Ten Fast Foods You Can’t Buy Here,” shows food items that major companies have modified to appeal to local tastes outside the United States.  Subway outlets in India offer curry and tandoori flavors in their sandwiches; Pizza Hut’s Chunky Loaded Pizza in Malaysia has so many layers, some think of it as a casserole; and Burger King’s dessert in Holland, The Hot Blondie, might not be politically correct to everyone, but the brownie, chocolate, and ice cream mix would probably appeal to most taste buds.

Squid Pizza
I should have jumped on this trend years ago. My wife and I spent four years in Australia during the 70s, and we knew we weren’t in Iowa anymore when the burgers we ordered came with “the works.”  Aussie grass-fed beef patties were topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, a fried egg, and beetroot; some snack bars in the Outback added baked beans and mashed potatoes. I needed a funnel to get it in my mouth without losing half of it. So now in the online article I see that Wendy’s in New Zealand stacked up a similar formula and called it a Rugby Burger. I’m not sure how many in the United States would scrum up for a burger garnished with beets. 

And in Japan, Burger King has the Meat Monster with cheese, bacon, onions, tomato, and chicken precariously perched on a burger. The carnivorous irony of it all. When we lived in Japan during the 80s and 90s, the object was to do as much as possible with small portions of meat.  At that time, McDonald’s offered a Ginger Chicken burger and a three-section rice container, with sprinkles of tuna, egg, and hamburger layered over the respective sections. The McEverywhere franchise had the traditional meat patty in a bun wherever we travelled, but I did hear rumors of protests in cow-worshipping parts of Hindu India. Now I see they’ve added a McVeggie there, plus a type of Bubur Ayam chicken soup in Malaysia, and two items in Switzerland that must make the locals yodel with joy: the McZuri (veal) and the McGrillschnagg (sausage).

Before McDonald’s and Starbucks conquered the universe, Kentucky Fried Chicken had outposts in most of the countries we visited. As far as I know, the secret recipe for chicken did not lose much in translation, but I see that KFC has now added a dessert called the Krusher in Australia, Germany, and South Africa. With flavors like mango, Kit Kat, and Triple Choc Crunch, the drinks are mixed with large chunks of fruit or candy. How do you say “finger-lickin’ good” in German?

Of course, mass-produced fast food does not represent what the “locals” eat in general. Consumer tastes are influenced by tradition, religion, availability, climate, and economics. But the world has become more internationalized, and global corporations overwhelm local restaurants and threaten mom-and-pop grocery stores, so I guess it’s good to see that the mega-companies occasionally bend a bit too. Maybe the influence works both ways. Twenty years ago we took our children to a Tokyo Pizza Hut for the lunch buffet that included pizza slices topped with everything from corn to pineapple to squid. Nowadays in Ames, Iowa, I can order a large variety of pizza toppings and sample plenty of ethnic food. The old days of choosing only between a meat or cheese pizza are over. No McSquid burgers here yet, but I’m fine with that.  by Dan Gogerty (photo from

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Danger in the Fields

Updates Sept. 2015-- 

During September, the National Safety Council will promote National Farm Safety and Health Week.  

In England, agriculture remains one of the most dangerous professions, as these statistics and graphs demonstrate. And this series of 20 videos from England highlight the dangers on farms that can affect the farmer, the families, and visitors to the farm. 
Sept. 2014:  This site provides National Farm Safety Week information and a link to 40 farm safety videos. 

April 2014:  According to the University of Iowa Burn Treatment Center, the number of patients injured by anhydrous ammonia is on the rise—they recommend that farmers be extra cautious with fertilizer and chemical use.
February 2014:  A farmer in England is dragged into a harvester and barely escapes with his life. Grain bins, cotton gins, tractor turnovers, machinery accidents--the simple truth remains that agriculture is far more dangerous than statistics show.

2013 link:  Danger is part and parcel of agriculture. Row crops or livestock, grain bins or cotton gins, tractor or trailer, chemicals or heat — death is often a single mistake away. In 2010, there were 621 work-related fatalities in the U.S. agriculture industry.   

** Earlier blog entries below about the dangers of farming... 

More than a Reality Show
 Reality TV shows cover risky jobs and even farm harvests, but it took a rash of accidents in the Midwest to remind me that agriculture ranks high in the dangerous jobs category. The USDA publishes statistics and spreads safety information, but the real stories are told in rural newspapers and in the faces of those left behind, grieving the losses.
     In Kansas, a grain elevator explosion sent a huge orange fireball into the night sky and took at least six lives. Grain dust can become explosive, and this report points out that 600 grain elevator explosions have occurred in the United States in the last four decades, killing more than 250. 
     In central Iowa, a 70-year old farmer on a tractor was struck by a train going 50-mph, but since the impact threw him from the tractor, he survived and was quoted as saying, "It's time for me to retire."
     And in a nearby Iowa county, a farmer died in an anhydrous ammonia accident. A cloud of the poison gas enveloped the man after a hose broke on the tank. The farmer’s son charged into the cloud, but the rescue attempt failed; the son is recovering in the hospital.
     Another aspect the statistics can't show is the way rural communities respond to tragedy. In the following blog reprinted from one year ago, we see the ways farmers come together to help in times of need. (Dan Gogerty)

     Mark Brown of Anita, Iowa, worked his final harvest on October 14. Rescuers found him dead under his burning combine. He apparently was trying to unhitch part of the equipment to save some of the machinery from the fire. Brown had sailed around the world in U.S. navy submarines, but he settled on the land, and he became passionate about his family, his faith, and his farm. He also became a statistic in the ledgers of farm dangers.
     Mark Brown’s untimely death points out more about agriculture than safety awareness.  As a Des Moines Register article put it, “One of rural Iowa’s greatest traditions was renewed.”  Neighbors arrived with combines, friends prepared food, and at one time, a line of 39 semitrailer trucks stood by to haul grain. The Brown family had 1,400 acres of corn still in the field, and the neighbors made sure the harvest carried on.
     I left the Midwest and its rural communities for 25 years, but Dad sent letters with hometown news, and I was relieved to note that even as the farming landscape changed, some of the spirit remained. In the 90s, he wrote, “A few good old boys helped Albert and his two sons combine the rest of his corn while he slows down a bit for some chemo treatments.”  In another letter, he pointed out that “Arden spent much of the week in Des Moines where they’re treating his son for leukemia, so Scott and another neighbor did his chores.” 
     Good neighbors bake pies for funerals, deliver sweet corn in the summer, and help roundup cattle that have gone walkabout. The community barn-raising days are mostly gone, but Dad’s letters contained anecdotes about the sharing that occurs in agricultural circles. “Larry and his family lost their house and belongings in a fire but some neighbors let them use the house and all its furnishings while they’re away in Arizona.” Dad pointed out that the ones giving usually got greater rewards from doing the deeds than the recipients did.
      Being neighborly is not peculiar to Iowa. No doubt, rural folks around the world have ways of bonding together and helping each other out. Agriculture is a dangerous profession, but for many, it is more of a “family” than a profession.  A few days after her husband’s death, Nancy Brown looked out her kitchen window at four combines harvesting corn and said, “It’s what farmers always do.”  Dan Gogerty, October, 2010