Guest Columnist

Autumn shadows, mashed potatoes

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.

There is a tree out near my place that is right out of a child’s active imagination, rising spookily from a field once part of some ancient dusty world, a world my 8 year-old self would have adored. It’s a dusk-turning-to-dark tree that reaches toward the earth and, if you squint your eyes just a little you can conjure up horrible monsters, maybe plodding dinosaurs, big, menacing, hulking creatures out to do us ill. At a young age all such things easily exist out there in the darkness and shadows of autumn. I know, I’ve seen them.

This year I’m doing a Thanksgiving practice run; thus I’m trying recipes ahead of time and I wanted to make mashed potatoes just like my mother used to make so I went to my go-to cookbook, a 1961 edition of Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book. It’s an extraordinary document and belongs in a homemaker’s museum, if there is such a place.

Anyway, in the front of the book is a section called “Kitchen Know-How” and one of the bits of advice is this: “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and your family’s, too.” Aside from being oddly written it is a testament to how far we’ve come. Or not.

Leaves are on the ground under snow now, composting naturally in to dust, the same dust that rises high in to the sky from corn and soybean fields when the farmers are picking this year’s crops. The dust spirals to great heights, and here in Iowa we have spectacular pink/orange sunsets thanks to farmers out in Nebraska filling the air with dust particulate matter.

A week or so ago a neighbor up the road told me that he had seen a bobcat in my woods, so he set up what they call a trail camera to document what he saw. I hope he catches some good images. Bobcats are welcome out here any time, beautiful creatures that thrive on mice, snakes, chipmunks, and maybe your cat Sprinkles if you let her roam outside.

About the same time I heard about the bobcat I enjoyed lunch with a World War II veteran, a veteran who survived being a prisoner of war, a veteran who remembers as a child seeing a soldier from the Union Army in a local parade. So I’m sitting at lunch with a man who saw, and remembered, a soldier from the Civil War, and the honor was all mine. This kind of personal connection to an event that ended in 1865 is almost impossible to fathom, and it’s important. There are living human time machines still out there. Seek them out.

Oh, ‘how did the mashed potatoes turn out’ you ask? They turned out just like my mom’s. With her old potato masher I mixed in butter and a bit of milk and briefly I was back at her table, my whole life ahead of me. However based on the cookbook there needs to be some clarification, it doesn’t mention that if your lips are moist lipstick is difficult to apply. Who knew?

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Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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