Clowns and Dolls: ’50s Cakes Were Scary

wedcake10001

Judging by this image from “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating,” less was not more for the brides of 1954.

This month I’m spending a couple of hours each week in a cake decorating class learning how to make flowers out of buttercream frosting, gum paste and fondant. This is my second cake-decorating class; I spent eight hours in August earning a certificate in The Wilton Method Decorating Basics.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, to be honest, I don’t really like cake. Sure, I can be tempted by pretty much anything chocolate, and a fresh, homemade carrot cake or coconut cake may turn my head, but for the most part, your standard office party bakery cake isn’t worth the extra calories. Plus, there’s the  icing. The day I found out bakery buttercream contains neither butter nor cream but is mostly shortening and powdered sugar was the last day I was able to enjoy those office cakes. I don’t know why, when I am so in love with butter and bacon, I’m so repelled by shortening, but I am.

So, why am I spending hours up to my elbows in powdered sugar and shortening? I have a 6-year-old son who’s allergic to eggs, and most bakeries don’t do eggless cakes.

There are a lot of cake-infested situations in a first-grader’s life. Mostly I handle this by keeping eggless cupcakes in the freezer. Whenever there’s a birthday party, I pull one out and frost it and take it along to the party so Trevor doesn’t have to sit and watch all the other kids eat cake. But Trevor has his own birthdays, and he deserves cakes that are just as cool as his friends’ cakes. OK, maybe cooler. “Happy birthday from your overly competitive mommy!”

Wilton doll cake circa 1954

Scary doll cake circa 1954: Take naked scary doll. Insert scary doll into Bundt cake. Cover cake and up to armpits of scary doll with obscene amounts of buttercream.

When my mother-in-law found out I was taking the cake classes, she gave me the book her mother had used when she took Wilton cake-decorating classes in the 1950s, “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating” by McKinley Wilton and Norman Wilton. Flipping through the pages, I immediately fell in love with this book. All of the color pictures have that pastel, slightly out of focus look, like Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink.” Even though I know in reality it couldn’t be the case, I like to imagine there was a time when life’s colors were soft and sharp edges were blurred, when my son might have asked for a simple cowboy cake instead of Transformers.

Though I recognized many of the techniques illustrated in the book, it was immediately apparent that cake styles have changed in the decades since it was published. For the most part, this appears to be a good thing. Compared to today’s wedding cakes, elegantly covered in sheets of smooth fondant with restrained displays of gum paste flowers or themed patterns, wedding cakes in the ’50s were riots of buttercream, royal icing and spun sugar. Why have just one border on each layer when you can have six or seven? Lace, ruffles, roses, birds—they only stopped when they ran out of cake to cover. Intervention was clearly needed. “Harry, put down the pastry bag and step away from the turntable. These nice men are going to take you to a lovely place where you can get some rest.”

clowncake20001

Little Bobby required years of therapy after finding this cupcake clown on his plate.

Cake themes have changed with the times as well. Little boys and girls in those days would be happy with a simple piped-on rendition of an astronaut or a ballerina instead of whatever major movie marketing campaign had the biggest hold on them at the moment.

There is one cake theme that has, unfortunately, survived to this day, and that is the clown cake.

First of all, let me just say right here that I do not like clowns. Clowns are scary. Looking at both modern clown cakes (you can see some here at Cakewrecks.com) and the ones in the book, it appears that the cake decorators may have intended to make happy clowns (as though such a thing existed), but clowns are just inherently scary.

Fortunately, another scary ’50s cake trend seems to remain safely in the past, and that’s the doll cake. OK, I know there are a lot of people out there who collect dolls and love them. I had dolls, too, when I was a little girl. But as an adult I have come to realize something: Dolls are scary. Doll collections—a room full of dolls just staring at your with their lifeless plastic eyes? Scary. There was an episode of “Ghosthunters” in which the property being investigated had one room filled with dolls. Dolls in the dark. This was more frightening than the prospect of a ghost popping out, if you ask me.

For certain ’50s situations, however, it was apparently the custom to take a scary, lifeless-eyed figure, stand her up in a cake and surround her with layer upon layer of buttercream borders, ruffles and roses. Sugarcoated, but still scary.

So you won’t be seeing any clown cakes or doll cakes from me. The scariest thing I’ve done so far was when I tried an experimental tinting technique on a fall-themed anniversary cake. It was supposed to be burgundy mums surrounded by a cascade of fall-colored leaves. It ended up looking like three sea urchins on a bed of bacon strips. But we learn our lessons and move on. The only thing that matters is that every April one little guy has the coolest birthday cake ever.

SeaWorld shark dive not so scary

 “Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…” — Quint, “Jaws”

Laurie Sterbens in the shark tank at SeaWorld Orlando

This photo was taken by a SeaWorld Orlando employee from inside the Sharks Grill Restaurant during my Sharks Deep Dive in 2006. In the cage behind the flashed-out reef sharks, I'm the headless black smudge wearing a white helmet on the left.

Commercials on Discovery Channel this week are putting a toothy spin on an old Christmas song by touting Shark Week as “the most wonderful time of the year.” I love Christmas, but I have to admit that I really do look forward to Shark Week all year long.

Coincidentally, it was a Christmas gift that led me to my closest encounter with sharks so far. My husband, Scott, presented me with a gift certificate for the Sharks Deep Dive at SeaWorld Orlando. With the wrong kind of husband, this kind of gift might send you through the house looking for new insurance policies, but Scott is a good guy who just accepts the fact that he has chosen to spend his life with a serious shark geek.

I’ve always loved sharks despite spending most of my life in landlocked Arkansas. Oddly, my career path in newspapers led me to Daytona Beach, Fla., area, which you may have heard described as Shark Bite Capital of the World. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that this could be either a gift from God or a clear sign that I am hurtling toward some bloody underwater destiny.

Actually, this Shark Bite Capital of the World business is a lot of nonsense. As big a fan as I am of Shark Week, it’s a little irritating to see an area hyped as super-dangerous when the truth is a lot of “attacks” are because an inlet that is a nursery for baby sharks is also a popular surf spot. Juvenile sharks mistake surfers’ feet for fish, which sometimes results in a bite wound that might get a bandage but doesn’t keep the surfers out of the water for long.

There have been more serious attacks in the past, of course, but honestly, I see a lot of tourists doing things that increase their risk — swimming in the early morning or evening, getting in water full of baitfish, swimming out too far. Years ago, before I lived in Florida, I visited Fort Walton Beach with a friend and she remarked one day, “I don’t go out past the sandbar. That’s where the big fish swim.” That stuck in my mind as a sensible policy.

Shark Soup by Laurie Sterbens for the Daytona Beach News-Journal

I wrote about my shark dive experience for The Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2006. Illustration by Marianne Koch.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve never even seen a shark here. Thus the desire to get into the tank at SeaWorld, where their Sharks Deep Dive was my best chance for seeing sharks close-up without having a scuba certification.

Despite having never been in the water with live sharks, my many years of shark geekdom and Discovery Channel addiction had left me slightly jaded. Aquariums are always full of nurse sharks, which seem like big catfish. (Although I’ve been watching a lot of “River Monsters” and I’m not sure I’d be all that comfortable in the water with a 10-foot catfish, either.) Another aquarium favorite is the sand tiger, which has a mouthful of menacing-looking teeth but seems kind of slow and guppylike to me.

I checked the International Shark Attack file before my dive and learned that the sand tiger was credited with 76 attacks on humans, 30 unprovoked and two fatal, between 1580 and 2005 and that the nurse shark was credited with 47 attacks — 10 unprovoked and none fatal. However, it was noted that shark attack figures are skewed to easily identifiable species, meaning that lesser-known sharks could be going around biting people and letting sand tigers take the blame. So, guppies and catfish or toothy terrors? I’d soon find out.

When I arrived at the Shark Encounter, I was taken into a brief orientation where I learned that the Shark Encounter tank included more than 50 sharks (the website now says 30) of various species, including of course, nurse sharks and sand tigers, but also blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, saw sharks and Australian leopard sharks. Blacktips!, I thought. Now we’re talking! They’re not “Jaws” but they at least had “Open Water” cred.

After the orientation I donned a wetsuit and boots and entered what looked like a kiddie pool, where I was put into a white helmet, kind of a cross between old-fashioned deep-sea diver and Storm Trooper. This would allow me to breathe underwater and communicate with the SeaWorld staff member operating the cage or the staff member going into the cage with me.

I jumped down into the cage and there I was, surrounded by sharks. The cage isn’t like the shark cages you see on TV; the viewing area is clear plastic so you can’t stick your arm out like I probably would have done. The cage is attached to a track across the rear of the tank and slowly moves from one end of the tank to the other and back.

On the floor of the tank in front of me, I could see a tunnel where Scott was waving at me and trying desperately to take a photo with both me and a shark in it while navigating the moving sidewalk and trying not to knock people over. This was so amusing I was momentarily distracted from the sharks and just watched Scott. Later I saw him standing behind the window of Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant, where he was allowed to take photos alongside the SeaWorld photographer. None of the photos turned out that great, as you can see from the one I’ve included in this post. That was the official photo that we purchased.

As the cage moved slowly across the 125-foot tank, a 10-foot sawfish swam up to and over the cage, and large nurse and sand tiger sharks swam near the cage as well. The blacktip reef sharks and blacktips stayed farther away but did venture closer a couple of times, while the whitetip reef sharks napped on the bottom of the tank.

Despite being surrounded by large carnivorous predators, I found watching the gracefully swimming fish while listening to the aquarium sounds to be relaxing. The effect on me was less thrilling wild animal encounter than spa treatment, but that’s a good thing, too.

Gardening Disaster: I Am an Army of One

Earlier this month I posed the question, “Gardening Disaster: Am I the Only One?” Because it seemed to me that everyone in America suddenly had the natural ability to effortlessly grow bushels of organic fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, I planted two 1×4-foot container gardens and was immediately battling worms, fungus and some unknown kind of squash cancer. Is it really that easy for everyone else, I wondered, or were there other gardening failures out there, shamefully tending backyard brown patches of doom?

Cherry tomatoes by Laurie Sterbens

These fell off into my hand as I was tying up my cherry tomato plants, so they were either ripe or suicidal.

Nope. Apparently I am the only one. I posted on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and the overwhelming response was: … (crickets).

So, a gardening-impaired army of one, I keep fighting. I’m seeing signs that I might eventually beat this crop-failure thing, but I am also puzzled by new bits of agricultural weirdness. And I continue to find pests sneaking around under the leaves.

The other morning I went out to find a small black worm on a tomato plant and promptly flicked him into outer space. I then found a big green caterpillar trying to hide under a leaf. It didn’t look like a giant, evil hornworm; it was more of a cuddly cartoon caterpillar, and my son immediately fell in love with it. It also had much grabbier feet than the black worms, so instead of being flicked into outer space, it was humanely delivered to one of the shrubs in the front yard that I wish something would eat.

Healthy minature bell bepper plant below failed version of same plant, a twig.

Life is a party for this miniature bell pepper plant, which has sprouted a new round of tiny blossoms. Now check out the leafless, emaciated stick just north of it. This was the pepper plant’s identical twin, treated exactly the same way. Crazy plants.

My two cherry tomato plants lost most of their lower leaves to fungus, but the top halves are doing quite well and in fact seemed to grow a foot overnight. I never thought they’d get big enough to have to tie to stakes, but they were beginning to flop over, so I recruited an ornamental trellis from another part of the yard (that I hadn’t gotten around to putting an actual plant on) and tied the plants to it. While I was doing this, four ripe tomatoes fell off into my hands, so I took that to mean they were ripe though they might have just been suicidal. They weren’t quite as red as the storebought cherry tomatoes I had in the kitchen, but they were red enough. In a taste test, they weren’t as sweet as the professional tomatoes, but they tasted fresh and homegrown. I’m going to count this as a success. So far I’ve harvested two miniature bell peppers and four cherry tomatoes, bringing my vegetable cost per unit down to $10!

There was another miniature bell pepper that made it to a beautiful bright orange — and then the plant died. Meanwhile, its identical twin, purchased at the same time from the same store and treated exactly the same way, is growing beautifully and has sprouted a new round of blossoms. Go figure.

The most success I’ve had with anything has been with the marigolds that I planted too many of in hopes of repelling insects, along with one my son grew from a seed in kindergarten. With one failed pepper plant and an ailing squash plant, I began to wonder if the marigolds were crowding out my vegetables. So I moved them into separate containers and stationed them near the other plants so they can still stand guard.

I then moved the squash plant into a squash intensive care unit, which may end up being a squash hospice. It’s been three days and it seems slightly happier, but that could be my overly optimistic imagination.

Speaking of overly optimistic, I’ve just approached my builder neighbor about putting together a couple of raised beds. I may be an army of one, but if I fail I’m going to go out in a blaze of … um, dirt.

A Berry Good Apple Pie

Rustic apple pie with blueberries in a glass pie plate

Fresh blueberries add a seasonal twist to this apple pie.

Though we’re still berry-pie season, yesterday I decided to make an apple pie. I don’t usually start thinking about apple pie until fall, but there were a few contributing factors. I’d been to church that morning and then worked in the garden. Baking a pie would complete my total transformation into Aunt Bea.

There were apples sitting in a bowl on the kitchen table, looking at me plaintively and whining about being ignored. I’d bought them last week as an alternative to all the berries and bananas we’d been eating. I thought I’d eat them as snacks, convert my son to homemade “apple dippers” and my husband could take them to work. As it turns out, apparently I will only eat raw apples in an office setting, my son prefers his apples corporately cut and packaged, and my husband won’t eat them at all as he is a devout bananavore.

My son also has recently had a mild fixation with cinnamon and loves to help me cook, so I thought this would be a fun Sunday-afternoon project for us. He cheerfully abandoned me, however, when the neighbors offered to take him fishing, so I was left to bake on my own, Aunt Bea minus Opie.

I’ve been making pretty much the same apple pie forever, though I’ve tweaked the recipe here and there. It’s based on an old Martha Stewart recipe for “Old-Fashioned Bottom-Crust Apple Pie.” How old? It appeared in “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook” by Robin Leach, released in 1992. This was one of my first cookbooks and I’m amazed I still have it. Most of the couples featured have since divorced.

Anyway, it’s a good pie, and quick and simple to make. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, using whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose. Martha’s version called for serving with a dusting of powdered sugar and topping with whipped cream. I skipped that. The original recipe calls for a pinch of mace, which I never seem to have in my cabinet so it never gets in the pie. I also switched up the procedural order a bit to accommodate my slightly obsessive-compulsive desire to have the sugar and spices mixed together thoroughly and evenly before putting them into the pie.

I added a half cup of blueberries because we’ve been eating blueberries in everything lately. It made the pie filling a little juicier, and it was perfect served warm with vanilla ice cream.

Apple-Blueberry Pie

Crust:
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup whole grain white flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 teaspoons ice water
Filling:
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch ground nutmeg
3-4 tart apples (such as Granny Smith), peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced into 5-6 pieces
Vanilla ice cream
Combine the butter, flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Gradually add the ice water until the dough forms a solid mass.
Transfer the dough to a floured surface. Roll into a ball, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl and stir to blend. Roll dough to a circle approximately 12 inches in diameter and place in an 8-inch pie plate. Fill the crust with half the apples, half the blueberries and sprinkle with half the sugar mixture. Repeat with remaining fruit and sugar mixture. Dot with butter. Fold pastry edges over fruit.
Bake for 45 minutes, until the filling is bubbly and the crust is golden. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

The Picnic Backpack: Blue Spring State Park

For the first five summers of my son’s life, summer wasn’t much different from the rest of the year. He was dropped off by his father or me at daycare, preschool and then kindergarten for most of the year, and in the summer he was dropped off someplace else; a day camp or daycare.

This year was different. Mommy got downsized. So, while pondering options for a future outside of the downsizing-prone newspaper business, I decided to take full advantage of what could be a one-time opportunity for a summer at home with my son, now 6.

Except we’re not home a lot. As often as possible, we like to fill up the picnic backpack and head out for an “adventure.” Last week we decided to have our picnic lunch at Blue Spring State Park near Orange City, Fla. I’d been to the park twice before, but both times were to see the manatees that spend the winter in the 72-degree spring run. I’d never been to the park in the summer, and snorkeling in the crystal-clear water with some of the fish I’d seen there previously sounded like fun. Trevor had recently learned how to use his new mask, snorkel and fins, so I hoped he’d join me.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

I snapped this view of the spring run at Blue Spring State Park during our recent summer visit.

We arrived at the park just before lunchtime and it was already filled with families picnicing, swimming, canoeing and floating. We managed to find a picnic table, at Trevor’s request, near the playground, and unpacked our lunch. Trevor devoured his peanut butter and jelly sandwich as quickly as possible and made a new friend on the swings, giving me an opportunity to enjoy my salad slowly and study the map of the park to come up with a plan.

I ruled out canoeing since I’d be doing all the paddling, and Trevor isn’t a kayaker yet. Scenic boat tours on the St. John’s River were available, but we were in budget mode. Though the park’s website listed the short, boarded nature walk as the park’s hiking option, there is also a 4-mile half loop that begins at the main parking lot and ends at a primitive campsite. Hikers have to return by the same route, meaning I could end up having to carry a 50-pound kid for 6 to 8 miles. If that primitive campsite had a real fountain of youth, maybe. Otherwise, we’d pass on the hiking trail. (Incidentally, this trail isn’t mentioned on the park website but is on the map provided by the ranger station.)

Trevor was ready to swim, but a walk-through of the swimming area revealed that the water was over his head and there was no shallow area near the bank where he could play. Our solution: We rented a small inner tube ($5 the first hour) and I donned a mask, snorkel and fins and pulled him up the spring run. The area in front of the swimming platform was noisy and crowded with people jumping into the water and kicking up sand, but we crossed to the other side and soon I was able to point out a couple of gar and a few smaller fish as we made our way toward the mouth of the spring.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A boarded nature walk runs alongside the spring run, from the mouth of Blue Spring to the St. Johns River. This photo was taken during the winter manatee season. In the summer, the boardwalk is filled with swimmers carrying inner tubes.

Fortunately for me, we only made it halfway to the mouth of the spring before Trevor decided it was time to turn around. Floating downstream, as you can imagine, was much easier than going up and the only difficulty was navigating around the other inner tubes and swimmers as we made our way back to the platform. When we got out, Trevor said he wanted to try to get in with his mask and snorkel, but the stairs leading into the water were so crowded with people going in and out that it was impossible for a little guy to get into the water at his own speed, so we gave up and decided to follow the boarded nature walk to the mouth of the spring.

During my winter visits, Blue Spring was peaceful and pristine, with only manatees in the spring run or a couple of scuba divers exploring the bottom of the spring. This time we passed two pairs of divers on the boardwalk, and they were not looking overly cheerful. This could have been partly due to the fact that scuba tanks are heavy and it was a long walk back to the parking lot. But when we got to the spring I could see another reason they may have been dismayed — it was wall-to-wall screaming, splashing swimmers.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A manatee makes its way down the spring run at Blue Spring State Park.

On the way back to the car, we decided to explore the Thursby House, a two-story home built in 1872 by settler Louis Thursby. The house is filled with artifacts and displays that describe the life of the Thursby family, who grew vegetables, raised hogs and caught fish, alligators and other animals in the wilderness surrounding their home. This was about the extent of the information I was able to absorb between answering calls of “Mom! Mom! Look at this!” from every other room in the house, but I was fascinated, imagining what it must have been like to live in such spectacular natural beauty when it was still undiscovered and private.

You have to hand it to Florida State Parks. They’ve done a wonderful job of keeping Blue Spring in a mostly natural and fully beautiful state despite herds of trampling visitors year after year.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

From Nov. 15 to March 1, Blue Spring is closed to swimmers to provide a haven for the West Indian manatee. Park visitors can get a close-up view of the creatures from the steps of the swimming platforms.

I’ll probably visit again in the summer, and maybe will be able to get Trevor all the way up the spring run next time. But if it’s your first visit to Blue Spring, I’d suggest going during the manatee season, Nov. 15 through March 1. Blue Spring is a designated refuge for the West Indian manatee, and swimming, diving and snorkeling aren’t allowed while the manatees are there. This provides a peaceful setting to view the manatees, turtles, numerous fish and even an occasional alligator napping in the Florida sun.

Gardening Disaster: Am I the Only One?

A few months back I decided to finally let go of my fears, set past failures aside and join the millions of Americans now tending backyard gardens. I figured everyone seems to be doing this. Surely it can’t be as impossible and mysterious as it has always seemed.

People all over America seem to be throwing seeds into the ground and before you know it, boom, they’re harvesting bushels of tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. Michelle Obama stuck a shovel in the dirt one day, next thing you know, “Iron Chef” contenders are running through what appears to be a lush tropical rain forest of vegetables. People are starting gardens on urban plots and restaurant rooftops. Friends, family, co-workers—suddenly everyone is able to grow their own food.

Then there’s me.

I started a small with a container garden; a couple of tomato plants, a couple of miniature bell pepper plants, one squash plant, some herbs. This would hopefully provide some homegrown, organic salad ingredients as well as boost my confidence after an epic tomato-growing failure a few years back.

green cherry tomatoes with marigolds in background.

I’m getting a few cherry tomatoes now, but I’m battling worms and fungus. And the squirrels are out there, waiting.

I purchased good organic soil and read everything I possibly could before starting. My containers were self-watering! Foolproof! I inspected my plants every day. This isn’t so hard, I began to think. Maybe I can be a gardener like everyone else.

The fungus that seemed to develop overnight on the cherry tomato plants was the first indicator that things were about to go the usual way they do between plants and me. It was at this point that I gave up on the delusions of organic perfection and blasted the plants with anti-fungal spray.

Then I noticed all of my squash blossoms had disappeared and the plant seemed to be shrinking and turning yellow. Meanwhile, a friend growing squash in a container in a similar climate reported that she’d had to transplant hers because it got so big.

Sunday morning, after a couple of days of rain kept me from checking my plants, I went out to find that little black worms had reduced much of the tomato plants to fishnet.

I blasted the plants with another dose of spray and flicked the worms, which were now hopefully poisoned, as far as I could flick them. I have to confess, the blasting and flicking were kind of fun. But still, I never hear about anybody else waging such a nonstop, all-out battle against crop failure. Can I be the only one? Or are there others like me out there who just aren’t talking? Is there a vast vegetable conspiracy? A silent majority of fruit-growing failures?

I do now have two miniature bell peppers that appear to be ripe. At about an inch and a half long each, they seem miniature even for miniatures. If that ends up being the extent of my harvest, they will have cost $30 each and aren’t even organic.

two bright red minature red bell peppers on the plant.

These look like chili peppers but are actually miniature bell peppers — very miniature. If they end up being the only thing I harvest, they’ll have cost $30 apiece and aren’t even organic.

I also have quite a few little green cherry tomatoes popping up, but we’ll have to see who wins the war between the worms and me. And the squirrels haven’t even weighed in yet. I live in fear that someday soon I’m going to have to find out how far I can flick a squirrel.

Newbie Gardener in Non-Organic Panic

Being new to the world of vegetable gardening, I’m a little obsessed with it right now. I usually wander out into the backyard to check on my plants first thing in the morning, then I might even check on them again later in the day. With such intense monitoring, you would think nothing could go drastically wrong.

But it did. When I checked my garden Wednesday morning, many of the lower leaves on the tomato plants had turned yellow and spotty. This must have happened almost overnight! Had I already killed my tomatoes? This would be a record even for me.

Cherry tomato plant with fungus

This disease appeared to develop almost overnight on my cherry tomato plants.

Fortunately my dad was visiting this week. My mother was the master tomato grower in the family, but Dad was around enough to see what was going on, and he told me when that happened to my mother’s plants, she had a spray she would use. This was a revelation. My mother’s tomato plants were occasionally weak or flawed? Maybe mine could be saved.

Dad didn’t know the name of the spray Mom used but said it killed fungus, so I hopped in my car and sped off like a plant ambulance in search of an emergency dose of fungus killer. When I got to the home improvement store,  I headed for a section of bottles with pictures of spotty yellow leaves on them.

Now, my plan with this vegetable garden was for it to be completely organic. This is clearly the healthiest, most ecologically sound option and is also madly trendy. I bought organic soil that was organically fertilized and had so far only used cayenne around the plants to keep the squirrels out. But in state of full tomato panic, facing a shelf full of toxic and nontoxic options, my idealism flew out the window. I wanted something that worked, and fast. I looked at the organic label, but it seemed kind of wishy-washy. It seemed to say, “I will probably kill some kinds of fungus. Maybe. Why don’t you take me home and see?” I didn’t have time for that. I needed a product that grabbed me by the collar and shouted, “I KILL FUNGUS! NOW!” Also, the organic product cost a lot more. I went with the old-fashioned stuff. That’s what my mother, the master tomato grower, would have done.

Green cherry tomatoes with marigolds in background.

Though the lower leaves are looking sickly, baby cherry tomatoes have begun to appear up top.

I raced home and sprayed the tomato plants and am hoping for a recovery. They still looked fungus-y this morning and there was something wrong with the squash, so I sprayed that, too. On the bright side, baby cherry tomatoes are starting to appear and the peppers are still with me. The marigolds are fantastic. Too bad they’re not something we want to eat.

In other garden news this week, I received an upside-down vertical strawberry planter as a birthday present. Now I can kill things from a whole new angle.

Pest Paranoia Means Garden Mostly Marigolds

Container garden 6/2010 Laurie Sterbens

My container gardens are growing cherry tomatoes, mini bell peppers, herbs, squash and a whole lot of marigolds.

A couple of months ago I was inspired to plant a small vegetable garden. Besides being a major national trend, I had heard that if my child was involved in growing vegetables, he might actually consider eating them. I have my doubts about this since he has so far proven to be a pretty unshakeable pastavore, but it worked on my neighbor’s kid, so I am hopeful.

Also, my son had grown a plant from a seed in kindergarten and it was starting to look a little depressed in its plastic cup. I thought he would enjoy replanting his seedling and watching it grow.

The only problem with this was not a small one. For my entire life I have been so incompetent with plant life that I seriously wondered if I should be allowed to have children.

My last attempt at growing vegetables was a complete disaster. My mother sent me two Earth Box gardening containers so I could try to grow tomatoes. She had four of these boxes on her deck and from them every year grew an 8-foot-high wall of plants that produced a bountiful crop of beautiful tomatoes all summer. These boxes were self-watering. She was probably thinking that surely I couldn’t mess this up.

But I did. Instead of an 8-foot wall of lush, productive tomato and pepper plants, I ended up with two boxes of emaciated green sticks and one tomato, which was removed and destroyed by a squirrel. Then one day I found the plants completely covered in little black worms. Eeek! I emptied the boxes, stored them in the garage and was too traumatized to attempt even a small container garden for years.

Though I had seen some appealing plans for small, raised-bed gardens in such magazines as Better Homes and Gardens that were as simple as buying three planks, sawing one in half and attaching them, I never seemed to be able to get this done. Plus, with my history of crop failure, it didn’t seem sensible to devote even a 4 x 8 plot to what might end up being a tomato graveyard. The two boxes in the garage would be just the thing. Baby steps.

I selected a sunny spot near a water spigot and on the opposite side of the house from the squirrel-infested orange tree. Then my son and I were off to the home improvement store to select our plants. Keeping with my theme of “baby steps,” I chose two cherry tomato plants and two miniature bell pepper plants. I also added one squash plant because everyone seems to do well with squash. I added a couple of herbs—rosemary and tarragon because we eat a lot of fish, and oregano because it’s very versatile. I would like to have put in some thyme, too, for the same reason, but I had to make room for marigolds.

Last year I wrote a story about a group of friends in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who were trying to drum up interest in community gardening. One thing that stuck with me from that interview is that the rows of vegetables in their organic garden were dotted with the occasional marigold plant to repel insects.

After my experience with tomato-plant-devouring worm invasion, I was all about repelling insects. The more marigolds the better. Plus, my son’s little seedling was a marigold so it would have company. Lots of company.

I bought some organic dirt, too. It was probably more expensive and I’m not sure what made it better than plain dirt, but organic was the theme and I was sticking with it. Well, to a point. With our trunk full of organic gardening supplies, we stopped off at a McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home for a happy meal. Like I said, baby steps.

So, as you can see by the photos, so far, so good. Amazingly, I haven’t killed anything yet. I could end up being one of the state’s leading marigold producers. My son enjoys going out to check the garden with me every day, and his little marigold seedling now has two tiny buds on it. Maybe we will build that 4 x 8 bed after all.

Scuba Do: The Almost Undersea Adventures of Me

Laurie Sterbens with Jaws in illustration by Marianne Koch

This illustration by graphic artist Marianne Koch appeared with a March 30, 2006 story in The Daytona Beach News-Journal in which I described my dive into the shark tank at SeaWorld Orlando. In reality, I was standing in a plexiglass cage in the tank.

I have a tiny, barely noticeable but not imaginary bruise on my left shoulder. I got this injury in scuba class. Not as glamorous or exciting as a shark bite or the bends, but it does illustrate a fact about scuba diving that might surprise you: Scuba involves a lot of heavy lifting. They never show that on TV.

Scuba diving is a bucket list item for me, something I’ve wanted to do since childhood. I’m dragging my husband, Scott, along so he can be my dive buddy, though he has accused me of having him there to carry tanks and do the math. Yes, there is not only heavy lifting involved in scuba diving but math. They don’t show that on TV either. Little square-shaped problems that look suspiciously like algebra are used to determine how much nitrogen has accumulated in your blood and how soon and for how long you can dive again. I was born with an underactive math gland, so I’ll admit, having my husband along is helpful.

The heavy lifting occurs in the process of getting your scuba gear and tanks from your car to the dive site, which is apparently never anywhere close to where you have to park. In addition to a scuba tank or two that weigh about 50 pounds each, there is a bulky bouyancy compensator vest, or BC;  a weight belt that is about 10 percent of your body weight; an octupus-like configuration of hoses that attach to your tank; and your mask, snorkel and fins. All of this must be transported from the car to the dive site while, at least in this case, wearing a full wetsuit in 90-degree heat.

Like childbirth, however, once that part’s over with you forget how painful it was. Eventually we got into the water and the fun began.

We’re in the process of getting our open water diver certifications from Spruce Creek Scuba in Port Orange, Fla. Having already completed our written test and pool session, we ventured out last weekend for our first open water dive at Alexander Springs near Astor, Fla., which features crystal clear, 72-degree water and a pretty little picnic area. The spring is occupied by freshwater fish and turtles and there is rumored to be a small alligator, but on this summer Saturday the spring was primarily occupied by wall-to-wall swimming children. Navigating our way through the water was like being the underwater camera in the beach scene from “Jaws.”

In fact, I didn’t get to see the alligator or even a turtle. The most memorable sight from my dive happened as I was kneeling in about six feet of water watching our instructor, Brett, and Scott practice a skill. A very large — and by that I mean wide — boy with a serious case of “plumber’s butt” swam just above Scott’s head. I was wishing I knew a hand signal for “Hey! Plumber’s butt above!” when another kid swam up behind the first boy and pulled his swimsuit down to his knees. I really hope my diving future includes enough exciting scenery to knock that visual out of my head.

After we got the “okay” sign from our instructors for performing a variety of skills such as clearing our masks, sharing air and removing our BCs underwater and putting them back on, we did a “follow the leader” dive around the spring. Ideally, this would be an underwater tour in which the experienced instructor led us smoothly around and pointed out each feature as we nodded in rapt attention and absorbed the wonder of it all in Discovery Channel perfection. The reality was about a dozen divers bobbing around and bumping into each other at every depth level as we clumsily struggled with our bouyancy and balance.

Eventually our increasingly orderly school of divers made it around the spring and back to the shallows, then back up to the picnic area to do our math homework. Scott and I had packed sandwiches and eagerly devoured them after a morning of lifting, swimming and more lifting. You don’t see a lot of obese scuba divers; now we know why.

We have one more dive to complete before we’re certified. After that, I’m looking forward to a lifetime of underwater adventures.

Back to “Jaws”: Check out this hilarious short animated film, “Jaws in 60 Seconds.”

Eggless Kindergarten Graduation Cake

I’ve been an unemployed journalist posing as a stay-at-home mom for nearly three months now, and weird things are starting to happen. Famous in the family for my brown thumb, I started a small organic vegetable garden with my son. After seeing three miniature bell peppers appear, I became obsessed and started sketching out plans for year-round plantings in the two large raised beds that I now plan to build.

After nine years, the fake bride and groom no longer occupy the crystal frame in our living room and our wedding party now appears in a large silver frame with eight tiny windows that used to say “1 1/4 x 2.” The fake bride and groom were with us for so many years I thought they’d earned a place in the family, though, so they are in the frame behind our own wedding picture.

I am seriously hoping I’ll find employment before I descend into full photo-album creation or, horrors, scrapbooking, but I have become a frequent flyer at the large craft store that just conveniently opened near my home. I’m finding myself on the hunt for cake decorating supplies, mostly. This is weird because I’m not really into sweets, especially cake. I’ve never gotten over the revelation that icing had shortening in it. Gross.

But I’ve got a little boy with an egg allergy who deserves cakes like every other kid for his birthdays and other occasions. Most recently was his kindergarten graduation. His teacher wanted to have a cake for the class, so I volunteered to make an eggless version, which she supplemented with storebought cupcakes.

White rectangle sheet cake with yellow shell trim that says "Yay! Miss Holter's Class, You Did It!"

For a kindergarten graduation, “Congratulations” seemed too stuffy. I went with “Yay!”

I decided that “Congratulations Kindergartners” was too stuffy for little kids, and also didn’t relish the idea of piping all those letters and trying to fit it into an appealing design. “Yay!” seemed more appropriate.

I used two boxes of reduced sugar devil’s food mix, each one baked in a 9×15 rectangular pan. Instead of the three eggs called for, I use two parts powdered egg substitute and a half a cup of applesauce per layer. This produces a moist, somewhat dense and nicely flat layer a little over an inch thick.

After allowing the cake to cool, I spread store-bought chocolate-chocolate chip icing on one layer and topped it with the second layer. I then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream (I do make homemade buttercream) and put it in the fridge to set overnight.

To decorate, I first sketched out a design in actual size. I kept the piping to a minimal by using fondant for the balloons and some of the letters. I rolled the fondant out in a pasta machine and cut it with cookie cutters, letter shape cutters and whatever else was handy that worked. I piped on some of the lettering, the balloon strings and the yellow trim, which was vanilla buttercream. I then added star sprinkles. It was not a restrained, elegant design, but it was for kindergarten.  They’re not into restraint.

The cake was a hit, even with people who didn’t know it was eggless. Now I’m wondering what can be my next cake-decorating occasion. Although first there’s the garden…

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