Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why I Plant Tulips

For those subscribers to my blog who are experiencing the snow and chilling winds of winter, views of flowers might come as a welcome surprise. One of my cherished memories of my grade school years is walking home from the school, which stood across the road from our house. My route led down our driveway. My mother, who loved blossoms of all kinds, had planted spring bulbs along the graveled path that the 1957 pink two-door Bel Air Chevrolet followed to its parking spot. As the school year was drawing to a close, the sunny afternoons between the April showers found me striding past the profusion of hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips that my mother had crowded into a deep border. The petals nodding in the breeze invited me to slow my steps so as to pay closer attention.

My Tulips Proclaiming the Return of Spring
I observed the unexpected variety of daffodils: tall, short, early, late, long trumpets, compact trumpets, yellow, white, and orange. Naturally, I decided which daffodil was my favorite, and, naturally, I changed my mind the next afternoon.

I bent close to the hyacinths to enjoy their perfume. Such heavenly scent! Closing my eyes and smiling, I caught the delicate fragrance of the tulips. Each kind of tulip possessed its own exquisite bouquet. I don’t expect anyone else to understand this, but I connected the tulip scents with marshmallow Easter egg candies.

To this day, I can see in clear detail my grade-school self standing among the flowers. I am wearing my gray zippered jacket and my blue stocking cap. A book is in my left hand. The daffodils and tulips have diverted me from my walk to the house; I stand among the blossoms. Later, in the hot summer months, this border beside the white board fence will be in dappled shade, but now, in the pastel spring, the leaves to be are merely buds, and the twigs and branches of the trees cast no deep shadows. What a pleasure it is to take the measure of the renewed world! By patiently burying bulbs in cold, blustery November, my mother had planted wonder and delight to flourish when a child’s soul most needed them after the winter months of lessons and tests.

At about the same time, my mother ran the incubator in the enclosed breezeway between the old smokehouse and our home. Chicks and ducklings hatched from the eggs she had patiently candled, turned, and warmed. One of her favorite games was to bring a newly hatched duckling to wake me up for school. I would gradually relinquish the dream world while listening to the peeping of a duckling that Mom was holding close to my ear.

As my mother had taught elementary school before raising a family, she felt a special affinity for teachers and students, and she always invited a few of the grade school teachers to lead their classes across the street to file through our breezeway while learning about incubators and new life fluffing itself among broken shells.

Although I have loved every period of my life, my grade school years occupy a special place in my estimation, and the flowers of the springtime are the hallmarks of my memory.

Wherever I have lived, I have planted bulbs. No matter how tiring it is to prepare the soil bed for the bulbs, to orient them in the right direction, and to cover them with soil that, by November, has begun to turn cool to the hand, I return to the job of planting bulbs. They are the promise of the days and the blooms to come. They are the symbols of my connection to the earth and my potential for surprise. They are the responsibility I have to the arts inspired by nature. By planting bulbs, I acknowledge that I am a steward of the earth and a practitioner of its grace, its elegance, and its charm. When I am treated to the first daffodil blossoms of the spring, I feel the peace of symmetry between plant and planter. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Recipe for Snickerdoodles Gone Bad (Last Installment in This Series)

My grandmother and my great aunt baked the best cookies I have ever tasted. Their generation (born before 1900) knew cookies! When I was a boy, one of the towering pleasures of attending Vacation Bible School was to line up in the cool church basement on a hot spring day and to be served two cookies prepared by my grandmother and by other women of approximately her same age. How they discovered the secrets of baking is beyond me, especially when I consider that they learned to bake in hulking iron stoves with ovens fired by wood and without thermometers.

My Grandmother
Who Survived the Flu to Give Birth to My Father

While I would have a difficult time choosing a favorite cookie, I could be forced to declare my grandmother’s sugar cookie the best of the best. All her recipes have been passed down to me. There are dozens of sugar cookie formulations. I have prepared several of them, but they do not produce the cookies I remember. I keep hoping that the special sugar cookies are hiding among the recipes, but I have not yet found them. I am beginning to think that my grandmother was so adept at making them that she needed no recipe.

My Great Aunt Margaret and My Grandmother
Who Learned to Bake Cookies on Iron Stoves

Now and then, a mistake in cooking yields a delectable surprise. I once made a blunder in a snickerdoodle recipe and wound up preferring the result. The ingredients (below) include more butter than the original recipe required. My error occurred when I was doubling the recipe; I doubled the butter and forgot to double the rest of the ingredients. (Yeah, I goofed when multiplying by two. Maybe you can deduce why I did not become a math teacher.) The extra butter causes the cookies to flatten, but they have a melt-in-your-mouth crumb that is delicate and delicious. I call them “Snickerdoodles Gone Bad”!


1½ cup butter softened at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
2 eggs
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon and 2 Tbsp sugar combined


Mix at medium speed in a large bowl the butter, sugar, and eggs until light and fluffy (at least 2 minutes). Combine in a separate bowl the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Add these to the creamed mixture and blend them well. Refrigerate the dough at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375° and combine the cinnamon and sugar. Shape the dough into 2 balls and roll them in the cinnamon and sugar. Bake the cookies for 12–15 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet. The tops of the cookies will puff up at first then flatten. Creases will form, and the edges will brown slightly.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Recipe for Emmajeanette’s Dessert

Among my parents’ closest friends were Emmajeanette and Andy. Emmajeanette, whose delightful name cannot go unremarked, had a smile as lovely as her husband’s sense of humor. Whenever my mother announced that Emmajeanette and Andy were coming for a visit, my brother and I were elated and raised no objection to the days of dusting and vacuuming that preceded the occasion. Andy had a capacity for mischievous jokes and clever quips. As I think about Andy and Emmajeanette now, years after their passing, I wish I could travel back in time like Scrooge savoring Fezziwig’s merry dances once more!

My Mother and Her Good Friend Emmajeanette
Andy loved to tell a story that happened when all of us visited Brookfield Zoo. The event took place before my brother and I were in grade school. I was riding in a wagon that my brother was pulling. He suddenly jerked the wagon forward, and I tumbled over the back. I was uninjured. My brother turned around, saw what had occurred, and said, “Oh, pardon me, Robert.” Andy found my brother’s good manners irresistibly charming.
Emmajeanette and Andy on a Visit in the 1960s
Emmajeanette was known for a toffee dessert that was airy, creamy, and heavenly! My mother always called it “Emmajeanette’s Dessert.” As the dish uses uncooked eggs, you will want to secure farm fresh eggs that you trust, so as not to risk salmonella. When working with older recipes such as this one, it is useful to remember that eggs on farms were large; accordingly, it is best to start by obtaining large eggs. Before melting the chocolate, chop the squares with a knife; beginning with pieces of chocolate, rather than an entire square, produces a better result. Also, melt the chocolate slowly on low heat. You do not want the solids and the cocoa butter to separate. (If this happens, start over with more chocolate.) If you are using a double boiler, make sure that no breeze carries steam from the lower pot into the chocolate. Even a small amount of water causes chocolate to become grainy. (If this happens, add a little more water, which will cause the chocolate to become smooth again.)


½ cup shortening
1 cup powdered sugar
1½ squares melted chocolate
3 eggs separated
1 tsp vanilla
¼ pound vanilla wafers
¼ cup chopped black walnuts


Blend the shortening and sugar, then add lightly beaten egg yolks. Add chocolate, then fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, as well as the teaspoon of vanilla. Spread half of the crumbs on the bottom of a square dish. Spread the chocolate mixture over the crumbs. Sprinkle the remainder of the crumbs on top of the chocolate mixture. Scatter a few chopped walnuts over the crumb layer. Let mixture stand in refrigerator overnight. Serve with whipped cream.