Laurapalooza

(Simultaneously published on Medium.com/chuckmall)

“Half-Pint” is Gaining a Jesus-like Iconography

Laura Ingalls Wilder and a Hmong woman on a mural in Walnut Creek MN. Did this ever happen? Doesn’t matter. Just believe.

 

The first thing that stands out from all the strip malls when I enter Springfield, Missouri, is the biggest megachurch I’ve ever seen. It appears to be the size of a Chicago city block and reminds me — along with the many billboards I’ve seen for Evangel this and Living Word that — I’m in Protestantfundamentalist land.

For weeks I’ve joked with my friends that I’m too old for Lollapalooza, so I have to go to Laurapalooza. Now that I’m here and see that it’s already 100 degrees, I wonder if the local grocery stores at least carry wine.

A few blocks after my exit I’m on Glenstone Street, the cornshuck Hollywood Boulevard of this southern city. I see a sweaty, dirty couple pulling two shopping carts of junk they’ve collected off the streets. If they’re homeless, I think, I hope that megachurch opens their doors for people like that in the evening.

But I know they don’t.

Laurapalooza is a bi-annual event celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder. I decided to attend partially because of a book by Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life, where she recounts travels in Lauraland and unfolds her own connection.

I expected some academics. There are always librarians and teachers at conferences. But what I didn’t expect: 125 attendees (117 women, 8 men) from 15 states, and England, Denmark and Japan. Prairie Barbie was an item on the silent auction table. Why would Barbie even want to be on the prairie? Who would choose locusts and no AC when she could have a Corvette and a beach house?

Some attendees wore t-shirts that said WWLD? Dozens of grown women who enjoy wearing bonnets and prairie dresses were everywhere. Then the vendor area: there are Laura ornaments, coffee cups, music inspired by, jars of jelly, and a “photo booth” of flimsy painted cardboard shaped like a Conestoga wagon.

Run to the Silent Auction table for this crazy AF oxymoron!

HALF-PINT SUPERSTAR

If you thought Laura Ingalls Wilder was only a children’s book author or a Melissa Gilbert TV show from your childhood, you have only seen the handle of the Ark of the Covenant.

The TV show, Little House on the Prairie, has been on the air somewhere every day since it first aired in the 1970s. The books have sold 34 million copies in 71 countries. Laura’s prairie homesteads are shrines, with droves of fans, homeschooled kids, and wealthy Japanese making the hajj every year. Laura’s adult home, in nearby Mansfield, Mo., has 40,000 visitors a year.

All she did was write a few books. But they have become a worldwide business, spawning an unsettling level of devotion and attention. The brick-of-a-book Pioneer Girl, Laura’s original manuscript that had been semi-hidden all these years, was published by tiny South Dakota Historical Society Press in December 2014 and became an instant best-seller.

Nevermind that it was an academic book crammed with more annotations than Trump’s press secretaries, weighed a ton, and cost $40 in an age when people don’t really read books anymore. It sold. So well, in fact, that the press decided to release three more books about Laura in subsequent years.

Laura makes the big bucks.

Photo op for the women — the hell with the men, they don’t belong here anyway.

THE BELIEVERS

Some of the workshops at Laurapalooza interested me. Former New Yorker writer Caroline Fraser, who holds an impressive Phd from Harvard, detailed the Minnesota Massacre (mentioned in hushed tones in one of Laura’s books). This American/Indian war stands as a flipside bookmark in the Ingalls family history. While white pioneers like themselves experienced self-designated opportunity and pushed into the West, the native people were pushed out — and even killed violently, if need be.

But it’s hard to have a serious conversation about manifest destiny when you’re talking to women in full prairie garb. The conference itself was schizophrenic. I talked to a producer from PBS in New York at one point (determined to find if any of the eight men present were something other than “reluctant husbands”) and five minutes later was talking to a homeschooling rural housewife who just “loved” Laura, especially her quilt-making.

Sure, there are a few quilt blocks in Laura’s books. What about, though, all the tremendous history in the books? Building a house, feeding yourself from what you could find on the ground, crossing a river in a wagon that held all your possessions and children?

Doesn’t matter. Laura was sweet. Family was king. They spent their evenings singing to Pa’s fiddle music. They worked on the crops together. They loved education. And they were faithful Christians. The last item is a P.S. to the list. Laura’s books aren’t particularly religious, but because the rest of the books’ atmosphere appeals to religious conservatives, Laura has been pushed into churchianity.

Laurapalooza had a seminar on Laura’s 7-greats grandfather, Edmond Ingalls, and how the lineage actually came from England, Denmark and other places in Europe — contrasted with the staunch American imperialist attitude in the Little House books. Fans love to find these contradictions. After all, anything new after over a century is a nugget of gold.

Then, listening to what was basically a physics lecture so we could understand the validity of severe weather on the 1870s prairie, it occurred to me: do we need to dig this deep?

This is how religions get built. There is oral history, which becomes a text, which when popularized ends up in the hands of disparate people who layer upon it all manner of accoutrement. Laurapalooza showed it all: souvenirs, books explaining the original books, maps of where they lived, quilts like Laura made, clothes like Laura wore, recipes based on the food she ate, and breathlessly on.

And people who live by WWLD? Really?

The layers continue to build. A new novel that will hit gospel level is Caroline, a novel about Laura’s mother by Sarah Miller coming in September, backed by heavy national promotion. Attendees at Laurapalooza are informally discussing who should play the movie lead. The general consensus is Brie Larson; she seems to have the balance of strength of tenderness just right for the role.

There is a TV show called Little Mosque on the Prairie. A website about the immigrant experience (and Laura) is Little Laos on the Prairie. There are at least three podcasts on Laura, including a sassy one that occasionally uses the S-word. Even Walnut Grove, the lily-white town portrayed in the TV show, has large Hmong population that has blended the histories. On an outside wall of the Bubai Grocery store there, a large mural shows Laura alongside a Hmong woman as though they are close friends.

Don’t even ask.

THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

Apostle William Anderson is revered throughout the conference. The author of several books on Laura, he has the longevity that gives him a front seat. He began working at the Laura homestead as a teen and even corresponded with Rose, Laura’s daughter. I’m intimidated to talk to him, so I don’t. Anderson was the first to discover that Laura’s books didn’t quite align with the truth, though Rose hushed him up. Every word was absolutely true, she asserted.

We now know better, and Pioneer Girl shed light on any remaining dark corner. Pa Ingalls and family skipped town in the middle of the night when he couldn’t pay his debts. They accepted charity to send Mary to “blind school,” though in the books Laura works to earn the money to send her. An entire two years of Laura’s childhood were purged, to avoid the fact that Mary and Laura worked at a hotel where an alcoholic man caught himself on fire and another man tried to grope Laura. All this was swept out of the proverbial cabin in books that showed a family who infallibly blasted through hard times with unrelenting spirit and drive.

At a certain point I felt a tsunami of Lauraness and took a break for a double-size glass of pinot grigio at the hotel bar. There was NO ALCOHOL served at the conference. Iced tea, coffee and water were enough for Lauraites!

“Are you at that event?” the bartender asked me, nodding toward the Kansas Room.

“Yes,” I said.

“What is it, anyway?” he asked. “Is it, like, about Melissa Gilbert?”

His ignorance is as refreshing as the cold wine that I’ve nearly finished in three greedy gulps.

Each day started at an unfriendly 8 a.m., workshops hammering through the day at a crazed colt’s pace.

I was a bit surprised we were served breakfast burritos at the conference. Why not have hardtack biscuits and beef jerky? You want the Laura experience? It sure as hell wasn’t in an air-conditioned hotel being attended to by hotel employees, drinking Starbucks.

SHE LIVES

Laura would be 150 years old this year. She even has a hashtag: #YearOfLaura. I think if she were here, she would shake her head at all the attention. She was a farm woman who made simple meals and had quiet evenings with her husband Almanzo. Even after she was wealthy from her books, she stayed in her own little house and lived like the little country woman she was. She shared her memories in the books; now that simple, sacred act has mushroom-clouded beyond anything she could have intended.

Given the choice, surely she would rather people look at a beautiful sunset than gaze upon her image.

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It’s Time to Prove Ourselves

Today I offer my space to a “guest blogger,” my angel son Max Mallory. This piece written Aug. 27 or 28, 2014, is pertinent again with the upcoming publication of Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn.

By Max Mallory

I’m on a flight from Chicago to Seattle, on my way to the Pacific Northwest for this year’s Penny Arcade Expo, commonly known as PAX Prime. I’ll be covering a ton of indie games from developers who have traveled thousands of miles to show off their work. And there’s no better time than now for a convention that’s second only to E2.

In the last few weeks, the indie community (and game journalism at large) has been hit by a few controversies. First come the personal attacks and death threats on Zoe Quinn (developer of Depression Quest and narrative director on the PAX 10 game Framed), which sparked tons of discussion and debate, but was plagued by the disgusting actions that many took against her, all due to allegations made by an ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s. The second was the hacking and illegal release of information about Polytron (Phil Fish’s company), developer of Fez. Their site and company Dropbox were hacked, while crucial financial data about Polytron and personal information about Fish were both leaked to the public.

Max Mallory, gaming journalist

Max Mallory was called “the businessman” at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater because he was one of the few students who could create video games and also had the acumen to work with professionals in the business. He helped students in the Media Arts & Game Development program understand how to present themselves to video game companies.

These incidents both contributed to a larger discussion, the ethics of game journalism. Many are now debating over how game journalists operate, whether they are allowed to support games in development, and whether or not they can form relationships with the developers of games they will write about.

Many developers, journalists and gamers have agreed that these events have really shown the ugly side of gaming. The threats Quinn have gotten are disgusted and aberrant. Even people outside of our bubble have asked me if I know about Depression Quest.

So, as I sit on this flight, I can’t help but think how damn important this PAX is.

We’ve seen some of the worst, but now it’s time for us to see the best. To see developers like Rami Ismail, co-founder of Vlambeer, who traveled cross-country the week before the convention. To see developers like Chris Hecker and John Cimino, who have been putting their hearts into Spy Party for over five years. To see developers like Kitfox Games, a female-focused studio, doing an awesome-looking game called Moon Hunters, and being damn proud of it. To see developers in the indie mini and countless mega booths who passionately pour their effort into their games regardless of who tells them not to, or tells them to stop, or harasses them. These are the best. These are the ones who make the gaming industry amazing.

To see developers like Zoe Quinn, who after all the sexism and harassment she’s faced, will be standing tall by Framed, and proving wrong those who have put her down.

These are the best. These are the ones who make the gaming industry amazing. And after last week, we need these people to show the world why gaming is full of passionate, hardworking dreamers.

Let’s prove everyone wrong. Let’s show the world how gaming is an amazing industry. Let’s go play some video games.

#

PAX Prime occurred Aug. 29-Sept. 1, 2014. Here is a panel from that conference featuring Zoe Quinn. Max was in the audience.

Max Mallory graduated May 2015 from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with dual bachelor’s degrees in English and in Media Arts & Game Development. He was hired before graduation and began working at Mobile Mesh Games in Whitewater, WI. He discovered he had testicular cancer in Oct. 2015. After several treatments and surgeries, he passed away on May 20, 2016. His intention to assist other young adults with cancer will continue with The Max Mallory Foundation

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When Your Own Writing Spooks You

Clean the basement. That’s how you find pieces of writing you never remember writing. I found one, and am going to throw it away. It isn’t bad as much as it is strange. In 2008 I took a stream-of-consciousness writing class and here’s what came out of it. It doesn’t sound like me, then or now. I think I’ve decided that stream-of-consciousness writing, or writing whatever comes into your head, is unsafe and possibly useless. Or brilliant. I don’t know.

We give away our thanks to the earth. We give away our all to the earth. The earth has given to us and we continue a mutual exchange, a give and take, a flow as constant as the wind that whips around the world, the streams that flow from high to low.

We stand in circles, we are circles, we are circles like the earth. We worship the earth and the earth worships us. We are its father and it is our mother. We hold each other, we embrace, we cling in the every circling dance of life…of generation…of reproduction, flow, breath, magic and source.

We are all one, and one is all us. Together we were the earth, we are the earth, and we will become the earth. We are united.

Togetherness. Wonder. Exhilaration. Breathe in and out and feel your gravity, your orbit, your rotation, your movement, your ever-changing face.

We bring you life—we take it.

We love live—love lives us.

We are we are we are earth.

Earth is us and all are saved. Saved from the burgeoning definitions, the warps, the mirrored perceptions that mean nothing, the desires that cloud us, the reverb that shakes us, the blocks that wear on us.

We want the magic of life and do not know we already have it. We want to grab the building blocks of life and they are already in our hands.

 

 

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Cracked Open

You can see I haven’t been the most regular blogger here. But I had a reason for pausing lately. On October 22, 2015, my 22-year-old son was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Seven months later he passed away, after fighting hard and being brave.

I am not the same person and never will be. I have been blogging, but not on WordPress. The latest pieces appear on Medium.com. The blog titles are duplicates or derivative of book titles. These pieces are unlike anything I’ve ever written. I invite you to delve in.

A Series of Unfortunate Accidents – a variation of the Lemony Snicket title. Maybe I should have used the true last word of the title, “Events,” because the odd things in this story certainly were not accidents–they were warnings.

Just Tell Me What You Want – a novel by Jay Presson Allen. I never read Allen’s book but always thought the title was alluring in a Jacqueline Susann way. And the title fits for my piece. I was going to use the term “Grief Vampires,” but my psychic was no user. What she knew still gives me chills.

What to Suspect When You’re Expecting is obviously from the bestseller with Expect as the third word in the title. This is the only funny story on Medium.com at present, and is  about my “Jewish son.”

Life as We Knew is a book on my list for one of the top five young adult novels of all time. But I’m skewed here. Max discovered this novel & it has since become one of my favorites. I was re-reading it when he was very sick, toward the end. Perhaps this title is my new leitmotif.

The Son of Someone Famous is the exact title of a novel by M.E. Kerr, a fav YA novelist of mine. She was more popular some years ago. This is a provocative title befitting today’s clickbait society; Kerr was prophetic. Max was not the son of someone famous; had he lived I would likely be the father of someone famous, though.

Across Two Aprils is a variation of Across Five Aprils, a title by I remember seeing a hundred times in my high school library. I intended for this to be my first-ever piece for Medium and held others I’d written until this was done. I thought the contrast between 2 Saturday mornings 50 years apart was amazing.

Thank you for reading any of my pieces on Medium. Grief cracked me open like a coconut and out poured my most heartfelt writing. That is another great gift Max left me.

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Angst. Just your general angst.

I know writing is not supposed to be fun.

I know it is not necessarily supposed to be hard.

I know it can work well as you get into the “flow” and time and space disappear beneath the rapid-fire sequence of scenes forming in your brain and flying from your fingertips onto the keyboard that is clacking like a skeleton’s fingers on an unstringed piano.

That doesn’t make it any prettier.

Here is a perfect illustration of how a fiction writer thinks other people look at him: 

 

 

 

Yeah. That’s what it feels like too.

Here is what happens when you have a regular life: you don’t get enough fiction writing done, and your imagination decides to go into overdrive. This is also what happens if you have the luxury of writing fiction without much impediment, but take time off or can’t write for a few days.

Mind:

Stomach ache? Or a TAPEWORM?

Was that thunder? Or a NUCLEAR BOMB?

Joke email? Or DOES SOMEONE KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER?

Rash? Or FLESH-EATING VIRUS?

Headache? Or BRAIN ANEURYSM THAT IS ABOUT TO POP BIG TIME?

You get it. The only way to dampen down the flames of imagination is by writing. And the longer period of time you’ve written fiction, it just gets worse. Even if you publish little to nothing, your mind already has taken control. You will drain its overenergy, or it will plague you. Make a choice.

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I’m Embarrassed to Admit I’m In Love With This Book

And it’s not even a new one.

Let me start by admitting I feel guilty when I re-read a book. I mean, there are so many zillions of books out there I want to read. I’m intimidated that I’m so greedy about what I want to read. I quickly opt out of books that don’t hold my interest after a while. And that “while” patience-span keeps narrowing. I even gave up reading Joyce Carol Oates because her output passed my tolerance. After all, if you can write faster than I can even read, I don’t have a chance.

Out with it: the book is The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure.

The 1st time I read it was because, well, it was the first time and the book was greedily consumed like a bowl of popcorn.

The second time was after reading Pioneer Girl by Pamela Smith Hill. That somber tome virtually ripped the petticoats off Laura Ingalls Wilder with its icon-melting secrets. I had to revisit McClure’s softer realizations to wash away the grime of Pioneer Girl. It’s one thing to learn Laura Ingalls Wilder left out a whole chunk of two sad years of her childhood, as McClure found. It’s quite another to hear that Pa might have been a drinker and some man set himself on fire practically in front of Laura, along with the fact that Laura’s iconic Little House “books” were derived from a single amateurish first draft, with the lion’s share of her iconic books written by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

My current round of reading The Wilder Life is to once again languish in the college-weekend feeling of the narrative, laughing at McClure’s efforts to “do Prairie” by churning butter and visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder shrines. It also has a road-trip flair, as you journey with Wendy and her man Chris. They feel like your fun, intelligent friends who sip hard cider with you, making Twitter-worthy remarks about culture’s quirks. McClure throws dignity out of her Chicago apartment window and admits such deep research as watching “Little House” TV reruns and liking cheesy YouTube videos honoring Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s a little bit like admitting you sneak a flask in your pocket for the AA meeting. McClure has reverence for the impact of Laura-induced sentimentality, but can stand back a bit further and see how cockeyed some fans have gotten.

This time reading McClure’s book, her juicyfruit salad of language comes into clearer focus. In earlier readings, how did I not notice her Jenga’d adjectives? Her (perfect) definition of who Laura Ingalls Wilder has become: a historical literary figure character person idea grandma-girl-thing.

McClure isn’t your history teacher, here to instruct you about life on the prairie. This is your sassy friend who’s gossiping–albeit with superior language skills and stand-up-comic quality delivery–about “Laura World.” This world, expected to be a rose garden, kinda smells like a trailer park.

Nuggets of Laura World: There is a guy in Minneapolis who thinks Laura Ingalls Wilder is God. The town of Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, Wisconsin, has its own Loch Ness type monster named “Pepie.” Adult women in prairie dresses and sunbonnets pretend they’re Laura. People cry when they first visit the historical sites. There is even Laurapalooza, a benign town festival with no rock music and somber historians quibbling quietly over who-cares details of life in 1880 while picnicking on ham salad sandwiches. DeSmet, South Dakota, as it turns out, is a bit like the Roswell of the north. Full of tourist crap and devoted weirdos.

It’s rare, a book that can make you want to go there and stay away at the same time.

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How I Develop a Recipe

NOTE: This is not my usual post about fiction writing, but about recipe development and food blogging–another form of writing I love. I have a blog with my family history stories and recipes on Grit.com – Country Cooking. This is being simultaneously published with Grit.com.

If you’re an avid cook you’ve probably made up your own recipes, then tried to duplicate them, and find you can’t! Or maybe your cooking is good enough that others want your recipes. Either way, it’s time to start developing your own recipes in written form.

One, Two

First, two key points. The first should be obvious, the second might not.

1. If you find a recipe you like and change one ingredient, you really haven’t developed a new recipe. There are copyright battles about this, and it’s hard for anyone to claim a recipe that is exclusively theirs. But have integrity and come up with something that really is yours.

2. You don’t have to start every ingredient from scratch. You can review other recipes and create your own version. The trick is to use similar recipes from a variety of sources, and create a recipe that is notably different from the others.

People think I have hundreds of cookbooks, but actually I only have 106 (at present). Since I’m interested in rural cooking, culinary history, and side dishes, I’m selective about what cookbooks I buy. Almost all of them are out-of-print or rare cookbooks. As a result, I have some recipes that are unusable. For instance, I have an entire book on how to make aspics and vegetable salads with gelatin. In this era, people really don’t want to eat those.

I write in most of my cookbooks. I’m not going to re-sell them and I want to keep notes on when I made it, how it turned out, and flag any steps that seem wrong. For the last reason, I almost never use “community cookbooks,” which are not vetted by editors. I have two – one that includes a recipe from my mom, and another that includes a recipe from my “great aunt” Georgia Ruth.Yes, commuOld cookbooksnity cookbooks are fine for fundraisers, but are a very general set of recipes and often contain mistakes and omissions.

When I start with an interesting idea I’ve seen in a cookbook, I find similar recipes in other cookbooks and compare. There is a crucial first step here in developing a recipe, even if you are starting from a recipe in your own mind.

That step is “editorial testing.” Read through the recipe and ask if it makes sense or if there is something missing – just like you should do before you try a new recipe.

Editorial Testing

1. Are any ingredients vague? What is a “box” of gelatin? At least one major brand has two sizes. While a “pinch” of something usually won’t throw off a recipe and can be understood, other simple-sounding ingredients could derail the cook. A “cup of green beans” could be a cup of canned green beans, or a cup of raw green beans. If the recipe doesn’t simmer for a long time, that makes a huge difference. Also, think about how a cook who is not your age would interpret your ingredient. Since I’m not a spring chicken, a recipe that calls for “gelatin” to me would mean powdered gelatin. A college-age cook might think it means a plastic container of pre-made “snack pack” type gelatin.

2. Does it have one or more highly unusual ingredients? Some cooks cannot find the same ingredients you can. Often I find myself wanting to include an ingredient like kimchi or banana leaves, then I remember people from Grandma Hamilton’s small town could not get those unless they drove over an hour to a city grocery store. That points to the next step.

3. Who is your audience? Are you writing your favorite recipes for your children? Fine, they know you and likely can interpret some things. Since I write about rural Midwest cooking and publish my recipes, I avoid unusual and foreign food ingredients. In some places – and you might have foreign readers if you’re a food blogger – some ingredients are not available or understood. Could you add vegemite or arepa?

4. Be suspicious if a brand name is used. There are many recipes out there from food companies. Does your recipe call for “Bisquick”? I don’t use Bisquick. It’s easily combined from homemade ingredients – flour, baking powder, salt and oil or butter. Does the recipe suggest adding “Country Crock” for margarine? People tend to substitute, and butter is quite different from margarine. Why use a box of “Duncan Hines cake mix”? Why isn’t another brand OK? Make your ingredients as broad and basic as possible.

5. Are all amounts, containers and temperatures specified? Some old family recipes do not have a baking temperature. Everything seems to have been cooked at 350 F or was made on a wood-burning cookstove. To fine-tune more, do your instructions make sense in the order they are cooked? If you assemble most of one dish, then list a sauce that must be simmered for hours to go with it, start with the part that will take the most time. What is a “loaf pan”? There are at least five sizes. The ingredients should be in order and logical.

I start with a written rough draft, and make notes on it while I cook, such as “the batter will be thin.” Often I consult my go-to cooking book, Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee. I have read this cover to cover, highlighted the “good parts” that pertain to my style of cooking, and refer to it at least weekly. Knowing the science behind cooking can save you from many mistakes.

Wasting Food!

Usually a recipe takes at least a couple of tries before I get it right, and sometimes more.

Occasionally I throw out the attempt altogether, as when I tried to cook a savory dish with bananas.

When I first started trying to make my own recipes, it was hard to fail and throw away a bunch of food. But if you’re going to develop recipes, you must. Just have a compost pile to “save” what you can. Unless you’re a master baker, or have worked in a creative bakery, do not start with baking. It’s tricky.

Here are three great sources:

The Kitchen: How to Write a Recipe 

Cookbook Style Sheet  – This is for the serious recipe writer, though it’s worth a look for anyone.

Here’s a great piece from a cookbook editor, showing how a recipe is edited.

And if you want to write or blog, go for it! Sure, the cooking/food world is crowded and popular now, but if you do what you love, you can’t go wrong. I wanted to write about my ancestors, since I love genealogy and have all kinds of old family photos. Since I liked rural-style old-time recipes, the ideas meshed and “Country Cooking” was born.

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