Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thanksgiving in a Foreign Land

This is Thanksgiving week… American Thanksgiving, I should say.  This is, however, not just any Thanksgiving, but my first Thanksgiving out of the country and the 150th anniversary of when President Lincoln established it as the third national holiday (along with Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday).  The holiday takes on a different feeling when you think of the timing; the end of the Civil War, the government trying to hold the increasingly fragmented nation together.  How do you forge a lasting union for a nation of people with loyalties, cultures and traditions that span the globe?  Part of the answer, apparently, was to give them a common tradition tying together families across the country in thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib.  The "pricelessness" of family at Thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib. The “pricelessness” of family at Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday of the year.  The focus on food and family has become increasingly important to me, first when I moved across the States for graduate school, then trying to create new homes with Dave as we progressed through our impromptu academic tour of the Midwest, and now with Little Man in Canada.  So here we are, looking for ways to create our own new identities, to create new family traditions, and to create a dual nationality identity for our son.

play time

Thanksgiving, however, is anything but a simple holiday.  The children’s stories of pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a nice turkey dinner are just that… stories.  But the creation of Thanksgiving, the annual retelling of this fictitious meal uniting disparate peoples, is still a powerful tool today.  For a fascinating study of the history (and fiction) of Thanksgiving, please check out Janet Siskind’s The Invention of Thanksgiving (click on the link to download a pdf of the article).  You’ll never think of American Thanksgiving in the same way again… but in a good way.  It’s powerful, and so is the resulting holiday.

lake 2

For my personal purposes, not so differently from Lincoln’s, Thanksgiving has long been about creating a sense of home when “home” is not necessarily apparent.  A sense of family when family is far away.  A sense of belonging in a place that is still a bit foreign.


When living in upstate New York, this meant celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with Dave.  Until we met I had no idea that Canada had a Thanksgiving; assuming that it was a uniquely American holiday.  It is and it isn’t.

cousin love 2

Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October, not the 4th Thursday of November.  It is a harvest celebration, without any stories of Pilgrims and Indians.  The meal is mostly the same with turkey, stuffing and the sides.  However, Canadians tend to avoid the dodgy green bean casseroles, with most Canadians I know being horrified by the dish.  In Canada, Thanksgiving is a relatively minor holiday and is quickly eclipsed by Halloween.  I didn’t quite understand this until moving to Canada this year.  For all of my adult life, even when moving often, the idea of a Thanksgiving alone or uncelebrated was tragic.


One Thanksgiving when we were first dating, Dave was not going to be able to join anyone’s family dinner since he needed to stay in town to finish writing his Master’s Thesis.  This seemed an abomination to me that someone would be home, alone, on Thanksgiving, with only the hope of an at best mediocre TV dinner to look forward to.  So even though I was definitely going out of town to be with my adopted New York family for Thanksgiving, I devised a nice, stay at home version for Dave.  All he would have to do was put things in the preheated oven at a certain time, take them out, reheat a couple of things, and he’d have his own pint-sized Thanksgiving meal.  I think I even wrote out the instructions for him, down to the unwrapping of the carton of crescent rolls and how to form/bake them.  After all, this Canadian obviously did not understand the importance of the holiday since he was willing to sacrifice it.  Who knew how far his ignorance of the proper foods went?  In theory, this should have been fantastic, or at least sweet.  In reality, it has lived in our combined memory as well intentioned, but horrific.  I mean absolutely disgusting and barely edible.  He’s lucky that it was partially edible, since even the local pizza places weren’t delivering that evening.

Dave’s Thanksgiving meal was to be an oven-roasted Cornish game hen, mashed potatoes (oy!), gravy, sweet potato praline, balsamic vinegared brussel sprouts (double oy!), canned crescent rolls (hence the instructions) and I think a mini-pumpkin pie for dessert… but that might also have been burned in the oven.  Of all this, the Cornish game hen was good, the crescent rolls were passable, and the sweet potato praline saved the day.  The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, were raw.  The brussel sprouts were disgusting.  The pie, if it ever existed, has not survived in memory.  It would take me a good 8 years to make passable mashed potatoes.  After this (and other experiences) I was forbidden by friends and family alike to attempt mashed potatoes.  In fact, just a week ago I made pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, and both Dave and I commented on the fact that I just might have learned how to actually cook them properly.  I have no idea how a person who even then was a pretty good cook could not make mashed potatoes.

And while the brussel sprouts (yes, I can cook these well now too) were so bad that they don’t even deserve discussion here, I will share with you the one glowing beacon of the day; Praline Sweet Potatoes.  These are now the one thing, no matter whose Thanksgiving I am going to, that I always bring with me.  They are almost sweet enough to be a dessert, but have just a hint of a savory edge that pairs excellently with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and the rest.

Dave's Mom's gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

Dave’s Mom’s gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

The pictures in this post are from my first Canadian Thanksgiving.  They look the part and embody that sense of Thanksgiving that I think will likely be missing from our American Thanksgiving this year.  We’re still fiddling with tradition, and straddling the line between nations.  Say “Happy Thanksgiving” to a Canadian this time of year, and you get some very confused looks since for them Thanksgiving was over a month ago.  There will be new photos of new traditions coming soon.  In the meantime, no matter what we are doing I plan on keeping family close and tradition a bit loose.

I don't have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

I don’t have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

Praline Sweet Potato

2 lbs. whole sweet potatoes (not from a can)

¼ cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 tsp. salt

Pepper to taste

½ cup brown sugar, packed

¼ cup butter, melted

¼ cup dark corn syrup

1 heaping cup of pecans, chopped

1.  Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Pierce the raw sweet potatoes all over with a sharp knife and place them on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet.  Roast the sweet potatoes in the oven until soft and easily pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes to an hour.  In the meantime, butter a 2-3 quart shallow casserole dish and set it aside.  Once the sweet potatoes are cooked through, allow them to cool until they are easy to handle with your hands.  Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

2.  Tear the skins from the sweet potatoes and put the orange flesh into a large mixing bowl.  Mash the sweet potatoes until they are creamy.  Add the milk, egg, salt and pepper and stir to combine.  Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the buttered casserole dish.

3.  In a small bowl combine the brown sugar, butter and corn syrup.  Pour this over the sweet potato casserole and spread it around so that all of the sweet potato is covered.  Sprinkle the pecans evenly over top.

4.  Bake the casserole uncovered for 45 minutes, or until it is set.  The topping will still be slightly soft at this point, but it will harden as the dish cools.  Watch the pecans towards the end of the cooking time.  If they start to brown too much or burn, drape a piece of aluminum foil over top to slow the browning.

Click here for a printable version the Praline Sweet Potatoes recipe.

lake 3


Playing in the Mud – Part 2

I stepped into the Bowen Park pottery studio with the intention of throwing a few bowls, doing some slab work, and overall just getting my hands dirty again.  I imagined that the other people there would be like me, relative novices or people playing with pottery.  Maybe some nice grandmotherly ladies rolling out clay like cookie dough to cut out shapes for Christmas ornaments.  As I turned the corner into the studio, the first woman I saw was doing exactly that.  Her little frilly apron completed the picture.  Then I looked beyond her, and felt a wave of inadequacy wash over me.

The room was filled with predominately senior-age women, which was to be expected since seniors get free or very inexpensive access to a fantastic array of classes and activities at Bowen Park, ranking from lawn bowling to language classes to dance to pottery.  These women, however, were not dabbling.  They are artists.  One was crafting an amazing clay mask wall piece that was around two feet in diameter.  Another was doing slab work on a series of massive platters.  To my left were a couple of women dipping their bisque wares (pottery that has gone through one firing, but still needs a glaze before a second firing) into glaze, but their pieces were gorgeous.  Applique star fish on a series of mugs, bowls and casseroles.  Another had tall narrow pieces that are incredibly difficult to throw.  To my right was the wheel room with three women at pottery wheels throwing pieces that were taller, wider, and all around more stupendous than I had ever been able to do even when I was practicing multiple times a week.

A quick selection of some of my pottery created here in Nanaimo.

A quick selection of some of my pottery created here in Nanaimo.

Anyone who has thrown pottery can tell you that the more clay you have on your wheel, the bigger a piece you can make, but also the more you have to muscle the clay into submission.  I had gotten proficient with smaller pieces of clay, ranging from 1 ½ to 3 lbs. at a time.  Once I had tried a 5 lb. piece of clay and it just about threw me across the room.  A nice, petite, grandmotherly woman dropped what looked like a good 8 to 10 lbs. of clay on her wheel and almost immediately had it centered and was pulling up an amazing deep, wide bowl.  The idea of sitting with these women and practicing my “skills” that hadn’t been dusted off in years was daunting.

This bowl originally was a fail.  I pinched the top right off of it while trying to draw it higher.  A carved leaf vein in the bottom and some good glaze, and it is reborn as a lily pad bowl.

This bowl originally was a fail. I pinched the top right off of it while trying to draw it higher. A carved leaf vein in the bottom and some good glaze, and it is reborn as a lily pad bowl.

I mentally put on my “big girl pants,” sent up a quick prayer that I wouldn’t totally embarrass myself, grabbed my bag of clay and other tools, and sat down.  Then I proceeded to get up and sit down again a good three or more times as I remembered a different tool I needed, or couldn’t get the bin around the machine on correctly, or forgot a board for my clay, or forgot to wedge my clay before throwing it… the list goes on.  The lovely women on either side of me offered kind advice so that my brain slowly wrapped around the process again.  Now every time I go, I am excited to see these women working too.  They are a wealth of advice and inspiration with what they do.  I learn so much from getting muddy with them.

A butter dish or spoon rest.

A butter dish or spoon rest.

As I’ve now been throwing in Nanaimo long enough to have finished pieces (thrown, set, dried to greenware, fired to bisque, dipped in glaze, and then fired again), it’s been fun to look at the differences in my pottery between Indiana and now here in Nanaimo.  In Indiana (pre-Little Man) much of what I did was based on having friends over for dinners or parties; small dishes with ringed bases that are great for oil and balsamic bread dipping, appetizer plates with a circle cut out to hold a wine glass, fancy serving dishes that look like giant tropical leaves.  Pieces are largely still packed away in boxes from our move in order to protect them from Little Man.  They are the type of pretty, fragile pieces that he could quickly turn into thousands of pottery sherds for a future archaeologist.

It may be hard to tell in this shot, but this is a clam shell plate with a raised portion at the back for dip.

It may be hard to tell in this shot, but this is a clam shell plate with a raised portion at the back for dip.

The pieces that I have been making here in Nanaimo show that I’m trying to get my feet wet (or my hands dirty) again, sort of slowly flexing my pottery muscles as my brain remembers what my hands haven’t quite forgotten yet.  In all honesty my thrown work has been a bit shaky, but I’m just now catching my stride.  My slab work has been better.  The pictures included in this post show my most recent work here in Nanaimo, while the previous Playing with Mud post shows pictures of my Indiana work.  Instead of being inspired by dinner parties, I’m trying to think of what types of things we can use now with Little Man.  For example, he LOVES the planets, the Moon and the stars, so I’ve started a little “series” of planet and moon plates.  They aren’t anything special in terms of technique, but I hope they are fun for him to eat off of at meal times, and that they inspire his imagination in other ways.  I’ve also been making more piggy bowls that I first created in Indiana.

One of Little Man's planet plates... maybe Neptune?

One of Little Man’s planet plates… maybe Neptune?

Another one of Little Man's planet plates...  maybe Uranus?

Another one of Little Man’s planet plates… maybe Uranus?

When I first made a piggy bowl, I had been inspired by an old pottery piggy bank that a fellow student at the studio brought in.  The face looked so cute, and more importantly easy to replicate.  I also quickly learned that any bowl that goes a bit wonky on the wheel can be immediately saved through the transformative powers of a piggy face.  When I throw pottery, unless the piece absolutely implodes on the wheel (which does happen, but less frequently the longer I practice) I don’t want to waste it.  Sometimes you can slap on a handle and a slightly wonky bowl can become a nice mug.  Other times, a piggy face is just what is needed to salvage an otherwise unattractive piece.  The first couple bowls I threw needed some salvaging, so piggys they became.  I’m planning on throwing some bowls next week at the studio, so I should probably look into expanding my animal face repertoire.  Our cupboards are getting a bit full of piggys, but luckily these small bowls make great presents for little ones and a number of my friends have new additions that will be receiving piggy bowl presents soon.  Little Man loves his piggy bowl, and gets to use it often at meal times (with some supervision) for soups, bread rolls, hummus/dips, cereal/oatmeal, and the like.  I’ve been wanting to make some from scratch chocolate pudding, and I have to admit that his piggy bowl is the inspiration for that.  I think it would be the perfect thing for that special treat.

The piggy bowl tradition continues in Canada.  It's amazing what a piggy face and some good glaze does to fix an otherwise so-so bowl.

The piggy bowl tradition continues in Canada. It’s amazing what a piggy face and some good glaze does to fix an otherwise so-so bowl.

Playing in the Mud

It was hot.  So hot that if I left my trowel in the sun for even a few moments you could have fried an egg on the metal blade.  Blazing hot, but to think of it in those terms made you feel even hotter.  I was collecting yet another bag of broken pottery (officially called coarse ware or cook pot ware, affectionately called crap ware) in my first archaeological field season in Turkey.  I wasn’t exactly sure that I knew what I was doing, and I had no idea what to do with the stuff I was digging up, other than to record it properly.  I hadn’t yet learned how to take the material remains and interpret those back into the lives of ancient people.  Somewhere during the collection of that bag of boring, unpainted, undifferentiated pot sherds, I actually stopped to look at one.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

It was the same earth-beige color as the rest.  Roughly the same shape as the palm of my hand, and on the outside surface was a perfectly clear finger print preserved in the clay.  The finger print of the woman or man who had actually made the pot whose surviving piece I now held.  This print was not decorative, but was simply a movement recorded in clay; and I was hooked.  For the first time, all the books on ancient history, all the poorly made films about ancient civilizations (Alexander with Colin Farrell… hours of my life I can never get back), all the museum displays, all of it finally was linked back to real people.  There were real people who made real pots that quite often weren’t pretty, but I bet could be used to put together a delicious meal.

One of thousands...

One of thousands…

Those pot sherds became the focus of my life for a good five plus years.  My dissertation was based on thousands of pot sherds, enough sherds to make your eyes cross and fingers ache just at the thought of analyzing them all.  When I was writing up my findings back in Indiana, Dave surprised me with a present of a pottery class.  It was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never made the time.  Now that I was crunching numbers and trying to interpret ancient life from thousands upon thousands of pot sherds, I was finally going to see what went into making a pot.  And I loved it!  There is something magical about pulling the pottery up from the wheel and seeing it transform before you eyes and between your hands… even if it falls.


Pottery I made in Indiana.

When we moved from Indiana to Iowa, I lost access to that studio and then Little Man came on the scene and I hadn’t been able to get back to pottery until now.  I’d heard that through the city of Nanaimo there was access to a pottery studio where they also taught classes.  So I tracked down a copy of the Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture Activity Guide and found the information on the Bowen Park pottery studio (in the senior center at 500 Bowen Road).  The best part was that they offered multiple days of open drop in time, where as long as you already know what you are doing you can come by for a small fee and use their facilities.  I was hoping that the muscle memory of throwing pottery would come back, even though I hadn’t held clay for nearly three years.  And it did… more or less.


With my reintroduction to the world of throwing pottery, I wanted to cook dinner in a casserole dish or pot that I’d made myself.  I wanted to use my own pottery again, to feel the accomplishment of creating something useful not just pretty.  I also wanted comfort food, which meant casserole, and the mother of all casseroles in our household is Chicken Taco Casserole.


Chicken Taco Casserole is not a light meal, and frankly I don’t recommend trying to lighten it.  I’ve tried it with baked tortilla chips, and they just dissolved in an unappetizing mush.  I’ve tried it with reduced fat canned soup (yes, you heard me right, this recipe calls for canned soup.  Embrace the retro ingredient) and that was a mistake; total lack of flavor and an off putting texture.  This is one of those go big or go home casseroles that we don’t make often, but we savor every delicious bite, scraping our plates (and the casserole dish) clean.  And while you certainly don’t have to bake this in a ceramic casserole made by yourself or a local artisan, I have to tell you that it’s really great if you can.  I don’t know why, but it just seems like things taste better when served in your own pottery, pottery made for you, or pottery made by a local artisan.  It’s similar to how things you grow in your own garden taste better than those things you buy in a store.  It’s powerful when you know the hands that made something, not just an extruder or mold press half way across the world.  So if you get a chance, support your local potter.  You’d be amazed at the craft and artistry that goes into what seems like a simple bowl or mug.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

Chicken Taco Casserole

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

This casserole is the definition of family comfort food for me.  It’s a family recipe that we’ve tweaked over the years and my parents make it differently than I do, and my brother has his own spin on it too.  The ingredients below give a nicely spicy version, but in terms of full disclosure, I haven’t been able to make it with any spice since Little Man came along.  We’re hoping to get him there some day, but for now I omit the chili flakes all together (unless I’m feeling risky and just give a sprinkle to the sauteing chicken), and instead of a half can of jalapenos, I use a full can of mild green chilies.  The taste is still great, but I can’t wait for Little Man’s palate to develop to spicy foods…  Mama misses her chilies.

And a quick warning…  The first time my dad and I tried this casserole with the added chips and cheese on top… the topping never made it to the table.  We pulled the delicious casserole out of the oven, called the rest of the family to dinner, and stood there in the kitchen eating the chips and cheese off of the top.  By the time the rest of the family got there we’d smoothed out the top of the casserole and no one was the wiser… until now.


3 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

Salt and Pepper

½ tsp. chili flakes

2 cans cream of mushroom soup

2 cans cream of chicken soup

½ small can of diced green chilies

½ small can of diced jalapenos

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1 large bag of good quality tortilla chips


1.  Preheat the oven to 350º Fahrenheit and prepare your favorite casserole dish by giving it a generous spray of cooking oil.

2.  Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium high heat and add a little oil.  Sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt, pepper and half the chili flakes.  Put the breasts into the hot pan spice side down.  Then sprinkle the exposed side with salt, pepper and the remaining chili flakes.  Cook until golden, then flip and sear again.  Saute until the chicken is cooked through, about 10-12 minutes total.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe.  Taster's preference.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe. Taster’s preference.

The beauty of browned food...

The beauty of browned food…

3.  In the meantime, in a large mixing bowl combine the soups, the chilies and a good sized cup of grated cheddar.  Mix this all together and set it aside.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

4.  Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it to a plate and shred it into large strips.  Once shredded add the chicken to the rest of the casserole mixture and stir to combine.

The combined mixture... the start of a beautiful thing.

The combined mixture… the start of a beautiful thing.

5.  Now comes the fun part, layering.  Grab a good sized handful of your chips and crush them into the bottom of your casserole.  This should more or less just flatten them out a bit to make a good base.  Then layer in approximately 1/3 of your casserole mixture, and smooth it out.  Top this with another good handful of chips, and repeat the layers until you cap off the casserole with the last of the mixture.  Be sure to reserve a good handful of chips and about 1/2 cup of grated cheddar for the topping later.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

The last layer of chips.

The last layer of chips.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

Ready for the oven.

Ready for the oven.

6.  Put the casserole on a baking sheet (in case of boil overs) and slide the whole thing into your hot oven.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and hot.  Pull the casserole out of the oven, top it with your reserved chips and cheese, and return it to the oven to just melt the cheese.  Watch it like a hawk here in case the chips start to burn.  Once the cheese is melted and the chips brown up on the tips, remove the casserole, let it sit for about 10 minutes (if you can hold off the savage hordes long enough) and then enjoy.

Deliciously browned.

Deliciously browned.

Click here for a printable version of the Chicken Taco Casserole recipe.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

Black Pellets of Doom

In honor of Little Man starting potty training today, I thought I would share this story from Turkey…

 Flying Black Pellets of Doom or The Sheep Are Out… Turkish Style

 Third archaeological field season at Kenan Tepe, Turkey

My mom pointed out that I haven’t told many sheep and goat stories this year, and that their absence has been noted.  So I thought I would tell you a little about the herds here in southeastern Turkey.  If you have a strong attachment to a romanticized notion of clean shepherds gently herding their cute flocks, stop reading now…

Every day a couple of different herds are taken across the tepe where we are excavating, and in the evenings they are often “parked” there as well.  By way of quick Turkish lesson, “tepe” is the word for “hill.”  It’s the same as “tell” or “höyük” or “chagar” depending on which Middle Eastern country you are in.  We work at Kenan Tepe; the hill of Kenan.  “Kenan” is the same as “Canaan,” so the name of our site means the Hill of Canaan or Canaan’s Hill.  We do not know what the village or town was called in the ancient past, since much of our excavation has focused on the prehistoric portions, and the historic parts haven’t given us any writing as of yet.

Here the shepherds tend to be men, but I have seen two young women caring for a small herd of cattle.  I have never seen sheep and goats herded separately, but they are always in a mixed, motley group.  Herd size can range from as few as five to as many as 50+ beasties.  There is always one donkey amongst the group, laden down with food, water, etc. and sometimes being ridden by a small boy.  Every now and then there is a shepherd that goes by my trench, singing to his flock.  It’s a beautiful tone that just sort of floats on the wind.  With the birdsong and frogs in the background it’s really nice.  Most shepherds make a sort of shushing noise to their sheep to help steer them… as well as throwing rocks.  Their aim is amazing.  They don’t do it to hurt the animals, but when you have that many not-so-bright-beasties roaming the hillside you need to steer them somehow.

Now to describe the sheep themselves…  These are not what you picture as the cute, little, white, fuzzy lambs skipping across the tepe.  These sheep have been especially bred for their wool and have very large… shall we say… gluteus maximi… that hang over the backs of their legs and flap in the breeze.  This is not their tail; that is there too.  Apparently these… bottoms… are full of fat and are considered a delicacy; one that I must admit I haven’t developed a taste for yet.  Too gamey.  The fleece, however, taken from this particular region of the sheep is supposedly the softest and highest quality.  Makes you think of cashmere in an entirely different way.

The first time I saw one of these sheep up close I thought it had a huge, cancerous deformity flapping along behind it.  Then I noticed that all of them are the same.  In some strange way the goats actually end up being the cuter of the two.

Now to the crux of my tale, but first let me remind you that my trench is more then two meters deep.  That means that when I’m in my trench, standing on tip toe, I can just peek over the edge and be eye level with the ground.

Last Saturday (we get one day off a week, and that is Friday for the Muslim holyday), when I hiked up the side of the tepe to my trench to get working, the entire side of the hill looked like someone had upended a massive pepper shaker.  The flocks must have been “parked” on my side of the tepe the whole time we were off.  That means that they were “doing their business” all over the hillside, and it was absolutely covered with small black pellets, and those would be swarming with flies in the heat… thank you sheep!

We had gotten to the tepe at our normal 5am, but rather than the clear blue sky we are used to, it was hazy and overcast.  We could just see a white glowing space where the sun was.  This is unusual for Turkey at this time of year, but we foreigners just thought it was a nice cool morning and we enjoyed the respite from the heat.  Our workers kept eyeing the horizon suspiciously.  The morning turned a little blustery, and we thought it weird that the horizon stayed looking so blurry, like rain but without any moisture in the air or lightening.  What we were actually seeing but not comprehending was a sandstorm.  We were just too ignorant to know it.

Around 11am the wind really started to pick up.  A huge blast hit my trench, sending a very large dust devil right through.  It literally knocked us over and sounded like our sun cover was being ripped to shreds.  Just before this happened, my workmen and I had been noses to the ground, completely oblivious to the upper world around us.  Now that we were upended by the wind and so being curious souls, we all crept to the edge of the trench, stood on tip toe and peered out at a world gone mad.  Everything was airborne, including all those little black pellets.  I opened my mouth to exclaim and then clamped it shut immediately before any black pellets of doom could come flying in.  A little herd of cows were all standing diagonally into the wind.  This couldn’t be good…

We ended up shutting down the excavation early that day, before our tents, our trench journals, and our lovely bags of artifacts were swept up Wizard of Oz-style and dropped into the Tigris.  I’ve seen a dust devil pick up a bag of light animal bone, sweep it straight up 30 feet in the air, and then gently hover craft it over the river to deposit it in the sheep and goat herd on the opposite bank.  This wind was not gentle, so we gave up and went home for lab work.

When we finally got back to the dig house the crew all ran up the eight stories of stairs to the rooftop to see if we could rescue our bedding.  Luckily only one mattress had blown off the roof (we never did find it…), but everything else had blown across it and was now in a large dusty pile.  Sleep time was going to be a bit gritty this evening.

By 4pm the sky turned yellow.  For those of you who have seen the movie Pitch Black… Bismil had that same crazy, yellow hue that the planet did when there was sunlight.  Eerie.

Eventually the wind died down and the next day was back to normal.  That small taste of a sandstorm made us all wonder what it would have been like out in the desert, where the entire landscape is moveable.  This part of southeastern Turkey looks a lot like southern California (if you take away all the cities and freeways); lots of rolling golden hills and flat land for crops.  Our landscape had not changed by the time we got back to the tepe and our excavation trenches, but the contents of our trenches had.  The first thing my workmen and I had to deal with were the heaps of black pellets of doom piled around the bottom of my trench.  I started being disgruntled with the sheep…

Sunrise over the Tigris River from the top of Kenan Tepe.

Sunrise over the Tigris River from the top of Kenan Tepe.

Cannon Firing

This post also announces the creation of a Things to do on Vancouver Island page on The Sheep Are Out Blog.  As I come across fun things to do on the island, I will write about them and link them to that page on the blog.  If you are looking for interesting things to do in the Vancouver Island cities you see listed there, please check out the links and blog posts to get ideas.  Also, if you have any ideas for things that aren’t listed there, please send me an email.  We are definitely still learning our way around the island, and welcome any fun ideas.

Cannon Firing

Every day in the summer at noon they fire off the cannon by the Bastion in downtown Nanaimo.  We stumbled upon this tradition one sunny afternoon as we were wheeling Little Man in the jogging stroller towards the sea wall.  It was the music of the bag piper that caught our attention first, the massive cannons second.


We learned from these presentations that the cannons were never used in battle or for protection, but that they were used in official ceremonies and now were a part of local tradition for summer afternoons.  The firing was always proceeded by bag pipe music, and a few times a local highland dance troupe would dance as well.

Over the summer we went so often that if we were anywhere within ear shot of the cannon and Little Man heard the pipes, he’d ask about the cannon.  Little Man had a love/hate fascination with the cannon firing.  He wanted to be there, wanted to see and hear it fired, but would sit for most of the time with his hands clamped over his ears throughout the presentation.  He would eye the cannon suspiciously through the whole thing, then we would cover his ears before the shot, and once it was over he’d ask for it to fire again.


The pipes reminded me of Binghamton where a friend played pipes and we would go to his troupe’s biannual Robert Burns dinner complete with requisite haggis.  There was also something special about sitting on the balustrade, watching the ocean and listening to the music.  Little Man would sit spell bound, so for a moment I could concentrate on the sound, not on whether or not my toddler was about to dash into traffic or tip over the sea wall.

When the cannon firing starts up again next year, Little Man will be a year older.  He’s now at an age where he is developing long term memory, and he might… just might… remember these visits to the Bastion and the cannons.  I can’t wait to see what his memories are.

cannon 3

Ever Changing View

One of the most special places for Dave’s family is their cabin in the interior of British Columbia.  The cabin itself is redolent with memories, one action triggering dozens of stories about previous experiences from over the years.  Since he’d been living so far away, there is a huge time gap for Dave where he hasn’t been able to be a part of the stories being forged there.  Now that we live in Canada, that is changing and Little Man is making his mark (sometimes literally) on the cabin as well.

For me, one of my favorite things is to watch the ever changing view of East Barriere Lake.  It never ceases to amaze me.  Like the weather in the American midwest, if you don’t like it, wait a moment or two and it will change.  Here are some of my favorite views from the cabin from our trips to the cabin since we’ve moved to Canada.

East Barriere Lake summer sunset.

East Barriere Lake summer sunset.

When it rains…

Summer storm

Summer storm

Autumn morning with the water as still as glass.

Water like glass

Sunset at our first Thanksgiving in Canada (at least for Little Man and I).

sunI can’t wait to see how it looks the next time we get to go out.

A Corn Maze and the Making of Fall Traditions

When Dave and I first started dating I was surprised to learn that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving also; though their holiday is a month earlier (on the second Monday in October).  I’d always thought of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, but in fact it is not.  The importance of the Thanksgiving meal, however, does vary greatly between the two nations.  In Canada, or at least on Vancouver Island, there no displays in stores, no Thanksgiving-themed commercials, no chatter about getting together with family, or trying to figure out long distance travel to get home for this one evening.  Instead, all the focus seems to be on Halloween, complete with fireworks.  Our cats will not be amused…

With this difference in Autumn celebrations, I feel out of sync with the season.  Halloween seems on time, but the fact that Thanksgiving is already over leaves me feeling like I’ve missed out on something important.  We had a great Canadian Thanksgiving, and we will be celebrating American Thanksgiving come the end of November, but in the meantime we’re trying to carve out some new Fall traditions and get into sync with our new community.  In Nanaimo that means a trip to McNab’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

The day we went was a little late in the season, since it was after Thanksgiving (Canadian) and most of the really big pumpkins were gone.  However, they had tons of small to medium pumpkins, a local school fundraiser with all the homemade baked goods my heart could ask for, and the corn maze was still in full swing.  I was already feeling nostalgic for Iowa since a much-missed friend was throwing a fall celebration party with all of our friends, and we had just passed the dates for two of our favorite things to do in Iowa; the Farm Crawl and the Brews and Muse Festival at Peacetree Brewery.  Oh, friends, we were sure missing you on those weekends (especially those friends who shall remain nameless but kept sending emails and Facebook comments about the delicious new brews from Peacetree that we were missing out on… trisky hobbits that you are).

So with homesick hearts we went looking for new traditions at the pumpkin patch.  I assure you I never thought in my life that I’d say I was homesick for Iowa, but I’m getting sincerely tired of leaving places behind that have become home.  In our quest for new traditions to make this place home, McNabb’s did not disappoint.

Even after living in the American Midwest for five years, I had never been to a corn maze.  At Farm Crawl there was a corn maze, but I was always more interested in Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch, the borscht served at Coyote Run Farm, and the amazing preserves, people and brew (Peacetree again…) at Blue Gate Farm.  So McNab’s was my first time to be in and amongst the corn.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Surrounded by corn... like being back in Iowa.

Surrounded by corn… like being back in Iowa.

The day was perfectly foggy for an Autumn trip to the pumpkin patch, and we headed off to the maze first.  We had a great time trying to get lost, and searching (often fruitlessly) for the little markers hidden in the paths.  Apparently the markers haven’t been moved in years so the locals all know where they are, but since we’re new the hunt was still fun.  Once the chill of the maze started to get to us, and the enclosed space of the corn from Little Man’s viewpoint started to wear on him, we took the Hay Ride tractor to the pumpkin patch.  Here we selected a couple of pumpkins, had them measured and then heaved them back to the tractor, wishing we had brought the stroller to carry our pumpkin booty.

Hmmm... Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

Hmmm… Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

As we got off the tractor at the front of the farm, we ran into some friends from town, and hung around the fire pits chatting.  That is the sort of thing you miss when you move often; the regular meeting of friends in public places.  Little Man ran around with their kids, visiting the piglets and goats, and climbing massive downed stumps.


When Little Man finally started showing signs of wearing down and needing lunch, we headed off for lunch.  We could have stayed there for hot dogs, but the morning was cold and we all wanted some warm, inside rest.  So we headed for Coco Café in Cedar.  The café’s name is an acronym for the Cedar Opportunities Co-Operative, whose mission is to provide developmentally disabled adults with employment opportunities within their community.  This year the maze was dedicated to Coco’s, and I had heard of it before as well.  It has the reputation of being a nice little café with cozy atmosphere and good, local food, for good prices.  Perfect.

Walking into Coco Café I caught a glimpse of our little family in the glass door; all looking cold, dazed, hungry, and distinctively muddy.  Inside I ordered a hot cocoa, and Dave got coffee.  Little Man was very pleased with my drink choice, and did his best to polish off my whipped cream before I could get to it myself.  Dave had a Thai Curried Chicken Panini with a green side salad.  Little Man had the grilled cheese on an awesome whole wheat bread; and I had a massive bowl of Beef and Barley soup complete with a good-sized hunk of warm Pumpernickel, rich with molasses.  Dave’s Panini was great, and we were both impressed with the salad.  After our time in the Midwest we had come to loath side salads since inevitably they were tasteless piles of wilted, ice berg lettuce buried under a mound of not-cheese.  At Coco Cafe even the side salads were great.  Not a hint of iceberg lettuce to be seen, but only dark, lovely salad greens with a homemade vinaigrette.  Little Man liked his sandwich, but preferred my cocoa; and my soup was divine.  It was full of great vegetables, barley and beef, the broth was rich and stew-like with a good amount of black pepper.  This soup was a perfect example of why homemade soup is so much better than the stuff from a can.  All in all we had a great, home style lunch that did not break the bank, and which warmed us up from our stomachs to our fingers and toes.

On the way back home, Dave struggled to keep Little Man awake so that he could take a nice long nap at home.  Little Man, for his part, did his best to hide behind his Pooh Bear and fall asleep.  In the end we all had great naps, and ever since I’ve been fixated on hot beverages.  I want drinks that I can hold in a real mug, not paper or factory made, but something made by real hands, something that fits nicely between my palms, and warms me from the fingers on out.  And that brings me to my family’s Wassle; a hot mulled cider that fills the home and the heart with the aroma of the holidays.

This recipe for wassle comes from my dad’s side of the family, and just a whiff of this simmering away in the slow cooker makes me think of “family.”  I don’t mean “family” in the sense of just the three of us, but of gatherings of loved ones, whether or not you are biologically related, where you can just relax and be at home.  In fact, it’s worth making this wassle just for the aroma.

When Dave and I first made this wassle for our friends-who-became-family in upstate New York, their first comment was “mmmm… this is good…” followed quickly by asking if we’d ever tried this with rum.  We hadn’t.  We did.  It was delicious.  But I have to say, this wassle is amazing on its own and doesn’t need any accoutrement.  What sets it apart from other mulled ciders I’ve tried is the mixture of apple cider with pineapple, orange and apricot nectars.  Cardamom and cinnamon round out the spiciness of the hot, hot drink, and are key to its aroma.  There is no added sugar, the juices are sweet enough as it is.  So if you’re having friends/family over and want that scent of the holidays that will stop them in their tracks the minute they set foot in your home, this is the wassle for you.  The only problem will be getting them to leave later, since it’s so nice to just sit with loved ones while cradling a mug of this wassle in your hands.

Wassle (A Hot Mulled Cider)


4 cups apple cider

4 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

1 ½ cup apricot nectar

1 cup orange juice

6 cinnamon sticks

1 tsp. whole green cardamom


  1. Pour all juices into your slow cooker and turn it on to high.
  2. Place the cardamom pods on your cutting board and crush them with the back of a spoon or flat of a knife.  Alternatively, crush the pods in a mortar and pestle (I just can’t find mine since the move…)
  3. Add the cinnamon and crushed cardamom to the slow cooker.
  4. Cover and heat until pipping hot, then turn the slow cooker down to low and simmer the wassle for 25 minutes.  Enjoy!
  5. Optional: float a new cinnamon stick in each mug.

Click here for a printable version of the Wassle recipe.

pumpkin 2