Archive for December, 2011

On May 27, 1953 at three in the afternoon and after 4 hours of labor, my mother delivered a baby girl. No pink cap, pink night shirt, pink socks, nor pink anything donned my tiny body of five pounds, 13 ounces. In rural Midwestern towns, distinguishing gender entailed, well, looking at body parts just as one did after the birth of a calf. Most babies wore hand-me-down clothing from either gender. Nor did pink dominate the color scheme at any stage of life. As a teenager, I gravitated towards shades of blue to enhance the Swedish eyes I inherited from my paternal Carlson and maternal Clausen families. 

Years later, when pink became a color of choice for women, it mystified me why I felt an aversion to any hue of pink. The color pink symbolizes femininity and is used by many organizations such as the pink ribbons of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer foundation.  For nearly two decades, I entered the Women’s Only running and walking event sponsored by the Women’s Hospital in Greensboro to raise funds to provide mammograms for their patients. Each year, pink dominates the scene and the entry bags often contain pink tee-shirts. I passed my tee-shirts to others or turned them into rags.

My avoidance of pink continued into my current cycling years. Many women bling their bikes with pink accessories – frames, head sets, saddle bags, spokes, and handlebar tape and grips. My titanium mountain bike frame is gray and the I-9 wheels are laced with red spokes. Males, not females, compliment my bike. I don’t object to other women’s love of pink. It just is not my color. 

Moni's Dean Colonel Single Speed

As an adult, I visited my sister Becki in Iowato help care for her daughter, Karli, after brain surgery to remove a pediatric cancerous tumor. Frequently I drove through snowy streets to the Hy-Vee grocery store where I shopped and stood in line with a cart full of fresh fruit, vegetables, and lean meat.  One wintry day, for some unknown reason since Iowans don’t rush to buy bread and milk when snow is forecast, long lines queued into the aisles and, due to boredom, I scanned the candy display. All the standard sweets lined the shelves: Snickers, PayDay, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Mars, and M&M’s. One candy bar wrapped in red paper with white print jolted my attention. The largest print read, “Twin Bing,” which stirred memories but also caused confusion. Unconsciously, I reached out and slowly clasped my fingers around the package, which crinkled, and then I gently placed the candy among my healthy food items.

While returning to Becki’s house, thoughts of childhood filtered through my mind. With one hand on the steering wheel, I held the wrapper between my front teeth and tore open the Twin Bing. The smell of chocolate wafted upward, while my eyes noted the lumpy texture from the chopped peanuts nestled within the outer chocolate layer. Slowly, I bit into the candy bar which exposed a brilliant pink interior and long buried childhood memories.

My Dad ate Bing bars during our infrequent trips to town. Consumption time lasted about thirty seconds because Dad inhaled his food faster than our Hoover vacuum cleaner sucked up bits of black prairie soil from the living room carpet. Our family meals didn’t entail intellectual conversation while savoring bites of gourmet food like sophisticated city folk. Desserts seldom concluded a meal and snacks included toast with peanut butter with or without jam. Consuming a candy bar was a novelty.

The original Twin Bing, named the Cherry Bing, the candy bar from my childhood, reached grocery stores in 1923, and included only one round candy per package. In 1973, a couple of years after I graduated from high school when the cost of sugar and cocoa increased due to the oil embargo, the Palmer Candy Company decided to increase the cost of the Cherry Bing from ten to fifteen cents. To justify the nickel increase, the company placed two round candies in each package and renamed it Twin Bing or its moniker, the double bump. The company introduced the triple bump or King Bing in 1986, during the “super size me” era. A triple bump is considered two servings for a total of 380 calories. But honestly, who cuts one of the bumps in half and reserves the second serving for later?

By elementary school, with meals of farm-raised food, my five pounds grew into a stick figure of average height. My Dad, at six feet, towered over me in both physical stature and verbal commands. My skinny legs took numerous steps to keep up with his giant stride as we entered Strickland’s, the local grocery store in Farnhamville. Dad, who never shopped for groceries, picked up fly paper or some hardware type item, and then his work boots struck the wooden floor boards and my tiny feet clip-clacked behind. I reached the checkout counter several moments after my Dad, long enough for him to select a Cherry Bing. As always, only one candy bar. Money exchanged hands and all the items were placed into a paper bag, except for the Cherry Bing.

My Dad and I exited to the street as he quickly opened the red and white wrapper. From my lower elevation, I glanced upward and noted the lumpy texture that the Palmer Candy Company describes on the wrapper as “Nutty Chocolaty.”  From enjoying eating Aunt Katie’s Brownies that my Mom baked using our farm eggs, I imagined the taste of the Cherry Bing’s outer layer.

My Dad’s first bite exposed the pink interior. This color challenged my imagination. No other food provided me with a flavor hint for the marshmallow-consistency pink center. Curiosity overwhelmed me. Another couple of bites and the candy disappeared.


My legs scurried along as I tried to keep pace. We headed to our Studebaker truck and drove back to the farm. Each time I watched my Dad consume a Cherry Bing I saw the pink center and bitterness was the flavor I tasted.

No childhood memories exist of tasting a Cherry Bing. Did I ever ask for one? Did Dad ever offer me one? I just don’t recall.

Finally, in my fifties and on that wintryIowa day, I tasted pink. I drove across the railroad tracks near Becki’s house and swallowed that first bite of a Twin Bing. My taste buds wished to retreat from the horrible, disgusting flavor. I gagged and tossed the remainder out the car window. What is this crap?

The name suggests cherry and the Palmer Candy Company describes their product as a “Cherry Treat,” but cherries are not listed as an ingredient, only natural and artificial flavors, red 3, and red 40. The third listed ingredient is corn syrup which is now considered a factor in the high rate of obesity in our nation’s children. The fourth ingredient is hydrogenated oil, which causes heart disease. Thanks to my Dad, Cherry and Twin Bings will not shorten my life.

After decades, my reason for shirking pink became clear. So when I returned home from Becki’s, it was time to replace my old aqua- tinted, wire-rimmed, prescription eye glasses. With a new vision, I waltzed into The View on Elm in downtown Greensboroand selected fuchsia colored frames. And as any urban chick knows, fuchsia is just a fancy name for pink.


The Pink Lady


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On a June evening, Bob lay down for his final rest with Margaret, his wife of forty-eight years, sleeping beside him. Early that morning, their daughter, Laura had glanced through the master bedroom door as she tip-toed through the hallway and sensing that Bob had passed on, allowed Margaret a few precious last minutes with her husband nestled beside her.

Later that morning, a man from the funeral home came to begin arrangements for the service. John and Moni, Laura’s brother and sister-in-law, sat in the living room with Laura; none of them knew how to deal with death.

After introductions and pleasantries, the funeral home man asked, “What would you like to include in Bob’s obituary?”

Eyes glanced from one to another with thoughts of how ordinary Bob was to the world and extraordinary man to his family. After a long pause, Laura popped out, “Well, that man was a gardener extraordinaire of home grown tomatoes.” Laughter filled the silent room. Unfortunately, that kernel of truth never appeared in the obituary.

Bob and Margaret had bought their home at 520 South Holden Road in Greensboro when it gravel and delineated the city limits. Margaret clipped their laundry onto the clothes line and grew flowers in their backyard, while Bob tended to his vegetable garden. After decades, the road became a paved four-lane boulevard. Their sapling sycamore grew so large, it had to be cut so that sunlight would once again reach Bob’s garden.

When Bob’s other child Tom married Michaele Clark, Bob met another avid gardener, her father, John. After one visit to the Clark garden, Bob asked, “How do you raise such beautiful tomatoes?” 

John Clark and his Tomatoes

As if revealing E.F. Hutton’s secrets, Bob leaned closer to John Clark who answered in his gentle voice, “Elephant manure.”

Bob’s chortle rang out, “Elephant manure. Where do you find that? Africa?”

“Nope, I don’t travel quite that far. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus is coming to town next week. Shall we collect some fertilizer?”

The following week, these two middle-aged men prepared John Clark’s Volkswagen bus, called “Camping Bus,” for their mission. By removing the kitchen table, appliances, and bed, Camping Bus became a manure loader. John Clark headed to Holden Road. Excitedly, Bob jumped into the bus and onward to the circus they drove with buckets and shovels loaded in the back. Young hippies passed and waved fingers making a peace sign.

After the elephants disembarked at the train station and walked to the coliseum, with shovels in hand, Bob and John scooped elephant droppings off the streets. They loaded their buckets into Camping Bus and returned to Bob’s garden. And that is when the Big Boy and Big Girl tomatoes grew as fruit on steroids.

In contrast, native tomatoes are small and grow on the slopes of the Andes Mountains, with their center of diversity in Peru. It is thought that cultivated varieties were transported northward to Central America and Mexico by indigenous peoples. In 1550, Italians were the first Europeans to grow and consume tomatoes. Soon other Europeans grew them, but only as ornamentals. Tomatoes were reportedly grown in South Carolina as early as 1710 and within a few decades numerous Carolina plantations grew tomatoes as ornamentals and for food.

Possibly, Margaret’s ancestors grew tomatoes when they settled at Hilton Head and later at the Davant Plantation near Gillisonville,South Carolina. 

Davant Plantation

After Thomas Jefferson started growing and consuming tomatoes, Americans gradually accepted that they were not poisonous, even though they belong to the nightshade family which includes numerous poisonous plants. It took another hundred years for tomatoes to become pureed, salted, and processed into a red and white can by Joseph Campbell.

But the Bates family did not purchase processed Campbell’s tomato soup once Bob extended the growing season.

 For weeks, Bob sat in his lounge chair in the living room with a pad of paper, pencil and clip board. While watching afternoon cartoons, he pondered and sketched until he developed a satisfactory design for a greenhouse. He applied for a patent. Unfortunately, he was turned down, because others had already patented parts of the design.

The small structure adorned the south side of their home, near Margaret’s rose garden. The frugal gardener built the greenhouse from corrugated plastic, bricks for the floor, cinder blocks and boards for shelves, a window fan for cooling, and heat lamp for warmth. Fifty-five gallon drums were painted black and filled with water to absorb and retain heat during the winter. Additionally, Bob installed a vent between the greenhouse and crawl space under the house where the furnace was located. 

Bob Bates and his Tomatoes

Wild tomato plants require cross pollination by native bees. However, as people extended the range of the plants to areas where the bees were absent, selection tended toward self-pollinating plants. But even with these plants, wind or insects are necessary to transfer pollen from the anthers to the pistils within a flower. Neither wind nor bees are usually present in greenhouses.

Once Bob’s tomatoes began to flower, he donned his white lab coat where he kept an artist’s paint brush in the pocket and announced to Margaret, “I’m going out to have sex with the tomatoes.”

Bob's Tomatoes

Long before Bob hand-pollinated his tomatoes, the French considered the fruit a stimulating aphrodisiac and called it “pommes d’armour” or “love apple.” Today, the National Cancer Institute recommends the consumption of tomatoes for their high concentrations of lycopenes which help reduce the risk of cancer.

The Bates family consumed Bob’s tasty tomatoes in both simple and elegant dishes. For quick lunches, the sliced tomatoes were placed on Bunny white bread spread with mayo and a bit of salt and pepper. Because it was considered bad luck to pass a salt shaker from one hand to another, it was always placed upon the table between passes.

One of Margaret’s signature dinners was chicken cacciatore, a recipe from the Joy of Cooking.

Cut into individual pieces: a 4-lb chicken
Dredge with: 2 to 3 tablespoons flour
Sauté until golden brown in: ¼ cup olive oil
With: 2 tablespoons chopped shallots or 1 minced clove garlic
¼ cup Italian tomato paste
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
¾ cup chicken stock
½ bay leaf
dash of thyme
½ teaspoon basil
dash of sweet marjoram
½ to 1 cup sliced mushrooms
(2 tablespoons brandy or ¼ cup Muscatel)
Simmer the chicken covered for 1 hour or until tender. Serve with pasta or, in Margaret’s kitchen, rice.

During tomato season, fresh cut tomatoes were added to enhance the chicken cacciatore.

Unfortunately, Bob’s tomatoes did not prevent him from acquiring urinary bladder cancer to which he succumbed in June 1993. Even though his talent for growing tomatoes never appeared in the Greensboro News and Record obit, the family celebrated Bob and his garden after the guests left the Bates home following his funeral.

On the drive to Bob’s funeral from their home in the country, John and Moni stopped at a neighbor’s house since the circus was not in town. With five gallon buckets and a shovel in hand, they knocked on the door, explained their mission, and then headed to the barn. The next stop was the Fresh Market for a bottle of champagne.

The funeral was held on a sunny June day with a few wispy clouds drifting about the sky. Bob’s tomatoes thrived in a small tilled plot of land, the remains of his once large garden. The family members gathered in a circle around a tomato plant and each person ladled a spoonful of horse manure around the base of the plant.

Replacing their ladles with wine and champagne glasses, John snuggled his thumbs under the cork and pressed upward. The sound of carbonation releasing from the bottle exploded as the cork projected upward toward the clouds. All heads tilted back. Looking as if the cork blasted through the clouds and onward to the heavens while eyes widened and necks strained as heads tilted back even further. As the cork disappeared, family members laughed and voiced sounds of amazement.

Now, every spring, life continues and all three of Bob’s children plant tomatoes in their gardens. Although their crop is never quite as juicy and tasty as Bob’s.

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