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Renee-Lucie BenoitYears ago I found a cookbook I fell in love with called “Real American Food” by Jane and Michael Stern. I’ve used it so much it’s falling apart so I might put a new copy on my Christmas list. Yet, I’m sort of fond of its used (I mean really used!) condition so I don’t know. Maybe I need a new vacuum cleaner more.

The following recipe came from the Café Society section and in the section it’s called “Prairie Cooks Tortilla Salad” for the original cookbook where it came from. Along with dinner plate size pork fritters and Maid-Rites this is one of my favorite mid-western treats.

Did I mention that I’m from Iowa? Even though I live in California and have done so a lot longer now than I ever lived in Iowa, well, you know what they say, “You can take the girl out of Iowa but you can’t take the Iowa out of the girl.” Well, maybe they don’t say it quite like that but you get the idea.

I think this recipe is quintessential Iowa. Why? Because Miracle Whip is one of the essential ingredients. When I was a kid we loved Miracle Whip so much we would regularly insult good homemade bread by slathering it with Miracle Whip and eating it just like that. So when you’re from Iowa and you find a good recipe using Miracle Whip you feel good.

Here’s my version of this very robust salad that is eaten as a main course. Very easy to prepare and delicious!



Tortilla Salad
Yields 4 to 6 big salads.

1/2 pound ground beef (you can use grilled chicken, too)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 can (16 ounces) pinto beans (black beans work fine, too)
1 teaspoon crushed cumin seed (powdered cumin works fine, too)
1 large head iceberg lettuce, torn into bits (or any salad greens)
1 onion, chopped (I use sweet Walla Walla, red onion or green onions)
1/2 pound cheddar cheese (or shredded Mexican blend)
1 avocado, cubed (optional but delicious!)
1 large tomato, chopped (late from the garden)
1/2 cup Miracle Whip salad dressing (mayonnaise won't taste as good. Trust me.)
1/4 cup taco sauce (I think salsa works well, too)
1 teaspoon chili powder
Doritos to taste (or any kind of tortilla chip)

Brown beef with salt; add beans and cumin. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, combine lettuce, onion, cheese, avocado and tomato. Add beef and beans (still warm) and toss.

Mix salad dressing, taco sauce and chili powder. Stir into salad.

Mix in tortilla chips, broken but not pulverized, just before serving.

You can simply layer everything, too. My mom always said it just gets mixed up in your stomach anyway!

NOTE: I’ve added a handful of chopped cilantro to great effect. A blop of sour cream on top would be good, too.


Renee-Lucie BenoitI was lucky enough to have grown up in Iowa in a family that honored old timey ways, including hunting for hickory nuts. Many of you will know what I’m talking about. My dad was an avid hunter and regularly brought rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, ducks and fish to the table. He hunted with bow and arrow when he went after deer. Once he got a moose in Canada with his buddies. We ate moose for a year, and I still remember the kind of dry but tasty quality of the roasts Mom prepared. My mom was adept at canning, and they both worked hard in their garden. We kids learned to “pitch in.” We also learned how tasty fresh food was that was gotten by our own efforts.

Red Hickory tree | Creative Commons/Tom Nagy

A Red Hickory tree, located in southern Ontario, Canada. Photo: Creative Commons/Tom Nagy

One of the best things we did every year was “hickory nutting.” We’d all pile in the car with our burlap bags and go to a local woods on the land of a farmer we knew. Some place where the trees had not been bulldozed to plant corn, soybeans or alfalfa. It would be in the fall, usually in October. It would be after the frost and there would be no mosquitoes or flies. The nuts would have fallen, and the hulls were mostly separated from the nuts.

The day would be crisp and clear, and it was lovely underneath the big, old trees. I mean, these trees must have been old because they were big. Really big! My dad called them Shagbark hickories, and he knew when to go and what trees produced the best from year to year. Dad knew that some trees could bloom earlier in spring and then frost might keep them from producing. He also knew that some trees held their nuts into winter while others dropped in early autumn. So we’d go when Dad said, and little by little we learned how to become good “nutters” ourselves.

By experience we discovered that all nuts are not created equal. We found that a large nut might not have any more nutmeat than a smaller one. We found that just because the hull or shell might be thick, it didn’t necessarily mean that the nutmeat was going to be bigger either. We did find that the thinner the shell the easier it was to crack. There were different color nutmeats, and I always liked the taste of the lighter colored meats. I still do.

Shagbark Hickory tree | Creative Commons/Dcrjsr/Duke Forest Korstian Division

A Shagbark Hickory tree. Photo: Dcrjsr/Duke Forest Korstian Division, Durham, North Carolina.

My dad carried a hammer with him. He’d crack a few nuts at each tree he came to. He was checking for easy cracking and large nutmeats. If he found that three out of four nuts under a tree were wormy, he would move on. If we found a nut with a tiny little hole in it, we’d know that a worm had already had its way with the nut so we tossed it aside. What we were hoping to find was a thin-shelled nut with a plump, light-colored nutmeat that would come out whole or nearly so. They were like a prize.

Looking for nuts was a perfect job for a kid. Kind of like Easter egg hunting. Of course, our closest competitors were the squirrels. We often thought how nice it would be to train a nut squirrel like they train truffle hounds. Squirrels were the master nutters and often they got to the best nuts before we could.

Eastern Hickory tree | Creative Commons/Pookie Fugglestein

Clumps of fruit show on this Eastern Hickory tree in Pennsylvania. Photo: Creative Commons/Pookie Fugglestein

When we got home with our bounty, sometimes we’d put the nuts into a bucket of water to separate out those in which the nutmeats had not developed. Those would usually float to the top. Sometimes we didn’t do that step, but Dad always put the nuts in the back of the pantry and after about a week he’d bring them out and start cracking them. He said doing that made them crack better. He said his dad told him this and it always worked so “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Whatever he didn’t crack he’d put in the freezer along with the nutmeats he wasn’t going to use immediately.

We kids got pretty adept at not whacking ourselves with the hammer when we helped. We’d go out back on the concrete porch steps and whack away and fill our little baskets. We figured out how to set the nut on one of its two edges and hit it with the hammer just right. This skill had to be learned by trial and error, and the error part made us get handy real fast. If a nut was too hard to crack it would go into a pile for a cold winter night. Then we’d sit before the wood stove and whack harder. Nuts ricocheting off the walls once in a while. Then we'd patiently pick. Sometimes we’d listen to the radio. As a matter of fact I remember Paul Harvey while picking hickory nuts. “And now you know the rest of the story.”

My dad was a child of the Depression. His family gathered wild nuts to get by. We did it because it was fun and tasty. The hickory nut is just as good as a pecan and much less expensive. As a matter of fact, the hickory is a type of pecan so it has that same luscious, buttery flavor. My mom used the nuts in any recipe that called for walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts. We got the lovely flavor, and it didn’t cost us a dime except for gas. We also got to spend time with each other outdoors working in harmony. That’s what I call Good Times!


From the time I was about 8 until the time I was 14, I went with my dad on his spring arrowhead hunts. He’d say, “I’m going arrowhead hunting this morning. Do you want to come?” And, of course, I said “yes.” It was a precious opportunity to spend time alone with my dad who normally was so busy working.

indianbabyMy dad was born in Canada near the border of Quebec and Ontario by the Ontario River. As a youth he and his dad, who was of French Voyageur descent, would go out in a big canoe to fish for sturgeon on the mighty river. My grandmother would stand on the bank and wave and weep because she was afraid of the river and she wondered if she would see her husband and son again. The canoe was so wobbly and the river so big! But they always came back, and this was the beginning of my dad’s romance with Native American culture. He had been given a little Indian headdress and bow and arrow by a relative, and he went to sleep wearing the headdress and holding the bow every night. In the area he lived, there were many Cree Indians, and he learned from his father and the local tribe many important lessons. Fishing and hunting was all part of that knowledge.

My dad's father holding an Indian baby.

Then the family moved to Ohio. My grandfather had been in a logging accident and he could no longer make a living for his family so he took work as a machinist in the steel mills of eastern Ohio. But the way they lived in Canada was not abandoned, and they continued to hunt and fish in the woods, streams and lakes nearby. When my mom and dad married, they eventually settled in mid-Iowa. My dad took up flint napping and hunted deer with bow and arrow.

In the spring a hard rain would wash a newly plowed field so you could more easily see rocks and other objects including points and flint. A friendly farmer would allow my dad and me to come and tramp around getting what I called a “big mud foot.” The farmer asked us to respect any new growth corn and then we were welcome to see what we could find.

My dad taught me. He said, “Scan the ground around you and a few feet in front. Use 'soft eyes.' Don’t look hard. Just look for a shape or an object that doesn’t fit.” We’d do it on a cloudy day when there wasn’t any glare from the sun, but we’d go on clear days, too. We’d walk back and forth and up and down the rolling hills trying not to miss anything by looking from different directions.

He knew some good spots because over the years he had made friends with farmers through deer hunting. We searched on hills near natural streams, rivers and springs. Native Americans had made their camps near these bodies of water because game was plentiful there. They were logical places to make your points and then lose them if your shot went wild or if the wounded animal got away.

When we’d find something, he’d hold in it his hand like he’d found a lump of gold. He’d say, “The part I like best about this is picking up an object and thinking about who held it the last time.” He said, “It fascinates me that I’m holding an object that is hundreds of years old. The last person who held it probably was the person who made it. And now I’m holding it.”


There was one time that I found something really special all on my own. I’ll never forget it. The day was clear with fair weather cumulus cloud streets above. There were hawks wheeling over head, too. I whistled at them and they whistled back. I looked down and there they were. These beauties at my feet. And then my dad’s words echoed in my mind.

In my imagination, I could see a man standing on the bluff above the river looking for something and then turning away. He had lost his axes and had given up. Now we were connected because I had found what he had been looking for. A part of this stranger’s life lived on in his handmade tools. I’ll never know him personally but he’s here nonetheless. I hold them and I think about this person. My dad is gone now, too, but he lives on in his words that echo in my mind. I’ll tell this story to my children, and the past and the people we love will live on. The time machine is in our heads.


We need another wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. – Henry Beston

Renee-Lucie BenoitI have a 28-year-old appaloosa gelding. He’s worth his weight in gold. You can do almost anything with him and not worry. You can ride around bareback and not be concerned that he’s going to come unglued at every little thing. You can lead the grandkids around and not worry about him taking off and causing a big wreck. These old campaigners have a special place in my heart. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. If they’ve been treated well their whole life as mine has been there’s not much that is better. They’re willing. They’re sensible. They’re precious.


So, how do we keep our oldsters happy and safe in their twilight years? If you understand a little bit about the special needs of the older horse, it’s not very hard. The key to caring for an older horse is to understand how his body changes as it ages. The areas to consider are: nutrition, lameness, vision, immune response and hormone changes.

Nutritional needs of aging horses will vary greatly between individuals. Some older horses may never need changes to their diet whereas other senior horses will require a special diet to help them maintain good health and body condition. There are many reasons why it becomes harder for some horses to meet their nutritional needs as they age. Sometimes their teeth get bad. Proper care of your horse's mouth by a qualified equine dentist or vet will help your horse get nutrients from his food. Horses chew in a circular motion from one side of their mouth to the other. This motion wears away the teeth. Over time, this chewing motion will lead to sharp points on the outside of the upper molars and on the inside of the lower molars. These sharp points must be filed down. The proper term is “floating.” I suggest you have your vet check your horse’s teeth when he comes to administer the rabies vaccine. That’s what I do. Just make it a habit. Floating will improve your horse's chewing ability and allow him to better digest his food. Here’s a warning sign: If your horse is taking his hay but much of it falls out of his mouth in clumps, you should have the vet take a look at his teeth.

Some older horses may not even have teeth. This makes it really tough for your older horse to chew and digest foods he would ordinarily eat. This can be fixed relatively easily by changing the type of food he eats. Senior horse feeds tend to be more soft than regular horse feed. Concentrates fed in the form of pelleted feed can be softened with water to make a gruel that is easy to chew. Forage can be provided in the form of hay cubes or pellets (made of either alfalfa or alfalfa/grass mix) and they can also be softened with water. As a matter of fact, this has worked well for our old boy who tends to bolt his food and has gotten choke. Choke is when food gets stuck in the esophagus. Horses usually work it out but it’s awful to watch. So go ahead and moisten the food a little bit and everyone will be much happier. As always when making a change to your horse’s diet go in small steps. It’s all about gut integrity, and if you give him all of the intended food all at once, you can cause colic. Give a little bit each day, increasing as you go, while blending it with his old food. A couple weeks is not too long.

Some problems with getting proper nutrition may be due to intestinal damage from parasites so routine de-worming is critical in maintaining the horse's health and longevity.

If you have a horse that doesn’t hold his weight you can try beet pulp in some form. Beet pulp is a highly digestible fiber for horses. You might see it in commercial feed or you can buy it separately to be wet down and fed in addition to hay or grain. We have used equal parts beet pulp, sweet feed and equine senior to supplement our old codgers. Rather than try to figure out what vitamin supplementation he needs, we choose to use a high-quality commercially processed senior feed with some hay free fed. Horses love to graze. They may not be able to process the hay very well but it suits them to chew all day long.

Does your horse have proper kidney and liver function? Horses with liver dysfunction will not tolerate added fat in the diet. Also providing feeds with high protein and/or calcium (e.g., alfalfa, beet pulp) can aggravate the kidneys in horses with kidney disease. So it’s wise to do a simple blood analysis prior to supplementing the horse's diet with additional protein, fat, vitamins or minerals to determine liver and kidney functions.

Keep grain and forage free of mold and dust. Moldy, dusty feeds can cause gastrointestinal tract problems. Older horses often are more susceptible to respiratory irritation, and feeding dusty feeds will only aggravate that. You can soak their hay for 15 minutes prior to feeding to control dust but my old guy never liked this. He would turn up his nose. I’m assuming that you are feeding good quality alfalfa horse hay or grass hay and not cow alfalfa hay or junk grass. It is important, if feeding hay, to feed good quality hay that was cut at the appropriate time. Hay that is too mature when cut is generally not very digestible for the horse. This kind of hay has a lot of stem in it.

And then you have the easy keepers. Not all older horses are hard keepers. Just like people, being heavy is hard on bones and joints and may aggravate conditions such as arthritis and navicular syndrome. Make sure your horse is meeting all of its nutritional requirements without gaining an excessive amount of weight. For horses that are not in a routine riding program, ample pasture time will provide your horse with exercise and help him maintain a healthy body condition.

Some horses may develop metabolic conditions as they age. This is commonly caused by hormonal imbalances like Cushing's disease, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome in horses are similar to the diabetes in humans. Horses with Cushing's produce excessive amounts of cortisol from their adrenal glands. This can lead to problems such as recurring laminitis, muscle atrophy, susceptibility to disease, slow wound healing, excessive hair growth along with failure to shed, and lethargy. Talk to your vet. Cushing’s can be controlled with medication, and horses with metabolic disorders can be managed with routine quality hoof care, vaccinations, de-worming, and a specialized diet. Again talk to your vet. An easy exercise program may help prevent the onset of metabolic disorders or help horses already suffering from these problems.

Our old boy has arthritis. It is one of the most common problems seen in older horses. You can try feed supplements marketed to improve joint function. However, very little scientific research has been done to test these products. Equine joint supplements are not FDA approved and, therefore, are not regulated. Because of this, there is often considerable variability in these products. I’ve heard of some horses that are helped, but they’ve never done much for us. My friend Mary used injectable products that she felt worked. These typically contain substances thought to replace joint fluid or improve cartilage regeneration. Some well-known products are Adequan and Legend. If that doesn’t work, a veterinarian can inject a joint with steroids for immediate relief. These may improve joint flexion and reduce pain within days, and benefits may last for months to years before the need to repeat.

Older horses can have foot problems. Many older horses don't grow high quality horn because of lack of use and a decline in their ability to extract nutrients from their food. Poor hoof quality can make arthritic conditions worse and can lead to soft tissue injuries. So while an older horse may not be working and performing like they once were, routine, proper hoof care is still essential to maintain health and soundness.

Horses vary greatly from individual to individual, and there are no hard and fast rules for caring for horses, old or young. Older horses, just like you and me, may not be as productive in the same way as when they were younger, but they can be just as useful in a different way. If they get routine veterinary, dental, and hoof care – along with proper nutrition and parasite control – they can be healthy for the remainder of their life span. That’s a good thing for both them and us.


Renee-Lucie BenoitThis is a recipe based on one from Martha Stewart. I’ve taken it and modified it to the ingredients I had and added one thing. I don't think I ever use a recipe exactly the way they say. I'm too far out in the country to hop over to the grocery store. So I make do with what I have. Don't you?

I still have tomatoes and basil coming out of my ears in my garden. This recipe was so good I wanted to share it with you. Confession time: I ate the whole thing all by myself. I couldn’t stop until it was all gone. Five stars!


Grilled Eggplant With Tomatoes, Basil and Feta

1 large eggplant (about 1  1/2 pounds) trimmed, cut lengthwise into 1-inch thick slices
Coarse salt (I used Morton table salt and it was just fine)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for brushing (I use Lucero olive oil made from Arbequino olives.
     I buy it in gallon jugs direct from this local grower in Corning, California.)
2 cups cherry tomatoes (about 10 ounces), halved
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (I used toasted almonds. Also local. P.S. did you know growers
     pronounce it “eh-munds”? Processors pronounce it “all-munds.”)
1 ounce feta cheese, crumbled or cut in small cubes
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves, torn if large

My addition:
Balsamic vinaigrette to taste

  1. Sprinkle the eggplant slices generously with salt. Place vertically in colander, overlapping them. Let stand 30 minutes; rinse and pat dry.

  2. Preheat grill. I have a Weber so I just put in charcoal and let it get nice and hot. If you do it like that, you have to keep an eye on it and move the eggplant around as needed so they don’t cook too fast. If you have a gas grill, make it medium-high.

  3. Brush the eggplant liberally with oil. Grill, turning once (or twice) until tender, about 2 to 4 minutes per side. Arrange on platter. Sprinkle tomatoes, nuts, feta, basil and pepper flakes over top. Spoon vinaigrette over top everything.

A good Indian summer recipe!


Renee-Lucie BenoitWarning: Graphic descriptions contained herein. Rated: PG for disturbing images.

Grabbing something hard enough that is covered with bugs so the bugs squish in your hand is not high on my list of wonderful things to do. But, honestly, folks when I was young, we all wanted to get hired for corn detassling and bugs were just part of the program.

I was employed as a corn detasseler for a couple summers when I was around 15 years of age. I worked for Pioneer Seed Corn out of Tama, Iowa. It was a coveted job because Pioneer paid well for the unskilled labor and Johnny-on-the-spot. All we had to do was walk down the rows of corn and yank the tassel out of every plant on certain rows. I can’t remember how many acres I was responsible for but when you’re standing alone in a big field with corn surrounding you in every direction, it seems like the rows are endless and you’re being swallowed up. I was grateful for the fact that most fields were rolling hills so when you came to the top of a hill you could see how far you had left until the end.

It was a pretty easy job for the most part. I started out with gloves but quickly realized that they were a hindrance for being able to grasp the tassels effectively and pull them out so there was nothing left. You had to grab hold of the tassel pretty firmly because the tassel was attached to the plant very well. So every once in a while you’d grab a tassel that had bugs covering it and, of course, some of the bugs squished in your hand. Doesn’t that sound just peachy?

This was the summer that I got over being prissy and doing things with a high “yuck” factor. This has stayed with me all my life. Now I’ve moved on to castrating bull calves and other such things. Having a high tolerance for the yuck factor is a good skill to have on a farm or ranch. All you guys and gals out there know what I mean. If you don’t, start cultivating it. Eventually you’re going to be alone with no one to bail you out and you’re going to have to do something yucky. Man up. You can do it. I have faith in you!

The reason we had to detassel was because this was hybrid field corn that was used for seed. Corn, if you don’t already know, is both male and female in a single plant. The male part is the tassel and the female part is the silk that forms on the ear. If you have a certain hybrid you want to produce, you have to have a few rows of intact male plant and female plants with their male parts removed. Then there will be two plants of different kinds that will cross pollinate, and you will have a “new” type of seed corn. If you don’t detassel, the plants will self pollinate and your plans for hybrid seed corn will be ruined.

cornfield | Fotolia/Kybele 

Photo: Fotolia/Kybele

I think machinery is used a lot nowadays to speed up the process, but back in the day it was all hand labor. The manager hired dependable people, told them which rows to detassel and set them loose with their deadline. There was a certain window to get the corn detasseled and some days my mom and sister came out to help me. Some days were very long. We had to finish before the silk came out.

This was before the day of those Steven King movies having to do with Children of the Corn so there was no weirdness about going into a field alone. Just the gleeful recognition of how much money we were making. Being alone in the corn gave me plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts. There were the hawks wheeling over head and sometimes we whistled to each other. The weather was usually hot and muggy but we were working on our upper body tans so that was a perk for us girls. We wore tanks tops and doused ourselves with cool water at the end of the rows.

Now I live in a place that doesn’t grow seed corn. Here it’s either dry land grazing or nut and fruit trees. I look back on those days when I was young and physically strong with fondness and sometimes wish I could go back again. But I’m grateful for the experience and I wouldn’t trade anything for the memories of my family and me in the field doing a rewarding job.


Renee-Lucie BenoitWD-40 is common on a ranch or farm. Everyone has it. Everyone uses it. But does anyone really know what it is? I sure as heck didn’t so I did a little research. I found out that WD-40 was – or is – the trademark name of a spray developed in 1953 by a guy named Norm Larsen who was the founder of the Rocket Chemical Co. in San Diego, California. It was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion for nuclear missiles. But just like any magnificent discovery (penicillin comes to mind), it turned out to have more uses than the original intended purpose. Where did the name come from, you may ask? I bet you wouldn’t guess this: "Water Displacement – 40th Attempt.” This is science at work. Not Mad Men. But, hey, don’t you think it works? Dub-ya Dee Forty! Just rolls off the tongue like it was meant to be.

WD40 | courtesy

Photo: courtesy

I had always had used it for one thing: fixing squeaky hinges. Recently I was in a local tractor supply establishment looking for a product to help de-tangle the impossible tornadoes that had made their way into my horse’s manes and tails. The product that looked the best to me had a ridiculously high price tag on it so I hunted up a clerk for some advice. She told me her dad told her to use WD-40. Applied liberally.

So I went home and tried it. What a disaster! It was way too oily and it didn’t get a single tangle out. My hands just got saturated with chemical product. It was terrible, but it got me to thinking what people out there might be using WD-40 for other than its intended use. So I started looking into it and here is what I found.

WD40 | courtesy

Photo: courtesy

House cleaner Sharon uses it for removing crayon and old cellophane tape. She also uses it for removing stains from clothes and carpets, and mildew from refrigerator gaskets. Mel the plumber uses it to spray on air-conditioning filters. He says it filters dust out. Tony, our mechanic, uses it for cleaning the grill and bumper of his car plus removing oil spots from concrete. My cousin Sandy uses it for untangling jewelry chains and freeing stuck zippers. My husband used it on the fence to keep ants from climbing up the fence and into the dog food. My friend Roberta used it once to remove a ring stuck on her finger. I suppose it would work for a toe stuck in the bathtub faucet or a finger stuck in soda bottle.

WD40 | courtesy

Photo: courtesy

Here are a few uses I have heard of but would not recommend:

  • Cure mange. According to "USA Today," spraying a dog with WD-40 gets rid of parasitic mites. Maybe the dog, too.

  • Prevent dead insects from sticking to your car. Spray WD-40 on the hood and grill so you can wipe bugs off easily.

  • Make hangers glide over a clothes rod.

  • Thread electrical wire through conduits.

  • Remove baked-on food from a cookie pan. Spray on cookie pan and wipe clean.

  • Keep dogs, maggots and flies out of trash cans. Coat the trash cans with a thin layer of WD-40.

  • Free a tongue stuck to frozen metal. Spray on the metal around the tongue.

What do you use it for?

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