Not much activity on the blog of late, because Marcia and I have been in Spain since Thanksgiving, keeping way busy doing things, rather than writing about them. A great trip so far, and we are not even halfway through it. Some pics below of sights seen and places visited, with text to follow at some point when we are home and I have a computer, instead of a phone, on which to clatter away.
Due to a variety of travel plans, we had our family Thanksgiving dinner on Tuesday night this year at our apartment in Des Moines. It was just me, Marcia, Katelin and John, and since it was a small gathering (and since we all had a grand full Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before at John’s mother’s house), I decided to roll out the most magical of holiday dishes again this year: Thanksgiving Casserole!
As much as I do appreciate (especially when somebody else serves it) the traditional conspicuous consumption dinner that takes hours to make, minutes to eat, and then leaves days worth of leftovers behind, when it’s just two, three or four of us together for the holiday, I’ve decided that it’s really not worth the time, effort, and calories. I’ve written here before about the wonders of casseroles (which are known as Hot Dish where Marcia’s from), and (without patting myself on the back too much), I do consider this one to be the end-all and be-all of the idiom.
I embraced Beverly Mills’ and Alicia Ross’ Desperation Dinners rubric in its construction, noting that not everything has to be made completely from scratch to be delicious, and that well-deployed packaged foods can be just fine, so long as they aren’t the sole anchors of a family’s diet all the time. I also, of course, ensured that there were no grease group violations here, by eschewing any water group foods that might be perceived as Thanksgiving staples belonging in such a casserole, e.g. the jiggling log of canned cranberry sauce that sits on the table and serves as comic relief for the dinner, much as fruit cake does at Christmastime. Do not want! No no no!
I mentioned the great success of this year’s Thanksgiving Casserole on a web forum I frequent and was asked for the recipe by one of the few other Americans there. I hadn’t really ever written it down before, so while it’s still fresh in my mind, I record it now for posterity’s sake, and so I don’t have to recreate it the next time I have need for it. Here’s how it goes, for the permanent record:
1. Make the stuffing first: I used one standard bag of cubed Stouffer’s herb stuffing, and prepped it per the directions: melting four tablespoons of butter in a big pot, adding two cups of chicken broth, bringing it all to a boil, then folding in the stuffing cubes and tossing until they are all moist. I then added one bag of Jimmy Dean turkey sausage crumbles to the mix, and set it aside. (The sausage crumbles were a new product this year and worked well; in the past, I have browned and crumbled about 12 ounces of Jimmy Dean bulk sage sausage in a separate skillet and then folded it in).
2. Butter up a deep casserole tray. Ours is a 13″ x 9″ by 2.5″ ceramic one and the quantities described here filled it perfectly. Pour in and press down half of the stuffing mix to cover the bottom of the tray. Next layer: one 16-ounce container of Bob Evans’ traditional mashed potatoes. Heat per instructions, then layer atop the stuffing mix. I then put a little bit of gravy (I used low fat bottled turkey gravy) and a little bit of shredded cheese atop that, to melt into and flavor the potatoes. (Note: the shredded cheese must be orange, and of a variety that can found at a typical gas station convenience store; don’t try to foo-foo up the casserole with fancy pants products, in this or any other step).
3. Next layer: Turkey. I got a pound and a quarter of Boar’s Head hickory smoked honey turkey breast, sliced thin, from the deli. I then diced it into small pieces and spread it evenly atop the mashed potato layer.
4. Next layer: Mac and Cheese. I used a box of standard sized (not the family sized) Velveeta Queso Blanco Shells. Make it per the box instructions, and layer it all smoothly atop the turkey.
5. Final layer: Drain one 15 ounce can of white shoe peg corn and mix it in with the other half of the stuffing mix. Spread this evenly atop the mac and cheese layer. Then use a piece of parchment paper to cover the whole thing and press down to get the casserole dense and of consistent depth, so it will bake firmly and hold its shape when cut. With the parchment paper still in place to absorb moisture, I put the casserole tray cover on top of the whole thing and put it in the fridge to set for a couple of hours before baking.
6. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the parchment paper, and bake the casserole covered for about 45 minutes. Then remove the cover and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until it’s bubbling nicely around the edges and looks browned on top. Sprinkle more shredded cheese atop the casserole and broil it for a couple of minutes to melt/brown the cheese. Remove from oven and let it set/cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving so it firms up even further. Cut into squares and serve, with the remainder of the bottled gravy (warmed) as a side to be poured on top of each square.
Then eat! It is really tasty and hearty, and it seems to create manageable portions in ways that the giant table full of 10 different dishes never can. It fed four of us comfortably at dinner, with two good-sized squares leftover for lunch the next day. We served it with a side of green beans (not the casserole, just regular beans), and then Marcia made her wonderful pumpkin praline pie for desert. The casserole took me about an hour to assemble, plus baking time. Marcia’s pie took about the same amount of time investment. Clean-up for everything took less than 15 minutes. Everybody was happy and sated, rather than bloated and tryptophan-shocked. We still had great dinner conversations, we still were thankful for what we have, we just didn’t have to start a crash diet the next day. Perfect!
Here’s looking forward to the next time I get to trot it out. If you’re inclined to try it yourself, let me know. We can start a club! Or a movement! Or a cult!
For most of my years living and working in/around Albany (1993-2011), those were key parts of my professional portfolio, and in many cases were among the most gratifying and enjoyable jobs I did. But when I took over a struggling museum in early 2012 after our move to Iowa, that job had such a crushing 24-hour “on call” aspect that I just didn’t have it in me to maintain existing freelance clients or establish new ones. Then my job at TREE Fund had me on the road around the country about half of the time, plus the complicating factor that Marcia and I were splitting time between Des Moines and Chicago for three years, so that era also didn’t lend itself to doing the types of writing and value-added consulting work that I so enjoy.
But that’s going to change in the months ahead with my pending retirement as President and CEO of TREE Fund. We’ll be announcing my replacement there in a couple of weeks, and my last day of employment with TREE Fund will be November 15. I have one more trip planned from Des Moines to our offices in Naperville for turnover, then Marcia and I will be hitting the road on our own for awhile, within the States and abroad. We have some of those trips laid out already, but are really keeping the schedule fairly soft at this point for much of 2020, enjoying the opportunity to go where we want to go, when we want to do so. I am also looking into some writers’ workshops, fellowships, and conferences in the months ahead to reconnect in that professional circle and have the opportunity to hone and market some of my personal projects that have been back-burnered in recent years.
So those factors all lead me to conclude that it’s a good time to re-hang my professional shingle, with the simple act of adding those tabs as a first-step statement of intent. As averse as I am to getting new technology before my old technology has expired (I have had only four home PCs for all of my computing needs since 1993), Marcia and I both got fresh new laptops to take with us, to allow us to work (or play, or surf aimlessly) wherever we are. (I’m still keeping my trusty home PC up and running, though. Loyalty to beloved and useful devices counts for karma points, you know). While our modern technological era is certainly fraught with challenges, perils, and annoyances, I think there is great joy to be found in being nimble, agile and portable, and doing what needs to be done where it needs to be done, untethered from the ties of home and office. Have computer, will write!
The two pages linked above lay out the areas of past expertise and future interest that I would like to pursue in the months and years ahead. Check ’em out. Am I missing anything? Are they compelling? Comments, critiques, complements or questions always welcome. I very much look forward to helping colleagues new and old, and I am open to conversations at any time if you think there’s something I do that might be of interest and help to you, your business, your board, your donors, or your clients. I’m also grateful for any referrals that you might direct my way. Networks count, and I know I’ve developed some good ones over the years.
At bottom line, if you’ve enjoyed working with me in the past, then there’s no reason for that to stop, at least from my end. We might even enjoy and leverage our professional relationships more fully in a new paradigm, unlocked from some of the structural constraints of the nonprofit world in which I’ve moved for most of the past 25 years. Only way one to find out, right?
Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the October 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. You should be listening to this song from the greatest animated series ever as you read this article.
So here it is, my final “Leading Thoughts” column for TREE Press, three weeks before I retire as the organization’s President and CEO. As I type, we are in the final steps of the search process to find my successor, and barring something unexpected, next month’s TREE Press should feature an introduction of the new leader for our enterprise. We have outstanding candidates in the mix, and I am confident that the next President and CEO will be able to build on the successes we have experienced over the past four years. I look forward to cheering him or her on, and to continue supporting TREE Fund as a donor, Tour des Trees rider, and advocate.
I will be pleased and proud to continue my personal and professional associations with the amazing community of arborists, urban foresters, landscape architects and other green industry experts who I’ve come to know and respect during my time at TREE Fund. I’ve noted in earlier TREE Press columns that, after some travel, I intend to return to the freelance writing and consulting work that occupied much of my time and talent when I lived in Upstate New York for the better part of 20 years. If you see an opportunity where I may be able to help you, your business, your ISA Chapter, or your clients, I’d be happy to discuss that further. You can always reach me at my website for professional inquiries, to read whatever I might be writing for my own entertainment, or just to say “howdy.” The connections and friendships I’ve made over the past four years are precious to me, and I am happy to continue them!
In my final remarks at this year’s ISA International Conference in Knoxville, I noted that when I reflect on my time at TREE Fund, the thing that I am most proud of is that I believe I have shifted our organizational focus and messaging away from “What should you do for TREE Fund?” toward “What can TREE Fund do for you?” Your continued support is, of course, crucial, but we only earn it by providing you with useful scientific research and education, and by sharing those mission-based products as widely as we possibly can. I believe we have achieved that with our improved website, newsletter and social media efforts, our wildly popular and successful webinar series, and a shift in emphasis for the Tour des Trees to make the focus on community engagement just as strong as the focus on fundraising. We are also putting our money where our mouths are: this year, we expect to break $400,000 in new grant awards for the first time in our history, pushing our total awards since inception over $4.4 million. With $385,000 raised by this year’s Tour, next year’s number should build on that further. It is satisfying to me to leave that strong base behind for my successor.
And with that, I doff my cap to you all, grateful for our time together. Your work makes a difference, and it moves me. Thank you for the opportunity to have served.
Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the August 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.
Another Note: You might should play this song while you read it. It’s a favorite.
I am writing this column on July 29, 2019, which is my father’s 80th birthday. He was a career Marine Corps officer, serving with distinction for 28 years, including arduous combat tours in Vietnam and Lebanon. After his final active duty military assignment as Chief of Staff at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, he worked on for another decade as the general manager of WAGP, a radio station operated by his church in South Carolina’s Low Country. In August 2002, he finally decided to retire for good, ready to enjoy many well-deserved years of rest and relaxation with my mother. One month later, he was driving on one of the Low Country’s narrow causeways when an elderly driver inexplicably lost control of his car and hit him head on. He died from his injuries three days later, in the same hospital where I was born. He was 63 years old.As a “gentleman of a certain age,” I have found myself reflecting on my father’s story in recent years, as my work life has often involved long separations from my family, as his did. Those reflections were part of the mental arithmetic that led me to recently announce my retirement as President and CEO of TREE Fund, effective October 31. My wife and I have both worked hard, lived simply, and saved well for a long time, so I’m blessed to have the ability to take that next step into retirement now. Sure, I could hang on and just keep working the “nine to five” to put some more money in the savings account, as my father did, bless him, working diligently toward a retirement which he never got to enjoy. But I learned a lesson from that: it’s okay to let go and leave when you can — so I am.
I’ll be riding the Tour des Trees again this year and hopefully (health permitting) for many years to come, and I plan to stay engaged with and supportive of the amazing global network of tree care researchers and practitioners who have taught me so much during my time at TREE Fund and have been so generous and welcoming to me over the past four years. I had a robust freelance writing practice earlier in my career, and I plan to get back to that in the years ahead, so if you ever need a hired pen, we should talk. I’ve also got some book-length manuscripts that have been begging for my time and attention, so I’ll be glad to return to those personal projects soon.
I have a few more of these columns ahead before I step aside from my current role, so for this month, I want to close simply by expressing my deepest gratitude to you all. I am proud to have supported your collective success in my own small ways. Your work, your gifts, and your faith in the crucial importance of urban and community forests truly move me. Thank you!
My Mom moved back to Beaufort, South Carolina last year, where I was born, smack in the middle of the Low Cackalacky region where she was raised and where our family has been for a long, long time. My sister and I went down there for a quick trip this week. She’s turning 50 next week, and my dad would have celebrated his 80th birthday a couple of weeks ago were he still with us, and we don’t quite exactly know how old my Mom is, but it still seemed like a good season for the three of us to spend some time on our home turf together and celebrate. (Plus my Mom tricked us by scheduling surgery, then cancelling. Well played, you!) We ate way too many boiled peanuts (among many other things) and just enjoyed a few lazy days, including a trip to Beaufort National Cemetery (where my Dad is buried) and Hunting Island, which I consider to be the prettiest beach on the East Coast, hands down. Here’s some photo evidence . . .