Plum Kuchen

1 October 2017

fullsizeoutput_4a8eI was introduced to this recipe by the French chef Olivier Hazan when I was a cook at The California Café in Carlisle PA . I later saw a similar recipe by Marian Burrows in the New York Times that was so popular that it was published every September from 1983-1989. Her recipe calls for Stanley/prune plums, cinnamon sugar, and lemon juice and no vanilla; my cooking and caramelizing techniques are different, too. I am sure it is worth trying, but I love this cake too much to squander the ingredients for experimentation.

Plum Kuchcen 
350°, 1 hour

2-3 black plums, sliced, with the skins on (so pretty! so full of vitamins!) into 12ths (cut each quarter into thirds) or desired thickness. Sometimes I use a combination of black and red plums, alternating them in the pattern in the pan, to lovely effect.

1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

1 stick butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°. Line the bottom of a 10” springform pan with foil. Assemble the pan and apply a thin layer of cooking spray. Arrange plums in bottom of the pan.

In a small bowl, combine flour and baking powder.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar very well. Add eggs one at a time, adding the second egg only after the first is completely incorporated. Mix in vanilla.

Gradually and gently, add the flour mixture, a tablespoon or two at a time, until just incorporated. Gently spread the batter on top of the plums. Bake for one hour, depending on your oven (mine was done at 55 minutes, but my oven, like me, runs hot). Cool the cake in the pan on a cooling rack for about half an hour.

Turn on your oven’s broiler. Gently run a table knife around the edge of the cake to loosen from pan, then remove the sides of the pan. Place a plate on top of the cake and invert it so that the cake is resting on the plate. Gently remove the foil.

Carefully slide the cake off the plate and onto the bottom of the springform pan, right side up this time. Sprinkle the top of the cake lightly with sugar, a bit more heavily around about one inch of the edge. Place cake under the broiler until the sugar starts caramelizing, darkening the cake in color, about 3 minutes in my oven. I have left it too long in the oven and it is still absolutely delicious if it burns a bit, or if it burns even more than a bit.

Let cake cool thoroughly before serving.  It tastes best the second day —  I cannot emphasize this enough.


19 February 2015

Daughter’s cell phone broke.
House phone ringing constantly –
the sound of my teens.

New York Times Editorial

14 July 2013

New York Times Editorial

Here is the link to my Letter to the Editor that was published in the national edition of the New York Times on 13 April 2013.  Mine is the last letter.

Be Ginger Rogers: how to talk to widows and others who are grieving

31 July 2010

This essay aired 30 July 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 WVPE. 


“The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief”


I am here today, dear listener, to help you better understand how to talk to a person who has had someone very close to them die. It is not an easy task because everyone who mourns mourns differently and has different needs from their social encounters. I offer you this suggestion: be Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers did all that great dancing with Fred Astaire, but in high heels and backwards and with a smile on her face.

This means that the person in mourning is Fred Astaire to your Ginger. And you need to follow their lead, hyper aware of every nuance of the encounter: listen closely to what the person is saying and try to discern where they want the conversation to go: are they pushing here, pulling there. I cannot emphasize enough the need to mindful of the direction they are taking you, not the direction you want to take them.

I say this because two and a half years ago we learned that my husband had cancer and in October of 2009 he died. And because he was well liked by many in our large circle of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, there was a tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from the Michiana community. But at times this outpouring became almost too much for us to bear, for every time we went to the grocery store for months afterwards, even as recently as last month, we would run into people who hadn’t seen us since he died and who were eager to express their sympathy. This may sound cold, but we had been living with the illness and death for so long, and often we would run into two, three, four people we knew at the grocery store who would, of course, want to know how we were doing, and we just didn’t have the energy to keep condoling every time we went out.

We craved normality and a break from our sadness. We just wanted to go to the grocery store and have it be a fun outing. Instead, the face of almost everyone we ran into fell when they saw us. I so appreciated the friends who followed my lead when I chirped that we were doing great and who didn’t press us with a second, more serious, “But how are you all doing.” The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief, describing my insomnia (or worse, my children’s insomnia) or the crushing pain that feels as if it is reducing my bones and organs to the ashes that my husband’s body has become when the enormity of his absence does sometimes compute for me and I feel utterly bereft.

Going out in public became particularly difficult for my children. To be reminded continually of their loss, to be asked constantly to condole and grieve, to have friends only be sad with them became extremely trying and they would often excuse themselves from these conversations.

We began complaining too much about this until we started reminding ourselves that this wouldn’t be happening if so many people did not truly care about us. This became my mantra to myself and my children until one day I finally realized that these friends were also grieving Scott’s loss, that they missed him and were working through their grief as well, a grief they had in common with us.

So, what to do? Be Ginger Rogers, beginning with my friend April’s advice: smile warmly and say “It’s good to see you,” or make some other positive acknowledgment of the person before you instead of the loss surrounding them. Save the grief talk for a private moment. or, better yet, write a note to your friend. My favorite notes, the ones I absolutely treasure, are those from people who described how evident Scott’s love was for me.

Sometime this past spring I read a letter in the newspaper from a woman who complained that no one in her community would talk to her about her husband’s death, not even when she would bring up the topic. I was immediately struck by the very opposite experience this woman was having. But then I realized that she had lost her husband twice, both in her home and in her community. I have the solace of knowing that if I need to talk about Scott or my pain, there are so many of you out there ready and willing to dance that dance with me. In high heels and backward.

Husbandless Wives

12 June 2010

This essay aired 18 June 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 FM WVPE. 

“She…held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, revealing an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo. She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.”

I recently traveled out of state to the university where I earned my master’s degree 22 years ago to begin a program for an advanced certificate of study.  I learned a staggering amount about rare books and paper in the two courses I took over a two-week intensive session.

But the biggest lesson I learned began on my first day back in that beloved University town where I met and fell in love with my husband 24 years ago.  I had dinner with his mentor, a woman who from that time onward took great pride in his professional accomplishments and who loved him like a son.  This was also my first opportunity since his death to talk with another widow.

As we were comparing stories, I noticed that after more than thirty years of widowhood, she still wore her wedding band.  This surprised me, though I understood.  I myself have not been able to remove mine nor to change my status on Facebook. I have told myself that I can wear my wedding band as long as I still feel so married.

When I returned to my hotel that night and went to the bar to cash-in my coupon for a complimentary drink, I struck up a conversation with the bartender and two sisters in their sixties who had very recently attended a family reunion in Mishawaka.

After talking quite a bit about how much the Michiana area has changed in the decades since the sisters had grown-up here, they started asking me questions about myself.  When I disclosed that I was recently widowed, the bartender, who also wore a wedding band, told us that she, too, was a widow of 12 years.  She reached down into her purse,  took out a black-and-white snapshot of her husband taken sometime in the mid seventies, held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, revealing an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo.  She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.

I was flabbergasted.   Unlike a wedding band that is easily removed, she had marked her heart as his for the rest of her life.   This woman was not much older than me, yet by indelibly marking herself with his image, she had closed herself off from falling in love again.  For what man would make love with a woman with a 2 by 3 image of her dead husband staring him in the face?

I learned that night that I will not be wearing my wedding band for years to come because I want to be open to the possibility of love, and maybe even marriage, again some day.  But doing so means letting go of my beloved.

Grieving is a process of many big and small goodbyes.  Every day during my two weeks in that University town where we fell in love,  I walked through the quad,  back and forth from the parking lot to my class room, avoiding a certain path.  It wasn’t until I left my last class that I was able to walk on the sidewalk where Scott first told me he loved me, the moment, in my heart, that cemented us together.  Just ten months ago we had stood in that same spot, celebrating that first declaration of love, kissing, crying, holding each other very close.  Eight weeks later he was dead.

I breathed in deeply as I walked through that precious space on the sidewalk, as if I could breath Scott in through time and into my soul.  I said a goodbye.


He was everywhere and nowhere.

It was a dark and stormy morning.

26 April 2010


This essay aired 30 April 2010 on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM .  

The thought of her crumpets nearly unmanned him.  “Lucie,” he choked.

Facebook is my grown-up playground where, in the comfort of my home, I meet friends old and new to share information, tell stories about our lives, and generally have a good time.    These encounters are, by turn, fun, interesting, and sad; sometimes maddening; often poignant; and on many occasions have made me roar with laughter.

Today I am here to share with you, dear listener, one of my very favorite Facebook experiences.  My dear friend Matthew posted a single, simple sentence that elicited a string of exchanges among him, his friend Bill, and me that I believe is worthy of the Bulwer-Lytton award for worst fiction:

It was a dark and stormy morning.[1]

The count stepped from the shadows of the dripping jacaranda bush and softly scratched at the window. “Lucie, let me in,” he murmured. “It’s dark and stormy out here, and I’m workin’ up a powerful thirst …”[2]

Lucie knew better than to respond. Letting him in would mean tea and sympathy — and not the fun kind, either. That man would drink cup after cup of tea and would spend the better part of the morning enumerating in minute detail all the wrongs the world had inflicted upon him. Then he would make a sloppy, fumbling pass at her, mistaking her boredom for interest.  No, she would not be a guest at that pity party again.  Slowly, slowly she pulled the curtains shut thinking, “I really must trim the jacaranda once this rain lets up.”[3]

The first twitch of the curtains gave the count hope, but no. He was staring through the misted pane at the wrong side of the gingham print. “English Breakfast!” he cursed under his breath. He thought of the hot life-giving liquid, of her deft handling of pot and cup, and of the way she had silently mopped up beneath his feet when he had become overly excited telling one of his anecdotes about the drainage of the back pasture.  Only she understood.  She would listen with head in hand, her eyes shifting now and then to the kitchen clock.  She would wordlessly refill his cup and fetch crumpets from the toaster.  The thought of her crumpets nearly unmanned him.  “Lucie,” he choked.  Was this self-pity?  Well what if it was?  If Lucie was denying her sympathy he would go DIY.  “Come, Bruno,” he called peremptorily.  The count’s pet tapir reluctantly detached himself from his snack and fell in step, stems from the jacaranda leaves protruding from his expressive snout.[4]

The count had scarcely turned away from the now gingham-framed window when the skies opened, thunder rolled, lightning flashed, and water drops the size of English Breakfast tea bags lashed his face. He only had time to wonder why the rolling thunder preceded the lightning flash before he was as waterlogged as one of Noah’s friends who never made it into the ark.  He glanced back at the jacaranda bush.  He considered taking shelter there again, as he had so many mornings, and evenings, and even noon times and high tea.  He had shed many tears under that bush.  But then Bruno caught his eye, and something in the tapir’s glance gave him strength.  “I will never seek solace beneath those bright purple flowers again,” he said.  “Farewell, Lucie.  May your charms be loosed on better men.”  He set his face toward the road and forced his legs to move.  Bruno sighed, shook the water from his coat, and slogged after him.[5]

The jacaranda bush never blossomed so beautifully again, for having kept the count company under its branches those many hours, Bruno’s final leaving was the end of his leavings.[6]

[1] Matthew Bell


[2] Bill Svelmoe

[3] Elizabeth Van Jacob

[4] Matthew Bell

[5] Bill Svelmoe

[6] Elizabeth Van Jacob


24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

You know that there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them out there in the past, but you don’t know them: all the women who made great technological contributions and advances through the ages but never, ever got one iota of the credit they deserved.  Sometimes they received a mention or a footnote, but, more often, the greater glory went to the man involved.  

So on this Ada Lovelace Day I ask you to mediate on all the women whose contributions must be touching our lives today, but whose identities will forever remain unknown.

Chronicle of a Death Told in Facebook Postings

8 March 2010

This essay aired 12 March 2010 on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM as a contribution to Michiana Chronicles — a nice wedding anniversary present for Scott.  

Elizabeth Van Jacob and Scott learned that, like creatures from a horror movie, Scott’s tumors have again repaired themselves and grown significantly. Scott will no longer receive treatment for his condition. We are meeting with hospice later this week.  September 23

Elizabeth Van Jacob is taking a leave of absence from work effective immediately to live la dolce vita with her dolce amore.  September 24

Elizabeth Van Jacob just shared the very last cherry tomato of the season with Scott in the garden that was ours and ours alone.  September 26

Elizabeth Van Jacob is so very pleased that as Scott comes out from under the fog of the chemotherapy drugs, his inner light is shining through brighter than ever.  September 27

Elizabeth Van Jacob was amazed at how cheerful and matter-of-fact the hospice nurse was about driving from Elkhart to South Bend after midnight.  October 1

Elizabeth Van Jacob observes that while Scott’s body declines rapidly, the light within burns determinedly.  October 6

Elizabeth Van Jacob is glad this chilly morning to finally fulfill this inexplicable urge she has had the last couple of days to cover Scott with a cozy blanket.  October 7

Elizabeth Van Jacob sadly watched her husband say goodbye to his dear friend.  October 7

Elizabeth Van Jacob‘s Scott is fading fast. We are all snuggling together on the sleeper sofa in the living room, reminiscing, singing Christmas carols, expressing our love. No phone calls, please. Scott cannot hold the phone or focus his attention for conversation.  October 8

Elizabeth Van Jacob just kissed Scott goodnight.  October 8

Elizabeth Van Jacob notes that in the 8,000+ days she has known Scott, yesterday was the first that he did not have a bite to eat. After a restless night, he is finally sleeping. Unfortunately, every time he starts to fall asleep, he thinks he has to say his final goodbye to us. Scott really enjoyed hearing all the messages and emails everyone sent yesterday. Thanks for being with us through these final days and hours.  October 9

Elizabeth Van Jacob is glad that Scott said goodbye to family and friends and had a delightful spurt of energy and lucidness while hanging out with his girls last night. The Scott we were with yesterday is no longer here today since he is barely conscious. It is difficult for me to fathom that I will never really speak with him again. I am overcome by a profoundly sad and lonely feeling.  October 9

Elizabeth Van Jacob and Neil Young are singing Harvest Moon to Scott via youtube. Neil is a great back-up singer.  October 9

Elizabeth Van Jacob reports that yesterday a Becky daisy blossomed in her garden; they usually finish blossoming in mid August. When Scott was wooing me, he brought me a big bouquet of Becky daisies.  I still see him dressed in a white t-shirt, his long blonde hair illuminated by the late afternoon sun glowing behind him as he held them out to me. Scott died at 4:41 this morning.  October 10

Elizabeth Van Jacob requests that friends attending tomorrow’s memorial approach her children with upbeat voices and give them quick hugs. They crave normality at this very difficult time.  October 14

Elizabeth Van Jacob is grateful to everyone who also played the youtube video of Neil Young last Friday night and sang Harvest Moon to Scott from Vermont to Indiana to Oregon to Thailand, across town, across the continent, across the ocean, and half way across the globe. Thank you for helping usher Scott so tenderly out of this world. If ever there was a prayer that was one.  October 16

Poking Around the Vermont Country Store Catalog, or The Vibrator Essay

25 January 2010

The latest issue of the Vermont Country Store catalog had the most surprising two-page spread.

You may be familiar with The Vermont Country Store Catalog that features products from yesteryear that seem to have disappeared from store shelves along with the very drugstores and dime stores that carried them.   Here you can buy Evening in Paris perfume,  Bit o’ Honey candy bars,  hand-cranked Boston pencil sharpeners like we used in school decades ago,  Chatter Phone Pull Toys, Raggedy Ann,  Pokey and Gumby dolls.  They sell clothing your grandmother wore that you thought was so terribly old-fashioned thirty years ago, but now that Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown seems like a good idea on these cold Michiana nights.   And those Rib-Knit-Funnel Bonnets actually look kind of retro-chic.  Lavoris; Gee, My Hair Smells Terrific; and  Bun candy bars can all be found within its pages.  I am really surprised that they don’t sell Tab or Green River.

The illustrations in the catalog all seem to have a pink, wholesome, and healthy undertone to them; yes, even the inanimate objects.  All the illustrated models are Caucasian and look like extras from a Leave It to Beaver episode.  The demographic they seem to be appealing to are the straight-laced, Lawrence-Welk-watching folks whose last wild night of dancing was when listening to those new records by that Buddy Holly guy.  In short, white middle-America at its New England best, folks you imagine in a Norman Rockwell painting of a rural Vermont general store.

In an idle moment I was flipping through their catalog when, near the back, I found a two page spread offering vibrators.   Yes, vibrators.  I choked on my chamomile tea.  At first I thought this was a hoax.   How could the catalog that sells Squeeze-It Change Purses and Walnettos now be selling dildos?  Old-time Vermont weather sticks, yes, but private pleasure electronics?!  Terri-lined shower caps, real-rubber stair treads, wooden lazy-Susan trays with napkin holders, shoe horns, and Sweet Earth Solid Fragrances: these are the products one expects to find in a Vermont County Store Catalog.

I fired up the laptop to post this delightfully incongruous discovery on Facebook.   But when I tried to find the exact information on their site, I was a bit flummoxed about what category to choose.  Should I click on “Tried and True” or “Customer Favorites” or “Toys”?  After a little poking around, I finally found them under Apothecary, subcategory – I kid you not – “Intimate Solutions.”

And right there on the page was a picture of proprietor Lyman Orton, almost elderly himself, stating that “Here at the Vermont Country Store, we take a practical, no-nonsense approach to keeping you healthy physically, emotionally, and … well … sexually, too!”  Omigod, I thought I had walked in on my parents!  There were pills, and creams, and videos for men and women alike.  But the feminine solutions included seventeen different devices: lo-tech, high-tech, glass, plastic, even a $20 rubber ducky that you can get a heck of a lot cheaper almost anywhere here in Michiana.

Good golly!  I wasn’t in Norman Rockwell World any more.  Or, I guess they now sell vibrators in Norman Rockwell World.  Of all the catalogs I receive and all the magazines I subscribe to, this is the second-to-last one that I ever imagined would carry products like this, the last being Lehman’s which offers products to support the Amish community (I checked, and, no, Lehman’s doesn’t offer anything like this, not even non-electric).

There is a photograph on the About Us page of the Vermont Country Store website taken when the first store opened in 1946 that includes a woman in a crisp, cotton dress exiting the store with a wicker basket filled with her purchases, looking as if she is telling the three men on the porch something terribly amusing.  I can’t help but think she is saying, “Boys, you’ll never guess what I bought today!”

Obituary for Scott Van Jacob

19 October 2009

Scott Van Jacob was born 16 July 1956 in Klamath Falls, Oregon and grew up on cattle ranches in Klamath County. Scott was a devoted husband and father who loved his wife and daughters deeply and took great delight in their lively spirits. A devoted father, he rarely ever brought work home and spent his evenings playing and reading aloud with his family.

Scott attended Oregon College of Education where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. and co-founded a chapter of Big Brother/Big Sister; after his studies in Monmouth, he taught at an American school in Medellin, Colombia for 18 months. Scott then earned his Masters in Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he met and wooed his wife. Professionally, Scott was a highly regarded Latin American bibliographer who was awarded both the President’s Award and the Foik Award at the University of Notre Dame during the 14 years he worked there. Beyond Notre Dame, he forged strong professional relationships with Latin American bibliographers around the country and with librarians and book dealers in Argentina, Uruguay, and Spain.

An accomplished amateur runner, Scott won the Harrisburg Mile at the age of 38 and had a personal best time of 4:07. Scott dabbled successfully in the yeast arts, producing delicious beers and breads. A summer’s barbecue on the porch with family and friends was his idea of a perfect evening. He was a voracious reader who had an encyclopedic knowledge of running statistics and an impressive collection of track and field biographies. He had the great fortune of overseeing the acquisition and study of an important collection of manuscripts of his favorite writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

Scott loved to travel, and he and Elizabeth and their daughters explored North America from sea to shining sea, much of South America (particularly his beloved Argentina), and lived for a short time in Barcelona where Scott studied Catalan-language publishing.

Scott is survived by his wife Elizabeth, his daughters Nina and Gemma, and his step-daughter Amy. He has joined his mother, Lois Field, who passed away over a year ago. Scott is also survived by his father Norman Jacob, step-mother Jacque, brothers James Jacob and David Jacob, and step-brothers Robert Edwards, Mark Wolter, Phillip Wolter, and Gregg Jacob, as well as dear friends Norman and Maureen Eburne. He will be deeply missed by his wife’s family and the many dear, dear friends he leaves behind.

A celebration of his life will take place on Thursday 15 October, from 1:00 until 4:30 at Pinhook Park Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana.  In Oregon, a celebration of his life will take place on Sunday 15 November from 1:00p.m. until 4:00p.m. at Gentle House 855 Monmouth Ave N in Monmouth, on the campus of Western Oregon University. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Van Jacob Family Education Fund at Notre Dame Federal Credit Union.

Scott Van Jacob was well loved by many. He had seemingly infinite patience and kindness, was gentle and loving, ready to help anyone who was in need. He was the kind of person who not only saw the glass as half full, but who also appreciated the beauty of the glass itself and the contents therein. Though he called the Midwest home, Oregon and its saw-toothed horizons, its mountains and fields and rivers, reigned in his heart.

He was also a great kisser.