Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas disasters often come back to charm us

(The Bellefonte supplement to the Centre Daily TImes has ceased publication as of Dec. 21, 2005, so this is my final column for that venue.)

The Christmases I remember most vividly are not the joyous ones but the ones when something went wrong. The year the Christmas tree fell forward with a swish and a tinkle of broken glass just as the last ornament was put in place. The time a domestic squabble erupted into a kitchen war with much slamming of pots and pans. The cookies that burned.

I don't remember the pretty gifts over the years as much as the shabby ones, like the doll I got when I was about 6. She was very small with a cloth body and a molded head and even a molded hair ribbon. She had no feet, just black stumps under her dress. The shame I felt was palpable. I did not play with this doll. I did not even want to look at her.

In my first Christmas entertainment, I was to be a skater in a short, red taffeta dress. Awkward at doing the leg extensions to "The Skater's Waltz," I made only a halfhearted attempt at the steps. When Sister assigned a third-grader to move my feet in time to the music, I resisted. The older girl told Sister I kicked her; I say she deserved it.

For our high school Nativity play, my two best friends and I were cast as vestal virgins. We giggled our way through practice, but the night of the performance we lost it completely. I entered and delivered my line, "Veronica, hast thou kept the watch?" and the three of us broke up. We could not control our hysteria even with priests, parents and nuns staring in stony silence.

Over the years, there was always at least one disaster of the season. When I was teaching, a new administrator required all faculty to participate in a door-decorating contest. As I was stringing up lights, I noticed I was standing in water that was pouring out of the boys' lavatory across the hall. When no janitor arrived, I learned that another administrative edict had just taken effect: No repairs could be done until a work order was issued from "downtown."

This year, the stress began early. I listened to Christmas carols over the phone for 25 minutes waiting for another party to pick up. I called my long-distance provider for the third time to complain about a suspension of service notice for a bill already paid. A telemarketer would not get off the line, insisting that I press "1" now. Some people, it seems, just don't have any Christmas spirit.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Opening chapters of local history reduced to team mascots

An eager group awaited the presenter of "An Anecdotal History of Early Bellefonte" at the splendid new home of the American Philatelic Society at Match Factory Place on Nov. 12.

In due time, a proper Victorian lady swept into the Herman and Alice Lembersky Room and explained the difficulty of dressing when a corset is a prescribed part of the costume.

Launching into her illustrated lecture, the lady identified herself as Bonny Farmer, associate editor of "The American Philatelist." High points of Bellefonte's early history were recounted, then the talk shifted to an even earlier time, when white settlers encountered the American Indians already living here.

Chief Bald Eagle, of the Muncie Indians, a division of the Delaware tribe, made his "nest" along Bald Eagle Creek near Milesburg. Because the Delawares were allies of the French during the French and Indian War, his relationships here were uneasy. According to one account, he was murdered on Snow Shoe Mountain by Sam Brady in retaliation for chief killing Sam's brother.

Chief Logan, memorialized by Thomas Jefferson in a speech labeled "Logan's Lament," was another important figure in local history. His camp was near the Blue Spring at the present site of a Pennsylvania Fish Commission Hatchery on state Route 144 north of Pleasant Gap. Logan Branch of Spring Creek, Logan Fire Company and Logan Street ensure that his name will not be forgotten.

By 1785, Native Americans in the area were rare. By 1800, they had disappeared. Place names like Shikellamy and Kishacoquillas remind us of the original inhabitants, as do animal names like skunk and raccoon. The end of the lecture, though, was not the end of the story.

In the early part of the 20th century, schools and colleges started naming their teams and mascots after Native Americans. When a proposal was presented to the local school board to change the name Red Raiders to one more politically correct, the uproar could be heard from one valley to the next. In the end, the name prevailed, but the mascot -- a figure in buckskin wearing a cartoonish rubber mask with a huge hooked nose -- was retired.

Choosing a team mascot is like choosing your battle. When the Penn State Lions play the Florida Seminoles in next month's Orange Bowl, Chief Osceola, the great leader of the Seminoles, will ride again. His face paint and flaming spear may have nothing to do with Seminole history, but at least he is a heroic figure, not a comic one like their former mascot, Chief Fullabull.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Toys are quick to capture attention, regardless of your age

The colorful downtown block of West High Street from South Spring to Water has so many attractions for kids it forms a little community of its own.

Despite the window display of smiling children and teens, Kennedy Dance Centre is not just for kids. I should know, having taken a jazz dance class there some years ago. When the instructor started talking recital, I made a quick exit.

Up the street is Steppin' Out, a shop specializing in dancewear and accessories. Among the leotards in the window are cute stuffed animals in toe shoes and porcelain dolls in ballet costume. They are not toys, the clerk informed me; they are gifts for kids who are interested in anything related to dance.

The owner of Go-Velo-City says his imported diecast vehicles are not toys either -- they are collectibles. He still has some wooden pull toys and puzzles from a line he is closing out.

Pure Imagination carries traditional books, toys and games. Grandparents like shopping there because they see the things they grew up with, such as Golden Books and metal wind-up toys.

Alphabet blocks are also a popular item. My grandson loves making towers and then laughing when they crash. He is not nicknamed "Godzilla" for nothing.

Around the corner on Spring Street, Dollar General has bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks and all kinds of big action toys in their window. There are dart blasters and punching balls, a light-up tour bus with sound and Flavas, cool couples on cycles.

At this point on my walk, I had to go to Subway to take a break. But there was no escape. Over my tuna special, I saw a sign announcing "Fun Toy with Kids' Pak."

After all the shiny new stuff, a trip to "Toyland," the current exhibit at the Bellefonte Museum for Centre County, seemed in order. Here were the soft-bodied baby dolls I remember playing with and the Barbie dolls my granddaughters played with, dolls that exist now only as a bin of body parts. A display of military vehicles and books from the World War II era recalled our days of plane spotting. Why kids were expected to know a Stuka from a Spitfire, I am not sure.

When I took some middle school students from State College through the Centre County Historical Museum in September, they were more interested in sabers and carved dragons and secret desk compartments than a cupboard full of antique toys. Fantasy, it seems, is the new reality.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Town is never short on special occasions -- or cake recipes

Because there are so many occasions for cakes around here -- celebration, competition, seduction, sympathy -- it stands to reason there should also be lots of cake recipes. Some can be found on batter-stained pages in standard recipe books; some were clipped from newspapers or copied onto faded scraps of paper. But the most interesting and authentic to me are the ones in those spiral bound cookbooks put out by local organizations as fundraisers.

The newest one is "Raider Recipes," published by the Bellefonte Area High School class of 2008 and on sale at Plumbs Drug Store for $15. Here you can find Sarah Neff's Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake, Mildred Boone's Funny Cake and Barbara Milton's Hawaiian Wedding Cake. Because these recipes have been passed around for a long time, no one expects that the name attached to the recipe is the creator. The name means the baker has tried the recipe, probably many times over.

Besides mayonnaise cakes, recipes in other books call for strange ingredients, such as tomato soup in a spice cake, 7Up in a lemon cake or Coca-Cola in a chocolate cake. There's even a cake made with sauerkraut. Wacky cakes are like funny cakes and call for vinegar but no eggs. When box cakes began to replace scratch cakes, mixes were "doctored" with salad oil, instant pudding and pie filling.

"The Bellefonte Kitchen Sampler," published by the Bellefonte Junior Women's Club in 1977 includes classics such as oatmeal cake and sour cream coffee cake. Then there is carrot cake, which people seemed to think of as a health food. Nancy Miller, though, sets us straight: "Very rich. A little goes a long way."

The same could probably be said for Martha Nastase's Cheesecake for a Crowd. The first ingredient listed is nine pounds of cream cheese.

Many local recipe books include regional-sounding favorites such as Texas Sheet Cake, Mississippi Mud Cake and German Chocolate Cake.

A cake known variously as Poor Man's Cake, Depression Cake or War Cake shows the ingenuity of homemakers during hard times. One version has no eggs, no milk and only two tablespoons of lard for shortening.

Friendship Cake did not live up to its name. It began when someone gave you a plastic bag of fermented dough with mimeographed care and feeding instructions attached. Soon the stuff took over the fridge, billowing like the Blob. You had to keep baking cakes, like the one that called for a can of fruit cocktail, or giving away bags of dough. When my batch finally died of neglect, I shed no tears.