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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 10, 2008

I keep getting bombarded with books that bring back memories of growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Last week it was Larry Tobin's novel about small town journalism.

This week it's "In a Pickle: A Family Farm Story," by Jerry Apps (Terrace Books, $16.95). I've reviewed several of books by Apps, a former University of Wisconsin professor, who grew up in Central Wisconsin on a hardscrabble farm.

Apps has written more than 20 books, most of them non-fiction about life in Wisconsin. "In a Pickle" is his first adult novel and it's a honey.

As a young man, Apps managed a pickle salting station for H.J. Heinz in Wild Rose, Wis. So his first adult fictional hero is Andy Myer, who runs a pickle salting station in a tiny Wisconsin town.

A pickle salting station. We had such a station in Whitehall, Wis., where I grew up. It was owned by a canning company in Onalaska, whose products I have never purchased for reasons that will become apparent.

Our salting station was built in 1908 and was a rough shod construction, consisting of a roof, a floor and no walls.

Birds flew in and birds flew out, leaving various calling cards in the vats where Old Man Seiler salted the Onalaska pickles.

Farmers came in with gunny sacks of cukes, Seiler grades them, paid the farmers, then put the cukes into huge vats of salt brine.

Uncovered vats of salt brine, where birds flew in and birds flew out. Not only birds. As grade school kids we always walked through the station and urinated in the pickle vats.

On weekends, we'd have pickle fights at the station when Old Man Seiler sneaked out to Rip's and Jake's Bar for a schnapps.\After the cukes were cured they were picked up by tank trucks and sent to Onalaska for more flavorings.

Enough about Whitehall. Let's get back to Andy Myer, recently wounded in Korea and back working at the salting station and his father's farm. Jerry's new boss at the pickling place is a real jerk, but Andy survives with his small crew, made up of misfits including a fundamentalist preacher.

As usual, Apps is spot on when it comes to the way rural people talk and how they used to think and how things they were a-changing, even back in the 1950s.

As in his non-fiction, one can always learn something about Wisconsin and agriculture when one reads Jerry Apps. His description of the salting station was perfect, simple and clear as a bell.

And what the authorities finds in one of the salting vats is lots more exciting than the picayune trifles we left behind over west in Whitehall.

Recently my wife and her mother visited New York City. One of their goals was to eat at Felidia, the Italian restaurant owned by Lidia Bastianich, who appears every Saturday on Minnesota Public Television.

My wife made the reservation, then found that she needed to arrive later. She called and guess who answered? Lidia Bastianich herself. My wife asked if she could bump back the reservation for one hour. Bastianich replied that she thought that would be impossible.

But then she said, "Wait, wait. I think I've found a spot to work you in."

At first Ruth was thankful. When they arrived at the restaurant, the place was half full. Aha! Lidia was playing games, as all good restauranteurs do. While Ruth was dining at Felidia, I was reading a very interesting novel,

"Turning Tables," by Heather and Rose MacDowell (The Dial Press, $24)

Turns out the MacDowell girls are identical twins and worked as waitresses in fancy New York City restaurants. "Turning Tables" is a novel based on their experiences.

It's a real eye opener, as an unemployed PR woman takes a job as a waitress in a classy Madison Avenue restaurant and learns the ropes about conning the customer into ordering more than they want or need, cadging 20 to 40 percent tips and a whole raft of tricks that gullible New Yorkers get conned into.

It's lots of fun and you actually learn something about restaurant psychology, sort of like reading chef Anthony Bourdain's book about New York restaurants, only this is fiction and has a love interest.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at