Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Taste of Freshness

Standard

Growing up in the country, I had access to a variety of freshly grown fruits and vegetables. As a child, I could be found roaming our acre garden, pulling fresh radishes and carrots from the ground, or sitting under our huge scuppernong bush picking ripe scuppernongs (golden muscadines). Even as young as five and six, I could tell when fruit and vegetables were ripe. My papa made sure I knew how to tell, and every year provided a new lesson with a new crop.

I would take my dirt-covered radishes and carrots to the faucet beside the well  so I could rinse and eat them immediately. As I gathered scuppernongs for the family, I would eat as many as I gathered. My papa would help me pick a few yellow plums (what we called them – not sure of their real name) only because I wasn’t tall enough to reach them yet. In July, I would hover by the fig tree near my grandparents’ home just waiting for the fruit to ripen. In early to late fall, I would gather fallen persimmons from the trees all over our property. We only had wild persimmon trees, so the fruit was tiny (golf-ball size); so it took a lot of fruit to feel satisfied.

My mom canned most of the vegetables; and one year in particular, she canned 106 quarts of green beans. This was in addition to all of the purple hull peas, black eyed peas, butterbeans, yellow and zucchini squash, stewed tomatoes, new potatoes, pickled okra, pickled beets, pickled squash, and pickles.

We dried apple slices by laying them on white sheets on the roof of my grandparents’ house. My grandmother was responsible for the jellies and preserves each year. We always had grape, muscadine, and scuppernong jellies and plum and fig preserves. If we were brave enough to battle the snakes and chiggers, we would sometimes pick blackberries from our fence row. There was nothing better than a fresh blackberry cobbler. Oh, my!

What we didn’t can, pickle, or turn into jelly, we froze. We always had food, and I seldom remember going to the grocery store during the spring and summer months once we started harvesting food. We didn’t even buy milk because we milked our own cows. (Yes, we drank raw, unpasteurized milk and lived to tell about it. I’m sure people would be mortified by that nowadays.)

As most children do, I took all of this for granted. After my grandmother passed away in 1985 and my papa remarried the following year, there were no more harvests. My papa and my dad wanted to clear the garden area one last time, and I cried as I watched them destroy the scuppernong canopy. (This was several scuppernong plants climbing up four metal posts with the vines entwined over and through a metal arbor-like structure. This is how I could stand under it and pick fruit. I so wish I had a picture of it. I will rummage through boxes of old photographs, and maybe I will get lucky.)

I am now an adult and living in Little Rock just 45 minutes from my home town and my parents’ home, but I still long for that simple lifestyle. Simple? Maybe relaxed is a better word because maintaining a garden of that size was anything but simple. It was hard work from sun up to sun down. However, most of my childhood memories are from that garden – either digging potatoes, shelling peas, or picking okra.

Now, I miss all of those lovely fruits that were so plentiful in decades past. I can find scuppernongs and figs at Fresh Market, but they are horribly expensive. In late summer/early fall, I can find tame persimmons (baseball size) at the Kroger Marketplace, Fresh Market, and sometimes Whole Foods; but they run $3.99 each – not per pound – each! However, we are blessed with friends from my home church who have tame persimmon trees in their yard. That gift of 20 pounds of persimmons last year was such a blessing, and the taste instantly returned me to my childhood.

It’s difficult at times to pay such high prices for things that were once “free” and so readily available. Little Rock has a lovely Farmer’s Market that will begin in late April and run through September, and you can usually find some good deals on fresh produce. However, some of those vendors are sneaky in April and May. I know from experience that if you plant in early/mid-March you will be lucky to have crops by mid-May. So in late April and early May, you need to make sure you’re not buying Walmart produce with the stickers removed. (Some of them don’t even try to remove the stickers.) I usually try to find a couple of farm vendors and ask enough questions about their crops to know if their produce is truly fresh. These vendors are just honest farm folk just trying to make a living doing what they know and hopefully love.

My husband and I have discussed moving to my family’s property in the future. There are still huge areas suitable for gardening. My husband grew up with his parents planting a garden, too. It wasn’t as expansive as ours, but he’s familiar enough to miss the freshness as much as I do. It’s definitely hard work, but nothing is better than sharing your crops with friends and family.

Advertisements

My Dad’s Holiday Baking Challenge (2013)

Standard

Being raised on a small farm and raising our own food, it should be obvious that most of our meals were homemade. My cooking memories go back as early as the age of three. I remember standing in a chair next to the kitchen counter helping my mom make meatloaf. I always thought it was so fun mixing the hamburger, egg, cracker crumbs, and spices with my little hands. It was like making for-real mud pies.

Growing up surrounded by good cooks puts a lot of pressure on a young girl from the south. It’s just expected that I would be a good cook, too. Fortunately, that worked out well for me. I love to cook and entertain. I’ve taken several family recipes and changed them here and there to meet my family’s tastes. We didn’t have a lot of different types of spices growing up. It was your basic black pepper, salt, oregano, some kind of season salt, and your basic fall spices – cinnamon and nutmeg. (Side Note: Now that I’m thinking about it, we never grew fresh herbs; and I have no idea why. They would have grown so easily with all of the other things we planted in our huge garden. I must remember to ask my mom why we never planted herbs.)

Now, when I cook, I incorporate cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, chipotle chili powder, and several others. It’s fun for me to present a family dish to my mom and dad and for them to rave about it like they’ve never eaten it before.

Even though I can cook, I have never really been a baker. My dad’s mom always made a pineapple pie on different occasions, and I was blessed enough to have been entrusted with that recipe before she died in 2009. It’s one of my dad’s favorite pies, and he requests it every year during the holidays. Therefore, it’s really the only thing I’ve ever “baked” other than something in a box by Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines.

However, for the past few years, I’ve been asking Santa (whoever accepted the role) for a stand mixer. I aspired to baked breads, cookies, and any other sweet concoction I could come up with. My husband never took the hint, but my dad overheard a conversation with my mom about my wanting a mixer. The next thing I knew, my dad was Santa.

So I received a new, shiny, white Kitchen Aide stand mixer for Christmas. However, he gave it to me the week before Thanksgiving – along with a list of baked goods he was requesting for our holiday dinner. Nope, he’s not a subtle man at all!

I gladly accepted the gift and his baking challenge. He requested pumpkin bread, some kind of cookie, and something with persimmons. (We have some good friends who have tame persimmon trees in their yard. and they gave us almost 20 pounds of tame persimmons. Please check back later for a post about the fruit that grew on our family farm so you will understand how much 20 pounds of persimmons is worth.)

I started scouring the Internet for recipes that matched his criteria. I knew I already had canned pumpkin, persimmons, prunes, pecans, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Therefore, those items were the focus of my searches. My collection of baked goods concluded with two loaves of pumpkin bread, oatmeal cranberry cookies, pecan prune cookies, and persimmon muffins. (It’s really amazing what one can find on the Internet these days. I actually found a recipe online for persimmon muffins, and they were fabulous!)

I have to admit that I was nervous walking into my family’s Thanksgiving dinner with all of my from-scratch baked goodies. My dad has never been rudely critical when it comes to food, but he always has an opinion. When he doesn’t really enjoy the food he’s eating, he will say, “It’s fair.” My mom and I have always dreaded the word “fair” from my dad. Fair meant he would still eat it, but he would choose other things if he had options. On this day, I wanted anything from him but fair.

As soon as we came into my parents’ home, he met us in the kitchen. “So, what did you make me?” (I told you – never subtle.) I showed him everything I made, but all of the items were packaged for transport to my cousin’s house where the dinner would be held. My dad eyed everything and asked, “Is any of it any good?” Most people would be offended after all of the hard work that had gone into baking, but I wasn’t. It was just my dad being a kidder – something he had mastered over the years. He and I have such an interesting relationship. He became my dad when I was ten years old; but during my adult years, I’ve come to recognize him as a dad and a friend.

We were still unpacking food in my cousin’s kitchen when my dad started opening my containers. He wasn’t even going to wait until it was time for dessert, which thrilled my soul. As he opened each one, he asked for a description of all ingredients – like he was some baking challenge judge on the Food Network. (It really made me laugh.) I explained every recipe in detail, and he immediately started sampling the cookies. His favorite were the pecan prune, but he liked both. I think he probably ate three or four cookies before dinner, so he wanted to wait until after dinner to try the pumpkin bread and persimmon muffins.

The muffins and bread were a huge hit with my dad and others in my very small family. I gave my dad two loaves of pumpkin bread. I suggested that he take one to work if he didn’t think he could eat them both. I’m not sure if he did. Mom just told me that both were gone when I asked about them a week later. She said he ate the muffins and cookies I gave him, too. My dad’s least favorite were my oatmeal cranberry cookies, which turned out to be my mom’s favorite. I guess they are well-matched after 33 years of marriage.

So I think I won the challenge – even though I was the only participant. Father’s day is around the corner, and he’s already been dropping his not-so-subtle hints. He hasn’t given me a list yet, but I’m ready when he does. It’s in June, so I’m confident summer fruit will somehow be involved. With Google and my mixer, I’m ready for anything he can throw at me. Bring it on, dad!

Cost of Failure

Standard

I recently had an opportunity to teach again at a local community college in Central Arkansas. I’m never a fan of the grading, especially essays; but the fun I have with my students always outweighs the obligatory grading. I love being in a classroom and forming relationships with my students. They are usually from rural communities in Arkansas, so I like sharing my own story in hopes of motivating them to achieve their goals.

Some of the students I encountered during the fall 2013 semester made me incredibly sad. I was teaching remedial courses in Language Arts (basic writing and reading skills) and College Success (a two-hour class that offered strategies to students to help them be academically successful). Some of my students probably never dreamed of going to college. I can only assume that they had no other direction and that maybe a parent “encouraged” them to do something – anything – other than nothing. However, no matter how they arrived in my classroom, some of their efforts were underwhelming. Most were so incredibly bright and quick-witted, but some did not seem to care if they passed or failed. Well, let me correct that. They all wanted to pass. They just wanted to do the least amount of work possible and still do so. I was told by other teachers that some were only there to collect a check from their Pell Grants or some other form of financial aid. As discouraging as that sounds, I now believe it to be true.

When I initially enrolled in college after graduating high school, I totally underestimated the effort required to be successful. I did well my first semester, but my grades slowly declined over the next two semesters. After my third semester, I was facing academic probation. Considering I had never received anything lower than a B in high school, I was mortified – and completely and utterly embarrassed.

So before anyone thinks I’m being judgmental of lackadaisical students, I feel as if I’m entitled to do so because I actually understand their mentality. I understand what it’s like to be directionless, apathetic, and bored. I did not get serious about post-secondary education until I was 26 years old, and it took six years to complete my BA. I graduated one day after my 32nd birthday.

I’m actually quite proud of my accomplishments thus far, but I truly did not intend on being a non-traditional student. All of my high school friends stayed in college, received their degrees, and started their careers early in life. They were done and working before I ever started. It’s true that I landed a good job without a degree. That job was the only thing that allowed me to pursue my degree. I just wonder how my life would have taken shape if I had taken college seriously the first time. Did failing college the first time make me appreciate it more later in life? Did the failure necessitate success? I know the answer to both of these is yes, but I still can’t help but feel like a late bloomer at times.

Regardless of their effort, I still loved my students this past semester. I enjoyed getting to know them and allowing them to know me. I can only hope that I imparted enough of my own college failures and successes to encourage them to keep pursuing their degrees for the right reasons. I hope they find that one thing that stirs their passions and that they can find a job that allows them to experience that passion daily. And for those who were not successful, I hope the failure prompts them do better the next time.

From One Mother to Another

Standard

Living on a small farm had its disadvantages. There was always work to be done; and if you were present, you were expected to work – no matter your age. As a child as young as three, I was shown how to gather eggs from the chicken house; and I was milking cows before I started kindergarten. I even had a metal bucket that was child size so I could carry the milk easily. However, I never complained. It was just our way of life, and I did it because it took everyone to make it work smoothly.

My papa tended to the cattle and the hogs. I followed him regularly as a child, so those soon became my jobs, too. The cattle I could handle by myself, but the hogs required me to have an escort. We had a registered sow (rhymes with wow) that would eat your face if you got near her piglets. She was mean, and I wasn’t as terrified of her as I should have been. I wasn’t old enough to remember one incident with her, but I had heard it told so often that it made me cautious of her.

When I was three years old, this mean sow had piglets. It was winter and bitterly cold. She had wallowed out a mud hole in her shed and positioned her rear end near the hole. As she birthed the piglets, they were falling into the water and starting to freeze. My papa and mom took a few of the boards off of the shed on the outside. He would catch the piglets and hand them to my mother, who was drying them with towels and setting them back inside the shed. I said she was a mean sow – not smart; or so one would think…

A few weeks later, her piglets are weaned and ready to be sold. We found a buyer for them, and he and his son came to the farm to pick them up. Since I was so young, it was my job to help round up the piglets for transport. I was put inside the hog pen and set loose on the unsuspecting piggies. Knowing their mother’s temperament, she was locked inside our loading shoot so we could catch them without incident.

However, as anyone who is acquainted with hogs will tell you, piglets make a lot of noise when they’re caught. You have never heard such squealing. With her piglets in distress, the momma sow grew more and more disturbed. They, unlike sheep, are very protective of their young; and she was exceptionally so. After several tries, she finally busted through the boards of the gates keeping her imprisoned and started running to save her piglets by any means necessary.

That’s when she was faced with two adults in the hog pen and a three-year-old little girl. According to the stories told and retold, she looked at both adults holding her offspring. Then she saw me – a toddler holding one of her own. She looked at my mother for a long time and then back at me. She then pawed the ground a few times – as a bull would before charging – and bolted in my direction. My mother dropped both of the piglets she was holding and took off in my direction as well, screaming at me, “Denise, drop the pig! Drop the pig!”

My mother got to me before the hog did and scooped me up in her arms and kept running. She hurdled the fence of the hog pen with me in her arms and only stopped when we were a safe distance. The sow didn’t stop and tried to run through the fence. By this time, my papa had climbed up the loading shoot and was watching the whole thing. The buyer and his son watched in amazement several yards away.

Every adult present that day determined the mother hog knew I was the offspring of my mother. They suggested she went after me because the adults were going after her children – something I guess only a mother can understand. I would argue that she only went after me because I was less threatening and more easily attainable. However, my mother’s recollection of the story makes me consider that an exchange happened between the two mothers – a look, a knowing, an understanding. I’m still not sure. I just know that I wasn’t allowed to be at the hog pen without an adult from that day forward.

The piglets were finally caught that day. The sow showed signs of depression for the next couple of weeks or so. She laid around on dry dirt (not mud) and wouldn’t eat regularly. She finally snapped out of it, but losing her babies did a number on her emotionally. (Yes, I am implying that animals have emotions. Please be kind in your comments.) We honored her later by selling her at auction and not having her slaughtered and processed, but I’m sure she eventually found herself on someone’s plate – just not ours. In our opinion, she was too mean to eat.

By the way, I haven’t eaten pork in almost ten years; but that’s a story for another day. 

Welcome to Educated Country!

Standard

I grew up on the heels of my mother and grandpa, especially after my father left Arkansas for a much bigger Texas and a much younger woman and not necessarily in that order.

My summers were spent diggin’ potatoes, shuckin’ corn, snappin’ green beans, shellin’ peas and tending to our variety of livestock animals, which included cows, hogs, goats, chickens, turkeys, and guineas (looks like a combination of a chicken and a turkey). We raised most of our own food, including the meat; and everyone was expected to participate in the raisin’ and the killin’. My job, during my early childhood years, was to sit on the board on top of the five-gallon bucket to keep the headless chickens from running away.

However, things changed in 1985. That summer would be the last garden our property would host, and the remaining animals were sold or killed. My grandmother passed away unexpectedly in September of that year; and my papa remarried the following February. (Yes, that was only five months of “mourning”, but please don’t judge him. He was married to a hateful, bitter woman for 42 years; and he deserved some happiness.) Papa moved to the nearby, small town to live with his new wife; and they planted a garden on her property. My mom and step-dad (the man who I affectionately call Dad) worked all the time and really didn’t have time for a garden. I occupied my summers with reading, writing, and dreaming of leaving my small town.

I graduated high school in 1988 and attended a nearby university. College was expected of me even though I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, but I only attended college for three semesters. I just wasn’t ready for it then, and I was incredibly miserable. Three years later, I was still in my small town, working a low-paying job and dreaming of more. An aunt of a close friend offered me an opportunity to move to Dallas, Texas, to attend a trade school (computer applications); and I jumped at the chance. Within two weeks of talking to her, my car was loaded; and I was on I-30 headed southwest. It was a decision I have never regretted.

I returned to my hometown after a year of school in the Big D. I was offered a decent job in Little Rock making good money for the time, but I knew I still wanted more. In 1994, I started working as a technical writer/editor for one of the largest corporations in Arkansas; and in 1996, I returned to school at the same public university – only taking two classes per semester through my company’s tuition reimbursement program. At that pace, it would take me several years to complete a degree; but I was determined. My major? Writing of course!

After a company-wide layoff from that corporation, I graduated with a BA in Professional and Technical Writing in 2002 – one day after my 32nd birthday. I finished the last 42 hours of my remaining degree plan in 11 months. That fall, I started teaching freshman composition at a public community college. That job prompted my desire for even more education. So in January of 2003, I started pursing a master’s degree; and I graduated two years later. I started teaching writing full-time that year at the same public university I started at in 1988. Talk about full circle…

I have taken some other classes here and there. I started and postponed a PhD in 2009, and I completed a graduate certificate in Conflict Mediation in 2012. I absolutely love school and love learning. However, as I have aged, I have come to realize that learning doesn’t always require a classroom. In fact, I would wager that the education I was allowed to receive in our garden and on our farm as a child was just as valuable as my formal education at a university.

There are days that I long to return to that lifestyle – raisin’ our own food and living off the land. I miss the simplicity that life offered. I now feel caught in the middle of the these two, dynamic worlds. I seem to function easily in either, so I’ve come to understand that both have made me who I am. I wouldn’t be the same woman without the farm or without the formal education. During a luncheon a few years ago , one of my former corporate supervisors referred to me as “Educated Country”. I was initially offended and probably didn’t take it the way she meant it. However, I have grown to love the title and have since embraced it as a pretty accurate description.

This is my commitment to document my country heritage and how my education plays a role. Welcome to Educated Country…