"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

September 27, 2011

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Talk about putting things off! I've had two of the most gorgeous, squishy 1/4# bags of vanilla beans in my pantry since late May when I picked them up at nearby Wilson's Cedar Point Farm (near the Casey County line in western Pulaski County) during strawberry season. The man working there that day happened to be selling both Tahitian and Madagascar varieties from the inventory of a spice wholesaler friend (a good friend to have!) and I was delighted to scarf them up. My good fortune was not lost on me: it was one of those days of alarming kismet, when you feel great to be living in a place where the strawberry man happened to read your mind about the vanilla you've been planning to make. There, at a small roadside stand in rural Kentucky, I traded cash for beans. A delightful encounter, but rather than seize the beans at the time, they've been in my pantry ever since.

Tahitian beans, left and Madagascar, right.

As I am not likely to find a roadside vanilla bean man every day, you can also purchase vanilla beans in bulk on line through any number of affordable spice emporiums, your local bulk foods shop (we like Sunny Valley Country Store in nearby Casey County), or even on eBay! If you are making large quantities of extract you will want to go the wholesale route, if possible, as the smaller Tahitian beans can be several dollars each or more. If you can, find some Madagascar: it will make a richer vanilla and the beans are light years away from the Tahitian. The former variety is plump, almost raisiny, in texture and cuts easily, revealing their fleshy and seedy interior. However, because you are making an infusion, either bean will work.

We also have a full, I mean FULL, liquor (and wine) closet. Much of this came down with us from New Hampshire. We don't drink much but when we do, or when we want some on hand for cooking, we like to have it at the ready. We are also in a dry county: as in we have to drive almost as far as Lexington (90 miles and 90 minutes, as I say) to purchase more liquor. This was a new, somewhat quirky concept to me when we moved to Kentucky. So, yes, earlier this summer I bought vodka, rum, and even some local bourbon varieties, to try my hand at vanilla-making.

I wanted to try several varieties, not that it likely makes a difference, so I used
vodka, clear rum and dark rum and the last bit of Woodford Reserve on hand.
[I didn't even think of opening the Maker's Mark for vanilla – sacrilege! Besides, I prefer Woodford.]

As with most things, this process is deceptively easy. The trick is just DOING IT (says the woman who was armed and ready in May to do so)! Also, you do not need six months to age it as I'd thought: two-three months is just as sufficient, or even less according to some recipes. Now I will have plenty of extract for 2012 as well as some holiday gift-giving in less than three months. 

Here's the basic vanilla recipe, followed by my larger quantity recipe:
  • Slice 3-4 beans vertically (but don't detach) and place in 1 pint of bourbon, rum, brandy or vodka
Now, I don't know if the type of alcohol, other than listed above, or the brand, really matters. That is why I am using several different liquor bases to make mine. Also, with the exception of one pint using Tahitian beans (I want to compare bean flavors), I used all Madagascar beans. Because they are larger, I used 3 to 3.5 beans a quart. [You would want to double that amount if using Tahitian beans: some use even more than that.]

Massive Quantity of Vanilla Extract

I have not yet done a cost analysis but I expect it is much cheaper than store-bought:
  • 1.75 ltr bottle vodka
  • 1.75 ltr bottle clear rum
  • 1.75 ltr bottle dark rum
  • 1 cup Woodford's Reserve bourbon (leftover from julep season)
  • c. 24 vanilla beans (mostly Madagascar), or 1/4 pound beans
[Or, three 1.75 litres of the same alcohol variety]

1. Take a small and very sharp paring knife and along a wooden cutting board (so knife doesn't slip), open up the vanilla beans vertically. Places in different sized glass jars or one or two large ones (especially if using one or two alcohol varieties): here would be a great time to use some of those large 1/2 gallon Ball jars! Next time...).

2. Pour in liquor, using ratio found in basic vanilla recipe, above.

3. Cap jars tightly (I use the plastic Ball storage lids and they are perfect here).

4.  Label jars and date them: this is especially important if you are experimenting with different kinds of liquor. [I found wonderful vintage red labels from Gartner at Target last year––they remind me of the vintage ones that you could always find from old label companies.]

5. Place jars in cool dark closet for anywhere between several days to several months (although 4-6 weeks seems the average suggestion). In mid-late November I'll start bottling it up. [NOTE: I love old Classico® bottles which is one reason I buy their sauce! You can actually reuse them for canning because the openings are the same size as small-mouthed canning jars.]

Many recommend, after the extract is ready, to just keep topping off with more alcohol, keeping the beans in the extract as is. Or, you can strain your extract and decant into smaller bottles for gift-giving. [More on this in a few months.] Oh, and I almost forgot: the above recipe yielded me 176 oz of percolating extract: or 5 quarts and 1 pint, or 1 gallon and 1 quart and 1 pint! That's a lot of vanilla.

For the past month I've also been using the smaller Tahitian beans in some of my preserving and canning infusions. So when one of those beans is "spent" I recyled it into vanilla sugar. Just take a pint jar and place used bean (or two) into it, put on tight lid, and let rest on your pantry shelf. Use sugar for dusting baked goods, in tea, etc.

Next on Lifetime®: What Mommy Really Does in the Pantry–The Catherine Pond Story
 My husband will be horrified to see this sink, until he finds out it was only a vanilla bender! 

Once you make and use your own homemade vanilla extract, you won't want to buy store-bought again. It is more affordable, more luscious, more infused. And, you can keep adding to it if you like. It's the extract that never ends.

So here's to holiday baking, gifting to my fabulous baker and foodie friends, and many winter custards ahead ~

You come back when you're ready!


Easy Fall Supper

With all of the canning in these past few weeks and after-school basketball practice and general mayhem around here, I'm starting to wean us back into decent weeknight suppers that are ready by 7pm when everyone walks in the door, or 6pm if an earlier practice. Perhaps the operative phrase would be "weaning myself" into preparing them!

In Lexington last week we got some ground lamb at Critchfield Meats (I now go to Lexington with a large list of supplies, as if we are on a rare wagon train outing to buy and barter in town, which we kind of are: those items we can't find locally––and I do look). I was up there primarily to find some interesting Japanese ingredients for our youngest son's International Food Fest (thank you Hibari Japanese Grocery) and, of course, that invariably led me to Good Foods Market & Café (where we actually got an impromptu sushi lesson!), a requisite stop at Target and the Clinique counter at Dillard's (don't ask: OK, it has to do with a very large age spot on my face––plus it is "free gift" season so you get more bang for the buck), all followed by a marvelous late lunch at Masala out at Beaumont Centre (their lamb rogan josh is divine and, fortunately, my husband agreed: I believe I've now successfully converted my Pond men to the joys of Indian cuisine––baby steps).

There is a fair bit of waste, as with cabbage, but my chickens will be happy!

We could have lamb at least once a week in our family, not including leftovers, but it is still a "treat meat" for us (until we one day, perhaps, raise our own). I usually do a roast and then a curry with the leftovers. This week I decided to make a traditional Shepherd's Pie using ground lamb instead of ground beef. Our oldest son Henry loves Brussels sprouts, as do I. It is also an easy vegetable to prepare. We had some apples around and we're trying to avoid bread, so here's what I did. Dinner was ready and on the table within an hour plus.

Prep Work

The often ill-prepared, and misunderstood,
Brussels sprout is one of my favorite fall vegetables.
Le petit choux est parfait!

  1. Peel and start your potatoes to the boil (my youngest, bless him, peeled about 10 medium potatoes for me). I always throw in a hearty dash of sea salt.
  2. Rinse, peel off the outer layers, and chop off a bit at the stem end of the Brussels sprouts (I only buy fresh). Cut them in half.
  3. Place on a buttered cookie or baking sheet and lightly drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and a bit of cinnamon (this will enhance their flavor after they caramelize in the oven).
  4. Set oven for 400 degrees: you can either roast the Brussels sprouts for 15 minutes first, and keep warm, or cook along with the casserole at 375 degrees. Just watch them as they will roast and caramelize quickly.
My favorite kitchen item is my husband's old farmer friend Norris Patch's "spider" (aka skillet).
He purchased it at a New Hampshire estate sale after Norris passed away many years ago.
It's nicely seasoned and everything is delicious when prepared in it: it's a hefty size, too.

Valley View Farm Shepherd's Pie  
~ Serves 5-6 hungry people (or 8 daintier eaters)
  • 10 medium potatoes (or 5 large)
  • 2 medium onions (or 1 large), chopped fine
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 pounds ground lamb (or ground beef, or even ground turkey)
  • 3 Tablespoons flour
  • Beef broth (1/2-1 cup)
  • salt and pepper
  • dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 quart +/- corn kernels (canned, frozen or fresh)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • paprika
  1. While potatoes are cooking, sauté onion and minced garlic in large skillet with olive oil or bit of butter. Cook for a few minutes until translucent. 
  2. Add ground lamb and chop together until well browned, about 5-10 minutes.
  3. Drain fat as much as you can (not necessary but a good idea).
  4. Add flour and stir to make a roux-like mixture, followed by a 1/2-1 cup water with a beef stock cube (or 1/2-1 cup of beef broth).
  5. Season with salt and fresh ground pepper.
  6. Spoon mixture into greased 2 quart casserole or baking dish.
  7. In same skillet, quickly sauté corn in a 1/2 stick of butter until cooked. Add 1/4 cup cream. Spoon mixture on top of the meat mixture in the dish.
  8. Drain potatoes, if you haven't already, and mash (I use an old-fashioned potato masher) with 1/2 stick of butter and 1/4 cup cream. You can add milk, or half-and-half, but make sure it is whole milk! You can also adjust the quantity of butter and cream/milk to your desired consistency but make sure the potatoes will hold their peak.
  9. Ladle hearty dollops of mashed potatoes on top of the corn layer. Spread a bit, as if frosting a cake, and sprinkle potato topping with paprika. 
  10. Bake in 375 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes [you might want to put a cookie sheet under the dish on the next rack to catch any drips that might "spill over" while cooking.]

While Baking

We're trying to avoid dessert and baked goods (note: trying) so imagine my husband's surprise when he suggested I bake some apples and I said, sure! I've never done this before. I've put them into pie, crisp, cobbler, cookies, cakes and bread. I've made them into applesauce and apple butter. But I've never taken a lovely apple, cored it, set it in a buttered dish, spooned brown sugar into it, added a bit of butter, and sprinkled with cinnamon. And that, my friends, is easier than pie! 

You can throw the apple dish (an old Le Creuset gratin dish or pottery casserole baker works great) in with the main dishes to bake alongside. Just take them out when mushy or bubbly. Serve with vanilla ice cream, of course! [I had mine with a small, quite decadent, container of Liberté, a favorite plum-fig yogurt that I picked up in Lexington. Thankfully, it is not sold locally because it is rich in both taste, calories and price. A true treat.]

You come back when you're ready! 


September 25, 2011

'Obsessive Canning Disorder' Much?

Today my daughter asked me on the phone, concerned, "Mom, why are you canning so much?" I had to laugh (not the "heh heh, heh heh" nutty kind of laugh but a real scoffing kind of laugh) because I was reminded of this image, right (internet source unknown), and that my youngest son had asked the same question last week.

You've heard it here, first: Obsessive Canning Disorder. I believe I have discovered another shade of the OCD spectrum, folks, like "Obsessive Cleaning Disorder" which likely afflicts a wider domestic population. Zombies or not, we will have one full larder this winter!

Part of the vast cellar storehouse belonging to some Old Order Mennonites:
as this particular family doesn't have a freezer, they really do can everything.

Here's the main reason why I can stuff, why I like to have food on hand, why I can justify a sense of food hoarding for my family (not to mention that these are difficult financial times and we are trying to rely less upon the grocery store, as well as to buy and consume locally grown food for a number of reasons):
Of course…when I was girl…no self-respecting house was built without a basement and a fruit and vegetable cellar. From the time the first strawberries ripened, usually in late May, until the first snow fell, my mother’s chief household concern was her fruit cellar. By Halloween the cellar was filled. Sealed with paraffin in neatly labeled containers were shelves of rich strawberry preserves, raspberry jam, orange marmalade and blueberries; jars of chili sauce, purple beets and yellow corn; quarts of whole green tomato pickles, cucumber pickles; and crocks of apple butter. On the bottom shelf, lying side by side, were a few bottles of dandelion wine. Buried deep in rich brown dirt, against two of the walls, was a winter’s supply of potatoes, carrots and onions. Two stone crocks, holding dozens of eggs 'put down' in liquid glass, stood against the third wall. To the left of the door stood a bushel basket or two of red apples, filling the small, windowless room with their spicy odor. To the right of the door, on a shelf hand high, was a candle in a holder and a box of matches. Beneath the candle shelf on the floor was a mouse trap decorated with a tempting bit of cheese...Mother was justly proud of her cellar. She spent weeks standing over steaming preserve kettles, often on hot days.”
And then there's Annie Curd, whom I quoted in my book, The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses, who wrote over a century ago:
"Our list of fall fruits is completed; the hard, back-breaking work is at an end, and we feel as if––well, we never wanted to see or taste jelly again. But there are few of us who do not in time regain an appetite for these dainty relishes, and who do not, after a rest, enjoy viewing the array upon our pantry shelves."
from "Fruit Jellies," The Home-Maker, August 1890  

It's part of the seasonal rhythm here: buy local produce or grow it, put it in jars or freezer bags, eat some and store some. I will be grateful this winter when I open up the canning cupboard (we do not have a cellar, alas) and see all of those jars lined up ready to be opened and savored.

And the canning continues: we are in the midst of grape juice, grape jam [here's my recipe from an old blog post at In the Pantry–yikes, almost FIVE years ago!] and maybe spiced grapes over at the cottage and I must return to it. I may even can the contents of my 'what not' drawer (seriously). I promise more blog entries soon with recipes and photos in this realm.

You come back when you're ready! 


NOTE: The first quote, above, was one of many unused, and wonderful, quotes that I found while researching for my book, The Pantry–Its History and Modern UsesI was limited to 100 pages, including photographs, so I found many more delicious quotes than I was able to use. This is from an article that appeared in American Cookery by Jane Hutchin. [“No More Cellars,” by Jane Hutchin, American Cookery, April 1941, Vol. XLV, No. 9, pp. 545-547]

September 19, 2011

The 'M' Word

"The Awakening Conscience," by
William Holman Hunt, 1853, Tate Gallery, London
How could I not thoroughly enjoy an article that began with this paragraph?
"During menopause, a woman can feel like the only way she can continue to exist for 10 more seconds inside her crawling, burning skin is to walk screaming into the sea—grandly, epically, and terrifyingly, like a 15-foot-tall Greek tragic figure wearing a giant, pop-eyed wooden mask. Or she may remain in the kitchen and begin hurling objects at her family: telephones, coffee cups, plates. Or, as my mother did in the 1970s, she may just eerily disappear into her bedroom, like a tide washing out—curtains drawn, door locked, dead to the world, for days, weeks, months (some moms went silent for years). Oh, for a tribal cauldron to dive into, a harvest moon to howl at, or even an online service that provides—here’s an idea!—demon gypsy lovers."

"In the Loge," by Mary Cassatt, 1878
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sandra Tsing Loh, a regular contributor for The Atlantic, has written another brilliant article on the state of the female condition in America today. She is 49 and understands our generation of women: many who have been to college, delaying families because of work or enjoying our 20s (a time which, I might add, I was so into my studies and my own life that I was able to spend time with most of the paintings you are seeing on this blog today), and who are now on the cusp of menopause and likely with teenagers in tow. This is a point not lost on me recently: this defies nature, really, and argues for why we might be better at having and rearing children in our twenties and early thirties for this reason alone. She also notes that in the past, women rarely lived to, or past, menopause.

In her article, "The Bitch is Back," Loh gets to the heart of perimenopause and menopause while visiting the revised version of The Wisdom of Menopause by Christianne Northrup (I have a quite tattered copy of her first edition, written ten years ago). [Before you read any further, do yourself a favor and read Loh's article here. Be prepared for outright squeals of laughter and many upright moments of 'YES!' If you are a partner of a perimenopausal or menopausal woman, you might now be able to understand for the first time "what fresh Hell is this," to borrow from Dorothy Parker.]

Northrup notes that women today "between 44 and 65 are the largest demographic group" in our society and that menopause in that context is a huge cultural event. She offers this "juicy core of wisdom" in her book that Loh seizes upon:
"A woman once told me that when her mother was approaching the age of menopause, her father sat the whole family down and said, 'Kids, your mother may be going through some changes now, and I want you to be prepared. Your Uncle Ralph told me that when your Aunt Carol went through the change, she threw a leg of lamb right out the window!' Although this story fits beautifully into the stereotype of the 'crazy' menopausal woman, it should not be overlooked that throwing the leg of lamb out the window may have been Aunt Carol's outward expression of the process going on within her soul: the reclaiming of self. Perhaps it was her way of saying how tired she was of waiting on her family, of signaling to them that she was past the cook/chauffeur/dishwasher stage of her life. For many women, if not most, part of this reclamation process includes getting back in touch with anger, and perhaps, blowing up at loved ones for the first time." 
"Woo-woo! Duck, Uncle Ralph! Go, Aunt Carol!" Loh gleefully adds and then continues with her own analysis of Aunt Carol:
"Fertility’s amped-up reproductive hormones helped Aunt Carol 30 years ago to begin her mysterious automatic weekly ritual of roasting lamb just so and laying out 12 settings of silverware with an OCD-like attention to detail while cheerfully washing and folding and ironing the family laundry. No normal person would do that—look at the rest of the family: they are reading the paper and lazing about like rational, sensible people. And now that Aunt Carol’s hormonal cloud is finally wearing off, it’s not a tragedy, or an abnormality, or her going crazy—it just means she can rejoin the rest of the human race: she can be the same selfish, non-nurturing, non-bonding type of person everyone else is. (And so what if get-well casseroles won’t get baked, PTAs will collapse, and in-laws will go for decades without being sent a single greeting card? Paging Aunt Carol! The old Aunt Carol!)"
Sandra Tsing Loh is one of the best writers working for The Atlantic today (and Corby Kummer, of course, and the occasional and great illumination from Christopher Hitchens). But Loh gets my age group––she is our kind (at 49 she is virtually my age––well, in another month).

"Louise Nursing her Child,"1898, is one of Mary Cassatt's
beautiful pastel depictions of motherhood.
 [And, for the record, I loved breastfeeding my children.]
I've often contemplated the rise in "Mommy blogs" and domestic-related blogs in recent years. What exactly are we doing here? Are we trying to prove to the world, or to ourselves, that we can do it all fabulously? Well, we can't. What you have seen and read on my blogs, which I don't think really fit into one genre, is a product of the best of me, or the part of me I wish to reveal or share on a particular day. They are virtual scrapbooks and travelogues of my life: Catherine's Living magazines, styled and tweaked for your viewing and reading pleasure. Most of the time I am swimming in laundry, fighting off sleep, avoiding dust bunnies and other nasty things in the corner, snapping at a loved one, keeping the dogs from killing the chickens, ignoring the dirt on my mud room floor, losing to my inner hoarder, and basically alluding perfection.

"Morning Sun," by Edward Hopper, 1952, Columbus Museum of Art

But that's all OK, you see, because, according to Northrup and Loh, my real and authentic self is just returning after many years of estrogen-rich dormancy. Yes, I love my family––both immediate and extended––and most days I love my life. However, there are many days where I'd just assume burrow into my room, or a book or my writing and hide. Sleep, when it arrives, is a grand refuge, also, even if it is not as regular as it should be for me to be an effective wife and mother person. This is not depression so much as it is reinvention, a needed cocooning. As I head into midlife and start to loosen the hold of my mothering abilities, I am also letting go of my children, thread by thread, as they become the people they are meant to be. There is still nurturing going on because two of them are 13 and 11. Mothers are always mothers to some extent: some even become matriarchs. As women, we are all daughters but we aren't necessarily all mothers. I can only speak from my experience––but menopause affects all of us. Hormones are not particular.
"Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow," by John Singleton Copley, 1773, Museum of Fine Arts-Boston

"Angel," by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1887
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Most women spend all of their lives pleasing (and even performing) in some form for their parents, their teachers, their partners, their children, their bosses, their grandparents and even extended family, some even for their perception of what would God want. [If you are reading this and you are a Titus 2 woman, you have my support, but also my complete lack of real understanding. My Mennonite friends seem to live by this path but they were born to that Titus walk and know no other. So for those who seek that lifestyle in the 21st century, I applaud you but you also scare me a bit: maybe it's your complete unquestioning devotion to your path. Maybe I admire, but fear, anyone who can be so trusting in a way that seems so dependent on a belief, a way of life, another person. Either way, I do not mean to sound judgmental. Perhaps there is a certain envy in this sentiment.]

"Ophelia" by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-52, Tate Gallery, London

When I was nine or so, and visiting my grandparents' New Hampshire farm on our annual visit from Ohio in August, my mother took nothing but an old comforter and went up to the field and nestled into the tall late summer grass for an afternoon. After some time we were all looking for her and it was disquieting: I'd never lost my mother before. I had always had her in my sights at home. My father said something like, "Now why would Pat do something like that?" [Now I see it as more of a "Honey, where's my meatloaf?" moment a la William H. Macy in the movie Pleasantville.] 

I wandered up to the woodchuck pasture just behind the farm where I saw the adults had gathered. Where the grass parted, I saw my mother sitting there like a quiet doe. My grandmother steered me homeward with a "there there" and I'm sure I had many questions at the time that weren't answered. In recollection it felt voyeuristic finding her like that and that I was intruding upon her time and space. I did feel a sense of temporary abandonment, and a moment of panic, but now I understand why she did that: it was her 'Aunt Carol' moment. Long before menopause had begun, my mother was saying, in her early 30s, this is my space and time and refuge and you can all cope without me for a few hours. I don't know what prompted that departure, because my mother is not a dramatic person or prone to bouts of "Mommy histrionics," like I tend to be when pressed––and I've never asked. But I do understand: her fight or flight instinct had kicked in and she had lost the fight. Mothers need to hunker down in a space of their own from time to time just as they need to be present and accounted for in their children's lives.

"Le Thé," by Mary Cassatt, c. 1880
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
There's nothing wrong with existing to please others, I suppose, as long as we don't forget who we are in the process. But at a certain point we also need to say, why am I doing this and for what end? Am I losing my voice? Is anyone even listening to me in the first place? And God, wherever he is, would probably like us to assert ourselves on occasion and get some sleep. He's not really that concerned with the kitchen floor or how many children we have or how we should best honor and please our husbands. [After all, they are quite capable of doing that for themselves, with our support.] On our death beds will we moan our lack of perfect Mommyhood and domestic allure and "Good Wifey" qualities or will we say "I wish I'd said it all differently, honestly"? And menopause, of all the rites of passage in our culture, needs to be said differently, and honestly. [Try having a conversation with your mother on the subject and you might agree.]

So I say, hey, here's to the "F@#$ you Fifties"! Bring them on!

You come back when you're ready!


NOTE: It is interesting that while Mary Cassatt embraced motherhood in her paintings, she deliberately did not marry or have children so she could pursue her artistic talents. She realized how restrictive a woman's life could be in her era. And yet she wrote: "There's only one thing in life for a woman; it's to be a mother...A woman artist must be...capable of making the primary sacrifices."

I also honor here today the words of a great matriarch in my life, Aunt Sally (and old family friend from my Akron childhood who went to art school and then fully embraced motherhood, as most women did in the early 1960s after college). She once told me: "I tell my girls all the time: you can be anything you want in this life, you just can't do it all at once." No truer words were ever spoken to me because I've realized that we can't do it all, at once. Anyone who thinks they can is fooling themselves. It is humanly impossible. But we can do a lot in life and do it all well in its time. After mourning the passing of my earlier decades I am beginning to embrace the potential of my future ones. The only difference between now and when I was 25 is that time is no longer on my side. Possibility remains, however.

September 11, 2011

Ten Years On

"I remember blue – an infinite sky of clear."

This day honors not only a forever changing moment in our national consciousness but it has also come to define the advent of a chaotic decade in my life––some good, some bad. A week ago I went off an antidepressant I had been taking for 18 months. It was time: I wanted to feel again the full spectrum of myself after some midlife and emotional collywobbles. My timing could not have been better. I want to embrace this period––starting with my last year before turning 50––of my life with full sensory awareness and, if necessary, guns blazing.

Ten years ago we were in our Hancock home with our 13 year old daughter, our 3 1/2 year old son and our nearly 18-month old youngest son. It was the day before Henry was to start preschool and Addie was about to enter 8th grade, her last year at the school she attended. My father-in-law had just passed away a few months before and my own father was about to enter into the last year of his life, dying two days before my 40th birthday in 2002. Of course I did not know that on 9-11. What I did know was that my mother was days away from her third marriage and already I had begun to sense a profound and seismic shift in the world: that it would never be the same in my extended family. It wasn't.

I've moved beyond that reality now but it still haunts me at times, like a bad dream from childhood that, instead of being comforted with the reality that it was a dream upon waking, has become, at times, a waking nightmare. This is my reality through the glasses of an adult: my inner child sometimes still surfaces, I confront the anxiety or the loss, and back in she goes again.

None of my own extended family has died in the past ten years, except my father (but my parents' marriage had ended long before–ironically, this past July would have been their 50th anniversary), and yet we have all, in different ways and choices, experienced the death of that family and the comfort of our familiar with each other. It is gone and it has been gone for some time. It is as if we walk the earth as ghosts of our own past: we all have our own productive lives but they do not intersect. Our time together now seems so far away and remote, inaccessible. It's not just geographical but emotional distancing. All bridges are now out and you can only try so many times to cross them.

There are many reasons for this but I would say that our collective homeplace began to collapse about ten years ago. There has been no rebuilding and there were few inroads to this disaster of personality, misunderstanding, many untruths, subtle manipulations, shuttered distancing, and often outright rejection. We were all in some way complicit in the events or the outcome: a whole colony collapse disorder after the queen had left the hive.

The other day I wrote a haiku to mark how I was feeling about 9-11 in as spare a way as possible. I posted it, as I do many odd quips and quotes, on Facebook. I can not speak for the suffering and experience of others but it encapsulates that day for me and its aftermath:

I remember blue,
an infinite sky of clear:
then mirrors breaking.

When the Twin Towers fell and the mirrored glass shattered on those two iconic and symbolic buildings, lives came tumbling down, and ours did, too, in a more subtle way. Broken shards of mirrors and seven years bad luck. So we have rebuilt here. Three years ago we did not flee our reality but found it, instead. It has been a balm, a comfort, a great journey to find ourselves here at midlife on a farm of our own, in our own lives. It can also be isolating at times, especially during those moments and occasions when you feel the loss of family acutely. I love my extended family. This is said in the present tense. But I mourn their passing, too. I mourn what we once were before the week of 9-11, each and every day.

Lately I've been canning. A lot. It seems to be this instinctual drive of mine to provide, to fill cupboards, to have food on hand. It is comforting and it is also something I can do. I realized this morning that our lives are defined by our days, not by our anniversaries. But days turn into decades and here we are:
It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey...and we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.
 ~ Wendell Berry
Evil comes in many forms and it can be insidious. All the love in the world can not change the opinions––or the ideology––of a few. If 9-11 taught me anything, and at the vantage point of distance and television––like watching an unimaginable disaster movie unfold in real time––it is that as much as things change, they stay the same, too. And really, in the end, all we can control is how we interact with the world, how we move through it, how we treat each other, and what we can do to provide for our family: whether it is in validation, understanding and acceptance, a needed hug, or ten jars of nectarine jam.

You come back when you're ready!


September 10, 2011

At the Weekend: Part Deux

$13 worth of "salvage" British food imports. Of course I grabbed them!
I must have an inner vision board or something when it comes to food, like some sort of culinary conjurer in the night. No sooner had I finished blogging yesterday to go get my boys at school when the following food miracle, of sorts, occurred right nearby in Casey County.

We have a great new discount food store locally: Casey County Discount Foods on Hwy 910 in Casey County [click here for their Facebook page]. I like it because it is a clean, well-lighted place with nice people but also because it is convenient on a well-trod path of ours [and they even sell milk now]. There are a few of these stores around the region and all offer something different. But it would seem that this store has really unusual offerings for which you, if you're like me, would otherwise have to drive, or order, quite a distance. They even have funky discounted organic body care products. Regardless, their inventory is always changing and that's half the fun: what came in this week? [Alta Tucker, the owner, also sells her own Creekside Farm goat's milk soap and local products like my friend Crystal's Casey County honey from Mud-E Acres Farm.]

Hobnobs are good but are a distant second to the original dark chocolate biscuit!
[And the resealable pack makes no sense--they just don't last that long.]

Take, for example, yesterday's blog musings on British food. I hadn't been to the CC Discount Store in a few weeks so decided to see what's new and to get what are already becoming old favorites (like bottled Luzianne Lemon Tea, with sugar instead of HFC: not too sweet, just right, especially while I'm canning). I just about died, yes, died, when I saw several packets of McVitie's® Chocolate Digestives. Not just chocolate, mind you, but DARK chocolate! These biscuits are like a finely milled graham cracker, or "sweet meal," with a luscious coating of chocolate on top––in fact, they'd make excellent some'ores. The very biscuits we used to hoard in our rooms in England and enjoy with a late night cup of tea––what I often buy at more expensive gourmet stores, and online, for $4.50 or more a pack (once in a while). So, yes, when I saw they were $1.20 pack I grabbed up every one in the store (don't worry: there were only six). I have no pride when it comes to such unabashed pantry hoarding stocking!

I was delighted to read this past spring that Prince William's Groom's cake for the recent royal wedding was to be a chocolate biscuit cake made by McVitie's. A man after my own stomach! One weekend while living in London I went home with my friend Bethan to her parents' house in Wales. Her mother made this marvelous midnight treat that included chopped up McVitie's dark chocolate biscuits that was probably similar to this much-touted cake. [I know the recipe is in an old letter, somewhere.]

You rarely see these few, real ingredients 
in American canned soups.
Love the lable, too.
But I digress. I was also able to find a selection of Heinz® canned items that you do not find in this country, except in speciality shops. They are quality canned goods made for the British market. The Ambrosia "creamed rice" we have had before and it's delicious (and is just milk, rice and sugar––it's just the way it's cooked).

Altogether I paid about $13.00 for my British products––a nice treat on the way to get my boys at school. My total bill was about $30 for a cart full of these and other items: most organic, gourmet or unusual condiments.

We definitely didn't need this but I wanted to see if it was as good
as the Ifor Evans dining hall version! And it will go well with plum compote.

Did we need any of this stuff? Of course not. But I'll be glad this winter when I take a can of potato-leek soup from the pantry and share it with my husband for lunch. I might even let him have some of my biscuits.

You come back when you're ready!


September 9, 2011

At the Weekend

"Canning Day" by Janet Kruskamp ~ I could just jump into this image,
just like Mary Poppins and Bert and her charges did in the London sidewalk painting.
Don't you love that expression? The Brits always would say at "University" (instead of 'college') and my friends would say "What are you doing at the weekend?" Often I would hang at my dorm, Ifor Evans Hall on Camden Road, and come up with some sort of grub with findings from Marks & Sparks (eg. Marks & Spencer) from a short walk to Camden Town. In addition to great jumpers (eg. sweaters), Marks & Spencer was known for its fabulous prepared food (this was nearly 30 years ago so I don't know what it's like now). On weekends our dining hall was closed so we had to forage and make use of the kitchens at the end of the hall. We often put together marvelous meals, like our memorable Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a Butterball turkey and American fixings purchased at Harrod's. [Of course Harrod's was the food hall to end all food halls but not always affordable for a college woman who was not given much per diem and saved up for her spending money!]

Back when I had eyebrows and eyelashes and oh, well, we just won't start, shall we?
Sometimes I would be fortunate to go visit friends in the country––new college friends, family friends or people whom friends in the United States and written ahead for hospitality. In those days, of course, these weekends were generally arranged by letters in advance. I still have them all, somewhere, as well as the memories tucked away (like sleeping in the small upper bedroom of a medieval English farmhouse in Hawkesbury Upton, swaddled in long underwear, a flannel nightgown, flannel sheets and a giant down "puff" –– and a warm cuddly hot water bottle that my hostess, the Dutch mother of one of my mother's dear friends and former employers, handed me as I climbed the stairs –– I have never had a better sleep!). Weekend days were spent touring the countryside or ambling along many of its footpaths, or parts of the Cotswold Way, often eating hearty pub lunches along the way. Yes, I've always been a country lass at heart.

I never found English food to suffer from its bad reputation (which I understand now is quite in the past): I loved the stodgy gravies, the crispy potatoes, the custard-laden desserts, the afternoon tea fare, the Scotch eggs with seeded mustard. When I wanted affordable prepared whole foods I would go to Cranks in Camden Market. They had the best apricot crumble and wonderful whole wheat cheese scone sandwiches with a bit of butter and lots of sprouts. I have their original Cranks Recipe Book, from many years ago, and once in a while I replicate those treats at home.

Our dining hall food was a bit lackluster (no salad bars in those days and 'salad cream' on what did constitute a salad - blech!) but the memory of a sweet plum or apricot crumble, gently warmed and slathered in Bird's Custard is comfort "nursery" food at its very best. Of course, my homemade vanilla custard is far superior to Bird's––anyone's is––but there was just something about it. My friends and I––mostly Brits but some Americans, too––would linger over our dessert in long conversations with our requisite cups of tea.

See what I mean?

12 quarts of plums await jamming!
So, all of this blather because of a plum: a luscious cache of Stanley plums that I won at the Casey County Produce Auction yesterday. I will blog about those soon, and what I have done with the purple, plummy little testicles (OK, that's what they look like!).

And here is what I plan to do "at the weekend":

  • Corn relish (today, in fact)
  • Plum Jam (perusing books and internet for recipes)
  • Canned plums (I have 12 quarts so I can't can all of it)
  • Shred large zucchini for the freezer
  • Make vanilla extract with vodka (and some with rum)
  • Stuff more peppers for the freezer (the last of them!)
  • Take Henry basketball gear shopping
  • Check out the Nancy yard sale with Eli
  • Hit the POST OFFICE at last after being sick for a week (it's also in the completely wrong direction from where we head most of the time)

Here's what I'm planning to cook:
  • Buffalo steaks thawed from the freezer (a gift from Cousin Ben)
  • Macaroni salad (new recipe I want to try from Heartland by Marcia Adams)
  • Tomato salad (with some of Anna's heirloom tomatoes)
  • Leftover chicken curry and rice (tonight, after a busy canning afternoon)
  • Something plummy: likely a crumble and/or a plum küchen (with custard!)
  • Prepare something exotic with the beef heart and tongue in my fridge (if my boys will let me!)

I promise a catch-up with recipe blogs, soon, after I catch-up with the can-a-rama that has engulfed my cottage kitchen for these past few weeks. The rainy cooler weather has gotten me feeling all fallish and kitchen-bound.

So, stay tuned and "bonne weekend!"

You come back when you're ready!


September 6, 2011


Front Porch, Lincoln, Vermont,  1940, photo by Louise Rosskam.
For more information on this WPA image from the Library of Congress archive, click here.

Here's what's been happening around the farm:
  • more canning (nectarine jam, and peaches tomorrow, with Anna––and beach rose hips on route from Cohasset, MA!);
  • it's been raining steadily and gently for three days now. Blessed, blessed rain which "droppeth...from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." [Thank you, also to Wm. Shakespeare for Portia's soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice. And thank you Tropical Storm Lee for your leavings.] 
  • for Labor Day weekend we all got late summer colds, care of back-to-school time––I haven't had a cold in forever (thank you zinc supplements––well, at least for the past two years or so, until now);
  • our cattle have now been moved to our 50+/- acre knob pasture: after three hay cuttings this summer we let it grow up again for fodder for our 100+ cattle for about six weeks––they seem very happy today;
  • I am now officially a basketball mom––this somewhat disrupts our afterschool schedule but in ways that we can work around (I'm just sorry that Casey County Zumba classes do not meet at the same time as basketball practice!);
  • and, there is so much happening in the region and in our lives in the next eight weeks that I need a day just to figure and plan it all out––and to update our local produce/agritourism blog, GROW Casey County, with events and more regular articles for the weeks ahead [this will happen after peaches tomorrow].

When Anna comes to do peaches tomorrow, her husband Melvin (our friend and pantry-shelf builder extraordinaire––and yes, I still need to blog about my new cottage pantries!), will be coming to put more shelves up in a closet at the doublewide. All of these recent canned goods need a place to be, so a closet in our extra room will be converted for all manner of jars and supplies––in addition to what I have on hand at the cottage. When you have no cellars, you must improvise! So can I just say that new closet shelves make me about as excited as, well, a new pantry?

As much as we have been blessed with this much needed and continuous gentle rain here, we are also reminded of nature's fury in Hurricane Irene. While it did not deliver the punch that was just about promised to coastal regions of the northeast, it has devastated parts of inland New Jersey and two regions we know quite well: the Catskills of upstate New York and most of Vermont. Quiet rivers and creeks turned into raging, angry torrents that engulfed entire village centers, swept away historic bridges, and forever changed lives, landscapes and historic structures. 

Our daughter has been on the front lines, just north of Wilmington, Vermont, which is a disaster area, where she works at a four-season resort. She is grateful to have her home, job and everything else but has also been dealing with the sorrow around a drowning death of a coworker and watching many friends and colleagues and local people displaced by the storm. Frustrated, often entitled, tourists and wedding bookings gone awry have been the least of her problems. As I told her, these kinds of events test one's mettle. And she's got a lot of mettle. We hope to see her here again in Kentucky before the busy winter season kicks in up there.

I'd forgotten how much I have missed rainy days: for the excuse to be indoors, doing paperwork, or planning, preparing more interesting comfort-foodish meals. We haven't had this kind of weather, or any rain to speak about, since last spring. And after the intense several month heat of our Kentucky summer, we're all ready for the autumn months and a quieter winter here on the farm––and more writing and blogging, too.

You come back when you're ready!