"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

June 14, 2013

"Just Sit at Your Desk and Write"

A Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This is what my husband always says before––and after––I've applied for each of the thirteen jobs for which I've been well qualified––with no interview (not one).

"Just sit at your desk and write." 

Even though there is laundry. Even though there are meals to prepare. Even though there are happy boys haying and swimming and tracking in endless piles of farm dirt. Even though the house is always generally a mess. Even though we are moving, at last, into our farm cottage in the busy middle of our farm, from a more commodious, but stifling, doublewide across the road.

So yes, there is still the "stuff" and there is the refiguring of the boxes and the storage issues as we await our once and future farmhouse.

There is still no DSL (which is why I do not blog as much as I would like to do).

But there is a desk. There are many pens. There is much paper. There are computers. There are summer breezes sailing over the knob even on the hottest days and into our farm cottage. There are cattle lowing and birds chattering. There is bountiful broccoli and other emergent plants. There are full pantries and freezers.

And there are words––always the words.

"Just write," he says, partly from exasperation––perhaps because he knows me better than I do myself. Or maybe he is just weary of being a cow-man with a perimenopausal, somewhat haphazard, farmwife.

"We are a team. Just write."

And so I shall.

You come back when you're ready! 


June 6, 2013

A Hymn to Mrs. Butterworth's®

My Mrs Butterworth's® Tryptych, along with a painted version, and an
"Aunt Jemima Breakfast Club" button (I'm embarrassed to share the price).
Mrs. Butterworth's® keeps appearing in my life. Last week I posted about baking a cake in her name so I thought I'd elaborate a bit more about my obsession. As a child in Akron, Ohio, I was intrigued with her brown glass, apron-clad, bun-wearing visage—and in the television ads I believe she even spoke. We were a Log Cabin® syrup family and it wasn’t until we moved back to New Hampshire that I truly began to appreciate the wonders of real maple syrup. There we watched it being boiled down each March (it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup) and had it drizzled onto spring snow (most sugar houses serve this with a popsicle stick—for twirling your maple “candy”—as well as dill pickles and old-fashioned donuts). Any cook worth their syrup knows that most stuff sold as “maple syrup” is actually just glorified corn syrup with caramel coloring and artificial maple flavoring—even the Cracker Barrel® restaurant chain has started cutting their real Vermont maple syrup with the fake stuff. [Since moving to Kentucky we import it each year, or buy a case when we visit, from Carol and Bill Eva at Longview Forest Products in Hancock, New Hampshire.] We certainly appreciate the locally-made sorghum, too, boiled down at Oberholzer’s in Casey County, Kentucky each autumn, but it’s just not the same thing on pancakes or waffles or French toast.

Like the fictive Betty Crocker®, Mrs. Butterworth's is a product—an ad agency conjuring of homey goodness. Here is the guise of a nice plump woman who is so caring and kind that she’ll whip up a batch of pancakes or waffles in no time—perhaps the less multi-cultural echo to Aunt Jemima® (who, I don’t believe, ever had her own matronly-shaped syrup bottle). I assume that every kid wanted a Mrs. Butterworth in their childhood kitchen—a beguiling presence during a time when many of our mothers were starting to work outside of our homes. Buttery, syrupy, sugary down-homey comfort—a nanny in a brown glass bottle. When you grow up to learn that all artificial ingredients and refined sugars are bad, you consider, too, that Mrs. Butterworth's® is just diabetes in a beguiling bottle. As children, we don’t even think about these things and as adults we should know better. Yet, as a store-aisle icon, Mrs. Butterworth's® is right up there with the best of them. [The Jolly Green Giant® and Mr. Clean® aside, because they both scared the hell out of me—yes, I am clearly a child of television and was highly influenced by advertising, even if most of it was in black and white until we got our first color television in the very late 1960s.]

Our neighbor, Mrs. Emily Wirth, in Akron days, was a great comfort cook. She liked to make fried chicken and waffles when we were invited for dinner, served with a side of buttered corn and delectable currant scones (I still have that recipe). For some reason, I began to associate her with Mrs. Butterworth's®. It may have been because she made doorstops out of the amber bottles—filled with sand and outfitted with crocheted aprons—or that she was a kind and welcoming woman who loved to cook and provide love to everyone around her. The wife of the assistant pastor at our Presbyterian church, she was prayerful, genuine, and full of laughter—and she was my mother’s best friend during some difficult times. She was my first exposure to someone who had been “born again” and I admired her belief and her faith especially because she lived what she believed. I know she would have taken in total strangers or homeless people—and maybe even did—and fed them chicken and waffles. There was always someone in her kitchen and you just wanted to be near her. [I recall her—and her faith—with great longing because she was never the disingenuous kind of believer that is all too common in today’s world.]

A few years ago, at a yard sale in Kentucky, I had to buy Mrs. Butterworth's®—three original bottles in three sizes. [I call this my “Mrs. Butterworth's® Triptych” and she/they live in their amber-glass idolatry on a shelf in my cottage kitchen—I don’t know about the Renaissance artists, but Andy Warhol might have appreciated them.] I picked up another during the same annual Highway 127 yard sale—only she has a painted red dress, a cream apron and cream-colored accents. The modern Mrs. Butterworth's® bottles are now made of plastic and she has had some kind of makeover. I’m not impressed. [My husband wasn’t impressed, either, that I paid $8 for three c.1970 fake syrup glass bottles. But he knows me well enough by now to just say, “Oh, isn’t that nice, dear,” while quietly gnashing his teeth.]

You come back when you're ready!


June 3, 2013

Sunday Evening Supper

A week or so ago, we stopped to see our friends Melvin and Anna in Casey County. We don’t get over there as much any more since our boys started going to school in our own county. Now it is a rarer treat to do some shopping in the valley at the Mennonite stores and produce places and to visit with friends. [As a point of references, Kentucky counties—all 120 of them—are large in area: we live on the western edge of Pulaski County and one of my dear friends here—also on a new farm created out of someone’s former, idle homeplace—lives clear across on the western side of Casey County—and we are a 45-minute drive apart (if you take the shortcut, that is). Diana grows amazing heirloom tomatoes, by the way, at MeadowBrook Farm—they will soon be available at a variety of vendors in Lexington and at a specialized market forming in downtown Somerset, Kentucky on Saturdays.]

My son and I were waiting in the car—Anna wasn’t home—and I heard Melvin’s booming voice, “Catherine, get in here!” I thought, uh oh, what have I done now? [Melvin, like my husband, can be a big tease—and quite funny—I often say they are “twin brothers from different mothers.”] So in we went and there was my husband, and Melvin, in full visitation mode, at the kitchen table (we were only supposed to stay a few minutes as I had produce in the trunk and chores to do).

“Pull up a chair and have a piece of cake!”

You don’t have to ask me such a question twice. We gathered around the table and tore into a beautiful sheet cake that Anna had prepared. I thought that Anna would be pleased to learn later that Melvin was such a gracious host in her absence.

We ended up talking and visiting for some time and Melvin showed us some old Casey County News clippings he had cut from a cache of papers a neighbor had given him—going back to the 1960s. After a bit Anna came home, walked in the back door, and, for some reason, didn’t seem too glad to see us.

I realized it was the cake—we soon found out that she had baked it for a Sunday afternoon youth gathering and there we were, sitting around smiling and laughing, with almost half a sheet cake gone. As a home baker myself, I know how crestfallen I would be, and so I was the first to ask about it (I also like to know when or why people are mad at me so I can remedy—or try to—the situation). So, long story short: I insisted that I bake her another cake—it is called “Mrs. Butterworth’s Cake” and calls for that syrup. We were then invited to join them for supper with the youth from the church—who gather at different houses on Sunday nights (ages 17-21 years) to play volleyball, have a meal, and hymn-sing into the late evening.

On Sunday we arrived around 5pm to a fully set table for twenty. The young people were playing volleyball. A cooling breeze, after a humid and stormy morning, filled the kitchen as Anna and I put food into many serving dishes and poured cold spring water into glasses. Anna had prepared “Poor Man’s Steak” (another favorite dish), a rice casserole, homemade crescent rolls, a Jello salad, from-scratch caramel pudding and strawberry cheesecake. I brought a large spinach-strawberry salad (with local strawberries, at last!) and the remade sheet cake. It always amazes me how much food is served at large Old Order Mennonite and Amish gatherings—and how effortless it seems (and leftovers are rare).

After the dishes were done (many hands truly make light work), the day faded into twilight and we talked on the porch and in the house. The youth gathered around the large kitchen table and sang hymns after supper—a cappella—from hymnals that they brought. There is something lovely and moving when hearing a group of young people—or any people—just breaking into shared song. We don’t see this too often outside of church in our own culture.  Their singing has a less melodic, shape note quality and I realized that they have probably never heard recorded music or musical accompaniment. So the melodies are learned and passed along by others in their community.

As I looked out across the fields, I felt the embrace of the westerly wind after the morning storms. We were surrounded by song and praise—with a background chorus of evening birdsong—and two people who have become dear friends to us in the past five years. How could I not feel grateful and blessed? I savored this reality, in quiet benediction, and I smirked to myself when I realized that this is exactly the kind of interaction we are missing when we post on Facebook or “tweet” something into the universe—or even blog about trivial, useless, or important, things.

E.M. Forster wrote in his novel, Howard’s End: “Only connect.” How prophetic he was at the turn of the last century—even then, the modern age was presenting a certain sense of disconnection. The writers and artists felt it first as they are always the empathic pulse of the zeitgeist. [Not long after we met about ten years ago, one of my best friends back in New Hampshire gave me a copy of Howard’s End—I hadn’t read it in a very long time. Edie reminded me of that line and I’ve been saying it, as a mantra, ever since.]

So, back to that cake. On Friday, I brought home the phone-book sized cookbook from Anna’s kitchen—one I’ve not seen before so I’ve been furiously copying recipes out of since: Kitchen Capers by Jean Donovan [Shelbyville, KY: 1985]—and had at it. The cake actually has a pancake-y flavor—likely the yellow butter cake paired with the syrup flavor. Only I used real, 100% maple syrup (which provides a much better and authentic maple flavor)—and I used real butter (and, as I didn’t have any fresh orange rind, I added a liberal tablespoon of Grand Marnier). I think even Mrs. Butterworth would approve.

Mrs. Butterworth’s Orange-Pecan Cake

1 cup butter, softened
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ½ cups Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup
6 eggs
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
3 tsps baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup orange juice
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 Tbsp grated orange rind

Cream butter until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar. Add ¾ cup of the syrup and beat until well-mixed. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add dry ingredients alternately with ½ cup of the orange juice. Mix in grated orange rind and nuts. Pour batter into a greased and floured 13x9x2 inch pan and bake in 350 degree oven about 1 hour or until cake tests done.

Topping: Heat together the remaining syrup and juice and pour evenly over hot cake while it is still in the pan (I poked holes in it, first). Garnish with whipped cream or orange slices, if desired.

[Original recipe from Mrs. G.C. (Irene) Brown, Shelbyville, KY.]

You come back when you're ready!