The Best Life If You’re a Pig

Pigs don’t have many choices in life. They are at the mercy of their owners and keepers, and I’d guess many of them would wish for a trade if trades were possible.  I would also venture to say that the vast majority would do anything pigly possible to have the life that Tracy’s pigs have. Do these pigs look happy or what? Okay, maybe they just look curious. There’s something about those noses that’s hilarious and remarkable at the same time.

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I’m not sure pigs could have a better life than these. They have oak trees dropping acorns all through their spacious, wooded area and freedom to root around all day finding those acorns and whatever else pigs consider yummy among the fallen leaves of this time of year. They have a huge enclosure made with movable fencing so it is, yes, moved around, which is better for the land, better for the pigs, plus a change of scenery (maybe they notice!). Oh, hey, this spot has great dirt!

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Their summertime life along the tree line let them pick shade or sun, assuming pigs can pick. Compared to most pigs, this had to feel like they had the whole state of Virginia to roam around in.

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It’s pig paradise. Check out their big bathtub/pool, which is clean only until the moment one of them gets in it mainly on account of the adjacent mud hole for slopping around in.

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You can’t tell so much when they are muddy, but one of these pigs has a few spots and one is mostly plain. I noticed it when I drove by the other day and they had been moved to the woods near the road.

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The spotted one reminded me of Chester the Worldly Pig, a fictitious, determined, clever creature created by Bill Peet in 1965 and among my favorite children’s books. Chester resented his lot in life. “Of all things,” grumbled Chester, “why on earth did I have to be a pig?” Does his face look annoyed?

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“But before I end up as so much sausage and ham, I intend to try and amount to something.” But what? To solve his problem, he did what we all do (or should do) when we have a problem, he thought long and hard about it. He “turned this around and around in his head until one day it came to him: ‘I’ll be a star in the circus!’” Chester perfected his nose stand and waited for the circus train to go by and see him.

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His plan failed because the train passed by with its shades drawn, so he ran down the tracks until he came to the big top, jumped on a post, impressed them all and got himself a job.

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But as you might imagine it didn’t work out. Sometimes things don’t work out. First they put him in with the lions and terrified him, then they dressed him up like a baby so Roscoe the clown could wheel him around in a doll buggy.

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It was beyond humiliating, so he took off first chance he got. A bear thought he’d make a great lunch,

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but then so did a bunch of hobos. That’s Chester in the bag next to Red Beard.

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“I’m the one that caught this pig,” red beard roared above the noise of the train, “so I’m keepin’ him all to myself!”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” bellowed black beard. “It’s share and share alike! That’s the rule!”

“And rules is rules,” growled gray beard.

“I’m breakin’ the rules,” roared red, “so what can you do about it?”

Chester barely escaped with his life. He resigned himself to his fate, the “at the first barn lot he came to, he turned in the gate to give himself up, and the farmer greeted the stray pig with open arms.”

 “To the farmer’s delight, after a couple of years Chester ballooned into a huge blimp of a pig; and one morning the happy farmer said, “Today this little pig goes to market.”

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Now if you’re a child looking at this farmer, are you thinking What a nice farmer! or He got himself a lot of free pork! Or Poor pig! Is his face happy in a jovial kind of way or happy in a greedy way or happy in a didn’t-I-get-lucky way? That’s the thing about art, right? Even children’s art. Contrived as the representation is, you are still free to interpret it with your own experiences and biases weighing in. In fact, it’s practically impossible not to. From the beginning, Chester is painted as a survivor. And now we all know what the farmer is going to do.

Or we think we know.

It’s just like when you watch a movie the second or third time and you see things you didn’t see the first time. Once you know the outcome, you wonder how you missed the important clues. It was plain as day even in the first scene, but I missed it, and you probably missed it too.

On that very same morning a carnival van stopped at the farm, and out of the cab stepped a dignified white-whiskered man with a broad-brimmed hat and a fancy frock coat. He had stopped to buy fresh eggs, but when he saw the huge pig he forgot all about the eggs.

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“What will you take for your pig?” he asked. The farmer thought for a minute, then named his price, which was at least twice what he figured the pig was worth. And to the farmer’s surprise, the man didn’t so much as bat an eye; he counted out the money and the deal was closed.

After the pig was loaded aboard and the van drove away, the farmer had himself a good laugh. “So he thinks he’s bought the world’s biggest pig! Why I’ve seen at least a dozen bigger ones at the county fair.” But if the fellow had gone to school long enough to study geography, he’d have known that Chester was much more than just plain big.

Here’s author Bill Peet, who worked as a sketch artist at Disney Studio on such films as Pinocchio, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty and authored of 35 books, plugging a good education. In the end, Chester’s grit – despite what we all know happens to pigs in this world – led to an ending where everyone wins. The farmer got a good price, the white-whiskered man got “The One and Only Worldly Pig” and Chester got the fame he hoped for.

“Now if you will please move in a little closer,” said the white-whiskered man [to the crowd in the carnival tent], “you will see the entire map of the world imprinted by nature on this remarkable creature’s enormous hide. On his left side, the continents of North and South America, including the land of Australia, which is down under, of course.”

The crowd gasped in amazement, while Chester oinked in surprise. He was as amazed as anyone.

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“But that’s only the half of it,” said the man, turning the pig around on his revolving platform. “On his right side we find Europe, Africa, and Asia, and for good measure, even that tiny island of Borneo. So you see, my friends, this amazing pig is truly one of nature’s wonders…”

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Last week as I passed Tracy’s property and saw her pigs in the woods – and one of them is spotted! – how could I not think of Chester and the good life that some pigs get? There’s a lot we can’t do anything about, but many people do what they do in highly admirable ways. Hats off to Tracy! What lucky pigs she has!

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Half a Piece of Pie

In the past few months, at least two new pie shops have opened in Charlottesville. There’s something about a good piece of pie, and everyone has their favorite. Or do they? Is cherry better than apple better than blueberry better than key lime? Oh, better than pumpkin?? I had to make a decision today at Quality Pie.

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This pie shop’s selection includes the basics. I looked in the glass case and asked the nice young man to tell me about the cherry pie. “Bing cherries,” he said, “that’s all I know.” Okay, fair enough. I like bing cherries. How about the crust? “All butter,” he said, “unless it’s for one of the savory pies. Then I think they use lard.” All butter works for me.

Their prices were decent too.

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I make pie myself. I love to make pie. But when cherries come into season, I do not think of making a pie with them because they are so good all by themselves. So, yes, the cherry pie called my name. It was wonderful. Hat’s off to the baker at Quality Pie.

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One bite into my very delicious piece of pie, I remembered another piece – half a piece – that made a great impression on me. This half piece came from a pie I made myself when I was still in college at Rutgers University (Douglass College back then, a part of Rutgers). I was living in a small apartment and invited a friend to come for dinner. I don’t remember what I made for the main part of the meal, but for dessert there was pie.

It was good pie. You’ll have to take my word. I served Penelope her piece and served myself as well, and we kept on talking, having a lovely time. Then something remarkable happened. When she was halfway done with her piece of pie, I mean when there was half a piece of pie still on her plate, she put her fork down.

She put her fork down and did not pick it back up again.

I was 20 years old and confronted with something new. Who doesn’t finish a piece of pie?

We kept talking and I tried to ignore this bizarre turn of events. Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore. I turned into my mother and said, “Is something wrong with the pie?”

She looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, it’s good. I’m just full.”

If she had stood on her head or told me she would turn into an alien if she ate another bite, I could not have been more surprised. Full? I thought. Full? Sure… but… too full to finish a piece of pie?

“Oh, okay, just making sure,” was all I said about it.

Never before had I encountered anyone stopping because they were full. In my house, growing up, you finished what was on your plate regardless. You were grateful. You had vague notions of starving children somewhere. You especially finished pie!

This was a monumentally earth-shattering, life-changing concept for me, I can assure you. In front of me was Penelope, not an ounce of fat on her, politely putting her fork down because she was full. In my mind I saw my family, many of whom (including myself) either on a diet or about to be on one, always finishing what was on our plates. I understand this is a very small sample size and a very unscientific way to draw a conclusion, but I saw that the person who put down her fork when she was full even if she was eating pie was by all appearances healthier than the people I knew who put down their forks only when their plates were empty even if they were full.

I won’t lie. I had a hard time throwing away Penelope’s uneaten half. No chickens in my life then, nothing to do but throw it away. But another thought occurred to me. Penelope was listening to her body in a way I had never done, never thought to do. Her body was telling her to stop, and she listened. I had always listened to my mind, to the words that had been said to me so often: Finish what’s on your plate. Period. No conditions here. No if’s. Just finish. It’s wasteful if you don’t.

But (I now thought) if my body is telling me I don’t need it, if I’m full but I eat it anyway, isn’t that wasteful too, in its own way? Isn’t that asking my body to waste energy doing what it wouldn’t have to do if I didn’t burden it with food it doesn’t need?

Thus began a profound shift in my thinking about food. I still didn’t like having to throw away the half piece of pie, but what if I had given her a smaller portion to begin with? What if I had not assumed what her portion would be and had perhaps asked her how big a piece she wanted? (This too was a foreign concept – a piece of pie had a size, a set size. You didn’t mess with these things.)

What if I had asked her? She might have said Just a sliver please. And there would have been no pie in the trash.

What if I asked myself? What if I thought about my own portion instead of robotically taking what seemed a normal amount? What if I thought about, gave even a few seconds thought to, how hungry I actually was and adjusted my portion? What if I listened to my own body?

I had a full course load that semester in college and was working three different part-time jobs. It was a lot of juggling. And now one more thing to think about, one more thing on my plate! I can’t say this experience brought about an immediate change for me – old habits die hard – but Penelope taught me a great lesson that slowly worked its way into my own eating patterns. Sadly, I lost track of her after graduation and therefore can’t thank her for the part she played in helping me be more reasonable about food. But I wish I could.

A is for Applesauce

For as long as I can remember, I have made applesauce come fall. It’s a signal of the season change, when my best descriptor of the air is “crisp” and my thoughts turn – without intention – to hunkering down and getting ready for the colder, shorter days of winter. It’s fundamental to our primal instincts to get ready for scarcity of food, even if we don’t have to worry about that at all. Applesauce is one of those pure foods that’s good warm, cold or icy, all by itself or next to a slice of pork roast or a potato pancake.

It’s simple. You wash the apples, cut them up, put them in a pot with a little water, let it cook down, press it through a strainer, add some cinnamon if you want, and enjoy! I’ll take you through it step by step.

Amazing apples make amazing applesauce, so start with apples as fresh and crisp as possible and as local as your location allows. I am fortunate to live 20 minutes from a well-established and super impressive family farm that specializes in heirloom apples. https://www.albemarleciderworks.com/

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One day last week I happened to be going right by there, so I stopped in for 40 pounds, my usual portion when applesauce is the goal. (Forty pounds fills three canvas shopping bags a bit more than half full each, in case you wondered.) Normally Albemarle CiderWorks has five or six long folding tables set up along the outside wall of the barn with a box of each kind of apple, one after the next, in a long row on the tables. (There’s a good photo on their web site showing this.) They have small paring knives and paper plates and descriptions of each apple set out in front of the boxes, so that you can sample them and decide what you like best.

But last Thursday it was raining and all the apples were in cold storage. I was escorted into that living-room-sized refrigerator and chose fast! Cold storage is cold!

Different apples are picked at different times, and different apples are best for different purposes. Applesauce naturally comes out best when you use apples that are best for cooking. For me that means they are very firm and a bit tart, which is as technically descriptive as I can get. Last year I got one called Black Twig that was extraordinary, but it comes late in the season and was not available yet. Virginia Gold and Liberty looked good to me in the ten, very cold seconds inside the fridge that I allowed myself to contemplate this decision, and the woman helping me confirmed that they would make great applesauce. Pack ‘em up! Done! Homeward I drove.

Yesterday, following too much rain this past week, the ground was too wet for the final grading in front of the house, so we thought maybe it would be a good time to get the oak clapboards on the coop. That job has been sitting all summer on the back burner while we waited for the wood to be milled and got involved with other things. We had barely started measuring and cutting boards when raindrops came again, so we turned our attention to the basement, more specifically to making order in the basement. A lot of stuff got moved to clear the space in front of the interior wall of the foundation that needs repair, and that stuff had been put here, there and everywhere. It took a couple hours, but all is decently in place now. A bunch of stuff is in the trash.

Then it wasn’t raining anymore, and the coop siding beckoned still. But before heading out, I decided to get the applesauce going. Look how beautiful they are in my sink.

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I rinsed them off and stared at them a bit, admiring their gloss, their unique colorings – every Liberty with slightly different transitions from reddish to greenish, every Virginia Gold with different splotches and spots of brown. I have to admire them before I cut them up. It seems the respectful thing to do.

But once you start cutting, you just cut. The little ones you can quarter, the big ones in sixths or whatever is quickest. Seeds and skins stay; stems go in the compost or trash.

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I can’t be overly specific regarding quantities here because it’s entirely up to you how much applesauce you want to make. Take out a big pot (I used my five-gallon pot) and put about half an inch of water in the bottom of it. Put your cut-up apples in the pot until you can’t fit any more. Mine looked like this.

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Cover the pot, turn on medium and walk away. Go read a book or put siding on the coop. With the lid on top and the water in the bottom, those apples will just steam and get soft. After about an hour I took a break from the siding and checked on them; mine were doing what they are supposed to do: reducing in volume, steaming away, looking like this.

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Yours might take a little less time if it’s a lesser quantity. (What makes me think that not everyone is going to fill a five-gallon pot? You can make a smaller amount, but after you taste it, you’ll wish you made more!) The apples need to cook down slowly, and all they need is time and heat. Give it a stir at this point if you want, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t.

After about two hours it reaches the point of mushiness where you can easily stir it with a wooden spoon and make mash by doing so. By this time the aroma of apples fills your home and you wonder why more people don’t cook.

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See the mash around my spoon? With a few more stirs, it all looks like that and you can spoon it into the strainer that you have set up in a bowl.

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Except for the skins and seeds, it’s applesauce now. Why not just peel and core them before cooking them? You can, but that process is tedious and time-consuming, and you lose more of the flesh of the apple that way. I do not have that kind of patience, much as my chickens would love the extra apple they’d get. And these apples are precious to me – I want as much of them as possible going into my applesauce.

Now all you have to do is press the applemash through the holes of the strainer with the back of a spoon. A Foley food mill works well for this too, if you have one of the older models. I found the newer ones problematic and more trouble than they are worth. My sister Lynn loves her Foley food mill; if I still had my old one, I’d probably love it too. But we get used to things one way or another. See what works for you.

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Note that the holes of my strainer are not super tiny. They are big enough for the sauce to go through pretty easily, but not so big as to allow the seeds through. Every now and then scrape the underside of the strainer.

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I discovered quickly that my bowl was going to fill up too fast, so I switched to using my Dutch oven as the bowl underneath. Then when the level of the applesauce reached the bottom of the strainer, I transferred the applesauce to the bowl.

Keep pressing applemash against the sides of the strainer until all you have left is skins and seeds. It will look like this.

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Scrape out the seeds and skins from the strainer into a separate bowl (this is great for your compost or your chickens!) and start again.

With the quantity I made, I added cinnamon each time the bowl became full (instead of waiting till it was all strained through and then adding cinnamon). Now that I think of it, I suppose you could put cinnamon sticks in the pot with the cooking apples, but oh well, maybe next time! I can’t tell you exactly how much cinnamon to use. It’s like salt and pepper: Add what seems right to you. I used about two teaspoons per three quarts of strained applesauce.

I love the swirl of the cinnamon getting stirred in.

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You can put your applesauce in a container and put it in the fridge to eat soon, or you can put it in mason jars and can it in a hot water bath, or you can freeze it. I think freezing is best. It’s easy and allows for icy applesauce at some point down the road.

Quart-size ziplock bags work great. If one person holds the bag open and another person spoons it in, that’s ideal. If you are by yourself, try putting the applesauce in a large measuring cup with a pour-spout or a small bowl with the same, and holding the bag with one hand and pouring with the other. A wide-mouth funnel can be good too. You can also freeze in jars as long as you allow a good inch or so of air space for expansion, otherwise the glass will break. (And you don’t want that!)

I had filled my five-gallon pot to overflowing with cut-up apples and ended up with about ten quarts of applesauce and three cups of seeds and skins which my chickens enjoyed tremendously. Always keep a little out for enjoying fresh.

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Oh, and if you think your applesauce is too watery, just cook it down a little more after you’ve removed the seeds and skins. That’s how you get apple butter – it’s just way-cooked-down applesauce. It might take another hour or so to cook down. Turn off the heat when it’s as thick as you like. In the meantime your house is blessed with apple aroma again! Some people add sugar too, at the end. That’s your call.

For those who are wondering how you get icy applesauce, just thaw one of your frozen bags or jars to the point where you can break the applesauce apart with a fork. Stir until desired smoothness. Oh yum!

And the coop — I love the siding! Claudia calls it a chicken castle! More on that soon 🙂

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Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange

I know there are people in the world who would feel, as I do, a twinge of sadness the day after a storm splits the gigantic chrysanthemum.

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Or who wish they could wander out to the garden to pick fresh oregano and purple basil for the homemade pizza about to go into the oven (see the basil in the box behind the rosemary?). Or who would like to make applesauce together from freshly picked heirloom Virginia apples. I suspect there are people who have some time – a few weeks or a few months – to explore a corner of the world that is surely different in some ways than their own and who wonder about my corner of Virginia.

I’m thinking this is Not-Your-Average Cultural Exchange.

There’s always something going on around here: planting, harvesting, building, cooking, baking, (eating!), trying, creating, discovering, resting, marveling, playing, listening, digging, watching, learning, discussing, fixing, pondering.

There are my various gardens with herbs, vegetables and perennials. I’ve moved the azaleas in between the crape myrtles in front of the fenced garden. Turns out, the neglected bush that just got dug up in the front corner of my house was actually two bushes. This photo shows them moved, with their fresh dirt around them, but not yet trimmed, staked or mulched. I did that later in the day, after taking the photo. I had to take the photo when I did, and you see why. I did not ask little Coco to park herself there to enjoy the sunshine…

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We have got to do something about the blackberries that are going crazy inside the garden, and the tomatoes could be pulled and winter crops planted. The asparagus bed is none too tidy, begs for attention. One of the rudbeckia got smashed somehow and needs a little love. The front yard is a mess from the recent Big Dig, but soon we’ll be pouring footings and building a nice front porch.

My two custom-built chicken coops provide palatial accommodations for 29 interesting (some bordering on ridiculous) chickens. They need new mulch or straw when they’ve scratched through what we put down before, but they give lots of amazing eggs to make good food with! My lone araucana isn’t laying her greenish eggs any more though – could there be a reason? This black copper maran had a face-off with Coco yesterday. Both have curiosity, but the chicken less so. She just wants to get back to scratching in the straw. A white silkie came toward us to investigate.

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When the sun rises on a day with too much cloud cover, and it can’t quite get its rays to stream through the giant trees in my back woods, there’s always an otherworldly feeling and sometimes a glorious mist that sparkles on the leaves or in the air.

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When the wind kicks up such that those trees can’t help but engage in a wild dance, it’s a sight. The not-so-manicured trails through the woods are a pleasant walk leading to the beaver pond with its lodge and dam. The beavers keep making their pond a little bigger. I don’t get down there often enough.

When a fox trots in a wide circle around the coops, wishing (you know it!) that there was a way to get to those fat and surely delicious chickens, it doesn’t know how its red fur shines in the sun. When guests stay at my gorgeous Airbnb cottage, they just might see a mother bear and two cubs walk through the yard. A few weeks ago, someone did.

Recently I was in Seattle and met several enthusiastic, capable au pairs. I got to thinking that some people who would like to come to Virginia for a little while (but don’t necessarily have a friend here already) might prefer a household without small children, and might prefer a country setting. They might enjoy getting to know the plants that grow in this climate, or the way we lay decking boards, or the vibe of downtown Charlottesville, fifteen minutes away. It’s a vibrant university town with great restaurants and shops, exhibits and lectures, sports and music events. The Presidential homes of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe are all within half an hour’s drive.

Over the years I’ve had short- and long-term visitors many times and would love to share my little piece of the world with some new friends. If you are thinking it’s a good time to do such a thing and have a little interest, you can let me know.

Brilliant Sheepdogs, Clueless Sheep

The next time you think you are up against an impossible task, compare it to getting three sheep to move through a series of obstacles on a 25-acre hillside. Sheep are not the brightest animals (clueless is the word that comes to mind), but the border collies that guide them through this competitive course are brilliant, fast and oh so determined to be successful.

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It isn’t every day you get an “open” trial of the US Border Collie Handler’s Association practically in your backyard. When you do, you go see this amazing spectacle. Tracy and I drove about ten miles to Edgeworth Farm, knowing almost nothing about sheepdog trials except that it involves sheep, dogs, a person giving commands (whistle and voice), a great big open space and some sort of timed challenge.

It’s a challenge all right. We stood looking out on a huge field that is roughly triangular in shape, in the middle of one flat edge (at the bottom of this drawing)  looking toward the far point that was more than 400 yards away. That’s where the sheep start (the xxx at the top). I am not going to get a prize for drawing, and there are surely inaccuracies in this, but the obstacles and the route the dog has to take looks about like this.

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The dog starts with the handler at the dot near the bottom, opposite the three sheep (the three xxx’s at the far opposite end of the field), a spot called the outrun. The dog has to run around to the left toward the outrun, approach the sheep from behind, “lift” them (get them moving in the right direction), then make them go through the middle “fetch” panels that are seven yards apart, veer around and then up through the “drive” panels, go across the field through the “cross drive” panels, go toward and then through the “Maltese cross” from one specific entry point all the way through (they are not allowed to go out the sides of the cross), then into the pen. The dog does not have to close the door of the pen; the handler does that and also can help guide the sheep through the cross.

The sheep do not want to do any of this. Therefore please also note: My lines are relatively straight, but the sheep zig-zag all over the place, and the dog zig-zags behind and around them constantly. The sheep clearly have absolutely no idea what’s going on. They just want to go home, back to the barn, back to the food, back to the safety of their many other comrades who, unknown to them, are also three by three having to go through this same inane exercise.

Oh and by the way, this whole course is 12 minutes!

A very nice man named John stood next to us, also watching. His wife is a handler so he goes to these competitions all the time. The way he explained it, there are two main things to know about sheep. 1. Sheep assume safety in numbers so they stick together. But that doesn’t mean one of them might not “squirt” (his word) and separate from the rest randomly. 2. Whichever way the sheep’s head is facing, that’s the direction they are likely to move, so the dog has to get them facing the right way.

In this trial, the dog had to keep all three sheep together throughout the course. Sometimes, in other competitions, one or more sheep will be marked with a bandana or something, and the dog has to purposely separate that one or two from the rest and then get the unmarked group to go through the panels or into the pen.

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The photo above shows the dog and the sheep approaching the fetch (middle) panels and gives you an idea of how huge the field is. (I am not using a zoom lens.) You could barely see the sheep up near the trees when the dog was first released from the handler at the beginning of the trial. That black and white blob above the right-hand panel is the dog and the white blob in the middle is the three sheep, all clustered together, surely wondering what on earth they are doing running down this field and why this annoying creature is pestering them to do it!

John said the sheep are constantly deciding which is worse: the annoying dog always behind them that won’t leave them alone (so they continually try to get away from it) or the scary obstacle (gate, pen, etc) that the annoying creature is trying to make them approach and go through or into.

Next time you have to choose the lesser of two evils, remember these sheep! You can see them eyeing the “Maltese cross” with great skepticism (below), but that bothersome dog is still behind them. Why won’t it just go away??

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The dog has to sometimes coax, sometimes drive, sometimes wait. The handler whistles or shouts voice commands but can’t do that too much. Until the dog gets to the cross with the sheep, the handler stays at the starting post issuing commands from there. The whole thing is not only timed, but point-based. Each obstacle is worth a set number of points. Getting the sheep through the fetch panels – from the starting point (the outrun) through the first (middle) set of panels is worth 20, for example. It is not only getting them through that matters, it’s how the dog gets them through.

Didn’t your mother always say: It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it! or, It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!

The rules are specific, though with a good bit of subjective judging required. Regarding that first part of the course, the USBCHA rules for international competition read as follows:

5.2.3 Lift

  1. At the end of the Outrun, the dog will either come to a full stop or merely slow down.
  2. The dog’s approach should be smooth, cautious and steady.
  3. The dog will take control in a firm and quiet manner.
  4. The dog should not rush in and startle the sheep nor should it lie back and require numerous commands before getting its sheep on the move.
  5. The lift should be smooth and balanced where the sheep move away in a direct line to the first obstacle.
  6. Judges should use their personal knowledge of sheep and sheep dogs to determine whether a lift has disturbed the sheep unduly and mark accordingly.
  7. Judges will deduct points for excessive commands, slowness, etc., at this point of the trial.

Several things strike me while reading through this. First, you try getting sheep to move in a direct line!! C’mon, sheep, you know you don’t want to just stand there. See that nice set of panels? God only knows what’s on the other side of them, but you know you want to go straight toward them and then right on through! Sheep have no idea whatsoever what a direct line is.

Second, “…whether a lift has disturbed the sheep unduly…“ – trust me, the sheep look very disturbed! Why is that infuriating dog behind us all the time??

Tracy and I watched eight or ten dogs try to do this course. Two or three got the sheep through the first (fetch) panels. One of those got the sheep through all three sets of panels (fetch plus drive plus cross drive). ONE! (This shows the “drive.”)

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One of them (a different one) got the sheep to go through the cross (in the right entry point and without squirting out the sides). One of them (yet another) got the sheep in the pen at the end. This is hard!!! The sheep don’t want to go in the pen! Damn dog! Make it go away!

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These dogs — and the people who train them — are remarkable. It struck me as its own world, a community of people and dogs who love this challenge, who work tirelessly to outwit and overcome the small-brained decisions of a bunch of sheep. It was highly entertaining and I’m sure is very hard work. The dog tries so hard! The sheep are so dumb! And when it works, when the smart, fast, skillful dog causes the dumb, jittery, unpredictable sheep to go where they are supposed to go, it’s so exciting, you cheer! Well, you quietly cheer because you are in such awe. You wouldn’t want to disturb the dog’s concentration or add any random noises that might add confusion. It’s hard enough!

Bobbe’s Granola, a.k.a. 5K Granola

For 22 years I lived in Vermont – made my own bread, homeschooled my kids, wore Birkenstocks year-round. I was a Granola Mom and proud of it. As you would doubtless expect, I also made my own granola. At some point my friend Bobbe gave me her recipe, and I made it and tweaked it and gave it away many times since. For a few years I even got to serve it to runners and walkers (along with little yogurts) at the annual 5K fundraising event our local hospice organization held at Keswick Golf Club.

Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, Virginia, has all my admiration for the outstanding job it does of ensuring that no one in this community dies alone or in pain, and that the families of those with terminal illnesses get the help they need too. I loved helping with the 5K every spring. Four or five years ago, thinking of my granola, I suggested that at a 5K, we should have food that the runners will remember. You want them to come back, to choose your race instead of some other race. Every event like this has banana halves and orange smiles, and lots of them have donated waters and bagels. But who has yogurt and homemade granola? It worked! The runners loved it!

Last year this amazing group of women, led by rock star Melba Campbell on the far right (who, for those of you who see the balloons, was also the birthday girl that day), raised more than $176,000 through this event that included just over 300 runners and walkers – a phenomenal ratio of dollars to runners. Every single volunteer contributed heart and soul, and I could not be prouder to have worked alongside them.

5K 2017 group photo.jpg

But a funny thing happened this morning. I took out my cookbook to look at the original recipe, you know, just in case it was in Bobbe’s handwriting, which would have been very cool, but instead the handwriting was mine. She must have dictated it to me. Too bad, a missing piece of authenticity. Nonetheless, I laughed to see, right there in blue ink on an old index card, the very technique I thought I had “discovered” only a few years ago, the critical step, the “secret” to making the granola crunchy but not overcooked! Yes, it was a piece of humble pie for breakfast. How did that happen?!

It happens when you have made a thing many times, so many times that after a while you don’t look at the recipe because the ingredients and steps are all in your head. You begin to feel comfortable with eyeballing the quantity of, let’s say, the cinnamon, you use a different kind of wheat germ instead of the kind you always used, you decide you like it a little darker so you leave it in the oven longer – that sort of thing.

One time a few years ago, while working long days at the hotel, the glass, gallon-size jar that I keep my granola in was empty and I didn’t want to delay making a new batch any longer. Because of my schedule, I made it late that night. By the time it was done and I had turned the oven off, I was super tired. Eh, I’ll finish it in the morning (meaning I’d take it off the pans then and put it away). And off I went to bed. The next morning as I positioned the spatula at the edge of the pan to begin the process of breaking it up for transfer to said jar…

scraping.jpg

… I heard a different sound, a sound like crunch.

Words are great and they come in very handy for a lot of communication. Pictures add tremendously to the understanding of anything. But sounds! Sounds have their own benefit. When something has sounded a certain way all along, and then suddenly it sounds different, you pay attention. I deduced, from the sound that morning that sounded like crunchy, that the overnight stay my granola had had in my oven had pulled more of the moisture out of it than if you take it out of the oven after it’s cooked and let it cool on the counter. It was drier, crispier, crunchier. I loved it! I was elated!

This was a breakthrough, and I had my crazy work schedule to thank for it. The granola was better in yogurt, better in milk, just plain better. When Lori Woods, one of the exceedingly competent and dedicated hospice workers, asked me for the recipe last year, I included in it:

Bake at 375 until the tops get brownish, which takes about 25 minutes. I happen to like mine a little on the darker side, but the shade of brown is up to you. When you have decided it’s right, turn off the oven but leave the pans in there. I found out by accident that leaving the pans in the oven overnight to cool slowly allows the residual heat to pull any excess moisture from the granola and gives it (and allows it to keep) a wonderful crunch if stored without fruit in it. 

See that part: I found out by accident…? I did! At least I think I did! But maybe I didn’t. Maybe the very clear instruction on the original recipe came out of deep storage in my brain, came right up to the front and presented itself anew. Here it is, see it? Plain as day: Turn oven off & leave in overnight.

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Now I know you think the moral of this story is: Every now and then you should look at the recipe! Yes, that’s part of it. But something else interesting happened this morning. When I took my pans out of the oven, having baked the granola last night and left it to dry overnight, as I pushed the edge of the spatula along the bottom of the pan to loosen it up, I did not hear the crunchy sound as usual. It sounded, well, softer. This story is NOT unfolding as it is supposed to!

Food is funny that way. It does not always cooperate the way you expect it to. Boxed cake mixes used to have alternate instructions for people who live at high altitudes (probably they still do, I haven’t bought one in a long time). This is because, for one thing, the air pressure is lower and foods take longer to cook. I never lived at a high altitude but if you did, it would make sense to pay attention to that.

I have never seen alternate instructions for hurricanes or other weird weather situations, but I think maybe, just maybe, the excessive humidity in the air right now because of Florence affected my granola, even inside the oven. Could it be? For several years now, I’ve done the overnight method. Why this time is it different? Lucky me: I have another batch to compare with mine.

Mom wanted to make some too because Jerry is a big fan of this granola and he was running low. (Poor man, must keep him well supplied.) She made it herself a few weeks ago and it didn’t come out right, so I made a batch together with her yesterday morning and then a batch of my own when I got home. This was great not only because I could spend some fun time with Mom, but also because I could see the process through the eyes of someone who was new at it.

Start with these ingredients.

ingredients.jpg

Specifically,

1 large round container old fashioned oats (42oz, 1.2kg, which is 15 8oz measuring cups full in case you buy your oats in bulk packaging)

1 ½ cups shredded coconut (this 7oz bag was a little more than that, I used the whole thing)

1 cup wheat germ

½ cup flax seed meal (optional)

1 cup brown sugar, light or dark

2 tablespoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

Several points to note.

  1. Old fashioned oats are better than quick oats for this.
  2. You might like your granola sweeter or not as sweet. You can add some more brown sugar, or use less. You can use unsweetened coconut.
  3. Your wheat germ might be toasted or some other variety. Fine.
  4. I use flax seed only when I have it. Mom had it and wanted to use it.
  5. There are no nuts in this list. There are two reasons for this. One, I do not eat nuts. Two, if you eat nuts and want to add them, it is best to do them after the granola is baked and cooled.
  6. There is no dried fruit in this list. If you add the dried fruit before baking, you will end up with fruit that is hard as rocks and hard to chew. Put it in later.

My 8-quart, 14” dough bowl works well for this amount of ingredients. I brought mine to Mom’s because she doesn’t have that big a bowl. She said to add to these instructions that you might want to either use a big pot as a big bowl or cut the recipe in half so that you can use a smaller bowl.

Mix all of this together well in a very large bowl. Make sure you break down any brown sugar or coconut clumps at this time. Fingers or the back of the spoon work well.

Once the dry ingredients are mixed together, add 1 ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (or whatever cooking oil you prefer) and then 1 cup honey (local is best, you know what they say about it being good for you). Measuring the oil first, then the honey in the same measuring cup, helps your honey not stick so much to the inside of the measuring cup. When you have added both, stir it up carefully.

I loved stirring it all up using this beautiful hardwood spoon that my son Bradley made for Mom years ago. The very tools we cook with evoke good emotions sometimes!

stirring (2).jpg

Once the mixture looks well mixed, which is to say de-clumped, divide it between two 12×18” pans or the equivalent. These have a nice standing-up edge and that’s important against spillage. The silicone mats are underneath, but you can’t see them. Bradley made that fish cutting board too, by the way.

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We preheated Mom’s oven to 375 and left the pans in there for 25 minutes. The top pan got browner than the bottom pan.

dark and light, cooked.jpg

Both are acceptable. You make it however dark you like. The original recipe does say a 300 degree oven, oops, I also see today. Maybe I got impatient somewhere along the line and upped the temp. Either way, it bakes, and you decide how brown you want it.

Do note that brown corresponds directly to crunch. The browner, the crunchier, regardless of residual oven heat. Getting back to the humidity question, Mom’s granola turned out crunchier than mine despite the humidity and I think this is because hers stayed in the hot oven longer. She mixed up the darker and the lighter before putting it away and got a very acceptable result. SO… maybe it’s the combination of length of time in the oven (how much it cooks in the first place) plus length of time in the residual heat plus the (random, uncontrollable amount of) humidity in the air.

All right, so you mixed up the dry, stirred in the oil and honey, de-clumped, spread in pans, baked for 20-25 mins, turned the oven off and let it sit overnight in your oven. The next morning, use a spatula to loosen the granola from the pan and use your fingers to break up the larger pieces. Now either put it directly into jars or tins to store without dried fruit and/or nuts, OR combine with the fruit and/or nuts now and then put away for storage. I store mine without fruit. IF you store your homemade granola with the dried fruit mixed into it, the dried fruit will put some of the moisture back in it and your granola will be softer. Adding nuts before storing the granola should not affect the moisture the way fruit does, but I cannot be sure about this. The 5K race day fruit was dried cranberries, cherries, cut up apricots and golden raisins; use whatever you like and quantities you think are appropriate. Almonds, walnuts or pecans are good I’m told, but I cannot be sure about this either.

My favorite combo in a cereal bowl is equal parts granola and Grape-Nuts (which contains neither grapes nor nuts, but that’s another story) with some dried cranberries on top (dried cherries on special occasions or to treat myself). I use the Grape-Nuts because the flavors and textures combine well and it helps to stretch out the batch of granola, meaning I don’t need to make it as often (which was super important back when I was working ten or so hours a day at the hotel). Mixing some granola into plain yogurt with a little bit of strawberry jam is also very nice…

Granola makes a great gift because it keeps well and looks nice in a tin or a mason jar or a clear plastic bag tied up with a bow.

 

 

Best Onion Soup Ever

I never planted onions before, but this year I went big: one hundred sets each of white, yellow and red. I never planted rosemary with success before, or thyme at all. But these essential ingredients for the best onion soup ever all grew well this year. I know this isn’t the fullest rosemary bush in the world, but for me, it’s phenomenal.

rosemary.jpg

The thyme might look like a weed, but those perfect little leaves strike joy in my heart.

thyme.jpg

Onions, well, onions sit in the dirt. They are a mess when you bring them in and put them in the sink to clean them.

garden onions dirty.jpg

But what’s inside the mess is glorious. They glisten like jewels.

garden onions clean.jpg

I learned how to make onion soup when I was 16. That year, I wanted to make a trip to Germany to meet Claudia. She and I had been pen-pals since we were 12, having met through my great aunt Lina, who was her father’s cousin and my mother’s aunt by marriage. Claudia used to say that she and I were related “around nine corners.”

Here we are during that trip, posing with two other (closer) relatives between us on top of a mountain we hiked in what I think was the foothills of the Alps. (Claudia, help me here, what mountain was that?) I didn’t plan this Onion Soup post to fall on this date, but I’m so glad to be able to say: Happy Birthday, Claudia!!

Claudia and I 1977 hiking (2).jpg

This ties to my onion soup because I needed money to pay for my trip. For the nine months before my trip, throughout my senior year of high school, I held a weekend job at a French restaurant called Picot’s Place. It was there that I observed the chef making onion soup week after week. I have since made it myself countless times the same way he did. I LOVE onion soup, and I have never been disappointed in how mine turns out. Somewhere, I got the right kind of crocks long ago, and have always made it with the bread and melted cheese on top, the way it is often served in restaurants.

Nothing wrong with that. Well, except for how difficult it can be to eat it with the cheese adhering to the bowl the way it does, on and under the rim. And sometimes, when you get it in a restaurant, they put too much bread in there which soaks up all the broth, or sometimes too much cheese so that you are eating just gobs of melted cheese before you can get to the soup.

This past weekend, at the Inn at Mount Vernon, I had onion soup that was BETTER than mine. Not only was it better, it was better in a way that I thought I could duplicate, so I did, thinking there might be some onion soup fans out there. How was it better?

  1. The onions were cut up smaller than you often get it, meaning we did not deal with trying to get long floppy pieces of onion onto our spoons.
  2. It had been thickened! Never had onion soup except with a clear broth before, and this change was amazing.
  3. The bread-cheese on top was cheesy croutons – bread cubes on which cheese had been melted prior to simply putting them on top of the bowl of creamy, rich soup.

I promise that the fact of it being a nasty, rainy day this past Sunday at Mt. Vernon and our being finally inside, out of the weather, and into the warmth of the dining room had nothing to do with how good the soup was. On any day, this soup would be judged (by me, anyway) as outstanding.

For my version, I started with that bowl of onions above, minus the red ones, which turned out to be 5 full cups of chopped onions. Chop them as fine as you want. I asked Samuel to cut them up, which was rather a pain because they are so small and therefore it took a long time. All I said regarding what size to chop them was “not insanely fine,” which he interpreted as meaning the size could fall anywhere in the huge range of possibilities between no-longer-whole and minced. I realized my communication error, my inexactitude, when he asked me to confirm that he had judged “not insanely fine” correctly, which he realized he hadn’t when I simply stared at his pile and did not verbally approve in a glance.

All to say, cut them as big or as small as you want. Just don’t leave them whole.

Put the five cups of chopped onions in a large pot (my Dutch oven came in handy again) along with a stick (1/2 cup, or 113 grams) butter. Turn this on low and let it cook for about 45 minutes, stirring now and then. It will look like this in half an hour or so, but leave it a little longer, about 15 minutes longer, on real low for those onions to get super soft and transparent. They are like gold to me.

sauteeing.jpg

Next I veered from onion soup tradition and added half a cup of flour, and stirred it in, making a pasty roux. Making a paste like this is the basic way to thicken something without ending up with lumps. Stir that flour in (a whisk works well) till the paste is smooth, then add four cups of chicken broth/stock and stir it up again. Then add four cups of  beef broth/stock and stir again.

That’s 8 cups of liquid total, and I split mine between chicken and beef broth because that’s how I was taught. You can use all chicken stock, homemade or purchased, or vegetable stock, or all beef stock or whatever combination you want. You can use 8 cups of water plus 8 bouillon cubes (4 chicken, 4 beef) if push comes to shove and that’s all you’ve got.

Then add half a cup of cooking sherry. I was running low and had only a quarter cup of cooking sherry so I added another quarter cup of this fine port, which is possibly why it turned out to be the best onion soup ever. I cannot be sure.

port.jpg

If you happen to have a bit of leftover pork gravy from a roast you recently made, or beef or chicken gravy, feel free to put that in. I had about half a cup of pork gravy. Whether this contributed to it being the best onion soup ever, I also cannot be sure. But I think maybe.

Then add your herbs. My handful for this pot of soup looked like this. I picked the parsley because it looked so pretty, thinking I might use it in the soup, but I have never put parsley in onion soup, so in the end I used only the rosemary and thyme. (The parsley came into play later with chicken piccata.)

herbs.jpg

Quantities of herbs: If using fresh, use the leaves of five 6”-long sprigs of rosemary, plus the leaves of five 5”-long sprigs of thyme. (I am trying to be exact here. A little more or less will be fine.) If using dried, use 1 ½ tsp each of rosemary and thyme. In my pot after adding the herbs, it looked like this.

herbs in pot.jpg

Let all of this cook for about an hour on a low simmer. That means the heat is high enough for there to be some bubbling along the edges of the pot but not a full boil. Salt and pepper to taste.

While all those flavors are working their magic in the pot and the soup is becoming delicious, you can make the croutons. Choose bread you think would make good croutons. A small baguette or a firm white loaf will work. I would avoid anything with seeds. I happened to have this lovely darker bread in my freezer, which might have had some rye flour in it, but I don’t know because I didn’t make it. It was small, only about 5 inches across.

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I let it thaw, then cubed it like this,

bread cut up.jpg

then put the cubes on a cookie sheet, buttered them with a little melted butter (with a brush as you would butter corn on the cob), then sprinkled parmesan cheese on them. The butter is both for flavor and to help the cheese stick. You could probably use a different cheese like cheddar or swiss, as long as it’s finely grated.

bread with butter and cheese.jpg

I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and baked the croutons for 20 minutes. Then I turned the oven off and left them in there. Leaving them in as the oven cools draws more of the moisture out of them and makes them crispier without being darker. Finished they looked like this.

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They are marvelous and would be marvelous on almost any soup, but on/in the onion soup, oh my!

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We were all in heaven. Samuel used four verys to describe how good it was, as in “very, very, very, very good.” I told him I’m not sure he ever used four verys before about anything I’ve made, and he said something to the effect that he was too overwhelmed with how good the soup was to bother with finding better descriptors.

The superlative soup found yet another use this morning. When making myself some scrambled eggs, I used a slotted spoon and took up some of the onion/herb part of the refrigerated soup and heated it up in a skillet. Then I added a handful of spinach chopped up a bit. Let that cook a couple minutes till the spinach got soft. Then added my two beat-up, positively orange-yolked eggs. How many verys? I’ll let you guess.

Corn Muffins at Their Best

There are some foods I just don’t buy except at the height of their season. Corn on the cob is one of them. I read a great post by Shaun H. the other day about Grilled Sweetcorn (https://catchmeonthewater.com/2018/07/21/grilled-sweetcorn/) and then saw the best looking fresh corn at Yoder’s (Madison, Va) the next day. Yes, need to try that. We got a dozen ears, followed his instructions for removing the silk, soaking the ears and grilling till slightly blackened, and oh how heavenly it was. Thank you, Shaun. The leftover ears I shaved clean with a sharp knife, then put the kernels in the fridge for another day, not having any idea what would become of them.

corn

I love a new day and the ideas it brings. At the moment I have two little granddaughters in the house, Rise and Eppie, ages 5 and 4. “What shall we have for breakfast, girls?” In that moment I remembered three things: the fresh corn in the fridge, my wonderful recipe for Johnnycake (a.k.a. Cornbread) and another recipe I got from an Amish cookbook for “Unconventional Cornbread.”

I vaguely remembered that the “unconventional cornbread” recipe included corn as well as cornmeal. It had been a long time since I looked at it,* but I recall it had other things in it, bacon even – undoubtedly good, but more than I wanted to bother with at the moment.

Keep it simple. How about just a handful of the fresh corn in the cornbread? Use the tried (a hundred times) and true cornbread recipe and add the grilled kernels.

You can always tell which of my recipes date from way back. They are the ones that include shortening crossed out and replaced by butter. Early on, I just copied recipes from wherever I found them and generally followed them to the letter. But it didn’t take me long to discover that butter is far superior to shortening in all but a few applications, so I made corrections. Rule of thumb: Err on the side of butter.

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This recipe is great for two reasons: 1. It’s simple and comes out great every time and 2. the maple syrup. I lived in Vermont for 22 years so I got used to the real stuff. If at all possible, use the real stuff. It is so much better there is hardly a comparison with the product called pancake syrup.

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir them up. A wooden spoon works great. I don’t beat the rest separately, but feel free to follow the recipe. I just mix the dry stuff, then break the eggs onto it, pour the milk and maple syrup onto it and start stirring as I add the melted butter. Stir only enough to blend. This is important. Lastly, if you have it (find a way to have it!), add some fresh corn recently grilled and shaved from the cobs. I think I added about half a cup, maybe ¾ cup. The batter them looked like this, kinda lumpy, just right.

batter

To make things easier (and fun) for the girls, we used paper muffin cups inside my tins. They loved wearing their aprons, helping to stir the batter and having the job of putting the papers in the tins.

paper muffin cups

This amount of batter was perfect for twelve muffins, which baked to a golden brown and smelled soooo yummy.

muffins in tins

The jar to the left is my homemade strawberry jam, which in no way conflicted with the corn, in fact enhanced it. I also put honey and of course butter on the table. The muffins needed a basket for serving, and we were ready.

muffins in basket

I tried to capture the steam wafting up from the hot muffin in this next photo – you might see it, but I don’t. I also know that a photo can’t capture the sweet scent, the waiting jam, our hungry bellies… It was almost 830am by the time we were sitting down, the preparation process taking slightly longer when two little girls are involved – not that I would trade this time with them for the world!

inside of muffin

I haven’t had a good corn muffin in a long time. These were both new for me – never added corn to that recipe before – and beyond good. Outstanding texture, perfect moisture. I’ll make them a time or two again before that stash in the fridge is gone, and then most likely I’ll wait till next year for a repeat. I don’t mind a bit having something so delicious only in its season.

Naturally there were a few crumbs left on the plates when we were done, so guess who else got to enjoy some of this delicious breakfast: chickens! I think they like it too.

crumbs to hens 2

*In case you are interested in the “Unconventional Cornbread”

unconventional2 (2)

 

 

Pink Hands

I love the story of the Little Red Hen. You know the one where the hardworking and foresightful Hen goes through the steps of growing wheat. She asks three other animals on the farm – the Cat, the Pig and the Duck in the version I remember – to help her plant a grain of wheat she found. She says, “Who will help me plant the seed?”

“Not I,” said the Cat. “Not I,” said the Pig. “Not I,” said the Duck.

So she does it herself. She continues to ask for help with harvesting, threshing, milling and baking, and the other animals continue to refuse to help. Finally the bread is ready to be eaten and they sure do want to help with that! Too bad! They didn’t want to help with the work, so they don’t get to enjoy the reward. The Hen shares the bread with her happy chicks.

Today was Harvest Day at Golden Hill. The beets and carrots have been doing what garden vegetables generally do if you leave them alone. (Anyone who has harvested a baseball-bat zucchini can relate!) I just didn’t get to it before now, can’t imagine why. But the beets had pushed themselves pretty much out of the ground and the carrot tops had dried up.

Here are the beets in their bed in May, in June and today:

beets in Maybeets in June (2)beets in ground 2

And the carrots in their bed in May, in June and today:

carrots in May (2)carrots in June (3)carrots dead tops (2)

See what I mean? I’m an amateur in the garden, but this I know: It’s time to harvest. And I had little girls happily helping me!

First we did the carrots because you have to pull harder. Little girls get tired, so let’s do the somewhat harder thing first and save the easier task for later. I loosened the soil and exposed those gorgeous orange tubers.

carrots in ground 2

Eppie didn’t want to get her hands dirty with pulling carrots, so Rise helped with this. Eppie put them in the box. Well, some of them. She found other interesting things to look at in the garden, including two worms. I wonder sometimes if some children never get to touch real worms…

carrots pulling Rise.jpg

How fun it was for Rise to pull up some pretty big ones!

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Eppie was more impressed with one that was curled. And with the ants whose home we evidently disturbed. “Look, sister!”

look sister!.jpg

 

The ants were none too happy but they will figure it out.

ants alive!.jpg

We got two boxes full of carrots, smoothed the dirt for the next planting, and said Wow! as we looked at our harvest. Rise said we should make carrot soup for dinner. We’ll see about that, but how wonderful that she is not only helping but also thinking about what to make with them.

carrots in boxes.jpg

Onward to beets. So much easier. You don’t have to pull at all, but practically just lift them out of their nice bed,

pulling up.jpg

 

and twist off the green leafy part (that’s for the chickens).

separating beet from green.jpg

 

Beets are fun. Look what you get besides beets – pink hands!

pink hands.jpg

I like making little girls happy. I like making chickens happy. Look at the box of greens behind the box of beets! I know we could eat the greens too, but you have to draw the line somewhere. All those lovely beets make me so happy I can let the greens go.

beets.jpg

 

The chickens were soon very happy!

Well, each in their turn. The photo below shows the brahmas, cinnamon queens and Rhode Island Reds, which I have been lately calling Group A – will someone please help me come up with a name for this group?! They got theirs first – the beet greens and a few tomatoes that the garden turtle (remember him?) chewed off half of because they were lying on the ground because someone (I wonder who) didn’t get around to staking up the tomatoes very high either.

happy group A.jpg

See the silkies and black copper marans (Group B for Bantam?) looking through the dividing wire, longing for theirs. Hey, where’s ours? Patience, patience!

Ah! Good things come (usually) to those who wait. The chickens like the tomatoes better than the greens. But I guarantee that those greens won’t last long either.

happy silkies.jpg

I think I never had a harvest of beets and carrots like this. Never so many. How blessed am I to share the experience with these lovely young ladies! Later in the week we might plant some more carrots and beets in these beds so that there will be a fall harvest. Something tells me I’ll have two good helpers!

 

 

When I Grow Up

As we left Lyn’s house in Vermont last week, she handed me a jar of cookies, homemade maple cookies, homemade by Lyn herself of course. My heart warmed on seeing that jar, wrapped up pretty with beautiful, delicious cookies inside. It was my jar and she was, on the surface of it, giving me my jar back. This past winter, I had used it to give her some of my Virginia applesauce. In Lyn’s book, you don’t return the jar empty, or the container, or the plate, or whatever was used to give you a gift of food. You give it back with something yummy. It’s a thing. It’s a wonderful thing.

cookies from Lyn Boyce.jpg

This is Eppie, who might not remember this jar of cookies, but I hope she will always give something back in a similarly beautiful way. I hope when she gets older, she meets a dear lady who becomes for her as Lyn has been for me.

Lyn B2

This is Lyn. I want to tell you what she did to my stove. In my early twenties, our first house had an old electric stove in the kitchen that was, well, gross. It’s one thing to make a mess yourself and clean it imperfectly, but someone else’s mess, someone else’s baked-on spills, someone else’s goo dripping down that narrow space between the side of the stove and the counter – that is just gross.

The man we bought the house from had left a tea kettle sitting on the back burner, which succeeded in hiding the fact that there was no coil under it. Discovering the missing coil and realizing his deception was disappointment enough for me to have talked about it, and in telling the story, I must have mentioned that the stove was not exactly appealing in its present condition. I might have used the word gross. Lyn said to me, “I will come and clean your stove.” Being five months pregnant at the time, I did not argue.

Neither did I have any idea what she meant by “cleaning” my stove. She showed up in work clothes and over the course of two and a half days, she took that stove apart – screw by screw! She scrubbed and polished every piece individually, so that all old grossness of any kind that might have remained lodged between two pieces was able to be removed. Then she put it all back together.

I never saw a person clean anything so thoroughly, to say nothing giving two and a half days of their own time to do it. The stove was an ugly color, that goldish tone that was popular in the 1970s and remained in many kitchens until those stoves one by one kicked the bucket. But despite the (soon replaced) missing coil, it worked, and I was not going to have a new one any time soon. By the time Lyn got through with it, that stove was shining like new and not nearly as ugly. In fact, I could not help but smile when I looked at it. I remember being awestruck at her willingness to ensure that I would have a clean stove.

What a gift she gave me! Who was I that she would do this for me? Why she would go out of her way and work so hard for me like that? And how could saying “thank you” even come close to expressing my gratitude? In my twenty-something, bumbling way I asked her, “What can I ever do to repay you?”

She didn’t miss a beat, but replied gently, “Someday, someone will need their stove cleaned. You clean their stove, and you have repaid me.”

I like to think that anyone would have realized at that moment what an extraordinary human being she is. I did think that. But my thought specifically was – and still is – “When I grow up, I want to be like her.”

It wasn’t just the stove of course. It was cookies coming to me or coming back to me, time and again. It was hours spent listening to me working my way verbally through some perplexing issue or current crisis. It was a lot of kind questions that made me think she genuinely cared about me, though I still didn’t know why she would. Her amazing generosity and warm welcomes were love in action and made me feel loved, to say nothing of her maple cookies, apple squares and buttery turnips! Lyn made the best turnips I ever had! One Christmas after moving to Virginia I was feeling especially homesick for Vermont, which perhaps she knew and perhaps she didn’t. She kindly sent a box of her apple squares, wrapped well for the journey. But to fill the small bit of empty space in the box she did not use Styrofoam peanuts or newspaper. No, she thought to cut some sprigs of a fir tree so that when I opened the box, the pine scent brought me back to Vermont instantly.

I could go on, but perhaps you get the idea that I love and admire her very much. May every woman have such a woman in her life! May every man have a man so worthy and respectable as to inspire the same kind of hope, the kind that says I want to be like that someday! The vision of that someday will stop us short when we are tempted to be lazy or unkind or bad-tempered. The vision inspires. Like the ripples in a pond, the actions of people like Lyn inspire our own actions which hopefully in turn inspire someone else’s actions. In a few years when I show Eppie the photo of herself with the jar of cookies, I’ll tell her what it’s all about. Maybe she’ll get it. Or maybe someone will clean her stove, so to speak.

May we all have people in our lives to admire, to emulate, to learn from – people of such shining, wonderful character that your own life is richer just knowing them. Let us never forget how important we are to one another, how important our actions are and how far the ripples reach.