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Eating High on the Hog (as my mother would’ve said)

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Last week I ate way above my raisin’.  Squash Blossom Salad.  Shrimp and Grits.  Pulled Bourbon Chicken with Peach BBQ Sauce.  I savored every morsel.  While visiting Charleston, South Carolina, with my college girlfriends, we chose restaurants that served some mighty good food.

Those squash blossoms could’ve grown into yellow squash and then been sliced and dredged in cornmeal and fried in a black skillet.  But the chef at Carolina’s Southern Bisto stuffed the blossom with goat cheese, dipped it in a thin sweet batter and then deep-fried it.  Melt in my mouth good.  Served over blanched green beans and garnished with chunks of yellow beets and pickled ramps.  Yellow beets?  They taste just like red beets.  I wondered if those ramps were the same variety as the wild onions that grew in my childhood family’s pig lot.  “To preserve all those flavors,” the waiter said, “the chef sprinkles a light lemon vinaigrette.”  After sopping the last crumbles of goat cheese with crusty bread, I considered cancelling my entrée and ordering another salad.  It was that scrumptious.

South Carolina Shrimp and Geechie Boy Grits, Sweet Peas, Woodfired Fennel, Ramps, Poached Celeste Egg.  The description on the menu at The Husk was too enticing to pass up.  Geechie Boy Grits taste just like the Quaker grits.  And sweet peas?  Green peas.  Ramps, again?  “Just the bulb of the onion.  Quartered and sautéed to the peak of sweetness,” the waitress said.  The same with fennel.  What’s special about the poached Celeste Egg that was served floating on top of the grits?  Celeste raises chickens on her farm, just like my friend Karen who sells me her brown country eggs.  Beautiful presentation, that matched the description, and delicious.

During a cooking demonstration, a young chef prepared Pulled Bourbon Chicken with Peach BBQ Sauce, and she proved to me that chicken thighs aren’t just for frying.  But then any meat soaked in bourbon before baking is bound to be tasty.  “And then pull it apart to look like southern barbeque,” Michelle, the chef, said.  The recipe for the sauce included ketchup, apple cider vinegar, garlic, spices, and more – all the ingredients in any good barbeque sauce – with the addition of a cup of peach nectar.  “Gives it a zing!  Your family will think you’ve created a special barbeque.”

So I came home inspired to try my hand at these dishes.  If you hear of anyone whose squash blossoms mysteriously disappear this summer, I raided the garden.  The next time I make Shrimp and Grits I plan to announce, “Tonight we’re having Shrimp and Quaker Grits, Green Peas, Sautéed Onions, Poached Karen Eggs.”  And I have all the ingredients for chicken thighs and peach sauce – I even bought a bottle of Willie’s Hog Dust that is a Charleston’s man’s own creation of BBQ spice.  But, I’d never pass off chicken and peace sauce as barbeque.

All these fancy dishes have to wait.  Right now I’m craving beans and cornbread and a bowl of turnip greens.

Muddy Pond Field Trip

I’m not sure if I load up my Grands in my van and go on Field Trips for them or for me.  As a retired teacher, I remember field trip days as fun days, and I choose places I want my Grands to know about.  Museums.  Fire department.  Post Office.  City Hall.  Cookeville Performing Arts Center.  Emergency Management Agency.  Cane Creek Park.  Pet stores.

My Grands don’t always like my choices, but they were excited about going to the Muddy Pond General Store.  That is, until they announced that they’d take their own money to buy Legos, and I told them that this store probably didn’t have Legos.  We were making this outing because they’d read When I Was Young in the Mountains, and they didn’t know what a general store looked like.  As we drove through Monterey and toward Muddy Pond, I stressed that we’d compare and contrast (teacher words that naturally flowed and I explained the meanings) a general store with the stores where we usually shop.

My Grands had $2.00 each to spend.  “What kind of toys do they have?” asked three year old Ruthie.  I didn’t know what kind of toys – if any – the Muddy Pond store would have.  I explained that most general stores sell everything that a family needs.  And this store would be like that.  Food, clothes, tools, pots and pans.  Everything that everyone in the family needed.

“If they have everything, they’ll have toys,” said Ruthie.

“If they don’t, it’s okay,” said Lou, age 5.  “Momma said they’d have sprinkles and we can buy some.  But she said we can’t buy candy.”  Spoken like a reigning Sprinkle Queen.

We made mental lists of goods displayed on the shelves.  Peanut butter.  Tomato sauce.  Plastic bags of flour, sugar, noodles, cornstarch.  A whole aisle of candy.  Kitchen goods – knives, plates, pots, pans, dishcloths.  Oil lamps.  “Come back here,” David, age 7, called.  “I found the toys.”  Crayons, coloring books, small metal tractors and cars.  “Let’s go upstairs.  I bet they have more stuff.”

Lou looked through a rack of long-to-the-ankle dresses.  “Do they have my size?”  I explained that many women and girls who live in Muddy Pond wore this type of long dress every day.  “Even when they play outside?”  Ruthie asked.  We tried out the hand made wooden rocking chairs, stood on stools, admired the quilts, and my Grands rocked on the rocking horses.  They found hand carved wooden boxes that Lou and Ruthie thought would be perfect for keeping private stuff.

Back downstairs, near the check out counter, we found the sprinkles.  Packed in small plastic boxes and every color of the rainbow.  My Grands spent their money on red, green, and yellow sprinkles, and I couldn’t resist the homemade peach fried pies and peanut brittle.

“Well, what do you think?”  I asked when we were all buckled in our seats in the van.  “Is the general store like the stores where you usually go?”  I forced a discussion identifying the differences and similarities.

After several minutes of silence as we journeyed on the unmarked paved country road, Lou said pensively, “You know what I think?  I think what they need is different from what we need.”

And that’s why we take Field Trips.

 

Motion Picture Show

     A cool, rainy day during our family beach vacation wasn’t a bad thing.  An excuse to sleep late, to get out of the sun, and to explore the area.  A day to browse a bookstore’s shelves.  A day to drive seven miles for a special hot dog, one with sweet potato mustard.  A day to shop the big box stores that we don’t have here at home.  And best of all, a day for the monarch butterflies in South Carolina to realize it was time to fly further South.

For a couple of days, we’d seen a few lone monarchs fluttering near the vegetation on sand dunes.  Beautiful, bright orange butterflies with black markings.  But when I walked on the beach in the early morning after our cool no-beach day, I had to dodge to avoid a butterfly that tried to sideswipe my ear.  They flew in small groups, three or more together, with an occasional single one fluttering fast to catch up.  They weren’t a mass of orange, like the film produced by National Geographic, but they created a calming motion picture show along the shoreline.  Right where I had my beach chair and my Grands played.

I knew enough to tell my Grands that these creatures were flying south to Mexico where they’d live through the winter and then fly back to their northern homes next spring.  And that they didn’t need a map; they flew by instinct.  After my Grands ran out of hearing range, Husband asked, “But don’t butterflies have a short life?  Just a few weeks?”  That complicated my explanations.  Would these same butterflies make the long 3,000-mile flight to Mexico, winter in tall trees for several months, and then fly back?

The migrating butterflies we saw, appropriately called migrates, are the great great grandchildren of the monarchs that flew north this past spring.  Monarchs go through four generations in one year.  Four generations from eggs to adults.  Next March or April, the butterflies we watched will return from migration to lay eggs on milkweed plants and die.  The first generation will live only two to six weeks after laying its eggs.  Same for the second generation that will be born in May and June, and the third generation, born in July and August.  And then the long lifers, the migrates, will be born in September or October.

“Look at the monarch that landed on my toe,” I said.  He sat, still, with wings outstretched.  My Grands weren’t impressed.  Maybe because I’d talked about monarchs all day.  I was amazed.  These small insects were imprinted with an inherited behavior that would bring them back along this same beach next March or April.  With lots of luck, I’ll remember how to make the 500-mile trip from Cookeville, without a map or a GPS, and meet them there.

After all, monarchs are the only butterflies that migrate.  Someone should greet them to celebrate their successful journey, and the sequel promises to be a picture show worth seeing.

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When? How? Why? Will you?

“When can I open my first bag?”  my Grand asked.  Just like all five year olds, she likes surprises, and her mother had packed five bags for her to open while she rode with her Pop and me to the beach.  A five hundred mile car ride.  Her mother’s suggestion was that my Grand open a bag, filled with snacks and quiet sit-in-your-seat activities, to mark each hundred miles, 100 to 400, and one for whenever I thought she needed it.  She needed it to mark twenty miles travelled.  And her question was the first of many that my Grands, ages 3, 5, and 7, asked during a week’s vacation with their parents, baby sister, Pop, and me.

How big is the beach?  How much water is in the ocean?  How far is it across the water to land?  How long would it take to get there?  In a boat?  On a plane?  Where did all this sand come from?  How far can we see?  When do the waves stop?  Do shrimp have bones?  Does a starfish have meat?  What lives in those little holes on the beach? Will the dolphins swim close to us?  How come high tide isn’t the same time as yesterday?  Why don’t we have little tiny frogs at home?  How long does it take a monarch to get to Mexico?  Do we get a special treat (such as ice cream) every day while we’re on vacation?

Some answers were easy, some a guess, and some required research, and all were answered to satisfy each Grand’s curiosity.  I don’t intend to repeat the answers – except a few.  I answered that starfish do not have meat, but they do.  They are best eaten after they’ve been boiled, and several should be served since there is only one small bite of meat in each.

Those little holes in the sand?  I’d assumed they were critter holes, and I was wrong.  I googled coastalcare.org and learned that while some tiny sand fleas jump into them, these holes aren’t homes for sea life.  They are formed by the rising tide.  As waves crash onto the beach, the airflow under the sand is so strong that air is pushed above the surface and makes small openings.  They are often called ‘nail holes’ because none are larger than the diameter of a large nail.

Of all the questions my Grands asked, my favorites required no thought, no research, and a simple one-word answer.  “Gran, do you want to jump in the waves with me?”  “I’m going to make a blueberry sand cake with drippy icing.  Wanna’ help?”   “Gran, will you come play with me?”  I couldn’t get out of my beach chair fast enough.

I hope my Grands never stop asking questions.

 

Traveling with Lucille

Husband Allen and I made a road trip.  1290 miles, to and from Washington, DC, plus a few detours.  Some intentional, some not.  Just Allen, me, and Lucille.  Lucille was a helpful companion.  However, there were few breakdowns in communication, and we became frustrated with her.  Probably not as frustrated as she with us, yet Lucille never raised her voice.

Allen drove.  Lucille directed.  I tried to interpret Lucille’s directions or I stayed quiet.  (Many years ago, Mother told me that there are times when a wife can best help by being still and quiet.)  As we left Arlington National Cemetery, Lucille said that our hotel destination in Alexandria was 5.2 miles away.

Lucille:  On the round about, right turn at the second exit.  Three lanes of traffic swirled around a statue. “This one, right?”  Allen asked.  We’d just passed a street.  Did it say one way – no exit?  There wasn’t time to discuss if the upcoming street was the first or second exit.  We drove across the Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River and straight toward the Lincoln Memorial.

Lucille:  Keep right.  Continue on for four tenths of a mile then left turn.  A second crossing on the Arlington Bridge, in the opposite direction.  It was 6:00 p.m. Sunday.  Allen maneuvered our van across four lanes of traffic and made the turn.  Destination 7.4 miles.

Lucille: Slight left merge onto South Washington Boulevard.  Then an immediate right. “This left?”  Allen asked.  I agreed.  We were obviously on a side street.  Two cars, no tour buses.  Destination 8.6 miles.

Lucille:  In two tenths of a mile, left turn.  We passed the Imo Jima Memorial.  Allen had spotted it on a map before we left Arlington Cemetery and said that he’d like to see it, but we wouldn’t be driving close by.  I didn’t tell him that the memorial is impressive.  Destination 9.5 miles.

Lucille:  In one tenth of a mile, turn right.  We drove over heavy metal plates, the kind that’s used when a road is being repaired.  “This is no fun,” Allen said in short controlled syllables.  I agreed and said that Lucille would eventually get us to Alexandria.  “When?  Tomorrow?”  Allen asked as he turned the steering wheel.

Lucille:  Right turn ahead.  Then in eight tenths of a mile veer left onto George Washington Memorial Parkway.  Destination 9.1 miles.  At last, we were headed in the right direction.

Lucille:  Continue on George Washington Parkway.  “Which lane should we get in?”  Allen asked.  I waited for Lucille’s answer.  Surely she knew we were in the middle of five lanes of heavy traffic, traveling 70 miles per hour.  A few more turns, and finally, we heard the long-awaited announcement.

            Lucille: You have arrived at your destination.  I’m thankful Lucille traveled with us.  But she didn’t see the sights around the National Mall or the White House.  She rested inside our van in the hotel parking lot for a few days while Allen and I rode the Metro and the Hop On-Hop Off Trolley in our nation’s capital.  I don’t think Lucille would have liked the road construction detours or the one-way streets.

They Say – I Say

They say Kansas is boring. Flat. Brown. I’d never seen Kansas until last month, but I’d visualized it for years. Ever since I eavesdropped while my daughter and two of her friends, recent college graduates, planned a sight-seeing trip to California. “Let’s take the northern route coming home,” one said. “Through Salt Lake City and Denver.”
“But that means we have to drive across Kansas,” another moaned. “Have you ever seen Kansas?” She rubbed her hand across my oak kitchen table. “See this table? That’s Kansas. You’ve just seen it.” So those travelers missed the Sunflower State.
Recently, a friend invited me to ride along on a trip to Denver. I like road trips, and I like girl trips, especially with two adventurous friends. And Denver is only an hour’s drive from my youngest Grand, and his parents welcomed me for a visit. I don’t pass up any chances to get Grand hugs. So I packed my bags and crawled in the back seat of a CRV for a two-day road trip. Even though a few people shook their heads and told me, “It’s a long drive with nothing to see.”
From east to west, Kansas is 437 miles, on Interstate 70 W. Imagine open, somewhat rolling land, all the way to the horizon some three miles away. That’s like looking across almost fifty-three football fields in every direction.
Deciduous trees dotted the eastern Kansas prairie. Most fields were green with what looked to be short corn. Field after field of stunted green blades waved. It wasn’t corn – it was grain sorghum grown for animal feed and silage. And the western plains of Kansas were gold, not brown. Warm, glistening gold.
Windmills, the old wooden kind, stood under stately metal and three-blade structures beside farm homes. We topped a small rise on the highway. “Look at all the windmills! One, two, three…” I counted to twenty-seven and grabbed my pen to write a note in my journal. When I looked up, it was impossible count all the silver statues! 100, 200, more. A panoramic picture couldn’t show all of them or the sun’s rays dancing off their gigantic whirling blades.
I admired the wild sunflowers that bloomed along the right of way. I knew that sunflowers are a Kansas cash crop, but I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of a field of golden sunflowers as far as I could see. I marveled at the platter-size yellow blooms and tried to estimate the size of field. As far north as I could see, times as far east, times as far west equaled an amazing sight.
There was more. A small white wooden church stood in the middle of a freshly plowed field, with no houses within sight. Old limestone square fence posts beside the new round wooden posts. Dust devils. And the sunset – a sunset that circled the horizon. Showing off the trees’ silhouettes.
I say Kansas isn’t boring. If it is my oak kitchen table, then it’s decorated with some of the most interesting centerpieces and set with the some of the finest pottery that our country offers. I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
They Say – I Say