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Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Breath of Fresh Air in the Valley…


“There comes a blessed moment of the year when we know we are mowing the lawn for the last time,” John Updike stated in his novel The Witches of Eastwick. The other day I mowed the back of the place. Hopefully it was a “blessed moment,” too, the last mowing of 2010.

As I was chugging along the side fence, I breathed in a familiar whiff of something. Now in this Valley of sudden smells, many of which assault the nose quite aggressively, this gentle waft of odor was a pleasant, delightful fragrance. I recognized it immediately: late October, an olfactory message from my quince, “We’re ripe!”

Air fresheners

For a bit of “old codger” devilment a couple years back I asked a young man in Safeway’s produce department where I might find the quince. “Quince?”he repeated--as if that sound had never before had utterance. “Let me go ask the manager,” he said, puzzling over the word, as he headed for the rear of the store. A short while later he returned with an apology that there were no quince to be had. More devilment: “You don’t know what a quince is, do you?” “No” was the tentative answer. I left him alone then, poor lad, probably wondering if his encounter with me signified the rest of his work shift.

Quince, a forgotten fruit, an avatar of pioneer days. I am surprised how many folks have neither seen a quince nor heard of the fruit either. Of the four women who took my home canning class last summer only one had seen a quince. And one of participants had never even heard of such a thing. I suppose a little education is in order. Quince belong to the pear family (my quince tree was grafted on pear rootstock), look like pears, grow much the same way: begin as a bulge on the end of a stem and evolve five months later into a pear with a waistline problem. The pear-like similarity ends there. A quince does not smell like a pear; a quince does not taste like a pear; and while a quince will pare like a pear, it cores like a block of wood. A bite of quince will not only pucker you up, it will hurt your mouth while doing it. Biting into a quince is like chomping on a block of balsa wood—without the tart quince flavor, of course. To give you an idea what it takes to quarter and core a quince, I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that the bumbling rustic Peter Quince in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was by trade a carpenter.

So what’s a quince good for, you say? Why plant a quince tree, you ask? I needed no better reason than nostalgia. When I was hardly more than a bulge myself, my mom and dad lived a short time with my maternal grandparents in a rattling old three story house on Wenatchee Avenue. I remember three items in the landscaping of that capacious old house: a trumpet vine plant, a small grove of lilacs (from which I’d snitch small bouquets and sell to the passersby strolling along the Ave), and a quince tree on the south property line. From time to time over the years I thought about that quince tree: the squat, yellow globes, the tart, cardboardy texture of the fruit when I pitted my baby teeth against its unyielding flesh. Those thoughts turned into the quince tree by the back fence.

No, quince don’t lend themselves to an “invite yourself,” fresh, tree-ripened repast—even if you’ve long since lost those infant pearly whites. Nor would I recommend a bowl of sliced quince with sugar and cream ( a much improved dish, less the quince). With quince it’s really the flavor you’re after, thus it’s the fruit for jam and jelly: quince-apple marmalade, quince jelly, cinnamon-sugared quince, quince compote, quince preserves (thickly spread between four layers of yellow cake and drowned in thick swirls of whipped cream). Because of its tartness, you can use quince to make pectin, the substance added to fruit pulp and juice to make them “set.”cinnamon syrup quince and jelly

And that delicate scent? Try a quince air freshener. Put one in the microwave and zap it for a few seconds, and you have a house full of Glade right from your own backyard. I take a tree-ripened globe and pop it into the trash bag in my truck. For days it’ll outlast those little tree air fresheners from 7-11. Today I installed one in the truck. I’ll have a quince sweetened cab from now until Christmas.

The other day Brett De Vries was doing some fall yard cleanup. I stopped to chat with him a while. Brett commented that just yesterday the Valley was especially malodorous. A little back flushing at the dairy, perhaps?  Since the quince are ripe, too, I’m thinking about rigging up some sort of a hanger device for my ball cap, dangling a quince from it, and heading out with Gladys…see what we can do to freshen up the Valley a bit.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Planting Spring Hope in the Valley…


Pilchuck snow I am weary of the garden. Tilling, weeding, hoeing, watering, propping up the plants, tying up the vines—I am darn tired of it all. This time of the year the backyard garden has become an unruly beast. In his book The Rural Life Verlyn Klinkenborg says of the fall garden: “The common mellifluousness of spring’s new growth is long gone. Everyone in the garden is a character now, for better or for worse.” I look out beyond the boxwood at the tangled jungle and think “Worse! Much worse!” The pumpkin vines have weasled their way among the corn stalks; the zucchini has elbowed aside the zinnias; the tender broccoli is now a thick hedge of seed pods; tomato vines are blighted, heaps of rotten fruit circle the blasted stems; chickweed, like kudzu, swallows the pepper plants. And the first fall windstorm has toppled the bean towers into a vast thicket of vines covering the potato hills. The corn patch looks like someone threw a brutal hand of Pick Up Sticks. The garden is a mess. I’m shed of it, I say. Or as my neighbor Peggy Anderson a while back yelled from the midst of her disheveled vegetable patch: “I HATE this garden!”

Every year, come fall, my old dairyman neighbor Herman Zylstra would express a similar pessimism. Perhaps it rubbed off on me. Herman, however, would always follow up his annual complaint with a  gentle optimism: “But in the spring you get new hope….” Even though we’re rushing headlong toward the winter solstice, I noticed some of this hope in the Valley the other day as Gladys and I tooled our way toward home. In Decks’ fresh cut cornfield I spied a set of discs at the ready, set to turn the field for next year’s planting. A manifestation of hope? Just good farmin’ policy? Or both?

I’ve heard it said “luck is the residue of design.” I would like to think “Forethought is the parent of Hope”; for Hope to manifest itself, you must have something to hope for. And that’s why yesterday—in spite of my mental set-to with the vegetative chaos that is the backyard garden--I did some gardening, planted some spring hope here on the place—spring bulbs, daffodils (jonquils?) and crocus. Fall bulbsI like to do a medley in the same pot. Daffodils I layer deeper (they are last to bloom); crocus, those bold, early bloomers, top layered.


spring color  spring crocus

The remaining crocus I plant in the lawn—“naturalizing” they call it-- and each fall I add a few more bulbs. And every spring the yard blooms a bit more.

Other folks in the Valley are hopeful, too. A few days ago a large cardboard box beside Van Hulle’s mailbox called me over to investigate. It was a box of Hope, Hope in the form of tulip bulbs. 

spring tulips






OVan Hulle's tulipsne fall, several years ago, my dad planted some spring hope even though he knew he was quite ill. “I don’t think I will live to see them bloom,” Dad told Mom. Next spring came. The flowers bloomed. And it is my belief that Dad knew how much we enjoyed them.

And who knows? Maybe the fall floods will wash us away; the winter gales blow us off the map; Jack Frost nip us in the bud…. But you have to hope, for Hope and Spring are eternal. The bulbs are planted. Come spring I hope to see them bloom.

Bee hopeful    



Saturday, October 23, 2010

Breakfast in the Valley: Applesauce Edition

Dahlia centerpiece

Breakfast is on the Tualco Valley Grange this brisk fall morning and I’m wishing I had rummaged around in the closet for those wool gloves as Gladys and I wobble along in the chilly Valley air. We’re headed for some of that good fall applesauce with pancakes, scrambled eggs, and ham on the side. Yes, today’s the fall edition of the biannual Grange pancake breakfast. (Back in June I posted about the strawberry edition of the Valley pancake fest.) I tuck Gladys around back where she and her shiny new bell will be quite safe and head up the stairs to meet up with breakfast. 

I open the door and immediately go blind. Nothing to do with the inviting medley of breakfast smells or the buzz of the responders to the First Call to breakfast: just my glasses reacting to the warmth of breakfast cooking after that chilly ride down Valley. Someone extends a friendly greeting. Sounds like Alan Barr. I remove my glasses. Yes, it is indeed Alan Barr . “What do I owe you this morning?” I ask. “Five dollars,” Alan says with a smile. I try to inject a little before breakfast humor: “Is that with my Senior discount?” “That’ll be six bucks, then,” Alan replies. Pretty quick this morning, aren’t we, Alan? You must be one pot of coffee ahead of me.

I take a seat in section 6 and look around. A pretty light crowd this morning, but then I’m early. After all it’s Saturday; no need for folks to rush around. Again, there’s the feeling I’ve walked into a Norman Rockwell painting: Wally Armstrong manning the pancake machine; Betty, who is Johnny on the spot (and “Strawberry Betty in the Spring; “Apple”Betty in the Fall) with my coffee, bustling around, her hands full of plates; breakfasters talking up the morning, sharing Valley news…. But it is fall and there are subtle differences. My glasses steaming up, for one…the dahlia centerpieces for another (fall flowers, dahlias).

Betty rushes up to my section carrying a tray loaded with dishes of applesauce. “What’s that pink stuff?”I ask and point at a dish that looks strangely out of place among the other golden heaps of “sass.” “Cinnamon,” she says. “Not for this guy. I like my applesauce straight up and chunky, Betty.” None of that pureed, bland, watery stuff fit only for  babies—and in utero at that. And pink? Unless it’s meat, food just shouldn’t be pink. Chunks are what I want, chunks of apple, lumpy confirmation that what I’m about to consume actually grew on a bona fide apple tree somewhere. Betty places a bowl heaped golden on my placemat.Good and chunkySoon she brings breakfast and with it my second cup of coffee. Two pancakes, a serviceable portion of scrambled eggs, and the obligatory slice of ham. Consistency is what you get at the Grange breakfast, consistency and friendly service.

Nothing goes to waste of that breakfast. I offer to take my plate to the kitchen just as my mother taught me, but Betty takes it, says it’s part of the deal. Alan Barr is still exacting tribute from the newcomers but is between customers, so I wander over for a chat. “How long have you been doing this?” I asked. “Years and years,” the reply, and I think of the big sign on the Grange wall, an accounting of the decade of the ‘60’s year by year: Peace, Love, and Livestock. and pancakes Wait a minute…livestock? And then like I’ve been tazered, I get it. Grange humor! 1969, the summer of love…WOODSTOCK. I wonder if Alan made that sign, as well. Two pots of coffee at least for that one.

“Didn’t see you here for the strawberry breakfast,” I say. Alan glances around the room in a guilty sort of way. “We were in Hawaii… the whole family went…the trip of a lifetime,” he whispers. I let him off the hook by saying his absence just meant more strawberries for the rest of us.

Alan’s son Scott was there for breakfast, too. He was showing around a pretty fancy homemade sign. “Firewood Cellars”it read. “Is he selling wine or firewood?” I asked Alan. “…because I’m in the market for both.” I learned Scott had been dabbling a bit in winemaking…some rhubarb, a bit of Concord grape… and was establishing a little home winery. I wish him luck with his oenology efforts and hope he comes up with some good, marketable vintages. The area could use another nice homegrown beverage—especially after my experience with Kufnerbrau years back, a home brewed beverage so convenient the bottles actually opened themselves if you waited long enough.

With my pancake breakfast well packed away, I retrieve Gladys and we sidetrack by Werkhovens’ silage bunker, now under wraps and doing a little fermenting of its own, for a photo update. Back on the road and heading for home, I reflect a bit on my breakfast, try hard not to let my thoughts wander off to those Grand Slam breakfasts at Denny’s (soooo NOT-Rockwellian) and return instead to those earlier mentioned subtle differences… that slice of ham, for instance…wasn’t it a bit thinner than usual? Seemed more like a sliver this time than a slice. But the applesauce…now it was prime!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wrestling with Mondamin…

The Valley mid-October

Let us gather in the harvest,

Let us wrestle with Mondamin,

Strip him of his plumes and tassels,

Of his garments green and yellow.

The Song of Hiawatha/W.W. Longfellow

Four years ago we drove cross country to visit my sister and family in Omaha. We were driving down U.S. 29  along the Iowa-Nebraska border, heading south through vast cornfields. I saw a road sign signifying the exit to the town of Mondamin, Iowa. “Mondamin,” I thought… “Why of course-- Iowa, land of corn and soybeans.” And I remembered an experience from my youth: reading Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” (and what a “Long” ditty it is, too). In those days I was hungry for literature and would pore through the books on the family bookshelves looking for excitement. I was fascinated in those days by all things Indian (those were unenlightened times before  “Native Americans.'’ Things Indian or Viking—I even insisted on my classmates calling me “Eric”after Eric the Red—fueled my imagination.)

One book I always returned to: Favorite Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Doubleday and Company, 1947), beautifully illustrated by Edward A. Wilson. I could retreat to Indian lore in Longfellow’s Hiawatha story. What appealed to me was the Indian vocabulary Wordsworth wove into his poem. The poet’s phonetic renderings of the Algonquin-Ojibway dialects transported me to aborigine days; I set myself the task of “becoming Indian” by learning the language, even though the Indians of the Great Lakes region were a half continent away from the Colville Indians I knew, attended school and grew up with. The truth of the matter was I was ignorant of linguistics, didn’t know a language needed more than nouns to parse together a simple sentence. But knowing that Shuh-shuh-gah was a heron, Opechee, a robin, the squirrel Adjidaumo…well, I might just as well have been living in a wigwam and feasting on pemmican myself--or standing before a roaring cataract beside the beautiful Indian princess Minnehaha in the picture on page 205.

Mondamin was one such noun I encountered in the chapter Hiawatha’s Fasting. An important rite of passage for a young brave was a period of fasting during which the Indian youth, in a food deprived state, would experience visions or delusions. In his weakened condition, these dreams often held a sign that would guide his warrior life and yield him the lifelong adult name that would bring the young brave renown on future fields of battle.

In the twilight state between sanity and dreams Hiawatha has a vision in which he saw: 

“…a youth approaching,

dressed in garments green and yellow…

Plumes of green bent o’er his forehead,

And his hair was soft and golden.”

This verdant youth bids the young brave to wrestle with him. Hiawatha, weak from hunger, accepts the challenge and a match ensues. As he struggles with this opponent, Hiawatha feels his strength return. The bout ends in a draw but the youth promises to return the next day and the day after to resume the bout.

True to his word, the blonde boy returns on schedule for Round two. This match, as the first, ends in a draw. This time, however, before he withdraws, the youth shares with his opponent the outcome of the third day contest. Hiawatha will defeat him, the youth declares, and then gives the young brave instructions on what to do with his body, once he’s fallen, how Hiawatha was to strip the garments from him, lay him in a grave where the rain may fall upon him, the sun may come to warm him. “And protect me,” the young oracle says, “let no hand disturb me, keep the weeds and worms at bay, and let not Kahgahgee, the raven, molest me.”

At the the time I was not sophisticated enough a reader to connect Hiawatha’s vision and conflict with the Indian corn myth—Mondamin—Indian lingo for maize. The green garments: tassels, silk, the stalks and shocks themselves; the wrestling: harvest. And the burial and perpetual care? The planting cycle, of course: Mondamin, the Great Spirit’s gift of food to his people. 


The corn myth, depicted in corn itself, was one of the impressive murals in the Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota. The Corn Palace boasts the largest collection of “corny” art in the entire world, we learned, when we sidetracked from I-90 on our Omaha trip. In fact the entire facade of the Palace, enhanced by borders of millet and milo, is corn, thousands of ears, that are replacedMitchell Corn Palace annually. 







corn murals

The Tualco Valley has its own monument to corn, a cement edifice located at the Werkhoven Dairy. No taking down Mondamin for the fall with a slick wrestling move. The Werkhovens do their corn wrestling with big, diesel gulping machines.tons in minutes Yes, it’s corn harvest time in the Valley. Remember the corn that was knee high last July? It’s coming down, being chewed  up and chopped into silage.

Last Saturday afternoon I caught up with Jim Werkhoven via cell phone. He was en route, as usual, from one field to the next, zipping from one job to another. Before he took the time to answer my many questions, Jim assured me that “We’re not anti-social folks—just doggone busy.” Especially busy this time Chew it; spit it outof year, overseeing the transfer of corn from the fields to silage bunker.  And just how much corn silage does it take to keep all those cow stomachs from rumbling and grumbling over a year? Jim knows. Seven hundred acres, he tells me, from fields in the Valley plus another west of Frylands (the old Diamond M Ranch). And that huge cement bunker? It holds 18,000 tons of silage (folks, that is thirty-six million pounds of corn: chop chop chop). Removing the season’s corn crop from the Valley is quite an operation. Two cutters do the chopping. Werkhovens have passed along a bit of work to Matt Frohning who has his own cutter and does contract work. Matt’s is an older model, just perfect for chopping corn from less mature fields. A second cutter, I learn, not only cuts and chops the stalks but rolls and crushes the cobs as well. This monster machine circles the fields gobbling up six rows per circuit at the rate of five acres per hour.

I learn other interesting facts from Jim. Werkhoven farms has the contract on the Fish and Game Department’s 100 acre cornfield south of the slough. Two-thirds of the field is cut; the remainder left as cover for  the game birds F & G plant for hunters. Eight trucks haul the chopped corn from the fields. Werkhovens own one, hire the other seven. These eight trucks make 1500 to 17oo trips from the field to the farm where they deposit their loads. 1 load at a timeFour to five minutes is all it takes for those giant cutters to spew ten tons of silage into a truck. The loaded rig pulls away and is quickly replaced by a trailing empty one. Holding pattern






As the trucks dump their loads in the bunker, big field tractors push the piles of fodder onto the growing mountain of chopped corn. pushin' pilesThis mound of silage is compacted by three or four tractors whose weight and big dual rear wheels make countless trips back and forth, side to side. This compacting is essential to the fermenting process, Jim says. The constant squeezing forces the oxygen from the pile. Without such compression, the silage will not cure properly.Compact job When the harvest is over and the mountain of silage is pressed free of oxygen, the mound will be covered with thick gauge plastic and weighted with tires. Cooking the silage

Jim says that they can begin feeding the new silage crop a month after the process is finished, but he likes to wait a while longer—just in case. Nothing worse than hundreds of dairy cows with indigestion. Indigestion? All those stomachs? In the meantime Werkhovens have prudently saved enough of last year’s silage mound to tide the herd over until the new crop is ready to feed. last year's reserve

Jim hopes to have the entire operation complete in less than a week. I don’t think that will happen this year. Gladys and I swung by yesterday, a week later, and the hauling and compacting were still in progress. That must have Jim on edge a bit. He told me he once figured out the cost of keeping those trucks rolling: twelve to thirteen bucks a minute! He followed up those stats with the comment: “That’s information I really didn’t need to know.”Squeezing the pileI asked Jim what the work days were like during this hectic harvest. He laughed and said, “We knock off around midnight these days. We’re older now!” I drove down to watch the night work. It was an eerie sight: like exhaust belching dragons, the machines roared on through the night, their eyes piercing the darkness, inexorably crushing the air from the green mountain of corn, ever tracing, retracing their paths up and down that humongous mound of green.night packingThanks, Jim, for sharing this fascinating dimension of our Valley’s dairy industry. I enjoyed our talk. It was doggone “sociable” of you.

The Great Lakes Indians not only wrestled with Mondamin. They had their women perform a sacred rite to bless the cornfields. After the spring planting was complete, on the first dark or overcast night the women of the tribe would perform a ritual to bless the season’s crop. Barefoot and unclad they would make a circuit of the fields to enhance the fertility of the land, to insure its fecundity and a bountiful season’s crop.

Sing the mysteries of Mondamin,

Sing the Blessing of the cornfields.

Ah, yes, just one more thing to look forward to come spring.         

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bears on the Move in the Valley…

Woolly Bear

I saw nine the other day crossing the Loop Road. About the same number again today, each  shuffling and huffling along the pavement from one side of the road to the other. It seems to make no difference which shoulder they start from, their destination is always a road span away. And each plods along just as resolutely as his fellow to achieve the other side.

No need to be alarmed. No need to rush to REI or to arm yourself with a couple cans of bear mace (yes—can you believe it? Bear mace is available on!) These bears are not those dangerous Ursidae that attack city councilmen without provocation (the bear must have smelled the politician on him. Come to think of it, that’s provocation enough, isn’t it?) And besides, these bears are just “cubs.” No, I’m not talking about the bear that went over the mountain: it’s woolly bears I’m talking about. Those bristly little caterpillars with the red belly bands. And since ‘pillars are insect larvae, they are “cubs,” in a sense, aren’t they?on the moveThese caterpillars are the larvae of the Isabella Tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella, and the road stands between them and a suitable location to pupate: under a loose stone, a crevice in a lifted piece of bark, in your woodpile…some protected place out of the weather.

Ah, yes…the weather. Folklore has it that these little black and orange critters (black and orange? Aren’t those Halloween colors?) presage the severity of the impending winter: the narrower the bands, the harsher the winter. Bugologists pooh pooh this belief: that these colorful crawlers are oracles of winter and claim that not only do “band widths” vary per ‘pillar, but also bands shrink as the larvae age. This is well and good, I suppose, but I wonder if there might be a correlation between the abundance of the bug and the severity of the winter just ahead. Last winter was a mild one here in the Valley. Not so the winter of ‘08, which was a winter of roof shoveling and pushing snow. I don’t remember seeing an abundance of woolly bears last fall, but the year before they seemed to be everywhere. The old Monroe/Snohomish Road was alive with them, a virtual Caterpillar Lane. 

The weather guys at NOAA have already begun their winter scare tactics. After looking at their Dopplers, weather satellites, and marine sensors, 2010 is a La Nina year, they say. Cooler than normal temps in the Pacific—the coolest in fifty years—do not bode well for the Pacific Northwest. El Nino, the lazy brother, of La Nina, was napping last year. But this year his sister, like a fractious child, is poised to wreak havoc in the form of excess precipitation—a considerable amount frozen—flooding (sleepless nights ahead, flashlight in hand, checking Riley Slough across the road), and nights of heavy frost (mulch your dahlias, folks). An uprising of sibling rivalry, of the meteorological kind, with us the beneficiaries. All the predictors indicate that winter 2010/11 will not be our typical “one snowman” winter here in the Valley but one of drifts, plows and shovels—and, who knows, igloos? And those woolly bears? Perhaps there is something in their haste to cross the road after all!

Many woollies never make it to the other side. I’ve already seen countless patches of black and red fur on the Loop Road. My walks in the Valley of late have turned into caterpillar rescue missions. When I see one of these banded crawlers chugging across the pavement, I scoop him up to protect him from traffic, and launch the bug into the grass on the side of the road that was his destination. Immediately after you palm a ‘pillar, it assumes a defensive pill posture, ‘possum-like—a perfect ball for a nice, soft landing in the weeds.'possum 'pillarThe author Walter Edmonds wrote a short story back in the 1920’s, a yarn, actually, about caterpillar racing among the canal men who worked the barges on the Erie Canal. “The Death of Red Peril” is the story of one of these racing ‘pillars. Because of their migratory work canallers took to caterpillar racing instead of betting on the ponies. Contestants would place their little “speedsters” in a napkin ring in the center of the racing circle. A well-placed prick of a pin urged the ‘pillars into motion. First bug to cross the chalk line won.

The narrator’s “Pa,” through a stroke of good fortune happens upon a swift red ‘pillar that literally leaped the wagon wheel ruts in the road to get to the other side. “Pa” rescues the bug, names it Red Peril, and proceeds to race the Peril against all comers. The speedy little insect wins race after race, and “Pa” rakes in the cash, until, that is, an opponent discovers Peril’s “Achilles heel” (or is it “heels” with ‘pillars?): a mortal fear of butter. This rascal drew the racing ring with yellow chalk, and when Red reached the line, he balked, and reversed course. “Pa,” cried, “Foul!” and squashed RP’s opponent before it could leave the circle. A dead bug can’t cross the finish line. Thus a grudge and imminent revenge.

Fast forward to Red Peril’s last race. The rascal owner of the squashed ‘pillar has a stand-in race a bug from his “stable,” a contestant named “The Horned Demon.” No sooner had the handlers pricked their bugs, than the aptly named Horned Demon sinks both horns into RP’s backside, injecting him with ‘pillar venom. Peril labors toward the finish line but falters and appears to be on his several last legs. But “Pa,” through a brilliant stroke of genius, cries, “Now dadgum, you’ve gone and dropped the BUTTER!” The dreaded word spurs Red into life and he struggles to the finish line where he drops dead a winner—his fuzzy chin just over the line!

And so as the Valley’s woolly bears race toward the other side of the road, is there a message in their haste? Is there something in their little caterpillar genomes that, Dopplers, satellites, and marine sensors aside, we should heed? Better make sure that woodshed is bulging, folks. Knock the rust off that snow shovel and keep it handy. If you’ve forgotten the Winter of 2008, let me jog your memory.

snow bush






winter '08






enuff already

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What Do You Call Potatoes in the Valley…?

P. Alden, potato farmer

My gentle Irish grandmother, paternal, Mary Johnson, nee Egan, County Mayo via Ellis Island, had a riddle she asked her grandchildren countless times: “What do they call potatoes in Ireland?” she’d riddle us. Our young, fresh memories knew the answer, of course, had memorized it long before the umpteenth time the riddle was put to us. We always feigned ignorance, though, because it gave Grandma such pleasure to give us the answer: “They don’t call, em,” she’d chuckle, “they dig ‘em.” Then Grandma’s eyes would disappear in the humor of the moment, and like a little leprechaun, her shoulders would quiver with delight. 

Yes, potatoes were a staple in my grandparents’ diet. Grandpa Mike would hover over my shoulder when I was on potato peeling detail, ever vigilant that I was removing just the peels and not the flesh. You guessed it--the subject of this post is potatoes or “praties,”as the Irish called them-- “spuds,” our nickname for  this starched-charged tuber-- the mainstay of many an  American’s daily diet and because of today’s highly publicized obesity epidemic a much maligned vegetable. To counter the potato’s bad boy image (or is it “potatoe’s? You tell me, Dan Quayle.), Chris “Spuds” Voigt, Executive Director of the Washington State Potato Commission has launched a PR (Potato Relations) campaign in the form of a 60 day potato diet. For the next two months Chris’s daily fare will consist of potatoes only, twenty spuds per day, (Washington grown, of course; none of those tubers from foreign lands like Idaho) prepared without any of the exotic embellishments that boost a baked potato’s obesity factor to stratospheric levels: butter, sour cream, bacon bits, puddles of goopy cheese…. Chris plans to shun these gustatory frills and remain true to the austere 220 calories per medium spud. His only fudge: a little cooking oil, perhaps, for a potato fry. As of this post “Spuds” is ten days into the potato sack. He exits the diet on November 29. Well, at least he’ll be able to adorn his Thanksgiving trencher with a dollop or two of mashed spuds (hold the butter, please)! Simple math tallies the number of ‘taters under his belt  come 11/29 at 1,200. If you have tried one diet after another and are diet-weary, think you just might be interested in a sixty day potato fest (fast??) yourself, check out Chris’s website for an update on his day to day progress or additional tuber details:

I wish Chris the best in his spudfest but now to return to the Valley and spotlight its own Mr. Head potato man, Peter Alden. I passed him the other day just up the road from his home, the old Victorian house south of the upper loop bridge.P. Alden's Victorian In tow was a trailer laden with eight bins of this year’s spud crop. It would take considerable 60 day diets to make a dent in this prodigious concentration of starch. 


spuds, '10

I followed Peter and rig back to the farm to record the event. This year’s growing season has been a farmer’s nightmare, and I asked Peter, given the balky weather, how his potato crop had fared. “Mixed results,” was his reply. “Some fields good; others not so much.” I should have asked him how this year’s yield compared to  last’s when the Valley had an excellent growing season, but given those brimming bins of potatoes, I didn’t think to grill the potato man. I did inquire, however, about the varieties the bins contained: the load was half white potatoes, the other red spuds. “GButterballs and Chieftanserman Butterballs,” Alden said of the white variety. The other four bins held Red Chieftans. Those plump butterballs put me in mind of this year’s Thanksgiving turkey instead of the potential mountains of frenzy-whipped, sour creamed and lavishly buttered mashed potatoes bulging in those four bins. Marketing: it’s all in the name, isn’t it!Red chieftans

I watched Peter forklift a couple bins off the trailer and stow them out of the weather in a large storage shed. forkin' off the crop 


 Storage shed






You know, I just might try that 60 day potato experiment myself. “Spuds” Voigt said after his ‘tateriffic diet, he expects to see an improvement in his blood pressure and cholesterol. According to my last doctor’s visit, it wouldn’t hurt me to lower mine a bit as well. I wonder if Peter Alden would spot me 1,200 spuds for a 60 day potato quest to improve my health? I’d be ready to start, say…the very next day after Thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Valley of Milk and Honey…

Got Milk!

Yes, a virtual Canaan is the Valley Tualco. I would say the colors green, black, and white dominate the Valley landscape. No telling how much sweet milk is Milkin' the Valley produced here per annum, how many hundred Valley Knotweedweight roll out of the Valley in big stainless steel tankers. I guess the Decks, Van Hulles, Werkhovens, and Frohnings, the Valley dairymen, could give you an estimate. And that is as it should be: they are the masters of milk and cream. But in my case, as in the wordplay game: “I wanted to…but…,” I wanted to become a dairyman but didn’t want to get left holding the bag. Instead, I decided to farm an entirely different crop: bees and honey.

This year’s honey crop is in. I “robbed” my three honey producing colonies of about sixteen gallons of Valley honey last week, an average of sixty-four pounds per hive. Not impressive, by any means, but a crop anyway: last year’s yield was O, zip, nada. I estimateHoney crop '10 this summer’s honey flow to have lasted a brief nine days-- certainly less than two weeks. Remember those hot days in early July? That’s when the bees gathered the little blackberry nectar they did this summer. July 12th it rained, and Mother Nature slammed the door on much more honey from the Valley blackberries.

Years ago I had a thriving, little honey business here in the Valley. T-n-T Apiaries, the name of my enterprise--the T’s from the first letters of our first names: Terry and Trecia. Clever, huh? A dynamite name?  Those years I bottled and sold close to a ton of honey from the back of my truck out in front of the house.1979 T n T's house honey6 Now T-n-T Apiaries is just a shadow of its former self, hardly worth even one of the T’s in the business: from 2,000 pounds to 200. Quite a decline. I attribute the downsizing to a variety of factors: daughter’s bee venom allergy, the invasion of the Varroa mite, virulent strains of bee dysentery (Nosema), other stressors now present in the Valley (pesticide and herbicides). But the simple fact of the matter is: beekeeping is just a lot of darned hard work. If you enjoy constant monitoring, management, heavy lifting( sometimes at night), and sweating over an extractor crank, beekeeping is just the thing. I have no idea what folks think about honey production, but  suffice it to say you don’t just set out a bucket by a hive and tell the little ladies to “Fill ‘er up, please.”

Color grade in Valley honey varies from one year to the next. This year’s vintage has a swarthier complexion than the ‘08 crop. Instead of a champagne-yellow pure blackberry, honey 2010 has a “touch of the tarbrush,” telling me the bees have gathered a deal of Japanese knotweed nectar from somewhere in the Valley. Japanese KnotweedMy old beekeeping mentor Lester Broughton was in the habit of saving a baby food jar of honey from each crop; his collection  spanned at least two decades. Wish I had thought to record the vintages of my thirty some years of beekeeping efforts here in the Valley. The general rule of thumb about honey is the lighter the color, the milder the flavor. Dark honeys like buckwheat and mint have quite a bite to them; fireweed honey, nearly corn syrup color, is extremely mild. Knotweed honey is an anomaly: dark honey, flavorful but surprisingly mild. Knotweed is considered an invasive species, a class C noxious weed in our area. Like so many other invasive species, it was introduced innocently enough. In knotweed’s case because of its lush foliage mainly as a landscaping enhancement. My first experience with this nectar source in the Valley was seven or eight years ago. At first I thought it was some kind of blackberry juice the bees had resorted to and distilled because of a dearth of blackberry nectar. My first crop yielded four quarts of what looked like crankcase oil, so dark sunlight wouldn’t pass through the jars. I was about to feed it back to the original owners when I asked Jean Bassett at the Beez Kneez Apiary supply about this strange ambrosia. “It’s knotweed,” she said, “a gourmet honey.” Eureka! I quickly rebottled the four quarts in 8 ounce jars and jacked up the price. And it all sold, too!

These days I mainly keep bees for their pollination services in the garden. After all, there’s nothing like a hive of bees to provide a thermometer on the season, keep tabs on what Mother Nature is up to at any given time. The surplus honey my bees produce— after, that is, I set aside enough for the year’s cornbread and biscuits and my favorite: peanut butter and honey chilled in the freezer for a couple of hours—I peddle from the house here. Proceeds mainly go to replace old equipment, purchase sugar for supplement feeding, medicines for their spring and fall tonic, and more often, sadly, replacing the bees themselves. The bees have always paid their own way. My reward is exercise and the satisfaction that comes from working with this industrious, fascinating insect. Each season they always teach me something new. I just enjoy having them on the place.

What goes on inside a hive of honeybees during the offseason and the summer’s honey flow is unfamiliar territory to non-beekeepers, and I’ll not use this post to trouble you with that. However before you are tempted by the lure of Nature’s sweetness to rush off and purchase a bee hive for yourself, let me share with you the beekeeper’s role after the bees finish theirs:

Ready for the knifeA surplus frame of honey from a honey super. Uncapping

Removing wax caps with an electric knife, unsealing honey cells so honey will spin out.Uncapped honey frameBoth sides of honey comb uncapped.loading extractor  

Loading honey extractor, a two frame reversible basket model. Muscle power and centrifugal force spin honey to sides of tank.Ready to spinBasket is at first spun slowly so as not to break the honeycomb. After honey is spun from outer side, extractor is stopped, the baskets reversed, and spinning continues, allowing the inner side to spin out.

Filling holding tank

Pouring extracted honey through hardware cloth into 500 pound stainless steel holding tank.

bottling the productExtracted honey remains in the holding tank in a warm room for several days, allowing wax particles to float to the surface. Then the pure honey is bottled from the bottom of tank. (Don’t much like the term “raw” honey; “pure” seems a much better descriptor for my product.)Valley sweets

A little bit more to it than one might think, right? But there you have it—finally--pure, unheated, unprocessed sweetness: honey at its finest—brought by the bees straight from the Valley to you.