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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Proof is in the Pudding…

plum puddin'“Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” Ebenezer Scrooge

  A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

The Ripple’s previous post brought up the subject of holiday traditions and their importance in rounding out any given holiday. Our household quests for anything that might evolve into a new tradition, especially at Christmas time. Two years ago the Christmas feast featured roast goose, a tradition that withered quickly on the vine in part because the roasting pan residue looked like the aftermath of a liposuction session. Only two family members dared tackle the goose: both concurred turkey dark meat was not only comparable to goose flesh but in fact surpassed it in quantity, if not in flavor. Christmas past highlighted a leg of lamb swimming among vegetables in a slow cooker. Once again only two stalwart family members leaped, so to speak, into the fold and partook of the lambkin. Consensus: lamb for two @$65 a leg would be worth the value only if one of the pair was a comely lass whose favor and affection you sought. Thus a second would-be tradition quickly left the rails.ready for flambe'

This Christmas, inspired by Mrs. Cratchit’s ceremonial flaming presentation in Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol, I thought I would introduce the traditional English plum pudding to the household. A new tradition, perhaps? One that might stick? A little research turned up the fact that the main ingredient missing in “plum puddings” were the plums. At one time raisins, according to the research, were called plums, and all the pudding recipes called for a liberal amount of them. Yes, pudding recipes. And they were numerous, I discovered. I narrowed them down to two: the first, a tried and true recipe in England for fifty years, I discovered online; the second I found in our Joy of Cooking cookbook we’ve had since the mid-1960’s (p. 704). The J of C recipe called for twice as many eggs as the former, so I chose it (more is always better in the kitchen arena—unless it be cooks, of course). The J of C recipe follows:

1 cup flour

Prepare and dredge lightly with part of the flour:

1 lb. chopped suet (2 cups)

1 lb. seeded raisins (I used half regular raisins and the other half golden raisins)

1 lb. currants

1/2 lb. chopped citron (I added 4 oz. of glazed orange peel)

Resift the remaining flour with:

1 grated nutmeg (mind your knuckles!)

1 Tbsp. cinnamon

1/2 Tbsp. mace

1 tsp. salt

6 Tbsp. sugar or 1/2 cup brown sugar (I chose the white sugar but not without giving serious consideration to the brown). Combine the dredged and sifted ingredients.

Add:

7 egg yolks

1/4 cup cream

1/2 cup brandy or sherry (my spirit of choice was brandy)

3 cups grated (crushed) bread crumbs, white or rye (Rye? I think not.)

The latter helps make the pudding light. Place on a platter and whip until stiff:

7 egg whites

Fold them lightly into the raisin mixture. Pour the batter into a greased, covered gallon mold and steam for six hours.

A few days before I did battle with the recipe, I called Kelso’s Meats in Snohomish, had them reserve me a pound of suet. (Butter may be used as a substitute if you don’t have access to a Kelso’s.) As with any first attempts there are bound to be issues. My first: where to find a one gallon pudding mold? Maybe in the kitchens of Julia Childs or Rachel Rey. But aside from a casserole dish or two, a variety of cookie sheets, and serving bowls, I was at a loss for a plum pudding container. This dilemma led me to the kitchenware section of Freddies where I happened upon a five quart stainless steel mixing bowl ($9.99, but a bargain at 30% off). This bowl seemed destined to be a pudding mold.

In no time at all the ingredients went together (I had grated the whole nutmeg the night before). The “batter” was formidable in quantity and I had doubts the five quart bowl would hold it all. Directions specified filling the mold only two-thirds full which, to my relief, was the result after I tamped the mixture tightly. Issue number two. In my haste to see if all would fit, I forgot to grease the inside of the mold liberally and then coat the grease with sugar. (The pudding was an hour into its steaming before I remembered this step, leaving me to worry that if after all my work the pudding would not release. All that suet, I thought… surely that would be lubrication enough.)

When the vents of the canner spouted steam, I covered the bowl with a cotton cloth and bound it tightly with twine beneath the lip of the mold. I set the oven timer for one hour and into the steam bath went the pudding.ready for the steamer

Each hour I added two pints of water to the canner so it wouldn’t run dry. Seven hours later (one additional hour to insure the suet saturated the flour and bread crumbs) I removed the steamer from the heat and set it aside to cool for a half hour or so.

The unveiling had me nervous. seven hours laterWould I be able to remove the pudding  from the mold or have to enlist the help of a chisel? Would it be cooked through and through? The fatty suet did the trick for me; I ran a frosting spatula around the bowl and that was sufficient to release the payload.

I inverted the bowl and with a thud out plopped the pudding.Release the Puddin' Four days until Christmas. The pudding slumbered in the WELL-GREASED bowl (butter this time) in the cool garage.

The traditional English plum pudding included a few silver coins mixed into the batter before cooking. Those who found the coins in their serving were richer not only in calories, but also in silver. This tradition went away when silver coins, because of the rising value of silver, ceased to be minted. I decided to meet the ritual halfway by tossing in one silver coin, a 1961 Roosevelt dime, 90% silver, 10% copper. It was the best I could do. Whoever found the dime would be $1.45 richer (melt value as of 12/25/2013--barring a broken tooth).

Presentation: ah, this is the glory of the traditional plum pudding. The dessert should be brought to the feast table aflame, garnished with a sprig of holly (the latter I snipped from the neighbor’s holly tree, an eight inch twig with a festive cluster of plump, red berries…). The combustible I used was brandy, 80 proof. It is customary for the feasters to applaud the presentation of the pudding, but our guests proved to be pyrophobes, wary and poised to spring into action should the kitchen catch fire. My recipe omitted the flambe’ stage of the ritual; all I had to go by was Mrs. Cratchit’s portion of spirits: “…half of half-a-quartern of blazing brandy.”Knowing no equivalent for a “half-a-quartern,” I substituted a half cup of the 80 proof which proved insufficient fuel to make the short trip to the table ablaze but proved fire enough to broil the holly berries. But the pudding did burst forth in a momentary blaze of glory and proved sufficient entertainment for all.

Flambe

The hot pudding was served with a chilled lemon hard sauce. All present gave the dessert favorable reviews which, I boast, bodes well  for plum pudding becoming a family Christmas tradtion. I did forget to mention, however, that the recipe yields twenty-four servings which proved far too great a challenge for our company of seven. leftovers

The dime, by the way, has yet to be found.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Confectionary Architecture…

Cow jumped over the moon“We’re just a young family and want to start our own traditions,” Mike Kahler told me as my pickup jostled us along the perimeter of Dale Reiner’s tree lot-brambleberry patch. Mike is riding shotgun on a Christmas tree hunting foray. The last several weeks I have been functioning as a southpaw, following Dr.’s directives that I lift no more than ten pounds with my right arm. Doctor’s orders, then, precluded activities like cutting down the annual Christmas tree and doing the necessary manhandling required to bag  it. “I’ll cut it down for you,” Mike offered…”even set it up if you want.” Thanks to Mike the tree is now a part of our Christmas d├ęcor, trimmed and lighted, awaiting Christmas morning.

Mike’s correct about traditions. They play an important role in festive occasions whether they be secular or religious. Traditions connect to memory, are retrospectives of the past, and carry over into adulthood and beyond. A rite need only be performed more than once, I guess, to be considered a tradition; thus new traditions need only repetition to become old ones.

For the third year this December we have left the quiet of the Valley for a day and headed for the holiday glitter and crush of the big city. We do a little shopping but mostly gape in awe at the fancy trappings and window displays and let the tsunami of commercialism wash over us. But there is one spectacle in particular we look forward to: the annual display of gingerbread houses in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel.ginger bd beanstalk Each Christmas season for charity The Sheraton challenges local architectural firms to put aside the drafts and blueprints of brick and mortar edifices on their drawing boards and apply their drafting skills and imaginations to the media of gingerbread and sugar. The competitors work within the parameters of a common theme: two years ago, landmark buildings; last year Disney animated movies; this year fairytales. Our tradition is only three years old, but in that short period of time we have noticed a definite “stepping up” by the competition and some of this year’s entries Frank Lloyd Wright would have been hard pressed to beat.Hickory dickory dock

Given a little gingerbread and candy, it’s amazing what a little creativity can do. Icing and spun sugar, tootsie pops as light posts, M&Ms for tree ornaments and redhots for trim, baby marshmallows and sugar-coated pretzels, cocktail mints and gumdrops…each display equals a counter in a candy store. A candy holstein cow leaping over a sugar glaze moon…a gingerbread galleon gently rocking in a sugar icing sea….I saw a ship a'sailing...

London Bridge is falling down, Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and theThe cat and the fiddle fiddle, Jack and the bean stalk, the Old Woman in a Shoe…all rendered in gingerbread and confectionary.Gingerbread 1

If you looked carefully,you could find a candied representation of  several Mother Goose verses. As the onlookers filed by, cameras flashing, I could tell they were awestruck by the gingerbread artistry; we all left hyperglycemic, every sweet tooth aching.

Old shoe's tongueDish running with spoon

Another Christmas tradition in our household was the Advent calendar.For the days of Advent, we would engage in a Christmas-related activity: baking, decorating, writing Christmas cards, watching a Christmas movie or taking in a Christmas performance at a local theatre, hunting down that special Christmas tree, stringing the outdoor lights, reading the kiddos A Christmas Carol, photos with Santa…. If Advent is a tradition in your household, I suggest a project sure to involve the entire family: construct a gingerbread house, especially if your holiday resourcefulness falls short of a project a day for twenty-five days. In fact if your Advent ideas are stymied, why not plat out and bake an entire gingerbread village?London ginger bridge

Several years ago before the Advent calendar was passed down to the next generation, we pulled an advent activity out of one pocket and read: “Make gingerbread house.” And so we did. The blueprints came from a holiday cooking magazine. I made tag board templates for the walls, roof, and chimney. The magazine article included the gingerbread recipe plus another for the sugar icing used as mortar. After the dough was made and chilled, I rolled it out to a quarter inch thickness, overlaid the templates, cut around them and baked the walls, roof, and chimney. LB2

 

The next day of Advent we raised the house, mortared the roof to the walls, and cemented the chimney with a substantial pool of icing to the ridge peak. Then we created a frosting snowscape on a sturdy piece of foil-covered cardboard. Now the fun part began: candying up the cottage in such a way that Hansel and Gretel themselves couldn’t resist a visit. That was long ago, so I can only remember a few details of our candy adornments. I remember purchasing  assorted candies I thought appropriate to trim a gingerbread house. I know we used candy canes for the door frames and lintels. Windows we piped on the walls with icing. We draped the eaves with frosting icicles. A portion of the foil we left exposed to represent a frozen pond. Beside the pond we upended an ice cream sugar cone, covered it with frosting peppered with candy dots to create an outdoor Christmas tree. Although I can’t recall the various sweetings we used to appoint our little confectionary cottage, I do remember the confection we used to shingle the roof: Necco wafers. The roofing stage was time consuming and required two Necco cylinders: a drop of icing, slap down a Necco, making sure that no two like-colored wafers overlapped. The Necco shingles I’ll never forget and for this reason:Westin Gingerbread house

After Christmas that year we stored away all the trappings including the gingerbread house. We found a cardboard box that fit the little display perfectly and up into the attic it went with the rest of Christmas. Next year we retrieved the box and found the gingerbread house stale, but intact. Once again it complimented the other Christmas displays in the household. That Christmas passed. Post-Christmas up into the attic again with the gingerbread house. Year two. Once more we hauled Christmas down and set about to decorate. Space was cleared for the gingerbread display. To our surprise, when we opened the special box to remove our gingerbread creation, the box was empty, not a crumb of gingerbread to be found… empty that is except for Necco wafers scattered willy nilly across a stale frosting snowscape. The snow frosting was littered with chocolate sprinkles which turned out to be mouse droppings. Truth be told, Necco wafers, should I feel the urge for a candy snack, I wouldn’t give a moment’s consideration. Apparently the tastes of mice and men run pretty much the same.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Life on the Fast Corner, Lap Two…

the fast cornerAccording to Brett de Vries, the yellow caution flag has been out on The Tualco Valley Speedway recently. Brett motioned me over for a pit stop chat the other day. “Have you noticed the sheriff out in the Valley lately?” he asked. When I told him I hadn’t, Brett filled me in on the latest development  in the campaign to discourage speeding on the Tualco Loop Road (“The Tualco Valley Speedway…or Life on the Fast Corner,” 9/16). I replied that I hadn’t.

“About four o’clock every afternoon,” Brett complained, “ they’d line up in both lanes on down the road between Ed’s and Tony’s and race each other to the corner. One afternoon I saw them setting up to race and backed my rig across the right lane in front of the house.” The two drivers, both of foreign origin, pulled back in line when they saw the lane blocked. “They stared at me; I stared at them,” Brett continued. “Then they flashed me the familiar American sign language and drove off. That’s when I called the sheriff’s office and asked to talk to a sheriff. I told him the county road had become a speedway and he could empty his ticket book in just a couple of evening patrols.” Thinking back on the incident, Brett admitted his roadblock perhaps wasn’t the most prudent thing to do since he set up the blockade right in front of his residence. If the speeders’ had retaliation on their minds, I thought, at least they’d have to slow at the corner to take aim at their target.

“Farm machinery uses the road,” Brett explained to the sheriff, “and there’s a precious old man who routinely rides his bike along this stretch.” A precious old man? Riding a bicycle? Who might that be, I wondered, but only for a moment. The bicycle tipped me off. Brett was talking about me; I was the “precious old man.” For a moment I was speechless. In my thirty-one years of teaching, I’ve weathered countless terms of endearment, but I can say with certainty that “precious” was not among them. In fact I can’t recall that term ever being used in reference to myself. And just as I was basking in the glow of  preciousness, Brett hit me with “old man,” a designation that nearly poleaxed me: first time, and to my face, anyone had ever referred to me as an “old man.” The “precious” quickly sloughed off into the void and I was left feeling like I should be wearing a baseball cap with the words “Old Geezer” printed boldly on the brim. “Old man,” eh?   Jim Werkhoven remarked a year or so ago: “They say seventy is the new sixty, but don’t believe it…seventy is seventy, that’s the truth of the matter, pure and simple….” Brett had pretty much said the same thing, but in a gentler way.

So I continued on my way, just a “precious old man” taking some small consolation in the fact that while he was pedaling along the Tualco Valley Speedway, someone was looking out for him and all the other precious old men in the Valley.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From The Ripple’s Lost and Found Page…

We returned home from a trip to the big city and found this flier on our doorstep. ‘Tis never the season to lose a pet, especially around the Christmas season. When you’re out and about in the Valley, please keep an eye out for little Mary Jane. I’m sure all the Christmas Bob wants is for her to be found and returned safe and unharmed. lost pup

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mixed Signals in the Valley…

good dog, bad dog

…lends a whole new meaning to the phrase,“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me:…”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Reminiscing Among Swans…

swan fieldThe swans have returned to their Valley wintering grounds. I’ve heard them and observed their twilight flyovers for a month at least. Just recently, though, they’ve been foraging in the Valley cornfields. Because of our current stretch of cold weather, I’m footing it in the Valley these days: the wind chill factor and Gladys’s blistering pace would spell frostbite for sure. The other day I was delighted to see a congregation of swans, two hundred at least, in Johnny Deck’s cornfield. As unobtrusively as possible, I strutted briskly along the road past Swiss Hall, hoping my lumbering pace wouldn’t spook them. The nearest swan contingent immediately up-periscoped and began their swan gabble (where the phrase “swan’s song” came from is a mystery to me). Some of the closest began a slow waddle toward the middle of the field; distance is safety. Soon the entire host was protesting my presence, the lot of them sounding like an ensemble of first year clarinet students. As I continued along, most shut off their klaxons and resumed grubbing up the roots of the cornstalks. On my return leg, the swans replayed their earlier scenario.swans on alert

Somewhere between the “Beware of Dog” sign and the Barrell Man’s house an unfamiliar cry overhead made me look up just in time to see three geese gliding south. Geese, not swans…and not honking bandit-faced Canadian geese either, the cry of these three more like the bark of a small dog than a honk. “Must be snow geese,” I thought, remembering a conversation with my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L the other day. She had seen a flock of snow geese down valley, a surprise to her. “I could tell by their black wingtips,” she said. The trio flyover was my first sighting of snow geese. They are plentiful in the Skagit Valley, but I had yet to see them here. Birders I’ve talked to say it’s not uncommon for trumpeter swans and snow geese to forage together. This may be so, but distinguishing between the two species from a cluster of white birds at a distance makes identification difficult without a spotting scope .

As the three geese sail down Valley, my mind wanders with them to the south-east coast of Essex, England, to the “Great Marsh, the saltings, mudflats and tidal pools,” a wild and desolate place where the fresh water estuaries mingle with the brackish waters of the cruel North Sea. A world teetering on the brink of war has yet to reach this remote outpost. Thus the setting of The Snow Goose, a poignant little story by Paul Gallico. The snow geese sighting reminds me it’s been years since I read this wonderful little book.swan commute

I pull the slim volume, not much thicker than a large pamphlet, from the shelf. It is a gem of a book, Gallico’s, noteworthy if for no other reason than it is a masterpiece of word economy…each and every word works to a purpose; to leave a word out would be a noticeable oversight; to add one more, an obvious excess. The Snow Goose is the story of Philip Rhayader, a man whose physical deformities have alienated him humankind, a recluse by circumstance and choice. Women are repelled by him; men are uncomfortable in his presence and avoid him. A lover of wildlife, especially waterfowl, Rhayader purchases an abandoned lighthouse and many surrounding acres of marsh and saltings which he turns into a refuge for numerous species of migrating waterfowl.flight of swans The lighthouse becomes his home; the sanctuary, a source of subject matter for his paintings of migrating birds. Village folk know him as that strange chap who lives alone and paints pictures of birds. Hunters detest him because he interferes with their sport. When he’s not tending his tame birds or painting, he sets sail in a tiny sixteen foot sailboat and sails the coast sometimes for days, frequently venturing into the open sea.

It is a snow goose that forms a bond between Philip and the young girl Frith who lives among the village fisherfolk. One day Rhayader answers a knock at the door and finds the girl standing on the stoop. She holds in her arms an injured snow goose and knowing his reputation as a protector of wildlife, especially waterfowl, has come seeking aid for the wounded bird. Philip readily recognizes the goose as a snow goose and shares his amazement with Frith: the snow goose is a native of Canada, he tells her, a species not found among the flocks of local migratory birds. A great storm, he continues, has driven the bird before it, across the Atlantic, east across England to the marshes of Essex where local hunters shot and wounded it. Frith stands by while Rhayader clips and binds the injured wing and splints the broken leg. “In a few days she will be feeling much better,” he tells the girl.

From time to time Frith returns to the lighthouse to check on the goose’s progress. A day comes when the bird is whole, and heeding the call of other migrating birds, takes flight with them and disappears. The snow goose is gone; the bond between Frith and Rhayader is broken but resumes anew the next fall when surprisingly the goose returns to the lighthouse with other migrating flocks. The ritual continues over the years. Frith is now a young woman with a young woman’s sentiments and has ambivalent feelings about the nature of her friendship with a man such as Philip. The snow goose, however, buffers their relationship. Meanwhile the rest of the world has erupted in war.

One day Frith visits the lighthouse and is alarmed to discover a frantic Rhayader loading his little sailboat with provisions. Hundreds of British troops, he tells her, have been pushed to the sea at Dunkirk. Every available fishing boat, freighter, barge has set sail to rescue the doomed troops. Frith pleads to go with him, but Philip gently refuses her request; her presence would mean room for one less soldier in the small boat. Frith protests she’ll never see him again and then realizes her bond with him goes beyond their common love of the snow goose. Nevertheless, Philip sets sail, heads out to open sea. But Rhayader is not alone. The snow goose, like a guardian spirit, circles the small craft as it sails off into danger.

Gallico’s story is rich in symbolic pathos--both the snow goose and Rhayader are outlanders, outsiders, outcasts, freaks of nature, so to speak. The Snow Goose is a wonderful story for readers young and old. It’s a short book. You can read it in less than an hour. I did. However, if you are a sensitive reader, you might allow yourself some extra time in case you have to round up a box of tissues.The Snow Goose

(NOTE: In 1971 Gallico’s story was adapted to film starring the late Richard Harris who plays a very credible Philip Rhayader. The film stays true to the book and the cinematography does a masterful job capturing the windswept desolation of the story’s setting and the chaos and panic among the besieged troops in the harbor and on the beaches at Dunkirk.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Pretty Faces Behind your Coffee…

Gable Coffee Co.The days are short now and darkness comes early. Wind and rain rule the day. Nighttime, too. You add extra layers of clothing before venturing outdoors. Sunshine is a rare commodity these days, but if it’s warmth you crave on these chilly mornings, a steaming cup of coffee is certain to drive away the gloom, and just as good—if not better—than sunshine is coffee served with a smile and by a pretty face.

Mid-March this year Beebes’ corner became decaffeinated. The Ripple posted about the abrupt departure of the little blue latte stand known as Tropical Blends (“Oh, Where, Oh, Where has the Little Stand Gone, 4/18): there in the morning, vanished on down the road in the afternoon, leaving  in the dust at least one disgruntled customer with a worthless fully paid up punch card. The only remnant tropical was the bewildered little palm standing abandoned, fronds still quivering in the slipstream. And so for nearly five months the Valley commuters experienced caffeine withdrawal.

One day, mid-summer, a successor moved onto the abandoned site and teetered there for a week or two. A garish yellow, as if painted by a DOT striping crew—an eyesore, at least to this observer—the little hovel made me wish the Valley had a covenant on paint schemes. For a week or so the little structure tilted there like a big pile of misplaced mustard.new tenant at BB corner Then on weekends a flurry of activity surrounded the little hut and three weeks later a tasteful renovation had transformed the structure into a quaint little coffee cottage. The bilious yellow disappeared under warm cedar shingles. Miniature dormers sprouted above the serving windows and a tasteful green trim complimented the soft brown of the milled shakes.

One weekend while work was in progress, I stopped by and met Mike Kahler, handyman/co-owner of the stand. Mike laid down his nail gun and we chatted about the new business. At that time his wife Taylor, juggling an armload of child, appeared at the door of the stand. I complimented them on their fine job of renovating the tawdry little structure and candidly shared  my fear that Beebe corner might be doomed to yellow blight. Mike laughed and then shared a brief history of the building. Apparently the hut was an immigrant from up north. Rumor has it the stand may have had a “colorful” past. Mike was reluctant—adamant, in fact—to say much more about its history, didn’t want the new enterprise to be the Valley pariah. Pry as The Ripple would, no more information was forthcoming but was told that in this incarnation the stand was a “family friendly” business. Whatever its colorful past even a latte stand deserves a second chance. “We hope to be open for business August 1st,” Mike grinned.

Three weeks later, the week the Evergreen State Fair opened, the stand passed inspection and coffee was ready to be served. The Ripple, hoping to be the first customer, arrived at the stand about three hours too late (punctuality is not The Ripple’s strongpoint. Thus this belated post: here it is, late November and Gable’s Coffee Company has been in business nearly four months). To welcome the new business to the Valley, I presented a bouquet of backyard dahlias at the serving window.

An eponymous title, Gable’s Coffee Company takes its name from Kahlers’ son Gabe (the “armload” of child I mentioned earlier). Gabe’s mom Taylor is the CEO, president, CFO, manager: all of these in addition to serving her shifts as barista.Taylor and Gabe (“Taylor Kahler”: there’s a helpful mnemonic for you.) The other day, between customers, I chatted with Taylor about her business. “What’s the mission statement of Gable’s Coffee Company?” I asked her. Taylor lifted a punch card from a stack by the window, flipped it over, and handed it to me. “Enjoy Life One Cup At a Time” the back of the card stated, a slogan I appreciated for both its brevity and sincerity. Taylor, I learned, has been a barista for eight years. “Starbucks?” I asked. She shook her head. “At Starbucks, everything is programmed and pushbutton,” she complained. “I like to make my own blends and be more involved in the end result. Serving coffee at a Starbucks just isn’t as much fun.”

Not only is Gable’s Coffee Company family-friendly, it’s a family business, as well. Mike’s the handyman. Taylor manages the stand. Shifts are shared by younger sister Asia Rush. Even little Gabe is involved. One day I stopped by and discovered him on the floor of the stand unwinding a roll of paper towels; should Mom spill a beverage, Gabe had her back . And Asia? “What’s the story behind your name?” I asked her. AsiaShe said it was her dad’s choice. “Is that his favorite continent?” I wondered, thinking she should be thankful he hadn’t taken a fancy to Kazakhstan or Constantinople. Sister Taylor later explained her father chose the name because of a  beautiful little African American child who happened to be named “Asia.”

Madison Langton (“Madi,” she likes to be called) fills in part time, usually taking the afternoon shift. Madi’s is a familiar face you may have recognized from Mike Bennett’s fruit and vegetable stand next door where she has worked the past two years.   Madison

I admire entrepreneurship, especially on the part of the young and ambitious. Small business, whether it be a corner lemonade stand or hotdog cart, is part of the fabric of America. Having one’s own business and running it successfully is an accomplishment to be proud of. On my trips to town and back I make a point to check out the little stand on the corner. Almost always I see cars lined up for coffee and perhaps a pastry side dish (the pastries come from Sky Valley Bakery in town. By the way, the stand also sells local honey). “So how’s business?” I asked Taylor recently as she prepared my wife’s favorite latte. “I’m able to pay all my bills”she smiled,  “and put some money in the bank.” You couldn’t ask more from a business than that, could you?latte ad

My very first experience with a latte stand was years ago. Imagine my surprise when I discovered you could no longer walk up to the counter and order a cup of coffee. No such thing anymore. Caffeinated beverages now had exotic names and you had to use a  whole new language when you ordered a drink. I discovered the closest thing to my “cup of coffee” was called an “Americano.” So an Americano (just a “tall,” please) is now my drink of choice.  And, no, I don’t want double or triple shots, sugar, whip, or anything else. Just serve up my coffee with a smile and a pretty face…that’s all the sweetener I need. And at Gable’s Coffee Company, in addition to beverages at a reasonable price, you’ll get plenty of that.Coffee and more...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mindless Work…

Tony in the Fallit is, raking leaves. Like riding a bicycle: once you learn, you never forget. You select a certain area of lawn and move in a circular pattern, clockwise, surround the leaves, sweep them inward. With each revolution the circle shrinks, the leaves pile up. The rake performs a rhythmic scratching. Your body dips and sways, a clumsy ballet among the leaves. The work involves only shoulders, arms, extending and pulling incessantly; while your body is thus occupied, your thoughts, however, are free to wander.

What do I think about while the rake scratches up the fallen leaves? The rhythmic swing of the rake, its repetition. The simplicity of the routine brings to mind the character Konstantin Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the image of the serf-sympathetic Levin waist deep in his own hayfield, swinging a scythe and leaving in its wake swath after swath of new mown hay.

And then there are the leaf thoughts:

I think of the young girl Margaret in the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall,” who grieves the loss of the summer leaves from Goldengrove. The poet tells her it’s not so much the dying leaves she mourns as “the blight man was born for,” her own mortality.

That brilliant fall of my first year of teaching in Winthrop: I think of cottonwood yellow lining the Chewuck River, their reflections like roiling gold in the cobalt waves. And how, too, like gold flecks the fallen leaves rode the currents and eddies until the banks were rimmed in yellow. I look to the looming mountain slopes where groves of quivering poplar are brilliant yellow swatches among the dark firs.

asparagus mulchI think about the heaps of leaves I’ll fork on the dahlia bed, a leafy comforter against the frost, nourishment for the soil, a cover of mulch for the dormant asparagus…winter forage for hungry earthworms.

I think how the next six months the walnut tree and the backyard maple will be bare against the sky, and how much improved my view of the Valley will be once the nursery stock to the west has shed its leaves, how once again I’ll be able to see Tony’s house, Ed’s barn and soon his Christmas lights.

And I wonder what’s on my grandson’s mind as he happens upon the heap of leaves I’ve carefully raked into a pile. Rakin' buddy

Just as I thought…a puddle to splash in, a pile of leaves to pounce on…ah, the sweet life of a child.had to do it

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ridin’ the Kale Trail…

field of kale“Pick me a couple nice kale leaves while you’re over there,” my mom called as I went out the door. My brother Keith was out of town and he assigned me the task of securing his greenhouse for the evening, closing the windows, checking the temperature, making sure the peppers, tomatoes and greens were preparing for bed. The kale leaves? My mom wanted them for next morning’s green smoothie. Keith has made “green smoothie” converts of the rest of the family…except for one, that is: at this posting I remain a staunch holdout.

“My husband and I are planting kale next year,” Melissa at Albertson’s meat counter informs me as she wraps up a pound of bacon. While Melissa was fussing around in the cold case, I was talking up this year’s bumper tomato crop. “Kale,” I asked,”why kale?” “Oh, it’s very healthy for you, you know,” she smiled.

Recently I had the good fortune to spend a few hours in the hospital for some minor surgery. Among the topics my two attendant nurses bantered back and forth was the subject of lunch at the hospital cafeteria. Both, it so happened, had chosen kale side dishes. Kale? In a hospital cafeteria?

A goliath among health foods is kale these days. In the past, kale’s public appearances were mainly occasioned as garnishment for restaurant fare, a crinkly sliver of green tucked conveniently to the side of the plate as if guarding the meal; the leaf was usually all that remained on the plate after the meal was finished. But currently kale has made the big time, its popularity spotlighted even in literature. In a recent issue The New Yorker magazine published a poem about kale. “Kale,” was its title…pretty straightforward, but then what subtleties are possible for a leafy vegetable? Poetry, of course, embraces a multitude of  topics, but “kale” as a subject poetic? The poet and friend James visit a kale patch in winter, shake the snow off the stumps of kale (“the flat variety” and the “low, curly variety”), heap a popcorn bowl full of leaves and quit the field en route, most likely, to the nearest blender. I’m not much of a poetry critic, but a little rhyme might have made the topic more palatable. And munching leaves of kale while watching a sporting event? Seems downright Un-American.

These late fall days when Gladys and I are out and about in the Valley, we see kale up and personal, fields of it, long rows of stumps topped by an umbrella of leaves like so many bonzaied palm trees. road kaleThe fields can’t contain the kale; we find kale leaves in the middle of the road, on the shoulder, dangling from a strand of fence wire. The leaves are deserters from the big plastic tubs brimful of the stuff. As the tubs are carted from the fields, the leaves swirl out in the slipstream like so much green exhaust. Even kale will do anything to avoid being smoothied. Gladys and I steer clear of these slippery road hazards. Wouldn’t want to have a kalamity, now would we?

He raises three varieties of kale, my brother Keith tells me: dinosaur (dino), curly (each leaf a badlands for bands of outlaw aphids), and red Russian. His garden and greenhouse feature all three varieties. My brother has been known to browse his lawn and garden for green breakfast fare: weeds (dandelion smoothies), grass clippings, milfoil from the river. But his go-to smoothie leaf is kale (with chard a close second). He gathers a fistful of variety from his plantings and heads for the kitchen sink to give the leaves a vigorous washing.dino kale  After most of the aphids, earwigs, and other crawlies have been spritzed away, he stuffs the leaves in the blender, pulverizes the kale into a green ooze, pours the mess into a tall glass, and downs his breakfast. My mom, on the other hand, pours her smoothie into an opaque container. “So I don’t have to look at it while I drink it,” she laughs. rebor kale

On one of my daughter’s visits, she introduced us to kale chips, kale leaves brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with garlic salt, and then baked on a cookie sheet. There was not much substance to the chips; a handful, perhaps, equaled a fair sized kettle-cooked potato chip in volume, more like garlic-flavored dust. The kale crinkles tasted nothing like potato chips, however, but garlic flavored olive oil with a hint of alfalfa hay. Further investigation of kale chips led me to purchase a bag of them at Freddie’s. Like most of the products one finds at a health food store, I found these chips unpalatable…there’s just something not right about a food that tastes like it came from a haystack.

Let’s just say, by some remote chance, you’d like to go green, hitch a ride on the kale express, sport a green moostache, are looking for some variety at breakfast time. If this kale craze (“cult” seems a bit over the top) has drawn you in, I’ve provided a link to my brother’s blog where he’s shared some of his favorite smoothie recipes. At this posting, as I mentioned earlier, I remain the sole smoothie holdout in our family.

The first time Keith showed me his tall glass of green breakfast,  my immediate response was: “The only way I’d drink that was if I had four stomachs.”

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Ripple Airs a Gripe…

fogboundFog. This time of the year the Valley is socked in. Valley fog does not pussyfoot around like Carl Sandburg’s “little cat’s feet” fog. Ours is hardcore fog, fog that could strangle a foghorn. Just a bit of heat during the day followed by a crisp, clear night and next morning the Valley is slammed shut in a gray box…and a while back the Valley was one long fogbank for an entire two weeks.

Our routine is such these days that we have to make a trip to Everett five days a week. We leave at 8:00 a.m., must be in Everett by 9:00. The most stressful part of the drive, if you can believe it, is just pulling out of our driveway onto the state highway. On these foggy days it takes a leap of faith to enter a 55 mph thoroughfare, especially when the visibility is oblivion beyond three car lengths. My gripe? Drivers who rush headlong through the fog with their headlights off, and as always seems to be the case, their cars are white, silver… or fog-colored. They come in darkness, looming out of the fog like ghosts, ghosts that move at a spectral speed of fifty-five miles an hour as if it were July, midday. They are a road liability, those drivers. You know they are out there somewhere and so before you roll onto the highway, you crank down your windows, peer into the wall of gray, listen, say a brief prayer, and timidly venture forth, stressed out before you’ve left your own driveway.

You know, when you think about it, they’re downright disrespectful—rude, even—these drivers, who oblivious to the safety of others--and themselves--hurtle down the highway as nonchalantly as if they were piloting a stealth bomber. Flash your lights at them. Go ahead. Do it. Glance in the rearview mirror. Have they illuminated themselves? No. No one is going to tell THEM how to drive; “I don’t care if I kill you, kill myself, drive willy-nilly into a ten car pileup down the road…nobody’s going to tell ME how to drive. Mind your own business, won’tcha ?” That’s their mindset. An oncoming car flashes its lights at me and I’m grateful; not only does the act warn me of a potential hazard ahead, but also tells me the driver isn’t just thinking of his own safety but the other guy’s, as well.

Years back we hired a zany lady to paint the inside of the house. Just a wisp of a thing, all bone and gristle, she looked like she walked right off the front of a Leaning Tree greeting card, replete with cigarette dangling from her mouth, downwind eye asquint dodging the smoke. She had a bumper sticker on her car with the words: “Visualize World Peace…Hell! Visualize your Turn Signal!” To you witless drivers who rush about in the fog I say, “Visualize your headlight switch so I can visualize you.” Let’s visualize each other, shall we?foggy morning

So if I happened to win the Washington State Lottery, how would I use my winnings? Not purchase my own diesel locomotive, nor a life size slot car complete with track. Nothing that extreme. No, I would have a stoplight installed on the state highway where our driveway intersects. I’d use it only on foggy mornings. I promise….

Friday, October 25, 2013

GMO…OMG!…From the Editor’s Desk…

contented bovines“…or of the force or the grace of nature as she appeared when left entirely to herself, without human interference.”

M. Proust, Swann’s Way

Just like colorful amanita mushrooms they’re sprouting up on every corner…campaign signs. Yes, it looks like a record crop of tomato stakes this season—and high quality wooden stakes they are, too—not those flimsy wire withes that flap about in the wind like elephant ears whenever a vehicle passes. ‘Tis the season of rhetoric, promises…admonitions,…recriminations,…ah, yes, we’ve heard it all before ad nauseam.

As I thumbed through today’s mail, I came across a glossy propaganda flier urging me, for the welfare of my family, to vote NO! on Initiative 522 which would require grocery items produced by GMO technology to be labeled as such. A young woman, a homemaker one assumes--definitely a brunette--is superimposed against an array of shelved grocery items. Chin in hand, a quizzical look on her face that seems to say: “There’s has to be a mistake on this grocery receipt slip I’m holding.” (Or perhaps she left her list at home and is puzzling over “I’ve forgotten something…I just know there was something else.”)

I-522: “ To label, or not to label” appears to be the controversy de jour of Washington State’s 2013 political circus. So who’s to believe: the long-haired blonde who reads labels when she shops as the bulbs dim around her (Sorry…The Ripple does not stoop to blonde jokes), or the brunette who casts a critical glance at her grocery receipt? And where, I ask, is the redhead for the swing vote?

The Ripple prides itself on steering clear of politics, but because our Valley has a good portion of acreage planted in herbicide-resistant silage corn, The Ripple invokes its editorial privilege in this post by addressing what appears to be the hot button of the political season’s thin crop of initiatives.

Let me, as the saying goes, “leap into the breach” with a few observations about “To label” or “Not to label.” First of all, I believe both camps do little to make a legitimate case for their respective positions on the issue. The labelers maintain it’s their right to know what grocery foodstuffs contain and how the foods they buy are produced; it’s a  freedom of information sort of thing. There is a new generation of consumers out there, young families with young mothers who are super vigilant about their family’s wellbeing and  diet and where their children’s nutrition is concerned are hyper-sensitive. They are the “more fresh fruits and vegetables, less processed foods” contingent. GMO is anathema to them--as if the word denotes “tampered with” or “contaminated.” Rather than using the “right to know” tack, it seems their cause might be better served by bringing some science to their argument, present some facts, some statistics, some rock solid proof that consumers should be leery of genetically tweaked comestibles. Besides, a label that reads “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be produced with genetic engineering” provides as much helpful information as packaging that states the container is“made from recycled paper.”

“A horrible truth in America: money talks. Not truth, not society, [not health], not art, but money, and when money talks, it doesn’t tell the truth, it talks money.

                                                                                   Garrison Keillor

On the other hand, the “Vote No” camp, instead of promoting GMO technology as a harmless and beneficial use of science, sidesteps the issue and zeros in on the financial burden to consumers, a red herring that twists the issue’s focus to fiscal health instead of physical health. The anti I-522 campaign has outspent the pro camp three to one. Why? Because, they say, they’re concerned about cost, but cost to whom? Well, cost to agribusinesses, of course, and the food conglomerates, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, all of whom have a bottom-line interest in producing and marketing their merchandise. The Office of Financial Management has projected I-522’s cost to taxpayers at three million dollars (three of four areas of expenditures are deemed “indeterminate”) over a five year span, a minimal amount compared to the expense taxpayers bear for transportation costs incurred by state government officials over the same period, it would seem. Such a minimal sum for a six or seven word label would hardly deter those shoppers who regularly pay more per pound for “organic” and “certified organic” produce at the grocery store. (The label on my gallon jug of milk tells me its contents come from cows not “treated with rbST”; I don’t recall the cost for this labeling ever being an issue.)

A few more considerations: Washington State is the only state in this election cycle voting on a GMO issue. (A similar initiative failed in California where corporate monies overwhelmed the “Yes” contingent.) Why Washington State only is the issue’s battleground this time around is puzzling. If the initiative passes, not only grocery products would require labeling. I-522 mandates that any seed or seed stock produced through genetic engineering must be labeled accordingly, also. (In regards to seed: there is a class action suit pending against Monsanto Co. by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Associates (OSGTA), producers of seed from openly pollinated crops. OSGTA’s concern is that genetic drift from GMO crops will taint non-GMO crops and fears that Monsanto will bring legal action against its members, claiming patent infringement. That GMO seed could affect the state’s economy is a concern I-522 addresses, as well. In recent months Japan imposed a temporary embargo on Oregon wheat, fearing GMO contamination.)

While innovation is a human prerogative (and passion), sometimes new technology brings with it unintended consequences: for instance, cellphone and other handheld electronic gadgetry have made our roadways, in my opinion, at greater risk for safety. GMO technology and its products may prove the same. Who knows? There just hasn’t been enough time gone by, studies done, to say for sure. And it’s not that easy to put one over on Mother Nature without some consequence or other. Soybean growers in the southern states have used GMO-Round-Up resistant seed to combat the omnipresent pigweed only to discover that a new, hardy R-U resistant strain has evolved. Soybean farmers now have to employ fieldworkers to remove the pigweed by hand, adding additional labor costs to their profits. A weed is by nature evolutionally programed not only to survive, but prevail and triumph. A concern of mine is how many new herbicides/pesticides must be concocted and applied to cropland to stay one step ahead of these New Millennium herbaceous pests and what effect will these new applications have upon livestock, wildlife, and human health?

That a few extra words on a package should cause such a firestorm of controversy borders on the ridiculous, a tempest in a teapot, if you will; however, for the consumer concerned about the diet, health, and wellbeing of their families, what could a little more information hurt?

As to where the editor stands on shopping, labels and labeling, let me share the following anecdote. During one ballgame Hank Aaron, the great “Hammerin’ Hank,”stepped up to the plate for his turn at bat. He dug in, settled into his stance, and was awaiting the first pitch when one of his teammates issued a warning about the position of Hank’s bat: “Hey, Hank! You’ve got the trademark pointed the wrong way.” Hank signaled “Time,” stepped out of the batter’s box, turned to the dugout and said: “I’m up here to bat, not read.”

Monday, October 14, 2013

Robbing the Bees…

honey cropI stopped by the espresso stand on Beebe Corner the other day. The afternoon was warm and the various fragrances drifting from the stand had attracted the hornets. As per hornet habit, they were on the hunt for a syrupy repast which bordered on harassment, an intrusion the pretty barista condemned by a scathing comment about “bees.” As I have been around honeybees most of my life, I am quick to come to their defense and as so often in the past tactfully explained that everything that barnstorms your head is not a bee. As the comely young lady was preparing my drink (non-syrupy, by the way), our conversation shifted from bees to honey. “It’s bee poop, honey, isn’t it?” she asked. Shades of Wikipedia. Honey? Bee poop? Valley bee poopAs strange as it may seem, this is not the first time I’ve heard such a thing from a member of the general public. Now I’m opposed to marketing honey as a “raw” product. (To me, “raw” implies “unprepared,” like “raw” chicken, “raw” fish; “pure” is the term I prefer for the unadulterated product.) Imagine trying to market the bees’ ambrosia as “bee poop.”

I shouldn’t be so hard on my young coffee server. What honey is and where it comes from, I’m afraid, remains a mystery to many consumers. I jokingly tell folks you just take a bucket out by the beehive and ask the bees to “fill ‘er up.” And I’m certain some may believe it, too.

“Robbing the bees; taking off the honey; pulling honey”: I’ve heard  these phrases used in reference to removing the season’s honey crop. Regardless if you’re a beekeeper given to euphemism and balk at the term “robbing” to describe harvesting your honey crop, it is a necessary part of the fall routine. After all, we’re the caretakers of “honey” bees, aren’t we? The bucket joke aside, honeycombs must be removed and hauled to the extracting room. At harvest time, a honeybee colony is at near peak population, the honeycombs swarming with bees, 40,000 to 70,000 of them. They’ve worked hard for their ambrosia and cling to the combs, reluctant to part with a drop of their labor. So the bees must go.

There are several methods used to clear the bees from the extracting combs. To my knowledge I’ve used all but one. Make that two if there’s truth to the story that some commercial beekeepers summering their bees in Canadian fireweed and alsike clover found it economically feasible to “rob” all the honey, gas their bees at season’s end, and replace them the next year. Due to the current mite infestation and subsequent high colony mortality, I’m sure this practice, if indeed it were once used, would not  be a viable practice today. The methods I’ve used:

Brushing the bees from the comb. For the hobbyist with one or two colonies, this is perhaps the most practical. Combs are removed one at a time, and after a hard shake or two to dislodge the majority, a soft plastic bristled bee brush is used to sweep off the last hangers on. One at time the bee-free combs are placed in an empty box and set aside.bee brush

Escape boards. These “exit only” devices are placed beneath the bee laden honey boxes. The traditional “bee escape” consists of a metal or plastic sleeve that allows the worker bee to squeeze through two flexible metal prongs (two sets per escape device) and go about her business but prohibit her from returning to the comb.plastic bee escape Other escape boards are maze-like and once the bee is out, she can’t find her way back into the honey super. As a rule most honey boxes are completely bee free in twenty-four hours and once shed of their company can then be lifted off and taken to the extracting site. The escape board method is not foolproof, however. If any of the extracting combs contain brood or perhaps pollen, attendant bees, whose job it is to work indoors, will remain behind to tend to their business. Sometimes a bee corpse, a larger drone, perhaps, will jam the exit prongs. Using boards with two or three escapes allows the bees multiple escape points should one of the others become jammed. A cautionary note about the escape board method: as there is usually a nectar dearth when honey is removed, bees are quick to assume a  robbing mode, and if there is any top access such as a hive lid askew or a lid vent open, the beekeeper is in for a big surprise.When he goes to lift off that honey laden box, he may well find it light as a feather; the bees will have taken back what’s rightfully theirs.escape board

Fume boards. By using a fume board, the beekeeper “stinks” the bees from the honey combs. A telescoping lid lined with absorbent padding replaces the standard lid in this method. The padding is doused with an odiferous chemical whose smell repels the bees, drives them down out of the honey supers. I have used two kinds of fume chemical: first, a product called Bee-Go which I found especially foul smelling; when the unsuspecting nose gets a whiff of this product, its owner immediately inspects the soles of his shoes to see if he may have stepped in something. The second product, much easier on the beekeeper’s olfactory, uses almond extract to remove the bees. The fume board is best  used on a hot afternoon on hives located in full sun. Painted black to absorb the heat, the tin-covered lid is set atop the honey box at a skewed angle for a few minutes,  time enough for the bees to start their exodus without being stunned. A few puffs of cool smoke from a smoker encourages them to move downward, as well. The lid is then positioned correctly and in fifteen minutes or so, the honey super, now free of bees, is removed. I’ve had the most success with fume boards in Eastern Washington on ninety degree plus days; in our locale there’s usually not enough heat for this method to work efficiently.fume board

Bee Blower. Back in the ‘80s I had a busy little bee business of sixty some colonies. The first of August half that number I trucked up the Methow Valley to let the bees work their magic on star thistle. Six weeks later I returned to harvest the thistle honey crop. In those days I removed bees from the honey laden supers with a bee blower, a customized leaf blower of sorts that generated a stream of air in excess of one hundred mph. bee blowerThat blower has sat dormant all these years in the loft of my shed.  Whether out of nostalgia or because the previously mentioned methods take more time, I decided to haul the red blaster out the attic this fall and make short work of harvesting the year’s  crop. I changed the oil, filled the gas tank, and thirty some years later after a few pulls on the starter cord, the machine roared to life.

I hauled the blower and a pair of sawhorses out to the bee yard and set to work. The blower has a corrugated tube, one end of which I twisted into the blower’s fan casing; into the opposite end I inserted a shop vac-sized crevice tool. As I removed a super, I upended it on the sawhorses, tipped it forward, and revved the blower engine to peak rpm. Then as I directed the stream of air between the frames, the bees whooshed out toward the entrance of their hive. Moving the crevice tool slowly up and down one frame after the other, I blasted the bees off the face of the combs.When the box was bee-free, I set it aside and moved on to the next. I was finished in half an hour’s time: six boxes full of honey…six boxes empty of bees. I had forgotten how well the system worked. (Another “windfall”: the whine of the blower drowned out the droning of hundreds of angry bees being “robbed.”) honey in the comb

“What method did you use to encourage the bees to leave your supers?” I asked Quenton during a recent visit to the Beez Neez Apiary supply. His answer supplied me with the only technique I have yet to try. “I took an empty box, set it on the ground, removed a super, turned it sideways and banged it up and down on the empty box until I knocked all the bees loose.” “Ah, you used the tough love approach, then?” I remarked. A smile crawled its way out of Quenton’s bush of a beard. “That’s what I’m all about,” he grinned.