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Monday, March 23, 2015

Corn Prone…

Jim's corn shellerYou tell me whar a man gets his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.

Mark Twain

It was some time back I stopped by the Beez Neez Apiary Supply to see what mischief my friend Jim Tunnell was up to. I found him in the supply room hunkered down and fussing over what appeared to be an instrument of torture, vestiges of the medieval Inquisition. “What in the world is that contraption?” I asked, puzzled at the Rube Goldberg machine he was tinkering with. Jim looked up from his labors, a big smile on his face as if he’d put the finishing touches on a miniature nuclear reactor. “It’s a corn sheller,” he boasted like he’d just won the lottery. “I discovered it at the Evergreen State Fair.” A corn sheller, eh? No household should be without one.

On the other hand, I would venture to say corn eating households know not the least thing about corn shellers ( The Ripple included until recently). And why would they? Sweet corn, “corn on the cob,” all sloppy with butter and (mind you) lightly salted, is the corn of preference, brought on platters steaming to the family table. Shuck the husks, pull away the silk, and immerse the ears in boiling water for five minutes or so: corn, the American way, buttered, tender, and mouth watering. And then, of course, there’s cornmeal in a box.

Seed catalogs these days feature a myriad of sweet corn varieties; however, if it’s corn meal you seek for corn bread, corn muffins, cornmeal mush, a pone or two, most catalogs are bereft of seed to accommodate. The old corn crib varieties--field corn or dent (so termed because a dimple forms as each kernel dries)--are corn grist for the mill. Two or three years back I sent for Reid’s dent corn seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (out of South Carolina). Reid's dent cornBecause of our short growing season I’ve only been able to harvest a few mature ears from the twelve foot stalks. (Note: most of the seed catalogs come from the East Coast or Midwest; their geography allows a longer growing season, so their seed to maturity dates don’t apply to our maritime climate: Reid’s dent 110 days) I pulled back the husks, bundled three or four ears together and hung them in the shed to dry.

Drying corn: a few years back I attended a swap meet/flea market at the Fairgrounds and happened upon a curious object, a piece of one inch stock eighteen or twenty inches long. Staggered on each of the four sides of the wood were spikes made from six or eight penny nails. The stake was topped off by a hook. The curio had a tag attached: “Corn dryer” it read. With a cob impaled on each spike, the mature corn could then be hung in a warm place to dry. A neat idea and simple to make.

Now the next best thing to having a corn sheller is to have a friend who has a corn sheller, and an added bonus is if same friend has a grain grinder. Jim Tunnell was such a friend. “Bring in your Reid’s dent and I’ll have my grandchildren shell it for you and I’ll grind it into meal,” Jim offered. Cornmeal from my own backyard garden…I was excited at the prospect. My two years’ crop yielded up just shy of a gallon of pale yellow grinds

When I opened one of the quart jars, the enticing aroma of fresh corn burst from within. It was as if I’d caught the drift of steam from a pot of bubbling sweet corn. I thought I’d conduct a little olfactory test, compare my store bought box of Alber’s cornmeal to my garden fresh ground. Pulling the box from the pantry, then lifting the lid, I let the open container drift under my nose a time or two. No corn smell whatsoever; my nose detected at best only a sterile nothing.

Cornbread is my text for today. Since I been in New York I’ve rarely been able to run acrost any cornbread like it was back home. Up here they put 2-3 flour and 1-3 sugar and I’ve even found it fell so low as to have raisins in it.  This is called cake in the west.

                                                                  Woody Guthrie

Not only did Jim shell and grind my corn, he loaned me his book of cornbread recipes: Jeremy Jackson’s The Cornbread Book and shared his favorite cornbread recipe. I thought I’d test drive my homegrown cornmeal and give Jim’s recommendation a try. The recipe follows.


                                       Buttermilk Cornbread

1 Tbsp plus 1/4 cup canola oil

1 1/2 cups cornmeal (store bought if you had a crop failure)

1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour (or 1/2 cup soft southern flour such as White Lily or Red Band)

2 tsp. sugar (Sorry, Woody)

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda (yes, soda, mind you)

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 large egg

Preheat oven to 450 F. When it’s reached 450, put the 1 Tbsp canola oil into a 9” x 9'” baking pan or a 10 1/2 inch iron skillet and put pan/skillet into the oven to heat.

Whisk dry ingredients together making sure there aren’t any lumps of baking soda visible.corn bread fixin's

Separately,whisk the buttermilk, egg, and 1/4 cup oil together until they are smooth. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir until just combined.

Remove the hot pan/skillet from the oven and pour the batter into the pan. The batter will sizzle as it hits the hot oil. Rock the batter into the corners of the pan and then quickly return  to the oven.

Bake the cornbread for 18-26 minute until it’s lightly browned. Serve hot.

Ah, the smell of fresh corn fills the kitchen, wafts its way into every corner of the house. And the flavor? Like munching breaded sweet corn. When I gushed about the cornbread’s wonderful flavor, Jim said he believed a portion of the grain germ is removed in commercial cornmeal, taking with it some of the distinct corn flavor.

Homegrown cornmeal…one more garden success to add to my “Some you Win” column. This year’s garden will feature a new maize: Earth Tones dent corn. Eighty-five days to maturity which knocks an entire month off Reid’s dent corn. Ah, pastel cornbread…I can hardly wait.pastel cornmeal

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Gladys Breaks Wind…

GladysI’m on mare’s shanks again in the Valley. Yes, hoofin’ it is my principal means of transport these days and I’ll be afoot indefinitely, I fear. A few days ago I was spinning along on Gladys and coming up on the Barrell Man’s house when I heard a sharp crack and subsequent whistle, then a long sighhhhhhh. I can’t approach Martys’ place without thinking about moles: their property is currently under heavy siege. My first thought was “gunshot,” and too close for comfort: the Martys are fighting back. Or am I, myself, under fire? A quick glance at my surroundings revealed no weapon, no shooter, no need to hit the deck. In quick order I processed the situation: Gladys had just plain let me down. Down in front anyway. Her front tire as flat as a pancake. Strike that last: The Ripple can do far better… flat as the Earth before the Enlightenment….flat as a three-day old ‘possum on a state highway… flat as…. In short, Gladys had gone flat out. In the Old Gal’s favor, though, she didn’t leave me far from home; I always expected she’d strand me somewhere on the lower Loop, near the point of no return. I parked her next to a laurel bush across from Martys,’ footed it back home for the truck, retrieved my vintage ride, and hauled her home, dignity still intact.

Human nature seeks to find a scapegoat, point fingers, fathom out the well-source of blame while denying complicity. pancakedGladys and I have been gliding the Valley for years with scarcely more than an occasional wheez from the old harridan. So invoking the spirit of human nature, I armed my forefinger, and like a water witcher with his willow wand, waved it around until it waggled and settled upon the culprit, none other than Jimmy Dennis, as the root cause of my current pedestrian status.

Jimmy Dennis, the Valley’s diminutive self-appointed block watch captain. How many times have Gladys and I waved as we passed? How many times afoot have I high signed the Valley monitor, the sentinel of Tualco? Just the day before Gladys left me pounding the asphalt, I’d flagged Jimmy down, coincidentally, adjacent to the Frohnings’ mobile chicken hut and, tongue in cheek, chastised him for his laxity in guarding the hen house. Two days before, Sandy Frohning had led me to a pile of feathers that the day before had been her prime 3-P rooster, guardian of the hutch, now reduced to a pile of down and feathers that would scarcely fluff a small pillow. “You’re falling down on the job,” I tell Jimmy. “Whadddya mean?” he replied, and I break the sad news of of the guardian of the flock, lately deceased, victim of a coyote prowl. My gentle jest prompted a rant, a tirade from Jimmie D in which he excoriated the very existence of coyotes and eagles. Of the latter something about their numbers not warranting the “endangered species” ranking. My ears singed and the fumes of vituperation burning my nostrils, Gladys and I beat a hasty retreat.

Only to have Jimmy pull alongside us again a couple miles down the road. The ever vigilant Valley watch captain rolls down his window and  informs me: “Did you know your tires are flat?” New information to me. “No wonder my rides seem to take forever,” my weak response. Jimmy nods, smiles, and continues on his Valley beat, leaving Gladys and me to waddle our way home.

Let’s face it: Gladys and I have a lackadaisical relationship. Before our next outing I drag out the portable air tank and fill her tires to the “no give when pinched” level. The serious cyclist, I suppose, must have some inkling of the proper air pressure his ride requires. Even wouldn’t surprise me if a pressure gauge was somehow involved.When I’m astraddle Gladys, it’s difficult to look down over my shoulder to see what’s happening where the rubber meets the road. The blowout a coincidence? Or cause and effect (over inflation?) that Gladys aired out? In all fairness to Jimmy D I suspect it was obsolescence that left me stranded and afoot in the Valley. Contrary to her wishes, I posted her bio on The Ripple (“Roll on Columbia, Roll on…,” 3/2/2010) and outed her age. Who knows: her front tire might be the one she was born with. That tire had most certainly been around the block a few times (and countless trips around Tualco Loop, as well). Frayed

Three years ago I replaced Gladys’s rear tire. Two weeks it took to backorder a replacement for my Bicentennial vintage ride. I haven’t a clue where to begin looking for a front tire replacement, so while I search for new rubber, Gladys is biding her time in the garage, leaving The Ripple afoot, thus the news south of Swiss Hall  unreported. Until Gladys is up and running again, The Ripple would appreciate a “heads up”on news,Valley south, that needs reporting. Meanwhile the old matriarch sits in the garage with a deflated ego. Well, make that half an ego.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Eulogy for Mr. B…

A cat's lifeFifteen years ago Mr. B came to live with us. We weren’t in the market for a pet, especially a feline. “Kittens for adoption” the sign said, and that’s how our daughter, who loves animals, happened upon Mr. B. Although his provenance is sketchy, he and his litter mates had abandonment issues, were rescued from beneath a porch and somehow ended up penned in a small feed store where they were put up for adoption. The kindle of mewling kittens caught my daughter’s attention. On each subsequent visit she made sure to check out the penned litter. She was drawn to one kitten in particular, a tuxedo kitty, notably because of his anti-social behavior, namely hissing at anyone who came too near. By the time she decided to adopt a kitten, the rest of the litter had been taken. “I’m sorry…they’re all gone,” my daughter was told. “What about the one in back?” my daughter asked, pointing in the direction of the little misfit. “Oh, the mean one?” the clerk replied. her cat, for a whileMy daughter, compassionate and long the champion of the underdog (strange word in this post’s context), had no choice but to adopt “hissy kitty.” Not long after, her life became complicated, too complicated even to allow for a tiny kitten. She found a home for him, but for reasons you wouldn’t understand (and I’m not yet sure I do myself), I told her to call the party and tell them the kitten was no longer available. And so began our fifteen years with Ezra. 

She named him “Ezra” (aka “Hissy Kitty”), but that name didn’t stick. In his poem “The Naming of Cats” T.S. Eliot stated: “…a cat must have three different names.” Thus “Ezra” quickly corrupted into “Ezzie” and from there began a strange evolution of monikers that finally settled into the comfortable “Mr. B,” addressed more formally as just plain “Mister.” nap time

Mister spent the first two or three days hiding under our sofa, but then he warmed to us and his new surroundings; he accepted us, I must admit, before we were ready to accept him. (After all, he was just a cat.). He never was one to socialize, was Mister, and we came to understand this one flaw in his character, a personality quirk: he was a confirmed anti-socialite. Just the chiming of the doorbell or a rap at the door would send him scurrying to a safe vantage point on a dining room chair. If a visitor entered, Mister exited pell-mell down the hall and under our bed where he’d remain for hours, long after the imagined danger had passed. On the few occasions he ventured outdoors (Mister was an indoor cat), a loud noise or the rustling of a branch would send him bolting to the house, yowling to be let in. There must have been some serious demons under that porch.

In another eulogy to a cat, after his pet had passed, the author mused that in death he didn’t see much difference between his pet in life: cats do spend considerable time sitting And so did Mister, especially in his later years, but he was active enough to keep the household entertained—and not always in positive ways. In his younger days, when his springs worked, you were likely to find him just about anywhere. He seemed particularly fond of heights…atop the refrigerator or staring down at us from his perch on top of the tallest bookshelf. Once we looked everywhere for him and finally discovered him snoozing next to the stuffed calico cat on top of the armoire which he accessed in three stages: floor to bed, bed to window sill, sill to armoire. (Warm summer nights when we kept the windows open, we’d be startled awake as Mister launched himself from the bed to the sill to take in the night air.fridge cat

Although Mister came to us a kitten, we had no knowledge of his actual age, but he most certainly was born an Aquarius: that cat loved water—on his own terms, of course (for fear of getting slashed, we never bathed him but periodically wiped him down with cat wipes). Mister’s love of watering holes—any watering hole—called for some changes in household routines.ladder kitty Except when the facilities were in use, toilet lids were kept closed. All floral arrangements were at risk. In his desire to hydrate, Mister would tip over the vase, leaving us to mop up the damage the next day. We learned to put the vases out of reach before bedtime…but sometimes we forgot. When the woodstove was cold, the open ceramic pot on the woodstove was Mister’s personal oasis, too.  There he’d be head down in the pot slaking his thirst. And the shower pan…he couldn’t wait for us to finish showering so he could lap up any excesses. Christmas was his favorite season…one more watering hole, the tree stand. No matter how hard we tried to secure the tree skirt, velcro, safety and clothes pins, the next morning the skirt would be separated and there’d be a breach in the seam suspiciously in the shape of a cat’s head. Countless times we shooed him out of the seep water from the drainage dishes under the house plants.Ummm, tree water In his later years Mister delighted in lapping water from the deck downspout. He had an uncanny sense of when it had rained during the night and the next morning would aggressively vocalize his urge to rush out and sip at the waterspout. Summer or winter Mister particularly liked an ice cube or two in his principal watering hole.

After a rocky start Mister wove himself into the fabric of our lives, our daily routines. While my wife continued to work, Mister and I had the house to ourselves four days a week. Whenever I returned from errands or working outside, I would announce to Mister I had returned home just as one might address his spouse. comfyThen there’d be the brief hunt for him, wondering where he had settled for the day. “Dogs have masters; cats have staff” one saying goes…and Mister could be downright bossy at times. Woe unto me if I let his food dish run dry during the night lest I awake to feline curses in my ear. No sleep from then on unless I rolled out of bed and stumbled to his food station to refill his dish. (Mister couldn’t abide a bare spot at the bottom of that bowl.)  4:00 p.m. was Mister’s treat time, a fact of which he was quick to remind me… starting at 3:30—or earlier. Clink your spoon on your cereal bowl and he’d appear by your side as if by magic, wanting to get at the milk sopped dregs. In later years his naptime ended when my lunchtime began and he’d saunter in to check out the day’s lunch menu. On the rare occasions we had fresh crab for dinner, you might just as well set a third place at the table. If I sat in a certain chair (Mister’s petting chair), he took that as a signal to hop in my lap. Sometimes it was hard to know who conditioned whom.

Mister’s last few weeks were difficult for our household. We saw a robust cat of nineteen pounds dwindle to half that weight. He no longer kept his tail perpendicular; it trailed behind him like an afterthought. The mischief in his eyes gave way to a strange dullness. His food dish remained untouched. Though his hind legs would collapse from time to time, he insisted on following me everywhere I went…so much I felt it was animal cruelty every time I changed rooms. But I was helpless to help him. One day he couldn’t leap up on the bed where he’d slept for the past two weeks, wanting to be near us.  We took that as the sign our fifteen years together was at an end. We said our good-byes at 9:00 a.m., February 27th, at our local animal clinic where his vet ,who had given him such wonderful care, helped Mister pass.

Old routines and habits die hard. When I’m in the kitchen, I still look over my shoulder to make sure Mister’s not underfoot. I head to clean his litter box before dinner and then I remember…. We still sidestep the little space that was his food station for fifteen years. I fumble an ice cube, pick it up to slip it in his water dish…. On my way to bed I glance down at Mister’s food dish only to see bare floor. peek a booI still have the urge to seek him out, wonder which spot he’d chosen for the day—and there were so many. Whenever I sit for a moment, I look for him to appear at my side as if he were conjured up out of nowhere. Just knowing he was around somewhere was a comfort, and the house never seemed lonely with him in it.

If you want to find the most comfortable place in the house, I tell folks, just look for the cat, and then, of course,  it’s useless information because that spot is already occupiedbig cat, little basket. And Mister was a comfort thermometer: winters in the easy chair by the woodstove or the end of the couch by the pellet stove. Summers, on hot days, in the corner behind the t.v., cooling in the downdraft from the ceiling fan. Or squeezing himself into a basket two sizes too small (or was he two sizes too big?). Let a sunbeam stray in on the carpet and Mister would find it, stretch out like a sun bather on the Riviera.

Mr. B was just a cat, and as cats go hardly took up any space at all—but he found a very comfortable place in our hearts.Sadness