Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Last Pig


My mama didn't want to keep farm animals and she was a steady stream of disapproval to my dad's way of life. Daddy was 35 when they married and his whole entire world was about farming and being a country boy.  He didn't consider having a milk cow, a pig and a few chickens as "keeping animals".  That was more of a hobby to his way of thinking.  His daddy had run a small dairy operation at one time.  There were even horse and goat pictures mixed in with the old family photographs.   Keeping livestock was in his blood.

Mama won inch by inch.  First the milk cow went and Daddy stopped buying baby chicks every year to replenish his supply of laying hens.

The last time we had a hog was when I was in the 5th grade.  This one was black and white and we named the pig Sparky. He lived in the pigpen near the barn.  Daddy took the house scraps and mixed ground up corn meal and water to make the slop which was poured down into the trough.  Sparky ate with gusto at every meal and then spent his time on top of the manure pile rolling around.

Winter rolled around and Daddy arranged for someone to come in a truck and  pick up Sparky. Sparky wasn't much of a pet but when you give something a name, then it has a psychological impact.   We knew Sparky was there to make pork chops and bacon but it still didn't make it easy when his purpose came to fruition.

 I went with Daddy to the butcher shop where we brought Sparky back home wrapped in white meat paper.  It was rather traumatic for a fifth grade girl with an overly emotional soft spot.  I refused to eat any of the sausage but as the year rolled by my attachment to Sparky was lessened when I smelled country ham frying on top of the stove.

Daddy built a fire under the big black cast iron kettle and kept a smoldering fire burning most of the day as he put the chunks of white fat into the kettle so the lard could be rendered out. The lard was stored under the counter in the kitchen in big five gallon buckets.  This became Mama's shortening for baking or frying.  Lard fell out of favor with an industry that wanted to sell us corn oil and canola oil, but here we are coming full circle and realizing those five gallon containers of lard were really awesome for our health.   The leftover skin became cracklings that Mama kept in the freezer to go into the crackling cornbread.  The sausage was frozen as well as some other choice parts of the hog.

The hams were laid out on the kitchen table and Daddy made a concoction of sugar and spices that we rubbed and beat into the skin of the hams until they were well coated.  The hams were wrapped in brown paper and then in a gunny sack and hung out in the smoke shed.  It wasn't truly a smoke shed as we never ever smoked anything in it as far as I remember.  It was a cold place for the hams to cure.  Daddy made a heavy wooden box with an equally heavy lid and stored the bacon in it out in the same shed. This kept rodents out of the bacon.  After the hams cured, Daddy would go out and unwrap the ham and cut off the amount that Mama wanted in the kitchen.  It sounds crazy to me now but he would cut little pieces of raw ham off for us to eat.

Daddy, Mama, and Grandma ate the hog brains with eggs.  I still find this disgusting. None of us girls would touch them.  All of the other edible organ meats were cooked on top of the stove in a big pot. It produced a really horrible smell.  The organ meat was ground up, they added corn meal and lots of spices to make liver pudding.   Liver pudding was sliced and fried to prepare it. It had a spicy flavor like nothing else I have ever eaten. I still see liver pudding in the grocery store and I  remember the taste as being delicious but I am not sure anything but extreme hunger would propel me to eat it again.

After Sparky, the only life stock we had were a few aging hens who seemed a little lost as they scratched and pecked around the yard and barn until one day they were all gone too.  Daddy still continued to garden but it never really seemed the same.

Daddy relied on chemical fertilizers more and no longer had the organic fertilizer from the chickens, the cow and the pig.  We no longer ate lard but converted to corn oil consumption.  We bought our meats in the grocery store like good civilized people.  Mama wanted a modern way of life.  She had been seduced by the scientific world.  She also wanted to be like everyone else.  Many people were turning from their country roots and living a more compartmentalized life.

I think in many ways we have paid dearly.  We lost control of our meat supply.  We lost control of how our foods were grown.  We learned to sit in front of a television screen instead of living an active life that was in tune with the seasons.  We have a whole culture that falls apart if there is not complete climate control.  The one who works his land knows cold and heat.

It has taken years but my husband and I both are inch by inch moving back to the land.  We keep chickens and we have a small garden.  My husband cuts wood from our property that we burn in an open fireplace.  It seems to be a healthier and more balanced existence as though maybe we have an inner calling to be keepers of the land.

The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.

Animal husbandry, gardening, canning, baking, cooking, food preservation, tree felling, carpentry and thousands of other things were passed down from generation to generation.  It was in my generation that the chain was broken. I am thankful that so many other people are feeling the call to live a more simple existence and that they are willing to share the knowledge that they are learning.

We have let the marketers tell us how to live for so long that most of us  have such compartmentalized  lives that we do not even realize that our culture has in many ways lost complete touch with what it means to be human, to be people made from the dust.

 I think most of us would be happier people with less stuff and more substance in our lives.  There is something strong and fragile about going out in the morning to care for your livestock, seeing the frost, breathing in the cold morning air, seeing the first glimmer of the sun rising over the trees.  There is something deeply satisfying in growing your own food, preparing it and then serving it to your family.   At days end there is something healing for our souls to rock in front of an open fire without any noise other than the crackling of the fire and the ticking of a clock.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Mystery and Majesty

Mystery and majesty
Humility and might
All of it came that special night

Crowded streets, labor pains
No room at the inn, 
Instead, animals attend

Armies of heaven urging
shepherds to see
a babe in a manager but yet a King

Foreign dignitaries traveling from afar
Following the ethereal radiance of a guiding star

Mystery and majesty 
Humility and might
All of it came that special night

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Lost Art of Eating at Home

Mama cooked almost every single day of my childhood.  I have memories of her working her magic on our old Hot Point stove steam rising from her assortment of old pots on the burners. Some of the pots and pans were so ancient they were thin and warped a bit.  Most of her serving dishes were a hodge podge affair that had been used so often they had developed tiny spider cracks that were lightly stained.  Mama made meals that were simple, hot and good. Meatloaf, fried chicken, pork chops, fried ham, salmon patties, roast, Salisbury steak, vegetable soup, chili, spaghetti, cornbread, biscuits, yeast rolls, fried squash, okra, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, pickled beets, deviled eggs, green beans, butter beans, cooked cabbage, field peas, persimmon pudding, collards, sweet potatoes, fried apple pies and black eyed peas were some of the things on our menu throughout the year.  The most complicated thing she ever made was a homemade coconut cake. She baked the whole coconut and then grated the meat.  It was a huge fluffy white cake that had a ton of white icing that was covered with her fresh coconut.  She only made it about once a year.  It was her specialty and she was proud to take it our family Christmas gatherings.

We ate in the kitchen around a small red Formica table with mismatched chairs.  The entire room was wall to wall people when the whole family sat around that table. That table was laden with bowls of steaming vegetables, meat and bread. The serving dishes were passed and we filled our assorted floral design plates, others of them were blue colonial prints that she collected from the grocery store or some of them had faded golden rims with a funky golden line pattern design. We sat together laughing and talking while eating those nutritious and filling foods that Mama had prepared for us with her own hands.  Most of it Daddy had grown in his gardens or he had  raised the farm animals that were now providing our sustenance.  Mama never asked anyone what they wanted for supper.  There was one choice.  It was what Mama had prepared.  Either you ate or you went hungry.  It was fairly straight forward.  My palette was accustomed to Mama's cooking.  I still love the kinds of foods that she prepared.

I have watched with amazement at a culture that has moved away from the home cooked meal.  We don't speak in awe of Aunt Mary's apple pie or how Cousin Betty fried the best chicken instead we talk about restaurants and the foods that are signature recipes in those establishments.  Our kids are growing up with the idea that eating out is completely expected.  Eating at home has become a punishment.  I find it bizarre that as a culture we are fascinated by cooking shows but few of us still engage in the art of actually cooking. Even if we "cook" at home it has come to mean getting a frozen lasagna or pizza and popping it into the microwave while we pour a bag of salad into a bowl.

In the early years of my marriage I cooked out of necessity and because Mama had set an example for me.  Cooking was what a wife and a mother did, so I did it too.  Over the years we discovered that my husband had some food allergies so cooking at home was a good bit less stressful than trying to eat out.  I became a better cook in the process.  With anything the more you do it the better you can become.   I took my lead from Mama and I made the same simple things that she taught me by example how to fix.

Because I have spent so much time in the kitchen, cooking for the most part is not very stressful for me.  I still cook from scratch and for the most part cook without recipes, except when it comes to baking.  I can almost whip something up and have it on the table in less time than it would take to go out to eat.  I actually prefer it.  I like knowing who has handled my food.  I like the pleasure of fixing food for my husband or grown children and seeing their enjoyment in partaking of the things I have prepared.  I like the good smell of a cake in the oven or chicken frying on the stove.  I like the calmness of a meal eaten at home without the hustle and bustle of other patrons in a restaurant or the harried server trying to get the order right.  I like that we can eat at our leisure without feeling like we are hogging table space that another customer is waiting on.  It is also difficult to find some of the wholesome simple foods that we like on a restaurant menu.

I often cook more than we can eat in one meal.  I almost get giddy thinking about the home prepared leftovers that are waiting in the refrigerator for another meal.  It is joyous to pull out a sweet potato casserole, left over soup, or some extra cornbread.  The next meals become very efficient affairs that require very little labor.  Most of the dishes that I prepare are easily reheated.  Many of them are better the second or even the third day. 

More than all of that I like that our lives are centered around the domestic.  We enjoy spending a lot of our free time at home.  We enjoy shutting down the hustle and bustle of a life that is caught up and controlled by the commercial environment. We can eat at the table that is spread with a simple and often wrinkled cotton tablecloth or we can choose to sit on the couches, peer out the window at the bird feeders and listen to the wind chimes.  We can put on the tea kettle or make a pot of coffee and drink in an unhurried fashion while our food digests. At home we can light candles, start a fire in the fireplace or if warm enough throw open the windows and let the breeze blow through. At home the conversation can naturally erupt or there can be silence.

Eating at home gives opportunity for the family to gel together.  Sharing in the table,  where it is for the most part "just us",  gives a chance for a realness to develop.  The words that are shared can be honest and not hushed for fear that someone at another table might not understand.  A meal at home is a safe place for all of us to be ourselves whether we are engaged in the serious matters of life or in  our sarcasm and humor.

I am not against restaurants.  I appreciate that I can get food when I am not at home.  I enjoy being able to pop in to a restaurant and eat with family and friends.  I just don't think it is a healthy thing to do for the majority of our meals.

Even the tidying of the kitchen is a ritual that helps ground us in reality.  We learn that we are to serve ourselves and each other.  Cooking and cleaning up after us is not the job of some under payed and over worked restaurant employees. There is a satisfaction in wiping out that sink, sweeping up the floor and hanging those dish towels.

Cooking for others is a practical way of showing love.  Cooking and serving food for your family day after day creates an almost unbreakable bond with them.   It is truly a simple way to minister to those in your care.  When I serve a meal to my work worn husband, it speaks volumes to him.  When I prepare food for my grown son it brings back to his memory all of those days at home when he ate the same kinds of things around our table.  There is truly something almost mystical in breaking of bread with others, but there is something that is amazingly powerful in preparing and serving a meal to the others in your home.  I think that our family members would not be so drawn away from home if we worked on having homes that captivated them with that practical kind of love. Food is one of those things that draws all of us in.  Our son often brought people home with him as he grew up.  He knew that I would feed anyone who walked through the door, but I think he knew innately that those who came through our door would be accepted and loved.  Food is one of those tangible ways to show it.

My mama has been gone for over thirty years but when I look back I know she loved us.  It was not just her words but hour upon hour that she spent making it a home.  A big part of that making of a home centered around the thousands of meals that she prepared with her hands in an act of sacrificial service and love.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bird Watching

 It is chilly this morning and I am watching the birds from the window.  I was able to a capture a few shots.  Birds are very wary of movement and they flit quickly from spot to spot.  In my desire to photograph the birds, I am not sure that I have been able to live in the moment.  It is something I need to work on.