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Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Father's Tale

Dad's been gone for a little over 6 years now. It hardly seems possible. He grew up all over Virginia, but mostly the Shenandoah Valley. Dad was the son of a preacher man, which sort of made them a family of drifters. He was the oldest of five children; three boys and two girls. One of his sisters, Polly, died as an infant. That was pretty traumatic for the family, as it would be for any family. A traveling doctor came through, as I remember it told, and gave my dad, Uncle Jim and Polly each a shot for the flu or something like that. Polly did not do well with the shot and was quickly gone. Dad and Uncle Jim were later joined by Aunt Alice and Uncle David. I remember seeing a picture of Aunt Polly. They took it after she died, realizing that they did not have a picture of her at all and they had no choice.

I think granddaddy studied to become a minister in the Methodist Church in Washington, DC, so they lived  there for a few years. I believe they had other family there at the time too. I remember Aunt Alice talking about some relatives in that area. I also remember Granddaddy saying that he was walking down the street in DC one day and along came President Harry S. Truman. I kinda thought he was just making up tales, but he was a preacher, so he could not lie! As a kid, I didn't know that Truman was known as The Incredible Walking President. I later did a report in school on President Truman and realized that Granddaddy may be the only person I know that has met a United States President. Who knows, I may change that one day.

I think dad was too small to have known if he had seen the President, and most of his childhood was spent in the Shenandoah Valley. When they lived in Winchester he attended James Wood High School and he met a girl there named Barbara Barton. On Christmas Eve, he proposed and in June of 1963 they were married. Dad and mom both were born into the era of WWII and married in the era of Camelot. It was a promising time and a scary time too. The threat of nuclear was imminent and President Kennedy was killed not long after they were married. It had to be tough having that much life ahead of you and the realization that it could all end in a flash, literally. 

Dad worked very hard to provide for his growing family. He worked two jobs most of his life. One of his jobs was at the Virginian Truck Stop. It was a great family owned and operated business. Even though it was a truck stop, it was a family stop too. Lots of people ate there on Sunday after church. My very first job was there as well. Everyone knew me as Harry's boy and the owners took care of me like I was their own. Which meant that if I screwed up, they had permission to straighten me out. I remember them wanting to make sure that my grades were always good and they even gave me rides home if my parents could not. The old saying "It takes a village to raise a child" was true in my case. They also had kids my age in school, so they knew what it was like to keep the family going.

Our dad was also a volunteer most of his life. He began volunteering for the fire department as a teenager. The fire hall became his second home. If he wasn't at home, we always knew where to find him. He and mom also volunteered at church a lot and were our youth leaders for many years. They both believed in giving to the community. It may have been partly because of the way dad was raised, with granddaddy always being in service to his community.

When dad passed, the entire county Fire, Rescue, and Police paid their respects. I had never seen anything like it before. He never took us to a funeral for a fireman. Toms Brook Volunteer Fire Department, where he had volunteered for most of his life, provided a truck to carry him to his final resting place. We drove through all of Shenandoah County on the way to the cemetery. As we made our way through each town, there were fire trucks, rescue squads and police cars waiting for us. Hats in hand, full dress uniform and lights without sirens welcomed us, comforted us and bid a deeply felt fond farewell. I knew he was a good father, a good son and a good man. I did not know how much of a good neighbor he had been until that very moment. I was unprepared, to say the least, but it was one last blessed lesson from the man I knew, who was sent to teach me so much. He had been a part of that "village" since he had been a boy, raising his boys and seeing his grandchildren begin to grow. He gave to the community and the community gave back. His fire department still holds blood drives in his memory.

My very first Father's Day after my dad passed was also my birthday. It was a day I will never forget. It was a day that destiny laid it's hand on, and who knows, maybe my dad did too. That day I met for the first time, the man who would later become my Father-In-Law. My future in-laws had no idea it was my birthday. I was joining them for a family Father's Day lunch out. They had been told that my dad had recently passed and I think they wanted me to have a good day. I knew the moment I met him that one day I would call him dad too. Some people call it "sight" or "knowing". I think I get it from my grandmaw Barton. She always had visions and knew what was going on. I come by it honest. It was a great day. 

Happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Hoe your own row

A garden was, and is, very much a part of the landscape of Appalachian homes. We didn't have a garden growing up, but Charlie and Mary had a huge one. I helped in the garden every year. Several of us neighbors did and we all reaped its harvest.

Charlie taught me to operate the tiller. He kept a watchful eye though the first few times. He worried that it would get away from me and I would get hurt. But I did well and mastered it enough that he found me a couple of jobs tilling up gardens for some friends of his. His was a front tine with the plow bar. He would also get out his hatchet, a couple of wooden stakes and string to lay a row, and we would hoe the row to plant.

Corn was always at the upper end, followed by potatoes. Their grandkids would come visit for a couple of weeks every summer, so we all helped pull up the potatoes. We would get good and dirty and then we could play with the water hose. Beans were next and there were usually a couple of varieties. Cabbage and lettuce, squash and cucumbers, watermelons and onions and a few other things finished up the quarter acre. There was a strawberry patch that was separate from the garden, peach trees and a cherry tree that filled out the rest of the back yard. There was just enough room for the clothes lines and their old beagle.

They first taught me to shuck corn and snap beans. Mary would pick what she needed fresh from the garden as it came in and cooked with it that day. The rest was put up. It was a full-time job when that garden started coming in. We would snap the beans and get jars from the cellar. When it was all over, quart size jars of the most beautiful green beans lined every surface in the kitchen. Corn would be prepared and cut from the cob, jarred up and then we headed back to the cellar to store everything. There, a bin also held the potatoes.

The cellar was half dirt floor and half concrete. They poured just what they needed. It was always so cool down there and smelled very earthy. It was also very dark, so while it felt and smelled good, it was not somewhere you wanted to spend too much time. To get into it, you had to pull up the heavy metal covered doors and descend the stairs to the next door. Our grandmaw Barton had the same kind of basement entrance, but she never let us in it.

For dinner, Mary would slice the yellow crookneck squash into 1/2 inch rounds, dip them in beaten egg and then dredge them in finely ground cracker crumbs. Then she would fry them up, lining the pan as she prepped each one. As they would brown on the underside, she would flip them with a couple of forks and let them brown on the other. Then she would move them to a paper towel-lined plate until she finished the whole batch. She could be at the stove frying up squash for nearly an hour as the rest of the meal cooked. I hardly have the patience for that. If I want the flavor of her fried squash, I've been known to short cut the process and fry the squash un-breaded. then as it's almost done, I take a couple of eggs and whisk them up, break up a handful of saltines and pour that over the squash. Then I toss it around until it is all cooked through. It is not nearly as pretty as hers was, but the taste is pretty close. I just don't look at it while I eat it and I hope she don't look down.

Mary always wore her apron when she was workin' around the house. She was preparing Christmas dinner when I stopped by to check on her. I miss her to this very day.

I moved away as Mary's health began to decline. She lived to be about 88.

Now, I told you that I got my Bread-N-Butter Pickle recipe from Mary. It is a simple recipe that takes the better part of a day to complete. First, you wash and slice your cucumbers, then you clean up your onions and slice them into large rings about a quarter inch thick. Next, you have to get a big pan, tub or bucket and you begin to layer the cucumbers and onions rings. You take your non-iodized or pickling salt and shake it evenly over the top. Here is the critical part. You must cover them with a thick layer of ice and let it set for 3-4 hours. This is the step that will help maintain that crispness to your pickle chips. The second most critical step is to make sure that after they have set long enough, you remove any remaining ice and rinse the cucumbers and onion rings several times in cold water. You must get all the salt off of them.

While your cucumbers and onions are setting in their salty ice bath, you need to prep the rest. Your jars will need to be cleaned and sterilized. You have to gather your white vinegar, pickling spices, sugar, turmeric and a pan large enough to get everything into, on the stove. Mary used her enamel roasting pan, so I do the exact same thing. Once you've rinsed your cucumbers, you begin putting everything together in the pot. It only has to come to a boil and cook about five minutes, so you have to make sure that you also have your lids and rings boiling and ready to put on your jars. You also need to have your canning pot filled and on the stove boiling away, ready to receive your jars once they are filled and closed. Another ten minutes in a boiling water bath and you are almost done. You take your jars of pickles out of the pot and set them on a kitchen towel on the counter. There they must set until they cool. As they cool down, you will hear that beautiful tink, tink song of the jars as they sing their way to sealed. When I hear that I instantly yell out, "Sounds like pickles!" They are not quite done until they have set in a cool dark place for about two weeks, though. Then you will have pickles to enjoy for the next year.

With just the right blend of vinegar, spices and sugar, Bread-N-Butter Pickles compliment any meal!

I know I could have given you my actual recipe for my Bread-N-Butter Pickles, but I am still saving that for some time in the future. I make so many each year, that I have become a little famous among my friends and co-workers for them. They look forward to them now. We only eat a jar or two ourselves each year. I love them, but I love making them more. The last time I made pickles with Mary was probably thirty years ago. It makes me feel connected to her again when I make them, when I taste them and when I give them away. I still have the recipe written down on a piece of paper from a notepad she kept on her kitchen table. I made notes as she made a batch. If anyone saw it, they probably could not make heads nor tales of it, but I know exactly what each line means. It is a true occasion of reading between the lines. Mine may be a little different as every cook plays with a recipe once they know it, but how they are made is the same.

My In-Laws put out a garden for us each year because we live in town and they are convinced there is just not enough room for us to do it here. Their garden is just about as big as Charlie's. Most of what they grow is for us. They eat very little of it themselves. Mom was so proud the day she learned that I bought my own pressure cooker for canning that you would have thought I told her she was about to become a grandma.

The broccoli has been coming in fast and furious. I made the best pot of Broccoli Cheddar soup I have ever had, just the other week. Red potatoes are on the menu for tonight. Cabbage has been bustin' to get out of the garden and I ate on a pot of it for a week. Lot's of zucchini bread is in our future and I have to make sure that all of my pickling spices are at the ready. I will also make Green Mater Pickles, Pickled Okra, and Squash Pickles. That reminds me, I need to get a couple of more gallons of vinegar too. When I make my Bread-N-Butters I make sure to make up a little extra brine. I use it all the time for potato salad, deviled eggs and I've been reading lately that it's great for cocktails. I have to admit, I'm more than curious about that.

Life is good. Gardens are big. Hoe your own row, unless you've got someone by your side you can trust.